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Big Sur ¦ 2001
When Liam Sullivan died, at the age of ninety-two, in his sleep, in his own bed with his wife of sixty-five years beside him, the world mourned.
An icon had passed.
Born in a little cottage tucked in the green hills and fields near the village of Glendree in County Clare, he’d been the seventh and last child of Seamus and Ailish Sullivan. He’d known hunger in the lean times, had never forgotten the taste of his mother’s bread and butter pudding—or the whip-swat of her hand when he’d earned it.
He’d lost an uncle and his oldest brother in the first Great War, had grieved for a sister who’d died before her eighteenth birthday delivering her second child.
He’d known from an early age the backbreaking work of plowing a field behind a horse named Moon. He’d learned how to shear a sheep and slaughter a lamb, to milk a cow and build a rock wall.
And he remembered, the whole of his long life, the nights his family sat around the fire—the smell of peat smoke, the angel-clear voice of his mother raised in song, his father smiling at her as he played the fiddle.
And the dancing.
As a boy he’d sometimes earn a few pennies singing in the pub while the locals drank their pints and talked of farming and politics. His soaring tenor could bring a tear to the eye, and his agile body and fast, clever feet lift the spirit when he danced.
He dreamed of more than plowing the fields and milking the cow, much more than the pennies gathered at the little pub in Glendree.
Shortly before his sixteenth birthday, he left home, a few precious punts in his pocket. He endured the Atlantic crossing with others looking for more in the cramped confines belowdecks. When the ship rolled and rocked in a storm, and the air stank of vomit and fear, he blessed his iron constitution.
Dutifully, he wrote letters to home he dreamed of posting at the end of the voyage and kept spirits up by entertaining his fellow passengers with song and dance.
He shared a flirtation and a few eager kisses with a flaxen-haired girl named Mary from Cork who traveled to Brooklyn and a position as a maid in some fine house.
With Mary he stood in the cool, fresh air—fresh at last—and saw the great lady with her torch held high. And thought his life had truly begun.
So much color and noise and movement, so many people squashed into one place. Not just an ocean away from the farm where he’d been born and reared, he thought. A world away.
And his world now.
He was bound to apprentice with his mother’s brother Michael Donahue as a butcher in the Meatpacking District. He was welcomed, embraced, given a bed in a room he shared with two of his cousins. While in only a matter of weeks he grew to hate the sounds, the smells of the work, he earned his keep.
Still, he dreamed of more.
He found the more the first time he turned over a bit of that hard-earned pay to sit in a movie theater with Mary of the flaxen hair. There he saw magic on the silver screen, worlds far beyond everything he knew, worlds holding everything a man could want.
There the sounds of bone saws, the thwack of cleavers didn’t exist. Even pretty Mary faded away as he felt himself pulled into the screen and the world it offered.
The beautiful women, the heroic men, the drama, the joy. When he surfaced, he saw all around him the enraptured faces of the audience, the tears, the laughter, the applause.
This, he thought, was food for a hungry belly, a blanket in the cold, a light for the damaged soul.
Less than a year after he saw New York from the deck of a ship, he left it to head west.
He worked his way across the country, amazed at its size, at its changing sights and seasons. He slept in fields, in barns, in the backs of bars where he traded his voice for a cot.
Once he spent the night in jail after a bit of a dustup in a place called Wichita.
He learned to ride the rails, and evade the police—and as he would say in countless interviews over the course of his career—had the adventure of a lifetime.
When, after nearly two years of travel, he saw the big white sign spelling out HOLLYWOODLAND, he vowed that here he would find his fame and fortune.
He lived on his wits, his voice, his strong back. With the wit he talked his way into building sets on back lots, sang his way through the work. He acted out the scenes he watched, practiced the various accents he’d heard on the trip from east to west.
Talkies changed everything, so now soundstages needed building. Actors he’d admired in their silence on-screen had voices that screeched or rumbled, so their stars burned out and fell.
His break came when a director heard him singing while he worked—the very tune the once-silent star was supposed to romance his lady with in a musical scene.
