Bridge 15

September 25th, 2010

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Bridge 15–THE MARRIAGE OF TRUE MINDS


A marriage of true minds?  Ah . . . what a dream!

Most marriage is conceived in bursts of lust

Linked by hushed vows, incredibly extreme:

“We’ll never part . . .  you know that you can trust . . .

(Now get undressed!) . . . of course I will be true.”

But give the guy, well, say a half a year,

Or bring her by a cop or milkman who

Has time to kill–“You want another beer?”–

It’s sexual intercourse.  Forget the mind!

If either, though, should have a pregnant thought,

And want a partner of another kind,

No charge of infidelity is brought.

Who knows?  There are no tell-tale signs or scents.

So who would then admit impediments?

[Winter, 1963]

“I spent many hours talking with the countess about things she had me reading, but soon a month had passed and I had done almost nothing on the screenplay of her life.  She’d told me things about her early Hollywood years, and I’d made notes, and suggested story lines.  She’d say, ‘Yes, very interesting, but I’d like to think about it for a while.'”

“Then the time you were spending with Shoko,” Henry said, still holding her hand, “must have been a distraction.”

Shoko didn’t say a word, just left it up to me.

“Don’t try to provoke me, Henry.  That was long, long ago.  We did spend a lot of time together, in fact . . . and a lot of time with Christine.  It was idyllic there.  That’s when I first began to call it Shangri-La.  But we read a lot, too.  The major assignment the countess gave us all the last month of the year was to read Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji, the great Japanese classic, written about 1000 A.D., and running to


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about 1100 pages in the Waley translation, which I read, while Shoko and the countess read it in Tanizaki’s modern Japanese.

“The countess said,  ‘You must read this book, Jack.  You can’t understand the medieval Noh drama, or Tanizaki, or Mishima, if you don’t know The Tale of Genji, any more than you can understand Shelley or Shaw if you don’t know Shakespeare.  Let’s set it as our goal to finish crossing “The Bridge of Dreams,” the last of the six books, on January 1st, the date in Japan for settling accounts.’  So we made a point of doing that, were all still reading in the morning, I believe, and then spent the afternoon of New Years Day, 1963, talking about the last pages of that great book, didn’t we, Shoko?

“Yes, and I’d like to spend next New Year’s Day doing that with Henry–and Christine–here,” Shoko responded.

“Let’s do!  In memory of the countess!  The two of us talked a lot about her, too, since Shoko had known her so much longer.  But I soon came to see that I was involved in a kind of game, where they knew more about the rules than I did.  Not that Shoko was ever evasive.  When I asked her how she’d come to be so close to the countess, almost her alter ego, she answered very directly, as if there were no mystery to the relationship at all.”

“There was no mystery,” Shoko said.  “I’d been employed by the countess when she spent an extended period of time in Japan, because my English was good and I could also read and speak French.  Over the months we became close friends, and she brought me back to America with her.  I’d been with her ever since, as a friend and a companion.  She paid me to take care of her, and she took care of me–was very good to me.”

“I remember asking if you intended to return to Japan, since you must think about marrying and having a family.”

“And I told you that it surprised me how little interest I’d had in men since I’d come to live with the countess.  You were

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the exception, Jack.  The countess said it would be interesting to test the temper of my immunity by having a young man–I suppose she meant you–in the house for a while.  So, among other things, I guess you were brought as a test for me–and I’m not sure, on the countess’s terms, whether I was passing or failing that test.  She liked to test ideas . . . and people.”

“So you do think she knew about us?”

“I never told her, but I’m sure she knew.  I always assumed she knew everything . . . like the Christian God.  I don’t think she was disturbed by it, think she was amused by our passion, and the ways she could see it playing around the edges of our lives.  I’d listen to you talking about Yeats and Plato, then she’d look at me and smile.  Yes, she knew.”

“I’d begun to wonder if the screenplay was ever to be, or if it’d just been an excuse to give the countess the chance to play these games.  But, lying in bed one night, you said that I’d get my screenplay if I wanted it badly enough, and would pay the cost.  ‘What cost,’ I wondered, ‘beyond doing the work?'”

“I knew she liked you–and had come to love Christine–or wouldn’t have kept you in the house . . . not one day!  She wouldn’t have kept me . . . or Thomas . . . either, if she hadn’t continued to like us.  And I loved her.  If she’d asked me to stop meeting with you . . . to stop talking to you completely . . . to send you away . . . I would have.  Without a question.”

