Page 15 of the San Francisco Chronicle on Monday, November 25, 1963. Herb Caen’s column with Psalm 23.
The Longest Weekend
IT IS LESS than 72 hours since the shots rang out in Dallas, yet it seems a lifetime – a lifetime of weeping skies, wet eyes and streets, and emotions that couldn’t always be kept in check. Americans are not, by nature, an emotional people; the San Franciscan prides himself on an unflagging gaiety. And yet, over the endless weekend, San Francisco looked like a city that was only slowly emerging from a terrible bombardment. Downtown, on what would normally have been a bustling Saturday, the people walked slowly, as in shock, their faces pale and drawn, their mood as somber as the dark clothes they wore under the gray skies.
I REMEMBER a famous picture, early in World War II, of a Frenchman crying uncontrollably on the Champs Elysees as the Germans marched into Paris; some people found the photo painfully moving, others criticized him for not keeping a stiff upper lip in the face of the Hun. A grown man doesn’t cry in public: it is part of the American lexicon.
But we are affected variously by various tragedies, and there were grown men crying in San Francisco—the stinging tears of sorrow and frustration. It was already the day after, but it took only a quick reminder to bring the grief back to the surface.
A man walked past the blacked-out corner window of the City of Paris, with its small white card of tribute, and tears rolled down his cheeks. At Sixth and Mission, an old woman in black passed a late newspaper headline, and suddenly sobbed. At the Opera House Saturday night, Sir Malcolm Sargent and the Royal Philharmonic of London opened the concert with the Star-Spangled Banner, and the sense of loss was felt again; all over the house, tears glistened afresh.
THE LONGEST WEEKEND, that was to have been the Big Game Weekend, and never have perspectives been so suddenly shattered, never have day-to-day values come in for such an excruciating reappraisal. The few people in the downtown bars sat hunched over their drinks, staring down or straight ahead. For once, in the Nation that loves humor, there was none. All at once, a city had stopped smiling.
GRAY SKIES, and the constant gray and black of the TV screen. For the first time, in these unprecedented hours, there was Total Television. You were irresistibly drawn to the tiny screen, as though you expected a miracle. But there were no miracles; only the minor miracle of three networks striving valiantly and with commendable dignity to transmit hour after hour of unfolding tragedy, symbolized by a Flag on a coffin. You were immersed in a fantasy world of honor guards standing at attention in the rain, of endless streams of black limousines, of faces that suddenly became part of your life and to whose familiar voice and manner you clung as though seeking reassurance.
OVER THE WEEKEND that lasted a lifetime—and ended a lifetime—the faces on the screen, switching from Washington to New York to Dallas and back again, over and over, became part of your reality. Their first names joined the family: Chet, Walter, Frank, David, Frank, Martin. The harried face of the Police Chief in Dallas became more familiar to you than that of the man next door. You learned more about Lyndon Baines Johnson than you had ever known, or thought you would care to know. Strange and unknown orchestras and choirs came and went before your swimming eyes. History was traced and retraced—a crash course in the Presidency for millions who too often take too much for granted.
FOR SOME of us, who spend too much time at our jobs and pleasures, and too little exploring the manifestations of greatness, the weekend provided an awakening. As always, it came too late. For those of us who seldom have the opportunity to watch TV, John F. Kennedy became more alive in death than he had been in life. For hour after hour, through the marvel of electronics, we saw the President as though for the first time. His life, compressed onto the small screen, passed before our eyes, and we marveled at his spirit, his warmth, his humor, his brilliance. He seemed vibrantly alive, and his words had a life they never seemed to possess before. We drew strength from him, and, in a way difficult to define, hope. But the lump in the throat refused to be downed.
AS YOU WATCHED the fine young man, the utter senselessness of the tragedy that had snuffed out his life gnawed at you. There was not even a mad nobility in the act, no glimmer of even an insane purpose. This had not been a madman in the mold of John Wilkes Booth, leaping onto the stage of a theater, crying “Sic semper tyrannis!” This was not the inevitable gloomy grandeur from which Greek tragedy is forged, nor the uncontrollable furies of Shakespeare. This had been a warped young man—“a loner,” they called him—who kept saying he didn’t do it. In the confusion of his own life, he symbolized nothing but confusion, and that itself is a symbol of the times.
AND SO TODAY, a Nation already in shock goes into official mourning, and Arlington prepares to receive another fallen soldier. He died without knowing how much he was loved—or by how many.
We didn’t see much of our favorite friend during my childhood because he lived a few hours away and didn’t drive much on account of his declining eyesight. From our infrequent visits, I do remember that he was tall and older even than my parents. He had blue eyes that focused when he listened and bulged when he laughed.
In lieu of visits, we got from our friend a steady stream of mail. He sent us cards or letters weekly and each one was a day-brightener that left us chuckling right up until the next one came. Our serial correspondent typed out clean adult gags for my parents and the kid stuff that he sent me was just as good. My father was a fan of the Prohibition-themed humor his pal sent him and my mother would recite her favorite line from one of his letters every time we’d be stopped at a railroad crossing watching and waiting as a freight train rolled past. “My poetry is read coast to coast,” the line went. “I write it on boxcars.”
