“You look like Donna Reed …”

Donna Reed (January 27, 1921 – January 14, 1986)

From_Here_to_Eternity_Donna_Reed_1

I was at a wedding reception in the early 1980s – I think it was at a country club in Westlake Village – and I was sweaty and winded from an hour of dancing (to some disco dreck) and drunk, although no more than usual for a night out – not bad wedding drunk – and my one good suit was in decent repair. I needed to sit down for a minute and caught sight of the bride, Pat, still in her wedding gown, seated at a table on the fringes of the reception with an older woman in an expensive-looking black and brown dress. I’d barely spoken to Pat since the ceremony (I considered her a friend by now, but I had met her through Joe, the groom, who was one of my oldest and best friends at the time, although not for much longer) so I sat across the table from her.

I exchanged a few wedding-day pleasantries with Pat, told her how beautiful she looked, how great the ceremony had been, I might have even predicted a long and happy life with Joe although I didn’t believe it … I gave their marriage a year, two at the most, and so did most everyone else who knew Joe. But, all the time I was talking to Pat, I was stealing glances at the woman beside her, who had to be twice my age (I was about 30 at the time) and who, well – I can’t think of a better word – dazzled me. I had already noticed her dress, which was lovely and rich, she was petite and self-composed, she had perfect brown hair, a beautiful barely-lined cameo of a face.

“You look like Donna Reed,” I finally said to her. “I am,” Donna Reed replied. I had forgotten – if I ever knew – that she was like a godmother to Pat, a part of her life since childhood, although I have no memory now of how or why. Pat smoothed over my faux pas with a proper introduction and I shook Donna Reed’s gloved hand.

I think I had enough sense – and tenuous sobriety – not to gush, make hee-haw jokes, wonder what it was like to work with Stewart and Sinatra and Monty Clift, ask her if she kept in touch with Shelley Fabares. (And, of course, she had kept in touch, Donna Reed was an Iowa farm girl who never lost her small-town warmth and decency and was a second mother to a lot of people, apparently, famous or not.) I’m fairly certain, however, that we just talked about Pat and how they knew each other and about the wedding and, then, in virtually my only instance of good sense that night, I realized I’d interrupted a private moment and went back to the dance floor.

I remember thinking, as I walked away, that this is why I came to Los Angeles – one of the reasons – because you can go to a wedding and end up talking to Donna Reed.

Donna Reed – as Mary Hatch – was the only reason for George Bailey to stay in Bedford Falls at the Savings & Loan (instead of packing off to Paris) and I think I knew that even when I was eight or however old I was when I first saw It’s a Wonderful Life (1947). And it was Mary Bailey who people thought they were watching when they tuned in “The Donna Reed Show” (1958 – 1966). Fifties America liked Donna Reed in good-girl roles, despite the fact she had won an Oscar playing a nightclub “hostess” (Hays Code for prostitute) in 1953’s From Here to Eternity. She was never allowed to repeat that adventure.

Pat’s and Joe’s marriage lasted a little more than a year. Pat’s father had decided to give them a fresh start by paying off all of Joe’s credit-card debt in exchange for his promises to cut up his cards and stop gambling. Joe didn’t cut up the cards, which he borrowed against to pay his new gambling debts. We were regulars together at race tracks and card clubs. Joe usually lost and I won enough to keep going for awhile. Keep wasting more time.

When Pat found the bills Joe hid, the balances were up above what her father had paid and their marriage over. I quit being friends with Joe when I quit gambling. And Donna Reed died of cancer on this date in 1986 – sadly, suddenly – at age 64. Not that long after I had met her – the one time – and been dazzled by her. She’s not someone you forget.

P.S. I changed the names of Pat and Joe to protect their privacy and to preserve my ability to turn what I experienced into fiction. (I’m only half-joking.) The woman who looked like Donna Reed was Donna Reed.

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