She started to pull out a copy of
The Great Gatsby
, and her fingers depressed the sides. Fearing the pages inside had simply deteriorated, she opened it carefully. Inside, in a depression framed by the raw edges of cut pages, sat a stack of letters tied with a faded red ribbon.
“Trudy Hamilton,” Cilla read. “Oh my God.”
She sat with the open book on her lap, her palms together as if in prayer, and her fingertips pressed to her lips. Letters to her grandmother, sent to a name Janet hadn’t used since childhood.
The address on the top envelope was a post office box in Malibu. And the postmark . . .
Reverently, Cilla lifted the stack, angled it toward the light.
“Front Royal, Virginia, January 1972.” A year and a half before she died, Cilla thought.
Love letters. What else could they be, tied with a ribbon, hidden away? A secret of a woman who’d been allowed precious few under the microscope of fame, and surely concealed by her own hands before, like Gatsby, she died young, tragically.
Romanticizing it, Cilla told herself. They could be chatty letters from an old friend, a distant relative.
But they weren’t. She knew they weren’t. Laying them back in the book, she closed it and carried it downstairs.
She showered first, knowing she didn’t dare handle the treasure she’d unearthed until she’d scrubbed off the attic dirt.
Scrubbed, dressed in flannel pants and a sweatshirt, her wet hair pulled back, she poured a glass of Ford’s wine. Standing in the hard fluorescent light—and boy, did that have to go—she sipped the wine, stared at the book.
The letters were hers now, Cilla had no qualms about that. Oh, her mother would disagree—and loudly. She’d weep about her loss, her right to anything that had been Janet’s. Then she’d sell them, auction them off as she had so many of Janet’s possessions over the years.
For posterity, Dilly would claim. For the public who adored her. But that was so much crap, Cilla thought. It would be for the money, and for the reflected glow of fame, the spread in
with photos of Dilly holding the stack of letters, her eyes sheened with tears, with inserts of her and Janet.
But she’d believe her own spin, Cilla thought. That was one of Dilly’s finest skills, as innate as her ability to call up those tear-sheened eyes on cue.
What should be done with them? Should they be hidden away again, returned to sender? Framed like a signed record and hung in the parlor?
“Have to read them first.”
Cilla blew out a breath, set the wine aside, then dragged a stool to the counter. With great care, she untied the faded ribbon, then slipped the top letter out of its envelope. The paper whispered as she unfolded it. Dark, clear handwriting filled two pages.
My heart beats faster knowing I have the right to call you that. My darling. What have I done in my life to earn such A precious gift? Every night I dream of you, of the sound of your voice, the scent of your skin, the taste of your mouth. I tremble inside As I remember the sheer glory of making love to you.
And every morning I wake, afraid it’s All just A dream. Did I imagine it, how we sat by the fire on that cold, clear night, talking As we had never talked before?
Only friends, As I knew what I felt for you, what I wanted with you, could never be. How could such A woman ever want someone like me? Then, then, did it happen? Did you come into my Arms? Did your lips seek mine? Did we come together like madness while the fi re burned And the music played? Was that the dream, my darling? If it was, I want to live in dreams forever.
My body Aches for yours now that we Are so far from each other. I long for your voice, but not only on the radio or the record player. I long for your face, but not only in photographs or on the movie screen. It’s you I want, the you inside. The beautiful, passionate, real woman I held in my Arms that night, And the nights we were Able to steal After.
Come to me soon, my darling. Come back to me And to our secret world where only you And I exist.
I send you All my love, All my longing in this new year.
I Am now And forever,
Here? Cilla wondered, carefully folding the letter again. Had it been here in this house, in front of the fire? Had Janet found love and happiness in this house in the final eighteen months of her life? Or was it another fling, another of her brief encounters?
Cilla counted out the envelopes, noting they were all addressed the same way and by the same hand, though some of the postmarks varied. Forty-two letters, she thought, and the last postmarked only ten short days before Janet took her life in this house.
Fingers trembling a bit, she opened the last letter.
