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Ernest Wilson—If You Want To Enough

CHAPTER XXXIII — A Dream Comes True

Wilshire Boulevard is surely one of the two handsomest thoroughfares in Los Angeles; it stretches from downtown Figueroa Street out through MacArthur Park to include the most fashionable retail shopping center, the high-rise condominiums of West Los Angeles, Century City, and Santa Monica at the ocean. The other equally famous and more scenic thoroughfare is Sunset Boulevard which begins at the now obsolete but picturesque Union depot and Olvera Street and winds its way past Hollywood’s gaudy nightspots, through the lavish homes of Beverly Hills, the campus of UCLA, and Pacific Palisades and spills down to Ocean Boulevard and the sea.

Sunset Boulevard was my favorite, and during the leaner years when we three lived in the rented quarters of mid-town I used to dream of having a home of my own—my first since that “little house with windows wide, a-looking to the sea” of the San Diego days. With the ocean so near and my love of it so compelling, it was almost inevitable that I’d find a way to satisfy the urge to be near it. I did. Two narrow lots on a street off Sunset, not far from its terminus, and looking out to the sea, ostensibly west but actually more to the south, in a curve of the coast line. There, in 1940, I built my dream house, a kind of cross between the snuggly cottage of LaJolla and Don Blanding’s Vagabond's House.

The house filled most of the right-hand lot as you faced the sea. There was a wide living room with redwood walls, an open beamed ceiling, and a wide picture window; a study with built-in bookshelves; a bedroom wing; an enclosed patio with outdoor fireplace and barbe-que grill. All the rooms—even the kitchen—had an ocean view, except the dining room, and it looked out on the grass-floored, flower-bordered patio.

I saved the lot to the left of the house for a garden, with a level lawn framed at its seaward end with a low rock wall that masked the steep declivity of the palisade drop off. There were flower-bordered walks inviting a stroll; a rack of croquet balls, rackets and wickets inviting a game; benches inviting a reverie.

The Domino Theory

This acquisition, in which my two compatriots happily and vicariously shared, inevitably set off a chain reaction. It reminds me of how Franklyn used to move Norma, me, and maybe one or two other intimates to laughter by gift of mimicry, doing somewhat irreverent but graphic takeoffs of incidents that caught his interest, such as Eleanor Roosevelt calling to Buzzie and Sissy in her high-pitched voice as she conducted the Easter egg roll on the White House lawn. The item that seems pertinent here, though, was the occasion when Aimie Semple MacPherson was being presented with a luxurious fur coat by her adoring congregation. He portrayed her as thanking them effusively, but adding: “But much as I love it I cannot wear it!”

Cries of distress, “Why can’t you wear it, Sister Aimie?”

“I can’t wear it while Ma Simpson (was that her name?) doesn’t have one!”

Chorus responding, “Well, well, we’ll just get Ma Simpson a fur coat, too!”

If I were to have a house of my own, Franklyn must have a house, too; and though the gift part of the anecdote doesn’t apply, his reaction was similar. He found that the lot to the left of my house was for sale and he built on it.

Norma, moved by the same impulse, reacted more cautiously. She rented a nearby house with option to buy. She vetoed the option because she did not drive, nor want to, such a distance. She was more in favor of being our frequent and always welcome passenger.

Of Miracles

So in less than a year Franklyn was my neighbor. The soil on which he built was unadulterated adobe, and the lot sloped more steeply than mine. The steam shovel that was employed to grade it shot sparks in the process, but Franklyn bought topsoil to cover it and provide a lawn, and installed a little pool with a St. Francis statue at the lowest point of the lawn toward the sea.

One Saturday morning we were both working in our gardens. I heard his voice, shouting above the sound of the opera tuned in on his radio, “Ernest, Ernest! Come here! I want to show you something!”

Somewhat reluctantly I stopped my efforts to get Bermuda grass out of a rose bed, and crossed the lot to find him standing in bemused delight on his sloping lawn. He pointed down to the grass at his feet. “See what’s happened!” A small trickle of clear water was emerging from the ground, forming a little stream down to the pool.

