Cruising down Rte. 4 into the bowels of southern Maryland, past the tobacco fields and the drive-in liquor stores, past the stands selling silver queen corn five for a dollar, there's a sign: WHITE SANDS RESTAURANT & MARINA . It's big and round, with bamboo lettering. Next to it is a smaller sign, black and shaped like a keyboard. GEORGE WOOD ON THE PIANO BAR .
But it's not just another gin joint.
Down the road is a game preserve of American eccentricity, a Polynesian principality headed by a grande dame of decadence, a woman of the world whose private fantasies belong to the public.
It's the restaurant that time forgot.
Big and pink, it looks like a beached aircraft carier decorated by Trader Vic. Banana trees on the lawn. Easter Island statues. Tahitian torches. Thatched roof over the entrance. Carved wooden Polynesian figures. A native drawing on the side of the building and more bamboo letters: THE WHITE SANDS . . . ALOHA .
There's a vision in white coming toward you. She's tall and voluptuous, with flowing platinum hair, sheer off-the-shoulder dress, heavy shell necklaces that look like native torture devices. It's Mae West in a Frederick's of Fiji original. Her lips are painted the same pink as the building. Bermuda Pink. Her eyes are green lagoons, the lids shimmering with turquoise shadow.
It's Vera. Of Vera's White Sands.
"Welcome ," she says in a breathy whisper.
She takes you inside, past the "Hawaii Hut Gift Shop," past the restrooms marked "Buoys" and "Gulls," past the fountain fashioned out of the largest man-eating clam shell in the world, past the rattan peacock chairs, the African masks, the Tahitian statues, the fishnet-covered tables in "The Palm Palm Room," past the bar stools covered in leopard-skin vinl. Me, Tarzan. You, Vera.
"Isn't it wild ?" she giggles.
She cold be 50. Then again, she could be 70. Actually, she's 67, but the only clues are the wrinkled, sun-ravaged hands. On each finger she wears a ring. Diamond rings. Ruby rings. Pinky rings. Rings so heavy they could double for barbells.
She tells you the story of her life. How she was born in a hotel on a Cherokee Indian reservation in Wyola, Mont. (pop. 500), and named after a missionary nun. How she grew up as "Baby Vera" and how she traded the tom-toms for tinsel town too many years ago and ended up in Hollywood, another dancer and would-be starlet.
"I always loved the exotic and we didn't have anything in Wyola. I'm afraid I was a little way out. I was the eccentric."
Thirty-some years ago she married Effrus "Doc" Freeman, a Hollywood opotmetrist whose starry-eyed patients, Vera says, included Lauren Bacall and Ann Miller. Then, Doc and Vera moved East. He got into real estate. She got into unreal estate.
"I really am a frustrated actress. This," she says, with a sweep of her bejeweled hand, "is my stage."
Vera and Doc Freeman bought the 800 acres of land on St. Leonard's Creek nearly 30 years ago, dumped truckloads of white sand on the shore and turned their fantasy eight miles north of Solomon's Island into one of the hottest yacht clubs on the East Coast. Yachts would sail down the Chesapeake Bay, turn into the Patuxent River and motor into the placid harbor where the White Sands rises up from the grassy cliff like an apparition, a huge Easter Island figure lit up like a beacon of the bizarro.
Not just anyone was welcomed at the White Sands in those days. Ou had to be a member.
Still, Vera says, they had their share of celebrity guests. Robert Mitchum came in once, she says. So did the late comedian Ben Blue. So did Hugh Downs. Like the other visitors to Vera's world, they put the gaudy plastic leis over their heads, ordered Surf 'n' Turf, sipped Polynesian drinks with pink umbrellas in them, or got blotto on Vera's "Peacocktails," pina coladas with a complimentary peacock feather, plucked from Vera's personal flock of 19 live peacocks.
In those days, Vera and Doc would open from May to September. During the winter, they boarded their yacht, "The White Sands," and cruised down to Ft. Lauderdale where Vera would put on her skin-tight leopard-skin jump suit and leopard-spotted cha-cha heels.
They called her "The Lepoard Lady."
When Florida got to be a bore, they'd travel to Egypt (Vera says she feels like Cleopatra when she sees the Pyramids) or to Mexico, Tahiti or Bali to pick up more bric-a-brac for the yacht club. More shells. More masks. More spears. More kitsch, all eventually finding a spot in the bar and dining room, all marked with a small brass plaque, "The Freeman Collection."
For Vera, more is more.
In those days, Vera and the waitresses wore grass skirts. Sometimes, after a few martinis, Vera could be coaxed to the dance floor to do a hula while her parrot perched on the piano bar chirping, "Where's Doc? Where's Doc?"
Will she hula now? Oh, well, just a little bit, maybe. She smiles seductively, seated on one of the vinyl leopard-skin barstools. Her voice flutters. Her hands flutter from side to side.
