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Watching Whoopi Get Famous by
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(24 Stories)

Prompted By Interviews

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The first time I encountered Whoopi Goldberg, she was doing her act at a tiny performance space in San Francisco’s South of Market district. The proprietor at 544 Natoma, a friendly madman named Peter Hartman, invited me to drop by and catch a new solo performer. The name sounded like an old-school Borscht Belt comic. So I laughed.

Seriously, Whoopi Goldberg? He said she was a black woman, and very good on stage.

This is the show that Mike Nichols directed and presented on Broadway in Nov. 1984. It’s also exactly how I remember Whoopi looking when I first knew her. That floppy knit tam she wore on stage — she wore that offstage, too.

I went on faith and that night saw Whoopi morph from one character to another: a male dope fiend, a blonde surfer chick, a 77-year-old show-biz fringie. Her portraits were textured, humanistic, finely tuned. There were 20 or 25 people in the audience that night, in a room the size of a large kitchen. I remember Whoopi breaking the fourth wall as she acted, looking into people’s eyes and sometimes approaching and touching them on the knee or the arm.

That was 1981. She was obviously gifted, and obviously had a bedrock of self-confidence. But I never expected – who could? — that in three years Whoopi Goldberg would be an A-list movie star. One day she’s a struggling artist, dressed in oversized painters’ pants, a man’s thermal undershirt and a floppy knit tam. She’s sharing a messy cottage in Berkeley with her boyfriend David Schein and her 10-year daughter Alex. She and Schein are acting with the Blake Street Hawkeyes, a scruffy, experimental stage troupe, and in between gigs she collects welfare.

As Celie in “The Color Purple.” Her first Hollywood film, her first Oscar nomination.

She didn’t have Mainstream Future Star written all over her — not at all. And yet, in 1984 Mike Nichols was presenting her on Broadway and Steven Spielberg was offering her the lead role in The Color Purple. There was no middle ground, it seemed, over which she had to pass; she just catapulted from obscurity to stardom.

“All this stuff is coming to me on a silver platter,” Whoopi told me when I interviewed her for the San Francisco Chronicle. “People have literally told me, ‘Anything you want, ask.’ ”

Over the next 36 years, Whoopi made 184 film and television appearances. She won an Oscar, a Tony, a Grammy and an Emmy. Hosted the Oscars four times and several Comic Relief specials with Robin Williams and Billy Crystal. Co-produced and starred in Hollywood Squares, then leveraged her visibility into a lucrative, 13-years-and-running gig as host of The View.

In grade school, in the Chelsea district of Mahattan.

A remarkable tale, especially when you consider its origins. Reared in a housing project in the Chelsea district of Manhattan, Whoopi was born Caryn Elaine Johnson. Her parents divorced early and her schoolteacher mom, Emma, raised Whoopi and her brother Clyde on her own. In her teens Whoopi struggled with heroin addiction, got clean and became pregnant by her drug counselor. She also married him. In 1974, mother to a 1-year-old, she moved to San Diego and played lead roles in Mother Courage and Marsha Norman’s Getting Out. She met  David Schein, also an actor, and followed him to Berkeley.

Whoopi thrived in the Bay Area theater scene. “The name Whoopi Goldberg was a godsend,” she told Vanity Fair. “That’s what brought ‘em out.” In Berkeley she created a one-woman show about Jackie “Moms” Mabley, the legendary African American comic. The first time I saw Moms, a man in a wheelchair with a pronounced nervous disorder started to laugh uncontrollably. Without breaking character, Whoopi/Moms slowly walked into the audience and placed a gentle hand on the man until he quieted.

I knew her boyfriend a little bit. David Schein was wiry and frisky and passionate about theater; he wrote an opera Tokens, a Play on the Plague, that he staged at Theatre Artaud in San Francisco. He called Whoopi by her birth name, “Caryn.”

One day Whoopi and David called me at home and serenaded my answering machine with “Hymn For a Sunday Evening” from Bye Bye Birdie. Remember the silly, mock-triumphant line, “Ed Sul-livan! Ed Sul-livan! We’re gonna be on Ed Sul-li-van!”? They riffed on that, replacing “Sullivan” with “Guthmann.” I also have a postcard Whoopi sent to acknowledge something I wrote. On the front is a vintage Dixie Boy advertising graphic, showing an African American boy eating a grapefruit. On the back she wrote, “Thank you, Thank you, Thank you.”

With Whoopi in her Berkeley cottage, early 1984.

I got to know Whoopi in those days and liked her. She was direct, spontaneous, and could be both warm and tough. Her charisma was enormous, but she was not someone to be messed with. In February 1984, lacking a manager or an agent, she took The Spook Show, a multi-character solo show, to Dance Theater Workshop in New York. During the run, the actress Judith Ivey saw Whoopi perform, contacted Mike Nichols and insisted he not miss her show. Nichols saw it, went backstage and, reportedly in tears, offered to present Whoopi on Broadway. During those six or seven months before she opened, Spielberg offered her The Color Purple. In 1991 she won an Oscar for Ghost – the first black woman to be so honored in half a century.

For several years I reviewed movies and interviewed celebrities for the San Francisco Chronicle. Usually, the people I profiled were long-established stars. Only once did I write about someone totally unknown and then see her “blow up” and become a big star. That was Whoopi.

With her Oscar for “The Color Purple.”

It felt surreal and disorienting to watch someone I knew, who was part of my community and for whom I had affection, suddenly become a public commodity. There were casualties in Whoopi’s life when the hydra-headed monster of fame arrived. She and David Schein broke up. When her daughter Alex got pregnant at 15, a friend at Berkeley High betrayed her and sold her story to the National Enquirer. Probably hoping to keep the tribulations of fame at bay, Whoopi vowed to stay in Berkeley. But that didn’t last a year. Soon she was in New York and Los Angeles, juggling a world of business managers and agents, publicists and personal assistants — the life of a major star.

She didn’t always handle it well. In May 1984 – during her last window of relative anonymity — Whoopi fulfilled a commitment to revive Moms at the Victoria Theatre in San Francisco’s Mission District. She’d signed the contract before Mike Nichols came calling, before Spielberg, and she wasn’t happy about it. Granted, the venue was shabby and the pay probably lousy, but it was tacky of her to grouse about it on stage, which she did in character as Moms.

Would she have made those cracks if she hadn’t crossed over and been offered riches and fame, as she said, “on a silver platter”? I don’t know. “The biggest deal for me,” Whoopi said when I interviewed her at that time, “is being able to dialogue with people I respect, like Jack Nicholson and Robin Williams. But there’s the other side, too, which is not so fun … phone calls and talkin’ money and learning to say ‘No.’ And finding yourself looking in the mirror at this egotistical bastard you’ve turned into in a matter of moments.”

“Luckily,” she added, “I’ve got people around to say, ‘Hey bitch, put some deodorant on it.’ That stuff kinda keeps me steady – that and my kid and my old man and my funky little house.”

In November 1984 I flew to New York to see Whoopi on Broadway and visited her in the Chelsea district apartment she was renting. She was warm and friendly and encouraged me to keep in touch; she even invited me to stay with her on my next visit. I was flattered, but when I got in touch months later she didn’t return the call. I heard similar stories from other friends who were closer to Whoopi than I.

It’s difficult to maintain a friendship with a star. They have countless pressures and distractions: invasive fans, press and paparazzi; sharks eager to exploit and profit; layers of protection insulating them. A level of suspicion sets in: a feeling that the people campaigning for their time and companionship aren’t genuine friends. I get that, and I remember a little frisson of excitement when I walked down the street with Whoopi in New York, soon after she got famous, and noticed the excited stares and waves. The air gets heady in a star bubble; if you get to share it for a little while, you feel special by association.

I saw Whoopi rarely in the years that followed. I didn’t understand some of her career choices, but I loved the way she used her celebrity to support human rights issues and stand up for the maligned and oppressed. She’s very generous.

When Whoopi starred in Sondheim’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” on Broadway, Al Hirschfeld drew this caricature of her for the New York Times.

In 1997, she starred on Broadway  in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum on Broadway. I was in New York that spring and when I left a note at the stage door, her assistant called and asked me to meet Whoopi before the curtain that night. I showed up, and she gave me five minutes of her time before she started her vocal warm-ups. As I left she offered me house seats for the next evening’s performance. Sure, I said, but when I arrived late I had to be seated after her opening number, “Comedy Tonight.” Whoopi saw the usher guiding me down the aisle and called out in mock outrage, “Edward Guthmann, why the hell are you late?” It got a laugh from the audience and in hindsight I wish I’d said, “Whoopi, could you repeat that opening number?” — just to see how she’d react.

Our friendship, predictably, didn’t stick. I might have avoided my disappointment had I followed the journalism rule book and never pursued the friendship to begin with — with Whoopi or any interview subject. That’s easier said than done: Interviews are in many ways like a first date, and when you discover a mutual interest and congeniality that feels good, you want it to continue.

I think there’s an element of seduction and flirtation in any interview. Several marriages were launched that way: Gregory Peck and his wife Veronique; Diane Sawyer and Mike Nichols; Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas; Clint Eastwood and his last wife Dina Ruiz.

When you make a strong connection in an interview you feel great – just like you do when launching a romance or meeting a new friend. But if circumstances dictate an early goodbye, it can feel lonely. “It is always painful to part from people whom one has known for a brief space of time,” Oscar Wilde wrote in The Importance of Being Earnest. “The absence of old friends one can endure with equanimity, but even a momentary separation from anyone to whom one has just been introduced is almost unbearable.”

My Journey to Rwanda by
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(24 Stories)

Prompted By Volunteering

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Monday, June 9, 2008. Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.

I awake early and hear my hostess Shirley Randell swimming in her pool. The goat outside my window bleats. A bit later Shirley, dressed in the sari that’s her daily costume, is rushing off to work.

I arrived yesterday, bleary and beat. Shirley was on the patio with two friends, a tureen of soup, hunks of hearty bread and Rwandan beer on the table. I managed a modicum of cheer despite my exhaustion. Shirley will be my hostess and landlady the next three weeks, as well as the organizer of my volunteer project.

