Saturday, October 26, 2013

My Uncle Ted

Ted and my father were fraternal twins, yin to the other's yang.  He was my Auntie Mame, the relative whose glamorous life held out the promise of adventure beyond the boundaries of home while rooted in the family.  Ted was an actor on Broadway, a pianist who had accompanied Paul Robeson, the host at an exclusive inn on Cape Cod, an expatriate in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and gay.

Mame was the subject of a book by Patrick Dennis in the 1950s about his eccentric aunt, and it was made with much success into a play, musical and film. I saw Angela Lansbury in the role in the 1960s.  By then, inspired by our adventures in Mexico together in 1962, I'd moved to Manhattan to become a writer.  Ted, on the other hand, fell ill with emphysema during our trip and moved to San Diego with George, his partner of 20 years, where they bought a house with money he'd inherited from his wealthy grandmother.

Dreams do not always turn out as planned.  The stories and poems I penned over the years have amounted to little and the only writing I've really done is here in this blog for the past half dozen years.  Ted, terrified of suffocating, took his own life with an overdose of sleeping pills in 1969. George succumbed to the alcoholism that had long plagued him.  He willed their house to a neighbor, who told me it was totally trashed, and his book collection to me.  Several boxes arrived at my house in Santa Cruz and they contained original manuscripts of stories George had written in the 1950s for shabby imitations of Playboy. There was also a heavily underlined copy in Ted's meticulous handwriting of P.D. Ouspensky's "In Search of the Miraculous."

I don't know who was born first.  Ted was named Edward after their father, and his brother was encumbered with Homer (later nicknamed Humpy by his friends), the name of his grandfather. They were born in Toledo, Ohio, where their grandfather had been a successful inventor.  He discovered a process to extract turpentine from pine tree stumps, and in Toledo he piped steam through pipes under the sidewalks to melt snow (old-timers still remember "Yaryan heat").  After their father died of TB while working at the family business in Mississippi, they moved with older sister Margaret to a mansion outside St. Petersburg, Florida, where their new step-father was a speculator during the land boom years.  Soon they had three new siblings, brothers Frank and Mac and sister Nan.

My father was bigger and athletic, while Ted was thin and often in ill health.  He learned to play the piano by ear and fooled listeners into thinking he could read music.  Neither boy got along well with their step-father.  And when Margaret, for reasons lost in the mist (she died in 2001), got into a dispute with her grandmother, somehow she and my dad were cut out of her will while the beloved Ted remained (this provided the inheritance to buy that house in San Diego). He was always good with old ladies!

Homer and Ted were room mates the summer dad worked as a life guard at Cape May, New Jersey.  Later I was told by my father that Ted couldn't be gay because he had been worried that he had gotten a girl pregnant.  My father soon got married and I was born in Toledo not long before Hitler invaded Poland.  During the early years of the war, Ted was stage director for a touring version of "Othello," starring Paul Robeson, and at after hours parties he would accompany the black actor/singer on the piano. Robeson was persecuted during the McCarthy period for his political beliefs and support for civil rights. After Ted joined the Army where he worked as an entertainer, he directed a version of "Little Women" with soldiers in drag for the troops at Camp Lee, New Jersey.  It made the pages of Life Magazine, and it was during that production that he met George, one of the actors. Dad's hand had been maimed in an industrial accident which confined his war service to Coast Guard duty on Lake Erie. After the war we moved to North Carolina, and were living in a small town in the western hills when Ted came to visit us in 1952 (the photo at the top of this post).

It was family legend that Ted was an actor on Broadway.  At the age of 12 I was madly in love with the movies and my dream was to become an actor, or better yet, a movie star. When dad told him of my ambition, Ted's advice was: Drown him!  He came to visit us during rehearsals for Horton Foote's play, "The Chase," directed by Jose Ferrer.  I later learned that his understudy for the role he played was Jason Robards.  In 1945, Ted had been cast by Ferrer in "Strange Fruit," a play made from Lillian Smith's novel about an interracial romance.  It was named after a song sung by Billie Holiday.  When "The Chase" opened, Ted told me that he got a playbill autographed for me by its stars, Kim Stanley and John Hodiak; sadly it never arrived in the mail. Neither play directed by Ferrer, unlike his Broadway hit "Stalag 17," lasted for more than two months. The movie version of "The Chase" in 1966 starred Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda in lead roles. Robert Redford and Robert Duvall were also featured and Richard Bradford reprised my uncle's role.

