CONVERSATION WITH A DEAD MAN

IN THE MIDST OF SHOOTING STARS

A semi-autobiographical memoir

by

Boots LeBaron

                  CHAPTER ONE                  

     It was close to noon on a Monday in late August. Miserably hot. After a half hour of climbing around Enduring Faith searching in vain for my father’s grave, toting a paper sack containing a fifth of Wild Turkey, my shirt was soaked with sweat and clung to my back like a blanket of leeches.

A groundskeeper named Joe told me that I was on the wrong mountain and steered me to Sheltering Hills, another grass-covered mound a couple of hundred yards down Memorial Drive. He said I’d find my dad right behind the statue of the Virgin Mary.

Joe was right. There he was. Plot number 640. A bronze plaque covered with pine needles and weeds inscribed: Bert LeBaron, 1900 – 1956.

Even in the sweltering noonday heat, Forest Lawn – Hollywood Hills was a serene setting dotted with 30-foot pine trees and lots of monuments guarded by cherubs and winged angels with their tiny hands and pudgy fingers. Behind us were power lines which nullified some of the pious landscape, hinting that not all things, even in the midst of death, are sacred.

After setting the bag of Kentucky’s finest straight bourbon on the grass, I pulled out an H. Upmann, bit off an end and puffed it into life. I hate cigars. But this was a special occasion.

I needed to talk to my father. One on one. I sought forgiveness. I wanted to unload a heavy bag of anguish I had been lugging around ever since he committed suicide. Since H. Upmann was his favorite cigar, I thought, why not pamper the old fart?

I took a seat on the grass beside the plaque, popped open the bottle of 101-proof rotgut he could guzzle like Dr. Pepper and took a swig. Cascading down my gullet, it burnt and made me quiver.

Since his suicide on March 3, 1956, I had talked to him on many occasions. It had always been a one-way conversation. Almost like praying or searching my own conscience for an answer. This was the first time I had visited his grave since the funeral.

I had an eerie feeling that, after all these years, this might be the time he’d break the silence and talk to me rather than just listen.

After taking another pull on the H. Upmann, I blew a thick ring of smoke into the still air. It hovered for several seconds before disintegrating. Rather than take another puff, I began the conversation with the man who gave me life.

You’ve got a pretty good view of the Virgin Mary’s ass, dad. I guess you still appreciate a cute buttock staring you in the face, huh?   With the rolling hills, shady trees and clear blue skies brushed with those long, narrow clouds, Forest Lawn isn’t a bad place to be dead and buried.”

I stuffed the H. Upmann in my mouth, pulled a handkerchief from a pocket, and brushed the dirt off the plaque.

“Judging from the way they maintained this marker, Forest Lawn and its perpetual care program sucks. Once they plant you, they forget you. I guess that shouldn’t surprise anyone. Especially you! This is Hollywood, right?.

“You used to say, ‘When I die, just cremate me, then flush me down the toilet.’ We should have done that. Instead, mom and I scraped together twelve-hundred and fifty dollars for this plot and your casket.

“The funeral director at Callanan Mortuary talked us into spending an additional forty-seven bucks on a pin-striped suit. It was like buying a wedding dress. The bride wears it once, puts it in a box and forgets about it.

“Why we had you on display, I’ll never know. Lying in state in that dark, musty Callanan waiting room off Western Avenue was a hell of a way for a guy like you to shuffle off to the brimstone pit.

“Other than that ancient Bulova with the scratched crystal on your wrist, the only other item that belonged to you was the St. Christopher medal you always wore on a gold chain around your neck. Your surrogate father, Jake (the Snake) Morelli, gave that to you when you turned sixteen. I knew you were buried with it because I felt around under your shirt while you were in the casket.

“When I kissed your forehead, it felt like cold clay to my lips. Your body smelled like damp cardboard. To dispel the scent of death, the mortician should have doused you with cologne, or used some familiar odors like garlic, vinegar or even tobacco.

“Those once-powerful hands that rested across your chest were nothing but gray hunks of flesh with thick naked fingers sprouting from them.

“Only once can I recall seeing those fists in action. We were on Pico Boulevard driving home from the beach when this guy in a Pontiac runs a red light at Robertson and slams into your blue Hudson coupe.

