“No one could recall ever seeing or hearing about Gram being involved in a protest of any sort.”
Author Ben Fong Torres, who interviewed scores of people close to Gram Parsons while researching Hickory Wind
Timing is a curious thing. When I first started this series in May of 2008, the fact that Jim Morrison’s father had served as the commander of the ships involved in the Gulf of Tonkin ‘incident’ had gone virtually unreported for some four-and-a-half decades. Readers were shocked – shocked, I tell you! – when I began this series by trotting out that revelation. Some even accused me of making it up, or of somehow twisting the facts.
But as fate would have it, as December of 2008 rolled around, the mainstream media was suddenly awash with reports of the unusual Morrison family connection. On December 8, for example, the Los Angeles Times carried a report on Admiral George Stephen Morrison, described therein as “a retired Navy rear admiral and the father of the late rock icon Jim Morrison.” According to the Times report, “Morrison had a long career that included serving as operations officer aboard the aircraft carrier Midway and commanding the fleet during the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, which led to an escalation of American involvement in Vietnam.” (emphasis added)
The very next day, on December 9, the New
Times followed suit with a report by William Grimes: “George S.
commanded the fleet during the Gulf of Tonkin incident that led to
escalation of the Vietnam War and whose son Jim was the lead singer of
Doors … Aboard the flagship carrier Bon Homme Richard, Mr. Morrison
American naval forces in the gulf when the destroyer Maddox engaged
Vietnamese torpedo boats on Aug. 2, 1964. A skirmish and confused
reports of a
second engagement two days later led President Lyndon B. Johnson to
Mr. Grimes has penned a rather charitable
On December 7, the day before George
turned up in the LA Times’ obituaries, another key name from
Canyon saga appeared there as well: Elmer Valentine, co-owner of the
clubs on the Strip in the late 1960s and early 1970s – the
Roxy, and the Rainbow. Valentine died of unspecified causes on
Some scribes, I suppose, would find it a bit disconcerting to find that some of the characters in their work-in-progress had suddenly started dropping dead. After all, the cause of death in both cases is a bit fuzzy, and Morrison dropped just four days after Part 11 was posted and Valentine followed suit 6 days after Part 12 went up. But they were both quite elderly, of course, so maybe it was just their time to go.
Anyway, the real focus of this chapter is
singer/songwriter/guitarist/keyboardist Gram Parsons, and the Gram
story, as it turns out, is essentially a microcosm of the
First of all, let’s begin with the obvious:
Parsons was far from being the biggest star to emerge from the
It is safe to say that Parsons does not have nearly the number of fans that, say, David Crosby or Frank Zappa have. Compared to contemporaries who died during the same era and at roughly the same age – artists like Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix – Parsons is all but unknown. But the fans that he does have tend to be particularly rabid ones, and if you happen to be one of them, you might want to skip this chapter. And the next, actually, because this is kind of a long story.
We begin back about, oh, a thousand years
Ferdinand the Great, the first King of Castille on the
Reade’s offspring would ultimately spawn
Cecil Connor, Jr., a well-to-do gent who settled in
Not to worry though – Cecil was never in harm’s way, having opted to forgo living in officer’s quarters on the military base in favor of staying at a luxurious, massive estate near Diamond Head owned by uber-wealthy heiress Barbara Hutton. Hutton, for those who don’t know, was the granddaughter of Frank Woolworth, the founder of the Woolworth’s five-and-dime store chain. She was also the daughter of Franklyn Laws Hutton, a co-founder of E.F. Hutton, one of the nation’s most prestigious brokerage firms until it ran afoul of the law for such crimes as check kiting, money laundering and mail fraud. Barbara was also the niece of Marjory Post Hutton, the daughter of C.W. Post, founder of what would become General Foods.
Like so many of the other characters who have populated this story (including Gram Parsons), Barbara was traumatized in childhood by the alleged suicide of a parent. According to news reports, it was 5-year-old Barbara who discovered her mother Edna’s lifeless body in May of 1917. An empty bottle of strychnine was reportedly recovered by police from a nearby bathroom. There was no autopsy performed and no official inquest was ever conducted, as would be expected when an extremely wealthy person dies under questionable circumstances.
In 1930, just after the onset of the last Great Depression, Barbara was thrown a lavish debutante ball attended by those at the very top of the food chain, including members of the Astor and Rockefeller families. The next year, she inherited a fortune estimated to be worth the equivalent of $1 billion today. She was just nineteen at the time. Two years later, she received further inheritance that raised her net worth to an estimated $2-$2.5 billion (in today’s dollars). Much of the rest of the country was busily wallowing in abject poverty.
Ms Hutton lived a very troubled life, with
failed marriages and relationships. One of her many paramours was
Rensselaer, who later penned a book about her life which he entitled Million
Dollar Baby. Van Rensselaer, it will be recalled, was from the same
(I almost added “after that brief digression” to the preceding sentence, but then I remembered that, though I rarely read commentary on my work on the web, I did stumble across something the other day. The review was positive overall, though it did note that my website design was, uhmm, I think the word was “atrocious,” and that I had (this may not be an exact quote) “an unnatural fondness for the word ‘digress.’” I could, I suppose, mount a spirited defense against the charges, but the evidence appears to be overwhelming. But here I really have digres ... let’s just get back to our story, shall we?)
