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Man on a Mission
By Wensley Clarkson
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2005 Wensley Clarkson
All rights reserved.
IF YOU HAVE NO GREAT EXPECTATIONS, YOU'RE NOT GOING TO BE DISAPPOINTED.
She had the audience in the palm of her hand.
They demanded encore after encore. The Sydney Town Hall was packed to capacity for the farewell concert of famed contralto Eva Mylott. If there are such things as show business genes, then it must have been Eva who passed them on to her grandson Mel Gibson.
In February 1902, Eva, then 27, was giving her last performance before setting off for Europe, a land of hope and opportunity which – naturally – she intended to take by storm. Australia had been good to her and her family ever since Eva's father Patrick Mylott escaped the Great Potato Famine and British repression in Ireland to head Down Under. Eva became renowned as a free spirit in a land where society was a bastion of male domination. She wanted the sort of artistic freedom and licence that everyone had told her existed in Europe. It was a huge risk for a single woman, but that was typical of Eva Mylott.
Eva spent a total of five years in Europe. The black clouds of World War I were not yet on the horizon and the emphasis was on living well and playing hard. She fell in and out of love as regularly as her emotions decreed. The artistic opportunities of cities like Paris, Rome and Madrid made them even more seductive places to Eva. She had so much to learn.
But there was an even bigger, more exciting land of opportunity beckoning from across the Atlantic and she grew ever more inquisitive about America. There was growing interest in opera in the United States and travellers spoke of vast concert halls and enthusiastic crowds desperate to welcome entertainers. When another love affair crumbled, Eva found the appeal of America too hard to resist. It was a perfect time, once again, to start afresh.
In the summer of 1907, she entered Upper New York Bay, sailed past the Statue of Liberty and stood on the upper deck for the final three-quarters-of-a-mile towards Ellis Island. Eva's eyes were dazzled as she stared out at her new home and unknown future.
Within months, Eva was winning rave notices for her performances at concerts in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and Montreal. She was rapidly gaining a reputation as a superb contralto. Over in Europe, Nellie Melba was proud of her success. She pored over every word of each letter Eva sent her. Her prodigy had well and truly made it.
Life in America could not have been kinder to Eva. She swept audiences up with her magnetism.
'She had a way of handling crowds. They adored her,' explained old Gibson family friend Ed Stinson.
Eva also had those incredible blue eyes that movie audiences across the globe have found so irresistible in her grandson. Child behavioural experts have long been convinced that personality patterns frequently skip a generation. In other words, you are more likely to resemble your grandparents than your own mother and father. Eva Mylott was a warm, attractive, hypnotic personality, scornful of risks and capable of grabbing attention in a crowded room. Little wonder that Mel Gibson found his calling in Hollywood's movie industry.
But in 1914, Eva – who was then nearly 40 and still unmarried – met millionaire businessman John Hutton Gibson after a sellout concert in Chicago. Gibson, a shy, reserved, handsome man, was, perhaps not surprisingly, bowled over by the beautiful, exotic Eva. She, in turn, felt attracted to him because he was the exact opposite of the flighty, flirty men whom she usually encountered during life on the road. Too many love affairs had crumbled after Eva fell for predatory fellows interested only in a brief liaison with a spirited opera star.
In Gibson, she found a man who truly cared for her – and, as partner in a successful Chicago metal foundry, he could provide her with the security she desperately craved. It was a last chance for Eva. She had lived life in the fast lane but now it was dawning on her that she had so little to show for it. No husband. No children.
Marriage to Gibson brought her more happiness than a thousand encores. She helped raise money to send medical supplies to Australian hospitals during World War I, spurred on by her family links Down Under. The couple moved to the tranquillity of Montclair in New York State where, at the age of 43, Eva's dream came true in 1918 when she gave birth to Hutton Peter Gibson, father of Mel.
Typically, Eva defied doctors in the first place by getting pregnant at an age when many women were about to become grandmothers. But she angered medics even further by trying for more children after the birth of Hutton. Fifteen months later, just weeks after giving birth to her second son, Alexander Mylott, serious post-natal complications set in.
Eva knew she was dying, and, according to family lore, she grasped her heartbroken husband's hand as he sat by her hospital bedside and told him, 'It is God's will. We have two wonderful boys. The Gibson name will carry on.'
A month after giving birth to Alexander, Eva died. Gibson was understandably distraught at the funeral service in Chicago held a few days later. He felt betrayed to have found love late in life, only to have it snatched away so cruelly. In a pledge of loyalty that would become characteristic of his son and grandson, he swore that he would never marry again. No one could replace Eva in his affections and the very suggestion of another woman entering his life brought an indignant response. Widower Gibson turned to the Roman Catholic Church for his solace and strove to ensure that his two sons did likewise.
