BACK TO SCHOOL

went back to school last week. Not for classes and not for any kind of reunion (the reunion part may come later). I returned to Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy for the first time since I left, more years ago than I care to remember, because I received a mysterious phone message from a Sister Giulii (pronounced “Julie”). I called the number; the voice on the other end of the line was husky and casual and, I thought, entirely unclerical. My memories of the Flintridge sisters’ voices were full of crisp pronunciations and formal deliveries. Sister Giulii sounded like a girlfriend I hadn’t seen in a while. Which is pretty much what she turned out to be: a Flintridge classmate appearing out of the fog of our combined academic past. She’d tracked me down after reading one of my Arroyo columns about Flintridge, and she’d called to invite me to drive up to our old school together. She’d pick me up in her car, she said.

Say what? A Dominican nun with a car? I wondered how she’d manage to handle the wheel with all the long skirts, coifs, veils and capacious sleeves of her habit. And what kind of car would she drive?

The car turned out to be a Toyota Corolla. White. Clean, with a small clutch of papers on the passenger-side floor. These were brushed casually to the side so I’d have more leg room. This was the Giulii I’d known all those years ago, all right. The same spark of humor was there in her dark eyes. Her mouth still looked as if she might laugh at any moment. She was still pretty. Her thick dark curls were cropped short and, while the hair had remained thick, it had gone white. But she was not wearing a habit. Sister Giulii had on jeans and a gray T-shirt embossed across the front with the crest of Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy. I could not have been more surprised if she had been wearing a sarong.

We drove to La Cañada, talking about classmates who had entered the order. One girl, nicknamed Tyke, was the wildest student in our class, the one who found a way to smoke without being caught (and expelled), the one who managed to smuggle up a bottle of mouthwash laced with vodka, left school in the 10th grade and entered a Carmelite novitiate. Giullii told me Tyke left the Carmelites (the most enclosed of orders) and reentered the world after a few years. We talked about the suspense, during summer holidays, of waiting for the handsomely engraved card that invited you back for another year. If you did not receive that card, you weren’t welcome to return; it wasn’t like being expelled, but not being invited back to Flintridge would have made it difficult to be accepted at another private school. We traveled up St. Katherine Drive (the same route my mother and I had taken after weekends and holidays at home) until we reached the top. And there was the school, a sprawl of red-tile-roofed white buildings and lush landscaping with a rustic, bougainvillea-draped bridge that crossed over the drive to a compound of four-room cottages reserved for upperclassmen. I remembered how excited I was when, as a junior, I got to live in one of the cottages; all Flintridge students are boarders, and being allowed a space in a cottage felt as grown-up as scarlet lipstick and My Sin perfume.

The school, which was once the Flintridge Hotel (donated to the Catholic Church in the ’20s by its owner), looked the same as we walked up the flight of stone stairs to the entrance. The old hotel lobby still had the check-in desk where students signed in after weekends at home and where all incoming calls were screened. The big room off the lobby — where school plays, the junior and senior proms and the ceremonial senior ring ceremony were held — hadn’t changed, with the exception of a large lectern at the center of the room, facing a number of chairs. Sister Giulli explained that this was now the chapel. I was rather disappointed: My memory of the original chapel with its beautiful altar and rows of benches seemed much more the real deal to me. But the life-size statues of the Madonna holding the infant Jesus and Saint Francis with a small dog at his side were just as I remembered. The long hallway leading to the students’ rooms was unchanged. The Green Room, where we gathered after dinner for bridge games and dancing to donated record albums, was the same. But now it’s painted white and there is a very big flat-screen TV attached to one wall. I guess there’s not much dancing there now, or games of bridge and hearts. But just outside the room’s French doors, the patio with its round stone fountain was so familiar I half expected to see Sister Benigna bringing out the basket of sweet pastries she referred to as “afternoon lunch.”

The highlight of the day was meeting Sister Carolyn McCormack, the president of Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy. Sister Carolyn greeted me with the warmest of hugs and the kind of smile one doesn’t see often: wide and true and welcoming. She was wearing a habit, and I noticed the differences from those my teachers wore when I was a student. The new habits are shorter and the coif and veil are less constricting. The black cotton stockings and low-heeled shoes are unchanged, however.

