Act I, Scene Two
If you’ll permit me to break the fourth wall, my name is Hazie Coogan.
My vocation is not that of a paid companion, nor am I a professional housekeeper. It is my role as an old woman to scrub the same pots and pans I scrubbed as a young one –- I’ve made my peace with that fact –- and while she has never once touched them, those pots and pans have always belonged to the majestic, the glorious film actress, Miss Katherine Kenton.
It is my task to soft boil her daily egg. I wax her Linoleum kitchen floor. The endless job of dusting and polishing the not-insignificant number of bibelots and gold-plated gimcracks awarded to Miss Katie, that job is mine as well. But am I Miss Katherine Kenton’s maid? No more so than the butcher plays handmaiden to the tender lamb.
My purpose is to impose order on Miss Kathie’s chaos… to instill discipline in her legendary artistic caprice. I am the person Lolly Parsons once referred to as a “Surrogate Spine”.
While I may vacuum the carpets of Miss Kathie’s household and place the orders with the grocer, my true job title is not major domo so much as mastermind. It might appear that Miss Kathie is my employer in the sense that she seems to provide me funds in exchange for my time and labor, and that she relaxes and blooms while I toil; but using that same logic, it could be argued that the farmer is employed by the pullet hen and the rutabaga.
The elegant Katherine Kenton is no more my master than the piano is master to Ignace Jan Paderewski… to paraphrase Joseph L. Mankiewicz who paraphrased me who first said and did most of the dazzling clever things which, later, helped make others famous. In that sense you already know me. If you’ve seen Linda Darnell as a truck stop waitress, sticking a pencil behind one ear in Fallen Angel, you’ve seen me. Darnell stole that bit from me. As does Barbara Lawrence when she brays her donkey laugh in Oklahoma. So many great actresses have filched my most-effective mannerisms, and my spot-on delivery, that you’ve seen bits of me in performances by Alice Faye and Margaret Dumont and Rise Stevens. You’d recognize fragments of me – a raised eyebrow, a nervous hand twirling the cord of a telephone receiver — from countless old pictures.
The irony does not escape me that while Eleanor Powell lays claim to my fashion signature of wearing numerous small bows, I now boast the red knees of a charwoman and the swollen hands of a scullery maid. No less of an illustrious wag than Darryl Zanuck once dismissed me as looking like Clifton Webb in a glen plaid skirt. Mervyn LeRoy spread the rumor that I am the secret lovechild of Wally Beery and his frequent co-star Marie Dressler.
Currently, the regular duties of my position include defrosting Miss Kathie’s electric ice box and ironing her bed linens, yet my position is not that of a laundress. My career is not as a cook. Nor is domestic servant my vocation. My life is far less steered by Katherine Kenton than her life is by me. Miss Kathie’s daily demands and needs may determine my actions but only so much as the limits of a racing automobile will dictate those of the driver.
I am not merely a woman who works in a factory producing the ever-ravishing Katherine Kenton. I am the factory itself. With the words I write here I am not simply a camera operator or cinematographer; I am the lens itself – flattering, accentuating, distorting – recording how the world will recall my coquettish Miss Kathie.
Yet I am not just a sorceress. I am the source.
Miss Kathie exerts only a very small effort to be herself. The bulk of that manual labor is supplied by me in tandem with a phalanx of wigmakers, plastic surgeons and dietitians. Since her earliest days under a studio contract it has been my livelihood to comb and dress her often blonde, sometimes brunette, occasionally red hair. I coach the dulcet tones of her voice as to make every utterance suggest a line of dialogue scripted for her by Thornton Wilder. Nothing of Miss Kathie is innate except for the almost supernatural violet coloring of her eyes. Hers is the throne, seated in the same icy pantheon as Greta Garbo and Grace Kelly and Lana Turner, but mine is the heavy lifting which keeps her on high.
And while the goal of every well-trained household servant is to seem invisible, that is also the goal of any accomplished puppeteer. Under my control, Miss Kathie’s household seems to smoothly run itself, and she appears to run her own life.
My position is not that of a nurse, or a maid, or a secretary. Nor do I serve as a professional therapist or a chauffeur or bodyguard. While my job title is none of the preceding, I do perform all of those functions. Every evening, I pull the drapes. Walk the dog. Lock the doors. I disconnect the telephone, to keep the outside world in its correct place. However, more and more my job is to protect Miss Kathie from herself.
Cut direct to an interior, nighttime. We see the lavish boudoir belonging to Katherine Kenton, immediately following tonight’s dinner party, with my Miss Kathie locked behind her en suite bathroom door. From off screen, we hear the hiss and splash of a shower bath at full blast.
Despite popular speculation, Miss Katherine Kenton and I do not enjoy what Walter Winchell would call a “Fingers-Deep Friendship.” Nor do we indulge in behavior Confidential would cite to brand us as “Baritone Babes,” or Hedda Hopper describes as “Pink Pucker Sucking.” The duties of my position include placing one Nembutal and one Luminal in the cloisonné saucer atop Miss Kathie’s bedside table. In addition, filling an old-fashioned glass to overflowing with ice cubes and drop-by-drop pouring one shot of whisky over the ice. Repeat with a second shot. Then, fill the remainder of the glass with soda water.
The bedside table consists of nothing more than a stack of screenplays. A teetering pile sent by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, asking my Miss Kathie to make a comeback. Begging, in fact. Here were speculative Broadway musicals based on actors dressed as dinosaurs or Emma Goldman. Feature-length animated versions of “Macbeth” by William Shakespeare depicted with baby animals. Voiceover work. The pitch: Bertolt Brecht meets Lerner and Loewe crossed with Eugene O’Neill. The pages turn yellow and curl, stained with Scotch whiskey and cigarette smoke. The paper, branded with the brown rings left by every cup of Miss Kathie’s black coffee.
We repeat this ritual every evening, following whatever dinner party or opening my Miss Kathie has attended. On returning to her townhouse, I unfasten the eyehook at the top of her gown and release the zipper. Turn on the television. Change the channel. Change the television channel, once more. Dump the contents of her evening bag onto the satin coverlet of her bed, Miss Kathie’s Helena Rubenstein lipstick, keys, charge cards, replacing each item into her daytime bag. I place the shoetrees within her shoes. Pin her auburn wig to its Styrofoam head. Next, I light the vanilla-scented candles lined along the mantle of her bedroom fireplace.
Above the mantle hangs a portrait of Miss Katherine painted by Salvador Dali, it rises from a thicket of engraved invitations and the silver-framed photographs of men whom Walter Winchell would call “Was-Bands.” Former husbands. The painting of my Miss Kathie, her eyebrows arch in surprise, but her heavy eyelashes droop, the eyelids almost closed with boredom. Her hands spread on either side of her face, her fingers fanning from her famous cheekbones to disappear into her movie star up-do of auburn hair. Her mouth, something between a laugh and a yawn. Valium and Dexedrine. Between Lillian Gish and Tallulah Bankhead. The portrait rises from the invitations and photographs, future parties and past marriages, the flickering candles and half-dead cigarettes stubbed out in crystal ashtrays threading white smoke upward in looping incense trails. This altar to my Katherine Kenton.
Me, forever guarding this shrine. Not so much a servant as a high priestess.
Excerpted from TELL-ALL by Chuck Palahniuk Copyright © 2010 by Chuck Palahniuk. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.