MERCY TALBOT HAD BEEN famous since she was eleven years old. Her mother had certainly made every effort to have it happen sooner. As the story went, Mercy had announced at age four that she wanted to be an actress, had clamored for auditions the way other girls demanded Barbies and kittens. That was back when the Talbots were still the Groplers and Mercy was Tiffany Dawn. The name change came with the move from Michigan to Los Angeles—Angie, Mercy’s mother, took the family’s new surname from her then-favorite store; “Mercy” came from all the hours Angie spent on her knees, offering prayers for her daughter’s success. “Have mercy,” she would murmur, lighting candles in front of various saints, “have mercy.” It seemed a natural enough transition. It would become one of Angie’s favorite stories to tell during interviews; she called it “fate” and never explained why her daughter required mercy in the first place.
Angie was a dance instructor who had spent two years with the Joffrey before being sidelined with a knee injury. Or so she said. In Los Angeles, she enrolled Mercy in one of the hundreds of children’s acting classes designed to fan the hopes of parents in exchange for regular payment by cash or credit card. Still, there was something undeniable about Mercy, even in those ridiculous classes, even at age seven. A directness in her gaze, a natural huskiness in her voice. She had hazel eyes so light they were almost golden and an ability to transform in front of an audience that impressed even the highest rung casting agents. It also scared them to death. At seven, eight, nine, Mercy Talbot was clearly a natural-born actress, capable of playing a pint-sized Blanche DuBois should the need arise. Unfortunately, that was not what anyone was looking for. Cute, perky, smart-ass, or wide-eyed were much more desirable. No one knew what to do with those golden eyes, that sharp, vixenish chin. None of the kid shows would touch her. Mercy could not even get a juice commercial because, her mother was told, her rasping contralto made her sound like she had a cold.
But she never gave up, or if she did, Angie refused to notice. While Don Talbot (née Gropler) sold insurance, then real estate, then opened a specialty coffee franchise, Angie and her daughter never missed an audition, even when it was a cattle call. Good thing, too, as those later profiles always made clear. Because it was while standing in line at an outdoor mall in Woodland Hills, sizzling under a ruthless early May sun, that Mercy Talbot got her big break. Not from the producer who was holding the audition, looking for an unknown to play the best friend in the next American Girl movie, but from his college buddy, an indie director who had tailed along. He was hoping to find a girl to appear in his film—a small, stylish ghost story—and he certainly could not afford to hold an audition like this. Also there was free food. But after five hours of terrible readings and bland chicken curry salad, David Neilsen gave up and made his way toward his car. As he passed the endless line of sweat-glazed, fretful girls and their grim-faced, iced-latte-swilling mothers, he saw Mercy, straight and slim, looking like she had some sort of internal air-conditioning. From the top of her white-blond head to the patient arch of her sandaled foot, here was a girl who could do some serious face time with a ghost.
Sweetly Sleeping became an indie phenomenon, selling out of Sundance for an unheard-of $10 million. It was the number one movie for the entire month of June and picked up countless awards, including three Oscars, one for Mercy as best supporting actress. When she gave her acceptance speech she was twelve years old. Angie stopped shopping the Talbots sales and began wearing Dolce & Gabbana, and Mercy never had to go on a blind audition again. There were small films and blockbusters; an urban-girl drama created just for her ran for three years and won her two Emmys. For a good three, maybe even four years she was perhaps the most beloved star in America. Cameras followed Mercy’s every move—birthday parties, trips to Hawaii with her family, the day she got her driver’s license. She was clear-eyed and charming in every interview, never turned down a request for an autograph or a picture. The only product she would endorse (outside those associated with her movies) was milk.
Mercy was not afraid of becoming the next burnt-out starlet, she said, because she had a normal family life and an abiding faith in God. (The Talbots were staunch Catholics until Mercy’s publicist suggested that Catholic didn’t play so well these days among the gay community, who just loved Mercy. So they became staunch Episcopalians.) Mercy smiled for the cameras, she wore clothes that were appropriate for her age, she lived with her parents in South Pasadena so she could go to public school when her schedule allowed. And she was clearly very talented. After years of searching for the next big megastar, Hollywood had found the real deal.
