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Archive for the ‘Making of JAD’ Category

27 January

Memories of Muriel

Former Las Vegan, Robert Martin, was a close friend of Muriel’s from his early teenage years into adulthood. Bob is a graduate of Wharton and La Sorbonne in Paris, the latter venue influenced by Muriel’s stories. He has traveled the world and recently retired to settle in Shanghai, China. Bob, his sister, Fran, and I (Patricia) recently spent a wonderful afternoon together at my home in Las Vegas, reminiscing about Muriel and leafing through all of Muriel’s old, absolutely fascinating scrapbooks, pictures and news clippings.

We ended our lovely afternoon in a fashion Muriel would have highly approved. Bob, in grand style, seated himself at Muriel’s beautiful, seventy year old piano and began to play. Her crystal ashtray was in its usual place (covering the small burn scar from one of her cigarettes), and a glass of her favorite scotch and water (just one ice cube, of course) was placed within easy reach. Bob, a wonderful pianist, relished performing on Muriel’s piano after all these years, and Fran and I loved listening to his music, sipping our wine and remembering. As the last, beautiful chords of “Alfie” faded away, we drank a heartfelt toast to Muriel who, along with Alfie, finally figured out what it was all about—and who left a lasting impression on us all.   Today, Bob recalls a few of his memories of Muriel.

Memories of Muriel

Muriel was always our first choice in whom to invite when we had house guests, because we didn’t have to provide any other entertainment. During my last year of high school and when I was back home visiting from college and later, while in the Army, I saw a lot of Muriel.  She was at our house for almost every Thanksgiving and Christmas.  In addition, Muriel spent innumerable hours playing Yatzee with my mother, Helen, each unyieldingly competitive in nature.

When we had family or close friends visiting from out of town, I would hear my mother’s deep Texas accent on the phone with Muriel. “Well, are you coming over?  So and so are visiting and they want to see you. Yes, there will be food, so dry up and get your butt over here!”

Muriel loved the companionship, and I think she also liked the fact that a lot of my family and friends didn’t know much about Paris and the 1920’s.  They liked her for just who she was—a lively, fun loving character.

During those years, a favorite activity for Muriel and me was going to the movies, often with my sister, Fran.  We generally went to either one of two kinds of movies.  Comedies were a big hit, and Muriel would bellow out, laughing and slapping her knees in films like It’s a Mad Mad Mad World, or Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines.  But what I really loved was taking her to edgier films.  Two movies I remember in particular were Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Clockwork Orange.  These kinds of films would generate lots of lively conversation that lasted late into the night.

Generally, after picking the film apart as much as we could, the conversation would narrow down to Muriel saying, “You know, there is nothing new in these films that I have not seen before.  We had dialogues just as gutsy in plays and films in my day.”

I was studying the Theatre of the Absurd in college at the time, and would counter forcefully, “The tough dialogue in your day was there to get to the bedrock truth of things. But writers like Albee and Beckett are saying there is no bedrock truth, just nothingness and absurdity of existence!”

A knockdown drag-out argument would often follow, with a truce being declared over a few drinks.

Now, Muriel is gone and I am a lot older and wiser.  Fortunately, she had patience with me, perhaps remembering her own youth. For instance, now I know that the Dada movement had an overwhelming  influence over art in the last half of the 20th century and prefigured the absurd theatre, Pop Art and Postmodernism.  Think about it—there was Muriel in her early 20’s singing in the famous Boeuf Sur Le Toit with Francis Picabia’s seminal Dadaist painting, The Cacodylic Eye, looking out from over the bar. The Boeuf was a watering hole for the Dada and Surrealist greats.  Man Ray had taken her photo, for God’s sake.  Who was I to lecture her about the 20th century Avant Garde?

Muriel could go from the sublime to the ridiculous with little time lost with the sudden shifts in subject or location. She was equally at home with either and all points in between.  She loved to go on our family drives into the high desert and explore old ghost towns.  She and my mother made themselves comfortable in the back seat with pillows and a good supply of cigarettes.  My father drove and I craned my neck in all directions, not wanting to miss the view out front nor the lively conversation from the back seat.

One afternoon, we decided to drive out to the remote ghost town of Delamar, several hours northeast of Las Vegas and only accessible by a poorly maintained dirt road that went up the mountain and around numerous hairpin curves. My father was a poor driver even on the straight city streets of Las Vegas. On the road to Delamar, he was a terrifying menace!  The inside of the car was pure white silence and total fear.

Suddenly, Muriel cried out, “Tsplaaa! For christ’s sake, Robert, slow down and watch where you’re going!  You just made me eat my cigarette!”

