by Andrew Lee-Hart
Im sick of the whole thing Clara Bow, 1930
Reporters would come to me. Id always receive them. Id tell them the truth. But they never printed it. They never even quoted what I had said . Clara Bow, 1931
I know that face I said to my friend and occasional lover Joseph, thats Clara Bow.
He laughed, delighted that he could still occasionally surprise me.
She isnt even Jewish; what on earth is she doing here?
Here being one of New Yorks smallest Yiddish theatres, in a little side street off Second Avenue.
Joseph looked at me still very much amused; he was enjoying my confusion, Clara Bow was born Chava Blaustein, her grandfather was a rabbi back in Lithuania. Shes as Jewish as you and me, if not more so.
We both sat silently as the rabbis granddaughter stood centre stage and sang a beautiful lament, whilst a violin trilled quietly in the background. Once she had finished, and the sparse audience had applauded enthusiastically, Joseph told me more about her.
She originally made her name in the Yiddish theatre, and now, well now that she is not quite as popular as she once was, she is back again.
I thought she was dead, I told him, or retired.
Your Marilyns might die and, ach, even your President Kennedy, but not Clara, she has been a bit of recluse, she was married for awhile and had a bit of a breakdown, but she has always kept her hand in. And now here she is.
How old is she now?
Still in her fifties or maybe early sixties; who knows, but she has aged well. Good Jewish girl.
And then for the rest of the evening we watched her sing and laugh, flirt and in the end kill; still the young and resourceful it girl who had captured Hollywood all those years ago, and who effortlessly dominated a small theatre in 1960s New York, which smelt of tobacco and sweat, garlic and peppermint. It wasnt just her ability to act, to become the part she was playing, but that she dominated, every time she was on stage - which was for most of the play so that you could not take your eyes off her, leaving all the other actors as but the faintest of shadows.
Her dressing room was small but neat and she was already hard at work taking off her makeup when Joseph and I joined her.
This is David he told her, a friend of mine. She studied me intently and I thought nervously, he is a writer, you might have seen some of his pieces in The Forward and The Jewish Morning Journal.
And the New York Times. I added, being particular proud of a couple of pieces I had had published by that newspaper.
Joseph snorted, unimpressed.
So you are Jewish then?, Clara asked.
Yes, my parents escaped from Poland in the 1920s.
She nodded, and seemed much relieved. She sang something from the play as she got changed, flirting with Joseph as she did so.
So, where are you two handsome men taking me? she asked once dressed, and still looking glamorous and far younger than she had a right to.
I watched her as she scoffed down apple strudel and cream; I had seen many of her films; The Plastic Age and It, the two films that had made her name, as well as less well-known films such as Capital Punishment, Hula and Black Lightning and then there was her later masterpiece Wings, in which she joined the forces to find her lover, during the war. The image of her in uniform driving an army truck was something that had stayed with me since I saw the film in a small cinema several years ago; an image of pluck and humanity during war.
And she did not look that much difference; the same red hair - although presumably dyed now - and the same slim body, and she was as short as I thought she would be. And mostly importantly she had that charisma, something she had clearly never lost. I have met a few celebrities over the years, but none affected me as much as Clara Bow did, not even when I met a very drunk Mick Jagger in a bar in Manhattan a few years later, or interviewed Barbra Streisand on a flight to L.A.
So what do you write? she asked me, after bantering with Joseph for several minutes. Around us people were speaking in a mix of Yiddish and English, mostly the former, ignoring the two men and women sitting in a corner chattering away. Her brown eyes seemed to be staring into the depths of me and for a moment or two I could not speak.
Oh, articles mostly, and the odd story. Unfortunately I do not sell enough to make a living so I have to work at Weissmanns bakery to make ends meet.
Oh Weissmanns, I go in there sometimes, I thought that I had seen you somewhere before.
No I would have remembered.
She laughed, do you have a telephone number, I have an idea, a proposition.
I gave her my parents number, well the one for their apartment block.
You might need to leave a message, I told her.
And then we got talking about Bob Dylan, who was beginning to make his name at the time.
I met him at an art gallery Clara told us; if only I was a few years younger...
Joseph and I were both duly impressed by this, and we talked about music for the rest of the evening. As she left, she kissed us both lightly on the lips.
I will be in touch she told me, although I doubted that she would, it had been like a dream, a sprinkle of magic in an otherwise mundane world, and I could not imagine a repeat performance.
