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Death Opened Our Hearts—Gia Scala & Don Burnett

Don Burnett lay down the newspaper, this summer night a little over a year ago. And as he did his mother, setting the table in the dining room a few yards away, called out, “Almost ready for dinner?”

Don shook his head. “I’m not hungry, Mom,” he said.

“Don’t bother about me right now.”

His mother walked into the living room, confused.

“Don,” she said, smiling, “I’ve got the roast almost ready . . . You said you were famished when you called before. And I—”

“I’m not hungry, Mom,” Don said, abruptly, interrupting her. “I’ll help myself to something later.”

His mother’s smile lessened. What’s wrong, son?” she asked.

Don didn’t answer.

His mother looked down at the newspaper in his lap, at the big headline there: GIA SCALA GRABBED FROM BRIDGE WALL—LONDON CABBIE FOILS ACTRESS’ SUICIDE TRY.

“Do you know her?” Mrs. Burnett asked.

Don shrugged. “A little, I guess,” he said. “We met a few times on the set, at Metro, when I was doing Don’t Go Near The Water.”

“Of course,” his mother said, “the Italian girl who played the native. So lovely she was, too. . . . Now why would a lovely girl like that ever want to go and do a thing like this, try to take her own life?”

Again Don shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “The paper says something about her being depressed over her mother’s death.”

“Tsk,” said his mother. Then she sighed. “Well, at least the girl’s all right now. The cabdriver grabbed her, it says, and she’s obviously all right.”

“I hope she is,” Don said.

“I’m sure,” said Mrs. Burnett. She smiled again. “And I do wish you’d come eat your dinner now.”

“I hope she is,” Don repeated, not hearing his mother, but thinking about a girl far away, whom he barely knew but whom he remembered very well, a girl alone and in distress, a girl he wished very much he could be near right now. . . .

Gia’s return

It was early November by the time Gia Scala returned to Hollywood from Europe. It was a day and a half after her return when Don phoned her.

“Yes,” she said, “yes, I remember you.”

He noticed that her voice was different than it had been those few other times they’d talked; tired-sounding instead of alive, very tired-sounding.

He asked her if she would like to go out with him.

“Yes,” she said, without any enthusiasm, “that would be very nice.”

“I guess you’re all booked up the rest of this week,” Don said.

There was a pause. Then Gia said, “No, I have nothing to do this week . . . or next week. You tell me the evening—”

“Well,” Don said, “tomorrow night there’s a dance, a charity ball for The Helpers, over at the Hilton. I bought two tickets. I didn’t expect to use them. But if you’d like—”

“That would be nice,” Gia said. “I will see you tomorrow night then.”

And she hung up. . . .

“I’ll never in my life forget how beautiful she looked,” Don recalls about that next night, their first few minutes together. “Gia wore a green gown, matching the green of her eyes. And a plain gold necklace with an Italian cameo in the center. Her hair was combed back very simply. She was practically without make-up. She looked like a goddess, freshly-arrived on earth. She was the most beautiful-looking girl I had ever seen. And the saddest, too. . . .”

The ball at the Hilton was a lovely affair.

For the few hours they were there, Don and Gia sat at a table with some of Don’s friends and their dates.

Once in a while, they danced.

Throughout it all, Gia was quiet, speaking only when spoken to, smiling rarely, barely joining in on any of the fun-doings.

“Why the far-away look?” Don asked her, softly, at one point.

Gia’s face reddened a little. “I don’t know,” she said. And that was all she said.

After the dance, they went to the nearby Trader Vic for a bite to eat.

“What’ll you have?” Don asked.

“Just coffee,” Gia said.

“Well,” Don said, winking, “me, I’m a growing boy, and I’ll have to have a little more than that.”

Korean specialties,” he said, reading the menu and trying hard not to make it look as if he were forcing any conversation. “You ever been there—Korea?”

“No,” Gia said.

“Then you’ve never had the pleasure of trying any of their specialties,” Don said.

Gia shook her head.

Don began to tell her about something that had happened to him while he was there, with the Army.

“I was riding around in this jeep one day,” he said, “and I came across this old lady, walking up the road. She looked so tired that I stopped and asked if I could give her a lift. Oh no, she said, she’d come a long way but she still had an even longer way to go. ‘How far?’ I asked her. ‘About forty miles,’ she said. Well now, I sure wasn’t going to have this little old lady walking down that road another couple of days, was I? So I said, ‘Hop in, Grandma, I’ll drive you and get you home chop chop!’ ”

Gia began to smile a little.

“So there we were, the two of us, riding away a little while later,” Don went on, “when all of a sudden the woman reached into a bag she was carrying and said to me, ‘Here, young soldier, eat.’ I looked at what she was holding. It was a dried red pepper, this long and this red. ‘Eat?’ I asked, ‘—that?’ ‘You honor me with your politeness,’ the old lady said, ‘now I must honor you with my hospitality.’

