Center of the Universe (61)
Confessions of a Call Girl
Part II: William Holden Goes Down
“Oh my God!” Flo exclaims, in a comically lusty whisper, brown eyes widening from bashful to brazen. “Even more gorgeous in person!” She is speaking, of course, about William Holden.
But let’s catch up.
The war (you may have heard) ended in unimaginable cataclysm — as the US detonated the world’s first nuclear bomb over Hiroshima and the second, three days later, over Flo’s mother’s hometown of Nagasaki. It meant the occupying Japanese army would finally remove itself from China — no more bayonets in the “privates” — but for Flo and the citizens of Shanghai, as well as the tens of thousands of Russians, Jews and others of the history-tossed who’d sought refuge in that cosmopolitan metropolis, it was only the beginning of upheaval. Because lying in wait, in and about the caves of Yan’an, was the People’s Liberation Army of Mao Zedong.
At 16, with the household still struggling, Flo quit school to go to work, lying to prospective employers that she was 17. As happened so often in her career, she was hired instantly, this time by the British American Tobacco Company for a position that, in a flawless deadpan, she describes as “call girl.”
I have to think a minute.
“Oh,” I say, “a switchboard operator.”
She smiles and repeats: “Call girl.”
There were other telephone jobs, including a brief one for the British Army in Hong Kong. But by 1949, young Flo was back in Shanghai, even as Mao was making the final push for victory, chasing Chiang Kai-shek across the Taiwan Strait and, after three years of outright civil war, delivering the glories of Marxism-Leninism to the Middle Kingdom — and, on June 2, to its most decadent, westernized city.
“When the Communists took over,” says Flo, “they immediately cut all salaries, including mine, 50 percent. And shortly after that, another 50.”
It became clear to Flo’s mother, if not Flo, that, paycuts aside, it was time to get out. Yet even for a girl with a Portuguese passport, acquiring an outbound visa from this new regime was a tedious process that wended through long lines and opaque bureaucracy. Finally, after a year-and-a-half, Flo’s papers came through. But not her mother’s — who insisted that, with or without her, Flo had to go.
One of her older sisters had married and moved to Tokyo years before and offered now to take Flo in. But there was an exodus underway in the People’s Republic, with trains, planes and passenger ships up and down the country booked — at exorbitant prices — to capacity. So mother bought pretty precious a ticket on a freighter, more afraid of her little girl staying a minute longer in utopia than sending her across the East China Sea, solo, on a cargo ship. And though it may look near on the map, passage from Shanghai to Yokohama was a full week, seven unrelieved days of open sea.
“I was 17 going on 12,” says Flo. “I had hardly been anywhere, mostly staying close to home and mother.” Yet here they were, mother and daughter, at the Shanghai docks, bidding tremulous farewells. Which is when the forces of serendipity, fluke and accident rode to the rescue in the person of Flo’s friend and high school classmate. Norma, it turns out, was booked on the same ship with her aunt and uncle and invited Flo to share their second-class cabin. It was a tight fit, but better than being alone. Then serendipity struck again. Having escorted the little crowd to their cabin in the first place, the purser now returned and, smiling, but speaking only Japanese, motioned for the girls to follow. Eventually, with a nod from the aunt and uncle, they did, and the purser led Flo and Norma down a corridor and up a stairs and opened the door to a large cabin in first class, indicating with a sweep of his arm, as their luggage arrived, that it was now theirs.
It wasn’t the free upgrade that was the problem. It was the seven days on the rearing, rolling sea. Flo and her friend were sick for every one of them, eventually dragging themselves from the deluxe stateroom to adjacent chairs on the deck, where the fresh air helped. A little. The last evening they were invited to join the captain in the dining room. He took one look at their green faces, Flo recalls, and said, with a laugh: “It’s making me ill just to look at you.”
Flo made it to Yokohama and from there, in the company of big sister and brother-in-law, to Tokyo, where sis — nearly 20 years Flo’s senior, more mother than sibling — tells the teen it’s time to get a job. Again, for Flo, that turned out to be easy. On the strength of her skills with the King’s English and a Smith-Corona, she was soon employed as a typist at the US Army’s Tokyo Officer’s Club. And when she quickly found that job too regimented, she stopped, on a lark, at the Northwest Orient Airlines offices.
“First thing they asked me was, ‘Do you speak Japanese?’”
Her native Japanese mother had raised the kids speaking nothing but English. “It was a status thing,” Flo says. And even if her daughter had picked up a few conversational bits and pieces from listening to mom navigate the occupation, Flo’s Japanese was, to be generous, less than comprehensive.
“Oh, yes,” she assured the personnel manager, “I speak it fluently.” Here she makes a dismissive mouth-fart sound and adds: “Lied!”
