Lee Bowman, Homesteader
One Sunday afternoon a year or so ago Lee Bowman, late of “The Impatient Years,” and his wife drove up before a rambling old house in Santa Monica and parked. Lee had been informed by his mother, who had the news from the fine print in the local paper, that the house was available for purchase—an astounding opportunity in population-clogged Southern California.
The grass was brown and neglected; the walk was root-bulged and weed-grown; the roof was constructed of shake (thick redwood shingles laid in pattern to create a handsome shadow line), but it needed several coats of paint.
The Bowmans exchanged glances. “Hmm—I don’t know about that,” gloomed Lee.
Helene shook her head. “But while we’re here we might as well go inside and have a quick look around,” she suggested.
So they made use of the key that the real estate agent had supplied and promptly got the surprise of their lives. The floors were redwood, doweled and grooved, and in some rooms laid parquet. The library was paneled with oak, rubbed to a dull glow by many long years of hand polishing. The beams, the mouldings, the stairway were impressive with the proud, timeless dignity that craftsmen put into construction thirty years ago. Even the invisible necessities of the house were of the best: All pipe was copper.
The Bowman footsteps echoed to the high ceilings as they strolled through the spacious rooms and regarded the views to be had from successive windows. “We could enclose that end of the porch and have a wonderful den,” Lee said tentatively.
“It would take two solid months of painting, scrubbing, polishing and redecorating to put this house into condition—but when that was done, we’d really have something,” said Helene.
They took another final look through the four upstairs bedrooms, each with its private bath; they strolled through the library with its ample shelves and its great fireplace, through the dining room and the commodious kitchen.
“I guess this is it,” said the man about to buy a house, and laughed a little.
“Let’s go talk terms,” suggested his wife, running a proprietary hand over the satin balustrades down which her children would sometimes slide in disregard of parental order. And so the deal was closed.
There is something about buying or building a house that, no matter how smooth and well-planned the action may be, is highly dramatic. It is a special kind of thrill—high adventure. A home is always a milestone in a marriage. This was particularly the case with the Bowman family. To explain this remark, let us go back to the year 1938. At that time Lee Bowman’s picture career might not have been making Halley’s comet look like a wet firecracker by comparison, but he was plugging along, using the reliable slow and steady method.
At that time, Lee was an alumnus of the University of Cincinnati and of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He had worked on Broadway in “Berkeley Square” in which he enacted his favorite role to date, that of Peter Standish, and he had appeared with the celebrated Kate Mayhew in “The Old Lady Shows Her Medals.”
He had been sent by Oscar Serlin to Hollywood and had worked in “I Met Him In Paris” with Claudette Colbert and Franchot Tone, as well as in “Having Wonderful Time” with Ginger Rogers.
Although he didn’t know it in those days, there lay ahead of him some excellent footage in “Love Affair” with Irene Dunne, in “Stronger Than Desire” with Walter Pidgeon and Virginia Bruce, in “We Were Dancing” with Norma Shearer, and then with Rita Hayworth in “Cover Girl,” and opposite Jean Arthur in “The Impatient Years.”
Back in Cincinnati, his family was still saying—in 1938—that perhaps Lee should have gone on with his law training, after all. Only Lee realized that his reading of Blackstone had always ended with Mr. Bowman dramatizing the court room scenes with himself in some startling role. Probably as a crusading district attorney because of his six-feet-one-inch height, his 175 pounds of athletic prowess, his brownish-topaz eyes, dark hair and crisp mustache.
Or sometimes the family said that perhaps Lee should have followed his early inclination to become a writer. During school he had been singularly successful in English, French and allied subjects. And just consider his ancestors—all statesmen and, until the family moved to Cincinnati, all fighters on the Confederate side. Surely, the family reasoned, Lee could do better than cool his heels out there in that odd Coastal city.
But out in Hollywood, people were saying these pleasant things about Lee: That he took his time about making decisions, but that once he had made them his action was incisive and permanent. He never compromised; he did a thing right or not at all. He never accepted a cheap imitation of anything; he waited to acquire the genuine or went without.
One day a friend of Lee’s called to ask him to play tennis. When Lee agreed, the friend suggested that Lee call for a girl—a good tennis player—who had also been invited to the racquet session. Her name was Helene Rosson.
Lee complied. When she answered the door he gave her a quick double-o, in the gallant manner of a man meeting a new maid, and decided that she was exceptionally easy on the eyes. This analysis persisted until she got Mr. Bowman on the tennis court, whereupon she practically ruined his eyesight. Trying to return her lightning service was like trying to shake hands with a freshly baked potato. She had a lot of little tricks, too. She could loft one ball limply over the net to draw a man out of position, then scorch the next into the southwest corner. Result of this carnage: Six-love, six-three, six-two, six-love in favor of Miss Rosson.
When Mr. Bowman took the lady home he treated her with great respect. He didn’t even ask when he was going to see her again. He did ask about that backhand stroke, but he was too weary to pay much attention to the answer. It looked like the end of a beautiful friendship.
Several weeks later the man who had originally asked Lee to call for Helene, telephoned again to say that he had a date with her that evening. Why didn’t Lee annex himself a girl friend and make the party a foursome? Lee had been working diligently on his backhand, so he agreed. Besides, very little tennis is played in night clubs except in those spots where there is no egg shortage.
After Lee had danced several times with his date, he asked Helene for the customary courtesy dance. They had circled the floor twice when they stepped apart to exchange an amazed stare. They danced together beautifully! “You’re a surprise,” Lee opined. “I didn’t know that any girl could play tennis and dance too.”
