Just recently, via snail mail, I received an invitation to a party I’d really like to attend. I accidentally buried the invitation beneath a week’s worth of mail on my desk and failed to R.S.V.P. Only after I heard the lush budgeted Entertainment Tonight television program hype the party (to be hosted by legendary movie and television personage, Janell Cummings), did I remember to look for it.
“Still extant at 84 years old”, Hollywood Peek-A-Boo magazine tactlessly headlined on its People’s Page, Janell Cummings had become almost as legendary as the late Greta Garbo.
In the olden days and prior to my marriage, I had known Janell socially, as an aspiring actress. During my brief period as a minor movie producer, we had both attended many of the same parties during which deals got made, phone numbers exchanged, assignations planned and sexual favors exchanged in tight spaces at warp speed.
For many years, after her unofficial retirement, Ms. Cummings made the rounds of the richly endowed universities, reading verse and the juicier parts of beloved fiction for a fat fee. When in good form, she gave a hypnotic performance; her voice, still subtle and rich, always found the appropriate tamber and hit just the right tempo for the various meters and moods of the verse and fiction.
Fifteen years ago, after my wife died, Janell invited me for tea to convey her sympathy while she mercilessly reminded me, for documentary purposes, of our history. So it was with unmeasured trepidation that I responded in the affirmative to the invitation.
Stories about Janell Cummings still litter the Hollywood landscape. History would confirm that she’d had affairs of note and the glamor and raciness of her past romances still cling to her.
Born in 1911 in Boston, Massachusetts to Franklin and Edna Cummings (who gave birth in the 2nd floor master bedroom of her Beacon Hill mansion), Janell Grace Cummings grew up in the milieu of great, but stodgy wealth, surrounded in early childhood by parents who ignored her during infancy and brothers who adored her; but it was only after her diaper period ended that her parents began to pay any sustained attention to her; only after she spoke in complete sentences and wore dry, pretty clothes.
Her French nurse/governess toilet trained her, taught her, coached her, listened to her, counseled her, encouraged her, and unbeknownst to her parents, turned her into a great reader. She read Jane Austen and Willa Cather while her mother, a former Gibson Girl, read Elinor Glyn and the gossip sheets.
The servants did not merely pamper Janell, they doted upon her, feted and fawned over her and called her Miss Sweetie Pie. As she grew toward young womanhood, (she was chic at seven and received her first marriage proposal at eleven) her mother announced that her career would take the form of a brilliant marriage to someone from among a herd of young stallions chosen by herself and her father.
In 1927, at the age of 16, Janell posed for the famous American portraitist, William McGregor Paxton, who completed a painting of her in oil on canvas. So absurdly pleased with his work, Paxton insisted on displaying the portrait in a famous New York City Gallery for six months before the family took possession.
Painted in the realistic mode of the period, the portrait captured Janell’s rosy glow, her lovely, burgeoning figure and a coquettish smile that had absolutely nothing to do with experience as much as anticipation.
Two weeks after the museum unveiled her portrait, to the universal acclaim of critics and the unbridled enthusiasm of the public, Janell began to receive flowers, calling cards and invitations to evening parties (suitably chaperoned), and other gatherings, including a few scandalous notes her parents confiscated and refused to allow her to read.
Apparently, someone in the museum had leaked the information of her real name and city of residence.
At first, her parents felt under siege, forced to review the avalanche of communications addressed to their daughter. They consulted an attorney about suing the museum for the “accidental release of confidential information”. However, as soon as her parents examined the names on some of the calling cards and discovered who had sent many of the stupendous flower arrangements, they decided that these intrusions offered more opportunity than danger and, on behalf of their daughter, assumed the roles of prudent bankers, carefully choosing investments for a major client.
Leopold Stokowski (just prior to his marriage to Gloria Vanderbilt) and Arturo Toscanini (just after his breakup with his latest mistress, Norma Franklin), sent her tickets to attend their concerts in Philadelphia and New York. Nineteen year old Michael F. McCoy, son of the infamous prohibition rum-runner, William S. McCoy, (after whom the expression, “The Real McCoy” was coined), and a Harvard man, sent her a chaste-looking bouquet of double white daisies with a handwritten invitation to play croquet with him at his Aunt’s home only three blocks from her own residence.
During the same year, at her debutante ball, she danced with the sons of America’s wealthiest industrial giants, foreign dignitaries, the Prince of Nabu (scheduled for a state dinner at the White House with President Calvin Coolidge, Jr.), and ….her cousin, Mortimer Reliance III, deeply insulted that he had been placed fifth (a polka) on her dance card before escorting her to the floor.
