This is a love story, and it begins, for me anyway, with the death of Christopher Jones, “an heir apparent to James Dean who starred in such films as The Looking Glass War and Ryan’s Daughter before quitting show business at the height of his brief but dazzling career,” as he was summarized in the lede of his Hollywood Reporter obituary. He had been likened to James Dean since the late fifties, when he was a teenager living in a home for orphaned and abandoned boys in Memphis, Tennessee. He had Dean’s blondish bedhead and a similar build and stature, but with his snakelike eyes and exotic cheekbones, there was also a resemblance to Rudolph Valentino, as noted by a cameraman on the set of Chubasco, the first of six movies Jones made back to back in the late sixties. He played a rock star in the prophetically titled Wild in the Streets and a captive stud in Three in the Attic, and he was ideally suited to both parts as a real-life romantic rival of Jim Morrison and an exhibitionist with just cause, or as he would say to an interviewer long after his heyday, “I wasn’t John Holmes, exactly, but nearly.” He was dangerous to know and a danger to himself. He brandished guns and knives, and narrowly escaped death in two car crackups, the first in Italy, where he made another prophetically titled movie, Brief Season, and the second in Ireland, where he shot most of Ryan’s Daughter, a kind of Irish Madame Bovary directed by David Lean. He claimed to have had an affair with Sharon Tate while making Brief Season—she was working on a different film, her last, in Rome—and when he learned of her murder by the Manson Family a few months later, he snapped and disappeared from the spotlight, even as Ryan’s Daughter, released at the end of 1970, established him as a top-tier star. Offers poured in, and he was already committed to making more movies, but he ignored the commitments as rumors of schizophrenia, of drug addiction and turning tricks on the street, swirled around him. Pamela Des Barres, the celebrated former groupie and author, had an encounter with Jones outside the Psychedelic Conspiracy, a Sunset Strip head shop, in 1973, and as she wrote later in Movieline magazine, now defunct, “his long hair was disheveled, his clothes in tatters, his feet dirty and bare. Since he was obviously having a private conversation with himself, I didn’t intrude.” I read that story shortly after it was published in 1996, and it haunted me to the point where I eventually retooled it for Banned for Life, my novel about a punk-rock pioneer said to be panhandling on the streets of Hollywood following his perplexing withdrawal from the underground music scene.
Jones fathered six children by three women, not including the son he insisted was his by Susan Cabot, a B-movie actress best remembered as the star of The Wasp Woman; but he was legally married just once, to another actress named Susan. Her father was Lee Strasberg, the artistic director of the Actors Studio, and she played the title role in the original Broadway production of The Diary of Anne Frank, so Susan Strasberg was New York theater royalty when she met Christopher Jones, then studying acting with Frank Corsaro, my acting teacher more than twenty years later. In Hollywood, Susan Strasberg appeared in a couple of drug movies, The Trip and Psych-Out, and in life she was introduced to drugs by Jones, or so she wrote in her 1980 memoir, Bittersweet. He was violent emotionally and physically during their time together, so that she finally took out a restraining order against him, and even then she had to phone for help when he showed up at her door and threatened to kick it in, adopting “his wistful hangdog look when [the police] arrived. I thought I detected a flash of antagonism in their eyes: What’s she doing to this nice young man?” This occurred before his crucible while making Ryan’s Daughter. Though he and Strasberg were divorced by then, she visited him on the set in Ireland and thought he was “acting strangely.”
Jones admitted to abusing his ex-wife in a talk with Pamela Des Barres for Movieline: “I hit her a few times. But I wouldn’t hit a woman now.” It was his first interview in more than twenty-five years and a chance to set the record straight, Des Barres told him in print, to which he replied, not unfairly: “Yeah, right, set the record straight. For who? For who?” Even so, prompted by Des Barres, he did attempt to set the record straight, in his semi-coherent fashion. He denied ever having abused drugs, contrary to what Susan Strasberg had written in Bittersweet: “She’s lyin’ like a dog. She just wanted to be in with the scene. She’s so square.” He also denied, initially at least, that Pamela Des Barres had seen him ostensibly homeless on the Sunset Strip in 1973, but he relented when De Barres held her ground: “I admit I was living like Tarzan, a bit.” That had nothing to do with drugs, however: “I wasn’t high. I was flipped out on the agony and the ecstasy. Let me tell you, if you have two managers trying to rob you, an ex-wife driving you crazy, and everybody’s after your fucking money—I went through a Howard Hughes kind of thing.” The murder of Sharon Tate was another factor, and for the first time, though not for the last, he spoke publicly of their alleged affair: “I didn’t fuck her. She fucked me.” Yet another factor: “I had done three pictures in a row in Europe, and had so many love affairs I was exhausted.” And another: “The death of Jim Morrison fucked me up more than anything.” And then there was the matter of one of his managers conspiring successfully to squelch his betrothal to Olivia Hussey, the Raphaelian star of Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, and the same manager, Jones said, later kidnapped him in the guise of arranging psychotherapy at a place in Virginia where members of a Mansonesque cult tried to turn him into a “sex slave” before he escaped and “stayed very much in the background” when the cult was busted. He could easily have topped that delirious tale by recounting the documented facts in the 1986 murder of Susan Cabot by her son Timothy, who clubbed his mother to death with a barbell, hid the barbell in a box of laundry detergent, and attributed the killing to ninjas. The facts of the case were known to Jones, but when Des Barres asked about it, he claimed paternity of Timothy with little elaboration and added, with no elaboration at all, that the murder was self-defense. So a judge ruled. Timothy was born with a growth-inhibiting condition that Susan Cabot tried to reverse with injections of a hormone derived from the pituitary glands of human cadavers, but the treatments ultimately resulted in folie à deux and may have contributed to Timothy’s early death of heart failure in 2003.
The Movieline interview coincided with the surprising return of Christopher Jones to the film business. Quentin Tarantino had sought him out for the part of Zed in Pulp Fiction—Tarantino was a fan, as am I, of The Looking Glass War, an oft-derided adaptation of the John le Carré novel, with Jones as a Polish spy—but Jones said no to Tarantino and yes to Larry Bishop, who had played one of his band mates in Wild in the Streets and asked him to play a hit man in Mad Dog Time, Bishop’s directorial debut. But Mad Dog Time would be Jones’s swan song as an actor; in 1997 he had another close brush with death, this time from an abdominal hemorrhage. The cause remains characteristically mysterious; at times Jones said it was perforated ulcers, at other times that he drank “something caustic.” His old friend Bill Dakota would tell me firmly it was drug-related, and in fact Jones looked as gaunt and glassy-eyed as a jailhouse junkie in the recent photos that accompanied the Movieline piece. Bill Dakota published a notoriously salacious tabloid, The Hollywood Star, in the late seventies, but I nevertheless found him credible. During the Hollywood Star period, he managed an apartment building where Jones was a tenant and the object of Dakota’s blatant infatuation: almost every edition of the Star carried an item about him. Still, Dakota was forced to evict Jones, who, in addition to falling behind in his rent, had captured wild birds and snakes and set them free in his apartment. There were bird droppings all over the walls and floor, Dakota said, and a snake crawled down the bath drain and emerged in the tub of another tenant.
