Back in Springfield, Missouri, where my grandmother was from, she and Kate ran a boardinghouse together. When my grandparents moved out to California in 1900 with baby Tom and his elder sister, Jinny, Kate came with them to help look after little Tom. In fact, when Dick, Brian, and I would spend the night, I would sleep in Kate's room, which faced the street and had a big cut-glass fan window. This was wonderful to me because Kate was probably the first person I ever felt bonded to. In the constellation of an elusive mother, unsmiling grandmothers, and faceless housekeepers, Kate was the only grown-up who seemed to want to be with me. I remember her sweet patient old face and small, wrinkly, blue-veined hands. I'd trace the veins, pushing gently on them, marveling at how soft, pliant, and collapsible they were. And she'd let me. Unlike Grandmother, who usually seemed to have high expectations of us little ones, that we should live up to some kind of standard, Kate was just loving.
When pretend class would be in session out in the back playhouse, I would be the seven-year-old know-it-all teacher and Kate would dutifully make mistake after mistake, which I'd correct with exasperation and rolling eyes. When Kate would bake pies in the big kitchen in the main house, she would collect all the leftover bits of dough and make crisp piecrust cookies for us that she'd sprinkle with powdered sugar and cinnamon. I make them too, to this day, every time I bake a pie.
Many years ago, Whitney told me that once divorced from my father, she'd wanted to relocate from Pasadena to Hollywood to fully pursue her career but was afraid to move there as a single woman. She said it wouldn't be smart and she felt vulnerable, that it might not "look right" for a pretty young thing to come to town unprotected. And that was why she latched onto Jack. My mother met Jack X (the lack of a period was what he called his signature) Fields, a theatrical agent, when he came to see her in her first professional part: a production of The Women at the Hollywood Playhouse on Las Palmas. Jack must have seen promise in Whitney's performance because afterward he sent word backstage that he'd like to represent her. Jack was not an attractive man, but he was six feet tall, distinguished-looking, graceful, and solidly built like the boxer he'd once been. Most important, he believed in Whitney enough to orchestrate for her a Hollywood-style makeover.
He came up with the stage name of Whitney Blake. He had her lighten her dark hair blond and—as I saw one day in the second grade when she came to pick me up—get a nose job. It's a vivid memory: her hair was curled, she was wearing high heels and a tight gray pencil skirt, and there was a big bandage over the center of her face.
With that, the transformation from regular pretty girl to dazzling ingénue was complete. In fact, she'd often be mistaken for Kim Novak or Carroll Baker.