People always said Mom was beautiful, and in her cast photos and head shots pinned on the wall of her study at home I could see she once was. My favorite photo was of Burt Reynolds, signed, "To the prettiest girl in all of New York, love, Burt." Mom had guest- starred on his cop show Hawk. This was before Smokey and the Bandit made him famous, before Loni Anderson. There was the cast shot of Pajama Game, Mom in a silk nightshirt that just barely covered her tushy, and a close- up of her where she looks like a young Ingrid Bergman, the curl of her chestnut bob kissing her full lips, her big brown eyes hypnotizing the camera. In another photo, she's in Lauren Bacall's dressing room in Applause. Lauren is wearing a caftan and holding Mom's hand, and they're both laughing. But those photos were taken in Mom's twenties— when her skin was taut, her hair a natural dark brown, her eyes sparkling and bright. Now, at forty- six, her hair had turned brittle, a lighter, unnatural shade from two de cades of perms and dye jobs, her skin was puffier, like unbaked bread. Once a size six, Mom now struggled to get into a twelve and blamed her bad luck with booking jobs on being middle- aged. "I'm too young to be a grandmother and too old to be a mother," she'd often lament. Still, it didn't stop her from working on her craft. She went to the Actors Studio weekly to workshop scenes and often asked me to read lines with her back home. She had studied with Lee Strasberg, and she taught me what she knew. It was called Method acting. For this audition, my character had just learned that her sister had been killed. Mom asked me to imagine the most terrible thing ever.
"Like when we found Frodo?" I asked. Frodo was my cat. He was black and purred when you looked at him. He had gone missing for several days that winter, and we finally found him on West Patent Road, roughly fifty yards from our driveway, his skull smashed against the pavement, his fur crusted with dried blood.
"Even sadder," Mom urged. "You have to inhabit the character, Bitsy. Imagine if Frodo were somebody you loved."
I closed my eyes and replaced Frodo's smashed skull with Dad's, and real tears began to simmer deep inside me. They slowly began to bubble up as I read the lines.
"Good, stay there," Mom said as the casting director popped her head into the hallway.
"Annie?" she said. All the casting agents in New York knew Mom. "He's ready for her."
I walked into the audition room and sat on a couch facing Bob Fosse. He had intense eyes and a full beard that made up for his thinning hair. No one else was in the room. "Whenever you're ready," he said kindly. As I read, hot tears streamed down my face. I looked up at the end and saw that Mr. Fosse's eyes were glistening, too. "Very good," he said. "Very, very good."
I left the audition feeling, for the first time, like a real actress. Maybe duping Dad wouldn't be so hard after all.
Several days later, on the morning of the party, I trotted downstairs to ask Dad if he wanted to go play tennis. He was sitting at the breakfast table, scanning the Wall Street Journal, his reading glasses perched halfway down his nose. He kept his head bent toward the paper but moved his eyes so they looked over the glasses and at me.
"So, you think you can beat your old man?" he said with a wink.