Death Was Following Us—Diane Bourne & Peter Breck
Peter Breck a waiting in the car until his mother came out of the big. building across the street. She slid behind the wheel, smiling down at him, and he thought to himself, “She’s real pretty.” He liked it when she came to Grandma’s to visit him, seldom as it was. But now when she threw her arms around him, where everybody on the street could see, and kissed him, he squirmed. When you’re ten, being kissed in public is pretty embarrassing.
But his mother just laughed. “Oh, Peter,” she said joyfully, “Peter, I’m so happy. Look at this paper they just gave me—it says you’re mine, all mine. I can take you back to Rochester with me!”
The paper had his name filled in . . . Peter Breck . . . so he glanced at it curiously. It was all small print and long words . . . court decree . . . permanent custody . . . maternal relative. But there were things he had come to understand while he and his baby brother George were being raised in Grandma’s home. He knew that his parents toured together in show business and couldn’t take kids with them. Mom was Doris Goings, a dancer, and Dad was Joe Breck the bandleader, the “Prince of Pep.” But then they got divorced, and for some reason the boys were separated also. Georgie, who was hardly two years old, went to live with Dad while Peter, who was eight, stayed on with Grandma, Aunt Polly and the whole New England clan of Brecks.
Now his mother was married again and wanted him. She’d given up show business, settled in one place with a husband and a home—and the court said she could have him. On their way from Haverhill, Massachusetts, to Rochester, New York, she told him about his new father.
“You’ll like him, Peter,” she promised. “He’s sports editor on a newspaper in Rochester and he’s a wonderful man.”
It sounded exciting. Much as he loved Grandma, he was eager to go with his mom. Only one question came right to | mind: It was so long since he’d seen his little brother that he wondered, would Georgie be there too? He kind of hoped so. He remembered a tiny kid who used to follow him around as if this big brother of his was great stuff. When Georgie grew up, they could play baseball . . . go fishing . . . wrestle. It would be nice to have a brother.
But all he asked his mother was, “How about Georgie?”
And all his mother said was, “Georgie is with Dad.” He never asked again.
Twenty-two years later, on a January day, Peter stood on the sound stage of 20th Century-Fox preparing to go into a hectic fight scene for “Black Saddle,” the TV series in which he starred. He’d gotten there by a long and bumpy road, knocking around the country learning to be an actor. He had also, in his barnstorming and wandering, made several tries at locating his brother George, but in that he’d been less successful.
This day, after the cameras stopped rolling, he went to sit in his canvas chair and go over his lines for the next scene. A crew member came over to say that someone outside wanted to see him.
“Well . . . well . . . okay, let him come in.”
The son of Joe Breck
Deep in the script, Peter hardly noticed a young man walking toward him—slowly, shyly, as if he’d rather forget the whole thing and run away. By inches the young boy came over to him, and in a soft, shy voice said, “Ah . . . I . . . wonder . . . ah . . . could you . . . are you . . .” He cleared his throat and started again. “. . . . Are you the son of Joe Breck, the ‘Prince of Pep’?”
A bill collector, Peter thought at once. Or he wants to make a touch. Who else would ask about his father? Brusquely he asked, “Who wants to know?” in a tone a man uses to intimidate guys in westerns.
The young boy looked as if he’d like to sink through the sound stage floor. But he continued hesitantly, “Well, if you are Joe Breck’s son—then I’m your brother . . . I’m George, George Breck, and . . .”
Like a thunderclap, Peter heard the two words that made him jump to his feet. George Breck! He looked at the boy for a full moment; he couldn’t speak. Then he felt a burst of emotion like a dam breaking inside him. He grabbed the boy in a bear hug, saying over and over, “Georgie, Georgie.” He could hardly believe that twenty-two years of off-and-on searching had ended, dreamlike, on the sound stage of a Hollywood television studio.
