Before my father met my mother, he dated Jean Harlow.

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.

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Nancy Puckett

Nancy Puckett

Mother, Grandmother, Sister, Friend, Avid Reader, Lover of Movies, Atlanta transplant by way of the West coast and Mississippi.

7 Comments
  1. What a wonderful story. I think all families are creative with the truth, especially as the stories pass from one generation to the next.

  2. Kudos to you for a very entertaining and well written story.

    Though painful to become aware our father’s aren’t the God’s we may have thought as children, it is a near universal experience. Only those who cling to their denial can claim otherwise.

    Give us more good stories.

  3. Yes Mom, I too smelled a little fudge in that family tale. I loved the story and the way you told it. I am reading it at work and my glasses fogged up, I’ve heard these stories and I’m always amazed when the family retells the tales. It’s always with happiness and laughter. Never about the heartbreak of having Grandpa as a dad. Interesting how after someone is dead and gone, with no power to change the past, we can appreciate the goodness in someone,yet still acknowledging the truth of what they were. I wish, if for just a moment, he were here with us again to feed us some more delicious lies! Write more please…

  4. Excellent piece of writing Nancy! And delightful, yet sad too.
    Delightful; because your Dad seemed charming to me. We
    have talked of the time he took us dancing when we were 16 (?)
    Then to be invited to be attendants in his wedding! The beautiful
    matching dresses he bought us which then became our Prom dresses.
    Some sadness for sure….but also lots of color and fun.
    I hope the Jean Harlow tale is true.

  5. Wonderful story, Nancy! Reminds me of my grandfather who, according to his stories, practically “invented” the Cajun seasoning Tony Chachere’s. (All that I can conclude is that he and Mr. Chachere grew up in the same city, yes, and were neighbors, yes. The rest is imagination.) Great guy, but I don’t believe a word he says.

  6. Nancy….loved the amusing story. We all have family members that seem larger than life, but in reality they were quite average and even BELOW average. We have a relative that one side of the family thinks walked on water…but due to they ramblings of an ancient grandmother the REAL truth was revealed. Senility has it’s good points…it is a wonderful way to discover dark secrets. It sure was hard to hold my tongue at the family reunion as praises were being sung to this certain person. Some branches of the family tree need to be sawed off and turned to mulch. Thanks for the chuckle….your old friend, Bob

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