How I Learned to Swim

The first step was lying. At nine years old, I was small enough to pass for a six-year-old, but that wasn’t the lie, that was just genetics.

I told the lie at the peak of my earning powers as a kid performer in Hollywood. In 1962, I was old enough to read, but short enough to play a younger child who couldn’t. I’d already been a semi-regular on the sitcom Bachelor Father, had two guest spots on another sitcom, McHale’s Navy, with Ernest Borgnine, finished a segment of Dennis The Menace, and I was feeling pretty good about myself (though I dared not brag). When Bessie Loo sent me to an interview for a film called Donovan’s Reef, to be directed by somebody named John Ford, I felt very confident.

At nine, I didn’t know John Ford was legendary. I just remember going to Paramount Studios, being led into a room with a lot people looking at me, feeling that the room was very bright and hot, and told to read for an old guy with a black eye patch. I read for the role of Sally, the second daughter of a white father, to be played by Jack Warden, and a dead Hawaiian mother. My ethnicity didn’t seem that important to me, though it seemed to be important to the plot of the film. I was asked if I was full-blooded Chinese and I said, “Of course,” Then I wisecracked (I was truly fearless or really stupid to wisecrack on an interview), “Isn’t everyone who’s alive full-blooded?”

“You’re a cheeky one, aren’t you?” Mr. Ford said, and he smiled, which made his black eye patch seem less scary, more like an adventurous pirate’s eyepatch. I thought he winked at me with his good eye, but I probably imagined that.

I didn’t realize at that time that though Donovan’s Reef was to be a comedy, the central element of the plot revolved around hiding kids of mixed race from a woman who was their half-sister and who was white. I don’t remember being told too much about the story line except that the movie would be shot in Hawaii and if I got the part we’d be on location for three to six weeks. I thought my reading of the sides (the scenes of the script used at an interview are called sides) must have impressed John Ford, because he didn’t say the dismissive, “Thank you very much,” but started asking me questions.

Cherylene Lee in Hawaii on the set of 1963 film, "Donovan's Reef," directed by John Ford.

On the location of 1963 film, “Donovan’s Reef,” directed by John Ford.

Could I dance, he asked. I told him “Yes.” Could I sing? I said, “Yes.” Then came the totally unexpected question. Could I water ski?

After a momentary hesitation I said very confidently, “I can learn.”

It didn’t sound too bad at the time. I knew I was a fast learner: I could memorize dialogue easily, I picked up dance steps quickly. Surely I could learn how to water ski in six weeks. Saying “I could learn,” really wasn’t a bad lie. The bad lie was that I didn’t even know how to swim. I should have blurted out the truth, saying, “Water ski? Are you kidding? I don’t even know how to swim,” but I didn’t. I wanted the job. I wanted to go to Hawaii. None of my family knew how to water ski. Puggy, Warren, and Virginia all had swimming lessons in a public pool, but somehow with my dance classes and working at the studios, I’d missed out.

The next day Bessie Loo called and told my mom that I got the part, that I had to go to wardrobe to be measured, and that we had to stop off at John Ford’s office and pick up the latest draft of the script. We were told to be ready to leave for the island of Kauai as soon as the final decisions were made concerning the rest of the cast. I think the lie I had told to land the role of Sally began to worm its way into my happiness because even though this would be my very first time to fly on an airplane, when flying was considered a luxury; and it would be the very first time I’d see Hawaii, which back then was the holiday destination for the well- to-do, I wasn’t exactly excited. Yes, I was glad to get the role, but there was a part of me that knew I would have to pay for the lie I’d told. The Sally of the script could water ski. The actor who was going to play her didn’t even know how to swim.

To lie to any director of any TV show, play or film, was not a particularly good idea, but it was particularly bad to lie to John Ford. I realized this when the cast gathered for the first time for a read-through of the script. The cast included John Wayne, Lee Marvin, Cesar Romero, Jack Warden, Dorothy Lamour, and Elizabeth Allen. Everyone at the reading addressed the director as Mr. Ford except John Wayne and Dorothy Lamour, who called him Jack.

