My mother had once led a life that included marriage to a successful novelist - and she kept it all a secret. But how much truth was in the books and others' recollections?
Don't misunderstand. She raised me all right - me and my three brothers and three sisters. She saw to it that we had enough to eat, though with seven kids, dinners had to be carefully rationed. She made sure we took fluoride pills, before the township saw fit to put it in the drinking water. We were always clothed, if not stylish; every year in August, just before school, she would order a new, but spare, wardrobe for each of us from the Sears catalog.
But there was another woman, another Elaine Withers, whom I didn't know.
My mother passed away in 1986. She died from a stroke during a heart procedure at
An even greater surprise: My mother had been married previously to another man.
We were a bit shocked, and confused. This happened in the mid-20th century, and though divorce wasn't something to be proud of, at least it was ordinary enough that to hide it - so completely - made the discovery all the odder, and all the more intriguing.
At first her sister, my Aunt Eva, said he was some sort of motion-picture producer. She wouldn't tell us any more, and it wasn't until after Aunt Eva died that we learned the truth. My mother had been married to David Goodis, a novelist and screenwriter.
They were married in
Not many people in this country read or know of David Goodis now, but he was a Philadelphian who had a measure of success and today has a significant following in
I thought, OK, so my mother was married to a famous novelist. What of it? Napoleon and Josephine - that was a marriage. The two and a half year marriage of Elaine and David Goodis - that was just a footnote.
Then one of my sisters discovered a book by James Sallis, Difficult Lives, which included an essay on Goodis. Sallis referred to my mother as "this mysterious woman, Elaine."
One of Sallis' sources in the essay, a cousin of Goodis', recalled Elaine as not the model type, neither tall nor leggy. He did say she had large breasts and a "glorious posterior," and always wore tight-fitting clothes. I'd never heard my mother referred to in this way, as some sexual entity. But looking at family photographs from that time, I can understand the attraction.
Another longtime Goodis friend from
Of course, all this is hearsay and secondhand reports. The question remained, who was this mysterious Elaine? Who really knew my mother?
Elaine Astor was born in
Goodis, a graduate of
My mother's family suffered in the Depression. My grandfather failed to pay taxes on real estate the family owned along
From a friend of my mother's, I learned that, with the family almost destitute, my mother convinced her parents that she had the talent and looks to be a movie star in
In the meantime, Goodis' career in
David Goodis' private life is every bit as strange and mysterious as the characters and plots of his novels, with their dark lives better left in the shadows. In the anonymity of
While he certainly could afford it, Goodis didn't have his own home in
Other peculiar, sophomoric behavior included going out in public in a borrowed bathrobe, putting on airs as a supposedly long-lost Russian prince, and stuffing the red cellophane from cigarette packs up his nose to feign nosebleeds in restaurants.
At night he is said to have frequented black bars and jazz venues, seeking out large women who would give him verbal abuse. And, if his novels are as autobiographical as many critics believe, he may have solicited physical abuse as well. These evening excursions were a ritual throughout his life.
As far as I know, my mother's acting aspirations didn't lead anywhere - no one has ever mentioned even a bit part in a minor film - but my grandparents settled in as Californians. That part of my family had made its break with
How did Goodis and my mother meet? Was it in
Goodis, on the other hand, is a pleasant, sincere-looking man, with a square face and a thick mass of black hair. They seem totally mismatched. In the Sallis and Garnier books, Goodis' friends described him as congenial, unpretentious, quiet, and very down-to-earth. My mother was a strong personality, dramatic and certainly judgmental. As attractive as she was, she was also, I think, very prudish. To my knowledge, she never drank alcohol, and she used to utter, "Lips that touch cigarettes shall never touch mine."
The marriage was a bust. The chronology is vague, but at some point after being married in
For anybody, trying to make sense of a decades-old failed romance - a well-hidden one - is no easy task. But I had this advantage: Because Goodis was a prominent author, in a steamy genre no less, people wrote about him. Which means they also wrote, a little, about my mother.
