Murder and redemption, a Christmas story
Photo by Niklas Ohlrogge on Unsplash
Editor’s Note: We reprint Ambassador Carlson’s Christmas classic in the hope that this will warm the hearts of our dear readers in this season of giving. Pass it to a friend who seeks redemption.
By Richard W. Carlson
The copy boys at the Los Angeles Times at Christmas in 1962 were a multifarious lot, but most of them, like me at 21, were around my age and eager to learn the news business.
My closest friend in Los Angeles, also a Times copy boy, was Lance Brisson. Lance’s mother was the movie star Rosalind Russell, famous particularly as Auntie Mame on Broadway and in the successful film of that title. Lance’s father, Freddie Brisson, was a producer of Hollywood movies and Broadway plays and at that time president of Columbia Studios.
The most popular copy boy at the Times was much older than the rest of us. His name was Frederick “Chick” Galloway. He was 60, about five feet four, rotund, with curly brown hair. He was very quiet. He looked like a Russian stacking doll.
Before becoming a Times copy boy three years earlier, Chick had spent most of his adult life in Folsom prison for murder, including a couple of years in solitary confinement waiting to be hanged. Chick was 23 and playing the ukulele in a traveling vaudeville act when he killed another vaudevillian in a drunken fight in Venice, California in 1925. He had struck the man with a starting crank to a Model T Ford roadster.
After two years on death row, locked alone in a small cell with no window, no toilet and no running water, an appeals judge changed Chick’s sentence to life in prison. Thirty-two years later — Christmas Eve, 1959, a guard handed Chick an unexpected note from the warden. It said: “You are paroled. Be ready to leave in one hour.”
The owner and publisher of the LA Times, Norman Chandler, had agreed to take Chick on as a copy boy as part of the parole. Mr. Chandler had been pushed to do this by a sports editor friend who had read the baseball column Chick had written for years for the Folsom Prison newspaper.
Copy boys were paid $65 a week. It was enough to live on but not enough for a plane ticket to get to my home in near Boston. I would be working the City Room with Chick and then spending Christmas by myself in Los Angeles.
There was a Chinese restaurant open all night a block from the Times. My plan was to go there with a book and read over a dinner of Lo Mein.
A few days before Christmas, Lance Brisson’s parents learned that I would be alone. They invited me to come to their house in Beverly Hills for dinner and to spend the night.
I worked with the skeleton staff in the newsroom that Christmas Eve, filling paste pots and running copy to the linotype operators. About 7 p.m., the night city editor, Mr. Binford, who had been a U.S. Marine hero in the Korean War, it was rumored, wished Chick and me a merry Christmas and told us to go home.
Chick and I silently took the elevator down. It occurred to me that Chick had nowhere to go for dinner. I didn’t know what to say so I didn’t say anything. As we stepped onto the sidewalk, he said, “If you’re not doing anything tonight why don’t we have supper? Clark’s Cafeteria’s got a full turkey dinner for 99 cents.”
“Chick, wait, I have an idea,” I said. I ran back into the Times’ lobby. I borrowed the phone from the guard and called Lance Brisson at home. Could Chick Galloway join us for dinner with his parents? He had nowhere to go. He had no relatives.
“Hold on,” Lance said. He came back to the phone. “My mother says yes, Chick is invited. But please ask him not to tell my parents that he used to be on death row in Folsom,” he said.
I picked Chick up at his downtown boarding house in a battered area of downtown called Bunker Hill. He was wearing a too-tight blue suit, a red velvet vest, his shiny double-soled prison shoes and had a knit watch cap pulled over his ears. The streets were deserted. Chick perched solidly on the back of my fast 1956 BSA motorcycle. We took Sunset Boulevard straight from downtown, through Hollywood into Beverly Hills, right to 706 North Beverly Drive, and the Brissons’ house, set behind a high hedge and gates. It was a cold starry night and the Beverly Hills Hotel, two blocks away, sparkled in Christmas lights.
The Brissons had famous friends and many of them were there for buffet dinner, milling in the bar and living room: Jimmy and Gloria Stewart, Bennet Cerf, the publisher (and founder of Random House), and his wife Phyllis, “South Pacific” director Josh Logan and his wife Nedda, Logan’s broadway producing partner Leland Hayward and his wife, Pam Churchill (later Pamela Harriman); Cary Grant and his new girlfriend, Dyan Cannon, a great looking and sexy young woman just a few years older than Lance and I. (Cary Grant had introduced the senior Brissons in the late 1930s and was Mr. Brisson’s best man at their wedding.)
Also in attendance were singer Dinah Shore, actresses Greer Garson and Claudette Colbert, the restauranteur Prince Michael Romanoff and his wife Gloria, who lived next door, and Frank Sinatra and his ex-wife Nancy. Frank Sinatra was one of the closest and oldest of the Brisson friends.
Soon, Mr. Sinatra was leading the singing of Christmas songs in the living room while Mr. Brisson’s elderly Aunt Tilda, once a vaudevillian, who had arrived from her home in Denmark, played enthusiastically on the piano. Smoked salmon, cups of Chasen’s chilli and glasses of Aquavit were passed.
I watched Chick, his curly hair flattened by the watch cap, sharing a song sheet with Dinah Shore and Frank Sinatra. I was surprised to learn that Chick could sing, really sing. He was a fine tenor, sounding much like the popular Dennis Day, who had been Jack Benny’s sidekick on radio since before I was born.
Chick’s voice was strong and expressive. I had never thought about it before but Chick Galloway was very Irish.
I could tell that Mr. Sinatra noticed Chick’s voice as well. He kept looking at him, bemused. At the end of a song, Mr. Sinatra spoke to Chick and then to Aunt Tillie at the piano. I had no idea what was said. The room was silent. Mr. Sinatra pointed at Chick and stepped away.
Chick clasped his hands across his red velvet belly and stared straight ahead. He began the opening words of “Danny Boy” slowly — “the pipes, the pipes are playing …” building the anthem. He knew the song’s phrasing well and he sang it with pitch-perfection to the hushed, spellbound room.
Chick’s voice grew strong and expressive and it blended with the sparkling white lights of the Christmas tree, with the flames of candles, and the cream-colored fabric walls of the lovely living room as if they were designed for each other. Not Christmas music — but close enough.
Frank Sinatra led the applause after Chick ended the song with “Danny Boy, I loved you so” — and looked slowly around the room, a shy smile on his round face. He looked happy. He had reason to be.
He was probably thinking that he was once going to be hanged and now, three years to the night of his release on Christmas Eve, he was eating creamed sweetbreads with spinach and singing Christmas carols with Frank Sinatra and movie stars.
Later, Mrs. Brisson had the cook take Chick home in her dark green Bentley. Chick rode up front.
Richard W. Carlson is a retired U.S. ambassador and former director-general of the Voice of America. He is the CEO of The Carlson Group in Washington, D.C.