The Current Rewind: The Andrews Sisters & Lynda Wells

The Current Rewind
You know great music when you hear it. But do you know where it came from? Host Andrea Swensson and the team bring you original reporting on Minnesota music, fording scenes and decades to put unsung stories on the map. (MPR Graphic)
The Andrews Sisters & Lynda Wells
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The Andrews Sisters, the vocal trio who sold nearly 100 million records during their lifetimes, came to symbolize the United States during WWII. You'd think their story is settled. But in this episode, Lynda Wells — Maxene's manager and longtime companion — shares another side of the outgoing middle sister. Plus, historian Tom Rockvam talks about the Andrews' "heart home," just 25 miles outside of their hometown, Minneapolis.

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The Current Rewind is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Culture Heritage Fund.

Transcript of Episode 3 — The Andrews Sisters

[Lazerbeak's "Winging It" plays]

Lynda Wells: We were in — oh, I don't know where. Timbuktu. Somewhere. We were in a beautiful hotel, and I went down to the coffee shop and was looking longingly at a croissant or something, and I suddenly looked down at the end of the counter, and there was a man sitting with a magazine open, and he was openly crying. I kind of got off my stool and went over behind and looked around there, and as he turned the page I saw the Andrews Sisters' pictures. I put my hand on his shoulder and said, "I'm sorry to interrupt you, but I see what you're reading." He said, "I was in the war, and this story is just heartbreaking." I said, "You know that it's Maxene Andrews." He said, "Oh yes, I'm a big Andrews Sisters fan." The next thing I do is, take him up to Maxene's suite. Well, they just fell in each other's arms and cried.

[Rewind sound effect]

Andrea Swensson: This is The Current Rewind, the podcast putting music's unsung stories on the map. I'm Andrea Swensson. Here's a question for you: after Prince, who is the best-selling musical artist in Minnesota history? Nope, not Bob Dylan; not Owl City, either. If you're still wondering, maybe this will help.

[The Andrews Sisters's "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" fades up, decrescendos]

Andrea Swensson: Patty, Maxene, and LaVerne Andrews — the Andrews Sisters — were, aside from Prince, the biggest Minnesota musical act ever. From the late 1930s to the early fifties, they were said to have sold over 100 million records. That number's hard to nail down because not all record companies kept reliable sales records, or shared them publicly, until about the seventies. But we can say for sure that the Andrews Sisters had forty-six top ten hits and a dozen number-ones. But the Andrews Sisters were more than just a bunch of gold records; they provided the United States with a soundtrack to World War II, and in doing so, become icons of the 1940s.

Gary Giddins: They have this tremendous energy and they have this great sound. You hear them and you instantly know what decade we're talking about and what the country was like.

Andrea Swensson: That's Gary Giddins, a jazz critic and Bing Crosby biographer. He knows a lot about the Andrews Sisters, because they worked closely with Crosby. So we'll be hearing from him again.

Much like the Andrews Sisters themselves, this episode of The Current Rewind holds three main voices. One is Maxene Andrews herself, from a 1982 interview with the late writer and radio host Studs Terkel. Another is Tom Rockvam of Mound, Minnesota, the small town known as the sisters' "heart home." In addition to collecting the group's memorabilia, Tom became friends with Patty late in her life. And finally, we spoke with Lynda Wells, Maxene's manager, adopted daughter, and — this may be a surprise even to longtime Andrews Sisters fans — her lover and companion.

Before Patty, Maxene, and LaVerne became the Andrews Sisters, they were the daughters of immigrants Peter and Olga Andrews, who operated pool halls and a Greek restaurant near the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis. Lynda Wells, Maxene Andrews' longtime companion, fills us in on their background.

Lynda Wells: The Norwegian and the Greek. What an odd combination. Papa came over with a Greek boxer — I think he was a boxer, and they were from the same area of Greece. Mama came over as an infant with her family. They emigrated from Norway, and they moved to Minneapolis for whatever reason. I don't know, except there's a lot of Scandinavians. Maybe they liked the cold. I don't know. Why would Papa, being from Greece, pick a city that was cold as it could be in the winter? It always puzzled Maxene because he didn't come over with any family. I knew he was from Argos, Greece. I knew that when he was a kid he dived for sponges.

He was working in a very fancy ice cream factory in Minneapolis, and so was Mama's brother. She took her brother a clean shirt. He had to go somewhere after work, so she went by to drop off a shirt for her brother, and somehow or other Peter and Olga — was her name — she was called Ollie — their eyes met, and I don't know. From across the centuries they created the Andrews Sisters.

LaVerne was born in 1911. Maxene was born in 1916. Patty in 1918. There was a little girl born between LaVerne and Maxene, and her name was Anglyn. She was a bit over a year and died of some pulmonary problem.

