The first impression of my father that I can still vividly recall occurred when I was a little boy living with my sister and mother on a farm just off the Merritt Parkway near Greenwich. CT. The place was isolated, surrounded by orchards and other farms. We had no neighbors. Except for the odd relative, I have no memory of anyone calling on us.
It was Christmas morning in 1943, and I awoke and came out of my bedroom and through spokes on the stair railing, I saw a wonder. Down by the front door, a toy train was doing lively figure eights under the heavily decorated, tinsel-drooped branches of the Christmas tree. My small soul flooded with joy.
I soon learned that my father loved toy trains, and meticulously built his own layouts, his own engines, laid his own tiny tracks with a tiny hammer and tacks, built small towns and landscapes with mountains, constantly adding to his system. He was also a Ham Radio operator who made his own recordings of someone named Walter Cronkite who was writing about some war, something about a battle in France where “the fighting was fierce, especially in the center…” The broadcasts were about the Nazi victory of France in 1940. He kept those 78s for years.
My father stood six feet four with a big frame. He was a red head with a long, clean-shaven oval face that always wore heavy dark spectacles because his eyes were so flawed he could barely see. I can still picture him, his thick-lensed glasses on his nose peering down at something, trying to read it. He was born in the Bronx in New York. As a sensitive boy, he was called, “Fatty Four-eyes,” and had a miserable childhood with bullies constantly picking on him. The disdain of his peers scarred him. They were cruel and remind me of the time when Theodore Roosevelt first went to North Dakota, where the cowboys saw his spectacles as “a failure of character.” Apparently, my father’s schoolmates were prey to the same sort of prejudicial idiocy. As a child, he was awkward, helpless, defenseless, and badly bullied by the other boys. He dreaded school. My father never fought back. Submissiveness lay at the root of his nature. At times it paraded as strength, boastfulness, etc., but it was still submissiveness.
He was a glib man, a fluent man, who could be extremely charming. The real loves of his life werepleasure and money. Hemarriedmy mother because her father had money, and he married his second wife because her father had even more money. His ease at making himself interesting to others, his skill in explaining ideas, his animation in recounting stories, impressions, facts and experiences, his momentary earnestness, all captivated the unwary. Sometimes when he was drinking, there was in his conversation energy of touch, an ability to relate things in an engaging manner. He had never finished college. He did a year at Washington and Lee but dropped out
My father’s childhood was tragic.
His mother was Frances Adams who, according to my father, had sung the title role in Carmen when she was 19. She was a genuine eye-catcher, he said. Her husband was a kind, extremely competent Los Angles doctor who adored her. When Frances got tuberculosis, her confidence was destroyed, and she cast all decent restraints aside and embarked on “an around the world screwing tour,” according to my father. After her husband learned of her breathtaking string of infidelities, he, completely broken-hearted, threw himself out the third floor window of a Los Angeles hospital. Unfortunately, he had succeeded in suffering a compound fracture of his ankle, and died three weeks later of a Streptococcus infection. That took place in 1935. My father never forgot his death or its cause. He hated his mother with a stone cold, loathing detestation.
But as I was to learn, my father’s dominant instincts and the habitual force of character were not of one type, but were mixed together in a disturbing and contradictory ensemble. The great Lytton Strachey once described famous British Prime Minister Gladstone’s character as “a confusion of incompatibles.” That describes my father. When she would visit, he never expressed any affection to her. He coldly correct and simply wanted her gone.
When he wasn’t drinking, he was cold, stand offish, afraid of the world and his own shadow. He would abstain from drinking two weeks at a time during which he was distant and indifferent. He was polite but it was the kind of politeness that simply tolerated you. There was no friendship in it. During his days of abstinence, he was always sniffing his nose. All day you would hear chorus of “sniffs.” He was chronically insensitive to others unless he set out to seduce them to validate his powers. Around people, he was charming: alcohol was like second temperament for him.
He was a very timid man. He once told me that other men in Hollywood made fun of him and wanted me to teach him self-defense. I was offended for him and wanted to meet the men bullying him but I never did.
