Part 20: WWll, Chicago, and Those Wacky Lectures
Sometimes I don't know what to believe. My mother told me something that Riley told her about his life back when WWll began. When someone tells you what someone told them, is that double hearsay? I'll get to what she told me in a bit.
In part 19, I attempted to list all of my father's stage names, pen names, and who knows what-for-names. Now, I'm reading page after page of what was going on in Riley's life in the early 1940s. Remember, he'd been a merchant marine, and while the ship was headed to Rio, he met a woman from Chicago named Winifred Cessek. He writes in his journal as an old man looking back, that "she loved me more than I loved her, and she deserved better. I would also like to apologize to her."
When my father wrote that, he had no idea that Winnifred Cessek had died years before. He'd cut ties and moved on, so he wouldn't have known she'd passed away back in 1952. Whenever I broke up with a boyfriend, Dad advised me to cut them off completely. "You can't stay friends," he said. I didn't pay too much attention to that advice.
At times, I thought he'd abandoned kids and left wives with little regret, but he did have regrets, as we've seen.
Here are some of the piles I've been sorting through. My entire house is covered with piles of papers, finally in some kind of order. Thanks to everyone who helped me organize, I'm looking at you, Heidi Parker and Claire Boynton.
My father's recall was astounding, as I've mentioned. For one, I never understood how he could keep all his lies straight. Now, seeing how many relationships he had going...wow. I was on Twitter the other day and the actress Patricia Arquette was wondering how "dudes that have two secret families are doing with the quarantine" and I immediately thought of my father. I believe he would've pulled it off, though. If anyone could do it, he could've.
Riley remembered every film he'd seen, and there are dozens of pages in the journal listing those movies, like an encyclopedia of film. When I was a kid, Dad and I loved watching old movies and TV shows. I'd scan the TV Guide for movies that looked good, shout out the title, and he could list the entire cast before I'd even turned the set on.
Something interesting, all that time living with my father, I never knew him to be sick. He was healthy as an ox. There were times when he exhausted himself, staying up all night writing, then he'd crash and sleep a lot, but no sick days. He had mood swings, for sure. I never knew him to have a headache, an upset stomach, nothing. It astonishes me, looking back, how carefree he was about what he ate, how many cigars he smoked in a day, how much coffee he drank, and candy he consumed, and yet, he seemed immune to the common cold.
Even with diabetes later in life, when I could not get him to stop eating Ritz Crackers, or from guzzling grape juice, Dad was still pretty healthy. "It's natural sugar!" He'd yell defensively about the juice. Once, when he was promoting a young musician in Ventura, he fell at their beach house. I was in college, so I'm guessing it was around 1988, probably around the time he started writing this journal. It was the first time I ever knew him to have an injury, except for one accident with a chef's knife when he cut his hand making dinner for me. When he fell in 1988, he was shocked, too, it seemed, and took too long to see a doctor. It swelled up and was painful. He'd cracked his elbow.
I've been thinking about WWll recently, both because of what my mother told me, and also because I'm watching this creepy show based on a book by Phillip Roth called "The Plot Against America." In the show, Roosevelt doesn't win, Lindbergh wins, and we see it through the eyes of a Jewish family living in New Jersey. It's Covid-19 quarantine time. I've been inside my house since March 16, 2020, so lots of TV, just like when I was a kid living with my father all those years ago.
Dad was in his early 20s when the war broke out, healthy, tall, handsome, articulate. So why didn't he serve in that war? I asked him about it when I was a kid, and he said, "I was in the Merchant Marines" so I thought, in my little kid brain, that the Merchant Marines was somehow the same, although I knew he was a cook on that ship, or a "utility man" as they called it.
Here's what Riley writes looking back on his 23rd year when he was married to Winifred and living in Chicago: (I'll always put Riley's words in bold and italics).
