Remembering My Father-in-law (and the Time My Wife and I Were Arrested on Obscenity Charges for Our Nude Production of Peter Pan)

Stuart Gordon pays tribute to the late Dr. Marshall Purdy, and recalls an early directorial effort that set the tone for their stormy relationship.

My wife Carolyn and I recently returned from Janesville, Wisconsin, where we attended a memorial service for her father. He had died just a few months after his 100th birthday.

Carolyn was with him when he passed away. She sat next to his bed and he had wished her good night and closed his eyes and never woke up, the kind of gentle death for which each of us hopes.

As I sat in the gracious First Congregational Church (made famous when Abraham Lincoln attended a service) listening to the heartfelt remembrances of my wife, her older sister and younger brother, I learned things about Dr. Marshall Purdy that I had never known.

He had been a doctor on the USS Comfort, a hospital ship in the Pacific Theater during Word War II, and had narrowly escaped being killed by a kamikaze attack that claimed 250 lives, including the doctor who had taken his place on the voyage. Like most veterans of that great generation, he never spoke about his wartime experiences.

I began to wonder what I would say about my father-in-law. Ours could best be described as a stormy relationship and so, like the war, the two of us never discussed it. I had met him in 1968 when I invited him to join Carolyn and me for a Sunday dinner at a local steakhouse in Madison, Wisconsin, where we were in our junior year at the university. After a round of drinks, I got to the point.

“I want to marry your daughter,” I nervously told him.

There was a long pause.

“We love each other,” Carolyn added, taking my arm.

He took a large sip of his Old Fashioned.

“When were you thinking of doing this? Getting married, I mean.”

“Next year, after we graduate,” I told him.

He looked very relieved. “So there’s no rush,” he said, smiling.

Carolyn was shocked. “Dad!”

“A father has to ask these things, honey.” Then he turned to me, “So how do you plan to support yourselves?”

I answered that I wanted to be a theater director. He nodded, “And what does that pay, if I may ask?”

Carolyn jumped in, “He might direct movies someday.” Dr. Purdy took this all in.

“I love your daughter with all my heart,” I told him, “And I promise to take care of her.”

He looked at Carolyn. She smiled and nodded. There was another long pause and then he raised his glass. “Then let’s drink to the wedding.”

But as John Lennon so famously said, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” That fall I directed a student production of Peter Pan that got both me and Carolyn arrested on obscenity charges.

We had used J.M. Barrie’s famous play as a political metaphor for the anti-war protests at the recent Democratic Convention in Chicago and the police violence intended to stop them. Carolyn and I, who were among the protesters, had both been tear-gassed and I was briefly thrown into a jail cell. As a result, we created a production that used LSD in place of pixie dust and the ensuing trip to Neverland featured a psychedelic light show projected on the naked bodies of seven female dancers. At my urging, Carolyn became a dancer. She was worried about being recognized, but I assured her that no one would be looking at her face. Apparently someone did, as she was the only one, besides myself, that was arrested.

Her father showed up the following weekend, declaring he was pulling her out of school and taking her home. I attempted to apologize but he would have none of it. Not only had I ruined his daughter’s reputation but his own as well. And worse, he said I had lied to him, tricking him into giving us his blessing. I tried to explain, but he turned to Carolyn and told her to pack her bags.

I stepped between him and his daughter. “She’s not going,” I told him.

“Get out of my way,” he said.

“I think you better leave,” I said. We were nose to nose. It seemed like it was about to get physical.

“Haven’t you done enough damage? Get the hell out!” he yelled.

Carolyn had had enough. “Stop it, both of you!” she screamed. “This is my apartment. Both of you leave!”

The next thing I knew, her dad and I were in the hallway, the door slammed shut behind us. Dr. Purdy and I looked at each other, neither knowing what to say. And then he wheeled and stomped down the stairs.

I didn’t see him again until our wedding in December; by that time, the charges against us had been dropped after our defense attorneys discovered that our accuser was a convicted child molester. Dr. Purdy agreed to walk Carolyn down the aisle but refused to reply to the traditional question, “Who gives this bride?” Needless to say, he didn’t stay for the party.

Over the years, the cold war between us thawed a bit, and with the birth of our three daughters glasnost finally occurred. But I found that our truce could be quite a fragile thing, such as the time I suggested he stop driving when he reached his nineties.

But nonetheless, tears rolled down my cheeks at his memorial service, and I was amazed that his death was hitting me so hard.

Carolyn has often told me that she thinks her father and I are very much alike, very independent and even more stubborn. Although our politics are at different ends of the spectrum, we both bristle when anyone tries to tell us what to do. And when the minister referred to Dr. Purdy’s passing as the falling of a mighty Sequoia, I could only nod with the weight of this truth.

Marshall Purdy was a self-made man who lived a long life of service, working as a doctor until he was 95 years old. Born at the beginning of the 20th century, he had even become friends with Henry Ford. He was an unassuming, gentle man (unless provoked) who lived his life modestly and was loved by many.

Including me.

Dr. Marshall Purdy (September 30, 1915 – March 22, 2016)

Stuart Gordon is a writer/director/producer of film, television and theater. He is best known for the cult classic Re-Animator and for murdering his wife Carolyn in his films whenever possible.