Picturegoer – Dec 17th 1955

I Could Go On Singing

Her manager warned Jenny the stage was her only life now, but she went to David and begged for a chance to meet their son. David introduced her as an old friend . . .

Outside London’s Palladium Theater, the cars were bumper to bumper in the wet afternoon, and through the mist you could just make out the letters of the marquee. March 21, a sign read. Prior to London Opening, Jenny Bowman, Charity Concert in Aid of the Children’s Fund. Inside, you could still hear the echoes of recent applause; and if you had stepped onto the stage, you’d have been ankle-deep in flowers.

But in her dressing room, Jenny Bowman was making a scene that had nothing to do with her triumph. Her manager, George Kogan, and her long-time dresser and companion, Ida, were trying to calm her down, but Jenny gulped whisky and glared at herself in the mirror.

“Five hundred people still on the street, and it’s pouring rain,” George said. “Darling, they love you in England.”

Jenny turned on him. “I tell you I’m losing my voice! I want Dr. Donne!”

George took her hand. “Darling, you’ve been losing your voice for twenty years, and you still haven’t lost it. You want a doctor? By all means, let’s get you a doctor- the best man in London. But please, darling, leave David Donne alone.”

It was a plea that fell on deaf ears, as George had known it would. What Jenny wanted, Jenny got- most of the time….

In his Wimpole Street office, David Donne was every inch the doctor, impersonal and kind as Jenny explained her visit.

“I suddenly felt scared I was losing my voice,” she said. “I had this once before, years ago, in New York. And a young English doctor, who just happened to be studying there at the time, cured me in one day flat.”

They were staring at each other.

He broke the silence, finally. “Well, why don’t we just have a look?”

He examined her throat, her larynx, her neck muscles and glands, then gave his verdict. “Throat’s a little red. Rough. You’ve been singing. You smoke too much. When do you open in London?”

“Five days,” she answered.

“I’m going to give you something that should ease the roughness. Not that you’ll take it. And if you’ve got five days, I strongly urge you to take them off.”

He was walking her toward the stairs, when she suddenly veered toward his sitting room, where a fire was burning. “Why not start me off with the offer of a drink?” she asked, entering the room.

He followed her, tight-lipped. “You’re going to get me in there if it kills me, aren’t you?”

Over the drink, she studied him. “I heard about your wife’s death. Janet, wasn’t it?”

He nodded. “I read about your marriage.”

“Which one?” Jenny demanded, then shook her head. “It doesn’t make any difference. Neither of them was worth writing home about. I should have married you, David.”

His voice was gentle. “It’s better as it is.”

From under her long lashes, she peered up at him. “I think we must have had fun. At least that’s the way I remember it.”

After a long silence, David asked, “Why did you come, Jenny?”

“Because I have been alone since you,” she said. She picked up a picture David had turned down on a cabinet. “Why did you hide him from me?” she asked. The picture was of a smiling boy. “Is he here?”

“No, at school. He boards.”

“I’d like to see him.”

“You can’t see him,” David said. “I’m sorry.”

A flash of anger broke through Jenny’s control. “Why can’t I? Is he an idiot? Does he have smallpox? Is his school on the moon? Just why can’t I see him?”

“It’s impossible,” David said. “Because that was the agreement, and that was the way you wanted it-if you remember.”

“The only damned thing I ever made in my life,” she choked out. “Does he like school?”

“He loves it. I think you’d be proud of him-“

“Let me see him,” she broke in. “Just once.”

David Donne had never been good at saying no to Jenny Bowman. Her eyes were so very big, so very sad. “If I let you,” he said, “you promise on your word of honor to look and never look again?”

“I promise,” Jenny whispered.

• It was a muddy, young boy, fresh from what appeared to be called a “Rugger scrum,” who greeted Jenny and David on the playing field at Canterbury School. His name was Matt, and he’d heard about the famous Miss Bowman, his father’s old friend from America, who was going to be “on” in London.

Jenny studied the boy with delight. “He looks like you,” she said to David.

“I shouldn’t,” Matt said. “I’m adopted.”

“You could,” David said lightly. “Adopted children begin to look like their parents, as dogs grow like their masters.”

Unembarrassed, the trio set off on a tour of the school. Matt even dragged David and Jenny up the two hundred and thirty-seven steps to the top of the Cathedral tower. “I took Aunty Beth up last week, and she loved it,” Matt said.

