(a memoir of an enduring but unlikely friendship)
“Who was that?” I asked when, after chatting for over an hour, Joe finally replaced the receiver.
I was 19, newly arrived in New York, and had just moved into a studio above Carnegie Hall with a man 25 years my senior, Joseph X Dever, the very popular society columnist of the World-Telegram & Sun.
In the previous three months, while Joe and I had been getting to know each other, I had become accustomed to his nocturnal lifestyle as every evening we flitted from one event to another, covering all the social and artistic goings-on in New York. And at 2am every morning we took a taxi downtown to Canal Street where, in the exhilarating atmosphere of the newsroom, he would write and file his column while I, a rookie journalist, chatted excitedly with the reporters on the news desk about the latest murder, political scandal or anti-Vietnam demonstrations.
On the other hand, I was not yet used to the endless nocturnal phone calls. Most of them, he admitted, were from women “of a certain age” desperate for a little male attention. Their husbands were either away on extended business trips or “playing away from home” or, after about 30 years of marriage, were ready to chuck in the wife for a younger model.
Joe Dever, the rare middle-aged bachelor in New York, was their sounding board, their confidante, their shoulder to cry on, their precious “extra” man to escort them to theatre openings or attend their dinner parties. And this had been the pattern for many years until I came along and threatened to ruin it all for them.
“Oh, don’t worry, darling, that was just Rita being Rita!” Joe smiled indulgently, getting back into bed, and cuddling up to me. “Honestly, you don’t need to worry about her,” he whispered in my ear, “I’ve known her for years. She’s got alimony problems with her husband, Tom Guinzburg. She just wanted my advice.”
“I need your advice too!” I said, “How am I supposed to handle all these neurotic women? They seem to look on me as a threat.”
“Some of them will,” Joe chuckled, “but not Rita. She’s been telling me for years I should find someone and settle down. I told her about you. She’s absolutely thrilled for me. She’s dying to meet you.”
“Not sure I feel the same way about her,” I laughed.
“The mere fact that your family is friends with her best friend, Princess Grace, is enough for her to like you! Honestly!” And then, as an afterthought, he added. “Oh, and she invited us for dinner tomorrow night.”
And so I met Rita Gam. We were late, of course. We were always late to everything. We had attended two parties before showing up at her door. On catching my first glimpse of her, my first thought was: Oh, Rita, those piercing blue eyes, that jet black hair, that flawless complexion, those perfect scarlet lips and those enviably high cheekbones, I would die for any one those. Any woman would die for any one of those. And even her voice was distinctive – low, seductive, the kind of voice I had spent years trying to cultivate. It put me at ease straight away.
“Darling, I’m so happy Joe has found you,” she gushed as she embraced me at the door. “We are going to be very good friends, you and I.”
“I’m sure,” I mumbled, although I wasn’t that certain.
This elegant woman who escorted us into her grand Park Avenue duplex was not in my league, I thought. She was a product of the 1950s Hollywood studios. I was a flower child, very much a product of the 60s.
I followed her into the opulent apartment she had once shared with her publisher husband, Tom Guinzburg, the ownership of which was still being contested in their divorce settlement. Thick, lush drapes hung from the windows, expensive paintings covered the walls and, at one end of the room, the floor to ceiling bookshelves were dominated by books published by Guinzburg, the editor of The Paris Review and President of Viking Press.
Photographs of Rita in her hey-day, in various film and theatre roles, adorned every available surface. Rita with Ray Milland in “The Thief”. Rita with Gregory Peck in “Night People”. Rita with Jack Palance in “Sign of Pagan”. Rita with Marlon Brando. Rita with Broderick Crawford. Rita with Norman Mailer. Rita with Andy Warhol. And, of course, Rita with the film director Sidney Lumet.
“Sidney was Rita’s first husband,” Joe said, as I replaced the photo on top of the walnut writing desk.
“Darling, I could tell you some stories about him!” Rita purred as she indicated to me to sit down. “But then Gloria has probably told you them already.”
“Gloria”, I surmised, was Gloria Vanderbilt, Lumet’s second wife, who happened to be our neighbour in the Carnegie Hall studios where she lived with the Afro-American cabaret pianist, Bobby Short.
