y mother never looked more beautiful than she did in her coffin. She was 86 years old, and for at least a decade her loveliness had seemed a distant memory. She grew increasingly gaunt, and the tissue-thin skin of her face bore deepening signs of anxiety and depression, in addition to the subtler signs of stress, frustration, and resentment that had been there, I realized now, throughout her adult life. Toward the end, she was a bag of bones with haunted, deep-set eyes.
But with death, all of the passions that had ravaged her looks fell away. The transformation seemed nothing less than magical. Of course, whoever had applied her makeup at the funeral home deserved immense credit: He or she, perhaps appreciating the rare opportunity to work on such a fine face, had done a magnificent job, somehow perfectly accentuating every feature that had once made her a head-turner. So stunning did she look at her wake that when an elderly priest, a total stranger to all of us, dropped by to mumble the obligatory prayer, he was visibly startled when he glanced over at her corpse and actually began his comments by remarking on her extraordinary beauty.
She would have loved that. She was vain, and she knew it. She defended her vanity. She considered it a virtue. It was one thing she had a strong opinion about: Vanity was a good thing. She had no shame about acknowledging her own beauty, which she had recognized from her early years as a practical asset. In her mid-twenties, she’d fled her hometown of Florence, South Carolina—a sultry burg surrounded by fields of cotton and tobacco and swampland—for Hollywood, determined to make a career for herself in the movies. Perhaps she thought of herself as the next Ava Gardner—who, she always said, was the most beautiful woman ever and who, like her, hailed from a small Southern town, namely Smithfield, North Carolina.
In Los Angeles, my mother went straight to MGM, Gardner’s own studio, and asked for a job. She got one—opening fan mail. She loved it. She was in heaven, surrounded by movie stars. It was 1952. The actress Jean Simmons, a great beauty who was a year younger than my mother, happened to be on the lot at the time, filming a movie called Young Bess. In the studio commissary my mother was routinely mistaken for her. Nothing could have thrilled her more. But nobody offered her a screen test or an acting contract.
Who knows? It might have happened if she had stayed around longer. But after she had been there for a few months, her father, who was only 54, died suddenly of a heart attack. My mother, upon getting the news of his death, flew home immediately. And stayed—for a couple of years, anyway.
When she left Florence again, after an extremely brief marriage that ended in a Miami divorce, she decided to try her luck in New York. She soon found a secretarial job at the Musicians’ Union. It was pretty much the closest thing in New York to working at MGM. If she couldn’t be in show business, the next best thing was being around it. She even had a roommate who was in show business, sort of: Ann Smith was a chorus girl at the most famous nightclub of the day, the Copacabana. At the Copa, the frequent headliners—and regular customers—included the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and the comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. My mother became a regular there, too, sitting between dance numbers with Ann, who introduced her to all the stars. Ann dated a few of them. So did my mother.
Ann also introduced my mother to a recently divorced physician who was a few years her elder. He worked at Doctors Hospital, a small boutique institution on the Upper East Side that was the hôpital de choix for the rich and famous, where the food was said to be on a par with that at some of the city’s best restaurants. He was handsome, and what made him even more attractive to my mother, I suspect, was that many of his patients were celebrities—Broadway actors, Hollywood stars, even the wealthy of Europe who happened to get sick while in New York.
And that wasn’t all: Ever since his years in medical school, the doctor had been churning out radio and, more recently, TV plays for CBS and NBC. In other words, he was a doctor, but he was also, in a very real way, in show business. Just as my mother had been mistaken for Jean Simmons at the MGM commissary, he had been confused on the set with the actor Richard Kiley when Kiley starred in a TV play he had written.
Not least important, from the moment my parents met, he worshiped her.
And so they were married. She moved into his apartment on East 89th Street, right around the corner from Doctors Hospital. They had a son, who was born in that hospital. Years later she would often tell me about the time that Marsha Hunt, who had been a star at MGM and had later acted in a TV play written by my father, came to see me sleeping in my crib. It was as if the three wise men themselves had dropped by.
My mother had high hopes. But things soon went in the wrong direction. After a couple of years, she had a second child. Suddenly the Upper East Side apartment was too small. My father bought a house in the anonymous heart of Queens, on a block of identical brick houses populated mostly by working people whose parents had been European immigrants, mostly from Italy or Ireland. All but one family was Catholic. Almost all of them had jobs in Queens. None of them were particularly interested in Manhattan, which they called “the city” and which some of them talked about as if it were another world. Many of them hadn’t crossed the East River in years.
