Part 28: Half-Sister, Full Blog. A History, by Leslie Sullivan.
This is a special guest post, written by my half-sister, Leslie. Below is a photo Leslie shared today, one I'd never seen. Jo (brunette on the left) with Riley (third from left) and another couple. Leslie and I wondered if the man is Jack Dempsey. Sure looks like him. I'll try to find something in Dad's journal to confirm. You decide, here's Jack Dempsey's wikipedia page.
Ok, the rest of this blog is my half-sister, Leslie, writing about the stories she was told, what she remembers, and what she's discovered. From now on, when I write something, I'll put it in italics.
In keeping with my sister’s blog of last week, today is 6/3/2020. I am watching the news after a long day of work, catching up on the ninth night of protests, which began after a black man, George Floyd, was killed in broad day light by a police officer in MN. Witnesses tried to get the officer and/or his fellow officers at the scene to take his knee of the neck of man begging to be let up because he couldn’t breath! The protesting has grown into world wide, large-scale gatherings expressing passion for change around the underpinnings and long systemic history of racism and the intersectionality of many forms of oppression finally reaching a breaking point.
It is sad to think that many of the good folks protesting this horrific murder, (it represents about the worst of America’s history-- the capacity for humans to want to dominate and treat others like their lives are not as important) will unintentionally continue another rise of COVID-19 infections, and many more innocent people will die unnecessarily. Also, I pray that all the young people who are out protesting will take a small part of this anger and energy, a few hours of their time, and vote in their local and national elections. My name is Leslie, and I was born in February of 1960. I was my mother’s second child. My brother, Graham was born in December of 1959 14 months earlier. From all that I know, it seems that my mother met Riley in New York City in March of 1957 and within a few months, Riley moved in with her into her apartment.
Above, a photo of Riley and Jo's children, Graham and Leslie. Notice how Riley's head is cut off in the one on the bottom...
Before the end of the year, my mother had a part in the play "The Great Sebastians" in Pawling, New York, and by August she was in a series of plays with an Equity company in Montreal, Canada for several weeks. I have a series of love letters that Jo and Riley wrote back and forth to one another. She left Riley in their apartment taking care of her cat, and she said, “He never really liked my cat". When she arrived home, the cat was gone.
She always suspected that Riley got rid of it. My mother was a young, talented actress that left graduate school in Boston after completing all her course work, but not her thesis, to take a part in an off Broadway play. She loved the theater. Being an actress was her first love until Riley. She fell in love for the first time with this man over fifteen years her senior, with the best of intentions, an open heart and no idea of Riley’s capacity to lie, cheat, steal and manipulate. She unknowingly traded her dreams for a life of heartbreak. Before my mother died at 86 years old in February of 2017, I had written the story my mother had told me so many times about how she met my father as part of a book I'm working towards. I read her the story to see how she felt about it and she said, “You captured exactly how I felt that day”.
The story is below: _________________________________________________________________________ In a busy, popular pub in New York City on a spring afternoon sat a young actress; Jo Graham. Jo was collaborating with a few fellow thespians at a crowded table close to the door.
