Susan of the Cinema
John Wooley recounts the story of his first movie-star love.
My first movie love just passed away.
Her name was Susan Gordon. I met her, as most of us meet our cinema sweethearts, in the electric darkness of a long-ago movie theater, her sweet screen image flickering in front of me, far larger than life. Although I could hardly have known it at the time, I later found out we were both born not only in the same year, 1949, but also in the same city – St. Paul, Minnesota.
Our paths out of St. Paul had led to far different places. She’d gone to Hollywood, where her father, Bert I. Gordon, had become a producer and director specializing in horror films, with his wife often contributing special effects. At the age of 4, I had gone with my younger brother and newly widowed mother to Chelsea, Oklahoma, where she could rely on the support of her home folks. I also must say that by the time I was 9 or 10, I totally represented the Bert I. Gordon demographic – a monster-crazy kid who loved movies, especially scary ones.
We usually returned to Minnesota during each summer vacation, visiting my father’s relatives. This trek always included a trip to the northernmost tip of the state, where an aunt and uncle lived much as farmers there had lived for decades: with an outhouse, a water well and lots of animals. Entertainment was pretty bucolic, too, centered around neighbors and church. When they craved metropolitan diversions, my aunt and uncle ventured into Hallock, a town about the size of Chelsea a few miles away from their farm.
It was in the former town, during a summer’s evening in 1960, that I first encountered Susan. My brother and I had been given the choice of attending an ice cream church social or going to Hallock’s lone picture show. The title of the current attraction, The Boy and the Pirates, with its promise of high kids’ adventure, probably made up our minds for us, and that evening we were comfortably seated in this strange movie theater when I encountered Susan for the first time.
I don’t know if it was love at first sight, but it sure packed a wallop. I came out of that theater aflame with wild new daydreams, innocent but thrilling, involving the sorts of derring-do and hair’s-breadth escapes I had just seen Susan and her young co-star, Charles Herbert, enact on the screen. Of course, I immediately co-opted Mr. Herbert’s place in the action. In trying to describe the intensity of my sudden feelings toward this girl, or her image, I can only invoke the whole notion of courtly love, and what it must’ve meant to the knights in their ancient, chaste days.
When we returned home to Chelsea a week or so later, Susan Gordon still flickered in my head and my heart. I sat down and wrote her a letter, care of United Artists, which had released Boy and the Pirates. She wrote me back – in gold ink! – telling me that yes, indeed, her father was Bert I. Gordon and her mother Flora M. Gordon, whose names I had seen in horror-film credits at the local theater. What’s more, she had a fan club. I not only promptly joined, but also formed a new Chelsea-based chapter, made up of my brother and several slightly bemused friends.
Susan went on to amass significant credits in TV and movies; her role in her dad’s ghost story Tormented (1960), as well as an early 1962 Twilight Zone appearance as a mistreated little girl in leg braces who befriends an alien, still stand out for me all these years later. A few months after that Twilight Zone aired, my infatuation soared into the stratosphere, as my family and I got to spend the afternoon with Susan and her family at their Hollywood home.
It happened because my former-actress aunt, who lived in the San Fernando Valley, had show-biz connections (her son, my first cousin, was a child actor himself, notably playing the kid who comes to town and bullies Opie in a well-remembered episode of The Andy Griffith Show). Knowing of my infatuation with Susan, she somehow got the Gordons on the phone – we were visiting that summer – and wangled an invitation. One afternoon, Aunt Marion inexplicably beckoned me to the phone, telling me I had a call. It was Susan on the other end, asking us over – and showing me that I didn’t have to die to have an out-of-body experience.
I was a shy kid, but when we pulled up to the Gordon’s house in West Hollywood, the shyness had become absolute petrification. I remember meeting Susan and her folks. I remember Bert taking my brother and cousin and me into the den where he had his ham-radio equipment and framed one-sheet posters from his movies, and giving us each a still and comic book from The Magic Sword, his latest picture. I remember walking down the sidewalk with Susan and her pet spider monkey, Tammy. I remember that because Susan’s birthday was around the corner, I’d given her a present of a do-it-yourself mosaic kit I’d purchased at the Chelsea dime store.
And I remember knowing, without really thinking about it, that I would never, ever have another day like that one.
Not long afterwards, I became the first president of the Bert I. Gordon Fan Club, also maintaining my deep interest in Susan and her career. But we grew up, both Susan and I. A few years later, she left the movies, I left for college, and the love and joy and awe associated with the Gordons gradually leaked out into the new atmosphere swirling around me. I always held the thought of somehow meeting up with her again. In 1992, I even dedicated a book I wrote to her. But in those pre-internet days, finding someone from your past wasn’t all that easy.
As it turned out, she found me. Out of the blue, about 10 years ago, I heard from a producer in New York who’d used Susan in an off-Broadway play. They’d been talking one evening about her fan club and had decided to dive into cyberspace in an attempt to find any of the old members. It didn’t take them long to run into my website.
And so, we reconnected. We talked on the phone a couple of times. I interviewed her for the horror-movie magazine Fangoria, which helped lead her to a new part-time career as a guest at nostalgia and horror-movie conventions. We talked a lot over the computer.
But eventually, that drifted away. She was fond of instant messaging, a communication technique I didn’t get and didn’t like, so when I dropped it, our contact dropped off as well.
I hadn’t heard from her in a few years when I got the news. It came from a fellow film fan that provided me links to websites with more information on her death. I clicked on the first one, and the image hit me like a sucker punch.
As is the case with any guy old enough to receive those ubiquitous AARP billets, I’ve seen the emails that show us what our glamour girls of the ‘60s and ‘70s look like today. But dammit, the first photo I saw of the late Susan Gordon looked to me exactly like the face of that beautiful little girl with the big eyes and shy manner who’d greeted me in her Hollywood doorway, on what may have been, in retrospect, the most incredible – and unlikely – day of my life.