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Reporter Maxi Poole couldn't take her eyes off the bizarre translucent coffin, and the man lying inside on a bed of ruched white satin, with a smile on his face, and holding a set of onyx rosary beads in both handsher ex-husband. Rosary beads? she thought. But he was Jewish. And smiling? He was terrified of dying. None of it made sense to Maxi, including and especially the fact that the man was, undeniably, dead.
It was a bleak fall day, one of very few in usually sunny La-La Land, as the tabloids call Los Angeles. Many of the film industry's most notable personages stood huddled against the chillworld-famous producers, directors, writers, starsshoulder to shoulder around the spot where the transparent coffin stood on its preposterous-looking gilded bier. No matter that most of them were noteworthy for yesterday's triumphs, not today's, and certainly not tomorrow's; they were noteworthy still by virtue of illustrious past accomplishments and significant contributions to the art of cinema.
Maxi pressed her back against a pink flowering myrtle tree, literally trying to blend with the scenery. It didn't help that she was five-foot-eight and wearing a short, bright red, zip-up sweater with a red-and-white tweed miniskirt. Somehow, black hadn't seemed to suit for this occasion, but now, looking at the sea of women and men in black, she might have liked to rethink that wardrobe choice. Too late. She pushed her cropped blond hair out of her eyes, straightened her sunglasses, and folded her arms. Just get through this, she reminded herself.
Next to Maxi stood her producer, Wendy Harris, all of five-foot-two on platform shoes, ninety-three pounds, tawny red hair and lots of it, with notebook in hand. In muted voice, clearly getting a huge kick out of the tribal rites of old Hollywood, Wendy was doing a comedic commentary, blithely pointing out luminaries, has-beens, and hangers-on. With her face deadpan and her eyes straight ahead, Maxi gave Wendy a sharp elbow to the ribs.
"What!" Wendy blurted, making some small attempt to stifle a grin. "We're supposed to look like we're working, aren't we?"
Maxi rolled her eyes. She straightened up and forced herself to concentrate on the remains of her late ex-husband. Bad enough Wendy was having such a good time; it would be disastrous if she caught the mood herself and broke into nervous giggles. And she knew it could happen.
There was a rustling in the crowd, and Maxi saw actress Debra Angelo approaching them, her young daughter in hand. Debra caused a stir in any crowd. She was striking in a very short, very tight black Versace suit, a gold-flecked chiffon scarf wrapped loosely around tons of dark hair, and impossibly high heels that kept sinking into the soggy cemetery turf. Debra had been the wife before Maxi. At some point in Maxi's marriage to Jack Nathanson, the two women had got around to comparing notes, and became friends.
Maxi reached out to hug her. "God, this is grim," Debra murmured in her ear. "Grim, just like him."
"What, Mom?" piped up the winsome child at her side, her daughterhis daughter.
"I was just telling Maxi it's a dreary day for a funeral," Debra said with just a touch of a lyrical Italian accent. "But Daddy wouldn't mind that, would he, darling? He rather liked gloomy weather."
Smiling down at Gia, Maxi whispered, "How's she doing?" "Bewildered," Debra said of her cherubic-faced ten-year-old, the child she'd been trying for a decade to bring up as a normal youngster, Maxi knew, with little success.
"Oh, there's Carlotta," Debra said. Carlotta Ricco was Jack Nathanson's housekeeper. The woman adored Gia. Seeing the girl now a few feet away, she opened her arms, and Gia scurried into her embrace. Alone for a minute, Debra breathed, "Maxi, what the hell are you doing here?"
"Working. Covering the funeral," Maxi said with a dismissive shrug and a look toward her producer, and knowing that Debra wouldn't buy it.
"Yeah, right!" Debra whooped, louder than she'd meant to. Then she glanced up quickly to see if anybody had heard. Scanning the crowd, she muttered, "Look at these dinosaurs, Maxi. And who came up with that ridiculous Lucite coffin? Even he had better taste than that, which is saying precious little, God knows. But the man was Gia's father, after all"
"And the reason why she gets in fights in school, and pulls her hair out at night," Maxi put in.
"That's going to change now," Debra hissed. "Now that the sonofabitch is dead."
"Shhhh," Maxi cautioned.
"Right. Damn, I am ruining these shoes!" Debra observed, glancing down at the fine black suede that was now coated with grassy, muddy ooze. "Fucking seven-hundred-dollar Manolo Blahniks, but it can't be helpedyou never know where your next part is coming from. Shouldn't there be at least a few au courant movers and shakers among these turgid mourners?"