Shirley Randell, right. With Tupo Mtila, a delightful young woman from Malawi who stayed at Shirley’s house the same time I did. Tupo’s aunt Joyce Banda later became the President of Malawi

I’m here to conduct a series of interviews with members of RAUW (Rwanda Assn. of University Women), a professional organization that Shirley started. These are educators, businesswomen and politicians who generate educational opportunities for Rwandan girls and shed light on domestic violence and AIDS prevention. I’ll write profiles from each of the interviews, and Shirley will post them on the RAUW website.

My friend Simin Marefat, a San Francisco nurse who spent time in Rwanda in 2007, made the introduction. Shirley is 68, Australian, and has worked all over the world for humanitarian organizations. Raised her four children in rural New Guinea, spent years in Bangladesh and the South Pacific island of Vanuatu. She’s been in Rwanda three years, working for SNV, a Dutch development organization. Always in motion, juggling several balls in the air. Knows absolutely everyone in Kigali’s expat community.

Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda since 2000, was commander of the Rwandan Patriotic Front that ended his country’s horrific 1994 genocide.

Shirley’s house is in Kiyovu, an upscale section of Kigali where Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, also lives. Good restaurants nearby. Also the Hotel Milles Collines, which we saw in the movie Hotel Rwanda. That’s the hotel where the temporary manager Paul Rusesabagina (played in the movie by Don Cheadle) sheltered 1,268 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, saving them from slaughter by Hutu militia.

Wednesday, June 11. Kigali.

Rwanda is one of Africa’s tiniest countries and the most densely populated. It’s the size of Vermont, with the population of Chicago – 10 million people. And yet, there’s an amazing orderliness to Kigali. The streets are clean. The traffic isn’t horrendous as in most African cities. It’s a dream compared to Nairobi – there isn’t that same sense of chaos.

Kigali today.

Fourteen years ago, the city was decimated. Homes, schools and hospitals trashed. I’ve learned that few of the city’s pre-genocide residents remain. Kigali was rebuilt by Tutsi exiles, many of them living for decades in Uganda, the Congo, Kenya and Europe. Once the genocide ended, they repatriated to Rwanda, determined to reclaim their country. The genocide claimed 700,000 to 1 million people, but an equivalent number of exiles returned to Rwanda in the year following the genocide. Today, Rwanda is one of only three countries in the world with a female majority in the national parliament.

Thursday, June 12. Kigali.

Rwandan men at upscale Bourbon Coffee.

I’m sitting on the terrace at Bourbon Coffee, a Starbuck’s-like café. It’s a total disconnect: a social nucleus for networking expats, NGO workers and the local elite, umbilically linked by laptops and cell phones to the great Cyber-Mommy. The Rwandan clientele are beautifully dressed, polished and confident. The wait staff look American in their jeans, styled hair and trendy T-shirts. This is an oasis of the privileged. Customers with laptops gets a complimentary Internet access code for an hour when they buy a drink and/or food item. We could be in Santa Monica, Sedona or Santa Fe.

I hire a Moto – a motor scooter that functions as an alternate taxi, for one fifth the price – to the main road to change money. Then take a cab to the Rwandan Women’s Network offices to meet with Mary Balikungeri. The driver goes 10-15 minutes outside the town centre, through a series of dirt roads into neighborhoods so ramshackle I start to think he’s lost. Finally I see the sign for Rwandan Women’s Network. I’m 30 minutes late, which means very little here.

The fabulous Mary Balikungeri

I like Mary. Forthright, as Shirley promised. Energetic, strong, a robust sense of humor. Very take-charge. She won’t let me turn on the tape recorder until I explain who I am and what I want to talk about. She immediately determines that, since I’m a San Francisco Chronicle journalist, I shouldn’t restrict my reporting to Shirley’s RAUW website but should also profile the Rwandan Women’s Network for the Chronicle. She’s a bit of a general.

She left Rwanda with her family when she was small and lived in Uganda until 1995, one year after the genocide. Mary offers me literature and a DVD on her organization at the end of the chat, then brightens and seems genuinely happy when I say “J’ai racines Africaines” (I have African roots). “Yes?” she says. “My mother was born in Cameroun and her parents were missionaries.” “Then you are family!” she exclaims. “You are a missionary’s child.”

My missionary grandparents, Fred and Roberta Hope, 1912. In Cameroun with their first-born child Arta Grace.

This is so powerful for me that I look down and clench my teeth not to cry. I’m very proud of my grandparents Fred and Roberta Hope — especially my grandfather’s work operating an industrial school that gave self-sustaining trades to the men of Cameroun. In the U.S., when I mention my grandparents’ work there’s typically a chilled silence. “Missionary” is a loaded word and no one stops to consider that a lot of valuable work was done by ecumenical workers. Only in Africa, among African Christians, do I get a sense of appreciation or enthusiasm.

The sun is falling and I can hear the traffic down the hill. Faint dog barks, a whistle, the insistent rhmmmm! of a Moto bike and the sassy, unruly call of a tropical bird. It’s six o’clock, just a half hour until Rwanda’s early nightfall. When you’re this close to the Equator, the divide between daytime and nighttime is suprisingly sudden, and occurs at the same time all year long.

Monday, June 16. Kigali.

Late in the afternoon I meet with Stephanie Nyombayire. A remarkable young woman who lived the past seven years in the U.S. – three in a boarding school in Connecticut and four at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. She’s just graduated, and is back in Kigali working for Orphans of Rwanda.

Stephanie Nyombayire

Stephanie is pretty, could be a model, and in fact was featured twice in Glamour magazine: the first time when she and other Swarthmore undergrads started Genocide Intervention Network, a campus organization for Darfur relief; the second time when she was selected one of the top 10 college women of 2007.

Stephanie was born in exile to Tutsi parents, in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and lived there until she was 7 – the year of the genocide. Her family returned to Rwanda that year and she went to a French-speaking school, Ecole Belgique, until she won a scholarship to Kent School in Connecticut at 15.

“A lot of Rwanda is made up people who are very young,” Stephanie says. “A lot of them don’t have parents because of the genocide and a lot of them had to raise younger siblings from the age of 10. So I’ll be trying to focus on youth and opportunities that will move them forward.”

Thursday, June 19. Kigali.

Odette Mutangua Mukazi

Just returned from the Ministry of Education and a very strong interview with Odette Mukazi, a great woman who coordinates the Rwanda chapter of FAWE (Forum for African Women Educationalists). It’s a pan-African organization that encourages girls to stay in school, where they often drop out after primary school and in general are intimidated by boys. Tuseme (Swahili for “speak out”) is their major initiative, aimed at empowering girls and focusing on their specific education issues. They’re partnered with Orphans of Rwanda and a lot of their girls receive ORI scholarships.

Odette is dynamic – not as animated as Mary Balikungeri but a force nonetheless. She tells me about growing up in exile in Uganda, her daughter Matilda who is in a U.S. law school, her return to Rwanda so soon after the genocide ended. When I ask if she’d lost a lot of family in the genocide, Odette pauses and becomes silent. “Yes, so many. I have no idea how many.” I start to cry, clench back my tears. It’s as if everything I’ve heard or learned in the last weeks, now accumulated, comes rushing toward me in a flood of grief.

Odette begins to cry and for a few minutes neither of us can speak. I grab a Kleenex. I say to her, “I am so sorry,” but barely get the words out. I’m not sure but I suspect she appreciates that I felt the enormity of her grief. Are African men taught not to cry?

Gradually she composes herself and speaks about FAWE and the results she’s seen in young women. When I ask about her two daughters she says, “Yes! They are very empowered!” The one in law school even confronted a Rwandan man – a former Hutu militia, in exile to escape prison – who spoke on her campus and claimed the genocide never happened! According to Odette, Matilda stood up and said, “Excuse me! I am Rwandan and there absolutely was a genocide.” The man blew more steam and Matilda stood up and walked out. “He didn’t expect there would be a Rwandan in the audience,” Odette says.

Monday, June 23. Kigali Airport.

I’m on my way home. Said my goodbyes at Shirley’s house. Shirley was effusive with thanks when I wrote a $100 check to RAUW for one of the orphanages it supports. Many people asked these last days if I’ll be returning to Rwanda. Shirley kept saying it’s bound to happen — as if it were etched on a chart of my destiny, a fait accompli. I met some extraordinary people here and I’m amazed by the beauty of Rwanda, the resilience of the people, and the miracle of recovery that took place in the wake of so much hatred, bloodshed and loss.

Confessions of a Recovering Film Critic by
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(24 Stories)

Prompted By Fame

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The San Francisco Chronicle building, 5th & Mission, San Francisco.

I never asked to be a movie critic. And yet it happened. People don’t believe me when I say this; they assume movie reviewing is such a plum job that I must have scrambled and hustled to get there. Not really.

In 1991 I’d been working at the San Francisco Chronicle seven years when the senior movie critic Judy Stone took a buyout offer and retired. In a crisp email, the assistant managing editor informed me I would forthwith be reporting full-time as a movie critic. There wasn’t any “Come in to my office to discuss…” No “How would you feel about doing this…?”

I was the logical choice, given that I’d been pinch-hitting for Judy when she was out sick or on vacation. Plus, I had earlier movie-critic experience at the San Francisco Bay Guardian, an alternative weekly. That job also came unbidden: I got it because my neighbor at the time was the arts editor and had a hunch I could do it.

Even though I had a lifelong love of movies, and held a large fund of cinema trivia in my head, I never thought I’d be a movie critic. My take on movies seemed too idiosyncratic, too personal and off-the-mainstream. I later realized that every film critic is idiosyncratic and quirky — that taste and esthetics are by definition deeply personal. If a critic writes safe, generalized pabulum that doesn’t spring from passion and a strong point of view, then you’ve got a problem.

For the next 12 years I reviewed movies full-time in addition to writing features and profiles on movie personalities. I saw between 200 and 250 movies per year, and wrote up to five reviews and feature stories per week. I got to meet Catherine Deneuve, Lillian Gish, Stephen Spielberg, Lucille Ball, Gregory Peck, Pedro Almodovar, Clint Eastwood, Laura Dern and hundreds more. I went to film festivals in Toronto, Sundance, Telluride and Hong Kong. I had the privilege of championing artists like Krzysztof Kieslowski and Satyajit Ray, whose work might otherwise go unnoticed because their distributors had tiny advertising budgets; and I got to discover Oscar-winning filmmakers like Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) and Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies, and videtape; Erin Brockovich) as their careers were just starting.