As World War II drug on, Ingram Cecil Connor,
worked his way up the chain of command to the rank of Major. In the
theater of operations, he was a decorated hero and a squadron commander
flew numerous combat missions. After the war, he continued to serve in
Force at a base in
The Snively clan had first come to
Brought over with him to
Milton S. Hershey, of course, would go on to
the world’s largest producer of chocolate confections. Less well known
Hershey failed miserably in his first several attempts to launch a
The moral of this story, in case you missed
that without the Schnebele/Snavely/Snively family fortune, there never
have been any such thing as a Hershey bar or a town known as
As for Maria’s brother, Jacob Schnebele, he
August of 1766 in
Avis Snively, who exchanged vows with Ingram
Connor, Jr., was the daughter of Papa John. On
The Connor family home in
In September of 1957, when Gram was not yet
he was sent off to attend the Bowles School, a combination prep school
military academy in Jacksonville, Florida. On his entry questionnaire,
asked for his top three college choices; Gram chose
The following year, just before Christmas 1958, Ingram Cecil “Coon Dog” Connor, Jr. was found sprawled across his bed in the family home, a bullet hole in his right temple. A .38 handgun was found nearby. There was no note to be found. Cecil’s brother Tom had visited just the month before, around Thanksgiving, and Coon Dog had told him that he’d never been happier and that life with Avis was wonderful. Curiously, his death was initially ruled to be accidental.
Just ten months before Cecil’s death, Papa John Snively, Avis’ dad, had also died, and now she found herself with both of the men in her life gone. And yet, according to a family member, she never appeared to grieve and she displayed a “total lack of remorse” over anything she may have done to drive Coon Dog to allegedly commit suicide (by some reports, she had been having an affair).
Some six months after Cecil’s death, Avis,
Little Avis boarded a train for a cross-country trip. They were gone
summer. Not long after returning, the family moved from the house that
had died in and Avis soon met Robert Ellis Parsons, who owned a
ostensibly specialized in leasing heavy construction equipment.
clients, curiously enough, happened to be in
It is unclear, by the way, where the “Ellis”
Parsons name comes from, so it would probably be irresponsible to
Ellis family that is an intermarried branch of the Bush family, but
The Snively clan took an immediate dislike to Parsons, who was described by one family member as a “greedy son of a bitch.” Nevertheless, Avis quickly married him and Bob Parsons quickly took control of her life. One of his first moves was to adopt Gram and Avis, even going so far as to have new birth certificates drawn up listing him as their biological father (how exactly does one go about doing that, by the way?) He also promptly impregnated Avis and convinced her to file a $1.5 million lawsuit against her brother, John, Jr., and her sister, Evalyn. The suit was settled out of court, with Avis receiving an unspecified number of citrus groves, but the real repercussions would be felt some fifteen years later with the bankruptcy of much of the family business in 1974.
In 1960, just a year after marrying, Bob and Avis added daughter Diane to the family. Also added was eighteen-year-old babysitter Bonnie, whom Bob immediately began an affair with, which apparently was not a very well-kept secret. What was a somewhat better kept secret is that, in the early 1960s, following the Cuban revolution, Robert Ellis Parsons became involved in the ‘Cuban cause,’ which is to say that he had very close ties to the leaders of an exile group that was being trained in Polk County, Florida to overthrow the Cuban government.
On one occasion (or at least one occasion that is acknowledged), he brought young Gram along to visit the group’s training camp. As luck would have it, a team from Life magazine happened to also be there that day and Gram – wouldn’t you know it? – was photographed at the camp. When Avis was informed of that development, she worked quickly to insure that those photos were never published. To this day, they have never surfaced.
During that same era, Bob Parsons converted a
downtown warehouse that he owned into a teen nightclub to showcase the
of his ‘son,’ Ingram “Gram” Parsons, who sang and played keyboards and
guitar. Circa 1963, Gram got a folk combo together that was known as
Shilos. During the summer of 1964, the summer before Gram’s senior year
school, the band spent a month in
Despite his early preference for
At his high school graduation in June of 1965, Gram was in his cap and gown and all set to proceed with the ceremonies when he was pulled aside and informed that his mother Avis had suddenly passed away. Seemingly unaffected, he chose to participate in the ceremonies. A classmate and friend has said that there was no sign that anything was troubling Gram that day as he went through the graduation rituals.
Avis had died in the hospital, reportedly of alcohol poisoning, right after Bob Parsons had smuggled her in a bottle of scotch. Gram’s mother was just forty-two at the time of her death. His father, Coon Dog, had only made it to the age of forty-one. Neither of their kids, Gram or Little Avis, would make it even that far.
Soon after his mother’s death, Gram received
notice from the Selective Service. Not to worry though – Bob quickly
got him a
4-F deferment and Gram happily went off to Harvard, enrolling in
1965. By February of 1966, just five months later, Gram had had enough
Harvard and he withdrew. According to some sources, he never really
Harvard at all, but rather spent all his time taking in the folk music
Gram arrived at Harvard a few years too late
catch the peak of the folk music scene in
The epicenter of the
In addition to the folk scene hitting its
the summer of 1962, something else newsworthy happened in
As the title of Kelly’s book implies, there
was no such person as the Boston Strangler, but that didn’t
authorities and the media from pinning all the murders on one Albert
far better known as the Boston Strangler. And so it was that just as
Folkie Richard Farina, by the way, was the
of Mimi Baez, Joan’s younger sister. Farina had attended
Albert Baez also traveled abroad, to
Anyway, Farina married Mimi when he was
and she was just seventeen. The two of them, along with Joan, became
But perhaps I’ve gotten sidetracked here …
During Gram’s brief time at Harvard, he began
gathering together what would become the International Submarine Band.
dropped out in early 1966, he and his new bandmates moved to the
In November/December 1966, nine months after
At age nineteen, Ross went with
Shortly after, in early 1967, Parsons
Meanwhile, back home, Bob Parsons had married
shortly after the death of Avis, and the newlywed couple had then moved
Little Avis and Diane to
To be continued …