I have always been fortunate to exist in two worlds: the grey, maudlin one into which we are all born, and that place where names are spelled out in lights. Though my origins are unspectacular, fate has periodically placed me in the role of ambassador between these realms.
The first such incident took place in 1956. My mother’s cousin was the talent booker on The Tonight Show starring Steve Allen. I was 17 when I went to visit New York. It was my first taste of Big Apple razzle-dazzle and I lapped it up like strawberry wine. On the last night of the trip, I went to the studio where The Tonight Show was filmed, under an arsenal of lights that gave the place the unmistakable scent of baked ham. My mother’s cousin valiantly led me through the pre-broadcast chaos of frenzied makeup applications and dance-routine rehearsals. I spied Mr. Allen working out a tricky figure on his piano. I worshipped him for his dapper wit, but my mother’s cousin said he didn’t have time for me in this bustle.
As a consolation prize—I intend the phrase to be ironic—my host took me to see the evening’s special guest, with whom he was acquainted. Everyone was. We’d seen her on our screens since she was a child. America’s Little Miss was now all grown up—and how! A singer, a dancer, a Broadway sensation, an actress without peer. And there she was in front of me, lounging lengthwise in a crimson taffeta dress, a pair of black tap shoes dangling off the edge of the sofa. She rose to meet me. I may have been an inch or two taller than her, but I still felt diminished by her presence. I rubbed my palm on my best trousers before clasping her impossibly tender hand. I shook it and released it before realizing it was meant to be kissed. She tittered at my nervous gaffe. I felt as bashful as Andy Hardy. I noticed an open bottle of Dom Perignon on her dresser—I have drunk the same ever since. My mother’s cousin said, Okay, Denny, let’s go, Madam needs her quiet time before the show. I don’t mind the company, she said, not one bit. She lifted a champagne flute to her lips. I felt a curious tingle as she ran her eyes over every inch of me. My mother’s cousin apologized nervously and said he had to get me back to my seat. I was too dazed to protest his hateful insolence, too dazed to insist he leave me here in this sublime creature’s presence forever. Oh well, she said. Maybe your chaperone will give you a weekend pass later. It’s been swell meeting you, young man. She held her hand out again. As I touched it, I realized my palm was slick with perspiration again. Though I felt hot with shame, she did not flinch at my secretions as I lifted her hand and brushed her skin with my trembling lips. She was utterly luminescent. Good evening, I stammered. As I released her hand from my slippery mitt, I felt her finger give my wrist a brief, exquisite stroke. And a very good evening to you, she said.
My mother’s cousin closed the door and ushered me down the hall. Jesus Murphy, he muttered, the lady’s like some kind of African tiger. You’re lucky you got outta there, kid.
And that was how I met my first movie star.
My next foray into that world came some years later, when I was living in Los Angeles. The ’60s had not yet begun to swing. A business associate for whom I had made a great deal of money invited me to spend the weekend on his yacht. Boating was a great passion of mine—call me a cliché, but I believe the high seas are full of adventure.
When I arrived at the dock, I noted that another passenger was already familiar to me. She wore a wide-brimmed black hat with a yellow ribbon. Her dress stopped well before a pair of calves that Michelangelo would have killed to carve. I had seen every single one of her movies and none came close to capturing her full beauty in that moment, as she stood facing the morning sun. I did not approach her: living in California made me contemptuous of the sycophants who attach themselves to stars like fleas on a beagle.
As soon as we were on board, my business associate greeted us with two glasses of Dom—a good omen. I noticed a smile at the edges of his mouth when he introduced us—was my proximity to this goddess a reward for sound business advice? While this possibility disturbed me, I couldn’t help but be grateful for this chance to meet the world’s most coveted woman. Haven’t I met you before? she asked. I would’ve remembered that, I said. I suspect you would have, she said with eyes that promised some of that adventure I was expecting.
Until the moment we reached dry land again, we were inseparable. We talked and laughed, secure in the knowledge that this time belonged to us solely. Her life was very complicated, as we all know. I chose my words carefully, not wanting to trouble her further. Between the fits of laughter, she spoke of many woes. She inspired such a sense of chivalry in me that I silently pledged to destroy all of her villains. For years, I wrote anonymous threats to Peter Lawford and Tony Curtis. I once spotted Joe DiMaggio in a restaurant many years later and would certainly have assaulted him had he not been three times my size and already inebriated.
But that was all in the future. What mattered was not the ugly aftermath but those heartfelt conversations on the deck and the too few loving moments in our suites when those flawless calves were mine to savour. We should get back together when I’m back from England, she told me on the dock. Her car was already idling, the driver already clutching the steering wheel. She never contacted me again, nor responded to my messages. I pleaded to my business associate to arrange another meeting. That’s not how it works, the bastard told me, it was a one-time-only thing.
When I learned of her untimely demise, I crawled into two crates of Dom and did not escape for a week.
My next encounter occurred in the same decade, but it might as well have been a new century. I had received a posting to London by the financial consortium that employed me. I immersed myself in the city’s outrageous swirl of high society and counterculture. An art dealer I knew was notorious for his parties, which all of London’s most glittering children would attend. They formed a vanguard of young artists and aristocrats, an intersection of Top of the Pops and the House of Lords.
