Author: rmatzen

Award-winning author of the forthcoming "Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II" as well as "Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe" in 2016, "Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3" in 2014, "Errol & Olivia" in 2011, "Errol Flynn Slept Here" with Michael Mazzone in 2009, and three other books.

Olympic Shark Jumping

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Him: Penny for your thoughts. Her: I hate you.

I know the examples are legion, but tell me some of the instances where an actor or actress was miscast for a picture. Then I’ll play my hand: the time the pint-sized Lubitsch veteran was cast as a dance hall girl in an Errol Flynn western.

In his recent book Miriam Hopkins: Life and Times of a Hollywood Rebel, Allan R. Ellenberger claims that Jack Warner blackmailed the blond-haired, going-on-40 Hopkins into making Virginia City—if she didn’t do it, Warner would reveal she was having an affair with writer Carl Zuckmayer and ruin her already fragile career. That’s exactly what her performance in this picture reflects—an actress performing under threat of blackmail.

Errol & Olivia by Robert MatzenFor historical perspective, Virginia City is a splashy Warner Bros. production from 1940 that was made in the wake of Aussie-accented Flynn’s giant success in the previous year’s Dodge City. Flynn had been big box office from the start, but after The Adventures of Robin Hood, ka-boom! Huge. He justified ever-bigger budgets for his pictures, and for Virginia City, which was shot at the end of 1939, the Warners signed checks with reckless abandon. Jack Warner and right-hand-man Hal Wallis followed the lead of cash cow Gone With the Wind, then smashing records in theaters. The American Civil War was all the rage in 1940 and Virginia City drips with Suthun drawwwwwls and talk of the noble lossst cawwwws.

The catch was, Flynn thought it ludicrous that with his accent and South Seas background, WB would put him in westerns. He didn’t believe he belonged there.

I’m going to figure, judging by the description of shooting Virginia City in Alan K. Rode’s definitive 2017 bio Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, that the renowned director would go on to erase this credit from his resume because the location work in Arizona was long and chaotic, punctuated by sniping and factionalism among cast and crew. Then I checked Rudy Behlmer’s Inside Warner Bros. and revisited one of my favorite studio memos ever, to associate producer Mark Hellinger from producer Robert Lord: “Dear Mark: Your basic story line is about as good (perhaps a little better) than the basic story line of Dodge City and Union Pacific. That is to say: ‘It stinks and they stank.’” Under that memo in Behlmer’s book is another, this one to Hal Wallis from screenwriter Robert Bruckner begging him not to extensively rewrite the script and giving the reasons why. Bruckner lost and in fact the script was rewritten day by day just ahead of the shooting schedule to the extent that nobody knew their lines. When a final screenplay features more blue pages (denoting rewrites) than white pages (originals), you’re in trouble.

Then there was the ad-libbing, which the Marx Bros. could pull off but not so much the Warner Bros. (who didn’t have a funny bone in their bodies). In his Curtiz bio, Rode describes a long bit of comedic improvisation by Flynn and idiot co-stars Alan Hale and Big Boy Williams that made it into the final cut—and a more uncomfortable, unprofessional couple minutes of film you’ll be hard-pressed to find, except in the productions of Edward D. Wood Jr. Everything that worked between the three actors in Dodge City grew embarrassing, even offensive this time out. And damned if they didn’t get together and do it again for Curtiz in Santa Fe Trail later that year!

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

The notorious ad-libbed scene. With friends like Moose and Marblehead (I’m not kidding–those are their names in the picture), who needs rebels or Mexican bandits? And Flynn does himself no favors by trying to improvise comedy before loaded cameras.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Anybody call for me? I’ve already got the costume.

Plot in 30 seconds: Flynn and his Yankee bumpkin friends are confined in a southern prison run by Randolph Scott, but they escape and it turns out they are intelligence men (full disclosure: I didn’t see any intelligence among the three of them) who have uncovered a southern plot to sneak $5M in gold from Virginia City, Nevada, into the Confederacy to keep the war going. By sheer coincidence the man in charge of the rebel plot is Randolph Scott who gives up his job running the prison and goes to Nevada to supervise the gold-sneak. Meanwhile Flynn and bumpkins take the stage from (apparently) Virginia to Nevada, and during what must have been a long and painful ride he falls in love with southerner Miriam Hopkins. Then—

Oh hell, why bother because there’s a whole lot more plot but suffice to say, a little boy dies in reel 2 as per all Warner Bros. western scripts of the time, and there’s a wagon train (also mandatory) that ends up under attack not by Injuns but by Mexican bandits led by Humphrey Bogart. Can someone please explain to me why Indians in old-time movies (or Mexicans in this case) ride around and around the circled wagons when all that happens is they get picked off one by one or two by two or five at a time and never, ever accomplish anything except to lose? Was life really that cheap in the real Old West? Not to mention that, inevitably, the cavalry is going to arrive, and they do here of course, just in the nick of time. Douglas Dumbrille, yet another character actor, is leading them and in such a sour mood that it seems like he’s sorry he saved the day.

Blah blah blah more plot. Whatever. This exercise in shark-jumping begins with Miriam Hopkins as a Scarlett O’Hara wannabe in the office of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and ends with Hopkins pleading for Flynn’s life in the office of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln—on the morning of his assassination yet! Even in 1940 I can’t imagine buying this crap.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Say, wasn’t there supposed to be a girl in this scene? Whoa! I didn’t see you down there, little lady!

I found Flynn horrible in Virginia City. He’s uncomfortable and disinterested and doesn’t bother to learn his lines except in the instances where he knows he’ll get close-ups. In the scene where he learns his lady-love is really a dance-hall girl, he doesn’t know his motivation and instinct tells him to turn nasty. This ain’t the Flynn we’re used to. I think he was shell-shocked after completion of the marathon Elizabeth and Essex. That production, also for Curtiz, co-starring Bette Davis, and documented in Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood, left our boy scarred, unsure, and angry at his treatment by the front office. And here again he was saddled with a sour-puss co-star, this time Miriam Hopkins, a fine actress in pictures like The Smiling Lieutenant, Trouble in Paradise, and Design for Living, all for Ernst Lubitsch. Supposedly, she was a flaming boil to work with (arrived late, offered suggestions on how co-stars could play a scene, demanded dialogue rewrites, etc.), and we know Flynn could be an infected hair follicle himself. What a pair! Here Hopkins is lost in a dusty western and ill-suited to costumes meant for a Vegas showgirl and not a woman who was so diminutive that she looked like a sapling among tall pines Flynn and Scott. The part cried out for Warner contract player Ann Sheridan who had already played it in Dodge City—I swear Bruckner wrote it with Sheridan in mind—but Hopkins was also under WB contract and at a far higher rate, so she got the nod.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

You feex me up, eh, doc? Why of course I will, Mr. Bogart, because I’m reliable character actor Moroni Olsen. (Observe Randolph Scott as he looks on with unwavering solemnity.)