John Ford was old and nearly bald by the time he directed Donovan’s Reef, but his reputation and legacy were already made. His presence commanded everyone’s attention whenever he was around. Though he had only one eye (and he had to hold the script really close to read), he didn’t seem to miss a thing. I could see the respect given to him, respect that I was sure included not making him angry. How angry would he be with me? I wasn’t exactly afraid of him, because somehow I felt he liked me, the “cheeky” kid—and after all, he had cast me—but I definitely kept my mouth shut about my water skiing deficiency at the first read-through of the script. I read the lines in the water skiing scene with as much confidence as I could. It was easy at a table reading to pretend I actually could water ski.

My mother had read the script and knew that I was supposed to water ski, but neither of us spoke of it until we were unpacked in our room at the Kauai Surf Hotel. We shared this great room that contained a rattan swing that hung from the ceiling, a bright yellow L-shaped sofa that turned into two twin beds when you took the bolsters off, and a huge lanai with a view of the beach below that seemed to stretch out forever.

“Don’t worry,” Mom said. “That’s why they have stunt people.” She wasn’t bothered, she felt sure I could do anything I set my mind to, and she was there to protect me if I was asked to do anything too dangerous. Mom never learned to swim herself, so she really didn’t know what would be involved. Neither of us knew if I actually had a stunt double for the film. If I had a double, I certainly hadn’t seen her yet. Mom’s confidence in my abilities only half-comforted me. Would Mr. Ford send us home after bringing us all the way over to Hawaii? Could he do that? Of course he could.

I knew I should tell him the truth very soon after we arrived on the island, but there didn’t seem to be a proper moment to talk to him during my first days of shooting. Mr. Ford was doing exterior town shots. All I had to do was sit in a jeep in the scenes I was in. I didn’t have many lines, so he wasn’t paying me much attention. There were always lots of people around him asking questions. The time wasn’t yet right. I had to tell him the truth when he and I were alone.

On the days when I wasn’t required to be on the set, and my mom and I could go sight-seeing, the beauty of the island truly made my swimming problem seem very small. The son of an old Hawaiian woman who was teaching me how to hula for the film drove us to Waimea Canyon, called the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” Though I hadn’t yet visited the original Grand Canyon in Arizona, I couldn’t imagine that it could be any more spectacular than Waimea, with its steep cliffs exposing layers of various shades of red-colored earth (layers which I learned were ancient lava flows), all covered by a frosting of bright green foliage. It was as though a knife had cut through a giant layer cake.

Kauai in 1962 had not yet been transformed by tourism as Honolulu had. The towns were small collections of two-story wooden buildings with planked sidewalks and unpaved dirt roads that made me think of the wild West. The old Hawaiian woman told me about the Menehue, Hawaii’s leprechauns, small-sized men who had built many of the old stone walls that seemed to crop up everywhere on the island.

On the set of 1963 film, "Donovan's Reef."

On the location of 1963 film, “Donovan’s Reef,” directed by John Ford.

My mother and I, along with most of the cast, were staying at the Kauai Surf Hotel, one of the few high-rise buildings on the island. Most of the crew was staying at the Kauai Inn, an older two-story hotel that had a great buffet. John Wayne rented a special house on the beach and he threw a party for everyone when we got to the island. The party began at high tide because John Wayne’s beach house had a swimming pool designed to fill up with ocean water when the tide reached its peak. It was the only pool I’d seen that allowed swimmers to swim in the ocean, yet protected them from the currents and waves which were rough on that side of the island.

The party was my first luau complete with a roasted pig and poi, this awful-tasting brown paste that reminded me of glue—definitely an acquired taste. All of the cast and crew were having a great time, people jumping in and out of the salt water pool, laughing and splashing each other—all except me, who couldn’t swim and was trying to hide that fact from everyone, especially John Ford. I dangled my legs in the water at the edge of the pool and Tim Stafford, who was cast to play my baby brother in the movie, kept doing cannon balls near me to get me wet enough to jump in, but I wouldn’t budge. I told Tim that my mother wouldn’t allow me to swim in the water until half an hour after I’d finished eating. So for the rest of the party I made sure I had something in my hands to eat. Maybe they thought I had an unusually big appetite for a small girl, or they thought me strange to be eating continuously, but at least I didn’t get thrown into the pool that day. I wondered how long I could keep this up. The day was hot and the water looked inviting, but I dared not go in, not even to splash.

