Ernest Wilson—If You Want To Enough

CHAPTER XXXIV — Claire

One Sunday morning after church a beautiful blonde lady was waiting in line to speak to me. “Claire Windsor! What a pleasure to meet you in person. I’ve not only seen you often on the screen, but vividly remember seeing you on stage when you starred with Al Jolson.” “And now I want to ask a favor of you.” She responded, “I’m to appear in a local benefit show, and I’d like to have you play opposite me.”

“A great compliment! But I’m no actor. I proved that early in my career. My associate, Franklyn Kelly, is the man for that (and I suspect that she really had that in mind). He’s not only a singing minister, but appeared in the Schubert muscial shows in New York and the St. Louis Municipal Opera. Let me introduce him.”

I did. They did the show together, and became great friends. Claire became a favorite of all of us. She in no way resembled the dumb blonde one columnist castigated in a one-liner: “an empty taxicab drove up and Claire Windsor stepped out of it.” She was as frugal as Franklyn was improvident. She had a good business sense, one of the few old-time movie stars who remained solvent after their appearance on screen no longer titillated fans. She owned a duplex in the fashionable Hancock Park area of Los Angeles, where she rented one half to her sister and family and shared her own apartment with her lovable parents, grew cymbidium orchids in a backyard lath house, painted inoffensive landscapes in oil, and sold underground rights to oil of a different ilk to speculators (Hancock Park had been an oil field before it became a residence area!) She made most her own gowns, and was surrounded by the elaborate house furnishings that were acquired while she was still the wife of the actor, Bert Lytell. She retained his friendship and that of many of the notables of her unsen-sational screen career. She had a great sense of humor and loved to play practical jokes.

She and Franklyn had seemed in a specially merry mood as we were saying goodbyes after church one Sunday, when just Norma and Franklyn were joining me for dinner at my Palisades house. Franklyn emanated an air of suppressed excitement, but subdued and silent, unlike his mood after church. Something obviously was bothering him as we rode out together in my car.

Finally, as I was driving, I turned to say, “Well, spill it, Franklyn. You have either done something very good or very bad. Which is it?”

“That’s just it. I don’t know.”

“Maybe we can help you to find out,” Norma volunteered. “Okay. I proposed to Claire, and she’s accepted.”

“Oh, darling, how exciting!” Norma exclaimed. “Will it be a church wedding?”

I couldn’t manage anything more than a “H-m-mm!!”

Through the dinner that followed, Norma tried to keep a lighthearted conversation going, with whatever help I could muster; but it got more and more difficult. Stella, serving the meal, sensing that something momentous was in the air, hovered over the table, making ridiculous trips back and forth, obviously hoping to catch clues to what was going on.

Stella was the best cook and housekeeper I’ve ever had (Anna Eklund the most lovable) and when doing the laundry often spread linens such as table cloths and napkins, out on bushes in the garden, to be bleached by the sun, I assume. One morning a deployment of soldiers, apparently on practice maneuvers, came rushing up the hillside from an encampment on the beach—this was early in the war years when many authorities believed that an enemy attack or even invasion was possible.

She thought it was an enemy attack, ran screaming into the house, and announced she could not work in such an area. She was a good cook as good cooks go, and as good cooks go, she went!

It was probably just as well, because she apparently found being so far from the bright lights and activities of the city gave her a feeling of loneliness, for which she compensated by tippling, and taking large doses of aspirin. On one occasion when Franklyn and I were the only diners, we heard distressful calls from the kitchen, “Mr. Kelly, Mr. Kelly!” Franklyn rushed out to see what was the matter, and returned in a few moments to tell me that he had found her sprawled on the floor like an obese deer on ice. She was very stout, (resorted to extensive girdles to restrain her dimensions) and could not rise without help.

Some of this, except her leaving, which obviously came later (but not much) was going through my mind as we tried to say the right things to Franklyn about his engagement.

I think it was between the salad and the entree that Franklyn asked to be excused; something he must do at his house next door. He returned in a few minutes to announce, “I phoned Claire to tell her the engagement is off.”

Brief Engagement

“How did she take it? Was she offended?”

“No, I don’t think so. She was very matter-of-fact about it. She just said she was glad I phoned her when I did. ‘I was just about to phone Louella Parsons, and it would have been network news within a few minutes.’ ”

Aileen Disagreed

I used to return to Kansas City to have my favorite dentist and longtime friend, Dr. Claude D. Owens, work on me until I realized that I was imposing on him; that he had to disarrange his schedule to fit me in. After some difficult dental surgery I said to Doc, “This has been rough on both of us. How about getting a little fun out of it?” “Great! How can we do it?”