Some of the veteran character actors come off well by comparison to Flynn, Hopkins, and inscrutable Randy Scott, whose monotone delivery and solemnity are unwavering. If you want reliable, call John Litel, Moroni Olson, and Russell Hicks. The actor who surprised me pleasantly on this recent viewing was Bogart, who has been called “miscast” by every Hollywood historian who ever addressed this picture. To me, that’s rear-view-mirror stuff because in 1940, Bogart was not a lead but rather a character man and this was a character part. And his accent sounds exactly like that of Jesús, our favorite server at El Paso Mexican Restaurant, so who’s to say it’s not authentic? Bogart owns the scenes he shares with Flynn. They try to out-smug each other but Bogart’s got the chops and Flynn doesn’t, so Bogie wins. We know Errol was capable of good performances because he gave them in The Dawn Patrol and Essex, but here he just seems to be pissed off and when Flynn’s pissed, he shuts down.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Errol sets his co-star in a tree. A real, exterior, in-the-middle-of-a-river tree. Of course you can’t see the river because Curtiz has filled his foreground with junk.

There’s a scene I always thought odd and uncomfortable: The stagecoach gets stuck in a river and Flynn, knee-deep in water, carries Hopkins to an overhanging tree limb and sets her there like a high-wire-act sack of potatoes. Then later he fetches her off the branch and carries her to dry land. For decades this scene has raised my hackles and I don’t know why. I think it’s because you can feel the contempt between the players at somewhere around 120 Hz—too high a frequency to actually see but there nonetheless. “All day long I have been afraid that Errol would drop me in the water,” she said that evening on location. “Perhaps it would have been better if he had.” Yes, Miss Hopkins, drowning was one quick way out of this mess.

Flynn liked younger women (the younger the better), and Hopkins at eight years his senior did not ring the bell. “They simply couldn’t stand each other and were at swords point all the time,” said screenwriter Bruckner. And it shows; does it ever.

Then there’s the aforementioned dance-hall sequence, which was the last thing to be shot, back in Burbank after contentious weeks on location in Arizona. Hopkins had started out dancing on Broadway in the 1920s, but as was common in those days, spent no time in the gym since hitting Hollywood in 1930. As a result, she faced these days on the barroom set at the studio like her own execution. She dislocated her hip rehearsing two days before Christmas—perhaps one of those self-inflicted wounds you hear about in extreme combat—which delayed the shoot until January 11, 1940. “That morning, she arrived late and hid in her portable dressing room,” wrote Ellenberger in his biography. “After two hours, Curtiz remarked, ‘Now, either she dances or else,’ lightly tapping on her dressing room door. Miriam stepped out wearing a black, laced bodice and a ruffled skirt. ‘Let’s get this over,’ she said, smiling.”

Now, I’ll tell you, dear reader, that I couldn’t get up on a stage and sing and dance in a chorus line any better than Miriam Hopkins in Virginia City. But I don’t think I could do a lot worse, either. I can safely say from the distance of going on a century, as a dance hall girl, Miriam Hopkins is no Ann Sheridan. And I like Miriam Hopkins. She’s a terrific actress, but so so so miscast in Virginia City.

It’s obvious I’ve seen this turkey several times in the distant past because I knew the lines before they were delivered, but my sensibilities must have changed in the past two score plus 10. This time, I sat horrified. With a painful run time of 121 minutes, everything got tossed in during all those rewrites, including the kitchen sink. I will credit Curtiz for some nice scenics and action shots and dollies over and cranes up and cranes down, and of course there’s foreground junk cluttering up the frame. But even Curtiz couldn’t junk up spectacular Arizona Painted Desert vistas. And when Max Steiner’s hired for the musical score, all is not lost. According to Curtiz biographer Rode, the picture did boffo business, proving that at least in this case, more was deemed to be better. You know what Virginia City would be perfect for? A Friday night send-up like Rocky Horror, complete with people dressed as Mexican bandits and showgirls and Abe Lincoln and sing-alongs of “The Union Forever” with Miriam Hopkins. That would finally do justice to this, one of the more incredible motion picture releases of the golden era.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

In their only big sequence together, Bogart and Flynn smug it out trying to out-suave each other. My verdict: Bogart wins. Is Errol actually looking at his fingernails? I thought they only did that in the movies. Oh, right.

Seeing Red

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

At the intersection of passion, ambition, and love lay the red shoes. I arrived late to an appreciation of the Pressburger/Powell collaboration The Red Shoes, released in England in 1948 by the Rank Organisation. Give me The Sea Hawk and pirates, or Excalibur and King Arthur, I used to grumble. Don’t give me ballet!

But then in the late 1990s I did get exposed to ballet when I worked on a video tribute to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s retiring artistic director Patricia Wilde, who had been a George Balanchine ballerina. I learned then how cool ballet was, and how much discipline it took to make a dancer. Seeing vintage footage of Patricia Wilde as she danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the New York City Ballet left me slack-jawed. And here I was interviewing this great woman on camera about that career.*

Flash forward 20 years. I trespassed in the ballet world again recently as I sat writing Dutch Girl and learning about Audrey Hepburn’s aspirations for a career in dance—sat not only here stateside but also in the very theater where she once performed, the Stadsschouwburg in Arnhem, the Netherlands. She studied for four years in Arnhem with a Dutch ballet mistress named Winja Marova and followed that with a stint in Amsterdam under Sonja Gaskell and then in London under Marie Rambert. All three are important names in European ballet—Gaskell is very well remembered and Rambert is a bona fide legend.

Ask Audrey at any point in her life what she aspired to be and she would say “a dancer.” She never answered “an actress.” Meryl Streep—there is an actress, Audrey would tell you. But even though Audrey had played Gigi on Broadway and then won a Tony Award for Ondine the next year, she claimed she faked her way through. She did what an instinct for survival told her to do and lived to tell the tale.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

Tortured Lermontov punches a mirror.

I have to find out what Audrey thought about The Red Shoes, which is set in post-war London at a time when she studied under Rambert and began a brief but intense career as a chorus girl after coming to grips with the fact that her dreams of ballet would never become reality. The Red Shoes tells the story of the rise of ballerina Victoria Page as molded by ballet impresario Boris Lermontov. He asks her at a critical point, “What do you want from life?” She answers at once, breathlessly, “To dance!” It was an Audrey moment.

I always find The Red Shoes, now digitally restored, an astonishing experience on many levels. It presents the world of professional ballet as muscular and visceral, one minute beautiful, the next nightmarish, and always obsessive; it saturates your eyes with Technicolor designed by director of photography Jack Cardiff; it lays bare the souls of a trio of characters who will break your heart for their spectacular individual talents and crippling human limitations.

I love Lermontov, played by Austrian-born Anton Walbrook. Lermontov never bends, never breaks. It’s his company and you will do it his way or get out! He rules ruthlessly, savagely, relentlessly. Nothing must be allowed to get in the way of his art. If he retires to his apartment off-hours and talks sweetly to his cat, we don’t see it. He seems to live at the theatre and wields power at all hours. Once in a while he might seem to relent, but only as another way to skin a cat—as a different means to an end. [Note to readers: This is as close to me as it gets, people. I live for my whatever passes for my art, just like Lermontov.]

