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Fanchon Royer (1902-1981)

EVER SO OFTEN SOME ONE DRIVING "ONE OF OUR old Des Moines girls" down its west Sixth Avenue indicates a venerable red brick six-flatter to disclose: "And that's where you were born, Fanchón, right there in that building!" And again, I muster an appreciative smile over a mentally ughed "the first of them!" while forgetting to ask in which flat or even on what floor thereof happenstance made me the January 1902, first-born of a two-child marriage fated to barely survive my fifth birthday.

By the logic that holds for the "suitable" union, for example, between persons of similar background, my parents' marriage should have worked, especially in a day that divorce had yet the power to scandalize. Both were United Presbyterian reared, second generation Iowans of much older "American" stock, from "tolerably-" if not "well-fixed," Republican-voting families to which an occasional inability to "see" an offspring "through college" was bemoanable as a class failure. Presupposed, then, their shared ambition, it remains but to aver that Father and Mother were moreover mutually endowed with that species of intelligence, the animation and good looks so useful in the realization of this world's dreams.

So maybe it came of having too much in common, that state of unremitting strife which, in another Sixth Avenue red brick, by now a commodious duplex, "blew up" our household during 1907. (Somehow no one ever points out the duplex but I can identify it on my own!)

Whether because it had been Father's idea or that from us he went on to an impressive business success and a second marriage, the divorce embittered Mother who proceeded to employ his provision in the indulgence of a resultantly augmented natural restlessness. Began for us a decade-long trek through an indistinguishable series of red and other "bricks" varied by but an infrequent bungalow and recurrent interludes in "the home." "The home" was Grandma Havens' 1885 "eastside property" which periodically welcomed our returns from the more drastic flights-to Minneapolis ... Oak Park .

Glen Ellyn. (The only place "our" phobia against being "tied down" ever allowed Mother to own was a summer home, itself soon disposed of for the facilitation of bigger and better Rocky Mountain vacations.)

Upon my nine and-a-half-year sail the Iowa-Minnesota-Illinois public education systems this addiction to transience imposed enrollments in ten schools, multiple reenrollments in those serving Grandma's district. But finally a blessed consecutive while back again in East Des Moines High (where I succeeded Bruce Gould as editor of its monthly Quill) brought me, on June 8, 1918, to graduation.

Need it be said that this was all we'd been waiting for?

But for once, our nextday's "take-off"-to Hollywood!-wasn't all-chargeable to Mother's boredom-allergic nerves. I, too, had found my "hit" in the senior play decidedly more titivating than the Quill editorship. So the tacitly recognized "clincher" underrunning the overt argument for California, the delights of plucking roses and oranges while our native section shivered out the blizzards, was the infinitely more delectable prospect of the opportunities awaiting blue wide-eyedness plus Pickford coiffing and "proven" dramatic ability in the world's film capital. ,

Sixteen-year-old naivete? Yes, but at least it fell short of expecting Hollywood's divination of my destiny. In fact, it barely extended to posting the note I'd not have written Douglas Fairbanks had I been aware he was holidaying in Europe. But it was a lucky ignorance. Because this little-logical bid for a -break" evoked a return-mail proffer by the absent star's manager-brother Robert of a personal presentation to their casting chief, Lou Goodstadt! Now all I had to do was prove myself as persuasive in grease paint as in ink!

My August first "debut" as an extra in a Fred Stone vehicle and comparable "re-engagements" by LaskyFamous Players for Cecil de Mille's The Squaw Man, Don't Change Your Husband, et cetera, wedged me into the profession; whereupon I went forth to Metro, Universal, Goldwyn, and the rest as a sometime bit player. So why, with my career thus "definitely determined," did I, come September 1919, crowd it and its "vital" Riding Academy and Denishawn courses with those others, English Lit., Journalism, and Short Story Writing at U.S.C.? Maybe this deviation, unconfessed to "sell-educated" Hollywood, was a final concession to Iowa. In any case, it too was fun while it lasted.

The abrupt interruption of both studio and scholastic activities was "merely temporary." Otherwise I shouldn't have let the intense young actor-publisher of the industry's then-best trade sheet, Camera!, whisk me into its editorial chair (from which the regular occupant had been dispatched by a chronic malady to Arizona). But thus conditioned, there had seemed no reason, during a production slump, to refuse a friend this favor and myself a sure $75 weekly.

The sacrifice of the ensuing three years to movie reviewing, p.a. adjective killing and stormy editorializing was not because I had succumbed to the flattery. Indeed, I remained almost as impervious to the Literary Digest's frequent reprintings of my editorials as to the ecstatic trouper following vouchsafed by my left and right lambastings of bad performances whether or no by Camera! space-buyers, my coveted hailings of even the most confirmed non-advertisers' good ones. (This adamant impartiality burgeoned from neither the "nobility" to which my fans attributed it nor the "polite subtlety" suspected by the competition; from nothing more complicated than 18-20s' forthright ego, conceivably dashed with resentment of having to review films I might have been "making.") What, then, held me in a job I had never desired? A pair of life's larger exigents: death-that of the man I had replaced-and marriage, my own, to the persuasive publisher whose "baby" Camera! was.

