The summer breeze blew through my hair as I leaned over the railing of the patio, at a favorite seaside restaurant. I was here on assignment to photograph the beach and island, but secretly a part of me was interested in another story. One that had been talked about, splashed over the newspaper headlines, and after many years, forgotten.
I was deep in thought wondering what had happened to Marissa Clayton, had she vanished after a torrid love affair had gone awry? Was she depressed over her movie career in decline? I was hoping to dig up some research, some of the locals would surely remember her. I picked up my camera, and got a few good shots, I was about to call it a day, when I heard a man’s voice behind me say to a waiter, ” Another one for the lady. ”
I was about to say that I was good when a man picked up my bag and guided me to a table. He was extraordinarily handsome for his age, the years had been kind to him. I sat at his table, he began to introduce himself. His voice was gentle, and he had an elegance about him, but I said that I knew him, “It is nice to meet you Mr. Morgan, I’m Loretta Winters. ” “Call me Jess. ” He replied as the waiter brought me another tea.
I was hungry, I had not realized how long I had been walking around the island, or how many pictures I had taken or how many people I had already spoken to. Jess ordered dinner, and obviously word had gotten around that I was interested in more than a vacation photoshoot. He was more than happy to share what he knew about Marissa. They had arrived in Hollywood around the same time in the late 1940’s. They had even joked that they would be the next Bogey and Bacall or William Powell and Myrna Loy.
They enjoyed their time together on backlots usually as extras to the real stars, and while they did make a few film noirs, neither of them had the appeal they had hoped for, yet his looks kept him in as a co-star. Marissa had sense humor and tried comedy, but she wasn’t always on time with her lines and was just too cute, she was told, as she was given her release from the studio.
She had met Jess here before for weekends with friends, but this time she was planning to come alone and spend the weekend at a local hotel. He had a beach house and a yacht and was doing very well and had found a niche as a writer and done some directing. Marissa didn’t want to explore other options. Jess told me that he met her at the pier and she checked into a hotel and they planned to set sail the next morning but she never showed up.
I knew some of the reports but let him talk. Her phone was off the hook and there were some pills on her nightstand, but only a few were gone. When the police searched the beach, she was nowhere to be found. No one had a clue, until about a month later when someone found a scarf in a cluster of rocks beside the shore. It was hers. Had she gone swimming, or drowned, had she committed suicide? No one knew.
I thanked him for dinner and he promised to call on me at my hotel before I left. He was vague but said he wanted me to meet someone who could tell me a lot more. I was curious and cautious, but I agreed. This man was gentleman and he was over eighty, I wasn’t afraid and agreed but told him to call me first.
Needless to say, I spent a restless evening, looking at old black and white stills and researching stories that ranged from the far fetched to deranged. What had happened to Marissa Clayton? There were suspects questioned, but there was never any proof that she was murdered.
And there was something that nagged at me about Jess Morgan, he had left Hollywood and and a lucrative career, he had even been in a Doris Day movie. There was even talk of casting him as a doctor in a soap opera, but he returned to the island and began writing, he had sold a home in BelAir, and some real estate, really, all the money he had amassed was now in a Swiss account.
He had built onto his home here on the island, the Pacific was full of small ones but close enough to larger ones or you could easily get to Hawaii. what was Jess Morgan thinking? Was he just tired of the attempt at fame? Though he was a reasonably successful, he was not a star. Did he have something to hide?
The police had investigated, he was never charged or even under suspicion. Had he murdered a long time love? Or had the sea claimed an aspiring star? Or was it as the papers reported a tragic attempt at a comeback with a publicity stunt that went awry? Was she attempting a dive and in hopes of having someone save her, only to lose her life?
The next morning I packed and went to order coffee in the hotel lounge. A waitress who knew me whispered, ” Loretta, you have a call. ” It was Jess Morgan and he was not waiting until the evening, he told me he had sent a car and to bring my camera and a notebook. The phone clicked before I could ask anything.
I got into a car and was driven to a gated estate with a large fountain, a pool, and a guest house. There was even a little golf course complete with cart. On a beautiful patio, I saw a woman in a wheelchair, she appeared to have been her eighties as well, could it be? A nurse brought me over to meet her, and Jess waved from the cart, I waved back.
” Sit down, Loretta. ” She said politely, ” Jess tells me you’re the one. ” ” The one? ” I asked. ” Yes, ” she shook her head and laughed. ” The one to tell my story, I’m Marissa Clayton, or Mrs. Jess Morgan, he saved my life, you know. ” Over the next few weeks, I learned how a girl of fourteen had run away from home and met a handsome young man in 1948. She lied about her age and was cast as the sister or high school student, he was in a few westerns. Most of their work was as extras.
