Read an Excerpt
Do You Deserve to Live?
I'm proud to be a Jew," Elizabeth Taylor declared, pledging $100,000 in war bonds for Israel. Eddie Fisher called her his "Yiddena," his little Jewish woman.
"I feel as if I've been a Jew all my life," she exulted, dark lashes sweeping over the famed violet eyes. Draped in Beverly Hills crepe, a deep Prussian blue, her head veiled like a biblical matriarch, she was once again the beautiful Rebecca in Ivanhoe.
"I felt terribly sorry for the suffering of the Jews during the war. I was attracted to their heritage. I guess I identified with them as underdog."
"Makes her furious," Richard Burton quipped years later. "I tell her, 'You're not Jewish at all.' She turns white with rage."
1972. I was managing editor of Movie Screen, the magazine of the stars. When I wasn't doing what I thought of as my real work, penning blood-eyed poems in a blue-lined notebook, I edited stories, composed captions for the gossip pix, calling Celebrity Service several times a day to check facts like the names and ages of Tom Jones's children.
On my desk, there was a gold-framed photograph of a baby posed like a Spanish infanta, crowned with a white satin bonnet, its sash tied in a bow. The dress is a marvel of white satin with lace on the collar and bodice, puffed sleeves from which two plump arms unfold. But it's the eyes that amazed my mother's friends in Landsberg, the Displaced Persons camp, where I was born.
"Such eyes. The very spitten image of Elisabet Tailor," declared Gita Blum, who had survived eight months of Auschwitz. Her numbers flashed like blue neon on her bejeweled arm.
"Genia, when you get to America, you must take Zosha to Hollywood. Get her a scream test," insisted Mushka Schransky. She had lived as a Christian maid for the family of an SS soldier. "I tell you, she could be movie star."
Shocking cover lines sold Movie Screen. My editor, Flavia O'Neal, a whiskey-drinking Irishwoman with thick black brows, intense eyes, was NYU Journalism '57. She came up with the hard-hitting, newslike headlines and bought sleazy photographs from paparazzi. Our sleight of hand was to "justify" the headline, the more deliciously sinful the implication, the greater the triumph of the con: i.e., my very own "Cher's Secret Hours in the Dark with Robert Redford." (She attended a premiere of his latest film.) This was years before People published real dirt. Someone had to create it.
In the back of the magazine were ads that promised a panacea: firm chin muscles; increase your bustline by five full inches; be taller instantly; eat the foods you crave and love, yet lose lumpy, fatty excess weight; cover up ugly veins; unwanted hair gone; remove blackheads in seconds; and the satin porn of Frederick's of Hollywood with its peek-a-boo nipple bras, "sinsuous" slinks, and open-fanny panties. And in the front, our galaxy of stars.
"I want to discuss something with you," my mother stated, holding open the Daily News in two hands. "Serious." Her tone was grave, like when she was going to read me a story about a Holocaust survivor who was reunited with her sister or a Nazi found living in Floral Gardens. I was eight.
"Debbie Reynolds was America's sweetheart," Genia said, pointing to a small photograph of a pert young woman with a flip, inserted over a huge, four-color spread of Elizabeth Taylor. "The girl next-to-door. Debbie was married to Eddie Fisher. A Jew. The stars aren't religious, so they intermarry. No matter. He sang 'My Yiddishe Mama.' Remember him on television?"
I turned to my mother, who had laid down the newspaper on the kitchen table next to my multiplication tables, which I was trying to memorize. "Mom, I have to do my homework."
"Anyway, Liz is a beautiful woman," she continued, ignoring me. "The most beautiful in the world. What a shame." My mother shook her head sadly. "I hate to say this. Especially because you have her eyes, everyone says so, even when you were a baby. That's why it breaks my heart to talk about this. But you have to know the truth."
I stared at my multiplication tables. Nine times nine equals eighty-one.
"You're too young to know what a housebreaker is. It's a woman who steals the husband of another woman, making him leave his children, his happy home. For what? A moment's pleasure? This is what Elizabeth Taylor has done. Sure, she was upset about Mike Todd dying. He was a good man, the only man she ever loved. She divorced that Nicky Hilton guy. He was a drunk. Such a thing? How can she do it? Debbie just had a baby and now there's another one on the way. Liz doesn't care about nobody but herself."
