Character Actress

Poet, Michelle Bitting, remembers her Great Grandmother, character actress of the Golden Era in: NOTES TO THE BELOVED (available on

Hepburn and Mercer in Little Women

Beryl Mercer, Actress (b.1882—d.1939)

Time was you could stroll down Hollywood Boulevard

and catch Great Grandma’s name

flaming every cherry marquee. In

All Quiet on the Western Front,

Cagney’s long-suffering mom

in The Public Enemy,

she made the melancholy matriarch

with her ocean liner hips

and squat size, made the big brown

spigots of her eyes open

over a son gone to war

or the devil. What fans didn’t know:

how close she lived each sorrow-filled part.

Behind Musso and Frank Grill,

trouble rising up

the walls of her Deco loft:

the child lost to polio

before his twelfth birthday;

the no-talent husband who drank

and threw her money at willing starlets;

the illness that took her early

with so many roles to spare. Now here,

on Sunset Boulevard, just shy

of the gem-blue Pacific, I roar past a bank,

gas station, Starbucks, the same plot of land

she got conned into trading

for a Texas font of “tea”

that like so much else went dry. I’m thinking

of her drooped jowls and mouth;

dark hollows below the eyes,

her glum, faraway look

belying a life of presumed glamour,

features my own face mimics

gloomy days when I might be caught

speeding across town, windows wide,

a dry Santa Ana spiriting me

to the Musso and Frank bar:

dark-paneled haunt of Faulkner, Chaplin, Fairbanks

and maybe Beryl, who floats in

on her small gossamer wings, finds a stool,

a dry martini next to mine, and leaning

into the microphone of her skewered olive

tells me how it really was,

just how thirsty a girl could get.

Michelle Bitting writes, “As a fourth-generation Angeleno I’ve hardly scratched the surface of what it means to grow up in Los Angeles, one of the original Noir cities, to have roots steeped in all that post-war, post-atomic dread and angst run-off that promises to keep morphing its weird shadow across the 21st century.”

Poem first published:

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  1. August 22, 2014

    She was a wonderful actress. I remember her especially for this movie, How Green Was My Valley. Brilliant performance!

    • August 22, 2014

      Her talent to express definitely was gifted to great granddaughter, Michelle (you can see Beryl in her eyes), poetry with narrative and cinematic drive. I can’t recommend her books highly enough!

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