U. S. NAVAL AIR BASE
SAIPAN, M. I.
JANUARY 31, 1945
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA***********
GREETED BY APPLAUSE AND WHISTLES OF NEARLY ONE HUNDRED WOMEN AND NUMBER OF MEN, STREETCAR CONDUCTOR FRANCIS VAN WIE RETURNED TO SAN FRANCISCO FROM LOS ANGELES UNDER POLICE GUARD SUNDAY NIGHT TO FACE BIGAMY CHARGES FOR MARRYING EIGHT AND POSSIBBLY ELEVEN WIVES WITHOUT BENEFIT OF DIVORCE….VAN WIE CAME BACK TO QUOTE FACE THE MUSIC UNQUOTE, BUT ALREADY SYMPATHETIC CITIZENS WERE ORGANIZING “DING-DONG DADDY DEFENSE FUND” SPONSORED BY LOUIS LURI, MILLIONAIRE PALO ALTO REAL ESTATE OPERATOR WHO HAS RETAINED ONE OF THE CITY’S TOP-FLIGHT CRIMINAL LAWYERS FOR THE ARMOROUS STREETCAR CONDUCTOR AND FORMER LION TAMER………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………
I found the above among my mother’s effects after she died in 2003. The folded paper had yellowed but was in good condition. By the looks of the font, it had come off a kind of teletype machine, printed front and back, containing several domestic stories and news of the war. The excerpt of Mr. Van Wie, an overweight man “on the wrong side of 50”, as one report put it, is recreated here as close to how it actually appears on the document I found, including the ironic wartime typo, “ARMOROUS”. As far as I know, my mother was not victimized by the “Ding Dong Daddy”, though she was living in the Bay area at the time of the scandal. (Van Wie would flirt with ladies on his streetcar, and if vulnerable, propose marriage.) This was not an approach my mother would brook. My father, a pilot during WWII, seeing the dispatch while deployed in the South Pacific, mailed it back to my mother, to share a laugh. According to one article (see site listed below), it was a highly publicized scuttlebutt, picked up widely by the national press as a relief story from the war. Mother decided it was a memento. It came to light he’d married some fifteen women.
My father was something of a ding dong daddy himself. From Missouri, he was stationed in San Francisco during the war. When he met my mother he was married. His wife, back in the Midwest, was taking care of their daughter, who would later be my half-sister. I had not been born. My mother, recently divorced, was from a prominent Piedmont family who owned several major businesses in the Bay area. A beautiful, still young society divorcée with a three year old son (one day to be my older brother), meets this 6’5” pilot in a uniform.
When I was just old enough to read and to be left to myself, I was snooping in a box. I came across a newspaper clipping containing a photo of my father with a woman on his arm. The caption read, “Mr. and Mrs. James and Virginia Selby…” I thought it odd as the woman was not my mother. And, anyway, her name was Marjorie. Maybe the reporter had the details wrong and the woman was a cousin, or an acquaintance he was escorting. Further into the article, it mentioned their home as being in St. Joseph, Missouri. In my family history, we had lived in Oakland where I was born, a brief time in Colorado, then Long Boat Key before settling in Kansas by the time I was four. Never in Missouri. This was curious in the way of our family silverware having an “M” monogrammed on the handle. “M” for Marjorie, I had always thought. Somehow, an inner voice, one complicit with my mother, told me to fold up the clipping, return it to the box, push the box back into the bottom of the linen closet. I was a good boy; I didn’t think of it again.
Not, that is, until I was in high school. My father died suddenly while on the job. A few weeks later there was a routine hearing for compensation. My mother was to be questioned under oath to establish certain legal relationships. I was required to be present in the courtroom. During her testimony, an attorney asked my mother about the parentage of me, my brother and sister. She took a moment, fumbled with a handkerchief as I had seen many an actress do on Perry Mason, and proceeded to answer the questions put to her. Both my mother and father had previous marriages bearing, respectively, my brother and sister. I was the only child from their union. When the hearing was concluded she came to me, in tears, and said she was sorry I had had to learn of this in such a way. She’d always meant to tell me. I held her and told her it was all right, I had kind of figured it out on my own. That was in 1966. I was a good boy and we never spoke of it again, with one exception.
Twenty years later I traveled to Kansas from New York City where I was living, to see my mother. She was 70. One afternoon, I made the two of us a Bloody Mary. We were having a nice visit. I made a couple of more Bloody Marys. I had been divorced myself by this time, so maybe the subject of my parents courtship didn’t seem so risqué to her any longer. While stationed in California, she told me, my father lived in a carriage house behind one of the mansions in the hills above Oakland, not far from the house my mother built with her ex-husband. They met at a party and began an affair. Because of her family’s position, she felt they had to be discreet. Even if it isn’t necessary, the secretiveness of a tryst can be provocative. After dark, she would drive to my father’s house and park her car out of sight in his garage. The next morning she would put on a scarf, dark glasses, and leave very early. Eventually, my father divorced and married my mother. His daughter came to live with them. I was born a few years later.
Not an original story, particularly, during the uncertainty of war, but it was one my mother couldn’t share with me. Maybe she felt there was too much fragility in our family as it was. Or, perhaps, it was something for her alone, like a love letter kept in a locked box. When I was visiting my mother’s sister in Palo Alto over a college Christmas break, I told her how I’d found out about mother’s first marriage. She was flabbergasted my mother hadn’t explained. It was an ordinary divorce, she said; no stigma involved. My mother’s first husband, Bert Meyer (hence the “M” on the silverware), was a nice enough guy but never “right” for her. He was a plain and simple man and Marjorie needed - something more. What bothered me about the whole saga was everyone in our family knew. My brother, whom I tormented as younger brothers will do, must have wanted to yell it in my face. An otherwise model brother, he got his frustrations out in other ways, becoming quite the practical joker. My sister eloped when she was 16, going AWOL with a kid from the Keys. Our father was so maddened, he stopped talking to her. Though my mother corresponded with her stepdaughter - in secret, it would be fourteen years before we all would reunite and meet her three children. Even then, my nieces and nephews were cautioned never to mention their Grandma Virginia in front of Uncle James. They were of elementary school age.
My mother was an amazing, brilliant, loyal, resilient lady, a remarkably giving mother. I was a good son. I was, also, an inveterate liar until I was forty.
What did Francis Van Wie, the Ding-Dong Daddy and lion tamer endure do you suppose? Francis? My sister's first husband, the kid from the keys, the father of their five children, was named Francis. He became a traveling salesman, if you know what I mean, and I think that you do...
To read an account of the real Ding-Dong Daddy: