Flaming Queen

Flaming Queen

by Jim Piazza

A lover of old movies and their stars spends the day up close to a legendary actress. 3,450 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.

All she had left were her cigarettes. All I could give her was a light.

I wasn’t some dimple‐chin Holden dying for a dip in her pool. And she wasn’t gunning for some big comeback. She already had plenty. Mostly horror. By then, it was typecasting. The face was half-frozen and lifted, more like yanked. I don’t know what she was going for but whatever it was, the doc didn’t get there. She wore these high ruffled old maid collars to hide the sailor’s knot of a neck and shoulder pads jutting out like a Chinese pagoda so you’d think she was sitting up straight. Top it off with a saucer hat sitting sideways on the wig like it was just flying by and got stuck.

I might’ve felt bad for her. But she wasn’t like that. You got the feeling if she could’ve lifted anything heavier than a lipstick she would’ve plugged you with it. Still, there was something between us, something more than just the chipped cocktail table crammed with gin‐fizzes and stacks of old Photoplays wrapped in plastic. Like I said, I wasn’t some glamour boy thumbing for a ride to nowhere. I was drawn to her, that’s all.

And just so you know, it was up and up, vice‐versa. Maybe she took to me because I was young. Youngish. And she could tell I was fascinated. They could always tell. But you had to be careful with those old Hollywood types. Those ancient little dolls held together with dim hope and enough rouge to paint the side of a barn.

Make no mistake, they could still suck the oxygen outta you if you weren’t watching your step.

They’d start with the favors.

“Could you hand me my bag, dear?”

Then it was making it so you’d cancel a date or two just to see ‘em.

“It gets so lonely in that dentist’s waiting-room.”

Set up phony appointments to give you a leg up.

“I know a Zanuck.”

Yeah, like all their connections weren’t taking the final lap around Gaga Land or sleeping it off in Forest Lawn. But I wasn’t looking for any leg, up or down. I just wanted the stories, that’s all. The little nuggets about the Golden Age you don’t find in books. Those dames told you stuff you couldn’t know unless you were there. Unless you belonged.

“Hedy took half the sugar bowl in her coffee. No cream. DETESTED cream!”

Okay, so I was a sucker for those sparrow‐size relics. They were all nuts, guaranteed. They had to be to get where they got and no repentant third act was gonna change that. Her in particular.

She was the grand prize alright, the bright red cherry on top a’ the Christmas tree. If I could just get a hold of her for a little bit, take up some of her time. If you gotta ask why, you don’t know your ABC’s about the good old U.S. Of A.

The way I see it, we’re thinking fame 24/7. Thinking about how that little handful, some of ‘em not even so hot to look at, grab it all up like it was the last bucket of buttered popcorn. And if you can’t have it, you wanna touch it. Connect. And not with the photos and autographs. Running down the street with a crummy book and a pen. You got Garbo’s Hancock on a scrap of paper, who gives a Flyin’ F.

I needed this one to trust me, be a part of whatever was left of her. She even said it herself once about how movie stars are our royal family.

“That being the case,” she puffed, “I am the queen.”

She wasn’t kidding. Like a lot of those dames, she didn’t exactly pull up a chair in the humor department and take a load off. Sure, they could pull off a funny bit if it was in the script. But, in real life, whatever was the opposite of humor was what she had in spades.

The Queen was five foot nothing in heels. The feet were a holy mess. All those Warner weepers strutting around on stomp‐your‐ass stilettos two sizes too small. I could tell she was a walking bunion even before she tried to get up.

“Where’d all this gin come from?”

I grabbed hold of the pagoda shoulders before her kisser could say hello to the carpet. Up close she gave me a good whiff of Chesterfields marinated in Chanel No. 5. I liked it. Reminded me of Ma. Minus the No. 5.

Eau de Paree was as good as Ma got. Ma was a certifiable movie maniac. Never had two buffalos to rub together, doled out mayo sandwiches on week‐old Wonder, but she always managed to come up with the do‐re‐mi for triple‐bill Tuesdays at the Bijou down on Essex Street. She’d go into one of her trances in that aisle seat, sixth row center. She’d finally wander back to the house thinking she was Stanwyck, curling her lip in the cracked bathroom mirror and talking highbrow Brooklyn to the dishes. Then it’d be Crawford. By the end of her Crawford stint the eyebrows coulda’ used a power‐mower.

