Saturday 30 September 2017

Deconstructing Doris
by Pam Munter
Note: As with most historical fiction, the people in this story are real. Many of the situations, however, are wholly imagined. This is one of the stories in a series that was inspired by the lives of Hollywood legends.

She was feeding the dogs in the cook’s kitchen when she heard the distinctive roar of his Porsche breaching the silence as it pulled up in the circular driveway in front of the contemporary house on Crescent Drive in Beverly Hills. She hurried to the front door, opened it and walked to the car to see Terry’s grim face.
            “Mom, he did it. You’re dead broke.” He shifted his feet and frowned. “And you owe the IRS, too. He took it all.”
            Doris Day never expected to hear those words, not in her worst dreams, and certainly not from her son. She stared into his eyes for a minute, hoping for a disclaimer, a joking response, anything to mitigate the shock.
            “But how…”
            “I don’t know yet. But it looks like they’ve been screwing you over for a long time.”
            “They? Jerry and Marty?” She had barely spoken Marty’s name since his death the year before. She had often thought back to when they met almost 20 years earlier. She had signed a contract with Warner Bros. but when she met agent Marty Melcher at a party at Johnny Mercer’s house, he convinced her they weren’t paying her what she was worth. Within weeks, they were in bed together, personally and professionally.
            Over the years, he had guided her career, her life really. He was the caring Svengali she never had, someone who loved and protected her from the show business sharks. It didn’t bother her that he jumped aboard as an Executive Producer on her films when he didn’t do a thing but collect his check. She even trusted his opinion about what she should record. Her precedent-shattering triumph at having been named among the top ten box office stars for ten consecutive years told her he had done a wonderful job. She knew people didn’t like him, considering him a bossy moocher, a guy who needed to order people around. When she heard someone on one of her movie sets call him Farty Belcher she laughed in spite of herself. The relationship had always been one in which he made all the decisions. She didn’t care so long as the money and movie parts kept rolling in and she could keep recording at Columbia—her favorite place to be. At least he didn’t beat her like Terry’s father did. And he obviously wasn’t gay like her second husband. Why couldn’t she get this right? God knows, she had enough practice.
            All those years on the road with the band on the bus, men grabbing her, teasing her, trying to get her into bed. Sure, she enjoyed some of it but what had it cost her along the way? When Marty came along, he was strong and sure and just what she needed. She was relieved and grateful. To succeed in the business, she had left the raising of her only son to her mother. Having Marty coming into her life as a co-parent gave her a sense of the family stability she hadn’t experienced since her early childhood. They were all one family now.
            She had trusted him. Loved him, at least early on. He and Terry didn’t get along, she knew that. But he had adopted Terry when the kid was young, an angry and rebellious adolescent. It was what Marty had wanted. Looking back on it now, she could see that it gave her new husband more leverage over her. For Doris, though, it solved the ache. There were times when the guilt about leaving Terry behind was almost unbearable. Marty was a solution to an empty heart in several ways.

