I’ve never met a kinder and gentler woman than the grandmotherly Josephine Dillon, the first wife of one of the world’s most famous movie stars. I still think of her these many years later.
Before I met her in 1962 when I was ten years old, my parents, brother and I had just moved from the Bronx to the San Fernando Valley in California. It was an arduous trip that took nearly three weeks to complete because my dad’s old Plymouth kept breaking down twice during the nearly three-thousand-mile trek. Nothing like staying in one-star Podunk motels days at a time.
The only people, we knew out West and visited often were my Aunt Sylvia, Uncle Jack, and cousins, Jeffrey and Barry. They lived in a single family detached home on a quiet tree-lined street in Studio City close to the Little Brown Church where Ronald Reagan married Nancy Davis. We lived in a relatively nearby apartment building.
Etched in my memory is Jack barbecuing chicken in the backyard, our families watching the Oscars together and going to the beach in Santa Monica. After a few hours of sunning and braving the waves, the screams of people riding on the rollercoaster at POP (Pacific Ocean Park, prompted us to beg our parents for a few dollars that would cover the cost of admission, the rides, a carnival game or two and refreshments.
I’d sleep over at my cousins occasionally, listen to Barry’s vast record collection (he loved the sounds of the 1950s, especially (Chubby Checkers) go with them to Smokey Joe’s restaurant on Riverside Drive for burgers and fries and attend movies together. Just down their home on Landale Street was the Studio City Park where I played caroms, ping pong, baseball, and became a darn good basketball player for my age going up against the big guys. The best part was that I made friends.
And then one day, when we had nothing to do, Jeffrey and Barry’s parents encouraged my cousins, brother and myself to keep company with the elderly woman who lived only a few houses away.
“Why don’t you visit Miss Dillon?” my aunt would ask us. “She’s lonely and would appreciate some company.”
“Do we have to?” said the older cranky Barry.
“It’s either that or practice piano,” said Aunt Sylvia.
Predictably he chose option one.
I remember the first time we visited Miss Dillon. Sylvia led us to the front door. We were somewhat nervous. After ringing the doorbell, we were greeted with a big smile. My aunt made the introductions, instructed us to behave ourselves and bid us farewell. “I’ll be back in one hour. Be good,” she said.
“Come on in, I’ve been expecting you. So nice to see everyone,” said the cheery Miss Dillon, whose gray hair was arranged in a bun.
As we entered her home, Miss Dillon gave each of us an unexpected peck on the cheek. “Don’t be bashful,” she said.
Who does she think she is? I thought. Our grandmother? It didn’t take long for us to warm up to her. She couldn’t have been nicer. On this and subsequent visits, Miss Dillon was always overjoyed to welcome us into her home.
“This way,” said Miss Dillon, who was in her late 70s. She wore a house dress, cameo, an apron, flats and knee-high hosiery. She directed us into the living room. My initial impression was that the house was not as neat as my aunt and uncle’s place or even our own. It dawned on me that the homes of other elderly people I had visited also were not that orderly. They all had a lot of stuff.
“Sit down and stay awhile. I just love having company, especially young gentlemen like yourselves,” she said.
Of course, my five-year-old brother, Lenny, didn’t know what a gentleman was. He just knew that he was hungry even though he had just eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. His nose was twitching this way and that way, busy breathing in the sweet smell of something sweet cooking in the kitchen. He figured out what it was almost instantaneously.
“I wanna cookie,” he proclaimed without the slightest hesitancy.
“Well, aren’t you a little rascal. I wanna cookie, what?” asked Miss Dillon.
I whispered into my brother’s ear, “I wanna cookie, please, Miss Dillon.”
“I wanna cookie, please, Miss Dillon,” he repeated.
“Now that’s better,” she said. “And you don’t need to be so formal. Josephine is fine. Well, you’re in luck, young fella. AS I’m sure you guessed, I’m baking a fresh batch of chocolate chip cookies. They should be done by now. I’ll be right back.”
I whispered another prompt into Lenny’s ear again.
“Thank you, Miss Dillon”, he said.
While our host was away, we checked out her plush but outdated furnishings, bookshelves, keepsakes and the rugs covering the hardwood floors. A brightly colored Macaw perched in a tall wooden cage mimicked the words, “Cookies, cookies.”
We were particularly fascinated by the pictures of movie stars lining the walls, some whom I recognized. Charles Laughton, Errol Flynn, Robert Taylor, Tyrone Power and others. Who was Josephine I thought? She lived in a modest house yet apparently knew all of these famous people. If she truly knew these people, surely I was in the presence of an important lady. Since I loved watching movies either at home or in the theatre, I was overcome with joy and fascination.
Josephine came back with a plate piled with cookies and poured us frosty glasses of Dad’s Old Fashioned root beer. After serving the refreshments, she opened up the drapes to allow the sunlight in. It was as if something inside of her had awakened. And at that point she filled a void I had felt in my life.
She then began playing classical music on the piano which was strewn with sheet music. She invited us to sit down next to her on the piano bench. We took turns learning to play chopsticks or some semblance of it.
“How long have you lived here Josephine?” I asked her.
“Oh, a long time. Before you were even born. I nearly had to move out not too long ago, but a very special person who I’d known for a very long time came to my rescue. The home is all mine now thanks to him.”
Before I could ask her who that special person was, Josephine changed the subject and asked us about ourselves, our favorite foods, the schools we went to, our favorite TV shows and movies, what we wanted to do when we grew up and much more. She talked about growing up in Denver, Colorado, studying acting in Italy, and her career as an American stage and film actress and acting teacher.
That was very interesting, but I wanted to know more about the celebrity photographs.
