June Beck

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Welcome to the very special Christmas edition of the Quaz.

Oh, wait—I’m Jewish. And not especially interested in ornament-laced trees. This, however, doesn’t mean that I’m completely cold to holiday magic. That’s why, a bunch of weeks ago, I was sitting on the couch with Kid One and Kid Two watching the original “Miracle on 34th Street”—a genuinely excellent film about Macy’s and Santa and the joy of Christmas. Midway through the movie, I began wondering about the leading woman, and whatever became of her. This led me to the Internet. And to IMDB. And, ultimately, to a place called Maureen O’Hara Magazine.

Um …

Yes, there is a Maureen O’Hara Magazine—a website 100-percent devoted to the life and times of the 93-year-old Irish actress. Which, of course, begs the question, “Who the hell devotes a website to a 93-year-old Irish actress?” Which, of course, resulted in my sending an e-mail to June Beck. Which, well, resulted in today’s Quaz—an ode to the random unpredictability of this weekly Q&A session.

Turns out June is a wonderful woman who views her site as a method to keep a legacy alive. Ain’t nothing wrong with that. June Beck, welcome to The Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, June, so usually these Q&As are reserved for somewhat-to-very famous folks. Ballplayers,  actors,  politicians, etc. You’re not famous. You’re June Parker Beck, and you run an online magazine in honor of Maureen O’Hara, a 93-year-old actress probably best remembered for her starring role in “Miracle on 34th Street.” Uh, June, why in the world do you run an online magazine in honor of Maureen O’Hara, a 93-year-old actress probably best remembered for her starring role in “Miracle on 34th Street”?

JUNE BECK: I frequently ask myself that same question. In fact, I have done so periodically for the last 20 years. In 1991, working as a secretary in the special needs department, I sat in a cubicle at the district office of the Tempe Elementary School District typing psych evaluations for school psychologists. We had already been introduced to computers back in 1983, giving way to a great revelation in word processing—”Goodbye typewriters!” I was then rounding the ‘age 55’ corner and I guess I had sort of lapsed into an identity crisis. My five kids were almost all grown (a couple were still in high school) and I simply wanted to find some of the me that used to be before the wife and mother thing.

I’d always been involved in the performing arts in community theater and also loved to write. The logical choice for me at that time was to try my hand at writing. One of my friends was a successful freelance writer and the only advice he offered to me as a beginner was to first write about something I liked and knew a little about. Feminism was a big issue back then (of which I had very little knowledge), but I thought of Maureen O’Hara, one of my favorite actresses when I was in high school in the 1950s. So there you have it … I decided to write about Maureen O’Hara being a feminist in her own time. And the games began. I surged forward not having a clue as to what I was doing.

Maureen O'Hara from myriad gigs.
Maureen O’Hara from myriad gigs.

J.P.: When I initially contacted you, you were surprised. You wrote: “Are you sure anyone would be interested in the ramblings of an old grey-haired broad like me? However, on the flip side, I sure have had quite an adventure the past 20 years knowing Maureen, her family, and doing the website. Never a dull moment and meeting people I never would have known in my lifetime, I’m sure. Better than playing Bingo every Tuesday night.” I’m fascinated by this—what’s the adventure been like? What are the thrills?

J.B.: As I began research on my first story (which, incidentally, I sold almost immediately to some now-defunct cinema nostalgia magazine for $250) about Maureen O’Hara, I quickly learned that she was no ordinary actress. Search engines on the Internet weren’t like they were today, so I had to camp at the local library and pour over the microfiche offerings and books. I quickly learned that to get facts about Maureen I had to read about director John Ford, and, of course, the legendary John Wayne.

Maureen’s marriage to Gen. Charles Blair, the famed pilot, was another whole world and I learned a little bit about aeronautics—specifically “seaplanes.” Blair owned “Antilles Airboats,” a commuter service in the Caribbean based in St. Croix, VI. After Blair’s tragic death in an airplane crash in the 1970s, Maureen took the reins and became the first woman to ever manage a scheduled airline.