Then there’s Vicki Page, played by real-life-ballerina-turned-actress Moira Shearer. Vicki has it all under Lermontov, all she has said she ever wanted, ever dreamed of, and then loses her way by falling in love with composer Julian Craster. You just want to shake her by the shoulders and scream, “Snap out of it! He isn’t worth it!” But no matter how many times you watch The Red Shoes, she never listens.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

The confrontation: Craster, played by Marius Goring, confronts Lermontov with his love for Vicki.

What a fascinating woman Moira Shearer was. She had been a Sadler’s Wells ballerina and a great rising star—until The Red Shoes. After that she claimed the traditional ballet world considered her a sellout for lowering herself to act, and her career never recovered. She continued to dance for a while and then tried acting full time, but neither worked out. Later on she would lecture and write and finally she died in 2006 at age 80. Boy, I wish I had known this woman.

One more link between Audrey and The Red Shoes: Fourth billed is Sadler’s Wells principal dancer Robert Helpmann of Australia. On May 9, 1940, Audrey sat in the city theatre of Arnhem and watched the Sadler’s Wells touring company featuring Helpmann and Margot Fonteyn dance. It was a turning point in the life of an 11 year old, and she would tell the story of stepping onto the stage with these forces of British ballet to deliver flowers to ballet mistress Ninette de Valois.

Please forgive me for stumbling blindly through the first decades of life avoiding The Red Shoes. I’ve learned the error of my ways. Ballet rocks. And, for me at least, never does it rock harder than in The Red Shoes.

__________________________

*Thinking about the Patricia Wilde video caused me to dig it out and upload it to Youtube. It was my first job as a producer (co-producer, actually) and one of my first creative experiences in the edit suite working with post-production ace Kathy Kruger. This video hasn’t seen the light of day for 21 years, but it’s part of the historical record of American ballet and I believe for that reason it should be preserved.

Friends

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

Young pre-Hollywood Audrey.

I’m done. The fun part is over—the fun part being sitting alone night after night, figuring out the story and writing it. If you commit to 1,000 words a session and understand that some of the words will be good, some bad, and some indifferent, before too long you get a book. Following that process, along with three trips to the Netherlands and a year associated with Dutch researcher Maddie van Leenders, Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, is written and weighs in at about 103,000 words. Release is set for April 15, 2019. As a workaholic introvert, I have enjoyed the experience of spending two years alone with Audrey Hepburn more than I can tell you. She’s been very pleasant company; in fact about the pleasantest ever, right up there with George Washington.

When you work on a biography that long and get so deep inside the heart and soul of your subject, he or she invariably becomes a friend, or at least a “work friend.” When I produced the three documentary films on George Washington, we became pals and I still miss him after more than 10 years.

I would call Errol Flynn a work friend at best because here I was working in the same office with a tortured soul for two books and along the way finally figured out what was going on in his chaotic, complex mind. Just yesterday I watched his finest acting job, in Elizabeth and Essex, and because I know him so well, my heart broke at the heroic effort this generally lazy hedonist put into one very tough job, to make sure the powers trying to defeat him would not prevail. Then there was the leading lady of his lifetime, Olivia de Havilland, who I had to figure out for the book Errol & Olivia (BTW, Belated Happy Birthday this past July 1, OdeH). We had been correspondents for a long time, and I studied her from Saratoga, California, on; in fact it was there in the concrete driveway of the Fontaine home that I laid my hand over the tiny handprints of Livvie and her little sister Joan. They must have been six and five at the time they pressed them into the cement, but it’s as if these two future Academy Award winners were already performing their own Grauman’s Chinese ceremony. I think in retrospect Livvie’s the most interesting person I’ve ever tackled. She remains at age 102 a closed book, a loner, and 100% pure badass. I have come to admire her tremendously.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Loner Olivia de Havilland and complicated Errol Flynn.

I’ve documented Carole Lombard on these pages as well as in Fireball so I won’t bore you with more, except to say hers is a lively spirit to spend a couple of years alone with. There were a number of surprises on that project. Among them was Clark Gable, an interesting guy and, I concluded, an OK guy despite a flawed character. But then most of us are flawed characters one way or another. The second surprise involved the 15 Air Corps pilots on Lombard’s death plane who wanted their stories to be told. Who knew? One of these fellas even showed up a couple years ago, which introduced me to a new friend, Felicia Borla of the Clark County Coroner’s Office.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

The lively Lombard and her cat-who-ate-the-canary smile.

Jim Stewart and I came to an understanding over the course of Mission’s development. During his lifetime, two things were sure about Jim: 1) he would not talk about his WWII combat career, and 2) he hated biographers. So what did I set out to write? His combat biography. You’d suppose that on the other side he wouldn’t be happy with me, but in describing Stewart in combat I put a spotlight on the great group of guys he commanded in battle. Those men deserved the kind of attention that their proximity to Jimmy Stewart the actor would have promoted, and Mission made that happen. So now Jim and I are OK; not tight, but OK.

And now we come to Audrey Hepburn. Audrey’s another tough cookie for a simple reason: She had secrets she felt could not be revealed, which led her to turn down several seven-figure offers from publishers to write her memoir. Then she died much too soon, and biographers went to town writing about her life and they’re still at it, and now I’ve done it too.

My book’s different from the others because I went right after the secrets, and had to hack and slash through a lot of false leads, inaccurate reporting, myths, and subterfuge to get at the truth, or at least what truth can be determined when files have been intentionally destroyed. I’m not going to give you any spoilers here, so you’re going to have to wait and read Dutch Girl to find out what the secrets are and if she makes it out of World War II alive.

I wanted to use this photo on the cover of Mission but got overruled.

Like always there was a get-acquainted period with Audrey, and I came to see her as a pretty fierce introvert. Well, to be precise, she wasn’t an introvert as a ballerina, which is all she ever wanted to be. It was the acting and particularly the speaking that gave her the shakes. We got along very well and the good vibes grew, and now I’m associated and sharing information with her son, Luca Dotti. Luca’s now in the process of adding some pretty incredible details to the narrative, things only someone inside the family could.

There’s nothing like the experience of positive energy aligning on a great project, and that’s what Dutch Girl has been—the most enjoyable adventure of my career thanks in large part to a wonderful group of Dutch people who love history, or lived it, or knew Audrey, or had some sort of expertise they were willing to provide to a clumsy American. They include Maddie along with Gety, Annemarth, Clan, Rosemarie, Ben, Herman, Patrick, Johan, Dick, and Robert, Luca in Rome, and Marina and Ann, my stateside researchers. They all have made collaboration a joy—even for a guy who likes nothing better than to sit alone and write.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

In June 2017 with the help of Dutch historian and author Gety Hengeveld-de Jong, I interviewed Ben van Griethuysen, Annemarth Visser ‘t Hooft, and Rosemarie Kamphuisen, who lived in the village of Velp with Audrey during World War II. All provided information critical to the Dutch Girl narrative.

Fireballed

You may be wondering where I’ve been. Well, I’m working on my new book and it’s the bottom of the ninth, as in, after two years, I have to be done at the end of May. I only have a one-track mind, unlike later more sophisticated models of humans who can, as the kids say, multitask, and so getting this thing completed is pretty much all I’m eating and sleeping these days.

