Mildred Black died the other week in her home in the San Fernando Valley. Mill wasn’t a movie star or anyone famous. She was a sweet, tough, generous woman who gave a lot more than she got in this life. There wasn’t a funeral, wake, celebration of life or an obit in the L.A. Times for her. I don’t usually opine on this blog about someone I know, but these words are a public memoriam for a dearly departed friend.
I met Millie shortly after I began researching the life of actor Charles McGraw. It was a serendipitous encounter. I mailed her a brief note inquiring if she knew anything about McGraw after checking property records and discovering that she was the owner of the house where the actor died in a horrifically tragic accident back in 1980. I didn’t receive a response. Several months later, I marshaled the appropriate chutzpah and drove by her place on a broiling hot Saturday afternoon.
A couple of guys were working on the roof and I hailed them for Miss Black. Millie emerged from the garden wearing a sun visor. I introduced myself. She responded: “Oh goodness, you’re the fellow who wrote me about Charlie. I was hoping you would come by”.
I discovered that Millie knew Charles McGraw intimately and ended up taking care of him – for better and often worse – during the final thirteen years of his tumultuous existence. She was given McGraw’s phone number by Gene Autry to orchestrate the rescue of an inebriated comrade from a Studio City bar during the early 1950’s, lived with him from the late 1960s and was with the rough-hewn actor on the day he died, futilely trying to save him. Even as I gleaned an incredible amount about the life of McGraw-there wouldn’t have been a biography without her- meeting Millie was the authentic sweet spot of this chance encounter.
Charlie McGraw and Millie in the early 1970’s
Millie was a natural caregiver, taking care of McGraw, then her ex-husband Stanley Black, her older brother and her twin sister Marge. About a year after I met Millie, Charles McGraw’s daughter, Jill, showed up on her doorstep, bereft of funds and overwhelmed by troubles. Millie took her in. This particular story did not have a happy ending and Jill eventually departed. Millie had more than her fair share of tough breaks, but she never let the bad times eliminate her copious good will or wicked sense of humor.
Mildred and Marjorie arrived in L.A. after fleeing the damp Northwest in 1940. Mill never talked too much about her childhood, but from what I gathered; the central theme was a family of thirteen struggling during the Depression with the twins being farmed out to an orphanage because their parents couldn’t feed them. It couldn’t have been too pleasant.
The bookend duo caught on in Hollywood as cocktail waitresses, working first at the Florentine Gardens, then the Mogambo, the Trocadero along with nearly every joint on the Sunset Strip. They did some bit movie work too, notably the big dance sequence in Since You Went Away (1944), but sitting around movie sets drove them crazy with boredom.
Millie and Marge flank Joe Cotten on the set of Since You Went Away (1944)
Eventually Millie moved over to the Valley, working the taverns along Ventura Boulevard next to Republic Studios. One night, she tried to recall for me all of the various places she worked in Hollywood and the Valley over half a century. She gave it up after reciting fifteen different locations that I was bizarrely recording for posterity.
Millie knew the famous, infamous and obscure from Hollywood’s heyday: Cary Grant, Robert Walker, Lupe Velez, Robert Mitchum, Anthony Quinn, Max Baer, Desi Arnaz, John Carradine, Mickey Cohen, Carmen Miranda, Gene Autry, Lawrence Tierney, Clint Eastwood, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby etc. etc. She was a superb raconteur; funny, compassionate and blessed with a remarkable memory. I wish I had written down all of the stories along with some of the juicier ones that I still remember. She was never particularly star-struck – Cary Grant was a notable exception – and preferred the company of the stuntmen, bit actors and cowboys who crowded into Keith’s Café or O’Brien’s next to Republic Studios.
The twins with Harry James & Dick Haymes at the Trocadero on the Strip during the early 1940’s.
Millie assesses the happy hour blarney of character actor Robert J. Wilke in O’Brien’s Bar
Millie absolutely loved music; the big band standards of the 1940’s and 50’s. Her husband, Stanley Black, played guitar with the brilliant pianist Barclay Allen as part of the “Rhythm Four” (with drummer Merle Mahone and bassist Sid Fridkin) who were featured on KLAC radio in Los Angeles in the early 1940’s. After World War II, Allen started an orchestra with the quartet as the nucleus and went on the road. As one of the band wives, Millie toured with her husband and Allen’s band until the composer-pianist, best known for the Latin-tinged standard, Cumana, was tragically paralyzed after falling asleep at the wheel and crashing into a tree back in 1949. Millie always spoke of Barclay Allen wistfully as a forgotten musical genius and those days on the road with Stan, playing gigs in Chicago and St. Louis, as some of the happiest days of her life.
My wife and I enjoyed many evenings with Millie. I mean evenings literally because after decades of working in clubs, she remained an inveterate night owl. Ernie’s Mexican Restaurant on Lankershim was one of her favorite spots for tacos and margaritas. One evening, we took her out to dinner in Hollywood and then to a McGraw double feature at the Egyptian Theatre. We usually ended up back in Millie’s television room looking at the photo albums, talking about the latest news and scandals as well as the good old days of Hollywood. I used to call her “my West Coast Mother” since the authentic edition resolutely resides on the opposite side of the country. Millie would always walk us down to the driveway gate and wish us well after unsuccessfully trying to get us to stay later than we could. After saying goodbye, she would stand there and wave to us as we drove off into the night.
There were also late afternoon visits, shopping expeditions, trips to the doctor and always, at her insistence, a visit to the backyard to pick oranges, grapefruits and lemons off some of the bountiful fruit trees that she had planted when McGraw lived with her back in the early 1970’s. Millie loved her friends, dogs, birds, children, music and Hawaii. Her house was stuffed with some of the most outrageous zoological and Polynesian bric-a-brac that I have ever seen. Her garage was something else. I helped clean it out twice and don’t know how many times I would be astounded by some of the stuff I found from Charles McGraw’s original 1950 RKO contract to an amazing lamp shaped like a turtle and endless stills and photos of movie people, family and friends.
We took Millie on one of her periodic visits to her sister who was institutionalized with late stage Alzheimer’s disease. Seeing her unshakeable devotion for Marge and how she believed that her twin just might, against all reason, get better, was an inspiring demonstration of love and humanity.
Millie and Marge, Still the bookend knockouts in the 1960’s
About two years ago, Millie began to fail. She had become apprehensive that she would suffer the fate of her sister and her husband who were both stricken by Alzheimer’s. Her fears became tragically justified. Initially, the three of us drew closer. The goodbyes at the gate became increasingly more difficult, then unendurable. Finally, Millie couldn’t go anywhere or do anything. Watching someone cherished rapidly succumbing to dementia is truly hideous. There is nothing you can do.
I continued to see her sporadically, would talk and hold her hand. My wife visited Millie every week till the end. She worked with the caregivers, did all of her bills every month, bought the supplies and helped out copiously. After taking care of everyone – McGraw, Stan, Marge, her older brother – someone who was close to Millie needed to be there for her.
Millie enriched my life. She gave testament and context to an era that I care deeply about, made it possible for me to write a book and was exceedingly generous. She was a joy to be with. Most importantly, she loved us and we loved her.
Rest well, Mill.