Hutton and his baby brother were, as is often the case, as different as chalk and cheese. For the first few years after their mother's death, they led a wealthy if not exactly inspiring existence in the Gibson mansion.
Hutton Gibson was barely into his early teens when the Depression hit the family very badly. Gibson senior's income halved; eventually, he lost his stake in the metal foundry and suffered poor health for the remainder of his life. The Gibsons were no longer the richest kids on the block and a paper round became an important source of income for young Hutton. He rose at four every morning to complete not one, but two rounds in a desperate effort to augment the family income. His doggedness has become a hallmark of his clan.
In the evenings, Hutton Gibson accepted the lack of attention from his father and threw himself into Catholicism, often reading avidly until the early hours. His deep commitment to the faith was growing by the day. Like many before and since, he used his unswerving beliefs to feed eternal optimism that everything would once again be fine in the world. He studied devotedly and, years later, still insisted, 'The greatest benefit anyone can have is to be a Catholic. You have the lifelong satisfaction of being right.'
Hutton got back to his sombre family home each night, increasingly disillusioned by this futility. His spare time dominated by religious exploration, he sensed that his vocation lay elsewhere – the Church.
Chicago's Society of the Divine Word was a dour, imposing place but, as combined college and recruit-barracks for the priesthood, seminaries are supposed to be that way and Hutton was undaunted. He thrived in an ascetic, intellectually demanding regime. Catholicism was his calling, his new home. He had no qualms about the vow of celibacy; temptations tripping most hot-blooded kids were mere hurdles to be vaulted for Hutton.
His initial year went well enough. An ideal seminarian at first, Hutton welcomed the discipline, structure and, above all, the company of like-minded men on the same road. At home, there had been tension and friction with his sprightlier young brother, and the implicit gloom generated by his father's declining health and spirits. At last, he had a clearly defined goal and means of reaching it.
But, as the would-be priest adjusted to seminary restrictions and routine, his questioning began. It wasn't a matter of the yoke of self-denial starting to chafe. Quite the reverse – young Hutton's distaste was for the Roman Catholic Church's belated, very mild and minor attempts to move with the times. His attitude did not go down well. Many priests at the seminary were in favour of reform and he was regarded as something of a pest.
More than 20 years later, Hutton's unbending religious creed captured headlines, but, at that time, it simply convinced the softly spoken yet stubborn American that the priesthood was not for him. Freed from celibacy, he might better serve Christ by fathering children who would be trained in the good old, true old faith. So, just after the outbreak of World War II, Hutton abandoned the seminary.
Weeks later, his father died and Hutton became doubly orphaned, parents and vocation lost. Whether it was patriotism or panic at being rootless and aimless, young Hutton opted for another all-male, highly structured society – he joined the Army. Enlisting in the infantry may have been the most illuminating and shocking move of his life. It wasn't the grisly, hand-to-hand conflict in the Pacific that shook Hutton Gibson, but fellow GIs' total disdain for God.
'There are no atheists in foxholes' was a wartime saying, but such was not soldier Hutton's experience. As he saw it, he was surrounded by blasphemers, unbelievers, modern pagans. They might die at any moment, unshriven, and so many of them didn't care. The teachings of Our Lord did not extend to the killing fields and that baffled and disturbed him, far more than the very likely prospect of dying in tropical mud.
It was a crucial insight, not only for the World War II warrior but, one of his sons, whose birth lay years ahead. Because Hutton – Second Lieutenant Gibson by then, a combat veteran – made up his mind that his children would never abuse God in the cause and course of war. And, when Hutton Gibson reaches a decision, it's set in concrete, so, long afterwards, he took his vast family halfway around the world, a modern Moses leading his tribe in flight from Pentagon Pharaohs, rather than allow his boys to be conscripted.
In Ireland, towards the turn of the century, the Reilly family was experiencing, as far as they were concerned, the horrors of British rule. The notorious Black and Tans were an army of ex-servicemen sent over from the mainland to 'teach the Irish a lesson'. Paid just 10s (50p) a day, the Tans (named after their mix of army and police uniforms) were first sent to Ireland in March 1920. Beyond doubt, many of the Auxiliaries were out of control on occasions, behaving in such a brutal and heartless fashion that the locals held them in complete contempt as well as healthy fear. Not only IRA propagandists believe that the Black and Tans were a significant element of a wind that, as in the Bible, was being reaped as the whirlwind on the streets and in Bandit Country fields of Northern Ireland and the border, until very recently.
