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

Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir (36 page)

BOOK: Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir
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I just looked back at him and said, “Nick
Nitti.
‘Nitti’ as in ‘Frank Nitti,’ as in
The Untouchables
? You’re kidding.” And then,
just because I couldn’t resist, I turned to Nick and said, “So, Nick, there’s something I’ve always wanted to know. Is there really such a thing as the Mafia?”

Suddenly, there was total silence. You could have heard a pin drop. Everybody looked at me. And then Nick looked into my face and said, very seriously, “Absolutely not. There is absolutely no such thing.”

“That’s exactly what I thought,” I replied, and turned to order a drink. Everyone relaxed, and conversation resumed.

Then, a moment later, the waitress entered, carrying a big tray of shrimp cocktails, and tripped over the edge of the rug as she neared the long table. The reaction was instantaneous; nearly all the men in the room leaped to their feet and reached under their coats, as they whirled to face the noise. The poor waitress froze in her tracks and looked as though she was going to pass out. There was total silence, and I thought, “Now, this isn’t funny.” Finally I said, “Jumpy, boys?” They looked around the room, realized it was just the waitress, and sat back down again. I heaved a huge sigh of relief. Everyone was very nice and extremely polite for the rest of the evening, and afterward Liza and I went to the ladies’ room and howled with laughter. I told her that I couldn’t believe that she’d gone from the Rothschilds to the Untouchables in twenty minutes! I’ve seen Nick Nitti many times since our encounter and he’s always seemed a perfect gentleman and a legitimate businessman, but I always smile when I remember that night.

But my dinner with Nick wasn’t the only invitation I would receive from someone with ties to the “family.” One night in 1972 I went to see Don Rickles at the Copacabana in New York. I had just finished working with him a few weeks earlier at the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and in the process become a big fan. Don was always very funny and sweet to me, and I wanted to see his new show when he came to New York. After the performance I went backstage to his dressing room. Joe Scandori, his manager, was there along with a friend of Don’s, Joey Villa. While we
were talking together, a man walked in with his wife and a small party of friends to congratulate Don. I didn’t know who he was, but he seemed friendly. As I stood there, the man said it was his birthday and that he was going to Little Italy in New York to celebrate at Umberto’s Clam House. He invited everyone to go. Don, Joe, and Joey quickly, but very politely, said “No thank you.” I started to open my mouth and say, “That would be nice . . .” but Don gently elbowed me in the ribs and gave me a look that said, “Don’t go!” I quickly said, “I guess I’m tired, maybe next time.” When the man and his entourage had left Don told me that the man was “Crazy” Joe Gallo, the reputed mobster. The next morning when my newspaper arrived, I read the headline, “Joe Gallo Murdered at Restaurant.” I still work with Don Rickles, and to this day I tell him, “Don, I owe you big time!”

The most memorable moment of those early years on the nightclub circuit, though, is one I still treasure. I was playing the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas. I knew my mother’s sister Jimmy had been living somewhere in Dallas the last time I’d heard, and I wanted to see her again. I hadn’t seen her since I was ten or eleven, when Mama and Aunt Jimmy had had a falling out. I didn’t know exactly what had happened; I only knew that my mom wouldn’t talk about it, and that my aunt hadn’t felt comfortable enough to attend my mother’s funeral. I did know the name of Jimmy’s husband, so when I arrived in Dallas for the show, I looked him up in a phone book and gave them a call, not knowing quite what to expect. I needn’t have worried; both my aunt and uncle were thrilled to hear from me. I invited Aunt Jimmy to see my show, and she asked if she could please come early so we’d have time to talk for a while. I told her, “Of course,” and we made plans to meet late that afternoon.

About five P.M. someone knocked on my dressing room door, and I felt my stomach clutch nervously. Opening the door, I saw a woman standing on the other side, and the moment I glimpsed her I felt as if someone had knocked the wind out of me. It was four
years since Mama had died, and here in front of me stood a tiny woman with dark hair, those familiar hands, and my mother’s face. I started to shake, and Aunt Jimmy teared up.

I invited her in and, still unable to take my eyes off of her, asked if she’d like something to eat. She thanked me, and when I asked what she wanted to order, she said, “A chicken sandwich with extra mayo, please.” It was the same thing my mother always used to order. I watched with fascination as she ate her sandwich. She sat like my mother; she chatted with me in my mother’s voice. She even chewed the way my mother had. Looking at her was the eeriest—and the most wonderful—sensation I’d ever felt. It was almost like being with my mother again, in her healthy days, if only for a moment.

That evening, at the end of my act, I told the audience a story. “Once upon a time,” I said, “there were three little girls named Suzy, Virginia, and Frances. When Suzy grew up, she was still Suzy, but Virginia grew up to be Jimmy, and Baby Frances grew up to be Judy Garland—my mother.” The audience laughed and applauded appreciatively. And then I added, “And one of those little girls is here with me tonight. Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like you to meet the last of the Gumm Sisters, my aunt Jimmy.” They brought up the lights; Aunt Jimmy stood up and took a bow, looking shy but delighted, and the audience went completely wild. They crowded around her after the show, asking for her autograph, and like an excited child, she signed everything they gave her.

Afterward, unwilling to let her go, I invited her and her husband, John Thompson, to stay awhile. We went into the bar area after nearly everyone was gone, and sat and talked for hours. After a while someone said, “Please, won’t you sing something for us?”

I don’t know if she’d done much singing since her vaudeville days, and she said, “Gee, I don’t know. I don’t know if I still know anything.” My conductor, Gene Palumbo (who’d conducted my mother years before) immediately volunteered to accompany her, and she said she’d try. She sat down next to him on the piano
bench, they conferred a moment, she hummed a little and then said, “Okay, let’s try.” And Gene began to play.

