My father was a French lumberjack. That’s just a joke. People don’t always know I’m joking. Especially men. They laugh when I’m being serious, then nod or look blank when, well… guess I’m not too good at telling jokes. Now, I know how to act funny. On camera, I mean. In character. From the inside out. If that’s funny, then okay. Wish I could be funny in real life. Witty! I want to be thought witty, but most men look more like they’re waiting for me to get my tits out.
There I go again, sorry. I’ll be good. Doris Day good. Promise we’ll stick to words you’re allowed to print. What was it you asked me?
Right… Dad. My father could’ve been anyone, anybody in the whole wide world. When I found out Sylvie is French for of the forest, I figured Mom must’ve shacked up with a French guy, like maybe French Canadian, you know? Because she lived up in Washington State for a while. Before I was born. She’s not from there. She’s kind of from everywhere. Or nowhere. But since she did live there, I figured she got mixed up with some forest ranger. Or something. Something to do with trees. Et voila! Sylvie. That was a joke too, by the way. I’ll warn you about the jokes. Maybe, if you wouldn’t mind, you could laugh a little bit? I mean if you want to. Et voila!
Once a reporter, not a journalist like yourself, some sleazy newshound, snuck into the hospital to ask Mom who my father was. They say she said, with perfect serenity, that it was her left bedroom slipper. Those were nice soft slippers. Powder blue. I make sure she has nice things.
Now where was I? Oh yeah… my dad. It’s a fact that all girls are attracted to their fathers, isn’t it? Where that leaves me, I don’t know. Wait, you wanted to ask me about Johnny.
Johnny was… wow! Valiant. How come that word’s gone out of style? I’m not the only girl who likes valiant, am I? Like, someone who’d come to your rescue? He was no bedroom slipper, I’ll tell you. Had those old-fashioned English manners that make a girl swoon. Of course, the first time I saw him, Johnny was wearing a suit of armour. That was his role in the picture we made together. There he was. A knight in shining armour among the dress racks. I didn’t stand a chance.
In the movie, I’m this mythical creature, like a fairy-elf, who meets the knight in a summer meadow. And she seduces him! I did loads to prepare for the role. Read everything I could find on elves before I had lunch with Hiram, the director. Over the shrimp cocktails, I explained to him how I was going to need special makeup, because elves have oversized eyes and small, pointed ears. I had made a couple sketches. He pushed those sketches right back across the table and gave me a look over his glasses.
“Syl, Cookie,” Hiram said, “your adoring public are not paying their seventy cents to see you prancing around in a pair of pointy ears. They’re paying to see Sylvie Davenport. America’s wet dream.” Seeing me droop down, arms crossed over my chest, he said, “It’s a compliment, Cookie.”
So, they made me up to look the way I always look. Only with longer hair. I wore a sort of gypsy costume. Johnny had to string garlands of flowers in my hair. Around my neck, my waist. The warm summer meadow we were supposed to be in was really Sound Stage Four. Johnny’s breath smelled like sardines. And the garlands were plastic flowers with wire. They snagged my skin.
But there’s this thing I do, once the camera is on. A place I go inside myself. Where the flowers are real. The sky is a true sky and everything is marvellous. So marvellous I almost can’t stand it. My eyes become like broken windows, with all the light and wind rushing through. People love me. I just have to look at you. You’ll love me. Like he did.
Johnny followed me into my dressing room after. Pressed himself up against me. He said, “Sorry about the kippers.” No kidding, that’s what he said.
I stared up into his blue eyes. His noble face. “That’s alright. I like sardines.” Which I don’t, but I didn’t want to break the spell. “Kippers aren’t sardines, they’re herrings,” he said softly. Then he kissed me. He, Johnny, kissed me, Syl. Which was different from the knight kissing the fairy. Mainly in that there was more tongue.
That was the start. We were together for seven months. Oh, here, take one of mine. There’s an ashtray there, right by your elbow. You want a drink or anything? I make a mean martini. Sure? Have to butter you up, don’t I? Otherwise, you might write nasty things about me. Aww, that’s sweet of you. You’re nice, too.
When he spoke, his mouth hardly moved. I used to kid him it was because he was trying not to spit out all those marbles. He said shag instead of fuck… of course that cracked me up. Johnny liked to quote Shakespeare…and the Greeks. Which was all Greek to me! Oh good, you got that one? See? I can be funny!
He was a wonderful lover. Passionate. With lots of stamina for a guy his age. That first time, he crushed those stupid plastic flowers. It was heaven.
