When I was sixteen, I ran away from the last in a series of bad foster homes and moved in with my actress mother, into her small, one-bedroom apartment at the corner of Santa Monica and Fairfax in Hollywood. At that point in her B-movie career, my mother was already several Valium past her prime, having hit her zenith more than two decades earlier when she had appeared as the killer's moll in Dead Men Don't Talk.
Undeterred by her professional failings, Lila had remained a dedicated drama queen, and in the late 'sixties she was still performing before many unappreciative audiences, including most of the overworked staff of the L.A. Department of Social Services. Lila's temperament had been the main cause of my prolonged stay in foster care, and by that decade was in almost complete opposition to my own: while Lila was excessively public about her moods and opinions, at sixteen I was self-consciously private about the secret, adolescent feelings I assumed were uniquely mine.
My mother wasn't young when she became pregnant with me, and by the time I was a teenager she had become acutely aware that her age was starting to show in the lines around her eyes and mouth and in the veins of her hands. On the late spring day I showed up at her apartment door with all my belongings in a worn backpack and a brown grocery bag, she lifted one green-veined hand like the aging beauty queen that she was and waved me inside.
Almost immediately, I knew I'd made a mistake. My original plan had been to keep going, to hitchhike north to San Francisco and then disappear among the hundreds of other runaways finding shelter that summer on the streets of the Haight-Ashbury. I would change my name to Wildflower or Stardust and write poetry and sell marijuana while I waited out the last years of my underage adolescence.
Instead, I spent the night on my mother's couch while DSS tried to place me—clearly a problem, since teenagers were considered among the most unplaceable of foster kids. I spent another night on the couch and then another until two years had gone by and I had turned eighteen and become nobody's problem but my own.
One morning not long after I'd moved in, Lila was struck by one of those electric ideas that I later came to think of as the first whistle stop on her bipolar express. If Hollywood did not fully appreciate her gifts, she reasoned brightly, it would surely appreciate her gifted daughter. The fact that I had neither the talent nor personality for acting did not seem to occur to her, nor did the reality that I did not look the part: I was not tall or thin or beautiful. Hollywood was then, as now, thigh-deep in girls who had all of those qualities, and it was not hungry for someone like me who had none.
"You have good bones," Lila said. "But too much fat. I'm guessing you need to lose twenty pounds."
She marched into the rusty bathroom wallpapered with droopy, pink petals and returned with a floor-model scale. "Here," she said, setting the beast in front of me. "Let's see what you weigh."
Of course a more self-confident girl would have refused to submit to this particular form of parental humiliation. But after a lifetime in foster care, I was not a self-confident girl. I stepped onto the scale.
"Oh my God," Lila said, her pupils widening under the double wings of false eyelashes. She looked at me as if she'd just learned that I was the offspring of the lizard monster. "I had no idea you weighed so much."
I blushed, embarrassed at the excess baggage under my skin.
"That's gotta come off—at least thirty pounds. Hollywood likes 'em thin. 'You can never be too thin or too rich.' Remember that. Those are words to live by."
Now, the year was 1967, and in 1967 girls didn't exercise, or if they did, they exercised in a way that ensured they didn't develop muscles. These were pre-feminist days, before gay was okay and when any woman with a strong bicep was assumed to be a lesbian (something Lila had already suspected of me). For that reason alone, Lila's weight-loss plan for me did not include exercise. Instead, she put me on something she'd read about in Star World, a 750-calorie-a-day torture called The Hollywood Diet.
"This is what stars like Goldie Hawn use when they need to get the weight off fast," she read. "Goldie Hawn," she repeated for emphasis. She looked at me as if she were superimposing Goldie's Laugh-In bikini-perfect body onto mine. For breakfast, Star World instructed, I was to eat one soft-cooked egg along with half of a grapefruit. I had not yet begun drinking coffee—an addiction I would later acquire—but I was allowed coffee, so long as it was taken without sugar or cream.
Lunch would consist of a green salad with water-packed tuna and lemon juice as dressing. Dinner would be the other half of the breakfast grapefruit; one tomato, broiled or raw; and one hamburger patty, eaten rare, of course ("That's a sign of good breeding. Remember that—the lower classes overcook their meat."). Pepper was allowed but not salt. Six times a day I was to drink a full eight-ounce glass of water.
The pounds would melt away, Star World assured us, and within ten days I would lose fifteen pounds.
"Not enough," Lila mused. "But it's a start."
It was Monday, June 19th. According to the beast, I weighed 142 pounds. I sat at Lila's Formica kitchen table, trying to coax down the lumpy, flavorless egg on my plate. Lila didn't watch me struggle—that would have been rude—instead, she positioned herself behind a copy of The Hollywood Reporter, pausing occasionally to adjust the cord of her terry cloth bathrobe or to take a sip of coffee from a cup that had once belonged to the Beverly Hills Hotel.