With Gregory Peck, 1989.

Being a movie critic brought me a minor level of fame in the Chronicle’s circulation area — at least among the people who read movie reviews — and gave me a window into the privileges and annoyances of being a public person. I was gratified when someone said, “You’re my favorite critic” or “I saw that movie you recommended and loved it.” It was fun to see my name quoted in a movie trailer, and then hear from a cousin back East or an old college friend who also saw it. Who doesn’t like an ego boost? I enjoyed the dialogue with readers and the fringe benefits — like getting the best seats and not waiting in long lines; like getting comped to concerts and local stage productions; like having my phone calls answered quickly. You can get spoiled that way, and I did.

Being semi-famous wasn’t always fun. When email became the standard communication mode in the early ‘90s, replacing handwritten letters, the feedback I received tripled or quadrupled. Some correspondents were kind and thoughtful; a lot were not. I learned that anger, not satisfaction or admiration, is the single greatest incentive when writing a total stranger. Think about it: How often do you contact your utility company and enthuse, “Wow, the heat feels great on this blustery day. Thank you!”?

One day my fellow critic Mick LaSalle asked me, “Are you getting a lot more hate mail now that everyone’s doing email?” Indeed I was. “You owe me the 10 dollars I wasted on that piece of crap!” was a grumble I received more than once. Or, “Are you sure you saw the same movie I saw?” Or this lulu: “It is clear in the last analysis that the only thing coursing through the mind and pen of Edward Guthmann is viciousness of the lowest sort.” Oh well, at least he could string a sentence together.

One hater used to cut my reviews from the paper, deface them with a large rubber stamp saying “BULLSHIT” and mail them back to me. (He did that with other critics, too.) People take movies personally and if you criticize something that touched them or reinforced their identity, they feel personally offended — as if you’d violated their entire value system. Occasionally I got nasty phone calls at home — always anonymous. It’s weird when someone knows your work and has formed an opinion about you, and you know nothing about them. A colleague introduced me to a friend once who said, “I always know I won’t like a movie if you do.” How do you answer that?

People can treat you very low when you’re semi-famous. I went to a preview screening a few years ago, and as soon as I walked in I was photographed kamikaze-style, from a three-foot distance, by the since-deposed editor of a San Francisco literary journal. He hated something I’d written. “You might ask first before you photograph someone,” I said. “Ohhh, would the Chronicle?” he sneered. The next day, he posted the photo online and claimed I “lashed out” at him when he took the picture.

I’ve heard celebrities and politicians say this often: that once you’re famous, a lot of people assume you lack the same feelings and vulnerabilities they have. If they feel undervalued in their own life — and then witness someone with perceived power and success who they consider undeserving – they make the accomplished person their target. Bring on the grenades, the gossip and speculation – celebrities are fair game.

Fred Astaire, my first movie idol.

In October 2003 I wrote my last review, asked to be reassigned and started writing author interviews and a variety of profiles. I bailed because my assignment editor was intolerable (a very long story), but as soon as I quit I realized how much I’d come to dislike the grind itself. At least twice a week I sacrificed my evenings and drove into San Francisco for press screenings when I wanted to kick back and stay home. Had the movies all been stellar, I might not have minded, but many were awful — and usually in the same way that movies from the previous week were awful. I sometimes felt like I was justifying the stinkers, by virtue of the fact that I was giving them any attention at all.

Suddenly my evenings were free. Slowly, I could reignite the original love of movies I developed as a 6- or 7-year-old watching Fred Astaire and The Wizard of Oz on television. That first year after quitting, I saw only one or two movies a month, compared to the four or five per week I’d been seeing. As a recovering movie critic, I didn’t have to sit through soul-destroying bilge to the bitter end. I only saw the movies I wanted to see, and if I was bored I got up and walked out. I was liberated! Like a frog in a pot of water that slowly comes to a boil, I hadn’t realized how accustomed I’d become to stress, discomfort and a begrudging sense of duty.

Yes, I had second thoughts about quitting. I knew I was surrendering a cachet and name recognition that I wouldn’t enjoy as a feature writer. My fan base would diminish and become less vocal. Inevitably, I’d miss the glamour aspects of the job and the great people I got to interview. I felt a pang of regret that my 12-year-old nephew, who liked having a movie critic for an uncle, would lose his bragging rights and be disappointed for himself and for me. But I don’t regret my decision: I regained an ease and comfort in my life.

Most of the writing I do now is personal, and my relationship with movies has never been better. During Covid, I’m watching Turner Classic Movies and streaming services every day. I’m finding, with my older person’s perspective, that old favorites have a new dimension, a new fascination. Having lived more, I appreciate them on deeper levels. I’m falling in love all over again.

The Day I Met Lucille Ball by
10
(24 Stories)

Prompted By Fame

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I’d heard how tough and intimidating Lucille Ball could be, but on the day I interviewed her at her home in Beverly Hills she was warm, unguarded and down-to-earth. It felt like hanging out with a favorite aunt.

Lucy picked up quickly on the fact that I was a fan, and since I was young and eager I think she liked me. She was promoting Stone Pillow, a CBS TV-movie in which she played a homeless bag lady named Florabelle. The movie was ill-conceived and Lucy was badly miscast, but it gave me the good fortune to meet a childhood idol.

Arranging our tete-a-tete was easy. One morning I called a veteran publicist at CBS and asked, “Do you think Lucy would do a one-on-one for Stone Pillow? I could fly down to Los Angeles.” With a big star like Lucy, you’d normally get a noncommittal response: “Let me look into it.” Instead, he asked to put me on hold. Within five minutes he was back. “Lucy wants to do it.” That kind of thing never happens.

A rare dramatic role for Lucy. But this CBS-TV movie was a mistake.

I flew into Burbank on the morning of Oct. 23, 1985, rented a car and picked up a large, exotic floral bouquet en route to Lucy’s house. I rang the doorbell at 1000 N. Roxbury Dr. in Beverly Hills, an assistant answered and within seconds Lucy entered the foyer behind him. “Thank you,” she said, nodding her head in a slightly regal manner, “that’s a lovely bouquet.”  The assistant guided us into a section of the living room where Lucy and I sat and talked for nearly two hours. She wore white pants, a pleated white blouse and turquoise-blue jacket. Tinted, oversized eyeglasses. Her hair was the same, familiar henna-red I knew from television. She was 74.

Lucy’s best days. With Desi Arnaz in “I Love Lucy.” Their marriage was troubled, but she always credited his skills as a producer with the show’s success.

Lucy’s ranch-style house was grand on the outside, comfortable and tidy on the inside. No major art pieces; just a painting of her husband Gary Morton swinging a golf club. In a corner of the room I spied a backgammon table, where Lucy probably spent hundreds of lively and competitive hours — backgammon being her favorite game. We weren’t alone as we confabulated. Joining us was a very old man, a minder I guess you’d call him, who CBS had sent to monitor Lucy’s remarks and make sure she said nothing too reckless or off-color.

Lucy was fascinated by my name. “Ed Guthmann! That’s such an old man’s name for a young kid like you,” she said with gusto. “Lucy, I’ll be 35 in three days,” I said, thinking I was practically middle-aged. “Big deal!” she harrumphed. “Big deal!”

Lucy with Vivian Vance, who played her landlady and best friend Ethel Mertz in “I Love Lucy.” When asked the secret of their successful partnership, both actresses answered “mutual respect.”

She reminisced about the I Love Lucy days, praised her ex-husband Desi Arnaz for his professional acumen (“Innovation after innovation”) but slammed his gambling,  drinking and womanizing (“We had five homes but to him they were just houses”); gave excellent marks to her current husband, comic-turned-manager Gary Morton (“On a scale of 1 to 10 we’re a 12”); and said she didn’t act for five years after her beloved I Love Lucy sidekick Vivian Vance died in 1979. When I asked how it felt to be at leisure after shooting Stone Pillow, she frowned. “To tell ya the truth, it’s been kinda boring around here lately!”

She didn’t mince words. Lucy was at a point in her life when she had nothing to lose by telling the unvarnished truth – which is precisely why the ancient minder was warming up his end of the sofa.

Lucy and her pal Clark Gable. In the 1940s, the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Lucy told me she got that low, husky voice by yelling from her car on the Pacific Coast Highway — a method recommended by movie maker Howard Hawks. She grew nostalgic talking about her friend Clark Gable. “We used to tool around in his jeep,” she said, remembering when San Fernando Valley was all farms and ranches and open land. “Oh boy,” she sighed, shaking her head and looking off to one side. The memory seemed to stir thoughts of distant youth, of time passing swiftly and few friends left to share her memories.

The great character actress Elizabeth Patterson played the babysitter Mrs. Trumbull in “I Love Lucy.”

I asked about Elizabeth Patterson, the fragile-looking character actress who played the babysitter Mrs. Trumbull on “I Love Lucy,” and Lucy told me she used to go home on the public bus after a day of taping at Desilu Studios. Patterson never accepted Lucy’s invitations to socialize — not from disinterest, but from feeling she didn’t belong. She was just as timid as the characters she played.

I told Lucy I’d admired Patterson in vintage movies, and described a poignant scene from the 1938 classic Remember the Night where Patterson plays the old-maid aunt of Fred MacMurray. When MacMurray brings Barbara Stanwyck home for Christmas, Stanwyck accidentally discovers an old, unused wedding dress in Patterson’s trunk. She’s startled. “But I thought you never –,” Stanwyck begins to say. Patterson cuts her off: “Oh well. That was a long time ago, wasn’t it?”

“Boy, you’re really a buff!” Lucy said when I finished the story. “You should meet my friend Robert Osborne. He knows the old ones like you do.”

Lucy’s house in Beverly Hills. Jimmy Stewart lived across the street.

For show business fans, the block that Lucy lived on was famous. At one time or another, Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Oscar Levant, Agnes Moorehead, Ira Gershwin, Peter Falk and Rosemary Clooney all lived on Roxbury. In 1985 Jimmy Stewart and his wife Gloria were still across the street from Lucy. I don’t remember how it came up, but she started grumbling about a spate of neighborhood burglaries. “Jimmy and Gloria are worried,” she said, raising her eyebrows. “We’re worried! Oh, it’s awful. But I don’t trust the Beverly Hills police as far as I can spit!”

