A Vision in Velvet

The late Donald Rawley is the author of "The Night Bird Cantata," published by Avon in July

Particular memories stand out, not from what happened, but what didn't; often they say more about me than I am willing to admit. I remember a car--this long, elegant, ridiculous car--and I remember I felt I belonged to it, and that somehow it belonged to me.

It was a clear, sunny day, almost hot. I was driving a sea-mist-green 1969 Cadillac down the residential western section of Hollywood Boulevard. It was 1980--or near 1980. Perhaps it was the autumn of 1979. Regardless, it was a happy day. I was 23, working as a film extra and thoroughly enjoying my blossoming sexual appetite.

I loved my Cadillac; it's sea-mist-green paint, I thought, was glamorous and elegant. In L.A., the color and make of any car is always important to note. The car defines the memory, since the real experiences of this city seldom happen anywhere that isn't moving. Your car is the place to be. You see it all.

I had bought my car from an elderly lady named Connie, who lived in a bungalow in Reseda with a tomato patch in her front yard. She let the Cadillac go for $500, which was all I could afford at the time. And what a deal; I drove off with a basket of Connie's fresh tomatoes in the back seat.

So, on this first day of being a Cadillac person, I let the Hollywood Boulevard air caress my long hair and listened to "Earth, Wind and Fire" on an FM channel. I was at the intersection of Hollywood and Fairfax, the deep foliage of the Hollywood Hills above me. L.A. was swept clean of dust by a Pacific breeze that reeked of seaweed and motorboat oil.

A car pulled up next to me. I was stunned, as I thought it didn't exist--a 1929 Isotta-Fraschini, newly painted, with an open-air back seat and chauffeur separation. The works. The back of the car was upholstered in leopard-skin velvet; the chauffeur was wearing black leather, like Erich von Stroheim, stone-faced, of course. And wearing a monocle.

In back, a woman in black velvet with a white egret feather hat was smoking a cigarette in a rhinestone holder and fluttering her hands in a very louche manner. Her companion was dressed in a padded-shoulder cream-colored suit from the '40s, and I realized they were playing Norma Desmond and Joe Gillis. Looking closer, I noticed the woman had the same surrealistic makeup that Swanson wore in the 1950 film of "Sunset Boulevard" and the same way of baring her teeth like a hyena. I assumed this was all for fun, a realization of one more Hollywood dream, close to 12 years before Andrew Lloyd Weber was to "rediscover" Norma and Joe. But what I adored was that this Desmond was very much a man, in full and exceptionally careful drag.

In Hollywood, I have seen real-life Baby Jane Hudsons wandering through drugstores in Glendale, 80 years old with pigtails, gingham dresses and white powdered faces. I have been out for drunken dinners with Marilyn Monroe look-alikes, who last a year here, then move back to the quieter parts of Wisconsin. I understand the grotesque beauty of failure, and here it is an art form, even in the '90s, when we pride ourselves at being beyond illusion.

But nothing that day prepared me for the Isotta-Fraschini. The chauffeur revved the engine several times, and the vision of Norma Desmond popped a peppermint into her mouth and, with a smile made out of concrete, turned to glance at me. The wind blew the feathers on her hat. I was being assimilated, decided upon, tossed aside. You see, I was a fan, staring at the gods at a stoplight. With his mouth open.

Camp, in all of Susan Sontag's various dissertations, certainly comes to mind, but at that moment, gender made no difference--the point being that I lived in Hollywood. I got the joke. I understood. This does not happen in Ohio.

I often wonder who the three were and whether they worked at a studio, a hair salon, a hamburger stand or an auto-repair shop. Someone spent some money for this afternoon lark.

Now, on a recent trip into West Hollywood for the annual Halloween riots, I saw a 1962 Lincoln Continental touring convertible with suicide doors, "Secret Service" men, little American flags and "Jackie Kennedy" in drag--same suit, pink and sweet, and the pillbox hat. Next to her was a handsome man, another replica of John F. Kennedy. I shuddered. I was told later that evening that Mr. Kennedy would pretend to be shot in the back seat, and Mrs. Kennedy would dump a bowl of Spaghetti-O's all over the front of her pink Chanel suit, then crawl over the back of the Lincoln, as it slowly made its way down Santa Monica Boulevard, to laughter and flashbulbs.

We are an ugly bunch, those of us who are surviving the millennium. I prefer to remember when I was young and beautiful, idling next to Norma Desmond in an Isotta-Fraschini; how the light turned green and she continued to smile at me with immense, gritted teeth, then imperiously waved to her chauffeur to drive on.

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