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Bess Carter Windes

Life in that small Oklahoma Territory town was constricting enough as it was. Family tragedies became community tragedies as well. Bess overcame her tragedy with the help of numbers of close friends and family. Family members said she became almost obsessed with music and would play the piano for hours at a time, or until someone insisted she stop. She never had formal piano lessons and first taught herself to play by ear. Not until she was a teenager did she learn to read music. She could hear a melody or a song, go to the piano, and duplicate it. Throughout high school she was a necessity at every party and dance, and her "ragtime" was as good as her "jazz" and "blues." My earliest memories of my mother include me sitting strapped in my high chair next to the piano while Bess played song after song after song, singing along in a style somewhere between Josephine Baker and Ruth Etting. I knew the melody and words to "I'm Sitting on Top of the World," "Red Sails in the Sunset," and "Isle of Capri," and "Pagan Love Song," "A Shanty in Old Shanty Town," "Love Letters in the Sand," and "A Faded Summer Love," before I could read. And Bess boasted that she had exposed her unborn second child to music during the entire course of the pregnancy, both by playing the piano for the unborn one and listening to phonograph records for hours each afternoon.

That may well be. All I know is that I could imitate Bing Crosby, Rudy Vallee, Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, Kate Smith, Ruth Etting, and Gene Austin long before I started public school. I always knew when her piano/vocal moments were at an end. Mimicking the then popular bandleader, Ted Lewis, Bess would look at her audience, roll her eyes, smile, and say, "Is everybody happy?"

Bess became a member of the Windes family, alright, but not a very high status member, and one who was subject to constant domination and discipline by her in-laws. There was no way a child of a poor cotton farmer and itinerant preacher could be fully accepted in the family of a well-to-do and successful businessman, not even if the cotton farmer was a Texan.

Bess suffered what today we would call "panic attacks" while giving birth to Peggy. She subsequently aborted her next pregnancy after two months, and probably did additional terminations. Not until July II, 1930, did she deliver another child, a boy named Russel Rayl Windes, Jr., who was called "Bud" or "June" (for junior) by everyone. Six years later, August 22, 1936, Bess delivered her third and final child, another girl named Patricia Ann Windes, who was called "Pat," or "Patti."

Even though Bess was raising two children, she had a lot of free time. Peggy and I were pretty independent, for one thing. For another, Bess always had "help." From my earliest memories, she had a housekeeper, or a domestic, who came every day at eight in the morning and left at about four in the afternoon.

Mother Bess and I were inseparable, emotionally and physically. Her values became mine--her insatiable love of life; her love of and addiction to music; her romanticism; her passion for things in life she cared about; her possessiveness and jealousies; her spirit of independence and freedom; her affinities for and near worship of nature; her indifferences to institutionalized religions, families, customs, beliefs and values; her love for reading; and her laissez faire attitudes toward the behaviors and lifestyles of others. Bess was in her early thirties and a very handsome woman, tall (five feet seven), slender (125 pounds), dark brown hair and brown eyes and skin that was dark and without a blemish or wrinkle. (She used to claim she was part "Indian.") She had a beautiful face, which looked like the face of Gloria Swanson during her silent movie years. (Bess loved Swanson and Bette Davis.) She had an abundance of energy and much enthusiasm for living. And she had an abundance of love and affection for her young son.

Summers were our times for real closeness and sharing. At 7:25 each morning, Bess would wake me with a kiss on my forehead and either make a news announcement, or recite some poem she had memorized (She had a phenomenal memory for poems, lyrics, passages from books and plays, and, of course, instrumental music.) She would recite: "A Birdy with a Yellow bill/ Hopped upon my window sill/ Cocked his funny head and said/ Aren't you 'shamed you sleepy head/ Get up, Get up; Get out of Bed." Or "Wake up, Wake up little Russ/ The morning is Bright/ The birds are all singing/ To welcome the light." Occasionally she was annoying, like the morning she came with the body of her canary which had died during the night. By the time I got up, the morning newscast was on, and that was followed by 'The Musical Clock Program" from radio station WDAF in Kansas City, which played popular songs interspersed by time, news, weather, advertising, and chit-chat. In the winter the Musical Clock program told me when to leave for school. In the summer, it was simply background as I had my breakfast of Wheaties and Ovaltine, while Bess and her current housekeeper did things to clean the house and prepare the day's meals.

