My Life So Far…

By Jeffrey L. Carrier

I have always thought that a memoir should be written by someone who was living a very exciting life, someone who was a brilliant writer, an expert on world affairs and domestic politics, an intellectual, a politician, teacher, a poet or an accomplished performer or singer. I am none of those things. My life has been extraordinarily ordinary. The half-way point of my life passed long ago and I haven’t held office, raised a family, made a lot of money or become well known.  I haven’t even had a successful relationship. But I have been in love, held down a series of jobs, owned homes, traveled a bit, been happy and been unhappy.

No one knows my life better than me. The memories I’ve accumulated will die with me unless I write them down, so while my memory is still reliable and before I forget, I have made a record of what I have seen and what I have felt and what I have thought. I’ve also written about some of the people I’ve known, people who have played a role in making me the person I am today… friends, relatives, lovers and a movie star!

I was born in the proverbial buckle of the Bible Belt, the only son of a Baptist preacher and yet I grew up to be a gay Democrat. How could that happen? As I approach my 60th birthday, I still don’t know the answer to that question, but my life has unfolded in a way that seems very natural to me. Perhaps it was always my destiny.

As a child in a small town, many problems of the world were unknown to me. I did not know that people were treated differently because of their skin color. As I was growing up, I was not exposed to racism, but it must have been there, under the surface. I did not hear the “N word” until I was in the third grade. A very pretty Black girl was in my class and one day I overheard some other students taunting her and calling her that terrible name. The teacher must have heard, but she said nothing.

I did not know what the word meant and when I got home from school that day, I asked my mother. She looked at me with a combination of anger and surprise, but then she took me in her arms and started singing softly.

Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.

And then she said that if Jesus loves all children, no matter what color their skin is, we should, too. I have never forgotten her words.

There were a few Black students in my high school. They were the star athletes, and very popular. I wish I had gotten to know them. I did get to know a Black family who attended our church. Clarence and Martha Lee were wonderful people and they had two darling children, Lynetta and Daniel.

Martha was member of the choir and my father loved her voice, a rich and warm contralto. She was every bit as good as Mahalia Jackson, and dad would often ask that she sing a solo during the worship service. She always chose a negro spiritual, with her husband accompanying her on piano and harmonizing.  She would belt out those songs with a big smile on her face and the chorus of “amens” was deafening! Her favorite was It’s Gonna Rain and I loved to watch my father as she sang that rousing song. It was not easy for for him to sit still. He wanted to jump out of his chair, and start shouting!

They seemed to be loved by everyone in the church, although I do remember hearing one ugly comment. One Sunday, as everyone was leaving after the benediction, an older woman said to my father “I thought the coloreds had their own church. Why is that family here?” My father looked a little surprised, but then said “All of God’s children are welcome here at First Baptist.”

I later learned, however, that certain people were not welcome at the church. Members of the LGBTQ community were not invited to attend services.

Learning to be comfortable as a gay man was a long process and I had to let go of so much that I had learned in church as a preacher’s kid. The Baptists can be very close-minded and unforgiving about such things and in order to preserve my sanity, I had to leave that church and dismiss some of its teachings. But growing up in a Christian home taught me to be kind to other people and to appreciate God’s wonderful creation. I can feel His presence all around me. As Emily Dickinson said so poetically:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –

I keep it, staying at Home –

With a Bobolink for a Chorister –

And an Orchard, for a Dome –

Some periods of my life were much easier to write about than others. It was not easy to re-live the months of my mother’s illness and death when I was 14, and even harder to write about my father’s second marriage. My mother was kind and sweet and loving, a gentle and caring woman who seemed to be liked by everyone, but my step-mother was her opposite, a woman who was cold and overbearing. Much to the surprise of everyone who knew him, my father married less than five months after my mother died, which profoundly changed my life. My step-mother seemed to delight in putting me down and it has been very difficult to be kind when writing about her. Perhaps she was embittered because of a philandering first husband and two children who were involved with drugs. Perhaps she took out her unhappiness on me. She also demanded my father’s full attention, pulling him away from me. It took more than ten years for us to become close again. Fortunately, by the time he died, our bond had strengthened.

His death at age 57, when I was 28, was almost as hard as losing my mother had been. He had been a pastor for 35 years and was beloved by his congregations. So many people attended his funeral that the over-flow crowd had to sit in the church gymnasium and watch the service on a closed-circuit TV. I have never stopped missing him.

Having to live at home during my high school years was difficult, but I made it through because of the love and support of friends, especially two older women who treated me with more kindness than I probably deserved. One was Mary Whitton, a no-nonsense woman in her 70s who always listened with concern as I talked about the situation at home. She had adored my mother but never warmed to my step-mother. On the day of the wedding, she said to dad, “don’t get her pregnant. At her age, she’ll have an idiot!”

And Bulah Vaught had been my sitter when I was a baby and became a sort of second mother. Whenever I felt depressed or unhappy, she would bolster my self-confidence and lift my spirits. When my father started dating the woman who became his second wife, Bulah warned me that trouble was ahead. I loved those two women, and love them still, decades after their deaths.

I especially liked sharing the stories of my two grandmothers. They were very different in temperament, one like sugar and the other like vinegar, but I was fond of them both and enjoyed being with them. They had both been married to alcoholics, which influenced their thinking and the way they related to their children. My Grandfather Huff was a “mean drunk” who would lash out in anger when intoxicated, sometimes abusing his family. I never heard any stories of my Grandfather Carrier striking his wife or children. It seems that he was just a sloppy drunk who was unable to hold a job for very long and could not properly support his family. Grandmother Huff eventually divorced her husband and Grandmother Carrier was widowed, but they both loved their husbands, and apparently had no interest in looking for romance when their marriages ended.

Not only did they have alcoholic husbands in common, but they both started working late in their lives, after their children were grown. At the age of 60, having never had a job in her life, Grandmother Huff went to work at the local elementary school as a cook and server, a job she loved! In her innocent way, she thought she could continue working even after turning 65, as long as she didn’t tell anyone how old she was. She didn’t realize that her employment application included her date of birth, and when she learned that her job was being terminated, she was furious and thought that her next-door neighbor (who was also employed at the school as a cook) had revealed her age to the school principal. She feuded with that particular neighbor for several months.

When she was widowed quite suddenly in 1951, Grandmother Carrier needed to find a way to earn enough money to keep the bills paid. At first, she worked as a church janitor, but was eventually able to get her name on a list of substitute teachers for the Carter County School System. She did not drive so she could only substitute at one school which was within walking distance, but she was kept busy. There was no mandatory retirement age for that particular profession and she was still being asked to fill in for absent teachers as she neared 70. I remember as a very small boy sitting next to her one day in a first-grade classroom. It’s hard for a four-year-old to sit still for hours at a time, and I remember my grandmother speaking sharply to me when I started squirming.

I wish my grandmothers were still here, but they live on in my memories and in the words of the memoir.

In reviewing my life, it was easy to see that more women than men have had an impact on my thinking, and at the top of the list is Miriam Hilton, who inspired me with her selflessness and goodness and unparalleled kindness. I met her when I was 20 and we remained very close for the next 38 years, until she died in 2021 at the age of 96. I learned so much from her, primarily that the key to happiness is love (both giving and receiving) and putting the needs of others before your own. She practiced what is known as the “Social Gospel,” a religious philosophy that aims to apply Christian ethics to social problems, especially economic equality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tension and the dangers of war. Knowing her also influenced me politically and after being apolitical for most of my young years, I realized that my way of thinking was aligned with the Democratic Party.

As I examined my years of living, I realized that the period in which I was probably the happiest, and certainly the most productive, was from the mid 1980s through the mid 1990s. By the time I was 30, I had achieved some success as a newspaper reporter, had written two books, had worked with silent film star Patsy Ruth Miller on her autobiography, had made a record of all the cemeteries in my home county in Tennessee, had met and become friends with my two favorite authors (William K. Everson and Jerry Vermilye), had assisted biographer Anne Edwards in researching the life and career of Barbra Streisand, was briefly hired by Kathleen Tynan to do research for a screenplay and had signed contracts for two additional books. And I was living in New York City, which had been a dream of mine for many years.

But just as I was nearing 30, the trajectory of my life was altered. My father died, I had to extricate myself from a disastrous relationship and I changed careers. I was no longer able to devote time to the writing and had to give up the contracts for additional books. My confidence had been damaged and I never wrote professionally again. It was as though a light within me dimmed and hasn’t burned brightly since. Maybe there is still enough time to get the blaze of creativity going again.

But I did find happiness in other areas. I have never measured success by the size of my bank account or the number of rooms in my home. All I’ve ever wanted is to be happy and to feel that I am making a difference in someone’s life, and hopefully leaving a few signs behind that I have been here. I used to yearn for a loving and long-lasting relationship but that dream has eluded me. I’ve had four partners, but those relationships eventually fell apart and the fault was probably my own. I have never been able to totally open myself up to someone else. I have always kept a part of my heart locked, and that door has been closed for so long I doubt it will ever be opened. I’m a very private person and that does not work very well in a romantic partnership.

Being self-employed for the last 20 years has allowed me to live in different states, explore new horizons, meet interesting people and discover new passions. I joined two choral groups while living in Michigan and loved the experience of learning the music and performing for smiling audiences. I cannot read music and have to rehearse a lot, but those years of being part of the music community were enormously rewarding.

Looking back through the years of my life, I can say that the sun has shone on my face more than clouds have darkened my skies. My life hasn’t turned out quite the way I thought it would when I was 20 or 30, but it has been a fascinating journey of being and becoming. And the road still stretches out before me, leading me onward into areas yet to be explored. And life would not be any fun if we knew ahead of time every twist and turn in the road. Life does not come with a map. It is constantly changing and surprising us . And hopefully reading the stories of my life will be surprising and entertaining and maybe enlightening. They do not follow a particular pattern and are not in chronological order. They bounce bath and forth between the years and experiences of my life, but at the end, I hope the pieces fall into place and create a mosaic of memories that help to explain who I am.

After spending a year looking backward, it is time now to look forward. Thank you for being with me on the journey through my life so far.

The Woman in a Blue Dress

The small town of Mountain City, Tennessee was very quiet after dark, and a late evening in the autumn of 1947 was just like any other. Most businesses were closed, but young people were enjoying malts at the drug store and the movie theater had just started the last showing of the day. The weather had turned cool and there had already been a couple of frosts, typical for the middle of October.

On that particular night, a light rain was falling and gusts of wind were ripping the last fall-tinted leaves from the branches of the big maple trees along Church Street. The fine old houses on that street were set back from the road, and soft lights glowed in their windows as families listened to the radio, relaxing after their busy day.

There was very little traffic, but a black car was moving slowly north along the street, stopping in front of a house belonging to one of the town’s most prominent families. It sat at the curb for a few minutes. One of the rear doors opened and closed and then the car drove away and vanished into the night, leaving a dark shape near the curb. Two high school girls, hurrying through the rain to their homes after having fun with their friends at the drug store, had noticed the car, saw the strange-looking lump at the edge of the street and stopped to investigate. For an instant, the headlights of a passing car illuminated the object. It was the body of a young woman in a lovely blue dress, her eyes open but fixed in the cold stare of death. The screams of the two girls brought people out of their houses and someone called for the police. She had not been shot or stabbed but the coroner did later discover that she had died from drowning.

She was never identified, the black car never found, no clues were discovered and after a few days, the mystery was forgotten.

Mountain City was my hometown and as I was growing up there in the 1970s, I heard about that terrible night from Mrs. Lois Goodman, an elderly woman who often thrilled me with stories of the town’s past, and most of them were mysterious and dramatic.  I was never able to forget that story and every time I walked along Church Street, I looked at the spot where the woman’s body had been found so many years earlier.

In the summer of 1985, when I was hired as a reporter for The Tomahawk, the town’s newspaper, I thought about that strange night and decided to investigate. Mrs. Goodman had died, but I thought there must be other people who remembered the event. I was the paper’s only reporter and my daily schedule was full, but that unsolved mystery was never far from my mind.

I enjoyed working for The Tomahawk. My limited experience as a reporter had been as a feature writer for a mid-size daily in a nearby city during the summers between college terms, and working for small weekly paper was very different. There were only a handful of employees and we became very close, almost like family, and we wore many hats. I not only wrote copy, but often took pictures and developed my own film, answered the phone, helped lay-out the front page and occasionally vacuumed the carpet. Anyone who wants a career in the newspaper business should begin at a small-town weekly, if there are any left.

When I joined the staff, I was responsible for writing features and covering important news events, but another writer was soon hired to handle the news beat, much to my relief, allowing me to focus on the human interest articles which I preferred.

Regrettably, I did not keep a scrapbook during those months and have no copies of the issues, but I do have memories. I remember visiting a snake-handler who lived in a remote area of the county, going with him into the fields as he hunted copperheads. I kept my distance as he’d spot one and deftly grab it quickly by the neck and sling it into a bag. He would later add it to his collection of caged snakes and entertain visitors by letting them wrap around his arms. It terrified me and fascinated me at the same time, and it made for an exciting story.

And I interviewed a musician who had his studio deep in the woods, where he would record mountain ballads and rural melodies which caressed the ears and delighted the soul. He was hoping to land a recording contract, and I hope his dream came true.

Writing an article for the next issue. The computer looks clunky and awkward now, but in 1985 it was State of the Art.

Every time I found myself talking to someone who was over 80, I’d ask if they remembered the body of a young woman being dumped on Church Street on a rainy night in the late 1940s, but no one remembered anything about it. I also talked to an old man who had served as county sheriff in the 1950s, but he didn’t recall the event either. I wasn’t getting any closer to solving the mystery, but those wonderful people did have interesting stories that needed to be told.

I especially like talking to veterans and hearing the harrowing tales of the battlefields of France during World War I and about surviving a torpedo blast near the island of Guam at the peak of World War II. Another veteran told me about going into Berlin just as the war ended and being part of the group that was searching for Hitler himself. Almost all of those men are gone now and I hope their families have kept the newspaper clippings and are passing the stories down to a new generation.

I was learning to be a pretty good reporter, but I also used bad judgment more than once. One day a woman called and begged me not to run the story about her son’s arrest. Because she and my late mother had been good friends, I killed the story, even though the young man’s problem was certainly newsworthy. He had been arrested at a big-city airport carrying an enormous amount of heroine. And another woman called one day and pleaded with me to leave her husband’s name out of a crime story involving a property dispute. The woman’s family had always been very kind to me, and I granted her request. And when the administrator of the local, financially-challenged hospital asked me to write a series of features promoting the institution, offering to pay me $50 per article, I agreed. After the third article was published, I casually mentioned to our editor about picking up my fifty-dollar check, and he turned red with anger. He accused me of prostituting my position and demanded that I not only terminate the agreement, but reimburse the hospital. He then said the only thing preventing him from firing me on the spot was my ignorance and innocence.

“I don’t think you realized the ethical problem,” he said. “Anyone else would be terminated, but I’ll let it slide… this time.”

It wasn’t easy coming up with ideas for feature stories every week, but one of my best ideas was asking schoolchildren to complete the proverbs of Poor Richard. I took a list of the wise sayings penned by Benjamin Franklin, cut off the end of each one and asked the children to write their own conclusions. The results were sometimes wise and always witty. Some examples:

Don’t throw stones at your neighbors… if they are playing baseball.

If your head is wax… don’t scratch it.

Never count your chickens… or they will get angry.

Fish and visitors… are not good friends.

A bird in the hand is worth… a peck on the finger.

He that drinks fast… will eat the glass.

A man without a wife is… able to work all day.

He that speaks much… is a jabbermouth.

Early to bed and early to rise… keeps me from having any fun.

That article was a big hit with the readers. We received many complimentary comments, which helped to repair my damaged relationship with the editor.

In March of 1986, Halley’s Comet re-appeared in the heavens for the first time since 1910. It was a big deal and I decided to find the oldest people in the county and ask if they had seen it 75 years earlier. I recorded their memories, which were fascinating. Ada Grindstaff, a woman in her early 90s who was not well enough to be interviewed, wrote a poem for me instead.

It was just after twilight in nineteen hundred and ten

When Halley’s Comet first appeared and now it’s coming again.

The years have swiftly flown since I was just a kid.

Some watched in amazement while others ran and hid.

We sat out on the lawn until it came in sight.

Some hearts were filled with glee and some were filled with fright.

Twice in a lifetime is such a rare thing.

I’ll not be here next time. I’ll be with the King.

Many friends have gone since it was here before.

They are asleep in Jesus. They’ll be there forever more.

When Halley’s Comet returns again, when it sails across the sky.

I’ll watch it from Heaven, where man will never die.

Those people, in their 80s and 90s, remembered clearly seeing the comet in 1910, but they had no memory of a woman’s body being left on the curb of Church Street. I began to wonder if Mrs. Goodman was just a raconteur, a skilled weaver of tall tales. Had the strange event really happened? I left my job at The Tomahawk in late May and my efforts to research the case ended at the same time. But I could never forget it and I began to form my own version of what had really happened.