And because of that single track, I haven’t addressed a very interesting comment that came into this website at the end of April, so I thought I would pause to admire it in the sunlight. Mary Whittaker had first left a comment here saying that she had begun Fireball and was enjoying it. Then she followed up.

First of all, thank you Mary for reading and liking Fireball and for taking the time to write about the following:

So wow – I just finished “Fireball” and am still “not over it.” Thank you so much for writing this book. It was absolutely fascinating…and the most fascinating thing to ME is the question of WHY this story is so compelling (and it absolutely, positively is). The amount of angst and stress I felt reading it – having absolutely no personal knowledge of the individuals involved AND with full knowledge of pretty much how it all ended…was remarkable.

When I consider Lana’s retort (‘I didn’t make her get on that plane’), I find that I have to reluctantly somewhat agree. Gable didn’t make her get on it either. How is it possible that this smart, savvy, successful, confidant and seemingly universally loved woman was somehow reduced to changing her interests, going cross country in desperate pursuit of pregnancy, lurking around Hollywood sound stages to monitor her husband’s behavior and accepting a pattern of one sided adultery in her marriage? How did she get to a point where she was so desperate to hang onto a man that she was a wreck over an 8 day separation and the fact that he wasn’t answering the phone….to the point of defying solemn promises made to her traveling companions, ignoring military air travel demands during war time and throwing a celebrity fit in order to get her way? It’s maddening! I understand that he was “the king” and all…but she was not exactly chopped liver and absolutely nothing in her background would lead one to believe that she would not only put up with this kind of situation but literally kill herself and 2 others in her single minded desperation to retain it. I’m guessing that this wealthy high society party girl/hugely successful actress was not previously terribly interested in hunting/camping. Her prior relationships, marital opinions and career plans did not seem to have a lot of focus on motherhood. She seems to have been trying to become what she thought he wanted from the start – then obsessed with having a baby (really good idea with a straying husband) as a further means to hold him. You just want to reach through the pages and shake her — HE IS NOT WORTH IT!!!

An irony too I think is that if she hadn’t died like this, my guess would be eventual divorce when she had finally had enough. He certainly was not going to stop his behavior as her prior entreaties had not worked…it was just a matter of time before she either became too humiliated/fed up to take it any more…or he got someone pregnant (again) or found some other 20 something actress to replace his (in Hollywood) “aging” 30 something wife. I don’t think absent this tragedy the “Gable and Lombard” legendary love story would have endured.

I did not quite come away with much admiration for Gable. I felt for him and was mesmerized by the details of his attempt to climb up, time in Las Vegas waiting for the outcome/bodies and life after…but at the end of the day I couldn’t help but think that karma had kind of gotten him (with the incredibly unfortunate corresponding outcome for Winkler and Petey too). His treatment of his first wife – the ugly reality of his second marriage – the complete abdication of human/moral responsibility for Judy Lewis and of course his cavalier and hurtful behavior while with Lombard — all too much for me to erase via a few kind deeds later on.

As you so correctly pointed out, SO many people died in WW2…WHY does this one plane crash seem so compelling?! It is positively haunting to me and I’m not exactly sure why. The passage of 75 years….the fading photos of a long ago movie star who many/most today have never have even heard of….the lingering debris (including that wedding ring) still resting undisturbed on that mountain….the LONG list of reasons why this never had to happen and the various opportunities that would have changed everything are gut wrenching. I can certainly understand why Gable never recovered.

Thank you for an outstanding read. I never knew all the details…now I do and will never forget them.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

My 2012 view of the place where all the stories intersected.

What more could any author want than a reader who is this literate and this energized after reading that author’s book? You bring up so many great points, Mary, with the first being, why did Carole bend herself into a pretzel to try to accommodate this particular man? I think the answer can be found in her capacity to love unconditionally. She was an old soul and she understood and was able to accept his baser instincts, insecurities, and shortcomings. It wasn’t ever a two-way street with these two. He was the king and she was his consort. But then she hit 30 in the place where one must never do that—Hollywood. And tastes changed among moviegoers, causing her to drive her career into a ditch. Once she was in there, it wasn’t so easy to get back out, and the result was fear she would lose her man to the hottie of 1941, Lana.

Another point you raise, the one that made you want to reach through the pages, concerned her rush to get home. As I read your reaction, it occurred to me that at age 33 years and 3 months, Carole still possessed the energy and invincibility of youth. Dying was for other people. If there’s one thing I understand above all (because she and I share this trait in spades), it’s Carole’s goal orientation. And that night her goal was, I gotta get home. She saw the prize and she went for it whereas after another 10 or 20 years of living, she might have tempered her impulse into, I want to get home, but he’ll be there tomorrow and I can’t put my traveling companions through emotional hell.

I’ve said it a thousand times and I’ll say it again. I remember vividly sitting there in the middle of writing Fireball in my quiet house. Dead quiet. And looking at the wall in front of me and thinking, “Will anyone care about this story of a movie star who’s been dead 70 years?” I’m going through it right now in a different sense because, Audrey Hepburn. Sheesh. But this time it’s, “Have I pulled this off? Have I told this story in a way that compels the reader to keep going?” You just never know.

But in both cases I’ve latched onto a story that all past biographers stepped right over without really even glancing back to see what that just was. In the case of the last days of Carole Lombard, I was like, wait a minute. There were so many stories that had never been told. Carole living the best full day of her life on the last full day of her life. The veteran airline pilot who made a rookie mistake. The first responders rushing up a mountain to make a rescue. The crash investigators trying to figure out what had happened. The poor young officer who had to pick up body parts on mountainside you couldn’t even walk across. The hotshot Army flyboy desperate to get to his fiancée. And on and on. You didn’t have to end up liking Gable because there were so many other people who were so goddamn cool, including some who broke your heart by not living to the end.

Audrey in the British picture Secret People playing a young dancer. She made this two years before she hit Hollywood.

In the case of Audrey Hepburn in World War II—that’s my next one, Audrey Hepburn in World War II—there’s an obligatory chapter on this topic in all the bios that came out after she died in 1993. A single chapter about six years of her life in the midst of the greatest crisis in human history! Oh let’s just get past this thing about Hitler and Jews, the murder of her uncle, the battle for Arnhem, the Hunger Winter, and all that other boring history. We have to blaze through it so we can get to the good stuff about sex with William Holden and the making of Breakfast at Tiffany’s! Well, fine, you all did that. There are some really good AH bios out there, particularly the one by Barry Paris.

Me? By focusing on the Netherlands, I found a story just as riveting as what there was on Potosi. Once again I’m sitting here thinking, I can’t believe I get to be the one to tell it! But, boy, I can’t just tell it. I have to tell it right. That’s the pressure and the sixty-four-dollar question. Have I told it right?

Anyway, that’s where I’ve been—back in time in the Netherlands circa 1940-45 learning how Audrey Hepburn became who she ended up being. Walking in her footsteps, breathing her air, meeting some of the people she knew in the places she knew them.

In the meantime this is just me poking my head in to say hello and to acknowledge the tremendous compliment paid by Mary Whittaker.

When 1 + 1 = death

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Pete Duel and Ben Murphy in Alias Smith and Jones.

