The Distinguished Scotsman and his Wife, the Silent Movie Star.

“My secretary is purchasing a plane ticket for you,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “It’s short notice, but I need you to fly up here tomorrow.”

It was Thursday, October 23, 1986 and I had been living with my father and step-mother in Bristol, Tennessee for a couple of months. The voice belonged to Patsy Ruth Miller, a woman in her early 80s who had been a star of silent movies. She lived in Stamford, Connecticut and we had been working together since the fall of 1984 on her memoirs.

“My husband is in the hospital,” she continued. “He had a mild heart attack this morning and will be there for about a week, or so the doctor says. We can use the time to work on our book.”

“Oh my gosh,” I said with concern. “I’m so sorry. I hope he will be OK. And yes, I can be on a plane tomorrow, but isn’t this a bad time?”

“No, Jeff dear, it’s a good time,” she insisted. “Eff’s daughter, Jeannie, is flying up from Virginia, but she’ll be spending a lot of time at the hospital. We’ll have time to work.”

Effingham Smith Deans was her third husband. Her first husband was film director Tay Garnett, and John Lee Mahin, a screenwriter who had written scripts for Clark Gable, was her second. Those marriages were short-lived, but the marriage to Deans had lasted more than three decades. She was his second wife. He had two adult children, Jeannie and Robert, who had given him five grandchildren. Miss Miller’s marriage to Mahin had produced a son, Timothy, and she had two granddaughters of her own.

Husband number one, Tay Garnett.

I had been a guest in their home several times since Miss Miller and I started the project, and most of those visits had been when Mr. Deans was out of town, but occasionally he had been there. The first time I met him was on a pleasant evening in May of 1985. I had just graduated from college and was spending a week in Stamford before going home to Tennessee for the summer. Miss Miller and I had spent most of my first day there in her home office, going over notes and discussing the book’s format when the front door opened.

“No more work today,” she announced. “I have to perform my wifely duties. Come downstairs in a few minutes and I’ll present you to my husband.”

I heard her greet Mr. Deans in a very friendly and slightly romantic way. They were in the foyer and then they wandered into the kitchen where I heard ice clinking in glasses. I slipped quietly down the back stairs and appeared at the kitchen door. She was pouring a jigger of Canadian Club into a small glass, which she handed to a very distinguished man with white hair. His back was to me, but he was tall and wore a nicely tailored dark blue suit. She caught sight of me, and said, “Eff, dear, this is Jeff, the young man I’ve been telling you about.”

He turned and I could easily tell why she always referred to him as her “brawny Scot.” His handsomeness was striking, even in old age. His face was firm, with only some wrinkles around the eyes, and he had a very well-trimmed mustache. It matched his hair in being as white as drifting snow.

He extended his hand. His grip was strong and his smile was disarming.

“How do you do young man?” he asked, and I could hear the gentle traces of a Scottish accent. A native of Glasgow, he had immigrated to the United States in 1923, when he was 18. And the U.S. had been very good to him, as he had become a successful businessman and then a millionaire after establishing a well-respected clothing company bearing his name.

He was no longer running the business himself, having turned that responsibility over to his son, but he still went to the office every day to keep an eye on the operation.

E. S. Deans & Company was well known for beautifully designed sweaters, fashioned from Scottish wool. They were expensive and top-of-the-line and could only be found in upscale clothing stores. Beginning with only an idea, he had opened his first store in 1941, taking advantage of his connections in Scotland to procure high-quality wool, finding talented people to create the uniquely colorful designs and then, with a business instinct that was just shy of genius, forming advantageous relationships with manufacturers, keeping expenses down and profits high. Starting the business in New York, he had moved the headquarters to Connecticut in the early 1950s.

Husband number two, John Lee Mahin.

Miss Miller fixed a drink for herself – carefully putting two cubes of ice into a glass, pouring in a jigger and a half of Canadian Club whiskey and topping it off with a splash of club soda. I quickly learned that she had two drinks every evening, always made the same way. Before long, I was pressed into service as bartender and had the cocktails ready at five every evening whenever I was visiting.

“I am fine, sir,” I said to Mr. Deans as I poured some Coca Cola into a glass for myself and followed them into the den.

“I hear a bit of an accent,” he said to me. “Where is your native heath?”

“Tennessee,” I answered with pride. I loved the way he spoke, with a touch of class and refinement, and the hint of a brogue added a bit of magic.