I imagined a handsome young man in his early 20s, the son of one of the town’s most well-known families who were known for their elegant dinner parties and social connections. One afternoon he spotted a young woman in a blue dress walking into a drug store on Main Street. He did not know the girl but he followed her inside and watched as she purchased a roll of gauze and some alcohol. He was fascinated by the loveliness of her face and the way her soft brown hair fell in waves, touching the top of her shoulders.

He bumped into her accidentally on purpose, causing the package to fall from her hands. As he picked it up, he smiled and made a joke and was delighted by the sound of her laughter. He tried to engage her in conversation but she was evasive and said she had to hurry back to take care of an ill friend. She got into a black car and drove out of town on the main highway, heading south.

He didn’t know that she was a woman with a dangerous secret. She was what was known at the time as a gun moll. She had a boyfriend, an escaped convict who had robbed a bank in a nearby state and was on the lam. She had driven the get-away car but he had been shot while running out of the bank and jumping into the car as it sped away. The bullet had only grazed his arm, but the wound was deep and needed attention. They had driven all night and had taken refuge in a small house at the edge of town owned by the man’s distant cousin, a farmer who lived alone. The bank robber was good looking, but he was mean and cruel, and although the young woman did not love him, she had been seduced by the promise of money, lots of money.

The handsome young man in town could not stop thinking about the mysterious woman in the blue dress and was excited to spot her again a couple of days later. She was coming out of a grocery store, her arms wrapped around two large bags bulging with food items. She was headed for the same black car parked close by. He rushed to the woman’s car and was waiting there with the door open by the time she got there. She laughed merrily and he asked her to join him at the malt shop for a soda. She said no at first, then changed her mind. Their conversation was light-hearted, and she continued to skillfully sidestep his questions, only telling him that she was from out of town and was taking care of a sick friend. They continued to sit and talk long after the malt glasses were empty. A flirtation slowly became something more serious and she told him she’d be in town again the next day and invited him to meet her at the malt shop around two. She was there, just as she promised. She was there again the day after and the day after that. Before long they were spending time together every afternoon.

One day they picnicked in a pasture but a sudden storm darkened the sky and they had to run to a barn to get out of the rain. It was warm and quiet in the barn and the hay was soft. A clap of thunder scared the girl and she was comforted by the strong arms of the young man. She melted in his embrace and as two cows and a horse watched silently, they made love. She was wearing the same blue dress.

The criminal, who was slowly recovering from the bullet wound, also loved seeing her in that blue dress, but when she got back to the house late that afternoon, the dress was badly wrinkled and he saw wisps of straw in her hair. He had been suspicious of her frequent drives into town and decided to follow her the next day, borrowing his relative’s old farm truck.

He saw her meet a well-dressed young man on a street corner and watched as they walked, arm-in-arm, to a city park where they sat on a bench and kissed. His hands were clinched into fists as he observed the couple, then he followed the young man, learning his name, where he lived and that he was from a wealthy family.

The young woman did not know that her companion in crime was aware of her afternoon trysts, and after a few weeks, she discovered that she was pregnant. She knew the young man in town was the father and when the bank robber saw her crying and gently caressing her stomach, he angrily confronted her. She admitted that yes, she was pregnant, that she was leaving him and running to the baby’s father. The man only laughed at her and violently slapped her face with the back of his hand.

“You can never leave me,” he snarled. “You and me. We’re a team. We’re joined by something more important than love or a bastard baby. I’m all healed now and we’re blowin’ this town, but not before we make one more big score.”

He said he knew all about her rich boyfriend.

“I want you to make yourself look pretty,” he said. “Put on that blue dress. We’re going to his house tonight and ask for money. Tell him that if he doesn’t pay, you’ll accuse him of rape. He’ll pay. He’d be a fool not to, and we’ll be long gone by the time he gets up the nerve to tell anyone.”  

“I won’t do it,” she declared. “I love him and won’t do that to him.”

”Either he pays or you die,” he said, his lips curled in a sneer. “And you know I’ll do it. Come on, baby. Make yourself pretty. We’re gettin’ out of here!”

The girl had another plan.

“Give me an hour,” she told him. “I need to take a bath first.”

He didn’t notice that she took a piece of paper and a pencil with her into the bathroom. As the water ran noisily, she put on the blue dress, scribbled some words on the paper, folded it neatly, wrapped it in a small piece of plastic and tucked it deep inside a pocket. Then she slid into the tub, fully dressed. She sat there for a minute, the water up to her chin, as she allowed a tear to drop into the warm bathwater. Then she slowly exhaled and clenched her fists as her head slipped below the water’s surface. It took all of her courage, but she opened her mouth and breathed in… but instead of air, her lungs filled with water. For a few seconds she fought the powerful urge to leap out of the tub… but then light turned to darkness.

When she didn’t come out of the bathroom the man forced open the door. The noise attracted the attention of the homeowner who came rushing in, demanding to know what was going on. The criminal panicked, grabbed a pistol and fired a bullet into his cousin’s heart. As the man fell backwards onto the carpeted floor, the killer cursed and screamed and pulled the limp body out of the tub.

It was dark by then and a light rain started falling as he carried the woman’s lifeless body to the black car and gently laid it on the backseat. He drove to the house where the young man lived with his parents and dumped the body.

He didn’t know about the note in the pocket.

My name doesn’t matter, but what does matter is that I participated in a crime. I have been helping a criminal to hide out, and he is forcing me to participate in another crime. He will kill me if I don’t. I have nothing to lose. I am taking my own life to prevent a great deal of suffering and unhappiness. May God forgive me.

She also identified her cruel companion.

When the police arrived to examine the body, they put it on a stretcher and loaded it into the back of an ambulance. No one noticed that the little note fell out of the pocket of the blue dress and landed in the gutter. It was swept away by rain water as the lights of the ambulance reflected on the wet street as it pulled away.

The young man and his parents had been out of town that day and got home just as the ambulance disappeared in the distance, swallowed in the darkness of the rainy night.

I’d like to think that it really did happen that way and that an old man is living in the town, still looking for a pretty woman in a blue dress.

The Summer of My Discontent

The summer of my 14th year was an eventful one. It began with a service of sadness and ended with a ceremony of celebration, and in between were days of agony and moments of bliss.

At 1 pm on a warm Monday afternoon, the choir of the First Baptist Church of Mountain City, Tennessee started singing an old hymn called “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” I was seated in the front row next to my father, who put his arm around my shoulder and gently pulled me close to him. I could feel his body shaking as he quietly sobbed.

It was May 2, 1977 and the funeral of my mother had begun.

The service is not etched clearly in my memory. I was still trying to grasp the reality that my mother was gone, and I would never see her again. I was certainly old enough to understand death, and I had been prepared for how her courageous battle against leukemia would end, but when a very young person loses a parent, the shock is intense. I don’t think I have ever fully recovered.

There were a series of speakers, some offering prayer, some giving comfort to the family and one delivering a sermon, but I don’t remember any of their words. I looked at them as they spoke, but my mind was far away, re-living happy moments spent with my mother. I do remember a hymn being sung that had been her favorite. I had always loved the hymn-singing at church, but I could not make a sound as the congregation began singing “My Jesus, as thou wilt. All shall be well for me. Each changing future scene I gladly trust with thee. Straight to my home above, I travel calmly on. And sing, in life or death, my lord, thy will be done.”

I don’t think my father could ever bear to hear the hymn again, as I don’t remember it ever being sung at that church after that day, as long as he was the pastor.

The order of service for my mother’s funeral.

Many years have passed since that warm spring afternoon, and so many people who attended that service are no longer here. My grandmother, my father, three aunts, three uncles and several friends have died in the years since, but all of them live on in my memory, as does my sweet mother. I hope I never forget any of them.

A couple days after my mother’s casket was gently lowered into the ground of the Pleasant Grove Cemetery, the last relative returned to their home in a distant state, and my father and I were left alone. The emptiness fell hard against the walls of our silent home. It was full of ghosts, as memories of my mother were in every room. Her clothes were still hanging in the closet, vials of her medicine were still on shelves in the bathroom and her jewelry was still in the box that sat on the dresser in the bedroom she had shared with my father for 17 years. We began the process of adjusting to life without her, and I think the methods we chose were similar. We both wanted physical intimacy. He needed a woman and I… well, my needs were not as conventional.

Before my mother died, she confided to her sister that my father would not be able to live without a wife. “He has to have someone to share his life and to share his bed,” she said. “Do you think I should pick out someone for him?” My aunt stopped my mother from saying another word and told her that if dad wanted another wife, he’d have to find one on his own.

But my mother knew my father better than anyone. He had a very strong sex drive. As a child I remember hearing my mother giggling with her women-friends and although I was too young to understand the conversation, I was aware that the other women were envious of my mother.

He started looking for a companion right away and was dating within six weeks. And I think he found a wife whose sexual appetite matched his own. My bedroom was across the hall from the room where my father and step-mother slept, but I don’t think they did much sleeping. I’d often hear noises that were odd to my young ears, a rhythmic banging and muffled moaning. And I found birth control pills on the bathroom counter one morning.

Eleanor Holloway was a widow whose husband had been ill for a long while with a serious heart condition, and my mother had died after fighting leukemia for almost a year. Sexual tension had been building up and I think they were like volcanoes ready to explode.

I was also experiencing the sensations of a burgeoning sex drive. A battle was being waged within me, the strong emotion of grief equally matched by the desire for the physical pleasure of intimacy. And my fantasies were not about girls; they were about boys. I was indeed boy crazy and noticed them everywhere, paying attention to their eyes, their faces, their hair and the way tight jeans hugged their bodies. I found it difficult to concentrate on anything else.

I’d had crushes on boys before, and one friend and I had even engaged in innocent sex-play when we were six, but I had never experienced such powerful urges. It was difficult to control. Perhaps my father was having the same problem. When he started dating Eleanor, who soon became his second wife, they spent as much time together as their schedules would allow. Her children were grown, so they could be together at her house in the evenings without being disturbed. Occasionally, Eleanor would come to our house and I’d find them snuggled tightly on the den sofa. One night she was still there when I went to bed about 11. I was awakened very early the next morning, before sunrise, by the sound of a car backing out of our driveway. Had Eleanor stayed all night?

My own desires and fantasies became stronger as the summer went on, and the only release I could find was masturbation. It was like a pressure valve. A dear and wonderful woman named Bulah Vaught was staying with us that summer, doing some cooking and house-keeping, and I remember having to excuse myself whenever I’d feel “that mood” coming on.

“I’m going to take a nap,” I’d say, and she was always surprised when I’d emerge from my room five minutes later with a big smile on my face! It happened almost every day, and being a smart and savvy woman, she must have suspected what I was doing.

In her early 60s, she had never married, and one afternoon I asked her about sex. I was particularly curious if she had ever slept with a man. She did not hesitate with an answer.

“No, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t want to,” she said with surprising frankness. “There have been men I wanted to sleep with, but there is a moral standard we have to follow. If I was out on a date and the guy mentioned the bedroom, he got a slap in face. Have you reached the age where you are thinking about sex?” I didn’t respond.

The feelings and temptations were confusing, and I didn’t understand what was happening to me. It was something I couldn’t help, but I knew that if I talked to my father about it, he would be angry. I was not familiar with the concept of homosexuality, but did know that none of my other guy friends were fantasizing about each other. Or if they were, it was not something they talked about. I began to think that I must be a bad person. And then a sense of guilt took root in my young soul and I thought that I was not a true Christian, that I had never been “saved.”

Growing up in the Baptist Church as a preacher’s son, I had made a profession of faith and been baptized when I was nine years old. But maybe it wasn’t sincere and I needed to do it again. One Sunday night I walked to the altar and re-dedicated my life, praying for God to take away the sexual thoughts and make me “normal.”

But on the way home we stopped at a service station and a gorgeous young man cleaned the windshield and filled the gas tank. It was raining slightly and I loved the way the drops of water slowly ran down his sculpted face. I could not help staring at him and even had to get out of the car so I could see him more clearly. The fantasies and desires and yearnings were still there. I thought that Satan was tempting me, and it made me miserable. I went to sleep that night with tears on my cheek, still asking for God’s forgiveness. “Please, God, make me normal,” I begged. “I want to go to Heaven, so take these feelings away.”

But “normal” is a human definition and who are we to say what is normal to God. The next morning I woke up expecting to have been miraculously changed, but everything was the same.

A few days later, we had visitors — a family from the nearby town of Bristol who were members of the church where my father had served as pastor in the late 1960s. I barely remembered them, but they had been close to my parents and they had not seen my father since my mother’s death. They had a son who was a year older than me. His name was also Jeff.

Jeff’s parents wanted to talk to my father about my mother and her death, so he and I left the adults in the living room and retreated to my room at the end of the hall. I felt an attraction to him and when he stretched out on my bed to look through a magazine, I had an overpowering desire to touch him. He was on his belly so I sat down next to him and gently placed my hand on his backside, slowly exploring its form with my fingers. My heart was beating wildly and although I knew I should stop, I couldn’t. Surprisingly, he responded by turning onto his side and touching my bulging crotch. I had found someone who understood me! The feeling was euphoric and we didn’t hold back. We spoke the same language without saying a word.

Buttons and zippers were undone and clothes were thrown onto the floor as our naked bodies touched and writhed and grinded into each other. It was the kind of physical and sexual intimacy that only two men can enjoy, and although we were young teenagers, we knew instinctively how to pleasure each other in ways that I’ve rarely known since. It was an intoxicating, thrilling and almost spiritual experience. And we didn’t speak until it was over, when we were side by side on the rumpled sheet, panting and sweating,

“What does this mean?” I asked him.

“It means you’re gay,” he said. “But that’s OK. I am, too. But don’t tell your dad. He won’t understand, and he’ll say it’s a sin. My parents don’t know about me, either. We can’t help how we are, but the grown-ups will try to change us.”

We were still talking softly together when his mother called out for him. We had been in my room for three hours, although for me time had stood still. It was late in the afternoon and they were leaving. We dressed quickly, combed our hair and tried to look innocent. I walked out with them and watched longingly as they drove way. I never saw Jeff again.

The occasional feelings of guilt and confusion continued for a long time, even years, and I struggled to feel comfortable as a Christian, but those few hours with Jeff helped me to start the journey toward accepting my sexuality. I had to leave the Baptist Church to complete that journey and I now define myself as spiritual but not religious.

My father did not have the same sort of struggle. He knew what he needed and how to get it, and he wasn’t burdened with guilt. I do wish that he had been more attentive to me, but I did not resent him for spending so much time with Eleanor. I understood that he missed my mother terribly and was dealing with the loneliness in a way that worked best for him. He proposed to Eleanor in July and they were married in September. A few days before the wedding, Eleanor took me aside for a serious conversation.

“I’m not trying to take the place of your mother,” she said, “but you will have to respect and obey me. You’ve been allowed to get away with a lot and that is going to stop. Things will be different from now on.”

As I listened to what she was saying, I had a feeling of foreboding. The wedding day was a joyous occasion for everyone… except me. My step-mother was not a caring or loving person and the next few years were not particularly easy, but I was biding my time until I was old enough to leave home. The relationship with my father was never the same after he met Eleanor, and it was only after several years, when he was nearing the end of his life, that we became close again. He died in 1991 at the age of 57.

The ceremony was part of the morning worship service on Sunday, September 11, 1977, just a few days before Eleanor’s 46th birthday. My father was 43. The announcement had been made a couple of weeks earlier and the church was filled to capacity. I know now that most of those people thought that my father was marrying too quickly, but he was a beloved pastor and they tried to support him. My step-mother took an active role in the church, but she did not develop close friendships with the members, as my mother had.

The ceremony that united Ernest Carrier and Eleanor Holloway in marriage. Peggy and Michael Holloway are on the left, and I am on the right. September 11, 1977.

Dad and Eleanor had written their own vows, including words for Eleanor’s two children and for me. Near the end of the ceremony, the pastor who was officiating looked at us and asked, “do you, Michael and Peggy and Jeffrey, promise to love and obey Ernest and Eleanor and support them in their marriage?” “We do,” we said in unison, although we hardly sounded sincere.

It took an hour for everyone to file out of the sanctuary and shake hands with the newlyweds, and then they were off on their honeymoon as well-wishers cheered and threw handfuls of rice.  I watched the car drive away and realized that dad had not said goodbye. My mother’s sister, my beloved Aunt Ginny, had traveled from Ohio to attend the wedding and she drove me home.

As we sat on the back porch in the late afternoon sun, she talked about the last time she had seen my mother before she died, and how she had offered to pick out a new wife for my father.

“Maybe I should have encouraged her,” Ginny said. “I think she would have found a better one than the one your dad did. I hope you will all be happy, but I have an uneasy feeling.”