What we at the magazine had to do was whip up a pastiche on the themes of money and misery, the curse of being beautiful and/or talented, and how success and fame can never be a substitute for love. The Movie Screen Bible stated: "We give them courtship, weddings, babies, divorces, illness, and sex. But the most important thing, remember: the stars are just like you and me, only more so."
Only a few stars, maybe half a dozen, actually sold movie fan magazines. There had to be something larger than life that transcended time and personal tragedy, inspiring the most passionate, undying loyalty or just simple adoration. And Elizabeth Taylor was still queen.
Mort Jacobs, legal counsel for Flame Publishing, checked out manuscripts, refusing to let copy through unless, point by point, the story deliveredwithout any real slander, which recent suits had proved were costly. He had surprised us by rejecting a cover story by one of our regulars. So yours truly, Dr. Shlock, had to take over at zero hour, breathing life into one of the genre's oldest diddles, trying to reach the punch line with a minimum of moans and guffaws from her reader. I was not only reigning high priestess of low journalism, but also the fastest emergency writer in movie fanzinedom. My specialty: vulnerability storiesmovie stars have feelings tootaking on the occasional true confession or soap story, but nonpareil on Liz, my altered ego.
Feeding a sheet of bond into the electric Olympia, black carbon flagging behind, I typed the headline: THE LOVE-CHILD LIZ TAYLOR WILL NOT ACKNOWLEDGE AS HER OWN. Dropping several lines, I added the heart-clenching subhead: How It Has Destroyed Her Marriage! Liz Cries: "God, Can You Ever Forgive Me?"
Lighting a cigarette, I summoned my shlock muse. O muse, so tacky, bless me with the silken tongue to touch the ghettos of the human heart. To bamboozle them with the promise of sin, titillate their yens, give succor to their delusions.
Come to me in your rhinestone harlequin glasses, cabana pants, and spiked heels. Get started, Hedda Hophead. Go on! Suck into the metaphysic of star worship, its temples, corner drugstores. and laundromats, altars of the washer and dryer. I could feel it like an orgasm. Soon I would be the voice of female longing in America, aching after the famous, the ass-sucked and arrogant, cannibalizing them to satisfy her readers' hunger.
"Do it, goddamn it!" I crushed my cigarette in the shell ashtray. Cover unsightly stretch marks; longer, thicker hair in ten minutes; look twenty years younger.
The sun streaked through a splinter of an opening in the royal blue drapes of Liz's opulent bedroom. She tried to shield her sleep-filled violet eyes, instinctively flinging her arm to reach out for her husband, but the pain of memory surfaced: he was gone. Richard had walked out on her. A shiver ran down her spine, chilling her though it was a balmy June morning. Memory was a tidal wave sweeping her in its whirlpool of images.
Suddenly, the stench of burning! I watched with fascination as a small transparent crescent fried in the ashtray, folding into itself as it singed. Picking it up, I discovered it was human in its stickiness. It was my own fingernail, clipped some days ago, now fixed to the tip of my finger.
"Ugh!" I recoiled, trying to flick the singed nail off one finger, but it stuck to the other finger. That's how they burned. I grabbed my notebook.
Like burnt crust
in a frying pan
you stuck to the edges.
You had to be
hair by tender hair
Stop it. Liz! Liz! Liz! "Fuck the art!" Richard Burton had raved. "I want to be rich, rich, rich." The story was due at four. I stuck the notebook back in my desk drawer. My fingers lined up on the typewriter keys like a firing squad, the cash register of words per dollar ringing at the end of each line.
Liz wished she could share her terrible secret with one of her friends. It might relieve the burden of her guilt. But she was not one to open her pain and anguish to others. She buried it deep within her soul . . .
I was writing and then I wasn't, finding myself wondering instead: Would I have survived? How did a person live from day to day? Would I have traded my body for bread? Fucked Nazis? What would I do with my desire to die? With my impatience? My impulsiveness? What would I do with my fears? Do you deserve to live?
"Write!" I cried out. "Enough with the introspection!"
At that moment, Christine peeked in from the doorway. "I heard that. You know, I read somewhere that people who live by themselves talk to themselves." She occupied the office next to Movie Screen and had the exact same job, except her magazine was MovieLand.