She often waited tables and he worked as a caddy, and inherited a passion for golf. They got married in in 1952, when she turned eighteen, he was twenty two, they kept it secret hoping for careers. Though some people were suspicious, they lived in the same hotel, there was never any scandal, they were not that famous, her name was lower in the credits though Jess had a few breaks, and worked in directing.
One day in 1965, she was tired of making beach movies, and was soon released from her contract. Jess had wrapped up his movie and they went separately to the island getaway. He was to meet her as he said and and she checked into the hotel, she had taken a sleeping pill but went for a moonlight walk, when her scarf blew off and went onto some rocks she went to get it and fell. Her head was bleeding, when he found her the next morning and she was blind in one eye, she begged him not to tell anyone.
Jess had carried her home and taken care of her. The story was out that she was missing, and she made him promise not to tell, because their marriage might ruin his career, she had not wanted her accident to cause him problems. He was able to pay a doctor friend to take care her, and the rumors and gossip died down, she just wasn’t that big a star. People wrote her off as a suicide. And she never minded that.
She told me she had worried that Jess would be accused of her murder but he hid her and the police found nothing to charge him with, they had even used aliases on their marriage certificate. No one knew but them. She had had a daughter, but gave her up for adoption although Jess begged her not to, saying he would help raise her and get her a governess. But she said agreed because he loved her and he loved their daughter, he always sent her money and even paid for college.
” Where is she now? ” I asked, ” she must be my age. ” ” Just about. ” Jess patted my shoulder. He sat down and had some lunch brought over. Marissa told me she just wanted her story finally told and that Jess was right I was the one to tell it because I would understand. She had been blind in one eye a long time, and even though some sight returned, a difficult pregnancy had also left her with more health problems. She had been limited in her walking, and a stroke had slurred her speech, the old head injury from her fall was a constant source of pain. She cried a lot in her husband’s arms over the agonizing decision, he had friends he knew would adopt her and take care of her and respect any wishes or decisions they made or rather he made, she was still presumed dead.
She explained that she was not a vain creature, though her beauty had faded she was still quite lovely. She just thought it best to let them believe what they wanted to, Jess stayed in Hollywood a while longer but returned to her and stayed in the 1970’s, he took a few bit parts and directed but was handy with screenplays for cop shows, and even a few novels. Occasionally, he would field questions about her, and all he would say was that she was quite a lady. I had seen the interviews, there had even been a fictional book written about her murder and a mysterious lover, Jess wanted that cleared up.
I remembered getting gifts from an uncle J, my mother said he traveled a lot. I grew up in Monterrey and went to USC, I always had friends, a car and a condo and have been able to travel, I never thought my parents could afford this, I always sent them money from my assignments because they had been so generous, now I was wondering about this daughter. Why was I the one? I continued to ask questions, and soon they admitted they were the couple I would always see at the park, or sometimes at the theatre, and indeed I was their daughter, Angela.
We hugged and cried and I felt as though I had known them forever. What a blessing to freed of a guilt that I was a burden on my parents and to find the ones who loved me enough to not want me to grow up in seclusion or in the shadow of a Hollywood mystery. Although I had in a way, I was always interested the fate of starlet, Marissa Clayton. And now I was kissing my precious mother.
And my father Jess assured me later and in a more private setting after she had gone upstairs to nap, that he really had begged her to keep me, but she had been at times. mentally challenged with her head injury, she would forget things, and just wanted to avoid people. I told him I understood. He blushed a sigh or relief, ” She had such a hard life as child, when she told me, I promised to marry her when she turned eighteen, we have always helped children ever since, and it broke our hearts to let you go. ” I never felt so much love pour over me.
I hugged my father tightly, and he whispered that he loved me, and that Marissa was quite a lady. I was always telling the mhow much I loved and appreciated them. I spent the summer and wrote the book, and both parents were happy they got to reading it before passing away, only a few months apart. My father even left a few manuscripts, I promised to finish and co-author. I sold the house on the island and returned to California, I set up scholarships for the arts in their names, and help children to find adoptive parents, as for my own they are still with me, and I will tell my chosen daughter Angela about her grandmother and grandfather, what wonderful people they were who left the world for heaven in 2014.
I am still a photographer, writer, wife and mother, and I still have to be Loretta, I am so used to her. The summer breeze blew through my hair as I leaned over the railing of our patio deck outside my office, my husband Steve handed me a glass of tea, and before I could thank him, I saw what he was reading and smiled, remembering Jess, I was the one alright, and his words were the perfect title for my book, Another One For the Lady.
Photographer Kristina Bratko / Unsplash / edited
Rebecca Jones, for my friend Marilyn.
These of course, are fictional film stars.