Saturday, June 7, 1930<>Santa Catalina Island

Somewhere in this country there is a depression going on, but not on Santa Catalina Island. Everyone here, rich and poor alike, is having a grand time this weekend. All of Avalon's hotels are full to overflowing and the new Avalon Casino is jumping with Sheilas and Sheiks who one might suspect were a trifle ossified if prohibition were not the law of the land, especially at William Wrigley's grand pleasure palace.

The most intoxicating items served at the casino's Marine Bar are the maraschino cherries topping their Neptune Sundaes. It's a soda fountain, for cryin' out loud!

On the other hand, Wrigley has some good reasons for running a tight ship. For one, his Avalon Casino is the only dance venue in the county approved by the Los Angeles Unified School District for their teachers to attend. That honor is due to several factors, including a strictly enforced dress code requiring gentlemen to wear ties and sport coats, both of which may be rented at the ballroom entrance by those who are ill-prepared.

Another cause for the casino's high rating with the school district is an even more strictly enforced behavior code. I've heard it said that the ballroom manager actually walks around the dance floor with a stick to measure the space between men and women dancers.

These and other fascinating peculiarities about the Avalon Casino are the reasons I was on the island with Los Angeles Times photog, Nettie Brewer. Our boss, Times Publisher, Harry Chandler, is a firm believer in downplaying negative news and shouting the happy news from the rooftop. The Avalon Casino and Catalina in general were about the happiest news around these days, so off we went aboard the Great White Steamer, SS Catalina, on an all expense-paid weekend to write happy words and snap happy pictures of happy people being happy on Wrigley's happy island.

Most reporters would jump at such an opportunity, and so would I, except for one small detail—a detail that goes by the name of Nettie Brewer. Now, before I say anything else about Nettie, I need to tell you she is a very talented photographer. Proof of that is found in the fact she is the only woman on the Times photo staff. For that matter, Nettie is one of only two or three full-time women news photogs on the west coast. Now, having said that, I will say working with Nettie is just about my least favorite thing to do.

Nettie's problem, or more accurately, my problem with Nettie is that she is a consummate tomboy. Worse, she doesn't come by that quality naturally. I don't know what makes her think she needs to act like a guy to get along with guys, but she works at it constantly. Nettie is always talking about guy things, like sports and automobiles. She also tells a lot of guy jokes, some of which are quite risqué.

She is so intent on behaving like a guy, it would not surprise me in the least to see her coming out of the men's room. I feel duty bound to also say I have seen no indications that Nettie is lavender. She clearly prefers the company of male employees at the Times to females.

Anyway, there we were late Saturday afternoon gathering stories and photographs of what frolicking tourists were doing on Catalina Island. Nettie photographed folks on the beach at sunset, riding bicycles through the little town of Avalon, and strolling along the Via Casino walkway en route to Wrigley's pleasure palace.

We talked to visitors waiting to enter the Casino's motion picture theater on the ground floor. The picture they waited to see was a new movie about the Great War, All Quiet on the Western Front, staring Lew Ayres and Louis Wolheim. I wished the folks were going to see a happier movie. Our boss would not be pleased about such an unhappy movie in our story.

Around six o' clock, I figured we had earned a dinner break and steered Nettie past the casino to Descanso Canyon, the location of Avalon's best hotel, the Saint Catherine. The place was packed, but the maître d' quickly found a table for two highly placed members of the fourth estate such as we.

After we were seated and our waiter was advised of our menu choices, Nettie put on a serious expression, looked me in the eye for a moment, and then said, "Chet, would you answer a question for me?"

Her seldom seen serious expression had me wondering what was coming, I said, "Sure, if I can."

"Why don't you like me?"

Talk about being on the spot! I said the only thing I could think of. "I like you fine, Nettie. What makes you think I don't?"

She shrugged. "Just the way you act around me. You aren't . . . I don't know . . . as friendly as you are with other people we work with."

Still trying to dig myself out this hole she had me in, I said, "Gosh, if I treat you differently, I don't do it intentionally. You're a nice person, I have no reason to dislike you."

"I think you do. Is it that I'm not as feminine as you think I should be?"

She had the goods on me there and my face must have betrayed me, because Nettie said, "That's it! I can tell that's it! I don’t act all silly like other women in the office. Well, mister, I'll have you know there's a darn good reason for that!"

Trying to get back on my feet after a good swift kick in the kiester, I said, "I'm sure there is, Nettie, and that's your business. I just . . . ."

"You want to know why I act like a tomboy?"

I started to shake my head in the negative, but she was going to tell me anyway. "I don't act like the silly girls because I work with guys who go all gaga over silly girls—the brainless flapper types—and by acting the way I do, I don't have to constantly fend off a bunch of randy reporters whose egos get bruised if a girl doesn't fawn all over them and make them think she wants to jump right into bed with them. That's why!"