On one level the lie grew heavier inside me every day. But when I saw how Mr. Ford worked, I think some of my fear lessened. Every day the schedule of scenes, the pages that were expected to be covered, and the time we needed to be on the set for make-up would be posted in the lobby of the hotels. The night before, I would study the scenes in the script that we were supposed to shoot the following day. But on this film, it didn’t seem to matter whether I memorized my lines or not. John Ford gave actors new lines on the spot. Lines that just came to him which, to me at nine years old, seemed like they came out of the blue. For a scene that we were shooting at the edge of Waimea Canyon, where a sacred ceremony was supposed to be performed for cutting down a tree, Mr. Ford told me to say, “I don’t tie granny knots. He (referring to my kid brother) ties granny knots.” I didn’t even know what a granny knot was, but obediently I said the line—which ended up being cut.

Looking back on the finished film, the improvised line made sense because my brother and I were supposed to be tying down a Christmas tree ostensibly gathered on our trip to Waimea Canyon. The line established the bickering between siblings. I’d never before worked with a director who changed the lines so radically on the day of shooting. I was hoping that the improvised line was evidence that John Ford would find a way to improvise my water skiing scene right out of the script or maybe change it to a hula scene, something I could actually do. But he’d have to know that I couldn’t swim first.

As it turned out, my moment of truth came about two weeks into the shooting schedule. The notice in the lobby of the Kauai Surf Hotel indicated that the water skiing scene was scheduled for Monday or Tuesday of the following week. That same notice also said that there would be a production meeting with Mr. Ford at the Kauai Inn later that evening. I knew my time had come.

I told my mother that I really wanted to eat dinner at the buffet in the Kauai Inn and—oh, yes, by the way—I was going to tell Mr. Ford that I couldn’t swim.

“That’s nice,” my mother said. “They have good food there.” She seemed unfazed that my confession could send us packing the next day.

“I’m telling him the truth, Mom.”

“Tell him you’re doing very well with your hula lessons too.” She always wanted me to say something positive.
“We’re not shooting the hula scene next week; we’re shooting the water skiing scene.” I probably rolled my eyes. Why wasn’t she worried?

“I’m so glad you’re learning to hula, you do it just like really.”

My mother wasn’t worried, but I was. I knew I would have to catch Mr. Ford early, before the meeting started, and I knew where to look for him. He liked to smoke cigars after a day’s shooting in a screened lanai that could be seen from the hotel’s buffet. This lanai was commandeered for studio business and lit with an ugly florescent light. It was not an area for the hotel’s usual guests, who were restricted to parts of the hotel lit by the glow of tiki torches.

Mom and I got to the buffet early, and although all my favorite Hawaiian foods were out in force—teriyaki chicken wings, Kalua pig, mahi mahi, pineapple-papaya-banana-honey dew-cantalope fruit salad with maraschino cherries, potato salad, macaroni salad, rice, scalloped potatoes, and chocolate- topped coconut cake (I never chose green vegetables at a buffet)—I could barely eat a thing. I was constantly craning my neck to see if Mr. Ford was on his way to the lanai. I wanted to head him off at the pass.

Finally he arrived with his assistant, Wingate Smith, walking beside him. They were headed out of the restaurant area to the place where Mr. Ford could smoke a cigar in peace.

“Mr. Ford, Mr. Ford,” I chased after him as he neared the door to the lanai.

Wingate Smith turned to me. “What is it, dear?” Everyone on the set called me dear. I wondered if they said that because they didn’t know how to pronounce Cherylene, which my family pronounced Cheryl-lynn, not Chery-lean the way it was spelled.

“I have to tell Mr. Ford something,” I panted. I don’t know why I was panting—the distance from the buffet to the lanai wasn’t far. I hadn’t really needed to run, but the significance of the moment was upon me. “Can I tell him in private, please?” I wanted no one but John Ford to know the awful truth.

“You can tell us both.” Mr. Ford looked at me with his good eye, but I felt like his black eye patch was glaring at me.

I swallowed and said, “I…I…think the hula lessons…”—I had to start over. “ I can hula, but I really can’t…I can’t water ski. You see (and I remember looking at John Ford’s black eye patch, thinking what am I saying to a man with one eye?) I thought I could learn, but I don’t…I don’t know how to swim.” I said the last five words really fast, as though if they didn’t hear them correctly, then it wouldn’t be so.

“You don’t know how to swim.” Wingate Smith had heard me perfectly. But he didn’t make a question out of it, it was a statement. He knew all the implications. There was a pause. I heard the surf. I was thinking this might be the last night I would hear it before they sent me back to LA.

“How old are you?” Mr. Ford asked.

“Nine.”

“Well isn’t it time you learned?” I nodded. I didn’t know what to say.

Did he mean I should have learned not to lie, or that I should have learned how to swim? Nine years old seemed way too old to not have learned either lesson.

“Set it up,” Mr. Ford said to his assistant. And that was it. No huge lecture, no sign of anger. “Is that all you have to say?” he asked.

I wanted to end positively as my mother had taught me. “I’ve learned ‘Lovely Hula Hands,’ and ‘Little Brown Girl in a Little Grass Shack,’ in my hula lessons.” But I could tell Mr. Ford had stopped listening to me. His mind must have been racing through how the water skiing scene would be shot and wondering if this twit of a girl had ruined the continuity of the previous days’ shoots and would they have to re-shoot anything else I was in. “That’s all I have to tell you,” I finished lamely. I didn’t even say that I was sorry.

“You shouldn’t be so cheeky,” Mr. Ford told me a bit gruffly. And that was as much of a chastisement as he gave me. I was bracing for the worst, and it didn’t happen. I could breathe again, and the weight I’d felt myself carrying ever since I’d lied suddenly lifted. If I’d known how to swim, I might have compared the sudden buoyant feeling to floating on water.

There were consequences. I found out on Monday’s schedule that all my hula lessons were cancelled to be replaced by swimming lessons in the Kauai Surf Hotel swimming pool. I was still called on the set for the water skiing scene, but once there, Jackie Malouf, who played my older sister, was the one who would do the water skiing. Actually, there was a stunt double for her but Jackie really did know how to water ski, so it all worked out.

It turned out that I didn’t have to swim for any scene in Donovan’s Reef, nor did I have to hula. But I did learn how to do both before we left to go back to the mainland. I learned to swim from the son of the old woman who taught me how to hula. He was a big Hawaiian guy so comfortable in the water I thought he must have learned to swim before he learned to walk. He asked me with disbelief in his sing-song Hawaiian pidgin: “You no how to swim and you how old?” I wasn’t a great swimmer by the time I left Kauai, but I was confident enough to try board-surfing and body-surfing in the ocean under the watchful eye of my teacher. He was proud of my progress and how tan I’d become during our swimming lessons. “Little more sun, pretty soon, you kama ‘aiina,” which I thought was Hawaiian-speak for native.

On the set of 1963 film, "Donovan's Reef," directed by John Ford.

On the location of 1963 film, “Donovan’s Reef,” directed by John Ford.

I thought my relationship with John Ford changed after my confession. But maybe he was treating me as he always had. He had a special way to communicate his pleasure or displeasure. He presided over high tea, served every day (or maybe every Friday) at five on the set, regardless of where he was in the shoot. If Mr. Ford was pleased with you, he invited you to high tea. I was never invited to high tea while we were shooting in Hawaii.

I was invited to sit at high tea only once when we were back shooting in the studio. We had been doing an interior scene centered around a Christmas pageant in a church. In the scene there was supposed to be a tropical storm raging outside and because of a leak in the church’s roof, the pageant ends up ruined, much to the chagrin of the priest. The scene was very complicated—the rain effect was to start off as slow dripping, gradually growing into a downpour inside the church—and it wasn’t working to Mr. Ford’s satisfaction. We had to do this one shot over and over where I carried an umbrella to the priest to try to keep him dry. The water wasn’t coming down properly—it was either too little or too much—so the scene was shot and re-shot until everyone was soaked and shivering. I was drenched after so many takes. My mother said that I looked like a drowned rat. At the end of that day’s shoot, Wingate Smith told me that I was invited to high tea.

I remember sitting at the end of a long table with a white table cloth and white china cups and saucers with gold around their rims. I felt so flattered that I’d made it to the table, I hoped I wouldn’t do anything stupid like spill stuff on my clothes. We had little sandwiches and lady fingers, and drank tea with milk in it, which was very different from Chinese tea. John Ford didn’t talk to me during high tea; he sat at the other end of the table. He talked mostly to Dorothy Lamour, who’d also gotten a good soaking by the time the scene wrapped. But I didn’t care that John Ford didn’t speak to me that day. I had been invited. I felt I’d finally been forgiven. Plus, I’d learned how to swim.