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Rhonda Fleming: “I Was A Teen-Age Bride”

At sixteen I ran away and got married. I’ll never regret it nor call it a mistake, if only because my marriage gave me my son. But if, instead of a son, I had a daughter who wanted to marry at sixteen, I’d do everything within my power to stop her. Mother tried to stop me. She failed. I’m not shifting responsibility to any shoulders but my a own, where it belongs. I’ll go this far, however. Had my parents’ lives been different, mine might have been different.

I was a sensitive youngster, and very gullible. Maybe, for a child, “trustful” is the better word. So when disenchantment hit, it hit with a bang. Till I reached the ripe age of nine, Santa Claus was real to me. My folks made him real. “While you were asleep last night,” my sister Beverly said, “I danced round the tree with Santa. In a couple of years you can dance with him too.”

I went riding on my Christmas bike. “Santa brought it,” I told a playmate.

“You don’t believe in him?!”

“Of course I do. My sister danced round the tree with him last night.”

But the seed of doubt had been planted and, once I discovered the truth, I cried my eyes out. Not so much because there wasn’t a Santa Claus. Rather because the family I’d trusted so completely had lied to me. As many families lie about Santa Claus. Only I was too thin-skinned to take it and too young to appreciate the kindly motive. Which is why I never passed the myth on to my son. I told him about Saint Nicholas, I told him about the spirit of Santa, the spirit of giving.

I think you can’t go far wrong in telling children the truth. I think concealment builds barriers. With the best will in the world, my parents concealed their problems from us. Or anyway, from me. If Mother talked to Beverly, I didn’t hear about it. Sometimes I feel that if they’d been franker with me, I’d have weathered the divorce more easily.

I thought we were happy

Through my earliest childhood, we were a happy family. Or so I thought. Mother and Dad loved us, they loved each other. We lived in a pleasant home in Beverly Hills. Mother was—and still is—a very beautiful woman—tall, blonde, milky-skinned, with the carriage of a queen. Dad was as dark as she was fair and when they’d come to school together for some event, I’d just about pop with pride in them. The only cloud in my sky was Dad’s being away so much. His insurance business required a lot of traveling.

He was my idol, and for this there were many reasons. I was intensely shy, a bundle of inhibitions, forever afraid to express my feelings, yet hungering for love. To any show of affection I responded like a plant to sunlight, but I was incapable of taking the first step. I must have been fearful of rejection.

Dad had the gift of laughter and of outgoing warmth. He’d pull me into his lap, he’d nibble my lashes or chew my ear—which drove me nuts, but I reveled in it. Like me, Mother was more reserved, less demonstrative. Besides, somebody had to be the disciplinarian and with Dad gone half the time, that job fell to her. Raising two girls presents plenty of headaches, and the one who’s responsible sometimes finds herself the goat. It was always Mother, not Dad, who reprimanded me—for my own good—and subconsciously I began storing up resentments. Often I must have hurt my mother. With Dad I could let my hair down, and she knew it. With her, something blocked the way. After an argument, I’d gather a little bouquet and lay it on the front steps with a note: “I’m sorry I was a bad girl.” But I couldn’t go and tell her that face to face. Which, looking back, seems to me rather sad.

Maybe to make up for not being with me, Dad was all tenderness and indulgence. From the road he’d write me letters every few days, with funny little pictures—this is you, this is me—and enclosing a dollar bill. At home he’d say, “Come on, honey, let’s go to the store.” If I went with Mother, she’d buy only what we needed. Dad gave me free rein—cookies, ice cream, popcorn—the works. “You’re too skinny, we’ve got to fatten you up.” Naturally this enchanted me—not only the goodies, but the sense of being cherished.

Perhaps even spoiled.

To this day the Nancy Drew detective stories create a special atmosphere for me. I was crazy about them, and my father always brought one home when he came. I remember sitting in the den by a little old heater, reading the book while it rained outside. Without being able to put it into words, I craved family unity. Nancy meant that Dad was here again. The book on my lap, the sound of the rain, the knowledge that we were a family once more made me feel so happy, so snug, so sheltered from harm—like a magic cloak around me. Because of that, I love rain and always will.

