There’s a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame with your name on it. It sits across the street from the Museum of Death. The front gates of the Museum of Death are covered with skulls and roses. Inside: baby coffins, animal taxidermy, John Wayne Gacy’s clown paintings, a quilt hand-sewn by the Manson family, Henri Landru’s head (the Bluebeard of Paris, he put lonely-heart ads in the paper, killed ten women who answered them). One of the original suicide machines built by Jack Kevorkian is there, along with a recreation of the Heaven’s Gate mass-suicide sight. The owners of the Museum of Death tried to procure a real electric chair, but the state of California turned them down. Once a year, they hold a Black Dahlia look-alike competition—living or post-mortem, participant’s choice.
In the 1970s, before it was the Museum of Death, musicians played there, microphones capturing sound as it traveled through the room, turning it into electrical energy (because Leon Scott decided to invent the phonautograph, patented in 1857, which used a vibrating diaphragm and stylus to graphically record sound waves on sheets of paper. 151 years later, phonautograms of singing and speech were converted into audible sound and played back for the first time. No one could understand what they were saying, but they heard).
You weren’t here for any of that. At 21, in the year 1927, the motion picture industry gave you an award. It was for girls on the threshold of film stardom. And you were thin and pale, as if normally kept in a box underground. When you were a child, you sang and danced with your matinee idol father, Maurice. He called you the second prettiest girl in the world. The first was your sister, Dolores, so blonde it showed even in black and white, but your dark hair fell like a shadow behind hers, and, for awhile, there was nowhere she was that you were not.
It wouldn’t last. But you didn’t know that. Not when Warner Bros. gave you a contract, for $3,000 a week. Not when newspapers proclaimed you the prettiest girl in the world (and Clara Bow, and Jobyna Ralston and Jane Winton). Not when Douglas Fairbanks Jr. asked you to marry him (engaged three months to the day). Not when Lights of New York, the first all-talking feature, put your name on the poster, alongside a sketch of your thin, pale face (it looked nothing like you, your name was too small to read). You didn’t know it wouldn’t last, but there were signs everywhere. And then, you did.
One day, as if by some terrible magic, everything changed. In 1928, Warner Bros. released you from your contract, because you refused to star alongside a dog, Rin Tin Tin. Your sister married John Barrymore (six years). You did not marry Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (high school sweetheart instead, divorced four months later). The newspapers proclaimed Dolores the ‘Goddess of the Silver Screen’; you played a girl named Trixie in The Circus Kid, billed below a horse and his touring family circus. You weren’t sure what happened and how it happened without you noticing, when, just a moment before, you lived in rooms filled with drinks and lights and all the glittering things. And then you didn’t.
It was your voice, of course. Faulty somehow. Maybe your diaphragm, or your rib cage, lungs, larynx, or your throat, your nose, your mouth. Something malfunctioned, or never functioned in the first place. Maybe everything about you worked in tandem, the worst kind of sabotage, vocal chords vibrating just out of sync, too many times a second, leaving your pitch unpleasant, shrill. Unrecordable, the producers said. And yet, all the parties, all the late nights before the terrible magic, no one said a word. Looking into your face as if you were the most lovely thing, no one said a word about your voice. If you had been born a decade earlier, you might never have known. If talkies hadn’t come, if people had just been happy watching faces, you might’ve been happy too (because your face was something to see). If Leon Scott and his phonautograph hadn’t inspired Thomas Edison’s phonograph, which inspired Emile Berliner’s Gramophone and on and on—if everything had just been left well enough you might’ve been okay.