The hemorrhage left Jones with a permanent feeding tube. Dakota visited him at the start of a long convalescence, most of it spent at a Hollywood rehabilitation facility, Brier Oak on Sunset, where a furtive camera grabbed a grainy shot of him, pajama-clad in a wheelchair, outside the entrance at night. The shot was for a 1999 episode of E! Channel’s E! True Hollywood Story series, but Jones declined to participate. He knew he had come off badly in Movieline, and he blamed alcohol and Pamela Des Barres, who further vexed him by loaning her tapes of their talk to E! Channel and reenacting for the camera her encounter with Jones outside the Psychedelic Conspiracy. Others shared memories and impressions: Larry Bishop, Quentin Tarantino, and Jones’s manager Sherry Dodd, who predicted that we hadn’t heard the last of him. She was accurate in the sense that, following his release from Brier Oak, he surfaced on rare occasions to speak with print journalists. I know of a single possible on-camera interview: Skip E. Lowe, the epicene host of a public-access talk show, Skip E. Lowe Looks at Hollywood, swore to me that Jones once appeared on it, but I never saw the tape and Skip was prone to confusion. A sample from his show: “Marilyn Monroe went back with Joe DiMaggio after she committed suicide, didn’t she?”
I became friendly with Skip while researching a piece about another actor, someone he didn’t know as well as he knew Jones, who lived with him for a while after being evicted by Bill Dakota. Skip spoke of having me on his show. A career in show business, successful or not, was his sole criteria for booking guests, and we met one morning—it was June 25, 2013—to discuss the possibility. I’m certain of the date because he inscribed it in a copy of his memoir, The Boy with the Betty Grable Legs, which he brought to the meeting and sold to me for twenty dollars. (“Enjoy my journey,” the inscription continued.) I was then about to begin a piece about Jim Morrison, and in the course of reading about Morrison, I was reminded of Christopher Jones, who was as enigmatic as ever, going by the few updates I found online, like this one written in digitalese on the message board of the Internet Movie Database: “Chris Jones is a recluse in west hollywood. I met him a few times thru Sherry Dodd. he never left his room till night and never went out. he did paint really beautifully though.” Jones was “a man with demons chasing him,” this person added, “very thin, alot of health woes,” and I gathered that he had been taken in by Sherry Dodd, who posted her e-mail address on the IMDb message board for those who sought to contact him, though there were complaints on the board that she failed to respond to e-mails, even from potential buyers of his artwork. He had been drawing and painting since childhood, and he studied art briefly in New York before he turned to acting, but the study wasn’t evident in the portraits I discovered elsewhere online of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Rudolph Valentino, all derived from photos. It was fan art, the work of a hobbyist. I had seen worse, to be sure, but I had also seen better.
Sherry Dodd was an enigma in her own right, a manager with an exclusive client whose interests she didn’t seem to protect. Who was she? What was her game? I thought I detected a clue in a 2009 update of Jones provided by Dodd. “Chris is constantly getting requests for interviews and now he will only do them for money,” she responded to a movie blogger who had obviously hoped to interview him. “He spends a lot of time with his children at his beach house. When he’s in Hollywood, he stays with me in our place near the Sunset Strip and we are the closest of friends.” Skip told me that Jones had been living for years with Paule McKenna, his de-facto wife, and their four children in Seal Beach, but Sherry Dodd had erased Paule McKenna, Soviet style, while emphasizing her own close relationship with Jones. Later I learned that he and McKenna (whose first name is pronounced as it’s sometimes spelled: “Paula”) had split at some point in the nineties and that McKenna owned the place in Seal Beach where he was a kind of platonic house guest, which made her the latest in a long line of lovers and former lovers and wishful lovers who had given him shelter. Skip fell into the final category, but which category was Dodd’s? Regardless, she seemed covetous of him, so that when I decided to follow my piece about Jim Morrison with one about Christopher Jones, I was sure she would snub my interview request. He expected to be paid for interviews in any case. No matter; I would collect the necessary research materials—books, magazines, DVDs—and interview Skip and Bill Dakota and my friend Nadine Bass, who had known Susan Strasberg and Jones’s colleague and loyal supporter Shelley Winters, both now dead. Nadine also knew Jones’s daughter Jennifer, by Strasberg, as well as Pamela Des Barres, while I had mutual friends with Quentin Tarantino and Larry Bishop, and a few mutual acquaintances with Jones—I had never met him—and after I had spoken to as many of these people as possible, I would petition Sherry Dodd to interview Jones, and however she answered, that would conclude my piece. I didn’t anticipate an answer, of course, and almost didn’t want one, since I aimed to work the mystery angle, and the less we know of a mystery, the more it finally intrigues. The punk pioneer of Banned for Life was a disappointment to the fan who managed to track him down.
But I would never prove so lucky—or unlucky—with Christopher Jones. One morning, in my Facebook feed, I saw a link to the Hollywood Reporter obituary that announced his death of gallbladder cancer. I was stunned. He was seventy-two, so I suppose I shouldn’t have been stunned, but I somehow believed that, like Keith Richards, an equally implausible survivor of the sixties, Jones would beat the odds indefinitely.
The Reporter obituary was published online hours after Jones died on January 31, 2014. It mentioned nothing about a memorial service, and an account of one, if I were able to attend, would function as well as a response or non-response from Sherry Dodd as an ending for my piece; but even Sherry Dodd said nothing of a memorial service on Facebook, where I found her profile and “followed” her without “friending” her. She acknowledged Jones’s death by uploading a recent and rather elegant photo of him—she had taken it—and a few days later she posted that she was quoted in Jones’s Los Angeles Times obituary, in which she was identified as his former manager. Was that by choice? And wasn’t someone going to hold a public service for this once public man? If so, it was omitted by the Times.
I called Skip. Yes, he knew Jones had died. No, he didn’t know about a service, but he was stuck in a nursing home anyway, recuperating from a nasty fall. I thought Nadine might have heard something from Jennifer Strasberg Jones or even Pamela Des Barres, but she hadn’t, she told me when I called her also. Finally, on the verge of giving up, I discovered a communiqué from Paule McKenna on Twitter about a memorial service to be held at Hollywood Forever Cemetery on February 7th. Rudolph Valentino is interred at Hollywood Forever, and Jones’s portrait of him had been displayed there, according to the Reporter obituary, presumably at one of the annual memorials for Valentino, the cemetery’s star resident. His supporting cast includes Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny, Fay Wray, the unrequited love of King Kong, punk-rock legends Johnny Ramone and Tomata du Plenty, Maila Nurmi, a.k.a. television horror host Vampira, and William Desmond Taylor, a silent-film director and victim of a sensational murder. Toto, the terrier from The Wizard of Oz, is buried elsewhere, but a statue of Toto stands beside the cemetery’s Cathedral Mausoleum, where the vases on either side of Valentino’s crypt are always filled with fresh flowers. Christopher Jones hadn’t left show business after all. In death he was back in the thick of it.