Sure enough, there was tobacco all over her mouth and down the front of her blouse.  Later, she would joke that out of fear, she was eating the cigarettes and spitting out the butts!  Visiting the crumbling buildings and the cemetery of Delamar with Muriel was great fun, because I heard more about her adventures as a child in Manhattan and Tonopah, Nevada.

Later, we decided to venture on beyond the next town of Caliente to a fleck on the map called Acoma. We drove aimlessly in the desert and finally saw a lone American Indian standing under a small, dried up tree.  My father stopped and asked, “Can you tell us the way to Acoma?”

“You’re in it,” the fellow answered dryly.

On the way home, Muriel joked that not only had she eaten cigarettes that day, but she had also been in a coma!

Quintessential Muriel!

20 January

YMCA

 

 

 

 

 

YMCA – Who Knew?

Tracing Muriel’s unpredictable path across eight decades and two continents is a lot of work and brings with it unexpected detours – most of them self-inflicted.   Almost daily, I trip across an interesting nugget regarding a person she knew, a place she went or an event she was part of that is not critical to telling her story, but too interesting to ignore.  All self-control vanishes and I find myself shocked when six precious hours later, I find myself still researching that little piece of information that caught my interest.  Surprising behavior from a guy who hated history in school.

Such is the case with some letters I was recently reading from several of Muriel’s admirers during World War I.  These brave, young men’s words, and often what wasn’t said, spoke volumes about who they were and the times they lived in. It brought back memories of what I felt when I wrote home from Vietnam.  Being in harms way, so far from everything you love and with no certainty that you will ever see them again, is a terrible feeling unlike any other.  Your fear and the things you do and witness, are not something you want to inflict on others, so your letters consist of only mundane things, a line about the awful weather and a simple “Miss You” at the end that doesn’t begin to express the depth of how much you miss your family and all that is familiar.

It was with this in mind that I pulled a letter, yellowed with age, out of the stack Muriel had kept all these years.  It was from Bert Woods, a dear, childhood friend of hers.  Bert, still a teenager, was a 2nd Lt. serving as an artillery officer in France at the height of the war.  From what I know about the hellish artillery battles that raged during this time period, Bert must have been exposed to the most barbaric and horrific sights and sounds one can possibly imagine, yet his letters to Muriel were sweet and gentle and kind.

What intrigued me was the red YMCA stamp on the envelope and at the top of each page of the letter.  I didn’t know anything about the YMCA other than it stood for “Young Men’s Christian Association” and the Village People made a lot of money singing about it in the 1970s.  The fact the YMCA existed way back in 1918 and was on stationary from a young man stationed in France during World War I was curious.  My first thought was that maybe Bert had religious relatives or friends who gave him the stationary as a gift before he went overseas.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I was shocked to discover that the history of the YMCA working with the military predates the Civil War.  As the Red Cross had yet to be founded, the YMCA gathered 5,000 volunteers, who served without pay, to provide physical and spiritual relief to those in need from both sides of the war.  Some served as surgeons, nurses and chaplains while others distributed medical supplies, food and clothing. They also taught the men how to read and write (and wrote letters home if they couldn’t), maintained hotels for soldiers on leave and provided free meals.  President Lincoln praised their Civil War efforts numerous times.

The Spanish American War marked the first time the YMCA supported troops overseas.  YMCA volunteers were dispatched to Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines with medicine, office supplies and other essential materials that often arrived before the Army’s supplies did.  Many of the early dispatches from Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” were written on YMCA stationary.

When the United States entered World War I, it was ill prepared for war.  It not only lacked trained soldiers and equipment, but this was the first time the United States had ever sent troops overseas on such a massive scale.  There was no military infrastructure in place to house, feed and take care of their basic needs.  General John H. Pershing, commander of American Forces in World War I, had been impressed with the way the YMCA had taken care of his troops along the Mexican border.  They had built mobile canteens, recreational facilities and provided other humane services for the troops.  When the United States declared war in 1917, the YMCA immediately offered their services.  President Wilson and General Pershing quickly accepted and challenged them with an enormous undertaking.

During the first year of the war, the YMCA staff of mostly volunteers went from about a thousand to over 35,000.  They greeted the troops as they arrived overseas with a care package of basic supplies like a toothbrush, soap and writing materials, and was their main connection with home for the duration of the war.