You didn’t work for years, but you managed to marry (four times). The last one gave you a daughter, Diedre, the only thing you thought worth having. The year she was born you appeared in your final film (you didn’t know it then) a bit part in Black Swan. The calls stopped and that was it. Hollywood moved on to younger girls with light as air voices, light as air figures, light as air morals (there were some things you wouldn’t do). But somewhere, in that secret place under your heart where all the bad things lived, you knew it was because you couldn’t stop drinking, like your father, because you couldn’t stop shoving a needle in your arm, like your mother, because you couldn’t stop the lines at your mouth, under your eyes (like your father and mother) because you were willing to do anything, but no one wanted you to. Because maybe you were never that good. Because your father got you into your first picture. Because your sister let you trail along in her wake. Because maybe it wasn’t your voice. Because maybe your face was all you had and even that wasn’t enough. And so you drink and shoot up and stare at yourself in the mirror and stare at the silent phone and do it all over again the next day (a ritual you can’t see the beginning of and it will never end until you do). And so your husband (lucky no. 4) leaves you and you file for divorce and he files for custody and in all this, there is one day, one day, you remember, wholly and completely.
It’s just before Diedre’s taken away forever (you didn’t know it then). You take her hand, always sober beside her, usher her into a darkening theater holding a special showing of your last movie—though not because you were in it. A title card, The Black Swan, lights up the screen and you watch Tyrone Power swashbuckle his way across a blue, blue ocean.
Is that you, Mommy? a little hand points.
You’re tempted to say yes, but Maureen O’Hara’s red hair is shining and she’s young and beautiful, gliding across the pirate ship, all primary colors. Diedre’d never believe you. No, (pause) but I was the lead once. I was in almost every scene.
What was it about?
A girl. She falls in love. It lasts for a little while (pause) then it doesn’t.
That’s a lot.
And you never see her again.
A few more years pass and you’re alone with your glass and your needle and pictures (Diedre) and you hurt everywhere. You run your fingers up and down your throat (the one that betrayed you) and find you can’t speak above a whisper (if only). You call your sister, Dolores, and sigh into the telephone. The next day you are in Patton State Hospital under an assumed name, as if anyone remembers yours, for treatment of drug and alcohol addiction.
The doctor leaves after telling you things you will never remember (will never have to) and it’s just you and Dolores. She smiles and it is sad. She looks at your arms, the bend of your elbow, purple with bruises where the needle shot through, just yesterday. She looks at the red sparked veins in your cheeks, the puffy folds under your eyes (your face was something to see). She looks at the door and you look at her, knowing she wants to. No, you say, reflexively holding out a hand (if you think hard enough you can freeze her with your mind). I’ll come back, she says, quick, her own reflex, a doctor tapping your knee, leg kicking like those girls at Radio City, and that’s what it feels like, like you’ve been kicked. I’ll come back, your sister repeats. But she won’t. You know it. She won’t, and you don’t think it’ll be okay. It’s just you and your heart, tick, tick, ticking, waiting to go off. It’s always let you down, (and does again, 30 minutes later, finally and forever).
Your sister comes back, because she is your sister and will be one of twelve who attend your funeral. She comes back and calls the nurse and 48 hours after you’re brought in they wheel you out. The papers call it pneumonia (they have to call it something) put your death notice next to an advertisement for an RCA Whirlpool Automatic Washer (90 bucks, on sale) get your age wrong, adding three years to an even 50. Four divorces, One child. So many numbers. It adds up to not much.
Just because you couldn’t sing. Just because you refused to share billing with a dog. Just because you married the wrong man (men). Millions of people fall down, stacked in a tower of arms and legs and hearts. It sways in the wind with a beating middle and you’re no better or worse than any of them. The only thing you really wish—if your daughter, Diedre could have seen you at 21, young and thin and pale, as if normally kept in a box underground. Not a star, not just yet, but flashing, on the way, a whole sky ahead. (If you had known, would you have done it any differently? Liars say no, but —Yes. Yes. In your unrecordable voice. Yes.)
There’s a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame with your name on it. It sits across the street from the Museum of Death. And maybe once, just once, your daughter’s shoes stopped before it, looked down, and remembered there was a girl who fell in love (with her). She lasted for a little while and then she didn’t. It was a lot.
Kate LaDew is a graduate from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a BA in Studio Art.She lives in Graham, NC with her cats, Charlie Chaplin and Janis Joplin.