Perhaps because her second marriage had only lasted twenty months, or perhaps because she was having a bad hair day, in January of 1969 my mother swallowed a whole bottle of pills and called my stepfather at his hotel to say good-bye.
Although they were still legally married, he had installed himself at the Carlyle while she sued him for divorce. After he received her farewell call, he quickly finished his Gibson, telephoned the fire department, grabbed his Burberry raincoat, and jumped into a taxi. It was a time in New York when you could say to a cabdriver, “Take me to the St. Regis,” or, “Take me to the Oak Bar,” and he would just take you there—no further explanation was needed. “Take me to the Dakota,” he said to the driver.
While my mother arranged herself on her monogrammed, baby-blue satin sheets and prepared to enter the Valley of the Dolls, and my stepfather chain-smoked and shouted at the cabdriver to go faster, goddammit, I slept in the top bunk of the bed I shared with my younger sister, Robin, dreaming of hot dogs.
We had been living in the Dakota, the late nineteenth-century, neo-Gothic apartment house at the corner of Seventy-second Street and Central Park West, for about a year and a half. And while I would later think of the place—the setting for the film Rosemary’s Baby and the future and final home of John Lennon—as a glamorous backdrop for my mother’s tumultuous second marriage and divorce, at the time it was just our rather large and wonderfully spooky apartment, in which I was about to find myself awakened by my mother’s rescuers.
I was driven from my hot dog dreamworld by a plinking sound, high and silvery—the sound of something falling, like rain but heavier and coming from inside the house. I got out of bed, carefully climbed down the bunk-bed ladder past my sleeping sister, and walked out into the long hallway of our cavernous apartment. I peeked around the corner to find four firemen in big, dark coats and hats beating down Mother’s bedroom door with axes. One of them stood on a ladder breaking the glass in the transom window above the door. The shards of glass rained down on the men below and bounced off their helmets, making a tinkly noise as they hit the polished parquet floor.
I wondered why they didn’t use a key or just knock on the door like I did. They were making a big mess, which always made Mother angry. And it was very loud and Mother hated loud noises. (“It’s because I’m a Libra,” she’d explain.)
Boy, were those firemen going to get it when she opened the door, I thought. They took no notice of me. I turned and looked the other way toward the foyer and saw my stepfather in his raincoat hustling down the hall toward me. I was surprised to see him; I hadn’t seen him in a while. Even when he was still living at the apartment, he never seemed to be around.
“Hi, Pop,” I said. “Are you coming back?”
“Yes, dearie,” he said, uttering another in what was becoming a long series of big fat lies that made up my primary interaction with grown-ups. He didn’t look at me as he passed, but he smelled like cologne and French cigarettes. The firemen parted to make way for him and he pounded on the door with his fist.
“Georgann! Open this goddamn door!” he bellowed.
There was silence as everyone held his breath, listening for some sign of life on the other side of the now-battered door. Nothing. My stepfather took a step back, and the men continued to hack through it.
From the far side of all this noise, flying glass, and splintered wood, appeared our nanny, Catherine, a Caribbean giantess in a bathrobe and slippers. Her cold-creamed and bespectacled face bore the look of disapproval and incomprehension with which she regarded almost everything that went on at our house—crazy white people acting crazy. She put her hands on her massive hips and said, “What the blazes is goin’ on here?!” The men didn’t stop.
Catherine surveyed the chaos until her eyes found me standing there in the hall in my nightgown. Here was something she could do—get the little one back to bed. She raised her eyebrows and began to amble slowly down the hall in my direction.
Catherine, who stayed with us longer than Dinah or Fanny or any of the other nannies, was always trying to put our house in order. I loved her and hated her for that. I loved her because she fed us, bathed us, and rubbed Vicks VapoRub on our chests when we were sick. I hated her because I wanted my mother to do those things for us.
“C’mon now, Wendy,” she barked. Her voice was incredibly loud so it always seemed like she was shouting at you. “Time to go.”
