Archive for June, 2020

What Would J.J. Do?


Recently the inestimable James J. Patterson paid me the honor of reading selections from my newest novel, Melanie’s Song, during his weekly Facebook Live talk from the Alan Squire Publishing Reading Room. Among the selections he chose was one in which the narrator, J.J., meets her best friend and former room-mate, Jocelyn, at a favorite old restaurant in Hollywood. The subject of their conversation was so painfully current, that it prompted me to ask in an email to James, “What would J.J.–what would Jocelyn–do now?”

The pair had been two of five young coeds to travel to Paris and attend the Sorbonne together in the heady early ‘60’s, the “Kennedy years.” The world has convulsed and turned on its head so many times since then—in their personal lives as well as society at large. Jocelyn has done what many expected she would do, become a movie star, while J.J. is a journalist working for a local paper. In that capacity, and as anxious friend, J.J. is on a quest to find out what happened to another of their band, Melanie, who is rumored to have perished in the fire of a hippie commune on the North Coast. Part of the process is to interview all who knew her, including Jocelyn, who remembered seeing her last at a big “support the troops” rally on the mall in Washington, D.C., where she was performing.

Their conversation goes like this:


So the last time I saw her was at that big July 4th thing in 1970. ‘Honor America Day’ sponsored by Bob Hope. He asked me personally because I’d done a couple of shows with him earlier to entertain the troops. Did you know?” Jocelyn looked up.

          J.J. saw her friend’s eyes change color, green to gold, as they always had. A tiger, she thought. “Yes, I knew. How’d you get into that, anyway?”

         “My people, well mostly Harding, my main publicity guy, thought it would be good for my image.”

         “Yeah?” J.J. controlled her impulse to interrogate.

         “Yeah, well,” Jocelyn looked back at the glass. “I mean there was a niche there to fill, the hot Hollywood babe who wasn’t a dissenter.”

          “You mean like the un-Fonda?”

          “Exactly. I mean we were filming A Walk on the Woman Side and he thought, you know, we could reach a larger audience of women, housewives and all, if I had a more mainstream image. So I did the USO shows and that went well, and then Bob Hope called…and I went to Washington.”

          …“And you saw Melie at that event?”

         …“Yes, I saw her. She came because I was there…She was right there in front holding a sign. It said in big letters, Pourquoi me tuez-vous? And all around the edges were images from the war, some drawings, some photos. Huts being burned, children bombed and bleeding…”

         “Why do you kill me?” J.J. translated. “Words of Christ?”

         “No,” Jocelyn answered quietly, “Pascal. But echoing Christ. That was what she was getting at, that I had crossed over to the other side. That by supporting this ‘God Bless America’ kind of event, by supporting the troops, I was also contributing to the killing.”

          “Do you think she was right?”

          … “Yes. Of course she was right. That’s why I couldn’t acknowledge her. It was too…”

         “Why didn’t you ever tell me any of this?”

          “Dear God,” she replied, tears spilling down her cheeks, “I couldn’t. The image of her standing there silently with that sign has haunted me ever since, made me see what my life had become—a lie hiding inside a publicity poster. A fake woman hiding inside the persona of an invented one. She was saying to me with her presence, ‘Jocelyn, you’ve sold out. Where is the real you?’ How could I tell you? I was so ashamed.”


Hearing those words again prompted my question, but it also prompts me now to answer it, because I know both of those women rather well. They are, of course, old, gray at the roots, managing a few health problems as well as possible, and wild about their grandchildren.


Looking back over the decades since that pivotal march, Jocelyn can truthfully say she spent the rest of her life trying to be her real self, not a lie hiding inside a publicity poster. In the world of theater, she quickly embraced the cause of equality for women, and then turned to look around at her own neighbors in the Hollywood Hills, many of them Black and Latinx. She made common cause with them, and friends, and as a result, reflected the evils of society as she saw them in her increasingly radical theater. The acid smells of the fire in Watts that J.J. had forced her to face, always remained in her nostrils. She became, as she said, “stinking rich” and set up a foundation to give fortunes to causes that Jane Fonda supported along with her.


J.J., who had started as a firebrand, became “Red hot,” as one critic called her, trying to smear her with the epithet meaning Communist. She, too, found success in the theater along side Jocelyn, then ventured into other writing, returning to journalism throughout. A turning point came when she was in South Central L.A. reporting on the aftermath of the Rodney King shooting. The flames, which roared like the sounds of injustice and desperation pounded through her veins for years, and it would haunt her dark nights like the devastation of war had done decades before in Vietnam. And so would the sense of fear she felt as a white woman in a terrifying situation for which she was both held partially accountable and vilified for daring to enter, even, or especially, as a journalist. Still, she continued to march, protest, write what she knew and tried to understand the generally overwhelmed ways of peace.


She and Jocelyn talked often, marveling at the fact they found themselves old. But then, increasingly wondering in disbelief at the world they were living in. They had seen the passage of the Civil Rights bill, of the War on Poverty, of women’s right to choose, of affirmative action, and of discrimination falling away on every front. They had seen the election—twice—of the immensely popular and gifted Barack Obama as the first Black president of the United States. Then, as if out of a nightmare they found themselves in another world, with so many of the gains gone or eroded, and under the imprimatur of a deranged and narcissistic chief of state. Not only had he done his best to destroy all that seemed best in their country, and the hard-won progress of so many for so long, but his ineptitude had led to a deadly pandemic of Covid-19 galloping through America like a stampede.


So the two old friends talked, visiting the lamentations of age, feeling powerless, unable to see how at this point they could help turn the tide again, feeling sidelined by covid-19, and unable to join their fellow-citizens in the streets.

It was Jocelyn who broke the spell of despond. “Well, kiddo, we still have all our marbles and a lot of other assets as well. We’ve figured out since the 70s how to change when the times called for it. The times are calling for it again.”


And so they recognized the talents they still had: Jocelyn wasn’t working in the theater anymore, but she had influence there and a huge reputation. She was still stinking rich and had her foundation. Those could be repurposed. J.J. could still write, and in fact did write a lot. She could also pivot and help support artists of all stripes connect with activists and community leaders she knew. But even more than these fruits of their working lives, both women had the treasure of decades of experience.

As they watched on screens the faces of the marchers and the voices of the protesters, so many were young, as they had once been. It was thrilling. And they knew another mandate was to share those lessons of their own lives with the young. Especially with the grandchildren, their greatest gift.


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