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Bess believed in three big meals each day. Each morning she would call Fioyd Barber's Grocery Store, talk to Fioyd or his wife, Eunice, and dictate the list of groceries and supplies needed. Within an hour the order was delivered by Billy Roe Barber, who got a piece of cake whether he wanted it or not. Then Bess and Heien would begin the preparation of the two big meals of the day. Luncheon often consisted of brown beans with onions, fresh baked hot rolls, a vegetable or fruit, and a piece of pie. The dinner menu always consisted of meat or chicken, rolls and cinnamon rolls, vegetables, pie and cake, and, for the adults, a glass of homemade wine, made both from grapes and berries.

After summer lunch, father returned to the store for five more hours, until six, and Peggy Jane usually left to take her piano and accordion lessons with Maude Wilson and hang out at the store or with Heien Marie Blankenship or Mary Elizabeth Blaylock or Rayma Pearl, her good friends. And Bess and ! spent much of the afternoon having a ball together, while Helen or Lena or whoever was housekeeping, prepared supper, or mowed the lawn.
Bess would always play records and talk to me about the performers, the music, and her associations with the music: "Now this is great blues: you'!! love it. Listen to the words. Dick Burney and 1 used to dance this one together very siowiy. it's not really dance music. It's music to listen to and sing. But Dick wanted to dance, so I would dance with him and sing the words." Bess went to the Cassvilie Music Store at least every other day to see what new recordings had arrived, and she bought whatever she wanted, rather knew better than to complain about Bess's charges for sheet music and records.

(Records cost thirty-five cents a piece, sheet music fifty cents) As a result, she had quite a collection of recordings, including, but not limited to (as the ads say) the following artists: Ruth Etting, Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker, Blossom Seeiey, Al Joison, Bessie Smith, Fanny Brice, Ethel Waters, Woody Herman, Artie Shaw, Ted Lewis, Marlene Dieterich, Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Whispering Jack Smith, Gene Austin, Tommy Dorsey, Guy Lombardo, Russ Columbo, Rudy Vaiiee, Lena Home, Helen Morgan, Kate Smith, Vaughn DeLeath, Jessica Dragonette, and Ben Bernie.

When we tired of records, Bess would sit at the piano, playing and singing the kind of music dearest to her, blues, jazz, saloon music, torch songs, spirited fox trots, and very emotional popular tunes. Her tastes were also seasonal, and very descriptive of her moods and feelings. When she belted out "Pagan Love Song," for instance ("Come with me where moonbeams/ Light Tahitian skies/ And the starlit waters/ Twinkle in your eyes/ Native Hills are calling; To them we belong/ And we'll thrill each other/ With a Pagan Love Song.") I knew she was thinking of a long-ago romance or a fantasy trip prompted by music from a film Bess was a movie addict, and tried to see every film that came to town. She and Russei would drive twenty miles to Monett to the Gillioz Theatre Palace to see films. In addition to Gloria Swanson and Bette Davis, she liked Norma Shearer, Janet Gaynor, Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Claudette Colbert, Lupe Velez, Joan Crawford, Carole Lombard, Ginger Rogers, Alice Faye, Irene Dunn, Myrna Loy, and Jeanette MacDonald. Among male actors, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Gary Grant, Randolph Scott, Dick Powell, William Powell, Robert Taylor, George Raft, and Nelson Eddy were favorites.

