Sunday, April 27, 2014

My friend and a friend of his named Irma. World War Two Medicine and the Hollywood crowd in Palm Springs.

Pharmacist Mate Patch
It started with a lunch conversation about World War II with an old friend, then got more complicated with a trip down to Palm Springs to duck out of the rain.  While there, a martini and steak at a place from the twenties called Melvyn’s, led to thinking about early golf courses in the desert and that turned into golf at a place that could be a museum.  That's why the forties and fifties are inhabiting my mind this week.

My friend had served in World War II as a young Pharmacist Mate in Beaumont, California, a few miles west of Palm Springs. Built as a hospital to serve George Patton’s Desert Warfare School, it had been turned over to the Navy as a convalescent center, mainly for people who had been seriously injured in combat or had been treated and needed physical and emotional rehabilitation and other services before discharge. There were many men there who had what the military used to call psychoneurosis, shell shock, or, as the military in 1944 preferred to say, “battle fatigue” and what we now tend to call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The military had thought it had learned a great deal from the psychological effects of combat during World War I and had used intense psychological screening to eliminate nearly a million and a half men from service in World War II. But World War II rates of battle fatigue were two to three times higher than in World War I. Nearly one in five soldiers returned to the continental United States because of emotional damage, overwhelming the psychiatric capabilities of US caregivers. World War I was fought in western Europe and the US forces were there for just a year. World War II was fought over four years, all across the world, sometimes with no time to recuperate physically and mentally. And, of course, better war technology made it more normal for people to break down. There were also far more prisoners of war in World War II.

The transfer of Beaumont from the Army to the Navy likely came about because Navy leadership was looking for resting stations to meet a widely

anticipated order that came in 1944 from President Roosevelt. The President had become upset that men were being discharged from the Army without the full array of care he believed was owed them. His order made it clear that
Beaumont Convalescent Center, 1944
every soldier needed to be put back right. No overseas casualty was to be discharged from the service until he had received ‘the maximum benefits of hospitalization and convalescent care including psychological rehabilitation, vocational guidance, pre-vocational training and re-socialization.’ Former Senator Bob Dole is a terrific example of this policy. He was a Second Lieutenant in 1944 and badly wounded in Sicily. He was not discharged from the Army's care until 1948.

The medical system built to support World War II is still astounding today. As described in a recent Rand Corporation history, the 1939 version of the United States Army had 190,000 soldiers supported medically by 1,100 doctors, 64 administrative personnel, almost 700 nurses and 9,400 enlisted men. Two years later, the Army had 1,500,000 people in uniform and there were more than 10,000 doctors and 5,500 nurses. In 1944, there are 8,000,000 army troops, 45,000 doctors, 40,000 nurses and 540,000 enlisted men.  How did they do that?

Over a similar period of time, the Navy troop strength grew from just over 200,000 people to 4,000,000 by VJ Day with a similar rise in medical caregivers.

At the same time, the Army had to address the President’s order and create systems that gave soldiers what their country owed them medically, psychiatricly and educationally. My friend Armand, then a kid of 19, was sent to a barren place called Beaumont, an empty hillside with leaky, spare, temporary buildings. Other facilities that served this function were much better. Some soldiers were sent to the Yosemite Park Lodge, the Hotel Casa Del Ray in Santa Cruz, the Narconian in Corona, California, the Arrowhead Resort in San Bernadino, the Sonoma Mission Inn at Boyes Springs and the El Mirador Hotel in Palm Springs, once a center for the Hollywood crowd who liked to come to the desert for the weather, among other things.

The wartime role of celebrities was largely morale and fundraising and most worked hard at it. Many stars found their way to combat, but most stuck to entertainment of the men and the sale of war bonds. War bonds were a good priority for the military. In three years between 1942 and 1945, Americans purchased $150 billion in war bonds, a major contribution to the cost of the war and much of it due to the celebrity of the sales people.

My friend was in Beaumont in 1945, the last year of its temporary life. Then, it was home to 250 people in convalescent care. He says that many people died there because of their significant injuries and illnesses. By the end of 1945 it was gone -- scrapped and sold off. A Rand Corporation history of the country’s military medicine was published in 2013 and is attached below. It shows, among many other things, that the dismantling of the war was as breathtaking as the run up to it.

