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 is a legend. It’s hard to be a legend’s child. Ask my brother or sister. Or ask my closest childhood friend, Leslie Bogart. Thirty years ago you could have asked my mom, who would have told you that it’s even harder to be both a legend and a parent. I’m proud of my mother, fiercely proud, but I also know how tough it is when you give a human being the status of a legend. By definition, a legend is half fiction and larger than life. The same is true of my mother. My family has benefited from that reality, but it has also suffered from it.
Some of that suffering has been caused by the thirty-something books and countless articles written about our family. Most are about my mother, many about my sister, but all have one thing in common: none of them have been written by someone close to my family, unless you count the third-rate romance novel written by my mother’s last husband, who knew her for only a few months.
My mom often toyed with the idea of writing an autobiography
herself, but by the end of her life she was too sick and too frightened of the process to follow through. So our family story has been chronicled instead by a long list of people who don’t know us and weren’t present for any of the events, real or imaginary, they wrote about. Each of these writers has had an agenda, and the result was they usually ended up either glorifying or vilifying a group of people they really knew little about. With one or two exceptions, the result has been a fairy tale that tells more about the writer than it does about my family.
I have an agenda, too, but it’s a very different one. I don’t want either to glorify or to vilify my family; I want to tell a much truer, much more interesting story about a group of people who grew up in the public eye and got through it all the best way they could. Mine is a story of family traditions, good and bad, traditions that began with my grandparents and survive in my children. Some of those traditions I carry on with pride; some I have spent a lifetime struggling to overcome. We’re a complicated group, my family: funny, brash, talented, oddly naive, sometimes tragic, but seldom dull. I think you’ll find our story an interesting one. Many of you will also find it familiar, not because of what you’ve heard about my mother, but because of what you’ve experienced in your own lives.
One last thing: this is my story. It’s not my brother’s or my sister’s or my father’s, though I’ve drawn on their experience in writing it. Joe and Liza and Dad each have their own stories to tell. We all do. I wouldn’t presume to tell it for them. I simply want to share with you the journey of my life, hoping that what I’ve learned along the way will have meaning for you, too.
Collection of the author
The Gumm Sisters: Baby Frances (Mama), Mary Jane (Suzy), and Virginia (Jimmy).
Born in a Blender
hen people refer to my family’s life as a tragedy, they completely miss the point. My life has been filled with exhilarating highs, terrifying lows, and more than its share of farce. But if I’ve learned anything along the way, it’s that everyone’s show must go on, and it’s up to us to make it a good one.
Born in a trunk? No, that was my mother. I was three years old before my mother packed me up and took the family on the road.
Me? I was born in a blender.
y aunt Jimmy (my Mama’s sister Virginia) used to tell a great story about my ancestors. She said that after church one day when she was about eleven, she asked my grandfather, “Dad, what are your ‘forefathers’?” (That had been the topic of the sermon that day.) Before my grandfather could answer, my mother, who was only about five at the time, piped up with an answer. Interrupting her father, Mama proudly told her sister, “I know. The ‘four fathers’ are the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost, and the real one.” Everyone laughed, but Mama couldn’t understand why. It made perfect sense to her.
To understand how I’ve gotten to this place in my life, I have to go back into the past, back two generations to a couple of stage-struck kids—my grandparents.
From the day my grandfather ran off to join the circus, my family on Mama’s side has been in show business. A talent for singing and dancing ties together four generations of us, from my grandmother and grandfather Gumm to my seven-year-old daughter, Vanessa. Everyone has always said that my mother would sing if the refrigerator light came on. So will my daughter. And so would my grandparents.
I guess you could say my grandparents were destined to meet. My maternal grandfather, Frank Gumm, seems to have been born loving music. He sang everywhere—at home, at school, as a soloist in the church choir. By the time his parents died, he already knew what he wanted to do. So when a minstrel troupe passed through his hometown near Nashville, Tennessee, Grandpa ran away with them for a while. After that he and his brother earned some money singing on the trains that ran from Murfreesboro to Chattanooga, my grandpa passing a hat among the passengers at the end of the act. There’s a snapshot of Grandpa in blackface at thirteen dressed like Al Jolson, holding a ukulele and wearing a bowler hat, vest, and black string tie. In 1899 you couldn’t get more dapper than that.
A summer or two later Grandpa returned home and went back to the life of a proper young southern gentleman. He enrolled as a scholarship student at Sewanee Military Academy, a private prep school near home. A rich suitor of his sister Mary (a young woman with a sweet soprano who eventually caused a family scandal by killing herself) paid for his tuition, and Grandpa’s warm, mellow tenor voice made up for his mediocre grades. He led the choir as a soloist, enjoyed the leisurely southern way of life, and developed the powerful Irish charm and sense of style that stayed with him for the rest of his life. My family has sometimes survived on charm alone.
Four years later he moved on to the University of the South, where he again made a name for himself with his musical talent and his way with the ladies. He left the university two years before graduation to go back to his career in vaudeville, this time for real. He loved his school, but he loved show business more. I know how he felt. I spent most of my childhood hoping show business would get me out of school.