The old man used horses and baseball thematically in his correspondence to me. The card that arrived on my ninth birthday carried a couple dollar bills and a disclaimer: “The enclosure is to replace some of those window panes you broke when you knocked those home runs over the centerfield fence.” Other cards he sent me carried reminders not to fall off when I rode and to “’Throw the horse over the fence some hay!’ as they say in North Dakota.”
“I am, your old friend” was always his sign-off.
Because he never talked about himself when he wrote, I knew nothing about the man’s personal life other than he was married to the woman he’s now buried next to in his and my hometown of San Luis Obispo, California. She was a beautiful person without a flaw that I recall, but she nevertheless wasn’t in this club with her husband and us. We had this man to ourselves, I thought. His kindness and silliness were exclusively ours… but she was always accommodating and welcome to hang out with us.
My folks occasionally tossed out the names “Bob Hope,” “Red Skelton” and “Laurel and Hardy” when they mentioned our penpal, but I never really knew why until some 40 years after he died at age 79 and willed to me that $1700 I used to buy my first car once I turned 16. It was a gold 1972 Chevrolet Nova SS with a 350 V-8 and ran the quarter-mile in 13 seconds while gas was still cheap. The car replaced the horse.
“This is corny to say but I thought you might like to know that Bobbie is mentioned in my will,” he shared with my parents in a letter he sent two years before his passing. “You can’t take it with you, or even send it on ahead, as the old saying goes.”
Earlier in the letter, he professed his love for Buster Keaton and boasted that he would be attending the screening of one of the legendary comedian’s films that night in the company of the co-star, Ruth Dwyer. Seeing my name typed out right below theirs on the same sheet of paper means more to me now than did the money for a car did back then.
His name was Wilkie Courter Mahoney and all of America had been laughing at his jokes for almost 50 years before I came along. Prior to indulging my parents and me with his humor, he wrote gags for some of the all-time giants of comedy at a time when they were transitioning from vaudeville, burlesque and Broadway to the emerging mediums of radio and motion pictures.
“How did you get that black eye?”
“That’s a birth mark—I got into the wrong berth.”
Wilkie was born in 1897 on a 160-acre property that his paternal grandparents homesteaded to raise sheep and cattle in San Miguel, California, a ranching and farming community that enveloped an old Spanish mission in the lower Salinas Valley along the southern edge of what would later become known in the literary world as Steinbeck Country. The Mahoneys arrived in 1868 after riding the railroad to Gilroy and then traveling the final 90 miles by covered wagon, which took about a week. To the southeast of the family’s homestead was a ranch and reputed hideout owned by Bill Dalton, who hosted his brothers Gratton, Bob, Cole and Emmett for years before they became known collectively and infamously as the Dalton Gang. Some neighboring ranchers later portrayed the Daltons as psychopaths; Wilkie’s father saw the brothers at Saturday night dances and remembered them as polite young men.
Wilkie was an only child and lived his first nine years on the homestead before his father was appointed county recorder and moved the family some 50 miles south to the county seat in San Luis Obispo. Wilkie’s childhood home at 1303 Higuera Street was on property that held the Ramona Hotel before it was destroyed by fire in 1905. The home and the redwood tree that Wilkie and his father planted on the property still stand.
Wilkie established himself as a jokester by the time he reached his mid-teens. Ninth-grade classmates never forgot the response he offered to one particular question asked by a teacher.
“What has been the major contribution of the automobile age?” the teacher had asked.
Wilkie’s answer: “It has practically stopped horse stealing!”
Wilkie credited a theater that opened in San Luis Obispo in 1908 for sparking his interest in dramatics. The city had fewer than 20,000 residents at the time, but the Pavilion became a sleeper jump for traveling stage shows due to its location along the coastal route halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. “Wildfire” starring Lillian Russell, “The Squawman” starring William S. Hart and “The Spoilers” starring Dustin Farnum were among performances Wilkie saw at the venue.
The theater also exposed Wilkie to backstage workarounds. “The stage manager was paid 50 cents for the day and no money for stagehands so an ingenious method was developed,” he remembered. “The admission price for the balcony via the rear door was a few bottles of beer, which took care of the stagehands.”
After high school, Wilkie matriculated to Santa Clara College, where he studied theater and developed an interest in psychology and semantics. Upon earning his college diploma, he traveled south to Hollywood and spent a half-dozen years or so dabbling in vaudeville and seeking acting roles with an emphasis on physical comedy. He saw what Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd were doing in the old silent flickers and thought he could make a living doing that same kind of stuff.
Wilkie had the right build for physical comedy. He was 6’3” and 155 pounds, all knees and elbows. “He slouches around in a vast gaberdine coat and looks something like a tent wrecked by a high wind,” is how syndicated Hollywood columnist Paul Harrison would describe him later.
Having an ideal build for slapstick wasn’t enough to ensure he could make a living performing it, however, and he abandoned his acting aspirations as soon as he discovered a better way to make enough money to buy groceries with. Wilkie told Harrison he had hopes “of being a new Slim Summerville,” but, the columnist concluded, “His natural diffidence probably licked him.”