“It’s the cook’s night off so we’re eating at the club tonight, dear,” Mrs. Deans said as they settled into two plush chairs and I sat on a small sofa opposite them. “But we’ll have to eat in the galley. Young Jeffrey did not bring the proper clothing.”

I could feel my face blushing. Earlier in the afternoon, Miss Miller had told me of the plans for dinner and said she looked forward to seeing me dressed up. I had looked at her with confusion.

Eating in fancy restaurants with a dress code was not part of my life experience and it had never occurred to me to pack clothes for elegant dining. I thought corduroy pants, a button-down shirt and an Izod sweater was perfectly appropriate, and when I told her that I did not have a jacket or a tie, her eyes narrowed and she looked at me with an icy glare.

“Men should never travel without evening attire,” she said, her voice as sharp as broken glass. “That was very stupid of you. We don’t have to eat in the dining room, but we are used to dressing for dinner and having to eat in the galley is embarrassing.”

Mr. Deans, however, didn’t seem the least bit bothered and I saw a grin playing at the corners of his mouth.

“Well, that’s fine with me,” he said. “I’ve been in this suit all day and it will be nice to relax while having dinner. I’m going to have an LD before we go out, OK dear?”

I was confused at first, but learned that “LD” stood for “lie-down” and that Mr. Deans loved taking a quick nap before dinner every evening. It was very cute of him and I must admit that I’ve reached the age where I also appreciate an LD before dinner.

The galley was a room reserved for sailors fresh from the sea but the food was the same as what was served to the nicely dressed patrons in the formal dining room. And the food was… ah, how to describe it? I looked at the menu and saw delicacies I had never before tasted, with names like smoked Norwegian salmon, heart of artichoke soup, steak tartar, chicken Florentine. I felt very yuppie as I sipped a Perrier and tried to look nonchalant.

The conversation at dinner was mostly general, about the day’s news, this and that, and I enjoyed hearing them talk. They were obviously very comfortable with each other, something that only 30 years of marriage can cultivate. I did get the impression that Mr. Deans usually deferred to Mrs. Deans, knowing exactly what to say to placate and satisfy her.  But he didn’t hesitate to quieten her if she said something irritating. They were sipping wine with their dinner and when I ordered a Coca Cola, Miss Miller did not approve.

“Leave him alone,” Mr. Deans said. “He can order whatever he wants.”

“It isn’t good form to have a soft drink with chicken cordon bleu,” she argued, but he just looked at her and said “enough!” She did not comment again on my choice of beverage, but it did make me feel slightly uncomfortable.

During the dinner conversation, when I learned that Mr. Deans had arrived in the U.S. as a teenager in the early 1920s, I asked him if he had seen Patsy Ruth Miller on the screen.

“No, I don’t think so,” he said, looking at his wife. “I don’t remember seeing any of her movies. My favorite movie star at that time was Colleen Moore. And I also liked Tom Mix.”

“I didn’t know you liked Tom Mix,” Miss Miller said. “I was in two of his movies. You must have seen me.”

“I’m sorry, dear, but when I watched Tom Mix, I didn’t pay attention to the girl,” he smiled. “Although I do remember Tony, his horse!”

A wistful look appeared in his eyes as he remembered another of his favorite stars when he was a young man… May McAvoy.

“She was one of my best friends,” Miss Miller said, smiling at her husband in surprise. “She was one of the first people I met when I got to Hollywood in 1920. I was only 16 and she was a little older, maybe 20. She was already established as an actress and she taught me a lot about the business. She had big blue eyes and looked so sweet and innocent, but she was actually sophisticated and worldly. It was May McAvoy who taught me how to smoke!”

She laughed as she recalled practicing by hiding in the bathroom of her home and blowing the smoke out the window.

“I didn’t want my parents to know that I was experimenting with cigarettes,” she said, “but my father, bless his heart, caught on. On my 17th birthday, he took me out onto the front porch after dinner and lit a cigarette for himself. He then lit another cigarette and handed it to me. I pretended to be shocked, but he just laughed and said ‘Pat, if you are going to smoke, you might as well do it with me instead of hiding in the bathroom!’ “

As if on cue, she pulled a small silver case from her purse, helped herself to a cigarette and lit it. “Here’s to you, May!” she said, lifting her wine glass in a toast with one hand and taking a drag on the cigarette with the other.

We were finishing the main course by then and were ready for something sweet. My dessert was a terrific concoction of ice cream lightly sprinkled with chestnuts and covered with raspberry sauce. It was listed on the menu as Coupe Clo-Clo and when I confessed that I had never heard of it before, Mr. Deans said not to worry, he hadn’t either.