“I remember you telling me that then.  But I was being fed well, was reading things I wanted to read, was very comfortable with you, and, surprisingly, was even working on my novel some.  The countess seemed to be my coach on that, too, for I told her more about my life than she did me about hers in those first weeks–and she seemed especially  interested in the Korean War experience I was basing my novel on.

“She was also the perfect hostess, particularly liked directing the conversation at mealtime, orchestrating it as if

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eating and talking naturally went together.  Though she was a well read woman, with a sharp, but never malicious, wit, she didn’t read newspapers.  She watched the news on television, ‘the proper medium for current events, absolutely ephemeral,’ and thumbed through one of the weekly news magazines.  She was a reader of books, and liked to talk about them, enjoyed company mostly for the opportunity it offered to talk about what she’d read, and she might spend whole half days reading, or, as often as not, had Shoko read to her.  And I would sometimes listen, even sometimes when I couldn’t understand the language . . . in the tranquility of Shangri-La.”

“I’d read for her ever since those early days in Japan,” Shoko said.  Sometimes in English, sometimes in French, sometimes in Japanese.  And she’d still often correct me.”

Henry smiled.  “Now I benefit from all that training.  You are a good reader.  And I never correct you at all . . . do I?”

I decided not to get involved in that.

“She especially liked to read plays.  We took parts to read Shaw, or Ibsen, or Chekhov–or one of the Noh plays Waley had translated.  We might enlist Thomas, who read well, or the neighbor girl, Karen (if someone living half a mile away can be called a neighbor), who came some afternoons to help with Christine, if we needed to cast another part.  I remember the three of us reading Miss Julie one afternoon–at my suggestion.  The countess complimented me on my reading of Jean, and, when I told her about my earlier experience with the play, said she’d played Julie in Germany, under the direction of Max Reinhardt–with whom she’d been living at the time–and agreed I might have more Jean in my nature than I thought, if I were to meet the right Miss Julie to bring it out.

“But mostly we talked about books.  The countess might rather autocratically assign an oral review, so I felt as if I were back in school, or as if I, too, had been hired as a lady’s

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companion.  Lest I be put off by that, however, she’d just as often let me quiz her, or tell me some scandalous story  about her and the author we were reading–so, for a while, I didn’t mind.  I’d almost forgotten about the trauma of losing Laura.  Almost.  Then, I don’t know why, I began to get restless.

“After I’d been there about three months–well into the new year–I decided I should go talk to Randall, since I was supposed to be producing a screenplay for him.  I thought talking to him might get me off dead center, bring it into focus as an assignment.  It wasn’t that I was spending his money, for I hadn’t submitted a single claim yet, had been living on the countess, with as little embarrassment as I’d have felt if she’d been my mother.  But I felt I owed him an explanation . . . or that he owed me one.  Really, I just needed to get out and talk to someone . . . to make sure there was a world out there.  The countess thought it was a good idea, too, ‘Go talk to Randall?  Why yes, Jack . . . and invite him out here.’

“I’d called to say I was coming, and Randall greeted me with his usual affability.   ‘How are you, Jack?  It looks like life with Natasha agrees with you.  And you must be getting on very well . . . or you wouldn’t still be there, right?’

“I told him I’d fallen in love with a 70-year-old woman, that I’d never met anyone like her before, that she’d become my teacher, but that I wasn’t doing much on the screenplay of her life.  He seemed less concerned about that than I’d thought he’d be, gave me a cryptic smile and said, ‘I have a hunch she’ll know when it’s time for you to get to work.  I think she wants the story told, Jack, but wants to be sure you’re the right one to tell it, and tell it right–on her terms.  Put yourself in her place.  She can afford to be choosy.  What do you think?’

“‘Well, I think she is likely to control the process, all right–just use me as a medium–if it does ever happen.  It may be that it’s already happening that way, as you say.’

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“‘Give yourself more credit than that, Jack.  You say a “medium,” but just think, to be the shaman to conjure up the spirit of Natasha Rostovna in her prime–now that’s something!  Few people have that kind of power over black marks on paper.  I have confidence in you.’

