How a poor boy from Central Texas moved to the big city and met his true loves.
In 1955, I was 14 years old and working the summer for my uncle at his filling station in Salado, Texas. The filling station was the hangout in Salado. A half-dozen philosophers were playing dominoes under an old live oak when a Packard convertible pulled in and honked for service. In it were Rock Hudson and a beautiful blonde. Rock was shooting Giant, the national film of Texas. Perhaps the girl was Carroll Baker, perhaps not. We shall never know. All this poor boy knew was that the girl looked like Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, and Betty Grable rolled into one.
My job was to put the gas in and wipe the windshield. Rock got out of the car and went to the men’s room. I filled ’er up, and then I took hold of my chamois and hit the passenger side. Three swipes on the dirty windshield and I could see all the way through to the blonde inside and her white shorts, so short and so white I thought I might faint. I wiped and wiped and wiped. I had so much sweat and spit coming out of me that I had to wipe my own face with the chamois. The girl laughed with her head thrown back and then motioned for me to lean in—at which point she gave me the biggest red lipstick kiss I’d ever had.
Rock returned, smiling. “Hey, kid,” he said, “looks like your labor paid off.”
I didn’t wipe my face till school started. Even then, I would only soap it lightly. That day at the filling station, I learned the power of blonde. It did something to my knees, made my cheeks flush, and affected all the regions in between. It was a promise, somehow, but of what, I did not know. I was thoroughly unnerved and I liked it.
In those days in Brownwood, where I lived, when bleached blondes came to our church, they used to sit on the back pew. It was like they were suspected of something we knew not what, forbidden fruit. Momma didn’t shun them, but she didn’t invite them over for dinner, either.
Momma had named me Ernest, a sober sounding name if ever there was one. “Ernest Gene,” she’d say, “go out and get me a switch, and you know what for.” I tried to be good but I was already a misfit. In hardscrabble Texas in the ’50s, there were no serious and sincere roughnecks or roustabouts. My questions about blondes had nowhere to be asked. Something mysterious was going on. I could almost smell it. Although I was stuck in Central Texas with the Lord as my Shepherd, I was determined to dig deep into the mystery.
Then it happened. A town near Brownwood hired a beautiful, young straw-haired woman to teach Spanish. I was 16. It was summer, and I was once again working at a filling station. I washed her car like it had never been washed, and she said thanks in a way I had only dreamed of. I was finally on the other side of the windshield. Puberty proved to be a short season for me. The world was a wonderful place—blonde.
In Central Texas before Sputnik, folks thought a girl with a head of lustrous blonde hair might be a bit trashy, might be looking for trouble. She might even be dangerous. I found out why when I met a girl who was all that and more: Candy Barr.
Yes, the Candy Barr, stripper, employee of Jack Ruby’s, “romantic attachment” of mobster Mickey Cohen. And possessor of a 38-22-33 frame that would knock your socks off. I’d seen her dance in the early ’60s at the Colony Club, a Dallas burlesque joint, in a white cowboy hat, six-guns in a hip-hugging holster, blonde hair sparkling in the spotlight. When things got too heavy in Dallas, she moved to Brownwood, and we met at a party at a leading citizen’s lake house. She was very good-looking and more exciting than anyone I had met in a long time. We hit it off. Since I loved the way LBJ called Ladybird “Bird,” I always called Candy “Bar.”
Bar was free-spirited, a little rowdy, a non-conformist, but beautiful in every way. She was a tease but always with taste. I well remember a cold January night after several glasses of wine when I made my first amorous advance.
“Gene,” Bar said, “let’s not ruin a good thing.”
“What do you mean?” I said, though I think I knew.
“I prefer we be friends,” she said.
She exploded my fantasy and trampled my ego in one fell swoop, but my education was in full swing. Once she even mentioned she knew Bubbles Cash, the other busty blonde famous for taking it all off. When the Cowboys used to play at the Cotton Bowl, Clint Murchison would have the trumpeter Tommy Loy play a special song when Bubbles walked up the aisle. When Bubbles heard her song, she strutted like the stunner she was.
A historian might say the Dallas blonde thing had its start with Jayne Mansfield, who went to Highland Park High and SMU. But she didn’t become known here. Bar and Bubbles did, and I’m guessing their sensual success was one reason a blonde in the ’50s in Dallas was still a disreputable thing to be.
Then I took a break in Taiwan, courtesy of Uncle Sam, and when I got back to Texas, the wind had changed. Dallas brought in something called liquor by the drink. The Cowboys were winning. Money was flying around. There was a go-go feel to the whole place. And I was still trying to figure out the mystery of the blonde.
We called ourselves the Highwaymen. A secret society, we held our meetings on Oak Lawn at J. Alfred’s, which is where it all began for me in Dallas.