"Come to the Hukilau . . . [hands right] . . . Come to the Hukilau . . . [hands left] . . . Come to the Hukihuki [alternating now] Huki-huki-hukilau."
She giggles and takes a sip of champagne.
But things have changed. Three years ago, thanks to inflation and the gas crisis, the boats stopped coming. So the White Sands Yacht Club, ever the bastion of private outrageousness, opened to the public.
Vera toned down her act. The waitresses, formerly attired in mini grass skirts, opted for more conservative sarongs. The neighbors complained about the exotic bird droppings on the driveways, so the peacocks were banished.
Doc passed away last year. So di the pariot.
Now, it's Vera and George (of "George Wood at the Piano Bar"), her tall, burly, goateed manager. Somehow, you knew that Vera would have a young piano player named George. And that she would drive a gold Cadillac. And that her absolute favorite color would be pink. Bermuda Pink. Pink flamingo pink. Strawberry daiquiri, 1956 Chevy, Dubble-Bubble, cotton candy pink.
"My whole life is this, she says, insisting that she'd never want to sell out. "I never knew anything else in the world."
Her biggest wish now is to get Ronald Reagan down to the White Sands.
Actually, Bob Hope would feel more at home here. With Bing Crosby. And Dorothy Lamour straightening her sarong in the "Gulls" room. It's "The Road to Bali," "South Pacific" and "Gilligan's Island" all rolled into one garish grass hut in Calvert County.
It's the '50s. It's Whatever Happened to Baby Vera. It's a fantasy world of Tahitian days and tropical nights, Hollywood & Vine, Miami Beach, Cleopatra and the Pyramids right here in the sticks of southern Maryland where the only huts are Pizza Huts and the only camels are the ones you roll up in the sleeve of your black T-shirt.
"I know it's crazy ," she says. "But I thought, if I'm going to lie here, I want a place the way I like to live."
She still owns a home in Hollywood, which is rented out. In fact, she says, actor Lee Marvin and Michelle Triola lived there together before their infamous "palimony" suit. "It makes the house very romantic, don't you think?" says Vera.
She shows you to the "The Honeymoon Hut," a table underneath a small thatched roof at the far end of the dining room. It's the best table, she says. Everyone wants to sit here. After all, it's right in front of the man-eating clam shell, which is the size of a small foreign car. Clam dip for 4,000.
Somehow it's fitting that Barbara "Bootsie" Mandel, the ex-wife of former Maryland governor Marvin Mandel, ws dining in the Honeymoon Hut the night her husband announced to the world that he was in love with another woman, according to Vera.
"Well, I guess that's romantic too," she giggles.
There's a lovely view of the creek and the small marina, where a handful of boats are docked. The barefoot hostess, wearing a polyester leopard-print halter top and slit skirt, takes the order.
"George is a gourmet chef," Vera says. "He loves to make special things." She turns to Tina, the hostess. "I don't know whether I'll have another drink yet.Is George drinking yet? Is he having a beer? Oh, well. . . I'll have a glass of champagne."
The menu is simple. Seafood. Chops. Luau Platter. The wine list is a mimeographed sheet of paper. Andre champagne and half bottles of Lancers. The room is filled with piped-in Hawaiian music. The Hawaiian War Chant. Blue Hawaii. Don Ho's Greatest Hit.
"George has been here five years," she says in that come-hither whisper. You've heard the voice before. Vivien Leigh in "A Streetcar Named Desire." It's Blanche DuBois in Bora-Bora.
"He made this recording. I don't remember the name of it. He's a very talented young man. He came just to help me out in the summer when Doc was sick. My lade who played the piano had to retire. So hehs been here ever since. He really helps a lot. He manages the place. He comes from the oldest family in Calvert County. They came over on the Mayflower."
The day stretches on as the sun sets over the brackish water. You could almost be in some tropical oasis, sitting there watching the boats, the banana trees and the little thatched huts down by the creek where Vera and Doc used to throw their very own luaus. They still have more than 100 banana trees, which are dug up every winter and stored in a hothouse.
George comes out of the kitchen.Will he play something on the leopard-skin vinyl-covered piano?
Vera sits on a stool. George looks up at her, then down where his thick fingers, weighted down by as many rings as Vera's, dance across the keys. George is good, in a slick, stuck-in-the-hicks-nightclub way. His deep baritone fills the empty restaurant. Vera stares off into a private distance, eyes moist with private pain. Or maybe just too much champagne.
"MEM-ries, light the corner of my mind. Misty watercolor MEM-ories . . . of the way we WERE. . . Getaway Day
Twice or three times a week, Vera and George come to Washington. On this day, they drove up in Vera's gold Cadillac to see her "auditor." Then, it's cocktails at the Prime Rib and later on, dinner at Lion D'Or. Which Vera pronounces LEE-ON DAY-OR.
"We love the piano player here, but he won't let George sing," says Vera, sinking into a chair at the Prime Rib with her drink.