“He came up the hard way—along a route that parallels the rise from lowly burlesque of some of today’s greatest comedians,” Harrison wrote.
The highlight of Wilkie’s acting career was his appearance in the 1927 Hal Roach-produced Laurel and Hardy short “The Battle of the Century.” In the film, a boxing manager takes out an insurance policy on a scrawny fighter played by Stan Laurel and then tries to collect by staging an accident. The manager sets out on the sidewalk a banana peel for his fighter to slip on, but instead, the banana peel takes down a pie delivery man and leads to a classic pie-throwing scene. Wilkie plays a clerk behind the counter of a bakery as a wayward pie flies through the door and strikes a customer in the face. The customer responds by grabbing two pies and heading outside to join the fray while ignoring the clerk’s demands for payment.
It was a scene that did nothing to boost Wilkie’s acting career but it made audiences laugh again three decades later in “The Golden Age of Comedy,” a compilation of Mack Sennett/Hal Roach silent comedy films released in 1957.
The Battle of the Century was released just a couple months after The Jazz Singer became the first feature-length motion picture with a synchronized recorded music score and lip-synced singing and speech. As the first “talkie,” The Jazz Singer brought the demise of silent film era and overall made things even tougher for slapstick-oriented actors such as Wilkie.
Not that Wilkie didn’t try.
“I started in early talkies as an extra, hoping to be discovered,” he told the Santa Cruz Sentinel in 1975. “The only thing discovered was that I was nothing extra.”
“During a studio slump, I worked in a carnival. I was shot out of a cannon. Those were my boom years.”
Midway through one lull between the rare acting gigs, Wilkie mailed jokes to two of the leading comedy periodicals of the 1920s, Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang and Judge.
Whiz Bang was considered a low-brow, racy publication, but it was enough of a coming-of-age publication to be referred to in the song “Ya Got Trouble” from the 1957 musical, “The Music Man”: “Mothers of River City, heed that warning before it’s too late! Watch for the telltale signs of corruption! The minute your son leaves the house, does he rebuckle his knickerbockers below the knees? Is there a nicotine stain on his index finger? A dime novel hidden in the corncrib? Is he starting to memorize jokes from Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang?”
The gag Wilkie pitched Whiz Bang featured a woman bellowing, “We’ll celebrate our tin wedding anniversary when hubby gets out of the can.”
The Judge suggestion was a cartoon showing a judge sending his mother-in-law to jail along with the inquiry: “What’s wrong with this sentence?”
Publishers at both magazines liked the submissions enough to send Wilkie $5 checks for the rights to print them. It felt like easy money to the otherwise struggling actor, and Wilkie kept submitting ideas, hoping the editors would find them funny. They did, and the checks kept coming. During a single month in 1926, Wilkie made a whopping $640 off jokes he sold to magazines. His gag-writing became so prolific that “Whiz Bang” publisher, Wilford Hamilton “Captain Billy” Fawcett, made the economically sound decision to offer him a $75-a-week job as an on-staff editor rather than pay him by the joke. Wilkie took the job and moved to Minneapolis without knowing it would lead him into radio and deliver him to show hosts who needed sharp writing.
Wilkie’s work for Fawcett caught the eye of Chicago-based radio host Ben Bernie, who began buying Wilkie’s jokes in 1933. At the time, Bernie was carrying on a fake rivalry with newspaper columnist/radio gossip commentator Walter Winchell as part of a cross-promotional effort to boost ratings and Wilkie helped flame the faux feud by writing gags on behalf of each.
Wilkie’s career hit full throttle in 1936 when he did something nobody else had ever done before. He sold Milton Berle the first gag the comic ever paid for. Not only did the transaction make Wilkie the talk of Broadway for a fleeting moment and spread his name around, but it gave him the satisfaction of taking money from such a notorious joke thief. It was a momentous enough occasion that Wilkie made a copy of the $25 check via photostat and considered it the highlight of a year in which he also started writing gags for Ed Wynn. According to the October 17, 1936, issue of “Radio Guide,” Wilkie was producing gags at the rate of 8,000 originals a year for “magazines, Bernie, Wynn and Berle.”
Wilkie returned to California in the fall of 1937 and found there was work waiting for him. Bob Hope arrived in Hollywood to launch his film career in “The Big Broadcast of 1938” and hired Wilkie to write the scripts for three “Rippling Rythm Review” radio-show segments he was contractually obligated to produce. Wilkie then hired on to write for the Al Jolson Show but was there only a couple of months before Hope re-hired him after signing on to perform 10-minute monologues on the NBC Hollywood-based radio program “Your Hollywood Parade.”
Jolson promoted himself as the “World’s Greatest Entertainer”… Hope was later dubbed the “Entertainer of the Century.” Wilkie left one for the other and it kept his career in an upward trajectory. Walter Winchell reported in his column, “I like this: Wilkie Mahoney, the gag writer, quit Jolson to work for Bob Hope. He gave Jolson one of those ‘To Whom It May Concern’ letters recommending Jolson to anyone who wanted a good boss…Cute, huh?”