His eyes were wide with wonder. His dramatic imagination, I could imagine, was picturing another Lourdes. Crowds would make pilgrimages. There would be abandoned crutches around the pool.

Regretfully I went into the house and jiggled the handle on the john. When I got back to him he was standing deflated, crestfallen. His dream was shattered, or more literally the overflow from the septic tank buried in the adobe, had stopped.

A more legitimate miracle, however, was in progress. His little Chihuahua was about to have puppies. Franklyn had alerted Stella who valiantly supplemented our efforts at housekeeping. He had also asked Claire to be ready to come and assist nature when the time of delivery appeared to be close. Together he and Claire placed clutters of newspapers at strategic points in different rooms to give the little animal a choice of places for her accouchement. Soon it became agitated, running from one place to another. Stella, not to be left out, joined Franklyn and Claire in pursuit as Midge tried to get away from them and give birth according to her own inborn wisdom. Finally she eluded them, hidden behind a big chair, out of view.

Suddenly a sharp yelp was heard, then another. In all this I had stood back. It was all beyond me. Somehow I felt that birth was a very private sort of thing. Apparently Midge agreed with me. At the yelps the others all stopped, startled at the cries, then cautiously sought her refuge. Five tiny brown bodies lay next to her.

One of the five was even smaller than the rest. Midge seemed to reject it. We located one of the doll’s nursing bottles on which my orange-colored kittens had been nursed and tried to feed the little “orphan.” When we put it back in the playpen with the others Midge at first ignored it. Finally we found her lying on it. She had smothered it. Apparently she couldn’t nurse them all, and her animal wisdom knew it.

Franklyn knew that he couldn’t take care of all of them either. Claire took two of them and her sister Nell the other two.

Colorful Speech

Bert was “the funniest talking man” I ever knew, to quote my socially inept housekeeper, Stella, whom he treated with such exaggerated courtesy that she would become “all of a dither,” as she would phrase it. He had an unorthodox but somehow descriptive vocabulary, such as his “relics of old decency,” and “brushing up the nap on the worn velvet.” “Loosely like a hunter” was a description that he used in many connections; it defied explanation, but somehow seemed to mean in a relaxed manner. He told of going through the receiving line in a reception honoring Mary Garden. “And what do you do?” she inquired. With a mischievous leer he answered, “I do the dance of the seven veils.” “I’ll see you later,” she responded.

At one point in his career he had a very successful florist shop. If by Saturday closing time there were flowers too full-blown to be offered for sale on Monday, he would arrange them in a basket and have them delivered with his compliments, to one of the city’s many churches. When such a church needed flowers for some very special occasion it might naturally think of the generous florist who had favored it.

From faith or pride he always insisted that he might be the beneficiary of a legacy still to be shared with him and an uncongenial but ethical brother; that if he could get back to Springfield, Ohio, a settlement could be reached.

Franklyn, too, wanted to visit Ohio, to see his family in Columbus. They decided to make the trip together.

For Franklyn the trip would be an amusing interlude in ministry; for Bert an adventure. With all his sophistication he had never been on a plane. Their trip began with a night flight.

Will-o ’-the-wisp

“I’ve always wondered how pilots found their way in the dark, but it’s quite simple. There are lights all along the way,” Bert said, asking Franklyn to look out the window by their seats. “Those aren’t guiding lights,” Franklyn countered. “Look again and you can see they are on the wings of the plane!”

And again, “Now Franklyn, I want you to know that if anything happens to this plane, and I expire, I want you to have my Steinway grand.”

“Bert, if anything happens to this plane and you go down, don’t you know I’d be going down with you?”

Sleepily, “I never thought of that!”

Their ways parted briefly at Springfield where Bert would see his brother, and planned to look up an old-time flame from his college days; a reigning beauty of the time, he confided. Franklyn would rejoin him there for the return flight, with a stop-over in San Francisco. For Franklyn it was a happy reunion with family and friends after only a few years separation. For Bert, a double disaster. He had waited too long. The estate had long since been settled and his brother had squandered the proceeds. He had arranged to meet his college queen in the lobby of the leading hotel, and looked in vain for the lissome beauty. In Franklyn’s version of Bert’s description he became aware of only one woman who seemed unattended, and anticipating a rendezvous. She was buxom, buck-toothed, wrinkled, and with a bright red wig. Two of his long-cherished bubbles had burst!