Things began to change when Mercy turned sixteen. Taller now but still slim as a switch, she suddenly seemed too old for children’s parts but too young for adult roles. Angie got her breast implants and convinced her to do a provocative shoot for Vanity Fair. The half-naked cover kept the media, and middle America, buzzing for weeks; when things finally calmed down, few people noticed that Mercy had quietly had her implants removed. Puberty, kept at bay by Mercy’s strenuous work schedule, had finally struck, and now Mercy could rely on her own breasts, and deny that she had ever had implants.
But for better or worse, Angie’s ploy had worked. Mercy was officially an ingénue, and although she worked more than ever, the paparazzi, which had once been her friend, turned predatory. The same hormones that granted her curves also gave her thighs, and Mercy’s weight became the subject of public conversation. At seventeen, she took up smoking to control her appetite and combat the between-takes boredom; images of her lighting up filled the Internet as everyone from Perez Hilton to the American Lung Association denounced her as a “poor role model.” Her parents divorced. When Angie claimed poverty, Mercy paid her father a multimillion-dollar settlement that included a privacy clause. He promptly married one of Mercy’s tutors, who just as promptly gave birth to a baby girl. Mercy severed all ties.
She and her mother moved into the family’s Malibu beach house, where there were plenty of places for the paparazzi to hide. Soon every cigarette, every embrace, every ill-timed hitch of her skirt was instantly posted everywhere. Magazines paid bartenders for the dregs of Mercy’s drinks, then reported that Mercy, still underage, had a fondness for Jack Daniel’s. She began hooking up with other young stars, since the attention made it impossible to date, or even befriend, anyone else, and followed the time-worn pattern of breakups and occasional scandal. There was a hateful video on YouTube of one ex deriding her sexual talents. There were rumors of an abortion, of feuds with other young stars. There was a DUI, then another, there was an accident on Wilshire in which her mother was injured—she claimed Mercy had been driving erratically because she was fleeing paparazzi. Mercy lost her Malibu house to a fire, which many of the celebrity websites suggested she started herself, either for the insurance or after passing out with a cigarette. The websites chronicled her on an almost daily basis; her name entered the ranks of Britney, Paris, and Lindsay, though film critics and the mainstream press still liked to point out that her talent put her more on par with Bette, Joan, and Spence.
Despite all the bad press, Mercy never stopped working, because she could still open a movie. Whether because of a true love of the profession or the tyranny of Angie, Mercy Talbot always delivered a performance worth remembering. If anything, the tension between her personal and professional life made her an even bigger box office draw. People came to her movies wondering if this would be the one in which the bad behavior finally caught up with her. They inevitably left in a state of baffled and exhilarated admiration when it was not. There were Golden Globe wins, multiple Oscar nominations, Team Mercy T-shirts. Every film left the public more besotted than before, and every fall in between seemed to take her closer to the brink.
Mercy Talbot is twenty-three years old. She has been famous since she was eleven.
She never stood a chance.
So thought Juliette Greyson as she sat stirring her cappuccino in a small café in Florence. She was trying to decide if she really needed to interrupt a very pleasant afternoon of shopping to save the young woman drunkenly climbing the statue of Neptune and his daughters from the middle of a wide but not terribly deep fountain on the Piazza Cordova. She was not at all certain. As the head of public relations for the Pinnacle Hotel in Los Angeles, Juliette knew more about the inner workings of movie stars than she ever thought she would, or wanted to. She spent her days, and nights, anticipating their needs, analyzing their motives, and minimizing their crises in a way that had made the Pinnacle Hotel the Industry hotel in town. At the Pinnacle, no desire was too great, no whim too petty; the staff was there not to judge but to serve. If Juliette had been home, this particular situation would have been a no-brainer—not a single paparazzo had ever so much as taken a snap inside the Pinnacle. If she were at home, she would be summoning whatever security staff was available, pushing her way through the crowds right now, climbing up after Mercy, and carrying her to safety if necessary.
