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Bay Tripper – May 2007

Farewell, queen of the White Sands

Farewell, queen of the White Sands

When I cruised the lower Western Shore of Chesapeake Bay in past years, I bypassed Solomons, once a gritty fishing village (which I liked) and now a yachting and retirement community (which I don’t like as much). I would continue up the PatuxentRiver for seven miles or so and duck into St. Leonard Creek to visit a time capsule of a forgotten marina and restaurant.

After coming across this peculiar establishment in the early 1980s, I returned often, lured by a siren call and the glamorous presence of Vera Freeman — owner, operator, and spirit of the unique place. A legendary and eccentric diva, she died Jan. 23, a few weeks short of her 93rd birthday.

She presided over the exotic Vera’s White Sands Restaurant and Marina for some 50 years. Her pink cinder-block domain was a kind of bizarre, make-believe Polynesia — originally with a thatched roof, peacocks strolling amid banana trees, and Don Ho Hawaiian music on tape. Her oddball collectibles — displayed under a reed overhead trimmed with locally grown bamboo poles from a forest behind her next-door “villa” — was a place of character that attracted characters. Vera, however, was the undisputed star.

The green hillside of this waterfront landmark was dotted with those flowering banana trees. They were carefully repotted and stored inside the restaurant every winter, when Vera closed for the season and left for Miami or Hollywood or to cruise the globe aboard famous ocean liners. She became known as the “Empress of the White Sands” during her long reign, and it seemed she would go on forever. Pondering retirement, she once asked me what a new owner might do with her beloved fantasy of a restaurant. “Level it and build condos,” I said without thinking. She began sobbing at the prospect, and I had to withdraw that answer.

But as profits diminished, age wore her down and the property deteriorated, Vera found the owner she was looking for in Steve Stanley, who promised not to destroy this fabricated world. An avid boater, paving contractor and newcomer patron who came to cherish Vera, he purchased the place (sans the villa) early last year and has spent a small fortune restoring the building, property and the two docks with 85 deepwater slips.

The new Vera’s White Sands Beach Club, of course, will never be the same without the elaborately gowned Vera appearing for sunset viewings in her wispy Indian saris. She presented an exotic sight, weighed down with jewelry and with a headband of small seashells or gold coins that secured long platinum tresses parted in the middle. Like the fictional silent-screen actress Norma Desmond in the film classic “Sunset Boulevard,” she came ready for her close-up after long periods spent in her boudoir before a magnification mirror at her makeup table.

Occasionally a huge brass gong was sounded as she entered on the arm of an escort after a short walk across the parking lot from her villa. She thought of herself as a vision out of “One Thousand and One Arabian Nights” as she glided to her leopard-print stool at the end of the bar. A piano player and a martini awaited, and favorite tunes like “As Time Goes By” and “The Sheik of Araby” were played or sung. When the pianist took a break, a tape of Hawaiian hula music filled the void with a tinny sound.

This was her flamboyant stage set — a let’s-pretend world created from her fertile imagination. She couldn’t care less if people snickered. “Oh, they’re just jealous because of what I’ve created here, and they wish they could be like me,” she would explain and go on with her life.

Born in Wyola, Mont., in 1914, Vera moved with her mother to Hollywood in the mid-1940s to seek fame and stardom but settled for a job with the telephone company. She was a knockout, statuesque brunette, and even more beautiful after she turned blond and began to drink champagne among the stars in smart nightclubs. After World War II she met London-born Effrus Freeman, who had finished his second tour of duty with the U.S. Navy. He was a wise investor who ran an eyeglass shop on Hollywood Boulevard. To Vera, he was always “Dr. Freeman, Optometrist to the Stars.” They married in 1950 and cruised the world in ocean liners and U.S. waters in their crewed Hatteras motoryacht.

A compulsive shopper, Vera went on buying sprees and filled her restaurant — and home — with “artifacts” labeled “The Freeman Collection.” A handwritten note at the restaurant’s front door warned: “No Browsing.” This was supposed to be a business, not a public art gallery. The new owner has set aside a seldom-used reception area as a Vera-land museum with her piano, gong and other oddities she collected.

By the early 1950s, the Freemans had moved east to develop a 2,500-acre Virginia farm, naming it “Shenandoah Retreat.” From there they bought an 800-acre farm and woodland property near Lusby, Md., with frontage on St. Leonard Creek. Hundreds of small lots were sold along the unpaved country road that was eventually named White Sands Drive. A large, old house on a hill became the private “White Sands Yacht Club,” which they opened in the mid-1950s. (One waterfront lot there today costs triple the amount they paid for the entire parcel.)

Sand was transported to create a beach for the namesake white sands where there was no beach, but it soon washed away and wasn’t replenished. The new owner, however, has trucked in white sand — he has an unlimited supply — and this summer he promises live music and a Tiki beach bar. The pool has been restored, but Vera’s banana trees have been replaced by plastic palm trees.

I would tie up at the end of B dock, which once was home to a large nest of ospreys, a good indication of little human activity. The birds departed after a strange, bearded liveaboard fellow arrived in a large, barge-like vessel. Aboard were a half-dozen ratty English sheepdogs that looked like wild mountain goats. Vera always liked colorful characters.

Wanderers came and went by boat, and some remained without paying for dockage. Vera would occasionally dispatch an employee to untie the bow lines of these nautical squatters. Now and then the liveaboards left by land, abandoning their unwanted vessels. The docks, over time, became cluttered with floating derelicts, although it didn’t take the new owner long to get rid of them.

