I receive many emails from my grandmother’s fans each week. One day, years back, I received an email from Eugene Pagano explaining that he had dated my grandmother when they were in high school and that he had subsequently kept a scrapbook of her career that he wanted to give to me.
He told me he had some special personal photos as well as many press clippings that he had collected over the years that he wished for me to have. This was funny to me because, though I have not made a scrapbook in ages, it was my grandmother herself who had been the person who first taught me to make a scrapbook. I would spend hours sitting on the red carpet, beside her bed, cutting and pasting who knows what.
When my parents would take off on vacation for the summer, they would leave me and my brother with my grandparents. I am so lucky to have had this time with my grandmother while she was still active and living life. She would take us to the beach, shopping for miniatures, toy trains and rare coins. She would take us out to dinner at Trader Vics, expensive fancy French restaurants to eat escargot or lunch at Hamburger Hamlet. She was the funnest person to be with and always looked fresh, elegant and had such a warm, loving nature. She was named Party Girl of 1952. She was invited to over 200 parties that year alone. Knowing her then, I could see why, everywhere we went she had amusing things to say, with her, the world was like a fun little cocktail party. She made life an exciting adventure, always pointing things out to me and my brother of interest. She was so beautiful inside and out and my grandfather by her side was dashing. They were my heroes. People like them are rare now, well dressed, well mannered, elegant, sophisticated, worldly and I am grateful for having known her then. It is one of my greatest gifts.
When “Gram Jeanne” got a little tired in the late afternoon, she would take to her enormous four poster bed (perhaps the beginnings of what came later…) which was imported from Europe from some mysterious castle. She would hand me magazines and I would quietly cut and paste next to Shaunie Dog while she watched television, played back gammon with my grandfather or sipped a martini from her king-sized bed. I would listen to my grandmother and grandfather talk with the reverence that a zealot would give a sermon. They talked about people on the television they knew in real life. The stories I heard fascinated me.
Eugene requested to meet me in person, so that he could give me his scrapbook. Well… I was a bit hesitant about meeting a complete stranger, but I was quite curious about the scrapbook. After thinking it over, I decided that I would meet him in a public place. I picked a Hamburger Hamlet near my house on Mulholland Drive. I picked Hamburger Hamlet because my “Gram Jeanne” always took me to the one in Westwood before it closed down. It was tradition, I have so many memories, and I love the number 11– Bacon cheese burger with Thousand Island dressing– “World’s Greatest Hamburger”. I felt I would be safe there and so we met.
As I sat drinking my coffee milkshake, eating my number 11 in the backroom at Hamburger Hamlet and dipping steak fries into the Thousand Island, Eugene explained to me who he was and what his connection to my grandmother was. He, himself, was quite a fascinating character. He and his twin brother were the most famous hairdressers of their day. They created the “Blonde Bombshell” look for countless blonde bombshells like Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe. Ladies tell their hairdressers almost as much as they tell their therapists, and back in those days they didn’t have “therapists” really, they only had “shrinks” who were looked down upon and only used by the desperate or insane (at least that is what my grandfather told me), so hairdressers had the inside scoop on Hollywood– the dirt! Who was having an affair with who, etc. Eugene had many stories about old Hollywood, including a few about my grandmother I never knew.
He told me my grandmother and him had dated in high school. He was very much in love with her. She was the girl next door, the all-American girl–Happy, intelligent, kind and radiant. He told of how much my grandmother changed when she met my grandfather, a notorious playboy, with many a Hollywood starlet notched in his belt. He said that my grandmother was a “good girl” and very obedient.
His saying this made me recall a time that I questioned my Gram Jeanne about a historical film role she was up for and didn’t get (I believe due to pregnancy) which is one of my favorite movies. I asked her why she didn’t get heavier roles, like Joan Crawford and Betty Davis, and her Irish temper flared up and she remarked, “You think I had a choice?! You DID what YOU were TOLD to DO! You didn’t argue with THEM!”
