JUNE 27, 2013
Image left: Jerry Bruckheimer, John Kaye, & Art Linson, on the set of Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins.
This is the fourth installment of John Kaye’s ongoing memoir project; click on the images in the right column for the others.
IN THE SPRING OF 1972, when my wife, who had been immoderate in all things and sometimes capable of wreaking violence on herself and those around her, was involuntarily committed to Camarillo State Hospital, I was living with my four-year-old son in a tiny studio apartment on Easterly Terrace in Silver Lake. For the past few months, while I was sliding downward toward destitution, I’d been writing a weekly column for The Staff, an underground newspaper that was a short-lived offshoot of The Los Angeles Free Press. I was also writing original screenplays — I’d recently completed my fourth — and even with concrete evidence to the contrary, illustrated by the accumulated rejections I’d received from agents and producers (both big and small), which I always took personally, I never stopped believing that I would eventually make a sale.
A random day in that spring of 1972 usually went something like this:
— Jesse coming awake in his sleeping bag, and, after a quick trip to the bathroom, switching on the small black-and-white television that was balanced on a low table made of books and a plank of wood.
— The flare of sound from what I recognize as the theme to Sesame Street snaps my eyes open. Usually hung-over, and with the taste of wine and pizza still in my mouth, I would dress quickly and throw together Jesse’s not-so-healthy lunch from items purchased the night before at 7-Eleven: a banana, a bag of potato chips, a pre-made sandwich, and a package of cookies.
— For breakfast we would drive to a coffee shop on the corner of Fountain and Sunset. The name now escapes me, but there was a rack on the corner that sold copies of Daily Variety, which I would peruse closely, feeling a swarm of envy as I slowly turned the pages with a kind of masochistic satisfaction. Reading about the rich and celebrated, the studio heads and movie stars, and especially about screenwriters who, unlike me, had mastered the craft and whose glories I craved with a single-mined lust, I could only howl silently while Jesse ate his pancakes and peppered me with questions for which I had no satisfactory answers:
When is mom coming home? I don’t know, Jesse.
When she comes home will you move back to our house? I don’t think so?
Why not? Because it’s better sometimes if a mother and father don’t live together.
Why? It just is.
Why? Finish your breakfast.
— The morning goes on. It’s now around 8:30 am, and from the coffee shop on Fountain we would drive west on Sunset all the way through Hollywood and Beverly Hills, turn left on Beverly Glen, and then, after a few miles, turn right on Pico until we reached Overland Boulevard. On the southwest corner stood the Goldenberg Nursery School, where Jesse, safe from the inequities and pain of the outside world, would spend the next seven hours.
— A quick kiss goodbye and a wave to his teacher, an attractive former actress who is standing by the curb, waiting for the late arrivals with a welcoming smile, and I would head back my apartment in Silver Lake, the same route in reverse. I would arrive home around ten, take three aspirin, and spend the next five hours resolutely focused on Mister Plastic Fantastic, the screenplay I was trying to write.
Set in San Francisco, the story revolved around a street mime turned credit card counterfeiter, who, after hooking up with a Berkeley coed moonlighting as a stripper, mistakenly becomes the target of a mob hit. I’d only finished half of a first act, but in reading it over I knew I wasn’t working with the confidence and ingenuity — not to mention the inner stability — required to produce work where the human collisions were both funny and moving. I’d turned away from something in myself and no longer believed in my characters, who now seemed tritely manufactured and lay dead on the page.
I put the script aside, and for the next few weeks I fell into a deep depression, while a sadness, menacing and dark, coursed through my body like a slow spreading virus, exacerbating my feelings of failure and inconsequentiality.
And then, on one ugly overcast morning in the beginning of June, everything changed.
Driving home from the Goldenberg School, where once again Jesse rushed inside late, I pulled up to a red light on the corner of the Sunset and Crescent Heights. Distracted by the radio and my inner musings, I didn’t notice the hippie girl with the expressionless eyes and unbrushed hair who had stepped off the curb and was now knocking on my passenger side window. She was wearing a white peasant dress and wire-rimmed glasses, and when she finally got my attention (by leaning over a little, so I could examine her cleavage) I asked her where she was going.
“I’m not going that far.”
“Then take us as far as you’re going,” she said.
Us? That’s when the light turned green and I saw her motion to another, older girl with a sunburned face who was sitting on the bus bench, cradling an infant. Hearing her name called, she stubbed out the cigarette she was smoking, and, before I could decide what to do — by now the cars behind me were honking loudly — my door swung open and they both hopped into the front seat. Pulling away, I felt angry and impinged upon, my day thrown into uncertainty. Breakfast, preschool, home to write, or at least try to write: That was a schedule I adhered to as a debt of honor, one I would never allow to be compromised, especially by a couple of casually selfish teenyboppers.
Without asking my permission, the girl sitting beside me in the peasant dress reached for the radio, changed the dial from AM to FM, and fumbled around until she found a rock station in the high numbers at the end of the dial. The girl next to her — the mother holding the baby — giggled, and for some reason that mindless giggle, more than having my car invaded and my radio hijacked, detonated my indignation and anger.
I said, “What’s so fucking funny?”
The girl with the baby muttered something I didn’t understand, and when I said “What?” the girl next to me, the more aggressive of the pair, said, “She doesn’t want you to swear around her baby.” That’s when I turned my head and saw what I had earlier overlooked: Each of them had the letter X carved into the center of their foreheads.
Although the Manson trial had ended and Charlie was now safely incarcerated in Folsom prison, one of the earliest and most loyal members of his family, Bruce Davis, had been recently convicted of two additional murders — musician Gary Hinman and Spahn Ranch caretaker Donald “Shorty” Shea — that Charlie had ordered. Davis had been housed in the Los Angeles County Jail waiting to be sentenced, which, serendipitously, came on the day I picked up these two unsavory and unpredictable hitchhikers.
“We’re going down to the courthouse to say goodbye,” said the girl next to me, while her girlfriend added, beaming brightly, “I want Bruce to see my baby. Her name’s Rainbow.”
“Isn’t that a pretty name?” the girl next to me said, shifting her leg so her knee was touching mine. “Charlie gave it to her.”
“Is it Charlie’s baby?”
“It’s everyone’s baby,” Rainbow’s mother said. “Charlie said we’re all Goddesses of Childbirth, and our babies are made to be shared.”
The Charles Manson guide to childrearing: What utter bullshit! Naturally, I wanted to dump this loathsome duo as soon as I could, but, looking back, I realize what bothered me most was not their gullibility or stupidity. In 1972, the streets of Los Angeles were overflowing with grinning, clueless hippies spouting all sorts of ludicrous nonsense. No, it was the diabolical joy these two creatures seemed to derive from knowing that, just by showing the X on their faces, they could instill the cold finger of fear into anyone they encountered, including me.
A few moments later, when I reached the intersection of La Brea and Sunset, I told them the ride was over. “You have to get out. I need to run an errand.”
They were quiet for a moment, mulling their options, but they didn’t argue or seem at all surprised. They knew I was lying, of course, and in both their outwardly serene faces I detected a kind of concealed rage, a sleeping malice that made me flinch. Back on the sidewalk they flashed me the peace sign, told me to “have a nice day,” and I drove off feeling as though I had avoided something dangerous.
What followed is burned into my memory. First I felt a sense of exhilaration that was mingled with relief. Then, as I continued along Sunset and through the center of Hollywood, I could feel my imagination taking over. By the time I was home, a story had come alive in my mind; a story about someone not unlike myself, a guy whose life has reached a dead end, who is kidnapped at gunpoint by two hippies he befriends in Griffith Park on his lunch break from his job at the DMV. The succession of events that followed — his escape, his return, and then the relationships, both humorous and heartbreaking, that develop between this odd threesome and the subsidiary characters they encounter — seemed to develop magically in a many-colored mosaic, the details of the individual scenes instantly accessible and strikingly clear. In an hour, feverish with excitement, I had the story outlined and broken down into acts on three pages of yellow legal-sized paper. Fuck Mister Plastic Fantastic! This is what I wanted to write next.
