My mother was Marie Bentaccordi. She met Tom Bradley at a dance, he was a sailor onboard the USS Omaha I believe; it could have been the USS Raleigh, I’m not sure. She was 23 years old. I’ve known of my mother’s first boyfriend Tom in bits and pieces over the years. It was a subject never mentioned while my father was alive of course.
The first time I came to know of his existence, was when we moved from the Villa Rialta to the apartment at La Darse in the fall of 1955. We were packing dishes and glassware out of the straight sideboard in the kitchen and I found underneath the lining paper covering an upper shelf I had just removed, a glossy photo about 8” by 11” of a handsome man in a navy uniform. I called out my mother to show her what I had found. She promptly took the picture off my hands, looked somehow embarrassed, and walked away. Nothing more was said. I knew better not to ask.
Fast forward to 1970. I had come back from a one-year-long student exchange program in the United States and I was to join the French Army for my military duties. I told my parents that once my service was over, I would very much like to go back to North America. This led my mother to tell me a little more about her American romance. At that time, she told me that she was very much in love with an American, that she contemplated going “to America” with him but knowing it would break my grandmother’s heart, she renounced to do so; an indirect way to tell me she could not bear the thought of me going away so far.
I did move to North America in 1973 and my father passed away shortly after. My mom eventually came to visit me frequently and in the last few years of her life spent most of her time with me. We had a chance to reminisce and speak of a lot of things. Eventually, the American boyfriend came back to the conversation. She was startled I had remembered the episode of the photo in the sideboard.
During the Saint Michael’s festival in Villefranche possibly in 1936, she was chosen as a “demoiselle d’honneur”. These were the young ladies, usually single and of good repute, that welcomed the guests and the officials at the ball organized by the Festival Committee. Here comes a threesome at the entrance of the ball, three American sailors on leave. During the evening one of them is pursuing her for a dance. Now the rule was that a demoiselle d’honneur would only dance with the preeminent members of the town and their guests, certainly not with some sailors on leave. So she told him she could not dance with him as it was, to which he asked her out some other night if she would be free. She said she would not dare.
As fate would have it, she was invited by her boss, a fixture of that place, at a tea dance at the Jetée-Promenade in Nice, the huge domed oriental extravaganza built on the water at the Promenade des Anglais. With her girlfriends in tow, they put on their best getup, hats, gloves and all, and join the party one Saturday afternoon. And who was there among some uniformed men: the tall blond man that had asked her out a couple of months before at the Town Festival. He had been seconded with a couple of others to accompany the officers invited by the City of Nice. This time she could not refuse him a dance and they glided beautifully to the sound of a slow languid waltz. He swept her off her feet.
They dated for three years, and every time the ship came back in port, Tom was there waiting. My grand-father was seemingly annoyed for it might give his daughter a bad reputation. My grandmother was livid. My mother meanwhile had started learning English to better communicate with Tom. He did not lose any time either. He went about town to investigate who she was, what was the family like, was she Catholic? By the spring of 1939, he had proposed to her and wanted to ask my grandfather. She begged him for a little more time. On his end, he had to ask permission to his superiors to marry a foreigner. They were stringent requirements in the Navy and he had to provide money to pay for her passage, should he ever get permission to marry her. The Navy also would investigate the reputation and morality of the future bride and her family before any steps could be taken.
This would take some time. They planned on a spring wedding in early 1940. The ship left by mid-summer and Tom left his wallet and a “considerable amount of money” as she put it to my mother. He was to return to Villefranche in early fall. The ship never sailed back. War broke out on September 3rd and the United States being neutral, she could not sail back to belligerent countries. She sailed to neutral Holland instead. My mother received a letter from Tom by Christmas 1939. He asked her to write to his parents in Marion, Illinois. In a way, God was telling her that this was not to be. She went to the American consulate in Nice and gave Tom’s wallet and money to be returned to his parents’ States-side. They gave her a receipt assuring her it would be done quickly. She received a letter from Tom’s parents in early January 1942 postmarked November 1941. They were telling her they’d received wallet and money but had no news from Tom in many weeks. They only knew his ship was no longer in Europe. My mother never heard from him or the Bradleys again.
On December 7th, 1941 at 8 PM European War Time, she met my father Casimir Kolodziejski at the Café La Régence in Villefranche while having drinks with her two best friends and their husbands. My mother was the only one of the three not married yet. At the same time she met my father, it was 8 AM Honolulu Time and Pearl Harbor would change the course of the War. My mother married my dad the following April.
She kept the glossy photo Tommy gave her before leaving for good. But I’ve never seen that photo again.