“Not yet, she hasn’t!” I replied, “Perhaps she doesn’t know me well enough!”
Rita proudly showed us her latest award, the Silver Bear, from the jury of the International Film Festival in Berlin for her role as Estelle Rigault in Ted Danielewski’s “No Exit”, a film based on Jean-Paul Sartre’s play.
She talked about her career as a celebrity journalist and about her hopes of producing a documentary one day about the film business around the world. She talked about her imminent divorce, her children, her potentially lucrative alimony settlement which, apart from the custody of her two children, had to include possession of the Park Avenue apartment, a summer home in Long Island and, of course, her stake in Viking Press.
“Do you know how Tom started in publishing?” Joe asked, to change the subject, seeing that I was slightly overwhelmed by Rita’s persistent banter.
“No idea,” I said, “I thought he inherited Viking from his father.”
“He did,” Joe replied. “But his father only took him into the business because, at the age of 8 or 9, Tom read “The Story of Ferdinand the Bull”. He loved it so much that he pleaded with his father to publish it. His father reluctantly agreed and it went on to sell over 4 million copies on its first print run!”
“So his Dad said, ‘Tom, I think you’re a natural to join the business!’” Rita finished the story.
We didn’t eat until about 11pm when Rita finally took a break from talking.
We ate our meals on our laps. Rita continued to dominate the conversation. I didn’t pay much attention. I let her and Joe get on with it. The reasons for her divorce, the alimony for her, the tuition fees for her kids and the details about the eventual settlement were really of little interest to me.
“Darling, it was so lovely to talk to you and get to know you,” Rita embraced me again at the door when we eventually left after midnight.
“I hardly said a word,” I whispered to Joe as the elevator door closed behind us. “She did all the talking. So she didn’t really get to know me at all.”
“That’s Rita for you!” Joe laughed.
And he was right. That was Rita. I knew her from 1964 till her death in 2016. Our lives crossed many times and in several different countries. But Rita was always the same. She was always Rita. I still wonder, even after all those years of friendship, whether she ever really got to know me.
The next time Rita caught up with me was in 1971, in London, when I had just returned from two years living in the Philippines. It was past 10pm, I had just put my baby son to sleep and had fallen into bed exhausted. The phone rang. I instantly recognized Rita’s voice.
“Caroline, darling, I’m in London. I know you’re newly married and you have a baby, but I was hoping to stay with you for about two weeks. I’ve got some business in London, some interviews with television companies and I need a place to stay. I won’t get in your way, I promise. You can just give me the keys and I’ll let myself in and out of the house and you won’t even know I’m there. These interviews are really. Important. I have some ideas the TV companies are interested in. Would it be OK? Actually, I’m just about to get into a taxi at Heathrow, and make my way to your house right now.”
I guess there was no way I could say no. I thought of Joe. Yes, that’s Rita being Rita, alright.
An hour later the doorbell rang. Huddled in the porch out of the rain, there was Rita shivering on my doorstep.
“I don’t have any money to pay the taxi. Do you have 40 pounds?” she purred.
My husband, Ben, shook his head. I ran back upstairs to look in my purse. My baby son started screaming having woken at the sound of the doorbell. Thankfully I had 40 pounds and rushed back downstairs.
“Could you?” said Rita to Ben, indicating she wanted him to step out into the rain in his pyjamas, pay the taxi driver who was impatiently stamping on the accelerator and bring her three matching pieces of elegant Luis Vuitton luggage inside.
“You’re a darling,” she said, as Ben struggled up the stairs carrying the three suitcases. “By the way, we haven’t met before. I’m Rita!”
I showed Rita her room, overlooking the garden.
“Can we talk?” she asked. “We’ve got a lot to catch up on.”
I shook my head. “I’m exhausted, Rita. You unpack and settle in and we can talk tomorrow morning.”
She hugged me. “Good night! Sleep well!”
I closed the door, went to pacify my baby and gently rocked him back to sleep. Then I went into my bedroom, closed the door and fell asleep. An hour later, there was a knock on our door.
“Caroline?” Rita whispered aloud. “Caroline, are you awake? I really need to talk to you. Can you come into my room for a moment?”
