The Woman Who Looked Like Lana Turner

Guinotte Wise

("Oh, we'll laugh again, we'll just never be young again." Daniel Patrick Moynihan to Mary McGrory at JFK's funeral when she said to him, "We'll never laugh again.")



My mother-in-law and I were on the run in 1963.

She looked like Lana Turner. She smoked and drank quite a lot, but her figure was stunning. My father said of her, "Katherine looks like a Las Vegas showgirl." He also said, "Katherine Riley would be slinging hash in Chicago if it wasn't for Everett." I doubted that, though Katherine was a little … earthy. A little Mae West. Everett was her husband, my father-in-law, at the time we were on the run. We comprised a glamorous Bonnie and a callow Clyde, thugs of love, drunk on it. But it lasted forty years.

Katherine and I were fond of Everett but our attraction to each other was strong and addictive. I'm sure she loved him, but there was room in her capacity to love me as well. She lived voraciously, and loved without hesitation. All in, the term for it is these days. We were certainly that.

I'd married Anne in a drunken fog. I was in love with Katherine, but that didn't seem like much of a future, so I settled for Anne. Katherine had put the full court press on me on Anne's behalf when she discovered I was in the Blue Book, the Kansas City Social Register, albeit as a girl, Ms. Leslie Wade. That made a difference to Katherine, having been poor in childhood, raised in squalor I heard. She was often mistaken for Lana Turner, and there were parallels: Ms. Turner, like Katherine, was the daughter of teenaged parents, and her father was a miner in Appalachia. And, like Lana Turner, she aged well, remaining second-glance beautiful well into her fifties and sixties. I met her in her early forties.

She was Everett's second wife; he'd left a previous family for her. Ev Riley was big, old money, starting with an inherited major brand bottling plant. He'd parlayed that into more millions with Buick/Cadillac dealerships throughout the Midwest.

* * *

It was a bit of a shock to all of us when Anne's and my son, Everett Longworth Wade, was born black, nine months after Teddy Blaine, a black friend, had stayed with us on his way to New York to be, as he put it, in legitimate theater. This black kid was supposed to be our firstborn. When we first discovered Anne was pregnant I just figured the condoms were poor quality. At the hospital I changed that theory to Teddy didn't use them.

Everett sequestered Anne in the lake house while he figured that one out. The divorce was to be uncontested. I was at loose ends. Ev and Katherine empathized, took me in hand. Katherine really took me in hand, made the first bold move on me and I didn't hesitate.

To say things had deteriorated on the family front would be quite an understatement. This was in 1963, and the world was crazy anyway. Vietnam. Marches and protests. Black Panthers. Katherine was forty-four, I was twenty-two. It's all very complicated. Let's just say Katherine and I got together in '63. Victimless crimes are a myth; the degree of victimization is the point. But we lasted for another forty years, Katherine and I.

* * *

Shortly after the birth, fate put us on a road trip. Everett needed a new special-order Cadillac convertible delivered to Los Angeles, and wanted me to drive it there, pick up another car, and drive it back. Katherine thought it would be fun to go along. Ev thought that was fine; we could make a vacation of it. Katherine and I felt we'd been granted a genie wish, weeks together, no motel nooners and subsequent anxiety. She was very fond of Everett and so was I.

Our affair had started at the Carmody Hospital Style Show, a big charity deal put on every year by the city's cream of society. Katherine was modeling a daring red ball gown, strapless, with a slit up one side that revealed, in a walk, her long legs. She was to be accompanied on the runway by Everett but he refused. Somehow, I got the escort position. I'd been assigned a spot in the show anyway, thanks to Katherine, but only a single quick turn on the catwalk in a suit or sport coat, carrying a Burberry overcoat which I was to put on at my turn before walking back. Instead I was now to escort Katherine while in a tux with a red lining in the coat, then open the jacket as she turned, to show the matching color to her gown. I'd never done anything like this before. I had a couple of shots of bourbon before the walk, and, in the dressing room, it was just Katherine and me. She asked me to unzip her gown from behind. "Got to adjust my boobs, Honey. The ribbing is killin' 'em." Somehow we became rather involved after I unzipped her and she had to apply new makeup at the dressing table. She wiped the lipstick from my face with rough swipes of tissue dipped in creamy makeup remover. "Hold still, dammit. You don't want lipstick all over your face. And see if you can't calm down below the ol' cummerbund, too, Honey. That would give the matrons something to talk about." She patted the bulge.

They say we did well, and looked good together. "A little wicked," one of her friends said. "A bit dangerous. Fairly prancing on that runway, you two, very … professional," she said, giving us a long thoughtful look.

