Kit Covington sat on the sofa in her Pacific Palisades mansion with a cigarette lodged in the side of her mouth. A cloud of smoke floated around her head. She adjusted the oxygen tube in her nose, then brushed ash from her dog Muffin’s champagne-colored curls. The miniature poodle dozing in Kit’s lap startled when the camera crew from The Great Morning Talk Show banged equipment into Kit’s antique furniture.
“Watch it! You scratch anything, you’ll pay for the restoration.” Since her left lung had been removed, Kit’s husky voice had a rattle that lingered between words chaining them together like loose ball bearings.
“Sorry,” the stocky, tattooed sound woman said.
Kit wondered if the all-female crew was a set-up—some kind of knife-twisting in the gut. She’d been anxious about the interview and now regretted it.
Her son, Robin, urged her to confront the nonsense. The 1950s blonde bombshell became notorious because of some damn youtube video a pop singer made by superimposing Kit’s dance sequence from the 1956 movie, I Was a Teenage SheWolf From Mars, while he sang to her. It went viral. Paramount capitalized on it with a box set of her films. The Screen Actors Guild sent her checks she hadn’t seen in sixty years.
Kit would have laughed at the male juvenile obsession with her big breasts, platinum blonde hair, and erotic gyrations in her bullet bra and tight sequined space suit. But it happened at the time actresses came forward and named producers, directors, and actors who raped and assaulted them. The video ignited a firestorm of criticism from young women, who blamed her for their being sexualized. She became the poster girl, Adam’s Eve, the anti-feminist, the target for all the ills cast upon womanhood—making her name Kit into a verb synonymous with “fucks for favors.”
What a load of shit!
Kit had had enough after months of headlines, CNN pestering her old studio for her telephone number, and the tabloids offering money to anyone who had a recent picture of her.
Centerfolds, headshots, movie-posters, her sexy blonde images from the 50s were everywhere.
She chose The Great Morning Talk Show because Bridget Lundgren, the lawyer turned TV host, defended her on the show.
Muffin jumped from Kit’s lap and wolfed a piece of jelly donut the beefy, spiked- haired, lighting woman had dropped.
“This isn’t a barn! Use a napkin. That’s a three-hundred-year-old Persian rug,” Kit said.
“Sorry, Miss Covington.”
Kit watched Lundgren scrutinize the pictures on the wall. She was a real fashion plate in a navy pantsuit, with her short blonde hair tucked behind her ears. Kit tensed when the woman took a photograph from her carnival days off the wall and examined it, revealing a yellow nicotine outline. How dare she!
“Is this from the Gerling Carnival?” Lundgren asked.
“Could be,” Kit said surprised that Lundgren knew about her carny days.
Lundgren replaced it and moved to the photo of Kit riding bareback in The Barnum and Bailey Greatest Show on Earth, where she performed flips until she fell from the horse and broke her ankle.
Above the walk-in fireplace, Lundgren gazed at the huge painting of Kit by Willem deKooning. It was Kit’s favorite, by the artist who inspired her to take up painting. Completed in 1958 when she was twenty-five, the painting recalled the memory of sitting for hours, her back arched, her tits pointing to the North Star, pouty full lips, a halo of platinum blonde hair, and the moist come-hither look women still use to lure men into the bedroom.
“This is one of the few deKoonings I’ve seen that isn’t an abstract,” Lundgren said.
“He did others.”
“My favorite was the Woman series. I love how he broke rules.”
Kit puffed on her cigarette and flicked ash into a large serving dish sitting next to her. She wondered how much of the art world Lundgren knew. In person, Kit judged her as a cool and calculating woman, the way she inspected the pictures as if they hid the da Vinci code. Why not ask how all the hullabaloo affected her, how it made her irritable, critical, bitchy. She wondered if Lundgren had gone so far as to play nice-nice on TV—knowing Kit would be watching.
Outside the sliding screen door, she saw Robin watering the rose bushes. Since the operation, he’d been pestering her to stop smoking. She cut back from a four packs a day, to two and a half. What the hell did he want? She’d been smoking since she was ten. When he tried to scare her with images on his phone of how the cancer could spread to the liver and kidneys, she grabbed the phone and threw it at him. She made him swear that when she died, he’d put her in a box, stick a cigarette in her mouth—preferably lit—and prod a lighter in her right hand.
