Prolog – The Swim Gym
At my famous high school we had an indoor swimming pool covered by a retractable wooden gym floor — The Swim Gym it was called. Built in the 1930’s, nifty then and nifty now, 88 years later. Many hilarious stunts were staged in the Swim Gym by pranksters with access to the retractable floor’s controlling levers. Prom dancers and basketball players alike could be unsuspectedly cast into the waters of the pool, or clueless swimmers trapped in darkness by the gym’s floor suddenly closing over their heads.
But that’s all bullshit. Every one of those stories — and there are many — are all just schoolkid myths. That floor opened and closed so slowly a Three-Toed Sloth on Seconal couldn’t have been taken by surprise. Trust me, I’m sticking only to the facts here.
Note: There is a dance scene in the American movie classic, “A Wonderful Life”, 1946, that has James Stewart and Donna Reed falling into our Swim Gym’s pool. Check it out on YouTube.
Our famous high school’s junior-varsity cheerleaders used to practice in the Swim Gym, and Maddy was one of them. If I worked my schedule right or skipped some classes, I could sit on the bleachers pretending to read a book and watch Maddy go through her routines.
Two, Four, Six, Eight, Who Do We Appreciate?
Cheerleading is a derivative of dance, and dance is a (duh) sexually charged activity. The dickheads who invented cheerleading saw it not only as a suitable venue for the weaker sex to spur on alpha-males in their display of physical superiority, but also an opportunity to rein in dance’s inherent sensuality, replacing it with stiff-limbed calisthenics, contrived enthusiasm, and frozen grins.
Through the years, creative cheerleaders have done their damndest to reintroduce the sexual bits and make their performances more about their seductive selves and less about the dumb jocks battling for their admiration via (in the greater scheme of things) meaningless sporting activities.
. . . but Maddy wasn’t one of the creative types. Her goal was to make the varsity drill team, and, in order to reach that exalted position, she needed to perfect her contrived enthusiasm and frozen smiles. This wasn’t an issue for me. It didn’t matter what she did or how she did it. In my dreams, Maddy was the queen.
She was going on sixteen, a little on the skinny side, auburn hair and a sunburst of freckles, eyes the color of the Pacific at the tip of Corona del Mar. She had the prettiest face in high school, breasts just beginning to make a statement, and a perky apricot derriere. If you were lucky enough to get close to her, you could smell the moist soapy nakedness of her morning shower. Yeah, if you were so lucky.
She had beautiful long fingers and everyone said she was going to be a great pianist like her father who played with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She got idiotically high grades with no more effort than slipping on a pair of bifocals, yet even with this put-off, the line of guys who craved her affection would easily stretch the length of a football field and, for reasons you will soon become aware of, I could never be anything else than last in that line.
A newcomer to our school might see me sitting there in the Swim Gym’s bleachers tom-peeping at Maddy and assume I was the sleazy school janitor or the pool man loafing on the job. But that would have be a newcomer. Anyone else at Beverly Hills High knew damn well who I was — that inconceivable outlier student. The one and only Negro (that’s what we were called in those days) catapulted by one man’s desire for revenge into the sheltered nest of 1200 powder-white, peachy-cheeked, over-privileged Beverlyites.
How Could That Be And Why Me?
Here’s a little background info to help you understand what’s going on here:
In 1960, my dear sweet mother was working as a floor mopperer, table wiperer, menial whateverer in the Beverly Hills High School cafeteria. This was before her discovery by legendary Hollywood producer-director Otto Preminger.
When I say discovered, I don’t mean a I’m-gonna-make-this-gal-a-star kind of discovery. Preminger had simply noticed there was a Negress (see above disclaimer) working at an educational institution against which he held a festering, divisive grudge.
Why this grudge? Well, Preminger was the undisclosed father of a boy born to the scandoulous actress-cum-striper Gypsy Rose Lee. When Gypsy Rose attempted to send her and Otto’s love-child to Beverly Hills High School, the kid was refused admission on account of his mother’s sketchy lifestyle. This infuriated Preminger, a large donor to the school, but he dared not intervene and risk blowing his anonymity.
Preminger Evens the Score with Beverly Hills High
Otto found out that BHHS employees with five or more years of service had the right to enroll their children in the school, a privilege otherwise reserved for residents of Beverly Hills, which, by covenant law, was a wealthy-whites-only community. After some investigation, Preminger learned that my mom had not only seven-plus years of service, but also a son of high school age (that would be me). Bingo. He saw the makings of the perfect revenge: If the school wouldn’t accept his boy, he’d stick it to them with a Negro. Ha, ha. Does y’all get the joke?
