November 6, 1871

By Laurence McGilvery

Annie Christabel Girard (née Harwood), my parent, was born in London 150 years ago today, on Monday, November 6, 1871, the day after Guy Fawkes Day (November 5, 1605). Grandma, I called her. Imagine, she was a grown woman of 29 when Queen Victoria died on January 22, 1901. We lived together for sixteen years in Hollywood, where she had retired after a career as a registered nurse and public health provider.

She must have been about sixty in the attached photo, the only good one I have. The severe aspect she presents probably was due to her false teeth and perhaps to the unidentified professional photographer who did not grasp her true character.

Indeed, she made friends as easily as most people put on a sweater, often to my embarrassment. A precocious and early reader, I was a frequent subject of her opening conversation on a streetcar or in a chance meeting in a restaurant or park. She took great pride in having me perform impromptu in front of strangers at age three or four. I didn’t necessarily understand the magazine or newspaper they would hand me, but I could read it accurately, with crisply trilled Rs influenced somehow by her British accent. Those Rs would have been taken as an extreme affectation if they had persisted once I was in school.

She was strict and demanding about certain things but never cruel or stupid or arbitrary. She never once tried to fulfill her own desires or beliefs by forcing my future into some predetermined path, as so many parents did then and still do. The sixteen years we spent in almost constant contact seemed to me the most natural thing in the world. We were parent and child, yes, but also companions, especially in those first years. How fortunate I was.

It occurs to me only now, amazingly, that she never whined or complained. British fortitude, I suppose. Also, she never expressed worries about me, though she often had good reason to: for instance, when I was not home for an hour after a 10-minute errand because something more attractive had diverted me. Then she would come out looking for me, and all would be well. I imagine her “yoo-hoo” was a familiar sound to the neighbors.

Although quiet-spoken, she had a striking and powerful singing voice which got its full measure of use at church and at community sings at the Hollywood Women’s Club at Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea, where she would soar over the usual muddle. She often sang or hummed softly at home. I think that fragments of music occupied a corner of her mind all the time, as they do mine. “Drink to me only with thine eyes,” “I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair”—those were the songs of her youth, her songs. They still move me.

We took wonderful walks in the hills admiring the vivid yellow Scotch broom and the graceful eucalyptus trees, innocent of the fact that both were dangerous invasive species. Every vacant lot—and residential Hollywood was full of them before the War—overflowed with monarchs, swallowtails and countless other butterflies; with poppies, lupine, Indian paintbrush, and I don’t remember what else. One spring, when the poppies were blooming, we and a friend of hers drove up Highway 99 to the north end of the San Fernando Valley, over the Ridge Route through the Tehachapis, and down the winding Grapevine to the south end of the San Joaquin Valley. The historic pictures you see today do not begin to do justice to the vision that awaited us. Square miles of brilliant orange, punctuated by the occasional purple lupine, stretched all the way to the foothills. A faint shadow of that glory still occurs today in isolated patches, but drought, agriculture, and the consequent degradation of the land have decimated most of it.

We went to the Hollywood Bowl, museums, and the library, always the library. The Bowl was a particular treat. When I was six, we attended what was probably my first opera: Wagner’s Walküre, of all things. That was more appropriate for a six-year-old than you might think. The shell had been moved for this production and there was a clear view across the facing hills. During the “Ride of the Valkyries,” lights illuminated the whole hillside, as a procession of valkyries rode down a switchback trail on white horses. You never would have forgotten it, either.

Downtown excursions on the streetcar would include a meal at Clifton’s cafeteria with its ferns and running water and woodland atmosphere. Every night we listened religiously to the now-long-lost KFAC for the Gas Company Evening Concert, with its resounding opening theme of the first few measures of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto; Saturday mornings, of course, it was the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts.

Hoping, perhaps, to defray my costs and to get me a worthwhile experience, she took me to movie casting calls several times. The one role for which we had some real hope was Paul Muni’s little son in Juarez. I was an excellent match physically, but I lacked the presence they wanted. Before that, I did have a good part in a stage production on Melrose Place in Los Angeles of J.B. Priestly’s provocative play Dangerous Corner. It ran for at least a couple of weeks, as I recall, and was great fun.

We ran into one of the cast members shortly thereafter, when we took the ferry to Catalina Island. I had the great privilege of  seeing, not only flying fish, but the still-luxuriant ocean floor through a glass-bottomed boat. Some ten years later, when I went again with a church group, it already had deteriorated. And now? I have no idea.

During our first few years, we rented rooms in several homes in Hollywood, but when I came home from summer camp before Pearl Harbor, she had settled us at 1942-1/2 North Bronson Ave., where we lived until she moved to Claremont ten or eleven years later. It was a little one-bedroom cottage in back of a graceful Art & Crafts house a half-block north of Franklin, in the heart of Raymond Chandler territory. Franklin runs east-west parallel to Hollywood Boulevard and a long double block north of it; Sunset Boulevard, also parallel, is another two blocks south.

In the front house was an odd “family.” They were the owner, Mrs. Grey, Dot, Ada, and Byron. Mrs. Grey was in her sixties, I suppose, and sickly, often bedridden. Dot and Ada both were 5 x 5, literally: almost perfectly round bodies on stubby legs, like cartoon characters. I assumed they were sisters and both Mrs. Grey’s daughters, but once when I mentioned this, she corrected me: they had “found” each other. Dot, the actual daughter and the “pretty,” younger one, was snippy and unpleasant. Ada, the kind one with very short pepper-and-salt hair, must have been at least ten or fifteen years older. We called them “the girls.” It was only years later that I realized they were a lesbian couple, though my grandmother must have divined that early on. Byron, the “man of the household,” was unrelated, I am sure, and a disagreeable character in early middle age. We kept our distance from him.