For my mother, this was another world, and not one she had signed on for. My father didn’t give the subject much thought. He spent his weekdays working hard, driving into Manhattan early enough to see patients starting at 8 a.m. and then spending the afternoons—and often, also, long evenings—serving as editor-in-chief of a medical journal, where he heavily rewrote his fellow doctors’ prose to make it as lucid and coherent as possible, sketched out illustrations for the art department to enhance the articles’ clarity, and posed innumerable editorial queries in an effort to maximize the articles’ specificity. He was, in short, a man of multitudinous gifts who had found a job that drew on several of them. But when he came home, he found an increasingly bitter woman who cared nothing about his work and hated being what was then called a housewife.
He still adored her, as can be observed in the hundreds of pictures he took of her. He was a spectacular photographer, and no subject fascinated him more than his gorgeous wife. And she loved posing for them as much as he loved taking them.
She didn’t have much of a social life. Some days, while my father was at work and my sister and I were at school, she would go into Manhattan and spend the day buying fashionable clothes for herself at Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Gimbels, Lord & Taylor, and Bergdorf Goodman. Other days she would go “returning,” as she called it, spending the whole day taking back some (or even all) of the clothes she had just spent a whole day buying. As a rule, she didn’t purchase clothing for me or my sister in Manhattan: for us she picked up whatever was cheapest at Alexander’s, a big red-and-white department store on Queens Boulevard.
Every Wednesday evening, we had dinner at an Italian restaurant on Woodhaven Boulevard. Sometimes we went out for Chinese. Every third or fourth weekend, my mother’s friend Evelyn, who was also from Florence, had roomed with her and Ann all those years ago, and was still living and working in Manhattan, would stay over. On yet other weekends, my father’s mother would visit—always an uncomfortable experience, because she and my mother quietly despised each other. They never exchanged a cross word, at least not in my presence, but the mutual dislike was palpable.
She had dreamed of more. Most nights, after she went to bed, my father, who could get by on three hours of sleep, would go into the basement and write. He was working on a novel and a film script. She kept hoping that he would finish the script and get it produced. Or that he’d publish the novel and sell it to the movies. It wasn’t that she cared about his writing career. She wanted a ticket out.
But he just kept writing, happily turning out draft after draft of both the novel and the script. He had paid his way through medical school by writing for the networks. Back then, it had been vital to knock out saleable scripts as fast as possible. But now he didn’t need to worry about completing anything. He just enjoyed the act of writing, of escaping into his imagination after a long day’s work.
My mother didn’t get it and didn’t want to. She wanted change. She wanted Hollywood. One day when I was about twelve or fourteen or thereabouts, she came into my bedroom with a basket of clean laundry and, as she hung up my shirts, hissed through clenched teeth: “I hate this! I hate this! I hate this!”
Still, I always believed she adored me and my sister. She was constantly hugging and kissing us, constantly saying, “I love you, I love you, I love you.” None of my friends’ mothers was anywhere near as emotionally demonstrative. That was the image everyone had of her; it was the image I had of her: She was love itself.
Then came Sheba.
One day when I was ten years old, my father pulled up in front of the house with a kitten on his shoulder. She was a stray: He had found her in a parking lot near a clinic in Queens where he’d been pitching in temporarily. We named the kitten Sheba and fell in love with her. She grew from a kitten into a cat, and on the day Robert F. Kennedy was shot, she had kittens of her own, four of them.
Two months later, a truck marked with the letters ASPCA pulled up in front of our house. My mother spoke to the driver, and while she went inside, he raised, with a horrible clatter, a battered metal screen that ran along the entire side of the truck. He thereby uncovered a terrible sight: several shelves lined with tiny cages, in each of which were crammed one or more cats, most of them meowing piteously. As he yanked out an empty cage and opened its door, my mother emerged from the house, holding a thoroughly trusting and affectionate Sheba.
“Mommy! What are you doing?” I screamed. “No! No!”
Ignoring me entirely, my mother handed Sheba to the man, who roughly shoved her into the cage. My mother then went back inside, and came out a moment later with a cardboard box. In it were Sheba’s kittens. Grabbing them, two apiece in each of his beefy hands, the driver stuffed them into the cage with their mother, then fastened the cage door shut.
By now I was weeping. I grabbed her dress, pulled on it. But as the man shoved the cage containing Sheba and her kittens onto his truck, then closed the metal screen, climbed back into the driver’s seat, and drove off with our cats, my mother stood there silently. I couldn’t believe she was letting this happen, deaf to my pleas. When I looked up at her, not only did I glimpse no sign of pain in her face; I saw just the slightest hint of a smile.
