Part 35: Riley's Revolving Door
It is July 26, 2020. There are 110 million Americans living in rented apartments, and between 19 and 23 million of them risk eviction before September. The virus is spiking in many states, and it's exposing our problems as a nation. Our economy was built on a house of cards, hopes, dreams, and "the power of positive thinking."
There are some that want to go back to a time in their own white-washed imagination, where American history is all about proving how great this country is, always has been, and in their minds, always will be.
Was Christopher Columbus a hero who "discovered" this land, or a murderous psycho, raping, killing and enslaving people who were already here? Is The Donner Party a story of perseverance and survival, or a history lesson about two arrogant, clueless rich families who insisted on buying a bullshit map from a con man, putting everyone in the the horrible position of having to eat people to survive?
Some say the Civil War was simply about "states rights", instead of about "rights" to own other humans. Humans who were worked to the bone, humiliated, raped, tortured, families separated, all so this country could profit and expand.
It's difficult, but I'm all for looking at the past with realistic eyes. The actual history, even if it's what happened in our family. How can a nation, or a person for that matter, grow and change if the history lessons are based on smoke and mirrors, puff pieces, and spin?
When I first pulled this drawing out of my late father's box of personal photographs and mementos, I was stunned. How on earth did Riley get Jo, the mother of his children, to pose for a drawing created by his young new girlfriend (my mother)? On a phone call last night, Jo's daughter, Leslie, mentioned that the drawing makes her mother look much more plain than she was. I hadn't thought that at first, but on closer inspection (see photograph of Jo) I agree.
Jo Graham, pictured above.
Back in New York, in the time between Dad's third wife, Alix, and Jo, Riley had a relationship with a woman, a songwriter that Don Canton had introduced him to. The two hit it off, and they either married, or moved in together. At the same time Riley was with the songwriter, he had a side relationship going with an aspiring singer named Doree. When it ended with the songwriter, he simply moved in with Doree.
How many kids did my father have?
As you already know, Riley had an ability to juggle multiple stories in his brain, and he could keep track of what story he told to each person he was in a relationship with. As mentioned, in his youth he could retain unbelievable amounts of detailed information. When he was young, his memory and recall were legendary.
Late in life, when he began this detailed journal, he wrote down every romantic and sexual encounter, every movie he saw, historical events during his life, every person he met and other details like addresses of apartments he lived in. Going through it is overwhelming. As mentioned, friends helped me count the list of women, there are 84 listed. A few "went home pregnant" or "called to say they were pregnant." Here's one entry:
MARY (Darkhaired girl from Minneasota. Met while living with Doree. Moved in with her...She got pregnant. Went to San Bernadino, Ca., to be with mother)
There are six pages like this, some with full names or who the woman was married to.
When Riley suddenly quit his job working for Harry Belafonte and his "A & R" job with Roulette, he moved to Reading, leaving Jo behind in New York with the kids. He left her with a lot of bills to pay. She also got some menacing phone calls from men who were looking for Riley. These calls weren't from the landlord. Something more sinister was going on, and she knew there was trouble. Something scary was afoot, something that had to do with organized crime, but she had no proof. He also hadn't paid the rent on their leased apartment, as usual.
Free of his family for a time in Reading, Riley hooked up with Shorty Long. But it wasn't enough work to pay off his bills. The story goes that Riley rented a large apartment in town for himself, and a place for Jo and the kids when she came out. They would live apart while they worked out their problems. She still loved him after everything they'd been through.
Riley was on his own, working on his encyclopedia of folk music, and he made new friends. One night, he met my mother, Jan, at a bar with a group of mutual friends.
At the time, my mother had hit a rough patch in life. Her husband had run out on her and left her with their two year-old, my sister, Lisa. The husband said he didn't realize how hard it would be, having a baby. He told my mother that he missed hanging out with his friends. So he dumped her. They never divorced, he just took off. Alimony wasn't a thing back then, so at age 23, my mother was alone, with no job, and a young daughter.
