By Kelley Smoot Garrett, Austin, Texas
Hi, My name is Kelley Smoot Garrett and I was Letitia Fairbanks’ stepdaughter.
My father, Harold (“Hal”) Nibley Smoot, first met Letitia in about 1938 in his hometown of Salt Lake City (about 18 months prior to beginning work on Princess April Morning-Glory.) During a visit to his grandparents’, along with his older brother and sister, fate played a hand in having my father be the stand-in for his sick brother, resulting in his escorting Letitia to a ball.
By all accounts, Letitia had made a stunning entrance into Salt Lake the day before, stepping off the sleek, fast, overnight train from LA, to spend some time with her maternal grandparents. Her late cousin Doressa Childs used to tell me stories of how her college classmates and she would gather to greet Letitia, specifically so they would be the first to see what new fashion creation Letitia was wearing. Doressa being a family member got to escort Letitia home and help her unpack and see the rest of the sartorial treasures that were so much a part of being a Fairbanks, and so envied by all the women in Salt Lake. Doressa said the first time Letitia came with her signature two slight streaks of bleached hair on either side of her face, all the girls showed up in class the next days with their best attempt at trying this for themselves. Suffice it to say even the very best attempt paled, next to the original, ranging from looking like someone had taken a paint-brush to either side of their head, to die-jobs gone clearly wrong that resulted in fresh heads of completely peroxided hair!
My father in his Randolf-Macon Academy uniform cut a striking figure at 6’4” and charmed Letitia, seven years his senior. This very pertinent age difference was unknown to me until the late 1980s, after my father died. Only then was Letitia forced to reveal that information, and be traitor to the ingrained Hollywood maxim, “A woman who’d tell her age would tell anything!” due to the persistent inquiries of a hospital admitting nurse, who demanded answers to such impertinent questions. “If only Hal were still were alive! He’d have handled this quietly, and no one would ever have been the wiser, and certainly not the child,” (me, 30 years old.) But discover this, and many other pertinent facts about Letitia’s life, was to be my destiny: decoding the mystery of the creation of Princess April Morning-Glory these last 20 years, since Letitia’s death.
Following my parents’ divorce in Dallas in 1963, my father returned to Southern California where he’d previously worked as an oil & gas land man. It proved propitiously timed on several accounts: he was an originator and original participant in Union Oil’s dramatic 1966 discovery of the Whittier Field. It also allowed him to meet back up with Letitia.
After a year+ long courtship, where my sister I was brought out to Southern California to meet Letitia during our summer holidays, my Dad proposed, an engagement ring selected, and they were married. Dad & Tish did end up eloping (due to Letitia’s mother’s continuing objection to anyone her daughter selected as a potential fiancé) and were married in a private ceremony in San Francisco on 25 November 1966. After their return to LA, a reception in their honor was hosted by Letitia’s sister Lucile Fairbanks Crump, attended by their cousin Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and dearly loved family friend and former actress Mary Brian, among others.
Letitia (center) with her cousin Douglas Fairbanks Jr (right) at my father’s and stepmother’s wedding reception, Dec. 1966. Man at extreme left with back to camera is believed to be Letitia’s brother-in-law Owen Crump. Unknown woman in coral-colored dress next to Letitia.
Letitia (l) and my father (c) greeting Mary Brian (r) at their wedding reception, Dec. 1966.
These photos were in my father & stepmother’s wedding album, that was always kept in the living room of whatever house they lived in and set the tone for much of Dad & Tish’s manner of living: fabulously decorated, elaborate, first-rate cuisine, well-dressed and thoroughly enjoyable.
Once they were married, I stayed in their house in North Hollywood when I would visit during summer holidays. This was my introduction to the world that created Princess April Morning-Glory. On Saturday afternoons the house filled with the sound of music – not much different when I was home with my mother, who primarily raised me and with whom I spent the majority of my childhood & adolescence – but the choice of music! No longer did Mozart & Beethoven fill the air, but the “modern” classical sounds of Erich Wolfgang Korngold and his sweeping orchestral scores were the background music to those holiday visits. Severely damaged in the LA earthquake of 1971, the house was sold and Dad & Tish moved to Dallas in 1972. Letitia often said the day of the earthquake she decided to begin the habit of rising very early in the morning, so she could get more done, earlier in the day. She took the earthquake as personal assurance that sleeping in would be forgiven by the Almighty, as getting up early clearly hadn’t worked as anticipated.
After my father died, Letitia told me that the years she & my father lived in Dallas (1972 – 1982) were among the happiest of her life as she had finally escaped the confines of her family and the Hollywood social hierarchy into which she’d been born. Her description of it was akin to the saying, “A caged bird doesn’t know it’s caged, until it is set free.”
And once set free, did that formerly-caged bird sing! The paintings, illustrations and needlework that Letitia created during her years in Dallas are exquisite in detail, and prodigious in quantity while rich in high-quality imagery. Family & friends breathlessly awaited the year’s Christmas card from the Smoots: an 8” x 10” glossy photo print mounted on an even larger sized card, and signed by Hal & Letitia. A true Hollywood production, Letitia planned for these cards beginning in July, and as a child and then adolescent, this type of project was something I was always interested in, and would go with her to the photographer’s and listen as she discussed how the painting’s colors would be better captured if the light were adjusted thus, and the matting and presentation should be altered to a different width, etc. Much of what I learned about art production, I absorbed without being fully conscious from participation in projects with Letitia. My husband has been a marvelous second teacher, re-enforcing the same time-honored principles of classic design & styling, favored by Letitia.
In 1982, Dad & Tish moved to Salt Lake City, a place that had been important to both of their families historically, and to which they both had fond memories and family; in short, the perfect retirement setting. And close to good hospitals, as my father had already been diagnosed and treated for lung cancer, although it was prostate cancer of which he would eventually die, in Salt Lake City, 2 November 1988.
On the night of the 1st November, Letitia had called me, the first time in our then 22 year shared history she had initiated a call to me; from that alone, I knew my father’s end was near. The next morning I caught the 6am flight from Midland, TX to SLC; A taxi took me from the airport to their house on East 2nd Street. The driver had already pulled away when I realized that no one was home, so I stowed my bag on the back porch, and ran till I was too tired, then walked as quickly as possible up the hill to the hospital.
The scene that greeted me was something out of a Hollywood movie: my stepmother was crying – marking the 2nd time in less than 24 hours, another event had occurred for the first time in my life. My father was not conscious but clearly not comfortable, and a nurse trying to figure out what to say or do next. Letitia looked up and exclaimed, “Oh, you are just like General Custer and his cavalry, riding to my rescue!” I thought, “Where in the world did that image come from?” In 2009 when I watched “They Died With Their Boots On” I was reminded of this episode. Another clue fell into place.
Letitia spent the next four years of her life in Salt Lake City, making a final visit to Southern California, to see her son Robert, his wife Judy, and her beloved grandchildren Bryan and Amanda one last time.
I was living and working in Singapore and received news there that Letitia had died the day before, 8 Sept 1992. I had spoken to her last about 2 weeks before her death. She was lucid but tired, as always concerned for her son Robert, and her grandchildren. We talked at length about how things that cannot be changed must be accepted, and how she felt that always led to growth – a requisite for life.
She painted until her death. This is her last painting, found on the easel in her back-porch studio that overlooked the valley: an oil on canvas, not quite finished, still with room for growth.
Kelley Smoot Garrett
21 October 2012