The Secret – By Elliot Richard Dorfman
It was a bleak cold November day. The rain incessantly struck the buildings of New York’s West End Avenue. Trying to hold back a wave of depression, Florence turned from her living room window and noticed her reflection in the large gold framed mirror above the fireplace.
A very pretty woman of sixty-three starred back at her. “You’re still looking good, old gal. Happy Birthday!” she muttered to herself.
It wasn’t easy getting use to living alone at this age. Her husband, Brad, had he died of a sudden stroke six months ago. Looking around her large three bedroom apartment, she wondered if it was practical to keep it up. Her only son, Jeff, was long gone. Now a successful lawyer in St Louis, he was a single parent doing a good job in raising his ten-year-old son, Randy. While she spoke to them a few times a week on the phone, distance kept her from seeing them as much as she liked. Her loneliness was augmented by most of her closet friends moving to retirement condos in Florida.
“I’ve got to snap out of this depression” she said out loud. Lately, talking to herself was becoming a regular habit.
Noticing her large scrap book on the coffee table, she sat down on the sofa and began looking at the memorabilia. Florence Powers was not the average woman. Forty years ago she had been the toast of Broadway. She had cut her career short after deciding to get married. There were never any regrets. Her life had always been busy and fulfilling until the recent death of her husband, Nicolas.
“What in the world is there for me to do now?”She lamented. “In recent years, Nicolas and did almost everything together. I’m not the type of person to join a senior citizen center or lounge around and stuff my face until I become fat and ugly.”
As Florence pondered her seemingly dismal future, a big argument was going on at the Barton theatre near eighth avenue and forty-seventh Street. Rehearsals for the new comedy, Ageless, weren’t going well. A break had been just called. The director and producer were having a heated discussion. It was the first time that John Stuart and Paul Sherman had ever disagreed so vehemently. John’s voice reverberated to the back of the large auditorium.
“It’s no use, Paul. We must replace Maureen. She lacks that special spark which will make the role come alive. I told you that weeks ago. This show will bomb if we keep her on.”
“But we only have three weeks left before previews,” replied the exasperated producer. “Where do you expect to find the right actress in such a short time?”
“It shouldn’t be a problem. I’ll get my dad to help,” John said confidently. “Don’t forget that he is one of the top Broadway agents. I give you my word to have a qualified replacement here by tomorrow morning. In the meantime, please get rid of Maureen.” He quickly exited the theatre.
Whenever John had problems with a show, he always went to his dad for help. Lionel Stuart was one of the most respected acting agents in the country. Going strong at sixty-five, he still retained his rugged good looks that made women take notice.
Luckily, Stuart’s office was less than a block from the theatre, so it took John only a few minutes to get there in this inclement weather.
“Better sit down and relax,” Lionel remarked when he saw his son. “You look cold and tired. Want a cup of tea?”
John shook his head and slumped onto the couch and sighed. Lionel sat on the corner of the desk and patiently waited for his son to talk.
“I’m in trouble, Pop. I‘ve got to replace the leading lady right away. The play has no chance of succeeding with Maureen Cartwright in the starring role. With only two weeks left before the opening, I need to quickly find a bright and talented actress who can effectively replace her I’m hoping that you can help me with all of your contacts.”
Lionel walked over to John and encouragingly put his hand on his son’s shoulder. “That’s a tall order, but I’ll see what I can do.”
“Too bad Helen Hayes and Ethel Barrymore are both dead,” John wearily replied.
Lionel was already deep in thought, his mind clicking away. Perhaps he could not only help his son, but finally be able to get closer to someone he secretly still carried the torch for.
“I believe I do know someone who might be perfect for the role, although she hasn’t acted in many years.” His voice trailed off as he walked to the window. Below, the rain was relentlessly hitting the pavement of the busy street. His mind went back to a similar day, two decades ago. He was a young agent then, but his good reputation was growing.
Lionel had stopped by the Biltmore theatre to see an afternoon audition. The bad weather hadn’t affected the “cattle call.” There was a line of unknown hopefuls from the stage door to the end of eighth avenue. As a close friend to the producer, Lionel was invited to watch the process. Many of those struggling hopefuls still needed a decent agent, and he figured he might find someone talented to represent. He sat in the back of the auditorium and carefully watched. The actors this afternoon seemed rather average. An hour later, he was just about to leave, when a pretty brunette walked onto the stage. Her appearance oozed charisma. The cold reading that she gave was excellent. The young thespian jumped with delight when she was told to return for a callback the next day. Lionel was at the exit just as the young woman stepped out of the theatre.
“What’s your name, honey?”
“Why?” she coldly asked, but her manner changed when she suddenly recognized him.
“Aren’t you Lionel Stuart, the agent? I went to your office last week, but unfortunately you were out.”
“Well, I ‘m here now and if you still need an agent, I certainly would like to represent you. How about having something to eat with me at Sardi’s and we’ll talk it over?”
She gave him a big smile, “Sure.”
Within an hour, she became his client. The following day Florence got the lead part in the play, and from then on her career sparkled. There were two more stage hits that followed, and continue offers from New York, Hollywood and Europe.
