“Laura, what’s going on?” Irving arrived quickly, relieving Edna. He’d been in his office bungalow, where he almost always slept and ate all of his meals. If nothing else, Irving Green was an easy man to find. Despite his presence, which did calm Laura a bit, the room was still too warm, and her entire body felt damp and feverish. Laura held out her hand, and Irving helped her stand up. The extras all pretended to look away, but Laura knew how strong the impulse was to get Irving’s attention.
“I don’t think I can do it,” she said softly, so that only he could hear. “I couldn’t breathe.” Laura pulled at her collar, trying to free up her heart, which was booming against her jaw and felt as if it were about to burst.
“Why, because of Gordon?” He sounded so disappointed, as if she had let him down personally. He had expected more.
Irving adjusted his glasses, and then leaned down to pick up the bonnet that had been tied tightly under Laura’s chin and the ribbons that had been so tight around her throat. “That’s too much, don’t you think?” Irving craned his neck, looking for Edna, who was still nearby. He wasn’t talking to Laura anymore. Edna came over with a pair of scissors and snipped a few more things off, opening up Laura’s costume so that her neck was free.
“No,” Laura said, although she wasn’t sure whether she was telling the truth. She looked at Gordon, who kept readjusting his hat. He did look sickly. The casting had been good; as usual, Irving was right. “I’ve never had to be serious before. In front of the camera, I mean.”
In the theater, there were always people sitting right in front of you. Even with the few meager lights that her father had rigged in the barn, Laura could make out one person’s nose, or another person’s laugh. The audience had been right there with her, and she could react. What choice did she have now, but to react to Gordon? Just looking at him made her sad.
No, Laura thought. She could do it. When the nurse looked down at the soldier’s gangrenous leg, its oozing and bleeding mess, she would see her husband and her own broken heart. Gordon hadn’t broken it—Laura doubted he would even know how. She had broken it herself when she’d climbed aboard that bus in Chicago, when she knew that she was hitching her wagon to Gordon’s only temporarily. When she watched her father hold his own elbows and not turn away until the bus was gone, maybe not even then. Her father probably waited in that depot for hours, wanting to be there if she changed her mind and decided to come back.
That was what she would see when she looked at Gordon. She would be Elsa, saying goodbye to her former life, her happy childhood and her sad one, all at once. Laura put her hands back to the collar of her dress, pulling it down and away from her face. She could heal Gordon’s leg with her bare hands if she had to.
The filming went on longer than expected, nearly three months. Gardner Brothers rented an abandoned lot in Echo Park for the battle sequences. Laura appeared in only the final one, when she waded through the dead and dying men strewn about the field in search of Gordon’s soldier. She found him dead, his healed leg having swiftly delivered him to the front lines of the war. When Laura collapsed over Gordon’s body, she smelled his sweat and his foul breath, and the tears that she shed were real.
When the film was released, the studio leaked photos of the final scene, and Laura’s mascara-streaked face, to the “Facts of Hollywood Life” column in Photoplay magazine, which screamed that the two actors were in love. Only the people on the Gardner Brothers lot knew the truth, and they weren’t talking. It all seemed so silly, so backward: when Laura and Gordon really were married, no one had cared, but now that she wanted nothing to do with him, everyone wanted to take their photo and whisper behind their backs.
When Irving asked Laura and Gordon to sit next to each other at the premiere, they did so. Gordon sucked gin out of his flask throughout the entire film, clinking glasses with all the well-wishers. Laura couldn’t stand to be next to him, but when the spotlight found them, she let him kiss her on the cheek. His lips were dry and cracked, no matter what the makeup girls put on him. Whatever he was putting inside his body was stronger.
The Ballad of Bayonets showed on screens all over the country, in movie houses large and small, and Laura Lamont was a star, through and through. The newspaper photographers snapped her photo when she left the theater alone, her white stole dragging behind her like a child’s blanket. ♦
Reprinted from Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub, by arrangement with Riverhead, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright © 2012 by Emma Straub.