"It's a Boy's World"

by Betty Stockwell, as told to Jane Morris

Parents, December 1950

Raising two boys without a father's help takes courage. Betty Stockwell had it plus a determination that Dean and Guy make their own lives minus apron strings

 

There's always a game of football, baseball or pitch in full swing on our block and in the thick of it you'll find my boys: Guy and Dean. When they were smaller and played in the backyard, you'd have found me, too, for I filled in at first base, at second or third and as shortstop in my time. When we first got the parallel bars, I showed the boys how to chin and climb until one day I looked in the mirror and found I was beginning to develop muscles! Now I confine myself to the swing and the boys kid me. "This is Mom's idea of exercise," they tell their friends.

We've been very close, we three, for even when they were small, before Mr. Stockwell and I were separated and subsequently divorced, their dad was constantly on the road traveling with one theatrical company or another and they knew him primarily from radio broadcasts or recordings and from his brief visits at home. From the beginning, I tried never to commit the unforgivable the attempt to tie boys to my apron strings or to make them substitutes for the company of an absent father. I like freedom myself and children must have it freedom and the opportunity to develop self-reliance. When the boys were learning to walk, I didn't hold onto their hands. They might reach out and grab for my hand or skirt, but I'd put their little hands on a table or on a chair and let them help themselves to stand. Any small thing they did, whether it was to stand up or take a step, they were able to feel they had done it on their own and could take satisfaction in their achievement. The big job any parent has is to build up a child's confidence in himself, not tear it down. This extends to matters of discipline. I think it a mistake to embarrass a child before his playmates. If there is to be punishment, then the punishment can wait until you have the child in the house alone with you. Actually, embarrassing him before others distracts him from the purpose of the punishment and fills the child with resentment rather than repentance. Dean, who is very sensitive, would probably never have forgiven me for that.  He remembers every punishment he ever had.

From the time they were old enough to play, they went out together, down the elevator in our apartment house, and into the small yard that has to suffice for children in New York City. I could look out the kitchen window and watch them, but I seldom interfered in their play or in their quarrels with other children. There again, the only way they could grow up and be proud of themselves was to prove they could stand on their own feet.

When I wanted to call them, I whistled, a loud two-note whistle, the only one I can accomplish with finesse.  It's the whistle Guy and Dean use today (only sotto voce) when they see a pretty girl. And they obeyed that whistle. It was far less objectionable than having their names screeched out in a ladylike soprano. They understood a whistle; it was part of the world where they were at home a boy's world. I have lived in that world a good deal myself, for you have to put yourself in a boy's place and have confidence in him if he's ever to have confidence in himself. When we were on location for Kim no, not in India, but at Lone Pine, California Dean had the time of his life in between takes, exploring the high cliffs where part of the picture was filmed. He'd eat lunch faster than anyone and go off by himself while I'd wait below trying not to think of what could happen to the boy if his foot slipped or an avalanche started. He and Errol Flynn actually started an avalanche for the picture by pushing a rock off a cliff, so I knew it could happen. But Dean is an active boy, sure-footed and quick and it would be stupidly maternal to start nagging, "Don't do this, don't do that," just because I wouldn't think of doing what so delighted him and what seemed quite all right to the men in the company. He enjoyed this part of the picture in the mountains, even wearing his turban and sheepskin jacket in the heat, because he could ride his pack horse up the parched rocks with the men and it was difficult and challenging. In between scenes he was off on foot, exploring. After work, he'd play baseball with the local boys in front of the hotel, or, if he had a morning free, he'd go fishing with Billy Bartledge, his stand-in, a former jockey. Dean came back from that ten-day location trip with a whole new sense of achievement. He had done things many grown-up men never get a chance to do; he had ridden pack horses up mountain passes and stood in high places without fear. He had proved himself to himself.

He has done that all along the line. He's never been forbidden to play roughly, the way boys play football, for example, which has definite hazards for a boy whose face is important to his career. It wouldn't be fair to deprive him of his normal activities or penalize him for having talent. It's so easy to say no. It's so much fairer to stand in their shoes and see how you'd feel.

Even in the matter of clothes, the boys have always had their say. If Dean picks out some shirts extravagantly loud, I may say, "Why those, Dean?" and he'll explain that he's never had plaid shirts like those. So I suggest he take one, wear it and be sure he likes it before buying another.

