from Descent of the Dolls
Seated in a dark movie theatre, their view partially blocked by a mysterious woman in a black wig, Jeffery Conway, D.A. Powell, and David Trinidad are visited by Frank O’Hara, Anne Sexton, and Tennessee Williams, who offer to guide them through this camp classic.
Weird sisters, the way is dark, and in the boughs
of the elm trees a familiar song: swirl of snow and wind
come chiming between thin branches. The house
lights fade and someone perches before us in a wig.
Try to move, to change the point of view
before the popcorn ads and the proffered cig
(you gasp: but this was a different era, too,
before the bigger blight of cellphone chatter
and it was almost sexy to smoke a Kool
or a Vantage with the cherry growing fatter
in the darkened theatre rows). The point is spectacle,
one of Aristotle’s six concerns in drama—that, or
song, which in this case fills the long rectangle
of the screen with something that might pass for dance
if we hadn’t already weathered the more respectable
Thoroughly Modern Millie and Half a Sixpence.
We settle in the broadest sense for tonight’s viewing:
another twist on the 3 gal theme, perchance
Three Giacometti figures rising
up from hell, tipped 90º become
shadows of three females before turning
shades of red, blue, yellow; then they succumb,
are changed into “dolls” (Jackie’s word for pills).
The camera zooms in on the red one
standing on end; it falls, splits in two, spills
its white contents. Next the yellow pill, then
the blue. Glimmering crystals form little hills.
All of this to the sound of eerie Zen
music; a woman in voice-over gives
directions to Valley of the Dolls. When
waiting for a rush that won’t come, it is
overpowering (so she says). Daunted,
we must not abandon our climb—what lives
in the shadows, whether it wear leopard
skin, preen like a lion, sing like a she-
wolf, is worth the two hour trip. Cut to blizzard.
You’ve got to climb . . . Byron sits at my feet,
positive we’re writing a sequel to Phoebe.
Are we? Lynn Crosbie (weird sister in absentia)
in a recent email: “How is the new project? Easier
without a nervous breakdown-having pain in the ass?”
Remains to be seen, my dear. This is a film all about
breakdowns, about leaving the way of truth behind,
the dark wilderness you find at the pinnacle, and “dolls,”
the magic tickets to instant love, instant excitement . . .
ultimate hell. “Peaks and valleys,” says a drag queen
on one of the DVD extras. Peaks: Everest, Olympus.
Robert Frost’s dictum: “There’s only room for one—
and that’s me, baby, remember?—at the top of the steeple.”
Valleys: Skid Row, Neely’s alley. Implicit in the climb
is the fall, and I, perhaps the weirdest sister of them all
(He took the pink pills), think of Anne’s Sexton’s poem
“The Falling Dolls”: “Dolls, / by the thousands, / are
falling out of the sky”. First, a Raggedy Ann hits the roof;
several Dawn dolls pelt the window. Then a downpour:
Barbie, Tammy, Tressy, Thumbelina, Pebbles, Betsy
Wetsy, Hedda Get Bedda, Patti Playpal, Penny Brite,
Chatty Cathy, Shirley Temple, Teeny Tiny Tears, Crissy,
Miss Revlon, Rub-A-Dub Dolly, Giggles, the Littlechaps,
Baby First Step, Cheerful Tearful, Betsy McCall, Kissy,
Tippee Toes, Toodles, Liddle Kiddles, Disneykins,
gumball machine trolls in clear plastic capsules—
dolls within “dolls.” It is June. I am tired of being gay.
Three fates (mother, beau, old auntie) wave us toward the city,
past a darker city of gravestones out of Plath
“I simply cannot see where there is to get to.” Wouldn’t we
all like to disappear down some melancholy path
if we could wind up on the climb we never meant to take
(already, we’re thinking of the affair, the aftermath,
the booze and pills and the death of Sharon Tate)
but we couldn’t have foreseen how Lawrenceville
would morph ever-faster into a cycle of love and hate,
further and further removed from mom, poor Willy
(the boy who pinned me) and the nearly dead auntie
whose performance consists of a series of photographic stills.