The old chaperone’s hand reached out pleadingly, and tapped me on the arm. “Oh, you’re not going to put that in the story, are you?”

Same thing a few minutes later when I asked Lucy about her recovering son, Desi Jr., a recovering alcoholic, and the inspirational lectures he delivered on the virtues of sobriety. “Yeah, he’s still doing that,” Lucy groaned with a roll of her eyes. “But at least he’s not so boring about it now.” The hand tapped my arm and the ancient minder whispered, “Oh, you won’t use that, will you?”

And a third time. While filming Stone Pillow on location in New York City, Lucy confided, she was so weak from long hours and from wearing a heavy costume in the oppressive New York heat, that she contracted amoebic dysentery. When she flew home to Los Angeles, 23 pounds lighter and suffering from dehydration, she fell out of her limo into the gutter at LAX. “I was really sick!” she exclaimed with big eyes and that froggy, bottom-of-the-well voice. Once again the weathered hand reached out and the old man looked stricken: “Please don’t mention amoebic dysentery in your story,” he implored.

I asked Lucy to grade herself, A to F, in several categories.

Lucy with second husband Gary Morton.

Mother: “B minus. I was deterred in many a way by working; I couldn’t complete the scene at home.”

Comedian: “Should I say A? I guess I can because of the I Love Lucy reruns and the longevity still proving itself.”

Dramatic actress: “I don’t know, especially when my idol is Bette Davis. I haven’t given it that much of a whack.”

Business executive: “F. I hated it and I depended solely on honest and loyal men.”

Late in the interview Lucy’s husband Gary Morton walked in, looking very Beverly Hills in an alpaca cardigan and slacks. Nice guy. Lucy greeted him and said, “Gary, say ‘Hello’ to Old Ed Guthmann!” Gary grinned, took my camera and shot the photo you see at the top of this page. She was absolutely terrific. Adorable. I’m sorry it was the only time I got to spend with her.

My Brother Dan by
10
(24 Stories)

Prompted By Birth Order

/ Stories

Dad and Dan.

Compared to most mid-century couples, my parents married very late. Dad was 34, Mom 29, and they figured they had no time to waste in starting a family. My brother Danny, born August 25, 1949, came first, and for a brief time he reigned unchallenged, the celebrated prince. For Dad, it was a long-deferred dream to have a son. I arrived 14 months later, on October 26, 1950, and when Danny’s exclusivity suddenly expired and he was forced to share the love and attention, he wasn’t happy.

Our parents expected us to be friends, encouraged a companionship that never evolved. They dressed us in matching clothes; bought toys and games we might play together; celebrated birthdays and measured our growth with pencil lines on the kitchen door jamb. But when I study childhood photos of Danny and me, I don’t see a single shot of him being affectionate toward me. I’m the  interloper.

Danny and me, with newborn brother Davey.

My younger brother Dave was born four years later, on July 7, 1954. An adorable kid, funny and sweet-natured, Davey became Dad’s favorite – the only son who shared his passion for baseball and the only one, for a long time, who rarely angered him. This didn’t sit well with Danny, either.

Despite our proximity in age, or maybe in part because of it, Danny and I were foreign bodies in constant collision. From the beginning we were profoundly different: in temperament, in interests, in the friends we chose and the ways we engaged with the world. He was scrappy and blunt; I was dreamy and sensitive. He liked to play outdoors, build forts, scratch and holler and rattle the status quo. I was indoors, looking at books and old movies on TV, organizing puppet shows.

Dan points the arrow. I’m pushing the broom. Davey in the foreground.

Why so different? Danny’s aggression, his impulsivity and adrenaline-seeking instincts – the same qualities that later potentiate his drug use, trouble with authority and attraction to fast-moving vehicles – probably originated in the womb. In 2016 I saw a PBS documentary about the impact of genetics on risk-taking behavior, and of course I thought of Dan. Boy babies receive twice the testosterone of girls, the narrator said, and some boys more than others. “At 15 weeks, when the brain and body are crucially sensitive to hormonal changes, a second surge of testosterone occurs in the embryo and alters the regions of the brain that process fear and excitement.” Danny definitely received that extra dose.

When I was a toddler, Danny pushed me to the ground in our backyard in Chicago and my forehead hit a brick. The wound required four stitches and the resulting scar, which I have to this day, formed the letter V. For years Dan boasted that the V stood for victory – his personal mark of triumph over a weaker adversary. Later, when we were 5 and 6, I playfully grabbed him in the bedroom and said, “Danny let’s dance!” He shoved me against a dresser and once again the blood gushed from my forehead.

Dan diving. Las Vegas, 1960.

There was always rivalry, always resentment, but one day I discovered the strength of our bond. That summer of 1960, Danny and I spent a week at camp, sleeping in side-by-side cots in a dormitory. One day on a whim, he got on the afternoon bus that took the day campers home. True to his nature, he didn’t tell anyone he was leaving. Just before dinner, as the campus grew still and the hot August sun started to cool, I realized Danny was missing. I panicked, ran back and forth across the campus. I thought he was lost or injured or dead.

Danny returned two or three hours later, nonchalant and expressionless. When I asked where he’d gone and told him I got worried when I couldn’t find him, he shrugged. “That sounds like something you would do,” he said. And walked away.

By the time he’s 13, Dan – no longer Danny – exists in his own orbit. While Dave and I go to movies together, watch the same TV shows and create a silly, hand-drawn newsletter mythologizing the neighborhood dogs, Dan grows more and more autonomous. He isn’t home much and when he is he battles with Dan, vexes Mom and treats Dave and me like pests. Two years later I start high school and Dan orders me never to speak to him or acknowledge him on campus. He’s a terror and I’m no angel, either. Until Dan gets his teeth straightened, I mock his crooked overbite. One night after dinner, our next-door neighbor Steve dubs him “Menu Teeth” because the evening’s meal still lingers on Dan’s upper and lower bite. I go to town on that one: “Menu Teeth” becomes my pet epithet for the summer.

Dan in high school, age 15.

It doesn’t occur to me that in some ways I’m as culpable as Dan in creating conflict. This is the place where memory is a rogue and incomplete, self-serving narrator: when I realize how little I know of what Dan felt about me, my slurs and sniping, my joking about his teeth and his bad report cards. Did he remember the cruelest things I said to him, or did they never burrow into his memory as his meanness did into mine?

————————————————————–

My brother Dan died May 3, 1980. He was a helicopter pilot and instructor, and after taking off with a 27-year-old student that morning, he crashed into an open field near Palos Verdes Estates. A Federal Aviation Administration investigation cited mechanical failure, with no fault on Dan’s part. All R-22 helicopters were grounded.

A death in the family makes life stand still. Everything seems embossed in sharp relief. Time is warped and surreal. People’s jokes sound callous, their voices strident. Your parents suffer an enormous loss, a haunting, but life blithely locomotes forward, unbending and indifferent.

I’m sorry Dan didn’t live a long and rich life, obviously because he deserved to, but also because my memories of him are dominated by teenage conflicts. As we got older, we reached a partial détente. In my sophomore year at Humboldt State, Dan and a friend drove up and crashed on my apartment floor. Three years later I was living in San Francisco and he visited two or three times. He was friendlier on those occasions, and we didn’t revert to competing and grandstanding. He didn’t say it, but I think he wanted to open a new chapter in our relationship. In retrospect, I wish I’d understood the olive branch he was holding out to me. I still stockpiled the slights and stings of the past, still identified as the wronged person. Unhealthy as it was, I nurtured my grudge because of its familiarity. Like a stalwart companion who doesn’t judge, it held me close.

After Dan died our parents rarely spoke about his turbulent side. “He was a good boy,” Dad said after the accident. There was something devastated but insistent in his voice – like a fist raised against a world that might think less of his son. As if he wasn’t fully convinced of his statement, but needed desperately to believe it.

In death, Dan became for my parents the wayward, high-spirited son who redeemed himself with a career in aviation. In the narrative they embraced, his scrambled life acquired purpose, pride, legitimacy. Instead of recalling the chaos of his teen years and early twenties, Dad extolled Dan’s later achievements. Or he’d get a sentimental twinkle and say to my Mom, “Remember when Danny was 3 or 4. You made him pancakes for breakfast and he said, ‘You’re a good cooker, Mommy!’ ”

Grief is different for everyone, and in fact never stops. You don’t “get over” a death in the family. You incorporate it, you manage it. It becomes part of your experience and therefore part of you. The pain subsides but the presence of the deceased is somehow always inside you. “The past is never dead,” William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun. “It’s not even past.”

          This story is adapted from Wild Seed: Searching for My Brother Dan, a memoir I published in 2017.

 

 

Don’t Cry for Me, West Covina by
10
(24 Stories)

Prompted By My Hometown

/ Stories

January 1, 1955. My father is watching the Rose Bowl on television. It’s freezing in Chicago that day, but bright and glorious in Pasadena where Ohio State trounces USC. Everyone looks happy, healthy. “Wouldn’t it be nice to raise these boys in California, where the sun shines all year long?” my dad asks my mother.

My dad Marv is a do-er, not a dreamer, and over the next three months he unloads his business, the Birchwood Garage, and sells the three-flat building where we live. Five Guthmanns squeeze into a station wagon — Davey is 9 months old — and arrive in California on April 19, Dad’s birthday. We don’t know a soul in California and Dad doesn’t have a job. He places a classified ad in the newspaper (“Seeking business opportunity in the automotive field, can pay cash money”), receives a stack of offers and buys a Western Auto franchise in West Covina, 20 miles east of Los Angeles.

916 Herald St., our first West Covina house.

He finds us a three-bed, one-bath house at 916 Herald St. and pays $16,000. Our modest cul-de-sac has walnut trees and parched lawns, and we’re surrounded by Baby Boom starter families with every reason to expect bright futures for their children. These are middle-class dads who fought in World War II, with names like Art and Joe and Ed and Maury. Moms wearing pedal pushers and Dinah Shore smiles, with names like Helen and Betty and Florence and Dixie. I go to Kindergarten at Sunset School, my older brother Danny to Coronado School with a teacher named Mrs. Crabtree, the same name as the schoolteacher in The Little Rascals.

