Excerpted from The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father’s Twentieth Century by Margaret Talbot by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2012 by Margaret Talbot. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.
Chapter 1: Learning to Cry
The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father's Twentieth Century
(Riverhead; US: Nov 2012)
The boy grew up in a hotel for traveling salesmen across the street from the train station in a very small town. The hotel was white clapboard, two stories tall, plain and neat, set about by trees that in the summer grew over the windows and cloaked the downstairs in thick shade. The boy liked to lie on the front-parlor carpet, tracing its wreaths of faded roses and listening for the train whistle, then for the traveling men as they alit, swinging their creaking leather sample cases, then for the smack of their wingtip shoes as they stepped up to the front door. The traveling salesmen wore bowler hats and hounds-tooth vests and watch fobs. They sat downstairs at the long cherry-wood table, packing away the gravy-soaked meals his grandmother and the hired girls cooked for them, holding their sides and laughing. They’d been to Omaha and Kansas City and Chicago. They’d seen skylines ablaze with electric lights and gone to plays—oh, plenty of ’em, and sure, there were pretty girls even in a little burg like this one, they’d tell one another, but, oh brother, how about those gals on the stage? The traveling men never stayed long in Brainard—a night, maybe two. They gave the boy peppermint candies and distracted pats on the head. They hummed little snatches of ragtime while they trimmed their magnificent mustaches.
The boy did not have his own room. His grandmother wanted to keep most of the rooms available for the commercial men, and the few left over for the hired girls, whose fathers sent them to work in the hotel so they could learn how to cook from Mrs. Talbot. The girls were seventeen, eighteen years old, farm girls, from Czech families, though this was before there was a country of Czechoslovakia, so they were called Bohemians or, less kindly, Bohunks. At night, the boy crawled in with whichever of them would have him, snuggling down under their white comforters, listening to their soft snores and the words they muttered in Czech, smelling the faint whiff of onion and caraway on their curled fingers. In the summer, the breeze from the open windows stirred the lace curtains and the tendrils of hair pasted against their necks. In the winter, he pressed as close as he could to their warm backs. He knew only a few words of Czech, but the phrase he remembered all his life was “Hezká holka, dej mi hubička.” “Pretty girl, give me a kiss.”
The hired girls woke in the smudgy light before dawn—Mrs. Talbot was a strict employer—but he scrunched down under the cov¬ers, hoping he wouldn’t be ejected. At night, the girls laughed, and let him watch as they brushed out their long hair, heavy and glistening as horses’ tails, but in the morning they were snappish and yawning, and told him to run along. He did little jigs, sang them a stirring Irish song about a boy and a girl with an ocean between them, told them about how he tried to ride the Jersey cow and how she’d tossed him. At night, the hired girls listened and sometimes clapped their hands with delight, but in the morning, he could try the same routine and they only sighed, stony-eyed, and shoved him out the door. None of them was his mother, after all.
His mother, he knew, was dead. He knew this because his grand¬mother told him so, and because every so often she called him to her side and took from a small velvet-lined box a lock of his mother’s hair. It was pale gold and feathery, like a butterfly’s wing. The first time he saw it, he felt nothing in particular, except confusion, because when his grandmother looked at it, she wept, and she was not generally a weeping woman. But the boy, whose name was Lyle, did not remem¬ber his mother; he had been just a baby when she died. When he did not cry, his grandmother told him he would get a beating unless he did—“Think,” she said, “of your poor mama”—and then she took him over her knees and paddled him. The next time she brought out the velvet-lined box, he thought of the beating and how his bottom had stung, and he managed to squeeze out a tear. It wasn’t quite good enough for his grandmother, but it was a start. The time after that, he screwed his eyes shut as tightly as he could and thought not so much of his poor mama as of his poor self, facing another paddling and unable to feel what his grandmother so urgently wanted him to feel. He produced a choking sob, and then, to his surprise, an increasingly per¬suasive crescendo of them. His grandmother sat back in her chair, exhausted. “That’s my boy, Lyle,” she said, and then closed her eyes.
The boy grew up to be my father, and when he told me this story, it was without apparent rancor or shock, so matter-of-factly that it was years before I realized what a cruelly perfect apprenticeship it was for acting. He was born in 1902, and grew up in a time and a place— small-town Nebraska—that was in some sense pre-psychological, a time in which people did not yet customarily explain one another’s actions and motives with the kinds of concepts— repression and projection, anxieties and drives—that would become so familiar to people a couple of decades later. The language of child development—of children’s distinct emotional needs—was not common parlance. A mother could die and a bereaved child be told she had gone away to a better place, without a good-bye, or else be told the truth but also not to speak of her; it was better that way. In his remarkable autobiographical novel So Long, See You Tomorrow, the writer William Maxwell describes his mother’s death during the influenza epidemic of 1918 when he was ten and growing up in a small Illinois town. His father would walk from room to room and he would follow him, hoping they could talk to each other, but they never did. “When my father was an old man,” Maxwell writes, “he surprised me by remarking that he understood what my mother’s death meant to me but had no idea what to do about it. I think it would have been something if he had just said this.” A child could be adopted and never be told—that was common practice until the 1960s. A son or daughter could be written off as a loss and shame, and that writing-off announced in the local paper, as this father did in the David City, Nebraska, newspaper in 1907: “Owing to the disobedience and incorrigibility of my son, Benjamin Wertz, I hereby notify the public that I have given him his time, and I will not be responsible for any of his acts or deeds and will not assume any of his obligations or liabilities hereafter.” And a mother whom a child had never known could die and that child be expected to counterfeit the sentiment thought proper, or else endure a beating.
Much of what was done to children without regard to its lasting impact was irredeemable and indefensible, but sometimes there were surprising comforts to be wrung from a pre-psychological innocence. To our minds, for instance, the idea of sending a boy of six or eight to sleep in the beds of unrelated teenage girls seems deeply peculiar— arousing, perhaps, and therefore confusing. Yet my father remembered the girls fondly; they did not abuse him; they were kind to him; some were lovely to gaze at; his memories of them were the wellspring in him of a lifelong love of women. (His favorite book to read aloud to me when I was a kid was My Ántonia, Willa Cather’s nostalgic masterpiece about a Nebraska boy’s chaste love for the older Czech hired girl who was his childhood playmate.) Why his grandmother didn’t take him into her own room, I don’t know, but bedding down with the hired girls undoubtedly helped him sleep through the raw Nebraska nights as a motherless little boy. As an adult, he saw that his childhood bed-sharing was something one would no longer do—but he was amused and matter-of-fact about it, not ashamed.
And my father would lead a resolutely unexamined life ever after. He did not speculate about what his grandmother could possibly have been thinking when she brandished that lock of hair or how it was that he could call her “a great old gal,” which he did, and still vividly remember the tears she blackmailed out of him. The story he told about his growing up was not one of surviving childhood damage—the death of his young mother, the forced separation from his father, the alienating rituals of his grief-stricken grandmother. The story he told, always, was about becoming an actor. It was about the privilege, the thrill, the sensual benediction of holding people, for an hour or two, in thrall. It was about how a handsome face and an ingratiating disposition could propel a boy from Brainard, Nebraska, to Hollywood in the hectic, shimmery heyday of the movie industry. It was about vaulting from a life hunkered down in a cold climate among hardworking Czech and Irish immigrants—farmers, grocers, brakemen—to a life of gin parties in rented villas in Beverly Hills, starlets in creamy satin dresses, week¬ends at Hearst Castle, days spent impersonating bootleggers and gang¬sters and society swells, all amid the orange- scented Mediterranean lushness of Hollywood in the 1930s.