New York, 1959
A neighbor from upstairs, the man with the sandy-haired crew cut, was emptying the mailbox next to mine. He pointed downward to a cream-colored envelope skittering toward the heating grate.
“Thanks.” I scooped the envelope up and scanned it; no return address. It hardly registered; I was holding tight to another envelope, the one from Better Homes and Gardens. So maybe they wanted that hasty piece I sent them on a new kind of doll named Barbie? It wasn’t one of the stories I labored over at night—this one might actually have a chance of selling. One more glance at the fancy piece of mail, which probably announced the wedding of a classmate whom, after five years, I would only vaguely remember.
The man with the crew cut was closing up his box and turning toward the elevator. He looked about my age, somewhere in his late twenties. “Good day for you?” I asked impulsively.
His eyes widened. “Uh, yeah,” he mumbled. When the elevator door opened, he all but jumped inside.
I truly knew better: you didn’t ask questions of strangers in New York. Of course, everybody remained a stranger, but no one seemed to find that a problem.
I started up the stairs to my apartment. For me, it hadn’t been so good a day. Too much time now at Newsweek. I had managed a promotion to the copy desk, but it was a boring job. It paid the bills, so I stuck with it and wrote stories at night, shipping them off to various magazines. If nothing happened there, maybe the editor’s position I had applied for would come through. Today? Well, somebody else got it—a copy boy just out of college. So, yes, I was more tired than usual. I began counting the steps, a favored way of diverting myself from wondering why I was drifting. It wasn’t working tonight.
I stopped on the landing and stared into the mirror hung to perk up the light on the stairs. Checking myself out. Blue angora sweater set and single-strand pearls, long brown hair curled under in a careful pageboy—I looked like every other eager female marking time until marriage. One of the copy editors had told me I was a “good-looking dame” this morning. A compliment, I guess. But, standing there at the landing, I wondered just exactly what had happened to the girl who left Bennington College five years ago.
Well, I wasn’t a virgin anymore.
The usual smells of the second floor greeted me, especially the pungent but comforting aroma of garlic and onions from the apartment next to mine. I didn’t know the people living there, but I heard them laughing and sometimes shouting at each other, and I imagined them sitting around a kitchen table covered in red-checked oilcloth, eating some delectable lasagna, while I was out here in the hall, inhaling the musty smell of the threadbare carpet mixed with a faint whiff of fresh dog urine.
Oh, please. Annoyed at my self-pity, I jiggled open the lock with its ancient key and stepped inside the apartment, which felt gloomier tonight than the stairwell. It was pouring outside, the rain coming down in exuberant, gurgling rivers over the windows, probably because the gutters hadn’t been cleaned in years.
I dumped the mail on the coffee table, staring at the letter that mattered. Would I feel worse when I found out what was inside? I picked it up and slit it open smoothly with one pass of my fingernail. The article about the Barbie doll fell out.
“Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately . . .”
Okay, no surprise. I glanced at the manuscript of a short story on the table that had come from The Atlantic yesterday—topped by a rejection letter with those same exact words. Was there just one typewriter somewhere dedicated to rejecting potential authors? I crumbled the paper tight and tossed it on the floor.
Then, in more leisurely fashion, I opened the fancy envelope.
It was an invitation, yes. Engraved. But not to a wedding.
Jessica Malloy (indeed, me) was cordially invited to attend the 1959 Academy Awards Ceremony at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles as a guest. Nowhere on the card did it say who was doing the inviting—just a cool request for an immediate RSVP, because attendance was limited.
My heart missed a couple of beats. Me? What was this about? There must be some mistake.
I smoothed the polished surface of the invitation with my hand, letting it be, for one second, Aladdin’s lamp. The broken gutters, the moldy carpet disappeared.
The Academy Awards. 1946. Once, just once, I had been part of that amazing scene—watching reporters with microphones eagerly search for beautiful people—and feeling my scalp prickle with the excitement of their voices as they grabbed breathless interviews with the stars. Closing my eyes, I walked again down a red carpet, chin up, holding my father’s hand, trying to avoid looking at the craning faces of fans searching for celebrities, those whip-thin women in slithery satin gowns and handsome men in crisp tuxedos who filled this world of make-believe. The past was tumbling, all raucous and glittery, into the present. My head suddenly filled with light and color and the thrill of twirling briefly at the top of the world.
Which meant, inevitably, remembering Ingrid Bergman.
The fans had loved her that night, their imploring hands reaching out as she floated by on the red carpet, all hoping her smile would embrace them, giving them something to remember and talk about for years. I could almost see her perfectly sculpted face, even hear her voice again.
