Angel of the Anzacs: The Life of Nola Luxford
Carol van Grondelle
Victoria University Press, $39.95,
Nola Luxford left New Zealand in 1919, at the age of 23, for Hollywood. She never quite made the Big Time in Tinsel Town, but she did go on to become one of the first female network news announcers in America. But the real purpose of this book, as the title implies, is to tell how Nola “found her groove” as a kind of latter-day and very well-dressed Florence Nightingale.
During World War 2 in New York, Nola established and ran the Anzac Club, an institution which hosted 35,000 men, giving them access to New York’s theatre, music and art. Coming from the far corners of the Antipodes, they must have thought they had in fact died and gone to heaven, to be greeted by “the most beautiful lady we had ever seen”, the Angel of the Anzacs indeed! Still, “good works” do not necessarily an interesting book make, and author Carole van Grondelle quite rightly aspired to tell the larger story of how Nola transformed herself from a middle-class Hawke’s Bay girl into one of New York’s glitterati.
Van Grondelle describes herself as bent on “reaching through the public sphere to the private realm … to give shape and meaning to a life lived gloriously to the full – but seemingly without a moment’s pause for self-reflection.” It’s unclear whether van Grondelle believes she has unearthed evidence of self-reflection, or whether the absence of self-reflection is one of the curious aspects of Nola Luxford’s life, but my money’s on the latter. Consequently, I found the assertion that Nola’s life represented “a tale of Odyssean proportions, a grand opera encompassing the full sweep of human emotions” hyperbolic and overly directive: a full sweep would surely require some insight on the part of the heroine. Still, van Grondelle can justifiably take pride in managing to gain unprecedented access to a subject well known for her “cloak of secrecy” and “explosive temper”. Nola emerges as a difficult person, but then some of the best people are, and it’s worth being reminded that extreme characters may be uncomfortable, even destructive; yet they also make stuff happen, and Nola certainly did that.
This flamboyantly difficult woman, who married two improvident and unfaithful men, had a flamboyantly difficult mother and an unfaithful father, who had in his turn quit the family in circumstances which scandalised the easily scandalised provincial New Zealand of the early 1900s. It is hardly surprising therefore that Nola set out to reinvent herself, and hardly surprising that she continued the family pattern in an attempt to distance herself from it. So it goes.
She was seeking both respectability and attention, which are often mutually exclusive ambitions. True to her upbringing, she attempted her first escape, and indeed her second and third, through marriage. Within days of her father’s shameful elopement with a young assistant from his shop, Nola engineered an engagement to Maurie Luxford, an old friend whom she knew was already betrothed to another. On their honeymoon, she discovered he was so broke he couldn’t pay the hotel bill. Nola pawned her jewellery and, appearances being everything, they set sail for America in a first-class cabin “to try their luck in films”.
As Nola was to discover, the trouble with setting great store by appearances is that it’s relatively easy to look good on paper. First husband Maurie was, for example, a decorated war hero, a handsome athlete and artist from a good family, a man described as “everybody’s ideal”. He was also a liar, a thief, and penniless. A few weeks after a lavish society wedding in Hawkes Bay with eight bridesmaids and groomsmen and a motorcade of black Studebakers, the couple found themselves in a dingy rooming house in a dodgy part of Los Angeles, where Maurie got a job wrapping Christmas parcels.
The 1920s were boom years for Hollywood, but while both managed to get some movie work, it was erratic. “Ugh! How I hate poverty,” wrote Nola in her diary of 1921. “When I look around this room and think ‘What might have been!’” Things looked up, then down, and by the time it became clear that Nola was not going to be the next Clara Bow, Maurie had, roughly speaking, done an Ernie. The odd thing is that just as Ernie lived happily and respectably ever after with his new bride, so too did the feckless Maurie, going on to become a pillar of the community and of the American golfing scene.
Nola persevered with movie work, at one point literally playing a bit part as the hands of Christ in Ben-Hur, but still reduced to pawning her jewellery at regular intervals. So she hatched a scheme to hitch her dim star to the glittering career of Western writer and big-game fisherman Zane Grey. Having heard that he was planning a trip to New Zealand, she hoped to capitalise on some common interest. She dressed carefully one morning, drove towards the film studio where Grey worked, and when she saw his limousine approaching, waved it over, said her car had broken down, and hitched both a ride and, as she hoped, her star.
