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Only Clara's appealing persona, and her ingratiating way with words, will hold the reader to the end of this nonsense; for many it may not be enough.
I must take you back three months, gestation time for the murder, the same number of months, I'm told, as for a tiger. Grimly appropriate.
It was conceived on a breezy March day in the town of Woolcott, Massachusetts, and though one might have wished for a miscarriage, the thing went full term and was born, bouncing and terrible, the following June.
My cousin Charles Saddlier, known to family and friends as Sadd, values literate expression above life itself and thinks I've carried the above metaphor too far; but I like it because there were children involved, three little girls whom my daughter, Paula, called "the beanbags." Certainly they were tossed about, poor mites, but when your mother is a famous movie star, you can't expect to have the childhood of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy.
Now to take you back those three months.
Woolcott is a pleasant suburb of Boston where I spent four teenage years at Woolcott Academy. This small, first-rate, rather obscure boarding school for girls has survived chiefly owing to its excellence and a militantly loyal alumnae. In this era, which has seen the closing of so many private schools, "Wooly," as it is affectionately known -- and its students as "Woolies" -- has gone stoutly on educating our daughters and granddaughters and as stoutly remaining an all-girl school. Twenty years ago when Paula graduated, the headmistress, or rather the Head (I struggled valiantly to keep up with the times), herself a granddaughter of the school's founder, said in her commencement address: "We simply believe that a young woman can study better when seated in class beside another young woman rather than a young man."
Conservativealmost to the point of being reactionary, Woolcott Academy is the kind of school that girls complain about being sent to, then proceed to send their daughters.
"I'm dying of curiosity," said Paula on that March morning as we sat, I still in my bathrobe, on her rather sagging front porch. Her two cats squatted on the rickety rail. Paula and her husband, Andy, had bought a big, old "fixer-upper" in the Boston suburb of Dedham and were blithely not fixing it up. "Louise wouldn't tell me a thing on the phone except that she wanted to see you and was sending you this letter." She pulled an envelope from the morning mail. "Do you know how to get there?"
"Get to Wooly?" I looked at my daughter in surprise.
"I mean, some of the exits have been changed." Paula took her sneakered feet from the rail, and both cats clawed into it as it swayed. "When 95 went in it screwed up a lot of old exits. Woolcott is exit number 53 now."
"Oh. Thanks. Will an hour do it from here?"
"Less. I'll get more coffee."
Paula went into the house, and I opened the letter. There was a folded enclosure that appeared to be another letter in enormous handwriting. I opened Louise Littleton's typewritten one first. It was on familiar Woolcott Academy stationery and engraved "Office of the Principal." It read:
Dear Mrs. Gamadge:
You were out when I called Paula, but I was delighted to learn that you were visiting her. She said you'd come up to see her new house. How lucky for me! I'd called to get your phone number in New York, but now I can ask for your help in person. That is, if you can spare the time to come see me. I'm told you often advise people in difficult situations, and as an "old Wooly" your opinion will be especially valuable to me.
I'm typing this letter myself because I don't want my secretary to know about it. She's a dear soul and very good at her job, but she's also Cuban and excitable. I'm afraid she'd be very excited by the enclosed. Fortunately, it was marked "Personal" and came to my desk unopened. By the way, doesn't it sound exactly like the writer?
I'd be so grateful if you could come before Thursday. I don't want D. arriving before I've had a chance to talk to you. And don't bother to call; just come at any hour.
I unfolded the enclosure. It was the antithesis of the other letter. The writing sprawled and slanted across pinkish lavender paper, and it was full of underlinings and scratched-out words. I had the odd feeling of almost having to hold it down to calm it as I read it.
I know! I know! You're saying to yourself how does she have the nerve after all the years and all the awfulness, but oh, Lou, I'm desperate and I need you so badly! I'm in Boston and I'm not going to phone you because I'm scared you'd hang up, so I'm just arriving at Wooly on Thursday, and for God's sake please, please see me and hear me, my dear, darling friend.
The thing affected me as it had undoubtedly affected Louise Littleton. I felt a breathlessness combined with bafflement and curiosity to which, in her case, must have been added an element of dread.
