From the Shards to the Stars: Remembering Lizabeth Scott

September 29, 2021

In November 2009 former film noir icon Lizabeth Scott was pulled over in her Jaguar on Sunset Boulevard for endangering traffic by driving too slowly.

The elderly lady produced her driver’s license and registration. The police officer noticed her pasted-over date of birth. When he tried to peel off the sticker, she looked at him, took the license from his hand, and said, “Believe me, Officer. I’m old enough to drive!”

She got off with a warning. And her secret was not revealed. At least not by that policeman.

Scott’s executor, Mary, told me this story in 2017, two years after the actress’s death. I held Scott’s long-expired passport in my hands, her DOB untampered with: September 29, 1921.

Just as an archaeologist recognizes at first glance a pottery shard with scribbles on it as an ostracon, seeing this fragment of Scott’s life evoked a string of realizations.

All her life she had made herself a year younger than she actually was. She thought it likely that the young cop knew who Lizabeth Scott was. And even at the age of 87 — pardon me, 88 — she stuck rigidly to the bitter lesson she had learned as a Hollywood star: keep private matters private and try to control your own image.

My unexpected involvement with Lizabeth Scott began in a shabby velour seat in the basement of the Department of Film Studies at the Free University of Berlin. Cinema 2. Film Noir seminar. Double feature. I was about to leave because the first film had tired me out. But when I saw her androgynous face, I was glued to my seat. Her wayward beauty startled me.

She was at the wheel of a convertible, racing through the Hollywood Hills at night along a switchback road, dangerously close to the precipice. The look in her eyes made it clear that her agenda included only herself. A rare phenomenon.

I watched more of her films. Her portraits of women were riveting, partly because of her sober, almost disinterested acting, which seemed strangely somnambulistic.

Scott was a remarkably private person — most likely out of necessity, after the gossip magazine Confidential delivered the coup de grâce to her already stalling career in 1955 by running the article “Lizabeth Scott in the Call Girls’ Call Book.”

I couldn’t help but notice that she sued the magazine not for implying that she was gay, but rather for alleging that she used the services of call girls. The result of the out-of-court settlement was never made public.

Being a queer woman myself I marveled at the contrast between the article’s zesty language and stale logic: “Liz,” the author or authors stated, “was a strange girl, even for Hollywood, and from the moment she arrived in the cinema city, she never married, never even got close to the altar.”

Their sleuthing turned up the following evidence: she “always wore male cologne, slept in men’s pajamas and positively hated frilly feminine dresses.” Proof positive was her “taking up almost exclusively with Hollywood’s weird society of baritone babes.”

A few weeks later. Cinema 2 again. Epic Film seminar. The Egyptian by Michael Curtiz, a film about the rise of Sinuhe, a child from a poor background at the time of Pharaoh Akhenaten. My thoughts drifted.

Ancient Egypt reminded me of old Hollywood. Two advanced civilizations that vanished in the sands of time.

As I had once read, the time of great discoveries in the Valley of the Kings had actually long since passed when Howard Carter began digging there in search of Tutankhamen’s resting place. In the three millennia before, countless others had already picked through the site: tomb raiders, explorers, curious amateurs. The valley consisted of mountains of piled-up rubble between uncovered tombs. Every grain of sand, one might think, had already been sifted several times.

Likewise, the Golden Age of Hollywood — a time when even biographers had biographers — seemed largely depleted to me. I felt it unlikely that any true treasure — the Rare, the Private, the Unknown — could still be found. Yet the legacy of Lizabeth Scott struck me as a spot in the Valley of the Kings that had not yet been dug up. I decided to undertake an archaeological expedition into her life.

In Scranton, Pennsylvania, where Lizabeth Scott — then still named Emma Matzo — had grown up, early first remnants of her life loomed: A boarded-up brick building on Capouse Avenue. The house where she was born. At street level was her father’s grocery store, which had saved the family of eight from severe poverty during the Depression. No plaque to remember her.

The St. Mary of the Assumption Byzantine Catholic church, where Lizabeth Scott attended mass as a child, seemed completely oversized for the four worshippers inside when I visited.

And then indeed a grave! John and Mary Matzo had had a total of six children. They had purchased a family grave for eight people. In it, however, lay only the two of them. The other resting places remained unoccupied. And between them is an empty space.

Through my appearance on local television I met Emma Matzo’s high school friend Anne. She told me about a leaden toy gun that was the future Hollywood star’s favorite plaything. Her use of the word tomboy in describing her friend made me happier than it should have.

I realize that where Howard Carter was looking for treasure and found the grave of a child god, I had set out seeking a Hollywood goddess and found a person. And unlike Carter, I didn’t have to limit myself to material remnants such as monuments or tools to assess the everyday life of an earlier civilization, as I could still reach people who had known Lizabeth Scott. Talking artifacts, who could fill abandoned buildings with their narratives.