“I just looked at him, and he laughed.  Then I said, ‘I’m thinking of the story as framed by two episodes in Japan–one with Tanizaki and one with Mishima, each the major novelist of his generation, maybe opening with the latter, with the countess as an old woman, then flashing back to when she was young.  She talks about those meetings a lot, and that would give perspective on what’s set in the middle.  But I have little sense of that middle.  I want the shaping force of Russia on the young woman, but the main action should be in Hollywood, and we haven’t talked about Barrymore, Valentino,  and Fairbanks much.  So I have little sense of plot, of action, of conflict, of climax.  I see the passion that’s still there when she’s excited about something, but how did it find expression then?  I have a few of the pieces, but no pattern yet.’

“‘Well, it sounds to me like it’s working nicely, Jack–and she really does know best.  I’m in no hurry.  Take another week.’  Randall laughed again.  Then he suddenly shifted mood.  ‘But wait a minute.  Yes I am.  I have to find work for my girl.  My new discovery.  What a stroke of luck that you’re here the same day as the young woman I’ve brought out from New York for a screen-test, thinking she might be just the  one to play the young Natasha.  Did I tell you about her?’

“‘This is the first I’ve heard about it.  From New York?’

“‘Of course.  You haven’t been around.  Everyone in the office knows.  I want her under contract in any case.  She’s done some impressive things on stage.  I saw her in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in Massachusetts, late last fall, then in an off-Broadway, and off-beat, Macbeth I made

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a special trip East to see last month.  I’d like to see her comic range–will in some of the shots we’re getting–and her close-up potential.  But I know I want her.  She can be deeply provocative, the way Natasha was in her prime–and still is!  I swear in the Macbeth I thought it was Natasha at times, that I was seeing a ghost.  Lady Macbeth was one of her great roles, you know.  Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but we’ll see.  I’ll call and see if she’s still in the studio.’

“He called, and, again as it happened, she was.  I waited, wondering if I, too, would see the young Natasha in this woman.  You can imagine my surprise when Betty walked in.

“She took a deep gasp of a breath, and then laughed, ‘Well, Jack . . . of all things!  And of all places!  How are you?’

“‘I thought you might know each other.’  Randall was smiling like the cat who had saved the canary to eat for lunch.

“‘Worse than that,’ said Betty.  ‘I think we’re still married.  You haven’t divorced me, have you, Jack?  Maybe in Mexico?’  She started to laugh in that peculiar way she had when caught off guard, so I knew she’d been just as surprised as I was by Randall’s little joke–if it was a joke.  ‘How’s Laura?  And Christine?’  Then to Randall, ‘Jack got custody of our child.  And the baby sitter.’  Randall laughed again, thinking of Laura.

“‘Fine,’ I said, and commented, mostly to Randall, on how well Christine was getting along with the countess.  Randall knew something about Betty and me, I knew, but Tom had said she was using her maiden name as stage name, and maybe Randall hadn’t made the connection.  Still, my impression was that he knew everything, the countess, too, that they’d conspired to set this up–that we were pawns in their game.

“Betty and I began to talk in light, guarded terms about what we’d been doing, while Randall sat and smiled.  But she got excited as she talked about being in Macbeth with Jordan: ‘In New York, not a month ago, Jack, in a little theatre that

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Henry negotiated for.  Can you believe that?  He arranged for us to do Miss Julie, oh, over a year ago, and for me to do Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in Massachusetts last summer, then fall.  So it’s working, Jack–as I knew it would.  Henry has plans for our own theatre company.  Think of what that could lead to!’  She said that, ‘as always,’ Jordan was ‘a delight to work with, but, right now, he’s off playing the Fool to a friend’s King Lear in England–which he didn’t ask my permission to do.  But that gives me this opportunity to come see what’s happening in Hollywood.’  She was obviously totally involved in the story she was telling me–and Randall–though he continued to sit there and smile, as if none of this had anything to do with him.

“Betty said she knew I’d come West with Laura, and asked again how she was.  When I told her Laura had left me, too, and that was why I was now living with a seventy-year-old Russian woman, she not only laughed again, but, for a minute, I thought was going to have trouble getting stopped.

“‘Laura left you?’ she finally sputtered.

“‘Yes . . . and would you believe it? . . . with Tom Hazen.’  That set her off again.

“‘Oh, Jack, that’s impossible!  But Tom is out here now, isn’t he?’  She looked at me soberly for a moment, then said, ‘You must tell me about that.  But Christine is still with you?’

