Mary killed herself at age 85. “Why did she wait so long?” asked Gilda, her daughter. “Had she done so 50 years ago, it would have let some sun and air into my life.” After that first explosion of anger, Gilda ignited a second explosion upon learning that she had been disinherited.
“She never thought of me or my family,” exclaimed Gilda to her therapist. “She was so narcissistic that she made some movie stars look like Mother Theresa.”
Mary had achieved a level of fame and success that most people can only dream about and envy. She was the child of poor Irish immigrants whose parents had left their jobs in County Clare as domestics. They settled on Long Island, where they decided to rent a small patch of a potato farm. “From potato famine to potato farmers,” Mary sneered. “Those poor illiterate fools. There was no looking back for me.”
Mary was born amidst the potato dust in 1915. During the 1920s, her father, following the advice of his landlord, plumber, and barber, invested his small savings in the stock market hoping to make enough money to buy his own farm. He did well for a number of years, elated at the immensity of his paper profits. Then the market crashed, and Mary’s parents couldn’t pay the rent on the farm. They packed up their cardboard suitcases and moved into a cold-water, railroad flat on Tenth Avenue. It was an area known as Hell’s Kitchen, and Mary found it a hell on earth. Hot and oppressive in the summer, cold and brutal in the winter, especially when she went off to school wearing shoes with cardboard soles made from old spaghetti boxes. Mary’s father worked as a night watchman, and her mother returned to her trade as a maid.
Mary, an only child, was on her own. She would traipse over to the mansions on Fifth Avenue, the theaters around Times Square, the restaurants patronized by the rich and famous whom she read about in the daily gossip columns. There she would one day find her life, not in that smelly cold-water flat with the bathtub in the kitchen into which her mother would pour boiling water that had been heated on the dense black stove. One day, she would shower two or three times a day; take bubble baths whenever she felt like it. She would no longer have to bathe just once a week. Now, though, just to conceal the odors of her body, she often sprayed her armpits, feet, and crotch with a cheap scent shoplifted from the local five-and-dime store.
By age 16, Mary had developed a voluptuous figure. In the spring and summer, wearing as few garments as decency permitted, she advertised her lusciousness. Older men in the neighborhood, many of whom were members of the Gopher Gang, were happy to pay for a good time with Mary. She kept the cash in shoeboxes under her bed. She saved more money than her parents could have earned in 10 years.
At 18, she finally had a sponsor, a squat fire hydrant of a man named Shandy, who got her an apartment on East 54th Street. Shandy was an alias, for its owner was wanted for passing bad checks in Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas. Once in New York, Shandy had opened a speakeasy where he offered a small stage to new singers and comedians. Mary, who had secretly been taking singing lessons from an old vaudevillian down on his luck, convinced Shandy that she could sing.
“I want to sing in your joint. You’ll see. I’ll be a hit.” Overcoming her nervousness, Mary sang “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” She followed that with a few popular show tunes. Mary became a regular, and Shandy raised his prices. Life was good, thought Mary.
One night, a well-known flamboyant Broadway producer, his black cape with red lining flowing behind him, came into the speakeasy; after hearing Mary sing, he offered her a job in a classier speakeasy than the one in which she had been singing. When Shandy objected, her new patron had Shandy’s speakeasy firebombed. Mary now moved to the Park Sheraton Hotel, where she enjoyed the comforts of an eight-room suite.
Before Prohibition ended, Mary’s mother dropped dead on the stairs leading up to the Ninth Avenue El. Her body slid down the stairs and landed at the feet of a local beat cop. An ambulance was called and delivered her to the county morgue. After identifying her body and arranging for a funeral in Queens, her bereft husband decided to return to Ireland, where he still had relatives. “What a relief,” said Mary. “He was an illiterate drunk. He bathed once a week and dressed as if he had never left the farm. When we moved to Hell’s Kitchen, my mother urged him to join the police department; but you had to make a payoff to secure a job. The old guy was too cheap to make the payoff. I’m glad he’s gone.”
Mary now was a new person. In her luxurious suite of rooms, she took elocution and piano lessons. She had her portrait painted. She had a regular appointment for an assortment of beauty treatments. Her dressmaker visited once a month, and her personal shopper arrived with bundles twice a week.
It’s surprising that it took Mary nearly a year to get a recording contract, but when she did, the champagne flowed like water. Her records were big hits and that led to numerous requests for her to sing on the radio. She even had a fan club, and her secretary sent out signed photos to fans all across the country.
The 1930s were years of increasing success. Mary finally married a scion of a well-known rich New England family, and she and her husband settled into a Westchester mansion in summer, a Palm Beach house in winter, and a Fifth Avenue apartment whenever Mary decided to shop, attend the theater, the opera, fashion shows, and assorted parties.
Shortly after Pearl Harbor was bombed, Mary’s husband decided they should have a child. It was his first step in avoiding the draft. Gilda was born on a bright, sunny day in June. Mary was determined that Gilda would reflect well on her reputation. By age four, she was getting piano and ballet lessons. When she was five, she was sent to one of the finest private schools in Manhattan. By the time she was 12, she was enrolled in a prestigious New England boarding school. The one thing she was not permitted was singing lessons. Mary would not accept competition from her daughter.
When Gilda, age 18, married the son of her boarding school’s gym teacher, her mother refused to speak with her. Gilda and her husband, Mario, were on their own. After Gilda’s father was run over by a taxi on Fifth Avenue, she attended the funeral with Mario. Mary ignored both of them.
“My daughter is dead for me,” she told her manager. “She more than disappointed me. She shot me in the heart. Her husband is a know-nothing, do-nothing bum.”
And when Gilda took advantage of her mother’s reputation and got a singing gig at small club in Boston, Mary sued her daughter, sued the club, and sued the ad agency that created posters for the club. Gilda’s career crashed on the runway, just as it was about to take off.
Years later, after working at various menial jobs, Gilda and Mario borrowed enough money to open a small store that specialized in the sale of designer jeans. They did so well that they began to manufacture their own brand of jeans, which also proved enormously popular. A few years into their success, Gilda gave birth to triplets. Mary did not call or write to her daughter.
When the obituary writers from The Times and the Globe called to interview her, Gilda said: “I didn’t really know my mother. She pretended to her fans that she loved me and that I had turned against her. Well, I stopped loving her long ago and learned to live a happy life with my own family. My mother was a woman without antecedents, without descendants. She believed her own myth; she believed that her own publicity was the truth of her life. She thought of herself as a self-made woman. And in a way, she was. She had thousands of fans, but — you know — she died alone.”
Jeffrey Sussman is the author of 10 books and is president of a PR/marketing company, Jeffrey Sussman, Inc.