Summer Re-run: Granny Clarke

(A summer rerun from my other blog – a diverting reminiscence of California and Old Hollywood)

Granny Clarke was the mother of my mothers’ dearest friend from the time that JP, my next-youngest brother and I were small children, before my sister Pippy was born, and my parents were living in a tiny rented cottage in the hills part of Beverly Hills – a house on a dirt road, with the surrounding area abundant in nothing much else but chaparral, eucalypts and rattlesnakes. Mom and her friend, who was eventually of such closeness that we called her “Auntie Mary” met when Mom began to attend services at a Lutheran congregation in West Hollywood, rather than endure the long drive to Pasadena and the ancestral congregation at Trinity Lutheran in Pasadena.
Auntie Mary Hammond was a little older than Mom, with four sons, each more strapping than the other, in spite of Auntie Mary’s wistful hopes for one of them to have been a girl. The oldest were teenagers, the youngest slightly younger than JP . . . although Paulie was as large and boisterous as his older brothers and appeared to be more my contemporary. They lived all together with Auntie Mary Hammonds’ mother, Granny Clarke, in a townhouse in West Hollywood, an intriguing house built on a steeply sloping street, up a flight of stairs from the concrete sidewalk, with only a tiny garden at one side, and the constant background noise and bustle of the city all around, not the quiet wilderness of the hills, which JP and I were more used to. But there was one thing we had in common with Paulie and his brothers— an immigrant grandparent with a curious accent and a long career in domestic service in Southern California.

It is a little known curiosity, outside Southern California (and maybe a surprise to even those inside it, in this modern day) that there was once a thriving and very cohesive British ex-pat community there; one that revolved around the twin suns of the old and established wealthy families, and the slightly newer movie business – united in their desire for employment as high-class and supremely competent domestic service, or just residence in a place offering considerably nicer weather. They all met on Sundays at Victor McLaughlin Park, where there were British-rules football games, and even cricket matches, all during the 20ies and 30ies. (My maternal and paternal grandfathers may even have met there, twenty years before their son and daughter resolved to marry their respective fortunes together).

All unknowing, my own Grandpa Jim and Auntie Mary’s mother, Granny Clarke, represented the poles of that lonely expat community. Grandpa Jim worked for nearly three decades for a wealthy, well-established Pasadena family of irreproachable respectability . . . and Granny Clark, for reasons that may be forever unknown, took it into her head to work for “those Hollywood people.” According to my mother, who took a great interest in Granny Clarke and held her in considerable reverence, this was an irrevocable career move. In the world of domestic service in Southern California back then, once a domestic had “Hollywood” people on the professional resume, they were pretty well sunk as far as the other respectable employers were concerned. It is all rather amusing at this 21st century date to discover that the Old Money Pasadena/Montebello People looked down on the New Money Los Angeles People, who all in turn and in unison looked down on the very new Hollywood People . . . who had, as legend has it, arrived on a train, looking for nice weather and a place to film those newfangled moving picture thingies without being bothered by an assortment of … well, people that did not have their best economic interests at hand, back on the Other Coast.

So, while Granny Clarke might have been originally advised that she was committing professional suicide by casting her fortunes with “those Hollywood People,” it turned out very well in the end for her, even though she appeared, personally, to have been the very last likely person to take to the waters of the Tinseltown domestic pool with any enthusiasm. She was a being of the old breed, a stern and unbending Calvinist, the sort of Scots Lowlander featured in all sorts of 19th century stories; rigidly honest and a lifelong teetotaler, fearlessly confident in the presence of those who might have assumed themselves to be her social and economic betters, honest to a fault . . . and thrifty to a degree that my mother (no slouch in that department herself) could only genuflect towards, in awe and wonder. One of the first things that I remember Mom telling me about Granny Clarke was that she would carefully melt and re-mold the half-consumed remnants of jelled salads, pouring the liquid into an even smaller mold, and presenting a neat appearance at a subsequent meal. Neither Mom nor her own mother, Granny Jessie, ever had felt obliged to dress up leftovers as anything else than what they were, but Granny Clarke was a consummate professional.

Her early employers, so Mom related to me, were so enormously and touchingly grateful not to be abused, cheated and skinned economically, (or betrayed to the tabloids and gossip columnists) that no matter how personally uncomfortably they might have felt in the presence of someone who was the embodiment of sternly Calvinistic disapproval of their personal peccadilloes, Granny Clarke was fully and generously employed by a long sequence of “Hollywood people” for the subsequent half-century. Granny Clarke managed to achieve, I think, a certain ideal, of being able to tolerate in the larger arena while disapproving personally, and being respected and valued in spite of it all. She was painfully honest about household accounts, and ran the kitchen on a shoestring, buying the least expensive cuts . . . and with magical skill, conjuring the most wonderful and richly flavored meals out of them.

