The Biograph Girl is Florence Lawrence, who gets her first big break in vaudeville as a tiny tot who can whistle like a man. By 1910 she’s a legendary movie star, pursued by thousands of rabid fans. Just a few short decades later, she’s all but forgotten, reduced to walk-ons at MGM. In 1938 she kills herself by ingesting a lethal dose of ant paste.
Fast-forward fifty-nine years. A 107-year-old woman named Flo Bridgewood is discovered in a Catholic nursing home in Buffalo. Could the feisty chain smoker with the red satin bow in her hair be America’s former sweetheart? Florence Lawrence is dead . . . isn’t she? And if not, then whose body is in her grave? That’s what journalist Richard Sheehan wants to find out as he and his identical twin brother, Ben, a documentary filmmaker, decide to cash in on a decades-old mystery. Sharing the stage is Flo herself, whose story is the stuff of Hollywood fantasy.
A provocative melding of fact and fiction, The Biograph Girl is about what it means to be a celebrity—then and now.
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The Biograph Girl
A Novel of Hollywood Then and Now
By William J. Mann
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2000 William J. Mann
All rights reserved.
December 28, 1938
"Go on," Lester said. "Get out before anyone sees you."
He kissed the dead girl on her forehead. She was so lovely, lying there on that metal slab. So slight, so young, with the same pale skin as I had, the same platinum blonde hair.
"Go on," Lester said again and pulled the sheet up to cover her face.
"But if they ask to see the body—"
"They won't." He wouldn't look at me. I remember how much that hurt. He just kept staring down at her. "They'll believe it's you."
And she could have been—twenty years before, when I was as young, when I had been as filled with promise. I reached down and touched her hand through the sheet. She was still warm.
"Molly," I said. That was all.
Lester opened the door to the hall. Suddenly there was a symphony of sound—tinny and sharp, bouncing off the linoleum floors and tiled walls, as if the hospital had just reawakened into frantic life. Everywhere around us there was a rush of activity—the ringing of bells, the grinding of gurney wheels, the flapping of white medical smocks.
"Go, Florence," Lester said, angry now, finally turning to face me. "This was your wish, after all. Not mine."
I looked at him, at his big, round, frozen eyes. I gripped my purse tightly, pulling it up so that it covered my mouth and chin. He was right. This was my wish, my decision.
The moment he declared me dead, I would be free.
There were reporters in the waiting area off the hall.
Reporters. With cameras. So they had come after all. I wouldn't have imagined it. I turned to ask Lester what I should do, but he was gone, out another door. There was just Molly. Molly, growing cold.
I tried to calm my breathing. I stood there against the doorjamb for some time steadying myself. I continued to hold my purse close to my breast, as a mother might a child on a lifeboat. There were four of them out there: a woman in cat's-eye glasses and three bored-looking men wearing fedoras and smoking cigarettes. They all looked up when a nurse in a starched white uniform approached them, preparing to read from a clipboard.
This was my chance to escape, while they were distracted. I took a long, deep breath and stepped into the hallway.
The nurse began her recitation. "Florence Lawrence died at 3:10 P.M. this afternoon. Dr. Lester Slocum applied a stomach pump but to no avail."
I made my way forward, praying they would not notice me. Don't be silly, Flo. You're just some dyed-blond middle-aged floozie to them. They're not going to recognize you.
But I stayed to the far wall just the same, my breath loud and arduous to my ears, as if the soundtrack on a motion picture had been amplified for effect. I kept my eyes averted from them and their cameras, looking at the wall as I passed. Taped there were paper cutouts of Christmas trees made by the little ones in the children's ward. One read:
PEACE AND LOVE TO ALL THE WORLD
"The cause of death," the nurse was saying as I passed, "was ingestion of ant paste."
"Ant paste?" one man asked, his lips pulled back in revulsion.
"It's got arsenic in it," the woman with the cat's-eye glasses said matter-of-factly over her shoulder.
The man behind her made a short whistle. "What a way to go."
I felt terribly weak then, as if my knees would no longer support me, as if my legs would fail and I'd fall right there in front of them. Walk, Florence, I commanded myself, but it was my mother's voice now—or Mr. Griffith's. Or maybe even Harry's. They won't know you. They haven't known you for twenty years.
But one man did look over as I passed. His camera was slung low at his side, its big, round lamp asleep. I looked away from him, trying to hide my fear—as well as the stains of vomit and blood on my blouse. I sensed his eyes on me, his sudden interest—felt rather than saw him turn and point me out to the others. I clutched my purse even more fiercely to my heart as I hurried for the door. I dared not turn around, not even to see if he followed, if he'd raised his camera to flash—that horrible glare that had often left me blinded for days. I dared not turn around to see them, to see if the woman in the cat's-eye glasses now began the chase, pen and notebook in hand. I felt the old terror collect at the back of my throat—or was it simply the bile once more? I pushed forward, out the emergency room door and into the dimming sunlight, and began to run. They were in pursuit again, and this time I was determined not to be caught.
"Harry! Dear God, Harry, help me!"
