Pull that chair up to the bed while Aunt Flo fixes herself
Now: how long does this whole thing last? I mean how long does
your mother usually take? Oh yeah? Well, I'm old; I qualify
for AARP discounts at corporate hotel chains; so let's say
fifteen minutes, okay?
It's called vermouth. It's something older people drink,
especially older ladies who were quite the lookers in their
days. This is the red variety, so it's sweet, but not too
sweet: it's bittersweet, like leaving a career on Broadway to
marry an airplane pilot. It helps my nerves. Aunt Flo has a
lot of nerves. Did your mother ever tell you that? No?
A story, a story… how do I pick just one? A gal like me has
nothing but stories. I was born in the Philippines, did you
know that? Well, I was. Do you know where the Philippines are?
They're in what is now known as Southeast Asia. Little
Oriental girls would chase my mother through the town, begging
her to buy their carved wooden airplanes.
Or how about this: Your Aunt Flo was married before Pappy.
That's right. His name was Ricky and he was a pilot for
Braniff. I was a stewardess, with a Pucci-print minidress and
white plastic boots up to my knees. He bought me a gold
Dunhill cigarette lighter when we working a pleasure flight to
Nassau. Boy, we smoked like chimneys in those days. Smoked
like chimneys and bathed ourselves in baby oil and iodine,
laid out in the sand with aluminum foil reflectors like it was
our jobs. I can still remember the way water droplets formed
on my Pina Colada as we lay on the beach.
No? You're awfully picky, you know that? It's one of the first
things I noticed about you. Just the other day, I was saying
to your grandmother, "Georgia, that is the most
particular child I have ever encountered." Now, don't get
all huffy about it, I wouldn't have told you if I thought you
couldn't take it. You're an ornery, spoiled child, and that's
just a fact. I'm an ornery and spoiled old lady, so that's
something we have in common. You like that, right? Having
something in common with your Aunt Flo? No? Well, you can go
I'm sorry. Please don't tell your mother I said that.
Okay, back to the story: Are there any guidelines for the
types of stories you can hear? Is there a rating systems I can
go by? Well, I'm a modern woman, a feminist; not all my
stories are Approved For All Audiences, if you know what I
mean. I've seen my share of wild times. Now, you're how old?
Seven? Eight? I can't remember what I was like at that age.
Okay, let's try this: name your favorite movie. Maybe that
will give me some kind of clue as to what kind of story might
be good for you.
Really? No, I just wasn't aware that she was starring in
movies now. That's interesting. In my day you could buy her
all these different outfits, with shoes and purse to match,
style her hair, put it up, brush it out… then they came out
with Colored Francie, and boy did that blow my mind. Now,
don't get me wrong: I think it's very important for little
black girls to have a role model in doll form that they can
look up to… or down to, as it were. But I would have had
absolutely no idea at that age what colors to dress a black
doll in, because of the skin tone, you know? I had fair hair
and pale eyes when I was young, just like the doll, and so did
my mother, so I knew exactly what colors would bring out the
blue, wash you out, all that. Then that book Color Me
Beautiful came out, and I said to your grandmother,
"Finally, Georgia! Little blond girls with blue eyes will
be able to buy black dolls and know how to accessorize them
properly!" And sure enough, your mother found a black
doll from me under the Christmas tree that year. That was when
it really hit me how far we had come since Rosa Parks.
No, I don't believe I know any stories about princesses. Oh!
Wait, I do. I know one story about a princess. It's a true
story, and it involves Yours Truly, so you know it's good.
Let me just refill my drink. Do you want anything? I brought
Diet Cokes to put in the fridge, that's all I can think of
that's child-appropriate. It might keep you up, though; I
always have that trouble if I drink too many of them. Maybe if
we just limit it to one. The good thing about Diet is that you
don't have to brush your teeth after you drink it because
there's no sugar.
Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Christina who
lived in Greece. Do you know where Greece is? It's a country
in Europe, very far away, across many oceans. You might have
seen the Greeks in movies, wearing togas and fighting lions in
the Parthenon. They are an ancient people, very accomplished:
they invented geometry, astronomy, democracy. They worshipped
a whole host of gods and goddesses, instead of just one like
we do now.
Now, I hope you were not expecting a story about a sweet,
beloved princess, with a cone hat, swathed in pink crinoline.
Princess Christina was neither sweet nor beloved. Her father
was a very rich man in Greece, and so she got anything and
everything she ever wanted, although she deserved none of it.
Princess Christina's mother died, and her father took a new
wife. His new wife was from America, where she was known as a
wise, kind Queen.
Yes, you're right: We don't have Kings and Queens in America.
But she was once married to a very powerful man, and she
became known for her grace, her intelligence, and above all,
her impeccable fashion sense. When her husband died, the
country mourned with her, admiring the steely resolve behind
those enormous sunglasses.
So the Queen of America met Princess Christina's father, and
soon it was like something out of the Brady Bunch. You've seen
the Brady Bunch, haven't you? You've heard the song? Yes,
exactly. The Queen had children of her own, and soon it was
much more than a hunch. Suddenly, Christina was not the only
Princess in the palace.