Longtime family friend Ed Stinson says that the behaviour of the British towards the family of Mel's mother Anne (and especially her own mother) remains unforgotten to this day.
'There was and still is great resentment towards the English. The Black and Tans came to Ireland when Mel's grandmother lived there. They were nothing more than thugs and they attacked many women over there. Mel's mother in particular hated the English. Anne told me that women in her family were raped by the Black and Tans; those stories have been handed down over the years.'
Certainly, Mel and the rest of the Gibson clan share a distrust of the British as a result of whatever did actually occur. And Mel himself has talked in interviews about his feelings towards the British for the way they handled America and then Australia.
'Both countries started for the same reason. They were places where Mother England put her cast-offs, her undesirables – a lot of Irish and English criminals. Then you guys [the Americans] got strong enough to sort of say to the British, "Get lost, we don't want you around here any more. You got rid of us ... we're doing something good here ... leave us alone." But the Australians never did that.'
Mel's mother's family, the Reillys, settled in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, New York. Ironically, Anne Patricia Reilly actually ended up being born in the home country after her mother returned to Ireland to visit her own mother who had refused to move to the New World despite the horrors inflicted on her by the dreaded Black and Tans.
Anne's grandmother was a widow suffering from regular bouts of ill health and living in the picturesque country area of Marley, in County Longford. But the pregnant mother's visit to Ireland coincided with some of the worst outbreaks of civil unrest and she witnessed the full, horrifying impact of the Black and Tans. In the middle of all this violence, Anne was born.
Eventually, they arrived back safely in New York. Mel's mother attended a parochial school in the parish of Our Lady of Lourdes and then went on to graduate from Bushwick High, a state school. Anne showed a particular talent for drawing and she was greatly interested in photography. Later, she even attended art school in Manhattan.
Anne was a homely sort of girl, enjoying a fine relationship with her parents. And, like any good Catholic girl, she continued living at home after getting a job at a photographic firm near Penn Station, on Seventh Avenue. Anne relished family life and happily obeyed the rigid rules of a traditional Catholic household. That was something which definitely made her a good catch for the deeply religious Hutton Gibson when they eventually met and fell in love.
At that time, Anne's elder sister Kathleen married a young man who worked for the New York transit company as a motorman on trolley cars. One of his best friends was fellow worker Harold Cardello, who came from the Flatbush area of Brooklyn. When Cardello enlisted in the infantry, he was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, where he became acquainted with Hutton Gibson, a fellow GI.
'At first, I might say, he did not seem a very lovable person, not until you got to know him,' says Mel's aunt Kathleen. 'I didn't think too much of him and, seeing he seemed likely to marry my sister, there was some defensive mechanism early in the piece. He seemed strong and single-minded.'
But then Hutton was in his early twenties, with no parents and a wild kid brother who had taken off to do his own thing years earlier. He was unsure how to handle friendships, let alone actual relationships.
Earnest, worthy Hutton started being called 'Red' by his newly adopted family. It was a name that was to stick for the rest of his life. But, at Gibson's insistence, only his family could call him that. To the rest of the world, he was 'Hutt'.
Hutton Gibson hardly swept Anne Reilly off her feet. He quietly got to know her. Family members say that he wanted to make sure she shared his religious beliefs before they even so much as held hands.
A few months later, Hutton was sent to officer cadet school in the Signal Corps at nearby Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. It was the perfect transfer for the young soldier. His affection for Anne was slowly but surely growing.
Almost inevitably, Hutton – whose own mother had been too old to have more than just two children – had already decided that he wanted a huge family. In some ways, it might recompense him for missing out on all the fun of being part of a big family when he was a child. He went out of his way to play with Kathleen's children to make up for what he had forfeited. Interestingly, Mel Gibson appears to have been equally adept at handling his relatives' children, even when still in his teens.
'Mel loved children even when he was still at drama school. He was always talking about his nieces and nephews. He was the sort of uncle who would take them all to the park,' said one of Mel's former girlfriends from student days.
It was during World War II that Hutton Gibson made his first visit to Australia. He and brother Alexander had hoped to visit their mother's birthplace but they were both recalled to active service before they had a chance to organise the trip. Hutton made a pledge, there and then, to return one day. The vow altered many lives.
Excerpted from Mel Gibson by Wensley Clarkson. Copyright © 2005 Wensley Clarkson. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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