Carnival of Familial Souls

 

fair

In my last post, I talked about my grandmother. Sadly – and I don’t fault her for this – she was merely a sheet of newspaper that the wind blew toward me one November day. But since I’m plucking walnuts from the family tree, I might as well keep plucking, and climb out on another limb.

These kinfolk, to my knowledge, never experienced forced incarceration like Grandma. But they may be even more interesting, if only because they managed to circulate amongst “normal” society. It’s no coincidence that three of them share the same bloodline as Grandma.

All are long deceased, I’m not using last names, and there are no living descendants, so I shouldn’t need to worry about a libel suit. If their ghosts visit me some night of the full moon… well, if I can avoid strangulation or suffocation, their specters will provide enthralling material for a future nonsensical longitudes post.

Grandma had an older sister named Blanche. According to my dad (who heard it from his dad), Blanche was even more “peculiar” than Grandma. My aunt claims that Blanche used to cook meals while dancing around in her wedding gown. Since the name Blanche is French for “white,” this makes sense. Maybe it was the only garment she owned, because my mom says that, after she drove her husband to his death by suicide (my aunt’s theory) or a broken heart (my dad’s theory), she was reduced to scrubbing toilets in Penn Station (for you younger readers, I’m not referring to the fast-food chain, but a historic passenger terminal in New York City).

But this was during the Depression, and I’m sure a lot of people felt lucky to be employed scrubbing toilets.

Blanche had two children, Virginia and John. John, like his heartbroken and/or suicidal father, died mysteriously at a young age. John fancied himself a poet. My dad knew him and said he was “a real oddball.” But my dad hated non-pragmatic things like poetry, so maybe that’s why he considered John an oddball.

After John died, his mother (Blanche, the toilet cleaner with the wedding dress) paid for a large copper caricature of him to be embedded in his tombstone, accompanied by the words “The Forgotten Poet.”

(If this is getting too weird for y’all, I won’t be offended if you stop reading).

Virginia (John’s sister) was the most normal one in the family. But even she had her idiosyncrasies. She deliberately married a gay guy named Bown (the silent film buff who was in my last post). Now, I’m all for gay marriage. But I’ve never heard of a gay man and a straight woman exchanging vows. Do people do that? What the heck was he thinking?

Like my piano-playing grandmother and failed-poet cousin, Virginia and Bown were artsy-fartsy. But their domain was theater.

They ran an acting studio in Manhattan in the 1950s. Some of their plays were written by Bown, who seems to have been sort of an Ed Wood of New York theater. One of the plays was a one-character oddity starring a woman who was both deaf and blind. This was a very compassionate and progressive thing for Bown to attempt. I’m assuming the actress wasn’t also dumb. Now that would have been really avant-garde.

Even though this “Professional Actors’ Studio” was off-off-off-off-Broadway, a few big names did pass through. One of the students was television and movie star John Forsythe. So was either Ann Blyth (MILDRED PIERCE) or Anne Baxter (ALL ABOUT EVE)… one of those Annie B’s, anyway. And Kirk Douglas briefly was a guest instructor. Probably very briefly.

My impression is that Bown was the mastermind behind this troupe, and Virginia merely acted. Or, at least, tried to. I Googled their studio once and came across a review by noted theater critic Kenneth Tynan of a production of theirs. Virginia had the lead role in the play. Tynan referred to her as a “rock-like creature.” The play was called “Queen Lear.”

(Folks, I’m not making this stuff up).

This acting studio seemed to exist in a New York City nether world: it aspired to artistic greatness, but was permanently stuck in mediocrity (similar to this blog… hey, at least we aspire). There’s little evidence it even existed, other than one or two small newspaper blurbs. Bown closed it down abruptly one day after he caught several of his actors backstage smoking marijuana. It wasn’t so much that he objected to the drug’s illegality. It was because the incident deeply saddened him: he felt that acting was the highest “high” in life, and one shouldn’t need anything else.

Later on, Bown amassed one of the largest collections of silent films in the country. It’s now preserved at Phillips Exeter Academy in Massachusetts.

carnival-of-souls

Well, there you have it. Bown, Virginia, Blanche, and John the Forgotten Poet. Somewhere I’m sure they’re happily munching popcorn together while watching one of Bown’s favorite silent films.

It may sound like I’m poking fun at these people. But I honestly don’t mean any harm. I’m sure all were very nice (maybe even Blanche). I just find curios like these interesting, and they definitely make for great conversation. Every family seems to have at least one member who’s a little “off:” the free-spirited uncle, the bawdy aunt, the self-destructive sibling, the perverted grandpa. I just happen to have several.

Whether or not I’m a similar curio, or whether or not I’m evolving into one, I’ll leave for others to judge.

the-end

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17 thoughts on “Carnival of Familial Souls

    • All this stuff was a mystery to me until a few years ago, when I got into genealogy and started asking questions. I was, like, “What the f***??” I guess all families have doors that have been shut, and it just takes turning the knob (assuming no one’s locked the door!).

  1. Peter: with the passing of both my parents years ago I inherited a chest full of photo albums and letters. I scanned in all the photos over a couple of years. These were mostly normal, but there are also the occasional “other women” and “other men” who show up in the group shots, and I feta wonder if I could have been somebody else. Next is to vet the letters. These go back to the early 1920s. Some advise against reading other people’s mail. We’ll see if I should pay attention to that.

  2. Ok Pete here’s the deal. How can we travel back in time and catch a couple of those “Ed Wood” like plays? Very interesting stuff. CB loves those kinds of family history stories. I think we all have stories like that floating around. Loved that Blanche still did what she had to do to feed the family. Says something about her character. Great story.

    • Thanks as always, CBH. I often wish I had a time machine. Would’ve loved to have known Blanche (she died in ’65). I inherited a baby photo of her, and someone (my grandmother, probably) had scribbled on the back, “When goddess was little.” She must have been a real treat. I envision a sort of Joan Crawford, diva type.

      • It’s like the photo you spoke of in ‘Hombre’. Stirs up some ghosts. I’m working on something to do with my grandfather and his bootlegging days. Lots of good stuff to draw on. ( Joan and Bette in ‘Baby Jane’. Crawford’s character was named “Blanche”).

      • “Bootlegging”? Now that sounds appetizing! I totally forgot about Crawford’s name in that movie (spooky). I read that Davis hated Crawford, and deliberately roughed her up during the making of that flick. Now you’ve got me in a movie mood…my next post is aimed at you!

    • That is so nice of you! I’m sure your family history is interesting, too, though. I notice you are from the U.K. Lots of us here in the states are curious about stories, family or other, from that place (I know I am). Thanks for your comment!

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