We met a fortnight later, in another café, again we ate sweet pastries and drank strong, black coffee. My faint hopes that Clara would call me had all but gone when Mrs Leader from downstairs had handed me a note a couple of days earlier.
From someone called Chara.
I am thinking of writing my life, She told me, I have been trying for years really, but it is so confused, I need somebody to go through it with me, someone who can write.
I said nothing, hoping that she was asking me, but not wanting to spoil it in case she meant something different.
I have read some of your articles, and they are very good; clear and concise, that is what I want my book to be like.
And then she handed me a large string bag from under the table, I will pay you of course, but it might not be much, I am not as rich as I once was, not that I was ever that wealthy. Anyway just take a look and let me know what you think.
She insisted on paying for our food, and then walked away, the woman who forty years ago was famous throughout our country and even now, after all that has happened since, was still mentioned in newspapers and books once in awhile; even if only to be compared to Marilyn. Clara, my beautiful one; younger sister, brave friend lover. I lugged the heavy bag, back home and started to read the manuscript contained therein.
It was strange, decidedly strange; a mishmash of different types of writing; part of it was fragments of her history; not in any particular order, from her childhood until recently and then what seemed to be her diary going right up to yesterday. And there were darker things; conspiracy, the JESUITS (always in capitals) and Nazis. And when she mentioned names in her writing some had a Star of David after them, presumably Jewish people, although not all of them, whilst others, people she clearly hated, had a cross after their name, like the cross Jesus died upon, even her husband had a cross by his name occasionally, albeit a small one.
The strangeness was not helped by the different colour inks the manuscript was written in; as if the author had grabbed whatever was to hand, and there were hundreds and hundreds of pages of this stuff, mostly written on cheap, unlined paper, the writing, which was always legible, sliding down to the right. At times it was fascinating, a glimpse of Hollywood in the silent era, and so many famous people; Chaplin, Valentino, Fairbanks and Pola Negri. Some of the stories were so indiscrete that I did not think that they would be publishable - not even in the increasingly liberal 1960s - because of the risk of being sued by angry ageing actors or being prosecuted for pornography.
And there was the paranoia.
They were waiting for me outside the studio but fortunately Gilbert (Gilbert Roland? Her fiancée) was there and they fled. This was in 1924, and from then on They or THE JESUITS are mentioned more and more frequently.
THE JESUITS came to see my father, he said not to worry, they know NOTHING.
They look so sweet; the two young women, but they are EVIL, and so cold.
Even a couple of days before we met, there was a diary entry. They were hanging around the theatre, asking questions. How have they not aged? They are the same as when I first met them all those years ago.
And in the most recent piece of writing, she mentioned me as a writer, who might be able to help and reassuringly there was a firmly drawn Star of David by my name, and the question mark that had originally been there had been crossed out.
It is interesting I told her, as she sat across from me in the same café, but it will need editing.
I know, I realise that it is a bit of a jumble, but you will need to keep the bit about the Jesuits, that is the most important.
But who are they?
She looked at me, almost like the wide-eyed heroine of It.
They control everything, from the very beginning. And they hate Jews; why do you think that I had to pretend to be a gentile, they could not have a Jewish sex symbol. So they made up this whole story; plucky starlet come from poverty, but pure gentile poverty. They are everywhere, everywhere. And she looked round, as if expecting a band of Brown Shirts to come marching in and take us away, as though we were in Germany a quarter of a century ago.
I looked at her, not sure what to think.
You clearly dont believe me, and I cant say that I blame you, but I have just been used to it for so long. She eyed me carefully as I drank my coffee, but when I walk out of here, you will see someone follow me, or more likely two people. Just you watch.
She took her handbag from the chair next to her and put on her fur coat and got up. New York was getting colder every day, and she shivered as she stepped out into the street and headed off, whilst I followed, just a few steps behind her. A few people both men and women did give her a second glance, but then even if they did not realise who she was, she still had an air of glamour that age could not get rid of. However nobody seemed to follow her after that second look, and she became part of a mass of middle aged women doing their shopping, of hucksters, musicians and tired looking business men.
After a few more minutes however, I became aware of a couple of young women; they were smartly dressed and apparently engaged in the sights around them, and yet they were always there, just in front of me, a few paces behind Clara. And when she stopped to adjust her shoe they stopped too, ostensibly to look at a poster advertising a concert, but as soon as Clara was walking again, they too set off, just a few paces behind.
