Monday, June 24, 2013
I first heard her real name spoken during a whispered conversation between my mother and aunt, for they deemed it inappropriate that a boy of thirteen should hear about such a woman as her. But hear I did from my hiding place in a huge leather chair that had its back turned to the dining room where the conversation continued for some time over continuous cups of coffee. The woman they spoke of, I'll call her Madame O, lived directly across the street from my aunt and uncle. Let me explain that my aunt and uncle were wealthy and lived in a neighborhood where the broad lawns were manicured and gardened with flowers, a neighborhood where the homes were monuments to wealth. Madame O's home was the grandest of them all, a mansion with columns and tall windows. I listened enthralled to my aunt and my mother.
Madame O had been a prostitute in her youth. Stunningly beautiful, she entertained only the richest of the rich older men. To the few she accepted as clients, she became more than just a glitterinig ornament that sated their sexual appetites. She charmed them with clever conversation about literature, music, and the other arts, and when it came time, the nymph she was would lead these older men to her bedroom where she practiced an art that made of them young satyrs again. One of her clients, a baron of industry whose name won't be mentioned here, became possessed by the worst demon a man who's involved in such a liaison can be possessed by...that demon was love. He showered her with gifts from Tiffany's, bought her the finest designer clothes from the boutiques of Paris and Milan, and gave her stock in a new and upcoming electronics company. Madame O was wise, she saved those stocks, secured them safely away, and over the years this small electronics company became a global giant. Her shares of stock became worth a vast fortune.
She quit her old life, changed her name, and traveled the world. She was a regular at the Savoy in London, the Ritz in Paris, and her luck at the gaming tables in Monaco was the marvel of many a gambler. While smoking Cuban panatelas from a platinum cigarette holder, towers of chips would accumulate in front of her at the baccarat table. She attempted to conquer Everest, and gained the admiration of her Sherpa guides when she was the last of her party to give up the climb in the face of a driving blizzard. She kept a stable of thoroughbreds and was a frequent visitor at the race tracks where they trained and raced. She explored the jungles of the Amazon, and was bitten by a rare and tiny spider whose venom was known to kill crocodiles. But a young French doctor, doing Christian missionary work nearby, was hurried to her side and he saved her life. As if in a Hollywood movie, they fell in love.
They were married in the south of France, and within the year she gave birth to a boy who was said to be as beautiful as his mother. The traveling continued, there was nowhere she, her husband, and young son didn't go. They walked the Great Wall of China, stood in the Roman Coliseum where gladiators had once battled to the death, frequented the winner's circle of race tracks where her horses ran. It was an African photo safari, however, that made Madame O a worldwide sensation.
Deep in the bush of Kenya, Madame O and her husband, along with their camp-bearers, came across a remote village. The Chieftain there told how all the villages in a wide area were being terrorized. In the last six months forty-two people had been dragged off and eaten by a lion. The Chieftain struggled to keep his calm as he spoke of the latest victim, an eleven year old girl who'd last been seen still screaming as she disappeared into the night clenched in the big cat's massive jaws. The girl had been his granddaughter. Madame O put aside her camera and took up her W.J. Jeffery .450-400 double rifle, and with the village Chieftain himself as a guide, the hunt began. It was on the twelfth day that her husband caught sight of the big cat. He fired into the tall grass and missed, then his gun jammed. Just as the five hundred pound lion made a rush and was about to reach him with fangs and claws, Madame O fired both barrels of her .450-400 and brought the big cat down. Upon inspection, it was found the high-powered bullets had hit the lion's skull only one inch apart. The grateful Chieftain and his entire village celebrated Madame O, as did all the other chieftains and people of the villages she passed through on her journey back to Nairobi. She had killed the lion that became known in the history of big game hunting as the Wajir Man-eater. The news of what Madam O had done was picked up by the wire services. Magazines wanted to do stories about her, television wanted her on the late night talk shows, and when she turned them all down, journalists
followed her like a cloud of locusts.
Despite her silence, the journalists did just what she feared most: they uncovered her past.