Then, while I was making coffee and trying not to allow the flame of creativity to dim, the phone rang. It was Michael Gruskoff, a producer whose name I recognized but with whom I’d never spoken. He said that he’d read Cherry Terry the Rockin’ Robin, a screenplay I’d written about a mysterious, and quite possibly deranged, rock and roll disc jockey who resurfaces in Los Angeles during the summer of 1969 — the summer of the Manson killings — after being off the air for eight years. The script, which was several months old, had been sent to Gruskoff by Art Linson, an old college friend who was now working as a gopher for music mogul Lou Adler.
Gruskoff said, “I liked the script, especially the dialogue. Probably the most original thing I’ve read in a while. But I’m not sure I want to take it on. Got anything else?” Trying to play it cool, I told him I was working on a couple of things but nothing I was ready to show anyone. After a short pause, in which I could hear him breathing quietly, thinking, he said, “Why don’t we meet? I’ll put my secretary on and she’ll set up a time.”
After I hung up, I called Art. I told him I was meeting with Gruskoff the following morning. “He seems like a cool guy.”
Art said, “He used to be a big-time agent at CMA. He’s tight with talent. And he just got through producing a sci-fi film at Universal that’s got some good buzz.”
“I’ll let you know how it goes.”
Gruskoff’s office was in a bungalow on the Universal lot, and there was a parking pass waiting for me at the gate. Cruising slowly past the sound stages, where crew members on a break stood outside in groups, smoking and sharing gossip, I remember seeing a pretty blond step out of a sleek red Porsche that was driven by an older man wearing wraparound sunglasses and leather driving gloves. I also remember hearing a woman’s wild laughter as my beat-up Malibu was overtaken in that narrow street by an enormous black limousine. The rear window was down, and the woman’s face as she zipped by was instantly recognizable. It was Natalie Wood.
Inside Gruskoff’s outer office, his secretary offered me a cup of coffee and told me, with a kind of mock weariness, “Mike is running a little late, but I’ll let him know you’re here.” I was painfully ill at ease, and, in the 20 minutes I was kept waiting, my anxiety level skyrocketed. The endlessly ringing phone and the clack of the typewriter was bad enough, but the coffee made it even worse. After two sips I could feel my heart pounding, and my fingers trembled as I turned the pages of Daily Variety.
When Gruskoff finally appeared in the doorway of his office and motioned me inside with a broad, ingratiating smile, I noticed that he was in his late-30s, with brown curly hair and a handsome face that was both taut and deeply tanned. He was dressed like an urban cowpoke, in faded blue bell-bottom jeans, cowboy boots, and a blue denim shirt with red piping and pearl snaps instead of buttons. Unmistakably a shrewd operator, he greeted me with a firm handshake and a watchful congeniality.
Speaking in a voice that was both confident and frank, he told me that he’d started in the business in New York City, in the mailroom at William Morris, but after a year migrated to Los Angeles, where he began to climb the ranks at CMA. By the time he left the agency to become a producer, he was representing many top-flight actors and directors, including Robert Redford and Sydney Pollack.
“I set up They Shoot Horses Don’t They,” he said, and, to cement his counter-cultural credentials, he also told me that he’d been the executive producer on Dennis Hopper’s follow-up to Easy Rider, the drug-saturated fiasco, The Last Movie. “I’m doing my next film with Mel Brooks. It’s called Young Frankenstein. Mel’s a close friend.”
I didn’t get the feeling he was trying to impress me. He didn’t need to. His credits were legit, and he could tell by our brief phone conversation how excited I was to meet. I don’t know how it came up, but when I mentioned that my wife, Harriet, was in Camarillo, and that I had temporary custody of my son, he looked at me with his eyes filled with empathy. He said that his own wife, Aloma, a former model whom he’d met and married in New York, “had done a stretch in the looney bin.” The problem, he said, was booze and pills.
“I just smoke weed,” Gruskoff said. “I’ll do a little coke if it’s around, but I don’t buy it.” We talked a little more about our wives before he suddenly slapped his hand down hard on the desk. “Enough with this bullshit,” he said. “Let’s get down to business. Tell me about this new script.”
I told him the story exactly as I had rehearsed it the night before, from the idea’s inception when I picked up the Manson girls hitchhiking on the Sunset Strip, until I arrived back at my apartment with a fully developed plot inside my head.
“It’s good,” Gruskoff said, nodding. “What’s your main character’s name again?”
“Gunny Rafferty. He was a gunnery sergeant in the marines.”
“I love Warren Oates.”
“He’s another good friend,” Gruskoff said, leaning back in his chair, thinking. “But he may not want to do another road movie after Two Lane Blacktop. Nicholson maybe. Frisbee’s going to be the hard one to cast. What about the older chick? Who did you have in mind?” I said I was thinking about Tuesday Weld. “Top notch actress. But she can be pain in the ass. Without seeing pages, Jane Fonda would be my first choice.” After a short pause, he swung his chair around and looked at me intently. “You got a title?”
“Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins.”
While Gruskoff closed his eyes and repeated the title a few times, I stared through the window at some extras walking by in the street, on their way to the commissary, and for a brief moment, everything — this office, the man in front of me, the conversation about casting — seemed made up, unreal. To have my fantasy of success actually become a possibility was not something I could easily take in. I was used to severe disappointments, not lucky breaks.
“Yeah, I can see that on the marquee,” Gruskoff said, opening his eyes, and when he spoke again his voice changed, becoming briskly matter-of-fact. “Okay, let’s get down to business. I’m in. Here’s what I’m prepared to do. You get $2,500 to start and another $2,500 when you turn in the first draft. If the script’s any good, which I’m betting on, and the movie gets made, you’ll get a $20,000 bonus. As soon as you tell me we have a deal, I’ll call Linson. If he chips in half, he can be my partner.”
Let me say here that, in the excitement of the moment, a moment that seemed (on reflection) to be adroitly managed, it never crossed my mind to ask for time to think over this proposal. Given my lack of credits, Gruskoff’s offer seemed extraordinarily generous and almost impossible to comprehend. To put it plainly, I was awed by my good fortune. It was only later — much later — when I had some lingering doubts and began to wonder if I’d been treated fairly.
I said, “We’ve got a deal.”
“You sure? You sound a little shaky.”
“I guess I’m kind of overwhelmed.”
Gruskoff smiled. “Hey pal, it’s not like I’m taking a flyer. You’re a terrific writer. Now go home and prove it to me.”
Gruskoff buzzed his secretary and, a moment later, when she arrived in the doorway of his office, he said, “Stamp John’s parking pass and then get Art Linson on the phone.” We stood up at the same time, shook hands, he told me I would receive a check by messenger that afternoon, and the meeting was over.
What I remember most about the next 12 weeks was how magnificently absorbed I was in my script. Each morning, after dropping off my son, my unconscious was waiting for me in that tiny apartment, instantly available. Writing became a relief, an unburdening. There were no hesitations or doubts, just a steady progression of scenes that were written (by hand on yellow legal-sized paper) with a hallucinatory intensity. Not until I wrote the final draft of my first novel, can I remember a time when I was so focused, felt so creative, so in the flow.
When the script was finished, I spent a week of furious editing, refining the dialogue and paying special attention to the story’s emotional logic, which I knew could seem rather tenuous. The next step was to have it typed. The woman I used, the same woman who typed the short personal essays I wrote for The Staff, worked out of a small studio apartment attached to a Craftsman-style house on Bronson Avenue. Her name was Barbara Cedar, and a few years later she launched Barbara’s Place, the premier script-typing service in Los Angeles.
The day I came to pick up my script — I told her to make three copies — they were collated and sitting on a table by her desk. On top was her bill. She was typing away on another job while I wrote out a check, so I had to wait a few minutes, standing awkwardly in the center of the room, before I could gain her full attention. When I did, she spoke first, answering the question she knew I was about to ask.