Mt. Baldy, as seen from West Covina.

Winters are clear and gorgeous in West Covina, and on crisp January days you see a crown of snow on Mt. Baldy. At Christmas, snowmen appear on front lawns, crafted from tumbleweed that blows into town during the sultry Santa Ana winds of early autumn. Neighbors stack the tumbleweed three high, the smallest representing the head, then give it a face and a hat and render it white with sticky spray flocking.

Summers are hot and dry, with sunshine so bright the colors bleach and flatten like an overexposed photograph. Butterflies, caterpillars and grasshoppers are abundant. Ladybugs, pill bugs, the occasional skunk or opossum. One day Dad kills a gopher by flushing it out with a garden hose and cleaving its neck with a swift, violent plunge of a shovel.

Dr. Bernard Finch and his paramour Carole Tregoff, convicted murderers. West Covina’s own scandal.

Few linger outside in the midday summer heat, but after dinner the Herald Street kids gather on the street and grown-ups fan out to gossip and referee. Screen doors slam, a manual lawn mower calls out kdop-kdop-kdop and baseball games linger until the coppery twilight darkens and the ball can’t be seen.

Hula hoop mania.

One summer the talk revolves nonstop around Dr. Bernard Finch, the wealthy West Covina physician who killed his wife, Barbara, and whose trial is a media obsession. Suddenly everyone in town knows someone who was a patient of the monstrous Finch; or someone whose uncle dated his wicked mistress, Carole Tregoff; or someone whose aunt cut, dyed and set poor Barbara Finch’s hair. It’s West Covina’s very own scandal and it creates a twisted, reverse civic pride.

I’m thrilled when The Wizard of Oz airs on television once a year. I watch The Mickey Mouse Club after school each day, and laugh hysterically at Andy’s Gang when rascally Froggy drives grown-ups bonkers and then disappears in a sassy puff of smoke. I win the neighborhood hula hoop competition one year, and host an impromptu, kids-only political convention in the Guthmanns’ garage. Everyone is gung-ho for the Republican incumbent Dwight D. Eisenhower — “I Like Ike” is his campaign slogan — and the one brave girl who raises her hand for Adlai Stevenson is immediately banished.

Marty’s Music in the breezeway of the Plaza Shopping Center. Fondly remembered.

“How Much Is That Doggie In the Window?” and “Que Sera, Sera” are omnipresent on the radio and one day I hear “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog” emanating from an outdoor speaker at Cesar’s Mexican takeout on Glendora Ave – my introduction to Elvis Presley. When I have a little money, in seventh grade, I buy my first 45 rpm record, The Four Seasons’ “Walk Like a Man,” at Marty’s Music in the Plaza Shopping Center.

Helms Bakery truck.

Once a week the butter-colored Helm’s Bakery truck motors onto Herald Street and everyone gets happy. The driver – he’s called the Helmsman — blows a whistle, parks mid-block and onto the street swarm bunches of kids and mothers to buy cookies, cinnamon rolls and sticky, sugar-covered jelly donuts. The trucks are beautifully designed with ultra-long lacquered wooden drawers that slide out the back of the truck, releasing the delicious fragrance of fresh-baked loaves of bread.

Like many Southern California towns, West Covina grows rapidly in the post-war years, its population exploding from 4500 in 1950 to 50,000 in 1960. As a youngster I have nothing to compare it with, so I think my town is pretty cool. There are kids to play with on our cul-de-sac; a movie theater in neighboring Covina where I go alone to see Disney’s A Light in the Forest at age 7; and a public swimming pool called Covina Plunge. I can walk to the liquor store once a month to buy TV Guide and read about the upcoming installment of Shirley Temple’s Storybook; or visit the Ranch Market on Vine St., where an enormous cooler hums and sweats, offering ice-cold Nehi grape, Hires root beer, Squirt grapefruit and RC Cola in glass bottles.

Housing developments are everywhere in West Covina, but between the swaths of lookalike homes are empty fields where you spot the occasional lizard, jackrabbit or garter snake. When I’m 9 we move across town to Azusa Ave. and close by is one of the city’s last orange groves where my next-door-neighbor up-ends the smudge pots that growers install to save trees from winter frost. That neighbor later becomes a cop.

John Rousselot, the John Bircher that West Covina sent to Congress.

In the eighth or ninth grade, as the blinders of childhood start to lift, it dawns on me that West Covina – “The City of Beautiful Homes” — is in fact bland and homogeneous, culturally limited and deeply conservative. I yearn to roam beyond the immediate radius of our town, to see a play or a movie in Los Angles or Hollywood, but there is no rapid transit system in the Southland. My grade school hasn’t a single Black kid, just a handful of Mexicans orJapanese, and in high school you can count six African Americans out of 2200 students.

The Congressional district that includes West Covina is first in the nation to send a member of the ultra-right John Birch Society, John Rousselot, to the U.S. House of Representatives. The man he defeats, George Kasem, is the husband of my second-grade teacher. There are crackpots afoot: at the town’s health food store, you can’t make a purchase without the bellicose proprietor lecturing you on the encroaching Communist scourge.

Tippy Walker in “The World of Henry Orient.”

And then, at 13, I discover the enchanting The World of Henry Orient and my life is changed. The movie is set in New York City where two pre-teen girls romp through Central Park, go to concerts at Carnegie Hall and reside in cozy East Side brownstones. It affects me so powerfully that I vow to move to New York as soon as I’m able, there to soak up culture and become a new person. At West Covina’s public library I study the New York Times’ Sunday Arts & Leisure section to see what’s opening on Broadway, and marvel at the variety of dance, classical music, opera and foreign films.

My New York fantasy lasts throughout eighth grade and four years of high school, so vividly that I draw floor plans for the brownstone I plan to buy on a leafy Manhattan street. There isn’t anything to keep me in West Covina at this point: its politics, its uniformity and lack of imagination stultify me, and when I’m a high school junior and the campus newspaper polls students on their favored candidate for governor, I’m crushed that Ronald Reagan wins two thirds of the vote against incumbent Edward G. “Pat” Brown. I’m a writer for that same newspaper, the Spartan Shield, and when I’m assigned an editorial about marijuana, the vice principal rewrites my piece and adds this infuriating sentence: “The casual marijuana user may embark on his drug experiment innocently enough, only to emerge from his ‘high’ with needle marks in his arm.”

The TV sitcom that put West Covina on the map, long after my time.

Who wouldn’t want to get out? In fact, I never moved to New York, but starting in 1975 I’ve made one or two trips per year and today I know it so well that I think of Manhattan as my second home. Instead of going to college in New York, I enrolled at Humboldt State in far-northern California, then moved to the San Francisco Bay Area where I still live.

I used to mock West Covina and take a dim view of people who never moved away like I did. I’ve shed most of that snobbery and realize now that my bias was largely a function of ego — a way to congratulate myself for being cooler than the Southland plebeians. I don’t think you can neatly divide communities and regions into Hip or Not Hip any longer. We all occupy the same Information Highway, with identical access to facts and opinions, politics and culture. Also, people can surprise you; you can’t reduce anyone to their zip code.

West Covina has changed enormously since I left in 1968. It’s racially diverse, with Latinos and Hispanics constituting 53 percent of the population, Asians 25 percent, and has a correspondingly greater variety of restaurants and cultural factors.There are homeless people, the horrible smog of the 1960s and ’70s is greatly reduced thanks to auto-emission standards, and a light-rail train now connects residents to downtown Los Angeles. When I make a rare visit, or when I watch My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the TV sitcom that made West Covina famous nationwide, I recognize almost nothing. My West Covina is a vapor, a dream; it exists only inside me.


Parts of this story appeared in slightly different form in Wild Seed, a memoir I wrote about my late brother Dan.

The Hope Sisters by
10
(24 Stories)

Prompted By Aunts & Uncles

/ Stories

Esther, Winifred and Roberta in Cameroun.

I’ve always loved family history and in 1993 I finished Return to Cameroun, a documentary about my missionary grandparents and their lives in West Africa. I think I made the movie because I wanted to learn more about my grandparents Fred and Roberta Hope, both of whom died before I was born, but in the process I got closer to my mom and my aunts.

The Hope sisters in 1985: Arta Grace, Winifred, my mom Roberta, Esther and Betty.

The more I got to know my aunts the more I appreciated the ways they’d survived a childhood that, for all its adventure and exoticism, was marked by long separations and displacement.

They were lovely women: similar in comportment, typical of their generation, but distinctly individual. I interviewed each of them at a family reunion in Cincinnati: Arta Grace the oldest, was shy and self-effacing, with a subtle and delightful wit. Betty, a year younger, was quiet and reserved, a gentle partner to her loquacious missionary husband Bob.

Esther was the middle daughter: outgoing, sunny of disposition, mother of six and grandmother of 23. My mom, named Roberta after her mother: modest and patient, the best listener I ever knew. And the youngest, Winifred: a talker and punster, acutely sensitive, with a prodigious memory.

1922. My grandmother and the five Hope daughters.

I grew up in California and my aunts all lived far away, so I barely knew them as a kid. As an adult I made a point of building friendships with each of them. I flew to Tennessee to visit Arta Grace, to Cincinnati to see Esther and Winifred, and during several trips to Europe I stayed with Aunt Betty, first in France and later in Northern Ireland.

The more I got to know them the more I appreciated the ways they’d survived a childhood that, for all its adventure, was marked by long separations and displacement. There were no schools for missionary kids above the sixth grade, so none of the Hope sisters lived in Cameroun beyond age 12. Instead, they stayed with relatives or at boarding schools in the United States, seeing their parents only during the one-year furloughs that separated three-year terms in the mission field.

I remember feeling, as the Hope sisters told stories of their exotic childhood in Africa, that in those moments they reverted to their childhood selves. They talked about Bushman, the baby gorilla who stayed with the Hopes one year. “Bushman was a dear soul,” Winifred said. “He was a spoiled baby. We carried him around everywhere and if you put him down he’d cry and grab a hold of your legs and sit on your foot.”

Winifred holding Bushman.

“He was like a live doll to me,” my mom added. “Like having a baby to take care of. [We] carried him around, fed him, even put clothes on him. Like kids will.”