“It wasn’t good pay,” says the girl who’d never gone anywhere, “but at the time the airlines were just coming in. So, apparently, it was a glamor job. I had no clue. I didn’t know I was the neighborhood glamor girl. My sister would hear all about it from neighbors, merchants, the grocer, the butcher. They’d see me getting in a taxi to the airport in my nice uniform. It turns out I was the pride of the neighborhood. My sister was so jealous!”
Flo’s route, at first, was Tokyo — via Okinawa — to Manila, an eight-hour trek. Her aircraft, one of the most storied, if short-lived (only 56 built), in the history of aviation, was the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, the first double-decker commercial plane (preceding the 747 by 20 years), one of the first high-pressure cabins and, as it turned out, here at the dawn of the jet age, one of the last gasps of mass-market propeller travel. One odd convergence of our trajectories — mine and Flo’s — is that at the time our family was living outside Minneapolis, where her airline was headquartered and dominated the market, so Northwest became our airline, too. And I will never forget — though I couldn’t have been more than nine — flying on a Stratocruiser to New York, probably when we moved there, at about the same time — same decade, at least — that Flo on her Stratocruiser was hopping around the Philippine Sea. Even at nine — a budding aficionado of aviation, technology and travel, with an older brother who aspired to be a pilot — I knew this pot-bellied flying machine with the spiral staircase was cooler than cool.
“That was my plane,” Flo says, with pride.
“Did you like working for an airline?”
“Loved it,” she repeats three times. “Everything about it. You meet different people. And the pilots were…”
“Dashing?” I offer.
“There’s something about an airline pilot,” she says, “If I was in a room with strangers, I could tell if someone was a pilot. I don’t know what it is.” Having met a lot of pilots once my big brother became one, I had to agree. I also had to add:
“And when they weren’t flying or on call, they were wild, a lot of them. And the stewardesses were wild.”
“When I became a stewardess,” Flo says, “I had the sense some people thought I was a slut — sleep with any old guy, here, there, everywhere. Airline stewardesses were known to be sluts. In the hotel, you could do any damn thing. Drink all night, party all night.”
“Northwest had a staff house in Tokyo,” Flo explains, “with all the comforts of an American lifestyle. They let the bachelor pilots and navigators — all of them American — layover there. They gave them breakfast, lunch, dinner. It was like a hotel. Everybody was there. But I actually lived in Tokyo, so mostly I was not. Sometimes — but not on a regular basis. Plus, I didn’t drink. I just didn’t like that feeling of being buzzed. Losing control. And I didn’t want to get molested.”
But the perils of the job she nonetheless loved were not limited to the layover hotels. The innovative Stratocruiser, it turned out, was rapidly gaining a reputation for engine trouble.
“Did you see the movie The High and the Mighty?” Flo asks.
It’s a 1950s airplane disaster flick — the original, in fact — starring John Wayne in a part that (if you ask me) would have been perfect for William Holden.
“Here’s why I remember it so well,” says Flo. “On a flight out of Tokyo to Korea, we take off. Now, after the seatbelt light is turned off, the stewardesses have to go up front and serve the pilots first. So I was walking forward, and right by the wings, I hear this loud bang! I didn’t see anything, but I knew it wasn’t something inside the plane. As I entered the cockpit, I heard the captain saying to the co-pilot, ‘OK, you look out that window and I’ll look out this one.’ And I’m standing there, and they’re ignoring me, talking to each other. And the co-pilot turns back, and the expression on his face was: Oh, shit, trouble… And then he saw me and said, ‘Go back and tell the pursers we’re turning around.’
“As I’m walking back down the aisle, there’s this Korean guy sitting by the wing, laughing” — and here Flo unleashes a maniacal, chimp-like chattering — “hee-hee-hee-hee-hee, and calling me over and pointing. There are four props, and on the farthest one, the cowling had come off and hit the prop, and it was all bent and pieces coming out. And I’m looking at that and trying not to” — she draws the next word out, like, say, a tense violin on The High and Mighty soundtrack — “PAAAAAAA-NIC!” She pantomimes robotic movements, demonstrating how she managed to display a calm, friendly mien to the flying public as she continued on through the cabin.
“My knees are banging. And I’m panic-stricken. But I’m smiiiiiiiiling… It was just like the movie! I should have gotten the Academy Award for that act. And then we made … The Announcement.
“We’re turning back.
“And it got really scary all over again when — with only three working engines — we came in for the landing and looked out on all the emergency crews, the flashing lights, the foam on the runway…” She widens her eyes again and, sixty-some years later, expels a long, sputtering breath of relief.
Fate. Sometimes it’s not fatal.
And sometimes it’s something else altogether. By urgent request, Flo launches into my favorite Flo story.
