It was the perfect day to hunker down with a cup of steaming coffee and return to work on a new book–the foreboding winter sky continued its deluge, pummeling the leaves pasted on the soggy ground. Holding out her iPhone, my wife, Rory, approached me in the study. She enjoyed sharing articles and stories with me–the more unusual the story, the better.
“This Wall Street Journal article is well…quite a story,” she began. She now had my full attention.
Pointing to a picture of a woman, she stated, “This woman’s expertise was in the Middle East. I could imagine you talking to her….she’s just the type of person you’d befriend.”
The photo of this wide-eyed and attractive woman wearing a Middle East choker necklace put a smile on my face.
It was as if my wife had set me up. The words rolled off my tongue with clarity and some amusement.
“So, you’re talking about Jo Franklin-Trout…and yes, I suppose I did befriend her…sort of.”
My wife was astonished, “Come on, you’re kidding.”
“No, it’s a fact! I met her back in 1980 in Saudi Arabia…at the US Consulate in Riyadh.”
BEAUTIFUL, SMART, ARTICULATE, GLAMOROUS
I was a 25 year old English teacher working at Riyadh Schools, a school which hosted the privileged children of the Saudi Arabian Royal Family. It was Ray Lopez, an employee at the American Consulate’s Media section who invited me to meet the filmmaker who was gathering material and interviewing businessmen, diplomats and Saudi royalty. The maker of the documentary was Jo Franklin, who would go on to become the legendary Washington DC producer of the Macneil/Lehrer Report. On that evening, however, she was a 35 year old woman riding the crest of reporting on a beguiling Kingdom few people knew. She made quite a splash that winter night–in her fur coat she was smart, articulate and glamorous. We were introduced briefly– I still remember her asking what I was doing in the Arabian capital and then following up with another question, “What are your impressions so far?”
A PASSION FOR FILM MAKING
Forty plus years later I cannot remember my response and, although it would be the first and last time we met, I did manage to follow her career from a distance. Franklin’s passion was for telling stories and making documentaries about her beloved Middle East. First, there was a three part series called Saudi Arabia. In 1983, she released two documentaries The Oil Kingdoms: A Sea of Conflict and The Oil Kingdoms: The Petrodollar Coast. There was also her controversial 1989 documentary Days of Rage: The Young Palestinians. Years later I saw her on YouTube narrating a documentary The Great Space Race. There was something off about her role in the documentary–it was not her best work and I soon lost interest in the piece.
THIS BIRD HAS FLOWN
As I began rolling out my third book, Land of Sand, a “coming of age memoir and love story” about my life in the Middle East, I thought about introducing Ms. Franklin to readers…a sort of cameo appearance. To do that, I thought I should give her a ‘heads up.’ She would now be in her 70s…not a lot of time to procrastinate. But I did have some advantages in finding her. As a Private Investigator with a ‘certain skill set,’ I turned to my quiver of investigative tools. Jo Franklin appeared in Social Media, but it did not tell me much nor where she was currently living. There were also recurring references to her once upon a time film company–Sea Castle Productions. To my amazement, there were local numbers in Southern California–one in Santa Barbara, another in Malibu, a third in Marina del Rey. I allowed myself the fantasy of having coffee or lunch with the film maker and catching up on her extraordinary life. Yet these phone numbers were either disconnected or “no longer in service.” Her last known California address indicated a residence ensconced among boutique wineries and horse ranches in the Santa Ynez Valley. While working on another investigative matter in the region, I made time and found the address–a ranch like dwelling tucked away off a bucolic country road, adjacent to a monastery and behind a large locked gate well removed from the house. The street mailbox showed no correspondence relating to Jo Franklin; from the gate I rang the doorbell and waited for what seemed to be an eternity. No answer. “This bird has flown, ” I thought. Instinctively, I knew Jo Franklin was long gone from this address.
There was one more phone number on the list–a Washington DC number. I had come this far, so I dialed the last number. A man with a placid voice answered the call. I introduced myself, told him what I was hoping to accomplish–find Ms. Franklin, chat about our connection to Saudi Arabia and her career, inform her of my upcoming book. In fact, I was now talking to Hugh Trout, Jo Franklin’s ex-husband and surgeon. The more we spoke, the more I liked the man. He was genuinely concerned about his ex-wife and spoke highly of her qualities and intelligence. There was even a reference to her “high IQ.” They had two children–Ashley and Hugh Jr.
However, there was a divorce in 1996. Suddenly, the career and persona his wife had assiduously crafted began to go off the rails. Jo Franklin had fallen on hard times and became estranged from her family…for years. I began to suspect Jo Franklin was grappling with mental health problems. Hugh informed me that Jo had a brother in Florida, George Franklin, who might be able to help.
I was finally able to reach George whose palpable concern for his sister’s mental and physical well-being was evident. Jo was homeless and living on the streets of South Florida. While George was desperate to help his sister, she was desperately trying not to be found. He suggested I write a letter to his sister, mail it to him and, if and when he saw her, he would pass it on.
Based upon the trio of 1news articles from my wife, there was much more going on with Jo Franklin than I could ever imagine.
Sadly, I never heard back from Jo. Circumstances and the harsh trajectory of her later years precluded any final meeting or conversation between us. One of the articles revealed George had rented an apartment for his sister without her knowledge where she lived out her final days.
FRIENDS TO THE LAST
Jo Franklin passed away in 2023 at the age of 76. In the end, her greatest fans and friends turned out to be a small group of Starbucks patrons–regular people who were fascinated by the stories of a glamorous filmmaker and the exotic places she had once so regally graced. In searching for Jo Franklin, this author and Investigator got much more than he bargained for–an incredible story of fame, fortune, cruel twists, sadness and, finally, the love of family who never gave up on her.