To her credit, Janell behaved graciously with all her partners, moved like a gazelle on the dance floor, and filled out her gown (designed with a little built-in assurance by a French dressmaker) as if she were a woman of the world. She danced and she smiled. She chatted and she flirted. Although inexperienced, she silently inventoried which men she thought of as potential candidates for a husband and accurately sensed which men could not be cracked by the tap of a lady’s fan.
Although the invitation read 8:00 p.m., based on past experience, I confidently arrived at 9:00 p.m. and passed through the double doors of her San Francisco Telegraph Hill penthouse radiating my own Eau de Panache.
At 9:30 p.m., a single chime from the grandfather clock in the vestibule signaled her entrance. A spotlight appeared at the top of the staircase. Entering the spot, Janell Cummings turned her body to reveal a left profile. Standing absolutely still, her appearance fueled the Dorian Gray rumors that her famous Paxton portrait, long absent from public view, remained hidden, locked in some closet, to hide the now decaying face and shrunken figure, while she retained the youthful visage of a middle-aged woman. As Janell turned to descend the stairs, to an audible cadenza of oohs and aahs, she inhaled the fragrance of envy worn by many of her guests.
Smiling, but silent, her left hand grasped the rail. Wearing a long black evening gown, artfully draped around a slim body, she descended the stairs without wobble or misstep. Her white hair, sprayed with silver glitter, enhanced the elegance of a pair of five-carat, black diamond earrings snugly fitted into her pierced ears. Her neck looked incredibly smooth. Her feet, fitted into a pair of emerald green satin slippers, shimmered as she completed her descent. At the bottom of the staircase, a tall, handsome young man offered her his arm. She took hold of the arm as if she deserved it and walked to the French doors that led out onto the terrace. She sat down in an oversized chair, with a footstool on which she rested her feet. I stood in the receiving line, behind a hushed group of guests, eager to offer their obeisance. The women smiled and thanked Janell for the invitation. The men kissed her outstretched hand if she chose to tease them with the opportunity.
When I reached her, she took hold of my hand, then placed her left hand on my arm.
“Charles, my dear… I am…so pleased you came.” She kissed my right cheek.
Her eyes filled with tears, but her iron-will commanded them to remain in their sockets.
“My dear, we must chat later.”
I moved away from the reception line to the buffet table. After filling my plate, I found a seat at one of the many small tables set up in the living and dining room areas. Almost as soon as I sat down, a server appeared carrying flutes of champagne on a sterling silver tray. I helped myself to the wine and relaxed into a padded chair.
Suddenly, I suffered an attack of resentment based on my recognition of the presence of so many unpleasant people from previous parties. Nevertheless, a few of the older guests who recognized me, visited my table to say hello. I confess not all of these guests presented an unwelcome sight, though I knew that most of the younger persons, whose sensibilities had been stunted by lives of uninterrupted comfort, mocked Janell behind her back as they ate her food and drank her liquor.
Left alone, after the brief spurt of convivialities, I surveyed the guests and saw beneath the veil of effervescent gaiety to the agonies of unsatisfied desires and witnessed the exquisite social graces that still arose from the pursuit of animal lust. My momentary reverie lifted when the butler reappeared with a bottle of a 1953 La Fête Mouton Rothschild.
“From madam,” he said.
At 82 years old, consumption of liquor produced a sedentary effect on my system. Nonetheless, I resisted not…nor wished to offend by refusal. Three hours later the butler awakened me with a hefty tap on my shoulder.
“Madam has retired for the evening. I have called you a cab.”
Embarrassed, I arrived home, wide awake, intending to write a note to Janell, but I fell asleep in the club chair in my study. I awakened the next morning with my arms caressing my laptop as if it were something with a heartbeat instead of a battery. I gently revived myself with a cup of French press coffee.
A week after the party, I received an invitation from Janell for dinner at eight the following Wednesday.
I arrived in a light rain carrying a bouquet of double white daisies, and a bottle of what I remembered was her favorite small batch bourbon. Janell answered the door. She wore a simple pink and gray shirtdress. Up close, at 84, wearing only some lip gloss and no make-up, she looked like a healthy 70-year-old hausfrau with a dazzling white smile produced from a set of expensive veneers. She took my hat and coat and hung them in the vestibule closet.
“Good evening Charlie.”
