If you find yourself in Los Angeles and decide to take a meal at Clifton’s Cafeteria in the ever-gentrifying Downtown L.A. – poised to reopen tonight, five years to the day after local developer/tycoon Andrew Meieran bought the place and launched a massive $10 million-plus makeover ($14 million including the purchase itself) – you will have a chance to experience the mind-blowing transformation of an iconic (established in 1935) dining establishment into an impossibly stylish symbol of Downtown’s explosive renaissance.
But it should be pointed out that not all of the latest wrinkles will be clearly visible on first viewing. Some are a bit more hidden. And that includes the lingering presence of my very own mother, Terri Richmond, who is literally entombed in the permanent cafeteria décor.
It was actually Mother’s idea to be reunited in perpetuity with Clifford E. Clinton, the esteemed Clifton’s founder and the great love of her life. So in January 2011 on the one-year anniversary of our mother’s death at 88 from congestive heart failure, my brother, sister and I took Mom for a last lunch at the cafeteria, already deep into renovations. The siblings and I ate. Mom sat beside us in a box that held her cremated remains an...
After finishing our turkey, mashed potatoes and Jell-O, our brother stood lookout as Sis and I took the box up to the second floor, which was roped off and in the midst of construction. We spotted an electrical closet whose wiring extended down throughout the building. When the coast was clear, we tipped the box and out sprinkled our mother. For one of the rare times, she didn’t complain.
Would the Health Department have approved of this disposal method? Unlikely. But I have to believe that whatever health risk was unleashed by my mom’s postmortem internment in a place where food is consumed has long since passed.
I returned to the site of Mother’s final resting place just once before Clifton’s was shuttered in September 2011 to carry out the bulk of its elaborate facelift.
Over the subsequent four years, the innumerable postponements and missed deadlines pegged to the reopening carried a particular sting of disappointment. It may be the first time in restaurant annals that restoration delays had prevented a meeting with a deceased loved one. To be sure, it couldn’t have stood well with my mother, for whom patience was never much of a virtue.
Now that the wait is nearly over, however, it’s an opportune moment to revisit Clifford Clinton’s and Terri Richmond’s decidedly wacky tale of love.
It begins in 1958, the year after my birth, while Mom worked as a “nurse” in a “chiropractor’s office” across the street from 20th Century Fox Studios on Pico in West L.A. The “patients” of this particular medical establishment were entirely male, and the therapy often concentrated as much on the genitalia as on sore back muscles. As my mother later told the story, it was five bucks for a massage and another five for relief from sexual stress. As a fiercely independent woman with three very young children and an unemployed, soon-to-be-ex-husband with a wandering libido, she did what she had to do to support the family.
Not that Mother was at all ashamed of this. In fact, she rather enjoyed all of stimulating/stimulated male company, later boasting with pride that she “had the penises of more than 10,000 men” in her hand during her years as a happy-ending masseuse. (It should be noted that my brother once requested the number be halved to 5,000, believing that 10,000 made our mom “sound too much like a slut.” I respectfully disagreed.) Among that number were several prominent Hollywood players of the time, who while on set would often skip the studio commissary and make a lunch hour beeline for Mom’s office.
My mom found nothing immoral about this line of work and no disgrace for her clients, either, positing that such manual manipulation wasn’t a form of infidelity but in fact a healthy alternative to cheating on their wives and girlfriends. “They were getting relaxation,” she maintained.
But Clifford Clinton saw it far differently. The deeply devout Christian logged much of his free time away from his restaurant empire as a moral crusader and corruption fighter determined to rid his city of sleaze. Clinton was a pivotal figure in Los Angeles lore back in the 1930s, taking on an establishment rife with corruption from City Hall to the police department. Organized crime, gambling and prostitution littered the landscape. And as a do-gooder hell-bent on reform, the man nearly got himself killed. His house was bombed. Law enforcement harassed him mercilessly. The health department retaliated by targeting Clinton’s restaurants with phony violations and complaints.
None of this dissuaded Clinton, who refused to back down and whose efforts crushed L.A. Mayor Frank Shaw, who in 1938 would become the first mayor of a major U.S. city to be successfully recalled and bounced out of the job. But even into the 1940s and ‘50s, Clinton remained obsessed with keeping the City of Angels free of what he considered the influence of The Devil himself.
This is what led Clinton to my mother’s chiropractic headquarters. One day late in 1958, he stormed in thrusting his Bible and a crucifix while vowing to close down this den of ill repute. He was on a mission from God, after all. But as Mom later recalled, she was instantly smitten with, rather than threatened by, this distinguished, bespectacled, silver-haired gentleman in suit and bow-tie. And he evidently took one look at my striking, buxom mother in her crisp white nurse’s uniform and fantasized about her embracing more than the Lord.
Clifford (as he was now referred) returned to the massage office regularly after that. But it wasn’t to put the place out of business; it was because he had hopelessly fallen for my mother. This was rather inconvenient, given that she was a squat, broad-minded Jewish mother from Cleveland and he a married, respected and somewhat legendary member of the L.A. business and religious communities some 21 years Mom’s senior. Nonetheless, passion had its own logic and would not be denied.
Or maybe it was simply fate. My mother was fond of relating how she had gone to Clifton’s Brookdale (as the Downtown cafeteria was then known) and paid a visit to the on-site mini chapel perched inside the restaurant’s redwood forest motif. In desperation, in spite of her Jewish roots, she said that she prayed, “Jesus, if you’re real, please send me a man who will love me and whom I can love in return.” Some three months later, not only was she sent a man but the very one who had put up that chapel.