The divorce

My parents were divorced when I was twelve. Deep personality clashes made it impossible for them to be happy together. The breach came gradually. They tried and tried to repair it, but it widened. For a long time I was only dimly aware of what went on. Nobody laid it on the line. Nobody said, “Honey, this is what happened.” I knew that Dad came home less and less often. I used to hear Mother crying at night. So many times I wanted to go to her, tell her I loved her, ask her what was wrong. I couldn’t. Maybe I was afraid of finding out. Or afraid of invading the privacy of grown-up emotions. As for Mother, she probably thought that I was too young to be burdened with them. But the burden lay heavy on me just the same. As I realized little by little that Dad wouldn’t be living with us any more, my whole world crumbled, my safe harbor blew up at an age when I needed it most.

Some children find compensation in school for what they miss at home. Not me. I wore glasses then and braces on my teeth. So did lots of other kids, but they laughed it off. Youngsters are perceptive. They torment the tormentable, and they could always count on me to cringe when they teased. I wanted friendship badly, but didn’t know how to go about showing it, so I could get it in return. As a result, I crawled deeper into my shell.

There was just enough age difference between my sister and me to prevent too much closeness. The divorce hadn’t shaken Beverly as it did me. For one thing, she was older—for another, more stable—a girl who knew what she wanted and where she was going. At eighteen she fell in love, married, moved to San Francisco with her husband and lived happily ever after. Dad was living in San Francisco too. He didn’t get down very often. Mother took an apartment for herself and me. She bought me lovely clothes. She saw to it that I took singing and dancing lessons. Having been on the stage herself, she hoped I might develop enough talent to pick up where she’d left off when she married Dad. Then, in an effort to escape her own heartache, she went on a world tour and left me with my Aunt Rose, who was also my singing teacher. Before leaving, she entered me in Jesse Lasky’s Gateway To Hollywood contest.

Into the sunlight—almost

To my amazement, they interviewed me. By now the glasses and braces were gone. But you were supposed to be eighteen. I was fourteen, and said so. “If you’ll keep mum about it,” they told me, “and if you’ll stop eating so many ice cream sodas, we’ll let you try out.” With all the stress I’ve laid on my lack of assurance, you may wonder how I mustered up the nerve. It didn’t take nerve. Up there on the stage I lost myself. People didn’t exist. I was alone, playing a part and confident, and so I sailed on to the semi-finals, for which Dad came down. I can still hear Jesse Lasky making the announcement. “There’s one very proud father in the audience tonight. He’s Harold Louis. His daughter Marilyn just won the semi-finals.”

Pride goes before a fall. In Des Moines I lost the finals to a blonde who sang “The Man I Love.” Jean Hersholt found me in the wings, crying like mad. He put his arm around me, gave me his handkerchief, eased my woe. “You did well, child. You made a fine showing, which is all that matters. It’s just that you’re not ready yet. Some day you will be. Some day you’ll be glad you lost tonight.” I wanted desperately to hang on to him. Since that couldn’t be, I hung on to his handkerchief. For his gentleness, his kindness and understanding, he’ll always hold a special niche in my heart.

So back to Beverly High I went, little Miss Nobody again. But more popular now, because I sang and danced in the school shows. Still, I didn’t have what’s important to every child—a family. Families discuss things, they help you to form ideas, to make decisions, they give you roots and emotional shelter. With only Aunt Rose to account to, I felt like a little girl on my own.

Sex and heartbreak

Anything might have happened to me. Nothing did. By bringing me up in the Mormon faith, Mother had built better than I knew. The training stuck. Basically, I was a religious girl—certainly an idealistic one and, on the subject of sex, a babe in the woods. Nobody’d ever talked to me about sex, unless you can count the time Beverly said: “Never let anyone lay a hand on you.” I didn’t know what she meant. If this seems stupid, then I was stupid, naive and ignorant. The first time I caught a glimpse of two kids necking in the back seat, my face dropped into my hands. “Oh no!” I shuddered, and asked to be taken home. I went on dating, but never twice with a boy who tried to get fresh.

Then came first love, none the less glorious for being puppy-love, since at fourteen you can’t tell the difference. As a big football star, his attentions dazzled me. And as always with those I loved, I stuck him on a pedestal. He was all the fairy-tale princes rolled into one, but mostly Sir Galahad, and I worshiped him unabashed. When he called, I’d leap over furniture to grab the phone. When he said, “I’ll be there in an hour,” I’d tweet, “Can’t you make it twenty minutes?” I suppose my adoration amused him and my youth made him protective. He treated me with kid gloves until, on our way to a New Year’s Eve party, my Galahad turned wolf and found himself with a bearcat on his hands, which didn’t amuse him at all. As for me, I was devastated. Within seconds, the knight toppled off his white charger, breaking my heart in half.