Andrea Swensson: The Andrews family moved often as the girls grew up. According to their birth certificates, each of the four daughters was born at a different Minneapolis home. Two of those homes — Maxene's and Patty's birthplaces — still stand in Elliot Park, which is a quickly gentrifying neighborhood near downtown Minneapolis. The other two were demolished in 1969 and 1970, due to the big urban renewal program that swept through all of Minneapolis, but especially hit the North Side. Near North, the Andrews Sisters' former neighborhood, has been associated with Jewish, immigrant, and black communities for over a century — and it's struggled with image and inequality for just as long.

The address where the Andrews would spend the most time was 1600 Lyndale Avenue North. That house was built in the 1800s. The Andrews lived in their unit for over a decade, but they were long gone by 1950, when the building was hoisted up and moved to make way for a Studebaker dealership. That commercial building was demolished in 1974, and as for the multi-unit itself, that has also been torn down.

Now, the Lyndale plot that once held their home lies in the middle of Hall Park, a small playground across the street from an elementary school. Old homes and fast food dominate the surrounding area. But like most parks in Minneapolis, Hall is clean and colorful, speckled with blue swings and benches. A footbridge rises over Lyndale, a major street in Minneapolis, to connect the halves of the park.

[Street noise]

Andrea Swensson: Minneapolis wasn't the only formative city in Minnesota for the Andrews Sisters. They spent their summers by Lake Minnetonka, one of Minnesota's biggest and best-known lakes, in a small village called Mound.

The producer of this podcast, Cecilia Johnson, and I were really curious to learn more about Mound and the sisters' time there, so we set up a visit with a Mound VIP: a man who's lived in town all his life, who loved the Andrews Sisters since he was a little kid, and who's become the town's unofficial Andrews Sisters archivist and historian.

His name is Tom Rockvam, and we actually got him out of retirement to give us a special tour of the Westonka History Museum, a cozy space nestled into the top floors of the Mound City Hall. Most of the artifacts on display in the museum are either related to the Andrews Sisters, the Tonka toy company, or the history of Native people in the area, from prehistoric inhabitants to the Dakota people who were living there when white settlers arrived.

Cecilia and I both found Tom to be super charming, and his love for the Andrews Sisters was obvious. In his endeavor to learn more about the group, he became friends with Patty Andrews in the final years of her life, and when she passed away she left some of her memorabilia to him in her will.

Tom Rockvam: This is a piano that came out of the Andrews Sisters' house in Mound, and it's got a long story behind it because apparently it was related to them, but they were from a very poor family. Their uncles, Pete and Ed Sollie owned a grocery store in Mound, and so they were selling the piano in a garage sale. Pete and Ed Sollie bought that from that family for $15, and then it just disappeared, and it was in the Andrews Sisters house until that was gone.

Pete and Ed Sollie that had the grocery store, when they moved out here in 1910, they rented a house up in the highlands, and after that they stayed a year, and the whole Andrews family was ice cream. They worked at a company called Hiawatha Ice Cream Company. Their main business was selling bulk ice cream to the tourist boats on Lake Minnetonka. Tourism was huge here from 1880 through 1920. And then they — in 1920 the tourism went away. Henry Ford made automobiles that he could sell and supply and finance, so people didn't have to go over the tracks anymore.

Everybody in Mound knew Pete and Ed Sollie. They even knew them to the point where you wouldn't buy anything in their grocery store because it had been in there for 14 years. I said that to Patty one day. She said, "I'm sure every one of those cans and stuff are green inside.

Lynda Wells: So we have first-generation immigrant children wanting to sing, LaVerne being the instigator of starting them to sing together, and LaVerne being so incredible. She was the only one of the three who could read music. She heard the Boswell Sisters and thought that she had two little sisters, and they can do that. I don't think she thought ahead, that there was going to be a career for them.

Andrea Swensson: The Andrews Sisters began performing around the Twin Cities; a crucial break came in 1931, when they placed first at a talent contest at Minneapolis's Orpheum Theatre. Soon after, they joined Larry Rich's traveling road show. It was the final days of vaudeville — traveling entertainment revues featuring a variety of acts, from stage playlets to dancers to trained animals — and, of course, singers. Patty Andrews told Tom Rockvam about those days.

Tom Rockvam: She told me when they were really starting out in vaudeville, it was just terrible. She said all vaudeville served was a place where people went and they didn't care who they stepped on to get up another notch. She said, "I wouldn't suggest vaudeville to my worst enemy."

Andrea Swensson: Vaudeville was fading by the time the Andrews Sisters came aboard. Critic and author Gary Giddins talks about what made them unique.

