Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***
Copyright © 2014 by Swoosie Inc.
There are two time-honored professions in which the first thing you do when you get to work is take off your clothes.
I’m in the other one.
Arriving backstage or on a back lot, ascending the winding staircase in a Broadway theater or climbing into my trailer at Warner Brothers, my first order of business is to shed my street clothes (my father would have called them “civvies”) and be delivered into the skin of whomever it is I’m getting paid to be that day. I’m surrounded by nimble artists who appraise my appearance with unforgiving technical eyes and craft me from heel to eyelash, evaluating my rear end, propping up my meager décolletage, making sure my earlobes and knuckles don’t clash, checking for knee wrinkles and hem threads.
Rarely does all this happen with any deference to my dignity. In my line of work, while humility is an asset, modesty is a bother. I’m lucky enough to have been brought up by two people who knew the difference.
My father, Frank Kurtz, was an Olympic diver in his youth. There’s not much room for modesty up there on the ten-meter platform and even less room in a pair of aerodynamically snug swim trunks. But to make that leap without humility—without respect for gravity, without remembering how applause disappears under water—that would be a terrible mistake.
My mother, Margo Rogers Kurtz, was Frankie’s foil in witty dinner table repartee and his staunch ally in every other aspect of life. She was the “ever-fixed mark” Shakespeare noted in sonnet, a small, brilliant pin on his private map of the world. Margo was the model wartime bride in the 1940s: industrious, beautiful, capable, the perfect combination of stiff upper lip and fire-engine red lipstick. She could pilot a small airplane, feed a small army and fit nicely into those tailored peplum skirt suits that were all the rage.
Newspapers and newsreels couldn’t help noticing her as my father flew higher and farther, collecting scars and medals. Every time he made it home in one piece, it was a stunning blow in the cause of hope, and during World War II—under the darkness and din of the air-raid sirens, as inhumanity sucked innocence into a genocidal oven—hope was highly prized. It was sought after.
Frankie and Margo were recruited along with Hollywood stars and other celebrities for war-bond tours. These junkets were utterly purpose driven: no frills, no egos, just as many recognizable names as the organizer could cram into a train car and parade to the autograph tables. One town after another, starstruck fans lined up to buy bonds. Even the most pampered celebrities were gung ho about these rustic excursions. I’m certain any attempts at modesty would have been laughed out of the tiny train car water closet, so Margo and Frankie fit right in. He was a hero, and she was the classy, garrulous sidekick who kept his clay feet warm.
My mother’s book, My Rival, the Sky, came into the world the same year I did. We both grew inside her while my father flew bombing runs over Italy in 1944. G. P. Putnam (the publishing magnate who was also the husband of Amelia Earhart) had taken an interest in my parents after they collaborated with W. L. White on the book Queens Die Proudly, which told the story of the great Flying Fortress bombers, including my father’s heroically cobbled together B-17D, the Swoose. A contract was proposed and accepted: Margo was to write a war memoir from the home-front perspective, title to be determined, $250 to be remitted on signing and $250 on delivery of the manuscript.
I was born in the fall of 1944, a few weeks after Nazi forces put a brutal end to Hungarian resistance, a few weeks before US troops landed in the Philippines. My father was somewhere in the thick of that as my mother and day-old me were being photographed for the newspaper. People desperately needed to see this beautiful, young mother treasuring her fresh baby and believe in a God who would either bring that baby’s daddy home or send straight to Hell the scurvy tail gunner who took him out.
I look at that photograph on a bookshelf behind my desk and see nothing but hope, hope, hope. My mother’s face is filled with optimism and love. It’s hard to turn away. But it’s time.
“Margo, darling?” I call on my way to the car. “I’m off.”
“No, you’re not,” she says. “You’re just right.”
A quick hug, and I’m out the door. I drive myself to work (mechanically and metaphorically), and it doesn’t take long. Every day I’m grateful for this five-minute commute to the studio. The kismet is unbelievable. After decades of bicoastal and intercontinental commutes, almost always working more than one job at any given time, just when I needed it most, I landed a steady gig on that rarest of beasts: a television show that is a critical and commercial success. That’s something we hardly dare hope for in this business. Most people have no idea how many pilots disappear into the mosh pit, how many promising starts go the way of the pet rock before a show comes along with a genuine heart and exactly the right creative team, writers, cast and production crew. You’re more likely to find narwhal steaks on special at Ralph’s. Above and beyond that, this particular cast and crew—all souls counted—are smart, delightful, mellow, ego-light professionals who’ve become my dear friends.