Sister Carolyn, who was named Educator of the Year by the La Cañada Flintridge Chamber of Commerce in January, is apple-cheeked, with deeply intelligent eyes that hold an extra push of blue. Those eyes see you as you are, and when she leans in to speak she has the gift of making you feel as if you’re the only person in the room. She invited me to return to Flintridge, even to speak to any students interested in journalism. We met in the dining room, called the refectory when I was a student there. The big room is not much changed — the ceiling is as high and the candled chandeliers are still in place, but the white-clothed tables for eight have been replaced by round vinyl-topped tables bearing the Flintridge crest. And now, instead of meals served by the sisters, there are long tables with a choice of meals for self-service. I didn’t meet any students that day, but I saw a couple of girls studying at the other end of the dining room. The dark blue uniforms we wore when I was a Flintridge student have been replaced with red blazers and pleated skirts. Way more attractive.

It was a great day for me, and if it’s true you can’t go home again, you can most assuredly go back to school.

DYNASTY

Remembering Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, royalty of Hollywood and a galaxy far, far away

It was unthinkable. If that story line had been written into a screenplay, no producer would have gone near the idea; too unlikely, it wouldn’t play well with audiences. But it really did happen at the end of last year, and the public reaction was huge: People were staggered by the news that Debbie Reynolds died one day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher, suffered a fatal cardiac arrest during a 15-hour flight from London to Los Angeles. They didn’t get to say goodbye. Carrie lay in a coma and on life support for some hours at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center before her death last Dec. 27. She was 60 years old; her mom was 84. And behind the shock and disbelief, nearly everyone had a few tears to shed. I know I did, although my friendship with Carrie had drifted away over a stupid argument many years earlier.

Buck Henry — best known for his screenplay of The Graduate (in which he also played the small role of a hotel clerk) and his many appearances on Saturday Night Live during John Belushi’s tenure — introduced me to Carrie Fisher in the early ’80s at a small party held in the courtyard of artist Ed Ruscha’s studio. Buck, whom I’d known since we both lived in New York, said, “You two dames have got to meet.” Then he took me by the hand and guided me to a spot where Carrie stood, surrounded by admirers. Buck was right: Carrie and I clicked, and during that first conversation I was fascinated by her blazing intelligence and touched by the overlay of disillusionment around her singular beauty. We exchanged numbers and soon I was being asked to visit her home in the canyon (I can’t remember which one; it was before the bigger house on, I think, Tower Road) on a fairly regular basis. Carrie liked company and usually there were people around. Once I saw Timothy Leary dive into the swimming pool. Steve Martin was a warm presence at a brunch I attended. I met Debbie Reynolds one afternoon at the house when I was walking past the living room and heard a small, nearly musical “Hello” coming from the depths of one of the sofas. I sat next to her and we talked for a few minutes — small talk, but very pleasant; there was nothing of the big movie star about her. 

Shopping with Carrie was an interesting — and rather maddening — experience. One had to be careful not to admire anything, because Carrie would immediately try to buy it for you. She was the most generous and talented giver of surprise gifts, as well. I have a vivid memory of a clear plastic tote bag with an inside container (also clear) that held a perfect replica of a trout, a wedge of lemon and three or four ice cubes. Carrie Fisher’s eye for deadpan kitsch was supreme: she kept a life-size replica of a Guernsey cow in the area near her pool, and  a lamp with a wooden base carved into bears climbing a tree in a guest bedroom. Carrie shared an October birthday with director Penny Marshall and every year it was celebrated with a big party at Carrie’s house. Tables were set out on the patio, the food — home-fried chicken and all the fixings — was supplied by Debbie’s housekeeper and cook, Gloria. The list of guests rivaled that of a seating chart at the Academy Awards and Carrie was an exceptional hostess: welcoming, funny and as always, genius smart.

It has been well recorded (by Carrie herself in her first book, Postcards from the Edge, and later, in Wishful Drinking) that she had a major penchant for drugs. During an interview with Diane Sawyer she admitted to taking LSD and using cocaine as well as a variety of other stuff. I had a memorable experience with Carrie one evening: I’d recently begun attending meetings at a 12-step program (I had my own bout with drugs) and I convinced her to come along with me to a meeting in Westwood. We stopped for dinner first. When we walked into the meeting, Carrie was immediately pulled into a hug by an award-winning leading man with whom she was friendly. She was able to sit through half the meeting before leaning in close and whispering, “I’ve got to get out of here.” On the way back to her home, she asked me to drop her off at a friend’s place so she could pick up her car. I pulled up to a duplex in Beverly Hills. Carrie got out and ran up a flight of stairs to the friend’s apartment.

