For Bob and Melinda Wynn, it was a big night. Maybe the biggest. Bob was a Texas wildcatter who'd made and lost fortunes and at the moment was flush enough for his wife to serve as the chairperson of the Cattle Barons Ball, a cancer fund-raiser that was the hottest ticket among the social elite in Dallas. Bob's wife, Melinda, was exquisitely beautiful. He wanted the best for her, from diamonds to clothes (like the Bob Mackie gown she'd had made for the evening) to social status, which hosting the ball ensured.
Like so many of Bob's endeavors, it appeared to be working. Everyone who was anyone in Dallas was on the grounds outside of Southfork, the epicenter of so much sex, sleaze, and scandal on television's highest-rated series. It was exciting, like being on a Hollywood set. Even better, a fleet of helicopters swooped in, circling overhead, and then it began to rain money -- one-hundred-dollar bills.
Within moments they knew that each helicopter carried one of the stars from Dallas and that I was in the lead chopper, the guy in the white Stetson who was tossing out handfuls of the one-hundred-dollar bills with my picture on them and the saying "In Hagman We Trust." As all of us stepped onto the lawn, people cheered and waved. Some shouted, "We love you, J.R.," and I could feel the atmosphere turn electric. Out of the corner of my eye I caught Bob Wynn grinning.
But his good mood didn't last long. As I knew from having lost money in one of his oil deals, Bob's ventures often had another side, and this grand evening did too -- rain. Not long after I arrived, the nighttime sky unleashed a storm of biblical force. It just poured. I was supposed to introduce the night's entertainment, country music legend Johnny Cash. By the time I arrived backstage, I had mud up to the crotch of my white Western-style tux, the power had gone off, and Johnny was telling Bob why he couldn't play.
"There's a damn good chance me and my band could get electrocuted out there."
Bob stepped forward until there wasn't any space between him and Mr. Cash.
"Look, you son of a bitch," he growled, "if you don't go out there and play, I'm going to blow your head off."
I have no doubt he might have done it too. Neither did Cash, who followed my introduction onto the stage, which, in the absence of electrical power, was illuminated by headlights from a bunch of Cadillacs and Rolls-Royces that were hastily moved into a semicircle. The introduction over, I hurried out to the audience, where my chair sunk into the mud. The woman next to me chuckled; hers was even deeper. We spoke briefly. She was from out of state, Cleveland or somewhere.
When the power was restored, and after a couple of songs, the man seated behind the woman asked the guy in front of her to remove his ten-gallon cowboy hat. It was blocking his view. It was blocking everybody's view. When his request was ignored, he waited about fifteen seconds, reached over the lady, and knocked the guy's hat off. She and I exchanged nervous glances as the man slowly turned around, asked for his hat, and put it back on. A few moments later the scene was repeated. But this time, before the hat hit the ground, the guy wheeled around and threw a vicious punch. It missed its target, who ducked, and instead hit the woman square on her forehead.
She tumbled backward in the mud. I saw a huge goose egg form just above her nose. I thought she was dead.
Meanwhile, the two men went at each other, fists flying and all that. As security intervened, I noticed Bob Wynn had taken over the microphone. He was asking everyone if they were having a good time. Despite the rain, it seemed like they were -- except for the woman lying at my feet. An emergency medical team had rushed over and were working on her. A few minutes passed before she opened her eyes. She looked right at me without any recognition and asked where the hell she was.
"Dallas," I said. "Welcome to Dallas, honey."
* * *
My arrival in Texas, though much less violent, would over time lead to moments of real drama.
I was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on September 21, 1931. My mother was seventeen. She had married and become pregnant almost the moment her marriage was consummated. She had no idea about sex. Nor did she have much of a clue about motherhood. It just happened as if it was supposed to, like so many events in life seem when you look back on them.
But Mom did things her way, and her way was rarely traditional.
Her father, Preston Martin, was a prominent lawyer in town. Her mother, Juanita Presley, had taught violin at the community college. Mother was born in the family's modest home. According to her, my grandfather signaled her birth to the neighbors by raising the bedroom curtain, and she liked to say, "Curtains have been going up for me ever since."
