From my earliest memories, I have loved to play “dress up,” and a large portion of my play wardrobe came from my paternal grandmother’s cast-offs. I remember teetering around on silver high heels in a sparkly red chiffon dress liberally sprinkled with rhinestones. How I wish now that I’d known what I was wearing and saved it, but–alas!–that particular dress got worn to death and ended up in shreds long before I could appreciate its real value. Thankfully, my grandmother kept back a lot of her favorite clothes for me to enjoy as an older teenager, and I still have several beautiful pieces. Some have New York and Paris labels, but many she made herself on a Singer Featherweight. From early days, “Mimi” inspired me with her own unique style and her utterly glamorous ways. How many grandmothers take their grandkids to the pool wearing an Esther Williams-style bathing suit with flared skirt and matching swim cap? Mine sure did! It was a thrill to go out with Mimi, because she always dressed for any occasion. Going to the movies meant a sweater set with matching handbag and shoes, plus her favorite rope of pearls. Taking us shopping meant a trim skirt and blouse with pumps and a hat. Mimi kept her waist tiny with nightly sit-ups on a slant board (her waist was still 23 inches when she was in her 60s and 70s!). And always, always, her makeup was Hollywood-perfect with wonderful arched and pencilled brows, curled lashes, and a beautifully styled wig (yep, she wore a wig in her late 50s and beyond, because, she said, she had “sacrificed her hair” to too many permanent waves in the 40s and 50s!) But I really need to start this story back at the beginning. We’ll get to her days as a Glamourous Grandma later on!
Thelma Jean “Jeanie” Robbins was born on the 17th of October, 1918 (some records say 1916), in Illinois. Mimi never wanted to talk about her childhood, as it was very unhappy, so the details we have are quite sketchy. We do know that she ended up leaving home around age 20 and heading to California to try to make it as a model or in the movies. She saved money by rooming with a few “B” movie actresses over the years, including Phyllis Brooks. One of my grandfather’s scrapbooks contained a photo of Jeanie and Phyllis together circa 1939, but, alas, I haven’t been able to find it after the scrapbooks were moved several years ago. If I ever locate it, I’ll share it! Jeanie and Phyllis had a lot in common and would continue to bump into each other over the years because of their mutual commitment to causes like the Red Cross and USO. Another roommate was Elyse Knox, who married football star Tom Harmon (in a gown made from the parachute that saved Tom’s life in 1944!). My grandparents remained fast friends with the Harmons for many years, as you’ll see in a photo below. Jeanie did a lot of work as a model but found her real gifting in the art of photo retouching (the “Photoshop” of the day!). Above right is a picture she had taken in 1942, which she retouched to put “stars” in her eyes and to add the “colorization” to make the sepia picture seem more lifelike. Because of her work, my grandmother met many Hollywood stars and became good friends with Wayne “Tiny” Whitt, a comedic actor not very well known today but very well-liked by all who knew him in the 1930s and 40s. Here’s a photo of Tiny in one of his movies:
Tiny knew everyone in Tinsel Town, and, unbeknownst to my grandmother, was close friends with a dashing Army Air Corps lieutenant, Ervin Cornelius Ethell. My grandfather, born May 5, 1920, grew up in Lawton, Oklahoma, the son of a respected furniture store owner. He sang tenor in a local choir and competed on the state level in voice. He was also a featherweight boxer and enjoyed dramatics. But the love of his life was flying, and he earned his private pilot’s license in 1940 while in college. In order to continue flying, Ervin joined the military and trained as a pilot at Gardner Field near Taft, California. “Pop” received his officer’s commission five days after Pearl Harbor on December 12, 1941. His superior flying skills earned him a place in advanced flight training in Phoenix, Arizona, but he returned to California in 1942 as a trainer and recruiter at the brand new Santa Ana Army Air Base in early 1942–oddly enough, a base without actual planes or flying equipment of any kind! Instead, the base served as a kind of testing ground for new recruits, determining how they would be trained (as pilots, navigators, bombardiers, etc.) and where they’d be shipped off for instruction. Because of the base’s proximity to Los Angeles, Pop ended up living right in the heart of Hollywood, where his movie star good looks endeared him to many and won him a coveted place in Tinsel Town society. He became very close friends with Andy Devine (perhaps most famous for his recurring role as Roy Rogers’ sidekick, “Cookie”), who would later be my father’s godfather.
As he lived in LA and worked in recruitment, it was inevitable that Pop would need several professional portraits taken. So one day he walked downtown and bumped into “Tiny” on a street corner. After exchanging greetings, my grandfather asked Tiny if he happened to know a good photo studio that could take some portraits of him in uniform. Tiny slapped him on the back and said, “Erv, you are right outside the best studio in town, and I want you to meet the little gal who does the photo retouching. She’ll make you look like Clark Gable!” With that, Tiny grabbed Pop’s arm and steered him inside, where my grandmother glanced up from her drafting table station and (in her words) “saw the most incredibly handsome man walking through the door.” Tiny introduced Jeanie and Erv and left them chatting. Pop set up an appointment to have his pictures taken, then decided to be bold and ask Jeanie for a date (he was fishing to find out if she was single!). Mimi was impressed with this handsome flyer and readily accepted his invitation to a dinner party at “Slapsy Maxie’s” on the following weekend. I don’t know if Tiny had a matchmaking bug, but, as they say, the rest is history!
My grandmother volunteered at the Los Angeles USO, dancing with servicemen, serving refreshments, and organizing scrap collection drives. She was totally committed to the war effort and used her weekends to do all she could for War Bond drives, recruiting, and the Red Cross. (Somewhere in our family archives, we have her USO identity card, which I’ll scan and share if we find it.) However, it quickly became apparent that one airman in particular wanted her undivided attention, so she turned up at many USAAC and USO events on the arm of the dashing Lt. Ethell!
By May of 1942, Pop was itching to be in the fight instead of recruiting other men for it. The Army Air Forces brass granted his request, and he was trained in the P-38 Lightning at North Island before being shipped to North Africa with the 48th Fighter Squadron, 14th Fighter Group, to fly against the German Luftwaffe.
Next time I’ll share about my grandparents’ lives in WWII, their marriage, and later years. Lots more photos to come!
CONTINUE TO PART 2!