After Paule McKenna tweeted about the service, a few more announcements popped up on Facebook. It was scheduled for two p.m. at the Cathedral Mausoleum and open to “the interested public,” so I invited Nadine to meet me there and asked her to alert Jennifer and Pamela. I didn’t like the idea of attending alone. I pictured Sherry Dodd playing the gatekeeper that she seemed to have enjoyed playing when Jones was alive, limiting access to him one last time. Nadine told me that Sherry Dodd couldn’t have been kinder in their only exchange, but I was wary even so as I neared the mausoleum on the day of the service, passing the statue of Toto and a marble wall of honeycomb crypts without inscriptions. The lid had been removed from one of the crypts and a black curtain covered the square hole in the wall, and beneath it, a casket lifter was parked and awaiting cargo. I hadn’t realized the service would include interment, but the weather was perfect for it, the overcast winter sky agreeing with the gray of the wall. I was thirty minutes early, and Nadine had beaten me there; I saw her chatting with Jennifer and a few other people beside the wall, and, not wanting to interrupt, I walked on, about to enter the mausoleum when a woman effectively blocked me, stepping into my path. “Who are you here for?” she asked.
“Christopher?” I said in a harmless tone usually reserved for cops. I left it at that initially, since a first name implies familiarity, and when the woman didn’t step aside, I said, “Christopher Jones?” I had solved the riddle of the Grail: the woman smiled and handed me a program card with black-and-white head shots of Jones at his movie-star peak on the front and back, and a color still from Ryan’s Daughter in the middle.
Inside the mausoleum, I recognized Pamela Des Barres by her burgundy hair. She was sitting in one of the folding chairs that faced the casket at the far end of the room, her head turned to me. I felt an instant sense of humility on seeing the casket. It was the near-black of fertile earth, and a lush bouquet of white roses seemed to be growing out of its belly. Two more bouquets of white flowers bookended the casket, and there was a projection screen on one side of it and a poster-size color photo of Jones on the other. He was young in this photo also, and his name was printed at the bottom, as if the guests could use a reminder of the name of the person they had gathered to mourn. In fact, after taking a seat at the back of the room, I overheard a pony-tailed guest in his seventies explain to a companion that Christopher Jones was an actor who had been in this and that movie. Heroic statues of the twelve Apostles stood like pillars, six beside the left wall and six beside the right, and those statues must appoint this the “cathedral” room of the mausoleum, I decided. Valentino’s crypt was in a separate room adjoining this one.
I was trying to be unobtrusive by sitting in the back, but then Nadine walked past and waved for me to join her and Pamela Des Barres in a row closer to the casket. I had met Pamela once before, I reminded her, though I hadn’t asked then, as I had wanted to ask, how she had come by that interview with Christopher Jones. Well, she said, she had been trying to learn what happened to him for a long time, and then her friend Gabriel Byrne mentioned that he was making a movie with him, Mad Dog Time, so she approached him about doing an interview and he canceled again and again before he finally went through with it. Of course he was unhappy with the result, but she tried to make him look as good as possible while editing the transcript. It wasn’t easy—he said worse than appeared in print—and persuading him to pose for new photos was another trial. “He looked haggard,” she said. Aging is especially brutal for those blessed by Aphrodite in youth.
Now the family entered the room, sitting ahead of us. I recognized Paule McKenna from her Twitter profile photo, and with a single exception, her children resembled her more than Jones. The exception was their teenage son, who was darker than his father, but otherwise remarkably similar. I hoped that Quentin Tarantino would show, but he didn’t, which made Pamela or the actress Peggy Lipton, best known for TV’s The Mod Squad, the most famous guest, followed by Larry Bishop. Bill Dakota had long since moved to Ohio, and Skip, of course, was in a nursing home, where I planned to visit him after the service. Sherry Dodd was sitting in the row opposite mine, though I didn’t realize it till she stood and walked over to Pamela. In the True Hollywood Story episode, broadcast more than fifteen years earlier, she had shoulder-length dark red hair and a creamy complexion, but there was a hint of unhealthy gray in her complexion now and her hair was longer and dyed a lighter color. Her Italianate eyes hadn’t changed. She leaned down to whisper to Pamela—I heard this much: “He would have wanted you to be here”—then returned to her seat, and I rose to take a few photos of the casket. Others had taken photos, so it must be permissible, though I felt uncomfortable doing it. A lot of these people—most of them—had known this man and loved him. I was a voyeur, a vulture.
The service commenced with a brief statement from a representative of Hollywood Forever, not the woman who had stopped me at the door but a different woman who said, in essence, that she was pleased to add Christopher Jones to the cemetery’s well-known collection of the well-known. Then she welcomed to the podium a Methodist reverend whose voice, like hers, reverberated in what was effectively an echo chamber. Jones wasn’t perfect, the reverend began, and he probably would have done some things differently if he could have lived his life a second time, but “this is the day we remember the best and bury the rest.” He divided Jones’s life into two parts, the first starting with his birth as William Franklin Jones, a name he changed after he moved to Hollywood and learned of another actor named William Jones. The reverend was right about the reason for the change, but it happened earlier, before Jones’s professional debut in the original Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana. Shelley Winters was in that production, and per the reverend, Winters introduced Jones to Susan Strasberg. Again, this was only half right: Jones was with Winters when he first set eyes on Strasberg, but he met her later, during a visit with Frank Corsaro on Fire Island, where Strasberg kept a summer house. These errors were unimportant save that they led me to wonder if the reverend had been personally acquainted with Jones or if he was a kind of hired gun. So far the eulogy seemed have been quilted together with “facts” culled from the Internet.
But the tone became more intimate when the reverend turned to the second part of Jones’s life, the part that began when he quit movies, freeing him to pursue his love of art, which he may have inherited from his mother, whose permanent removal to a mental institution, when Jones was four, was reduced tactfully to an “emotional downturn” by the reverend. Jones was fascinated by “historical mysteries and the unknown,” the reverend said, and with his “classical bent,” he collected ancient coins and statues of ancient deities. He read philosophy and poetry, particularly the works of Byron and Keats, and wrote poetry in “a beautiful hand.” He enjoyed watching the History Channel, and hiking the trails of Griffith Park, and cooking for friends and family, and most of all, he loved his children. He wanted to be a family man, a good role model, the reverend said, and as he spoke, sobs echoed around me, while ahead of me, I saw someone consoling Jennifer Strasberg Jones, gently stroking her neck and shoulders. The reverend concluded with a quote from Jones: “I want my epitaph to read that some things are better left unsaid.” That struck home, since any effective piece about Jones would inevitably violate his wish for privacy. Again, I felt like a vulture.