I'm getting to that. Have you never heard of building
narrative tension? This is the influence of MTV; you're the
MTV generation, and you all have the attention span of gnats.
When I die, and you are standing over my grave, I hope you can
manage to pay attention long enough to experience some proper
As I was saying: Princess Christina's father named a beautiful
boat after her—a yacht, in fact, with sleeping quarters and a
chef and bronzed Greek crew in white shorts who hoisted jib
booms and swabbed decks and other such things. The new Brady
Bunch would sail all over the Greek isles in the thing,
playing backgammon and sipping ouzo, just like Plato and
Socrates did back in days of yore.
Now, back in these days, I was still something of a hot
ticket. I could kick my heels up over my head and hold a high
C over B to rival Ethel Merman. I was still in New York at the
time, and the Queen had an apartment over on Fifth Avenue.
That's where I met her: I was on my way downtown, headed for
the subway entrance, and she stopped me to ask for a light. I
didn't even realize it was her until I'd lit the cigarette.
"Oh, my," I said, "It's you! I didn't know you
smoked!" And she exhaled out her nose and smiled behind
those sunglasses, and said, "And it's you!" She'd
seen me the previous month, you see, in Guys and Dolls, at a
matinee of all things. She praised my work and invited me up
to for little cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off. We
tried on her collection of vintage mink turbans all afternoon;
I completely forgot about rehearsal. By the end of the day, we
were old friends, and she invited me onboard the Christina
which was taking off the following day for a month-long cruise
along the Amalfi coast.
Well, I'd never been to Italy, and you just don't pass up an
invitation from the Queen. True, I was supposed to appear in
Sweet Charity that month, but my costar was that tramp Gwen
Verdon anyway, so I made a few calls, and the next thing I
knew I was shopping for luggage at Bloomingdale's.
As I said before, Princess Christina was not known for her
social grace or winning repartee. Some might even have called
her a spoiled, petulant child—she reminds me of you, in that
way. Very particular, bossy, an offputting sense of
entitlement. Oh, stop with the tears. It didn't work when Gwen
Verdon tried it, and it won't work now.
What I will say about Princess Christina is that she was quite
the beauty. Not in the same way as the Queen—she tended to
lounge about on deck chairs in tiny bathing suits that
flaunted her coltish figure. She would never be featured in
Life magazine for her timeless sartorial choices. But she had
a certain something—something in the gentle sneer of her lips,
the subtle orbit of her big rolling eyes. Granted, she had
recently had work done on her nose and the skin beneath her
eyes, and as a matter of fact her face was still wrapped tight
in gauze so that she resembled a mummy; but it was there, no
doubt about it.
She was several years my junior, but I worshipped her at once,
as thousands of years ago her people had worshipped the gods
of Olympus. No, I did not sacrifice a goat in her name, or
chain John-John to a rock in the Blue Grotto. But I would
always offer to fetch her a refill or rub lotion onto her
back. "Do you really like this coral bracelet,
Christina?" I'd say to her. "Take it, then! Go on, I
have a million of them back in New York."
I was determined to learn the secret of her charm, that which
elevated her so far above mere mortals like me and you. Then,
one night, as I combed the seaweed and salt out of my hair
below deck, it struck me, like a bolt from the mighty hand of
Zeus himself. It was the hair.
Like many young starlets in those days, I had been dyeing my
hair for years. It started when I saw Marilyn Monroe's dress
blow up over her knees at Lexington and 52nd Street.
"That brazen hussy," I said to myself, watching from
behind the barricade as she giggled and writhed while
flashbulbs popped. The next day I went right out to Vidal
Sassoon. I went from dirty blond to honey blond to bleach
blond until I reached the pinnacle: platinum. My hair was
clear, transparent, practically nonexistent. If you lit me the
wrong way from the back, you could mistake me for a cancer
But Princess Christina showed me how misguided my efforts had
been. Her hair was black, opaque, and it swallowed the sun
that beat down on us without lightening a fraction of a shade.
Her skin darkened, her mirrored sunglasses leaving white rings
around her eyes. On the occasions she rose from the deck to
stretch, I saw the night goddess Nyx extending her cloak of
stars above her head, trailing it behind her as she streamed
across the sky in her chariot.
That's when I started thinking about Hitler. Do you know about
Hitler? Did you learn about him in school? I guess you are a
little young. Well, long story short, Hitler was a very
important German man who lived many years ago, and he did many
horrible things, and there was a war, but the point is that he
had some very controversial ideas about different races. He
believed that people with blond hair, blue eyes, light skin—yes, dear, just like
you—were superior to all others: the
blacks, the Gypsies, and especially the Jews. Do you know
about the Jews? Well, your Pappy was a Jew, so one of these
days we'll have to teach you all about it.
I started thinking about Hitler because here I was, a great
beauty, sure; a well-respected actress, of course; but I still
had to put money aside for the rent each month, and I could
never get a table at the Rainbow Room without a reservation.
And, while my time aboard the Christina O had stoked my skin
to the burnished shade of a mulatto, my eyes were the
brightest blue, my hair the palest white. And then there was
Christina—all the power in the world, every desire fulfilled.
