My father could be charming and courtly. His manners were impeccable. He looked good in a sport jacket, his tie in a perfect Windsor knot, and in his uniform, he was a poster boy for handsome professionalism with a spine as straight as a girder. He believed in the door held open for women, the box step and the waltz, the good story to lift spirits and entertain. I saw him put nervous girlfriends, boyfriends and fiancées at ease with his smile and his good looks and attentiveness. He knew how to listen and how to match his story to the moment. For a man who became quieter as he aged, he knew the way to grease a conversation.
He liked to eat. He left menus behind in The Book.# He had a sensual delight in good food and drink. He liked a beer or two at night when he listened to the Phillies on the front porch. Sometimes, especially when he came home late from work, he and my mother would sit at the kitchen table after we had gone to bed and have a highball and smoke* and talk about their days.
They did not marry until 1946 when he was 32 and she was almost 29. The median age for first marriages then was 23 for men and 20 for women. They waited until they were certain or until their desire to settle reached it-will-not-be-denied proportions or until each had found “the one”,** or until all three qualities held together and produced that best of all matches.
My father was no plaster saint. Before my mother, there were other girlfriends. Of course, he never spoke of a one, ever. Of all the men who were steady in their promises and granitic in their devotions, he was it.
Letty Lee. There are two other photos of her, another in this Hawaiian outfit and one more where she is stretched out on the grass looking directly into the camera. They are not professional, publicity stills; nor do these do not strike my sister or me as the photos of a ‘friend’. The inscription on the back of this photo reads, “To Charlie, Best of Luck, “Letty Lee”, ’43”. Letty Lee was a showgirl, probably older than my father. She performed at the Lebanon Valley Democratic Club on Saturday night, August 17, 1940 with “Dave Blake, Song Stylist” and “McKinney’s Orchestra”. She was advertised as a “Hawaiian and Swing Dancer Extraordinary.”@@ My father may have known her for years.
To the best of his children’s knowledge, he never had his own apartment until he married my mother. He seems to have kept North Alden Street@, his mother’s place in Philadelphia, as his home address, but he actually lived in various Substation Barracks. He was not cheap, but the memory of The Depression never left his sense of economics — why rent when the Barracks was free; he was also sending money home to his mother. He probably did not have the resources for his own place. You couldn’t take a girl back to the barracks.
The photo of one girlfriend was in The Book, and two others tumbled out of an envelope that my sisters recently discovered and that neither had ever opened. I think he had probably forgotten all about them and the newspaper clippings. I don’t think he spent time looking through The Book or at the hundreds of photos he had accumulated over time. Those albums gathered dust. Only his children occasionally pulled them out and glanced through them. He was not a nostalgic man … except about The State Police, the one part of his life where he would reach back over the years and reveal moments of his past.
With his marriage to my mother, his life filled up; the arrival of children increased the pressure on him to provide. He had the Job and his family, the improvements to the house and its maintenance to tend to, and occasional golf with his brothers or friends from the Force. The photos were ours to discover and wonder about long after the relationships hinted at in them had become dust. They remain one of the secrets of his youth, of the time before us.
From left to right: my father, Miss Paulette Goddard, film star and ex-wife of Charlie Chaplin, Sgt. Habig, Dad’s commander at Lebanon and William Gargan, film star, on a 1942 War Bond Tour through Pennsylvania. The newspaper reported that my father and Sgt. Habig drove them “for hundreds of miles” to various events.
This is my favorite of the several photos documenting their trip. Paulette Goddard was not my father’s girlfriend, but brother, does he look like a happy man! He is 28. After what he came through in Philadelphia following the death of his father and the crack-up of The Depression, he fell into moments like this; at times, he must have been amazed by his good fortune.
Even if he were alive today, I don’t think any of us would ask him about these women. The fact that we knew would have embarrassed him. He would have growled something like, “What are you bringing that up for?” or “What … oh, I don’t remember.”
What did these women like? What did they talk about together? What pitch and timbre did their voices take? Where did they go together? What did they do? Did he ever come close to asking any one of them to marry him? How did they change him?
I tell myself that the mysteries are preferable. Maybe the lack of details is for the better. In this area, his privacy retains its shield. We do have the photos and their suggestion of a life outside the uniform. We also have something else so powerful in their presence and the silence that surrounds them — an aura of romance and charisma that now flickers around Charlie, not Dad, not father, but Charlie, as Letty Lee called him, a young, young man busy learning about all the possibilities that life might offer him.
# Honey Dew Cocktail, Hearts of Celery, Chicken a la King on Toast, Fresh Peas, Potato Croquette, Harlequin Ice Cream and Fancy Cakes.
*The only time she ever smoked — we did not know until decades later when she told us.
**I will devote a later Post to my mother, her family and to her meeting, courtship, and relationship with my father.
@@ Lebanon Daily News, August 16, 1940, page 13.