I was born after the era when movie stars sparkled on the silver screen, bigger, brighter, and more glamorous than mere mortals in real life. Yet I got a sense of what they must have been like when I watched old movies on the television set in our living room – near enough to observe, but still far beyond my reach.
Despite which, like so many teenagers from this and every other era, I longed for a chance-meeting with a superstar. A Bette Davis, Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck or Jimmy Stewart…a brush with immortality that would leave stardust in my eyes, my hair … my heart.
My friend Jo Ann had one such encounter in Manhattan when she saw Peter Falk walking on 57th Street near Columbus Circle. She approached him tentatively, and then politely told him how meaningful his performances as Colombo had been too her. Mr. Falk was extremely gracious, and in being so created a perfect, larger-than-life and indelible memory for my friend.
My encounters with celebrities were less auspicious: I saw academy award-winning actress Gloria Graham in the Jet Blue lounge of an obscure airport, but felt that she wouldn’t want to be recognized traveling on a budget airline in the boondocks, so I held back, and did not approach her about her work.
Another time I was at the National Arts Club in Gramercy Park for a Mystery Writers of America dinner and met the guest of honor, Isaac Asimov in the hall. But our conversation was limited to the location of the men’s bathroom, so it didn’t really count.
I didn’t mind, though, because as a child, I’d had…well, I and my fellow scouts had our very own movie star. Mrs.…
I’ll call her Mrs. Penny.
She was our Girl Scout leader.
She had two daughters: Beth in sixth grade, and Tina, who was in my eighth grade class. As such, Mrs. Penny made beds, baked cookies, cooked dinners, wore an apron in the kitchen, and went to PTA meetings, just like our own mothers.
But she wasn’t like them, because she was prettier. She was younger. She was more glamorous.
The other girls in our troop knew that Mrs. Penny was young and pretty, but they didn’t know that she was glamorous. I knew because Tina showed me the dresses in Mrs. Penny’s closet. One had a low-cut neckline, was covered in about a million diamond-like sequins, and had a pair of matching high heels that glittered like Dorothy’s slippers in The Wizard of Oz. Another was frothy gold with frills and layers that fluttered like fairy wings under my exploring hand.
None of our mothers wore clothes like that.
Mrs. Penny was slender and graceful with curly honey colored hair, kind eyes, and a husky voice like an actress in a WW II movie bidding her lover goodbye as the Nazis invaded France.
When she was doing her Girl Scout leader thing, she pretended to be ordinary as she taught us how to stitch beanbags for our sewing badge, plant cucumbers for our gardening badge, assemble cots and ignite logs for our wilderness badge. But we always knew, even when she was wearing rolled-up blue jeans and a scarf over her head to keep campfire soot out of her hair, that she was special. She was different.
Once when she was out for the day, Tina and I sneaked into her bedroom, and from the back of her closet extricated an old scrapbook with a braided cord through the spine that held the pages together. We sat on the floor and cautiously opened the cover as if it were a priceless archeological artifact.
Awe struck by photographs of Mrs. Penny posing in a swimsuit holding a beach ball, lounging in an evening gown on a white bear rug, dancing at a nightclub with a swash-buckling movie hero, and gazing adoringly into the camera as if it were a long-lost lover, we slowly turned the pages. A yellowing column cut out of an old newspaper was pasted on the very last page. In it was a headshot of our Girl Scout leader when she was barely older that Tina and I.
The gist of the article was that twenty-two year old Veronica Langley, who had been signed to a one-year contract with Paramount (or was it Universal?) Studios, married Lt. Daniel Penny, Marine pilot serving on an air craft carrier in the Pacific. He and Miss Langley had met at a Stage Door Canteen, fallen in love, and eloped the day before he had to return to duty.
It was clear from the blank pages after the news clippings that the starlet had chosen the role of wife and mother over that of film actress.
Tina carefully returned the scrapbook to the bottom shelf in the closet. Then she whispered, “Look!” and led me to her parents’ bed, first putting a cautionary “hush” finger to her lips. She peered behind the headboard, reached in, and slid out a beautiful, full-frontal nude framed painting of the former Hollywood starlet – my Girl Scout leader – Mrs. Penny.
It had been executed with soft sepia strokes, as modest as a drawing of a naked tree in the forest or a bare branch surrounded by fallen autumn leaves. In it, Mrs. Penny looked lovely and relaxed, the smile on her face not all that different from the one with which she greeted us when we arrived for our troop meetings in the basement of her house.
Tina next directed me to French Doors leading from the master bedroom to a small balcony overlooking the front yard. She pointed to an area of the balcony surrounded by a wrought iron fence and whispered, “Mom drapes towels over the railing and she sunbathes here in the nude!”
That was the last revelation Tina made to me about her mother, and by then I felt I knew all her secrets.
Veronica Penny (nee: Langley) had been under contract to one of the biggest movie studios in the world, had fallen in love with a heroic Marine pilot, eloped, given up a promising career, posed nude for a painting hidden behind the headboard in her bedroom, and sunbathed naked (behind a screen of towels) practically in her front yard.
It just didn’t get any better than that.
When someone with those kind of credential awarded us a badge of achievement, it meant something.
When Mrs. Penny taught us life lessons about standing up for what we believed, or defending the little guy, or remembering to say “please” and “thank you,” it meant something.
I have always loved the Girl Scouts of America, as do many who’ve had great experiences with them growing up. Good as theirs were, though, my Girl Scout leader was almost a movie star. So my experiences were better.
All these years later, when I think about Mrs. Penny, her honey colored hair, the sequined dress in her closet, and the glamorous photographs in her hidden scrapbook, a secret smile of adulation creeps onto my lips.
And I still get stardust in my eyes.
Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2018. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com