LC Van Savage
I so well remember the day he called me, well over thirty-five years ago. His voice was thick and deep and filled with throat gravel and I knew he smoked, and I knew without his having to tell me that he was a Noo Yawkuh. He told me his name was Chet (Chester really, he said) Migden and I remember thinking, “Oh, he’s making that up. That name is too weird.” But he wasn’t. Chester Migden was his name. Shortened from something Russian and Jewish.
Back then, I was exercising my most sacredly held belief in not working at a real job by staying at home with our kids and earning a few bucks by creating huge paintings of other people’s life stories. OPS. To this day I still love OPS more than anything else —Other People’s Stories. Everyone’s a book, and those great, huge busy paintings could be pretty lucrative if I worked at it and I seemed to work at it all the time back then thirty and even forty odd years ago.
But, believing that fortune and fame would not fall into my lap or onto my easel, I would help my cause by running an ad in The New Yorker magazine telling people I’d paint (not write) their life stories, and from that one ad, I’d get enough work to keep me in business for about a year.
As I was working on a huge biographical painting for a family in Oklahoma one afternoon, the phone rang and the man who had that weird name—Chester Migden—asked to speak with me. I told him he was. He said he’d seen my ad, said he lived in California, and then I said, well, with that thick New York accent you sure weren’t born there and then he said he sure hadn’t been. He told me he wanted a painting, would I please send him photographic samples of my work and an explanation of the process. I said I would, and we became great friends.
He liked the samples, and so Chet hired me to do a painting for his wife’s birthday, to be about their lives together, their courtship, marriage, vacations, hobbies, cars, pets, his job, their daughters and their life in California. I immediately agreed to do it.
And so I began. Chet was a voracious letter writer and so am I, so the exchange of mail between us was thick and ongoing. No email back then, mind you. Snailmail, and I could not wait for the mail to arrive each day, hoping for another thick envelope from Chet. He would take a legal-sized yellow pad and cover page after page with his pencil writings telling me all about his life. He sent me many photographs too of the minutiae of his life, and the painting began to grow and the canvas to be covered with the many vignettes of Chester’s remarkable life story.
The main focus of Chet’s painting was a long railroad train with an engine and caboose heading due west out of the beautiful old Grand Central Station in New York City. He was on it in 1947, with twenty dollars cash in his pocket. He’d finished serving in World War Two, had gotten his law degree on the GI Bill, and quite soon had boarded that train and headed to Hollywood California where he knew no one, to make his fortune, a good Jewish boy with very big dreams. He found those dreams in Sunny Cal, and he lived them.
Chet began his career out there with the National Labor Relations Board, then joined SAG (Screen Actors Guild) as a national executive director, during his tenure raising the membership in that organization from 9600 members in three cities to over 50,000 in fifteen cities. He helped devise the principle of paying actors residuals for television reruns and negotiated all agency franchise agreements.
Chet worked for the Guild for thirty years and his work there was the cornerstone for entertainment work contracts, and he spent the final years of his very busy career serving as executive director of the Association of Talent Agents until his retirement in 1996.
At the time we met on the phone, Chet was President of the Screen Actors Guild. He was very modest about this position and never spoke much about it even though I shamelessly hammered him with stupid, hickish questions like “Do you actually know XXX?” or “Tell me, what is XXXX really like?” He was patient with me and never made me feel like a star-struck idiot, and he answered all my questions. He would admonish me, when I got star-struck about him, that he was “not a personage or anything like that” and to stop treating him like some famous movie guy, people for whom he had neither short nor long shrift anyway, telling me their egos “are so huge there’s no room in their lives for anything else. Not one thing.”
Finally I got the painting finished, having stalled as much as I could. But it was for his wife’s birthday so I had to respect the deadline. Chet loved the painting when I finally sent it out to him, and over the years we kept in touch, usually with my writing him questions about some movie star thing I had to write about, or how to grow Bonsai trees at which he was very gifted and I pretended to be.
Chet was always available to me and when we’d learned computer use and discovered the joys of email, we began to email one another regularly, loving this new form of instant communication, and it was fun again to read Chet’s long letters, talking about his life, his Bonsais, his family, retirement, and dreams of seeing the North Pole. He encouraged my writings and filled me always with his believable “never give up” philosophy, a concept he lived to the fullest.
Eventually, Chet emailed me saying he’d finally realized he had to give up his dream to see the North Pole, because he was just too old now, he’d waited too long, but that he was feeling better than he ever had and was now working daily on his beloved dwarf trees.
And then I read of his death. I saw that weird name in a local paper and staring down at it I thought how odd that someone else would have that same strange name and how even odder that that guy in the obituaries did all the same work that Chet had done. And when my mind finally stopped denying what was so clearly obvious and made me understand it was my Chet who’d died, I grieved. He was a good man, a man who, after he fought in a very big war, got on a train with an engine and a caboose and twenty dollars cash in his pocket went west to seek his fortune and found it.
And so you see Chet? You really were a personage, getting your obituary in a paper here in far-off Maine. And now, finally, if there really is life after life, you can get to see the North Pole, any time you want. I never got to meet you, but I look forward being able to do that. Thanks for being in my life, Chester Migden. You mattered, and I miss you sorely. I sent you a good-bye email. I hope you got it.