Wednesday, October 28, 2009

War Bonds and "Willie"

James Cagney and James Melton—1943

I'm sure my mother saved metal for bombers and fat for explosives just as other patriotic housewives did. Like many people during the war, my parents had a victory garden where they grew vegetables and fruit for home use. Unlike most people, however, they also had a full-time gardener to tend it. Robert was diabetic, and so exempt from military service. He not only took care of the vegetable garden, but tended the apple trees, blueberry bushes and grape arbor. I imagine he also took care of the chickens and Willie the lamb. Ah, Willie! Goodness knows what prompted my parents to this experiment in animal husbandry. They evidently didn't know the first rule of farming: don't name something you intend to eat. When Willie was finally turned into chops for the freezer, even though he was mixed in with a batch purchased from Gristede's, no one wanted to eat lamb for months on the chance it might be you-know-who.

Clearly, the Meltons' greatest contribution to the war effort was in terms of fund raising, whether it was my mother serving on volunteer relief committees, or my father lending his talents to raise money for War Bonds. War Bonds were U.S. Savings Bonds sold to the public to help finance the war. By the end of World War II, 85 million Americans had invested in War Bonds. These bonds provided not only financial security for the bondholders but allowed members of the public to contribute to national defense in time of war.

In 1943 my father sang at an old-timers baseball game at the Polo Grounds to raise money for War Bonds. Irving Berlin, Ethel Merman, James Cagney, Milton Berle, former New York Mayor Jimmie Walker participated, but Babe Ruth stole the show with a home run.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

James Melton aids the war effort

My father's expanding collection of antique cars posed a serious problem during the war when the scrap metal drive was at its height and gasoline rationing was in effect. Convinced that as antiques the cars would be of greater advantage to America as working models of the early days of the automotive industry, than if they were melted down to produce ammunition and ordnance, he succeeded in getting an exemption from the federal government.

The July 27, 1942, issue of Life magazine carried a three-page photo spread prematurely headlined “Melton's Antique Autos Will Go in a Connecticut Museum.” (The museum in Norwalk didn't actually open until 1949.) That issue of the magazine also carried less upbeat stories, covering Atlantic convoys, the Battle of Midway, and the possibility of a second front in Europe. Nearly all the ads relate to the war effort: General Electric—“First Win the War,” Studebaker Airplane Engines—“From the Highways of Peace to the Skyways of War,” even Camel Cigarettes—“When Bombers are Your Business, You Want Steady Nerves.”

There's also a two-page announcement from the War Production Board “An Emergency Statement to the People of the United States” concerning the desperate need for scrap metal. A few months later, in a publicity event to announce New York City’s reorganized scrap metal collection plan, there were some unusual sources of victory salvage. This included 600 pounds of steel “thunder balls” formerly used to create Wagnerian din (before the invention of an electrical thunder machine) from the Metropolitan Opera, half a ton of old musical instruments from Carnegie Hall’s basement, and a 1919 Packard limousine donated by James Melton. The photo above shows my father donating some old tires, but the car pictured is a Ford, not the Packard limo. I don't know the story behind that.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Rolls-Royce Memories

Some years ago when I was doing research for my book,  I received a letter from a man named Roger Morrison, who was the current owner of my father's custom-made 1952 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith.  My father's car collection wasn't all "old" cars—there were some classic cars—a 1932 Chrysler, a 1949 Daimler, and an experimental 2-seater Raymond Loewy-designed Packard given to him by the car company (more about which in a later post), as well as the modern Rolls.  I remember my father describing being measured for the driver's seat as one would be measured for a suit. Such was Rolls-Royce perfectionism.

Cars were a big deal in my family. I had two of them by the time I was five (more about that, too, in a later post). But about the Rolls— Mr. Morrison's letter said "In the back seat there is a fold down armrest with a secret compartment which has room for personal effects as well as a pigskin covered cigarette case and notebook.  Some notes it it refer to a 'Tiny Melton.'  Can you please let me know the significance of this?" 

Suddenly, all these years later,  I could feel the sheepskin rug in the back seat between my toes, I could smell the leather of those pale cream pigskin seats, and see the glossy inlaid fruitwood bar with its Waterford decanters and glasses.  Such elegance!  Tiny was the much beloved Boston Terrier I had as a child.  For some unfathomable reason, I chose to record his death in that secret notebook.  

Driving the Rolls was always a bit of an adventure, for the car's steering wheel was on the right, English-style. One needed a co-pilot for passing or parallel parking.  Although my mother was a confident and excellent driver, she only took the wheel of the Rolls when absolutely necessary.  We never had a chauffeur, much as such a car cried out for one!

That's me, age seven, in the photo sitting on the luggage rack on top of the car in front of our Weston, Connecticut home. 

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Opera Memories

James Melton as Edgardo in Lucia de Lammermoor

I was too young to have heard my father in opera at the Met, or anywhere else.  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, and Germont toasting Traviata. 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 bits fit into the whole picture. 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!