Suspended Animation - Jan Edwards

A once-famous actress in the twilight of her career was forced by her finances to accept a minor role, playing a crazy aunt in a Broadway play. After years of star billing she felt devalued, and made a bet with the crew that she could steal a scene from the young leading lady without even being on the stage.

So, before curtain time, she sneaked onto the set where stood a small table holding glasses and a water pitcher. She put double-stick tape on the bottom of one glass.

In the second act this aging actress made her entrance and delivered her part with a trademark flourish. Before her exit, she picked up the glass and slowly filled it with water. She set it down with its bottom hanging half-off the table edge. The glass looked unstable, as if it could fall at any moment, while actually it was secure thanks to the hidden tape.


When the young actress entered to play her big scene, she was destined to flop. No matter how grandly she gestured or deeply she emoted, the audience would not respond because no one was watching her. Every eye was fixed on that glass of water.


The story usually ends here with the young actress foiled by an old magic trick, the audience shown to be gullible sheep, and the bet won by the old master performer. But there is much more to tell, particularly about the young actress who was the target of the stunt, the one the critics called "the fresh new face of 1935." Her name was Margot Montague.


As Margot stepped onto the stage that evening, she sensed the atmosphere was charged, but assumed it was the effect of her charisma. She began her soliloquy and was through the first half of the speech before realizing the audience was not with her. The enhanced energy, which should rightfully be hers, was directed upstage. Stopping mid-word, she turned. When she saw the water glass hanging in suspense, she became transfixed.


After a moment, she regained her wits and walked softly toward the table. As she tiptoed closer to the glass she noticed the tape. It wasn't hard to guess who did it and why. But before she could get angry, Margot had an artistic revelation. On one level this was a silly prank by a jealous has-been; on another, it was the essence of theater.


Since she was near the glass, the audience followed her every move. Margot dipped her finger in the water and ran it around the rim. The glass sang out its high-pitched note. The audience gasped: they were hers.


This was a play, however, and it must go on. Margot was careful to hide the tape from view as she lifted the glass, then moved it back to the safe center of the table. The audience applauded and she took a mock bow before strolling downstage to finish the scene.


Back in her dressing room, Margot combed out her platinum waves while mulling over the lesson of the glass. These people paid to see a play, so why did they prefer to watch a trick? Because they did not know it was a trick. They thought it was true. But many things are true and few could capture an audience like this; they were spellbound.


Margot tuned her mind back to the moment when she first saw the glass hanging off the edge. What had so fascinated her? The surprise first: then wondering why the glass didn't fall, and when it would fall, and what would happen when it finally fell? Had she hoped it would fall? Yes, she had to admit she had. She was not able to take her eyes off that glass for fear she would miss seeing it happen.


If something so simple could mesmerize the masses, perhaps she could learn to use it to enhance her own stage presence-but how? She thought of nothing else all the next day. To design such a focusing technique would take trial and error. Ideally, to captivate the audience there should be an extended period of suspense, and it must directly involve her person.


The next evening, Margot made her second act entrance in a gown with a few alterations. The thin straps on the left shoulder had been cut almost through. When she made a sweep of her arm they snapped and the bodice dropped the intended amount, since it was stitched invisibly to the undergarment. The gimmick worked; the audience gasped as they had the night before. All eyes stayed riveted to the broken straps for the rest of the scene.


It was an easy win, she knew. No different from a vaudeville act or a striptease, and not quite the sort of focus she was after. Nothing she could risk repeating; this was legitimate theater, after all. But the promise of absolute attention from hundreds of eyes was tempting.

To perfect her theory, over the next few weeks she conducted risky experiments. She spoke her lines with eyes closed, while pacing the apron edge, threatening with every step to fall into the pit. An electrician agreed to drop a Fresnel during her scene, leaving it dangling dangerously over her head. She hired the carpenter to rig a chair with one leg missing, teasing the audience that she was about to sit on it, until finally she did.


The crowd was delighted, but the director was not. He was paying for dramatic performances, not high-wire circus acts. He demanded she quit the stunts or he would find another actress who respected theater as art. In a fit of temper, Margot walked out on the show.


At that moment, though she didn't know it, Margot Montague stood on the cutting edge. She had stumbled onto what would become the entertainment revolution of the century, and women from the Gabors to the Kardashians would follow her lead.