The two brothers walked off the set together and headed for a nearby cafe. They sat across from each other, face to face. the years of separation melting away like icicles in the sunshine. Words tumbled out, they reminisced about Grandmother, Aunt Polly, Mother, Dad. They caught up on twenty-two years of living, on all George’s own hard knocks and drifting. But now he was married to a swell gal named Patty and they had a small son named Alan. Four years they’d been married and George all of twenty-three now! They’d come West to live, settled in the Glendale section of Los Angeles, and he worked as a machinist. Everything was fine. Oh, some doctor had tried to throw a scare into him about a sickness with a long name that meant calcium deposits around the heart, but it wasn’t anything you had to rush into. Even the doc said so.
“Never mind, no rush, you take care of it,” Peter said. He was the big brother now, the senior by six years. It felt great to suddenly have a kid brother to advise.
George shrugged. “I’m as healthy as a horse,” he said. “That saw-bones must’ve got me mixed up with two other fellows.”
Peter said, “I can’t get over your finding me. Tell me just how it was.” And George told.
“One Saturday night we turned on ‘Black Saddle’ for the first time,” he said, “and the words ‘Starring Peter Breck’ flashed on. I said to Patty, ‘Gosh, that’s my brother’s name, but I haven’t seen my brother since I was a baby, so how would I know?’ She got all excited. ‘You mean that tall handsome TV star might be your brother?’ Well, I didn’t know, but I watched that show every Saturday night for three months trying to catch some expression that might be like Dad’s or Mom’s.”
Finally he decided to find out for himself. He got into the car and rode around Hollywood looking for the studio where “Black Saddle” was being filmed. More than once he nearly gave up.
“But I just couldn’t quit, ” he told Peter. “I had to find out if you were my long lost brother.”
They became inseparable
After that, the two became inseparable. Every chance George got, he came on the set and watched from the sidelines. The whole business fascinated him, the cameras, the sound track, especially his own brother up there—a star! Peter would look over and laugh at the gone expression on George’s face. He was like the two-year-old who used to follow him around worshipfully.
Peter hit on a way to make George very happy by taking him on as his stand-in. George gloried in the show’s high ratings and his brother’s popularity at personal appearances. Peter worked him into that act, too. They had a routine that brought the house down. First Peter did his stuff, and the audience went wild for a Hollywood he-man who could actually ride and do fantastically intricate and dangerous stunts with a bullwhip and axe-handle. Then George would walk on stage and Peter would introduce him. “Folks, I want you to meet my brother George. He works with me on the show back in Hollywood and he can tell you that every week I do my stunts, no matter how dangerous they are. Right, George?”
The boy would hang his head, silent and gulping. Much laughter from the audience! Peter would walk over, grab George by the collar and raise him from the ground. “Now,” in a menacing voice, “tell them I always do my own stunts.” George, barely able to talk, would nod yes. Only then did Peter put him down and let him go. The audience loved it and the brothers got a terrific bang out of it.
Off-stage they were close, too. Peter was in love with a beautiful dancer, Diane Bourne, whom he hoped to marry within a year. She and Peter, Patty and George, became a foursome. Every weekend that Peter wasn’t on tour, they spent at his bachelor bungalow. They barbecued steaks, talked, romped with Peter’s family of German shepherds: Portia, Brutus, Cassius and Caesar. Life was just great. All the more when Peter and Diane decided on a June wedding.
Then, in April, Peter was scheduled for a personal appearance in Springfield, Massachusetts, and the brothers made great plans. They’d do a week of shows, take off a week to visit the relatives in Haverhill and Gloucester. And while they were East, George would get that operation over with. He’d been saving up for it and now, thanks to Peter, he had it made. Peter would take George to the Veterans’ Hospital in West Roxbury, a Boston suburb. They pin-pointed the dates. May 26 for the surgery, and out of the hospital in time for the wedding on June 11. Patty was to be matron of honor, but George wanted to be usher instead of best man. “I’ll get a kick out of walking your Hollywood friends down the aisle,” he said like a kid, and it was okay with Peter.
The day before they were to leave for Springfield, Peter got a letter from the relatives. One look at his face as he read, and George knew—it was bad news.