Gary Giddins: The Andrews Sisters sort of revived a tradition in American entertainment that was over the top in the '20s. There were dozens of sister acts, and most of them weren't particularly good. The great one that we all remember is the Boswell Sisters. They were very hip. They were very jazz-influenced. They devised their own harmonies, their own way of singing, and they worked with some of the best musicians of that period. But so many of these sister acts in the vaudeville era and afterwards were just pretty young things in pleated dresses and calico and that kind of thing. And so that faded. People got really sick and tired of that. And then the Andrews Sisters came along and they had a unique sound, a very bright harmonic sense.

[The Andrews Sisters's "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön" plays]

Andrea Swensson: In 1937, the sisters signed to Decca Records in New York. Their first single, "Why Talk About Love?," didn't do much — but their second one would change the sisters' fortunes, as Maxene Andrews told historian and radio host Studs Terkel in a 1982 interview.

Maxene Andrews: When Decca signed us, we were getting fifty dollars a record. "Bei Mir" was our second record. In those days, the records had an A-side and a B-side. Mr. Kapp, who was the president and founder of Decca Records called one day and said to us, "I've got a hit song for you, and I want you to get up on it right away. It's from a movie called 'Wake Up and Live.' The name of the song is 'Nice Work If You Can Get It,' and I want you to go out and get up on it, but immediately." But we didn't have a B-side. That was going to be the A-side, we didn't have a B-side.

We looked around, and finally the young man who eventually became our manager said he had a song that if there was an English lyric, he thought that maybe it would be a wonderful song if we did a nightclub back in New York, because it was Jewish melody — or I think he said it was a Yiddish melody — and he said it was like a lullaby, and he said, "When you work in New York with the big Jewish population you'll be a big smash." But there weren't any English lyrics.

So he taught us "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön" in Yiddish, phonetically. We walked into the studio. We did "Nice Work If You Can Get It," and then we did "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön." Sitting in the studio was Sammy Cahn and Sal Chapman, the songwriters. Jack [Kapp] was so impressed with the song, he walked over to Sammy and said, "Can you write an English lyric to it?" Sammy said yes. That was the end of the day, we came back two days later and re-recorded it. And that was "Bei Mir." After "Bei Mir" we had seven smash hits in a row. Mr. Kapp called our parents in, and tore up our fifty-dollar record contract and gave us a new contract with royalties, and went back retroactive.

Andrea Swensson: Though it was a simple love song, "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön" carried lots of weight, as Lynda Wells told us.

Lynda Wells: It broke for a hit in early 1938, just as the Jews were being incarcerated everywhere. And so that's why almost everyone thought the girls were Jewish. They loved that. They claimed it.

Andrea Swensson: The hits kept on coming. In 1940, the Andrews Sisters recorded "Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar," a song that, as Gary Giddins pointed out, helped popularize a brand-new beat.

Gary Giddins: Boogie-woogie had been a fairly arcane musical style practiced mostly in black communities by several brilliant virtuoso pianists who could really get a rhythm going — people like Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons. The eight-to-the-bar was very propulsive, so it encouraged dancing at rent parties and that kind of thing. Eight-to-the-bar boogie-woogie would just penetrate all the conversation and the talk and really keep people dancing. But after the Andrews Sisters did it, and other groups started doing pieces with boogie-woogie, it became a national fad, and a kind of alternative rhythm to the 4/4 of swing. The Andrews Sisters played an enormous part in that popularity.

Andrea Swensson: In 1939, the Andrews Sisters made their first recording with fellow Decca artist Bing Crosby. Patty told Tom Rockvam about collaborating with him.

Tom Rockvam: Every song they sang with Bing Crosby was a million-selling record. I like the way she said, "You'd go in to sing with Bing," and she said, "You could immediately what kind of mood he was in because if he was in a good mood he'd have the brim of his hat turned up, and if it was down, look out because we're going to do this right the first time and that's it." He evidently liked them because everything clicked with the two of them together.

Gary Giddins: I think they're at their best with Crosby because they're trying to impress him.

Andrea Swensson: Gary Giddins has written two parts of an exhaustive, multi-volume Bing Crosby biography. He explains how the Andrews Sisters linked up with the "White Christmas" icon.

Gary Giddins: I believe it was Dave Kapp, the brother of Jack Kapp who ran Decca. Dave became legendary for creating their country-western catalog, which was the best in the business for many years. I believe it was his idea to have them do a two-sided 78 with Crosby.

When Bing and Andrews Sisters got together, one of the first records they did was "Pistol Packin' Mama." One of their funniest recordings definitely is "Jingle Bells," which we think now of as a Christmas holiday song, and which they did even in the '40s, but was actually written in the 1850s as a Thanksgiving song. The jingle bells are about groups coming together in their carriages to celebrate Thanksgiving together.

