Neither does most of the world. And it’s upsetting.
During the years I was crafting Wheeling the Deal, one of the most repititive criticisms I heard was that I’d veered too far astray of Gordon’s story to chart the lives and losses of his similarly tragedy-stricken relatives. My left lobe agreed it was a point well worth considering. Gordon Uninterrupted. How he was numb, but never dumb. After researching further about these ancestors of mine, my heart demanded that I give due where it’s deserved, and thus populate Gordon’s existence with the other dynamic men from his fold.
To be candid, Nat Ross was posed to be my family’s greatest Hollywood success. More than Lee Zahler. More than Alexander Karr. Maybe more than a brigade of them and Gordon. That is until Nat, who penned scripts and tinkered with cameras at an early age, ran into a homicidal, smooth-talking drifter named Maurice Briggs in 1941. Before then, Nat had clerked and then directed for Carl Laemmle. He’d roomed with and paled around with Irving Thalberg. He was nearly appointed a manager director at then inchoate Universal Picutres, and gave future “It Girl” Clara Bow her first big break in pictures. And he accomplished most of that before he hit 30! Not too shabby for a curly haired kid from a broken family, where he was out making money for his widowed mom and siblings at 14. Once he’d elevated himself from wunderkind New York City theater manager to successful motion picture director, he never forgot his family, or let his accomplishments snuff out his modesty and empathy, remaining as un-snobbish and down-to-earth as they came despite all that red carpet self-absoprtion.
Nat’s life,seemingly destined for a Horatio Algier ending with a Fedora and studio pass, came to a violent conclusion just as he was about to launch a second stint directing and producing in World War II Hollywood. (Betty Grable was one of the last big stars he directed.) With his death, another healthy young male in my clan fell to a premature demise, and Gordon’s survival, long shot it was, felt like the entire family’s was at stake. That’s why I couldn’t exclude Nat from the book. That’s why he wasn’t just filler for Gordon’s big flier. That’s why little, literary side roads off my uncle’s highway always circled back in the same direction. At just 36, Nat Ross’ murder bore a macabre similarity to the murder of his father. The trials of both men’s killers became giant news stories. Every time capital punishment is debated in California, where some death row inmates can spend decades before that long walk to the enclosed chamber, I think about how quickly the evil, sick “man” who ambushed my great uncle with a deer rifle met his maker.
To those still wondering what this had to with Gordon and me, I can only say nothing and everything.