That afternoon, which for me had been a nightmare, had for her been a small triumph—a moment of power for a woman who otherwise felt powerless. Power not only over four kittens and their mother, an affectionate cat who implicitly trusted her in the way a beloved pet does, but power also over her own son.
n those days, the highlights of my mother’s life were the visits by Ann, her old Copa-girl friend who now went by her middle name, Camille, and lived in Los Angeles, where she worked at Universal Studios as the personal assistant of the movie director George Roy Hill and was married to a TV actor named Jack De Mave, a co-star of the CBS series Lassie. Ann Smith, then, was now Camille De Mave. When we put them up, my mother was a different person. She was incandescent. For her, Camille’s anecdotes about Robert Redford, Paul Newman, and Joanne Woodward, all of whom were friends of hers, were like water in the desert. Just by virtue of her friendship with Camille and Jack, my mother felt she had contact with a realm higher than the one she lived in with us.
Not only did she love show business; it was the only thing she really had strong opinions about. “Walter Matthau is so good at comedy,” she once said, in a tone that Margaret Thatcher might have assumed to make a statement about East–West relations, “that nobody appreciates what a great dramatic actor he is!” When she saw a new actor she liked on TV or in a movie, it was as if she had discovered a political cause. She would sit on the living-room couch and complain about how Alice Krige or Christine Lahti wasn’t getting parts worthy of her talents. The only politician she ever got excited about, one way or the other, was Ronald Reagan, because he had been so sweet with Doris Day in The Winning Team; for that reason, she wouldn’t hear a negative word about him. When she heard that Judy Garland had died, she leaned against the kitchen counter and wept uncontrollably for (I would estimate) a half hour. It was the only time I ever saw her break into tears over anyone’s death.
During the years when I was metamorphosing from a child into a teenager, my mother’s frustrations intensified. She talked more and more about California. My parents argued. And my father made promises. He would wrap up his job in New York and find some way for us to live in Los Angeles. Next summer, he kept saying. Next summer we’ll go to L.A. and buy a house. And then when next summer came around, it didn’t happen. The arguments would resume, and he would renew his promise. Next summer. Next summer. Always next summer. It became an annual pattern. The oasis kept receding. After a point, she knew he was lying, but she got through the winters by clinging to the lies. Once, timid though I was, I confronted him about his lies. “Goddamn it!” he growled. “I’m trying to keep my family together!” As he saw it, he was not about to sacrifice our togetherness and security to my mother’s dreams.
I guess I was in high school when my mother began spending weeks at a time in Los Angeles. Staying with Camille and Jack, she hatched schemes to move there full time. Enraged, my father eventually penned a 2,000-word missive to Camille, assailing her for encouraging what he saw as my mother’s folly. “You have some deluded image of her as a playmate, company to have around, to pass the time with,” he wrote in the letter, a copy of which surfaced after my mother’s death. “She’s a wife with responsibilities to her family, though she doesn’t seem to understand that . . . . I’ve spent the past couple of years trying to keep my head screwed on, looking for love and help from a middle-aged woman who won’t face the fact that she is no longer a girl, who is frightened by age but can’t share that fear with the only person who really cares what happens to her….She has the child’s idea that everybody out there, wherever that is, is a friend and that warmth and love are waiting. She lives in a movie.” He went on:
You will hear that I am tense and often unpleasant. I am. I am also human and therefore lonely, badly hurt. I don’t drink and beat [her]. I keep no mistress. When she is 3,000 miles away, I am desolate….I know what [she] dreams of, I understand what she misses. But it doesn’t exist where she looks for it. Even when she’s here, she’s 3,000 miles away, among shadows. She blocks me out. Living here, among her family, she marks time. Amongst her dream world people, I am unreal . . . .
I work hard, very hard. I have responsibilities that have long gone unshared. I have dreams, too. I impose them on no one and am realist enough to know I’ll probably never fulfill them . . . .
I have said much more than I intended. So be it. The point of all this is: I love her. She is a good person. But hope and pain have this in common: They endure beyond all reason until one day they vanish. There is a point beyond which they lose meaning, like words that are repeated again and again.
Whether he even sent the letter, I have no way of knowing.