            “You were right about him, Terry. I didn’t believe you.”
            “His hitting me was nothing compared to what he has done to you. I want to kill him.”
            “Yeah.” She was still trying to put this together. Could Terry be wrong? She knew he was back into drugs again, hanging with dopers. She wondered about the influence of his new girlfriend, too.
            “It’ll take a while to figure out how much is involved.” Terry’s jaw crackled with tension. “Could be as much as twenty-thirty million. Maybe more.”
            The money is gone? How could they have afforded this posh home, then? The beach house? She had never wanted for anything. Marty made sure of that.
            “Wait a minute. He hit you?”
            “Yeah. Lots of times.”
            Her mouth fell open. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
            “You were never there when it happened. You were always working. It wasn’t your fault.” She looked for a shadow of resentment in his broad, open face so much like hers, and saw none.
            “Oh, God, I’m so sorry.” She reached out and hugged him but the emotions could no longer be contained.
            Doris ran into the house and threw herself into the soft confines of the king-sized bed and started to weep. Without thinking, she drew closer to the four spaniels nearly buried in the middle of the comforter. Thank God for them, she thought. She didn’t want to think about Terry being abused but, if she were honest with herself, she never wanted to hear anything negative about anything. She was busy working—at being a perfect performer, a perfect person. Everybody thought she was. Sometimes, even she thought so. In spite of Marty’s bellicose ways, she knew she was loved by the people she worked with, by those who worked for her and even more by her fans. How could this happen?
            Reaching for the Kleenex, she smelled the sweetness of the gardenias floating in the bowl next to the bed. Dear Barry had sent the flowers just the day before. Barry was a sweet man, not
at all like the others. When she’d finished dining at the restaurant where he worked as a maĆ®tre ‘d, he would bag up leftover bones for her dogs. The ambrosial aroma of the gardenias offered a faint whiff of hope.
            She couldn’t get the glowering image of her dead husband out of her head. “I won’t let him get to me again,” she said aloud, surprised at the sound of her own voice. She was stunned at how real Marty’s presence was in her life even now and how he could still devastate her. She looked up as her housekeeper walked into the room. “It’s OK, Sarah.”
            “Are you all right, Mrs. Melcher?”
            Doris recoiled at hearing the once-loved name but nodded. She didn’t want to upset anyone.
            “I can bring you a glass of…something, if you’d like.”
            “I’m fine. Thanks.” She watched Sarah silently back out of the room.
            Doris was almost 50 now, the years wearing well on her. She had people come to the house every morning to do her hair and makeup, and to help keep her slim body in shape. These people had been coming so long that they had become trustworthy friends, people she could count on. They were good company. Looking in the mirror was sometimes difficult but that wasn’t new. There were always those damned freckles which seemed to spread like grains of sand as she got older.
            She looked out the window toward the manicured back yard and stared at the crystal-clear water where the pool man was energetically vacuuming the bottom of the pool, creating waves that splashed over the sides.
The memories kept coming. She felt stupid and somehow responsible for what had happened to her, struggling to make sense of it.
When Terry stuck his head in the door, she continued the conversation as if there had been no pause.
            “But why Jerry? He and his wife spent all those weekends with us at the Malibu house.” There was a plaintive edge to her voice. “He even got along with Marty. He was my lawyer, too, for God’s sake. He handled that last divorce. He was a pit bull. Marty trusted him, too.”
            “I know, Mom. I know. Maybe too well. But he was the big financial guru, remember. He was the one with all the advice about investments. He had to know. Maybe he set it all up.”
            The mood momentarily brightened. “You think it might not have been Marty’s fault?”
            “I know you want to believe that, but he was involved. Jerry never made a financial move without Marty’s OK. Dammit, they were in this together.”
            Almost imperceptibly, she stopped romanticizing him as the sculptor who molded her career, the good guy, the one who made the best decisions. Up to now, she could separate out the husband from the agent and manager. Her perceptions of her life with him, however, were transforming right before her eyes.
            Her mind was racing, a collection of flashbacks and scenes. That conversation with Judy Garland during a serendipitous meeting on the train to New York ten years ago or so. Why did that come roaring back now? Judy had loudly complained about her husband, whom she felt was using her. Doris had defended Marty. He would never take advantage, at least not that way, and wondered why Judy had laughed. She had enjoyed the talk, though, glad that Marty and Sid had gone to the club car hours ago for drinks. Neither man was what you’d call handsome. Both were dark and stocky, with coarse features. And both had been their third husbands.
It wasn’t often she had the chance to get together this way with someone like her, one whom she admired in spite of the much-publicized problems. Doris didn’t do drugs, not much alcohol anymore and didn’t understand Judy’s addictions. She liked her and that’s what mattered. Judy made her laugh. And she knew how it was to work for a tyrannical studio boss, the relentless and dehumanizing pressures. With Judy, it had been Louis B. Mayer; Doris’ nemesis was Jack Warner. They laughed as they shared horror stories.
            “He would actually get on his hands and knees on the plush carpeting in that huge white office, and tell me he was begging me…as a father,” Judy chortled. “The poor old guy could get it from anyone on the lot. It was pathetic. I tried so hard not to laugh. Fathers don’t try to schtup their daughters.” They both doubled over with laughter, gasping for air.
