How I met a goddess of the silver screen
“If I could meet Hedy Lamarr, I would die happy.”
“Well, David,” said Frank Capra, who was on the program with me at a college near Hollywood, “just get on a plane to New York and look her up.”
Who was I to disobey the director of “It’s a Wonderful Life”? As a 13-year-old movie-crazy usher at the Bijou Theater in my hometown Knoxville, Tennessee, I had admired Frank Capra as a god among film directors.
So having inscribed my latest novel, “Bijou,” to Frank Capra, I set out to find Hedy Lamarr, universally regarded as the most beautiful star of the 1940s.
“May I get you a ticket to a Broadway show, David?” asked my agent.
“No, but can you find out how I might meet Hedy Lamarr?”
My agent picked up the phone. “Trudy, get Hedy on the line for me, please.”
Thrillingly in shock, I listened. “Hedy, remember the novel I sent you that features you as the loveliest star in Hollywood? Well, the author is sitting right here eager to meet you.”
Hanging up, my agent said, “Hedy said she would meet you at noon tomorrow in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel.”
My agent had sold Miss Lamarr’s autobiography, “Ecstasy and Me.” As a 19-year-old Austrian-born movie actress, she had starred in “Ecstasy,” a controversial Czech movie made in 1933, the year I was born, in which she ran naked into a river.
Promptly at noon the next day, I asked the man at the desk of the world famous Algonquin Hotel to let Hedy Lamarr know that David Madden was there, expecting to be informed that she wanted me to go up to her room.
“Miss Lamarr left a message for you. When she came down for breakfast, she broke her ankle. She regrets that she will be indisposed indefinitely.”
I left at the desk a copy of “Bijou,” lavishly inscribed to Hedy Lamarr.
According to rumor, a wealthy admirer supported Miss Lamarr, divorced for the sixth time, in her New York lifestyle.
I didn’t learn until years later that the goddess, who was once caught shoplifting, was a major inventor, as described in her autobiography, in the biography “Beautiful” and in “Bombshell,” a documentary showing through Thursday, April 22 at the Grail Theater in Asheville.
So I was left with memories of seeing Hedy Lamarr in all her movies, sometimes nine times over as an usher at the Bijou: "Comrade X," "Ziegfeld Girl," "Tortilla Flat," "White Cargo," "The Heavenly Body," "The Conspirators," "The Strange Woman," "Dishonored Lady" and "Samson and Delilah."
Sometimes, life turns out to be as follows:
A year later, 1976, another impulse took me on wings to New York desiring to see the four experimental Italian movies that held that city in thrall, directed by a new director goddess, Lina Wertmullur.
I was already late when I dashed across Park Avenue in the September rain to avoid a fleet of taxis. On slippery pavement, passing a shop on East 68th Street, I noticed movie posters, stills and books about movies in a narrow grimy window. Wondering whether my novel "Bijou" had achieved movie memorabilia status, I opened the door.
Behind a small counter in the narrow shop sat a big, jovial-looking fellow.
"Say, I wonder if you happen to have a copy of a novel called 'Bijou'?" I said.
“By what's his name? David Madden, right?" he said. I nodded. “Hedy Lamarr called a few hours ago to ask me if I had ever heard of this guy."
Hugging him seemed not the thing to do, but I did declare, in a voice not unlike Clark Gable’s, "I am David Madden."
My story of the near encounter with Hedy Lamarr at the Algonquin Hotel delighted him.
He said, "We talked about my giving her a massage. I was just about to call her to see if she'd made up her mind." He picked up the phone. "Hedy, you are not going to believe this, but you know that guy David Madden that wrote that book about you? Yeah, man, well, he's standing right here in my shop, dying to meet you."
He had to persuade her vigorously to let me come with him to the apartment to which her supposed lover had moved her as being less expensive than the Algonquin Hotel.
We walked over there in the light rain.
The jovial masseur knocked at the goddess’s door - a door very unlike the portal of a temple.
But the accented voice that asked, from some distance into the room behind the door, "Who is it?" was unmistakably the voice of the goddess that I had listened to as an usher in the movie palace of the Bijou.
"It's just me and that guy that wrote the book. Open the door, Hedy."
"No. Go away. No. No, go away."
"Oh, Come on, Hedy, open up. You need a session, you know you need it."
Finally, Hedy unlocked the door, but when we stepped inside, I saw her slight figure glide in silhouette deep into the next room.
"I cannot see him. No, please," she said, repeatedly, out of sight, her voice simultaneously thrilling and shaming me.
"Don’t pay any attention to what she's saying. She gets like this sometimes. She doesn’t eat, she gets nervous, she ... Look, go into the kitchen and fry her a steak while I give her a rubdown. Don't look so worried. It'll be OKK."
As I turned toward the kitchen, I noticed many boxes stacked in her cramped apartment.
Sluggish with gloom, I turned on the kitchen light, opened the refrigerator, and looked in at a strip of unwrapped steak. I took hold of it - cold, bloodless, dry flesh - then let go of it.
Hedy Lamarr’s voice came to me from the dim room, across the decades, but clear as obsessed nostalgia could render it. "Take him away, please take him away, I cannot see him like this, take him away," as commanding as a goddess but pleading as mortal flesh. I slipped out of the apartment, down the corridor, summoned the elevator man, and fled into the slow benediction of the rain.
Wanting to lose myself in the last showing of Lina Wertmuller's "Swept Away," I ran toward Third Avenue and the pleasure dome of the movie theater. I found a seat in the middle of the last showing of "Swept Away."
Like the lovers on Keats’ Grecian urn, forever just about to embrace, Hedy Lamarr and I are captive under the Pleasure Dome, that luminous limbo between daily reality and eternal myth.
David Madden’s most recent work of fiction is “Marble Goddesses and Mortal Flesh.”