Mr. Gifford and My Trip through the Panama Canal

When I was working on my book, Finding My Invincible Summer, my editor encouraged me to write about the people in my life without any thought of including the material in the final version. It was a great exercise that added depth to the book. Here is one of my unpublished portraits.

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I was two months short of my fourth birthday when my mother left my father and moved to California to join my Aunt Muriel and start a new life. To save money, Mother had booked passage on a freighter, the SS West Notus, which

West Notus

carried cargo from New York to San Francisco by way of the Panama Canal. It was a 30-day voyage, and I remember much of it vividly. The passenger list was very short: in addition to Mother and me, there was Mrs. Bickers and her two children, who had accommodations on the bridge, and Mr. Gifford, whose cabin was across the mess hall from ours. Mrs. Bickers was seasick the entire time, and she and her children never came to meals. That left the three of us. The mess hall had only one large table and we ate with the ship’s officers.

Mother often told the story of her first encounter with Mr. Gifford. At dinner the first night out, she and I were the only passengers at the table. She therefore assumed that the cabin on the other side of the mess hall was empty. She was curious to check it out and see if it was any larger than ours. After the galley closed, she sneaked across the mess hall in the dark  (my mother was nothing if not adventurous) and went to try the door of the cabin to see if it was open. Just as she was about to turn the knob, a dark form filled the passageway, a firm hand clapped on top of hers, and a hearty voice boomed:

“Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania!!!”

An English major, she immediately recognized the quote from Shakespeare. She ran back to our cabin, laughing so hard she thought she’d never stop. The next day there were formal introductions and Mr. Gifford became part of our lives. He never let Mother forget about her attempt to break into his cabin.

At 6-foot-4 and over 300 pounds, James Noble Gifford was a presence that could not be ignored. His mother had been an opera singer, and he had been trained since childhood to follow her path, but stage fright had kept him from pursuing his intended career. He still had a powerful tenor voice, and he was comfortable keeping the two of us, the officers, and the cabin crew entertained with concerts in the evenings after dinner. When he wasn’t singing, he told wonderful stories, drawn from a rich cultural background. He was always jolly and knew how to make people laugh, including me.

He had booked passage on the freighter because it was cheaper than the cost of room and board for a month, but he had no particular destination in mind. During our days on the open sea, he spent a lot of time with me and gave me the kind of attention I had never had from my father. He taught me silly songs, limericks and other poems, and how to play Canfield solitaire. He treated me as an equal and made me feel that it was us against the world. We were in cahoots. I felt very special. I adored him.

He earned his living writing pulp romance novels under his own name and a variety of pseudonyms—Emily Noble, Warren Howard, John Saxon, Ross Sloane, Gerald Foster, Gay Rutherford, Griffith James, Carol Holliston, Eliot Brewster, Roy Booth, and possibly others. James GiffordHe also ghost-wrote books for other authors of the genre, including Peggy Gaddis. Each “author” had a specialty: Warren Howard, for example, wrote romances set on Maryland’s Eastern Shore that featured the local area and its people, while John Saxon’s books were what they now call “vintage sleaze.”

His publisher expected him to produce a book a month, for which he was paid just a couple of hundred dollars, and he was always behind, living off advances against books he hadn’t written yet. I remember watching him as he wrote page after page in longhand. I learned later that he was required to introduce racy passages at designated intervals, but the job of writing them went to a “specialist” in steamy prose. He would leave a blank space where they were supposed to be inserted. His role was to set the scene, create the characters, and spin the tale. Over the years, he dedicated several books to my mother and two to me—the tamer ones. My research on the Internet brings up more than 140 titles that I’m fairly certain were written by him over a period of 28 years. Many have become collector’s items, selling for as much as $125 a copy. I doubt  my mother knew about the “hotter” ones—he made sure we didn’t know all the hats he wore.

Other memories from the trip include our passage through the Panama Canal. We reached the first lock early in the morning, and I recall the eerie feeling as I watched its gray concrete walls rise through the portholes, turning everything dark inside as the ship “sank.”

My favorite memory by far was Easter morning. We were in port at the other end of the Canal, near Panama City, and I woke up to find white “footprints”—made with three fingers dipped in flour—leading all over the ship to nests of shredded green stuff that the cabin boys and crew had hidden. The fellows had gone ashore to buy the materials, and they also brought back a gigantic a carnival-sized stuffed bunny. They cooked and dyed the eggs in the ship’s galley. The big bunny was waiting for me in the center of the table at breakfast. Mr. Gifford had gotten me a smaller bunny and felt outdone.

Golden GateI also recall the excitement when we arrived in San Francisco Bay at sunset and sailed under the newly completed Golden Gate Bridge. Looking up at it from underneath, it was the most spectacular thing I had ever seen.

We settled into our new life in Berkeley and I quickly fell in love with California.  Mr. Gifford came to visit us more than once. One of my favorite places was John Hinkel Park, with its woodsy glens, views of the bay through the trees, and the amphitheater carved out of the landscape. Once Mr. Gifford climbed up on the stage of the amphitheater and sang arias to Mother and me as we sat on the stone steps. His visits distracted me from thoughts about my father’s absence.

He became a fixture in our lives. He would show up wherever we were. He claimed that when he was around my mother he felt inspired to write. When space allowed, he stayed with us. He joined us on all our vacations. When there was distance between us, he wrote long letters to both Mother and me. And poems. When I got older, I called him “Uncle Jimmy.”

Mother appreciated his quirkiness, the fun that he brought into our lives, and all that he did for me. Though he never told us his age (and Mother wasn’t about to tell hers), it turns out that he was only a year older than her. I don’t know if they loved one another in a romantic way, but turning their friendship into a committed relationship would have been difficult. Both were strait-laced and preferred jokes and teasing over talk of personal feelings. Mother remained married to my father for many years, as divorce would have been a disgrace to the family. Neither had enough money to make a home. Also, Mr. Gifford was restless. I don’t think he wanted to settle down. Aunt Muriel resented him a bit, though she tried not to show it. I think she saw him as a threat to the family unit she had created. She thought he was too “bohemian.” Mother, however, had the wisdom to accept him the way he was and welcome him into our lives. At the very least, as far as I was concerned, he filled the shoes of my absent father and made me feel happy, loved, and important. For that, my mother was deeply grateful.

When I was in my teens, he was diagnosed with diabetes and lost a lot of weight. In 1959 he was found dead in a rented room at Sloane House in New York City, having slipped into a diabetic coma.

The SS West Notus had predeceased him: she was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Cape Hatteras in 1942.



The gateI still have the following books by Mr. Gifford, all of them autographed: Emily Noble, The Game of Hearts, New York: Gramercy, 1940 (dedicated to my mother); Warren Howard, The Gate, New York: Arcadia House, 1942 (dedicated to me); Warren Howard, Tidewater, New York: Arcadia House, 1945 (dedicated to my mother).

4 Comments

Filed under General, My book, Profiles

4 Responses to Mr. Gifford and My Trip through the Panama Canal

  1. Loved this, Muriel! What an interesting story and what a colorful character Mr. Gifford was! I’m starting to think you could write another whole book about your life… :)

    • Thanks for being such a faithful and supportive reader, Amy. I could see putting together a collection of profiles of people in my life, more like a collection of short stories. I don’t know if there would be an audience for it, though. My first book has some strong messages. The second book would mainly be of interest to readers of the first one.

  2. Branca Heloisa Pinheiro

    Bela memoria. Texto gostoso de ler. Gostaria de ter conhecido Mr. Gifford. E voce ainda tem os livros dele, que reliquia!