Didi Allen (center) when father Simon was governor
THE AMAZING MRS. CHARLES “Didi” ALLEN:
A college education is usually considered that which is learned in textbooks, labs, and lectures. But most of what I learned in college came outside the classroom. There was the Mormon culture of Utah which was so different from the ethnic, melting pot culture in which I’d grown up. There were the trips back and forth between Pennsylvania and Utah during which I met so many Americans. I traveled using all manner of transport from driving to Greyhound to train to plane to hitch-hiking. The trips were usually leisurely and I often stopped along the way to meet locals. On one driving trip during the early morning hours in Kansas my eye caught sight of a vehicle driving erratically through mud bogs. I stopped and the car pulled up. Well it was less of a car and more of a chassis and motor; the forerunner of a dune buggy. A couple of boys about my age were just driving through mud puddles having fun. They let me take a few spins and we chatted probably for the better part of an hour. Then one looked at the sun high in the sky and said, “Well, we gotta get hayin’ now.” I looked confused and he added, “Gotta make hay while the sun shines.” And off they went to do work the fields of their farm.
Another component of my education came courtesy of my roommate Sandy. He came to BYU on a full tennis scholarship as the result of his resume that boasted his having been the national junior tennis champion of Peru two years running. However, although Sandy excelled in the game itself, he was not what might call a gung-ho athlete. Not the kind who relished practice and followed the strict regimen required of all BYU athletes including tennis players. He could not understand why, since he was the best individual player on the team, he was not ranked #1 on the team. He could not grasp the concept of seniority and work ethic, mandatory team study hall, etc. as he had the natural ability – which he proved in practice, to defeat any other player on the team. The coach did not appreciate the analysis from a foreign, non-LDS, freshman and they had words with one another. Those words led to his either quitting or being dismissed from the team. In either event he had lots of free time after that to visit his family friend, Mrs. Allen.
Sandy and I spent lots of time together and I was fascinated at his knowledge of world history and politics. He was even better versed in American history and geography than was I and he was a FOREIGNER! Our conversations about life, politics, cultures, and so many other topics were much more fascinating and educational than most courses I took.
On weekends Sandy would often visit the home of Mrs. Allen, the wealthy Jewish woman in Salt Lake City who had helped arrange his admission into BYU. Now elderly (at least she seemed elderly to a lad of 17. She was in fact probably in her 60s at the time) and a widow, she lived on a 30+ acre estate called "Green Acres" on the outskirts of the city. As a member of the idle rich she had an onsite butler-chauffer-gardener-handyman who lived with his wife and young son in a separate house on the grounds. The family was from Mexico and although his given name was Jesus (Hay-sus), Mrs. Allen called him “Joey.”
In addition to Jesus and his family, Mrs. Allen, affectionately referred to by her friends as Didi, employed two fulltime maids, both named Ann. They were referred to as Ann and Ann2. Her staff further included a full time cook, Mrs. Leather, and Arnold, an on-call butler and bartender who looked and acted the part of the proper British butler. Mrs. Allen was an interesting looking woman, barely five feet in height and less than 100 lbs., long red hair and ice blue eyes, and a cigarette either in her fingers or in her heavily lipsticked mouth during her every waking moment or so it seemed to me. The years of smoking had apparently not affected her lungs, as she lived well into her 90s and never had respiratory issues, but cigarettes had taken their toll on her skin. When we first met though she was barely sixty but her wrinkled skin and prune lines on her face created the countenance of an eighty-year old.
Didi was also nearly deaf but refused to wear a haring device of any kind. She had a special speaker constructed and wired from the television to her favorite TV-watching chair. It resembled a lamp with a flexible goose neck but instead of a bulb there was a speaker, much like one from a drive-in movie, in which the volume could be adjusted. Whenever she spoke she shouted and in response one needed to shout back at her lest she not hear.
One week Sandy invited me to accompany him on his regular weekend soiree to Green Acres. I was overwhelmed when we approached the property. I’d never been on an estate before. The grounds were like some of the smaller college campuses I’d seen in Pennsylvania and included a guest cottage, an Olympic-size swimming pool complete with men’s and women’s changing areas and rest rooms, a guest house, and a gigantic cat pen in which she kept dozens of stray cats, properly fed and medicated as dictated by their personal veterinarian who made regular visits to the house. Inside the main house, which was the closest thing to a Southern plantation mansion I’d ever seen, lived another half dozen or so cats and at least three dogs. Mrs. Allen might have been a tiny woman but she had a huge heart, especially when it came to helpless animals.
Also part the “Green Acres” estate was a seven-car garage; a converted barn, to accommodate her seven cars – two Cadillacs, a station wagon, a Jaguar, and three others. In addition there was a smaller shed that housed two pickup trucks and a tractor. “Joey” Kept all the vehicles washed and in good running order. A smaller, newer barn was home for three horses available for her and guests to ride the trails that weaved through the property.
