Chapter 5: High rolling in Reno, hobnobbing in Hollywood

BACK IN 1947 my cousin Jack Brennan, my college roommate Bud Moe–who was an ex-fighter pilot–and I took off hitchhiking from the University of Colorado. It was our Easter vacation. We had a hundred dollars between us.

I knew that drivers wouldn’t pick up three people, especially three guys, but they might pick up one or two. So at least one of us had to hide in the ditch while the other two guys got picked up. Then the guy in the ditch would run and get in the car with them.

We went to Reno, Nevada first. As we were hitchhiking into Reno, a pledge from our fraternity happened to drive by in a brand new car. He lived in San Francisco and he was going there. We hardly knew him but we waved him down. He took us the other twenty miles into Reno.

We talked him into stopping in Reno even though he didn’t drink or gamble. We gave him thirty dollars for the ride and that left us with seventy. Jack and Bud and I went gambling and we told the guy with the car we’d meet him at eight o’clock That night.

At eight o’clock we came back. Jack and I were about even moneywise. Well, we maybe lost a little bit but not a lot. We still had about fifty dollars. But Bud was about four to five hundred dollars ahead. So we decided to stay till midnight, thinking the way things were going we’d have enough money to go to California on our own.

Anyway, we didn’t come back till midnight. All three of us lost all of our money. We were flat broke. But the guy drove us to San Francisco anyway because we had already paid him the thirty dollars to do it.

When we got to San Francisco, I called up Ralph Brown, a guy I used to caddy for at the Country Club. He was president of Del Monte, the whole corporation, at the time. I told him we were hitchhiking through and just called to say hello. He told us to go down to what used to be Joe DiMaggio’s restaurant at Fisherman’s Wharf and tell them Mr. Ralph Brown sent you. So that’s what we did. Boy, we had a good time!

But we wanted to get to Los Angeles. We started hitchhiking and a trucker that was going to Beverly Hills picked us up. When we got there we called another guy who was a pledge at our fraternity. We knew he was skiing but he said we could call his dad. His dad was Mr. Collins and he was vice-president of Republic Movie Studios, which was a big deal then. John Wayne and a lot of big actors and actresses worked out of the studio.

This guy knew everybody in Hollywood. We knew he had a great big fancy home and no other kids or anything. We say, We were just hitchhiking through and all that baloney. He said, “Where are you?” I said, “We’re down at Mac’s Tavern. He said he’d be there in ten minutes, and he was, drove up in a great big fancy Cadillac.

Mr. Collins told us we were welcome to stay at his house as long as we wanted to stay. We stayed for ten days and he took us out every night. We met a friend of Mr. Collins. This guy asked what we were doing the next night. He said we ought to go to Cocoanut Grove and go dancing. He asked if we had girlfriends, did we know anybody down there?

“You should have a girl, have dates,” he said. He called Elizabeth Taylor, Debbie Reynolds, and a third girl, I don’t remember who. Believe it or not, they were all busy and couldn’t make it. But we went anyway.

Bud and I knew some girls from college who lived in the area, so they were our dates. We talked a pretty elevator operator in a hotel into going with him. We left there about 3 a.m. Mr. Collins’ friend had given us two-hundred bucks so we had a fantastic time!

One of the girls we went with had a small car, so she took Bud and Jack back to Mr. Collins’s house and I hitchhiked. That wasn’t easy at that time of night. I’m out there along the road at three or four a.m. I have my tan suit on with a yellow tie and I'm really looking cool. I mean I looked good! There’s no traffic.

Finally, a guy who was dropping off paperboys stopped and picked me up thinking I was a paperboy. Here I was all decked out and I had just spent the whole night at the Cocoanut Grove dancing with beautiful women, and he thought I as a paperboy.

Then one day Mr. Collins took us over to Jennifer Jones’s house. She was a well-known actress who had been married to the actor Robert Walker, and he had died. By then she had married David Selznick, who was a big producer, tons of money.

They’re lawn looked like a golf green, just beautiful. Mr. Collins had dropped us off there when he went to work. We’re there talking to Jennifer Jones at her mansion. She and Robert Wagner had had twin boys and it was the boys’ tenth or eleventh birthday. Of course the twin boys got everything they wanted. One of the things they got is a boxing ring, a regular boxing ring there in the house.

They had like a gymnasium up on the second or third floor but they didn’t have anybody there to take care of it or to take care of them. So we go up and we set up the ring. It had a big clanging bell like a regular ring. One of us is the referee and one of us has one of the kids in the corner. Pretty soon they’re fighting like hell. These kids are celebrating their birthday with us, the only ones there.

Next day we go to Muscle Beach. We got a little boat that you rent for like ten dollars for half an hour or hour maybe. We got a couple six packs and we rowed out into the ocean a ways. We see there’s this great big motorboat with the old movie cameras on it filming away. We get out there, and there’s a big long rope pulling a canoe along behind the motorboat. One of us says, “Oh, that’s so-and-so,”—some very famous actress at the time. I can’t remember her name. “Let’s go over and talk to her.” I was rowing, so I rowed right over there.

We get close and here’s this guy up on the motorboat: “Get back! Get away! Get away from here!” So we rowed right up to the side of the canoe she was in. She’s on a canoe and they got rope attached and this boat was pulling her along, like she’s rowing a canoe, see. And they’re taking pictures of her. So we come cruising up there, and we’re talking to her. She thought it was the funniest thing in the world, all these big shots telling us to get the hell out of there.

One day Mr. Collins took us down to see the movie “The Wake of the Red Witch” being filmed. John Wayne was in it. They have this big tank of water with windows in it down below. They were filming through the windows while we watched. Inside this pool there’s a big rubber thing with tentacles that was supposed to be an octopus. Up above they had guys with sticks moving these tentacles to make it look like it was alive.

We stood down there looking through the windows and there was John Wayne in there. You’d think he was out in the middle of the ocean, down in the bottom of the tank fighting this thing. He stabbed the octopus and blood came shooting out. The blood was red of course but it didn’t make any difference because the movie was in black and white.

They took a break from filming about eleven o’clock. We came up from below and there was John Wayne having a Coke. We had a Coke with John Wayne. Just the three of us and Mr. Collins sitting around this pool shooting the bull with John Wayne. In about ten minutes they went back to work. We were really hobnobbing with the top!