I decided to wait, figured she was going for the car keys — her BMW was parked near the stairway — but what if the friend wasn’t home? It seemed to take a longer time than a fast pickup and I turned my radio to an R&B station. Halfway through a version of Tipitina, Carrie came out of the apartment. She was clearly high on drugs. I jumped out of my car and yanked the car keys from her hand when she swayed to the bottom of the stairs. I’d take her home, I told her. She didn’t argue, just slumped into the passenger seat of my car. Even by the dashboard lights I could see her eyes were unfocused. We didn’t speak during the drive back to her house; Carrie was slipping into a deeply drugged-out state. When we pulled into the driveway, I got out from behind the wheel, steered her to her front door and rang the bell — I knew she had a couple friends there. A young woman opened the door, a young guy standing just behind her. They asked me to come in and between us we guided a nearly unconscious Carrie to the living room sofa.

I was offered a cup of tea, took a sip and headed back out, weary of the whole evening, but as my car motor purred to life, I heard my name shouted. Both of Carrie’s friends ran up to my car to tell me she was more than unconscious: her lips were turning blue. I told them to make a kind of chair with their forearms and carry her to my car. They managed to slide her into the back seat and each sat on either side of the clearly overdosed Carrie. The guy — by then I’d learned he was the author Paul Slansky — held her head up, his hand under her chin, while the young woman, also a writer — Carol Caldwell — braced Carrie’s shoulders. We raced down the hill; I was heading toward Cedars-Sinai, the closest place I could think of. When we screeched into the emergency entrance, Carrie was placed on a gurney and rushed into a treatment area. I parked the car and we all headed into the waiting room. The three of us sat, waiting, for three or four hours — until Carrie’s stomach was pumped and she was taken to one of the celebrity suites.  I visited a couple times and she looked exponentially better each time, making wonderfully funny, self-deprecating comments, some of which appeared in her first book. After that, we argued over a guy and drifted apart.

When the movie version of Postcards, starring Meryl Streep as Carrie with Shirley MacLaine playing her mother, was released, I was surprised to see my part of that adventure-in-the-drug-trade assayed by Dennis Quaid. But who cares? Carrie Fisher is gone now, and her mom, Debbie, wasn’t able to stay behind.

That’s a Hollywood — and an international — tragedy.

A Writer Written in the Stars

The West Coast seemed to exemplify the ’60s: San Francisco and Los Angeles had become gathering places for hippies. When I was living in New York and working as a fashion model, I’d only heard about this group of young people who were following the dictum of Timothy Leary by “turning on” and “dropping out” of high schools, universities and society in general. Now I was newly divorced and had come home to L.A. because that was where my family was. So I saw hippies in their natural habitat: grazing along the Sunset Strip, hitching rides from passing motorists and waving sticks of incense that trailed wisps of sandalwood- and patchouli-scented smoke. There were girls with waist-length hair and long dusty skirts and boys, long-haired and snake-hipped in their patched 501s, tie-dyed shirts and hand-stitched buckskin jackets. They were all very young. I found them colorful to look at but I wasn’t curious about what lurked beneath all that paisleyed finery.

I was working as Rudi Gernreich’s model and living with my daughter, Lisa, in one of those beautiful 1920s-built apartments in West Hollywood when I met Victory Rain. I’d become friendly with my neighbors, Glenn and Bill, and we often visited back and forth. Their place was furnished with collectors’ pieces, the hardwood floor gleamed and the air was filled with the cedar scent of Rigaud candles. It reminded me of New York, where everyone’s home, including ours, was awash in that fragrance. Glenn and Bill had another visitor one afternoon: a rather exotic woman who looked to be in her late 20s. She was seated, a penumbra of cigarette smoke around her head, in a nest of needlepoint pillows at one corner of a dark blue velvet sofa. On the wall above the sofa, a vintage Hermès scarf was displayed in a boxy Lucite frame.  This unsmiling, strangely attractive woman with her long black hair and falcon’s eyes, seemed quite out of place amid all the trappings of the uber-chic, and my initial thought was that she might be a gypsy. Then she smiled at me and patted the space next to her, and as we chatted I realized this was someone as intelligent as she was welcoming.

