Claire Gordon was born in Los Angeles, California. The subject of twins always intrigued Claire because she was raised with another child her own age; creating a feeling of being a twin.
Claire skipped through school, graduating from LA High when she was sixteen. By then she had decided she wanted to be a writer. She enrolled at UCLA and mostly hated the records the fraternity and sororities played for dancing.
Claire had found the enticing beat of jazz years. This had come about because broadcasts from eastern nightclubs reached the west coast in the early evening hours. The stronger beat and more interesting chords of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and other big bands of the time became her favorites along with singer Maxine Sullivan. While she was at UCLA, Claire happened to hear a broadcast of her idol being interviewed. She jumped into her car and drove to the nearby Columbia studio. As she pulled near the front of the building, she saw Maxine Sullivan walking down the steps. Claire left the car in a red space, jumped from her car “I am your number one fan,” she told Miss Sullivan. Maxine sent her two autographed photos, which Claire had framed.
About that time, her dear cousin Stanley decided to switch from Caltech to UC Berkeley. Claire persuaded her parents to let her transfer to Berkeley, as well. While she was at the northern campus she learned that Maxine Sullivan was singing at a posh San Francisco nightclub, renting a house in Oakland only a few blocks from her boarding house. Claire began to visit Maxine every afternoon after classes. Just a few days before graduation, Maxine mentioned that she would be leaving for New York soon, in her Rolls Royce, with the chauffeur and the maid. She invited her Claire to travel with them.
Claire quickly accepted only to have her parents point out some sad facts. Her nationally famous friend would be unable to eat in most restaurants or stay in most hotels all across the country. Why? Because discrimination at that time had traveled from the south in all directions. This seemed unbelievable and Claire would have gone anyway, but at age 20, she was still dependant on her parents. She reluctantly refused.
Even though she had that coveted diploma, she became sure that she wouldn’t like a career as a social worker, for which she was trained, but preferred something in music or writing.
That didn’t prove easy. Instead Claire found employment manning a switchboard and other positions waiting on customers. She lived at home, spent her earnings on records of her favorites, and wrote stories that she put away in a drawer. Evenings she visited local, inexpensive nightclubs to hear jazz. A favorite destination was the Swanee Inn where Nat King Cole and his trio played six nights a week. Claire thinks she was there as many as five nights a week. She used to watch their agent pocket a percent of their pay every week. Claire decided she’d like to be an agent. She visited every little bar and night club, where in those days some kind of live music could be found, trying to discover talent who had no agent.
By luck, a friend met Meade “Lux” Lewis the boogie-woogie piano player—who wanted to come west. Voila! Claire had a client, who she booked for ten weeks. And then that came to an end. Meanwhile the Duke Ellington band came to Los Angeles and stayed for weeks and months, playing at two different ball rooms, and then they did a show called “Jump for Joy”. Claire and other fans hung around the band stand, and went to all the record sessions, which was enough to get acquainted with the band members and Duke, himself.
Claire still worked as a clerk when Aunt Jo was divorced. They cooked up the idea of opening a record shop. Although her aunt was tone deaf, and wouldn’t know an opera from a wailing blues, she could do all the bookwork and the payroll while Claire was out front with the customers, listening to her favorite all day. With Norman Granz helping to make up a first inventory, the record shop did very well at the start, but War !! took a toll. The men employees began to be drafted, there were no more phonographs to sell, and the store had a hard time surviving on the sale of 50¢ records.
Claire left Claire’s Record Bar and went east. Maxine was there and the Duke Ellington band had a long-time engagement as well. Because of her experience she became Commodore Record’s first female employee. Evenings when she had nothing to do, she hung around downstairs from the Hurricane Club where the Ellington band played, and chatted with the musicians. She didn’t know hardly anyone in this big city. The African Americans Maxine and the musicians were the only friends she had.