The same with Guy. There was the day he was to enter Loyola High School. He was only thirteen then and the school was a long way off; but it would have been less than kind to have satisfied myself and driven him over. I told him, instead, how to get there, what street cars to take and what street numbers to watch for. "You have a good sense of direction, Guy. If you should get confused changing cars, ask some businessman or a gas station attendant." Then I watched him go down the street, swinging his arms like a man of the world.

With Dean, there's been a different problem. He's old enough to go places alone now, but he is a movie star and likely to get into a crowd where too many demands are put upon him by autograph seekers, by admirers, and by the merely curious who ask questions that would stump an adult. Most grown-up stars seldom go to public functions without a studio publicity man along for this very reason. I haven't wanted Dean to feel that he needs a 'bodyguard' but I've seen to it that men friends of ours or my brother-in-law or friends from the studio suggest to Dean that they take in the fights or see a basketball game. These are never "Mom's arrangements," they're always arranged man to man.

It's certainly harder for a parent to grant leeway, but it pays off; I've had a chance to see, for mine are big boys now. Guy is sixteen and a junior at Loyola. He's planning to be an electrical engineer. Dean is fourteen and in first-year high at the MGM schoolhouse. He doesn't know yet what he's going to be. "People have to have hobbies, don't they? Well, making movies is mine. When I go to college, I'll find out what my real job is going to be." Movie directors who have worked with him on pictures like Stars in My Crown, The Happy Years, and Kim, smile when Dean says that; but he doesn't think in movie terms. His hero is Guy. He loves to do everything Guy does and Guy is Dean's greatest booster. I've been lucky to have had the two of them, for a single child is hard for two parents to raise, while two children close to the same age learn to share as they grow. It doesn't happen often, but if Dean ever gets too cocky, Guy gives him a "Hey, bub, get hep, you're not that good." Once in a while they quarrel, and then I remind them that it's well not to say things you can be sorry for and that I live in this house, too, and would like to live in an atmosphere of peace and compatibility. Guy is six feet new and I'm four eleven; I probably look very funny shaking my finger in my big boy's face. Then I go out and leave them alone, and when I come back, all is serene. When I say good night to them and see them stretched out long in their beds with their dogs curled up at their feet, I can breathe a big sigh of relief, remembering the days when I came west with the two of them, knowing that the job of raising them was all mine and trying not to be scared.

So many times, other mothers who have the problems of a family without a father's help have asked me for advice. My first thought is always, "Don't be frightened. If your children know you're frightened, you're beaten. You are their example, make it a good one."

I think children should be told the truth about divorce, without any bitterness. I explained to the boys that people can't always help falling in love or out of love. I've even told them that someday a girl they love may come to like someone else better and there's no help for it but to go on living and believing in life and love. When the boys first heard of our impending divorce, eight-year-old Guy said, "Don't worry, Honey, we'll stay with you always." And Dean added, "Me too." That was a spontaneous, childish gesture and I have always wanted to keep it just that.

I don't feel they've missed the masculine element because they had each other, they made friends easily with boys and with men. I made it my business to understand boy's games and their ideas of fun, and when punishment was needed, I administered it and hard, as a father would.

My fear in the early days was not of the boys' development they're the rugged sort no woman could make Fauntleroys out of (and believe me, I didn't want to!). My fear was in the matter of being able to support them, make a home for them and still be with them. I had been in the theater but to go back would have meant turning the boys over to outsiders and I wanted the joy of motherhood as well as the fact. I'd rather have hung out a sign "Day Nursery," and taken in other children than to have seen my boys just long enough each day to say good morning and good night.

Dean and Guy know nothing of this, for it seems unfair to intrude grown-up difficulties on children. I hadn't quite made up my mind about the Day Nursery, when one day the MGM talent scout, Al Altman, called to ask if he could use Dean in a screen test he was making of Walter Boag. I didn't know whether Dean would be particularly good. His only theatrical experience had been in the Theatre Guild production of The Innocent Voyage in which he and Guy played brothers. Dean had two lines in that play and he forgot them every time because there was an adorable little girl who played his sister and Dean was entranced with her. He'd stand on the stage patting the little girl's arm and forget all about the lines.