Romantically and sexually Bess was as straight as a woman could be. She adored men But her role models in films and in music were more often women than men. 1 came to be able to read her thoughts and memories and know her moods by what she would play on the piano, or on the record player, or what she would sing, hum, or whistle. When she played "Faded Summer Love," for instance, ("Leaves come tumbling down 'round my head/ Some of them are brown, some are red/ Beautiful to see, but reminding me, of a faded summer love.") I knew Bess was thinking of some less than perfect person and disappointment that occurred one autumn, years before.
i knew the words to her repertoire of songs so well by the time ! was four, the two of us could sing hundreds of songs together. She used to tell family and friends, "My son began singing and whistling while he was still in the womb." And I think she believed it. Only when she got into songs that clearly had strong and personal meanings did I let her sing alone, "If I had You," "Try a Little Tenderness," "The Glory of Love," "When The Moon Comes Over The Mountains," "It Had to Be You," "The Man I love," "Some of These Days," "That Old Feeling," "Ramona," "Out of Nowhere," "Me and My Shadow," "On A Street of Dreams," "It's a Lonely Old Town," (theme song of one of her favorites, Ben Bernie.) "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone," 'Where the Blue of the Night," "When Day is Done," and "Brown Eyes Why Are You Blue?"

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Then we would shift moods and both of us would sing, "My Melancholy Baby." "Red Sails in the Sunset/' "i Want to Go Back to My Little Grass Shack," "Side by Side," ("Oh, we Ain't Got a Barrel of Money/ Days may be ragged or sunny/ But we'll travel along, singing our song, Side by Side/ Through all kinds of weather/ What if the sky should fall/ Just as long as we're together/ It really doesn't matter at all/ When they've all had their troubles and parted/ We'!! be the same as we started/ Just traveling our road, sharing our load Side by Side.") "Blue Skies," "When You're Smiling," "Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella" "Singing in the Rain," "I'm Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover," "Button Up Your Overcoat." and "Shine on Harvest Moon,"

After our song-fest, we had our baths; I had my short nap, and when we heard the whistle of the Cassviile and Exeter Railroad afternoon train at fifteen minutes until four, we both knew it was time to walk the six blocks to Henley's Cafe for afternoon treats.

Our summer afternoons ended when Bess and I walked to the "Rock Quarry," about a mile from our home, to find our cow, called Belle for some reason, who had been grazing ail day, and escort her to our back lot where Russel milked her after he got home from the store at six. What a busy schedule that man had, leaving at half past six in the morning, returning after six in the evening only to milk cows, feed chickens, garden and do yard work, and maybe take the family on a summer evening drive in the country.

I cannot say that mother Bess was as unhappy as I was to see Margaret leave for Spokane. Within a six month period, Bess had been freed from her dominating mother and father in law, the "Store" which she so disliked, and the imposed obligations of being a dutiful and submissive wife, cook, housekeeper and mother.

From 1942 on Bess deservedly began to discover and enjoy her freedom. Conversely, Russel, Patti and I began to discover what life was like in the household of an emancipated woman. No longer did I come home to the big lunch and dinner, or the Bess who liked to play music and sing for me and take me to baseball games and to Henley's Cafe for an afternoon coke and smoke.

When we moved from Rogers, Bess had sold her piano and her phonograph, and they were not replaced in Neosho, the sale symbolic of the liberated and the re-invented woman. Her "Blue Skies" days seemed, if not at an end, at least pushed back into her emotional closet with a lot of other baggage she had grown sick of carrying around. She and I never talked about the changes, which created so much dissonance in my life. I cherished the bygone days, and missed them, but I was happy for her, and for the new freedoms her transformation brought to me.

The bottom line of all these happenings was that I was for the first time very much alone. Strange as it sounds, I was suddenly quite free to make a lot of my own choices and to discover who the adolescent Russ was, and what he wanted to do with his life, all with an absolute minimum of interference from both family and peers. For the rest of my public school years, and my college years, I rarely consulted with the family about anything crucial to me, except matters in which financial funding was important. And, the irony was, that everyone was so preoccupied and busy, they couldn't have cared less, which is exactly what my emotional and physical claustrophobia welcomed with great joy. Cole Porter reflected my feelings precisely in the song, "Let's Do It."
Bess the Cook became Win-The-War Bess, the USD and Red Cross worker, on duty afternoons and/or evenings at the USO Building, a new and large building standing on a hill above Big Spring Park.