Claire loved working at Commodore until the real owner of the store, the father of the family, returned from his Florida winter vacation. When he saw a young woman behind the counter, he began to raise objections, and took the first opportunity he could to terminate her.
Far from home, supporting herself on her earnings and with no savings, Claire felt desperate. She went that evening to her usual hangout, hoping for words of sympathy from the musicians. She watched them come down stairs from the Hurricane club. That night, Duke Ellington was with them. He had never been with them before.
He greeted Claire, who by then he had seen so many times standing in front of the bandstand and at record session. She responded by bursting into tears and telling him her sad story.
“Do you know any kind of work for me?” she asked and told him of her skills including secretarial. “I don’t have a secretary,” he said. “Would you like to work for me and take care of the fan mail?” And that is how she became Duke Ellington’s first and probably only secretary.
While working there, she met the young songwriter, Irving Gordon. They began seeing each other and after a year, they married. A visit to the family in Los Angeles ended by a permanent move west for the young couple and now a baby. Irving’s career flourished as he turned out many songs. One that he placed with a publisher was a disappointment because the company had been unable to get anyone to record the song.
When Claire heard this, she picked up the phone. Her old friend Nat Cole had become a big celebrity but not too big to remember his long-time fans.
“My husband has a song I’d like you hear,” she told him.
“Come on over,” he said. He looked at the sheet music, played the notes and sang the words. “I’ll record this for you, Claire,” he said. The tune was “Unforgettable.”
The marriage with Irving lasted another ten years before it came to an end. Claire found work as a real estate saleswoman and moonlighted as an editor. Her old friend, Rex Stewart, former cornet player the Duke Ellington band, was now in California. He had been asked to write reviews for the LA Times and he needed an editor. Rex didn’t type, and although he was a great wordsmith, his spelling skills lacked accuracy. Claire became his editor and co-writer. Together they also wrote more than a dozen articles for Down Beat and other music magazines.
After Stewart’s death these articles were collected and became the book called “Jazz Masters of the 30’s.” Although her name did not appear as author, Claire did receive a share of the royalties all the 30 years that the book was in print.
Claire remarried, actor and television announcer Ken Williams. On the advice of their business manager, they opened an antique shop. Claire became the buyer; she did the advertisements, and learned to put all the data in a computer in 1981.
Kenny died in 1984. Claire sold the company, and being lonely, joined a newly formed Duke Ellington Society, sure of finding like-minded friends here. She met Steven Lasker who came to her house for a visit.
“Can I see your Ellington stuff?” he asked.
Boxes full of papers and photos were on a high shelf in the closet. Tall Lasker lifted them down, pawed through the papers,
“You have a whole book here.”
What he referred to was Rex Stewart’s autobio which he had been writing and they had begun working on together just before his death.
“Why don’t you get it down?” Lasker asked, fingering the scribbled on yelllow legal sized pads plus many little scraps of paper. “You know how to do word processing on the computer, don’t you?”
And that is how Claire began putting the pieces together of the book that became “Boy Meets Horn, the Autobiography of Rex Stewart.” The British Allen Shipton had a company called Bayou Press had arranged to have the book printed by University of Michigan Press. He pressed her to do more autobiograpahies of local musicians. “Marshal Royal, Jazz Survivor” was next.
Shipton also had a role with a British company, which held the next output for more than a year, “My Unforgettable Jazz Friends.” This was a Claire’s own memoir. During a visit to New York in 2002, an editor from their local office visited and promised a contract within the month. It never came— the man left the company.
By then, the idea of self-publishing had begun to be an option. A friend sent me her self-published book of articles and poems. With the disappointment that the British company seemed to print the book, Claire went ahead and did it herself.
After that was printed, she wrote articles about early Los Angeles days (and left them in a drawer along with the other books and articles that had never been presented to anyone). She finally began the book that had been tugging at her mind all those years – a book about twins.Studies of identical twins that had been separated lead to the knowledge of what traits are inborn and which are the result of the environment. Claire liked the idea of separating her twins.