30 – Points of Departure

New York? Columbia University? Jazz clubs?

What has this got to do with Aideen again?

Wasn’t she an Abbey actress? Didn’t she end up in Hollywood?

If you’re confused and need to figure out this connection again – how I got from there to here and why I’m en route to Harlem – then don’t worry. I also realised I needed to recap, and when I doubled back to find a recognisable landmark, I found this:

Sierra Bonita Avenue - Christine Shields
Sierra Bonita Avenue – Christine Shields

Looking out the window at the stormy sky and the sea of mud that is the NUIG campus, the heat coming off this photograph is the only thing keeping me warm. This is Sierra Bonita Avenue, Aideen’s home in California. And that is Christine, her daughter. The upstairs window on the left (just visible) is the room she slept in until she left for college. Christine was carried in that front door in her crib in late 1946 after her early arrival. The house was full. That September, Boss’s son from his first marriage (Adam) had come to the US to live with his father and in November, Bid (Boss’s sister) and her daughter Una also arrived to help the new mother. Despite the company, Aideen was unwell. She was drinking heavily, melancholy and pining for her husband, who was spending much of his time travelling for work.

One day in January 1947, Aideen stayed sober to chronicle her day and sleepless night with the newborn for her husband, who was staying at the Hotel Algonquin in New York city The Shields’ had a ‘Green Room’, a dark, shaded room in the centre of the ground floor with walls of books; it was where Aideen would spend her last days. Her typewriter was there on a desk with her writing materials.

The letter began:


Everything under control. Re-read your yesterday letters and will answer any questions.

Weary, sober and lonely, the day unravels and memories of her glamorous past soon become overpowering.

That walk you described taking made me nostalgic. Somehow the Edison – the Lincoln – the Paramount etc are very full of all sorts of memories – Elbert and Frolie [ …] – Dossie and Delany – Eddie Choate – […] – and of course you and me. Nice memories and pretty bad ones too.

So, Elbert and Frolie: Elbert is Elbert Wickes or, affectionately, ‘Smilo’. He was the dashing, cigar-smoking Boston businessman who saved the fate of the Abbey Company in the United States. When Fred Higgins couldn’t leave the New York hotel room he’d filled with scripts and piles of paperwork because of ‘his nerves’, Elbert went with them on the train to the west coast. He was also a divorced (separated?) Mormon, and he was very much in love with Frolie.

The press shot kept by Elbert Wickes in his business files ...
The press shot kept by Elbert Wickes in his business files …

Frolie Mulhern was the dark comedienne who learnt to dance The Big Apple with Aideen in the Edison before her mother and siblings closed ranks on their Ailesbury Road home.

Mulherns' Home - Ailesbury Rd

The Mulherns got wind of her romance in America, and refused to let her leave Ireland again. Do you remember how I fell asleep in the 103 degree heat in Claremont University, musing about whether she died in front of the fire at this house (above) from a broken heart at the age of thirty-two? That was here: Finding Frolie in Claremont

Dossie was Udolphus Wright – Abbey director/stage manager and Delany was Maureen Delany – the actress on the list of suspects that I wrote about here.

Eddie Choate was a friend from a different time. The good memories of New York are easy to find in the archives. The ‘pretty bad ones’ all relate to 1939. When Aideen and Arthur fled Ireland to appear in a doomed production of Kindred, theatrical agent Choate became a lifeline, practically and emotionally. Arthur Shields was hospitalised with TB and subsequently left for a sanatorium in California, leaving Aideen behind. One day she left in the morning for rehearsals for Grey Farm, a Terence Rattigan play, but returned a few hours later to her room in the Whitby Building on West 45th Street. She was furious, upset and confused, having being sacked from the production with no payment for the weeks of rehearsals she’d already attended.

The Whitby was built as a residential hotel, complete with bellhops, a barber shop, maid service, a shoe repair stand and even Christmas parties in the lobby. During the depression, it was converted into small studios units, almost all of which were populated by theatre people.Looking out a window of the ten-storey building, she was still close enough to see the lights of the theatre district, but Aideen wanted to go home. The problem was, she no longer had a home in Ireland. Two friends offered comfort: Iris Whitney, actress wife of Eddie, and Broadway composer Kay Swift. With a loan of money from Eddie Choate and a letter of support for an immigration visa from Kay, she had to make plans for a new life.

Kay had sympathy for the deserted actress; her life was similarly in turmoil. Her three daughters still lived with her divorced husband, and Gershwin, her lover, had died suddenly two years earlier. During the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Kay (the Director of Light Music for the festival) met and fell in love with a rodeo cowboy ten years her younger. Yes, I did say a rodeo cowboy. As weary with the pace of New York as Aideen was, she eloped and set up home on his ranch in Oregon. There she wrote a book about adjusting to her new life, a thinly-veiled autobiography entitled Who Could Ask For Anything More?


It is Kay Swift (now Hubbard) that brings us back to Sierra Bonita Avenue in the mid 1940s, to the sun-soaked Hollywood hills. For if you could peer around the corner into the backyard, you may see the two women in summer dresses, iced cocktail in hand, with Lucky (Aideen’s cat) watching from the shade of the windowsill as they celebrate the end of the war.

Sierra Bonita Ave Front Porch

The Hollywood studios want to make Who Could Ask For Anything More? into a film. Swift could have splashed out on a hotel, but took the opportunity to catch up with old friends and Aideen got to show off her new house. Not yet pregnant, Aideen is spending her free time at the Hollywood YMCA, playing tennis and getting involved in parish activities.

Sitting in that garden, toes bared on the grass as they make plans for an evening meal in Musso Franks, they’re both a little older, a little wiser. Aideen is newly-married, eager to start a family. Kay has recently had two miscarriages but is still enthusiastic about having a family in Oregon. They joke about their ‘emotional problems in pants’: Kay’s shorthand for men. They prefer to talk about the future than reflect on those difficult, grey days when news of World War 2 loomed over Manhattan like an acid cloud and trouble confronted them every way they turned. But I need to go back there.

Swift, like Aideen, was a prolific letter writer and I’m hoping that the stash of her correspondence in a New York library will share more about her friendship with Aideen. As always with this work, there’s no way of telling – But I’ve a sense that even if she didn’t write specifically about Aideen, there’ll be much to learn about her life in 1930s New York.

And who knew? But the New York Public Library also offers a few boxes of archives from the Abbey Theatre, including correspondence from Ria Mooney. So I’m going to swing by there, if only to write for a few hours in the beautiful building.

One final preparation I’m making – out of superstition. If you happen to be in Dublin airport around the time I leave and you see a massive manuscript sticking out of a bin, please leave it there. It’s my tribute to Ria Mooney.

According to Val Mulkerns, in the early 1960s Ria had to take a transatlantic flight. Before leaving, she ran into an old friend — a dejected writer who told her that he couldn’t find a publisher for his new novel. Always a warm, generous, supportive friend Mooney insisted on taking it with her to New York, adamant she could find an agent there. Until the airport staff weighed her baggage and told her to ditch half the weight. He would never know; she dumped the heavy manuscript in the nearest bin and kept her shoes and make-up.

The writer was Flann O’Brien. The manuscript was for a book entitled The Third Policeman.

Surely it’s worth a try.

And on the superstition front, it’s also the anniversary of Kay Swift’s death tomorrow – January 28th.

Who could ask for anything more? 

2 comments on “30 – Points of Departure

  1. Lovely writing.

  2. Love it. Looking forward to hearing about your adventures in New York.XXX

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