Read Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir Online
Authors: Lorna Luft
Tags: #Biographies & Memoirs, #Arts & Literature, #Actors & Entertainers, #Composers & Musicians, #Television Performers, #Leaders & Notable People, #Rich & Famous, #Memoirs, #Specific Groups, #Women, #Humor & Entertainment
My dad used to tell us these amazing stories about her, about what it was like growing up with her and my grandfather. My dad had been a real little prince himself. He may have gotten into a lot of fistfights because he was Jewish, but afterward he had a chauffeur to take him home. His whole family went to Europe every summer on vacation, so the good life was nothing new to my dad.
My father’s best story about his parents was one he didn’t tell
me until I was a teenager. It pretty much sums up my father’s family. My grandfather Norbert, who passed away before I was born, was a jeweler. He was very good-looking. I have pictures of him when he was young, and even in the old photos it’s clear that he was an extremely attractive man. One summer my grandfather didn’t want to go to Europe, so Grandma Leonora, my dad, and Aunt Peri (his sister) got on the boat and went to Europe without him. Of course, they had a grand time staying in all the best hotels and seeing the sights. My dad was about eighteen at the time, just about ready to go off to college.
Meanwhile my grandfather, handsome and lonely, was home alone, and at some point he got involved with a woman. I don’t know that it was a real affair, but it was a something—maybe a midlife crisis. Anyway, he cheated on my grandmother while she was gone.
Sometime afterward the “other woman” wrote a letter to my grandfather referring to their rendezvous, and like an idiot, my grandfather put the letter in his sock drawer and kept it. When my grandma Leonora got back from Europe with the children, she found the letter. Naturally, she was furious; she started screaming and carrying on like a madwoman. Needless to say, my father and Aunt Peri overheard the argument. Dad asked my grandfather what was going on. What were they fighting about?
The next part of my father’s story still amazes me. My grandfather had many talents, but he wasn’t much of a liar. According to my grandfather, he’d been driving through New York that day, and since it was very windy and blustery, he’d been driving with the windows down. When he got home, it seemed really warm in the house after the nice breeze in the car, so he’d opened the windows to cool the house off. The wind came rushing in through the open windows, and all of a sudden, the strangest thing happened. A letter blew in through an open window and landed on the carpet, where my grandmother noticed it and picked it up. As it turned out, it was some sort of love letter. Just because the letter began with the
words “Dear Norbert” (another coincidence), my grandmother had jumped to the conclusion that it was written to him. He finished the story by telling my father, “I just cannot understand why your mother does not understand this. Your mother is just being very, very . . . well, I just can’t understand why she doesn’t comprehend how this could happen.”
My dad was dumbfounded. He just looked at his father and said, “Are you kidding me? It just blew in the window, with your name on it?”
Somehow, my grandfather couldn’t succeed in convincing my dad, or anybody else for that matter. Grandfather kept repeating, “I can’t see why nobody seems to understand.” Grandma Leonora never did understand. Shortly afterward, she divorced him.
When I knew her, Grandma was domineering and very particular about the proper way to do things. (By the time she died, she was insisting that each knife, fork, and spoon be wrapped separate in cellophane before being put back in the drawer!) The staff at our house dreaded Grandma’s visits. Each time she arrived to take care of me when I was small, she caused havoc. Everything had to be done her way. Of course, she was usually right about the best way to do something, but she drove the staff crazy saying, “What are you making? What are you doing? Why are you doing that? What are you opening tins for?” Oy!
She drove everyone around her stark raving mad, overseeing every move they made. She treated canned food as if it were poison and had no intention of seeing it served to her grandchildren. She seemed to believe it would kill us. If she saw one of the staff opening a can of food to prepare for us kids, she would fly off the handle and say, “What do you think you are doing? You feed them this?” Then she would order the cook out of the kitchen and fix us something herself, from scratch. An afternoon with Leonora was a Russian food fest. I wasn’t too crazy about the borscht, but the breads and cakes were wonderful.
