Manhattan — 1935
They call me a mother, and for damn good reason. I’ve held scores of jazz babies in my hushing arms. I’ve held ex-jazz babies, too, who’ve turned into women who are searching still for their mothers, searching for The Mother in every man/woman they meet, who, I hope to God, always is me. I want to be the answer to their whispered little prayers. I want to be there giving them succor. Oh, God, God, I do want to give them succor. Little lovelies. Little lovers. So unashamed: me, them, and that one. That one! The one that drives me crazy-wild — sweet, wicked Cassie.
My fey friend Philip asked me why I even bothered with her. He was here tonight for gossip and drinks. “She likes men so much, forget it,” he said. To which I replied, “Bull,” really loud and mad, and then I begged, “Tell me more.” Which of course he proceeded to do since his avocation was knowing the sexual longings, doings, excesses, interests, and shadowboxing of everyone who was Anyone in our tiny universe. I listened so hard, I could feel my eyes bulge, my tongue swell, my body dilate, a sponge that it was, to take in every juicy innuendo, four-letter word, gesture, outrage, giggle.
“They say she’s getting married again,” he said.
Calmly, I said to mean, old Philip, “Don’t tell me any more of this,” once I was sure he told me everything. “I don’t want to hear it. I love her.” And he laughed because I acted the scene à la Duse, a patent-leather Camille. Past my prime? Hardly.
Alone again now, I decided to have one more drink before I climbed into bed to help me picture everything I’d just heard about Cassie, down to the minutest detail. This was why I was a great actress: All my life I had been able to use my imagination to create a scene — a place, a person or two or three, a situation, a time — and play it as one would on a stage. My imagination inspired me, my private world enthralled me, but no one knew, so who would understand? Suffice it to say, I sat here on my sofa, cradling my bourbon, deeply inhaling my cigarette, and I thought about the dirty little things Cassie had been doing since I’d seen her.
I’d always started with her mouth. I remembered kissing her. Remembered the very first kiss and how I’d thought that would be the time. But it wasn’t. The devil. She toyed with me. Lied, too; told me she never touched women. Which I knew for a fact that she did. Some of my best friends even. Which was what had always made me absolutely stark raving lunatic for her. She was involved with every other woman and her sister but me. I didn’t know why not. Was I not her type? Who wasn’t? The woman was notorious. Had I made my point? Why not me?
The news that she was getting married again made the whole crazy thing play itself out in my mind — that time at her marriage to Number One, the boy wonder Dickie, back in 1927, before the world went to hell. How bloody marvelous — Dickie. I’d almost choked when he told me she accepted his proposal. That’s right. Dickie’s the one who told me, in my dressing room. He visited me that night at the theater with his daddy, Mr. Matinee Idol, and told me his marvelous, mucky piece of news. And in a flash, little sweet, charming Dickie became a lecher before my eyes. Not that I hadn’t given him a thought or two myself, with his lean, golden body and not a hair on his face. But Cassie and him? I couldn’t believe it. Thank God I’m a great actress or I wouldn’t have been able to cover nasty surprises like that. The very girl I’d been chasing all over town, and little Dickie got her. What would they think of next?
More to the point, I wondered, what was Cassie up to? Smart girl. Ambitious. Hooked the young heir apparent. Bet she was banging the old man. But she may have been too shrewd for that. (A vivid imagination can be very murky, you know; I never said it solves anything.) I saved the show in front of Dickie, though, and didn’t let on to him my utter horror of the whole affair. I even had the brilliant idea of hosting the wedding reception myself and told him then and there how much I would love to do it for him “and dear Cassie.” Eating my heart out, of course.
Now, some people would say, are you crazy? As a fox. My daddy used to say, “If you can’t whip ’em, invite ’em to dinner.”
The little bugger got really excited. “Oh, would you?” Dickie said. “It would be so grand.” His perfect smile was full of love and admiration. I could have kissed him for taking my bait. “Cassie’s so unsure of herself in all this, about Father, I mean. You know how demanding he can be. She doesn’t want to do the wrong thing.”
Oh no, I thought. Only steal the baby and the silver spoon.
“I know you’re thinking Cassie’s fast,” Dickie said.
I looked shocked at his accusation.
“Everyone does. But she’s not. She has such a soul. She’ll be so thrilled. She thinks the world of you, did you know? Isn’t she delicious?”
“Mmm, yummy,” I said.
So, I gave the damn wedding reception, and it was fabulous, too, because I made sure it was. People don’t soon forget my parties. This one was another opportunity for me to act the fool.
