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Saint John, New Brunswick
The Gentleman from Saint John Part 2

Pidgeon talks to his old drama teacher during a visit in Saint John    Once again fate intervened. The railroad company told the Pidgeons it was impossible to get their heavy trunks out of the sealed compartment destined for Los Angeles. "So on we went," he said, "both feeling very afraid of the future."

   Tragedy struck his life on October 26, 1926, when his wife died giving birth to their child. His mother, Hannah, got the first train from Saint John to Hollywood to help look after the new arrival which Pidgeon's wife had already named Edna.

    That visit to Hollywood, when Hannah was 56, lasted 38 years until she died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 94 at Pidgeon's home. "Until she was 85 she went home to Saint John and spent a month there in the spring,". he said. "She loved the old city."

   When Edna Pidgeon was 20 she married John Aitkins, a man with no connection to the film industry, and she presented Walter Pidgeon with two granddaughters, Pat and Pam.

    "He was never happier than when he was with them," said Mrs. Aitkins. "He became a kid again whenever he took them to Disneyland or the circus, and he was very generous to them, and all of us, before and after he died."

    PIDGEON'S first film, Mannequin was, he said, "totally forgettable." He made five more films in 1926 before he called a halt and urged that he be given some sort of control over the scripts he was to perform. When none was forthcoming he returned to New York where a lucrative starring stage role was waiting.

    "It was a bit like a seesaw," he laughed. "When I was in Hollywood, New York wanted me. When I returned to New York, Hollywood wanted me back. But I had bought a small home for mother and Edna in Hollywood and was happy to return."

    "I didn't demand any vetoes over the films I didn't like, as they do today," he said. "I asked nicely and discovered a secret that has stayed with me for my entire career: that a request spoken softly usually brings results and demands rarely do."

    When sound arrived in Hollywood, the studios that once saw him as a singer in silents suddenly saw him only as an actor. "I found myself cast in non-singing roles in musicals," he recalled. "But that is what is so lovable about the crazy Hollywood I have learned to call my home for so many years."

    In 1931, he married for the second time, to Ruth Walker, a girl who had become his secretary. It was a marriage that lasted 53 happy years until his death.

    In 1960 he returned to New York as a major Hollywood star, staying five years in two plays, Take Me Along and The Happiest Millionaire. The second play ran a year in New York and Hollywood wanted him back. Pidgeon said "No."

    "I'd received so many letters from all over the United States asking if the play would tour after its run ended in New York," he said. "So I took a huge cut in salary and went on the road for 14 delightful months."

    Pidgeon was nominated twice for Academy Awards for Mrs. Miniver and Madame Curie. Twice the Oscar went to someone else.

    He was on the board of directors of the Screen Actors Guild for 33 years, including five as president. In 1974, the Guild, unhappy with the Academy's failure to give Pidgeon an Oscar, honoured him with their own highest award, "For outstanding achievement in fostering the finest ideals of the acting profession."

   The framed award hung in a place of pride in his study. "It would have been nice," he said in 1983, "to have had an Oscar to put beside it. But it's too late now."

    Regrets in life?

   "Only one, that I sometimes had to turn people away who were asking for my autograph," he said. "I've felt pangs of regret for them all my life. I was so grateful to be asked."

    "Walter Pidgeon was always proud to display to visitors another item in his early scrapbook. It was the first letter he received from a fan after making his second film, Old Loves And New.

    "Read it," he said. "It is a charming letter, thanking me for providing moments of satisfaction to the writer. It was dignified yet enthusiastic. I have re-read it many times for comfort in moments of uncertainty in my life."

    Pidgeon answered the letter personally, as he did the majority of fan mail he received throughout his long career and, in 1946, was making a personal appearance in Chicago when an elderly lady came up and introduced herself "All she needed to say was, 'Perhaps you will remember a letter I sent you 20 years ago.' I knew who it was instantly, there seemed to be some sort of bond between us. We had supper together that evening, but I was saddened only three weeks later to hear from her grandson that she had died very suddenly."