“They were my friends, all of them, “she said when I asked her about the celebrity pictures gracing the walls. ‘I don’t hear much from them anymore. During the 1930s and 1940s, before you were born, I would see them quite a bit at parties and the Oscars. Would you like to see some more pictures?”
“Yes,” I eagerly responded.
“I’ll be right back.”
When she returned a few minutes later, she was holding a dusty photo album in her hands.
“I haven’t opened this in a while as you can see.”
After cleaning off the photo album, she sat down between us on the couch. And as she began flipping through the yellowing pages, I noticed she was becoming misty eyed. Moments later, a few tears began trickling down her cheeks.
“Excuse me boys. I tend to be emotional.”
“What’s wrong Josephine,” asked Lenny. “Why are you crying?” She began drying her tears with a handkerchief.
“I apologize, boys. I loved this man from the moment I met him and still do. He’s the special person I mentioned before. Oh, how I miss him. Do any of you recognize him?”
“Nope,” said my brother.
I knew who he was instantly.
“Clark Gable,” I said. “My parents had taken us to see Gone with the Wind. He played, Rhett…Rhett…”
“Yes, Rhett Butler,” Josephine said. I was his wife and acting coach a long time ago.”
I couldn’t believe it. I was in the presence of the former wife of Clark Gable, my favorite movie star. Every time I turned on the TV, there he was, playing a hero. The usually shy me blurted out, “Can you teach me to become the next Clark Gable?” I’m not sure if I was serious or just trying to be funny.
My cousins began to laugh. “Maybe Don Knotts,” teased my twelve-year-old cousin Jeff.
“Yeah, Donny Knotts, the bumbling sheriff Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show,” his fourteen-year-old brother Barry said.
“Don’t mind them,” Josephine told me. “They’re just jealous. If I did teach you how to act, I will be up front with you. I will not pay to have your teeth fixed, have your hair style changed and train you on how to deepen your voice like I did for Clark. Where did that get me?”
“Where did it get you Josephine?” asked Lenny.
“Loneliness, but not right now. I am so happy to have some company. Here, have another one,” she said to my brother, reaching out with the plate of cookies. I found later in life that Clark Gable had dropped Josephine like a hot potato and ran off with another woman when his career took off.
Ninety minutes later, the doorbell rang. It was my parents, Murray and Charlotte.
“These are darling boys,” said Josephine. “They are so well-mannered. I do hope they come back again soon. Next time boys I’ll have hot apple pie and vanilla ice cream. I believe your son, Gary, has some hidden talent.”
With my parents’ consent, I began to attend Josephine’s weekly group acting class free of charge. Somehow the others in the group learned of my admiration for my teacher’s former husband. They called me Clark. After a while, I lost interest in acting. Spring was in the air and so was America’s favorite pastime. Little League Baseball.
“I’m sorry,” I said apologetically, “I’ve been thinking about it. I’d rather play for the New York Yankees someday and maybe become the next Mickey Mantle than become a movie star.”
“Oh, I see,” she said. “I am sorry to hear that. It’s a pity, but promise me that you will still visit me.
“I will. I promise.”
“And if you change your mind, there’s still time left for you to become another Clark.”
The acting lessons ended. but not our friendship. I would drop in on Josephine occasionally to see how she was doing. She’d offer me tea and biscuits (she didn’t have Coca Cola and chips) and regale me with stories about the Golden Age of Hollywood. Eventually, the visits became less frequent and after I entered junior high school, they ceased all together. I wouldn’t see her for another few years.
Perhaps inspired by Josephine or Uncle Jack, who entertained the troops with Burt Lancaster during WWII, my mom and Aunt Sylvia suddenly became interested in seeking fame and fortune. They worked as extras in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World (when the Three Stooges make a cameo appearance as firefighters and the stars of the movie held onto a towering fire truck ladder that swayed back and forth. I’m not sure if they signed up for the gig just to enjoy the free box lunches.
With a few acting lessons under my belt, (tongue in cheek) I tried to make a comeback years later when I appeared as an extra in the movie Your Six Minutes Are Up, starring Rob Liebman and Beau Bridges. I sat behind a desk at the unemployment office and made believe I was conversing with an applicant. I was hoping I’d be discovered by the director and offered a much bigger part. That didn’t happen. And no, my appearance wasn’t enough to earn me an IMDB listing.
When I turned eighteen, I decided to visit Josephine. A much younger woman answered her door.
“Can I help you?”
“Does Josephine Dillon live here?
“The dear lady sold us the house to my husband and I two years ago. She now lives in Glendale in an assisted living facility and calls me once in a while to see how we and the house are doing. Oh, how she misses the house.”
“I’m a friend of hers. We haven’t spoken in a while.”
“Josephine was nice enough to provide me with her address in case anyone ever inquired about her whereabouts. Maybe it was you she had in mind.”
When I arrived at Sunrise, the assisted living facility, Josephine was sitting in a wheelchair outside near the lush, expansive garden. A nurse was holding an umbrella over her to protect her from the brilliant sunshine. She was half-asleep when I said, “Josephine. Do you remember me?”
She looked up at me with eyes that slowly began to open, reached over and grasped my hand. She had aged quite a bit since I had last seen her.
“Well, of course, Clark. You’ve finally come back for me. I knew you would someday.”
I didn’t know if she had dementia or was trying to be funny because I had grown a mustache. Not exactly a King of Hollywood mustache. Either way, she remained relatively quiet during our reunion and smiled a lot. I did most of the talking about how I had just graduated from high school and would begin looking for a job.
And then she surprised me as I began to leave.
Dabbing at her misty-eyes with a handkerchief, she said, “Goodbye, Gary. If you want to start acting lessons again, it’s never too late.”