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Frank Skully

THE AUTHOR OF TWO GREAT UNPUBLISHED WORKS: THAT ( 1 ) children should be seen and not heard but authors should be neither seen or heard, they should be read, and (2) that governments should pay authors for ploughing under every third idea and pay publishers ninety per cent of parity for all remainders, I often wonder why no one ever suggested that I run for higher office than ringmaster of the Scully Circus and its Trained Fleas from Heaven.

I have survived the wounds of living for sixty years and know that my number is up. This is a pity, because writers don't really begin to know how to write until they have been trying for at least forty years. By then the millions of words they have put together and somehow got into print are really contrapuntal exercises. Only last week I wrote my first piece worth preserving. It was a Prayer for Writers. I wrote it on the eve of attending a Retreat for Married Couples at El Cajon, California. The retreat master was Bishop Charles F. Buddy of San Diego. He has a diocese that sprawls behind the smog, fog, grog and hog-eat-hog that has become the City of Los Angeles, now the third largest in the country, and quite sure that in ten years it will be the largest. If it achieves that goal, it will be the largest city in the world to gas itself to death.

I am, if nothing else, an authority on survival. I was born in Steinway, a minor note in the symphony of Greater New York, on April 28, 1892. I was educated in a high school named after William Cullen Bryant, a poet who once edited the New York Post. I overdid in athletics and was injured so badly I was carted off to my first hospital with osteomyelitis of the femur, a couple of expensive words meaning an abscess in the thigh bone. Between operations I managed to attend the School of Journalism of Columbia University and work on The Sun evenings. I ended college with a profit of $385, all medical bills paid.

I then added tuberculosis of my lungs to my osteomyelitis of the femur, and from there on began adding maladies as if I were decorating a Christmas tree. For the next twenty years I wrote my way out of thirty hospitals in seven countries, chasing an elusive cure. Without these troubles, it is doubtful that I would ever have got out of New York. With them I saw much of America and Europe, half the time from a horizontal position.

By 1927 I was up enough to become publicity and advertising director of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer productions in Nice, France. I found the Riviera to be like Tucson, Arizona, except that it was on a tideless blue sea instead of on the great American desert. I began meeting notables until they could be rated a dime a dozen. I was even elected president of a motion picture producing company, which was doing fine until the invasion of Hollywood pictures equipped with a sound track blitzed us out of business.

Between times, I made my calls on hospitals, hoping that one final operation would kill or cure me. They always ended by doing neither. On one occasion, however, infection had spread so far that it appeared that only an amputation of my leg would save my life-if it didn't kill me.

It was about this time in my life that love entered it. I had met a Norwegian mother and her two daughters at a pension in Nice. We all became great friends, and the youngest of the group would run errands for me. She finally took a job as secretary of sorts until it was time for the family to return to Oslo. We parted in Paris, a sweet place for such a sorrow.

The girl's name was Alice Mellbye Pihl. Her greatgrandfather was Norway's foremost historian. Her mother was a fine pianist and painter. Alice was about nineteen. I was thirty-seven. We were secretly engaged when she left for Oslo and I left for London. I doubt that either of us thought that anything would come of the engagement. After all, Paris is a very romantic place. Besides, I was a cradle Catholic and she was a cradle Lutheran.

But when word reached Norway that I was dying in the south of France, her mother saw in her little pike's eyes something mothers see even before those in love see. So she went out, bought a ticket for her little Alice from Oslo to Nice, got her some new clothes and a new hat and sent her to save my life if it were at all possible.

She arrived shortly after I was removed from the operating room, and for the next three months fought harder for my life than I did myself. It was not the glossy sort of fight one reads about in women's magazines. She slugged, washed sheets, floors, sterilized dressings, and made up for the deficiencies of the hospital and staff. She was the most beautiful nurse I have ever seen, and by that time I had seen hundreds.

Before this crisis had brought us together again, I had knocked off a ghosting job that was quite a success. It went out under the title of My Reminiscences As a Cowboy by Frank Harris. It sold 40,000 copies in America, which was good for 1930, and about 12,000 in England. It had one flaw, however, which should interest writers. I wrote my own contract and was told that it would be invalid if it did not contain a time clause. I put one in for five years. Later the book was sold to Hollywood for motion pictures. But I got no part of this, for in writing the contract I had bilked myself out of all rights after five years!

My next plunge into the book world was Fun in Bed. I suppose many people bought it never suspecting that it was a handbook for convalescents. It became a best-seller and hung on for years. Being in the middle between the surgeon and the undertaker, how could I lose! I wrote six of these books. They are still around. The last one was the cream of them all and was called The Best of Fun in Bed.

After Fun in Bed, now down to one lung, one leg and hardly more than one idea, I wrote another best-seller. This too was a ghosting job. It was Frank Harris's Life of Bernard Shaw. I turned out about three books a year for a while, besides writing a weekly column for Variety, the bible of show business, and some magazine articles and short stories.