But Dean made the test and when producer Joe Pasternak came to New York, he asked to see Dean as a possibility for the boy in Anchors Aweigh. I waited outside while Mr. Pasternak talked with Dean. I'd been in the business and I knew how difficult auditions were without one's mother standing by, watching. Later, Al Altman told me that Mr. Pasternak had particularly liked the fact that Dean wasn't a stage child and that I wasn't a stage mother, pushing him along.

 

When Mr. Pasternak asked Dean if he'd like to play the part, Dean shrugged. "Can I keep the lollypops?" he asked: for in the scene where Mr. Pasternak had tested him there were a hundred lollypops on the set. From the first day at Metro, making the picture wasn't like work to Dean, it was like play. He adored Gene Kelly, "Mr. Kelly has children, doesn't he, Honey?" he asked, adding, "He acts like a daddy." The instinct of a child is wonderful. He was very fond of Frank Sinatra, too, and of Kathryn Grayson.

In one scene, the nursery scene where Kathryn was putting Dean to sleep, she was speaking very softly and Dean was doing the same. The more softly she spoke to encourage sleep, the softer Dean spoke. Finally, the sound man stopped it. "Dean," he said, "if you'll speak louder, I'll give you that boat" one of the handsome toys on the set. "And what will you give Miss Grayson?" Dean asked. The sound man laughed and said she'd get a box of candy. But he forgot both boat and the candy. As a matter of face, he couldn't have given Dean the boat because it belonged to the prop department; but Dean did not understand and he's never forgotten it.

I always tell the crew not to promise him anything. You can't bribe him anyhow he acts as he feels. He has never been able to rehearse (it makes him feel silly, he says) but when the cameras roll, that's real. He hates to be fussed over. When David Saultupper, the wardrobe man, tried to help Dean with his costume the first day, Dean just brushed him off. David told me and I suggested he kid with Dean. So David went back in. "You back again?" Dean said.

"Yeah, I'm back again, what about it?" Dean's face lit up at once; he'd found a buddy. Now he and David play cards together and share their lunches.

When we leave the studio at night, we leave the motion picture business completely behind us. Dean carts along home whatever he's made that day (at the moment, figures he fashions out of pipe cleaners two fighters slugging, a centipede, a dog). Often we have dinner at the small Italian restaurant that my sister and I opened a year ago on Robertson near National. If the boys want to eat at home, I can cook dinner quickly. For that matter, Dean is a good cook, too. Guy is the dishwasher. We eat and talk and neighborhood boys drop in. To them Dean is important only because he can play football and baseball. Guy is more important because he's bigger and faster. Monday nights they like to go to the fights. Tuesdays they like to have company for television shows, Sunday they ride horseback and attend a matinee. These are the prize activities. Saturday evenings, Guy goes his own way, usually to a church dance. He gets five dollars a week allowance but he has to buy gas out of that, and the car itself he bought largely with the money he earned in bit parts in Dean's pictures.

Guy could probably have had a good movie career himself, but he doesn't like acting and why force him? Both boys know how to dance; I taught them as soon as they were old enough to walk; but Dean isn't interested yet and doesn't envy Guy his Saturday nights as long as there's something else for him to do.

Guy also has come to the age when there's the question of smoking. He asked me if he might smoke, then hurried to explain that he wasn't interested in cigarettes but in a pipe. I decided it was better to have him smoke before my eyes than behind my back and you should see his pipe! It's bowl is about the size of a thimble and after he's taken four or five puffs, that's it. He hasn't touched the thing now for three months; it just sits on his desk, dignified and important looking, and Dean has decided that when he's ready, he's going to have a pipe too. Wednesday is our night out together at a movie. They always pick an action picture or a slapstick comedy.

One way of keeping children from being dependent on you is to develop friends and interests of your own so that when you and the children are together it's a privilege for them rather than a necessity; and you, in turn, won't be hurt when they go off with friends. That's how it is at our house, and I carry with me always the memories of nights when the boys are on their own and I'm going out for an evening at a friend's.

"So long, Honey, have a good time!" they say; and I do because I know the world they live in; they've let me know it, and I can leave them as I always could, with perfect confidence and no apron strings attached.

The End

 

 

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