“Who’s Aunty Beth?” Jenny asked.

“Father’s aunt,” said Matt, “and she’s seventy.”

After that, there was nothing David and Jenny could do but climb.

Matt had another surprise, too. That very night, the school was putting on a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, and Matt invited his father and Miss Bowman to stay and watch it.

His father said Miss Bowman had to get back to town, but Miss Bowman said that was nonsense, she’d love to tarry.

As usual, Miss Bowman got her way.

The evening wound up with Jenny telling Matt about a “marvelous idea.” “You’ve had me to your opening,” she said, “now I want you to come to mine.”

The boy was excited. “At the Palladium?”

“Would you like that?”

“Oh, gosh, yes,” Matt said, “if my father-“

“We’ll bring him, too,” said Jenny. “I think he should definitely come, too. Why don’t we ask him?”

Matt charged over to where his father had been talking to one of the teachers. “Father, can I?” he burst out. “Can I come for Jenny’s show? You remember you promised me three days in London.”

“What are you talking about?” David asked.

“Jenny’s invited me to her first night-both of us.” David looked at Jenny, who was smiling blandly. “Matt,” he said, “you’re supposed to spend the first week of your holiday in Canterbury with Aunty Beth.”

“She won’t mind,” Matt caroled. “I know she won’t mind. Please, Father, and you can buy me the tape recorder-“

“What do you say, David?” Jenny asked.

David’s words were stiff. “What about the promise?”

“I’m not asking now,” she said. ” Matt is.”

• The house was sold out for Jenny’s opening. In the dressing room, George Kogan flashed a telegram under Ida’s nose.

“From David Donne,” he said. “Urgent case. Terribly sorry and all that. Best of British luck and everything. In plain American, he ain’t coming.”

Ida whistled, as George put the wire in his pocket. “I’ll tell her it came after she went on.”

Jenny appeared and went straight to her make-up table. “London’s my lucky town, George,” she crowed. “You send those tickets?”

“They’re at the box office.”

“David’s picking them up?”

He hesitated for a second. “That’s right, darling.”

“I feel awfully good tonight,” Jenny said.

But consistency had never been Jenny Bowman’s long suit. By the time her hair was fixed, and her costume adjusted, her mood had altered, too. George asked about starting the overture, but she only stood there, tense.

“What time is it?” she asked. “I told them to be sure and come backstage.”

“They probably thought you meant after the show, Jenny,” Ida said.

Jenny didn’t buy it. Looking at her associates’ strained faces, she grew suspicious. “Something’s going on, and I want to know what it is.”

George shrugged, and handed her the telegram.

She read it. “But he said he was coming,” she murmured.

Darling,” George said, “you were hoping to have 2,500 people tonight. But all you got is 2,498. That’s still a lot of people, so what do you say? Shall we start the overture?”

At that instant, Matt arrived in the dressing room, and Jenny pounced on him. “Matt, how did you get here? Is your father outside?”

Matt was surprised. “Didn’t you get the telegram? He got a call from Italy. Emergency case. Somebody important, I expect.” His voice shook with excitement. “It’s standing room only outside. I hope it was all right- my coming.”

“It was more than all right,” Jenny said. “Now you just come with me.”

She led him out of the dressing room into the corridor, and as they turned a corner, they could hear the beginning of the overture.

“I came up to town on my own,” Matt told her. “They don’t know I’m here.”

Jenny gasped. “Your father doesn’t know?”

“He thinks I’m in Canterbury with Aunty Beth. But I couldn’t miss your opening.”

“We’ll just call Aunty Beth-“

Jenny began, and stopped as a new thought struck her. “No, we’ll do better than that. Your father stood us both up tonight Matt but we’re not going to let that get us down. You’re going to see the show, and then you’re going to have supper with me and we’re going to bed you down at the Savoy. And tomorrow you’re going to get that tape recorder he promised you, and maybe a few other little things.”

They were in the wings, now, and Jenny instructed Ida to call “Aunty Beth.”

“It’s Miss Nevison,” Matt said. “Canterbury 61342. You don’t think they’ll mind?”

“They may be jealous,” Jenny assured him, “but they won’t mind. We’re going to have so much fun, your father’s going to be awfully sorry he missed it….”