Somehow, in between all these literary activities, Alice and I were married civilly in Paris and in a chapel in Nice. It was a mixed marriage. Our first child, a son, was born in Paris. Our home was in a villa on a hill overlooking Nice, but the hospitals were better in Paris.

Everybody who was anybody (and who isn't somebody?) seemed to come to that villa. Many of them came on a downbeat in their lives, and among these were Jimmy Walker and Betty Compton. It was after he had been bounced or resigned as mayor of New York. I was asked to write their story and all sorts of fantastic offers came pouring in, as this was before magazines like Confidential came along to foul up still further the fouled up private lives of notables.

In all this, Alice was quietly edging her way into the Catholic fold and in the spring of 1933 she was baptized by Abbe Van den Daele. Privately, I thought that this was a cross I was being asked to bear, because I had looked on most. converts as rather humorless and driving people, and I was down to a slow t.b. tread. She insists to this day that it was my precept and example that turned her from a Lutheran to a Catholic, though I still can't believe I was ever for a moment that good.

In the summer of 1933, we left for New York to see old friends and for Alice to give birth to another baby. We planned to return to our villa in Nice in the fall. We never went back. Instead, we were lured to Hollywood on a picture contract. Ordered to rush out by plane, we took a steamer by way of the Panama Canal instead. I insisted that I was not well enough to work in a studio and was permitted to work at home. But I was told that this could not be further east than Pasadena. It seems that William Faulkner had asked for a similar privilege and when the producer called his hotel to find out how his script was progressing learned that Faulkner had returned to Mississippi. When he said home, he meant home!

Though I can seemingly do as much writing in a given year as most professionals, I am not cut out for clockpunching. My health fails me for long stretches at a time. So when my studio contract expired, I was glad to take the money and go back to my old way of nursing myself along between literary labors

We took the money and built a house on a hill that overlooked Hollywood and Los Angeles. In those days we could see the sea at our right. Our home looked down into the schoolyard of the Blessed Sacrament parish. We could even see if our children were playing hookey. Our home was called Bedside Manor and there I worked with the hope of being interrupted.

By then heavy industry began moving into the Los Angeles basin, and from our hilltop we could see the small beginnings of smog far to the south of us. Little by little it crept north, east, south and west. So we looked around, as the military say, to retreat to a previously prepared position.

We found it ninety miles east of Los Angeles. After the success of Behind the Flying Saucers, we bought a ranch at Desert Springs (Alt. 4100 feet. Pop. 191), and the first task we put ourselves to was converting a bunkhouse into a chapel. By 1957 it had been in its sixth year. It is called Our Lady of the Desert and is the only house of worship of any kind within many miles. It was built to house fourteen people but we rarely have less than twenty five for Sunday Mass, the porch takes care of the overflow. The Blessed Sacrament is there from spring to autumn.

Winters we repair to Palm Springs ninety miles to the south, because the school problem is not very easy to solve in Desert Springs, whereas in Palm Springs anyone who can walk a mile for a Camel can walk to a parochial school. It was in Desert Springs that I wrote Blessed Mother Goose, a Catholic version of the old nursery rhymes. I removed all the meanness and beatings and British propaganda from the classic.

In Palm Springs I wrote the first half of my autobiography. It was called Cross My Heart and was a Catholic Digest book club choice for December, 1955. I should get around to the sequel in a year or.two.

Meanwhile, every week I contribute "Scully's Scrapbook" to Variety and every month for seven years have been contributing a piece called "Just a Moment" to The Way of St. Francis. I am paid in Hail Marys by the Way. There was talk of increasing these, but, fearing that this would only be contributing to the general inflation, the editors decided against it.

Two of our children were married in 1956, a third was in nurse's training school at Mercy Hospital, San Diego, and two younger ones were in parochial school, the last starting in the fall of 1956. Whether there will be anymore is not in the hands of the disciples of Margaret Sanger but in the hands of God.

My chief non-literary interest is searching for a cure for muscular dystrophy. I am president of the California foundation of this work. Our executive director is Martha McGeein, a Catholic and a victim herself. We have a project at the U.C.L.A. Medical Center, and anyone who really believes that he can't take it with him and wants to give it to us can send his check to her (Los Angeles 19) or to me at 2096 Calle Felicia, Palm Springs, California (End of the Commercial).

Pax et Bonum, as we Franciscan Tertiaries say.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Mr. Scully was Knighted by Pope Pius XII, in the Order of St. Gregory the Great, in December of 1956. He is a past president of the Catholic Interracial Council of Hollywood. His books include Blessed Mother Goose (House-Warven, 1951, and Greenberg, 1954), and Cross My Heart (Greenberg, 1955)

Originally published by Walter Romig in The Book of Catholic Authors

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