The day had been filled with opportunities in the theater district. There were lots of auditions for new off-Broadway plays. In the late 1950’s this pub was the place where many working song writers, actors and playwrights would stop for nourishment, networking, and simply to be seen by those who were empowered to forward their careers. Jo and her friends sat at the table talking to each to her about their recent auditions. They were taking time to thoughtfully critique each other’s performances. During their banter, they were all looking around to see if anyone important was about; while anxiously attempting to not be obvious. Jo never had a good poker face. Her emotions were lit up by her unconscious, naïve expressions. An older, tall and handsome man came audaciously through the door. Without a self-conscious flicker he walked straight for the man at the bar that everyone else was clamoring to be around. Shorty Long turned around hearing the sound of what appeared to be a frequently flying close friend saying, “Hello Shorty”. Shorty arose from his stool and the two men gave each other a bear hug and a quick, but deliberate kiss on the lips. Jo was shocked but intrigued by the view of two large, loud, obviously straight, older men displaying their affection for each other with such an enthusiastic hug and a kiss on the mouth. Conversations continued until Jo walked across the dinner to the ladies room. That day she had put on a new dress that she felt like a movie star in. It was royal blue with a V-neck and a matching deep-v back that perfectly hugged the curves of her figure. The color accentuated her eyes and helped to illuminate her flawless, creamy skin, and dark brown hair. She looked beautiful in it. As Jo was walking towards the ladies room, nervously aware that she would have to pass the handsome, older stranger still talking, drinking and laughing with the owner she told herself, “I will walk like I don’t even notice him and don’t have a care in the world. I wonder if noticed how interested in him I am? I wonder if the way he looked at me across the room means that he’s interested too? Does he think I’m attractive?" Although Jo had been in front of many audiences and felt most alive while performing, she felt different and inadequate about herself with men. She'd not yet had a fulfilling experience with a man. She had not fallen in love or felt loved by another. Throughout undergraduate school at Ohio State University, and graduate school in Boston, she witnessed so many of her peers fall in love and develop lasting, meaningful relationships. She was beginning to feel that something might be fundamentally wrong with her. As she approached the men, Jo took a deep breath, walking with her head held high, and her best stage walk. As she passed the handsome stranger he said, “Hey beautiful, on your way back to your table, I’d love to buy you a drink? What do you say?” Moments before Jo stood up to walk his way, Riley said to Jack, “The great looking woman headed our way will be mine by the end of the night. What would you like to bet?” Riley felt most confident in his ability to seduce women and please them. He knew how intoxicating these feelings are with woman. It made them easier to manipulate later! Under his strong, confident, charming persona when he was alone with himself, he felt grave doubts about his abilities in almost every other area. He rarely allowed himself to dwell in the dark areas of his mind. Jo kept walking, but turned to look over her left shoulder and smiled to acknowledge the first move and show some interest while not appearing to be overly anxious. _________________________________________________________________________ My mother saved the royal blue dress she had on the day she met Riley because she loved it so much. When I was 17 years-old doing local theater in Berks County, Pennsylvania, I would wear it every now and then.
Below is a photo of Leslie at age 17. I'm pretty sure my mother, Jan, took this photo, (my mother is a photographer and artist) as that is the year I met her for the first time. I was twelve years-old. --Stacya
According to my mother, in September my father and she moved into a one-bedroom apartment across from the actor’s studio on 429 W. 44th, Apt. 3 B. Mom married Riley in Greenwich, Connecticut in October of 1957. Mom was unsure of the date but thought it may have been the 18th. My mother told me that on their way out of New York City to get married, Riley said they had to stop at his lawyer's home to pick up a paper they would need concerning his divorce from Alix, so that they would not have trouble getting married in Connecticut. She told me that when they got to the lawyers home, the lawyer’s wife was in the foyer. While Riley and her husband were exchanging pleasantries and that paper, Mom could not help but notice how upset and disapproving the lawyer's wife seemed. She assumed that the lawyer and his wife were fighting just prior to their arrival. In retrospect, perhaps the lawyer’s wife was aware that Riley was never divorced from Alix, and that her husband was participating in something deceptive and illegal. I wonder. During this time, Riley and my mother, Jo, were working together creatively. They published an album called, "And God Said". The work was published soon after the move. My mother wrote a lullaby for this album and became a member of ASCAP as a result. This was the lullaby that my mother sang to me as a baby and I later sang to my baby, Corryn Joanne Sullivan throughout her childhood. I hope the tradition continues. It is a beautiful song that I cherish since my mothers death in February 2017. My mother always told me that she wrote it for me, but I know since researching the dates of the history of this song and album, that I was not born yet.
Six months later in March 1959, my mother was pregnant with her first born; my brother, Graham. So far, my mother is the only woman we know of that my father had two children with before he moved on to repeat his pattern! His pattern was meeting a woman, professing his love and need for her, marrying her legally or illegally without their knowledge, or promising to marry them, taking as much of their money and their families money as possible, and then leave suddenly, changing his name one state at a time and beginning again.
