59 – Alien Christmases & Illegal Aliens

“Text us to let us know when you get back in,” a mother says to her son in a low voice at Dublin airport. He is boarding a flight for the US. Her request avoids the painful truth; if he doesn’t get back in but gets arrested or deported as illegal she will know about it soon enough. Her eyes are red but she isn’t crying. They hug quickly and separate.

I was coming back from spending the New Year in the Czech Republic with my sister-in-law and her family. There was an emotional farewell, but then my sister-in-law took every opportunity to proudly display her new passport, which has a Czech Republic cover but is emblazoned with “O’Dowd”. As an only child, she has ended the line of her family name by choosing to be an O’Dowd. (God bless her…) She is legal, but is also secure about the decision she has made. Many Irish emigrants are not as certain. Over many joyfully reunited families this Christmas hung the dark shadow of the immigration issues January would bring.


On St Stephen’s day in 1941, Arthur Shields walked the few blocks to the Post Office and sent an urgent telegram to Eddie Choates.

Aideen goes to Vancouver January 6th. A letter as you suggest would be very helpful writing. Boss.

The couple had spent Christmas with Barry Fitzgerald at his new house at 1734 North Gardner Street. Check out the luxury on Google Maps.

I suspect Barry was amused that he was living on a “Gardner Street” in Hollywood, given that it’s a rather less salubrious address in Dublin.

Aideen never got used to spending Christmas in sunshine, but her housekeeping and cooking were starting to improve. She managed to get a British plum pudding, and there were plenty of cocktails to allay the heat.

When I spoke to Susan Slott (actress and niece of Boss) about her childhood in Hollywood, she remembered the ongoing issue of her own mother’s status as an “illegal alien” in America. I have a sense, however, that this status was something of a badge for the Irish women to wear with pride. Then as now, they refuse to be American even as they cling to the steady work, and become accustomed to the lifestyle. They don’t want to go home; yet they’re not quite certain they want American citizenship either.

Anyway. Back to facts:

Aideen left for Vancouver with her stomach still bloated from the plum pudding and wearing the perfume Arthur had given her as a present. She took a tram and then a train, rumbling through the mountains in darkness, dozing and dreaming. She had a bag packed with books, magazines, warm clothes and one smart dress. She took a spanking new journal – the thin diaries she loved — and a bottle of something, carefully stashed.

It wasn’t an entirely new journey. The Abbey Company had often taken the train from the Vancouver to Los Angeles while on tour. Arthur himself had loved the city, recalling it as a place with  ‘something queer around every corner’. It had a Chinese quarter, a Sikh quarter [and] lots of ‘interesting looking oriental people’.

By 1941, it was less interesting than threatening. Vancouver was, Aideeen discovered, a city at war. There were blackouts and curfews and rationing. She said in January:

I had a real taste of a country at war in Vancouver. There the people were alert 24 hours a day. There were restrictions and partial blackouts and army life got the first place with civilians second. I guess that this will gradually happen here.

It hadn’t happened yet in Hollywood; the city was thriving from the industrial boom generated by World War II. Still having problems finding work on her return, Aideen set her mind to helping with the war effort. She applied to the Red Cross, but was disgusted when they declined her, saying she lacked a necessary skill.

Well, I ask you! Braille! They are the snuttiest [sic] crowd and seem to be trying to keep the Red Cross for the social and movie crowd when everyone in the country is needed.

I can’t help wondering if the polite decline related more to her shakey immigration status than her braille. But she was right about the social and movie crowd doing their bit. The Hollywood Canteen would open the following year, becoming a hot spot where the troops were fed and entertained by the stars. Kay Swift would also come to Hollywood that year, staying with Aideen and Arthur while she held meetings about movie projects.

That was all in the future – as was Basie’s death, their marriage, the birth of Christine. For now, Aideen was travelling on her own. She had letters from theatre producers promising phoney work and papers from her original solicitors on Wicklow Street. There was no family worrying about her; in fact, if she had risked coming back to Dublin for Christmas she may have been shunned by her sisters.

“Call me when you get in,” I imagine Arthur saying to Aideen as she boards the train in Los Angeles. They hug briefly on the platform and then separate. There are no tears and Aideen doesn’t look back.

PS – If any artistic patrons or benefactors would like to sponsor a ticket for me to take this train from Los Angeles to Vancouver, I could write a wonderful blog post rich with detail … Just saying.

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