No matter which dame she was on what day, she’d always lean in kittenish while you lit up her smokes, eyes going up like some fake‐innocent hedging about which block she’d been around. And the Jungle Red fingernails pushing the bangs back so you wouldn’t set fire to the Five‐and‐Dime Bacall mop.

Ma decided I was her ticket to Tinseltown. Not that I had any talent or one a’ those chins that took up half the screen. That didn’t stop her. I was eight first time she penciled a Gable mustache on me and started pulling on my ears to stretch ‘em out. She’d make me practice talking fast and furious like Bogie without moving my lips. Didn’t make school any easier. They figured me for a retard and I couldn’t blame ‘em.

By the time Ma finished with me, I was all set for my big shot. Closest I came was a pool party at the house of the guy who discovered Rory Calhoun. Less said about that scene the better. I got enough trouble.

After that, it was soda‐jerkin’ at Schwab’s til they finally plowed the pace over in ’81. And that’s how I met Stanley.

Stanley H. Eichhorn, “Babysitter Of The Bygone Era” is what he called himself, keeper of the flame, the extra man in the moth‐eaten tux who hadn’t picked up a dinner check since 1958.

“Slip me another scoop of Rocky Road, kid, and maybe I can hook you up with an intro to Ginger. Heard you gabbing about her to that old mutt at the end of the counter.”

“She was my Ma’s favorite. One of ‘em, anyway.”

“She could tell you stories, for sure. Might even let you walk her poodle. Smelly little thing and hard to know what to make of that broken hind leg. But Ginger’s kinda’ fun. Bitter as hell. The mother, Jesus H!“

So that’s how it started with Stanley H. Eichhorn and me. He knew all the broken sparrows, and I had the youth and a fueled-up Zippo ready to go. We’d keep ‘em company at the Motion Picture Home out in the Valley. We’d talk about the Old Days, which were pretty much the only days they had left. And some of the stories didn’t make a lot of sense. I mean, how many times did Valentino eat caviar out of a satin slipper?

We’d make sure their lashes were pasted on in the right direction and the nylon runs patched up with nail polish. Stannie knew all the tricks. And that’s how I met the last of them, all the meet‐able ones anyway.

Sometimes I’d go back to see them on my own, without Stannie any the wiser. That might’ve made him pretty sore, alright. He liked to think they couldn’t so much as wind up their clocks without him. Mr. Stanley Necessary. Not according to some of them, he wasn’t.

But I would never have squealed on Stannie. He got me in the door and I owed him for that. Up to his jelly‐stained bowtie in old‐timers, some of them I’d never even heard of, some of them with maybe only a dozen pictures under their belts. Didn’t matter to Stannie. He collected ‘em like pinned butterflies.

“I’m writing a book,” he’d tell anyone like they were asking.

But no one ever saw a page of it. Not so much as a scribble on one of those Polo Lounge cocktail napkins he’d scarf up when the bartender was bending for the good stuff. I finally figured it out. Stannie was just another me, the old shoe‐polished hair version. He wanted to know ‘em, that’s all, maybe hope some of the magic would rub off a little before they went out the door feet first.

I don’t know if Ma would’ve taken to him. But she would’ve been glued anyway when he went off on one of his riffs about Blondell and the catfights on the set of “Gold‐Diggers”.

I was over at Stannie’s grimy little hovel at the Tarantula Arms when the call came. He’d get all insulted when I nicknamed it that and whatever was left of his right eyebrow would go up when he’d say, “They shot The Fortune here!” To me that was like saying they shot Creature From The Black Lagoon in your backyard. But I let it pass.

Anyway, I was at the Tarantula the morning of the call. I was flipping through Eve Arden’s memoirs — it was on top of the pile — when the phone rang. We both perked up, always ready to roll. Maybe word had gone out about another memorial. Stannie had his geezer network, a real plugged-in bunch. Lucky for them, I could drive.

As always, he let it ring three times. That was Stanley H. Eichorn’s First Commandment: "Thou shalt never pick up on the first ring! Nothing killed your chances in this town like coming off over‐eager," he’d say. Over‐eager stunk worse than a tour bus after lunch at “The Beanery.”

It was Mary calling from the Home. Stannie was trying to act cool and collected but I could see what it was doing to him. Thirty years ago he might’ve gotten a little swell in the trousers. Not a pretty picture, but the old guy was flying. I could hear that nutcracker of a voice of hers from where I was sitting on the good end of the couch.

