Although I was named Shirley after the saccharine child star Shirley Temple, I’ve always been far more full of spice than of sugar.
As a baby, instead of cooing away softly and then serenely sleeping all day in my crib, I screamed and screamed at the top of my voice until I got attention. My favorite pastime was chewing on my crib because I seemed to like the taste of varnish so much. I chewed so hard, and with such great determination, that chew marks were left all over the wooden rails of my crib.
I was sturdy, adventurous, and unafraid. When I was four years old, and playing in the family-owned Jones brewery, my grandfather promised me jelly beans if I drank some beer. I jumped at the opportunity, tried the beer, and hated it.
But I loved the brewery, and everything about it, primarily because it was my haven, my second home. My father, Paul Jones, and his brothers ran the Smithton, Pennsylvania, brewery, and from the time when I was three years old and we moved from Charleroi, Pennsylvania, where I was born, I spent much of my childhood there, playing hide-and-seek among the beer vats and the ice lockers, while my father’s employees all held their breath, terrified that I would accidentally lock myself in a freezer and emerge as a pint-size ice sculpture!
The Jones Brewing Company employed at least half of Smithton (population only 800), and it was started by my grandfather William B. Jones, who hailed from Wales. He immigrated to Pennsylvania, became a coal miner, worked himself to the bone, and saved enough money to buy a corner building in the little town of Smithton, a Norman Rockwell painting in living color. Then he converted that building into a small hotel with six rooms and called it the Jones Hotel. He was the bartender, and my grandmother Lulu did everything else necessary to make the hotel run smoothly.
The official story, the one that I grew up knowing by heart, was that the hotel was so successful my grandfather bought a building on a beautiful site on the Youghiogheny River, which flowed through Smithton, joined the Monongahela River, and then ran right into Pittsburgh, twenty-one miles away. In 1907, in that riverside building, he founded the Jones Brewing Company.
The unofficial story, one that I heard years later, was that William B. Jones, my grandfather, actually won the brewery in a poker game! According to that tale, the brewery had originally been based in Sutersville, Pennsylvania, and manufactured Eureka beer. After my grandfather won the brewery in 1907, he renamed it the Jones Brewing Company and moved it to Smithton.
Whatever the truth, I’m sure of one thing, the origin of the name of Jones brewery’s most beloved beer. According to family lore, one of my grandfather’s earliest customers was an African-American man who regularly visited the brewery along with his bulldog, Stoney.
My grandfather grew to love that dog so much that after the dog died, he declared, “From now on, my name is Stoney Jones.” And he named the beer he brewed Stoney’s beer after the dog he loved so much.
Since then, the Jones Brewing Company, Stoney’s beer, and Stoney’s Light beer have been featured in the movie Striking Distance, starring Bruce Willis, and in the TV shows Northern Exposure and My Name Is Earl.
Although I never knew my grandfather well, I inherited his love of animals and, as a child, raised mice, birds, squirrels, and had no fear of snakes or spiders. No fear whatsoever. In fact, my biggest ambition was to become a vet and look after animals of all types and sizes. Then, fate took a hand and I became something quite different.
My grandfather died of diabetes aged only fifty-six, after having his leg amputated, rumor had it, because he drank too much beer. Sometime before he died, he tried to reverse his diabetes by instructing that Stoney’s beer be manufactured without sugar. Sadly, that didn’t help, and he died anyway. Nonetheless, even today, Stoney’s beer is still manufactured without sugar or preservatives.
After my grandfather’s untimely death, my formidable grandmother Lulu inherited the Jones brewery, and my father and his brothers ran it for her.
Despite his responsibilities, my father was a relaxed, generous, and happy man, with a heart of gold. From the first, he was the love of my life. When I was in the crib and screamed until it felt as if my lungs would burst, he would immediately rush into my nursery at top speed, lift me high in his strong, muscular arms, then place me on his barrel chest, whereupon I would promptly fall into a deep, contented sleep.
In contrast, my mother never came to my rescue when I screamed. She just let me go on screaming and screaming. She was much too busy running our home, or entertaining guests. But while my father was always the life and soul of the party, my mother was not.