But she was on vacation. A long and lovely and much-deserved vacation from the Pinnacle, from Los Angeles, from her life. Juliette was in Italy to figure out What To Do Next. And that did not involve rescuing troubled young starlets, not even the ones she liked. A few moments ago, when Juliette heard the metallic insectlike clatter of photographers on the move, she thought she must be hallucinating. Surrounded by slender high-shouldered buildings of russet and rose, silver-gray and cream, she had felt utterly unmoored in time, deep in a fortress of fairy-tale beauty cradled by ancient streets, each lined with flower-fringed storefronts and front stoops dappled with sun. Over her shoulder loomed a slice of the rose-colored Duomo, as if to remind the city’s citizens of their higher aspirations. There were no limos, no Hummers, no celebrity and his entourage, no television cameras, no twentysomething publicists in pointy shoes. Instead, as if conjured from a dream, a trio of nuns, in full habit and wimples, turned one corner, skimmed along the outskirts of the piazza like large lost seabirds, then disappeared through a stone-arched alley.
But then the buzz had become a roar and the paparazzi had appeared, grubby men in dark jackets and sweat-stained polo shirts, pouring down a small side street like ants racing a flood. So now, instead of contemplating lovely nuns and geranium-laced window ledges, Juliette was watching Mercy Talbot slip and sway twenty feet above a fountain. Mercy. It had to be Mercy. How much attention did this girl need anyway? Plenty. Juliette knew this from firsthand experience. Mercy Talbot and her mother had stayed at the Pinnacle for three months while their Malibu home was being rebuilt after a devastating fire. By the end of the first week, the staff had been ready to personally rent them another Malibu beach house. Hell, they’d buy them one if that’s what it took. But Mercy developed an attachment to the Pinnacle, and Juliette had to admit that, when assessed separately from her mother, Mercy was no more, or less, demanding than the typical guest. And there was something about her, a radiance, an incandescence, that made her impossible to resist. Unfortunately, no one ever got Mercy without getting her mother; Angie had recently taken to dyeing her hair platinum so they would be a “matched set.”
So where was the dreaded Angie now, when she could actually be of use? Mercy was going to kill herself now if she wasn’t careful, or at least break something important. Surely she would climb down, surely someone would arrive to help her climb down. A bodyguard, a publicist, an adoring fan. Lord, Juliette thought. Wasn’t she supposed to be in rehab? Juliette was certain that a week before she left L.A. she had heard that Mercy was “doing well” in rehab.
“Prego, prego, over here, over here, bella, bella, Mercy, Mercy, over here, no, no, bella, si, si, in the water, dive, Mercy, dive.”
Juliette felt the unpleasant and unfamiliar sensation of panic spin a web within her chest. It was impossible that this young actress was going to be allowed to break her neck in the middle of the day in a Florentine fountain. Juliette scanned the crowd for that platimum head, for the man with the earpiece and the sunglasses. But she could see only paparazzi, the shifting, sweating, yelling, hooting paparazzi. At the table next to Juliette’s, two women snapped photos with their cell phones. Mercy’s foot slipped. She gripped the top of Neptune’s head, leaned forward, and closed her eyes. A hush fell, but it was not a helpful hush, not the pause in which everyone realizes things have gone too far and steps should be taken. Instead it was excited, anticipatory. Looking around her, Juliette realized the crowd expected Mercy to fall. They were, in fact, waiting for Mercy to fall.
Furious, Juliette stood up and called out her name. Mercy straightened, took one hand off the water god’s crown, then the other. Juliette thought of a painting she had seen once of Saint Joan of Arc, moments before flames were kindled beneath her. Mercy’s face held the same glorious tension between surrender and soul-rattling fear. For one brief moment their eyes met, and without thinking, Juliette stepped over the café’s low hedge of potted geraniums and into the street. But it was too late.
With a small hopeless shrug, Mercy dove.
Juliette felt as if her heart actually stopped, though whether because of fear and horror or simple admiration, she could not say. It was a flawless dive, a thing of utter and miraculous beauty. Mercy’s small light body hit the murky water like a kingfisher, disappeared, and then the girl instantly emerged, pushing the hair out of her eyes and laughing. The cameras went wild.
Grinding her teeth, Juliette pushed her way through the crowd until she was at the edge of the fountain. In just one minute the actress would stand, the white cotton shift she was wearing would be reduced to translucence, and fortunes would be made. Because Mercy was famous for eschewing undergarments of any sort.