Imagine this, during World War I:

  • The YMCA built and operated 25 R&R leave centers that accommodated nearly 2 million men.
  • They built and operated over 4,000 “huts” and tents for recreational and religious services.
  • They organized and operated the first military post office reducing the time it took to send and receive a letter from six months to a month.
  • Over 8,000 troop trains were served by YMCA volunteers.
  • They operated 1,500 canteens and post exchanges.
  • The YMCA oversaw operations of 44 factories in Europe that made cookies and candy for the troops.
  • They provided humanitarian services for over 5 million prisoners of war – for both sides.
  • 286 members of the YMCA were wounded with six being killed – 4 men and two women.
  • The YMCA received 319 citations and decorations for their service during the war.
  • The YMCA provided over 80,000 educational scholarships to veterans of WWI – a forerunner of the GI Bill.

If this wasn’t enough, the YMCA established an organization that brought nearly two thousand entertainers to the troops.  This organization would one day evolve into the USO.  I can’t tell you how much it meant when I got to see Bob Hope and his cast at Freedom Hill in Vietnam in 1969.  Little did I know that it was through the efforts of what the men and women of the YMCA had started so many years before.

What makes this truly impressive was that all this was done not for profit, but in the name of humanity and for the sole purpose of serving others.  If mattered not the color of your skin, your religious beliefs or even if you were friend or foe – these remarkable men and women of the YMCA served them all with limited money and resources, under difficult circumstances and yet with remarkable efficiency.

Who knew?

I will never look at those four letters the same way.

13 January

Finding Muriel – Part 2

Finding Muriel – Part II

 June 2011 – San Anselmo, California

We meandered down the village streets of San Anselmo on our way to meet Judy Coy, a most helpful individual who has a passion for history.  Her involvement in the San Anselmo Museum proved to be a wonderful resource for our efforts to discover more about Samuel Penfield Taylor, Muriel’s great-grandfather.  Judy’s articles that have been published in the local newsletters concerning San Anselmo history, and the Taylor family history (written with George H. Stevens) in particular have been incredibly helpful. Today, we are to meet Judy at one of the former Taylor houses in San Anselmo.

The 102 Ross Avenue home now serves as a parish hall for St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church and is beautifully preserved.  It was built in 1886 by Federick Sproul Taylor, Samuel and Sarah’s youngest son.  It was of interest to us as Muriel’s parents, Samuel Penfield (Pen) Taylor and Ruth Sheldon, were married in this house in 1900.  We believe that Ruth’s parents, Harry Frankfort Sheldon and Laura Jane Geddes, were living in the house at the time.  We aren’t sure how the Sheldons knew the Taylors and why they were living in a Taylor home – stay tuned, we will let you know when we do.

Across the street at 101 Ross Avenue is a Taylor home that was built by another Taylor son and his wife, William and Ella Taylor. Today, the home is owned by the San Francisco Theological Seminary that was built at the top of the hill in 1871.  It is a beautiful house in the Victorian style, common for that era, and remains even today a beautiful home.

Various other Taylor homes still exist in the area, including the home that Sarah Taylor (Samuel’s widow) built.  The house was moved several years ago from its original location and was undergoing major renovations when we walked over to see it.  It wasn’t hard to imagine Sarah sitting on the porch with lots of family going in and out and her 21 grandchildren playing in the yard.

But it was the house at the corner of Saunders and Taylor streets that I really wanted to see; the house that James Taylor, eldest son of Samuel P. Taylor and Muriel’s grandfather, built in 1899.  This was the house that Muriel told us so many stories about.  It was the house where, at the age of two, she fell out of the second story window and lived to tell about it, with great drama and effect.  It was in this back yard where her Grandfather built a stage that featured the talents of many notable friends and family, Muriel included.  It’s probably where Muriel first found that the thrill of performing and applause suited her just fine, thank you very much!

So wouldn’t you know it, but that was the house that today, we could barely get a glimpse of!  It is gated with heavy overgrowth and a barking dog.  We managed to get a couple of glimpses, but a more thorough investigation was not possible.  James and his wife Jean lived here until they died when Muriel was a teenager.

We piled into Judy’s car and went on down Sir Francis Drake Boulevard which, as Judy explained it, was the very path where 160 years ago, a train travelled to the paper mill to provide supplies, and then returned with the finished goods.  We were on the way to Samuel Penfield Taylor State Park!

The park turned out to be everything Muriel told me it would be – breathtakingly beautiful, serene and pretty much the way it was when her grandfather ventured into Marin County in search of lumber and a place to build a paper mill. The redwoods were incredible and the vegetation so lush it felt like we were walking in a place out of time.  There are still remnants of both mills and other artifacts that have been left to commemorate the history of the area.  The walking trail back to where the mills had been provided a peaceful and perfect setting to enjoy the stories Judy was sharing about the area and the Taylor family. Thank you, Judy, for giving of your time, talents and amazing ability to make a place and its people come alive!