After a while I came to know some of the regulars and employees. The most memorable worker was Mary Gross, a remarkable woman who ran the kitchen with “Big Ed,” an untrained short-order cook with many missing teeth. Mary arrived at 7 a.m. to prepare breakfast for Vera at “Vera’s Villa” (her “white palace” somewhat hidden away next to the restaurant) and was entrusted to lock up the business at closing time, usually around midnight.

Vera lived alone and regularly took her own blood pressure readings. Easily alarmed, she often panicked at the numbers and would summon Miss Mary in the middle of the night to come and stay with her. This sort of on-call duty lasted for decades until Mary’s legs gave out and she had to retire, although she continued preparing food in the kitchen even though she could hardly stand. I met Mary at Vera’s funeral in nearby BroomesIsland, where Vera was “laid out” in an open coffin in all her grandeur — jewelry and all and surrounded by flowers. Mary, who now lives in a nursing home, sat quietly in a wheelchair in the front row, staring at “Miss Freeman.”

“Now, at long last, you can tell me all the secrets, Mary,” I announced, pretending to set up a tape recorder.

“I ain’t sayin’ nothing,” she replied, smiling — loyal and faithful to the end. Incidentally, Mary’s husband, Napoleon “Pollie” Gross, was the White Sands dockmaster, if you could find him.

Buster Cullins, Vera’s bartender for many years, was a handsome, muscular fellow and an occasional escort for the empress, who flirted openly with younger men and was haughty with younger women, whom she mostly ignored. “During some of her around-the-world cruises aboard the QE2,” recalled Cullins, “she would fly me from home to every port of call — Hong Kong, Singapore, Honolulu, whatever. I would greet her at the ship upon arrival and see her off again. We went on endless shopping sprees and had breakfast, lunch and dinner together on shore.

“We had separate rooms at some grand hotels. I would go out on the town at night after she retired. But it was clearly understood that she would dispatch a messenger if she wanted to find me, and find me she did. She was one very demanding lady.”

Doc Freeman died in 1980, leaving Vera very well off financially. She soon added a swimming pool and wing to her villa, more than doubling its size, and she hired George Wood, a handsome piano player and lounge singer. He became her “constant companion” and traveled the world with her. It was a tempestuous relationship that lasted until his early death.

A regular at the bar is Tom Parran, 85, sometimes accompanied by hisyounger wife, Patricia. They have married one another three times. Parran, an old-line Southern Marylander and Scotch-on-the-rocks drinker who owns a limousine company, calls her “Sugar Lump” and himself “Sugar Daddy.” Parran once docked his 55-foot Chris-Craft motoryacht next to Vera’s Hatteras, “The White Sands,” during the busy era before cruisers began bypassing Vera’s for the developing marinas and restaurants in Solomons. “I could tell you a lot,” he said, “but I won’t.”

I asked him about one story wherein Vera, in a leopard-print bathing suit, would dive off the gas dock with flowers in her hair and swim out to greet visiting cruisers. “Aloha!” this Tondelayo of the deep would announce. “I am Vera. Welcome to the White Sands.”

Parran, ever the discreet Southern gentleman, would not confirm or deny. “Could be,” he murmured. “She liked to dress in a sarong and do the Hawaiian hula.”

Selvin Kumar was Vera’s last full-time companion, chauffeur and manager of the restaurant. A native of India and with a heavy accent, his many duties included driving Miss Vera (as he called her) to shopping malls. He also accompanied her for breakfast, lunch and dinner at favorite restaurants, such as Issac’s at the Holiday Inn in Solomons, the Frying Pan in Lusby, and Pirates Cove in Galesville, among others. Vera always had a great appetite.

Eventually, Kumar moved into a spare bedroom in a wing of the villa, which had evolved into a kind of Roman-Moorish fantasy with an onion dome, turrets, marble floors and the heated, sunken swimming pool in the living room. They traveled about in her white Cadillac Eldorado that was garaged next to a covered 1960 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud in pristine condition. In 2004 Kumar compiled an amateurish but well meaning vanity biography, “The Legendary Vera: A Life of Glamour.” But late last year the Kumar era came to an end when Vera’s stepson, Lee Freeman, 69, a retired government computer specialist, moved into her villa to handle her business affairs and was later named legal guardian. A disagreement arose between the two men, and Kumar was out.

Lee often dines at the restored restaurant — in the past he did a karaoke act there — and has decided to stay in residence at the villa. As the only survivor and named heir, he has a mammoth inventory of her many possessions ahead of him.

I had never seen Vera’s elaborate boudoir, which was off limits to nearly everyone. But after a memorial luncheon at the beach club, I was invited to have a look. It is a maze of cramped walk-in closets jammed with hundreds of evening gowns, dresses, jackets, veils, shoes, hats and fur coats. The bed chamber is a frilly, feminine pink fantasy in a tent-like setting with drapes and mirrored walls. A cluttered makeup counter, where Vera’s late afternoon makeover was orchestrated, has stacks of 1-pound boxes of Russell Stover chocolates.

“She loved chocolates and never threw anything away,” Lee explained, shaking his head in wonder at the massive accumulation around him. “She did whatever she wanted, bought whatever she wanted — many times over.”

So here’s looking at you, Vera. A farewell aloha to a legend who was on stage for 50 years, in good times and in bad. May white sands greet you at your final port of call.

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.