HELLO AMERICA!—I had not saved very much money from working in the Desk Set, which meant that I had to get another paying gig as soon as possible. I was sharing a studio apartment with actor Jim Ransom, who was about to go on the road with another show. I was offered roles in several small theater shows. One afternoon while at the Beverly Hilton Hotel lunching with MGM actress-dancer Barbara Ruick, Montgomery Clift stopped by our table and expressed his delight in seeing the Desk Set. He even mentioned that he had seen the play on Broadway, and enjoyed the change made in the party scene. As far as he was concerned, it was a mark of genius.
I mentioned to Monty that I was looking for a small apartment or even a guesthouse to rent and he said he had a friend, Samuel Heileiger, who had a guesthouse available, and was looking to rent it to a struggling actor. He also told me that this Dr. Heileiger was a psychic, and he had been to him for counseling. He would be a beneficial man for me to meet and know.
A few days later, Monty arranged for me to meet Dr. Heileiger. He was a huge, Black man with piercing eyes and a very large, round head. He spoke with a high-pitched East Indian accent. I soon discovered that he was a man who took control of everything and everybody around him. It was evident that on his property his word was law.
I was rather surprised to find that he was married to a lovely, very quiet, refined lady, who at one time had aspired to become a concert pianist. When the doctor was around, Gwendolyn had very little to say. Russell, his so-called assistant, served as his driver, butler, trouble-shooter and anything else his master needed. In some ways, he appeared to have more access to Heileiger than his own wife did. His secretary, Elizabeth, was a matronly, white woman who believed that he was a god. She doted on every word he said. It was difficult to understand why she was working as a secretary when she was very wealthy. Once, while driving me to a rehearsal, she hinted that she wouldn’t mind having sex with me if, as a growing young man, I needed that kind of experience. I assured her that I was quite satisfied with that part of my life. I later found that Heileiger had advised her to divorce her Texas-oilman husband, and dedicate her time and services to his own causes.
Why the good doctor decided to allow me to live in his guesthouse baffled me. When we first met, I knew he sensed the resistance I felt towards him, especially having observed his treatment of those in his service. Perhaps he believed I could easily be converted. Then, again, I was a friend of Monty Clift, and I’m certain he didn’t want to make a wrong move. He was a very clever man.
The doctor had quite a line-up of Hollywood celebrities who depended on him for counseling and guidance: Sarah Churchill, Lawrence Harvey, Larry Parks, Jean Peters, Marie Wilson, Joan Crawford, Susan Hayward, and many others. There were evening sessions that included the renowned psychic Criswell who was a mainstay on The Tonight Show with host, Steve Allen. He also wrote a national column called Criswell Predicts. He was a very tall, blond man with the most penetrating, almost hypnotic blue, eyes, I had ever seen. It was easy to understand, how he could convince people of almost anything.
There was no doubt that he and Heileiger did have some psychic gifting. However, they also knew how to use what they had to attract the very naïve which, unfortunately, included most of the people they counseled. In many ways, it was all about money. The celebrities the doctor counseled supported his programs. They were like his disciples, and he knew how to handle them, especially their weaknesses.
For the first month, I managed to stay clear of the activities of the main house except for the invitations to be part of the weekend evening sessions. This, I did not mind. Psychic exploration had always fascinated me and it gave me an opportunity to study the people who believed so fervently. I also thought it was another means of understanding myself.
When there was a request that I sing at one of the evening events, Gwendolyn accompanied me. She was a wonderful pianist. It didn’t take long for us to become very good friends. During the evening of my performance, Mary Pickford—‘America’s Sweetheart’—showed up. Gwen informed me that Miss Pickford was still a very powerful woman and could do much to help me in my career. It seemed that Miss Pickford’s mother had brought Dr. Heileiger, as a small boy, from the East Indies to live with them in New York. He and Mary actually grew up together. They remained extremely close friends. Mary believed fervently in his psychic powers.
I knew very little about Miss Pickford except that she was a major star during the silent film era and ruled over a huge estate, Pickfair. I knew she was once married to the late Douglas Fairbanks Sr., the swashbuckling, star of silent film. Later she married musician-actor Buddy Rogers. I was made aware of Mary’s feelings for Joan Crawford, who at one time was married to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. She disliked Joan intensely, believing that she was not good enough for her stepson. But then it was no secret how Joan felt about her either.
No matter what I believed about the doctor, I was very impressed with his ability to attract the stars. One evening when Gwen and I performed in the living room of the Heileiger house, Joan Fontaine, Robert Taylor, Betty Hutton, Judy Garland, Anna May Wong, Henry King, and Mary Pickford were all in the audience.
“You have a beautiful voice, young man,” she told me. “I hope you won’t allow it to go to waste. She paused for a moment and asked, “Your name seems familiar; should I know you?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I laughed. “But you might have read Hedda’s column; she’s been very nice to me”, I informed Ms. Pickford.
“Yes,” she responded, obviously quite amused. “I believe that was it . . . something about your appearing at the Purple Onion not long ago.”
“That’s it,” I assured her. “Hedda was very supportive.”
“Enjoy it while it lasts,” Mary warned. “Have you done anything else?”