She then looked at me very thoughtfully and said that I could talk to her any time, about any thing. “Call me if you need me,” she said. “You are my sister’s son, and I will always love you.”

My mother’s family were never invited to our home after my father re-married, but I spent time with them every summer, and have remained close to them throughout the years. In the late 1980s, when I was finally coming out of the closet, Aunt Ginny was the first family member I told.

“Do you remember when we were talking after your dad’s wedding?” she asked. “Well, I wondered on that day if you might be gay. And it was because of something your mother said to me when I saw her for the last time. ‘Look after Jeffrey,’ she said. ‘He will need a special kind of love and attention. I understand him better than his father does.’ Now I know exactly what she meant. She knew how you were and it didn’t matter. She loved you.”

My father never would have understood my being gay, but I am comforted to know that my mother did. The first summer after she died was a summer of discontent, but I made it through and eventually adjusted to a life without her and to my own sexuality.

Memories of Marion

I moved to Marquette County, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, on a cold March day in 2005. I had been away for 20 years, having graduated from Northern Michigan University in 1985. The university is in the city of Marquette, which hugs the shore of Lake Superior. During those 20 years, I had lived in Tennessee, New York and Oregon, but I was looking forward to returning to Michigan and seeing Miriam Hilton, in whose home I had lived as a student boarder.

I arrived on a Sunday and took possession of my house on Monday. When my phone was connected that afternoon, the first call I made was to Miriam and she invited me to attend a dinner at her house that evening. She entertained a group of people every Monday night and I can still remember taking my seat at the big, oval dining room table and meeting the other guests. Art Pennell was at the head and Miriam was at the foot. In between were Rowena Jones, Florence Barrington, Babs Sparhawk, James Hendricks, Marilyn Klahn, Lydia Hoff, Marian Schwitzgoebel, Janet McKie, Joanie Livingston, Millie Kingsbury and Marion Sonderegger. They were the charter members of what was affectionately known as “The Monday Night Supper Club.” Already in their 70s and 80s, only two of that original group are still with us.

As I was being introduced on that March evening, four people were already familiar to me. I had taken a Shakespeare class at the university taught by Art Pennell, Rowena Jones had been my advisor during my senior year, I had once helped Joanie Livingston carve jack-o-lanterns and Marion Sonderegger and I had been exchanging Christmas cards for 20 years.

When I arrived in Marquette in the late summer of 1983 to begin my junior year of college, I was glad that I was occupying a room in the Hilton’s home instead of living on campus. It was an ideal environment for an English major, as Earl Hilton was a retired professor and had spent 30 years in the English Department. And Miriam was herself an intellectual who had written the definitive history of the university. They often entertained, and the people who were invited to dinner were writers and educators and members of the local artistic community. Marion Sonderegger and her husband, Richard, were there often and I always looked forward to seeing them. I got to know them rather well, even though most of the conversations at the dinner table were well over my young head.

When I pulled up in front of Miriam’s house on East Arch Street for the first time in 20 years, the first thing I did was grab a snow shovel. Clearing the walkways after each snowfall had been my job when I was a student boarder, and it felt good to be helping her again. I was just finishing the chore when Marion Sonderegger arrived. I recognized her immediately, dropped the shovel and ran to her with open arms. I kissed her cheek as we embraced. “You’re all grown up!” she exclaimed. “Well, you haven’t seen me since I was barely 20,” I responded. “I’m now over 40!” It was a happy reunion.

I attended those Monday night dinners for the next twelve years, until I moved from Michigan to Ohio, and Marion was rarely absent. And I got to know so much about her — that she was descended from one of Marquette’s most famous founding families, that her grandfather, John Longyear, had made his fortune in lumber and coal and had founded the Arctic Coal Company, that a town in Norway known as Longyearbyen was named in his honor, and that her grandmother was involved with the first braille edition of the King James Bible. I didn’t learn these interesting facts from her, but from other people. Marion was not one to boast about her pedigree. She was a down-to-earth woman with a keen mind and a vibrant personality who could move comfortably in any circle of society. She was a dedicated member of the First Presbyterian Church and sang in their choir. She was also a member of the Marquette Choral Society, which I did not know until I attended their performance of the Magnificat in December of 2005 and spotted her in the tenor section.

During those Monday night dinners, a variety of topics was always discussed. Those were not people who were content to talk about recipes or the weather forecast. They could converse easily about art and literature, music and philosophy, world history and current events. Marion was an opera devotee and could discuss that musical genre with great authority, or so it seemed to me. James Hendricks was also an opera aficionado and it was amusing to hear them discuss the finer qualities of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” or Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” She and James (with Babs Sparhawk tagging along) even traveled to Europe to attend a performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle at La Scala in Milan. They regaled us for weeks afterward with stories of their adventure.

Miriam did not encourage political discussions at her table, preferring to maintain a friendly and neutral atmosphere, but once in a while politics would creep into the conversation. I remember as the George W. Bush administration was in its last year, his name was mentioned one evening which prompted a lively discussion between conservative Marion and Millie Kingsbury, who leaned to the left. They were both intelligent, well-informed women with very strong opinions, and they could defend those opinions with compelling arguments, while the rest of us sat quietly and listened, our heads turning back and forth from one to the other, like spectators at a tennis match.

Marion’s position at the table was always at the northeast corner, and I was usually next to her. As she got into her 90s and began suffering from aphasia and other problems, I would put the food on her plate and cut the meat into small pieces. It must have been very frustrating for her, having been so articulate and independent, to be reduced by age and illness to needing help, but she always smiled with thankfulness. She was still attending the dinners when I moved to Ohio in 2017, but soon afterward she moved to an assisted living facility, where she died in May of 2021, just a few months shy of her 100th birthday.

A Monday night dinner in 2014. Marion is seated upper left, and I’m next to her, wearing the dark blue shirt. Our hostess, Miriam Hilton, is at lower right.

Marion’s firm opinions and strong personality did not make her popular with everyone, but I was very fond of her. My father taught me never to forget a kindness, and Marion had been exceptionally kind to me when I was very young, and I have never stopped being grateful. During the final semester of my senior year, I applied for a $500 university grant. I had been asked by silent film star Patsy Ruth Miller, with whom I had been corresponding for a couple of years, to assist in the writing of her memoirs. It was an extraordinary opportunity for a young person like me, and I needed to visit her to discuss the project and also visit the University of Wyoming, where her memorabilia was housed. A lot of research was necessary, but I didn’t have the money to make those trips. I discussed my situation with Leonard Heldreth, who taught film history courses at the university, and he thought a grant was the perfect solution. We worked for a month writing the application and crossed our fingers when it was submitted. Unfortunately, the grant was awarded to a nursing student instead. I was devastated and thought the book-writing project was doomed.

Earl and Miriam were well aware of the situation, as I had talked about little else for weeks, and they were as disappointed as I was when I was denied the grant. A few days later, when I had almost entirely given up hope, I sat down for the evening meal and as I picked up my napkin, a little piece of paper fluttered down to my lap. It was a check for $500, and it was signed by Marion Sonderegger!

“She must really like you,” Mr. Hilton said with amusement. “She can’t even use that $500 as a tax write-off!”

I was able to make those trips, first to Wyoming where I spent a week pouring through the Patsy Ruth Miller material and then to Stamford, Connecticut, where Miss Miller lived by the seashore. The book was published in 1988 and I sent a complimentary copy to Marion signed “to my fairy godmother.”  

Every year I would include a personal message in a Christmas card, telling Marion that I would always remember her kindness.

A Star Shining in the Desert Sun

In December of 2011, there was a deep snow covering my back yard in Northern Michigan. I thought back to a very different winter 26 years earlier, a winter of sunshine, desert sands and palm trees as I lived for a few months at the elegant Monterey Country Club near Palm Springs. I was enjoying an e-mail conversation with Allan Glaser, the long-time partner of Tab Hunter, and we were discussing my friendship and professional association with silent movie star Patsy Ruth Miller, who had a condo at that country club.

I was telling him about the day she and I arrived there to work on her memoirs. Her husband of 35 years had just died and she didn’t want to grieve. She wanted to distract herself by working on a book and she probably thought that having a young man to help would make the project more pleasurable.

Dear Allan –

Where did I leave you hanging?  Oh yes. She had interrupted my blissful trance as I looked at that gorgeous view from her living room windows by asking for a drink. As I recall, I just stood there, not knowing what to say or do. “And fix one for yourself, too, if you want one,” she added, and then disappeared down the hallway.

I had prepared a drink for her in Connecticut a couple of times, but it had been a while and I had forgotten her alcohol of choice. There was a wet bar in one corner of the room and a small cabinet with glasses for wine, snifters for brandy, tall narrow glasses for aperitifs and cordials and short squatty glasses for various cocktails. Below the bar was another cabinet and inside were bottles of wines, liquors and liqueurs. I saw creme de cacao, creme de menthe, Barbados rum, brandy and a bottle of Wild Turkey among other bottles with labels I couldn’t even pronounce.

When she returned after a couple of minutes, expecting to enjoy her cocktail, she found me standing there looking like a fool! “Oh, I forgot,” she grinned. “You’re a preacher’s kid. I’ll have to corrupt you!”

I watched as she pulled a perfectly nondescript glass from a cupboard in the kitchen and dropped in three ice-cubes, over which she poured two jiggers of Canadian Club, and then filled the glass with soda water. That was her favorite drink, and as long as I knew her, I never saw her drink anything else. I eventually became a reliable bartender, and when it got to be late in the afternoon, she’d look at me with that twinkle in her eye and that coo in her voice and say, “fix me a drink, dear. If it isn’t five o’clock here, it’s five o’clock somewhere in the world.”

She’d have two or three drinks every evening, but that was it. I never saw her drink any more than that, and she was proud of the fact that she had successfully sued a woman in the 1970s for saying in a book that “Tay Garnett was an alcoholic, as was his wife, actress Patsy Ruth Miller.” 

She was not shy about filing a lawsuit to protect her reputation. A few years later, in the spring of 1994, I saw book while browsing in Barnes & Noble about the history of Warner Bros., the major Hollywood studio. It was called HOLLYWOOD BE THY NAME and was written by a member of the Warner family. Finding Patsy Ruth Miller’s name in the index, I turned to the page and was surprised to read that she had been the mistress of Jack Warner, the head of the studio!  Miss Miller was living permanently in California by that time and her health was not very good. Nevertheless, I called her and told her about the book. She was furious and instructed her lawyer to sue the authors for one million dollars! Well, all hell broke loose. The Warners had powerful attorneys and they had no intention of paying an old actress a million bucks.

They sent some attorneys to her condo one afternoon in July of that summer to ask a series of questions. It was a legal deposition, and she got so confused and had so much trouble remembering the details of her career that her credibility was challenged. And an article I had written about her in 1988 was a very important piece of evidence used to discredit her position. “I’ve had three husbands and I’ve had lovers, but my private life will remain private,” I quote her as saying. It was damning, and her case was dismissed before it could begin.

I was not there when the deposition was taken, but I’ve seen a video. The lawyers asked questions that were often silly and stupid, and she became more and more frustrated with them as the interview went on. She even gave up being serious and tried to make a couple jokes, but the lawyers seemed too dull or dense to notice.

“Have you ever had an affair with a married man?” one of the lawyers asked.

“Not to my knowledge,” she answered, then added “unless it was OK with the wife!”

She mentions me several times, but she tells some fibs, quotes me as saying things I never said and attributes things to me that I never did.

It was interesting to watch the tape. The camera is on her the entire time, for 62 minutes, and it was sad to see how she had declined since I had last seen her. She was 90 years old and still pretty sharp, although her memory was not reliable. She looked tired and weak and could barely see. She said, under oath, that she was not under a doctor’s care and took no medication other than an Advil now and then. That was not true. She was being treated for terminal cancer.  She died on July 16, 1995, almost exactly a year later.

I’m always amused by your questions, Allan. The friends who are in my life now know me only as an old movie buff. I don’t talk about Patsy Ruth Miller. And, frankly, I would feel slightly uncomfortable telling them that I was once a houseboy for a silent movie star!  But yes, I think that’s essentially what I was, or rather, what she wanted me to be.

Best to you and Tab. –Jeffrey

Allan wrote back the next day and told me that he and Tad had enjoyed close friendships with old movie actresses Evelyn Keyes and Joan Perry. “Those two women had their quirks, but they weren’t as temperamental as Patsy Ruth Miller was,” he wrote. “But you must have enjoyed living in California, despite the frustration. It’s so beautiful in the desert.”

Hi, Allan –

Yes, Miss Miller’s condo was a very comfortable place to live, and the setting was certainly gorgeous. There was a lemon tree next to the patio, so we had fresh lemonade every day. The condo was furnished in a style very similar to her home in Connecticut, with comfortable furniture in various shades of pink and lavender. It was not that big, but had a nice airy feel.

A cousin on my father’s side visited in February of 1987 and wanted to pose for a photo with Miss Miller and me.

The people who lived at that country club certainly enjoyed a pampered lifestyle. I didn’t meet any other retired film stars living there, except for Skippy Homeier, whose condo was on the other side of the fairway, but there may have been others. The neighbors on either side of Miss Miller, the Johnsons and the Spencers, had retired from the corporate world. I also remember meeting a man named Paul Hershey, a scion of that famous family.

On that first afternoon in that beautiful place, after she had finished her CC and soda and I had emptied a can of Coca-Cola, she suggested we go for a swim. It was only about 4 in the afternoon, and the sun was still high and bright, and the day was very warm. But I had foolishly not packed a swimsuit, and when I told her, she shrugged and suggested I could wear one of her husband’s. She found one and held it up for me to see. It was bright yellow, not my favorite color, and it looked huge. I’d have had to wear suspenders to keep it up!  

“Won’t do, huh?” she said, noticing my less than joyful expression. “I guess we’ll just have to buy one at the mall. You can drive and I’ll show you the way.”

The idea of driving in the desert thrilled me. I had visions of tooling around in an open-topped foreign sports car, sleek and chic… until she handed me the keys to a great big heavy blue boat of a car.  Have you ever seen a Cadillac Fleetwood? It was enormous!

There was a Fleetwood in her garage in Connecticut and the car in California was its twin. I had driven the car in Connecticut only once, which was not enough time to learn how to handle such a big automobile.

“Let’s go!” she said impatiently, getting in the passenger side and clicking the remote control. The garage door swung open, filling the space with bright, hot, sunlight. “We’ll go to Penney’s. I’m sure they have a good selection.”

Back home in Tennessee I had a little Toyota, a 1978 model that didn’t have air conditioning, but was just the kind of car I liked to drive. It sped up quickly and was easy to steer and control. When I got behind the wheel of that behemoth in California, started the engine and backed out of the garage, it was like trying to control a yacht! 

And Miss Miller was the worst kind of back-seat driver. “Watch out for the pedestrian!” “You’re too close to the curb!” “Slow down, the light is turning yellow!”

I was already uptight, trying to get used to a car that seemed to be 25 feet long and 8 feet wide, and her nagging made me even more nervous. Finally, though, we made it to the mall which was only a couple miles or so from the country club. And I managed to find a parking space near the front entrance.

The mall was beautiful… filled with people, old and young, and all of them very attractive. Up the escalators we went and she held on to my arm as we strolled into Penney’s.

“I want to buy this young man a pair of bathing trunks,” she said to a clerk, a man of about 50 who stared at us over dark-rimmed glasses that had slid part of the way down his nose.

“Come with me,” he beckoned and led us to a section of the men’s department. She started picking up swimsuits and then putting them back, obviously seeing in her imagination just what she wanted me to wear.  It made me slightly uncomfortable, as I was sure people were staring at us.

She selected three. There was a fourth, but it was yellow and I asked her to put it back

“Well, go on,” she prodded. “Try them on and let me see how you look.”

The clerk was still nearby, and I’m sure he was amused  It occurred to me that it was just like the scene in SUNSET BOULEVARD where Gloria Swanson takes William Holden clothes-shopping, and I couldn’t help smiling. But my grin turned to a frown as I remembered that the film ended with William Holden’s lifeless body face-down in a swimming pool.

All my best to you and your life-partner. –Jeffrey

Hi, Jeffrey – Your stories are really fascinating. And I want to read more. It’s like reading an intriguing novel that you just can’t put down. I was just re-reading a few of your last e-mails and, ironically, Tab starred in the last picture Tay Garnett ever directed called TIMBER TRAMPS, a grade Z production that was a total embarrassment for everyone involved. And Tab loved Teresa Wright. There was a popular song at the time they were working together called LITTLE THINGS MEAN A LOT by Kitty Kallen. Tab use to sing it to Teresa all the time and every time we hear it (which is rare) Tab always mentions Teresa. I wish I been able to meet her. It’s after 11 p.m. so I’m off to bed. Maybe I’ll have more of your story to read when I get up. By the way, who inherited all of Patsy Ruth Miller’s property? Cheers! Allan

Dear Allan –

You asked who inherited her estate. Her son and daughter-in-law did. They inherited the big house in Connecticut and the condo in Palm Desert. Both were sold. The big house sold fairly quickly but they did hold onto the condo for about 10 years.

