c1999 riffage

There was no denying that the estate was impressive. Even in its present state of disrepair and neglect the grounds surrounding Flair Manor had a natural majesty all their own: sprawling greens puncutated by battered yet stately palm trees, with the immense fortress-like mock Tudor manor standing guard in the heart of it all, with two sweeping windows set back in the second floor like sleepless eyes surveying the little kingdom. The legendary Flair fortune had obtained this prime territory just outside Monterey Park back in 1951, which was at the time an unusual choice of locale for a Hollywood legend, far away from the sleaze of Sunset Strip and the well-to-do snobbery of Bevery Hills. But Zachary Flair was not always known for doing the predictable.

Arnold Blaine was not unfamiliar with such excess and eccentricity as Zach had exhibited in his lifetime. As a gossip columnist with some degree of mainstream respectability (thanks to his occasional op-ed pieces for several higher-brow east coast newspapers) Arnold had covered the highs and lows of many a career, including celebrated interviews with Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Orson Welles and others. Zachary Flair, the egocentric producer and director of such Hollywood hits as "Picture a Rainbow," "Desire," and "Heart of Nowhere", had somehow slipped through the cracks - whatever interviews his agency had tried to set up over the last thirty years had ended up being cancelled for one reason or another, and several more attempted interviews never materialised. It had once been noted that to call Zachary stubborn and difficult was like calling winter cold and miserable, and Arnold tried to console himself and keep his constant disappointments in check by reminding himself of this. Now Zachary was dead, and Arnold had to make do with an interview with his long-suffering wife Angelica, who was another case entirely.

Angelica Flair, the "Queen Of The Screen" herself: beautiful, shallow, and legendarily vain, with her full lips and endlessly cascading cloak of honey blond hair, was once the highest-paid starlet in Hollywood. At one time she was a film icon on a par with Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart, but in the last fifteen years her star had diminished rapidly. Arnold remembered well a recent discussion with a souvenir manufacturer who for many years produced a set of novelty shower curtains with several Hollywood stars' pictures on them, including a shot of Angelica from "The Glory of Lady Godiva." The manufacturer said that he had to remove Angelica's picture from the design because he kept getting complaints from resellers that shoppers had no idea who this long-haired woman was. Arnold couldn't help but recall the design, with the image of a nude Angelica covered head to calf in her own abundant locks, and a sultry publicity still of Veronica Lake right beside it, with her eyes narro wed in what appeared to be seething envy.

Arnold was familiar with much of Angelica's career: her discovery while working as a makeup artist in Zachary's production of "All's Well That Ends Well," her 1957 debut in "Lady Godiva" (and her scandalous arrest for walking virtually naked except for her long hair in West Hollywood as part of a publicity stunt), her show-stealing cameo in "Congo Queen," her marriage to Zachary, her star turns in "Heart of Nowhere" and "Desire", her disastrous bid for acting respectability in "Love Waits For No Man" (what Arnold wouldn't give for a copy of that film, long since completely destroyed by Zachary himself!), Zachary's series of arrests and trials for assault and battery against Angelica, her years in exile in Italy in the late sixties where she made a semi-comeback in "Spiral," her incendiary interview in Ms. magazine where she re-affirmed her love for Zachary and argued with Gloria Steinem over the role of women in society, her renewal of vows with Zachary live on The Merv Griffin Sh ow, and the several years of seclusion leading up to Zachary's death from a massive heart attack. From 1978 up until last summer, there were nothing but stories to go on: some said Zachary had finally squandered his fortune, some said he beat Angelica on a daily basis, some said Angelica once stabbed Zachary in the stomach with a prop sword during one of their epic arguments, some said Angelica had gone mad and locked herself in the attic for two years straight. Nothing could be verified. Stories changed from source to source, and from week to week. All that anyone knew was that for one reason or another, Zachary and Angelica Flair had hidden themselves from the world for reasons unknown to anyone but themselves and their servants, who loyally answered none of the press' questions throughout it all. Even at Zachary's funeral back in June, Angelica was nowhere to be found during the ceremony. One could only shake their head and wonder.

