Monday, December 14, 2015

Oasis in Chicago at Christmastime

Wonderful trip trip to Chicago last week, where I was privileged to speak to the Catholic Citizens of Illinois at the Union League Club of Chicago on Friday, December 11. Below is the text of my pre-delivery remarks. 

Remarks by Mary Claire Kendall
at Catholic Citizens of Illinois Luncheon
Union League Club, Chicago, Illinois
Friday, December 11, 2015

Thank you, Mary Ann, for that marvelous introduction. It’s so nice to meet you in person.  

Allow me a brief detour before getting to today’s topic.

Lobby of the Union League Club of Chicago
Three years ago this month, I came to the “windy city” to begin working on a book about Hemingway. By the time my visit ended—a long weekend that included both a visit to Reagan’s birthplace and that of Hemingway—I ended up launching an initiative to try and save President Reagan’s Chicago home on the South Side!  Where he lived when he was just four.  Where he had his first memories and nearly died of pneumonia and decided, by gum, he wanted to be firefighter. Of course, he would later fight and tame fires of a geopolitical sort! (Where is he when we need him?)

My friend Redd Griffin, a mentor on Hemingway for one blessed year, had started me on this path. (My great friend Fr. C. John McCloskey, who, by the way, says to say hello J —had introduced us!)  Redd took up the mantle of saving Reagan’s Chicago home from Tom Roeser, founder of CCI, after Tom died in May 2011. (A bit of a detour, but Redd was committed.) Reagan had mentioned to Tom during a visit to Chicago as he was laying the groundwork for his 1980 presidential campaign, that he had lived in Chicago as a child. After Reagan’s inauguration, Tom dug in and got the address, and started writing about it, but died before he could do much more. One of the first things Redd spoke with me about in November 2011 was the Reagan Chicago home and his efforts to try and save it. A year later, Redd died, just days before my long-planned Hemingway-focused weekend.  I got a lot of help from many in this room in my effort to save the home.  We didn’t prevail, but we showed we had great heart—the kind of heart needed to fight and win today’s threats to freedom.

While Tom and Redd may not be here in person, clearly they are HERE in spirit!

Both obviously recognized the importance of knowing where someone comes from. And, when someone comes from essentially nothing, as in the case of Reagan and so many I write about in Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends, or overcomes some other personal challenge or difficulty, and rises so high and makes such a contribution, that’s significant.

When Dutch Reagan landed in Hollywood in the late 30s, he got to know many of the stars I write about, including Susan Hayward, Lana Turner, Patricia Neal, and, of course, Jane Wyman. 

He also got to know one of my Hollywood mentors, a gentleman by the name of A.C. Lyles. The two were introduced by James Cagney and became best friends.

At the time, films had recently acquired a tone more in keeping with the dignity of the human person.

It didn’t happened just by accident. In the teens and 20s, some of the moguls—in an industry that combines art and commerce—appealed to audiences’ baser instincts, and reaped big dividends. Then, society sort of collectively put its foot down and Hollywood responded, producing some classic films that showed the best a man could be, without compromising art and realism and commerce.  Films like Mr. Deeds Goes to TownSan FranciscoBoys Town, and on and on.

Catholic Citizens of Illinois has sought to do much the same thing in the public sphere, reminding Catholics in this state and around the country of their dignity as children of God and their responsibility to work to bring that dignity to the public square. I’m sure it often feels like about as steep a climb as trying to save Reagan’s Chicago home.

Oasis can, I think, help with your mission because the amazing thing is, all of the legends I write about found healing and recovery in the Catholic faith and are testament to what it is to live with the realization that you are a child of God, with all the attendant grace after living without it.

My great grandmother Lillian Webster Keane was herself a convert and wrote in her diary that the Catholic Faith “lightened the burdens of life.” She raised my mother after my grandmother died when my mother was just 6 months old. 

When I told my mother the day before Easter 2014, I had decided to dedicate my book to her grandmother, she was delighted. Then, my dear mother—my best friend—died quite unexpectedly and tragically, three months later, on the 49th anniversary of my Great Grandmother’s Lillian’s death.  

And, so my book, Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends, is dedicated to my mother, as well.

Shortly before she died, as I was deep into the Lana Turner chapter, I asked her if she would have liked to have been a Hollywood star.  She said yes!  While she was probably just trying to connect with me—she was always connecting, letting you know she understood!—without question, she had star quality. But, I assured her, even if married life was not always a bowl of cherries, she was blessed that she eschewed being seduced by the possibilities her beauty and youth held out—perhaps, yes, even heading to Hollywood, following in the footsteps of those she was often compared to—Donna Reed, Ingrid Berman, and others. As glamorous as it all was, I assured her, she had gotten the better deal.

The truth is, the lives of the stars I write about in Oasis were difficult. Exceedingly so—all the glamour and celebrity notwithstanding.  But, in the process of suffering the slings and arrows that only Hollywood can thrust stars’ way with such precision and sting, God was forming them, priming them for the time when they would finally look up and ask for his help.