At the time of the Japanese surrender in September of 1945, the Army, including the Army Air Force, stood at just over 8,000,000 men and women on active duty and another 4,000,000 in the Navy. By the end of the year, Army and Navy manpower was half of that. Six months later it stood at under 2,000,000.  By the end of 1947 the US Army strength was at 925,000 men and women and the Navy about 400,000.

At the same time, obligations of the military leadership shifted to the Veteran’s Administration. There were more than 16,000,000 World War II vets and another 2,000,000 veterans from other wars who needed the services that veterans need.

The Rand history says:

“To serve this flood, the VA had 97 hospitals in 45 states and the District of Columbia with a capacity of 81,333 beds, including 10,243 emergency beds…To augment this, work was underway on an additional 27,274 beds at 31 new hospitals with another 29,100 beds in planning. The VA employed approximately 65,000 people.”

Amid this cascade of activity as millions of people were moving about the country

figuring out what to do with the rest of their lives, Pharmacist Mate Armand Guarino, a native of Beverly, Massachusetts, decided to go to Los Angeles and look around, maybe catch a play.  He caught a ride to downtown Beaumont and stuck his thumb out where the highway from Palm Springs to LA shot through the town. Marie Wilson, an actress soon to be a star, pulled her little roadster to the side of the road and said "Hey, sailor!  Going to LA?"  She was 29.  He was 19.

He soon found out which play he was going to -- the review Marie was starring in, "Ken Murray's Blackouts," one of the longest running entertainments in theater history, was racking up nearly 4,000 performances over seven years.

Ken Murray's career had a half life of about one week when he coaxed some investors to bankroll an idea that came from his life in Vaudeville.  The blackout was a term that described the lights going out just as the performer delivered a punch line.  The term got a double meaning from the war, where blackouts had a totally fresh and immediate meaning. The show was naughty, sexy and sexist. And it was a smash hit.

Marie played the dumb blond, an idea she migrated to when she made a shrewd observation that to survive in show business, she had to distinguish herself from the hundreds of other attractive women in Hollywood who also possessed voluptuous bodies like hers.

She had a comedic temperament and played to that strength.  So while the dumb blond was a tough strategic decision to make, it was an easy one to implement. She wanted in the business and the cost of entry at the moment seemed small.  She ultimately found her place, smart as she was, and it both made and possessed her career.

In the show, Murray was the wry, cigar smoking commentator who would leer at Marie and lead the audience to Marie's breasts through the dialogue. Here’s an example of one scene on the show. Murray asks her “what’s new?” She would say that she had been reading a study about the advantages of using mothers’ milk over bottled milk. When prompted to tell what they advantages were, she’d reply:

"Well, it doesn't need refrigerating — the cats can't get at it — and, best of all, it comes in such cute containers."


Armand and Marie became pals. He’d come to LA and the doorman at the El Capitan Theater knew to let him in and he’d watch the show from the wings.

She was married then to her second husband, Allan Nixon, but living apart and seeking a divorce in 1945, something that required residency in Nevada, a complicating factor for a woman performing ten times a week in Los Angeles and trying to advance her career in movies. Nixon was a former Washington Redskins football player and sometime actor who sold gossip to rags like Photoplay and Confidential. He was also rough with his women and likely was with her.

She had friends in Palm Springs and would dash out to the desert when she could get away from the show. On the way, she’d pick up her little sailor and bring him along for the ride. He remembers particularly Ralph Bellamy at a Palm Springs party, the soon to be black listed writer Dalton Trumbo and his wife on a visit to Los Angeles. Over his year at Beaumont, he met the full Hollywood crowd that Marie Wilson knew. And the crowd loved young men in uniform.

“I don’t recall ever buying a drink while I was in the Navy,” he said. “And damned few meals.”

Once free from the “Blackouts of Hollywood,” Marie went on to real stardom

playing “My Friend Irma” on the radio starting in April of 1947. That role also also had a long run, seven years on radio and finally closing in 1954 as both a radio program and a television series, both strong ratings performers. They were the first films to feature Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, a night club act that needed national exposure and did pretty well with it.