Then the lights were dimmed and “The Crystal Ship,” the most elegiac of songs by the Doors, began to play on the mausoleum’s loudspeakers, and the projection screen came alive with a slide-show video of photos of Jones. The majority were from The Looking Glass War: lobby cards with, in some cases, Japanese titles on them. None were recent or snapped by friends or relatives. Then, when the song and video ended and the lights were switched back on, the pallbearers, which included Jones’s sons, gathered around the casket and began to move it outside for the internment. The guests followed. The clouds had dispersed; the sun was now shining. The casket was placed on the casket lifter, and the family sat in folding chairs while everyone else stood. My phone had vibrated inside the mausoleum, alerting me to a text message, and I removed the phone to glance at the text, and when I looked up, the reverend was glowering at me. Point taken: I pocketed the phone. Then the reverend plucked a rose from the bouquet atop the casket and held it for all to see. Life, he said, is short and sweet, and he lifted the flower to his nose and savored its fragrance, and a moment later the casket vanished behind the curtain that covered the unsealed crypt.
After the service, as Nadine and I were catching up inside the mausoleum, we were approached by another guest, a youngish guy I had observed sitting alone in the row ahead of us with the slouch of a Method actor of the fifties. “Where’s that portrait Chris did of Valentino?” he asked. “I thought it was supposed to be hanging here.” I proposed my theory that the portrait had been displayed at a Valentino memorial service, and we all walked back for a look at Valentino’s crypt and others, chatting while doing a bit of morbid sightseeing. I had guessed correctly that the youngish guy was an actor. His name was Max, and he had some success as a “juvenile” type in the nineties, around the time he met Christopher Jones through his acting teacher, Shelley Winters, who saw them as kindred spirits. He also met Skip E. Lowe through Shelley Winters, and when I mentioned that I was about to visit Skip, he offered to drive us both to the nursing home in West Hollywood.
We arrived at supper time and found Skip in his room, picking at his food and watching From Here to Eternity on a tiny retro television. The movie sparked a typical Skip reminiscence: in long-ago Manhattan he came upon Montgomery Clift, who was drunkenly wandering the nighttime streets, and Skip guided him to his brownstone apartment and crashed there. A different version of that story appeared in The Boy with the Betty Grable Legs, and now Skip was readying a follow-up book for publication and planning to resume his talk show once he mended and the nursing home released him. Max asked about the episode of the show with Chris Jones—like me, he had never seen it—and Skip recalled a second guest—John Barrymore Jr., another Hollywood dropout—and during the taping, Jones stormed off the set and either broke a camera or threatened to break it. These details, new to me, were persuasive, but I weighed them against Skip’s fanciful account of the Manson murders, based on a confession Jones purportedly made to him. In The Boy with the Betty Grable Legs and again in conversation with me, Skip stated that Jones was romancing Sharon Tate at her rented house on Cielo Drive on the night she died there and he missed the killers by minutes when he left to buy cigarettes. In fact, Jones was on location in Ireland with his managers, Rudi Altobelli and Stuart Cohen, at the time of the murders, but there was a Weimarener dog named Christopher on the Cielo Drive property that night. The Weimarenar was owned by Rudi Altobelli, who also owned the property, and one of the killers testified to seeing a dog peer through a window of the house before the carnage began. This dog was probably Christopher, Jones’s namesake, and possibly Jones related the killer’s testimony to Skip, who confused Christopher the dog with Christopher the actor and added a separate anecdote about running out for cigarettes to garnish his mangled account. It’s also possible that Jones misled Skip for sport or sympathy. He could be manipulative, as demonstrated by the “hangdog look” he adopted for the police when he violated Susan Strasberg’s restraining order.
Skip was a die-hard lottery player. Even bedridden in a nursing home, he somehow managed to acquire lottery tickets, which in California can’t be bought online. He was sure he had divined the winning numbers for the next day’s drawing, and he repeated them to me and Max more than once in the course of our visit, urging us, as we said goodbye, to buy tickets. They cost only a dollar after all, so Max stopped at a convenience store near the Sunset Strip, and we lingered for a while in the parking lot, talking mostly about the Manson case and Jones’s affair with Sharon Tate. In his most detailed interview about Tate, which he gave to the Daily Mail in 2007, Jones remembered that Rudi Altobelli dined with them in Rome on the night the affair started, and I gathered from the Daily Mail that Altobelli introduced them. Not so, Max said; they knew each other from the Chateau Marmont, the storied hotel a block from where Max and I were now standing. The Chateau Marmont was Jones’s usual residence when he wasn’t working abroad in the late sixties, and his occasional neighbors there included Jim Morrison and Pamela Courson, Morrison’s longtime girlfriend, who propositioned Jones in the hotel’s parking garage by way of avenging Morrison’s infidelities and guaranteeing his jealousy. Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski, her film-director husband, lived at the Chateau before they moved to Cielo Drive, and Max said that Jones sensed Tate’s interest in him even then, though, per the Daily Mail, nothing happened till she invited him to her room in Rome, asked if he wanted to smoke opium, and pulled him into bed with her. This is all in the spirit of the swinging sixties, but it isn’t in the spirit of Sharon Tate, an expectant mother who ceased her casual drug use the instant she learned she was pregnant, her friends concurred post-mortem. She wouldn’t even touch a glass of wine, Polanski told homicide detectives, and there wasn’t “a chance of any other man getting close to Sharon.” Again, her friends concurred, save the one quoted anonymously in The Roman Polanski Story, an unauthorized biography published in 1980, about Tate’s affair with an unnamed man in Italy while Polanski was in London, collaborating on the screenplay for what would have been his next movie. Supposedly Tate confided in the anonymous friend after she returned to Los Angeles without Polanski, who remained in London to finish the screenplay, promising to join her later for the birth of their child. He was the spouse who ordinarily strayed, and according to the friend, Tate wanted to pay him back by taking a lover of her own, à la Pamela Courson, though Tate’s revenge was private, or as the friend said of Polanski: “I’m sure to this day he doesn’t know that she was unfaithful to him in Italy.”