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The USO was a home away from camp for the seventy plus thousand service men stationed at the Signal Corps at Camp Crowder, just six short miles to the south of town. At the spacious building the service men could rest, enjoy meals at the cafeteria, nap in the lounges, bowl, play pool and table tennis and cards, write letters, listen to and play music, take showers and work out in the basement gymnasium, cash checks, get their uniforms pressed and altered, make phone calls, get information, buy bus and train tickets, catch the bus to Joplin, and, important to them, meet people they didn't have to meet.

At the USO, there were nightly juke box dances, and on weekends bands would play for parties and dancing. USO performers would come to entertain. Student groups would perform in the auditorium which was also the dance hall. The grounds provided a swimming pool in the summer time, tennis courts and ample space for picnics or just sunning. ,,,

During the day the USO was the place where hundreds of Army Wives gathered. At night, the soldiers themselves came, looking for companionship and pleasure, an opportunity for a few hours to forget the demands of basic training, of signal corps demands and routines, of hated barracks living, of an uncertain future, and of the confinement of the regimented life in general. Daily attendance was about four-hundred, but nighttime attendance was sometimes as many as two-thousand servicemen.

Bess's roles varied. Some days and nights she was at the reception desk; sometimes she was at the information desk, or the Travelers Aid desk; some days she was at the refreshment room or in the cafeteria. She seemed to love the place no matter what she was asked to do. Bess was, among other things, strongly attracted to men and adored being with them. The soldiers, even though twenty years younger, were real turn-ons for her.

They were real turn-ons for me, too. I spent almost as much time at the USO as Bess did, helping in any way I could, meeting people, and, most of all, attending the special shows and listening to an exciting and almost endless group of wonderful visiting performers who came to entertain the troops: Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians; Jose Iturbi; The Don Cossack Choir; Bob Hope with Frances Langford, Les Brown and His Band of Renown, and Jerry Colona; Red Skelton; Judy Garland; Jimmy Durante and Helen Traubel; Jeanette MacDonald; The Andrews Sisters; Vaughn Monroe; Dinah Shore; Spike Jones and His City Slickers; Dick Haymes; The Merry Macs; The Ink Spots; The Mills Brothers; Frankie Carl; and a great many dance bands like Kay Kyser, Jimmy Dorsey, Frankie Carle, Horace Heidt, Bob Crosby. Those were great and memorable nights at the Neosho USO.

Almost every weekend at the Windes home we entertained one or several servicemen from Crowder. Father hired a housekeeper to come in on Saturdays and Mondays. Her name was Velma Tuttle. And Velma would go down those hundred steps to the Safeway Store deli and buy a weekend supply of chicken and turkey and beef and ham, plus the potato and macaroni salads, and, of course, lots of cakes and pies and ice cream. We would then be prepared for whichever signal corps soldiers would come to visit between Saturday noon and Monday morning.

Bess would invite soldiers she met at the USO, and 1 would invite soldiers I met in Big Spring Park or at the Canteen or the USO. And I would always invite one or more of my school friends to come up to meet the soldiers. We had some great parties at 104 Spring Hill during those years. For the first year Bess kept track of their numbers and names, but after that the only way we knew who had been there was to keep the cards and letters the "soldier boys" inevitably wrote to thank us for our hospitality.

I still have a card mailed with a free soldier's stamp on November 15, 1943, from a Pvt. Thomas F. Melvin, 33579325, 164 Signal Photo Co., Camp Crowder, Mo.. On one side of the postcard is a photo of a serviceman waving goodbye from a ship's porthole. "So we'll meet again," reads the top caption, and "Buy More War Bonds" reads the bottom one. On the other side Pvt. Melvin's message says, "I can't thank you enough. It was a great dinner and a swell party. Be sure all of us appreciated it. My trip back to camp was tedious, but I made it. Thank you ever so much for making my pass a time long to be remembered. Cheerio! Thomas."

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On Sunday evenings, we would often drive to Joplin where we would have dinner at one of father's favorite restaurants, usually Wilder's. Inevitably we would take a guest soldier with us, or pick up one on the way. There were often more hitch-hikers on the Neosho-Joplin highway
than cars.