This motive was never disclosed to my mother or me. Mom was easily convinced that a transfer from Jefferson High was in my best interest. Beverly High cried NOT OVER OUR DEAD BODIES and Mom and I became unwitting pawns in a civil rights battle waged by the NAACP against the Beverly Hills School District — a campaign discretely engineered and financed by Preminger.
The outcome? Beverly Hills High was forced by the California Supreme Court to enroll me. “Our team” had won, though the school subsequently fired Mom for acting insubordinately in an unrelated (my ass!) incident.
Preminger compensated Mom by getting her the maids job with Dorothy Dandridge, an appropriately black actress who was his sometime mistress. We moved into the basement of her home on Viewsite Drive in August, two weeks before my first semester at Beverly.
I wasn’t happy about leaving Jefferson, nor was I interested in hanging out with white kids. I considered taking off to Chicago to live with my dad. I felt lost and depressed. Preminger took it upon himself to cheer me up, and on my sixteenth birthday, three days after we had moved into the Dandridge residence, he showed up in a Corvette convertible and handed me the keys.
“It’s all yours, boy,” said Preminger, beaming.
Only there was a problem:
“You don’t have a driver’s license? What the f**k, Kevin?”
“No sir, Mr. Preminger. We’ve never owned a car and I’ve never been sixteen before.”
Apparently Otto had the DMV inspector in his pocket, because I passed my test after only half a day’s driver’s education under Otto’s supervision up in Malibu Canyon, most of it spent learning how to do burnouts and roadrunner skids.
Was the car an example of Preminger’s generosity? Was I to be the surrogate for the child he had, according to rumor, forced Dorothy to abort? Or was it just a cynical embellishment to my up-and-coming debut at Beverly Hills High? You be the judge. But do know that a few days later ‘Uncle Otto’ sent me a trunk containing Harry Belafonte’s Caribbean-inspired wardrobe from the film, Carmen Jones, so that I would have something nice to wear my first day in school.
Note: Preminger produced and directed “Carmen Jones” in 1955. Dandridge was Oscar nominated for her role as Carmen. She lost out to Grace Kelly and, who knows, racial discrimination. A space on Dorothy’s fireplace mantle was kept bare to mark where her statuette should have stood. Grace Kelly went on to become Princess of Monaco and lived the royal life until driving off a Côte d’Azur cliff in 1982.
In 1962, the US Supreme Court ordered the University of Mississippi to admit James Meredith as its first Negro student. He arrived, as witnessed by reporters and photographers from the nation’s news media, dressed in a modest black suit under the escort of US Marshals and National Guardsmen. Yes, a monumental event in the annals of the civil rights, but it somewhat pales dramaturgically when you learn that two years earlier, yours truly enacted the Preminger-staged desegregation of Beverly Hills High School, zippity-doo-dahing into the student parking lot at the wheel of a gold-metal-flake Corvette convertible, dressed in one of Belfonte’s famous zebra-striped calypso outfits.
The First Negro Student At Beverly Hills High
Okay? Now that you know all that background stuff, let’s get back to Maddy, the heroine of this story; the candy apple of my eye practicing her drills in the Swim Gym with me slyly peeking over the top of my copy of Algebra Can Be Fun.
. . . except perhaps I should first tell you how Otto’s schadenfreude-driven civil rights stunt played out at Beverly. How was I treated? What about the slurs and heckling, the stones thrown, the scrawls of hatred on my locker? What about my loneliness in the school cafeteria where no one would dare sit next to me?
Only just like the Swim Gym pranks mentioned above, it never happened.
While on the other side of America, my brothers and sisters were getting whipped, lynched, beaten up, and shot for sticking up for their rights, at Beverly Hills High I was getting patronized to death. Everyone, and I mean everyone, just had to pat me on the back and show off their liberal attitudes. “How you doing Kevin?”, “When are you going to join the basketball team, Kev?”, “Where do you get those great outfits from, Kev?”.
That’s right: some of their best friends were Kevin.
A Teenage Murderess
There was only one other student at school everyone felt they had to go out of their way to be nice to, and she was another outlier, Cheryl Crane, the daughter of Lana ‘Sweater Girl’ Turner, one of Hollywood’s most famous stars. Cheryl, at the tender age of 14, had stabbed her mother’s hoodlum boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, and watched him bleed to death. You didn’t want to get on Cheryl’s bad side. No siree! And who knows what kind of harm Kevin could cause you if you didn’t show him respect (“Watch out – they always carry switchblades.”). It was only fitting that Cheryl and I hung out together.