I went back to Palm Desert for a weekend in 2001 with my boyfriend at the time and we stayed in that condo. It had been 14 years since I had lived there and nine years since I had last visited, but it hadn’t changed… not in the slightest. The furniture was the same and was even arranged in the same way that I remembered. It was as though the clock had stopped ticking. And I kid you not, that giant Cadillac was still in the garage!

Miss Miller had been dead for six years, but I could feel her presence in every room. She had died in her bed, and I did not want to sleep in that room. We used the guest room instead, which had always been my favorite, with its lovely white wicker furniture and light blue walls.

I was only in Palm Desert for four months, from early November of 1986 to the end of March in 1987, but they were very dramatic months. Living with a silent movie star was a memorable experience, and although most of the time was spent working on that book, I had some fun, too. She was adjusting to life as a widow, but I didn’t see her grieving. Only once did I see a tear on her cheek, and she was embarrassed that I had caught her in a moment of sadness. She did not like to show any weakness and was not what I’d call sentimental, although her face would soften whenever she talked about her mother or Alla Nazimova, the actress who had discovered her.

Patsy’s brother Winston and his wife, Beatrix, drove down from LA for a weekend in late November of 1986. I took a snapshot of the three of them, but the ladies insisted on posing with me as well.

We did have occasional disagreements, but they were minor. She was actually very good to me, and by the time the book was completed and I left in late March, I had grown very fond of her. I was able to see and appreciate a side of her personality that she didn’t reveal to most people. And she could be very kind and generous. She sent a check for $35,000 to her husband’s secretary to pay off her mortgage. And one day, after we had gotten into an argument, she handed me a check for one thousand dollars. It was more money than I had ever seen at one time.

My impression of her as a vain, thoughtless and self-centered woman began to soften, just a little. However, I never could warm up to her extreme right-wing politics or her disdain for minorities. She was certainly a believer in white supremacy! Also, she had no sympathy for the poor and thought that the European settlers should be celebrated for pushing the Native Americans off of their lands. “They were savages,” she said. “It is our responsibility to bring civilization to the wilderness.” I would try to defend the indigenous people of North America, but she’d have none of it. She could also be very rude to restaurant employees, criticizing their manners and service. She was a woman of contrasts, and during the moments when she was behaving badly, I would think of what her brother had said to me: “Try to understand her. She’s an old and tired star still trying to shine.”

I especially had to remind myself of those words one afternoon when the erstwhile Hollywood columnist Radie Harris arrived for an afternoon visit. Miss Harris, who was probably close to 80 at the time, had a prosthetic leg and once she made it to a chair and plopped into its cushions, she did want want to get up again. I had helped her to the chair and once the two ladies were seated in the living room, Miss Miller asked me to bring them some ice water “and put some of those roasted peanuts into a little dish.”

The kitchen was next to the living room and I could clearly hear them chatting as I poured water into glasses and looked for the can of peanuts.

“Where did you find that handsome young man?” Miss Harris asked. “Is he your companion?”

“Oh no, dear,” Miss Miller answered. “He is my serf!”

One thing that always amazed me was how lucky she wast to have loyal friends and very patient and devoted maids and cooks and housekeepers. The first day that I was with her in the desert, I heard the front door open early in the morning and a few minutes later I was introduced to Gloria Jiminez, a delightful woman in her 40s who cooked and cleaned and tried to be helpful in every way possible. Miss Miller was often unkind to her, but Gloria was always respectful and didn’t argue.

I liked Gloria enormously and she and I developed a system to make her job easier. Miss Miller hated the noise of the vacuum cleaner and the laundry machines. She would let her dirty clothes pile up before she’d allow Gloria to wash anything, even keeping the same sheets on her bed for weeks at a time, merely switching from one side of the bed to the other. When Gloria decided that she couldn’t wait any longer, she’d discretely ask me to take Miss Miller to the pool for a swim, or to the mall to do some shopping. “Keep her out of the house for a couple of hours,” she’d say and I was happy to oblige.

Gloria would stay until late in the afternoon, but then Miss Miller and I were on our own, and it was my responsibility to prepare our dinner. I have never had any culinary talent, but fortunately she was fond of Stouffers TV dinners. The dining room table was cluttered with our book-writing materials so we’d eat on trays every evening in the den as we watched television. I have many pleasant memories of those evenings.

I don’t have many pleasant memories of our afternoon swims, however, as I was keenly aware that she kept her eyes on me. I did not have a face or a body that would have turned heads, but she liked the way I looked in a bathing suit and she’d have a towel handy to dry my back when I’d emerge from the water, dripping all over the hot concrete. It was flattering in one way, but a bit creepy in another.

Every morning, after her shower, Miss Miller would sit on the patio and work on a crossword puzzle as her hair dried in the warm desert sun.

Several months later, in August, when I was staying with her in Connecticut and we were suffering through a heat wave, I left my hot room on the third floor one night and slept in the slightly cooler bedroom on the second floor that her late husband had used. I had forsaken pajamas and was sleeping in the buff. There was no lock on the bedroom door and the next morning, I threw back the sheet, swung my feet out and was standing up when I noticed that the door was open slightly. Beyond the door, in the dim hallway, I could see the outline of Miss Miller as she silently spied on me. I was mildly amused but mostly annoyed, so I quickly lay back down and slid under the sheet.

Another unpleasant memory is from an afternoon in California when I thought she was having a fatal heart attack.

By the way, I’m sending you and Mr. Hunter a copy of her book, MY HOLLYWOOD. Hopefully it doesn’t take as long to reach you as it did to write it.

All my best. –Jeffrey

The book reached its destination a few days later and Allan wrote to me right away. “It’s a lovely book,” he said. “I did not realize how big and heavy it would be. I haven’t started reading it yet, but I did look through it and I’m impressed to see so many photographs. I know it’s not easy to get a publisher to approve a lot of illustrations, as we went through that process when Tab’s autobiography was being prepared for publication.”

Dear Allan –

I’m glad the book reached you safely. Yes, it certainly has heft! As Miss Miller and I were working on it, we envisioned a slim paperback that could be carried onto planes and busses and slipped into pockets for reading on nice days in city parks. But it turned out to be a thick coffee table book, and it wasn’t cheap. I think the price was $49.99, and it wasn’t easy to find. Most bookstores didn’t carry it and not many people bought it.

It was finished in late March of 1987, and I left Palm Desert to take a reporting job at a newspaper in Tennessee. Miss Miller wanted me to stay on with her as a driver, secretary and general companion, but I was young and I needed to live my own life. She was very controlling, and I didn’t relish the idea of being at her beck and call, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

I must tell you, Allan, that the book you are holding in your hands is not the same book that we worked on for almost three years. It was completely re-written before it was published. The book started out as a series of letters between a young fan and an old movie star… i.e., me and Patsy Ruth Miller. I would write to her with various questions, and she would write back with her responses. We used that famous book by Helene Hanff (called 84 CHARING CROSS ROAD) as a model. That was the format we followed as we typed and re-typed, arranged sections and then re-arranged them, and we ended up with 287 pages. When the last period was put at the end of the last page and I left for Tennessee, her parting words to me were “thank you for the help, dear heart. Your name will be on the cover right below mine, and I’ll take you with me on a publicity tour.”

She had a friend in Springfield, Mass named Elaine Kregeloh who had contacts in the publishing field, and she agreed to act as our agent. The manuscript was shipped to her with high hopes for fame and fortune. 

What we didn’t know was that the book as written didn’t have a chance. All through the summer of 1987 – while I was in Tennessee working as a reporter — Elaine was sending the manuscript to one publisher after another, but no one wanted it. They all turned it down. The format we had used was awkward and robbed the book of balance and continuity. One editor attached a note to the standard rejection letter suggesting that the book would work better as a straightforward autobiography “without the character of the young man asking questions.” Miss Miller decided to follow that advice and re-write the manuscript, but she didn’t tell me.

Late that summer I enrolled at New York University as a graduate student. Miss Miller had returned east for the summer and, being so close to New York, she invited me to move into her house. She was there alone, with no cook or housekeeper or maid, and she welcomed my company. It was only then that I learned about the new direction the book was taking, and she pressed me into service re-typing the pages. Classes began in September and I was in the city three days a week, but the rest of time the house echoed with the sound of typing. By the time she left for California in early November, most of the book had been rewritten. She finished it that winter in California, but when the revised manuscript was re-submitted to publishers the following spring, it was still rejected, the editors complaining that it was not racy enough. They wanted scandal. It finally did get into print, but that is not the happiest of stories.

When she returned to Connecticut in the spring of 1988, I was living in New York City, but I would occasionally take the train up to Stamford to spend weekends with her.

Having given up on me as a companion, she had invited another young man to move in, a tall, handsome Egyptian named Matouk, but he was rather surly and was prone to late night drinking and morning hangovers.   

I’ll tell you something funny about him. One Saturday later that summer, I took the train to Stamford for an overnight visit. I got there late in the afternoon and found Miss Miller in an agitated state. “It’s Matouk,” she said. “He was drinking a lot last night and I haven’t heard a sound from the third floor all day.”  She told me some shocking stories about him and his behavior and then added, “Could he be dead? Could I be that lucky?”

“I think we’d better find out,” was my sober reply, so we took the elevator to the second floor and then slowly climbed the narrow stairs to the third floor. He was staying in the little room under the eave that I had once occupied, and the door was slightly ajar. We inched toward it, but we were afraid to look in.

“Matouk?” she called softly, then called again, more loudly, “Matouk?”

We heard someone stirring in the room and a long sigh, and then the door was suddenly flung open…. and standing there was Matouk… naked! I was so startled that it took me few seconds to notice that only his head was covered…. with a white turban! 

“We were concerned about you,” Miss Miller said with surprising composure. “I’m fine!” was his unfriendly, slightly accented response, and he closed the door in our faces. I thought I heard a woman giggling.

We didn’t speak as we made our way back down to the first floor, but as soon as we settled into comfortable chairs that afforded a lovely view of the harbor, I couldn’t help saying, “Mrs. Deans, I am shocked that he would let you see him like that.” 

“Oh, think nothing of it, dear,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone, and then winked. “I’ve seen him without his turban!”

Regards to you and Tab. –Jeffrey

Dear Jeffrey! What a story! I laughed so hard when I read about the Egyptian wearing only a turban. Whatever happened to him? I’ve started reading her book and I’m loving those beautiful illustrations. I’m even more impressed now than I was at first glance. Allan

Dear Allan —

Regardless of her disdain for Matouk, Miss Miller took him with her to California for the winter. It was very strange. No one liked him, but she held onto him for some perverse reason. She even took him on a New Year’s Eve cruise. I think he was with her for a couple of years and caused all kinds of problems, including kiting checks and renting a car in her name which he never returned.

And yes, you are right; the book is lavishly illustrated. It was a beautifully produced book, with hundreds of photos. And most of them came from Miss Miller’s own collection. Unlike Norma Desmond in SUNSET BOULEVARD, she didn’t have framed pictures of herself on every table and hanging on every wall. She had long-ago packed away all the remnants of her Hollywood life and piled them in a dingy, dusty room at the very end of the third-floor hallway.

The little room I stayed in was also on that floor and during one of my early visits when the book was still in the planning stage, I had trouble sleeping one night and decided to do a little exploring… and opening the door to that room was like passing through a portal to the past. The room had one light, a bare and dusty bulb that bathed the room in a diffused light, and after my eyes adjusted to the dimness, the first thing I did was open an old hamper. It was filled with pictures, framed pictures. The frames were painted red, and the pictures were old and faded… but I could see they were portraits of lovely young women in beautiful gowns. They were Miss Miller’s bridesmaids when she married Tay Garnett in 1929. They were all film stars at the time and had signed the portraits with sweet messages of best wishes. The inscription I remember best was from Virginia Fox, who quit making movies when she married Darryl F. Zanuck. “Patsy dear,” she had written, “never will I forget this day and how beautiful you looked. May perfect happiness be yours. Always, with love, Virginia.”  

The other portraits were of Lila Lee, Lois Wilson and Helen Ferguson, who left acting and became an agent for Barbara Stanwyck and Loretta Young, among others. 

Under that stack was a portrait of Tay with his groomsmen, and I recognized James Gleason and Robert Armstrong standing on either side of the smiling young director. And then I saw a lovely photo of the bride and groom — Patsy and Tay — looking happy and very much in love. It made me feel a little sad to realize that the happiness captured in the photo did not last. They were divorced in 1933.

I put the photos back in the old hamper just the way I had found them and spotted some boxes near the window. Obviously, it had been a long, long time since anyone had been in that room, as dust had accumulated on everything. The slightest movement caused it to fly up into the air. Fighting back the urge to cough and sneeze, I opened the first box and grabbed a large stack of brittle paper. It was a bundle of letters from Tay Garnett, some of them mailed from Germany in 1933 when he was over there directing a movie called S.O.S. ICEBERG. He said if he’d been a better husband, she wouldn’t have had an affair with someone else, but he also blamed her for his own infidelity.  “It’s all arranged for us to be divorced in Budapest,” he wrote. “So let me know the name of the ship and I’ll have someone meet you in Southampton.”

It was fascinating stuff. I couldn’t stop reading, even as the edges of the old letters started crumbling in my hand. I also found telegrams from the 1920s, several them from George Jessel and others from Marc Connelly, the playwright. And there was a long letter from Richard Barthelmess declaring his love, dated March 14, 1926. And in the next box was a few chapters of her life story. The pages were yellowed and out of order, but I sat cross-legged on the floor and started to read. It was good, very good, about a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl from St. Louis who went to Los Angeles on vacation and became a celebrated movie star. I had just reached an exciting episode about a trip to Tahiti with Lila Lee and John Farrow in 1931 when I suddenly heard a noise.

“Jeffrey! What are you doing up there?”  It was Miss Miller. I realized with sudden panic that her bedroom was directly below me and that my exploring had wakened her. “Jeffrey!” she called out again. “Answer me!”

Well, I must end here. It’s getting close to five, and I have dinner with a group of wonderful people every Monday. I mustn’t be late.

I’ll write again soon. –Jeffrey

Jeffrey! You are so naughty to leave so many strings dangling. I want to know more about the book’s publication, what happened after she discovered you snooping through her memorabilia and, especially, about the heart attack! Please tie up these loose ends soon. Tab and I wait with bated breath! Allan

Dear Allan –

I’m sorry to leave you with so many questions unanswered, but I do like the challenge of maintaining your interest.

I’ll start by explaining about the heart attack. As I think I mentioned to you in an earlier missive, Miss Miller had occasional angina pains, which were treated with nitro pills. As soon as she’d feel discomfort, she’d put a pill under her tongue and the pain would go away after a minute or two. It didn’t seem to bother her very much.

One beautiful day in Palm Desert, she was preparing to have lunch with two of the neighbors, Rita Spencer and Eve Vallario, but just before they arrived to pick her up, she felt a pain in her chest. She put a pill under her tongue and waited… but the pain worsened. Even after a second pill, the pain persisted. She looked pale and beads of sweat appeared on her forehead. I was there alone with her, and I panicked! I called 911 and requested an ambulance. “Please hurry!” I demanded. “An 83-year-old woman is having a heart attack! I think she is dying!”

As I was hanging up, the ladies arrived and rushed to the sofa where Miss Miller was resting on pillows and moaning. Rita held her hand as Eve wiped her forehead with a damp cloth. I expected her to die at any moment.

The paramedics arrived with sirens blaring and were very gentle as they put her on a stretcher and loaded her into the ambulance. I called her son, Timothy, to tell him what had happened and then the two ladies took me out to lunch.

Later that afternoon, Timothy called to tell me that he had been in touch with the hospital and that his mother was fine.  Angina was the culprit, but she was being kept overnight for observation, just in case.

Miss Miller called the next morning from the hospital and asked me to pick her up. She was very cross and berated me for over-reacting. I told her that I was not going to apologize because it could easily have been something much worse than angina and “how do you think I’d feel if I’d just let you die without calling for help?” She had no answer.

I always thought she would eventually die of a heart-related issue, but no, it was cancer that finally got her. I was with her when she received the diagnosis.

When I arrived at her Oceanfront house late in the summer of 1987, I noticed a small bandage under her right arm. I asked about it and she said a small “knot” had been removed, but she didn’t seem concerned. A few days later we were doing a little work on the book when the doctor called with the news that the tumor was malignant. He wanted to schedule radiation treatments, beginning right away.

She burst into tears, which the only time I ever saw her displaying so much emotion.

“I’m not going to have the treatment,” she told the doctor. “I’m not going through that. I’m 83 years old. How much time do I have left anyway? So what if it adds another year to my life.  What’s another year at my age? I’ll just make good use of the time I have.” 