She said, “I’m no expert, but I think you’ve done a wonderful job. And I’m glad you ended the story on a light note. I was worried sick that something terrible might happen to that little scamp, Frisbee.” I asked her if she was ever bored. “No. And to be frank, it’s a unique experience to read along and be engrossed as I type. Most of the time I pay no attention at all. But, like I said, I’m no expert.”
I had to tamp down the wonderful wave of optimism that filled by chest as I rushed back to my apartment and called Gruskoff and Linson. They both sent messengers to pick up copies of the script, but when Art told me, in a voice that was unexpectedly nonchalant, that he would read it over the weekend, I was not pleased.
I said, “I thought you would read it right away.”
“I’ll get to it as quick as I can. What did Mike say?”
“He was in a meeting. I spoke to his secretary,” I said. Then I told Art that my typist liked the script. “She said she was never bored.”
“That’s great,” Art said. “I’ll show it to my gardener and see what he thinks.” When I didn’t respond to this flash of sarcasm, he jumped into the silence that followed, his voice taking on a lighter tone. “Relax, John. I have a good feeling about this one. Go have some laughs. Celebrate.”
“There’s nothing to celebrate yet.”
“Pretend. Be positive for a change,” he said, and the line went dead.
This conversation took place on the Thursday preceding the Labor Day weekend, meaning that it was conceivable that I would not hear anything from either Gruskoff or Linson until the following Tuesday. Finishing the script on such a giddy high and now facing four days of unstructured time with my son — hours and hours of expectation and unknowing — produced a dull panic. As I tried to distract myself, inventing a series of near-ecstatic fantasies about my future success, the phone rang, breaking the shrieking silence inside my apartment. It was my mother offering to take Jesse for the weekend.
“He needs some new clothes,” she said. “And I thought I’d get him a couple of tennis lessons. Drop him off after school and you can pick him up on Tuesday morning.” Because she, like my father, had little confidence that my Hollywood career would amount to anything, she tactfully refrained from asking about my script. I told her anyway, and her surprise was impossible to mask. “You finished? Well, that was fast. Congratulations.”
“Now what happens?”
“Lots of waiting.”
She said something to my father that I couldn’t hear, and then there was a brief moment of silence, before she quickly changed the subject. “Have you heard anything from Harriet?”
“She called me from the hospital on Monday.”
“How is she?”
“She spent most of the time crying,” I told her.
“I hope you didn’t let Jesse speak to her.”
“He was at school. But he misses her.”
“Of course, he does,” she said with grave seriousness. “It’s his mother.”
I told her that Harriet was scheduled to get out in a few weeks. “She’s looking forward to spending time with Jesse.”
“As long as it’s supervised. That’s your agreement. Correct?”
“Is dad still pissed off?”
“Of course he is. But he’ll get over it.”
A few days before Harriet went into the hospital, she drove to my parents’ house and, while they were at work, she conned their Panamanian maid into letting her inside. Proceeding with no sense of hurry, she changed into her bikini, took a swim, fixed herself a sandwich, and then stole several hundred dollars and all the pills in their medicine cabinet, including the nitroglycerin tablets that my father used for his angina attacks.
After depositing Jesse at my parents’ house, I stopped for a few drinks at the Raincheck Room, a dark, shoe box bar on Santa Monica Boulevard that was a popular hangout for out-of-work actors. In the fall of 1965, after I dropped out of grad school at the University of Wisconsin, I used to drink regularly at the Raincheck, and so did Harriet, many times without me, when we were first married and living a few blocks away on Larrabee Street, in the heart of what is now known as Boystown. One of the regular nighttime bartenders in those days was Alex Rocco, a gifted character actor who appeared most famously as the mob boss, Moe Green, in The Godfather. A few years later, in a singular coincidence of circumstances, he also had a pivotal role in Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins.
That afternoon I tried to pick up a young actress newly arrived from Chicago, a slender, almost spindly blond with vivid red lipstick and a pixie hairstyle similar to Jean Seberg’s in Breathless. I’d had too much to drink, and when I suggested we leave together she dismissed me with a look of baffled amusement and said, “Surely, you can’t be serious.” Undaunted, I continued to engage her with an amiable arrogance until I saw the bartender stare at me disapprovingly, and I realized, with a faint shock, that I was making a fool of myself. Embarrassed, I hurriedly left the bar and drove home.
The next morning I met Connie, and my life was never quite the same.
But before I continue this story, some context is required:
In December of 1947, when I was 6 years old and my family first arrived in Los Angeles, we spent a week at the fashionable Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. We didn’t celebrate Christmas there, or I’m sure I would have remembered. But what I do remember is the excitement that bubbled inside me as I walked down Hollywood Boulevard with my family on that first evening. The sheer newness of everything — the red trolley cars, the palm trees, the up-all-night hamburger stands, the huge movie houses that lined the crowded boulevard — was intoxicating, the city welcoming us under the pale glow of a full moon. In the mental snapshot I kept from that night and filed away, everything is bright and clean and everyone is wearing big post-war smiles, including the skinny Santa Claus standing on the always windy corner of Hollywood and Vine, passing out lollipops and candy canes.
Not too many years later, after my dad opened a popular women’s wear store on Vine across from the Brown Derby restaurant, I was free to roam unsupervised through Hollywood (with my hormones humming) when he brought me to work with him on Saturday mornings. If I was with my brother, we’d split up once we hit the boulevard and go our separate ways. We were both given enough money for a matinee and popcorn, and whatever cash was left over I used to buy the graphically illustrated horror comic books — Tales of the Crypt, The Vault of Horror — that were just beginning to hit the newsstands. Once I hit puberty, I would graduate to men’s magazines like Argosy and True Detective and, occasionally, when the manager wasn’t looking, I would sneak a peek at those nudist magazines promoting “healthy living” that he kept hidden behind the counter.
In that newly fallen state of adolescence, I remember being aroused and excited by the glossy pictures of the attractive and athletic women cavorting naked in bucolic, spa-like settings. While these pictures made me feel wildly uneasy, I was also, like many boys my age, filled with a great desire to put the body of a woman underneath my hands. But I don’t think I was driven strictly by teenage lust. Some other need was asserting itself inside me like a slow-growing plant. Walking along Hollywood Boulevard in the daylight hours, I would sometimes see women sitting alone on bus benches or at greasy lunch counters, looking tense and grim, and I had a sudden urge to talk to them, to shake them out of their despondency, to brighten their despairingly sad faces.
These women did not resemble the bathing beauties posed like Olympic athletes in Sunshine and Health and those other nudie rags. The women to whom I gravitated, that made my pulse thud, had about them an air of bottled-up anger and desperation. There was nothing about them that was flashy. If anything they looked slightly disreputable and possibly wicked. For these woman — the dispossessed and the genuinely crestfallen: Sarah Packard, the character that Piper Laurie plays in the movie, The Hustler, is the template — I have always had a lifelong weakness, and I realize now that it had something to do with the suggestion of danger that surrounded them. The all-American good looks of Doris Day or the patrician beauty of Grace Kelly could never provide the excitement I felt when a woman slumped on a bus bench with a half-cigarette burning in the corner of her mouth, who I knew (even at 13) was scrabbling for her sanity and struggling to survive, turned her head to meet my staring eyes.
Every night I hope and pray
A dream lover will come my way
A girl to hold in my arms
And know the magic of her charms
’cause I want (yeah-yeah yeah)
A girl (yeah-yeah yeah)
To call (yeah-yeah yeah)
My own (yeah-yeah)
I want a dream lover so I don’t have to dream alone
On Friday morning, with my wife in a psychiatric hospital and time to kill before my script was read by Linson and Gruskoff, I played Bobby Darin singing “Dream Lover” five straight times on the jukebox in Ernie’s Stardust Lounge: If I could just have a woman hold me — and, yes, the pure pleasure of sex was also on my mind — everything in my life would work itself out.
