August, 2014:


Americans living in foreign countries, especially those in the military or other government service, tend to keep or renew their ties over the years. At least that’s been my experience with the “kids” I went to high school with at Wheelus Air Force Base just outside Tripoli, Libya, in the 1950s. And since I’ve included experiences of living in Libya in my blog, students from many classes, anywhere from the early 1950s to 1970 have gotten in touch to share their memories. We’ve all aged but the spirit of those long-ago days holds on and there have been many reunions of these students over the years. The most recent was last May in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

In the middle 1950s, Tripoli was a bustling, cosmopolitan city inhabited by Libyans, Italians, British, Americans and an assortment of other European and Middle Eastern nationalities. Both the British and the Americans had military bases, and international oil companies were drilling for the oil that would eventually make the country rich beginning in 1959. Libya, for the first half of the twentieth century under Italian rule, had only gained its independence in 1951, and that auspicious occasion had been marked by the renaming of a main thoroughfare, to be forever after known as 24 December Street.

Like many major events in the life of an Army brat, I wasn’t sure I wanted to uproot from the States and travel to such a strange land. I was shocked when my father received orders in 1955 to report to North Africa. We were stationed at Ft. Knox, Kentucky, at the time, and Africa couldn’t have been more distant from civilization as far as my twelve-year-old mind was concerned. Morocco was our first assigned destination, specifically the peculiarly named Nouasseur. Orders were changed when Morocco had violent political problems and a few Americans were killed. My dad was reassigned to Wheelus Air Force Base just outside Tripoli.

My Army Corps of Engineers father, a lieutenant colonel, would command a military group that had something to do with maintaining the strategic airfield, the closest large American location to Russia, an important fact in those Cold War years. He would also be traveling to mysterious places such as Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Saudi Arabia. I still have the mink stole he bought my mother in Athens on one of his trips.

AnArmyBratLibya Cover#A1


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What seemed like days after leaving the Azores, but was more than likely some thirty hours later, we reached our new home. It was 9 p.m. in Tripoli, but after so many hours and so many time zones, who could tell? No snow on the ground here: the weather was temperate and probably no colder than 55 degrees. Only after a good night’s sleep would we regain our land legs and clarity of hearing – the noise and vibration of prop planes had a habit of disorienting the body, which included sight and hearing, for hours.

We lived in the Garden City area of Tripoli, not far from the King’s Palace, from 1955 until 1958. I loved all the contrasts that life in an ancient Arab city brought–camels and sheep, British Morris Minor cars mixing with American Fords, sandstorms called Ghiblis, the museum in the old Barbary Pirate fort, the lovely beaches at Georgimpopuli and Piccolo Capri, the vegetable man shouting out his fresh food, and the braying of donkeys and camels growling at night.

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Guts and imagination can go a long way and probably keeps us from dire consequences, just ask Art Arrowsmith and Eric Norby. These students of Wheelus Air Force Base High School in Tripoli, Libya, were determined to complete their proposed 15-mile boating adventure from Wheelus to Georgimpopoli—despite the cold February night, the howling wind and icy water, their lack of experience, and Eric’s very limited swimming skills.

A Libyan Dhow would have been a reasonable choice.

A Libyan Dhow would have been a reasonable choice. This photo depicts some fellow Wheelus High students at a beach party I gave.

Nevertheless, they had managed to push their makeshift catamaran, crafted partially from an F-86 airplane fuel tank by Air Force airmen, into the ocean. They were headed toward a reef and then planned to sail west. Here’s the rest of the story in Art’s words:


As we approached the reef we came out of the shelter provided by the cove we were in. The wind increased, screaming in our ears and whipping up the crashing white water. Stinging foam sprayed our faces, burning our eyes. Crosscurrents caused by the swirling waters hurled from the breakers as they crashed over the reef and made it nearly impossible to steer. The closer we got to the reef, the higher the waves grew. Soon they were high enough to breach the gunwale of the boat. We were desperate to keep the craft pointed into the frothing waves, which worked for a few minutes with both of us paddling, but when we began taking on water, with no bailing tools, our fate was sealed. We had to turn back.

