For Pittsburgh artist Bill McAllister, a life of trans-Atlantic intrigue
Bill McAllister didn't learn the truth about his time in the U.S. Air Force in England until 40 years later
March 10, 2013 5:00 AM
"First Things First"
"The Swan at Swindbrook"
"The Sun Inn"
"The Court from the Lane"
"A Wedding in Hana"
Bill McAllister with his watercolor painting of the Doges Palace in Venice behind him.
By Marylynne Pitz Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For nearly 40 years, Bill McAllister honed his artistic talents in Hollywood, but the most mysterious chapter of the watercolor painter's life sounds like a script for a Cold War-flavored movie that begins in England.
The Pittsburgh native enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1954 and arrived at a top-secret nuclear base near Oxford, at the edge of the picturesque Cotswolds. While Sen. Joseph McCarthy brayed about the dangers of Communists in the U.S., the 19-year-old airman and his squadron traveled through Europe, North Africa and Saudi Arabia teaching officers and enlisted men how to handle atomic bombs.
At a dance, he began wooing 21-year-old Valerie Moon, who had separated from her husband. A superior warned him to be careful because Val's cousin, a student at one of the Oxford colleges, played tennis with an Indian national who subscribed to The Daily Worker, a Communist newspaper.
"That's how deep they would dig," Mr. McAllister recalled.
Mr. McAllister's solo show of watercolors is on exhibit at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts in Shadyside through April 7. He will speak there about his work at 6 p.m. Thursday. He also teaches courses in watercolor painting at the Masterpiece Center for the Arts in North Versailles.
Two weeks after that warning, he learned Val was pregnant. The couple vowed to reunite when the airman's enlistment ended. He saw his infant daughter once before being sent on assignment to France. A few days later, in 1956, 2nd Lt. Quincy Powdrill telephoned and told Mr. McAllister that he was being flown back to England.
"I went to Quincy's office. He said, 'Bill, Val and her daughter were killed in an automobile accident this morning.' "
The stunned airman was not allowed to attend the funeral. Eventually, he accepted the news that Val and his daughter, Sally, were dead.
After Mr. McAllister's enlistment ended in 1957, he returned to Pittsburgh, enrolled at Carnegie Mellon University and graduated with a drama degree in 1961. He moved to Los Angeles to sing with the New Oxford Quartet, but the four-member group broke up.
With the help of his father, who had dated Lucille Ball when she lived in her hometown of Jamestown, N.Y., he landed a job designing sets at Desilu Studios. His long list of credits include "All the President's Men," "Little Big Man" and the animated 1988 movie, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"
"I probably learned more about design from Walt Disney than anyone else," said the artist, who began painting at age 6 and did his first commissioned portrait at age 9. Since 1982, he has painted watercolors, including evocative scenes of restaurants, pubs and marketplaces in Europe and the U.S.
He married his wife, Jan, in January 1988; the couple's daughter, Merrily, was born in 1991.
The past came calling after 40 years had unspooled from his life's projector. In 1998, his watercolor of boats floating on a little-known Venetian canal won a prize and appeared on the front page of The Art Paper, published by Daler-Rowney, an art supply company. A woman phoned the publication's editor to ask how she could contact the artist because she believed he was an old friend.
When a facsimile with Valerie Moon's contact information arrived at his Los Angeles home, Mr. McAllister was thunderstruck by the realization that his former love and long-lost daughter, Sally, were alive and living in England.
"It never occurred to me to check newspapers or anything like that," for an account of the accident. "I took the word of an officer in my outfit," he said.
Now 63, he flew to England for an emotional reunion. From Heathrow Airport, he drove up the A-40 to the town of Whitney to a narrow, well-designed home.
"I went to her house and knocked on the door. We hugged and sat down in the living room and talked and talked and talked. Sally knew I was going to be arriving that night. Within an hour, the doorbell rang and Sally walked in. She was so warm and so pleased to see me, to meet me. We just hit it off right away," the artist said.
Sally MacCabe is also an artist but paints with oils and acrylics.
"She and I have exactly the same eyes. People always comment on that," said Mr. McAllister, who has china blue eyes.
In 2000, Mr. McAllister accepted an invitation from his friend, actress Jane Seymour, to be the artist in residence at St. Catherine's Court, her home near Bath. With his wife and daughter, Merrily, age 9, the family moved to England and rented a 550-year-old cottage.
For the next five years, Mr. McAllister frequented pubs where he could order a pint, sit in a corner and sketch. His renderings of pubs, such as the The Trout Inn outside of Oxford, are so well done in shades of gold, red and black that you can smell the tobacco smoke and taste the rich ale. He painted Val at a pub called The Swan in Swindbrook.
Living in England allowed Mr. McAllister to spend time with her and his daughter. The trio often puzzled over why an American officer would lie about an accident. "There are so many loose ends in this. Val and Sally and I would sit around for hours and try to figure things out," he said.
Val said the yarn about her cousin playing tennis with an Indian national who read The Daily Worker also was false.
In 2001, a military buddy who was visiting England told Mr. McAllister that many squadron members suspected Quincy Powdrill was a spy sent from the Office of Scientific Intelligence, formed in 1948 as a division of the Central Intelligence Agency. And it's likely that Quincy Powdrill was a phony name, Mr. McAllister said.
"As far as the motivations for this whole thing, it's really a question. I have half a dozen theories but I'll never know."
In 2005, Mr. McAllister and his family moved back to Pittsburgh so Merrily could attend high school in Mt. Lebanon. But he stayed in touch with Val and Sally.
"My relationship with Sally is fantastic. I do have very strong paternal feelings about Sally. She is just one of my kids. It's funny how I had absolutely no part of her growing up but I do feel a kinship."
He talks with Val by telephone.
"Val has not joined the computer generation. She always describes herself as a village mouse. She loves to write letters," Mr. McAllister said.
Now 77, the artist and his wife, Jan, are renovating a Victorian-era home on Holland Avenue in Braddock. He's building floor-to-ceiling oak shelves to house a sizable collection of art and architecture books that he acquired while working in Hollywood. Merrily, 21, is living in Greenfield.
"My house payment is less than my car payment. I couldn't get a garage in the [San Fernando] valley for what we paid for this house," Mr. McAllister said.