Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Gist of the Matter or What's the Matter With Robert Gist?

One cannot write a line about Agnes Moorehead without talking about her personal relationships.  Twice married she divorced her second husband in 1959.  He was a man of  interest as was her relationship with him.  Of course the only two people who can say with any certainty what actually went on between them are dead but a great deal can be gleaned from learning about the man and separating fact from fiction regarding his history.

If you choose to believe the Internet Broadway Data Base Robert Gist was born June 16, 1924 in Miami Florida.  However, if you choose to believe the Internet Movie Data Base you'll be a whole lot closer to the truth but not exactly on top of it.  IMDB says he was born October 1, 1917 in Chicago actually he was born March 1st 1917 in Chicago.  A least the year is correct.  In any case he was at least 17 years the junior of Agnes according to his Social Security death record.

He was born Robert Marion Gist.  His parents were John Marion Gist and Winifred Josephine McMahon.  He has been described as growing up in tough circumstance and allegedly was somewhat of a reform school boy.  He grew up on the East side of Chicago.  His father John, who went by Marion, worked for the railroad as an engineer.  If you look you will see that the social security number issued to Robert was issued via the railroad that his father worked for.  Marion Gist was from Kentucky as were his parents.  He apparently came to Chicago around 1910.  Winifred McMahon was born in Illinois.  Her father was from Ireland and her mother, according to the 1920 census, was from England.  The story of him being from difficult circumstance does seem to hold water if you look at where he came from.  The story goes that he injured another boy in fist fight and was reform school bound.  He ended up at Hull House in Chicago and that was what apparently made the difference.

According to the IMDB he worked in radio in Chicago and went from there to Broadway where he appeared in Harvey with Josephine Hull and subsequently made his motion picture debut in Miracle on 34th Street as an uncredited window dresser, the year was 1947.  The first mention I found of him was in a Nebraska Newspaper:

The Nebraska State Journal
November 8th, 1944
To Theater
First Lieutenant Robert Gist was a gunnery officer during the Guadalcanal invasion and went through three major engagements without a scratch, although in one of them his company suffered a seventy three percent casualty rate.  Then a mosquito got him down.  Recovering from a malaria attack he went from 175 to 128 pounds.  Now he is coming to Broadway in Frank Fay's supporting case of "Harvey" which opens New York, November 1.

I assumed, incorrectly, that this would be the beginning of the story and then I decided to look a little further.  Lo and behold there was more to the hero mentioned above than the almighty IMDB knew anything about.
It seems that the troubled boy had some ambition and some ambitious parents.

Southeast Economist
Chicago Illinois
November 10th, 1938
Mr. and Mrs. Marion Gist and their son Robert,
formerly of  461 East 83rd Street are now settled
in their new home at 7930 Rhodes Avenue.

Southeast Economist
Chicago Illinois
November 3, 1938
Robert Gist, of the Rhodes Avenue Gists,  Has the
leading role in "Gangster" which opens at the Goodman
Theater.

I was blown away that someone with so much apparent clout because of an apparently stellar military history and a successful career in Chicago would fail to mention either on his resume.  Not once in any bio that I've found does Gist converse about his harrowing escape from death or the show "Gangster," or the upwardly mobile status of his family delivered in the blurbs from the newspaper in Chicago.  If it were me, I'd talk that up all over the place.

I took a look at the military records and I found that Robert M. Gist enlisted on January 28 1941 in Chicago.  He was noted as having accomplished 4 years of college.  No mean feat considering his hard scrap roots.  If the enlistment records are accurate he was finishing college around the time he starred in "Gangster" in 1938.  He was inducted as a private and identified as an actor who was single.  They did not document what company he was assigned to or what battles he fought in.  But it seems he saw heavy combat and as the small newspaper article of 1944 says only to be felled from by a  little mosquito.  To lend credence to the story there is a photograph of him in uniform above it and it definitely is the same man that married Agnes in 1953 in Yuma Arizona.



I am curious to know what change of fortune occurred that took him from the child of the mean streets to a college man.  It doesn't say anywhere that he actually graduated from college but I assume the military records lend credibility to his being a college graduate.  The dates of the battle of Guadalcanal also gel with his date of enlistment having occurred between August of 1942 and November of 1943.   The interesting thing is that generally college graduates enlisted as officers.  The blurb from 1944 identified him as a First Lieutenant and a jump like that in a span of three years seems not just improbable but close to impossible.

