Part 14: "I Remember Every Affair But Have Forgotten The Names of 11."
In the last blog, I was astonished to find one sentence deep in a paragraph where Riley was writing about a trip with his brother, Floyd (who I met and interviewed in New York in 1992). Dad admits in this one lone sentence that he went on a hike to Columbia, North Carolina, and "arranged to pick up some money by a telegraph ruse."
This is a first for me. I've never seen it spelled out in my father's own words, that he conned someone. The memoir Dad gave to me based on these notes did not include criminal activity, of course. I guess he had to be honest somewhere, and he was honest on these pages that were locked away in Ted Ensslin's storage shed for ten long years. I'm beginning to believe he gave the boxes to Ted so I'd never read his journal, but I have that strange quality some folks have where I have to know the truth, even if it's difficult, and even if a the end of the day, it's none of my business.
Even during the taping of the "Hidden Brain" podcast, I kept thinking, what if I have it all wrong? I secretly hoped the show would go deep, like "Front Line" does, and in my magical thinking, the "Hidden Brain" fact checkers would find out it was all a big misunderstanding, that my father was simply eccentric, not a con man. Of course, "Hidden Brain" doesn't have enough fact checkers in the world to find anything out about this subject, they have a limited budget, and are on a strict deadline. I can go on and on with this blog for the next 20 years and still not be done, and that's just fine. I'm not bored, are you?
To refresh, Riley's roaming teen years collide with The Great Depression, which hit the South especially hard. He got a few odd jobs, as a cook, and on radio shows, and as an extra in a western movie and other low budget Hollywood flicks. In 1935, Riley was 17 years old, and he looked much older. He was tall, thin, with thick, dark hair, and people were drawn to him. He had learned to perform, but also he learned how to pull off small cons. He was homeless some of that time. I found this blog about teenagers during the depression. It includes letters written by men and women who road the rails from 1929-1941, and it is amazing to read these first person accounts.
At age 16 or 17, he met Alma Anderson in Columbia, South Carolina. They married, but they were often apart. Riley even went to live in a transient camp on an island in Mobile Bay, then off to California without Alma. Riley's own father, Zedoc, wouldn't loan him money, and Alma's dad, who lived in Albemarle, North Carolina, didn't want Riley around anymore.
When I was a little girl, Dad told me about Alma. He announced, out of the blue, that his first wife committed suicide. Over the years I asked him about her. "Why did she do it?" I asked, even being so bold as to add, "was it because of you?" That last question seemed to shake Riley up. "No. No, of course not! She was involved with a cousin of mine by then."
In the 1980s, I asked him to write down a list of all his wives and girlfriends, and I still have that list. When I first made the request, Dad said, "What do you want to know that for?" He was reluctant, but I wore him down and he typed out the list and mailed it to me. Here's what he wrote about Alma, in the photograph below:
There is a typo with the word "romanced" that caught my eye. Dad made me promise never to show the list he typed for me to anyone, even adding a warning at the top "For Stacya Silverman Only!" So...I won't show the entire list. But Alma and Winifred (another typo, it's Winifred not Winigred) are long dead, so I've cheated on my promise, but only about 10 percent. The list of women my dad was with is long. He had children with several of his wives and girlfriends, some of these siblings I may never meet, some I have. One of his girlfriends died last year. I just read her obituary tonight. (Feb. 29, 2020.)
Someone reading this blog could be my half-sibling.
Anyway, I'm going to skip ahead to what happened to Alma. In 2007, I decided to try to locate my father's younger brother Victor. I paid $5.00 to one of those "People Finder" websites, and it's a long story, but I finally located him in a nursing home in Arlington, Virginia. I travelled to Arlington, and Victor and I had a long talk. He loved to gossip, we were like two peas in a pod. I wish I'd known him my entire life, but when he readily spilled the beans about my father, I saw why Dad avoided his younger brother. One of the first things Victor told me is how he'd gone to see a few of my father's performances, one at Carnegie Hall in New York, and he described the line up of women back stage after each show, girls and women who wanted autographs... or whatever. Victor said,"Your father was the horniest man I've ever met!" Victor was hilarious, and delivered that line completely deadpan. When I asked him about Alma, Victor said, "of course Alma killed herself because of Riley. He'd already moved on to the next one."
I wanted to know exactly what happened to Alma. Surely a suicide in a public place (my father told me she killed herself in a bathroom inside of a bar) would've been newsworthy back then.Thanks to my friend Marilyn McGuire, I have these two separate newspaper accounts. So we'll skip ahead to that fateful day. Alma Anderson was in Wilmington, North Carolina on Feb. 11, 1940. She was described by one journalist as a "21-year-old brunette." She took a cab, the driver identified himself as L. Coleman. The taxi driver took Alma to several places around the city earlier in the afternoon. First, she went to Belk's store, then to St. Mary's cathedral at Fifth and Ann Streets, where she stayed for half an hour. Then the driver took her to Finkelstein's pawn shop, and then to The Globe Tavern on Princess Street. Once inside the tavern, she went to the bathroom, locked the door, and shot herself in the heart.
Alma Anderson had committed suicide, shooting herself in the heart. Marilyn found the funeral services. My father was in California when Alma died. He was with an on and off again girlfriend there, plus he'd married Winifred Cessek, perhaps without divorcing Alma. Even when they were first married, and Riley was working as a cook at Steve's Restaurant, he had an affair with a waitress and a few other women. I can't prove this, but based on what I know about my father's behavior, I have a feeling that whenever my father took off, Alma thought he'd be back, and then realized Riley had left her for good. I suspect she found out he'd married someone else without divorcing her.
Special thanks to Marilyn McGuire for all her research. It's important to give researchers credit for the work they do. Research is hard, and time consuming. Thank you to Francis Jerome for finding and sending me links about my father, and information on The Eastern Carolina Industrial School for Boys. Mr.Jerome inspired me to travel to the Wilson Library to find out more. In the next blog, Riley describes this time in his own words.