Worried that she was going to wake Ben and the baby, I reluctantly obliged.
I crept out of bed and went into her room and sat on a chair by the window, rubbing my eyes, waiting for her to apologize for disturbing my much-needed sleep.
But then I realized this was Rita and she probably didn’t even realize that she had done anything wrong.
And then she started to undress. Despite our long friendship, this made me feel uncomfortable so I looked away.
When she was down to her bra and panties she said, ”Look at me, Caroline! Tell me truthfully, how is my figure? Am I fat?”
“Rita, you’ve never been fat. You never will be fat!” I replied.
“But, tell me, do I look old? Does my skin look old?”
“Rita, you always look wonderful!” I desperately wanted to get this conversation over so I could go back to bed.
“But you haven’t looked properly!” she persisted. “Look at me!”
She stood in front of the long mirror and examined herself.
“You see, here!!” She pinched the skin on her upper arm. “This is sagging, isn’t it? Tell me the truth!”
“Rita, you look fabulous. Besides, 43 is a great age for a woman. I hope I look as good as you when I’m 43!”
“Oh, you’re just saying that to be kind!” she said. “I probably need some surgery!”
“At your age? Don’t be ridiculous, Rita. Honestly, you look beautiful!”
And I wasn’t flattering her. I didn’t have to. She did look beautiful.
Rita sat down on the bed and pulled a pair of fluffy pink slippers out of her suitcase. She held them up, looked at them intently and then burst into floods of tears.
“My mother made these for me!” she sobbed. “And I’m so horrible to my mother! I’m so ashamed!”
I got up from the chair and sat beside her on the bed, placing my arm around her shoulders.
“Your mum loves you,” I said.
“I know,” she sniffed. “That’s the problem. I’m so mean to her and she still loves me. And she made me these for my last birthday. And I don’t think I ever said thank you to her. Does that make me a bad person?”
What could I say?
“I’m sure she understands,” I said, trying to console her. “She knows you’re a busy person. Mothers understand these things. You can always call her from here.”
That was a mistake! The next day Rita took me at my word, picked up the phone and called her mother in the US. The call lasted over an hour and in those days there was no Skype. The phone bill soared with every minute. I kicked myself for being so naïve!
Although Rita had reassured me that she wouldn’t be a burden on me and my little family, I instinctively knew she wouldn’t be an easy guest. So I started conjuring up ways to share the load by introducing her to new friends.
I knew my neighbour downstairs was an avid movie buff, particularly of movies from the 50s and his wife happened to be an actress. Perfect, I thought, I’ll introduce her to Lou and Judith.
As I suspected he would be, Lou was absolutely thrilled when I mentioned who my houseguest was.
“Rita Gam?” he exclaimed. “I’m a huge fan! Oh, my God! You must introduce us. We’ll take her out to dinner! What kind of food does she like?”
“She doesn’t eat!” I replied. “She’s always on a diet! But I must warn you, she does steal from other people’s plates!”
So Lou and Judith took us all out to dinner at Keats in Hampstead. Lou was laying on the charm with Rita and they hit it off immediately. Over drinks, they chatted excitedly and I realized Lou had either done his homework extremely diligently or, as he divulged to her, he really had seen every film she was in. He was able to cite every single movie, TV drama and play, even remembering her first Broadway role opposite Marlon Brando in “A Flag is Born”. Rita, of course, was thrilled and flattered.
By the time we came to order our food, Lou and Rita were firm friends.
“What would you like?” Lou asked her, handing her a menu. “Order anything you want!”
Rita hardly glanced at the menu.
“I’m not hungry,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll eat. But don’t let that stop any of you! I don’t mind sitting here and watching you all eat. Honestly, I’m used to it!”
I kicked Judith under the table. “You see,” I mouthed. ”What did I tell you?”
As we ate our food, Rita looked on, watching us down every mouthful. All of a sudden she picked up a fork and plunged it into my salmon, extracting a large piece of flesh.
“You don’t mind do you, darling? It looks so good,” she said as she swallowed it whole.
She then did the same to a piece of juicy steak on Ben’s plate.
