LC's Take: Chet remembered

Posted Tuesday, January 28, 2014 in Features

LC's Take: Chet remembered

by LC Van Savage

I so well remember the day he called me, well over thirty years ago. His voice was thick and deep and filled with throat gravel and I knew he smoked, and I knew he was a Noo Yawkuh.  He told me his name was Chet (Chester really, he said) Migden and I remember thinking “oh, he’s making that up. That name is too weird.” But he wasn’t. Chester Migden really was his name.

 Back then, I was exercising my most sacredly held belief in not having a real job by staying at home with our kids and earning a few bucks by creating huge paintings of other people’s life stories. It could be pretty lucrative if I worked at it and I seemed to work at it all the time. 

But, believing that fortune and fame would not fall into my lap or onto my easel, I would help my cause by running a tiny ad about my paintings in The New Yorker magazine telling people I’d paint (not write) their life stories in the “outsider art” genre, (Grandma Moses style, for the uninitiated), and from that one ad, I’d get enough work to keep me in business for about a year.

 I was working on a huge biopainting for a family in Oklahoma one afternoon, the phone rang and the man who gave that weird name—Chester Migden—asked to speak to me. I told him he was. He said he’d seen my ad, said he lived in California, and then I said, well, with that thick New York accent you sure weren’t born there, and he said he sure hadn’t been. He told me he wanted a painting, would I please send him photographic samples of my work and an explanation of the process. I said I would, and we became friends.

He liked the samples, and so Chet hired me to do a painting for his wife’s birthday, to be about their lives together, their courtship, marriage, vacations, hobbies, his job, their daughters and their life in California. I agreed to do it. I knew I’d love doing Chet’s story.

And so I began.  Chet Migden was a voracious letter writer and so am I, (this was pre-email days) so the exchange of snailmail between us was thick. Chet would take a legal-sized yellow pad and cover page after page with his penciled writings telling me all about his life.  He sent me many photographs too, of the minutiae of his life, and the painting began to grow, the canvas to be covered with the many vignettes of Chester’s life story.

The main focus of Chet’s painting was a long railroad train with a locomotive and caboose heading due west out of the beautiful old Grand Central Station in New York City. He was on it in 1947.  He wrote a lot about his war experiences, the horrors and smells and deaths, the terrible, useless deaths.  He was in charge of some sort of radio things and so was called “Sparky” which, he said was not an unusual nickname in the military if you did radio things.              

He’d finished serving in World War II, had gotten his law degree on the GI Bill, and quite soon after that, had boarded that train and headed to Hollywood California to make his fortune, a good Jewish boy with very big dreams. He found them and lived them.

Chet began his career out there with the National Labor Relations Board, then joined SAG (Screen Actors Guild) as a national executive director, and during his tenure raising the membership in that organization from 9600 members in three cities to over 50,000 in fifteen cities. He helped devise the principle of paying actors residuals for television reruns and negotiated all agency franchise agreements.

All told, Chet worked for the Guild for thirty years and his work there was the cornerstone for entertainment work contracts, and he spent the final years of his very busy career serving as executive director of the Association of Talent Agents until his retirement in l996.

At the time we met on the phone, Chet was President of the Screen Actors Guild out there in California. He was very modest about this position he held, and never spoke much about it even though I hammered him with stupid, hickish questions like “Do you actually know ****?” or “Tell me, what is **** really like?” He was patient with me and never made me feel like the star-struck idiot I was, and he kindly answered all my questions in that thick so not Californian accent. He would admonish me, when I got very star-struck about him, that he was “not a personage or anything like that” and to stop treating him like some famous movie guy, people for whom he had little shrift anyway, telling me their egos “are so huge there’s no room in their lives for anything else. Not one thing.”

Chet loved the painting when I finally finished it and sent it out to him, and happily so did his beloved wife. He told me she’d prop it up on the couch and sit staring at it for hours, discovering all the many details and people and pets and homes and cars and vacations, the details he’d sent me to please paint in.  Chet filmed her doing that and I treasure that old snapshot.

 Over the years we kept in touch, usually with my writing him questions about some movie star or show biz thing I had to write about, or how to grow Bonsai trees at which he was very gifted.

Chet was always available to me and we’d recently begun to email one another regularly, loving this new form of communication, and it was fun again to read Chet’s long letters, talking about his life, his Bonsais, his family, retirement, and dreams of seeing the North Pole. He encouraged my writings and filled me always with a “never give up” philosophy. Chet Migden was living proof about the success of that doctrine.

Two weeks ago, Chet emailed me saying he’d finally realized he was just too old now to see the North Pole, but that he was feeling better than he ever had and was now working daily on his beloved dwarfed trees.

Last week I read of his death. I saw that weird name in a local paper and thought how odd that someone else would have that strange name and how even odder that that guy in the paper did all the same work that Chet had done. And when my mind finally allowed me to understand that it was my Chet who’d died unexpectedly, I grieved. He was a good man, a man who, after he fought in a very big war, got on a train with a big locomotive in the front and a caboose at the end, went west to seek his fortune, worked extremely hard, and found it.

And so you see Chet? You really were a personage, getting your obituary in a paper here in far-off Maine. And now, finally, you can go to see the North Pole any time you want if in fact there is life after life and an awful lot of folks say there is. I never got to meet you, but I look forward being able to do that. Wait for me! But most of all, thanks for being in my life, Chester Migden and for letting me paint your story. I miss you sorely. Yesterday, I sent you a nice long good-bye email. Be watching for it.     

blog comments powered by Disqus