In what rough cut will we find ourselves: scantily
clad blue movie actress, Broadway has-been or Gillian Girl,
we choose our roles the way we choose a pair of panties—
but all of this is yet to come, a replication of the world’s
oldest plot (think: Judgment of Paris, with its triad of
goddesses, each vying for the title of most beautiful)
and the myriad variations on wisdom, power, love
embodied in the celluloid of yore: The Hours,
How to Marry a Millionaire, A Letter to Three Wives,
Since You Went Away, Keep Your Powder
Dry, Personal Velocity, Women With Money,
First Wives Club, The Witches of Eastwick, In Her
Shoes, Three Coins in the Fountain, 9 to 5, Charlie’s
Angels, Drowning by Numbers, How to Beat
The High Cost of Living, Come Back to the Five and Dime,
Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill!, Three
Daring Daughters, Les Girls, Gold Diggers of Broadway,
Safety in Numbers, Three Women, Gold Diggers of 1933
Now at middle age, lost in this movie,
I find myself aboard Anne’s speeding train
hurled through the outer boroughs, gloomy
winter day, anticipating the pain
of what lies ahead: eventual toll
of years beyond forty is what remains.
heat and humidity outside the lake
house here in Minnesota where I’m holed
up for a week—a short break from the Cape
(have DVD, will travel). Dionne sings
the theme as we approach the city, take
the bridge over the river into Queens.
My stomach sours a bit through Brooklyn
knowing a tunnel lies ahead, which brings
childhood memories of Disneyland,
that dreaded ride into the whale’s
gaping mouth, or the dark tunnel within
Willy Wonka’s factory (the shrill wails
of Veruca Salt). Sufficiently freaked
as snowflakes fall from the sky like tiny sails
(there’s some barely visible on the flat
horizon of Pelican Lake—though real),
and feeling on the verge of a big fat
panic attack, thinking I just can’t deal,
I turn away from the window to see
a man with khakis and white sneakers steal
the seat on the aisle. “Sit next to me,
if you like,” I stammer, “even though you
could be a ghost for all I know—it’d be
a relief to have company.” “Thank you,”
he replies hoarsely. “I see you’re a poet.
She’s pretty, isn’t she? Such gorgeous yeux.
(That’s French for eyes—but I guess you know that.)
I’ve watched you since Lawrenceville jotting new
observations in your V.O.D. note-
book every few minutes: ‘make-up like dew;
brunette wiglet like wow!’ I rarely write
now, but once I often did. Lately all I do
is walk into movies and act flippant.
My family is from Grafton, and both my
parents were born in Massachusetts, but
I was born in Baltimore (just to hide
the fact that I was conceived before marriage—
oh, those oversolemn Catholics!) Silent
films ruled Hollywood when I was born, the age
before the reign of the talkies began.
Then in the thirties, Garbo was the rage,
Marlene Dietrich, Norma Shearer, Miriam
Hopkins, Mae West, Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy—
we used to worship more than one legend.
Surely you know the poem I wrote?—boy
am I glad to have an interesting
conversation at last!—it was a joy
for me to write to the film industry
in crisis. But tell me,” he inquires,
turning his large head set upon his wiry
body to see me better in Miss Welles’s
train car, “why are you climbing Mt. Everest
with the girls to reach the Valley of the Dolls?”
“From the way you talk and the poem you just
referenced,” I say, straining not to sound star
struck, “is it possible you are—you must
be—Frank O’Hara? You’ve traveled quite far
haven’t you. But hey, can you tell me how
to get off this train?—I’d be a liar
if I didn’t admit that I’m scared now,
this journey could take years!” He is quiet
a minute and finally answers: “Wow,
you’re really wiggin’. To find your way, get
off from this ride, out of this deep darkness
visible, you’ve got to climb Mt. Everest,
walk through the Valley of Shadows (bless
your soul). Listen to me, if you trust me,
let me guide you on this trip through places
of horror and pain where has-beens even
cry to come back and fade again!” I smile
nervously: “Anything you say—just don’t leave!”