As the bow of the boat turned away from the breakers and we became broadside to their foaming fury, icy water streamed into the boat, rapidly filling it. We had barely completed our turn and headed to the beach, 70 yards away, when the boat sank. Eric clung to one of the 50 gallon barrels. As soon as the boat sank, my dad’s flight jacket filled with very cold water. My arms moved like I was swimming in a vat of syrup as I treaded water and worked on taking off my jacket.

I shouted over the wind to Eric that I would come to get him and felt confident that I could get us back to the beach. Over the years my dad had insisted all the children in our family take swimming lessons at the YMCA or at the base pool. Life-saving lessons were always a part of these courses. My real concern, however, was whether I had the stamina to rescue us both. Fortunately, I was very familiar with the cove we were in, and was able to estimate the depth of the water. I yelled at Eric to hold his breath and dog paddle, which he knew how to do, while I tried to touch the bottom. My plan was to drop feet first to the sandy bottom and push off in the direction of the beach, snagging Eric as I went. I trusted the moon would give enough light under water for me to see his form above me. Meanwhile, he would be dog paddling. And it worked!

It was past midnight when the shivering teens snuck into Art’s house. Luckily for the adventurers, Art’s mother had a good sense of humor when she discovered what they’d done the next morning. She was grateful the boys were safe, and Art’s father, who was on a trip at the time, never asked what had happened to his flight jacket. Art concluded that he and Eric had learned some serious lessons about the fragility of life, the weight of responsibility and the strength of teamwork.





Art Arrowsmith was a fellow student who attended Wheelus Air Force Base High School in Tripoli, Libya. He was Class of 1957 and I was due to graduate in 1960; we knew each other but weren’t friends. I got to know Art just a few years ago when he began reading my blogs about our time in Libya. An adventurous creative fellow, Art has done some writing and he shared a true story of his, which goes along quite well with my recent theme of ocean escapades. The story is too long to present in full, so I will use my editing skills to cut it down while preserving the humor. I am also going to divide it in two parts for some extra excitement and suspense.

Art A

Art Arrowsmith

Art and good friend and classmate Eric Norby, also Class of ’57, had discovered a pontoon boat on the beach near Art’s house at Wheelus: It was constructed from a modified F-86 fuel drop tank. The top half of the tank had been cut away, leaving a boat that resembled a bathtub with pointy ends. Attached to the boat by several rope-lashed two by four’s were two 50-gallon drums that provided an outrigger arrangement to balance the catamaran-type craft. Our plan was to wait until dark, launch the boat and paddle it parallel to the shore all the way from Wheelus to Giorgimpopoli, a distance of some 15 miles.

Their respective parents had been told the teenagers would be spending Friday night together since Eric lived in Tripoli and Art lived on the base. The parents didn’t ask for specifics: Eric’s folks thought he’d be at Art’s home; Art’s parents thought he’d be at Eric’s.

Eric Norby

Eric Norby

February in Tripoli isn’t toasty. The Mediterranean water is no longer warm and the evening breezes can be very cold. Had we considered such things as wind and tides, water temperature and coastal currents, reefs and time of day, perhaps we…

Eric was wearing his ever-present light tan leather jacket, imported from Germany: his trademark in those days. I wore my dad’s flight jacket that he’d had for many years, the only warm jacket in our house. It goes without saying that we both wore jeans; that’s all we ever wore. We were wise enough to have a couple of bottles of water for the long voyage, a loaf of bread along with peanut butter and jelly: all stashed in the boat over the last couple of days.

Launching the boat proved to be an incredibly arduous task. We tugged and pulled and lifted and rearranged and sweated and struggled and stumbled our way to the edge of the water. The fuel-tank hull of the boat was smooth and slid easily along the sand and over the seaweed. The 50-gallon drums dug into the seaweed, even though it was like walking over wet noodles. Our feet slid over the slippery sea weed but the drums parted the wet strands and clawed their way into the underlying sand. Eric proved to be the heavyweight lifter as we inched our way to the roaring waves. He lifted the forward drum and side stepped toward the water, pivoting around the boat hull, as I pushed the hull forward from the opposite side, attempting to match his progress. After a couple of these maneuvers we would trade places and repeat the process. Eventually we reached the water. We rested about 15 minutes, caught our breath and discussed our next move. We looked at each other with doubt etched across our faces, but wouldn’t admit to the doubt. Neither wanted to be the one to call it off. It was then I found out Eric couldn’t swim!