Only one page this time, she noted.
This stops now. The calls, the threats, the hysteria stop now. It’s over, Janet. The last time was a mistake, And will never be repeated. You must be mad, calling my home, speaking to my wife, but then I’ve seen the sickness in you time And time again. Understand me, I will not leave my wife, my family. I will not endanger All I’ve built, And my future, for you. You claim you love me, but what does A woman like you know About love? Your whole life is built on lies And illusions, And for A time I was seduced by them, by you. No longer.
If you are pregnant, As you claim, there’s no proof the responsibility is mine. Don’t threaten me again with exposure, or you will pay for it, I promise you.
Stay in Hollywood where your lies Are currency. They’re worth nothing here. You Are not wanted.
“Pregnant.” Cilla’s whispered word seemed to echo through the house.
Shaken, she pushed off the stool to open the back door, to stand and breathe and let the chilly air cool her face.CULVER CITY 1941
“To understand,” Janet told Cilla, “you have to start at the beginning. This is close enough.”
The hand holding Cilla’s was small and soft. Like all her dreams of Janet, the image began as an old photograph, faded and frayed, and slowly took on color and depth.
Two long braids lay over the shoulders of a gingham dress like ropes of sunlight on a meadow of fading flowers. Those brilliant, cold and clear blue eyes stared out at the world. The illusion of it.
All around Cilla and the child who would become her grandmother people bustled, on foot or in the open-sided jitneys that plowed along the wide avenue. Fifth Avenue, Cilla realized—or its movie counterpart.
Here was MGM at its zenith. More stars than the heavens could hold, and the child clutching her hand would be one of its brightest.
“I’m seven years old,” Janet told her. “I’ve been performing for three years now. Vaudeville first. I wanted to sing, to perform. I loved the applause. It’s like being hugged by a thousand arms. I dreamed of being a star,” she continued as she led Cilla along. “A movie star, with pretty dresses and the bright, bright lights. All the candy in the candy shop.”
Janet paused, spun into a complex and energetic tap routine, scuffed Mary Janes flying. “I can dance, too. I can learn a routine with one rehearsal. My voice is magic in my throat. I remember all my lines, but more, I can
. Do you know why?”
“Why?” she asked, though she knew the answer. She’d read the interviews, the books, the biographies. She knew the child.
“Because I believe it. Every time, I believe the story. I make it real for me so it’s real for all the people who come to watch me in the movie show. Didn’t you?”
“Sometimes I did. But that meant it hurt when it stopped.”
The child nodded, and an adult sorrow clouded her eyes. “It’s like dying when it stops, so you have to find things that make it bright again. But that’s for later. I don’t know that yet. Now, it’s all bright.” The child threw out her arms as if to embrace it. “I’m younger than Judy and Shirley, and the camera loves me almost as much as I love it. I’ll make four movies this year, but this one makes me a real star. ‘The Little Comet’ is what they’ll call me after
The Family O’Har
“You sang ‘I’ll Get By’ and made it a love song to your family. It became your signature song.”
“They’ll play it at my funeral. I don’t know that yet, either. This is Lot One. Brownstone Street.” Just a hint of priss entered her voice as she educated her granddaughter, and tugged her along with the small, soft hand. “The O’Haras live in New York, a down-on-their-luck theatrical troupe. They think it’s just another Depression-era movie, with music. Just another cog in the factory wheel. But it changes everything. They’ll be riding on the tail of the Little Comet for a long time.
“I’m already a drug addict, but that’s another thing I don’t know yet. I owe that to my mama.”
“Seconal and Benzedrine.” Cilla knew. “She gave them to you day and night.”
“A girl’s got to get a good night’s sleep and be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the morning.” Bitter, adult eyes stared out of the child’s pretty face. “She wanted to be a star, but she didn’t have it. I did, so she pushed, and she pushed, and she used me. She never hugged me, but the audience did. She changed my name, and pulled the strings. She signed me to a seven-year contract with Mr. Mayer, who changed my name
, and she took all the money. She gave me pills so I could make more. I hated her—not yet, but soon. Today, I don’t mind,” she said with a shrug that bounced her pig-tails. “Today I’m happy because I know what to do with the song. I always know what to do with a song.”
