The ground rules for these blogs, which we began in late winter, were that I would write about colorful, old-time horsemen with whom I had some relationship. And—to facilitate candor—preferably the subjects would no longer be with us. Now I write about one who is with us...barely, I think. And, certainly he is no professional horseman.
Mickey Rooney. He is a horse lover and a horse player of major proportions, and he claimed to have once climbed aboard Seabiscuit and breezed him six furlongs. I wonder about that, because I think "Silent Tom" Smith, trainer of that great horse, was exceedingly picky about who did what with Seabiscuit. And it is pretty well established that Mickey's imagination has been known to run afoul of the facts. However, the very audacity of that brag—as shaky as it seems to be—entitles him to be a subject of these blogs.
Mickey Rooney, star of National Velvet, The Black Stallion, and other racing pictures, is no dummy about a racehorse. Mickey has certainly spent a lot of time at racetracks, was a stockholder in Santa Anita, and owned some horses.
Photo Courtesy of the University of Tennessee Libraries Special Collection/Clarence Brown Collection
I have always been a great admirer of his acting. Despite his usual raucous and frenetic roles, no less an authority than Sir Laurence Olivier said he was the best single actor produced in America. It is firmly established that in the thirties and forties, he was the number one box office attraction in the world! Then, too, I have always found it noteworthy that he had an affair with Lana Turner, and got married to Ava Gardner, among some other very pretty women.
I got to know him pretty well. It started when I thought it would be cool to name a horse for him. We happened to have a mutual friend, and he presented the idea to Mickey. I then got him on the phone, he was delighted with the idea, and gave me permission to name a good-looking bay colt, sired by Nashua, "Mickey Rooney." The horse didn't turn out very well. But that's beside the point!
At the time of Mickey's equine adventures with us, he was appearing in the wonderful burlesque review Sugar Babies. While our friendship and business relationship existed primarily on the phone, his equine involvements quickly expanded, and within a few months he owned shares in five horses.
Mickey did not sweat the small stuff, and the small stuff often included funding his purchases. He would say, "I'll take a share of that Vaguely Noble colt, and let me get a piece of that Nijinsky filly. Just tell Otis (his business manager) to take care of it!"
The problem was he did not tell Otis to take care of it! Otis knew nothing about it and did not wish to hear about it. He had heard about enough already. Consequently, it was tough to get paid for the horses Mickey "bought." Some of them almost died of old age before Mickey and his business manager got on the same page. This, of course, presented me with some fierce fiscal challenges, and finally Dogwood and Mickey got a divorce (not the first for either!).
At the outset of our relationship, Mickey, an avid gambler, instructed me to "bet five hundred every time a Dogwood horse runs." I knew this was not a good idea and told him, "Mickey, if my own dear, departed mother gave me such instructions, I would decline to follow them. I love you dearly, but I can't bet for you." Smartest move I ever made.
In those days and now, I went to New York fairly often and would always make arrangements to stop by the Broadhurst Theater and call on Mickey. I wanted to bring him up to date on his horses and, hopefully, discuss his always alarmingly delinquent account.
Business sessions with Mickey were experiences you would never forget.
The only time he could see you was just prior to his going on in Sugar Babies. Curtain was at eight. So Mickey would say "Meet me in my dressing room at 7:45." This impressed me as rather tight scheduling, so I would invariably arrive at 7:30. Mickey would invariably arrive at 7:55. The system suited me fine because when the meeting was over I would hustle into the theater and see the delightful show for the umpteenth time, having bought a ticket, you may be sure.
His dressing room was a ramshackle, disreputable hovel. Mickey had his favorite chair, in which he would hold court (for the brief time you got to see him). It was a huge, overstuffed chair that looked as if it might have been bought secondhand from the immigrants' lounge on Ellis Island. Much of the original cotton that held it together was now strewn around Mickey's dressing room.
Just before eight, Mickey would breeze in, strip down to his Jockey underwear, and plop into his chair. He would quickly run through the opening pleasantries and then recite a litany of projects he was going to undertake, most of which were creative, promising, and fascinating. If you ever complimented him or asked him about some accomplishment in the past, he would quickly brush you off and move into the future. (ME: Mickey, your performance in Bill was absolutely incredible. You've got to win an Emmy for that!" ROONEY: "Yeah, but lemme tell you—Martha Raye and I are going to do a musical based on the comic strip Maggie and Jiggs!")
Now it would be 8:05. I could hear the overture strike up. As it finished, Mickey would be enthusing over another project. I could hear audience laughter and applause as Ann Miller, his co-star, finished her first number. With one nude leg thrown over the arm on the battle-worn chair, Mickey would be explaining his ten rules for a happy life. I would offer, "Now, Mickey, I know I'm taking too much of your time, but let me ask you about that last filly you bought a piece of..."
"Aw, don't worry. Did you hear about the commercial I'm doing for the Animal's Rights Foundation...they're going to..."
My watch read 8:20. The musical has now been going on for 20 minutes, and the star is still in his underwear! A barely audible knocking signal comes at the door. Still Mickey is talking, now discoursing on his religious conversion. I can hear two comics on stage, and their routine is bringing down the house. Still he talks: I listen.
Suddenly, as if an electric impulse has surged through his short, fat body, he is out of the chair. He grabs a clown suit off the coat rack, leaps into it, zips up the front, grabs my hand, pumps it once, and goes flying out the door. As I walk down the rickety stairs, I can hear him on stage, belting out lyrics.
"If you know Suzy like I know Suzy. Oh what a girl...!"
Ah, Mickey Rooney.
I wish I had him back.
Courtesy of thereelist.com