Another one I would rate very high among Bing's very best recordings and certainly the Andrews Sisters' very best, was Louis Jordan's "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby." They spread country music to a large audience. They spread R&B to a larger audience. People weren't even thinking of them in terms of ethnicity because once you reach the level of the Andrews Sisters or Crosby or Sinatra or any of these mainstream white performers who were all over the air, the music followed them into the mainstream.

Andrea Swensson: With their records consistent bestsellers, the next stop for the Andrews Sisters was Hollywood.

Gary Giddins: A lot of the swing stars, swing bands, people who became famous on radio would be used to attract audiences to the movies. The Andrews Sisters, they really hit it off when they started appearing in service comedies like Abbott and Costello. Those started coming out the year before Pearl Harbor, when everybody sort of suspected we were going to end up in this war no matter what.

But when they made these movies right before Pearl Harbor, the army and the training camps in this country are portrayed as summer camps. It's so much fun. You get free cigarettes and routine visits from the Andrews Sisters, and it's all comedy and nobody's killed or in any kind of jeopardy in those kinds of movies. Right after the war, they did a very popular film with Bing and Bob Hope in the Road series — "The Road to Rio." They weren't actors. They were a specialty act.

Andrea Swensson: The Andrews Sisters' popularity meant that they were consistently on the road. They were in Cincinnati in December 1941 when President Roosevelt made an announcement. Maxene told Studs Terkel the story.

Maxene Andrews: I remember very distinctly the day that the war was declared. We were in Cincinnati, Ohio. We had opened there on a Thursday, and it was a big, big snowstorm. But it looked like we were going to break the house record in the theater. It didn't matter how cold it was or how high the snow was, people were lined up for blocks. And I would get the thrill of going to the theater at 9 o'clock in the morning and seeing the lines were already formed.

That went on for Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Now Sunday morning was the same routine for me. I got up and I went over to the theater, and there were no lines. And I thought, "Now this is funny." So I walked into the theater, and as usual, the old theaters had the doorman. The doorman wasn't there. So I walked onto the stage, which was very dark. In the distance I heard people speaking, but I couldn't distinguish what they were saying. So I walked further on the stage, and there were the doorman and stagehands, sitting around. They just had one light and the radio was on. They were talking about Pearl Harbor being bombed. And I remember going over to the doorman and saying, "Where's Pearl Harbor?" I had never heard of it. And then I heard the president declare war on Japan. I don't know if I could ever tell you what I felt. I don't even know if I could describe it myself. But it was just really devastating.

Andrea Swensson: The Andrews Sisters became a critical part of the war effort, performing for the troops at USO shows around the world. Tom Rockvam recalls the Andrews Sisters' impact on the home front.

Tom Rockvam: When I grew up all there was on the radio — there were no televisions of course — the radio was on 24 hours a day, and it was all news. The only time it broke was news about WWII. And the only time that changed was the six or eight times a day that the Andrews Sisters sang. That was such a relief, to hear music.

I was only four or five years old when it ended — WWII — but I drastically remember that no matter where you went — if you were home you had a radio on, and it was always the news. And if you went to see a movie it was always in the preludes or whatever of the movie. I remember my mom — when the Andrews Sisters would come on during the day while she was in the house, she would just dance around. And I thought in my own mind that that had to be a relief, that three or five minutes of relief that they could think of. Otherwise it was constant war, war, war.

Lynda Wells: That's to me the irony of three girls from immigrant families who became iconic representations of one of the worst times in the history of America, in the history of the world — WWII — and who became a beacon, a light that all of these men and women who were fighting for freedom. They are iconic. You look at them saluting in their uniforms from a film, and you're just transported back to a time in which — Maxene's quote is, "It was as if everyone in the U.S. was holding each other's hands."

Andrea Swensson: The Andrews Sisters were playing a USO show in Italy in 1945 when some big news came in, as Maxene told Studs Terkel.

Maxene Andrews: We got into a Jeep, and we went out to this place in Naples. It was a like a big well where you'd put a dirigible, that's how large it was. It was loaded with about five or eight thousand of the most unhappy audience you'd ever seen, because all of these fellas were being shipped to the South Pacific, and they hadn't been home in four years, and it was just their bad luck that they were ticketed to go on to the South Pacific. Not only were they on the floor of this place in chairs, but they were hanging from the rafters.

When we were pretty well through with the show, I heard someone go, psst, and I looked around and it was one of the soldiers, and he was calling me offstage. Patty was doing a little scene with Arthur Treacher. I walked off over to this man, and he said to me, "I have a very important message for Patty to tell the audience." I looked at him, and I started to laugh, because the fellas were always playing tricks on us. So I said, "I can't do that in the middle of the show." He said, "The SEO — this is from the SEO — and he said it's very important." So I said, "I can't do that." He said "Look, you're going to get in trouble, and you're going to get me in trouble."

