Not long after she made her trek from Texas to New York, Marla Hanson saw her modeling career end at the hands of a razor-wielding thug. Six years later, the cuts on her face have healed, but the emotional wounds remain.
On a warm Monday last April, Marla Hanson made her way through a crowded Fort Worth reception with a glass of cola balanced on her palm. Five feet four inches tall and barely one hundred pounds, the former model did not walk so much as glide, first from room to room of socialite Martha Hyder’s mansion, then out onto the terrace. She was dressed in dark pants and a light silk blouse; her long brown hair was tied back with a scarf, revealing dark eyes, arched eyebrows, a short strong nose, and jutting expressive lips. In the haze of sundown, I could barely see the pale but pronounced scar that snaked from her right cheekbone to the corner of her mouth.
Marla had come back to Texas—where she spent her late teens and early twenties—to attend a fundraiser benefiting the National Victim Center, which lobbies on behalf of victim’s rights. For hours that first day, she was the focus of everyone’s attention, mingling with local celebrities like Van Cliburn; with Alexander von Auersperg and his sister, Ala, whose mother is comatose heiress Sunny von Bülow; and with novelist Dominick Dunne, whose daughter was murdered in 1982. But as the mansion filled up, Marla decided she needed some fresh air.
Still, she couldn’t escape the spotlight. As she stood apart from the crowd, admiring the lush Trinity River bottom, men stood apart admiring her. Finally, a bald, dashing plastic surgeon named Jim Denton strode across to meet her. After shaking her hand, Denton touched her scar. “Oh, it’s a shame they couldn’t have waited,” he said, and then started talking about sanding her face. Marla didn’t bat an eye.
The notion of a small-town girl descending on the big city only to have the city descend on her is a cliché, the stuff of TV movies. But the now-famous attack that disfigured Marla Hanson was the culmination of just such a scenario. In less than a decade, she went from Bible studies at a Waxahachie college to a modeling career in New York City; but in an instant, it came crashing down. There were many low points during that period—financial problems, loneliness, depression—and there have been some since. Last Christmas, novelist Jay McInerney ended their four-year relationship and married another woman. But the defining moment of her life continues to be one horrid night.
Shortly after midnight on June 5, 1986, Marla walked out of a Manhattan bar with her former landlord, an acquaintance whom she disliked but did not fear. Around the corner, two young black men overtook her and pushed her through a parking lot. While her acquaintance watched, the two men took Marla’s face apart with a razor blade. Nearly 150 stitches were required to close cuts that were up to an inch deep. “I felt like I was fixing a porcelain vase,” her plastic surgeon later said, “but I kept thinking that all I was doing was pushing the pieces together. I can’t make the vase perfect again.”
Marla’s acquaintance and her attackers were convicted of assault and sent to prison. Jurors found that the acquaintance had hired the others in retaliation for rejected sexual overtures and a fight over an $850 rent deposit. But in the trial of the two black men, Marla was attacked by a defense attorney for wearing a miniskirt, for having a love life, and “for being a girl out of Texas”—in other words, for being a racist. When she protested those characterizations, the judge publicly tongue-lashed her. She came away from the whole ordeal with a bitter estimate of the criminal justice system, a wariness of the press, and, psychologically, a long row to hoe.
Marla has spent the past six years recovering from her wounds and looking to the future. Today, at age 31, she’s studying film at New York University, and she recently wrote an article for McCall’s titled “When a Woman Is Attacked, Why Does She Get Blamed?” But however hard she tries, she cannot fully escape her past.
On her second day in Fort Worth, Marla and I stood on the balcony of a downtown hotel suite, while Dominick Dunne sat inside selling signed copies of his novels to raise money for the Victim Center. The sunshine was cool and pleasant, and Marla raised her face to it. After a few moments of small talk, I steered back to the attack.
“Do you dream about it?” I asked.
“Constantly at first,” she said, “then for years not at all. Then, last fall, I got upset watching the Clarence Thomas hearings. People I knew were making all these absolute judgments based on very little information: ‘Just wait, this is going to be the best thing that ever happened to Anita Hill.’ That’s what happened to me. I was infuriated, and it traumatized me. All at once, the dreams came back.”
