Mary Ellen’s drawing of Ginger Rogers, autographed by the actress

Chapter 24: The Frustrated Artist

After a day of hunting, Herb often brought Mary Ellen pussy willows or decorative grasses, along with dead squirrels, rabbits, or quail for me to skin and gut and her to cook. And every Easter during the 1930s, he stopped at a florist on the way home from church so she could buy a flat of pansies.

Flowers were beautiful, and even as a child she had coveted what was beautiful. To her mother, this was a frivolity. It drove her crazy. “You’re a poor girl,” she shouted at her. “You better get used to it!”

Beauty was for the idle rich.

So as soon as Mary Ellen moved into her dream house, she began planting roses.

This was to show her mother that she had risen above the utilitarian ugliness that she had been told to get used to. She chose roses to signify her achievement because she remembered a rose garden behind the tall iron fence that enclosed the big house next door to her grandmother’s. And she didn’t just sit back and wait for them to grow. She read books about roses; she learned how to propagate them; she joined rose societies; she entered flower shows.

Sometimes she took the first prize in every category, but her special strength was in “arrangements.” They were always perfect. Her fellow rosarians asked her to be a judge. She tried it, but didn’t like it. She wanted to win prizes not give them.

For the last 50 years of her life, she expressed herself with flowers. When she was younger, she had expressed herself with crow quill nibs, India ink, and conte crayons. Without giving up her job at the printing company, she had started her own art shop (“M.E. Coleman, VI 7845: All Kinds of Commercial Illustration”). And in her spare time, for her own satisfaction, she drew portraits of movie stars and stage actors.

I used to watch her do this. She would rule a very light grid on her drawing paper. Then she ruled a smaller grid on a sheet of tracing paper and taped that paper over a photograph of the person whose portrait she was drawing. Then she transferred the proportions within each square of the small grid into the equivalent square of the large grid. If she ran into trouble in a certain area, she made smaller grids within the squares covering that area in order to tighten her control of the process.

It was as if she were making a contour map. She needed those imprisoning grids. They kept her “in line,” so to speak. But they did not entirely suppress the energy she put into her drawings. She was a cartographer with an art deco flair.

At some point in the 1930s, she stopped making drawings. I don’t know why, but she put her old drawings on a shelf in the back bedroom closet and, as far as I know, never looked at them again. But she didn’t throw them away. After she and Herb moved into their dream house, she put them into plastic bags that had originally been fitted around furniture cushions. I think she thought of this as a form of archiving.

Mother never had a proper studio. She kept her flat pencils, charcoal sticks, red and gray chalk, and conte crayons in pencil boxes and in a Van Dyck cigar box—five-cent size. She could draw anywhere. At home, she drew on the dining room table. I assume she had a place to draw at the printing company where she worked before she was married. And she told me that once in a while she would take her portfolio to the Loews Midland Theater, Kansas City’s grandest movie palace, walk up the carpeted marble staircase to the mezzanine floor, stroll down the promenade to the women’s lounge and find a small Hollywood-style rococo table at which she would sit and draw.

It was an appropriate place for her to work since she was drawing portraits of actors and actresses. When she finished one, she sent it off to its subject. It would come back not just autographed but with a comment, some brief, some longer and more thoughtful. Ginger Rogers wrote, “This is a particularly fine drawing—and looks like me, too—You have real talent. I hope you don’t neglect it.” Such a response is unlikely today, but before the war, America was a much smaller, more personal place. Jeanette MacDonald signed her picture with a flourish. Bing Crosby had trouble with his “k’s.” Ruby Keeler’s signature is tiny; Shirley Temple’s, a careful, childish scrawl; Francis Langford’s, a racing blur.

I never heard of some of the actors she portrayed. Violet Heming, Betty Hama, and Ruby Keeler made their reputations in silent movies or early talkies. Hazel Whitmore acted only in theaters. She first appeared onstage in 1918 and was still at it in 1952.

For a season or two, Hazel must have been a member of the National Players, a company that split its season between Kansas City and St. Louis. Mary Ellen drew pictures of everybody in that company, some of whom went on to Hollywood and television. She got to know them because she printed and illustrated their theatre programs. And for good measure she did a portrait of Landon Laird, the Kansas City Star’s drama critic, who called her “the cleverest girl in Kansas City.”

Actors fascinated her. They had style, assurance, panache. She “took their likenesses” because she wanted to be like them, or like the people she imagined them to be: classless, carefree, and sophisticated. She envied them their ability to assume new roles—new identities. An actress could be an aristocrat without having to own a castle, or an adventuress without having to run any risks. But where could a person like herself who was not a professional actress assume new identities—or could at least present her old self in new lights?

Why, on the road, of course.