Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A Birthday Memory

Seventy-one years ago, on my Bar Mitzvah day, I went to the movies to see the elegantly beautiful British actress Madeleine Carroll and, on the day the Jewish religion declared me a man, I fell hopelessly in love with the most golden shiksa of them all.

A decade and a war later, at my alma mater, City College of New York, I was doing publicity for the Institute of Film Techniques, a grandiose name for a few courses started by Hans Richter, an avant-garde filmmaker who had fled the Nazis. Since the Academy Awards ignored them then, I suggested the Film Institute select the best documentaries of the year. He happily agreed and started to round up his friends as judges.

Looking at his list, unaware that my subconscious was groping toward divine fulfillment, I suggested the jury would benefit from adding a name, a big Hollywood name, a movie star name. We pondered for a while, but my subconscious had been reading the New York Times. Who was in New York, just retired from films, about to take her fourth husband, a tycoon at Time Inc.? Did it surprise my subconscious when her name came to my lips? Madeleine Carroll.

She agreed to do it. On the day of judging she appeared, a well-dressed woman of forty, but I was seeing her in soft focus, her shimmering hair framing lips, eyes and cheekbones that had inflamed a boy's heart. We sat together in the dark, shoulders touching, for six hours, her perfume flooding my senses. If she was bored by the unreeling of banal images by sensitive filmmakers with foundation grants, she never showed it.

In a sneering documentary about Hollywood materialism, the camera unsteadily panned million-dollar homes, with the narrator intoning, "This is Beverly Hills, a rich community with well-kept lawns..."

She turned and put her lips to my ear, her hair brushing my temple.

"And well-kept women," she whispered.

After the lights came on to end my dream, Madeleine Carroll took my hand in farewell with a dazzling smile.

She was the first of Alfred Hitchcock's blonde goddesses in the 1930s and, after her sister was killed in a World War II bombing raid, she had stopped acting to work in field hospitals as a Red Cross nurse, receiving the Legion d'honneur for bravery in France.

I still see that smile in my dreams and on Turner Classic Movies.


Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday, Robert!

It's a lucky and wise man who keeps such vivid memories of youth and beauty.

Amicus said...

Happy (belated) Birthday.

They just honored Carroll last year, near this time, it appears:

"But on Wednesday, a 10ft (3m) high black and grey granite monument, in tribute to Carroll's career in black and white films, will be unveiled in West Bromwich's new town square, more than 100 years after her birth in the town."


Dan Leo said...

I'm retroactively jealous!

Ciaran said...


I am Madeleine's first cousin and I was there for the unveiling of the monument to her honour in West Bromwich.

Enjoy those memories !!!!