I walked closer to the women, so close that I could even catch the occasional whiff of an expensive perfume, but although they were close together, arm in arm, they did not say a word, and they seemed to be observing everything. And then Clara walked into a large apartment block and the couple, after waiting to check she did not leave again, walked away, disappearing into the distance.
I followed Clara into the building and a bored looking young man directed me to her rooms; she had a large apartment on the second floor, and whilst it was not wealthy, it was comfortable, and there were photographs of her from her many of her films and her various co-stars and other actors and actresses of the silent era, many of whom she had mentioned in her book. She looked at me without surprise as I walked in.
Did you see them?
Yes I think so.
Two women? she asked.
Yes. Who are they?
I dont know; they are from the organisation, there are others but it is usually those two. I call them the Jesuits, but I dont know really know who they are. They have been following me since I can remember. Yet they never get older, they are the same as when I first met them in Hollywood all those years ago.
I sat down on her bed, and she sat next to me, her perfume strong and pleasant.
So will you help me write my book?
Yes I said.
We will have to do it here; there is only one copy and I do not want it lost. I took a great risk letting you have it last time.
We shook hands on the deal and then she showed me some of her photograph albums of her parents and then actors, famous and forgotten, and then we talked of how she imagined the book would be. When I left her building I could not see anyone but I continued to look about me as I made my way home, and for a brief moment, in silhouette against the dying sun, I thought I saw two elegant young women looking in my direction and I felt as if our eyes met and then I turned away, the cold reaching into the very depths of me.
Thus on the Sabbath, or on other days, when the bakery and theatre were closed, I would come to her rooms with my typewriter and we would work together on what Clara called My Life. I was worried that my other writing would suffer but I was soon engrossed with Claras life story and what was going on in her brain, and if I had anything else to work on, I would stay up all night banging away on my typewriter keeping my parents and Mrs Leader awake.
I asked her about the Jesuits again.
At first they were just occasionally there, the odd visit, strange letters and so on. Even as a child I have a vague memory of them coming to the flat and talking to my mother and then when I became famous, I began to see them all the time, almost everyday.
Did you not tell the police?
She laughed, no of course not, I am sure they were all in it and if not they would hardly believe me; they all thought that I was mad, or a little strange... Anyway it all got too much; they kept threatening me and my co-stars, I lost a couple of parts because of their interference. Thats the real reason why I left Hollywood; hid away with my husband.
Oh yes you are married.
Was; he died a few years ago, although I didnt attend his funeral. I just needed to escape, and he was a good gentile man, I thought that I would be safe with him.
So many actresses died; Virginia Rappe, Rachel Ray, Martha Mansfield, Clarine Seymour, and Billie Dove of course. I didnt want to join them
What? Do you mean that they were murdered?
We thought so at the time; suddenly all these young women killing themselves, seems a bit unlikely doesnt it?
But they werent all Jewish were they?
Most of them were, although they were encouraged to keep it quiet. And they all died suspiciously; there were so many of them; mostly in dodgy circumstances.
She sighed, looking vulnerable, a glimpse of the young woman that she once was.
Have you heard of Rachel Ray? she asked.
I shook my head.
She had only just begun her career; she was in A Plastic Age with me and a couple of small films before that; her parents knew my parents. She was found dead in her boarding house; they said it was suicide, but she was happy; in love with a career that was just beginning, and she had a boyfriend, a lovely bloke, a teacher, she had everything to live for. I knew then I would have to leave before they got me. Her death was the one that hit me most, made me realise that I had to get out; poor Rachel, such a darling and murdered.
My father was waiting for me when I got home; despite my odd career and lifestyle my parents and I had a close relationship and I was happy living with home, at least for the time being.
Two young women came to see you he told me, they said to tell you that they called, and that they would see you soon.
I asked him to describe them, but for the moment they did not remind me of anybody. It was only when I got to my room and was clanking away on my typewriter, that I realised they sounded like the two women who had been following Clara for most of her life.
So you dont care for women? Clara asked me one evening, soon afterwards. We had been working all day and were getting tired. I laughed in embarrassment.
I care for, just dont sleep with. I said after a moment or two.