I knew Eugene was right, my grandmother was a good and obedient woman, which was fine until she married an “evil master,” my ever-so-dashing grandfather, who took her away from those who cared for her. Eugene did not have many wonderful things to say about my grandfather, part out of rivalry, I am sure, but also because it’s the truth. My grandfather, though he was handsome and charming, even heroic at times, could be cruel, manipulative, abusive and downright evil. He had one personality in public and one behind closed doors… From behind their bedroom door my grandmother was heard screaming in pain and in fear, maybe of her life, more than once…
And I suffered the same fate one horrible evening myself, a brief taste of the sick, disgusting cruelty… I will never forget his hard, cold, brutal touch on my young virgin body and him asking me, “What’s the matter? Don’t you like it?” It wrecked me for over a decade. If one weekend at my grandfather’s ranch in Santa Barbara had me walking around in a state of shock for years, I can only imagine what being married to him for 50 years did to my grandmother. Before she died, she asked that his photo be taken from her bedside, she remarked that he had done things to her that were so horrible that she would “never utter them to another human being.”
I was saved by good timing and a swift kick, I escaped his attempted rape, my grandmother could never escape him, because when she tried to divorce him a gun would be drawn that would threaten her life and his, another time the arm of her lover broken. This is why I felt much later in life that her piles of trash, rotting food, and, at times, maggots, were quite poetic since they were piled on his side of the bed. Was it to ward him off? Or a poetic symbol. It was during her “Charles Dicken’s Period” (whom I share a birthday with ironically!) as we call it, that she displayed such behavior. Unfortunately the Charles Dickens Period started a few years before the time at which I was planning to move up to LA to pursue my dreams. My grandmother had always promised me that I could come live with her when I grew up. She said how fun it would be to come live with her and go to school across the street at UCLA, but when I was ready to do so, she had sadly already started, and, in fact, was well into, her decline. There were years when my family and I worried that she could die at any time, but she was heartier than any of us knew. (I think she lived her last decade from sheer determination to outlive my grandfather.) When I discussed coming to live with her, she insisted instead to pay for me to live out in Malibu in a condo with three other college friends who happened to live right next door to Charlie Sheen. She wanted me around people my “own age” and I now see that is was quite a wise decision she made for my benefit, but at the time, I was heart broken… but Malibu didn’t sound like such a bad consolation prize.
I had asked myself in my early and late teens, “What happened to the movie star in my grandmother’s films? What had driven her, a beauty, a marvel, a talent, a star, to a life of living in bed and not getting up? What? Who? Why?”
I remember that I began to worry about my grandmother during a conversation she had with my father at Christmas. She kept saying to my father, “Don’t worry about me, Mike. Don’t worry.” I knew she had a drinking problem and I wrote her a letter shortly after when I was around 10 years old telling her how much I loved her, how worried I was about her and begged her to stop drinking. Next time I saw her I asked her if she had received my letter, I wondered if it had been mixed up in some fan mail because I had not heard from her, she said that she carried that letter her handbag every single day everywhere she went… She thanked me for writing it and then said, “I don’t deserve it.” This made me sad and I disagreed. Nonetheless, she carried my letter to her for years and still had it with her when she died, many decades later.
My meeting with Eugene was like getting clues from an ancient mystery. I wondered if he had the key… Was the answer somewhere in this scrapbook?
I had looked for answers most of my life, but where I found them was in my own life that echoed hers. Walking in her shoes made me understand the destruction of her soul…
I married someone like my grandfather, charming with old world manners and great taste, though not as handsome, he was more talented– a malignant narcissist or a sociopath– hard to tell– and became a battered wife (or a “battered princess” as the judge referred to me in my divorce) myself. It was not until then, through my own similar life experienced that I realized what had reduced a shining star to the woman, who rotted, lying on her bed, defeated and half mad in a decaying mansion, like a cross between “Sunset Boulevard” and Miss Havisham. I had wanted to follow in my grandmother’s footsteps, but not like this, but I had asked myself the wrong question, “What happened to her? Why has she become THIS when she was THAT?” And I got my answer. They say curiosity kills the cat. Well, it almost killed me.