“‘Yes–you left her in my care.  And now she seems to have the grandmother neither of us could provide.  I’m not sure how I got her away from Laura, but may now have trouble getting her away from the Countess Rostovna.’  An image of Shoko reading to Christine, perhaps at that very moment, came to mind, but didn’t get put into words.

“‘The countess?’  Betty turned to Randall and said, ‘Well, Mr. Best, it’s quite a surprise meeting “my husband” here this way.  I never expected . . . and, well . . . you look so much better, Jack, are suddenly so much more interesting–in this

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exotic setting.  So you must be the one doing the screenplay on this Russian countess when she was my age?  I’ll have to see if I can win you back from this charming old lady.’

“‘That might be harder than you think.  She’s very seductive, and–she’d like this Browning allusion–she brings a mind . . . is the best-read woman I’ve ever known.’

“‘Touche!  But you can’t have become that Platonic so soon after Laura, the great earth mother.’  She laughed again.  ‘I should still have some advantages in the contest.’  I thought of you again, Shoko, how much more . . . comfortable . . . you were, and decided that, between the two of you, you and the countess should be able to cover the threat.”

“Careful, Jack,” Shoko said.  “I have my sensibilities, too.  And I would always yield to a wife.  Didn’t I?”

“I’ve never been sure what happened . . . with us.  At any rate, Randall had only told Betty a little about the film he had in mind, so she wasn’t sure what to expect.  When it was his turn to talk, he filled her in a bit, and she said, ‘Well, the plot thickens.  How bizarre!  It sounds like your Russian countess was quite a woman . . . and you say not just here in Hollywood, that she knew everyone who was involved in just about everything, had simultaneous affairs with famous people like Clark Gable and Charles Lindbergh.  Is that true?  And with politicians and millionaires, too.

“‘And you plan a film of her palmy days in Hollywood?  And Jack’s to write the script?  How like old times, historical drama, with a notorious seductress, from the pen of John Curtis.  Perhaps even a scaffold scene.  But I hope we’ve put all those Puritan conventions behind us.  They don’t seem to go with Hollywood in the ’30s, do they?’  She laughed again.

“‘And Jack, speaking of scaffolds–and Puritan penance–I do look forward to seeing Christine.  I hope you’ve been tending to her moral education, as you’ve been living in sin

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with first one woman then another.’  This time it was Randall who laughed.  ‘I feel like Nebraska was so long ago.  I hope you realize it was nothing personal, Jack.’  And she was serious–perhaps the unkindest cut of all.

“But I was surprised at how little resentment I held, face to face, toward this woman about whom my whole life had once seemed to center, and who’d then abandoned me.  I told her I thought she’d be perfect in the role of the countess, but  there was no role for her to be perfect in yet, not even a clear conception of the character, just a sense of the spirit of a woman with a voracious appetite for life, and quick to learn under the pressures of a world in flux.  ‘So a lot like you.  But I’ve only got a smattering of incident to build on so far.  I still need the plot line, and the countess keeps leading me away from one, telling me stories about experiences in the Orient, in Czarist Russia, in France.  I need help to get her to bring those Hollywood years into focus–for herself and for me.’

“‘Exactly!’ Randall put in.  ‘I don’t mean to rush you, old man, and happen to know you’ve hit it off extremely well with Natasha.  She doesn’t take to many people the way she has to you.  But yes, it begins to be time, if we want to do this.  If we put Betty under contract, I could think of other things for her to do in the meantime, but, now that we’ve got her, it’s that film I want to do.  None of us lives forever–hard as we may try . . . much as we may deserve to.  I want Natasha to see the picture.  I want to see it.  And by the way, Jack, Natasha wants to see Betty.  I told her about her, last time I talked to her on the phone, and . . . well, you know she won’t take my word for anything.  She wants you to bring Betty back with you.  Can you do that?  She’s expecting it.  She wants you to stay for a few days,’ he tossed to Betty, and then back to me.  ‘You could swing by her hotel and pick up her things, couldn’t you, Jack?’  Back to her, ‘You’re at the Wiltshire, aren’t you?’

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“I don’t know why I hesitated, but felt Betty’s eyes on me as I did.  I said something about it being a bit abrupt, but, yes,  if the countess wanted . . . .  Shangri-La was being threatened.