“Well, let me tell you, Gia—” Don stopped and laughed, happy to see that she was really beginning to smile now. “—I took one bite of that hospitality of hers and—”

“Gia!” a voice interrupted him, suddenly. Giiiiia, darling!”

They both turned to look.

A girl—young, pretty, bleary-eyed—was approaching their table.

“Gia, sweet-heart,” she said, finally reaching the table, “I was sitting over there . . . and I turned around to look . . . and I saw you. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know you were back in town.”

“I am,” Gia said.

“And you look so terrif—” The girl brought her hand up to her mouth, to hide a hiccup. “Terrific!”

“Thank you,” said Gia.

“I was worried,” the girl said, her face turning suddenly somber. “Oh boy, I was worried, ever since I heard about it, you on that bridge—just thinking about you staring down into that awful, awful water and . . . Gia, I’m so glad you’re all right. And here. Back with us.”

The girl turned to Don, for the first time.

“Life, life, it’s wonderful, isn’t it?” she asked.

Don didn’t answer. Instead he looked back at Gia. He saw the tears as they began to come to her eyes.

“I mean, where’d we be without life?” he heard the girl say and giggle.

He reached across the table and touched Gia’s hand.

It was cold.

“Come on,” he said, rising from his chair, “let’s get out of here.”

Gia rose, too.

Don took her arm, and they began to walk away.

“Well . . . pardon me for trying to be so concerned!” they heard the girl say as they left. . . .

A little spunk

They’d driven back in silence.

And it was only when they got to the door of Gia’s house that Don spoke and asked if he could come inside for a while.

“Why,” Gia asked, “haven’t I made your evening unpleasant enough?”

Don nodded.

“Yep,” he said, smiling, “you’ve been pretty bad. I mean, I’ve been out with friendlier girls in my time. Girls who talked to me, at least.”

“I’m sorry about that, about everything.”

“Too late,” Don said, continuing his tease. “But there is one thing you can do for me.” He brought his hands up to his stomach. “You can give me something to eat. Because I’m starving. And a guy’s gotta eat sometime!”

“Oh,” Gia said, “yes . . . Won’t you come in then?”

Don followed her through the foyer and living room and into the kitchen.

“You’ll wait outside the kitchen, please,” Gia said. “This is one room that is for the women and only the women.”

Don didn’t move.

“Now go ahead, vatene,” Gia said. “Go back inside and make yourself a little drink if you’d like. I will have something ready for you in a little while.”

With that, she took Don’s arm and turned him around.

“Okay, okay,” Don said, very reluctant-sounding, but glad deep-down that she was finally beginning to show a little spunk. . . .

Don had put some records on the phonograph and Sinatra was singing a moody ballad when Gia walked into the room.

“Dance?” Don asked, walking over to her.

Gia nodded. “If you’d like,” she said.

They began to move around the floor.

“What’s cooking?” Don asked, after a few moments.

Cosa?” Gia asked. “What?”

“Smells like something good coming from the kitchen,” Don said.

“Oh, the calzone,” Gia said. “Yes, I hope it is good.”

“Cal—who?” Don asked.

“It’s an Italian dish,” Gia said.

“I couldn’t have guessed,” said Don.

“It’s very good,” Gia said. “You’ll see. It’s a dough crust and inside there is the two cheeses—the ricotta and the mozzarella.”

“And?” Don asked.

“And a little pepper and salt,” Gia said.


“And a glass of wine, if you’d like.”

“For a hungerin’ man like me—a couple of slices of cheese and some dough?” Don asked, holding back his smile.

“There is many a hungerin’ Italian man,” Gia said, “who has not been able to finish one calzone. I have made you three. Just wait. You will like it . . . I do.”

“So what does that mean?” Don said. “I bet there are a lot of things that I like and you don’t.”

“Maybe,” Gia said. “For instance?”

They stopped dancing.

“Well,” Don said, thinking for a moment, “—do you like a foggy day at the beach, for instance?”

“No,” Gia said. “I like a sunny day at the beach. Much sun. Much.”

“Do you like your windows open way all the way, at night?”

“No,” Gia said, “I like them shut. I am afraid when they are open.”

“Mmmmm,” Don said. “Do—do you like sports cars?”

“I would prefer,” said Gia, “if I could do all my traveling on a bicycle.”

“See?” Don said, “You don’t like anything I like. But still you expect me to go wild over your—”

Calzone,” Gia said.

“Yeah . . . cal-zo-ne,” Don said, trying to imitate her deep accent.

“Awful,” Gia said. “Your pronunciation, it is so awful.”

And then, suddenly, she began to laugh—a happy, hearty, open laugh.

