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Lizabeth Scott: “I Didn’t Need A Miracle”

Less than a year ago I was on a plane miles over the ocean when two of the four motors had to be stopped because of fire. I was part of a group of Hollywood stars flying from Rio de Janeiro to the film festival at Montevideo in Uruguay. We were an hour out of the airport when the pilot’s voice suddenly came to us from the loudspeaker in the cabin.

“We have a gas and oil leak and we are returning to Rio. You will notice I am going to get rid of 4,000 gallons of gas.”

That’s when we saw smoke from one of the motors and noticed that its propeller, as well as the propeller of another motor, was stilled. Then the wing tanks were emptied and we could see the gasoline falling like silver rain below. At that second there was a hush in the plane, and I thought, “How much like a theater it is . . . just before the curtain goes up. Now we shall see the play. Who will be the heroes and heroines, and who the cowards?”

There was a moment of stark terror (for me, at least.) “Well, this is it,” I remember thinking. “If this is the cue for death, nothing—not hysteria, not prayer, not fear—nothing will delay the entrance.” My faith in God proved itself then, and I sat back and closed my eyes and—yes, I felt serenity.

Can you touch courage? Can you weigh love or nail faith to a wall and say, “There it is”? Nothing less material exists in the world, yet nothing as powerful is at the disposal of humans.

I have always had faith, faith in myself. Long ago when mother waggled a finger at me and said, “Come home from drama school—you’ve had it.” I stood my ground. I don’t remember ever having defied a parental edict before. But I knew—don’t ask me how—I just knew I could find creative fulfillment in New York if only I were given time to work it out. My letter of explanation must have been eloquent, because mother gave in. But she cut my allowance to ten dollars a week. Ten single dollars between me and starvation in the Big Town! Mom knew what she was doing. I’d get good and hungry she figured, and catch the next bus back to Scranton.

But Mother didn’t reckon with my faith; she only figured in terms of my equipment, natural and acquired:

$10.00 a week

1 female form, suitably (I hoped) proportioned

1 plaid skirt

1 dress

2 white blouses

1 pair brown-and-white spectator shoes

1 set underthings

1 brown shoulder-strap bag (Mother’s)

1 comb, 1 toothbrush, 1 pair hose (which soon became zero pair)

1 high school education with thin overlays of hastily absorbed culture (musical voice training, elocution and dramatic courses)

1 great, strong, unswerving faith

That last may seem the most ineffectual item on the list; it turned out to be the most important!

Perhaps I had better explain that I had a very religious childhood. I have not always hewn to that religion, but I have worked out my own philosophy of life, my own, ways of worship and devotion. To begin with, I believe everyone is born with faith, but its development is part of the individual’s own growth. It must be strengthened constantly, but once it has reached its full development in your own mind, nothing, but nothing can shake it. Faith gives you peace of mind. It holds your head high when everything seems to go against you.

Take that skimpy wardrobe of mine, for instance. With the daily tubbings it underwent, it should have been threadbare in a month. I’m still convinced I held it together by sheer faith! I remember washing out my underthings, a dress, a blouse, my hose (while they lasted), then trundling them all down to the basement of the YWCA (where I had a room). There I would slip a dime into the electric iron and be assured of 15 minutes of heat. You’ve never seen anybody press out a skirt or iron a blouse so fast in your life. I may not have stepped out of the pages of a slick fashion book; but, by golly, I was really cleaned and pressed! This is how my faith helped me—I could be satisfied with one dress because I knew that someday I would have a whole closetful.

When I was “between assignments”—clerking part-time in a lingerie shop, modelling, or any one of those little pick-up jobs I managed to get from time to time—I had to exist on $3.50 a week! That’s all I had left from my $10 after I’d paid my room rent. Subway fares and phone calls did make a little dent in the balance, so I really had to scout around for the most inexpensive places to eat. I found one Italian hole-in-the-wall where I got a mountainous plate of good spaghetti for 30 cents! But you can imagine what all that starch did to this girl’s figure. It worried the life out of me, because I knew no producer in his right mind was going to hire a bovine-type ingenue! But I was young and healthy—and determined. I could thrive on adversity because I had a sense of destiny.

Oh, I’m not trying to make myself out a dedicated creature; a 20th century Joan of Are. I’m only human. The going was really rough at times—most times. And there were nights when I had to fight myself to keep from burying my head in the pillow and bawling my heart out. I didn’t drop to my knees and pray—I don’t worship in that fashion. I feel it in my heart. God is all around us in all ways. If you have ever watched the sun follow its eternal course from east to west; if you have ever seen a tree bud and blossom; or watched the miracle of rain on a thirsty patch of earth, you’ll know what I mean.

