Leaning over Ms. Wright, my fingers pinching a pair of chrome tweezers, I’m squeezing the sharp points together around a single eyebrow hair. Biting my own tongue. Shutting my eyes when I yank the hair. Squeezing the tweezers tight around another stray hair. Ms. Wright, she doesn’t blink. Doesn’t flinch or lean back in her chair to get away. Says how somebody named Rudolph Valentino, when he died of his appendix, two women in Japan jumped into a live volcano. This Valentino hoagie-honker, he was a star in silent pictures, and when he died in 1926 a girl in London poisoned herself on top a collection of his pictures. An elevator boy at the Ritz Hotel in Paris poisoned himself on a bed spread with a similar collection. In New York, two women stood outside the Polyclinic Hospital, where Valentino died, and cut their wrists. At his funeral, a mob of a hundred thousand rioted and collapsed the mortuary’s front windows, trashing the wreaths and sprays of funeral flowers.
Some wand-waxer named Rudy Vallee recorded a hit song about this Valentino bacon-banger. Called “There’s a New Star in Heaven.” True fact. When her eyebrows look even, I squirt moisturizer onto a little sponge and spread it across her forehead. Dab the sponge across her cheeks and around her eyes. Our crew of whitewashers, our six hundred sherbet-shooters, they’re still home, asleep, with an hour yet to go on their alarm clocks. Today still dark, barely just today. The lighting already set up. Film stock ready. Cameras ready. The Nazi uniforms rented and hanging, still in their dry-cleaner plastic. Nobody here but Ms. Wright and myself. Her eyes shut, her skin tugged in little directions by the spongeful of moisturizer, Ms. Wright says that morticians style a dead body, apply the makeup, and style the hair from the right side, because that’s the side people will see in an open-casket viewing. The funeral director washes the body by hand. Dips cotton balls in insect poison and crams them up your nose to keep bugs from setting up house. Fingers open an anal vent to allow trapped gas to escape. Stuffs plastic cups, like Ping-Pong balls cut in half, under your eyelids to keep them closed. Brushes melted wax on your lips to stop them from peeling. Me, I’m sponging on foundation. Smoothing a medium-tan shade around her mouth. Blending the edges under her jawline. Settled in the white makeup chair, the paper bib clipped around her neck, Ms. Wright says how some weed-whacker named Jeff Chandler, he was shooting a movie called Merrill’s Mauraders in 1961, in the Philippines, and he slipped a disk in his back. This Chandler wiener-wrestler was a big name, a rival to Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis. Recorded a hit album and several singles for Decca. Went under the knife for a quick disk operation. Doctors nicked an artery. Poured fifty-five pints of blood into him, but this Bone-a-Phone still died making that movie. Her eyes shut, lashes fluttering, brows arched for eye shadow, Ms. Wright says how the Hollywood juice-josher Tyrone Power keeled over dead from a heart attack, filming a sword fight in the film Solomon and Sheba. Ms. Wright says how, when Marilyn Monroe offed herself, Hugh Hefner bought the mausoleum niche next to hers, because he wanted to spend eternity lying next to the most beautiful woman who had ever lived. Ms. Wright says how the fist-flogger Eric Fleming was shooting on location for his television series High Jungle when his canoe overturned in the Amazon River. The current caught Fleming, and the local piranha finished the job. Cameras still rolling. True fact. While I’m penciling on her eyeliner, Ms. Wright tells me that page-paster Frank Sinatra got buried with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, a pack of Camel cigarettes, a Zippo lighter, and ten dimes so he could make phone calls. Comic Ernie Kovacs is buried with a pocketful of hand-rolled Havanas. When fig-fondler Bela Lugosi died in 1956, they buried him in his vampire costume. His funeral could’ve been one of his own Dracula movies, him wearing those teeth in his coffin. The satin cape, the works. Walt Disney is not frozen, Ms. Wright says. He’s cremated, sealed in a vault with his wife. Greta Garbo’s ashes were spread in Sweden. Marlon Brando’s were spread around the palm trees of his private South Sea island. In 1988, four years after his death, Peter Lawford still owed ten thousand dollars on his final resting place at the Westwood Village Memorial Park—spitting distance from the most beautiful woman who’d ever lived. So Lawford was evicted, and his ashes were scattered at sea. By now, I’m brushing on Ms. Wright’s blush. Contouring the sides of her nose with dark powder. Tracing the outline of her lips with liner. The street door swings open to the alley, and a couple members of the crew step inside. Throwing cigarettes behind them. The sound tech and a cameraman, smelling of smoke and cold air. Light in the alley going from black to dark blue. The echoing, far-off ocean rumble of traffic. Morning rush hour. While I brush on her lip color, Ms. Wright says some wad-dropper named Wallace Reid, the six-foot-one “King of Paramount,” died trying to kick morphine in a padded cell. When sound movies told the world that elegant, ladylike Marie Prevost spoke with a low-class Bronx honk, she quit. Drank herself to death. Died behind her locked apartment door, and her starving dachshund, Maxie, chewed on her for days before the manager bothered to knock. “Marie Prevost went from the biggest female movie star to dog food—like that” says Ms. Wright, and she snaps her fingers. Movie star Lou Tellegen knelt over a stack of his publicity photos and press clippings and tore out his guts with a pair of scissors. John Bowers walked into the ocean. James Murray jumped into the East River. George Hill blew off his head with a hunting rifle. Milton Sills drove his limousine over Dead Man’s Curve on Sunset Boulevard. Beautiful Peg Entwistle climbed the Hollywood sign and leapt to her death. Covergirl Gowili Andre burned to death on a stack of her own magazine photos. A shot of perfume, a few strokes with a hairbrush, and I’m done. Ms. Wright opens her eyes. No poisoned cotton up her nose. No anal vent. Blue contact lenses, the color of desert sky, swim on her eyes. Not Ping-Pong balls cut in half. Hitler’s perfect blond, blue-eyed idea of a sex doll. Ms. Wright looks at her reflection in the mirror above the dressing table. Twists her neck to see her right profile, left profile. Says, “There are always worse ways to kick the bucket ...” Her hand plucks a tissue from a box, and her lips say, “I’ve lived my whole life for myself.” With both hands, she pulls the tissue tight and bites her lips together on it. Blotting. Saying, “Not that I’m a patch on Joan Crawford.” Her lips peel off the tissue, leaving a perfect red kiss, and Ms. Wright says, “But maybe it’s time I do something for my kid.” Reaching to take the tissue, I say, “Your little boy?” And Ms. Wright doesn’t say anything. Picks up the tissue kissed with her perfect lips. Hands me the dirty tissue.