Was it the real baby or the papa's acquisition, through a switch from acting to scenario-writing, of another "literary" outlet that eventually downgraded the paper's indispensability? To whatever credit, it was sold in 1922, whereafter I--incredibly?--opened my own publicity agency, soon expanded into artist representation. A healthy roster of established names prospered; the "discoveries" fulfilled their promise in featured credits. All was admirably reflected in the swelling familial bank accounts.

By her twenty-sixth birthday the erstwhile extra-girl and $75 editress was a thriving Hollywood "old-timer" possessed of a swimming-pool chalet hilltop-perched above fifteen San Fernando Valley acres; while "to show for" eight years of matronship there were two handsome, husky, small sons. And, if this wasn't enough, she would, during this same 1928, become the industry's only woman producer.

Life's Like That, critic-paged as a smashing independent experimental, served its purpose in capturing a major directorship for the scenarist-husband who had megaphoned it. But I couldn't let it go at that. Not only the distinction, the work, itself, the building of something out of nothing, was too fascinating. Besides, wasn't high tension endeavor the reputed best antidote for these ills that success has a way of inflicting upon Hollywood domesticity? I signed the contract committing me to turn out a head- and back-breaking dozen melodramas per annum. And if this all-absorbing program failed to save the marriage, was even the likeliest explanation of a second "matrimonial mistake," it didn't prevent their justification in a total of five children.

It was in Mexico City that the birth of the last baby coincided with overweening ambition (which had already run "Mommy's" business onto the rocks) losing husband number two in a labyrinth of millionaires ses. The only perceptible recourse was to lead the progeny- and Indian nana-jammed car for the Los Angeles bankruptcy court, the fresh start. It wasn't that, by now, "Hollywood's only woman producer" wouldn't have gleefully relinquished the title. She couldn't! The future of that antiquated Pierce Arrow's load hung upon it. Written off must be the Mexico she'd come to love.

And so they began all over again, the tense toilings, the ups and downs, the silly little triumphs of a "game" that, glamorous to 26, was slightly nauseating to 34. But they paid the military academies and uniform houses; kept the pool filled through the not too-altered vacations.

Came a war to claim the lads, pass the word "servant" into obsolescence, empty the gas tank. Onto the block went the "exclusively" isolated home, the transportation; into the convent, a trio of little daughters. Alone in a hotel room, a twice-divorced, five-times mother examined without gratification the sum of her forty years' learning.

If success vied with failure in laying waste the human heart and was, in any case, the most ephemeral of things created, if the dream of whatever security was life's most tawdry joke, with what did one cure, even mitigate, despair? Religion? For as long as I could recall I had regarded "all that" as either interested hypocrisy, the cowardly refuge, or futility's shoddy consolation. And while the personal batterings had persuaded my heart that the little ones must be protected by the Faith that bulwarked against divorce and remarriage, that couldn't be the answer for the however miserable, "fully formed" adult agnostic. Or could it? Were there but a one percent possibility, was it intelligent to give up before making sure? But to ask the gamble of a kindly padre's time on an almost certain fiasco? No, I told myself, and then, the veteran newsman and "incurable" crusader for Christ's charity, my staunchest friend ever since the Camera! days, that I could not do. To which Ted LeBerthon, now gone to God in a Franciscan habit, replied mildly: "Bother a Catholic priest? Believe me, Fanchón, the fathers aren't easily bothered." Actually? To somebody, failure was acceptable?

The erudite and holy "somebody" who gladly risked failure with me was the pastor of St. Basil's, Monsignor Edward R. Kirk. And when he had received me into the Church (July 1943), he quietly began to nudge my thinking writingward. Now that I had something to say, it was an idea worthy of the ponderation which, while producing Catholic pictures, I gave it. And when the filming eventually returned me to my spiritual home on earth, Latin America, the decision was reached and rendered.

In her blandly lovely hinterland, among her touchingly devout peoples, I settled down to interpret Mexico in articles and then in the book I called The Mexico We Found (Bruce, 1948). But it was her and her sisterlands' salvific "finding" by their spiritual titans that cried much louder for the telling. As, of these, The Franciscans Came First (St. Anthony Guild, 1951), under that title I did their moving record. The Tenth Muse: Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (St. Anthony Guild, 1952), St. Francis Solanus, Apostle to America (St. Anthony Guild, 1955), Padre Pio (Kenedy, 1954), The Power of Little Children (Academy Library Guild, 1954), on the founder and the beginnings of the Association of the Holy Childhood, and St. Anthony Claret (Farrar, 1957) followed. And after time out for a translation of Yo Pecador (I, Sinner), the autobiography of a cherished "old Hollywood days" friend, the Fox Film and Chicago Opera star who became Fray Jose de Guadalupe Mojica, O.F.M., it is now that Servant of Mary, Blessed Mother Soledad Torres.

The love of all these in His Own has wrought, against a cliff- and spire-girt preview of Beauty Itself (locally alluded to as "the American senora's Ranchito Santa Catalina") "an old Des Moines girl's" once despaired-of and, of course, by no means merited Security.

The pioneer Catholic filmaker and author purchased a fruit farm in Teziutlan, Mexico in 1957. She lived on the farm until her death in 1981.

Originally published in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig, Sixth Series, 1960.


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