And as luck would have it, my partner in being “dangerous” was in the same drama class as Maddy, and standing outside that class waiting for Cheryl, I made first contact with my secret love.
“Kevin, so nice to finally meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too, Maddy,” I answered, trying to hide just how nice,
“So, how does Beverly compare to your old school? You went to Jefferson, right?”
“Yeah.” It was encouraging to know that she knew that much about me.
“Kevin, everybody wonders when you are going to join the basketball team. We need you. We’re last in the league, you know.”
I told her I wasn’t that good at basketball.
“Very funny, Kevin. We appreciate your modesty, but no one is going to buy that. You have to be true to your school. You’re not a Democrat anymore — you’re a Norman now.”
Note: That seemingly undecipherable and unintentionally ironic admonition is referencing the team names of Jefferson and Beverly Hills High.
I did, by the way, end up joining the basketball team. The thought of Maddy cheering for me at games was my motivation. But I wasn’t lying to her about my inability — I was terrible at all sports — only the other players assumed I was great and it rubbed off on me. No one would ever attack when I had the ball. And since I couldn’t shoot baskets, well, I just passed all the time. My teammates said I was unselfish and that I had tremendous team spirit. I won “player of the month” twice and I only scored, like, twelve friggin’ points the whole season.
Note: We still finished last in the league.
Patronization has its limits. Even as a star on the basketball team I wasn’t invited into other kids’ homes or their parties. Nor their movie nights, beach trips, or dances. They could say “We support your guys struggle in the South, Kev,” but they wouldn’t say “Come on over to the pool party at Tina’s place.” The only white guy to show me that kind of friendship didn’t go to Beverly Hills High. His name was Chris Cromwell and his reasons for befriending me were dubious, as you will soon see.
Mom’s new employer, Dorothy Dandridge, was not only Otto Preminger’s on-and-off lover, she was also the wife of Jack Denison, a scumbag, Greek restaurant owner she’d made the error of marrying in ’59. He didn’t live with us on Viewsite, but came over now and then. We knew he was abusing Dorothy, because after his visits Mom would tend to her black eyes and bruises. We also knew he was milking her for money to support his failing nightclub.
Yeah, Dorothy and Jack were not the perfect couple the Hollywood mags made them out to be. One day when they were arguing over finances in the parking lot of Norm’s Diner, Denison lost his cool and started roughing Dorothy up. When she fought back, he slugged her plum in the kisser.
A tall kid, casually leaning against his car, smoking, had been watching the fight. He flipped his cigarette butt artfully into the air and walked over to the combatants.
“Is this gentleman bothering you, Ma’am?”
Though a classic cinematographic line, it was an obviously stupid question since Dorothy, with her torn blouse and bleeding nose, was unsuccessfully trying to fend off her husband with a high-heel shoe. Denison, who preferred to only fight with women, backed off, and fled in his car, shouting:
“She’s all yours, kid. You’re welcome to her. That bitch will fuck anything that walks.”
The handsome teenage hero consoled Dorothy with words of kindness, wiped her bleeding nose with his shirttail, and ended up driving her home. His name was Chris Cromwell and though he was just a year or two older than me, and 20 years younger than Dorothy, they soon had an affair going. I mean, like, Chris was just a real fast worker.
Now I must confess that this “How Chris Met Dorothy” episode is somewhat fictional. I wasn’t there in the parking lot at Norm’s. It’s put together from second-hand information, plus, you know, I saw how messed up Dorothy looked when Chris drove her back to the house. Not least, I got to know that guy well enough to fill in the missing pieces.
Anyway, shortly after this incident, Dandridge hired Chris as a sleep-in bodyguard, primarily to protect her from her own husband, and he moved in with us on Viewsite..
“Hey Kevin, I dig your ‘Vette. Bitchin’. Fifty-four? Two-hundred-thirty-five cubes — right?”
“Maybe more, Chris. The engine’s new and it’s got a four-barrel — whatever that is.”
“No shit. Groovy. Must be fast as hell, Kev?”
“Could be. I don’t know anything about cars. Uncle Otto loaned it to me. I only take it to school and back.”
“We will have to race sometime, Kev.”
“Sure, whatever, Chris.”
Chris Cromwell Continued . . .
This new member of our household had a bad-ass Dodge Dart and did a lot of street racing, but the sport at which he really excelled was seducing females. He was hands-down the teenage pick-up king of West LA. Conquest came to him so easily it bored him and to liven up his escapades he would handicap himself. You know, doing things like dressing up in absurd clothes, pretending to limp, or faking speech impediments. All this just to make scoring chicks more challenging. Weird? Yes, but I’m telling it like it was.