“Randall said, ‘Well, that’s fine.  Let me know how things work out.  And I’ll know where to get in touch as I get a chance to look at your screen test.  I have my own nefarious plans for you, sweetheart.’  This to Betty, but the wink to me.

“Then we were on our way.  Crossing the parking lot Betty took my arm.  ‘Well, how have you been, Jack?  You look good . . . like you’ve grown a lot.  I know I have.  I’m sure the separation has been good for both of us, as they say.  And now we’re ready to go back to work.  Right?’

“I thought, ‘Don’t give me that, Betty.  You think I might be useful to you now, promoting your fame and fortune.  If I’ve learned anything from the countess it’s that those are false gods.  She’s been there, and made it back alive.’  But what I said out loud was, ‘I won’t say you look better, but you still look as good as ever, Betty.  So if you’ve been corrupted by the big city, and the big time theatre, it doesn’t show . . . yet.’

“‘Be nice to me, Jack.  We’ll work together just fine.  We always did.  I’m coming into your world now, so I’ll need your help.’  She sounded a little sad, as she leaned on me a little.

“Then she talked almost non-stop, as we drove first to her hotel–she was at the Wiltshire–then on out to Encino, as I just nodded, grunted, and drove.  She continued to talk about things she’d done with Jordan, but other things as well–her ‘other things,’ not his–though she did say he wanted to do a Hamlet, with her as Ophelia, but that she didn’t want to, ‘Ophelia is such a wimp . . . and, frankly, I’m not so sure about Jordan and Hamlet.’  And she talked a lot about you, Henry, how you’d become agent for both of them, and had this idea for developing their own acting company.  She said you’d encouraged Jordan to go to England, then her to come to

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Hollywood, for the increased professional credentials that might help in raising money, and an audience, in New York.”

“By that time it was beginning to take shape,” Henry said, “but the Antony and Cleopatra was the real turning point.”

“And Betty became enchanted by California.  Driving out through the valley she fell silent for a few minutes, and I looked over to see why.  She was staring out the car window.  ‘You grew up out here, I know, but I’ve never been to California before, Jack.  For me, Hollywood and a screen test is a dream come true, probably more deeply grounded in my psyche than being in a play in New York.  Of course I haven’t been on Broadway . . . yet.  It’s the compound myth of middle America–Hollywood and Broadway–because becoming a star either place seems so impossible.  But I knew I belonged on the stage, when I left you.  That’s my life–live theatre–I’m sure of that!  I love it, Jack . . . yes, more than I did you . . . or even my poor abandoned child.  Working in films?  I don’t know.  But I expect to enjoy it.  I may talk about playing your countess somewhat cynically, but, once I see your script, once I become involved, that’s where the action will be.  When I’m not working, I’m not alive.  You know how it was for me back there in Wellington, Jack . . . the living dead . . . a zombie.’

“‘I hear what you’re saying, Betty,’ I said, ‘but it doesn’t make being left behind any easier.'”  She didn’t respond,  kept staring out of the window, but reached over to touch my hand.

“When we pulled into the long drive, I could hear her take in a deep breath.  ‘My God, I didn’t know that places like this actually existed.  It is like a movie set.  Did she have it built?’

“‘No, one of her friends did, and she sort of inherited it, I guess.  I think you’ll see it suits her.  There have been five of us here, the countess, Christine and me, Thomas–the chauffeur, gardener, cook, and Jack-of-all-trades–and Shoko, the countess’s Japanese companion.  You’ll make it six.'”

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“‘Her Japanese companion?’

“‘Yes, you’ll meet her.  But you can see there’ll still be plenty of room, though I don’t know how I’m to survive with so many females.  I’ll have to try to get Thomas to talk to me.’

“‘Poor Jack . . . I can see you’ve already been suffering.  But have you been a good mother to Christine?’

“Speak her name and there she was, as we walked toward the house, playing by herself in the garden.  I let Betty get a few steps ahead, to watch what would happen.  Christine didn’t remember her, of course, having been just a baby when Betty left us, but, as she looked up, and I then saw them together, I thought of Hester and Pearl . . . in the forest scene.

“‘Well, you must be Christine.’  Not a quaver in the voice. ‘My, what a big girl you’ve become.’