So I took the paper. I didn't read it, and I walked out in the stage, and I kept saying to myself, "Is he kidding me? It's going to be terrible because I'm going to get in trouble with Patty, or I'm going to get in trouble with Arthur, or I'm going to get in trouble with the SEO." So I decided I'd walk out on the stage and I'd wait until I felt it was a proper opening.

After Patty and Arthur finished their skit we got together, and Patty was in a very jovial mood that day. We were kidding around, and finally I said to her, "Patty, I've got a message for you." And she looked at me. And I said, "It's a message from the SEO." And she said to me, "Stop, you're kidding." And I said, "I'm not kidding. I got the message and I was told to give it to you and it's from the SEO." And so she said, "Well I'll go along with the gag."

So she said to the fellas, "Look, it's a big joke up here, I'm going to read you a note supposedly from the SEO." Without reading it first, she read it. And it announced the end of the war with Japan. There wasn't a sound in the whole auditorium. So she looked at it again, and she looked at me, and she knew that I knew that it was serious. So she said, "No fellas, this is from the SEO, and this is an announcement that the war is over in Japan, and you don't have to go." And with that she started to cry. When she started to cry, LaVerne and I started to cry, and there was still no reaction from the guys.

Studs Terkel: They expect to go to the South Pacific.

Maxene Andrews: They were all ready to be shipped out. And she said again, "No, this is it. This is the end." All of a sudden, all hell broke loose. And they yelled and screamed and all of a sudden, we saw a pair of pants and a shirt come down from up above, and following it was a body, came down and fell on the guys sitting there in their chairs.

So Patty said, "Look. Do you want to go out and get drunk, or do you want to see the show?" And they said, "No, we want to see the rest of the show." So we made it very short.

Andrea Swensson: With the war over, America could relax. The Andrews Sisters were as busy as ever — but according to Tom Rockvam, every July, they'd return to Mound for vacation.

Tom Rockvam: They came back until 1960. Both their uncles were passed away by '64. Before that they came back no matter where they were performing in the world, to come back for a week or two, and they always stayed with them in their house, which is where the Gillespie Center is today.

Andrea Swensson: Mound, MN lies on the western side of Lake Minnetonka, about twenty miles from Minneapolis, and it covers three and a half square miles. Dakota natives considered it a sacred space, but white settlers colonized the area starting in 1852, and it became a tourist hotspot by the 1890s. To this day, people from near and far visit its golf courses, hotels, lake cruises, and recreational trails.

Named after the Native American earth works all over its topography, Mound Village was incorporated in 1912 and became the City of Mound in 1974. Much of the town was developed and its streets paved in the 1970s. When the Andrews Sisters were kids, the town had a population of about four hundred. Since 1980, it's held steady at about nine thousand.

Andrea Swensson [to Tom Rockvam]: I'm wondering, in talking to Patty about being in Mound, I get the sense that maybe this was a place where they could step away from the spotlight and have a break.

Tom Rockvam: It could be. Basically she always told me that whatever they did in later years, they would just come here just because they wanted to be alone.

Andrea Swensson: In the early fifties, the sisters were beginning to move apart. Their mother Olga had died in July of 1948; their father Peter passed in October of '49. Then a fire in 1951 destroyed the family home in Bel Air. In 1952, Patty married the group's pianist, Walter Weschler, and the Andrews Sisters would disband two years later.

Tom Rockvam: He was like a fourth Andrews Sister because he was their piano player from day one. He had an axe to grind for some reason, but he broke it up for a couple times. He thought he should get a fourth of the money coming in. And it was always split in three. The week after he died, they piped PA music through that house for a month. Very controlling, he was. Lot of friction in there. I never went into that. I didn't want to do anything that would make me lose Patty.

Gary Giddins: Patty, she was the soloist on all their recordings. Whenever there's a solo female voice, it's Patty. She got married to a guy that had more ambition than he had talent or brains, and convinced her that the sisters were holding her back and she could be a great star in her own right.

So she left them high and dry. This was after they had made close to two-dozen gold records. They were hugely popular, and so the Andrews Sisters ended, and of course Patty Andrews had an utterly negligible career as a soloist. Crosby tried to help her by recording a couple of duets with her, but she wasn't good enough to go solo, whereas the Andrews really had a unique sound, and to sacrifice that for being a second-rate female voice at that time when you had so many really great voices, from Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee and Rosemary Clooney and just on and on. These were really distinctive performers. She didn't have that.

Andrea Swensson: The Andrews Sisters re-formed in 1956 and continued recording for almost 10 more years. But by that point, rock 'n' roll had replaced big band as the leading sound of pop. Soon after LaVerne passed away in 1967, the group disbanded. Then, in 1973, Bette Midler's cover of "Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy" went top-ten, and the Andrews Sisters were back in vogue. Maxene would join Patty in the cast of "Over Here," a Broadway show that opened in March of 1974. But before the show could tour nationally, Gary Giddins says, the two sisters had a falling out.

