Whatever Happened to Bette David?

I DREAM OF JEANNE

 

Jeanne Martin at home. Photo by Litchfield.

Last night I had another one of those dreams influenced by the last thing you see or read on your computer before you finally drift off to sleep. This time around it would be a lady I had not thought of in many years, Jeanne Martin, the ex-wife of Dean Martin. They had been divorced since 1973. Now why, you might ask, would I dream about her of all people? I was playing around on the news feeds that night, when I noticed that Jeanne Martin had recently sued the estate of her late husband asking for accounting of hundreds of thousands in what she felt were funds belonging to her that went instead to the accountants, or something to that effect. Now this news was of no particular importance to anyone including me except that for the fact that for about a year between 1978 and 1979 Jeanne Martin was a part of my daily life because at that time my partner Chris Dietrich was her live-in security man, who also served in many capacities during the year he was employed by the ex-Mrs. Dean Martin.

Chris was still living at Barbara Steele’s apartment on Lasky Drive when Jeanne Martin came into his life. He had been living with Barbara and helping her with errands as well as babysitting then 11-year-old son Jonathan when the need presented itself. This situation seemed to work quite well for awhile and for Chris it was literally a dream come true, since he had been obsessed by her from the age of 12 having seen her starring role in the cult horror film Black Sunday. The problem was that with people of such different backgrounds (not to mention age differences) require more space than even a large apartment can offer. I remember Barbara calling me up one morning laughing (but I could tell it bothered her) that Chris had accidentally used her toothbrush and she decided then and there she was going to find Chris another place to live and a job to go with it to make sure he would be able to be independent. Chris had just ended his two-year relationship with my ex-employer Paul Tiberio and was adrift yet again since his arrival in Los Angeles back in 1975.

Barbara once told me she literally “knew everybody worth knowing in show business,” and this was no idle boast since she had been married to the Oscar-winning screenwriter James Poe as well as having been a working actress on both continents since 1959. She had recently gone to one of the many parties that Jeanne Martin gave during the Holiday season and recalled Jeanne mentioning that her security man had left and she was interviewing candidates to replace him. Now Chris was not anyone’s idea of a watchdog, yet Barbara felt he could do this if he set his mind to it so she proceeded to prepare him for the appointment. She arranged for him to meet Jeanne and see if Chris could perhaps find a new home in the Martin compound.

Jeanne Martin was at that time was still a very attractive, striking woman with intense blue eyes (that she then passed on to her impossibly handsome son Dean Paul, a heartbreaker of epic proportions who had already married and divorced Olivia Hussey before moving on to skating star Dorothy Hamill) and a good figure. She also possessed a real sense of authority and style, having been a part of the “celebrity wives club” for decades.

I always remembered her from an old episode of I Love Lucy during the shows that placed the Ricardos and the Mertzes in Hollywood. The episode Jeanne appeared in was the one where Lucy manages to become a model in a celebrity fashion show. Lucy, as Mrs. Ricky Ricardo, was presented on stage right after Mrs. Dean Martin. Jeanne also made many appearances on Dean’s variety shows over the years as well. It became obvious to anyone in her orbit that she was really Dean’s true soul mate and the real love of his life. After Dean divorced his last wife Cathy he reconciled with Jeanne in such a way that many in Hollywood assumed they might remarry. This was not to be; they did however become very close and remained so until his death. Dean literally died holding her hand.

The interview that Chris had with Jeanne was conducted in the office located behind the kitchen area at the back on the house. Jeanne’s house was modest by Beverly Hills standards, with everything on one level. The house was still quite lavish in its own way with a sunken living room decorated in grays and blacks with Art Deco-styled couches with appropriate Lucite tables. The house had been featured in an issue of Architectural Digest and she made sure the rooms remained in that pristine state ever after. Chris told me that she was very business-like and yet he was won over by her smile. She asked him a number of questions about what he wanted in life and if Hollywood was his dream (and by that she meant, are you trying to be an actor?). I think it was Chris’s answer in the negative that sealed the deal since she did not want to hire somebody only to lose them to the first casting agent they might meet at one of her parties.

The one thing she did right then and there was make sure that Chris being gay was not going to be an issue since she had two sons: Ricci, the younger and more hedonistic of the two, and Dean Paul, already by then a tennis pro with one foot in movie stardom already. The morning of Chris’s interview, Dean Paul was already on the property playing tennis; with this in mind Jeanne then asked Chris if he would mind taking some papers out for Dean Paul to sign. Jeanne watched the entire transaction between Chris and her hunky offspring from her patio.  Later Jeanne would telephone Barbara, delighted with the interview and especially pleased that, “Chris and Dean Paul interacted ‘man to man’ with no hang-ups.” In other words, Chris Dietrich was now the new live-in security man and confidant in the life of Jeanne Martin.

