People sometimes ask me, "What is it like to have the blood of the Angel of Death in your veins?"
As if I could conjure nightmare with mere words. No. Rather I have images that give some small sense of what it is like.
February 5th is tonight's date. I remember one February 5th.
It was 1959. Baroness Karen Blixen-Finecke (Isak Dinesen) wanted to meet me, Hemingway, and Marilyn Monroe for lunch.
Hemingway was out of the country so I had to do double duty.
Carson McCullers, THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER, hosted a small luncheon party for the Baroness whom she had long thought of as an imaginary friend.
Carson read OUT OF AFRICA at least once a year for most of her life.
The Baroness smiled upon hearing that, "Imaginary friends are by far the best. They tend to always agree with you and never disappoint."
As I watched bemused as Carson McCullers pecked a kiss on a giggling Monroe, the Baroness fixed me with a strange look,
"I do believe that from what the natives told me, in the night Africa murmurs a song of you.
The air over the Serengeti plain quivers with the color of that lion's blood which you shed to save a small girl's life."
Her frail hand patted my gloved one.
"The children of her tribe invented a game in which your name is chanted as some demi-god's. They say the full moon throws a shadow over the gravel of the road which makes the sound of your voice as if to hide from your memory."
Her eyes deepened as she sipped her champagne.
"It is said that the eagles of the Ngong Hills still look for you ... and that you can see when someone is near to dying.”
She burned with the pale green color of a corpse to my eyes. She was still driven:
though increasingly debilitated by the syphilis she had contracted in her Out of Africa years, and reduced to about eighty pounds by her anorexic diet (oysters, grapes and champagne).
She would still stay up chain-smoking, taking amphetamines and telling her famous stories until there were no listeners, or she had talked herself into a trance.
"I would ask you if you see death in me. But I already see the answer in your sad poet's eyes."
I smiled sadly, "You have written: The entire being of a woman is a secret which should be kept. That goes double for a cursed soul like myself."
I heard Carson tell Marilyn,
"We are homesick most for the places we have never known. And I am homesick for the Africa the Baroness so delicously described. What are you homesick for, my friend?"
Marilyn's eyes grew haunted, "Sleep. The nicest thing for me is sleep, then at least I can dream.”
Carson nodded, "That is wise."
"Wise?," sighed Marilyn. “A wise girl kisses but doesn't love, listens but doesn't believe, and leaves before she is left.”
And I wanted to weep, for I saw the corpse green promise of death over both their faces.
I closed my eyes but I could not blot out what I knew.
Partially paralyzed from a stroke, addicted to alcohol and pills, Carson was an invalid at age 35. Her close friend, Tennessee Williams, said that Carson had known so much tragedy that it scared people.
He contended that it was her “nobility of spirit, and profound understanding of the lonely, searching heart that make her, in my opinion, the greatest living writer in our country, if not the world.”
The Baroness squeezed my hand.
"Do not grieve so. Those two and I are casualties of our dreams. For really, dreaming is the well-mannered people's way of committing suicide.”
Champagne, white grapes, oysters and soufflé were laid out on Carson’s black marble table top.
Over lunch, Dinesen entertained the group with a story about the killing of her first lion in Africa and how she sent the skin to the king of Denmark.
She was a magnificent conversationalist and loved to talk. Marilyn, with her beautiful blue eyes, listened in a ‘once-upon-a-time-way.'
Marilyn regaled us a story about her culinary adventures. She was preparing home-made pasta for a party, but it was getting late, the guests were soon arriving, and the pasta wasn’t ready, so she attempted to finish it off with a hair dryer.
The Baroness leaned in close to me and whispered,
"It is not that she is pretty, although she is incredibly pretty – but that she radiates at the same time unbounded vitality and a kind of unbelievable innocence.
I have met the same in a lion cub that my native servants in African brought me. I would not keep her.”
Her breath smelled not of champagne, oysters, nor grapes ... but of death.
I watched as Carson struggled to dance with Marilyn to the music of the phonograph. No, damn it. I would give them all one night of girlish fun.
I could at least do that much.
I got up and in the guise of helping to steady Carson, I pressed certain acupressure points. I walked back to "Tanya" as the Baroness insisted I call her and did the same for her.
And the four of us laughed belly-deep as I did as they wished and boosted them to the black marble tabletop. I watched the three soon-to-die women giggle, laugh, and dance in one another's arms.
For one brief moment, they were young girls, safe and happy.
Three days after the Nyack luncheon, Isak Dinesen was rushed to the hospital.
The doctors diagnosed her with acute malnutrition, noting that her medical condition was similar to that of a World War II concentration camp survivor.
Dinesen continued to waste away until she became so emaciated that her skin bruised when touched. She died in her sleep – from malnutrition – at age 77.
On August 5, 1962, Marilyn Monroe was found dead from an overdose of sleeping pills in her West Los Angeles home. She was 36 years old.
Carson McCullers endured eight more years of deteriorating health. Then in August, 1967, she suffered a massive stroke and died.
So should you enter Meilori's any February 5th, do not sit at my table.
I am sitting in the shadows, remembering:
Three beautiful souls laughing despite the certainty of death and dancing on tabletops.