In his book, “Have Tux Will Travel,” Hope remembered, “Two or three nights a week, Wilkie would drop in; we’d figure out what we were going to talk about then we’d sit down and kick it back and forth, with Wilkie at the typewriter tapping out the parts we thought usable. We kept chopping away until we’d hack out 10 minutes of serviceable stuff.”
“Those were long hours of work,” Wilkie later affirmed to a newspaper reporter. “You just let your mind go, twisting words into puns, then converting the puns to fit current events.
“It took tons of material even then to keep a comic in fresh humor. And writers were and are the key,” he said.
“Your Hollywood Parade” lasted just one season but paved the way for Hope to land his own radio show for the first time. Wilkie remained as chief writer on “The Pepsodent Show Starring Bob Hope,” and Hope hired seven elite comedy writers. Together, the group was referred to as the “Dauntless Eight” and considered one of the greatest team of comedy writers ever assembled.
It’s impossible to listen to any of those old shows and determine which jokes Wilkie contributed from the effort, but one particular gag had Wilkie’s fingerprints all over it. It was written into a sketch in which show announcer Bill Goodwin tried to convince Hope that they could make good money as spies.
BOB HOPE: Alright, Bill, I’ll go into the spy racket with you, but I’ll have to get a spy suit.
BILL GOODWIN: A spy suit? What’s that?
BOB HOPE: Oh, it’s nothing. You just go out with a bloodhound and a black coat and vest.
Wilkie left radio as it was nearing its golden age and followed Hope into motion pictures just as Hollywood was entering a golden age of its own. He was hired as a contract writer at Paramount and proved he belonged there by co-writing (with Lewis R. Foster) the screenplay for the 1939 film “Some Like It Hot” starring Hope, Shirley Ross and Gene Krupa. The contract and the screenwriting credit apparently made him a bona fide Hollywood hotshot in the eyes of at least one acquaintance. Entertainment columnist Leonard Lyons reported that Wilkie received an angry letter from a New York friend. “You don’t even tell me what’s going on in Hollywood,” the friend complained. “I’m the last one to know what’s going on here,” Wilkie responded. “Lily Damita could be in the Cedars of Lebanon having a baby son, before I even knew that she’d had her first date with Errol Flynn.”
What a year to enter the pictures. Film historians consider 1939 to be the greatest year in the history of Hollywood as it produced such classics as “Gone with the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” The year culminated with Hope hosting of the Academy Awards show for the first of his record 19 times and he relied on Wilkie to write his Oscar-night patter.
One of his quips came after Hope looked at a table laden with awards awaiting presentation. “I feel like I’m in Bette Davis’ living room,” he observed.
As “Gone with the Wind” won eight of the 13 categories it was nominated for, Hope remarked to producer David O. Selznick, “David, you should have brought roller skates.”
Wilkie would remain in film for the remainder of his professional career. He lost his taste for the type of quick-hitting, non-stop gags that radio required and wasn’t swayed by television when it arrived and started gobbling up motion-picture studio gagmen.
While at Paramount, Wilkie also co-wrote 1941’s “Caught in the Draft,” starring Hope and Dorothy Lamour, but then he changed studios. He moved over to MGM and began writing gags for a funny man whom the studio invested heavily into: Red Skelton. Wilkie wrote for the Skelton films “Panama Hattie” and “Whistling in Dixie” in 1942 and the next year wrote for two more, “Du Barry Was a Lady” (co-starring Lucille Ball and Gene Kelly) and “Whistling in Brooklyn.”
In one of her syndicated gossip columns in 1942, Hedda Hopper noted, “Red’s gag man, Wilkie Mahoney, kept showing him various suits that Bob Hope and Jack Benny had given him. Red finally said, ‘All right—I can take a hint—I’ll send you a suit, too.’ He did, but it was a piece of paper, drawn up by Skelton’s lawyer, suing Mahoney for given Red un-funny jokes.”
In a separate column the same year, Hopper reported that Wilkie was on loan to Warner Bros. when he brought silliness to a comedy in production. “When Jack Benny started working in ‘George Washington Slept Here,’ his gag writer, Wilkie Mahoney, presented him with a complete set of tools for a victory garden and Emily Post’s book of etiquette. ‘What the heck’s the book for?’ asked Benny. “Oh,” said Mahoney, “just to show you which fork to use.”
Another Hollywood columnist, John Chapman, also wrote of hijinks on the “George Washington” set. “Director William Keighly and Wilkie Mahoney—the latter Hollywood’s only remaining movie gag man—keep thinking up trouble for Benny. Chairs collapse under him, and at one point he falls through a ceiling. ‘Thereby,’ says Mahoney, ‘rendering thousands of termites homeless’… The other day Benny sent his hairpiece back to the makeup department for a combing. ‘Ah,’ said Wilkie. ‘Topper takes a trip.'”
Wilkie’s subsequent screenwriting credits included “Abroad with Two Yanks” (1944) starring William Bendix and “Brewster’s Millions” (1945) starring Dennis O’Keefe and Helen Walker.