It was a risky gambit, because while Grey may have been testosterone-driven, he also had an adolescent tendency to idealise women. So while his apparently unrequited passion for Nola could have given her the career boost she yearned for, his disapproval of this “beautiful, sweet, sad, exquisite woman” sullying herself with the movie business meant her ambitions would be thwarted. After managing to persuade him to give her a part in the film of his novel Forlorn River, she found most of her efforts left on the cutting-room floor. Then, adding insult to injury, Grey asked her to accompany him as his “secretary” on a fishing trip to New Zealand, to save this fragile flower from lifting heavy things. While it’s true that Nola was not in good health, she was in fact about as fragile as corrugated iron. She turned him down, and that was that.
The relationship with Zane Grey is one of the most interesting episodes of Nola’s life, and van Grondelle’s account of it is helped by the survival of his letters to her. Unfortunately, in the absence of any of Nola’s letters to Grey, van Grondelle resorts to inventing one on the basis of what he wrote in reply to it. “Is this what Nola said to Grey?” asks the author. “How the hell would I know?” replies the reader. “Why didn’t you ask Nola?” To be fair, it seems clear that Nola’s aversion to talking about large parts of her past would not have enlightened us much, but the author should have trusted the reader to fill in the gaps. It’s a breach of faith to make it up, even when clearly identifying it as an imagined reconstruction.
Anyway, one reason Nola finally gave Grey short shrift was that she had once again decided to marry a handsome charmer from a good family. Bill Bauernschmidt looked like a certain ticket to social status and material comfort after seven unpromising years in Hollywood and the impossible prospect of returning, broke and divorced, to a New Zealand which still cherished happy illusions of “our Nola making it big in the movies”. Nola took six years off her age to secure the younger man, but soon discovered he was feckless, unemployable, and estranged from his wealthy but disapproving family. As the Depression hit and the pawnbrokers beckoned once again, Nola launched herself into a new career as a commentator for the NBC-affiliated station KFI during the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.
“Whoever heard of a girl broadcasting sports events?” demanded KFI’s programme director Glenn Dolberg, who was proved so wrong that she worked for the station for four years, and, gentle reader, ended up marrying Dolberg and living happily in security and respectability with him ever after. But that came much later.
In the meantime, a luridly public divorce battle ensued with Bill, as Nola fought to get what she regarded as a just financial settlement. Bill went on to marry the Other Woman, and lived happily ever after. Nola was now twice-divorced, alone again, in poor health, and with an uncertain financial future. Fortunately for her, World War 2 broke out. If that seems a cynical way of putting it, there can be no doubt that Nola now hit her stride. She continued to be one of the few women broadcasters. She helped organise the New Zealand exhibition at the 1939 New York World Fair. She climbed the social ladder. She became an expert fundraiser. And she established the ANZAC Club, offering genuine succour to lonely and sometimes distressed servicemen. “She was a lovely lady brimming with vitality, good nature and friendship,” said a former New Zealand airman. “Nola seemed to love every one of us,” said another.
Finally, Nola’s relentless ambition and tireless energy had found something worth doing. She was respectable, admired, and able to return to New Zealand to a “local girl done good” welcome that was no doubt even more satisfying than the one that eluded her as a Hollywood wannabe.
On her return to the United States after the war, she found it hard to adjust to peace-time – not surprisingly, perhaps, for a woman who tended to fall out with people with whom she had close dealings. There’s a revealing episode in which she sells her Bel Air house, changes her mind, and spends a year unsuccessfully suing her lawyer and the new owners. But, appearances still being pretty much everything, she launched herself into a new career as a fashion commentator at one of New York’s most exclusive hotels, The Pierre.
After ten years there, she decided to return to New Zealand to look after her ailing mother. They fought constantly; Nola couldn’t stand it. What to do and where to go? Remember Glenn Dolberg of KFI? He was now a widower, and a successful broadcasting executive. She wrote proposing a marriage of convenience. He said yes. They fell in love. And he wasn’t a feckless charmer, and they lived happily ever after – or at least until Glenn’s death 18 years later in 1977.
Nola herself died in 1994, aged 98. Almost to the end, van Grondelle says, she “commanded real authority, a woman not to be crossed. Occasionally … when I asked a particularly impudent question, she would cut me off cold. The iciness in her demeanour was almost frightening.”
Kim Hill hosts National Radio’s Nine-to-Noon programme.