I watched a lot of television as a kid, which is ironic because I don’t watch any now. Today I know nothing, as in zero, about Game of Thrones or This is Us or others that are talked about. I’m more interested in living my own life than watching imaginary people, usually troubled people, live theirs.

My favorite show in 1971 was Alias Smith and Jones, a Western following the formula of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which my dad and I had just seen. Whereas the latter featured two big stars who knew they were big stars and played their parts with smug self-satisfaction, Alias Smith and Jones starred two hungry young actors, Peter Duel and Ben Murphy. A more likable pair you could not find, and their chemistry was terrific playing train-robber outlaws who had decided to go straight. There was a lot of humor, minimal killing, and a revisionist edge combined a little flirtation with the counterculture, and it all set this series apart from creaky old Western claptrap like Gunsmoke. (Here’s 46 seconds that sums up Alias Smith and Jones pretty well.)

By the second season, Pete Duel had become my hero, this charming “latter-day Robin Hood” who as outlaw Hannibal Hayes (alias Joshua Smith) always had a plan and something witty to say, and always seemed happy even when his plans backfired in grand fashion. Innocent little-old me wanted to grow up to be Pete Duel.

Then at the holidays 1971, innocent little-old me heard on the news that Pete Duel had killed himself. I couldn’t comprehend this news. Heroes didn’t do such a thing. I knew precious little about death and it hadn’t yet invaded my family, but the newspaper said my personal hero had shot himself in the head beside the Christmas tree. Oh, the pain of this knowledge. I remember it not as rational hurt, but as, really, my first experience with profound grief. I remember roaming my neighborhood in the night, just aimlessly wandering around by myself in the dark Pennsylvania cold trying to cope with this strange occurrence.

Flash forward to last week—what is it, 46+ years later. Alias Smith and Jones was on Cozi TV, one of those nostalgia channels for Baby Boomers. And there was my hero, charming as ever, very much alive and rollicking his way through the Old West once more. And here I am all these decades later, someone who tries to figure out past people and events. I decided it was time to unlock the door to that long-sealed-off pocket of grief in my head and understand the death of Peter Duel.

It turns out Pete had left Broadway and given himself five years in Hollywood to make it big, at which point he would return to the Great White Way. He had started out as a recurring player in the teen surfer series Gidget, and

Duel with Sally Field in Gidget.

and then landed a starring gig in a 1966 series called Love on a Rooftop, which was a takeoff of Barefoot in the Park that lasted only one season. In 1968 he had some lines in a Universal feature, Hell Is for Heroes,

Then after more guest-starring spots came Alias Smith and Jones in the spring of 1970, year five of his five-year plan, which is when I—and I assume a legion of other kids my age—entered the picture. I learned last week that Duel, then 30, didn’t appreciate his hit series and thought he was better than series television. Whereas today’s stars are interchangeable from the big to the small screens and back again, in 1970 television was looked-down upon and reserved for has-beens and never-wases. I learned Duel was a passionate McGovern Democrat, avid environmentalist, and poet, but also a recovering alcoholic and probably bipolar. I learned he was a perfectionist on the set and considered by everyone to be “difficult to work with.” He was aptly named Duel because it seems there was a running battle going on inside him. He’d be up one day and down the next, but consistently dismissive of the quality of the entertainment that, by Universal Pictures contract, he was forced to aid in putting before cameras. (Never mind that the show holds up today better than most series TV of its time.) By the beginning of season two, co-star Ben Murphy feared Duel was going to walk away from the series at any moment because he had reached year six of his five-year plan.

Shortly before his death, Duel ran for an elected position in the Screen Actors Guild—and lost. In a grim prelude to his suicide, he framed the letter he received about the matter, hung on it on the wall, and shot it with a handgun he kept in the house.

According to his girlfriend, on the night of the dirty deed, Pete watched himself in the latest episode of Alias Smith and Jones. He had gotten his blood alcohol level up to .31, and his anger renewed at the “crap” he was participating in. At such a point, I guess, the options for a TV star in a hit series and idol of millions are: kill yourself or pass out and sleep it off. He picked the wrong one.

Just not lest ye be judged. I don’t know and can’t imagine what the demons were in his head. How sick was this guy who was pretending not to be? Co-star Ben Murphy said he was shocked when he heard the news, “but not exactly surprised.” He said he’s had an imaginary conversation with Duel over and over. In it he says, “Petey, what were you thinking?” And Duel always shrugs and smiles his impish smile and says, “I goofed up.” And then Murphy adds what Duel always adds at the end of this mythical conversation: “And I’m not so sure I wouldn’t do it again.”

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert MatzenThere’s a tragic figure for you. I came away from my adult’s investigation of this man and this event frustrated and sadder still. I am able to sit back and enjoy the exploits of Hannibal Hayes and remember what it was like with Pete Duel as my hero. He had magic about him and could portray a happy person without being one. That’s talent for you. But there’s always hurt seeing him too and there always will be, I think.

I can understand his hypercritical nature—the feeling that you always could be doing better in your career. There’s no success I’ve had yet that I’m completely happy with. But he was a TV star! He had his youth and his health! Maybe the show’s writers weren’t Shakespeare, and no, he wasn’t starring in features and therefore hadn’t met his own five-year marker. Suddenly these things represented to this man at these holidays a death sentence. I don’t get it. I guess this is where insanity enters the picture, and a .31 blood-alcohol level. Then all bets are off. Then 1 + 1 = pull the trigger.

In recent times Sally Field, star of Gidget and later an Academy Award winner, was interviewed and the subject of Pete Duel came up. “I loved Pete,” she said, and after extolling his virtues she got to the point, a point you could see was still difficult for her: “Bless him, and God damn him because, you know, he isn’t alive, and he,” pause, pain visible, “you know—killed himself. I’m sure I’m not the only one in the world who wished he hadn’t done that.” No, Sally, you are not.

#ballbuster

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert MatzenIn case you haven’t noticed, we’re living through a gender revolution that will make the history books. Women from all walks of life are stepping out of the shadows to speak about the sexual abuse they’ve suffered, whether in the form of unwanted advances, or bullying, or rape. It began with actresses in Hollywood, but now workers in the casino, restaurant, and hospitality industries have come forward, and we stand at a moral crossroads. The movement has revealed the continued inequality of the sexes, and a truly surprising lack of progress made in the treatment of women by men. Personally, speaking only for myself as a male of the species, I would argue that men and women aren’t equal at all. Women are superior in almost every way.

When you stop to think about the fact that Harvey Weinstein and so many others have been getting away with vicious behavior in Hollywood in what should be an enlightened age, you have to wonder how bad things were 70 and 80 years ago when L.A. was, to an even greater degree, a “man’s world.”

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Gable is his usual over-showered self but not his mate who emerged from a successful hunting trip unbathed and wearing no makeup. But still in a fur.