As college approached for me, my mother sent away for brochures from dozens of colleges in southern California, most of which I had never heard of and some of which were obviously borderline loony religious institutions. She made the situation clear: She wanted me to go to college in southern California so she could have an excuse to tag along and live there, near the movie business and near Camille. The two of them had talked for years about opening a casting agency together.
I refused, but a couple of years later, she talked my sister, who had reached college age, into going along with her plan. Together, they moved out to Los Angeles, where she spent a lot of time with Camille and Jack and with my father’s old actress friend Marsha Hunt—at whose Sunday open houses, attended by other stars of yesteryear like Celeste Holm and Alan Young, she became a regular, and for whose homeless charity she volunteered so that she could spend even more time in Marsha’s company. My mother and Camille never did start their own casting agency. In fact, my mother never sought any kind of work at all. Though heartbroken that she was living so far away from him, my father continued to send her all the money she needed to pay her rent and cover her bills.
In the meantime I became a writer. I churned out a great deal of literary journalism and several books. The only one that interested my mother in the slightest was my collection of movie criticism. Another aspect of my early career also drew her attention: When I was first starting out, I wrote a few pieces for Emmy Magazine, published by the people who give out the Emmys. My mother was delighted when I spent several days reporting from the Warners lot on the making of the miniseries The Thorn Birds, in which Jean Simmons, for whom she had been mistaken at the MGM commissary, played the wife of Richard Kiley, for whom my father had been mistaken on the set of a 1950s TV play.
But otherwise my mother barely noticed my career.
Then I published a book that made headlines and occasioned a nationwide tour. Once she saw me being interviewed on TV, she was suddenly my biggest fan. She went into bookstores, found copies of my book, climbed into the store windows when nobody was looking—by now she was in her mid-sixties, mind you—and put my book there in place of whatever had been there before.
Certainly her enthusiasm for my book had nothing to do with its contents. It was a political polemic, and the topic itself didn’t interest her. In fact, she had no real political views. Whenever any issue came up, she was a perfect chameleon, taking on the coloring of whomever she was with. Marsha Hunt, who had been blacklisted in Hollywood, was a stalwart leftist, and in her company my mother would feign total agreement with everything she said. Meanwhile, the young couple who lived downstairs from her in California were extremely conservative Christian fundamentalists, and, as neighbors told me, my mother was always quick to concur with their every word. “What’s the point of arguing?” she would say. “You can’t change what people think.” It was precisely that chronic passivity, that bottomless agreeableness, that refusal to ever ruffle anyone’s feathers, that endeared almost everybody else to her. Virtually everyone my mother ever met thought she was a darling. Those with whom she discussed her marriage saw her as bird in a gilded cage. People who had never met my father viewed him, based on her testimony, as a heartless ogre.
y sister went into showbiz. Camille helped her break in. She started out as a production assistant, first on commercials and music videos, then on feature films. She carried ladders across sound stages, asked passersby on location shots to please cross the street, brought sandwiches to Meryl Streep, and delivered cans of exposed film in panel trucks at the end of a day of shooting. In time she became what is known as a “second second assistant director.” She worked with Marlon Brando and Robin Williams. She was a given a line in a movie directed by Alan Alda. She chummed around with Madeline Kahn and Sean Young. Every evening, until she got her own place, she would return home to the garden apartment in the San Fernando Valley that she shared with my mother and would tell her about her day—every last little detail. My mother was enthralled by all of it. I never had the impression that my mother was excited by my sister’s career, as such: Rather, she was excited by the fact that my sister’s career brought her—and, by extension, my mother—into contact with movie stars.
On the morning of January 17, 1994, I awoke to the news that a massive earthquake had just struck Los Angeles. My mother lived on Reseda Boulevard in Northridge, the neighborhood that ended up giving the earthquake its name. The quake was the only thing on TV. I tried to reach my mother. I couldn’t get through. I called my sister, who by now was living in Sherman Oaks, at the other end of the Valley. I couldn’t reach her either. My father, too, was frantic.
Then I caught a glimpse, on TV, of an apartment building whose second floor had completely collapsed onto its first floor, apparently taking several lives. (The final death toll for that building alone was sixteen.) I recognized it immediately as the building directly across the street from the one in which my mother lived. During the ensuing hours the TV news kept showing the same footage of that collapsed building. My sister somehow managed to talk her away past police roadblocks and make it all the way to Northridge, where she found our mother banged up—a bookcase had fallen on her, leaving her bruised and dazed—but basically all right.