Her name was Marjorie, and she was born Williams, of English descent. Her father was a telephone lineman, she had two sisters, and when she met my father, she fell in love with him at first sight.
That love was to last a lifetime, but from as far back as I can remember, my mother continually appeared to be suffering from a deep and abiding disappointment. As I grew older and got to know my mother better, it became eminently clear to me that when she married my father, of the Jones Brewing Company, she had expected far more out of life and, forever afterward, desperately longed to get out of Smithton and move into the big city.
But despite my mother’s unfulfilled expectations, she loved my father unconditionally and adored him unreservedly. I never saw her fight with him, and even though he sometimes came home drunk, I never saw her get angry with him. Drunk as he was, she would undress him, get him ready for bed, and take care of him without a word of complaint. Looking back through the years, I realize that because from the time when I was a small child I watched my mother display such love and tolerance toward my father, her example unconsciously formed my own attitude toward men, in general, and to my first and second husbands, in particular.
My father was away from home a great deal, traveling from Pittsburgh-area saloon to saloon, selling Stoney’s beer. Now and again, to my joy and excitement, he would scoop me up and take me with him on his travels. Together, we would drive through the countryside in his gray Chevy, talking away, drinking in the beauty of the Pennsylvania countryside.
Our route always took us over one particular bridge across the Youghiogheny River, through farmland where cattle and horses peacefully grazed. My father would invariably stop the car and just sit there, gazing at the animals. “They are so beautiful, Shirley,” he would say, “so beautiful.” Witnessing my father’s deep reverence for animals and for nature bequeathed to me an enduring love for animals and nature, as well.
Once we arrived at a saloon, he would sell cases of Stoney’s beer to the saloon owner, then go up to the bar, put up a sign, BUY STONEY’S BEER, and place beers for everyone at the bar, while I played on the pinball machine to my heart’s content.
I couldn’t help noticing that wherever we went, women were all over my father. He was such a handsome man. Years later, I once asked him if he had ever cheated on my mother, and he smiled and said, “I just played at it. I patted a few asses now and again, but I didn’t do more than that.” And I believed him.
He was kind and loving, perhaps because he was the youngest son and had grown up very loved by his mother, Lulu, my grandmother.
After my grandfather died, my grandmother became the matriarch of the family. My mother and father and I lived with her in a fourteen-room brick house on the corner of Second Street in Smithton. The house had a huge front porch, which ran half the length of the street and looked warm and welcoming.
My mother and father and I had seven rooms in the house, my grandmother had the rest, and a door led between my grandmother’s kitchen and ours. Every morning, I would wake up and run to have tea and toast with my grandma in her kitchen.
She was the boss lady who owned the brewery, handed out paychecks, and gave a big Christmas party every year for her family and employees at Sweeney’s Restaurant and Lounge on Route 51 in Belle Vernon. She was a great role model, a tough lady who had to fight to stay on top in a man’s world.
My world, in contrast, was safe and secure. As an only child, I had my own room, with my own little desk in one corner, a blackboard in another, and all the toys I wanted. I had a tricycle I loved, every paper doll known to man, and countless real dolls.
I adored my dolls, one in particular named Carol, who had a huge china head, big blue eyes, and a body bigger than the average baby’s. She was so startlingly lifelike that one time I even dressed her in the hat and dress that my mother took me home from the hospital in and painted her nails. Now that same doll belongs to my granddaughter Megan, my youngest son Ryan’s child, and she loves Carol as much as I did all those decades ago.
Smithton was a classic all-American small town, like River City in The Music Man, made up of only four streets, and my childhood there was idyllic. The biggest house in the town belonged to Dr. Post and stood on top of the hill at the end of Fourth Street.
All us kids always looked up at Dr. Post’s house—a country-style home with white shutters, a lot of land, and a big fence around it—and dreamed of one day living in such an imposing and impressive mansion ourselves.
Meanwhile, as we all waited to grow up, we relished our childhood in Smithton. Our world was small, self-contained, innocent, and ideal. Smithton was so tiny that the town had no policemen, only a sheriff, and there was just one movie theater, the Smithton Movie House, which played movies only on the weekend.