“God, you’re amazing,” Johnny said to me once… in bed. “It’s like you have no bones. Those breasts, that belly, the great big thighs – “
“Hey! My thighs aren’t fat!”
“No, not fat, they’re perfect. All that soft flesh. It’s like riding a cloud.” He took a drag off his cigarette, slipped it between my lips. I sucked in some smoke, while he twisted a handful of my hair around his knuckles. “All these golden locks…”
“It’s not natural. The golden…”
“Well, yes I noticed, but oh Sylvie.” Eyes on the ceiling, he said, “You’re like America itself. Completely uncomplicated. Open. Welcoming. Saying, Come on in….”
Okay, Johnny talked a lot of shit. Sorry. He talked a load of baloney, but his accent made it sound less silly.
Was I in love? I’m always in love. All the time. I wake up, first person I see, I want to paint sunrises. Just for them. My heart comes cheap, you know. But Johnny, he was like an answer to a prayer I hadn’t even got round to praying yet. I felt safe with him. Until I didn’t.
Know what was funny? He always wanted to go to Chasen’s. I had my own booth there. We went at least twice a week. Johnny didn’t even like American food. But he was always dying to go. So, I’d get all dolled up, and we’d go. The minute our car pulled up, bang! Photographers. Every time. You’ve seen the pictures. Me and Johnny, under the awning at Chasen’s. Me smiling. Showing a little leg. I could pose like that in my sleep. Johnny glaring at the cameras. Clutching my arm. That wasn’t play-acting, by the way. I’d have bruises the next day from him holding on so tight. He hated that whole scene. So, I could never understand why he wanted to go in the first place.
Life Magazine sent a photographer to my house to take pictures of me in my kitchen. Me stirring a pot. Me staring into the oven. Me chopping carrots. You know the kind of thing. About how I’m really an ordinary person. How I cook for my man like any normal girl does. Fact is, I am a pretty good cook. Betty, one of my foster moms, taught me. Betty was great to me, but her husband Jim, he…he paid a little too much attention to me. So, I had to leave. But I remember everything she taught me. Dan… the Life photographer… he was surprised I even knew how to turn on my oven. This is another thing: I’m not supposed to be witty, and I’m not supposed to know how to make a pot roast. I don’t know who made these rules. So, I said to Dan, “Actually, you’d be lucky if I made you dinner.”
“I sure as heck would be,” he said with a grin. He had a sweet, Mickey Rooney sort of face, so he could get away with being flirty.
“I mean it!” I tapped his arm. “I’m an excellent cook. I’d adore to have someone to make dinner for, but Johnny likes to go out. Well, you know.” Dan had snapped us outside Chasen’s so many times.
“Poor little movie star,” he chuckled, tucking his camera back inside its case. “But you know, if you were my girl, I’d wanna show you off too.”
“Oh, he hates all that stuff. Posing for you guys drives Johnny crazy.”
“Syl? How do you think we all know to be there when you get outta your car?”
My stomach sort of dropped. “Beats me.”
“He tips us off. His assistant phones up every magazine, every newspaper. She tells us where you’re going. That’s how.”
“But that doesn’t make any… If Johnny wants his picture taken, why does he get so mad?”
“Maybe because he’s not the main attraction? If you weren’t there, we wouldn’t bother.” Slinging his camera bag over a shoulder he says to me, “I’ll be going. Listen, Syl… uh, Miss Davenport. Thanks a lot. We got some great shots today.”
“Well, that’s down to you.”
“Nah, it’s all you.” And Dan was out the door.
In our movie, Johnny strips his armour off to lie in the grass with his head in my lap. This is the seduction bit. I feed him berries I’ve gathered myself that stain his lips. Bread with wild honey dribbling down, glistening on his knightly chin. My line is, “I love thee true.” I tried different ways of saying it, to make it sound more natural. In the end what worked best was to almost throw the line away. To say it like it was the most obvious thing in the world. I love you; I was made to love you. She’s a fairy, and I think in her mind she has been sent to him. To love him. Help him. She has magic that makes plants grow, makes summer out of winter, and all she wants is to do the same for her knight. To bring back the summertime of his life.
So, while he’s eating her food and feeling the sun on his skin… while all that’s going on, she sings to him. This little fairy song about love, the blue sky and tra-la-la. They were thinking they’d dub it, but I practiced a lot and, in the end, they used my voice. The song is a spell. As she sings, all the lines disappear from the knight’s face. His hair goes from grey to a warm brown that Gordon, the hairdresser, mixed just for Johnny. And then the knight gets all virile and sexy. It’s my favourite part of the picture. Not for the sexy bit, but the way she’s able to make him feel young again. Like his best self. Shouldn’t love be able to do that?
