DISCLAIMER – This is a massive ‘thank you’ to everyone I’ve met here, as well as a general ‘riff’ on Aideen’s experience in Los Angeles.
Irish people like to think they have a monopoly on friendliness and generosity, but I’ve been STUNNED by the warmth and kindness I’ve encountered here and rendered SPEECHLESS by the myriad of ways Californians have reached out to Aideen, and to me. My every whim has been pandered to, often before I ever knew the whims existed, and by (once) total strangers: From pencil lead (Dr. Ross) to Internet-blocking software (Sean U’Ren), to early books scanners (Carrie Marsh). From velvet couches (Maire Clerkin) to moon-lit terraces (Alyson), from luxurious guest rooms (Pat) to sunsets on the beach (Gar & Kim). From history lessons (Jan) to authentic 1940s Vogue magazines (Doris) and from ballet classes (Amy) to professional editing (Laura). And of course there are my guardian angels: The beautiful and gracious Christine Shields. JJ – who shared the clogged pipes, the chilli hotdogs at 2am, and has an uncanny knack of following my ever-convoluted train of thought. And Maureen Shay who – among a million other feats of generosity – taught me how to use my keys as a lethal weapon when walking back to the car late at night. Truly, a Los Angeles Angel.
When I wasn’t ‘working’, there was the socialising: Laura’s ‘Crazy Cake’ party, the Roller Derby EXPERIENCE (Greg), the LA Galaxy game (Mohammed), The Edison bar and the outdoor screening of ET at the Hollywood Forever cemetery (the gang!).
JJ and I hosted a ‘Smores and Booze’ thing on our terrace to try to express our gratitude to all our new friends and Paddy reciprocated by inviting us to a ‘Capes and Accents’ party where he fed us grilled vegetables grown from his OWN garden. I was one of the ‘accents’, and the ‘capes’ relate to a board game called ‘Settlers of Catan’ which I still can’t get my head around but anyway … I’m grasping for a segue here, and it’s getting closer.
I was adopted by a fabulous group of Ms Shay’s friends, but there have also been a phenomenal number of complete strangers who struck up conversations and shared their experiences of LA – past and present. Which, of course, leads me to wonder about Aideen’s impressions of the city – how she may have tried to make friends, how her social circle formed and shrank, and the kind of people she connected with during her time here. Were there ‘accents and capes’ parties for her?
On her first visit here, in 1938, the Abbey Company seem to have been at every party in the Hollywood Hills. One, hosted by Una O’Connor, Aideen describes affectionately as ‘the usual Hollywood shambles’. The Abbey crew, much like the second cousins at a family wedding, escaped to the lawn where they posed for photographs and, in my imaginings, started their own sing-song. The threesome of Aideen, Boss and Barry frequently schmoozed and entertained in Beverly Hills. There is no mention of Frolie – suggesting that she was elsewhere with Elbert Wickes. Aideen continued to send home a long list of ‘stars’ that she was meeting and charming; unfortunately none of whom I recognize, but I’m sure her sisters were impressed.
On her return here in 1940, things were very different. Boss had a steady stream of parties at RKO and Paramount; Barry rather than Aideen accompanied him. After her brief rehearsal period with Geraldine Fitzgerald, she fell into a spell of doing little other than reading and watching movies. At regular intervals, she wrote to her father, who didn’t respond.
Her only social outlet, it seems, was the church and her only friend, her confessor: Fr. Coglan. Aideen definitely wasn’t the flower-arranging, or church choir type. But she was worrying about her figure and getting older, so she started upon what she called in letters ‘her activities’. I now think that this refers to the YWCA in West Hollywood. Worrying about her ‘health’, it seems Fr. Coglan suggested the ‘gymnasium’, and it was here that she met Bertha.
Learning about Bertha was one of the greatest treats of Christine’s visit, because I discovered that Aideen did have someone here to support her. Bertha couldn’t have been more different from the Hollywood starlets that attended the Blessed Sacrament chapel, who shunned Aideen. Or Aideen shunned them. Although this was her official parish, and was around the corner from the apartment on North Cherokee, she followed Fr. Coglan to a church in the San Fernando Valley.
The Blessed Sacrament retains an air of exclusivity. Of the LONG LIST of parishes I visited, called, e-mailed and otherwise harassed searching for evidence of Aideen’s marriage, they were the only parish that refused point-blank to speak to me, or even to confirm that Fr. Coglan was not one of their priests. Admittedly, I called them the same day that a group of sex abuse survivors in LA announced publicly that they were suing the Vatican. Note to fellow researchers: not a wise move.
Bertha was an American of German descent: Practical, sensible and hard-working, with a streak of fun. Aideen must have craved the no-nonsense humour and fun Frolie had brought to her life. Bertha worked as a masseuse at Aideen’s ‘gym’, and she had a huge bear-like husband called Werner. I puzzled a little about their friendship: what they had in common, how they first connected. But of course – they were both women of a certain age, outsiders to a certain extent, who didn’t have children. Werner and Bertha doted on Christine when she arrived and years later, when Boss and his third wife moved to Santa Barbara, they bought Aideen’s house at 1535 Sierra Bonita Avenue. Bertha kept Aideen close.
Aideen could be stubborn and childish; she was opinionated and headstrong, and her drinking must have exacerbated these aspects of her personality. She was also fiercely independent for much of her life – earning her own money, managing her own affairs, putting up with the criticisms of her family and a number of directors. But then, she always had to be strong – the man she loved was married to someone else and her father refused to have her in his house. Standing on her own two feet at a young age was a necessity, and the people who supported her to do that throughout her life were supremely important to her.
For me, there is nothing more challenging or more satisfying than taking on a city and making it your own. Even in 2011, as a solitary female the challenges are even greater. Taking on Los Angeles was a massive LEAP, and one I never could have taken without the support of incredible friends here. But – I now know that I have to park the car ‘front in’, to turn left at the knife-sharpener stand in the Farmers’ Market to get to the breakfast burritos, and I drink water with electrolytes (for the swollen limbs!). This town is starting to feel like somewhere I could settle, albeit with my keys carefully arranged between my fingers.
It was the question that brought me here, and I’m leaving with an answer. I no longer believe that Los Angeles defeated Aideen. It was the demons that followed her here.
Those demons had been prowling for a while, but I think they took hold in 1939 in New York. Aideen was no longer an Abbey Company ingénue; she was a jobbing actress on Broadway. And in an exquisite twist, as I was getting forlorn about leaving Los Angeles, an envelope with good news (from a funding body to remain nameless until confirmed) dropped into my letterbox in Galway. I no longer have to worry about concluding this blog … because it’s going to be continued in a few months time from New York City.
Funny – I’m writing this sitting out in the evening sunshine, in view of the Hollywood sign and with a squirrel playing around my feet. Yet, over my shoulder I can hear the voice of Elbert Wickes, Abbey Producer. As he used to say to Aideen and Frolie all the time on tour, Smilo is saying: My, my, little lady, ain’t that swell?