Smithton boasted just one grocery store, a drugstore, and a little variety store, which sold toys and clothes and candy. When I was six, overcome by an uncharacteristic surge of greed, I grabbed a stick of bubble gum from the store, slipped it into my pocket, and skipped home with it. When my mother saw me open the bubble-gum packet, she asked where I got the money to buy bubble gum for myself, and I confessed that I had just snatched it from the store. Outraged, she immediately insisted that I return it to the store right away. So I trudged over there, declared to the shocked owner, “I took your bubble gum,” and threw it right back at him.
Afterward, my mother sent me up to my room in disgrace and told me to stay there until she gave me permission to come out. So I stomped upstairs into my bedroom, slammed the door, then tore the linens off the bed, the drapes off the windows, swept everything off the dresser, and dragged it all out into the middle of the room.
When my mother eventually came upstairs and yelled through the door that I could come out now, I yelled back defiantly, “Why don’t you come in and look at my room?”
She did, drank in all the chaos I had created, and ordered me to put everything back in its place again. Naturally, I couldn’t do that on my own, so I got one of my friends to help me instead. I didn’t feel guilty about what I had done, either. I was already a little hell-raiser, and proud of it.
Another quintessential story from my childhood as Shirley, the precocious little rebel: When I was five years old, my mother took me to the dentist. After examining my teeth, the dentist announced that I had to have a tooth pulled.
I shook my head and stamped my feet, but to no avail. An appointment was made for the dreaded extraction of my errant tooth.
When the morning of the appointment dawned, my mother and father accompanied me to the dentist, along with my favorite aunt, my mother’s sister, Aunt Ina.
In the car, I kept yelling that I wasn’t going to have my tooth pulled, no way, no how.
My mother, to her credit, was kind and patient and kept reassuring me, “Now, sweetheart, it’s not going to hurt. Your aunt Ina’s here, your daddy’s here, I’m here. Everything is going to be all right.”
I should have believed her, but being the child that I was, by the time we all climbed to the top of the stairs in the dentist’s building and stood outside his office door, I plainly did not. So I pulled away from my family and ran downstairs again.
All of them, my mother, my father, and Aunt Ina stood at the top of the stairs, begging me to come back.
I just kept shaking my head and stayed put at the bottom of the stairs, and out of reach.
Then Aunt Ina hit on a winning formula: “Listen, sweetheart, if you come up the stairs again, I’ll buy you a pony.”
Won over by her promise, I looked at my mother first, then at my father, and both of them nodded encouragingly.
“Come up, sweetheart, I’ll hold your hand and nothing’s going to hurt you, I promise,” Aunt Ina said.
Mollified, I ran upstairs, and my mother, my father, and Aunt Ina, all grabbed me and put me in the dentist’s chair. Within moments, the dentist had injected me with anesthetic, then yanked out my tooth.
“But where’s my pony? Where’s my pony?” I cried, when I woke up.
I looked questioningly at my mother, my father, and Aunt Ina. None of them met my gaze.
The dentist exchanged glances with my father, then shrugged.
The writing was on the wall.
I stuck my face straight into the dentist’s and yelled, “I’m not getting a pony. And you’re a big shit!”
I don’t know where or how I learned that particular word, but I was on the right track, really. Because over the next few months, however often I asked my mother, my father, or Aunt Ina where my pony was, however much I begged and cajoled, I always got the same answer: “It’s coming soon.”
Not surprisingly, my pony never did materialize, and I was angry with Aunt Ina, with my parents, and with the dentist. They had all lied to me, and I didn’t like it at all. Which is probably partly why I became even more of a rebel. The other reason, I guess, was that I was just born that way.
I was willful, stubborn, and determined to do exactly what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. I was unable to follow rules, or to act in the way in which a well-bred young lady was supposed to act. From as far back as I can remember, everyone who knew me agreed that I was already my own person.
The dentist incident caused me to loose trust in adults, but I think yet another reason for my tendency to rebel at every turn and to be a tomboy so early on was because I knew that my father had always wanted a son, and because I loved him so much, I wanted to please him.
So I yearned to be a boy and to do everything that boys did, only better. I refused to wear dresses and did whatever I could to prove that I was as tough as any boy and could do exactly the same things as boys could, only better.