The Roman Polanski Story is a flagrant hatchet job written by Thomas Keirnan to capitalize on Polanski’s infamous statutory-rape case, but it’s worth noting as the sole account of an Italian affair that doesn’t cite Jones as the source. Possibly Jones read the book, or anyway read the crucial passage, and decided he was the nameless lover and, perhaps unconsciously, converted his friendship with Tate into a full-blown affair, and so settled on a romantic narrative for his breakdown while making Ryan’s Daughter, a dreary experience for everyone involved. The fickle Irish weather caused constant delays, as did David Lean’s perfectionism. Jones was a charismatic but unruly actor, a common combination, and the more Lean tried to control him, the more fractious he became. The remote location was a gulag to him, and seems to have aggravated a second legacy of his institutionalized mother, if his flair for art was the first. Susan Strasberg, in Bittersweet, observed early inklings of mental illness unrelated to drugs. Jones spoke of a generic them who were out to get him. He gave Strasberg a black eye after he imagined a conversation between her and another man. He had a “love affair” with a female ghost, informing Strasberg that the ghost was jealous and “told me get rid of you.” That ghost may have been a harbinger of Sharon Tate. I never doubted that Pamela Courson threw herself at Jones precisely as he said she did—it’s perfectly in tune with her bold character—but I was more skeptical of his affair with Tate than I was of his paternity of Susan Cabot’s son. Cabot was living in New York when she became pregnant in 1963, weeks before Jones met Strasberg on Fire Island, and both women were petite, brunette, and Jewish, so it isn’t inconceivable that Jones could have abandoned Cabot for a younger and more prestigious actress of the same type.
But Max accepted the Tate affair as fact, having discussed it with Jones personally; plus, it was confirmed by Rudi Altobelli when Max met him and Jones for drinks one night. I was surprised that Altobelli would even associate with Jones after being maligned by him as a career wrecker and embezzler, draining his savings while obstructing deals. Stuart Cohen, Altobelli’s partner who preceded him in death, was similarly maligned, but Altobelli alone was accused of interfering in Jones’s romance with Olivia Hussey (Altobelli was her godfather) and of luring him to the sex-cult compound in Virginia. Plus, Jones alleged, Altobelli made light of Sharon Tate’s death by displaying her bloodstains to visitors to the house on Cielo Drive. As a witness in the trial of Charles Manson and three of his minions, Altobelli testified that Manson strolled onto his lawn one day in search of the previous tenant and came face to face with Sharon Tate—their only known encounter. No words were exchanged between them, and she and her house guests were later slaughtered solely because they occupied a residence familiar to Manson and the proxies he dispatched there for reasons still debated by armchair detectives. Max was open to revisionist theories of the case, which I rejected; but despite ourselves, I think we both believed that we each possessed a winning lottery ticket, thanks to Skip, whose foresight was as reliable as his hindsight.
Sherry Dodd was a fleeting topic in the parking lot that night. Max knew her and dismissed her as less a manager and more an oddball groupie. Once, he said, he went to visit Chris at Brier Oak and Sherry loaded Jones into her car while babbling inexplicably about cults and sped off with him. Jones told Max about another outing with Sherry, who spotted Quentin Tarantino sitting outside a café and said, “Oh, look, Chris, it’s Quentin! Let’s go talk to Quentin, Chris! Don’t you want to talk to Quentin?” Chris had no pressing need to talk to Quentin, Max said, but Sherry turned the car around and forced a sidewalk summit. This all fit my notion of her, and I decided she was best avoided if I ever moved forward with my piece about Jones. I was ambivalent about the piece after the memorial service.
Then Sherry Dodd sent me a friend invitation on Facebook. I had forgotten that I had “followed” her there, and she clearly must have noticed. It couldn’t hurt to accept her invitation, I thought, and over the next month or so, she “liked” a few of my innocuous posts. Her posts were also innocuous. She recycled holiday memes with cute animals, and linked to classic rock songs on YouTube, and uploaded blurry photos from her past. Vintage Los Angeles was a recurring theme: postcard shots of the city in the sixties and earlier. Christopher Jones wasn’t the recurring theme I expected him to be. Most of her posts about him predated his death, and none of them were in egregious taste.
Finally I sent her a private message. We hadn’t met at the memorial service, I said, but I had been there to gather material for a forthcoming piece, and I wondered if we could get together for an interview. Sure, she answered quickly. I had her figured as a lady of leisure who had managed Jones as a hobby, but she alluded to jobs and medical snags, so she was only free on Thursdays, she wrote. Fine, I wrote back, and we met the following Thursday at Barney’s Beanery, a place I suggested partly because I knew she lived nearby. She recognized me right away, though I almost never posted recent photos of myself on Facebook, and sat across from me in a booth with an unobstructed view of Santa Monica Boulevard. She ordered scrambled eggs. We made small talk. She was a native of L.A., she said, and used to work as an extra in movies and TV shows. She took it as a compliment when I told her she looked Italian. There was a calm about her, a lack of hurry. She seemed to smile even when she wasn’t smiling. Her long brown hair helped to obfuscate her age, but I guessed her to be in her mid-sixties.
Barney’s Beanery was one of Jim Morrison’s hangouts. That was the other reason I had suggested it: mention of Morrison might jump start the interview. I was right. Sherry was at the Doors’ Hollywood Bowl show in 1968, she said, and Chris was there also. She saw him. She had a crush on him from The Legend of Jesse James, the TV show that launched him, and she used to see him all over town, but she never approached him because he was always with other people. Then he stopped making movies, and she heard that he was flipped out and living on the streets, and it was true that he was flipped out, she said, but it wasn’t really true that he lived on the streets. Shelley Winters had rented a motel room for him on Sunset Boulevard, and James Dean’s friend Jack Simmons owned a trailer home that he donated to Chris, who himself owned a house in the Hollywood Hills, though he never spent any time there. Sherry believed the house was on one of the streets named for birds, like Blue Jay Way. George Harrison lived on Blue Jay Way, which he immortalized in the Beatles’ song about it—possibly my favorite song about L.A.
In any case, Sherry said, she didn’t meet Chris till 1973. She was specific about the date. It was the fourth of July, and she had gone out for lunch at Ben Frank’s, a diner on the Sunset Strip, and Chris was standing in the parking lot, looking much as Pamela Des Barres described him in Movieline, with long hair and disheveled clothes, though he wasn’t barefooted; he was wearing worn-out shoes. Sherry was with her ex-husband Greg and a friend of theirs, and they all entered the restaurant, and later she went alone to her car to retrieve something and Chris walked up and asked if he could borrow a hairbrush. He told her his name was James. She humored him, loaning “James” her hairbrush. “Come with me,” he said, and she knew she was crazy to do it, but she followed him into an alley, where he suddenly grabbed her. She pulled away. She had to get back to her friends, she said. He asked where she lived. In the Hollywood Hills, she said, on Paseo Del Serra, off Hillcrest Road. “Maybe I’ll see you,” he said, and she returned to Ben Frank’s with this strange story of being grabbed in an alley by Christopher Jones after letting him use her hairbrush. She wasn’t scared so much as intrigued, despite his aggression and obvious madness.
