Saturday, September 5, 2009
He was a celebrity; not as grand a celebrity as he would have liked to have been, but one who could command leading roles on Broadway and lesser, but interesting, parts in Hollywood films.
His career had begun in a spectacular way at the age of 24, chosen from an open call of unknowns and catapulted into a starring role for his charismatic good looks, lithe grace of movement, and obvious talent. He was chosen, perfectly, for the lead part in a new Broadway production, a role that required his youthful energy and his electric, erotic presence -- with a sharp edge of evil. The producers had wanted a sex symbol, one who would have the women in the matinee audiences swooning and young women mobbing the stage door after performance. He succeeded in this swiftly and was the talk of the town for awhile, with women, some men, dreaming of his appearance at the foot of their beds just as, each performance, he arrived at the bed of his leading lady. He entered with a look of predatory sexual intent, a man who knows he will conquer, and there, each night out of the darkened wings of the set he came with all his power held in the hint of a smile.
On stage and off he lusted for the beautiful young actress who was ravished and left dramatically devastated nightly, by his character. In his real life he resolutely avoided her offered body, saving his desire for performance, empowering his stage presence with his want.
I had seen him in this guise and in many of his later roles as the years went by. Nothing he did ever rose again to the emotional heights or plunged to the depth of feeling of this first amazing performance.
He had made the error that many young actors do when they are offered their first Broadway contract and he had signed on for too long, two years, so that by the time he left the show he was old news. The movie role went to a more established star. His leading lady found another man.
I took on the job of straightening out his finances as a retirement gig. He just couldn't be bothered with the mundane and his latest personal manager had been caught, quite by accident, cooking the books when a former wife came sniffing around looking for her alimony checks. When an old theater pal suggested the position to me, I agreed. I didn't really need the money as I had come into a small inheritance and with my social security I did fine but, frankly, I was curious.
An attractive, exceedingly thin, young woman who called herself his personal assistant showed me the way through the rambling West End apartment to a study, and there, I was left to toil unattended. At first glance his business life looked a monumental mess, and so it proved to be, but I enjoyed putting things in order and I liked having somewhere unusual to apply my skills. Weeks went by and I saw no one until one evening, as I was leaving the apartment at the end of a long day I encountered him in the hallway. Age had had its way with him, but in the dim light I saw the shadow of his younger self lurking among his older features. A tall and dark man, he was wearing a cape, and he moved towards me with the grace of a young cat, much as I remembered from his first performance.
"And who might you be?" he asked.
"My name is Rose."
"And what do you do here?"
"I am trying to properly arrange your financial accounts."
"And you care for such things?"
"I care for you." The words had slipped out of me like thieves in the night.
"How kind," he replied. He raised his chin slightly and looked down at me for a moment, then turned and disappeared down the hallway into the depths of his abode.
Some weeks later his assistant, though she may have been another young woman altogether, stopped by the study and asked if I needed anything.
"I need an audience," I replied.
She looked puzzled and cracked her chewing gum, so I revised the request.
"I need to meet with your employer."
"Oh. I'll see when he is free." And the next evening I was ushered into his living area. The young woman left us alone.
He semi-reclined on a couch, holding a glass of red wine. He was wearing a smoking jacket. His smile seemed to convey an awareness of the pretentiousness of his presentation and so with a glance he transformed the spectacle into one of elegant good humor. With a smooth wave of his hand he indicated a tray with another glass, but I declined and spoke abruptly out of a nervousness that caught me by surprise.
"I have discovered some early investments made in your name, quite neglected, that have done extremely well. You are in a a far better financial position than was previously thought," I announced.
"That should make my former wives very pleased," he replied dismissively. "Now, Rose, I need your help with something of importance."
"Yes. I am writing my speech for the Tonys."
"You haven't been nominated for a Tony."
He raised his eyebrows slightly at my lack of tact.
"But I have been nominated for an Oscar. I will not win the Oscar and I wish to take my colleagues, my peers as they are called, to task for the oversight when I speak at the Tonys. They are trotting me out, along with a lot of -- shall we say? -- elder actors to present awards. It is an opportunity not to be wasted.
"Why would you ask me to help?" I queried. "I am an accountant."
"You are a person who cares for me, Rose. I have not forgotten what you said when first we met."
"But your personal assistant -- is she not better qualified?"
"My personal what?" He looked momentarily confused. "Oh. Is that what they are called nowadays? No. Like many young women she has nothing useful in her mind, but these women are necessary ... in their fashion."
And there it was. The smile of his youth. It was as heart-stopping now as it had been on stage. The erotic power of celebrity was still his to command, I realized, and I imagined many young women, looking for a father's attention, fell under his spell. But I had had my years of youthful adventures and, because I had worked all my life in theater box offices, I had slept with an actor or two of greater fame. I felt immune, by age and experience, to this particular charm.
"Do you care for these women?" I asked him.
"No. I have never cared for the women who come and go from my life, drawn by my celebrity, although I have always enjoyed the power I have had over them. And the sex, of course."
"And your former wives?"
"You are bold, Rose, I like that about you. I suppose I loved them, or thought that I did at the time I married them, but truly I have only been able to love myself. Not even myself, only myself as a character, in a good play, having delivered a fine performance. That is whom, or what, I love. That is my tragedy."
A dramatic silence fell upon us. He gazed at me over his wine glass and I found the revelation, and the gaze, and the silence all quite disturbing. I decided to have the wine. He watched me as I crossed the room. I felt self-conscious, thinking that I had not aged as well, as gracefully, as he. The wine was good, as one would expect, and I watched him, watching me, as I let it warm and calm me. As I stood in that silence the awareness came upon me of how truly lonely he must be.
"Now let us work on the speech," he said at last. "Come and sit close to me, dear Rose."
Our friendship began with that conversation and grew over the years into a companionship that I imagined old spouses sometimes share. The personal assistants soon disappeared, leaving us quite alone: two fond people, enjoying the October light.
I never told him. Of course I was tempted at times, as our intimacy grew, but I never did. For I had been one of those young women, picked up at the stage door, discarded a week later, forgotten by him instantly. I had fallen deeply in love with him as only the young can do, suffered horribly at his rejection and, inevitably, moved on.
I had no regrets. That week, so long ago, spent in the grasp of his early power had given me the best sex of my life. Until late in life when we, two old people with our lives largely behind us, began to make love.