It was also during that evening that I became aware of their politics, as they talked enthusiastically about Ronald Reagan, who had won a second term as President a few months earlier. And as we were on our way back to their magnificent home on Ocean Drive West, just a few blocks beyond the yacht club, Mr. Deans was driving and the car briefly crossed over the yellow line.

“Watch out, dear!” Miss Miller exclaimed, jabbing her husband with an elbow. “You’re veering to the left, and that is so unlike you.” They both laughed and as I sat in the backseat, I sighed to myself, “Republicans!”

A wide, gently curving staircase connected the first floor of their house to the second, but the only way to get to the third floor was to take a narrow back stairway that began on the first floor just outside the kitchen, stopped briefly on the second floor across from Mr. Deans’ office and took a sharp turn to the right on its way to the top floor, where there was a storage room at one end of the hall, a large room at the other end and a small room in the center which I used. There was also a bathroom complete with shower.

Later that night as I was making my way up the back staircase to find my little room, I heard muffled voices as I passed the second floor.

I knew that Miss Miller’s room was at the far the end of the hall. And her bedroom was just what a silent movie star’s bedroom should be. A huge bed sat opposite a big fireplace, over which hung a gorgeous oil painting of Patsy Ruth Miller in her prime. The soft carpeting was dark pink, the walls were light pink and the lush bedspread was also a shade of pink, with her monogram in the middle embroidered in large, elaborate letters. The room was scented with old, sickly-sweet perfume that hung in the air like an invisible fog. It was a very feminine room and I was not surprised to discover that her husband slept at the other end of the hall, in a room that was decidedly masculine, with dark, heavy furniture and simple red curtains. A rectangular rug covered part of the polished wood floor. As I stopped briefly on the second-floor landing, I could tell that the voices were drifting through the partially open door of the room where Mr. Deans slept. Miss Miller was talking, saying good-night to her husband.

“Sleep well, darling,” she said. “I love you.”

“I love you, too,” he responded.

“Oh, but what about Robert and Jeannie?”

“My son and daughter have my affection, but you are the only one I love,” he assured her.

“Good,” she said as she left the room, closing the door behind her. I had to slip into a shadow so she would not see me as she passed by, and then I quietly continued up to my room, thinking that he had probably learned a long time ago how to answer that question.

Husband number three, Effingham Smith Deans. I took this photo of them by their pool in August, 1985.

We did not go out to eat the rest of that week, as the meals were prepared by the cook, Marie, who also served as the live-in maid. My third floor room was tucked under an eve, and Marie’s room was on the same floor, at the end of the hall. We shared the bathroom.

Marie was a stout woman in her 50s, with tightly curled black hair and a round face that was full of freckles. Her heritage was Greek, and her father had owned a restaurant in the theater district of New York which was a popular hang-out for stage folk in the 1930s and 40s. She had learned the art of cooking in the kitchen of her father’s restaurant, and she had obviously been an excellent student. The meals she prepared were delicious.

Neither Mrs. Deans nor Mr. Deans treated Marie very well, unfortunately, which surprised me. They often spoke to her in a condescending manner and complained about her house-keeping skills. But they did like her cooking, and were willing to overlook other flaws. At first Marie treated me with detached coolness, but she soon figured out that I was an ally. It happened one afternoon when Miss Miller spoke to her with appalling nastiness.

“Why is there so much noise when you go up to your room?” she asked in an unfriendly tone. “Can’t you go up the stairs without stomping? It’s very annoying, so cut it out!”

My heart broke for Marie. She was heavy and the stairs did groan under her weight, but there was nothing she could do. It was not her fault. Marie’s eyes filled with tears as she sat down to mend one of Mr. Deans’ shirts, and Miss Miller continued her tirade. “Don’t you dare get any tears on that shirt!”

Later that night, I was already in my room preparing for bed when I heard Marie coming up the stairs, trying hard not to make any noise. She’d hesitate on every step, and then slowly put her weight on the next step. When she passed by my room, I opened the door and invited her in.

“I am so sorry you are treated without respect,” I said, as she sat down in an old chair near the window. “I just want you to know that I think you do a great job. They are lucky to have you.”

She smiled as she reached out to take my hand.

“I need this job, or I’d quit,” she admitted. “I do try to please them, but they are difficult to work for. Nothing I do is right, although they do clean their plates every night!”