Nettie was so vehement in her tirade, she attracted the attention of a few diners at nearby tables. Besides being embarrassed, I was thoroughly irritated with her for making a fuss and putting me on the spot.

Speaking in a loud whisper, I said, "Okay, you've got it all figured out, and that's fine with me because I assure you I have no desire to jump into bed with you, missy.  I will admit to being curious, though. Just exactly how would you act if you did want to jump in bed with a guy? I bet you don’t have any idea about that, do you?"

Nettie looked at me, but said nothing right away. About the time I noticed something that looked a lot like a tear begin to roll down her cheek, she said softly, "Yes, I do have an idea about that. I would ask him why he didn't like me."

If I had any doubts about Nettie having a female side, she was eliminating them with one of the oldest ploys in the Modern Women's Guide To Conquering Men, and it was working. Even if I thought she was faking the tears, I'd have felt just as badly.

I began an apology, but she didn't let me get very far. Nettie jumped up, made a weepy apology of her own, and dashed off in the direction of the powder room. A few diners at nearby tables, especially women, glared at me for upsetting the darling little sweetheart at my table. Phooey on them!

Our dinners arrived and Nettie followed them to the table a few minutes later. While I stood and held her chair, Nettie said something about how good her roasted white sea bass looked, marking an end to our previous conversation. I was both happy and unhappy about that.

I was happy to be discussing dead fish instead of my liking or disliking Nettie, but I still wished our talk had ended on a happier note. I was beginning to understand why Harry Chandler preferred positive stories over negative stories.

Then there was something else going on way in the back corner of my mind. Nettie all but said she wanted to be intimate with me. That idea was as alien to me as someone offering me a free trip to Mars. Now, though, some part of me was wondering what an intimate relationship with Nettie would be like.

Physically, she was somewhat plain with a straight up and down figure, and she went out of her way to avoid the current fashion styles of bobbed hair and overdone makeup. Her hair was red, long, and a little wild. Her smile looked great without painted cupid bow lips and . . . well, quite honestly, Nettie was a long way from unattractive.

Try as I might, I couldn't ban those thoughts from my mind. They lasted all through dinner, including my Peach Melba dessert, and they were still bouncing around in my head when we left the Saint Catherine's dining room and set out for the casino ballroom.

We had an appointment with the Ballroom Manager to interview and photograph a few carefully selected smiling, happy guests. On the way to the ballroom entrance, I removed a slightly wrinkled tie from my sport coat pocket, wrapped it around my neck, and gave it a Windsor knot.

Nettie stopped walking when I was done with the tie, handed me her camera bag to hold, and precisely squared the tie with my shirt lapels. She then gave me reassuring nod and up to the ballroom we went. It was a simple gesture and I enjoyed it. I'm not sure why.

From halfway up the switchback entrance ramp we could hear the orchestra playing a rousing version of version of Get Happy. Harry Chandler would approve.

The orchestra we were hearing was that of Buddy Rogers. Rogers was making quite a name for himself lately. Not only had he played a leading part with Clara Bow in the hit movie Wings, his orchestra was one of the most popular on the west coast. He billed himself as "America's Boyfriend," a reference to his role in Wings.

We spent the next hour or so interviewing four couples the Ballroom Manager lined up for us. They were very happy to be having so much fun in Mister Wrigley's casino. When I completed the interviews, we led the couples out to the exterior balcony surrounding the ballroom. Nettie photographed the couples in dancing poses out on the balcony in front of double doors that opened into the ballroom.

Nettie assured me that, with the doors open, the photographs would look just as if they were taken inside the ballroom, but anyone on the dance floor who might not wish to appear in the Los Angeles Times Metro section would be unrecognizable. The Ballroom Manager insisted on that precaution. The casino staff was the heart and soul of discretion.

Pictures completed, we stopped in at the Marine Bar for two Cokes we took back out to the balcony so we could look at the lights of Avalon reflected on the water in the harbor. The sky was clear enough that we could even see a few lights over on the mainland, 20-some miles away. I took a deep breath. The air was mild and fresh with the faint sweet smell of orchids floating on it. Then I realized Nettie was supplying the orchid scent.

We were side by side leaning against the balcony railing and I was suddenly very aware of her presence. Those thoughts I was having about Nettie earlier were back in force. I decided to test the waters.


"Yes, Chet?"

"Would you like . . . I mean would you care to dance, I mean as long as we're here and everything?"

She made me wait at least half a minute before answering.  "Sure. I mean as long as we're here and everything."

I looked at her face to see if she was mocking me. Nothing in her expression said so. Nettie was simply smiling a soft smile, although I thought I might have detected a faint hint of victory around the edges of that smile.