When I saw the pilot script, I knew this show, Mike & Molly, had the potential to go the distance. In the back of my mind, I heard Frankie telling me the same thing he told me when I started Sisters on NBC in the early 1990s: “Five years,” he said with certainty. When I puffed something about not counting chickens, he smiled a confident ready-for-takeoff smile and repeated, “Five years.” The show lasted six more seasons. As did Frankie.
Ready to wrap our third season of Mike & Molly, I believe this one could last even longer, but every time I allow myself to speculate, I feel the urge to spit, throw salt over my shoulder and sacrifice a goat. Karma is a bitch, as they say; we all must have suffered tremendously in our previous lives to have this great job. I don’t want to jinx it.
The main characters, Mike Biggs and Molly Flynn (Billy Gardell and Melissa McCarthy) are so easy to be with, on screen and off, our merry cast and crew quickly developed a healthy chemistry. I think people truly can feel that through the screen; the show immediately attracted a large audience of loyal fans, despite the fact (or perhaps because of the fact) that precious few successful sitcoms feature characters who look like real people instead of successful sitcom characters.
At first blush, the show is about a schoolteacher and a police officer who meet at Overeaters Anonymous. In their quest to lose weight, they find each other. That sweetly simple premise is injected with an impossible amalgam of highly evolved and low-brow. The moral scruples of this show are refreshingly intolerant of cynicism. A lot of the humor is below the belly button, and the zingy dialogue is boner blunt, but it doesn’t feel crass because the relationships are so authentic, the atmosphere so unabashedly romantic and the storyline so much about love.
I’ve played broad, and I’ve played bawdy, but I’ve never inhabited a character quite like Joyce Flynn, Molly’s mother. She’s given me the opportunity to be more free-spirited and painfully candid than I could even dream of being when I’m being myself. If Holly Golightly and Groucho Marx got drunk and slept together, the unapologetic fruit of that union would be Joyce Flynn. She’s a fiercely loving mother, but she sees herself as a contemporary of her beautiful young daughters, a sensual woman in her sexual prime. She has a good soul, but her moral compass is slightly bent. (And you could count on her to jump on the word “bent” with a double entendre that leaves the rest of the room blushing.)
When Joyce is asked by her daughters if she was lonely while their late father was in Vietnam, Joyce quips, “Lonely, no. Horny, yes.” With a nostalgic sigh, she goes on to overshare that her remedy for that was sitting on the washing machine. Joyce not only inspires me to be more direct and less self-censoring, she provides me a vehicle in which to do it with impunity on a weekly basis.
I learn something from every character I play. Each one of them bears a gift. The personal reward for doing the work of developing the character is the excavation of that gift and the sharing of it with an audience. To a large extent, that’s what the craft of acting is about: the joy of that challenge, whether you’re doing Molière or a Monday night sitcom. I noticed early in my career that almost every role I play is somewhat off-kilter—a bit dark, driven or crazy or driven crazy during the course of the show— and playing characters so utterly unlike myself is a job and a vacation at the same time; climbing into their lives, I get to leave my own reality behind for a little while. I don’t hide behind the character—quite the opposite; I’m liberated in one way or another by every character I play, hitting my marks with sternum held high. “Lead with the breastbone,” Michael Bennett used to say.
When I arrive on the set, Billy Gardell is sitting in the makeup chair where he and I take turns, since we share a makeup artist.
“I’m afraid we’re starting to look alike,” I tease him, and he laughs his big laugh.
Before we walk out in front of the cameras, he gathers us in a tight circle to pray. Usually it’s something like, “Dear God, once again here we are. Help us do our best for the people who came to see us. We want to thank you for the gift of this amazing job. Please, help us remember it’s a privilege, not an entitlement. Help us keep everyone in this building employed.”
I always find myself profoundly affected, enormously grateful for each of these people and just plain happy to be here with them. Sometimes I’m so moved, I have to pay another visit to the makeup chair. And I’m not the only one. Particularly tonight.
“Lord, we have some troubled souls tonight,” Billy says. “Give us strength to do what we need to do. Help us support and love each other.”
I blink, trying to preserve my mascara. Around the tight circle, we grip each other’s hands, clearing throats, swallowing hard. Reno Wilson’s mother has died, and Reno, who plays Mike’s partner, Officer Carl, has a lot of material to deliver in this episode.
