by Susan Kelly
In 1995, my non-fiction book about the Boston Strangler case was published and, as a result, I got invited onto a lot of television shows to discuss the premise of the book. The premise was that Albert DeSalvo, who confessed to the series of murders that took place in eastern Massachusetts between June 1962 and January 1964, didn’t actually commit any of them.
One of the first things I learned about television was that you can run from it, but you can’t hide from it. If a producer wants to find you, the producer will find you. It doesn’t matter if you’re ice-fishing in Baffin Bay without a cell phone. Somebody will dispatch a carrier pigeon from a rooftop on West 57th Street.
In the early summer of 1999, Good Morning America tracked me down at a seafood restaurant in Salem, New Hampshire, where I’d gone with my parents and my brother and his daughter. The waiter had just deposited a plateful of fried oysters before me when the hostess hustled up to the table and said, “Is there a Susan Kelly here?”
I acknowledged that there was.
“You have a phone call.” She pointed at the front desk. “You can take it there.”
I took the call. When I returned to the table, everyone looked at me with raised eyebrows, except for my ten-year-old niece Marie, who had embarked on the demolition of a fried clam platter bigger then she was. I sat down and blinked at them.
“That was Good Morning America,” I said. “They want me to be on their show tomorrow morning.”
My mother looked bemused. “How are you going to get to New York?”
“Well, they’re sending a car to your house and picking me up there tonight. The car will take me to Logan, and there will be a ticket waiting for me at the airline desk.”
“Suppose you told them you didn’t want to do it,” my brother said.
“I don’t think they take no for an answer,” I said.
“No business like show business,” my father said. “Shall I sing it?”
“No,” my brother, mother, and I screamed.
“May I please have some more tartar sauce?” Marie asked.
Later that evening, a uniformed guy driving a dark-blue Lincoln solid as a tank picked me up in Andover and drove me to Logan Airport. I flew to New York, got a cab at La Guardia, and took a ride into Manhattan that lasted longer than the flight because of some unspecified but dire mess on Queens Boulevard. The hotel where I was booked was apparently where GMA lodged all its guests, or at least those who didn’t demand and get the Plaza or the St. Regis. I was given a suite and a key to the V.I.P lounge, which I was too tired to use.
The next morning a guy in casual clothes driving a nondescript Chevy picked me up and drove me to West 57th Street. I entered the studio through a side door that looked like the emergency exit to a paint factory. Someone swooped down on me and grabbed my handbag and suitcase and strolled off with them. Another person appeared and hauled me off to hair and make-up.
The coiffing got done first. A gum-snapping brunette plopped me in a chair, surveyed me narrowly, and said, “This the way ya always weah ya haih, hon?”
I admitted that it was.
She pushed at my hair and nodded judiciously. “Great bounce, hon.” Bristling with combs and brushes, she set to work. It took her about two minutes to give me side wings, flips, curls, and bangs that defied gravity. Then she sprayed the whole sculpture into rigidity.
I moved to another chair so the make-up woman could weave her magic spell. The first thing she did was trowel pancake onto my face and throat. I wondered if I’d be able to move my facial muscles. Barely. Having created the background on the canvas, the woman set about painting the foreground. I stared at the mirror, fascinated by the change my face was undergoing. Suddenly I had the cheekbones of Katharine Hepburn. A moment later, I had the cut-glass jawbone of Vanessa Redgrave. My eyes and lips enlarged. I still looked like me…but a really good me.
“Can I hire you to do this to me every morning for the rest of my life?” I said.
The make-up woman laughed and dismissed me to take on her next customer.
Someone appeared and led me to the green room. On the way in, I passed civil rights icon James Farmer being escorted to do his segment on the show. (Sadly, he would die on July 9 of that year.) The green room was about the size of my bedroom in my house in Cambridge: not large. Against the far wall was a table set up with a coffee urn, jugs of fruit juice, and platters of pastries. No one went near it, including me. The other walls had chairs lined up against them. I found an empty chair and took it. Two very casually dressed young guys, apparently too fidgety to sit, hovered by my chair. We exchanged pleasantries. Afterward I found out they were the writer/directors of The Blair Witch Project. A moment later a short dark-haired man appeared in the doorway. He glanced around at the occupants. As he entered the room, he gave me a brilliant smile. (Perhaps he mistook me for someone cool.) It was George Stephanopoulos, one-time press secretary to Bill Clinton and now an ABC commentator. He sat on the arm of my chair, back to me, and chatted with the person sitting next to me. His left buttock nudged my left breast. I was tempted to pinch him but resisted the urge. I stared at his behind till someone (there were endless someones) came to fetch me for the show.
When I was a young teenager my father had worked in the financial end of a company that produced and distributed theatrical movies and television programs, so I was well aware at an early age how literally shabby showbiz was behind all the glitz. And of how the tawdry and commonplace could be made magical by the right lighting and the proper camerawork. (And make-up: Witness my transfigured face.) Still, it was interesting to see first-hand how jury-rigged the infrastructure of a top-rated morning news show could be. We walked through a maze of shaky partitions, on scuffed and worn floors, over piles of cable duct-taped in place, past a set that was supposed to look like a living room and furnished totally in simulated wood, and onto the GMA set. There was a commercial break. Diane Sawyer looked up from her desk and gave me a vague, harried smile. She was lovely, but a bit less dewy and radiant than she appeared through a camera lens. A make-up person darted from the wings and applied a brush to Sawyer’s face. I got put into a chair facing Charles Gibson.
I did my five-minute segment, most of which entailed arguing with F. Lee Bailey, who was being satellited in from Rhode Island. Bailey had always maintained that DeSalvo, whom he represented, was guilty of the Strangler murders. The high moment of the debate occurred when Bailey insisted that DeSalvo knew that one of the victims had been wearing a tampon, and this knowledge proved DeSalvo’s guilt. I pointed out that the murdered woman had in fact been wearing a sanitary napkin, and stolidly recited the dimensions of the stain on it as given in the autopsy protocol. Afterward I found it difficult to believe that I’d gotten involved in a dispute about feminine hygiene and menstrual discharge on national television. Oy.
My segment ended. Gibson shook my hand and thanked me. Someone led me from the set, returned to me my handbag and suitcase, and put me in a car to the airport. When I landed in Boston, I got a car back to my parents’ place.
When the hired car pulled into the driveway, Marie was waiting.
“Hi, sweetie,” I said, emerging from the car and tipping the driver.
“ I didn’t see you on tv,” she said. “I was sleeping. But Daddy taped it on Grandpa’s VCR.”
“Oh, good. I guess.”
She inspected me. “Your face looks different.”
I drew the index finger of my right hand down the side of my face. Beneath the nail collected a gob of make-up the size of a wad of well-chewed gum. I flicked it into the juniper hedge bordering the driveway.
Marie followed the movement with her eyes. “Eeeuuu,” she said.
“You do have a way with words.”