Read Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir Online

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

Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir (13 page)

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Most of the time, I played with Leslie Bogart. She’s my oldest friend, my only real childhood friend because my family moved around so much after I was eight. Leslie lived two doors down, and we were always running back and forth to each other’s houses. Our parents were friends, too, and that made it easier. The Bogarts had a pool, and Leslie and I would go swimming there. My parents didn’t want a pool when I was small because they were afraid Joey or I would fall in, so in the summer I would go to Leslie’s house to swim. I remember that girls always had to wear rubber bathing caps in those days, and I didn’t see why. They pinched my temples and hurt my head. I can still picture Betty Bacall, Leslie’s mom, in her white bathing cap. In those days I still called her Mrs. Bogart. Leslie and her older brother, Steve, and their parents had put their handprints and footprints in the cement by the steps when they built the pool, and I thought that was really cool. I understand that the marks are still there, barely visible by the pool steps. It was great fun going swimming, though I was intimidated by Leslie’s parents. Leslie’s mom was nice to me, but she wasn’t the kind of woman you’d want to make mad at you. Mr. Bogart (it was
never
“Bogie” or anything informal) had this really deep, gravelly voice, and he scared me. Whenever I passed him in the house, I would just say, “Hi, Mr. Bogart,” and he would say, “Oh, hello, hello,” rather absentmindedly, and that was that. He was a lot older than most dads, and he had this way about him. You automatically knew not to jump around Leslie’s father. Nobody had to tell you that.

In some ways we were the typical American family of the 1950s, only the upscale version.

We even had a dog. He wasn’t Lassie, but he was close. He was half collie and half German shepherd. My mom brought him back from a party one night because he needed a home. His name was Sam. Out of everyone in the neighborhood when I was little, I remember Sam the most clearly. Sam used to get into fights with the Bogarts’ two boxers pretty regularly, but with us he was always gentle. Joey learned to walk holding tightly onto Sam to keep his balance. Sam was very big and very, very protective. He would never let Joe or me leave the house without him. It was
extraordinary. If it looked as though we were going to leave the yard unattended, if we even got too near the front wall or the edge of the driveway, Sam would be there to growl and warn us back. I swear he’d frown at those moments. If my father called him when Sam was outside watching us, Sam would just ignore Dad. He had no intention of going off and leaving us alone. At night he’d stand guard outside the house. He never slept inside; he wouldn’t. Instead he sat on the front porch of our house and kept watch every night of his life. No one came near our house without Sam’s permission. Nobody was going to harm us as long as Sam was around. My whole family remembers him so clearly. He was one of the family.

Even the disasters were fun in those days. The first fire I remember was at Mapleton. My mother had a tendency to fall asleep smoking. She would take a sleeping pill and then climb into bed with a book and a cigarette, and sometimes she fell asleep with the cigarette still burning. There were several close calls. One night she fell asleep and the mattress caught on fire. The smoke started spreading through my parents’ end of the house. Sam started barking and woke my father up. My dad grabbed my mom and ran to make sure we children were all right while someone called the fire department. I vaguely remember being awakened and carried outside with Joey, both of us in our pajamas. The next thing I remember, we were on the front lawn with Mama and Liza and the whole staff. Dad had gone back into the house with the butler to try and put out the fire. I remember being very confused and not quite sure how we got there. I also remember thinking how odd it was to be on the front lawn in our pajamas in the middle of the night. The firemen came to put out the fire, and eventually somebody took us back to bed. The smoke had never even gotten to our end of the house. It wasn’t what you’d call an inferno; it wasn’t even scary. I remember being half-asleep but still thinking, “This is really exciting.”

Everything was exciting in those days, or at least happy. I know now that there were problems behind the scenes, but I didn’t know it then. I was loved and protected by both my parents. I was safe, and I was cherished.

I wish it could have lasted.

Collection of the author

The family at home in London, autumn 1960.

CHAPTER 5

London Town

I
t’s funny how time changes your perspective. When I was a little girl, the happiness of my life seemed a natural thing, as inevitable as the coming of spring. Like all happy children, I took life for granted, never questioning what was placed before me so lovingly each day. What I didn’t know then was that my father had shouldered a tremendous burden, both financially and emotionally, when he and my mother created the pristine little nursery world of Mapleton Drive. My father was, in fact, the Atlas who held our world firmly on his broad shoulders. For a long time he was able to hold it steady. Eventually, though, even the strongest man begins to break down. My father was no exception.

One of my happiest memories of the Mapleton years comes near the very end of that time. It’s a memory that has taken on symbolic value only in retrospect. Our whole family had gone to Las Vegas to spend time playing in the sun while my mom performed at the New Frontier Hotel. Vegas was still small then; the only hotels were the Flamingo and the Frontier. We had a grand time, swimming and playing with my dad or the nanny all day long. The best part of the trip for me and Joey was the tumblers. The opening act for my mom was two Egyptian tumblers named Yehad and Yaheed. They were brothers. Yehad was very muscular,
and Yaheed was very light. They were amazing. Joey and I thought these acrobats were the greatest thing in the world, and since they were staying at the same hotel we were, we got to play with them during the afternoon. They were extremely nice to us. They’d flip us in the air and show us how to do handstands, and we’d have a great time. Since my dad is very strong, too (after all, he was the guy who’d grown up doing the Charles Atlas weight-lifting routine), Sid got in on the act. Dad could easily press a 125-pound guy, so he learned how to lift Yaheed over his head and hold him there in a handstand. After a while the acrobats even worked Dad into the act, having him come up onstage and lift Yaheed for the crowd. I can still picture Dad standing there, holding Yaheed effortlessly over his head. What I didn’t know then was that he was holding us all up, Mama included, and had been for years. Sadly for us all, the family balancing act had begun to totter.