“That looks good too!” she said, spearing the steak with her fork.
She then turned to Lou who had selected a garlic prawn dish.
“Oh, prawns, my favourite!” Rita said, “My absolute favourite!”
She plunged her fork into one of Lou’s king prawns and transferred it from his plate into her mouth.
“Oh, now that is delicious!” she exclaimed, with her mouth full and raised her fork to plunge into another one.
“You don’t mind, do you, Lou? I find I am quite hungry after all!”
Lou smiled indulgently.
“No, it’s OK, take it. I don’t mind, honestly. But why don’t you let me order the same king prawn dish for you?”
“Oh no, I couldn’t possibly!” she replied, “I don’t have the appetite for a whole dish!”
Meanwhile, she continued to spear Lou’s prawns until there was only one left.
“Finish it!” Lou said, his exasperation showing, “I’m not hungry either!”
“Are you sure?” she asked, “I don’t really need it. I’m just being greedy. But they’re so good!”
So Rita hastily finished off Lou’s king prawns before he could change his mind.
The odd thing was that following our dinner at Keats Lou never asked after Rita again. A friendship was forged and broken over a plate of garlic king prawns.
But that was Rita to a T. That was the effect she had on people. Over the years I had become very fond of her. But she could be exasperating. She could be self-centred. She could be thoughtless. She could be absolutely unaware of people’s feelings. But she was always kind. She was always caring. And she did want to help others. It was just that often she didn’t know how.
She had been a pampered starlet for as long as she could remember. She had married two wealthy men and been protected, cosseted and spoilt rotten by them. Now, in her 40s, she was learning how to cope on her own, how to make decisions without consulting a movie agent, a producer or a husband.
She told Joe once, during one of her midnight calls, “I don’t know how to pay the household insurance. How do I do it?”
It turned out the household insurance wasn’t the only thing Rita didn’t know how to do. Cooking, cleaning and paying bills were all skills she was just reluctantly beginning to acquire.
“How did you reserve your plane ticket here,” I asked her one morning over breakfast.
“I called up Tom’s secretary and asked her to book it,” Rita confessed. “I guess I shouldn’t have done that, should I? I should really try to show him I’m independent.”
“Easier said than done,” I said, trying to reassure her.
“Next time I’ll do it myself,” she sipped her tea and looked at me. “Or perhaps you could help me. Show me how to do it?”
“It’s not that hard, Rita,” I replied. “All you need is a travel agent. That’s probably what Tom’s secretary uses anyway. Get a travel agent and he, or she, will do everything for you. You just tell them what day you want to travel, what day you want to return and that’s it!”
“As easy as that? Really?” she took another sip of tea, wiped her bright red lips on the napkin and got up from the table.
“I need to get going,” she said. “I have an appointment at the BBC in an hour. Can I order a taxi?”
“I wouldn’t do that,” I replied. “It’s expensive. You can take the tube into Central London just as easily. I’ll explain how you get there. It’s really simple.”
“How do I buy a ticket?’ she asked. ”Can you call and get me one in advance?”
I laughed. Rita was the second American who had asked me the same question.
“You don’t book the tube ticket in advance, “ I explained. “You buy it at the station.”
“You’ll show me, won’t you?” she asked anxiously.
I nodded my head. “Of course! I’ll walk down to the station with you.”
After that first trip to London in 1971, the next time I saw Rita was in the early 80s. We had kept up a correspondence of sorts between her, Joe and myself so we were always updated on our various lives and goings-on.
Soon after Grace Kelly’s death in 1982, I received a phone call from Rita to say she would be coming to London as part of her worldwide campaign to encourage, the Pope John Paul II, to canonize the Princess, with a view to elevating her to sainthood after five years. Rita, at her most persuasive, was trying to convince me to join her campaign.
I hated to tell her it was not only an extremely long shot but almost destined to fail. She refused to be discouraged, however. She asked if I knew any newspaper people in London who might help her publicize the campaign. I suggested an old friend of mine, Ian Black at the Daily Express. She thanked me profusely and said she would call him.
A few weeks later, Rita with three pieces of Luis Vuitton luggage, arrived on my doorstep again. By then I was living in a large, double-fronted Edwardian house in Cricklewood, North London.