At the party he sat me on a stool and took off. For a while I stayed put, trying to gather up some remnants of self-control but making a poor job of it. My only desire was to get home straight and fast, and the only way I could think of was to hunt up my escort. I found him parked with another girl. Turning blindly away, I all but collided with a boy I knew. Because he liked me, because he was sweet and thoughtful, he’d noticed my plight and followed me out to the parking lot. “Come on,” he said. “I’m taking you home.” Sympathy was all I needed. Safe in his car, the floodgates burst. He waited for the storm to subside, then pulled into a drive-in. “You’ll feel better after a cup of hot coffee.”

I meet Tom

That’s where fate entered, in the shape of a maroon convertible that slid in beside us. Mark recognized it and an idea hit him. “Just sip your coffee, Marilyn. I want to say hello to a friend of mine.” He was back in a minute. “That’s Tom Lane. He has a little orchestra and he’s looking for a girl singer. I’d like you to meet him—”

My eyes were puffy. The tear-tracks glistened on my face. “I can’t. I look awful.”

“You look fine,” he said, and beckoned Tom over.

I shrank into my corner. I don’t know how much of me Tom could see, but I liked his smile and the way he came straight to the point. “Do you sing?” I nodded. “Well, I’m having some girls audition at my house tomorrow. Can you come?”

“Yes,” I gulped. “I can come.”

I felt grateful to both boys. Next day I auditioned for Tom, got the job and began singing with his fourteen-piece combo at various beach and country clubs.

Shortly before all this happened, Mother J, came home. We lived together again. She tried to draw close to me, but by now I’d grown an armor that shut her out. When she made overtures, I’d say, “Everything’s fine, Mother,” and clam up. Sometimes an emergency with the band brought me home later than usual, and I’d find her frantic. “Marilyn, where have you been?”

“Oh, the manager wouldn’t pay what he promised, so the boys had to put up a fight for it—”

“You might have phoned me!”

Of course I might have. But I knew was safe. It never entered my uncaring head that she didn’t.

Nor did I confide much in my dad. Our visits together were so short. I used to spend holidays with him in San Francisco. He loved to sing, except that what came out didn’t sound too good. So he’d whistle instead, and we’d drive back and forth duetting tunes like “Daisy, Daisy” and “Good Old Summertime.” Dad still meant fun and laughter to me. I hated to spoil our gaiety with problems.

While she was all for my career, Mother took a dim view of my current activities. She felt they wouldn’t get me far, she knew they kept me out too late and she worried over my constant companionship with Tom and his family.

I fall in love with a family

Tom was a nice, clean-cut, mannerly boy. But I think I fell as much in love with his family as I did with him. Their house was a house of warmth. They made no bones about showing their love for each other. As Tom’s girl friend, they welcomed me in with the same open affection. I ate it up. It was my first taste of what I’d always longed for—the refuge of family solidarity. I’d walk miles just to spend the afternoon and have dinner with them, almost like a homing bird. They offered sanctuary, and with that poor Mother simply couldn’t compete. Not till many years later did I realize the suffering it caused her.

She appealed to Dad. “You-must talk to Marilyn, Harold. She’s only fifteen and she’s taking this boy too seriously. At eighteen he’s no more than a child himself.”

Dad gave me credit for more sense than I had. “It’s a normal crush. She’s intelligent, she’ll get over it.”

To further that end, Mother sent me to stay with my sister and brother-in-law, hoping I’d meet new people and forget Tom. Which gave me a chance to dramatize the whole affair. I dashed off a hot wire. “Help. Help. I’m being held prisoner.” This brought Tom all the way up to San Francisco. Looking real grim, he presented himself at the door.

“What on earth’s the matter with you?” Beverly asked.

“Marilyn says she’s a prisoner!”

My sister ushered him into the living room where I sat. “Look. No manacles. No bars. Free as the breeze to take off whenever she likes.”