Where had my traits gotten me, in the end?
Do you know about recessive and dominant traits? No? Good God
Almighty, what are they teaching you nowadays in that school
of yours? A trait is something like the shade of your skin,
the color of your hair, and yes, the color of your eyes. Now,
blue eyes are a recessive trait, which means they are very
rare—they are very special, but that is because the trait is
not very strong. Brown eyes are dominant; they are more common
because the trait is stronger.
So I thought, "What was Hitler talking about? Blond hair,
blue eyes, pale skin—they're all weak traits! A world of
people with those traits would just be passing around a bunch
of genetic mutations, and end up looking like England's royal
family!" It was obvious to me that strong traits equaled
power. They equaled longevity; they equaled the future. It was
that secret something which Princess Christina possessed.
My mission accomplished, I raided the Princess's cabin and
retrieved my coral bracelets. When I disembarked back in New
York, I knew exactly what to do. I marched into Vidal Sassoon,
and I told him, "I want to go black. And I mean black,
not brunette, do you hear me Vidal? The black of Gwen Verdon's
The man cried. He could not believe that I would want to take
his painstaking creation, which had bled my scalp and singed
his cuticles, and so thoroughly undo it. No amount of
rationalizing or pleading could convince him, and I left him
apoplectic on the floor of his salon.
I did it the first time myself. It was out of a box, and the
shade was called "Evensong." It stained my fingers
and the fumes filled my tiny bathroom until I had to grip the
shower rod to keep my balance. When it was done, it was the
flat black of a car tire. It was perfect. "Father,"
I would say, "Have the deckhand fan me with the clew
until the wind changes directions." I was her: Christina—or perhaps her slightly older, sophisticated sister,
who had already been carried off by some Eastern European
aristocrat. I imagined I spent my days fondling Faberge eggs
in a castle with onion spires.
"You need to update your headshots," the casting
directors sniffed, turning my photo facedown and sliding it
across the table.
The money held out for a while. When things started getting
tight, I hit the streets, trying to find something short-term,
something where I could still pretend I was an actress who
just happened to be doing drag shows at the Sanctuary. Well,
it was a gay club, dear. They paid me to sing and dance in
their All-Girl Revue, though in truth I was the only real girl
in the bunch. Enough rouge and tissues stuffed in the top of
my gown and no one could tell the difference. Eva Destruction
was my name, and I had a whole back story. I was a Bulgarian
countess, deposed by the war, now living in exile in a
tenement in Alphabet City. I'd come out in this sable coat, my
hair coaxed into a towering black turban. I wasn't on Broadway
anymore, but for those few hours every weekend, I was living
my fantasy. Oh, the stories I could tell about those days…
maybe when you're older.
That paid the rent for a while, but after a couple years on
the drag circuit, I knew I had to find something more stable
until my career took off again. I was convinced that my new
genetically superior do would eventually win me the fame I
desired. In the meantime, I signed on with the airline. I
figured being a stewardess was close enough to being an
actress—you had to smile all the time and be pleasant even
when your feet were aching and the fat guy in coach kept
pinching your ass when you walked by with the coffee. That's
where I met the ill-fated Captain Ricky, God bless his soul.
The final straw was a few years later, during a layover in New
York. I had been living in Houston for a couple years by then,
mourning my husband and developing an affinity for turquoise
jewelry. Bob Fosse called me up to audition for Chicago. We
went way back: He gave me my big break, as a chorus girl in
Damn Yankees. Yeah, I read for Lola—I thought I had it sewn
up, too, if you know what I mean. Imagine my surprise when I
saw the cast list. Turns out I wasn't the only one running
lines with the director.
He and Gwen Verdon were married within a couple years.
Chicago they'd been separated a while, and I thought
Old Lola was out of the picture. But when I stepped out onto
the stage, it was all, "Oh, Flo, kid, what did you do to
yourself?" Apparently he envisioned Roxie Hart as a
spunky blond, though I must stress that there was no hair
color specified in the script. "We already got the
brunette," moaned Fosse. "We just cast Chita Rivera
Chita Rivera! I should have slapped him across the face right
then. But I'm a professional, so I said, "A wig, then.
I'll wear a blond wig." It was for a role; it wouldn't
compromise my new phenotypal superiority. But it was no use.
Old Lola got it. I never had a chance.
My strapping pilot husband had gone down in the sink, and so
had my career. I slunk back to Houston and packed up my coral
and turquoise, and I called my sister. "Georgia?" I
said. "Got any room for a stage sensation in that little
California town I once called home?" As you can guess,
As for my hair, you can see for yourself that I remain
committed to the future. I may not have made it back to
Broadway yet; things may not have turned out the way I
planned; but I had Captain Ricky, and I had your Pappy, and I
have you. And someday, someday soon, I'll be on TV, rising
from my seat to accept my award for Best Performance by a
Leading Actress in a Musical, and those old casting directors
will be watching from their beds at the nursing homes, and
once I've finished my speech, they will roll over, close their
eyes, and die.