Excerpt from Untied
But my mother seemed to feel there was an obstacle to her making it in show business in Hollywood. Children. And she had three of them by the time she was twenty-three—my two older brothers, Dick and Brian, and me. The fact that we existed made her seem older than she was. Her solution was to have us call her by her new stage name, Whitney Blake. We were not to call her "Mommy" anymore. We were to call her Whitney. I think she was hoping if we called her that, people might assume she was our aunt or maybe an older sister.
I can remember coming home from first grade, walking through the front door of our little white Craftsman-style house on Indiana Avenue in South Pasadena, and calling out, "Mommy, I'm home!"
No answer. I was confused; her car was out front. I stood very still.
"Mommy, I’m home!"
Still nothing. Then I remembered.
"Yes, dear?" her musical voice rang out from the middle bedroom, where she kept a vanity table at which she'd do her makeup. Although I believe she had no idea about the psychological impact this might have on her children, now that I'm older I realize that Whitney was probably just giving us what she got. Whitney's mother was born Martha Mae Wilkerson—my brothers and I called her Memaw. She was a scrappy, tough, smart, and wily survivor. She wasn't the soft, fuzzy type; she didn't coddle Whitney and she didn't coddle me. Whenever I would complain about my clothes, as girls do, Memaw would tell me in her dry, crackly voice, "When I was little I had a red dress and a blue dress. When I was wearin' the red dress, I washed and ironed the blue dress. When I was wearin' the blue dress, I washed and ironed the red one. I didn't have choices."
Whitney was only six when her real dad, Harry C. Whitney, a Secret Service man who guarded President Woodrow Wilson, died from alcoholism. Memaw's replacement husbands came at such a clip that Whitney never formed much of an attachment to any of them.
One of her stepfathers, Al, patented a fitting for oil rigs—his last name was Wells, ironically. He and Memaw would drift from oil field to oil field around the country. Sometimes they'd drag Whitney and her younger brother, Buddy, along. Just as often, Memaw would leave her kids behind, once with a couple of former missionaries and another time with her elementary school teacher.
It wasn't until the fifth grade that Whitney discovered drama class, when the boy who was supposed to play Oberon in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night’s Dream came down with a case of stage fright and she took over the role. From that day forward, Whitney realized that no matter what school she was in, the drama department would become home until Memaw announced it was time to pull up stakes and move again. Whitney said that the nearest thing she had to a real family when she was growing up were the casts of the plays that she appeared in.
Whitney was instead devoted to her brothers and sisters of the theater. One story she delighted in telling was about the time she was appearing in a Pasadena City College production that had a furniture dilemma: one scene needed a table, chairs, and a couch for the set, and none could be located. On opening night, Memaw shows up to watch her daughter perform, and when the curtain rises, she sees her entire living room set onstage. How Whitney managed to get the furniture out of her mother's house without anyone noticing is one thing. To reveal it in such a fashion required real chutzpah, which Whitney had in spades.
So in a way, Whitney's maternal model was someone who put her ambition ahead of her maternal responsibilities, and that's how she was with us. Dick, Brian, and I didn't talk about it much; we just lived it. It's what was. My brother Dick, the eldest, is very philosophical about her. He says, "Well, she did the best she could." But I think Brian and I took her actions more personally. They really shaped me; I had a strong sense of having been abandoned by her, that she didn't want me, that she didn't want to be my mother.
A couple of times, when I was very young, I visited my dad's studio at the ABC Radio Center on Vine Street in Hollywood. He would sit in his booth with a bank of electronic equipment in front of him, monitoring whatever show was on the air. He sat in front of a large window, through which he could watch the actors read from their scripts in the sound booth. He loved to tell about the pranks he pulled that invariably involved compromising the actors while they were recording. This was my favorite story: Because the rustle of papers is to be avoided in radio, anyone reading from a script typically holds the script pages in the left hand, separates the page to be read with the right, and holds that page next to the microphone, speaking directly into the mike. When that page is finished, it is allowed to waft silently to the floor and the reader continues with the next page. So, midrecording, my father would quietly enter the actor's sound booth and set fire to the top of the single page being read, which would initiate a kind of race for the actor to calmly read his lines before the paper burned up the text, while not betraying any tension to the listening audience.
My father said that he quit the business in the fifties when radio and television went to tape because it ceased to be fun. I think there was nothing for him to set fire to.
By 1953, after about ten years, my parents' marriage was on its last legs and Whitney filed for divorce. I was only five. The last day my father lived with us, my mother was away from the house, and he was in a state of turmoil and despair, just pacing, pacing, pacing. He sat my brothers and me down in the living room and said very seriously, "When I leave, you're never going to see me again." We all started crying like crazy.
