Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Steve Strong: Gramercy Park Place

She was already eighty years old when I first met her, and for the next 15 years I was required to sit with her a few days each year. Although she was a native English speaker, I never understood her. We were from different planets, she and I. I endured our visits. I begrudgingly attended, held my breath, and gave a great exhale as I motored away from her home.

Who was she? Why was I required to do this? She was no relative of mine, and no relative of anyone related to me. She was my ex-mother-in-law’s godmother. A woman with no children of her own. No living relatives of any kind. And anyone she ever loved had died in that very house I visited her in, on Gramercy Park Place, in Los Angeles.

Her name was Helen Browne, but she asked to be called Sunny. She had been a movie star, you see. She had appeared in several motion pictures of the silent era. When asked to identify them, titles rattled off the top of her head along with silver screen stars I’d never heard of. But you know, that’s not what really matters. She told me the really important roles were in the theatre. And she showed me pictures of her playbills and her schedule as she toured the Western U.S. in theatre troupes with the likes of Ralph Bellamy and Jason Robards, Sr.

She had a birth name, a married name, a nickname and a stage name. And she was all about drama. You see that house across the street? Why, that’s where the young man lived who wrote “When the Swallows Return to Capistrano.”

I had no idea if that was important or not. I was a Michigan country boy. I’d never heard of the song. I’d never heard of the town. I kept trying to find a way to relate to this ancient woman, but it wasn’t easy. Something told me she was a big fake. I was convinced all this strangeness just couldn’t be for real.

When she was still mobile, she insisted I drive her to the Brown Derby or El Chollo for lunch because that’s where the stars eat. I had my choice of driving her dusty old 1966 Mustang or her dusty old 1966 Continental. Both had under 30,000 miles on them, and both only moved if I drove them.

She would tell me things like how healthy urine is for your eyes, and how to communicate with the dead through séances. But mostly, she would talk about the life of an actress. Oh! How the young men adored her. Oh! The suitors. Oh! The proposals of matrimony. But she had steadfastly fended them all off. She remained aloof until middle aged when she married a ship pilot for the Port of Los Angeles who died ten years later.

The house. The house was her mausoleum. Her father built it in 1905 and she moved in when she was two years old. And she never moved out. Her parents each died in that house. Her husband died in that house. Eventually Sunny died in that house in 1998 at the age of 95.

In her final years she was confined to her bed and often mistook me for a doctor or some kind of accountant. She would tell me how she had been dancing around downstairs earlier in the day, and I would tell her how nice that was.

Having no offspring, she left the bulk of her estate to the Norman Vincent Peale foundation. But the task of sorting through her home fell on me. I was supposed to clean it out and look for items of interest for my in-laws to sell at auction. I figured I could go through the whole house in two days. I ended up being there seven.

I started out down stairs, which was sort of clean and always ready for company. I found the Chinese snuff bottle collection which was the most prized asset in the house. In a cabinet in the living room I found an unused Lone Ranger game from 1936. It was in mint condition, so I delivered it to the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum in exchange for a lifetime free pass.

When I made my way upstairs my task became truly strange. Most rooms were stacked to the ceiling with junk so that the doors couldn’t be opened. Two bedrooms, a bathroom, the hallways, closets, offices were packed to the ceiling. In fact the only room that had an access way was the room Sunny died in.

So I started in the corner bedroom. I had to pry open the door, and then reach my arm around and start pulling things out to give me space to open the door wider. I used this technique for all the rest of the rooms in the house. For the next two days I worked in that room and the hallway. We ordered in a forty-foot dumpster, and I ended up filing more than two of those.

I discovered all kinds of weird things in that room, and was always worried I’d find a skeleton. But I didn’t. Instead, I found boxes of canceled checks from the twenties and thirties. I found hundreds of dresses, shoes, jewelry. When I got down to the floor level, I found a made bed, and items on the dresser that had been covered for 50 years.

It took a full day to get to floor level in the hallway, but at the bottom I found a cedar chest with two newspapers on it. Both were defunct Los Angeles papers and both were dated November 11, 1918 and the headlines heralded the armistice.

In the hallway, when I could finally get into the cabinets I found glamour shots of silent movie stars I’d never heard of. I recognized the names of Lillian Gish and Tom Mix. But beyond that, they were just stacks of head shots.