Art and Eric brazened it out and pushed the homemade craft into the cold water, despite incoming tide and a strong wind. The moon was nearly full, which equates to high tide they discovered much later, but they weren’t trained seamen. They had to clear the offshore reef and then head west to their destination. The moon gave them light to see and there were lights along the shore. How difficult could it be?

Look for the ending of this sea adventure on Wednesday, August 27.

1959 Wheelus Beach

Wheelus Beach in summer


So far, summer in Southern California this year has been relatively mild. We’re blessed with a very chilly Pacific Ocean for the most part, and the water doesn’t get into the 70’s until September. In contrast, the Atlantic Ocean off Florida is like swimming in a bathtub; sweatshirts are not needed for a visit to the beach but towels are necessary for the sweat. Hooray for contrasts, but I’ll take the Left Coast over the Right Coast any day. And that goes for my politics as well!

Thinking of the ocean brings to mind my fishing adventure off Santa Cruz Island a few years ago. This island (20 miles off the coast from Ventura) was once home to ancient Indians like the Chumash, and archeologists are currently trying to save as many artifacts as possible before ocean waves carry them away forever.  This fishing adventure was long before I’d decided to write a seafaring yarn about Francis Drake in the Caribbean. I was one of three women and nineteen men on the brief trip. I’d never handled a fishing pole or even had a desire to catch a fish, but I’d always loved the ocean. I’ve spent most of my life near the ocean: Jacksonville Beach, Florida; Tripoli, Libya; and Los Angeles. The fishing trip was being hosted by Pelican’s Retreat, a seafood restaurant in Calabasas, that had hired me for advertising and public relations. Owners Bruce and Gert were part of the fishing gang, a gregarious and rowdy bunch of restaurant patrons. After our sporting efforts, we were taking our fish back to the restaurant for a fish fry/grill with all the fixings.

PeliFishTripOne of the fishermen just as the sun was coming up off Santa Cruz Island.

The large group gathered about 1:30 a.m. in the Oxnard Harbor area, ready to head out at 2 a.m. on the Pacific Dawn for Santa Cruz, the largest of the Channel Islands. By leaving at this hour, we’d get a few hours to snooze before we anchored and the sun rose. Sleeping accommodations were below and consisted of very basic wooden rectangular compartments with a plastic covered mattress pad: room for one or two squeezed together. Since I was a novice and was curious about the ocean views, I didn’t hit the bunk right away and stayed up to see the oil platforms lit up like huge Christmas trees. When I was married, we’d taken our two kids to explore Anacapa, one of the smallest of these islands, and I remembered the weather along the California coast can change quickly and a calm sea can turn into a roller coaster ride. Being confined to a constantly moving boat for 15 hours made me very thankful for my “sailor’s stomach,” which has enabled me to enjoy ocean ventures. No time for sleeping late on a fishing excursion, a loud and disgustingly cheery voice called us to breakfast in the galley about 6 a.m. It was chilly and overcast and the anchored boat was rocking, but many enthusiasts in the group had already eaten their bacon and eggs and were fishing.

The fish I caught!

The fish I caught!


When the sun came out, so did the beer. Thanks to beer and the stronger stuff, there was as much laughter as fishing. With many capable fishermen around, I had plenty of help with a borrowed fishing pole and the slimy bait. I didn’t participate in the jackpot for largest fish, but as luck and persistence would have it, I caught the second biggest fish on the boat. They told me it was a whitefish, but it looked pink to me. The highlight that day was consuming the freshest sushi I’d ever had. Several just-caught fish were filleted and handed out with a slice of fresh lemon to those who weren’t afraid of chowing down on uncooked denizens of the deep. It was delicious and tender.

Warm sun and a calm sea blessed the day and after making an excellent haul of over 300 fish, we headed back to land in the afternoon. We’d carpooled to get there and on the drive home, which was less than an hour, one of the show-offs in the camper in front of the car I was in decided to make his inimitable statement on the crazy day by mooning us. I still have the photo of the fisherman we all dubbed “Dr. Moon.”

