Read The Missing Person Online
Authors: Doris Grumbach
The Missing Person
For Elizabeth Cale
who liked Franny Fuller from the first
: This novel is a portrait, not of a single life but of many lives melded into one, typical of the women America often glorifies and elevates, and then leaves suspended in their lonely and destructive fame.
For one small chapter in the twentieth-century American epic, Mary Maguire, movie gossip columnist for the
Los Angeles Star
, served as bard and meistersinger, recorder, reporter, and, on occasion, inventor. Out of the tattle of her daily reporting Stars were born, raised, celebratedâand burned out. She was the Good Fairy who followed Franny Fuller happily into her extraordinary stardom; she was the Fury who hovered around Willis Lord's silent head as he went down into cinematic oblivion. In the chronicles of movie time hers was to be the endurance record, the level, continuing line against which meteoric rises and catastrophic descents were graphed. She outlasted them all while she wrote their histories. She was moviedom's Milton, Hollywood's Homer.
What she wrote about Franny Fuller expanded into the poetry of a million dreams and fantasies. Her own life was more prosaic. An Irish-American virgin at the age of thirty, she took care of her senile father until he died, and then her cancer-ridden mother until her death. The priest put it gracefully: “She has gone to God,” he said.
Two days after the requiem mass Mary Maguire took the streetcar into Los Angeles where her uncle Sam, still hale after thirty years of riotous Southern California living, was managing editor of a newspaper. Sam Maguire said he was very sorry about the death of her mother. He explained that, regrettably, he had not been able to get to his sister-in-law's funeral because a big story, about an arsonist who had been caught setting fire to the draperies in a department store, had broken the day before. He asked if it seemed, well,
to Mary not to have anyone to take care of. “You must be feeling at loose ends. Is there anything I can do for you?”
Mary was prepared for this stock question. “Yes,” she said. She
at loose ends, she needed and wanted a job, something to do, and she knew what it was she wanted to do. She had lived in Hollywood all her life, she loved the crazy old place and everyone and everything in it. She had read
since she was a girl. From them she had learned the life histories of every Star and Starlet, vamp and Latin Lover, what picture had been made at which studio, how much it had cost to produce, how it had done at the box office, and who was in danger of being dropped by the Studio because of what erotic adventure or artistic failure.
Her idea was to report for her uncle's paper the Doings, as she said, of the Stars and the Studios, of the Film Folk. She told him she knew she could do it. The traditional, excited rhythms of movie gossip were firmly established in her head. All she needed to do was move about a little, visit the studios on occasion, leave her telephone number at publicity offices, get to know the key people: publicity agents, press representatives, that sort of thing.
It so happened that Sam's editor had been talking to him about pepping up the paper a bit, bridging the short distance between Los Angeles and the suburb of the Stars. Mary's suggestion appealed to Sam. He liked the idea of helping his niece and his newspaper in one stroke. He told her he would talk it over with the chief. Two days later he called her to say the job was hers: “Send us a thousand words every other day, and twelve hundred for the Sunday paper. And Mary, keep the items short and sweet.”
Mary Maguire went to work, bringing to her column, which Sam had named “The Doings of the Stars,” the same dedicated service she had once devoted to caring for her parents. Her mornings were spent on her “rounds,” as she called them, she lunched on the expense accounts of agents and publicity people anxious for her attention to their clients, and in the afternoons she read her mail, usually full of letters sent to her by angry bit players and employees of Paramount Pictures, Famous Players, First National, and the other studios who knew some “dirt” about a Star or the head of a studio, perhaps both together in one “item.” Many of the letters were anonymous, so Mary was able to quote freely from them while denying any personal knowledge of the subject herself. In the late afternoons she wrote her column.
Never has a prose style been more perfectly suited to its subject. It combined profuse, amazed, exclamatory words and phrases with delicate suggestions of firm morality. Her religion contributed to the tone of her prose. She began her day by walking the few blocks from her house to Saint Mary's Church where she read her missal in the pew before the Mass began, and for a short time afterward. The stern, italicized style of instructions and prayers in the missal infected the sentences she wrote in the afternoon. The missal's admonitory tone, forgiving and compassionate yet subtly reproachful, was audible in her short paragraphs about the wrongdoings and missteps of the Czars of the studios and their Stars. Occupied in early morning with the parables of Eve, the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalen, and Saint Therese of Lisieux, her subjects were, not surprisingly, usually women.
While Mary Maguire celebrated the success of great stars, like the glamorous and mysterious Delphine Lacy, she much preferred to write about unhappy women, like Juanita Hansen who drank and was photographed in Tijuana sitting on the lap of a young Negro jazz drummer, staring at herself in his drugged eyes. Mary was fond of writing about leading men who took drugs, caught by the enterprising camera of a night-court reporter in a police station “on their way down,” as she put it. She relished the distressing sagas of once-beautiful and famous women now grown sick and miserable, or fat and flabby, and shiny-haired, sloe-eyed men who declined, under the pressures of success and money, into corpulence and delirium tremens. Her regrets were honest, but she never failed to encompass them with full historical detail, about when the declining Stars had lovely figures, fine homes in Beverly Hills and Malibu, and stalwart, devoted husbands, before, as she wrote, “the glow had dimmed,” and before they had been used cruelly by mercenary admirers.
