I thought I heard a whisper…

My grandmother Mitzi, date unknown. Born September 6, 1907 in St John, NB, Canada and died a day after her 91st birthday on September 7, 1998 in Los Angeles.

The ritual of the cake made it clear there was certainly affection and understanding between them. But had that come with time? Was it a place of comfort after many disappointments and disagreements? I will never know.

This photo of my grandmother Mitzi is undeniably stunning. I may be biased, but it ticks every box as far as glamor shots go. And what’s more it doesn’t look like it took a lot to capture it.

I’m convinced Mitzi sat down in front of the photographer, was told “Now turn your face toward me”; this vision appeared in their viewfinder – exactly what we are seeing now – and in an instant the camera went click! I imagine the photographer even held his or her breath, though I have no doubt that whoever took this photo had seen a lot of beautiful women through their lens.

But I don’t think this portrait was taken by either of MGM’s master photographers, Ruth Harriett Louise or Clarence Sinclair Bull, both of whom I have written about in HollywoodEssays.com. My main clue is what isn’t visible on this photo – neither photographers’ name is embossed in the bottom left hand corner of this print.

More than likely, this photo (one of series of five different poses) was taken by a staff photographer at Variety or Photoplay magazine. Perhaps the photographer is testing different film stock, lighting techniques, poses and so on.

Although she was clearly quite a catch – and if you were in the film business, you couldn’t do too badly marrying the niece of Louis B Mayer – Mitzi did not become a bride until she was in her middle 30s. I would love to know why, although I do remember it being mentioned that she did have a serious relationship with someone in the film business before she found my grandfather, Sol Baer Fielding, a talented artist who later became an MGM producer. I have no idea how they met, but Los Angeles was the land of milk and honey and the destination for many with big dreams. I assume my grandfather moved to LA to pursue larger opportunities for his art.

Years ago I read through dozens of letters Sol and Mitzi sent each other after their engagement when my grandfather returned to Denver during his mother’s serious illness and eventual death. Mitzi seemed not to get the drift that Sol’s return home meant the world to him and he wished to remain focused on his mother and brother and sister. Later he makes it crystal clear that he must stay true to his duties to grieve for his mother appropriately. But Mitzi pulls, Sol stands firm. She pushes, he repeats himself – sternly. Mitzi writes of parties and family gossip, while Sol writes of “sitting shiva”, the Jewish rituals that begin immediately after a loved one’s death and span for the first seven days but are fulfilled over 12 months.

I cried reading my grandfather’s letters – his grief is so intense, but I found myself getting angry reading my grandmother’s letters.

Ultimately, their correspondence shows two people running around the perimeter of a relationship and helps to explain why I never saw my grandparents as a unit. They were in each other’s orbit for decades but never seemed deeply connected.

Perhaps it is simply that Sol and Mitzi were polar opposites – she was a Hollywood girl used to a fairly edgy scene and the family business as her norm, and he had come from a hard-working lower middle-class family, his father a tailor, his brother an engineer. Sol had worked at the Denver Post – a place where the news from Hollywood must have seemed like it came from another planet. And Mitzi was from that planet, at Hollywood’s epicenter, where the news of stars and moguls emanated from.

But the convention of marriage must have been such a huge pull, and Popa was a loving and decent man. In the end, I suspect Mitzi threw in the towel and decided this was what she was “supposed to do”. Just like in her uncle’s movies she decided to marry the good guy, the hero and left the dashing, conflicted swashbuckler to swing off into the shadows.

Sadly, it would have taken a herculean effort to overcome this mismatch.

Fast forward 40 years, and by the late 80s, both were in the grip of chronic illness. Despite Mitzi’s diabetes, I think my grandfather habitually indulged her and found it difficult to say no. I remember so clearly the many times a waitress asked if we would be ordering dessert and Mitzi would shake her head. When the waitress looked at Sol, pen hovering over her pad, he always ordered a slice of black forest cake with all the trimmings of whipped cream and a cherry on top.

As I had never actually witnessed my grandfather “Popa” eat a sweet treat, I waited for that moment when he would surreptitiously push the plate of cake across the table until it sat in front of Mitzi, next to her black coffee. Mitzi always seemed genuinely surprised and responded with, “Sol, I’ll just have bite”. Next thing you know the plate would be empty except for a few last crumbs which Mitzi carefully picked up one by one with her index finger.

The ritual of the cake made it clear there was certainly affection and understanding between the them. But had that come with time? Was it a place of comfort after many disappointments and disagreements? I will never know.

Sol passed away six years before Mitzi, who was already stuck in the repeating fog of dementia so that hearing of Popa’s death was news every time.

Thinking of my grandparents’ lives in their later years makes me terribly sad. The stark reality is that each of their golden eras happened before they married and yet their relationship endured – for better or for worse.

This photo whispers of other potentials, of parallel worlds where the beauty that shines through this amazing portrait is what endures. But in reality, people don’t always marry their soul mate, we all get old and whispers can be so hard to hear.

Copyright Alicia Mayer 2012.

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5 comments

  1. Your grandmother looks glamorous and quite beautiful in the photograph. It is sad to hear about Sol’s dementia, a terrible condition that affects almost every family.

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