Her name, she told me, was Victory and she surprised me by saying she worked as chief bookkeeper at a production company that filmed commercials. She seemed not at all the type who would choose that kind of work. But her true passions, she said, were mysticism and astrology. I knew nothing about mysticism of any kind and I was profoundly ignorant of all things astrological. I knew I was an Aries (like my mother) and Lisa was a Leo. Full stop. Victory asked for the date, time, year and location of my birth. I noticed she wrote nothing down and we went on to talk about other things. She called a few days later to tell me she’d worked out my astrological chart and we made plans to get together. When I saw her, she told me things about my background she could not have known, stuff that neither Glenn nor Bill knew. She informed me that modeling wasn’t what I was meant to be doing — I was a writer, she said; it was right there in my chart: Jupiter in my ninth house. My response to this information was to tell her, with respect, that I thought she was nuts. I was doing pretty damn well with a modeling career; what did writing have to do with it? Victory smiled and changed the subject, the way people do when they realize the person on the other side of the conversation isn’t ready to take in information.

Within a month or so we were friends, speaking often on the phone, going out for meals and the occasional movie. I learned that Victory was a vegetarian — not because it was a popular thing to be in the late ’60s but because she’d made a moral decision not to eat meat when she was in her teens. She never tried to push it: I’d order steak at a restaurant and she’d have a salad or buttered pasta without comment or attitude. She didn’t push the writing, either, except to tell me my degree of Scorpio rising was similar to that of Charles Dickens. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I thought, and let it go at that. If I’d been a bit faster on the uptake, I might have saved myself some real time by taking her advice seriously. I have always been an avid reader and I was educated by Dominican nuns who hammered the correct use of language into my head. But it never occurred to me that I might become a writer (despite that astrological connection to Dickens). Maybe it just seemed like too much work. When I asked about her background, Victory told me about living with her foster mother in a trailer park on the outskirts of Chicago. The foster mother, Betty, resented the kid and assured her she would never escape trailer park life because she was too ugly, too stupid and too stubborn.

Two of these observations were patently untrue; the third was right on the money: Victory was stubborn. She loved school and when she was 9 years old, she walked into a used bookstore and told the owner she couldn’t buy any books, but was it okay if she just looked. When the owner said yes, the girl knew she had found a warming place. She sat on the floor and began to read — first a book on astrology, then she was drawn into studies of metaphysics. By the time she was 11, she had a paper route in the trailer park and the means to buy books. She was happy but unlucky. At 14 she was raped by a young guy who was AWOL from the Air Force. He spent time in the stockade and within two months of his release, Victory discovered that she was pregnant. Her son, Tom, was born six months after her 15th birthday, and his father, who’d barely seen the baby, demanded full custody, warning Victory about the people he knew who would swear to her inability to raise a child. She knew she was a good mother but she was frightened by the man’s threats. She was still a kid who didn’t know how to fight this guy, backed up by his wealthy family, and although she begged to be allowed to keep her baby, he took the child from her. It would be more than 30 years before she was able to reconcile with Tom, who now had other children of his own. She had moved to L.A., found her first job as a cocktail waitress in a jazz joint and enrolled in a city college where she learned accounting. She is retired now and has become close with her son and his kids. She doesn’t resent the man who fathered Tom and took him from her. “He thought he was doing the right thing in the only way he knew.” I wasn’t then and am not now able to be that forgiving. Victory says it’s because of my Scorpio ascendant.

She has never quenched her thirst for knowledge or her interest in astrology. She has never been in the business of making money from that knowledge; she will do only the charts of those people who have become her friends. When, at the tail end of the ’80s,
I told her I was beginning to write, she didn’t gloat, didn’t say she’d told me so. She simply smiled broadly — content that I was fulfilling the destiny she had seen so long ago in
my chart.

A Christmas Memory

Christmas was quite the big deal at our house when I was a kid. I lived with my mother’s parents – Nonnie and Pampy (as I called them) and Nonnie’s two unmarried siblings, my great-aunt, “Hotten,” and my great-uncle, Henry. There was always a lap for me to sit on, always a cuddle and a kiss when I reached out for one. Nonnie, Hotten and I went to Temple Sinai synagogue in Oakland  for services every Saturday morning and we celebrated all the Jewish holidays, like Rosh Hashana and the very serious Yom Kippur. I attended Sunday school as well, but my mother, who was on her second marriage by the time I was 4, came to temple only on the High Holidays. Pampy was a lapsed Roman Catholic who visited Christian Science reading rooms every month or so. Uncle Henry seemed indifferent to religion of any stripe.