The news took my breath away when I heard it. Our first week on the set, I mentioned to Reno how thrilled I was to be working a steady gig just a few minutes from the home Margo and I share. Since then, he and I have talked a lot about our moms, sharing memories, fears and funny stories. We talked about what home remedies and pharmaceuticals worked—or not—for various symptoms. Oh, stay away from that one. Margo went psycho after the first two hundred milligrams. Organic black licorice root for constipation? I wouldn’t have thought of that. Eldercare is an odd conversation in a specific language that is by turns clinical, sentimental and cringe-inducing.
All week, Reno’s sisters have kept him posted on his mother’s rapid decline. Oh, God, I kept thinking, don’t let it be this week. Having to get out there and be hilarious just a few hours after losing one’s mother takes the body slam of losing one’s mother to a whole new level. Reno is a multitalented pro who’s been doing this work since he was one of the college kids on The Cosby Show. We’re not worried about Reno’s performance; we’re just heartbroken for him. It’s one of the moments theatre elitists forget about when they say that TV acting is for sissies.
We Broadway actors are legendary troupers, famous for our “show must go on” work ethic. We’re tasked with nailing every scene, every time, eight shows a week—fractured ankles, broken hearts and vocal nodes be damned. On a TV show, you get do-overs. But you don’t get understudies, and your missteps are not contained in the hallowed walls of one theater for one afternoon. On the day your mother dies, not only do you go to work, you go to work in front of millions of people, and whatever you do will be available for applause and/or ridicule until YouTube perishes from Earth.
At the end of the day, Reno is completely focused and funny, while the rest of us work our butts off, determined not to let him down. The audience leaves aching from laughter. Reno departs for his mother’s funeral. Billy flies to Vegas where he burns the other end of the candle with a stand-up show. The rest of us go home emotionally exhausted. We’ll all be back in less than fifty hours to start the whole process over again.
“How are you, my darling?” Margo asks when I walk in the door.
“Tired,” I admit. “But it’s a joyful tired.”
I’m quoting her, but she opens her hands and collects the phrase from the air as if she’s never heard it before.
“Frankie’s coming home tonight, isn’t he?” she asks.
“Yes, I think he is,” I tell her.
Sometimes I say he’s in Japan, at the Pentagon on a mission or at his office in Washington. The lies trip from my tongue without hesitation. (I’m a professional!) The truth is, Margo was resilient and dignifled when Frankie died in 1996, but no one should have to be that resilient every damn day. Can you imagine what it would be like to roll out of bed every morning and be clobbered with that? No, darling, you’re not twenty-seven, you’re ninety-seven, and that ardent lover lying beside you a few minutes ago was a dream, and now even the dream is dead. Good morning, sunshine!
I think it’s healthier—and more honest, ironically—to tell her the emotional truth: that she is loved, that she is young in spirit and enduringly beautiful and will see her great love soon. She won’t remember what I said six minutes from now anyway.
“Why stand on ceremony?” Margo says. “Take a look at my breasts.”
“Oh. Okay. Let’s see.”
Margo raises her soft jersey tunic, and we both look lovingly at her breasts. She nudges the one that hangs somewhat lower than the other.
“They’re beautiful,” I tell her, pulling her into my arms.
“I could tuck this one into my waistband if I wanted to,” she says, and then distracted by the waistband of her black yoga pants, she says, “Look at the color of this thread. What would make them use blue? My God, what a wonderful world we live in!”
This way of looking at the world can’t be entirely put down to the dementia. The increasing seepage of non sequiturs and apparitions has made conversation a challenge, but Margo’s personality is essentially intact. I have an early memory of my Aunt Mici striding into the kitchen stark naked and smoking a cigarette. Getting ready for a bath, she’d had a thought and didn’t want to lose it. This made perfect sense to Margo. Logic over convention. Action over inhibition. This hierarchy of necessary values worked well for my mother throughout her unconventional and uninhibited life, and it’s worked well for me in mine.
Nonetheless, thinking about that moment makes me laugh now, and as if she heard the story brush by the back of my mind, Margo laughs too, pressing her palms to my cheeks as she gives me a kiss.
I relish the feeling, a stingingly sweet element in my life that has remained unchanged through every tectonic shift of fortune, fame and circumstance: my mother loves me, and I love her. We are we. Always have been. Always will be.
“Joined at the heart,” Margo says. “I love you, you precious child.”
“I love you too, Mommie.”
