Friday, August 22, 2008

Taking Refuge in Cleopatra's Eyes

A headache. That's what today's continuing airline saga has become. Its all about mergers, bankruptcies, fees, surcharges and passenger angst.

I am finding relief these days in dredging up 50-year-old airline memories and committing them to paper er, laptop for my upcoming book Fujiyama Trays and Oshibori Towels - Stratocruiser stories and airline yarns from the dazzling decade of the 1950's. Dr. Lady Skywriter is writing a perscription for airline headaches today. I give you:

Cleopatra Eyes

Shopping on layovers in New York City was a favorite activity. New York pulsed with the latest trends in everything, fashion above all. It was the perfect groove for twenty-something young ladies in the 1950’s. Thus it was that Bonnie Murray and I were drawn to the cosmetics counter at Saks Fifth Avenue to scope out the new and noisily trumpeted Cleopatra look. Encouraged by the sales lady to experiment with the bold and colorful eye paints, we hoped that the images we constructed would transform us into clones of Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, star of the ill-fated movie-in-progress. The reflections in the counter-top mirrors must have satisfied the impostors, sans the violet eyes, of course. Triumphantly reflecting the look du jour, we each spent the equivalent of a week’s pay on the recommended eye liners, eye shadows and mascara for our new false eyelashes and carried them back to Minnesota.

The movie seemed jinxed from the beginning. The original director (Rouben Mamoulian) left after six days and was replaced by Joseph Mankiewicz. Filming began in London, where the elaborate sets, props and exotic plants deteriorated in the damp London air. The actors hired to play Julius Ceasar (Peter Finch) and Marc Antony (Stephen Boyd) left due to other commitments and were replaced by Rex Harrison and Richard Burton. Elizabeth Taylor became very ill and after barely surviving an emergency tracheotomy had trouble recuperating in London. The movie was shut down. After six months the production was moved to Rome where a titillating public romance bloomed between Taylor and Burton. Believe me, it would have easily fed today’s 24/7 cable news cycle for months. It took another three years to complete the movie. Both Bonnie and I had resigned from the airline to marry and had become mothers by the time the film opened in 1963.

By the time the bugles sounded the opening fanfare, the film’s costs had soared to $44 Million – the equivalent of more than $295 Million in 2007 dollars – making this the most costly film in American history. Originally budgeted at $2 Million, Cleopatra is famous for nearly bankrupting 20th Century Fox. And the bottom line was the film was a colossal dud.

A similar fate awaited the Cleopatra impostors upon their triumphant return to Minnesota with overflowing make-up cases. It didn’t take nearly as long for the dynamic duo to meet their critics, however. After scurrying home from the airport and spending hours applying the Cleopatra look, Bonnie and Anne welcomed their dates and sped off with them to the Five-Eight Club, a hamburger joint near the airport. It wasn’t until we slid into the booth, the guys on one side and the ladies on the other, that anything was said about our carefully constructed visages.

Our dates thoughtfully and silently sized up the apparitions before them. My date finally broke the silence. He turned to Bonnie’s date and said, “Should we hose them off and see what we’re with?”

It was the Five-Eight Club and not Hollywood, but we were colossal duds too.


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