They lived a glamorous life of premieres and Hollywood parties. The extended story is even better. My father was romancing two women at the same time: one named Irene and the other film siren Jean Harlow. He liked to impress, so he bought each a Cadillac convertible. One night, the ladies were cruising down Hollywood Boulevard in their shiny, trophy cars. They passed each other. Glances were exchanged. Horns might have been honked. Jean Harlow responded by ramming her car into Irene’s. The nerve!
We all know this story is ridiculous, but it gets told and retold in our family anyway, not exactly as gospel truth, but as a version of something that might have happened.
My father wasn’t known for drawing firm lines between truth and fiction, moral and immoral. But maybe the story was inspired by true events.
Recently, my sister Cathy sent me a 30-year-old paperback biography of Jean Harlow she picked up at an antique store. On the cover, the actress is smiling, rather than exuding her trademark smolder. Within the pages, her brief life is revealed to have included many lovers. My father is not identified as one of them.
Still, she and my con man-promoter father lived in Hollywood at the same time. Born in 1911, she broke into the motion picture industry as a teenager in 1928. My father would have been an ancient thirty-three. My father married my mother in 1934, and before that found time to marry Irene (Yes, Irene!) and have a son with her.
When I imagine the story, Irene and Jean Harlow are driving pale green or blue Ford Thunderbirds of the 1950s. But in the 1920s, the cars wouldn’t have been so sleek. I also visualized the women wearing white silk scarves streaming behind them as they cruised along Hollywood Boulevard. I know that only happens in movies. Still, I pictured Jean Harlow with her platinum blond hair. I imagined Irene’s hair as bright red.
In reality, I know nothing about Irene. She was one of my father’s four or maybe five wives.
The Jean Harlow story went over so well, my mother picked it up and kept passing it off as fact long after my father’s death in the mid-eighties. She loved the idea of her ex-husband’s connection to a movie star. And she offered it as proof she was not the only fool to fall for his charms: “When I met him,” she said many times, “I would have skied naked down Mount Rainier with a rose between my teeth.”
By 1943, my mother was done with him and his empty promises. Her mother was crazy about him and we kids thought he was hilarious. “A girl can’t keep laughing all the time,” my mother told me.
My father stuck with the notion of a car as a way of winning over women starting to recognize the jerk his charm concealed. When I was in high school, he told me he bought me a red Ford convertible. He said I should stop by the dealership and have them show it to me. I did. It was a nice car. Too bad it never made it out of the showroom. Luckily, by then I had learned to keep my expectations low. My father also failed to deliver on his promise to send me to the University of Washington.
My father always worked as a salesman, and for us kids he was always selling us something—a dream of what a father could be.
Having a liar for a father, I have to wonder, did he love me? I don’t have to ponder whether he was lying when he said he loved me, because he never did. To me, showing me the car was his sorry attempt at showing affection. After high school, I left Seattle for Mississippi, where my new stepfather’s position at Ole Miss would give me the opportunity for a college education my father denied me. My father drove me to the bus station, opened the car door, said goodbye and drove away.
I convinced myself he was heartbroken to see me go.
Looking back, I didn’t get much from my father, but I got the stories. His ability to make us all laugh allowed me to think of him as a fantastic storyteller rather than a liar and a deadbeat.
At a family reunion a few years ago, we sat around the picnic table, laughing and telling his stories and our own. He was entertaining us still, from the grave. We are a family of storytellers, especially Cathy, who makes up stories about people walking down the street whom she’s never before laid on eyes on. I, too, can make people laugh.
In every other way, I am my father’s opposite. I am honest. Once when showing a house I was trying to sell, I enraged my Realtor when I showed the prospective buyer exactly which faucets leaked.
As I paged through the Jean Harlow book, I wished the story would be proven true, that my father would appear as one of her no-good suitors. Instead, the book leaves me with inconclusive evidence. My father’s history, however, reveals the likely truth. Basically, every word out of his mouth was a lie. Thus, I can acknowledge my father never courted Jean Harlow, much less bought her a Cadillac.
That doesn’t mean I’ll retire the story. My 15-year-old granddaughter doesn’t have a clue who Jean Harlow is, but she might get a kick out of the lie that refuses to die.