Goodis' friend Jane Fried told Garnier this about the marriage: "It was a complete fiasco. She threw him over pretty quickly; I'm sure she found him too odd, not mature or suave enough for her. He'd go to [
Sallis, in his essay, summed up the relationship: "David's friends believed him deeply, perhaps fatally, scarred by the relationship. Certainly the demanding, devouring females of his novels fed and grew, if they did not originate - for how can we say after all, if Goodis was attracted to her as a type, or in fact learned his predilections from her? - from memories of Elaine."
But the most disturbing recollection comes from Marvin Yolin, one of Goodis' Los Angeles friends; it is an incident that also shows up in Goodis' Behold This Woman. "Apparently, he was completely overcome by her, and had a terrible time of it," Yolin is quoted by Sallis. "She was redheaded and had large breasts which David adored. When they lived in New York she would wake him in the middle of the night and say: 'You want to see them, you want to see my breasts?' And he would say yes. Then she'd send him off to find her ice cream, in the middle of the night, this is, and of course he'd be gone a long time before getting back. He'd come in with the ice cream and then she'd call him names, cursing him for waking her up. He told me that she had rendered him physically and mentally deranged, and even though he was finally able to talk about it, and with humor, I'm persuaded that all this had marked him for life."
If you're expecting me to say I was crushed, disillusioned or embarrassed to read this about my mother, I wasn't. I didn't recognize this person, this woman on the page.
My mother wasn't June Cleaver, but I didn't know her as a man-eater, either.
And there's a problem with Sallis' suggestion about Goodis' learning "predilections" from Elaine. Yes, one of the female characters in Dark Passage (Madge, played by a young Agnes Moorehead in the film) is the sort of praying mantis who appears in most of Goodis' novels - but the book was largely written four years before Goodis and my mother were married.
Then there's the letter from my mother's dearest cousin, Rose Janofsky. I knew Rose. She never married, lived most of her life in Philadelphia, and, when my mother was living in New York or California, corresponded with her frequently. She obviously knew the Goodis family and perhaps was on speaking terms with Goodis himself. My mother had kept Rose's letters, one of which says this about Goodis: "Have you seen Davie. He sent us pictures of his family and he. His pictures made me sick. He looked very bad and drawn. Please see him and give me a first hand greece. You could tell him that I worry about him." It suddenly became clear; Goodis was an old friend of the family, and my mother certainly wasn't some Hollywood siren.
I haven't been able to learn much more about David and Elaine's relationship. They were granted a divorce in Pennsylvania on Jan. 18, 1946, and they returned, separately, to California. In 1948, two years after her divorce, my mother married my father, whom she met while attending college to become an elementary school teacher.
The mysterious Elaine had vanished, and in her place was, well, my mother.
The Elaine Withers I knew bears little resemblance to the temptress of Goodis' novels. When I was growing up, my mother was always fairly heavy, always on a diet; and I was more accustomed to seeing her in a muumuu, apron and sandals than in tight-fitting clothes and high heels. When the occasion arose, at neighborhood dinner parties, she could be stunning and quite charming with friends and acquaintances, and as she grew older she began to resemble Elizabeth Taylor, which I think she tried to play up.
She was an excellent cook, hated housekeeping, and designed and maintained a beautiful English garden.
She was not a religious person, but spoke Yiddish with her sister and father, especially when she didn't want us to know what she was talking about.
My mother was something of an Anglophile. She loved everything English. She loved English literature, and identified more with Disraeli than with Moshe Dayan. She even named me Laurence, spelled with a U, after Laurence Olivier - she wanted me to be an actor.
I believe she had writing talent. She once read me one of her stories, a dark tale written in true noir fashion with a gothic-mystery edge to it. And she was a dreamer, always in conflict with reality.
Under his contract with Warner Bros., Goodis could write short stories and novels half the year and work on movie scripts the other half. He wrote several original screenplays, some never used, and produced a screen treatment for Raymond Chandler's Lady in the Lake.
His last book during his Hollywood period was Cassidy's Girl, probably his most popular novel. In it, Goodis creates a permanent set of characters, and a love triangle, that will appear frequently in his later novels. The story revolves around Jack Cassidy, ex-gridiron hero, ex-war hero, and ex-airplane pilot, whose life was stalled when his plane crashed, killing 78 passengers. He's the only crew member to survive and testify to his innocence. Cassidy takes a job driving a bus, which he convinces himself is a reasonable substitute: It's big, it has wheels, and he's the pilot.