Paula came back with two cups of her rather awful coffee; she's a terrible cook, and her husband is a superb one. Andy Fortina's parents were born in Brazil, and his sauces ...!
I said, extending the letters, "The name Duff will ring a bell."
Paula stared at me. "You mean ...?"
I nodded. She gave me a cup, took the letters, and sat down, devouring the contents of both.
It was fascinating but sad to consider the identity -- and yet the gulf -- between Elaine Duffy, charity pupil at Woolcott Academy twenty-five years ago, and superstar Margo Llewelyn, who, with her shiny new name, shot to the heights of "filmdom" (Sadd says there's no such word) in the seventies and eighties. In the delightful tradition of Carole Lombard and Kay Kendall, names that come to me from my own generation, she was lovely and funny, that rare thing, the beautiful comedian. But gradually and tragically, her fate had closed in. Now in her forties and racked by a life of dissipation and wildly inappropriate marriages, her professional reputation was in shreds and she hadn't made a movie in several years. Too often difficult, drunk, and demoralized, she was, according to gossip, unhireable.
And she was about to descend on her old friend and classmate, Louise Littleton, highly respected Head of Woolcott Academy. No wonder Louise was quailing.
Paula folded both letters with a "Wow!"
I said, "Help me with chronology. How much older is she than you?"
"Four or five years. She and Louise were graduating when I was in the ninth grade. Both of them had started in the Lower School when they were just little kids."
I took the letters from Paula. "I remember you telling me they were good friends."
"Yes. The best. All those years. And it was funny because they were so different. Lou -- and Duff was the only girl in the school who could get away with calling her that -- Lou came from some snooty Philadelphia clan, and Duff had no family at all. The rumor was that her mother had been a maid in the school." Paula pulled one of the cats into her lap. "You and Dad used to come to Wooly a lot my first year. Did you ever see Duff?"
"Not that I remember. And it wasn't until she got famous that you began talking about her."
Paula nodded. "And remembering things. She was so gorgeous -- blond, of course -- and she got lousy marks and was always in trouble. Louise was the perfect lady and a brain. She wasn't bad looking herself, but Duff just put everybody in the shade. A lot of the girls hated her, but in some weird way, she and Louise hit it off."
I stared out at the brown lawn. Paula held the cat against her cheek and went on.
"Everybody knew they had one thing in common -- neither of them had parents. Louise's grandparents were quote unquote 'raising her,' which meant they threw her in Wooly when she was seven or eight." She laughed. "Once in a while they'd drive up from Philly in their Rolls to see her, and we'd all hang out of the window to look at it. Nobody ever came to see Duff."
We were silent for a moment. A breeze stirred the about-to-burst forsythia bush beside the porch.
Then I said, "What was Louise's maiden name?"
"Archer. That was sad. The year she graduated from Bryn Mawr she married Brad Littleton who taught at Wooly, and he was killed in Cambodia six months later. She went back to Wooly as a teacher and she's devoted her life to it." Paula drained her coffee cup and looked back at the pink letter. "She's right. This does sound like Duff. Crazy wild from day one. What do you suppose she wants?"
"We may never find out."
"I have a feeling Louise will get cold feet at the last minute and decide to be away. Simpler just to leave a message: 'Sorry, called away on business.'"
"Oh, that would be rotten! Duff sounds so desperate."
"All the more reason. Forget Duff for a minute. Doesn't Margo Llewelyn have children?"
Paula regarded me for an instant, then grinned. "She sure does! Two or three, I think. And as many husbands -- maybe more -- who can count?" Paula grasped her brow and hooted. "Wait! At least one of her kids is a girl -- I'm sure of it! Oh, Mom, this is rich! You don't suppose she wants to put her in Wooly!"
"I could be totally wrong." I tucked the letters in my bathrobe pocket. "Maybe Margo Llewelyn just wants to decide whether to endow her alma mater now or later."
"Oh, sure!" Paula was hugging herself. "Can't you just picture it? Margo whirling in on Visiting Day, having alerted the press, of course, that she is doing her maternal duty."