MARCH: Lend-leas bill became law....America would become the "arsenal of democracy" by building, lending, and leasing armaments of all kinds, as well as food and medical supplies, to the British and their allies.
JUNE: Hitler launched a military attack on Russia.....
AUG.14: Churchill & Roosevelt met on a ship in mid-Atlantic and issued joint declarations expressing certain common principles in National policies (The Atlantic Charter).
DEC. 7: Japan attacked Pearl Harbor...sank four battleships, many lesser craft, destroyed 164 planes on the ground, killed 2335 sailors, soldiers, and marines, as well as 68 civilians, wounded 1200 others, and created additional havoc. They lost 29 planes, one large submarine, and five midget submarines.
At this time, Riley lived with Winifred Cessek in an apartment on N. Clark Street. They got married at City Hall by a judge. Winifred's father had died before they married, and after Clark Street they moved into her mother's house in Cicero in 1943.
From his timeline, I see that he lived in Chicago from 1941 to 1944, with many side trips to New York and other places, and multiple "side" relationships. My half-sister Marion was conceived in Chicago in 1944, right before Riley skipped town. If you heard the "Hidden Brain" podcast about Riley, Marion told the producers,(and me when we first spoke in 2011) that our father told her biological mother that he was sterile, and not to worry about birth control.
This brings me to what my mother told me all those years ago. She said that my father wasn't accepted for service in WWll because the United States Army diagnosed him as a sociopath. I actually tried to find a record of that diagnosis, to no avail. The word sociopath is triggering, for the lay person it sounds like something drastic, like he's some kind of serial killer. The diagnosis also suggests that my father lacked empathy. My experiences with him make me wonder about the label, but I'm not a psychologist. It seemed to me that he had empathy sometimes, and for certain people. Not all sociopaths are violent, and as I've said, my father wasn't a violent person. I certainly felt that he cared about what was going on with me, and we had long talks, and he wrote me long, supportive, caring letters. He worried about me and my safety and well being. I felt loved. He also seemed to care more about the plight of groups of people in the world at large. Which is why it's so surprising to find out about how he treated employers, ex-wives, and his own children.
I wonder what that psychiatrist in Kinston, North Carolina said about Riley when his parents brought him in at age 11.
Anyway, I'm not so sure about that diagnosis. I did, however, witness my father not seeing right from wrong, and he didn't seem to have a solid relationship with the concept consequences. As an adult, (this was in 2001, I think) I had to explain to Riley why his girlfriend's son, a convicted rapist, should not be delivering furniture into people's homes. Also, I really don't think he felt bad about ripping people off. He expresses deep regrets in his journal, but not about the money he took, and he doesn't mention the fact that he told women he was sterile. He seemed to enjoy tricking people, and enjoy getting away with things, like that bag of silver he swiped when he was a kid.
So if my father didn't serve in WWll, what was he up to? The journal entries for Riley's life in the 1940s are overwhelming, plus my half-brother sent me all the flyers, brochures, and promotional items his mother (Riley's third wife, Alex) had stored in her attic. Marion's biological mother was an actress, and she said she met him with some theater project or class. The flyers, playbills, and promotional postcards were all from Chicago in 1942, 43, and 44, including a theater program for a production of an adaptation of "Dracula" that he was cast in, and Winifred did the "musical effects." Wish I could go back and time and see it. Riley began doing lectures with others, including Alois Knapp, the "nudist lawyer" who later would help Winnifred when she divorced Riley. He felt betrayed by his friend, Alois.
My father added the title of "Dr." in these adverts, as mentioned, he wasn't a PhD. He dropped out of school in either the third or fifth grade. He either got involved in the People's Art Center & Neighborhood Forum on 640 State Street, or he started it. On one flyer, Richard Riley Shepard is listed as the managing director, and Dr. Alois S. Knapp was on the board of trustees. Perhaps Riley actually created the People's Art Center. Lots of stuff about marriage and sex in my Dad's lectures. Go figure.
