In Hollywood, we lived in two small cottages adjoining the tennis court of an old estate, my mother in one, my sister and I in the other. I was 10 and my sister was 7. The tennis court was cracked and no one ever played there, but we nonetheless thought of our new home as our hideaway, and we loved it. Evenings, I would “go next door” and sit with my mother and read her script as she memorized lines for her next show.
My dad arrived in our lives when I was about 11. My mother had known him slightly in New York, it seems, and now he had sought her out in L.A. He took us on drives through Santa Monica, out to the ocean. There, the briny fog, the smell of salt in the air, and the feel of hot sand greeted us. I thought back to New York, the city we had left behind on a bitterly cold February morning. Here, we were starting a whole new life of warmth by the sea. And my mother was rescued, for it looked like I was getting a new dad. I liked him. He was tall and gangly, with devilish laughing eyes like Jack Nicholson and big, pointy Spock-like ears. I was deliriously happy. He wanted boys, but we were second best. My mother said she was tired of television, worn out. After a number of weekend visits we found a house and moved to Malibu. She was happy to retire from acting, at first. And soon, two more children would come along.
I believe my dad and my mother were happy together their first few years. On Saturdays they dropped my sister and me off at the Aero theater in Santa Monica (ticket 25 cents) to watch two or even three movies, and came back hours later to pick us up. We imagined they were enjoying themselves, alone and together.
My dad built tree houses all over our hill above the ocean for my new friends and me. We were a “macha” group of tomboys, calling ourselves “The Stinky Five.” We’d sit high up in our tree house and shoot dried mackerel eyeballs through peashooters at the boys below. We’d caught the mackerel – ripe for pop-out eye surgery – at a fishing derby where I had also won a fishing reel and a pole. I used it to fly kites.
Rattlesnakes were rampant on the dry, newly built hillsides of Malibu. My dad told us to stand very still if confronted by one, because snakes can only see movement; and he taught us how to approach a rattlesnake and quickly chop off its head. We made a sport of hunting rattlesnakes, chop chop, and collecting the rattles at their tail ends. We competed to see who could amass the most rattles. I still have a string of six rattles in a treasure box.
Acclimating to country life was a challenge. It was quite a transition from the cold bricks of Manhattan to the sagebrush hills and the ocean, from fancy snowsuits to dirt covered blue jeans. And I had to fit in with a whole new set of scrappy girls, who tested me. They made me mount one of their horses and then kicked the horse until it threw me off, repeating this mean game until I finally held on and gamboled along the Cliffside—and then—whew! We were true pals. Before this, the only horses I had seen were the ones drawing carriages in Central Park. I could show you exactly the spot where I proved myself worthy of these girls. We were great friends from then on, all through high school in Santa Monica. We earned the sobriquet the “Amazons from Malibu.” Ah, the cruelty of young girls.
My dad patiently taught me to shoot a bow and arrow, to shoot a shotgun at skeet’s, to play badminton and tetherball, even to gap sparkplugs and change oil. When I “ran away” from home after family arguments, he always picked me up from the beach. A happy time they were, those early days of riding waves and playing beach volleyball and my parents whooping it up, dashing across the Pacific Coast Highway to the sand where they drifted into the classic ‘50s excess of smoking and drinking, and barbecuing.
My dad had a perverse sense of humor. Sometimes he would tell his kids to “go out and play on the yellow line of the highway.” He insisted that the phrase painted on the road said pityingly, “Slow children at play.” And he was heroic in my eyes. When the furious Malibu fires of 1956 lit up the entire 25-mile stretch of Malibu, he and other dads refused to leave. They saved our homes by sandbagging the houses and hosing away the sparks. I have an enduring image of watching Malibu burn on TV, from the safe enclave of the movie colony at the beach: watching horses run into the sea.
He was a writer, my dad. For money, he wrote copy for the space industry, but it made him miserable. He fancied himself a literary writer. I heard him clacking the keys all night, and I watched his discouraged slump as he walked back from the mailbox, arms full of rejected stories returned by magazines. Several years later when the space industry in L.A. massively cut back, he lost his job.