She was renting a tiny, closet-like room in someone's house with her two-year old. Trained as an artist, she was looking for regular work. The friend who'd invited her to the bar tried to get my mother a job selling magazines door to door. Painfully shy and introverted, she couldn't bring herself to knock on stranger's doors. She was at the end of her tether; broke, estranged from her family, and a single mom.
At the bar, my mother and Riley got to know each other. When Riley found out she was an artist, he told her he was working on a project that would have the music and publishing worlds turning cartwheels; an encyclopedia of folk music. He told her she and my older half-sister Lisa could move into his place, and in exchange for paying any rent, she would illustrate his encyclopedia.
What an opportunity to get out of the shitty situation she'd found herself in.
My mother said Riley was charismatic, intelligent, and people were drawn to him. She said total strangers would come up to him, just wanting to talk. There was something about him. He knew about art, music, history, film, and he supported her talent as a serious artist. He didn't simply pat her on the head and say "what a nice hobby" like so many people back then. Women were not taken seriously in the art world, but Riley didn't feel that women were less capable than men. The relationship was immediately romantic. They were not just roommates or friends at first, which is what I'd believed, and what I'd been told. My mother corrected the bad information last week in a phone call.
Mom set to work on making illustrations for the encyclopedia. Best of all, Riley got her two year-old little girl to talk for the first time, before that my sister had some speech and learning delays.
When Jo came to town with the kids, she realized that there was a 23 year-old woman living in the back of Riley's rented apartment. "We're just friends," he'd said. "She's having a tough time, she needed a place to live."
Jo was suspicious, but she wanted to make her marriage work. Leslie told me that her mother had my mother over for dinners. So strange. Meanwhile, Riley told my mother stories about his wife, Jo. She was the one causing all the problems.
So how on earth did Riley get Jo to sit for the portrait? Imagine a man so convincing, so willing to bullshit that he could orchestrate this scenario, where his girlfriend sketches his wife?
As I've mentioned, I met Jo in Pennsylvania when I was visiting Leslie, my half-sister. We had dinner together, and after, she showed me her photographs from her theater years. She didn't want to talk about Riley at all, so we didn't. She did, however, confide in Leslie about what happened with Riley throughout their relationship.
When I spoke to Marion's mother, she said back in 1944 when she met Riley, she knew he was married. "He was handsome and charming," she said. Maybe some of his girlfriends knew and didn't care?
Jo thought they would eventually get back together. What's sad is I grew up believing stories about my father's ex-wives. There was always something terribly wrong with them, and that's why Dad had to leave. It seemed as though he had no choice, they "drove him away" with some kind of behavior he could no longer tolerate. "He did everything he could."
Many of them still loved him.
Riley reached out to Doree later in his life, and apologized to her, but her letters back (they were in the boxes) weren't angry, she still seemed fond of him.
Even after his death, he charms from the grave. I loved the "Hidden Brain" episode, "The Cowboy Philosopher", but the truth is my father did, in fact, rip off his friend, Ted. The whole last part, in the interview with Steve, Ted's son, was based on what Steve thought was true. To refresh, another thing that was stashed away in those boxes: Letters between Riley and Ted. The letters between the men are angry and explosive, they'd had a falling out. But I already knew that my father had ripped off Ted, and that's why I thought Steve was trying to sell me the boxes. I thought Steve was trying to recover his family's losses. The truth was, Steve really believed my father was a genius, and that the work and my father's recording contracts were truly valuable. He sincerely believed there was interest in all of it. The interesting part, in my mind, is all the twists and turns, his strange life, how many times he recreated himself, and what he managed to produce under those circumstances.
Steve was sincerely fond of Riley, and he thought my father's work and research had value, which is sweet and kind. Ted had developed dementia, and he simply forgot all about his difficult history with my father, and they became friends again.
Dad loved a fresh start, and he got one with Ted.
The best part about what Steve said at the end of the podcast is that it gave the show an "uplifting ending" which people love. It was the story of a genius and a survivor, who put everything else in his life second to his work and research....a nice story well told. An American story.
It was the memorial Riley never got to have.
Next up, blog 36: Riley's identities, complete with social security cards and back stories, plus a photograph of my mother, Jan.