At length I ask Frank why he’d jumped aboard
the Anne Welles Express today. “What’s the date?”
“July 25, 2006,” I say.
“Well,” he responds, “it’s some cosmic fate.
You see, I was killed forty years ago
today—that damned dune buggy out so late
at night on the beach! That same year, V.O.
D. was published; ergo, I had no chance
to see this stinkin’ movie when it o-
verdosed on the screen! Why does this performance
of three girls leaving home for lives in New
York unnerve you so? The romance,”
Frank says lighting a cig, “should thrill you.”
I have to be honest with Frank, like I
am with my therapist. “It takes me back to
my own first few years in New York, to my
arrival on a brutally hot day
in late summer with one suitcase and five
dollars cash, ‘borrowed’ credit card, no way
to pay for a taxi from the airport
(I resorted to the subway)—
a street woman high on crack, I’d report
later to a rapt coterie, asked if
she could ‘Suck it for a dollar?’—to cavort-
ing with thieves, druggies, drag queens (their wigs stiff
with stolen spray), to my liver’s final
surrender to booze and hepatitis.”
“Jeffery, this isn’t the Confessional,”
Frank drolls, “but up ahead is another
kind of confined dreariness—the tunnel
to Manhattan. Look out your window, there
is some real cool Keith Haring graffiti
sprayed around the entrance, and let’s see . . . there!
Read what’s painted above the opening:
‘Forget ever going home again, for
always there your climber roots are showing.’
Now grip the armrests of your chair before
the train (whose catty wheels chant go back go
back go back go back go back just like poor
Mary Haines’ train on its way to Reno
in The Women! ) dives into the dark hole.”
I venture my own simile: “I know,”
I say, “the train is singing a solo:
Manhattan Manhattan Manhattan,
like Rosa Moline’s train to Chicago
beckons her in Beyond the Forest.” An
electric surge proceeds our descent
into the murky tunnel. I see Anne
Welles pause briefly at her open compact,
then continue to patch her pancake.
I grab Frank’s hand, brace my neck on the headrest.
A big storm has moved in over the lake.
I pause the DVD on the open
laptop—the computer screen needs a break.
Three pills topple: a cascade of crystals
serves as backdrop for the title—in Jackie’s
signature font: I used to know the name
of it: Times New Roman à Clef? A simple
shake of the snowglobe resilvers Jeffery’s
desktop like an Etch A Sketch. Out of this
swirl of micro-flecks emerges a woman in
fur. No, not Kitty Foyle, jejune on her sled,
but the great suburban poetess Anne Sexton,
dead thirty-two years this October, waving
her Salem like the wand of a New England
Snow Queen. Trailing ash-flakes, exhaling
poison in frosty puffs, Ms. Sexton clinks the
ice in her highball, crosses her legs (twice)
and speaks: “David, I know you keep think-
ing you’ve asked enough favors of me, that
you’ve outgrown this ‘old tree in the back-
ground,’ but I’m here once again (remember
the last time I appeared in one of your col-
laborations? In Phoebe 2002 I spoke to you
through your Ouija board: offered up some
pretty good advice; and believe me, no high
jinks were involved: ‘twas me; a performance
one rather skeptical literary critic—I have
forgotten his name—called a ‘lame cameo’;
never listen to literary critics) and who, I ask
you, is better qualified than I to guide you
through this cinematic mess, this endless
downward spiral of a shooting script, and
ultimately, help you get off from this ride,
off of this merry-go-round forever spinning
—like an image in the opening sequence of
The Twilight Zone: a shattered window, a doll
eye, a ticking clock—through blackest space.
Must I list my credentials? I, your teacher,
from whom you learned your tell-all style?
