Remarks at St. Francis of Assisi
Newburgh, New York
By Mary Claire Kendall
Wednesday, March 28, 2018, 6:30-8:00 PM
It’s great to be back at St. Francis of Assisi!
Some of you were here last year and I see a lot of new faces.
I’m Mary Claire Kendall, author of Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends.
We’re coming in for a landing on this first edition of Oasis I, and now, I’m writing Oasis II – including the stories of Hattie McDaniel, Babe Ruth, Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Stewart, Alec Guinness and Jack Lemmon… The other six, including Frank Capra, James Cagney, Rosalind Russell, Ronald Reagan, Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly, might have to go into Oasis III. I’m already at 60,000 words!
Eleven years ago when I started down this road, I reached out to Betty Hutton. She was not long for this world. She died that March of 2007.
That summer, after Newport Life Magazine greenlit an article about Betty, I reached out to her friend, A.C. Lyles.
He was a legend at Paramount, having worked there since 1936—and before that at the Paramount Theater in Jacksonville, starting in 1928 at age 10!
A.C. knew all the stars. Betty. Gary Cooper, who had helped A.C. get out to Hollywood. James Cagney, who, along with Ronald Reagan, were his best friends in Hollywood. And, Spencer Tracy. (A.C. said my next article should be about Spence and his son John. It was!)
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. And, what a contrast living without it. As my great grandmother Lillian, herself a convert, wrote in her diary, the Catholic Faith “lightened the burdens of life.”
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.
They all travelled long and winding roads, including:
Often difficult childhoods.
Universally challenging climbs to the top.
Celebrity and fame. And, what that does to a soul!
But, in the amazing way that God brings good out of evil, these problems 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.
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, “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. 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 went to mass with. She loved going to Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in the Hollywood Hills. Her nanny was also an influence.
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.
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.
And, now let me say a little about some stars I’m writing about in Oasis II.
Hattie McDaniel. She was the first African-American to win an Oscar for her supporting role in Gone with the Wind (1939) as Mamie, and had great faith. She always said, “I did my best and let God do the rest.” Her father was a saint. He was wounded in the Civil War, and as a former slave, did not receive proper care and then was denied a disability pension for years. He and his wife lost several children because they were malnourished. Then came their bouncing baby girl Hattie, the youngest of 13, born in Wichita, Kansas, where she lived until her family moved to Denver in 1910. Then it was onto Chicago singing the blues in 20s, then Milwaukee at the start of the Great Depression, after the musical, “Showboat,” she was starring in shuttered. She was “discovered” in a washroom. Then, it was onto Hollywood in the early 30s, where she followed her performing siblings. She had an indomitable spirit. She needed it. She faced discrimination from all sides and died at the too-young age of 52. Interestingly, her sister, Etta, also a film star, was a Catholic convert.
Babe Ruth. Still researching his murky antecedents. What is known is he was born in 1894 or 1895 and essentially orphaned about age 7. Formed by the Xaverian Brothers at St. Mary’s Industrial School in Baltimore, he converted to Catholicism around age 11 and was taught the game of baseball by Fr. Mathias, who later helped him get back on the straight and narrow. His record-breaking talent and skill was “a gift,” Babe said. He was also cursed by overweening appetites. But, he always returned to God – going to confession and mass after evenings of alcoholic and carnal excess. He made his peace with God, receiving the sacraments before he died at the too young age of 53 (54), something Fr. Damroth has knowledge of.
Spencer Tracy. Born in Milwaukee in 1900, he was a hyperactive hellion, once nearly burning the house down. But, he developed a devout side. His father Carroll always wanted him to be a priest. But, his vocation was to be an actor. It’s perhaps not too much of a stretch to say he was to acting what the Babe was to baseball. With a conscience that would not quit. He had great demons he sought to numb through alcohol. He and his wife Louise had a deaf son, John, who gradually went blind. His friend Pat O’Brien said, after he found out the news, he had his first “big drunk.” In some way, he thought he was the cause of his son’s disability. Which, of course, could not be further from the truth. It was God’s plan. For his son played a key role in Spence’s life—helping him overcome a natural laziness and excel in acting because he needed to support John financially. He was great at everything but life, he said. John, his son, excelled at life. In the end, Spence came full-circle, after all his affairs and bad boy behavior, once again fully embracing the faith of his youth.
Now, I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have. And, then, I’ll sign some books.
|Replica of Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto on the grounds of|
St. Francis of Assisi Church, Newburgh, New York