North America Revisited (Once Again)
The Story of Monroe Gretske
I read Ashley Crossland’s article on the North American Singer connection in the March/April 2015 Singer Owner with great interest as usual. Of course it’s always difficult to go back in time and determine how things really happened based only on the outcome. I’d like to add a few of my own thoughts, based on conversations I have had with some of the folks that were actually there, such as Monroe Gretske, Michael Vaughan, John Martin and Dick Van Laanen.
There has been continued debate as to who instigated the Marilyn Monroe /Lucille Ball photo shoots, the assumption being that Vaughan was a former actor, therefore it was him. There is little doubt in my mind that Vaughan would have been responsible for the Lucille Ball connection. Vaughan left his family’s Cleveland home around 1931 to try his hand at acting in New York. According to his nephew Michael, he became firmly entrenched in the acting community and was a well known fixture in the Greenwich Village artistic community. He could enter any restaurant on Broadway and be hailed by name and always presented himself in the best possible light. Marrying Laverne Talbert, a striking show girl from Nebraska who had also made her way to New York, didn’t hurt his image either.
Vaughan wasn’t all show and no go either. He made a living as an actor (supplemented by a budding career as a used car salesman). He was sufficiently talented to have become understudy to Paul Muni who starred in 25 films and won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the 1936 film The Story of Louis Pasteur. Vaughan also took over the lead role of Henry Susskind in the long running Broadway Production of Counsellor-at-Law.
So that he would rub shoulders with the likes of Lucille Ball or Catherine Hepburn in New York, both of whom were photographed in their Singers, is probably a given. With his innate flair for marketing, he no doubt would have taken every opportunity to do so and capitalize on his connections.
As for the Marilyn photo shoot, Vaughan had nothing to do with this. His focus was on his New York based distributorship, which, truth be told, was almost more than he could handle, so Monroe Gretske was the lynchpin in California. Lining up a celebrity for a photo shoot was like asking a campaigning politician to kiss a baby. Jack Martin, Singer racer and Parts Manager at Vaughan Singer Motors told me “you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a celebrity in Hollywood” where the dealership was located. On top of that, Monroe Gretske was good friends with Frank Worth, who did the photo shoot with Marilyn, Sammy Davis Jr and others. It was indeed at Gretske’s request that the shoot be done.
The Vaughan/Gretske relationship was an interesting one which seems to have been cemented when Monroe’s Father Harry extricated Vaughan from a potentially dangerous business arrangement with some nasty folks. Harry Gretske, a Russian immigrant, was a big deal in the liquor business in those days. He was President of Belle Meade Distilling Corporation and was indicted by a Federal Grand Jury in a liquor black market case. He was also charged with Conspiracy to Evade the Selective Services Act when he falsified information regarding an alcohol supply deal that was to divert spirits to his company for resale. Things got too hot to handle for Harry and Monroe told me that the last time he saw his Father, he was packing greenbacks into a suitcase and grabbing a flight to Israel.
Monroe Gretske worked briefly with Vaughan in New York – long enough to see that Vaughan had a potentially good thing going, but that he was in over his head with respect to running a business. The clincher was a deal that could have been secured for a bulk order of roadsters to be sold to a foreign car distributor on the West Coast. Vaughan had too many irons in the fire to consummate the deal and it fell through.
Gretske seized the moment to propose a venture to Vaughan. He suggested that a West Coast Singer Distributorship based in California be established to cater to the 25 Western States in the U.S. Interestingly, I have his original business plan that shows all the centres by city that he proposed to target. Vaughan proposed that the ownership of the company, to be known as Vaughan Singer Motors of California Inc., be split between the two of them. Vaughan would be given the title of President and would make no financial investment for his half. In return for 50% ownership of the company, Gretske would become General Manager and agreed to finance the company’s operation on his own to the tune of $100,000. Gretske had no money, but a great deal of business acumen and was able to raise the entire sum by selling %50 of his share of the new company to local investors.
To my knowledge Vaughan never visited the premises, but benefitted greatly from having a well established western distribution centre. If I were to guess, I would say that retail sales through Gretske’s distribution network well exceeded those of Vaughan Motors in New York. That suited Vaughan just fine as the cash flow allowed him to pursue his grand ambition to develop a car branded under his own name.
Gretske of course had his own grand visions of making a fortune by franchising authorized Singer dealerships. Notables such as Lammy Lamoreux, Jack and Cordy Milne and Vern Gardner became part of the network and ultimately about 25 outlets were established throughout the West Coast. Sadly, Gretske made very little money for his efforts and admitted to me that he would have done far better financially had he stuck to simply selling cars through his own dealership on Sunset Boulevard.
So it really was a Tale of Two Cities, Two Solitudes or whatever other literary allusion you wish to apply. In fact the two were so out of touch in their relationship that when I asked Monroe about Vaughan’s wife Laverne, he said Vaughan never married. Vaughan and Lavergne celebrated over 40 years of marriage together and had been wed for 15 years prior to Vaughan meeting Gretske.
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