"Okay, Chris. The twenty-four-thousand-dollar question. How would you write 'The Love-Child Liz Taylor Will Not Acknowledge as Her Own'?"
"Her grandson, of course," Christine suggested, twisting her long red braid around her hand.
"We did that story with Jackie two months ago," I told her.
"How about 'the child within herself,' who was never allowed to grow up like a normal little girl . . ." Christine began.
"A star at eight, famous at such a tender age," I continued in my best Hollywood tragedy voice. "She had fans by the millions, rode in limousines."
"But what she didn't have" Christine crooned.
"was a sense of being loved for her self."
"And she never had a childhood," Christine concluded. "So now she must go back and acknowledge that child who was never allowed to grow up." She grinned at me. "I wrote that story about Ann-Margret."
"Hey, no one ever accused us of originality."
Christine was an English major like me, two years out of college. Shared contempt for fan magazines and our mutual sense of each other's greater destinies united us. She lived with an Italian sculptor in a loft on Wooster Street.
The phone rang. I let it ring until a machine picked up. "Listen, Chris," I began.
Her eyes met mine. "Ciao, darling. Send Liz my best."
It started like a migraine. The blue haze before the assault. Silent, cruel, insidious accusations. Did we survive the war for this? Sleaze? You think you're a real writer? Shlockmeister. Try standing in the freezing snow for two hours without shoes.
What about my years of scribbling in notebooks? I protested meekly. The poems. My files. The self-proclaimed poetess. What a hoot. I had found my calling with Liz and Dick, and like a wedding cake pair, they crowned my fondest aspirations. Just write the damn story!
Affliction stamps the soul to its very depths with the scorn, the disgust and even the self-hatred and sense of guilt that crime logically should produce but actually does not.
What I wanted, why I yearned to be a writer was to tell stories. My parents' stories, which were mine too. Slowly, I slid open my desk drawer, pulling out a manila folder. I had printed one word on the cover. SURVIVORS.
The first story was about a young girl whose life was saved by a white scarf. Her parents and baby brother were sent to a death camp, while she was selected for a work lager.
In the second story, a religious boy survived Auschwitz. He never saw his parents or his two sisters again. He escaped while an officer peed in the woods.
And I, their daughter, live in two time frames. Normal, shared reality: everyone stops at the red light. The other zone has no temporal sense. Burnt by a dog-eared yellow star, sign of the Jew, rising, hungry eyes, overripe crazylegs nerve. I live in the ghetto of the dead.
The phone rang again. I didn't pick it up. No interruptions while working! Then I pressed the red button on my phone machine. "Are you there? Are you there?" My mother's Polish-accented voice. "I von't speak to a machine. Zosha, call your momma right away."
Shut the folder. Return it to the drawer. I picked up the receiver. My mother's phone was busy. I tried again. Still busy. Always busy. A flibbertigibbet. I could see her sitting at the kitchen table, fruit-and-vegetable wallpaper whirling around her. She wound the phone cord around her wrist as she spoke her musical Polish. Now she was doing the dishes as she talked. It was dangerous to be idle, even for a moment. The yellow wall phone jerked as she moved around with the long cord following like a leash.
Finally, she picked up. On the first ring. "I knew it was you!" she rejoiced, then her voice became critical. "What took so long?"
"You were busy."
"It's true. I was talking to Stella Brumstein. You remember her?"
"Did you call for any reason?"
"I hate that meshuggeh machine! Do I have to have a reason to call my own daughter?" She paused, then began again. "I never hear from you. You don't call"
"I'm calling you right now."
"Because I called you."
"Mother, let's stop this."
"I don't know anything about your life. Are youuhseeing"she inquired hopefully"someone?"
"No one special."
"Someone not so special then. He doesn't have to be Prince Charming. Though people always say how good- looking is your father. Do you go out on dates?"
She knew about Ludwig, the German guy I was dating, but pretended he didn't exist. I had brought him home for a disastrous dinner some months before, and neither of us had mentioned him since. "I'm at work," I insisted. "I can't have this conversation."
"Zosha, I don't see why you can't find someone. All my friends have already grandchildren and what do I have? Bupkes."
"Mom, I'm hanging up!"
Seemingly chastened, her tone turned grave. "I called about something important."
"Yom Hashoah is a week from Sunday."
I didn't say anything.
"The day when we remember the Holocaust."