In 1987, an old friend, a production chief at Warner Brothers, called one day about a woman he’d met who was convinced she was the lost love child of Judy Garland and Gene Kelly. Yeah? And? She wanted to blow the lid off the story, he told me, and needed to contact her half sisters, Liza Minelli and Lorna Luft. And? I waited for the scent of money. He said if I could get a book deal, he would greenlight the development of the film. Oh . . . well, then.
“Have her call me,” I said, hung up the phone, did a line of coke from the polished surface in front of me. An hour later, my “I’m not a secretary, I’m an assistant” from Wisconsin, buzzed in to explain that there was a hysterical woman on the phone. I knew who it was.
“Set a meeting,” I told her, not taking the call while using my gold card to carefully divide a mound of white powder into four perfect, thin, evenly spaced bars.
A few days later, a cloudburst of nervous energy swirled into my doorway, nearly three beats ahead of its jittery source. I stared at the woman, stunned by the remarkable resemblance between her and both Liza and Lorna. I knew a white rail was waiting for me on the other side of the conversation. I wanted this meeting over before it began.
I offered her a seat. She fumbled with the papers clutched tightly in her hands, looking twitchy and distracted, but finally she settled into the burgundy velvet chair facing me. There was a more comfortable seating area in my oversized office, but on meetings like this, with someone of dubious value, I preferred to square off across an impressive acreage of greed-is-good desktop.
She took a deep breath, began to make her well-rehearsed case, and finally came up for air again after what seemed like a full workweek. In one seemingly endless sentence, she raced through the details and corroboration of her absolute conviction that she was, in fact, Judy and Gene’s daughter. Watching her flutter and fidget, I had to admit that she did possess the legendary twitch of her alleged mother and sister Liza, and she had photos; lots and lots of pictures that she claimed as hard evidence. I looked at her across the expanse of my desk, trying to follow her logic.
According to the woman I’d already dubbed “Lizorna” in my head, Judy had fallen in love with Gene Kelly while filming The Pirate in 1948. Their torrid affair happened behind their dressing room doors.
“It wasn’t until they wrapped the movie that my mother discovered she was pregnant with me. She had to start Easter Parade right away and Louis B. Mayer ordered her to get an abortion, but my mother refused.” She shuddered as she mentioned Mayer’s name.
Immediately after shooting wrapped, she explained, Judy was hustled off in the middle of night to the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, into hiding for four months, where an appropriately discreet doctor delivered Lizorna. The doctor and his family, taken with Judy’s plight, agreed to keep the birth a secret, and adopted the baby themselves.
“Not that they didn’t take some cash, too,” she said.
Lizorna stared at me, her voice becoming more frantic with each photo or newspaper clipping, hurriedly thrown down on the desk as evidence. She had everything but a police composite sketch. She’s getting too close to my stash. I was looking for an escape hatch from this meeting. I started to wonder if I should call security.
“See? This is a baby picture of Gene Kelly and here’s one of me. Do you see the resemblance?” She was becoming shrill. My ears hurt. I shrugged. Babies all look alike. I wanted another line. “And look. Here’s a picture of my mother on the set of Easter Parade. Do you see? Look! The costume designer had to fit all of her clothes for a woman who was five months pregnant!”
I’m sure she hadn’t taken more than three breaths since she started clomping down memory lane. Looking down at the still of Judy Garland, taken from her left side, I thought that she looked a little, just maybe, possibly pregnant.
“Laurie!” I hollered for my secretary. She came in, doe-eyed and meek, and when I asked what she thought from my quick synopsis of the story, Laurie looked lost for an answer. How did I get stuck with such a fucking moron for an assistant? She was my fifth in nine months.
Lizonra continued: “Here’s a picture of Liza as a baby and one of Lorna as a baby and one of Judy as a baby, and look! Here is Gene Kelly from The Pirate and doesn’t he look in love?” She looked at me, her eyes pleading for some validation. I asked her a few questions about her upbringing, about her father the doctor, and how she came upon this theory.
“Theory?” she lashed out with a laugh played to the back row. Her arms swept across the desk, the evidence. She jumped out of her chair and started to grandly collect her photos.
“Huh?” I really just wanted her to get the hell out of my office ten minutes ago.
“You mean my truth!” She flumped back into the chair in defeat. Oh, God, she's never going to leave. “I just want to find my sisters.”
While I watched her arrange her pictures again in a sort of pre-determined truth trail, I assured her I found her life story a compelling inspiration for a book. The notion of a long-lost heir to Hollywood royalty coming to crash the party intrigued me, and I thought I could potentially get her a book deal. Finally, I was able to direct her through the double doors of my office, making sure she received parking validation.
There was one person I thought might take the bait. I can’t remember if Kitty Kelley’s tell-all on Frank Sinatra had already been released or not, but I was sure that if anyone could do the research and sell this project, it would be Kitty. I tracked her down through a friend, spilling out Lizorna’s story in what I hoped was a more coherent narrative. Kitty told me she would dig around a little bit and call me back. A few days later, she did.
Kitty explained that she’d found no information to support Lizorna’s claims and was starting a new project that would rule out any possibility of further investigation. She thanked me for thinking of her. I thought of calling others. I didn’t. Sidetracked with other projects and the endless supply of cocaine on my desk, I didn’t think of it at all until Lizorna called back a few weeks later.
“Well?” she said.
“Kitty Kelley is working on another project right now and she has passed…” I started.
“Can I meet her?” she interrupted.
“I’m afraid not. I can pitch it to a few other people, but the subject seems too hot to handle,” I added the last part in the vain hope that she would be excited about the prospect of her story being controversial.
“That’s been the story of my life!” Lizorna yelled. She was upset. “No one wants to hear the truth! No one! And I’m real! I’m a real person!” She had just jumped over the rainbow’s edge.
“If I’m able to move this forward at all, I promise to call you,” I said with reptile calm, playing with the track of white on my dark desk, carefully arranging it, tending to it like a Zen gardener, just waiting for the end of an endless, pointless waste of my time.
She sniffled out a thwarted “good-bye” and hung up. I sat for a second wondering why this woman had concocted this odd tale. What had fed her life-long need for attention, her endless search for her truth? Maybe she was right; she could well have been one more hushed secret in Hollywood. I started to pity her, for all of about ten seconds, then took another call, did another bump, and demoted Lizorna to a party anecdote until she stopped getting an easy laugh, then just let her fade into memory.
Cocaine is no longer the source of my insomnia. These days, I simply content myself with a tranquilizer and the flickering lullaby of old films on the TV, praying for quick slumber.
A few weeks ago, Easter Parade was playing. I thought of Lizorna for the first time in fifteen years, my mind wandering back, realizing that she wasn’t the joke. I opened one eye and carefully studied every profile shot of Judy. Indeed, it seemed, she did look a little pudgy in that film. I closed my eyes tighter than usual, hoped Lizorna found what she needed, and I humbly drifted to sleep.