Well, first, and most obvious: my name is
Anne. Second, I grew up in Wellesley, located
fifteen miles west of Boston. I think this counts
for something: Lawrenceville, according to
Susann, was at the start of the Cape, about an
hour from Boston by train. In Lawrenceville
everyone gets married as soon as they get out of
school. That’s what I did. Later I modeled
for the Hart Agency (Gillian Girl), had break-
downs and became addicted to ‘booze and
dope’ (Neely on the skids, in the nuthouse)
and, post-Pulitzer, was somewhat of a sex
symbol: slinked onstage in skintight halter
dresses, flagrantly blew kisses at audiences,
called up radio stations and dared them to
read ‘The Fury of Cocks.’ Also like Jen—
I committed suicide! Need I say more? I
climbed. And if you think scaling Everest
in late-fifties Boston, among all those blue
bloods, was easy—there’s no air there to
begin with. I had fame, and it got the better
of me. Valley of the Dolls was published in
February 1966, the same month I wrote the
last two poems in Live or Die, the book that
would deliver me to the summit and, of
course, to the Valley of the Dolls. The poems
were ‘The Addict’ (it’s all about pills: ‘two
pink, two orange, / two green, two white
goodnights’) and ‘Live’ (in which I refer
to myself as ‘a killer, / anointing myself
daily / with my little poisons’ but in which
I also commit myself to ‘the sun, / the dream,
the excitable gift’—well, it worked for a while).
I was alive, but I never read that damn book.
‘It’s a potboiler!’ I cried when Max told me
she couldn’t put it down. She had to see the
movie when it was released. One night we
drove into Boston. It was a few weeks after
Christmas, 1967: they were lining up around
the block, during a January northeaster, to see
this thing. We crept along in my station wagon
scoping out the crowd: believe me, I spotted
more than a couple highbrow poets shivering
in the cold. Max actually liked the movie: saw
herself in Anne, I suppose: nature girl hiking
through the wintry woods as the end credits
rolled. My friend, my friend, I couldn’t tell
you then that I saw you old: crotchety Helen
Lawson tearing wigs off the heads of students
and younger poets. In dreams we are never
eighty. It goes without saying that I related
to sexy, slutty, suicidal Jen.” Snow has begun
to fall: a veil of heavy flakes overlays Manhattan;
the skyline tips sideways, glints like the Emerald
City: full of hopeful answers: How will I learn
who I am? How will I think of my name? “Starry-
eyed, the poets come to the big city. They claw,
climb, then stand there waiting for the rush of
exhilaration, but. . . .” Sexton’s cigarette rasp
morphs into Parkins’s mellifluous voiceover.
She stares at headstones from the window of
the train. Which viewed from above, cuts
through the screen as it streaks across snow.
And oh, “the wind, the wind,” says the figure
standing now before me in his Panama Hat
and a linen suit the color of old amphetamines.
“Summer and Smoke,” I say automatically,
as if I’m playing the old parlor game of Guess
The Title. “But that line could have been
from anything,” says the man in his cottony
Southern speech. “I suppose,” says I, turning.
His face, slightly blotched, suggests he drinks
sun-up to sundown, and the flair in his gestures
hints at other forms of debauchery, the way Marcel
first caught a glimpse of the darker side of Charlus
or. . . . Christ, this is movies we’re talking about, right?
How about the way Peter Lorre fondled his cane
in The Maltese Falcon? That’s the vibe I’m getting
from this guy in the Tennessee tuxedo. No sooner
have I thought the words than his lips,
like the rosy lips of Edmund Gwenn, expel the words:
“I’m Tennessee. But my friends call me Tom.”
Could it be? “I thought you were dead,” is all
that I can manage. “Oh, quite. Quite. Terribly poetic,
in its way, like when poor Tallulah mixed up her vials
and instead of eyedrops, doused her cornea with cocaine.
Of course, she lived, poor thing. Whereas I . . .
some great mother of a hangover wouldn’t let me be.
Oh, the pounding. Like poor Blanche Dubois
with that damned Varsouviana playing in her head.
Went for the aspirin, and fought with the childproof
cap (invented, I think, just to torture poor decadents
like me). The fool thing misthreaded, so I tried my teeth.
