It’s true that travel can broaden the mind but, in rare cases, it can also lead to an international celebrity killing spree.
And I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize for mine here and now.
It started so innocently. I was sixteen years old and on my first trip to Europe. I sat next to an auburn-haired 14 year-old, who did her best to impress me with her general nonchalance regarding celebrity. Her father, it turned out, was a popular Emmy-winning actor on a hit television show. She mentioned that Peter Sellers occasionally slept on the family couch as casually as another 14 year-old girl might mention she occasionally had pudding for breakfast. Knowing she may have seen Inspector Clouseau in his pajamas, I was under the impression that no one famous could cause her to lose her poise and was therefore rightly impressed. I wasn’t much older than she and was already guilty of nearly wetting myself with excitement upon witnessing Ann Miller allowing her dog to defecate on my aunt and uncle’s front lawn.
But her cool, Hollywood attitude was destroyed on that flight to London. Restless after hours of sitting, my new friend decided to stretch her legs. Her preferred method of calisthenics included climbing up the spiral staircase of our Pan Am jet which led directly to the first class cabin. I admired her nerve but wondered how long it would take for her to be ejected by a rabidly class-conscious flight attendant. She was gone for what seemed like ages, and when she reappeared somewhere over the North Atlantic, stopped half-way down the steps and stared at me. Or quite possibly through me. Flushed and shaking, she returned to her seat next and whispered, “Cary. Grant.” she halted, “is on this plane. Cary Grant is up there.” I followed her look upward with my own and we stared at the ceiling as one would stare up at heaven, because Paradise to us at that moment was a first class cabin paved not with clouds, but with red carpet, and populated by a single, silver-haired, cleft-chinned angel.
We spent the remainder of the flight more or less silent. We were fortunate enough to be near the front of the plane and so were the first from cattle class to disembark. We spotted the object of our adoration and ran up behind him, then slowed to keep ourselves a few respectful paces behind; our heads tilted in awe at the back of his head. We continued to worship him in this manner for a few minutes until he disappeared behind a door. Quite possibly the men’s room. And just like that, the spell was broken.
He died four months later. I was saddened by his death but felt no guilt. I was too young to know that I may have been the cause.
On another excursion six years later, I met my brother at Charles de Gaulle airport to fly back home to California. After catching up on our separate adventures, we checked in for our flight home. Doug thought he might try charming the woman behind the counter to see if he could wrangle a ticket upgrade. My French has never been very good, but I somehow understood the most important part of their conversation: “I’d love to help you sir, however our First and Business Classes are full. But I’ll let you in on a little secret… Audrey Hepburn is on your flight today! And so is Julia Roberts!”
Telling two gay men that Audrey Hepburn is on their flight might be considered an extreme breach of security today, but everything was much more relaxed in the 1990s. Except for the two of us, thanks to this important piece of information. I’d planned to grab a drink somewhere before boarding, but that was now out of the question. I was intoxicated enough at the thought of sharing the same cabin-filtered air as my favorite film star in the Hollywood firmament. But our excitement turned to extreme anxiety when we saw Miss Hepburn being escorted onto the plane in a wheelchair, much thinner and frail-looking than usual. For the second time in my life, I was rendered silent by a celebrity over the Atlantic Ocean, but this time it wasn’t from excitement, it was from worry. The eleven-hour flight felt like eleven years.
Four months later, I learned of her death from cancer. I nearly cancelled my card night with friends, but decided against it, thinking it might help crowd out the sad news from my mind for a few hours, but the evening ended with my feeling worse that I did before. “Did you guys hear Audrey Hepburn died today?” my friend Itay asked without a hint of emotion. But then again, we were playing poker. I shared with the room what I’d seen of her on my flight home from Paris and told them about the coincidence of Cary Grant, too.
“Well clearly you’re to blame for both of their deaths,” he said. His face was obscured behind his cards. “Remind me never to fly with you– you’re like some time-release killer or something.” As the only gay man in the room, I found both his lack of emotion and the general absence of sympathy for either Miss Hepburn or– more importantly– for me around that table deeply upsetting.
“Why couldn’t it have been Julia Roberts?” I asked to no one and to everyone. I’d wanted to yell it, but held myself back, so the words came out in a sort of dry squeak, which made me sound exceptionally pathetic. After a moment or two of uncomfortable silence, Itay spoke up. “Just keep an eye on the obituaries. Maybe it’ll turn out you killed her, too.”
And with that, the poker game continued more or less interrupted, but I left feeling dirty and diseased. I didn’t speak of this coincidence again for a long time.
It wouldn’t be the last time I’d be called toxic by another human being, but was I really that lethal? How many other lives had I claimed by simply breathing the same recirculated air? I was tired of feeling responsible for the earthly exits of these two people adored by the entire film-going world. For years, every time I entered the cabin of an airplane, I would scan the first class seats for the elderly famous, hoping to warn them to flee while there was still time. I could no longer bear the weight of my guilty burden.
So I decided to rid myself of it.