Oak Lawn in the early ’70s was bikers, bums, and police. I ducked into the decrepit building that became J. Alfred’s (where Al Biernat’s restaurant now sits) one Thursday before noon and found the bartender face-down asleep on the bar. I had a little money in my pocket. I’d told my aunt I needed a loan to open a bluejeans store. It was not the first fib I’d told my family, and it would not be the last. I shook that bartender and asked him if he wanted to sell the place. He thought an angel had come down from heaven to make all his dreams come true. I splashed around some paint, dribbled sawdust on the floor, made a cigar box the cash register. Times were simpler. Boy, were they ever. The land that Al Biernat’s sits on is now owned by ex-wife No. 4, courtesy of our recent divorce settlement. But more on that in a second.
Anyway, J. Alfred’s became headquarters for the Highwaymen (a romantic term for a bunch of good-for-nothing skirt-chasers). I’d begun leading a double life. By day, I was an SMU student. (For all who think of me as a bumpkin, I’ll have you know I’m an educated bumpkin. I got a master’s degree in liberal arts from SMU in 1971.) Meanwhile I was in pursuit of a Ph.D. in nightlife. A lot of SMU professors hung out at J. Alfred’s, and I nearly convinced them to let me teach a non-credit course: Pursuit of the Blonde 101, with your host, Gene Street.
Of course we all wanted to date a Cowboys Cheerleader, but when that wasn’t possible, we’d turn our attention to a stew. Air hostess, flight attendant—call it what you will. These girls were blonde, they were glamorous, they were often out of town. It was as though the Highwaymen had designed them. How many times did I fly from Love Field to Austin and back just to meet the stews? I lost count. I never married a stew, it’s true. But that doesn’t mean I won’t.
Comes the time to fall in love with a blonde. The place: Acapulco. I’d just sold the Black-eyed Pea for a gazillion bucks, and I was on top of the world. I had a palatial estate in Acapulco and I’d chartered a plane—two planes—to haul a bunch of folks down to help open my latest venture. (It was a Mexican food restaurant. Sounds insane now, but as I say, I was riding pretty high.)
My pre-arranged date for the evening was an accomplished woman of the Dallas legal community whom I’d never met. Ask anyone—my mouth often works faster than my brain. When this striking woman showed up at the house, what I should have said was, “I met this girl on the plane. She’s a cute little blonde, and I think I might be in love with her, and, gosh amighty, I’m dreadfully sorry but I don’t think this date is gonna work out.” Instead, the first words out of my mouth were: “You’re not blonde.” Cupid can make you stupid.
Until that weekend in 1988, I’d thought of myself as a scientist. I’d come to study the eternal beauty of the blonde with all the intensity and sincerity that my momma wished I’d applied to the rest of my life. I’d married and been divorced three times, but never to a blonde. “Date ’em, don’t mate ’em” was my motto. I was afraid the reality of everyday life with one of these beauties could never measure up to the fantasy. I should have taken my own advice.
The girl I’d met on the plane was a blonde, a Texan, a Texas Tech cheerleader—what more could a Brownwood boy want? I succumbed or conquered or whatever you want to call it. In 1989 we were married on a mountaintop in Maui, and, brother, it was all downhill from there. (Maybe that’s unfairly harsh.)
Blondeness brought its own surprises. There’s no shame in being a bottle blonde but it takes a lot of chemicals to keep that natural shine. When there’s 15 bottles of bleach and coloring and treatments in heavy rotation, no question your bathroom is going smell like a beauty parlor.
Look, I know I’ve got my own regimen that can be tough to put up with. I swallow 193 different vitamins and supplements every day. I like to take showers under a garden hose out in the backyard of my fancy North Dallas house. I’ve had attention deficit disorder and motor mouth disease ever since I can remember. While recording notes to myself for this story, I left three tape recorders somewhere around Dallas. (To the person who found No. 2 and wondered who the crazy man was babbling about the night the police raided his Jacuzzi, I plead verbosity.)
The Texas Tech cheerleader put up with a lot. I’m not sure what she expected out of our marriage, but I learned one of the oldest lessons in the books: be careful what you wish for.
Anyway, I was married to the cheerleader for 17 years, and they were two of the happiest years of my life. For me, Big D stood for Big Divorce in 2006. Untold hours with lawyers, a severance check so large it makes me wince just thinking about it. Happy trails and all that.
You might think this has put me off blondes. Far from it. I hope to vote for one on November 4 to be president of our country. I’m only sad that Dallas blonde Ann Richards won’t be here to join in the fun. Those two gals would have made one heckuva twosome.
Gene Street is the founder of the Black-eyed Pea (among other restaurants). Larry Herold is a Dallas writer.