That day Cassie was purity itself, with a vengeance. She wore the smartest dress, a silvery-white, with silver stockings and shoes, all of a piece. She wore a thin diamond necklace that sparkled at her every move. Her auburn hair, always a bit unruly, was like a torch. People’s heads turned as she came to me, smiling so broadly, and hugged me (but too briefly) to thank me for the party, and I ached. I gave her my drink, which she drained instantly, thirsty girl. So, I ventured to grasp her and kiss her. Oh, I was the very Puritan about it. But my hands pressed hard on her arms as I did it, to give her fair warning. She was shunted away by the others, including that moron Gabby, who I know had done something with her.
I could feel the hostess’s smile freeze on my face as she dissolved into the crowd. I reached for another in a long string of lethal drinks I’d had that day. Damn her big, sad eyes. I was waxing Shakespearean. I excused myself and practically ran upstairs to my always-very-private bedroom and started crying. But not before I’d taken something to help me make it through the night. I realized it was a mistake having the party for the two lovebirds, but I’d live through it and I hoped it would pay off. Please, just one kind word, your majesty, I’d coo to Cassie.
Soon, I heard a great commotion. The celebrating had begun. The music, which was loud, became incredibly loud. I heard and felt the whole place rattling. I thought it was some kind of explosion or that I’d overdosed and was delirious. More likely the latter. I hurried from my bedroom to the top of the stairway.
It was Cassie. Of course. In the center of the group, sitting on the baby grand. She was down to her satin chemise, but she might as well have been naked. I heard my voice suddenly break through. “Ah, so the bride is prepared to meet her lover,” I said. “But which one?” And I bent down as if to touch my toes, but instead, I lifted the hem of my dress up, up, and over my head and stood there — truly naked, for I wore no chemise, no panties, no nothing — and in a ringing voice you could have heard in Pittsburgh, said, “Cassie, my dear, come to my boudoir for a little girl talk, won’t you?” Oh, there was great hilarity. Cassie looked about and seeing everyone laugh and urge her on, especially dear little Dickie, she ascended the stairs and followed me to my bedroom.
I had startled even myself by my bravado. There I stood with her — HER — and I was naked as a morning in the country. We were alone in the room, the door locked. It was now or never. But she was laughing.
“Do you know,” I started, “that I am very wet between my legs?”
She was shocked. Good, I thought. At least, she hadn’t got life all figured out and wrapped up with a bow. I thought I saw her back away ever so slightly.
I didn’t want to scare her. So, I laughed a very broad laugh. That seemed to comfort her because she grinned again. “You are quite outré, Miss Merrill.” Oh, God. I hate it when these girls talk French and call me Miss.
I murmured an obscenity, making sure she didn’t hear it, and I put my arms around her, drawing her close to me. She was still laughing, sort of giddy by now with all the booze and attention and, I’m sure, my own personal powers of attraction. I’m a magnet, need I remind you?
She let me kiss her. Her mouth was warm and welcoming. We kissed forever.
I felt like I was dreaming. I may well have been because they told me later that I passed out.
Philip had a good time with that one. Cassie ran off to get him to help bring me round. The next thing I knew, I was staring into Philip’s eyes (now that was a strange turn of events), and he was saying, “My dear, how do you put it? You were bloody marvelous.”
“Sit on it,” I said.
He laughed. Everyone was laughing afterward, except for me and Cassie. We knew it was no laughing matter. Was it ever to be? I wondered.
So, that was what happened the night Cassie was legally, bountifully, gloriously married to little Dickie. They made the front page. They went to Hollywood. They decorated each other’s lives. They loved each other and all that, for a while. And they came to pieces, bit by adulterous bit. They proceeded to plow other rows.
The next time I saw her was at the racetrack on the arm of a playwright with more money than talent. I hadn’t seen her for years. I’d been hard at work in New York and she’d been in Hollywood. Anyway, there she was, turning many heads. There was always a commotion when she appeared anywhere. I’d never quite understood it. There was a commotion with me, too, but that was because I was making it. At the track with Cassie, all she had to do was walk in, or out, as the case may be, and there was a sudden crowd, flashbulbs, horns blowing, glasses clinking, whatever it takes. And men, of course, four deep. And little old me.