Note: Check this out: In a Bob’s Big Boy restaurant on La Cienega, I heard Chris tell some lucious young thing who was falling for his sleazy charms that he was currently emitting a lot of nasty gasses on account of having diarrhea. This, for once, turned out to be a dealbreaker, but normally he bagged whatever game he went after.
I got to see Chris in action thanks to Dandridge: “The boy needs to get out and have some fun,” she told him. “Those Beverly High kids won’t show him the time of day. Take him with you, Chris. Take him bowling or to the movies or whatever it is you do out there every night.”
Actually Dorothy didn’t have to order him to bring me along. Chris saw in me the ultimate handicap. Trying to score chicks in West LA in 1960 with a Negro as your sidekick was like running the marathon in swim fins. And that’s what motivated him.
Of course, there was nothing in it for me. If we did, against all odds, corner a couple of girls in a pancake house or coffee shop before they could flee at the sight of a black and a white guy hanging out together, and Chris did get a chance to spin his magic, well then the prettiest of the two would end up with him in the front seat and her scared-shitless friend, the pudgy one with braces, would get stuck with me in the back, asking what folks in Africa ate for dessert, and pushing up so hard against her door I was worried she might force it open and fall out.
Going Downhill in the Hollywood Hills
Meanwhile, Dorothy Dandridge was deteriorating on all fronts: mentally, physically, financially. She treated her depressions with booze and pills, her physical ills with quack treatments and miracle cures, and her money problems with denial. Just to put this in perspective — we are talking about the decline and fall of one of the most talented and beautiful women Hollywood has ever seen!
Dorothy needed work, but Preminger wouldn’t let her take the bit-part offers coming her way. He told her that anything less than leading-lady roles in major films would damage her star status. Maybe true, but leading roles for black women were essentially non-existent. She sang in clubs, but that didn’t generate the kind of money needed to support her husband’s failing restaurant or her luxurious lifestyle.
Luxurious? Ha ha. What a joke. At this time very little of our life on Viewsite Drive could be called luxurious. Some days we would literally be eating out of cans. There was a stack of unpaid bills by the front door that reached up to my knee and Mom often came home empty-handed from the market because Dorothy’s credit had run out.
And as if things weren’t bad enough, on Christmas Eve a taxi showed up at the house with a teenage girl who was a total basket case. (Listen, no disrespect meant — I just don’t know the correct medical term for someone so totally debilitated). This new arrival was Harolyn, Dorothy’s daughter from her previous marriage with Harold Nicholson — “the world’s greatest dancer” according to his own press release. Harolyn had spent her entire life being cared for by a private nurse. And now the money had run out. Harolyn needed constant attention and it fell upon Mom to take on her care — spoon-feeding and changing diapers and all that kind of thing.
“Have You Never Had A Girlfriend, Kev?”
“Yeah, of course I have.”
“Well, as far as I can see, Kev. You ain’t got one now.”
“Yeah, well maybe you just can’t see that far, Chris.”
“OK, what’s her name then? Does she go to Beverly?”
“That’s for me to know and you to find out.”
“If you got a girl then what’s your song, Kev?”
“We ain’t got no song.”
“Listen punk, if you got a girl you gotta have a song. Girls need to have a song.”
Screw him, Like if we had a song, I’d tell him? Of course I had a girl, even if she didn’t know it. It’s who you love, not who loves you, right? And Maddy and I did have a song, even if she didn’t know that either. The song went like this . . .
I bless the day I found you I want to stay around you And so I beg you, let it be me Don't take this heaven from one If you must cling to someone Now and forever, let it be me
“What in the hell you doin’, Kevin?”
“It’s pretty obvious, Mom. I’m listening to music.”
“That ain’t our kind of music, Kevin. That’s white folk’s music.”
“It’s anybody’s music, Mom.”
“No it isn’t, Kevin. Hanging out with all those Beverly Hills kids is messin’ up your head. Don’t you forget where we come from, boy.”
When The Worst Possible Thing That Could Happen Happened
One evening, Chris and I were out cruising Sunset Boulevard and we caught sight of two chicks in a Cadillac turning into Tiny Naylor’s Drive In. Chris did a hard right and pulled in beside them. It was Cheryl Crane and Maddy!
Shit. I panicked. I told Chris I knew those two and they were bad news — not his type at all, but there was no way to deter him once he had picked up their scent. I had to make the introductions and right off Chris got to focusing in on Maddy. Shit times ten. After talking about the usual nothing for a while, he suggested we drive up to Mulholland to see the city lights. The girls were game for it. Shit times a hundred.