ART – MADE IN L.A. 2014

Daughter Heidi (who was conceived/made in Los Angeles) and I went to the Hammer Museum UCLA for the “Made in L.A. 2014” exhibit yesterday to discover the latest artistic expressions from the Los Angeles art world. Over thirty artists exhibited and what a variety it was. There was a sign on one of the gallery doors that some of the artwork wasn’t suitable for children, and we soon found which ones.

I’ve never seen such a diversity of art forms at one exhibit—from short videos of all sorts to paintings and sculptural pieces in all kinds of mediums. Most of the art was made specifically for this exhibit. Fortunately, viewers could read general background information on each artist as well as specifics on the various pieces. Before we wandered the galleries, we ate lunch in their outdoor café and enjoyed a modern dance performance by a young man in a free-flowing garment (similar to a dress).


Untitled by Lecia Dole-Recio at Hammer Museum UCLA exhibit

Untitled by Lecia Dole-Recio at Hammer Museum UCLA exhibit

There’s not space to describe but a few of the highlights of this unusual mix of artistic expression. I’ll share a few impressions that stuck with me, like a video on a medium-size TV screen of the face and head of a young pretty Asian woman in red lipstick continually smiling without changing expression. It kept drawing my attention even while looking at another video, full of movement and dialogue in the same room.

Modern artists aren’t generally obsessed with beauty or conservative subject matter; they’d rather get to their truth. Artist Max Maslansky’s erotic paintings of sexual fantasies painted in pinks and reds took up most of a room. The artist achieved a soft blurry look by using old bedsheets instead of canvas, but the viewer wouldn’t have guessed unless you searched for the information. A documentary video in a small room nearby focused on the dangers of being a stunt man in the entertainment industry. The pay is lucrative but injuries are common, and the work is truly death-defying.

One of the more delicate and intriguing sculptors was Ricky Swallow, who crafts small objects in wood or cardboard and may cast them in bronze. Their forms were delightful—one looked like a tiny modern chair, one resembled a small ladder-back chair, which could have been just a decorative display.

The work of Marcia Hafif, who explores and experiments with types of paint, filled an entire room with square paintings, each a different color, and all evenly spaced and at the same height. I didn’t take the time to check on the subtle differences between the paintings.

I enjoyed the very vibrant work by Lecia Dole-Recio, and used the museum’s postcard of one of my favorites for this blog. She doesn’t title her work, which is what she calls “painted constructions” of paper, cardboard and tape, not quite paintings and not quite collages.

I was moved by a very personal, charming and amusing video by Judy Fiskin—“I’ll Remember Mama.” Her title was inspired by the film “I Remember Mama” made by George Stevens in 1948. Coincidentally, I became friends long ago with Peggy McIntyre, who starred as the daughter Christine in the old film. Peggy worked at AT&T in Hollywood as a fellow service rep in the 1960s.

Fiskin’s film focused on her own mother, who she filmed a few years ago at age 89.  Fiskin decided to make a video when her mother was still alive instead of making it a memorial piece. Although affectionately done, Fiskin focused on the difference in age and personal preferences between mother and daughter, and the personal objects (furniture, etc.) her mother will leave behind. Her mother, like many other wealthy LA widows, lives by herself in one of the high-rise apartment buildings on Wilshire Boulevard. Narrating the film, Fiskin points out that at night, the lights of cars traveling down Wilshire reflect on the apartment windows and look like tears traveling down the face of the buildings.


Robin Williams recent tragic death reminded me of a friend’s story that had a happier but not romantic ending. Angels do exist! I’m offering a short preview of my book; for the entire story, this short book is available on Amazon.

When Samantha arrived in Los Angeles, she got an immediate job as a feature film extra. Although she sometimes tired of standing around waiting for filming to begin or end, she found the business fascinating and took the time to ask questions and get to know the players both in front of and behind the camera. Her striking looks, with her added knowledge and flair for the right clothes that attracted attention while emphasizing her curvaceous figure, encouraged many a director or producer to talk with her. On a hot and crowded set one day while filming a crowd scene in a busy parking lot, Peter sauntered up to her during the lunch break.