My father was hurt, his life had fallen apart. I think his drama-filled master plan must have been to have Whitney return home to find her husband gone and her children sobbing inconsolably because she'd driven him away.
Before my father made his grand exit, without telling us he called my mother to tell her to come home, we kids were alone. So when he drove away, we were scared and Dick called the only number we knew, which was our grandmother's, our father's mother. My grandparents arrived at the house followed closely by Whitney and Art, a guy she was having an affair with. Bedlam ensued with lots of yelling, accusations, and hysteria, and that was the end of my nuclear family.
Although she herself was independent, Memaw's biggest message to Whitney when she was growing up had been: You need to find a man to take care of you. With my father out of the house, Whitney decided that my eldest brother, Dick, had the right chromosomal makeup—forget that he was about eight at the time—to fit the bill. She told him, "You are now the man of the family." But she kept looking for grown-up men as well; there were always plenty of them around our house, guys she'd met at class or in Playhouse productions. I remember two in particular: Ray, whom I liked because he fixed our sagging garage door, and red-haired Art, whom I didn't like. He mocked my fear of the rats that sometimes crawled out of our attic and ran across our backyard.
After the divorce, my father, Tom, remained part of our lives, but a small part. We'd see him every other weekend, and on the occasional Wednesday he'd pick us up after school and take us to his mother's house in Pasadena.
That grandmother's name was Jean Lawson Baxter and there was nothing soft about her, either. (What is it with my grandmothers?) She always spoke regretfully of being called Grandmother, instead of Memaw, the moniker she was hoping for. Unaccountably we called her husband Pepaw, but it was my maternal grandmother who was dubbed Memaw. Consequently, I always felt a silent competition between these strong women, whose paths rarely, if ever, crossed. Grandmother was tall, stout, formidable, very old, and had white hair that she wore circled and pinned. She didn't try to hide the fact that she had never been Whitney's biggest fan. One of my clearest memories is of her standing in the middle of our little house on Indiana Avenue, running her fingers over the mantel, saying negative things to Whitney and making it clear that she didn't think much of her housekeeping skills. She wasn't above interrogating me, either. She would sit me down on her porch swing and ask questions about Whitney—"Was she home at night?" "Were we left alone?"—making me feel very defensive. I didn't always understand her questions, but the tone was unmistakable. To my grandmother, as pious and self-righteous as she was, Whitney must have seemed irresponsible, flighty, and downright non- Christian.
Grandmother was too stern, imperious even, to bring much real coziness into our lives when we were little, but she did try. Once as a gift she gave me a pair of large, beautiful, fairly fragile, hand-painted boudoir dolls, more appropriate for window dressing than play. They were blond and brunette, stood about two feet high, and were dressed in gorgeous long satin and lace dresses. Though they were quite valuable in their day, I played with them until their gowns hung in tatters and their wigs were askew. At a certain point I decided that the dolls needed friends, so she made me two male dolls, sort of in the style of Raggedy Andy, with suits, ties, and shirts. But their faces were flat, and when I asked her to give them features, she obliged by figuring out how to gather the material together and make a seam that gave them little noses.
Grandmother and Pepaw, who was barely a presence, had a little one-room playhouse built for us. This small gesture, this act of making something just for my brothers and me, loomed so large in my tiny psyche that years later, when I was filming Family, and realized that we were shooting less than two miles away, I had to scratch that nostalgic itch and go visit.
My grandmother's house was at 95 Columbia Street in Pasadena. For some reason I have in my memory that they'd bought the house in 1900 for $800, a tidy sum in those days. It was a beautiful old Victorian house, white clapboard with beveled glass fans over windows and doors. I'd remembered it as huge and imposing: steep steps up to the grand pillared porch and a very heavy, important oak door. What I found on the day I visited was a less imposing house with the beautiful beveled windows and a cement porch with three steps leading up to it, flanked by two modest round white supports and a heavy, important oak door.
On which I knocked. An older woman came to the door and when I explained who I was and that I'd largely grown up in her house, she was most gracious and invited me to come in, look around. What luck! On the left of the entry were the drawing rooms, divided by high pocket doors, which still slid silently closed as smoothly as if made yesterday. To the right, another set of stairs I'd remembered as steep and threatening seemed so tame. Upstairs I was aghast to see that the heavy porcelain claw-foot bathtub had been replaced with a shower and countertop of turquoise Formica. Another room had a wall covered with a woven fabric, peeling just a bit, and a zebra print rug on the floor. Okay, enough of the house. I had to see the playhouse.
Unbelievably, it was still standing. The owner couldn't find the key, but the windows were open, and when I stuck my head in it was like Marcel Proust's famous bite of the "petites madeleines." The musty smell instantly took me back in time and there I was with my brother Brian, reading stacks and stacks of Big Little Books or playing school with my grandmother's companion, Kate Frazier.