Her executor, Mary, told me that in the last years of her life Lizabeth Scott had the same plate, cup, glass, and cutlery set ready on her sideboard, rinsing them by hand after each use. She had no air conditioning or modern appliances and did her own cleaning. Only her fully mirrored powder room and three perfectly coordinated outfits — Chanel, Vuitton, and Dior — let the former Hollywood icon shine through.

She loved reading. T.S. Eliot, Marcel Proust, Tolstoy and other Russian classics, Virginia Woolf, then Huxley, Carroll, Cheever. One of her nieces inherited Scott’s library and I was amazed by the number of signed first editions. Perhaps she was even more of a reader than an actress, weighing the years she had spent on both activities.

I roamed through Los Angeles in search of her past — but not following her tracks on foot, as I had done in Scranton. In LA I became the drive-by flâneuse.

The house Lizabeth Scott bought in 1947 for $27,000 is at 8177 Hollywood Boulevard. She lived there for 68 years. Unfortunately, the property is surrounded by a high hedge and I could not see very much. A drive down the switchback road of our first encounter — the unpaved highway from the film is now a house-lined street with yellow signs indicating the 25-mph speed limit. Lunch at Greenblatt’s Deli — which has since closed — where I ate her favorite roast beef sandwich and thought that at least this was an experience she and I could share.

Many have already died, but I still managed to find a few friends and acquaintances. They showed me things that had belonged to her: a tiny crystal shoe, reminder of how, through a misunderstanding 70 years ago, the impression was born that she collected miniature shoes. She had been drowning in the constant flood of shoe-shaped gifts ever since.

A platinum-colored watch chain; the letters L-I-Z-A-B-E-T-H- S-C-O-T-T held together by filigree chain links. She always carried it on the strap of her purse. Her friend told me that a woman had given it to her, but he didn’t remember the name.

I followed traces that were barely visible and yet found myself in an incredibly elevated mood. Picking up a trail, no matter how cold, is a wondrous adventure and the delight of the search matched the joy of my discoveries.

I remember the beginning of Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. He writes about the glass-fronted cabinet in his grandmother’s dining room in Manchester that contained a leathery thing with a few coarse reddish hairs. It was attached to a piece of cardboard with a rusty pin. According to his grandmother, it was brontosaurus skin that his great uncle had found in a cave in Lost Hope Sound in Patagonia.

The artifact — in truth a piece of skin from a giant sloth, also extinct — impressed the child so much that, long after it had been accidentally thrown away, Chatwin traveled to that very cave as an adult, hoping to find another specimen. W.G. Sebald, another great traveler for traces, said of this, “His wandering to the end of the world was a searching expedition for the lost boy in him.”

He could just as well have been talking about me: tiny clippings of American black-and-white movies were stuck on the wall of my childhood room. We lived behind the Iron Curtain but had West German television and I found solace and beatitude in a certain kind of woman in a certain kind of Hollywood movie from the 1930s and ’40s.

And here I was, traveling to yet another end of the world, on the trail of another extinct species.

One of Scott’s friends gave me the letters the actress had written to her over the course of their friendship, and out of all the Christmas greetings and quotidian accounts, one letter stood out, describing her reaction to the 1971 San Fernando earthquake:

The earthquake was an extraordinary experience. I knew during this moment the precise power of God and realized how infinitesimal we really are. I realized most definitely that we are children of fate and destiny. The shocks came periodically. I calmly gave myself to nature. It was unique, because I didn’t panic. There was a willing resignation that engulfed me and I felt an irrevocable love. Nature was expressed and I could do nothing but accept it. It was not unpleasant. I think, death will be similar. However, I want to live and live and live.

And for a split second, she emerged. Her primal experience of a natural disaster, that in other millennia might have wiped out advanced civilizations and brontosauruses, brings forth an unexpected epiphany: the Hollywood of my childhood bliss was a place of extinguished stars. Still glowing, but in reality long gone.

¤

Alive, however, were the memories, and if I caught them in time and wrote them down, they would outlast time. Like an ancient piece of sloth skin. Or an ostracon.

I found a handful of pieces, too few to spell the chain of her life. They are scattered and only loosely connected. But when I put them in order, something shines through. A nonconformist actress convinced that her own path was right.

Mary told me how in 2015 she scattered Lizabeth Scott’s ashes in Santa Barbara Bay. The way Scott had wanted it. No memorial service. No urn. No stone. Just this. Her bodily remains were to dissolve into the eternity of the ocean. Hollywoodesque, yet humble. It almost seems as if the queen of film noir had wanted to leave without a trace.

But her scintillating, peculiar presence, persists on celluloid. There is a refusal in her onscreen characters, a rebellious individuality that attracts the attentive viewer. Her haunting portraits of women, always in trouble, show a self-efficacy that women rarely allowed themselves in front of the camera until the late ’60s.

She played them casually and without a fuss.

Lizabeth Scott — herself to the end — would have turned 100 today.

¤

Louise Gold is a writer and musician based in Berlin. Her debut novel, The Sound of Earthquakes, is based on her search for Lizabeth Scott. Her agent is currently pitching it to publishers.