July 10, 1957
Let’s suppose you are a famous comedian with a hit TV show. Fame and wealth are yours–more than you could have ever imagined. You are recognized wherever you go.
Now let’s suppose that the doctors at UCLA say your 9-year-old son, Richard, has less than a year to live because of incurable leukemia. Maybe only five months. All that wealth and fame can’t bring him even one more day.
You don’t know how to explain such things to a 9-year-old, so you haven’t told him. Right now, the leukemia is in remission. He has no idea he has such a brief time to live.
But when he sees “The Last Days of Pompeii” on TV and thinks it looks interesting, that’s all you need to book a trip for you, your wife, your son and your 10-year-old daughter to Pompeii. There’s no way to pack a lifetime’s worth of experiences into a year, but you can try, so you add stops in Copenhagen, Switzerland, Rome, Barcelona, Paris, London and Dublin, Ireland.
Although you’re not Catholic, you meet Pope Pius XII, who read about your trip in the newspapers and
granted a request for a private audience. Pius tells your son: “Life is eternal because of God. So if life is taken away from one person in a family they are never separated because the family will always live together in eternal life with God.”
Of course, the reporters follow you everywhere. In Paris, they ask your son what he wants to see first. The Eiffel Tower, he says. And what next? “What else is there?” he asks.
At the Louvre, where your family upstages the artwork, Richard asks why the “Mona Lisa” was smiling. “Because everybody is looking at her,” is the answer.
But in London, you are not received so favorably. Some of the British papers see the trip as nothing more than a ghastly publicity stunt by a gauche Hollywood TV star exploiting his son’s illness. One paper lectures you to go back to America. Another calls a session with reporters: “a nauseating jamboree.” Columnist Simon Ward of the Daily Sketch says: “I was horrified and revolted at the spectacle of this poor little boy being put under the spotlight.”
According to the Daily Sketch’s description of a news conference, your son: “sat there white-faced and near to tears while the crowd milled around him in the smoke-filled room”
It was only then that your son, Richard, finds out he is dying. He remarks: “Everybody says I’m going to die but that means everybody but me.”
You attack the local press and defend yourself on British TV: “I do not believe my son is going to die. I believe in God. I believe in the medical profession. I believe that an answer will be found.”
Back in Los Angeles, a British envoy does his best to defend the British press, saying: “I don’t think there’s a person in Britain who doesn’t wish only the best for Mr. Skelton and his son.”
In August 1957, you visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal, saying: “God alone can save my boy’s life as science has done all it can.”
Around New Year’s 1958, you are hospitalized for what the papers call an asthma attack. A few months later, Brentwood Country Club honors you as the Man of the Year at the United Jewish Welfare Fund banquet.
And then of all the prayers for your son, there was a final one for Richard Freeman Skelton, who died May 10, 1958, a little more than a week before his 10th birthday. You asked him if he wanted a big birthday party and he said no, just a few friends. So you brought a Sears catalogue to the hospital so Richard could pick whatever he wanted. He selected a tent and camping equipment–and a surprise gift for Mother’s Day.
As he lay there dying, with an IV in his leg because all the other veins were collapsed from transfusions, he asked: “Daddy, will you get Mama that red blanket for Mother’s Day? I don’t suppose they’d let me out of here with this cut on my leg.”
An hour later, Richard said: “I can’t see. Everything is fuzzy.” And he was gone. You and your wife, Georgia, sat with him for half an hour, weeping. “I had to sit there and cry,” Georgia said. “Richard wouldn’t let me cry before. He always chided me if I came into see him with my eyes red.”
Then you and your wife came home to tell the news to your daughter, Valentina. You went into Richard’s bedroom, decorated with his toys, his favorite camera and the stuffed dog he slept with at night.
Next to Richard’s bed was a small suitcase he had packed with underwear, socks and a toothbrush in case the family went on another trip. “He said, ‘Mama, you never know when we’ll be leaving on a trip.
It’s best to be ready.’ ”
Georgia started to turn off the lights and stopped. “No, I can’t turn off that light. I don’t want it dark in here, not tonight.”
Richard was laid in his casket with a cross he’d requested from the pope, his other last wish, in a lavish funeral at Church of the Recessional at Forest Lawn.
Before a crowd of mourners that included Vincent Price, David Rose, Johnny Weismuller and even mobster Mickey Cohen, actor William Lundigan read a eulogy by Gene Fowler, whom Richard nicknamed “Grandpa Wrinklepants.”
We now stand at the gate of mystery and great sorrow, a place beyond which we of the living world cannot go with little Richard.
This is the end of his brief journey on earth. This is the end of the glad hours we have spent with this bright and shining child.
We shall say but a few words of farewell to the red-haired boy whose golden years touched so many of us like some heaven-sent miracle.
What words of ours, grown up though we may be, or wise as we mistakenly think we are, can define the miracle? What praise can awake the sleeping child? Or explain the meaning of God’s will?
Through the cruel months of his illness he did not complain…. Always a most courageous little gentleman. A president and a pope were his friends…. and hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who had never known him.
Now he belongs to God. Farewell then, little fellow, and thanks for your short visit with us here on Earth.
I remember this tragic event well as I was nine years old later that year myself. I also remember the stories about the English press’s treatment of the dying boy.
Some things never change.
I started crying when I read this and I can’t stop. Even though it happened 50 years ago, it’s so sad.