One Sunday we had our new "puppy with us, for some reason, a cocker spaniel named Mickey. On the way home Mickey peed and pooped on our guest soldier's uniform, and we brought him back home with to stay a few hours while Bess laundered his clothes. His name was Bill. He was eighteen and handsome as he could be. And he carried with him a portable peg chess set with board. He asked me if i would like to learn how to play chess, and for the next two or three hours Bill taught me the game.

It was a delightful experience for me, and I learned quickly to love the game. At the end of the evening, when his clothes were ready, Bill asked me if I would like to do it again the next weekend, and ! gave him our phone number He ca!!ed the first of the week and made a date, and for the next several weekends he and I found time to spend a few hours at the chess board with the new chess pieces Russel had bought rne from the Foster Evans Drug Store.

When Bill learned he was to be shipped out to somewhere, three months after! met him, we had our final games at one of the picnic tables at Big Spring Park. By that time I was a pretty good player and loved the game. When we said goodbye I embraced him for the longest time I think he got a little uncomfortable. I would have loved to sleep with him, but we never got around to that. 

I cannot say that mother Bess was as unhappy as I was to see Margaret leave for Spokane. Within a six month period, Bess had been freed from her dominating mother and father in law, the "Store" which she so disliked, and the imposed obligations of being a dutiful and submissive wife, cook, housekeeper and mother.

From 1942 on Bess deservedly began to discover and enjoy her freedom. Conversely, Russel,
Patti and 1 began to discover what life was like in the household of an emancipated woman. No longer did I come home to the big lunch and dinner, or the Bess who liked to play music and sing for me and take me to baseball games and to Henley's Cafe for an afternoon coke and smoke.

I took a brief vacation after the Democratic Convention in August, 1956. Mother Bess and sister Patti had taken the Wabash train from St. Louis to Chicago the Saturday the Democratic Convention ended, and they stayed a few days with me on the Northwestern campus before the three of us drove back to St. Louis. I was able to get them a room on my floor at Bofab Hail, so that they could experience a bit of the campus life i had so loved the preceding year. They met a number of my friends, and I took them on tours of that impressive campus. They were my guests for dinner at Sargent Hall, where the Chicago Bears dined nightly after working out at Dyche Stadium on the campus. And i took them to Evanston's own Fanny's Restaurant, which served wonderful Italian food, I also took them to Cooiey's Cupboard. 1 escorted them through the Chicago Art Institute and the Museum of Science and industry.

The end of the long marriage was so untidy, ludicrous and unnecessary that everyone in the family was hurt forever because of it. Bess spent much of the next three years in deep depression. She and Patti and Granny spent a year alone in Springfield in near isolation. The three of them rarely saw each other.
The summer of 1359 was a wonderfully busy one for me, once again. Mother Bess, ana sisters Peggy and Patti, and Peggy's lover Shirley Goode, came to Northwestern to attend the ceremonies in which I, along with a hundred others, recieved our doctorates.

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The summer of I960 was, fortunately, nothing like I had feared it might be. Bess, at long last not having to worry about the misbehaviors of her husband, was incredibly relaxed and pleasant the entire eight weeks of my visit. Peggy and Shirley, and Patti, were strangely charming, hospitable, generous and likewise pleasant. We had a lot of parties and picnics. All of us got along very well, surprisingly so.

That summer of '62 Bob and Molly devoted almost a week to my mother, Bess, and my two sisters, Peggy and Patti, when they came to San Francisco to visit. They took them to dinner. Molly took them on sightseeing and shopping tours, and showed them the North Beach night scene. My family fell in love with both of them, and I deeply appreciated their concern and warmth.

All of us saw Phyllis Diller at the Purple Onion; we sang along at the Red Garter and, at my
insistence, all of us listened to an evening of the touring Thelonious Monk ("Straight No

On the Fourth of July, Molly and I decided to do a picnic in Marin, on the beach north of
Stinson somewhere. The six of us left in that tiny Volkswagen about two in the afternoon
headed north across the bridge, food and drink in the trunk.