Marie was there the first time I visited, and she was there the last time, and the tense environment was always the same. Although she was a very nice person, she did have problems, and I was never entirely sure who she really was. She had two names – Marie Stamos and Alexandra Pappas – and she had prescriptions for pain pills under both names.

The Deans did not have a formal dining room in their home, but ate their meals on trays in a small den as they watched television. I always ate with them, and one evening as Marie (Alexandra?) brought in the magnificent food, I casually asked how they had met.

“Oh, that’s an amusing story,” Miss Miller said, looking at her husband with a twinkle in her eye. “We met in Bermuda. When was that dear?”

“I don’t remember,” was his reply. “Sometime after the war.”

“Yes, but when? Probably 1948 or maybe 1949. I had been working on the libretto for an operetta and needed a vacation, so I sailed to Bermuda.”

“Sailed? I thought you flew,” Mr. Deans interjected.

“No dear, I was on a boat. I remember it distinctly,” she said, getting slightly annoyed. “But it doesn’t matter. We were both in Bermuda, on the beach sunning ourselves. Well, you were sunning yourself, I was just walking by, and I tripped over your legs. I think you saw me and stretched out your legs on purpose!”

“And was it love at first sight?” I asked.

“It was for me, but I think it took you a little longer, right dear?”

“A lot longer,” he chuckled. “I’m still waiting for the love to kick in!”

I asked if they had ever been back to Bermuda and Mr. Deans said yes, several times “but there were no more shenanigans on the beach.”

“Was it in Bermuda where we ran into John Wayne?” Miss Miller asked and her husband shook his head.

“No, my love. That was Hawaii,” he said and Miss Miller nodded in agreement, remembering that it had been in the early 1950s, just after Hawaii became a state.

“We were vacationing on one of the islands and had just checked into the hotel when I heard someone calling my name,” Miss Miller said, chasing the last bite of a sole filet around the plate with a fork. “It was James Edward Grant, a screenwriter I had known in Hollywood.  When I was married to Tay Garnett, he was a good friend of ours. He said he was on the island with a film crew, making a John Wayne movie.” She finally stabbed the piece of fish and lifted it to her mouth, savoring the flavor.

“Ah, John Wayne,” Mr. Deans added. “That is a man I shall never forget. I almost died of alcohol poisoning because of him!”

At that moment, Marie appeared to take away the dinner dishes and when she was gone, the story continued. I leaned forward, not wanting to miss a word.

“That evening we joined Jimmy Grant and John Wayne for dinner in the hotel restaurant,” Miss Miller explained. “Mrs. Wayne was there, too, a very pleasant and attractive Latin woman. He called her Chata.”

“Had you ever met John Wayne before?” I couldn’t help asking.

“Yes, in the late 20s, before he became an actor,” she said. “I used to go to all the football games at USC when I had a day off from the studio and I got to know several of the football players. John Wayne was a member of the team. He wasn’t using the name John Wayne then. I knew him as Marion something-or-other. He was a college student, a sweet kid and when he told me that he wanted to get into the movies, I offered to introduce him to people. Of course, he didn’t need my help at all. He got along just fine on his own.”

After dinner at the hotel in Hawaii, the wives excused themselves but John Wayne invited the two men to join him for a few drinks.

“A few drinks?” Mr. Deans said with a tone of sarcasm. “He drank everything in that bar! And then he took us with him to other bars, where he put away enough alcohol to float the Queen Mary.”

He said he tried to keep up with Wayne, “but after the third bar, I gave up and decided I’d better get back to the room before I passed out.”

“He wandered in about three in the morning,” Miss Miller chuckled, “and when I asked him where he’d been, he mumbled that he’d been drinking with the Duke, and then waved his hand in the air and said ‘he’s still out there somewhere, looking for more whiskey’ and then…”

“And then I fell asleep without even getting undressed,” Mr. Deans said, interrupting.

“Passed out is more like it,” Miss Miller said, correcting him with a giggle.

The next morning, Mr. Deans was too hung over to join his wife for breakfast “but when I walked into the restaurant, there was John Wayne, looking wonderful and eating a plate loaded with bacon and scrambled eggs!” Miss Miller laughed at the memory.

As we sat in the den chuckling about John Wayne’s drinking habits, I looked at my hosts and, with an embarrassing lack of tact, asked if they were close in age.

“I married an older woman,” Mr. Deans grinned.

“Knock it off, kid,” his wife responded. “I’m only a year older.” I was amused by their playful banter and could understand why their marriage had lasted for so long.