“Christine backed away as Betty reached out for her, however, then turned and ran, shouting for you, Shoko.  I didn’t try to stop her.  But this didn’t seem to disturb Betty, who turned to me and said, ‘Our little girl doesn’t take up with strange women, it seems.  Perhaps if I put a scarlet letter on my breast.  Well, part of the cost.  I didn’t expect you to approve of Hester running off leaving Dimmesdale to figure out what to do with Pearl, either.  But plenty of daddies do that, and nobody thinks much about it.  How do you think the countess will feel?  Will she agree with the godly magistrates?’

“Betty was needling me, but in an almost buoyant humor, and I lost any lingering hard feelings as I sensed that Christine was mostly mine–she evidently did not intend to dispute that.  Then I noticed there’d been an observer to this family reunion.  The countess stood by the library windows, looking out.  When she saw that I’d seen her, she stepped out to meet us.

“‘Well, Jack, Randall told me you were bringing a very interesting young woman, in whom I might be able to see a picture of my own youth.  I’d be flattered to think that was so.

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You are beautiful, my dear.  I was never so lovely, or I would not have had to work so hard at making the most of what I had.  But you seem to have frightened off our little Christine.’

“‘Well, they’ve met before . . .’ I began to say.  But they cut me off, then took pains to ignore me, both being women who treasured certain kinds of mystery as much as a gem or a rare perfume, not wanting to have anything special spoiled by being handled in my crude male fashion.  They were sufficiently engaged in appraising one another.

“Then, while I was still fumbling with my embarrassment, the countess was introducing Betty to you, as you’d come back out with Christine, and, again, the mutual appraisal.  The countess then turned Betty over to you, to help get her settled in the room she was to occupy, remarking that she’d perhaps like a bath before dinner, which would be promptly at seven, as always, and that then we would have a nice long evening to chat.  I watched the two of you walking off together, engaging in my own appraisal.  Then, as I walked back to the library with the countess, I took the opportunity to inform her about Betty and me.  As I suspected, she already knew most of what I was telling her, from Randall, and what I’d told her about my life with Betty before, but it made me feel better to tell her.

“‘Randall says she’s an exciting young actress,’ she said.  I look forward to getting to know her.’

“‘And watching the two of us together?’

“‘That, too, perhaps.’  She laughed.  ‘An old woman must find her entertainment where she can.  But I hope you know I mean you no harm.  You do know that, don’t you, Jack?’  I nodded.  ‘You’ve become like a son to me.  And Christine like a granddaughter.’  This was a pretty conventional thing to say, but I had no reason to doubt her sincerity.  I was pretty sure by then that she’d known about Betty long before, and was enjoying the game, to what ultimate purpose I was not sure.

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“The countess mused for a moment, then said, ‘What a beautiful woman she is.  I wasn’t just complimenting her.  Nor is it only physical beauty.  She has a commanding presence, a noble beauty, like the head of Nefertiti.  I’d be pleased to discover the woman I was at her age in her, or, if I can believe you and Randall, in the actress she is.  I look forward to seeing her . . . star quality.  And, Jack, you must believe this.  I’m happy to see you two together for a time, with Christine.  She’ll be an interesting addition to our little family, and we’ll see how things go.  Let’s talk, let her read, let her sit in the garden, let her get acquainted with Shoko and me, and re-acquainted with Christine . . . and you.  Why not?  I appreciate your being candid with me, even if I’m not always as candid with you.  We’ll work together very well in this, I’m sure.  Now we must see about your Betty, mustn’t we?’

“I had strangely mixed feelings.  It was as if all the women in my life were converging on me.  If Laura were to show up the set would be complete–with me at the intersection of these lines of feminine force.  But I didn’t think Betty would stay long.  She wasn’t a sitter in the garden.  She’d get impatient, want to see a script, or be looking for action somewhere else.  By the time Jordan got back to New York, she’d be ready to get back there, too.  Knowing film work pretty well by that time, I wasn’t sure the patterns of that life would agree with her anyway.  She was a stage actress.  I was surprised to discover how relieved I was by this.  Little as I knew about my own future, inclined as I might be to a sort of spiritual inertia that stultified ambition, I was content to let the countess set the pace.  But I expected Betty to insist upon determining her own future–and abruptly.  I’d been there.

