It’s awards season again. The time for glammed-up movie stars (America’s royalty) to ascend the stage (their thrones) was kicked off this week “in earnest” by the Golden Globes. These glittery, fairy tale nights are filled with gowns and diamonds and designer tuxedos and maybe some sneakers for the terminally hip Hollywood prince or princess. All this American royal fever in the air reminds me of a fairy tale night when real royalty met “Hollywood” royalty and New York society. My very own “once upon a time.”
Like Cinderella, I was a young girl grieving over the death of my father. A grief that blended overwhelming sadness and denial with alienation. A feeling that my friends looked at me as if I was now somehow “different.” Little shivers crept up the back of my neck when a friend would awkwardly approach me on my first day back to school not knowing what to say. I was afraid that nothing would be “normal” again as I listened to my mother cry quietly in her room at night.
But unlike Cinderella, I had a loving mother and neighbors to care for me... specifically, the Pfisters, who lived across the street. They were older than my mother and, though they never had children, they empathized and decided that Mom and I needed something special in our lives. Something to look forward to. Something to take us out of our pain. So they gave us tickets to the opera. I did a 13-year-old’s shrug. The opera!?
But this was not just any opera… we had coveted tickets to a box in the “dress circle” for a debutante charity fundraiser the Pfisters had helped organize at the glorious, old Metropolitan Opera House in Manhattan. The opera was Verdi’s “La Traviata” and was to star someone named Maria Callas. The event was black-tie. I still shrugged. Maybe I yawned.
I’d never been to the opera. To me it was a lot of screaming in a foreign language, but eventually my mother’s excitement was contagious as we planned what we were going to wear. For me, she chose a pale blue/gray brocade, below-the-knee, long-sleeved fitted dress in a “princess”-cut (there’s that royal thing again). I already had curves and the dress emphasized them before it flared out at my waist into a full skirt. My low heels matched. It wasn’t a ball gown, but it was my first “cocktail” dress and only my second pair of heels. I felt 16!
To this day, I don’t remember how we got into the city from Bayside, Queens (of course, I lived in “Queens!”) – whether by LIRR, car (though my mom didn’t know how to drive at the time) or limo. I do know it wasn’t a pumpkin or a royal carriage. But, it might as well have been because when we arrived outside the old opera house, I felt I had landed in an enchanted world of kings and queens and dukes and duchesses and was about to be let into a beautiful castle. Turned out, I wasn’t all that wrong.
As we entered the lobby, the season’s debutantes (New York princesses) lined the grand staircase in beautiful, billowy white gowns, handing out programs as we walked up to the mezzanine/dress circle level. Huge crystal chandeliers sparkled. Celebs and NY notables were milling about sipping champagne as we mingled among them.
There was Miss (well, this was before “Ms.”) Gina Lollobrigida, a “queen” of Italian-American movies. There was Miss Miiko Tako, the star of “Teahouse of the August Moon. There was Rudolph Bing, the “ruler” of the opera house. There was a Rockefeller or was it a Vanderbilt, maybe a Getty? My mom wasn’t sure. The jewelry, the gowns, the glitter made it seem like I was in a royal court.
A few people chit chatted with my mom and she learned that a little further down the mezzanine was the dress circle bar where Elsa Maxwell was hosting a large, catered dinner party. I didn’t have a clue who Elsa Maxwell was and, when my mother explained that she was the doyenne of ‘hostesses’ in America, I thought that to be an odd “occupation,” but off we went to see who was sitting behind the rich, burgundy velvet ropes closing off the bar.
And there Elsa sat at the end of a long table covered in white linen… old, fat and rather homely (well, I was only 13), dressed in a brown matronly gown with silver threads (or were they gold?) woven into the fabric. A huge, rather gaudy ruby necklace hung around her neck, complemented by equally gaudy matching earrings. Her lips were blood red. She was the Queen of Hearts and, at that moment, I felt more like Alice than Cinderella. I wondered why this bizarre old woman with mousy permed hair was so important and why anyone would want to have dinner with her. Maybe she was a Queen.