Chris and I had an off-and-on-again relationship for years by this point and his moving into the Martin house meant that I would be there as well, at least on weekends and evenings when we felt like getting together. Jeanne Martin’s house (which was just a few blocks above the Hamburger Hamlet off Sunset Boulevard; it was ten minutes from my front door at Beverly and Oakhurst) became like a clubhouse for me since Chris was always calling me to come up for one thing or another—although the line was drawn at attending her parties, which were by invitation only and always a set group of people. Some were in the business, some not, but all of them she had come to trust from years of exposure to her life, both with and without her famous husband. Ryan O’Neal was a regular as was Ursula Address, along with Barbara and her best girlfriend, the former Mrs. Stuart Whitman Carolina. Chris was in charge of Jeanne’s security which was then contained in one room filled with closed-circuit television screens that gave him a 360-degree view of the entire property, including the road that went by the front of the house, which was always illuminated by muted floodlights until dawn. There was never a threat during Chris’s entire time with Jeanne except for the occasion when actor Tony Lo Bianco kept driving by her house to see if she was really at home even though she had quit taking his calls. They dated a couple of times before Jeanne decided he was just not boyfriend material. It was clear after awhile even to Chris that for Jeanne, any man was going to find it almost impossible to come up to the level of a Dean Martin and she would most likely never marry again.

For the better part of a year and a half Chris was living a rather comfortable existence with little in the way of stress since Jeanne proved to be a kind and generous employer. Jeanne’s Mother Peggy, who was beloved by Dean and lived with them when they were married, now had her own room in the house which was located near the kitchen, so when I would stay over we would sometimes run into each other at night looking for snacks. For the first few weeks that Chris worked there I had to be very discreet in staying in Chris’s room but after a few months Peggy was aware I was there and so cool with it. In fact, there was one evening when I ran into her and she mentioned that I was not the only guy to stay overnight with Chris. This was rather amusing looking back on it now. Chris had been seeing this very cute guy named Bill Seebee and had apparently had a weekend with him when I was off in San Francisco. What Peggy could not have known, of course, was that Chris and I had a very open relationship as we were both out and about (and that, my friends, is the only way to keep a relationship like the one we had). I suspect Peggy wanted to have a little soap opera among the staff but this was not to be and we all laughed about it later over cheesecake, which was a household favorite.

Jeanne Martin seemed to have it made from the outside looking in and yet even with money and privilege comes boredom and regret at the way things turned out since the divorce really ended any true happiness either Dean Martin or she would have. Jeanne threw her parties a few times a year and did the rounds of Beverly Hills parties, yet hers must have been a lonely life, having led such a full one with Dean filled with great times as well as more than her share of bad ones which then led to the end of what the press perceived as a “storybook marriage.” The one consultation was always her children of which she had three: Ricci and Dean Paul of course and her daughter Gina, who was already long out of the nest and living on her own. Jeanne had told Chris many times that, “I have always had a very strong sense of self. I know who I am.” She was the rock that centered that family and soon that would include Dean Martin as well. Chris got to meet him several times and on occasion was sent over to his house to deliver things that were important and/or private between the two of them. Chris was always taken with how down to earth and nice Dean Martin was to everyone around him. Chris was very impressed with the way Dean behaved and looked forward to each and every meeting, few as there would be during his year and a half working with Jeanne.

Dean Paul Martin.

Dean Paul Martin.

One of the highlights in the Martin household during Chris’s watch was the big screen debut of Jeanne’s oldest son, Dean Paul, in 1979′s romantic drama Players. This was tailor-made for Dean Paul since he was the character, right down to being a tennis pro in real life. Jeanne was privately amused by the fact in the film he is pursued by an older woman (played by Ali MacGraw) since Dean Paul was first seduced by an older friend of Jeanne’s when Dean Paul was about 15 years old. They do say art imitates life and so it was with Players. The night of the screening the entire house was energized by the aspect of seeing Dean Paul finally cash those good look in for a chance at being a leading man in ways perhaps even his dad did not accomplish in his screen career, although in films like Some Came Running and Toys in the Attic his dad more than proved he had the chops to be a fine dramatic actor in his own right. Dean Paul had a lot to live up to and he was painfully aware of this.

