Ramona the Starlet— Or How Amelia’s Mother Came to Dance


Not all the stories Jeannine Cotter Massey told her daughter, Amelia, revolved around herself. For example, she used to tell Amelia one about a friend of hers named Ramona, who she’d met back in the late-40s or early-50s when she and Amelia’s father, Will, were living in L.A.

Will and Jeannine were in California because, for one thing, Will was fromCalifornia, born and raised, and was destined to go back there mentally, and secondly, because Jeannine’s brothers and sister were there. Even their crazy mother, Gertrude Stone Cotter, had by then migrated west from Cotter Neighborhood, the New England town where every generation of blueblood but now penniless Cotters had been born. These last of the Cotters had followed the path of the modern American dream that was supposed to give hard-working American citizens the chance to become rich and successful, if not famous, in the period between and directly following the two World Wars.

So the story about Ramona the Starlet was probably intended to teach Amelia that she, too, could be anything she wanted to be when she grew up.

Ramona, an orphaned and poor but beautiful farm girl, had made her way out to Hollywood from some podunk Midwestern town. “Lord knows how she actually got there,” Jeannine put in with a delicate arch of her own very beautiful dark brow. “Whether she took the train, or a bus, or talked some man into giving her a ride, I just don’t know.”

In any case, being not just pretty but exceptionally so, with delicate features and slanty, dark-lashed green eyes, and with thick chestnut hair that rippled as she walked—and with the added good fortune that she could project herself, having had starring roles in a high school play or two in her home town—this Ramona actually managed to get a screen test at one of the big Hollywood movie studios.

“Maybe it was even Metro Goldwyn Mayor,” Jeannine said. “I’m not sure now.” And before long—”Would you believe it?” Jeannine put in—she became a star.

“Well, almost a star,” Jeannine revised. “Ramona never quite made it beyond being a starlette, I believe they’re called. But she was in several fairly good-sized movies—a couple of detective things, I think, and a few Westerns—with some hefty walk-on parts. And amazingly enough, she could still say her lines even ten years later when I met her there in Burbank at your uncle’s favorite bar.”

Jeannine Cotter herself had been considered a great beauty when she was growing up. The Indian Beauty, everyone called her, because of her smooth olive skin and high cheekbones and jet-black hair and her big brown eyes. Amelia, who was neither ugly nor pretty, neither short nor tall, neither dark nor light, sometimes wondered why she had inherited none of that.

“Anyway,” her mother was saying now, “Ramona knew every one of those old movie lines of hers by heart. There was this one scene she used to do for us where a man was supposed to stand up too quickly from the table in some fancy-schmantzy restaurant, like maybe the Brown Derby or Sardi’s, and he was supposed to end up spilling a gin and tonic down Ramona’s blouse.”

Jeannine said the director of the movie asked the wardrobe people to outfit Ramona for the role in an ensemble that had been designed by Edith Head. The wardrobe people told Ramona she could wear her own clothes for the practice sessions. “Just wear any old thing you have in your closet,” is what they said, when of course Ramona was wearing the only thing she had. And when the time came after the umpteenth practice session for the male actor to actually splash the gin and tonic all down the front of the Edith Head outfit, Ramona said it took just about all the acting ability she could muster not to cry.

“She felt like it was just such an awful waste of those fine clothes,” Jeannine told Amelia. “But anyway, whenever Ramona did the gin-splashing scene for your father and me, she’d pull herself up all straight and tall, to show us how she played the offended woman. Then, as the man, the actor, the famous movie star—somebody like William Holden or Clark Gable maybe, I don’t really know—anyway, as he reached over to wipe the spilled alcohol off Ramona’s nearly bare bosom with his handkerchief, she was to say her lines with great dignity, like: ’It’s all right! Please!’ And as this man went on rubbing harder and harder at her breasts, Ramona was supposed to say again, but with more emphasis this time: ’I said, it’s all right! It is all right, I said!’”

Jeannine often left out details that mattered to Amelia in these stories, like what happened next. “And that was about the extent of it,” her mother said, by way of wrapping up. “If you ask me, Ramona would have had a better chance at making it big in the movies if she’d learned to dance.”

Ah! Now here was the real point of the story, Amelia thought. As a girl, her mother had dreamed of becoming a Radio City Music Hall Rockette. It all began when Jeannine and her mother, Gertrude Stone Cotter, and Jeannine’s younger sister moved to Hartford after they lost the family farm. At first, Jeannine’s mother had to take the only work she could find, which turned out to be dishing up vegetables from a steam tray in a cafeteria in downtown Hartford. However, Gertrude knew herself to be a blueblood—”the descendant of a family that could trace its roots back to the Mayflower, you know,” Jeannine would add. So it wasn’t long before, through a combination of her own still remarkably good looks and the good name of her family, she managed to land a position in the social services division of the City of Hartford, interviewing the growing number of unemployed professionals reluctantly adding themselves to the welfare rolls.

“And then, to make a long story short,” Jeannine told Amelia, “in an odd quirk of fate, this couple—this Negro stockbroker and his ex-dancer wife—happened to be among the group of welfare recipients my mother was assigned to visit.”

