Saturday, August 29, 2009

1911 Mercedes in front of Melton home

1911 Mercedes in Woodstock, Vermont

1911 Mercedes

A few days ago, Tim Martin of Rutland, Vermont alerted me to an antique car meet in Woodstock, Vermont.  Unfortunately, I was unable to get over there.  He sent me photos of two cars previously owned by my father, a 1911 Mercedes and a 1908 Packard. I found a photo of the Mercedes parked in front of my parents' house in Weston, Connecticut (no date on the photo). My father noted in his book about car collecting, Bright Wheels Rolling, that the 1911 Mercedes had water-cooled brakes as well as a water-cooled engine.

Thanks to Tim for the current photos.  I'm looking for an archival photo of the Packard, and will post it when I find it.  Tim is a member of the Packard Club (

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Cuban Adventure

With all the recent talk about Congress planning to lift travel restrictions to Cuba, I got to thinking about my own trip there in February 1957, when I was eleven. My father was engaged to sing for a month at the Hotel Nacional in Havana. My mother and I joined him for the last week of his stay there.


Built in 1930, the hotel looked like a Spanish castle, with gleaming tile floors, high ceilings and pots of tropical plants in the corridors. (I learned just this week that it was designed by McKim, Mead & White to look like The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida.) It stood on a hill at the center of the curving shore.  To the left, the severely modern U.S. Embassy building thrust its gleaming glass and steel toward the sky.  To the right, toward the city, stood the ancient fortress, Moro Castle. Cuba was under a dictatorship. Order and prosperity seemed in place, but communist insurgents were even then organizing in the Sierra Maestra hills for the revolution that would bring Fidel Castro to power. I have several vivid memories about our 1957 trip. Here’s one of them:


One day my family decided to go for a ride in the country.  As we were driving through what was obviously one of the more prosperous neighborhoods outside Havana, the car started to make a knocking noise. My father, being a collector of antique cars, was very sensitive to the slightest strange sound emanating from any internal combustion engine.  He pulled over and stopped the car.  We were immediately surrounded by half a dozen militiamen with automatic rifles pointing in our direction.  Always cool in moments of crisis, my father tried joking with the men – then he started to put up the hood to indicate that we had car trouble.  He was stopped by the barrel of a gun.  Switching to Spanish, which he had learned easily for this trip (given his opera-cultivated facility for languages) he got serious, asking what was wrong, what had we done, what they wanted us do.  One of the men jerked his head in the direction of a house, hidden behind typically Spanish ornate wrought-iron gates and masses of bougainvilla.  "Batista mama!"  he spat out.  So that was it!  We had chosen to check our engine noise directly in front of the home of the mother of dictator Fulgencio Batista.  My father decided to take a chance with the engine noise, rather than with the armed guards, and they let us drive away.  This was two years before the Cuban Revolution, but believe me, the undercurrents were there, and even I, as an eleven year old, could feel them.

Interestingly, in my extensive archives there are no photographs from my father's engagement in Cuba ...

Sunday, August 16, 2009

James Melton as Lt. Pinkerton (1938)

My Love of Opera

I was too young to have heard my father in opera at the Met, or any other opera house for that matter.  But he frequently included operatic selections in his concerts and broadcasts, and over the years I acquired a taste for opera.  He always set the scene vividly before singing.  I could feel Mimi’s cold little hand as she searches for her key in “La Boheme,” or see Cavardossi’s shaking hand as he writes his farewell letter to Tosca. I could visualize the faithless Pinkerton bidding “Adio” to his Japanese bride in Madama Butterfly

Attending my first Metropolitan opera, at seventeen, two years after my father’s death, was a little like going to a Shakespeare play.  Suddenly I could see how all those familiar quotes (or in this case arias) fit into the whole story. My father’s close friend and head of the Met’s press office, Francis Robinson, invited my mother and me to be his guests for lunch at the Grand Tier restaurant and for a performance of Madama Butterfly.  During the intermission, we were invited backstage to Francis’s office, where we were welcomed like celebrities ourselves, and shared a glass of champagne with Mrs. Douglas MacArthur.  What a day!  I was well and truly hooked on opera from then on.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Whenever I Pick Blueberries I Think of Helen Keller

It's blueberry season in Vermont and whenever I pick blueberries I think of Helen Keller.