“I can go without oxygen for four minutes,” Kit said. “So break. I don’t want these damn tubes on camera. I’ll need a cigarette—.”
“Your son told us.”
Miffed by Lundgren’s rudeness, Kit said, “When do we start?”
“In five minutes. Do you need to use the restroom?”
“My legs are cramping.” Kit struggled to rise, shooing Lundgren away when she tried to help. She stood and rolled the oxygen tank she called Sherman across the living room floor while pulling a pack of Winstons and a lighter from the pocket of her long flowing gypsy skirt.
“Aren’t you afraid of the tank exploding?” the sound woman asked as Kit wobbled by.
“No, I’m not. If I could walk a tightrope while on my period, I can roll a damn dolly while smoking a ciggie.”
The girl raised her eyebrows and turned away.
Robin saw her and slid open the screen.
“I don’t want to do this,” Kit said. “That woman’s going to ambush me.”
“C’mon mom, you liked her.”
“Not anymore. She snapped at me, ’Your son told us,’“ she mimicked.
Kit pushed past Robin and stood above her tiered English garden. Even with her fading sense of smell, she caught fragrances of her lemon and peach trees. Below the garden was a view overlooking Highway 1, Malibu, and the Pacific Ocean. She had bought the house in the fifties while pregnant with Robin and married his father Daniel soon after.
The April morning glistened as Catalina Island sat like a treasured cast-off from the mainland. Cast-off. When Kit hit her late twenties, it was over. No producer wanted to hire an old hag at thirty. Her agent got her jobs on TV, as a panel member on To Tell the Truth, I’ve Got a Secret, and her big whoop-de-doo, the center box on Hollywood Squares. In the 1970s, her agent dropped her.
“You signed a contract, Mom. Let people hear your story.” He peered into the living room. “They’re ready for your close-up.”
Kit rolled her eyes. Robin was always quoting from Sunset Blvd., The Wizard of Oz, or All About Eve. On occasion he’d dress in drag and perform dance numbers from Cabaret, A Chorus Line, and musicals she never heard of. Her boy knew how to make her laugh.
Kit counted five strangers in her house, eating, drinking coffee, moving her furniture, and using her bathroom. Well, at least they were women and wouldn’t be pissing on the floor.
“We’re ready, Miss Covington,” the sound woman yelled.
“C’mon, Mom. It’ll be fun.”
“I look like an old beatnik.”
“You are an old beatnik.”
Kit’s chuckle rumbled like a truck bouncing over potholes. She smoothed her long white hair with her ciggie hand. She hadn’t worn lipstick or make-up in years. She lived in sandals and, before the operation, went barefoot.
Robin waited for Kit to enter, then slid the door behind him. Kit rolled Sherman to the couch and settled in. Muffin jumped in her lap and Jezebel the cat slinked around the sofa and nestled beside Kit.
“We’ll open with the video,” Lundgren said. “then cutaway for the interview.”
“Why show that again?”
“It’s the reason for the interview, Miss Covington.”
How sucky, Kit thought. She wasn’t ashamed. She just didn’t like having to defend herself.
“Everyone in the world has seen it.”
“It’s a lead in,” Lundgren said.
Kit scowled at Robin. He came over and straightened the string of turquoise and silver beads that dangled from her neck.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are and meet the young lady, who fell from a star,” Robin whispered.
“Glinda the Good Witch,” Kit mumbled.
Robin winked at her.
“Ready when you are, Bridget,” the camerawoman said.
“Good morning. Today, we have a very special guest. Kit Covington. In case you’ve been living under a rock the last several months,” Lundgren smiled, “we’re going to play the video that’s caused a sensation. Here’s the Grammy-winning pop star, Walker, singing from the hit video,”You’re My Dream Girl in the Night” along with Kit Covington from her movie, I Was a Teenage SheWolf from Mars.”
The video played on a small monitor. Kit watched herself from the 1956 horror movie, dancing, spinning, cleavage bouncing, her generous ass stretching the satin on her sequined spacesuit. It was hard to imagine her wrinkled and shriveled body once had so much oomph and had been so sexy.