Wearing a hat and dress that perfectly matched the colour of the blossoms on the cherry tree in the driveway, she told me she had set up a meeting with Ian Black who, she gushed, appeared very interested to publicize her project.
Although her appointment with Ian was not until 2pm, Rita appeared at the breakfast table, in full make-up, at 7am. At that moment I was busy feeding my three children, getting them ready for school and preparing their packed lunches. But, Rita being Rita, was oblivious to anyone else’s time constraints.
She sat herself down at the head of the table, cleared the space in front of her and placed three hats on my French farmhouse table.
“Which shall I wear?” she asked, making sure she got my attention by speaking uncharacteristically loudly. “The blue, the black or the red?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, hardly able to look up from smearing peanut butter on the slices of bread in front of me.
“But, look!” she said. “You know Ian, which one would he like best?”
“I haven’t seen Ian in years,” I said, which was true, “so I have no idea what his taste in millinery is. Choose the one you feel most comfortable in.”
“But he will have a photographer there,” she insisted, “so I need to look my best.”
“Can we discuss this later, Rita?” I pleaded. “I have to finish these lunch boxes and get the kids to school in less than 10 minutes.”
“I only need you to say which hat you like,” she replied, “the blue with the veil, the black with the wide brim or the red pillbox?”
Without even looking up I said, “The red. It goes with your colouring.”
Rita swooped up the hats, came over and hugged me.
“Thank you, you’re a real friend.”
In her long silk nightie she sashayed towards the door and then, as they do in so many movies, she stopped dramatically, looked back and said, “I am so excited to meet Ian. Do you think he’ll like me?”
“I’m sure he will,” I said. “What is there not to like?”
Well, I only found out later that day that when Rita had asked, “Will Ian like me?” what she actually meant was would he find her sexually attractive. I had no idea at the time that an English boyfriend was exactly what she was looking for.
Rita returned from the appointment excited and happy. The interview and photo-shoot had gone so well that Ian had invited her out to dinner that night.
“I’m so grateful to you for introducing me to him,” she gushed. “I think he’s the one!”
“The one what?” I asked, suspecting the answer.
“I really like him,” she said. “And I think he really likes me!”
I didn’t want to hurt her feelings and suggest Ian may just want to sleep with her, especially if she was throwing herself at him.
“I’ve got to change for dinner. What shall I wear?” She took my hand and dragged me upstairs to her room to choose something suitable.
“You know him,” she said. “What do you think I should wear?”
She wanted me to go through her whole wardrobe but, with three small children waiting for their supper, I didn’t have the time. I picked out a pale green chiffon and matching shoes.
“Green’s his favourite colour,” I lied. “Wear this one!”
An hour later she emerged from her room and found me downstairs in the kitchen feeding my three children.
She did a twirl and we all oohed and aahed.
“You look gorgeous!” I said. And I meant it. She did look gorgeous.
She gave me a hug. She was as excited as a teenager on a first date.
“If I don’t come back tonight, you’ll understand, won’t you?” she asked.
“Of course,” I said. “Have a great night!”
“I think this could be the start of something big,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to live in England!”
“Don’t you think you’re jumping the gun just a little bit?” I asked. “You’ve only just met him!”
“But I have this strong feeling,” she replied. “I just know he’ll want me to come and live with him!”
That’s when I began to feel sorry for Rita. I think she honestly believed – no, I know she honestly believed that she and Ian were going to set up house together, get married and live happily ever after. As she closed the front door behind her, I wondered if Ian was aware of that.
Well, she didn’t come back that night. Or the next night.
And when she did come back she was flushed and smiling. The date had obviously gone well.
“I’m in love,” she announced. “Totally in love!”
“That’s wonderful, Rita. I’m so happy for you.”
The children were still at school so she sat me down to fill me in on the details of her prolonged date. Something I will spare you, the reader, from lest it makes you blush.
“Have you spoken to him?” she asked. “What has he told you about me?”
“I haven’t talked to him,” I said.
“Oh, but you must. I want to know what he says about me. I think he really loves me!”
“Are you going to move in with him then?” I asked.