At the point he most admired the work Wilkie was pounding out, Winchell asked him what he told the dopes in every crowd who pressed him to say something funny. “Belly button!” Wilkie replied.
“For every genius in Hollywood,” Wilkie would say later, “there’s a rotten play on Broadway.”
Wilkie left Hollywood abruptly in 1952 and returned to San Luis Obispo to care for his ailing mother and elderly father, though he joked that his departure was the result of declining mental faculties. “I left Hollywood because I began worrying about my own condition. At times I used to think I was getting my mind back and the thought of going sane frightened me. So I got out while I was still nuts.
“I was no fool.”
Back in his hometown, Wilkie discovered a humor-laced column that my father—an old radio man himself—was writing in the San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune. Wilkie began sending my father material and eventually “stalking his office,” my mother recalled. For the rest of their lives, Wilkie and Dad endeavored to bring old-time silliness to their sleepy and beloved California beach town.
“San Luis Obispo had some unusual characters in the early days of the pueblo,” Wilkie informed my father in one of his earlier letters. “There was an old printer, for example, who used to own an animal that was half goat and half cat. But the animal finally died. It went crazy trying to butt mice.
“The old printer loved his TV dinners. TV: Tequila and Vodka.
“And what a lush. At night he’d go home from work really gassed. But he always slept like a log… sometimes only rolling out of the fireplace three or four times a night.”
When a magnificent local natural landmark, Morro Rock, was threatened by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan calling for its destruction and the construction of a monstrosity of a power plant nearby, Wilkie hired a local artist to produce alternate designs that combined humor with harmony in incorporating a harbor, the rock and the power plant. The designs included a tunnel of love, a water ski lift and slope and system of raising the rock with balloons to allow easy access to Morro Bay. My father published them in his column and laughed at the readers who mistook them for serious architectural renderings and got all salty about it in letters to the editor.
Another local landmark Wilkie weighed in on was the Motel Inn, which opened in 1925 as the world’s first motel and featured a bar that my parents patronized on most nights. In that bar, my father huddled with local citizens and mined content for his column. The locals included an eccentric mix of merchants and cattlemen, Swiss dairy farmers, sons of Chinese laborers, descendants of whalers from the Azores, lawmen, war veterans and many others who came out at night with interesting stories to tell. It was a happening scene, yet Wilkie tried to jazz it up even more in a cartoon that he commissioned, framed and gave to my father. Wilkie’s version had the whole joint hopping around on pogo sticks.
Wilkie moved north to Carmel after his parents’ deaths and lived out the rest of his life there and in nearby Santa Cruz and Los Gatos. It didn’t take long for Wilkie to discover a second journalist to riff on: Wally Trabing, a columnist at the Santa Cruz Sentinel who addressed his mail-from-Wilkie experience in a 1975 column.
“When the mail comes aploppin’ onto my desk,” Trabing wrote, “I get an anticipatory kick when I see the familiar scratch of Wilkie Mahoney’s across the envelope and usually ‘Rush!’ in after-thought pencil across the front.”
“He’ll like a column and quick take a pen in hand,” Trabing noted. ‘Everybody loved the column—let’s have lunch at the Depot restaurant. We can have a few drinks and if the depot starts moving we can jump off around Davenport.'”
Some of Wilkie’s letters tried to catch the columnist off-guard.
“Dear Mr. Trabing: It has come to our attention that you are one of America’s leading rock collectors and we are writing to inform you that we have just acquired the famous Milton collection.
“Milton, as you know, specialized in beryl. In fact it is called the Milton Beryl collection.
“It’s closing time and our new night watchman from the Orient says he wants to ‘rock up the shop.’”
Another letter addressed to Trabing purported to be from the “Do It Yourself Therapy Foundation” and announces that, “One of our clients, Mr. Wilkie C. Mahoney, a writer, has an anniversary coming up and would like to be remembered with a Johnny Walker six-pack.”
The gags never stopped coming. “I opened a fortune cookie in a restaurant and it said: ‘Please disregard previous cookie,’” Wilkie told Trabing. After learning the columnist had been a high school track athlete, Wilkie shared: “I hear you once made a broad jump 18 feet… she backed into the javelin you were carrying.”
A third journalist who got the Wilkie treatment was the dean of them all: Herb Caen, whose daily society column at the San Francisco Chronicle earned him a special Pulitzer as the “voice and conscience” of his city. Caen welcomed Wilkie’s contributions, especially the one that became an instant Bay Area classic: “Nob Hill—Where every address is a status and rooms facing Oakland cost $10 less.”
Caen nominated Wilkie as California poet laureate in 1965 and went so far as to launch a campaign to support the candidacy.
“… At the moment, Mr. Mahoney is concentrating on couplets and doggerel,” Caen declared in the column he wrote to announce his campaign, “but I think you’ll agree he has a flair, as in ‘Ehrlich to bed, Ehrlich to wake/you’ll get lots of sleep but you’ll never meet Jake.’