The divorce was headline news. In open court, Madame O unexpectedly stood and immediately brought to silence furiously arguing attorneys, and in this silence, when she told her husband in a trembling voice how much she still loved him, the gasps and cries of sympathy from the packed room caused the judge to pound his gavel. But the French Christian missionary doctor now did to her what the lion in Africa had tried to do to him. He clawed and devoured, took half her fortune, and when it came time to decide parental custody of their son, it was he who won even that. The greatest blow came when the judge ruled that a woman with her past should even be denied visitation rights. The last time Madame O saw her French doctor and her son, they were boarding a plane for France.
She stopped traveling and came back to her mansion. She dismissed seven servants, keeping only one, a native woman she'd brought back from Brazil, a woman who was said to practice the magic of Voodoo, and was reported to know the guarded recipes of ancient potions that were a balm to a woman who wandered elegant rooms grieving the loss of a husband and son she loved. She became a semi-recluse, leaving the confines of her self-imposed prison only to see her stable of thoroughbreds. My aunt told my mother that Madame O suffered a wound that the touch of man only aggravated, and that the presence of her horses always soothed.
I was fascinated. I began to read everything the writers wrote about Madame O, for they still dwelled on her, discovering still more astonishing things she'd done in her early years. She'd been granted a rare audience with the Emperor of Japan, and when presented before the Chrysanthemum Throne, Hirohito raised his eyebrows at this woman from the West who spoke fluent Japanese, and, without being told, knew the protocol of his Imperial Court. Upon her return to the United States from this trip, in October of 1941, she told President Roosevelt in the Oval Office that the Japanese were intending war. After the hostilities of World War II, she set off to sail solo across the Pacific, and, like Amelia Earhart, disappeared. After an ocean-wide search failed to find her, she was accidently discovered months later by an expedition from the British Museum on the island of Borneo where she had shipwrecked. The British explorers found that she was being worshiped by a fierce tribe of headhunters as a diety and only because of this did their British heads remain attached to their British bodies.
I became obsessed. Every time I visited my aunt and uncle I would spend hours watching the columned house where no visitors were ever received. There were nights when not a window was lit, and other nights when the house was illuminated with electric light as if a grand party was in full swing. But mostly the house stood solemn and still with the drapes closed. Using my uncle's binoculars, I once saw into a large room where there were book-lined shelves and a huge marble fireplace above which hung a painting of a man and a boy. While peering at the painting, a dark-skinned, turbaned woman appeared phantom-like in the tall window. She looked directly at me with dark slanting eyes that blazed. I ducked down, predicted the chanting of secret rites, a ceremony where chicken's feet, entrails of rat, and goat's blood would be blended, and I would become a toad. In all the hours I watched and waited, I never saw Madame O.
I was visiting my aunt and uncle at their winter home in Bal Harbour, Florida when I saw in the sports section of Saturday's Miami Journal that Madame O's stakes winning horse, Defiant, was to run that afternoon in the featured handicap race at Hialeah. Would she be there? In minutes I was in my car, and, after an Indy 500-style drive through traffic, was standing against the paddock fence where the horses for the handicap were to be saddled beneath the palms. Owners and trainers were already in the saddling ring, a fashionable and bejeweled crowd. The horses arrived, brush-polished and gleaming, and so did the jockeys, colorful in their silks. Valets began to assist trainers in the saddling ritual. Defiant was being saddled by a valet and a young man I knew wasn't Defiant's famous trainer. My disappointment was huge. Madame O was nowhere to be seen.
Then, coming from the clubhouse in company with the man I knew to be Defiant's trainer, I saw a woman, and knew at once it could only be her, Madame O. Even at a distance I knew the clothes she wore came from a designer in Paris or Milan, and the closer she came, a straight and slender figure moving with slow grace, I became so entranced I stood as still as if life itself had left me. I couldn't even seem to breathe. I could only stare. As she came nearer I saw beneath the wide brim of her hat that, despite the years, she was still beautiful. Her face was gently lined and polished like ivory. Her green eyes, locked on her horse, sparkled like emeralds. If Garbo herself had chanced an appearance at Hialeah that day, I doubt she would have commanded greater attention. Heads turned. Conversations died. Madame O was the focus of all. Then, as she passed me by, I heard a voice say, "She was once a whore, you know." Her trainer looked in the direction of the voice with the glare of a mafia hitman, but Madame O kept her eyes on her horse and continued on. This came as no surprise to me, that she seemed not to hear the voice, for the writers had written that she never does.