Saturday, 3 February 2018

Elegy for a Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - Umberto Tosi

Marjorie Steele
in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, c. 1957
Writing "about what you know" isn't for the faint of heart. Things I know often pain me. It's hard to work the keys with shoulders hunched up cringing, or eyes teary. I'd rather make up stories long ago in a galaxy far away. Such perverse thoughts washed up last week with melancholy at news of the death of someone I knew a seemingly short time, but with-profound effect.

Marjorie Fitzgibbon - nee Steele - died on January 19 of this year. She was the last surviving aunt and immediate maternal family relation of my two eldest daughters, Alicia and Kara. Her passing should have been no shock. Marjorie was 87 and had suffered a stroke, but death  always seems a surprise, even when it's not. To the end she had been a vibrant force. Through the latter decades of her life she was beloved and honoured for her sculptures in Ireland, the most famous of which is the marvelously whimsical larger-than-life-sized James Joyce standing in the heart of Dublin.

Marjorie Fitzgibbon's jaunty
James Joyce on Dublin's
North Earl Street
She came to sculpting in midlife without prior experience, after a honeymoon in Greece with her third, and final husband, esteemed U.S.-born, Irish historian and novelist Constantine Fitzgibbon, whom she married in 1967 and with whom she had a daughter, Oonagh. Inspired by ancient Greek icons, Marjorie plunged into studying the art. As she developed her skills, she became known for the inner life she gave to her prodigious output of works. Today she leaves scores of major statues and sculptures  - including life-size and larger portraits Stephen Hawking and Pope John Paul II  - on permanent display in Europe, North and Central America. Sculpture the second of two careers, the first being as a film and stage actress - Marjorie Steele - of some note. Born in extreme poverty, she also become a confidante of poets, playwrights and celebrities worldwide, and a celebrity of sorts herself - and a woman of great wealth for a time through marriage although money never seemed important to her and I believe even a curse.

Marjorie Steele Fitzgibbon was my sister-in-law many long years ago when I was married to one of her kid siblings, Ora Steele. I first met Marjorie in midsummer of 1958 at my then mother-in-law's Bauhaus glass-and-concrete home perched high on a hillside in the Santa Monica Mountains overlooking a wide sweep of Los Angeles. We all went down to the pool, a kidney-shaped affair on a bluff. It was rare to have all four of the Steele sisters together in during that time - Emily ("Duffy"), the eldest, Marjorie and the twins - Ora and Lola. They shared a rough childhood. The family had lived in a two-room cabin in Reno, Nevada, where Marjorie was born, and after the twins arrived, in a decaying Victorian in a then-trashy, rough part of San Francisco.

Ora was a few months pregnant at the time Marjorie visited L.A. I was a gelatinous bowl of insecurities with dreams of becoming a writer and faking it as a "copy boy" (a job of the past, thanks-be) at the Los Angeles Times and went to college part time. "I work at the Times, I would say, and leave out the copy boy thing. (Marjorie gave us a navy blue, Silver Cross Kensington pram, a Rolls Royce of baby carriages in blue leatherette, with high chrome-spoked wheels and white tires - a generous check and an advance copy of the "What'd I Say," by the then-new rage soul singer Ray Charles.

Marjorie Fitzgibbon
at her Dublin studio
Marjorie had come to L.A. with the Broadway touring cast of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She had replaced Barbara Bel Geddes, the Great White Way's opening Maggie the Cat, in the second year of the original hit 1955-56 New York production. Tennessee Williams picked her personally for the lead role in the America cast. Marjorie was in the midst of building a stage and film career at the time. She also was fabulously wealthy by way of what the press dubbed a "Cinderella marriage" to multimillionaire supermarket-chain scion Huntington Hartford. at the time one of the richest people in the world. Her husband's riches cut both ways. She abhorred the snide gossip columnists and second-rate critics who sniped that Hartford's money financed her acting career, which was not true. If anything, it was a handicap to overcome with casting. Her "Maggie the Cat" was a hit - enhancing her legitimacy as the fine actress that she was.