A man claws my face. I feel a sharp sting of pain and shriek out. "Harry!" I scream. "Harry!"
But I can't see him. He's lost somewhere within the crush of people. We're on the track at Union Station in St. Louis—except all I can see are people pushing at me, encircling me. There are hands, hands, hands everywhere. They pull at my dress, yank at my arms. I feel the buttons on my coat pop off one by one, torn by fingers that I cannot see. A dozen flashbulbs burst at once—the horrible sound of cameras snapping like reptiles. I recoil from the light, my eyes burning. The acrid smoke of the magnesium flares fills my nostrils.
A woman is suddenly in front of me, grinning hideously in my face, her eyes shiny and wild.
"It's her!" she shouts. "It's The Biograph Girl!"
She snatches the hat from my head and holds it aloft like a prize.
The crowd surges once again and I feel myself going under. I begin to scream. I truly believe it is the moment of my death.
But they hadn't followed. I ran for three blocks past the hospital, ran like a crazy woman, ran as if I were Carole Lombard or Claudette Colbert in one of those madcap screwball comedies so popular then. I ran until I was finally stopped from crossing the street by a line of traffic, buses belching smoke and big black automobiles bleating their horns. I turned around, out of breath, and saw no one behind me. No one had followed.
I stumbled to a bench and sat, laughing at myself.
"Oh, Flo, you're not in St. Louis anymore," I whispered aloud. "It's been a long, long time since St. Louis. You can walk right by them now and they don't even know you. No one's going to chase you down anymore."
There was relief in that, of course, relief that I'd not been seen, that I'd gotten away, that my plan had worked—but there was also the odd, misplaced disappointment that I'd felt too often before.
My plan had worked because no one remembered.
Oh, some editor over at the Herald or The Hollywood Reporter apparently had. He'd recollected the name Florence Lawrence—recalled that she'd been The Biograph Girl, the world's first movie star, who once received six thousand letters in a single week. He'd remembered, if dimly—and sent down his reporters to get the scoop, yet another Hollywood scandal they could splash across their pages:
FORGOTTEN STAR TAKES OWN LIFE BY DRINKING ANT POISON
Good for page ten or so.
But the reporters themselves didn't remember. I imagined they found the assignment tedious. Those men had looked so bored. And their readers—maybe a handful would recall those long-ago days before the movies had learned to talk, before Technicolor had splashed gaudy primary hues all over the silver screen, before movie theaters themselves were turned into palaces fit for desert sheiks, before features had dared to progress beyond ten or eleven minutes. Maybe a handful. But most people wouldn't know the name Florence Lawrence or care.
Page ten, if I was lucky.
Even if I was the one who'd started all of this—all of this foolishness with the reporters and the cameras and the flashing bulbs. I was the first, the very first in a long, long line of movie stars—in another time, another world. Now how different everything had become, and yet how much the same. On the lot at Metro the previous week, I had heard poor Garbo wailing about how the photographers had followed her almost to the studio gates, how she couldn't feel safe, not even at home. And yet I didn't dare approach her, didn't dare attempt any consolation—for who was I to her? Who was I—except the one who had started it all?
As if you have any right to sit there feeling sorry for yourself, Florence.
Mother's voice again. Definitely Mother's this time.
What of that poor creature on the hospital slab, the girl Lester will say is you, the girl who will be buried out beside me in Hollywood Memorial Cemetery, the place I had planned for you?
Oh, I hadn't forgotten her. Molly. Dear sweet little Molly. I took a long breath and closed my eyes. I imagined she was fully cold by now. I didn't feel much guilt, just a vague sadness—a wistfulness, really, more than anything else. She'd been a girl meant to die young. I predicted it the first day I met her. This one will never grow old, wasted, worn.
Molly had trusted me. Maybe even come to love me. Her own mother hadn't cared a whit for her—and I did care about Molly. No matter what Lester might think now. I did care about her. Very much.
But she was dead. Dead like Harlow, like La Marr, like Mabel Normand—like Peg Entwistle, the girl who'd jumped from the Hollywood sign. I knew what I'd done, and I'd have to live with it all the rest of my life. But I had no choice, none really—it was the chance I'd been waiting for. It was the only way.
And Molly was just a girl. A girl among hundreds.
I couldn't change what happened. And wouldn't have either, I supposed, hard as that sounds. Molly had given me a rare gift. For with Molly dead, so was Florence Lawrence—finally, at long last. That girl few remembered, the one who took her own life because she was old and forgotten and couldn't find work anymore. I believe I cried a little, sitting on that bench in the middle of the evening rush hour—tears for a girl even I could barely recall now, tears for how pathetically she'd ended her life.
Ant paste? What a way to go.
I sat and watched the world go past me: businessmen on their way home from work, children with their yapping little dogs on leashes, actresses from the extra ranks done up in mascara and rouge stepping off the bus and heading back wearily to their flats along La Cienega Boulevard. I watched them and marveled at the never-ending rhythm of the world, the dizziness that stops for no one.