She boldly kissed me full on the lips, then led me to the eat-in kitchen. The small table next to the opened terrace door was set for two. Janell put the flowers in a vase with some water. She made room on the table for the flowers and set the bourbon inside a small hutch.
“I gave the staff the night off,” she laughed. “I’m serving dinner myself. Don’t ask me if I prepared it. I stopped cooking long ago. Food preparation endangered my jewelry,” she laughed. “Now it doesn’t matter…”
“Thank you for remembering how much I love small batch bourbons, but my system can no longer handle them or the double shots of tequila from our youth, or even the double strength martinis of ripe middle age. Nowadays, an occasional aperitif or a wine spritzer is all the liquor my body can handle.”
“Join me?” She poured some Lillet Blanc over miniature ice cubes, adding splashes of soda to a pair of large glasses.
“You look wonderful,” I said sipping my drink. Although her hair was completely white and her face bore the wrinkles of an old woman, she appeared clear-eyed and retained the beauty of a classic painting.
“It’s not polite to stare. I suppose you don’t believe my denials that I never had a facelift.”
“I take you at your word.”
“Well Charlie, I’ve never had a facelift or used Botox. I did have a little work done, though,” she giggled. “At sixty-two I had the bags under my eyes…reduced. Five years later I had a neck lift. Other than that, I remain the same, just as I emerged from my mother’s womb.”
“You mean, bawling and naked?”
“I am relieved to hear that you remain a smart-ass son of a bitch,” she said, annoyed, but pleased.
Janell rose from her chair and walked to a nearby table. Opening a drawer, she pulled out an envelope and returned to her seat. She handed me the envelope.
“Open it, Charlie.”
I pulled out two pictures. After close examination, I correctly identified the black and white picture of me, taken decades ago. The color picture of me was from the party.
“That’s you in the bowtie and tweed jacket at 22 years old. My butler, unbeknownst to you, took the other picture as you dozed the night of my party.”
“Most people our age only remember themselves, but when I first saw you in the reception line, I saw you as you appeared in this earlier picture and almost fainted. I thought my past had crashed the party. I suddenly realized that sexual ardor has always been insufficiently valued. You always possessed it, plus the usual athletic prowess of youth. Your presence at the party served as a remembrance of things past. Our past. I mean the times before you married Kathryn and the intervals between my marriages; the days during which we indulged our urge to merge. Do you remember the last time we saw each other?”
“I do. It was in this apartment after your fourth husband died. I came, along with a coterie of fawning men, to offer my sympathy.”
“You came. You stayed. You made a pass. Don’t you recall?”
I felt suddenly uncomfortable. “I offered my sympathies and kissed you on your cheek before I left.”
“That’s what you remember?”
“If I’d had a cinematographer present during that visit, he would have filmed you, in a medium shot, as you crossed the room to sit beside me on the loveseat. Then, in close-up, the camera would record you kissing me on one cheek, then on the other. Is it coming back?”
I shook my head no.
“Then after kissing me on my lips, you began to unbutton my blouse.”
I suddenly recalled the incident and felt the blush.
“I do not remember any resistance to my kisses.”
Janell laughed and began to serve dinner. From a large tureen, she filled a bowl with Hungarian goulash, a mutual favorite of our youth.
“I chose this spot for dinner because from the kitchen terrace we have an unobstructed view of the Golden Gate Bridge. I used to rent this 3100 square foot penthouse before my first husband, from the arranged marriage, died.”
“Mortimer Reliance, III?”
“Yes. He was a failure as a lover and banker. He died from a case of the chicken pox, just one year prior to the stock market crash of twenty-nine. He left me no money, but I kept the portion of the family jewels I’d received as a wedding present. After the stock market crash of ‘29, the owner of this building couldn’t collect any rent from the tenants, all forced into a state of bustitude by the financial debacle. I swapped my emerald necklace to the owner for the deed to this penthouse. I then claimed the necklace had been stolen, and after a nasty fight with my insurance company, I collected 175k while the owner of this building sold the necklace overseas, on the black market, for enough money to pay off his mortgage and sustain him through the depression.”
After dinner, we moved into the library. Janell rolled in a small cart with after dinner coffee. We sat in a pair of chairs facing another unobstructed view… this time of the Bay Bridge.
