By Kim Knode
Los Angeles, November 2002
Twinkling in the baby blues of “The Bel Air Kid”, Alphonzo Bell Jr. (progeny of Bel Air’s founder) is a Wyatt Earp spirit. Etched in the crevices of his leather-tanned face are the compassion and contentment of a cowboy who dared to fight for the dictates dear to his heart.
Childhood Bel Air neighbor, Will Rogers advised the young lad to, “Stay out of jail.” Bell did stay out of the slammer. In fact, Bush Sr. extolled Bell on January 18, 1998 for “his success in (the oil) business before going to Congress.” The former President also commended Bell for the sixteen years he served in Congress where he was renowned for “always voting his conscience but always serving the people of his district, never forgetting who sent him to Washington.” Number Forty-One’s praise concludes by proclaiming that, “As a friend, I am happy to salute him and congratulate him on his flawless service in the US Congress. He showed his state and nation a lot of class.”
Appropriate to an 88-year-old statesman, today he is regally enthroned on a leather chair with sun rays emanating above his silver tresses at the Bel Air Bay Club. Alongside him sits Marian McCargo Bell. (She surrendered her halcyon moments of seeing her name on the marquee with gents such as Rock Hudson, Gene Hackman and the Duke for the permanent role of the devoted congressman’s wife.)
Bell takes a gulp of black coffee from the club’s bone china and grins. “You might say I was raised to be a cowboy.”
I inquire, “Did cowboy ethics carry you to Congress?”
Bell nods yes.
“And what exactly is the code of conduct on the range?” I ask.
He answers, “To be independent and to move in a certain direction even when it might hurt you.”
“The Bel Air Kid” was bucking broncos for real in his youth. Bell Sr. ran a California corn and citrus farm replete with cows and horses before bumping into oil. And after acquiring the Italian villa, Capo di Monte in Bel Air, Bell Sr. purchased the Bar Bell Ranch in Meeker, Colorado.
The retired congressman confesses that he preferred lassoing stallions and slumbering under a canopy of stars to “showing off” in stretch limos and shopping on Rodeo Drive. He says, “My father fostered in me a love for the outdoors.”
Undoubtedly Bell’s passionate campaign against the military to regain San Onofre for public use was spurred by his appreciation of beauty unblemished by human hands. (The stretch of sand in Southern California is a spectacular site for sunning and sea sports.) Marines were allegedly utilizing the area for military exercises. Bell believed the beach belonged as a public pleasure place. A mélange of media spins of cowboy congressman versus the militia ensued.
The end result of the parrying in the press? Bell won the beach for his constituents. And “Nixon took credit for San Onofre,” says the former congressman. “Nixon told the story, which was widely reported, that he had remarked to his wife, Pat when they visited San Onofre one day while it was still in the hands of the Marines that, ‘it would be nice if the public could enjoy this beautiful spot like we do.'” The elder statesman stoically states, “This is typical of Dick Nixon…Of course, no one disputed him.”
Tangling with tricky Dick allegedly involved intricate Tango steps. (Apparently, a temperamental Nixon kick could leave a political career severely bruised.) However, Bell was happy to hook arms with Nixon and do the Virginia Reel down the corridors of Congress when it came to the Vietnam War. The congressman from California declares, “Nixon had the right idea. You had to bomb the hell out of the Viet Cong to make them squeal…If you can’t make a deal. You have to get tough.” (Does Bell agree with Bush Jr.’s desire to attack Iraq? A resounding “yes” is the reply.)
Although in agreement with the party line on war, Bell was often labeled the Republican rebel. On August 28, 1963, Bell marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (As a member of his entourage, the elder statesman heard the thundering, “I have a dream” speech from the second row on that sultry summer day.)
Also, the congressman charged ahead for his support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 despite the dissenting voices of most in the GOP camp. Craig Hosmer, a fellow Republican, reluctantly joined Bell’s campaign posse to pass the act. He purportedly complained to Bell, “My God, my constituents are so mad at me for what I did under your advice.”