Because that’s really all God wants any of us to do. He loves us so. But, stubbornly, we want to do it all ourselves.

Then the crisis hits.

Every legend I write about had some kind of crisis that brought them face to face with their human weakness and need for God.

It’s just that simple. They were human beings like you and me. With an immortal soul. Which, it seems, is one of the biggest revelations in my book.  I jest, of course. But, not entirely. It seems the life of the soul is not so interesting to Hollywood.  That’s what a big magazine publisher essentially told me when I was trying to sell my Gary Cooper story in 2008. But, as my friend Harry Flynn, publicist to Bob Hope and other stars, says, “My book shows the soul behind the billboard.” And, that’s what makes it new and unique. Imagine that! 

Christmas tree at entrance 
of Union League Club of Chicago
And, remember that when you watch classic Christmas films like Meet John Doe, Meet Me in St. LouisThe Three Godfathers in the coming days, and derive such joy from them, once again, and then read about them in Oasis and see the soul behind the performance.

Now, many of the stars I write about in Oasis, interestingly enough, spent time in Chicago—including Bob Hope, whose career nearly ended here in the mid-20s; Mary Astor, whose father was hell-bent on making her a star, starting in Chicago; and Patricia Neal, who studied for a time at Northwestern. Others I touch upon in the introductory chapter, “All Too Human,” had Chicago roots, including Gloria Swanson, who grew up and became an actress in Chicago, and Spencer Tracy, who grew up in nearby Milwaukee and entered the Navy at the Naval Training Station in Northern Chicago. And, Mother Dolores Hart, who wrote the Foreward to my book and lived a good part of her childhood in Chicago, and told me she loved how “real” Chicago was. 

But, of course, the point of my book is how they all eventually discovered their home was Heaven!

After traveling a long and winding road, including: 

Often difficult childhoods.  Universally challenging climbs to the top.  Celebrity and fame. And, what that does to a soul! And, the predictable problems, with the Hollywood publicity machine often ginning up as many headaches as headlines—the two sometimes one and the same. 

But, in the amazing way that God brings good out of evil, these problems, in fact, were what led these stars to Him.  Usually after meeting a priest and/or getting married to a devout Catholic or becoming friends with someone who guided them into the Church.
Facade of Union League Club of Chicago,
65 West Jackson Boulevard
The fascinating thing is how their life trajectories pretty much ran a predictable, similar course. Like the dramas in which they starred, with the standard elements: setup, plot point, complication, resolution. It’s the drama of life.  As Hemingway wrote, “Every man’s life ends the same way, and it is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguishes one man from another.” 

Ah, but the details are rich and varied.

A few comments about each star.

Alfred Hitchcock.  Born into a devoutly Catholic if irreverent family, he was the only one who did not undergo a religious conversion, per se. Then, too, he only made cameos in his films. As he became the legendary director he was, he drifted somewhat from the faith of his childhood only to return, poignantly so, in the sunset of his life, when he reached out to a priest, Fr. Thomas James Sullivan, he had met while directing The Paradine Case in the mid-40s. Fr. Sullivan was “priest to the stars” and told a young friend, Fr. Mark Henninger, whom I interviewed for this book, “He wants to come back home.” Fr. Henninger joined him on these visits with the Master of Suspense. “The most remarkable sight,” he wrote in The Wall Street Journal, where his brother Dan Henninger is a columnist, “was that after receiving communion, he silently cried, tears rolling down his huge cheeks.”

Gary Cooper. Elegantly handsome man. Most gorgeous actor on A.C. Lyle’s wall of stars. [A.C. was longtime Paramount executive—best friends with Ronald Reagan and James Cagney.] But, all the traps in the spiritual combat were perfectly laid to trip Coop up. But, through grace, he surmounted them in perfect Cooper fashion. And, it was not a deathbed conversion. “No way,” said his daughter, Maria Cooper Janis. It was just eminently good timing as with virtually every story in this book. Because, in fact, he became ill about a year after his conversion. Like Hemingway, he liked to carry a crucifix. When he was very ill, in the waning days of his life, and talking with Hemingway’s friend, A.E. Hotchner, he clung to his crucifix, asking Hotchner to tell Hemingway his conversion “was the best thing I ever did.”

Bob Hope. The entertainer to beat all entertainers. And, when it came to the spiritual life, the drifter par excellence. In the end, he came face to face with his need for God.  Like many in this book, it was a gradual process. During World War II, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop Emeritus of Washington, told me that Bob became very close to Cardinal Francis Spellman and was amazed that the troops gave him bigger applause. That and the dedication of the troops got him thinking.  Five decades later he finally took the plunge.

Mary Astor. Lovely woman who had a difficult childhood—always escaping.  Her parents viewed her as a cash cow, and eventually she began escaping with alcohol, only to be rescued by God.  She had a special devotion to St. Therese of Lisieux, who was pivotal in her conversion. And, she was very devoted to the Eucharist, realizing how much strength she derived from this beautiful sacrament.

