Rainy days and movie stars

Last weekend, I covered a swim meet in the rain. 

That's every bit as glamorous as it sounds, with a fine mist pinpricking my eyes, obscuring the athletes and coaches packed around the slippery edges of the pool. It wasn't cold, but it was blustery, and it soon became clear trying to actually see an event was a folly that would soon result in an accidental and far less athletic swim of my own.

I sought refuge in the pool office, where I found a helpful coach quick to hand me results and a friendly team mom generous with the pizza she was re-heating. There was also a fridge full of Diet Coke and an invitation to help myself.

All things considered, my circumstances were pretty good, indeed.

So, truth be told, I was slightly put out when an elderly woman with curly white hair, a leather jacket and a cap proclaiming her veteran status rolled up to my table. Someone's grandmother parked here on a corner piece of my sanctuary, I figured, shifting over slightly and tugging my sheets of paper closer to me.

I have many fine character qualities. You'll have to take my word on that. I also have some highly specific skills, formed and honed during two decades as a reporter. One is the ability to read upside down (useful when people think they've moved important papers out of your sight). Another is serial eavesdropping, or auditory research, as I like to call it.

My husband and I will be having dinner somewhere, or my child and I sitting at some event, and I'll overhear a funny - intentionally or otherwise - remark, or pick up the thread of some emotionally charged conversation like a hound catching a whiff of bacon. "Did you hear that?" I'll mutter under my breath, only to be rewarded with a booming, "Hear what?" Nevermind.

It's not really something I can turn off, so as I sat trying to identify a school or swimmer doing well in the early going, my ears slowly tuned in to the woman caddy-corner to my right elbow. The friendly team mom mentioned someone who'd had a heart attack. The older lady piped up, saying she'd had a heart attack three months ago.

Reporter's eyebrow metaphorically raised, I gave her another glance. Sure, she was using one of those rolly-cart things you stand up to push, but she looked spry enough, eyes alert and active beneath her still-full head of hair, fingers slightly curled but decorated with interesting-looking twists of gold, voice wavering in spots but overall quite strong.

The team mom and I made the usual exclamations to such a declaration. "My goodness!" and "You look great!" The heat times in front of me blurred a bit as my head swiveled in the lady's direction.

Turns out she was the mother of one of the swim coaches, a native South Floridian who'd insisted her children learn to swim. She was going to turn 96 on Dec. 5, with two new stents in the arteries leading to her heart as an early birthday present.

She kept talking. The team mom was bustling about serving food and drinks and dispensing hugs. I scooted my chair a little closer, back the way it had come.

She mentioned she'd left the area to live in New York with her husband, returning to Miami Shores when he died. She hadn't much liked the Northeast, though she had been crowned New Jersey in 1932.

Scoot, scoot. 

"Would you like to see pictures of me then?"

Okey dokey.

From a manila envelope cushioning her seat, the lady pulled several glossy, black-and-white publicity photos. In one, a beautiful brunette with curls piled high atop her head played the accordion - and managed to make that look attractive - while above her left shoulder, a handsome gentleman with a thick thatch of brown hair and a high forehead stood with a violin tucked under his chin.

Her husband had played professionally and sang at the Metropolitan Opera, the lady said. Oh, and they'd toured the country, working as ambassadors for the U.S. Air Force. Actually, they'd toured the world, for a total of 17 years and 101 countries.

One of the more memorable stops was in Germany, where a hairdresser had suggested she become a blonde. Her husband's reaction to the new hue had been a positive one, and she was never a brunette again.

Somewhere in the narrative, her name emerged: Ann Carlton, she said, and she had been in show business.

More pictures and more stories. She'd signed a contract with Warner Brothers and was being groomed for the movies. Her mentor was Myrna Loy, and she'd appeared in three films with the likes of Lena Horne. "I was making $250 a week," she said, a tidy sum that enraged Clark Gable, reportedly working for $100 a week at the time.

Outside, people swam as I asked, "What happened to show business?"

It seems that contract had contained a marriage clause. That hadn't crossed her mind when she first meet John Carlton doing summer stock theater. The two mostly fought, until one day he asked her out. 

Another question soon followed.

"I was going with someone else who was very wealthy," Ann Carlton said. "My mother wanted me to marry the other fellow. We ran off and got married and didn't tell anybody for a year."

Her mother's reaction upon eventually learning the news was nothing compared to the studio's.

A Warner Bros. executive called her into his office, reminded her of the terms of her contract and strongly suggested she become unmarried.

"Let me see that contract," Carlton said. "He handed me the contract, and I tore it up and threw it in his face."

Without any thought?

"I thought about it very seriously," Carlton said.

The couple headed for New York, the Met and a globe-trotting life that included three children, largely homeschooled. (Her son Bob, the swim coach, later said he'd seen 48 states by the time he was 4).

"When my husband became successful, I felt it was worth it," Carlton said. Her tone doesn't mean materially successful for her; she means she found satisfaction in his self-fulfillment.

Carlton's voice lost some of its vigor, and her eyes much of their light, talking about John's death. It's unnecessary to say she still misses him, but she does anyway.

Carlton returned to South Florida, to a life of public service that hasn't ended yet, as she admonishes neighborhood activists "to get somebody else next time." She lives with her son the swim coach, who cooks for her and "drags me every place he goes. He won't leave me alone."

One of the places Bob took her was to a stretch of road between NE 77th and NE 78th streets on Biscayne Boulevard in Miami-Dade county. In April of last year, it was christened the Mrs. Ann Carlton Bridge.

"I saw my name there, and I started to cry," Carlton said.

More and more energetically dripping teenagers begin to pour into the room. The pictures are put safely away. Chatter turns to clamor and I loudly thank Ann Carlton for talking to me before getting up to go do my job.

The rain and wind make it hard to hear all that the swimmers had to say when I play the interviews back, but it's all right. 

There's enough there to write something, and I already got an amazing story.