“Georgie,” Peter began, and choked up. There were tears in his eyes. Then he made himself blurt it out. “Dad’s—dead. He got burned to death in a hotel fire a week ago.” The two brothers stood staring at each other in shock. They’d hardly known their father. The “Prince of Pep,” the roving showman, had wandered out of their lives long ago. But they were his sons. They felt grief and loss. Neither of them knew that Death was to follow them even farther.
They went to Springfield and then to see the family as they’d planned, though the visit was saddened by Joe Breck’s death.
“You know something, Pete,” George said. “I’m gladder than ever that we found each other.” They were sitting on the wharf at Gloucester, they’d left the relatives for a while and gone to walk.
“You did the finding,” Peter said.
“Well, it was luck, too.” That was all they said, but each knew what the other meant: that never again would they let themselves be separated. Not after Georgie and Fate together had turned the trick of reuniting them.
When it was time for George to enter the hospital, they went to Boston together and Peter stayed to see him checked in. The admitting physician remarked on George’s cheerful attitude, for an incoming patient.
“He’s so darn glad to get it over with,” Peter explained. “Who wants the threat of heart disease hanging over him when he can cure it?”
“That’s right,” George said. “I’ve got other plans.” He grinned at his brother. “I’m aiming to be your stunt man, in case you don’t know. I’ve been practicing dives and falls already.”
Peter laughed. “If you hanker to fall off horses every week and make me a bigger hero—that’s fine by me.”
They said so long now. Peter had to head back for Hollywood and for those eternal personal appearances. But he kept in touch. He knew when George went up for surgery on May 26, and again two days later. No matter where his body went, his heart was thousands of miles away in Massachusetts.
“Do it for Georgie”
The day before Memorial Day, Peter was about to go before a packed stadium in Denver for the last show. In five minutes he’d be on. Suddenly someone—he never could remember who it was—hurried to him with sorrow and pity on his face.
“Peter,” he said, “Peter—it’s bad news.”
Peter said, “George . . .” and the man nodded. —George was dead. The young heart that was going to be mended, had stopped beating.
Someone called, “Breck, you’re on” and he walked out before a mob he didn’t see. They cheered themselves hoarse and he didn’t hear them. He went through his act—and didn’t know what he was doing. And later, in the same haze, he saw Diane was next to him.
“I flew in as soon as I heard,” she said. “I wanted to be with you.”
“We’ll leave now,” he told her woodenly. “I—can’t do tomorrow’s shows.”
But he did. He forced himself to go on. It was Memorial Day and he did three shows in memory of the brother he would never forget. Then he and Diane left for Gloucester, for his funeral. But first he asked the publicity man to write up his brother’s death and put it on the wires.
“Do it for Georgie,” he said. “He’d get a bang out of seeing his name in print.”
People who never even knew George in life, came to Gloucester to see him in death. Or maybe to see Peter Breck—and this Peter hated. He walked through the crowd with eyes straight ahead and joined his family in the mourning room. It was an old-fashioned Irish wake—three days and nights of continuous mourning. Past the casket, streamed people who had loved the boy—and people who had never met him. But they wept, too.
Back in Hollywood, again, Patty and her son came to stay at Peter’s. Diane, who had been with him through it all, was for postponing the wedding. It was Peter who told her, “It would break Georgie’s heart.”
So, on June 11, they had their wedding as scheduled. Diane and Peter stood before the altar in St. Francis de Salles Church in the Valley, and heard the man of God pronounce them man and wife. Their matron of honor was Patty Breck, the best man Peter Hornsby. There was no usher.
But as Peter promised to cherish Diane forever, he whispered in his heart, “Don’t you worry about your family, Georgie—we’ll take good care of them.” Because he knew: Somewhere on the sidelines the brother he had lost and found and lost again, was watching and nodding and smiling his approval.
—BY MARCIA BORIE
Be sure to watch for Peter Breck in “Black Saddle” on your local television station.
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE NOVEMBER 1960