It you were to ask my father, a man of Jewish faith, raised in a strict Orthodox home, why he celebrated Christmas, this is how he would answer: “You can’t get away from it, what are you going to do, hide your head in the sand?” He didn’t voice resentment or personal humiliation celebrating Christmas. My father ignored regulations and conventions for a living. So a religious variance was no different. Half his associates were Jewish, and the other half were Italian. This may account for his interpretation of the Holidays.
In the first weeks of November, I would get a call asking to meet my father in Beverly Hills and pick out the holiday cards. The meeting began like this every year.
“Is that all you have to wear to go shopping?” he would say, examining my unmatched jeans and pull-over sweater.
“What’s wrong with this outfit?” I asked.
“For crying out loud! You look like a gypsy,” he said.
“After we finish here, go to Saks and pick out something for the holidays,” he said. “You can’t go to Arthur’s like that!”
Then I would follow behind him, twitching with scorn until we sat down to look through the sample books. First, we looked over the messages suited to both Jewish and Catholic faiths. Then we chose a card, a font style, a color, and then he began editing the message. It usually took several hours. He wore his thick reading glasses and studied each sample card. He asked the sales clerk many questions. I remember showing signs of waning interest, and then he’d take off his glasses, stare directly in my eyes, and say, “What is it Luellen? Am I asking too much of you again?”
“No,” I answered. He could feel my impatience with the assignment.
“Which color do you like?” he asked.
“I like the gold,” I said.
“We did gold last year, this year should be different,” he said.
Once he settled on all the details, he ordered 200 cards. It never occurred to me that he wanted my participation because I had something to offer. I thought he just wanted company. He could not stand to be alone during the holidays.
Once the cards were delivered, I was told to come over and help address the envelopes because he liked my handwriting. We sat on the same blue-and-green, crushed-velvet sofa he had since he moved into the Doheny Towers. While I crouched over the glass coffee table, he held his guarded black telephone book and watched me write out each envelope. He compared all the cards he had received from the previous year against his own list to avoid missing anyone. Sometimes I did not finish until after midnight, and left him sitting there studying and counting the envelopes. Every year, the completion of the cards was the event that signified the beginning of the holidays.
The next phone call would be to come over and wrap the Christmas presents. I failed in this category, and my sister took over. It was worse than the cards because if her wrapping was unsatisfactory, she had to do it all over.
The next ritual was the outfit, the one I would wear to Arthur’s Thanksgiving party. This had to be classic and colorful. He always said to avoid black because I should save that for when I’m older. He had to preview the outfit before, and if he disapproved, he would accompany me back to the store to select something else. Appearances were not everything he used to say; they were number one in making an impression.
All through my 20s, I had to maintain two wardrobes — one for him, and one for me. I’m still dressing one part Al Smiley’s daughter and one part Loulou.
On Thanksgiving Day, the tradition was to arrive at his home at noon to walk. Like the cards and the outfit, the walk wasn’t negotiable. It was part of my tutorial. We walked two hours along Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica. He walked with his head a notch above everyone else to diffuse any interference. People often greeted him, and he kept walking. If I asked who that was he would say, “A lot of people think they know me, just keep walking.” He walked with his eyes, as much as his legs. He walked with the intention of continuing to school me on human relationships — right down to meeting a stranger in the street.
“Now, be at my house at 3:00 sharp for Arthur’s,” he said.
“Same crowd going this year?” I asked.
“Why? Does the same crowd bore you?” he responded.
“No, I’m just asking,” I said.
“Well don’t ask silly questions. Arthur can have any crowd he wants, who the hell cares. He saved my life — many times. He asked us to be a part of his family, you should be grateful. One day you’ll figure it out. Not everyone gets invited to Arthur Crowley’s home,” he said.
Every year we were greeted by Arthur’s slightly tipsy blonde bombshell wife, who opened the front door and cooed, “Allen dawling, where have you been?” She kept us standing there as long as her routine lasted. My father said she was a showgirl. When I knew her, the shocking-pink, skintight outfits were outdated Vegas. She was Ziegfeld Follies beautiful, and always at least two scotches ahead of everyone else. My father wowed her with compliments that I could tell she needed desperately.
We headed to the bar, where the Crowley crowd was admiring Arthur, dressed in a black tuxedo with a red rose, and mixing cocktails. He beamed like a Christmas bulb. The home was Beverly Hills garish luxury: sunken living room facing the pool and heavily decorated with dead animals head, Arthur’s trophies, from big game hunting in Africa. I was informed the display was strictly for show.
At every party there were at least a handful of token celebrities, a comedian to keep the party alive, old clients who became friends, and mutual friends of my father. Dad was in control of the party. If someone dipped too far into obscenity or tasteless cynicism, he would close in with a subtle reprimand and remind them, “Careful, my daughters are here.” He was not a big drinker, but he held his glass up, as if he were, and I watched while all the others got drunk, and my father was the only one left with sober humor.
Each year, as I matured, the people became more transparent and likeable. There was one woman in particular I remember. A woman in her 50s with a face recently chiseled of time by a surgeon. She hovered over me with her diamond-encrusted hands on my shoulders, and unwound the lament of the rich, older, divorced woman. She was envious of my youth, my uncluttered life, my complexion, and my father. Mostly, she was disturbed by her loss of innocence; there was not any trace of it left. While I sat there, self-conscious of my inexperience and sheltered life, she symbolized a life of bad experiences, ones she could not take back, and ones that were mixed up in greed, power and money. I asked my father who she was, and he warned me to keep a distance. I tried to explain what I felt, but I did not know how. All these years later, I understand that woman.
Then there was the stainless scrubbed beauty who had been discovered in Hawaii and married a wealthy tycoon. She appeared in the Hawaii Five O series for a few years. She never spoke; she just sat on the bar stool, smoking and wore her clothes with ornamental style.
During the dinner at the formal dining table, all the guests ate with minimal appetites and talked with dragging dry tongues. After dinner, we returned to the bar for nightcaps. Gradually the cajoling and antics turned into literary chopped liver. I left the gathering and sat on the sofa with their young daughter, Princess. She was blonde and had skin as fair as albacore. She sat on my lap in silence and apprehension. I tried to influence her mood, but she just stared back at me, in the same manner I had with the divorced woman in diamonds.
The Crowley parties were dreaded every year — except when there were no more. Like my father once said, be thankful you are invited, and understand that they will not always be there.