Crescent moon began to hover over Lake Ponchartrain. Crescent City couldn’t settle down. It awaited a bombshell, a bold chartreuse, a legendary star ascending her own sky. Soon, Basin Street blues would penetrate every Big Easy resident who had a soft spot for pussycat tragedy.
“Honey, do you know where you are?” Sgt. Miller said. “Do you know your name?”
Tears gave a response that words could never offer. She didn’t know anything except what they told her: Mommy was dead and Daddy had been called. What would Daddy say or do when he found out Mommy’s boyfriend had killed himself and her mother by driving too fast on Highway 90 and slamming into the back of a tractor-trailer?
Imagine you’re three years old—“I’ll be four in six months” you say when you find the words behind the sobs—and enjoying a ride in a sleek 1966 Buick Electra that looked like a hearse but felt as comfortable and as safe as Daddy’s lap. And when you realize people died in that car, you know the “hearse” comparison is apt. But you’re three years old. You can’t think that deeply yet. You can’t think about anything but all the blood and the broken glass and your two older brothers scared and scarred and mute in their confusion. Your little pigtails have frayed. Your smile has curled into fear. And you have a cut on your forehead that will endear someone to you—someone who will appreciate your survival.
You’ll do everything to try not to become like Mommy. But those beauty pageants and film role offers will come to you anyhow. No one can ignore your beauty. When you look in the mirror, though, you don’t see your mother. You don’t have her bleach-blonde locks or her snow-white skin. You don’t even share a name, and your brown eyes aren’t enough to bond you in this tragedy. But your father. Oh, bless you, Mickey, for your Hungarian birth. You want to be like Mr. Universe: brawny, passionate, and a laugh that doesn’t need a punchline for you to amaze those around you. You want to travel the world, befitting your gypsy blood, but you don’t want to go anywhere.
“When’s Mommy coming back?” you say to Daddy, who has taken charge of you and your siblings. Your stepmother nudges in and tries to explain the facts of life in this regard, but you’re not having any of it. You fly into a rage and you break things and you exhaust yourself so much that hours later, you find yourself tucked into a blanket nest—but no mother bird will return to feed you. You’ll have to adjust to your new family and all that it can provide. It won’t be easy. It will take you to places you don’t want to go. But you must go. You must face forward and travel that way. Mommy would want that for you.
One day, while loafing around the house while everyone’s in the swimming pool, you see Mommy on a magazine cover. At least, she looks like Mommy. But you don’t recognize her name and you don’t know how to express how this cover makes you feel. Except to tear the magazine into pieces. As you grow older, you can’t seem to recall seeing Mommy in anything but boxes: magazine covers, movie posters, and that ornate casket that enclosed her for eternity. Where is she now? In your heart? In your own roles? In words you speak as someone else? But who could have put them there?
Daddy is proud of you for becoming a TV star. He can watch you every week and feel like you’re nearby. He doesn’t talk about Mommy. He doesn’t compare. You’re his little girl. What you do is because of who you are in your own right, not because you have famous parents.
“Be strong. Be happy. Make a difference,” Daddy said. “You can’t listen to what anyone says about you. Well, except for me, but you know what I’m going to tell you. You have to do what feels right to you. It’s your life. Make the best choices for it. Do what you love. If you don’t love what you do, do something else. You can make a mark on this world in so many ways. Don’t let anyone dictate that you have to do it on TV or in a movie or in some beauty setting. Your beauty is inside.”
You danced around the edges of fame because you saw what it did to your parents: their divorce, her death, his regrets. But you made a promise to yourself to work hard at whatever you did and to never let alone walk away without trying to make things work. You didn’t want to keep anyone from his or her true calling or passion, but you didn’t want it to be a unilateral decision. It had to be mutual or a compromise. And if you felt someone slipping away, you wanted to try to do something good before that connection ended.
That’s why when you started your fifth season on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, you asked your father if he wanted to make one final TV appearance. You felt a special thrill through every inch of your skin when you shared a scene with him. He played a grandfather who witnessed a horrible assault in the subway. You spoke to him. With him. Father and daughter. Witness and detective. And when you watch the episode with him the night it aired, you gave his hand a harder squeeze when his name appeared on screen: Mickey Hargitay.
“You’ve really made something of yourself, Mariska,” he said.
“Did you expect something else, Daddy?” you said.
No. He expected you to achieve what you set out to achieve. And you did. And that little reminder on your forehead speaks about what you survived and what you had to leave behind—including your mother, Jayne Mansfield, and what she represented—to get where you are now. You can’t hide from it. It’s a badge of pride, of honor, of a life well lived.
Keep living it. If not for your mother, then for your father. You might still be Miss Universe yet.