The Taylors were true California pioneers.  Muriel, born in 1902, was a forth generation Californian.  Even today, it is rare event to find someone that goes back that many generations in this state.  And rarer yet, to find a family that has had such an impact on a particular area.  Taylor descendants still live in the county and contribute to the fabric of society.

As we walked back to the car to leave the park, I heard laughing children in the distance, there with their families to enjoy the great outdoors.  I tried to imagine what it was like over one hundred years ago to travel here from San Francisco for a weekend at Camp Taylor or the hotel they built here on the grounds.  The camp was one of the first in the nation to offer an outdoor camping experience.  It seems fitting that now recreation is its primary purpose.  I am always amazed how the universe eventually seems to put things back the way they are intended.

Muriel hadn’t been back to San Anselmo, or her beloved Russian River, for decades before she died.  I could hear in her voice when she told her stories how special these places and the people who lived here were to her. The home of our youth, what magical wonderful places they become when aged with the patina of the passing of the years and fading memories.  Sometimes, going back becomes a harsh reality check when you discover that time has changed so much and that places seen through the eyes of a child don’t always live up to the adult experience.  But in this case, as I tried to see it through Muriel’s eyes, I decided that it was everything she said it was.  That it lived up to and surpassed what I envisioned when I heard her stories.  This time it was everything I wanted it to be. She would have been happy.

6 January

My Own Auntie Mame

Jeralyn Luetkehans Prouty is married with two kids. She is a scientist, but has blended in the arts by building a solid reputation for writing and presenting information to various types of audiences.

My Own Auntie Mame

Muriel came into my life as my piano teacher when I was about 10 years old, but she became so much more. She was original, outrageous, funny, and completely captivating. She was my own personal Auntie Mame.

You remember Auntie Mame don’t you–the movie with Rosalind Russell in the title role? You may also remember it as a musical with Angela Lansbury on stage or with Lucille Ball in the movie.  Okay, for those of you who are either too young or just not into classic movies, it tells the story of an orphan boy raised by his eccentric, free-spirited aunt who is at odds with the conservative executor of the late father’s estate. It’s worth renting. Anyway, Auntie Mame had a great sense of humor and knew how to live life to the max:

“Life is a banquet! And most poor suckers are starving to death!”

–Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame (1958)

That was one of my favorite lines from the movie, and I can’t help thinking of Muriel every time I hear it. Muriel not only knew how to take a seat at the banquet, she behaved as though the banquet was thrown in her honor.

When I was young I often related to the world through old movies and plays, especially if they were musicals. In my family, it was common for situations to remind us of lines in a song. Invariably, one or more of us would start singing the song and then break out in laughter. Of course, Muriel was a great addition to this fun. As a result while all of my friends knew the top songs on the radio, I knew show tunes. I had been singing since I was old enough to be put into a church choir, and I had been taking dance since I was 5. I was probably quite full of myself. Having the sharp memory of youth (I swear that comes from simply not having many memories yet to hamper access and retrieval), I could tell you all sorts of trivia about who was in what, when, where, and why.

But Muriel could tell you stories upon stories from personal experience about fascinating people, places, and events. The piano lessons were wonderful, yet it was the conversation I came to crave. My mother (Patricia) is a consummate hostess (ask anyone, they’ll tell you), and my parents entertained fairly often. Muriel became a regular at the house, though Mom was careful who she threw into the mix. Like Auntie Mame, Muriel could ruffle the sensibilities of some people. The bigger danger was inviting someone who tried to vie with her for the spotlight. Muriel would allow others to have the spotlight for a time, but you had to know when to give it up. If you went on too long, she would fix her clear blue eyes on you. “That’s nice dear, but get off the stage now. It’s my turn.”

Like most children, I didn’t always have the best sense of timing about those things. Because of her fondness for me, Muriel would soften it by whispering in a conspiratorial tone, “It’s always best to leave the audience wanting more.” To me, this was great advice from a professional. It took me awhile to appreciate the fact that she never tolerated being upstaged by anyone, even a child. Not that it mattered to me. I looked upon her with the uncomplicated adoration of a child, and in return was rewarded with incredible life lessons.

One of the most important things Muriel taught me was probably not something she intended to teach. She taught me how to grow old. She was almost 70 when I first met her, and I didn’t really have other examples around me. I never knew my grandmothers and have only vague memories of my grandfathers. Muriel did not “age gracefully”; that was too meek. She did not fight age “kicking and screaming”; that was a waste of time. Instead, she met the challenges squarely, determined to live life fully and on her terms. She might tell you a story from 50 years ago or relate something amusing that happened just the week before.  She enjoyed her past, but didn’t live in the past. Her present and future were always ripe with possibilities too.

