Copyright (c) Eve Berliner 2001. All Rights Reserved. [Terms and Conditions.]


Young Jack Nicholson: Auspicious Beginnings  


By Eve Berliner


IV. The Haunting

Born in County Cork, Ireland, her voice a poetic brogue, she lived to be 98 years of age and died on St. Patrick's Day, old Ella Nicholson, Jack's great grandmother, an important force in the family, a large part of their lives in the early years; Ella whose son was to die his tragic death in July of 1955 at the age of 56, worn out by life, by drink, consumed, John Joseph Nicholson, Sr., the man Jack was to know as his father and who was to haunt him all his years, the memory, that faintly conscious memory persisting deep within him, buried in the depths of his soul.

Ella was to live a long time after the death of her son, a hard fate for her, a hard loss.

He had been a striking child, Jack Sr. with his white white skin, freckles and carrot hair. But from the time his daughters June and Lorraine could remember, his hair had been the purest white.

He was in essence a sensitive man, a gentle man, a quiet man, a freehand sign painter and window decorator for Steinbach's Department Store in Asbury Park. His great specialty was the creation of a beautiful and ornate gold-leaf old English scroll, the work of an artist and craftsman. A debonair fellow in his youth, a dashing figure in his dress, he was to also sell men's haberdashery -- dickeys, hats, Chesterfield coats.

He was at heart a soft and easy man; he was not an aggressor; he was not combative in the face of life's blows. And when economic hardship struck his family, it was to be his wife who carried the family through the dark and poor years that lay ahead.

For in the year 1927, June eight years of age, Lorraine then five, Ethel Nicholson, an indomitable spirit, set up a beauty parlor in the living room of her home on Monroe Avenue in Whitesville, and from that day forward, travailed and labored for her children and their promise.

Her husband Jack took to drinking at Steinberg's on fashionable Sunday mornings as Ethel toiled and prohibition raged, and it seemed that Jack Nicholson, Sr. slowly began to die. Her strength, her arduous effort, took something from him and liquor drowned his sorrows.

"Ethel, do you have my supper?" he would call out to his wife as he entered the house.

"Can't you see that I'm working?" Ethel would shout back, and he'd go out the back door and quietly head down to The Chateau for a few more rounds.

The bottle became his refuge, his obliteration.

He left the family a few years after Jack was born, returned to the home of his mother, Ella, and descended into the abyss of alcoholism.

* * *

She began as Ethel May Rhoads of Chester, Pennsylvania, only daughter of upright Pennsylvania Dutch Protestants, and when she married John Nicholson, a working class Irish Catholic, her irate family broke their ties and disinherited her.

There was something burning inside Ethel Nicholson, a driving force, a life force. She was a woman of great love, generosity of spirit, her self-sacrifice never too great for her daughters.

The girls took tap dancing lessons with the famed Eddie King, and June blossomed into a young Eleanor Powell. She received the best lessons. She had the best gowns. And when the Knight Agency in New York signed her to their roster, Ethel would pay $100 for a tap lesson to enable June to master a routine. Somehow Ethel Nicholson got the money up out of the depression wasteland. June was to be a star.

Her own talents had been submerged. Her family had not nurtured her artistic yearnings. She saw to it that her own children would not be denied.

It was not until Ethel was well over 50 years of age that she began painting -- oils, pastels, pen and ink. She studied in oil. Her work hangs, 40 years later, on the walls of her daughter Lorraine Smith's home, Ethel's spirit pervading her daughter's life.

It seemed that Mud could always turn a buck in the hard years. She designed and sewed clothes. She has great resilience. And when she established her beauty parlor in the intimacy of her domicile, she transformed it into a flourishing business that supported the family and its dreams for 29 years.

Ironically, June was not to scale the heights. It was to be Jack who would fulfill Mud's dreams of glory; the next generation would bring it to fruition but Ethel would never live to see it.

* * *

The ladies of the bridge circle would assemble every Friday night, Elsie Slocum, Gladys Whatley, Ethel Nicholson, Mom Slocum whose son Eugene went off to Murray State College to play football with Victor Furcillo and Shorty Smith, only to tragically drown in the flower of his youth.

They went back a long time, Ethel and Elsie.

Mom Slocum, at age 88, shortly before her death:

"I was friends with Ethel and Jack when they were all kids. She was my best friend. I can tell you what kind of woman Ethel was. She was wonderful. He owes it to her -- whatever he is today. She was wonderful. So was Jack   

before liquor brought him down. We used to all be friends. My husband Eugene I. Slocum was friends with Jack. We used to have a lot of good times. But the grandfather got real down from drinking. That's the way he died. The alcohol killed him.