She took off the tube and laid it beside her.
The camerawoman pointed her finger, and Lundgren began.
“We’re sitting in the home of Kit Covington, a movie actress known as the Queen of the Bs from the 1950s, who has become infamous for being the poster-girl for the sexualization of generations of women.”
“That’s a load of shit!” Kit said. “Why blame me? Women have always used their bodies to get what they want. As if women didn’t fuck before 1956.”
Lundgren’s jaw dropped. Seconds went by before she made the throat-slash sign with her hand.
Kit coughed and hacked. Muffin jumped on the floor. Jezebel leaped from the sofa and ran around the couch. Kit took the tube and fastened the nasal cannula inside her nostrils, then lighted up a Winston. She inhaled and glanced at the stunned crew and Lundgren. Robin, with his eyes popping and mouth opened, reminded her of Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.
“You can’t swear on TV,” Lundgren said.
Kit glanced at her, looked away, and flicked ash into the dish. It was a knee-jerk reaction, a build-up from the last several months. Also, she wasn’t convinced Lundgren was on her side.
“You can’t go off the rails like that, Miss Covington. It won’t help you.”
“Infamous. Sexualization. Men sexualize women. Who’s head of advertising? They use sex to sell hamburgers, anything. Look at films! Who runs the networks?”
“It’s a lead-in,” Lundgren said.
“I’ve been assaulted and harassed like all those women. I don’t blame anyone but the shits who hurt me.” Kit blew smoke at the side of Lundgren’s face. “How dare you judge me.”
Lundgren waved away the smoke. “I’m not, Miss Covington. Not at all.” Jezebel arched her back and rubbed against Lundgren’s leg.
Kit crushed the cigarette into the plate. She narrowed her gaze at the blonde, who with her furrowed brow and the gentle way she stroked and caressed Jezebel, didn’t fool Kit. Behind Lundgren’s look of compassion was a frozen dish of ambition.
“Would you like to try it again?” Lundgren said.
Kit caught the rapport—the way Lundgren and Robin shot glances at each other— and now her cat had turned traitor.
She took off the oxygen tube. “Muffin.” The poodle ran to her and leaped in her lap. Robin sat at the far end of the couch.
“We’re ready,” the camerawoman said.
Lundgren looked into the camera.
“We’re here with Kit Covington. Known in the 1950s as Queen of the Bs, she has made a scandalizing comeback—.”
“Scandalizing! That’s nothing compared to the shit I see on HBO.”
Lundgren made the throat-slash sign and stood from the sofa.
“We need to take a break.”
“We sure as hell do.” Kit attached the oxygen tube and rose from the couch. Muffin bounded to the floor. Kit wheeled Sherman to the screen door, shooing Robin away, opened it, and went outside.
Kit ignored him. She wheeled Sherman down the ramp while lighting a cigarette.
She and her boy had been snookered into believing Lundgren was on her side. “Scandalizing,” she mumbled. What did Lundgren know about the life of a girl in the 1940s? Those young punks don’t know a damn thing about what life was like before they were born.
She clamped the ciggie in the corner of her mouth and steered the wheels over the yellow bricks Robin had laid that led down to her studio. She’d shut the door, pick up her pallet and brush, and lose herself as she disappeared into her painting.
The white stucco building, with red bougainvillea blooming against the side of the wall, inspired the artist in Kit. She painted color in splashes and dashes, mix-matching paint, blending oil, watercolor, and charcoal onto the canvases. Entering her studio was the closest thing to going to church. It was a place where her creativity transported and elated her.
She mashed the cigarette into the standing ashtray outside. The galleries complained of having to clean her canvas’. To show her how the smoke diminished her work, Robin took a moist cloth and gently wiped a painting. The rag turned yellow. Without the cover of nicotine, the colors burst with vitality. It was a huge sacrifice not to smoke while she painted, but for her art, she would do anything.
Kit went into her sanctuary, the studio overlooking her cactus garden. Rows of tall windows allowed light to stream in. And where there weren’t windows, her imagination decorated the walls. Robin had constructed built-ins for stacking paintings, nooks for brushes and paints, a worktable with drawers. Her boy built the studio exactly how she insisted.
