Goodnight, Miss Moonlight

Maxine Mesinger departs for the big swankienda in the sky

 Miss Moonlight's memo(rial): Around 500 people showed up for Maxine Mesinger's funeral. They were the gossip columnist's subjects, her sources. "Bigwigs" and "celebs," Maxine would have crowed in the Houston Chronicle. She'd have listed their names in boldface type: former mayor Bob Lanier; jet-setter Lynn Wyatt; retired newsman David Brinkley; oilman Robert Mosbacher; author Liz Carpenter, once the press secretary for Ladybird Johnson. These were Maxine's people.

Maxine, who wrote in the swingin' lingo of '40s showbiz, would have identified Marguerite Piazza as a "songbird," who in the '50s toured on the glamorous supper-club circuit. In her column, Maxine often mourned the passing of the Shamrock International Club -- and implicitly of her own heyday, and that of the "big stars" she loved.

Piazza told this story at the funeral: One night in Memphis, she was driving with Maxine to a club performance. They were late, and at a red light, with no other cars visible, Piazza turned left. A cop appeared out of nowhere. He asked for identification. Piazza had nothing but her J.C. Penney charge card -- that, and her famous face.

Jeremy Eaton

"Where are you going?" the cop asked. She told him. "Follow me," he said, and gave her not a ticket but a police escort to the club.

Maxine laughed -- that raucous, throaty laugh, the laugh that her friends love to describe. "The best stories," howled Maxine, "are the ones you can't write."

It's an odd anecdote. You wonder why Maxine couldn't write that innocuous story. Was she worried that the cop would get into trouble? Or afraid it would expose her friend Piazza as a goofball who leaves home without her driver's license? Or was it, maybe, the moral of the story? Famous people get things they don't deserve.

In a way, it doesn't matter why Maxine didn't tell the story -- only that she thought it was good, and that she chose not to print it. Piazza admired Maxine's discretion, and the other eulogists agreed. They praised Maxine less for what she wrote than for what she didn't. She was a gossip columnist, but her real talent was for keeping secrets…

Have tongue, won't tattle: Most journalists don't write about their friends for the same reason that doctors don't operate on family members: They want to maintain professional objectivity.

Maxine showed no such qualms and, in fact, often bragged in print about her personal relationships with her subjects, especially stars of the Rat Pack era. Judy Garland was "a close friend of mine." Whenever Shirley MacLaine was in town, Maxine gleefully reported that they dined together at Tony's, where MacLaine consumed an entire six-serving soufflé by herself. Frank Sinatra "was one of the first entertainers to befriend me," Maxine wrote on the occasion of his 81st birthday. "If Sinatra befriended you, others knew you could be trusted."

Maxine, of course, was eminently trustworthy. She described her friends, the stars, the businessmen and the socialites, the way they wanted to be described: as nice people who celebrated birthdays and weddings, reaped the rewards of hard work, and threw themselves into charitable work. Her column was called "Big City Beat," but it oozed small-town happy talk, the sweet, intimate dullness of an alumni newsletter or church bulletin: "Clear Lake doctor set to retire Friday," one headline read. "Hotel executive is upwardly mobile," said another. "Couples celebrate birthdays, anniversaries."

The interesting thing is that in person, Maxine wasn't the small-town, happy-talk type. She loved glittering gowns. She knew how to have a good time. And she cussed like a sailor, even around her grandchildren.

At the memorial service, Mitzi Gaynor recalled meeting Maxine for the first time. Gaynor, star of such '50s movies as Anything Goes and South Pacific, toured with a song-and-dance act, and was planning to open a new show in Houston. At the airport, a long black car pulled up. The door opened, and Gaynor saw acres of legs and sleek blond hair.

"Mitzi," Maxine said, in her Tallulah Bankhead rasp, "get your ass in this car."…

The soft thud of name-dropping: Maxine remained loyal to her celebrity friends long after other journalists had abandoned them. Never mind Johnny-come-latelies like Jennifer Lopez or Destiny's Child; Maxine breathlessly informed us of the events in the lives of real stars. Carol Channing was penning her memoirs! Ann-Margret was recuperating from a motorcycle crash! Rich Little was slated to headline the Celebrity Paws Gala! Tony Randall toured the Museum of Fine Arts!

The buzz in L.A., Maxine reported in '96, "is that Jolie Gabor, mom of Zsa Zsa, Magda and the late Eva Gabor, will be 100 years old on her next birthday." And for what it's worth, Maxine added, Zsa Zsa was looking thinner and very well.

Most touching was Maxine's devotion to Lorna Luft, Judy Garland's other daughter, the one who's not Liza Minnelli, the one who stayed faithfully in touch with Maxine, the one who asked the columnist to serve as godmother to her son Jesse. Maxine never missed a chance to praise Lorna, to report whenever she landed a gig -- never mind that those gigs were nowhere near Houston, or that Luft was hardly a household name.

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