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A Boy’s Dream . . . A Man’s Nightmare—Bobby Darin

Cigaret smoke curled lazily toward the ceiling . . . grey faces clustered at small, black, glass-topped tables . . . 10:00 p.m. in a small New York cafe.

A fellow in his teens was over in the corner, idling softly with the drum set. A smartly-dressed blonde watched him intently, and then asked the bartender, “Who’s the kid?”

“Oh, him?” the bartender said. “That’s Bobby Darin . . . Works in an office . . . hangs around here at night . . . noodles around the piano and drums . . . sometimes he sings . . . the boss lets him . . . Of course, he ain’t a regular performer. . . .”

The blonde sized up the boy appreciatively.

“I’m a dancer,” said the blonde. “Maybe I’ll ask that kid if he wants to work in my new acts. . . .”

“Go ahead, lady,” said the bartender. “He ain’t going to bite your head off.”

She floated over to the tiny bandstand.

“I’m Gloria Fantasy . . . I do a dance act . . . Calypso, cha-cha, East Indian . . . Heard of me. . .?”

Bobby continued to drum softly with his fingers on the bongos. “Yeah . . . sounds familiar.” He straightened his sports jacket and tried to appear man-about-townish.

“I’m looking for a drummer . . . bongo drums . . . I’ve been here before and I’ve watched you. Interested?”

His heart knocked against his ribs. He noted her gorgeous figure, her blue eyes, soft blonde hair.

“I’m listening,” he said, trying to hold down the emotion in his voice.

They sat down at a table, and she told him about her new act and the new bongo player she needed. “You don’t have to be great at it . . . I’ll teach you.”

Casually, she was sizing him up, too. Five-foot-ten, about 130 pounds, all muscles, broad shoulders, nice brown eyes, light brown unruly hair . . . agile, alert, tense. . . .

“We’ll get acquainted tomorrow,” she said. “Nola Studios, right over Lindy’s . . . Ask at the reception desk for the studio room . . . 6:00 p.m. You can make it?”

“Okay,” he said, trying to sound like a fellow accustomed to making quick decisions. He would get out of the office at 5:30 and be able to make the studio by 6:00.

“See you tomorrow, honey . . . Got to go back to my table . . . My brother George is in from out of town.”

She floated away, and he went out and walked slowly to the subway. Gloria Fantasy, he repeated her name. What an exotic name! A professional name, no doubt. And what a figure! Torso like Esther Williams, legs like Cyd Charisse . . . face like Lana.

He knew he was just one of thousands of young fellows and girls hanging around Broadway, calling themselves actors and entertainers, trying to pretend they had talent and experience, knocking on agency doors, hanging around backstage, lingering near bandstands in cafes. . . .

He wondered, Why did she pick me? Who am I? I’m Bobby Cassotto, and I’m nothing. I live with my mother on 138th St—a creepy old street in the East Bronz, under the shadow of the Triboro Bridge. I’ve been a slum kid all my life—always struggling to make a buck. So I’ve changed my name to Bobby Darin, just because I appeared in a couple of plays at Hunter College during my one year there . . . because I toured for forty-five days with a children’s company . . . because I played drums last summer at a Catskill Mountain hotel. . . .

But the next day, when he showed up at Nola Studios, she was there waiting. It wasn’t a hoax, after all.

She had already changed to tight shorts and a snug sweater, and he gulped when he saw her lithe figure ripple under the scanty costume.

She pointed to one corner of the studio: “Sit on that chair; wrap yourself around those bongo drums; and watch me for timing.”

He watched her intently, drinking in her beauty, admiring her confidence, following her cues. . . Three hours later, they were leaving and she was saying, “Honey, we’ll stop in at Lindy’s for coffee-and.”

When they had their coffee and cheesecake, she murmured, “You learn fast, honey . . . I think we’re going to get along real well—real well. . . .”

A new world

At the end of the week, Bobby told his mother, “Mom . . . I’m moving downtown . . . I’ll bunk in with Herb . . . He’s got a furnished room . . . Got to be in midtown because I’m rehearsing with a dance act . . . Playing bongos . . . If it goes well, I’ll quit my office job. . . .”

His mom put her arm around Bobby’s shoulders. “We’ve lived here all your life, eighteen years . . . Your dad died the year we moved here . . . before you were born . . . This apartment has such memories. . . .”

“I know, I know,” Bobby said: “But Sis is here, and her husband, and their two kids . . . You know . . . I’m nervous . . . Can’t seem to get going . . . Maybe this dance act will really get me into show business. . . .”

“I want you to be happy, Son. . . .”

“I know, Mom. But I’ll be coming up to see you . . . you know that.”

So Bobby moved in with Herb, a singer who had been around. It made him feel older, being away from home, and Herb asked no questions. Bobby came and went as he pleased.

Bobby rehearsed with Gloria every evening at 6:00, and then they went out for coffee, and she told him of the glamorous world outside, the world of big salaries, applause, top billing, reviews in the papers, traveling. . . .

