A meeting to remember … by Debbie Scott
In June of 2011, I had the distinct pleasure and good fortune to meet three people who have not been heard from or featured in the little that has been written about Bob Heskett, but who were (and are) both important and fascinating parts of his life. Two of these people are sisters, and their story will soon be the subject of a book being written by one of them. The third person is a member of Betty’s (and Bob’s) own family. Where have these wonderful folks been? Well, I met them in Northern California.
It Began with An E-Mail
As most of Betty’s fans know, her first husband, Robert (“Bob”) Heskett, was killed in July of 1951, in a skirmish of some kind, while he was living and working in Oakland, California. Several versions of the fight which resulted in Bob’s death have been discussed in our Forum. Members found and shared newspaper articles which verified that Bob had been fatally stabbed while defending a “lady friend” from her abusive ex-husband. Since I was living in Northern California, I decided to attempt to locate records from Oakland which might shed some light on what had become of Bob’s attacker, Thomas Blake. I couldn’t find any criminal records, however – had Thomas Blake been prosecuted? Did he plead self-defense and was released? After all, Bob had wielded a hatchet at Blake, and had landed at least one blow, wounding him on the forearm. A younger – and perhaps stronger – Blake then stabbed Bob squarely in the chest, hitting his heart. He fell down a flight of stairs, and died. So what happened afterward? Was Thomas Blake put in jail? I wondered if he might still be alive. It was conceivable; he would be in his 80’s and perhaps was still in the Oakland area.
But Thomas Blake is a pretty common name, and I didn’t get very far trying to locate him. Then, one day I received an e-mail that changed everything. One of Thomas Blake’s daughters wrote, and wanted all the Friends of Betty MacDonald (bettymacdonald.net) fans to know the truth of what had happened on that warm night in July, 1951. She and her younger sister knew Bob Heskett, loved him, and – unfortunately – were witnesses to the fight that ended his life. Now using the name “Rose,” Thomas Blake’s daughter assured me that all she wanted to do was “get the truth out about Bob Heskett.” After several e-mails back and forth, we arranged to meet in Northern California, where Rose’s younger sister, Peg, still lived. In the weeks leading up to the meeting, Bob and Betty’s grandson, Darsie Evans, also made arrangements to meet the Blake daughters. They wanted to tell him about his grandfather, and he wanted to hear everything they had to say.
Bob Wanted to be a Farmer – Again
Rose and Peg Blake are simply lovely people, and it was clear from the moment we all met that they wanted nothing more than to clear up any ambiguity about Bob Heskett. In fact, as soon as we were settled, Peg leaned over the table and looked Darsie squarely in the eye and said, “Your grandfather was a wonderful man. He was our hero!” You see, Bob and their mother, Thelma, were planning to marry. After years of abuse at the hands of Thomas Blake, Thelma and her girls felt they had found their knight in shining armor in Bob. He took care of them, played with them, made sure they had plenty to eat and a roof over their heads. In fact, they had only recently moved into Bob’s apartment. The girls had stayed with a friend of their mother’s most of the time, since Thelma worked two jobs to support them. That weekend, as most weekends, Bob and Thelma had brought the girls to his apartment in the city. While Thelma worked as a waitress, Bob took the girls to the park to feed the ducks or to the local ice cream parlor for a treat. He loved the girls, and he was looking forward to truly being a father – finally – at 55 years old!
Bob told Thelma he had found a cherry farm north of the city, and wanted to buy it and become a farmer (again). Thelma loved the idea of getting the girls out of Oakland, and getting alll of them as far away from Thomas Blake as possible. Her ex-husband was a violent alcoholic, who had put her in the hospital more than once. In fact, he had recently injured her so badly that she’d suffered a stroke (Thelma was only 35 years old), and had been hospitalized. During that time, Bob cared for the girls, and when Thelma was released, he cared for her during her recovery.
The Sad End of a Dream
So how did it happen? What brought on that explosive fight? Thomas Blake’s daughters place the blame squarely on their father’s shoulders. He came to Bob’s second floor apartment that night, probably drunk, saying he wanted to see his daughters (Note: Thomas and Thelma Blake also had two older sons, but they did not live with Thelma). Maybe he’d heard that Thelma was going to marry Bob and might leave Oakland; no one knows for sure. But the girls were not there when their father arrived; they were still at their mother’s friend’s house in Oroville. Bob told him they weren’t there, and Blake left.
Later that night, around midnight, Blake returned, demanding to see his girls, who were there by then. Bob and Thelma had picked them up for the weekend. But when Blake knocked at the door, Bob told him to come another time, it was late and the girls were asleep. Blake threatened Bob, and Bob grabbed a hatchet, warning Blake to leave. Blake apparently lunged at Heskett, and that is when Bob hit him with the hatchet. This started a scuffle which, unbeknownst to the adults, awakened the girls. They slept in a little alcove in the living room; it wasn’t a big apartment. A boisterous fight was more than enough two young children.
The fight was quick and loud. Thomas Blake was drunk, angry, and accustomed to fighting. He was enraged at the hatchet wound, and just plain pissed! He pulled a knife and swiftly thrust it squarely into Bob’s chest. Bob didn’t have a chance; the wound was right in the heart. He fell down the flight of stairs and probably was dead before he hit the landing on the first floor. Two little girls and their mother stood at the top of the stairs, horrified. Rose says a newspaper reporter captured her standing on the steps, in her slip, looking down at Bob’s lifeless body. I’d like to find that newspaper photo, though perhaps Rose has located a copy. That is how dreams end sometimes – in a dark hallway in the middle of the night.
A Little Justice for Bob
As I said at the beginning of this journey, I wondered if Thomas Blake ever was prosecuted for the stabbing which ended Robert Heskett’s life. After all, a clever attorney might have made a case for self-defense, especially after Bob Heskett had wounded Blake with the hatchet earlier that night. But I am pleased to report that Rose and Peg cleared up the mystery. Their father went to prison – San Quentin! He was there for five years – which doesn’t seem like much – but considering he might have gotten off altogether, it is some justice, after all. He went on to live a very odd life, marrying several more times after being released from prison. He died in 1974 in Riverside County, California.
Thelma also remarried, though she never forgot Bob Heskett. Her daughter Rose said she always thinks of her mother and Bob when she smells Atomic Fireballs candy – which they loved munching on – or Evening in Paris perfume, which her mother wore for Bob.
The Blake daughters lovingly shared these stories with Bob’s grandson, Darsie – stories that no one else in the Heskett/MacDonald family had ever heard before! And I was the ever-so-lucky fly on the wall, observing and enjoying that pseudo-reunion between Darsie and two lovely women who may have been his aunts, had things ended different for his grandfather, Bob.
Robert Eugene Heskett served honorably in the U.S. Marine Corps in World War I. He is buried at the Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno, California. You can “visit” his grave and leave a note and “flowers” by going to Find A Grave.
For more information about the death of Bob Heskett, go here.