(A reader [I do have a few!] asks if I can repeat this essay. I’m pleased to do so.—JK.)
I was damned lonely in Dayton. So I just hooked into this idea and talked about my loneliness. And, you know, I found out there are a lot of lonesome people in this world.
So told Jean King, classic radio’s Lonesome Gal, to Time. (26 June 1950.) Sweetie, she began, typically, in a voice that sounded six parts temptress and half a dozen parts as isolated as the audience she imagined, no matter what anybody says, I love ya better than anybody in the whole world.
Missing no beat, she began to croon, over a muted sweep of electric organ. And if you were one of the lonely men who fastened tight to her nightly, fifteen-minute romancings for a period between the late 1940s and early 1950s, perhaps you couldn’t help noticing that there was at least a pinch of mothering to this dream girl friend.
Lonesome/I’m a real lonesome gal
I can’t stop feeling lonesome/Heaven knows when I shall . . .
A softly punched, single-note piano line picked up the melody over the organ and almost ambient strummed guitar, where her croon left off, as she addressed you once again, this time leaving just about all the implicit mothering pinch all the way out of her delivery.
Hi, baby. This is your lonesome gal. And I don’t know why, but if you don’t stay and visit with me I’ll be the unhappiest girl in the whole world. I wonder how that could be possible. While I’m wondering, light up a pipe of Bond Street now. You know I love you . . .
And, once again, barely having made even a non-smoker hunger for a small load of her sponsoring tobacco, she crooned.
Who knows what tomorrow can bring?
I wonder whether I’ll know/why my heart wants to sing.
The piano took over the melody once more, fading slowly behind the unseen lady with the smoky voice. She spoke as if she were taking your hand, holding it warmly between hers, and locking your eyes onto her own, expecting to keep you within her power until she was good and ready to release you, if you really were as lonely as she portrayed herself to be.
Lover, did you ever stop to think how you’d react to sudden wealth? I think most women who suddenly inherit a million dollars would probably buy lots of clothes and furs and jewels. As to how a man would react to such an inheritance, I only know of incident to recite:
There was this cute little old man who for years walked the streets with his popcorn machine, selling peanuts and popcorn to all those kids in the poor neighbourhood. One day, a rich old lady, who’d been rather eccentric, left him all her money. With that money he adhered to his greatest desire, he bought a big black limousine and hired a chauffeur. But for two months before the car ever drove off the premises of his home, he practised all day long getting in and out of the car gracefully. I hear that, sometimes, he even repeated that practise in the still of the night.
Habitually, she crafted her little pattering monologues to end in a line that just so happened to be the title of the song she’d instructed her engineer to play next. For the most part, these would be recordings of arrangements that plunged deep enough into swollen sugar, once in awhile with a chorale that could have been rented right from the sentimentalistic division of the Disney studios—the take she used of “In the Still of the Night” (not to be confused with the eventual rock and roll hit of the same name) sounded like a discard from Pinocchio‘s soundtrack. Once in awhile, however, they’d be more of the burry, atmospheric, jazz-overtoned style refined soon enough into art by Nelson Riddle charting Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and others.
Whether a sugar-swollen weepie or a jazz-undertoned soft swinger, her prelude aimed to send you lost in the thought of her tugging you up off the sofa for a quiet dance or a balcony caress, her hands never far from yours, perhaps her face leaning against your shoulder, interrupted only to sip a cold drink or exhale a smoke, before she might turn to face you after putting your arms around her and hers around yourself. She did the talking and if she had her way you were in little enough position to object.
Sweetie, did you ever wonder about the things that last, the things that endure? The good things that were put on this earth for us to share and to enjoy? The beautiful sunset that we watched today will be just as beautiful a hundred years from now. The song that was lovely in Shakespeare’s time is just as lovely now. And, Angel, the deep, rich, wonderful pleasure of smoking mellow Bond Street tobacco is another experience that will never change . . .
She was hard pressed to make personal appearances, the demand for which appears to have been profound enough; some surviving accounts say she preserved her mystique at such dates by wearing a mask shaped like a cat’s eyes. Then, in 1950, she let Time lift the mask. The magazine described her as a tall, slender woman with a resemblance to Rosalind Russell, who’d tried to make it in Hollywood (she sang, she appeared in a few of the Tarzan films and as a guest performer on radio’s I Love a Mystery) before ending up in Dayton, somehow, and talking her way into a gig on WING radio.
At first that voice, weaving from smoky to honeyed and back to flickering temptress and around again to hopeless romantic, must have sounded as though she were waiting for him, whomever he was, to walk through her door, or greet her in a cafe, with a warm, insistent hug, a lingering kiss, and a promise never to leave her alone for too long again. In short enough order Lonesome Gal became phenomenon enough out of Dayton—fifty regional stations picked her up, and her income approached six figures, according to OTR.com—that she decided to return to Hollywood and try to break it nationally.
In a plot that could have been a dream enunciated in one of her between-song mini-fantasies, she met and married a Dragnet co-producer, William Rousseau, and it was his influence that landed her sponsored syndication on several hundred local stations. She even developed the practise of keeping regular touch with chambers of commerce wherever her show aired, the better to keep current on locations, activities, and people, so she could tailor her broadcasts specifically to those locales. She recorded over three hundred such versions a week of her fifteen-minute romancings to satisfy that tailoring.
