Health: When Life Overwhelms

“It was through [Louella’s] column and other news stories that I came to know about Wynn. My Mom would read me her syndicated reports in the newspaper…”

by Dave Riley

In the mid-1940’s, when I was a grade schooler at Mary Snow in Bangor, my Uncle Wynn Rocamora was a very successful agent in Hollywood. At this point in my life I had never met Wynn and wouldn’t for many years to come. In fact he was not really my uncle. My mom’s sister Marion married Wynn’s brother Jack, and since Jack was now my uncle, and Wynn was Jack’s brother and a big shot in Hollywood, I figured I would call him uncle too.

In the 1930’s, Wynn had worked for several organizations as an artist’s representative, but family legend has it that when he decided to strike out on his own, fortune smiled on him. Dorothy Lamour, one of the biggest leading ladies of the time, split with her agent, and when she signed with Wynn, his career was assured. He loved music, opera in particular, and many of the artists he represented were in opera or ballet, among them New York Metropolitan stars Helen Traubel and Dorothy Kirsten, singer/actress Patricia Morison, who created the role of Kate in Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me Kate,” and ballerina Tamara Toumanova. In addition to Ms. Lamour and Ms. Morison, his acting clients included Merle Oberon, Gloria Swanson, Maureen O’Sullivan, and Greer Garson.

But possibly his most famous client was the gossip columnist Louella Parsons, at the time known alternately as the most powerful and the most feared woman in Hollywood. It was through her column and other news stories that I came to hollywood-sign-mdknow about Wynn. My Mom would read her syndicated reports in the newspaper, and every month or so would say something like, “David, listen: ‘It was a great weekend with Mary Pickford and Wynn Rocamora tossing two of the best parties…Wynn’s party was delightful. He is always the charming host. Dorothy Lamour, who is expecting in six weeks, had picture after picture taken with her co-star Bob Hope. Bob, as usual, had the admiring crowd laughing at his gags.’”

It would be more than a dozen years before I would actually get to Hollywood and meet Wynn. In June of 1957 the Army sent me to study Russian at the Army Language School in Monterey, California — now known as the Defense Language Institute. In December of that year, I spent Christmas break with Aunt Marion and Uncle Jack, Wynn’s brother, in Pacific Palisades.

WYNN HELD TWO PARTIES that I attended while I was there. The first was an annual Christmas gathering of his clients at his gorgeous hillside home on Los Tilos Road in the Hollywood Hills. For the first time in my life, I was mingling with people I had seen on the screen at the Bijou and the Opera House in Bangor.

The second party, a birthday celebration for a relative, took place a few days later in a private dining room at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Patricia Morison was there, but just about everyone else was family. The dinner lasted several hours, and after it was over and people were beginning to leave, Wynn called me aside in the lobby. It was the only private conversation I had with him during the entire visit.

Wynn was not physically impressive — not terribly tall as I recall and a bit overweight — but the overriding impression I have of him to this day was that he looked successful. When he had spoken to any of the hotel staff during the evening, it was in the quiet, confident tones of a man who felt no need to emphasize anything because he was quite accustomed to having his requests carried out without question.

I expected our conversation to be all family stuff, but almost immediately he said, “So — Marion tells me you want to get into the business.”

“Your business?” I replied.

“No, no. The business. The movie business.”

“I’ve thought about it, but I don’t know what I want to do.”

Wynn looked shocked. “Never let anyone in this town hear you say you don’t know what you want to do,” he replied. “Tell them you want to act or write or direct or whatever. Never mind that you have never done any of those things. Just tell them.”

It was a brief conversation — no more than three or four minutes. I am sure Wynn felt that having this little meeting with me was a family obligation of the highest order, something he would never consider not doing, no matter how pressed for time he might have been. Nevertheless, I believe he sincerely wanted to help me. “When you get out of the service, you call me,” he said just before we parted. “You’re bright. I’ll help you get started.”

It was an exciting offer. Wynn worked in an era when agents were much less powerful than they are today. But nevertheless he was well connected.

We started to walk off in different directions when I heard him call out my name, and I turned. “Before you get back here, “ he said, “get rid of the Maine accent.” He smiled again, then waved and walked off.

It was the last I ever saw of him.

TWO MONTHS BEFORE I finished my tour of duty in Germany, I got word that circumstances had overwhelmed Wynn. It wasn’t until eighteen months later that I found out the details. In the summer of 1961, I met Patricia Morison in Monterey where she was playing Anna opposite Anthony Dexter in “The King and I” at the Wharf Theater.

During the early1950’s, she told me, Wynn’s agency seems to have thrived. And in 1955 he achieved a coup of sorts when he was appointed artistic director of the Hollywood Bowl, a position which not only added to his income but also gave him new status and visibility in the Southern California arts community and nationally as well. The Bowl had fallen on hard financial times, so much so that the 1951 schedule had to be aborted. But by 1954, thanks in large measure to the efforts of arts patron Dorothy Chandler, the wife of Los Angeles Times publisher Norman Chandler, it got back on solid ground.

Unfortunately, by 1959 matters were not going well for Wynn personally. Dorothy Lamour had been lured away by one of the first mega agencies, and the careers of some of his older clients were in decline. Patricia said that he had become increasingly worried about money, to the point that he was even concerned that his large automobile was too costly. To complicate matters, in the fall of that year the Hollywood Bowl Association and the Southern California Symphony Association — the L.A. Philharmonic — began exploring a new alliance that would have them operate under a single general director. They commenced a highly publicized nationwide search for someone to fill the post, and it seemed apparent to Wynn that he would lose his position. As if all this weren’t enough, Wynn had been suffering for several years from what one newspaper described as “tuberculosis of the gall bladder.”

Marion later told me that as the fall wore on, he lobbied for the job at the Bowl and apparently held out hope that someone with clout would intervene on his behalf. But his case wasn’t helped by a disastrous electronic production of “Carmen” that had been staged at the Bowl in August of that year. The intent was to use sound equipment to make the score audible even in the farthest reaches of the huge amphitheatre. But instead, according to news reports, faulty electronics rendered some of the world’s finest operatic voices “raucous” and “distorted.” The criticism was immediate and intense.

In early November, the associations announced their decision. George Kuyper, manager of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, would be their joint general manager.

Wynn was devastated. On December 2, he went home to Los Tilos Road for the last time. When his houseman, Ray Rubel, went to wake him for breakfast the next morning, he found him dead from an overdose of barbiturates. The man who had seemed to be so much in charge and so successful left a note that said, in part, “I am sick physically and mentally — at the end of my rope. I can’t go on.” He was fifty-two.

The following month I returned to California, not to work in the movies, but to finish college and become a teacher and a writer.



Dave Riley

About Dave Riley

Growing Old Isn’t For Sissies is about aging. It’s stories of how some older people achieve remarkable successes, how some people make the lives of others better, and how all seniors have hurdles to face — maladies, loss of loved ones and more.