"Listen to this," she said suddenly. She snuffed out a long, filter-tipped cigarette in a glass ashtray. "'Hollywood lost one of its most respected actors on June 10th when Spencer Tracy succumbed to emphysema and heart disease.' Tracy was making a comeback, had completed work on what was to be his last film, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, blah-blah-blah. 'Spencer is survived by his wife, Louise Treadwell Tracy; his son John; and his long-time companion, Katherine Hepburn.'"
She dipped the top of The Reporter to look over at me. "Never would leave his wife for Kate. Those Catholics. They're as hypocritical as Baptists and believe me, I know wherein I speak." With this last line, she suddenly regained the Mississippi accent that years of elocution lessons had mostly erased.
I washed down the egg with eight ounces of water and turned my attention to the grapefruit. Lila had cut the tender fruit in half and then sliced its pink sections loose from their skin—a courtesy I found both maternal and vaguely murderous. I dug in.
"But you know what this means," she said.
Grapefruit juice squirted into my right eye; I winced and shut it and shook my head no.
"Spencer Tracy, Dorothy Parker—that's two this month. Spencer Tracy you know, of course. Everyone knows Spencer, but did they teach Dorothy Parker in that high school of yours?"
"I know who Dorothy Parker is," I said, defensively. I was an English major, after all, although not a very good one. "She was a wit," I said, quoting my sophomore year English teacher.
"You don't know the half of it. You couldn't. Do you know what she said about Alan Campbell, her husband?"
I shook my head to indicate my ignorance of Hollywood trivia.
"'He's queer as a billy goat.' That's what she said. He was an actor."
She spat out the act of actor as if it had left a bad taste in her mouth. I had the sudden intuition that my father—whoever he was—had probably carried a SAG card.
I finished the grapefruit. Inside my stomach, juices flowed. I thought of oatmeal and toast with strawberry jam, breakfast from an early foster home. Things had been bad there, but breakfast had always been good. Weekends there had been stacks of buttermilk pancakes with maple syrup and butter, eggs sunny side up with thick, crisp bacon. Oranges hand-squeezed, plucked from a tree in the backyard. I was hungry.
"Spencer . . . Dorothy . . . " she mused. "Death happens in threes. Hollywood isn't safe now. There's one more coming."
She stood and cleared the dishes, washing them quickly in the kitchen sink before setting them on a tray to dry. Then she poured a second cup of coffee, picked up the Hollywood Reporter, and retreated to her room to spend the rest of the morning in bed, propped up against two flame-red, diva-sized pillows. I stayed at the table, where the morning's issue of the L.A. Times lay unopened. I shucked the rubber band and glanced at the front-page headline—"Nasser Resigns"—before flipping to the classified ads, to the jobs listed under "Women Only." According to the want ads, L.A. needed women who were qualified to work as secretaries or salesgirls or nurses. I aspired to be none of these things, and I wondered again if there would ever be a place to me in what my teachers called the real world.
At noon Lila emerged from her bedroom, dressed in a peach-colored dress of some ethereal material. She carried a handbag that matched her dress, which matched the color of her very high-heeled shoes.
"I'm famished," she said. "What about you?"
Before I could answer, she corrected herself with a little, self-satisfied smile.
"Oh, that's right. How stupid of me. You're dieting."
She executed a Loretta Young-like movement, sweeping into the kitchen. Then she seemed to change her mind.
"Can I trust you to make your own lunch? Lettuce, tuna, lemon juice. I'll leave it all here for you on the counter."
"Sure," I said.
"Well, good. I have a lunch date with my agent. At the Brown Derby."
She paused, giving me time to be impressed.
"Mustn't be late," she added.
"No," I agreed.
I waited a little while after she'd gone to make sure she wasn't coming back before I fixed my salad: lettuce, tuna, lemon juice. Then I dumped the whole mess into a garbage bag and grabbed it and left the apartment. At a Taco Bell on Fairfax, I trashed the bag and asked a pimply-faced boy behind the counter to give me a beef burrito, two cheese tacos, and a Pepsi. I thought about Lila.
"Make that a Diet Pepsi," I said.
She was home in time to fix dinner: quiche Florentine and a glass of Chablis for her. For me, it was a greenish tomato sliced into hard wedges, the other half of the morning's murdered grapefruit, and a hamburger patty that bled when I prodded it with my fork. And water. Every time I emptied my glass, Lila was at my elbow, dutifully pouring another eight ounces.
Tuesday was a repeat of Monday except for one important change: the beast was kind to me on Tuesday. Despite my fast-food deception, I now weighed 140 pounds. Somehow, during the previous twenty-four hours I had lost two pounds. Lila was pleased.