Angels inUniform#1

Six-feet tall with a tanned, muscular body, a Germanic face and thinning blond hair going gray, his studied informal air and casual but expensive clothes gave him away as a producer. Sam perceived all this in an instant; to protect herself she had always been observant and perceptive. He stood in front of her, removing his sunglasses to reveal startlingly azure blue eyes. He gazed frankly into her eyes, assessing her looks and manner with no apology; he had been in this business too long to waste time on courtesies. Her height, in small heels, was equal to his; her forward gaze did not flinch or look away modestly. She took a few lazy moments to give him a slight smile, her nose flaring as she smelled his expensive cologne. She was at ease and ready for any banter he might direct her way.

“Miss?” he opened casually.

“Hunter. Samantha Hunter.”

“I’m Peter Hood, the producer for this epic.” He laughed.

She gave him a cool smile. “I know.”

“I haven’t seen you before. Are you new at this game?”


“I imagine you get impatient on days like this, when it’s hot and crowded.”

“Actually, no. I thoroughly enjoy this business, even though I am at the bottom…for now.” She could tell her reactions were intriguing him. He was probably so used to the star-struck, over-impressed, naive routine. The chase, she thought to herself, how they love the chase.

“Would you care to learn more about the business?” He paused for emphasis, testing her self-contained manner. “From a producer’s point of view?”

“What did you have in mind?” She could just imagine, but she gave no hint of sexual interest, it was too early in the game.

“Dinner this evening… perhaps by the ocean.”

She deliberately took her time answering as she slowly smiled at him, her dark eyes were pools of mystery. “Yes…I’d be honored,” she answered with just a hint of sarcasm.

He laughed, genuinely delighted at her comment, and knew he might not be the master of this game. Here was a dark-skinned woman who looked like she would lead him around if he were not careful, a challenge to an attractive, powerful man used to getting his own way. He was heartily tired of having women gush and succumb over him so easily because of his money and position.

They had dinner in Malibu, sitting by the expanse of window at one of the trendier, wood and glass dining palaces perched along the coast. Each crash of the incoming waves seemed to meld these two passionate natures together. Sam was sassy and direct enough for him; Peter was more mellow, but opinionated and strong enough to fight for control. Sexually, the chemistry blazed, and they lit the fire that first night.

He took her to his home, and she’d been with him ever since—until she left this morning, before the sun was even up. Thinking of how their romance began, Sam’s tears began to flow again. They became sobs that racked her body, so powerful they sent pains through her chest and back. She nearly lost control of the car, and was forced to drive more slowly.

As she gained control of herself and the car, she began to analyze. Why couldn’t he accept her as she was, slightly damaged? He knew she had inner strength, had survived much for her young years. Hadn’t she told him some of her darkest secrets? Maybe she should never have opened up to him; he wasn’t the father figure she never had. Was that what she expected? When would she stop looking for the strong, caring male? They did not exist. This thought brought tears again, but she willed them away.

She needed some music and grabbed for a CD in a holder on the console. She put one in without even looking. As she started to listen she recognized Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. How appropriate, she thought ruefully—star-crossed lovers, only happy in death. What a beautifully sad piece of music, certainly in keeping with her mood. Why didn’t she drive off the highway now, and end it in a flash? But what if it didn’t work, and she became more maimed that she was already? She wanted something certain, at least in death. Available in Ebook format on Amazon.


Being a writer usually leads in a variety of directions. It’s frequently said that life is what you make it, and that people are as happy as they want to be. I prefer to have fun and enjoy what I do. I took a somewhat different path after my divorce when I decided to pursue advertising and public relations instead of the newspaper trade.

Pelican’s Retreat Restaurant in Calabasas, CA was my version of a magic carpet ride for a few years. It was a pleasure to plan parties and special events, especially when the restaurant owners were a congenial bunch. Fishing excursions, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, live entertainment, participation in nearby Agoura Hills’ Pony Express Days, and mixers for various chambers of commerce were a few of the activities.

John, Gert, Bruce & the Pelican

John, Gert, Bruce & the Pelican in Western garb among the Calabasas oaks.