I mentioned the Desk Set and she indicated that she and her husband Buddy had seen the play and thought it quite funny. Suddenly she clasped her hands, laughing, and said, “Now, I know why your face seems so familiar to me. You were the office boy who played the piano and did the song routine with Shirley Booth. It was hilarious.” She then inquired if I was involved in a project at the moment. If not, she would like to discuss with me something she was about do. She asked if I would give her a call as soon as possible. Dr. Heileiger informed me that if Mary had asked me to call then I must have impressed her.
Being at the Pickfair estate was like visiting a royal palace. Gwen said that Pickfair was the place where some of the most famous people in the world visited or stayed when in Hollywood. Mary Pickford was the official hostess of the motion picture industry. After all, she was one of its original stars and studio heads, right along with Sam Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer.
When I met with Mary, she explained that she wanted to introduce me to Gladys David, a young designer to the film industry from New York. She asked if I might be interested in coordinating the fashion show. It was to take place at the Pan Pacific Theater in Los Angeles. She didn’t waste any time getting the process started. She began calling me ‘Mickey’ which established my membership in the inner circle of the project. At one point, she asked me to call her Mary instead of Miss Pickford, but I couldn’t. She represented too much to me; I felt much more comfortable addressing her as Miss Pickford.
One of the first things I had to do was to arrange a work studio for Miss David. There would be models in and out all the time so it had to be easily accessible for everyone involved. However, the most interesting task was the show itself. I had to audition singers, dancers and several combos. Ms. Pickford also wanted as many big Hollywood names to be invited as possible. I was given a list of preferred female stars who would fill that bill. On that list was Jane Russell, Debbie Reynolds, Arlene Dahl, Betty Grable, Ann Miller, Ann Southern, Lana Turner, and Jean Peters just to mention a few. Fortunately, just the mention of Miss Pickford’s name produced a positive response. Everyone I contacted promised to make an appearance at the show with the exception, of Debbie Reynolds who informed me that her film schedule was so tight she could not make it. The motion picture industry, had tremendous respect for Miss Pickford, and I could not help but be in awe of this amazing lady.
My primary task was to assist in producing a first-class show, one that would do justice to the Pickford name. Signing up some local Hollywood talent—and also Archie Savage as choreographer—was quite simple to do. I had worked with Savage at the Ebony Theater, so I knew what to expect and I trusted his creative decisions.
Miss Pickford agreed to give away one of her famous curls as one of the prizes in the draw. This was well publicized, and many film buffs decided to attend the fashion show just for the chance of winning one of the Pickford curls. In a few days, the house was sold out.
It was quite a night! The klieg lights danced crisscross in the sky over the theater. Limousines were lined up for blocks, waiting to deliver box office names in true Hollywood style. As the stars filed into the Pan Pacific, they were met with the musical sounds of the Jimmy Fields Band, playing tunes from Guys and Dolls. It set the mood for the evening perfectly.
The show was half over and everyone had been caught up in the excitement of the fashions and the entertainment. However, Mary had not arrived. Dr. Heileiger called Pickfair and was informed that she had already left for the theater. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” he admitted to the staff looking worried. “Mickey,” he continued, “you stay out here in front until Mary arrives. In case she needs you, ok?”
Needed me? Dr. Heileiger’s voice had an ominous tone to it. I wondered what he was trying to tell me. I soon found out. When Miss Pickford arrived with the controversial, rebel minister Malcolm Boyd, I was disturbed to find her hair looking as if she had been in a wrestling match. Worse still, her undergarment was hanging below her dress and it was quite obvious that she was drunk!
“Miss Pickford,” I quickly exclaimed, “you need fixing!”
“Fixing!” she slurred. “I’ve never needed fixing in my life.”
“Well, you sure do now,” I said. I requested that Reverend Boyd go on into the theater and I would take care of the actress.
“Where are you dragging me, Mickey” she insisted.
“Backstage, Miss Pickford . . . we’ve got to get some coffee in you.”
“Coffee!” she screamed. “Why do I need coffee?”
“Because you’re going on stage very soon and, the way you look won’t do.”
“Really!” she yelled, as if completely insulted.
“That’s right,” I said. “Your hair looks terrible, and your underwear or whatever you women call it, is hanging! And by the way, do you have the curls for the prize drawing?”
“What are you talking about, Mickey?” she shrieked.
“It’s one of the prizes for tonight’s draw for the show, Miss Pickford. Remember?”
“Well,” she shouted, “that’s just too bad. I have very few left as it is. Before you know it, I’ll be bald!”
When I was finally able to get her to down some coffee, she managed to pull herself together somewhat, and gradually remember why she was part of the show. As I pulled up her dress to secure her slip her humor emerged: “What would people think of America’s Sweetheart right now if they saw you, a black boy, under my dress like this?”
“And what would this audience say,” I asked, “if you walked on stage with your drawers hanging halfway to the floor?”
She paused for a moment, and then said, “Hmmm . . . you got a point there.”
After another cup of coffee, I managed to get her looking more presentable so she could make an entrance on the stage. The audience was so delighted with her presence they gave Mary a standing ovation. Mary milked it for everything it was worth. She talked briefly about her years in films and thanked her loyal fans for their support. It was impossible to detect that she had been dead drunk when she had arrived at the theater. After all, Mary Pickford was a professional, a real star who knew what the audience expected of her.
The following day, a messenger arrived at the Heileiger home with a message for me from Miss Pickford. In it, she expressed her gratitude with: “I know what you did, Mickey. You were truly wonderful. With all my love and appreciation: I will always remember.” Signed, Your Mary.