In September 1993, from her hospital bed, plugged into oxygen, my elderly mother motioned for her yellow legal pad. In a squiggly hand she slowly scratched out a lede on Heidi Fleiss's new pajama line, another on Liz Taylor's husband's eye job. "Call these in," she told my sister. Those were her last two scoops.
The National Enquirer sent three floral sprays to the funeral. She was their favorite Hollywood stringer. For the last several years, she tried to avoid having lunch with the editors when they sailed through town; she was sure that their image of the zesty old Hollywood pro who laughed with them long-distance each day and reliably delivered those hundreds of cover stories was 65, tops. She didn't want them to know she was almost two decades older than that: that she'd been 73 when a 3 AM call from a rock club's men's room made her the first writer to learn the name of the woman who administered John Belushi's fatal overdose -- and 80 when she'd debriefed the batallion of papparazzi who'd hovered in choppers, during Liz Taylor's seventh wedding, over Michael Jackson's ranch. Nor did the editors guess that the writer who burned the midnight oil, pecking out, for a dawn deadline, Mr. Blackwell's post-Grammy Awards critiques of Janet Jackson's jeans and Garth Brooks' boots was a respirator-reliant congestive heart failure patient of 82. It was during that evening that my mother's housekeeper, alarmed by her hacking cough, knocked on her office door after midnight and said, in her quaintly grave Filipino diction: "I worry. You must now stop."
Actually, my mother was dismayed by her own declining health. She often cried herself to sleep. But in the morning, the phones jangled -- work to the rescue again.
Work had been her life's fuel. As a 30 year old stringer for the Boston Herald-American in 1940, she'd responded to my father's proposal to elope with: "This weekend? I can't; I have a deadline!" Right after they married, a panicked Radio Guide editor's call to her newlywed suite got her to fly back to L.A., interview Deanna Durbin about her first kiss, write the story, and fly back to her honeymoon. When that marriage collapsed, my mother, then 48 and left so broke we were forced to take boarders (a nudist, a beatnik, an alcoholic) into the house, wrote a James Dean story and mailed it, like a shipwrecked person's note in a bottle, to a New York movie magazine editor. "Where have you been all my life?" he asked and gave her a job as West Coast editor of four publications. Framed awards from the California Press Women lined up on her walls in those years -- during which, when she wasn't laughing on the phone to publicists and warmly guiding writers, she was, to the thrill of my preteen heart, interviewing Connie Stevens and Troy Donahue in our living room. The magazines' foldings in the late '70s left her deeply depressed -- she had no hobbies; work plugged all holes -- and, worse, pensionless. The two men who were supposed to have feathered the family nest -- her neurosurgeon ex-husband and nightclub-owner brother -- had, violently, lost their money. If there was to be an estate, it would be up to her alone, at 67, to start pecking one out. Start she did.
As Enquirer scoop artist, she fancied herself a jaunty old hack in a world of integrity snobs. "I know I'm playing the piano in the whorehouse," she'd say, "but I'm tickled to death to be working so hard at my age." She pumped up that crusty-dame image a bit too eagerly -- and, to those who knew her midnight tears, with painful transparency. Yet she understood that, without such packaging, she'd be that most undesirable commodity: a worrying, lonely old woman, obsessed with the real and imagined mistakes of her life.
That melancholic woman was never far from the surface. "They think you're so unique!" I once told her, after she'd charmed my friends. "Really?" Grateful surprise lit her face as she looked up from her Selectric. "Why can't I think of myself that way?"
At those moments, her vulnerability glittered. Other times, it was nuisance and a threat. Once, while visiting her and on deadline myself, pain in my personal life made me put work aside for the day. "Try to push past it," she told me.
"I'm not like you!" I shot back, fatigued by the cheerleading of this geriatric Brenda Starr. (Where was the placid little napkin-folder I was entitled to?) "I can't work through anything." I eyed the broadest target. "Or do just any work."
She smiled at my prim judgment. "I know the work I'm doing now isn't honorable," she said. "But having work -- even this work -- has saved me, many times." Softly she implored: "Let your better work save you." In that rejoinder I saw the parent I sought to be: One who could locate the crevice in a child's wall of scorn and there plant wise advice. Humanity lies in the classy outsmarting of indignity: My mother taught me that.
But what would save her now?, I wondered, as, on Labor Day 1993, two cheerful paramedics wheeled her, on a gurney, from her house. Inside, her answering machine brimmed with movie stars' bikini-waxers, jilted girlfriends and gardeners (as well as a few bored junior studio executives), bearing the kind of juicy tidbits that today ricochet 24/7 on the web and inspire the TV series Dirt. Pulled from that odd, sustaining world by her failing heart, my mother's face sank into solemn terror as the ambulance double-doors slammed shut. I spent the drive to the hospital rifling childhood memories: Me doing my homework in the back of the car as we bumped down unlit roads to the sanitarium where she'd tracked down Marilyn Monroe's birthmother. Me eating a Blum's sundae as she gently coaxed the bear-rug seduction story from Erroll Flynn's 16-year old girlfriend. Susan Hayward's skid-row-dwelling sister in our living room for a Modern Screen photo shoot; my mother, needing a prop for low-class pathos, seizing the glazed mug I'd made in school. My understanding of the high of working came from those days. In the emergency room my intubated mother closed her eyes to make it all go away. A nurse asked, with soothing condescension, "Where do you reside? In a nursing facility?" I read her annoyance through her blue-veined eyelids: Puh-leese! I played this hospital liked a fiddle to scope out the Rock Hudson AIDS story, to get the truth on two dozen alleged cancer diagnoses, to dive into that leading-man-with-the-gerbils-up-his-rectum rumor; don't you `in a nursing facility?' me!' But she whispered, "No. I have a home."
Like purposeful sisters rifling another kind of dying woman's drawers and closets for tattered couture gems, other Enquirer writers sifted through my mother's sources, tips and leads. She had left that self now, swiftly, wholly -- levelled into that sheet-white democracy of the helpless: the quiet valley of nurse-call buttons, catheters, comodes. "We love you," my sister and I pleaded with her. But she had stopped loving herself. She was no longer The Character, the old plucky dame reporter; she was just our --dying-- mother.
My sister brought her a legal pad when it became too much a strain to even whisper. She wrote a heartbreaking diary of escalating terror: pleadings in her shaky script to "get the nurse!", "the head nurse!" "the doctor!" and, finally "a night nurse for me -- I'll pay!" This sad S.O.S. was relieved by one calm, bemused non-sequitor: "young hands."
"Whose hands was she looking at when she wrote that?" I asked my sister. My sister said: "Her own."
We brought her mail to her bedside: Three Enquirer checks, for stories she'd faxed in hours before her heart had given out. She handed the checks to us to deposit into her bank account. That account was plump; against odds, she had indeed managed to amass an estate, and all by typing -- with those young hands of hers -- one tabloid story at a time.
One bill envelope she wouldn't hand over: her Hollywood Reporter subscription renewal. She'd subscribed for 50 years. She eyed the scrap of paper as you would a lover who has suddenly -- inevitably -- betrayed. The sadness in her eyes was luminous as she regarded its options (One year---, Two years---, Three years---), then flicked it off her bed. The meal-shift orderly stuck his head in. "It won't be long," he said. He meant: for dinner. But I heard those words differently. My mother died in her sleep the next day.