One of the most satisfying occasions was the Living History party. The restaurant building, nestled on a hill adjacent to the 101 Freeway and the Calabasas Grade (a steep drive down to the Conejo Valley from the western end of the San Fernando Valley) had a long history. On the hill behind it had once stood the first Calabasas one-room schoolhouse, built in 1890. When the old Victorian-style school was demolished, another one-teacher school was built further down the hill in 1925. A retaining wall and stairway, plus the north wall of the restaurant, remained part of the remodeled building, which was a rambling old place with atmosphere. There was a double-sided fireplace, a rather long narrow bar area and two outside patios shaded by shapely trees, appropriately named Trees of Heaven.

The Calabasas Historical Society hosted the party at the restaurant, prompted by the painting of the original 1890 Victorian schoolhouse by a local artist. Catherine Mulholland, granddaughter of LA’s famous engineer, William Mulholland, whose efforts had brought water to Los Angeles, was there as well as Charles Mureau, who had bought the school property in 1950 (Mureau’s story was detailed in last week’s blog). A few relatives of original area pioneers, who had homesteaded huge acreage or had local businesses, like the first garage, café and courthouse, attended. The area had changed a great deal since the days of oak trees and native grasses with a definite Western flavor. It was fast becoming the exclusive and expensive residential area it is today.

Our mutual efforts brought out a good crowd to see 19th and early 20th century black and white photos. Original desks from the schoolhouse era were also on display. The capper for the evening was attracting the attention of the Los Angeles Times, our largest newspaper. They sent reporter Bob Pool to write a long story about the affair. A few years before, Bob and I were both writing newspaper stories about the Conejo Valley.

The restaurant, like many of the pioneers who attended, including Charles Mureau, are long gone and the building is empty. The empty building is still a good location for a restaurant. The area is already a prime spot for several car dealerships, like Mercedes, BMW and Acura.



Calabasas, California resident Charles Mureau, who died in 2004, a few days short of his 100th birthday,  could most accurately be called a Renaissance man. He was a landowner, an artist, an inventor, an astute businessman and an accomplished horseman who once “rode to hounds.” He had built a croquet field and a party house on his personal property, and owned a building across the freeway from his home that was Pelican’s Retreat restaurant for years.

Mureau left his mark on Southern California. He had come from Nebraska in 1945 and bought land in Calabasas: 24 acres for his own home on top of a hill north of the main artery leading from the San Fernando Valley northwest to the Conejo Valley, and the 3-acre property on which the restaurant (an old schoolhouse when he bought it) stood. He was considered a pioneer; Calabasas wasn’t yet the tony city it is today with very expensive homes. The street that borders his property and crosses the 101 Freeway is named Mureau Road, after him.

Calabasas Schoolhouse, which became Pelican's Retreat Restaurant

Calabasas Schoolhouse, which became Pelican’s Retreat Restaurant

I met the very gentlemanly and dapper Mureau when he was in his 80s. Sporting a mustache, usually in a British flat cap and cravat worn with a sports jacket, this soft-spoken bachelor was so spry and well dressed he seemed ageless.

For an interview I did for my Daily News column, I was invited to his hilltop art studio workshop, as unusual as he was. The airy, high-ceiling building had its own built-in dovecote, complete with cooing doves that flew in and out as they wished. Around the walls were Mureau’s many oil paintings and a few of his metal sculptures made from scrap and old car parts inventively put together.

He told me he used to be a member of the West Hill Hunt in the San Fernando Valley in the 1950s and 1960s. Instead of foxes, they’d use horses and hounds to go after coyotes, and the hunt would also be held in places like Santa Barbara and Thousand Oaks. Mureau and an Englishman, David Sanford Evans, published The Pink Coat or The Why’s & Wherefore’s of Fox Hunting in 1961.

In the early 1980s, Mureau was saddened by the AIDS epidemic in the US. Being naturally artistic and creative, his mind was usually ahead of others. He had put together a sculpture using scrap metal car parts: a carburetor and an oil can with a long spout, among others. He felt the sculpture was the perfect symbol for the AIDS Foundation, which was just getting off the ground at that point. He showed me a photo of the sculpture, which seemed to depict a lion tamer. I didn’t get the point at first, but didn’t want to say so. I showed my teenage son later, and he immediately figured out the message, “It’s a man taming his dick, Mom,” he told me with a laugh. I did some preliminary exploration on promoting the sculpture symbol, but it went nowhere and Mureau gave up on the idea.