Jeannine said the Negro stockbroker-husband made sure he wasn’t home whenever Gertrude came around. “He’d had a good job with the brokerage firm there in Hartford, where they had him handling the accounts of any other Negroes who might have enough money to invest in the stock market, because, for awhile there, you know, just about everybody was—when, whammo, the whole American economy collapsed. And of course, a Negro stockbroker in a company full of white men was the first to go.”

But his wife, the dancer, was grateful for any kind of a visitor, and often, after she’d filled out the required monthly papers and answered all of Gertrude’s routine questions from the City of Hartford—were they spare in their use of utilities, did they avoid costly food items such as meat and fresh vegetables, did they make do at least three times a week with beans and rice?—the woman would offer Gertrude some tea, and the two would talk.

Jeannine said the woman, the ex-dancer, was very beautiful—tall and slender and mocha-colored, with maybe even a bit of Cherokee Indian blood, and she wore her smooth long black hair up on top of her head in a braided bun.

“So one day my mother suggested to this woman,” Jeannine told Amelia, “that since it was pretty clear her husband wasn’t about to get a job, maybe she’d like to make a little money teaching some dance lessons on the side.” Gertrude said she could sign up her own two daughters, for starters. And probably they could find some friends to come along.

Sometimes when Jeannine talked about those dance lessons she took from the ex-stockbroker’s wife, she would demonstrate for Amelia a few routines. “My favorite was the tap-dancing, of course,” she said. “Shuffle-hop-step! Shuffle-hop-step! I tell you, there were times this woman doubled over with laughter just watching us. Once she came over to me, laughing so hard she was crying, and she said, ’Honey, honey! What on earth is that you think you are doing with your hands?’ And then she showed me how I looked, so stiff and straight. Like a chicken running around with its head cut off! ’Honey,’ she said, ’you’ve got to be loose if you’re going to dance!’”

But a few years later Jeannine left her mother and sister and moved to Chicago, where she took a job at an insurance company, and then after awhile, she took some vacation time to go out to Southern California, and that’s when she met and married Will Massey, Amelia’s father, and that was that. “Because in those days,” Jeannine always added with a sigh, “you also had to stay single and not have children if you were going to dance.”

For a moment, Jeannine was quiet and looked a little sad. “But back to Ramona the Starlet,” she went on. “Where were we, Amelia? So Ramona had just started her movie career, and everything was going along just fine till she fell in love.”

Love was often the villain in Jeannine’s stories. Some woman would be headed toward a great career as a dancer, or an artist, or a politician—whatever it was she really, really wanted to be in life—and then she’d fall in love and/or get married, and the whole thing would be over. And that was that.

“Maybe you remember,” Jeannine was saying now, “the time Ramona came over to our house, and she brought the famous cowboy movie star Hopalong Cassidy along? You had the time of your life there with Hopalong! He wore his cowboy outfit, and you had on one of those little squaw skirts that were so popular, and you kept twirling your cap-gun and going pow pow pow. Daddy took a picture of the two of you, remember? I’m sure we’ve still got that picture around here somewhere in this house.”

But Amelia knew she hadn’t even been born yet for the Hopalong Cassidy story. So the pretty little girl with the twirling cap gun and the squaw skirt had to be someone else. This sort of thing happened all the time.

“Anyway, by the time I met Ramona,” her mother said, “her movie days were over. She’d fallen in love and married a wealthy young man who was an only child. His father disowned him for marrying beneath his class. And soon, with those things being the way they are, Ramona got pregnant. Then, boom, out of the blue, disaster struck. Her young husband was killed when his car careened off the side of the mountain one night up in Griffith Park, right under the big white Hollywood sign. And three days later, Ramona gave birth to a little girl. She was just coming out of heavy sedation—from the delivery, you know—when lo and behold, her old curmudgeon of a father-in-law came to the hospital to call. It was the first time he’d ever even met Ramona, and he broke down and cried. ’I am zo veddy zorry, yeng leddy,’ he kept saying to her in his foreign accent, whatever it was. ’You ah zo beautiful if I may zay zo. Dis iz zo zad.’ This guy may have been rich and all that, but now you could see he was a broken man. He wiped his eyes, and then he handed her a set of legal documents that would have made her and her little girl the sole heirs to his entire estate.”

Jeannine stopped here and stared at an invisible spot on the kitchen wall. “But do you think Ramona was going to forgive him after all she’d been through?” she asked.

Jeannine’s thin red mouth turned up in a knowing smile. “Not on your life, she wasn’t! With all the dignity she’d been able to muster for that movie scene, Ramona pulled herself up in her hospital bed, and she said to the old man, the father-in-law: ’I will see you in hell first, Mister.’ She told him to take his money and get out. ’You didn’t help us then,’ she said, ’and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let you help us now.’”

The point being, Amelia decided as her mother wrapped up the story, that Ramona’s movie career was over anyhow.

Gail Gilliland’s stories and poems have appeared in a number of journals. She’s the author of a short story collection, The Demon of Longing (Carnegie Mellon) and a poetics, Being a Minor Writer (U. of Iowa). She currently lives in rural San Diego County, CA.

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