Reviewed by Ruth Bonapace
Anthony J. Mohr has written a familiar Hollywood morality tale. Famous man dumps his loyal wife for a femme fatale. The plucky divorcee, struggling as a single mother, is swept off her feet by a wealthy businessman who welcomes her son as his own – as her ex’s career fizzles.
But this is not pulp fiction. Every Other Weekend: Coming of Age with Two Different Dads (Koehler Books, Feb. 2023), is the author’s memoir as the only child of Rita and Gerald Mohr, a radio star of the 1930s and 40s who appeared in dozens of movies and television shows in the 1940s to the 60s.
Like many children of divorce, Anthony found navigating the love and loyalties of two sets of parents confusing, exacerbated by the men his mother chose: opposites in almost every way.
Stepfather Stanley A. Dashew was a serial entrepreneur who practically invented credit cards and loved expensive cigars and yachts. A Republican donor who’d backed Richard Nixon and once advocated turning off the eternal flame from John F. Kennedy’s grave, he would build businesses only to sell, take profits and spin off new ones. Stan had 40 patents by the time he died at 96.
Anthony’s dad was a fervent Democrat and hellraiser, a chain-smoking womanizer, convinced that the next big break was around the corner. When radio sputtered with the advent of television, the character actor reinvented himself over and over, never giving up even when his “type” was out of step with the Laugh In and Star Trek era. Alternately broke and flush, he died of a heart attack in 1968 at age 54 in Stockholm while launching a proposed TV series.
On the surface, two very different men. Yet, they shared a restless discontent, always striving for more success, a new adventure. Anthony says his stepfather’s final years were marked by depression and frustration that he had not reached the pinnacle of whatever level of wealth and acclaim he’d coveted, while his father never gave up hope. Both were emotionally unavailable, perhaps due to gender role expectations, whenever little “Tony” yearned for a heart-to-heart talk.
Gerry Mohr was always Anthony’s imperfect hero, despite the broken promises and letters that never arrived, while Stan was his rock, an aloof man whose love was earned. Without Stan’s support and guidance, Anthony might never have launched a law career that included 26 years as a Superior Court judge in California. Without Gerry, he probably would not have written a memoir or essay.
The mothers in his life, by contrast, are good-girl, bad-girl archetypes.
In his telling, Anthony’s mother was meticulous, beautiful and calm, fiercely protecting her son; only her muffled sobs inside her bedroom betrayed her grief after Gerry left. In 1957, when Anthony was ten and being a “divorcee” was a scarlet letter, Rita found redemption in Stan, who was also divorced. Anthony implies that his stepmother Mai Dietrich was a star-struck “script girl” who pursued an affair with his father only find that her new husband’s career was beginning a steep descent.
The message, it seems, is his mother got the better deal: a happy second marriage with a less interesting but stable husband who kept his stepson on the straight and narrow. As for Anthony, he seemed to have the best—and worst—of both worlds in equal measure. “I felt torn between my fathers,” he writes. “Protected by one, energized by the other, grateful that nobody was forcing me to choose.”
If there is any area where the book falls short, it is in the book’s subtitle: Coming of Age. How did Anthony find his own center of gravity with contrasting father figures, wealth and celebrities circling his orbit?
Anthony gives us abundant day-to-day observations showing both dads’ distinct personalities and lifestyles, fleshed out with detailed descriptions of homework, parties, trips and family dinners. But I’d like to sit at the edge of my seat, rooting for the child, the way I did with Mary Karr in The Liars’ Club. I am thinking, too, of Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, where she shows how her parents’ upscale California lifestyles and beliefs (or lack thereof) impacted her harrowing journey toward a fully formed religious faith. Or even Frederic Tuten’s My Young Life, which unfolds in the same era, but on the mean streets of The Bronx.
However, Anthony Mohr’s memoir will no doubt delight devotees of mid-century television and radio, as it is packed with insider details of card games, film sets, Oscar nights, and student life at Beverly Hills High School. The scenes and chapters devoted to his dad are a who’s who of the era, with scores of famous names from Soupy Sales to James Garner.
We get a child’s view of the movie business, where the beautiful people are simply your friends’ parents. And if you ever wondered what’s it like to be the son or daughter of a Hollywood villain, we see it through his eyes:
“My father died some fifty times before dying for real,” Mohr writes. “Duel at Silver Creek (1952) was the first time I saw him die … A thick red curtain slid down in front of the screen, and everyone looked happy. But I couldn’t stop crying.”
He was five.