Liam knew the man couldn’t sing worth shite, and had his ear to the ground close enough to have heard there was talk about using another voice. It was, to his mind, simply being sure he was in the right place at the right time to be that voice.
His face might not have appeared on the screen, but his voice held the audience. It opened the door.
An extra, a walk-on, a bit part where he spoke his first line.
Building blocks, stepping-stones, forming a foundation fueled by the work, the talent, and the Sullivan tireless energy.
He, the farm boy from Clare, had an agent, a contract, and began in that Golden Age of Hollywood what would be a career that spanned decades and generations.
He met his Rosemary when he and the pert and popular Rosemary Ryan starred in a musical—the first of five films they’d make together in their lifetimes. The studio fed the gossip columns stories of their romance, but none of the hype was necessary.
They married less than a year after they clapped eyes on each other. They honeymooned in Ireland—visiting his family, as well as hers in Mayo.
They built a grand glamour of a home in Beverly Hills, had a son, then a daughter.
They bought the land in Big Sur because, as with their romance, it was love at first sight. The house they built facing the sea they named Sullivan’s Rest. It became their getaway, then as years passed more their home.
Their son proved the Sullivan-Ryan talent spanned generations, as Hugh’s star rose from child actor to leading man. As their daughter, Maureen, chose New York and Broadway.
Hugh would give them their first grandson before his wife, the love of his life, died in a plane crash returning from a location shoot in Montana.
That son would, in time, place another Sullivan star on the screen.
Liam and Rosemary’s grandson Aidan, believing, as with Sullivan tradition, he’d found the love of his life in the silky blond beauty of Charlotte Dupont, married in glittery style (exclusive photos in People magazine), bought a mansion in Holmby Hills for his bride. And gave Liam a great-granddaughter.
They named the fourth-generation Sullivan Caitlyn. Caitlyn Ryan Sullivan became an instant Hollywood darling when she made her film debut at twenty-one months playing the mischievous, matchmaking toddler in Will Daddy Make Three?
The fact that most reviews found little Cate upstaged both adult leads (which included her mother as the female love interest) caused some consternation in certain quarters.
It might have been her last taste of preadolescent stardom, but her great-grandfather cast her, at age six, as the free-spirited Mary Kate in Donovan’s Dream. She spent six weeks on location in Ireland, and shared the screen with her father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-grandmother.
She delivered her lines in a west county accent as if she’d been born there.
The film, a critical and commercial success, would be Liam Sullivan’s last. In one of the rare interviews he gave toward the end of his life, sitting under a flowering plum tree with the Pacific rolling toward forever, he said, like Donovan, he’d seen his dream come true. He’d made a fine film with the woman he’d loved for six decades, with their boys Hugh and Aidan, and the bright light of his great-granddaughter, Cate.
Movies, he said, had given him the grandest of adventures, so this, he felt, was a perfect cap for the genie bottle of his life.
On a cool, bright February afternoon, three weeks after his death, his widow, his family, and many of the friends he’d made through the years gathered at his Big Sur estate to—as Rosemary insisted—celebrate a life well and fully lived.
They’d held a formal funeral in L.A., with luminaries and eulogies, but this would be to remember the joy he’d given.
There were speeches and anecdotes, there were tears. But there was music, laughter, children playing inside and out. There was food and whiskey and wine.
Rosemary, her hair as white now as the snow that laced the tops of the Santa Lucias, embraced the day as she settled—a bit weary, truth be told—in front of the soaring stone fireplace in what they called the gathering room. There she could watch the children—their young bones laughing at winter’s bite—and the sea beyond.
She took her son’s hand when Hugh sat beside her. “Will you think I’m a crazy old woman if I tell you I can still feel him, as if he’s right beside me?”
As her husband’s had, her voice carried the lilt of her home.
“How can I, when I feel it, too?”
She turned to him, her white hair cut short for style and ease, her eyes vivid green and full of humor. “Your sister would say we’re both crazy. How did I ever produce such a practical-minded child as Maureen?”
She took the tea he offered her, winged up an eyebrow. “Is there whiskey in it?”
“I know my ma.”
“That you do, my boy, but you don’t know all.”
Copyright © 2020 by Nora Roberts