Ernie’s, known in the neighborhood as a “thieves bar,” was located next door to a transient hotel on the north side of Hollywood Boulevard, two blocks east of Western Avenue. During the day, which was the only time I ever dropped in — once the sun went down I went up the street to The Frolic Room — it was a safe hideaway for drug addicts, unkempt whores, and small-time grifters: the rootless and predatory, men and women with erratic needs who had staked their claim on America’s periphery. This was not the kind of place you wanted to stumble into by mistake, and a lot of people I met here were either loony or violently unhappy. I once met a tiny frantic guy named Red who claimed he’d robbed a dog track in Phoenix, and it was common knowledge that James Earl Ray, Martin Luther King’s assassin, drank here often while he was on the run from the FBI. His favorite song — “Tennessee Waltz” by Patti Page — was also on the jukebox.
Ernie’s was a great bar. But eight years later, when I took Bill Murray there while we were shooting Where The Buffalo Roam, it had changed ownership. It was now called “The Brig” and catered to a ridiculously serious S&M crowd, predominately middle-aged men with a slightly anxious air who came costumed in military uniforms, some with the seats of their trousers cut out. Bill ordered a beer from the marine drill instructor behind the bar, took one look at the hairy ass of the sailor leaning over the quarter pool table, and then turned to me and said:
“No offense, John. But I like to go to bars where I can look at chicks.”
“It used to be different.”
I’m not sure if Bill believed me, but after he finished his beer in one gulp, he stood up. “Maybe I’ll come back when I’m dressed right.”
On that Friday afternoon in the summer of 1972, when I left Ernie’s, I drove through East Hollywood with the heat of the sun warming my neck, looking at the strangers on the street, daydreaming about their lives and making mental notes, my mood quietly upbeat when I thought about my script and the possibility that it might actually reach the screen. Anything could happen, the future was limitless, I told myself with a shiver of optimism as I turned away from the failures of my past, a past that included a drawer filled with unsold scripts, a broken marriage, and the tangled troubles that came with being a single father who had a growing problem with alcohol and drugs.
Time passed, as it does when you’re driving aimlessly, but my senses were sharp. I turned left on Western — the sex cinema on my right, next door to a smutty bookstore, a pawnshop, and an Army Surplus store — and then right on Sunset. I was on my way home. Serrano. Mariposa. Harvard. Palm trees and boxy apartments ready for occupancy. Three blocks of urban anonymity. Not a soul on the street except Connie, who was paused for a moment on the sidewalk checking for something in the pocket of her camel hair coat — a cigarette? a stick of gum? — before continuing up to the corner at an unhurried pace. She was around my age, maybe a few years older, and on this hot summer day in East Hollywood she looked not just odd but completely out of place in her polished penny loafers and prim white blouse, an outfit so square and refined that it was more likely to be seen at a sorority rush or on a housewife shopping at a mall in Sherman Oaks.
As she crossed in front of my windshield without a glance, her expression cheery but also slightly restrained, I saw that she had a broad forehead and high cheekbones, and her long, reddish-brown hair bounced lightly on her shoulders as she walked. Her slender figure and off-hand glamour reminded me of the actress Lee Remick in The Days of Wine and Roses. In fact, they could have been twins.
Lee Remick, The Days of Wine and Roses
I don’t remember the precise moment when I decided to follow her into the Von’s market, but I did just that, an act of spontaneity that felt out of my control. From the moment Connie appeared in my vision, I was transfixed, and even if I knew what was ahead, so powerful was her attraction I would’ve still felt compelled to penetrate that which, as it turned out, was impenetrable.
Up and down the aisles she walked, occasionally stopping to pick up a box of cereal or a can of soup, peruse the label, and then put it back on the shelf. She chose nothing until she arrived at the dairy section, where she selected a package of processed hot-dogs. In the condiment aisle, she hesitated briefly and then stopped and glanced over her shoulder furtively, and I quickly turned away. Did she know I was following her or was she just nervous? I wasn’t sure. The possibility that she was preparing to shoplift a small jar of mustard never occurred to me.
I was reading a magazine at the checkout counter when she paid for the hot dogs and a quart of milk. I noticed that when she received her change she was muttering under her breath with her eyes screwed shut. The woman behind the register said something I couldn’t hear, Connie shook her head, and as she was leaving the market she let out a full throated laugh. It was at this point, when I saw her transported outside herself, her unlined face filled with both rapture and pain, that she became irresistible to me, and my passivity came to an end.
I caught up with her on the sidewalk as she changed directions and was heading west on Sunset. I had no idea what to say to her, and for a block we walked in an awkward (for me) silence. I often wonder what the pedestrians who we passed on that Friday afternoon saw when they scanned our faces. Did they see two total strangers? The pursuer and the pursued? Or did they see, as I do now, two distant and dreamy lovers.
She spoke first as we approached Western. “I saw you driving.”
“I wasn’t sure.”
“Why are you walking if you have a car?”
“I wanted to talk to you.”
“Unless you don’t want me to.”
“Do you like hot dogs?” she asked me, smiling slyly.
“Hot dogs are fun at the ball park. Bobby was a big Tigers fan,” she said. Then she stopped and reached into her purse for her wallet. “I wanted mustard. But I didn’t have enough money.” She opened the wallet and shook it so I could see that it was empty. “That’s why I stole it.”
“If you need some money for food,” I said, “I could help you out.”
Without responding to my offer, she continued walking west on Sunset, and we remained silent until she turned north on Western and we approached Hollywood Boulevard. Before we reached the corner, she shook her head several times, as if she was trying to erase something from her mind, and then she turned and stared at me — her face was without expression, mask-like, like a mannequin in a store window — and said, cryptically, “I think you should stop here.”
We were standing on the corner in the thin sunshine, and I could feel my thoughts coming slowly. When I told her I didn’t want to lose her, but not knowing what I really meant, she looked slightly irritated and began walking east on Hollywood Boulevard, her pace quick and decisive. At a store that repaired toasters and other small appliances she suddenly stopped and pressed her hypnotically vacant face close to the glass, made a strange mewling sound, and then turned quickly away.
As I continued to follow Connie down the boulevard, I remember feeling helpless and also a little bewildered by her withholding silences, silences that were not quiet or hushed but seemed to throb with small cries for help. She was not of a sound mind, I knew that, but just because she was inaccessible and abstracted did not mean that she was (like Harriet) clinically disturbed, or that was what I told myself as I brooded alongside her.
The Argyle Manor, the building where she’d rented an apartment, was a squat, singles only, two-story stucco affair that was built around a small kidney shaped pool. Two palm trees flanked the front entrance, and there was a row of shiny brass mailboxes on a wall next to a narrow stairway that led up to the second floor.
Connie had not spoken a word for the 20 minutes that it took us to walk from Hollywood and Western to the door of her apartment. And when she stuck her key in the lock and turned to stare at me, in a vague sort of way, I half-expected her to ask me who I was and why I was following her. Instead, with a cool politeness, she said, “You’re my first visitor. But I can’t let you stay long. I have much to do.”
Once inside, the only place to sit was on a couch that folded out into a bed. There were blinds on the windows, but other than a cheap wooden coffee table and a footstool in the small kitchenette there was no other furniture, not even dresser or a lamp. I saw no books or magazines, no television or radio, and the telephone, which never rang and was obviously disconnected, sat on the worn-out carpet next to an electric fan that was plugged into an outlet on the wall behind the stove. Connie dropped her coat and purse on the couch and disappeared into bathroom. A minute passed. Two. Three. My heart was pounding. I began to perspire. And I recall having an almost overpowering urge to run away, to just flee this heartbreakingly bare apartment. But, of course, I didn’t.
When Connie came out of the bathroom, she looked at me quizzically, as if she were trying to place my face, and I said, smiling and acting like I was speaking to a suddenly familiar stranger, “By the way, my name is John.”
