“A Book That’s Meant To Be”
By Sandra Grabman
My biography of actor Albert Salmi will be released on March 11th . Published by BearManor Media, it will be entitled Spotlights & Shadows: The Albert Salmi Story.
You are probably quite aware of who Albert was. He appeared in over fifty movies and hundreds of television shows during his forty-year career, but what he loved the most was working on the Broadway stage. It was there that he could feel a personal relationship to the audience.
His parents, Svante and Ida Salmi, immigrated from Tampere, Finland, to America in the early 1920s and settled in the Finnish section of Brooklyn, New York. Even though Albert was born in Brooklyn, he remained true to his Finnish roots. He spoke Finnish at home and in the neighborhood until it was necessary to learn English so he could enroll in school. Nevertheless, the Finnish culture remained with Albert throughout his life. He was a different kind of actor – he was honest, caring, quiet, a meticulous craftsman – he was a Finn.
What inspired me to write his life story? I wasn’t sure at first. I had admired Albert’s work for decades and was shocked that no biography had ever been written about him. It was about time that one was. Why it was I who had the burning desire to write it, I didn’t know; but now I’m very glad I did. It boggles my mind when I think back of all the “coincidences” that helped me in my research and the many good things that have resulted.
I had never met Albert in person so had no recollections of my own to put into his life story. It would obviously be necessary to find people who knew him and get that information from them. It’s simply incredible that, in my first tentative web search, I came upon the name of Allen Salmi, a retired schoolteacher in Michigan. I don’t know why, of all the Salmis that came up in that search, I chose Allen to contact, but I did. Allen did not know Albert or his family, but he did know the sister of the lady who served as their housekeeper. He put me in touch with her.
Upon interviewing this kind lady, I learned that Albert had three daughters, not just the one I had read about. She said the names of the younger two were Jenny and Lizanne. Catherine, the eldest, was the child of his first marriage.
Albert’s daughters would be in their thirties by that time, so it was highly unlikely that they would still be listed in the phone books by their maiden names. In fact, because they were children of a celebrity, they might not be listed in phone books at all. I looked anyway and was very surprised to see that there was a J. Salmi and an L. Salmi listed in the phone book of the city in which Albert had last lived. I contacted them, and they were indeed Albert’s daughters. They have been very helpful to me in my research. (It might be interesting to note that Jenny married that very summer and Lizanne married two years later. Because they both have different last names now, I might not have found them if I had waited too long to do my research.)
Information about Albert’s professional life was readily available on videotapes, television reruns, articles in long-ago newspapers and magazines, and the memories of his co-stars – but how would I find out what his childhood was like? It wouldn’t be much of a biography if it didn’t start at the beginning of his life.
During my first visit with Albert’s daughters, Lizanne had shown me several large pads of paper on which her father had begun writing his memoirs. She graciously allowed me to xerox them and incorporate his writings into my manuscript. In these many pages was the answer to my dilemma. There, in his own words, was a narration of his childhood. He wasn’t remembering just the good things, either. Good and bad, they were all right there.
I was so glad that these memoirs began at the beginning – with Albert’s childhood. Otherwise, it would have been very difficult to get that kind of information.
Another thing he wrote about was his first love – a lady named Claire, whom he had dated in the mid-1950s while a student of the Actors Studio in New York. Wouldn’t it be fun to interview Claire, I thought, and find out what Albert was like back then? But, alas, he had mentioned her by first name only.
In the meantime, I was writing to many of the actors and actresses that Albert had worked with, asking for their memories of him. It was fun getting letters and phone calls from movie stars! I was especially delighted to receive a letter from actress Patricia Neal. She wrote that Albert’s girlfriend had stayed with her while Patricia was pregnant and her playwright husband was on tour.
Could that girlfriend possibly be Claire, I wondered, or would that be too much of a coincidence? I wrote back to Patricia, asking if Claire was that lady’s name and, if so, did she know how I could contact her. In a very short time, I received a joyous letter from Patricia, giving me the full name and telephone number of Claire Kirby Hooton!
Albert had been married twice. His first wife, with whom he had daughter Catherine, was former child actress Peggy Ann Garner. Peggy had died of cancer in 1984, but I thought maybe their daughter could give me some insight into their married life. Neither Jenny nor Lizanne had heard from Catherine in many years, though, so her whereabouts was unknown to us all.
Again, I went to the internet for information. There was a very nice webpage about Peggy, written by Elizabeth Anthony. I e-mailed Elizabeth to see if she could tell me how to contact Catherine. Thus began another remarkable coincidence. It was around that time that a man named Vince Devito, Jr. e-mailed Elizabeth. His mother had inherited four boxes full of documents, letters, and memorabilia from Peggy’s mother, and he was wondering if Elizabeth knew of anyone who could take this information and write a book about Peggy’s and Virginia’s lives.
Elizabeth put Vince and me in contact with each other and he shared with me the information he had, so I now had not only the facts I needed about Albert’s marriage to Peggy, but also four boxes full of information for my next biography – that of Peggy and her mother.
A blessed project
The awesome results of my research have convinced me that it must have been the hand of God that was pushing me to write this book. It seems that Spotlights & Shadows: The Albert Salmi Story was truly meant to be.
Until I came into their lives, Jenny and Lizanne did not know what had become of their half-sister Catherine. I found out that she had died in 1995 of premature heart disease, leaving behind three daughters she had given up for adoption and a son named Christopher.
Jenny wanted to get in touch with Chris and he was eager to know her too, so I gave them the contact information they needed. In addition, Chris is hoping someday to find his long-lost sisters. I put their dates of birth into both Albert’s and Peggy’s biographies so, if they read either book, they might realize they are Catherine’s children and contact me. I then hope to be able to introduce them to brother Chris.
Patricia Neal and Albert’s girlfriend Claire had lost touch with each other over the years. Once Patricia got Claire’s phone number for me from their union, she then called Claire herself and they re-established their friendship, having lunch together shortly afterward.
Jenny and Lizanne have read my manuscript of their dad’s life prior to publication, and it has told them some things about him that they did not know before. Consequently, they might have a greater understanding now of the Finnish culture that was so ingrained in his being; and reading Catherine’s letters to her grandmother (quoted in the manuscript) showed them how she had fared as an adult. In the manuscript that they read, I included a chapter devoted to Albert’s fans. (This chapter was deleted from the first edition by the editors, but reinserted into the second edition as an appendix.) It consisted of fans’ comments about Albert and his work. If his family did not know before how much people admired their dad, they do now. He had touched the lives of people all over the world in a very positive way and still influences young actors today.
Now I understand why I simply had to write this book: People have been brought together, some mysteries have been solved, and Albert’s friends have finally been allowed to vent their frustrations at the media’s misunderstanding of his heartbreaking final days.
And I’ve come to realize why it had to be done now – after the ten-year anniversary of the tragedy: Family and friends have had time to grieve, time to heal, and time to think, so they were now ready to talk about it.
The result, I feel, is a very well-balanced life story of Albert Salmi, the ultimate craftsman.