March 21, 2006


“But will they cry for me, you think?” she asked her personal assistant, who was helping with the bandages.

“Rivers,” the girl said. “There’ll be tears flowing in the streets. There’ll be a line blocks long for a last glimpse of you.”

“Because, you know, that’s why I think I really got into the whole thing. To be remembered after my death. It sounds morbid, but what else do we have?’

The girl applied fresh, clean bandages where the pouches under the eyes had been.

“You think I should have made more movies? You think it, don’t you? You can tell me.”

“No, you made just the right amount. You quit at the perfect time, they all say that.”

Yes, she had left Hollywood in her thirties, after a string of effervescent ingénue roles that couldn’t possibly be extended further, and married that multimillionaire who had conveniently died a decade later, and then, barely into middle age, she’d made her grand comeback on Broadway and reprised the part in her Oscar-winning film. From then on she’d picked her roles with increasing care and canniness: cameos that upstaged the young sex kittens and turned her into a grande dame, and guest-star turns on the most prestigious television dramatic plays, and the one-woman show, a wry and celebratory look back at her life and loves, featuring songs in her famous throaty alto and a finale that had her carried offstage, in a tight-fitting full-length red gown, by a troop of muscular tuxedoed young men. Now, in old age, her voice on commercials sold more product than the products themselves did, and her trembly but doughty narrations at classical concerts brought showers of roses and backstage proposals from wealthy codgers.

She was preparing for what she knew would be her swan song, the strong-willed but kind-hearted matriarch of a clan of American aristocrats. The latest writhing twenty-year-old, and a fortyish award-winner who was herself facing the inevitable dilemmas of age, would play her younger selves, and she knew that the better they were, the more they would be mere appetizers for the rich main course of her crowning performance. To have outlived competitiveness, that was a fine thing too, amid so many fine things.

On the first day of shooting, she drove slowly along Park Avenue in her black limousine, stepped carefully out to wave regally at the small but fanatical crowd, strode confidently into the townhouse that had been rented as the set, played her first scene perfectly to the admiration of cast and crew alike, and then fell to a heart attack in her trailer, which was parked on a side street that had been cordoned off for her.

A few weeks too soon! Another actress was hired to play her role: someone who’d come into the business several years after her and had always been sold as the new version of her. No swan song, no final Oscar, no crowning achievement for the American Film Institute to preserve. But still, there were thousands at her funeral, and they cried in the streets.