I looked up at Catherine, towering above me. She was like a mountain with a crown of curlers. Her huge body completely blocked my view of the action. Two more men with dark blue jackets over white uniforms raced by us from the front door, pushing a stretcher on wheels. I tried to watch but Catherine firmly grasped my shoulders and steered me back to my bedroom.
Inside, she shooed me up the bunk-bed ladder, patting me lightly on the bottom. “You go to sleep now, lambie pie,” she said, pulling the covers up to my chin.
I could hear her heavy breathing as she leaned in under my bed to fix my sister’s kicked-off covers. Robbie could have slept through a train wreck. Catherine lumbered over to the door, closing it behind her as she went back out into the hallway. The room was dark except for the faint light from the street below. I looked up at the molding on the ceiling, tracing it with my eyes as I did every night before I went to sleep. I followed it around and around, imagining a toy train on the ceiling racing on a track. I heard the wheels of the stretcher again in the hall. I climbed out of bed, snuck over to the door, and peeked out.
Even half-dead, Mother was beautiful. She had the icy good looks of a Hitchcock heroine—a high forehead, long, thin nose, and striking cheekbones. Her blond hair, most of which was a fall attached to the top of her head and expertly teased to create a tumbling-mane effect, lay tousled on the stretcher pillow. She was wearing her blue Pucci peignoir set that brought out the color of her eyes—which were now, of course, closed.
My chest felt twisty as I watched the men in white uniforms with blue jackets wheel her down the hallway and out of the apartment. I believed Mother was safe with the calm, quiet stretcher men and their nicely combed hair and cast-down eyes, but I wondered where they were they taking her, and what they would do. Did they have some magic way of waking her up—a special drink, true love’s kiss? Would they put her in a glass box like Snow White while she slept? I felt anxious as the questions kept coming. How long would she be gone? What would I tell my sister?
I climbed back into bed and stared again at the ceiling, trying to slow my racing mind. The low murmuring of my stepfather and the firemen ended with the clicking of the lock of the front door, and a quiet stillness came down. I was left alone with my thoughts, listening to my sister’s soft breathing. I squeezed my eyes shut and rolled over, pulling the blanket carefully over my neck so that if Barnabas Collins, the vampire in my favorite TV show, Dark Shadows, somehow got into my room, he couldn’t bite me there.
As I slept, Mother was swept off to Bellevue Hospital in an ambulance. At the hospital they pumped all the Seconal out of her and kept her for psychiatric evaluation for twenty-four hours, which, we were to discover later, was about ten thousand hours too short. By the time she was released into my stepfather’s care, he had already paid off the hospital officials to keep her name out of their records and his name out of the papers: she was never there, it never happened.
The next morning, my sister and I got up and got dressed for school, putting on our dark blue jumpers and pulling on our navy kneesocks. It seemed like any other morning until we walked down the hallway past our mother’s now open door and our shoes crunched on the broken glass as I realized it hadn’t been a dream.
“Where’s Mommy?” my sister asked, peering into Mother’s empty bedroom.
As the older child (I was nine) and a witness to the previous night’s events, I felt I should provide some sort of explanation about just where our mother might be, even though I didn’t really know. I decided to make it into a kind of game, so Robbie wouldn’t feel afraid or think that I was worried.
“She went away last night with Pop,” I told her. “She rode away with Pop in a bed on wheels,” I added, hoping this would sound like something fun, like a ride at an amusement park.
Robin considered this but didn’t say anything, so I figured it sounded pretty good. Even at nine, I was quickly learning how to extemporaneously compose an alibi for Mother.
In the kitchen, Catherine had prepared our breakfast of fried bologna, which she liked to remind us was a great delicacy in her country, Trinidad. I didn’t like bologna, but I was hungry so I ate it.
“Mommy’s gone,” Robin told Catherine.
Catherine, her big horn-rimmed glasses steamy from the stove, pushed more bologna around in the pan and then buttered some toast. “I know, honey,” she said. “Your momma has gone to have a little rest. Sometimes, mommas get so tired.”
