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Ernest Wilson—If You Want To Enough


From the time we first entered the building that became Christ Church, Unity, I had wanted to change the chancel to a more traditional church setting, rather than the platform type chancel with a pulpit center stage and three chairs forming a sedelia back of it where my two associates and I sat. From Rose Schneider, our center leader in Hollywood, I learned of a church furniture company in Hollydale that created such traditional furnishings. I arranged to have Norma and Franklyn go with me to see their establishment. It was owned and operated by a Catholic artisan and his two sons. They took delight in showing us through their offices and workroom. We found a large staff of cabinet carpenters, along with a skillful wood carver, busily working.

“Are all these pulpits, lecterns, prayer benches and chairs for Catholic churches?” I inquired.

The father took the lead in responding to our questions, his stalwart sons standing in respectful attention. He told us that their three major projects of the moment were chancel installations for Protestant churches that were converting from the somewhat puritanical severity of early Colonial churches to the more elaborate and formal Gothic furnishings.

Would he be willing to visit our sanctuary and see what he could suggest? He did so, and within a week submitted some beautiful drawings done to scale, portraying an altar table and reredos, raised step-in pulpit, lectern and a half dozen chairs against shoulder-high redwood paneling as a background, with steps leading from the congregational area to the chancel.

We were delighted with the beauty of the layout, and felt that it would add to a feeling of reverence and devotion in the services. Also it imparted an air of permanience and continuity that in the ever-changing atmosphere of Los Angeles would be desirable.

“It is beautiful! I wish we didn’t have to ask you how much it will cost.” I thought it might well be beyond our visible means.

“It can be done for $5,000,” he responded. “By dispensing with some of the elaborate hand carving we could even reduce that amount. But I must tell you that in any event we can not get to it for at least a year, because of previous commitments.”

We thanked him, told him we wanted our associates to see the beautiful work he had done, and would let him hear from us within a day or two.

That night we composed a letter to him. We told him that we would not think of cutting down on the wood carving; that we wanted it to be the most beautiful chancel in Los Angeles. While we didn’t want to ask favors or try to push ahead of others for whom he was working, the fact remained that we would, in an approaching I.N.T.A. Congress, be entertaining hundreds of ministers and thousands of laymen from all over the country and abroad, and we would love to have them see his beautiful work.

The day after he received the letter we had a phone call from him. “I have never received such a letter before. I’ve called our workmen together and read your letter to them. They have all agreed to work overtime so that the new chancel will be ready when your visitors come.”

With great pride the artisan and his sons arrived and installed the new chancel. It was even more beautiful than we had anticipated, was widely acclaimed by the congregation and visiting ministers. It gave added beauty to our Christmas Candlelighting service, and to the sessions of the New Thought Congress.

It was part of our effort, not to glorify a building, but as the Psalmist says (Ps. 29:2) “to give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” It made the altar table and cross, symbols of the Christ presence, the focus of the congregation’s attention. We ministers were glad to be seated in a secondary place, at either side of the altar.

The Unspoken Message

The five steps leading into the chancel were a silent invitation to worshippers to worship at the altar table that symbolized the holy communion; back of it was the reredos with its canopy of carved wood adorned with the word Unity, and surmounted by a crown. The distance between the cross on the altar and the crown high above it suggested the journey of life from the cross of overcoming to the crown of spiritual attainment. The raised pulpit opposite the lectern implied the minister’s dedication to speak from a higher level of awareness than that of mortal thought. Even when no word was being spoken—perhaps especially then—the message was there for the perceptive worshipper to read.

Putting First Things First

As the war continued, Franklyn and I found it increasingly difficult to maintain our homes overlooking the ocean in Pacific Palisades. Norma had tried it briefly but she soon found it to be impractical and returned to an apartment in midtown near the church. In the Southland where domestic workers could command lofty wages from movie stars, the help we could get was often both inefficient and transient, and limited to those that drove their own cars since bus service terminatd a mile and a half from where we lived. We had difficulty getting a sufficient allowance from the gas rationing board to meet our needs, and the forty minute drive between house and church was becoming arduous.

We reluctantly decided that we would have to find places to live closer to our work. Franklyn took to this decision more readily than I; in fact I think he rather enjoyed the excitement it involved, and would have preferred living in the valley or the desert than by the ocean. I knew I would miss the house and garden, the sight and sound and scent of the ocean. I was yet to realize that these predilections were basically part of my inner nature and could be evoked at will no matter where I might be physically.