“I go over to the staff house to meet my friend,” she begins, “a Filipino girl named Gloria, who flies out of Manila. The Northwest staff house was in a residential neighborhood in Tokyo, and she needed to go downtown to pick up some local currency, so we could go shopping. The building downtown was five floors of offices on the bottom and a hotel above.” Fully conscious of her eager audience, Flo caps off every sentence with a beat of dramatic silence.
“She gets her money, and we step in the elevator, go to the ground floor and step out, where two tall men are waiting to get in. Now we don’t see that many tall men in Japan, so I notice. But I wasn’t even really looking at them like that. You know, looking at them. We just got out of the elevator and saw two tall men, and then” — she reenacts her double-take and drops into a whisper: “‘Oh my God, Gloria. That’s William Holden.’
“And she said, ‘No!’ And I said, Yes. And she said, ‘No!’ And now he’s hearing ‘Yes-No-Yes-No.’ And I say, ‘That’s William Holden, Gloria, and I’m going back in.’ ‘No, it’s not!’ Gloria says.’ And I say, ‘OK, you go on, but I’m going back.’ The guys had now entered the elevator, and by the time I got back to the door, the operator had closed it. But at the last second, I guess, she saw me and opened. ‘I’m so sorry!’ she said. ‘I’m so sorry!’ And I looked and, oh my God, it really was William Holden.
“And he’s looking at me and grinning. And I say, Mr. Holden? And he says” — Flo lowers her voice — ‘Yeeeessss?’ Gloria had jumped in the elevator after me. So she heard it and saw that he’s looking only at me — even though Gloria is quite beautiful. I say, ‘Ah, um, Mr. Holden…’, and I’m digging in my purse, ‘May I have your autograph?’” Beat.
“‘Yeeeessss…’ she imitates.
“But there was nothing in my purse. No autograph book, no paper, nothing. Oh my God! I’m digging and digging, and I could just see him looking at me, smiling, this gorgeous thing smiling at me. But I did have the log book we were required to keep for the airline. So I ripped out a sheet and asked him, ‘Would you sign this?’ And he studied it to make sure it was a blank page and then signed.
“Meanwhile, this one” — she jerks her thumb to indicate Gloria — “she completely loses her voice.” Flo starts in with a series of unintelligible, mouse-like squeaks. “And by now, he is laughing out loud. I had to rip out another sheet for Gloria, and, again, he looks at it and signs.
“Meanwhile the Japanese girl, the elevator operator, asks me, ‘What floor are you going to?’ And I say, ‘Follow him!’ You can imagine that by now the guy’s hysterical. And we get down to the garage, and the door opens, and William Holden turns and says to me, ‘Are you coming with us?’
“I said, ‘Oh, no, no, no.’ And he said, ‘OK, bye-bye.’ And that was it.”
But not quite.
“The door closes and the elevator operator falls over backward with a giddy shriek” — Flo mimes her collapsing. “She didn’t dare ask for his autograph because she was on duty. And Gloria, who couldn’t manage to get a word out the whole time, starts saying” — Flo adopts a dreamy voice — “‘He was smiling at you, Flo. He was smiling at you…!’
“I know,” Flo whispers. “William Holden, William Holden…” Beat.
“Now the next day is Tuesday. A flying day for me. We’re in our uniforms, the Northwest crew, and get dropped off at the airport. And one of the check-in staff gets all excited and says to us, ‘Hey, hey, hey, you know who’s your passenger?!
“So here’s the ticket counter.” She stands to delineate the space. “And standing by the door, ready to exit onto the runway…” Two beats. “Who do you think?
“And he’s looking at me. Smiling at me. And we had to go past him to get on the plane and get it ready. And as I walk by, he says, ‘Somebody’s gonna get her nose jammed in an elevator door one day…’
“He recognized me in uniform!” she says in a quietly flabbergasted voice.
“I hadn’t told anybody the story from the day before yet,” Flo continues, “and my colleague looked at me and said, ‘Flo! Flo, he recognized you!’ She was so jealous.
“We’re on the plane now, before the passengers get on, two stewardesses and two pursers. And I’m telling them the story about the guys in the elevator. And my colleague cuts in to say, ‘And he recognized her! He remembered her. Ooooh!’ And the other stewardess drops to the floor and says, ‘Flo, Flo, I beg of you. Please let me serve them. Please don’t go downstairs.’ And stupid me, I say, ‘OK.’ What I should’ve said was, ‘I should go because he knows me.’ But the girl was almost in tears.
“Then Mr. Holden called a purser to come down to the bar. He had taken off his suit, and both he and his bodyguard, or whoever he was, had put on these jumpsuits to get comfy on an eight-hour flight. The purser comes back up holding the suit and says to us, ‘Hey, you two, take a look. Because this is the closest you’re gonna get.’
“Then he hands us William Holden’s pants.”
(Continued in Center of the Universe 62 — Part III: William Holden Gets Off)