Muriel also taught me about the proper place of “things” in life. My Christmas present to her in later years was always to polish all the collectables in her trailer. She loved pretty things and had excellent taste. Over her life she had won and lost fortunes. But there was no bitterness about what was gone. She had no patience for the game of “poor little me” and rarely indulged. The times of plenty represented grand adventures, the memories of which she treasured. Things were to be enjoyed while you had them, and remembered with fondness when you didn’t.

As I got older, Muriel watched my growing love of performing, and she encouraged me a few times to go to New York. “If you really want to get into the business, that’s the place you need to be,” she advised. In the privacy of my fantasy life, I certainly dreamed of becoming a performer. While I was a high achiever academically, I was often shy and uncertain in social situations unless I knew the people around me well. On stage, it was different. I never felt more alive than when I was on stage. I had some talent; with more training and hard work I could probably have become a competent performer. In the end though, I had to grow up and face the fact that, even though the arts would always be a part of me, I would never pursue it as a profession.

I was missing something…something Muriel had without thinking about it. It was as natural to her as breathing. She had that spark, a fire within her that commanded attention. You could love Muriel or not, but you could never be indifferent to her. Even now years after her death, she is commanding our attention, insisting “Listen to me, dammit!”

Muriel was, is, and always will be a Diva.

30 December

An Ever Changing Cloud

An Ever Changing Cloud

Every time I try to tell Muriel’s story, I find myself reverting back to childhood when abundance of imagination made all things possible.  As pleasant as this may sound –  in this case it’s a curse.

I spent so many of those precious, magical days looking up at puffy, pure-white clouds trying to figure out what they looked like.  As the winds would push one across the bright, blue sky, it first would resemble an angel, then change quickly into a towering castle Walt Disney would have been proud of and finally, a fierce, fire-breathing dragon.  Then it would suddenly, and for no good reason, disappeared all together.

Muriel’s stories, especially the way she told them, were much like those clouds. They would take my imagination to heightened states, but just when I thought I understood her and that I had finally discovered the essence of what made her do the things she did, she would morph into something else all together. It was usually the fire breathing dragon, for she would take that moment to sit back in her chair, take a long drag of her cigarette and as she exhaled, give me a sly smile as if to say, “Got ya.”

Thirty years ago my sister, Patricia, made a heroic attempt to write Muriel’s life story with Muriel’s assistance.  This was an impossible task as Muriel refused to be seen as vulnerable or flawed in any way.  About twenty years ago, I decided to give it a shot and over the years started two books and a screen play.  Every time, about a third of the way in, I always hit a road block feeling I had missed the mark somehow – that Muriel was something other than what I had written.

During the fifteen years my family knew Muriel, several of us unsuccessfully tried to peel away her layers. Was she the “Loveable Bitch” as Patricia called her, or was she just a woman whose life had thrown her the grandest of parties with the occasional tragedy thrown in to balance things out?  At eighty, was she the same mischievous imp who, as a child, got her thrills breaking all the rules, or did something happen along the way that hardened her to the point where she demanded control in all things?  Was Muriel’s never ending quest for the spotlight an all-consuming, narcissistic compulsion where she did damage to those around her (and herself), or was she a victim of betrayal, blind trust and the times?   Did the Jazz Age fulfill her dream of becoming a star, or destroy what could have been?  Was her heart full of love, sadness, anger, regret or something else entirely?

Maybe Muriel is not complex at all and in reality the purest of WYSIWYGs (What You See Is What You Get).  Could it be that she was only one extremely interesting, attractive, talented, tempting, wonderful, frustrating, inscrutable layer who took great joy letting people search for more?

So after decades of pouring over her diaries, scouring her scrapbooks, examining every article written about her, investigating everyone she met, places she had ever been and recalling fifteen years of conversations with her, I still can’t tell you I know who Muriel was.  All I know for sure is that the story of her life is as seductive as it is addictive – just like she was.  Why else, nearly 30 years after her death, would I find myself sitting here still trying to figure out what made her tick?

My only conclusion is that the answers to all these questions are very much like that even changing cloud – it all depends on when you happen look and what your imagination allows you make of it.

So, in the coming months we will continue to share the facts of Muriel’s life the best we know them and let your imagination make of it what you will – but be prepared to love her, or not, for there is no middle ground when it comes to this Jazz Age Diva.