He listened, wide-eyed, and then he confided how he had always yearned to get into show business, how his mother was once a vaudeville singer but had to quit when she married, how they could never afford private lessons but how he had managed to teach himself piano, drums, vibes, bass and guitar. “I can learn anything I set my mind to!” he said, in a rare moment of bragging.

He confided that his mother had had to go to work to raise his older sister and him. Bobby had been born when mother had just become a widow. His had been a life of poverty and sickness . . . and love.

“Maybe we had no food,” he said, “but we always had love.”

And he told Gloria how he had been a change-of-life baby, how he’d been sickly most of his youth. He was so sick he couldn’t go to school until he was eight. And when his mother brought him to school, they had wanted to put him in first grade. “But Bobby can read,” his mom had protested. The registrar had said, wearily, “Of course . . . I suppose he can read this?” and reached for the nearest book, a copy of Shakespeare’s collected plays.

Bobby took the book, turned to Hamlet and read a passage, then to Julius Caesar and read until the registrar stopped him. Without another word, she enrolled him in second grade.

Bobby skipped five classes through grammar school and junior high, and was so clever, the older kids called him Talking Dictionary and beat him up. He became the butt of jokes, the offbeat kid, the oddball. . . .

Gloria’s fond family

All this he told Gloria, after rehearsals, when they went to her apartment for a snack and shop talk. And she, in turn, told him how she had left Toledo, Ohio, to make good in New York, and how her wealthy family had been angry, but changed their mind when she developed a successful high-salary act. She spoke fondly of her four brothers, two sisters, six cousins. 

Bobby examined the many photos of handsome men in her apartment and she would identify them: “That’s my brother Joe, and that’s my cousin Hillman, and that’s my older brother Jimmy, and that’s my daddy. . . .”

One time he told her why he had chosen the Bronx School of Science—not because he wanted to be scientist but because he discovered it had the toughest courses and demanded the highest marks. “It was a challenge, and I was eager to meet it. I graduated with an 81% average, but the rage was 93. It was loaded with geniuses. But I became convinced that they were not human . . . they were just reflections of what they had read. They had brains, but no heart.”

Gloria had smiled, given him a big hug, and sighed, “Honey, the heart is always more important than brains.”

In time, Bobby became completely enmeshed in Gloria’s life. He saw her every day, worried about her, dreamed about her, trembled when they held hands, and was ecstatic when they kissed.

When she became suddenly ill, he was frantic. He rushed her to the hospital, paced the hospital floor like a madman until the surgeon assured him she would pull through, and vowed if she didn’t recover, he would kill himself!

But she recovered, and he helped nurse her back to health. He quit his office job to be with her constantly. He told her how much he loved her, and she protested, “But, honey, I’m a bit older than you.” He exclaimed, “But I’m old enough to love you, and you’re young enough to love me . . . so we’re even.”

When he visited his mother, she noticed his nervousness, his faraway look, and she sighed, “I don’t know who this girl is, but I don’t like what she’s doing to you . . . She’s changed you . . . and I don’t think I like the change.”

But you don’t understand,” Bobby said. “She’s great. She’s taking me to Hollywood. We’re set for the Cocoanut Grove. And then she’s taking me to South America. We got big bookings.”

His mom said, “Bobby, all I want is for you to be happy, that’s all.”

He hurried downtown and muttered, “How could Mother talk like that? Gloria is the woman I love. Besides, I’m no kid. I’m eighteen!”

At the next rehearsal, some agents came and they said, “That kid’s good on drums . . . why don’t you let him fake a dance, and make the act look bigger?”

And so Gloria taught Bobby a dance routine, and he caught on quickly. And his dreams of the big time grew bigger, and he adored her all the more.

“We’ll marry when we go to Hollywood,” he said, holding her tight. But he also knew that he could never tell his mother . . . and this thought darkened his happiness.

The lowdown

The next day, she came to rehearsals wearing a mink coat. “I thought you were borrowing money until our first booking?” Bobby said. But she laughed. “Sure, I’m almost broke . . . but my cousin Tommy gave the coat to me . . . Isn’t he a darling? . . . He said he didn’t want me going to Hollywood looking like a rag doll.”

She kissed him, and his moment of doubt melted.

Then she disappeared two days, and he was frantic, hanging around the entrance to her apartment all night and worrying. Then she returned as though nothing had happened. “Flew to Toledo to see my brother Jack,” she smiled. “He opened his law office, and the family gave him a party.”

Her kisses were sweet, and he forgave her. Then she said, “Honey, we’ll cancel rehearsals for two days; I’ve got conferences at MCA about our bookings. Very important.”

When rehearsals were resumed, she showed up with a tall, handsome blond fellow. This was the first time another man had accompanied her. “This is my brother Roger,” she said. “He wants to see what his little sister is doing.” After the rehearsal, she told Bobby, “You run along, honey, and see a movie . . . I’ve got to show my brother the town.”

He couldn’t sleep that night. Doubts assailed him, but he couldn’t put his finger on exactly what was wrong. Finally, his roommate Herb got up and said, “Bobby, you’ve been tossing and moaning all night . . . Let’s get up and have some coffee . . . I think we ought to talk.”

“Sure, sure,” said Bobby, and down deep in his heart he was sick with apprehension.