Gary Giddins: I remember when they got together for a reunion at the Bottom Line in the '70s, and as a consequence, there was a Broadway show that was built around them with young performers pretending to be them. Maxene was in it. She sort of was a special guest that would come out. They might've been able to navigate a transition into the '50s. A lot of '40s acts simply couldn't do it, but as it happened, they really are associated with that period. They had a good 15 years out there at the top.

Maxene, who was the liveliest of the three personally — she was really a pistol — she came out as gay, and Patty was homophobic, and they never talked again for the rest of their lives.

Andrea Swensson: This particular revelation came as a surprise to the whole team behind this episode. So I want to pause here and talk a little bit to our producer, Cecilia Johnson. Cecilia, hello.

Cecilia Johnson: Hello.

Andrea Swensson: We just learned through this interview with Gary Giddins that Maxene was gay. Is this something that you had come across at all in your research up until this point?

Cecilia Johnson: Not at all. So it was really surprising, and I was almost like, "Is this true?" It turns out that he wasn't exactly right about the cause of Maxene and Patty's split. From what I could tell through research and interviews, that had more to do with Patty's husband, who was apparently pretty controlling and not necessarily a nice guy. But he was totally right about Maxene not being straight. She was married to a man, she was partnered with a woman for thirteen years, and then she was partnered with Lynda Wells, who was also her manager and adopted daughter for many, many years.

Andrea Swensson: So what did you want to do next, once you found this out?

Cecilia Johnson: The first thing I did was Google: "Maxene Andrews gay." Because I'm a great researcher [both laugh]. I did turn up some — not what I would call scholarly or well-vetted sources, but I did come across a couple of forums, where folks were saying, "Yeah, she definitely was gay." And in these Google searches, I came across this name Lynda Wells. So I turned to this book that I really respect about the Andrews Sisters, it's by Harry Nimmo, and it's called "The Andrews Sisters: Biography and Career Record." I looked in the index for Lynda Wells. Finally, I got to page 401, I think it was, of this big old book. Harry Nimmo addressed these rumors. It turns out that in the '90s there was a Globe story and National Inquirer story. —

Andrea Swensson: In the 1990s.

Cecilia Johnson: In the early 1990s, I think it was '91, '92, when those stories came out. That was the only published sources that he could find about this. He wasn't able to get in touch with Lynda. So I thought, maybe I could get in touch with Lynda? I did find her online. So I called her up, she just happened to answer.

Andrea Swensson: The first time you called?

Cecilia Johnson: The first time I called. I was so nervous. I said, "Hi, I'm making this podcast, we're doing an episode about the Andrews Sisters," and she told me, "Anything for my girls."

Andrea Swensson: There's this big elephant in the room, right? This hasn't been part of their story, this hasn't been widely discussed. How did you broach this topic with Lynda?

Cecilia Johnson: I was not sure what to do. So I actually called Harry Nimmo and asked for his advice. He said, "If I were you, I think I'd be really candid. And if you just approach if honestly, then she probably would at least be honest with you, and not be offended." So then, when I actually got on the phone with Lynda — for our actual interview — we were ten minutes into our conversation, and I finally worked up the courage to ask her.

Cecilia Johnson [to Lynda Wells]: You know, I feel like I should be really candid. I've been reading some stories and statements that Maxene was gay, too, and I'm not sure how much you want to talk about that, if at all. If you were me, how would —

Lynda Wells: You know, I'm writing a book at this moment. I've got a wonderful writer who is also gay. And is coming on board for this project. We're also doing a documentary at this time, and it is all about Maxene's life. Maxene was married to Lou Levy, who remained her lifelong — they were divorced — but her lifelong friend. I adored Lou Levy. And he became one of the five largest music publishers in the world, and they adopted two children, a little girl and a little boy.

She had never had a female lover until one person, and this was after her divorce, and they were together for thirteen years, and that was very successful, very good, and when that finished, that was the end of Maxene thinking she was gay. It's a different era, and she really did not consider herself a lesbian. And then she and I as adults — something clicked one night at a place called [Uncle] Charlie's in New York, and she was doing the Broadway show by that time. It was just one of those moments in time when you go, "That is the person I want to spend the rest of my life with." It was just a chemistry.

To me, being gay was not a central focus of Maxene's life at all. Her art was. Her singing was. Her ability to please an audience, her devilish way of getting into an audience and making them feel as if they were sitting in her living room even if there were 3,000 people in the audience.