The water glass experiments had given her insights. No longer would she be merely a movable prop mouthing the words of others. Margot intended to write her own story with her life as her stage. Her passion had been distilled. She needed to be watched, nothing more. And she now knew what fascinated people. Not carefully crafted speeches recited on stage in rounded tones, but true life: true danger, true drama, true romance, or at least what those watching believed to be true.


Her agent was eager to orchestrate the spin. Mysterious illness causes rising star to drop out of hit show, read the release. The photo spread of Margot looking pale but lovely in peach silk lounging pajamas created a fashion trend. Newsreels reported on her baffling symptoms and the get well cards poured in. Doctors offered tonics, treatments, and therapies. Margot, basking in attention, plotted her recovery.


First, she must approach death's door. The press release announced that, after taking a drastic turn, Miss Montague had been admitted to the Golden Phoenix Sanitarium. There, under the care of the brilliant young Dr. Osbourn, she underwent a dangerous new procedure, never before tried. It was her last hope and the young doctor never left her side, except to give hourly reports on her condition to a worried world.


Once it was announced that Margot would live, the recovery was rapid and complete. Her spring back to radiant health (and into the arms of the doctor who saved her) was one for the annals of medicine. Reporters declared it a miracle.


Romance was rumored when the dashing Dr. Osbourn and Margot Montague were spotted cheek to cheek at the Stork Club. A photo of the happy couple made the cover of Screen Stars, although Margot had never made a movie.


Her agent urged a relapse, but Margot decided the fans craved a wedding. A date was quickly set. Magazines ran shots of her in designer gowns so readers could vote on their favorite. Honeymoon options were weighed in the press as though national interests were at stake. The guest list was leaked and read like Who's Who in New York.


Meanwhile, Margot planned her last minute exit from the engagement. The good doctor turned out to be a cold fish. He was hard to convince to go dancing, worried constantly about his sanitarium, and couldn't wait to get back to Arizona, of all places. Should she dump him now or leave him at the altar?


The agent was horrified. She had to go through with the wedding or the press would tear her to shreds. The man had saved her life, for God's sake, plenty of time to get out of it later. This time Margot heeded his advice. She glided down the aisle at Saint Patrick's glowing like an angel. People waited on the sidewalk with their bags full of rice, soaking through their hankies.


Newsreels followed the honeymoon through Paris, Venice and Rome. They arrived home on the Queen Mary to a smattering of well-wishers at the dock. The newlyweds settled into a ranch style home outside Phoenix, but after a few women's magazines examined the furnishings and asked for Margot's favorite recipes, the spotlight faded. With no trendy night spots, no opera galas to attend, what was she supposed to do, take up horseback riding, join the country club?


The idea to have a baby belonged to her agent. There's dramatic potential no matter how things turn out, he told her. Planning to be tragically barren, Margot agreed to hint that she and the doctor were "trying." As luck would have it, she got pregnant within the month. The surrounding publicity was mild since in those days women hid their baby bumps. The birth was normal, unfortunately, and after a few cute shots of her with the baby, she found the press disinterested.


Motherhood didn't suit her. Everyone focused on the baby instead of her. Even her husband was smitten with the brat. Margot wanted nothing more than to get out of that ranch house and back to New York. This time the agent would not dissuade her. As soon as she got her figure back, she began to set up her escape.


Though the good doctor didn't know it, he was about to be caught in an affair. The pictures showed, without a doubt, him entering a hotel with that woman. No amount of pleading innocence could save him, not while the tears of his heartbroken wife snatched the headlines.
After a quick trip to Reno, Margot bought a penthouse on Central Park with the proceeds from the sale of the sanatorium. She was generous to leave the ranch house for the doctor, who needed someplace to raise the kid.


Back at last, she hit the clubs, making sure to be at the right table when the bulbs flashed. A gay divorcee with a different beau every night, designers begged her to wear their hats. Restaurants never charged her, hoping for the publicity that trailed in her wake. Jewels, furs and cars were free for the asking because, if Margot Montague didn't have it, it wasn't worth having. That went for friends as well. A party wasn't a party without Margot on the list.


Over the years she turned down numerous offers to go back to the stage, but when Hollywood called she jumped on a train to California. She had always thought her life would make a marvelous movie and she planned to play herself. But when she arrived, the offer mysteriously dissolved. It's 1942, and we're in a war, she was told; tastes have changed. No one mentioned it, but she had also changed. Late night parties had taken their toll on her famous creamy complexion. Admirers found her still attractive at 33, but film is not so charitable.