The most astounding and unusual factor of the funeral was the news of Zachary's specific rulings in his will. In it, Zachary bequeathed all his worldly possessions (considerable in value even in light of his massive losses in fortune, it turned out) to Angelica upon the condition that he be buried with what he recorded as his "greatest gift to the world," Angelica's hair. It was Zachary, Angelica would admit several times throughout her career, who convinced her to grow her famous hair to its legendary lengths, grooming her for stardom for four years before her debut in "Lady Godiva" and making her a star. As per the will, and Angelica's well-known unwavering submissiveness to her husband, she had obeyed his instructions, and had had her head shaved to the scalp, and her massive crowning glory was wrapped around Zachary's body prior to his burial. Arnold could recall fewer sights stranger than seeing the puffy and abused frame of Zachary Flair, stuffed in a gaudy gold-plated c offin, with streams of white and blonde hair tucked in around him, making him look like a china figure packed in straw. Of course, the media had a field day with the story, and there were editorials both decrying and praising Angelica's final act of subservience to her life-long partner. The more left-wing writers shamed Angelica for her snubbing of the Women's Movement (sample article title: "Godiva's Final Humiliation,") while more traditional columnists and reporters wrote and talked about this as being a rare instance of a true act of love and commitment (articles and commentaries on this side included "The Queen and the Sacrifice of The Crown" and Andy Rooney's infamous "Hair Grows Back For Crying Out Loud!" diatribe.)

So now, three months after the funeral, Arnold found himself at the gate of the Flair Manor estate, waiting for this unprecedented opportunity to interview Angelica. He knew the war stories from the veterans who had interviewed her several years past, and he was bracing for the worst and - as she was a Flair - the unexpected.

* * *

The stainless steel gates swung open, their hinges screeching like banshees over the hum of the opening mechanism. Already there was a figure halfway down the stone walkway, dressed in a butler's tuxedo. He stopped fifty feet up the way, beckoning Arnold to step forward.

He spoke with a thick Mexican accent. "Meesez Flair ees waiting een de parloor, Senor Blaine." He said nothing more as he led Arnold up to the manor.

Up close, the mansion showed the neglect that was not obvious from the gate. The cream-coloured paint that covered the brickwork was chipped and stained with rust around the metal trim. Scraggly vines crawled anemically up the first floor walls. The manor was obviously kept tidy and well-swept, but that was about all. Inside the rooms were large and high-ceilinged, filled with dingy light that clung on the beadwork in the chandeliers and rolled off the glass-covered wall portraits. Arnold felt like he was visiting the world's most elaborate mausoleum as his mute guide led him up to the second floor.

They stopped at a large set of double doors, and the butler pushed one of the doors open, waving Arnold inside. The light was even dimmer here, with heavy tapestries draping the walls and ornate doilies covering the various pieces of furniture. There were two large sofas dominating the corner by the window, and in the sofa facing Arnold sat Angelica Flair, patiently waiting.

For someone well into their sixties, she looked well enough, Arnold thought to himself. Her skin, though wrinkled, was held tight to her cheekbones and neck, and her once-swollen lips were now shrunken to mere mortal proportions. There was no sign of any facelift work that Arnold's practiced eye could detect. She was sitting stock-straight with her hands folded in her lap, and she was dressed in a heavy gray woolen sweater over a nightgown, with a tight-fitting kerchief over her head and large sunglasses despite the lack of sunlight in the room. She stared at Arnold, still as a waxworks display. "Mr. Arnold Blaine. Please sit."

Arnold had dealt with Hollywood recluses before, and compared to some of them, Angelica was acting downright civil. Counting his blessings, Arnold took his seat opposite her, sinking into the ample sofa cushion.

"Thank you. I'd like to thank you for this opportunity to talk."

She did not answer him, maintaining her lifeless stare. Arnold continued. "I guess you know how sorry I am about your husband's passing..."

"Are you?" Only her lips and throat moved when she talked, the rest of her body remaining statue-still.

"Of course I am, he was a great man, Zach..." He produced an old-fashioned cassette tape recorder from his carrying case and laid it on the table between them. Usually he used a state-of-the-art Sony mini-recorder for these interviews, but Arnold found that this machine seemed to have a reassuring effect on his older interviewees, with its big plastic tabs and wood-patterned top case.