By introducing myself I thought she might tell me her name, but instead she drifted into the kitchenette, filled a sauce pan with water, and set it on the stove. While she waited for the water to boil, she leaned against the wall with her eyes closed and her face turned away from me, muttering under her breath. She kept this up for about a minute while I tried and failed to make out a word of what she was saying; and when, finally, she ended this awkward interlude with a burst of laughter, I felt that she was passing back into a second childhood, and I remember laughing along with her.
There was a long silence after that. And while she reached into the cupboard above the sink, she gazed at me over her shoulder and seemed to bat her eyelashes in a parody of seduction, before she took down two plastic cups and a small jar of instant coffee. She brought the steaming cups into the living area and placed them on the coffee table, half-looking at me while she stood in the middle of the room, brushing out her hair.
I thanked her for the coffee, and she took a seat on the edge of the couch, averting her eyes and placing her purse between us. I pretty much assumed that she was either not interested or incapable of going through the banalities of getting to know each other, but I knew that I had to somehow break the ice if I was going to hold her in my arms — notice I didn’t say naked in my arms — and kiss her on the lips, which I ached to do with a kind of mindless yearning. I also knew that because I felt a sense of expectancy, I was at risk of moving to fast and scaring her away. In fact, I had no idea how she would react to anything I did, but there was certainly no tenderness in the atmosphere that surrounded us, and nothing about her that was acquiescent.
“I told you my name,” I said. “Are you going to tell me yours?”
“Connie,” she said, her swift response taking me by surprise. Then she he kicked off her loafers and repeated her name three more times. “Connie. Connie. Connie.”
“That’s a pretty name,” I said.
She reached over then and took my hand, and I could feel her move towards me. She did not look at me, and for the next few minutes, while we just sat there holding hands, I felt a strange sensation of inner peace. Because she’d made the first move by taking my hand, I decided that it was now my turn to take the initiative, so, with a kind of thrilling terror, I leaned over and put my lips against the hollow of her throat. She responded by taking a deep breath and squeezing my fingers so tightly that I almost cried out in pain. Then her eyes fell shut and she let out a long falling sigh.
A kiss on the mouth followed. Soon her purse was on the floor and she was poised above me, our bodies still clothed but burning with excitement. She now had her eyes wide open in what I took as a state of joyfulness, and when she took my hand and put it inside her blouse, a flush ran up her throat as I squeezed her breast. For a brief moment, she seemed to be teetering with uncertainly as she anxiously searched my face, confounded by something that she couldn’t express. Then I felt her fingers digging into my ribs, and what happened next would be hard to describe without resorting to the “sweat drenched” prose of some bad romance novel.
In short, on that narrow couch a violent struggle took place that contradicted everything that I heretofore understood about sex and desire. To say that she made love without holding anything back sounds like a cliché, unless you understood that it was mad love, a type of sexual derangement: the kind of deep and mysterious lovemaking that crawls out of the dark and forbidden corners of our souls. Put simply, a fierce battle was taking place inside apartment 207, a squirming frenzy in which Connie used the unfamiliar surface of my skin — she punched and scratched and hugged me so hard I thought my ribs would break — to relieve temporarily whatever hidden sorrow was tormenting her.
And then, much too soon, it was over, the fire that blazed and roared. “Now you must go,” she said, sitting up. But I didn’t want to go. I craved more. When I reached for her, she stood up and touched me on the shoulder, leaving her hand there for a few moments in what seemed like a gesture of compassion, before she turned and walked into the bathroom. “Please go.”
So I left. But an hour later, after walking back to my car, I returned with a pizza, a bottle of wine, and some candles. By now it was dark outside and there were no lights on in her apartment. I knocked. Waited. Knocked again. This went on for 20 minutes, and with the scent of her still on my skin — a minor comfort — I finally gave up.
SATURDAY AND SUNDAY
After a fitful night’s sleep, I woke up late on Saturday morning and called my son. My father said he’d gone to the beach with my mother and that I should call back later. He also mentioned that she was planning to get his hair cut.
I said, “I like his hair long. She should ask me before does something like that.”
“He looks like a ragamuffin. She’s also buying him some new sneakers,” he said. “The shoes he had on were falling apart. Any objections?”
“We know you’re short on money. We’re just trying to help.”
“And I appreciate it.”
We said nothing for a few moments. Then my father said, “He’s out of allergy pills too. You forgot to refill the prescription.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. I noticed I was becoming angry, so I took a breath to calm down. “Harriet usually does those things.”
“That’s okay. Your mother took care of it.”
“I packed his inhaler.”
I remember I was lying on my bed, looking at the ceiling, not knowing what else to say, when Connie’s face floated into my mind, her eyes desperate, lonely, beseeching. I abruptly told my father I had to get off. “Tell Jesse I’ll call him tonight.”
When I put the phone down, I could feel my heart racing. All I could think about was Connie’s long auburn hair, the smoothness of her skin, the curve of her breasts, and the way she raised her eyebrows when she bent down to kiss me on the lips. I needed to see her, to hold hands, to touch her, to touch her everywhere, to feel the speed of her blood.
It took me 15 minutes to drive from Silver Lake to her apartment on Argyle. Even if her phone had worked, I doubt if I would have called first, but it made no difference because she wasn’t home when I arrived. Or, if she was home she didn’t answer when I knocked and shouted out her name. Since she had no money and walked everywhere, I assumed that I could find her by circling the neighborhood. It never occurred to me for a moment that she might have met someone else, another stranger, and was engaging — with the same breathtaking hunger — in an identical kind of release of primal passion. No, that was not possible. As far as I was concerned, I was the only man who belonged in her arms, and for her to be with someone else was unthinkable.
I drove through Hollywood for five hours, searching for her everywhere, stopping only for gas and to intermittently check back at the Argyle Manor. I was so relentlessly obsessed that there were moments when I imagined her intentionally hiding somewhere, like inside a movie theatre, daring me to seek her out. I remember passing the Cinerama Dome, where The Godfather had just opened, and in my mind I saw her sitting on the aisle in the third row, her face twisted in torment as she turned away from the violence on the screen, looking for me.
On my way home, I returned to Von’s and walked the aisles, after which I sat in my car and chain-smoked Marlboros, dragging quickly, hoping that out of sheer will I could make her materialize out of the dense clouds of smoke. When I got back to my apartment, I once more called my son, but my mother had already put him to sleep. She said that tomorrow they were visiting the zoo, and then, with a great expression of relief, she told me how well adjusted he seemed.
“Given the circumstances,” she added. Then she asked me about my script. “Have you heard anything?”
“I’m not going to hear anything until Tuesday,” I said. “At the earliest.”
“I hope the news is good,” she said. “But if things don’t pan out, I think you should consider getting a regular job.”
“I’m a writer,” I told her. “I’m not getting some bullshit nine to five job.”
“Don’t swear, John. Have you been drinking?”
“Tell Jesse I’ll call him tomorrow,” I said angrily, and I hung up without saying goodbye. I spent most of the night wide awake, sick with longing. I miss you, Connie. I’m lonely and I miss you. If I could have just told her that, I would’ve been fine.
At five ‘o clock I stopped fighting sleep and threw on my clothes. When it came to my screenplay, I could endure the waiting (and the nerve wracking suspense that came with it), but with Connie, I needed to act. While I drove down Sunset to Hollywood Boulevard, I suddenly remembered something that she’d said on the day we met, two sentences that held no meaning at the time, no connotation, but that just seemed to leak out of her fluttery mind: Hot dogs are fun at the ballpark. Bobby was a big Tigers fan.
Who was Bobby? Her husband? Her brother? Her son? Was she from Detroit, where the major league baseball team was nicknamed the Tigers? I had no answers to these questions, but in those two sentences, which she spoke with a calm certainty, I thought there was something about her she wanted me to know. Just by the way she dressed I knew that some event — unexpected or planned — had thrown her out of the safe path of her life. I felt that she was running away from something or someone, but since I had no clue what that might be, it would have been pointless to speculate.
