In Los Angeles, anybody can be somebody…and most nobodies are somebody, but not necessarily anybody somebody would care to know.
Which explains why I’m standing at the front door of Dee Turnell.
Where I live in west Los Angeles, people go out of their way to look normal – even the celebrities – but Dee stuck out of the crowd. With her bold outfits, ruby-red lipstick and perfectly coifed hair, she is impossible to miss, and I knew I had to meet her.
After a bit of legwork, I discovered that Dee was neighbors with a friend of mine, whom I bribed with home-baked chocolate chip cookies in exchange for an introduction. A few days later my friend called back to let me know Dee agreed to the interview with one stipulation: “No questions about the prison time, that was a trumped up charge. I was acting in self-defense.”
It was a direct quote, which I would later find out was her idea of a joke.
Dee lives in a sweet little two-bedroom bungalow on a tree-lined street. The yard is neat, and her 1989 Pontiac Bonneville looks like it was just driven off the showroom floor. There’s no doorbell; instead, there’s a doorknocker that looks like the comedy/tragedy mask you’d find tattooed on the bicep of a failed actor, turned life coach.
When Dee opens the door the first thing I was struck by is the color of her hair. It’s pomegranate red and it pounces on your retinas. On Dee, it makes sense. It fits her. She’s also much taller in person. Until now, I’ve only seen her walking around town. She’s about 5’11” but with her hair frozen in the shape of a puff of cotton candy, and heels, she stands close to 6’ 1” tall. Before I could say anything, she smiles broadly, taking my outstretched hand in both of hers and says, “You must be Lloyd!”
The way she said it made me really happy to be me. I wanted to say, “Fuck yeah, I’m Lloyd!” but that probably wouldn’t have been appropriate. I just say, “Guilty,” which sounded lame then, and even lamer now.
Dee is dressed in a green and red paisley jumpsuit, which makes her look like a member of a NASCAR pit crew, if Liberace had a NASCAR team. Her green patent leather pumps peek out from under the cuffs of her bell-bottoms, hoping to be noticed. The vast majority of her face is taken up with her signature glasses – red and large enough to reach from the middle of her forehead to below her cheekbones.
“Come in. Have a seat. What can I get for you? You like iced tea? I have Coke…well, Diet Coke. It tastes better with Captain Morgan.” This was just one long run-on sentence, but she didn’t sound like a teenager on a Red Bull high; instead, it sounded like she was purring. The words slid out of her mouth as if on satin.
I smile at her. “Water is fine.”
Dee drops a hand to her hip. “Y’know, when I was having dinner with Clark Gable, he said….” Dee lowers her voice a few octaves and changes her posture. “Water is what you drink when you can’t find something with taste.” Then she laughs the way I imagined she did when Clark Gable said it and disappears into the kitchen to get drinks, leaving me in the living room by myself.
Every surface of the room is covered with pictures; all of a younger Dee dressed up, looking happy and usually with a drink in one hand and a cigarette dangling from the other. I only recognize a few of the people. They were the old Hollywood guard, including Bob Hope, Johnny Carson and Milton Berle. From the kitchen I hear Dee singing to herself; I can’t make out the song, but she has a decent voice.
Suddenly, Dee is standing behind me. “It’s an ugly habit.”
“Cigarettes, although, truth be told I really miss them. Nothing goes with a vodka gimlet like an unfiltered Camel.” She points to a love seat that faces the fireplace, “Have a seat.” I obey, and Dee sits adjacent to me, her legs crossed and her Diet Coke balanced on the arm of her chair.
“So, to what do I owe this honor? I’m not used to men hunting me down anymore. Of course, back in the day, my dance card was pretty full. One time, I had a drunk Jerry Lewis tapping on my bedroom window, right there,” she motions toward a door down the hall. “He must’ve thought I was some cheap whore he could drop in on. Y’know, he’s so fucking holier-than-thou, with that telethon and all, but let me tell you…” she leans forward and lowers her voice as if telling me a secret, “…he’s a first class asshole.” She motions with her diet Coke, “Dean Martin was a class act. He had enough talent for the both of them. The critics always gave Lewis the credit, but anyone can act like an idiot. Try and class a joint up sometime – it isn’t as easy as it looks.”
I hadn’t thought about it, but she was right. Getting people to laugh at you has got to be easier than being a presence, raising the level of the room. “The last classy thing I did was buy my wife a diamond ring after she gave birth to our first child…but I’m not sure if it’s still considered classy if she told me to buy it.”
Dee sips her Diet Coke. “Touchdown, but you missed the field goal.” She smiles and claps her hands on her lap, “So, where’d you like to start?”
I turn my tape recorder on. “Let’s start at the beginning. Where are you from?”