The cancer returned in the early 1990s and she had a breast removed, but that did not slow its spread. It continued to expand, gradually wearing her down. She was bedridden the last few months of her life, although she was still talking to friends and family on the phone. I spoke to her a week before she died and we had a very pleasant conversation. “Call again soon, dear Jeff” were her last words to me.

I think she was content as she was dying, but I know she never completely got over the frustrating failure of her book. A few months before she died, she was still trying to interest a publisher in a second edition, still brooding over the mishandling of the first edition.

A few years earlier, in the spring of 1988, with still no deal for publication, it was beginning to look hopeless. Elaine, the woman in Massachusetts, finally gave up and sent the manuscript back to Miss Miller, who was in a very dark mood for weeks. However, to her rescue came Phil Riley, a man for whom she had written a foreword a few years earlier. Riley owned a small publishing company called Magic Image which specialized in re-printing the shooting scripts of old horror films. He contacted her and asked if she would consider writing another foreword and she said no, but she’d be willing to let him publish her memoirs. He was hooked! He formed a separate company for the sole purpose of putting out Miss Miller’s book and christened it O’Raghailligh Ltd. His idea was a two-books-in-one sort of deal, with Miss Miller’s life story being the first half and a reproduction of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME script being the second half. And that’s exactly what he did.

To his credit, he worked very hard on the opus, putting himself in the hospital a couple times with exhaustion and once with a heart attack. And Miss Miller did not make his job easy as she called him almost every day asking questions and demanding to see proofs. I think she got to be such a big pain in the you-know-what that he stopped taking her calls and didn’t send her any proofs at all. I wasn’t involved with the book anymore, but Miss Miller would give me occasional updates.

I had assumed, all though this long and complicated process, that I was still listed as a co-author, but when I joined Miss Miller and Phil Riley at the Museum of Modern Art in December of 1988 to celebrate the book’s release, I held it in my hands and saw the title — MY HOLLYWOOD – WHEN BOTH OF US WERE YOUNG. THE MEMORIES OF PATSY RUTH MILLER.  There was no “with Jeffrey Carrier” in small letters at the bottom. No mention of my name whatsoever. I did finally find my name in a preface by Miss Miller which read, in part, “This book came into being because of the urging, pleading insistence and nagging of a young newspaper man from Tennessee named Jeffrey Carrier.”  And that was it.  The acknowledgment of my contribution to the book — all those days and hours and months — had been removed and erased. 

However, I guess in a way I got the last laugh. Mr. Riley declared bankruptcy just as the book was being published, and Miss Miller had to pay to have the copies released from the printer. I can only imagine how many thousands of dollars that must have cost. She even had to pay for her own book-signing parties. And royalties? Not one cent was ever paid.  And because she had alienated herself from Phil Riley and wasn’t permitted to see proofs, the book was filled with mistakes. Words were misspelled, pictures were misidentified, sentences and some entire paragraphs were either missing or out of place. It was embarrassing and I was rather glad my name was not on the cover! 

She spent the rest of her life trying to interest someone in putting out a second edition in paperback, with revisions and corrections. She wrote close to a hundred pages of new material and sent it to Grace Houghton, the owner of Vestal Press, who had expressed some interest. But neither she nor anyone else released an expanded edition. I have no idea what happened to those pages, but I did see in a recent biography of film director Victor Fleming that there are several long quotes from “the unpublished second volume of memoirs by Patsy Ruth Miller.”

Will there ever be a corrected edition? I doubt it.

Now… let’s see what I can do to relieve all the stress that has built up as you wonder what happened when Patsy Ruth Miller caught me snooping. 

I froze when she called to me, not knowing what to do. Should I just be still and quiet and let her think she had been dreaming, should I bow low and beg for forgiveness, or should I chide her for not telling me she had a room full of treasures? 

Before she could call out to me a third time, I walked out of that dusty room and into the hallway, where I could see a shaft of light at the bottom of the stairs and the unmistakable form of her shadow. 

“I’m so sorry if I disturbed you,” I said in a whispery voice. “I couldn’t sleep and was walking around. I was just about to go to bed.”  She didn’t answer but the shadow disappeared, the light went off and I heard a door close in the distance. It took me a while to go to sleep, and I felt a strange combination of misery and joy. I kept thinking about all those amazing artifacts from her career just a few feet away, but I was also terrified of what she might say to me the next morning.

The cook had already fixed my usual breakfast of an English muffin with butter and jam when Miss Miller came downstairs about 9. She had already read the paper, had two cups of coffee and devoured a fried egg with toast. She liked her eggs one way, and one way only. A pat of butter was dropped into a hot skillet, and as soon as it started melting and bubbling, an egg was cracked and dropped into the pan. It was allowed to fry for 20 seconds and then carefully flipped and allowed to fry for ten seconds on the other side. It was then slid ever so gently onto a plate that had been warming in the oven.  If it was flipped too soon or allowed to fry too long, Miss Miller was somehow aware of it and she’d demand that it be done over. She liked two pieces of toast — white bread only — toasted on both sides, with a little butter spread over each piece. The final touch was placing two tiny glass bowls on either side of the plate. One was for jam (strawberry, raspberry or blackberry) and the other for ketchup. It was the first time I had ever heard of anyone eating eggs with ketchup, and even though I’ve seen it done since then, it’s something I still don’t understand. It’s a good thing I was paying attention as the cook was preparing the eggs because during those few months in the fall of 1987, when I was Miss Miller’s only companion, I had to make breakfast for her every morning.

I was eating the last few bits of the English muffin when she appeared in the doorway and looked at me with a withering stare.

“I want to know what you were doing up there last night,” she said in a voice that was as cold and sharp as an icicle.

I felt myself starting to tremble and I tried to control my voice as I said, as meekly as I could, that I was sorry I had disturbed her, that I was just walking around until I got sleepy and had gone into the storage room without thinking “but when I saw the letters and papers, I couldn’t keep from looking at them and then I saw those beautiful portraits of your bridesmaids and a signed portrait of Reginald Denny and a telegram from George Jessel and wow, there were pages of an old manuscript which was about your life and I only intended to read one page but I had to read another and another because it was so good and I learned about your trip to Tahiti in 1931 with John Farrow and how you had to bandage his wrist when he tried to kill himself and why didn’t you tell me you had written your autobiography?” I stopped to take a breath and expected the ceiling to fall on me, but then I noticed that her stern expression had turned into a smile. 

“Do you really think it’s good?” she asked, her anger obviously swept away by my enthusiasm. “I started it years ago and never finished it. ” 

“Yes, it’s very good,” I responded. “I think you should finish it. You brought me here to help write a book about your life, and it’s already half-done!”

It wasn’t quite as easy as it sounds, however. The pages were irritatingly out of order and were scattered about in several boxes. How would we ever get it organized. With some help from the cook, however, we gathered all the scattered pages and finally put them in order. Those pages became the foundation for the final manuscript.

As I think back to my difficult but rewarding friendship with Patsy Ruth Miller, I remember something she said that could easily be her epitaph: “My life has been fun and exciting and successful, but inside I’m still a sixteen-year-old girl from St. Louis.”

I’ll stop here because I’m hungry and think I’ll fix myself some breakfast. It will not be a fried egg with ketchup! 🙂 –Jeffrey

When Starlight Fades

It was a Sunday night in November of 2011 and I was keeping a close watch on eBay auctions. Several photos of film stars from my collection were being sold. I had gotten into a routine of putting fifty items up for sale every week, and the auctions always ended on Sunday evenings.

One of the items was a portrait of Tab Hunter and Geraldine Page which had been used to promote their starring roles in a 1958 episode of the television series “Playhouse 90.” Imagine my surprise when the photo was purchased by Tab Hunter himself!

When I shipped the photo to his address in Santa Barbara, I enclosed a fan letter which included my e-mail information. A week or so later, he sent me a message, thanking me for the letter and expressing an interest in other photos I might be willing to sell. That started a brief back-and-forth with the former actor, which was very exciting. He even sent me an autographed portrait.

When I e-mailed a few scans of other photos from my files, the reply came not from Mr. Hunter but from his partner, Allan, who said they were looking for photos to use in a documentary about Tab’s life and career which was nearing completion. “These are great photos,” he wrote, “and I think we can use a few of them.”

I ended up selling several photos to him, and we became chummy internet pen-pals, sometimes sending e-mails to each other every day. I loved hearing about his long-term relationship with Tab Hunter, how they first met and fell in love, and how they had kept their relationship fresh and exciting for almost three decades.  “I am 30 years younger than Tab,” Allan explained, “but we are an example of how two men can make it work if there is love and respect. And if you have fun together. If you have those things, it will last a lifetime.”

When he learned that I had also been involved with a much older film star, he was very curious. “It wasn’t a romance,” I told him. “And it wasn’t a man. It was a business relationship, and we were working on a book. She was almost 60 years older, and I think her interest in me started to go beyond friendship just a little. I didn’t feel the same way because I’m gay. It bears a passing resemblance to “Sunset Boulevard.” She was a silent movie star named Patsy Ruth Miller.”

Dear Jeffrey. That is fascinating! Tab and I have gotten to know a lot of the old movie stars, but we never met her. We do have a couple of friends who did know her pretty well and from all that we heard about her, she must have been a wonderful person. Please tell me more. Allan.

His e-mail amused me and I wrote back right away, asking him if the friends who had known Miss Miller were men. She always treated men, especially young handsome men, with exaggerated friendliness. She fawned over them. I also suspected that his friends had not known her very well “because the better you got to know her, the less wonderful she seemed. I lived with her off and on for more than a year, and I saw a side of her that was not particularly pleasant.”

Allan confirmed that the friends he mentioned were indeed young men, two brothers from England who had gotten to know many of the older generation of film stars. He ended the e-mail by asking, again, to tell him more. “I’m dying to know how you met her.”

Dear Allan –

Well, to explain about how I managed to make the acquaintance of Patsy Ruth Miller, I have to set the stage a bit. I don’t know how much of a film buff you are, but I suspect you appreciate the ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood just as much as I do. My interest in old movies was sparked by an elderly woman named Lois Goodman who lived a few houses down from me when I was a boy. I’ve always liked older people, and so I used to hang around her house, where I’d spend hours listening to her talk about the past. She was movie-mad as a young woman and thought Pearl White was the greatest star of them all!  I loved hearing about the old movies and the old stars, like Valentino and Gloria Swanson and Mae Murray.

One day she showed me some old movie magazines which she had held onto for fifty years. I was intrigued by a 1922 edition of “Picture-Play.” The cover featured a chestnut-haired young woman with large, expressive eyes. She was identified as Patsy Ruth Miller and something about the photo captured my imagination. Mrs. Goodman gave me that magazine, and I still have it!

When I got a little older and was in high school, I started buying books about old movies. In one of them, devoted to silent film, I saw several photos of Patsy Ruth Miller and I became even more intrigued. I looked her up in every book I could find and learned that she had made 70 movies during a ten-year-career that ended in 1931. I also discovered that she had been married to a director and then a screenwriter and had retired to Stamford, Connecticut with husband number three. His name was Effingham Deans.

I started working as a newspaper reporter after my freshman year in college, and although I enjoyed it, I did get a little bored interviewing the president of the beautification committee, the woman who won a blue ribbon for patchwork quilts and a man who weaved baskets out of willow bark. I wanted something more challenging. And I thought, wow, wouldn’t it be neat to interview an almost-forgotten silent movie star. Patsy Ruth Miller was the obvious choice.

I managed to track down the phone number for Effingham Deans and when Mrs. Deans answered, I explained as articulately as I could (which was not very articulate, I can assure you), that I was hoping I could interview her for a newspaper article. She acquiesced, but did ask how old I was. When I said I was 19, she said she was flattered and amused that someone so young was interested in her career, and she became very friendly.

I wrote the article, and when I sent her a copy, she sent me a very nice note in return. That began a casual phone friendship and two years later, in the fall of 1984, when I was a senior in college, we were chatting on the phone one evening and she shocked me by inviting me to visit her in Connecticut. How could I say no? And I think that must rank as one of the most exciting trips of my life!  Before I flew back to Michigan where I was attending Northern Michigan University, she asked me to assist in the writing of her memoirs and, four years later, the book was published! But it was not an easy experience and there were times when I was tempted to walk away.

I returned to Connecticut for a week in May of 1985 after graduating, went back in August and was there again for the month of June the following year, in 1986. In September of that year, she invited me to spend a few days with her while her husband was away. Mr. Deans, a handsome Scot with white hair and a jolly laugh, was supportive of his wife’s new hobby and was very nice to me.

Every time I visited, I stayed in a small room on the top floor. I loved being in that wonderful old house, situated in a grove of ancient hickory trees right on the beach of Stamford Harbor. It was a grand house, with three floors and lots of rooms. It was comfortably furnished in pastels, with lots of pale blues and pinks and subtle greens, and there were soft carpets of sun-faded beige. Positioned by a window in the large living room was a lovely baby grand piano, on which were displayed several family pictures, with a signed portrait of Ronald Reagan in the center. A autographed photo of Nancy Reagan sat proudly on a shelf in the kitchen.

Her room was at one end of the second floor and her husband’s was at the other end. Every time I entered her bedroom, I had the sensation of stepping into another time and place. It was pink — pink walls, pink carpets, pink bedding, all in slightly different shades. It sounds garish, but it was actually very attractive. There was a large oil painting of Miss Miller opposite the bed, hanging above the fireplace. And that bed! It was big and beautiful and must have been custom-made for her. There was a white bookcase on one side of the room, with first editions sitting snugly on the shelves, books by Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Faulkner. I also remember seeing a signed edition of poetry by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Every morning, she’d stay in bed until 9 or so. The maid would take coffee and the “New York Daily News” to her around 8, but not before Miss Miller would ring a little bell that sat on her bedside table. I can still hear that sound. Nothing in the house dared move until that bell rang, and then the day could begin. At 8:30 or so she’d ring the bell again, signaling that she was through with the paper and was ready for breakfast, which the maid would bring to her on a big bed tray. It was all done with great precision.

In the meantime, Mr. Deans had come downstairs and would be having his coffee and breakfast in the cozy den while he watched a morning news program. I’d have juice and an English muffin in the kitchen and chat with the cook, a very pleasant middle-aged woman named Marie. 

I flew back to Tennessee before September ended, but near the middle of October, she asked me to come back again. “Eff is in the hospital and I think it’s a good time for us to get more work done,” she said. So, I dutifully flew up, moved into the little room on third floor, and started working. On October 27, at about 6 pm in the evening, the phone rang. It was the hospital. Her husband had died of a heart attack.

Best to you and Mr. Hunter. –Jeffrey

Dear Jeffrey — You certainly know how to maintain interest in your story. You left me hanging. It’s just like one of those old movie serials. When something very exciting is about to happen, the film ends and you have to wait for the next chapter the following week. Please don’t make me wait a week! So many of the old silent stars spent their final years in poverty, but I get the feeling that she was well off. Do write again soon. Allan.

I wrote to Allan the next morning as I sipped a cup of black coffee and watched the snow piling up in my back yard.

Dear Allan –

You asked if she was well off. Yes, she was. As you said, so many of the old-time stars fell on hard times, but not her. I don’t think it was her money, however, but her husband’s that was affording her such a grand lifestyle. Effingham Deans came to this country in 1923 from Scotland with ten dollars in his pocket, and he became a millionaire! He started a very successful clothing company that was still going strong when I first met him in 1985. He had retired, but he still went to his office every day — driven by a chauffeur — and was acting as a sort of company figurehead. 

Miss Miller did tell me once that she had put all of her own money into her husband’s business, so maybe it was her investment that was responsible for its financial success. They married in 1951. He had been married once before (and had two children) and she had been married twice — first to director Tay Garnett and then to screenwriter John Lee Mahin. The marriage to Mahin produced a child, a son named Timothy who lived close by. I saw him several times and he was obviously a very accomplished person. He was a writer, I think, but he didn’t seem to have a will of his own and deferred to his mother in all matters. She controlled him. I got the impression that it was his duty to act as a sort of court jester, to entertain his mother with jokes and humorous stories. It seemed very strange to me.

She kept him in line by often mentioning money and hinting that he could be cut off at any time. I feared that he would think that I was a gold-digger or something but, to my relief, he seemed delighted that I was around. Maybe he thought that if I was there, his mother wouldn’t demand appearances from him as often. He and I became very friendly, and I was very fond of his wife who made up for his weakness with great strength. She was his second wife and was not intimidated by her mother-in-law and could stand her ground with confidence. I suspect that Timothy’s first marriage broke up because of his mother’s meddling.

