I find myself wrestling all the time with the chronological flow of conventional biographies. Simply put, I hate it. Aideen’s life, I decided early on in this project, would not be spun in the one direction, from young to old, from hopeful to disillusioned, from promising actress to drunk housewife.
So, Aideen’s objects are gathered together in no particular order, except they end with something very special. Tramping along by the sea early one morning, I realised that sharing one of Aideen’s most precious artefacts also means sharing with you the opening lines of my completed fictional novel Chasing Aideen. And maybe it’s time to do that too …
The way in which Aideen died isn’t a fair reflection of the life she lived, or the person she was. The real essence of her life is in the moments, the fragments, that don’t constitute a proper whole, but come, rather, like the shards of a dream that splinter and fall away as you wake.
One of Aideen’s favourite spots in Hollywood was the rooftop of the apartment block on North Cherokee where she lived with Arthur in the early 1940s. I can see her there in the dying light of the afternoon, alone and tipsy. For once, she is calm and content. Bertha has spent the day with her, Boss is on his way home from the studio and there’s talk again of a small movie role for her.
Aideen moves slowly across the rooftop, exaggerated steps and wavering arms, trying to keep balance. As she turns, first in one direction and then in another, trying to choose the best spot to enjoy the last of the sun, the light dazzles her. Scenes from her life, past and to come, flash like a stuttering movie reel in front of her eyes. Certain objects come in and out of focus:
** A Photo of Frolie:
Frolie is in her slacks and sunglasses, sitting on the side of the railway tracks in some nameless city in the Midwest. The train had broken down, the heat was relentless, their stomachs rumbling and exhaustion setting in. They fought over something stupid; they fought so loudly the others started to complain. Each time she looks at it, she can hear Frolie’s laugh and feel her warmth. She does not remember what the argument was over.
**A Large Martini Jug:
Because I can’t ignore this. Family lore tells of the huge, lethal jugs of cocktails Aideen would mix for friends and family. She’d carry the jug out onto the patio or into the front room, and then step far away from it. She was never seen with a glass in her hand. It was a Sunday afternoon thing, a Friday night thing, a Tuesday lunchtime thing. After my stay in the Hollywood hills, I can understand the lethargy and thirst that settles in with that dusty heat.
**A Cookery Book covered with messy handprints:
‘I still LOATHE Hollywood’.Aideen told Eddie Choate in 1942. But she ruefully admitted, ’My cooking has become most proficient!’
** A book on art wrapped in brown paper:
addressed to Anne Yeats. She was another close friend of Aideen, as Anne started her career in the scenic design room of the Abbey Theatre, high up at the back of the building with a narrow window overlooking the alley way behind. The girls would hide out and catch up there, drinking tea with a faint whiff of turpentine.
**A ticket for Pantages Movie Theatre:
on Hollywood Boulevard. At first, Aideen went there to see the newsreels. Early in the day, when Arthur was filming, she could creep in out of the heat and watch events in Europe unfold. Later, with Christine as a baby in her arms, she would slip away to drink in private.
**A new electrical hairdryer:
Aideen invested in a ‘swanky’ new hairdryer in a department store in New York in 1937. She had only gone looking for panstick, but it was on special offer. As well as letting her try out the latest ‘dos’, it meant that she didn’t have to pay a hairdresser on a regular basis, as Frolie did. For that reason, this always strikes me as very Aideen. Money was an ongoing issue for the women travelling; Aideen was canny if penniless.
**A pile of comics bought for Adam Shields, never delivered.
In her early days in Los Angeles and her last few months in New York, Aideen enjoyed browsing the second-hand bookstores with Boss. He read poetry, she liked novels and also books about World War II. She thought of him: Arthur’s son from his first marriage, at home with his mother. Aideen knew which comics he liked and those that bored him.
**Her Typewriter (with one broken key)
In a corner of the large, airy room that was their sitting room in North Cherokee, Aideen set up her typewriter and books. Lucky, the cat, curled up there in the heat of the middle of the day. When they bought the house on Sierra Bonita, they set up a ‘Green Room’: a small library, a desk, their store of scripts and plays, a drinks cabinet. From her days in Polikoffs’ and her work for the Abbey director Hugh Hunt, Aideen was a nifty typist and kept tidy files. They don’t talk about the day she got furious and flung it across the room, damaging one of the keys.
A missal sent to her from her dear friend the nun in Cobh, Co. Cork. Despite her wranglings with Kay and Mary Lasker, her relationship with the Protestant Boss and the militant Catholicism of her sister, Aideen clings to her faith. Or to some aspects of it, like the worn leather of this missal that a kindly nun had pressed into her hands in the convent in Cobh.
** A Poetry Book
A book of poetry by F.R. Higgins. She puzzles over it now and then, searching for hints about Ria or to explain why he hated her so fervently. It is difficult to think of him as a swine still, knowing that he is dead and his widow left alone in that big house by the Dodder in Rathfarnham.
And then there’s the postcard. The postcard that’s in the Shields Family Papers in the Special Collections of NUIG’s Hardiman Library:
Are you ready for this? I’m about to share the opening line of my novel. Because I don’t know if I am …
Scope and Content: Post card addressed to Miss Una O’Connor, 56 Hollybank Ave., Ranelagh, Dublin requesting that she ‘call to the theatre whenever convenient to see Mr. Arthur Shields’. Across the postcard, in pencil, someone (unknown) has written the words: Go n-eirí an t-aídh leat. (The Irish translation of ‘Good Luck’.)
Date: 22 August 1933
Extent: 1 item
On Griffith Bridge, over a surging Grand Canal, a girl is dancing in the early autumn gloaming. Can you see her?