In case you were wondering who (if anyone) in San Antonio sang professionally on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York (Ping in Turandot, 1985), fondled the Hope Diamond (pre-Smithsonian residency), and absconded with legendary opera diva Leontyne Price’s last dollar (as in “Morgan dollar”), that would be none other than our own downtown raconteur and boulevardier, Mr. Thomas Cook. Frequently spotted ambling along city-center lanes (he doesn’t drive, doesn’t own a car, and frankly couldn’t care less what you think he’s missing), he’s the raffish-looking chap with the carved jackrabbit-head cane and the diamond-laden pinkie perusing passersby with the seasoned scrutiny of a worldly philosopher. Paging Sydney Greenstreet. (For you young ones out there who don’t watch Turner Classic Movies and wouldn’t dream of actually sitting through a black-and-white film, Sydney Greenstreet was in a picture called Casablanca, which starred a lot of great Hollywood character actors who never appeared in any films about spaceships, pubescent sex, aliens and/or computer-animated gerbils. I know — lame, right?) Cook may appear an anachronism to some of his fellow San Antonians, but that doesn’t ruffle an eyelash in his imperturbable mien:
“Listen, I’ve survived seven major heart attacks, I’m an insulin-dependent diabetic and last year I buried my only child, a son, who I never even knew existed until he was an adult — do I care what people call me?”
As we sat down to chat during yet another ungodly August afternoon in the ongoing 2009 “Summer From Hell,” Cook appeared as fresh and cool as a bowl of iced kumquats. I began by inquiring about his lineage.
“I was born in Laredo, Texas, in September of 1939. My mother, Marion, assured me it was 110 degrees at the time. We moved to San Antonio shortly thereafter, and my first six years were spent in my maternal grandmother Sarah Pringle’s downtown Victorian home on Erie Avenue, where Metropolitan Hospital now stands. It was a wonderful neighborhood. Julia Morris, a well-known literary doyenne of the time lived next door. The Freeman family `as in Joe Freeman Coliseum` was around the corner, and across the street from us was Rose and Ed Treiman, who’d moved down from Milwaukee. An occasional guest in their home was another former Milwaukee resident, a Mrs. G. Meyerson, who turned out to be none other than Golda Meir, the future Prime Minister of Israel. Grandmother and Margaret Tobin were best friends and both were passionately involved in all things opera. During World War II they used to have a standing canasta game two or three afternoons a week with Pauline Reiter `wife of Symphony Music Director Max Reiter` and Morris Jaffe’s mother at what is now the Havana Club on Navarro Street. Robert Tobin and I used to roller skate endlessly in the hallways until they’d finish playing cards. I’m told you can still see the grooves in the wood from our juvenile wheels.
“My real father was Dr. Lawrence Malakoff from Laredo, but I was raised by my stepfather, Floyd Cook. To put it mildly, we didn’t get along. He and my mother had two daughters, my sisters, but I was non di lui and apparently some kind of threat to him. I graduated from Edison High in 1957. My first job was at the old Southern Music Company on Broadway, followed by a stint upstairs at the `C.` Bruno Music Company. One summer when I was 17, Mr. Saul Scharlack from Southern Music came upstairs and announced to my manager, ‘I have to borrow Tommy. I need him to run some contracts over to Southern Jewelry on Alamo Plaza.’ I jumped on my bike and pedaled downtown and walked into the office, where a bunch of men were seated around a table staring at a black velvet pad with what looked like a yellow ice cube perched in the middle of it. I asked innocently, ‘Is that a topaz?’ Mr. Harry Winston himself was sitting there and he answered, ‘No, kid, that’s the 49.40-carat Myrtle McFarlin Canary Diamond which I have just sold to the San Antonio McFarlins.’ So while my eyes were still bulging out of my head, Mr. Winston turned to his sales manager, Julius Cohen, and said, ‘Show the kid what you’ve got in your pocket.’ He then pulled out an enormous diamond and platinum chain, and dangling from the end of it was the Hope Diamond. They’d been trying to sell it to Margaret Tobin for years, and now because of Mr. Winston’s serious problems with the I.R.S. he was giving it one last shot. Julius put the necklace around Ethel Scharlack’s neck at the same moment the maid Lena entered with coffee. Lena immediately began screaming, ‘Miss Ethel, take that thing off! It’s cursed! It’s cursed!’ To which Ethel’s brother-in-law, Sheppard Sharlack, snapped back, ‘Oh, shut up, Lena! She already married Saul, what else can happen to her?’
“The jewelry bug bit me hard, and I got a job with Southern Jewelry while simultaneously becoming the head usher for the old San Antonio Symphony and personal assistant to Conductor Victor Alessandro. I got to work with a lot of grand opera and Broadway stars: Dorothy Kirsten, Robert Merrill, Risë Stevens, Richard Tucker. Mary Martin became a good friend, and silent-film star Pola Negri was living in San Antonio by then, too. She used to come into the jewelry store regularly. We were only allowed to address her as ‘Madam.’ She was always in black, usually satin, and every year at Christmas she’d hand me a plain white envelope with a crisp new hundred-dollar bill in it. To a kid in his early 20s it was like winning the lottery and having the Pope hand you the cash.
“In the late ’70s I became personal assistant to Kurt Herbert Adler, General Director of the San Francisco Opera. Lots of great stories working with Mr. Adler, but my favorite is the time we were doing a new production of Aida with Luciano Pavarotti and the Welsh soprano Margaret Price. Price came down with a world-class cold, and it just so happened Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman were in town. ... Mr. Adler and I trudged up to Leontyne’s hotel suite and pleaded with her to please take over the role in Aida. She glowered at Mr. Adler, and in this very heavy Southern drawl said, ‘Kurt Herbert darlin’, I own the role of Aida! Why wasn’t I asked to do it in the first place?’ He hemmed and hawed and she fumed, finally stating, ‘Kurt Herbert darlin’, get down on your knees and beg!’ Well of course we both did, instantly. After another pause she said, ‘Kurt Herbert darlin’, I’ll do it for exactly one dollar more than you’re paying the Fat Boy!
On opening night I appeared with the customary envelope containing a check for the evening’s performance, plus one dollar. She took the envelope and out rolled the dollar, and she looked up at me dumbfounded.
‘What is this?’
‘Your dollar more than the Fat Boy.’
She threw her head back and roared with laughter. ‘Darlin’, I was just foolin’ ya! Really, I was.’ She absolutely loved it and insisted I keep the dollar — a very valuable, uncirculated, Carson City Morgan dollar by the way.”
The Great Eccentrics of SA (usually) appears the second Wednesday of every month. You can find Volumes I-VI online at sacurrent.com. If you’d like to nominate someone you know for the series, email the author at [email protected].