Then, at three in the morning a month later, somebody threw a toy metal car through an open window in her kitchen. She was woken by the sound of it hitting the floor, and when she looked out the window, there, staring up at her, was Chris, who said, “It’s me, James.” She invited him up, and he stayed for months. She went on calling him James at first. Even people who knew James Dean, like Jack Simmons, were always telling Chris how akin they were, so that had become part of his madness. To Sherry he seemed “possessed” by James Dean, but one day he spoke of Ireland and she said, “I love Ryan’s Daughter,” and so broke the spell. “You know who I am,” he said. He had lived with her for two weeks at that point, and some days he was lucid and other days he would wake her by grabbing her face and threaten to tie her up. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, he would slip outside and swim naked in the koi pool of Yamashiro, a Japanese restaurant atop a neighboring hill, and return, still naked, to the apartment. She mentioned the moonlight swims on the True Hollywood Story episode, but she kept the rest to herself. She knew his kids would see the show, and one of them, Christopher Jr., was on it, along with his mother Carrie, who was Chris’s girlfriend after Sherry and before Paule McKenna. Carrie and Chris Jr. now lived somewhere in the South, Sherry said, and they didn’t make it back for the memorial service for whatever reason.
One day Sherry came home to the place on Paseo Del Serra to find her television smashed and Chris gone. Periodically he would disappear to the room that Shelley Winters had rented for him or Jack Simmons’s trailer. The trailer was parked just down the hill, and Sherry drove there, furious, and told Chris she was done with him; the TV was the last straw. He apologized in his fashion. There had been a broadcast of The Looking Glass War, and he was so upset by the way it was cut, he threw a rock through the screen. He promised to buy a new TV, so she relented, and soon became so frightened by his escalating violence and threats of further violence that she sublet her apartment for two months. She hoped the two months would cool things with Chris, but he turned up again when the sublet was over, and late one night, as she arrived home, he came up behind her and covered her mouth and dragged her inside the apartment and pushed her onto the bed. Somehow she managed to free herself and scramble outside and run screaming down the hill. He chased her and caught up to her, and she yanked his long hair while screaming for help, and one of her neighbors, an actor named John, walked out to investigate with a knife in his hand. The knife was serendipity—John had been peeling an apple when he heard Sherry scream—but Chris saw it and stopped short. He was only kidding, he said, he wasn’t going to hurt her, but John escorted Sherry into his house, and she gave up her apartment shortly afterward.
“So that,” she told me, “was the end of my relationship with Chris for years.” She read in The Hollywood Star that he was living at the building managed by Bill Dakota on Argyle Street, and she dropped one day to see if Chris was any better, and he did seem better, and he seemed better still when she saw him one night a few years later, but the big change occurred after the hemorrhage that almost killed him. He was declared clinically dead in the ambulance en route to Cedars-Sinai Hospital, where emergency surgery saved his life, and she didn’t know if it was the near-death experience or what, but he was a different person when she saw him again by chance at Brier Oak. The darkness was all gone. There were no bad vibes anymore. She visited him at Brier Oak as often as possible, and E! Channel contacted him about this show they were planning to do, and he didn’t want to be interviewed for it—he looked terrible and felt as bad as he looked—so he asked Sherry if she could handle the True Hollywood Story thing and any other business while he recovered. That’s when she became his manager. His esophagus was blocked, so he couldn’t swallow solid food, and she arranged for corrective surgery at UCLA—she knew a good doctor there—but he ultimately decided to forego the surgery because he was afraid something might go wrong and he wouldn’t see his kids grow up. He didn’t mind living with a feeding tube, but he was frail and still bleeding from the hemorrhage, so she started bringing him protein shakes with vitamins, and gradually his condition improved to the point where he could leave Brier Oak for daily excursions. Once, she said, as she was driving him around, he spotted Quentin Tarantino and asked her to turn back so he could say hello. Max told me that story, I said, though I didn’t share his reversed version of it. Sherry’s expression soured when I mentioned Max. He was obsessed with the Manson case, she said. She didn’t think it was good for Chris’s recovery to have somebody like that around him, so she would try to truncate Max’s visits at Brier Oak.
But it was Sherry’s visits that irked the staff. They were strict about curfews, and sometimes she kept Chris out too late, or they talked too long in the parking lot. Eventually he was ordered to leave, and she moved him into the two-bedroom apartment that she shared with her ex-husband Greg and their son on La Cienega Boulevard. Space, not jealousy, could be a problem. She and Greg were just friends. She and Chris were now just friends. He had a girlfriend, Jyl, and he also spent time at her place, and when he stayed with Sherry, she would give him tube feedings and clean the tube and otherwise play nurse, and he painted and considered movie offers—yes, he still got them—and they collaborated on a screenplay, since he spoke of wanting to direct. He and Paule had made their peace, and she would drop their kids off, sometimes without notice, and it was a cramped arrangement already, and looking after Chris was one thing and looking after his kids was another. Finally, when it happened once too often, Chris moved to Paule’s house in Seal Beach. Sherry saw less and less of him after that, but they always kept in touch by phone. They last spoke a few months ago, on Thanksgiving. Chris said he wasn’t feeling well. He was diagnosed with cancer a few days later. She was never able to visit him at the hospital. The cancer claimed him so quickly, and she called friends to let them know, people like Skip E. Lowe, who said, “Christopher who?” We both laughed. She and Skip went back years, and she went much further back with Jones than I had realized, relating from start to finish a complicated relationship of decades, meanwhile eating her scrambled eggs. She had brought something to show me as well: a fist-sized plaster bust of Rudolph Valentino as The Sheik, his signature role. The bust had been sculpted by Jones, of course, and I was touched by her tacit pride in it and also by the bust itself. He was gone but this remained. Ars longa, vita brevis.
She showed me something else: a photo of Jones outside Falcon Lair, Valentino’s estate in Benedict Canyon, half a mile or less from where Rudi Altobelli’s house once stood on Cielo Drive. I was flabbergasted. Jones looked to be in his late thirties, yet he was sixty-four when Sherry took the photo in 2005. “I guess I brought him back to health,” she said. She always thought he turned down movies because he didn’t look as good as he did in his twenties. He hated being photographed. I hate it too. Vanity, thy name is former actor.
Two weeks to the day after our first meeting, Sherry drove me to her old place on Paseo del Serra. Contractors were doing work on the garage, and she explained to them that she used to live upstairs and wanted to have a quick look. She led me up a wooden staircase and onto a deck with a view of Yamashiro. That was Chris’s path, she said, when he would go skinny dipping. Then she turned and, peering through the uncovered windows of the apartment, pointed to the approximate spot on the floor where the toy car landed. It was a small place but prohibitively expensive now as it wasn’t in 1973, and she reminisced a little about the area as it was then, and lingered as if to listen for phantom music that only she could hear.
