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8. Kay Francis and the Bicycle Thief

When I was in the first year of high school, I sang as a soloist in the school operetta, It Happened in Holland. I played the role of a burgomaster with the gout, that affliction being the subject of my solo.  I also did a duet with a cat, or to be more exact a human dressed in a cat costume. The operetta lyrics and book were written by Sarah Games Clark.  Who remembers her now? Her forgottenness is a slight foreshadow of this little story. The music was from the American composer Arthur A. Penn, still remembered for his popular songs such as “Smiling Through.”  All of that was lost on me and appears here because that operetta is still being put on in the Twenty-first Century high schools with these facts easily available. I remember best the solo about gout that I can still sing at the drop of a hat, the duet with a cat being a forgettable trifle (again the foreshadow). That operetta caused me to lose my bicycle in a roundabout way that speaks ill of my character as a high school freshman.


From my immature vantage, I found it an honor to be a soloist respected enough to be appointed something of a trusted treasurer in selling operetta tickets. Like so many honors it turned out to be a test of my trustworthiness. I used the funds as something of a slush for my vagrant needs. When it came time to turn in the cash, I found that the revenues did not properly match the sales record. I had to make up my perfidy quickly by turning to the only real asset that I owned, namely a bicycle that was my pride and joy. I cannot recount how many hundreds or thousands of the Kentucky Post I had hawked on a corner at two pennies each to pay for the bike named Honey. I seem to recall I paid the princely sum of $25 for those two wheels. Honey gave me quick access to the whole of Covington, especially to visiting gatherings here and there of teenage compatriots that often included girls in bobby socks. Certain of those girls were in my daydreams with overtones of intimacies that I could only imagine in the way that losers dream of winning. There comes a day in the budding life at puberty or just beyond that boys are surprised by Onan’s secret prize of orgasm, or not so secret in my tenement neighborhood where boys met atop the dirty old junkyard building called the Covington Auto Parts to hold masturbation races in which the winner got a nickle. At any rate, my bike Honey gave me access to a broader social life and freedom from family.


What to do about the shortfall of money receipts from selling tickets to It Happened in Holland? I reluctantly surrendered Honey to my honest proletarian stepfather, who lent me enough to balance the operetta books. I got a lecture on responsibility and got Honey locked up in the basement until I paid him back.


Time passed because it did not know what else to do. Some months later with the debt still unpaid, I had a free day with the family away. I had enough coins to go to a movie and decided on a walk all the way to downtown Cincinnati where the movie palaces offered a greater variety than the dogs then showing in Covington that day at the quintet of movie houses that were my other and virtual life. I remember the theater names as though they are tattooed on my mind: The Broadway, the Liberty, and those identical twins Family & Shirley, always showing the same flicks. Finally there was the L. B. Wilson Theater, named for a person I always wondered about as a mystery never solved, a Wilson ghost on the edge of my young life.  Sometimes I would see a show at the Family and then go over to the Shirley to see if the same movie was different there. I was a simple kid. At any rate, I thought no movie in town was worth my time compared to seeing Kay Francis, who was then showing on a screen across the river.


The walk from Ninth Street in Covington to downtown Cincinnati, “over the river” as we would say, was a brisk hour’s outing for an athletic body, and I had that—good enough for basketball, the baseball outfield, boxing and track. However, the family was away, and I got to thinking about Honey locked up in the basement. A Cincinnati movie with Kay Francis in it would be a pleasure to reach on my bike. So I picked the lock and stole my own bike for the day. I could get it back in place and my stepdad would never guess. Being of low enough character to use the operetta revenues as my slush fund, borrowing my own bicycle was morally easy.