“I’m sure I will!” she said, “I just need to return to New York first to sort out the apartment and to get all my things.”
“You’ll have to introduce me to people in London,” she said. “Do you know any actors? I need to look for stage or movie work here.”
“I could probably introduce you to Glenda Jackson,” I said, “Although I think she’s giving up acting now and getting into politics so I’m not sure she’d be that helpful. And then I have a couple of friends who are putting on fringe productions, you may want to meet them.”
“Please, please introduce me!” she said. “When can I meet them? Do they have a production on now?”
“I’ll call them,” I said. “I’m sure they’d love to meet you.”
And so I introduced Rita to Charles and Christina. And it just so happened that Charles was in the planning stages of a production of “The Master & Margarita” that was scheduled to be performed at the Tower Theatre in north London.
“Oh, Charles, I’d love to be in it,” Rita gushed, “I’ll be spending a lot of time in London from now on.”
In fact, the affair with Ian lasted less than a month. Rita cried real tears. It was obvious to me then that she had really been smitten and had high hopes for a lasting relationship. But I had known Ian for many years and knew he was a loner by nature. And there was no way he would allow anyone, let alone a Hollywood movie actress, share his life.
So then Rita turned her sights on Charles which was slightly awkward as she appeared to be blind to the fact that Charles was in a very happy marriage with Christina.
It was made all the more awkward by the fact that Charles and Christina had planned to cast themselves as the Master and Margarita but Rita automatically assumed that, by seniority and celebrity alone, she would automatically get the role of Margarita.
“Imagine,” she said to me over dinner that night, “many more people would come to see the play with my name attached. I still have a following, you know!”
“I know that Rita,” I said, “but this is Charles and Christina’s production. They are putting up their own money. So I think they are entitled to cast themselves.”
“You will try to speak with Charles, won’t you?” she asked. “If you talk to him maybe he’ll listen.”
“I’ll sound him out but I can’t really do much to persuade him.”
As it turned out, Rita returned to New York soon after that. And it just so happened that Charles was scheduled to visit New York at the same time. They arranged to meet up and go to the theatre together and “discuss potential future projects”. Rita was keen to introduce Charles to some of her acting friends in the hopes that he might get offered an acting role that would keep him in the US for a while. How that panned out, I never asked. But I did see Charles soon after his return to London and he had a few “Rita” stories to tell, some of which were not for Christina’s ears.
The weekend before she returned to New York I took Rita down to my sister’s house in Runnymede, near Windsor. A grand dilapidated Victorian house on several floors with endless corridors and vast great rooms that my sister, an interior designer, had lovingly restored to its former glory. Rita was obviously impressed. She started chatting away with Tessa, asking lots of questions, scrutinizing all the old photos of movie stars (particularly the ones of Princess Grace) and begging to be given a grand tour of the house. But then their conversation turned to their children.
Tessa said, “My third son, Cary Elwes, is in the US right now. He’s at Sarah Lawrence studying drama.”
Rita’s immaculately pencilled eyebrow shot up.
“My son, Mike Guinzberg, is at Sarah Lawrence too! He wants to be a writer. Oh my, we should really get them to meet up!”
“Yes,” said Tessa, “we should.”
“How can we do that?” Rita asked.
“I can give you Cary’s contact details,” Tessa suggested. “And you can give me Mike’s contact details. And then we can pass them on to them.”
“That’s a great idea,” Rita said, hastily removing a pen and paper from her Kelly bag. “So what’s Cary’s number? Where is he living? On campus or outside?”
Tessa delved into her address book, looked up Cary’s details and began to recite them to Rita. Rita started scribbling them down. But, all of a sudden, she stopped and looked up.
“Your son Cary Elwes doesn’t do drugs at all, does he?’ she asked earnestly. “I mean I wouldn’t want my son, Mike Guinzburg to be involved with anyone that does drugs.”
“No, absolutely not!” Tessa said. “Cary definitely doesn’t do drugs!”
“Oh, well that’s alright then,” Rita breathed a deep sigh of relief and continued to write down Cary’s contact details.
“Does your son Mike Guinzburg do drugs?” Tessa asked.