* * *

November is beautiful in Nebraska. If you live out a ways you hear the distant pops of small gauge shotguns and throatier sounds of the choked twelves. Smell the leaf fires. Feel the marching drums from football games. Pheasant time. Back then in 1963, there were plenty of birds, but not so many now I hear. The hunters have to go farther, South Dakota, Wyoming. But those days were overlaid with autumn gold and promise and the quickening thrill of winter to come. The blood flowed with a viscosity very nearly perfect promoting a clarity of vision that was almost psychedelic.

"I doubt we'll be back by Thanksgiving, Ev," she said, kissing him and rubbing his back. Everett said if she wasn't he'd find a bird to stuff, waggling his eyebrows in mock surprise when I laughed at that. "Hell, take your time kids, it's been a strange year. We may not even do Christmas this year."

* * *

The temptation here is to get all erotic and start detailing things as they happened along the way. Done it in my mind a hundred times. But that would degrade the relationship. It was really quite nice, once you get over the obvious hoodwinking and artifice we had to employ. It was even chaste in some ways. And fun. Katherine had a salty sense of humor and laughed easily. She could bring me out of my hangover doldrums with a sidelong glance, a dimple deepening just a centimeter. "I'm dry as a nun's, get me a martin-eye, Honey." Or after a long session of lovemaking, when offered a cigarette, "Honey, I'm already smokin', singed fringe, know what I mean?" She made me laugh even when she was in hospice in 2000.

I realized I'd been in love with her since meeting her and since the rush I'd gotten from her to join the family. A shrink might say I'd transferred that to Anne in the beginning and there might be some weight to it. That summer of Anne was a booze-fueled whirl of parties, country-clubbing, meeting people, and it was all intensified because I lived at their house for a month or so. That closeness, the preparation, the chemistry, drew us ever closer. We submitted. I knew I was in love, I just didn't know who the object of that tempestuous hormonal and wholly irrational cannonade was. Besides that, I'm a lush. So was Katherine. So were we all. But we were a fine-looking bunch for awhile.

* * *

If Fellini and Tempest Storm had met Masters and Johnson and they'd collaborated on a book, made a film of it with Disney and the Coen Brothers, we'd have been that movie. And a long movie it was. Beginning with the style show and the road trip to California. The journey out was playful, uninhibited, inventive and joyous.

* * *

I think our reasoning was that if we overdid it we'd get it out of our systems and live happily ever after. But I could never get enough of her. I think she felt the same. Something about us together made her say, "We'll never be able to stop, will we? This will go on and on." I shook my head: "Yes, I think that's right." It wasn't a '60s thing, a casual pairing. There were so many of those back then. Beyond the quickening we felt, there was also a deep fondness that would prove to last. I admit I was taken by her looks when I first met her. Anne said all of her boyfriends fell for her mom and she hated it.

Katherine's hair glowed. Streaky blonde, always pulled back in a chignon. Pretty face, full lips but not like those pumped up things they do now, ears with diamonds or stones of some kind, sometimes hoops. Darkish eyebrows, long eyelashes. Straight noseline, as I said, a face like Lana Turner, body too. Breasts of any size, small to large, are attractive to me, and hers were large—I'd seen Tempest Storm's at The Follies in Kansas City with some male friends, all of us whooping self-consciously. Katherine was built like that, curvaceous, probably a bit overweight by today's standards, but quite a nice figure for the '60s and well beyond. As late as 1988, she was walking out by where we lived in Maui, and a man drove his car right into a tree ogling her. "I've still got it, Honey," she told me, and I agreed.

When she put her hair down it fell below her shoulders and the constant chignon made it curl in a thick tendril which lay across her upper back or her collarbone in front. I've always thought she would look good with it down or spread across her shoulders, but the way she wore it was her, and I liked it pulled back. She wasn't a true blonde; neither was Lana Turner probably, I don't know.

* * *

In the Mojave, I turned off at Katherine's request. The euphemism back then was powder my nose. The main highway was deserted but she wanted to go on a secondary road to nowhere, so she wouldn't be interrupted. I headed down a packed dirt road that looked solid enough and drove for quite awhile. "I can still see the highway," she said, "so some trucker could see me squatting like a squaw, Honey. Keep going." I did. Then the road inexplicably sprouted telephone poles on one side. I remarked on that, and she said, "Phone poles are everywhere, Honey. People have to have phones." I thought it was odd with no sign of a town or even a house. Eventually, as the road got worse and the Caddy wallowed along in sand and soft spots, I saw a phone booth. Nothing else. That's where the phone lines stopped, at a phone booth where two dirt roads crossed. Surreal.