“Spitting mad, he storms out of his car, surveys the damage to his front left fender, then marches over to your window and yells, ‘Hey, stupid! You just fucked up my brand new car!’

“You come charging out of the Hudson like a stung Ferdinand the bull. Do you remember this, dad? He grabs you. You punch him. The two of you start wrestling on the asphalt. It’s broad daylight. Traffic’s backing up on Pico. Not a cop in sight. And here I am, a kid with a ringside seat, scared to death that this big old bruiser was going to punch your lights out.

“You take his head and repeatedly bang his face against the hood of the Pontiac. There’s blood everywhere. His blood. Finally, after the guy’s half bled to death, you drag him over to the car and twist his jaw so he’s looking directly at me.

“‘See that boy?'” you say. “‘He’s my son. Nobody swears in front of my son. Now, cocksucker, apologize!'”

Cocksucker? Chalk up a new word in my growing vocabulary.   “The guy blubbered some kind of an apology and you let him go. He stumbled back to his Pontiac and sped away.

“Except for his blood on your shirt and hands, you didn’t have a scratch or bruise. And there was just a tiny ding on your right-front bumper. Both you and that old Hudson were built like General Sherman tanks.”

Before time and the fast lane made a mess of him, my father was a muscular six-foot mass of flesh and bone with wavy black hair and a matching well-groomed mustache. His sleek athletic frame and chiseled features were covered with a taut layer of olive-complected skin which he pampered year-around with oils mixed with small portions of vinegar cider and drops of iodine.

He wasn’t movie-star handsome. But he had this aura about him. When he walked into a restaurant or any room filled with strangers, people took notice.

Who is this man? Is he an athlete? Is he some actor? Is he a hood? Is he a rooster looking for a hen house? Is he a somebody? Is he a nobody? He was all of those. And certainly, he was a nobody.

After observing him spout dialogue in movies like “Battle Cry,” “Westward the Women,” “Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” or even in “The Mysterious Dr. Satan,” a weekly kid’s serial where he’s done in by a death-dealing robot, there’s no doubt that if the Academy handed out statuettes for playing B-movie-type thugs, he would be a nominee. Yet he was a Hall of Fame stuntman with tremendous athletic skills and an impressive list of screen credits that date back to the days of Francis X. Bushman, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Laurence Olivier.

I took another swallow. This time the Wild Turkey didn’t scorch my larynx as it headed south. I leaned close to the plaque and stared into the face of the man who collected so many ex-wives, fiancees and girlfriends their names were lost in the mist of his mind.

It was as if Cupid had stuck him in the butt with a mystical arrow that caused him to fall passionately in love with every woman he ever conned or seduced.

That included my mother Thelma Anna Gangloff-LeBaron who had married and divorced him twice.

I remember her teary eyed, hiking up my short pants and straightening my Peter Pan collar, preparing me for a day at the Crenshaw Nursery School in Los Angeles, describing my father as “that sonuvabitch of a godamned bastard!” Since she never swore, that outburst we confidentially used, quite often with humor, throughout her life when describing my father.

Although my mother’s description of my dad pretty much nailed it, I loved him dearly.   And I think she did too!

Gallivanting around, chasing other women, disappearing for days, pawning her jewelry, coming home with lipstick marks tattooed across his drunken face, he had broken her heart a million times.      Speaking German so I couldn’t understand, my wisp of a grandmother (all five feet of her) Anna Roeder-Gangloff captured the essence of the man. “Waere er in einem Bordell gestorben, haette de Leichenbeschauver es einen natuerlichen Tot genawnnt.”

Translated: “Had he died in a whorehouse, the coroner would have called it a natural death.” No matter how hard Grannie tried, like most women whose lives he touched, she couldn’t hate him.

My mother was an attractive woman. Long-legged and shapely with an angelic face framed in brown hair.

She spoke intelligently with a sweet tongue that not always communicated her deepest feelings. But heartbreak, love, compassion and even rage poured silently from a pair of powder-blue eyes which could conceal nothing.

A graduate of Dilworth Hall, an exclusive preparatory school for women in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Thelma grew up as the socialite daughter of Dr. Charles L. Gangloff, who never charged the poor and boasted the largest practice in Western Pennsylvania.    Behind the doors of their elegant 14-room home at 161 Virginia Avenue on Mt. Washington, a suburb overlooking the City of Pittsburgh, the beloved Doc Charlie, hid his chauvinistic attitude.   My mother grew up during a period in America when women were obligated to kowtow to anything that sported a mustache, smoked a cigar and came with a penis. Considered the weaker sex, women were put on earth to breed, raise children, darn socks, mend crotches — things like that. They were not meant to vote or hold down a man’s job.