What about me? And to continue my embarrassment she pulled my head down to her and kissed me hard, her tongue flickering in and out of my mouth; it was strange, not just because it was a woman, but also because it was Clara Bow, and all she represented. I stroked her back as she pushed hard against me, and as we held each other tight, for a moment, I felt something that was very like passion.
Uhm I said.
I visited a bookshop in Greenwich Village and found a book on actresses of the silent era, and whilst there was a lot on Clara Bow there was also half a page on Rachel Ray the actress who she had mentioned. A promising career cut short by suicide, it said without suggesting it was anything but that. Rachel had certainly been pretty but there seemed to be something sad and hopeless in her eyes, but then you cannot diagnose depression by looking at a picture. When I was with Clara I believed her stories but when I was alone I started to doubt and wondered if she was mad.
The two women kept their promise and came into the bakery one Thursday afternoon, whilst Amos the owner was out doing business. They smelt of the same perfume as when they were following Clara, and which threatened to drown out the smell of freshly baked bread and rolls. Close to, they were neither as young or as beautiful as I had first thought them; their skin looked unnaturally white and was heavily made-up and there was something ruthless and dark in their eyes. By their accents and the way they dressed I could tell they were not from this part of New York, or perhaps not New York at all or even America.
They asked for two pastries; so are you going to give us them for free?
The two women looked at each other; the one who had spoken raised her eyebrows slightly. The other woman spoke, her accent sounding even less American than her companion.
Not two pretty women like us?
Ah but he does not like women, now if we were two young men .
Or maybe a has-been film star .
They looked at me with faint smiles.
I wonder if you parents know about Joseph or about Moshe.
And what about Peter? Not even one of the chosen.
Perhaps he prefers non-circumcised prick.
His poor parents, they seem such good people. A friend would tell them I think, what their son gets up to. A good Jewish boy like him. What a shame.
I looked at them; a mixture of anger and fear, more the former whilst they looked at me with ironic amusement.
They left taking their pastries with them, their cents tossed onto the counter. I stood there feeling angry and upset, so that when Amos returned he asked if I was ill, but I shook my head and got on with my work. I wondered whether to tell Clara, but thought she was paranoid enough already and I did not think it would help. I brought out more bread from the oven, wondering what I had got myself into.
What do you know about Clara? I asked Joseph as we lay together in bed one bright morning.
Well she is a fine actress. Too good for the parts she plays now, but she is happy enough, and I know the various directors round here are pleased that she is available. Such talent, and such beauty, and he kissed one of my hands.
She seems worried. Thinks people are following her.
He laughed, but affectionately. She had a breakdown in the 1920s, thats why she quit acting, went to live on a ranch with Rex her husband, but that didnt last. She has her ways, just needs people to be kind to her, and maybe distract her from the thoughts in her head.
Dont we all? I said reaching for him feeling very lustful all of a sudden.
I have got a publisher Clara told me, as we walked around the city arm in arm. Seshat Press; they are only a small company, but they are growing, and seem to be very interested in my book.
I squeezed her arm in delight. Occasionally passers-by stared at us as we sauntered along, looking in shop windows, and eventually we ended up at Central Park.
It has done me good to get out a bit she told me, when I sit in my apartment, or just talk to the same people, well I get paranoid. And we actors are a strange lot.
It is good for me too, but even so I could not help continually looking over my shoulder for two stern looking women, or anybody else who appeared to be paying us too much attention.
The manuscript was almost finished, and after spending two nights typing it up Clara and I took it to Seshat publishing. It was still a large manuscript, even with my strict editing and I wondered if they would laugh in our faces, although presumably they would have their own editor as well. In fact, Simone the owner, seemed overjoyed to receive the book.
This is just what we want; I cannot believe you have chosen us. And she kissed us both heartily on the lips, she was a young woman who had only formed the company a couple of years ago, and so far had only survived on left-wing pamphlets and experimental novels that not even their writers would want to read. We left the manuscript with her, feeling happy and optimistic and Clara took me to a Chinese restaurant to celebrate.
After that I did not see Clara for about a week; she was rehearsing for a new play, and I was feeling a little down; now that the biography was finished I did not feel that I could just go and see Clara without an excuse, and I missed her stories of Hollywood and her dry humour, even fending off her amorous attentions was bizarre. Everything was an anti-climax as I got on with my normal journalism. I was also worried that the two women would come back into my life, causing trouble and pain.
Clara came into the bakery one day just before closing, she looked worried.