When we arrived at the picnic site the day was redolent of those autumn days my first year when i had spent the day on those beaches with Joel Litvin. The skies were beautiful; the winds cairn; the beach and ocean beautiful. By four in the afternoon all that suddenly and dramatically changed, and we found ourselves in the rnidst of the worst fog ! had ever seen, driven by a howling wind off the ocean.

The picnic was ruined, and it took us two plus hours to return the short distance to San Francisco. We finally ate in my living room on Westgate. So much for San Francisco summer weather!

And Mother Bess had joined a bridge group and spent most of the time R and I were in residence making bids and yelling "double and redouble." She seemed outwardly to have recovered from the double shock of the death of her husband and the discovery that he had been "living with another woman."

In early December my Mother Bess came to spend a week with us in New York and two weeks with Patti and Dick at our house in Rhode island. In New York we took her to see Mary Martin and Robert Preston in 1 Do, I Do, and Channing in Hello Dolly, which she loved. We took her to the Walforf Astoria for dinner and an evening dancing to the music of her favorite, Guy Lombardo. She even got to dance with the great Lombardo, who also signed her menu.

Mother Bess came for two weeks in November and early December, and we gave her the time of her life, including a couple of parties. We took her to see three Broadway shows, Company, Applause, and Purlie. We spent a Sunday afternoon in the park. We had brunch at the Plaza. We went shopping at Sack's Fifth Avenue, B. Altman's, Lord and Taylor, Tiffany's, and Bloomingdale's.

We had a late lunch at Oscar's At the Waldorf, late afternoon tea at the Palm Court, and dinner at our favorite Chinese restaurant, The Golden Coach, where Norah, owner and hostess, always gave "flee dlinks" to us and our guests and engaged in charming and spirited conversations with them, and then brought everyone the food she wanted us to have.

We took Bess to the lighting of the giant Christmas Tree in Rockefeller Center, where she heard Debbie Reynolds sing "Jingle Bells," "It's Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas," and "Chestnuts Roasting Over an Open Fire."

On Thanksgiving Day, Marc and Ken joined Bess, R and myself for a late afternoon dinner at the Tower Suite, at the top of the Time-Life Building, and we had a dinner tres elegante. We took her to the Stanhope to have a glass of wine or two and listen to Greta Keller sing. And on the night before she returned home, we took her to Cafe Carlyle for dinner and an hour of the music of Bobby Short, whom she adored. It was an exhausted but very happy seventy-one year old Bess we put on the plane to Oklahoma City. She sent us a silver tea service in gratitude.

Mother Bess had flown from Oklahoma City the weekend after my surgery to be of help to both R and myself, and she was staying in the guest room at the apartment. R had bought a Christmas tree, and when I arrived back home on the 30th of December, all of us had a kind of Christmas, certainly an evening of appreciation.
When Peg and Lois moved to Clear Lake, she sold her house in Oklahoma City, and Mother Bess moved with them into a handsome suite of rooms of her own in their new house. Because of the rift between Peggy and Lois and ourselves, R and I were able to visit my mother in her home only twice during those thirteen years, during the summers of 1974 and 1977 when Peggy and Lois were on trips.

To be sure, Bess visited us in both New York and California many times during those years, but Peggy and Lois made it abundantly clear that R and I were not welcome in their home.

Mother Bess came to spend a month with us on Bahia Drive in LaJolla summer of 1969. She was there when the first human walked on the surface of the moon. She was also there for Woodstock, which didn't turn her on much, and for the Stonewall Riots, which she didn't understand at all.

Bess had a wonderful summer. She loved the San Diego sunshine and the pool and the view. And she adored all of our company. Gays generally get along very well with older women, and Mother Bess, who was seventy at the time and kind of a "fag hag," in turn adored gays. She loved men and disliked women, and the minute we told her what man was coming next to visit, she headed for her shopping list and began preparing dinner for the occasion. R and I gained ten pounds in four weeks eating her irresistible food, especially her incredibly rich and tasty pies and cakes.






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