            Doris had stories, too. “Jack was a total jerk, always hitting on me. Those beady little eyes. Marty started coming to his office with me. Protection that I needed. We both learned how to play the game. And it wasn’t so bad, was it? We got what we wanted, didn’t we?”
            Judy paused and looked away. “Sure.” Doris wondered what she was thinking as she turned to study the speeding landscape. Doris could see Judy’s face darken in the reflection of the train’s window. What was Judy not telling her? Was this a warning?
            To be fair, she had known Marty was a cheater and a liar when she married him. He had been married to one of the Andrews sisters when they met. She remembered one frightening evening when they were in bed. There was an insistent pounding on the door of her apartment. A woman was yelling outside. Doris was terrified.
            “Shhhh,” he whispered, quietly reaching for her hand.
            “Let me in, you bastard. I know you’re in there with that slut. Come out here and face me, you asshole.”
            Neither of them moved from the bed, frozen. How did she know where Doris lived? Were they followed? In time, the screaming stopped and they heard the footsteps slowly fade.
            Then there was the recording career. Marty had his fingers in everything she did. Some said he deliberately commissioned second tier songwriters to write her songs, saving money. For the good of the family, she thought. She loved the music and the musicians but now she understood the money went somewhere else. And those last movies weren’t the best, either. He had convinced her to leave the safety of Warners and selected the rest of her films himself. How could she have let that pass? Her career mattered to her, a lot. She comforted herself by thinking of the warm relationships with her wonderful costars. The often-inspired pairings kept her spirits high and her career on track, in spite of the lousy dialogue and contrived plots.
Her stomach clenched as the realization sunk in: it was all her own damned fault. She had lived her life on automatic pilot, delegating it all, riding on her innate talent. Whatever was going on with Marty was in the background. There were more pressing issues almost all the time.
            There had been her mothers’ long decline into Alzheimer’s, which took its toll on everyone. Then there was Terry’s increasing drug use and his skanky friends. And the Humane Society that kept coming around unexpectedly to count the number of animals she had. That made her angry. It was easy to lose track, she’d claim. She was doing a good deed, after all, taking care of all her homeless four-leggers. She had been sick, too, really ill for a long time until she talked Marty into letting her see a doctor. The hysterectomy done in secret waylaid her for months. All that was nothing compared to the pressure of maintaining her wholesome and cheerful image, her stardom and the health of her glorious voice.
When she got anxious about money, Marty always reassured her. “Everything’s going well, Doris. Jerry and I have this under control. Relax. We know what we’re doing.”
            Yeah, she had been used, but she had to give herself some credit. She pushed for a separation a year or so before he died. There had been a long overdue confrontation.
“I know you’re seeing someone. Who is it?”
“Doris, it’s nobody you know.”
“It’s never nobody. I don’t even know what that means.”
“It didn’t mean anything.”
“It never does, to you.” She held in most of her anger. “We’re done. I’m sorry but I can’t do this anymore.” She glared at him. “You have to leave.”
Within a month or two, she had started to see other men. Her friends told her not to rush into anything, that she needed to figure out who she was now as a single person. And while she felt free, she was also afraid—of making her own decisions, of another mistake, of merely managing her own life. Now she could spend time with friends and not have to check in constantly. She rode her bike all over Beverly Hills, resting only briefly in the local park where she almost always ran into smiling fans. It made her day.
It didn’t bother her too much that Terry had moved out of the house a few years back, eager not only to start his own life but to get away from Marty. He was living with his girlfriend on Cielo Drive in Bel Air and life was good for him. Terry told her he wanted to be a record producer so she got him a job at Columbia Records. She was glad for his success but she missed him. They still talked on the phone almost daily, exchanging gossip and sharing the absurdity of life, almost like friends more than mother and son.
She remembered finishing a guffaw-filled lunch with a friend, an old Warners colleague (or “inmate” as they joked) at her favorite deli just a mile from her house. It had been several years since they’d seen each other, but when they sat down their warm bond was immediately rekindled. They left each other with a promise to get together again soon.
Wheeling her bike into the slow traffic on Beverly Drive, she heard her name.
“Doris. Hey.”
Looking across the street, she saw Jerry Rosenthal, their attorney, waving at her.
Jerry parked quickly and leaped out of his car. He looked agitated.
“Marty’s been taken to the hospital. In an ambulance.”
It had to be serious for that to happen. Marty had more than adopted her Christian Science beliefs. He had co-opted them, refusing medical treatment for anything, even with the acute pains he was having. She had no idea.
She stopped everything after his hospital discharge, even taking him back to the house where they had once lived. She thought she was through with him, but there was still unfinished business. The cancer had spread and there was little time left. She hoped they could talk about, well, everything, but he was too weak and not at all interested in resolution. She persuaded him to hire a nurse and tried to convince him to eat. He got thinner, complained constantly and then she watched him die. She had felt guilty only briefly, regretful of all she had not done for him, could not do. But now she was glad he suffered, glad he was dead. Even the good memories were gone.