Maxi chuckled. She marveled at Debra's indomitable spirit. Debra Angelo was arguably not a brilliant actress, but she had, to date, played the parts of several memorable ladies, largely by dint of a big personality coupled with a sculpted, exotic beauty that was rendered all the more extraordinary on-screenthe camera loved her, attested many a director of photography, loved those cheekbones. And even though she had really only one act, so to speak, it was an act in sufficient demand, that of the funny, ballsy, off-the-wall, altogether endearing and thoroughly Americanized Italian jewel.
Carlotta walked Gia over to them, and with the child in the middle, all three women hugged. Kind, genial Carlotta had been with Jack Nathanson through all of his wives, and now she had tears in her eyes. "You'll come to the house after?" she asked.
"I'm sorry, Carlotta, I have to get to work," Maxi said. "And I'm not sure Gia would be up to going to her daddy's house today," Debra put in. "But Carlotta, you'll still see her, as much as you'd like. Okay?"
"Okay." Carlotta forced a smile and gave Gia another squeeze.
Debra linked her arm through Maxi's. "Walk with me," she urged.
"Walk with you! Where?" Maxi was trying to be invisible, and walking anywhere with Debra Angelo was akin to walking in a blazing spotlight.
Looking toward the casket, Debra tugged on Maxi's arm. "C'mon," she said, sotto voce. "Let's give 'em a showpast wives united!" Nudging Gia ahead, she sauntered forward, pulling a reluctant Maxi along, with Wendy following behind.
Debra drew the little group up short behind a man who was talking louder than was seemly. "Jesus, what's with the see-through coffin? Is it supposed to be a symbol or something? I mean, was there some kinda glass coffin in one of his movies?"
The question was posed by a formerly famous star of a formerly famous television series, who had long since lost it all to booze and the horses. Still, he had a certain cachet that was kept alive by colorful stories of his colorful doings in the tabloid press.
"No, no," Julian Polo, who'd been the deceased's agent, replied distractedly. "I guess Janet picked it outJack was a big collector of contemporary art. He looks good, though, doesn't he?"
"Listen!" Debra whispered in Maxi's ear behind them, her concupiscent lips widening into a grin. Debra relished dish about their mutual ex; Maxi hoped that her higher self would one day stop being fascinated by same, but it hadn't happened yet.
"Ahh, they shoulda planted him under his star on Hollywood Boulevard, he'da liked that," the actor groused.
"He didn't have a star," mused the agent, who knew everything about his famous, infamous, complex, and now dead client. Mind you, Julian Polo wouldn't usually admit to anyone that movie superhero Jack Nathanson, multiple Oscar winner, didn't have a star on the world-renowned Hollywood Walk of Fame-that would be bad PR, and the deceased still had a picture coming out, from which the agency would get ten percent of his points. But this poor excuse for a man standing next to him wasn't anybody. He used to be James McAdam, popular star of Doctor Bryce, which placed in the top ten for almost a decade on NBC. Now look at him, drunk even at a morning funeralhe wouldn't remember any of this tomorrow."Whaddaya mean he doesn't have a star?" McAdam prattled on. "Everybody's got a star. Pat Sajak has a star. Jamie Farr has a star. I have a star, for chrissake! Jack was one of the greatest actors ever lived. 'Course he has a star."
But Julian wasn't about to tell even this out-of-the-loop has-been the story. Years ago, when Jack's career was in its prime, Julian had confidently applied to the committee for a star to honor his client's brilliant body of work. The vote has to be unanimous, and almost always is, but the chairman subsequently reported that every one of the members threw in a thumbs-down for Jack, not a single yea, and in fact one colleague, a makeup artist who'd worked on one of his pictures, was heard to say as she tossed in her ballot, "He can eat shit and die!"
"Sorry, pal, but we knew your boy's not the most popular guy in town," the chairman had said. "Now, you can resubmit his name every other month," he'd added, "but to be honest with you, I think this whole committee would have to die and be replaced by people who didn't know him. . . ." So no star on Hollywood Boulevard for legendary actor Jack Nathanson.
Julian turned his attention to the rabbi, partly to shut McAdam up-interesting that Janet would choose a rabbi, he thought, since Jack was an admittedly bad Jew, religiously speaking.
Last month, Julian and his wife were at Spago with Jack and Janet, and the dinner conversation got onto religion. Jack remarked that ever since he made Black Sabbat, his Academy Award-winning period film about a witchcraft trial that echoed a high-profile contemporary case of a priest falsely accused of child abuse, he was into the whole Roman thingthe Mass, the music, the majesty. "Confessing your sins has to beat seeing a shrink," he'd said. "And how about exorcising the devil! We oughta do that one on you, Julian, roust the devil out of you," he'd said with a smirk, "and out of every goddamn agent in the business." He'd turned to Janet then and said, "When I die, darling, don't bury me in a tallis; put some rosary beads in my hands." And damned if she didn't do it, Julian thought now, gazing at his late client clutching the beads. Janet never really got the joke with Jack.
