Slowly and painfully, the one-time movie star comes back from near death. 2,232 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
He tried but he couldn’t move; restraints held his arms and legs down. There was something over his face, something heavy and damp, and there were tubes in his nose feeding cool air into his nostrils to control the rate of his breathing. Pain vibrated throughout his body but it was a dull ache, not a sharp piercing, that ran from his neck to his toes. Something was masking the real feeling. Just when he felt he could open his eyes, he would pass out again.
There were times the famous movie star Tommy Shaw heard voices hovering above but he remained in a constant state between dreams and consciousness so that the voices hardly seemed real. Were they talking to him or amongst themselves? One time he could clearly hear the conversation:
Take it easy on the morphine, Mr. Clovis… We do want him to wake up some day. Can he handle the pain, Doctor? He moans so in his sleep… Gradually, okay?… We need to lower the dosage over the next few days… We must concentrate on getting Mr. Shaw back to full consciousness and then we can regulate the pain… You can see him trying free himself… Mr. Shaw, please try not to struggle… Your wounds will bleed… Please, sir, listen to the doctor.
Then Tommy would obey the voices and stop fighting against the restraints and fall back to unconsciousness.
Tommy Shaw’s recovery from his near coma, to his weeks-long stay in bed, to his standing and trying to walk, took over a month of painful rehabilitation. He couldn’t attend Helen Porter’s funeral; her family came and took her body back to Springfield, Illinois, and they made it clear that no one from Hollywood was welcome to be there. Fans left flowers and postcards with their condolences and hopes for a speedy recovery outside the gates of the mansion. Universal Pictures sent over food from the town’s best restaurants and Carl Laemmle sent over a signed blank check for whatever Tommy needed. No visitors were allowed in the house. It fell solely to Clovis to prepare his master for life as his new self.
Clovis did his best to handle Tommy’s as delicately and efficiently as possible. He let go the gardeners and the household staff, leaving only the cook and a few maids that he absolutely trusted. Nurses were provided around-the-clock for Tommy’s care but they had to be thoroughly professional and quietly discreet. Clovis also ordered all the mirrors throughout the mansion either removed or covered up.
Mornings were reserved for the painful process of getting his limbs back to full motion. His hands and arms were now encased in melted latex and horsehair that had fused so tightly to his former tissue that bending and stretching caused great pain. There was a lot of bleeding.
In time, visitors were kept to a minimum. Mike Watts, Tommy’s most trusted director, was allowed access and Clovis hoped that the presence of this old friend would help in the actor’s recuperation. When Mike first entered the darkened room and his eyes began to adjust and make out the shape that lay in the bed, he almost blanched at the disfigured human that used to be his pal. He held back his emotions and grabbed the paw (no other word for it) that reached out to him. Clovis was in the room but could barely hear the short conversation these two old friends were having. Once outside the chamber, Mike turned to Clovis and demanded, “No one can see him like this! If you need anything at all in the way of security or money, anything that will ensure his privacy, you’ll let me know, won’t you?” Clovis nodded. As Mike headed down the winding staircase, he stopped and turned back to Clovis. “Maybe relocate him elsewhere, a sanitarium or out in the desert, perhaps?”
Clovis shook his head. “He won’t go, at least not just now. He feels he needs to be here for Miss Porter’s sake. This was to be their home together, you know.”
Mike thought about this for a second and then went out the front door.
One morning, after his daily exercises, Tommy called for Clovis to come up to his room. “Bring me a mirror,” he ordered.
“Are you ready, Mr. Shaw?”
“I’ll never be ready but I need to see what I’ve become.”
Clovis brought up a small hand mirror and laid it on the bed. “Should I stay, sir?”
“Yes. Please…” Tommy picked up the mirror and slowly brought it to his face. He let out a gasp. He moved the mirror so he could see all the angles of his face and murmured, “No, no, no…”
He looked at his neck and opened the buttons on his shirt and moved the mirror across his torso, all the time examining intently. At first, Clovis could see Tommy almost break down and then gain his composure. After a while Tommy began to look over his appearance as if he were examining a new-found species. He asked Clovis to leave the room. An hour later Tommy made a slow descent down the stairs and met Clovis in the parlor. He handed him back the mirror and made his way to a chair by the fireplace.
“I’m going to need a few things done, Clovis, so please pay attention. First, find the best plastic surgeon in this town and I’ll need him to come to me.”
“But, sir, the doctors have been telling you —“
Tommy waved off him off. “I know what they said but I can barely breathe out of my nose and my eyesight is limited. The surgeon will need to make some, let’s say, adjustments so I can function. Get someone discreet. Ask the doctors who should know someone who would be sensitive to my, uh, condition. Also, get my dentist, Schiller, here. He’ll need to do something with these choppers.”
Slowly, Tommy rose from the chair and walked over to Clovis and put a hand on his shoulder. “Thank you, old friend, for all you’ve done. Life the way we knew it is no longer possible. We’re starting over, Clovis. This is Day One of our, what should we call it… our rebirth? A week ago I didn’t care if I lived or died. Now I want to live but I have to adjust to my new… manifestation.”
“Whatever you need, sir.”