Our conversation ended on that equivocal note. The suite was getting crowded, and it was almost time for lunch. Among the late arrivals was plastic surgeon Jim Denton, who had cornered Marla the night before. Denton walked straight to her, kissed her unscarred cheek, and handed her his card.
Marla Hanson has said she was a victim almost from the start. Her parents divorced soon after she was born in 1961 in Independence, Missouri, a Kansas City suburb. Along with two brothers and, in time, five half siblings, she spent her childhood in Independence with her mother, who worked in a bowling alley, and her stepfather, a municipal employee. Although she is reluctant to talk about it today, she told Glamour in 1986 that she was sexually abused as a child. Marla didn’t identify her assailant, but she said her mother “couldn’t deal with it” when she told her.
When Marla was twelve, her natural father, Bob Hanson took custody of his children. Soon after, Marla and her brothers went to live with their dad, his wife, Dorothy, and Dorothy’s two children in the small Missouri farm towns of Oak Grove and Odessa. The contrast was extreme. Over the years, Bob Hanson had worked for IBM and pursued a number of business interests, principally real estate, but his consuming zeal was his religion. He had converted to a charismatic faith in which hymns were accompanied by electric guitars, drumsets, and the crash-bang of cymbals. The scriptural theology emphasized speaking in tongues, a practice described in First Corinthians: “For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but God; for no man understandeth him: howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries.”
Even for adolescents who have been prepared for it from birth, the pressures of such an upbringing are enormous. Marla’s father allowed her to be a high school cheerleader, but he decreed that only born-again Christian boys could date her. Later, he required suitors to submit to an interview with him. (“Nobody would do it,” Marla told me with a laugh.) Marla talked of becoming a missionary, but certain leaps of faith were beyond her, such as learning to speak in tongues. A kind soul eventually took pity on her and other local teens and taught them phrases that, when recited backward, sounded enough like speaking in tongues to relieve the strain.
In 1979 Marla came to Texas as a first-year student at Southwestern Assemblies of God College in Waxahachie. The campus looked then much like it does today: bald acres of parched grass, a few stark rock buildings, some thirsty-looking trees, and, in front of the student center, unshaded park benches surrounding an oval of gravel and an old rugged cross. Daily chapel was compulsory at the school, which Marla didn’t mind, but she chafed at other rules. Coeds couldn’t wear jeans with zippers in front, shorts, or sweatpants. Stockings were required for girls. Mocking the restrictive code, Marla and her friends went to the library in long skirts and hiking boots, and they ignored dorm curfew. After three semesters, Marla quit and moved back to Missouri.
But not for long. Bob Hanson’s parents lived in Austin; as they got older he wanted to be near them. In early 1981 Bob scouted out small towns in Central Texas and was charmed by Fredericksburg. Later that year, the Hansons headed south in a station wagon and a rented truck. Shortly after they arrived, Bob got a job developing photographs for a local newspaper, the Radio Post. He and Dorothy helped found a congregation called the Living Water Fellowship. The Hansons also boarded youths in a foster home they called the Servants Quarters. Privacy was scarce. Marla had to share her room with relative strangers.
“For Marla, everything was black and white then,” Dara Kratzer, a roommate from those days, said recently. “She didn’t think we ought to listen to rock and roll. I had a guitar, and we would sing praise songs. We would go for long walks, and one time it got dark and scary. She said, ‘If we sing real loud, everything will be all right.’”
Hoping to earn enough money to attend the University of Texas at Austin, Marla took a job as a salesclerk at a Fredericksburg gift shop called the Peach Tree. There she met a jewelrymaker with the rakish name of Jeep Collins, a business partner and the brother of one of its owners. Jeep was a nice-looking, blue-eyed man in his early thirties, the divorced father of a little boy. Jeep and Marla’s romance was steamy, and it centered on religion. Marla took him to her church, and he took her to his. Eventually, he decided that the “right” thing for him to do was to reunite his family; so he did. Jeep reconciled with his ex-wife and later remarried her. Marla was devastated. (“He was the love of my life,” she says. “An intellectual cowboy.”)