“Mercy,” Juliette yelled above the Italianate din with all the authority she could muster. The necessary irritation came naturally. “Mercy Talbot. Stop that right now.”
The young woman’s head turned, her big, wet-lashed, golden eyes blinked once, twice, and she sat down suddenly in the water like a child in a tub. Juliette had no idea if Mercy had recognized her or if she was just responding to the authority in her voice, but frankly, it didn’t matter.
“Now get out of that fountain this minute,” she snapped.
Startled, Mercy obediently began to rise. “No,” Juliette yelped, suddenly seeing what she knew she would see, which was pretty much everything. “Wait, wait, I’ll come to you.” Slipping off her shoes, she grabbed the only thing she had handy—a tablecloth she had bought that morning—and, over the protests of the men around her, waded into the fountain. Shielding Mercy with her body, she wrapped the young, dripping-wet woman up in ten feet and $300 worth of hand-woven Florentine linen.
“Andare a casa,” she snapped at the photographers as they crowded around her, pushing their cameras literally into Mercy’s face. “Go home to your mothers and tell them what you have been doing. Shame on you. Vergognati, vergognati!”
“I do know you,” Mercy said happily, as if they were two friends meeting on the street. “You work at the Pinnacle, right? I thought that was you. I have a photographic memory. Or I do sometimes. Juliette, right? How weird. This is Italy, you know.”
Juliette nodded, trying to get her own shoes on, gathering up her parcels, and already greatly regretting her actions.
“Did you see me dive?” Mercy said hopefully, looking around, smiling now as if there were nothing unusual about being steered through a crowd of photographers while wearing a tablecloth and no shoes. “I thought I was going to die. Seriously. I never in a million years thought it would work, though I read in a book about someone doing it, diving into a fountain. I think it was a book. Maybe it was a movie. I hope they got it—the dive, I mean—but probably they just wanted more pictures of my tits.”
“Yes,” Juliette said. “Undoubtedly. Now just shut up for one second and let’s see how we get out of here. Do you have a car?”
“I don’t feel so well,” Mercy said suddenly, and without further comment she leaned over and vomited on the pavement right in front of Juliette’s feet. “I really want to lie down now,” she murmured, leaning heavily onto Juliette’s shoulder and giving every indication of doing just that.
“Jesus,” Juliette said, digging her fingers into the girl’s alarmingly thin arm and steering her toward a main street where she could see salvation in the form of many taxis. “Jesus.” Hollywood had indeed gone global; ten thousand miles away from L.A., and it was like she had never left.
In the cab, Mercy began to shake uncontrollably and ignore Juliette’s questions. She was staying at the Medici, she finally admitted after the cab had driven aimlessly for twenty minutes, but she didn’t want to go back there, if she had to go back there she would kill herself. Her mother and the director were still in Rome. They were both looking for her, she supposed, but she had thrown her phone into the Arno and if she had to see either of them right now she would kill herself. “I mean if they don’t kill me first,” she said, “if they don’t literally suck the blood right out of my veins and then sell it on eBay.” She didn’t remember really what had happened over the past couple of days, or where she had been, and she didn’t think it was anyone’s business, and if Juliette kept bugging her, she would kill herself. She didn’t know what she had taken, thought maybe some meth, probably some Oxy, definitely some coke, and Juliette could smell the alcohol rising through her pores. “Don’t make me go back,” Mercy said over and over. “I’ll die if I have to go back.”
She began thumping her head against the window, so Juliette rolled it down. Mercy wouldn’t explain what she meant and Juliette could not imagine that she was referring to the Medici, which was a perfectly lovely hotel. Mercy, however, was becoming slightly blue around the lips and genuinely hysterical, so Juliette rolled the window back up and called the hotel, hoping to get some answers and, with luck, find out where the private entrance was. While Juliette was dialing, Mercy began pawing at the front of her dress and miraculously produced a vial of pills, two of which she quickly swallowed. Juliette grabbed the bottle out of her hand and shoved it deep into her purse. Mercy’s shaking subsided and she leaned against the window of the cab, one pale thin hand absentmindedly stroking the hair of the driver, who smiled into the rearview mirror as if such things were a natural part of his job.