Instead, he pursued his longtime dream of having a distinctive party house and a regulation croquet field to be used for tournaments. His property bordered the freeway and for years drivers could see the beautiful, large white octagonal building with a cupola surrounded by a lush green lawn.

While I was writing for the Warner Center News in Woodland Hills, published by Kathleen and Rodger Sterling, Mureau invited Rodger and me for a special private lunch in his party house. The Victorian-style building was quite spacious inside and boasted a solid maple hardwood floor for dancing and a 200 year-old English fireplace. The main room was big enough to hold at least 300 guests. To keep the old-fashioned idea intact, the bathrooms had pull-chain toilets.

Last time I looked, the party house and lawn, now in disrepair, can scarcely be seen through the bordering trees. I bet Charles Mureau, wherever his soul wanders, might be a little sad about his neglected property.



In memory of character actor Strother Martin, who died on August 1, 1980 and was an acquaintance of mine, I’m resurrecting one of my previous blogs. Besides, I’m editing a biography written by Madelyn Roberts, which consists of many interviews with those who knew him (relatives and people in the film industry) : Strother Martin, A Hero’s Journey Fulfilled.

Strother and his wife Helen had lived in the Conejo Valley (Agoura Hills, Westlake Village and Thousand Oaks) for years. I got to know them because they were active in the community, and  I was the editor of the local newspaper and attended the weekly chamber of commerce meetings.

Strother Martin in COOL HAND LUKE

Strother Martin in COOL HAND LUKE

Helen was an enthusiastic member of the Topanga-Las Virgenes Resource Conservation District (TLVRCD), which dealt with preserving and conserving the cherished Santa Monica Mountains—the western boundary of the Conejo Valley. Coincidentally, Ronald Reagan’s first political job was his election to the Board of the TLVRCD: he was recruited to run because he had a ranch in the area in the 1950s . If you know American history, you’ll remember what that position eventually led to!

Strother had an active career in film. I will never forget his famous words as the prison camp superintendent of “prisoner” Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” He and Newman did several movies together—Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Slapshot among them.
Considering himself a participating member of the community, Strother volunteered to be part of the local chamber of commerce’s Christmas celebration at the Calabasas Inn one year. He read something from Dickens, and we all felt honored to hear his dulcet tones.

I was always looking for news and interviews and in early 1980 decided to do an interview with the fascinating Strother, especially since he had made a movie not long before with John Wayne and Katherine Hepburn: Rooster Cogburn. He gave me some publicity shots from the film, which I still have, and then mentioned he was due to host Saturday Night Live on NBC. It was April 1980 and it was one of his last jobs.

Not long after my story was published, I got the news that Strother had had a fatal heart attack. He was only 61. Helen informed the members of the chamber of commerce about the funeral plans, and we were all invited to attend. The service and burial were scheduled for the famous Forest Lawn Cemetery; this one is in the Hollywood hills, not the one where Michael Jackson was laid to rest. I distinctly remember following Ernest Borgnine’s expensive car into the cemetery. I knew it was him by the personalized license plate.

Sitting in the small chapel, we chamber members were surrounded by some of Hollywood’s elite. Trying not to stare, I noticed Lee Marvin and Jimmy Stewart, both favorites of mine. Paul Newman, I was told, couldn’t attend but had sent his daughter. It was strange to see the once vital and entertaining Strother in an open casket as we filed by for the obligatory viewing.

After the funeral, a few of us (no one famous) were invited back to the Martin’s house. Helen let us know she was surprised and honored when President Jimmy Carter called personally to give her his condolences.

For a few years afterward I would see Helen Martin, who kept herself busy with the community and the Topanga-Las Virgenes Resource Conservation District. One night I was invited to accompany her to a play at the Ahmanson Theater at the Music Center in downtown L.A. She drove us in her huge yellow Cadillac. At intermission, she introduced me to Strother’s longtime agent, Meyer Mishkin. Mishkin enjoyed telling us that he had recently hosted the wedding of actor Richard Dreyfuss, in the agent’s Beverly Hills home.

In Southern California it can be both odd and exciting to meet and perhaps be a small part of the lives of those you’ve admired on the silver screen.

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