The Dukes’ European Vacation

IMGmy family in the south of france

My mother showed up on the playground at school to deliver some of the best news in all of my ten years.   We would be visiting my dad, her ex-husband, and we’d be traveling as a family on a six -week, four-country tour of Europe.

Her enthusiasm was infectious and I was jumping up and down for joy. Or, was I just relieved that my brother and I wouldn’t have to attend the dreaded summer school we were registered for? I kept jumping.

Enter an up-until-then-offstage character: Granny. Before this moment in time, I have no recollection of my mother’s mother, Granny. Suddenly, she was needed for some long overdue babysitting — only this would be for our three cats. I would understand when I became an adult the need to drop off my animals at my own mother’s house when I went off to Europe, but that isn’t part of this story.

My mother went straight to the fabric store and set to work sewing our summer European wardrobe.   She made two stunning chocolate brown lace dresses lined in silk of the same color. One for her, one for me.   A white eyelet dress for me. A few other matching dresses for both of us. A gold brocade jacket for herself.   Evelyn Duke, more excited than I had ever witnessed her, meticulously packed us up for the adventure of our – and especially her — lifetime. I had been missing my dad and it was the most devastating loss of my then short life. He went off to London to produce a play. I’d stare longingly at his framed photo over my bed in our ghetto apartment on Olympic in Beverly Hills. The slums. I stared into his dancing green eyes and cried. Finally, I would be reunited with the love of my life.

This document proves we got our passports

This document proves we got our passports

But first the dreaded small pox shot. The one that formed a pale white scar that remains to this day, my tattooed symbol of the summer of 1963.

We entered the TWA plane; well dressed American kids with perfect behavior. A fly hitched a ride on our flight that day. When he later exited the plane in London, all the other flies had British accents. I saw the northern lights over Greenland on our transatlantic flight, an unforgettable image.   I look out airplane windows over the next fifty years, never seeing that majestic sight again. I’m not going to stop looking.



After collecting the luggage, we took a taxi to our hotel, the Hilton in London. A long ride after an exhausting flight. I found my dad and would not let him go for the next six weeks. But first, a little crush on our bellboy. No, first was the “meet cute” — later, the crush.   I met him. He was a boy — so of course I got a crush.

Flashback. It’s a few hours after our arrival at the hotel. My mother has an epiphany that she accidentally overpaid the taxi driver. He took advantage of tourists not knowing the exchange rate.   So, this hotheaded American calls the taxi service and demands to be paid back. She looks to Alan, my brother, whose wizard brain works so impressively, that he rattles off from memory the taxi driver’s long I.D. number. I mean, it was longer than a phone number. I didn’t even notice it written in the car, but for some odd reason, it was etched in his Rainmanesque mind.   When the car service wasn’t prompt enough with an apology and a refund, she called none other than Scotland Yard. Like Scotland Yard didn’t have more pressing issues at hand. For instance, the Great Train Robbery of 1963. Okay, it didn’t actually happen for another month, but they deal with the serious crimes. Not the petty theft of a corrupt taxi driver. Within 24 hours of our arrival, the money and a formal apology arrived in an envelope at our hotel.

Back to the cute bellboy. Was he cute? Or is it just that he was English? He was a few years older, which I liked. He hung around us a lot, which I really liked. We laughed together or at least he and Alan had a lot of laughs. I laughed too, desperate to be one of them. One day, while sipping my Coke, I laughed so hard, soda came squirting out of my nose, burning and embarrassing me right in front of my crush. Lame.

Off to Hyde Park. It’s our first day and an older gentleman is walking his adorable dog. Anyone who knows our family knows we must have a stop-chat-and-pet with all creatures. I bend down to nuzzle the corgi. “You wah it?” the man asks me in an unintelligible cockney accent. “What?” I say. “You wah it?” he repeats. “WHAT?” I keep answering. This goes on for over five minutes until we all realize at once he’s asking if I want his dog. “No thanks!” I say, relieved that I finally understood the question, but still so confused. For the next few days, I kept thinking of the dog and whether his owner was really offering it up. I’m gullible. American and gullible.