"He was good to his kids, good to Jack too, when he wasn't drinking.

"When they brought that baby in, I was there. When they brought little Jack in.  They didn't tell me anything. They said it belonged to some girl that lived with Ethel but I knew." 

* * *

"I used to live two doors from the Furcillo family," mused Eva Poinsette Adair, a halo of wispy white hair framing her fragile face. "They were my best friends. Don's sister Mary was one of my best friends. Don was the father, Don Furcillo. There were many people that knew the story.

"I knew the story when he'd sit in my lap. He was so adorable. He used to sit on my lap while she was doing my hair. He was a doll. He was a good little boy. He was a little doll. 

"Said she adopted him from a family that had too many children. I played dumb. I didn't want to get involved, kept my mouth shut that I knew anything.

"She told the people that she adopted him from another family. Don't say anything. It's something that happened that's all over.

"I wasn't a gossip.

"I knew when June was carrying him."

* * *

The old timers remember, the old timers always knew.

"I used to cut your son's hair," mused Red the Barber to Don Rose in the autumn of 1989, Red, a piece of Asbury Park history now. "I remember the grandfather would bring the boy in, the old man haggard and drunk, half-crocked, and I used to cut the boy's hair.

"I cut the hair of the grandfather, the father and the son."

"We always knew about that son of yours," he would tell Don Rose 52 years after the fact.

Fred Traverso, whose friendship with Don went back to the old days, the Asbury Park days:

"He really loved that girl and she loved him. Believe me when I tell you. I can remember June running through the casino of the Monterey Hotel in Asbury Park to check up on Don. She loved him a lot.

"Don was a striking guy. He was a woman's man, a woman's man. He used to fix me up on dates. We were what you call 'womanizers', just like Jack. Now we've settled down. They make the best husbands, you know.

"Don was going crazy at the time. 'You know I'm in trouble,' he told me and I can remembering him gesturing the big belly with his hands -- 'June,' he whispered. 'I'm worried about my mother, ' he told me. 'She's a good Catholic and doesn't want any scandal.'

"I used to give June $50 a few times from Don.

"I remember Jack would come into Mom's Kitchen to eat pizza after a basketball game. You know whose kid that is? That's Don Rose's kid. It was Peyton Place. Everybody knew but Jack."

Louise Gatt, one of the original weekly bridge players, a close cronie of Ethel Nicholson:

"Oh the women used to whisper," she would admit.

* * *

From the beginning Jackie was surrounded by women and the adoration of women -- his mother Mud, his older sisters, June, 18 years his senior and Lorraine, older by 16, grandmother Ella, and, of course, the beauty parlor contingent, the cacophony of women in and out of the house.

But there was something about men, something about men that seized him.

For no sooner would a man come into the house than little Jackie would have his hat on. He loved hats and he loved men. If the baker came to the door or any man entered the house, Jack would immediately want his hat to put on his head.

He was a natural from the beginning, a magnetic child. And there it was, his premiere performance in the guise of another as a two year old child, his first playful expedition into character acting.

Jack, a great sentimentalist, still collects hats, has a vast collection of hats, and hats have been striking and significant in many of his films; the battered old football helmet of Easy Rider proclaiming "M" for his own Manasquan High, the shiny blue hard hat of Five Easy Pieces, the characteristic sailor cap of The Last Detail, the fedora of 1930's Chinatown, the knitted watch cap inside the Cuckoo's Nest.

Like John Joseph Nicholson, hats made the man.

* * *

He would reappear like one of the ghosts of Ironweed, at holiday and special family gatherings, John Joseph Nicholson, with a baseball hat and glove for the boy, take him to the movies, and he remained a part of their lives, his bond with Mud indestructible. They never divorced.

But even to Jack's innocent young eyes, his father was a ruin, a spectre that pained and quickly vanished.

The child would accompany the old man on his excursions into obliteration at the local saloons.

"I used to go to bars with him as a child and I would drink 18 sarsparillas while he'd have 35 shots of Three Star Hennessey.

"But I never heard him raise his voice; I never saw anybody be angry with him, not even my mother. He was just a quiet, melancholy tragic figure, a very soft man," Jack was to gently recall many years later, looking back at the haunted figure so deep in his mind, the actor born out of the pain, somewhere in his soul, putting on a performance to hide the hurt.

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