On the night that Mr. Deans died, it was Timothy who rushed over. Mrs. Deans’ step-daughter was already there and the three of them went to the hospital, leaving me all alone in that big house. It suddenly seemed spooky and I thought I heard footsteps on the back stairs, but I didn’t investigate. I went into the den, closed the louvered doors and tried to remain calm. I wondered what I was supposed to do. Should I make plans to go home or should I stay?

They returned about two hours later and every plan had been made regarding cremation, whom to call and how things were to be handled. It was all done with impressive efficiency. As a member of the Stamford Yacht Club, a very nice memorial service was held in one of their banquet rooms a few days later. It wasn’t a mournful service, but a celebration of his life and accomplishments. I did miss him, as he always had a kind word for me. He was a gentleman of the old school.

Miss Miller asked me to stay, and then she surprised me by saying, “I want you to go to California with me for the winter.”  I told her I didn’t have any suitable clothes for the desert and she said, “I’ll pay for whatever you need. How much do you want? Don’t be shy. I’m loaded!”

I told her that two hundred dollars would be about right, so with my new hot-weather wardrobe packed in my one and only suitcase, off we flew to California just as October gave way to November.  It was the first (and only) time I flew first class and I must say it was a great experience. The luxury overwhelmed and mesmerized me.

Allan, I must deviate here for a few sentences and tell you that I bought Tab Hunter’s autobiography last week. I know this is a cliché, but when I started reading it, I could not put it down! I remember the publicity when it was published a few years ago, but I somehow never bought a copy. But now I have it, and I must say that it’s fantastic. There are no axes to grind, no big chips on his shoulder, just a setting- the-record-straight type of book that is enormously entertaining and very enlightening. And it’s so well written.

I did not know that he and Teresa Wright appeared in a film together. That’s interesting because she is a supporting character in the next chapter of my Patsy Ruth Miller saga.

Mrs. Deans and her husband had been spending winters in the California desert for several years but they never left the east until after Thanksgiving. Because she was arriving earlier than usual that year, the condo in Palm Desert had to be prepared quickly. Furniture had to be dusted, the carpets vacuumed, the refrigerator stocked with food and the bed linens washed. And that would require an extra day, so we flew into Los Angeles and were met at the airport by a chauffeur who drove us to 727 North Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. It was the home of her brother, a retired screenwriter named Winston Miller.

Two portraits of brother and sister, Patsy Ruth Miller and Winston Miller, sixty years apart.

He was a tall, lanky man in his late 70s who was pleasant and convivial. His wife, on the other hand, was stern and rather haughty. Her name was Beatrix and her brother was novelist Niven Busch, who wrote “Duel in the Sun” and had been Teresa Wright’s first husband. Miss Wright was still very friendly with Winston and Bea and was actually their house-guest.

So, here I was in this lovely house with a silent film star who had just been widowed, her screenwriter brother, his shrewish wife and one of my favorite actresses. 

As I look back on that day, I can’t help but wonder what those people thought of me. I was young (a few months shy of 24), naive and rather innocent. I didn’t have a worldly bone in my body. It must have surprised them to see Miss Miller, in her 80s, show up with a young man in his 20s. They probably thought I was being kept by her, or was a gigolo or something even more untoward. When she introduced me, explaining that we were working on her memoir, I could see an expression of relief on their faces.

You must realize, Allan, that I was young not only in years, but in life experiences. My father was a country preacher and I had led a pretty sheltered life. Being suddenly thrust into the milieu of movie stars was like going on stage opening night without knowing any of the lines. I tried to be polite and respectful, and I guess that worked because I was treated very kindly by everyone. I was in awe of Teresa Wright, however, and when I was introduced to her, all I could do was utter inane platitudes. She had won an Oscar, had been in one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous films and co-starred with Marlon Brando in his very first movie. But I did know how lucky I was.

727 North Rodeo Drive as it looked in 1986.

At dinner, I was seated between Miss Wright and Mrs. Miller, and the experience would have been delightful except that Bea and Patsy seemed to be competing for the spotlight, with the rest of us feeling more awkward by the second. It was obvious that those two women had never gotten along. 

Miss Miller had a vocabulary that would put an English scholar to shame. I’ve never known anyone who could use words so skillfully… to cajole, to challenge, to flirt and to wound. That night, her words were sharp and she hurled them like daggers. She and her sister-in-law got into an argument about the homeless, with Miss Miller saying those people should be herded into a warehouse and gassed. I had never heard anything so mean and unfeeling and her comment stopped the conversation cold. None of us knew what to say and silence hung over the table like a miasma.

Miss Wright excused herself and left the dining room. I don’t remember any further conversation that night, as people retreated to different parts of the house.

A little later I did encounter Teresa Wright in the den and we had a brief but very pleasant conversation. I was more relaxed around her by then and she was very interested in the book that Miss Miller and I were writing, even offering to write a foreword for us. “I’ve known her for more than forty years,” she smiled. “I came out to Hollywood in 1941 and I met her soon after that. I’m sure I could think of something interesting to say.”

By the time I said goodnight to her, I felt that we had become friends and a few years later when she was starring on Broadway opposite George C. Scott in a revival of “On Borrowed Time,” I went to see the play and even wandered backstage after the performance and looked for her. She graciously invited me into her dressing room and signed the playbill for me. She was a great actress and a lovely person.

And she did write a charming foreword for the book, in which she reminisced about stopping by Patsy Ruth Miller’s ocean-side home in Connecticut for a visit one afternoon and finding two other silent film stars already there. “The four of us went for a stroll on the beach,” she wrote, “and it was thrilling to listen to Patsy Ruth Miller, Lila Lee and Leatrice Joy giggling and comparing stories about Valentino, John Gilbert and Ramon Novarro. I was walking along with history, film history. I feel privileged to have had that afternoon.”

Her lovely words were vetoed however, in favor of a foreword written by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

Teresa Wright co-starred with Robert Mitchum in a 1947 film called “Pursued”

On that night in Beverly Hills back in 1986, everyone finally calmed down and we went to our assigned rooms. Miss Miller did not climb stairs, so she was put in the one-and-only bedroom on the first floor, a small room behind the kitchen where a maid would have slept. I had a comfortable room on the second floor with a window that overlooked the backyard and a large pool. I slept fitfully, not knowing what sort of adventures were ahead.

It’s amazing to me, Allan, that as I sit here at my desk writing to you about those long-ago experiences, how clearly it all comes back! It’s as though it happened yesterday. As I was describing Patsy Ruth Miller’s bedroom to you in yesterday’s e-mail, I could actually smell that strange scent that permeated the room — a mixture of old and stale perfume. It was the smell of age. And you know what’s weird? Several years later, in the mid 1990s when my boyfriend and I were driving around looking at the colorful autumn foliage, we ended up in Stamford and I suggested that we drive along Ocean Drive West. As we approached the address, I could see an “Open House” sign next to the driveway. The house was for sale.

I had to stop. I just had to. The house was empty, and it was so eerie to walk though those rooms and remember so many things that had happened there. I could still hear the echo of voices. Miss Miller had died a few months earlier, and when I got to the second floor and walked into her bedroom, I was immediately aware of that odor. It was still hovering in the air, as though she was still there. I had to get out of that room, out of that house and into the bright warm October sunlight.

That’s it for now. Say hello to Mr. Hunter.  –Jeffrey

Dear Jeffrey – I am loving your e-mails and I enjoy learning about your relationship with Patsy Ruth Miller. I’m getting a good idea of what she was like and you are right; it is a different impression than the one I got from my friends who knew her. I’m sharing your stories with Tab and he is enjoying them as well. I’m glad you liked his autobio. It really does reflect him as a person. There is not one false note in the whole piece. We’re in the process of also turning it into a movie with Michael Sucsy directing. But first we have the documentary to finish. I have all the recent photos you sent and they are wonderful. Some of them will be in the documentary. By the way, you said that Patsy avoided stairs. Was she in poor health?  All my best, Allan

Dear Allan –

Miss Miller seemed to be in pretty good health for her age, but she wasn’t very active. She had suffered a mild heart attack in the late 1970s and always had Nitroglycerin tablets with her in case of angina pain. I think that’s why she didn’t climb stairs. There was a small elevator in her house in Connecticut that connected the first and second floors. I never saw her go up the stairs, but I did see her come down. When she wanted to make an entrance, she would slowly and dramatically descend that lovely curved staircase near the foyer, looking every inch the movie star.

She did take occasional walks, but only if she had a strong arm to hold onto, and she enjoyed swimming. She had an oval pool in Connecticut, filled with salt water, and there was a large pool just a short walk from her condo in Palm Desert.

The last time I saw her was in December of 1992 and her health had started to fail by that time. She didn’t have much energy of body, but she certainly had clarity of mind. She was as sharp as ever and was still trying to control everyone around her.

It pleases me that you’re enjoying these old memories, Allan.  They’ve been collecting dust in my head for a long time, so it’s nice to give them a good airing!

To pick up where I left off, Teresa Wright was already up and gone when I came downstairs about 9 the next morning. She was in L.A. to do a guest shot on a television program and had an early call. It might have been “Murder, She Wrote,” but I’m not sure. Patsy was still in her room having coffee and reading the paper and Bea was on the phone making arrangements for a limo to drive Patsy and me to Palm Desert.  It wouldn’t be there until after lunch, so after a quick breakfast of eggs and bacon, I went out for a walk. It was a beautiful morning, and I loved strolling along that fabled street, admiring those big houses with their manicured lawns and meticulous landscaping. I didn’t walk toward the business area of Rodeo, but walked along the other end, where the street intersected with Sunset Blvd. The Beverly Hills Hotel was only a couple blocks away and I stood for a long time staring at it. It was so pink!

I got back to the house about 10:30 and since there was still plenty of time before lunch, Winston offered to give me a tour of Beverly Hills. He started by gesturing to the house next door, where Gene Kelly lived. He then drove slowly along street after street, identifying the homes of movie stars, including Lucille Ball and James Stewart. He also showed me where Charlotte Greenwood had lived, pointed out a large mansion owned by a rock star with lovely marble statues of nudes in the front yard (that had been defaced by someone who had drawn pubic hair on them) and the modest house where Charles Ray and his wife, Clara, had lived 60 years earlier. Charles Ray was a very popular actor at the beginning of the 1920s and had asked Patsy Ruth Miller to be his leading lady in a 1922 film called “The Girl I Loved.” It had made her a star.

And then he turned onto Crescent Drive and stopped in front of number 808.

“And this was where we lived,” he said with a hint of longing in his voice. “It’s not the same house, though. The original house was torn down a few years ago and this new one put up in its place. But this is the address, and the old tennis court is still there. It was a happy house. Pat was a movie star and so many of her movie star friends would come over on Sundays. I can still remember seeing Richard Barthelmess playing doubles with Townsend Netcher, who was married to Constance Talmadge. And there were occasional dances in the big living room, with couples swaying to the music from a Victrola in the corner.  Our mother and father loved all the young movie people. Those were wonderful years. Ah well, nothing lasts forever.”

808 Crescent Drive, Beverly Hills, as it looked in 1925.

As we looked at the big, modern house that filled most of the lot, he seemed overcome with a feeling of nostalgia, as though he was longing for a time in his life that had long since passed.  I sensed that I shouldn’t say anything, but I did reach over to give his shoulder a little squeeze.

He asked me if I was enjoying the experience of working with his sister and I said I was, although I felt intimidated.

“Pat has a very strong personality,” he said, “and I can understand why you’d feel intimidated. She can be difficult and overbearing, but I think you are good for her. She’s just lost her husband and needs something to occupy her time. And it could be a very good experience for you.”

“I do wish you had known her when she was young, when she was in the movies,” he continued as he drove us back to his home on Rodeo. “She loved being a movie star. She loved the life and loved the people. And she was very popular. I don’t mean just as a movie star. She certainly was loved by her public — the fan mail piled up every day — but she was liked by friends and family, too. But all of that is in the distant past. She is different now. She has changed. The women stars of that era were not thought of as ordinary people. They were adored, even worshiped. When you have that kind of fame at the beginning of your life, you miss it when your life is near its end. I hope you’ll try and understand her. She’s an old and tired star still trying to shine, but the light is fading.”

The limousine pulled into the driveway at 1 pm and our luggage was stowed in the trunk. I slid into the seat next to Miss Miller and we were soon on the highway heading away from the city.

Palm Desert is only two hours from L.A., but the time passed slowly, and I felt oddly uncomfortable in the backseat with her. I had grown to like her brother very much and wished we could have stayed there another day. She didn’t talk much at first, as we headed further into the desert, past acres of wind turbines with their enormous white blades slowly turning in the wind, standing out like giant beacons against the stark landscape, but she became more talkative as we got closer to Palm Springs. She told me about Winston becoming a screen writer when he was very young, after a few years as a child movie actor.

Her first husband, the director Tay Garnett, had pulled a few strings to get her brother a job at RKO around 1931 or 1932, doing some script revisions. But before that, he had applied for a job at the Hal Roach Studio writing gags for their comedy shorts. He came up with what he thought were some very funny ideas and walked into a room to meet with the head writers. He expected these men to be relaxed and funny, “but they were serious and stone-faced and seemed like very dull people,” she chuckled. “It was hard for him to believe that these men would recognize a joke if it bit ’em on the ass, much less be capable of writing anything remotely funny.”

 But he presented his ideas with as much enthusiasm as he could, as the men listened without smiling. Lo and behold, he was later congratulated by Hal Roach himself who said that everyone thought his ideas were hilarious! He was offered the job but didn’t take it because he could not imagine working with such dull, humorless people.

After driving through Palm Springs, we went through a wide open space of sand and mesquite before we entered the town of Palm Desert, which has more palms than desert. The limo was permitted to pass through the big iron gate of the Monterey Country Club and we pulled up in front of a tan-colored condo with a red-tiled roof. The address was 425 Sierra Madre North.

The only thing visible from the street was a big garage door. It was an end unit, attached to a row of similar-looking condos on one side, but open to an attractive side yard on the other, through which a narrow sidewalk meandered next to palm trees. We passed a grapefruit tree on the way to the big front door, the fruit weighing down the branches. There was such a wonderful smell in the air, a mixture of freshly mowed grass and something citrusy, like oranges or lemons.

Once inside, I was immediately drawn to the wall of windows in the living room that looked out onto the golf course. I had never seen anything like it… tall palm trees, large ponds, silvery eucalyptus trees, grass so green it looked artificial, flowers of every hue and tangled, blossom-laden vines that grew up and around the roof line. The sky was powdery blue, saved from monotony by a few white puffy clouds, and in the distance were tall red-rugged mountains with a hint of snow on their tallest peaks. It was as though I had left earth and landed on a distant planet, a paradise. The spell was broken when Mrs. Deans barked an order for me to make her a drink “and don’t be stingy with the whiskey.”

I lived there for the next four months, months fraught with frustration, tension and disillusionment… but there were also moments of fun, excitement and great happiness.

Must end for now as I have work to do.

As always, my best to you and Mr. Hunter.  –Jeffrey

Dear Jeffrey – Wow! This story gets more interesting with every e-mail, but please don’t stop. I want to know what happened next. Tab and I eagerly await your next installment.  Allan

They didn’t have to wait very long.

The Woman Who Lived in the Little Brown House

The night of March 21, 1961 was dark and moonless. A young man was walking back to his home in Maymead after visiting friends in Crackers Neck. It was just a few days before his 20th birthday. The two communities are next to each other in a rural area of Johnson County, Tennessee.

As he passed a gravel road that crossed a small bridge and led to a big two-story farmhouse at the bottom of a hill near a creek, something caught his eye. The house was aglow, with a bright light shining through the windows. The golden light was shining through every window, but was brightest in the lower, northeast corner of the house. The light was so strong as it poured through the windows of that corner that it illuminated the yard.

The young man stopped and gazed in awe at the sight. His great aunt Lillie Vaught lived in that house, and those windows in the northeast corner were in her bedroom. She had been ill for a while and rarely left her bed. As he watched, the light faded and was gone.

He ran home and told his parents what he had seen, and they hurried to the old woman’s house and let themselves in through an unlocked back door. The house was dark and nothing had been disturbed. They found the woman in her bed. She was dead, and she been dead only a few minutes, as her body was still warm. No one could ever explain the bright light the young man saw and over the years it was eventually forgotten. The old house, without anyone to live within its walls, slowly decayed and by August 14, 1994, it was barely standing.

That was the day I was on a plane headed for Tennessee, and I kept wishing that it would fly faster. A special friend was near death and I was desperate to see her before she took her last breath.

“She can die at any moment,” her nephew told me, so I had taken the first flight possible from New York, where I was living and working. As soon as the plane landed, I rented a car and drove as fast as the speed limit would allow, passing pastures and trout streams and forested hills as I headed into the farmlands of Maymead, just outside of Mountain City, where I had grown up. I arrived at the nephew’s home, across the road from that old, dilapidated farmhouse, and knocked impatiently on the front door. “She’s still alive,” I was told as the door opened. “Maybe she’s been waiting until you get here.”

