Garry has written his own version of this story, though it’s completely different. And a little bit the same. For him, it’s Hollywood. For me, it is memories.
In 1962, I was 15 years old, at the beginning of my senior year of high school. The school I attended was a giant of a school in Jamaica, Queens, New York. Five stories high (including the bell tower which was where the choir worked), it was shaped like a giant H. Most of the classrooms were on either end of the H with offices, bathroom, closets and all that stuff along the hallways.
There were no elevators. I suppose it never occurred to the designer of high schools that anyone might have a broken leg or something like that.
Photo by: Jim Henderson, June 2011
Jamaica High School was administered by the New York City Department of Education, which closed the school in 2014. The school’s landmark campus, located at the corner of 167th Street and Gothic Drive, remains open. It is now officially known as the Jamaica Educational Campus. It houses four smaller separately administered public high schools that share facilities and sports teams.
It was September 1962 when I noticed a big lump on my ankle. Pretty big. Hard, and it didn’t hurt. At all. Nothing to indicate it was from a bump or a fall. I ran my hand up and down my leg and thought about it. Probably nothing. At 15, everything is no big deal. But, because I also knew my mother had long and ugly bout with cancer (cancer? kids don’t get cancer!), I called her.
“I’ve got a lump on my leg,” I explained. “Here.” She ran her fingers over it.
“Does it hurt?”
“Not even a little bit?”
“Nope. Just a lump. I was going to forget about it, but … you know. What do you think?”
“I think we need a doctor,” she said and promptly arranged for me to see the chief resident surgeon at NewYork Presbyterian Hospital. I should mention it was a great hospital. Compassionate, caring and very concerned for its patients. My mother had excellent taste in hospitals, something that would eventually serve me well as time caught up with me.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a 1962 American psychological thriller-horror (and very camp) film produced and directed by Robert Aldrich, starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.
I was in the hospital in the middle of September. The surgeon — Dr. Waugh, I believe … many years ago and names slip away with time — said I had a tumor. What kind of tumor, he didn’t know and couldn’t know until surgery. If it was benign, they would just remove it and off I’d go into the world, none the worse for wear. If it was the other kind, I would likely lose my leg. The whole leg. I was not happy about that, but at least he didn’t mince words or make me feel like a moron.
A week later, I was in surgery. It wasn’t cancer. Benign but a really big tumor. It had wrapped itself around my tibia and femur. It had crawled up the leg and was in the process of pulling apart the two bones. So not cancer, but also, not nothing. They could not simply remove it. There was too much of it, so they took out a piece of my femur and replaced it with a very hard plastic bone. Packed the leg in whatever that stuff is they use and for two weeks, I slept with that leg on a huge pack of ice.
No getting out of bed for anything. At all. I was not to use that leg for a full six months because the implanted bone needed to set. The nurses used to hang out with me in the evening. They were my pals when I watched Invasion of the Body Snatchers. They checked under my bed to make sure there were no pods waiting for me. Then, it was time to go home.
My high school was gigantic and there was no way I could attend school until my leg finished healing. The school called the home teachers unit. There were, even back then, a lot of students who couldn’t attend regular school. Some had emotional issues. Others had physical problems. Some, like me, were having a temporary setback — broken legs or broken something or other — and needed someone to help them stay up to date. I doubted my absence would make that big a difference, but I worried if I didn’t take the exams as expected, I wouldn’t be able to graduate on time.
I got a teacher.
Are you still with me? Because it gets more complicated from here on.
My new teacher had other students. One of them, a young woman, lived nearby. She was schizophrenic, but also a nice young woman and a talented artist. My teacher thought that I would be good for her. She didn’t have any friends, being out of school. Thus we were introduced.
Mary was seventeen and I was fifteen. For fifteen, I was mature. As a mature person, I was still fifteen. I liked Mary, though she had the strangest eyes. She would look at me and it was as if she were seeing through me. Her pictures looked like that too.
One night, just after What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was released, she suggested we go to the movies. I have never been a fan of horror movies. Not even the terribly fake, silly ones with giant lizards and moths. I would get nightmares, so I wasn’t allowed to go to any of them. It was the screaming in the night thing. It ruined everyone’s sleep.
Photos of Bette Davis & Joan Crawford, The ‘Feud’ characters in life
Mary wanted to see it. Said it would be a hoot. I was amenable. I figured I was not a tiny kid. I could watch a horror movie. I’d be fine, right? Of course I would.
I didn’t go to movies often. They were expensive. My allowance was enough so I could get to school and come home. If I walked rather than taking a bus, I could save the 15 cents each way. If I did it a lot, I could hoard enough cash to go to a movie and even have a coke. Since I hadn’t been going to school at all, I had money saved. We went to the movies.
I was uncomfortable. It wasn’t as icky as things with giant lizards, but bad enough. Yet, the night wasn’t over. Mary said: “There’s this wonderful place I like to go at night. It’s really cool. Wanna come?” What teenager could turn down a great invitation like that? We went.
It was a nice little grave yard. My friend Mary danced through it, her scarf flowing in the breeze. Then, she ran about, gently kissing the tombstones. She was happy.
Garry and I are watching Feud – Bette and Joan. It’s about the making of that particular movie. Garry rather likes it. He knows it’s not a great movie. Probably not even a good one, but he likes it anyway. He knew a lot about the feud of the co-stars because he is into movies big time. This show has juicy bits above and beyond his own juicy bits. Also, he had done a piece with Gary Merrill (one of Bette Davis’ husbands) who had a son in Boston politics. Garry had a few juicy stories of his own.
I merely repeated I didn’t much like the movie, though I admitted I’d seen it in 1962, so I could change my mind. Garry finally asked me what I had against it? “Really,” he said. “It’s just a campy movie with two feuding actresses.”
I explained I had a different take on it. “Didn’t I tell you this already?” I asked him. I was sure we’d told each other everything. How could I have omitted this gem? But I had.
When I was done (and this is not the whole story … there’s more), he said: “You should write that.” And now, I have. This was one of the evenings I can clearly remember — fifty-five years later.
There’s no moral to this story, except that my feelings about What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? are uniquely mine.