Next, we are riding up in the hotel elevator with another passenger — an elegant East Indian woman.   My dad sneezes. Loud and so very Duke, he yells “Charlie!” as he always does when he sneezes, for no apparent reason.   We laugh because our dad is fucking hilarious and bold.   And the elegant woman loses that perfect composure, laughing so hard that her bindi (the red dot between her eyes) flies off.

We head to the fanciest club in London. The rich and famous are all around us, but all eyes are on Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. Is there a more exotic creature on earth than Elizabeth Taylor with her violet colored eyes, exuding all that sex appeal? My dad shares hellos from across the tables with his old pal, Liz. He had been close with Mike Todd, the husband she presumably loved the most. Todd died in a tragic plane crash early in their marriage.   Liz sought refuge in the arms of her husband’s best friend, Eddie Fisher, which led to the breakup of Eddie and Debbie Reynolds’ marriage, a Hollywood tale that’s got legs — what can I say? In the restaurant that night, Richard Burton is spending an awful lot of time looking over at us and smiling. My dad says, “Oh, look at that. Richard Burton is flirting with you, Fredde.” Even then I knew he had a very serious interest in our table, all right — but it was my stunning mother he was flirting with.

Invitation from Liz and Mike Todd to my dad

Invitation from Liz and Mike Todd to my dad

The following day, my mother needs her hair trimmed. Did I say trimmed?   Apparently, she said trimmed.   But the Hilton hotel hairdresser overdid it and cut her signature, very long red locks. She went berserk, and I mean truly bat-shit-over-the-top-crazy-American-nuts and slapped the dude. Evelyn Duke, my thin-skinned, victimized mother, burst into the room, mourning her loss between sobs. Wow. It’s only hair. Hair grows. She took this really hard, we all kept thinking. I didn’t realize she had an agenda and wanted to look a certain way for her lover. We’ll get to her lover when we get to Italy, okay? Next thing we know, there are cartoons and articles being written about the redheaded crazy American – my mother. We flee the country on a flight to Paris.

Click on this article to read it. We were the subject of a local scandal

Click on this article to read it. We were the subject of a local scandal

Ah, Paris. Our first night there, we went to a chophouse where I ate unforgettable lamb chops. We bought bottled water as we were told to not even brush our teeth with tap water. We stayed at the best places – like the Hotel Frontenac on the Champs-Elysees.   We slept deeply that night. We were jarred awake by the thunderous sound of jet engines overhead. And bombs. My parents feared we were under siege, a Third World War having broken out.   I mean, World War Two had ended in 1946, and now it’s 1963, so it sounded like a plausible theory. Plus, there was the Cuban Missile crisis, only months before.   We were hostages in our hotel room until our parents figured out it was Bastille Day.   Yeah, that’s right – a national holiday. Like the Fourth of July, with fireworks. There was a full-on celebration in the streets, so we headed out and into it.

Frontenac, our hotel in Paris

Frontenac, our hotel in Paris

My mother was determined to find the best lingerie, since we were in Paris and all. Again, I didn’t realize there was an agenda to this — that lover waiting for her in Italy.   She found some lovely bras and panties and treated me to an extra-cool, yellow-and-white polka dot bikini. Score.

We visited my dad’s friends the Constantines – Eddie and his wife, Helaine — on their farm outside of Paris. Eddie, an American expat, became a movie star in France playing gangsters.   They had two kids our age, Lemmy and Barbara.   We can assume Lemmy was named after a character his dad played in Godard’s “Alphaville.” We played with the wild cats that lived in their barn.   I recited Cinderella, by heart, in French, over and over and over again, to impress. Helaine brought us a fresh baguette, slathered it in butter, fresh from their cows, and placed a hard piece of chocolate on top. I was stunned. I thought I wouldn’t take a bite, but I was hungry, so I did. It turned into a life-altering moment that I’ve spent a lifetime trying to recreate.

