Therefore, I was delighted when my path crossed that of Moraga Resident, Larry Swindell, and learned that he had authored five biographies of some of those giants of the early cinema that I had come to love so passionately. He told the life stories of Spencer Tracy, John Garfield, Carole Lombard, Gary Cooper, and Charles Boyer.
One of Larry’s most impressive gifts is his ability to retain facts. Talking to him is like accessing a database, because if you ask him, for example, who won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1939, there will be a brief pause, just as though you had entered the question in a Google search field, and then he will come back, Gone With the Wind. That is fairly easy, but if you asked him for 1938 winner. “You Can’t Take It With You,” he will say. Larry admitted that on more than one occasion, people would dismiss him as “a damn know-it-all” because of his ability to remember details and facts that slipped by other people, and by the fact that he is never wrong.
Larry said that in 1966, when Ronald Reagan was seeking the Republican nomination for governor of California, he challenged Reagan to a contest and told him, “I can name more movies that you have starred in than you can.” Reagan took him up on the challenge, and lost. Won hands down, in fact. Larry passed his knowledge and learning down to others through his books and by stints as an instructor, at one time or another, in five different colleges.
Larry graciously allowed me to interview him about his memories of those days, and during the course of our conversation I realized that in some ways his life was as colorful as the lives of the stars that he had documented. Here are some of the interesting and often intriguing details of his amazing life.
RUBBING ELBOWS WITH THE STARS
Larry Swindell was born in 1929 in Quanah, Texas. He became hooked on movies as a child. There were two movie theaters in his little town, one of them showing major release films each evening and the other showing “B” movies in Saturday afternoon matinees. Larry went to both of them. He had more than the childish interest in movies that his schoolmates shared. Larry was fascinated by the cinema experience — waiting with keen anticipation for the movies to begin and then spending each minute in happy enjoyment during the shows. Larry said that he loved adventure films and for many years considered Mickey Rooney’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to be his all time favorite show.
The same year that Huckleberry Finn was released, life for young Larry changed dramatically. His parents lost their farm to the Dust Bowl. His dad did odd jobs for a few years and then made an exploratory trip to California during which he came to agree with the sentiments of the theme song from Beverly Hillbillies: “California is the place you ought to be.” The family arrived in Los Angeles on December 31, 1939. It was the end of an old life and the beginning of a new one.
They moved to West Los Angeles, and Larry said that it took him a while to realize that his home was in a pocket between the upscale communities of Westwood and Brentwood, and within an easy bike ride of Santa Monica, Hollywood, and Beverly Hills. In other words, he was surrounded by the homes of the bright and beautiful people of the day. He attended University High School, which became the alma mater of more students destined to become entertainment icons than any other educational institution on earth. The locals referred to one district in Larry’s area, Sawtelle, as “the poor man’s pocket.” Sawtelle was the birthplace of a girl named Norma Jeane Baker who was a familiar face around the area. He and Norma Jeane would sometimes end up at a swimming pool that she loved to go to and where she had earned the nickname “Queen of the Plunge.” Norma Jeane went on to fame and glory in the movie industry under her stage name, Marilyn Monroe.
Professional baseball was Larry’s other passion, and his two areas of intense interest would come together when he went to Gillmore Field to watch the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League play and would often see famous movie stars sitting in the stands with him. On a number of occasions he would see my favorite actress, Carole Lombard, sitting with Clark Gable in Gable’s private box. Larry said that he was sitting near the famous couple and remembers Lombard shouting encouragement at the team’s catcher, Cliff Dapper. Gable held himself in cold reserve and apparently didn’t share Lombard’s enthusiasm for the game or the player. Even though Lombard was the highest paid Hollywood star of her generation, Larry said that at the time he wasn’t smitten by her, but was fascinated by the fact that he was in the presence of a famous movie star. In January 1942 Lombard was killed in a plane crash while on a mission for our country, selling war bonds, and Larry said that the whole nation seemed to go into mourning.
One of the most interesting encounters Larry had with a movie star involved Spencer Tracy. Larry had scored some box seats at an L.A. Dodgers game from a friend who was in the Dodgers organization and found that his box adjoined one that was occupied by Spencer Tracy and Kathryn Hepburn. Larry said that he and the famous couple were, in effect, sitting side-by-side. Larry pretended to be indifferent to the presence of the two stars but became aware that Tracy kept looking at him. Finally, Tracy reached over and grabbed Larry’s arm. “Goddamn it!” he said in a loud voice. “Where have I seen you before?”
