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An absence of formality 

And the lure of dead celebrities

I don't have a ton of advice for people who are feeling down except that, believe me, the absolute last thing you should do is spend the day searching the Internet for dead-celebrity autopsy photos.

"Oh, my God!" I shriek at Lary, "Sharon Tate was still beautiful even all covered in blood with a rope around her neck!"

"Really?" he asks. Which surprises me, because I thought he'd have known. Dead-celebrity autopsy photos seem right up his alley. "Who's Sharon Tate?"

"She was the actress who got butchered by the Manson family," I inform him. "She was eight months pregnant, and they strung her up from a rafter and hacked at her with knives."

I absolutely hate what happened to Sharon Tate, and thinking about it does not improve my mood. But, I swear, who looks good after being murdered by the Manson family? I wouldn't have believed it if I didn't see it, so I kept clicking on more pictures.

Which is why I called Lary. He's proven in the past to be good at pulling my brain out of tar pits of despond like this dead-celebrity Internet-orama. Christ, you'd think that, as a matter of formality, this stuff wouldn't be so easy to see. But formality is absent on the Internet. I click on another picture.

"Here's JFK on a slab at the morgue with the back of his head hanging off the table."


"And here's Marilyn Monroe. Wow, she sure had a lot of big freckles," I say before I realize skin gets blotchy when it rots. "Oh, my God, this is so disgusting!

"Why don't you just stop looking?" Lary asks, as if it were that simple. If it were him stuck in the dead-celebrity down-spiral, I'd have to break down his door to pull him away from his computer.

I scroll down to the title of the next picture and see it's of the Lindbergh baby. "OK, that's it for me. I can't look at dead babies."

"C'mon, click on the Lindbergh baby," Lary implores.

See? He got hooked just listening to me look at the pictures. But I draw the line at dead babies. Celebrities are another matter, because when they're dead, it's almost like they're playing another part.

My mother's good friend Betty knew most of these people personally, and she's seen a lot of dead celebrities, having gone to a lot of funerals for starlets who committed suicide back in the '50s. She herself was never a starlet, but she could have been. She had hair the color of raging flames and styles it like Lucille Ball to this day -- though today her hair is white, and she gets around in one of those motorized stools.

Back then, though, she was quite hot, and claims to have had sex with both Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, but not at the same time. I remember a picture she had hung in her hallway. It was taken in the mid-'50s, and she was poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel. She was tan like Lana Turner, but not wearing a swimsuit. Instead she was in office attire, holding a script in her hand, because that was part of her job as personal secretary to the actor Burgess Meredith, who was also in the picture. He has since died, but not spectacularly -- which is why you won't find his autopsy photo on the Internet.

About 20 years after Betty left Burgess Meredith, she became my mother's secretary, though not the personal kind -- not officially at least. My mother was a missile scientist, and Betty's duties were supposed to have been isolated to trite business formalities. But Betty never ever isolated anything to formalities.

"What're you, a fucking nun?" Betty said to my mother the day they met. It was my mother's first day at work for that company, and Betty had been there awhile. Betty knew someone jonesing for a cigarette when she saw her, and had offered her pack of Salems to the new boss. But my mother had declined, on formality.

"What're you, a fucking nun?" Betty said. "Take one!"

They became immediate friends. Betty was big and brassy and left ashtrays brimming with scarlet-tipped cigarette butts all over her work desk and apartment. When my mother left us, she didn't move in with Betty right away -- at first she slept in her car. But Betty found out somehow, probably because she never bothered to subtract the word "personal" from her title as secretary. "Get your shit," she told my mother. "You're coming to my place."

My mother tried to decline, but Betty insisted, pointing out that it looked a lot worse for her to be living in the company parking garage than it did for her to be living with her secretary.

But at that time, my mother wasn't used to such absence of formality. At Betty's offer, she sat at her desk and put her brow in her hand, which was shaking. Betty handed her a Salem. "I'm going through hell," my mother cried.

This was nothing new to Betty. She'd had movie stars and bums alike crash at her place until they got back on their feet.

"Well, honey, when you find yourself going through hell," she said, "just keep on going."

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