I was already pregnant when I met Gregory Peck.
Chuckanut Drive wound beautiful and clear along the Washington coast as I drove north to Bellingham on a sunny winter evening, filled with first date apprehension. I also was nauseated and hungry, but unaware of my pregnancy, I chalked it up to nerves.
An Evening with Gregory Peck was presented by the Mount Baker Theater in February of 2000. Hosted by Mr. Peck, the show promised small vignettes of his movies with personal reminiscences from the golden years of Hollywood. After purchasing my ticket, I received an invitation to a charitable benefit to follow--an opportunity to meet Gregory Peck personally. I put the hefty fee on my credit card.
I fell in love with the work of Gregory Peck during my early 20s. Late on a Friday night I returned to my apartment to discover The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit playing on the classic movie channel. I was quickly absorbed in this gentle early 1950s film which depicts an archetypical family man struggling with the aftereffects of World War II.
I sat alone and watched these old black and white films, loving immediately the courageous themes of social justice and compassion. The simple, quiet ideas of doing the right thing are timeless and just as relevant today. In those films from decades before my birth I saw myself.
I once heard the brain science of celebrity posits the theory that we are programmed to respond to faces we see frequently. In the media age, we may feel affection for, or familiarity with, a total stranger simply because we have been presented with the image of this person countless times.
I don’t know if the science is accurate, but in the 1990s I spent years at thrift stores digging through musty bins of VHS tapes to work my way through most of Gregory Peck’s films. I joined up with other fans in the early internet age as we traded films and reminders to set our video recorders for 3:45 A.M., because “Arabesque!” was playing on AMC.
That winter evening in Bellingham, Mr. Peck seemed taller than the man I had imagined. He entered the Mount Baker Theater with scrupulous care, leaning on a cane. He was old then, but his moustache and eyebrows were still dark and white hair billowed around his angular jaw. He sported a beard. As he stepped onto the stage, I squeezed my eyes tightly shut and listened, savoring the familiar voice.
What I remember best were his personal stories and opinions. He called “To Kill a Mockingbird” a labor of love for everyone involved. I was surprised to notice his beautiful wife, Veronique Passani, sitting in the seat directly in front of me in the theater. She smiled pleasantly as he shared the humorous memory of how they met. He phoned to ask her for a date, I believe while he filmed Roman Holiday. A co-worker of hers said “It’s the phone for you. It’s Gregory Peck.” Sure you are, she thought, and hung up on him. When someone asked, "Why don't we have wonderful, charismatic actors like the golden years of Hollywood?" he responded that it isn't true there are no Hollywood greats: Tom Hanks is our Jimmy Stewart.
All day long I had nervously debated with myself over what I might say to him. How does one say thank you for bringing Atticus Finch to life. Gregory Peck's very career was threatened for making Gentleman's Agreement. Perhaps I could find the words to communicate admiration for his courage. I would speak about how Gentleman's Agreement and To Kill a Mockingbird informed my life in so many ways with their themes of justice, and fearlessness about the insidious, persistent, nature of American racism.
After the show, a few of us presented our special golden tickets and were escorted behind the stage. In a tiny room were five or six tables made up with lovely small desserts and pots of coffee. I dutifully followed the others and took a seat by myself. Mr. Peck was already sitting at a neighboring table, looking frankly tired and resigned to his fate.
A tidily coiffed assistant approached me and asked if I was ready for my opportunity to meet Mr. Peck now. I said yes, please, with conviction and followed her to his table. He was seated with his cane at his side. I stood in front of him totally silent and in a sweeping moment of clarity I realized there was nothing I could truly communicate to him. He looked up at me from his seated position. I reached out, shook his warm large hand, and said “I am grateful to meet you, sir.”
One day after my clumsy introduction to Gregory Peck, I learned that I was pregnant. In my memory, the two events are welded together.
As the months progressed, I was filled with the usual excitement of a first-time mother. But I also had worries that were unique to my situation. Would my baby resemble her African American father? Would she look like my white family? Would her hair be straight and light blonde like mine when I was a tiny girl? Or perhaps her hair might be dark brown and curly like her aunties’? When I looked into her face, would I see myself?
In overpriced baby shops and maternity consignment stores, I had a constant drumming in the back of my mind: what kind of race-relations world does an American child of mixed ethnicity inherit in the 21st century?
And in the background of all this, in every way: can I keep her safe?
My daughter entered the world late on a Friday evening on a clear November day. Her enormous eyes full of wonder, she was alert and engaged from the moment of her birth.
The Evening with Gregory Peck I had attended was his second to the last. He would make very few further public appearances, and in June of 2003, he quietly died in his sleep at home with his wife next to him. Busy then with a toddler, I had little opportunity to mark his passing except sadness and a detached gratitude for my ridiculous handshake moment .
In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the film To Kill a Mockingbird this year, a small independent dinner theater in Seattle offered a screening. I asked my daughter to accompany me on a date to see the film, and have a special dinner together. She reluctantly agreed with an eye roll "Ugh, boring old no-color movies!"
On the day of the screening I attempted to prepare her for the graphic scenes and period language in the film. We talked long about her paternal grandparents, one black and one white. Unable to marry in the small Iowan town where they fell deeply in love in the 1950s, they instead had to elope to Chicago.
The prejudice and discrimination her grandparents faced for years is like a creepy old-time movie for a modern girl in a liberal city. Her world is far removed from stories about being spit upon in the street or refused basic services.
As the familiar and haunting score began, I found myself gripped with terrifying hope for her life. I sneaked a glance and her eyes were riveted to the screen. Her silky brown pony tail draped easily down her back. Please, may she always find the tremendous courage necessary to look without flinching at our peculiar, evolving, American story of race.
This year my girl will enter middle school. I am watching her move steadily toward adolescence. This time feels much like her toddlerhood so many years ago, those memories growing small now and hazy in our shared rearview mirror.
My secret hope is that long after I am dead, my daughter will keep close the powerful meaning that Gregory Peck and To Kill a Mockingbird held for her mother. And, perhaps, she will recall the summer before her twelfth birthday, on a beautiful warm evening, when she was first introduced to Atticus Finch.
You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it. -Atticus Finch