Sinatra in Palm Springs

DATELINE: 50 Years in the Desert!

 1948 Home!

One of the least frequently used ways to examine a life biography is to study the place called home. For Frank Sinatra, that place was not New Jersey or Las Vegas: it was Palm Springs where he first moved in the late 1940s and fell in love. He was one of the self-professed “desert rats.”

When he commissioned a house, it became a sleek modern style that so fit the area. It soon became a compound, and with his marriage to Ava Gardner, she took over much of its design, including a recording studio within for when he had the urge to sing.

Before long, the social and gregarious Sinatra had many of his show biz entourage there. It was an exclusive place which did not cater to his Jewish friends, and with Jack Benny and the Marx Brothers, they built a golf club that was open to all, especially celebrities. Even Bob Hope soon moved to the Springs area.

The home was the site of famous fights between Ava and Frank, resulting in damage that is now part of the legendary design. After their divorce and Sinatra’s resurgence after From Here to Eternity, he moved about ten miles across town to Rancho Mirage where he stayed for the rest of his life. He is buried in the Springs as well.

Sinatra even allowed his home to be used for Joan Crawford’s house in The Damned Don’t Cry. Later, his new compound had many guest houses for his frequent gatherings. He loved to entertain and be entertained. Only his mother’s death in 1977 in a plane crash on her way to be with him seemed to be a bad time.

Sinatra loved to drive around at night—and frequented many of the well-known restaurants of the area, from the Doll House to Melvyn’s. He had his own table in many—and he owned the town. If he came to your restaurant or bar regularly, you had it made.

In the early days of Palm Springs, celebs could walk around unbothered by fans. It was an increasingly cosmopolitan place away from the business centers of Hollywood, and the Racquet Club was part of Frank’s world.

The word most often used to describe Sinatra was “generous.” He was charitable beyond his moodiness or occasional blowup. Most called him a pure gentleman.

His entourage was not only the Rat Pack, but many stars from different films who vied to be part of this Vegas legend.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prince of Cool: Chesney Baker!

DATELINE: 1954 Buddy

 Chet as Challenger.

Was he really the first jazz musician in the early 1950s with a gay following? In a world of macho and homophobic jazz fans, Chet was often was dismissed as “faggy,” and singing like a girl. His style was decidedly feminine, often impossible to tell whether it is a boy or a girl’s voice. Think of Astrud Gilberto or Stan Getz.

He chose to sing a few ditties, that cemented the belief. His “My Buddy,” is shockingly gay for 1954.  And, his other plaintive tunes, like “Just Friends,” seem to sum up a gay world experience in the closet days of yore. He was always with beautiful women and a dog, as if to throw the bloodhounds off scent.

You half expect him to sing out about the love that dare not speak its name. And, then he bookends his melancholy sound with an amazing trumpet rendition that is subtle and delicate.

Gay historians may have missed him simply for not looking in the unexpected world of jazz by the Prince of Cool, as he was known to the aficionados of the day. He speaks convincingly, “How could you know what love is?” It almost seems a finger-poke to the straight eye.

“Miss your voice, the touch of your hand

Just long to know that you understand

My buddy, my buddy, your buddy misses you.”

Bruce Weber did a lionizing documentary on Chesney, Let’s Get Lost, which has been called homoerotic, rather knowingly. If you want a copy on DVD or tape, you will pay through the trumpet, unless you can play a Euro version on your recorder.

He was beautiful in his youth—and the camera loved him. By the end, the drugs and careless living took a hideous toll on his face. His talent remained, like a granite pyramid.

Chet Baker was hardly gay, in any open way, but was a sexually charged creature.

When Chet blew off a movie role as a trumpeter, Robert Wagner replaced him in  All The Fine Young Cannibals.

Weber’s biographical docurama contains the last haunting images of Chet before he either jumped off a hotel roof in Amsterdam, or was thrown off by drug dealers to whom he owed money.

The movie is stunning in its black and white sharpness: Chet Baker was James Dean, Louis Armstrong, and Picasso, all rolled into a trumpet.

Commemorating Titanic after 107 Years!

DATELINE: Connections to the Past?

Harper & Clifton Father & Son Face Fate on Titanic (1953 version).

The 1953 version of Titanic and re-telling of the horrific night that is unforgettable and must be remembered was pure Hollywood spectacle. It had an all-star cast, and it ended with masterful special effects for its age. It had to be a black and white movie to heighten its impact literally with the iceberg and figuratively with the horror.

The central family of the movie plot bears a startling resemblance to the real family that became subject of my biographical history, Tales of a Titanic Family.