There were two movies. “My Friend Irma” in 1949 and “My Friend Irma Goes West” in 1950. Marie plays Irma Peterson, a Minnesota native. Her roommate, Jane Stacy and Irma are young single women sharing an apartment and many misadventures with men. Jane is the narrator of Irma’s bewildering life as a secretary who can’t be fired because the filing system she has created is intelligible only to her. Natch, she has a deadbeat boyfriend who is trying to get rich quick and not commit to Irma. Jane, on the other hand, is sweet and smart, and on the edge of marrying a wealthy boyfriend.

“Irma, wouldn’t it be wonderful if I became Mrs. Richard Rheinlander the Third?”

“What good would that do if he has two other wives?”

Palm Springs has been synonymous with Hollywood since the earliest days of

the last century. The silent movies used Palm Springs backgrounds extensively for stars like Rudolf Valentino and Theda Bara. Clara Bow was a silent movie regular in Palm Springs.

In the thirties, forties and fifties, Palm Springs exploded in celebrity. Hollywood movie contracts at the time required actors to be available within two hours of notification by their producer that they were needed for some task. At eighty miles, Palm Springs was enough distance from LA's insanity and close enough to honor your contract, especially with the cars getting better and better roads built.

As the colony developed there, particularly around the Movie Colony District
Bob Hope's First Home in Palm Springs
out near the airport, homes were relatively modest. Bob Hope’s first home, built in 1936 and about 2,000 square feet, for example, sold for just under $500,000 in 2012.  

Taking into account that the Hollywood residents were young, talented and relatively well paid young men and women in the entertainment business, the lifestyle was relatively simple as well -- alcohol, sex, golf, tennis, horseback riding.  Sure they had great fun surfing the hotel bars, but they were mostly appreciated by the locals and were rarely hassled. Palm Springs was the kind of little town many of them were originally from, and they found a sense of community there, staging golf and bowling tournaments for their causes, most of them local. They cared for the soldiers and sailors like Armand who were thrown into their midst, some of them bewildered and terrified by combat and some, like Armand, off to Harvard, MIT, Tufts and a career in biochemistry.

While we were there, we spent a couple of nights at the bar of Melvyn’s, a

place with great forties and fifties cred and attached to the Ingleside Hotel, a small, elegant place built as a private estate in the late twenties for Henry Birge, the owner of the Pierce Arrow Company. It was later purchased by an energetic woman named Ruth Hardy and converted to a twenty room hotel. The hotel didn't take reservations unless the guests were invited by Ms. Hardy. It is there that Howard Hughes, registering as his pilot, spent several nights with Ava Gardner, by far my favorite celebrity, who also spent time in Palm Springs with Frank Sinatra, whose home, Twin Palms, she shared for a time.  Gloria Swanson's house was just down the street when the Ingleside was constructed.

Sorting out the relationships of the movie colony could be confusing. In Esther Williams’ Memoir, “Million Dollar Mermaid,” she describes a dinner event. Fernando Llamas comes in escorting two of Bandleader Artie Shaw’s ex-wives, Ava Gardner and Lana Turner.

"Ava and Lana were pals," Williams writes, "and Ava at this time was in the midst of her stormy marriage to Frank Sinatra.  About six years early, however, Lana had been labeled a "homewrecker over her involvement with Frank, when he was still married to his first wife, Nancy. Both Lana and Ava had been ardently pursued by Howard Hughes, and Lana had had a brief affair with Victor Mature.”

But what happened after that dinner reveals the tortured path of Hollywood Colony matrimony.

“Lana and Fernando broke up and she married Lex Barker after he divorced Arlene Dahl. Following his affair with Lana and Arlene’s divorce from Lex (likely for messing with Lana's daughter), Fernando married Arlene, who became the mother of his son, Lorenzo. Arlene eventually divorced Fernando and then 
he and I were married.”  It's really pretty simple, though it does require a focused mind.  

The state of Washington has numerous connections to Palm Springs, but the one that interests me most is the relationship developed by Monrad C. Wallgren, 
a former Washington state Congressman, Senator and Governor. An Everett optometrist and jeweler, Walgren was the ultimate joiner, very popular and a terrific athlete.  He was a low handicap golfer and a national class billiards player, winning the national amateur championship at the Everett Elks Hall in 1929.