She wanted him to bring The Queen over to her cottage at the Home. Their first big movie together was gonna be on. They’d only made two but this one got Mary the Golden Boy that she always kept moving all over the room like it was a potted plant that needed light. Mary had a good reason to watch it with The Queen because she pretty much stole it from her. The Queen suffered but Mary got all the good bits.

Stannie had The Queen’s private number. Between you and me, I’m pretty sure it was her only number. She picked up on the first ring. But then it took about a half hour before she said anything. I got this funny feeling she wasn’t sure what a phone was anymore.

Finally: “WHAT?”

Stannie took a breath and tore into his prepared statement, laid out the plan for the evening and got no response other than a hang‐up.

“She’ll be ready,” he nodded. Stannie knew his sparrows.

We got to The Queen’s ivy‐covered coven off Sunset two hours early and, between the two of us, we got her up and out. I kept checking the rear‐view mirror all the way to the Valley. I still couldn’t believe who was sitting in the backseat of Stannie’s junk heap Plymouth.

The whole ride she was just staring out the window, smoke curling out of that twisted mouth. Once, I could’ve sworn she looked up at me and smiled. Maybe I was just imagining it. Maybe she was thinking she was being kidnapped. Maybe she was thinking she wanted me dead. Maybe she just wanted Stannie to shut up. He kept prattling on about Ronald Coleman like we’d just passed him hitchhiking.

We finally got to the Home and you can bet there was a fuss when we finally maneuvered The Queen out of the Plymouth. Mary’s neighbors, the army of the Early Hollywood Undead, were all watching like it was a premiere at Grauman’s Chinese. I spotted Gale Sondergaard looking like she just swallowed strychnine; Lita Grey, Chaplin’s ex who got zip out of it; and Virginia Bruce, a once‐upon‐a‐time smooth blondie who went and hit all the bumps. She wound up here like the rest of ‘em, busted and kowtowing to The Queen.

They knew to keep their respectful distance. The Queen could still bite, like get off a zinger about how microscopic their careers had been compared to hers. They all but curtsied and she took it in with not so much as a nod. Like it was just part of the deal.

Mary was so excited she barely registered the presence of a stranger. She didn’t even trail behind me as I checked out her room for any photos I’d never seen. It was the usual goldmine of Back In The Day: Franchot Tone, looking three sheets to Catalina; Robert Wagner, young and skinnier than Tony Perkins; Walter Huston, laughing his head off over something Mary was whispering in his ear. And according to Louella’s autobio, Mary had been quite the whisperer.

And, natch, there was that framed quote of hers in fancy lettering like it was from the Old Testament — "There are five stages in the life of an actor: Who’s Mary? Get me Mary. Get me a Mary type. Get me a young Mary. Who’s Mary?"

Had a nice ring to it, if you didn’t mind dropping your own name five times.

Mary was fluttery even if she was moving slow. Still, it didn’t take long for her to reach the bottle of the month –­ old Scotch, with just enough left for a once‐around go. Then she cozied up to The Queen, keeping just out of hatpin range. Mary patted The Queen’s gloved right claw like it was in need of circulation. Maybe Mary knew something about all that.

Finally, the old Magnavox grumbled to life and the opening credits rolled with Max Steiner’s score pounding away in the Key of D. (That’s the kind of egghead stuff I learned from Stannie.)

“How exciting, my darling! It’s us!” The way Mary said that made me feel bad, really deep down bad. I don’t know why.

After the first 10 minutes of the movie, with all the malarkey about who’s married to this one and who’s not, was a long commercial. Mary got up and started banging around in the kitchen. I don’t know what for because there was nothing coming out.

But Stannie took the opportunity to duck into the bedroom.

He disappeared for a second and I got the feeling he was sneaking around where he shouldn’t. I couldn’t look up cause I was lighting up The Queen again. Finally I heard his knuckle rap on the door‐frame. And there he was, holding up a dangly pair of rhinestone chandelier drops against his ears. And thrusting out one hip.

I never saw Stannie act so light in the loafers, and it was weird. Funny weird, though. We shared a big silent laugh and I glanced over at The Queen to see if she was getting a kick, too. But she was just staring straight ahead, like some smoke‐machine. Looking back on it, I don’t think she even saw Stannie in the doorway.