“After my second marriage, to the famous Hungarian bodybuilder, Milosz Zambo, I convinced him to pay for the construction of this window as an anniversary present. He owed it to me since he paid more attention to the size of his biceps than the size of his dick, a muscle he seldom exercised with me after the honeymoon. He was away most of the time, constantly working out in gyms, or attending bodybuilding contests and conventions. He was killed in the same plane crash as Glen Miller in 1944, although his name was not listed on the passenger manifest. I never felt the weight of his loss.
“My realtor told me she would add a million dollars to the price of this apartment for each of my two stupendous views.”
“You have an oddly shaped apartment.”
“No, I have the entire floor. Each year, after another birthday, my young realtor suggests I move to the Bahamas or the Cote D’Azur with the fifteen or twenty million dollars I would get for this place.”
“You are not seriously considering selling, are you?”
“Of course not. I’ll never leave San Francisco.”
“Do you know why I stopped giving interviews and making appearances on talk shows?”
“I stopped because I’d presented so many different versions of my past, I became confused. I couldn’t remember which husband or lover gave me which jewel. Was it my second husband who gave me the flawless, fifteen-carat blue diamond necklace or my lover during that marriage? Was the five-carat ruby ring from my second husband or my third? Did I attend the premiere of The Ten Commandments with my fourth husband or with his brother? I needed to establish a baseline for my life. My chosen version recorded for posterity. And for my obituary.”
Janell laughed openly. Not the derisive laughter of scorn or bitterness, but the utterly enjoyable laughter of a person, sufficiently secure and comfortable in the company of her companion to speak with absolute candor.
Looking up at her now legendary Paxton portrait hanging over the library fireplace, she stood up straight and faced it and her past. “Difficult to believe I was once that chaste 16-year-old in a white dress, wearing my mother’s pearls.”
“My third husband, the stock market racketeer, Harold Holmes, bought the portrait from my older brother, Ronald, who had received it as part of the division of my parents’ will. Ronald needed the money because he had invested a lot of his wealth with some charlatan financial advisor who absconded with all the funds from his clients. Only a year later, the Feds indicted Harold for illegal stock market manipulation. A jury convicted him. The judge sentenced him to ten years in the lock-me-tight. He was shot dead trying to escape with a group of other prisoners. The government located and confiscated most of the manipulated funds from his Brazilian account (less the funds used to bribe Brazilian bankers and pay off government officials). No one came after me. I was left black and blue from abandonment.”
“It’s perfectly safe now to tell the truth because all the leading and supporting players in my life are dead. I’ve simply outlived them all. Except for you, Charlie.”
She smiled, and leaning back in her chair said, “I’m safe from contradiction.”
“What about your fourth husband?”
“Sir Frederick Ashton? Oh yes… For a while, I played the role of Lady Ashton, hosting dinner parties, pouring tea and organizing charity events. I had, briefly, found a niche in a society with a bottomless pocketbook, filled with handsome bodies, painted faces, and weak minds. It was a society that encouraged, even approved, of men taking a mistress after a year of marriage and understood why, only a few months after the death of a husband, a widow’s hair might turn quite gold from grief.”
“Then why did he divorce you?”
“Because, after my medical examination, at 36, his physician told him I could never produce an heir. Frederick lost no time in finding a fertile mate. In a deal, negotiated like a canny movie producer, I returned my engagement and wedding rings, agreed not to contest the divorce or cause any unseemly publicity. For my co-operation, I returned from London to my unoccupied San Francisco penthouse with a $1450 Chanel overnight weekender bag loaded with bracelets, rings, broaches (all containing real stones), and four strings of pearls. Freddy fathered three sons and two daughters all of whom produced eleven grandchildren. He died a happy man at 76, surrounded by his beloved family and friends.”
“Throughout my life, all my efforts to revive my movie career failed,” she laughed.
“I don’t remember you appearing in any BIG movies, just seeing your pictures in newspapers and magazines on the arms of producers, directors and an occasional actor.”
“Yes, only occasionally actors. Most actors rarely held on to their money or knew how to make successful, long-term financial investments during their heydays. They went broke, long before they went bald, and turned to fat.”
The scorn from her comment rose high in the air, then floated to the floor like ash from a slow burning fire.
“I had made a few silents and a couple of early talkies. Nevertheless, I was a terrible actress. Still, I offered other charms. I became Cecil B. DeMille’s mistress. Cecil (a no-frills tycoon who proved that a down-to-earth businessman could direct), cast me in the 1935 movie, The Crusades, but the morals clause of his Paramount contract prevented him from using me. So he recast the role with Loretta Young.”