After my father taught me sports and took me to all the Pirates games, I became a great baseball and softball and basketball player and, down the line, became head majorette in high school.
My father was delighted by my sporting prowess and made sure that I knew it, praising me at every turn. My mother, however, was not amused that I wasn’t evolving into a nice, well-brought-up, little Shirley Temple–type young lady. Practically every morning, after I refused to wear a dress to school, or to comb my hair, my mother paddled me with whatever she could lay her hands on, from a hairbrush to a spatula. If I came home covered in mud or threw my clothes all over the floor, in the evening my mother paddled me again.
In retrospect, I don’t blame her, because I just flatly refused to take orders. The moment she—or anyone else—told me to do anything, I did exactly the opposite.
When I wasn’t rebelling against authority directly, I was causing trouble in other ways. One Sunday night at around seven o’clock, when I was nine years old and hanging out with my best friend, Red, and my cousin Joanne, I pressed the town’s fire alarm, just to see what would happen. The second I did it, sirens blared, and the Smithton Volunteer Fire Department truck pulled up outside the café where we were hanging out.
Red and Joanne and I ran away as fast as we could, but someone ratted on us. Before we could make our getaway, we were hauled in front of the sheriff, who read us the riot act, in front of our parents, who had been called down to witness our rebuke and disgrace. Terrified, I mustered up the courage to ask the sheriff if we were facing jail. Jail, he told me gravely, was a real possibility, reform school at the very least.
Red, Joanne, and I were white with terror. Luckily for us, though, the sheriff took pity on us and relented. We were too young to go to jail, he announced, and instead he presented each of us with a piece of paper, ordering us to check in with him once a month for the entire year, without fail. We did and thanked our lucky stars that we got off so easily.
Apart from my sporadic bursts of rebellion, life in Smithton had a leisurely rhythm to it, a serenity in common with that of many American small towns. Every Sunday, my mother would make a big dinner at our house. She was a good cook, and her signature recipe was City Chicken—chicken, beef, and veal meatballs on a skewer, coated in bread crumbs, then put in the oven with vegetables.
Usually my grandmother ate with us, and so did my aunts, and during dinner and afterward we would all sit around talking local talk—about the brewery, what Mrs. so-and-so did today, what the grocery man said—the kind of conversation that only goes on in small towns all over America. If anything out of turn happened to disturb the routine of the town, that became a big deal indeed.
Animals were always the biggest deal in my life. Many times when my father came home late at night after being out all day on the road selling beer—often starting at eight and getting back home to us at three in the morning—to my delight he would bring home a puppy or a kitten as a gift for me.
Best of all, when I was very young, he brought home a dalmatian puppy, whom I instantly named Spot. I was devoted to Spot; he swiftly became my chief confidant, and I told him my deepest secrets constantly, so I was devastated when—around my tenth birthday—I came home from school one day to find that Spot had disappeared.
Distraught, I ran to my mother and demanded to know where Spot was.
My mother shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know. Last thing I saw, he went over to visit your grandmother.”
I ran over to my grandmother’s part of the house and begged her to tell me where Spot was.
All my grandmother would say was “Oh, sweetheart, I’m so sorry. I gave Spot a piece of cheese and he ran away because he didn’t like it.”
Young as I was, I didn’t believe her. Particularly when I remembered that, the day before, Spot had raced out into her garden and dug up her cherished rhubarb plants. I drew my own conclusions, and I was not happy. For a while, my feelings toward my grandmother altered radically.
Instead of mourning Spot for too long, though, I drowned my sorrows in playing with my other pet, a little terrier I called Snoopy, who was no bigger than a Chihuahua.
Then there was school, which I adored. Our school housed two grades in a single room and went up to eighth grade; then you went on to high school.
From third grade on, my best friend was Red, who is still my best friend today. I lived at one end of the town, and she lived six blocks away from me at the other. Red and I were always together, and when the boys came up to me and yelled, “Who do you think you are?” (because my family owned the Jones brewery), or threw mud at me, Red would be right there, sticking by me.
