Love lives on in 1930s guitar
December 14, 2005
I believe that things have a memory.I like to call it the “Velveteen Rabbit” theory. You remember the story, where the stuffed toy rabbit was loved so much by the little boy that, eventually, he became real. To me, things have a resonance. Call it karma if you will, but if something has been loved and cherished, it carries that resonance, that glow, within it. The love someone had for it makes it come alive, like the Velveteen Rabbit. Things survive us. Material possessions are here to tell stories about us long after we’re gone. There’s a story hiding behind all of this which I want to bring out now. It’s about a Hall of Fame pitcher for the New York Yankees, a famous Broadway star, and the engagement gift he gave her – a tenor guitar.The Broadway star was June O’Dea, who at the time they met in 1931 was starring in George Gershwin’s “Of Thee I Sing.” June was one of the leading lights of the Broadway stage during the golden years of the 1920s and 1930s, starring in the original casts of shows written by such legends as Gershwin and George M. Cohan, and appearing in films with stars such as Jack Benny.
The ballplayer was part of the great Yankee team of the 1930s that included Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and a young Joe DiMaggio. To this day, he is considered to be one of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball. His name was Lefty Gomez.Somewhere along the way, the paths of these two young celebrities crossed, and they fell in love. Career-wise, they were from the opposite ends of the spectrum. In fact, June had never even been to a ball game before she met Lefty. But somehow, they found a common denominator in their love for one another.In 1932, they got engaged. June was still playing in “Of Thee I Sing.” While on the road in Boston, Lefty decided to add another to the deluge of wedding gifts he had been showering upon her. Something – perhaps her musical gifts – inspired him to go out and buy her a tenor guitar. Not just any, but the Cadillac of tenor guitars at the time – a Martin 5-17 T, made just a few months before.
From all accounts, June loved the guitar. Photographs of the two of them with the guitar attest to the fact that they recognized it as a part of their romantic history. And yes, they did get married. And they stayed married for the rest of their long lives.Through the years, June still made appearances in the spotlight. She even wrote a tongue-in-cheek feature, “Don’t Be The Wife of a Ballplayer,” for Collier’s Magazine. The couple appeared in newspapers, on the radio, and were pictured on milk bottles and cereal boxes. Stories abound about the two of them nightclub hopping in Manhattan with their best friends, Joe DiMaggio and his wife. Their romance caught the attention – and the imagination – of a public hungry for fantasy after the bleak years of the Depression.Lefty pitched for the Yankees until 1942, setting a couple of World Series records that endure to this day. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972, and in 1999 The Sporting News named him one of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players of all time.June continued to play the guitar, and she and Lefty posed with it in photos throughout the years. One day, they decided to put the tenor guitar away. Perhaps the onset of age had slowed June’s fingers down. Whatever the reason, it was packed away carefully, tenderly, in a steamer trunk. Whatever stories it had to tell would be silenced – for the time being.
June and Lefty both lived to be a ripe old age. As for the guitar that he gave her as an engagement gift, it survived them both. For many years it has stayed, as a mute testimony to their romance, in the trunk where June and Lefty packed it.Until now. After Lefty’s death in 1989, the guitar and the contents of the trunk went to his sister-in law, who recently decided that the guitar needed to be played – and cherished – by someone else. So a few days ago she sold it – to my husband Tim.The guitar is Tim’s Christmas gift to me. This Christmas, it will come alive again and become a part of our own romantic history.I know that I will never play it without remembering June and Lefty, their wonderful lives, and their abiding love for each other – which will live on in every note I play.