Several hundred miles later, he arrived in Superior, Wisconsin. It was there, on a cold winter day in 1914, that he met my grandmother Ethel.
Somehow it seems fitting that my grandparents met in a movie theater—the Parlor Theater, as a matter of fact. Grandpa had gotten a job there as an “illustrator.” Grandma was his accompanist. The rage during those years was the sing-along, where the audience would sing with the performers during the breaks between films. The lyrics were projected on the movie screen, and an “illustrator” would be hired to point at the lyrics with a long stick as he led the audience in singing. If the audience liked the song, they would buy the sheet music on the way out. It was tough to keep the audience’s attention, but my grandfather, with his beautiful tenor and handsome good looks, was a natural. He also got a chance to show off his talents with a song or two of his own choice.
Since this was many years before the arrival of recorded background music, a pianist had to be hired to accompany not only the performers but also the silent films that were the main draw. As fate would have it, the accompanist the day my grandfather rolled into town was my grandmother, Ethel Marion Milne. She was twenty years old (though she later claimed, in a burst of vanity, that she was really only seventeen!). Grandma Ethel looked up from the orchestra pit with those piercing black eyes of hers, and my grandpa promptly fell head over heels in love. The song he was singing, according to family legend, was “You Made Me Love You.”
Grandma Ethel came from a musical tradition of her own.
One of seven children of a railroad engineer and his wife, she’d dropped out of school by the fifth grade to help the family make ends meet. Even so, she managed to get the musical education she’d always longed for. She played the piano by ear as a child and eventually took lessons, at a quarter a lesson, with money she earned herself. By the time she was a teenager, she was good enough to get a job in a five-and-dime store singing and playing sheet music for the customers, as her daughter (my mom) would someday do in
In the Good Old Summertime,
with Van Johnson. Grandma Ethel had only an average contralto voice, which most people described as “pleasant” but my mother described as “terrible.” Her brother John also sang, in later years performing as a soloist in my grandfather Gumm’s act, and her little sister Norma was a singer and dancer too. My great-grandmother Eva spent years accompanying Aunt Norma on the road, even to Hollywood, as Norma tried unsuccessfully to dance and sing her way to fame. For a while she performed in Los Angeles as part of what was nicknamed “the beef trust,” a chorus line of pudgy woman dancers.
Yes, along with musical talent, a tendency to put on weight also runs in my family.
Once married, Grandma and Grandpa Gumm put together an act and called themselves Jack and Virginia Lee, Sweet Southern Singers. I’m not sure which was the biggest stretch of the truth, calling Grandma’s voice “sweet” or calling her southern (fifty years later my Gumm relatives still called Grandma Ethel “that northern girl”). Anyhow, “Jack and Virginia” did pretty well. As my mother later remembered it, the act always opened the same way. When the curtain came up, Grandma would be sitting at a piano and Grandpa would be standing next to her. After introducing both of them in that southern drawl of his, he would ask Grandma to show the audience how tiny her hands were. Straightening her small body, she would hold her hands up to the audience so they could see how tiny her fingers were. Then, turning back to the piano, she
would launch into “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” her fingers racing over the keys. The bit always got a huge burst of applause.
A year later Grandma Ethel got sick on tour, and they had to stay over with relatives for a while. The flu turned out to be my aunt Suzy, born in September 1915. Two years later my aunt Jimmy was born. With two babies to take care of, my grandparents decided that their traveling days were over.
So they settled down. After looking around a little, they decided to work in the only thing they knew much about: a theater. To raise cash Grandpa sold his “flasher,” the big diamond ring he wore on his fourth finger when he played his ukulele onstage; and they eventually invested everything they had in the New Grand, a motion picture house in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Grandpa managed the theater and Grandma played the piano for the films, and they both performed between pictures as “Jack and Virginia Lee” when Grandma wasn’t too busy taking care of babies. All in all, they did well. The theater prospered along with the family, and soon they were directing the church choir (Grandma played the organ), running the local amateur show, and hosting a big percentage of the parties in town.
Loving a good party runs in my family too.
It wasn’t long before “Jack and Virginia” became a family act—the Four Gumms. As soon as my aunts were old enough, my grandmother began putting together an act for them. Suzy and Jimmy had been singing along with their parents at home for as long as they could remember, and when guests came to the house, as they frequently did, the girls would sing for them, too. So it was only natural that they soon joined their parents onstage. They’d grown up sitting in the New Grand every night while their parents performed, so the stage there was already a familiar part of their second home. By the time my aunt Suzy (Mary Jane) was five, she and Aunt Jimmy (Virginia) were practicing along with the Duncan Sisters on their wind-up Victrola. Grandma Ethel coached their singing, taught them simple dance steps, and sewed them fancy
costumes. What they lacked in harmony they made up for in volume and enthusiasm, and soon they were a popular part of the Friday night entertainments at the New Grand.
The Gumm family act seemed complete. My grandparents were happy with their little family and didn’t plan to have any more children. Lucky for me, though, things didn’t go as planned. Four years after my aunt Jimmy was born, Grandma Ethel discovered there’d been an accident. That little accident was Mama.