Armen Bacon

Armen D. Bacon: Dinner with Marilyn

Marilyn Monroe getting makeup on the set of “Clash by Night,” just the way George Blair remembers her that morning.
Marilyn Monroe getting makeup on the set of “Clash by Night,” just the way George Blair remembers her that morning.

Plain and simple: I love love.

So although I was supposed to be working out that afternoon, building up a sweat and burning calories, I leaned over instead, eavesdropping on a conversation that made my heart race, my adrenaline rush.

The man sharing his story was George Blair, trim, lean, handsome and 25 years my senior. Some know Blair as an art aficionado; others may know him as a civil engineer and the man responsible for creating Fresno’s integrated drainage system, which, by the way, is what’s holding all that recent rainwater from El Niño.

The 89-year-old was about to silence the clang of barbells and bring everyone, including those on treadmills and StairMasters, to a screeching halt with his romantic adventure tale – one I would later beg him to let me set free.

Tucked away in an otherwise unassuming office complex where Palm and Sierra avenues meet is a small private gym where people of all sizes, shapes and walks of life come and go – many carrying gym bags, some seemingly carrying the weight of the world, others simply carrying extra weight they hope to shed.

Doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, judges, stockbrokers, farmers and even this writer show up faithfully to work their glutes, bench press and relieve the stress and strain of everyday life.

Local fitness guru Lee Ashjian owns and operates the gym and loves fitness training almost as much as he does people. He also has a knack for ensuring his clients build not only muscle mass but relationships. So while we battle our bulges and confess our weekend binges, we’re also there for each other to console, congratulate and convene in sidebar conversations as needed.

Although George was seated on a weightlifting bench that afternoon, I sensed his desire to exercise his memory muscle. Pedaling back through time, he began telling us a story that had taken place 65 years ago. Freshly graduated from Stanford University, newly employed in San Francisco, his first assignment was taking him to Monterey’s famed Cannery Row.

One night, while dining solo at the Monterey Mission Inn, he recounts spotting a beautiful woman also sitting alone in the restaurant. The heart is a lonely hunter.

“In those days, I was petrified of women and very immature,” he added. But mustering his nerve, he asked the waiter to offer the young lady a drink. To his surprise, not only did she say “yes,” she invited him to join her for dinner.

Which, of course, he did. They talked. He was in Monterey selling chlorination equipment to fish canneries. She was an aspiring actress breaking into the film industry.

“Very, very attractive,” he reminded us with verbal repetitions that mirrored a double set of pull-ups. By now, audible heavy breathing filled the gym, excessive calories being burned by overheated imaginations.

Why was such a beautiful woman having dinner alone, we all wondered.

He delighted in answering that her co-star, Barbara Stanwyck, was hosting a birthday party for her maid that night, and she didn’t want to go.

He stopped here for a moment, a sheepish grin covering his face, all of us gasping for air – awaiting the big finish. But according to George, the pair went their separate ways after dinner. She had to be back on the set at 5 a.m. He had to return to San Francisco.

The following morning, he drove past what looked like a movie set with lights and camera equipment surrounding an old Monterey residence on the outskirts of town.

He pulled over. There she stood on the porch. Clad in cut-off denims. I could tell by the look on his face that the vision remained crystal clear in his mind’s ageless eye.

And then, he drove off.

Five years later, he spotted her photo on a matchbox. Marilyn Monroe. Yes, that Marilyn Monroe. The movie was “Clash by Night,” which premiered in June 1952.

Resuming our cardio workouts, there was a collective sigh. We would feel the burn despite the rush of endorphins that had kicked in during his storytelling saga.

Everybody loves a good love story, especially on Valentine’s Day. Thankfully, the real one for George Blair would happen 14 years later upon meeting the love of his life, LaVona. Happily married for 51 years, they both blush as I take notes and ask questions for this column.

Tomorrow I’ll be back at the gym, pumping iron and reminding my trainer that the best workout for the human heart will always be love. But first I’ll find George and show him the Marilyn Monroe quote I discovered while doing research for this column:

“It’s often just enough to be with someone … a feeling passes between you both. You’re not alone.”

Maybe, just maybe, he inspired her words.

Armen D. Bacon is a writer and co-author of “Griefland: An Intimate Portrait of Love, Loss and Unlikely Friendship” and a collection of essays called “My Name is Armen.”