In the South of France, we stayed in Cannes at the Carlton Hotel.   Each day, we would be given our beach chairs and assigned a location on the sand.   My dad and brother soaked in the topless broads. My mother, ever the nudist, joined in.   I sported my new Parisian bikini.   I built some sand castles, or would they be sand villas, on that small stretch of beach. I wasn’t sure I could dig all the way to China from so far away. So, I wasn’t very good at geography, okay?   In between eating sardine sandwiches on the sand, I’d swim in the warmest, friendliest ocean in the world, the Mediterranean.   Minor waves moved me about as I floated and fantasized the bouillabaisse and escargot I would be having later for dinner.   I also floated around the thought of the bellboy back in London, as well as Richard Burton (maybe he really was flirting with me), and the dog in Hyde Park. I should have said yes, I wah it!!

My father had to stay in London for business, so the three of us went ahead to Rome. The hotel was fabulous because it had a pool. I’m a pool whore and couldn’t wait until that first morning when I could go for a swim. But when I woke up, there was a strange man in our big hotel bed, lying next to my mother. “You remember Gigolo,” (not his real name, but his real occupation) my mother said. OH, YES. We did remember. One night, late, while driving on Santa Monica Boulevard near Beverly Hills High School, a man in another car started flirting with my mother in her Mercedes-Benz. That fact is deceiving because we were so NOT RICH. The truth is that my mother saved all her money and bought this one car — and it would last her until her death at age 66. There were no other cars in her future. But this cheesy Italian dude saw $$$$. They exchanged phone numbers. And in the middle of night, in our dark hotel room, they exchanged DNA.   So very European of my mother, I think to this day. Good thing my brother and I slept soundly.   I was glad when my father reunited with us in Rome and she had to blow Gigolo off.   I swam for hours in the Hilton pool.   We went to the Coliseum. We ate, late at night, in outdoor restaurants that had so many cats, I was in heaven. I shared my spaghetti aglio e olio with them.

By now, I was starting to miss my own three cats back home.   But first, a week in Madrid, where we went on a hunt for the very best in shoes. Again, I scored. A pair of white, really well made Spanish sandals. I bought fans and other souvenirs in all the little shops. My parents fell in love with Spanish wine and the late-night dinners.

For six weeks, my mother lived the life of a world traveler. Never again would she take this transcontinental journey. For her, it was the trip of a lifetime. Evelyn was born in the small Texas town of Sweetwater, married a Hollywood producer and divorced him. But he took her on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation, no expenses spared. I’m grateful to her for dragging me, kicking and screaming, to every ruin and museum she could possibly fit in. For me, it turned out to be like the first taste of crack cocaine. I couldn’t wait to head back there. And later, in my 20’s, I often emptied my bank account to buy round trip tickets.

Not long after our summer abroad, the Beatles landed in the U.S.  Without the help of my dad – which, I might add, is the huge stain on our family lore.  In 1962, manager Brian Epstein sought my father’s help in bringing the boys to the States, because Duke had produced rock and roll shows, and his close friend was famous disc jockey Allen Freed.  But Maurice Duke turned down The Beatles.  That’s right.  Had my dad said yes, aside from a large trust fund, I probably would have met John, Paul, George and Ringo on our vacation.  Only months later, my mom and I donned those brown-laced matching dresses and attended their first concert at the Hollywood Bowl.  I was totally caught up in the mania; screaming, crying and falling deeply in love with Paul.  And I never thought of the bellboy again.

Below I was screaming in that audience. My mother was my date.

Sardine Sandwich: Toast a piece of fabulous French bread.  Spread European unsalted butter on it and place sardines on top.  Eat the sandwich open-faced.  I often make this at home but use anchovies instead of sardines and it’s AMAZING!!!


