Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Ancestry Odyssey, Part Two by Greg Dziawer

Party animals: Ed Wood's mother, Lillian (right) at a VFW function in 1954.

A striking resemblance.
Ed Wood's mother, Lillian C. Wood (1903-1989), plays an important but slightly vague role in the director's strange mythology. Legend has it that she's the one responsible for Eddie's cross-dressing during his formative years in Poughkeepsie, NY. She reputedly wanted a girl and dressed him up as such.

Is it true? Who knows? But it's a story Ed often told about himself to others, and it has since become one of the accepted "facts" of his life, even making it into the screenplay for the Tim Burton-directed biopic Ed Wood in 1994. "My mom wanted a girl, so she used to dress me up in girly clothing," Ed (Johnny Depp) explains to a shocked Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker), once he's revealed his darkest secret to her.

But what of the woman herself? Other than the transvestism story, preciously little else is ever mentioned about Lillian, even though she lived long enough to be one of the interviewees in Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy. This week, let's try to change that a little. First, let's put a face to the name, a literal snapshot. 

While she never received nearly as much attention as her eccentric son, Lillian did get a modicum of press coverage during her lifetime. Through the years, she frequently posted in the local Poughkeepsie newspapers: small blurbs recording her illnesses and various trips to visit relatives. 

Furthermore, both Lillian and her husband, Edward D. Wood, Sr., were active at the local Vail-Wolff VFW Post #170. Edward had been the post's second commandeer for a stint in the early 1940s. And so, supportive wife that she was, Lillian took on numerous assignments as part of the post's Ladies Auxiliary. If there were a party at the VFW back then, it was usually Lillian credited with arranging it.

These activities generated a fair amount of ink in the local papers. In 1954 alone, Lillian was mentioned in eight different articles, nearly all of them about the Ladies Auxiliary or a related club charmingly called the Cootiettes or Cooties. Looking through these old clippings, I was stopped dead in my tracks by one particular photo of Lillian because of how strong a resemblance she bore to her famous son Ed. While this isn't too surprising, considering that they were blood relatives, the similarity of their faces was so uncanny that I wanted to share it with you.

Left: A 1954 press clipping about Lillian Wood. Top right: The Cooties' logo. Bottom right: VFW Post #170.

The article that caught my eye came from the July 15, 1954 edition of the Poughkeepsie New Yorker. The photo caption gives a little insight into what Lillian's life in Pougkeepsie was like while her son Ed was off in Hollywood, making movies like Glen or Glenda (1953) and Jail Bait (1954). To wit:
"Believed to be the oldest past president of Veterans of Foreign Wars auxiliaries in the sate, Mrs. Isabelle West (second from left), 23 Holmes Street, was honored at a surpise party at the Vail-Wolff post home last night, in celebration of her 86th birthday. Shown presenting a corsage to Mrs. West as she cuts her birthday cake is Mrs. Irene Knickerbocker, left, president of the Past Presidents' club of the Ladies Auxiliary of Vail-Wolff post, as Mrs. Lillian Wood, right, chairman for the party, and Mrs. Edith Robbins, second from right, president of the Queen Bee Cootiette club, look on."

If you're wondering about the Cootiettes, incidentally, you can read more about the organization here.

We'll visit Poughkeepsie and Ed's family again in future installments of this column. Stay tuned!