In early 1983 Marla was waiting tables at a German restaurant in Fredericksburg when a friend from Bible college called and said she could get her a job in Dallas as a receptionist. Marla jumped at the chance to move. In her first few months in Dallas, she pursued a license to sell financial securities, changed her mind, quit her job, and enrolled in real estate school. She also worked as a cocktail waitress at a succession of fashionable places—the Fairmont Hotel, the Mansion on Turtle Creek, the Stoneleigh P., and Abio’s—earning the first decent money of her life. True, she was no good at it; she spilled drinks and continually got the names of highballs confused. And she was always frazzled from lack of sleep, late getting from her day job or her classes to the night shift. Inevitably she got fired. But wealthy customers flirted with her, and she flirted back. She always kept their business cards. As soon as she got her real estate license, she told them, she wouldn’t hesitate to call.
Once she got settled in Dallas, Marla fell in love with a medical student from Fort Worth. She was still going to church then—some Sundays to Catholic mass with her boyfriend, others to a Bible congregation in DeSoto. But she wasn’t happy. She was reproved by her religious elders for working in a bar. Her romantic relationship was troubled—on again, off again. And she was breaking into real estate just before the boom went bust. “I didn’t have the right last name,” she says. “I didn’t go to SMU, and I drove a Honda. Plus I looked like I was twelve years old.” Billy Bob Harris, a flamboyant stockbroker who would soon go to prison for insider trading, helped her get a job with a top real estate firm, but she made very few sales.
When her boyfriend moved to Cleveland, the relationship withered away, and Marla entered a heady Dallas scene that has since gone the way of $30-a-barrel oil. Glitzy clubs with private memberships cropped up everywhere. Champagne, ecstasy, and cocaine flowed freely. It was a far cry from praise songs and Wednesday night Bible study. In a bit of ominous foreshadowing, Marla got in a nasty row with a roommate over a $250 rent deposit. She wrote the roommate a hot check; a Dallas cop picked her up at work and took her to jail.
During this period, Marla thought about modeling, but Dallas agent Kim Dawson told her that she was too short, that her look was wrong for Dallas, that she would be wasting money on a portfolio. Yet she managed to land a job at JH Collectibles, a fashion firm at the Dallas Apparel Mart. She worked there as a salesclerk, but she also did some showroom modeling—hats mostly—in exchange for a discount on clothes.
In the summer of 1985 her boss offered her a transfer to New York City, and she didn’t think twice about it. She felt she had used up Dallas. It was time to move on. “I didn’t have any family support,” she told me. “They didn’t even come see me. I had no money, no education. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. So you float around and try to figure it out. I didn’t drink, I didn’t do drugs—except for ecstasy, I did try that. I think I was pretty tame compared to the people I knew. Especially the guys.”
Not long after the Fort Worth fundraiser, I met Marla at a small cafe near her Greenwich Village apartment. Dressed in a T-shirt and pants with a matching jacket, she was wearing no makeup, and her hair was put up in a spiky pile, so her scars were visible. In addition to the main scar, a second one runs atop her left eyebrow, near the freckles that surround her eyes; it looks as if it could have resulted from a fall. A third scar—fine, distinct, and chilling—angles across her left nostril.
Over lunch, Marla reminisced about her early time in New York. When she arrived in mid-1985, she said she hated the place. Her sense of isolation in such a teeming environment was oppressive, and she was unprepared for the high cost of living. Unable to get by on her $25,000 salary, she was forced to moonlight—working, again, in a bar at night. Her principal job, as a showroom salesclerk at JH Collectibles, proved disappointing; there was no room for advancement. But she didn’t want to go back to Dallas like a whipped puppy. She turned a mental corner, she says, only when an old friend far removed from her thoughts spotted her through the window of a restaurant and rushed inside. “I thought, ‘Wow, wow, I know someone here,’” she recalled.
On three occasions during her first weeks in New York, men stopped her on the street and said they would like to photograph her, handing her business cards. Disgusting old guys, she figured. At the time, she was dating a young photographer. One night he picked up one of the cards, stared at the name in disbelief, and told her she had better get on the phone. Too late that time; the job was over. But Marla was inspired. She put together a portfolio and signed up with the Petite Modeling Agency. She was never going to be a runway star of the major fashion shows; off camera, they’re all legs, like sleek basketball players. And she was three inches shorter than most “petites.” But she appeared in ads for a liquor company, a candy bar, and a line of bras, and she was featured in a J. C. Penney catalog. Later, her legs were in Mademoiselle, her eyes in Glamour.