Let's return for a moment to the ambitions of Robert Gist and his family.  If you take at face value everything written about Agnes Moorehead you believe that she met Robert Gist while filming "The Stratton Story" and you believe that their relationship did not begin in earnest until the divorce proceedings with Jack Lee were underway.  I've got a shocker for you.  It seems that Agnes played hostess to Robert's parents, you know the poor ones from the south side of Chicago, in November of 1949.  It seems that Marion and his wife "motored" to the west coast where they were graciously hosted by Agnes who had simply met Robert while filming "The Stratton Story."


Southeast Economist
November 3rd, 1949
Chicago, Illinois
Mr. and Mrs. Marion Gist, 7930 Rhodes Avenue have returned
from a motor trip to Hollywood where they were guests of 
Agnes Moorehead.. They visited their son Robert, who
played a part in "The Stratton Story" as did Miss Moorehead.

I had to stop and ask myself when the last time was that I put up the mother and father of someone I had met during a brief stint of employment?  To be honest I could not come up with one instance during which I had done anything close to that.




Don Juan in LA

Robert Gist truly seems to have been the earthly reincarnation of Don Juan. It seems fitting that he should have stage-managed that show especially in light of the circus that seems to have been his private life. The most unfortunate aspect of all of this seems to be the number of people he violated and kicked aside during his brief but meteoric rise to the top of the Hollywood ladder. There are women and children punctuating his life of which he neither seems to take little notice nor appears to have any compassion for. I believe, although as I’ve stated before the only 2 people who know for sure are dead, that he plotted and planned every single blessed inch of this nearly 20 year stint from 1949 to 1969 for his sole benefit. If one judges him purely on his apparent actions one can only assume that today he would be referred to as a “player.” Let’s take a look at his list of conquests:

1. Louise Van Dyke whom he marries August 14, 1943 in Chicago Illinois. Louise literally disappears and I can find no record of a divorce in New York, Illinois or California to date.
2. Agnes Moorhead whom he marries in Yuma Arizona February 14th 1953 and is divorced from March 1958 in California.
3. Phyllis Jeanne Moore Colville. There is no record of marriage in California between Gist and Colville. There are 5-recorded births naming Gist as the father and Colville as the mother, however, two of these do not allow for 9 months of pregnancy between the last children and the ones in question. I must assume that they cannot be the same parents.
4. Jacqueline Franklin Mickles. There is no record of marriage for them but there is a record of divorce in July of 1966 in Los Angeles California. There are 3-recorded births naming Gist as the father and Mickles as the mother.
5. Edwina Muehlberger Pegram whom he married April 14 1969 in Los Angeles. There is no record of a California divorce but Edwina remarries in 1973.

The real curiosity of all this lies in the birth dates of the children fathered by Gist. The fact that there appear to be two women with whom he sired children during the same span of time lends support to Agnes’ story that she was called by various women who urged her to divorce Gist quickly. In light of the contact between these various women and Agnes I can only assume that Colville and Mickles were both aware he was legally married to someone else and that listing him on the birth certificates of his children as their spouse was done strictly to give their children legitimacy. Here are the children born to both women in order of their birth dates:
1. David L. Gist 1956 mother Colville
2. Jason Gist 1958 mother Mickles
3. Jeanne Gist 1958 mother Colville
4. Jeb Gist 1960 mother Mickles
5. Elizabeth Gist 1961 mother Colville
6. Jacqueline Gist 1964 mother Mickles

It appears that he did not father children with Louise Van Dyke or Edwina Pegram. At least one of the children listed above has publicly referred to Agnes as his “Stepmother.” So either they were aware of her and she wasn’t aware of them or she was not in a position of any kind to use this ammunition to rid herself of Robert with a minimum of expense and time. He was divorced from her awarded real estate and in some cases appears to have been awarded alimony of $1.00 per year. It has been alleged that she spoke to her attorney at the end of the process and told him to write a check for twenty dollars to Robert so that she wouldn’t have to deal with him again for at least twenty years.

