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Thanks, Mom

Thanks, Mom

My mother, Jacqueline Maltin, died last Friday—peacefully, in her home, at the age of 89. As I try to deal with this, my mind is flooded with memories. It’s often said that we don’t get to choose our parents; I guess I just lucked out. Whatever success I have achieved is due, in large part, to the loving support I received from my mom and dad. They encouraged me in everything I did, from my earliest publishing efforts to transforming our basement into a screening room. The only time I remember my mother questioning my judgment was when she asked how I could be headed off to the movies when it was such a nice day outside. (Sometimes even the best moms just don’t understand.) Once, at a PTA meeting, she asked a psychologist if it was healthy for me to be reading so many comic books. Luckily for me, he replied, “So long as he’s reading!”

I’ve often been asked if my folks inspired my interest in film. They didn’t, but once I got hooked it seemed to rekindle my mom’s fondness for moviegoing. (She recalled cutting classes with her best friend to see Gary Cooper in Peter Ibbetson at the Paramount Theatre in Times Square.) We went to New York’s revival theaters on a regular basis and enjoyed talking about the movies afterwards. When I met William K. Everson and won an invitation to his secretive Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society, Mom accompanied me to many an evening of rare and unusual films, until I was old enough to drive myself into the City. The only time she complained was when Bill screened Preston Sturges’ notorious flop The Great Moment with Joel McCrea as the inventor of anesthesia. She hated that film and harangued me about it—and my refusal to walk out—for years.

My mother never appeared onscreen, but she had a colorful career in show business. Her mother encouraged her to study voice, piano, and drama, and at the age of 11 she appeared in her first solo recital in Manhattan. Four years later, while attending Professional Children’s School (as it was then called), she began working in nightclubs, singing and accompanying herself on the accordion. With her dark good looks, and my grandmother’s penchant for stretching the truth, she was able to pass herself off as being of French, Spanish, Italian, or Greek ancestry, and learned a few songs in each of those languages in order to please particular audiences and club owners. Billing herself as Jacquelina, she got away with murder until her boss, or a heavy tipper in the audience, would request an encore—which her limited repertoire couldn’t provide. She patterned herself after an entertainer named Gypsy Nina, who proved to be a good role model, as we agreed when, years later, we saw her in a short subject called Radio Announcers’ Revue.

Mom worked hard, until the wee hours of the morning, and brought home much-needed money for her family, although I think it cheated her out of a “normal” teenage existence. She had many stories of her experiences from these years, from the man who requested that she sing “My Dear Mr. Shane,” which turned out to be “Bei Meir Bist Du Schoen,” to the dramatic time in 1942 when she and my grandmother had a choice of two engagements in Boston. They chose the Copley Plaza Hotel, which saved their lives, as the Cocoanut Grove was the scene of a deadly fire in which cowboy star Buck Jones and many others perished.

Later in the 1940s she got an offer to replace a chorus member in the original Broadway run of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel on Broadway, and she never forgot the thrill of standing in the wings and watching John Raitt perform “Soliloquy,” night after night.

A short time later, an agent arranged for her to appear on the popular radio show Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. This was not an amateur show, but instead a program where various people would present up-and-coming professionals. The studio audience applause would indicate the most popular contestant, and as mom related, the fix was in for fellow vocalist Vic Damone to win that night…but she tied him on the applause meter. As a result, each of them earned the prize: a week-long engagement on Godfrey’s popular morning show on the CBS Radio Network. In later years she berated herself for not being savvy enough to understand why everyone around her seemed to laugh at Godfrey’s every utterance.

In 1949 she met my father, an immigration lawyer who had gone to work for the government as a special hearings officer. Within a year of their marriage I came along, followed by my brother three years later. Mom was a full-time housewife, but she continued performing, doing club dates and benefits, and singing in a local synagogue choir. Then in the 1960s she set herself a more ambitious goal: a classical recital at New York’s Town Hall. She studied with a voice coach and a well-trained accompanist for several years and acquitted herself beautifully, earning good reviews in The New York Times and The New York Herald-Tribune. It was the highpoint of her performing career.

Like my father, she was blessed with good health for more than 80 years. Her hospitalization earlier this year was an unwelcome intrusion, and my wife and I promised her that she wouldn’t have to go back. Our family takes comfort in knowing that she was able to live out her last months in her own apartment, overlooking the Hudson River, where she only lost power for a short time during the recent hurricane. Lifting an accordion was out of the question, but she continued practicing her piano to the very end.

She also never lost her love of movies. When conversation ran short, all I had to do was ask what she’d been watching recently, usually on TCM. It was a connection we shared and never lost.

I’m still coming to grips with the idea that she’s gone…but these memories will always be with me.

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