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The surfers at Redondo Beach began noticing her the week before Memorial Day. They were taking the rescue course for the coming summer and didn't have time to give her their full attention -- but they wouldn't have anyway. She was a most unattractive woman.
She was there every day. Some days she would be there before the life guards arrived. It didn't matter what the weather was, so long as it wasn't raining she would be there. The surfers called her Morticia. They were young and they didn't remember Pola Negri or Gloria Swanson; the only woman they had ever seen dressed that way was Morticia in the Addams Family. An older man -- one with a good memory -- might have seen in her a vague resemblance to the old movie star Michelle Keyes.
She would arrive in an all enveloping, multi-paneled black dress that hung from her gaunt body like a shroud. It fitted her loosely and as raggedly as the feathers of a molting bird. Her appearance at the beach drew the attention of not only the surfers and life guards, but families with children out for a day in the sun. They were drawn to her out of curiosity -- for the same reason people watch someone making a fool of themselves in a public place -- to see them to do something grotesque. Morticia never failed, she looked like someone who had gotten loose from the madhouse and was waiting at the beach for the guards to find her.
She wore a wide brimmed black straw hat similar to that worn by wine growers in the south of France; it was tied under her chin with a purple sash. She wore very black sunglasses, they were so impenetrably black that the outside world must have seemed like night to her. She wore blood red lipstick applied with utter disregard for her lips and made her mouth look like the opening of a fresh wound.
She carried a large wicker basket in which she carried a light blue plastic tarpaulin. She would spread the tarpaulin out flat in the sand and sit in its geometric center with the basket by her side. From the basket she would remove a secretary's note pad and a ball point pen. Casting a surreptitious look about her, she would also remove a thermos jug and place it by her side -- she was almost ready, but first she would reach under the hem of her dress and pull down the top of her black stockings. One by one she would roll them down to the tops of her shoes. Then she would fit a king sized cigarette in a long black holder and light it with a wind-proof lighter.
Her skin was a chalky white. Although she sat in the sun all day she had the unhealthy look of someone housebound. The whiteness of her skin contrasted with her black dress, and her face under the wide brimmed hat, except for her garish lips, was ghostly pale. What kept her from acquiring a tan or protected her from a lobster red sun burn? The people at Redondo Beach often wondered -- as the summer wore on they got darker and darker, and by July most of the surfers were the color of roasted chestnuts. Morticia remained maggoty white.
She would sit there until everyone had gone. She paid no attention to the water or the families about her. Her only interest was writing in her secretary's notebook. She would pause in her writing and look up at the sky through her black sunglasses from time to time as though considering a turn of phrase -- or to take a quick sip from her thermos. Reaching into her wicker basket at noontime, she would withdraw a chicken leg or a wedge of cheese. At regular intervals she would remove the stub of her burned out cigarette from the holder and replace it with a fresh one, carefully depositing the stub in a hole she had dug in the sand.
Children were drawn to her. With undisguised curiosity they would stand open mouthed in front of her as though she was some sort of attraction -- and perhaps at any moment she would spring into action and do something sensational. They would soon grow bored and drift away when nothing happened, she would continue writing in her notebook and staring at the sky through her black sunglasses.
As the summer season progressed and the crowds began to fill the beach, she became less conspicuous and like an eccentric loner in a large city, she was swallowed up in the crowd. Occasionally a lifeguard would look in her direction and nudge his sidekick, "She's still there, over there between the two red umbrellas." The lifeguards had a bet going; "If she ever needs help in the water, I'll toss you to see who goes for her --loser has to go, okay?"
She was 74 years old and the last forty of her years had been spent in total retirement. Forty years ago she would have been recognized instantly -- so would two of her three husbands -- Michelle Keyes was a regular feature in the monthly movie magazines. There were women far more beautiful than she -- almost every woman in Hollywood was a better actress, and all of them were easier to work with, but there was something about Michelle that men could not resist. Truck drivers and poets alike were mesmerized by that something -- and that something was just as powerful in the last row of a movie house in Chattanooga as it was in her boudoir.
She spent almost all her years in Hollywood creating and preserving the image of Michelle Keyes -- a woman who never existed. In her notebook she had just written ....
...."Manny says I don't know how to sit
down or get up, I can't drink out of
...."What about us, Rosie? What about me?" He always came back to that. "I never married a Michelle Keyes, Rose."
"I gotta forget all about Rose Hanrahan, Ronnie. Like she never was ...."
He looked at her sadly, "Your name was Kelly -- Rose. Remember? We're still married."
"Aw .... Ronnie, don't make it any tougher than it is."
"The upshot of it was that Manny, my agent, paid Ronny off and for $5000 Ronny went back to Rockaway Park and filed for divorce. From then on it was work -- the impossible job of turning Rose Hanrahan into Michelle Keyes. Now, at the age of 74, I wonder why they picked me, of all people, for the job."
Once in a while, as she stared up into the
sun the answer seemed to be on the
...."It'd be diff'rent, Mitch, if y'could act, but lookit the facts. You read the reviews of "Mother's Girl" dint'cha?" Manny put his cigar down and stood up. He came around from behind his desk and put his arm around my shoulder. "Republic ain't gonna put their money in nothin' without it bein' a sure thing. If I wuz you sweetie I'd get the hell outta Hollywood -- y'owe it to y'self."
.... I well remembered how I felt --
humiliated, defeated. I wanted to crawl off somewhere and die, not for myself --
not for Rose Hanrahan, but for Michelle. I let Michelle down. And how right
Manny was, "Mother's Girl" might have been a better movie if Michelle, trying to
play an older woman, wasn't in it."
...."Manny, sensing a burst of positive publicity and renewed popularity, handled the whole thing. Photographs of Ellery on the beach with Kay Hampshire, the Gucci model, and attending a Hollywood premiere with Lola Bacon, Republic's answer to Jean Harlow. He also arranged, with quiet dignity, my second divorce -- from Guy Champion, the sexually ambivalent cowboy."
...."Michelle's experiences with men were
disastrous, followed by long periods of regret and withdrawal. Somewhere deep
within me a nagging voice told me there would never be another Ronnie Kelly, and
how could there be -- there would never be a Rose Hanrahan either. "Tell me
where to go, Manny. Where to stand, what to say -- shall I laugh or cry? What
should I do -- how should I do it?" Dear Manny -- had he lived, had he not been
married -- if he had shown the least interest in me as a human being. But I
could easily tell when he looked at me he was counting the faults -- the slips
that kept me from measuring up to his vision of Michelle Keyes."
After a few steps she stopped and turned to look at the sea. The sun was down now and only a fiery glow on the western horizon remained to mark its passing. She removed her dark glasses to see it more clearly. Her eyes were wet with tears and her makeup had run -- she brushed her face with her hand, streaking it further. She resembled a clown or a blind woman's unsuccessful attempt to make herself beautiful.
She looked around her in confusion, as though she had no idea where she was. Suddenly, noticing the sand at her feet, she remembered a movie called "The Desert Song" and smiled, then spoke nervously to no one in particular ....
"Oh, a retake. How is my make-up?" She touched her hair nervously then put her wicker basket down and pulled out her purse. She rummaged through it and found her lipstick. "There it is -- tell them I'll be there in a minute, Manny." She scrawled the lipstick across her mouth hastily and clumsily. "I'm ready, Manny. Where shall I stand? What are my lines .... and my motivation, Manny -- what is my motivation?"
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