I don’t remember what she sang. It didn’t matter. What did matter was the voice—my mother’s voice, rich and full the way it had been so many years before. I looked at Gene. His face was filled with emotion, and his hands began to shake so much he could hardly play. I stood next to her, transfixed, listening to that familiar voice, and as I did so I began shaking like a leaf. I never wanted it to end. It was terrifying, and at the same time, it was the sweetest thing I’d ever heard.

Afterward she and my uncle went home, but not before we made plans to see each other again. I was traveling constantly in those days, but we kept in touch by phone, and I went to visit her at her home in Dallas. The first time, I stayed several days and got to meet my cousin Judalein again, as well as all of Aunt Jimmy’s friends and neighbors. It was on those trips that I got to hear firsthand about the early years of my mother’s life, before fame and ill health had begun to eat away her existence. Even after my aunt died, I kept in touch with her husband, a dear man.

Aunt Jimmy died almost fifteen years ago, shortly before my son, Jesse, was born. I wish she could have seen him. Jimmy was the last of the Gumm Sisters, and the healthiest in every sense of the word. She developed heart problems late in life, much like my grandmother Ethel, and died in recovery after heart bypass surgery. Her death marked the end of an era. She was a wonderful woman; sweet and warm and funny, with her feet planted firmly on the ground. She’d had the good luck and the good sense to get out of Hollywood as a young woman, before the problems that haunted her sisters had a chance to consume her life, too. When I looked at my aunt, I saw the woman my mother might have become if destiny hadn’t sent her down a different road, and I wondered what would have happened to my life if my mother had been able to walk away from it all. It’s a question I’ll never be able to answer.

© Francesco Scavullo

Francesco Scavullo took this photo of me for
Interview
magazine.

CHAPTER 14

Promises, Promises

A
career is all very well, but no one lives by work alone. What’s the point of having an exciting career in the big city if there’s no one to share it with? I’d been falling in love at regular intervals from the day I’d met Brian Englund in the seventh grade, but it wasn’t until I was out on my own that I got seriously involved. At home with Sid, I was Daddy’s little girl. But from the time I touched down in New York, I was prepared to become a woman.

One afternoon not long after the
Lolita
fiasco, I went into a hip East Side eatery across from Bloomingdale’s called Yellowfingers. I was going to have my usual salad and potato lunch before I went to class at Berghoff’s. I found a table, and a moment later the waiter came over and asked if I wanted to order something. I looked up at him and nearly passed out. Did I want something? Oh, yeah. I wanted
him.

His name, I soon learned, was Philippe Lavot. He was an actor from Paris, trying to make it on the New York stage. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He was the handsomest man I’d ever seen in my life. He had dark hair, bedroom eyes, and an authentic French accent. He looked exactly like the French heartthrob Alain Delon. I just stared at him, my eyes nearly popping out of my head.
Fortunately, he was staring back at me with an identical expression. It was the most extraordinary moment I’d ever experienced, like something out of a French movie. Needless to say, we exchanged names and phone numbers before I left that day. Lunch? Who could eat?

We began dating and were instantly inseparable. At nineteen you think that if you’re not together twenty-four hours a day, you’ll simply die. I told him I was an actress, but I didn’t tell him who my parents were. After a lifetime of people staring and pointing at me, I wasn’t sure I wanted him to know, at least not yet. Then one day he came to singing class with me. He’d never heard me sing before—after all, contrary to those MGM movies, people don’t
really
sing on dates! I was taking a musical comedy class from Rita Gardner, who was in the original cast of
The Fantasticks
(the longest-running musical in American theater history), and Philippe sat and watched. I noticed him watching me intensely while I sang, and I couldn’t quite read his expression.

After class he asked me an odd question: “Who are you?” I wasn’t sure what he meant. Then he explained that there was something special about the way I sang, a quality he couldn’t put his finger on. “You can’t just learn to sing like that. There’s something different about you.” There was nothing to do but take the plunge at that point, so I told him who my mother was. He’d heard me talk about my dad, but he just hadn’t put it all together until then. He wasn’t really that surprised. He told me it explained a lot of things about me. For my part, I was relieved to have the “family secret” out in the open. By that time it was clear that Philippe was in love with me, not with my name, so it didn’t matter who my parents were. He loved
me,
and that was that.

In record time we got engaged and moved in together. He couldn’t afford a real engagement ring, so he bought me a slender gold wedding band, which I never took off. We started planning the wedding for some vague, unforeseeable date. It didn’t matter
when we got married; what mattered was that we were in love. It was all wonderfully romantic. Even when we found out a few months later that Philippe would have to return to France because his visa had expired, we weren’t heartbroken. True love would win out. By then I was doing
Promises,
but we planned for me to visit him during my week off, and once the show closed, for me to move to Paris so we could be married. It would all work out in the end.

When you’re nineteen, someday is a long time away. Philippe went back to Paris, and at first I missed him terribly, but after a while I got used to his absence. We still wrote and called each other, and I did go over to Paris on my week off, but meanwhile life was exciting in New York, and I was never very good at staying home night after night. By the time
Promises
closed I’d found reasons to postpone my move to Paris. Philippe was busy with his new life, too, and although we still talked about getting married “someday,” someday was getting further and further away for both of us. Eventually, “someday” disappeared altogether. I never did become Madame Lavot. The affection lasted, though, and so did the friendship. We kept in touch over the years, and when I remarried two years ago, Philippe met me and Colin on our vacation in France. He’s just a wonderful friend now, who enjoyed teasing me about my “younger man” and my new hair color. Philippe was my first love. I chose well.

BOOK: Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir
13.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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