Oddly, I’ve started calling her “Mommie” lately, after sixty-fr-shashm years of calling her “Margo.” Perhaps I’m cherishing my last remaining moments of being someone’s precious child. Or maybe I’m occasionally taken into her world where time is no longer linear. A woman can be forty at breakfast and fifteen for dinner. At any moment, someone you loved and lost in your childhood might walk through the door. In Margo’s world, a Japanese porcelain fisherman on the credenza winks and nods. A little girl in white hangs a left at the corner of your eye and vanishes down the hallway. Sometimes I feel her holding her breath, and I know Frankie is poised on the ten-meter platform, still as a tin soldier, hands flat at his sides.
He opens his arms wide, just before he dives.
Margo lives with me in a house I bought back in the 1990s when Sisters was going strong. Frankie searched long and hard and found this place for me while I was boomeranging back and forth between my New York apartment and various movie locations and my L.A. base of operations, my parents’ home in Toluca Lake—the home Frankie and Margo bought when I was about to start high school. Typical military transients, we’d moved around a lot prior to that, but Margo thought they should find a sticking place for my teen years, and they stuck with it for the next forty years, providing my hub throughout much of my bicoastal career. I’d spent so much of my life living with them, it was a natural turn to have Margo move in with me after Frankie died.
The great architect Harwell Hamilton Harris built this house in the early 1950s. It’s a perfect exemplar of modernist sensibility, featuring the iconic angular light, open posture and floating staircase that branded postwar, pre–Mad Men martini temples and Ayn Rand–era movie sets. Margo and I have rebranded it as our own with memorabilia from our travels, books everywhere, over-stuffed sofa—homey comforts Atlas could never fully shrug off.
For many years, I zealously protected the hermitage I thought I needed for my work, but I’ve come to love the quiet constancy of people in my space. I dread Margo’s inevitable departure and all the existential impact of losing her, and part of that is the thought of losing the ad hoc family we’ve gathered, our small, fond staff of trusted caregivers. Angela, a pragmatic earth mother with endless patience and broad humor. Antonio, a devastatingly handsome Brazilian with a deeply sweet heart. Cielito, a lovely Filipino gentleman with Zen to spare. Meanwhile, Konrad, my unstoppable manager, periodically blows through (on the phone or in person) with the energy, aplomb and fervent tone of a swamp-cooler, which delights Margo. Perry, my indispensible right arm, does everything from hair color to correspondence, life coaching, soul feeding—actually, it’s hard to quantify. Perry is the authentic force of nature who makes my life happen. His job title is assistant, which doesn’t begin to cover the wonder that is Perry, proof that God exists and gallantry is not dead. Konrad gets me through the sprints; Perry gets me through the marathon.
There’s an alchemy to Margo’s care; it’s taken a long time to achieve this delicate balance. Whenever she feels the need to migrate from one place to another, one of us is always walking behind her with our hands on her shoulders. At her age, tripping on a dog toy can be fatal. We refuse to let her fall. We may not be able to stop the seepage of memory or the progression of cell death, but we aim to make sure that she passes in her sleep, hips unbroken, knees unbruised. We intend to spend every day of her life being alive.
That’s been my bond with these people over the years. We compare notes on small victories, commiserate over mounting defeats, lend comfort, share clinical information, tell each other our mother stories. My heart goes bone dry when I think of Reno alone on an airplane. I know how empty and vast the sky can be, and I wonder where I’ll be when I’m orphaned. My preference, of course, would be that I’m here, holding Margo’s hand. Barring that, I selfishly hope to be at work with strong hearts and strong arms around me. I don’t dwell on the specifics of the inevitable, but I don’t deny it. We’re allowing it to lead us for the moment.
Why stand on ceremony?
These days, it’s as if Margo and I are the ones who stand with our toes at the edge of the platform. Poised. She opens her arms wide.
“I wanted to tell you something,” she says, “but it slipped under a chair.”
Time and gravity are jealous gods. We all know where this is going.
“Margo,” says Frank, “there’s a little item I wanted to talk to you about.”
“Okay,” I answer, floating, just us, so close and free, on a smooth drifting river. I should have known, though. We never drift for long.
A book, he is saying. He wants me to write a book.
There’ve been plenty of jobs I could do all right—diving coach, and learning to fly, and helping to produce aquacades. The war bond drives, I did those, and the radio programs. You’ve told me I’m a pretty good copilot, Frank, it’s written here on the back of this little gold watch you gave me . . .
But a book—oh, Frank.
“All right. I’ll write a book.” And I smile because I know a little joke. I’ll write it all about him.
We never say good-by, finally, but just goodnight. It’s easier to get this word out, and when you think back and hear him saying it, it will sound better.
