Saturday, September 29, 2012

Two Excellent Storytellers

I'm visiting home for the weekend, and had waiting for me two books by two men I've admired for a long, long time and who turned out to be wonderful storytellers.

The first book is called Forerunners Courageous: Stories of Frontier Florida, written by LeRoy Collins, subject of my last post, and published in 1971.  In the book I mentioned in that post, Martin A. Dyckman's Floridian of His Century: The Courage of Governor LeRoy Collins, Dyckman quotes a poem called "Growing Up," which Collins wrote.  It treats of his youth in Tallahassee, a small Southern town, and how the things he saw around him affected him.  In that poem, we see the seed of the governor and the man he became.  It's a wonderful poem, and I had to read the entire thing, which is why I bought Forerunners Courageous.

I would have to say that Forerunners Courageous is to LeRoy Collins what Profiles in Courage was to John F. Kennedy.  Each book gave a glimpse into the man, into what each valued, the common denominator of which was courage.

Collins's genteel, gentle sense of humor comes through as well, in the parts that are originally his.  Much of the book consists in his retelling of old Florida tales such as the duel between Leigh Read and Augustus Alston, a tragic story of the consequences of taking the law into one's own hands.  But there is a great deal of himself, in his own words and thoughts, in the chapter titled "Reflections of a Part-Time Beachcomber."  That title refers to his summer home on the Gulf of Mexico which, during his governorship, provided a refuge from the towering problems he had to deal with, a place to think and reflect.  The chapter includes the poem, "Growing Up," and prose musings as well.  The last part of the book is devoted to the life and family of one of Florida's territorial governors, Richard Keith Call.  Collins's wife Mary was a Call, a direct descendant of the territorial governor.  The chapter weaves its story within a framework that centers upon The Grove, a mansion in Tallahassee, next door to the present governor's mansion, and which was the seat of the Call family.  In fact, when Collins became governor, the governor's mansion was in such terrible condition that Collins and his family lived at The Grove, which Mary had inherited.  The old governor's mansion was eventually torn down, and a new one built on the same lot.

Reading this book, and having read Dyckman's biography, I am glad that I have admired LeRoy Collins, and glad that I did have that chance on one balmy day in Tallahassee to meet him and talk with him for a brief time.  I like thinking men, and I like LeRoy Collins.

I also like handsome men, and to my eyes one of the handsomest of the 20th century was Robert Stack (though LeRoy Collins was no slouch in that department, either!).  Robert Stack is most famous for being the host of Unsolved Mysteries and also for his role in the 1959-1963 series The Untouchables, in which he portrayed fictional exploits of a very real historical character, Prohibition agent Eliot Ness.    Stack is the author of the autobiography Straight Shooting (1980), a title which refers not only to his direct style of speaking but also to his career as a champion skeet shooter.  He held many records during his lifetime, and taught famous actors such as Clark Gable, how to shoot.

Robert Stack likewise reveals his sense of humor in these pages -- a sense of humor a good deal more earthy and bawdy than that of LeRoy Collins!  That sense of humor is more often than not directed at himself, as he tells stories of Hollywood during the heyday of the studio system.  Robert Stack grew up in Hollywood, second son of a wealthy, socially-prominent family of old Californians.  Many of the lights in the Hollywood firmament were family friends, including Carole Lombard, the beautiful actress who died tragically in an airplane crash.  She was 13-year-old Robert's first crush.

Alex Haley once wrote, "An old person dying is like a library burning."  Robert Stack grew up in Hollywood, knew many of the famous and not-so-famous, and when he left this life early in this century, he took with him massive volumes of Hollywood lore.  Some of that is preserved in these pages.  He was not an elitist, from what he tells us.  He hung around with mechanics and stablemen and other "common" people, and seems to have gotten along with all of them.  (In that, he reminds me of my husband, who can carry on great conversations with millionaires or mechanics, and have a great time doing it.)

Robert Stack's wife, Rosemarie Bowe, an actress and model, has a chapter in the book as well, and it is as funny and engaging as her husband's chapters are.  Her sense of humor about herself shows that they were a good match for each other.  She was a gorgeous lady, and a very lucky one, from where I'm sitting!  (Though I have my own good luck, too.)

I love books that can make me laugh out loud, or say, "Oh, my gosh!" or even bring a tear.  These two books are lively and full of the love of life, poignant in places, and revealing of two very human and humane men.  They are highly recommended.

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