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Chapter 8 - Sheila





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During my initial pitch meeting with Ms. Wright, I asked her what she could tell me about a Roman empress named Messalina.
Our pitch meeting, our first face-to-face, we met in a coffee bar, drinking cappuccinos and bumping knees under a dinky marble-topped table. Ms. Wright sat twisted to look out the window. Legs crossed at the knee, the way that’s supposed to give you veins. Eyes not following anyone walking past. Not watching the dogs on leashes or the babies in strollers. Not looking at me, Ms. Wright asked had I ever heard of an actress named Norma Talmadge?
Or Vilma Banky? John Gilbert? Karl Dane or Emil Jannings?

Her false eyelashes made bigger with mascara, not blinking, Ms. Wright said Norma Talmadge had been a star in silent movies. The number-one box-office draw in 1923. Got three thousand fan letters every week. In 1927, it was this Norma person who by accident stepped into a patch of wet cement in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and started all the movie stars’ leaving their hand- and footprints.
A couple of years after the concrete, Hollywood started shooting sound movies. Despite a year working with a voice coach, Norma Talmadge opened her yap and out comes a shrill Brooklyn squeal. Hollywood’s top male star, John Gilbert, piped his lines high-pitched as a canary. Mary Pickford, who played girls and young women, barked deep as a truck driver. Vilma Banky’s dialogue was lost in her Hungarian accent. Emil Jannings’, in his German accent. Karl Dane’s were drowned in his thick Danish accent.
Low clouds kept it dark outside. The awning over the window didn’t help. Ms. Wright sat, focused on her own reflection, her eyes and lips reflected on the inside of the coffee-shop window, and said, “John Gilbert, he never made another picture. Boozed himself to death by age thirty-seven. Karl Dane shot himself.”
All of these stars, the most powerful actors in film, they were all gone in an instant.
True fact.
What sound movies did to their careers, Ms. Wright said, High Definition was doing the same to a new generation of actors. Delivering too much information. An overdose of truth. Stage makeup didn’t look like skin, not anymore. Lipstick looked like red grease. Foundation, like a coat of stucco. Razor burn and ingrown hairs might as well be leprosy.
Like the he-man movie stars who turn out to be queer ... or the silent-film actors whose voices sound terrible recorded—the audience only wants a limited amount of honesty.
True fact.
In the past year, Ms. Wright had only been offered one script. A low-budget musical, a fetish vehicle based on the Judy Garland-Vincent Minnelli classic about a sweet, innocent young woman who goes to the World’s Fair and falls in love with a handsome young sadist. Called Beat Me in St. Louis.
She learned the songs and everything. Took dance lessons. Never got a second callback.
Looking out the window, her eyes fall shut long enough for her to sing, her voice almost a whisper, almost a lullaby. Her face tilts up a tad, as if to catch a spotlight, and Ms. Wright sings, “… I got bang, bang, banged on the trolley ...”
Her eyes peel open, and her voice trails away. Ms. Wright swallows nothing. Slumps to one side, to reach a hand into her purse on the floor. Takes out a pair of black sunglasses.
Pries them open and slides them onto her face.
Still looking at nothing outside the coffee-shop windows, not the street full of cars driving by or the sidewalk where people walked. An endless stream of extras. No-name characters opening umbrellas or holding open newspapers to protect their hair. Not watching any of this, Ms. Wright says, “So what’s your brainstorm?”
My pitch. How come I’ve been phoning her agent. Phoned every production company where she’s done any work over the past five years. Written letters. Why I’d insisted I wasn’t a stalker. Some pud-puller.
I asked, Did she know Adolf Hitler invented the blow-up sex doll?
And Ms. Wright’s black sunglasses turned to look at me.
During the First World War, I told her, Hitler had been a runner, delivering messages between the German trenches, and he was disgusted by seeing his fellow soldiers visit French brothels. To keep the Aryan bloodlines pure, and prevent the spread of venereal disease, he commissioned an inflatable doll that Nazi troops could take into battle. Hitler himself designed the dolls to have blond hair and large breasts. The Allied firebombing of Dresden destroyed the factory before the dolls could go into wide distribution.
True fact.
Ms. Wright, her plucked eyebrows arch to show above her dark sunglasses. The black lenses reflect me. Reflect the paper rim of her coffee cup, smeared red with lipstick. Her lips say, “Do you know I’m a mom?”
Her sunglasses reflect me wearing a tweed suit, my fingers slipping the latch, opening my briefcase, leaning forward, my hair pulled back, twisted into a French knot.
For my pitch, I planned to develop a project based on that first sex doll. Work the Nazi angle. Work the history angle. Hammer together a story with genuine educational value.
Ms. Wright’s lips say, “Yeah, I had my baby about the age you’re at now.”
Do this Hitler sex-doll project, do it the right way, I say how it will make a pile of money for that baby. Whoever that baby grew into, Ms. Wright can give him a college trust fund, the down payment on a house, seed money for a business. Wherever that baby has ended up, he’ll just be forced to love her.
Ms. Wright turns her face to look at herself, reflected in the window. The reflections of her reflections of her reflections, between the window and her black sunglasses, all those Cassie Wrights shrinking smaller and smaller, until they disappear into infinity.
The religious school she went to, growing up, Ms. Wright said how all the girls had to wear a scarf tied to cover their ears at all times. Based on the biblical idea that the Virgin Mary became pregnant when the Holy Spirit whispered in her ear. The idea that ears were vaginas. That, hearing just one wrong idea, you lost your innocence. One detail too many and you’d be ruined. Overdosed on information.
True fact.
The wrong idea could take root and grow inside you.
Ms. Wright, her sunglasses showed me. Reflected me opening a folder. Taking out a contract. Pulling the cap off a pen and reaching it across the table. My face, flat and smooth with confidence. My own eyes, unblinking. My tweed suit.
Her lips said, “Is that 100 Strokes shampoo that I smell?” She smiled and said, “Now, who was that. . . ?”
The Roman Empress Messalina.
“Messalina,” Ms. Wright repeated, and she took the pen.

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