This bit of nonsense left me with egg on my face but changed nothing radical. At home the situation remained status quo. Mother couldn’t reach me. Dad was beyond my reach most of the time. Because I felt torn between them, I couldn’t talk to either about the other except with my guard up. From the outside I must have seemed wilful and sullen. Actually, despite my youthful heroics, I did feel like a prisoner, frustrated and hemmed in. For me there was no way to go except out. At sixteen I took it.

We elope

Tom and I were sitting in the car one day. “I don’t know anything about marriage,” I said, “but let’s run away.”

“Fine. Only I’d better tell my folks.”

“Yes, we’ll tell your folks, but not my mother. Because she won’t let me.”

Our youth notwithstanding, the Lanes were on our side. They arranged for Tom’s older sister and her fiancé to go to Reno with us. Knowing Mother was out, I went home to pack my bag. She returned before I’d finished. “Where are you going?”

“I’m going to marry Tom.”

It seemed an eternity before she answered. It couldn’t have been more than a few seconds. I don’t know how she looked, for I kept my eyes on my packing. But her voice shook. “Honey, don’t do this, don’t! You’re only a baby. Where have I failed you? What have I done wrong?”

“Nothing, Mother. I just want to get married.” I felt no response to her cry. I felt cold and impassive. I picked up my bag and left my mother to what anguish I didn’t even bother to imagine. I can imagine it now.

The four of us drove to Reno, where I fibbed about my age and married Tom.

We lived with the Lanes. Tom began his now successful career as an interior decorator. I modeled at May Company’s. Three months later I went from size twelve to fourteen—from fourteen to sixteen—from sixteen to fur coats. “Keep putting on weight,” they warned me, “and you’ll have to quit.” I didn’t quit till pneumonia laid me low and I almost lost the baby I was carrying by then. For the first time Mother and Dad came together to see me. They didn’t say much, but I could read the heart-sickness in their eyes.

After Kent was born and I’d recovered my strength, I worked as a salesgirl at Coulter’s. Then came a call from Henry Willson, the agent, who’d seen my picture on an old cover of our high school magazine. He offered to put me under contract—an idea Tom didn’t go for at all. My job was just a stopgap because we needed the money. Once Tom was established, I’d give it up and stay home. A potential movie career, he realized, would be harder to drop. I realized that too, which didn’t prevent me from wanting it. This led to arguments. In the end I signed with Henry, became Rhonda Fleming and, before too long, a seven-year contract player on David Selznick’s payroll.

A love that didn’t grow

But it wasn’t the career that broke Tom and me up. Mother had been right. We were a couple of immature kids, with no foundation for marriage. We’d pulled down on ourselves a load of responsibility that secretly appalled us, yet it had to be carried. At an age when we should have been carefree, we’d stuck our noses into the grindstone of life. We weren’t sufficiently disciplined to control our tempers, so minor flareups developed into major battles. Ours wasn’t a love that grew. Bickering destroyed it. It’s clear to me now that I didn’t even know the meaning of love. Through Tom Id been seeking something his family gave me. Not consciously, of course. But confusion and inexperience don’t alter the fact that, in marrying Tom, I’d done him an injustice.

Marriage, however, was no light thing to either of us. For six years we tried to hold it together. During the last two years, Tom was in the service. I lived with his folks and worked at the studio. In those days, wifehood and motherhood were supposed to de-glamorize you. “Keep it dark,” they told me, “or you’re finished in the business.” I hated keeping it dark. I was proud of my baby and wanted to talk about him. Boys asked for dates and I’d have to ward them off without explaining why. I let things drift, too timid to assert myself, following orders like a mindless robot, scared of everyone as I’d been at school.

This, plus the knowledge of my sorry marriage, drove me into myself again. Migraine headaches developed. I forgot how to smile. Say boo to me, and the waterworks started. I lost all contact with friends. I hardly ever saw Mother. Naturally, the frictions between Tom and me saddened his family. I no longer felt comfortable with them. To avoid them, I’d sneak by the side door into my room, leaden with misery. Often the walls seemed to close in and a wild impulse would seize me to batter them down. I didn’t know that what closed me in was myself.

Lord, help me!