“I wondered if you could put some snags on a thin base that I could slip over my front teeth to play a trick on Franklyn and Norma.”

“Sure I can,” he said with a grin.

And sure enough he did. The day before I was to return to L.A. he had them ready. His wife, my loved friend Aileen, had dropped in to see how my replacement looked. When Doc brought out these snags and I plopped them in over his skillfully matched work, tears came into her eyes. “Why, I think that’s the most horrible notion I ever heard of!”

But Doc and I still thought it was great.

I rode out on the Chief, and as we were slowing into the station I got my precious snags out and plopped them in over the good ones. They really stuck out. I could hardly close my upper lip over them. Not only that, but I had not realized how long the train was and how far I’d have to walk into the station before I’d get to where people were waiting to meet arrivals.

I pulled out a handkerchief and held it up over my mouth to make my disfigurement less obvious.

Finally I descried Franklyn in the front ranks of the crowd.

Forgetting the snags for a moment, in my joy at seeing him again I waved my arm with the handkerchief in it. A look of horror came over Franklyn’s face. I hadn’t realized that he could possibly take my appearance seriously. But it seemed like, having gone so far, I should see the joke through.

After the usual how-are-yous, I said, “Well, we’d better get over to the baggage room to reclaim my luggage.” He agreed, and we got out of the crowd and crossed a patio to the baggage room. “You haven’t said a word about my teeth!” and with that I couldn’t restrain my laughter.

“O, my lord! Judas Priest!” he exclaimed. “Ever since I first saw you, I’ve been trying to think how I could get you to a dentist before Norma sees you!”

“You surely couldn’t think Doc would do a thing like that to me, could you?”

Of course he really couldn’t, but he had to save face. “Well, you never know what they’ll do in a place like Kansas City,” he countered.

“—and besides, don’t you think we should let Norma share in the fun?”

I could see that met with a response. Soon we arrived at the handsome Italian type dwelling where we shared living quarters. As we came in the front door and stood facing the marble entry and stately winding stairs to the upper floor, Norma was standing on the upper landing. Again I waved my hand in a salute, thereby exposing my snaggle teeth.

“Hello, darling,” she said weakly, and descending the stairs gave me a gingerly peck on the cheek. By then Franklyn started laughing, I joined in, and Norma, somewhat taken aback, as well she might be, said defensively, “Well, dear, I decided I would just have to love you anyway!”

That was my one and only intentional practical joke. It was really more successful than I had intended it to be.

But it led to another, oddly enough.

Franklyn declared, “I’ll get even with you if it’s the last thing I do!”

The next time I was returning from K.C. he suggested meeting me at the Pasadena stop, thereby saving the delay and press of crowds at the downtown station.

Henry Fonda

Planning to “get even,” and unbeknownst to me until I got off the train, Franklyn had gone out to Westmore’s on Sunset, where we usually got our hair cut, and had purple shadows painted under his eyes, hair grayed on the temples, to impress me how hard he had worked during my absence. But shortly after I boarded the Chief I discovered that Henry Fonda was aboard. I had never met him, but Frances D. who was a good friend of mine and had helped me get stories about some of the stars for our young people’s magazine, was his personal representative at Twentieth-Century Fox, so I penned a note to Fonda and asked the Pullman porter to take it to his roomette. I invited him for a drink and dinner, mentioning our common friendship with Frances.

He responded cordially. We found a number gf things to talk about, and next day when the train stopped at Albuquerque and most of us passengers detrained for a stroll and a look at the Indian wares displayed along the station platform, I happened to see Henry again.

“Someone meeting you in L.A.?” I asked.

“No,” he answered, explaining that he was going to surprise his wife in their West Los Angeles home by returning sooner than anticipated.

“Then, why don’t you get off with me at the Pasadena station? Some friends are meeting me, and we’ll be glad to take you home in our car.” He agreed, and so we got off the train together, and were greeted by Franklyn, Norma, and my secretary Nena, who had previously been employed by Mary Pickford.

While I was greeting Franklyn, Norma turned to Nena, and said sotto voce, “Who is the young man Ernest has brought along with him?”

“My gawd, that’s Henry Fonda,” Nena responded.

