When I moved to Portland, Maine, in 1992, abandoning Greater Boston for what I then considered the ends of the Earth, I lived at the expense of my new employer for those first 2-3 weeks in the city’s lovely West End. It reminded me of the Back Bay and my temporary residence, the modern art-strewn Pomegranate Inn, was so cool — and my apartment over the garage so spacious and funky — I’d have just as soon stayed there forever.
I met Frank Rodway because eventually I had to find my own place. At that time, Frank was owner and proprietor of Thomas Brackett Reed House, a 19th century brownstone once inhabited by and now named for the Maine Congressman and Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives at the turn of the 20th century, when America was slowly transitioning from insular, adolescent republic to imperialist bestrider of worlds. Frank was then a small, trim, 60-something fellow with a fit, vaguely military bearing. Before he even walked me upstairs to the third-floor apartment then available for rent, I mentioned my two cats, Scott and Zelda. “Oh, well, we don’t take pets here,” he said. Frank showed me the place anyway, which gave me the chance to pursue an historical charm offensive. The space was great — 13-foot pressed-tin ceilings; windows stretching from the floor to somewhere above my head; $525/month, heated! What’s more, I had just finished The Proud Tower, Barbara Tuchman’s magisterial history of Thomas Brackett Reed’s very heyday. We mixed it up, Frank and I, trading Mark Hanna anecdotes, book citations and recommendations. Half an hour later as he and I were walking back downstairs, I said it was too bad about the cats. “Oh, don’t worry about them,” he said.
Frank Rodway passed away this past January at the ripe old age of 91, the result of a fall on icy pavement as opposed to simple old age. I was among five former residents of Thomas Brackett Reed House who showed up to his memorial service in South Portland. TBR House was a different sort of rental property: An historic landmark, for starters, watched over by a guy, Mr. Rodway, who knew that history but also how to engender esprit de corps. This quite elegant building had a guest apartment on the first floor that tenants could rent for $25 a night. I routinely stashed my parents and visiting Greater Bostonians there. Every Christmas, that guest room and the entire first floor played host to Frank’s holiday party, a shindig that routinely proved the event of the season, as current and former residents alike renewed old acquaintances and partook of Frank’s legendarily strong and plentiful punch. I should never have known Steve Weatherhead and his lovely wife Annetta; they departed TBR just before I arrived. But I met them at these Christmas parties, along with longtime golfing buddy Michael Moore. At Frank’s funeral service, Steve recalled these parties among other things, but not before answering the question that opened his remarks: “I mean, who goes to their former landlord’s funeral?” Well, if it’s Frank Rodway, you go. He was one of a kind, as this obit (clearly written by the man himself) attests.
Another former TBR denizen in attendance this past January was one Mary Fowler, my upstairs neighbor and probably the first real friend I made in Maine. She remains one, but I thought of her again, in the immediate aftermath Frank’s memorial, when Mary Tyler Moore passed away.
Mary Fowler and I had a running joke, each of us claiming to be the Mary to the other’s Rhoda. “Hal,” she would start in, with not inconsiderable finality, “Rhoda was the loud Jew and Mary was the tactful WASP. And my name is Mary. Clearly, I am Mary and you are Rhoda in this relationship.”
“But May-uh,” I’d say in my best Brooklyn accent, “while all that is true, you live upstairs in the apartment crowded by charming eaves, while I reside in the open and airy apartment downstairs. Cultural heritage has nothing to do with it. It’s all about upstairs and downstairs. All the action takes place here, in my apartment. There are no eaves here. These are 13-foot, pressed tin ceilings. It’s all about the eaves!”
These weren’t idle observations because in my house growing up (a place wherein very little commercial television was deemed suitable for viewing), The Mary Tyler Moore Show (and, for that matter, The Dick Van Dyke Show) were both allowed. I’m confident that I know every last episode of the MTM Show, from the moment she walked into WJM with her long hair and hippie-short skirts (“Murray, get me that list of words Ted mispronounced on the show last night.” Get a load of the top one, Lou. “Chicago?!”), to the episode Rhoda moved out (and onto her own show), to when Mary ’70s bob moved to that high-rise, modern apartment downtown. Characters came and went, got their own gigs (“Phyllis”), became more prominent over time (Sue Ann Nivens was just a bit player at first) or fell away without so much as a goodbye — sorta like folks who eventually hid away their lives by moving out of Thomas Bracket Reed House.
I absorbed dozens of sitcoms through the years, some darned good, some quite retrograde. But never did I attach myself emotionally to characters as I did with Mary Tyler Moore. I mean, when Gavin McLeod took over as captain of the execrable Loveboat, I felt culturally betrayed. It seemed beneath him (then I learned he was born again and felt even worse). Rhoda had, of course, gone off to New York City, got married, then divorced, and pretty much stayed in character all along. That spinoff made sense; that’s what people did. When the curtain finally came down on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, after delivering a predictably classic final episode (not an easy trick; try watching the last episode of M*A*S*H or Happy Days), I had trouble adjusting. Mary’s turn as the icy mom in the film Ordinary People was clearly great acting, a little too great. It was as if her amazingly cold, bitchy, selfish performance physically scrubbed the scales from my eyes. Apparently the real Mary would later develop (then beat) a drinking problem, too. It was all too much.
What MTM needed was a good Christmas party, sometime in the ‘90s, when we viewers could get together with all the actors and sort the real from the imagined…
The basement at Thomas Bracket Reed House was a predictably dark and dank place. There the coin-operated washers and dryers resided, so we residents were obliged to go down at least once a month. One of those times I was taken aback by Frank Rodway lurking in a dark corner.
Actually, it wasn’t Frank but a life-sized cutout of the man, a vestige of his unsuccessful run for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1966 (“Let’s be Frank: Rodway for Congress!”). I was quickly taken with this black-and-white rendering and asked Frank if I could keep it in my apartment. He seemed flattered, assented, and there it stood for most of the three years I lived on the third floor of Thomas Brackett Reed House. I even took it with me to the house I ultimately shared with Sharon, once we got engaged. But marriage reveals a lot about a person. Turns out that a goodly portion of the furnishings I brought to the marriage Sharon never truly loved. The Frank Rodway cutout she found particularly “creepy,” apparently. Somewhere along the line it got junked.
I thought about all this while sitting in the South Portland funeral home listening to Frank’s many nieces and nephews (he had but one daughter, who died young) tell stories about their sui generis uncle. Frank may have been a bit older, Mary Tyler Moore probably a bit taller. My lasting image of him was cardboard; of her, celluloid. But they now reside together for all time in some pressed-tin corner of my mind.