“The Dumas of the Pulps”
My father had been dubbed “The Dumas of the Pulps,” and he began to sell stories in his early teens. Before I was born, under the influence of my mother’s Christian Science religion, he wrote a good novel, Not Too Narrow, Not Too deep, about an escape from Devil’s Island which was led by a Jesus-figure. In 1938, he did another novel, Is a Ship Burning? based on the Morro Castle disaster when a luxury liner caught fire in 1934. According to news accounts, “Hours after the first broken SOS stuttered out to the sleeping world, 251 of the liner's 558 passengers and crew were dead or unaccounted for. Thirty three bodies were recovered at Manasquan, N.J., and 17 were washed ashore at Point Pleasant.” This second book was not as good as the first, and he turned to writing detective novels.
By 1945, he had become a Hollywood writer, director and producer working for twentieth century Fox. My father directed Marilyn Monroe in her first film a western called, “Ticket to Tomahawk.” My father didn’t like Marilyn, calling her a woman “whose bra straps would never be clean,” but my stepmother countered, saying that she would become a big star. Both were right.
In 1946, he divorced my mother. He married an attractive California woman, Mary Loos, the niece of Anita Loos, author of Gentleman Prefer Blondes. In 1959, still a teenager, I went to visit him. The father of Mary Loos was exceedingly rich. She was a loud, vulgar woman, and it was clear to me then that my comfort-loving father had a certain mercenary streak in his nature. He married my mother because my grandfather had money, and he married the niece of the author Anita Loos, Mary, because she had even more money. Her father, Dr. Clifford Loos had founded one of the first chains of health clinics in Los Angeles, and he prospered. He lived in a huge, lavish Spanish-style mansion nestled in Santa Monica canyon. The main house had a towering living room, with a huge fire place and statues of the saints nestled high in niches on each side. Outside, there was a long swimming pool, Olympic sized, bordered by Mexican tiles on each side. There was a ¾ acre plot out front full of banana and other fruit trees which I would wander about in. It was a magnificent place.
There was a pottery shed on the property, which where I lived when I came to stay. It had very old books stored atop the tables there, one of which was the original version of The Koran, translated by one of my great, great grandfathers, George Sale, who was an 18 century English clergyman. When I was in Tehran one time, I went to a book store and found it sitting high on a shelf, the secret police lady who ran the place, staring expressionlessly as I explain that a relative of mind had written it. The Islamics were the true enemies of the Shah.
That book was to have been mine, but when my father died, all kinds of things of value suddenly disappeared.
I liked to stay in the pottery shed and I had learned to shoot a pistol and I kept it near me, in order to keep the place safe.
Introduction to Hollywood
In 1958, he got a CBS TV series on the air, Yancey Derringer, and had earned $1.5 million in one year, which was a lot of money back then.
In any case, as a teenager, I had an accident that left my left arm badly damaged. My mother had refused to let me visit my father, but she relented, and I flew out to meet him. My father was driving an expensive car and he was very flamboyant in manner and dress. He wore those dubious leisure suits, red socks and loafers. He owned five cars and three homes. He had his series Yancey Derringer on CBS, and he made $1.5 million in a single year. That was real money back then.
In any case, as a teenager, I had an accident that left my left arm badly damaged. There were 12 stitches in the wound. My mother had refused to let me visit my father, but she relented, and I flew out to meet him. My father was driving an expensive car and he was very flamboyant in manner and dress. He wore those dubious leisure suits, red socks and loafers. He owned five cars and three homes. He had his series Yancey Derringer on CBS, and he made $1.5 million in a single year. That was real money back then.
A few days later, when I went to my first lunch in Hollywood, feeling very much an awed, timid kid, completely out of place. The lunch took place at Newport Beach, south of Los Angeles. That was where the star spent their summers. John Wayne was a neighbor who owned an old PT boat from President John Kennedy’s day; Jane Russell lived next door, etc. My first lunch took place at Lucille Ball’s house. Her house sat on an inlet in Newport Beach near the open ocean. I was introduced to a lot of famous people like Dick Powell, Lucille Ball, Robert Mitchum, and Candy Bergen whose father. Edgar Bergen, was the famous radio ventriloquist. We went over to Lucille’s house by boat – my father owned a 40.ft boat called The Amberjack, and we took it to Lucy’s dock. I scrambled from the boat up to the dock, but the wind had kicked up, the swells were swift and unruly, and my father had trouble docking the boat. The wind made the flags on the dock flutter wildly. My heart went out to him as he tried again and again to nestle the boat into the dock space, only to fail. Jokes began about his seamanship. And I detected in this famous group, a cruel streak of cruel superiority, a cold bloodedness that rejoices in another’s discomfiture. I saw at once by father was not quite on equal footing with the rest, and I felt very protective of him.