It was now two and a half months since the memorial service, and Sherry wanted to see if Chris’s crypt had been engraved, so we drove to Hollywood Forever and past the gates to the mausoleum. The crypt had been sealed, of course, but there was no engraving on it. Sherry seemed disappointed, if not quietly peeved. Peacocks roamed the grassy parts of the cemetery. I had been there many times and never seen peacocks, and I chased this one and that one, trying to take a picture. Sherry joined the chase, and finally a peacock froze in front of a tombstone and fanned out for the camera, like a cornered celebrity appeasing a paparazzo. The photo was a bore compared to the chase. Sherry was fun and free-spirited, a throwback to the kind of L.A. woman who inspired songs of the seventies like “Tiny Dancer.” Chris, she said, used to tell her that he argued inevitably with every woman but her. I could believe it. There was something soothing about her. The sense of calm I had felt in our first meeting was infectious.
I devised a new angle for my piece about Jones—or “Chris,” as I started to think of him—and shared it with Sherry the next time we got together. It was based on the mondo movies of the sixties: episodic documentaries like Mondo Mod and Mondo Hollywood that titillated provincial audiences with gonzo footage of trippy parties and far-out people. This passage from Bittersweet has a mondo feel: “We’d go to a discotheque almost every night until the sun came up, and then we’d sleep away a good part of the day. Between the marijuana and the pills we were taking, we were exhausted the next day.” The Manson case, the Susan Cabot case, The Hollywood Star, Chris’s “homeless” period, his apartment with free-range birds and snakes: all that was the stuff of a mondo movie, and I would title my piece “Mondo Christopher Jones,” I told Sherry, who seemed amused by it, though I wondered if she, like me, had reservations. It was a sneering slant on someone who had been mentally ill, and I questioned Sherry hoping to discover a better approach in a telling detail, some hidden “Rosebud.” How did Chris and Jim Morrison get along? Not well; Chris liked the Doors’ music but Morrison was “menacing” toward him. Did he know the reverend who eulogized him? Probably not; he believed in God but he was never a regular churchgoer. What caused his near-fatal hemorrhage? Not even Chris knew the answer to that; he blacked out and woke a week later in Cedars-Sinai with no memory of how he got there, but the doctors thought he had tried to kill himself with a caustic liquid. Chris always denied it, though he was depressed at the time because he had just broken up with Paule—“again”—and he couldn’t see their kids. Sherry didn’t believe drugs were involved. She never saw Chris do drugs.
We were sitting in the courtyard of Cat & Fiddle, a Mission-style pub in Hollywood that served as a location for Casablanca and later became a hangout for rockers. It was a Thursday afternoon, as usual, and we basked in the glorious May weather, snacking on fries and talking occasionally about subjects other than Chris. She was impressed by knowledge of vintage L.A. and said I should work as a tour guide. She had two jobs, she said, one of them running errands for a geriatric woman, buying groceries and that sort of thing. She glossed over the second job, and told me nothing about the weekly medical appointment that she mentioned every time I tried to schedule a meeting with her. She canceled our next meeting because she had to see a specialist, or so she wrote, again without elaboration, and I started a new piece while I argued with myself about “Mondo Christopher Jones.” All communication stopped, of necessity on my part. I’m irascible when I’m writing. I couldn’t account for Sherry’s silence.
Then she interrupted it with a couple of brief e-mails about tour-guide jobs. She was quite the job bloodhound, sending me links to Craigslist ads, none of which called for knowledge of vintage L.A. These messages were followed by a longer one concerning a matter that had puzzled Sherry for years: the Sharon Tate affair. We had discussed it at our first meeting at Barney’s Beanery. Sherry was inclined to believe Chris, but there was never any proof, and she was dubious that Rudi Altobelli had confirmed the affair to Max. However, Olivia Hussey might be able to confirm it to me. She had been staying with Chris in Ireland at the time of the Manson murders, and Sherry and Olivia had a mutual friend, and now Sherry wanted me to contact this person to request an audience with Olivia. It was a wild-goose chase in the making, I wrote back to say with ill-disguised impatience. Sherry didn’t respond. Good, I thought. That’s one less distraction while I work.
Weeks passed. The silence continued and guilt set in. I knew Sherry meant well, and she was right in any case: this might be the Rosebud I needed, the very Rosetta Stone. I wrote to Olivia Hussey’s friend, her husband, and finally, on Facebook, to Olivia Hussey herself, all, as expected, to no avail; but I spoke to Debra Tate, Sharon’s sister, at an event for her coffee-table book, Sharon Tate: Recollection. She was familiar with the story about her sister and Christopher Jones, though she didn’t hear it from Sharon and Sharon told her “everything.” Debra Tate is often denounced as a liar and worse in the strange world of Manson-case devotees, but her denial to me was credibly inconclusive. As for Rudi Altobelli, I spoke to his decades-long assistant Woody McBreairty, who said that Rudi never alluded to a romance between Chris Jones and Sharon Tate, and for that matter, Chris never talked about it either, not when he lived in the guesthouse on Cielo Drive after Ryan’s Daughter, or later, when he would visit to read scripts in a room above the garage. In fact, Woody learned, he wasn’t reading scripts at all; he was drawing pictures—Woody still had one of them. Then he withdrew utterly from his career and vanished, and Woody recalled being alone in the house on a spooky night when someone kept phoning and hanging up without a word, so that he finally called the LAPD and Rudi’s partner Stuart, who instructed him to say immediately, “Chris, Stuart wants you to come inside and wait for him,” the next time he answered the phone. Stuart seemed certain that Chris was lurking somewhere outside by the gate, but if so, the LAPD didn’t find him.
I also spoke to Quentin Tarantino, not about Sharon Tate but Sherry. Yes, he remembered someone approaching him one day to say that Christopher Jones would like to have a word with him. No, he didn’t feel coerced. He walked to a car where Chris was sitting in the passenger seat and they chatted for maybe ten minutes. Chris had a feeding tube. He did not seem “deranged”—in fact, Quentin cringed when I used that word. It was a pleasant encounter, as pleasant as their first meeting to discuss Pulp Fiction, though shorter by several hours, and his implicit admiration of Chris would probably have pleased Sherry more than his exoneration of her.
I sent Sherry updates of my research, apologizing more than once for my curtness in our last exchange. Finally she replied. She didn’t feel well enough to get together, she wrote, but I was welcome to call. It was the first time we had spoken on the phone, and I asked about her living situation, a minor mystery, and was told she still lived with her son, though, cagey as ever about subjects other than Chris, she never disclosed her son’s name. The larger mystery of her health had deepened. She sounded weak and wheezy, as if deprived of oxygen after surviving a fire, and I said, “Sherry, this is hard for me, but for weeks you’ve been talking about doctors’ appointments, and then you disappear and I call and, you know, it’s obvious something isn’t right. Do you want to tell me what it is?”