"Yes... yes, he was." She huffed through her nostrils and relaxed her posture slightly.

Arnold began his interview with a brief career summary. He went over her early works up to and including 'Desire.' "You were known as the Queen Of The Screen in the fifties and sixties. How do you look back on those years now?"

"With regret, in some instances..." She tilted her head, looking at the ceiling. "Regret that I took for granted what I was given back in those days. We worked with all of the greats, me and Zach, but I always thought I was somehow better than them all, which I know now was not the case at all."

"In what respect? As an actress?" Arnold bit his lip as he said this, knowing he was treading on thin ground.

"As an actress. I had presence onscreen, which I mistook for talent. If I started out today, of course, that wouldn't matter."

"You once said that Zach made you. Do you still believe that?"

"Of course he did. I was a makeup dabber working on B-grade movies and sharing rent on bungalows before I met him. He was the one who made me into something more. If it had not been for him I'd probably still be doing makeup."

"Zach's first step was to have you grow your hair out, which was about the time you started becoming lovers."

"When I met him I had hair just below my shoulders. I usually kept it pinned up but it came loose one day just when he entered the room. He broke off talking to whoever he was with and just started raving about my hair, talking about how thick and shiny it was. I thought he was a madman."

"What drew you to him?"

Angelica cocked her head as is she was an exotic bird. "Well, Zach was never was you would call slim... even then he had a belly that he kept girdled underneath his shirt. And his style of dress was always extravagant, loud colours everywhere. But he was a handsome man, and a charmer. Oh, could he talk. He said he had been waiting out his entire career since 1940 for a woman like me. He would quote lines from 'Pygmalion' and I wouldn't have a clue what he was talking about, but what a wonderful voice he had."

"This was after his divorce from Sarah London?"

"Before. He shuttled me in and out of rented houses and hotel rooms before he finally divorced her in 1956."

"Did that bother you, that he was having an affair with you?"

"I had no idea he was married, actually. I was young and naive. And I was in love."

The conversation turned to her glory years from 1958 to 1962. She opened up talking about working with a young Jack Nicholson, and her promotional work with "Girl's Curls" shampoo, which was unheard of at a time when few celebrities did commercial advertising, certainly none as big and famous as Angelica Flair, Queen Of The Screen.

"A lot of people were surprised when you took on the contract with "Girl's Curls." It wasn't like you needed the money after all."

"Of course not. I was well-known for my hair and Zach thought it would be a good idea to promote long hair in fashion. You have to remember that in those days shoulder-length was considered long. People still remembered the twenties and the so-called "liberating" flapper bobcuts. Zach would spend Sundays combing my hair with a series of special brushes he had imported from India, drawing the hair over my body while I stood on a coffee table and going on about how every woman in the world should learn to cherish their 'crowning glory'. 'Every woman is queen who lets her crowning glory trail in their wake,' was his favourite saying. He made the hairbrushing and washing into, well, an erotic experience for me. I can't think of one without the other, even now." Angelica paused, pulling her fingers in the air through a non-existent strand of hair.

"Some credit you two for coming up with the term 'crowning glory,'" Arnold noted.

"Oh, not at all. That term was around long before that. It only became a catchphrase after the commercials and magazine advertisements."

"Some also credit you for being the godmother of the Hippie movement as well."

"Well that is complete bullshit." Angelica jerked her head back in disgust. "I'm not going to continue this interview if you start spouting garbage like that." Arnold hastily apologised as he turned the tape over.

"What role do you think you played in promoting long hair, then?"

"Well, as I said, I was pretty much the only one around for some time. The was Veronica Lake and her wonderful peek-a-boo look, but she cut it during World War Two because the women in the factories were copying her look and getting their hair caught in the machines. I suppose that since my hair was so much longer that fewer women took the time to copy me, so I never had that problem. There was always a matter of practicality that got in the way for most women."

For the first time in the interview, a smile crept across her lips. "Here and there I could see women who followed my lead. You very rarely saw women walking with their hair loose out in the street, but on the beach it was a bit more common. It fit in well with the popularity of the new bikini bathing suit. Oh how the moralists fumed over that one-two punch!"