“Oh, young Mr. Lincoln,” cried Norma, and the two women proceeded to grab each of his arms, and precede Franklyn and me to the car. Their words drifted back to us, Nena, much impressed, assuring Henry that we were quite accustomed to movie people, that we never made a fuss over them, and wanted him to feel comfortable and relaxed; Norma raving about how wonderful he was in pictures she had seen him in. Up until then I hadn’t noticed what you might call Franklyn’s “delicate condition.”

“What are you made up for?” I asked him.

That really set him off. “Boy! To think I went to all the trouble of getting Westmore to do this aging job, and you didn’t even notice it until now. And to top the whole thing, I’m the guy that has to drive Fonda home!”

Request from DeMille

“Mr. DeMille is on the phone,” was the message. If it had been William I wouldn’t have been too surprised, because through several years he and his wife, Clara Beranger, and I had become good friends, partly because of my interest in live theater, (he was director of the drama department at U.S.C. where she also was an instructor) partly too because she had written several articles and a book for Unity. But it was Cecil DeMille, and he wanted me to conduct a funeral service. It was my first contact with him. I thought it must have been by reason of my friendship with his brother that he was led to call on me for the service. I was surprised to learn later that Willaim hadn’t known of the call or the reason for it, but that Cecil had heard me on radio.

An eighty-year-old man had shot and killed his thirty-year-old son, and then himself.

It was, Mr. DeMille told me, a crime inspired by love, not the crimepassionel which is all too common in Hollywood and elsewhere, but a deed inspired by a father’s desperate devotion to a son unable to function on his own. The father, DeMille told me, had been his longtime friend and associate. When at the age of eighty he was told by surgeons that he had terminal cancer he was overwhelmed, not by concern for himself but for his son. The two were the last of their line, with no living relatives. The son was a likeable, gentle but mentally retarded youth, harmless but dependent. His father could not bear to leave him to the uncertain care of strangers.

He took what seemed to him to be the merciful way out.

Of course I agreed to conduct the service even though my thought was not clear on how to conduct it. Though my own attitude was one of great compassion, how could I condone the taking of life, one’s own or another’s? I felt defensive for the father. I was complimented by Mr. DeMille’s confidence in me. And I have seldom refused a request to officiate when a request was personal. On some occasions, when the request was simply for a Unity service, and my schedule was crowded I’ve suggested someone who would present a service similar to mine.

Oddly, I think I’ve brought more people into Unity through their attendance at such services, than in any other way except radio and television; largely, too, because of my exposure on these two mediums of communication I have had a great many requests. There are a host of people who have no church affiliation. When bereavement comes, (and “there is no home, howe’er so well defended, but has one vacant chair,”) such persons are very likely to want some kind of devotional service, and they think of someone like me to whose voice and message they have responded.

Once, when I was still in my twenties, some people who said they were atheists asked for such a service. I told them I could only give the kind of service that I believed. They agreed to that—and afterwards asked me for a copy of what I had said. Perhaps they weren’t really atheists but agnostics.

I get myself into many complications when I am asked to do something people think I could do, but haven’t done. Lloyd Felter, one of my associates for ten years and more, tells me I could solve that problem with just the simple word, no. But I guess I don’t want to take that way out. In accepting the challenge of untried—or perhaps too often tried—commitments, I have learned so much.

What help could I offer the many friends of these two, father and son, thrust so suddenly, violently, and some persons would say sinfully, into the next world? I didn’t know, and I didn’t know whom to ask. When I was a young teen-ager, I had to listen to a preacher dangle the soul of one of my little nieces who expired at the age of four, over the coals of hell just because she had never been properly baptized. I remember thinking that if I were a minister—and certainly with no thought that I’d ever be one—I couldn’t be so cruel, or believe that God would be.

Always the Same, Always Different

What I usually say in a funeral service applied to this one, I thought; that life is a continuum, that birth and death are events in the midst of ongoing life, in fact that it is not life and death but birth and death that should be considered opposites and like most opposites are two ways of looking at the same thing. Yet this service must take account of its unusual murder and suicide. But not just these, for their motivation was love.

On that priceless ingredient I based my discourse. With the theme clear, there came to mind the rhythmic phrases of a couplet of verse I could not remember ever having heard:

“He who walks in love may wander far
Yet God shall bring him where the blessed are.”

I wish I could credit the author of those lines, for there were many requests for copies. Mr. DeMille had asked me if I would write out what I had said, so he could have copies made. Much later—I think it was at the service for his brother, he told me he had distributed some two hundred copies to friends.