When my father finally gained the deck, eager for a drink, when someone was talking about Edgar’s wife, Frances, a former fashion model who had become a cast member of my father’s TV show. She wasn’t there, but someone asked, “How is she?” and my father quickly and suggestively replied, “I don’t know -- I haven’t felt her yet,” and not missing beat, Lucille Ball shot back, “The hell you haven’t!” in that inimitable voice of hers. Lucille and I would soon become great friends. Lucille had a rooftop apartment overlooking Central Park in New York, and we would often have dinner and converse. Whenever we kissed, it was restrained, not avid or greedy. She would say to my father, “What’s wrong with your son? Wouldn’t he like to marry a rich woman?”
That was my introduction to Hollywood.
I was never in awe of Hollywood. The whole idea of celebrity I was in my eye extremely dubious. What kind of an idiot think it thrilling to shake Cary Grant’s hand. (Cary grant, I learned, was gay, and he lived very quietly with Western movie hero Randolph Scott, one of the first thing my father told me.) The taste of the run of the mill people is sadly lacking in the ability to judge rightly. I had a savagely abusive mother, but t least we didn’t live in Hollywood, but on the East Coast. I had no affection for the West Coast. Most stars come from completely undistinguished backgrounds. Most of the actors there were there because of their looks. Some of these had talent, but most got by on their looks and were taken in hand by promoters whose aim was to exploit them. Lana Turner was discovered at a Drug Store counter in Beverly Hills, Rock Hudson was a filling station worker when he was discovered, etc. . (The one actor of genius I met was Marlon Brandon. I was in New York, working for Life Magazine in the Entertainment Department, (I had applied to become a war correspondent, but was put there, “because you read a lot of books, an editor explained, and I spent an evening with him. He talked incessantly about the rights of American Indians, and I finally asked him, have you ever liked with any tribe?” which took him aback – I had interrupted his harangue,) because I used to spend summer with the Apaches in New Mexico. The Mescalero Apache Tribe. I soon discovered that the Apaches were a very proud people, whose wives were reduced to prostitutes’ service rich white golfer from El Paso. But in terms of projecting anguish, of being truly distraught, suffering with horrible desolation, beseeching and helpless in his pain, Brando had no equal. Clearly he had suffered very deeply in his life.)
I am wandering.
In Hollywood, gifts of mind are soon separated from any trace of conscience, and the pleasure-loving, rapacious, degenerate character of Hollywood was soon surfaced. Nothing there was done with an eye to lasting. The moment, the fad, the empheral ruled there. Everything was immediate: the success, the money, the sexual license and freedom from any restraints or serious purpose – these attitudes contaminated everything. There was never any serious ranking of values. It was their habit to worship the worthless as long as it was expensive and showy. There was a widespread lack of conscientiousness. A man or woman in show business cannot conduct his or her affairs without some idea, however vague or inaccurate which gives them an indication of where he or she is going, something that gives direction to his or her life and efforts. But in Hollywood, the only motive is selfish calculation. They believe things are true because everyone says they are. There is a placid gullibility that I saw there. It was a place founded on false impressions.
It became clear that most of the actors I knew were hopeless alcoholics. All had no morals. They had no intellectual interests of any kind. They had no inner life. They didn’t read. Their minds were vastly limited. Easy, reckless pleasure was the idol they all worshipped My father and most of his friends had no principles, no morals, and no inhibitions, no purpose beyond mental and physical pleasure and the immediate gratification of those. He entirely lacked any moral sensitivity or compassion for other’s feelings. He was entirely self-centered. He was an alcoholic, and if you have ever lived with one, you soon learned what their “trajectories” meant. By that I mean, as they were getting drunk, they were amiable and friendly, when they hit their apogee, they wanted to hug you and carry you away from life’s torments, and on the way back down, and they turned as mean an unpredictable as rattle snakes. They have no honor.