"See," she said.
After breakfast, Lila went to her room to review a script she'd been given at the Brown Derby lunch.
"My agent thinks there may be a part for me."
Upside down, I managed to make out what looked like the words Beyond the before she folded back the cover.
I showered and dressed in the bathroom, putting on my cleanest pair of jeans and my nicest T-shirt. I checked out my image in the smoky mirror above the sink: presentable, I thought, but in an ordinary way. I went to the doorway of Lila's bedroom and told her I was going out for a while.
"Out?" she said without taking off her reading glasses or looking up. "Out where?"
"Job-hunting," she repeated. This time she did look up. She removed her glasses—the frames were a reddish-brown color, like her hair—and put one end in her mouth while she pondered the implications of my search for gainful employment. Then she removed it.
"Your job is acting," she said, "or at least it will be."
"In the meantime, though," I offered.
"I suppose." She looked me up and down. "Is that what you're wearing?"
She made a little tsk-tsking sound with her tongue. "When you're a size six, we'll go shopping. At Saks." And she went back to her script.
"Sure," I said.
"You'll need bus fare. There's money in the change jar."
On a small table by the front door she kept a Chinese vase for loose change. I tipped it and shook out three dollars in quarters and put them in my backpack.
"Don't forget your diet," I heard her call as I closed the door behind me.
I went back to Taco Bell. The same boy was behind the counter, and he looked surprised but happy to see me.
"Hey," he said.
"Hey," I answered. "I was just wondering . . . you don't need any help, do you?"
The surprised happiness brightened in his eyes. He ducked under the counter and came up with an application form.
"Here," he said, pushing it at me. "You'll want to talk to the manager. I don't know if he's hiring, but he'll be in tomorrow."
I looked at the neat lines on the printed page: name, address, phone number, work history, references. It occurred to me that my life so far did not fit into the boxes of an employment application.
"The manager's off on Tuesdays, but he should be here tomorrow."
"Cool," I said. I looked at the clock over his left shoulder. It was ten minutes before noon.
"Is it too early for lunch?"
On Wednesday I returned to meet the manager, a short, sweaty man who seemed desperate in a midlife-crisis sort of way. He hired me on the spot, and we agreed that I would start the next day.
By the time I got back to the apartment, Lila had gone out—I had no idea for how long. I looked for a note, and when I didn't find one, I made my tuna lunch and put it in a garbage bag and went outside to find a neighbor's trash can.
The phone was ringing when I came back inside, and I answered, thinking it might be Lila. But it was just a collection agency—there had been calls before—and I told the man he'd have to call back later.
Lila came home a few hours later with one of those expensive-looking bags they give women who shop in Beverly Hills boutiques. Inside I could see stacks of tissue paper-wrapped items.
"I got a job today," I said before she'd had a chance to slip into her room. "At Taco Bell."
She stopped mid-step and turned to face me.
"You did what?"
"I got a job. At Taco Bell. I start tomorrow."
In a movement I was sure came straight out of one of her movies, she dropped the bag to the floor, pressed her arms to her sides and clenched her fists. Her body became one big exclamation point.
"Just what in God's name is Taco Bell?"
"You know. Taco Bell. It's a fast-food restaurant. For Mexican food."
"Mexican food," she repeated. "Taco Bell. And just what will you do for this fast-food establishment?"
She looked at me with what I thought might be disdain or pity or maybe both.
"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph," she said and then, in an abrupt shift of mood her entire demeanor changed. She sat down next to me on the couch and reached over for my right hand and sandwiched it between both of hers. It was a very hot day, but her hands were cold.
"Darling," she said. "I want you to listen very carefully to what I'm about to tell you."
She patted my hand for added emphasis and peered into my eyes. I wondered if she had learned this in acting school: how to emote sincerity.
"This may be hard for you to understand, but I see something in you that you obviously can't see in yourself."
She took a deep breath, checking to make sure she had my full attention.
"You are like me, and we are not like other people. Your foster parents and your social workers and I imagine your teachers—these are all small, dull people with small, dull dreams. We are not like them. We have song and spark in us, a spark that makes us want to do something with our lives. I see that spark in you even when you can't see it in yourself. We've got it, darling. We can't help it. It's in our blood."
She paused here to give me time to absorb her words.
"Are you understanding any of what I'm trying to tell you?"
I looked into my heart, searching for Lila's song and spark, but all I found there was a muffled darkness.
"Sure," I said.
She let go of my hand.
"Now, as for Taco Bell . . . if you insist, you may work at Taco Bell for the time being. But just until you lose enough weight to get your head shots."