Then we have her parents and her siblings; her mother was a former opera singer and her father was a clothier in Dublin and part owner of the Shamrock Rovers—Ireland’s pro soccer team. Her brother, Charles, was a solicitor (lawyer) and the youngest in his country to ever attain this academic degree; another brother, Jimmy raced motor bikes; a sister, Margot, was an equestrian who competed in dressage. It just goes on and on. One path would take me here and another would take me there. It just kept on going—on and on. It put me in constant contact with people all over the world. I found myself on a plane to Los Angeles (a short flight from the Phoenix area where I live) and had somehow set up interviews with actress Anna Lee in her home in Hollywood; producer Paul Keyes in West Lake Village (he produced the TV party in 1976—”All-Star Tribute to John Wayne,” in which Maureen sang to Duke “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Face.” Keep in mind that I had no idea how to conduct an interview but my subjects were very patient and kind. Thank God!

Probably the key to it all came after a friend in Los Angeles, writer Angela Fox Dunn, helped me set up an interview with Maureen’s brother, Charles FitzSimons, who was then executive director of the Producers Guild. That was without question the interview that opened the door.

My oldest son, Jimmy, then in grad school in Seattle, suggested to me that since I had gathered all this information I should put it into the form of a website. The Internet was just in its infancy then and I assured him that I was not capable of doing this; I didn’t have the cyberspace skills. Jimmy is really the one responsible for it all getting started in this then fairly ‘new’ media. He agreed to start it for me on the web space he had there at the university. I’d send him photos and text and he’d publish it. Eventually he became so busy with his studies he told me I’d have to do it myself. I said I couldn’t …. he said I could … and I did.

I dabbled a little bit in computer graphics and as the website became rather popular it kept me busy researching and writing. In 1993 Maureen’s brother, Charlie, saw the site, liked it and felt it would be a good way to get accurate info out there on Maureen. And the rest just happened. The subsequent publishing of an extension page on Facebook a couple of years ago started out slowly but now is doing well and I find it much more fun than the regular site. More one-to-one interaction. Probably a high point in my research was a trip to Ireland in 1999—I visited Maureen there in her village of Glengarriff, and saw all of “The Quiet Man” film sites with Prof. Des MacHale, author and artist Paddy McCormick as my tour guides. That was, as they say today, “amazing.” Or should I saw “awesome?”

The glamorous Maureen O'Hara.
The glamorous Maureen O’Hara.

J.P.: Your web magazine is all about Maureen O’Hara, little about you. So, June, what’s your story? Where are you from? What’s your life been? How did you get here?

J.B.: I’m the youngest of four children from a little town in Northern Illinois named Ashton. It’s about 110 miles from Chicago (near Rockford). I had the best of both worlds. We would frequently travel to Chicago to the museums, ballets, operas, etc. on school field trips and then return to the security of what I called my “Dick, Jane and Baby Sally” town. My parents were divorced when I was very young and my mother raised all four of us with no help or support from my father. I did, however, have such a wonderful, loving family; aunts, uncles … the whole nine yards and I don’t know if when you get my age you have selective memory, but I feel I had a great childhood. Our small school had a huge focus on music and the performing arts so I began performing from first grade on and loved it. After high school graduation I moved to nearby Dixon, Illinois (Ronald Reagan’s hometown), and got a job as a secretary and became active in local community theater. I married at the age of 27 (considered spinsterhood in that decade)—had five kids, moved to Arizona in 1974 … and here I am, age 76, retired, editing a website and chatting with Maureen O’Hara on the phone several times a week. Who woulda thunk it?

J.P.: There’s something about your site that makes me quite sad, and I’ll explain it thusly: It’s hard to see someone as beautiful as Maureen once was now in her 90s, old and wrinkly and—according to a story I found—struggling with short-term memory. Perhaps it’s a reminder to me (healthy, age 41) that, inevitably, we all crumble and decline and fade off. In keeping your site, and routinely looking back at Maureen in her heyday, do you ever feel this way? Do you even know what I mean?