After a year with the Hope family, Bushman was taken to the United States by Julius Buck, a wild game collector who sold him to the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. In the late ’40s, when my mom was living in Chicago and went to see Bushman at the zoo, he didn’t recognize her. “It was sad” to see him in a cage, she remembered. “Feeling like he doesn’t belong here.”

My aunts and mother spoke about sailing to Africa on a German freight steamer that stopped in every port to load on huge bunches of bananas, animals and other freight with a cargo crane. They remembered papayas as big as watermelons; chartreuse-and-shocking-pink caterpillars that fell from the trees on rainy days; armies of half-inch-long driver ants that traveled en masse through their house and bit them in their sleep. They talked about drawing sap from rubber trees and chewing it like gum, and the industrial school where my grandfather introduced self-sustaining trades to the men of southern Cameroun.

1928. On a German freight steamer en route to Cameroun. Back row: my grandmother Roberta Brown Hope and two missionary ladies. Front row: my mom Roberta, Winifred and Esther.

A year after I filmed the interviews in Cincinnati Aunt Winifred mentioned, almost casually, that she and Esther would be joining a Presbyterian Church-sponsored tour of Cameroun in December 1989. I wasted no time booking the tour for myself and videographer Fawn Yacker, who had filmed the interviews in Cincinnati. There were about 15 people in our delegation. We flew from Paris to to Cameroun on Air France, and survived a domestic Air Cameroun flight from the port city Douala to the capital Yaounde — on a rickety plane with overhead compartments that flapped open during takeoff and seats that shook because they weren’t sufficiently bolted to the floor.

Esther, Winifred and me at the airport in Douala, Cameroun.

From Yaounde we traveled overland by bus to the villages where Presbyterians established missions in the early 20th century: Kribi, Sakbayeme, Lolodorf and Elat, where my mother and aunts were born and grew up speaking the native language Bulu. In each town we were treated like V.I.P.s and greeted with long receiving lines, sometimes half a mile long. People danced, sang, played drums. In Elat we were given a special concert inside the church, where five choirs sang, each one sensational. There was great food: lots of plantains, yams and maize, and the mysterious “bush meat” which indicates an animal, species unspecified, that was killed in the wild. We met village elders who knew my grandparents and remembered Esther, Roberta and Winifred as little girls.

Esther and Winifred with Jean Samuel Eba-Ella, a Bulu man in Elat, Cameroun, who had been my grandfather Fred Hope’s secretary in the 1940s.

Traveling reveals a lot about people, and for two weeks I got to appreciate how different Esther and Winifred really were. Both had lived in Cincinnati for decades, raised their families there and in later years became expert miniaturists working together in a makeshift studio in Esther’s home. They looked alike, both short and white-haired; they dressed alike and had a rapport and common language that you see in sisters.

Whereas Esther had an easy laugh and roll-with-the-punches manner, Winifred was anxious and easily unsettled by the delays and unexpected frustrations of travel. In the bus, she chattered nervously and recalled, along with comforting memories of an African childhood, a host of long-ago slights and grievances she suffered as a child. It was as if the distant past in all its details was entirely accessible to her; and as if, by talking about it, she was experiencing it anew.

At one point in Cameroun, Winifred started to believe she’d contracted malaria (she hadn’t). Our accommodations were hardly posh, and she became obsessed with the quality of bathroom facilities. But I marveled when someone in our tour group groused about the “dirty” feminists at her local college campus, and Winifred swiftly reminded her of the rights she enjoyed thanks to feminists. Winifred could try your patience, but I loved her and in fact became closer to her than to Esther, who, for all her jolly manner and easy laughter, was protective of her emotions.

1927. The Hope family in Winona Lake, Indiana. They were on furlough between terms in Africa. My grandmother hand-tinted this photo with watercolors.

Esther had every right to be resentful. When she was 7 and my grandparents were ready to sail back to Cameroun after a furlough in the States, Esther got left behind with her maternal grandparents. It happened because my great-grandmother pestered my grandfather, insisting one of the Hope girls stay with her since the older girls, Arta Grace and Betty, would be living with their other grandmother in Flat Rock, Illinois. “Is this something you’d like to do?,” my grandfather asked Esther. She said Yes.

“He didn’t dream that I would choose to stay with Grandma,” Esther told me. “But to me, it was just a two-week lark or something like that.” Ultimately, she said, “It was a blow that my Dad never really did get over, and we were never as close again after that. I never held him responsible, but we just kind of drifted apart because of the distance.”

Bushman soon after he’d arrived at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, 1931 or 1932.

After I finished Return to Cameroun, I stayed in touch with Esther and Winifred and would visit Cincinnati occasionally and see them in Laguna Hills, Calif., when they visited my parents. In March 2013, after Esther and my mother Roberta had died, Winifred reconnected with an old friend. My cousin Linda, her daughter, took Winifred to Chicago to see Bushman at the Field Museum of Natural History, where he’d been taxidermied and made a permanent exhibit after his death. Linda’s daughter Selita and granddaughter Nevaeh went, too — four generations altogether.

That’s Bushman in the plexiglass cube. Aunt Winifred in the wheelchair and her great-granddaughter Nevaeh standing next to her.

Linda contacted the museum and the Lincoln Park Zoo, which were thrilled to hear from her and extended invitations. Publicists at both institutions alerted the media and during her visit Winifred gave several TV and newspaper interviews. She and Bushman were covered in all the Chicago papers (“He was my sweet little boy,” she told the Chicago Tribune), and the story got picked up by the Huffington Post and the Daily Mail of London. Museum aficionados, staff and volunteers treated my 92-year-old aunt, in her wheelchair and portable oxygen concentrator, like a celebrity.

Winifred basked in the attention. It gave her a warm glow. She went back to her home in Cincinnati and then, like a scene from a slightly magical novel or a movie, she died 17 days later. Today, the Bushman display at the Field Museum commemorates her visit, with photos of Winifred at the museum in 2013 and with baby Bushman in Cameroun in 1931.

The Year I Played in “Oliver!”: A Stage Debut by
10
(24 Stories)

Prompted By Dreams

/ Stories

The Carousel Theatre in West Covina, where I made my professional stage debut in “Oliver!”

Starting around age 7, I dreamed of being an actor. I was mad for movies and nothing seemed more wondrous to me than to be a motion picture star. When I’d play alone, my fantasies were always framed by a movie screen and accompanied by the thumping drumbeat of a Hollywood soundtrack.

With a beginner’s naïveté, I wrote a letter to the producer Danny Dare and told him why he should cast me: “Dear Mr. Dare, I live in West Covina and I’m a talented actor. I can do an excellent English accent and I can sing. You should cast me in Oliver!”

I remember running through the weeds and mustard greens of an open field near my house, pretending I was dodging enemy fire in an action movie called “Rifles of Revenge.” I fantasized the plaudits I’d earn as a child actor of remarkable skill. Stardom, acclaim, Academy Awards – I could taste them.

The cast album to the original 1963 Broadway production of “Oliver!” Five years later the movie version won an Oscar for best picture.

None of this came true, but when I was 15 and living in West Covina, Calif. my chutzpah landed me a job on the professional stage. The Carousel Theater, a newly opened theater-in-the-round, was staging a season of Broadway revivals. Oliver!, the musical adaptation of Dickens’ Oliver Twist, was on the card and Georgia Brown, star of the original London and Broadway productions, was repeating her role as Nancy, the spunky slattern who saves Oliver Twist.

With a beginner’s naïveté, I wrote a letter to Danny Dare, one of the Carousel’s two producers and co-owners: “Dear Mr. Dare, I live in West Covina and I’m a talented actor. I can do an excellent English accent and I can sing. You should cast me in Oliver!” I didn’t tell him I had no formal training in acting, singing or dancing, and no stage experience apart from school assemblies and a freshman-year acting class.  

Amazingly, Danny Dare called me a couple of days later and invited me to his office at the Carousel Theatre. I’m sure my mother drove me — West Covina had no bus service — and dropped me off with a dime and instructions to call when my big meeting was finished. I stepped into Mr. Dare’s office, and although I don’t remember what he asked or what I said to sell myself, the conversation ended with him saying, “Well, let’s go inside the theater and see how you move on stage.”

Georgia Brown in the 1963 Broadway production of “Oliver!” Clive Revill, left, played Fagin. Davy Jones, later one of The Monkees, was the Artful Dodger.

A minute later, Dare introduced me to the director David Tihmar and instructed him to incorporate me into one of the crowd scenes – maybe the one in which the villain Bill Sykes clubs Nancy to death on the London Bridge as she’s delivering Oliver Twist to his freedom. I guess something went right, because the next thing I knew I was in the costume department being fitted as a working-class Londoner of the Edwardian era.

At 15, I was too old and too tall to play one of Fagin’s orphans, so there went my chance to sing “Food, Glorious Food!” and “It’s a Fine Life” or to lark about with a fake Cockney accent. Instead, I became a member of the chorus. I was in “Oom-Pah-Pah!,” the upbeat musical number in a tavern that opens Act Two, and I was a generic Londoner in “Who Will Buy?”

Zoya Leporska, our company’s disappearing choreographer.

For “Consider Yourself,” I had to learn some simple dance steps– but with no experience and no assistance I was lost. Zoya Leporska, our bottle-blonde Russian choreographer, made exactly one appearance during that week of rehearsals. Since several cast members had played Oliver! at the Melodyland Theatre in Anaheim the previous season, she ran them through it once and didn’t bother to take me aside and show me the steps. Poof!, she was gone.

So I learned by doing. I cringe remembering the mistakes I made in “Consider Yourself” during rehearsal and even in performance. In retrospect I wonder why they kept me in the show, but I guess I was cute and enthusiastic. Mr. Tihmar must’ve thought I was okay; or maybe Moose Peting, the amiable assistant director, put in a good word for me.

Fabulous “Boomie” DeWitt. He played the undertaker Mr. Sowerberry in “Oliver!”

Moose, who contrary to his name was small in stature, was one of several colorful characters in our company. Alan “Boomie” DeWitt was the first flamboyant queen I’d ever met and he would sashay backstage cooing “Moose, Darling!” to his best buddy. Boomie was very tall and wore glasses, and according to Moose he once decked a nasty stagehand for mocking his effeminate gestures. If you look closely at  A Star is Born with Judy Garland, Boomie plays one of the make-up artists who perform a bad makeover on Judy’s Esther Blodgett character. Which makes me just two degrees separated from Judy Garland, theatrically speaking.

