By Martha Crawford Cantarini
Above, a scene from the film “Interrupted Melody,” starring Eleanor Parker, with Martha Crawford Cantarini riding stunt double in her place. Photo courtesy of Martha Crawford Cantarini.
It was in the spring of 1954 when I swept through the historical Railway Station of the famed Sunset Route on East Commerce Street in San Antonio, Texas with a ticket in my pocket and a song in my heart. A dog eared copy of California’s long famous Sunset Magazine had been tossed aside in the waiting area and caught my eye: I slowed only long enough to pick it up. Rushing to board the Southern Pacific’s crack Sunset Limited, I stepped onto the steps of the Pullman car from the platform of the now legendary station with moments to spare. I had a mink stole over one arm and my black Cocker Spaniel, Sancho, draped over the other. On my way to Hollywood, where I had lived for the better part of my life, I was contracted to do the top stunt job of the year, doubling Eleanor Parker in MGM’s Interrupted Melody; I was looking forward to the train trip.
A long time history buff and train devotee I surely was. This legendary train had its roots in the Sunset Limited of 1894, and today’s California, equally legendary, Sunset Magazine of 1898 have a lot in common. They were both developed by the Southern Pacific Railroad, respectively, and can still be seen in most rear view mirrors today. The Sunset Limited is the oldest named train in continuous operation in the United States, and the magazine, too, at 115 years old is one of the oldest still in print. In a way, they both sell dreams. The train’s original run was from New Orleans to San Francisco via Los Angeles. The northern California magazine was started for its namesake on the Sunset Route to be read onboard and distributed at the railway depots along the way with hopes it could further promote the west. It did. I couldn’t wait to look at the well-worn copy.
My compartment was easy to find and, with Sancho on my lap, I sat down by the window and pressed my face against the glass to watch the train pull away from the city of my birth. The fog of the morning embraced the early morning lights that soon slipped from sight to signal a much too short visit. We were on our way and before long the rails would cross the complex Sonoran Desert of Arizona, and the many other colorful deserts that separated Texas from California. There were scheduled stops at El Paso, and Tucson, and crew change at Yuma, Arizona before we arrived at our Southern California destination. A few flag stops along the way were a perfect break for Sancho. I had ridden this extraordinary train many times with my polo-playing father. The Sunset Limited was well-known among the top polo players as they commuted between home bases in Texas to Los Angeles and San Francisco: many of the polo players were into horse racing and owned well-known horses.
That evening after dinner, with Sancho comfortably snuggled into my compartment, I headed for the Lounge Car. I clutched my purse, the dog-eared copy of Sunset, and a new Thoroughbred horse magazine. Before I left however, I tacked a note on the door, “Please don’t open – dog.” I walked the length of the Pullman car, unaware of anyone behind me, and leaned into the heavy stainless steel vacuum operated door to the vestibule. Out of nowhere, an arm slid around my right side and helped me open the heavy door. I had long enough to check out a handsome cowboy with his western cut suede jacket and his tanned face. I even stole a glance at his highly polished boots. He tipped his white Stetson and said, “Read the note your dawg wrote mam’ – real smart dawg!”
Smiling and nodding my approval, I was sure the handsome cowboy would join me. Wearing my best blue Delman pumps, purchased at an earlier date at I. Magnin’s, I stepped precariously across the unsteady vestibule area of several cars before arriving at the Lounge Car. I sat in one of the comfortable chairs behind a snack table and spread my magazines before me. Within moments I felt someone plop down next to me. I struggled to catch my breath, thinking, all the time, it was the cowboy.
Wrong! It was a plain looking gentleman in a blue suit with a bow tie peeking out from under its starched white shirt collar. I was almost mesmerized as I watched the tie bounce up and down when he talked.
“I see you like horses,” he said, as his eyes darted from the hand holding my newly sharpened pencil to the Sunset magazine, with its western ranch house designs, and then landed squarely on the Thoroughbred horse magazine. “Yes,” I replied flatly: angry that he had taken the only available seat.
The gentleman was trying to make conversation and told me he had a nice horse. Finally, I felt guilty ignoring him and stopped looking for the cowboy long enough to ask him, “What’s his name?”
“Swaps!” he replied enthusiastically. I moaned. No one, but no one, loved to swap (no pun intended) horse stories more than I: but not here, apparently. Surely, nobody who knew anything about horses would name a good horse . . . Swaps! Having spent a lifetime with horses, I quickly assumed he was no horseman. Believe you me I can spot a horseman a long way away! I was raised around good horses with high profile names, with character like War Admiral, Seabiscuit, Man o’ War, etc.
With that, having abandoned all hope for the cowboy, I soon returned to my compartment. I put down my magazines and opened my suitcase to retrieve my film script, and I looked for the page with the turned down corner. I encouraged Sancho to come onto my lap while I tried to think of how I would best do the stunts in my new job at MGM. I sighed . . .
In May of the following year, I was driving along Washington Boulevard, in Southern California’s Culver City, on my way to work at MGM, when I switched on the radio. I heard, “and, the winner of the 1955 Kentucky Derby is . . . Swaps!” I stared at the radio in total disbelief and almost ran into the car in front of me.
I had given the brush-off to one of the best known trainers and most successful men in the history of horse racing . . . Rex Ellsworth!
It was an era when the Hollywood cowboys would ride off into the sunset to have another look at their memories; I, too, shall look back and remember.
To learn more about Swaps and Rex Ellsworth, watch this short video from Vintage North American Horse Racing: