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Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014

John Huston's bathtub

Saturday, July 25, 2009

I always enjoy Carolyn Gray Thornton's articles in the Daily Mail, and especially the little tribute to movie actor/director John Huston, in the recent Friday, July 17, issue. Like many other "legends in their own time," it seems, the story of Huston's life is seasoned with a few questionable, or at least ambiguous, events.

The outrageously amusing story, for instance, that a Col. Gore, father of John Huston's wife Katherine, won Nevada's water and electric utilities in a poker game, then persuaded his son-in-law to abandon his thriving, if not yet quite fabled, NYC stage career and move, lock, stock, and barrel, to tiny Nevada, Mo., to manage its utility company, sounds just too preposterous NOT to be true.

Then, according to legend, the utility company suddenly went ka-bloo-ie, and so, as a result, Mr. and Mrs. Huston -- plus, by this time, the movie-director-to-be toddler John -- packed up silently and snuck out of Nevada under cover of darkness, from their lovely, still-standing brick house at 404 South Adams, and headed west, where, as the saying goes, the rest is Hollywood history. If you have trouble swallowing that story/legend, I have to admit, I do, too.

For me, it bears too marked a resemblance to the opening scene of Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy's magnificent "The Mayor of Casterbridge," where one of the young main characters bets -- and loses -- his young wife in a poker game, then lives with its consequences for the rest of his life. Hardy's is a work of fiction; he didn't for a minute claim it had actually happened (although at least one literary critic argues that such bets were not unknown, even in sober-sided old Britain.)

What I remember from looking into the first part of Huston's very lengthy autobiography, when it appeared many years ago at Dalton's Bookstore in Joplin, is the single sentence in which he informs his reader(s) that he was born Aug. 5, 1906, in Nevada, Mo.

Unless I'm mistaken, John Huston's father, Walter, was, even at the time of his son's birth, a luminous Broadway star, somewhat akin, say, to today's Michael Crawford, of "Phantom of the Opera," or Lauren Bacall, of "Chorus Line." So, the story that when his father-in-law, a Col. Gore, asked him to move to little Nevada, Mo., because he had just won the whole gol-darn town in a game of poker, and wanted to foist off on his son-in-law the job of supervising the utilities, seems a little far-fetched. And the legend that Walter actually accepted sounds truly laughable. But there ends the legend. Take it or leave it!

What a story! Too bad the future movie director didn't hire a crafty writer to knit a slam-bang cliff-hanger from the legend surrounding his own birth -- or write one himself

This much, however, seems irrefutable: The man who, among other things, directed Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in one of the all-time great talkies, "The African Queen" (1951), was born in the handsome, still-standing brick house at 404 South Adams, in Nevada, Mo. OK, so here comes the tantalizing connection.

In the fall of 1987, Dr. Ann Allen joined Kirk Metzger in Cottey's history department. Ann was retired from the Army, had a Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina, and instantaneously got along famously with other faculty and students. She must, therefore, have soon contemplated retiring here, and she must have thought tenure was an "in-like Flynn" foregone conclusion, because she swept into the faculty lounge early one afternoon, well before she was granted tenure, and announced (well, "trumpeted," really), "I've just bought my retirement house, and I'm thrilled to death with it!"

Ann Allen was an historian focused on the American past, and, in particular, our military history. (She knew, for instance, precisely how many bullets George Armstrong Custer fired at the marauding redskins before they dropped him out there at Wounded Knee; and she knew the names and occupations of all the uncles of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant -- and where they were currently buried.

But she wasn't so good on American popular history. She didn't, for instance, know Walt Disney had been born in St. Louis, and she thought Henry Thoreau's seminal essay "Civil Disobedience" was a government pamphlet listing the penalties facing citizens who ran red lights, failed to pay library fines, or tried to jimmy the locks on Fort Knox.

And so, when she asked me to come visit her in her new Nevada digs, at 404 South Adams, she had no more idea than I its Hollywood significance -- its Tinseltown Connection, if you will.

For an historian, I've always thought, Ann Allen had precious little regard for the past -- the "personal past," at least. Maybe, like my late friend and colleague, Mr. Bernard Paulin, also an historian, she wanted to distance herself from a childhood that had been touched by poverty. "First thing, after I move in here," she said, as she made a gesture that encompassed the whole kitchen in her new dwelling, "I want an electric dishwasher. Chuck, I've washed my last dinner plate!" As we climbed the stairs to the second floor, directly ahead lay a very large bathroom. And what virtually hit me in the eye was an apparently extra-long claw-foot zinc bathtub.

"Wow!"

"Like that damn tub, eh? Well, it'll be the first thing to go! I'm going to install a set of entirely new, top-of-the-line bathroom appliances and fixtures. With my army retirement money, I can easily afford it; and what better way to spend it than on things that make you feel glamorous and comfortable, in your later years."

"You're getting rid of your claw-foot tub?"

"Soon as I can get some huskies to drag it down the stairs and out the back door!"

As it happened, Ginny and I had always wanted one of those. The tub in the house we'd bought was a beat-up 1950s plastic thing (the tub, not the house, don't you know) whose ugliness someone had tried to disguise by covering it with plywood, thereby enhancing its ugliness exponentially.

"Can I make a bid on it?" I asked my friend.

"Get it out of here, and it's yours. Gratis, my friend."

Next thing I knew, Ann had beaten me to it. She'd gotten a couple of muscular friends to wrestle the tub down the stairs and into her backyard. When I saw it looking forlorn back there, I called on my own two strongest, trustiest friends, the fellows on whom we depended most when we were rebuilding many local houses -- our master carpenter, Robert W. Palmer, and our master plumber, Keith Bogle, and the three of us wrestled it into Robert's "vanilla pudding truck" (my term, not Robert's) and, from there, across town and into our first-floor bathroom.

Where it's remained for 32 years now.

Ann Allen soon ran afoul of a couple of fellow-faculty and administrators (for reasons unknown to me), moved, I believe, into a community of born-again Christians in Joplin, and abruptly parted ways with me and with the Cottey academic community. Where she moved in Joplin I don't know, but I miss her. I miss jawing with her on the topic of her famous house. I don't know whether she ever learned that the bath tub she and her friends trundled down her stairs and into her own backyard may once have bathed the director of "The African Queen," and, even better, the maker of the film version of James Joyce's "The Dead."

May I take issue with Carolyn Thornton's view that the man's career and very being mirrored his experience in Nevada, Mo.? I attribute it, rather, to his being, when all else is said and done, Irish.

I only know that, to this day, whenever I lower my own aging carcass into the depths of that tub, and stretch my frame to cover all 6-plus feet of its length, I imagine young Walter and wife Rhea Katherine kneeling at the tub's sides, smiling at each other over the breathing, splashing miracle they'd wrought, and giggling whenever their small son blew a fart and made the water bubble-up like an oil well coming in, a gusher indeed.