They’re All Dead

December 5, 2019 § 13 Comments

By Anthony J. Mohr

The woman at the gym combined a theatrical streak with a fun-filled manner, which matched what I wanted in a girlfriend. It was early 2004, and until recently, Jan had been married to one of the Dodgers. Finally, she agreed to have dinner with me. Until the entree arrived, we’d been talking about movies. Then, without warning, she asked, “Was your father an actor?”

“He was.”

“My aunt knew him,” Jan said.

“Who’s your aunt?” I asked.

When Jan told me, I dropped my fork. I’d met her aunt many times during the early 1960s, when I was in high school and her aunt and my father were having an affair. Eventually my father’s second wife learned about it, and once she did, Jan’s aunt and my father went to ground, still quietly seeing each other until my father died in 1968.

For years friends had urged me to write about my father, a character actor who’d played Philip Marlowe on the radio, appeared in dozens of TV Westerns, four Perry Masons, and movies ranging from Gilda to Guns, Girls, and Gangsters. But I balked. Following his death, I’d said almost nothing. That changed around 2000, when, slowly, I began to feature my father in essays. As I did, I wanted to connect with people in his life. A reunion with Jan’s aunt might have sorted out a lot. But that wouldn’t happen.

“My aunt died three months ago,” Jan said.

The aunt’s son agreed to sit down with me. I met him for a few minutes, but before we could arrange a long talk, he too died. I found myself chasing lives that, if not extinct, were fading fast, often just ahead of my phone call. I reached out to several of the leading ladies in my father’s campy movies. Peggy Castle, from Invasion USA (1952). Cathy O’Donnell from Terror in the Haunted House (1958). Both had died in the 1970s. Naura Hayden, my father’s love interest in The Angry Red Planet, had been single when she and my father made that 1959 sci-fi flick. Knowing my dad, I was sure they had coupled a few times. But she’d died, too.

I tried to get in touch with children of my father’s friends. One died just weeks before I tracked her down. An elementary school classmate whose dad had worked with mine met with me for an hour. We planned another get-together, but three months later, she was dead. I cried the day I learned, then cursed myself for being a slow writer. That’s also the moment I realized what happens if you wait until age seventy before starting a memoir. The people who can feed your recollections—they’re all dead.

I reached out to James Garner, star of Maverick. He was too sick to talk with me, and a couple of weeks after my phone call, he died. At least in his memoir The Garner Files, he praised my father as “the one I had the most fun working with on Maverick…He could tell a joke better than anyone, and he had a bunch of them. Never repeated himself. And he was a pro.”

Without people who can help me remember, I’ve turned to archives, press clips, school yearbooks, old newspapers, and, fortunately, the few contacts still alive. I’ve worked my memory like a bodybuilder bulking up. Anything that nurtures it, I’ve tried. Thinking in the dark. Staring at photos. Playing forgotten songs. Driving by a house. Plunging deep into Google. Eating children’s foods (Remember the Sugar Daddy? — “Lasts an hour or more…only costs a nickel”). Occasionally I’ve speculated about what a departed person would say, careful not to present my imagination as truth. Sometimes I’ve had to refocus an essay, narrowing it to what I know is factual.

At least I was lucky with Jan. Thanks to her aunt and my dad, we now call each other “cousin.” I just wish her aunt had lived to share some of her remembrances.

At a recent writing conference, an eighty-year-old started reminiscing about, of all things, the mules on her family’s farm—their names, colorings, and other details. I was losing interest until she snapped me back to attention by boasting that now, with everyone who knew her gone, “I’m free to say anything.” I hoped she was joking. The absence of guides on the road to the past hasn’t emboldened me. It’s made me nervous, because I crave recollections and corrections to strengthen my work.

At that same writers’ conference, a speaker advised memoirists, “hold off on interviewing until you’re ready.”

Not a good idea.

I recommend doing instead what they taught me when I practiced law: find witnesses as fast as possible and preserve their testimony. Witnesses have a habit of forgetting things, leaving the country, or dropping dead.

In other words, hurry up, or you’ll be too late.

To younger would-be memoirists: save your school newspapers, your homework assignments, your report cards. Save your parents’ letters, save your social media photos, save everything. Your parents, roommates, and spouses may label you eccentric thanks to all that stuff in your closet. Ignore them. Eventually you’ll be rewarded with striking details on the page.


Anthony J. Mohr’s work has appeared in, among other places, DIAGRAM, Eclectica, Hippocampus Magazine, North Dakota Quarterly, Saint Ann’s Review, Superstition Review, War, Literature & The Arts, and ZYZZYVA. He has been anthologized in California Prose Directory (2013), Golden State (2017), and elsewhere. His work has received five Pushcart Prize nominations. Once upon a time, he was a member of the LA Connection, an improv theater group.

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§ 13 Responses to They’re All Dead

  • Morgan Baker says:

    Really interesting. Can’t believe all the dead ends. Enjoyed this.

  • Karen says:

    Powerful tale. I’m glad you find some in time! I think about this when I chat with my 84 year old father, trying not to let on how much I need him to quickly tell me everything.

  • I started by memoir in my 60s but didn’t finish until my 70s. I’m sure I would have been able to contact with more people who could’ve validated my memories but by then so many had died. Frankly, I don’t think I could have rushed the process. One of my writing insturctor said writing a book “takes as long as it takes.” Simple but true.

  • napoleonomama says:

    Well crafted essay with strong moral to
    always be mining for information!

  • Thank you for emphasizing the need for truth! I have been alarmed ever since reading one person’s opinion that the “creative” in creative nonfiction meant a writer was free to make things up.

  • Stacy E. Holden says:

    Wow!!! This is fascinating and fanastic. Good advice!

  • Oh boy do I resonate to this… I had the same experience trying to UNDERSTAND and write about my mother. By the time I got my act in gear her brothers had died and so had anyone who’d known her growing up. So frustrating. Yes, I agree, don’t wait. Not sure I can get onboard with “save everything,” though. The good news is there are archives if the person you’re interested in learning about had any kind of public persona, as did your dad. The private side can’t be found in keepsakes.

  • ninagaby says:

    I’ve been writing about the unique characters in my village, put off actually interviewing people until it was far too late- about nine neighbors have died recently and several others vamoosed, and let’s be honest, not all of them would have spoken with me given the Hatfield-McCoy vibe in our neighborhood anyway. But my procrastination has gotten in the way. On the other hand, I have saved everything, much to the chagrin of family who will have to clean it all up, and there is a richness in all that. (Glad you finally paid attention to what the 80 year old was saying…..) Great post!

  • Craig Veals says:

    Wonderfully evocative and entertaining essay, Tony. Just promise me that if you ever consider contacting me as a historical source, look somewhere else! 😧

  • Art Ulene says:

    Tony…….. One of my kids has been begging me (for months) to start writing down some of my memories and early stories. I’ve put it off (for a variety of reasons–mostly laziness— but thanks to your message, I’m going to start doing it now. Thanks for getting me started. Best wishes to you. Please do NOT respond to this message. At 83, I’m about to go skiing today. Don’t want anything to interfere with that (or with the 6.7 years of life expectancy that SSA has predicted for me. (Just kidding.) Best wishes…….. ART

  • June Hargrove says:

    Immediately engaging and strong story line to the end. Wonderful pacing.

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