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Book Report: The 'real' Glenn Ford revealed, and a book that pokes personal memories

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"In hindsight, he becomes more interesting and more drawn to sado-masochism. I suspect he was more, and worse, than the decent guy he pretended to be."

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--David Thompson on actor Glenn Ford in "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film."

Thompson wasn't just whistling "Dixie" when he wrote that.

As someone who grew up watching the all-American Glenn Ford as he played a rascal opposite Rita Hayworth in "Gilda" and a courageous schoolteacher opposite Sidney Poitier in "The Black Board Jungle," I was fascinated to dig into "Glenn Ford: A Life," by his son Peter Ford (University of Wisconsin Press, $24.95 paper).

Ford was an accomplished and professional actor. That was obvious. But what about Glenn Ford the person?

Years ago I was watching a re-run of an old TV show called "This is Your Life." Ford was on. And was he weird! That's the other side of Glenn Ford, as told by his son Peter.

Peter obviously respects and admires his father, but he was obviously a very difficult man. He was born to well-off Canadian parents and crashed Hollywood in 1936 the year I was born in a forgettable movie. But by the '40s he was a big name and a hard worker, married to the dancer Eleanor Powell.

But he was already difficult, already a philanderer who liked his schnapps, but never on the set. Like many actors' kids, Peter did his own straying. He was kicked out of Lake Forest College for selling drugs out of his "dispensary" in his dormitory. He returned to California and began to date a beautiful young woman, Lynda Gunderson, whom his father had never met.

He invited her home for Thanksgiving, where Glenn Ford showed the assemblage of what a jerk he could be. Here's her recollection:

"...at the end of the meal, I had left a small morsel of something I didn't particularly care for on my plate....I expected that Mr. Ford would push his buzzer again for the plates to be cleared. However, with a deadly tone, Peter's father looked over at me and said, 'No one is going to leave the table until Lynda finishes her plate'....He was clearly out of place and I wasn't nice about it either. I replied, 'Well you better get a good book because it's going to be a long wait'....Glenn....said, 'OK, dinner's over.'"

Lynda and Peter went on to fairly successful movie roles, and later began a home construction business, then spent the money they made in Glenn Ford's last years supporting him after his handlers and business managers squandered his $14 million estate.

Ford kept making movies well into his 70s, playing anything offered him, including forgettable films like "Raw Nerve," which was released in 1991 the year before he died at age 76.

***

I was born on an upper Midwestern dairy farm, worked on them when in high school, have a brother who was a dairy farmer and a late brother-in-law who was a large animal veterinarian in Wisconsin.

These days when I drive through the countryside of my youth, I see very few dairy herds grazing on the hillsides. In fact there are only two active dairy farms on U.S. Hwy. 53 between Whitehall and Osseo. On all the other farms, the barns sit empty, the fields devoted to corn and soybeans.

What happened?

Part of the answer lies in "A Mile of Dreams," by Jim Trevis (orders@Xlibris.com, n.p.), a fictionalized account of his growing up on a small Minnesota dairy farm in the 1960s. In a good novel, the telling is in the details and Trevis nails them down one after one with precision.

His hero is Joe Mitchell, a farm boy who has the same worries my brother and I had as teenagers. For instance, had we scrubbed hard enough to remove the barn smell when we got to school in the morning? Or would we exude a faint smell of milk, manure and the chlorine used to wash the milking machines?

A minor detail, but not to Joe or to me either.

Trevis' account of the morning milking routine was almost painful to read. It's also a treasure trove of agricultural history.

The plot of this first novel hangs on Joe and his desire to participate on the track team and win the hand of classmate Amy Jensen. But his father needs him at home to do chores. That rang a bell for me because my father couldn't play on his high school basketball team that went to state in 1928 because he too needed to help with those cows every morning, every night.

My dad never forgot that lost opportunity.

Finally, Joe gets to try out, but then his father has an accident.

Who'll do chores?

Joe's feisty mother drives downtown, goes to the VFW where the town soak is sitting at the bar. Over several Manhattan cocktails, he agrees to help.

Nowadays, Mexicans do the milking in 24-hour shifts on huge factory farms.

Were the cocktails made with whiskey?

Not on your life. Brandy. That's how upper Midwestern dairy farmers liked their cocktails.

Talk about detail!

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.

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