Memoir seeks to link old world
by Bret Bradigan
This is how it begins:
"Every village had its fool, its village idiot. He shambled
down the middle of the road - raged, dirty, mumbling to himself;
looking around vaguely and not seeing anyone. No one knew where
or how he lived. At times he was simply there like a fallen log
or a horse dropping, part of the road.
"Every village had its villain. He swaggered down the road.
He sought the eye of every man who passed, sought it in challenge.
No man looked back at him and the women scurried past with faces
averted from his appraising stare. No one knew where he lived
but everyone knew where he could be found. Each evening he was
at the tavern drinking with his kind and brawling. For, of course,
every village had its tavern. The dawn often found him on the
steps where he had been heaved out and where he had spent the
"And every village had its whore, or more than one, and
every man knew where to find her. When she walked down the road,
her hips swinging in her dirty finery, she looked at the women
with a smile that was a sneer. They didn't look at her, but every
man did. The storekeeper knew what kind of a night she had by
what she bought and he overcharged her without meeting her eye
"Grandmother often said that nothing changed in the mountains.
She knew. She had lived there forever."
Where it ends is not known, not even to its author, Adelle Ellingsworth.
Now 83, she was born in the ill-fated Czech Republic's eastern
frontier, which is now part of the Ukraine, and she now resides
This memoir is her way of satisfying the curiosity of her nieces
and nephews, "the Hannibal clan," she calls them, most
of whom live in San Antonio, Texas. "The kids say, 'Who
are we? Where did we come from?' This (project) gives me a focus,"
In a larger sense, it is her way of taking hold of the slippery
strands of the past, and fastening them securely to the future,
so that those who come after will know they are connected to
a world of remembrance and continuity.
For Adelle, that continuity was provided by her grandmother.
"She is the real heroine of my story," she said. "She
was a doctor, and she nursed me through many illnesses."
Whatever was going around her village - scarlet fever, smallpox
or rickets - Adelle was likely to get it.
Though her body is frail and confined by arthritis to a wheelchair,
her spirit does not suffer the same constraints. Dark eyes flashing
as she recalls the events of a distant world in a distant time,
the young girl emerges.
"You don't grow big and strong on a diet of turnips and
beets," she said. Though her family was solidly middle class,
growing political turmoil forced her father - a civil servant
in the state government - to choose sides. As a example of the
confusion about boundaries, Adelle said, "I was born in
the Czech Republic. Three years later, my brother was born in
the same house and it was Hungary. My mother grew up 50 kilometers
away and it was in Romania."
Adelle's father chose instead a third option - he emigrated to
America. Adelle was about 3 years old at the time, and, with
her mother and baby brother, they moved in with an aunt and uncle
in a nearby village. "He was a very practical man, who built
houses," Adelle said.
It took seven years for their father to finally call for them,
after he established himself as the head of room service for
the Waldorf-Astoria. Since the family had three visas, immigration
officials at Ellis Island were going to deny them entrance into
the United States, until their father, a newly naturalized American
citizen, "stood up and proudly stated his citizenship,"
and so the family was admitted to the United States.
Adelle's father was not such a practical man, she said. When
they arrived at the port of New York, he piled the family into
a cab for a long ride up the island to their apartment. That
expensive trip exhausted his ready cash.
The new world proved both exciting and frightening for the Hannibal
The first English words their father made them memorize was their
address, "20 West 83rd Street," Adelle rattles off
70 years later, "in case we got lost. He told us never to
cross the street, and that way we would come back to the apartment
building. Of course, we crossed the street and got lost. Our
father had told us - when all else fails - to go up to the man
in the blue uniform and say our address. It was a magic word."
Another magical thing about America was the produce. Sent on
an errand by their father to buy a lemon for tea at the green
grocer, they returned with a grapefruit. The kids marveled at
"how big lemons are in America."
Their mother took a job as a janitor, their father as a building
superintendent, and life settled into a comfortable routine.
Adelle excelled at swimming and diving, becoming part of a Revere
Beach boardwalk show. Nicky joined the military during World
War II. As they grew up, they grew apart.
Adelle went on to dazzle audiences as part of flamboyant Broadway
impresario Billy Rose's "Aquacade." "10,000 of
us showed up for auditions for swimmers," she said. "I
could only stand it for a couple of weeks. He was such a tyrant.
That was when Adelle and a group of accomplices decided to go
West, to Hollywood, and make it big in show business. The group
included three female swimmers and two male divers. They arranged
to drive a dealer's car from New York to as far as their accumulated
gas ration would allow - which happened to be Salt Lake City.
"We hitchhiked from there," he said. "We spent
that night in an empty chicken truck," she said.
The situation didn't improve that much once they arrived in Los
Angeles - which Adelle said was full of beautiful, talented people
willing to work for next to nothing for a glimpse of glamour.
She did land a swimming part in Esther Williams' first movie,
It took six months to film, and much of that time was spent submerged.
"We were treading water for hours. There was pneumonia all
over the place," she said. "I got to appear in two,
tiny little scenes."
Ellingsworth had signed on with Central Casting. "That's
how I got into the industry," she said. But she soon found
steady work as at a photographer's studio. She worked there 10
years before becoming Terry Spence's secretary at AFTRA, the
American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. "I
was disillusioned about becoming an actor - I didn't have the
looks, the talents, the time," she said modestly.
She met her husband Gary while working for AFTRA, becoming his
traveling assistant and "amanuensis" as he went around
the country and abroad as a labor organizer for artists and performers.
That work included not only the typing, but cooking his breakfast
on a special suitcase as well as giving him haircuts.
Once Gary went to work for the Writers Guild of America, Adelle
was let go "because of nepotism."
The first time he retired, Adelle and Gary "took off for
Europe. We bought a motorhome and spent two years traveling."
Adelle was able to discover some of her roots while overseas,
discovering traces of the Hannibal family tree in Cyprus that
had been lost for 1,000 years.
The Ellingsworths moved to Ojai in 1982, a move that was hastened
after Gary was mugged near Temple and Pico, with a pistol held
to his head. They had looked up and down the Pacific coast for
a place to retire, from Puget Sound to Cambria, before settling
on Ojai "because it was so much prettier than anywhere else,"
said Adelle. They had some experience with Ojai, because Adelle's
mother was a Krishnamurti devotee.
The memoir is slowly taking shape, parts of it written in the
form of "cameos," such as when Adelle's father met
Governor Pat Brown in 1963:
"He said to Dad, 'So you're a Brown man, are you?' My Dad
assured him that he was. The Governor said: 'Well, good for you!"
Dad replied: 'No, Governor, good for YOU!"
Meanwhile, Adelle struggles against the limits of the flesh,
trying to breathe life into the past. "I just want to have
it for them, so they'll know where we came from."
© 2002 The Ojai Valley News
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