We need to visit Simone; she rang me, she sounded very strange.
An hour later we stood outside the publisher; two windows were boarded up and there was some indecipherable scrawl on the door.
What happened? Clara asked.
Simone shrugged, usual fascists, she looked very nervous, and had obviously been shaken up by the attack on her company.
She handed Clara a large parcel
I am afraid we cannot publish this after all.
I realised that Clara was as unsurprised as I was.
But why? I asked anyway.
I just dont think it is suitable. It is interesting but just not for us. As she spoke she gazed at the floor or at the ceiling, anywhere in fact but at us.
You have been threatened, Clara told her, you are scared.
Simone shrugged, and I felt she was ashamed. And I wondered if the two women had paid her a visit.
I am truly sorry she said after a moment.
Come on I said, and we walked away, I could feel Clara leaning heavily on my arm with the weight of her sadness dragging me down.
We can try somewhere else I suggested, maybe somewhere larger, less likely to be intimidated.
I dont know, she said and handed me the manuscript; you keep it for safe keeping, she told me, they know where I live.
They knew where I lived too of course, although I wasnt going to tell Clara that, I hid it under my mattress for the time being whilst I thought of somewhere safer to put it.
I dreamt of Clara; intense dreams, sometimes they were erotic, as the opening scenes of Hula, where she was nude in a pool and was seductively cleaning herself, but at other times I dreamt that she was my younger sister, and I was trying to rescue her from various monsters, but somehow she always escaped or was taken from me and my dreams ended with my searching fruitlessly through some city or other, Clara just out of reach. I would wake up with a sense of unease, and it would take me awhile to realise why I felt that way.
A week later I turned up at the bakery for another day, and Amos, was waiting for me. We sat in the back by the ovens.
Have you offended someone? He asked me.
Not as far as I am aware.
We have had letters from several companies we supply food to, saying they will withdraw their business unless you leave. They accuse you of all sorts.
I stood there looking embarrassed.
I dont care what you get up to he told me, I know that you are the bohemian type, but it cannot affect my business.
It is okay, I will go.
I am not asking you to do that, he told me, but he put up no further resistance as I walked out of the door, and in fact he was asking me to do exactly that.
Those two women were asking after you again my father told me, on my return, they said they had something of yours, and wanted to go in your bedroom, they were quite pushy, but they went eventually.
I looked at him without a word.
Is everything okay?
I smiled unconvincingly. In fact I had moved the manuscript into the pantry a couple of days earlier and so they wouldnt have found it even if my father had let them into my room. I wrapped it up in brown paper and took it to Josephs rather large house, he looked at me curiously, but agreed to look after it, and unusually for him, who was normally very nosey - without asking any questions, although I could tell that he was dying to ask what it was.
I now had more time on my hands; fortunately The New Yorker had recently published a couple of my stories in quick succession and then a couple of less well-known, but almost as well-paying magazines, published things that I had written, so that even without my bakery job I was actually starting to make some money and I began to think of leaving home.
I met up with Clara on occasion; and twice she found publishers who seemed interested, but it was the same story, initial enthusiasm and then an embarrassed return of the manuscript, and I would take it back to Joseph for safekeeping, who I think by now had guessed what was going on.
After awhile Clara gave up, and never mentioned her memoirs again. She seemed to be struggling and far less vivacious than she had been. We continued to meet for coffee and cake at least once a week, but she was becoming vaguer in her speech, and at times seemed confused. She began to call me Rex, her former husbands name; at first I corrected her, but eventually I gave up.
I was out with Joseph one evening.
Your friend was sacked from that show at the New Jewish Theatre.
Clara? Isnt she your friend as well?
Yes of course. But anyway she kept forgetting her lines and then didnt turn up for one performance. He winced in embarrassment, they found her asleep in her apartment; she had completely forgotten all about it, and apparently she smelt of drink. A shame; but you need your star to turn up and know her lines, even if she is Clara Bow.
We had gone to see Funny Girl at the Winter Garden Theatre, with the wonderful Barbra Streisand in the lead role, and after Joseph had unsuccessfully tried to blag his way into seeing the star afterwards, we were returning to his house through the dark. New York was now in the depths of Winter and Joseph slipped twice as we walked along, the cold wind blowing into our faces.
I had better go and see her I said, shivering slightly, I have been a bit remiss.
She was always a bit strange, even when she was famous.
