Daddy's Little Girl
People would stare as we walked down the street. Not because he was famous but because he was different. He walked with a cane and a brace, tilting from side to side with each stride. Somehow he stayed upright. If someone stared too long, he might yell, “Whad’ya lookin’ at? It’s nothin’, it’s polio, I got it when it first came out!” Anyone else yelling at a stranger might come off as aggressive — he had a REALLY loud mouth — but Duke said it with a twinkle in his eye that set the person instantly at ease. It might even turn into a too-long stop-and-chat, but I was used to those.
I’d look up at him with pride and ownership. He was my daddy. Mine being the operative word. My mother told me the story many times. As a tiny preverbal baby, I had my arms thrown around my father’s neck, holding him as tight as I could, looking back at her with eyes that said, “He’s MINE.” As in, not hers. Her interpretation. Well, it was true.
Sometimes in late August or early September we’d go shopping for back-to-school clothes at Hank DeGoniff’s house. Hank’s “house” was a warehouse in seedy Hollywood. And unbeknownst to me at the time, DeGoniff wasn’t his family name. I wasn’t sure why Hank had clothes and winter coats for me along with lots of electronic equipment. But cash was handed over and I’d walk away with some new clothes. There wasn’t even a lot to choose from, but I wasn’t an overindulged child, so I was happy with what I got. I was in my twenties (maybe thirties) before I learned that Hank’s merchandise “fell of the back of a truck,” and goniff was Yiddish for thief.
I’m saying sorry right here and now to my dad (no longer with us), for the moment when, as a three-year old, I nearly had him arrested. We had gone to a movie and it was already quite late at night and I was tired. My mother went to fetch the car and my dad said, stay here with me — but I threw a bratty fit because I had wanted to go with my mom. I started to pout and walk away from him. He kept inching closer and insisting I stand near him. Remember, he was handicapped, not so easy to chase after a kid. And I’m in full brat mode, now not speaking to my father. A crowd began to form thinking he was a stranger trying to kidnap me. He was a LOT older and didn’t look like your regular 1950’s dad. He leaned on his cane to support himself and said to the people, “Don’t worry, this is my daughter, right?” as he looked to me for the confirmation he needed.
When I didn’t respond they asked, “Is this your father?” and I said, folding my arms across my chest and facing away in emphatic defiance, “No!” More people gathered and someone urged that the police be called. At that moment, my mother drove up and my father said, “That’s her mother, my wife, she’s here to pick us up.” He pulled me in and we sped off. Not for one moment did he hold that against me. I think he secretly liked and identified with the part of me that was strong, insisting on getting my way.
In the third grade, we had this favorite teacher. For several weeks each year we would practice for our big May Day parade/party where all the parents sat outside in chairs watching the festivities. This was quite a big day at my grammar school. As my teacher, with perfect posture, pranced across the playground with his jutting derriere to start our dance, my dad yelled loudly — and I mean VERY loudly: “Her teacher’s a faygeleh!” My dad was so not politically correct. He was no Archie Bunker either, he had tons of homosexual friends, that wasn’t a problem. He just blurted it out as he saw it and maybe for the laugh.
One-of-a-kind is what many people say when trying to describe my dad. They-broke-the-mold is another. But any way you put it, he was unique and unforgettable.
At ten years old, while on a trip to visit the Duke (my dad) where he’d been producing a play for several months, I was with him in an elevator, excuse me, lift, at the Hilton Hotel in London. A terribly elegant Indian woman entered. On that short ride, my father sneezed quite loudly and punctuated the end of the sneeze – as he often did — with the word Charlie. Don’t ask. The bit would never lose its humor all my life. But in that elevator, this quiet, stunning, demure woman, was sent into such uncontrollable laughter that the red dot (bindi) popped off her forehead.
Most kids were raised on fairy tales like Brothers Grimm and Old Mother Hubbard. I grew up with stories of whose cock in Hollywood was bigger. Mostly it was Berle, but Huntz Hall was up there, as was Gary Morton, a one-time comic married to Lucille Ball.
Twenty years ago, on a first date with my future husband, he had me at, “Your dad is Maurice Duke? Sure I know who he is.” He told me he had worked with Alan King who often told Duke stories. Like this one. My dad was traveling by car to California with his best buddy, songwriter and prankster Henry Nemo. Every night, when Duke went to sleep, Nemo would remove the rubber tip from my father’s cane and shave it down a bit. By the time they got to L.A. a week later, my dad said, “You know what, Neem? I think I’m growing!”
Maurice Duke might have only grown to be five feet, one-inch, but to me, and to everyone who knew him, he was larger than life.
One of my favorite things to do with my father was to share him. I shared him with girlfriends who didn’t have fathers and I even brought him to school like he was my own special show-and-tell toy. I was in a cinema class at SMC and brought him into class to talk about the movie biz. He proudly announced that he had produced “104 pieces of shit.” He was right, mostly they were bad. A student raised his hand and asked my dad how to break into the business. He said, “Lie!” It got quite a big laugh, but he was serious. When I was an actress, he often told me, “If they ask you if you can ride a horse, the answer is yes. If they ask you if you can sky dive, the answer is yes.” And though I never jumped out of a plane, I did land a national commercial in which I rode a horse.
I had forty-two amazing years of love poured into me. Every single day my father told me how pretty, funny and smart I was. And when he was gone, several friends promised to keep telling me that — and for a few days they even tried. I’m not that pretty, not that funny and certainly not that smart — but when my dad told me I was, I believed him. I miss him. I miss his words. I miss his outrageousness. He was the best father in the world. Happy Father’s Day, dad.
Fredrica Duke shares how she discovered her love of food while growing up in Los Angeles on her blog Channeling the Food Critic in Me.
by Nancy Ellison