That night, she was Jenny Bowman the way the audience expected Jenny Bowman to be. She lost herself in the music, forgetting problems, hopes, Matt, David, everything except the songs. Her eyes glittered, her voice swelled; she played her audience, making it sigh, weep, cheer. Matthew Donne sitting beside the empty chair which had been saved for his father, knew he would never forget this night, and he also knew he would never quite be able to explain it to anyone who hadn’t been there.

• Jenny and Matt spent the whole next day together, sailing down the Thames on an excursion boat, and by the time they got back to Jenny’s suite in the Savoy, Matt had been persuaded to stay over for another night and another morning.

It bothered Ida. “Let him go home Jenny,” she said, after sending Matt out of the room. “Quit while you’re ahead. You wanted to see him? Great. Fine. You saw him. Now say good-by. But you don’t want that,” she went on. “You’ve got to have a situation. Big feelings. And in the end what are you going to have? Another pain in your heart. Why do you do it?”

Ida could talk that way because she’d been with Jenny for eighteen years. But her words still didn’t influence Jenny in the slightest. Jenny left for the theater that evening hanging on to Matt’s arm. “I have a new escort,” she said, “and I’m going to sing like I never sang before.”

She was telling the truth, too. She sang like one possessed; she sang moody quiet songs, and wild, driving songs; and, later she fell into bed fulfilled and exhausted.

She was still sleeping soundly when Ida came mto her bedroom at noon the next day, to remind her she’d promised to take Matt to the Science Museum. It was too late for that now, but Jenny thought of a way to make it up to Matt. She took him to a hi-fi shop, and she bought him the fanciest tape recorder in the place. Then she sent it back to the Savoy, along with a message for Ida to call Canterbury again, while she and Matt continued their excursion.

She was missing a ladies’ press conference that afternoon, leaving George and Ida to deal, with the irritated reporters, but Jenny didn’t mind at all. She was in heaven, walking through the meadow at Stoke Poges, with Matt beside her. As they threaded their way among ancient gravestones, Matt explained, this is the churchyard where Gray wrote the Elegy.”

They sat down together on a stone bench and Matt said, “When I die, I think I’ll be cremated. My mother was cremated.”

Jenny sounded shocked. “Your mother?”

“Janet,” Matt said. “She wasn’t my real mother.” “Do you ever think about your real mother?” Jenny asked.

“Not really,” the boy said.

A church bell was ringing in the distance and Jenny spoke with quiet urgency. “Matt, I’m leaving for Paris in a few days. I’d like you to come and spend the rest of your holiday with me. I’ll talk to your father. I’ll arrange everything. All you have to do is say yes.”

Matt seemed confused. “Jenny, why are you being so kind to me?”

Because I never had a son,” she said, “and I’d like to pretend I have one, for a little while. Will you help me?”

A slow, sweet smile crossed Matt’s face. “Yes,” he said.

• Jenny met David Donne’s plane at the London Airport when she learned he was returning from Italy. On the automobile trip from the airport to town, she discovered he already knew what she’d come out to confess.

“News travels,” he said bitterly. “Even to Rome.”

“Are you terribly angry?” she asked.

“I’m so sick with anger I can hardly speak.”

She averted her face. “I don’t know what to say. I have no excuse-except that it was so wonderful being with him.”

“There’s only one thing I want to know,” he interrupted. “How far have you broken your promise?”

“I swear I said nothing,” she replied. “I don’t blame you for being angry, but I didn’t do any harm.”

“That remains to be seen,” David declared.

Stung, Jenny said, “Well, if I’m such a shady character, why did you let me see him in the first place?”

“Why did I?” he burst out. “Have you fonrotten how you begged, how you pleaded?”

“I never beg,” said Jenny.

“No, you don’t beg,” he said, “you just damn well assume! You haven’t changed, and you never will. You’re nothing but a self-centered, grasping little bitch!”

There were tears in Jenny’s eyes. “Is that what you think of me? How strange. I didn’t think that.”

The anger in David’s face had died. They rode the rest of the way in silence. But just before they entered Jenny’s hotel suite, she spoke again.

“Just one thing before you go in and play heavy father,” she said. “It was not his fault. This is something I brought about.”

David pushed past her, calling Matt, and Matt appeared.

“Hello, Father,” Matt said. “I wanted to come to the airport with Jenny, but she said I better not; she said she’d explain about Paris and all that.”

“She explained,” David cut in. “All I want you to do now is pack up and come along. Are you ready?”

