She was born with an ordinary name. Katharine Joan Williams, or was it Phillips? I can't remember. The studio changed it to Terryman or something corny like that in a second. Just like they changed everything else about her. She was a simple girl with a spark in her eye, nineteen years old - might've been seventeen - in the late twenties. Depression right around the corner, ready to kill, and yet no one could hear it, its loud paces softened by the sound coming from the movie screen and the Broadway stage. What a delight! Kay wanted to be a part of it. Alone, she took a train to New York, not even sure of what the future held for her there, just wishing with every fibre of her being to leave that small town, that dead-end place where her dreams had no space left to grow.
When she got to the city with no place to live, no money to eat or get anywhere, and with no support from the family who saw acting as one step from streetwalking, she sat down at a corner and cried. She cried and cried and cried, seemingly endless tears leaking from her eyes with no way in sight to stop them. She cried herself to the falling evening. Seven o'clock, the city taken by enormous lights and beautiful sounds. Broadway. She was there. Only another step separated her from the dreams she hoped would come true, and she couldn't believe it. Her tears dried up as if by magic, she took her tiny purse with the ten cents from the boy in Tennessee and walked towards a theatre. She had nothing: She had nothing to lose.
Mr. Ziegfeld absorbed her like a dry sponge and, all of a sudden, she was no longer a pretty girl looking for fame; she was another pretty girl looking for fame, mixed into a crowd she no longer knew and blended into the picture she was trying so hard to stand out from. She learned to dance, she learned to sing, she learned to act, but everywhere she looked, so many others knew just as well as her. "What is the difference between me and these other gals? Which one of us will become a star? Who gets to decide our fate?"
Kay didn't know it, but the difference between these girls...
|Hollywood Revue of 1929|
And this girl...
|Ginger Rogers in 1933|
Was, more often than not, in the hands of these men...
|Louis B. Mayer|
Who's to say that any number of those chorus girls couldn't have danced just like Ginger had she been picked by one of the studio bosses? It's things like these that we will never know. And it's not taking merit away from any of the big stars - they undoubtedly had more than reason enough to become as big as they were - but to say that it's a just world out there and everyone deserving got a chance is a naive and short-minded illusion, at best.
Lucky for Kay, she happened to fit physically a very desirable ideal. Long slender legs at only 5'3. Sparkling brown eyes with ash blond hair, curling towards her alabaster neck. Her eyebrows needed very little done and after a little rouge and powder, her face was that of an angel's. Her voice was like a breeze and, after the diet Mr. Ziegfeld - and her salary - had imposed on her, her waist was a beaming 22 inches. Enough to have Mr. Louis B. Mayer recruit her for Los Angeles. By then it was 1934. Kay was 23. In the normal world, a baby. In a time of depression and in show business, an elder.
They sat her down with no questions asked and had five people working at her at the same time. One on the eyebrows, one on the lips, two taking measurements and one making sure the hair was good enough to begin with. Kay walked in a pretty girl, and walked out a movie star.
It wasn't long before she got her first walk-in role in a movie. Her costume was beautiful, covered with feathers, showing off her beautiful legs. At the chorus she met Jane, a girl with eyes the color of the ocean. She told Kay all about how that was her first job in the city. She had to go on a date with a middle-aged assistant director in order to eat dinner, because she had simply run out of money. Jane was fifteen years old. Kay slipped a ten dollar bill in Jane's bag without her noticing it. Ziegfeld hadn't given her much, but what he did was hers to share.
She continued to get small roles in movies, but her salary didn't seem to raise a single cent over 15 bucks a week. Barely enough to maintain herself living in an apartment with four other girls, but the excitement of getting a line every once in a while was simply priceless. She had been in over forty movies by the end of her first year in Hollywood, and her status as the jack-of-all-trades of the studio was firmer every day. A few years later, after she had played a dancer, a backup singer, a waitress, a nurse, a receptionist, a taxi driver, and not one of those with the audience noticing, she had a chance to dance behind Joan Crawford. She was so happy! A big star like Joan Crawford! She walked into the studio and Kay nearly cried with joy. She was so beautiful, so immaculate, her smile free of sorrows and completely contagious to Kay. One day, at a break in filming, Joan was sitting down drinking a bottle of water, and Kay finally felt she wouldn't disturb her if she approached and said a word. "I adore your work, Ms. Crawford. You inspire me." She smiled her smile that washed away all the wrongs in the Kay's life and turned them into rights. "Everyone starts somewhere. You're gonna be a star."
But as the 1940s came through, something horrifyingly unexpected happened: War. Suddenly the priorities were the soldiers and the movies were propaganda films, hoping to get more money for the war effort. Suddenly, it wasn't the cute dancers or walk-ins they wanted, those were too many people to pay: Now Greer Garson's patriotic face alone was enough to drive the moviegoers to tears. Kay's jobs became more and more scarce and, in less than a year, she found herself starving.
She left the studio that employed her and went to look for jobs elsewhere, crying herself to sleep every night as she missed the busy, difficult, but beautiful life in the movies. And she was always taken by a feeling that she had come and gone from the screen without anyone in the very least ever knowing who she was. She worked for a year as a secretary in an office and made more money than she ever did in the movies, but as Frank Sinatra would sing a little later, "she got paid for what she did but no applause". Kay decided to keep her secretarial job, but at the same time moonlight as a singer at a nightclub uptown. At least the feeling of being adored by an audience she could still have in her bones.
In 1945, stardom had long faded from Kay's horizon. Now a beaten-down dancer at a nightclub, she looked a good five years older than the 34 she had on her back. The family brushed it on her face that her dream had failed and urged her to go back home. Her mother was now dead. Her father was a very old man. In Tennessee, they needed her. She was no longer Katharine Terryman, she was Kay Williams again. And in that one night at the Little Havana Club, or some pseudo-latin name like that, when she was gracefully dancing to the rumba, a man observed her. Mr. George Stewart, of Glendale, California. Air conditioner salesman. Not exactly General Motors, but he made a good living. He asked to see her in her dressing room after the show. "I have fallen in love with you, Ms. Terryman." He thought that was her name. "I wish that you could become my wife." At 17, a family and a kitchen were hell to Kay. At 34, they were the only option left. George was sweet, he loved her, he even did the dishes when he got home so that she could watch What's My Line on their TV set (she had a TV set!). "If I can't be a star, I can at least be his."
They would go to the movies to see Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor and he'd whisper "You're more beautiful than all of them!", hoping that that would bring her spirits up when it only brought them down, because that had never been enough. She didn't want to be more beautiful than all of them, she wanted to be them. As the years went by, George became her safe port and she confessed all of her frustrations, no longer resenting him for representing the life she so avoided. She had a child at thirty-six, but that was all for the Stewarts. The three of them led a tiny life, a happy life, but certainly not the life that could've been. When George died at 85, Kay was at his bedside, certain that she loved that man more than anything in the world. He had brought happiness to a life of disappointment. As he took his last breath "I love you, Kay" - her life was worth it. Everything she went through had led her to that moment.
Fast-forward to 1992. A girl in a bad perm sat beside her 81-year-old Grandma Kathy and asked about what she did in "those days". Those good old days, Kay thought. "Your grandmother was a star, darling. She danced with Fred Astaire and acted with Clark Gable and kissed the lips of Gary Cooper one moonlit night. She was more famous than Katharine Hepburn, admired by Bette Davis, envied by Greer Garson. Your grandmother was a star-
-in her mind."
I bet you're looking differently at that chorus girl behind the star at that flashy 1930s musical. I wonder if that was Kay.
P.S. I have fully revamped my personal blog, Call Me Nina! Go check us out :))