“In 1939, the year of GWTW, the greatest year in American movie history, when I was 28 and at the zenith of my beauty, he cast me in Union Pacific, as the love interest of the young, lethally handsome Joel McCrea. Alas, the money men decided that no matter how well I photographed, a movie with such an enormous budget required a well-known actress. Barbara Stanwyck played the role.”
“After that disappointment, we drifted apart. In 1955, I was all set to play the part of Bithiah, the Pharaoh’s sister in The Ten Commandments. At 44, I was the perfect age for the role and looked great in Technicolor. I had even completed the costume tests. However, Cecil owed a favor to some agent and Nina Foch got the role. Then De Mille insulted me by offering the role of Memnet in The Ten Commandments, but I didn’t want to play the role of an old, bitter slave woman. I turned it down. Judith Anderson played the role.”
“And then, as television continued to pull audiences away from the movies, some young casting director offered me the role of the lethal mother-in-law in the new daytime soap, Generations. He wanted my reputation, the mystique that had grown around my portrait, not any mistaken belief in my acting ability. Generations became the biggest hit of the mid to late nineteen fifties day-time television. I was nominated five consecutive years for a daytime Emmy, losing each time. I wore my own jewels on that show.”
“Because the producers made sure the audience knew the jewels were genuine. The publicity raised the show’s ratings. And it was cheaper than renting the real stuff and worrying about some Arsene Lupin stealing it. For the agreement to use my own jewelry, the network paid my annual insurance premiums.”
“After a twenty-two-year run, I simply outgrew the role and retired before the writers killed me off. Gradually, I sold my jewelry, in private, to individual collectors so I could live the rest of my days in the same manner as the best of my days. I had a few pieces copied to wear for the parties I still gave. It was a relief not to worry about them anymore. The diamond earrings I wore at my party two weeks ago were paste.”
She smiled, laughed out loud, then turned up the collar of her shirtdress and detached a pin. “This is the only piece of jewelry I care about anymore.” She placed a blue and red glass pin in the shape of a robin on the coffee cart. “Remember this?”
Stunned into silence, I remained motionless.
“Sixty years ago, you gave me this pin, a red-breasted robin with blue tail feathers. You bought it in the jewelry section of Woolworth’s, in 1935, during the height of the depression.”
“Yes, I paid twenty-six dollars for it, the price of a week’s rent and five dinners at the boarding house I lived in.”
“I always wore it until you married Kathryn. Then I put it away. It remained in my jewelry box until Kathryn died. Then I wore it again, but only underneath collars or hidden somewhere on a coat or sweater.”
I looked up at her portrait again, then shifted my glance to the old woman sitting next to me. She had shifted her hand from her lap to mine. My internal clock sounded an alarm.
I rose and pulled Janell up to a standing position. Then, without a word, I kissed her. Recognizing a good-bye kiss, Janell led me back to the vestibule and helped me on with my hat and coat. She did not speak, but this time she was unable to control her tears from leaving their source.
As I rode the elevator down to street level, I felt a release. As the only extant male from her past who remained, more or less upright and mobile, I alone understood her frames of reference and remembered people and the intimacies from our shared past. At that moment, I knew I had escaped the fate of a life embalmed in old applause. I had been played but had emerged from a painful situation.
Poor Janell. She was horrible. But she was wonderful.
The rain had stopped. I walked across the street and stood, looking up at the lighted window in the 14th-floor penthouse. I removed my hat.
“My Dearest…,” I thought. And with a slight bow, I said, “Good-bye, my sweet.”
A year later, Janell Cummings died at 85.
Almost all the publications and talk shows that published her obituary began with, “Janell Cummings, known as the American demimondaine of the golden age of movies and television…”, died yesterday of natural causes, in her San Francisco Telegraph Hill penthouse, at 85 years-old. She is survived by no one.”
I did not attend her funeral service.
Two months after the funeral, Janell’s attorney sent me a letter and a box.
Dear Mr. McGregor, I didn’t see you at the funeral. Afterward, I became so busy during a trial that I forgot to send you this item. Please forgive me. I had this piece appraised. Unfortunately, it’s only colored glass with a steel reinforcement. However, in her will, Janell was quite adamant that I send it to you.
Sincerely, Edward Green, Esq.
I took the robin out of the box and pinned it to the underside of my shirt collar. No one else would ever see it. I would always know it was there; the siren, now silent forever.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
The Siren’s Lament is from the author’s unpublished collection: Portraiture: A San Francisco Story Cycle.