Arnold was relieved that his interviewee was finally warming up, so he continued on the subject of hair. "That was about the time that the bouffant hairdo was coming out, wasn't it?"

"Oh yes, the beehive! That came a little later, I remember. What a marvellous use for all that hair the women were growing! Some of those ladies made me wish I wasn't so blessed with all that hair hanging down to my ankles. Zachary had his hairdressers try to give me a beehive 'do and I was literally scraping the ceiling! Oh that was hilarious! It was all I could do to keep from tipping right over!" Angelica was trying to contain her laughter as she spoke.

The interview continued from there to fashion trends in Hollywood, and her role in "Love Waits For No Man," which at first she merrily dismissed as 'misguided.' The tone started to shift, however, the brightness ebbing from Angelica's voice as she spoke. "Zachary worked very hard on that film, but it was doomed from the start. The script was overwritten, the budget was out of control. I went through six acting coaches during production because I expected them to make me into something I wasn't. I pouted when I should have looked distraught, I screamed when I should have cried, I was just... horrible. Sitting with Zach at the debut with all of those people laughing at the movie was one of the worst experiences imaginable. 'All Hair, No Body," one of the reviews read. That was around the first time that Zach hit me."

She paused and adjusted her sunglasses. Arnold broke the silence. "Did Zach hold you responsible for the failure of the movie?"

Angelica sat up. "Well, I was as convenient an excuse as anyone... somewhere during the production of 'Desire' Zach started losing focus and turning more and more of his duties over to his assistants: Bobby, who was the assistant editor, and those people. There were two projects between that film and "Love Waits..." that never got off the ground because Zach couldn't make up his mind over this or that. He demanded huge sums of money from United Artists and Paramount and made all sorts of unreasonable demands on everyone around him. I was his star, so I was immune from most of it at the time. We made many enemies back then, me and Zachary."

"Did you regret being known as "Lady Godiva," the woman with the hair?"

"'The woman with the hair, and nothing underneath' was one description I read in the dailies. Oh I really started to loathe myself back then. I was hiring people in the morning and firing them by lunchtime! I was becoming a wreck. Zach was putting me down in front of people. I felt like I was shrinking before people's eyes, like I was reduced to a little porcelain doll to be played with."

"But you defended him so often?"

"He was my husband, so yes, I defended him every step of the way. It was Hilda, my old chambermaid, who called the police the first time. I only called the police once, when he was drunk and waving that starter's pistol in my face. Even then I refused to testify against him in court."

"You do understand that a lot of people have trouble understanding this..."

"A lot of people never seem to read their wedding vows. It was my duty as a wife to see him through the hard times and try to work him past his own demons. I stayed for as long as I could before I had to leave, which was about 1968 when I fled to Naples."

Arnold and Angelica discussed her exile in Italy, and her stay in the communes there, as well as her work with Fellini and Godard, and with Herve Castillo on 'Spiral'.

"To this very day," Angelica sighed, "I have no idea what that film is about. Thank god I didn't have a speaking part, because Italian is just completely beyond me. I understand Spanish very well, mainly because most of my servants speak such poor English, but you'll never hear me speak it."

"People remember your role as the Sensual Goddess in that film."

"Oh yes, with the children coming out from underneath my hair and all. And that love scene with Phillipe, him wrapping himself in my hair, diving in and out like it was a lake in the dream sequence... God! It's the only one of my films that I can watch today."

"You had an affair with Herve Castillo during that film's production."

"Yes we did. Herve was so unlike Zach, all chiselled and brawny, the strong, silent type. Quite the lover too. I was the last woman he had before he came out of the closet, actually."

"Zach sent you letters all that time, didn't he?"

"Once a week, all throughout his stay in rehab. Some I read, some I responded to, some I threw away. I still loved him, but the distance did me a world of good."

Arnold was wrapping up his interview, briefly touching on her Ms. Magazine interview and her growing isolation from the media. "Few people remember you from that time except for the photo with Crystal Gayle and the woman from Playboy."

"You mean Debra Jo Fondren. Wonderful woman, so down to earth. Yes, that was 1978, in front of Mann's Chinese Theatre. My hair was at it's longest around that time, seven and a half feet. I had a little girl carry it behind me that night, a sweet little thing."