Did you know her when she was famous?
Of course I know everybody, he said distractedly.
We walked on in silence, Joseph hurrying us along.
Are you okay? I asked.
I feel a bit uneasy, I often have such feelings, I am a bit clairvoyant.
I nodded mockingly, but he was too busy pushing us on, to respond or even to notice. We were almost at his house when he started running although I could see nothing amiss. When I reached the house I could hear him shouting with anger; the front door had been stoved in, and as I walked in I could smell burning and saw his furniture and pictures smashed up into pieces, as if by an axe.
As Joseph wept over his ruined books and paintings I looked for the manuscript but was not surprised to see that it had gone, there were not even ashes and torn pages to say what had happened to it. Joseph glared at me, realising why they had attacked his home. I tried to put my arm round him, but he pushed it away.
Leave me, leave me alone he shouted, and wept for all that he had lost.
Clara was less upset than I expected her to be. I had gone to her apartment to tell her the news; she looked tired and a little dirty as she walked round in just a slip, her legs pale and a little thicker than during her film star days.
It is okay Rex, she said, nobody was ever going to publish it. Thank you for all your hard work. I will pay you something, and she began to look round her apartment and eventually found me a couple of dollars in an envelope.
Dont be silly I told her, I am fine, I have had an offer on a book of short stories and I am in demand, but she insisted and thrust some money into my hands, talking all the while. She continued to ramble and I wondered if she was ill, and to my shame I actually wanted to go, finding her verbosity irritating and embarrassing. As I left the apartment, I put her money back on her dressing table, along with a couple of notes I had with me. I hoped that she would find them and use them and it helped ease my guilt a little.
A month later I left home and moved to Manhattan having been offered a job by The New York Times as a reporter. I began to live the life that I had always wanted to. Along with my job, which I loved, I was having stories published regularly and was making good money, and even starting to save. I had made new friends and was often out unashamed and happy. I rarely thought about my old neighbourhood or my parents, even though it would not have been difficult to go and see them, but it felt like a different planet, a planet that I was no longer interested in visiting. Even Clara seemed to belong to the past.
Eventually, eighteen months later I did go back for a few days, staying with my parents just as if nothing had changed. I went to see my former boss Amos at the bakery. He gave me a slightly embarrassed grin before hugging me tight.
So how is the famous writer?
It was now my turn to look embarrassed; I am better at writing than selling bread.
You were fine; it was just all your sinister friends, asking questions and telling me things about you that I did not want to know and trying to ruin my business.
We talked and drank coffee, friendlier than we had ever been.
Talking of questions; that actress you used to hang about with came in here awhile ago, asking where you were.
I think so. Used to be a film star? She looked a mess, very confused. I got her to sit down and gave her a drink of water. And then she wandered off, mumbling to herself.
How long ago was this?
He thought, maybe a year, actually I think it was almost exactly a year ago, not that long after you left. You ought to visit her.
After I had left the bakery I walked over to her apartment; the area looked much more rundown than I remembered, but then maybe I was becoming used to wealth and had not realised how poor the area was. As I stepped into the building I noticed a smell of damp and rotting vegetables, and the floor felt sticky under my shoes. My heart was beating as I knocked on her door, although in fact I still had the key she had given me way back when, but I suspected that she was long gone, and did not want to be accused of breaking into somebodys house.
A woman I had never met before answered the door; she was dressed all in grey, like a uniform and her hair was very neat; nothing out of place. She looked at me sternly.
What do you want?
I am a friend of Claras.
Miss Bow does not have visitors she told me and started to shut the door in my face, when I heard a familiar voice calling out from behind her.
He is my friend.
She sounded faint and either drunk or drugged, but it was definitely Clara.
The woman glowered at me full of spite, but swiftly I pushed past her whilst she hesitated and walked into the apartment. Clara was sitting on her sofa, she looked an old woman, and her clothes were dirty and threadbare, as was the sofa.
Sit down Rex.
Chava, Rex is dead the woman told her harshly.
I know that Kristel Clara responded, I know that she repeated more quietly.
Kristel sat down, stony-faced and glared at both of us.
Kristel is my nurse, she lives with me now.
Kristel stared impassively at nothing.