Since the Weinstein business came to light, we’ve seen a cascade of alleged male abusers. You know who this has brought to mind? Carole Lombard. I’ve gained new and growing awareness about how Lombard conducted herself during her Hollywood years. Back around the time she became a leading lady in 1928, she adopted a hard-edged vocabulary that earned her the alias “profane angel” and she used it with everyone, but particularly with men. She was an aggressive woman. She arranged to be photographed with men’s toys—cars, airplanes, guns. She kidded the hell out of men and in the rawest possible terms. She kept men off guard pretty much all the time. Throughout her career, she was known for cursing like a sailor and adopting a manner with men that was charming but also in the bounds of “confrontational.” In other words, she made it clear she was in charge of any situation, and since I got to know this woman pretty well while writing Fireball, I’m going to wonder if once she may have been sexually groped or assaulted.

Once.

If it did happen, her highly unconventional behavior of the next 15 years suddenly makes perfect sense. Supposedly her two older brothers, Fred and Stuart, helped Carole figure out how to live successfully in a man’s world through a tailored attitude and vocabulary. Whoever it was who came up with the formula, it worked. As one of the fan magazines trumpeted, Lombard ‘lives by a man’s rules’ in such grand fashion that, pretty soon, she had a reputation like a gunslinger: Don’t mess with this one; you could get hurt. Carole Lombard flat-out intimidated men—she who kept the massive ego of Clark Gable in check as easily as she wielded a shotgun.

Last month marked 76 years since Carole Lombard died in a plane crash near Las Vegas. That span of time boggles the mind because of how progressive she was. She negotiated paychecks comparable to those of some of the leading men of her day; she made it a point to learn all about directing, producing, and lighting—all of which were male domains; she cheerfully paid 80 percent of her income in taxes because it was for the common good; and she espoused equality of the sexes in a town, and a world, dominated by men. And now, viewed through the prism of the #metoo movement, she seemed to have found a way all those decades ago to take charge of her own safety. I used to think her blue language was eccentric, but now I realize the brilliance and practicality of her brash manner as a loaded weapon with the safety off.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Giving Robert Stack the business on the set of To Be or Not to Be.

Spy vs. Spy

Kasteel Zijpendaal tricked out as Nazi headquarters for the film Betrayed in 1954. It had indeed been taken over by German command in 1943 and must have looked pretty much just like this.

Here it is in 2015 on our first visit.

There was a high body count of Germans for the run of Betrayed. Here members of the beret-clad Dutch underground shoot their way out after rescuing Gable and take off.

One more, 2015 again, showing the side of the house scaled by “the Scarf” as he rescued Deventer. In real life, 11-year-old Audrey Hepburn loved to explore these grounds in 1941. She would read here on the lawn and play with the animals, which she preferred to people.

 

You could have knocked me over with a feather. I had a hankering to watch Betrayed the other night, Clark Gable’s last picture for MGM, made in 1954 and about the Dutch underground in WWII. I never much cared for later Gable pictures—he didn’t seem to care so why should I? But these days everything Dutch is important so there I was, watching Gable as Deventer, code-named “Rembrandt,” a Dutch CIA-type fighting the Nazis in his home country, which had been invaded and occupied by the Germans in May 1940. The first sequence in the picture was shot at Kasteel Zijpendaal—a locally famous Dutch castle built in the 18th century on a little lake at the edge of the city of Arnhem. It was “the ancestral home of the Baron van Heemstra,” Audrey Hepburn’s maternal grandfather who was once Arnhem’s mayor.  As a girl of 10 and 11, shy Audrey communed with nature in the lush grounds surrounding the castle.

So there right in front of me was Kasteel Zijpendaal dressed up as Nazi headquarters, and there was Victor Mature as the notorious Dutch underground leader “the Scarf” rowing across the little lake and climbing in a window and helping Clark Gable to escape right before Deventer was about to be tortured and made to talk. There were fake hand grenade explosions inside, Germans mowed down by the machine guns of the Scarf and his men, and then Mature burst out the front door with Gable on his back, stole a Nazi staff car, and escaped. I was dumbfounded because Mary and I had been to this castle multiple times. The rest of the picture played out almost entirely in the Netherlands with Lana Turner parachuting onto Dutch soil as a spy planted by the Allies. She is in love with Gable but quickly gets mixed up with Mature amidst spy vs. spy shenanigans. And so on and so forth.

Something you don’t see every day: Lana Turner parachuting into hostile territory. To lessen your concern, I can report that she didn’t break a nail, let alone an ankle.

The depiction of Mature and the Dutch underground is hilarious. They were bumping off Nazis right and left in all these raids that never happened. At one point he and his men barge into a Luftwaffe base and annihilate a great number of Germans having a party. In truth, I love you dearly, Dutch people, but I terms of violence, you were only good at blowing off an occasional hand or foot—usually your own. When you outwitted a German, which you did all the time, it was by making an illegal radio the size of a matchbook or sending your kids out to steal dinner from the soldiers or hiding forbidden leaflets in the fake tummy of a fake pregnant lady. That was the way you won the war. One woman told me that when she was a little girl, a German officer came to their house and while he was in another room, she picked up his hat and spat in it. Classic Dutch mischief.

But they also did deadly serious stuff, like hiding thousands of Jews just before they would have been sent to Auschwitz, along with American and British fliers who fell from the skies after their bombers and fighters were shot down. One of these was Clem Leone, a friend of mine whose incredible story is chronicled in Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. Thanks to many courageous Dutch people across the country, Clem evaded capture for four months as he made his way south through the Netherlands–it was a lousy Belgian that turned him over to the Nazis in Antwerp.

I did some reading in Lyn Tornabene’s Long Live the King and Jean Garceau’s Dear Mr. G. after finishing my viewing of Betrayed. Gable spent a month in the Netherlands shooting at various locations and was treated like his royal self everywhere he went. He was mobbed and it made all the Dutch newspapers. The location work was fantastic and everything you’d expect—lots of windmills, and dikes, and water, water everywhere. You just can’t replicate that stuff on a soundstage, and the lushness of the production, in Eastman Color no less, really surprised me given the dire straits of MGM at that time—TV drowning the studio’s books in red ink and most of its stars cut loose as a result. ‘Mr. G.’ went freelance at the end of production and never again walked through the gates of the studio that made him famous over the course of more than 20 years.

In a very cool finish, survivors of British Airborne shuffle past our beleaguered heroes.

The ingenious payoff to the plot of the picture is that Gable provides information allowing 3,000 besieged British Airborne paratroopers to escape after the September 1944 “Bridge Too Far” battle of Arnhem. The title Betrayed refers to one of the three leads leaking the plans for Operation Market Garden to the Germans, which causes them to roll in two panzer divisions in anticipation of the Allies dropping 10,000 paratroopers behind Nazi lines to capture the Arnhem Road Bridge. The whole thing was a real-life disaster for the British and 7,000 of their boys ended up dead, wounded, or captured. The very last shot in the picture shows the Airborne survivors limping out of the fog after they had crossed the Rhine along an escape route mapped by heroes Gable and Turner.

If you know the history of this battle, the plot of Betrayed is a perfect fictional backstory that fits hand in glove with real-life events. Another surprise is that there’s very little explanation for what’s going on, meaning that Hollywood expected everyone in the 1954 audience to have the facts of Market Garden top of mind. It’s a level of sophistication that would never be anticipated by movie producers today.