I slowed and pulled over just to look at this somewhat disorienting juxtaposition of glass, aluminum frame, and desert. And the phone was ringing.

"You get the phone," she said. "This is far enough, I have to go." She took her purse and was out of sight on the passenger side, even with the top down. I got out and went to the phone booth. I heard her voice from the other side of the car say, "If it's for me, I'll be right there, Honey."

"Hello?" I scanned the bleak landscape, feeling foolish for answering the insistent ring. A small creature moved from one lengthening saguaro cactus shadow to another.

"Where've you been?" a male voice said. He sounded irritated.

"On the way to L.A.," I said "On the way here, I guess."

"Great. Just fucking great. Well, I need you to go to Vegas. It's all set for Friday. Dallas at noon. You have to be the alibi for Gene. You played poker with him all night Thursday or some shit. Okay?"

"I think you have the wrong person." There was silence, maybe breathing, and then the phone went dead. I hung it back up. Katherine was in the car doing something to her face in the mirror. Actually powdering her nose.

"Whoo-ee, my eyeteeth were floatin', Honey. Who were you talking to?" she asked, when I slid behind the wheel.

"I don't know. Some guy said Friday, noon, Dallas. And I was to be Gene's alibi. In Vegas."

As we turned to head back to the highway, I saw a roostertail of dust approaching from a side road. A vehicle moving fast for the conditions. I sped up at that point and was quite a ways off when that vehicle came to a complete stop. At the phone booth. The vehicle was an olive drab jeep, but beyond that I couldn't tell much by looking in the rearview mirror. Seemed to be two people in the swirl of dust the jeep raised, but I wasn't sure. When I reached the highway, I floored it and put distance between us and that phone booth. No jeep would ever catch us, and none tried that I could see. It could have been a military vehicle or a surplus military vehicle.

"Are we fleeing? Am I your moll?" asked Katherine, some fifty miles down the road. She was curled up on the seat, back to the window, facing me. Smiling.

I was cruising at eighty now, the heavy Cadillac holding the surface smoothly. I spoke out of the side of my mouth saying "Just like a dame, all the time questions."

She lit a cigarette, then another and handed me one. I reached over and squeezed her thigh, high under her skirt before I took the cigarette.

"I'll give you twenty minutes to stop that, Honey," she said. She said it a lot. It was one of our "things".

* * *

It took another hundred miles but I forgot the episode at the phone booth and the military-type jeep, or stashed it well back in my mind behind other things of more timely importance, where to stay the night, where to eat, whether to dress for dinner. Katherine nodded off a couple of times but snapped back awake. I hoped never to see her drool in sleep, but knew it would not diminish my deep affection for her, or the strong attraction. Indeed, we were becoming more and more used to one another's bodies, habits, and humanness that closeness brings with it. Married couples sometimes recoil from something so contrary to the original dream of perfection, and that's the beginning of the end. Couples who embrace the imperfections are the other fifty percent in my opinion. I loved Katherine, all of her.

November in the Mojave is nowhere near the storied heat of summer, although it can get up around ninety degrees. It was about seventy when Katherine and I blew through. We left the top down a lot so we could see everything, red tailed hawks floating here and there, little sand devils, Joshua trees and countryside. We did pull over and raise the top when the wind blew grit into the car. We kissed and made out like a couple of high-schoolers: turned on the air-conditioner, smoked and talked while we finished the final two canned Manhattans swimming in the cold water and ice left in the cooler. Not advisable in the desert, by the way, but we were almost out of the Mojave.

"What do you think that phone call was about?" she asked.

"Wrong number? I don't know. Unless it was a right number and the guy didn't get there in time. In that case, it's a little scary. Friday, Dallas, your favorite president is there. God knows why," I said.

"Oh, campaigning I imagine. With that troll Johnson. Who knows? Anyway, I just think he's kind of sexy."

"Sexier than me?" I pulled her toward me and kissed her.

"I'll give you twenty minutes to stop that, Honey," she said, between kisses, and squeezed me strategically. We tasted like Manhattans and cigarettes and our lips were cold from the drinks. We were dusty. Our clothing was wrinkled. We were happy. Completely.

* * *

The motel was nice, seemed fairly new, and big. Back then motels were pretty easy choices, the seedy ones were missing neon letters and the really bad ones had little shotgun cottages scattered about, or sad teepee-shaped structures out this way. The new ones were built on the order of hotels with elevators and fountains in the lobby, lots of glass and lights. This one said Four Stars under the main sign, and it gleamed in the gently descending dusk as we drove up under the portals to the entrance. A bellhop opened Katherine's door, and pushed a chrome luggage cart around to the trunk. At the desk, the attractive receptionist asked, "Will you and your … will you all be staying with us for one night or more, Mr. Wade?"