She gestured. “That’s the soundstage. That’s where the magic happens. Out here, we’re just ghosts, ghosts and dreams,” she continued as a jitney full of actors in evening dresses and tuxes passed right through them. “But in there, it’s real. While the camera’s on, it’s all there is.”
“It’s not real, Janet. It’s a job.”
The blue eyes filled with warmth. “Maybe for you, but for me, it was my true love, and my salvation.”
“It killed you.”
“It made me first. I wanted this. That’s what you have to understand to figure out the rest. I wanted this more than anything I wanted before, or anything I wanted ever again, until it was nearly over. Those few moments when I do the scene, sing the song, and even the director’s eyes blur with tears. When, after he yells ‘Cut,’ the crew, the cast all break into applause and I
their love for me. That’s all I wanted in the world, and what I’d try to find again and again and again. Sometimes I did. I was happy here, when I was seven especially.”
She sighed, smiled. “I would’ve lived here if they’d let me, wandering from New York to ancient Rome, from the old West to small-town USA. What could be a better playground for a child? This was home, more than I’d had. And I was pathetically grateful.”
“They used you up.”
“Not today, not today.” Frowning in annoyance, Janet waved the thought away. “Today everything’s perfect. I have everything I ever wanted today.”
“You bought the Little Farm, thousands of miles from here. A world away from this.”
“That was later, wasn’t it? And besides, I always came back. I needed this. I couldn’t live without love.”
“Is that why you killed yourself?”
“There are so many reasons for so many things. It’s hard to pick one. That’s what you want to do. That’s what you’ll need to do.”
“But if you were pregnant—”
“If, if, if.” Laughing, Janet danced over the sidewalk, up the steps of a dignified brownstone façade, then back down. “
is for tomorrow, for next year. People will play
about my whole life after I’m dead. I’ll be immortal, but I won’t be around to enjoy it.” She laughed again, then swung Gene Kelly style on a lamppost. “Except when you’re dreaming about me. Don’t stop, Cilla. You can bring me back just like the Little Farm. You’re the only one who can.”
She jumped off. “I have to go. It’s time for my scene. Time to make magic. It’s really the beginning for me.” She blew Cilla a kiss, then ran off down the sidewalk.
As the illusions of New York faded, as Cilla slowly surfaced from the dream, she heard Janet’s rich, heartbreaking voice soaring.
I’ll get by, As long As I have you.
But you didn’t, Cilla thought as she stared at the soft sunlight sliding through the windows. You didn’t get by.
Sighing, she crawled out of the sleeping bag and, scrubbing sleep from her face, walked to the window to stare out at the hills and mountains. And thought about a world, a life, three thousand miles west.
“If that was home, that was what you needed, why did you come all the way here to die?”
Was it for him? she wondered. Were you pregnant, and they covered that up? Or was that just a lie to stop your lover from ending your affair?
Who was he? Was he still alive, still in Virginia? And how did you keep the affair off the microscope slide? Why did you? was a keener question, Cilla decided.
Was he the reason you unplugged the phone that night, then chased the pills with vodka, the vodka with more pills until you went away? Not because of Johnnie then, Cilla mused. Not, as so many theorized, over the guilt and grief of losing your indulged eighteen-year-old son. Or not only because of that.
But a pregnancy so close to a death? Was that overwhelming or a beam of light in the dark?
It mattered, Cilla realized. All of it mattered, not only because Janet Hardy was her grandmother, but because she’d held the child’s hand in the dream. The lovely little girl on the towering edge of impossible stardom.
It mattered. Somehow she had to find the answers.
Even if her mother had been a reliable source of i nformation—which Cilla thought not—it was hours too early to call Dilly. In any case, within thirty minutes, subcontractors would begin to arrive. So she’d mull all this, let it turn around in her head while she worked.