Soft spoken yet fiercely independent, Thelma grew up in the lap of luxury. She felt no need to march with the Suffragettes pounding a drum, rattling a tambourine, decrying equal rights for women under the Constitution. .

So homemaking was never on her agenda. But she was adventurous and even rebellious. At the age of 15 she was the first female in her neighborhood to learn to drive an automobile. At 16, she was playing golf, doing cartwheels exposing her bare ankles and calves, and standing on her hands in the surf along the Atlantic City boardwalk. Unladylike things.

At 17, with other girls from Dilworth Hall, she was participating in which she described as midnight makeouts with suitors in the cemetery. Less than two decades after Orville and Wilbur Wright made their maiden voyage at Kitty Hawk, Thelma, decked out in goggles, a leather aviator’s hat and flowing scarf, sat in the open cockpit aboard a Curtiss Aeroplane as it performed loop-the-loops a thousand feet above The City of Pittsburgh.

My father’s life was not so rosy. At the age of 13, he ran away from poverty, hopped a freight in Madison, Wisconsin, and wound up in Philadelphia. That’s when he literally bumped into the man I would call Uncle Jake. He was a frail-looking wiseguy with a sinister reputation. Bert was being chased along the sidewalk by an A&P grocery-store clerk after stealing cans of food when Jake collared him. A few months earlier, the mobster had lost his pregnant wife in a freak trolley car accident.

Jake paid for the stolen merchandise, brought my dad home and cared for him like he was his own son. Despite a close relationship with Johnny Torrio, a Chicago mobster, Uncle Jake was a devout Catholic.

When my father left the mob back in the mid-twenties, he came to Hollywood determined to become a picture star. He figured, if George Raft, a hood from Hell’s Kitchen, could make the big time, why couldn’t Bert LeBaron, a thug from Philadelphia?

In Hollywood, his new found friends — all struggling actors — believed that his wealthy parents went down with the Titanic in 1912, leaving him on Easy Street with a sizable inheritance.

Of course, that was a lie. Truth is, he was living on dirty money furnished by the mob. Bert LeBaron — if that was his real name — was to bullshit what Picasso was to cubism.

I was only a few years old when my father began telling me that my fraternal grandfather, Jean-Henri-Clement LeBaron, was a half-ass French poet who was shot to death trying to rob a bank in Marseille.

My paternal grandmother Sophia Maria Raphael came from Montorio, a tiny Italian village in northern Italy. She gave birth to my father out of wedlock in Catania, a coastal town in Sicily. After bringing him to America when he was an infant, she died of consumption.

He’d tell those stories over and over again. He’d tell them using Italian and French dialects. He’d make funny faces and gesture wildly. Pretending to be his father robbing a bank, he’d turn his hand into a gun and fire it at himself.

Bam! He’d clutch his chest and melodramatically slump over Hollywood-dead with his eyes wide open. There were a million reasons why we shouldn’t have believed him. But we did.

Whenever he’d fire that gun, it’d startle me and make me laugh. Sometimes, just to piss off my mother, he’d tumble onto the carpet with a thud that would rattle the knickknacks in the tiny one-bedroom apartment I shared with my mother and grandmother.

My mother hated him telling those tales. The thought of having a two-bit bank robber for a father-in-law rubbed her the wrong way. After all, she was the only child of the late Doc Gangloff who once turned down a citizen’s committee that wanted him to run for mayor of Pittsburgh.

Yet she believed him. And so did I.

I prefer to believe that my real uncle was a psychiatrist named Sherby Krieger. Raised in Kansas City, MO, he, his three sisters and a brother, were Jewish. Their parents were Polish immigrants.

The only time I remember Sherby visiting our house on Holt Street, he was wearing Army khakis. He was a captain in the medical corps. The only photographs I remember him showing my parents were taken on the site of a Nazi concentration camp in Poland. There were mounds of decomposing bodies bulldozed into deep trenches. I still picture the frail arms, legs and skeletal heads piled upon each other.