It turned out they were almost fully booked, and so instead of two separate rooms, she asked if we would mind a suite for a reduced price. I said fine, and we were on our way, bellhop in tow.

We unpacked and took a shower ("Come on in, Honey. We're still in the desert so we'd better conserve water.") and dressed casually. We headed downstairs to the tiki-themed bar, empty at this hour. The bartender, a large man with a greying crewcut, about forty years of age, in an Aloha shirt, raised his head slightly. It was an inquisitive look, which he abruptly shed, smiling, placing coasters in front of us. Katherine looked at me, said, "Want to try a Honi-Honi, Honey?"

"Trader Vic's, right? Which one?" said the bartender.

"Beverly Hills Hilton," she said, tapping a cigarette on her gold case. The bartender and I produced lighters. He won. She took a drag, raised her head showing her long tanned neck and blew the smoke above us. The bartender was entranced. She flicked ash into the ashtray he slid toward her. I was used to men honing in on Katherine, and no longer frightened by it. Is frightened an odd word? Frightened of what? Of loss? Of physical entanglement with the more aggressive types? No. Of unpleasantness touching our charmed existence, I suppose. She handled it well, having been exposed to it most of her life.

"I hate to be inquisitive, but what are you doing here … well, that's none of my business. How about just an annoying question? Like, could I have your autograph?" He clicked a ballpoint, tore a sheet of paper from an order pad, and offered them to Katherine.

She smiled. I watched her write Two Honi-Honie's, pronto. K. Riley. A flourish on the y, she handed it back to him. He read it, laughed, and said, "Coming right up, but only if you sign your real name, Ms. Turner." He waited. "Come on, I'm a fan. Sign it to Rocco." She signed the same slip of paper with AKA Lana Turner, to Rocco, and added a heart. He put the slip in his Aloha shirt pocket and whirled about to make our drinks.

"So who am I?" I said.

"Johhny Stompanato's successor. Better treat me right."

"I intend to."

* * *

Word got around that the guests in the yellow Cadillac with Nebraska dealer plates were Lana Turner and some younger guy. We decided to move on the next day, but first we'd play with the attention and have fun with it. We walked outside before dinner, and smoked, watching a harvest moon come up large.

"Drop the mask, Honey," she said.

"What, the movie star mix-up?"

"No that's just some fun stuff. Your mask. Your being 'on' all the time. You don't need it."

"I'm not sure I …"

"Don't play dumb, Les. I love you to death. You, the real you."

"And I am fucking crazy about you, always will be."

"Love me, love my bunions."

"What?"

"In twenty years I'll be sixty-four. You'll be forty-four. Get it? Saggy boobs, cellulite, and stuff I don't even want to think about. At eighty-four, you'll be sixty-four."

"Sure. I don't care. It's you for me. Somehow, I don't know how. There are … obstacles. But it's you, Katherine."

"Okay. Let's do room service tonight, blow this pop-stand in the morning."

"Perfect."

"I won't leave Everett. And I don't want to ever hurt him."

* * *

We had prime ribs, a bottle of good wine, and walked on the adjoining golf course in the moonlight. Katherine carried her shoes, enjoying the fresh dew on the cut grass. I carried the bottle and the wine glasses. Neither of us sensed a thing. Creatures sense impending earthquakes, horses see ghosts, and dogs know evil when it seeps into their space. We were clueless in our shortsightedness.

Friday morning, the sun woke us, the curtains open on our second floor suite. Palm trees, mountains, clear sky. Over brunch we checked the AAA maps and decided on a leisurely last leg into L.A. The TV was on, some soap opera murmuring. Katherine did face things with creams in the bathroom, the door open, leaning at the mirror over the sink.

In the next few moments the world changed, the axis shifted, but this time I sensed it before the news bulletin broke in. The president had been shot. I looked at my watch. 10:40. It would be 12:40 in Dallas. The bulletin came from New York. "Bulletin, 1:40pm … In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy's motorcade. The first reports say the President was seriously wounded, that he slumped over in Mrs. Kennedy's lap, she cried out, 'Oh, no!' and the motorcade went on … The wounds perhaps could be fatal …"

I put my coffee down, glanced at Katherine, still busy at the mirror, something caught in my throat, acid-like. The Mojave phone call went through my mind. The phone rang in the suite. It rang five or six times and stopped. I stood transfixed. Katherine was near, I smelled her perfume, heard her moving.

"The phone," she said. "Oh my god. Something's wrong. Is it Everett?" I looked at the phone on the end table, a red light was flashing. I see it in my dreams sometimes. The bulletin about Dallas continued.