We deposited her camera case and our Coke glasses on an empty table, and then I escorted her to the dance floor. Rogers' band was playing a romantic arrangement of Embraceable You. Now, understand that I am no Fred Astaire by any means, but I took Nettie in my arms and we seemed to float across the dance floor as if on air. She was such a good dancer, she made even me look good. Nettie was just full of surprises tonight.

I managed to make to the end of Embraceable You without stepping on her feet, and the band went straight into another ballad. I looked at Nettie and smiled, and then she raised her arms and we kept right on dancing.

The band was playing  Exactly Like You. The lyrics seemed very apropos to the moment:

I know why I've waited.
Know why I've been blue.
I pray each night for someone
Exactly like you.

When the music stopped we just stood there for a moment with Nettie leaning into my arms. Glancing over Nettie's shoulder, I noticed the Ballroom Manager looking at us and gently slapping the palm of his hand with a short ruler. I said, "Oh, oh. I think we'd better take break. The Ballroom Manager has his measuring stick out and he's looking in our direction."

Nettie stepped back and said, "That man really knows how to spoil a party."

We went back out onto the balcony, and looking me straight in the eye, she said, "I didn't say that right. The Ballroom Manager didn't spoil the party. I've never been so happy as I am right now."

I rested my hands on her waist. "That goes for me, too." I gently turned Nettie and led her to a column that blocked us from the ballroom.

We had the balcony to ourselves and I stood there for a moment looking at the radiant woman before me and working up my nerve. As usual, Nettie was way ahead of me. Grinning, she said. "Darling, if you intend to kiss me, I suggest you do so before that little man with the measuring stick shows up."

That broke the ice, so to speak. I grinned back at her and we kissed a sweet kiss that fit the mood perfectly. When the kiss ended I held Nettie close to me for a long moment, and she whispered in my ear, "I'm sorry if that was too forward of me, but I've waited a lifetime for that kiss. I didn’t want the moment to get away from us."

I looked at Nettie. "A lifetime?"

"Yes, I've been waiting my entire life for someone, as the song says, 'exactly like you.'" After a pause, during which I said nothing because I didn't know what to say, she frowned a little and asked, "Is that all right?"

"Yes! I mean, it's fine . . . wonderful! It's just this has all happened so fast and I'm still trying to catch up."

The little frown was still on Nettie's face. "Oh, gosh, you think I've been too brazen, don't you? I'm sorry, Chet, I . . . I just . . . ."

"Oh, stop it! I don't think any such thing. For me, this is like finding something really valuable. I have to think how to protect it and keep it safe. I don't want to louse everything up."

Nettie was smiling again, "Oh, what a sweet thing to say. I can tell there are advantages to falling in love with a journalist."

Her words, "falling in love" hit me between the eyes. I hadn't thought of what was happening in those terms yet. She was right, of course, we were falling in love. That both delighted me and scared the hell out of me. I mean a couple of hours ago I was trying to think of ways to avoid tomboy Nettie, and now we were holding hands as we walked from the casino to the Saint Catherine Hotel.

She said, "Chet, you're scaring me. You keep not saying anything. I can't tell what you're thinking."

Despite her forwardness, Nettie was clearly as befuddled about our situation as I was. She'd decided to put her feelings about me out into the open, and now she realized she was vulnerable and not so sure she'd done the right thing. I wanted to set her mind at ease, but at the same time, I realized doing that would be making a commitment. On the one hand I felt backed into a corner, yet on the other I was falling for a unique woman in a big way.

As is usually the case in such debates between the heart and the brain, my heart won. "Nettie, I certainly don't intend to scare you. I'm afraid I'm kind of new to this love stuff, so you'll have to forgive me if I occasionally violate the rules of the game."

"I'm not sure there are any rules. Well, maybe one. A very smart man whose name I cannot recall once said, 'Love without conversation is impossible.' I believe that.”

We said goodnight in the hallway outside Nettie's room and shared a short, sweet kiss. When I walked down the hall to my room, I'm not sure my feet ever touched the floor. Love finished its job on me overnight. I know this because I found myself singing Exactly Like You to the mirror while I shaved the next morning.

As we rode the SS Catalina back to San Pedro, we began discussing all of the matters we needed to settle before our love could proceed unimpeded. Some of them had to do with the details of life, like our jobs at the Times, but most had to do with getting used to being in love. It seems that condition was new to both of us and discovering what love meant turned out to be the most exciting adventure of our lives.


Story, design, and modern Catalina image © Steve Eitzen
Header graphic & HPO logo © HPO Productions
Character images © 123RF used by license
All Quiet on the Western Front poster modified from a public domain source
Historic Catalina photos: Security Pacific Bank Collection via the Los Angeles Public Library
All rights reserved by copyright owners

This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, locations, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.