During those years Lionel was unhappily married. Attracted to Florence, it didn’t take long before they became romantically involved. He looked forward to the nights when everyone left the theatre. The two of them would remain in her dressing room, his hands touching every inch of her body, an overture to the passionate love that was about to ensue. He soon rented a small apartment in Grammercy Park where they could secretly meet. Their relationship grew and went on for quite a few years until he began thinking about divorcing his wife. Florence wouldn’t hear of it and reluctantly felt they must end their amorous affair.
“You’ve got a son, Lionel. The boy needs stability in his life. For his sake, you’ve got to try and make a go of your marriage. What we’re doing is making the situation worse.”
Lionel listened and eventually reconciled with his wife. He stayed with her until her death a few years ago. Florence surprised everyone by shortly retiring from the stage and getting married.
Still remaining in contact with the talented actress, Lionel hoped that someday she might return to the theatre. He had called her that morning to wish her a happy birthday. Her voice sounded very sad and lonely. Suddenly, this usually calm man became excited.
Lionel was practically shouting at his son. “John, you’re in luck. I think I can convince her to audition again. I read the script. She’d be perfect for the role.”
His son looked puzzled. “Whom are you talking about, Dad?”
“Florence Powers. Probably the most talented actress I ever represented in my career as agent.”
“She’s a legend all right, but she hasn’t acted for forty years. She . . . ”
Lionel cut him off. “She would be perfect for the role. Don’t worry about her long stage absence. People with that kind of talent and charisma never lose it. Imagine the publicity: ‘A legendary actress returns to the Broadway after fort years!’ That alone, should sell plenty of tickets.”
John got up and patted his dad’s back. “Okay. If you feel that confident, bring her down to the theatre tomorrow morning around ten. I know its short notice, but I promised Paul I would have someone by then.”
Within minutes, Lionel was on the phone calling Florence. His observation about her mood was right. It didn’t take too long to persuade her to try out for the part.
Next morning, Florence and Lionel walked into the Barton theatre promptly at ten. All eyes focused on her, for she still had that indescribable beauty and poise. Her simple beige outfit augmented her appearance. Lionel was right as usual. The years away from the theatre had not tarnished her talent nor acting techniques. Florence’s cold reading was absolutely brilliant. There was a round of applauds when she finished. Paul was smiling and shaking hands with John. There were no doubts anymore. This play was going to be a hit.
For the next three weeks, Florence worked hard, maintaining the stamina of a youngster. The once troubled rehearsals of Ageless began to run smoothly. Even before the opening, an atmosphere of success prevailed. Word soon got around about the merits of the show. Advanced ticket sales soared. The play opened to critical acclaim. Jeff and Randy flew in from St. Louis to see the premiere. Both of them watched with fascination. Neither of them had ever seen Florence perform on the professional stage before. They were both beaming when the show ended.
After the play’s opening, Florence’s life became extremely busy. Besides the eight performances a week, there were countless media interviews, guest appearances, and even a lucrative offer to have a TV series of her own. With both of their mates deceased, Lionel had made overtures to renew their romantic relationship. How good it would feel for their bodies to blend together as it did those many years past. Although he could sense Florence wanted it, the woman held back. Something was bothering her, but when he asked her, she refused to discuss it with him.
One morning, a month after the opening, Florence woke up crying. Quickly getting dressed, she went out and walked down to sixty-first street and Central Park West where Lionel lived. He was just coming out of the lobby.
At first he was surprised to see her, then he noticed how her face seemed strained. “You’re out very early this morning. Is something wrong? You look very pale.”
She clutched his hand. “Lionel, I’ve got to tell you something. I’m afraid I’ve kept something back from you for many years. Now it’s starting to tear me apart. ”
“We can discuss it over breakfast. Come on, there’s a great dinner around the block where we can talk.”
By the time they had finished eating, she had lost her nerve to tell him.
“Don’t stress yourself out. Tell me when you’re ready, ” he patiently told her.
Returning home, her thoughts were interrupted by a telephone call from Jeff.
“Mom, guess what? My law firm is moving to New York in about two weeks. Do you mind if Randy and I stay with you for a while until I can find a new apartment? I’m sorry to give you such short notice, especially since you’re so busy with the show.”
Florence was thrilled. “Oh, don’t be silly. You mean more to me than any show.”
“I’d better fix up the apartment,” Florence thought after she finished talking Jeff. “I’ll redecorate the two bedrooms and . . .” then she remembered her commitment to the play, Ageless. “Perhaps I can take a leave of absence from the play. I’ll contact Lionel right now.”
Lionel came to her house within ten minutes after she spoke to him.
He shook his head. “You can’t do it, Florence. The show just opened. Without you, a lot of people who purchased tickets will feel cheated and want their money back. The show is resting on your performance. It would probably close without you. Listen to my advice. I’m sure you’ll have enough time to do what’s necessary for Jeff and Randy. Besides, I’ll be here, if you should need me.”
Florence took a breath. “Oh, my dear Lionel, you should be involved with anything that has to do with Jeffrey and Randy.”
It was impossible to keep the secret any longer. Although there would be a lot of explaining to do, she knew Lionel would eventually understand and help her straighten things out.
“Because Jeff is your biological son.”
For one of the few times in his life, Lionel was speechless.