Not that I needed any support, really. I was always a big fighter and would think nothing of battling the boys until my nose was bloody and my hair torn out in shreds. I didn’t care. I just wanted to win, and I usually did.
Part of the problem, I think, is that a few of the boys thought I was some kind of princess—the heiress to the Jones Brewing Company—and spoiled. But that wasn’t true. I wasn’t in the least bit spoiled. Although I was an only child, I never felt that I was given more than anyone else. My friends were never jealous of me or competitive with me or treated me as if I were in any way different from them. I was one of them and always would be. I still have friends whom I first met when we were in the third grade together.
But while I loved school, I didn’t love what awaited me when I got home from school, the paddling that my mother invariably gave me. At times, it seemed to me as if I got daily paddlings, and maybe I did.
I was so strong, so determined; I wanted what I wanted, and no one could divert me from it. I hated authority, and I was set on getting my way, come hell or high water. So I got paddled, over and over.
To me it seemed that my mother thought that everything I did was wrong—and she punished me accordingly.
I was constantly shut up in my room, banned from going out with my friends, and paddled. I took my punishment stoically, rarely cried, and in a way the paddlings became part of my life. Then one day, I just had enough.
I was nine years old and, after a particularly heavy paddling (I’d moved the blackboard from one wall to another in my room, had undone my ponytail, or whatever other transgression had made my mother mad), sat on the landing with my dalmatian, Spot (who hadn’t yet vandalized my grandmother’s garden and been spirited away by her), next to me. I was sore and sad. The only one around to comfort me was Spot.
So I put my arms around him, held him close, gazed deep into his eyes, and started confiding in him. “Spot, I don’t know what I’m gonna do. It’s just not working out for me. I guess I’ve got to change my ways,” I said ruefully.
Spot looked up at me and wagged his tail.
The next morning, just before school, for the first time in my life I put on a dress. I remember that dress to this day: peach-colored taffeta with puffed sleeves.
As I came downstairs into the kitchen, my mother was making breakfast and had her back to me. My aunt Ina, however, did not.
“Look at that, Marge, Shirley’s wearing a dress! Isn’t that exactly what you wanted?”
My mother spun around, looked me up and down, and smiled radiantly. “Well, Shirley, how nice you look! How lovely you look! Isn’t that wonderful? I’m so proud of you!”
I felt great. I guess I’ve got to start pleasing my mother more, I said to myself.
And that’s what I did for quite a few years, until I hit my early teens and all hell broke lose.
Until then, I was basically a good girl, who, when she wasn’t playing the tomboy and getting dirty, loved playing with her dolls. Dolls were now things of the past for me. Instead, I was obsessed with movies and movie stars. I plastered the walls of my bedroom with pictures of my idols: Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Lana Turner, Howard Duff, and—my all-time favorite—Burt Lancaster. If you had told me then that one day I would meet him and make a movie with him—Elmer Gantry—I wouldn’t have believed you in a billion years.
I adored movies and movie stars and longed to look like one. When I was nine years old, I wore lipstick for the first time. I wore full makeup a year later. I cut my hair before all my friends did, and I was the first girl in town to wear a strapless dress to the prom.
A rebel in everything, in my early teens I tried sloe gin and got so sick that my friend Red had to put me in the shower so that my parents wouldn’t smell it on my breath when they came home.
I was wild, willful, and independent, and only three elements in my young life served to make me toe the line to some degree.
The first was my father, for whom I could do no wrong. I would have died if I had disappointed him, and that sentiment kept me on the straight and narrow.
Then there was my love for animals, and for nature, both of which tamed my unruly personality.
Last but not least was the other great love of my life: singing.
When I was four years old, Aunt Ina and I were playing on the swings together. Out of the blue, she asked me if I knew how to sing “God Bless America.”
Without any hesitation, I launched into “God Bless America,” both word-perfect and pitch-perfect, and Aunt Ina practically fell off the swing in shock.
Within moments she was yelling at my mother, “Marge, have you heard your daughter sing?”
My mother rushed out into the yard, and Aunt Ina asked me to sing “God Bless America” again. For the first time in my four years, I was an obliging child and, on cue, sang another chorus of “God Bless America.” My mother was ecstatic. From that moment on, she would always encourage me in my singing and would years later always write the lyrics of the songs I sang on three-by-five cue cards, so that I would never forget them.
