Denver Duo

Good morning. It’s March 10, 2020.

Democrats in six states make their final decision today — some have voted already — and the biggest prize is Michigan. Four years ago, Hillary Clinton was upended there by Bernie Sanders, only to have it happen to her again in the general election.

The polling in Michigan wasn’t great in 2016, but the pollsters tell us they’ve tightened up their models, so we shall see. On this very day four years ago, Republicans held their 12th debate, a face-off viewed as the last chance for Marco Rubio and John Kasich to alter the trajectories in their home states, Florida and Ohio, respectively. They couldn’t flip the narrative.

Ted Cruz was in that debate, too. Today’s he’s self-quarantined in Texas, proving you never know what’s around the corner in politics — or in life. You certainly don’t have to tell that to anyone in the White House. Or to medical professionals.

This morning, the health care worker I’m thinking about is a 26-year-old woman who was working in the Denver health department in the spring of 1916. This Colorado public employee, who I’ve written about previously, was minding her own business when fate suddenly intervened. To quickly reassure you: This wasn’t a bad thing that was about to happen at Denver’s City Hall. The United States had not yet entered World War I, and the influenza pandemic that would sweep the world was still two years away.

What happened to Agnes Hubbard on her birthday, 104 years ago today, was a great gift, although she didn’t realize it at first (and she would rethink that conclusion from time to time over the ensuing four-and-a-half decades). What transpired was that a client in line asked for her hand in marriage. He was serious about it, too. The encounter between the lovely Miss Hubbard and a strapping Denver newspaperman named Gene Fowler was the beginning of a long love story.

Author Gene FowlerAs it happened, Gene Fowler had turned 26 two days before Agnes Hubbard did. He didn’t exactly know her, but I believe that his instant attraction owed itself, at least in part, to a singular twist of fate: She bore an uncanny physical resemblance to Fowler’s mother, who had died when he was a boy.

This factor would seem to explain the bold approach taken by our young Lochinvar. Like the knight-errant in Sir Walter Scott’s poem, Fowler felt he had no time to lose in pursuing his intended. Dispensing with small talk, or even courtship, our hero got in line at the health department office staffed by Miss Hubbard.

When it came his turn, the red-haired Colorado beauty asked him what he needed.

“My name is Gene Fowler,” he replied. “I want you to be my wife and the mother of my children. Pick your church.”

Although she apparently had met Fowler previously, for some reason Agnes Hubbard did not immediately accept this offer. It seems she was engaged to a local doctor. But that other relationship wasn’t true love, and she soon relented to Fowler’s entreaties — to the great benefit of American letters.

Gene Fowler and Agnes Hubbard married on July 19, 1916 in Red Rocks, a mountain park outside Denver. The wedding party was small, but that wasn’t because Fowler wasn’t popular. Among his pals in those days were Buffalo Bill Cody, Damon Runyon, and Jack Dempsey, future heavyweight champion of the world — along with everybody who was anybody in Denver newspapering. It was Runyon, who had previously decamped from Denver for New York, who would convince William Randolph Hearst to send for Fowler. In New York, the young man would emerge as a star, write biographies of Mayor Jimmy Walker and stage luminary John Barrymore, along with widely read autobiographical tales of life in Colorado.

Fowler and Barrymore had first bonded over their love of dogs. The famed actor was taken with the writer’s description of a pug he’d befriended as a boy. (The story entailed the dog’s nasty disposition, a mean uncle who killed said dog, Fowler’s hatred for the uncle, Fowler’s grandmother’s admonition that Jesus forgave even the Romans who nailed him to the cross — and young Gene’s rejoinder: “Jesus never had a dog.”)

In New York, Fowler’s circle included Walter Winchell, Grantland Rice, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (the latter two being former Chicago newspapermen who co-authored “The Front Page” and who met Fowler for the first time while bailing him out of jail), as well as MacArthur’s wife, famed actress Helen Hayes.

In time, Fowler would move to Los Angeles, befriend Red Skelton, Jimmy Durante, W.C. Fields, George Putnam, and ZaSu Pitts — all luminaries in a now bygone era. In California, as he had in New York, Fowler earned a reputation as one of the greatest writers of his era. A talent that first showed itself in newsrooms and migrated to the pages of books now manifested itself in screenplays.

It might also be said that his other reputation — as a raconteur, adult beverage enthusiast, and ardent Lothario — didn’t completely evaporate after his marriage to the blue-eyed Colorado woman who looked like his mother. His drinking bouts with Barrymore and Fields were the stuff of legend. There were whispered rumors that when Hearst editors sent Fowler to cover the young queen of Romania during her train tour of the U.S. that Gene did more than interview her. He also apparently had a friendship with a certain glamorous film actress that seemed from the outside to be more than platonic.

Agnes stuck with him throughout, raising the children Fowler had foretold of that day in the Denver health department: two sons, Gene Jr. and Will Fowler, and a daughter, Jane. Agnes also took a turn of her own in the limelight, appearing on “The Red Skelton Hour” in 1951.

But Agnes was more than a loyal wife. She was also the linchpin to the brilliant and colorful career that followed. In “The Young Man From Denver,” the loving but honest biography Will Fowler wrote about his father, the author notes that when Fowler initially visited New York City at Runyon’s invitation, he wasn’t sure he could make it in the Hearst empire or in that imposing metropolis. He returned to Colorado to think about it.

Agnes met him at the train station and they stayed up all night talking about his fear of failure. Or, rather, they stayed up while she imbued her husband with her own steadfast confidence in him.

“We’ll go to this city, and together we’ll lick whatever you’re afraid of,” she said. And they did.

Perhaps because of his mother’s early death and his father’s 30-year walkabout in the Rocky Mountains, Fowler had a lifelong morbid streak. This continued well past middle age, when he’d settled down, found religion, and established himself as a famous writer and successful family man. He got it in mind that he wanted to go out in style and would tell friends that he was working on an exit line that would be truly memorable.

One day, by their backyard swimming pool, he suffered a heart attack. His wife must have been curious about that line as well as distraught. But when Fowler let loose his well-planned farewell — “Agnes, don’t let the undertaker cheat you” — she must have also been disappointed.

Fortunately, Gene Fowler did not die that day and, consequently, did not depart this mortal coil on such an obviously unworthy departure speech. He lived some years later and on his last day on Earth, July 2, 1960, he put the finishing touches on a novel called “Skyline,” before driving  to the Southern California homes of his three children.

In his loving book about his dad, Will Fowler recalled that he and his 70-year-old father listened to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony when Gene said quietly, “I think this might be the day.” But then some granddaughters came in from the pool and climbed up on their beloved granddad.

In a delighted mood he called Agnes. “Mother, I have a wonderful lap full of girls.”

“That’s not surprising,” she said.

He smiled, and said, “I’m coming home.”

He did so, then went out on the patio for a nap. He never woke up. When a doctor and a friend arrived, it was the once-young City Hall worker from Denver who had the great last line.

“Come on in, boys.” Agnes told them. “Gene just left.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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