In the late 1980s, Robin went behind her back and entered her work in contests. Furious by Robin’s betrayal, even when she won, she wouldn’t talk to him for days. He adored being the son of a movie star, but being her art agent satisfied both his nurturing and dramatic nature. He arranged her exhibits at MoMA, the Whitney, and others, with as much flare as his once movie star mother. He made deals so her work hung in The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Prado.
From the beginning she signed her work D. L. Hawkins, after Robin’s father, leaving off his last name, Sutton. He lived his forty-four years as an art form, free and spontaneous, he danced when other men walked. My God how she missed him.
Kit made a fortune from her paintings, donating millions of dollars to art institutes. Who would take her seriously if they knew the esteemed D. L. Hawkins was once a second-rate sex-kitten?
Kit shut the door against the world. It hurt having those young women wrongly judge her. She knew what women went through, especially young women. Mad at herself for being so sensitive, she hated to admit that she cared what others thought of her.
“I knocked but you didn’t answer.”
Kit turned so fast the oxygen cannula pulled at her nostrils.
The blonde talk show host stood in the doorway, holding Muffin. Lundgren wore the same expression—open mouth, wide eyes—as when Kit dropped the f-bomb.
“Oh my God. I don’t believe it.”
“I’m not doing the interview,” Kit said.
Lundgren gazed at the art on the walls. “Neither am I, Miss Covington.”
“Then why are you here? And why are you holding my dog?”
“I followed Muffin,” Lundgren said, releasing the poodle. “She brought me here.”
“Fink,” Kit said, glaring at the dog.
“I wanted to let you know I cancelled.” Lundgren continued to stare at the art and the unfinished oil painting on the easel. “And to say goodbye.” Lundgren shook her head. “I can’t believe it,” she said, looking at a pastel that leaned against the wall. “I’m standing in D.L. Hawkins’s studio.”
Kit hacked, “Th—This is,” she stuttered, “private.”
“I’m sorry. I swear—swear, I won’t mention a word to anyone. Are you and Hawkins an item?” she said, glancing at Muffin’s bed and water dish in the corner.
Shaking, startled by the intrusion into her secret life, Kit watched dumbfounded as Lundgren made a b-line to the easel.
“You, you’re not supposed—.” Kit stammered.
“A merry-go-round, where the horses are riding the people.”
Didn’t Lundgren hear her? Just barged her way into D. L.’s studio as if Kit didn’t exist. She shuffled across the wooden floor, shoving Sherman over to the easel.
Lundgren angled her head. “Animal cruelty. It’s amazing to me how Hawkins takes an idea and turns it on its head. I saw his exhibit at MoMA when I did my post-graduate work. Blew me away.”
“You know his work?”
“I majored in art. Didn’t have the talent, so I changed to law.” Lundgren leaned into the unfinished painting. “He tells a story with brush strokes. What a genius.” She looked at Kit. “I know he’s a recluse, but I’d be honored to meet him.”
It reminded Kit of when Robin told her how critics and docents praised her work at exhibits. But to have someone stand in her studio and express how her art touched them, well, it made her—happy.
“He uses horses a lot,” Lundgren said. “My favorite is the Equine Series. You can feel the movement, hear the hooves beating against the ground.”
Kit was impressed by the woman’s knowledge, her trained eye.
“Where did you meet? In the carnival, or circus? It must have been a hard life.”
“Not as bad as home. Carnival came to town, and I ran away. Fourteen years old, a hoochie-coochie girl. It was roughest on the animals and freaks. In 1948, no jobs for women, but I survived.” Kit hadn’t talked about her life with the carny for years. But like Lundgren said, it showed up in her work, often with horses. “The circus. Then the pin-ups and movies. I survived that too. Not like the other blonde bombshells. So many died— suicides, over doses. Jayne Mansfield was killed in a car crash.” Kit felt fatigued. “Yes,” she nodded, “I survived that life, too.”
Lundgren listened, but Kit observed her inching her way toward the collage series on the worktable.
“This is an incredible studio. The lighting. High ceilings. Skylights. Everything an artist could dream of. Makes me want to paint again.” Lundgren glanced at Muffin lapping water from her bowl and then settle into her bed.