Mom and Dad moved to their second apartment. A one-bedroom apartment on W. 72nd Street. By December, Graham was born. In May of 1959 I was conceived. Sometime after my birth they moved again to their final destination at 789 W. End Ave. My mother said, they finally had adequate room for the growing family. My grandmother also came to live with us there. My mother said that the last straw with my father was when he tried to withdraw my grandmother’s money out of her bank account, but the banker suspected fowl play, and made him wait while he called my mother to ask if it was OK to give him the money.
My mother told me many times that when my father worked for Harry Belafonte, he would sometimes come over to the apartment and Dad and he would play the guitar and sing together. Sometimes Harry would sing me to sleep. I have no memory of these times or of my father. I was three and my brother was four when Riley left our family and moved to Reading, Pennsylvania. Riley moved in with his friend Shorty Long and his wife, and they began a recording studio in Berks County, according to my mother. I only have pictures that my mother would sometimes show us when we were growing up.
Riley convinced my mother to leave New York City, her acting career, her job teaching at a school for performing arts, and move to Berks County. She hoped he would finally get a career, earn a steady living, and they would live happily ever after. He rented us a house in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania where we all lived.
Just a year later, Riley left town with Stacy’s mother, Jan, and her daughter, Lisa, who was my age.
We never saw him again.
On his way out of town to wherever they were going, my father stopped in Ohio, went to my mother's only brother's home and he told my uncle that he was on a business trip, and that he'd run out of money. Riley told my uncle that he needed to borrow several thousand dollars and would pay him back as soon as he got home. My uncle did not yet know what had happened. He didn't know Riley was leaving town with another woman, so he faithfully gave him the money. My uncle had a wife and four kids. In those days, a couple thousand dollars was a lot of money. True to my father’s lack of conscious, he never paid my uncle back.
My mother told Graham and I that our father had gone away on a business trip, died in a car accident, but that he had loved us very much. I think she loved him very much. It is clear in retrospect that Riley did not have the ability to love deeply like parents innately do. Well, most parents do! These are the stories that my relatives and close friends of my mother told me after my mother announced that my father had not died, and was, in fact, very much alive. I was seventeen years-old when I learned this news. My reaction was to find my father and meet him if I could. I wrote to him through ASCAP sending a picture of myself.
Below is the photo I sent.
He wrote back and sent me a picture of himself playing the guitar and performing. He invited me to come and visit him, and meet his new family. I did visit within 3 months of receiving the invitation, but had no intention of returning home. I bought a one way ticket to Oxnard, California, where Riley was living with his common-law wife, Jan, his step-daughter Lisa, and the child they conceived, five years after leaving my brother, myself and mother: Stacya. A lot happened between meeting my father and his new family. Finally I returned home to Reading, Pennsylvania, a year and a half later. My life was forever changed when I was reunited with my father, realizing the worst parts of him. It all ended, as did most interactions with Riley and his woman and his children did, poorly. I was alone in circumstances that no one would choose. I was seventeen, and didn't fully understand what I was getting myself into. I left California about 6 months later, traumatized, damaged and with regrets. My main regret was that I would not be able to remain connected to my half-sister, who was only 12 years-old at the time. Another, that I did not know who or where my half-brother was, the brother that was born before us with Riley's third wife, Alix.
Fortunately, many years later after healing the wounds of the past, my sister Stacya and my brother Richard had found each other on the internet. They then pursued an internet search to find me. Suddenly, I was connected with them. Since then we have been getting to know each other and comparing the facts of what we each know about our father's history. Later, our sister Marion found us too. It is a journey I am happy to be taking with my siblings. I am grateful to have them in my life today. ---Leslie Sullivan
Here are more photos of Leslie as a young girl.
Stacya here again. Below is a photo I took of Leslie with my Brownie Camera when I was twelve. It was 1977, and she's posing in our back yard on Pleasant Valley Road in Oxnard. She'd been cast in a play in Ventura called "Play it Again, Sam" by Woody Allen. Leslie played the "dream girl." I thought she was so glamorous and cool. Later, I was cast in that same role at a community theater, but by then I had no idea where Leslie went, or if I'd ever see her again.
So far, I've met four of Riley's children. When we got together in person and talked about the history of it all, the four of us decided that there had to be more children. I believe our father started a family in between Alix and Jo Graham, but we may never know. Next blog, we'll dig back into Riley's journal.