Hartford was a rich playboy, frequenter of boozy, posh, celebrity nightclubs, the kind you see in those old movies, the most star-frequented of which was Ciro's on the Sunset Strip. That's where they met. He was 39. She was 19. She worked nights at Ciro's as a "cigarette girl" to support herself while she went to acting school on a scholarship. There she met "Hunt," well heeled regular. She enchanted him amid the glitz, then married and turned him her way in the deepest sense - at least for a while.

They married in 1949 after a paparazzi-pursued romance. In a short time she managed to transform her new husband from a trust-fund sybarite into a man with purpose, or at least trying for it. Do something good with that wealth, she urged him. As her suggestion, Hunt bought land on Columbus Circle and built Manhattan's Gallery of Modern Art with the contrarian mission of displaying alternatives to then exclusively trendy abstract work. He started an art colony near Pacific Palisades in Los Angeles and hired Frank Lloyd Wright to design it. Hunt funded it for 15 years supporting hundreds creative writers, artists and composers. Hunt was no walk in the park, although Marjorie professed to have loved him. He was stubborn and opinionated - controversial and often inconsistent opponent of 20th-century modernism. Marjorie, never forgetting her humble beginnings also shamed Hunt into giving his typically neglected servants and underpaid staff decent wages and benefits. She bore Hartford two children, Catherine and John.
Marjorie and Hartford
with daughter Cathy c. 1954

Hartford's debauched habits resurfaced and grew, however. Before long, he resumed his womanizing and pill-popping boozery, and the last straw, came hushed-up accusations of consorting with underage girls. She divorced Hartford in 1960. She won a handsome settlement, though remarried for love not long afterwards, foregoing a big-bucks alimony. Marjorie's second husband Dudley Sutton, a little known actor when they wed in 1961, became and remains a familiar to UK audiences for numerous film and TV series roles. They divorced in 1965 and have a son, Peter.

Marjorie spent all of her adult life around writers, artists and celebrities, high and low, though glitz never seduced her. Like a million other attractive ambitious young women from rough homes across America, Marjorie had taken a bus to Hollywood in the late 1940s with a few saved-up dollars and the dream of getting into the movies. But she was so much more than such cliches could capture. She was a gutsy, independent-minded, insightful thinker, a voracious reader. She had also been a brash revolutionary with leftist ideals who had worked with Socialist Workers Party union organizers and waved placards for peace in lefty San Francisco. That was risky business in that red-scare, witch-hunted, blacklisting McCarthy-era.

With second husband,
actor Dudley Sutton c. 1965
The press - fixated on her Cinderella story - missed that bit of irony, luckily perhaps. Her family kept her lefty activism to themselves.  Her sister and I, who ran with Ban-the-Bomb, artsy, Beat Generation types, knew that. The Cold War right made progressivism a bad word when it should have been a badge of honor. The press - all agog over her rags-to-riches romance, failed to notice. Being on the left made one a piraiah in the 1950s, though one in good company with the likes of "citizen of the world" Charlie Chaplin - shamefully banned from America - another of those luminaries - along with third Chaplin wife Oona O'Neill, daughter of Eugene O'Neill, with whom Marjorie later developed close friendships in her post-Hartford London days.

Marjorie Steele was luminous the night we saw her on stage as Tennessee Williams' Maggie. But one didn't need to see her performance to recognize that she was special at first glance. She was one of those people who steal every scene, with her persona, not just her graceful beauty. One - I was to perceive over the years - who comes along once in wine-coloured blue supermoon that is rising out my window to the east as I type this post here in Chicago.

Marjorie with Robert Preston
in The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky
Some of my favorite fiction is autobiographical - a staple of the masters. I might be too faint of heart to write it myself, or just lack the interest. I feel that I've been more spectator than actor in the dramas I've witnessed, and thankfully so in most cases. Perhaps every writer must overcome that voice that discourages revelations and pooh-poohs the notion that one's life is of any interest to contemporary readers. My reservations notwithstanding, I shared personal experiences in some of my stories. Our Own Kind, a novella I had intended to write about the time of social upheaval and assassinations in 1968 - more timely now than when I penned it three years ago. I started with the sweep of history up close, but ended up basing it on the the year of custody battles and wrenching adjustment following my turbulent divorce from Marjorie's sister Ora. Likewise another of my novellas, Gunning for the Holy Ghost, was inspired by a real life parochial school experience during a preadolescent turning point that was both hilarious and frightening.

