Authors: Lorna Luft
Tags: #Biographies & Memoirs, #Arts & Literature, #Actors & Entertainers, #Composers & Musicians, #Television Performers, #Leaders & Notable People, #Rich & Famous, #Memoirs, #Specific Groups, #Women, #Humor & Entertainment
My mother’s moods weren’t the only thing Vern had to deal with as they awaited my birth. He also had Louella Parsons on his back twenty-fours hours a day. The Hollywood gossip columnists were all dying to get an exclusive on my birth, and my dad wouldn’t give them the time of day. Louella Parsons turned to Vern and called the hospital until he took her calls. To get the press off their backs, Vern agreed to give Louella the exclusive “first word” of my birth, with all the particulars, if she would agree to “leave Judy alone.” Louella jumped at the offer, and an open phone line was set up between Louella Parsons and St. John’s Hospital so that Vern could keep her posted twenty-fours hours a day.
In the midst of all this craziness, my mother’s anxiety continued to increase as the day of my birth approached. I was to be delivered by cesarean section, as my sister had been, and my mom remained convinced she would die in the process. She turned to Vern for comfort and reassurance. One afternoon as they sat alone in her hospital room, Mama asked Vern if he knew any prayers. He told her he did. My mom told him she didn’t know any. Now, this wasn’t true—my grandfather Gumm had been choirmaster at the Episcopal church in Grand Rapids, and my mother had attended
with her sisters every Sunday. Vern didn’t know this, however, so when my mother asked him to teach her a prayer, he agreed. Vern is Catholic, so he taught my mother the rosary and one or two other short prayers. My mom was a quick study; Vern said she had the prayers memorized after hearing them only once. That doesn’t surprise me, since she could remember lyrics after hearing them only once, too. Mama learned the prayers, and several times a day she would reach for Vern, and he would hold her hand while they prayed together. Vern was touched by these moments, even though he knew her fears were groundless.
Finally, on November 21, 1952, it was time for the main event. Me! Dad and Vern waited in the fathers’ waiting room, with Vern on the open line to Louella Parsons the whole time. I was born by cesarean section; six pounds, four ounces. Vern relayed this information to Louella, heaved a sigh of relief, and congratulated my father.
Dad was thrilled. He says I came out looking as if I were six months old; small, but without a wrinkle or a bruise, with skin as white and pretty as my mother’s. I had blue eyes and rosy cheeks and lots of curly blonde hair. I was, in my father’s words, just plain gorgeous. Who am I to disagree? Both my parents expected a girl (the obstetrician could tell, he said, by the fetal heartbeat), and Liza was excited to have a baby sister. My mother was happy, and my father was delighted to have “his own little Judy.” He told me that every father wants a little girl. It was nice to be welcomed.
There are lots of myths about why they named me Lorna. One is that I was named after the Lorna Doone cookies that were so popular at the time. It’s not true; I was most definitely not named after a cookie! My name wasn’t chosen to look good on a marquee, either. Dad says that never crossed their minds. When I was small, they hoped I would never go into show business. Actually, they chose the name Lorna for several reasons. Mama liked the name because it was from one of her favorite plays, Clifford Odets’s
and because it sounded good with Luft. Dad liked it
because his mother’s name was Leonora, and because he had a crush on a little girl named Lorna Doone when he was in grade school. (Years later my husband, Colin, bought me a copy of the book with that name in England.) Unlike my sister, and later my little brother, I wasn’t given a middle name. My dad’s only explanation is that I didn’t need one. Personally, I think I got gypped.
No sooner was I born than my mother was sedated and put in intensive care to recover before being moved back to her room. Dad went back to the office, and Vern went home to get some much-needed sleep. He was exhausted from his weeks as attendant and unofficial “jail keeper.” The next morning he returned to the hospital, refreshed, to find my mother back in her regular room and wide awake. They chatted about me for a while, and then my mother reached over and took Vern’s hand. Since this was my mom’s signal that she wanted to say “their prayer,” Vern quietly said, “Do you want to say our prayer, Judy?”
Vern says that when he asked that, my mom just looked at him with surprise and said, “Of course not. Why would I want to say a prayer? I lived, didn’t I?”
That was the end of my mother’s special prayers with Vern. So much for religion!
The next great event—my homecoming—was scheduled for a week later. The day before I was due to come home, my father had a horse running in a big race in San Francisco, and he was planning to fly up for the race and be back in time to take Mama and me home the next day. Besides being a terrific horse, the colt also had sentimental value for my dad. He and my mother had first seen the horse in Dublin during their European tour together. The colt was a beautiful chestnut named Florence House. When Mama fell in love with it, my father bought it for her as a present and had it shipped back to the U.S. In fact, he and Mama had accidentally gotten locked in a stall with the horse the day it arrived in Long Island. Dad just couldn’t pass up the chance to watch their colt in its first big race. With Mama and me still in the hospital, he
thought, why not? When he told my mother he was planning to fly up for the race, she just smiled sweetly and said, “Fine.”
Unfortunately for my dad, her cheerful mood didn’t last. Unwilling to play second fiddle to a horse, Mama decided to stage one of her little scenes—to double-cross him, as Dad puts it. While my father was in San Francisco at the race, my mother announced it was time for me to come home. She managed to get herself released from the hospital a day early, and she made Vern take her home to Mapleton Drive. When my father got back from San Francisco and went to St. John’s to visit her, he was astonished to discover that she’d already packed up and left with me.
