Lainie had asked me to join her, almost pleading to protect her from an odd request she received from someone she barely knew. I’d known Lainie for years, first as a client then as a friend. She trusted me. After all the hard bumps she’d gotten in the business, she didn’t trust easily. I met Lainie in the late eighties through another client, Teri, who had starred with her in one of my all-time favorite films.
A decade after we met, Lainie was nervous. She hadn’t had a meaningful role in a decent film for far too long. She had a daughter and a house to care for. She was kissing desperation. She was still a looker, all right, but time and weight shrunk her chances of playing anyone other than a mother, a Jewish mother to be specific. What made Lainie unhappiest, though, was her need to still be glamorous, the sultry temptress in the Playboy spread that was now a twenty-five year old collector’s item for those who collected old Playboys.
She called me the week earlier, telling me Zsa Zsa Gabor had asked her to come over. Apparently, Zsa Zsa had a project for her.
“You have to come with me. If she starts talking business, you can help. She’s crazy, you know.”
I didn’t know. I knew Zsa Zsa had slapped a cop, was tabloid fodder since I was a child, accrued money and fame for no discernable reason. I knew she had married some sort of European royalty. I knew she had a first name that made me giggle when I heard it as a kid, and that she looked like that other lady on Green Acres.
I picked Lainie up at her house in the Palisades, the one she’d been hanging onto, the one that was her only real asset, the home for her daughter. We drove down Sunset Blvd. and wound our way through the west gate of Bel-Air. Lainie and I hunched to see the street names through the windshield. We saw the right address and stopped.
“This is it?” Lainie asked. We both looked at the displaced miniature marble Versailles with its lawn nothing but a brown scrub. What once were manicured shrubs now looked like a homeless man’s haircut.
“Yeah. I think this is it.” We both laughed an uncomfortable laugh, climbing the marble stairs. I rang the doorbell. Several yelps began. The door opened a crack, just enough to view a middle-aged Asian woman peering out at us.
“Be careful. Dogs cannot get out.” We slid sideways through the narrow opening the woman allowed, and that’s when it hit us. The stench of dog doo made me long for the sweet smog outside. Five or twenty Yorkshire Terriers surrounded us; it was hard to tell because they were moving in unorganized circles, some with their teeth bared. Lainie and I started to do an unintentional dance, trying to avoid stepping on the dogs, held hostage at the door. The Asian woman was saying something. Lainie and I looked at one another. The Asian woman spoke louder.
“Madam will be down in minute.” She was yelling but not so much that veins bulged in her thin neck. We stood there, Lainie and me, the dogs sniffing us. I thought I felt a nip at my pant leg. We stood there looking up the grandette marble staircase, and waited for Madam, held in our spot for fear of crushing a dog. The Asian woman disappeared around the corner.
I spotted three or four dog turd piles on the bare cold floor. I wondered if the Asian woman had put her foot down long ago, refusing to pick up after the dogs. We were standing there, in the same spot just inside the door, in the foyer, when Zsa Zsa came flowing down the stairs.
“Stop it! Stop it!” she yelled to her flock, clapping her hands. They didn’t budge and quiet one bit. “Dahling, you look mahvolous.” Zsa Zsa was dressed in a white silk gown, its pattern of blood red spatters making it look as if it had been the scene of a crime. The sleeves were big enough to house a child. Her thick arms covered in clattering gold bracelets, she walked with her hands in front of her, the wedding ring requiring sunglasses. Her make-up was more kabuki than I suspect she intended. Her hair looked to be the work of the same gardener who attended her shrubs.
She swept toward Lainie, forcibly pulling her out of the doggie danger circle. I stifled my instinct to laugh at the ridiculous accent I’d heard all my life. It’s a good show, lady., I thought. Now pick up the dog shit. Lainie hugged her back. I stood there, still trapped, now the sole focus of the dogs. Lainie turned to introduce me, yelling above the Yorkies.
Zsa Zsa extended her hand to me in a way I’d only seen in movies although the movie arm is usually thinner, and gloved. I tried to shake her hand but instead, it draped in mine. I was afraid I’d crunch it as easily as I could’ve crushed one of her dogs by now.
“Let’s go to the living room.” She gestured with her ring hand. Lainie followed her while I tried to keep apace, walking like a frightened geisha, wrapped in dogs. The same aggressive one had nipped at my pants several times now, my flesh a snip away from being pierced.
The living room was as grim and cold and marbled as the entry. We sat on silken divans, Lainie and I on one, Zsa Zsa facing us from another.
“It is so good to see you again. I have the most vunderful idea, and I thought who else but my good friend, Lainie, could understand it.” Zsa Zsa launched into her pitch of a voo-mahn who was the world’s biggest star and how this voo-mahn had conquered all obstacles to get to the top. “The very top,” she added.
Lainie and I sat there, blankly, waiting for the story.
“So. Vhat do you think?”
“Is it autobiographical?” I chimed in because Lainie said nothing, an uncomfortable silence drowning out the bark of the dogs.
“Don’t be silly.” Intent on Lainie’s reaction, Zsa Zsa said this without looking at me. She scooped up on of her dogs, her eyes never leaving Lainie.
“I think it’s an idea.” Lainie laughed a hearty laugh. We listened to what was supposed to be the story -- a young immigrant girl with nothing but her brains and her beauty comes to America where she finds fame and fortune. The End.
We sat there. We blinked. “How can I help?” This was Lainie’s code for “What’s in it for me?”
“You know that vunderful Robert Benjamin. He vood love this story.”
“You mean Richard?”
“Yes. That vun.” Benjamin had directed Lainie in a film about fifteen years earlier, a film that almost won Lainie a Golden Globe award for best actress. I could feel the divan start to quiver from Lainie bristling at the suggestion. Zsa Zsa wanted an introduction to meet Richard Benjamin, a director past his prime, for her vanity project. She expected Lainie to help her.
“I haven’t spoken to Richard in a long time.” I heard disappointment in Lainie’s voice. I knew she thought this was a waste of time, and an insult.
“Maybe you could contact his agent.” My suggestion was a lame attempt at protecting Lainie but also to get us the hell out of there. Zsa Zsa put the dog back on the floor where it ran to my pant leg. That’s the one that keeps biting me.
“Vell, if you do speak with Richard, tell him I vood love to work vis him.” Lainie had already stood up. There was a cold hug between the two women. I followed Lainie into the foyer, the dogs at our heels.
“You don’t stay for sumsink to drink?”
“No.” Lainie’s eyes were hurt but steely. Zsa Zsa ushered us to the door, opening it a crack. We slid out sideways through the thin opening, out into the fresh air, past the dead lawn, into the safety of my car.
“That fucking bitch. What is she? Crazy?” Lainie was a combo plate of bemusement and anger.
“Uh, I think you already know the answer to that question.”
Five years later, I read that Zsa Zsa was injured in a car accident in Beverly Hills. Her hairdresser had been driving her home when the crash occurred, and she was suing him for damages. I could only think she should have done that years ago.