George is wearing a chocolate-colored shirt, open to his waist. A heavy medallion with a turquoise pendant floats on the cushion of his curly chest hair. Vera is in pale blue chiffon, weighted down by chunky gold jewelry, a black chiffon scarf tied Indian-style around her platinum pageboy.
"We like to dress up," says George. He is 33, with a large expanse of stomach and a slight lisp. "We're very much alike, actually," he says."We're both very eccentric. We both want everything to be our own way. We're both very artsy."
"George is very inspiring," says Vera.
Ten years ago, George was playing in a group called "Mad Mother Moose." The group made a record, but it never went anywhere. George says he has written more than 500 songs, among them a country-western tune titled, "It's Hard to Focus On A Love That's Going Blind."
Then he discovered Vera and The White Sands. Are the two in love?
"We're very dear friends," says Vera.
"I think it would be a mistake for us to get married," says George. "We're best friends. Why get married?"
After Doc passed away, Vera and George traveled to California. Her friends were suspicious at first, she says, of George's intentions.
"Oh, they said things like, 'He's only after her money. He a gigolo,'" says George. "Well, if anyone's keeping me, it's my mother."
The two erupt in mischievous laughter.
"I don't know what people think," Vera says. "We need each other."
"I'm sure neither one of us would be living in Calvert County without the other," says George.
"George loves to shop," she says. "He loves to go shopping with me."
"That's the main thing Vera and I have in common," says George. "We LOVE to shop. We plan out whole life together shopping."
But then there is partying, suggests Vera.
"Maybe partying is first," says George. "No, shopping is first during the day. We party at night.
Vera, says George, wants him to be famous. She wants to relive her Hollywood days through him. She may even become his manager.
"In the field I'm in," says George, "you don't really need talent." Vera's World
Tucked into the woods near the parking lot of The White Sands is a small white gate. It leads to a narrow path, "Vera's Peacock Lane," so named because that was the route the peacocks took as they made their way down to Vera's beach cottage.
The house sits on a small ridge overlooking St. Leonard's Creek. There's a dock with a pier, and a white wrought-iron archway Vera bought at auction.
Inside, the house is painted pink and purple. The living room is lavender wall-to-wall carpeting, lavender drapes, elephant tusks, gold-encrusted dining room chairs, a red and gold Chinese screen, temple dogs from Taiwan, gilt tables, purple velvet couch, leopard-skin-covered chairs and a cream-colored divan that Vera claims once belonged to Napoleon.
"It's a very livable room, don't you think?" Vera says. "When I first did the room everything had to be lavender. I don't know how we deviated."
On the patio, where Vera used to feed her peacocks peanuts and white grapes, there's a life-size statue of a semi-nude woman.
It looks like Vera. It is Vera.
"I don't like what he did to my feet and hands," she says, examining the figure. "It was done by Van DeCar. He was a very eccentric guy in Miami. At Christmas time, I dress her up with jewelry. I love statues. I want them everywhere."
"It looks like it was dropped," says George. "The head's coming off."
Vera goes inside to change from a green Indian silk tunic over green clam-diggers to a pink chiffon one-shoulder dress. George sits on a wicker chair.
"It's really bizarre, but the other night at the Prime Rib, after you left, I went to the men's room. When I came back there was this young guy sitting with Vera. He had already told her his life story. He sat there for hours, talking to Vera. Telling her his story."
And Vera's story?
"Who knows," George laughs. "I think she's the definition of eccentric."
Ellen Mitchell, editor of the Calvert Independent newspaper, echoes the sentiment. "Well, you've met her," says Mitchell. "She's kind of extravagant, I suppose. She seems to be very well liked, and she is extremely interesting to talk to."
Diana Damwood, manager of Dominique's, a French restaurant in Washington, says Vera and George are two of her best customers. "They seem to go in stages. They may not come in for two or three weeks, then they'll be here three times in one week. They are totally eccentric, but very, very nice. They dress exotically. They have oddles of money. I guess. How they got it, I don't know."
Damwood says she always seats Vera and George at the front corner table. "They're show-stoppers," she says. "I wonder if they know people think they're so odd."
Vera reappears from her totally pink bedroom, wearing a gold lace dress adorned with real peacock feathers.
She has closets full of dresses, to match her mercurial moods.
"George picks out all my clothes," she says.
Thirty years ago, when she arrived in Washington, Vera brought 20 dresses with her. They were all strapless. "You know I went to the Shoreham Hotel for lunch and they wouldn't let me in," she squeals. "Can you imagine! I was so mad. I thought, what am I going to wear?"
Doc once gave her a leopard-skin apron. But she never wore it. "I was never allowed to be domestic," she says.
She glides out the door and walks to the restaurant where she pours a glass of champagne. Time for lunch. Then she and George will take off somewhere on another adventure. Her niece, she says, wants to write a book on her. So does George.
But Vera thinks it's too early. After all, she says with that coy smile and a flutter of her long eyelashes, "There's more to come."