‘Dahling, there’s nothing in life that a little champagne can’t cure’

Focus of February 16 History Byte was Eleanor Aherne

BY KAREN GRACE, BOCA GRANDE HISTORY CENTER

The February 16 History Bytes featured Kelli Becton telling stories of Eleanor Aherne who lived in Boca Grande from 1983 until her death in 2000. Eccentric is a word Kelli used often to describe the woman who loved men, loved to shop, claimed to have swum naked in the Rue de Rivoli fountain in Paris and lived by the credo “Dahling, there’s nothing in life that a little champagne can’t cure.” Her champagne of choice was Moet et Chandon.
Kelli was in Boca Grande with her family for vacation. She was 18 and met some of the local young men – Emil Alzamora, Daniel Dicken and Chris Sunblad among others. When her family readied to leave, Kelli announced she was staying on the Island. She stayed with Emil and Daniel’s grandmother, Jean, on Tarpon Street for a short time and one hot day while helping out on a project at the First Baptist Church, the pastor suggested they all go over to Eleanor Aherne’s pool next to the church to cool off. Eleanor had extended an open invitation to Pastor Sunblad. This is how Kelli met Eleanor and started living in her guest room. A short time later, after being vetted by Connie Seale in phone conversations with Eleanor’s daughter Leonie, the guest room became Kelli’s room.
Eleanor Aherne was the wife of the stage and movie actor, Brian Aherne. Kelli remembers movie posters from Brian’s movies on the walls of the house and a sign on one of the bedroom doors that said “We don’t rent to thespians,” proving that Brian like Eleanor had a sense of humor. Kelli has also seen a photo of the couple in bed where Eleanor has a lampshade on her head. While Brian died before Kelli met Eleanor, she has heard that he was very British and formal but that the couple held hands as they walked in Boca Grande.
The Ahernes had homes in Switzerland, the Bahamas and Malibu but Boca Grande served as Eleanor’s home base. Belinda Bender spoke from the History Bytes audience telling how as a 12-year-old, she had lunch with 30 or so other guests – many of them were movie stars – at the Aherne’s Swiss house. She remembers they were served a pate and when Belinda neglected to take the toasts that accompanied the pate platter, one of the ten or so servers made sure she got a plate of toasts. Belinda said that she was too young to appreciate fully the experience but obviously it was memorable.
Kelli also experienced European travel with Eleanor. During a summer in Paris, Kelli ducked out one night to experience the nightlife. When she returned to the apartment, Eleanor, had locked the door. Fortunately for Kelli, someone introduced her to the area police commissioner who knew of the Ahernes from a time when he provided security for Grace Kelly (Prince Ranier was one of Eleanor’s favorite people). The police commissioner let Kelli sleep on a couch at the station and reunited her with Eleanor the next day. Kelli said Eleanor had made her point and after that Kelli stayed in the apartment at night. Another example – Eleanor would say “Dahling, I believe I’ll water the begonias now” which meant Kelli, please water the flowers.
Eleanor loved entertaining the Island artists and other residents. Her Halloween and other parties were legend. She found Kelli trying to paint a picture one day and although Kelli says it wasn’t very good, Eleanor offered to buy it. She told Kelli that the only money she’d ever earned on her own was $200 on a painting she sold. This may be why she supported other young artists. And she loved a party and found the Island’s young people fun – especially she loved the men, Kelli says. Among them was Mark Futch who took her motorcycle riding and Pastor Sunblad to whom she lied herself younger than she was. And later when she was dying, her eyes brightened when Dr. Hank Wright came to see her.
One challenge as Eleanor aged – she was 79 when Kelli first met her and over 90 when she died – was her driving. She had lost her license and Kelli tried to keep the car keys hidden but Eleanor always found them. Then Kelli would get a call from some Island resident that Eleanor was out driving. Kelli’s plan was to ask Sheriff Glenn Boyette to come over and have a talk with Eleanor and make clear to her she shouldn’t be driving. Glenn came dressed in his uniform and looking official but Eleanor’s response was simply, “Dahling, have a drink.” When Glenn got his handcuffs out, not intimidated at all Eleanor put out her wrists and said, “Take me to jail.” Glenn could only suggest that Kelli do a better job hiding the keys.
Similarly, Kelli got Eleanor a “lifeline” button so she could get help should she need it when Kelli wasn’t at home. Kelli said she might be out with friends fishing and she’d get a message from the security company that Eleanor had pressed the button because she needed a glass of wine or wanted the sound on the television turned up. Kelli says Eleanor didn’t respond to logical reasoning. She wanted to smile, laugh and have fun and if things got too quiet, she tried to spice them up. She had a favorite joke where she asked, “What do you all have that I don’t?” After a while she’d reveal the answer – “a belly button.” Eleanor had had tummy tuck surgery.
Eleanor loved clothes, jewelry and shopping for them. Betsy Fugate Joiner introduced Kelli by telling that Eleanor and Betsy’s Aunt Geraldine Fugate became friends when Eleanor bought several thousands of dollars of clothing and jewelry at Fugate’s Patio Shop shortly after her arrival in Boca Grande. Kelli says that if Eleanor liked something, she bought it in every color available, a habit Kelli says rubbed off on her. It’s only one of the ways Kelli says Eleanor influenced her life.
This story can’t end without mentioning that Eleanor was almost always accompanied by a Teacup Yorkie. First there was Bebe then Cookie. The Yorkie went to Boca Grande restaurants and stores somewhat hidden in Eleanor’s purse. Once on a return trip from Europe, Bebe was hidden in Eleanor’s lap in her wheelchair. Even though they were stopped at customs in Miami and the dog was discovered, Eleanor and Kelli got lucky and were waved through. Eleanor’s New York Times obituary says Eleanor “will always be loved for her warmth, immense charm, her sense of fun and almost total and complete eccentricity.”
This season History Bytes is presented in honor of Patti Middleton who died in 2021. Patti was a wonderful artist, muralist and the originator of the “Keyboy” cartoon which appeared for many years in the Boca Beacon. She was also a loyal volunteer with the History Center and a great friend to many in Boca Grande. History Bytes has been sponsored for many years by Bank of America Private Bank, formerly U. S. Trust, under the direction of Kimberly Bleach, Sr. Vice President and Private Client Advisor.
History Bytes takes place at 11 a.m. every Wednesday in February and this month’s remaining program is the history of Joseph Spadero and the Boca Grande Hotel (February 23). Register for this free program at bocagrandehistoricalsociety.com or call the History Center 964-1600.