We both became born again Christians, and it happened because we had some dear friends named Carol and Jim Hampton — Jim Hampton was a wonderful actor. Carol Hampton was from England and had one of the most gorgeous voices — jazz voice. She lives out here now, and she had tried to make a DVD for me to be able to see Maxene on one of the Christian television stations. Yesterday my secretary was able to get it to run. I saw Maxene singing, and it was just divine. It was on a Christian television station. Talk about being in the closet!

Carol, up until five years ago — maybe six years ago — did not know that Maxene and I were gay or lovers or any of it, but accepted us for just who we were, just as human beings. She was the one who, after Maxene had her major heart attack in Northwestern Hospital in Chicago and darn near died and they thought I was her daughter and had to sign all these rights and things for them to do these medical procedures to save her life, and I had no authority to do that. We didn't have a living will at that time. She hadn't been sick.

So Carol Hampton just took me and Maxene by the hand and took us out on the street where they lived and knocked on the door of the neighbor, and a woman answered the door, and it was an attorney friend of hers, and she said, "This one needs to adopt this one." We had several friends who had adopted each other, but it never occurred to us, really, that we needed to do such a thing. It just didn't occur to us. Within three weeks I was her daughter, which made life a very strange kind of — also that's a bit odd if you think about it for a minute.

And yet it didn't change the relationship, because she and my mother were almost the same age, and were friends. And I had a perfectly good mother, and yet I had another mother. But there's a part of me that's proud that we had to jump through those hoops, because it's important for those kids today that are struggling with their identity and want to be who they really are — to know that it wasn't always right out in the open, or it couldn't be. It literally could not be. It was against the law in many states, and believe it or not it's still against the law in states that have not changed that law.

Maxene and I were life partners, and the only legal course we had was for her to adopt me. There was no such thing as being married at that time. And during her lifetime there was no such thing that existed for us. So the militant — and I mean that in the kindest and best word — the ones who wouldn't put up with nonsense are the ones who marched and made this happen; that people who are gay can come out of their closet and wave their gay flag.

Andrea Swensson: Here's the most astonishing part of all: Lynda and Maxene had crossed paths many times before falling in love.

Lynda Wells: It's a long story. She was actually a friend of my mother and my father before they were famous. And they met in Memphis, Tenn. at the Peabody Hotel when the girls were singing with the band. My parents lived in a small town in Arkansas called Helena. They had gone up to Memphis to stay at the Peabody, which was the hotel. They were staying for three days, and the girls were singing every night, so every night there would be my parents, and the girls would sing and people would dance. Maxene would come over and join their table between breaks.

So then they stayed in touch all the way through. I was nowhere in the vicinity at the time, because that was in 1936, or maybe really early '37. And then my father was in the Army Air Corps. He was training boys to fly. He had his own plane. He was flying ordnance from the Air Corps at that time, and he was up doing some practice runs, fortunately without a student, and the plane crashed.

My uncle was playing with the Navy band and was actually doing a USO show somewhere in Texas, probably Dallas. And he told Maxene. He said, "I believe you might know my sister and my brother-in-law." And she said, "Well of course, yes. And how is their daughter?" And he said, "Well there's a whole story there too, but I did need you to know that Arthur was killed in service." So my mother got a phone call from Maxene, and this is all in my baby book. They stayed in touch then.

My grandmother tells me that she took me down when I was little to New Orleans. I really don't have a memory of that — to hear them sing. And then my first real memory of her was when I was 13 years old, and my grandmother and my aunt— my father's mother and his sister — took me on a road trip to California. My grandmother called Maxene, and she invited us to have lunch at the Brown Derby in Hollywood.

It was wonderful. Wow. I was not impressed at all that this was one of the Andrews Sisters. It wasn't really registering with me at all. But in there were some of the most famous people of their time, and they were even before my time, but I still knew who they were, and Maxene was pointing out who was sitting there. There was a singer by the name of Johnny Desmond. There was a comedy team by the name of Fibber McGee and Molly in the other room. Nat King Cole. There was an old movie star who was a star before the talkies — in the silent films — named May Murray, and I just remember that the maitre d' gave me full permission to go and get everybody's autograph, which really didn't happen. But a 13-year-old with Maxene got by with murder.

I did not then get to meet her again until I was already doing a lot of commercials in New York. I went into the business. I graduated from the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and decided that I wanted to sing, I wanted to act. This is what I wanted to do with my life. So I'd moved to New York with that intention, and I began getting commercials; a lot of commercials. And then a friend from California was staying with Elaine Stritch, a very famous actress/singer/performer, and so we met and she invited me to come out and visit her at her home in Studio City, CA. And while I was there it was Thanksgiving and she had a Thanksgiving party, and who comes up the walk but Maxene Andrews.

