I was a mere peanut-sized being, blossoming in utero, when Daniel the second (my grandfather) and Daniel the third (my dad) both died. Odd to me, their deaths came one right after the other and under what seemed to be very suspicious circumstances that no one could ever really explain in a way that made sense to me.
As a child, I would while away the hours staring at the few photos my mother had of both she and my dad, and my dad and grandfather together. The photos told me nothing other than my mom had been gorgeous during that time, a fact that no longer held true, and both father and son were incredibly handsome men.
The story goes that granddad, on his way home from performing the extremely successful role of David Jordan in No Strings at the Adelphi Theater, accidentally stepped onto the tracks of an oncoming subway train along the Concourse line in the Bronx. Why he would have ever been in the Bronx at midnight, when the theater was eleven miles away on 54th Street in the opposite direction of his flat, never made sense to me.
Then a mere week later, my dad, on his way home after collecting my granddad’s belongings at the theater, became the unfortunate and unsuspecting victim of a late night hit and run. Both men’s bodies were found where they lay, nothing taken, no witnesses, just broken and expired corpses.
My mother, who apparently had a fragile disposition to begin with, had a nervous breakdown after my dad’s death and was never quite right afterwards. I’d had nothing to compare who she was before the accidents to so the irrational behavior and paranoia she always carried was to be her normal to me. I’d often find her just sitting and sobbing, or staring into space.
Aunt Maurine, my mom’s sister, endeavored to give me some kind of normalcy and became my anchor. She would take me, my mom, and my cousin Roy for weeks at a time to a beautiful, century-old lake shore home my dad’s family had owned in Vermont on Lake Champlain. Now, since my father’s passing, my mom technically owned the house, and I would too one day.
One summer, Roy and I took to the off-limits attic, because that is what you do when it fails to stop raining for a day and a half at the lake, you’re bored of books and puzzles, and both your moms have taken off to go shopping at the nearest big town.
“Come on, don’t be a putz. They’re never going to know. You go first,” Roy said to me, “after all, it’s your dead families’ stuff up there.”
“Who knows what’s up there. There could be dead bodies or something. Ghosts even. I’m not sure I want to know.”
“Ah come on, there could be gold, treasures, cool stuff, secrets,” he said the last word in a drawn out sinister whisper.
“Don’t you want to know? You’re always saying you want to know more about your dad.”
That was all it took, because I did want to know more. I wanted to know a lot more than the cryptic bits and crumbs of information I’d managed to squeeze out of my mom and my aunt.
We opened the door that led to the attic stairs and I was surprised it wasn’t locked. The stairs groaned as we climbed. I wondered when the last time it was that somebody actually went up there but judging from the layers of grime it looked like it had been a while. It took a pretty hefty shove to get the attic door to open, warped from a hundred or more Vermont winters. I held my breath and waited in the door frame, literally waiting for the dust to settle in the room before I entered. There were no sounds, no ghoulish shrieks, just lots of spider webs and dingy sheets covering what I assumed to be old furniture. I gingerly lifted a sheet, hoping a mouse or something else wouldn’t come darting out, but we’d guessed right. Just a bunch of old furniture.
“I wonder what’s in those trunks,” Roy said after all the sheets were lifted, motioning to a row of sea trunks against the far wall.
We moved in unison towards them and found them filled with old clothes and costumes. These must have been my grandfather’s things. Roy pulled out a satiny red cape, top hat and cane. He put everything on and started dancing.
“Who are you?” I asked. “Fred Astaire?”
I kept digging through the chests while Roy explored the costumes. There were playbills, scrapbooks with news articles about my granddad, letters, photos, even some rolls of undeveloped film.
Treasures to be sure, I thought. Secrets.
The rain finally stopped and soon we heard Aunt Maurine’s car crunching up the driveway. I stuffed the rolls of film in my pocket and the letters under my shirt to read later as we made our way out of the attic and down the stairs to the game table. Our moms were never the wiser to our illicit attic tour.
Later that night I pulled out the letter on top and read it to Roy, hoping he could help me make sense of it.
My dearest Daniel,
It takes one to know one. You are a star in my eyes. I so wish I could be there on your opening night but I know you are going to be the best David Jordan anyone’s ever seen.
Kisses to you my love and we will be together again soon.
All my love,
“Who is MM is what I want to know?” Roy said.
“I have no idea.”
The letters and film were long forgotten after my former fifth grade self had read them and couldn’t make sense of anything. I’d asked my mom once if she knew anyone with the initials “MM” and she got really strange on me, running into the bathroom and slamming the door. After that, I never thought about them again. Until…
Fifteen years later, I moved my belongings into that old lakeshore home. I’d graduated from Syracuse University with a journalism degree and wanted a quiet place to work. And this house was quiet. So quiet in fact that I found myself distracted. To further distract myself I found myself up in the attic again. Everything was still there, untouched, as it had been so long ago.
I got curious and went to that trunk that had contained all the memorabilia. I drew out the scrap books and for the first time got to see a vivid image of who my grandfather really was. This flashy, dashing man with tousled blondish hair and a broad smile. I found playbills from his wide acting career. Photos of him in that top hat that Roy had danced around in. News articles and magazines of him at parties in Hollywood with celebrities and movie stars.
And then I remembered the letter I’d read to Roy, from MM that said, it takes one to know one.
I found the letters in one of my moving boxes, along with the rolls of film.
While the film was being developed in Burlington in the CVS photo department, I popped into the University of Vermont’s student library. I figured since they had a theater program, they would probably have access to old theater records. So, I killed time reading all about Daniel Hawkesbury II, my granddad. I learned more about the shows he had starred in, found an announcement of my dad’s birth and my granddad’s subsequent divorce from my grandmother after an alleged affair with a married woman who remained unnamed. Who knew he was so illustrious? And who was the mysterious married woman?
I picked up the prints at CVS, and stopped by Gracey’s Liquor Outlet for a six pack of Heady Topper beer before heading back to the lake house.
At the kitchen table I opened a beer and then pulled out the prints. The first package I opened contained photos of Hollywood’s notable places, circa 1960’s. It was obvious that these were no digital prints—many were blurred as if taken from a car driving quickly by its subject. There was a photo of the Hollywood sign and Grauman’s Chinese theater. One was of someone’s hand and another a partially scarved face of a blonde woman smiling. The second package of film was much the same. A grainy picture of the ocean, beach towels on the sand, seagulls.
I’m not sure what I expected but this wasn’t it. I opened the last envelope of images and there she was. It was clear. MM in a bathing suit. MM smiling. MM in her robe on the terrace of some hotel room. MM drinking a martini. MM the married woman. MM the celebrity, the star. MM.
I revisited the letters, reading more carefully now. It all made sense. My grandfather was clearly suspect and a real victim of what many think is just a conspiracy theory.
I had questions and lot of them. Were he and MM still in contact at his death? What had she shared with him? Did he know some of the more sinister deals that had been made? The New York mobsters must have thought so and so the subway accident was just too perfect. The same with my father, they must have thought he knew something too.
And so, MM, the dalliance of the President of the United States, the Attorney General, the wife of Joe DiMaggio, James Dougherty and Arthur Miller was the mysterious mistress of my grandfather, the married woman, and the real reason I never got to meet my father.
Should I hate Norma Jean? I don’t think so, but now I understand why there are so many questions surrounding her death.