My mother met Steve McQueen at Louis Tavern in Greenwich Village in the early 1950s. She had won a contest and had been to Spain and back as Miss Playa de Nueva York, and was living with her best friend, another actress, Betsy H. in a little place around the corner from the Tavern. Her fourth floor walk-up had handmade floral curtains, ashtrays stolen from the bar, and Betsy’s yappy dachshund as a guard dog. Pat wore her dark hair in the wavy style of the day. She made her living as a fit, tradeshow, and catalog model for Evan Picone and other big names on Seventh Avenue.
She had dyed her hair blonde for a part in the play “Tobacco Road,” but she said she was back to her dark hair by the time she met Steve in the bar with his buddies. They started a love affair that lasted half a year. On weekends they went to Coney Island, where he won some prizes in the bottle toss, Across town she rode, white-knuckled, on the back of his motorcycle, keeping her manicured hands tightly fixed around his waist. She said he ran into gorgeous women he knew “every ten minutes,” but that was something you had to accept if you were dating Steve McQueen. She said she was thrifty but chic back then, since all her clothes were samples that had been made on her by the designers. She said young Steve looked pretty stylish himself in his moto boots and leather jackets.
At the trendy lunch places in midtown, they talked about acting. They were both passionate about the craft – they’d read Stanislavsky, argued about Brando and method acting, and agreed on the brilliance of Chekhov. Though Pat was still in her 20s, she was having a tough time of it. After all, there was plenty of competition. The Village was flooded with beatniks and artists, actors, writers and runaways. She thought about saving money and heading to the West Coast for a screen test. Some of her girlfriends had made the move. Steve encouraged her “not to give up, no matter what.” He said she had the right stuff and that she’d eventually get her lucky break.
Pat said McQueen was kind and funny and seemed to have agood time, no matter where they went. In the end, he was just “too fast” for her. She said he drove like a bullet through the streets after having a few too many; he seemed to want to test his own mortality.
My mother was not innocent by the time she met Steve. She had been married briefly at the age of 19 to a production designer on the “HitParade” variety show, who turned out to be a real louse. He looked like a louse in the glamorous photos taken at popular New York clubs like The 21 Club and The Stork Club. In the photos, the mustachioed first husband looks old enough to be her father – that’s because he was old enough. The marriage, which lasted only a year or so, was annulled by The Church. It seemed to serve its purpose: it emancipated her from the house,where she felt constrained and often abused, while taking care of five younger siblings and her alcoholic parents.
Pat said she was stung, slapped, ambushed, and ridiculed by her mother, a beautiful, blue-eyed pint-sized Scot with a thick brogue, who could sew masterfully and play songs from the old country – by ear – on the family piano. My mother and Maime eventually made their peace, but I know my mother was haunted for years by traumatic memories that she talked about in fragments on occasion, especially after she’d had too much to drink.
She often repeated how she loved her father, a tall, boilermaker with a gentle, sing-song voice. He was one of thirteen born in the Glasgow area. He made her a pendant with an image of Shakespeare that she later wore on a long gold chain to Manhattan parties, and he helped her memorize Irish and Scottish songs. And she loved her sisters and her brother, each one a big personality and together a gang of spirited siblings.
Her father loved books and that’s why my mother began to recite poems and imagine a life filled with verse and literature. She said that at the age of 14, she briefly considered becoming a nun, but decided that her new found love of acting, which she studied at the local Greenwich House, a settlement house that offered classes, was more appealing. In a journal that later became the basis for a certificate at Fordham University she writes: “…my first exposure to live theatre was in 1939 when I joined the Children’s Theatre Group. My first audition was a rendition of “Loch Lomond,” sung with Scottish accent and an improvisation.”
I know she had another big love affair while doing summer stock at a theatre in Pennsylvania. A preppy fellow actor, Bruce, who was also ten years older than she, a drunk, and emotionally shut down. They argued constantly and one argument led to a cut across her wrist, which she says happened when she broke a glass or a dish in the sink. After she was hospitalized and floating on morphine for a few days, she realized she never wanted to see Bruce again. I don’t know if she did or not, I just know she was left with a scar across her wrist that I saw each time she held my hand. It was pale and curved like the whispery skeleton of a tiny fish.
Pat always wanted her career more than anything, or so she said. But men were a constant. She said she loved too much and lost herself. Years of therapy and groups and self-reflection healed her. I seem to remember the names of her psychiatrists — and the titles of plays she was in.
One bright Saturday afternoon in about 1956, after hearing that Fire Island, a beach community on Long Island, was the in spot for models and actors and guys in the ad industry, my mother took the ferry across from Bayshore to Ocean Beach. She must have been with a girlfriend, two gals on a weekend adventure, but she never named her accomplice. She sat inside the lower cabin,listening to the purr of the motor, until she could see the woodsy island in the distance. She walked up the stairs and parked herself next to my father, Jackson, 34, a handsome WW II vet, a Jewish advertising man, a lithe tennis player, who had a son from his previous marriage.
“Is this your first time on the island?” my father asked, moving closer to the woman he found so alluring.
He sat just close enough to smell the splurge of fancy perfume she’d bought with the last of her paycheck at Bonwit Teller.
“Whoever you are,” he said, “you smell like a dream.”