Of all the family stories about my grandfather Philip Toutonghi’s time in North Hollywood, one pains me the most. In 1951, after months and months of polite but dogged pursuit, he managed to get a meeting with the actor Danny Thomas. Thomas was born Muzyad Yakhoob Kairouz in 1912, to Maronite Catholic parents from Bsharri, Lebanon. My grandfather was born Philippe Elias Tütünji in 1898, to Melkite Catholic parents in Aleppo, Syria. At the time, the two men attended mass at the same Catholic church, in Los Angeles. But while Thomas was starring opposite Doris Day in the Michael Curtiz-directed Warner Brothers musical “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” my grandfather was sweeping the floors at Universal Studios.
Still, my grandfather was a recent immigrant, full of ambition. He was a poet, and he’d written a few lyric stanzas in English, which he dreamed of turning into a song. It was, he would always claim—even decades later—a poem worth “a million dollars,” and “unlike anything anyone had ever heard.” On the day of his meeting with Thomas, he went to the post office and spent twenty-eight cents to send the poem to himself through registered mail—a poor man’s copyright. On the envelope, he wrote his address, twice, and then added, underlined: “Poeme in English,” and “its title had never been used.”
Excited and confident, he went to Thomas’s house, where he was led into the study. He brought his son, my father, along, and they waited there patiently. My grandfather had come up with a melody, and he hoped that Thomas might play the tune on the piano—a simple chord progression—while he sang the lyrics. It would be my grandfather’s début as a Hollywood lyricist. His verses, he was certain, would make him famous. They would come back to him, amplified, made more lovely by radio or vinyl records or film.
They waited for an hour. Then two, then three. Finally, a housekeeper came in. Mr. Thomas wouldn’t be able to make it, she said, apologizing. But he would be sure to reschedule. My grandfather nodded, certain that this rescheduling would never happen. He and my father left through the side door and went home. He was working that night; he had to change out of his suit and into his coveralls.
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