What Catherine was probably thinking was that she didn’t have a clue why my mother was so tired since she never did a lick of work and smoked too much.
“What’s bologna made out of, anyway?” I asked.
“She’s like a flower, your momma,” Catherine continued, as if she hadn’t heard me. “When she comes home, you girls be quiet and tiptoe around for a while, till she feels strong again.”
“We will,” I promised.
“So damn skinny,” I heard Catherine mutter under her breath as we ran off to get our coats for school.
In the foyer, Catherine rebuttoned my sister’s lopsided cardigan and then bundled us into our navy blue coats, carefully pulling mittens over our hands and wrapping scarves around our necks. Having safely stuffed us into our winter wear, she opened the door to the landing and gave us each a gentle push out the door.
“Have a good day at school, now,” she called out.
The elevator man took us downstairs and we walked through the large cobblestone courtyard to the iron gates that led out onto Seventy-second Street, where the doorman opened the school bus door for us, tipping his hat to the driver.
Catherine watched us and gave a little wave from the window like she did every day—a promise that she would be there waiting for us. No matter what happened, Catherine held down the fort, striving to instill structure and a sense of normalcy in our lives. This was her quest.
As soon as we were safely on the bus, she returned to the kitchen to start cooking up a batch of her special syrup. She put a pot on the stove and started juicing lemons and limes and chopping up fresh ginger. Then she added honey and cayenne pepper. The special syrup that she made was her answer for almost any ailment. If you had a cold, if you couldn’t sleep, if you had a scraped knee, the syrup was just what you needed. And whether she fed it to our mother or rubbed it on her chest, Catherine honestly believed it would restore my mother’s body and soul. It would fatten her up and make her stop acting so crazy.
When we came home from school, Mother was still not home. “A few more days,” Catherine said when we looked up at her expectantly. “Go have a snack in the kitchen,” she said as she unfastened our coats. After dinner, she put us in the bathtub, where we splashed and played while she sat on top of the toilet and laughed at us, covering her teeth with her hand.
“You two are so silly. Find the soap and wash up before you get pruney.” Catherine heaved herself up and took the towels off the rack. When we were washed, she wrapped us up like mummies and vigorously rubbed our backs to make us warm.
Then we put on our nighties and followed her as she padded back to her room, behind the kitchen. Robbie and I climbed up on the soft, camel-colored blanket on her twin bed and watched I Dream of Jeannie on the little black-and-white TV that sat on her bureau. Catherine sat in an armchair near the bed, laughing at the blond lady on the show and playing with the gold necklace she wore around her neck with a Jesus pendant that was usually wedged between her big bosoms. This was one of my favorite parts of the day. Even when Mother was home, she was usually out, and the apartment was like a maze of empty, chilly rooms, your footsteps echoing up to the high ceilings. Catherine’s room was small but warm and we were all together.
When TV time was over, we went to bed. “Good night, my lambie pies,” Catherine said as she tucked us into our bunks, kissing us on our foreheads.
After Mother’s return from Bellevue, she was silent and gloomy. She wasn’t awake when we left for school. In the afternoons, we’d find her to kiss her hello. And then at supper, after finishing our homework, we’d eat and she would smoke and finish what was left of a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé she’d opened at five.
If Mother’s plan with her suicide attempt had been to lure my stepfather back to make him regret what he was about to lose, it hadn’t worked. He stayed at the Carlyle and she stayed on the Upper West Side, wandering about the apartment like a beautiful animal at the zoo. She paced the long corridors and grand rooms: the library, where the Rodin sculpture was set against a massive wall of books; the dining room, with its long, white marble table and the low-hanging, heavy sterling chandelier that almost touched it; the butler’s pantry, behind a swinging, leather-clad door, its glass cabinets stocked with china and crystal emblazoned with R for “Rea.”
And then one day, she was better. We came home from school to find her smiling and pacing up and down the main hall with her cigarette, directing the men who were measuring our furniture and estimating the number of boxes needed to pack everything up. We were moving, she announced, to Park Avenue.