with Robert Ryan in No Escape, 1953
Marjorie never wrote about her life either, that I know of, though she well could have. Somebody should. Marjorie never needed Hartford's riches to get ahead. The young Marjorie starred in a credible list of films and early television dramas through the 1950s into the 60s, albeit some of them b-movies like the noir mystery mashups, Tough Assignment (1949) and No Escape (1953). She earned praise for everything screen appearance - especially for her best, a wry adaptation of Stephen Crane's The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky (aka "Face to Face") alongside Robert Preston. She excelled even more on stage.

My L.A.-born, eldest daughter Alicia Sammons, who now lives in Mexico City, described the refulgent and tragic moments of her Aunt Marjorie's extraordinary life in a 2005 profile in the Irish Independent. Alicia noted of their conversations at Marjorie's Dublin that even in her advanced years, "Marjorie's tilted green eyes, slightly tipped nose and full lips still shine through. I have travelled half way around the world to spend time with this wonderfully witty and perceptive woman - a woman who has become a mentor and mother to me."

The twins, l-to-r, Ora and Lola
with their father, Jack, c 1950
The Steele sisters were star-crossed. All of them bright, talented and passionate, all marked by tragedy, three of their lives shorted by the ravages of depression, alcohol and/or substance abuse. Only Marjorie - who battled manic-depression all her live, lived fully to a ripe old age. Their father Jack's shotgun suicide in the prime of life hung over them. They talked about him incessantly in glowing terms as if to enshrine him in an heroic niche away from all the pain."The children of suicides are quick to believe that no one loves them," Toni Morrison observed in her 1992 novel Jazz. That was so wrenchingly true for the Steele sisters over the years that they were family to me during my youth. Marjorie battled depression all her life. The sisters and mother fought among themselves viciously between brief periods of solidarity. It was always one pairing up against another in shifting, accusatory, paranoid alliances, in person - somethings devolving into physical violence - and hours-long drunken phone calls.

Jack Steele
in happier days
But that was all below the sunny surface in those early days of my marriage to Ora - as was the telling of their story. The Steele family had reached its turning point years before that, I was to understand only in hindsight. Upon her marriage to Hartford in 1949, Marjorie - ever magnanimous in spirit as well as substance - had used her sudden wealth to help her father realise his dream of owning a ranch. She bought her parents a spread in Thousand Oaks where movie stars keep their horses just outside of Los Angeles. The clan abandoned their roach-infested San Francisco tenement and moved right in along with the twins, Ora and Lola, then 12 years old.

Jack, his daughters who continued to worship him no matter what. They said he was a princely man of intelligence and grace. A warrior of Native American descent - whose mother had been a Blackfoot Sioux - married to an attractive, wilful first-generation Swedish-American from Reno, Nevada, he struggled all his life against the bigotry rampant of his time - and outrageously persisting to this Trumpian day. A dreamer, he also took to drink.

The Steele sisters on San Francisco's Ocean Beach, c. 1945.
l-to-r: Marjorie, Lola, Duffy, a friend and little Ora
The ranch given him by his shining daughter did not lift his cloud. Neither did the gift of his four daughters. His drinking continued to worsen. He took his own life one day after a drunken family quarrel. One thought he was alone in the house when he locked himself in a back bathroom and put a shotgun in his mouth. But the twins - still in their mid-teens - had come home early from school. They heard a shot and discovered her father's body. Marjorie, generous, yet never one to set store by the power of money. It was an object lesson in sometimes having to accept sometimes being powerless to avert tragedy, especially with money, but even with love. It was the same, no doubt, with the death of Marjorie's first daughter - with Hartford - Cathy, who died of a drug overdose at age 28 in the prime of life. Something, she said, she never got over - yet had to go on.

