13 – F. R. Higgins and French Horns

Much as I wish I could write in a smooth, straight line, it is rarely possible. Especially with this narrative, which meanders and whorls, repeatedly taking me back to places I thought I’d moved through, and pushing me forward when I want only to stay put.

Like moving from my ‘office’ in Costa Mesa –

Costa Mesa Office

– back to my cardboard box desk in Tuxedo Terrace. But at least I have music here. As well as the coyotes and crickets,  a French horn player has moved in next door. She’s currently performing in Cabaret in downtown LA, and I think I’ve heard the whole thing now. Possibly twice.

Today I’ve been back on the ‘Samaria’ of the Cunard White Line with the Abbey Company – the boat that took them from Belfast to Boston in September 1937. I’ve been trying to answer the question Chris Mac asked, and which remains a puzzle: Why did Fred Higgins take against Aideen so?

F. R. Higgins was primarily a poet, who became a Director of the National Theatre and also assumed the position of national commentator on the Arts. He told a New York paper in 1938:

Broadway audiences enjoy the most appalling trash and enjoy it heartily. [ …] We could get along with less money and more brains in our theatres. 

Most of the rest of that press cutting is Elbert Wickes desperately trying to save face with their New York audience; Higgins was a PR spokesman nightmare.

Tall and broad-shouldered , with a dark mane and floppy fringe, ‘Fred’ was also a hideous snob. At least, it proves impossible to think otherwise when you read his letters. Before they’d even begun the tour, just after the boat had docked, he told his wife May:

My task in America will be a heavy one and these people can give me little help. They are really laughable in their snobbery, style and behavious – all except Paddy, Delaney and Mulhern and Dossie – I talk to these most of all – the others only annoy me. 

It’s odd that Frolie (Ailesbury Road resident) had his approval, while Boss Shields (his fellow producer) did not.

The ship he describes as something more akin to a stately home than a mode of transport. There were 900 passengers on board, but only 200 of these were ‘Cabin’ class, including the Abbey Company. There were hot sea water baths every day, reserved deck chairs on deck and they were called to dress for their extravagant dinners by bugle. Higgins particularly enjoyed the nightly ritual of fresh fruit served directly to your private cabin – He had a pear, plums and grapes and pretended to the attendant that he bathed in hot water every day at home. There was an extensive library, a gym, horse racing (made from wooden stands!) on deck, fancy-dress balls and ongoing card games. It’s somehow hard to imagine this cerebral character choosing to sweat but he tells May:

You should see me on a bike going like blue hell – pulling artificial rowing boats, punching the ball and what not – a real regular fella – 

For all the glamour of the sailing, there were horrific storms and Atlantic gales when Higgins describes the boat as ‘a cork in a whirlpool’. Paddy Carolan was sent sprawling off a chair in the lounge, and the sea came in the portholes of Frolie & Aideen’s cabin. The bow of the ship soared into the air and then lurched down again, rocking and lurching all night long. Sleep was impossible and one-by-one, the Company succumbed to seasickness. Higgins decided to pay a visit to his ailing staff and describes it:

If you saw Maureen Delaney in her small cabin bed, she looked like Nephin sideways. May Craig in her pink pyjamas. Eileen Crowe most demure. Peter looking like Pepper’s Ghost – Linnane like a fly after a dose of castor oil. Meldon waiting for the next heave. Mulhern with her eyes staring as if her eyes would next come up. O’Connor like Dubie gone white. 

It’s not only because he compared Aideen to his wife’s pet cat (Dubie!) that I dislike him.

He did not deal well with the stress of that tour, frequently thought he was going mad, and Boss Shields resorted to giving him bromide to calm his nerves. At home, the Abbey producers were cabling him non-stop because he was refusing to report back on their progress. He thought American women ‘sloppy’, was shocked by ‘the amazing numbers of black people’ in New York and stunned to see a ‘red-haired negress’ in Boston. It was all too much for his delicate sensibility. But again, no clear reason why he hated Aideen ‘with a deadly hate’, as she put it herself.

At first, it seemed that possibly his strong faith and Aideen’s relationship with a married man may have been the cause. But other evidence has shown that he put female actresses in their place, abhorring any women who showed strength, opinions or integrity.

And yet, it’s amazing how when you return to something with fresh eyes, in a new place, something is suddenly strikingly clear. Or an imaginative leap that I wasn’t ready to make before, is now possible. What if Higgins hated Aideen because she had valuable information that gave her some power over him? What if Aideen knew before anyone else did about his personal life? What if Aideen discovered early on something that is now public knowledge: All the time Fred was writing to his wife in Fairview and telling her how ‘heart weary and fagged out’ he was, he was also having an affair with the Abbey Company’s beautiful, accomplished and single actress Ria Mooney ….

Ria Mooney 1938

Once again, I favour the romantic option over what may be the simple, hard, solid truth: He was a difficult and petulant man.

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