And with those memories came the sounds and smells and confusion of my crazy childhood. This invitation—I ran a finger over the engraved lettering—was someone’s idea of a joke. Who would be beckoning me back to a city I once swore never to visit again? What was I overlooking?
I reached for the phone and did what I often did—dialed long-distance to talk to Kathleen, my high-school friend, and my strongest link to the past. We had both changed—she sold real estate in Los Angeles, and her voice was now raspy from a few too many cigarettes—but almost everything she said came with either a ring of common sense or a bounce of laughter. Unlike me, she was able to flick away the dictates of rules and orders like so much dust when they became burdensome. Her exit from our shared Catholic upbringing was an easy, casual move, and I envied that casualness. Even when I fled Los Angeles, our friendship survived. It was hard staying in touch at first, but we’d managed pretty well over the years.
I could hear the distant phone ringing. A three-hour difference; please be home, Kathleen, I begged silently. I need you to help me figure this out.
Kathleen did not disappoint.
“An invitation? Interesting,” she said.
“What possible connection would I have to that world anymore?”
“Well—maybe it’s from a friend of your father?”
“There aren’t that many still around, even the ones who went to jail. And none with any power to send off one of these. I want to know who invited me. This feels phony.”
“Call and find out if it’s authentic; hey, even if it is, come back out here for a few days. I’d love to see you.”
“Anyway, it’s good timing—we’d get to catch up—and you get to see the last of Saint Ann’s Academy.” There was just the hint of a catch in her voice.
“They sold our school, Jesse. Bishop Doyle wants the money from the land. They’re tearing it down for a shopping mall.”
And why did that suddenly punch me in the heart? Our school. That graceful sweep of Spanish mission-style buildings, seasoned by decades of use, settled comfortably among green lawns and lush trees . . .
“Where will the nuns go?”
“An old school dormitory in the Valley. Will you come? One last chance.”
“Why would they want to see me? I’m the one who messed up our high-school graduation, in case you’ve forgotten.”
“There were extenuating circumstances,” she said soberly.
That caught me. I stared out the window, hit now by another downpour of rain. I should hurry and shut all the windows, not waste time digging up the past.
“Okay, will you come? Maybe you’ll meet some of those new hotshot filmmakers—you know, people like Bob Fosse.” This was Kathleen’s teasing voice.
“I don’t know who he is.”
“Well, you will. And maybe you’ll be lucky enough to be around for the next atomic bomb test. They’re setting them off every three weeks now.”
“But that’s in Nevada.”
“True. All the tourists head for a front seat in Las Vegas. But if you time it to the second, you can see a burst of light from a few places here. Do you know they’re crowning a new ‘Miss Atomic Blast’ next month?”
“The world is crazy.”
“Yep. Crazier than Hollywood.” Then a pause. “Look,” she said quietly. “Come back. We’ll walk through everything together.”
“What if you come here?”
It wasn’t just a mysterious invitation at stake; she and I both knew that. I wished she lived closer. But Kathleen would never leave L.A.
“Leave this land of opportunity? No way,” she said. “Maybe I’ll get rich. Well, maybe not rich,” she amended, “but I’m going to be buying a house for myself pretty soon. By the way, speaking of scandals—there’s a good one on Errol Flynn in Screenland.”
“You’re trying to tempt me back with old movie gossip,” I said, smiling.
“Of course I am; we shared enough of it growing up. Who outgrows gossip?”
“You have a point.”
“Ah, you’re coming?”
“I’m thinking about it.”
“I’ll be waiting to hear.”
“I’ll think about it,” I repeated. We said goodbye, and I made my way to the kitchen for a glass of wine, mulling over the mix of glitz and piety that had shaped my childhood in the land of make-believe that was Los Angeles. I had never liked the tall, skinny palm trees.
I was something of a split Catholic from the beginning, the product of a pious mother who framed my life within the church rules and a father who provided the shrug, the chortle that helped me breathe easier. I knew we were of some vaguely exotic breed, but that didn’t directly affect me. I was a member of the One True Faith, and could feel sorry for all the unfortunate people who weren’t. It was sad, but, from what I heard in catechism class, they couldn’t go to heaven when they died. Instead they went to limbo, a calm, rather boring place where good people went who weren’t baptized. Our parish priest implied we didn’t have to feel too sorry for some of them, because they hadn’t treated us very well—refusing jobs to Irish and Polish immigrants, and having members of the Ku Klux Klan march around in white sheets with peekaboo eye slits, waving torches, ready to burn our houses in places like the Deep South. The Masons didn’t like us, either, and I knew about those “No Irish Need Apply” signs that went up in Boston store windows during the Great Depression. It was all something of a jumble.
