Jack controlled most elements of our lives. We weren’t allowed to argue. We weren’t allowed to be angry. We learned the hard way about why we should be wary of him while his back was turned. Over the years, one of my brothers or I would make the mistake of trying to get his attention by approaching and tapping him from behind. He would spin around and punch us in the stomach with a closed fist and then apologize. “Oh, sorry,” he’d say. “It’s my boxer instincts. Don’t do that.”
There were also infractions that Jack considered so egregious they could be remedied only by sending the transgressor out to the backyard to collect a thin branch from a big carob tree and
bring it inside to him. Then he’d administer an old- school whipping on the backs of our legs. I understood the concept of “If kids do something wrong, they should be disciplined.” But with
Jack, the punishment rarely fit the crime. One trip I took out to the carob tree occurred after Jack found out that I bought candy after promising him that I wouldn’t. I paid the price by being
switched and arriving at school the next day with ugly red welts on my calves.
When Brian was about ten, I can remember Jack taking him into the downstairs den and switching him until his pained cries could be heard all over the house. I thought someone had to save him, so I ran up the stairs until I could see the door to Whitney and Jack's room. It was closed. I knew she was in there. The policy was that if the door were open, you could knock on it and see if anyone answered. But if the door were closed, that meant Don't Even Knock. We did not ever, under any circumstances, walk in. So many times, I remember standing on the stairs, just watching that door, willing it to open; willing her to notice what was going on in our house.
If there ever was a pure Hollywood agent, it was Jack. On one hand he was a master manipulator, the kind of guy who liked pulling strings, making things happen quietly behind the scenes.
He'd build his credit by exacting favors when needed. Because I found him so harsh, I was surprised to discover that he actually had another dimension. In the late '40s and early '50s, when blacklisting was at the height of its power, he lent a hand to many folks who'd found themselves on the wrong side of the House Un-American Activities Committee, who were blacklisted for supposedly being Communists or Communist sympathizers and unable to find work in Hollywood. Jack helped actors like Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford, Woody Strode, Marsha Hunt, and Strother Martin get back on their feet by finding them gigs on commercials and other work situations.
And there was Jack's Home for Wayward Actors, a little guest room off our backyard where Jack would install clients who were between jobs. I'm not sure how the wonderful character actor Frank Silvera ended up there, but he was one of our more permanent residents. He stayed with us for about two years so we teasingly called him The Man Who Came to Dinner. He appeared in everything from Elia Kazan's Viva Zapata! to the action-adventure classic Mutiny on the Bounty, and the hilarious part was that in every movie Frank was cast as a different ethnicity. Black and born in Kingston, Jamaica, he managed to sidestep being racially pigeonholed because he was so light-skinned. In one film he'd play a Mexican heavy and in the next he'd show up as a Native American.
Memaw, who grew up in Arkansas and was not known for her racial tolerance, didn't know what to make of Frank. On his first Thanksgiving with us, we were all seated around the table and Frank was sitting next to Memaw. We noticed she'd been watching him attentively out of the corner of her eye. She leaned in very close to him and said hopefully, "Maybe you're...Polynesian?"
And Frank, possibly the sweetest man in the world, put her at ease with, "Why yes, maybe I am."