The commercial was finally over, and Stannie shoved the goods in the drawer and hurried back to his chair. Mary fluttered back to hers, smelling like better Scotch, and she did her cozying act again. We were watching a scene with her at a piano. She finally acknowledged my presence. “That was me playing, honey. Just so you know.”

Oh, I knew, thanks to Stannie’s grilling all afternoon.

Mary patted The Queen’s claw again. “Oh, just look at us, dear. Marvelous!”

The Queen responded with a twitch.

A few seconds later, another twitch. And Mary hadn’t said anything worth twitching about. Then another and another. All of a sudden, The Queen let out a gasp, put a gloved finger up to her head, those pop‐eyes going wide like searchlights. Then she slumped against my shoulder. It was dead weight but it felt like nothing. A painted balloon. That’s how little was left of her.

By then, even Mary bothered to notice something wasn’t right.

It could’ve ended right there. Mary and Stannie both could’ve done something. Maybe if one of them had just walked over to the front door and called out for help. It was a damned rest home with a clinic for the Barely Breathin’ right on the premises. Instead, they looked like it was some movie they didn’t want to be in. Neither one of them budged.

I sure couldn’t, unless I wanted to just drop The Queen onto the floor.

Like I said, that could’ve been the end of it. Maybe I could’ve just picked her up in my arms somehow and carried her out. And I would’ve if I hadn’t smelled the smoke.

It was the damned Chesterfield stuck between her lips. The way she fell on me, the lit end was right up against that old maid ruffled collar and the bright yellow silk scarf.

And the scarf was going up. Jesus H!

For a second, I pictured her just floating up in a puff of ash and evaporating. Right up into the air like when you light that paper wrapped around those fancy cookies and they whoosh up like angels.

I went to pull the butt out of her mouth, but the lips were so damned dry it wouldn’t give. Finally, I gave it a good yank and tossed it across the room. Then I started reeling in the scarf. It must’ve been about 10 feet long, wrapped and wrapped around that scrawny chicken neck like a goal‐post. I didn’t feel my burned hands til later. There was no time for all that. And The Queen wasn’t exactly pitching in here. It was like trying to rescue an exhibit at the Wax Museum.

Finally, it was over. I stomped out the scarf with a couch pillow — which, I could tell, Mary didn’t like one bit — then got The Queen back upright and brushed her off. She started making a few little noises, like she was waking up from a bad nap. And that was it.

Mary finally made her move. She got up, meandered over to where I’d tossed the butt and killed it with a twist of her ratty bedroom slipper.

You think you’re gonna have a lot to say after something like that. But nobody did. I’m just sitting with The Queen resting on my shoulder and all I can do is stare straight ahead at the Magnavox. It was one of those stories Ma would’ve loved but wouldn’t have believed. Even after I would’ve showed her my hands. Now, thinking back, when I tell it at dinners sometimes, the young ones kinda look at me like, “Say what?”

Something else happened before the night was over. I never mentioned it before because it was too sad. Even for this town. Okay, so it was just before the movie was coming to an end. And there was this big close‐up of The Queen looking really pretty. That smooth kind of pretty they can never do in color, which is why I don’t like ‘em as much.

I could tell she was watching the close‐up very carefully because she didn’t look up, down or sideways when she started to mumble. And I don’t think she was talking to me. In fact, I know she wasn’t.

"I don’t know who the hell I am. I don’t know. I don’t know."

Like a jerk I almost started to explain it to her. But then, what the hell. I knew! Everybody in the damned world knew! What the hell more could anybody want? I mean Jesus H.

About The Author:
Jim Piazza
Jim Piazza is a journalist and writer who has co-written books about the Academy Awards and the 101 greatest films of all time, including two bestsellers. He authored a biography of Elvis Presley, The King, and essays in OUT, Village Voice and The New York Times. He is currently at work on a new play Reading Angie about a movie star.

About Jim Piazza

Jim Piazza is a journalist and writer who has co-written books about the Academy Awards and the 101 greatest films of all time, including two bestsellers. He authored a biography of Elvis Presley, The King, and essays in OUT, Village Voice and The New York Times. He is currently at work on a new play Reading Angie about a movie star.

  6 comments on “Flaming Queen

  1. "Painted balloon" and "the good end of the couch" — great details here. Makes Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years seem like a sexy elder teen. "Goat post" neck is not a goal, lol.

  2. Sharp dialogue, strong atmospherics, and a perfect example of why the famous should ALWAYS die young. Hell, make that why EVERYBODY should die young!

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