There was the smell of alcohol and damp everywhere; whatever Kristel did, she was no cleaner. And I realised that there were far fewer possessions than in the past; Claras pictures had gone, much of her furniture had been replaced with the sort of thing that you would buy in thrift shops and it was cold, very cold. I could see Clara looking at me, watching my reaction to the life that she was now leading.
Could you make us a drink of coffee please? Clara asked her nurse.
At first I thought that Kristel was going to hit her, but she contented herself with another of her most poisonous of looks before getting up with a sigh and heading into the kitchen, she muttered something in what sounded like German as she walked past me, and I dont think that it was polite.
Oh Rex, she is one of them. Please save me. Please save me. Clara held my arm tightly.
People came and said I needed a nurse, and they brought she waved her hand in disgust in the direction of the kitchen, but she hits me and mocks me. She wears my dresses, and she sells my stuff.
Kristel walked back with two rather disgusting barely warm cups of coffee and we drank in silence, whilst Kristel watched us, like a parent of two naughty children.
I am sure your friend has to go now said Kristel as soon as I had drunk it down.
Actually I would like to stay and talk with Clara.
Kristel turned on me, her eyes dark and full of anger.
Chava needs to rest.
It is okay Clara told me, please dont worry, and she is right I do need a rest. Ignore what I said.
Powerless I got up and walked out, and as I looked back at my friend, I could see her brown eyes looking at me begging me for help.
I visited Clara twice more that week, despite Kristels looks of anger, and found both visits uncomfortable and embarrassing. I wondered what I could do to help. I was never alone with Clara; Kristel would sit and watch us and Clara never complained again, but then she did not have the opportunity, she seemed passive and quiet, not the same woman I used to visit and who had kissed me. Perhaps I could call the police, but I knew that they would just laugh, and clearly Clara had become an invalid and needed someone to look after her.
And then I returned to my new life, and forgot about my family, Joseph and my other friends and about Clara, or perhaps it would be more truthful to say that I tried to forgot about them, in particular Clara, who made me feel guilty and helpless. I hoped desperately that someone else would come to her rescue, after all why should it be? It was not even as if we had ever been close friends.
One day the following summer I visited my parents, who were both looking old but seemed happy enough. I put off visiting Clara for several days, finding excuse after excuse, but at last I could put it off no longer. The sun was hot that morning and the streets were full of women in sundresses and men melting into their cheap suits. I walked to Claras apartment and knocked on the door, eventually an old man answered.
I am looking for Miss Bow I said surprised.
The old lady on the second floor? I nodded, not that I thought of her as old.
Oh she has gone. She left a couple of months ago with her sister.
Sister? She had no sister.
Yes, the German lady that she lived with. She took her away; she could no longer cope and she did look ill poor thing.
Do you have an address?
He thought for a moment, no they went so quickly. A van came and took her away, left most of her stuff, not that any of it was worth much, I threw most of it away.
Do you know that she used to be famous? I asked him.
Oh well, death comes to us all.
We stood looking at each other, both sweating in the city heat before I turned away.
I went to see Joseph, who had heard that she had gone somewhere, but had no idea. I wandered round the various theatres, to see if anybody knew anything.
Clara Bow, she isnt Jewish one young director told me.
She was and she acted here, but now she has disappeared.
I dont think so anyway she must be ancient now, she is probably dead and he dismissed me to get on with something important. Other directors professed not to have heard of her or thought she was long dead. I could not even find anybody who remembered her being here; not even the theatres where for a year or two, she had dominated and brought a bit of Hollywood glamour.
I continued to try to find her; wrote to anybody I could think of, I even had a piece in a magazine with the title where is Clara Bow? but nobody knew anything; she had disappeared just as quickly as she had appeared all those years ago; that glamorous, sassy and delightful woman, who was either mad or in great danger and there was nothing that I could do to save her.
Eventually I gave up, stopped thinking about her most of the time, although sometimes I would be hurrying through the New York streets and see a familiar figure stumbling ahead of me, and I would run to catch her up with her name on my lips, but it would be some poor old woman struggling and I would help her and carry on with my day. And occasionally, I would see two women who look at me in the face and smirk, and before I realised who they were they had disappeared into the crowd.
And now, thirty years later, a successful writer, with a young lover to keep my bed warm, I see those two women more and more, hanging about outside the newspaper office where I work, at my publishers, lurking on staircases or in parks, spreading lies and wickedness, and not looking a day older than when they first haunted Clara all those years ago, when films were black and white and voices spoke but made no sound.
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