After a few months, as a result of her modeling, Marla encountered Steve Roth, a 27-year-old makeup artist who had done some TV work. Their first conversation concerned bikini waxing, a practice in which models remove body hair with hot wax. “I met him one night in a photographer’s studio,” Marla told me. “I thought he was just this sleaz-o hanging out there. He said I should never shave my legs—he would be happy to wax them for me. Then he offered to wax my bikini line. He said, ‘How would you feel about having my face between your legs?’ I said, ‘I would find that disgusting, actually.’”
Yet only a few weeks later, Marla agreed to move into an apartment that Roth rented to young women who were trying to establish fashion careers. Marla liked the roommates, and her share of the rent was only $600. Still, she clashed with her new landlord frequently—over sexual innuendos, over who should pay for a broken shower head, over his habit of letting himself into the apartment with a passkey. It quickly became too much for Marla, who found another apartment in the same building and telephoned Roth to say that she was moving out. Immediately, Roth came over and flew into a rage that, according to one of the roommates, left Marla “looking like a scared rabbit.” But Marla held her own. She threatened to sue Roth in small-claims court for her $850 deposit and to report him to the city for illegal subletting. Finally, he relented, agreeing to meet with her in a nearby bar called Shutters.
The night of June 4, 1986, Marla had her hair highlighted. Celebrating the results and the end of the day, the colorist opened a bottle of champagne. Marla described her battle with Roth to her new friends in the salon, and they offered to go with her. “No, it’s all right,” she said. “We’re meeting in a bar. But if I wind up in a ditch somewhere, you know who did it.”
Around midnight, Marla and Roth met at Shutters and talked for a while, more or less civilly. He told her that he would return the deposit but that he had half in cash—too much to give her in such a public place; maybe they could step outside. “Lots of people were out,” she recalled, “and it was a nice night. There was a neighborhood police station right around the corner. It didn’t feel dangerous. I thought, ‘Surely he’s not going to try anything.’ Then I saw him glancing over his shoulder. I turned around to what he was looking at, and there were two guys following us. The minute I saw them, I knew something was going on. I was running all these TV shows in my head. Your thoughts aren’t even your own: ‘Run, scream, panic,’ then, ‘Wait, I’m getting all worked up over nothing.’ I calmed myself down. But Steve was acting so weird. Everything in the bar started to come back to me. When I got there, his hands were shaking. He was sweating, and his eyes were all glazed over. I thought, ‘That’s it. These guys are going to try to kill or rape me.’
“I don’t know what comes over you. Almost a calmness, like shock: ‘I should have seen what was going on.’ I started looking around to see how I could get out of it. But then the two guys ran up and caught me. They were pushing me through the parking lot. I saw Steve standing under the streetlight, acting like he wasn’t part of it. I don’t know why I didn’t scream. I backed up against a fence and tried to stay on my feet. I thought, ‘They’re probably going to kill me. I’m probably going to die. I just don’t want to be raped, and it’s hard to rape somebody who is standing up.’
“It’s a strange experience,” Marla said. “It’s like you’re off somewhere watching yourself. I just resigned myself to the fact that I might die. I wasn’t upset by that. The short one got around behind me, put his arm around my shoulders, and had one hand on my face. He was trying to push me onto the ground, but my legs were braced. The tall guy started waving his hands in front of me. I thought he was trying to tear my clothes off. I kept looking for cars, trying to push their hands away from me. I was trying to figure out what they were doing. I caught Steve’s eye, and he had this horrified look on his face. And then, all of a sudden, he came over and said in this loud voice, ‘Say what are you doing to that girl?’