“Is it far? Do we have to go to a new school?” Robbie asked, looking confused.
“No, darling, it’s just across town on the Upper East Side. It’s actually closer to your school,” Mother said, smiling.
“Yeah!” Robbie and I both jumped up and down, clapping. Mother was happy and everything was going to be fine.
That day, Mother gave Catherine the night off and even fixed dinner for us, and we all ate together in the kitchen.
“Now go get ready for bedtime, girls.”
Robbie and I looked at each other and hurried down the hall before Mother could change her mind. Mother rarely put us to bed herself, so this counted as a special event. We were all snuggled in our bunks, faces washed, teeth brushed, when Mother sat down in the corner rocking chair, where Catherine usually sat, and told us a bedtime story.
“Once upon a time,” she began, “there was a little girl named Loretta who had been left in an orphanage.”
Oh, goody, I thought, like the little girl in The Secret Garden, one of my favorite books.
“And she was me.”
I blinked and glanced down at Robbie. This was a true story? Wide-eyed, she looked back at me with surprise.
Mother explained that Loretta was her name before she was adopted. Her birth parents had a drunken quarrel on a bridge one night somewhere in Iowa, and her father tried to throw her mother off the bridge. He was arrested. Before he got out of jail, perhaps to finish the job, her mother dumped all four of their children in an orphanage on her way out of town and disappeared. Mother was two years old at the time. “I remember sitting on the floor of the orphanage, crying and crying. I felt so lonely. And I missed my mommy and daddy and brothers and sister. I used to sit in the corner all day singing, ‘Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I think I’ll go eat worms.’ ”
“Eeeew,” my sister said.
“Ssshh,” I hushed her, not wanting to miss any of the details.
“Then one day a man and a woman came and saw me. The man was tall and thin. The woman was short and fat. They thought I was such a pretty little girl, with big blue eyes and curly blond hair, that they decided to take me home. You see, they were sad they couldn’t have any children of their own.”
Just like the couple in The Gingerbread Boy, I thought.
“They scooped me up and took me home! I still remember that day I drove away in the car with my new parents. I waved good-bye to the nuns and thought about how lucky I was that I had been chosen from all the other children,” Mother said wistfully.
Bill and Bertha McAdams adopted Mother, changed her name from Loretta (too white trash) to Georgann, and took her home to live in their nice house in the lovely Plaza section of Kansas City, Missouri.
It was strange for me to imagine Mother as a little girl and having a different name. Closing my eyes, I tried to picture it. The truth is that my mother would have been better off staying in the orphanage.
“When we got home, she beat me with a belt buckle because I had forgotten to go to the bathroom before our car trip and we had had to stop. You can still see the scars on my legs.”
Behind the quiet shade trees, wide green lawn, and impressive colonial brick façade of Mother’s new home, abuse would be doled out daily by her new mother, while her new father spent his days in the hushed offices of his bank. As far as he was concerned, the house and the raising of children were his wife’s business, and she insured his ignorance by threatening Georgann with even worse if she complained to him.
“Many years went by. And then, when I was about sixteen, your grandmother wanted me to go with her to the basement to clean up some mess down there that she thought I’d made.”
When Mother told stories about the horrible Bertha, her eyes got all glassy and her voice small and simple like a little kid’s. “So I followed her to the door of the basement and she started down the stairs,” said Mother.
I knew the stairs she meant; they were in my grandfather’s house in Kansas City. I had climbed up and down them with my sister. They were dark and steep, and the basement air was damp and smelled of Listerine, mothballs, and the sticky residue of old electrical tape.
“I stood there looking down at the back of her head and thought about the time she’d broken my arm and sent me to school.”
Mother fainted in her classroom at school a few days later from the pain. At the hospital they had to break her arm again to set it so it would heal properly.
“I thought about the time I got my red velvet dress dirty before a party, and she took a pair of scissors and cut it to ribbons.”
Bertha made my mother wear the tattered dress to school the next day.
“I looked at her big back going down the stairs in front of me and I suddenly had this impulse to kill her.”