Someone needs a manicure. Look at that cuticle. Yikes.
Here's what Riley writes in his journal looking back on this time in Chicago: (He wrote in all caps so I kept it that way, and I put his words in bold and italics.)
1941 THOUGH 1944....CHICAGO
Worked as a COOK....ENTERTAINMENT AGENT AT GAC, THEN AS INDEPENDENT....MANAGED RED FOLEY, KARL & HARTY, DAVE DENNEY, LUCKY THE WONDER DOG, AND BOOKED ACTS........MADE PERSONAL APPEARANCES AT VARIOUS THEATERS, ONE OR TWO NIGHT CLUBS AND FAIRS.....PLAYED TOWER THEATER, KANSAS CITY, MO. RETURNED TO CHICAGO, BOOKED SLEEPY HOLLOW RANCH OUTSIDE PHILADELPHIA, ..STAYED TO MANAGE JESSE RODGERS, SHORTY LONG & SANTE FE RANGERS, AND TO WRITE AND APPEAR ON THE BLUE NETWORK (NOW ABC) A SHOW ORIGINATING AT WFIL, PHILADEPHIA....MOVED TO NEW YORK CITY...ROOMED AT_________________________HOTEL. TOOK A JOB AS HEAD OF C/W DEPARTMENT AT LEEDS MUSIC AND CONTINUED TO DO HAYLOFT HOEDOWN.
In one sentence, mixed in with a bunch of other notes, Riley writes that he was "called up by the draft board, but was given a deferment."
In his notes, he lists these connections when he was married to Winifred and working for WFIl Blue Network:
Dave Denney (Boston & Albany)
Lou and Geo Levy
He writes about his career, and world events, and this is edited down because the entries go on and on for pages, especially his notes on what was happening with the war.
1942: RRS was 24
Went on stage tour with Red Foley, Karl and Harty, Shelby Jean, etc. First dates were Indianapolis, Ind., and Rockford, Ill. for Sam Roberts....
Got FAFA underway.
Roy Acuff, Gene Autry, Art Satherly, Fred Rose, who was having a fling with Jenny Lou Carson (Red Foley's sister-in-law). Red's wife, who used the alias Judy Martin wanted a singing career. Tex Ritter.....Frederick Bros...
Fred Rose had teamed up with Roy Acuff to operate a music publishing company in Nashville, adn this was the year they went into business. Opened 2 companies:
Acuff-Rose (BMI) and Milene (ASCAP)
Fred also wrote songs for BMI firm under alias: Floyd Jenkins. he also was soon to record for Satherly on Columbia as The Rambling Rogue.
Sat. March 21: U.S. began mass evacuation of Japanese from L.A. and So. California...sent them to Owens Valley Concentration Camp.
Sat nite, Nov. 29: Fire swept thro Boston's Cocoanut Grove night club, killing some 260, including Buck Jones, and injuring scores of others.
I left the gossip about Jenny Lou Carson in because Kevin Coffey told me it was common knowledge.
I'm careful about what I include about Riley's relationships. My half-sister Marion, my half-sister Leslie, and half-brother Richard have all shared stories and photographs and support this project, but we're all protective of our mothers. It's hard not to include all the women, because the women seemed to be a large part of what drove Riley. While he was married to Winifred, he had so many other girlfriends. In his journal, he lists 84 women over his life, (thanks for helping me count, Thomas) some that he was back and forth with, "on again, off again" like the woman in California named Colleen.
It's hard to leave these Chicago years behind, but there's simply too much to cover.
In 1944, Riley left Chicago, and went to Philadelphia and New York. This is where he met the love of his life, a beautiful actress who went by the stage name, Alix Taran.
Next, in blog 21: Newspaper clippings promoting the song "Blue Christmas," more about Alix Taran, who became Riley's third wife. It seems they never divorced. They broke up in the 1940s, but he carried her photograph in his wallet his entire life.