Everybody knows the dreams and desires of a Hollywood actress are ageless. 2,147 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
“It was too clichéd. That’s why I never forgave him. To drop dead after cutting the grass? Really? Just charmless.”
There was no venom in the old woman’s voice. In fact, her tone was coquettish — a little creepy now that she was in her late eighties. There was no venom in my thoughts either, even though it was my father she was talking about. He’d had a massive coronary when I was nineteen, when he was a few years younger than I am now, not to put too fine a point on it. At the time, I knew she was going to be more trouble in the years to come than he would have been. I’d felt guilty about thinking that then. But I was right. Yes, she was my mother. I watched her smoke her cigarette. She still did that coquettishly too.
“The rest of it was my fault. You know, my mother told me not to marry him. Hell, his mother told me not to marry him.”
I did know that. Because she’d mentioned it countless times, even before he was gone. Poor bastard — he’d been too stable for her, although that was exactly what she’d needed. And, after fleeing Germany as a teenager, he laughed at her rages and outrages. He’d become an accountant. He wanted something safe, probably because his refugee parents had run out of money in L.A. whilst on their way to Australia and initially survived thanks to tangential acquaintances with Thomas Mann and Billy Wilder back in the old country.
As for her, if you haven’t already guessed, she had been an actress.
Well, she’d been a child actress before moving to New York when she was about eight. And briefly an aspiring struggling starlet before she’d married for love. Fill in your own moral — or joke — here. Her family had had money. As a boy, I asked her what her family had done during the Great Depression and she thought for a second before saying, “We let the chauffer go.”
Unfortunately for me and him, her father had died when she was fourteen and all the money was eaten up before her mother went.
My parents met over a bridge table in Manhattan. How 1950 is that? She was going to the Neighborhood Playhouse, Sandy Meisner’s school. He was finishing college on the G.I. bill. He deserved it; as an enemy alien, the U.S. Army had sent him to the Pacific, where he got a Silver Star in New Guinea and malaria in the Philippines. Although judging by the pictures, he cut a pretty dashing figure. But it was a relapse of malaria that won her heart. That was a sweet story so she didn’t tell it as much.
“It could have been so much different. You know, I got a big break at four. I was cast as Freddie Bartholomew’s younger sister because we both closed our eyes when we smiled.”
Needless to say, I knew this too. There was also a framed picture of the two of them on the mantle.
“If it hadn’t been for my mother, I could have been a star. Had a career.”
Her mother thought that child stars became self-absorbed and problematic — I’m giggling inside — so she didn’t let Mom advance. If you want to know, my mother hadn’t been overly fond of her mother, a dislike that started long before they were stuck with each other alone during her adolescence and probably accounted for the bitter fights they’d had. That and her fondness for smoking cigarettes at the Waldorf Astoria bar and passing for twenty-one at sixteen. There was a framed photo of that, too. I’ll admit she looked twenty-one. And hot. Yes, I just threw up in my mouth a little.
Ah, life with mother. Not that I lived with her. The Sunday afternoon visit sometimes seemed above and beyond the call of duty. Anyway, you’d think now that I was only a few years away from collecting Social Security that she’d let me go. No such luck.
Once, decades ago, I’d told her that I hadn’t been interested in acting. You should have seen the look of disdain that flashed across her face.
“Why?” she’d asked. I said I hated the glad-handing and networking — and won a look of blank incomprehension.
“You got that from your father. I always dreamed of your Oscar speech: ‘And if anyone needs an elderly actress, well, my mother so happens to be available. . .’”
That was Mom in a nutshell. In all fairness, she had been a good mother to me when I was a boy. Although she did walk around declaiming, “Sharper than a serpent’s tooth is a thankless child.” It was only now, in my adulthood and her dotage, that she amused herself by sticking pins in my balloons. Maybe it was a substitute for flirting. Most of the time it was a small cross to bear.
And as far as that career thing goes, you could say it was her fault. Which is to say, it was my father’s revenge from beyond the grave. When his will was read, he left his money to me — and his good wishes to her. She did get their community property and retirement funds, and that was enough for her to be comfortable so far. And my nest egg was enough that working art department on commercials, and then as a prop master when my knees got too old to hump furniture, was enough for a boho life.
“You didn’t even manage to get married.”
All the old favorites today. But this one was easier because she didn’t really care that I’d never married. And, at this point, neither did I. So I decided to play.
“I almost married Alicia.” I only slept with unsuccessful actresses. Sleeping with successful ones would have been more comfortable but way more annoying. Besides, Mom would have pestered them for work.
“She was pretty. But not pretty enough for the movies.”
And that was why Alicia hadn’t married me: she hated my mother and probably foresaw that marriage would include Sunday afternoons like this.
“And she wasn’t a very good actress. I knew she’d never make it. She just didn’t have it.”
Last I heard, Alicia was married to a postman and living in Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin. Which apparently she found preferable to these Sunday afternoons.
“Now Betty Perske had it. You could see it at Julia Richman.”