Even when Grandma wasn’t around, I was always well taken
care of. I had a large suite at one end of the house, with my sister in a suite next to me and the nanny nearby. When I awoke in the morning, the nanny would always be there. When Mama’d been up late at a party or concert, she always slept until well into the afternoon unless she had an early call. The nanny would fix my breakfast, bathe me, and dress me, always in the latest fashions, and always in dresses. No pants or grubby clothes for me. When I was little, it was pinafores and knee socks, and later it was always a lovely little frock, even for playing. I had long blonde hair, which I always wore with the top half pulled back over the crown and fastened with a clip or a ribbon.
After feeding me breakfast and dressing me, the nanny would take me to Holmby Hills Park if the weather was nice, which it usually was. The chauffeur always drove us in my dad’s big Mercedes or Cadillac, so I’d arrive in style like all the other little Beverly Hills princesses. Once we got to the park, my nanny would chat with the other nannies and keep an eye on me while I ran around or played on the slide and swings. An hour or two later I would be driven back home for an early lunch and a nap. My parents gave instructions for the nanny to give me freshly prepared, healthy food, with milk or juice. I might have a peanut butter sandwich, but canned spaghetti was out of the question, and there were never any soft drinks in our house. My dad was almost as health-conscious as my grandmother, and no daughter of his was going to drink Coca-Cola.
After my nap I would play with my nanny or my dad until my mom woke up, usually about four in the afternoon. Someone would come and tell me, “Your mom’s up,” and I would run screaming down the hall to my parents’ room to pile into bed with my mother. They had a big bed with a satin-covered headboard, and my mother would be propped up with a snack and the sleeping mask she always wore on the pillow beside her. I would try on the mask (I was always begging for one of my own) and play on the bed or explore the room while Mama got dressed. My daughter does exactly the same thing today, piling into bed with me first thing in the morning to ask, “What are you watching? What are you doing?”
My parents’ room was a child’s paradise. Their suite was really big. The bed seemed gigantic, and I loved jumping up and down on it. There were couches, too, and these tall lamps from the
Star Is Born
set—blackamoors, the bases were called, statues of big tall black men in eastern clothing with curved swords and turbans. I remember that the turbans were lampshades. But my parents’ room was never like a museum; it was a real bedroom, the kind you can play in. Nobody ever told me, “You can’t touch this” or “You can’t touch that.” My mom would let me wander around and play with anything I wanted. It was heaven for a little girl because there was lipstick and perfume and clothes and everything else you can think of. There was also a bathroom, a dressing room, and a truly amazing closet.
My favorite thing was the closet. Mama had the best closet in the world for a kid to play in, a big movie-star closet stuffed full of wonderful clothes and dozens and dozens of shoes. I spent hours in there looking around and trying things on. I loved putting on Mama’s glamorous dresses and hats, and I especially liked trying on the shoes. My mom always wore those high spiked heels when she went out. I’d put my small feet into what seemed like big shoes to me (size, after all, is relative) and try to walk around in them. I thought they were just the coolest thing there was. Needless to say, I had very little success with the walking around part, and this frustrated me.
When I’d had my fill of trying on the goodies, I’d go over to the dressing table and watch Mama put on her makeup. It drives me crazy now when my seven-year-old wants to watch me in front of the mirror, but it never seemed to bother my mother. Maybe she was just used to it after all those years of makeup artists fussing over her at MGM, but I think it was more than that. I think she really enjoyed my company. I remember watching intently as she carefully transformed her at-home face into her movie star face. She applied the makeup carefully, professionally, with a sureness and precision that came from good training and long practice. The eyebrow pencil and false eyelashes were essential; my mother didn’t
feel dressed without them. I would watch her carefully in the mirror, admiring the deftness with which she applied her lashes. In the light of the dressing table mirror, I would marvel at the whiteness of her skin, and trace the tiny blue veins with my eyes. I especially liked to watch her applying her lipstick. As she traced the perfect scarlet line around her lips, I would lean farther and farther forward so I could see better, so close to her face that she could feel my breath on her cheek. She would struggle to keep from laughing as I came close to her chin, and the scarlet line would waver as her lips trembled. Sometimes she gave up altogether and burst into uncontrollable laughter, and I would laugh with her. The makeup table was part of our special ritual together.
Some days she and my father would stay home in the evening, and we’d all play or watch television together, sometimes with my dad’s son Johnny. Other times they went out in the evening, and every now and then, they had grand parties at home. On those nights the nanny would put me in my nightgown and carry me in for a good-night kiss before I had to go to bed. I was still very small then, and my parents were strict about an early bedtime. My sister, who was lucky enough to be seven years older, always got to stay up later.