It was cancer. She had had it for a long time, she said. It started in her breast and now it had spread, and while she wasn’t explicit about the metastasis, she did say that she had fluid in her lungs, and when I heard that, I thought, Oh my God, she’s a goner. I had been through this with a former girlfriend, a cancer patient who died days after calling me to say that she had fluid in her lungs. Her name was Kerry. Sherry and Kerry: the rhyme was itself a portent, but of course I was mum about it. Sherry now had to have her lungs drained once a week at a hospital, and there was talk of equipping her with a kind of pump so that she could drain the fluid herself, at home. She was apprehensive about the pump. A lung would have to be pierced, and she was used to the daily discomfort of living with cancer, but this was pain of a different order. I asked if she wanted me to accompany her the next time she went to the hospital. No, she said, and she didn’t want me to visit her at home either. She wasn’t up to visitors.
We spoke again a week or so later. She had gotten the pump. She had no choice, she was told, and the procedure was as painful as feared. It was still painful. All she did was lie in bed and move as little as possible. It hurt even to talk. She had tried so hard to stay positive, she said, and her only recourse now was chemotherapy, which, if she were lucky, could extend her life for as long as a year, and between the pain and the indignity of losing her hair, she might be better off dead. Kerry had faced a similar dilemma, and I couldn’t advise her any more than I could now advise Sherry; it was a private matter for Sherry to decide, and since she was still adamant that she didn’t want visitors, all I could do was call, and if she felt strong enough to answer and talk, I would listen, though for the most part she listened while I talked about the one topic that seemed to assuage her. Yes, she agreed, Chris should have received more attention when he died, at least as much as Philip Seymour Hoffman, who fatally overdosed three days later. Facebook lost its hive mind when Philip Seymour Hoffman died, and sure, okay, he was a better actor than Chris, but no contemporary actors—no celebrities—were charismatic on a par with Chris because they weren’t authentically wild like he was; they were milquetoasts by comparison, and yes, the people close to Chris paid a price for that, but it was worth it in the end: no friction, no fire. She never referred to him as the love of her life, but that’s what I took him to be. “I remember,” she said, “he told me once, ‘I’m going to die before you, but don’t worry; when you die, I’m going to be there to catch you on the other side.'” I wondered if he told her that before or after her diagnosis. I didn’t ask. It was her prerogative, not mine, to raise the topic of cancer. She rarely raised it.
Then, toward the end of September, Skip E. Lowe died. I had passed him on the street in Hollywood during the summer, but he was oblivious and I wasn’t in the mood to tax his memory by greeting him. Now I regretted not greeting him. He was eighty-five and died of emphysema, according to obituaries, which, shades of Chris, said nothing about a memorial service, and Sherry spoke of attending if there was one. That gave me hope. She sounded sturdier when I called her about Skip. I was walking near Hollywood Forever, and Sherry thought someone there might know about a service, so I ducked into the cemetery and, finding the office locked, kept walking to the Cathedral Mausoleum, hoping to spot an administrator. Sherry had been to the cemetery since our visit together in April, she told me, and Chris’s crypt still wasn’t engraved then, but it was now, I was happy to report. I described it to her. ALWAYS IN OUR HEARTS, the inscription read, and bronze flower holders had been added to the lower corners, while in the center there was a small picture of Chris, a still from Chubasco with his co-star, Susan Strasberg, cropped out of it. I snapped some photos and posted them on Facebook for Sherry to see, and as I was about to leave, I was stopped by a mother and daughter with Southern accents, tourists seeking the statue of Toto. The mother especially seemed smitten by the still of Chris, forever young in Hollywood Forever, and I encapsulated his life and career and pointed the way to Toto, assuming the role of tour guide that struck Sherry as an ideal match.
A memorial service was held for Skip in late October at an Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills where he used to host an open-mic night. Sherry seldom answered the phone by then, but she sent me a note to say that she couldn’t make it and afterward wrote to ask how it went. It felt, I replied, like a cast party for a variety show at a lesser casino—Siegfried & Roy without the lions—but, as an alien to that side of show business, I was glad to have gotten a peek at it. She didn’t respond. Cat & Fiddle was closing, a victim of the gentrification that would eventually claim Yamashiro, and I posted something on Facebook about it, but she didn’t respond to that either. Calls weren’t returned. Possibly, I thought, the cause was chemo. She had never shared her decision about it, not with me, and my encouragement might be a nuisance to her now. I would try again after the holidays.
Then I received horrifying news, not about Sherry but my friend Corey Brandenstein, a talented filmmaker who, on Christmas Day, hung himself, leaving behind a wife and five-year-old son. Why? No one could fully explain it. Corey was thirty-nine and a mainstay in a circle of friends that had started to disperse but reunited for a wake, and two days after the wake—it was New Year’s Day, in fact—I read an open letter to Sherry posted on Facebook by William Richert, the director of such films as Winter Kills and A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon. Bill Richert and I were Facebook friends because of Sherry, who saw us as simpatico, and he phoned her, I knew, as often as I did. “I’m glad you kept your hair,” he wrote publicly to her. “You wouldn’t let the chemo take that away and you wouldn’t let doctors break your spirit.” So she hadn’t gone forward with chemo. I could guess what followed, though not the specifics. She had died in her sleep at a hospice two weeks earlier. Her son had left a message for Bill after speaking with a hospice worker who “sounded positively happy to give him this otherwise terrible news, it seemed she was almost laughing with joy” because, as Bill reasoned it, she “got a whiff what happiness was in store” for Sherry: “If what goes around comes around, you’re in paradise.”
But that was no comfort to me. I never expected to like Sherry as much as I did, and now, too quickly, she was gone, the climactic death of a year filled with it and a catalyst for the grief I hadn’t expressed for Corey, whose suicide had numbed me while I pondered his motive. I knew Corey for thirteen years, yet he was finally as mysterious to me as Chris, a stranger who had come to feel like an intimate, and Chris in turn was finally mysterious to Sherry, his fan, then lover, then manager, then nurse, yet after all that, she couldn’t swear that he had an affair with poor Sharon Tate or that he once tried to kill himself with a caustic liquid. “Some things are better left unsaid,” he wanted his epitaph to read, and so it would have to be in my piece about him—about him and her both. Yes, I had my angle. What else could it be? She had given me her time when her time was running out, playing the tour guide that she projected onto me, driving us to the place on Paseo del Serra and then to Hollywood Forever, where there would never be a service or a vault for Sherry. I couldn’t even find an obituary. Her Facebook page was her only memorial, and just when I felt sound enough to begin writing, I discovered something there that crushed me all over again. It was a relatively recent photo of Chris that Sherry had uploaded during the summer, when her illness entered its terminal stage, and as if to compensate for his crypt, which was then unmarked, she had noted his birth and death dates above the photo, and followed that with a plea that would have been mysterious if I had seen it months before: “Catch me!”