And then I found the pictures of Sunny. They were stunning. She was certainly beautiful back in her day. She had long flowing blonde hair and often had furs draped strategically around her bare chest. It was so hard to picture her as a teenager and starlet. But there was the proof in front of my eyes.

In the second bedroom upstairs I worked my way to ground level again to find a bedside table. I think this was Sunny’s room as a child. In the drawer by the bed I found love letters. Dozens of them. I read the words of Ralph Bellamy and Jason Robards, Sr. as they confessed their undying love to Sunny. These were passionate letters.

There were many other letters from actors and names I didn’t recognize. I put them all in the stack of stuff for the auction house to sort out.

I spent a full day cleaning out a big walk-in closet, only to get to the bottom and discover it was actually a small office. There was a working desk in there. As I went through the desk I found the police files for a case from Philadelphia for indecent exposure against her husband Brownie. It was funny reading it. Who knows what he was up to our how drunk he was, but the charge was from the 1930’s and described in detail chasing him down and arresting him. At my in-law’s request I destroyed the file.

Towards the end of the week I was working very late hours. I would work about 14 hours, then go to a hotel and sleep and start again the next day. Whenever I was on a roll, I hated to stop. Frankly, the stuff I was finding was so interesting I was running on adrenaline a lot of the time.

The last room I ventured into was the storage room at the top of the stairs. Like the others, the door wouldn’t open, so I had to reach in and start pulling things out. It was getting late, and I was excited to see what this room had in store, so I pushed myself to work late into the night.

The light was very poor, so I got floor lamps from around the house and set them up in the hallway as I started pulling things out of this storeroom. When I pulled enough junk out to get the door open halfway, I saw the room had shelves around all four walls, and there was a closet in the back.

The shelves were filled with black boxes about 18 inches square. There were probably 100 boxes in there in total. Each box had a sign on it. Some said, “Fall 1938”. Another might say, “Winter 1927”. I was absolutely mad with curiosity to find out what was in these boxes. As soon as I could push my way in, I started pulling those boxes out to find each one had a fancy women’s hat in it!

By the time I had reached the closet in the back of that room it was nearing midnight. I had to step over a pair of beautiful green marble lamps that I took home and re-wired for myself.

At last, I opened the closet door to find it was also packed to the ceiling. By one o’clock in the morning I was ready to go home, but I saw in the back of the closet a most unique object. It was a treasure chest, like a pirate might have used to keep doubloons in. I was intrigued and got a new burst of energy as I lugged that trunk into the hallway.

I positioned the floor lamps and took off their shades so I could get the maximum light from the bare bulbs. As I opened the trunk, I found it had been filled with newspapers as packing material. The dates of all the newspapers were 1919. It occurred to me that this trunk had not been touched since it was sealed up 79 years ago.

One of the first things I pulled out was a little Eskimo doll made with real seal fur. It had a badge on it that said, “Admiral Byrd Expedition – 1919.” I also found several toys, including a little hand-held game called “Beat the Kaiser” in which you tried to roll little BB’s into Kaiser Wilhelm’s eyes and mouth.

At the very bottom of the trunk I found what looked like three small logs wrapped in newspaper and neatly tied with three strings each. As I inspected the first, I noticed that it too, was wrapped in 1919 newspaper. My heart was pounding with anticipation to find what was hidden in the most remote corner of the most remote room in that creepy old house. I tugged on the bows of the string and it easily removed itself. I unrolled the newspaper to find two blue eyes pop awake to look back at me!

My heart stopped, and I nearly dropped the thing. When I caught my breath I realized it was a doll. All three were antique dolls from France. Their eyes could open and close. I was relieved, but I called it a night after that.

As I look back now, I can picture a 16 year old girl, active in drama and looking for a career on the stage, putting away the things of her childhood. She wrapped up those pretty dolls and saved them for the children she’d never have. And she never opened that trunk again for the rest of her long life.


  1. Steve - that was a really interesting story with some terrific moments. The love letters, Sunny's glamour shots, the lifetime free pass to the Gene Autry Museum and...urine in the eyes? I'll take the Visine, thanks. Oh man, by the time you got to that last trunk, I was sure you were going to find some food in there. A 75 year old fruitcake, or something.

    In every short story there's always a door, left open a crack to something more...for me, that's the story of Brownie and his arrest for indecent exposure. Sounds like a good one. Hope you get to tell it some day.


  2. Wow... It's too bad you couldn't hire an archivist to go through that stuff. You could have made a fortune selling it at Sotheby's.