“I hadn’t reckoned on the mesmerism of the countess, however.   She was at her most gracious at dinner, responding to Betty’s questions with comfortable good humor, and asking

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her own.  She didn’t, at first, say anything that might hint at a knowledge of the relationship between the two of us, asking questions, rather, about Betty’s recent acting experience and immediate past, listening to the answers with the same patient, genuine interest that had charmed me to talk much more about myself than I’d intended to, and making comparisons with her own experience, in playing Lady Macbeth and Miss Julie, for example, that had the charm of bringing two different generations of theatre together and allowed her to suggest seeing herself as a young woman in Betty’s experience–though she never directed her comment that way either.

“Betty began by asking questions clearly designed to get some sense of the part she’d be expected to play, but before long was just exchanging theatre stories with someone who enjoyed them as much as she did–the problems of doing two performances the same day,  how to build sets on a low budget, how to win arguments over costumes and hair styles.

“The countess talked about the ill-fated Sumako Matsui, famed for her portrayal of Ibsen heroines in Tokyo, who committed suicide in 1918.  You remarked that you’d seen the 1946 movie of her life.  That started them talking about Ibsen roles–Hedda Gabler, Nora, Mrs. Alving.  The countess had played them all, and Betty said she looked forward to doing Hedda Gabler some day.  They debated whether Hedda or Mrs. Alving was the more difficult role, and you entered the discussion more than you did when the countess was talking to me–as one of the women–while I just sat and listened.

“Then Betty looked at the countess, looked at me for a long moment, took a deep breath, a little histrionic perhaps, and came out with it.  ‘I should tell you that I was Jack’s Nora . . . in another life.  He directed me in the role . . . perhaps too well, for, at the end of the play, I left him.  Left him with Christine.  If he hasn’t told you, I’m Christine’s mother.’

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“I had been waiting a little apprehensively for our moment of truth, but this still caught me off guard.  Betty had evidently decided that the best way was to plunge right in.  Christine had had her dinner earlier, so wasn’t there at the table.  I knew that the countess knew, and while I was interested to see how she would respond, was most interested in your reaction.

“The countess said, ‘Perhaps I should have told you Jack had told me this, but I thought I’d wait to see how you dealt with it.  He and I have become very open with one another,  and I’m happy to see that that’s your inclination as well.’

“I was watching you through all this, as the only one at the table for whom it came as a total surprise, and you seemed genuinely shocked.  I remember you had spilled your tea in your lap, looked at Betty for a breath-held count of five or six, then excused yourself and left the room to change clothes.”

“As I said then, I thought it best that these personal matters be discussed without me, since I wasn’t concerned in them.  I decided I had no control over such things, would have to trust the countess.  I did come back later you remember.”

“But it took you longer than it would have just to change clothes.  And the countess seemed mildly amused by this, which left me wondering how much she did know about our story–if you’d been more open with her than I had about that–if perhaps she was at work on a screenplay of my life.”

“I never told her about us . . . but knew that she knew.”

“And I was sure that, in her affection for you, she’d want a happy ending for that sub-plot, too.”

“So now I’ve been reduced to a sub-plot?”   Shoko shook her head, but smiled.

“Only in Jack’s story,” Henry said.  “You’ve certainly become a main character in the story of my life.”

“Nicely put, Henry,” I said.  “Doesn’t Sartre say something like that, in Nausea, that each of us, to understand

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himself, must fabricate a fiction in which he’s the central character, and all others are reduced to the parts they play from his point of view, on down to the girl next door, the man at the gas station, and the mailman . . . each of whom is busily fabricating his own fiction, of course.”

“While none of us really deserves star billing, do we?”

“Perhaps not.  In any case, the countess changed her line of questioning, asking Betty about her attitudes toward dramatic literature, particularly about Shakespeare.

“‘As Jack can tell you, I didn’t take to Shakespeare easily,’ Betty answered.  ‘Now, since my recent experience with Macbeth, I’ve begun reading all of Shakespeare’s plays . . . but there are more than thirty of them, and it takes a while to get used to the poetry.   So I’ve started working with the sonnets. Jordan says that we could do a whole program of them.  And I do want to do more Shakespeare on the stage now.  Jordan is insisting upon it . . . but, as I was telling Jack, I’m not sure about Hamlet . . . which is what Jordan really wants to do.’

“‘Well, there’s a complete set of the plays on the second shelf in the library you’re welcome to borrow, but, while you may think it’s the characters, it’s finally the poetry that will win you over . . . so stay with the sonnets for a while.’