I had no idea I was going to get to go back to Holland on a frozen Friday night in Pennsylvania and watch my Dutch friends do a whole bunch of crazy-heroic stuff to a whole bunch of hapless Germans. Oh, the Dutch were heroic in World War II all right. Much more heroic than simply wielding a machine gun. Come to think of it, Clark Gable had Dutch roots and his character in Betrayed is very Dutch indeed. He’s not a gun toter; he uses his brains at every step to outwit the thugs who hijacked the 20th century on their way to a thousand-year Reich. “Not on my watch,” was the response of the crafty, and ultimately liberated, Dutch.

Santa Claus and the Cold Hand of Death

Fox poster art for the June release dismissed the Christmas angle, which was known to be bad box office.

On Thanksgiving morning I was watching a bit of New York City’s Macy’s parade on television, which inspired me to revisit one of my favorite seasonal touchstones, Miracle on 34th Street. I try to watch it every year, but this time what really hit home was the scene when the woman brings the adopted Dutch girl to see Santa. Lately, I’ve been deep-diving into all things Netherlands—the language, the culture, and especially the history of life in Holland during the Nazi occupation of 1940 to 1945.

If you were living in the Netherlands when the Germans marched in on a pleasant May morning, there was a decent chance you would not be living when they were driven out in 1945. If you happened to live in Rotterdam, you could have died in the German bombing of the central city that forced the Dutch surrender four days after the invasion. If you were a Jew, you would have been given a one-way ticket to a concentration camp. If you were deemed an enemy of the state, you might have been shot. If you got caught up in the combat of 1944 and 1945 when the Allies came in, well, either side could have gotten you. If you made it as far as the Hunger Winter just before war’s end, you might have starved. And if you happened to be standing under an Eighth Air Force bomber, well, duck, cover, and pray.

When Miracle on 34th Street was released in June 1947, its audience knew all too well the horrors that Holland had weathered. So, when the Dutch girl’s adoptive mother explains to Santa that the girl comes from an orphanage in Rotterdam, it would have sent chills through many. The girl’s parents clearly had died in the war, and the child is emotionally scarred as a result. She has only one wish, and that’s to connect with Sinterklaas, the Dutch St. Nicholas who each November sails by ship from Spain and lands in some obscure part of the Netherlands with his sidekick, Zwarte Piet the Moor, who lugs a sack full of presents and candy for the good children. After stepping ashore like MacArthur in the Philippines, Sinter sets out on a white steed to make his way through the lowlands while poor Piet goes afoot. In many Dutch households, Sinterklaas knocks at the door and comes in for a December 5 sit-down that amounts to a performance review for the children living there. If you’re good, well, you don’t have to fear the bearded man with the lethal staff, scary mitre, and lurking strong-arm man. You get gifts and candy in your wooden shoes placed neatly under the Christmas tree. If you happened to be a bad kid, however—and this is where it gets a little weird—Zwarte Piet manhandles you into the sack and carries you back to Spain.

The forlorn look of a refugee from the world’s darkest days.

I always loved the Miracle on 34th Street scene between Santa and the Dutch girl for the elemental conflict presented. Her poor caretaker doesn’t want to expose this little war orphan to a department-store Santa who can’t possibly understand her language or needs. I always understood her culture shock at being in New York, U.S.A. What only became clear on this viewing after my Nederland immersion is the aura of death surrounding the child and what motivated her forlorn look when she first interacts with the Macy’s Santa. The girl, who seems to be about seven years old judging by the missing front teeth, lights up when Santa suddenly begins speaking to her in Dutch and she gets the confirmation she needs: He really is Sinterklaas.

I have to hand it to Edmund Gwenn for doing as well as he does with what is truly a tough language to learn, even if it’s only a few lines. Marlene Lydon does as well with her Dutch impression as any seven-year-old California girl with missing front teeth possibly could. And at plot point one, when Natalie Wood as little Susan watches the interaction between Santa and the orphan and begins to suspect that Santa is more than a department-store stand-in, it’s the best moment of all—her jaw drops and she experiences real magic for the first time in her very sensible life.

In my experience, horses don’t do the roof any good, but there is Sinterklaas on his white steed, while poor Zwarte Piet ends up with the short end of the stick. In modern appearances Piet is usually played by a Caucasian in blackface, and there has been a formidable social backlash in the Netherlands.

There are so many things to love about Miracle on 34th Street (the original–I refuse to accept more recent substitutes). I’m not the biggest Maureen O’Hara fan, but as Mrs. Walker she underplays beautifully throughout, like when she tries to tell Susan that Santa isn’t real even though, as Susan points out, he can speak Dutch. “I speak French,” Walker reasons, “but that doesn’t make me Joan of Arc.”

O’Hara, Wood, and Gwenn, part of a perfect cast in a perfect film.

I’m not breaking new ground here when I go on and on about this perfect film, a triple Oscar winner, I don’t have to tell you, one for Gwenn and two for the writing. I just wanted to take a moment to call out that scene and the all-new effect it had on me after a lifetime of viewings. And if I don’t get another column up in the next little while, Happy Holidays, one and all, from the Netherlands salt mines where I toil, pretty much night and day.

P.S. Don’t forget to order Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, which has proven to be the perfect holiday gift for active-duty service members, veterans, armchair generals, and lovers of everything Hollywood.

Simple Man

power of women2

In a plot that still resonates today, the family bucks a conservative watchdog group to play at a women’s rights rally.

 

 

I didn’t sleep well last night because I had just learned that David Cassidy died. I didn’t sleep well the night before because I knew he was gravely ill and there was no hope he was going to get better. I don’t know if David Cassidy was a part of my family or I was a part of his, but for the four years that The Partridge Family ran, I was in their living room every week. In fact, I was in it twice a week because the station in Steubenville ran the previous week’s episode on Wednesday evenings and I rigged an elaborate antenna system to bring it in—this being a time just before the dawn of cable television. At first it was a mad crush on Susan Dey that drew me, but then I got engaged on an intellectual level through episodes centered around Laurie’s push for equal rights for women, or the family’s commitment to save whales from extinction, or my favorite plot of all: Danny wanders off and enlists the militant Black Panthers to save nightclub owners Lou Gossett and Richard Pryor. It was the first time I realized that black was cool, and I’ve thought so ever since.

The Partridge Family was my dirty little secret. At a time when all the other guys were talking about the latest from Alice Cooper or Deep Purple or a Led Zeppelin on the rise, I was coming home from school, tearing up to my room, and losing myself under headphones to the music of The Partridge Family. What’s funny is that about three years into the show, I found out one of my best friends was keeping the same secret about the same band. Even then as a kid I knew that The Partridge Family songs were being written and performed by some of the finest talents in Southern California, award-winning songwriters and first-rate backup singers and musicians. They’d go on to work with Springsteen, Jim Croce, and others. Don’t get me wrong; I still loved Alice and Bad Company and Mott the Hoople—I just loved the Partridges more. I still do.

Suzanne Crough, Tracy Partridge (lower right), died suddenly of a rare heart defect in 2015. Now a second Partridge has departed way too soon.

