Following is the first two parts of a fiction series I'm writing for the First Baptist Church of Elk Grove Women's Ministry newsletter.
My memory swirls around those years, the years after The Prize, when money was in endless supply and my nights were filled with extravagant Hollywood parties. In smoke-filled suites, plates piled with caviar and smoked salmon bobbed above my head. Delicate notes from the piano serenaded the dancing of those actors fortunate enough to be invited. They all loved me. “You will be a star one day, Vanity.” Directors silently sparred for time with my father, vying for his trust in their vision. Each was certain they were the only one who could bring my father’s brilliance to the big screen. My father, a perfect gentleman, would humor them all, knowing already whom he would choose. Mother, draped in the latest fashion, was always at his side. Her laughter seemed too loud, her body swaying to the music, eyes glazed, glass in hand. My father would reach over and squeeze her elbow, never skipping a beat in his conversation. His movie premieres were the highlight. On those days, I was famous, walking the red carpet, hand nestled on the warm arm of my father.
Since I married 15 years ago, I’ve been Vanity Porter. I never regretted my first name, but my last name is common, an ironic fit with my marriage. I was born in Berkeley, 1966, Vanity Spring Bell. For most, the mention of my father, Theodore Bell, brings a distant, perplexing look, as if they should know him. For me, the epiphany of his life seems like yesterday. My early childhood was filled with backstage Broadway, New York. I had the future tied up, daughter of the city’s most talented playwright. But my dream was modest compared to the good fortune that followed once the entire country recognized my father’s gift.
Columbia University, Low Memorial Library, May 1975
Clasping the fragile hand of my mother, I cautiously ascended into the temple-like building, Zeus and Apollo welcoming us as we entered. The signs of the Zodiac circled above and a bodiless Athena caught my eyes as I surveyed the green marble columns and granite rotunda. My eight-year-old mind was dazed with the conflicting chill of cold stone and the warm aromas of roasted chicken and yeast rolls. My father was waiting, his strong shoulders held back, scholarly wrinkles around his smiling eyes. Men gathered from around the country, in an atmosphere charged with unsuppressed excitement, to be honored for their achievements. No one was more important than my father was and I clapped and giggled when the university president handed him the certificate called the Pulitzer Prize. Moments later anger and jealously seared through my small body as I watched another man receive a gold medal. My mother leaned over and laid her hand on my knee. “Paper can be much more valuable than gold. Remember that, Vanity.” Her face beamed reassurance and my mind settled back into a more subdued celebration. The other man walked by and I lifted my chin and looked away.
The Pulitzer Prize was the cannon that catapulted my father, Theodore Bell, from Broadway into Hollywood. Before long, the name Vanity Bell began to appear in movie credits. I was mostly given minor parts, but I would soon be a star. Being with my father was a whirlwind of movie stars, galas and glamor with one exception.
Matthias Levy was like a dripping faucet in the marble ensconced mansion of my childhood. Since the Korean War, he was my father=s best friend. Our monthly Sunday at his house rivaled a visit to the dentist. We'd pile into our Piper Seneca in the early afternoon and land at the Phoenix airport, greeted with bear hugs and rounds of Shalom. Their bungalow at the edge of town usually smelled of Smoked Salmon and leftover Arroz de Sabato warming in the oven. Sinking into twenty-year-old couches and nibbling on Apple Kugel for dessert, we listened as the two men caught up on news and relived the past. The topic would always turn to God and Jesus before the night was through. Father would tease Uncle Matt for turning in his tallit for a tambourine when he converted to Christianity. Uncle Matt's lips would curl up and reply, "I was a withered branch. Now I am made whole, attached to the vine, my source of life." Drifting into sleep despite the animated religious debate, I'd observe Mother's yawn and sense that she would like to sleep as well.
Beverly Hills, California, November 28, 1979
The day was quiet. My father was flying to New Zealand to research a new story. Downstairs, Mother and her friends were having brunch before a day of shopping. During my father's trips, I was often consigned to my room. Resenting my imprisonment, I tiptoed to the landing that overlooked our vast marble entryway. Through closed mahogany doors, I could hear the voice of my mother in the dining room. Her laughter had that too familiar tone of intoxication. Hopefully, Father would call when she was gone and I could ask to be set free.
The door chime interrupted my thoughts. Our housemaid, Rosa, opened the door to policemen asking to see Felicia Bell. Hope sprung at the thought that my mother might be arrested for drinking so early in the day. Just as quickly, it sunk as I admitted there was no law against drinking before noon. Mother came to the door.
"Come in, officers." Her voice was garish. "Is there a problem?"
The taller man glanced at his partner. "Yes, ma'am. Your husband was on Air New Zealand Flight 901 en route to Auckland?"
Mother nodded her head. Her proud carriage began to slump.
The officer's expression was ominous. "I'm sorry ma'am. His plane went down somewhere in the Pacific about 150 miles from the airport. The airline hasn't reported any survivors."
My mind screamed against those evil words. My body flew down the stairs, leaped over my unconscious mother, and slammed into the monster officer. Fists pounding his chest, I was determined to throw this wicked liar out of my father's house.