Even though Larry has a wonderful recollection of people and faces, he was astounded by the question. Fifteen years earlier, he had been taking a course in Motion Picture History and was assigned as a term project to study an actor who had been on both stage and screen. The head of the Theater Department in UCLA, a man named Ralph Freud, arranged for Larry to interview Spencer Tracy at the Metro Golden Meyer studio in Culver City where Tracy and Kathryn Hepburn were shooting a movie, Pat And Mike. For whatever reason, Tracy came storming into the meeting room and furiously asserted that the interview had been scheduled without his approval and refused to cooperate. “You can write about me after I am dead,” he said, as he stormed out of the room. Larry changed the subject of his interview to a great actor of that generation, Fredric March.
So 15 years later, when Tracy asked Larry where he had seen him before, Larry was absolutely astonished because the failed interview had occurred when Larry was 22 years old and he was now 37 with a waistline that had fleshed out and a hairline that had retreated. Finally, Larry answered the question, “I came to interview you once and it didn’t go well.”
Tracy’s response was amazing. “Kate!” he shouted at Hepburn. “This is the wonderful boy that I told you about.” He died the next year, which was Larry’s 38th birthday. His comment about Larry writing about him after he was dead turned out to be prescient, because the first of the five biographies that Larry eventually wrote, was about Tracy.
HIS OWN LOVE STORY
An event that foreshadowed an important part of Larry Swindell’s life occurred when he was ten years old. The family had just arrived in California from the Dust Bowl, and they were on their first trip to a California grocery store when he attempted to come to the aide of a little girl, named Patricia Ann Volder, who had fallen on her roller skates, hurt herself, and began to cry. He tried to help her up, but she pushed him away. “She is independent,” he thought. More than five decades passed before he married Pat and said that he never found anything to bring into question the accuracy of that first impression.
Larry and Pat ended up in the same fifth grade class. The two of them would go to the local public library together. They were both avid readers and would check out the maximum ten books at a time, and would read them all. Their friendship lasted through high school and into UCLA.
During the Korean War, when Larry was drafted into the Army, he and Pat fell out of touch and embarked on a separation that would last for 45 years. Larry tried during his military hitch to get in touch with Pat but didn’t have her contact information. A mutual friend once sent him a clipping of her modeling for Saks Fifth Avenue, but there was no information about where she lived.
Nine months before their 50th high school reunion, Larry got Pat’s address through the reunion’s distribution list and wrote her a letter. Their destiny nearly took a wrong turn, because Pat had decided she wasn’t going to attend the reunion, but then was talked into going by a friend. They both struck some sparks. “She was white-haired and glamorous,” Larry recalled. “I was enraptured at the moment of our meeting.” They began a renewed friendship that was warm to start with and grew even warmer in spite of the distance that separated them.
Larry lived in Texas, Pat in Walnut Creek, so they pursued their budding relationship remotely by letter and phone, with occasional times together at various rendezvous points. They shared a love for travel and would sometimes meet in Europe and at other times in places throughout the United States. At the end of one of these encounters, following a tour of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, the two of them were sitting together on a bench in the Santa Fe airport as Larry was waiting on stand-by for a flight back to Texas. He suddenly popped the question, “What would you think of us getting married and me joining you in California?”
“I think that’s something to think about,” Pat replied. They courted for a year. The wedding was continually postponed by the necessity of finding a date when their children would all be free and able to gather for the happy event. Larry and Pat were married in 1999 at the Moraga Country Club.
After all the years of separation, they both agreed that God had brought them together.
Larry’s passion for movies hasn’t diminished. The Rheem Theatre is a charming old movie hall hidden in the Moraga hills. Derek Semprac refurbished and remodeled the theater. The Moraga Movers organization wanted to start showing classic films. The manager didn’t know what a classic film was, so Larry gave him a list of 100, and was invited to give a short address before each one. They are currently meeting on the third Wednesday of each month. (For more information, call 925-388-0751, 925-388-0752, or go to www.thenewrheemtheatre.com.)
I can’t wait to go back. And I will.