Maxi reached out and tapped Julian on the shoulder, breaking his reverie. Turning, he smiled broadly at Nathanson's two beautiful ex-wives, taking a hand from each in each of his. "Nature's noblewomen, both of you," he exclaimed. "How are you two? And Gia," he said, stooping to shake the girl's hand.
"We're fabulous, Julian." Debra smiled, blowing him a kiss. Turning then, with Gia in tow, she set off toward the rabbi standing at the head of the coffin-cum-shrine. As she wound through the crowd, an indelicate wolf whistle was heard from someone among the gathered.
"Jesus, what's she gonna do?" Julian half exclaimed. "I have no idea," Maxi answered, her eyes also fixed on Debra. Maxi had long ago realized that there was no predicting what Debra Angelo would do, ever. This whole crowd knew that Debra had loathed Jack Nathanson, and vice versa. Seven years before, they'd all been witness to the couple's public, trashed-about, dragged-out divorce and custody battle, each sordid accusation from one prompting a topper from the other. And now she was going to give him a eulogy?
Wendy, too, watched Debra's languid progress toward center stage. "Sensational!" she noted in her version of a stage whisper. "Skintight black, tasteful gold jewelry, four-inch 'fuck-me' pumps . . ." Debra was somberly guiding young Gia before her, aware that every eye in the house, as it were, was on her aristocratic, wriggling fanny wrapped in quasi widow's weeds, the wind tossing voluminous hair barely contained by the diaphanous Isadora Duncan scarf wound around that perfectly made-up, exquisite face that registered grief, though tout le monde knew she wasn't grieving.
"Debra Angelo might not be the world's greatest actress," Wendy whispered to Maxi, "but she sure knows how to make an entrance!"
Maxi had to smileDebra had this crowd mesmerized as she stood serenely now, hands on her child's shoulders, speaking in hushed tones. Heads craned forward, the better to hear her. She was saying that Jack had loved his daughter, and Gia wanted to say a few words in her daddy's memory.
Gia started to cry, which immediately sobered Maxi. In the five years that she had been her stepmom, Gia could always break her heart. The girl was stammering now that she loved her dad, that she was going to miss him, sobbing harder now, caught in this odd, truly scary situation for a little girl who was looking down at her smiling father lying in a see-through box. She was trying to remember the little speech that Debra had coached her on. "My daddy told me to read good books," she mumbled. "He played . . . uh . . . video games with me. . . ."
After a painful few minutes of this, Debra knelt and gathered her in a tearful embrace, then took her hand and led her away, back through the crowd, stepping carefully around headstones studding the grass toward a waiting limousine with Gia's nanny inside.
The rabbi had called the next eulogist, Sam Bloom, Jack Nathanson's business manager and closest friend, best man at all his weddings. Sam chattered the deceased's praises, telling stories about what a consummate professional he was, what a helluva guy he was.
Next, former child star Meg Davis approached the rabbi. She spoke haltingly, staring down through that peculiar casket at 230 pounds of the dead Jack Nathanson dressed in very odd burial clothes, odd, but it was the kind of outfit the man had virtually lived in lately, the kind the news photos showed he'd got shot in, and probably the only type of apparel they could find in his closet that fit him, since Jack was currently in fat mode: a tan safari jacket, a Rolling Stones T-shirt, and khaki pants with an elastic waist.
The speaker was tall and frail looking, with long, straggly auburn hair that seemed uncared for, and a drawn face scarred by dissipation. She was blowing her nose and talking about how Jack Nathanson had made her a star in Black Sabbat, she was only ten when she'd read for the part, and how wonderful he had treated her and her mother
But something was going on, a scuffling, some sharp words, and heads began turning, Julian, McAdam, Maxi, Wendy, people all around them, the widow, the rabbi, and the rest, and what they saw completely diverted their attention from Jack Nathanson lying face up in his plastic box.
The now-grown-up Black Sabbat child had stopped reminiscing in midsniff, and was looking up to see what she'd lost her audience to. Wendy, ever the journalist, moved quickly toward the action. Maxi and Julian stood frozen. Four uniformed Los Angeles sheriff's deputies, one of them female, and two detectives in plainclothes, guns drawn, had positioned themselves outside Debra Angelo's limo, barking orders.
"Come out of the car, lady!" "Hands over your head!" "Leave the kidyou stay in the car, little girl."
Two of them began tugging at the actress, hauling her out of the limo. Debra was protesting, screaming indignantly, yanking away from them, and now and then shouting obscenities with a Romanic timbre, as the nanny looked on in horror, and Gia hung on to her mother's skirt and howled with terror.
Then Debra let out a piercing shriek and fainted while the cops were reading her rights, having just told her that she was under arrest for the gunshot murder of her former husband, Jack Nathanson.