I had known Bulah Dean Vaught all of my 31 years of living and always called her “Bub.” When I was born, my parents lived across the street from her, and being a spinster without many responsibilities, it seemed natural for her to become my babysitter. Actually, she was not my first babysitter. An older woman named Ada Gentry was the first person who took care of me. I am told that I was a very fussy baby and whenever Mrs. Gentry would put me on her lap, I would cry and squirm and try to get away. After a couple of months, my mother started looking for someone else. When Bulah came over to meet me, I apparently took to her right away. My mother was fond of telling the story that as soon as Bulah sat down, I crawled over to her and wanted to be picked up. I smiled and giggled, snuggled into her lap and then fell sleep.

“I told her that Jeffrey isn’t even that comfortable with me,” mother would laugh as she told the story. “I hired her on the spot!”

Bulah Dean Vaught in 1940, and in 1980.

We moved from the Maymead community in 1967, on my 4th birthday, but I have many memories of Bulah from those early years. I’ve heard that memories before the age of four are rarely very clear, but mine are. She was very motherly and took very good care of me, and our bond became especially close on one spring day when I was three.

My parents kept a bowl of hard candy out of my reach, but knowing where it was hidden, I managed to climb up a bookcase and get to it! I grabbed a piece of that candy and dropped to the floor.  Bulah was outside hanging up the laundry and so I put the candy in my mouth and walked out the backdoor to find her. But something unexpected happened. The candy got stuck in my throat and I started choking. I could not breathe. I tried to scream for help but no sound came out. I was only a few feet away from Bub, but could not get her attention. Panic set in and I was frozen in place. All I could do was stomp my foot.

She finally turned around and when she saw me, a look of horror passed over her face. She told me later that my lips had turned blue. What happened next is a blur of images, but I do remember being picked up and slung over her shoulder as she started running down the road. I’m sure I was beginning to lose consciousness, but I do remember looking at the dark pavement as she ran, being jostled with every step, and then seeing the candy fly out and bounce on the road. I gasped and let out a scream, and she stopped so suddenly I almost flew off her shoulders! What I remember next is sitting on the kitchen counter and sipping some warm salt water from a brown coffee cup. She was looking at me and a tear was running down her cheek. “I’m OK, Bub,” I remember saying. “I’m not,” was her reply.

Even after we moved to the nearby town of Bristol, the bond between us did not weaken. And when we moved back to Mountain City a few years later, Bulah was at our house often. When my mother died in the spring of 1977, she came to live with us for the summer, taking care of my father and me until dad remarried. I remember those summer days so well. A 14-year-old who is suddenly motherless needs attention and understanding and sympathy, and she gave me everything I needed.

She was at our house Monday through Friday and went to her own home on weekends. On Sundays, after the evening church service, my father would drop me off at her house and then drive to the nearby town of Butler, where he would spend a few hours at the home of a woman named Eleanor Holloway whom he was romancing. At first, he would return to pick us up about 11, but every week it got later and later until sometimes it was a couple hours after midnight before he’d show up. I remember asking Bulah what dad could possibly be doing at Eleanor’s house so late at night, and she’d just grin and say, “hush, Jeffrey! That’s something you don’t need to know.”

Bulah was a good cook and prepared some wonderful meals for us that summer. One evening, as dad was complimenting her cooking, I looked at him and said, “dad, you should forget about Eleanor and marry Bulah,” which caused them both to laugh uncomfortably. “Jeffrey!” Bulah said. “Your father could be my son. He wants someone his own age.”

She had never married but she often told me about having lots of boyfriends when she was young. “I sometimes had two dates on one night,” she laughed, “with two different boys! As soon as one would drop me off, I’d turn around and go out with another one. I turned down several proposals. Only one boy meant something to me, but he never asked me, and he married someone else. His name was Ross.”

“Who did he marry?” I had to ask, and a far-away look came into her eyes.

“He married a woman who had caused a lot of unhappiness when she was very young,” she said. “She got involved with a married man, and he killed himself. I don’t know how happy Ross was with her, but I think he would have been happier with me.”

As a single woman living alone, she did take precautions to protect herself. She never unlocked or opened her windows, even on hot summer days. And she had a gun, which she kept in a small box by her bedside. She showed it to me once, and I remember that it was a black pistol wrapped in a thin white towel. I asked if she’d ever fired it, and she said only once, on the day she was taught how.

“But one night late I thought I was going to have to shoot someone,” she admitted. “A noise woke me up. Someone was on the porch, so I grabbed my gun and sat on the sofa. I pointed the gun right at the front door and waited. I saw the doorknob turn and I was shaking so hard that it took both hands to hold the gun steady. I was going to pull the trigger as soon as they broke in… but after a few minutes they gave up and went away.”

As I grew older and life took me to distant places, I kept in touch with her by phone and by letter, and I made sure to spend a couple of nights at her house whenever I’d go home for a visit. Bulah loved going out to see a movie, and the scarier it was, the better she liked it. Every time I went back to Tennessee, we’d go to the theater to see a horror film. Some of the films I remember seeing with her include Christine, Pet Sematery, Ghost Story and Nightmare on Elm Street. I’d often have to look away from the screen, but she never did.

When I’d get back to New York and start unpacking my suitcase, I’d find little pieces of paper tucked in the folds of my shirts with sweet messages written on them, things like “I’ve enjoyed your visit,” “Please come again soon” and “I’ll miss you when you’re gone.” I still have those little notes.

Some of the little notes I’ve kept through the years.

She lived a simple life with very few complications. Her house, with its brown-shingle siding and wide front porch, was cute but very small. She had running water in her kitchen (cold water only; no hot) but there wasn’t any bathroom. It wasn’t until she broke an ankle in 1977 and could no longer walk down the path to the outhouse that a toilet was installed for her. It sat in one corner of her dining room just a few feet from the table. A few years later, a proper bathroom was put in, but she never did use the bathtub, preferring to heat water on the stove and use a washcloth.

Like so many country women of her generation, she used snuff. I remember watching as she’d grab some of it between her fingers and and place it in the back of her mouth, next to a cheek. And every few minutes, she’d spit dark liquid into a tin can.

She had no schooling beyond the eighth grade, but what she lacked in education or sophistication, she more than made up for in wisdom, common sense and kindness. She had a deep love for God, but she rarely went to church. She preferred to listen to religious services on the radio, following along with her well-used Bible. I asked her once why she didn’t go to Sunday services and she said there were too many hypocrites in the churches. She also had an uncanny way of sizing up a person’s character right away. She could see through any pretense.

After I moved to New York, I came out as a gay man. I never discussed my homosexuality with Bub, although I think she understood me better than I understood myself. She once said to me, “you may never father children in the usual way, but have you considered donating to a sperm bank?” And on another occasion, after AIDS was in the news almost every day, she remarked that “it’s unfair that men can’t love one another without worrying about dying” and then added, “that kind of sex must be the most pleasurable thing in the world.”

I loved hearing stories about the people and events that had shaped and molded her life. And many of those stories were very dramatic, about suicides and floods and romances and even the supernatural. She liked to talk about her parents and grandparents, long since dead. Her father died during the flu pandemic of 1918, when she was just two years old, leaving her mother with six small children to raise. I remember well the story of her grandmother Eveline Vaught. As the old woman’s life was ending and she lay on her deathbed, she lifted up a trembling hand as though she was trying to touch someone just out of reach. And she would repeat over and over, in a voice barely above a whisper, “David… David… David.” Bulah said that was the name of her grandfather. He had been dead many years by that time “and I think he had come back to take my grandmother to Heaven.”

She also spoke lovingly of her Aunt Lillie, who had never married and lived her entire life in the big house where she was born. “I remember the night she died,” she said to me one day. “I was looking out the bedroom window toward her house and I saw a bright light. My mother was still alive then and she saw the light, too. Lillie’s going to Heaven is what my mother said.”

Bulah was a skilled teller of old stories and I wish I could remember all of them, but I do recall bits and pieces of a few… of her being taken to the burial service of a friend of her mother’s when she was a child and seeing the wooden coffin being lowered into the ground. The lid would not fit because the woman had died while she was pregnant and her protruding belly rose higher than the sides of the casket. The simple wooden coffin had been wrapped in ropes to keep the lid in place. And she told me about having to be rescued from a friend’s house when a nearby creek flooded. The water kept rising and when it came into the house she and her friend yelled for help from the windows. Their loud cries were heard by some men who tied a rope from tree to tree and then attached it to the porch banister. Bulah and her friend were able to reach higher ground by holding onto the rope as they trudged through the swift current.

But the story I remember most vividly was about a man named Joseph Yarborough Davis, known as J.Y.

From Bulah’s kitchen window, after the leaves had fallen from the trees, you could see through the woods and across a babbling creek to a small farm on the other side. In the middle of a field sat a cute farmhouse with a gabled roof. One day I asked Bulah about that house and she told me the name of the people who lived there and a few other details that were not particularly interesting, but when she added “A terrible thing happened there one summer when I was about fourteen,” I sat up and begged to hear more.

When Bulah was growing up, J. Y. Davis lived there with his wife, Sarah. They had a grown daughter named Blanche who no longer lived at home. They seemed to be leading happy and contented lives, but all was not as it seemed. J. Y. had a secret. He was having an affair with a young girl, a teenager, who was living with an old woman who ran the local post office, called Vaughtsville.

The post office was on the ground floor of an old house and the woman and the girl had rooms on the second floor. Late at night, after the older woman had gone to bed, the young girl would silently creep down the stairs and unlock the back door to let her lover come inside. The illicit affair would have remained a secret had not a man who lived close by caught sight of Davis sneaking into the backyard of the post office after dark. He followed, and when a light appeared in a window, he peered inside… and what he saw was so shocking that he could not keep the information to himself. He told someone who told someone else who told a few other people and soon the story was circulating. The only person who remained ignorant of the sordid details was Sarah Davis, the wife. A plan was being made by some men in the area to confront J. Y. and ask him to repent of his sin, and if he refused, they would tell his wife. Davis was probably aware that his secret had become public knowledge.

During that time, a visiting preacher held one of those old-fashioned, fire-and-brimstone revivals at the community Baptist church, known as Pleasant Grove. The first night of the revival, the preacher stood before the congregation and looked out at the faces for a couple of minutes without saying a word. He then turned his head toward the general area where Mr. Davis and his wife were sitting, and said, very slowly, in a voice somber and dramatic: “I know what’s goin’ on in this community. I know about the sinful ways of a man who is sittin’ here in this church tonight. I know what you are a-doin’ and I pray that God will put a stop to it, even if it takes the power of a gun!”

A couple of days later, Bulah’s mother was in the kitchen looking out a window toward the Davis farm when she saw Sarah running across the little bridge, her hands twisting and re-twisting an old apron tied around her waist. She came right up to their back door and into the kitchen. She was crying and could barely manage to say “Joe’s in the barn with a gun! Something’s wrong. Come quick!”

Bulah’s mother did go back with Mrs. Davis, but she also took along her two grown sons, Con and Charlie. While Mrs. Vaught waited in the house with the distraught wife, the two young men slowly approached the barn. The door was open and inside, in the dusty shafts of sunlight filtering through the walls, they saw J.Y. Davis. He was leaning against a stack of hay, a rifle at his feet… and a bloody hole in his chest.

A great deal of activity ensued. The sheriff was summoned, people came running and Sarah Davis was in a state of near-collapse. And things happened quickly, as though the distasteful event should be forgotten as soon as possible. He was buried the very next day in the Brown Cemetery, which sits in the middle of a cornfield on the large Mount Farm close by. Sarah closed up the house and went to live with her daughter in Greeneville, about 75 miles away. When she died several years later, the remains of her husband were exhumed and re-interred next to her in a distant cemetery. She had never re-married.

On the day of that tragic death, Bulah’s mother stayed overnight in the Davis farmhouse and slept in a room next door to the grieving widow. In the middle of the night, she woke up and was sure that someone was standing next to the bed. She later said the room felt cold, even though it was the middle of summer, and something about the shadowy figure led her to believe it was a man. She wanted to scream out, but could not utter a sound. She closed her eyes tight, and suddenly the sound of a loud gunshot came through the open window, carried on the night breeze.

The next morning she asked Sarah if she had heard the gunshot during the night, but Sarah said she had been awake all night, not being able to sleep because of grief, and had heard nothing.

“When mom started to make up the bed she had slept in,” Bulah said, “she noticed a drop of blood on the floor, and then she saw a another drop under the bed. She threw back the covers and pulled up a corner of the mattress. The center of that mattress on the underside was soaked with blood.” 

The lifeless body of J.Y. Davis had been brought to that room, where it lay on the bed until the undertaker took it away. And then the mattress was turned over. Did the ghost of J.Y. return to the room where his lifeless body had rested on the bed?

The gravestone of J. Y. Davis. (Dec. 19, 1876 – July 31, 1930)

On the day of the burial, the teen-aged girl and a friend watched from a hill near the cemetery, where they hid in the tall grass. The girl had apparently been very calm until the hearse came into view, and then she started crying hysterically and rolling on the ground with misery. I asked Bulah if she knew what had happened to that young girl who had caused so much trouble. “Yes, I know what happened to her,” she said. “And if you have paid attention to any of the stories I’ve told you, so do you.”

There was also something very unique about Bulah. I cannot explain what it was, but I think she had a sixth sense. When she first became ill with the cancer that took her life, I learned about it not from a phone call, but from a dream. And it wasn’t even my dream. My partner at the time woke me up very early one morning and said that a woman came to him while he was sleeping and said, “Tell Jeffrey I need to see him.” I asked who the woman was but he didn’t know. When he described her, however, I knew it was Bub. I called her but she didn’t answer, so I dialed her nephew and was told that she had been admitted to the hospital the day before. She was suffering from inoperable cancer and only had days to live. A week later, she was discharged and taken to her nephew’s home, where she was cared for by hospice nurses, getting weaker every day.

I made it to her bedside just in time. She was conscious but didn’t seem to be aware of anyone. Her eyes were open, but there was no emotion in them. They were blank. A nurse was there, making sure her mouth was moist and that she was comfortable. I held her hand but I’m not sure she knew I was there. I spoke to her, but I’m not sure she heard me.

Except for a couple of short naps, I stayed by her bed for almost two days. A few hours before I had to leave, she started making noises, as though she was trying to speak. Her words were garbled and made no sense, but she would raise her arms and reach out to someone I could not see. Had someone she loved long ago come into the room to lead her to Heaven?

I kissed her cheek and said goodbye to her. As I was looking at her face and trying not to cry, she opened her eyes and looked right at me. And for a couple of seconds, there was recognition in those eyes. But then they dimmed and she was lost again in the fog of sickness.

As I got into my rental car and drove away, I took a long look at her little brown house, where she and I had spent so many happy hours, and on the other side of the creek I could see the aged farmhouse struggling to stand and the handsome white house once occupied by J.Y and Sarah Davis. A few hours after I got home later that night, her nephew called to tell me that Bulah had died.

A photo of Bulah from the mid 1980s, and her obituary.

“I have to tell you something very strange,” the nephew said. “When she was dying, her room was filled with bright light. I didn’t see it, but two neighbors called, wondering if that end of the house was on fire. And my daughter, who was sleeping in the room next door, woke up to see a blinding light glowing under her door. When it finally got dark again, she crept out of her room just in time to see the hospice nurse go into Bulah’s room to check on her, which she did every half hour. She was dead. It was just like the night my great aunt Lillie died more than 30 years ago, the night I saw that white-light shining through the windows of her bedroom.”

As he was telling me the story, I couldn’t help thinking of Elijah, the prophet in the Old Testament of the Bible, who was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire. Did angels visit the bedrooms of Lillie and Bulah at the moment of their deaths, 33 years apart, and take them to Heaven in a fiery chariot? I wonder if there have been other reports of a bright light when someone dies.

The next day as I was sitting in my backyard and feeling sad, I noticed a flower in the perennial bed. I took a closer look and was amazed to see that it was a daffodil. A daffodil in August! As I admired that lovely daffodil, I was comforted by the memory of something Bulah had said to me years before. “After I am gone, look for me in a flower blooming out of season.”

Bulah was always annoyed when people would misspell her name, and she joked that it would probably be wrong on her tombstone. How right she was. She spelled her name Bulah.

Where the Dead Lie Sleeping

“Ouch!” I exclaimed as I tried to extract myself from a thicket of hawthorns. I had been climbing up a steep hill when I lost my balance and fell backwards.

When I noticed the specks of blood where thorns had pierced the skin of my arm, I wanted to turn around and go back down the hill. I was not sure that visiting the cemetery at the top of the hill was worth the effort. It was still a considerable distance to the top, and it looked like an area of rough climbing was ahead. I was tempted to give up.

The date was October 29, 1979. It was late in the afternoon, an afternoon very warm for autumn, making it an ideal day for cemetery hunting, a hobby I had begun just a few months earlier. Actually, it was more than a hobby; It was an important project.