“Not to mention his Union Square Cantata: ‘Good old Lucius/Best-dressed by far/Feeding the pigeons/Caviar.’
“Or his destined-for-immortality Webster St. Cantata: ‘Seductive smiles used for bait/On painted dolls with a golden gait’…
“‘Powell St./Shapely legs on the trams/Has anyone called ’em cablegrams?’
“Let’s put it on the record,” Caen urged. “Mahoney for Poet Laureate—Win with Wilkie!”
Wilkie appreciated the gesture. More than a hundred years earlier, his maternal grandfather, Edward Pollock, was writing “The Parting Hour” and other San Francisco-based poems that inspired a young and impressionable Ina Coolbrith to write verse, and she went on to become California’s first poet laureate in 1911.
Wilkie’s father also had written a few poems, including the one Wilkie would have inscribed on cards he sent to his closest friends:
To light the fire of friendship,
There’s a trick to make it catch;
One supplies the kindling,
The other supplies the match!
So as I sit and enjoy this old, sweet fire,
Near an open latch;
I think you for the kindling,
I’m glad I had the match!
Wilkie was working on a book, “Thirty Years in a Haunted Joke Book,” when his health took a turn for the worse and prevented him from finishing it. I have found parts of the book in the form of manuscripts he sent my father for critique and inclusion in his column. One particular section that I’ve uncovered is titled, “When is a Joke Not a Joke?”
“The final authority is, of course, the audience. But before the joke gets to the audience it first must pass the comedian. Thus, when a writer hands the comedian a joke and the latter reacts with a blank stare, or complete silence (this is when we say that a joke went over with a dull thud), we can conclude that the joke is not a joke. If these blank stares occur too frequently the writer will soon be at liberty, and his wife will be taking her mink coat back and exchanging it for something less expensive. (Ed. Note: Does she ever turn the writer back in?)
“Incidentally, here’s a tip for you if you ever hope to have a go at the joke-writing market: Don’t get wedded to your own creation, no matter how funny you think the joke is. Learn to take ‘no’ for an answer and quit pleading our joke’s cause before the high tribunal, namely the comedian. This is wasted energy. Once the comic turns the joke down it is useless to try to persuade him to reconsider it.
“When the writer was editing humor books he would often get a beef from some contributor who would wail, ‘My jokes are a lot better’n those you are publishing, etc., etc.’ To which I would usually reply, courteously and sagely, ‘Yes, I agree—but your gags, though they have much merit, aren’t quite our style etc.'”
“Many new authors are beset with the idea that their brainchild is the cutest thing in the literary nursery and it takes a candid editor to set the author straight.
“So, if you ever want to contribute jokes, either to a comedian or a magazine, you will be wise if you abide by the editor’s decision.
“And please remember that you won’t have much of a home life. You’ll be too preoccupied with your work. Which brings to mind the circus two-headed man who was reprimanded for his provoking table manners. Whereupon he just hung his head in shame. But his other head went right on eating. Ask any gag writer’s wife and she’ll tell you that the above analogy is well drawn.
“During the days when we had to turn out a radio show in a week, I used to get up the following morning after a show, make coffee in my pajamas (I couldn’t afford a coffee pot. Remember that one?) and sit around the house that way all week.
“Should you ever crash the writing game, let me tip you off right here that there isn’t much glory in it. I can best illustrate this with the following anecdote. Milton Berle was the master of ceremonies at a Friar’s banquet at which Bob Hope was the guest of honor. Comes time for Bob to speak and he quipped, “The reason Bishop Sheen is getting most of Berle’s listeners is because Bishop Sheen has better writers—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.” The joke has since been quoted in hundreds of newspapers, and to my knowledge, Hope was only credited once. This was by the NY papers the morning after the banquet. From then on everyone was taking a bow for it. This is one of the heartbreaking ordeals of joke writing. You might not end up in the poor house, but the chances are great that you’ll end up with a broken heart. (The above joke, incidentally, was authored by this writer.)
“But now, let’s give you a few more tips on joke telling. First, KNOW YOUR JOKE. Know it forward and backwards (Maybe it’ll sound even better that way.) Edit your joke or wisecrack mentally before you tell it. There is nothing sadder than a joke that gets all snarled up in the telling. And, most important, STRESS THE KEY WORDS, and the rest will be easy.
“Meanwhile, you’ll find that one-line jokes are more effective than the long joke. In a one-liner you can get the punchline across before some point killer can interrupt you and spoil your joke. And don’t press for laughs. If the joke is funny, your audience will laugh at it.
“The sounds and the smells disappear ahead… There is only endless darkness without width or depth and a blue sea of blood at the bottom from where the suffering of countless people can’t be heard above.”
—Dogura Magura, Yumeno Kyosaku, 1935
I don’t think my mother ever recovered from an article that appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on this day in 1942. The newspaper had just received the Navy’s third casualty list since the U.S.’ entry into World War II and reported on page 13 that five local enlisted men were officially listed as “missing in action.”