“No; no, I’m not quite packed,” the boy said. “It won’t take me a minute.”

He went out the door, and David turned to Jenny. “So it’s Paris, now, is it? And after that, it’ll be the rest of the tour.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, don’t sulk!” she said. “I said sorry. You saw his face; he’s said sorry. What do you want us to do, die? And anyway, what was so terrible? He came to the show; we had a trip up the river. We had fun. What was so terrible about all that? You stand there looking at me as though I were a criminal.”

“Oh, come on, now Jenny-“

“All right, I broke a promise!” she explained. “I know it. All the time your wife was alive, I kept out of the way; he was all right then. There was a woman about the place.”

“And she was good for him.”

“Fine! But now what? You with your grave demeanor, and Aunty Beth in Canterbury who’s forty years too late. What kind of life is that for him?”

David was stone. “What you fail to realize is that Matt and I have a very good relationship; we did very well before you came, and we’ll do very well after you leave.”

“My God,” she said, “you know where to hit. He needs me, and I want him.”

“He’s not yours to have. You gave him back to me a long time ago, and I love him and I need him.”

“Need! Want!” she cried. “He’s not a bone, for God’s sake, he’s a child!”

“He’s my son,” David said, “and I’m going to keep him.”

“There’s just one little thing we may have forgotten in passing,” she said. “He’s my son, too.”

In the dull silence that followed, they looked toward the door and saw Matt standing there. He had heard, the adults realized, all he’d needed to hear.

“Is it true,” he said, unsteadily now, “about Jenny and me?”

“Yes,” David answered. “Matt, I think we’d better move off now.”

“No,” Matt said. “I don’t want to go just yet.” He turned to Jenny. “I’d like to stay here a bit with you and get it clearer, if-“

David broke in. “Matt, I want you to come home with me now. Will you?”

“All right,” Matt said wearily. “Jenny, I’m going because my father has asked me to, but not because I want to. Do you understand? I want to make up my own mind about all this. Could I call you and talk?”

“Call me tomorrow,” Jenny said.

• At Jenny’s request, George checked with her lawyers in New York. Jenny might have a legal case. It was a technicality but she’d never signed the second papers on Matt’s adoption. If she wanted to go through a long, court brawl, she might possibly wind up with her son. But George warned against the idea.

“If you got him, what would you do with him?” the manager argued. “Trail about the world with a tutor, hotel suites, rented cars, other people’s houses? They’re pretty tough in England about schooling. Maybe you’d have to leave him in some school and see him now and then on vacation. You’d be strangers, Jenny, and how would you be able to work with this pull all the time? Do you know how to handle a small boy? It isn’t just kisses and presents and supper at the Savoy, it’s a full-time job.”

Jenny finally spoke up. “I know you’re trying to help, but I love him,” she said. And that ended the conversation. . . .

In David Donne’s house, another conversation was taking place. David was attempting to answer the questions Matt had honestly asked, even the tough ones.

“Were you married to Jenny once?” Matt asked.

“No,” David admitted. “We fell in love while I was studying in New York. I asked her to marry me and come to England and live here, but Jenny’s career was more important to her. I couldn’t change her mind, and I had to come back here to my work. Then I met Janet again. We’d known each other since we were almost your age, and it was rather expected that we’d marry one day. And so we did. Then I found out you were going to be born. For a time, Jenny tried to take care of you, but touring around the world with a small boy isn’t awfully convenient. So Janet and I had a talk about things, and we decided to bring you here as our son-our adopted son, because it was easier for Janet that way.”

“But when Janet died,” Matt said, “why didn’t you tell me?”

“I don’t know,” David said. “I don’t expect you to fully understand or forgive me. What’s important now is your future. That’s what we’ve got to think about, and we’ve got to help each other. Will you try?”

The boy nodded gravely. David went on, trying to explain what the future would be like with Jenny. “She wants you-not just for a week end,” he said. “She wants you to leave your home, your school, your friends, and start a new life with her. Matt, I know how much fun you’ve had with her, how kind she can be, how generous. She’s wise too, sometimes. It would be exciting. You’d fly, and catch boats. You’d laugh. You’d have funny fights, and make up. I know Jenny very well. I loved her. But mark this, Matt, Jenny gives more love than anyone else, but she also takes more than anyone can ever give. Can you understand that?”

