Who was Pat O'Brien?

Courtesy of Becky Johnston

With the running of the Pat O’Brien Stakes this weekend, I set out to find just who was Pat O’Brien.

We all know who Bing Crosby was and what his contributions to the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club were, but it seems that a whole generation has no recollection of the second largest investor in the building of the track by the sea.  

William Joseph “Pat” O’Brien, Jr. was born November of 1899 in Milwaukee Wisconsin.  Pat was the only child of Bill O’Brien Sr. and Margaret McGovern O’Brien.  Both of his grandparents immigrated to America in the mid-nineteenth century.  The McGoverns came from Green Galway, Ireland to Waukesha, Wisconsin, while the O’Briens came from Cork, Ireland and settled in Manhattan, New York.

The O’Brien’s life in their new country started with promise, but as fate would have it,  tragedy reshaped the family’s lives.  Pat’s father William O’Brien, Sr. lost his mother when she died during childbirth.  His father, Patrick O’Brien, was an architect with a promising future before him.  All that went away one night in a pub.  He tried to intervene with two drunken quarrelers.  While trying to make peace he paid the ultimate price.  One of the gun-wielding combatants shot Pat’s grandfather in the head.  Instead of fighting with each other, they snuffed out the promising life of Patrick O’Brien and with that one swift act, they took a father, they took the security away from his two children.  They were now orphans.
William’s sister was taken in to live with an aunt and uncle named O’Neill in Jersey City.  The 12-year-old William was packed off to an orphanage.   

The situation turned out to be a horror for William.  He eventually took leave of his  predicament and struck out on his own. Young Bill found a job to support himself as best he could, but it wasn’t long before the O’Neill’s found out about his situation and did the right thing and brought him to live with them and his sister, Mayme.

William, also known as Bill, was guided by his Uncle O’Neill, who was determined to teach him everything he knew about the dry goods (retail) business.  Eventually, Bill decided to take his knowledge and travel west to Chicago.  He found himself drawn further west and he moved to Milwaukee where he went to work for Gimbel’s Department Store, then, on to T.A. Chapman’s where he stayed for the next twenty years.  Bill would say of his twenty-year stay “to see if it was really what I wanted to do”.

The McGoverns, after settling in Waukesha and scrabbling as farmers living in a log cabin, eventually moved to Milwaukee to try and better the lives of their children.  

Margaret McGovern was one of three sisters that worked at The Lee House, a restaurant owned by Sara Lee and her husband.  The young Bill O’Brien came in for lunch one day.  He must have been smitten with the young Margaret because he kept coming back to the restaurant.  Their relationship bloomed and the couple eventually married.  They moved into a two-room-apartment above a saloon.

It was here that their son began his life.  At some point, out of reverence to his grandfather, William O’Brien, Jr. became Pat, sometimes Paddy.

From all indications, Pat O’Brien had a wonderful childhood.  He referred to the early childhood home as being on the “wrong side of the tracks” which didn’t bother him.  The young man did not want for friends and the fun that brought nor did he lack for love from his parents and his extended family of aunts and uncles.  

Pat grew up in a neighborhood full of children that played baseball, swam in creeks in the summer and skated on the frozen water in the winter.  Many times Pat’s father would join the kids in their games.  They shot marbles, jumped freight trains and got into mischief.  There were two certainties in Pat’s life;  He was devoted to his Catholic religion and this only child adored his parents.  He called his dad his best friend.

Pat was educated at Jesuit schools.  He found it horrifying the first day when left at school.  A kindly Sister soothed his worries and he would remember her all of his life and in an episode of  This is Your Life, he would still recognize the voice that allayed his fears.  

O’Brien found a love of music, poetry, literature and the theatre throughout his school years.  That love would steer him throughout his life.

In eighth grade, he wrote a composition about the history of Ireland that he hoped would earn him a scholarship into the Marquette Academy.  Something many of his friends wanted, but none of their parents could afford for their children.  His work earned him the scholarship.

It was at the Academy that O’Brien would form a lifelong friendship with a classmate, Spencer Tracy.  

The Academy, with their association with Marquette University, afforded young O’Brien the opportunity to mark the football fields on Saturday morning before the college football games.  His dad would come by near noon and toss sandwiches over the fence for Pat and his friends.  After their work they were allowed to stay and watch the afternoon game.  

O’Brien states in his 1964 autobiography, The Wind at My Back, The Life and Times of Pat O’Brien, that he witnessed a game between Marquette and Notre Dame in 1913, but Notre Dame records indicate it was more likely 1911 when the Irish visited and the game ended in a 0-0 tie like he remembered.  