The reviews were awful.
I’ve gotten bad notices before, but these were really stink-a-roo. Thou Hast Made a Flop, is one headline that hurt. They weren’t gonna buy my talking all thee and thy. I feel like if someone could’ve coached me on that, I would’ve got the hang of it. Hiram always said there wasn’t time. Hey… At least they didn’t pan my singing!
But poor Johnny. Nymph and Gnome in Garden Frolic was the tag line that stuck. Variety said he looked more like my father than a lover. That he should trade in his sword for a walking stick. That it’d take a team of fairies, weaving spells night and day, to make John Sampson Law leading man material again.
Johnny said it didn’t matter. But it was right around this time he started bruising my arm outside Chasen’s. Then if the photos appeared with the caption, Nymph and Gnome, he’d break things. A glass ashtray. Souvenir plate from San Francisco. A framed photo of my mom. Once he punched a hole in the wall. Right there, by the patio door. Plaster dust drifted down like snow. And so all of a sudden, he started laughing. Worst sound I ever heard. The breaking and punching were easier to bear than that. That laugh.
I’d hide. Well, not hide exactly. I’d go into the bedroom. Sit on the floor and smoke. I’ve sat on a lot of floors in a lot of bedrooms. Listening for the breaking to stop, or the car to drive away. Guess what I keep wishing for is that there might be a someone somewhere who will want to sit on the floor with me. Someone who can stand me when I’m scared, or crying, or smoking too many…no, wait. Don’t write that down. That’s not… I don’t mean to make too much of it. Everyone has their blue days, right? Even here, in sunny Los Angeles. Sometimes I wish it’d rain so I could mix a pitcher of martinis and have a good cry. This weather is a lot to live up to.
Still, we had our good days, Johnny and me. Had some laughs. Sometimes he’d use one of his funny expressions, like don’t get your knickers in a twist and I’d giggle. He’d beam like he won an Oscar. And I’d think, okay. I can do this.
The last time we were out in public together was that premiere last Christmas. What was the name of that movie? The Brave Men of… Something or Other. For publicity, the studio had invited some soldiers to watch the picture. The armistice thingy had happened that summer. So, these were the first boys back home from Korea. They were under the marquee, in their uniforms, posing for photos when we got there. So fresh. So bright and alive. Cheeks like apples. You couldn’t look away from them. Then they saw me, and started chanting. “Syl! Syl! Syl!” Oh, they were boys! But boys with big men’s voices. Shouting my name as I walked right into the middle of them. It was like they each had their own separate engine running inside. The heat. The purr. And all talking at once. Flashbulbs popping all over the place. I’m smiling. Touching one on the elbow. Another on the shoulder. Cradling one’s face like he was my son, another like my kid brother. “You glad the war is over? Glad to be back home?” Yes, they said, and it was lovely. So sweet, to see how happy they were. It was all so…vivid. I’ll never, ever forget it.
The crowd started moving, what with everyone going into the theatre. Thinking Johnny had gone in ahead, I was surprised to see him still behind me. Still at the curb, where the car had dropped us off. Just standing there, on his own. Heading over to him, I saw something in his face. He was white. Eyes blazing. I held out my hand but he wrinkled his nose at it. As if it was rotting meat on a stick. Then he leaned in and hissed into my ear, “Why don’t you just shag them all?” My face went hot. Like I’d been slapped. He smiled that vicious smile of his. Turned and walked away. I watched him go, hands jammed in his tuxedo jacket pockets. Johnny walked right down the street. No one recognised him. No one noticed him at all.
When I got home that night, he was here. Sitting here, in the living room. In the dark. Except for the Christmas tree lights blinking on and off, like they do. They’d blink on, and in this reddish light, I saw his face, and his knuckles gripping the arms of his chair. Then they’d blink off and I couldn’t see him at all. I remember thinking it seemed like the scene of an accident. You know, when you pass one on the road? Squad cars, an ambulance. Red and blue lights flashing. I sat down on the sofa. Didn’t even take off my coat.
“I’ve been having this dream.” He started as if he was in the middle of a story. “And in this dream… well. I don’t want to upset you, Syl.”
“I won’t be upset.” My legs were pressed together. Hands on knees, I could feel the cool sheen of my stockings.
“That’s right.You’re really very strong, aren’t you? Stout Yankee stock. Whereas I…” He stopped talking and the lights flashed off.
“Are you sick, Johnny?”
Again, the laugh. Like a donkey with a chest cold. “Not at all! Kind of you to be concerned. I only meant that I’m old. Very. Very. Old.”