“The two guys ran off down the alley. Steve grabbed me and jerked me through the parking lot without saying anything. I thought, ‘Now he’s the one who is going to try to kill me.’ So I elbowed him really hard in the stomach and ran. When I ran out of the parking lot, I saw the blood and started screaming. People just stared at me. I knew I had to get to a hospital. I tried to flag a cab, but I didn’t have any money with me, so I ran back into the bar. The bartender started screaming, ‘Oh, my God, who did this to you?’ I said, ‘Steve Roth.’ She looked at me and said, ‘Steve?’—like she didn’t believe me. Somebody got me some towels. I sat on the barstool and thought, ‘It’s going to be my word against his.’”
A few minutes later some cops stopped two black men running down the street in blood-stained clothes and handcuffed them, face down, on a sidewalk. Before other officers took her to the hospital, Marla twice identified 19-year-old Darren Norman and 26-year-old Steven Bowman as her attackers. Norman, the tall one, was accused of actually wielding the blade. Bowman, who had razor cuts on his hands was a longtime friend of Roth’s; at the police station, he made a statement implicating him. Meanwhile, Roth had jumped into the squad car with Marla, claiming to be her fiancé and, later, a robbery victim. By the time Marla got to the hospital and made her accusation, Roth had told the cops too many conflicting stories. He was in jail by dawn.
Following surgery, Marla awoke to an entirely different life. By the second day, the phone rang constantly. “The doctor went crazy,” she told me. “He said, ‘Don’t you understand? Those are muscles in your face! You’ve got to lie flat on your back. You can’t talk.’ So I unplugged the phone. The nurses came in and said, ‘Look, we are not your answering service. We’re not equipped for this. You’ve got to plug in that phone.’ So I did, and it rang nonstop.” Reporters barged into the room demanding interviews. A TV journalist persuaded her that the story was all over the country; she needed to get word to friends and family that she was all right. Marla granted him an interview, which angered the other reporters. To appease them, she held a press conference.
At first, money was an issue. “I didn’t have a private room because I didn’t know how I was going to pay for anything,” Marla said. Then she received a call from the secretary of a man named Milton Petrie: The octogenarian philanthropist had written Marla a $20,000 check to cover her medical expenses. When she tried to decline, the secretary said, “Listen, let’s be practical. You don’t have any money. My boss has millions. His wife would spend more than this on one dress.”
“There was this outpouring of compassion,” Marla said, “and I was extremely moved by it. But a lot of it had a very strange tone. Old friends were saying, ‘It’s your karma,’ and ‘I knew something like this would happen if you moved to New York.’ It was starting to sink in. Somehow this all was my fault. A woman in Dallas called and said, ‘You don’t know me, but we’re very concerned about you down here. Honey, whatever you’ve done, God will forgive you. You may have strayed off the path of righteousness, but that’s okay. We all get a second chance.’ God will forgive me? What have I done, exactly, that I need to be forgiven for? So I said, ‘F—- you’ and hung up. My dad was really shocked. There were a lot of religious callers like that—implying I had gone to New York and just gone wild. ‘This is what happens to you when you’re bad. There is this big lesson being taught here.’ I thought , ‘How sad that people would think God is like a Mafia boss: You gotta do what He says, or you gonna get your face cut.’”
By the time Marla got out of the hospital five days later, the prosecution of Roth, Norman, and Bowman was under way. First came the trial of Roth. The evidence against him was circumstantial, but he hurt his own case by testifying how just that day he had broken off a long gay love affair with Bowman and announced his engagement to “a very pretty girl.” Roth alleged that Bowman had set upon Marla out of jealousy, mistaking her for his fiancée. Roth was convicted on December 20, 1986.
So far, so good: The criminal justice system was working well for Marla. The police, the district attorney’s office, and the courts had moved quickly, though Roth’s sentencing was postponed until after the trial of Norman and Bowman. Roth’s lawyer had been thorough but courteous in his cross-examination of her. And the prosecutor, Connie Fernandez, had a great deal in common with Marla. Fernandez had grown up in San Antonio and graduated from Trinity University; she too had gone to New York alone in her early twenties.
But the trial of Norman and Bowman, which began the following March, was a scene worthy of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. Bowman’s attorney, a black man named Alton Maddox, Jr., was a fixture in New York cases involving racial strife. In his opening statement, Maddox said, “I will tell you about a woman named Marla Hanson who was after every man in this city. A woman who preyed on men and their relationships with women….Marla Hanson, a girl out of Texas, has a lot of racial hangups….As she walked up that street, just the simple act of seeing two black men walking, saying nothing to her, acting in the fashion of any two civilized men—she went absolutely nuts. Immediately she began to think she was about to be raped. And immediately began to think about all the fear of black men she had brought from Texas.”
