In the book Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: A Haunting Collaboration, Gregory William Mank writes about an interview he conducted with Hope Lugosi, Bela’s fifth and final wife. Mank asked if she had any special memories of the wedding. Hope answered, “Yeah, Lugosi was drunk. That was easy to remember. I had a friend, Pat Delaney, my matron of honor, a big, tough Irish woman. She was ugly as a mud fence, but boy could she keep Lugosi in line. Yes, indeed. She came to pick him up for the wedding. By this time, he’d been drinking and was having a few misgivings. Pat said, “No you’re not—-GET DRESSED.” She got him dressed, (to her husband’s horror,) she then hustled Lugosi up to Manly Hall’s house, and said, “He’s not going to stand up a friend of mine, with all this publicity and all. No, no!”
Lugosi-wrangler Pat Delaney always called me “Keevin.” I have no idea why. She was my Great Aunt, and she knew full well how my name was supposed to sound. She also called Bela, “Beela.” I have no idea if that was correct or not.
Born Maude Burke somewhere around 1899 in Illinois, Aunt Maude moved to California, seemingly as soon as she was able. She became a “continuity girl” at the RKO movie studio. Continuity’s job was to note details of a scene such as, which hand did the actor pick up a class with, which book was thrown across the room, was an actor seated or standing on a particular line, etc.
While in Hollywood, she picked up the nickname “Pat.” I have no idea how. She was also NOT “ugly as a mud fence.” Aunt Maude was a very handsome woman with blond hair and bright blue eyes. The “big, tough, Irish” part was absolutely correct. She had a non-nonsense, take-no-crap attitude that was….allegedly….Norman Lear’s inspiration for the title character of his TV series, Maude. I don’t know if that’s true, but if you watch an episode of the show, Bea Arthur might as well be channeling my Aunt. It’s truly uncanny.
Along the way of her Hollywood adventures, Aunt Maude met and married Jim Delaney, a controller whose clients included Desi and Lucy, as well as Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. Jim was a tall, thin Irishman, very elegant, and very quiet. Maude and Jim were not quite Hollywood royalty, but they certainly traveled in the higher circles.
My times with Aunt Maude were short and infrequent but memorable. She would occasionally visit us in Indiana, and would always take us out to the finest restaurant in town, Tiebel’s. One night when I was six, we walked Tiebel’s together. Maude was wearing a gorgeous full-length sable coat. As we entered the spacious lobby, we were greeted with the sight of the local glitterati. The men wore suits, and the women wore mink stoles, in which they posed and preened for each other as though establishing some sort of pecking order. Maude took in the scene, shrugged off her outrageously expensive coat, took me by the hand and said, “Come with me, Keevin.” She then dragged her coat across the lobby floor, and casually tossed it onto a random chair as we sailed into the dining room. Maude had style.
During dinner, she asked, “Keevin, what would you like that Aunt Maude can get for you?” With the impulsiveness of a six year old, I answered, “A bus!” Maude chuckled and said, “I’ll see what I can do.” Three weeks after Maude returned to California, a package arrived. A BIG package. Inside was a three-feet long, perfect-in-every-detail replica of a Greyhound bus. As I said, Maude had style.
When I was 12, my parents and I drove out to California to visit Aunt Maude and Uncle Jim. It was the stereotypical early-70’s trip. No air conditioner in the car, windows rolled up, both parents chain-smoking. It seemed to take forever. Once we got to Cali, we went straight to Aunt Maude’s house, which was a block or so from the Nelson’s. She was in her 70’s at that point, but seemed ageless to me. We sat in Maude’s living room for hours, listening to stories of Old Hollywood. “Keevin,” she said, “When I would visit the studio, Ricky and David Nelson would head straight for me. They never wanted to cash their paychecks, and would “borrow” $5 each from me. If I had all those $5 bills back, I’d be wealthy.”
Some of the Hollywood talk, I didn’t understand. Names like Fairbanks and Laughton had no meaning for me at that age, but when the name Lugosi came up, I was all ears. At 12, I was at the height of my Universal Pictures monster movie craze. “YOU KNEW BELA LUGOSI???” I think I screamed. “Yes, Keevin. Beela married my girlfriend, Hope. Jim and I stood up at the wedding.” she said. “It was a shame when Beela died. All these horrible fans were scrambling about trying to steal souvenirs from the gravesite. They kept trying to take the silver cross on the lid of his coffin. I always meant to return it to Hope, but…..ah well….” she trailed off.
I held my breath for her next words. Could ownership of the silver cross from Bela Lugosi’s casket be in my immediate future? Imagine the 12-year-old bragging rights which go along with THAT.
“If only I’d known you were a fan of Beela’s, I wouldn’t have given it to the boy down the street last week.” Nope. No Bela cross for me. However, later that year, an envelope arrived for me from Hope Lugosi in San Francisco. In it were three publicity photos Bela had autographed before he died. Maude had style.
We returned to Cali a few years later to visit Aunt Maude. Time had finally taken it’s toll. Maude was in Cedars Sinai hospital due to complications from her Type 1 Diabetes. She was in rough shape, but in her usual high spirits. After an hour or so, she said, “This has been lovely, but you’ll have to excuse me. My friends will be arriving shortly for cocktails.” As we were leaving, heading into Maude’s room were David White (Larry Tate on Bewitched) and Blossom Rock (Grandmama on The Addams Family.) Oh my, Maude had style.
Maude passed in 1977. I took the call informing us of her passing. I’m not sure who was on the other end of the line. It wasn’t Jim, nor was it any family member I knew. Strange.
Many years later, I took a trip to Hollywood to see if I wanted to pitch my tent there as an actor. On impulse, I called the office of David Nelson, who by then was a film, TV, and commercial director. I spoke to his receptionist and gave Aunt Maude’s name, but used her nickname, Pat. “Just a moment,” said the receptionist. Within seconds, a man’s voice came on the line, “This is David Nelson, who is this?” I gave my name. David asked, “And you’re whose nephew?” I told him. “Are you busy for lunch?” he asked. I was not at all busy! He asked where I was, and I told him. “Great!” he said, “I’ll pick you up in half an hour,” and hung up. Half an hour later, I was seated comfortably in David Nelson’s Rolls Royce as he drove us through the streets of Hollywood.
David remembered my Aunt very well, and obviously with great fondness. He took me to Musso and Frank’s, a legendary Hollywood eatery. We discussed acting and the current state of the business, it was wonderful. He told me he could see me playing young Martin Sheen-type rolls. This was shortly before Martin Sheen’s two sons emerged as actors and scooped up all the young Martin Sheen-type roles. After lunch, he drove me back to my hotel. As I got out and turned to wave goodbye, he rolled down the window and said, “You know, your Aunt had style.”
Amen, David Nelson.