As it turned out, Juliette knew the assistant general manager of the Medici, a guy named St. John with whom she had worked years ago in L.A. Juliette was amused to note that since she had seen him last, St. John had developed the vaguely snooty accent preferred by many hoteliers and which Juliette’s boss, Eamonn Devlin, commonly referred to as Piano Bar Continental. St. John had some answers but was not at all willing to tell her about their private entrance because he did not want Mercy Talbot anywhere near his hotel. She had been there three nights, he said, and they had had to resuscitate her twice, and, as they had told her this morning, they regretted the fact that they would no longer be able to accommodate her—the hotel was now fully booked. “Naturally, she is distraught over the recent tragedy, as are we all,” St. John said, “but I am afraid there is nothing we can do. I have taken the liberty of booking her at the Ritz.”
“Wait,” Juliette said. “What recent tragedy?”
There was a pause of almost audible disbelief.
“Surely you must know: Lloyd Watson overdosed last week,” St. John said. “Where on earth have you been? He and Ms. Talbot were shooting a film in Rome and apparently he pulled a Heath Ledger. He’s dead.”
Juliette was shocked. Lloyd Watson was a young actor with a string of indie hits and film festival awards. Handsome and affable, he had recently had a baby with a former costar. The two did not marry but they seemed friendly enough. There had been rumors of drug abuse, but the birth of his son had sent Watson into rehab, where he had, supposedly, cleaned up his act.
“I didn’t know,” Juliette said. “I’m on vacation. Jesus, that’s terrible. Jesus. What was he? Like twenty-eight?”
“Twenty-seven, and Ms. Talbot seems to have been quite . . . affected.”
Filming of their movie, St. John said, was postponed indefinitely while the producers tried to replace Watson, but they were reluctant to let Mercy go, for obvious reasons. This left Mercy trapped in Rome with her mother and nothing much to do. So she had fled to Florence, where she had proceeded to host nightly parties with guests of rapidly declining social and economic status.
“I thought she was in rehab,” Juliette said, a bit desperately, glancing at the slight figure now slumped beside her. “When I left L.A. she was in rehab.”
“Well, yes,” he said. “At Resurrection. But”—St. John’s voice dipped to a more gossipy and American intonation—“you know that place. Too many loony stars to keep track of. Apparently she escaped. Or she left to do this film. Either way, it didn’t work. I mean really didn’t work. Though”—he caught himself so quickly, Juliette assumed a supervisor had walked by—“no doubt Mr. Watson’s death was quite a shock. We have been in contact with Mrs. Talbot,” he continued, back in professional mode. “She is flying in this afternoon. If you like, you can pick up Miss Talbot’s bags at the front desk, or we can send them to the Ritz. Please give her our kind regards and tell her we hope to see her again . . . as soon as her health permits.”
He hung up just as the cab pulled in front of the hotel. For a moment Juliette was tempted to just push Mercy out of the cab and dump her on the steps; she was on holiday, for chrissake, she didn’t want to have to deal with a junkie starlet on a bender. Beside her in the cab, Mercy had either fallen asleep or passed out. Her hands, which lay palms-up on her lap, were still shaking. God, she was thin, Juliette thought, looking at the childlike wrists, the bony bruised knees. How these women remained so thin without collapsing more often was one of the great mysteries of Hollywood. What was wrong with the movie business, that it consumed so many of its young? “Too much money, too many neuroses, and an overreliance on the service industry,” Devlin had once remarked as they waited for paramedics to arrive at the Pinnacle. “Also, I believe it is physically impossible to get through a press junket sober.”
But you couldn’t blame the entertainment industry for everything. Juliette, who grew up in Connecticut, remembered when her own knees had looked like Mercy’s. When she had been Mercy’s age, Juliette had known very well what it was like to pass out in a cab, to try to piece together the shards of a lost day or night or week. She knew the endless spine-rattling cycle of fear and thirst and shame and desire. Just thinking about it made her scalp tighten, her heart flop like something torn loose. Although it had been years since she had reached for a bottle or a line, she could feel it all again, that primal, propelling need to feel better, some way, any way, the fierce and dedicated hopelessness of it all.
Sighing, she sent the driver in to collect Mercy’s things.
© 2010 Mary McNamara