Since she arrived in Hollywood with great fanfare, she decided to stay for the season. She spent weekends at Hearst Castle, sunned herself on the beach at the Hotel Del Coronado, and went to the races with Jimmy Durante. But it was at supper one night at the Zanucks' house that she met Frank Reilly, the man who would be her downfall.


Frank, an up-and-coming actor, had just been drafted and was heading overseas. The dinner party was in his honor, and they had him seated next to their other special guest, Margot Montague. The two hit it off and, as was common with soldiers heading into hell-storms, he proposed after only a few dates. Margot must have been off her game, because she got swept up in the romance. They were married by a justice of the peace and drove all night to an inn overlooking the sea on the rugged north coast. Four bittersweet days later he shipped out.


The press got onto it late, since Margot had forgotten to call her agent. There were only a few snapshots of the couple, but the country was starved for feel-good stories involving servicemen. Frank was a handsome guy and Margot still had sizzle. Soon she was back in the magazines, this time as the war wife waiting for her man. It's the perfect angle for wartime, her agent told her. But for Margot it was no angle, it was true.
She helped sell war bonds, served cookies to GIs at the Hollywood Canteen, and wrote letters to Frank twice a day.

She was planning a USO tour when the telegram arrived. Her knees weakened when she saw the envelope; she sank down on the chaise to read the brief, impersonal text. She stayed there frozen for over an hour, holding the yellow paper in her hand.


For a week she wandered around the house, stopping a dozen times a day to reread the words, hoping they had changed. Then one day she picked up the telegram, tied the silk scarf Frank had sent from London around her hair, and pulled the Continental out of the garage.

The top was down and the wind caused her eyes to tear, as she raced up the state. The sky was turning orange by the time she reached their inn. She checked into their cabin.


The cliff in front of the cabin had a sheer drop to the rocks and waves below. Margot blindfolded her eyes with the scarf and began to walk the edge. She was able to take eight steps on solid ground before she lost her footing.


News of the suicide of Margot Montague would not be comforting to a nation of war wives and was hushed up. What could have been a huge media event and her crowning achievement passed with hardly a notice.


Margot didn't leave a note, just the telegram, which read: Lieutenant Frank Reilly was reported missing in action. Below that in a shaky hand was written: We are each of us a glass teetering on the edge.

Only her agent knew what it meant.

END

Back to Short Stories

Back to Jan Edwards,Writer

Back to PeacefulJewelry.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Suspended Animation
Jan Edwards