It was a good life, an untroubled life. I was Mama and Daddy’s little princess, the center of attention, as was only right. And then one day, before I’d even reached the tender age of three, disaster struck.
My mother had another baby.
In March of 1955 my brother Joey was born at Cedars Sinai Hospital. Frank Sinatra and Betty Bacall kept my father company in the hospital waiting room, along with ever-faithful Vern. Joe’s birth was quite a media event—literally. In the interval between my birth and my brother’s,
A Star Is Born
had been released, and my mother had been nominated for an Academy Award. She sorely wanted it. The juvenile Oscar she’d won for
had always smacked of tokenism to her, and she longed for the validation a
“real” Oscar would give her as an actress. She was in the hospital recovering from Joey’s birth on the night the ceremonies were held; a swarm of television technicians were there to wire Mama’s room—and Mama—for broadcast in case she won. She had wires running up her nightgown and all over the bed; her room was filled with sound equipment and other apparatus. It wasn’t the ideal way to recover from a cesarean section the day before, but somehow it all seemed normal for Mama.
Further complicating Joey’s birth was the fact that my mom had taken more prescription drugs during her pregnancy with Joe than with Liza or me. In 1955 doctors still believed that in the womb unborn children were at least partially protected from chemicals in the mother’s bloodstream, so my mother didn’t realize what a risk her medication was to her baby. The result was that my brother suffered some physical damage; Joe still struggles with the long-term effects of our mother’s intake of Benzedrine and barbiturates during pregnancy. Joe had only one functioning lung when he was born and barely survived the birth. The doctors told my parents that Joey was a high-risk baby with a fifty-fifty chance of survival, at best. My parents refused to believe that Joe wouldn’t make it and tried to look calm in front of each other, but underneath the brave front they were both worried sick. Two days after birth Joe’s second lung opened, and it was clear he was going to survive. My mother didn’t win the Oscar, but Joe’s recovery was the best consolation she could have gotten. Joey, my parents agreed, was my mother’s award. He was going to be all right, and that was all that mattered.
At two and a half years old, I was oblivious to both the Oscar ceremony and Joe’s birth. While all this drama was going on at the hospital, I was blissfully playing with my nanny and grandma at home on Mapleton. Finally, though, the worst happened. They brought my brother home.
Life would never be the same for me again.
To truly understand Joey’s impact on me, you have to
understand one thing: I didn’t have the faintest idea he was coming. I hadn’t noticed my mother’s pregnancy. Nobody had told me there was a baby inside my mom or had let me feel the baby move. This was 1955, long before child-raising experts published books on preparing siblings for a new baby in the family. My parents never sat down with me to say, “You’re going to have a baby sister or brother,” and even if they had, they would have told me that the stork had brought the baby. Then, when Joe was born, no one told me about him at first because nobody thought Joe was going to survive, and they didn’t want to upset me.
So all of a sudden, there he was, this tiny squirming creature. My mom and dad came in the door carrying this baby I had no idea even existed. To my horror, my mother,
mother, was cuddling this little creature and telling me that the stork had brought us a wonderful new baby, and wasn’t that great?
baby? Being Mama’s baby was my job. I took one look at my new brother and said, “Tell the stork to take him back.”
That pretty much sums up my early years with Joey.
Of course, my parents didn’t take him back. Joe’s arrival was deeply painful for me in the beginning. Everything was about “the baby,” and that baby was no longer me. “But what about me?” I thought. I was Dorothy Adorable, the little princess. Who was this stranger on my mother’s lap? Even worse, Joe was a boy, a boy who had nearly died. After two daughters, my mother finally had her son. The fact that Joey had come so close to dying made him doubly precious to my parents. From the beginning they saw Joe as a special gift, more fragile than their other children. This was especially true of my mother. The special bond between Joe and my mom is obvious in pictures taken when Joe was a baby. They adored each other; my brother’s face still lights up with tenderness when Mama is mentioned. My father paid the same attention to me that he always had, but it was different with my mom. She loved all her children, but Joe was her baby, her last child, her precious little son.