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“Lillian!” Vi caroled from her dressing room. “Can you come in here? We need your opinion.”
“Coming,” I called. I already knew what I was going to see. The same scene replayed itself every week or so.
Vi stood in the middle of the room, hands on hips. She was wearing one of her usual ensembles: a mint-green pantsuit in what she called a “fine-grain” polyester, a red and green scarf knotted at her throat, colossal red glasses, and shiny white enamel earrings the size of half-dollars. Vi’s wardrobe assistant, Keysha, threw me a pleading glance.
“Keysha says this suit makes me look old,” Vi said with mock anger.
Keysha sighed. “Mint green is not a good look on anyone. Not on hospital workers, and not on you.” She adjusted Vi’s lapels. “Could you just break it up with a different pair of pants?”
“It’s pistachio, not mint green, first of all.” Vi turned and regarded me. “Lillian, does this make me look old?” Whenever Vi showed me an outfit, she thrust her foot forward in a ninety-degree angle, like a fifties fashion model.
It was probably not the time to remind her that she was seventy-four. I took in the entire getup and found myself smiling. I loved Vi’s cheery fruit-salad outfits, even when they were slightly demented, but then I always preferred the “before” entry in makeover shows. What was so wrong with piling on accessories and wearing colors not found in nature?
“You look terrific,” I said. Terrific was one of Vi’s favorite words. I had adopted it over the years, along with marvelous, nifty, and spectacular. If any particular day was not spectacular, Vi would will it into being so.
Keysha sighed in defeat. “Tell makeup to put a little more rouge on you, at least, so your skin doesn’t look green,” she told Vi. Rouge was another word that we all had picked up.
I followed Vi into the makeup room to go over the day’s schedule. Usually she had two guests on Tell Me Everything! With Vi Barbour, but this morning she had landed one of the fifties’ biggest names, Gene Murphy, so he had the full hour. Of course, in his heyday, Gene would never have deigned to appear on a minor network chat show with an autumn-years demographic, but these days he was happy to guest on a program where he’d never have to explain who he was to a blank-faced twenty-two-year-old production assistant. On Tell Me Everything!, Vi would announce grandly that a man like Gene Murphy needed no introduction.
“Gene will be arriving in fifteen minutes,” I said. “His only request is that he wants to talk about a cable documentary he’s featured in about the studio system in the forties. Oh, and he says he has a ‘cute story’ about a contest the studio ran that involved a date with him, so be sure and ask about that.”
Vi nodded. “Check, and check,” she said. Vi retained everything. Never once did she require notes or a cue card. She grabbed my arm. “And did you find those books that Monte wanted?”
“I sent them yesterday.” I had ceased being a mere producer years ago. I was social secretary, shrink, stylist. To my husband Adam’s eternal irritation, the phone started ringing at dawn, when Vi awoke to do her “calisthenics,” basically a series of swishing movements. Her constant consulting with me maintained a reassuringly bustling level of activity in her life.
A production assistant rushed in. “He’s here,” she said, panting.
I looked at my watch. Gene was ten minutes early. I had friends who worked at other talk shows in New York–hair splitters would say “more popular prime-time talk shows with millions of viewers”–who exchanged war stories of agonizing waits for rap stars or hungover starlets who insouciantly rolled in thirty seconds before they were due onstage. This was never a problem with guests from the Greatest Generation, who would tell me repeatedly that had they ever been late at MGM, Louis B. Mayer would have thrown them right out the door.
“Where’s my girl?” Gene boomed from outside the makeup room door.
“In here, Gene!” Vi trilled. She leapt from the makeup chair as he burst in. No one gave a more enthusiastic welcome than Vi, who told him that he looked spectacular and proclaimed to the younger staffers that they were in the presence of a living legend.
Gene, tall, trim, and straight-backed, was matinŽe-idol casual in a safari jacket and brown ascot, his wavy toupee perfectly arranged. After giving Vi a kiss on both cheeks, he sat in the makeup chair and crossed his long legs. “Hello, Maria, my dear,” he said to our makeup artist. As a repeat guest, he loved being on a first-name basis with all of Vi’s staff members. Maria gingerly dabbed foundation on his forehead with a cosmetic sponge. She was famously tactful and discreet, for no one is more insecure than a star in his Lifetime Achievement years. Maria had been with Tell Me Everything! since its inception a decade ago, and during that time she had navigated countless cravats, turbans, hairpieces, and hats. She knew to stock a constant supply of Brylcreem and tangerine lipstick. Without changing expression or breaking her easy patter, she took requests to yank up the creased sides of faces and tape them behind ears to achieve temporary tautness, apply hemorrhoid cream to diminish eye bags, pencil in patchy eyebrows, camouflage liver spots, and spackle various crevices. She was not fazed when a famous R&B producer in his seventies asked that she use eyebrow pencil to painstakingly draw curls on his balding head while he chatted on his cell phone.
Gene turned to me. “Hello, Lillian, darling. Still married?”