            Her reverie was interrupted by the phone, making her aware that two hours had elapsed since Terry came home with the news. Time was less important than the ominous events unfolding. Terry moved to the table by the bed and picked up the receiver.
            “It’s Jerry.”
            She felt a whooshing inside her head. She didn’t know what to do. Whatever else he had done, Jerry had been in cahoots with Marty to commit Doris to that five-year contract for a series at CBS. She was still angry about that. She hadn’t found out about it until Marty had died and was devastated for so many reasons. Ironically, though, it would bring in a much-needed income now.
            She turned to Terry, who was still holding the phone close to his chest. “What should I do?”
            It was so hard to break that habit, that reliance on the men in her life, to make important decisions. But this was not the time for reformation. She needed time to think.
            “You don’t have to talk to him. I’ll take care of this.”
            She sat back down on the bed and reached for her golden retriever, tenderly scratching him behind the ear. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t understand any of this.”
            Terry nodded to his mother and spoke into the receiver. “Jerry, don’t ever call here again. Our attorney will be in touch.”
            Attorney? Of course. That would be the solution. At least, one of them. She would sue Jerry for whatever he stole. Could she report him to the police? Could he go to jail? How will she live now? Where’s the money? How could this happen? Marty?
            So many questions but she knew two things. First, she would sue the shit out of Jerry Rosenthal. And second, she was convinced that the only man she would ever trust again would be her son. Well, maybe Barry. Such a kind man.

* * * * *

Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram (Nicholas Lawrence Press, 2005) and Almost Famous: In and Out of Show Biz (Westgate Press, 1986). She’s a retired clinical psychologist, former performer and film historian. Her many lengthy retrospectives on the lives of often-forgotten Hollywood performers and others have appeared in Classic Images and Films of the Golden Age. More recently, her essays and short stories have been published in The Rumpus, The Manifest-Station, The Coachella Review, Lady Literary Review, The Creative Truth, Adelaide, Litro, Angels Flight—Literary West, TreeHouse Arts, Persephone’s Daughters, Canyon Voices, Open Thought Vortex, Fourth and Sycamore, Nixes Mate, Scarlet Leaf Review, Cold Creek Review, Communicators League, I Come From The World, Switchback, The Legendary, bioStories and others. Her play Life Without was a semi-finalist in the Ebell of Los Angeles Playwriting Competition and was nominated for Outstanding Play by the Desert Theatre League. She was also nominated for the Bill Groves Award for Outstanding Original Writing. She has an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California at Riverside/Palm Desert. 

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