An Air of Exoticism

A photo of him directing Charlton Heston at Northwestern in The Male Animal. Him with Helen Hayes. Him with Lillian Gish.

My father was older than other kids’ fathers. The disappearing and already disappeared hair on the top of his head offered testimony to that. The mustache that linked him to an earlier generation of Hollywood role models — Gable, Warner Baxter, William Powell, Melvyn Douglas — offered corroboration. Peck, Holden, Rock Hudson, not to mention other kids’ fathers, were clean. And then there were the antiquated words and phrases that peppered his and no one else’s speech. “Meathead” as a term of endearment or rebuke depending on tone. “George!” as an exclamation of delight. “Nuts!” as a cuss. “Put that in your pipe and smoke it!”

In the Little League parents’ game one year, my father took part not as a player but as a between-innings clown, in baggy pants and whiteface, though failing to lighten the mood sufficiently to prevent the game from being called on account of brawl. The clown act, and variations on it that I witnessed throughout childhood, was a legacy of his past career in vaudeville and theater. Documentation of that period abounded. A glamorous black-and-white still of him in a doughboy helmet, a cigarette dangling rakishly at the corner of his mouth. A photo of him directing Charlton Heston at Northwestern for a college production of The Male Animal. Him with Helen Hayes. Him with Lillian Gish. A library of playscripts. A six-gun and box of blanks. A couple of trunks in a storage space off his “shop” downstairs, containing such items of fascination as a wooden makeup kit, with its various oil-paint-type tubes and shoe-polish-type tins, and (of special interest to a growing boy in the ’50s) souvenir programs from the Ziegfeld Follies and Earl Carroll’s Vanities, lavishly illustrated with photos of showgirls clad in cobwebs.

Flashbacks to this era would surface without warning. The noise of a car backfiring would give him an opening to cry out, “Shoot him in the pants, the coat and vest are mine!” An innocent inquiry about the weather was an invitation to recite, “Whether it rains, whether it’s hot, we’ll have weather, whether or not.” He loved to watch (with his explosive four-note laugh: “ha-ha-ha-HAAH”) the TV comics of the day, Phil Silvers, Red Skelton, Sid Caesar, Groucho Marx, all of whom he seemed to me then, seems to me still, to resemble.

Other things about my father, too, were different from other fathers, from Hollywood role models, from any adults whatever. The belt buckle worn to the side. The habit of pouring milk on anything served in a dish, not just puddings and cereals, but applesauce, creamed corn, stewed tomatoes (drawing from my mother the sound of an aggrieved crow). The favorite bedtime snack of crumbled Graham Crackers “soaked” in milk for several minutes before eating. The perpetual bowl of caramels, which he alone dipped into and replenished. The collection of restaurant menus that he once tried to augment on a Family Night Out by slipping the faux-leather folder into the back of his pants beneath his jacket. (The howls of outrage from his law-abiding children thwarted him.) The supplementing of commonplace cigarette-smoking with rarefied pipe-smoking, its elaborate paraphernalia of humidors, tobacco pouches, tampers, pipe racks, woolly pipe cleaners, etc., and its lighting-up orchestration of tappings, tootlings, gurglings, lip-smackings.

Another different thing about my father (how many of his other differences could it account for?) was that he came from Scotland — came from it when he was five years old, so he didn’t sound like my grandfather, though he could do the accent on request. Hence the names of his children, Jamie Donald, Duncan Scott, Laurie Ann. Hence “porridge” and “mealie Jimmy” as synonyms for oatmeal. Hence the two rows of framed portraits of pipers on the den wall. Hence the actual set of strictly decorative bagpipes. Hence the mandatory attendance at any touring performance of the Black Watch, the Gordon Highlanders, the Coldstream Guards. He was intensely proud of his heritage, and a snotty child in suburban Minneapolis could be sure to “get his goat” (another of his pet phrases), if not get him to “pop his cork” or “blow his stack” (two more), by suggesting that in reality he came not from Aberdeen, Scotland, but nearby Aberdeen, South Dakota.