Rita threw her hands in the air, her eyes suddenly brimming with tears. It looked like she was on the verge of a major breakdown.
“Oh my God, yes!” she shrieked, starting to sob violently. “I don’t know what to do with him, Tessa! It’s terrible! It’s really terrible!”
Tessa immediately tore up the scrap of paper where she had written down Mike Guinzburg’s contact details.
“Well, I’m sorry, Rita, but I also don’t want my son, Cary, to be involved with anyone that does drugs!”
Needless to say, I made some feeble excuse, took Rita by the arm and we made a hasty exit.
Rita was still sobbing in the car on our way home. I tried my best to console her while negotiating the weekend traffic on the M25. But by the time we reached North London she had completely forgotten about her son Mike, his drug problem and her maternal worries and was gushing about Tessa’s beautiful house and how she wished she could have a house in the country just like hers and that, maybe, one day she would.
Years passed and it was in May 1997 that I heard from Rita again. Joe had just died and she called to give me the news. We both wept a little over the phone. He had been a good friend to us both.
“I wish you had married him, Caroline,” Rita said. “He really wanted to marry you but you were so young then that he felt he would be clipping your wings if you settled down with him. He really loved you.”
“Yes, I know,” I sobbed, suddenly feeling guilty. I always felt guilty when I thought of Joe. I knew how he felt about me. I had been very tempted to marry him when I was about 21. But I also desperately wanted to travel the world. And so he had reluctantly let me go with a fervent promise that if I ever wanted to return he would always be there waiting for me. We saw each other a few times after that. But my constant regret is that I never went to see him when he was seriously ill in the year before he died.
Talking to Rita only made me feel more guilty. During that phone call, I unburdened on her the same way she had so many times, over the decades, unburdened her feelings on both Joe and me. And, for the first time, I realized that Rita could be kind, compassionate and understanding.
During our hour-long conversation she never once talked about herself. She simply consoled me, told me that Joe had understood all the decisions I had made in my life, even though they excluded him and that, in her last phone call with him, he had told her again that he still loved me and how proud he was of me and what I had done in my life, my work in Bosnia and Croatia during the war, my current work with refugees in Azerbaijan and my best-selling book that was published a decade earlier. He had followed it all with great pride, she told me.
“I beat him to it, didn’t I?” I sobbed.
“Beat him to what?” Rita asked.
“Writing a best-selling book. All these years he promised me that one day he would sit down and write a best-seller. I convinced him he had a great story to tell. From being a US Marine Colonel in the South Pacific where he was awarded a Bronze Star and in Iwo Jima during the Korean War to become New York’s top society columnist. It was a great story. But he was the world’s worst procrastinator.”
“Yes,” Rita agreed. “I kept pushing him to do it too. He just kept putting it off and putting it off.”
I told her about my last phone call with him about two months earlier.
“He was crying. I think perhaps he knew he was dying. But, just as he always did, he still promised me that one day soon he would sit down and write his best-seller. And this makes me feel really bad because, for the first time in our long relationship, I didn’t believe him.”
I was actually pleasantly surprised that Rita didn’t immediately take the opportunity to remind me about her book, “Actress to Actress”, that had recently been published. Under normal circumstances, she would have done so. Somehow I was touched by her self-restraint. I felt it demonstrated her real affection for Joe and her gratitude to him for being her sounding board all these years.
Another decade passed before I saw Rita again. In 2007 she arrived in Costa Rica as part of her documentary ”World of Film”, about the movie business around the world. At the age of 80, her energy had not dissipated, her passion had not waned and her beauty, although faded, was still arresting.
“Darling, I’m here in Costa Rica!” Rita announced over the phone one day. “When am I going to see you?”
I was about to answer. But then Rita being Rita, answered her own question.
“I’m here with my producer for my TV series on the World of Film,” she continued. “Can we stay with you? We wouldn’t get in your way. We’ll be out all day. It will just be a place to sleep.”
I smiled to myself. In a way I was relieved. Rita hadn’t changed. At least this time she hadn’t just turned up on my doorstep.
“I’m not living in a house, Rita,” I replied. “I am in an apartment with only two rooms.”
“Oh, that will be fine,” Rita gushed. “Peter can sleep on the sofa. He won’t mind.”