When I arrived at the stairway leading up to Connie’s apartment, I saw a business card taped to her mailbox. On the front, beneath the words “A Special Home,” was a childlike illustration of a small house surrounded by a yard that was filled with tall trees. On the bottom of the card was an address on Gower Avenue and a phone number. When I turned the card over, I saw a message scrawled in black ink from a man named Wayne Carson. It said: Connie, please call me.
Whoever this Wayne guy was — relative, friend, or, like me, just some haplessly adrift stranger — I was jealous of his connection to Connie, so I pocketed the card and continued up the stairs to her apartment. After I knocked loudly on her door and called out her name, I noticed a stooped Asian women in her 50s approaching me, her expression both purposeful and suspicious. Without any introduction she asked me, in an accusing voice, why I was loitering on the second floor of the building she managed. I told her I was waiting for the woman in 207.
“She’s a friend of mine,” I said.
“You come. You go. I see you. Many times. Must stop,” she said, making a dismissive motion with her hand. “Or I will call the police.” I said I was leaving, and she told me not to come back. “You no belong here.”
On my way home I stopped for a drink at Ernie’s, where I dropped a quarter in the jukebox and played “Dream Lover” three times. The place was empty, and Miles the bartender, usually pleasant, seemed to make a point of not engaging me in conversation, which I found strange until I caught my reflection in the mirror behind the bar. My hair was unruly, and in my perspiring face there was an inescapable aura of desperation. I stood up, but before I could drop another coin in the jukebox, Miles looked at me dull-eyed and said:
“Give it a rest, pal.”
“That’s my favorite song.”
Miles shook his head. “Three times is enough.”
I finished my drink and slammed my glass down on the bar in a flourish of anger. Then I drove back to my apartment, where, fidgeting and bored, the time going by with an interminable slowness, I decided to reread my script. Mistake. What I originally thought was a cannily constructed story, a suspenseful and tightly-woven journey into the heart of the America Dream, I was now convinced was a total misfire. Once I was finished, I had a miserable few minutes in which I was so discouraged that I had to restrain myself from calling Linson and Gruskoff, imploring them not to read the screenplay until it was totally rewritten.
It was around 5 pm when, after a few undecided moments, I did something that was probably inadvisable: I drove back to the Argyle Manor in a bad temper and parked across the street, hoping to glimpse Connie either entering or leaving. I’d spent about an hour listening to the radio (and trying not to draw attention to myself) when I noticed a man around my age sitting on a low stone wall in front of the apartment house next door. He was dressed in khakis and a plaid short-sleeved shirt, and he had a thin, serious, almost ascetic face. Once or twice I caught him staring at me impassively, with his lips pressed shut, and I quickly looked away.
It occurred to me that this might be Wayne Carson, the man whose business card, now in my wallet, was taped to Connie’s mailbox. If both of us were waiting for her and he was similarly obsessed — which, in fact, he was, as I would find out later — this would present a problem when her fugitive presence magically reappeared. To make sure she remained outside his influence, I realized that I was prepared to do anything, no matter what the consequences. The mere thought that Connie was desired by someone else was intolerable, making me seethe with anger. And it was at this moment, when it became distressingly evident that I needed to collect myself, that I started my car and drove off.
When I reached Sunset, instead of heading back to my dumpy apartment, I drove west toward Santa Monica. The sunlight was almost gone and the rush hour traffic on PCH was thinning out when I pulled into the parking lot next to Will Rogers State Beach. I saw no lifeguards in their towers or swimmers in the ocean, and only a few people were sitting or strolling on the sand, soaking up the last rays of the day. On that Sunday I remember feeling the very same sadness I felt in high school when the Labor Day weekend arrived, signaling the end of summer.
The day before I left for college, in that transitional state between adolescence and adulthood, I drove down to this identical spot with my best friend, Steve Ellis. I was headed for Berkeley, where he would join me a year later after a stint at Santa Monica City College, and we were talking about our futures and what we hoped to achieve. We had a coke bottle filled with rum that we passed back and forth, and at one point, with the booze helping the conversation to become more open and uninhibited, I remember saying that what I wanted most was “to know what it felt like to be in love. But part of me is afraid,” I told him.
“That she won’t love me back.”
“Big deal,” Steve said, and the smile he gave me was more sarcastic than reassuring. Then he passed along to me what his father, a once-blacklisted actor, had told him when his girlfriend, Valerie Jacobs, broke up with him during our sophomore year. “He said, ‘Steve-o, girls are like busses. If you miss one, just stand there, and there will be another one along in ten minutes.'”
At the time I remember laughing, but I also remember thinking, That doesn’t sound right. How can you be in love with someone, and ten minutes later, be in love with someone else? Thirteen years later, enmeshed in a life I couldn’t understand, as I sat in my car staring at the ocean in a state of hopeless melancholy, the only thing that I knew for sure was this: There was only one bus, the one that Connie was riding in, and I was willing to follow it to the ends of the earth.
The phone was ringing when I arrived back at my apartment. It was my son calling to say that he didn’t want to come back with me on Tuesday, that he wanted to stay with my parents.
I said, “I’m your dad, Jesse. You’re supposed to live with me.”
“Not if mom isn’t with you. I don’t like it when it’s just us.”
“You’ll get used to it.”
“No I won’t,” he said, and that’s when I heard him begin to cry. “Grandma says I can stay here as long as I want. Your place is too small.”
“I know. We’ll get a bigger place soon.”
“I’m not sure,”
“That’s what you always say.”
I told him that I would see him on Tuesday, and he screamed, “No!”
The next morning I noticed a police car parked in front of the Argyle Manor when I pulled up. I guessed this might have something to do with Connie, but I wasn’t certain until I climbed the stairway and saw a young cop standing outside her partially opened doorway, conferring with the Asian woman who managed the building. From inside her apartment I heard a squawking radio and the voice of another cop cutting through the static.
He said, “Nothing. No clothes, food, just some stale milk and a jar of mustard.”
A moment later, when the Asian woman looked over and saw me frozen on the top step, she said to the young cop, pointing in my direction, “That’s him.”
The cop motioned for me to step forward. After a few paces, he held up his palm like a crossing guard, signaling me to stop, and then he was soon joined by his partner, who was around 40 and clearly in charge. “Let’s see some identification,” said the older cop, glancing at me with mild, professional interest.
While his partner perused my driver’s license, the younger cop, obviously a rookie, said, “What do you know about this lady?”
“You mean —?”
“The lady who rented this apartment.”
“You better tell the truth,” the Asian woman said to me.
I told the cop I’d met Connie on Friday, that we’d spent the afternoon together, and I had not seen her since. Although what I told him was the truth, he looked at me as if he knew I was hiding something, which I was: I was hiding how much I missed her, how emotionally battered I felt, and the invisible barrier I crossed when we were together.
“Where did you meet her?” the older cop asked me.
“On the street. Walking.”
“You just stopped and she hopped in your car?”
“No, it wasn’t like that,” I said. Then I decided to be honest, explaining that I was attracted to her in a way I found hard to describe. “I followed her into the market and spoke to her when she came out.”
“And then you drove her back here?”
“No, we walked,” I said.
“You left your car? What did she do — put a spell on you?”
I just stood there, ignoring the grin he was unable to suppress. Then I asked him where she was. “Is she okay?”
“Why don’t you let us ask the questions?” the younger cop said.
“I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“No one said you have,” said the older cop.
“She was someone I cared about. Okay?”
I guess there was something in my manner that touched his sympathy, because the older cop put his hand on my shoulder and told me to relax. There was a short pause, he wrote something down in a black notebook he was carrying, and then he said, a little reluctantly, “Let’s take a walk.”
I followed him down to the ground floor and out to the curb. He pointed to his patrol car and told me to get inside. “Don’t worry,” he said, sensing my fear. “I’m not going to arrest you.”
What he told me took only took five minutes, maybe even less, and his expression the entire time was somber and self-contained. He said that on Friday night Connie was arrested outside the Gold Cup cafe on Las Palmas, after she’d walked out without paying her check. She was carrying no identification and declined to reveal her name. In fact, for 24 hours, she refused to say anything at all that was understandable. The words she spoke were tangled and haphazard, as if she were reciting lines from a poem that she was making up on the spot.