A photo of a bellboy at the London Hilton 1963

A photo of a bellboy at the London Hilton 1963





Bellboy brothers working at the London Hilton in 1963

Bellboy brothers working at the London Hilton in 1963

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19 Responses to “The Dukes’ European Vacation”

  1. P says:

    Sweetwater. The first night club I threw liquid dreams (booze) was named sweet water. Yes our stolen road sign was sweetwater tx. Hot as hot can be. Debbie Reynolds daughter Connie taught me how to ride my bike without training wheels ,to throw both a baseball and football. Funny now because I had many full rides in football and baseball offers for college. I took skiing though.laughing

  2. Debbie Schellenberg says:

    Oh Oh Fredde…what a fabulous story and what a great read. You must turn these into a book. Fascinating! xoxo Debbie

  3. Linda says:

    It brings back my first trip to Europe, 3 years later! Similar memories of watching excitedly out the window, the hairdresser, a French sandwich (for me “au jambon” … bread, a schmeer of butter, thin piece of ham … perfect). My Spanish shoes came years later, as did the sexy Italian.

  4. Loved every moment. Transporting. Salivating, as always….What a childhood!

  5. Karen says:

    I agree with the book idea. You are a talented writer!

  6. Mitch says:

    Wow! And I thought I had a few exciting moments in 1963. Compared to your exploits, I was stuck in slow motion. Those are some great stories, Fredde.

  7. Augie Duke says:

    The best story yet… This is such an epic story Mom wow.. I mean your writing is sensational…. I was there with all of you the whole ride….

  8. Peter Belanger says:

    Fredde, agree with above, a book is a must. Your stories are a hoot and bitingly told. And I well remember Mr. Wilmaker’s Cinderella production and the one line I had: “Je viens de la part du prince, qui vous invite a son bal.” (The prince says come to his shindig.)

  9. Laura Plotkin says:

    I just loved this (as usual) and I have so many questions–for starters, did your dad know about your mom’s fling? Did either of you kids spill the beans or did they just have an “understanding?” Oh, and too bad about the Beatles–for SO many reasons! What a time! What a story!

  10. Libbie lane says:

    Absolutely Charming!!!!

  11. Carol Ward Dudley says:

    Always but always love your stories – which also reminds me I am in dire need of a sewing machine – you are the best, Fredde – xxooc

  12. Helen Starlight says:

    Encaptivating story, Fredde! Loved reading it. Your words paint the scenes beautifully:). Thank you!!

  13. Nile Hight says:

    Another fantastic chapter. Do you have color photos of your mother and her red hair?

  14. Ricky Greene says:

    Hi Freddie!
    I was there also 12 row box seats the Beatles in 1964 James Brown opened up OMG 50 years ago, 1965 the a band called Yellow Pages then the Young Rascals Followed by the Beatles. In 1966 Dodger Stadium the band Cyrkle red rubber ball song Bobby Hebb the song Sunny and of course the Beatles. One of best times of my life and a memory that only the people that were there could really share. Love ya Ricky

  15. Joan Bolton says:

    What a wonderful ( & true!!!) story.

  16. Danna Colman says:

    Love! Love! Love!

  17. Pauli Cymet says:

    Loved the read. Colorful family life. Your dad was really one of a kind. Your mom sounds like she was awesome,also. You saw E Taylor when she was at her most beautiful age and Richard was quite the dashing man. I saw him in bh once walking in front of hermitage hotel with blonde wife. I stalked him driving around three times as had to see him more than once. I did not visit Europe until my twenties but loved it more than the USA! Planned to retire there but life had other plans for me, unfortunately. Would have liked to visit as you did as a teen. I enjoy reading your tales. Keep writing and i will always read and enjoy your unique writing style. You have had quite a life, Fredrica, very full and adventurous. i get a kick out of your perspective and humor. Thank u for sharing it on FB with us!

  18. Renee says:

    Love this story! Takes me back to the summer of 1963 when my mother shlepped me to Israel to visit family. Parallel lives-except I had the opposite experience. Didn’t speak the language, missed home, had to scrub beach tar off of my feet with gasoline every day (we would take my uncle’s donkey and wagon to the beach). Looking back, it was pretty wonderful, but it couldn’t have been more different than your summer of ’63.

    Also saw the Beatles in ’65, but couldn’t hear a thing due to the screaming all around me.

  19. Karen Keating says:

    Oh wow this made my day! How I love your writing Fredde. We often spent summers in Oslo Norway when I was a child. Now I am so grateful for those experiences. This story took me to a lovely and vibrant place…Thinking of you this morning. Ciao Bella.xo

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