The Meltons lived on a 40-acre hilltop gentleman's farm in Weston, Connecticut for the first eight years of my life. We had an apple orchard, grape arbor, and a variety of fruit trees and bushes -- blueberries amongst them--as well as a large vegetable garden. We considered Helen Keller and her companion, Polly Thompson, our neighbors, although their home in Easton was about 15 miles from ours in Weston. Helen and Polly came annually in mid-summer for a day of blueberry picking.

Helen's magnetism radiated so that even our dignified German shepherd, Caesar, usually slow to make friends, sat at her feet accepting loving pats. It had somehow been explained to me, age three, that Helen would "see" me through her hands -- not to be afraid, but just to stand still and quiet while Helen touched my face, my hands, my hair. I remember standing there awed while this large shadow in slacks with a huge sun hat bent down to meet me. Afterwards she said through Polly: "Beautiful! Slender, pretty, lovely hair."

Then she and Polly and our dog would go off for the berries, while my mother prepared a lunch of freshly picked corn on the cob and hamburgers cooked to order on the outdoor stone grill. Someone would ring the big old Navy bell on the back porch to call everyone to chow. Afterwards, Helen loved to wander through the vegetable garden, gently touching the sun-warmed tomatoes, bell peppers, squash. They resumed their berry picking in the afternoon.

My logical mind now wonders: How did she know which ones were ripe? Was her touch so delicate that only the ripes ones fell into the bucket on a string around her neck? Or did she simply pick everything for someone else to sort out later? Or didn't it matter? Was it the sun and activity and a meal with friends that were the only important thing?

More about the Meltons and Helen Keller in a later post.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Lebendige Vergangenheit: James Melton

A couple of years ago an Austrian recording company came out with a wonderful CD. It's all opera and classical, with such arias as Oh Image Angel-Like and Fair (from "The Magic Flute," in which my father made his 1942 Metropolitan Opera debut) and the Adio from "Madama Butterfly" (my personal favorite).

You can buy the CD on e-bay or Amazon, but the best deal is $5.99 through Berkshire Record Outlet (; BRO code # 139012 for this CD).  

I hasten to add that I had nothing to do with producing this CD, nor do I gain anything from it financially.  But I enjoyed it and thought you would too.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Car That Started it All

Recently I heard from Michael White of Bridgewater, Massachusetts.  He is the new owner of the 1910 White Touring Car that started the obsession that resulted in the James Melton Collection. (The JM Collection numbered 110 automobiles when he sold the contents of his museum to Winthrop Rockefeller in 1960). 

My father’s obsession began with a small boy's promise to himself.  As a youngster back in the tiny town of Citra, Florida James Melton took pride in polishing the brass of his Uncle Charles's handsome 1910 White Touring Car.  As my father said, "That White was the finest car ever made.  Uncle Charles always said so.  He’d drive over from Micanopy every Sunday to visit our family.  I’d polish it, I’d pump up the tires, I’d do just about anything to get a ride in that car. I always wanted one.  Always said, some day I would have one." There rarely was such a thing as wishful thinking in his life—if he wished for it, he usually made it happen.

 My father bought his first White in 1935.  After soliciting help from Robert Black, president of the White Motor Car Company, he finally found a duplicate of Uncle Charles’s car. It was drivable, but in pretty tough shape. A White mechanic drove it to New York. When my father's “new” 1910 White Touring Car sped over the Pulaski Skyway, bound for New York City, from its long-time hideaway in Clarence Zahner’s barn in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, a motorcycle policeman pulled over the dilapidated vehicle for speeding.

It was beautiful only to my father, for in the dingy, rusty vehicle, he saw his Uncle Charles's brazen red beauty.  He fussed with the car for months.  First a new paint job, then new leather and authentic accessories. She was a spirited creature, brass lamps catching the sun, her scarlet coat and cream spokes dancing down the road.  He drove it in the 1937 Easter Parade down Fifth Avenue in NYC. with fellow radio singers Jessica Dragonette and Lanny Ross as his passengers.  He managed to stall it right in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, eliciting cries of “Get a horse!” from the crowd. But they applauded wildly when he got it going again, and of course the incident made the papers next day. The publicity it drew caused people from all over the country to write him offering cars for sale. He had his longed-for White, and that was enough, or so he thought.

And NOW look at her!  Isn’t she gorgeous?