I smiled. “Still married.”
He snapped his fingers. “Drat. Well, you know I’ll always be here, waiting, when you come to your senses.”
“You rascal, Gene,” I said stiltedly. I had zero flirting skills.
He looked at me approvingly. “You know, you really do look a little like Elizabeth Taylor,” he said.
“Slimmer, especially around the bustline–I don’t offend, do I? But you do have the same dark hair, same eyes–a double row of eyelashes, just like she does. I dated her once, you know.”
I knew, because Gene dropped it into every conversation. He was soon hustled onto Vi’s small stage, which held two fatigued mauve armchairs and a little table. I watched the monitor, my arms folded, but I wasn’t worried. Usually each show proceeded soothingly apace. If we featured slapstick comedians, a little controlled wackiness might break out–maybe one would turn the table over or dump his glass of water over his head–but otherwise the hour was filled with G-rated tales of USO tours or the tantrums of a long-dead director.
“Gene, I understand you have a marvelous story for our viewers about working for MGM,” Vi began.
He leaned expansively back in his chair. “Well. When I was making pictures in the early fifties, the studio would send me all over the country on tour, you know, to get my name out there.” He twinkled at Vi as if to say, Do you believe my name once needed to get “out there”? “And I remember one magazine, I think it was Movie Mirror, ran a contest to win a whole day with Gene Murphy. So this really lovely housewife in Boise, Idaho, wrote a terrific letter about how she and her kids watched my films together and they felt that I was the sixth member of their family. So what do you know, I get sent to Boise. I had certainly never been there before. The closest I had come was probably Salt Lake City, where I filmed parts of My Teepee or Yours? in 1950.”
I caught the amused gaze of Frank, my assistant producer, and he rolled his eyes. All our guests acted as if they’d never stepped a velvet-loafered foot outside of Beverly Hills. Gene Murphy, formerly Herman Ehrstrom of Kansas City.
“I can’t tell you how much fun we had on My Teepee or Yours?, but that’s another story.” He raised a suggestive eyebrow as Vi chuckled. Clearly he still thought the film, in which white actors wore feather headdresses and made jokes about selling squaws for wampum, was the height of comedy.
“So off I go to Boise, and Betty, that was her name, was so welcoming, a really, really nice lady. She told me that the second-place prize was a Frigidaire.” He waited a practiced beat. “Do you know that she confessed to me that what she really wanted was the Frigidaire?”
Vi howled to let him know how outrageous that was.
“Imagine,” he continued. “But she and her whole family made me feel wonderful.”
After he dusted off a few more stories (“Did you know my first date was with Elizabeth Taylor? I was an extra in National Velvet, and . . .”), I cued Vi to wrap it up, bundled Gene into his limo, and sat with her in the makeup room as Maria touched up her face. When a show wraps, most people in front of the camera can’t wait to tissue off the pancake makeup, but not Vi. Having been in the limelight for half a century, she felt that she owed it to her fans to look put together at all times.
In New York City, she was still recognized at least a few times a day. Her career began in film, where she was usually cast as the wisecracking best friend and, later, the stern but secretly vulnerable Lady Boss, after which she took a turn on Broadway, most notably in the groundbreaking musical Mrs. President (“I know it sounds funny to think about, but it was a completely radical idea at the time”). Then, of course, she became the popular host of the long-running fifties talk show Let’s Chat, for which she had recently collected an honorary Emmy.
“Give my eyebrows another swipe, won’t you, Maria?” she said. Vi was horrified at the sight of young celebrities who slopped around in flip-flops when they were out in public.
From Vi’s 1959 autobiography, It Wasn’t Easy:
I think that looking groomed is a sign of respect to others. My first activity of the day is to put on my “face,” even if I’m home alone. If my fans got a gander of me without my “war paint” on, they would faint dead away! So even if I am running out to purchase a quart of milk, I make sure that my outfit and makeup flatter my complexion, and that my hairdo is smooth and up-to-date.
Needless to say, the best way to enhance your looks is to have an upbeat attitude. How many times have you had a friend telephone you and say, “I don’t feel well today” or “Isn’t this weather terrible?” Well, I don’t believe in inflicting your troubles on other people. I always say that Vi is short for vibrant! I keep my telephone voice cheerful and stimulating, and as a result, my phone is ringing off the hook!
Aside from It Wasn’t Easy, Vi’s prodigious literary output included a bestselling 1965 cookbook, Lights, Camera, Cook! Vi Barbour Shares Fifty Mouthwatering Recipes from the World’s Most Glamorous Gals That Will Make You the Leading Lady of Your Next Dinner Party! and a beauty book (Is That Really Me?) before tapering off in the mid-eighties with the follow-up to her memoir, Who Says There Are No Second Acts?
Vi, always percolating with new projects and schemes, was probably on her fifth or sixth act. Meanwhile, I was sliding toward thirty-eight, and I was easily more staid than Vi and her geriatric pals.