At least physically. Psychologically, the earthquake destroyed her. For her, Hollywood was immortality—a shield against death itself. But with the earthquake, all those fantasies came crashing down. Even Los Angeles, it turned out, was a real and dangerous place.
My mother spent the next couple of years away from California—staying with my father in Queens and with various relatives down South. She was plainly lost: She didn’t know who she was any more, or where she belonged, or what she should do with the rest of her life. Then she returned to L.A. and rented another apartment.
But it was never the same. She was never the same. In the late 1990s, as I began to experience a major difficulty in my personal life, I talked frequently about it to my septuagenarian father, who would throw on his beat-up old coat and jump into his beat-up old car, in the middle of the night, to drive from the family house in Queens to my apartment in Manhattan and do everything he could to help. I made the mistake, once or twice, on the phone with my mother in California, of crying on her shoulder. What I got in return were one-word answers and, then, a letter in the mail, several pages long, in which she ordered me, in a chilling, lawyerly tone, to cease disturbing her with such matters. The first thing I did was to tear the letter up and flush it down the toilet, so that it would cease to exist. The second thing I did was to phone my father and tell him about the letter, in response to which he strove desperately to reassure me that my mother, despite all appearances, loved me.
fter my mother moved to California, one of my frequent worries had been that she would divorce my father and hook up with some guy who would take her for a ride. But as far as I know, my mother never showed the slightest serious attention in another man after her move to California. There’s a Cole Porter song entitled “Always True to You, Darling, in My Fashion,” and that she was. In later years my parents grew closer again. After my father retired, he began to spend several weeks, even months, every winter with my mother in California; every summer, she would spend a few weeks with him in Queens. When he died, aged 80, in the year 2000, my mother and sister both gave up for good on L.A. and moved back into the family house.
By this time I was living in Norway. I talked to my mother and sister regularly but saw them only once every year or two. In the beginning my mother still exhibited traces of her old spirit, her old enthusiasm for show business. On her first visit to us in Oslo, we held a party for her and, after meeting a handsome and charming young Dutch guest, she danced and laughed into the night with him, playful and flirtatious. But gradually it all seemed to drain out of her. And when it did, there seemed to be nothing left.
Eventually, emotionally speaking, she was a husk. Arriving at the house in Queens on one of my last visits from Norway, I let myself in and called out for her. She appeared in the kitchen doorway in a faded blue pastel nightgown. Her face was emotionless. She hadn’t seen me in a year, but you would have thought I had just come back from a ten-minute trip to the grocery store.
It wasn’t Alzheimer’s. It was resignation. Fatigue. Surrender. She knew she was old, and she knew how she looked, and she despised it, and she had more or less decided to just drag herself through the days she had left. There had been so much, not so very long ago, and she had come so close to it, but for her it had all come to dust. Nothing remained—only family, only loved ones, all of whom, in her book, were poor substitutes for the sheer magic she had once had, or, at least, had espied.
And then she died. Camille didn’t come for the obsequies—she had died already, a year or so earlier, after retiring and moving back to Macon. Camille’s husband Jack was still alive, and despite his advanced age had quickly found a new girlfriend, but he hadn’t even returned my sister’s phone call informing him about our mother’s death. Marsha Hunt, though going strong at age 96, wasn’t about to travel East for a funeral but sent her condolences.
Yet the neighbors were there. In their view, my mother had been one of them, and her demise merited their notice. Yes, she’d gone to California long ago, and then come back much later, and had been living again in the family house for so many years now that for the older ones her absence had been just a brief blip. Some of the newer neighbors, for their part, didn’t even remember a time when she hadn’t been there. For them, she was a pale, frail old woman with a hint of a Southern accent who would give their children and their dogs a pat on the head.
And then, as noted, the priest came, and did a double-take at her beauty in death. And then we all left, and they closed the lid of the big heavy shiny box, and the next day we all accompanied it into and out of the local Catholic church. She had not been a Catholic, and in fact had always professed a strong Protestant disapproval of Catholicism, but toward the end she had declared a fervent wish to be buried with my father. He shared a grave with his parents in Calvary Cemetery—the immense, flat, all but treeless Catholic burial ground that straddles the Long Island Expressway.
At the end, then, we lied, said she had been a Catholic, went through the required rituals, and escorted her to the graveyard, where her coffin was lowered down on top of my father’s—which, in turn, lay on top of what was left of his mother’s and his father’s.
And there she lies, in what may well be the world’s ugliest cemetery, herself no longer either beautiful or not beautiful, but closer in death than she had been throughout most of her life to the man who had adored her above all else.