the knotted-up man


Richard and Pat Nixon, two essentially shy people who would now both be a hundred years old, first met onstage. Each had a role in the Whittier Community Players’ 1938 production of “The Dark Tower,” by George S. Kaufman and Alexander Woollcott. Pat Ryan, a pretty twenty-five-year-old teacher at Whittier High, came to “The Dark Tower” with a smidgen of theatrical experience. Born in a Nevada mining-town shack and toughened by a hardworking childhood on a farm in Artesia, she had helped put herself through the University of Southern California with occasional jobs as a movie extra. But it wasn’t any real enthusiasm for the stage that brought her to the Community Players. As her daughter Julie explains in a biography of her mother, she went only because the assistant superintendent at Whittier High asked her to, and she “found it difficult to say no to a school administrator.” Nixon took to the whole business and several months later was back for more. At the urging of the Players’ director, he went on to appear in “Night of January 16th,” a melodrama by Ayn Rand in which the text itself chewed the scenery. Pat Nixon, in later years, gave three memorably painful on-camera performances opposite Richard Nixon. In each of them, she was without lines of her own, but her mute, stricken countenance became an important part of the historical impression being created and preserved.

more from Thomas Mallon at The New Yorker here.