Her column was successful. She followed the fortunes of the Great with somewhat insincere pity and avidity, telling what became of the Fallen Stars, how they had lost everything, or entered a convent or a shelter operated by the Salvation Army, a drying-out place near Palm Springs or a “haven” for the mentally collapsed. Eminence interested her far less than decadence; she understood that her readers felt an obscure, understandable pleasure reading about degradation but resented, in a perfectly human way, too long a tenure by the Famous on the pinnacles of success.
Mary Maguire, and then her readers, reserved their Christian compassion for the Stars who had declined into drink, drugs, divorce. These endings had their commercial value. They represented the last drop of pleasure the fans got from the Star who had nothing left, no looks, no talent, nothing but notoriety. It might happen that she would be picked up for shoplifting a silk scarf from a Sunset Boulevard department store. The studio make-up man came out fast and fixed her face before she was booked and photographed. She looked very good at the hearing, better than she had in years. So the studio would find a small part for her in a new Rex Ingram film, and those who belonged to the next generation of avid moviegoers remembered her name from the shoplifting story in the newspaper and paid admission to see what the old doll looked like
on the screen.
After several years of this success (Sam saw to it that her column was syndicated in fifty-six papers) Mary Maguire began to be regarded as the leading purveyor of Hollywood news and gossip. In 1927 the
reprinted for its millions of readers her heartrending account of the funeral of a Great Leading Man who had died tragically young. Her digested story came upon the heels of a piece in which she had rued the preeminence at the box office of a canine hero with the resonant name of Rin Tin Tin. She criticized the plots of dog stories, the well-loved tales in which virtue was embodied in a member of the animal kingdom and vice in black-haired, black-hatted, darting-eyed canine haters.
So “at the peak of his great career,” when the Sheik died, Mary Maguire was ready to laud
bereavement on a generous scale. She went to New York for the funeral of the thirty-one-year-old, soft-eyed hero, the plastic-haired, hypnotic lover who had obsessed the daydreams of millions of American women: young girls, wives, grandmothers. Her newspaper story rehearsed for her mesmerized readers a vision of passion made melodramatically apparent in every gesture of this seductive man, a vision which enslaved women to his image.
She reported that thousands lined both sides of Broadway in New York City for forty blocks from the funeral home where their beloved Star lay in state in a satin-lined mahogany casket. When the procession, the hearse, twelve cars filled with floral tributes, and an interminable line of black Packards filled with bereaved Hollywood greats, began its slow journey toward the Brooklyn Bridge, women screamed and cried and tore their clothes, throwing pieces of blouse and skirt at the passing cortege. Her story was intended for her column, but newspapers all over the country transferred it to the front page, with Mary Maguire's byline prominently displayed.
Early yesterday morning I watched as ten thousand women pushed their way into the Broadway Funeral Chapel to view the remains. At least seven persons fainted and were taken away in ambulances. I saw one who fell to the floor and others stumbled over her to get to the casket
The crowds outside were colossal. I was standing near the Rialto Theater when the coffin passed. Women on the sidewalk in front of me shoved toward the street. They were moved back behind the barriers by lines of New York's Finest. The crush was so great that the plateglass windows of the haberdasher's store near me were shattered as women fell in against them. I was lucky not to be cut by the flying glass. I saw a woman whose tears were red from a cut on her head and another holding her glove over a gash on her arm to stop the blood
But they all stayed on to see the end of the procession, crying and screaming, “Rudi! Rudi!” I mourned with them for the Great Lover who died so young. Only the good, as they say
It was a year of other American greats. The word, in its ugly plural, was heard everywhere. Stories about the greats of the Silver Screenâsilently comic, mutely glamorousâwere accompanied by reports of a great swimmer, a woman of power and determination, who fought the frigid waters of the English Channel for fourteen hours and thirty-one minutes to engrave her name and achievement on the imaginations of athletic teen-aged girls. An aviator called Lucky Lindy, after the folk song that celebrated his feat, traveled across a hostile ocean from one hemisphere to another, a shaggy-haired Lone Eagle (as Mary Maguire called him, thus bestowing upon him an enduring epithet) in a one-engine plane, America's Great Flying Hero.
Mary Maguire's importance to the world of the movies was established when, despite an inexplicable silence in the Hollywood press about the developing phenomenon of talking pictures, she wrote a single sentence at the end of one of her 1927 columns:
“Would not surprise this reporter one bit if Warner's Vitaphone or Fox's Movietone
SOUND coming out of long-silent lips and music from instruments
will make a real difference at the box office next year.”
She was there to record the revolution: a black-faced Jewish actor whose song could be heard, followed by a line of history-making speech: “Wait a minute. You ain't heard nothin' yet, folks. Listen to this.”