My mother was a good-looking child. She sang the words to every song the town band played on Saturday nights outside the courthouse. At twelve, she took voice lessons. She would describe herself as the best customer at the Palace, the town's only movie theater. She began to dream about becoming a performer after seeing Al Jolson sing "Mammy," and soon she was able to mimic Ruby Keeler, ZaSu Pitts, and other stars of the day.
"Give me four people and I'm on," she said. "Give me four hundred and I'm a hundred times more on."
* * *
My father, Ben Hagman, had his own flair. He was a criminal attorney who, at six feet and 240 pounds, commanded a courtroom the way Mother did a stage. He once defended a man who'd gone into a sleazy bar on Jacksboro Highway and taken a shot at the bartender. While he missed the bartender, the bullet went through the bar's thin metal siding and killed a lady seated in a pickup parked outside.
Dad got a hurry-up call from the shooter, who'd been arrested on murder charges. Before the cops launched an investigation, my dad went into the bar and pulled two slugs out of the wood in the back bar. Then in court he argued that two or more shots would've been murder, but one shot was an accident -- at least in Texas it was. As he didn't inform the court about the two extra slugs, Dad got his client a lesser sentence.
His family, originally from Sweden, owned lumber mills in Wisconsin before moving to Texas, shortly after the turn of the century. Dad's mother, Hannah, a Christian Scientist, died of cancer. His father passed away soon after. He had two brothers. One, my uncle Carl, was a retired army officer. The other, my uncle Bill, married a woman named Ruth, and both were so fat they needed special heavy-duty springs in their car.
My father was nineteen when he met my mother, then fourteen. They didn't start dating until she was a high school senior. After a hot summer romance, my mother's parents attempted to lower the flame by sending her to Ward-Belmont, a finishing school in Nashville, Tennessee. Miserable there, she convinced her mother to come get her. For some reason, my grandmother brought Ben along, and then the three of them went to Hopkinsville, Kentucky, where my mother, sixteen, and Ben, twenty-one, got married.
"How hillbilly can you get?" my mother would say later.
* * *
She had a baby at seventeen, but after a couple of months of playing mother, she was miserable. Maybe not miserable, but frustrated.
Not a big surprise. She was a kid herself -- too young to be a wife, too young to be a mother, and too full of ambition to settle down.
My father joined my grandfather's law firm, and soon after, my mother opened Mary Hagman's School of Dance in an old grain loft, and I was handed over to my grandma. I called her Nanny. All of us lived under the same roof, in my grandparents' new home, a large, rambling, two-story house. My grandmother took care of all of us.
Weatherford still had the flavor of an old Western town. Horses outnumbered cars, electric lights were new (not all the homes outside of town had them), and the big thing was watermelon. In front of the courthouse, there was a tin watermelon about fourteen feet long, and outside of town there was another sign that said, "Welcome to Weatherford, Watermelon Capital of the World." That sign was regularly used for target practice. Every year they had to replace it, and one year they simply changed it to say, "Welcome to Weatherford, Home of Watermelons and Mary Martin."
Mother was very proud of that, but she'd joke, "Even in my hometown I can't get top billing!"
But that wasn't true. Everyone in town knew my mother as the talented, energetic dance instructor. I was two when she took the train to California, where she studied at Fanchon and Marco School of the Theater, a school for dancing teachers, in Hollywood. More trips followed. After she brought back new dance moves and the mystique of having seen the movie capital with her own eyes, her classes became more popular than ever.
Soon she opened a second school and began staging shows that made her name even bigger locally.
She was able to work so hard because my grandma assumed all the responsibility of raising me. It was as if I were her own child. My mother once took me for a walk and I was attacked by a swarm of bees. Another time I fell off a Shetland pony and broke my collarbone, and when my grandmother found out -- three days later -- she balled out her daughter, asking, "What'd you do to my Larry?"
I was always described as a good boy with a sweet disposition. I probably was. I'm still pretty easygoing. I can remember only one serious impropriety as a kid. While playing in the sandbox, I stuck my tongue out at my grandma. She told my grandpa -- whom I called Papu -- and he locked me in the cellar, a dank room that reeked of homemade wine and provided shelter to rats the size of Pekingese. "Larry, you stuck your tongue out at Grandma. That's no good."
First I heard the lock click. Then the lights went off. Then I started to think about the rats down there. I'd seen my grandpa trap some that were bigger than me -- at least they seemed it. I naturally assumed the first sound I heard in the dark was a rat, and it scared the crap out of me. I ran to the door, terrified.
