Passion and the Burning of the Coconut Grove

El Paso, The Catskills, and Passion


Carol Givner

(c) 2000

"And you would have never been born."

All stories from my childhood ended with that phrase.

And I believed every one of them.

My parents were married a week before a fire in the Coconut Grove killed 400 people, most of them friends and colleagues of my Mother.

She was a lovely starlet with Monogram Republic Pictures and ran the front office for the head of the studio. She was so beautiful that men would stare at her right in front of my Dad and make no apologies. Her intelligence and business sense made her a legend in the industry.

My father was a famous actor, Broadway director, and writer. The gold statue he won adorns my fireplace to this day, reminding me of his talent and love.

They met at the Nemerson in the Catskills where my mother had gone to relax from the stress of studio management and my father had traveled to see a fellow actor perform.

My Dad said that the first time he saw my Mother she was sitting at a table near the stage, the only woman in a sea of men. She took his breath away. He had to get to know her, so he inched closer and stood behind her. When she looked up, he asked, "Haven't I seen you somewhere before? Didn't I meet you in El Paso?"

Smooth, Dad.

He figured that El Paso was about as far away from the Catskills as two people could get. What were the odds she'd been there before?

But she had a surprise for him.

"Why, yes," my beautiful Mother said. "I have been to El Paso. Where did we meet?"

My parents always laughed a lot at that part of the story. Maybe they had a private joke that they didn't think was suitable for a little girl to hear. But, I do remember how they described his ardent courtship of her, how he wooed her without restraint, climbing over fences from his lodge to hers.

The performing comic would add their romantic escapades to his nightly routine, making my mother blush and turning my father into a Don Juan. He followed her everywhere, gave her every type of flower he could afford. He wrote poems to her and recited them under her window, with the entire resort listening in and watching their blossoming love affair.

The first night he kissed her, they got a standing ovation from people eavesdropping in the garden. The first time she kissed him, onlookers sighed.

And the night my Father proposed to my Mother in the main dining room, the comic announced it from the stage.

A whole month later they were married by the Justice of the Peace in Boston.

The head of the studio offered my father the world to work for him, so he wouldn't turn my mother into a housewife, the usual career change for a newly married woman at that time.

Promising to think it over and announce their decision at the Coconut Grove party the next week, my parents left for their honeymoon in a tiny cabin in Revere Beach.

Seven days flew by and turned into an extra few days. How could they give up running on the beach? Watching the sunset?

Watching the sunrise.

How could they give up the cotton candy, the sea shells, the amusement parks?

They couldn't bring themselves to leave the private world their love had created, a place with no distractions, no radio, no reality. They had only themselves and their dreams.

They knew they would miss the Grove party, but a honeymoon was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. They were sure that they would have many parties in their lives, but the quiet intimacy of starting their lives together could never be duplicated.

And they loved each other very much.

The morning they were about to leave back for the city, they went to a local diner for breakfast and my mother opened the newspaper someone had left on the counter.

She gasped in disbelief and horror. As the tears rolled down her face, my father rushed over and together they read the list of the dead.

My Mother's friends.

My Father's friends.

The wife of the head of the studio.

The cowboy singing star.

All had died from smoke inhalation at the Coconut Grove the night before, when the doors opened in, trapping the crowd in a fire that started in a kitchen waste basket.

If my parents had not had a burning passion for each other, they would have perished in a devastating tragedy.

If my parents had been at that party, I would not have been born, and their great love for each other would not have lasted throughout their lifetimes and continued in heaven.

Or should I say El Paso.