There had to be another reason for their deaths. But what sort of connection could two extremely famous and beloved actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age possibly have other than myself? After extensive research, I discovered that Hepburn and Grant had, in fact, met before. They made a film together in 1963 entitled Charade.
I watched the film over and over, searching for clues– anything that might exonerate myself and free me from my own unintentionally-criminal pain. Did they eat both something that might have spoiled on the set during production, which may have ultimately lead to their deaths 23 and 30 years later? No, they did not. Hepburn only eats in front of Walter Matthau– a chicken sandwich as he speaks with his mouth full of liverwurst. A French onion soup is ordered, but pushed away in favor of cigarettes. Endless amounts of what seem to be breath mints are consumed, but only by her. The one time the two stars sit down together for a meal, they do not touch it, but chose to talk in veiled terms about intercourse instead. There was a double ice cream cone Hepburn manages to get a lick or two from, but the rest winds up on Grant’s lapel. I was near the end of my emotional tether, about to give up on my search, when I suddenly hit upon the key to my own innocence: An orange.
The fruity object of an innocent but sexually suggestive game may very well have been the agent of their slow deaths. I was certain of it. In one particular scene, the Master of Ceremonies at Le Black Sheep Club has patrons line up to pass an orange from one player’s neck to the other’s without the benefit of their hands. All of the actors who came in contact with the offending citrus are now dead: Hepburn. Grant. Ned Glass, the villain to whom Hepburn passes the orange before fleeing was the first to die in 1984. And what of the ample-fronted woman who starts the game? Her career, at the very least, is dead. It became clear to me that someone– most likely a psychotic prop master or vengeance-seeking wardrobe mistress– had poisoned that orange. I briefly wondered what the motive behind this act of horror could have been, but realized that such things are often a waste of time when dealing with the emotionally deranged.
I looked up various slow-acting poisons which might have been used. Hemlock? No evidence of paralysis present in any of the victims. Dimethylmercury? Possible, but difficult do disguise. Tetrodotoxin? Doubtful. Too fast-acting and difficult to come by unless one has ready access to puffer fish. Cyanide? Too much discoloration. Which leaves but one obvious answer: arsenic.
It would be a simple matter to coat an orange with arsenic and let it sit until some of the poison absorbs into the skin of the fruit. The prolonged contact with human flesh– endless takes for what looks like a difficult scene to perfect– would be all the murderer needed to get the contamination ball rolling. But how did he or she continue this deadly scheme and keep the victims’ arsenic levels at a steady but still-undetectable level? In two ways, I have decided: 1) by gifting his victims annual holiday citrus baskets and 2) consistently providing oranges for all major airline carriers with clearly marked instructions which read “For Celebrity Cocktails Only.” It was a brilliant plan. And I felt equally brilliant for uncovering it.
Before I start popping the champagne to celebrate my freedom from a self-inflicted manslaughter rap, I must remind myself that this is only a theory. And one which has not been thoroughly tested at that. All I can really do is wait and see. So I shall wait for Julia Roberts* to get a few more years on her, book the same flight as she, offer her a cocktail with a slice of innocent-looking orange muddled in it, and keep a close eye on the obituaries for the next four months.
Slow-Acting Old Fashioned Cocktail
I have no evidence that Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant ever shared a round of these beverages together, but I can guarantee that the combination of alcohol, tainted orange, and recycled airplane oxygen makes for a deadly delicious drink.
Makes one generous cocktail suitable for your favorite old fashioned movie star.
1 Valencia orange
1/2 cup powdered arsenic (organic)
2 maraschino or Amarena cherries: 1 for muddling and the other for garnish
2 sugar cubes
About four dashes of Angostura bitters
2 airline bottles of whiskey
A splash of club soda
1. Thoroughly wash and drip-dry the orange to remove any pesticides. With gloved hands, dump the arsenic powder onto a small plate and roll the citrus around in it until it is fully coated. Let sit for up to three days. When you are ready to make this cocktail, wipe the skin of the orange clean so that no white powder is noticeable.
2. When you are ready to serve your drink, roll the orange on a generously-fronted German woman until the juice cells of the fruit are sufficiently loosened. Cut a 1/4″ inch slice from the from the orange and then cut that slice in half. Place one half in the bottom of an old fashioned glass.
3. Add your 2 sugar cubes, 1 cherry, and 4 dashes of bitters to the glass, then show no mercy as you pummel the ingredients until they are more or less unrecognizable. Remove the orange. It has done it’s work. Or leave it in for extra oomph.
4. Pour in the splash of club soda and stir until the ingredients are sufficiently mingled. Add ice, then fill the glass to the top with whiskey. Garnish with the second cherry and the other half of orange slice.
5. Serve to any remaining stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, like Olivia de Havilland or Mickey Rooney. Or even Eli Wallach. There aren’t many left to choose from.
Repeat every four months until the desired effect has been achieved.
* I must apologize to Miss Roberts, who will more than likely never read this post. I have nothing against this actress in the least and, in fact, find her rather likable.