The other thing that must be considered is that during his time with Agnes she became a foster mother to the young man she called Sean and in several newspapers it is alleged that they adopted him. It also alleges that he, like Agnes and Robert, had red hair. I have to believe that because Sean may have looked at Robert as sort of a father figure Robert’s behavior must have had some influence or effect on Sean. Perhaps some of the difficulties that Sean had in his later years were the result of the behavior he undoubtedly witnessed as a young child in Agnes’ household.

The bottom line is that the separation and divorce from Robert undoubtedly robbed Agnes of her dignity and certainly played havoc with her already strained ability to trust others. It is post 1959 that Agnes begins to withdraw from the public and begins the ironclad grasp on her personal life that she would come to be known for. She did not discuss Jack at all publicly at all. She rarely spoke of him privately except to say he was a violent drunk. She never discussed Robert publicly by name. When she spoke of him privately she spoke of him as the “Malaria Kid” and was very aware that she had been deliberately used to further his career. She made a point of telling interviewers that she did not discuss her family at all. Her detachment from Sean was a very visible thing that she never acknowledged to anyone. She completed her fortress of air with her divorce from Robert and nobody but nobody was going to get beyond that boundary again. Or would they?


The Fabulous Redhead Is Reborn

As 1959 drew to a close the once brilliant movie career of Agnes Moorehead was showing signs of dimming. Her personal life was a disaster that she had spent the last 5 years attempting to put back together. She was a victim of her own brilliance really. She had built her reputation in Hollywood on the back of several stellar movies in which she played characters that she would never be able to duplicate. She had run afoul of typecasting. She was a maiden aunt, a hysterical mother or a harpy born of the feverish imagination of a screenwriter. She gave 200 percent of herself in everything she did but she was only ever going to be as good as the part would allow and her age was pushing her toward parts that she found unappetizing. 1959 finished with the release of “The Bat.” For me, although Cornelia Van Gorder is an amusing character, this movie is the first low point of her career. The camp of the part would have swallowed a lesser actress but not Agnes, she was a phoenix and this would be the rebirth of  the "Fabulous Redhead."


I point to the character of Cornelia as the rebirth of the “Fabulous Redhead” because with this part Agnes loosed for the third time in her career her ability to be a comedienne. She suddenly seemed to let go of the tragedy and embrace the comedy. She created in that role the embryonic Endora. Cornelia was flashy, tart, forward, strong, determined and most of all did not give a damn what anyone thought about her. At that point Agnes was simply playing Agnes or Endora, one in the same really.

As the phenomenon of “Don Juan In Hell” faded Agnes had been confronted with a series of not so hot parts. She did them because they paid the bills not because they would ever be considered a fine dramatic moment but something else was going on behind the scenes. A phenomenon in itself it was a one-woman show called “The Fabulous Redhead.” It was the brainchild of Charles Laughton. During his time with Agnes in “Don Juan” he was impressed with her ability to converse, tell stories, emote and play comedic bits. It was under his tutelage that she began formulation of “The Fabulous Redhead.”


The birth of this child of theatre was to have included Robert Gist, however, fate intervened and he was cast in “The Caine Mutiny” in New York. I’ve often asked myself if Laughton had done that on purpose? He pushed Gist right into the part and right out of Agnes’ professional and personal life. The first performance of “The Fabulous Redhead” was scheduled to have taken place in January of 1954 in Reno Nevada but it was postponed allegedly because Gist could not free himself of the obligation of "Caine Mutiny."  Initial press releases had included Robert in the credits but by the time it actually opened in Reno in April of 1954 it did so without the presence of Robert Gist. The really great thing is that people loved it. They loved Agnes and they loved her ability to make them feel like they were being spoken to directly. This was a gift that she would use repeatedly over the next 15 years of her life doing the same show by herself on as many stages as she could stand to get out of bed and get on to. It would go through many incarnations, “The Fabulous Redhead,” “Lean Closer and I’ll Give You an Earful” and finally “The Lavender Lady.” The latter was nickname given to her by Laughton and it is the one that the majority of us remember her for because it was, fortunately for us all, the one that got recorded.



The next installment will begin with
The Swinging Sixties Agnes Style

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