A once-famous actress in the twilight of her career was forced by her finances to accept a minor role, playing a crazy aunt in a Broadway play. After years of star billing she felt devalued, and made a bet with the crew that she could steal a scene from the young leading lady without even being on the stage. So, before curtain time, she sneaked onto the set where stood a small table holding glasses and a water pitcher. She put double-stick tape on the bottom of one glass.
In the second act this aging actress made her entrance and delivered her part with a trademark flourish. Before her exit, she picked up the glass and slowly filled it with water. She set it down with its bottom hanging half-off the table edge. The glass looked unstable, as if it could fall at any moment, while actually it was secure thanks to the hidden tape.
When the young actress entered to play her big scene, she was destined to flop. No matter how grandly she gestured or deeply she emoted, the audience would not respond because no one was watching her. Every eye was fixed on that glass of water.
The story usually ends here with the young actress foiled by an old magic trick, the audience shown to be gullible sheep, and the bet won by the old master performer. But there is much more to tell, particularly about the young actress who was the target of the stunt, the one the critics called "the fresh new face of 1935." Her name was Margot Montague.
As Margot stepped onto the stage that evening, she sensed the atmosphere was charged, but assumed it was the effect of her charisma. She began her soliloquy and was through the first half of the speech before realizing the audience was not with her. The enhanced energy, which should rightfully be hers, was directed upstage. Stopping mid-word, she turned. When she saw the water glass hanging in suspense, she became transfixed.
After a moment, she regained her wits and walked softly toward the table. As she tiptoed closer to the glass she noticed the tape. It wasn't hard to guess who did it and why. But before she could get angry, Margot had an artistic revelation. On one level this was a silly prank by a jealous has-been; on another, it was the essence of theater.
Since she was near the glass, the audience followed her every move. Margot dipped her finger in the water and ran it around the rim. The glass sang out its high-pitched note. The audience gasped: they were hers.
This was a play, however, and it must go on. Margot was careful to hide the tape from view as she lifted the glass, then moved it back to the safe center of the table. The audience applauded and she took a mock bow before strolling downstage to finish the scene.
Back in her dressing room, Margot combed out her platinum waves while mulling over the lesson of the glass. These people paid to see a play, so why did they prefer to watch a trick? Because they did not know it was a trick. They thought it was true. But many things are true and few could capture an audience like this; they were spellbound.
Margot tuned her mind back to the moment when she first saw the glass hanging off the edge. What had so fascinated her? The surprise first: then wondering why the glass didn't fall, and when it would fall, and what would happen when it finally fell? Had she hoped it would fall? Yes, she had to admit she had. She was not able to take her eyes off that glass for fear she would miss seeing it happen.
If something so simple could mesmerize the masses, perhaps she could learn to use it to enhance her own stage presence-but how? She thought of nothing else all the next day. To design such a focusing technique would take trial and error. Ideally, to captivate the audience there should be an extended period of suspense, and it must directly involve her person.
The next evening, Margot made her second act entrance in a gown with a few alterations. The thin straps on the left shoulder had been cut almost through. When she made a sweep of her arm they snapped and the bodice dropped the intended amount, since it was stitched invisibly to the undergarment. The gimmick worked; the audience gasped as they had the night before. All eyes stayed riveted to the broken straps for the rest of the scene.
It was an easy win, she knew. No different from a vaudeville act or a striptease, and not quite the sort of focus she was after. Nothing she could risk repeating; this was legitimate theater, after all. But the promise of absolute attention from hundreds of eyes was tempting. To perfect her theory, over the next few weeks she conducted risky experiments. She spoke her lines with eyes closed, while pacing the apron edge, threatening with every step to fall into the pit. An electrician agreed to drop a Fresnel during her scene, leaving it dangling dangerously over her head. She hired the carpenter to rig a chair with one leg missing, teasing the audience that she was about to sit on it, until finally she did.
The crowd was delighted, but the director was not. He was paying for dramatic performances, not high-wire circus acts. He demanded she quit the stunts or he would find another actress who respected theater as art. In a fit of temper, Margot walked out on the show.
At that moment, though she didn't know it, Margot Montague stood on the cutting edge. She had stumbled onto what would become the entertainment revolution of the century, and women from the Gabors to the Kardashians would follow her lead.
The water glass experiments had given her insights. No longer would she be merely a movable prop mouthing the words of others. Margot intended to write her own story with her life as her stage. Her passion had been distilled. She needed to be watched, nothing more. And she now knew what fascinated people. Not carefully crafted speeches recited on stage in rounded tones, but true life: true danger, true drama, true romance, or at least what those watching believed to be true.
Her agent was eager to orchestrate the spin. Mysterious illness causes rising star to drop out of hit show, read the release. The photo spread of Margot looking pale but lovely in peach silk lounging pajamas created a fashion trend. Newsreels reported on her baffling symptoms and the get well cards poured in. Doctors offered tonics, treatments, and therapies. Margot, basking in attention, plotted her recovery.
First, she must approach death's door. The press release announced that, after taking a drastic turn, Miss Montague had been admitted to the Golden Phoenix Sanitarium. There, under the care of the brilliant young Dr. Osbourn, she underwent a dangerous new procedure, never before tried. It was her last hope and the young doctor never left her side, except to give hourly reports on her condition to a worried world.
Once it was announced that Margot would live, the recovery was rapid and complete. Her spring back to radiant health (and into the arms of the doctor who saved her) was one for the annals of medicine. Reporters declared it a miracle.