She had grown up, and how. She exuded sex. I could almost taste it. The same old need grabbed me in my gut. But now, seeing the very womanly woman she’d become, I felt a new sensation — a weakness in the knees. I watched as she slowly approached me. She was being stopped by people along the way and she’d smile, shake hands. Such a forthright girl. Her boyfriend, the Rich Red Writer, was beside her all the way. He’d move chairs out of her way, or carry her things, or get her drinks. Mostly, he looked at her adoringly. I had the two of them figured out. He taught her everything he knew, and she returned the favor. I felt sorry for him in a way. He’d never be the same.
She finally came toward me, leaving him behind. We were like dancing partners approaching each other. Everyone was watching. For a moment, I thought that she didn’t even see me and might walk right through me.
I drew myself up and said her name, low.
She walked up to me, six inches from my face. She said my name and kissed my cheek. She’d learned how to be casual.
“I have to talk to you,” was all I said. Then, “Come with me. Out to my car.”
She glanced from side to side, hesitated, and said, “The others, what would they think?”
“Never mind,” I said, smiling like a trouper, pure bluff. “They won’t miss us.” And she smiled, too. It was no big thing. Just two old girlfriends going somewhere quiet for a chat.
My heart pounded but she was cool as, well, you know. I put my arm through hers like old friends, and we could have been sisters, a matched set, being the same size as we were, only she was dark from the sun while I was very white from none. She murmured something I didn’t hear so I let it pass. It didn’t matter anyway.
“We have some unfinished business to discuss,” I said, pointing to my limousine, which we’d finally found. Now she was silent. Her face had become a stone, albeit a beautiful one. What goes on in there behind that face? I wondered. Is she as soulful and tormented as I think she is? Damn her. What does she hold inside there? Whatever it is, it made her fame and fortune.
I helped her into the car’s wide back seat. This is why they make limousines, I’m convinced. For trysts. Only this tryst was not exactly planned. Never mind. It was the perfect setting.
I’d barely locked my door when she climbed onto me, crushing me, the scent of flower petals, lovely bruise-like roses. She was a panther in the garden, unexpected, beautiful, fierce. She fumbled with my dress and with me. She was way ahead of me, to my delight.
“You can find it,” I whispered to her. And she did, as she kissed me so sweetly I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. How nice, I thought. She kisses, too.
So, Cassie took everything I had that time in the back seat of my car. I didn’t even have a chance to really say hello.
It was over in a rush, much as it had started. I found myself half on, half off the seat, one leg cocked, the other dangling to the floorboard. My dress was rolled up around my waist. I saw my makeup (and hers) smeared all over my bodice. I was definitely disheveled. She was barely ruffled. As I lay back in — yes — a swoon, she was whipping out her compact mirror and lipstick, fixing her face, adoring it almost as much as I was. I always have to remind my young friends about how beautiful everyone was, how god-like, how impossible to resist. It was easier for Leda to say no to her Swan than for us to resist these heavenly creatures. So, through my half-open eyelids, I watched with fascination as Cassie checked every square inch of her face and adjusted her dress and hosiery. She finished, the picture of her famous self ready to face the grandstand, and offered me her mirror and tools.
“Oh, no,” I said rather too weakly. “I have everything I need in here.”
And at that, she touched my mouth with her forefinger and whispered, “Later.” She faked a brilliant smile and abruptly turned away.
I knew that gesture. It wasn’t a comma — it was a period. “Yes,” I said, drawing myself up, faking nonchalance. “See you later.” It would not be later. It would be another lifetime.
She abruptly left the car, as if nothing had happened. I gained a sudden new respect for her acting abilities. I slid back as if I’d been slugged by a prizefighter, square on the jaw. Sure of herself, wasn’t she? I thought, blinking back my unwelcome tears as I strained to see her walk back to the crowd and her suave, clueless playwright.
Was this all I meant to her? A dare?
And so, life went on: the shows, the glowing faces, the mornings after.
I don’t get out much anymore, except for work, of course. I avoid the track like the plague. If I see anyone, it’s Philip, for laughs and libations. I sit with my bourbon and thoughts, memorize my lines, and tonight I raise a glass to Cassie and I wonder: Who and what is she craving behind those hungry, soulless eyes?
I know what you’re thinking, that I’ve gone over the edge, that the great Miss Merrill is ready for the loony bin, deranged by booze and fairy dust and all the rest. That I’m forever lost because I cannot have the girl I’m so mad about. But don’t be fooled. I’m still the best actress in town, and there’s many a show ahead of me. I’m working on one now. And somewhere there’s another Cassie to fish from the deep blue sea.
Photo by Iulia from Adobe Stock