This game would offer an ironic twist in O’Brien’s life.  Knute Rockne came to town with the Irish and O’Brien would see firsthand, the player and coach he was to play in a motion picture 28 years later, Knute Rockne All American.  

Rockne didn’t attend college until he was 22 years of age.  He had worked and saved the money to study chemistry at Notre Dame.  Back when O’Brien saw him in 1911 it was before his prime, but by 1913, Rockne left his mark on football and in many people’s eyes revolutionized the game.

As a player, Rockne popularized the forward pass and later became the Notre Dame coach and architect of the backfield shift.  The pre-snap movement was called the Notre Dame shift.  The three running backs and quarterback would line up in a T-formation, but before the snap would switch to a box formation.  The southern born sportswriter Grantland Rice penned this for the New York Herald Tribune after Coach Rockne’s Irish upset Army in 1924.

“Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden.

Rockne, so fondly remembered not only for his .881 win percentage, but for his inspirational and sometimes psychological pep talks to his teams.  The coach would reach for anything from sick children that didn’t exist to a deceased player named Gipp for inspiration.  

Here is the real Knute Rockne in one of his famous inspirational speeches.  This was a part that O’Brien felt was one of his favorites.  

The legendary coach died tragically in a TWA plane crash in 1931.  With his death and the interest in it’s cause, the government was forced to throw out their policy of keeping aeronautical crash information from the public.  This crash began the process for forming what is now known as the National Transportation Safety Board.

In 1939, when O’Brien’s film on Knute Rockne was in rehearsals, it was the widow, Mrs. Bonnie Rockne, who had the final say on who would play him in the movie.  At one point during the filming, she told O’Brien “Paddy, I watched and I listened.  I could have closed my eyes and thought you were making love to me.”

But I’ve gotten ahead of the story.

At the age of 17, O’Brien and (Spencer) Tracy went to enlist in the Navy after the sinking of the Lusitania.  Due to their ages, they were required to get their parents signatures.  With much trepidation, parents signed the releases and for the O’Brien family, this was particularly hard to do with their only child.

O’Brien went in with the romantic notion of saving the world for democracy and wound up spending his entire tenure at the Great Lakes Naval Station.  Jack Benny was also among the group that guarded the Great Lakes during World War I.

Two years later, the war was over and the young men were discharged.  O’Brien came back to school but Tracy went on to a military academy.  

O’Brien eventually enrolled at Marquette University to study law, but joining two fraternities and playing football had far more pull for the young man.  There was one other thing the university offered and that was a chance for O’Brien to act.  He did not know why or how, but knew this was going to be his path in life.

He made his way to New York in 1920 to attend an acting academy as did Spencer Tracy. The two eventually became roommates and lived hand to mouth for years with many funny stories.  

After a couple of back and forth trips to Milwaukee for various reasons O’Brien thought of giving up, but he would always go back when whatever the problem was at home cleared or he decided he wasn’t in love after all.  

O’Brien had an eye for the ladies and when he travelled from place to place performing   a week at a time, that gave him ample opportunity to meet the girls.  He had a taste for a good time.  Thanks to The Lambs, a social club for actors, O’Brien was able to fulfill the latter in spades.  

In O’Brien’s autobiography, he recounts many inebriated stories of harmless misadventures from his membership there.  He was a good storyteller, which probably endeared him to his friends and extended his careers past the movies.

After many near misses at love, the young Irishman met Eloise Taylor while in a production in Chicago.  She outshone every other girl.  Their courtship lasted four years, until one day when he received a call.  

It was 1930, a representative of Howard Hughes contacted O’Brien at the Lambs Club.  He was calling about a film role.  This was a play that was being made into a motion picture, The Front Page.  The caller asked O’Brien “You did perform in the play right?”  O’Brien answered honestly “Yes”.  

Unfortunately, O’Brien was already contracted for a role in an upcoming Arthur Miller play.  As often was the case, Mr. Hughes got what he wanted and O’Brien was on his way to Hollywood and a replacement had already been found for O’Brien in the Miller’s production.

O’Brien, sadly, departed and left his love, Eloise, behind.  He travelled by train to California.  His fare was paid only one-way to California.  

When he arrived in California, they were having a torrential rainstorm.  He was met by a studio representative that rushed him off to the studio and through the gates and as he liked to describe it, “like a condemned man.”  

When rehearsals started for the movie, the director turned to Pat and asked him about how he handled it when his character, Hildy Johnson, hid the murderer (yes, the murderer) Williams in the desk. He wanted to know how to handle the scene, how he got him there, window or door.  