And when the cap came off it lodged in my throat.
That’s right, laugh. It would have been a wonderful joke
if it weren’t for the fact that I asphyxiated (now there’s a word!)
Sometimes (as I wrote so long ago) there is god—so quickly.”
An angel passes, as they say. “I thought the cap you choked on
was from a bottle of nasal spray.”
“Well, who would you believe,
me or the goddamned coroner? Don’t you think I know
what has and hasn’t been in this throat?” He’s flushed
and sweating, even though he’s only a ghost.
What could possibly bring this trembling mass of flesh
back from the dead to board this train, hurtling like a wig
toward the ominous valley? “Jackie and I shared an editor,
Michael Korda,” says Tennessee, reading my unspoken question.
And then, “Poets are always clairvoyant,” he says with a chuckle,
happy, I suppose, to have the chance to quote himself.
“And besides,” he settles his broad bottom on the arm of my chair,
“who better to show you the back alleys of Broadway? Who else
might know a real Helen Lawson or Neely, Jennifer or Anne?
I knew Carroll Baker when she slipped off to Italy, peddling
her ass in Orgasmo. I saw Vivien after electroshock,
so close to being Blanche that the artifice of acting disappeared.
Kim Stanley on booze. Liz Taylor on dolls. If it had been set
in Hattiesburg instead of New York, I could have written
that trashy novel myself. Certainly, I’d have done the adaptation.”
The wind is picking up outside and the snow is swelling
and the awful musical score. The feeling that something
will happen is so palpable that even the terza rima is failing,
coming in and out of focus the way the camera
gives us the sense of losing our sanity. Instead it is the rhythm
of the train that connects us all, from Desire to Cemeteries
to Elysian Fields—that’s the journey we’re taking.
Tom: “That was the name of the hotel where I died.”
“Martha Washington?” “No, you ass. The Elysee.”
“Shhhh! This is the Quiet Car,” says my guide
to the others on the dark train. A huge
black wig blocks our view of the screen and hides
swirling snow—it’s a synthetic refuge
from the fake storm that’ll soon become real.
Under the giant hairsprayed subterfuge
sits Jacqueline Susann, trying to conceal
a bottle of Dom she sneaked in, praying
this viewing will redeem her movie deal.
“Snow, / blessed snow, /comes out of the sky,”
says my guide: “Today God gives milk / and I
have the pail.” (While D.A.’s rolls his eyes,
flicks an irrelevant ash from the tip of his
cigarette holder, and says in his unmistakable
bored-to-death drawl: “Fer Kee-rist’s sake!
Don’t say nuthin bout milk—or the confounded
train it didn’t come in on. If I was to conjure me
a Snow Queen, she’d look like Ms. Lizbeth
Taylor-Burton in Boom! : voluminous white
bead-encrusted caftan and headdress—more
a helmet, really—of ice-spikes and white orchids,
or that brunette hair ratted to high heaven!
[he laughs and coughs] Boom! Ya think those
dumbbells would’ve known: that’s the sound
a bomb makes. Like this thing y’all got me
watchin’: a dismal failure, albeit a visually
splendid one.”) Thanks, in large part, to
William H. Daniels, the DP who lit Garbo,
Harlow, and Shearer during MGM’s golden
years, whose name just flashed—drat, that
woman’s wig is in the way—in front of a
cemetery. As did the name of Travilla, who
designed Marilyn’s most famous gowns at Fox
during the fifties, and who was devastated
(it reportedly broke his heart) years later
when he ran into her and MM failed to rec-
ognize him—too disoriented from alcohol
and dolls. That, my weird sisters, is where
this journey will end. The light spikes—
like Liz’s headdress! Snowglobes shatter:
Heidi’s smashed hope of reuniting with the
Grandfather; the blizzard that falls from Kane’s
hand and breaks at the foot of his deathbed.
Anne, full of hope (milk), stares out the train
window. Manhattan darkens, is darkly inked in.
And snow, blessed snow, comes out of the sky.