Mr. Tihmar was also gay, but of a different variety than Boomie. He dressed impeccably, had a quasi-aristocratic air and, having been a hoofer on Broadway in Oklahoma!, he moved with a dancer’s grace. He wasn’t a bit overt in his sexuality – few were at that time – but one of my cast mates swore he padded his crotch with “plastic fruit.”

Georgia Brown was the star of “Oliver!” Great singer, but not a team player. I took this photo outside her dressing room, which didn’t please her. Later that day, I was hospitalized with hypothermia. (Not really, but you get the point.)

Victor Stiles, who appeared in the movie Santa Claus Conquers The Martians with Pia Zadora, had the title role of Oliver Twist. He was 14 and his voice had dropped, so it was agonizing to hear him battle the tender high notes on “Where Is Love?” Leo Fuchs, a Yiddish theater veteran and a total mensch, played Fagin, den father to the tribe of pickpockets. Mr. Fuchs (pronounced “Fyooks”) was beloved by all and an absolute contrast to Georgia Brown, an icy diva who acted as if this down-market gig was beneath her. I get that: Lionel Bart, the composer of Oliver!, had created the part of Nancy expressly for Georgia, so our suburban theater-in-the round probably felt like chicken feed after Broadway and the West End of London.

Oliver! was also my introduction to the catty, envy-fueled gossip that thrives in dressing rooms among lesser players and chorus members. A lot of the buzz centered on male celebrities who were secretly “queer.” Rock Hudson was mentioned – that turned out to be true – but some of my cast members claimed that Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster and Elvis Presley were also members of the lavender league. Even at 15, that sounded like hooey to me.

Victor Stiles, left, played Oliver Twist. He was 14 and his voice had dropped, so he struggled with the tender high notes on “Who Will Buy?”

I loved my time with Oliver! I adored being part of a company and hearing their gypsy tales of theaters they’d played and stars they’d performed with. I loved hearing Georgia Brown’s gutsy delivery of “As Long As He Needs Me” each night, and to this day I remember the lyrics to most of the songs. I felt a special frisson of excitement when friends came to see the show; when I recognized teachers and the West Covina High School librarian in the audience; when my mother attended a matinee with her friend Edwina Tisch.

Oliver! closed its two-week run in July 1966, and I slipped into a kind of withdrawal. Show business was my dream, and now that I had my foot in the door I wanted more. A production of Peter Weiss’s intense drama Marat/Sade was set to open at the Carousel in a couple of months, and when I asked Moose Peting how I might get cast, he smiled indulgently and said there wasn’t a chance in hell. Marat/Sade was a touring company and had already been cast in London and New York.

Oliver! was a feather in my cap and now that I’d scored my first professional stage credit I was eligible to join Actors Equity, the stage actors’ union. I don’t remember what it cost to join, but I have a sharp recollection of sobbing in the kitchen when my parents refused to pay the Equity membership fee. I’d been so lucky to get cast in Oliver! – a fluke, really — and now my dream was ending. Maybe this was my parents’ way of sparing me the torments of a cutthroat business.

I don’t have a picture of myself in “Oliver!” But this photo from 1966 shows me at the same age.

After Oliver! I hungered for another break. I wrote to the producers of A Separate Peace and Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones, two prospective movies with adolescent characters, but didn’t hear back. I acted in occasional student productions in high school and college, but looking back I wasn’t all that great. I had comic timing and I was good with accents and dialogue, but physically I was self-conscious and constricted — a big liability for an actor.

Moving to San Francisco after college, I still dreamed of being a theater professional. But auditions were traumatizing, and aside from small parts in two independent movies and a few months with a children’s theater company that performed in malls and county fairs — I was the Big Bad Wolf — I didn’t book any gigs.

Instead I focused on journalism, initially as a freelancer and then as an arts reporter and movie critic at the San Francisco Chronicle. I’m not sorry I didn’t pursue acting more diligently. I can’t afford those regrets, and I doubt I would have survived the disappointments and rejection of a professional actor. My hide isn’t thick enough.

So I sustain my love for movies and theater as a journalist and a devoted fan — not caught up in the business, but enjoying it from a comfortable distance. Acting and writing aren’t so different, really: they’re both about storytelling and they’re both fueled by a fascination with the funny, sad, surprising vagaries of human behavior.

Libraries and Me: A Lifetime Love Affair by
10
(24 Stories)

Prompted By Libraries

/ Stories

In the town where I grew up outside of Los Angeles, the public library would send a woman to ring your doorbell if you were delinquent in returning overdue books. She was perky and neighborly and had a kind smile. I remember my mom searching for a book, which she’d uncharacteristically forgotten, and apologizing as she handed it over to the friendly deputy.

My relationship with libraries is deep and affectionate, and I feel a strong sense of offended justice when I see library books that people have defaced or underlined or otherwise mistreated. What’s even worse is people who check out books and never return them.

I can’t imagine that happening today, what with libraries suffering budget cuts and people feeling afraid to open their doors to  strangers. But I’m glad I grew up in a time when that practice existed, because it reinforced for me the sense that libraries are special places built on democratizing principles; that reading is salvation and a gift; that library books are public property and not meant to be hoarded.

In my home town of West Covina there was a little library in a storefront across from the Presbyterian Church. I remember the slightly musty smells, the hushed and polite ambience, the peaceful, engaged faces of the patrons. I could sit down right now and draw you a floor map of all the bookcases, tables and chairs. I remember checking out Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Civil War classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin when I was 7 or 8, much to the librarian’s astonishment, and then not being able to read it because the language was so dated.

When I was 10 or 11, the city built a new, much-larger library near the city hall and police station. This was a big deal, civic-wise. There must have been five times as many books at the new facility. I discovered the periodicals section where newspapers were draped on slotted poles and arranged horizontally in racks. I would pull the Sunday New York Times and feast on the Arts & Leisure section with its news on Broadway shows and foreign films – a cherished window into a world of sophistication that from West Covina seemed awfully remote. They even had a large record section, where I discovered Bizet’s Carmen sung by Leontyne Price — my introduction to opera.

One day – I think I was 12 – I found a book on the making of The Misfits, the last movie for both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. The clerk at the check-out counter was a clenched-tight scold and she refused to check the book out to me. I found my mother in another part of the library and without missing a beat she walked me back to the check-out counter and asked the clerk to explain herself. “Well, it’s The Misfits!” the woman said as if the title alone could lead a young reader to filth and degradation. “He’s not old enough for that.”

“My son reads at an adult level,” my mother said, “and you have no right to refuse to check out this or any other book to him.” She was indignant and fired-up that afternoon, qualities she rarely evinced, and I remember the surprised charge I felt as she brilliantly defended my civil rights and put the tight-assed prude in her place. My mother prevailed and I took that book home. But I found nothing even slightly raunchy in it — just gossip about Marilyn’s personal demons and on-set tardiness.

Going to the library was always an occasion, something my mom, younger brother and I seemed to enjoy equally. Since West Covina was spread out and lacked public transportation, I was dependent on my mother to drive me. I often checked out multiple books and ended up not reading most of them. I read my first “grown-up book,” To Kill a Mockingbird, in seventh grade, fell in love with Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth in tenth grade and was dazzled by early installments of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood in The New Yorker — read aloud by my high-school journalism teacher Mrs. Schneidewind.

In college, I scored a job at the campus library and worked at the check-out counter. A dream job. I loved getting a behind-the-scenes view of library operations, loved the voyeuristic pleasure of seeing which books and magazines various people checked out. When I took a Shakespeare class I discovered the library’s large collection of plays on vinyl. You could rent a headset, schedule time at a turntable and hear Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith performing Othello or Richard Burton anguishing his way through Hamlet. With money earned working at that library, I financed my first summer-long trip to Europe.

My relationship with libraries is deep and affectionate, and I feel a strong sense of offended justice when I see library books that people have defaced or mistreated. What’s even worse is people who check out books and never return them. In college I was in the home of a spacey hippie named Laurel and commented on the due date in the handsome art book she’d taken from the campus library. “Oh yeah,” she said with an airy, indifferent shrug. “I liked it so much I decided to keep it.” How I wish I’d surreptitiously rescued that book and returned it to the library.

Years later, I found a months-overdue San Francisco Public Library book in my friend Marshall’s apartment. It was A Little Original Sin, Millicent Dillon’s excellent biography of the fiction writer Jane Bowles. I was crazy for that book, and the fact that Marshall was selfishly hoarding it and denying other people the joy of reading it was criminal to me. Criminal and appalling. I told him that, probably more vociferously than I needed to, and then picked up the book and walked out.

Today, I use my neighborhood library constantly. I read three or four books each month, most of them library books. I check out music and movies on DVD, and frequently go to oaklandlibrary.org to put a hold on a book, renew a book, or just peruse the variety of titles available from certain authors (lately I’m obsessed with Steinbeck). I have my gripes: Libraries aren’t nearly as quiet as they were when I was a kid, and often become day care centers for the stroller brigade of exhausted nannies and rowdy toddlers. There’s also an absence of professional comportment among library workers: You see employees in T-shirts and jeans looking like they just came off the soccer field. Even the branch manager at my neighborhood library wears his shirttail out. Yep, I’m old-school: I respect libraries and I think the people who operate them should dress professionally.

Last year I read Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, a wonderful study of the Los Angeles Public Library’s downtown facility: how in 1986 it suffered a massive, seven-hour fire that destroyed over a million books; how it recovered and today serves an amazingly wide demographic, including a large homeless population; how it adapts to changing times and continues to redefine the social, educational and spiritual functions of a public library.

Like me, Orlean formed her deep connection to libraries at a young age, starting with regular visits with her mother. I’ve always admired Orlean’s writing and The Library Book is one book I earnestly wish I had written myself. It’s graceful and passionate and it captures so beautifully the magic of libraries and the deep, abiding gratitude that library devotees like myself feel throughout our lives.

My Aunt Rollie: Loving, Uncompromising and Part Prussian General by
10
(24 Stories)

Prompted By Aunts & Uncles

/ Stories

Rollie, 1992. In front of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

My Aunt Rosalyn is tiny, just barely five feet. She’s formidable, shrewd, as tough as a general on a battlefield. I love her, despite her inflexibility and bossy nature.