I look now on how all this soaked into my soul, and I wonder. But back then, I was daunted by the rigor it took to remain a good Catholic in a church that required careful stepping to avoid sin. My father was my protector, mainly with his knowing wink. Mostly he was fun—and that’s because he lived and worked in the delightful world of make-believe called Hollywood. He was a studio publicist, which I imagined to be a lofty perch from which he could wave a magic wand and create wonderful realities. I loved hearing about his work at the Selznick Studio, and his jokes about the glamour kings and queens of the movie industry. He lived confidently, and I knew—without having the words for it—that his jaunty jokes would surely prevail over the fears of hell and damnation that dogged me through early childhood.
Not that I would think of testing this assumption. Mother, in her firm, steely way, made sure of that.
My mother—my elusive, haunted mother. Father sometimes jokingly called her the Church’s traffic cop; sometimes not so jokingly. Mother knew the moral dangers of life, and had me memorize my catechism before first grade. Hell was a blunt instrument, and she believed in it thoroughly.
It hadn’t always been that way. When I was small, she sometimes drew me into the beauty and magic of the Church. I remember one Christmas Eve she took me to Midnight Mass. I knelt before the vividly lifelike image of the baby Jesus in the manger, enthralled by the flickering votive lights and the scent of pine branches, as she whispered to me the story of his miracle birth. Her hand stroked my hair as she talked, and I felt I was sharing with her something spiritual and good.
But there weren’t many memories like that. I sensed early that the split between the two worlds my parents represented was a source of constant tension. My father loved talking about the politics of both, but Mother would turn cold at any criticism of the Catholic Church. By the time I was ten, Father had pronounced the Church’s influence in Hollywood too powerful. He described to me how Church censors—those arbiters of movies, both acceptable and condemned—kept a cold and ferocious eye on the industry. The industry itself had its own nervous policing, he said, but the Catholic bishops were the toughest. When they condemned what they didn’t like, Hollywood sat up straight and paid attention.
“Yeah, we got away with too much in the thirties,” Father said when I asked him why. “Too much sex and skin—people got fed up.”
“Gabriel”—I remember that warning tone in my mother’s voice. I heard it more and more as I grew older—“she’s only a child.”
“She asked, I answered,” he said. “She’s a smart cookie.”
I treasured that response.
He loved expanding on the topic. Movies could be killed by a speech from the pulpit, he said. Studio heads weren’t worried about hell; they tossed and turned at night, worrying about box-office receipts. And it wasn’t just movies being condemned. As far as damnation was concerned, even Dante couldn’t do better than the emerging political vigilantes in Washington.
“Communist.” Father sounded out the syllables slowly. “Nail that label onto the forehead of some writer or actor, and you’ve killed a career. There are real bad guys in Washington feeding the paranoia—”
“Enough, Gabriel,” Mother objected again. She slapped a wet towel against the Formica counter—a sound sharp enough to silence even my father.
I think sometimes these days Kathleen gets bored when I rail on about how the shabby politics of Hollywood and Washington ruined lives, not to mention the Catholic Church’s condemnation of sinners for small infractions, especially for seeing forbidden movies. She would point out that I’ve always been madder at the moral contradictions that took over my world than anyone else she knows. “You want both parts of your life to work,” she said.
“Sometimes I just want to throw them both away.”
No need for dinner. I drank the last of my wine and slowly prepared for bed. So Saint Ann’s Academy, that graceful enclave of belief and trust gone sour, was soon to be torn down. Maybe I should show up, to mourn it somehow. I had told myself I would never set foot in Los Angeles again, but this invitation on my bedside table was drawing me in, whispering possibilities. Maybe I should do it. Maybe I could cut through the haze that had enveloped me for far too long.
I had a week of vacation coming to me, plus an extra weekend. I could use it all to make this trip.
I drifted off into restless sleep, listening to the rain on the windows, thinking of Kathleen’s words.
One last chance.
And the floodgates began to open.
Los Angeles, 1942
My cousin Jeremy once told me you have to choose your heroes by the time you’re ten years old. He, a decade older than I, liked to give me lessons about life, which I drank in. He had already read parts of Dante’s “Inferno” to me out loud. It was scary—evil popes burning in fire—but I was dazzled, particularly by the spooky illustrations. Jeremy never quite spelled out why I needed to choose a hero now, maybe because he clearly preferred instruction to illumination. But I must have sensed that the supply of heroes, like husbands, could thin out if I waited too long. So I obeyed. When you chose a hero, he told me, it was for life. No ifs, ands, or buts about it, you had to stay loyal. And when it came to loyalty, I looked to my father’s world.