But we all loved Christmas. 

Our tree didn’t come into the house until the day before Christmas Eve. It was always a fat, perfectly shaped little fir with thick needles that permeated the air with the bracing aroma of balsam. My grandfather’s Steinway took over the space at the bay window in the living room so the tree was placed in a corner of the dining room atop a shallow container of water. This was covered by a snowy velvet cloth dappled with tiny silver stars. Tree-trimming would begin after dinner and I was so excited I could barely sit through the meal. Uncle Henry and Pampy were in charge of threading the small colored light bulbs through the tree’s branches, and when they were lighted, the dining room glowed like a shattered rainbow. Next came the tinsel, which was placed, strand by strand, along the branches. That was Hotten’s job and she made sure each silvery strip had the appearance of a single icicle. I was her helper, lifting one piece at a time from the box and handing it to her on the tip of one index finger. Then it was time for the ornaments, none of them new, all of them left to us by my great-grandmother Mary Morris. There were fragile colored balls laced with an overlay of snowflake designs, twisted silver icicles, colored birds with a spray of artificial tail feathers and squat Santa figures. By the midpoint of the ornament hanging I was trying to swallow my yawns, so Nonnie took me upstairs to bed with the promise that a plate of cookies and a glass of milk would be left out for Santa Claus.

I nearly woke up at the sound of clumping reindeer hooves (my grandfather’s shoe banging on the floor, I would learn later) and a thrill shimmered through me at the sight of the half-finished glass of milk and the plate of cookies with a large bite taken out of the biggest one. I’d followed a red satin ribbon tied to my bed that led me into the hall and down the stairs to the dining room where a panoply of fancifully wrapped presents lay spread out under the tree. Most of them were for me and I could tell by the big, flat rectangular shapes that many of them were books, the things I treasured most. After all the gifts had been opened and exclaimed over, my grandfather went to the piano and played traditional Christmas carols. My mother would arrive mid-morning, and it always took two trips to her car to carry in the presents she brought for everyone in the family.

The details of one particular Christmas afternoon are etched in my memory. My father, whom I saw less and less of because the divorce had been my mother’s idea, appeared carrying two wrapped boxes, one large, one slightly smaller. Like most kids, I tore first into the bigger of the two packages. It contained a miniature set of tableware in a blue willow pattern identical to the dishes in our pantry. This small set consisted of six complete settings for a dinner party, including covered vegetable and soup tureens, a teapot, a cream pitcher and a sugar bowl. It was better than any tea set I’d seen in any toy department and I couldn’t imagine that whatever was inside the smaller box could delight me as much. I was wrong. When I pulled off the colorful wrapping paper I found a surprise that made me take in a breath: at least two dozen tiny, individually wrapped objects tightly packed next to and on top of each other — all of them were toy banquet food for the dish set. There was a turkey on a platter with servings of cranberry sauce and dressing surrounding a well-browned bird. There were little soup bowls filled with something that looked like oyster stew. A tureen of peas was topped with a miniscule strip of bacon. Another platter held eight or nine biscuits and two serving dishes, one filled with mashed potatoes, the other with yams. There were two desserts: a cherry pie with a latticed crust and a fancifully frosted cake. The table was completed with amber-colored goblets and six sets of inchlong silverware. 

I’d never seen anything like it, and even my grandparents and Hotten leaned in to see the marvel that had taken my breath away. It was a marvel and it is the only present I’ve ever received that I remember in full detail. I kept everything together in their original boxes but pieces were lost as I grew older and was sent to boarding school and then university. I managed to keep one of the tiny amber-colored goblets until a few years ago when it was broken during a move.

I love everything about the holidays, from Halloween straight through New Year’s Eve, even though we rarely leave the house on that night or, now that I think of it, any of the others. My daughter, Lisa, usually comes over, carrying small and wonderful presents, on Christmas. And on the evening of December 31st, the Mister and I always toast each other and the coming year with a glass of champagne and we say a small prayer for the months that lie ahead of us, our loved ones and our country. But every year, on the 25th of December, my mind goes back to that Christmas when I was still a single-digit age and my father came to see me with just about the best presents (aside from the glorious and unusual pieces of jewelry given to me by my beloved Mister) I’ve ever received. And then I can very nearly smell those beautifully ornamented little fir trees in my grandparents’ dining room.