“Over the river” meant crossing the Ohio and the graceful Suspension Bridge that had a pedestrian walk well separated from the traffic. In those days the traffic was supported by heavy thumping planks coated over by a tarred surface. Later generations may remember the steel grid that hummed under tires, especially if one had seen the movie “Rain Man” in which Dustin Hoffman as an idiot savant was fascinated with the singing of the tires on the Suspension Bridge. It was a breezy pleasure that day when Honey and I crossed the Ohio, racing along the pedestrian walk of the bridge on a late summer golden afternoon in 1939, a year in which the Reds were winning a pennant. Being a nut about the Cincinnati Reds, I would be able to remember all of their 152 games in some detail. I would impress people by rattling them off from Opening Day forward until the listener called “Hold, enough,” amazed at the retentiveness of the young mind.  The four-straight losses to the Yankees in the World Series would leave me with a lump in my throat. On the day of the movie, I rode my bike without holding the handles as I  crossed the bridge licking an ice cream cone and enjoying the thrill of being a bicycle thief, even though it was my own bike. I was in front of a downtown Cincinnati movie palace in a quarter of the time it would have taking to walk. There I found that I had left behind the silver chain bike-lock, the very lock I had picked to free Honey from captivity.  What to do with the bike while I watched the movie? Feeling damned if I would miss Kay Francis, I left Honey parked unlocked under the gaze of the cashier. Any sensible person would take it to be the cashier’s property. “Watch my bike,” I told her. She said something as I walked on into the show, but I missed her words, one of them possibly being “idiot.” I then went into the cozy dark to put myself into a sentimental tale, a movie so bad I would never forget it, even though forgetting is the leit motif of this fragment from my long goodbye in a ten-volume  suicide note.


The cinema was called “In Name Only” and I remember at least four of the roles. I can even close my eyes and see their faces as they looked in that film. There was the handsome Gary Grant playing husband to Kay Francis, who married him for his money. Gary figured her out and fell in love with the loveable Carol Lombard. Charles Coburn was Gary’s old father and was very rich and mortal. Kay never loved her husband but had her eye on his father’s grand estate. The drama was all about how hard it was to get a happy divorce from a conniving woman. In the last scene the door would be closed in Kay’s face after Grant was saved by Carol from dying of love-inflicted pneumonia. I fled the dark theater with a feeling of having wasted my time and looking forward to crossing the bridge on Honey with the sunset at my back. To my surprise, somebody had stolen my bicycle. Like I said, I was a simple kid. I looked accusingly at the cashier’s stand and had an hour’s walk home, feeling less good about being a bicycle thief.


Kay Francis is a memory of mine that she would not want me to have. Not that I have abused the memory in any way, such as imagining sex with her, which is never my way with movie stars. It is just that Kay did not like being remembered by anybody after she is gone. That is a more common feeling than we think. I first ran into it studying the life of Dean Swift. He had a friend whose son committed suicide and the son said he did not want to be remembered. Perhaps the wish is redundant. Who remembers their great-great grandmas? I have run into the forget-me-forever often since then, in spite of blue forget-me-nots in the dooryard and all the talk about hopes for immortality or leaving behind a heritage. Kay Francis was a lesser but known movie star with a secondary fame. She was once the highest paid actress at Warner Brothers. I bet that in those days a million Americans would have known her name and several million more would have recognized her face. It was a beautiful and classic face.  She was exquisite to look at. I would call her an excellent actress—or “actor” as the likes of Jane Fonda would say. I remember Kay Francis well even now, something she would dislike, if only she knew.


Her heyday came in those grim 1930s.  As an economist regarding that decade, I have thought the worse of it. In a personal way however, because I lived through it as a boy, my 1930s glimmer with remembered books that I could not lay down because of the vivid imagination in them. Those years glimmer with playing fields and baseball and girls in their summer dresses and the shadow life of movies, all the way from little miss marker to Flynn-flam, in a softened virtual reality where a kiss was a tender and lyrical moment instead of the modern face-sucking.


Kay Francis had her ups and downs as an actress. She was struggling at the time the film “In Name Only” was being planned. Her friend Carol Lombard came to her aid in getting her into the movie. Kay had a streak of nihilism. We have an often cited quotation from her 1938 diary that gave her opinion of being remembered after she was gone. “When I die, I want to be cremated so that no sign of my existence is left on this earth. I can’t wait to be forgotten.” She has now been gone half a century. In what sense has the world managed to forget her? Hundreds of photographs of her face can be found on the Internet, all the way from her striking adolescence to beat-up old age. Toward the end, she even had her face burned badly in an accident. Beautiful women are, as a rule, in the window only for a short while. Her films are mostly fading or gone but some are still circulating with her voice, movements, face. She spoke with an r an l that sounded a bit like w.  Otherwise how would it be remembered that behind her back she was sometimes called Wavishing Kay Fwances. Doubtless, in that bitter decade, wovely Kay handled the problem until the boy I used to be never even noticed it.

I had a time explaining to my hero stepfather what had happened to the bike.  Since I obviously did not have it, he was misled to believe that it had been spirited away by a local bicycle thief who had probably been the kid who helped with a plumbing job in the basement and had asked about the bike. My stepfather could not get the bike out of his mind for months. I could hardly wait for it to be forgotten.
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