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A Considerable Town

My Mother Was the Mistress of the Owner of Clifton's Cafeteria

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Thu, Jun 20, 2013 at 10:03 AM
click to enlarge DREW BARILLAS
  • Drew Barillas

Later this year, Clifton's Cafeteria reopens in its historic downtown location on Broadway, fresh from a $5 million makeover courtesy of filmmaker/entrepreneur Andrew Meieran. I can hardly wait. It isn't just the memories the place holds. It's also the fact that it holds my mother, and I've been missing her lately.

In January 2011 — the one-year anniversary of my mother's death from congestive heart failure, at age 88 — my brother, sister and I dined at Clifton's and toted along a very special box. Inside were our mother's cremated ashes. The building renovation was well under way, with the second floor roped off and telltale signs of construction all around. When no one was looking, we seized the opportunity and approached an electrical closet whose wiring extended down throughout the building.

It was the perfect final resting place for Mom.

We grabbed the box and poured her surprisingly dense and heavy incinerated self through Clifton's, reuniting my mother in perpetuity with the great love of her life: the cafeteria's esteemed founder, Clifford E. Clinton.

While the "cremains" (as they're known in the mortuary trade) do not in fact constitute a health risk, their disposal inside the bowels of a dining establishment is likely frowned upon, if not massively illegal. But it's what Mom would have wanted.

My mother, Terri Richmond, was Clinton's mistress. For a full decade, this was very much an open secret. I was just a year old when they met in 1958. Mom worked as a "nurse" in a "chiropractor's office" across the street from 20th Century Fox Studios on Pico. Her "patients" were restricted to males, and the therapy largely to the region on and around the genitalia. Years later, Mom would boast with some pride that she "had the penises of more than 5,000 men" in her hand during her time as a happy-ending masseuse, including those of Mickey Rooney and Richard Crenna, as well as numerous other Hollywood players. Many a star on set opted to spend his lunch hour at Mom's office rather than the studio commissary.

One fine day, my mother would later relate, Clifford E. Clinton walked in looking for a little relaxation and made a beeline for her in her crisp white nurse's uniform. To say that Clinton wasn't really the target demographic for such a joint would be a sizable understatement.

click to enlarge Clifford Clinton, with wife Nelda, left, and the author's mother
  • Clifford Clinton, with wife Nelda, left, and the author's mother

It wasn't just that the dapper Clinton was a devout Christian. He was, in fact, a seminal figure in L.A. politics of the mid to late 1930s, one who ran afoul of city government when he tried to clean it up from the outside. He fought the cops, City Hall and organized crime, nearly getting himself killed in the process. His house was bombed. Law enforcement routinely harassed him. The health department targeted Clinton's restaurants with bogus violations and complaints.

But the man never flinched. He wouldn't rest until the city's ring of prostitution, gambling, cronyism and sleaze was put out of business and a dirty pol named Frank Shaw became, in 1938, the first mayor of a U.S. city to be successfully recalled and tossed from office. It's all extensively detailed in John Buntin's 2009 book, L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City. Clinton took on the power structure as the proverbial man against an army and reformed it. It's hard to argue Clifford Clinton hadn't earned that handjob.

But in Clinton, my mother didn't see a mere moral crusader with balls of brass. She fell in love with an unfailingly kind, modest, nattily attired (always in a bowtie), bespectacled, deeply religious and — yes — horny gentleman with a legendarily generous nature. He was married, yes. But he fell just as hard for Mom, as his letters made clear.

It was an odd coupling, to say the least: a famed local restaurateur and a squat, buxom, broad-minded Jewish mother from Cleveland, who was some 21 years his junior. But shortly after he began regularly frequenting the office to partake of my mother's nursing skills, Clinton convinced her to quit the manipulation business, and they began a torrid affair.

It remained their secret, she told us, until one day Clifford's wife, Nelda, confronted her husband about his new lady, giving him the "her or me" ultimatum. As my mother would later explain it, Clinton couldn't fathom living without either his wife — who was said to have lost interest in sex — or Mom (who decidedly hadn't). Rather than face the unthinkable, Mom said, he tried to end his life by gulping down a bottle of sleeping pills.

When he was revived and shared his desperation with Nelda, she granted her husband permission to keep seeing my mother, so long as he didn't humiliate her or their marriage and there were no more secrets. And he didn't try to off himself again.

From that point forward, Mom and Cliff simply were a fact of life for the Clinton family. Nelda, Clifford and my mother would regularly dine together locally and vacation in Hawaii and Europe.

Clinton and my mother soon were meeting for weekly trysts at a rented studio apartment love nest/sensuality den behind Norm's restaurant on La Cienega. I remember it having all the accoutrements of which 1960s clichés were born: a mirrored canopy and beaded curtains on the bed; stars glued to the ceiling, glowing in the dark to resemble the night sky; a lava lamp and a ceiling disco ball; heavy velvet and satin decor. Mom described how, before they made love, she'd sprinkle drops of her perfume on the light bulbs to spread the scent throughout the room.

They had a standing date at the nest every Thursday afternoon, hours that Mother savored. However, at other times, things got pretty weird. I have photo albums of their vacations together, all meticulously compiled by Clinton's dutiful wife. The pictures show the strain of being a player in one of L.A. history's most bizarre trios. When traveling, they'd get two rooms, and Clinton would have playdates in one while sleeping in the other, sister wives–style. Mother did her part by gleefully converting to Christianity, accepting Jesus Christ as her savior and working hard to transform a situation so inherently awkward into one that felt downright wholesome (at least to two of the three participants).

As a boy, I got to know my mother's special friend "Mr. Clinton" reasonably well. Soft of speech and silver of hair, he gave me candy and took me to get ice cream in his VW Beetle four-speed. He would lead me on tours of the Clifton's Cafeteria building on Broadway, the one with a faux redwood forest and a tiny on-site chapel for dining-room spiritual sustenance.

My mother often shared tales of what an amazing man Mr. Clinton was. About how he would let people "pay whatever they could" and "even dine for free" during the Depression. About how helping the poor became his life's mission. About how he founded a charity called Meals for Millions, dedicated to feeding the world's starving. About how he was just a way better dude than my gambling, womanizing, good-for-nothing father.

Mom also spoke of her "love" for him, which was odd only in that she never discussed loving anyone else, including her children. She showed off a large, diamond "friendship ring" that Clifford had given her as if it were the most precious stone in the universe.

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    Clifton's Cafeteria Historic Menus and Pamphlets Give Glimpse of the Past

    Exploring the LAPL menu collection is an ongoing project in which we'll take a close look at the menus owned by the Los Angeles Public Library. Read about the project here. On Friday, Collectors Weekly published a long and fascinating article about Clifton's Cafeteria. The piece covers the history of Clifton's, as well... More >>

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