It could have been Auschwitz where some 4 million men, women and children, mostly Jews, were murdered.   I was just a little kid. Yet I still carry those horrifying images in my mind. .

Maybe that’s why my mother and father never revealed my true ancestry.  Maybe they wanted to protect me from the harsh truth behind the anti-Semitic brutality that even today provokes such vindictive acts of ignorance and bigotry.

I do remember overhearing my parents talking about my dad taking the brunt for his immigrant family, boldly walking down the middle of the street while neighbors threw stones at him. I don’t know why he alone took the punishment for his family. But it made him tough. Like racism, anti-Semitism and any form of racism is the epitome of ignorance.

Whether he was a Jew, Italian, French, African or Irish, I don’t give a damn. I’ve survived. I harbor no prejudice. I’m convinced that no man is created equal. We only think we are.

Though I had a hooligan for a father, and a mother who skipped through life like Little Red Riding hood en route to Grandma’s house, I wouldn’t trade my imperfect childhood for any other. Nor would I trade my parents for any prim-and-proper types.

I took another slug of Turkey, swallowed hard, and touched the plaque like I would touch my father’s shoulder. I heard a voice that was heavy with emotion. It was my voice.

“What troubles me to this day, dad, is when the chest pains began and there was no way you could handle the physical demands of stunt work, the film industry just looked the other way.

“That old Hollywood slut sure got her money’s worth out of you. She didn’t give a damn that you had spent most of your life kneeling at her altar, kissing her ass for show business.

“Even Uncle Jake and his hoodlum cronies would have demonstrated more compassion.

“Stripped of your pride and dignity, you never bellyached. Only once during those dark days can I recall seeing you, sitting alone on that rickety stool in mom’s narrow kitchen, your face buried in those powerful hands, weeping uncontrollably.

“When I put my arm around your shoulder and asked what’s wrong, you shook your head and said, ‘Nothing. Nothing at all.’

“That lie was so transparent, it was almost laughable. Hollywood shattered your spirit. Because of a diseased heart, you could no longer do the work you took so much pride in.

“You certainly weren’t in demand as an actor. When you tried selling encyclopedias, you failed miserably. You couldn’t even land a job selling newspapers on Hollywood Boulevard.

“One of my greatest regrets was when you came to me asking for a twenty dollar loan. When I turned you down, you just looked at me with those dark eyes, smiled pleasantly, hopped into that Oldsmobile you had won in a poker game and drove off into the night.

“If I could just relive that moment. You were always my friend. My confidant. God, dad, I’m sorry.

“I was twenty-three. Still green behind the ears. Far more insensitive about life and death than I am now. Just got out of the Air Force; was attending college on the GI-Bill; chasing around; working at The Times as a copy boy.

“I had a twenty-dollar bill right there in my wallet. I could have given you the money. Easy.

“Instead, I lied. I said that mom warned me not to give you any money. With my hands on your shoulders, I chastised you for never paying alimony or child support when I was a kid.

“It still breaks my heart every time I think about it.

“Two weeks later, you left your will in a locker at the Hollywood YMCA leaving me with a mountain of gambling debts and outstanding loans to sharks.

“Then you stepped onto a handball court and proceeded to do just what the doctors warned you not to do: Played a fatal game at the sport you loved almost more than women. It was a classic suicide, dad.

“You left a lot of people in the lurch.

“Although I wasn’t responsible for your debts, I started paying them off until mom’s attorney told me to stop.

“Remember Manny Russio, that hairy little ape with the tattoo of a watch on his wrist? He comes by the apartment and tells us what a prince you were and how sorry he was that you popped your heart on the handball court that way.

“Then he pulls out some markers with your signature. Manny didn’t give a damn about you. He just wanted us to pay off your loans.

“I can’t tell you how many Manny Russio types we encountered. Maybe a half dozen. All you needed to hook those scumbags was the promise of a quick pay back with ridiculously high interest rates.

“When I visited that stark, bare-walled room you were living in at the Hollywood Y, I just stood there with the door shut swearing at the walls, crying my ass off.

“What’s twenty bucks between a father and a son? Everything.

“The only belongings I took from that room were a Roi-Tan cigar box that contained a chunk of shrapnel that was dug out of your leg during your World War II stint in the Merchant Marines, a tiny plastic figure of Jesus Christ, a couple of IOUs and some phony birth certificates from your hoodlum days in Philadelphia.