Mom had gone to Julia Richman High School in Manhattan with the girl who became Lauren Bacall. At least until she’d been expelled for smoking, drinking and hanging out at the Waldorf. About the same time Lauren Bacall was whisked off to Hollywood. Mom smiled smugly.
“Of course, she was several years older than me. I’d skipped a couple of grades.”
And apparently not a lifelong friend. When I was about ten, Mom had taken me to see Lauren Bacall do Applause on Broadway. Afterwards, instead of going backstage, she’d eviscerated what I believe was a Tony Award-winning performance at the Howard Johnson’s in Times Square. Then, back out on Broadway, she’d cocked a hip, stuck two fingers in her mouth and whistled to hail a cab. I thought she was beautiful at that moment, in a preadolescent way. And it’s still one of my favorite memories of her.
Mom gracefully pulled another cigarette from a lovely antique case, planted her elbow on the coffee table and looked up through her eyelashes at me. I glimpsed her young self for a second. Then I lit her. After all, she was my mother. But I couldn’t help thinking that I knew prop masters who’d pay a small fortune for that case.
She seemed lost in thought as she delicately dragged on the cigarette. I know it’s out of fashion, to put it mildly, but she was good at it. I bet myself the Shirley Temple stories would come next. Which sounded like a good time for alcohol.
“Mom, would you like a drink?”
“Yes, Clark, please make me one. It’s cocktail hour, more or less, somewhere.”
Mom still drank Rusty Nails — a vile mix of Scotch and Drambuie that would knock out a small horse. But even though she was a little bird of a woman at this point, she could still hold one or two on a perky day. Me? As there were no other choices, I just drank the Scotch in summer and the Drambuie in winter.
We toasted. And, no, I don’t want to talk about why I was named “Clark.”
“There is nothing like a nice drink late in the afternoon. It’s relaxing. When I was a little girl, I worked with W.C. Fields, you know.”
I didn’t know. A new story! The world shudders on its axis, then recovers.
“On David Copperfield, I was one of the Micawber children. And he always seemed nicer after an afternoon drink. Well, maybe it was a morning drink.”
She giggled, more to herself and the past than to me. Hollywood dementia, to coin a phrase.
“I’ll have to watch that again and look for you.”
“Oh! Well, make sure you get a deluxe DVD. I was practically cut ou when the movie aired on TV. All you could see were my hands lowering the rope from the window when Shirley escapes. I was so upset, I threw the remote.”
Wait for it.
“You know, Shirley and I went to the same day school for a little while. She was a nice enough girl.”
Wait for it.
“But she was a couple of years older than I was.”
The Shirley interval continued throughout the drink. Since I’d heard it all before, I mostly thought about how this would be easier with a sibling. But Mom hadn’t wanted to lose the weight again. Speaking of which, Mom was ready for Sunday supper: a hard-boiled egg, two ounces of tuna, an ounce of cheese, and one square of chocolate.
“I do have my girlish figure to think about.”
Me too. I skipped the meal and just sat with her, nursing the remains of the alcohol. Afterwards, we stood up to say goodbyes.
“I love you, honey. You were the best thing I did.”
I was stunned. She never said things like that. A little part of me wondered if she’d always thought that. But most of me was suddenly a comforted six year old.
“I love you, too, Mom.”
She gave me a loving smile.
“Be careful. Even if drinking and driving is the sport of our people.”
That joke was about as out of style as her cigarette, but it made her giggle. And since she didn’t drive anymore, I guess it was innocuous. But she was on a roll.
“And you remember what Bette Davis said?”
Supposedly, a young actress had asked Ms. Davis how to get somewhere in Hollywood, and the aging star had replied, “Take Fountain.”
For the record, Bette Davis was older than Mom, too.
“But then, you never wanted to get anywhere.”
I guessed the sweet moment was over.
I was depressed driving home. It was the elder care that saddened me. She was getting frailer every month. No small solaces could erase the inevitability of the end. Three days later, an early morning phone call rang. So I knew it wasn’t any of my friends. It was Mom’s housekeeper. The poor woman, Felicia, was practically hysterical, but she had already fled the house because she was undocumented. She begged me not to mention her to the police. Of course I wouldn’t. Felicia had been kind to Mom.
So I had to go “discover” the body. Shit. On the drive, I wondered if my mother had known, if that was why she’d said that to me on Sunday. I never told Mom that sometimes I thought I hadn’t had a career because I didn’t want to put up with people I didn’t like. This is a problem in the movie business. But maybe that was just an excuse. And she wouldn’t have understood anyway. Especially since I got it from my father. Just the same, in Mom’s honor, I took Fountain.
It felt strange to be walking the earth when she wasn’t. I found her sitting up in bed. It looked like she’d gone peacefully. There was an old booklet in her lap: an MGM casting book from 1936. It was open to a picture of a Shirley Temple type. And the writing beneath said “Joyce Marilyn Alcott. Age 5. Sings, dances, has perfect diction.” I almost cried. It definitely would have been easier with a sibling. While I was waiting for the cops, I slipped the cigarette case into my pocket. I guess I was becoming an even rustier nail. Like Mom.