in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, c. 1957
Marjorie Fitzgibbon - nee Steele - died on January 19 of this year. She was the last surviving aunt and immediate maternal family relation of my two eldest daughters, Alicia and Kara. Her passing should have been no shock. Marjorie was 87 and had suffered a stroke, but death always seems a surprise, even when it's not. To the end she had been a vibrant force. Through the latter decades of her life she was beloved and honoured for her sculptures in Ireland, the most famous of which is the marvelously whimsical larger-than-life-sized James Joyce standing in the heart of Dublin.
|Marjorie Fitzgibbon's jaunty|
James Joyce on Dublin's
North Earl Street
Marjorie Steele Fitzgibbon was my sister-in-law many long years ago when I was married to one of her kid siblings, Ora Steele. I first met Marjorie in midsummer of 1958 at my then mother-in-law's Bauhaus glass-and-concrete home perched high on a hillside in the Santa Monica Mountains overlooking a wide sweep of Los Angeles. We all went down to the pool, a kidney-shaped affair on a bluff. It was rare to have all four of the Steele sisters together in during that time - Emily ("Duffy"), the eldest, Marjorie and the twins - Ora and Lola. They shared a rough childhood. The family had lived in a two-room cabin in Reno, Nevada, where Marjorie was born, and after the twins arrived, in a decaying Victorian in a then-trashy, rough part of San Francisco.
Ora was a few months pregnant at the time Marjorie visited L.A. I was a gelatinous bowl of insecurities with dreams of becoming a writer and faking it as a "copy boy" (a job of the past, thanks-be) at the Los Angeles Times and went to college part time. "I work at the Times, I would say, and leave out the copy boy thing. (Marjorie gave us a navy blue, Silver Cross Kensington pram, a Rolls Royce of baby carriages in blue leatherette, with high chrome-spoked wheels and white tires - a generous check and an advance copy of the "What'd I Say," by the then-new rage soul singer Ray Charles.
at her Dublin studio
Hartford was a rich playboy, frequenter of boozy, posh, celebrity nightclubs, the kind you see in those old movies, the most star-frequented of which was Ciro's on the Sunset Strip. That's where they met. He was 39. She was 19. She worked nights at Ciro's as a "cigarette girl" to support herself while she went to acting school on a scholarship. There she met "Hunt," well heeled regular. She enchanted him amid the glitz, then married and turned him her way in the deepest sense - at least for a while.
|Marjorie and Hartford|
with daughter Cathy c. 1954
Hartford's debauched habits resurfaced and grew, however. Before long, he resumed his womanizing and pill-popping boozery, and the last straw, came hushed-up accusations of consorting with underage girls. She divorced Hartford in 1960. She won a handsome settlement, though remarried for love not long afterwards, foregoing a big-bucks alimony. Marjorie's second husband Dudley Sutton, a little known actor when they wed in 1961, became and remains a familiar to UK audiences for numerous film and TV series roles. They divorced in 1965 and have a son, Peter.
|With second husband,|
actor Dudley Sutton c. 1965
Marjorie Steele was luminous the night we saw her on stage as Tennessee Williams' Maggie. But one didn't need to see her performance to recognize that she was special at first glance. She was one of those people who steal every scene, with her persona, not just her graceful beauty. One - I was to perceive over the years - who comes along once in wine-coloured blue supermoon that is rising out my window to the east as I type this post here in Chicago.
|Marjorie with Robert Preston|
in The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky
|with Robert Ryan in No Escape, 1953|
My L.A.-born, eldest daughter Alicia Sammons, who now lives in Mexico City, described the refulgent and tragic moments of her Aunt Marjorie's extraordinary life in a 2005 profile in the Irish Independent. Alicia noted of their conversations at Marjorie's Dublin that even in her advanced years, "Marjorie's tilted green eyes, slightly tipped nose and full lips still shine through. I have travelled half way around the world to spend time with this wonderfully witty and perceptive woman - a woman who has become a mentor and mother to me."
|The twins, l-to-r, Ora and Lola|
with their father, Jack, c 1950
in happier days
Jack, his daughters who continued to worship him no matter what. They said he was a princely man of intelligence and grace. A warrior of Native American descent - whose mother had been a Blackfoot Sioux - married to an attractive, wilful first-generation Swedish-American from Reno, Nevada, he struggled all his life against the bigotry rampant of his time - and outrageously persisting to this Trumpian day. A dreamer, he also took to drink.
|The Steele sisters on San Francisco's Ocean Beach, c. 1945.|
l-to-r: Marjorie, Lola, Duffy, a friend and little Ora
Ora, the younger, seemed a happy, vibrant young woman when we married at the tender ages of 19 and 20. But this turned out to have been only a brief remission from chronic bipolar disorder. She never got over that suicide in her immediate presence. Who would? She suffered from juvenile high blood pressure, bouts of paranoia, delusions and drinking that grew worse over the years, off-and-on, through a second marriage until an early death from complications of alcoholism in her mid-fifties. I've always marveled at how a single act - for good or ill - can ripple through so many lives over generations. That suicide haunted Ora, whose resulting grief and repressed fury haunted me and especially her children. I never really wrote about that. But I did fashion one passage of Our Own Kind from this grisly memory from how Ora had described to me during our courtship and marriage. I had qualms, but that's what writers do.
|Marjorie Steele c. 1960|
Marjorie Steele FitzGibbon was born into poverty, knew enormous wealth for a while and died loved and respected in modest comfort. But she grew rich in heart and spirit all of her life. Somewhere, perhaps as a child, she figured out the secret of a truly rich life was not to take, but give and do one's best to make this world a better place. And give she did through her talent, her art, her perseverance. She was a great Maggie. I'll never forget that performance. She didn't just speak the lines; she lived in them, for she knew true hardship and understood the price of existential triumph.
Most of all, like Maggie the Cat, Marjorie had true grit:
"What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?" Brick taunts her.
"Staying on it, I guess," Maggie responds, "long as I can."
And later: "Maggie the cat is alive. I'm alive!"
Umberto Tosi is the author of My Dog's Name, Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes ASAP, covering the Silicon Valley tech industry. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine and other regionals He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four grown children - Alicia Sammons, Kara Towe, Cristina Sheppard and Zoë Tosi - and resides in Chicago partnered with artist Eleanor Spiess-Ferris. (Umberto3000@gmail.com)