Though I probably have my grandmother to blame for developing my morbid curiosity in the first place, I also have her to thank for saving me from her ultimate doom. No matter what, I would not end up laying in bed next to piles of trash, newspapers, fan mail and old rotting food, wetting myself until it dripped through the blackened mattress, to the ceiling in the room below, feeding rats and calling them my pets like her. No way! It is no mistake that I used every bit of the inheritance left to me by my grandmother to escape the monster she never could never escape, though to her credit, she did try. I felt her support during my divorce from beyond the grave. (She even told me to buy some jewelry in Hawaii! She always loved to do that for me!)
Some of these things I have revealed I learned long after my meeting with Eugene, but listening to him tell of the early days of my grandmother and grandfather’s relationship sparked memories hidden in my unconscious brain, things that had imprinted themselves deep in my mind and had whispered my destiny, though I was only beginning to become conscious of it as he spoke. He talked of my grandfather beginning to control my grandmother and how their once close relationship turned distant. (This sounded quite familiar to me…) Maybe this was why Eugene had kept this scrapbook of her, to preserve something of his love for her, perhaps to try to preserve her from the evil man who was taking over her life. I wished someone had cared enough to make a scrapbook of me…
The studio and my great grandmother also were concerned about her relationship with my grandfather, Paul Brinkman, though it was due more to a wrestling match of power and control than true human concern, like Eugene had for my grandmother. Eugene told me that one time, my grandfather even kidnapped my grandmother for a few days, much to the studio’s alarm.
As we finished up dinner at Hamburger Hamlet and wiped off our fingers, we opened the scrapbook, which had been sitting there like an untapped goldmine. I looked through the photos and clippings. The first one Eugene showed me was of him and my grandmother together before going to prom. There she was, young and beautiful, with a flower pinned to her, untouched by all that was to come… stardom, pill and alcohol addiction, battered wife syndrome… It was easy to match this young woman to the glamorous, girl next door I saw in movies growing up, but it was hard to match the young woman to a “battered wife.” It was a label that would one day shock me when it was used to describe me. I thought only stupid, weak women were battered wives and I graduated from UCLA and was feisty for Christ’s sake! Not me! How did THAT happen?! All I can say is… the devil is always handsome, charming and an absolute Prince until the moment he knows he HAS you. And then it’s too late.
Looking through the scrapbook, I had to laugh about all of the swimsuit photos. Maybe it was no mistake that I received my Screen Actors Guild card on the set of Baywatch in a bathing suit handing a trophy to Kelly Slater. She is, to this day, one of the most beautiful people to have ever lived, wearing a swim suit or not, in my book.
At my grandmother’s funeral, one of her fans came up to me and told me that I was the true inheritor of my grandmother’s beauty and talent. I smiled, but it was a haunted smile, like so many of the haunted smiles my grandmother made to hide the deep, sad truth. The fact is, I loved acting, I still do– and music and film have literally SAVED MY LIFE! I moved up to Malibu at 19 (The girl next door to Charles! LOL! But that is another story for another time… There’s not much to tell, honestly!) to pursue my dreams of following in my grandmother’s footsteps… But, seeing my grandmother in the aftermath of stardom was not a selling point. (Even Charles was fresh out of re-hab. I had a huge crush on him, but would not allow myself to go there, despite his visits only wearing a robe to borrow butter, ketchup and milk, some voice in my head warned me, “He will kill you if you fall for him.” I thought it meant that he would break my heart, but after reading a recent Vanity Fair article, I’m not so sure it wasn’t literal. I saw him years later, when I was pregnant with my third son, in Bel Air, we talked for 20 minutes or so. I had just run into his ex, Denise Richards, and their kids at the Montage a few days before, just after a highly publicized split. He said he had just finished rehab for the millionth time. I asked him if he planned on returning again. He said, “That would be a little ridiculous.” I told him, “You keep doing it as many times as you need, just NEVER give up. Do it for your kids… because my dad died.” My voice choked up and I couldn’t say much after that.) I did not follow my dreams with all of my heart because of what I saw. I saw danger. I saw destruction and devastation. I was born onto the backstage pass of the illusion… while I read old magazines that told beautiful lies.