The last time I saw Mr. Deans was in September of 1986, when I visited for a few days at Miss Miller’s request. He looked good and was still going to the office for a few hours every day, but he was no longer driving. A limousine picked him up each morning and brought him home every afternoon. One day, he asked me to drive him to the office of his financial advisor, which I was glad to do. We chatted amiably all the way there and back, and he asked me questions about my life. When he learned that my father had re-married after the death of my mother, he wanted to know if I got along well with my step-mother.

“She and I are not friends,” I had to admit and I was touched by his response.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said, turning his head to look at me. “I am certain it is her fault.”

I also learned that we shared a birthday. We were both born on the first day of February, 58 years apart.

When I left at the end of that week to catch the train to New York and then board a plane for Tennessee, he shook my hand and said “I am glad that Pat chose you to work on the book with her. I eagerly await its publication.”

A month later, when I returned to that familiar house on Ocean Drive West, with its verdant back yard that sloped down to the shore, I was surprised to find Miss Miller in an upbeat mood, despite her husband’s health crisis. She greeted me at the front door by kissing me on the lips and holding onto my hand as she led me into the front room with its big picture window.

“I have some ideas for the book,” she said, as we sat side by side on a cream-colored sofa. “After we cover the bit about the film, Camille and working with Valentino, I think it would be a good place to mention my visit to Spain years later and running into that crazy woman Natasha Rambova, his wife.”

She talked for half an hour about the book, never once mentioning Mr. Deans. I asked about him during a break in the conversation and she said he was “doing nicely and getting stronger every day.”

I wondered if she was actually much more concerned than she appeared and was using our project as a distraction. I suspected she was in state of denial.

Later that day, Jeannie arrived. An attractive and athletic woman in her 50s, she had a no-nonsense personality and wanted to know everything about her father’s condition.

“Darling, I can’t answer those questions,” Miss Miller told her step-daughter. “You’ll have to go to the hospital and talk to the doctor.”

It was easy to pick up on an undercurrent of friction between the two women. They were polite to each other, but I could tell that it took some effort to keep their real feelings from rising to the surface. I liked Jeannie right away, and she seemed to like me, too. We were alone for a few minutes before dinner and she said to me, with surprising candor, “That woman would give anyone a heart attack, and I hope my father can get through this crisis.” She then looked heavenward and added, “please, God, take her first!”

But God didn’t take her first. A couple of days later, just as Marie was bringing our evening meal into the den, the phone rang. Jeannie answered and I saw the color drain from her face.

Mr. Deans had sat up in bed, asked the nurse for a drink of water, then suddenly died. It was Monday, October 27, 1986, and he was 81 years old.

The next few days are a blur in my memory. The house was abuzz with activity as friends called and family arrived. My room on the third floor was needed for visitors from out of town and Miss Miller sent me to New York until the excitement died down. I offered to go back to Tennessee, but she said she wanted me nearby. I returned to Stamford in time to attend a memorial service at the yacht club, during which family and friends offered humorous anecdotes and paid tribute to his memory. He was lauded for his skill as a businessman and for his reputation as a gentleman. Miss Miller looked lovely in a dark blue dress with matching shoes, but she had no expression on her face and did not laugh at the funny stories. She seemed to be in a fog.

Family members had returned to their distant homes so I moved back into my small room and wondered what would happen next. I didn’t have to wonder for very long. Miss Miller told me that she would soon be flying to California for the winter “and I want you to go with me.”

A few days later, the ashes of Mr. Deans were delivered. In a solemn ceremony, they were strewn along the beach where they were picked up by the rising tide and carried out to sea. Mrs. Deans watched from the windows of her bedroom. She didn’t speak, but I did see a lone tear finding its way down her cheek. It was late in the evening and the light soon faded.

A day or two before we left for California, she went into Mr. Deans’ bedroom and pulled a gorgeous camel’s hair coat out of the closet. It was the most beautiful coat I had ever seen and looked just like the one Gloria Swanson buys for William Holden in Sunset Boulevard.

“Here, dear,” she said, handing it to me. “I want you to have this.”

I tried it on and was delighted by the perfect fit. I looked in the mirror and was amazed. I had been transformed from a gawky kid from Tennessee into a young man with class. There’s nothing like an elegant coat to make the ordinary look extraordinary. A label on the inside indicated that it had been tailor-made for Mr. Deans in Hong Kong.

That coat is hanging in my closet today, more than 35 years later, and it still looks magnificent, although it is missing a button. Whenever I see it, I am reminded of a distinguished Scotsman I knew once upon a time.