Kit flinched when Lundgren spotted her pink paw-patterned smock draped over the back of a chair and the unopened pack of Winstons on the work table.
Lundgren turned slowly. She didn’t look at her, just stared off. Kit experienced a shock of her own. She saw Lundgren putting it all together— amazement, then the revelation. Oh shit! What could Kit do about it? Kill her?
Lundgren tidied her short blonde hair behind her ears.
“I need a cigarette.” Kit wheeled Sherman toward the door. “C’mon Lundgren. D. L. wouldn’t want anyone but me alone with his work,” she said, making light of a moment that changed both their lives.
Muffin ran out the door. Kit looked over her shoulder. “You coming?”
Their eyes met. Lundgren’s were filled with tears.
“I’m tired. I need to sit down. Coming?”
Kit and Muffin walked down the path to the cactus garden. She figured Lundgren was somewhere behind. Tears. She knew them well. But when others cried, it put her at a disadvantage, made her feel mushy. And the young woman looked so beautiful standing in her studio with the sunlight catching every nuance of understanding that passed over her face.
Kit sat on a wrought iron bench, pulled Sherman close, lighted up, and surveyed her garden.
On a lookout, atop the Palisades, her nearest neighbor somewhere below, she really was a recluse. At eighty-five, with death a kiss away, she’d been angry for decades, for her stepfather’s abuse, Daniel’s death, even the small slights, building on top of one another making her view of life a vista of loneliness.
Muffin whined. Kit looked up and saw Lundgren. Muffin jumped up on her hind legs begging Lundgren to pick her up. The woman crouched down, petted Muffin, and looked at Kit.
“I have two silkies, I bet she smells them.”
“It’s more than that.” Kit’s voice had the tired monotony of a flat tire. It wasn’t even noon and she needed a nap. She coughed, hacked, and spit out a glob of phlegm. “Excuse me.” Kit took out her handkerchief and wiped her mouth. “I’m not used to company,” she said and continued to smoke.
“Hey, Mom,” Robin yelled from the top of the garden path, “is everything okay?”
“Yes,” Lundgren answered for her. “Tell the crew I’ll be up in a few minutes.”
Lundgren handed Muffin to Kit and walked around the garden. Her hair was tousled by the breeze.
Kit preferred her like this—mussed. She wondered what the woman looked like at home, in jeans and a T-shirt. Lundgren walked through the narrow aisles, inspecting the plants.
“They’re beautiful how they bloom,” she said. “Like a miracle. I love the subtlety of the color, the shape, how the sunlight captures the unexposed side of the petals.”
Kit remembered how Lundgren studied the photos on the wall. She was sensitive, with an artist’s eye. Maybe she wasn’t going to exploit her after all. The pretty blonde with the slender build must have put up with a lot of sexual harassment. If so, Kit doubted she’d share any of it with her. She thought of Lundgren as quiet, low-key, except when she talked about D. L. Hawkins, then she herself bloomed.
“I understand why you had to choose a pseudonym,” Lundgren said with her back still to Kit. She turned. “I can’t imagine what you went through.” Lundgren walked over and sat next to her. “Not just your generation. My mother had me young. My father ran off and the only way she could keep me and get an education was to dance in strip clubs. She made a good living. That was the 1980s. It’s still hard.”
The two women gazed at the garden with the Pacific as a backdrop.
“There’s a way to make everyone forget about your video,” Lundgren said.
Kit took a deep inhalation of oxygen, closed her eyes, and savored her last moments as D. L. Hawkins. It was her little champagne-colored poodle who had pulled back the curtain and revealed her identity—Muffin, leading Lundgren down the path to her door, giving her away.
Kit could see it now. Robin would take off her oxygen tube and dance her around the living room, overjoyed that his mom would be coming out of the closet. The thought of his endless euphoria exhausted her, but Lundgren was right. It would wipe that stupid video off the networks and change her name from a verb back to a noun.
She stubbed out her Winston. Leaning on Lundgren, she struggled to her feet.
“I’m going to lie down. Run this by Robin. You guys work out the details. But tell him not to wake me until three. And I’ll want my martini extra dry.”
Kit shuffled along. She pulled Sherman as the wheels made clap-clap sounds over the yellow brick path, with Lundgren beside her and Muffin running ahead.