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FIRST PERSON

Forgotten Treasure

She sought a little wisdom. She found L.A.'s Auntie Mame.

March 21, 1997|BOBBI OLSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

She's Scheherazade, Auntie Mame, the Pied Piper. She's the golden child, raised in luxury, ahead of her time, a confidant of the famous and infamous.

She's Brett Howard and she's bedridden, sharing a sparse white room at a rest home, with no phone, no family and rarely a visitor for the past three years.

I had wanted to do "something good," and I saw an item in the paper saying that Jewish Elder Care Corps needed volunteers to match with residents in nursing homes. I didn't need any skills, other than a willingness to spend a little time each week, listening and being a friend.

In L.A., I don't need to tell you, we can all use a friend. I'd lived here for four years and still felt overwhelmed by the city, and lonely for a sense of family. My nearest relatives were 2,000 miles away, and frankly, they're not a whole lot of fun to talk to when they're across the room.

But I felt I was missing something, a link to the older generation. I thought it would be nice to have an elder to talk to, someone who could lay a little life wisdom on me as I reciprocated with granddaughterly attentions.

Jewish Elder Care interviewed me and then introduced me to a woman who turned out to be what you would call "difficult." She made it plain after a few visits that she had been hoping for a young man. Don't call me, I'll call you, she said.

I felt like a big flop. I was back in junior high, wondering if I had cooties. And Jewish Elder Care would probably want to fix me up with someone else, like a pathetic blind date, but I was dreading any more afternoons of awkward silences and faltering chitchat.

Then Kay Ginsberg, the matchmaker, called to say she thought she had found a better prospect. This was a woman I would have more in common with, she said. She was a writer who had had a very full life. I lowered my expectations, figuring the woman had penned a few church bulletins. Secretly, I hoped it would fall through.

But the minute I met Brett Howard, I was ensnared by her charm. She smiled engagingly, her eyes welcoming Kay and me, as if to her salon. Soon Brett and I were deeply into politics, novelists and the failings of the O.J. Simpson criminal trial. At some point, Kay slipped out and went back to her office. We hardly noticed. We were so engrossed in conversation that I felt as if I should have a cocktail in one hand and a canape in the other.

I've been visiting Brett every week for nearly a year now. I've heard fabulous stories of her upbringing among Memphis, Tenn., society, the well-dressed daughter of a department store owner. She casually talks of the many books she has written, and ghostwritten, as if they are cousins and uncles. She tells me about her girlhood in Santa Fe, N.M. in the 1930s, and the visits from family friend D.H. Lawrence. Dorothy Parker once slammed her in New York, but then, who didn't Dorothy Parker slam?

I spent one wonderful afternoon as she painted scenes of her and Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers in New Orleans. She told me who really wrote Capote's early stories. She knew where all the bodies were buried, who was sleeping with whom, and how Jackie O's diamond brooch ended up on Capote's jacket.

One afternoon we relived her road trip from New York to Los Angeles in a Rolls-Royce coupe, given to her on her 16th birthday. She recounted her days working in the FDR administration, and how she inherited a German candle factory in the 1950s and flew her private plane around the country to promote Lady Brett candles. Hemingway, she says, asked her mother's permission to use her name in "The Sun Also Rises," but she knows the Lady Brett Ashley in the story was based on a woman named Lady Duff. She ran a popular restaurant in Puerto Rico, serving steak to presidents and princes. God almighty, she danced with LBJ! (Divine, she says. Tall, graceful and charming.)

*

I admit I was skeptical. Here is a woman who had lived the life most women only dream of, in times when most women didn't dream much, and she was alone now. She was still as sharp and barbed as a fish hook, and yet she had no other visitors and she barely tolerated her succession of roommates. I began to wonder if her tales were clouds and fog and gauze. But then, I thought, so what? It's a hell of a ride.

Then I went to the Central Library and found one of her books, "My Uncle Theodore," a biography of Theodore Dreiser that Brett had co-written with Vera Dreiser. Yes, I remembered she had told me about her friend Vera, who ran the Sybil Brand women's prison when Brett interviewed the Manson girls. Could it be?

The library had two other books listed, a Lena Horne biography and a book on Boston. So it was true! I felt as if I had found a diamond in my Cracker Jack box, a Monet in the attic, the winning numbers all in a row on my lottery ticket. She was the real thing, and I felt foolish for letting doubt dim the pleasure.

A librarian gave me a list of books still in print by Holloway House Publishing, here in Los Angeles. When I called to order them, I ended up talking to Raymond Locke, Brett's longtime editor. Yes, she had introduced him to Tennessee Williams once, but they hadn't hit it off. Oh, yes, he called her the "Auntie Mame" of Los Angeles, known for her fine mind and fabulous style. And her parties were glittering affairs, where one could meet a legend or a lout.

Don't tell me any more, I almost wanted to tell him. Let me hear it firsthand.

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