He and I truly bonded when I was a teenager. I started hanging out at the Cafe Positano, a newly “beat” cafe in Malibu, weighted down by black mascara and black everything. My dad and I read Allen Ginsburg’s Howl. I read stanzas to him, and we commiserated. At 15, I suddenly knew all about life. I wrote a paper for my Junior English class, “Life is a Lousy Drag,” which he liked. He took me up to visit his alma mater, UC Berkeley – which he had attended on the GI bill: and I knew where I would be going to college. We toured all the Beat spots in San Francisco where he’d hung out – dinner at the Iron Pot, jazz at the Hungry I… He showed me the famous old Firehouse on Channing Street where he had lived. Kindred spirits were we.
My mother suffered our mutual admiration. A regal hand-wringer, she recollected her own glamorous days of times past. Now she embraced a new role, as martyr to the four of us kids. She thickened the air with her resentment, her theatrical sighing. But of course she said nothing out loud. She was a woman of the fifties. She had given up Hollywood for dad and his babies, even though she was not terribly fond of small children. Her celebrity mannerisms remained intact, however, and she was still glamorously beautiful, if strained around the mouth. My lasting image is of her swinging by the table with her cigarette and vodka, making a dramatic pronouncement about our dinner conversation, which we ignored. I did not warm to her during this time, for “my heart belonged to daddy.”
In time, I left behind my golden-Gidget surfing culture; beach life felt more and more limiting as my aspirations evolved. I left my adorable younger sister and brother, and my increasingly estranged mom and dad, and headed off to college: the Berkeley of the Sixties
And this is when we became almost tragic. One night over dinner, when I was home for holidays, my dad and I were absorbed in conversation, talking about Berkeley in the sixties, Berkeley in the forties – when my mother suddenly made a grand exit. She drove up into the hills, with pills. When they found her, alive, she said she wanted to get out of our way. My dad left the note she had written, lying open on their bed. Clearly, he wanted me to see it.
He drove me back to Berkeley, then, for my sophomore year. Over 400 miles, he swilled brandy, babbled out his postwar memories, and complained of my frigid mother. Finally, I had to take the wheel. When I moved to get out of the car at my house on Blake Street he tried to kiss me on the lips. I swerved away; I fled. Never had I felt so low, so cornered.
Later, on another of my visits home, my mother erupted in a mad rage at me. She had found my birth control pills. She unleashed a tantrum, threw the pills across the room, and screamed that I was a whore.
All this while my dad was trying to make a go of his other passion—vintage jeeps. He opened a jeep repair shop. But it failed, he failed, and he left us. He went off to the Mojave Desert, and later to Mexico. And we lost our beautiful house on the hill above the sea.
My mother and my two youngest siblings moved to a mobile home park at the northern tip of Malibu, in Paradise Cove – quite a step down, even if the park was on the ocean and featured on Good Morning America as the most upscale mobile home park in the country. She was on welfare, briefly, and was given food stamps. Once I took her to the supermarket, and when we were checking out she refused to use the food stamps. She was a fairly public figure in town and she didn’t wants anyone to see her using food stamps. She couldn’t bear the shame. I was annoyed with her at the time, as I was in my full impoverished-hippie/lefty-grad-student phase, and to me food stamps were a blessing. But later I understood, and my anger at my dad grew.
My mother had to go back to work. She took two jobs, editing for the Malibu Times, and hostessing at the Paradise Cove Restaurant. She was always tired, and we were all concerned that she was pushing herself too hard. My brother and sister grew up in that mobile home, and she lived there until she died, in 1991. The weekend after her death, a big sign hung over the Malibu Colony Restaurant:“MALIBU WILL MISS YOU, ANNE.” Her memorial was held at the Beach Club where we had spent our younger years. My oldest son and my younger sister sang the dirge: “May the long time sun shine upon you….”