“Beginning on Saturday morning, we began to check through all the reports of missing females that we’ve received over the last few months. And by Sunday afternoon, we found out who she was.”
Her first name was definitely Connie — actually Constance, but he wouldn’t tell me her last name — and she’d walked away from a psychiatric hospital in a Midwestern city, where she’d been confined for the last five years.
I said, “Was it Detroit?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“She mentioned a boy’s name. Bobby. She said he was a Tiger’s fan, so I figured that’s where she’s from.”
“That’s all you’re going to get. I already told you too much,” he said, and he started to press down the handle on the door. I thought the conversation was over, but it wasn’t, and what he said next, as he leaned back in his seat, has never stopped haunting me, the recollection always carrying with it an undertow of both sadness and horror. “Five years ago she was arrested for stabbing her husband to death. Her boy, 7 at the time, tried to stop her, and she stabbed him too. He was on life support for a week, but he didn’t survive. She was eventually declared legally insane and incompetent to stand trial.”
Silence. I’m sure I was in shock as I tried to process what he’d just told me. I remember asking him where she was and if I could visit her. He said that she was gone, that she’d been put on a plane that morning, but from the look on his face I thought he might be lying, not that it would’ve made any difference. I knew I would never see or speak to Connie again.
“Don’t worry,” he said, as I got out of his car and started to walk slowly away. “She’s a nutcase. You’ll get over her.”
The word pain is too small and meaningless to express what I felt when I left the Argyle Manor and drove home. In the days that followed, Connie’s face was stuck in my mind, and at any moment I expected to see her walking along the street, her eyes smiling at the sight of me, a delusion that went on for weeks, until I eventually ran out of tears and went numb with grief.
On Monday nights — “Hoot Night” — the Troubadour bar in West Hollywood was the place to be, the center of the rock and roll universe, where up and coming folk-rockers and wannabe songwriters came to schmooze with promoters, producers, DJ’s, and other industry “heavies” — the guys with the so-called “sharp ears” — everyone hustling and hyping and shooting angles, looking for the main chance. For a while in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, the Troubadour became the base of operations for, among others, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, and Linda Ronstadt. Actors like Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda were also regulars, and so were Jack Nicholson and Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne, both of whom were part of the hip film crowd that drifted over from Dan Tana’s, the restaurant across the alley, where the drinks and food were a lot more expensive.
I was a nobody then but I loved the Troub, and on the night I learned the impossible truth about Connie, a night that was oppressively hot and windy, that’s where I ended up. I got blind drunk on margaritas and said whatever came into my head, especially to the pretty women who always appeared on hoot nights, spilling out of the canyons that snaked through the hills above Hollywood.
A brief thunderstorm had just ended when I staggered outside at closing time, and driving home alone with disaster looming over me, the only thing I can recall with confidence was the warm wind swirling through my open windows, filling the air around me with dust.
I woke up half-drunk the next morning, and when I arrived to pick up Jesse my mother regarded me with a faint repugnance. When she mentioned that my eyes were bloodshot, I told her I had a cold, which I thought was a plausible explanation, but I immediately felt stupid because I knew she didn’t believe me. Jesse was quiet on the drive over to his pre-school, keeping whatever anxieties he had to himself, content to play with the toy fire engine that my mom had bought him when she took him shopping for his shoes. Then, when we arrived, he looked over at me and I saw that his eyes were brimming with tears.
I said, “What’s wrong, Jess?”
“I miss mommy,” he said in a tone of deep sadness. “I still love her, but I don’t even remember what she looks like.”
“Sure you do.”
“No, I don’t,” he said, and I can remember how frightened he sounded. “When will I be able to see her again?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“I hope so.”
I waited for Jesse to say more, but he just sat there rolling the fire engine across his lap. “It’s going to be okay,” I said, but he just shrugged. Outside the window two boys around his age were waving at him. “Do you want me to walk you inside?”
Jesse shook his head, and a moment later, after giving me quick kiss on the lips, he stepped outside to join his friends. And for the first time that morning I saw him smile.
Once I got back to my apartment, after so little sleep, my first thought was to take a nap, but I decided instead to make some coffee and see if I could bang out my column for The Staff. That’s when I noticed on the kitchen counter, amidst the change and crinkled dollar bills that I pulled out of my pockets, a stained cocktail napkin with a name scrawled above two phone numbers, one for home (h) and one for work (w): Willie Hunt.
I’d blacked out at the Troub, so naturally there were gaps in my memory, interactions with people of both sexes that were irrecoverable, but it still troubled me that I possessed the phone number of some guy I never heard of. Willie Hunt? Who the fuck was Willie Hunt? Deciding in my present hungover condition not to delve any deeper into this mystery, I balled up the napkin and tossed it into the trash. Twenty minutes later, while I was staring at an empty sheet of yellow legal paper, the vagueness of the night before was replaced by a flash of recognition and the fragment of a woman’s face: Yes, Willie Hunt was a woman.
She was slender, with long, curly red hair and freckles that covered her nose and forehead. What else did I remember? Nothing, except that we were comfortable with each other and that she laughed at my jokes, which was enough.
I knew that calling her at work was a dumb idea, and I stared at the telephone on the table next to me for a long time. I started thinking. What if I called Willie at the moment when either Gruskoff or Linson was trying to reach me? Would they call back right away after getting a busy signal? They would if they liked the script. If it was garbage, they would wait, relieved. Maybe they had already called while I was out picking up Jesse and driving him to school. That neither of them had read the script was another, not unreasonable, possibility. It was at this point that I remember picking up the receiver to make sure there was a dial tone.
Satisfied that everything was working order, I took a sip of coffee and fired up a Marlboro. Then it came to me: I was acting like a coward. A split second later I picked up the receiver and, with a twitch of excitement, I dialed the number on the napkin.
After three rings, a woman’s voice came on the line. “Ted Ashley’s office.”
At the time, Ted Ashley was the president of Warner Brothers.
I said, “Can I speak to Willie Hunt, please?”
“Willie, this is John Kaye. I’m not sure if you remember me, but —”
And that’s as far as I got, before she cut me off. “Listen to me, John. Are you sitting down? You’re not going to believe this,” she said, lowering her voice almost to a whisper. “There’s been a bidding war for your script. Between us and Fox. It started over the weekend. We won. Ten minutes ago Mister Ashley closed the deal.”
Wait a minute! Did she say that Warner Brothers just bought my script? That’s not possible.
“John, are you still there?”
“This is not a joke, is it?”
Willie laughed, the same squeaky laugh that I remembered from the night before. “You were really plastered last night. I wasn’t sure I should believe you when you said you were a screenwriter. Then Mister Ashley came in this morning and dropped the script on my desk. That’s when I saw your name on the title page. Boy, was that a fucking shock! I’m going to read it tonight after you take me out to dinner. Okay?”
“I am. I’m just…”
“Pull it together. You just got your e-ticket punched. Call me later.”
According to Gruskoff, who I spoke to later that morning, both he and Linson had immediately read my script on Thursday afternoon, as soon as it was delivered by messenger. They agreed that it was excellent, much more polished than they’d expected for a first draft, and Gruskoff sent a copy over to super-agent Sue Mengers, a former colleague of his at CMA.
“She read it that night,” Gruskoff told me, “and she called me at two in the morning. She said it was the best script she’d read in months.”
On Friday morning Mengers made two copies of the script. She messengered one to Richard Zanuck, the president 20th Century Fox, and the other went to Dick Shepherd, a close friend who was a creative executive at Warner Brothers. By the end of the day on Friday, it was clear that both studios were interested, and offers were traded back and forth over the long weekend.
“It was an auction situation, a producer’s dream,” Gruskoff said. “Eventually Fox dropped out. I spoke to Ted Ashley this morning after we closed, and they want to start casting right away. Art’s flipping out.”