Romance was rumored when the dashing Dr. Osbourn and Margot Montague were spotted cheek to cheek at the Stork Club. A photo of the happy couple made the cover of Screen Stars, although Margot had never made a movie.
Her agent urged a relapse, but Margot decided the fans craved a wedding. A date was quickly set. Magazines ran shots of her in designer gowns so readers could vote on their favorite. Honeymoon options were weighed in the press as though national interests were at stake. The guest list was leaked and read like Who's Who in New York.
Meanwhile, Margot planned her last minute exit from the engagement. The good doctor turned out to be a cold fish. He was hard to convince to go dancing, worried constantly about his sanitarium, and couldn't wait to get back to Arizona, of all places. Should she dump him now or leave him at the altar?
The agent was horrified. She had to go through with the wedding or the press would tear her to shreds. The man had saved her life, for God's sake, plenty of time to get out of it later. This time Margot heeded his advice. She glided down the aisle at Saint Patrick's glowing like an angel. People waited on the sidewalk with their bags full of rice, soaking through their hankies.
Newsreels followed the honeymoon through Paris, Venice and Rome. They arrived home on the Queen Mary to a smattering of well-wishers at the dock. The newlyweds settled into a ranch style home outside Phoenix, but after a few women's magazines examined the furnishings and asked for Margot's favorite recipes, the spotlight faded. With no trendy night spots, no opera galas to attend, what was she supposed to do, take up horseback riding, join the country club?
The idea to have a baby belonged to her agent. There's dramatic potential no matter how things turn out, he told her. Planning to be tragically barren, Margot agreed to hint that she and the doctor were "trying." As luck would have it, she got pregnant within the month. The surrounding publicity was mild since in those days women hid their baby bumps. The birth was normal, unfortunately, and after a few cute shots of her with the baby, she found the press disinterested.
Motherhood didn't suit her. Everyone focused on the baby instead of her. Even her husband was smitten with the brat. Margot wanted nothing more than to get out of that ranch house and back to New York. This time the agent would not dissuade her. As soon as she got her figure back, she began to set up her escape.
Though the good doctor didn't know it, he was about to be caught in an affair. The pictures showed, without a doubt, him entering a hotel with that woman. No amount of pleading innocence could save him, not while the tears of his heartbroken wife snatched the headlines.
After a quick trip to Reno, Margot bought a penthouse on Central Park with the proceeds from the sale of the sanatorium. She was generous to leave the ranch house for the doctor, who needed someplace to raise the kid.
Back at last, she hit the clubs, making sure to be at the right table when the bulbs flashed. A gay divorcee with a different beau every night, designers begged her to wear their hats. Restaurants never charged her, hoping for the publicity that trailed in her wake. Jewels, furs and cars were free for the asking because, if Margot Montague didn't have it, it wasn't worth having. That went for friends as well. A party wasn't a party without Margot on the list.
Over the years she turned down numerous offers to go back to the stage, but when Hollywood called she jumped on a train to California. She had always thought her life would make a marvelous movie and she planned to play herself. But when she arrived, the offer mysteriously dissolved. It's 1942, and we're in a war, she was told; tastes have changed. No one mentioned it, but she had also changed. Late night parties had taken their toll on her famous creamy complexion. Admirers found her still attractive at 33, but film is not so charitable.
Since she arrived in Hollywood with great fanfare, she decided to stay for the season. She spent weekends at Hearst Castle, sunned herself on the beach at the Hotel Del Coronado, and went to the races with Jimmy Durante. But it was at supper one night at the Zanucks' house that she met Frank Reilly, the man who would be her downfall.
Frank, an up-and-coming actor, had just been drafted and was heading overseas. The dinner party was in his honor, and they had him seated next to their other special guest, Margot Montague. The two hit it off and, as was common with soldiers heading into hell-storms, he proposed after only a few dates. Margot must have been off her game, because she got swept up in the romance. They were married by a justice of the peace and drove all night to an inn overlooking the sea on the rugged north coast. Four bittersweet days later he shipped out.
The press got onto it late, since Margot had forgotten to call her agent. There were only a few snapshots of the couple, but the country was starved for feel-good stories involving servicemen. Frank was a handsome guy and Margot still had sizzle. Soon she was back in the magazines, this time as the war wife waiting for her man. It's the perfect angle for wartime, her agent told her. But for Margot it was no angle, it was true.
She helped sell war bonds, served cookies to GIs at the Hollywood Canteen, and wrote letters to Frank twice a day. She was planning a USO tour when the telegram arrived. Her knees weakened when she saw the envelope; she sank down on the chaise to read the brief, impersonal text. She stayed there frozen for over an hour, holding the yellow paper in her hand.
For a week she wandered around the house, stopping a dozen times a day to reread the words, hoping they had changed. Then one day she picked up the telegram, tied the silk scarf Frank had sent from London around her hair, and pulled the Continental out of the garage. The top was down and the wind caused her eyes to tear, as she raced up the state. The sky was turning orange by the time she reached their inn. She checked into their cabin.
The cliff in front of the cabin had a sheer drop to the rocks and waves below. Margot blindfolded her eyes with the scarf and began to walk the edge. She was able to take eight steps on solid ground before she lost her footing.
News of the suicide of Margot Montague would not be comforting to a nation of war wives and was hushed up. What could have been a huge media event and her crowning achievement passed with hardly a notice.
Margot didn't leave a note, just the telegram, which read: Lieutenant Frank Reilly was reported missing in action. Below that in a shaky hand was written: We are each of us a glass teetering on the edge. Only her agent knew what it meant.