Seeing the name “Quartermaster Robert Arthur Williams, son of Mr. and Mrs. John W. Williams of 604 Fahnstock Ave.” and the photo of him that accompanied the article had to leave my mother wishing she could join him at the depths of the Indian Ocean or buried on a remote atoll in the East Indies. Instead, she would put him at the center of the one, big secret she always kept from my father: She had named me after her first love.
My mother met Bob in the choir at church and he quickly restored the self-esteem and stability she had lost during the Great Depression. In a memoir she typed out after my father’s death in 1974 and then stashed away unseen to others for the 25 remaining years of her life, my mother presents Bob as “an immigrant from England, the original home of my Fuller ancestors and whose king, my Uncle William had said, could have saved America from the Depression had we remained loyal to the crown.”
The memoir recalls Bob “with a lock of his blonde hair falling into his eyes while playing Wagner’s Song to the Evening Star (from Tannhäuser) during every Children’s Day at our church since I could recall.”
“After one particular evening’s rehearsal,” my mother wrote, “I could scarcely believe my own hearing when he asked if he could escort me home. We had just been singing All in an April’s Evening. It was really April and the gentle winds we had just been singing about were really abroad. I told him I lived in the country and had to take a bus, but he wanted to go with me and so it was. We had a chocolate Coke at Reymer’s while waiting for the bus and he saw me home safely which he did many times after that.
“Bob had a sense of humor unbelievable for an English boy who loved the violin. We would play so deliriously all afternoon but would show up at the Young People’s session at church by Sunday evening, then a great get-together for all the young people at someone’s house for a hilarious evening.”
After what my mother described as “a dream-like 10 months,” Bob called her one evening in 1940 and said he had to see her right away. “It was January,” my mother recalled. “I still have and love the gold band bracelet which he had bought me for that Christmas which was far beyond his financial ability to buy. He came to my home, told me to put on my heavy outdoor winter togs and we would walk in the snow for a while. The moon and star sparkled like polished silver in the cold, clear winter night and the half-frozen snow crunched under our feet— then he grabbed me in a bear hug and said that warmth and moment of love would have to last all of our lives.
“He broke into tears and explained that my father and my uncle had talked to him and were concerned about my serious interest in him and said that, for my good alone, he was to leave my social group so that I would be free to associate with people of better social standing and that since he came along, I had turned my attention completely to him and ignored all others. For two hours, we hung together in the snow and the cold and the night—our tears freezing into the ground beneath us. He was my first God-given beautiful love and I had to say goodbye since he had already signed up for four years service in the U.S. Navy and there was no turning back.
“Several weeks later, I had a letter from him saying that he was on his way into the waters of the Pacific—that he would still love me forever and that my last promise of my love following him wherever he would go—was like a guiding star in his life. That letter, I carried with me everywhere—for even years after my first marriage—it is still, as far as I know, hidden beneath the walls of a closet at the last home of my parents on Universal Road, Penn Township, Pennsylvania.”
If mercy followed the death of Bob Williams, it came in the form of my mother not knowing how bad he had it at the very end. His loss was a result of an encounter that was so horrific that neither side wanted to talk about it afterward. One side, apparently, didn’t want to admit mistakes; the other didn’t want to be held responsible for atrocities.
To gain just my basic understanding of what happened to Quartermaster Williams, I first had to overcome misinformation as well as a lack of information. Bob didn’t go down the way my mother said he did, but I wouldn’t know until later when I uncovered the one bit of information allowed the rest of Bob’s story to tell itself: the name of the ship he served aboard. My mother never mentioned the ship in her writings and its name was cropped out of the photocopied newspaper article she had glued onto one of her memoir’s pages.
My mother’s memoir claimed Bob died at Pearl Harbor on December 8, 1941. That inaccuracy threw me off for years and left me wondering how she could have been so wrong about such a tragic event in her life. As yet, the explanation I lean toward is that she had probably tuned out the awful news that was arriving almost daily from the South Pacific during those first few months after the U.S. entered the war and then filed all that horror away afterward. I think her purpose was to prevent the specifics within the deluge of disturbing news from getting to her.
The Pearl Harbor claim felt corroborated within months of finding my mother’s memoir, I came across a Christmas card Bob had sent her from Honolulu on December 5, 1941— just two days prior to the Day of Infamy. It was a beautiful card featuring an illustration of Diamond Head as viewed from Waikiki and bearing the wishes, “Aloha from Hawaii!” Inside, simply, was a Merry Christmas inscription in Hawaiian followed by Bob’s signature. As much as the Christmas card from Honolulu made credible the Pearl Harbor claim, though, it bothered me that I couldn’t find his name on any of the Pearl Harbor casualty lists available online. It was well after I gave up and quit looking that I stumbled into the corrective information I was looking for.
The information I needed appeared on an old postcard that my mother kept concealed because, like so many other of her belongings, it produced memories of loss. I found the postcard somewhere it didn’t belong, undoubtedly, but it was nevertheless exciting to see that it was from Bob in the Philippines, dated September 5, 1941, and postmarked October 4, 1941. On the card’s cover is an illustration of two traditional Filipino Moro fishing boats. On the back, Bob writes (sic):
We’re out with the Floy Doy’s and the Chop Chop’s now, Janie!