To make matters worse, Maddox wasn’t the only one who whipsawed Marla. During the trial, the judge in the case, Jeffrey Atlas, told Fernandez that Marla’s alleged flirting with “other women’s men” might be considered “improper-low, even,” and he gave Maddox great leeway in calling Marla’s credibility into question. Incredibly, Atlas not only allowed Maddox to introduce Roth’s description of Marla as a “c—-t,” but he himself asked for her interpretation of the term. “The same as a ‘bitch’” she said, humiliated.
Maddox never returned to Marla’s racial attitudes, in Texas or elsewhere. In the end, he argued that Bowman got the cuts on his hands trying to intervene and protect her from Roth. On May 5, 1987, the jury convicted Bowman and Norman. The following week, Atlas sentenced Roth to five to fifteen years in jail. Two months later, Bowman and Norman got the same. Last year, each man’s initial parole was denied.
For a year after the attack, Marla didn’t seek psychological help, for fear it would undermine her testimony. When the trials were over, she hit rock bottom. Financially she was okay. She had sold the rights to her story to a television production company, and Milton Petrie had set up a trust fund designed to pay her $20,000 a year for life. But though her plastic surgeon had worked wonders and makeup could conceal the rest, her modeling career was over. Her face now represented something that nobody wanted to buy. She got some offers as an actress, but the characters ended up marred or dead. She drifted into a depression that was at times suicidal. She would hit the streets with friends and stay out all night, which briefly lifted her spirits, then go home and binge sleep, sometimes for two or three days. Sleep was her refuge. She couldn’t get out of bed.
At the same time, in a city intoxicated by celebrity, her brush with fame made her seem interesting. She was constantly asked to all the hippest parties. The invitations fueled her paranoia: Why her? The scars? The squalid trial? Yet much of the attention was genuine. One night, a young filmmaker named Keith McNally, who then owned an elite club called Nell’s, asked Marla to come to a dinner party for director Bernardo Bertolucci. Marla accepted but didn’t show up. When he called, she said she was in bed. He kept calling—”We’re having salad now. Everybody’s asking about you. That’s the worst way to deal with depression.”—until finally she appeared in time for dessert. Another guest at that party was Jay McInerney.
McInerney was the eighties’ answer, at least in lifestyle, to F. Scott Fitzgerald. The themes of his writing seemed to anticipate Marla. In his first novel, Bright Lights, Big City, the protagonist is observed coked-up and yapping at the ankles of his lost love, a runway fashion model. His second, Ransom, is set in Japan, where Marla yearned to work as a model. During the summer of 1987, soon after he and Marla had started dating, McInerney began his third novel, Story of My Life, the tale of a Manhattan party girl.
McInerney was separated but not yet divorced from his wife, Merry, who had attempted suicide and was hospitalized for most of 1988 for her own depression. Meanwhile, Marla had moved in with McInerney; and the scrutiny of their love affair moved from the gossip columns to the glossy press. The satirical monthly Spy had already lumped McInerney with a brat pack that included Less Than Zero author Bret Easton Ellis and book editors Gary Fisketjon and Morgan Entrekin. Now Marla was seen as the flapper along for the ride. Cruelly, Spy took to calling her “the walking docudrama.”
At the start of her relationship with McInerney, Marla had been to see a psychologist who told her that the attack and its aftermath had reduced her emotional maturity to that of a twelve-year-old. The psychologist gave her a choice: Regain some control of your life or you’ll wind up sleeping on a park bench. If every work opportunity was related to the attack, he said, learn to do something else. Eventually, Marla decided to go back to school and study filmmaking. Her benefactor, Milton Petrie, was delighted; he was a regent at New York University, which had a respected film program, and the tuition was $20,000 a year—the amount Marla received from the trust fund. She began to lead a double life. Some nights, she was a tabloid celebrity, partying alongside McInerney, Carl Bernstein, and Patty Hearst. Other nights she was a swamped liberal arts student, ill-prepared by a small-town Missouri high school and three semesters of Bible college in Waxahachie.