“No shit. This is unbelievable.”
“Your hard work made it happen, John.”
“It’s going to change my life,” I said, and it did.
Sally Kellerman, Alan Arkin, and Mackenzie Phillips, Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins
But here’s the thing: As for how much Warner Brothers actually paid for my script, Gruskoff never volunteered a dollar amount, and I never asked, although later I learned from Willie that it was “over $250,000.” Out of that I would receive the 20 grand I was owed, and Mike and Art would split the rest, a portion of which would be applied toward their producing fees, or so I was told by Art, months later when we were on location in Arizona, and I decided to clear the air.
He said, “I tried to get Gruskoff to even things out, give you a bigger slice, but he wouldn’t go for it.”
I told Art that I was happy with my end of the deal. I wasn’t complaining. “I just thought it was kind of weird that you ended up getting almost five times as much as me, since I’d initiated the project and hooked you up with Gruskoff. He was already a known producer,” I said, “so I get that he deserves a big cut. But you and I were supposed to be equal partners.”
Art said, “What do you want me to do — write you a check.”
“I want you to do what’s fair.”
And that’s where we left it.
At the wrap party for the film, Gruskoff promised me a “chunk of cash” when the movie was released, a promise that was never kept, but by then I didn’t really care. For me money was never the prime motivating factor. Sure, it was important, especially at those times when I was creatively frustrated and living on the fiscal edge, but what mattered most was having a movie produced that I had written. And in the years that followed, whatever resentments that still lingered were eventually cleansed from my memory. So to Mike, Art, and especially Willie: Thanks.
On Wednesday morning I called Wayne Carson at the number printed on his business card, which I apologized for stealing once he came on the line. “I figured it was you,” he said with a lazy laugh. “After I saw you talking with the cops, I put two and two together.” He asked me how I knew Connie, and I told him the truth. “I met her walking along Sunset. There was something about her that intrigued me and I stopped to talk.”
“She bring you home?”
“We spent the afternoon together.”
“You did better than me,” Carson said. When I asked him what he did for a living, he said he worked as a counselor for a county-funded facility — “A Special Home” — that provided food and shelter for runaway teens. He also mentioned that he had a sociology degree from the University of Oregon. “I started out working at the local VA hospital in Eugene, the same place where Kesey worked as an orderly, before he wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I’ve been around enough people with problems to know the signs. Connie was a troubled lady. I knew that as soon as I saw her walking up Argyle.” But Carson said he also had another reaction, one that was almost mystical. “I felt this sense of being pulled toward her, physically pulled, like she had this spontaneous power, and I followed her up the street. It’s something I never felt before. Like I was magnetized or something. I can’t explain it.” I told him that I’d had a similar experience. “Except when you got to her place, she let you inside.”
He asked me what happened to her and I lied. “I don’t know. The cops said there was some family stuff that she was running away from. That’s all they told me.”
“Even the adults are running away these days. Did she let you kiss her?”
Once more I lied. “No. We just talked.”
“I wanted to kiss her,” Carson said, sounding like a sulky child, and in the silence that followed I heard him take a long breath. “Look, I gotta get back to work, but thanks for calling. By the way, what do you do?”
“I’m a screenwriter,” I said, and before he could ask the obvious follow up — have you written anything I might have seen? — I ended the conversation.
Once I received my check from Warners Brothers, I moved with my son to Mill Valley, a small, quasi-bohemian town located about 15 miles north of San Francisco. Over the years I came down to Los Angeles quite often, mostly on business related to my career as a screenwriter, and on every visit, no matter how cramped I was for time, I always found myself driving over to the Argyle Manor. After I found a parking spot that allowed me an unobstructed view of Connie’s second story apartment, I tried to relax and allow my memories of her to tumble through my head. Not right away, but almost always, I was able to find a still image of the moment when she first looked directly into my eyes. In her face I saw a geography of uncertainty and confusion, but I saw a tenderness too. Wherever she was, I hoped she wasn’t suffering, knowing in my heart that whatever happened between us in the summer of 1972 — a time when my footing in this world was shaky, and I almost fell — would always retain its mystery.
In 1985, after Jesse left for college on the East Coast, I moved back to Los Angeles, and in the early 90’s I rented an office at 1610 N. Argyle, in a building that was occupied by a wide assortment of unnecessary businesses, the majority of them illegal. Many of the tenants slept in their offices, and when they needed to shower they walked over to the Hollywood YMCA on Selma, where they would either buy a day pass or sneak inside. The woman who took the dust jacket photograph for my second novel lived in her office for a few weeks during a rough patch, and so did the actress Margot Kidder, who I was close to at the time. It was that kind of place, and I loved working there.
Throughout the day, when I wasn’t writing, I would wander around Hollywood, reflecting on and sometimes losing myself in times past. There was a luggage shop on Vine where my dad’s store used to be. The Brown Derby was long gone, and so was Cherokee Books, where I once idled away the summer afternoons, but World Book and News was still around and the pornography was no longer hidden away. Occasionally, I would sit in the remodeled lobby of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, checking out the tourists while I read The New York Times. In a strange coincidence, I used a room on the eighth floor as a location for Forever Lulu, a movie I wrote and directed in 1999. During a lunch break I remember telling one of the stars, Melanie Griffith, that I’d stayed at the hotel back in 1947, when I first came to Los Angeles.
“What was it like?” she asked me.
“It was around Christmas, and I remember the lights up and down the boulevard. It was magical,” I told her.
“I bet it was,” she said. “The forties were cool. Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Gloria Grahame. Those dames had style.”
Later that same day, I went downstairs to ask the hotel manager if they had records that went back to the forties. I wanted to know if I could find out in which room I stayed. He told me that he was doubtful but would ask the owners and get back to me, which he never did.
I moved out of my office on Argyle in the summer of 2004, and a few years after that I once again relocated to northern California. When I think back to that very long weekend in 1972, as I often do, letting my memory enlarge every detail, I have to be careful in reconstituting the past not to suppress the truth and give in to sentimentality.
Was I careless and self-centered? Yes. Did I do everything that was possible to save my marriage? Absolutely not. But I loved Harriet with a deep passion, and the intensity of those feelings bears no relationship to whether she was sane or insane.
Or does it?
When we give our hearts away, so much comes down to fate. Can there be another explanation for why, not long after we separated, I was then driven into Connie’s arms? I can’t say that we didn’t belong together because, like Harriet, the facts say we did.
With both these women I sometimes felt baffled and alarmed, but I also felt a sensual hunger that needed to be satisfied. With their inexpressible needs and fundamental generosity, they each had allowed me to walk through a gateway into a world without boundaries and restraint; a world where there was no self-questioning and secrets had extraordinary power.
And on the day I picked up the Manson girls hitchhiking on the Sunset Strip, did I receive an invisible warning signal that enabled me to escape from another kind of madness? No, it was right there, the remarkable power of the X, indelibly carved on their foreheads. But those 15 blocks they spent in my car, and their attempt to intimidate me with their silence, served a purpose that was unforeseen: It allowed me, in an act of creative transmutation and joyful surprise, to bring to life a story — Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins — that was both whimsical and serious, a tale of mutual friendship and trust, where three foolhardy and reckless characters realize, against all odds, that they belonged together. Was I hoping, with an utterly illogical leap over reason, that if I could make their lives turn out okay, then maybe I too had a shot? I suppose I was. And I guess I was right.
Nevertheless the longing remains, stretching back 41 years into the past, like a blue velvet ribbon that can never be cut. And in the time it takes to close my eyes, it all comes rushing back, a memory that drives out all others: a slow soft kiss, a drop of sweat trickling down a collar bone, and a woman’s face with a strand of auburn hair covering one eye, the other staring wildly.
John Kaye is a novelist and screenwriter, and now, thanks to this, a memoirist.
Although the names of a few people in this essay have been changed to protect their privacy, most have remained intact; conversations have been reconstructed and certain moments condensed.