We asked Bert Perks to help us as he had helped Betsi Stack and others, but at this point the city was so overcrowded with the families of military and warplant personnel that his efforts to find rental quarters were unsuccessful. We would have to buy property to live in midtown. Bert finally found a suitable duplex for sale in the Hancock Park area, not far from where Norma lived. We bought it and put our oceanside houses up for sale with Ruth Lipton, a realtor friend of Bert’s. She found buyers even before the duplex could be put in shape for us to move in. Norma decided to give a party to welcome us and celebrate our being neighbors again.

“Darlings,” she exclaimed with characteristic enthusiasm, “it will be like old times when we all lived in the big house on Wilshire Boulevard. I know you will miss the view, but I know someone who can help you bring the outside in, and make those duplex apartments sing. She’s an old-time Kansas City friend who is very clever at interior decorating. I’ve invited her to the party to meet you—Jean Bello.”

“Jean Bello!” I responded. “Who might she be?”

“She is Jean Harlow’s mother. She is still brooding over young Jean’s untimely death and goes to Forest Lawn every day to pray in the private enclosure where her daughter’s body lies. I’m trying to get her to realize that there are better ways for her to express her continuing love than in mourning. I want you to know her.”

We both liked Jean Bello. We became good friends and she entered enthusiastically into my project. “Since there’s no view we’ll have to make one,” she declared; and we did. It involved a tall six-panelled screen displaying a block printed rendition of “Scenic America,” the like of which, some years later, Jackie Kennedy was to have mounted on the walls of the Diplomatic Reception Room in the White House. At the base of the screen living plants in a planter box partially concealed fluorescent lights illuminating the scene. For another room she found a six-foot square oil painted landscape that had been intended for the home which young Jean and William Powell expected to occupy in the marriage thwarted by Jean’s transition.

Jean Bello acted out many a scene during the decorating process. One moment she would be highly animated; the next, sinking into a chair, the embodiment of exhaustion, passing a lifted hand, back to, across her forehead, murmuring that she must have a spot of tea to revive her. She derided, but did not modify her own dramatics, and in self-depreciation told me how, one time when she was over-reacting to some situation that displeased her, young Jean (whom she and some others called Baby) would chide her, “Mother, you are a much better actress than I am, but don’t put on a show unless you are getting paid for it.”

My most vivid mental picture of her is as she appeared at one of Norma’s parties. She must have been well into her seventies at the time, clad in a french grey floor-length gown whose wide angel-wing sleeves were swathed in chinchilla from elbow to wrist. Her face appeared unlined, her hair was as platinum blonde as her daughter’s had been. She looked more like a movie star than most of them try to look.

She would contact us almost daily for a time, then disappear for months and reappear from some romantic interlude as if there had been no time lapse in our association. Her demise followed a similar pattern. Without having heard from or of her for several months, I had a call from Forest Lawn asking me to conduct her funeral service, and laid her to rest beside her daughter. An account of the service appears as the closing chapter in a book about Forest Lawn written by Adela Rogers St. Johns, friend of the two Jeans, and who attended the service.

On the Light Side

Claire helped Franklyn get installed. “Some of your sofa pillows look pretty shabby. How would you like me to recover them?” she invited. So while he made one of those trips to a suburban cemetery he left her serenely installed in his apartment along with his colored (it was in those days) housekeeper.

He had helped her take in a portable sewing machine and other packages. As soon as he left she got the housekeeper to help prepare a setup in his master bedroom. She had brought a dummy woman’s head, a long flowing wig, lingerie, a wine bottle and glass. She arranged some of the sofa pillows to simulate a woman’s figure, head and flowing hair on the pillow, wine glass and bottle by the bed, lingerie carelessly on a chair. They closed the window curtains so only a minimum of the outdoor sunlight filtered through. She called me to come and see the result. It was amazingly realistic. Then we repaired to my apartment, enjoying a cup of coffee.

In due time we heard Franklyn’s car approaching the garage, then the opening and closing of the adjoining garden gate; his footsteps on the brick pavement of the patio, his opening of the door which led directly into his bedroom. Coming from the bright sunlight into the darkened room the effect was compelling, his reaction immediate. We heard his door slam as he burst out into the patio. “Get that woman out of here!” he shouted at the housekeeper who stood in the patio trying to restrain her mirth. Claire and I rushed down the back stairs. We tried to look alarmed, but we couldn’t hold back our feelings. “It’s that woman who’s been giving me a hard time. How did she get in here?” he exclaimed, still too upset to observe our mirth, which poured forth.

“Oh, you,” he cried to Claire, relief and chagrin in his voice. “I’ll get even with you if it’s the last thing I do!” he declared.

But he never did, really.

It was always a temptation to play tricks on Franklyn; he was so dramatically constituted that he always seemed ready to believe the incredible.

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