When I was in grad school at UC San Diego, in the late sixties and early seventies, my dad left the Mojave and showed up at our home on the beach in Del Mar. He needed a place to stay. His sense of entitlement was clueless. How could he not know he would not be welcome in my home? He, the man who drove my mother mad when he was coming on to me? The man who walked out on our family, leaving us with no support? I do have one sharp memory of my dad in that time. I took him to see “Midnight Cowboy” and he was overwhelmed by. He said he had never seen anything as powerful as that film. Perhaps he identified with Jon Voigt’s character, with his longing for freedom and fame. Perhaps he was struck by the horror of “Ratso,” Dustin Hoffman’s character. I began to feel a sympathy for him then: a man who got more than he could handle with four kids, who couldn’t keep pace with PhD’s in the space industry, whose wife may have shunned him in bed, and whose pre-Kerouac dreams of being a successful writer were dashed at every attempt.
He moved to San Felipe, Mexico, into a ratty old trailer on a cliff above the Sea of Cortez. There, he finally realized his writer’s dream: he wrote magazine columns about repairing jeeps and driving dirt roads all over Baja with his dog Scotty. His manuscripts flew to publication, and he won fame among car enthusiasts and off-road drivers for the columns and his book, The Jeep Bible. Fans trekked to find him—now a confirmed recluse —somewhere along the “Baja 500” road.
I made several visits to see him there. On one, over Thanksgiving 1982, with my husband and two friends, we brought a turkey. We were going to bury it in the sand to bake it, because I recalled that he used his oven to store his books. But my dad pulled the books out, found the oven’s electric coils in the junk heap where he’d put them, rebuilt the oven, and baked our turkey. The next morning my husband drove my dad’s 3–wheeler up the mountain and flipped it. My dad yelled at my husband, who was black, “You Drunken Watusie!” While we cringed, my unharmed husband broke into laughter. He was quite fond of my dad, the only person who could get away with such a verbal assault. But perhaps he found being called a Watusi, even a drunken one, an honorific.
My mother called me one morning at my Stanford office, a week after the 1989 earthquake, to tell me that dad had died, driving along the San Felipe road to his trailer, maybe of a heart attack. Our whole family drove down to San Felipe to claim his body and bury him. (In Baja, with no refrigeration, bodies had to go under quickly.) After dad’s drunken gringo friends failed to arrive with burial clothes, my sister and I browsed tourist shops, suppressing perverse giggles as we held up Mexican wedding shirts and San Felipe logo’d Bermuda shorts as potential burial garments. My brother in a tearful rage, jumped into the grave to finish digging it: for the gravediggers we’d scrambled to find on this Mexican Day of the Dead hadn’t dug the grave long enough for our dad’s coffin. My youngest sister sang like a pure angel, “May the longtime sun shine upon you/All love surround you/And the pure light within you/Guide your way home”—the song that became our family dirge for the dead who followed.
We stood on the bluff of the Sea of Cortez amidst his cars – a long-finned ‘50s sky-blue Cadillac, a vintage stripped down VW hippie van and a spiffed up WWII army jeep. A rusty green file cabinet sat solitary near the cliff’s edge, crammed with his writings, from yellowed pages of post-war sexual meanderings in a folder called “How to Write About Sex” to his magazine columns about jeeping in the Mexican desert with Scotty the Dog. Scattered all around was junkyard clutter: a cache of guns, sand-drenched cameras, a satellite dish – his concession to contemporary life—books, and under the books, our high school pictures.
My mother, who’d always hated the howling windy dry caked desert, stood in the rose of the setting sun, which was laying lavender light on the sculpted sand and hot pink orange on the sea. She held her champagne glass high and declared, “Now I know why he loved it here.” In the ceaseless wind, with sand in our eyes and gritting our mouths, we took a picture of us all. It was one of our wildest, happiest days together.
Evelyn Kelsey grew up in Malibu—landing there from a star-studded childhood in New York City. Her parents were early TV celebrities until it all crashed and her mother took her children and her TV show to Hollywood. Many volleyball and beach-crazy years followed before she landed in Berkeley in the Sixties for college. Evelyn has plied several careers—as an editor & anthologizer, a teacher, a social-change philanthropy director and, for most of her working life, as a university Development Director. Now happily in retirement, she pursues the pleasure of writing, the thrill of sailing, and the joy of grandkids.
Copyright 2016, Evelyn Kelsey. All Rights Reserved.