Some years back Mary and I met up with Shirley Jones and I wanted to tell her how much she meant to me as Shirley Partridge. I wanted to see if she remembered my mom’s best friend, who knew Shirley from the Rainbow Girls in West Newton, Pennsylvania. I had all these things prepared, but when we were face to face, all I could choke out was, “I love you.” That’s the effect The Partridge Family and Shirley as a second mom had had on me.

I just wanted to take a minute to pay tribute to Shirley’s step-son David Cassidy as a terrific singer with a phrasing that was unique and powerful. It’s a shame he got pigeonholed in the genre of “bubblegum pop” because he was more than that. He wowed ’em in concert all over the world and made and lost a fortune doing it. He made the cover of Life and Rolling Stone. He really was the biggest heartthrob of them all.  About five years ago, Mary and I went to see him in a concert-in-the-park setting and were astonished that the same females who had idolized him 40 years earlier were in the front row screaming and waving signs and album covers. For these women he never lost his magic, and as he performed the Partridge hit parade—an evening 100 percent devoted to that music because it’s what the people came to see—I realized how much he had grown to love the songs because that’s the way he talked about them, as cherished old friends. I don’t think he always felt that way, because they’re simple songs about seeing a girl, or falling for a girl, or loving a girl, or losing a girl. It was very much early-Beatles influenced music with a lot of heart, and I guess that’s what he came around to in the end. As a matter of fact, Cassidy passed on the 47th anniversary of the single I Think I Love You going to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. How’s that for weird?

Unfortunately for David Cassidy, there were demons hidden in the genes of his parents, and in many ways the years were unkind. But as my friend Johnny Ray Miller put it last night on Facebook, “We lost an entertainer of magnificent proportions, but saddest of all, we lost a good man. A simple man at heart.” Johnny should know—he wrote When We’re Singin’, the definitive Partridge Family book, and David Cassidy contributed the introduction. Johnny had met and interviewed nearly all the key people involved in the show and the music, and I know by the depth of his mourning that underneath it all, David Cassidy must have been a fine fellow. I’m glad, because the show and the music that he helped to create are big parts of how I became me.

David Cassidy at about the time we saw him, still sounding great.

 

The Bear

My best friends in elementary school were John, nicknamed “Skip,” who lived a couple blocks away in one direction, and two brothers, Bobby and Ricky, who lived a couple blocks away in the other. We lived in a college town where my dad taught physics, and Bobby and Ricky’s dad was a big deal in the music department. He was also a wonderful guy and a WWII veteran. That made him into something like a mystical character to me. A lot of the fathers of my friends were in “the war”—my dad wasn’t because he was color blind. Talk about seeing the world as many shades of gray—that was my dad.

Skip’s father was what you might call the opposite of Bobby and Ricky’s. He had also been in the war, and my memories of this man are vivid through the passing decades. He lived in the darkened bedroom and was rarely seen. I heard him many times, snarling at his wife, a very nice lady, and yelling at his son over some misdemeanor. Skip never talked about the abuse that he and his mother were taking, but he didn’t have to. He wore the sadness everywhere, especially in school where he started to have trouble as the years passed.

To me as a kid, Skip’s father was a snarling bear in a cave. Skip and I never went near that part of their little ranch house; the basement door was near that bedroom, and we tiptoed so as not to poke the bear. There’s no one left to ask why he was like this; Skip died of a heart attack in the 1990s at a very young age because, I guess, if you lug that amount of sadness around long enough, it’ll wear you out. He was such a nice guy, probably because he knew how it felt when people weren’t nice. I wonder if Skip had any idea where his dad had seen action. Did he hit the beaches of Anzio or Normandy or Iwo? Was he ground crew for the heavies in England? Was he caught in the slaughter of the Bulge? Whatever had happened to him over there had left a wreck of a human back here, and laid waste to a family unit that deserved better.

I thought about that snarling bear for the first time in a couple generations because I’m involved in a project that’s analyzing 1945-46 in the life of Jimmy Stewart as he returned home from war and contemplated his future. He was one of 11,000 G.I.s who stepped off the Queen Elizabeth on August 31, 1945—maybe Skip’s father and Bobby’s stepped off with Jim, who knows. But all these guys who had just stared into the face of the most horrific war in human history now returned home to something just as terrifying: All had to make their way in a world that was different from the one they left behind. Now they actually had to live with the brides they had married in haste. They had to find jobs because the ones they had left had been filled by younger men or, in some cases, by women. Did you know that one of the greatest shortages of 1946 was the one for dress shirts for job interviews?

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

One day after stepping off the Queen Elizabeth, Jimmy Stewart condescended to hold a press conference after keeping the press at bay for the better part of four and a half years. That day he said he just wanted to make a comedy, “if anyone will have me.”

I am amazed at the bravery of these men. In Jim’s case, as detailed in Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, he had flown 20 combat missions over France and Germany and survived many close calls. I can’t imagine you’re ever quite the same again after a German fighter has flown straight at you-as-pilot and fired wing-mounted machine guns at the cockpit of your bomber. Or after an anti-aircraft shell has hit your plane over the heart of Germany and blown a hole in the flight deck between your feet. Or after you’ve seen the planes under your command break up in the air or explode in a fireball. That was Jim’s tiny little corner of the war, and most of the 11,000 others on the QE had lived through their own little corner, whether it involved bullets or shells or some psychological evil that was even worse. And there were hundreds of passenger ship dockings, each unloading 11,000 more men. And more and more and more.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

I have always been drawn to this shot as we first see Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. He’s playing a young man of about 20 and we suspend our disbelief, but if you look closely, the face that had stared into the face of war is clearly visible under heavy makeup.

It’s easy not to really think about what combat soldiers see in any conflict in any spot in the world. Whatever that is, they can never unsee it, and it becomes part of the veteran’s mind, and in some cases a handicap that inhibits performance at home and on the job.

For the World War II veteran, it had to take tremendous courage to start over in a civilian world where the men you had counted on to have your back, the ones who had been part of what Jim called a “grand thing,” were now your competitors for jobs. You knew another vet by the look in his eye, and you resented the ones who didn’t have it because you knew they had spent the war at home for whatever reason. The veterans had also changed physically. Many had left as wiry 18-year-old boys and come home as square-shouldered men to the surprise of mothers and siblings. In Jim’s case, as noted in Farran Smith Nehme’s excellent Village Voice piece, going into the service at age 32 and serving four-plus hard years had left Jim “so careworn that no studio would cast him.”

Jim must have lived right because the one call that did come resulted in It’s a Wonderful Life, and that rollercoaster picture with the happy ending contains a tour-de-force Stewart performance that mirrors the crisis in his post-war personal life. He stood at a crossroads like so many million others and displayed courage enough to push his way forward. He survived. He thrived. He lived 50 more mostly wonderful years while consciously tamping down an ongoing loop of black memories. He controlled them; they didn’t control him. For Skip’s father and I’m sure millions of others it didn’t go so well, and I think I could make a case for poor Skip being another casualty of World War II, once removed.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Director Frank Capra chose to throw Jim in the deep end and shoot this scene first. Jim was suffering PTSD and his confidence was shot, all of which is imprinted in celluloid for posterity. The scene is full of clumsy energy and some very strange kisses between stars who, Jim would claim later, had no chemistry.