Two women appear, to create the conflict. First there's Mildred, the carnivorous, insatiable, robust temptress - walking trouble in high heels. (I have to wonder: Is she partly my mother?) Then there's the waif, Doris, the quiet, insecure woman, totally undemanding, totally defenseless, totally selfless - a doormat, bringing out the domestic side of Jack.
The contrasts couldn't be greater, like a chocolate truffle versus a breath mint. Sometimes in a Goodis novel the story ends and our hero eats truffles, knowing he'll hate himself in the morning for giving in to his animal nature. Sometimes he takes the breath mint; it's sweet, but he knows his interest will soon dissolve and he will become bored. For the main character, neither choice is wholly satisfying or appealing; it's a choice between hell and purgatory, and either way he's going down.
Except for Dark Passage, which is set in San Francisco, all of Goodis' books take place in Philadelphia and are peppered with local references - Wissahickon Drive, Broad Street, the Kresges five-and-dime, the Bulletin. His characters are shipping clerks, day laborers and dockworkers, doing jobs that Goodis himself had done at various times.
In good noir style, Goodis' heroes are only marginally more appealing and admirable than the roughnecks, cons and ne'er-do-wells they associate with, and their rough, expressionless exteriors are only masks for the machinations of troubled souls. They are heroes by default.
Goodis' novels aren't big on plot. The characters are simple people, with simple motivations, plagued by large moral and ethical issues they don't seem to be totally aware of. They try to do the right thing (and more often don't) with no pretense or self-righteousness, while caught in a world of poverty, futility and despair. In words rather evocative of the real lives of David and Elaine, author and critic David L. Ulin describes the virtue of Goodis novels in terms of "the acuity with which Goodis traces the trajectory of broken dreams."
David Goodis never presumed to be a great writer. In true Goodis self-effacing manner, he once declared, "I'm no Dashiell Hammett." In France, though, his books are revered. He didn't understand the French affinity for his writing and didn't appreciate the nihilistic or existential qualities that the French so greatly admire in his work. There are at least half a dozen French films based on his novels. At times the French were the only ones to keep Goodis' books in print, America having all but forgotten the writer.
By 1950, Goodis had had enough of Hollywood and moved back to Philadelphia, where he lived the last 17 years of his life with his parents and a brother. He became a recluse, writing his books at home during the day and generally venturing out only at night, in his ancient Chrysler, going to his regular destinations. This was also Goodis' most productive period, with 11 more novels completed.
A rare exception to his routine occurred in 1956, when he teamed with director Paul Wendkos to adapt his novel The Burglar for the screen. The movie was shot in Philadelphia, one of the first motion pictures to be set against the actual backdrop of the city.
David Goodis spent the last two years of his life involved in a lawsuit against United Artists-TV and the ABC network. The lawsuit was over the popular TV show The Fugitive, which Goodis contended was based on Dark Passage. He became obsessed with the case, to the point that he checked himself into a psychiatric hospital. He died at Albert Einstein Medical Center in 1967, at the age of 49. It makes you think of the first sentence of his first novel: "After a while it gets so bad that you want to stop the whole business." He won his case posthumously.
In 1964, 14 years after Goodis had moved back to Philadelphia, my family moved from California and bought a house in Cherry Hill and lived a life typical of that time. My siblings and I never knew how close we were to the mysteries of two decades before.
The only evidence I have in which my mother acknowledges Goodis is a mid-'60s letter to her sister Eva, accompanied by a newspaper article about Goodis' lawsuit. "I'm enclosing a clipping I cut from the Inquirer which you may find interesting. And here I thought he was on the skids. Rose Skaler tells me he frequents her brother's jazz dive which is patronized by beatniks and low-lifes."
These are the facts, but the truth of their relationship lies somewhere in the margins. It doesn't account for cups of coffee in the morning, literary discussions, and visits with family and friends. In other words, it doesn't account for the humanity of it.
My parents eventually separated, and my mother lived for 19 years after that. Her last house was on Fairfield Avenue in Philadelphia, just off Roosevelt Boulevard. For Elaine, as for David Goodis, life had come full circle.