We were 27 days from Honolulu to Manila, which is is plenty of boat ride even for me. My new home is a rollicking destroyer. My best to your family!
That “rollicking destroyer,” per the return address that Bob provided, was the WWI-vintage USS Edsall (DD-219, Clemson class). Finally, I had the name of his ship and with that information went online and learned instantly its fate. The details were as graphic as they were grisly.
The Edsall in those first few months of the war was part of an outdated and under-gunned Asiatic Fleet given little priority as it sailed far-flung waters for reasons that were more politically than militarily strategic. Nevertheless, off Darwin, Australia, on January 20, 1942, the Edsall became the first U.S. destroyer to participate in the sinking of a full-sized enemy submarine in World War II.
Less than a month and a half later, however, it was participating in a rescue mission south of Java when it sailed blindly within range of two cruisers and two battleships that were part of a Japanese task force. The Edsall was in an unsurvivable situation and the subsequent two-hour-long engagement was as messy as it was horrific.
The Japanese ships toyed cruelly with their hapless target, firing 1,335 shells at the Edsall with only one or two hits that caused only inconsequential damage. Japanese Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo tired of what was becoming a fiasco and ordered the coup de gras: three groups of airstrikes from 26 Type 99 dive bombers launched from the carriers Kaga, Hiryū and Sōryū.
The dive bombers’ 550-pound bombs brought the Edsall to a halt, then the Japanese ships resumed firing, ceasing finally when the American ship turned on its side and offered its red hull in defeat. A Japanese camera-man believed to be aboard one of the cruisers filmed about 90 seconds of the destruction. A single frame from that film was later used as a propaganda photo misidentifying the ship under attack as “the British destroyer HMS Pope.”
After the war, Japanese Imperial Navy officers aboard the cruiser Chikuma reported that a number of Americans were in the water after the attack, but the Japanese were operating under submarine alert and picked up only a few survivors before they broke for home base.
On September 21, 1946, several mass graves were exhumed at a remote locale in the East Indies, more than a thousand miles from the Edsall’s last known location. Two of the graves contained 34 decapitated bodies, six of which were the remains of Edsall crewmen.
The remains of Robert Williams are now with those of 17,000 other fallen Americans who rest at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in the Philippines.
An appropriately titled book published in 2009, “A Blue Sea of Blood: Deciphering the Mysterious Fate of the USS Edsall,” author Donald M. Krehn tries to detail events leading up to the ship’s sinking, but he might as well have filled the pages with additional unanswerable questions about the unmentionable event.I know my mother saw the article that appeared in the Post-Gazette on May 15, 1942, because I eventually found the article she had clipped out and kept. The article carried the headline, “Five District men Missing in East Indies Naval Battles,” and referenced Bob under the subhead “Born in England.” The article explained, “Quartermaster Williams, 23, who was born in England and came to the United States when he was four years old, enlisted in the Navy in October 1939, about a month after Great Britain went to war with Germany. He has three cousins in the British Navy and two cousins in the Royal Air Force. He was an honor student at Wilkinsburg High School, where he was graduated in 1935. His last visit home was on Mother’s Day, 1940. He has one brother, Frank. His family was notified on March 19 that he was aboard the Edsall.”
It was not the newspaper’s first or last mention of Bob’s passing, though. “Williams, Robert A., Quartermaster, U.S.N., killed in action early in March, beloved son of John and Florence Williams and brother of Frank of 604 Fahnestock St.,” read a notice that appeared on page 29 of the March 26, 1942 edition.
Two days later, the newspaper followed up with slightly more detail in a two-paragraph announcement headlined, “Local Sailor Reported Lost in Ship Sinking”: “Robert Arthur Williams, 24, or 604 Fahnestock street, East End, has been reported missing since his ship was sunk in the southwest Pacific, his family learned yesterday. The youth’s father, John W. Williams, a sexton in the Calvary Protestant Episcopal Church, received a message yesterday that his son was presumed lost. Williams was an honor graduate of Westinghouse (sic) High School.”
Finally, at the end of a collection of Good Friday celebrations that appears on page 9 of its April 3, 1942, issue, the Post-Gazette announces plans to honor Bob: “At 8’o’clock tonight, at Calvary Episcopal Church, the choir will sing Brahms’ ‘The Requiem,’ dedicated to the memory of Robert Arthur Williams, Quartermaster, U.S.N., the first choir boy of Calvary to make the supreme sacrifice. Soloists are Clare Lynch, soprano; Herbert Ripeheart, baritone; Emerick Simboli, tenor. Accompaniments will be played by the Pittsburgh Federal Symphony, Donald Wilkins, organist. Also included is Dr. Harvey Gaul’s tone poem, ‘All Souls Day.'”
EDSALL WIKI: L. Ron Hubbard claimed he served on Edsall during World War II and was its only survivor. According to his story, he swam to shore after the ship sank and was there in the jungle during the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Of course, Pearl Harbor was bombed months before the Edsall’s sinking and the U.S. Navy has found no record of his service aboard the ship.