He’s the only politician in the state's history to serve in the US House of Representatives, the US Senate and as Governor of the state. Despite the
The President and Wallgren at a parade in
Tacoma, 1948. Note Warren Magnuson
just above Truman's hat.
strong Republican tilt to the Second Congressional District, Wallgren was elected in 1932 and served four terms in the House. It was his bill that approved creation of the Olympic National Park in 1938. He was appointed United States Senator in 1940 after Senator Lewis Schwellenbach was picked to be a federal judge.  Wallgren's greatest accomplishment in the Senate was to become close friends with then Senator Harry Truman with whom he served on the committee investigating military contracts during the war.

After service in the Senate, Wallgren ran for governor in 1944 and beat the dour Arthur B. Langlie. Even though his friend Harry Truman’s great upset in 1948 had coattails across the country, Langlie turned the tables and defeated Wallgren that year. 

Immediately after the 48 upset, Wallgren was very prominent at the West

Palm Beach vacation White House and apparently with good reason. Truman appointed him Chairman of the National Security Resources Board, a very big
Senator Stuart Symington on Truman's right
and Wallgren to his left.  Palm Beach vacation
White House ten days after the 1948 upset.
A young Clark Clifford, the campaign manager, is
just behind Symington.
job then. Many considered it too big a job for someone whose qualifications were based on his friendship with Harry Truman. Also, it should be said, most southern democrats used the appointment to send a message to the President – 'moderate your civil rights agenda.'

After several months, the appointment seemed hopeless and Wallgren withdrew. Though a safer appointment to the Federal Power Commission followed, his political career was over.

The digging of dirt during the Republican effort to derail his nomination unearthed a charge that ended up with a Drew Pearson commentary, leaked by Washington Senator Harry Cain, a republican, that claimed Wallgren had won $50,000 in a crap game at a Palm Desert Resort named Shadow Mountain and was spending a lot of time in the desert.

While he did have a place there, Wallgren claimed the charge was specious.

His wife, Mabel, had sinus issues and the dry weather helped. Wallgren was certainly early to the desert.  I found an old newspaper that had a picture of the Wallgren house under construction. It is the only thing other than desert in the frame.

After reading this about Wallgren, I called and got a 2:30 tee time and drove out to his early course, Shadow Mountain, and enjoyed the scale of the forties and fifties development there. It is quite different from desert development now. The golf course layout, designed by professional golfer Gene Sarazen, is short but tricky. The greens are small, most sitting atop a sharply slopped mound, very hard to hold unless you can bounce it along the fairway and trickle the ball on.

The houses located around the course are modest as well. Low slung, 1200
Wallgren's former home in Palm Desert
square feet or less. It was created at a time when the income gap between the middle class and the upper class was relatively smaller. And developers played to the middle class. An Associated Press story in 1949 said the annual golf course membership fee was going to be $100/year and that the bungalows around the course were available at $10/night. The headline of the piece says “Desert Club Offers Loafing For Middle Class – and Millionaires.” Celebrities who invested in and joined there in 1949 included Bette Davis, Robert Montgomery, Edgar Bergen, Dick Powell, Harold Lloyd and Kay Kaiser. Two years ago, the course and neighborhood became the first designated Palm Desert Historical site.

Today’s club has its drawbacks, including its 8 to 5 hours, highly unusual in the golf world. I found Wallgren’s address, two blocks up the street, and walked over to check out the house. It is also modest in scale, even with what appears to be a significant addition.

When we got back from Wallgren’s old house, golf course staff were scurrying to close the gates at five. Walking back to our car near the now empty

clubhouse, I came upon a boulder with a bronze plaque on it near a poorly traveled corner of the building. I could barely make out the words.

In memory of Mon. C. Wallgren
Shadow Mountain Golf Club
July, 1959

They got the plaque on the rock just in time.
Walgreen was driving to Olympia in 1961 and had a flat tire at the southern edge of the Nisqually Bridge. A Fort Lewis soldier stopped to help out. The soldier was killed instantly when the drunk driver’s car plowed into them. Wallgren died two months later.

Marie Wilson also had a tragic death, too young, at 56, from cancer, never really breaking free of the caricature that made and stifled her career.

When Beaumont closed, the Navy sent Armand home to Beverly, Massachusetts and paid for his tuition when he got into Harvard University. It cost $400 a year. He retired as Dean of the Graduate School of the University of Texas Medical School at San Antonio and now lives in Port Townsend with his wife, Sally.


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