“‘There are more than a hundred of them, aren’t there?’

“‘One hundred and fifty-four . . . plus those in the plays.’

“‘I’ve tried to memorize a few . . . “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” “That time of year thou mayst in me behold,”  “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.”‘

“‘”The marriage of true minds.”  Yes, I particularly like that one.  What a beautiful, what a Platonic, idea.  You gave me first lines, for the most part, ten syllables.  But that line isn’t iambic, is it?  And it swept you right on into the next.  Can you recite the whole sonnet, to humor an old lady?’

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“‘I’m not sure I’ll be able to, but I’ll try.’  She did, and, where she forgot, the countess picked it up, with me even prompting in a place or two, so that we were able to work out the whole poem without consulting the text, and then, at the countess’s suggestion, the two of them recited it together.  It reminded me of the way the countess had examined me on Yeats’ poetry at our first meeting.  Then, when they’d finished, the countess asked, ‘Now what is that sonnet about?’

“‘Well, about love . . . and marriage?  Let me see. That love is “an ever-fixed mark,” is permanent, like the navigator’s north star, not a thing that passes, like ‘rosy lips and cheeks.”‘

“Betty was thinking her way through her answer, and I followed the exchange attentively.  But neither asked for my comment.  It was as if I weren’t there as Betty began to talk to the countess about her decision to leave Christine with me.  She quoted Polonius’s lines on being true to herself as if she were scoring points with more Shakespeare, and talked about priority in love, of the artist’s commitment–accepted for the gander, why not for the goose.  She said she knew me to be a moral man, with whom it was safe to leave a child, that her first love was theatre, and that she’d not only do it again, but definitely was not coming back to be a wife and mother.  ‘Let Jack sue me for child support–once I begin to make enough money–and I’ll be happy to pay it.’  She laughed as she said that, and I looked at the countess, who was as non-committal as a sphinx.  ‘I used to wonder about Nora . . . whether she ever went back to Torvald–a lot of women do, even go back to men who beat them–but decided that, if she found her real work, she never went back.  It would have been such a waste.  Torvald would have been impossible to redeem.’

“I heard you say, ‘I think she must have been very lonely at times,’ and looking around saw you standing there in a dark green kimono that emanated elegant control like a challenge.”

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“You’re becoming melodramatic, Jack.  I had to change my dress because I’d spilt tea on it, but I was challenging no one . . . not then or later.”  Shoko paused.  “And I do think that Nora would have been lonely.  She was a woman who needed people, and who did she have to turn to?”

“The countess picked up on that, asking Betty if she didn’t often feel a need for personal relationships of a kind hard to find in her professional work, then ended by saying, in part to welcome you back, ‘I’d be very lonely without Shoko.’

“‘It bothered me at first that I felt so little sense of loss in leaving Jack and Christine . . . just relief,’ Betty answered.  ‘But now I’ve put any lingering guilt feelings behind me, as part of my Midwest Puritan upbringing, and can have a friendly interest in what Jack is doing, and how Christine is growing up.  And I disagree about professional relationships.  I get very close to the people I’m working with.  As I’ve been working with Jordan Simms recently, we get excited about what we’re doing, and about giving each other opportunities on stage.   When we did Miss Julie, Jack, it was marvelous.  For Henry, too . . . for he’d arranged everything for us . . . our first New York success.  We all become very close while we’re doing a play.  That’s the marriage of true minds.’

“‘And it’s only as I think of working with Jack on this film that I get excited about being with him again.  Sorry, Jack.’  She laughed.  ‘I know he’s a good writer.  I think he’s a  good director.  I’ve acted in a play that he wrote, and in three plays under his direction–and respect him in those roles.  He’s not a particularly good actor, I might say . . . so, so.  But I do get involved with the people I’m working with.  That’s the way I got involved with Jack in the first place.  Christine is our scarlet letter, after all.  I’ll let him explain that.’  She laughed again.  ‘But getting married was probably a mistake.’

“She said that directly to me, so I’d know she meant it.”

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Assignment for Bridge 16:

Read Plato’s Symposium.  (I am tempted to offer my blank-verse dramatic adaptation of the dialogue–as I did the one for The Scarlet Letter–but I have to admit that, while adapting it was an interesting exercise, and I got to know the dialogue much better, I’m not too pleased with the way it reads).

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