Bagdad by the Sea

Maybe the one day’s stop in San Francisco would brighten the trip for Bert. They took in the many sights, the cable cars, flower stalls, Fisherman’s Wharf, the Harbor, the Presidio, Golden Gate Park, Seal Rock, a brief visit to the Zoo. “This way to the pachyderms,” Bert read aloud. “What in the world are pachyderms?”

“Elephants, rhinoceros. You’re looking at them!”

Bert was never the same—or never saw himself the same—after that journey into a non-existent past of his imagining. “I thought I was Prince Charming. Now I feel more like Scrooge!” he confided to Norma.

“What you really are is better than either. Reality may be rougher, but it’s better than fantasy,” was her comment.

Bert was still eager to be helpful, especially to Franklyn, who I think was his ideal of the son he might have had, but never did.

You Should be in Movies

Someone was always telling Franklyn, as so many have told me, “There’s just one thing the matter with you.” There were, in my case, disagreements about the one thing. With Franklyn it was almost invariably, “You’re in the wrong place. You should be in movies.” The one exception was brought to his knowledge by indirection. One of our members was a registered nurse who often took private assignment instead of hospital duties. She looked up Franklyn and took him a message from a patient.

“I’ve been serving as nurse to the famous opera star, Rise Stevens, who recently appeared in Bing Crosby’s picture, Going My Way. I listen to your morning Unity radio program, and asked her if she minded my turning it on. ‘Not at all, it might do me some good, too!’ After the program she asked, ‘Do you know the man who sings on that program?’ I assured her that I knew you. ‘Please give him a message from me. With that voice and diction he’s bound to be tempted by and perhaps offered a movie career. But he shouldn’t be swayed by that into leaving the wonderful work he is doing.’ ”

Bert was, of course, one of the majority. It was Franklyn’s voice that attracted him to Christ Church, Unity; it was his good looks and charismatic personality that convinced him that Franklyn had missed his calling.

“I can still pull some strings, I think, if you will let me see what I can do.”

Listlessly Franklyn agreed. From the beginning there had appeared to be possibilities, along with one or two supper club and local musicals—not to mention the play that Claire Windsor appeared in.

To my great surprise, and Franklyn’s, Bert actually did penetrate that invisible wall that surrounds the inner sanctum of movies. He got an agreement from Ida Koverman, L.B. Mayer’s right-hand autocrat, for an audition. Franklyn’s stage career was peppered with auditions that didn’t gel; the most notable when he auditioned for an Atwater-Kent Award. He was to sing “Der Almachtige,” which few concert singers attempt without a backup group to give a breathing space. He brought his own accompanist, but because she was not a member of a musician’s union, was not permitted to play. He had to accept a studio musician with only a scanty rehearsal, and came off with only second prize.

This time was different. The audition was a great success.

“The greatest voice we’ve heard here since Lawrence Tibbett!” Ida Koverman exclaimed to Bert. “Who did you say he is? What is his background?”

One of Bert’s sayings that I haven’t quoted applies here, and shows up the weak point in his nature: “Never spoil a good story by sticking to the truth.”

“He’s come here from Ohio. You know the Kelly-Springfields!” Evidently not only Koverman was impressed. A group of people gathered and had been listening, exclaiming.

“How old is he?” Koverman demanded.

“He’s just twenty-nine,” Bert announced.

That tore it. Franklyn was more like thirty-nine than twenty-nine. She turned to an assistant. “If he’s just twenty-nine I’m a debutante!” Even so she did not outright reject. “We still have Tibbett, but Kelly has a higher range. We’ll let you know.”

Bert could not resist “guilding the lily,” as he himself accused others of doing. Koverman was too shrewd to be taken in by his deceit. Maybe the studio lost an opportunity as well as Franklyn did. But also maybe Rise Stevens had the higher view.

© 1984, by Ronald and Beverly Potter
All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission.