DeForest Kelley: A Harvest of Memories, My Life and Times with a Remarkable Gentleman Actor

My remarkable guest today is Kristine M. Smith, author of The Enduring Legacy of DeForest Kelley: Actor, Healer, Friend, and DeForest Kelley: A Harvest of Memories, My Life and Times with a Remarkable Gentleman Actor. And she writes a blog with a perfect name: Almost Famous by De’s Fault. How cool is that? Kristine talks about writing a personal memoir:

It’s funny. No one showed me how to write a personal memoir before I sat down to write one.  I hadn’t studied the genre, and although I had read numerous memoirs over the years, that hardly qualified (or qualifies) me as an expert in the field. So please accept everything I say with a grain of salt.  What success I’ve had with my memoir may have had as much to do with “luck” (a sad, secular substitution for what is actually “unrecognized divine intervention”!) as it did with anything else.

The memoir I wrote had a built-in niche audience: STAR TREK. 

The STAR TREK aspect of my story began in earnest on May 4, 1968 the day I met actor DeForest Kelley, who portrayed Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy on the original series.   I was so impressed with his graciousness and appreciation for his fans that I went home and wrote an article about meeting him for my creative writing class.  My teacher thought it was so good that he insisted I should send it to Mr. Kelley for him to read and enjoy.  Oh, boy, that was nerve-wracking!  I wasn’t in the habit of writing to TV stars.

When De and his wife Carolyn read it, they, too, thought it was exceptional and forwarded it to a New York publisher with a suggestion that it might make a good piece for their magazine, TV STAR PARADE. When the publisher agreed, De wrote me a letter letting me know I was about to become a published author.

My parents had to peel me off the ceiling for a week.

Over the course of the next thirty years, the Kelleys and I established an on-again, off-again correspondence, and I continued to flail away at my typewriter, since the Kelleys and the publisher had convinced me that I did, indeed, know how to string words together to good effect.

I kept notebook journals, of course.  (Doesn’t every writer? If you don’t, start now. The reason will become clear momentarily.) As I accrued experiences with the Kelleys, every detail of our interactions went into scores of notebooks. Over time, I segued from a giddy fan to a point where the Kelleys began to encourage me to move to Hollywood and find a place in the entertainment industry where I might be able to utilize my writing skills in a major (lucrative) way. 

They helped me get my foot in the door in the entertainment industry, helped me find a landlord who would allow me to keep my hand-raised serval “son” (a knee-high African wildcat) in the backyard of the house I rented, and continued to encourage me in every way, all without any thought of paybacks or rewards.  (It took me a while to realize that they truly were as benevolent as they seemed. I don’t trust very easily, especially when it comes to denizens of Hollywood!)

Toward the end of De’s life, I became his personal assistant and caregiver. He was already hospitalized and would never again leave the hospital except for brief forays to visit his bank, doctors and home. Mrs. Kelley, his usual helpmate, was already hospitalized with a broken leg. 

All of this, too, went into my journals, sometimes only in “talking points” because I was so exhausted (after fourteen and sixteen hour days near the end) from the stress and busy-ness of being their almost-constant companion, helper and confidant.  My hours were my choice, not a demand of theirs.  It was my way of paying them back in some small way for the thirty-plus years of devotion and encouragement they had extended to me.

A few weeks before De passed away, he gave me permission to write his biography, or a memoir, or anything else I wanted to do with the story of our association.  I handed off the biography to Terry Lee Rioux, a tried-and-true historian (now a history professor at Lamar University) whom I had met at a STAR TREK convention several years earlier, because I’m an anecdotal writer, not a researcher or interviewer.

After De passed away, I served Carolyn for another eight months.  I pondered writing a book, but figured I probably didn’t have much of significance to say except for how wonderful they were and how much I loved them. End of story. (?)

Then Terry Rioux came to Hollywood to do research at various regional motion picture libraries in preparation for writing De’s biography and to interview De’s co-stars, producers, writers, friends – and me.  At one point she asked me, “How did you go from being a fan on the outermost regions of fandom to being at his bedside when he died?”

I was speechless.  I had no answer.  

I finally responded, “That’s something De would have to answer. I have no idea how that happened.”  Terry insisted, carefully and pointedly, “You know the answer.  Just connect the dots.  I need to know the answer – and so do you.”

Wow. What an assignment!

Then she said, “I think you somehow became the daughter they never had.”

I started bawling, right there in the restaurant. “Oh, no! Don’t say that!  If that’s true, I didn’t do enough for them.

Terry said, “You did everything you could, everything they would allow you to do for them.”

That was true . . .

Then I remembered the journals – six large plastic bins, sitting out in the garage, crammed with my journals, with the entire adventure, from beginning to end!!!

I dug them all out, laid them out in order, and began the journey anew, connecting the dots, following the crumbs. There were hundreds of small details I had completely forgotten about.  It was like discovering a gold mine!

I watched as a cordial first meeting morphed into an association, then built to become a familiar, comfortable relationship. Then I watched as the relationship swelled into agape love, trust, and mutual support.

That’s when I knew I had to write the memoir, and that’s when I knew I could write it, that I had enough material for it. 

Had Terry not asked me the one question about the Kelleys that I could not answer without researching and writing a book, I never would have written it – would never have remembered all those journals tucked away in the garage!

So I became my own historian.  I became a memoir writer.  It took three solid months of 12-14 hour days, six days a week.  It took lots of guts to go over the last months again and put them down in a way that would inform without half killing the reader.

But it resurrected the man, and – in conjunction with Terry’s bio – it has extended his legacy far beyond what fans would otherwise be able to learn about him.

So, to me, writing a memoir is all about diving into journals we’ve written and culling from them the nuggets that resurrect a place, a time, and the crucial people who helped mold us into what we have become, whether for good or for ill.

If you do the task well, the person or people you resurrect don’t have to be TV stars and the times you depict don’t have to be historical in nature.  All that needs to happen is that the reader connects, lives with you in your past for a time, and comes out changed in many of the same ways that your history has changed you. The reader “gets” you, your times and your loved ones (and others) in ways they never did before.  That’s the essence of a good memoir.

Kristine has agreed to answer questions and respond to comments, so feel free to leave a comment for Kristine. And don’t forget to check back later for her responses.

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