I opened my eyes wide and stared at the plaster molding on the ceiling, no longer wanting to see the story in my head. I wished she would stop telling it.
“No one would ever know that she hadn’t just fallen; she was so fat. I followed her down the stairs, which creaked underneath her. I held on to the railings on either side of the stairs”—Mother grasped the arms of her chair—“and raised myself up off the ground.”
Robin and I watched Mother as she lifted herself lightly out of the chair to reenact the scene.
“I bent my knees and pointed my feet right at her.”
Hovering above the chair, Mother lifted one foot off the floor and karate-kicked the air.
“If I kicked her with all my strength, she’d go tumbling down the steps and break her neck.” Mother hung there suspended for a moment and thought of the crimes this woman had committed: the beatings, the broken bones, the humiliations, the cruelties doled out every day like multivitamins.
“I wanted her to die for everything she did. But something stopped me.” Mother lowered herself back into the chair.
“I thought, ‘No, I’ll wait. Her time will come.’ ” Mother relaxed back into the chair and slowly folded her arms across her chest. One corner of her mouth curled up into a small smile.
“I didn’t have to wait too long either . . . about two years. She was dying slowly from cancer. No one told her she was sick. Back then they thought it was bad for a patient to know. But I knew. I was eighteen and the doctors thought I was old enough.
“I watched that wicked old woman being taken from the house on a stretcher, her body eaten up with disease, and I knew she was never coming back. ‘You just wait till I get home! I’ll fix you!’ she just kept screaming at me.”
By this time Bertha was out of her mind on morphine and had just a few days to live. Mother smiled and waved, watching Bertha being put in the ambulance, knowing that her mother would never touch her again and would burn in some special circle of hell for everything she had done.
“After she died, my daddy came to me and asked me to pick out a dress for my mother to be buried in. ‘Of course I will, Daddy. You go rest now, you’ve been through so much,’ I said.
Mother drove downtown to the fancy shops on the Plaza and bought the perfect dress for Bertha to wear for her eternal rest—black with little pink flowers and pink trim.
“You see, pink had always been Bertha’s least favorite color and now she would have to wear it for the rest of time.” Mother folded her hands in her lap and smiled at us from the chair, triumphant.
She’d got her happy ending. And we’d just got a taste of the Brothers Grimm by way of Kansas City.
Sweet dreams . . .
Georgann Rea didn’t bake cookies or go to PTA meetings; she wore a mink coat and always had a lit Dunhill plugged into her cigarette holder. She’d slept with too many men and a few women, and she didn’t like dogs or children. Georgann possessed the icy beauty of a Hitchcock heroine with the cold heart to match.
From living at the Dakota in 1960s Manhattan to London’s swinging town houses and beyond, Wendy Lawless and her younger sister navigated day-to-day life as their unstable and fabulously neglectful mother, Georgann, chased her delusions, suffered dramatic breakdowns, and survived suicide attempts. With clear-eyed grace and flashing wit, Lawless portrays the highs and lows of her unhinged upbringing—and how she survived her mother’s endlessly destructive search for glamour and fulfillment—in “a searing memoir that reads like a novel” (Anne Korkeakivi, An Unexpected Guest).
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
In this strikingly honest memoir, actress Wendy Lawless shares the often-heartbreaking story of her childhood with an alcoholic and suicidal mother—equal parts Holly Golightly and Mommie Dearest—and the extraordinary resilience that allowed her to rise above it all.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Why do you suppose Wendy Lawless chose to open Chanel Bonfire with her mother’s first suicide attempt? What does this scene reveal about Georgann, as well as about nine-year-old Wendy and her younger sister, Robin?
2. When Wendy and Robin were children, Georgann told them about her abusive upbringing in the form of a bedtime story. Did knowing about her traumatic past make you more sympathetic? Why or why not? Do you think Georgann had any redeeming qualities as a mother? How do you think Wendy and Robin would answer this question?
3. Why did Wendy decide to contact her father after not seeing him for a decade? Given the circumstances, do you think James see more