We all got in Cheryl’s Cadillac with Chris driving. We had a quart of Dorothy Dandridge’s Scotch with us. We bought Dr Peppers for mixers. Chris outmaneuvered my attempt to get Maddy into the backseat and I ended up there with Cheryl.
The Swim Gym floor was being ripped out from under my feet and crushed over my head simultaneously. And I was powerless to do anything about it.
We drove up Laurel to Fryman Canyon listening to B. Mitchel Reed on KFWB and drinking our booze. Cheryl was cool in my company. We were friends and I knew she dug chicks so no problem there. But seeing my dream princess up in front laughing at Chris’s inane jokes was setting off cherry bombs in my heart.
When we got to one of Chris’s usual spots overlooking the city, he put his arm over Maddy’s shoulder and looking back at us in the rearview mirror said:
“Hey, why don’t you guys take a little walk.”
Dead Man Walking
Those of you who have ever jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge will appreciate the hopelessness of my situation. You had plenty of time before hitting the water to analyse what was happening and weigh the alternatives: like flailing your arms and kicking your legs, whatever, but you, nevertheless, were still going to crash and die.
Cheryl and I refilled our Dr Pepper bottles with Scotch, got out of the car, and followed a trail that led toward Ramirez Canyon. It was late, close to midnight, but we could easily see our way thanks to the smoggy permaglow of LA.
We walked to a hilltop and sat on a rock looking down at the city, smoking and drinking and throwing pinecones at the world. Cheryl did most of the talking. I did most of the drinking. She told me that she hated men — all men — only I was an exception, cuz we respected each other and cuz I was a negro. WTF, Cheryl?
And she couldn’t stop talking. She had a lot of crap she needed to get off her chest, like being molested multiple times as a child, and hassling with all of her mother’s husbands and boyfriends, like Howard Hughes, Sinatra, Ronald Reagan, Sean Connery, and a whole bunch of other assholes I’d never heard of. All I could think about was what Chris and Maddy were doing. Sorry, Cheryl.
And then she started talking about the Lana Turner-Johnny Stompanato thing. And you know at that time everyone in the world wanted to learn what actually went down that night. Cheryl was telling me stuff that if I had sold it to the press, I’d be set financially for life. But the inside dope on Hollywood’s crime of the century was only goin’ in one ear and out the other. I couldn’t’ve cared less — my mind was back there in the Cadillac, and I don’t know if it was Maddy and Chris, or the Dr Pepper and Scotch, but I badly needed to vomit.
When we got back to the car, Chris and Maddy were smoking cigarettes, all secretive and lovey-dovey, and then I did puke — halfway inside the car and on Cheryl’s shoes as well. Maddy giggled and Chris got on me for not being able to hold my liquor.
Of course, we were all pretty soused, including Chris, who ran over somebody’s cat on the way back to town and didn’t stop the car, and Maddy said, “That didn’t happen. Please, God, tell me that didn’t happen.”
I woke up the next morning thinking the same thing. “Please, God, tell me last night didn’t happen.” But it had and it wasn’t the end of it. A week later, Chris, coming out of Dorothy’s bedroom wrapped in a towel and smoking a joint, informed me that he and Maddy were going steady.
Gotta Get Out Of This Place
I would have quit school had I not felt some unexplainable obligation to Maddy. She was hanging out with me a little now on account of her going with my “best friend.” She would pester me about what was going on between Chris and Dorothy, like, how come Dandridge needed a bodyguard, and why was Chris living at our place.
Meanwhile Mom, working double-time nursing a pit-depressed, substance-abusing diva as well as her zombified daughter, told me I should get myself a girlfriend, and not one of those Beverly Hills brats. When push came to shove, Mom said, they would toss me in the La Brea Tar Pits like a dead crow. Mom said I should hang out more in South Central and find myself a girlfriend amongst our own kind.
Note: Mom’s actual wording was ‘ those Jewish brats.’ I have redacted that in good conscience since I know for a fact that my mother was not an anti-Semite. She was simply demarking that the majority of students at Beverly Hills High were Jewish.
Partying Down South of the Border?
The third week of February in my second semester at Beverly, Chris asked me if I would like to go down to Tijuana with him and Maddy — in my car, since his was in the shop. Now this was strange.
Number one —taking your girlfriend to TJ wasn’t the sort of thing you did. TJ was for single guys.
Number Two — Corvettes only have two bucket seats.
Number Three — like, why me?
We went on a Wednesday. Maddy and I skipped school. It was a rainy day and my windshield wipers were permanently broken, like a lot of other stuff on the car, because I didn’t know how to fix anything.