“But if I do go with her-” Matt began.

‘If that’s what you want,” David said, “I’ll have to get used to it.” “You mean you don’t really care?”

“Care! You idiot, of course I care,”

David said, grabbing the boy. “If it was up to me, I’d say: Phone Jenny and say goodby; tell her you have a good life here and you’re going to stick with it and not muck it up. You’re my son, Matt. I love you and I want you to go on being my son.”

Matt’s words were calm. “If you don’t want me to, I won’t go,” he said.

“Thank you,” David breathed. “Would you like me to tell Jenny?” Matt straightened. “No,” he said, “I’ll tell her.”

• Jenny and Matt met in the park. The sun shone brightly, and Jenny was nervous. She spoke of Paris, as they walked along, and Matt tried to tell her he wanted to be her friend, but that he couldn’t think of her as his mother. She was desperate to shut him up. “Don’t leave me now,” she implored. “I need you.”

In the face of her suffering, he succumbed. “I’ll go with you,” he said.

Just then, a couple of his friends from school came by, and asked Jenny if they could borrow Matt for a boat race. “As a matter of fact,” Jenny said, “I’ve got an appointment myself in a few minutes. You go ahead,” she told Matt. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

She watched the boys as they started toward the boats on the lake. The sun glimmered on the water, the trees were heavy with life, but Jenny’s face was blank, drained of emotion, she turned away and started to walk up the long green hill beneath the trees. . . .

When David Donne got to Middlesex Hospital, the officials were apologetic, “Hope you don’t mind,” one said, “but she was asking for you: wouldn’t see anyone else.”

He found Jenny in a small cubicle off the main ward. Quite drunk, she’d fallen down and hurt her foot; so she’d been brought to the hospital.

“Have some of this,” David said, pouring out coffee. She snorted. “I couldn’t take any more coffee if you fed me through a vein. I’m full to the brim with the whole damned world.”

He said she had to get in shape to go to the theater; crowds were waiting.

“Let them wait,” she said. “They want too much, and I can’t give it.”

“You’ve got a show to do this evening,” he said, “and I’m going to see that you do it.”

“Do you think you can make me sing?” she demanded. “Does George think he can? I sing because I want to, not because anyone wants or makes me.”

“Well, hang on to that,” he said.

“I’ve hung on to just about every bit of rubbish there is in life, and thrown all the good bits away. Why am I the one who saves the wrappings off the candy bar, and starves to death? Can you tell me that?”

He knelt beside her. “Darling, I don’t give a damn who you let down, but you’re not going to let you down.”

At the word “darling,” she put one hand over her face. “You haven’t said that to me in years.”

“I haven’t been able to say it in years.”

Facing him, she put her hand over his lips. “Don’t say it. Please don’t say it. If you say it and don’t mean it, I think that, this moment, I’ll die. Please?”

“I’ll mean it,” he said. “I love you. Come on, darling, help me. Help us. You’ve got to go back. You have to help me to help you, darling.”

She put her arms around his neck. “He wouldn’t stay, David. He didn’t want to stay with me.”

They huddled together. “Come along, my love,” said David. “Here is a middle-aged doctor kneeling on the floor telling you he loves you and begging you to help him.”

“I want to,” she said, “but how?”

“Come with me now; come. Jenny.”

“You wouldn’t pretend,” she said. “You wouldn’t cheat me? You do love me?”

“I wouldn’t pretend; I wouldn’t cheat you. I do love you; I always have.”

“But that’s where it ends, isn’t it?” she said.

“That’s where it ends,” he said. “We were the right people who met at the wrong time with the right ideals, and we’re too strong, both of us, to give up everything for the other.”

“We just don’t fit?” It was almost a cry.

“No, my darling,” he said, “we fitted, the rest didn’t.”

“It really doesn’t make sense, does it?”

“But loving does.”

“Yes, the loving does,” she said. “Loving always does.” She pulled herself together, and tried to get up. “All right, here we go. You will have to help me, my foot and everything. Stay with me?”

“I’ll stay,” he said.

“How long?”

“Until you can stand by yourself again,” he said….

She limped onto the great empty stage in her street clothes, late, but willing to sing. The audience yelled out, “We love you, Jenny,” as the lights came up; and Jenny yelled back, “I love you, too.” The spotlight on her face grew brighter, and the orchestra began to play. Jenny Bowman was home again, back where she belonged.