Tommy patted Clovis on the shoulder and made his way towards the staircase. “And call Mike Watts and have him meet me here at his earliest convenience. In time we’re going to need money and I have a few ideas on how to make us a small fortune.” Tommy started up the stairs. “And, Clovis, put the mirrors back up.”
Tommy entered a world apart from his old order and recreated a life within his mansion. Through Mike Watts, he kept his hand in the motion picture business and began to write treatments and then expanded to whole original scripts that Mike would direct. They entered into a producing partnership and Universal Pictures gave them an exclusive contract for several years with Laemmle asking no questions about the terms; the guilt he felt over Tommy’s misfortune was so great that he never even attempted to visit his former star.
The household had limited staff with Clovis, as always, in charge. He had moved in permanently, taking the bedroom on the same floor as Tommy’s so he could be near whenever his master needed him. The plastic surgeon helped smooth out some of the scarring on Tommy’s face and hands. He was able to move them and make facial expressions. Now he looked like a well-groomed beast, a combination of werewolf and wild boar, his deep blue eyes the only evidence that Tommy was still in there, somewhere.
His health improved. He worked out with a regiment of calisthenics recommended by his doctors. Still, Clovis worried about Tommy’s morphine intake. The physicians thought the patient should have been off morphine months ago but the pain at night was too great. When the doctors stopped writing prescriptions, Tommy had Clovis go down to the seedier side of Gower Street and procure the many vials he needed each month.
Tommy also had Clovis go to the studio armed with a portfolio of sketches so an old friend from the costume department could create a new wardrobe for the disfigurement. The sketches included loose fitting garments with hoods, cowls and head-to-floor length robes. Tommy couldn’t bear having clothes too close to his skin. The hoods and cowls were made for the rare times he ventured outside the mansion.
And he did leave the mansion on occasion. Tommy would have Clovis take out the Duesenberg, a grey and black Model J. They went into the Hollywood Hills at night to take in the fresh air, always riding along Sunset Boulevard under cover of darkness, with Tommy who always sat in the back making sure to cover up with a hood or a large brimmed fedora. He seemed to get so much joy out of leaving the mansion that Clovis even talked him into seeing a movie for the first time in nearly a year. Clovis had gone to the manager of a local theater and explained that his patron was a famous movie star who had been disfigured in a horrible car accident. Would it be possible to rent the entire balcony for the late show? Of course, for the right amount of money anything was possible so Tommy and Clovis sat in the balcony by themselves and munched on popcorn and sipped Coca-Cola like everyone else in the theater below.
The one thing that made Tommy happiest was the rose garden he began to grow under the terrace just outside the dining room’s French doors. The rest of the grounds, the flower beds, the tennis courts, were left to grow wild. The swimming pool had long been a forgotten green pond filled with toads and algae. But the stables were maintained and Tommy kept two of his favorite mounts — a black mare and a roan stallion. When they saw him after months in seclusion, the pair reared up and nearly kicked the stable doors down until they heard their master’s soothing voice. He rode one and then the other each morning around the estate, not caring that his once meticulously trimmed grounds were now turning into a forest.
But the rose garden held a special place on the grounds. Tommy would go out each morning and tend to the red and yellow roses and rows of thorn bushes. He weeded and troweled the earth, watered and fed the flower beds with manure from the stables. In the middle of the garden he carved out a spot for a marble birdbath and a small white statue of an angel. Clovis understood this obsession all too well: Helen Porter had been in love with roses.
This was the life that Tommy Shaw had settled into; he felt he had a purpose each day and maintained a routine of riding around the estate in the morning and writing in the afternoon. Mike Watts was a frequent guest for lunch and brought Tommy news of their latest productions and script pages. Mike was his window to the outside motion picture world and he relished all the gossip that Mike had to tell. Tommy also read all the gossip rags and Daily Variety to keep up on things. Clovis would pick up the newspapers when he went into town to buy groceries. On occasion there would be an article on Tommy himself and it would always refer to that tragedy in 1929. Even these articles Tommy would read with interest: “What Happened To Tommy Shaw?”
Clovis saw to it that no other photograph was taken since that night years ago. An extension to the wall was added in 1930 that made it nearly impossible to get a look inside the estate. Local police were given an extra bonus at Christmas to patrol the outside of the mansion and chase away would-be intruders. And anyone who trespassed on the estate were met by two good-sized Doberman Pinschers named Rawley and Buck. The children were still heard chanting out in the street but there was nothing that could done about that. Tommy on some days would go to the top floor attic and look through the threadbare curtains and watch them play baseball and other games. He would laugh out loud when they saw the curtains move and shrieked.
This is how it was at Tommy Shaw’s estate on Sunset Boulevard and he would have been perfectly happy if life went on this way until the day he died. His production business was successful and his screenwriting career — writing under the non-de plume Avis Royce — was helping his partner Mike Watts’ career soar as they were both nominated several times for Academy Awards. Tommy’s morphine addiction had even subsided somewhat; he only needed a few vials a month to deal with his lingering pain. For nearly ten years Tommy had turned tragedy into success and all was going well until the spring of 1939 when a young girl literally dropped into his world and contributed to his final tragedy.