It was a mere nine months after meeting my mother that Clifford professed his love for her and presented her with a large diamond “friendship” ring. A year or so later, he convinced Mom to quit the massage business, and they launched a scorching affair. Their clandestine coupling was conducted very much in private until Clifford’s wife, Nelda, became privy to their fling and confronted her husband with the “she or me” ultimatum.
As my mother later recounted the story, Clinton well knew that he was betraying his Christian principles but couldn’t bear the thought of going on without either his wife or Mom (who at age 40 was just entering her carnal prime). So Clinton tried to end his conflicted existence by downing a bottle of sleeping pills. Only it didn’t kill him.
Once Clinton was revived and shared his despairing feelings with Nelda, she agreed to let her husband have his cake and Terri, too, on the condition that there were no more lies, no more secrets, and no more humiliating sneaking around like a common adulterer. They would face this transparently and like sensible adults: the three of them, together. Oh, and no more suicide attempts, either.
From that moment in 1961 forward, Mom and Cliff were simply a fact of life for the Clinton family. They’d have their alone time as a couple, and their public threesome dates with Nelda. During the latter, the trio would regularly dine together at some of L.A.’s finest restaurants and travel on multi-week vacations to Hawaii, Europe and the Caribbean.
It had to have been unfathomably peculiar. Nelda kept meticulous photo albums of their holidays, the pictures showing the strain of playing characters in one of marital history’s most bizarre three-person productions. While traveling, they would book two rooms, Clifford going to Mom’s room for playdates and then back with his wife to sleep, sister wives-style.
But then there was Terri’s and Cliff’s standing date every Thursday at a rented studio love nest behind Norm’s Restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard. Their weekly trysts unfolded in a tricked-out space that I remember having all of the accessories that would one day come to define 1960s clichés. The bed had a mirrored canopy and beaded curtains. The stars that were glued to the ceiling glowed in the dark to mimic the night sky. The velvet and satin décor was augmented by a lava lamp and ceiling disco ball. Mother would recount how before they made love, she would sprinkle drops of her perfume on the light bulbs to spread the scent through the room.
To make this whole arrangement feel somehow more wholesome and Godly, however, my mom converted to Christianity and accepted Jesus Christ as her savior, which meant a lot to Clifford. He also warmly embraced his mistress’ children as part of the package. I well remember my mother’s special friend “Mr. Clinton.” He was soft-spoken and unfailingly kind and generous, often taking me as a young boy for candy and ice cream in his four-speed VW Beetle.
Mom would rave about Clinton as just about the most amazing man who ever lived. She described his utter selflessness and philanthropy, like how he would allow people to dine for free during the Depression if they couldn’t afford to pay and how helping the poor and feeding the starving was his life’s mission. And my mother constantly spoke of how much she loved him, whose own ardor was equally clear in a series of passionate love letters Mom kept. Their mutual devotion certainly seemed to extend beyond the boudoir. Clinton became Mother’s benefactor and support system in finding her an occupational calling that didn’t involve physical gratification – at least not directly.
After failing with laundromat and matchmaking businesses in which he had set up my mother, Clifford, who knew a little something about how to find career success, wondered if there might be an opportunity for Terri to mass-produce and market some of the fruit-scented lotions, potions and gels that she created that so delighted him in spicing up their lovemaking. At the time, the business of “marital aids” existed only in the most limited fashion. What Clinton had proposed was utterly novel.
So it was that Clifford Clinton put up the seed money in 1965 to establish what would ultimately sprout into a thriving lubrication empire, thereby becoming the world’s most improbable driver of the Sexual Revolution and again demonstrating that he was far more than just another altruistic, vice-squelching, adulterous Christian restaurateur.
As for my mother, she enjoyed great success with the sex-aid business for some 35 years, proving her mettle both as a pioneering businesswoman and a creative visionary. She invented dozens of products that carried such colorful, pun-heavy names as Joy Jell, Emotion Lotion, Hap-Penis, Sex Fifth Avenue and (oh the humanity) Penetration H. And none of it would have happened were it not for the adoration and assistance of Clinton.
As Paul Harvey was once fond of saying, now you know the rest of the story.
Except there’s just a little bit more.
When Clinton died on November 20, 1969, Mom mourned him with a grief so intense that it never really stopped for the 40 years of her life that remained. After the funeral, she was politely asked by Nelda and her children not to contact them ever again. My mother respected that.
Yet barely a week went by for the remainder of Mother’s life when Clifford’s name didn’t come up. She regularly burned candles in his memory, kept a portrait of him above her bed (“To watch over me”) and reminded me often that the 10 years during which the two were lovers was by far the best of her life – even with all of the weirdness. Her newfound Christian faith gave Mom reassurance that she and Cliff would be back together someday.
Of course, Mother and Clifford already were joined in spirit before we performed that more physical reunification during Clifton’s construction back in 2011. But it’s nice to know they’re officially hooked up again. They’re also hopefully enjoying a bit more privacy.
My sister and I finally will have a chance to check up on Mom at the grand Clifton’s reopening tonight. As for the rest of you, don’t worry. She isn’t haunting the place. She’s protecting it. And Clifford is no doubt making sure she behaves herself.