He was producer and director of his series, Yancey Derringer, and I got to go behind the scenes and saw all the tricks that Hollywood uses in its productions. I remember a scene where the hero, Jock Mahoney, was traveling by train, and the set displayed part of a railway carriage, with two stage hands making the thing jounce it up and down, while another stage hand had a metal can which could blow smoke past the passenger windows.
In the series, set in New Orleans, a former stuntman, Jock Mahoney, a slick gambler and law man, had an Indian sidekick, Pahoo, a Pawnee Indian. They would work together to solve crimes. Pahoo was a mute, and only communicated by sign language from the Pawnee Tribe. (I had two books onsign language, most of them from the Sioux tribe. This came in handy when Jud and I visited the Tarahuma Indians deep in western Mexico who didn’t speak Spanish but who spoke sign.)
My father had a wonderfully impish sense of humor. One night, after the cast had spent the night drinking and playing poker, my father and Pahoo went to the studio after eight o’clock in the morning driving in my father’s 1935 Rolls Royce. Soon, Pahoo emerged in his make up, and my father was now dressed in a chauffer’s livery, including a small cap. My father then put down top of the car, and he and Pahoo went driving around Beverly Hills, with Pahoo sitting upright in the back seat of, the butt of a silver-plated double-barreled shotgun sticking up, my father hunched down to drive. In a place that refused to be impressed by anything, that makes an impression, people turning to see a mute, proud Indian being driven about Beverly Hills. My father could be a bit of a map cap when he chose.
I watched my father direct episodes. One of the actors on the show was Lee van Cleef who was very kind to me. Van Cleef would later obtain fame from the Italian spaghetti westerns, but even then he had an arresting presence and voice, and his success didn’t surprise me. He had injured a leg driving drunk off a canyon mountain road at night. When I first saw him, he was standing in the back of the set, idly scratching his groin, and he told me in an aside that he had finished the last of his shot for gonorrhea or some STD. This sort of made me stare.
Another actor I liked was Kelly Thordson, a former LA policeman who had a warm, amiable personality. But the star of my father’s series was a former stunt man, Jock Mahoney whom I had seen as a teenager in the series, Range Rider. He was extremely lithe, graceful and handsome, lean, and very physically talented. He has been a stunt man before Yancy Derringer. Once I saw him at my father’s house in Newport Beach, standing on the third floor balcony from which he dove into the small swimming pool below. I found this stunning, but my father warned, “No stunt man ever takes a chance. They estimate, then they act, confident they can succeed. They don’t take chances.” I told him what Jock had done took courage, he simply shrugged.
During my first visit, Pahoo, whose name was X. Brands, one day showed up for the shoot with 16 stitches in his jaw. The night before, while drunk, arriving home after he had just had a sexual experience with a girl friend, he taunted his wife by saying, “See, what she does for me? Why can’t you do that for me?” and the wife had picked up a phone and hit him in the face, opening up a 16 stitch cut. At my father’s funeral, I learned from my former step-mother that while at Twentieth Century Fox, my father and another man went to an orgy, and both started at the end of supine females, their legs open, until both men met at the middle.
Jock lived in the San Fernando Valley, with his wife, Maggie, and step daughter, Sally Field. I didn’t like Maggie much. She was attractive, lying out in the back yard, trying to get a tan, but she would labor over the difference between the word “kookie” and “koonie.” Fr me part, she didn’t speak English, and I stopped being attentive. I liked Sally right away; she was a beautifully formed little girl with intelligence, endless curiosity and grace of manner.
In the back yard there was a trampoline, and I watched Jock work out on it. He asked me if I wanted to learn some stunts, and I was delighted and said yes. He took me aside, and made a distasteful face and said to me, your father doesn’t exercise. He thinks about it and thinks about it and it never happens. I told Jock I wasn’t like my father. But clearly the two men were competitive.Soon, Jock had me diving through successive barrel hoops in his yard and had me jumping off low roofs. I horrified my mother when, on my return, I began to jump off the roof of the garage.
Sally Field was Jock’s step father, and at one point, according to my father, Jock could not keep his hands to himself, and a bitter divorce resulted. But I always knew she had something special. The success of Sally has given me great joy.