The other shoe was about to drop.   It got very quiet while they waited on O’Brien and finally he spoke.  “Neither.  Because I never played the Hildy Johnson role.”

The quiet got quieter.

From his book the following scenario unfolded.

The director screamed “You never what!”
O’Brien:  As calmly as I could I replied:  “No one ever asked me if I did the play in New York—so cool off, Milly, I played the part of Walter Burns, the managing editor and I only played it in a stock company, in Cleveland.  The only thing they asked me in New York was whether I played in The Front Page on the stage….nobody asked me where, or what role.”
Director:”So what do we do?”
O’Brien:  I’ve got a contract so it looks like you’re stuck with me.”
Somebody laughed; then there were some hearty chuckles.  Milly sighed.

So, Pat O’Brien was now a California contract player for Universal Artists.  He sent for Eloise.  She arrived by train around lunchtime one day and the studio allowed him two hours to meet her train and marry her at St. Monica’s Church By The Sea.  Done deal.

After O’Brien was finished filming, he would learn one of the oddities of the movie business with contract players.  The couple went to Palm Springs for a getaway but instead, received a message to return immediately.  They had loaned him out to another studio.

After his first movie’s premiere, Howard Hughes did not pick up his option, but he had hired a sharp agent and they went to Warner and managed to get him a raise from $75 a week to $1,750 a week to work on a movie for three weeks.  The movie ran over for 11 weeks.  More jobs would follow and more contracts.
O’Brien would often play pious men in movies.  He was often cast as a priest with his kindly face and his melancholy personality.

Here are two ten minute videos of Pat O’Brien as Father Connelly trying to rescue his old friend played by James Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces

Between making movies, the O’Briens would take trips, and some of those trips would be to the horse track, Caliente, in Tijuana.  

Del Mar

In 1936, the fairgrounds were built at Del Mar near Rancho Santa Fe.  When William Quigley found out about the one-mile track being installed for the fair, he took the idea for a major racetrack near Bing Crosby’s home in Rancho Santa Fe to his friend.  Bing Crosby loved the idea and on May 5, 1936, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club was established. While it is not clearly laid out how Pat O’Brien got involved with Crosby and Quigley on the project, we do know that when stock offering failed it was Bing Crosby and Pat O’Brien that borrowed money on life-insurance policies to complete construction of the track.  

While Crosby was the largest shareholder and President of Del Mar, O’Brien came in as the second largest investor and had the title of vice-president.  Quigley was made the General Manager.

From another biography, Bing Crosby A Pocketful of Dreams The Early Years 1903-1940, the day after signing the papers of incorporation, a meeting was called whereby officers of the company were elected.  Along with a few business leaders the remaining officers, board members and executive committee members consisted of Oliver Hardy of Laurel and Hardy fame, Lloyd Bacon the director of the Knute Rockne film, actors Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Joe E. Brown and George Raft.  Charles Howard, the owner of Seabiscuit was also a director of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and he would contribute mightily to the little track in the next year.

On July 3, 1937 Bing would be at the gate to greet the fans, but O’Brien was never far away.  He was an ambassador at the track just as much as Crosby.  

The group did what they could to promote the track.  They made sure that their Hollywood friends were at the track often.  Lucille Ball, Walt Disney, Edward G. Robinson, Betty Grable and Harry James, W.C. Fields, the list of stars at the track was endless.  Del Mar quickly became the place for celebrities to be seen.  The gossip writer for Hearst was Louella Parsons.  She would come to the track to interview the stars.  

Watch Del Mar Opening Day 1937 with Pat O’Brien and Bing Crosby

By 1938, it was clear that Del Mar was losing money so Crosby and O’Brien went on an all-out-assault to get their little track running in the black.  They started broadcasting radio shows from Del Mar.  They premiered one of Bing Crosby’s movies in the infield.  On NBC radio the week before the 1938 opening, O’Brien, Oliver Hardy and Crosby promoted the track on their shows.  

Bing Crosby also raced horses.  He formed a partnership with Lin Howard, the son of Charles Howard, which they called it Binglin.  

Lin went to Argentina and purchased a ranch and it’s stock, he brought back a colt named Ligaroti.  The horse won some stakes races at Bay Meadows and Hollywood Park prior to that year’s opening of Del Mar.  Word got around to Charles Howard that Bing and Lin thought they had the best distance horse in the country.  Howard’s Seabiscuit was named the nation’s number one handicap horse the year before, 1936.  Howard had been chasing triple crown winner War Admiral for a match race for some time.  

William Quigley, the general manager, conveyed to the elder Howard that they would like to put on a match race between Ligaroti and Seabiscuit at Del Mar.  

