The calla lilies are in bloom again. Such a strange flower. I carried them on my wedding day, and now I place them here in memory of something that has died.
Katharine Hepburn spoke this line for the first time in 1933. She had been cast in a now-forgotten play called The Lake. Jed Harris, the director, was a sadist, and the twenty-six-year-old actress did not flourish in the role. (Dorothy Parker’s famous barb, that Hepburn “ran the gamut of human emotion from A to B,” is said to be about this performance). After previewing several shows to declining ticket sales, tepid reviews and increasingly abusive behavior from Harris, Hepburn was desperate to leave the play. “My dear,” Harris told her, “the only interest I have in you is the money I can make out of you.” She wrote him a check for her life savings and was released from her contract. In her 1991 autobiography, Hepburn writes of this time in her life, “It was a slow walk to the gallows.”
A few years later, Hepburn was cast in Stage Door, a film about a handful of actresses living in a women’s boardinghouse and competing for roles in a play. This fictional play prominently features the calla-lily line, which the director, Gregory La Cava, lifted from The Lake. Hepburn’s character recites it several times in rehearsals, always lifelessly, until the movie’s tragic climax, and then she recites it once more, with feeling. After the success of Stage Door, the line—first a signifier of her failure, then a signifier of her success—finally became a synecdoche for Hepburn herself, the odd mid-Atlantic intonation, the reedy voice, the hard, glittering propriety. The line’s iambic pentameter makes it pleasant to say, and the accent is fun to mimic. The first version I heard was Pee-wee Herman’s in Big Top Pee-wee. He says it to a pig.
Like the calla lily itself, movies have their own strange and perennial nature. The movie goes up again and again, the images and words always exactly the same, but time is at work on everything outside the safe little celluloid rectangle. The sets are struck, filming locations bulldozed, props and clothes destroyed and lost. Every time the film is shown, the stars are all a little older. One year, someone on the screen is no longer in the world. And then several people. And then everyone. Once the actors are all gone, the movie is sealed off. It sits on the other side of a wall. It looks the same as ever, but it’s not the same. You’re alone when you watch it, and you’re watching a room of ghosts.
Or you’re sitting in a room of ghosts. How many people saw this film, and when, and what was it to them? My grandmother would have been eighteen when Stage Door came out. Hepburn was tremendously stylish then; a girl my grandmother’s age might fashion herself after Hepburn. My mother likely watched the film in the 1970s. Was there a camp element in it? Hepburn by that time was a formidable grande dame; it might have been funny and uncanny to see a performance from her callow youth.
When I saw Stage Door last winter, Hepburn had been gone almost fifteen years. All her ages—young, middle-aged, quite old—existed on an equal plane; no Hepburn loomed larger than any other. I sat on my couch watching the exact gestures, hearing the exact words my grandmother saw and heard eighty years before in some now-shuttered movie palace in San Jose. Back then, the stars of Stage Door lived and worked and laughed and suffered. Now the stars of Stage Door are all gone. Jean Rouverol, who played Dizzy, one of the girls in the boardinghouse, died last year.
The video project below is my attempt to reconcile what is born over and over again with what is born only once, grows old, and dies. Hepburn recites the calla-lily line a little differently each time, but the line remains the same; and each time she recites it she is older, but she is also the same. She is always thirty, always seventy-four, always eighty-four. Maybe my grandmother is, too. Maybe I am, too. I can sit on my couch in 2017, and my grandmother can sit in a movie theater in 1937, and we are sitting together, because we are looking at the very same thing.
The calla lilies are in bloom again, and again and again. The final line of The Lake was Hepburn’s: “There are ghosts who are friendly ghosts. I shall be back.”
Lindsay Nordell works with video and lives in New York City.