    Pidgeon recalled the early days of sound in Hollywood with pleasure.

    "We worked then for the love of what we were doing. Everything was quite casual and relaxed. No one shouted or screamed as many directors and actors do today. It was a world that ended when making huge sums of money became the only thing in the minds of producers and actors too."

    "Few people know that I made six records, the old 78s, back in 1930," he said. "They were all best sellers, maybe sold 50,000 copies or so, but I doubt if anyone has one now, 50 years later. I wish I'd had the sense to keep a few. I'd like to hear now what I really sounded like all those years ago. I croak a bit these days."

    He made several early musicals like The Bride Of The Regiment, Melody Of Love, Sweet Kitty Belairs, Viennese Nights and Kiss Me Again, but he believed his final transition to dramatic roles came in 1937 when he made Saratoga with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow.

    "Jean Harlow was the big star, but when she died before the film was completed, Clark and I suddenly found ourselves being very critically judged on our acting ability."

    He laughed as he recalled his first meeting with another Saint Johnner, Louis B. Mayer, production head of the giant Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio.

    "I was called to his office to discuss a long-term contract he wanted me to sign. He told me he had been impressed by my work at other studios and that he felt I would be an asset to M-G-M. He peered at me over his glasses and suggested I tell him about myself. I started by saying I came from New Brunswick. That's in Canada, I added."

    "I know where New Brunswick is," said Mayer rather snippy. "Where in New Brunswick were you born?"

    "Saint John," replied Pidgeon.

   Mayer jumped to his feet and thumped on his desk. "Young man," he shouted, "you can't influence me with lies like that. Who told you to say you came from Saint John?"

    "Finally I quietened him down and convinced him I really was from Saint John." said Pidgeon. "I had to tell him where half-a-dozen streets and buildings were that he remembered. But I left his office with a contract for much more money than I expected and we were friends until the day he died."

   When the Second World War was at its height, Louis B. Mayer offered Pidgeon to the Canadian government at the expense of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. For more than a year, he appeared at bond drives, troop shows and concerts, and once again raised his voice in song to help raise money for the war effort. Apart from building morale, records show he raised more than $5-million from sale of war bonds.

At the Saint john Railroad Station 1942
When he arrived to start the bond drive in Saint John for the Third Victory
Loan Campaign of 1942, he found hundreds of fans at the railroad station cheering
and waving autograph books. "I stayed until I had signed every one."

   It was at M-G-M that he made his most memorable films.

    "They still call me Mr. Miniver," he laughed. "I don't really mind, it was a major turning point in my life. Mrs. Miniver, with Greer Garson as my co-star, made my life more secure that I had ever dared dream possible.

    "It wasn't my first film with Greer, I'd made Blossoms In The Dust in 194 1. Later I made seven other films with her, each a wonderful experience that I treasure. She was a real lady among few in Hollywood."

    Not many of Walter Pidgeon's real friends were stars in the film industry. I enjoy the company of the people who make the wheels turn, the sound men, electricians, the set builders, and one of my best friends was, until he died in 1973, a guard at the front gates of M-G-M."

   Pidgeon aged gracefully through the years and there was no gap between his days as a romantic leading man and his move into character roles.

   "Somehow I just muddled through," he said. "I don't know quite when I started to get old, but I recall very clearly, when I played opposite Elizabeth Taylor in 1954 in The Last Time I Saw Paris, thinking how young and beautiful she was and how old I had suddenly become."

    Walter Pidgeon returned to Saint John without any ballyhoo many times to see members of his family and old friends.

    "I always had someone drive me to Cedar Street to see the house in which I was born," he said. "It changed its face over the years but I always thought of it very lovingly."

    In 1959 he returned to New York once more - this time to play in the highly successful musical, Take Me Along, co-starring with Jackie Gleason. "Gleason is a master at everything he does," he said. "Ad-libbing with him was a special delight that we carried out every night after the final curtain. I have wonderful memories of a great man and brilliant performer."