"I'm sorry. I'll never do it again," I cried.
The door flung open and I fell into my grandma's arms. She'd clearly had words with my grandpa.
As tough as my grandpa was, he never spanked me. Never once raised his hand. His punishment was much worse. He bored me to death with lectures. I used to say to myself, Why can't he just spank me and get it over with? His lectures were summations meant for a jury, not a five-year-old child. They also had an effect. I never did anything stupid a second time.
* * *
I was also raised by Billy Jones, a wonderful, very round, extremely loving black woman who'd worked for us so long she became part of the family. She'd raised my mother and her older sister, Geraldine, and then she got me too. She took me to the black church, which I liked better than ours. She also took me to the movie theater, where I remember the manager would let me and other white kids go upstairs with our nannies but the nannies couldn't go downstairs with us.
It didn't seem right.
"That's just the way it is," she said.
Still, I didn't understand why it had to be.
Even as a little kid I could talk all night, but Billy didn't always want to listen. At bedtime, she had a secret method of putting me to sleep. She'd blow out the pilot light in the gas heater and let the gas fill the room. Just enough to make me drowsy. That practice ended when my grandparents returned from a church barbecue and found us both passed out and the gas still flowing. Billy resorted to another trick. She filled a little cloth sack with sugar, dipped it in bourbon, and let me suck on it.
Was this the start of my alcoholism? Who knows?
* * *
As my mother grew up, she and my father grew apart. He wanted to have his own home and law practice, which he did. My mother quickly discovered she wanted her own career too. She zipped off to Hollywood every time she wanted to learn a new dance routine, but after a while it was pretty apparent she had aspirations other than becoming the best dance instructor in Weatherford and Fort Worth.
Finally she decided to give stardom a shot. She moved to L.A. with her devoted friend Mildred Woods. Between 1935 and 1937, she auditioned so frequently at Paramount, MGM, and the other studios that she earned the nickname "Audition Mary." Her first big job was singing at the Cinegrill, a bar at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Word quickly got back to Weatherford. Broadway was one thing. The movies were another. But working in a bar?
Concerned, my grandma packed me in the car and sped to L.A. She wanted to see what was going on for herself.
What she saw was my mother pursuing the life she'd dreamed about. She was doing it without my father, whom she divorced amicably, the distance and diverging careers being too much of a strain on their relationship. My grandma and I moved in with Mother and Mildred. They had an apartment in the Highland Towers near the Hollywood Bowl. Mother was doing fairly well, making $400 a week singing at Gordon's nightclub, where she met the composers Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern. She'd also grown friendly enough with gossip columnist Hedda Hopper to have her baby-sit for me in a pinch.
One night I was awakened by a noise in my bedroom. Without stirring, I quietly opened my eyes and saw my mother and Mildred looking around my room. Mother picked up my piggy bank and handed it to Mildred, who broke it open and handed the meager amount to my mother. That night we dashed off to Palm Springs. As I recall, mother was fleeing from Val D'Auvray, a European businessman who was pressuring her to marry him.
Val was an interesting character, a strong, masculine, erudite man who made and lost fortunes and had influential friends all over the world. He loved mother and, I think, saw himself as her Svengali. She didn't give him the opportunity. However, for a time he did fill the space in my life that was denied to my father, taking me to the doctor, to amusement parks, and one time to Errol Flynn's yacht, which he said he'd once owned. And years later he would play an important role in my life.
Speaking of roles, the only one that ever gave my mother trouble was the one that concerned me, motherhood. But she tried her best. That Easter in Hollywood she and Mildred woke me up and said they had a surprise for me. Mother was holding the end of a yellow ribbon.
"Take the ribbon, Lukey," she said, using her pet name for me. "Get up and follow it and you'll find a special treat."
I followed instructions and excitedly traced the ribbon through the house -- from the bathroom into the living room, around the dining room table, and out through the kitchen. Mother and Mildred kept saying, "You're getting warmer. You're getting warmer." Finally, I opened the screen door in the kitchen and found the end of the ribbon tied to a little white bunny -- splattered in bright red blood!
A neighborhood cat had chewed its head off.
I was traumatized.
I've been "allergic" to cats ever since.
Copyright © 2001 by Majlar Productions, Inc. f/s/o Larry Hagman