J.B.: I know exactly what you mean. As I, myself, begin this decline at age 76, I feel my purpose in all of this is finally become more clear to me. Everybody raves about how beautiful … how pretty …. how gorgeous Maureen is—and I do so want them to appreciate the Maureen that I have come to know. Her work ethic, her stamina, the odds even “pretty” people have to battle. What amazes me is that the website visitors can see Maureen’s aging in recent photos—and yet to them she is forever beautiful. I frequently share the following e-mail I received a few years ago from Jeanine Basinger, author and cinema professor at Wesleyan University. To me it says it all …

“I was thrilled to hear from you because from childhood onward I have loved Maureen O’Hara. I am pleased you’ve liked what I’ve written because I think she is both totally fabulous and underestimated … not that she’s hurting for loyal fans or appreciation … but she should have even MORE than she has. She is a fine actress, a stunningly beautiful woman (one of the most so in film history) a versatile performer and a real icon. As I say in my new book, many of the “legends” never appeared in as many films that are taught in colleges now as O’Hara did. To my students she is better known (and more loved) than Davis, Crawford, Garbo or many others. I believe that history is turning her into the legend she really is, and making a superstar out of her! Just being in the John Ford movies … playing opposite Wayne as much as she did … or appearing in the annual showings of “Miracle on 34th Street” alone guarantees her legend.  And there’s more. I have to stop here because I have to go to class, and could go on and on. Please tell Ms. O’Hara that I send all my regards, my deepest appreciation, and my admiration and respect for her life, both professionally and personally.

Jeanine Basinger

June and Maureen at the airport in Phoenix, mid-1990s.
June and Maureen at the airport in Phoenix, mid-1990s.

J.P.: Your Facebook page has 35,326 Likes. That’s huge. How do you explain this?

J.B.: You’ve got me. I can’t explain it. Yet for 20 years it has remained constant. Perhaps it’s all those classic films like Hunchback of Notre DameHow Green Was My Valley, The Parent Trap, or the ever-popular The Quiet Man that remain so beloved that they keeps her center stage and creates a continued interest. People don’t have to build shrines or film schools or form foundations to honor Maureen O’Hara. Her legacy will continue without them just fine.

J.P.: Having devoted so much time to Maureen’s film career, how do you feel movies from the 1940s, 50s and 60s compare to today? Better? Worse? And do you think a young Maureen O’Hara does well in today’s Hollywood? Or was she a performer for a different period?

J.B.: I have seen so few movies of today that this is a difficult question for me. I do love the special effects and technology that allows them limitless art on the screen. My fourth son, Danny Beck, is an artist in California and worked for Blizzard Entertainment as a character designer for computer games for a time so I am exposed to at least some of the trends in that area. As far as drama and comedy of today—not so much. The last movie I saw on the big screen was Little Miss Sunshine (2006) and I loved it! I do watch a lot on TV and most are a bit too graphic; more left to the imagination to me is always the best. Does that sound like a grandma or what?

J.P.: When I look at the old black-and-white Hollywood pictures on your site, I feel—somewhat remorsefully—that I missed a golden age. True? Or is it just the power of good cameras and cool dresses?

J.B.: In this day and age, if you’re so inclined, the golden age is right at your fingertips on your computer. From Turner Classic Movies for feature films to the wonderful YouTube to see clips from the great films, etc., etc. I do, however, feel it’s important that we move on with the world. All these things are a foundation for the entertainment and things we enjoy today. I feel people my age who are turning their backs on the technology and proudly denouncing it all are making a huge mistake. Scoffing at smart phones, Facetime, and Kindles makes no sense. I don’t see any of them driving a Model-T Ford! Nothing irritates me more than when I approach a check-in window at a bank or even my physician and the clerk talks down to me like I’m a child just because my hair is grey. LOL

J.P.: What’s your day like? How do you update regularly on an actress who no longer acts?

J.B.: I roll out of bed at 4 am, check my email, have breakfast in front of the computer and, at about 6 o’clock, I sometimes take a quickie nap and then start my household chores. I usually call Maureen around 11 am—we chat a bit and what we call “long distance tea” together. The reason for the early rising is twofold. First is that when Maureen was in Ireland over a year ago, they are eight hours ahead of us so to contact her, or various media contacts there, I had to get up early. Also, having five kids who as babies all woke before sun up, well, my body clock adjusted and remains so today.

J.P.: Why do you think we care so much about celebrity? I mean, they’re just people who sing and dance and entertain, no? So why do we devote so much time and energy to them?