But there were months on end when I felt trapped in a monotony of “No casting today,” “You’re the wrong type,” “Too young,” “Too old,” “Not enough experience.” I was a bust! That was the long and short of it. My faith had carried me so far, yet it didn’t seem capable of getting me over that last big bump of despair. I needed help. Finally I wrote to a favorite aunt of mine who is a nun—Mother Cleta of the Missionary Sisters of the Poor at Columbus Hospital in New York. I knew she would be able to bolster my morale with the same quiet and kindly advice with which she had met some of my adolescent problems a few years before. She didn’t fail me. Her letter came one morning while I was dressing. I read it over several times, allowing her words of encouragement and ageless wisdom to seep in. She made me realize how foolish I had been to let my faith flag. Let us say it was coincidence that I was given my chance to understudy Tallulah Bankhead in Skin of Our Teeth that same afternoon.

Working with Tallulah was an experience few ambitious girls achieve. She is such a brilliant actress, so vivacious, so vital. Her vitality, as a matter of fact, was so great that not once during the entire run of the play did she even get the sniffles! While I did not envy the star, I must confess that like every other understudy in the history of the theater, I used to stand in the wings and pray, “Please let her trip and sprain her ankle—but don’t let it hurt!” There was no personal malice in this prayer—just that drive, that desire to become a Broadway actress—even for one night! But even with Miss Bankhead’s bouncing health, my faith was once more riding high and giving me strength. Then, once again, that faith had to be put to the test. On the same day that I was asked to fly to Boston and substitute for Gladys George in the road show of Skin of Our Teeth, I received a message that motion picture producer Hal Wallis, wanted to meet me with a view to signing me to a Hollywood contract. That inner turmoil started again, “Should I blow my chance in Boston for a crack at Hollywood?” I wrestled with that problem until a half hour before plane time, when it suddenly occurred to me that this was the goal I had set for myself; this was the point to which my faith had carried me. On that stage in Boston lay the fulfillment of my hopes and dreams. And I felt that if this Hollywood opportunity were meant to be, Mr. Wallis would approach me again. And, of course, he did.

Perhaps you know faith best when others demonstrate they have faith in you. I had been signed to a contract for Hellzapoppin!, the Olson and Johnson revue. I toured with the show for a year and a half—at $60 a week. That was big-time for the girl who had made $18 a week, some weeks, in the lingerie shop. Hellzapoppin! was no great dramatic offering. It was a loud, boisterous, crazy musical.

When we opened in Pittsburgh, word came to me that an uncle of mine who was a priest, Father Pennock, was coming to see the show—and was bringing six other priests as his guests. I began to get panicky. What in heaven’s name would my uncle think of me now? He was the man who had helped and encouraged me so very much during the early years; the man whose faith that someday I would be a great dramatic actress had carried me along. What was he going to think of this “tragedienne,” I wondered, going through one crazy skit after another?

After the finale, I went back to my dressing room. And there was Father Pennock with his six colleagues. I wanted to burst into tears. But they were all grinning broadly. They’d loved the show. My uncle was still chuckling over some of the sillier gags. He took my hand and squeezed it. “I always knew you’d make good,” he said. “You. were wonderful!”

That stopped me for a moment. I had expected disapproval; I had received praise! To him, I guess, I was still the girl he had once kidded because she traveled so far for elocution lessons that it took her four trolley transfers to get there. I was still the girl who would study a poem or piece of dramatic recitation for hours just to entertain him and the rest of the family. I was still the girl whose dreams he had listened to and approved years ago. And he believed in me now as he had then.

A long time ago ‘there was a man who didn’t believe in me. He was the director of a play I worked in—and he didn’t believe in any of the other people cast in the production, either. He didn’t trust us to give our best and decided to “needle” us into a proper intensity by warning each of us, “confidentially,” that the others were out to steal all the scenes.

His lack of faith boomeranged badly. He got us into an emotional pitch all right, but we all spent more time watching each other than we did thinking and feeling our parts. As a result, nothing went right, and when we realized his trick, as we had to sooner or later, he was in a personal mess as well as a professional one.

For the past two years I have taken special courses in philosophy and psychology at the University of Southern California. But I can assure you, I haven’t done this to become either a philosopher or a psychologist, or because I want to achieve any special honors in these studies. I just want to learn more about myself . . . about the faith that has brought me where I am. Where else can it take me? I think I know. I have always believed in eternal life. My belief comes from my faith, and my faith comes from God.





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