One of the innumerable pleasures of attending the centennial celebration at the Reagan Library this past weekend: the opportunity to catch up with one of Ronald Reagan's best friends from Hollywood, the inimitable and irresistible A.C. Lyles.
Originally from Florida, A.C. talked his way into a Hollywood job while still a teenager, becoming an office boy for Adolph Zukor, the founder of Paramount Pictures. A.C. quickly became a favorite of both Zukor and Paramount's leading director--and one of the most important directors in the history of film--Cecil B. DeMille.
"They made me keep a book in which to write down all their advice," A.C., still in perfect health, said yesterday. "'A.C,' Mr. Zukor would say, 'you've got to create a good impression. Buy yourself a Cadillic.' Yes, Mr. Zukor, I'd say, writing that down. 'Buy a Cadillac. I've got that down, sir.' This was when they were paying me $18 a week--and I was supporting my mother. 'A.C.,' Mr. DeMille would say, 'we want to make sure you take care of your money. Buy a lot in Bel Air and build your own house.' 'Yes, Mr. DeMille,' I'd say, writing it down. 'Buy a lot in Bel Air and build a house. I've put that in my book, sir.' 'A.C.,' Mr. Zukor would say, 'you need to look good and work hard. Dress British and think Yiddish.' 'Yes, sir, Mr. Zukor. Dress British and think Yiddish. I'm writing that down, sir.'"
A.C. eventually became a producer of westerns--his productions include "The Mountain," a movie starring Spencer Tracy, and the television series "Rawhide," which gave Clint Eastwood his start. He did indeed build himself a house in Bel Air, start ordering his suits from London, and own Cadillacs. And along the way he got to know everyone in Hollywood, including Gary Cooper and Cary Grant, becoming fast friends with two stars in particular, Jimmy Cagney and Ronald Reagan. "'A.C.,' Jimmy said one day, 'I want you to meet a new actor at Warner. You're going to love him.' The new actor was Ronnie. From then on it was the three of us, always palling around." Five decades later, "Ronnie" was president, and A.C. flew back to Washington often, dropping in on the chief executive--and getting to know members of the White House staff, including a speechwriter in his twenties.
Ronald Reagan placed such faith in ordinary Americans, A.C. helped me to grasp, in part because of what he had experienced in Hollywood. Spencer Tracy was the son of a Milwaukee truck salesman, Gary Cooper of a Montana rancher. Cary Grant? A poor kid from Bristol, England who started in vaudeville as a juggler and acrobat. Jimmy Cagney? The son of a bartender who died in the 1918 flu pandemic. Growing up in tough neighborhoods in Manhattan, Cagney worked as a bellhop and doorman before landing a job as a dancer in vaudeville. Jack Warner? Adolph Zukor? Both, like nearly all the early studio heads, Jewish immigrants of Eastern European descent. Cecil B. DeMille's father taught at the American Academy for Dramatic Arts but died when DeMille was 11, leaving the family--DeMille was one of three children--all but penniless. Clint Eastwood? The son of a California steelworker.
None grew up with wealth. Few attended prestigious universities (Cagney enrolled at Columbia but dropped out when his father died). Yet they and their Hollywood colleagues created among the most compelling and enjoyable popular entertainments in all history. As Ronald Reagan understood, only in America.
Ronald Reagan, born a full century ago. There were times during the ceremonies yesterday, I felt, when Reagan began to seem distant, a figure who was starting to belong more to history than to us. But before leaving to drive back to the airport, I pulled together a few friends--inlcuding John O'Sullivan, who fell in love with America by watching movies every weekend as he was growing up back in England--introduced them to A.C., and got A.C. reminiscing.
"When Martha and I got married, Ronnie and Nancy arranged for the ceremony to take place in the Little Brown Church in the Valley, the same place they'd been married. Jimmy joined us. Well, the preacher got started, and I heard somebody crying. I thought, 'There goes Nancy,' and I turned around. There was Ronnie, and there was Nancy beside him, dry-eyed. But Jimmy was bawling."
You could almost hear Ronald Reagan laughing at the story right along with us.