Maddy sat on Chris’s lap and had to stand up and reach through the convertible top to wipe the windshield with a rag so I could see to drive, while Chris kept her from falling over with one hand and the top from blowing off with the other. Her face was so wet from windshield wiping that I didn’t notice her tears.
When we got to the border crossing south of San Diego, Chris told us he had forgotten his ID and, of course, without it he wouldn’t be able to get back into the US. Maddy started crying. That’s when they told me she was pregnant and that they had an appointment with a doctor, which was the whole point of our “we’ll-have-such-a-blast-in-TJ” trip.
So all along he was planning that I alone would accompany Maddy to the abortion clinic. He knew how I felt about her and that I wouldn’t say no.
The fix was going to cost five hundred bucks and Maddy had four hundred and Chris had a hundred, which they handed over to me to carry. I mean, like, c’mon, what an asshole — he could at least have split halfway with her.
We parked my car and Chris at a Denny’s on the US side of the border. Chris gave Maddy a hug of encouragement, and my dream girl and I walked amongst the usual hoard of tourists over the pedestrian bridge border crossing.
Larga vida a México
Maddy was down — way down. I did my best to comfort her. I told her what a simple procedure it was — simpler than having your tonsils out. Everybody went down to Mexico to do it. “It’s perfectly safe, Maddy.” Talking shit I knew absolutely nothing about, of course. The other thing I didn’t know shit about (but you can be sure Chris did) was that I was committing multiple crimes that could get me locked up, like, forever.
Okay, now here comes, for me, the embarrassing and humiliating part of this story. As soon as we’d left Chris behind and walked together into Mexico, I started pretending to myself that I was the father of Maddy’s baby. That I was her guy. Does that not sound whacko? And when the street hustlers asked us if we were looking to get married, and we waved them off, I felt a sense of pride — like it was after all a possibility, Maddy and me. Do you get what I’m saying?
And if Maddy had said, “Kevin I don’t want to go through with this. I want to have my baby. I know now what Chris is all about. I want you to be the father and help me raise my child.” I might just possibly have said yes.
Another Sort of Tourism
TJ in the Sixties was a dismal, crumbling town overflowing with piss-poor peons hoping to squeeze their way North through USA’s butthole — the unlucky and unfortunate of a subcontinent swimming upstream against the sewage flowing in the other direction. In TJ, locals struggled to keep their heads above the surface while their crossborder neighbors came South to skinny-dip in the waters of desolation. Tijuana was a plumbing jam of cheap goods, cheap labor, and cheap souls.
Maddy held my hand and looked straight ahead as we walked down the Avenida Revolución. We passed donkeys painted as zebras and street vendors selling panchos, blankets and sombreros (the souvenirization of Mexican culture). The bars were full of American teenagers, sailors from Long Beach, and marines from Camp Pendleton — all looking to go untethered and wild. In the absence of traffic cops, the streets were strewn with large boulders and other debris to discourage speeding cars from turning pedestrians into paraplegics.
It was late afternoon. The nightclubs, opening their doors for business, were belching out tequila and sativa fumes from the previous evening’s festivities. The Sirens of TJ, stocky brown women in stiletto heels and tight black skirts just barely covering their beavers, stood in doorways and called out to us in Spanish. Some of them were only teenagers with grandmothers taking care of their little brown babies. Working Moms.
So we are walking through all that and Maddy is trembling and I suppose she’s thinking this is what hell is. Hell is where I’ve come to kill my baby. When we get to this office building — nothing out of the ordinary, maybe just a little nicer than the other buildings surrounding it — well anyway, when we get inside, it was like stepping into the plush, air-conditioned reception room of some upscale doctor’s office in Brentwood. It was so improbable in the middle of that crumbling town.
A sharp-looking nurse all starched up in white showed us in. We told her who we were and she ushered us into the office of Doctor Gerardo Martinez, who spoke great English and had a nice reassuring smile, as well as a diploma from UCLA medical school on his wall.
The first thing he asked for was the payment — the eight hundred dollars. I said we had agreed on five hundred, because that is the sum Chris had told me, and that is all we had on us. Without hesitation, he said, “Oh, sorry, I forgot that I had offered you the discount.”
After the money was handed over, with every bill carefully examined, Maddy followed the starchified nurse into the quirófano and I was asked to sit out in a comfy waiting room with fresh coffee and an icebox full of coke and beer. A black & white television was tuned to an American TV station and I turned up the volume on a show called Queen For A Day.
Note and WARNING: if you have a tendency towards depression brought on by the sorry state of the human condition do not read the next chapter. Skip instead to “Good as New”.