Then silence, woolly thick. I had a thousand different answers at the ready… No, you’re not. Don’t be silly. Come here and I’ll make you feel young again. I’d used all of these on him before, and they had mostly worked. This time though, I just couldn’t manage it. I was hurt. But it wasn’t only that. I was waiting to see how bad this was going to get.
“So, in this dream,” he said, “you come home from some gay, glittering Hollywood gig. You float in, just as you have tonight. You’re perfect. All hair. Teeth. And tits. That sexy little wiggle when you walk. Wearing some champagne coloured, tighter-than-fuck frock leaving little to the imagination. Because why should it? Nothing about you, My Darling, is engineered to appeal to Man’s mind. Your aim is…somewhat lower.”
Johnny was pale. His forehead sweating. And I was holding onto my knee so hard I could feel my nails making half-moons in the flesh.
“Everything on display. What are shop windows for? Let’s get those punters in! This is, after all, America.” Arms open as Jolson singing Mammy, the ruddy light made Johnny’s features grotesque.
“Why weren’t you at the party with me?”
“Because I’m not wanted. I’ve got grey pubes and I quote King Lear. I don’t fit. But you! You fit right in, and every man fits right in you. And I do mean every man, Syl. I could smell them off you. You came to me. In your frock. You kissed me. And I smelled their spunk on your pretty neck. Tasted it. In your pretty mouth.”
“I’m going to bed.”
“Oh no you’re not.” He stood up, throwing the shadow of a giant on the wall. He was leaning over me, his hands on my shoulders. I couldn’t move. Couldn’t stop looking at his face. His long, noble face. So haggard now. The last thing he’d broken in my house was himself. Into a hundred un-mendable pieces.
Then Johnny said, “They warned me about you.”
In our movie, there are ghosts. Two kings, in jewel encrusted crowns and velvet robes. Two knights in full armour but for their helmets, which they carry under their arms. Two who I think are supposed to be princes… tights and swords and shining hair. They appear to Johnny. That is, to his character, when he wakes up in the morning to find I’m gone. He stumbles down to the edge of this pond, rubbing his eyes. Looking around the whole time like he’s wondering where I am. He kneels in the mud to splash cold water on his face. In the close-up, we see droplets beading on his majestic brow as his blue eyes widen in surprise.
The ghosts are on the far side of the pond. You know right away they’re ghosts because they’re very pale, with dark staring eyes and black, toothless holes where their mouths should be. They appear out of nowhere. This is why Johnny’s character looks so surprised. They start calling out to Johnny, something like, “Beware! Beware! She’s got you under her spell!”
Basically, the ghosts are my ex-boyfriends doing a spooky version of you’re better off without her, Pal. You’d be surprised how many of my movies end like that. Or maybe you wouldn’t. I’m bad news, right?
So, I asked him, “Who, Johnny? Who warned you? About what? What did they say about me?”
His fingers were drilling down into my shoulders and his breath was hot and stank of booze. And just when I thought I’d scream, he started saying one word, over and over, in this weird stage whisper. Just one word, while Johnny’s face turned redder and redder.
Then he stood, opened his arms again and bellowed, “Beware the girl without mercy!”
“For God’s sake, Johnny, it was only a movie.”
He stood right there, in the middle of the room, and he laughed. Laughed his horrible laugh at me and said, “And I am merely a ghost.” I stood up. Still tall in my heels, and turned to go upstairs. Locked my bedroom door, and cried myself to sleep.
That was it for us. In the morning Johnny was gone, and we never spoke again. Yeah, just about a year ago now. I haven’t got around to putting up a tree this year. It’s a hassle, isn’t it, all that ‘deck the halls’ stuff? I’m not really in the spirit this year.
When I heard about his heart attack, I remembered the way his face went all red that night. And I wondered… I mean, if he was already sick, that might sort of explain? I don’t know. Maybe not. What else can I tell you? We were happy. For a while.
No, really, thanks so much for coming. Hope it was okay. Hope I gave you what you need. I’m always nervous until the article comes out! I’m sure it’ll be fine.
I’m actually going away in January. To Korea. Some of our fellas are still over there, and they’ve asked me to go do a few shows for the troops. Not sure what I’ll do. Thinking I might sing a few songs? I mean I’m no Rosemary Clooney, but I can carry a tune. Well, enough that they won’t throw stuff at me.
I just think it might be good, you know? How can you be lonely with all those beautiful boys around you? How can you be sad? With all that youth? All that life?
Feature Image from the 1928 move Dry Martini.