Rich Americans, the father is a prig played by Clifton Webb, and his stunning wife is Barbara Stanwyck. They have two children, the younger a boy (Harper Carter) at odds with his father. Their mettle would be tested by an iceberg.

So, not having seen the movie in dozens of years, we were not prepared entirely for what other coincidences and frightful similarities might turn up. The theory did not take long to prove itself.

The 1953 movie was released in April, on the 41st anniversary week of the Titanic’s sinking. Almost immediately upon introducing the mother figure in the movie, played by Barbara Stanwyck, she was identified as Julia. This stunned me a bit, as Julia was indeed the name of Richard White’s grandmother, and the name of his aunt, his father’s sister (His father died with him on Titanic).

Then, Clifton Webb showed up as the father: his name, of course, was Richard Sturges.

They have two children also on board the ship. The elder here is a daughter, and the younger son is only about 14. However, in a key moment, Stanwyck recites the A.E. Housman poem, “When I was one and twenty,” about fate. Richard was 21 when he was aboard the ill-fated ship.

Clifton Webb cannot buy a ticket in first-class because it is all sold out: which wasn’t true. White Star Lines tried to give away cabins that remained empty.

Though he was a world traveler, a man among many New York millionaires. Clifton Webb’s character has greetings for all his friends, from Guggenheim to Strauss to Astor.

Robert Wagner played a 21-year old college man from Purdue. He is a Richard White stand-in.

Among the delightful actors in this film are Richard Basehart as a defrocked priest, and there is also Thelma Ritter as the hard-talking, unsinkable Molly Brown. Brian Aherne seems to be ship’s captain in every movie version. Director Jean Negulesco is adept at weaving together an hour of soapish stories before the heavy business of sinking the liner.

In a key moment Barbara Stanwyck tells her husband that their second child is not his. They plan to divide up the spoils, each child going with one parent. It is a haunting parallel to the real family.

The final minutes of the ice-berg’s damage and sinking of the ship is done quickly and without any noticeable panic among the men left without lifeboats. They are all gentlemen, singing as the ship seems to blow up and rapidly spirals into oblivion.

There is no bad behavior, or messy deaths, as occurred in real life. We think the smoke stack fell from the ship and onto those who jumped off the ship, like Richard White. The unbilled narrator at the end of the movie is Michael Rennie.

Seeing this version of the story seemed to be fitting, as it became tailored to Richard White’s actual life experience. Watching was not easier, and not pleasant, no matter how purified the events. Richard apparently jumped off the ship, like Wagner’s character. Richard may not have been his father’s son, and Richard haunts this writer.

The ghost of Richard Frazar White brought me face-to-face with Robert Wagner a dozen years ago—and only now do I know why. Richard

 

Playing Chess with a Ghost from the Titanic

DATELINE:  Haunted Chessboard

game underway

In retrospect of my life, I realize today that Richard Frazar White orchestrated so much for me along my spiritual journey.

Only now do I recognize the strange effects he has arranged:  how did I manage to meet by chance the man who played Richard in a movie?

Yes, there were always Titanic movies that featured a young, heroic figure: in the 1953 version with Barbara Stanwyk and Clifton Webb, there was a young actor rising by the name of Robert Wagner.

He played a version of Richard aboard the doomed ship. We were on a plane out of Burbank, and he plopped down next to me in first-class. I said, “I think I know you.”  He said wearily, “Yes, you probably do.”  We proceeded to down Bloody Marys and find our compatability.

Robert Wagner’s character in the movie Titanic survived, unlike his real counterpart.

Stanwyk & Wagner

Later he asked, “Have we met before?” It was the famous question of my life. Have we met before? How familiar so much was: like it was reincarnation at work. He played Richard in a movie and here he was, a decade before I bought my home in Richard’s backyard.

According to a visit by a group of psychics recently, Richard Frazar White always knew we would end up together in one of the family houses, living next to where he played as a child. I was never quite so sure that I would become the companion to a ghost.

Wagner thought I should have gone to Hollywood as a writer years ago. It was where he thought I was meant to be.

Call it fate, kismet, karma, coincidence, ESP, light-working, or whatever concept you accept.

Instead of Hollywood, I ended up a mile from Richard’s grave in Winchendon Springs. Wagner wound up having his own tragedy on the open sea: his wife Natalie Wood mysteriously fell overboard and drowned. He too is haunted by a watery grave.

Please do not call me Topper or Mrs. Muir, and I do not live in Gull Cottage—but in a house once in the neighborhood of a ghost from the sunken Titanic.

And now, I am his chess partner. Through a recent visit with a group of psychics to my home, Richard let it be known that he wants to play a game of chess with me.