“I think you’d be far more comfortable in a hotel,” I said, desperately trying to avert a difficult situation. “My boyfriend, Michael, has a small hotel. He would love to have you to stay.”
Fortunately, she agreed. And Rita being Rita instantly charmed Michael. Within seconds of meeting her, he was in her thrall, bending over backwards to make her comfortable and to cater to her every whim.
Instead of ordering a taxi for her, Michael drove Rita and Peter to see Poas Volcano, the giant waterfall at the Waterfall Gardens and even to some of their business appointments. He laid on packed lunches for them and made sure they occupied the best rooms.
When I joined them for dinner the first night Rita and I gossiped about the past over a few drinks. I whispered to Michael that Rita would probably not eat dinner though she might steal a few morsels from our plates. Actually, I thought that by the age of 80, she might finally have allowed herself to indulge in a proper meal.
Michael asked her if she’d prefer fish or chicken.
“Oh, Michael,” she replied, “I wish. But I can’t afford to put on another pound. I am filming this series. But don’t let that stop you from eating. Peter’s very hungry. He can eat for two of us!”
I ordered the fish and the two guys ordered the chicken. We sat down to eat. You can probably guess what happened next.
Rita speared mouthfuls from all our plates and Peter, who politely refused a second helping, probably went to bed hungry.
When offered Tres Leches for dessert, again Rita declined.
“Darling, I can’t touch milk. But you go ahead. Don’t worry about me!”
Needless to say, when she saw us all relishing the dessert, she picked up a spoon.
“I’ll just try a tiny bit, if I may?” she said to Michael.
“Go ahead,” he replied indulgently and pushed the dessert closer to her.
“No, no. Only a tiny bit!” she said, pushing the plate back to him.
“Are you sure?” he asked. “We can always order another one!”
“No, no. Absolutely not!” she replied, smiling sweetly, her spoon hovering like a circling hawk over the Tres Leches.
“I couldn’t possibly eat a whole one. But it’s so good. So possibly just one more spoonful won’t hurt.”
She then turned to me and stuck her spoon into my dessert, then Peter’s, then back to Michael’s, snatching his last mouthful before he had a chance to swallow it.
“I’m so full!” she announced. “You’re a naughty man, Michael. You shouldn’t have let me do that!”
A few hours later there was a knock on my door.
“Caroline, are you asleep? I need to talk to you!”
I rolled over and nudged the sleeping Michael.
“I told you,” I whispered. “I haven’t seen her for ages and I just knew she would wake me up to talk!”
“OK, Rita,” I said, “Give me a minute!”
It was cold up in the cloud-forest of Poas, so I borrowed Michael’s thick dressing gown, cocooned myself inside it and opened the door. I followed Rita to her room. She was shivering, obviously unprepared for the bitterly cold damp nights in the mountains.
“Can I share that with you?” Rita pointed to the voluminous bathrobe I was wearing.
I couldn’t say no. So I opened the bathroom and she snuggled up beside me.
Then the two of us sat there, swaddled in Michael’s bathrobe, and reminisced. Although her mother was long dead, I was touched to see Rita was still wearing the fluffy pink slippers, much-worn now, but still functional.
Rita had just turned 80. Her beauty had not faded. Her eyes were just as piercing. Her voice just as mellifluent. I realized I had known her now for 44 years. We were “old mates”, “buddies”, “comrades-in-arms”.
We chatted effusively into the early hours of the morning like two excited teenagers after a date. We had so many shared memories to explore – about Princess Grace, about old friends we had known in New York, about plays on Broadway we had seen together, about her failed love affair with Ian Black and much, much more.
We giggled like schoolgirls when we remembered how helpless Rita had been after her two broken marriages. And we marvelled at how the traits that Rita should have had in her 20s and 30s, like independence, focus, ambition and self-confidence, had suddenly blossomed in her 60s, 70s and 80s.
And then, of course, there was Joe.
I wondered aloud what Joe would have said had he seen us both together 44 years after that dinner in her Park Avenue apartment.
“You know what he would have said, darling. He would have said. Don’t worry about her, Caroline. It’s only Rita being Rita!”