Seabiscuit’s trainer, Tom Smith, balked at the notion, but Howard couldn’t resist.  The race would have a $25,000 winner-take-all purse, at a mile and an eighth on August 12, 1938.  Seabiscuit would give Ligaroti fifteen pounds.  It’s interesting to note that not only were the two owners father and son so were the trainers, Tom’s son Jimmy trained Ligaroti.

Charles Howard offered 3-1 odds to Crosby and his friends.  

When the race was run, those who saw it would not soon forget it.  George Woolf rode Biscuit and Spec Richardson took the mount on Ligaroti.  22,000 fans streamed in to see the mighty Seabiscuit face Crosby’s Argentinian wonder horse.  The racing nation turned to Del Mar on that summer day.

This race itself would make the one Seabiscuit would face against War Admiral, in three months time, look like skipping through clover.

The two horses broke from the gate and they were never separated during the race.  Their times at six furlongs, a mile and finally at a mile and an eighth in 1:49 were all faster than the track-record times.  The jockeys went wild, flailing at their mounts and grabbing the others reins and saddle.  Seabiscuit won the race by a nose, but the stewards through out an inquiry.  

After some time, the stewards determined that Seabiscuit had taken the worst of it, and he had the physical signs to prove it.  He had welts on his neck and flank.  The race result would stand.  However, the jockeys were both suspended.  Some time later Woolf was exonerated by film that Charles Howard had procured showing that it was Richardson who had initiated the bad behavior.  Ice Man Woolf was just trying to fight off the aggressive jockey on the underdog.

See the nationally covered match race of Seabiscuit and Ligaroti.

Meanwhile Pat O’Brien was lending his hand to the track going so far as to grade the track. He was on the backstretch in the morning and in the grandstand in the afternoon.

After those first few years, Del Mar would face closure during the war to become an assembly plant for airplane parts.

Pat O’Brien would become a devoted entertainer to the troops during the war, flying over 67,000 miles to entertain in areas such as Burma, North Africa, and China.  While getting his shots for one of the trips he got so many that the doctor said “That should keep you from getting killed” and O’Brien replied “THAT’S going to kill me right here”.

In 1946 Del Mar would re-open and resume it’s star-studded roster.

Crosby and O’Brien would sell their shares in the track shortly thereafter.  O’Brien laments the decision in his book.  He also expresses his feelings about the seaside track.

The nearest I ever came to being a millionaire was when Bing Crosby, myself and others organized the Del Mar race track.  The stock became fabulous, but by that time I had long since sold mine.  Those were fine times—gay, wonderful sunny days at Del Mar, the baby Saratoga of the West.

Those happy years at Del Mar gave a small inkling why some men destroy their lives to follow the horses, why it became a way of feast or famine living for many. It wasn’t just the gambling --the idea of hitting a daily double or a long shot coming in at 30 to 1. It was the crystal atmosphere warm with life. Long golden days with the deep blue shadows coming in over the grand stand; the color of the holiday-held crowd milling around, the slight salty breeze on the banners and the tang of the best horses and the pungent whiffs of stable life. The jocks and their agents were drama; the high-paced legs of the overbred horses. It had a smoky taste, an outdoor vitality, all color and movement; a series of contests between heart, muscle, greed and past showings.

It absorbed the feel of the blood charging moment when they broke in a good field from the barrier, the jocks moving for position on the rail, the whirl of legs and the pound of hoofs, and the packed people standing as  if one person- to let out their breath as the entries took the far turn; the favorites still waiting, holding back, then at the half pole, the three-quarter pole, the turn, the whips beginning to lift and fall, and way out on the outside some dog of an outsider moving; stepping fast and around for the last desperate rush, jocks high on horses necks, no mercy shown in the drive across the finish. Three noses all in line and the sign: PHOTO FINISH; PLEASE HOLD TICKETS FOR FINAL RESULTS. Then would come a sharp breaking out of talk. The wait and the final results posted, to be greeted in a hoot and holler, a groan or a cheer. The happy winners starting for the payoff windows; the losers going back to form sheets, grimy notes and chewed-up programs.  In the winner’s circle, the steaming animal was unsaddled.

Pat O’Brien was married to the same woman for 52 years until his death in 1983, one month shy of his 84th birthday.  He was the father of four children and a pack of grandchildren he adored.  He took care of his parents and his in-laws.  His friends seemed to stay in his life forever.  

Pat O’Brien loved Del Mar and so do I.  

Watch this short video of O’Brien later in life describing his younger days and an emotional moment when discussing his friendship with Jimmy Cagney.

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