T
he problems had been escalating for a long time. My mother’s concerts during those years were very successful, but they didn’t provide the income necessary to maintain our lifestyle at Mapleton. Vern Alves says my dad kept trying to cut back on the number of servants and other amenities, but my mother was accustomed to having a large staff around and wouldn’t hear of it. She was also used to custom-made clothes, limousines, and the finest restaurants. It was the only life she had known since her days at MGM. Those were the days before the money earned by child stars was put in trust for their adulthood, so my mother had nothing to show for her MGM years but a string of successful movies and an empty bank account. Once she left Metro, she lost the luxuries that had been provided for her at studio expense. Dad was always trying to put together new projects, constantly on the lookout for new investments; he eventually worked with an inventor to develop a new type of stereo sound system. He also owned racehorses, but as expenses at Mapleton mounted, he began selling them off. He was also limited by the need for him to manage my mom’s career. Both
he and my mother thought Dad should manage her during those years, and in the beginning he did a wonderful job. It was time-consuming, though, and my mother was a very high maintenance woman in other respects. As the years passed, Dad took out a second and then a third mortgage on our Mapleton house as he and my mom sank further and further into debt. With debts piling up, taxes went unpaid as well. Eventually, our entire financial situation was hopeless.

I
was about six years old when it all began to disintegrate. Until then Joe and I had been safely tucked away on the children’s side of the house with our nanny, and since the Mapleton house was so large, we were very unlikely to hear a fight between our parents if there was one. Even at that age we knew that although Dad might have been a foot taller than my mom, it was Mama who had the real power in the family. Mama always had, no matter which family it was. When Baby Gumm started belting out “Jingle Bells” at two years old and refused to leave the stage, she was already in charge of her parents and sisters. Luckily my mom was still small enough in those days for my grandfather to pick her up and carry her out. The situation was a little more complicated for my dad. My aunt Jimmy once said that what Baby wanted, Baby usually got. Baby Gumm was sweet, but she was also spoiled. Louis Mayer eventually found out that even he had limited control over what my mother chose to do. She may have had a studio system running her life during her teens, but she also had an entourage of people on call twenty-four hours a day whose job it was to keep her happy. Anybody who thinks my mother was powerless didn’t know my mother. She learned young that if you scream long enough and loud enough, you get what you want.

Her whole generation of child stars was used to special treatment. Liz Taylor still gets that kind of attention every day of her life. When she celebrated her birthday a few years ago, they closed
down Disneyland just for her. Mickey Rooney is still trying to figure out why no one does that for him anymore.

The other legacy for the child stars of my mother’s generation was prescription drugs, health problems, and broken marriages. You don’t take children and plant them in fantasyland, give them uppers and downers from the time they’re sixteen, and expose them to constant adulation—and criticism—without the process taking a toll. The fact that nobody meant to hurt them is beside the point. By the time most studio children reached adulthood, the damage was considerable. There were few exceptions.

My mother was not one of those exceptions. She was funny and sweet and gifted beyond belief, but she was also damaged. When my father told her friends he was going to marry my mom all those years ago, they told him he was crazy. When he protested, “But I love her,” even her closest friends said, “We all love her, but you’re still crazy.” Maybe he was crazy; God knows he was crazy about her, but who could blame him? We all were.

Over the years the craziness got harder to contain. In spite of her efforts to stay free of medication and my father’s efforts to police her, she couldn’t stay off the medication for long. She’d been physically dependent on the medicine from such a young age, and the doctors themselves were still so ignorant about its effects, that continued usage was almost certain. By 1959 she was powerfully addicted to amphetamines like Benzedrine, and barbiturates like Seconal and Tuinal. In emergencies she would be injected with Thorazine or paraldehyde, powerful sedatives intended to counteract the effects of Benzedrine. After more than twenty years of chemical bombardment, her body was beginning to break down. She was only thirty-seven years old, but her internal organs and nervous system had already taken a tremendous beating. A physician friend said it would take at least five years to get the chemicals out of her system even if she could remain drug-free, because amphetamines and barbiturates linger in body tissue. When she did try to go off the medicine, she became violently ill. With the physical
symptoms came mood swings that gradually became more and more difficult to control.

Inevitably, my parents’ marriage began to erode. My mother was the breadwinner, the sole support, and as time went by, their arguments grew more frequent and serious. Their fights always seemed to come out of nowhere, as the chemicals peaked and ebbed in her body, and my father was her primary target. My mom began to insist on “separations” from my dad with increasing frequency. She filed, or threatened to file, for legal separation more times than my dad can remember. Sometimes she’d throw him out of the house for a while, and sometimes she’d pack up us kids and move us into the Beverly Hills Hotel for anywhere from a day to a couple of weeks. Liza may have realized what was going on, but Joey and I didn’t. We were so used to hotels and to our parents coming and going that we never suspected a thing.

BOOK: Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir
13.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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