J.B.: You are absolutely right—they are just people. Maureen helped me a lot with understanding that making movies is a job. I went to work in an office; she went to work on a movie set. In her line of work the possibility of celebrity status makes the end result quite different, but it’s still work; mortgages to pay, kids to raise. I think people love the seeming excitement of it all. Just as movies are an escape from reality, so is losing oneself in the lifestyle of the rich and famous. I once said to Maureen, “You always look good.” Her response: “The hell I do!”

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• Five best movies involving Maureen O’Hara?: Maureen was cast in many male-driven adventure films—especially in the studio days when they had no choice in the roles they played. However, she was cast in enough classics to go on forever and she was rescued by John Ford for several films that gave her the chance to really show her acting skills. In my humble opinion, I’d say her best films are: McLintock (the most popular of all, believe it or not); Sitting Pretty, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Quiet Man and a made-for-TV film in 1972 with Henry Fonda—The Red Pony. One more I must mention and is hardly known by most is The Deadly Companions with Maureen, Brian Keith, Chill Wills and Steve Cochran. It never received proper distribution in the States but was produced by Maureen’s brother, Charles FitzSimons, and directed by Sam Peckinpah. It’s so nice to Maureen seen un-glamorous and a little disheveled for a change. Her acting was fantastic; just like “The Red Pony.”

• You’ve probably seen Miracle on 34th Street a dozen times (or more?). I’m an agnostic Jew with a 7-year-old son who’s slightly confused over why Santa doesn’t visit our house. What should I tell him?: I can’t help you there. I was lucky to get my five kids raised. Remember the days when every parent wanted their sons to be doctors, lawyers and dentists? “My son the doctah!” Not today. I have four sons (one daughter—the youngest) and I’m cool because I’ve got a computer genius, an artist, and two more computer guys as well. One declutters my computers, the other writes code, another keeps my iPhone updated. I am very pampered.

• Five reasons one should make Phoenix his/her next vacation destination?: Great winters! Summer not for sissies (does the word “inferno” mean anything to you?). Very few natives, almost all transplants from some other state; and you’ve got mountains and desert—take your pick. Phoenix is kind of like Los Angeles in slow motion. And with flatter terrain.

• One question you would ask Drake were he here right now?: ????

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Tom Glavine, Elvis Costello, apples, seltzer, Ernie Ford, Snoop Dogg, Henry Mancini, Facebook, Coors Light, Dublin, Russell Wilson, candied yams, NBC, Pat Robertson: Ernie Ford. He outshines them all. Bless your little pea-pickin heart!

Screen Shot 2013-12-23 at 11.36.33 PM• What did it mean to you to win the Mesa Tribune’s 1997 Mother’s Day Essay Contest?: Oh boy—that’s a good one. It meant so much to me because it said what I wanted to say to honor the wisdom of my mom. But I had to actually consolidate all these feelings into just a small amount of words. That in itself is an accomplishment.

• Best piece of advice you’ve ever received: As I said in the winning essay for “Mother’s Day”—Her simply telling me that during all rough times we must be thankful that we are together and have the strength of family and friends to support us through whatever comes to us in life.

• I know someone who drinks between six and eight liters of Diet Coke every day. How can I help her?: Offer them some R.C. – no artificial sweeteners.

• You have five kids, and you seem perfectly sane. How is this possible?: I must concede that perhaps I have to have been a bit crazy myself to get through it all. I was a PTA president but I was not a “normal” mom. As toddlers they were dancing around the house to Broadway show tunes, and doing ballet leaps off the arm of the sofa. I am probably the only mom in the world who went to her 5-year old eldest son for advice on how to handle various life situations. That kid was 40 when he was born.

• Fill in the blank: “The one thing everyone should know about Maureen O’Hara is …: how very much she loves her family and how important they are to her. I remember when she was writing her autobiography, Tis herself, and I was assisting in the research she wanted to include more about them, but she was limited to a certain page count by the publisher. Her pride in her Irish heritage also factored into just about every part of her life. If anyone has ever seen the 1957 TV show, This Is Your Life Maureen O’Hara, and see her with that wonderful family and their interaction even at that very public moment of bringing them together, they would understand. This kind of devotion and loyalty held steadfast through so many obstacles in her life (some fairly recent).