A Redirected Director

Charles (Chuck) Reisner was one of the motion picture directors who attended Christ Church and often dropped in to chat with me. At the height of his career he decided to make a tour of Europe which lasted, if memory serves me, something over a year. He met many interesting and famous people, and on one occasion was a guest in the home of a titled Englishman. Some emergency prevented the hosts from being on hand to greet him. He was ushered into a library where two shy youngsters disconsolately awaited their parents’ return. His attempts to engage them in conversation were fruitless—they were, he thought, repelled by his girth and dark swarthy complexion—until he remembered his own grown son’s early difficulty in adjusting to the world of grown-ups.

“Do you know about the inch-high people?” he queried, and introduced them to a world in which youngsters like them would be tall by comparison. When their parents belatedly arrived, it was to find their two children seated happily in his lap, transported to a world in which they were the grown-ups.

The incident led to the publication of a book, The Inch-High People. Chuck brought me a copy of the book soon after his return to the States, expecting to resume his career as a director. But as I was to learn some months later, apparently he had stayed away too long. Whereas previously he was welcomed in every studio, now every door seemed closed to him. What hurt him most was that his son, who was making a place for himself in the industry, told him: “Things have changed. You’ve had your fling. The parade has passed you by.”

Following a sleepless night in the Hollywood apartment he maintained, he decided to leave early in the morning to drive down to his home at Laguna Beach and break the news to his wife that he was home to stay; there was no place for him in Hollywood any more.

As is often the case with people in times of dependency he had lost touch with the very thing that had helped him. He had stopped coming to church. Driving down the Coast Highway he thought of our daily radio program and tuned in just in time to hear me telling about a man who had quit a job in which he didn’t seem to be getting anywhere and couldn’t seem to find another. He chanced to meet an acquaintance who exclaimed, “It’s too bad you left when you did. If you’d stayed two weeks longer you’d have gotten the promotion you wanted.”

Chuck stopped his car by the side of the road. The broadcast seemed like a direct message to him. He headed the car back to Hollywood and on impulse drove directly to the L.B. Mayer studio. He asked to see Mr. Mayer and to his amazement was ushered into his office immediately, and greeted with the impatient question:

“Where have you been? You’re just the man I want to see. We’re having trouble with the script of the new Marx Brothers picture. Will you take a look at it and see what you can do with it?”

He took the script, went back to the Hollywood apartment, worked through the day and most of the night, and returned with the revised version next morning. He was “persuaded” to assume direction of the stars who were notoriously hard to work witfe; it turned out to be the smoothest production of their career, and of his.

The Other DeMille

It was my interest in live theater, I think, that had brought William and Clara DeMille and me together. They kept me informed of what was in production and gave me guest tickets. Occasionally I was a dinner guest in their hillside beach home at Playa del Rey. We never discussed religion and I didn’t know whether William had any, until one evening he asked me if I would pray for him. He had a severe cough which he attributed to heavy smoking. Medical examination had confirmed this and pronounced it malignant. Over a period of several months there was an apparent remission. He seemed to be a well man, when an apparently unrelated illness—if there is such a thing—appeared, and suddenly, painlessly, he expired.

Clara called on me to officiate at the memorial services for him. It would be difficult, for I had grown to feel very close to both of them.

Clara DeMille, known professionally as Clara Beranger, was a very capable writer with a strong metaphysical leaning. In Hollywood she was reputed to have a cold, unfeeling nature, and her steely-gray eyes and reserved manner gave credence to this opinion. The confidences she shared with me made me know otherwise.

Early in our friendship I came to realize that the two brothers, William and Cecil, were not as close in temperament as ideally we are inclined to think that famous brothers should be; in this case partly because they were both in the same profession, but from divergent viewpoints.

Cecil was very much the extrovert, the type that made headlines in Variety and mass media. Witness his refusal to pay dues to a union whose policies he deplored, even though this kept his productions off the screen for a period of years. William, on the other hand, was something of an introvert who had little gift for self-promotion. If he had any resentment of his brother’s greater fame he gave no indication of it. It was Clara who resented the fact that her gifted husband did not receive as much acclaim as she felt he deserved.

What should I say in tribute to this self-effacing man? Of his many gifts, the one I felt I could expound upon with most personal appreciation was his unfailing sense of humor. I made this a kind of key thought in my remarks. Expatiating upon his wit, I was able to say without fulsome praise, that he had the kind of wit that enabled you to see the point of his remarks without feeling it. In any area of human relations it was a gracious ability, and certainly so in the competitive world of the movies.


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


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