Leslie Zemeckis

Feuding Fan Dancers Sample!


Chicago, 1956

It had been a terrible day. A terrible few weeks, months, years if she was honest.

September 26, 1956, was an unseasonably cold day in Chicago with temperatures in the 30s. It was evening and the roommates had been arguing for hours. Money, or rather the lack of it. The slender blonde had just returned from a futile trip home—if one could call it that—begging for money, her roommate would later say. But it wasn’t to her mother that she had pled—and fled—but to an uncertain lover, still married, with a kind heart. He probably gave her a little cash, but not enough. Later, the one thing the roommate said that was true (and God knows there wasn’t much) involved the blonde’s lack of money. The years had caught up to her.

Looking in the cracked mirror of the hotel bathroom, she would have seen an aging face. What had happened to time? She had ridden off her looks for years. Now, vanished. Gone. Drunk up and drugged away. Not enough beauty to afford a drink at the bar next door. Desperate. End of her rope.

She was no longer part of the scene. She was rudely treated like a relic from the past, if given any attention at all. While Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” climbed to #1 on the charts and Dear Abby’s advice column debuted, she was relegated to offering her wares to whoever had enough pity to give a fallen star a dime. A job. That’s what she wanted.

She was looking for an opportunity to climb back to the top, though it had been more than two decades since she had broken box office records. She had been dubbed “the most beautiful girl in the world.” They would hang that title on her for the rest of her days.

She earned headlines and an arrest. Though at the time it was perfectly legal to appear nude under the lights of a Broadway production, she had “stepped out of line and offered a suggestion,” which got a $500 fine and her name in print. From there her head swelled with the attention (and the need for what, love?) she had been seeking, or been pushed toward since she was a child. On recalling the night in question and what she was thinking, all she could remember was “One Love” by Arlen and Koehler had been playing.

Burlesque straight man Lee Stuart and his wife caught her begging outside a theatre, looking like a “bag lady.” It must have been a wrenching sight. Stuart had often been on the program with the incandescent blonde bringing down the sold-out houses. Sadly, she was far from the “Dancer Divine,” dancing with only three orchids for cover “to the inhaling and exhaling of the audience” until it was time to discard the flowers, tossing them to the “palpitating audience.” Stuart and his wife took pity on the former star and gave her some cash. Grateful, she promised to catch their show. They would never see her again.

For years her determination had kept her going through lawsuits, disappointments, a suicide attempt or two. And, of course, that feud. No matter how rough things had gotten—and Lord knows they had—there was usually a sliver of hope to penetrate nights of darkness and despondency. She had believed so hard for so long. Was it willpower that had gotten her through that awful dance school where she tried to teach movement and artistry to snot-nosed kids, whose mothers were even worse than their talentless children? The mothers would have reminded her of her own. And though the work was beneath her, she suffered when even that failed.

Some strength, some inkling of better days to come had gotten her through affairs and a marriage that wasn’t much of anything. But she could feel her resolve slipping. Her hands weren’t numb from the wind blowing off Lake Michigan. They were anesthetized from holding on so hard for so long. For nothing.

She wanted another fistful of fame. Even a finger-full of what she once had.

She lied about her age. Did anyone really believe she was still thirty-something? She was close to fifty. Her unlined, wide-eyed face had adorned the newspapers; now it was only her arrests, but even those no longer made the front pages. On chasing fame she had once blithely advised, “Try to get yourself arrested as much as possible.” And she had. But that was par for the course for those working in the nude.

Back in 1934, while society doyenne Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney was cringing at seeing herself in the headlines (those of a certain ilk were not in the papers), accused of stealing her niece Gloria Vanderbilt from the poor little rich girl’s mother (who was intolerably negligent), this luminescent blonde had reveled in her own scandalous headlines. Ink spilled for the most minor of incidents, like when her appendix was removed. Her every move had been broadcast.

“Dancer Wants Trial by Jury”

“War of Fan Dancers Begins at World’s Fair”

“Held Up by Bandits and Rebuked”

Today she needed to eat. Her roommate was harping at her. They argued whether she should return to her family and beg for more money. What family?

There had been nothing for her in Erie, Pennsylvania. She had to be feeling so alone.

If no one else remembered, at least she knew she had once been a sensation who earned great sums, performing to standing-room-only crowds. “The Marilyn Monroe of her day,” an inspiration for a legion of beautiful dancers, now down to less than a dollar in her stained pocketbook.

Perhaps she looked in the mirror and was finally honest with her reflection. There was no work. No romance. Nothing.

Time was running out.

Like numerous third-rate hotels, it would have had a long narrow hallway with a grimy window at the end. Imagine hazy light from the dim hallway casting uneven shadows over the pattern of the worn carpet. Neither light nor optimism could penetrate the broken souls in the cheap hotel. A last stop, a temporary asylum from dashed dreams and delusional schemes.

Impulsively—or had she been thinking of it all day?—the blonde raced toward the window. Her roommate yelled after her. A low-heeled foot clung to the rim of the ledge.

There was no time to turn back. Her roommate grabbed at her skirt, feeling the assurance of fabric in her rough hand. Then horrifyingly she felt it give—too fast—and the material slid through her hand.

“No!” she screamed as her troubled friend vanished from sight.

It was not an easy end to a life that had not been lived easily.

Ironically, 1956 was a leap year.