John Wayne. Invincible, willful, loving and saintly.  His was a long, long journey to finding God, which played out dramatically ’til the very end. And, while this is true of everyone, his story is particularly dramatic. As he was nearing the end of his life, after heart surgery in Boston, he was introduced to St. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, the founder of Opus Dei, which for those who don’t know means “Work of God.”  He was the “saint of ordinary work.” I find this anecdote absolutely amazing because if you boil down John Wayne, at his core is a good hearted hard worker.

Ann Sothern. The ultimate survivor. Watch her films and you get this about her. Read her faith journey and you will understand what lies behind that gutsy exterior. A woman of character who found God and, in so doing, survived. Now, Hollywood was teaming with Catholics in the 30s, 40s and 50s—Leo McCarey, Frank Capra, John Ford, Fred Zinneman, and, of course, Hitch, Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Rosalind Russell, Ethel Barrymore and on and on—which made it more likely that Ann would become a Catholic, as with so many in this book. It’s important to keep that context in mind as you read Oasis. Today, there’s a similar phenomenon—evangelical Christians a force, as well.

Jane Wyman. Hers was also a difficult childhood that bred in her a steely and quiet determination. She had lots of problems, rooted in her childhood. And, when she found the Catholic faith, fairly early on, she was a changed woman and there was no turning back.  Many people in Hollywood led her to the faith, including Loretta Young and her sister Sally Forrester, whom she attended mass with. She loved going to Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in the Hollywood Hills. Her nanny was also an influence. [Amazing story of how I came upon her nephew Fr. Joseph Flynn while visiting San Francisco earlier this year.]

Susan Hayward.  A red headed fireball with acting talent on par with Sara Bernhardt. Born into poverty in Brooklyn, New York, like her idol Barbara Stanwyck, she had an incredibly difficult childhood. And, she identified with Bernhardt, who lost a leg. Hayward was terribly nearsighted and as a child, running into the street to rescue her penny kite, she was hit by a car and disabled, ending up with a terrible limp because her leg was set improperly. Her father, a fallen away Catholic who never lived up to his wife’s dreams of success, was loving but weak, and died young. After many difficult years personally, she finally found human and spiritual love, when she met Floyd Eaton Chalkley, a southern gentleman and devout Catholic. But, she died much too young in her mid-50s. Always kept black onyx crucifix, a gift of Pope John XXIII, close by. Gutsy talented star.

Lana Turner.  She, too, had a difficult childhood. You see a pattern here. She became a Catholic at a young age on her own. And, after she was “discovered” and became the “sweater girl,” she grew up much too fast, and the problems only compounded. She did not make great choices in the husband department, but was always looking for love and stability in men. Then, one day, later in life, she looked inward, and found God. As she said—one of the most insightful comments in all my research—she knew God was within her because all the joy and love had to come from somewhere.

Betty Hutton. Known for Annie Get Your Gun. An extremely difficult childhood. Was fiercely determined to escape poverty by using her talent, and did she ever! In unique Hutton fashion! But, the problems continued to multiply. She was always looking for the father she never had. He abandoned the family when she was 2 and then wired a suicide note with $100 when she was 18. As the priest who helped her turn her life around, Fr. Peter McGuire, said, “You’re just a hurt child.” He tutored her and she finished High School and later got her M.A. and taught. She also became a Catholic, not going anywhere without her rosary. She was so insecure and her newfound faith gave her such confidence. She also overcame her addiction to prescription pills. Her story is a real example for what ails so many today.

Ann Miller. She also had a difficult childhood and an incredible heart, and took her mother, who was legally deaf, under her wing, supporting her starting when she was 11 or 12. You know that film, You Can’t Take it With You?  She was just 15! And, God rewarded her. She was baptized just before she died by Fr. Padraic Loftus, now Pastor Emeritus at St. Mel in Woodland Hills, CA, where I’ll be speaking a week from tonight.

Patricia Neal. Now, she had a stable childhood. The book is bookended by stability. And, like Hitch and Coop—and everyone else in this book—she had incredible talent; but was always looking for love, robbed of her innocence an early age, when she trusted the wrong guy. Then she fell in love with Gary Cooper who healed that scar, but it was not a proper relationship, for which both suffered—including Cooper’s family. But, out of that suffering came a beautiful story of love, healing and forgiveness. She became a Catholic shortly before she died and was buried at the Abbey of Regina Laudis, where her “best friend,” Mother Dolores, lives in consecrated life.  Read this story and you’ll be moved and inspired.    

Read all these stories and I think you’ll come away enriched.

A note about the reading process, which is, of course, quite different from the writing process. But the two are complementary. As Charles Scribner Jr., whose grandfather first signed up F. Scott Fitzgerald, wrote, “Reading is a means of thinking with another person’s mind. For learning purposes there is no substitute for one human mind meeting another on the page of a well-written book,” he said.

I hope my book will help you stretch your minds… and warm your hearts.

And, now I commend to you Oasis, and would be delighted to answer your questions.

Oasis at the University Club

Author with George Vassilou at the University Club Book Fair

A wonderful book fair at the University Club on Wednesday, December 2, 2015 featuring "Oasis." We sold out!