"That was a famous photo, maybe one of your best known."

Angelica grew pensive. "These days, yes. Well, you had Crystal Gayle, she had her big hit song just the past year, something like "Don't You Make My Brown Eyes Blue," I can't remember for the life of me. What lovely hair that woman had. I felt like I was passing the torch to her as a long hair celebrity. She stood on my right while Debra stood on my left - the poor girl was just exploding out of her dress, I felt like a stick figure standing next to her!"

"It was a remarkable photograph, three famous long-haired ladies together with their hair hanging in all its glory..."

"Mmm-hmm. I remember the photographer, a coloured gentleman, he climbed up a lamppost so he could get a good angle to show our hair flowing around us. Zach bought a hundred copies of that newspaper issue, he was so proud of it. Though I'm still surprised it's so well-known today."

"Why would you say that?"

"Well, I might be colouring my experiences here... I remember that there was one photographer off to the side, and I heard him say something like "Who's the blonde broad?" I thought he was talking about Debra - I didn't know much about her photos in Playboy, I didn't get around much at the time... it was only when he called Debra over by name that I realised he was talking about me. Me, Angelica Flair, the Queen Of The Screen. All of a sudden I was The Blonde Broad. I was an unknown now. I sank so low after that."

She talked about her fights with Zach, and his descent into sickness. She admitted to a year-long addiction to prescription drugs, for which she received treatment. "I had to learn to live alone, because Zach in many ways was gone from me by then. I helped him every chance I could. It's the hardest thing in the world, watching the man you love destroy himself."

"What did you think when the will was read out to you?"

Angelica unfolded and then re-clasped her hands, drawing a deep breath. "In a way I saw it coming. He would talk about my hair and how I should care for it, and how much joy it gave him to see my hair. I honestly could not care less about the hair by this point. It was just trailing everywhere, picking up dust and leaves and god knows what else, full of tangles and split ends. I would run a brush through it and the servants would wash it, but that was about it. For a while I had the doors removed from their hinges so my hair wouldn't catch and be made even worse. I was a shadow. I felt like a shadow, stretched out at the feet of Zach's dying body.

"Near the end he started saying my hair was his to take with him when he died. I chalked it up to his medicine talking. I cried when I heard the will and realised he was serious."

"So you had it cut off and placed in his coffin."

"A legal document is hard to get out of. My lawyers talked with his lawyers, and his lawyers talked with my lawyers, but it was getting to be a waste of time. I will always love Zach, and I forgive him for what he made me do. It was my final gift to him, my hair."

"You did not go to his funeral, though."

"I do not want people to see me this way. I went to his gravesite the day after."

Arnold leaned forward. "Miss Flair, I have to ask you something, and it's not easy."

Angelica turned away. She seemed to know what was coming.

"There have been rumours that you never actually cut your hair. My editor said he believes as much when you refused to have a photographer come in today. I have to ask you if I can see you without your kerchief, if only for proof."

Angelica dropped her hands into her lap, her face scowling. She removed her sunglasses, revealing reddened, sunken eyes that pierced Arnold like knives. She reached up and pushed her kerchief to the back of her head. Her white hair stood up in an even velour-like stubble over the top of her head. She held her kerchief back, menacingly glaring at the reporter.


Arnold nodded. "I just had to see for myself."

She left the kerchief on the back of her head and sat upright, her facial muscles rigid. "I have one last word, if you may, Mr. Blaine."

"Certainly." Arnold squirmed slightly, wanting to leave.

"I cut my hair for my husband. He was an unusual and remarkable man. I hope your readers understand that I would never encourage any woman to cut her crowning glory. A woman's crowning glory is hers alone."

"In most cases, perhaps..." Arnold said this under his breath as he was packing up the tape recorder.

"I heard that," Angelica snapped.

Arnold muttered an apology, gathering his carrying case under his arm and making his way to the door. He turned to say his goodbyes, but upon seeing Angelica, staring hawk-like at him and looking like a volcano about to explode, decided against it.

* * *

Angelica watched Arnold Blaine disappear into the hallway, his shadow wobbling across the far wall as he made his way down the staircase. "Blasted reporters," she hissed to herself.