Then I stood and entered the flow. Where I was headed, I had no clue—but I began to walk. I couldn't stay here. Eventually, someone would spot me, someone would know me: Marian, perhaps, or one of the other waxworks Metro kept on the payroll, like dear old King or Flossie Turner. I had to get out of Hollywood—not even go back to collect my things. Only my purse—that was all I could take with me. I tightened my grip on its patent leather hide.
The sun was low in the sky as I walked up La Cienega, then down Santa Monica. I remember so vividly the pinkness of the clouds, the reddening of the sky over the hills. I must have walked ten miles that way, clutching my purse in front of me so tightly that my fingers began to ache. It contained the trinkets of my old life: a few faded photographs of Mother, of Ducks, of Mr. Griffith and Linda, of Harry. I had exactly four dollars and sixty-seven cents to my name.
When I finally looked around and saw where I had traveled, night had come, and I was on the shore highway. I remember the bite to the air, the chilly slap of the sea against my face, and the sudden, delirious urge to laugh—to double over into laughter, in fact, to dance a merry jig on the macadam. But instead, alone on the road, smelling the salt of the sea, I began to whistle. Just what tune I no longer recall, but it hardly matters. I just went on whistling—never once turning around, walking onward as if I had a destination, an appointment, somewhere to go. I had nowhere, of course—a terrifying reality, but I indulged in no fear, not then, just the giddiness of being in the world without a home, without a purpose, without a name.
Fifty-Nine Years Later
"God," Anita says, "it's like something out of Dark Shadows."
Richard just nods in agreement. The place does look like some Gothic mansion, all brownstone and ivy and enormous stained glass windows of saints and dragons. Ancient oaks loom over its three stories, shading much of the manor from the late-morning sunlight.
"I half expect to see a sign saying, 'I'd turn back if I were you,' and an animatronic owl hooting in the trees," Richard jokes to Anita.
They approach like a couple of wary explorers. At the start of the walk leading up to the front door stands a slab of marble with ST. MARY'S HOME lettered in Old English script.
"You ring the bell when we get there," Richard insists.
"Why do I have to?" Anita asks.
"He's your uncle."
"Yeah, but it's your story."
Richard smirks over at her. He's unnerved by the quiet. Just the faint rustle of leaves from the trees above, the occasional shrill call of some mysterious bird. It's a whole other world away from the noisy streets of Manhattan, where leaves don't rustle and the only sounds of birds come from dirty pigeons on the roof.
"They know we're coming, right?" Richard asks for the third time.
"I've told you. Sister Jean does. I didn't speak to Uncle Stan. He doesn't get out of bed much anymore, remember?"
"But his memory is okay, right?" Richard stops walking and faces Anita. "I mean, he is ninety-four. I hope we didn't come all the way up here to Buffalo to this creepy old place just to find out he's lost in the upper stratosphere somewhere."
"Richard, do you think I would have wasted an entire Saturday if I didn't think this was going to be worthwhile? I'll have you know that I'm missing out on a very big audition today so I could bring you here."
"For what?" He smirks again. "They looking for more dancers for Grease?"
"No, they're looking for a girl for All My Children to play a streetwalker who gets murdered. The auditions continue tomorrow, so I'm going over. I'd beperfect."
Richard laughs. "Neet, you're gonna get typecast. Didn't you do that same bit on Miami Vice?"
She grins back at him. "That was ten years ago and I was seventeen. And I'll take whatever work I can get." She tosses her long blond hair in the way Richard adores. It's so Farrah. So Susan Lucci. Anita should be a star, he thinks. She's drop-dead gorgeous, has a great figure, and is a pretty good actress to boot—that is, when she gets the chance to show what she can do.
If only Ben weren't so goddamned determined to stay in New York and avoid L.A. That's where Anita could make it as an actress, become the star she should be.
"So trust me," Anita's saying. "Uncle Stan is sharp as a tack. Mother said so."
"You know, you should just move to L.A. on your own," Richard tells her.
"Where'd that come from?"
"I was just watching you, admiring your star quality," he says.
"I couldn't leave Ben," she replies simply. "He needs me."
Goddamn Ben. There's so much about him that drives Richard buggy. Always has been—ever since they were both teenagers back in Chicopee sharing the same room. Mom would call them down to dinner and Ben would arrive shirtless, smelling of boy sweat and motor oil. "I can't eat next to that," Richard would gripe.
Mom would just shake her head and say, "No one would ever believe you were twins—and identical ones at that," before ordering Ben back upstairs to wash his hands and put on a shirt.
"So when's the last time you saw Uncle Stan?" Richard asks.
"Oh, a long time ago. I was just a kid—back in the seventies sometime. He was living with my Aunt Trinka then. She's not the easiest woman to deal with, so Mother and I didn't visit Uncle Stan very often. But Mother saw him just about five months ago—after he'd come here—and she said he was just as bright and sassy as she'd always remembered him."
Richard sighs. "I hope so." He looks up at the imposing entrance—huge polished oak double doors with stained glass insets of Mary rising to heaven. "Well, let's go bring the broomstick back to the Emerald City."
Excerpted from The Biograph Girl by William J. Mann. Copyright © 2000 William J. Mann. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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