“This Gloria Fantasy,” Herb began, “how well do you know her? Did you know her real name is Gloria Jones?”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because we’re friends, and I’ve been trying to get up enough nerve to talk to you about her. I’ll take a chance and tell you, and if that ends our friendship, okay. . . .”

Bobby remained silent.

“She told you she comes from Toledo. Well, I had a job near Toledo last week, and I did some checking. I know all the show people there. They don’t know her. I checked at the local papers, and they don’t know her. I showed them her photos, and they didn’t recognize her.”

“Why are you telling me lies?”

Herb continued: “Somebody’s got to ask you some questions, and I’m the guy who’s doing it. Now, this is your first big affair, isn’t it? Maybe you’re so in love, you don’t see the obvious. Maybe you’re so young and innocent, you can’t see a fast-worker when she rolls her baby-blues at you.”

Bobby reached out in fury and smacked Herb on the jaw.

Herb winced, but held his ground. “You’re not mad at me . . . You’re mad at yourself for being hoaxed.”

“I’m sorry, Herb.”

“Show business is full of sharpies, screwballs and psychos,” said Herb. “They devour nice young guys like you . . . and me . . . I was destroyed once . . . by a redhead. Now I’m careful with dames.

About those brothers . . .

“You told me that Gloria had left town to see her brother for two days. Those same nights, I saw her at the Spindletop, dining and wining, with a husky guy. . . .”

Bobby said, “He must have been another brother.”

“No,” said Herb, “this guy at the Spindletop was kissing and holding hands all evening with her. He was no brother!”

Then Herb said, “I know I should mind my own business, but I phoned MCA. I know a booking agent there. I asked about your Cocoanut Grove booking. He said the agency is not handling Gloria now, and hasn’t booked her for three years.”

Bobby groaned, “But why should she lie all the time? It doesn’t make sense!”

Charlie said, softly, “There are people called psychopathic liars, or something like that. They’re nuts, that’s all. Maybe you’ve got yourself involved with a screwball, and maybe you haven’t.”

The next day, Bobby went to rehearsals, trembling and unnerved. He confronted Gloria. He poured out his suspicions, itemizing the evidence, searching her blue eyes for the truth to shine through. All he could detect was defiance and boredom.

Finally, she said: “All right, sonny boy. So I told a lie here and there. So what? We did have a big romance, didn’t we? I taught you a few things, didn’t I? You were sweet to me, and I told you so.

“But, remember, you’re a kid, strictly Amateur Night. If you’re going to act this way, then dig up your old library card and your Boy Scout suit, and go play with kiddies your age.”

He wanted to kill her; but he held his fists down tight by his sides.

“Besides,” she told him with a toss of her head, “I found another drummer. That tall blond guy, Roger. No, he’s not my brother . . . I was kidding. He’s only nineteen, and he can play piano and drums and dance, and he does what I tell him . . . By Friday, he’ll be completely in love with me. . . .”

Bobby turned, and walked out slowly. He never saw her again.

For more than two years, he hung around Broadway, on the edges of fame and fortune, picking up odd jobs, working in the Catskills in the summer, trying to write songs, trying to become an actor, good at everything but not great enough at anything.

Slowly, his fierce resentment against the world ebbed, and he concentrated on songwriting and began to sell his songs. Then he tried singing for demonstration records, even though he had no vocal training. He made some records for Decca and then for Acto, and they were flops . . . and suddenly, like lightning, a song he wrote, Splish Splash, became his first million-seller . . . and Bobby Darin was famous and rich, and turning out another smash hit, Queen of the Hop.

He started paying back his old debts, and he bought a house by a New Jersey lake, for his mother and his sister’s family.

Bobby says his rebirth started when he walked out of that rehearsal hall, leaving Gloria behind. It was late in December of 1955, and it was cold and snowing. But Bobby wasn’t aware of anything but his misery as he wandered around that night. He just walked, and walked, bundled up, for what seemed hours. He shivered in the wind, and his coat became heavy with snow, but he was too dazed to stop anywhere and warm up.

Three hours later, he was knocking on a door. And when it opened, there was his mother. Instinctively, he had headed for home, like a homing pigeon, and had tramped ninety-two blocks to the Bronx.

Silently, his mother directed him into the room, took off his coat and his shoes and his socks. She enveloped him in a huge blanket, and set him before the kitchen stove. Then she lit the oven, opened the oven door, and let the surging waves of heat engulf him.

Bobby slept all through the next day, and for the next six days, he just lay there and stared at the ceiling. The world outside sang Christmas hymns and hung holly wreaths in windows, but Bobby Darin lay in bed and stared at the ceiling.

His mother brought him food, kept him comfortable, but made no attempt at conversation. Finally, at the end of the seventh day, he got up and started to dress to go out.

When his mother saw him, she spoke her first words: “Merry Christmas, son . . . and welcome home.”

Bobby put both arms around her and said, “Mom, you’ll never have any trouble with me again . . . I’ve been a boy . . . and now I’m ready to be a man.”

And that’s how, at eighteen, Bobby became a man—and a future star.





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