She rose and passed through the side door to her bedroom, turning on a lamp beside the dresser. She sat down and looked at herself at the mirror and shuddered. What a horrid sight! She looked like she had just been released from Auschwitz, all wiry and bristly.

She raised her hands up and massaged her temples, her fingers brushing over the 1/4" crop of stubble. "All of this, Zachary... all of this I sacrificed to you..." She half-smiled, dropping her hands to a make-up kit. She picked up a small wooden paddle and brought it to her hairline. In tiny increments she pushed up at the skin, moving slowly from one temple to the other. She placed the paddle back on the dresser and pushed the edges of the prosthetic wig away from her brow, pulling it neatly from atop her drawn-back hair in one fluid motion. She them stood up and removed her sweater, which had hidden the long braid that ran down her back.

The main light in the room clicked on, flooding out the dingy dark behind her. Esther, one of her maids entered the room just as Angelica was standing up to remove her sweater. She spoke in hushed Spanish. "'Madame, I hope I am not interrupting?'"

Angelica responded in English, re-taking her seat and drawing her white-and-blonde braid in front of her. "No, of course not. Has the reporter been shown to the gate?"

"'Eduardo just locked the gate up, Senorita.'"

"Thank God..." Angelica had undone the clasp at the end of her braid, and her practiced fingers were slowly making their way through the ends, unwrapping them as she moved up the rope of hair. "That's something I don't plan to do too often."

"'Madame, I thought we were not to let the newspaper people in, why did this one come?'"

"I had to let one in and get my story, Esther, otherwise people were going to start asking questions." Angelica was midway to her shoulders with her unbraiding job. "I wasn't at the funeral, so people are going to wonder if I have something to hide. Which I do, of course."

Esther placed the fresh sheets on the end table and unmade the double bed. "'I still don't understand why the laywers couldn't get rid of that silly haircut business!'"

"Esther, the stairway to heaven will be made up of lawyer's heads, and I will enjoy digging my heel into each step along the way." Angelica had finished unbraiding her hair and was reaching for a brush. "If pretending to shave my head makes the fools happy, then so be it."

Esther continued making up the bed, while Angelica brushed her hair in even, gentle strokes, from the crown slowly to the ends that hung just below the seat of her chair. "That skinhead wig I had whipped up is good for one thing, though. When I take it off it feels like I'm peeling twenty years off of me." She slowed her brushing, watching the play of lamplight in her thick golden and ivory tresses, admiring their fullness.

Esther broke off from her work and joined Angelica at the dresser. "'You do have such lovely hair, senorita.'"

"Thank you, Esther. I do say that cutting off the dead stuff below the hips was the best thing I've done for it in years." Her eyes wandered to look at Esther. "Also, it means that both me and Zachary got what we wanted. I kept my long hair and he gets a coffin full of split ends!" The two women laughed quietly at this shared secret, after which Angelica returned to her grooming, and Esther went back to quickly finish the bed and leave to attend to chores downstairs.

Alone in the room, Angelica resumed her brushing, her eye drifting to a photo of Zachary, half-buried near the back of the side mantle. She paused and picked up the photo. He was about thirty-six when the photo was taken, beaming with the glow of oncoming glory as he was making a name for himself in the film world. "Oh Zachary..." She pulled her fingers gently across the photograph. "I've stood by you all these years. I owe you so much, but I hope you find it in that big ol' heart of yours to forgive me. I know that you would appreciate my decision. I think I handled your boys well, don't you think? And I've never given such a fine acting performance as I did with that Blaine fellow!"

She smiled sweetly, and lovingly replaced the photograph amidst the clutter of the mantle. Finished with her night's brushing, she stood up and swept her tresses to her sides with a dramatic flourish, as if she was Molly O'Meara on the deck of the Capetowner, sailing into the heart of deepest Africa in "Congo Queen." She stood to admire herself in the reflection: sixty-eight years young, subdued and contented. The world could pass by down in the streets outside, but she was satisfied that in the hearts of her small coterie of fans, she would live on, the Queen Of The Screen with her endless crowning glory floating dreamily in the summer breeze. Switching off the lamp, she turned and prepared for bed.

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