Inevitably, one of the lives had to end. In October 1991, after four years together in which they discussed having children, Marla and McInerney put the relationship on hold, ostensibly to think things over. The shocker came just two months later, at Christmastime: McInerney married an old friend, Helen Bransford, a jewelrymaker and Nashville heiress. Marla’s heart, again, was broken.
Last winter and spring, Marla buried herself in her coursework at NYU, trying to finish her senior year. She had to write, direct, and produce a thirty-minute film, and she proved a resourceful filmmaker. She needed to raise $50,000 on top of her tuition and living expenses to complete the project, so she resorted to credit cards. Her script called for scenes in an airport, hard to pull off even if you’re a major director—yet last January, during a lull in air traffic on Super Bowl Sunday, she and her crew filmed at New York’s La Guardia Airport.
Marla’s entry into the business had been neither B-grade nor shoddy. Gina Gershon, who appeared in The Player as an ambitious producer’s assistant, volunteered to play the lead role in Marla’s film. Spike Lee’s sound editor worked with her crew, and cult musician Leonard Cohen contributed a song to the sound track. Author George Plimpton consented to have his office destroyed for one scene. Other than cable networks, which use short films as fillers, and some theater distribution in Europe and Japan, Marla’s project has virtually no commercial potential, but it’s not an academic exercise. She hopes to cause a stir at arty film festivals and launch a career. While a lot of big-name artists are hoping she succeeds, others see her as an opportunist. “People in New York were laughing at her,” a literary agent told me. “That’s how this town works: five minutes of notoriety, then you hustle it for all it’s worth. Marla Hanson goes to Hollywood? Why not? Marla Maples is on Broadway.”
Over breakfast at another New York cafe, Marla happily described for me the plot of the film, which is titled Love on the Boston Shuttle. Her script follows a day in the life of animal behaviorist Taylor Crowley, a single, thirtyish workaholic who has gone too long without love or sex. Early on, Taylor catches a predawn flight to deliver a lecture at Harvard on the mating habits of pit vipers. On board, while she reviews her notes and squints at color slides of lustily entangled copperheads, she conducts an avid but outspoken flirtation with a handsome male stranger.
The narrative relies on a voice-over monologue: “Am I this desperate? Fantasizing about a man that I haven’t even met…” Later she despairs at ever seeing him again and curses her luck: “I always find men who have just come out of a bad relationship… or who are still in one and just forgot to tell me… or who think marriage is a senseless bourgeois convention, but who might like to have children… someday.”
“Women do that?” I asked her as she poured her tea. “Take a fantasy and run it out for years? Marriage, babies?”
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “Constantly.”
All of a sudden, Marla was interrupted by violent sounds behind her: a broken dish, squawks of chair legs on a hardwood floor, casual voices all at once struck mute. Two young men in shorts and tank tops were brawling—rebounding off the bar and jostling the table where we sat. One of the men dumped a glass of tomato juice over the other’s head. Their expressions grew enraged, yet no blows were thrown. They wrestled along, with their arms clamped tightly around each other’s ribs, in a furious hugging dance that cleared the cafe’s doorway and sent them sprawling across a stack of packaged ice on the sidewalk. They rolled off and parted, then came back through the door, jousting again near our table as the cafe’s owner rushed to shoo them out.
“Stay away from Chris’s Gym!” screamed the one with juice on his head.
For me, it was a perfect New York moment, but not for Marla. Her animation of seconds before disappeared. Her face was completely rigid, and her eyes were as flat as jade. She was all alone—looking for a sure and fast way out.
“You didn’t think that was funny,” I said when the cafe calmed down.
“It scared me,” she replied.
Her reaction seemed sad and excessive. But then, I’m male, and I’m bigger than she is, and-the all-important distinction—nothing close to what she had experienced has ever happened to me. She will never think again that she can sing her way past the dangers of night.
From the cafe’s doorway, I watched her gingerly weave around sacks of ice smeared with tomato juice. She tossed her hair and soon vanished into the crowd of her chosen city.