    Many films made by Pidgeon are still seen on late-night television and are available on video cassette. They include the unforgettable Mrs. Miniver, How Green Was My Valley, The Girl Of The Golden West, Madame Curie, Mrs. Parkington and Funny Girl in 1968 as Florenz Ziegfeld.

    An avid reader of everything from the classics to Erle Stanley Gardner mysteries, he could talk knowledgeably about any subject that was raised in his hearing.

   When television grew in popularity he declined many times the roles offered him, as did the majority of the stars of Hollywood's golden years, but eventually he agreed to help out a friend in need.

    "In 1963, when Raymond Burr, playing Perry Mason, was taken ill and four substitute 'lawyers' had to be hired to keep the show running for a month, Gardner himself, who I had met many times, called and asked me to be one of the guest hosts and I agreed."

    There was an amusing sequel on a very unhappy day for Pidgeon.

    "I attended Gardner's funeral in 1970 and saw a man point me out. Then I heard him telling his wife 'That's the man who played the substitute lawyer when Raymond Burr was ill.' Such is fame."

   Having enjoyed his one week on a television set, he started to appear regularly on many TV shows. "Perhaps 50 or 60 all told," he said. But his total of more than 100 feature films was never in danger of being beaten.

    In 1941 he told Sidney Skolsky, the Hollywood columnist, that he would work just 10 more years before buying a boat so that he and his wife Ruth "could sail away into the sunset." But Hollywood and Broadway always refused to let him retire.

   At my last meeting with Walter Pidgeon in 1983, I reminded him that in 1978 he had promised to let me know if he ever planned another visit to his home town. He dropped his head for a moment and paused before answering.

    "I have nobody there now, nothing to come back for. The city is not what it was when I lived there. New Brunswick is one of the most beautiful places in the world, but Saint John is damp and cold and my rheumatics don't like that. I can still hear those fog horns croaking on Partridge Island. But I'll think about it and let you know before I make the trip.

    Sadly, he never did return and 15 months later died at the age of 87.

    "I would have liked to live forever. Life has been so good to me." He spoke these words on September 25, 1984, to his wife, Ruth. "But," he added, "I'm afraid no one up there is listening."

   They were the first words he had uttered following a series of strokes at his home in Bel Air, California, before being transferred to a hospital in Santa Monica, California. They were also his last words. One hour later, he died with "a wonderfully contented smile on his face," said his wife.

    Ruth called and invited me to the funeral. Unhappily, I was unable to go. But I did send my tribute to our long friendship. A bouquet of his favourite geraniums. Following an earlier stroke, he told me on the phone at Christmas 1977, "1 can't even tend my geraniums and you know how much I love to be surrounded by geraniums."

   When I visited her the following year, she too had a contented smile on her face. "I had a lifetime of joy," she said. "Although I'm alone I feel Walter is here and the memories will never go away.

   It was said in Hollywood that you were really accepted as his friend when he told you to call him "Pidge." I am happy to recall that he told me that way back in 1958.

    I have often wondered why a street or a square has not been named after this gracious star who brought nothing but credit to the city in which he was born. It's still not too late. Not too late at all.

    In August, 1977, Walter Pidgeon was rushed to St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica after a fall that had caused a blood clot to form on his brain.

   When news leaked out on a television newscast that he was in a coma and unlikely to live many hours, one Beverly Hills florist received nearly 100 orders for floral tributes to be delivered to his home when the sad news was confirmed.

    But this time "someone up there" did hear him, and by September 23, his birthday, he was ready to return home. As he left the hospital, sitting in a wheelchair, he joked with the group of photographers and newsmen who were waiting outside. He glanced up at the St. John's Hospital sign. "I started in S-a-i-n-t John, in Canada, and there was no way I was going to die in St. John's. If they had spelled it right I might have been more co-operative."

Charles Foster is a writer from Riverview

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