One example of just how nice a guy Dean Paul was in life was when I was asked to sub for Chris during an afternoon when the Martin station wagon was in the garage. Dean Paul was coming into LAX and needed a ride to his apartment in West Hollywood so I agreed to drive out and pick him up. He was always a class act and this time was no exception we chatted away on the way to his place like two old college chums. I remember at that time I was still doing personal management with the few clients I had left over from Del Valle, Franklin & Levine. I mentioned to Dean Paul that I would really like to take David Essex, the English rocker, to Morton’s when he got into town the following week, but without the private phone number Morton’s was strictly off limits. Dean listened intently as I described the various attempts I had made to secure this fabled number. When we did finally arrive at his doorstep he thanked me for the ride and asked to be remembered to Chris and then without any fanfare he handed me one of his personal cards with his name of the front in silver and on the back was Morton’s private number. He winked at me and said as he departed, “Just tell the maitre D’ that you are part of my regular table and you should have no worries.” With that he walked away. A few days later David Essex and I were seated at one of the primo tables in Morton’s and when we ordered our first round of drinks and they arrived I proposed a toast: “To Dean Paul, a man who is tops in his class.”

Dean Paul and Dean Martin.

Chris had several chats with Dean Paul during this period and he confided to me that all Dean Paul ever wanted was to race cars and fly jets. He was a speed freak and loved every moment of it. This would of course come back to haunt all of us after the event of December 1987 when we lost him to an accident that claimed his life, forever ending any joy in his dad’s world. The premiere went beautifully and Dean Paul looked and acted every inch the movie star, even if his heart was really not into all the glitz and glamour that was his birthright. Jeanne was a walking rainbow of motherly pride and she never looked more radiant than she did that night, nor was she ever more proud of her son as she was that night. Anyone who ever wondered what kept this lady centered need look no further since Jeanne was a survivor and a rock for her family, and that was as good as it gets in the world she had created for herself.

One afternoon towards the end of Chris’s time there Jeanne asked Chris to drive one of her station wagon cars to Las Vegas and pick up a new one from her brother, who owned a car dealership off the strip.  Chris was told “to make a weekend of it and take a boyfriend, if you like,” so Chris and I departed for Las Vegas with dreams of staying at one of the many four-star casino hotels that were the playground of the “Rat Pack” in the heyday of Dean’s film stardom. What happened was this: we arrived in Vegas, went straight to Jeanne’s brother’s car lot and exchanged cars, then headed down to the strip to check out our room and then hit the one main gay club at that time (which was a bit north of the real action on Las Vegas Boulevard). What we discovered was possibly the worst hotel in Las Vegas with a room that defied description; let’s just say even the front door would not lock and the bed was, shall we say, lived in. Jeanne had let us down big time and it was then I realized that in spite of her behavior when we were in her home this was business and Chris was still an employee, and this just confirmed how low on the totem pole he was in her eyes.

In looking back this trip to Vegas was the beginning of the end and within months of this trip Jeanne would give Chris notice that their time together was at an end. It was a good run and her reasons for letting him go were more than valid, since we always knew Chris was never remotely qualified to be a security force in the Martin compound. Chris’s replacement was the now-legendary Gavin De Becker, who went on to gain national attention as an expert in security issues for the government, corporations, celebrities, and authored a few books on the subject of home protection.

It was while Chris was preparing to leave Jeanne Martin’s that I began to think about my relationship to him and the fact that we, too, were soul mates and the comparison to Dean and Jeanne was not lost on me as well. Chris had no idea where to go next. As he began packing to leave the Martin house that afternoon I went into the office and ran into Jeanne, who took me aside, and what she said to me stays with me to this day: “David, you know Chris loves you very much and I think you feel exactly the same way. So why not do something about it now while you are both young enough to enjoy what you have to the fullest?”

Later that evening I asked Chris Dietrich to move in with me at Beverly and Oakhurst. We did not know it then but we were about to enter the best years of our lives.  Now whenever I dream of Jeanne I do it with love.

 

 

David Del Valle

Whatever Happened to Bette David? is a regular column by David Del Valle, featuring excerpts from his forthcoming memoir of the same name about gay life in West Hollywood and beyond. David Del Valle has been writing professionally for over 20 years. His cult radio program for Triangle broadcasting in Palm Springs entitled Tales from the Closet was the first ever gay horror and sci-fi interview program that boasted guests as diverse as cult filmmaker Kenneth Anger discussing his occult obsessions to actress Ann Francis recalling the filming of Forbidden Planet. David has also been curator to several pop culture photo exhibits in both Los Angeles and San Francisco. His photo archive, which operates under the banner of The Del Valle Archive, is internationally known and respected as a one of a kind source for genre related materials. Mr. Del Valle is also the author of the acclaimed Lost Horizons Beneath the Hollywood Sign and its sequel, Six Reels Under. His collection of interviews, Sinister Image: Interviews From the Edge from Avalard publishing, will be available in early 2013 along with his book representing the gay perspective on the cult TV show Dark Shadows and titled Lavender Shadows on Dante's Cove. He is at present putting the finishing touches on his first gay memoir Whatever Happened to Bette David? excerpts of which are now available exclusively on West Hollywood Wives. For more information on David Del Valle click here: http://delvallearchives.blogspot.com/

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