“I am sorry, Don.” she said, after a few moments, “it is impolite, I think, for a girl to laugh so much and so loud. But it just struck me very funny—” she lowered her eyes, and paused “—and I have not laughed like this for a long time, for a very long time.”

Don took her chin in his hand and lifted her face to his.

“Like the By boys used to say: Mission Accomplished,” he said.

“What?” Gia asked.

“It’s good to see you laugh, Gia—that’s what I said,” Don whispered. “And you want to know something? . . . You look more beautiful than ever when you laugh.”

They looked at one another now.

And then Don kissed her, lightly, on the forehead first, then on the lips.

And they began to dance again. . . .

The need to be needed

Those next two months were the best either of them had ever known.

When they weren’t working—Gia on a picture, Don on some TV assignments—they were together, constantly. They’d drive to the beach, on foggy days and on days of much sun. They’d weekend with friends at Lake Arrowhead or up in Carmel. They’d take long walks, out in the country sometimes, right through the streets of Hollywood other times, and they’d talk and laugh and hold hands, as they got to know one another.

“I love you, Gia,” Don said suddenly one afternoon in late December, as they were out walking. “I want to marry you.”

The smile that had been on Gia’s lips began to fade.

“Don’t say that,” she whispered, “—please.”

“Why not?” Don asked. “I love you,” he said. “I love you.”

“And I think I love you, too,” Gia said. She nodded. “Yes, I think I do. . . . But to talk of marriage already—It is too soon, Don. We haven’t known each other long enough, not really.”

She took a deep breath.

“And,” Gia said, “I must be sure, before I ever say yes to you, Don, I must be sure that you need me.”

“But I do need you,” Don said. “That’s why I’m asking you to marry me. That’s the reason any guy asks a girl to marry him, isn’t it?”

Gia faced him again. “I mean need me,” she said. “I mean need me, I mean the kind of need that is not satisfied in enjoying my company, in kissing my lips, in talking or walking or being together with me like this. I mean the kind of need that is satisfied in knowing that I will be the most important part of your life, forever and ever. In knowing that I must be the person to share everything with you, to help you, to comfort you, to be with you—forever. . . . A person very close to me once said, Don, that there is nothing more difficult in life than finding the person who truly needs you. I believe this.”

“We’ll give it time then, won’t we?” said, taking hold of her hand again.

“Yes,” said Gia, “if you will be patient with me. For one way or another, someday, I will know. . . .”

Months passed during which Don and Gia grew closer and closer, and yet as though they mysteriously understood that the right time had not come for them, neither mentioned marriage again. Then one afternoon in March Mrs. Burnett phoned Gia at her studio and invited her to dinner that night. At 6:30, Gia pulled up to the house, reached for a little present for Don’s mother and got out of the car.

Don met her at the door of the house.

He was very pale.

His hand seemed to tremble when it took hold of Gia’s.

“What’s the matter?” Gia asked.

“It’s Mom,” Don said. “She was in the kitchen, just a little while ago, fixing dinner. Suddenly she had a heart attack. It was so quick. The doctor’s with her.”

He led Gia into the living room, where Don’s father was sitting. Gia walked over to Mr. Burnett, whispered something to him and then she sat beside him and across from Don.

They sat, the three of them, in silence, those next fifteen minutes.

Finally a door opened and the doctor appeared.

“Mr. Burnett,” he said, his voice grim, “Don—”

The two men rose and followed him back out of the room.

Gia sat alone now.

She waited.

And as she did, she closed her eyes and remembered the phone call from Mrs. Burnett just a few hours earlier.

“I’m making lamb,” the woman had said, “and potatoes nice and brown, just the way you and Don like ’em.”

Gia remembered how she’d said no at first, that she couldn’t accept the invitation. “Twice last week, twice the week before. You’re going to too much trouble, Mrs. Burnett.”

And how the woman had said, “Nonsense, Gia. Dad and I like you so much, and we like the fact that Don likes you—and we Just wish we could see even more of you.”

“Lamb, you say?” Gia remembered asking, and laughing. “And browned potatoes?”

“Just the way you and Don like ’em,” she remembered Mrs. Burnett saying. “Now be sure to tell those producers of yours that you have to be here early, 6:30 the latest, and—”

Gia’s eyes opened suddenly.

Don had come back into the room.

She could tell, immediately, from the look on his face, that his mother was dead.

She watched him as he walked over to where she sat, as he sat alongside her.

She watched his fists clench in his lap.

“Gia,” he said, staring at the floor, “Help me. I need you.”

Don and Gia were married in a quiet and beautiful ceremony in Los Angeles, California, on August 22, 1959.


Gia will be seen in BATTLE OR THE CORAL SEA, I AIM AT THE STARS, both Columbia.



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