At one such happening I was clutching a glass of mediocre champagne when I spied a young beauty across the room. He was more boy than girl but the era’s new flair for androgyny made me, shall we say, more experimental. As if ashamed of the feminine delicacy of his features and the Fauntleroy curls of his golden hair, the young man otherwise affected the look of a dockworker—black leather coat, motorcycle boots, a belt built for assault and battery.
I was mesmerized by this piece of rough even before I realized his identity. He was a guitarist of much renown, a man they already called a god. My irrepressible host sidled up to me and asked if I’d like an introduction. I was tempted to say yes, but I knew the young man would not appreciate any gesture that possessed the slightest trace of formality. Besides, I had come directly from the office and my clothes were Savile Row, not Carnaby Street.
I made subtle progress toward him, drifting ever closer to his circle of fellow thugs and harlots. The air was such a stew of intoxicants, I was sure my progress would go unnoticed. When he slipped a few steps back from his entourage, I took him by the elbow. You’re a terrific player, I said. Oh, yeh, he said, savagely wrenching his arm away from me. His words were slurred and his manner brusque. What do you lot know about music? I told him I had a friend at Atlantic Records
in New York who kept me up to date. My young charge recognized the name of our mutual friend. I told him I’d even heard his new record, which had yet to be released. It’s fantastic, I told him, a very powerful match of passion and philosophy. Yeh, it’s all right, he said with sudden sheepishness. Underneath his surly exterior I saw all the tender awkwardness of a teenage boy. I could see how he longed to be held, to be comforted. He was far too delicate for this place.
Before we could say anything more, a sallow-faced young woman interrupted us. Who’s this? she asked. Some Yank, he said. His dockworker bluster returned to his features. Yeh, he said, he was just telling me what a genius I am. I took this as my cue to leave. Good to meet you, I said. Yeh, he said, now piss off. But there was something in his faraway eyes that promised future intrigue. It came two hours later, when I found him incapacitated in a back bedroom, lying on a pile of coats on the floor. His monstrous belt was already unbuckled. I answered his signal and began a night of magic.
New York, 1983. It was an era of transition. The end of disco left a void no flashdance could fill. The rise of the yuppies was good news only for the vermin who sold Brooks Brothers suits. But things were looking up for me, after the nightmarish series of cataclysms I’d suffered through the previous decade. My legal travails were too sordid and ridiculous to get into here, but I will defend my reputation to my last breath.
It was in these circumstances that I made one last extraordinary foray into that other realm. I was in the employ of a footwear emporium not far from Wall Street—shoes have always been a great passion of mine. I had just retrieved a pair of red pumps from the backroom when I saw her enter the store. She was like a ray of sunlight in a land that had known only darkness. I recognized her instantly. I’d have been a fool not to. I had spent the night before in my Lower East Side apartment, drinking several bottles of sparkling wine and watching one of her most famous films on television. She was a teenager then, a raven-haired temptress whose only passion was a horse. Andy Hardy was in the movie, too, and everyone was very concerned about a big race. To be honest, it had been many decades since I’d seen the film and I had trouble following the plot.
What matters is that this merciful angel had arrived. She was older now, her features softened and distorted since her days of horses and big races. But it was her. It had to be. I couldn’t contain myself. Oh my God, I said, throwing the box of pumps to the floor. It’s you. It’s really you. I want to tell you that I think you’re incredible. I’ve seen all of your movies.
When she responded with a look of shock and confusion, I realized I had made a grave error. I had been indiscreet, calling attention to this empress of stage and screen when she was attempting to travel among the masses unmolested. I had made a scene and was ashamed of my transgression.
Hey, said the harridan with the pumps, you dropped my shoes. Maurice, the store’s manager, grabbed my shoulder. Dennis, he said, is there a problem? I tried to gather my dignity, but the smell of her perfume—slightly waxy but certainly French—was too much for me. I fell to my knees. Oh sweet mistress, I cried. You were fantastic in Cleopatra! And oh God, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof!
Mister, she said, you got me mistaken with somebody else, I just came in from Rochester.
Dennis, cried Maurice. Get yourself together. To my Aphrodite he said, I’m very sorry, ma’am, he’s not usually like this.
She began to back away but I couldn’t let her escape. I clutched her ankle and she shrieked. A man entered the shop. What the hell?! he said.
Help me, Andy, this guy’s crazy.
Get your hands off her, said Maurice as he pulled on my leg.
The harridan with the pumps began to scream.
Let go of my wife, you crazy fuck, said the man who had entered. I thought I knew his voice. Could it be my lady’s longtime on-again, off-again paramour? But no. I looked up and saw a squat, furry fellow who was not Richard Burton. He wasn’t even Welsh.
Oh well. What I had in my grasp was certainly enough for me.
You see, my recent turn in fortune had given me many opportunities to reflect on my life. I believed that I had used up all the time I could have with Hollywood’s seraphim, that mediocrity was my destiny. But no, I had been granted a reprieve, here at Cedric’s Fine Shoes, here in a place where a man who was not Richard Burton clawed at my arms and another man yanked on my legs and punched me in the small of my back.
In another age, I would have been a courtier of great renown, a man of influence and prestige. Alas, not now. In our age, the chasm between our world and theirs is so much wider. It took all of my strength to cross that divide, to hang on to those famous legs and take one last liberty. With the grace of a saint, I placed my lips on the tip of that good lady’s slipper.