After that they saw a good deal of each other. Lee soon reached the stage where he could beat Helene at tennis about fifty per cent of the time, which was more than most of her opponents could do. They had other interests in common also. Both liked to read and discuss the book afterward; both liked horseback riding. When the opera season started, Lee thought it might be a good idea to get cultural and ask Helene to go. She was moderately enthusiastic. “I like light opera and symphony much better,” she said frankly. So Lee didn’t have to go after all. “Don’t you have any faults?” he asked with mock suspicion.
Not until that time when they had reached one of those comfortable junctures in human relationship in which comradeship is taken for granted and a vague sort of future continuance begins to grow in the mind of each, did they have their first serious disagreement. They were playing bridge with friends one evening when Helene observed that she admired the hosts’ home very much. She said she could scarcely wait until she had a spacious home of her own.
Lee looked at her as if he glimpsed her for the first time. “You mean you like big houses? You mean that, if you married again, you wouldn’t want to take an apartment where you’d have all the comforts of a hotel, and none of the responsibilities of owning property?”
“There’s only one real way to live,” Helene insisted. “That’s in a house with plenty of space, surrounded by grounds where one can have some outdoor living in privacy.”
“I never want to own anything that I can’t pack in a wardrobe trunk and two suitcases,” said Lee with finality. “In this business, the only smart guy is the one who can pick up at any time and return to New York.”
There after, whenever they were together, the question of house versus apartment seemed to sneak into the conversation and destroy the harmony that had been so fine a thing between them. Each realized that the difference of opinion was a serious one; it had to be adjusted before they could think of marriage. Repeatedly they broke up their romance in storms of argument. Weeks, even months, would elapse between dates. Each stood by his principles and the result was misery for both.
And then came the night of February 21, 1940. Lee and Helene had been invited, unbeknownst to the other, to the same party. When Lee entered the long living room and spotted Helene seated across the room talking animatedly to another man, he decided that she looked like ten thousand dollars worth of dreams come true. He strolled over and, with just as much courtesy as the occasion required and no more, snatched her away from the other man and marched her into the library for a talk.
End of talk: They opened a low casement window, stepped into the soggy garden and dashed, giggling, to Lee’s car. It was a frightful night—typical of California’s dewy season. Fog blotted out all incidental landscape beyond ten feet of the car and the rain came down with a persistence that suggested the vacation presence of Niagara Falls in Hollywood.
As the three-day marriage law was then in effect in California, they drove to Tia Juana and there discovered that Tia Juana also had a three-day interim law. With chattering teeth and dampened spirits they went to the nearest cantina to glower at their luck over a steaming cup of coffee.
All natives of Tia Juana are alert to newcomers and instantly classify them as either mere tourists, mere drinkers, those who have come down for the races, or those who have rushed down to be married. A soft-eyed boy in the cantina studied Lee and Helene, and pigeon-holed them. Then he sidled up to their table. “You drive down to marry?” he said behind a smile as white as moonlight on water.
They nodded glumly. “My father is Justice of Peace in Tecate, a town not too far away,” he continued. “No three-day law in Tecate. You come with me—si?”
So the three of them started, in the deluge, for Tecate. They turned off the main highway almost at once and sloughed down a road little better than a quagmire. Luckily Lee’s tires were new so the tread was almost as effective as football cleats. Even so they swerved and swayed, pounded up hills that no self-respecting goat would have tried to climb, and shot down into valleys running hub-deep in silt as thick as chocolate-colored cream of wheat. To this day they don’t know how, exactly, but they did reach Tecate. The excited boy roused his father from sleep.
By candle-light, in an ornate Mexican living room against whose roof the rain droned a wedding march, Lee and Helene were married in Spanish, a language neither of them spoke. When time for their responses came, the boy pointed to Lee. “You say, ‘Si,’ ” he ordered.
“Oh sure. Si. Si.” complied Lee.
Then the boy repeated the performance with Helene.
The magistrate finished the service with a flowery speech complete with gestures; Mr. and Mrs. Bowman tipped him lavishly, and left. It was 4:30 in the morning. Their guide returned to Tia Juana with them, but Lee and Helene tendered their regrets when he wanted them to be his guest for breakfast. They went on to San Diego. Lee needed a shave and Helene said her hair was probably a fright, but their happiness was so apparent that other early breakfasters looked at them, then smiled indulgently.
Thereafter they set up housekeeping in a house that Helene had selected. Lee’s career progressed rapidly in the right direction so that his visions of returning to the New York stage evanesced. In late 1943 Mr. Lucien Lee Bowman, III, arrived, much to the pride and delight of his father who carries seven pictures of the chubby young man in a folder about the size of two air mail stamps. And in June, 1944, the Bowmans bought their first house.
Between scenes at Columbia for “Tonight And Every Night” Lee rushed around town with Helene, making arrangements with repairmen, arguing with decorators, and periodically wielding a paint brush and putty knife himself. Apropos of his athletic ability, there should be a popular movement started to get Lee Bowman cast in some role in which it is not necessary for him to appear in a single night club sequence.
Although Lee appears suave, dapper and the owner of a drawing-room tan in his pictures, in person he is a big bronzed man who wears tweeds with authority. Seen by the casual observer who did not recognize him, Lee would probably be labeled a brainy, but humorous, doctor, lawyer or advertising executive who had just returned from a rugged, muscle-building trip into the wilds.
He also looks like a man who is happy to get to his new home, having been converted completely to the idea that an apartment may be nice for everyone else on earth, but the Bowmans must live in a house.
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE MAY 1945