Reading obituaries is an acquired taste. I don’t recall perusing death notices when I was young, but it became a habit when I was passing through my fifties. Perhaps it assuaged the anxiety that cramps one’s vitals after the fifth decade has slipped away into gray shadows, an anxiety tinged with a lurking apprehension as one glances over those items at the back of the paper before returning to the anticipated and fearsome ghastly news of the day. Yet sometimes a brief necrology, despite the poverty of its recital of “facts,” can inspire an unexpected joy evoked by the memory of someone whose very image and name have been lost — until now, when for an instant they glow blue and white like a firefly, in passing as it were.
Example: when I saw that name in the TIMES, it took me instantly back over forty-five years —
ANN L. ROTHSCHILD DIES AT 71; WAS THE VOICE OF BETTY BOOP
FORT MYERS, FLA., Oct. 24 (AP) — Ann. L.Rothschild, a movie actress who was the original voice of the animated cartoon character “Betty Boop,“ died Thursday.
She was 71 years old.
Miss Rothschild gained fame nearly 50 years ago as the voice of “Betty Boop,” a diminutive cartoon character with a chubby face who was modeled after the 1920’s flappers.
From 1933 to 1945, Miss Rothschild made recordings for “Betty Boop“ cartoons and appeared in variety shows throughout the country. In the late ‘40’s she operated the Betty Boop Studio in St. Petersburg, Fla., where she taught acting, singing and dancing.
When Betty’s insouciant, lecherous laughter, “Boop-Boop! A-Doop!” began to be heard in movie houses, I was crawling about in diapers. I still recall my annoyance whenever that plumpish, mini-skirted flapper swivelhipped and sashayed across the Saturday matinee screen as the ’30’s wore into the ’40’s. It was the impatience of a prudish boy of ten in the middle of his “latency period,” that sexually-null time zone that lays down an impermeable stratum like a featureless, clayey blank corresponding to those half-dozen years between childhood’s true innocence and the anguished sensibility of fatidic, testosterone-driven adolescence.
What a waste of time and a precious quarter, to have to sit through some stupid Betty Boop cartoon! How frustrating she was to a lad craving action — Socko! Wham! Crash! Bombs bursting in air! — and preferring even the absurdities of Donald Duck or Popeye the Sailorman. But no — here comes that chubby face topped by those comma-shaped bangs, head haloed by marcelled black waves. Frenchy, sort of; sexy maybe, but scarcely as Gallic as Marlene Dietrich was, that soubrette named Frenchie who spoke and sang with a throaty, guttural German brogue in DESTRY RIDES AGAIN. To this day little else remains with me but for a faint image: Betty Boop truckin’ along, her coquettish, coy, wacky response to frustration and putdown: “Oh, Boop-Boop! A-Doop!” Today’s “Whatever!” doesn’t half do it.
But — Ann Rothschild? Something else again! I knew her rather better: I can see her still walking and talking, though at the time I comprehended nothing of what I saw. When was it, summer of 1944? that she crooked a pinky, waving it to extract me from a clutch of waiting caddies, and appointed me her own personal caddie for two whole weeks…. O, blissful weeks!
* * *
During the Second World War, Grossinger’s Hotel, situated between the old TB sanatorium and village of Ferndale and the sleepy town of Liberty surrounded by hills and valleys full of huckleberry bushes, was patronized by solid, staid folk: doctors, lawyers, dentists, and rising wholesale merchants, the new money that arrived in the wallets of mainly married couples (though not necessarily tied to each other). Those people seemed to me already stiffening into middle-age. They played tennis or rowed on the lake, though they never swam there, preferring their siesta. They also came and golfed, fortifying their wind and legs for dancing the early watch of the night in the Casino; followed afterward by gin rummy, boozing, and the unmentioned et ceteras of the wee hours. Still, between 8 and 10 in the morning there was usually a fair gathering that had driven up to the Clubhouse and were waiting to tee off and set out on their hike of three hours over a tough 18-hole course, notable for its steep fairways, its woods-framed dogleg, beyond which lay a muck-rimmed waterhole in front of the ninth hole; and those endless straightaways on the “back nine,” where sliced drives at the twelfth bounced into a pasture featuring a mean bull that paced free and snorted warnings behind a too-frail-seeming fence of barbed-wire.
In those days golfers actually walked. They really walked. A course like Grossinger’s was more or less a challenge on the Scottish order: breezy mountain vistas; deer, foxes, badgers, woodchucks, and skunks; rabbits, moles, mice; and crows and hawks soaring overhead below the ranks of marching stratocumulus dappling the fairways and offering brief, cool patches during August’s Dog Days. Caddies — and we were mostly kids 13 to 16 — carried two bags then. You worked for your $15 per couple, slogging over those eighteen holes, your thin shoulders rubbed raw by those straps. And if you got another round of 18 in the afternoon, it wiped you out. A good day would put at least $40 in your dungarees; but it was with little pleasure that you contemplated those two enormous saddle-leather Abercrombie & Fitch bags reposing in the trunk of a Cadillac (Lincolns were seldom seen at Grossinger’s, because, as they put it, Mr. Henry Ford was not a nice man), each with its complement of 14 or 15 clubs, a box of a dozen new balls jammed in one side-pouch, in the other, a bottle of suntan lotion, hat, gloves, and a purse as well if it was a woman’s. Most of Grossinger’s golfers were not the kind who climb the first tee and play through a course with two woods, three irons and a putter, which is all you really needed if you could hit a decent ball.
