It took me almost a fortnight to compose the last paragraph of my extended piece on Aideen O’Connor for my MA in Writing portfolio. How could I express the truth of events without inadvertently expressing my dismay and hurt? In a non-fiction essay for an academic course, there was no room for personal sentiments. Eventually, I simply recorded the facts:
When he died in 1970, Arthur Shields was buried in Deans Grange cemetery in Dublin, beside his brother and life-long best friend Barry Fitzgerald. Aideen is buried alone in Holy Cross cemetery, Culver City, California.
In Holy Cross cemetery on Friday morning, Christine Shields sent me back to her car for tissues and water. The tissues were not for tears. As we both got down on our hands and knees to scrub the stone that marks her mother’s grave, I remembered the difficulty of that composition. My tears at the grave were no longer dismay and hurt, but real delight that the name ‘Aideen O’Connor’ was on the grave stone. [The kind lady in the office had been adamant there was no mention of ‘Aideen’, that she was buried as Una Shields. Indignant fury flared.] And she is not alone, in the desolate cemetery my over-active imagination had conjured up.
Holy Cross cemetery is just off the 405 Freeway on Slauson Avenue, but it’s an immense park of immaculately-kept, green sloping hills dotted with low trees. The skyscapers of downtown LA are visible, when the smog burns off and the sun comes out. As soon as you come through the wrought-iron gates, the first thing you see is the towering crucifix at the peak of the hill. There is a colossal cream building in the centre of the park, more reminiscent of a stylish apartment block than a church, but as we parked the car we could hear the low, droning intonations of a funeral ceremony being broadcast via speaker to the people gathered on the outside balcony. The area is so large that there are printed maps everywhere, showing the sections of plots, the roads and the ponds. Before we’d found out anything, I put my finger on the ‘Sacred Heart’ section and knew she was buried there. I was right.
Christine has been trying for years to find out why her mother is buried here, and without any proof we both have surmised that it was partly down to her confessor, Fr. Coglen, who wouldn’t have wanted her buried in the other Catholic cemetery in West LA (because it was dominated by Mexicans) and partly down to the fact that somebody else had purchased a plot here. Aideen’s grave is no more than a lengthy stride from that of Abbey actress Sara Allgood. Thirty-three years her senior, Sara lost both her husband and her only daughter while on tour with the Abbey Theatre in Australia (to a flu epidemic). She settled in LA and became a friend and a confidante of Aideen’s, and was also Christine’s godmother. She died in September 1950, two months after Aideen, and so her goddaughter knows nothing of her except her films.
Christine is not religious. She gave up catholicism in her early twenties, despite the dousings of holy water from her Aunt Eileen (Aideen’s sister) whenever she visited Ireland. But there’s no doubt she’s spiritual. In a matter-of-fact tone, she told me that she doesn’t ever need to visit the grave because her mother is always with her.
The very last question I had scrawled on my list of queries for Christine was: ‘was she spiritual?’ Aideen’s life was so against everything the nuns in Muckross had taught her, it never occurred to me that she retained her faith. But she did; I’ve now seen photos of her wearing a miraculous medal and heard about her friendship with Fr. Coglen. Maybe she supported Boss’s decision not to divorce his first wife, but to wait for Bazie to die. And when the doctors couldn’t persuade her to stop drinking, perhaps the Church tried. Christine has a strange memory of being brought to Sunday school by her mother, and being left to play in a quiet corner of a room of toys while other children read the bible. It was a once-off experience, but the memory made no sense to her. She later learnt from her aunt that Aideen had ‘fallen out’ with the parish priest and had taken a brief foray into Protestantism! We can only guess what the parish priest may have said or done to enrage Aideen so …
Our trip to the Selznick studios in Culver City, where Aideen rehearsed with the film actress Geraldine Fitzgerald in 1941 was less emotional than the graveside and less successful. In July of that year, Aideen was offered a part in a play titled ‘The Last Duchess’. She worked out that on the day the play opened in New York, she’d have nine days left on her Visa, and determined that Equity wouldn’t be able to stop her performing. They started rehearsing; Aideen getting the tram to the Selznick studios where Geraldine (Fitzgerald) was filming, under contract to Werners and then trying to find a taxi home at 1.30 or 2am. Taxis were notoriously scarce because of the gas rationing. They rehearsed like mad but Aideen was thrilled to be working again. Then after a few short weeks, Equity stepped in and agents got involved. The second week of August, Aideen was told she wasn’t needed anymore, as she couldn’t do the part. She was devastated. It was another blow to her confidence that she really didn’t need. Alone back in their new apartment in North Cherokee, there was little to occupy her except alcohol. Soon after, she broke her wrist in an accident that has never been fully explained.
Christine is quite the private investigator (not surprisingly, given her career) and in the last year I’ve talked myself into some bizarre situations, but neither of us were any match for the security guard of what is now ‘Culver City studios’ but was once ‘Selznick’s studios’. The dark, burly guard turned the car around so fast I couldn’t even get a photograph of the lot; most of which was blocked by massive trucks. Despite their super-friendly website, they’re lying about the back-stage tours and the studio archives. The film industry here can be brutal to sensitive Irish girls.
Despite that disappointment, Christine insisted that this day was something to be celebrated and there was only one place that was suitable: Musso and Franks on Hollywood Boulevard. Aideen’s journals show this was her favourite dining spot with Boss, where they had breakfast or lunch on weekends that he wasn’t working, and also where they celebrated her 28th birthday – the first birthday she spent in Hollywood. After her mother’s death, Christine was taken to sit in the red-leather booths on special occasions, on condition that she was well-behaved for the waiters in their bowties and red tuxedo jackets and that she was careful with the red and white bone china. The surrounding area is not as salubrious as it once was, (Christine’s apt description: funky), and the plain, old-fashioned entrance is discreet and easily missed, but in the dim, cool interior both the waiters and the china remain! We toasted Aideen and had the dessert Boss always ordered for a well-behaved Christine: one scoop of vanilla ice-cream in a glass bowl.
Christine has shared so much with me, with such generosity, that it seemed only right to share with her my temporary home in Silver Lake. Hamilton Way also just happens to be within stumbling distance of the best Margaritas in Los Angeles in a place called El Conquistador. There, she continued to enthrall both JJ and I with tales of the past, and of her own career in San Francisco. (I’m taking the stories of the past – check out JJ’s upcoming screenplays for the dramatic plots of Christine’s work in San Francisco!) In true Irish fashion, the night ended over tea and chocolate at our kitchen table.
SO, before I head for Claremont and switch focus a little to Elbert Wickes and Frolie, there is one more thing I need to do. Something that definitely wasn’t on the research agenda I compiled in Dublin. Tomorrow I’m going to mass in the Church of St. Ambrose on Fairfax Avenue, to see if there are any traces of the devout Aideen I’ve only just encountered …