Nora Johnson

Coast to Coast: A Family Romance

Every June I went to California and every fall I came back. In l947, when I was fourteen, my parents decided I was old enough to cross the country alone. My mother – on the East Coast – gave me a pile of books. And my father – on the West – as usual knew somebody in the business who would be on the same train.

The connection in Chicago between two trains at different stations was considered daunting enough to require help. The man from the William Morris office met me at LaSalle Street Station when I arrived on the Twentieth Century. He saw to my luggage, bought me a hamburger, fries and a black-and-white milkshake, and told me funny stories about all the kids he picked up and delivered to train stations and airports. He took me to Dearborn Station, found the Chief, and located my roomette. There was one of him in every city of the world, I discovered over the years – a man from the Morris office who turned up and took care of things, a guardian angel of the open road.

And he was trustworthy – more than my own mother. Once, at Grand Central, she had left me in the observation car of the Twentieth Century so I could more fully observe the South Bronx on the way out of town. She kissed me good-bye and left. After over an hour I went outside to find that this observation car had not been attached to the rest of the train, which had departed with the luggage and the accompanying nanny (who was absorbed in Silver Screen) but without me. Somehow it got solved – a weeping child and a kind stationmaster were an effective combination, and we were all reunited in Chicago in time to get on the Chief. The man from Morris would never have allowed such a thing to happen.

This trip’s celebrity was Miss Lena Horne. She hung on the step of the Chief’s silver Pullman car, one hand grasping the steel railing. She was dazzling – the clear silky skin, the big sparkling eyes, and a graceful way of bending slightly backward, causing her ivory cloak to flare behind her. Her smile threw me and the man from the Morris office into half shadow as she extended one perfect hand, with pale almond nails, toward me.

“Why, hello, sweetheart,” she said. “I’m so glad to meetcha!”

……

I was the only one who heard the phone in the hall…the small, heavy dial phone on the commode. My clothes for the birthday party consisted of a white cotton blouse with puffed sleeves and a Lanz of Salzburg skirt with felt suspenders trimmed with red hearts. White socks, brown Oxfords that supported the arch, gray knees with small scabs and cuts. Straight hair with plastic barrettes falling out of it… I looked the way little girls did then, which, like most, I had no great interest in, and largely left up to others.

It was a familiar male voice, hard to hear over the noise in the dining room. To this day I don’t know why it was. Not my father. Not Jo, who was among the merry, his small mouth turned up in its little U smile… someone who’d heard, and knew Marion hadn’t. Some prescient person.

“I can’t hear you,” I said. Now there were hoots of laughter from the dining room, cries for more wine, like a Tudor debauch.

“Tell your mother what I said,” the unknown man said firmly.

“What?” I asked, and he repeated something. “They bombed what?”

He said it once more and hung up. We were one on a hurried list. I didn’t understand the urgency of his voice. They were always bombing something. We bombed them back. Hitler and Hirohito were made for cartoon drawing and funny imitations. They were the bad guys, but they would lose – Mr. Roosevelt would prevail, the bombing would stop. There would be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover, we would come in on a wing and a prayer. The lights would go on again all over the world.

Carrying the information gingerly, like a new soufflé, I walked into the dining room and repeated what I’d been told. I had to say it two or three times – they were particularly hilarious. Occasionally one of them would smile at me, or wave, saying, “Hi, sweetie, off to bed?” taking another gulp of wine.

“They bombed Pearl Harbor,” I kept saying. “The Japs bombed Pearl Harbor.” Finally somebody heard. I remember the woman’s face, whoever she was – the made-up, laughing face, brown curls abounce, the boozy eyes that suddenly came into focus.

“Pearl what?” somebody asked. “What’s that?”

It seems to be that evening that Jo and Marion kissed passionately and tearfully in the vestibule, murmuring things I couldn’t hear, but which had to do with Jo going to his battleship, the Montana… which made me feel very admiring of Jo, and thrilled at his courage, On the eve of his departure, I liked him very much… more so when someone said the war might go on for a very long time.

……

In the living room, Max passed glasses of champagne, while my little sisters, in bathrobes and bunny slippers, followed with nuts and canapés. Hjordis Niven and Betty Bacall lounged on the serpentine sofa, Pamela Mason held forth in the middle of the shag rug. James, seemingly a little shy, stood by the piano. Ginger Mason and Maude Chasen were in a corner with their carefully curled heads together, Bogey, Nunnally, Marjorie and Gene stood laughing by the bar. Ice clinked against glasses, lighters clicked, matches scratched, smoke billowed from red mouths, and laughter burst forth in joyous peals.

Then the best-looking man in the room, in the best-tailored tux, left his beautiful Swedish wife and came in my direction… David Niven! And he found something interesting to talk about for ten minutes or so, fixing me firmly with big, intelligent eyes and a beguiling smile, in an accent not so British as to be incomprehensible, and appearing to listen attentively. He neither turned his profile nor glanced into the mirror over the bar. I would go through the next year or two comparing him to every male person I encountered. “He isn’t like David Niven,” and I would always be right.

Selected Works

Memoir
Coast to Coast: A Family Romance
       “…a lovely, piercing book…that provides the reader with a twinkling portrait of Hollywood and New York in the 1940’s and 50’s”
-Michiko Kakutani
Novel
The Two of Us
“Nora Johnson has revitalized the American novel. The Two of Us  is daring in concept, dazzling in execution, profound in theme. A triumph and a treasure."
-Garson Kanin
 
Tender Offer
“A smart and funny and tightrope combination of frolic and farce and sad and surgical insights into the world of rich WASPS.”
-Barbara Grizzuti Harrison
 

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