Friday, March 9, 2007

We Still Call Her Ruth

In 1944, the year her father was killed, Ruth changed her name and left Sacramento.

Her destination: Hollywood. Her goal: "To become a star. A singer, not an actress. Anyone can act." Her brand new stage name: Karla Kennedy.

Tangential Tidbit: Obviously, my aunt changed her surname to Kennedy long before Jack's ascent to the presidency. Oddly, years later Trudy's school girl crush on President Kennedy led her to wrangle tickets for herself and Ruth/Karla to his inauguration. I have the home movies to prove it. They screamed and cried throughout the entire ceremony like it was a Beatles concert. 21 years later, I wore Trudy's kelly green taffeta inaugural ball gown to my senior prom.

And speaking of Trudy: In 1952, eight years after Ruth changed her name to Karla, my mother named her first born child Karla. When I asked her if she named my sister after my aunt, she looked puzzled and shook her head. I've never asked my aunt about it.

But back to 1944: Upon arriving in Los Angeles, “Karla” got herself a room at the Roosevelt Hotel and a job at Paramount Studios as a keypunch operator. I don't understand what a keypunch operator does exactly. Both Ruth and my dad tried to explain it to me, but I still don't get it. A keypunch is a big machine that punches holes in cards. I don't know what the cards were used for, but Karla knew how to keypunch and there was a big need for keypunch operators, who were usually women, right around WWII.

The reason Karla chose to work at Paramount was that her favorite star, Alan Ladd, was under contract there and she hoped to meet him. When she finally saw Ladd on the lot she was crushed to discover that he was only about 5’4. She even heard he had to stand on a box to shoot his love scenes.

Because it was war time and housing for soldiers was scarce, there was a four day limit to hotel stays. So, Karla needed to find another place to live, quickly. (What she later found out was that girls, "in the know," just went down to the front desk and re-registered under a different name every four days.) She ended up moving around the corner to a boarding house on Orange Drive, where some young performer types were living. The place was crowded, but it sounds like it was lots of fun. There were girls sleeping on the couch and on the floor and the guys all stayed out back in a guest house. Karla remembers Claude Rains used to sneak in late at night to visit his girlfriend who was resident.

Throughout the 40’s and 50’s, Karla sang in most of the popular Los Angeles nightclubs and lived the fast-paced, exciting life of a young Hollywood hopeful. She did some modeling, and occasionally served as the attractive accessory of an actor out on the town. She had a date with Gary Cooper, went on vacation with Howard Hughes, and was flown to Vegas by mobsters for a weekend (along with my mother, who refuses to give many details except that they bought them new dresses).

But Karla never made it as an entertainer. Mostly when she hobnobbed with celebrities, it was while serving them drinks at The Crescendo, a night club on the Sunset Strip. She didn't appear to be sad or bitter about it. As far as I could tell, she was happy with her life and loved to gossip about the stars she waited on. For instance, she told me, “Eva Gardner was a sad drunk but that’s because Frank Sinatra was mean to her and forced her to have an abortion.” How you glean that kind of information while serving them highballs is beyond me. Also, she loved Lenny Bruce who was very nice, hysterically funny and once gave her a fountain pen. She blames, “that stripper,” for getting him on, “the drugs.”

After growing up hearing so many exciting stories, it never occurred to me that my aunt was unhappy. Until I saw the inside of her condo a few months ago. Before then, there was only one indication that perhaps Karla's life hadn't turned out the way she had hoped. I've never heard her sing.


Carrie said...

This is a really fascinating read. I love it.

sarah said...

i love karla.

Anonymous said...

I can't wait to read more about Trudy and "Karla." I'm loving this blog.