One day when I was about 14 my father decided he needed to tell me a story about Mae Clarke’s pubic hair. According to my father, I was 14 and coming of age, and stories like this were important for me. They were part of becoming a man. So my father piled me into his 1949 Studebaker—a car he kept not because he liked it but because my mother didn’t and we went for a ride.
My father’s drives were a lot like my father’s moods—they were impulsive, almost autistic in their focus. He decided he wanted something, or wanted to do something and that was his complete focus until he got that thing.
Once it was salt-water taffy from the boardwalk in Atlantic City. It would start simply enough. “When I was a kid,” my father might say, “me, Herbie and Peacock used to hitchhike to Atlantic City and try to meet girls.” (This was the Atlantic City of the early 1940s—a lower middle class beach resort about an hour’s drive from Philadelphia where my father lived.) Twenty minutes later my father might say, “Damn, I loved the salt-water taffy they used to sell in those little shops along the boardwalk.” At dinner that night, after finishing his meal, he might belch, “You know what would cap off a meal like this one? Salt-water taffy.”
Then, the next morning he was still at it. “You know,” he might say “the salt-water taffy they sell around here is terrible. No flavor.” An hour later, he might turn to me and say, “I bet you never even had real Atlantic City salt-water taffy. Never had real salt-water taffy.” An hour after that he might utter, “Store-bought salt-water taffy is just like plastic. Not the real thing.” A little while after that it was, “It’s a tragedy, not having real salt-water taffy." Before long we’d wind up in his Studebaker, heading down to Atlantic City at 80 mph for salt-water taffy.
With him it was never a yen or a hankering. It was an obsession. Which of course brings me to my father and Mae Clarke’s pubic hair.
Clarke was a 1930s vamp, a putative film actress, the poor man’s “it” girl. Her most famous role was in “Public Enemy,” when she’s shacked up with Jimmy Cagney and Cagney violently pushes a half-grapefruit in her face. But even in that role, Clarke was uncredited. I guess you could say that even though the grapefruit scene made her somewhat iconic, Clarke never really crashed the big time.
By the time Clarke reached her 30s, she still got work, but bit parts and no film credits. Toward the end of her career she had a small part in the TV show “F Troop.” I guess that qualifies as bottoming out.
Like my father, Clarke was born in Philadelphia. Her real name was Violet Mary Klotz and I guess you can safely say she never really transcended her Klotzness. Despite looking pretty good in a tight sateen flapper-style gown and having had some critical success, she was really never anything but two-bit. She never became the star she wanted to be.
By the time my father started cavorting with women—say when he was around 18, Clarke was already crowding 40 and the bloom was off her rose. She had already been married and divorced three times and was spending less time in Hollywood as Mae Clarke and more time back in Philadelphia as the former Violet Mary Klotz.
My father starting dating Clarke around then. It wasn’t really dating to hear him tell it, because all they really did was schtup. That was the word my father used, schtup. “We’d schtup for hours,” he’d tell me, “have breakfast in bed the next morning, then schtup some more. Then I’d run off to school or to work and maybe not see her again for a month or so.”
There aren’t many 18 year olds who can be discreet when they’re schtupping anyone—much less a woman who used to be something of a film siren. My father couldn’t help but brag to all his friends that he was Mae Clarke’s gigolo. “Mae who?” they would ask, and my father would reply, “The blonde with Jimmy Cagney and the grapefruit in Public Enemy.” He’d then, to hear him tell it, break into his purported dead-on Cagney, “You know, I wish you was a wishing well. So I could tie a bucket to youse and sink ya.” And then he’d pantomime the smash.
At this point in my father’s story his Studebaker had just about reached the corner of Broad and Walnut in Center City Philadelphia. The Bellevue-Stratford stood there, still a few years before it became notorious for something called “legionnaire’s disease.”
“The last time Violet and I were together was right here. This was a grand place, a palace,” my father told me. “She said to me, I want you should always remember me and she gave me a sealed small blue envelope. It was too small for money—which I wouldn’t have taken anyway. I stuffed it in the inside pocket of my jacket and ran off to school without even opening it. I was late for class, and was more worried about getting there on time than the envelope. I always figured I’d see her again.”
My father pulled his Studebaker to a stop in front of the old hotel. Next to all the newer cars it looked old, beaten. “You know back in the 30s, the sex goddess of her day, Jean Harlow died suddenly when she was still in her twenties. Kidney failure or something. She was the original platinum blonde. More than anything else, Violet wanted to be Jean Harlow—Jean was the star in “Public Enemy.” The one Jimmy Cagney dumped her for.
“Now there were always rumors about Jean, gossip I guess. How she put ice cubes on her nipples before she’d shoot a scene. Or how she never wore panties. Or how she dyed her pubic hair platinum. Some pretty nasty ones about the number of lovers she had. And after she died, how she had given one of her lover's, some gangster, a lock of her pubic hair. That’s what Violet had given me. A lock of her pubic hair tied up with a violet grosgrain ribbon.”
We drove in silence pretty much the rest of the way home. My father was talked out. Me afraid to say anything.
When we reached our block it was already late. My father shut off the engine of the Studebaker to “let her coast home.” “Your mother,” he told me “found Mae’s gift in my wallet about fifteen years ago. She never said anything to me. Never asked about it. She just threw it out.”
He got out of the car, slammed shut the door and went up the walk. I sat there for a good twenty minutes in the dark.