I picked up the phone; it was a message from the desk. I returned the call, but there was no answer for several rings. Then finally a breathless voice said, "Hello? I mean Front Desk, yes?"

"This is Room 216. The message light was on?"

"Oh yes. Yes. there was an emergency call from Omaha for Mrs. Riley. Mr. Riley was taken to the emergency room this morning. She is to call a Mrs. Bickle at this number—do you have a pen?"

I wrote the number down. Fran Bickle was a family friend. I gave it to Katherine and walked in a daze back to the television. Kennedy was in grave condition, they seemed to be saying. Shot from a park or a building. Then I heard Katherine's voice, "Oh no. Oh my god, Fran, what?" Then silence. "Fran, I'll call you back. It's not your fault, hon."

I waited.

"It's Ev. He had a heart attack," Katherine said.

"Will he recover? Was it this?" I gestured at the TV.

"No, Honey. He died this morning."

She sat heavily on the couch, and I held her. I felt her body shake from crying. I was numb it seemed. The voice from the TV droned on. Katherine's quakes slowed, and then stopped.

"What was Fran doing there so early?" she said, muffled by my shoulder.

"Maybe checking on him? Stopped by for some reason?"

"I should talk," she said.

Some talking head, Cronkite I guess, made the pious most of his moment of national grief. Others would follow. The Dan Rathers believed they framed the thoughts for us poor dumb clucks, leaderless now except for Uncle Cornpone. What a time. My core ached for Katherine and the people around JFK.

* * *

I took Katherine to the new Los Angeles airport, and the Caddy to the dealership. I drove the other car, alone, through the Mojave and on Route 66. I guess I stopped to sleep. I must have. I drove on to Omaha for the funeral.

After the funeral Anne, Teddy's kid (Longworth, as Anne called him now), Katherine, and I flew to Maui and stayed at the new Sheraton for a couple of weeks. We frequented bookshops, stores, spent time at the pool and the beach. We were sleepwalking through life for awhile, all of us except Longworth. He enjoyed Maui immensely.

I met Teddy at the little airport. He was hesitant, walking toward me from the little needle-nosed plane from the big island, but I hugged him. We resumed our old college friendship.

He and Anne went off to see the waterfalls of Hana, taking little Longworth with them. Katherine and I were left to ourselves. We didn't take up where we left off; at least not for some days. We did enjoy one another, our company, and the odd moments of laughter. Life went on.

* * *

My own family hadn't disowned me, but they were distant. The affair with Katherine was not to their liking. I think they thought it would blow over. Katherine was quite wealthy by then, and Anne was well-fixed and married to Teddy. I was odd man out, financially, and though it never would have been an issue with Katherine, I wouldn't be kept. So I took steps to become financially viable. I borrowed $30,000 and went to Hollywood with a screenplay. That worked out well, with the Los Cruiseros biker gang series and the rest is history. I was never quite as bankable as Katherine but I could hold up my end, and did. She was proud of me. We lived well and happily for years.

* * *

Something odd from that time: the LA Cadillac dealer said some military intelligence sorts were snooping about, trying to discern who had driven the car from Omaha. The dealer told them there were no records of the cross-country drivers. He told them to check with the Omaha dealership. They did, and were told the same; no records had been kept of the drivers. The car had been delivered and that was that.

* * *

Katherine was lucid and sharp to the very end. In 2000, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Her health failed but not her mind. "Honey, I'm gonna smoke and drink right up to the end. Get me a martin-eye." They said she could undergo chemo and radiation therapy, but for what? A few months more to live, and painful ones at that? She was in relatively little pain, and with meds, even less.

"Remember the phone call? she said one day, out of the blue. "The Mojave call?"

"I do, indeed."

"I believe that call set off the happiest days of my life, and the worst."

"Best of times, worst of times," I said.

"Don't get all literary on my lame ass, Honey." Then she laughed.

* * *

I made some inquiries. The phone booth was still there, but the company was going to shut it down that year, remove it. I'd have to move fast.

* * *

Teddy and Anne flew in. Longworth was now thirty-seven, and a lawyer. He was there with his wife and kids. Some of the Omaha old guard were there. Some had younger wives. In the parking lot of the hospice the set-builders had been thorough: sand, saguaro cactus, tumbleweeds, the phone booth with all its forty years of graffiti and sandstorm-dimmed glass. Next to it all was a showroom mint yellow 1964 Cadillac convertible.

They brought her out in her wheelchair. Wheeled her to the phone booth. The phone was ringing. I poured her a martini.

She took a sip. "You answer it, Honey. Tell me if it's for me."