My dad, James Whitmore, Part Six

“I’m going to marry her!” I was screaming at my dad with all my cowardly might. “It’s what I’m supposed to do.”

“Son, take it easy for a second,” he said or something like that. I was 16 or 17. “Time will take care of this. I have to look into this. We don’t even know if it’s yours.”

“I will marry her.” My defiance was all bluster. I was not a courageous kid. I was jumpy, nervous and scared most of the time. I had a big mouth, that’s for sure, but when push came to shove, I was out of there.

Obviously, this teen-aged girl with a propensity to sleep with men had declared the child was mine. I was reacting as an immature, selfish, impulsive kid. My dad was reacting with a cool head. He hired a law firm to investigate the matter.

Moreover, my dad told me a story that may cause some ruffles in Republican circles. It was an important story because he was speaking to me as an adult. Not some petulant child, which I was, just by the way.

He told me a story of having an affair with a woman that he almost left my mother for. Her name was Nancy Davis. Shortly thereafter she would marry the future president of the Untied States, Ronald Reagan.

My dad and Ms. Davis had done a film together, “The Next Voice You Hear,” released in 1950. During that time, he said he thought he’d fallen in love with Ms. Davis and told my mother. Mom was pregnant with me. Dad told her he would stay until I was born and then he was going to leave her. My mother adored my father. Her “allegiance” was to him. (See My dad, James Whitmore, Part Two.) So, when I was brought into her life, the man she adored would leave her life.

The waiting for my arrival gave him time to think, he said. He thought of all that he was giving up in exchange for Ms. Davis. He decided to stay. That’s what he wanted me to know. At one point he was sure beyond a shadow of a doubt and then, after time, he realized he was not sure beyond a shadow of doubt. He stayed. My dad went on to raise three sons and be married for 24 years and Ms. Davis was to marry “the love of her life” and become the First Lady of the United States of America, as Mrs. Ronald Reagan.

The pregnant teen-aged girl had gone to court and declared I was the father along with several other men. My dad told me the court threw out her claim of my fatherhood. My dad had met with the father of the teen-aged girl. I do not know what transpired. What I do know is that the entire incident went away.

Meanwhile, back at Oakwood I was rehearsing this dramatic reading of “Franny & Zooey” by J.D. Salinger. I was actually doing something that caught my interest. The young girl that was playing Zooey was talented and drop-dead gorgeous. She’d acted before and brought me along for the ride. She said I had a natural talent for the theater. I didn’t like rehearsals. Smacked of work.

“Franny and Zooey” is about the Glass family. They are brother and sister. She is having a nervous breakdown and Zooey is asked to right the ship. There is a tremendous amount of introspection. The director paired it down to the most dramatic moments. The last being the big cathartic speech at the end of the book where Zooey finally explains to Franny the meaning of life. Read the book. J.D. Salinger was a rare author, indeed.

The last speech was giving off stage. I was sitting in front of a microphone and Franny was on stage listening through a telephone. All your heard was my voice and her reaction. The chapel was standing room only. I was 16 or 17 at the time and was scared down to my bone marrow.

The school had been founded by famous actors, directors, writers, composers, painters. Artists of all stripes and colors. These were the best of the best, and they were sitting in the audience. I had never done this before. I had never been in front of an audience of people. I was going to puke at any given moment.

Let’s not forget, I had been arrested a few times for public drunkenness, had been kicked out of Pacific Palisades High School, and had pretty much just said “fuck it” to the world. Excuse my harsh language but sometimes it is all that will due.

My dad would have none of it. He fought to find a school that would take me. He found one. My indifference was melting away because I was doing something that caught my interest. I had to be accountable. My selfish, impish immaturity was still in force but I was doing better. My dad had presented me with a life that might be worth living. His words. His commitment to his son.

I did the final speech off-stage through the microphone. When I was done. There was silence. I was exhausted. Read the book. Pretty heady words and thoughts. The stage manager told me to go out on stage. The play was over, he said. I did as instructed.

I opened the side door and walked out on stage. The eruption of applause was thunderous. I’m sure they were being polite but the sound of clapping, people standing, whistling, screaming out “Bravo! Bravo!” They kept applauding. The wonderful actress playing Franny took my hand and guided me through a bow. The applause did not stop. We bowed again. Again and again. I started to quietly cry. I couldn’t believe it. I saw my dad. And went to him and hugged him with all the might I could muster.

Part Seven: Too many girlfriends. Dad leaves.

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About stevewhitmore

Former award-winning newspaperman and broadcast journalist, both radio and TV, spanning three decades. Army-trained paralegal, court bailiff and prosecutor's lead investigator for the 8th Infantry Division's Judge Advocate General's Corp., Mainz, Germany. 1973-1975.
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