One friend noted that he hasn’t played in over 100 years and has to be a little rusty. Another said, he likely has the angels on his side.

When first I moved here, I set up a chessboard in my library (on the truly haunted side of my house), and there the pieces began to move off their magnetic base erratically. Pawns were tipped over, and a castle and pawn try to share the same square.

I knew of Richard 30 years ago from the plaque in my classroom at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts, that mentioned his heroism on the Titanic.  I had no idea who he was back then.

The psychics told me that the one ghost I have seen in my home is Richard’s cat. Yes, a spirit cat emerged from the wall behind a bookcase and ran into the kitchen. I followed but found nothing. I learned how this creature belongs to Richard—and observes the household and reports back to the Titanic spirit.

During research for a book on the Titanic, I discovered that Richard and I went to the same high school (Cambridge High & Latin), and we likely both belonged to the high school chess team about 60 years apart.

As a result of the psychics’ recommendation, I set up a chessboard in my home office and put a photo of Richard on the wall above it. An hour later it promptly fell off the wall, hit the chessboard and knocked over ALL the black pieces. Not one white piece was touched. I await his first move; if time is immaterial to the afterlife, he might take quite a while before the game truly is underway!Richard & chess

Dr. Russo has written extensively on the history of Mill Circle, including books entitled MURDER AT MILL CIRCLE, GHOSTS OF MILL CIRCLE, and TALES OF A TITANIC FAMILY. All are available for download or in print at Amazon.

Robert Wagner: Media Victim

DATELINE:  Unfair Coverage of Natalie Wood’s Sad Death

RJ

Cheap fake news is not limited to politics over at CBS.

The network that glorifies its infantile approach to dramatic TV series has now moved its news department into the field of fiction.  Airing something called Natalie Wood: Death in Dark Water, they used movie stills of angry acting Wagner when it suited them.

The latest TV investigation is an attack on actor Robert Wagner, thirty-six years after his beloved wife Natalie Wood died in a tragic accident. Three actors, who make a living with emoting, were drinking and emoting that night.

With purveyors of sensation and people looking for a reputation or notch in their career rung, have taken to calling Mr. Wagner: “a person of interest,” which just happens to be the name of a brilliant series that CBS canceled because it was too cerebral.

Because he was on the yacht where the incident occurred does not mean he saw what happened or knew what happened. The two, other people on the boat also never saw what transpired, heard Wood call for help, or witnessed what occurred.

Christopher Walken, a friend and costar to Miss Wood, has consistently refused to talk about the death of Natalie Wood or his relationship to Robert Wagner.

It is likely that the victim and the three men present were heavily drinking. Speculation has centered on Natalie Wood leaving the ship in a dinghy out of anger, spite, or disorientation. Falling into the ocean, no one saw or heard her plight—and she drowned.

Why, some ask, didn’t her husband Robert Wagner come to her rescue like something out of a movie scenario?

Knowing Mr. Wagner, we cannot be objective. We  answer that he did not hear any commotion that made him attentive, or surely, he would have jumped to his wife’s rescue.

Their love transcended two marriages. Divorcing in their youth, they had remarried. He told me in a conversation that he “lost the woman I loved twice.”

A sensitive man, erudite and well-read, Robert Wagner has played philanderers and playboys in movies and TV, but in real life he is pleasant, intelligent, and suffering from an accident that occurred forty years ago.

The disservice of continued attacks on his honor and his grief are inexcusable. Now turning 88 years next week and looking decades younger, he may be considered a target by those who have always been jealous of his looks, his debonair attitude, and his fortuitous career.

However, it is not right to haunt a man to the point of despair in the midnight of his life. CBS ought to be rightfully vilified for its so-called documentary. Have they no shame? There is not enough evidence to indict for murder. Police investigators want to continue till the truth will come out. They mean their truth, based on the boat caretaker’s testimony, a man who has changed his story repeatedly, sold his story to tabloids, and has had addiction problems—and a bitter sister, Lana Wood, who despises Mr. Wagner.

RJ Wagner has suffered enough.

RIDING JAMES KIRKWOOD’S PONY

Jim Kirkwood told me much about the story behind his first autobiographical novel THERE MUST BE A PONY, and many years after his passing, I gathered together my notes and wrote what he told me. The result was a book called RIDING JAMES KIRKWOOD’S PONY.

I may not tell all the secrets of James Kirkwood, but I reveal all he wanted me to tell. When the television movie came out, he referred to the stars as Robert Wagon and Elizabeth Trailer. Suffice it to say, he was unhappy with the movie.