Bell’s admonition? “You’d better be in favor of the Civil Rights issue. Take most of the Democratic positions. This is an issue that’s going to come up again and again.”
The elder statesman smiles and states, “I am proud to have supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 from the start. It was a bill that embraced equal opportunity for all people.” (I’m not surprised to discover that he admires Andrew Jackson. The volatile President from Tennessee is credited for creating greater equanimity in America’s voting system. In addition, Bell respects, “Jackson for beating the hell out of the British.”)
Former President Ford was another Republican who did not always share Bell’s vision. “Gerry got mad at me a few times when I disagreed with him on a bill he considered important. He would call and give me hell for it. I usually gave him my reasons why and keep to my position…Gerry never seemed to carry any grudge afterwards,” says Bell.
“I knew Gerry very well because he, for many years, was the Republican leader of the House of Representatives, my boss so to speak.” Bell continues with a bemused look, “I helped elect him to that position.”
Like cowboys traversing the lonely range of U.S. politics teeming with predators, a brotherly bond developed. In the riotous sixties, Ford was instrumental in Bell’s decision to stay in Washington. After the death of his second wife, Bell confesses, “I was somewhat ambivalent but inclined to stay in politics. My sister-in-law was adamant that I resign from politics to take care of my children.” The California congressman says, “Gerry went straight to the heart of the problem. He said, ‘I know there are some who feel you should not run again. But I think you should.'” Bell cracks a little grin. “Gerry told me, ‘You don’t always agree with me and I don’t always agree with you. But I think the Republican House needs men like you. It needs men who study the issues, have sincere viewpoints and can express themselves like you do.'” The congressman stayed in Washington.
Preceding Bell’s personal tragedy, the USA suffered the trauma of JFK’s assassination. (The elder statesman recalls, “When I did meet Kennedy at a party, he paid more attention to my wife!”) Ford, as a congressman, served on the committee investigating the murder. Bell recalls, “Gerry Ford wasn’t positive that there wasn’t another shot.”
Does Bell believe Oliver Stone’s rendition of JFK? “I buy a certain amount of the conspiracy theory because Kennedy had taken stands against the unions. They had the power to do something like this,” he replies.
I interject, “How about the Mafioso?”
He shakes his head. “The Mafia may have joined in but I don’t think they were behind the shooting.”
Ronald Reagan gave up his on-screen shoot-’em-up pistols for a career in political banter. As a Republican, naturally many of the past presidents who were Bell’s friends sprang from the GOP. However, originally Bell knew Reagan as a Democrat. He served as the Chairman of Democrats for Bell. The elder statesman chuckles. “Reagan was a very funny person. And a good talker. He’d say the same things as Barry Goldwater and make it sound all right!”
Another thespian well versed in the ways of Washington and tinsel town is his wife, Marian. In her silver screen siren days, The New York Times noted that, “Marian McCargo is a very classy girl.” And studio press agents of the ’60s touted her around town as retaining that, “refined star quality woefully missing from the motion picture world since Grace Kelly bid adieu to filmmaking.”
Glittering Hollywood connections aside, Marian’s access to Washington’s illuminati were abundant preceding Al Bell Jr. For starters, Marian matriculated into the same East Coast finishing school as Jacqueline Bouvier. Her holiday playground was Martha’s Vineyard. (She recalls the Teddy Kennedy Chappaquidick incident with a laugh. “I remember the Republicans on the island. Most were rejoicing, ‘Thank God! He won’t be President!'”)
Currently Marian’s brother’s beachfront home borders Walter Cronkite’s property. (“My brother knows him very well. I love Walter Cronkite,” coos Marian.) Apparently Cronkite and Clinton are close friends. So Marian has met to the Clintons on many an occasion in Massachusetts. She exclaims, “Hillary and Bill are very charming!”
Marian giggles. Like a schoolgirl delighting in a delicious story, she explains. “Clinton was on Walter’s boat one day. This was about the time the Monica Lewinsky gift tie scandal was all over the news. When they moored on my brother’s dock, Clinton leaned over to my very pretty daughter-in-law who was wearing a white bathing suit and hat. He said, ‘What a lovely tie – I mean hat you have on!'”