Queen For A Day
This is the short of it: Monday through Friday, a few hundred (whites only) women would line up outside the Moulin Rouge Restaurant on Sunset hoping to get onto one of Hollywood’s hottest shows. All these women, besides a heartfelt desire to appear on national television and for once in their lives be seen, had a shortcoming or tragedy that could be mollified, if not resolved, by winning some badly needed cash and a truckload of merchandise and goodies put up by Queen for a Day‘s sponsors.
These hopefuls would write on small cards why they deserved to be that day’s Queen. The first two hundred in line would gain admittance as a studio audience and they would sit down and be entertained by a comedian while the show’s writers sifted through their stories and picked out four final contestants from among them. As the show went on air, this handpicked quartet would mount the stage and share their tribulations with the nation, or at least that segment of the nation disposed by choice or necessity to spend the daytimes of their lives watching a demeaning, humiliating portrayal of working-class America.
The most convincingly miserable and unfortunate of the quartet was decided by a clap-o-meter. The audience would applaud, hoot and cheer for their favorite and the clap-o-meter would scientifically and impartially determine the winner, who, with fanfare and pomp, was then pronounced and crowned Queen For A Day.
Draped in an ermine robe and seated on her royal throne, the queen would then be showered with amazing merchandize and other sponsored rewards, while the runners-up were hurried off the stage with their consolation prize — a months supply of Swanson’s TV dinners.
Note: To all the Queens I apologize if I am minimizing your victories and not doing you justice. Let me say on your behalf that this show wasn’t about charity. You had to be good on stage to win. You had to work for your title. Misfortune without the talent to portray it convincingly went unrewarded. So good on you, girls.
Anyway, this is what I’m watching while Maddy is getting done in the next room and just as I assume Maddy will never forget the events of that day, I will never forget, even fifty years on, the stories of those four contestants on Queen for a Day.
Contestant number one had a husband with Parkinson’s and couldn’t afford his treatments, and since he was constantly spilling food and drink on his clothes, she also desired a washing machine-dryer combo.
Contestant number two had nine children and hoped for an extension to her trailer. Her older kids were currently sleeping outside in a leaking army surplus tent.
Contestant number three had never in her twenty year career as a toll-booth operator taken a vacation. Her dream was just one fabulous weekend in Acapulco with her wheelchair-bound mother.
Contestant number four, who the show’s producers had artfully positioned to go on last, had seen her entire family perish in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Only she had survived. She couldn’t sleep at night on account of nightmares and consequently couldn’t hold down a job due to dozing off at work. All she was asking for — willing to forego, what for her, were just unessential trinkets of materialism, e.g. the deluxe refrigerator-freezer with a built in ice dispenser, or the authentic mink fur coat from Neiman Marcus — was money to pay for the removal of the serial number tattooed on her arm by her Nazi tormentors. Yupp that was it.
And, naturally, she brought down the house. The audience went wild — The clap-o-meter went through the roof.
Note: When they crowned this gracious lady there were some camera shots of the other contestants, and for me at least there was no hiding the resentment in their faces. You could see how bitterly pissed off they were. The studio had pitted them against an Auschwitz survivor. Stacked the deck. Rigged the system. It just wasn’t fair.
Good As New
The Auschwitz-survivor Queen had just been presented with an E-Z-Go Electric Golf Cart when Nurse Starchy escorted Maddy into the waiting room.
“What in the hell are you watching, Kevin?”
“I don’t know. Just some crappy show. How do you feel, Maddy?”
“You’re watching Queen for a Day, Kevin.”
“Is that what it’s called? I wasn’t paying attention.”
“Maybe I should be on that show, Kev.”
“But the operation went fine, didn’t it?
“Go to hell, Kev. Your buddy Chris . . . he’s a liar and a cheat and you know that.”
“Maddy . . . none of us are perfect.”
“Screw you, Kev. You’ve been covering for him and then he rat-fucked you with this trip. No ID? Sure! He rat-fucked both of us, Kev. You’re as stupid as I am and I’m, like, the world’s biggest idiot for letting him do this to me.”
We left the office and walked back to the border crossing the same way we had come. When I tried to put my arm around her to give her support, she brushed me away.
“Chris, looks like your sister and her friend made it back”
Chris was waiting for us in a booth at Denny’s. He’d, of course, been flirting with the waitress. They seemed to have become quite chummy.
“Can I get you kids some coffee? How was the museum? Chris was worried you’d never get back.”
God knows what else Chris had told her, but there was no mistaking how relieved he was by our return. We drove back to LA in silence. Luckily the rain had let up. We had to stop several times at gas stations for Maddy to visit the restroom. I bought us all milkshakes at a Frosty Freeze drive-in. Maddy threw hers away.