Tramping 27 or 36 holes a day over a Catskills Mountains course, a boy of thirteen might see some odd goings-on, even at discreet Grossinger’s, which was in those years a classy place, not yet swollen and decadent with the bigtime swankery of the ’60’s and ’70’s, after which it died out and was lost. Ann Rothschild, however, was a different character even then. She showed up with a light canvas bag, borrowed probably, and a handful of antique, banged-up clubs, maybe 5 altogether. Mornings she teed off with another woman, an old friend; but then she came up again in the afternoon with a man, different ones — distinguished types, or so they seemed to the boy who took his model from the movies. Sometimes the afternoon game was a foursome. I recall those hours as easy, full of clowning. It took us as long to do “the back nine,” which is where we always headed, as any middling golfer took to play through all eighteen holes! Not too serious golfing in short. And her old bag, light enough at setting out, would grow steadily lighter as the fifth of Haig & Haig was emptied.
Usually there was a longish halt out back, near the battered ice chest that stood alongside the 11th fairway. It had sodas packed in it, and my party always took its time over the ginger ale and Coke chasers that sweetened the whiskey in their paper cups. After chipping away at the ice block for them, I’d be sent on ahead, far ahead, motioned to cool off in the shade with my bottle of pop. I’d wait a good long time at the 12th hole for some drive that would never come bounding up, its having been hooked out over the patch of forest bordering the fairway. Sometimes my ladies went traipsing off into the dark of that piney woods, accompanied by their male partners to help them find their lost balls, as they put it, laughing. And I would just sit patiently on edge of the 12th Green, twirling the pin for lack of anything better to do. I could hear their hooting from those shady, green, fragrant depths. The noise was a medley of chatter, whoops of laughter, thrashing about … but golf? That wasn’t what they were playing at. Sometimes I heard only silence, a good hour of it.
When Miss Rothschild was in a jolly mood — and afternoons she often was, in contrast to her vagueness on the morning round — was it some sadness, a world-weariness of life’s illusions? I wondered, ignorant as I then was of your run-of-the-mill hangover — she would keep me close by. She would pretend to consult me about the choice of a correct club for the lie she faced. It was in any case merely problematic for her: if she shot 15 on a 4-par hole, she was doing just fine. Dutifully she swayed on through the morning round, swinging, slashing divots, hacking away in sand traps, kidding and telling stories, making that giggling chortling noise I thought I recognized when blurting punch lines I never caught onto. Now and then she’d drape an arm over my shoulder or take me about the waist to keep herself from doubling-over — choking with laughter … and coughing. She smoked a lot, but she laughed a lot too. I could easily support her, I was at thirteen, a good two heads taller — she even looked like Betty Boop! And when her lady partner went ahead or loitered poking through the rough in search of another lost ball, Miss Rothschild would walk on with me, linking my elbow gaily, helping me along. “My poor caddie has to carry my clubs!” she’d wail. And there, at 11 in the morning under that bright, glancing sunlight, facing into the brisk mountain breeze, I’d get a whiff of lipstick and whiskey-tainted breath, mingled with her flossy perfume, her laughter enveloping me in a mist of genial, confusing sensuality. She liked to tease: she set anyone and everyone up, her friends male and female alike; she even set me up. Pixyish, it seemed that was the word for it … yet that “it” always eluded me.
Today I can see it was gaiety too, though not Betty Boop’s cartoon kind. Had she been divorced recently? or ever married? Had she been jilted? Was she getting over something, or falling into something? Forty-five and more years later, I was struck by the obvious: that summer Ann Rothschild was in her early 30’s; she was simply a young woman. But then and there, to my mortified caddie’s eyes, she was not just one prepotent lady, but a terrifically middle-aged one. As for those hours concealed from my eyes down there in the dim, piney woods alongside the 12th fairway — what I wondered, could be going on down there?
Of the little I took in then, less remains: I got neither the gags and laughter, that little wriggling dance on the tee as she settled into position for a drive, neither the songs, nor the tears — for there were tears as well. I was her very own caddie, since I’d been singled out, chosen to serve her that morning when she declared, “I have an exclusive on you for the next two weeks, kid. Got that?” adding (aside), “And that is about the only thing I have got an exclusive on! We’re gonna do them nine holes every morning and every afternoon, if it kills me. And, Oy! it’s killing me already! It’s Grossinger’s, for goodness sake! So where is there a doctor in this house?” And then she laughed that laugh I’d heard from my matinee screen on those wintry Saturday mornings.
For two whole weeks she played at playing golf, hacking aimlessly or savagely at divots, or just took me out for the easy afternoon stroll with her friends. She tipped me handsomely. I was hers, exclusively hers, though she never once asked me my name. And not once did she ever utter that famous cackle, “Boop-Boop! A-Doop!”