To me, my aunt and my mother seemed to be praising me for something that I took for granted. I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I thought all children could sing like me, and as easily.
At my mother’s and my aunt’s behest, from then on I sang at all our family functions, in particular at my grandmother’s end-of-summer family party, which she held at Sweeney’s Restaurant and Lounge, where we had all our big celebrations.
Most of the time, young as I was, I sang my favorite song, “Frankie and Johnny,” about the gal who “shot her lover down.” I sang it at one Christmas party and shocked my family to the core. When my choice of song was more suitable for a child of my age, sometimes my cousins joined in, and though I would try not to, I invariably drowned them out.
At six, I was the youngest member of the Universalist Church Choir, and I knew all the hymns by heart. Everyone said that I had a magnificent voice, but I was never vain or conceited about my singing talent. I believed—and still do believe—that my voice was a gift from God.
I loved singing, and I loved my mother’s reaction to my singing. My voice, she said, was “wonderful,” and I basked in the warm glow of her praise.
But that didn’t mean that I was suddenly transformed into an obedient, well-behaved child. After my mother suggested that I take piano lessons, and I had five, I flatly refused to take any more because I hated the lessons, and besides, I just didn’t like playing the piano.
But nothing would stop me from singing and glorying it. In the summer of 1946, when I was twelve, my parents sent me to camp on Lake Erie. Over eight weeks, I spent every evening with the other kids, sitting around the fireplace, roasting hot dogs and singing song after song, popular songs, patriotic songs, and religious songs—“The Star-Spangled Banner,” “The Lord’s Prayer.” For the first time in my life I could sing my heart out, and I adored every minute of it.
Not only that, I had an angel watching over me, my camp counselor, Peggy Demler, who had platinum hair down to her shoulders and played Broadway show tunes on the piano as if she were born to do so. From the first, she made no bones about how she considered my voice to be God-given and special.
Peggy loved to play the piano while I sang and gave me guidance on how to enhance my singing voice. When the summer ended, Peggy called my mother and told her that I had an extreme talent and that I ought to have singing lessons.
Moreover, Phyllis Decker Rocker, my singing teacher at South Huntingdon High School, also believed I was already a talented singer and encouraged me to pursue singing as my career. Luckily for me, my mother listened to Peggy Demler and Phyllis Decker Rocker and enrolled me with singing teacher Ralph Lewando, who was the music critic for the Pittsburgh Press and who, along with his wife, Olga, was famous as being the top voice coach in Pennsylvania.
My father drove me to and from Pittsburgh once a week for my lessons there, an added bonus being I would be alone with my beloved father during the journey. He was delighted that I was having singing lessons, predicted that my name would one day be up in lights, and always treated me as if I were the princess of the world.
However, my singing teacher, Ralph Lewando, was quite another story. Although he was enchanted by my voice from the very first time I sang for him, he had firm ideas about my future and exactly where he thought my singing talent should lead me.
After I’d sung just a few notes, he stopped me in midsong and announced that I was a born opera singer—a coloratura soprano—no question about it. That was my talent, my gift, my mission in life, he decreed; my God-given vocation was clear.
Much as I respected Ralph Lewando, I didn’t agree with him. I didn’t want to be an opera singer. So I plucked up the courage to tell the august Mr. Lewando that actually I wanted to sing musical comedy as well as opera. He was taken aback, and although he reluctantly agreed to allow me to sing the odd Broadway tune now and again, he made it clear that he thought singing show tunes was harmful to my voice. I didn’t argue with him. I just listened to his instructions, studied hard, practiced religiously, and sang aria after aria, but deep down, I knew that however beautiful the arias were, my heart still belonged to the Broadway musical.
Peggy Demler, my camp counselor at Lake Erie, had played Broadway songs to me so enchantingly, and my father often took me to see musicals when Broadway touring companies played Pittsburgh. My passion for Broadway and the Broadway musical began early in my life. Every summer from as far back as I could remember, my parents and I drove from Pittsburgh to New York and spent a week there, the highlight of which was seeing a Broadway show together.