On July 2 of that year, I had spent more than an hour in the old Donnelly Cemetery on North Church Street, just beyond the city limits of Mountain City, Tennessee. In my hand was a stack of index cards and as I stopped at each grave stone, I wrote down the name, date and epitaph.  Later at home, I alphabetized the cards, pulled my father’s old manual typewriter out of the closet and typed up the information. I was determined to make a record of every tombstone in every cemetery in the county. It was my father’s idea.

He was not only a preacher but also an amateur historian, and he had discovered how important old cemeteries are as records of people who were long gone. In 1975, when he was writing his masters thesis about the history of Baptists in Upper East Tennessee, he spent a lot of time researching the early years of the Mountain City First Baptist Church, where he was pastor. It had been founded in 1794 and the first meeting house was on the north fork of Roan Creek at the foot of Rainbow Mountain. Dad found references in old records to a cemetery next to the church and he was determined to find it.

He finally located an elderly man who lived near the site of that first church building who remembered seeing tombstones.

“I’ll be glad to take you to the spot,” he told my father. “I haven’t been over there in a long time, but the stones are still standing and you can even read some of the names.”

It was on a Saturday morning when my father went looking for the old cemetery. He took me along and even though I was just a kid, I was well aware of my father’s excitement. He was especially hoping to find the grave of the church’s first pastor, James Tompkins.

The old man met us in front of his small house and led us on foot across the road and into a field. He used a cane made out of an old hickory limb, but maintained a steady pace as we traipsed through the tall weeds still damp with the morning dew. We passed a thick grove of trees and then he suddenly stopped. A large swath of the field had been scraped and scarred by the sharp blade of a bulldozer, which was still parked at the edge of the woods. The land was obviously being prepared for a house.

The stones were right over there,” the old man said, pointing his cane toward one edge of the bulldozed area. “I’m positive they were right there, two short rows of them.”

There was no sign of them, and my father’s disappointment weighed heavily on him. As we walked slowly back to the car, his head was bowed and he did not speak. “How could that happen?” he kept saying as we drove home. “How could someone destroy those graves?”

A few years later, in the summer of 1979, no doubt still smarting over the destruction of that ancient cemetery, he told me that the older grave yards in the county would one day disappear and if no one made a record of the names, that information would be lost forever.

“I think it would be a good thing for you to do,” he said. “Go to every cemetery you can find and write down everything… every name, every date and even the epitaphs. You will be making a valuable contribution to the history of this county. And this is the perfect time for you to do it, while you are young and have the time and energy.”

Perhaps my father was worried that I had reached an age where I might get into trouble and wanted to keep me occupied. I had just turned 16, and spending hours in cemeteries is not something teenagers like to do, but for some strange reason, the project did appeal to me.

Beginning on that summer day in 1979, I spent the next six years visiting the cemeteries and grave yards of Johnson County, Tennessee. And on a chilly March day in 1985, when I finished gathering information from several graves in the Forge Creek area of the county, near Nelson Chapel, I had been to more than 300 burial sites and recorded 8,928 names. A fascinating project had come to an end.

During the first couple of years, not many people knew what I was doing. I was a little embarrassed to talk about the hours I was spending among the departed. If someone asked about weekend plans, I’d offer some quip about working on a book. “It has numerous plots,” I’d say with a smile. “And everyone dies at the end!”

The first time I received any attention was in June of 1981 when a reporter from the Johnson City Press Chronicle named Paul Mays called me. He had heard that a teenager was making a record of cemeteries and was curious. “Is that true?” he asked. When I admitted that it was, he drove two hours to our house and interviewed me. I was thrilled! I didn’t ask how he had learned of my unusual pastime, but I suspect my father was responsible.

The first publicity I received for the cemetery project.

When the article appeared, the phone rang off the hook, with people asking when the information would be available and to let me know about old and forgotten cemeteries behind barns, on hilltops and in woodland clearings. So many gravestones would have been missed if not for those phone calls.

Perhaps feeling a little annoyed because I had not let her know first, Gladys McCloud, who wrote a column for our local paper, interviewed me for a feature article that appeared a month later.

“Jeff isn’t interested in becoming a grave digger,” Mrs. McCloud wrote, “but he does spend a lot of time in cemeteries. And he isn’t looking for ghosts. He’s making a census of the dead, which does sound like a morbid hobby.”

The older people in the community were very supportive, and I was even invited to become a member of the local historical society, but I did get a lot of kidding from my young friends. “I always knew you were weird,” laughed one of my schoolmates, “but you are even weirder than I thought!”

I spent many hours among the tombstones. Some cemeteries were large and still in use, the grounds well-tended while others were small and forgotten, many at the head of hollers or in thick forests, the gravestones neglected and obscured by vines and weeds. I even discovered some graves that were all alone. I searched for those old cemeteries in all seasons, sometimes on hot days and occasionally on cold winter afternoons with flurries of snow in the air. I didn’t mind the cold and learned that rubbing a little snow in the grooves of the oldest stones made them easier to read.

Occasionally, I did have an unpleasant experience. I once disturbed a yellow jacket nest and had to endure their painful stings as I fled. I did not return to that cemetery until later in the fall, when the bees were sleeping deep in their earthen nest. I also encountered snakes, mostly harmless black snakes who regarded me curiously as I walked by, but once I did see a copperhead, which I chased away by striking it with a rock. Ticks were another nemesis. I did not think about wild animals, but I did once have to sneak past an angry bull as I looked for an old family cemetery in a cow field.

The oldest cemeteries were often a collection of sinkholes, rectangular in shape and sometimes quite deep. The old wooden coffins were not enclosed within a concrete vault as they are today, and had rotted over the decades, the ground sinking as the top of the coffins collapsed. Many of the gravestones had toppled into the holes and I had to crawl down into the deep crevices to read the names. Most of those graves were in isolated cemeteries, far from any road, and I had visions of myself getting trapped in one of those old sunken grave sites and never being found, my bones mixing with the remains of the original occupant.

I learned to appreciate so much about life by visiting the graves of the dead. I was moved whenever I’d find the grave of a child, and there were so many of them. Child mortality was a serious problem in centuries past and there was nothing more tragic than finding a row of small stones marking the resting places of children from the same family. It’s hard to imagine the numbing grief of parents who had to watch their children die, one after the other.

Spending so much time in cemeteries also gave me a philosophical attitude about death. In each cemetery I found the graves of the rich and the poor, often side by side. Death is the great equalizer and people who may have been enemies in life are resting near each other in death. The many differences between people in life are erased when they die. And I was reminded over and over how short life can be, each moment being an opportunity to learn and love and make a difference. Time is too precious to be wasted.

How I spent my free time from 1979 to 1985.

My exploration of the county cemeteries also helped my father fill in a missing branch of his family tree. He knew that the first wife of David Alvin Carrier, his great uncle, was from Johnson County and had died young, but he did not know her name or where she had been buried. One afternoon when I was pushing away the weeds from some badly worn stones in a very old cemetery near Dug Hill Road in the community of Cracker’s Neck, I saw the name “Carrier.” There she was, my father’s great aunt. Sarah H., daughter of A.S. and C.M. Snyder, had died on December 7, 1912 at the age of 36. And next to her was the grave of a child, Sallie, daughter of D.A. and S.H. Carrier, who was born on November 5, 1912 and died on October 15, 1914, before she was two years old. My father knew that his great uncle and aunt had three sons, but he did not know they also had a daughter, and that Sarah had died only a month after the little girl was born.

The stones of my distant relatives were simple, with only the names and dates listed, but so many others from that era were etched with flowery epitaphs. One of them made a great impression on me. “Our mournful years fly quickly past. Our joyful days and hours are few. We must all slumber here at last. O may our God our hearts renew.”

There were also others that moved me.

“Tis hard to break the tender cord when love has bound the heart. Tis hard, so hard, to speak the words, we must forever part.”

“As a fair maid, we shall again behold her, clothed in celestial grace. With all the beauties of her soul expanded, standing before her father’s face.”

“One by one earth’s ties are broken, as we see our love decay. One by one our hopes grow brighter, as we near the shining shore. For we know across the river, wait the loved ones gone before.”

And my favorite: “Remember friends as you pass by, as you are now, so once was I. As I am now, you soon shall be. Prepare for death and follow me.”

After I walked out of that cemetery in March of 1985 and typed the final name on the final page, I was faced with the chore of getting that enormous amount of information into print.  I thought I had found every tombstone in the county, but I have discovered that I did miss at least one cemetery and perhaps others as well. When my father saw the bundle of pages, he said, “you’ve done well, my son.”

Perhaps I could have submitted the information to a publisher of academic material, but I decided to have it printed myself. My father was not a rich man, and I was a 22-year-old with an anemic bank account, so I had to look for a printer who could produce the book cheaply, as I could not afford good quality paper or a firm binding. I wanted a photo of a cemetery on the cover, but that was too expensive, so I sketched some old tombstones instead.

I chose Upon a Lonely Hill as the title, and it was ready for distribution by the middle of October of 1985. Despite the inexpensive production, it was a very handsome book, which pleased me enormously. Only 1,000 copies were printed, and I had not even finished paying off the bill by the time the print shop closed a few years later. All the copies were eventually sold and I have been grateful for the many comments I have received over the years from people who have found the book helpful as they research their family history. I doubt there are many copies from that original printing still extant, as the pages started coming loose almost immediately. Fortunately, there was a limited re-printing in 2012, with a much sturdier binding.

This photo was used to announce the book’s publication.

As I held the first copy in my hand, I thought back to that October day in 1979 when I was tired and scratched by thorns and almost gave up. Fortunately, I didn’t. After taking a few minutes to catch my breath and remove a couple of thorns from my skin, I climbed to the top of that hill. By the time I reached the cemetery, the sun was sinking toward the western horizon, casting deep shadows under the tall white pines and the autumn-tinted beeches and oaks.

It was the kind of graveyard seen in horror movies. The stones were making a valiant effort to stand upright, many of them leaning in various directions. The tombstones were ornate, carved out of fine marble, unlike the simple stones I had found in most other cemeteries. And the graves were contained within a very old and rusted wrought iron fence, with tall pointed posts like upended spears. The forest had invaded the cemetery, with large trees growing next to the graves, their gnarled roots wrapping around many of the stones. An occasional breeze would bring down a shower of red and yellow leaves, creating a very mysterious scene, and a bird was making a mournful sound somewhere close by.

I managed to climb over the fence and start writing down the information. Other than a few stones with names like Hutchinson and Greever and Johnson, the most common name was Wagner. I quickly figured out that it was the family of Matthias M. Wagner and his wife Mary. I also located a few of their children who had died in the late 1800s. Judging by the quality of the stones and the poetic epitaphs, it was obvious that the Wagners were a family of considerable means.

Every time I visited a cemetery, I always stood in silence for a little while, paying respect to all those who were laid to rest there, and as I was spending the last few minutes in that cemetery thinking about the Wagner family and wondering about their lives, a sudden wind whipped along the ground, picking up the freshly-fallen leaves and pushing them against one end of the fence. When the gust had passed and an eerie calm settled in, I noticed that the wind had uncovered a stone that had fallen over and was lying face-down against the hard ground. I had not seen it before as it was hidden under a thick layer of leaves. I turned it over and rubbed off the dirt. The writing slowly became visible.

“Sacred to the memory of James F. Wagner, fourth son and sixth child of M.M. and M.S. Wagner. Born Friday, June 30, 1837. Died Friday, April 13, 1855. Aged 17 years, 9 months, 14 days. Vita amatus, et letho lamentatus.”

I had to smile a little, as it seemed to me that Matthias and Mary Wagner were pleased that I was there, visiting their resting places, and didn’t want me to miss the grave of their son who had died so young.

I often think about that old cemetery and wonder if a sudden wind stirs the autumn leaves, uncovering the names of those buried there so long ago.

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.

The Argument

As with all husbands and wives, my parents did have occasional spats, but I never saw my mother as angry with my father as she was one day in the fall of 1975.

I walked into the room just as the argument reached its peak. My father was speaking softly and calmly, but my mother was shaking with anger, and reaching for a cigarette. She was fumbling with a pack of Salem’s and several spilled out onto the green shag carpet in the den.

“Now, Louise,” dad was saying. “Calm down and listen to me. I think this is the right thing to do, and that it’s God’s will. You have to trust me.”

“Damn you!”

I had never heard her voice so angry. It was like shards of broken glass. She threw the half-empty pack of cigarettes onto the floor, got up and slapped my father hard across the face.

“Damn you!” she said again as she left the room, looking at me with surprise as she passed by me and went into the hall. The bedroom door slammed a few seconds later.

My father saw me at the same time and looked embarrassed. He lowered his head and sighed. I had not heard enough of the argument to know what it was about, but I knew it had something to do with money. It was much later when I found out what had made my mother so mad.

She had gown up very poor in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. The family lived in a house that was only slightly better than a shack, and in the winter, snow would sometimes filter through the cracks in the wall behind my mother’s bed, which she shared with her older sister. Another sister and a brother slept in the same room. Her father mined coal to support his family, but spent most of his wages on alcohol. And when he was drinking, he was abusive. I’ve heard stories of my grandmother hiding the children from their father when he’d come in drunk and then enduring his painful slaps as the kids stayed out of sight, afraid to make the tiniest sound. It was not a happy life.

My mother was the second of six. She had an older sister, a younger sister and three little brothers. When my Aunt Virginia graduated from high school, she left home right away and went to Ohio to find work. She found a job in Dayton and stayed there until she died 57 years later. That left my mother as the oldest child at home. She was an excellent student and was even encouraged to apply for a college scholarship, but when she graduated from Hindman High School in the spring of 1954, she made the decision to stay home and find work locally. She felt that it was her responsibility to help look after her younger brothers and sister. She also persuaded her mother to get a divorce. My grandparents married again in the early 1960s but divorced a second time a few years later.

My mother believed that a college education was the only road leading out of the poverty-stricken coal-towns of Kentucky and she tried hard to inspire her young siblings to be good students and to appreciate the value of higher education. And, in time, they did get college degrees and had very successful careers. Only one them stayed in Kentucky.

It wasn’t until she was 24 years old, that my mother felt her sister and younger brothers were old enough to make it on their own, so she allowed herself to fall in love with a young man studying to be a preacher. They were married in March of 1960 and made their home in rural Johnson County, in the northeast corner of Tennessee. I came along three years later, and my mother was determined that I would have the kind of education that she had missed. A small-town preacher’s salary in the 1960s was barely enough to keep food on the table, so my mother went to work and managed to save a bit of her paycheck every week, putting it aside as a college fund for me. Over the next ten years or so, She worked as a secretary, a clerk at a clothing store and even spent some time as a bank teller.

By 1975, that college fund was still in the bank and although it didn’t amount to very much, my mother guarded it fiercely. My father had just started a campaign to raise money for a much-needed addition to the church where he was pastor. The church membership had expanded and there was not enough room to accommodate all the people who were attending Sunday School. But constructing a new wing of classroom space was expensive. Everyone was going to have to work hard in order to raise enough money to pay for it, and dad had decided to give my college fund to the church. He didn’t ask my mother’s permission. He simply said he was doing it. Mother was furious!

My father was a devoted and dedicated pastor who believed strongly that a church needed to expand and grow. He also believed that God blesses those who make sacrifices for His work. My mother always tried to be a supportive pastor’s wife and after the anger passed, she acquiesced and the money was given to the building fund. But I know she was very disappointed and I’m not sure she ever forgave him entirely. She had learned to appreciate my father’s selfless nature when it came to his flock – I remember coming home from school one day and finding out that he had given our den sofa and a twin bed to a struggling family — but endangering my college education was a bitter pill to swallow.

My mother became ill in 1976 and died in the spring of 1977, after a seven-month battle with leukemia. A few years later, when my high school graduation was approaching and my friends were applying to colleges and universities, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to go to college. I was an average student with no hope of a scholarship, and we certainly were not rich. I spoke to my father about it one evening after dinner when we were alone.

“You are going to college, Jeffrey,” he said emphatically. “There was nothing more important to your mother than your education. She wanted to pay for it herself and even though she is not here, you can still go to college because of her.”

Being a minor child of 14 when my mother died, I was eligible to receive her social security payments. I knew nothing about it, but those checks had been arriving every month for more than four years and dad had deposited every one of them into a bank account. By the time I was 18, there was enough money to fully pay for two years of college, and because I would continue to receive checks until my 22nd birthday, there might even be enough to get me through to the end. As it turned out, I only had to get a student loan to pay for the final semester of my senior year.

My mother’s dream for me came true. I attended two years at Carson-Newman College in Tennessee and then transferred to Northern Michigan University, where I graduated with a degree in English. On graduation day in May of 1985, I walked across the stage, picked up my diploma and whispered “Thank you, my dear mother. I love you!”

I hope she was watching… and smiling.