LC Van Savage
I had a lovely experience one recent evening. I was visiting a friend in Southern California, and my host Jack asked me if I’d join him and some of his old friends for dinner that night. I happily agreed, as long as, I said, I could wear casual clothes because I hadn’t brought anything dressy with me. He said it wouldn’t matter, that it was a simple restaurant and that everyone would be dressed quite casually. Right.
After the valet guy hauled me out of the car, I got a look at my tablemates. Simple? Yes. Simple diamond brooches, simple sapphire rings, simple expensive clothing. I was a hick and looked it. But my new dinner companions were gracious and kind as only the very wealthy can be to rubes.
The Bistro was not exactly a "simple" restaurant. It had huge carved columns and white table-clothed tables covered with sterling tableware, bone china, Waterford crystal, sprays of orchids as centerpieces, and a harpist in the corner. The waiters bowed and scraped only just a
Barbara was clearly the one in charge, an elegantly turned out redhead of eighty (she gleefully admitted after her fifth goldfish-bowl martini) with long, perfectly manicured nails. Two of them fell off during dinner, one into her espresso where it floated like a tiny red dinghy.
I quickly learned that one does not mess with Barbara. She got everyone settled and I looked around the table. Barbara was next to me (and I’m sure the contrast wasn’t lost on anyone) and next to her was handsome, very tanned white haired, powerful Lewis in a gorgeous sports jacket with a cobalt blue silk handkerchief peeping perfectly from the breast pocket. Next to him was oh so beautiful, blue-eyed blond Nel wearing a solid gold, eight pound diamond encrusted American Eagle in full flight, perfect against her simple black suit jacket. Next to her sat Kurt, also tanned and white haired wearing the most beautiful dark silk suit on earth with a tiny gold airplane in his lapel buttonhole. Next to him was the ravishing Eileen. Then came Jack and then, me again.
Barbara demanded we give our drink orders, but I’m a totaller, and it only elicited a small chortle when I ordered diet coke. (I think they may have had to send out for it.) They all ordered white wines "by name and year!", Barbara ordered her second gigantic martini and responded to her husband’s growled disapproval by drinking an enormous slug from it, reaching across the table and pouring his wine into her martini. Jack drank some kind of expensive sparkling water and Eileen had something green with a cherry in it. When menus the size of billboards were passed about, I was instructed by Barbara what I should order. Yeah, like I’d never been in a classy joint before. Her choices, of course, were simply heavenly and I knew better than to argue. She advised the waiter that we’d all start with a "small Caesar," and no one at that table, after years of knowing Barbara, argued.
Happily seated in this circle of very old friends, I realized they were going out of their way to make me feel welcome, but as time and booze continued to flow, they slipped into their five-decade habit of gossip, sparring, laughter and sweet, old memories. They did, however, readily and even greedily answer all my endless questions, each vying to be the best storyteller.
Eileen, still so beautiful, had been a runway model in the 1940s for some huge department stores in Beverly Hills and told tales of how Bing Crosby’s wife, Dixie, would send her maid to buy lots and lots of dresses that everyone was sure Dixie never even wore. Clark Gable would come in and pick out pretty things for his wife Carole Lombard. Bob Hope’s wife would stop in for her selections, too. Eileen spoke of how she had gone to school with Billy Bartie, a midget who’s appeared in so many Hollywood films that everyone knows his face. She said all the girls just adored him because he was so tiny and so beautiful, but that the teachers would always scold them to not "pick up Billy all the time. He doesn’t like it!"
Nel spoke of modeling often with Eileen and how the dresses would be made right on them, and how they yearned so to keep them, but never could. Their salaries were OK for the time; at least they could live on them. She spoke of meeting the greats of Hollywood, Charlie Chaplin, Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn who’d come in wearing her pants outfits, but would never buy. Bogart, Bacall, Crawford, Bette Davis, Lana Turner and other mega famous people would drop by. Wow.
I asked about Kurt’s life next and he told about his years with a huge airline, and how proud he was of his career there, although he didn’t exactly name it. But he did talk about flying out of a local field in California as a "green kid" in planes made of "wood, canvas, rubberbands and spit," and how nothing since, nothing, not even running the huge airline, could match the joy of doing that.
Lewis then began to reminisce about going as a child to play at Pickfair, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks’s home and how nice they were to him and how Mary Pickford while in her home entertaining guests, didn’t play the "little girl lost" stuff she played on the screen until she was way, way past little girlhood. Lewis spoke of how he loved going into Fairbanks’s exercise room and watch him twirl whips and swords around, rehearsing for his next movie. He spoke of meeting the great playwrights there, screenwriters, famous make-up people who made up the faces of all the glamorous stars of the golden years of film. And they all spoke of the war years and how greatly it changed the course of their lives. And then Jack spoke of his long life "on the Silver Screen," and then for reasons known only to him began to do a piercingly loud imitation of how he perceived an angry panther might sound in a jungle, and it became quite a chilling rendering.
And so I sat, occasionally asking a question which set off another long set of stories of this amazing group’s early lives and I began to wish I was a video camera in the table’s center where I could turn slowly and aim at each of them and record their words and gestures. They were happy people, glad they’d lived through all they had, not particularly sad it was now gone, content to be in their eighties, eagerly looking forward to what their remaining years held for them, and grateful for the very long, deeply satisfying friendship they shared. I love to listen to stories of people’s lives, and the tales I heard that night simply transported me. I think they knew!
Editor's Note: Tune in to hear LC VanSavage on WMPG 90.9 or 104.1 every Wednesday, 11-11:30 AM with one of the wonderful radio aids available on the internet.