My hostess was standing at the door looking at people getting ready to come up her very long walk, and she said, "Oh, here comes Maxene Andrews." I just about fainted and ran into another room and tried to collect myself and went, "Wow, my goodness." And then I started to giggle, thinking, "This is going to be fun." So I walked back out and Maxene was just greeting Pat at that time, and I just stood there, and she looked at me and said, "Hi. How are you?" And Pat said, "Maxene, this is Lynda Wells," and Maxene said, "Why do you look so familiar to me?" And I said, "I do a lot of television commercials, so a lot of people think they know me. But actually, Maxene, you know me." She said, "What?" I said, "You're my godmother." She said, "What?"

My mother had said, "Can you be a guardian angel for my little baby?" This was when that phone call happened back in 1943. And Maxene said, "I don't know about being a guardian angel, but I'd be happy to be her godmother." When I stood there in that foyer that day and told her that, if she had false teeth they would've fallen out. And then she was just like, "I can't believe it." So from that moment on, we stayed in touch.

We were just never apart after that. Maxene and I would go back to Minneapolis, and she also did several personal appearances there for corporations and things that would bring her in, and so we'd stay downtown at one of the hotels. But she had her favorite restaurants and we would hit that and visit the family and go to Mound, which was her heart home because that's where she and the girls felt they could be kids. That was their childhood.

Andrea Swensson: After a lifetime of music and public adoration, Maxene died in 1995 at the age of 79. Patty, the youngest sister, would live the longest, dying at age 94 in January of 2013. After her passing, Tom Rockvam pushed to get the sisters official recognition from the town they loved.

Tom Rockvam: Everybody in Mound knew the Andrews Sisters and the uncles and all that. I got the phone number and it took me about two weeks to get up enough courage to call her after hearing weird stories and things. So I called her and she answered the phone, and I said, "Patty, my name is Tom Rockvam, which will mean absolutely nothing to you, but I'm from Mound, MN." And she just melted. And she said, "Mound, MN. I haven't talked to anybody from Mound for 60 years. What can I do for you?" And she just became so unreal that if I didn't call her every week she'd call me.

Patty Andrews had never had a service when she died. Patty's daughter called me and said, "We'd like to get this group together and come up to your museum and look at that, and you've done so much for Mom, for us and for Mound, and for keeping the Andrews Sisters name alive." They had a service in the parking lot out here with the 21-gun salute.

Every time I found an article in a newspaper or magazine I'd cut it out and put it in a box. I wrote a letter to our senior center — Gillespie Center — said I thought we should give these girls some recognition. And all I was thinking was a plaque of some kind, or a sign. I remember passing that out at the board meeting, and there was about twelve people on that board, and I never heard back a word from any one of them. So I thought I'm not going to fight them. Then I went out and saw they were making a trail. There were bulldozers and blacktop right downtown Mound. It isn't that big, probably a half-mile, total. Goes from the Catholic Church around town, over to the Caribou Coffee. I thought, "There's no signs here, and it's a lighted blacktop trail." So one of the councilmen worked with me. Bob Brown was his name, and I got that going.

Andrea Swensson: The Andrews Sisters Trail was officially named in 2005. Patty, the surviving sister, delivered a final encore for the occasion.

Tom Rockvam: We'd done about four or five dinner parties at Gillespie. That'll hold like 250 people, and we sold it out every time we did it. It was her ninetieth birthday and just a great night. I called Patty — I'd always call her and say, "You going to be home Saturday night?" And she'd say, "Where else am I going to be? I can't walk anymore." Her knees were too bad. I said, "We got a party. I'd like to have you — we'll hook it up and call you." So we sang happy birthday to her, and then she sang half of "Bugle Boy" back to the crowd.

[Lazerbeak's "Winging It" plays]

Andrea Swensson: This episode of The Current Rewind was produced by Cecilia Johnson and Anna Weggel. Michaelangelo Matos is our writer, Marisa Gonzalez Morseth is our research assistant, and Brett Baldwin is our managing producer. Our theme music is "Winging It" by Lazerbeak from the album Luther. Michael DeMark mastered this episode.

Thanks to guests Lynda Wells, Tom Rockvam, and Gary Giddins — and to Harry Nimmo, who wrote the invaluable book The Andrews Sisters: A Biography and Career Record. Gary Giddins has written two Bing Crosby volumes, and Tom Rockvam put together a great book called The Andrews Sisters and Their 100 Year Connection to Lake Minnetonka and Mound, Minnesota. Thanks to the Studs Terkel Archive and WFMT for granting permission to use recordings of Maxene Andrews.

If you like listening to The Current Rewind, we would love it if you would rate and review this podcast on iTunes, as well as subscribing, and telling every single person that you know how cool it is.

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The Current Rewind is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. It is a production of Minnesota Public Radio's The Current.

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