Sandy and I spent most of our weekend in “his room,” which was a guest suite off the kitchen in the main house. It was amazing! The suite consisted of a bedroom with two double beds, a parlor, a bathroom, and a living room complete with the first color TV I’d ever seen. Each table had fresh flowers changed daily and, as in all other rooms, a solid silver container that accommodated probably a half carton of cigarettes. We were served breakfast in the suite and took our noon meal at the pool or in the suite or in the kitchen, or anywhere we chose. I felt like some sort of aristocrat. This life was 2,000 miles and a world away from the one I grew up in the steel mill town of Clairton, Pennsylvania.
On Sunday many of the non-Mormon movers and shakers in Salt Lake City and noted visitors, as well as some open-minded Mormons, would gather for a weekly evening of mirth, food, and drink. It was, I am sure, Mrs. Allen’s best replication of Colonial Hong Kong. Dinner would be served then the men would gather in small groups to smoke fine cigars and sip after dinner Brandy and other drinks while discussing issues of the world. The women would sit in small groups, drinking and playing cards. Mrs. Allen was clearly on the international “A” list and when people of celebrity came to Salt Lake to ski or for any other purpose, an evening at one of her famous parties was a must do. Her guest list during my era of visits included boxer Jack Dempsey, actors Hugh O'Brian and Gene Tierney, The Duke and Duchess of Windsor and countless other celebrities from stage, screen, athletics, the political world and Captains of Industry whose names have faded from my memory over the years.
Mrs. Allen was a collector. She collected fine things, of course, but also collected stray animals and people. Several characters came to her home to visit and never left. One such character was Colonel Charles Sweeny; founding member of the WW1 American led Eagle Squadron that was modeled after the Lafayette Escadrille of volunteers and based in Europe. Born in the late 1800s Col. Sweeny had been named a General in the Polish army and was a close friend of Ernest Hemmingway, Winston Churchill, and Major Charles Allen. Because he was a friend of Major Allen (Didi's husband) Colonel Sweeny came to the funeral of Major Allen and stayed on until he passed away some 25 years later!
Colonel Sweeny was extremely well read, especially in the area philosophy; Kant, Hegel and others. The Colonel was also a bit of a curmudgeon with a bad temper and did not suffer fools easily. His definition of fools included nearly everyone but himself. Col. Charles Sweeny was a World War I Army veteran and his passion was to assist with the Lafayette Escadrille, a rag tag group of excellent fliers whom, many believed, were the primary reason the air superiority of Germany was overcome.
A Time Magazine article describes Col. Sweeny and the Eagle Squadron, modeled after the Lafayette Escadrille as follows: “Correspondents last week discovered the beginnings of this war's equivalent of the Lafayette Escadrille, which in 1916-18 accounted for the high (then) total of 199 German planes. World War II's escadrille is the American Eagle Squadron, quietly recruited and energized by Colonel Charles Sweeney, a U. S. soldier of fortune who fought in the Foreign Legion last time. Both coasts of the U. S. and Canadian-border immigration men had inklings of Colonel Sweeney's missionary work months ago. Last week U. S. newshawks "somewhere in west England" saw two score of his protégés training in yellow-bodied Miles Master planes, almost ready to fly at the throats of the Luftwaffe. They will be ready to do so in a few weeks, when they have graduated. Then they will fly Spitfires and Hurricanes.
“The British made Colonel Sweeny a reserve captain in R. A. F. to make it all pukka. They segregated the reckless Americans, rather than salt them into the conservative R. A. F. Among them are barnstormers, crop-dusters, stunt fliers, sportsmen. Youngest is Gregory ("Gus") Daymond, 19, of California, who used to fly an ice-cream king around South America. Oldest is Paul Joseph Haaren, 48, also of California, a movie flier. Most celebrated Eagle is Colonel Sweeney's nephew, wavy-haired Robert ("Bob") Sweeney, who won the British amateur golf championship in 1937 and lately squired Barbara Hutton Haugwitz-Reventlow. Active commander is Squadron Leader William Erwin Gibson Taylor, 35, formerly of the 5th Fighting Squadron, U. S. Naval Air Corps (aboard the carrier Lexington). He joined Britain's Fleet Air Arm last year, served on the carriers Argus, Furious, and Glorious (sunk at Narvik). Most piquant Eagle name: Harry La Guardia of Hartford, Conn. (no kin to New York City's Mayor).
“Correspondents who interviewed the Eagles at their training field were curious to find out what caused them to join up. Most of the Eagles began their replies by saying, "Well, what the hell?"
Col. Sweeny continued to recruit American pilots through the early Hitler years. He was threatened with the loss of his U.S. Citizenship for his recruiting of pilots because it was in violation of American Neutrality Laws. But Col. Sweeny had a strong conviction that Hitler must be stopped so he continued to recruit even with the FBI hot on his trail. He was a remarkable and brave man!
Charles Sweeny, nephew of Col. Charles Sweeny has been described as, “...a well-heeled socialite and businessman living in London.” He and his rich society contacts, most likely including Mrs. Allen, bore the cost (over $100,000) of processing and bringing the US trainees to the UK for training.