“Kansas City.” She stirs the ice with her finger, “Nice town, if you don’t mind spending the rest of your life being bored, wondering what you could’ve been. My parents didn’t want me coming out here – back then, you got married, had kids and then waited for death. I didn’t want any part of that nightmare; so I got a job as a secretary, figuring I would save up enough money to hit the road. Things were going along pretty well until this salesman named Ernie Matthews pinched my ass like he owned me. Can you imagine?”
I actually tried to imagine the brave soul who would dare cross Dee, and figured it would take a special combination of balls and stupidity, which apparently Ernie possessed. “Did you report Ernie to your boss?”
Dee laughs. “Sexual harassment was part of the job, so I took matters into my own hands. I nailed Ernie in his manhood with my Swingline stapler. After that his days of pinching asses were done.”
Dee paused and took a sip from her glass, and I noticed her pinky was pointing straight up. “I got fired, which was fine with me, I’d had enough,” she continued. “So that night, I went home packed a suitcase, kissed my folks goodbye, hopped on a bus and came out here to be famous.”
“You just jumped on a bus? Did you know anyone out here? Did you have a plan of action?”
Dee laughs hard this time. “Honey, the only way to get through life is by being naïve. If you think about what you’re doing too much, you aren’t gonna do it. I didn’t know a soul, but I’m smart, and scrappy. I knew I could figure it out. I mean, what was the worst thing that could happen? I fail and get on a bus and go back to Kansas City? If that was the worst thing, then I was willing to take the risk to make my dream come true.”
“What was your dream?”
“I wanted people to know who I was. I could sing okay, dance good enough to get by, and I could act a little. Things were a lot different back then. You think Ginger Rogers could win on ‘American Idol?’ No way. She was horrible, but she had Fred Astaire to cover for her.”
“Was Hollywood what you thought it would be?”
“Oh, hell no! Hollywood is a dark, disgusting, vapid place, ruled by egomaniacs that prey on the beautiful and stupid.” She pauses, and then her face breaks into a toothy grin. “Don’t ya just love it? Where else are you going to find this kind of evil, all dressed up and smiling? All these people hate each other, but they need each other, so they’ve figured out this dance.”
“By the looks of the pictures you must have some great stories.”
She smiles coyly, “I might, but I’m not sure you’re old enough.”
I say, “When you’re a short, balding Jew, you’re born old, with a back ache and a craving for cured meats. So come on, let’s hear your best story.”
Dee laughs, “Let me see…I think my favorite story was when I was in “An American in Paris” with Gene Kelly, who by the way, is one of the nicest, most honorable men I’ve ever met. Anyway, he has to do this unbelievably difficult song-and-dance number, but he’s got some back spasms, and everyone is flipping out because his number is a tent pole piece for the movie. So I see him lying on the floor of his dressing room, and I go in and tell him I can fix his back – but it’ll cost him. Gene looks up at me with this smile that could literally melt the polar ice cap, and he says, ‘I don’t care what it costs, just fix it.’”
“You knew how to fix his back?”
“I didn’t know the first thing about fixing backs, but I was great in the sack! You don’t last long as a chorus girl if you can’t fuck!”
I was momentarily stunned to hear the word “fuck” come out of her mouth. “You had sex with Gene Kelly?”
Dee laughs really hard. “Right there on the floor of his dressing room! Made his back worse…they ended up having to postpone the shoot.”
I almost do a spit take, “You screwed “An American in Paris” into delays?”
“Yup!” She reaches out and grabs my wrist. “And get this, on the last day of shooting, Gene comes up to me and says, ‘Y’know, your back remedy cost Warner Brothers $20,000 in down days.’”
“What’d you say?”
“I just fixed him with my best dead-eye stare and say, ‘I figured it was worth at least twice that.’ Then I turned and walked away, making sure he got a great look at my ass, and trust me, back then this ass could make good men, do bad things.”
“Was that it? Did he come after you?”
“Not right then. Gene didn’t chase after girls, but we went out a few times. I knew it wasn’t gonna work out though. Guys like Gene Kelly don’t want women like me – they want women that are quiet and gentile, who smile, but stay in the background. I might be a chorus girl, but I’m not living in the background, sweetheart.”
I’d only known Dee for an afternoon, but I already understood how she would never have found happiness in any man’s background. “Did you date a lot of celebrities?”
“I don’t think anyone ever really dates a celebrity,” Dee said with a note of authority in her voice. “Famous people are too in love with themselves to be in a real relationship. The only way you can be with a celebrity is if you’re okay with loving someone and never having them reciprocate.”
“So you never got married?”
“Why? You looking for another wife?” She flashed that smile again.