“I also brought home a coffee cup given to you by John Wayne for your stunt work in The Conqueror. Other than your DNA, that was the sum of my inheritance.”

I tipped the bottle for one last nip, then raised it in a toast:

“You always carried a pint of this stuff in the glove compartment of your Hudson. Called it your snake-bite kit because there were so many snakes in Hollywood.

“So drink up, dad.” I emptied the bottle onto the grass around the plaque. “You might like to know, the snakes in Glitter Gulch are still as venomous as ever.

“A few days after your funeral, I met Nanette Contrel, your casting-director girlfriend. Mom, bless her heart, gave me her phone number and asked me to go help the ‘poor dear’ because she must be hurting. Curiosity drove me up to her Franklin Avenue apartment.

“When she opened the door, I was awestruck. Nanette was a tall, gorgeous redhead. Much younger than you. I stood there in the hallway wondering how such an attractive woman could fall for a dissipated old lecher like you? And why you never taught me how to get around women like you did.

“Here I was with simmering hormones and bubbling testosterone. If she hadn’t been your fiancee, or whatever you want to call her, I’d have asked her out before you could cluck cock-a-doodle-doo.

“I remember standing beside Nanette getting a whiff of that jasmine, honeysuckle or whatever she was drenched in, looking out the window. A bright moon reflected across tall buildings that night turning Hollywood into a graveyard of tombstones.

“‘You loved him, didn’t you?’ I asked her.

“For a couple of seconds she searched my face with a seductive set of sorrowful eyes. ‘Yes,’ she sobbed. ‘Very much.’

“She draped her arms around my neck and clung to me like a frightened child might embrace a Teddy bear on a stormy night. I could feel the warmth of her tears.

“We were stuck together like two pieces of Scotch tape. With her body pressed against mine, I became intimately aware of her anatomy. It was an awkward moment.

“Right then and there, dad, I wanted to kiss your fiancee. I wanted to take her to the floor, unbutton the buttons, unzip the zippers, and let Mother Nature take over.

“Instead, I looked into those misty eyes and told her, “I’m glad my dad had your love.” I left that place smelling of Nanette Contrel. I thought about calling her but never did. Never saw her again.

“You were some cocksman, dad. You seemed to have this uncanny ability to make feminine hearts go pitapat. When you said, ‘I love you,’ they believed it because you believed it.

“It wasn’t your penis doing the talking. It was more like your penis was attached to your heart.”

I looked into my father’s eyes. “I mean this, dad: Every kid should have been so lucky to have a character like you for an old man.”

I smothered the cigar on the plaque.

“No doubt about it, you had your mad-dog days. You could have helped support us. But you were attentive. You were always there. You told me things; I told you things. We shared secrets.

“You took me everywhere — to the movies, the beach, the mountains. Taught me how to swim; how to throw a punch. Even introduced me to your friends — I guess they were hookers — you identified as Shady Ladies. You convinced me that bad guys aren’t all bad and good guys aren’t all good. I still believe that.

“Although you never told me that you loved me, from the time I was small, you’d hug me to death and bury that coarseness and fragrance in my neck, tickling me with your stubble until I’d squirm with delight.”

I set the empty bottle on the bronze plaque, got to my feet and smiled down at my father.

That’s it, pal. I’m not coming back. Not ever. I also want you to know that I’ve written a memoir that’s as close to the truth as I could remember it  . It’s about a lost kid, a child actor, growing up in your town — Hollywood.  And you are like the co-star whom mom described as a “sonuvabitch of a Godamned bastard!”   Despite your flaws, she loved you, dad.  And so do I.

     So let’s begin with the day I was born.

 

Boots LeBaron

    • Anonymous
    • January 18th, 2015

    Hell of an interesting write, Boots, go for it.
    Carlos Schiebeck

    Like

    • Chris Flora
    • January 18th, 2015

    Fabulous! Can’t wait to read the entire thing.

    Like

    • Fern Levine
    • February 3rd, 2015

    Your greatest talent Boots, is your unusual gift of being able to describe in detail the characteristic flaws of humankind, making your own painful memories and recollections into lovable reads. As in The Human Race, you translate the same flaws, otherwise superficial to us, into a complex and arcane life story. Well done! I look forward to reading more. FL

    Like

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