Epilog — Where Are They All Now?
Cheryl started getting into more and more trouble at school, smoking pot and picking fights and stuff like that, so they sent her to an institute for the reform of misbehaving girls in Sylmar. Cheryl lives in Palm Springs now with her partner of twenty years and has written a book1. I haven’t read it so I don’t know how she describes my role in her life. Maybe she skipped me altogether. Just as well.
By the time Cheryl’s mom, Lana Turner, died of lung cancer in ’95, she had gone through eight husbands, finishing right up there in competition with Rita Hayworth (5), Hedy Lamarr (6), Elizabeth Taylor (8), and the overall winner Zsa Zsa Gabor (9). In her will, there was fifty grand for her daughter (that’s the thanks Cheryl got for helping her out with Johnny Stompanato), but close to two million for Carmen Lopez Cruz, Lana’s faithful maid.
Dorothy Dandridge and Mom.
Dandridge also had a faithful maid — my Mom. Mom stuck it out at the house on Viewsite Drive until Dandridge overdosed for one last time on a wonder drug called Tofranil. She was 42 years old. This was in ’65. I had left for Chicago. Chris was long gone. Dorothy had told Mom that if she promised to take care of Harolyn she would inherit everything Dorothy had. Only when Dorothy Dandridge died she had more debts than resources so my mom got nothing, and Harolyn ended up in a state institution. Mom died in ´99. Lung Cancer.
Otto Preminger’s career in films declined rapidly after a series of box-office flops. He moved to New York where he died in ’85. He had Alzheimer’s, but the cause of death was recorded as lung cancer. I have left out telling you just how much everybody smoked back in those days (including me). You wouldn’t believe it.
Gypsy Rose Lee
Remember, it was the famous stripper, Gypsy Rose Lee, who gave birth to Otto’s illegitimate son, who couldn’t get into Beverly Hills High, which pissed off Preminger, who discovered my mom, who had a son, who the NAACP jammed into that exclusive school, where a beautiful girl named Maddy wanted to be a varsity cheerleader and ended up getting pregnant with “my best friend” the teenage pickup maestro of West LA.
You got the ball rolling, Gypsy Rose. Without you these events would never have gotten off the ground. So here’s to you, Dear Lady. You died of lung cancer in 1970.
Ten or so years ago, I read in the National Enquirer that some woman’s husband had emptied all six rounds of his Smith & Wesson revolver into Chris Cromwell’s head at point-blank range in the Brass Monkey bar on Wilshire . . . I wish. No, actually Chris ended up in Phoenix, Arizona, working as a personal shopper. When I reached out to him for some feedback on this narrative, he told me he was deeply sorry for all the bad things he had done to me and then hung up. Never heard from him since.
What about Maddy? Shortly after the trip she give up on Chris (he had obviously already given up on her). She didn’t become a pianist. She went into medicine and turned out to be a skilled surgeon, putting her beautiful, long fingers to good use after all. She married a doctor she’d met in medical school, and what a surprise it was when I stumbled upon their wedding photo in the Times. Her groom looked a bit like me — particularly his skin tone. Whaddya know, he was an African-American (the correct term in the 1980’s). As you can imagine, I have put some thought into that.
I quit Beverly Hills High after the Tijuana incident. The basketball team gave me a farewell party (in the Swim Gym where this all began), and I got so plastered they drove me home unconcious. For several months I hung around the house doing nothing, sometimes turning on the TV to watch Queen for a Day with Harolyn. I guess we both needed to see people as miserable as we were.
Today I live in Stockholm, Sweden with my lovely, gifted wife who has blessed me with two wonderful children. The correct term now is “children of color”. And those colorful children — surprisingly, given that I am their father — have grown into reasonably self-sustaining adults.
I quit smoking many years ago and am not all that worried about lung cancer, though none of us are immune from just about anything. The other day I caught myself putting my socks on the outside of my shoes and storing a milk carton in the microwave, so I assume it’s only a matter of time before I won’t know my lovely wife and colorful kids from a family of microfiber mops.
Que sera, sera, but I’m thankful I was able to share with you this little chronicle of what happened in a small town in Southern California over fifty years ago before my game is completely up.
Note: There was never a “King for a Day”. Of course not. Nobody wants to see guys whimpering and whining on TV. If guys got up on stage and told us how rotten their lives were, then other guys would just boo ’em. “Get off the stage, you pussified fuck. Get a life.” Men are expected to be the agents of their own destiny — women the dupes.
1. Crane, Cheryl, Detour: A Hollywood Story, Arbor House Pub Co; First Edition edition (January 1, 1988)