I look at her nervously. “I’m not sure I could keep up with you.”
She sits up and straightens her outfit. “I was married once,” she said. “Henry Lang, sweet guy.”
I don’t know why, but I was surprised to hear that she’d been married. “What happened?”
“He was this big producer, a man’s man – as in, he was a man who liked men. Back then, that was a career-ender. Henry needed a cover, and I needed my bills paid. It worked out well for everyone. It’s how I got this house,” Dee said, looking around the room.
“No one knew what you guys were up to?”
“Hell, I’m sure everyone who needed to know, knew. But if someone took a picture of him at some party, there I was – the demure Mrs. Henry Lang. Really kinda sad, if you think about it. Poor guy could never be who he wanted to be. It was as if he was a secret agent for a country nobody cared about. The one upside is that I got to be real good friends with Rock Hudson.”
I’m stunned, “Henry and Rock were dating?”
Dee stands up and walks over to the bookcase of pictures and picks up a black and white photo. “This is Henry, Rock and me at the Mayor’s Ball,” she says, with a twinge of pride. “That Rock Hudson was the most handsome man I ever laid eyes on. I used to tell him that I was pretty sure I could screw the gay out of him, but unfortunately I never got the chance.”
She hands me the picture. Standing between Rock Hudson and an equally dashing Henry Lang was a very young Dee. They were all dressed in formal eveningwear; Dee had a large orchid perched on her shoulder and the three of them wear the kind of smiles you see on people who truly love one another.
I hand her back the picture. “What happened to Henry?”
Dee carefully puts the picture back in its spot. “He had a run of films that tanked, got behind the eight ball financially and was too proud to reach out to anyone for help. So one night, he took a bottle of sleeping pills and never woke up. The gay guys like to leave a pretty corpse.”
A long silence passes, finally Dee talks, but her voice is much smaller now. “You know the saddest part wasn’t that he killed himself, but that no one showed up for his funeral.”
“Not even Rock Hudson.”
“Especially Rock Hudson, though I never blamed him,” she said. “In Hollywood you’re only as good as your image. And as soon as Henry was gone, the tabloids starting smelling a good story. No one in the business wanted to get the stain of Henry’s misfortune on them. I understood. I even think Henry would’ve understood, but that was the end of my Hollywood dream. After that I didn’t want to be part of it anymore. It was someone else’s turn to live that life.” She takes in a deep breath, and slowly exhales.
The mood in the room had changed; the Dee that had answered the door – the chipper, optimistic woman I had met earlier – suddenly felt smaller, more fragile.
Dee looks over to the framed pictures, all lined up at attention. “I don’t have any regrets,” she says, keeping her eyes on the photos. “I wake up knowing I’ve done pretty much exactly what I wanted to do, in the way I wanted to do it. And I think I’m a pretty happy person – a glass half full person…but I still get angry from time to time. I should probably work on that some. My temper can get the best of me.” She turns back towards me, and I could see her eyes welling up.
I can imagine Dee losing her temper, but I have a feeling it’s not all that often, “What makes you angry?
“Dishonesty,” she says with conviction. “And trust me honey, I’m not sitting on some high horse. I’ve lied plenty. Lots of people lie. Husbands cheat on wives. Workers rob their companies. Politicians lie every time they open their mouths. I don’t care about that stuff – I’m ready for that. Nope, it’s all these sweet, darling people, like my Henry, who are afraid to be honest because some asshole tells them that it’ll be the end of their career. Or they are told that they’ll have to leave their church, or in Henry’s case, that their family will disown them.”
Dee stares straight at me. Through me. “Everyone deserves the chance to be honest…and then it’s up to them to do what’s right.”
As if on cue, a tear rolls down her cheek. She wipes it with the back of her hand. This wasn’t going the way I thought it would be going. “Are you okay?”
“Oh sure, I’m okay,” she says with a sniff. “But if it’s all right with you, I’m gonna cut this short. I’m supposed to meet some friends for lunch.”
I stand up, gathering my stuff, “Yeah, of course, maybe we can get together another time…talk some more.”
She flashes that smile again; Dee the chorus girl is back. “I’d like that.” She walks me to the door and gently puts her hand on my back. “Take care of yourself sweetheart,” Then she quietly closes the door.
A few weeks ago, our mutual friend stopped me on the street and handed me a legal-sized envelope; the return address was Dee’s. My friend explained that Dee had passed away, but she’d left instructions to deliver the envelope to me.
It didn’t feel right to open it on the street, so when I got home, I opened the envelope. Inside was the black and white photo of Dee standing between Rock and Henry. On the back was a note, written in nearly perfect cursive.
Honesty will only get you so far. A nice ass will take you the rest of the way.