“I’ll be so busy all day, and at night I’ll say goodnight into the pillow. I’ll talk to you when I first wake up, and a thousand times a day I’ll look up at the sky and say, ‘Hello, Frank.’”
Quiet and so calm. And Frank walks over to the army car. Just before he closes the door, he smiles, and I smile at him.
“Good night, Frank.”
“Good night, Beloved.”
Then the car drives away. I can see the car lights lead the way. And I can see Frank hop out and walk into our plane. The men are all at attention, and now they follow him inside. The door of the plane closes. But I can’t see any more because the army car has turned away, and it was the car’s lights which gave me the picture. And with her four motors growling, our Fortress starts the turn which will take her down the runway.
But now I’m a little lost. I can’t see our plane. She’s lost out there in the dark. I can hear her engines, but I can’t see anything. This has gotten to be such a big war. And it seems I wait so long and listen so hard . . .
I was a precocious child who loved books in general and was very curious about my mother’s book in particular because grown-ups were always talking about Margo’s wonderful book, Margo’s very important book that told the story of how she and Frankie fell in love and survived the war. At age seven or eight, as soon as I was able to comprehend it (to the extent that any child is able to comprehend love and war), I inhaled My Rival, the Sky for the first time. It was a bit magical to meet Margo and Frankie as teenagers and be swept up in their adventures the same way I was swept up in the adventures of Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins and Christopher Robin.
I read the book again when I was fresh out of college, a textbook twentysomething enjoying my early success in New York theatre, hanging out at Sardi’s discussing Proust and Sartre, and test-driving a mild disdain for my parents. I knew my way around words well enough to know that my mother was a very good writer, but by this time, the rote recitation of our family lore had worn rather thin for me, and all those dusty war remembrances in the context of the 1960s were a total drag, man. Still, I thought it was adorable how she’d gotten her little book published and everything. I smiled and tucked it away with a few other quaint keepsakes.
It’s interesting how a book evolves while we’re away. I’ve heard it compared to a spiral staircase; you keep returning to the same place, but each time, you’re a level higher. When I read My Rival, the Sky again in 2003, when the news was full of the war in Iraq, it took my breath away. The wrenching separations and joyful homecomings resonated as if the words had been written yesterday. I was taken back to what it means to be a military family in a time of war, and I felt a bond with all those who had a son, or daughter, or husband, or wife in harm’s way on the other side of the world. For the first time, I saw how the arc of my parents’ lives had been bowed by those years when they were each other’s only safe haven.
Standing in the short hallway between the kitchen and Margo’s room, I hear her talking quietly with my father. I can’t make out what she’s saying, but I recognize the very specific way she always says his name, as if she’s catching it in a butter-y net. I strain forward a little, knowing I won’t hear what she hears, but hoping I might feel a little of what she feels. The nearness of him.
That’s what missing someone is, I suppose, and I do miss my father terribly, but the grammar of that phrase begs inspection: the person being missed is, in fact, the one who is missing. He is missing in exactly the sense that car keys go missing; you know they still exist somewhere, but you wish like hell they could be at hand when you need them.
“Hello, Frank!” she calls out to him again. “Frankie? Hello . . .”
This time I hear a fragment of fear in her voice, shrapnel left over from her war injuries, all those days and nights in the wake of Pearl Harbor when she lay in the upstairs bedroom at her parents’ home in Omaha. He was missing. There were places she could identify in both earth and sky where Frankie belonged, and he wasn’t in any of them. In the fall of 1941, he’d been sent to Clark Air Base; rumors of an impending attack by Imperial Japan circled Luzon Island like shark shadows in the pristine blue ocean. Frankie was there, Margo knew, not in Hawaii on December 7, but it was as if the smoke billowing out of Pearl Harbor obscured everything in the Pacific Theater. The blackout curtains dropped; not a phone call, not a letter slipped through. The grainy news on the radio provided barely a keyhole. Margo studied maps and newspaper clippings on her bedroom floor, piecing together slivers of terrifying information. If Frankie was still alive, he was alone in a sea of inconceivable destruction.
“Mommie,” I call down the hall, “are you getting hungry?”
This is to give her a little warning before I push through the door. When I enter the room, she’s sitting on the edge of her bed, a pillow in her arms.
“Hello, darling,” I say, stroking the soft nape of her neck.
She pushes her face into the fresh linen and says, “Hello, Frankie.” But there’s no confusion in her face when she looks up at me. “That’s just something I always do,” she says, preempting the obvious.