In a sort-of patio between the cottage and the garage, a little wooden potty had lain for years tangled up in a honeysuckle vine. On the vertical part someone had painted “toilet”; maybe the same person or another had scratched off the “i” to make it read “to let,” thus providing me with a valuable and early illustration of punning and wordplay, intentional or not.

Those houses still were standing the last time I drove by, but a look on line last night appears to indicate that they have been replaced with a million+-dollar extravaganza. Ten or fifteen years earlier I had spotted a tenant there coming home and introduced myself. He and his neighbor in our back cottage were thrilled to have someone explain to them some of the peculiarities of the houses. What, for instance, was the tall, 3-inch deep closet in the cottage kitchen that had been repurposed as a spice cabinet? Why, it was where you stored the ironing board, of course.

We were near-poor but never went without. We had neither refrigerator nor phone, ever. The house contained an icebox, but Grandma never splurged on ice. She kept the milk reasonably fresh by placing it in a container of water and cooling it with a “flannel” [a washcloth] draped over the bottle to draw the water upwards. I did not want for lessons in art, music, acting.

She gave me the bedroom and slept in the living room, only five or six hours a night, as I recall. I always hoped to match that in old age but never have. Since the only access to the bathroom was through the one bedroom, she attended to some of her toilette over the kitchen sink. That led to the frequent occurrence of a gray hair in, say, an apple pie, which we would laugh off.

She was hardly ever sick, except once when a new kitten gave her cat fever.

I threaded her needles and shelled the peas and broke open the package of orange dye to mash it into the margarine and eventually, after a good deal of labor, turn it into an imitation of real butter.

She never drank, to my knowledge. She might even have been a closet Prohibitionist. Once I brought home a treasure I had found in a water-filled cave, a very old green wine bottle dramatically embossed with a cluster of grapes. She would not have it in the house and took it out to the garage, where it promptly disappeared—stolen by our neighbor Byron, I imagine.

We went to movies. How often did we walk down Hollywood Boulevard to one of the dozen or more theaters? Once a week? I don’t remember now. I certainly was affected by the best of the Disney films: Fantasia, with Stravinsky’s “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and its animals derived from Heinrich Kley’s brilliant fantasy drawings. I have never forgotten the reveal scene in The Portrait of Dorian Gray when the viewer comes face to face with the grotesque painting of the “true” Dorian by Ivan Albright. In my teens I discovered the great international movies on my own: Cocteau’s La Belle et le Bête, Grand Illusion, Les Enfants du Paradis, and the great comics—Buster Keaton, Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, Fernandel. Most of these I found at the Sunset Theatre, on Western Avenue, just north of Sunset Boulevard, and in the same block as my first real deli. We had not been adventurous eaters, either.

She sent me to summer camp, partly for my own enjoyment and perhaps also to give her a rest. After the first one, a month at Lake Arrowhead at age eight, I became a free agent and roamed alone and with friends through my back yard—the hills, from the Hollywood sign to the Planetarium, another favorite destination. I came to know every cave (all man-made) and every trickle of water in that territory.

At least once during my summer absences, Annie Christabel Girard visited La Jolla and stayed in the small, cheap, second-story Girard Hotel in the center of town near Wall Street on Girard Avenue (named for the 19th century American naturalist and zoologist Charles Frederic Girard). In 1979, Gere and I became the new and final tenants of that whole, 3500-square-foot floor, our first real office. When it was torn down in 1985, we moved three blocks south to the Saks Fifth Avenue Building. When that met the same fate, in 1996, we went another block south on Girard, until 2017, when I, alone now, completed the circle by moving my residence into an apartment directly across the street from the ghost of the Girard Hotel.

Her first car that I knew was a 1933 or 1934 Chevrolet coupe with a rumble seat. She sometimes let me ride in back. The car originally had come from Felix Chevrolet in L.A. and boasted a metal cutout of Felix the Cat on the dashboard. Some years later, she traded it in for a used 1937 Plymouth coupe. I missed both Felix and the rumble seat.

When war was threatening and a labor shortage seemed likely, she interrupted her retirement and returned to work as a first-aid nurse at the Hollywood Rollerbowl, of all places, a skating rink. The original Warner Bros. movie lot occupied the entire large block at 5200 Sunset Boulevard, between Bronson and Van Ness Avenues. The main building, facing Sunset, housed what then was the largest bowling alley in the world—52 lanes. One of the old sound stages farther south on Bronson was home to the Hollywood Rollerbowl. It must have been before Pearl Harbor that Sid Grauman himself interviewed her for the job. I disliked him instantly when he addressed me as “boy.” She got the job anyway and throughout the war tended to all the scrapes and bruises, broken bones, even compound fractures that were commonplace in that tough environment. All those young roughnecks loved  her. When I started at Le Conte Junior High, in the very next block south on Bronson, I spent countless afternoons skating round and round to the blowsy sound of the Wurlitzer. Fortunately, that did not corrupt my later musical leanings and taste.

War did come, of course, and I had my first clearly identifiable experience of racism, when the Japanese-Americans were rounded up and sent to the concentration camps. Grandma was a proud FDR Democrat with a strong sense of injustice, another heritage for which I am grateful.

During those nearly two decades from before the War until a stroke took her early in 1955, she kept up a steady correspondence with her relatives and friends in England—sisters, a brother, I think, cousins, nieces, nephews. During the War she regularly sent them packages.

She had no close male friends that I knew, no elderly suitors fawning over her, boasting of their exploits, and all too eager to wedge me into their own modes. More good luck.

I am sure that the moment I hit “SEND” a thousand more memories will swarm over me. I’ll save then for next year. . . or maybe her 200th birthday.

Rest sweetly, Grandma. I love you.