Dad knew he was in for it then. He also knew how to handle my mother’s moods. When he did arrive home, to my mother propped up against the satin headboard of their bed in full pout, he was ready. He came armed to the teeth, with flowers for Mama, toys for me, and fistfuls of his winnings. The colt had placed first with the odds at fifteen to one, and my dad had cleared over $5,000 that day. After the usual courting ritual, with Mama pouting and Dad begging, my mother “forgave” him, and all was well. In those days the games my mother played were still harmless, and my dad was a champion player. Besides, he says, the making up was well worth it.
I undoubtedly slept through the entire scene. I needed all the rest I could get. I was one week old, and the family melodrama had already begun for me. I was born into a family that was often funny, sometimes heartbreaking, but never, ever dull. In the first six weeks of my life, my mother would survive a severe postpartum depression, a suicide attempt, and her mother’s death from a heart attack. Yet she would end 1952 by giving a dazzling performance at Jack Warner’s coming-out party for his daughter in New York. Fortunately, I had the good sense to sleep through most of it. A star needs all the rest she can get.
© Phil Stern
Joey’s first steps, 1956.
There’s No Place Like Holmby Hills
el Air on a spring morning is little different now than it was thirty-five years ago. The streets are lined with beautifully kept houses with manicured lawns and lush borders of hothouse flowers. Most of the streets wind gently, the magnolia and eucalyptus trees shading the sidewalks. Nannies push well-dressed babies in carriages or strollers, stopping occasionally to chat with one another as they pass by in the warm Los Angeles sunshine. Often they have a well-groomed dog in tow, its leash looped over their arm as it sits patiently or sniffs the rear of a newcomer’s equally well-groomed canine companion. Joggers trot by, most of them female, waving at the occasional neighbor as they pass. Now and then the silence is broken by the hum of a well-tuned Mercedes as it glides around the curves under the trees, deftly dodging both joggers and nannies, and continues on toward the city.
It is a peaceful place, an idyllic place, a refuge for the privileged only ten miles from the heart of the city but light-years away from the grime and noise of downtown Los Angeles. It is the sort of place many envy and few leave of their own will. About the only difference between the Bel Air of the nineties and the Bel Air of my childhood is that now the nannies are Latina instead of British, and the cars European instead of American. For most people it is a
place as far removed from reality as the MGM soundstages my mother danced in. For me, it was where I lived.
Home for me there was a large Tudor-style house covered with ivy on Mapleton Drive, just two blocks off Sunset Boulevard. It looked as if it had come straight out of England. There was a small yard in front enclosed by a wall, where old pictures in magazines show me playing and my brother, Joe, learning to walk. There was a huge backyard with a big trampoline that I jumped on with my dad. We didn’t have a pool, but if I wanted to swim, I could just run across the front lawn to the Bogarts’ house two doors down and jump into the pool with my best friend, Leslie. I had an older sister who was off doing big-girl things most of the day, and by the time I was two I had acquired a little brother along with a faithful dog to guard us. I could have done without the little brother, but I was crazy about the dog. It was all sort of Dick and Jane in Beverly Hills.
We lived on Mapleton Drive until I was seven years old, and all of my memories there are happy ones. My parents might have had their troubles at times, but I knew nothing about such things. I lived in one wing of the house with my sister and my nanny, and my parents lived in another wing. If something bad happened in my parents’ wing, I never knew anything about it.
Holmby Hills was the land of the toddler princesses, and I was Little Princess Lorna. I played with other princes and princesses like Steve and Leslie Bogart and Sammy Cahn’s kids. I had a house filled with people hired to make our lives comfortable. There were usually thirteen people on staff at home during those early years. There was a cook and a butler and a gardener and a chauffeur to take me places. There were maids to clean up after me. And, of course, there was a nanny.
Most of the nannies were British in those days, fair-haired Irish or English women trained to the profession who wore starched white uniforms. All of my memories of our nannies in those early years are good. It was their job to take the best possible care of the children in their charge. They fed us, bathed us, clothed us, and took us out to play. They made sure we were as healthy
and safe as possible. These days I have a friend who says that the next time she has a baby, she’s going to give birth to the nanny first. I ran into one of my former nannies, Susie, just a few years ago. A red-haired woman, Irish, and very, very sweet, she’s still in the profession. I think she looks after Robert Stack’s grandchildren these days.
When the nanny had the day off or my parents had to be out of town for a long time, there was always Grandma, my father’s mother, who lived down the canyon on Beverly Glen. What a grandmother she was! My brother and I always called her the mad Russian. Her name was Leonora. She was a successful clothing designer when my dad was growing up, and she still had a stylish flair when I was small. She’d come to America by herself when she was twelve or thirteen, just a poor Jewish girl from Russia when she first arrived. But she worked hard and was very talented, so by the time she reached her twenties she’d worked her way up from the clothing mills back East to having her own store. By an odd coincidence, one of her models in New York was Lucille Ball when Lucy was first starting out. Lucy became a friend of my mother’s years later.
Grandma Leonora was a real piece of work. She was a tiny woman with gray hair, dark when she was younger, that she always wore swept up in the back. She always dressed well, really well, in beautifully designed clothing, and even after all the years in America, she still had a very thick Russian accent. My grandmother Leonora was very dramatic and extremely domineering. By the time I knew her, she was as crazy for racehorses as my dad. If you wanted to find her, you paged the track. One time when I was a kid, I had her paged at Santa Anita Racetrack.