Miss Lollobrigida rejoined the table as did Mr. Bing. And then I saw them just as my mother whispered in my ear to tell me they were there. Sitting on either side of Miss Maxwell was the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The former Prince of Wales crowned King of England who gave up his throne for the woman he loved, the former Mrs. Wallis Simpson. Their love story was legendary A romantic real life fairy tale. By the time I was ten, I had read all the light and superficial stories about them. And in all his pictures, the former King was so handsome. But seeing them not more than 15 feet away, they were not the figures I imagined when reading those picture magazines and flowery short stories. They were no longer young and beautiful (well, the Duchess never was beautiful, but she had seemed ‘exotic’ to me).
She was scarily skinny. Her gown seemed to be hanging on a skeleton… a skeleton with a garishly painted face. She was wearing more jewelry than you’d see in Harry Winston’s window. I marveled that she could actually lift her painfully thin, overly bejeweled arm to inhale her cigarette. The Duke, dressed in white tie and tails, was also skinny, proving that you can be too thin. His skin was as white as the milk he was sipping (my mother had read that he had an ulcer). They looked frail, desperate, trapped, totally bored and terribly sad. It wasn’t until I was older and learned more about them that I realized what an accurate assessment that was -- even at 13.
Years later when I saw Fellini’s “Juliet of the Spirits” with all its ‘Technicolor’-distorted painted characters’ glory, I thought the Duke and his Duchess would have been perfectly cast if they had been in the movie.
A debutante ushered us to our box alongside Mr. Bing’s where Miss Taka was sitting and two boxes away from Miss Lollobrigida. The Duke and Duchess and Elsa Maxwell were nowhere to be found. As the curtain went up, I gasped. On the stage was a completely other world – a fairy tale within a fairy tale. I’d never seen anything like it. And, as the singing began, I was glad my mother had made me read the libretto, though I would have been mesmerized even if I hadn’t a clue what was going on.
At intermission, my mother encouraged me to see if I could get Miss Lollobrigida’s autograph. So, armed with my program and a pen, I left our box and walked over to hers. (I have to preface this with the fact that at that time my curly hair was cut into a sort of ‘poodle’ cut that I had modeled after Mouseketeer, Annette Funicello… it was also the same haircut as Gina’s.)
When her entourage emerged they took one look at me and quickly ushered me into the Miss Lollobrigida’s box and plopped me right in front of a very confused movie star. But, not as confused as I was, as everyone waved their arms and prattled excitedly back and forth in Italian. I had no idea why I was chosen to meet this movie queen, or why were they all fussing over me.
Suddenly, Miss Lollobrigida started to laugh, then took my hands in hers and sweetly explained everything in a lilting Italian accent. It seemed that her Italian box-mates, comprised of an agent and other business associates, thought I was her sister who had been seated elsewhere in the opera house. Then she smiled and graciously signed my program.
My Mom stood outside Miss Lollobrigida’s box as I floated out on cloud nine. And, when I told her about my encounter as we rushed back to our own box for more arias, she was delighted for me, but said she wasn’t surprised… even though I had light brown/blonde hair, my texture and style were the same as Gina’s. I was around the same height, thin, but curvy, and had similar brown eyes and full lips. Moms are like that. But, by saying that, she made me feel very… Italian.
And then the opera was over. For a minute (well actually just a couple of seconds) there was complete silence, then the house broke out in thunderous cheers and bravas. Devoted opera fans in the top tier, standing room only section were screaming with delight and throwing flowers on the stage (most hitting the people in the orchestra) as everyone in the theater gave Callas a standing ovation. I’ve never heard such applause since. It went on for more than ten minutes.
And then, that, too, was over. Neither my mother nor I wanted the evening to end, so we sat in our box as the audience departed. When the house was fairly empty, my Mom suggested we walk over to the bar for a “nightcap” before going home. The burgundy velvet ropes gone, we sat down at a little table and ordered a soda for me and coffee for mom as we excitedly talked about all that we had seen and heard that night… the old-world, European beauty of the Met, the beautiful debutantes in their lovely white gowns, NY’s gentry eating with a duke and a duchess and movie royalty, the beautiful opera, and Callas’ performance... and then we saw them. Sitting far in the back, all alone in the dark, were the former King of England and the woman he loved. They didn’t talk to each other. They didn’t even look at each other as they held court over no one.
We soon left and my fairy tale evening was over. It had been total magic and introduced me to the wonderful world of pomp and theater even if I did learn that night that fairy tales really only exist in fairy tales.