"And insisting," I couldn't help adding, "that her picture be taken with her dear old friend, Louise Littleton -- "
" -- who would just die at this kind of publicity! I love it!" Paula stood up. "All I can say is get out there quick, and hey" -- she snapped her fingers -- "didn't she say come before Thursday? This is Wednesday!"
"I better get dressed." I stood up.
"Shall I call Louise and say you're coming?"
"She said not to. What time is it?"
"Almost nine. Gotta get to work." She hugged me. "Watch out for those boxes in the upstairs hall." (I'd tripped over them twice already.) "One of these days I'm going to unpack 'em, I swear it." She cupped my face. "In spite of all the booby traps, you do like our house, don't you?"
"I love it."
"It's a rambling wreck, but so are we." Paula took her shoulder bag from the chair back and ran down the creaking steps.
I called, "Do you go to work in sneakers?"
And seconds later, the blue and white van backed precipitously out of the rutted driveway and disappeared.
Paula worked in the office of her children's grade school. At about three o'clock the van would wheel in again carrying third grader Janey and kindergartner Andrea. Then there would be bedlam till the arrival of their father, usually bearing an armload of metal film containers. "Vintage Flicks" was Andy's shop/studio in South Boston where he wallowed happily in the cutting, mending, sorting, splicing, trading, and God-knows-whating of old films, making a living, thank heaven, and coming home to make wonderful family meals. Afterward, Paula more or less cheerfully tackled the kitchen -- anything was better than cooking to her -- and Andy would betake himself to his "basement office" (a badly lit cellar) to continue cutting, sorting, splicing, etc. Janey and Andrea simply circulated constantly, as did the cats. On weekends, as far as I could see, when the fixer-upper should be getting fixed up, Paula preferred to play indoor tennis, and rotund Andy, who loathed exercise, preferred to cook, or to cut, sort, and splice.
The ménage, to my satisfaction, seemed a contented one.
I walked up the long bare stairs of the house, the words of Margo Llewelyn's letter running in my mind. "I know! You're saying to yourself ... but oh, Lou, I'm desperate.... Please see me and hear me."
I was scouring the grubby bathtub and praying for enough hot water, when the phone rang. Picking my way around the packing boxes, I reached Paula and Andy's room and plucked the phone from the unmade bed.
"No, this is her -- "
"Mrs. Gamadge!" The voice was unmistakably that of someone with a bad cold. "Your voices are so alike! This is Louise Littleton."
"Louise," I said, "I've just gotten your letter, and I'm dressing to come see you."
"Oh, thank heaven! Oh, that's wonderful! Oh, I'm so relieved!" Three "Oh's" in three sentences. Anxious? Ill? Then, "Oh, thank you!" The fourth "Oh" was followed by a violent sneeze.
"You have a bad cold," I said.
"Yes, the kind that won't quit." A nervous laugh. "Has Paula told you about the new exit number?"
"She has, and I'll see you in about an hour and a half."
Another sneeze blurred her continued thanks, and I hung up.
We city dwellers are always glad of an excuse to rent a car. I'd picked this one up at the airport and had been enjoying tooling around the Boston suburbs with my grandchildren, conscientiously remembering to strap them in, while recalling guiltily how my own children would roll around in the back of a station wagon. When tempted to deplore certain aspects of modern civilization, I try to think of things like compulsory seat belts for babies' car seats. We can't be all bad.
Again, bits of that letter came to me as I sailed down Route 95. "I'm in Boston." Odd that the media hadn't mentioned it. Was Margo Llewelyn so pathetically passé that there would be no interest? Not possible. The public adores a spectacle of disintegration among its icons. No, she must have taken pains to come in quietly, even anonymously.
I got off the highway at Exit 53, thinking of her children. Where were they? Where they always were, I supposed, in various lush and lonely spots with everything money could buy and in need of everything it couldn't, vied for, wrangled over, cut, sorted, and spliced ...
Did Louise Littleton suspect, as I did, what she was to "please, please ... hear" and its ramifications? Not exactly a thought to improve one's morale -- or one's cold.
Copyright © 1996 by Eleanor Boylan