Growing up as an teenager, I remember girlfriends worshiping the members of Duran Duran, I never could bring myself to it, jumping around and screaming. Famous people weren’t the same for me as they were for others. They made me nervous, but for different reasons. It made me recall years of standing on my grandmother’s doorstep with the mixed anticipation of excitement and dread. You were never quite sure what you would see if you opened that door… I could remember years of walking up the stairs to my grandmother’s bedroom which she hardly came out of… (It’s funny that I was talking to Beck the other night– he was close friends of my Uncle Chris and had been to her house on Hilgard– not her home at 1017 Roxbury Drive, next door to Rosemary Clooney, Lucille Ball and Jimmy Stewart on the star tours, but 354 “Hell-guard” as we called it– many times for years– he described my grandmother as a “shape shifter”– there and heard, but never seen…) seeing four beautiful portraits of her, one with cracked glass from top to bottom and never repaired. That was a poetic statement in my book, one that symbolized fame. (Did I tell you I was a poetry major at UCLA?) So, I in my early teens and twenties, I was not impressed by stars or famous people because I knew, all too well, that they are just people. People, some with extraordinary talents or looks or both, which I do admire, with tremendous pressure heaped on them by their adoring sometimes cruel public, used and tossed away, like the fan mail and trash piled on my grandmother’s bed.
I am, however, impressed with stars like Audry Hepburn that go the distance, that take it to the end. My grandmother was one of the most famous stars of her day, yet at some point, she crawled away and hid in her bedroom. One time, I was talking to a big fan of my grandmother’s and I was saying how only senior citizens and old film buffs know my grandmother and I wondered why her fame had not lasted like others of her day. She had remarked that scandal many times was what made fame last and that my grandmother wasn’t involved in any. “She was a good girl.”
“Yes,” I thought to myself, “Too good. If they only knew the real story. The boxes of blackmail, the nights and days of terror being locked away in a room for days with broken ribs, guns being pulled, screams from behind the bedroom door… beautiful, haunted smiles that hid tears too deep, tears without words to describe them…”
I smiled. Did my smile look haunted like hers? Or am I a better actress than my grandmother? Still her smile always beckoned me. It said, “Find the truth…” I did. Not to the point of broken ribs and guns, I cut it off before my bones were broken (…which ironically hurt me in court. The opposing attorney wondered why I hadn’t waited until I was hospitalized. Apparently being punched on several occasions, including once on the 405 Freeway while I driving 65 miles an hour wasn’t enough for the bastard, he wanted broken bones, AT LEAST!!! It also hurt me to be labeled as an “actress.” It was hinted at that I “lie” for a living. First off, acting is about truth, many people fail to realize this and, second of all, it was the first play– his lawyer kept repeating “while you were doing your PLAY” as if it were a crime– I’d done in years. It’s not like I was up for an Academy Award or had had much, if any, success as an actress! I was an at-home mom for 14 years….) but then I had modern psychology and therapists and she did not.
When I watch my grandmothers films I have more respect for her than most people might because I know what was happening behind the scenes and what she was battling while taking on demanding roles and studio slave driving. It’s funny, I get embarrassed of this one you tube video of me called “The Stronger” It’s not my best work. Larry Moss (a crazy genius, sometimes abusive, acting guru who has said himself that he would be a cold-blooded murderer if not for therapy and medication– but why kill when you can toy with young hopeful, vulnerable actors? So much more fun…) warned me against doing it, but I think I carried it off pretty well considering I was going through a domestic violence hearing at the time… History repeats… I am determined to see my daughter live free of it. Some one had to stop the cycle. I stopped the cycle of my family’s addictions, but I failed to realize the cause.
