By Hope Ellis-Ashburn
Portraits by Shawna Simmons
Actress Melinda Van Dyck is a lifelong equestrian with Hollywood roots. The daughter of thespian Joan Bennett and screenwriter and producer Gene Markey, she was born in the 1930s and raised in the bright lights of Hollywood, California. While her childhood was unusual for most, it wasn’t uncommon for her social group.
Growing up on South Mapleton Drive in nearby Homby Hills, Melinda was surrounded by neighbors who composed a who’s who list of old-world Hollywood including Art Linkletter, Liza Minelli, Ronald Reagan, Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart and Bing Crosby. Her father, also a United States Navy rear admiral, counted John Wayne among his best friends.
Later in life, Melinda reconnected with Ronald Reagan. Since she and the future president had once been neighbors, she attended a rally during his candidacy. She was delighted to be given the opportunity to speak with him and to learn that he not only remembered her but fondly recalled her mother as well.
Hollywood to Horses
In spite of being raised in the city, Melinda did gain some early experiences with horses. These encounters came from riding American Saddlebreds in the three-gaited and five-gaited classes, even competing in shows at the iconic Cow Palace in Daly City, California. Those early experiences set the stage for horses to come back into her life when she needed them most.
Some of Melinda’s favorite early childhood memories come from the lavish Hollywood parties she attended, held in her father’s honor during his return trips home from his military service. She lived with her mother after her parents divorced when she was a toddler. Later, as she grew older, her father wanted her to go to college. Her heart, however, pulled her toward a career in acting. She continued to stay with her mother, and together they toured in plays, and she took on film roles and twice performed on Broadway in addition to acting parts in commercials.
Although these experiences weren’t horse related, she does recall being thrown from a horse while jumping during the filming of a commercial. Melinda still receives fan mail after several major acting roles, including the original “Titanic.”
But the acting lifestyle was not without its hardships. “I was touring in a play with my mother and began to receive better reviews than she was,” Melinda said. “My mother’s career was her life and this created a rift between us. We were not close after that. It was a particularly difficult time in my life.”
Memories of Calumet Farm
Melinda was a teenager when her father married his fourth wife, Lucille Parker Wright. Lucille was the widow of Warren Wright, Sr., owner of the world-famous Thoroughbred breeding and training facility Calumet Farm in Lexington, Kentucky, home of Triple Crown winners Whirlaway and Citation. Because Melinda was living full-time with her mother in California, she visited her father on a part-time basis in Kentucky during the spring and fall.
Some of Melinda’s best memories from those years come from Calumet. “Riding on the exercise track was a magical time,” she said. Trail rides there also provided enchanted memories. “Elizabeth Taylor was a young girl then. She had just finished filming ‘National Velvet’ and had been gifted Pie. Elizabeth and I shared a special, delightful bond. We would leave for a trail ride around Calumet in the morning and ride all day, breaking only for a packed lunch.”
Another tradition at Calumet involved sitting around the dining room table during the spring foaling season and making a game of naming the foals. One of those foals was named Our Mims — Melinda’s nickname. “Calumet went through some difficult financial times. Our Mims’ track winnings were responsible for bringing Calumet back into the black,” she said.
Melinda also remembers a time when a day at the races was glamorous. “I recall the days when the standard was to wear a hat, white gloves and stockings to attend the races in Keeneland,” she said. “It was a different time. There will never be another time like that, or another farm like Calumet.”
A Familiar New Life
Over the years, life interfered with Melinda’s riding. She married for the first time at age 18. Now divorced, she has three children, one of whom passed away, and 10 grandchildren. Her middle child has Asperger’s syndrome, a diagnosis on the autism spectrum. In spite of the hardships in her life, she is ever optimistic. “Every step prepares you for the next thing,” she said.
Melinda, who is 85 years old, is an active rider. While her career, marriages and children may have kept her out of the saddle for 35 years, she now rides three to four days per week. In spite of her age, she still jumps crossrails at Seabrook Island Equestrian Center located on Seabrook Island, South Carolina. She describes the clients and friends at Seabrook as being more like her family, and she especially admires her trainer, Charles Hairfield. “Over the years, I’ve watched Charles grow as a trainer. He is my mentor and really takes care of me,” she said.
Her favorite horse is her current mount, Joon, a 20-year-old Selle Francais gelding. She first saw Joon in Belgium as a stallion. She later had him gelded and imported him. “I don’t think he ever forgave me for gelding him. I marveled at how well things were going once I got him home and we were progressing well. I had some friends down to watch me ride him and he threw me through a fence and broke all the rails. He is predictably unpredictable,” she joked.
Melinda relishes gardening and cooking and has goals to improve on both. “Though I don’t grow them anymore, I still enjoy canning garden vegetables,” she said. Her garden plants now include jasmine, hydrangeas, azaleas and gardenias. “Hydrangeas are my favorite,” she said. Because she grew up in a home centered around acting, she enjoys music. She also loves to read. Traveling and spending time with her dog round out her busy schedule.
A life well-lived has few regrets and Melinda has just one. “I never learned to dance,” she said. She hopes to be remembered as caring for people, animals and the planet. But for now, she says this is the best time of her life. “I can’t wait to get up in the morning!”
Photos by Shawna Simmons, www.sasequinephotography.com