Thursday I reported for work at ten a.m. The manager wasn't there—he was having problems at home—and he had left the boy in charge. He showed me what to do, and I saw that working would be no harder than a lot of other things I'd had to do, and it came with a paycheck. I worked six hours on Thursday and six hours on Friday. That was twenty-seven dollars already.
Saturday morning, Lila called me into the bathroom. She was still in her bathrobe, but I had already dressed for work. She pointed at the beast.
"I'll be late," I protested.
"You have time."
I stripped down to my underwear and stepped onto the scale. The beast reported that I weighed 138 pounds.
"One hundred and thirty-eight pounds," Lila said. "After five days."
I nodded—it seemed all right to me, all things considered.
"I think you're cheating."
I felt my face flush.
"Uh, what do you mean?"
"You've been cheating on your diet. You must be. One hundred and thirty-eight pounds. You should weigh less than that by now."
"Maybe I hit a plateau," I suggested.
She lifted one finely arched eyebrow.
"I doubt it."
She appraised me with a mother's stare as I pulled on my clothes and hurried out of the apartment. When I came home, my dinner was waiting, but next to the glass of water was another glass, this one filled with some murky concoction.
"That," she said, "is a digestive aid since you obviously are having trouble with your digestion."
I lifted the glass and looked at the liquid. It was thick as mucous and brown and smelled musty, like old leaves.
"Drink it," she said.
I drank it. It tasted bitter. All of a sudden I wasn't feeling so great. I made it to the bathroom just in time to throw up in the stained toilet bowl. Afterwards, I dragged myself to the living room and collapsed on the couch.
From the kitchen, I could hear Lila washing the dishes, humming a little tune to herself. It seemed really familiar, some show tune. As I was falling into a fuzzy sleep, it came to me what it was. It was I Enjoy Being a Girl.
Sunday morning I was still tired, but I forced myself to go to work, and I made it through my six-hour shift. Sunday night the concoction was waiting for me with dinner. I drank it and threw up and passed out on the couch. Monday morning I weighed 135. On Tuesday I weighed 132, and on Wednesday I was down to 129.
On Thursday Jayne Mansfield died.
"Did you hear?"
It was my day off, and I was on the couch, reading some pulp fiction I had discovered on Lila's bookshelf—Odd Girl Out, pretty juicy stuff compared to my high school required reading. Lila had just swooped in from her bedroom, where she kept the TV on a rolling cart. Behind her, I could hear the steady tones of the evening newscaster.
"Jayne Mansfield was killed in an automobile accident. They're saying she was decapitated." She paled at the image that must have been playing in her imagination.
"Remember what I said? Death comes in threes. That's three. Hollywood is safe now. At least for now."
At dinner I ate my hamburger and tomato and grapefruit, and when I had finished, I drank Lila's emetic. It worked immediately, as I knew by now that it would, so I was already in the bathroom when I vomited. After I had emptied my stomach, I rinsed my mouth with Lavoris. Then I stepped onto the scale. The beast said I weighed 127 pounds. It had been ten days, and I was still the same girl I had been all along, but I had lost fifteen pounds, just as Lila had wanted.
I fell asleep on the couch, but after a little while, I thought I heard Lila calling my name. I got up and went as far as her doorway. She looked up from where she was sitting in bed, the Beyond the script open in her arms.
"There's a part here that's perfect for you," she said. She motioned for me to come into the room.
"Page ninety-eight. Jennifer, the daughter."
She gave me the script, and I sat down on the far edge of her bed. I flipped to page ninety-eight and read the page and then skimmed the previous pages to make sense of what I was reading. The scene took place in the locked ward of a psychiatric hospital. I turned forward to page ninety-eight and read Jennifer's lines again, silently.
"But this girl is suicidal," I said when I was done.
"Yes," Lila said. "Jennifer is self-destructive, but her life has been saved by the wise intervention of her mother. Keep reading."
"But mother!" I read on page ninety-nine. "How can I go on? My life is ruined!"
"Jennifer," her mother, Anna, responded ("with earnest intent"). "Darling daughter. You can go on. You must go on. And you will go on."
Lila lit a cigarette, drawing in its gray smoke and then exhaling, breathing in and out as I read. And I saw that it was perfect for her—in her deluded way she was Anna—and I knew that she would get the part and that I would never try.
What I could not have known was that Beyond the Valley would become a cult classic, that Lila would finally win the celebrity she had craved but that she would be dead before the movie was released, she would die of cancer two weeks before my eighteenth birthday.
"You see?" she said before I had finished my scene. "It's good, isn't it? It's really very good."
She waved me closer to where she sat propped up by her flaming diva pillows, preparing for her comeback. She made a place for me beside her on the bed.
"Daughter," she said. "Darling daughter. Let us practice our lines."