All these things — the age, the theatrical background, the foreign origin — breathed an air of exoticism into the man who lived upstairs at 11511 Lake View Lane. At times the mystique would be enriched. When it came my turn to accompany him on one of his periodic business trips to New York — he was now in advertising — I was opened to the wonders of Times Square, taxis, fresh coconut milk, the Oyster Bar, the Automat, and was even granted entrée (wonder of wonders, far more wonderful than seeing The Music Man on Broadway) to a World Series game at Yankee Stadium, the one where Elston Howard slid on his belly to snatch a blooper off the left-field turf, starting a double play and turning the tide in the ’58 Classic. And on a family vacation to California, we somehow rated a private tour of the MGM backlot and in specific the set of the Rawhide TV series, currently shooting a jury-room scene, where my younger sister chatted over a headset to the second lead on the show, Clint Eastwood.

Sometimes I wonder whether all this close-at-hand exoticism — however little of it I consciously copied, however fiercely I in fact rejected it, however distasteful I even now find milk and tobacco — did not provide me with unspoken sanction to be different. Outwardly my father bitterly opposed such developments. Adolescence, when I was deciding just how and how much to be different, naturally brought major changes in our relations. All the things that had seemed merely peculiar began to seem embarrassing in addition. A high-school student does not necessarily want to see his father serve as emcee for the annual variety show. (Dressed as an artist in beret and smock, he shuts one eye and holds out his thumb to line up a pretty model on a stool, steps behind a canvas and paints furiously, steps out again and turns his thumb to one side, steps back again and paints some more, turns the finished canvas around to the audience: a painting of a huge thumb.) Nor would the teen be thrilled to have him appear in a local car commercial with a kilt, a tam, and a Scots burr.

And making new friends meant subjecting each and every one of them to all the old “material.” (“Mind if I smoke?” was a surefire set-up line for the awaiting punch, “You wouldn’t care if I burned!”) A galling aspect of this was that anyone hearing it for the first time tended to be bowled over. Among his grown-up friends, he was viewed as the life of the party. But those who knew him only socially did not get to see the black moods, the volcanic temper, the late and drunken homecomings that became such a regular feature of those years. Membership in AA did not magically transform his children into tots again, and it did not last long.

We grew distant. I had seen the ineffectiveness of my older brother’s tactics, nose to nose with clenched fists. I chose a subtler and more frustrating approach: “the silent treatment,” as my father fumingly called it. And I started a trend among my siblings by addressing him and referring to him as “Father,” as if I were the scion of some Old World autocrat in a Hollywood period piece. He hated this, but no disrespect could be proved. We saw few things eye to eye anymore, and those were not the things that would form the basis of discussion. Martin Balsam, for example — my father was always partial to character actors, having been one himself — was held to be the equal, but for “the breaks,” of Marlon Brando, then a favorite of mine. The assigned reading of a Saturday Evening Post cover story on Brando’s misbehavior during the shoot of Mutiny on the Bounty, and a parenting-help pamphlet entitled “It’s Hip to Be Square” did nothing to quell the teenage rebel.

When at last it was time to go away to college (emphasis on away), my father insisted on driving me clear to New York, a long eight years since our previous visit there. After we said our goodbyes, I stood at the door of my dorm room listening to a frightful dry chuffing sound as my father fought off tears at the elevator. What was required of me here? What could be said or done? While I was still working on that, the elevator came and took him away. From then on I returned home less and less frequently, preferring to stay on campus even over Christmas holidays. With graduate school in California, I stopped going back even for summers. The last time I saw my father alive, I cannot recall what had brought me back, but I passed along my idea of a peace pipe: a suggestion that he see The Sunshine Boys at the downtown Gopher theater. Old vaudevillians. One-liners. George Burns. If my father was not the ideal audience for this, who on earth was? He came home in one of his black moods, believing that I had deliberately and spitefully sent him off to something I had known full well would depress him. I am now very wary of recommending any movie to anyone.

This article is part of the Father's Day issue. To read additional articles from this issue, click here.

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