Ora, the younger, seemed a happy, vibrant young woman when we married at the tender ages of 19 and 20. But this turned out to have been only a brief remission from chronic bipolar disorder. She never got over that suicide in her immediate presence. Who would? She suffered from juvenile high blood pressure, bouts of paranoia, delusions and drinking that grew worse over the years, off-and-on, through a second marriage until an early death from complications of alcoholism in her mid-fifties. I've always marveled at how a single act - for good or ill - can ripple through so many lives over generations. That suicide haunted Ora, whose resulting grief and repressed fury haunted me and especially her children. I never really wrote about that. But I did fashion one passage of Our Own Kind from this grisly memory from how Ora had described to me during our courtship and marriage. I had qualms, but that's what writers do.

Marjorie Steele c. 1960
The news of Marjorie's death reminded me of that first day in the California sunshine by that sparkling swimming pool - of the four sisters together, laughing - not arguing - as I was to learn was their default status. They were all smart, beautiful in form and faculty, talented and eager in a world of possibilities. We were all young. Emily (aka "Duffy", the eldest, was a gifted illustrator and country western singer. Marjorie, of course, was the legendary Marjorie. Lola studied classical ballet and modern dance, and was performing for a local troupe. Young Ora played Beethoven, Chopin and Mozart on the piano, and read, read, read. Three died young. Duffy committed suicide in her 50s. Lola died of a gunshot investigated as a possible murder by a drunken husband, but ruled an accident contributed to by drugs and alcohol. Of the sisters, that left only Marjorie to soldier on - as she did, overcoming all obstacles - well into the 21st century.

The Steele Sisters' star-crossed lives is the stuff of great novels. At this point, though, such is not mine to write. My daughter Kara, who lives in Montana, has written moving, lyrical poetry sorting through her family experiences. My eldest, Alicia, has written often for various publications and tells me she has considered such a biographical work about her mother's family, though she leads a full life and has her hands full with her present career and accomplishments. In any case, I recommend the aforementioned 2005 profile in the Irish Independent - drawn from a series of conversations at Marjorie's Dublin home - for its vivid details of Marjorie's life too numerous and too far from my ken to note here.

Marjorie Steele FitzGibbon was born into poverty, knew enormous wealth for a while and died loved and respected in modest comfort. But she grew rich in heart and spirit all of her life. Somewhere, perhaps as a child, she figured out the secret of a truly rich life was not to take, but give and do one's best to make this world a better place. And give she did through her talent, her art, her perseverance.  She was a great Maggie. I'll never forget that performance. She didn't just speak the lines; she lived in them, for she knew true hardship and understood the price of existential triumph.

Most of all, like Maggie the Cat, Marjorie had true grit:

"What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?" Brick taunts her.
"Staying on it, I guess," Maggie responds, "long as I can."
And later: "Maggie the cat is alive. I'm alive!"
-------------------------------------------

Umberto Tosi is the author of My Dog's NameOphelia RisingMilagro on 34th Street and Our Own KindHis short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes ASAP, covering the Silicon Valley tech industry. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine and other regionals He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four grown children - Alicia Sammons, Kara Towe, Cristina Sheppard and Zoë Tosi - and resides in Chicago partnered with artist Eleanor Spiess-Ferris. (Umberto3000@gmail.com)


10 comments:

Dot Schwarz said...

Tosi's writing warms my heart

Dot Schwarz said...

Tosi's writing warms my heart

Dipika Mukherjee said...

What gorgeous writing here Umberto! I need to read all your writing on this marvelous, flawed & talented family. I can only imagine how luminous Maggie must have been in real life ... you are lucky indeed to have been a part of that glorious life. A wonderful post indeed.

Susan Price said...

Yes, a wonderful post, as ever, Umberto. Thank you.

Enid Richemont said...

Wow! As a once-Dubliner (I was an art student there) I am SO impressed. What an amazing woman!

Fran B said...

I have always wanted to go to Dublin but now I MUST - to see JJ's statue! Lovely tribute.

Cecilia Peartree said...

What a great tribute, and a wonderful blog post.

Umberto Tosi said...

Thank you Dot, Dipika, Susan, Enid, Fran B and Cecilia! Your comments warm my heart!

Jan Needle said...

I'm late to the party, Umberto, but thanks anyway. An amazing, wonderful tale.

Marsha Coupé said...

((( B R A V O ))) Umberto!
((( E N C O R E )))
What a story. What a woman.
Greatly enjoyed reading this.