She isn’t happy when her brothers marry non-Jewish women, and predictably takes a dim view of her son Donald’s tall, blonde girlfriend Sallie. One afternoon Sallie serves meat loaf, mashed potatoes and a simple green salad. Rollie is polite during the meal, but when Donald and Sally leave the room she asks me, "So what’d you think of that?” “Oh, it was fine,” I answer. "I call that Shiksa food,” she says.

I love her when she takes time to sit with me and ask me the questions that no one else does. I love her when she sends her annual birthday card with a check for five dollars inside — long past the point when five dollars means anything. I love her when I get older and realize how crafty, autocratic and manipulative she is.

I even love her after she’s horrible to my mother Roberta and refuses, during a decade-long estrangement, to consider that her own vanity has fueled her foolish grudge.

My brothers and I call her Rollie, at her request, and in my first four and a half years, before our family moves from Chicago to California, Rollie is a frequent, indelible presence in our lives. I remember thinking very early that my mother, grandmother and Rollie were a female triumvirate, each one vital and significant. I thought everyone had a Rollie.

Rollie in her twenties.

She was born Rosalyn Lina Guthmann in 1903, the oldest of three children and my father’s senior by 11 years. Her father David Raphael Guthmann, was a harsh, short-tempered bully who ran the household like a dictator, keeping my grandma Sadie on a short financial leash. By her own admission, Rosalyn takes after her father far more than she does her mother.

In addition to my dad Marvin there’s another brother, Dave. Three years Rollie’s junior, he’s the black sheep of the family, a loner and misfit. Marvin is her adored pet for the rest of her life: Even when he battles with my brothers and me and unleashes horrible flashes of violent temper, she remains blind to his flaws.

At 25, Rollie marries Dick Harris, a man 10 years her senior and so acquiescent to her wishes and expectations that, for all I know, they never fight. “He had the most wonderful disposition of anybody I ever met,” she enthuses several years after his death. “That man never said anything not nice about anybody.”

In the 1930s and ‘40s, the Harrises operate a radio-repair shop called Radio Doctors. Soft-spoken Uncle Dick is ostensibly the co-proprietor, but everyone who steps foot in the establishment knows instantly who’s the boss. Rollie keeps the books and the payroll, stands behind the technicians while they fix the radios and decides when, if ever, employees get a raise.

Rollie and her husband Dick Harris at the Chicago World’s Fair, 1933. “He had the most wonderful disposition of anyone I ever met.”

“I was the one that had to fight,” she remembers. “Fight with the suppliers, fight with the customers. Dick would just say, ‘Wait, I’ll call the boss’s daughter.’ That was me, ‘the boss’s daughter.’ ”

“She was so tight with the buck,” my dad recalls, “that your Uncle Dick used to steal a couple o’ bucks out of the till when she wasn’t looking.”

Rollie has two sons, and both take after her far more than they do their father. She’s the disciplinarian: “If the boys were naughty Dick told me, ‘You ought to punish them.’ He never did. So I would go in the bathroom and sit on the toilet seat and spank them. Then I’d go in my room and cry.”

Bob, her first and favorite, dutifully calls his mother every day of his life. Donald, her second, shares her apartment throughout his forties and fifties. Most nights he sleeps at his girlfriend Sallie’s place, but comes home for breakfast, goes to work and is back at Rollie’s for dinner. The bonds are fierce.

Rosalyn is a man’s woman and much tougher on women than she is on men. Her siblings and children are all men and the women they marry are subject to a high grade of scrutiny. She sees herself as having a man’s competence and self-reliance and considers most women weak, overly emotional and untrustworthy.

Rollie, 1937. At Radio Doctors, the radio repair shop she operated in Chicago. “I was always a businesswoman.”

“I’m so glad I was born a woman,” she tells me once in a typically unedited moment, “so I didn’t have to marry one.”

She isn’t happy when her brothers marry non-Jewish women, and predictably takes a dim view of Donald’s tall, blonde girlfriend Sallie. One afternoon at Donald’s house in suburban Chicago, Sallie serves meat loaf, mashed potatoes and a simple green salad. Rollie is polite during the meal, but when Donald and Sallie leave the room there’s a disapproving sneer on her face. “So what’d you think of that?” she asks. “Oh, it was fine,” I answer, cautiously noncommittal. “I call that Shiksa food,” she says, her upper lip curled in disgust.

And here’s another thing about Rollie: she is frugal to an extreme. Pathologically parsimonious. She never buys furniture or household items, but brings stuff home from the thrift store where she volunteers. Her sofa and chairs are covered in plastic. Even the arrangement of plastic grapes on the coffee table is shielded against dust by a plastic tea cozy. Rollie doesn’t travel, rarely buys nice clothes for herself and never dines in expensive restaurants.

Once during a visit to Chicago, I need to call the California hospital where my mother has just had hip surgery. Rollie instantly orders me to charge the call to my home phone number. “All right,” I say, “but I need to call directory assistance to get the number.” (The Internet is still pre-natal.) “Well,” she counters, “that costs money, too.” So I charge the 50-cent directory assistance call to my home number.

When her son Bobby takes her out for dinner, she orders enough for two, barely touches her food and takes the rest home in doggie bags to last through the week. This is all perfectly loony, because in fact Rollie has tons of money – far more, we later discover, than anyone suspects. And she has it precisely because she never spends it.

“You’re a wealthy woman,” my dad tells her. “Why don’t you enjoy it?”

“I don’t know how,” she answers, a bit mournfully.

During her annual visits to California, Rollie initiates a game called “Store.” Out comes the card table, which represents a sales counter in a retail establishment. My brothers and I gather random items from around the house, arrange them on the sales counter with price tags, and await our first customer.

The door opens and Mrs. Harris enters with great dignity — posture erect, carrying a purse full of Monopoly money. “Hello, young man,” she intones with efficient formality. “May I see your merchandise?” This is our cue to describe the items on the table and their designated price. Bartering may ensue, then an exchange of money – here we learn to carefully make change — and in the end our satisfied customer brings her commerce to a close. Purse snapped shut, head held high, she bids us a gracious good day. An impeccable performance.

Thrift, caution and the prudent budgeting and investment of money are everything. “You don’t pay any attention to finance, Eddie,” she says with grave concern when I’m in my forties. “You should. Finance is very important – it has to do with almost everything. The reason Hitler got so strong is he was a sharp guy and he figured, ‘The Jews have the money and I’m going to get their money.’ Why do you think he wanted to kill all those Jews? He was envious. He wanted what they had and baby, he got it.”

In the Chicago apartment where Rollie lived for 43 years, 6118 N. Sheridan Rd.

I have a soft spot for Rollie, because we have a mutual affection society and because she is so dramatically unlike anyone I’ve ever known. In my adult years, I visit her periodically and in 1987 bring a video camera to interview her about her life. She speaks with warm affection of her four grandparents, all of whom were living in Chicago when she was young, cries when remembering my dad as a baby and again when she describes my grandmother, so undervalued by her husband, as “a lady.”

On another visit, I videotape Rollie at the Michael Reese Service League Thrift Shop, where she’s volunteered every Saturday since 1953, and record her busting the store manager’s balls and skillfully mesmerizing her favorite customer into another purchase (“She buys a lot of stuff,” Rollie confides in a stage whisper).

We drop by the Field Museum of Natural History where Bushman, a taxidermied gorilla and former star attraction at the Lincoln Park Zoo, is preserved inside a large plexiglass cube. Bushman, not coincidentally, was my mother’s pet when he was a baby in Cameroun. She was a missionary’s daughter and born in Cameroun — but that’s another story.

After paying homage to Bushman, Rollie and I are resting on a bench. “Look over there,” I observe. “They’ve got an American Indian exhibit.” “Oh, I don’t like Indians,” she replies. “They all want something for nothing.”

Later the same year, Rollie flies to Seattle for my brother Dave’s wedding, where the incident occurs that frosts her against my mother. As the wedding is about to begin, my parents are seated in the front pew with Mom’s sisters, Esther and Winifred. Seeing that my Uncle Dave is in the second row with his family, Mom suggests Rosalyn sit with them. Seems logical. Rollie complies, but considers this an outrageous affrontery – as the family matriarch, she expects the ultimate in deference — and seethes with resentment.

When they are finally in the same room several years later, Mom approaches to hug Rollie, who stiffens and steps back. “I see you have a very short memory,” she sniffs. My dad spends years trying to reason her out of her grudge, and when Rollie complains to me about her perceived slight I remind her that my mother – a Guthmann by marriage only — visited Grandma every day in the nursing home where she died. “Can’t you let that guide your opinion of my mother?” I argue. “She treated Grandma as if she were her own mother.”

Rollie with her brothers, 1987. My dad Marv at left, Uncle Dave at right.

It’s useless: there is no dissuading Rollie from a fixed position, especially as she ages and becomes correspondingly more rigid. Everyone in the family is afraid of her. If she ever entertains doubts regarding her intellect, competence and superior judgment, I never see them.

I didn’t see Rollie the last five years of her life. I’m told she is greatly diminished, and when I call my cousin Bobby he discourages my visiting. She has a series of live-in caretakers, but her kvetching and demands are so harsh that one by one the workers quit. Eventually, the agency refuses to send anyone.

Rollie dies in 1999, having seen nearly the entire 20th century. A month later a letter from Donald arrives in the mail. I assume it’s an inheritance check — Rollie always promised me I’d be remembered in her will — but when I open the envelope I’m disappointed that my bequest is just $10,000. I’m embarrassed to say I expected much more, even hoped it would expedite my retirement. Soon I see this as a life lesson: Never, ever adjust your life in expectation of a gift. That’s the poison of greed.

When she dies, everyone is astonished at the size of her estate. We’ve always known Rollie invested wisely and hoarded her money with a miserly rigor — but $30 million? Seventy percent of it goes to the IRS because she didn’t shelter it, the rest to her sons and grandchildren. There’s also a generous gift to the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, which displays its gratitude by posthumously naming a baby gorilla “Rollie.”

I think of Rollie often. I miss her unconditional love; the tender way she shared stories about my forebears; her exasperating, proud and imperious, take-no-prisoners way of walking through life.

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