King even recorded a single of her beguiling theme song—as did Margaret Whiting, Dinah Shore, and Teresa Brewer.
She also had to contend with what Time called being misunderstood by her fellow women. “Some girls think I’m trying to steal their guys,” she told the magazine, “but I’m not. I just say things a lot of girls don’t have the nerve to say to their men. I never say more than ‘I’d like to kiss you on the end of the nose’—something impersonal like that. I might tell a guy how nice it would be to spend a weekend in a small and charming hotel—but I always add: ‘If we were married’.”
Angel, sometimes I get to sitting here wondering just what I ought to do about you. I’m in pretty deep, you know, ’cause you’re definitely a part of my life. You’re the greatest part of all my dreams and plans. What if I made up my mind to stop seeing you, to forget you, I ask myself. But that’s an impossibility, my dream, because your smile is imprinted happily and joyfully in my mind. Your eyes laughing and saying unspoken words are firmly attached to my sentimental side. And you, Angel—all of you, every tiny hair on your head, every wrinkle on your brow, every mood you know, make me realise that it’s too late now.
This was virtual seduction filtered through a kind of sly sentimentalism, years before anyone even thought of telephone or cybersex, and stopping well short of prurience.
A generation and a half of men, whose postwar domestic lives may have been less than their dressings made them appear, from bewildered singles and awakening widowers to disillusioned husbands and shamed ex-husbands, lost themselves for fifteen minutes a night in the dream of so undemanding a lover whose actual loneliness made their own seem lighter, if not necessarily more bearable.
Maybe her worst mistake was letting Time in, to even the small extent that she allowed. The magazine acknowledged she wasn’t exactly that anxious to reveal the woman behind the virtual lover, and she may have been right. Within short of two years following Time‘s gentle exposure, as best as I can determine, Lonesome Gal slipped off the air almost as unobtrusively as she had first slipped on, becoming a pleasant if very distant memory almost as swiftly as she had become a radio date.
Well, Angel, there comes a time and this is it. Saying “so long” is not of my doing, but I relent on the condition that I can be with you again tomorrow night. And I’ll be back thanks to Bond Street Tobacco. But meantime, keep one thing in mind: Your Lonesome Gal loves you better than anybody in the whole world.
(singing) Who knows what tomorrow may bring?
I wonder if I’ll know when my heart starts to sing.
If you have love to spare, lips to share,
why don’t you be a pal
and share them with your lonesome gal?
(speaking) Good night, baby.
Jean King died quietly 19 August 1993 in North Hollywood. Presumably, her real-life marriage lasted as long as the quiet memory her audience kept of the half-decade-plus she was their virtual girl friend.
TUNE IN TONIGHT:
Tonight: After thinking it’s high time someone wrote funny things about men after a rash of satires about women, she muses about a man who forgets why he’s saved hundreds of newspapers in his garage, valued old friends, and learning.
Before you dismiss it as corn, ask yourself the last time you enjoyed that kind of date—even if she’ll wave it off as much ado about nothing—with that kind of talk and no pretentious expectations on either side of the sofa. With a girl who could have put a tear in your eye because she’d exposed your loneliness before you had a fair chance to confess it.
And if you’re stuck for an answer, you’ll never get her appeal or the proud men who couldn’t break away from the radio when she was on. Even if they knew it was an act, could you blame them—whether lonely by circumstance or by their own foolish hands—for wanting to believe? If only for a few moments?
Writer/director: Jean King.
Further Channel Surfing . . .
Texaco Star Theater with Fred Allen: One Long Pan Solves Charlie Chan’s Murder (CBS, 1941)—Fred Allen, Portland Hoffa, Lionel Stander, the Texaco Workshop Players (Charlie Cantor, Minerva Pious, Alan Reed, Jack Smart), Kenny Baker. Disaster sleuth One Long Pan is dispatched to solve the murder of no less than the Oriental flatfoot he usually satirises . . . who’s been shot outside a Hollywood gathering, no less. Also: a judge’s theory as to causes of divorce; a roundtable discussion on digest reading. Wholly digestible.
Texaco Star Theater with Fred Allen: Radio v. Television (CBS, 1944)—Fred Allen, Portland Hoffa, Jack Smart, Minerva Pious, John Brown, Alan Reed, Jimmy Wallington. The man who would say in due course that he knew why television was called a new medium (“because nothing is well done”) engages a debate on the matter, aided and abetted by Jack Haley; thoughts on an egg surplus from the early Allen’s Alley demimonde. Cheerfully scrambled.
The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show: Remley’s Flying Saucer Saga; or, Lean Over Here and Breathe Out, Clyde (NBC, 1950)—Phil Harris, Alice Faye, Elliott Lewis, Jeanine Roos, Anne Whitfield, Robert North, Walter Tetley. From Palm Springs: It takes a little convincing for vacationing Phil to buy Remley’s insistence that he saw flying saucers and their occupants in the desert. It’s way out, all right.