Friday, December 2, 2011

Back to Bam Bam

Yes, that's what Helen Hawkins ended up being called by her grandchildren--and lots of other people, too. I was the oldest, and she required me to call her Grandmother as soon as I could talk. I was able to manage that, although I always called my other grandmother, Susan, "Mimi"--don't ask me why. Anyhow, Grandmother she was, our Helen, until my cousin Mark came along. He is three years younger than I, and he couldn't say Grandmother when he started to talk. What he did say was "Bam Bam," and she found it so charming that it stuck.

Helen, or Hannah, as she was often called, was quite a force of nature in Spokane. As the Society Editor for the Spokesman-Review, she met and interviewed many celebrities--I've already mentioned that. She was a brilliant interviewer, always managing to focus on what were the important things one should know about a person. She was proud of that skill; once, she said, she got Harry Bridges to admit that he liked "throwing a brickbat into things," as she put it.

Helen Lyon Hawkins (aka Hannah Hinsdale) in the late 1920's

She was always up to something in Spokane. She wrote for, edited and published a neighborhood newsletter. She sang in amateur theatricals, plying Yum Yum in the Mikado and Mabel in Pirates of Penzance (the latter costing her her singing voice, as she performed with a cold and strained her vocal chords). She started the Junior League. 

At one point, she took a fling at writing for Hollywood. That didn't last very long, as she had her family of at least five children and a husband to return to.

She lived for awhile in a tent in Yakima, where Harry was involved in brokering fruit. While there, she met Belinda Mulrooney, "Countess of Charbonneau, Queen of the Klondike", a famous, and fascinating, local.  I think she only had three children then; I do know my aunt Quail and my father were two of them.

She wrote for the Seattle Times for awhile, and could have worked for them again after Harry died, but instead she left Washington State to live in California with Aunt Quail, and never went back.

Hannah Hinsdale in a Seattle Times sketch in the late 1920's

Bam Bam told me several times that she had once been allowed to write an editorial (I don't know if it was for the Times or the Spokesman-Review). She never explained what the editorial said, except that it contained the phrase, "On the contrary, the reverse is true." No context. She was sure, she told me, that that sentence was the reason she was never asked to write another editorial.

Right after World War II, Bam Bam was hired as a stringer by the Spokesman-Review to write articles about the forming of the United Nations. She lived in Berkeley, and every day she took the E train to San Francisco to sit in the Press Box and report on the proceedings. I am not sure how she got the stories back to the paper; probably by telephone. In those days there would have been copy editors to take down her reports and turn them into articles for the newspaper

Another time, Bam Bam was a stringer for the paper, this time during the McCarthy era, when there were a great number of trials of accused Communists. A famous San Francisco Lawyer, Vincent Hallinan, was defending one of these hapless souls, and Bam Bam thought it would be a good lesson in history for me to go along one day while she covered the trial. I was living with her and Aunt Quail at the time, and I thought it would be a good idea, too. I was sixteen then, and I have never forgotten that snippet of trial I got to attend. I have no idea who the defendant was; but I will always remember his lawyer. Mr. Hallinan was cross-examining a witness, one who had accused the defendant of being a Communist and living, like all Communists, in a cesspool. 
"You say the defendant is a Communist?"
"And all Communists live in cesspools?"
"Well, it is..."
"Just answer the question, please; yes, or no?
"Well, yes."
"And therefore, the defendant lives in a cesspool?"
"Um, well, yes."
Mr. Hallinan fixed a beady eye on the witness and asked calmly, "And just what is that address?"
The courtroom exploded with laughter, and the red-faced witness just sputtered with indignation. That moment, in my opinion, is what got the defendant a "not guilty" verdict.

Bam Bam was an incurable flirt. Always. She could charm the socks off any male who got within two feet of her. This was somewhat unfortunate for any young ladies (like myself) who happened to be around. It made me think of Kipling's poem about the Wallflower:

"I go to concert, party, ball--
What profit is in these?
I sit alone against the wall
And strive to look at ease.
The incense that is mine by right
They burn before her shrine;
And that's because I'm seventeen, 
And she is forty-nine!"

Forty-nine or eighty-nine, with Bam Bam it made no difference. A male was to be flirted with. And she charmed them all.

Helen Lyon Hawkins in her 80's

I cropped the young man in attendance out of the above picture--but he was there.

I imagine she could have re-married many times, had she chosen to do so. I can't imagine that she wouldn't have had suitors. But she never did date again, and as far as I know, never seriously looked at another man, even after she had been widowed for many years.

She lived into her late 90's--well, if you could call it that. In her late 80's she began to suffer from dementia. She carried around a baby doll, and treated it like a baby, and there were other signs. Eventually Aunt Quail had to put her in a nursing home, because she could no longer be cared for at home. Her body was roughly ten years younger than it should have been for her age, and so she spent her last years in fine health but with no mind to speak of. I made my aunt Quail angry when I refused to visit Bam Bam after she had lost all her mental capacity--I knew she would not recognize me, and I didn't want to remember her as a bed-ridden vegetable. I am glad, too--because my memories of her are of someone full of life and mentally alert. However, like every newspaper person I have ever had close contact with, she was a terrible typist.

Until next time, Nan


  1. What a beautiful story...thank you for sharing it

  2. Hi Nan, I'm working on a small project to get a memorial stone laid down for Belinda Mulrooney. Unfortunately, Mulrooney passed away penniless and was buried by the state in a shared grave with no marker. I have read that your Grandmother interviewed her many times, and even had a manuscript about her life.

    Is there any chance of seeing some of these documents perhaps? If so, please get in touch with me. Thanks so much!
    Russ (spokane area code) 713-2823

    1. Russ, Bam Bam was Society Editor for the Spokesman Review for years, and their archives will probably have those interviews. The biography of Belinda was never published, and is in the Bancroft Library at the University of California with the rest of her papers. I don't have anything myself, or I would be happy to share it with you. Please let me know if you see this (your reply will come to me in e-mail). If I haven't heard from you in a week or two, I'll telephone.

    2. Thank you so much for the reply! I did hear about the Bancroft Library. I grew up in Spokane so I'll start there first. I'll have to get in touch with the Spokesman. I plan on going to the Bancroft library itself this fall. I've spoken with their archival librarians. They allow duplication, so I will try to get as much of her writings as I possibly can. Perhaps you'd like to see her manuscript as well! Any replies here also go to my email, so we can keep in touch.

    3. Indeed. I was living at her home when she was writing it. I always loved hearing about Belinda. She seemed like my kind of woman! I have found some information about her through Google--perhaps you have, too. Yes, let's keep in touch.