Polly Lou Livingston

Polly Lou (Simon) Livingston has a voice that will live in infamy. Los Angeles animator Pen Ward, son of renowned local artist Bettie Ward, has engaged Polly Lou to be a voice in his new Cartoon Network series. Polly Lou will be giving utterance to the character known as “Tree Trunk,” an elephant with a twang. Pen, no doubt, has fond memories of hearing Polly Lou’s definitive drawl while growing up in San Antonio. And who can blame him? Somewhere between a hinge in quest of lubricant and Blanche Dubois as channeled by Olive Oyl, there’s no other tonality quite like it. Spending an afternoon listening to Polly Lou’s funny and irreverent stories about growing up in the small, tight-knit Jewish community of Victoria, Texas, her stagestruck mother, her party-catering days, and life in the fledgling Texas art scene, makes one feel as if you’re suddenly in the presence of a genuine Lone Star Auntie Mame (or perhaps the love child of Eudora Welty and George Burns).

A regular at gallery and art openings, Polly Lou is perhaps most famous for her one-of-a-kind sense of style. No one can best her. She does drop-dead chic or over-the-top outlandish with complete equanimity. To experience Polly Lou working the room attired in a floor-length gown festooned with silkscreened images of Chairman Mao in pigtails is to witness pure, undiluted “raffish-in-motion.” Chardonnay held aloft, massive jawbreaker necklace firmly secured, red sneakers propelling her five-foot-two frame from air kiss to air kiss — she’s her own Andy Warhol “Happening.” As Polly Lou herself puts it, “Darlin’, if you’re not having any fun with fashion you’re missing the en-tiiire point.”

“Daddy owned a department store in Victoria called M.O. Simon, and his Russian immigrant daddy had an emporium there before him. Granddaddy Simon and his brother (who was an AWOL soldier in the Russian army) and their sister all hid out in the woods during the height of the Jewish persecution under the Czar. They eventually made their way to New York, and when Grandfather came through the immigration line at Ellis Island they assigned him the name ‘Simon.’ His real name was Spitalny. (There was once a famous all-girl band in New York called ‘Phil Spitalny’s Hour of Charm Orchestra.’ We always assumed he was a relative.) Grandpa got on a train and somehow managed to find his way down to Victoria, Texas, where he set up shop hauling a pushcart around town.

“My mother’s mother was from Poland. Her father had immigrated to New York and started a cigar factory, and he sent for grandmother when she was 13. He paid for a man to put grandmother on his back and swim her across a river so she could escape Poland for good. She sailed all alone across the Atlantic not speaking a word of English. Eventually grandmother married a fellow from Austria who worked in the cigar factory. After a while my Austrian grandfather quit the factory, studied to become a dentist and relocated down to San Antonio (Lewis Feller Dentistry). It’s amazing what all those people were able to accomplish back then. It’s like a crippled man in a fire; somehow he finds a way to get up and run!

“Now, my mother was a not-so-frustrated performer her whole life. During World War I, mother and her two sisters would sing in a little show for the soldiers around San Antonio. Her daddy let her go back to New York when she was still a teenager to visit relatives, and she got a part in a show on Broadway. Of course, grandfather was furious. He made her a deal if she’d come back and finish college she could return to New York after graduation. Well, my mother is still the youngest female to ever graduate from Law School at the University of Texas! As fate would have it she met my father, and that put the brakes on Broadway. Mama didn’t believe in people living together when daddy proposed. She got an apartment in San Antonio and told daddy he could visit her on the weekends after they were married. Well of course he revolted, and mama reluctantly ended up in Victoria. She told everyone she didn’t want china or silver for wedding gifts as she had no intention of ever cooking a meal. Consequently she received 52 candlesticks from all the invitees — they didn’t know what else to buy her! She did eventually move back to San Antonio years later and became the assistant director of the San Antonio Little Theatre for over 25 years.

“Mother was the quintessential flapper. She wore the most glorious evening dresses; tight red satin, flared skirts, and plunging backs. Divine. I love to play dress-up (or dress-down as the case may be). You know my clothes habit really got going when I was in high school and we’d drive up to San Antonio and get a room at the St. Anthony. Mama would send my sister Iris and I over to Frost Bros. and tell us not to buy too much. We were getting wholesale prices through Daddy’s store — you can imagine what happens with two girls and a charge account! I was a buyer for the Victoria store back in the ’40s. I met all the top designers in New York then: Hattie Carnegie, Norman Norell, Pauline Trigère. My favorite was Claire McArdle — she practically invented the whole concept of sportswear in this country. She made my wedding dress, the only one she ever made. I bought for my tastes, and when the clothes got back to Victoria, nobody would buy them. I guess I was a little ahead of my time. I ended up giving my entire clothes collection to the University of Texas a few years ago.

“I think I was the first diagnosed dyslexic in South Texas. I can’t read or spell for beans. They even gave me a special banner to wear when I was in grade school, of which I’m singularly proud. My first boyfriend was the water boy for the football team, and he always read poetry to me. After that, all my boyfriends had to read poetry to me. I met my husband, Bobby Livingston, on a blind date in Rockport when I was home from Stephens College one summer. He was a Corpus Christi boy, recently out of the Air Force. We both transferred to the University of Texas together and were married for 49 years until his death in 2000.

“I’ve run Polly Lou’s Party’s for years. The wonderful San Antonio artist Ray Chavez is my right hand in pulling these things together. Also, Bill Wilhelmi, another terrific artist from Corpus, has been instrumental as well. It’s been a lot of work and a lot of fun. My good friend Madeline O’Connor and I helped start the Nave and McNamara House Art Museums in Victoria. For years we went around the state discovering new artists; sponsoring shows, giving openings. It was very exciting. Visual is my thing and of course I do love people.

“I have a somewhat precise definition of what makes an eccentric. I think it’s someone who sees things as they really are. What’s real to them may be so different to someone else. They do and see things in the way they want them to appear, not necessarily as they generally are. It’s a way of saying, ‘This is who I am, and this is who I want to be … today! It may not be who I will be tomorrow, but I am not afraid of being who I am today. Somebody told me once, ‘You know Polly Lou, you wear such interesting, clever things — and you always stop just short of being tacky each time I see you.’ And it’s so true! I laughed for an hour.”

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