I spent the day visiting my brother who had just completed a brutal round of chemotherapy and then the evening with my best friend in Fort Wayne, Billy.
Billy owned the Corner House Salon where my Mother had her hair done every week of her life from the 1960’s until she died six years ago. She always called him Steve because that was how he was introduced to her. And she wasn’t one for playing games.
Billy’s first job in the 1950’s was at the city’s leading department store, Wolf & Dessauer, where the salon manager decided they already had one Billy and that his name would be Steve. It was like Upstairs Downstairs when Lady Marjorie named the new maid Sarah because she didn’t like the name Clemence.
Mother may have referred to him by his professional name but their friendship soon became anything but. Her visits to the Corner House were always at the end of the day so after closing she would go out for drinks or dinner with a group from the shop led by Billy. Or sometimes it would just be the two of them There was a whole network of Rat Pack like cocktail lounges and restaurants around town and they knew them all.
For my Mother their excursions represented liberation from 18 years of living the nuclear family life. In this rock red conservative “City of Churches” they would do or say anything for a good time. When the first major porn movie came out, Behind the Green Door or I am Curious Yellow maybe, he took my Mother to see it. They laughed through the whole thing but snuck out a side door afterwards so they wouldn’t be seen.
When I became of age, I would occasionally go with them on their night club rounds. By then I was in living in Bloomington or San Francisco, however, and would only see him once or twice a year when I was home. If our schedules didn’t coincide we could go a couple of years without seeing each other. But I would hear about Billy every week when I called home.
Billy is the Andy Warhol of Fort Wayne, he knows everyone in town and never misses an event. And being of Warhol’s generation, both he and my Mother were somewhat starstruck. I think the movie star system was kind of the internet of their age, an innovation that marked them for life. But Billy took the obsession to the next level.
His house is full of memorabilia like his collection of autographed Oscar programs from the ceremonies he attended. Or his correspondence with Joan Fontaine and Lisa Gay (who, as everyone knows, was Debra Paget’s sister.) He’s always dropping interesting nuggets into the conversation, having dinner with George Cukor or being roommates with Mickey Hargitay when they were in art school. And he knows every B movie star of the 40’s and 50’s. His tidbits are always fascinating but I swear if I hear one more Sonja Henie story…
When my Mother died in 2009 Billy Steve said we should get together while I was still here. We had dinner the next week. Since then I’ve spent several months a year in Fort Wayne and speak to or see him every day I’m in town.
We share many interests and he’s always fun to hang out with. When we’re not laughing he’s someone I can confide in and tell anything to. He could care less. All he ever wants to talk about is himself.