Looking through pretty pictures, I wish they could only be that for me… I enjoy the beautiful– one grabs all one can get in the world if one is an artist, but, looking deeper, beyond the surface, I see in the light of her eyes a sadness… Life is beautiful, but beauty is complex– it’s not always “pretty” and it’s not one-dimensional.
Of course, there are so many things we can never know about someone else’s life. Looking through this scrapbook, I see and hear things about my grandmother I never knew. When Eugene hands me my grandmother’s scrapbook, entrusting it to my safekeeping, three hours have flown by and he seems more family than friend or stranger. I tell him, “I wish my grandmother would have married you instead.”
He smiles… a smile that whispers of a secret heartbreak of long ago.
He says, “I’m glad I got to meet you. I see so much of her in you.”
I say, “Yes, she has taught me more than anyone.”
I promised him that I would put the scrapbook up on my grandmother’s website right away. I didn’t. Sorry Eugene. Three moves and a divorce later, I came across his scrapbook the other day while cleaning out the garage and here it is. Thank you, Eugene. Wherever you may be.
It’s funny, I am asked three questions the most..
Q: Are you really a Lady?
A: Yes, I am… in every room but one.
Q: Why did you change your name?
A: Would you want the last name of a man who tried to rape you?
Plus it’s kinda cool to have a stage name and a fresh start and I like girls names that are boys names– like Tommy, Paige and BRET! My friends in theater school at UCLA named my after Lady Bret Ashley in “The Sun Also Rises.”
Q: Why aren’t you famous?
A: The answer is… I was afraid. So was my Uncle Chris, who quit Jane’s Addiction and turned down Beck’s many requests to join his band… This may sound supremely arrogant, but I felt that with my looks, talent and pedigree that I would get thrown into the “star” category… (YOUTH!) If only I could have been assured meaty roles in awe inspiring films, work with amazing scripts and artists and yet lay low, under the radar… (YOUTH!) Now, I’ve grown to see that fame can be handled in many ways–with grace or disastrously, embraced or resisted… or a mixture of both. Life is a learning experience, under a microscope or not! I have to say that, unlike my Uncle Chris and my brother, I would have grabbed the opportunity if it was given…. I gave an earth-moving audition for this play Burt Reynolds was to back. It’s unlike anything when you nail something, live and breathe a character you love…. It’s literally like an electric earthquake that is completely still– a transformation takes place, a warm liquid lake fills the whole room, sparkling, and people around you get charged and react to you in a whole new way– like they just discovered gold and want to get their hands on it. My fellow actor, “Shug,” looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, “That was beautiful.” The casting director and the director told me immediately that they would build the whole show around me… I walked away from that audition saying, if that’s all I ever get in life– that audition, in my mind I made it. But Burt Reynolds backed out of the play before we ever met… Too bad because I love “Smokey and the Bandit!” I walked away knowing I “had it” though. It’s all I needed at the time… I would have delivered if Hollywood came knocking, I know, but I had a hard time putting myself out there when I was young. (YOUTH!) Looking back on it I was like a hot chick who could go pro if she wanted (I was once approached by Heidi Fleiss’ “people” and even considered it for three seconds. Hmmm… make 10 grand a night or make eight bucks an hour at the UCLA bookstore? Believe it or not, I chose the book store!), but didn’t have the courage or the desperation to walk the streets.
I now recall a story a cop told my kindergarten class. He told us that cops who joined the force young were the worst cops because they had no life experience prior to becoming a cop and they only experienced the negative side of humanity. He said that the cops who joined the force when they were older made better cops because they had a rich life experience beforehand to balance out what they saw day to day as a policeman. I think it is the same with fame– We’ve seen enough child stars to know this is true. It’s harder for a young person to handle fame without some normal life experience first, but Hollywood wants them young (and easy to mold and control). I honestly felt washed up at 24. I thought, “I’m too old.” But, I think I would handle it much more maturely, and with a wonderful perspective, now, than I ever could have as a teen, but who knows if I’ll get the chance to prove it:)