Goodnight, Miss Moonlight

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.

"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.

Other times, Maxine rallied to Lorna's defense. In the early '90s, when Julia Phillips's insider book You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again was rocking Hollywood, Maxine reported Lorna's outrage. Phillips claimed to have snorted coke with Liza at the '76 Golden Globe Awards, but Lorna said Liza hadn't even attended the ceremony. Lorna filled in for her sister that night, and she didn't even see Phillips in the bathroom, where the incident supposedly took place. "People who live in glass houses shouldn't get stoned," Lorna sniffed.

A close reading shows that Lorna never claimed that she and Liza were drug-free; Lorna didn't even deny snorting a line at the Golden Globe Awards. All Lorna said was that she didn't remember seeing Phillips in the bathroom. Maxine, however, wasn't one for close readings.

Years later Maxine praised Luft's own tell-all memoir, Me and My Shadows, in which Luft described battling her addictions -- and also dished about the dark sides of her more famous mom and sister. Liza stopped speaking to Lorna. Maxine sided firmly with her favorite, reporting that Liza was mad only because Lorna had urged her to stop drugging. "Incidentally," wrote Maxine, "the tabloids are now saying that Liza is in a rehab center. This, if true, Liza would never admit -- at least not until she's out and drug-free again…"

But perhaps Maxine seemed most Luft-struck in '95, when she reported that Lorna had just returned from a "93-city, six-month tour of England." It sounds glamorous for a second, until your brain kicks in: 93 cities! In England! There's London, York, Manchester and… what? places where traveling acts perform in a high school gym? Yet Maxine spun that item as best she could, and for a moment, Lorna sounded as glamorous as Maxine wanted her to be…

Now it has been told: "She made me famous," said eulogist Frank Horlock. Maxine used to identify him as a "former Houston beer distributor and biz exec." He was Maxine's kind of guy, a "fella" who lived in a "swankienda," attended "big bashes" and jetted to "playcations."

Maxine notified readers when Frank and his wife, Mary Grace, celebrated their 50th anniversary, when they moved to a ranch near Kingsville and even when they snared a low-wattage celebrity houseguest, Harve Presnell (he played Daddy Warbucks in the road tour of Annie Warbucks). She seemed thrilled to report a legitimate brush with greatness: Frank once rescued George and Barbara Bush, who'd been stuck at an airport near the Horlocks' ranch, by arranging for a buddy, Hugh McCall of NationsBank, to fly them to College Station.

At Maxine's funeral, Frank told how she'd connected him to Paul Newman. In '71 Horlock was the distributor of Pearl Beer, and he desperately wanted his product shown in the movie Newman was making about Judge Roy Bean. Frank called Maxine, and Maxine called Newman's agent, who owed her a favor. The next day Frank and Maxine flew to Tucson. Newman himself was waiting at the airport -- a testament to Miss Moonlight's power.

Maxine helped her friends, and they helped her. Maxine made Tony's the place where Houston's rich and famous came to watch each other chew; Tony Vallone comped Maxine's meals and gave her a place to hold court. She wrote frequently about Vincent and Mary Kickerillo; Vince, a real estate developer and chairman of United Bank, appointed her to his board despite her notable lack of banking expertise. Cadillac dealer David Taylor appeared frequently in her column, and after he died, Maxine reminisced, "I could always trust him to steer me to a car that was right -- and affordable -- for me."

In the '70s the IRS sued Mesinger because for years she had lived rent-free in a swank apartment building owned by John Mecom. In court, Mecom testified that he wasn't trading publicity for real estate; he was just helping a friend.

The court ruled in Maxine's favor, but another newspaper still might have fired her for the obvious conflict of interest. Another newspaper, too, might have nudged her into retirement: By the time of her death last week, she was 75 years old and wheelchair-bound, and was frequently hospitalized for bouts of multiple sclerosis. Her column would disappear for weeks at a time.

The Chronicle, though, remained loyal to Maxine. After she died, editor and associate publisher Jack Loftis offered this quote to his own newspaper: "My relationship with Maxine over the past 35 years probably has been more personal than professional." In other words, Maxine was a friend, and you take care of your friends.

Sometimes, quietly, society types would wonder why Maxine herself didn't choose to retire; surely she no longer enjoyed staying up late, tripping the light fantastic. The polite answer, the one you heard at the funeral, was that she loved writing the column.

The less polite answer -- the one Maxine would have said out loud but would never have written -- was that she adored the column's power. "They don't love me for my pretty blue eyes," she used to say, in private, about her rich and famous coterie. They loved her for her column, and she wanted them to keep loving her, so she kept writing the things they wanted to read…

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