She was for a time, employed by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks at the legendary Pickfair mansion, before moving on to her longest stretch of employment, as housekeeper and cook for the dancer and star, Eleanor Powell. According to Mom, she only and regretfully left service with Ms. Powell after the formers’ marriage to Glenn Ford. The impetus was that Granny Clarke collected stamps and so did Mr. Ford, and after the marriage of Mr. Ford and Miss Powell, Granny Clarke no longer had an uncontested pick of the many exotic stamps that came in attached to Miss Powell’s fan mail. She went to work for James Mason, instead. Presumably, he didn’t grudge her the stamps from his fan mail.

In retirement, she lived with her daughter and son in law, and their four sons, which is when I knew her. We were all only aware in the vaguest way that she had been the housekeeper to the stars; that all paled besides the wonderful way she cooked, and the way she cosseted us smaller children. I wish I had thought to ask for more stories about Hollywood in her time, for she must have been a rich fund of them. One hot summer day, when we were at their house for dinner, Mom was not feeling very well, and when she confessed this, Granny Clarke said, sympathetically, “Oh, then I’ll fix you some poached eggs in cheese sauce.”

It sounded quite revolting to Mom – I think she may have been pregnant with my younger sister Pippy – but when Granny Clarke set down a beautifully composed dish of perfectly poached eggs, bathed in a delicately flavored cheese sauce, Mom was able to eat every bite, and keep it down, too. She had never tasted anything quite so delicious, and when she said so, Granny Clarke allowed as how her poached eggs in cheese sauce had been a favorite among certain guests at Pickfair. Those movie moguls and directors and that, she said, all had ulcers and stomach upsets, through being so stressed … but they were all, to a man, very fond of her poached eggs and cheese sauce.

7 thoughts on “Summer Re-run: Granny Clarke”

  1. One remnant of that antipathy to the “Hollywood People” is the fact that Los Angeles Country Club, which is located in west Los Angeles along Wilshire Boulevard, refuses to accept people in the entertainment business as members.

    There was one exception I am aware of.

    Randolph Scott, who lived on the fairway and who had a 1 handicap, was accepted. Why ?

    He got several friends and members to swear that he was not an actor.

    The power of LA Country Club might be guessed by knowing that a proposal to tax the club property was brought to the city council 20 years ago.

    The club officers responded to the proposal by stating they would sell one of the golf courses, the one that runs along Wilshire Boulevard, to developers.

    The value of that golf course was estimated at $100 million. It is one of three courses.

    The city council backed down. The sale would have resulted in a mile of high rise condos along Wilshire Blvd and the resulting traffic jams.

  2. I did not know that, Mike – does that rule still stand, do you think?

    I really, really wish that I had asked Granny Clarke for more stories of old Hollywood, or even that she had written a tell-all memoir at some point. But she wouldn’t have blabbed on all her old clients, and by the time that I realized what a career she had – I was away in the military; the very last time that I can remember talking to her, she had gotten quite childish with age, and barely recollected who I was.
    I also remember seeing the little model of the Garden of Allah Hotel, by the Lytton Savings Bank off Sunset and Crescent Heights – we went past it, every Sunday on the way to church. Oh, what tales that place would have had to tell!

  3. We have a connection, Sarge. I had an aunt who lived in Hollywood, her father having been a film actor.

    When the young me arrived by Greyhound Bus from the East Coast she said “Did you stop off to see the Grand Canyon”. “No”. A shower, a meal, a bed for the night, and then she dispatched me to the bus station to roll east again. When I returned “How was it?” “Worth the detour.” “Good. When you go north be sure to detour to Yellowstone.”

  4. I think the rule still stands. Lakeside Golf Club of Hollywood is the film stars’ club

    Bing Crosby was club champ in the 30s and Andy Garcia was last time I was in the locker room where those things are posted.

    The last time I played there, I used Kevin Costner’s locker because it was empty.

  5. I don’t know if you are familiar with the works of George Macdonald Fraser, editor of the Flashman Papers and author of two volumes of short stories about life in the British Army just after World War II. These stories were based on his own experiences as a junior officer in a Highland battalion. In the second volume, he adds some biographical notes, and mentions his grandmother – who might have been Granny Clarke’s cousin: “As a girl, straight from the heather, she had been engaged as kitchenmaid at one of those great Highland shooting lodges to which London society used to repair a century ago, and being a Glencoe MacDonald of critical temper and iron will, she had taken one cold Presbyterian look at the establishment with its effete southern guests and large inefficient staff and decided, like Napoleon contemplating the map of Europe, that this would never do. Within six weeks she had become senior housemaid, by the end of the season she was linen-mistress, and before her twentieth birthday she was head housekeeper and absolute ruler of the place, admired and dreaded by guests and staff alike.”

  6. The Jewish stars went to Hillcrest Country Club. The only reason I knew that is because I’m a big fan of the Marx Brothers. Groucho belonged there, making an exception to his famous disinclination to join clubs that would have him as a member. Harpo had a few amusing stories about it in his book, such as this incident on the golf course. The rule always seemed to be never pass up an opportunity to perform a good gag.

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