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.
After our move, Whitney's television career started to take off. We had a series of housekeepers but she basically abdicated child-rearing responsibilities to Jack. She was busy guest-starring on popular TV dramas like Whirlybirds and Circus Boy. In "The Case of the Restless Redhead," she played a café waitress named Evelyn Bagby, who is wrongly accused of murder and seeks the help of Perry Mason in the hard-boiled legal drama's premiere episode of that series. I don't remember seeing her much in those days, just a few images of her in curlers rushing off to work early.
When I was much younger, I'd get in front of my class at school to tell the kids my mother was going to be on television. I think I was hoping this would earn me some friends or admiration; my subtext was always: Do you like me now? When I was older, in junior high, though, I switched to telling kids my mother was Anne Baxter. No one recognized the name Whitney Blake. Anne Baxter sounded like she actually could be my mother.
And she'd won an Academy Award.
Jack had been an air force colonel during World War II and the Korean War, so, in lieu of any previous experience in bringing up youngsters, he practiced a bullying, military-influenced style of parenting that involved endless lists and schedules. What time we had to get up. What time to brush our teeth. What time to make breakfast. Who was to make breakfast. What time we were supposed to leave for school. What time we were to be home. The chores we had to complete. Whose turn it was to feed our three pet dachshunds, Faust, Tina, and Oedipus.
When I neglected to clean my room properly, I lost it; I forfeited any right to enter it for a period of days or weeks. On those nights Jack had me sleep in the "den," which was really part of the basement, a damp unfinished room built into the side of the hill; there were exposed overhead pipes and a dirt wall. I'd make a bed as close as possible to the door, bring in a lamp and a radio, and pray for daylight.
This, however, was preferable to what happened when my brothers forgot to put out the trash on collection day, which on rare occasions they would. Jack's way of making sure they'd never forget again was to take the garbage cans out of the garage, lug them through the kitchen, then down the stairs and up the hall, and deposit them in my brothers' bedroom. And there, not two feet from where my brothers slept—and these were the days before in-sink disposals and plastic trash bags—the cans of rotting, week-old garbage sat, the sound of writhing larvae and maggots growing louder and the stench worsening. It was Jack's plan to leave the garbage cans there until collection day the following week, but nature intervened. When fastidious Jack saw that maggots were wriggling out of the can and onto the carpet, he had them move the cans out into the hallway. Eventually he gave up and ordered my brothers to return the bins back to the garage where they belonged.
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."
When it came to acting coaches, I couldn't have found one more gentle, encouraging, and patient than Frank. I owe him a debt of gratitude for a good part of what followed. For several days, Frank and I sat in the dining room, rehearsing the long monologue I was going to give. It was a very emotional speech and I'd had no acting experience, but I threw myself into this task with total abandon. More than nine hundred child actors tried out and I was one of four who made it to the screen test. Three other young girls and I were sent to the hair and makeup department, where they tinted our hair so we'd look just like Velvet did in the movie. The jet-black rinse was so cheap that it turned my hair brush gray and left a sooty shadow on my pillow. But I thought I looked sultry; I thought that with my blue eyes and newly darkened hair I looked terribly glamorous.
On the day we all showed up for our screen tests, I guess I did my scene as required but what I remember most was the great fun the four of us girls had as we ran around the NBC studio lot. We were a quartet of nearly identical black-haired girls hyped up on adrenaline and postaudition exhilaration, racing around the cavernous soundstages and shrieking in unison. It was such a thrill to be running around with other kids, being part of a happy girl pack instead of the quiet loner at Le Conte Junior High School.
After several days of anguished waiting, Jack called me into the living room and told me that I didn't get the part. Apparently, they didn't want me to star in their series because I didn't know how to comport myself. I'd played around the studio lot too much. I was unprofessional.
"Oh, all right," I said to Jack as coolly as I possibly could.
Then I went downstairs to my room and collapsed. I sobbed for hours. I was blindsided. It never occurred to me that I wouldn't get it. I'd blown it horribly. Jack said I was "irresponsible" and "unprofessional." I was wracked with humiliation. Rejected at twelve.
Only recently did I find out what might have really happened. The girl who landed the part was named Lori Martin and had been acting professionally since she was six. (Which was six more years of acting experience than I had.) I also read that after dying Lori's hair she was the mirror image of an adolescent Liz Taylor. In other words, the producers didn't necessarily reject me because I'd misbehaved. They probably went with the most seasoned young actress who also happened to be a ringer for a popular movie star.
How like Jack to leave me with the imprint of a self-inflicted loss. I might have fared better if I were a Communist.