Illustration by Nick Dewar
Not in a thousand years would I have predicted it: the big featured obituary in The New York Times, not one of those paid ones either, but a bona fide send-off. “Hazel Court, 82, Screaming Horror-Film Star, Dies” was the headline. It topped a summation of her career punctuated by a deliciously campy photograph, the actress in cringing mid-scream, long, flowing hair and flowing nightgown, hands up in terror, a still from the 1964 movie The Masque of the Red Death, in which she starred alongside Vincent Price, the ghoulish matinee idol of horror movies.
Hazel Court was my stepmother. She died of a heart attack this spring in Lake Tahoe, where she lived alone in a cabin in a wooded ravine. Three days later there appeared this “wow” obit. I happened to be in New York and read it standing on a midtown corner, struck equally by sadness and amusement. My stepmother now getting her big-time due in the country’s paper of record. She would have loved it. My father’s obituary in The New York Times, which ran on January 2, 1999, was, by contrast, about half as long and flat, a straightforward recitation of his acting and directing credits. Don Taylor acted in this, Don Taylor directed that. In death, it was the vampy scream queen with the “considerable cleavage,” to borrow the obit writer’s phrase, who received the star treatment. I should not have been surprised. This is irresistible stuff, even for such an august newspaper.
Irresistible. That’s no doubt what my Hollywood childhood would have looked like to many. Sometimes it looked like that to me. They were so pretty, my father and Hazel. He was a tall, handsome, still baby-faced actor in his thirties, all-American to the bone, raised in a small town outside Pittsburgh, Hazel a bodacious British beauty who had been a pinup girl in the 1950s, red lips and cascading red hair and that memorable cleavage. My father gave her a red Corvette convertible as a prenup gift (they married in 1964), that snazzy, plump roadster with the white insets on the sides, and she, hair blowing in the wind, would come pick up my sister and me, two preteen towheads, the kids of the first marriage, and off we’d roar all crammed in the front—no seat belts, no scarves, just a cheery admonition to “hold on, girls.”
Hazel was happy then. Hazel was in love. She drove fast and did wonderful impersonations. She was making her horror movies and giving British-themed parties at the big old mock-Tudor house off San Vicente in Santa Monica where my father had lived with my mother and where he had stayed when she left him, taking my sister and me. It had been a sad place for a stretch of years after we moved out and before Hazel moved in, bringing it back to life, bringing a daughter who visited a lot from England. Suddenly there were actors around, not just actors but these large theatrical personalities like Richard Harris and Christopher Plummer and one of the English doyennes, Gladys Cooper, crinkly and commanding, in her mid- to late seventies then. There were Pimm’s cups and steak and kidney pies, high teas with scones and clotted cream and strawberries that slid into the cocktail hour. The alcohol began to be a constant, a motif—Hazel rarely touched it, just served it—although nobody noticed it then. It was the lubricant for the fanciful actorly reminiscences and for the many games we all played, the high-spirited rounds of Ping-Pong on the back patio and croquet on the front lawn, and the swimming parties, an inebriated guest sometimes jumping whooping into the water on a late moonlit night.
My sister and I were the mascots. When we came to the house after school, in our saddle shoes and private school uniforms or on Saturday in our Bermuda shorts and sleeveless blouses, it was like wandering onto a fantastical movie set. Enchantment poured out of every door. At some point when he was making The Sound of Music, Christopher Plummer and his second wife moved into San Vicente, as we always called the house. He was not thrilled with the project, as I recall, being a seriously trained actor, and there was much antidotal merriment—not to mention some loud lovers’ quarrels—when he came home at night and on the Bloody Mary-and-Welsh rarebit weekends.
Those days, the days of early enchantment, came back to me as I read the obituary. I hadn’t thought of them in years. Too much had intervened: anger and unmet dreams. The arc of the Hollywood life. People arrive here from all over, from their small towns and faraway lands, toting those dreams of success. Some, a rare few, make it to the top, and it must seem like breathing different air for a while—everything so exciting and giddy and hopeful, like those parties my father and Hazel gave—as if you could stay up there forever breathing that air, knowing the odds are against all but a handful. The parts dry up, you make bad choices, you get older, and back you slip onto everyday ground just trying to have a life, make a living. Hazel’s acting career ended in the early ’70s. My father’s career continued, flourished really; he directed a lot of television and a dozen or so movies—including what is probably his best known, Escape from the Planet of the Apes—but it wasn’t all he wanted. His sometimes bellicose disappointment rattled through the house as the drinking got worse. From Pimm’s cups to martinis to straight vodka—that was the trajectory of the serious drinker. Even early on, I was conscious of watching him, of watching both of them as they moved through their house and through the town, that they were often surrounded by people higher up the pecking order. As a child of Hollywood, you learned how to calibrate. You could look at people looking at your parents and know exactly where they stood—or didn’t. My father and Hazel were never at the white-hot center, and they had to know that, though maybe in their first years together in that house, with all the parties and games and garrulous guests, it felt as if they were.
Those days lasted maybe a decade. My sister and I went off to college and came home full of feminism and antiwar fervor, full of books and ambitious ideas of what our own lives could or should be, and Hazel found us more challenging, to say the least. Feminism to her was a dirty word. It made no sense. It would put the world out of whack. The house we came back to during summers and holidays and weekends was both quieter and louder now: fewer guests, more fights. There was a son, my half brother, born in 1966. But the late-in-life love child became a pawn on a battlefield.
There were cease-fires, periods of fun. My husband and I married on the back patio in 1972. We continued to attend barbecues and Super Bowl parties—the ol’ Welsh rarebit—and take our dogs swimming in the pool. Hazel still cooked bubble ’n’ squeak and bangers and mash and the best Thanksgiving turkey in the country, ironic because as the years went on, she became more and more avowedly anti-American. Her Britishness, which had been bouncy and bawdy—in that cheerful vaudevillian way—became brittle and snappish. In conversation she became aggressive and right-wing. I suppose she was just lonesome—bitter, too. The world had changed hard, her world, though there was never really any thought of her leaving my father and going home. It was way too late, and there was still love, however bruised. Home, by now, was San Vicente. They hunkered in there, eating dinner on TV trays in my father’s study surrounded by walls of photos: those killer Hollywood stills from the days when they were young and striking.
When he died, Hazel had to sell the house—they had never saved much—and move to a cabin they had bought years earlier in Lake Tahoe. She lived there alone surrounded by many of the tchotchkes from San Vicente, books by Ann Coulter on her bedside table. We talked maybe once a month, safe topics: the growing bear population in Tahoe, Roger Federer’s tennis game. But much was off-limits. No politics. No half brother. Nothing that could snag her ire.
The obituary was a restorative for me—all of the obituaries, I should say, because ultimately there were a lot. She hit Time and magazines and newspapers all over the world. The scream queen was dead, going out in a final flare-up of fame.