“Do you feel like eating some dinner, Margo? Angela went to the chicken place for some Greek food.”
“Greek food,” she marvels. “Human beings never know how well off they are.”
We straighten the bedding from her nap, and I follow behind her, hands on her shoulders, as we turtle toward the kitchen table.
“I’m not one hundred percent today,” she admits. “I’ve been a little low.”
“You’re doing fine, darling.” I kiss the crown of her head.
At first it seems we’re headed for the dining room, but then we’re off like Israelites on a long wander, taking a forty-year scenic route to the Promised Land. By the time we arrive at the table, Angela has returned, and Margo’s dinner is on a placemat with evening meds and a bottle of Vitaminwater.
“Oh, yes,” she says with relish, “this is the good stuff.”
Gratitude is the defining emotion in Margo’s personality, and it feels good to be around that. She gratefully settles into her chair, gratefully inhales the steam over a cup of instant coffee, gratefully downs the pharmacopoeia with Vitaminwater. She experiences each beat as a gift, and I have to gratefully acknowledge how healthy that is for all of us.
I sit kitty-corner to her, facing the patio and the temple ruins that will someday be a swimming pool—or so the contractor keeps promising. I hope it’ll happen sooner rather than later. It’s lovely to imagine that Margo and I will get out there every afternoon, soak up some vitamin D–enriched sunlight, do some kind of nice workout and then let our muscles and bones float. But that will never happen. She’s not remotely capable of being in the water, even if it were remotely possible to get the water warm enough. Still, it feels important to have it there.
Swimming pools were a big part of my life growing up. Frankie never really left his diving days behind. He maintained that same precision in everything he did. There was always an order, a fine line, a protocol to be followed. The discipline of platform diving dovetailed nicely with the discipline of military life, and Frankie saw no reason to live his personal life any differently. It had worked well for him, so he reasonably concluded that it would work well for anyone, including me. (Especially me, in fact.)
Constancy. Morning coffee. A good night’s sleep. A person should be independent, neatly groomed and well prepared unless he or she had a very good reason not to be. Daily exercise “as the sun rises and sets” consisted of sit-ups, leg scissors, headstands and a brisk walk. (I inherited his “Where’s the fire?” gait, so it’s always been a challenge to go walking with Margo, the easily distracted Israelite who feels compelled to stop and smell every rose.)
Frankie could be the hard-edged commander, but he was never overbearing or Great Santini about it. He had a naturally soothing tenor voice and would gently touch the top of my head when conveying the high expectations that were unapologetic and never hazy. He wasn’t stingy with praise or sparing with criticism, and on the receiving end of either, I always knew he was being completely honest. He was Frank without fail, and I derived a genuine security from that. Not just warm, fuzzy security-blanket security, but security as a stance that served me well in my professional and personal life.
When I was a little girl, a lot of people were digging holes in their backyards to install either a swimming pool or a bomb shelter. We were definitely the swimming pool types, and I think that speaks volumes about my father, who saw the absolute worst that war had to offer and came home to organize aquacades instead of “Duck and Cover” drills. He also emerged from a wretchedly abusive childhood to be an enormously loving husband and father. Everyone fell in love with Frankie. Central Casting couldn’t have come up with a better spokesmodel for war or peace.
Anyway, at the early aquacades, I’ve been told, Esther Williams performed along with the Hopkins Twins of synchronized swimming fame. (My uncle Homer, who was quite a swimmer himself, accidentally saw Esther naked in the locker room, the highlight of his young life.) At later events, I entertained the crowd between the headliners, diving from the poolside or low boards and swimming gracefully around in trendy swim shorts and a ruffled bra I could probably still fit into. I might have danced too. I remember a striking pair of gold sandals, and knowing me at that age, I couldn’t have done less than dance in them.
Honestly, Central Casting couldn’t have improved much on me as a spokesmodel either. If Margo was Frankie’s sidekick, I was like that precocious little dog in The Artist: a knowing and unrepentant scene-stealer. The plot never revolved around me, but I never lacked for attention.
Margo has a photograph of me as a four-year-old, sitting in full sun on a white bench near the bleachers from which the spectators had cheered my aquatic entr’acte a few minutes earlier. My damp hair is mosquito-fine and all over the place. I’m wearing a sporty T-shirt emblazoned “The SWOOSE,” legs daintily crossed like an Elvgren pinup illustration, toes pointed, hands on my hips. Attitude to spare.
But the expression on my face doesn’t say, “Look at me.”
It says, “Lucky me.”