After being hidden away in a cabin in the desert for my first two years, I was adopted by my own mother, though I never knew she was my mother when I was a child. I was simply told that I had been adopted. I grew up in a large house on Canyon Drive, in the Hollywood foothills, near Griffith Park and not far from Hollywood and Vine. I loved to hike and play and ride horseback in Griffith Park and in a smaller park called Ferndell, which was even closer to our house. The house itself was a large wooden single level structure, custom built in a modern ranch-house style. It was L-shaped and was organized as follows. One entered climbing a brick stairway flanked by Japanese cypress and orange trees surrounded by a ground cover of tall ivy. To the right from the entry hall was the kitchen followed by the laundry room, the maid’s room and the garage. To the right was the living room, and beyond that a dining room. A hallway led to a den and, at the end, a bathroom and my room. At this point a wing angled to the right which held a family room and two separate master bedrooms occupied by my father and my mother with an adjoining bathroom connecting them. I had no idea that it was unsual for a husband and wife to live in separate bedrooms.
The house had a large garden which contained a swimming pool, a badminton court and a large brick barbecue area. Eventually a studio was built for my mother, a sculptor, in the far corner of the garden, where the badminton and barbecue had been.
My grandparents’ house, the Brunswig mansion, was an exact copy of an eighteenth century French villa. It was quite large, with 25 rooms. It had once housed a large domestic staff including a cook, butler, nurse, governess, upstairs maid, downstairs maid, two gardners and a chauffer. By the 1940’s when I visited and played there, the staff had been cut in half, but there were always plenty of servants to be called when one needed anything.
The entrance to the house was done in classic eighteenth century style with glass French doors and two large stone lions guarding the stone stairway. Upon entering the house one walked into a large entry hall and then came upon a large wooden staircase at the center of the house. It was carpeted in red and led directly to the second floor. There were twelve rooms upstairs and at least as many large rooms downstairs, which included a ballroom and a private chapel where the family would sometimes gather for mass on Sundays and feast days.
When she was living there, Madole’s room was the end room on the first floor. Later that became a guest room, and that is where I slept when my parents stayed late in the evening. Adjoining this room was the governess’s room, which had also been converted into a guest room by the time I came on the scene. There were also two other small rooms as well as a large guest room on the ground floor. In the middle of the house upstairs was the master bedroom, which was where Madame, my grandmother, lived. Next to that was Monsieur’s bedroom and next to that stood a hobby room where my grandfather kept his barbells, his pornography collection, and his photography equipment.
Across the hall there was a big linen room and then my uncle Walter’s room. Near the far end of the hall there was a large sewing room, where the dressmaker came to do the repair work after the washing. Downstairs was a music room or ballroom, a sitting room, a wood panelled library, a dining room, a billiards room, and a small chapel, as well as a large kitchen, pantry, sewing room, guest rooms and an outdoor dining room on the loggia.
The grounds were large and included tennis courts, a swimming pool, and at the bottom of the garden, a large dolls’ house in the form of a miniature copy of the villa. This had been built expressly for my mother when she was a little girl. She had spent much of her time there as a child, and had converted it into a studio after she was grown up.
It was a huge house with many places for me to discover and to hide in. The house was segregated off from the neighbors’ homes on each side by a small bamboo forest. I used to climb through this bamboo in search of playmates next door. However, most of the people at the mansion were too old, and did not like small children, anyway.
The large, red, carpeted, oaken staircase climbed up through the center of the house leading from the entry hall, downstairs, to the master bedroom, on the second floor. I enjoyed sliding down it from the second floor to the mezzanine landing below. I was not allowed to slide down to the main floor lobby below because I was not supposed to disturb the old ladies. My grandmother and her sister, whom the family called Tante Nana, were usually wrapped in black veils.
Monsieur was already a very old man by the time I was born. He was always very nice to me, his little grandson, and called me le petit bonhomme. He even allowed him to play on his bed. He had an attractive nurse who flirted with me and liked to sing to me, “Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, how you can love! Oh Johnny, oh Johnny, heavens above…” which embarrassed meso much I blushed and had to run out of the room every time she sang this song.
Madame was more serious and cold. She did not like small children, she said, and I found it best to stay out of her way. I later remembered her as surrounded with old ladies with furs and perfume and black veils over their faces.
When I was five years old my parents took me to see a film from which I emerged terrified— “Cabin in the Sky.” Ethel Waters, a big black woman, had the lead role. All the actors were blacks. I was terribly frightened by a Satanic character called “Lucifer Junior,” and had nightmares for months after, fearing that “Lucifer Junior” was coming to get me and carry me away to hell.
My mother often left me in the hands of a Mexican family in the afternooons. The father of this family was a well-known Mexican artist, Alfredo Ramos Martinez. Their daughter, Maria, who I called Coquitta, had been crippled from polio. She was like a big sister to me. The family housekeeper, Mina, frightened me by threatening to throw me down the stairs into the basement if I misbehaved. There, she told me menacingly, waited the hungry, angry Boogey Man, who would gobble me up if I had the misfortune to fall into his hands.
I felt rejected everywhere I went. I wanted to be part of a family, but there was little family feeling in my family, where each person did his or her own thing. I felt that I did not belong anywhere. I felt that Madole would just as soon be rid of me so she could devote herself to her art career. She often left me with her mother’s friends, like her aunt, Tante Nana, and her former governess, Fraulein Gersteinmeier.
I hated these old maids who were always shrouded in black veils. Sometimes Madole left me at a Catholic convent near her parents’ home on West Adams. There I received instruction in Catholic catechism from another woman garbed and veiled in black, the terrifying (to me) beady eyed and stinking Mother St. Valerian. Sometimes Madole left me with another friend of hers, Gwen, at Rancho Yucca Loma in the desert.
When I was ten I was sent away to a boy’s summer camp at Big Bear Lake. There I felt very homesick and frightened. I had been abandoned again. I always felt I was the victim, the abandoned child, because I was continually sent away to boarding schools. The message I got was “You’re no good. We can’t do anything with you. We reject you. We don’t want you. You don’t deserve anything of your own. You’re lazy. You’ll never amount to anything.”
I loved to read. The first book I read alone, with some help from my mother was Robin Hood. Soon I began reading books of fairy stories and legends. I particularly liked the story of St. George and the Dragon.
Having been brought up a Catholic and educated by the nuns, I was told more about hell and taught to feel afraid of the devil and more than to love God. Like the young James Joyce at Conglowns College he was taught about sins of all kinds, original sin, venial sin, and mortal sin, but very little about God’s love. Like most Catholics of my generation, I felt guilty and anxious about sex and was brought up in the tradition of original sin rather than Original Blessing, Grace, and Gratitude. The sacraments of Baptism, First Communion and Confirmation meant little to him. They were rituals I went through to please my teachers and my parents but I found going to Church was boring.
I often got into trouble with my teachers and classmates at school. I was an angry and upstreperous little kid, filled with hostility towards everyone and resented having to obey rules. What was I so angry about?
We had a housekeeper named Myrtle. I called her Myrtle the Turtle. She was an elderly spinster from Vermont, a real New England old maid who Johnny used to love to tease. One time he stuffed his bed with pillows to make it look like he was in bed and went out. Once he put a small bomb under the receiver of the phone and then went out and phoned the house. When she picked up the phone she was almost made deaf by the explosion. He found that hilariously funny. Another time she looked in on him when he had put the dog in his place in his bed. She did not know the difference. He hid in the closet to see.What was the point of all these childish pranks? He was angry at the world and was getting even.