While Marian was well rooted in Washington, Bell was circulating around Hollywood with starlets such as Zsa Zsa Gabor and June Lockhart. (This, of course, was long before the matchmaking – courtesy of the couple’s children from former marriages – was a fait accompli.)
Bell is tightlipped to queries about Gabor. “She was very nice,” he says.
Marian chortles, “She probably thought he was a wealthy guy!” And then to her husband, “Her sister, Eva married a great supporter of yours. He was in aviation wasn’t he?”
Bell smiles in silence.
We glide into discussions about the Duke. Serendipitously, both Bell and Marian individually knew John Wayne. (The congressman co-owned an Acapulco condo with the Western film star.) Marian concurs with her husband on the affability of the Duke.
The mega movie star, however, rattled her on the first date of shooting The Undefeated. Springing forth from Stella Adler’s acting classes, Marian stepped onto the set and asked the maestro to run lines. His reply? “If you don’t know what the lines are, what the hell you doing here?”
Bell nods his head. “Duke was like that.” He sites a disagreement with the third owner (a Beverly Hills attorney) of the Bell/Wayne home on the Mexican Riviera. Wayne asked Bell for diplomatic council on dealing with the lawyer’s girlfriend who was usurping the household power and position of Bell’s former spouse and the Duke’s beloved. The practiced politician voted “nay” on breathing a word. Wayne listened and announced, “I’ve got to say something Al.” (He did. The condo soon went on the market for sale.)
John Wayne also spoke up during Bell’s Senate campaign. The Hollywood icon appeared on numerous TV ads endorsing the hopeful Bell. However, the Duke dropped his support when Bell backed Tom Bradley for Mayor. Why? Bell shrugs his shoulder and quietly states, “Many people thought Bradley was too liberal.”
Discoursing on off-camera Duke dramas prompts me to inquire if Marian misses acting. Her bright blue eyes beam. “It is very exciting to be involved in the main stream of American life. And marrying Al is a high point in my life. My husband and my family are always top priority regardless of ambition or career.” Marian looks down at her cold tea for an instant. “It always bothers you a little but ” Marian interrupts her train of thought with a guffaw. “I’ll never say no to a job. And acting is fun. But the anxiety of the next job – oh!”
Marian compares her silver screen past life to tennis. “I’m a tennis player. Whether you win or lose, it’s important that you play the game.” The ashen blonde smiles serenely. “I’d have liked to play the game with more fortitude. I should have fought harder.”
So where does Marian execute her smashing serves and returns? “The Los Angeles Tennis Club of course!… Why? The friendships.” With a giant grin she adds, “And the great tennis!’
Before knee surgery, Bell also engaged in the activity of chasing the bouncing yellow balls as avidly as his wife. Besides oil, the blueblood sport runs thick in the Bell veins. (Burning the midnight oil, Bell Sr. graduated Occidental College with the honors of giving the valedictorian speech and garnering the Inter-Collegiate Champion and Pacific Coast Tennis Champion trophies. Bell’s father also held national tennis rankings in the early 1900s.)
Despite the passion for the bourgeois sport of tennis, cosmopolitan soirees at chic LA clubs and cocktail parties at the White House, the couple could have stepped out of a chapter in a Louis L’Amour novel. Alphonzo Bell Jr. is perfectly cast as the hero who declares, “I want to be remembered as a man who was honest and forthright. My word was kept. I didn’t mealy-mouth and do something different.” Marian, whom Bell proclaims is, “the love of my life” slips easily into the role of the devoted, spirited wife.
The last chapter of this cowboy hero and his Mrs. is bound to have a happy Hollywood ending. Why not? Based on the past adventures of Alphonzo Bell Jr., fans know that he is the invincible “Bel Air Kid!”
Alphonzo Bell Jr.’s autobiography, The Bel Air Kid is available for purchase at alphonzobell.com.
Kim Knode’s interview articles focusing on artists, celebrities and dance champions have been published in various print and on-line publications.