According to Ted, he was never more than a character actor, and after "The Chase" closed he gave up on Broadway.  He worked at the Queen Anne Inn on Cape Cod in Chatham, Massachusetts, where he was an all-around host and maitre d'hotel.  In the evenings he played piano for the guests.  And each winter when the snows came to the Cape, Ted would go to Cuernavaca where he bought a small row house on an alley in the northern part of the city.  He decorated it with indigenous art and his closest friends were Joaquin and Aurora, owners of a paint store, with whom he played canasta weekly and watched the bullfights on their TV.  He seemed fluent in Spanish, but he admitted to only knowing lots of modismos, expressions, enough to fool even the natives. Ted was also acquainted with the most celebrated expats there, Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton, who had directed her mansion in Japanese modern, and actress Helen Hayes, as well as a number of "remittance men," many of them gay, who were expats supported by their wealthy families so long as they stayed far away from the ancestral home.

In Berkeley that fall of 1961 I was on the verge of flunking out of the University of California and had stayed in bed during the final week of the fall term during final exams reading science fiction.  I wrote Ted about my confusion and he responded with an invitation to come talk about it in Cuernavaca. My father took me to the bus station and I sensed some reluctance on his part to let me go, perhaps even jealousy.  Like Ted, I had been a sickly child, prevented from playing sports because of asthma.  I felt I had disappointed my father.  Their sister Margaret encouraged my interest in literature and told me often how much I like Ted I was (She had married an aspiring writer who became a refrigerator salesman and an alcoholic).  My younger brother, on the other hand, took after our dad.  The ride from LA to the border, and on a Tres Estrellas de Oro bus from Tijuana to Mexico City was the most fabulous journey of my life up to that time.

Ted met me at the bus depot and took me to a small hotel where we talked long into the night.  I felt an immediate connection, as if he understood me in ways my parents could not.  I suspected he was homosexual although we never discussed it while he was alive.  Those were closeted times.  It was rarely mentioned in my family.  Uncle Frank's wife Mary adored Ted and got furious if the possibility was ever entertained by anyone.  Ted and I went by bus the next morning over the mountain to Cuernavaca and I moved into his one-room house (plus kitchen, bathroom and patio).

I had brought my typewriter and he asked a friend to make me a writing table. I sat under the large Jacaranda tree in the middle of the patio which dropped its purple blooms onto the keys when I wasn't fruitlessly trying to create the great American novel, or at least a story or poem.  George was away (on a bender, it was implied), and we were joined by their friend Alicia from New York who had retired after a career with the Girl Scouts.  She was a short, dark and animated lady, probably a lesbian although it was never mentioned.  The three of us traveled south by bus from Cuernavaca, to Oaxaca, Tehuantepec and Salina Cruz, and across to Coatzacoalcos and Veracruz, before returning home.  It was a wonderful journey and I had my fill everywhere of ripe watermelon and fresh shrimp.

During my stay with Uncle Ted we attended a couple of parties held by remittance men and their friends.  One was in a house carved out of part of the old cathedral and restored.  Beside the pool a dance troupe from the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City twirled torches and performed an Aztec ritual for guests. At the home of the business manager for Helen Hayes, I swam in a large pool decorated with gold coins. Between that house and the one next door there was a small slum where the domestic help lived. While I was swimming, guests arrived on the lawn beside the pool in a helicopter provided by the Mexican Air Force.

After I returned home to Southern California following my two months as Uncle Ted's protege, in many ways I felt like a failure. I was 21 but still a naive kid, fearful of the looks given me by the Indians at the pulqueria on the corner, afraid to venture far on my own, and a poor student of Spanish. The confusion I felt about my life in Berkeley had only been temporarily abated.  On the trip I had not written anything halfway decent, save for a long poem about a train wreck in which many peasants were killed or injured that profited dramatically from their misery.  Ted had encouraged a romance with a young girl who worked in her parent's store near our house, and he also prodded me to go after another girl I met at a party who worked in the diplomatic corps. Both came to naught.  I preferred to fantasize about a girl back in California whom I learned, after I returned home, was engaged to marry a close friend.  I was an usher at their wedding.

But being with Ted in Mexico did give me a look at wider possibilities.  I didn't have to go back to school and settle down into middle class life like my parents.  After recovering from a bout of hepatitis (bad water on the bus ride home, I deduced), I set out on a cross-country train journey with my typewriter in tow to New York where I got in touch with Ted's friend Alicia.  She introduced me to her nephew Alan and I was given a temporary home in the Greenwich Village loft he shared with his artist friend David.  Without Ted that never would have happened. Another guest in the loft was a car salesman named John from England, and we got to know Manhattan together.  This first foray into New York lasted only four months.  A year later my first wife and I returned to New York for more adventures and the following year we moved to London where we shared our first apartment in Baron's Court with that same John.

Thanks, Uncle Ted, for your continuing influence on my life, and for being my Auntie Mame.

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