One evening, a week before Tom was due home, I climbed into my car, drove up on a hillside and parked. Drained of emotion, I felt empty, barren and dead. “If this is life,” I thought dully, “I don’t want it any more.” The cliff looked temptingly close. How easy to roll over it and be forever at peace, all my troubles done with. Trembling, I struggled against the terrible compulsion. This time I wasn’t dramatizing. This time I meant it, and the shock of realizing I meant it cleared my head a little.

didn’t want to live, but I had to live for my son. I began talking to myself, yet the talk was a prayer. Through sheer desperation, through sheer need, I turned to God. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but something’s wrong, because I don’t love anyone except my child.” For the first time I cried in agony, “Lord, help me!” And He did. I have no idea how long I sat there. All I know is this. As I prayed, the tears started streaming down my cheeks, the iciness melted and a great warmth flooded in, a great compassion for people and the suffering of people. Up there on the hill I went through a spiritual experience. I achieved an insight to which Id been blinded by my absorption in self. Doors opened in my mind, showing me that I wasn’t unique or alone. Life hurts us all in one way or another. We must hurt each other as little as possible.

Next day I went to my mother, crashed through the wall of misunderstanding between us and poured my heart out. What I’d never been able to say before, I said. What she’d never been able to do before, she did—took me into her arms, whispered endearment and comfort that fell like balm on a wound. When the chips were down, Mother became my solace and my greatest friend. Long ago I could have had her friendship for the asking. It was she who had felt unwanted.

With Mother behind me, I found courage to make a decision. At first I hoped for a miracle. I hoped that when Tom and I met, our old feeling for each other might rise from the ashes. It didn’t. Then I prayed that we might part without ugliness or strife. In this—thanks to Tom and to my new-found identity—we succeeded. Our first thought was for Kent. As a child of divorce, I saw the dangers even more clearly than Tom. I tried hard to profit by the lessons of my own ordeal. Kent loves his father dearly and he loves me. I’m not going to pretend that the divorce was any bed of roses for him. But at least we could keep from filling his mind with resentments. We could tell him the story truthfully and give him plenty of time to figure it out for himself.

The hard way

It’s not for me to preach. Though I think I’m a little wiser for my experience, who knows all the answers? Yet I can’t help venturing the few I did learn. To children I’d say—don’t shut your parents out, take your problems to them. The fact that they belong to another generation doesn’t make them fogies. If they disagree with you, consider the possibility that they may be right and you wrong. You haven’t measured yourself against life as they have. You need all the balance and judgment they can provide.

To parents I’d say—show your child love and understanding. Respect her as a person. Crushes are bound to develop—never forbid them. A head-on clash stirs rebellion. “We’ll fix their wagon,” say the kids. Use strategy. Encourage them to see each other. Open your home to them. Let them share young laughter and good times together. The feeling between them will die or it will grow solid. Hither way you can’t lose. Above all, listen to your child. Know what goes on in her mind and imagination. I don’t care how much money you have nor how many luxuries. Without true attention, without companionship, material things add up to a big fat zero.

And early sears mend slowly. Re-adjustment is a long and grueling process. Nobody hands it to you on a satin cushion. You sweat for it. My hours on the hillside marked only the turning-point for me. There remained in me echoes of the child who feared to give herself wholly, lest she be hurt. My inclination was still to hide from people. Fortified by my son, my mother, my work, I searched out these fears and, bit by painful bit, discarded them. I saw that love heals more than it hurts. Even after those you love are gone.

Five years ago I went to San Francisco for a personal appearance. As always, I phoned Dad the minute I hit town. “I’ve got to ride in the parade,” I told him. “Then I’ll take a nap because I didn’t get much sleep last night. And then I’ll come over.”

“All right, honey. But don’t be too long.”

This bothered me a little. There was a strangeness in his voice. But I decided my imagination must be working overtime. At the hotel I told them to shut off the phone while I napped. During that interval my father died.

I reached his place in a state of shock. I stared down at the cookies and candy and peanuts he’d set out—all the stuff his no longer skinny little girl had loved. I could hear his voice: “Come on, let’s go to the store. We’ve got to fatten you up.” The knife twisted, but I couldn’t cry. I could scarcely so much as talk. My face was as stiff as if lockjaw had set in. I felt that a piece of me had died with him.

I know now that his spirit will always live in me. I regret nothing. While I missed the fun of being a teen-ager, I gained a son. While I learned the hard way, I came out of the darkness whole. It might have happened in reverse. But I was a fighter like my father. And my mother gave me the faith in God which saved me. For this heritage I’m everlastingly grateful.



Rhonda Fleming can next be seen in Odongo, a Columbia picture.



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