Jeremy, a baseball lover, chose the Cardinals. I chose Ingrid Bergman.
She slipped into my heart very early, almost before I knew it. It was 1942, and I was still attending Sheldon Country Day School in Beverly Hills. My father was quite artful about making connections that advanced him in the movie business. Surely, that’s how I found myself in a Hollywood version of a ride-sharing plan—no mothers driving, just a hired chauffeur in a crisp, starchy uniform and hat—that included Pia Lindström, Ingrid Bergman’s little daughter.
I never really knew any of those girls who shared that morning ride. There were about eight of us, all ages; we just wiggled for space every morning, eating frosted doughnuts and scratching away at homework, as the driver made his way up to the winding paths of the super-grand homes where some of them lived. But I looked forward each day to the moment when we pulled up in front of 1220 Benedict Canyon Drive. This was Pia’s house.
The car would idle, the driver drumming his fingers on the wheel, until the front door of the house opened. Little Pia, about four years old, all tiny and crispy in her Peter Pan collar, would come rushing out. Her mother would walk her to the car, then wave and smile goodbye, looking sleepy in a blue chenille bathrobe that fluttered around her ankles. Her long hair usually looked like it needed a good brushing; she kept it tucked behind her ears.
I was already enough of a Hollywood kid to know how the light clicks on and off between glamour and ordinary life for actors. But Ingrid Bergman was so beautiful, so queenly—remote and real at the same time. I hadn’t seen Intermezzo, the movie that first made her famous, but my father raved about her.
“Oh my God,” he said to Mother one night, “this new beauty from Sweden can act. She is luminescent, almost ethereal. I guarantee, she’s going to be famous.”
“Just because she has a marvelous complexion?” Mother responded, with a slight edge.
“No, not just that.” Father wrapped his arms around her as she stood by the stove. “She wears flat shoes, too. And you know how I feel about flat shoes.”
Mother laughed. That was rare, and I felt warm inside.
Ingrid was tall, very tall; so was I, even in fourth grade. I’m not quite sure why I was so immediately enthralled, but I wasted no time trying to puzzle it out. She made me want to stand up straight, to be proud of my height instead of awkward. She had grace and a beautiful smile, and I wanted to be like her.
I’d peek at her through the car window, hoping she might cast a glance in my direction. No luck—until the morning we pulled to the curb and I dropped my lunch box just as one of the girls opened the door. Horrified, I watched as the box burst open, scattering my egg sandwich and chocolate pudding all over Ingrid Bergman’s velvet-smooth lawn.
I scrambled out of the car, acutely aware of the giggling behind me, and tried to clean up the mess before she came down the path with Pia. Suddenly I felt her long, graceful fingers gently pulling me up. “It’s all right, child,” she said, “the gardener will clean it up.” She put her hand to my forehead, and I smelled lilacs.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
I nodded, voiceless.
“Don’t be ashamed,” she said. “I once dropped an egg-salad sandwich on David Selznick’s lap, and he got over it.”
She hugged me and laughed, and I loved her forever.
Somehow Ingrid became the gentle, joking, loving mother I longed for. She floated through my days, punctually at seven-thirty every weekday morning, as much a part of my comforting routine as my bowl of steaming oatmeal at home.
The only flaw was, she wasn’t Catholic. She was Swedish, so she had to be Protestant; I knew that much. Still, I imagined her as someone like me in one way or another.
I knew being Catholic was what separated my family from the families of my friends at school, and my father from the studio mainstream. It wasn’t just that we still lived on the wrong side of Wilshire Boulevard; it was the fact that non-Catholics seemed awkward when the subject of religion came up. My father explained that some people thought we paid first allegiance to an Italian pope and wondered what went on in the confessional, and how we could believe in something called the Holy Trinity. I don’t think there were any other Catholics at Country Day, which seemed fine with my father. Religious mandates rested lightly on his shoulders, like feathers he could shrug off at will.
One day, Cousin Jeremy told us all on a visit from college that he didn’t believe in God anymore. And he certainly wasn’t about to drag himself out of bed at his dormitory on Sundays—after a hard week studying—just to go to Mass. My father didn’t seem upset; he actually chuckled that Jeremy was more likely to spend his time out partying, but standing on his own two feet was good for him. Mother was scandalized.
I was aware of her watching me much more closely afterward. And I heard my parents at night in bed talking in low tones. My name kept getting repeated, which put me on alert. My safe life had jiggled a bit at Mother’s reaction to Jeremy’s declaration of independence. It jiggled more the day my father asserted his.