Today's Reading

ACT ONE

CHAPTER ONE
In Performance Paris 
October 20, 1968

In her apartment on Avenue Georges Mandel, Maria drew the brush across her eyelid into an italic flick. Her hand was surprisingly steady. It was always like this before a performance: there would be nerves before, but once she sat down in front of her dressing room mirror, she would become completely absorbed in her task and the terrors would recede as she painted her face.

The door opened and Bruna, her maid, came in carrying a white fox stole.

"I brought you this, madame, from the cave—it is chilly tonight."

Maria nodded her thanks. She didn't ask Bruna why she had gone all the way to the cave when there was a cupboard full of furs just across the hall. She knew why her maid had made the extra journey. This fur had been a gift from the director Luchino Visconti after their first Traviata at La Scala. The other, more convenient furs, had all been given to her by her lover of the last nine years, Aristotle Onassis.

"Will madame wear the ruby earrings tonight?"

Maria nodded. The bodice of her white satin gown was embroidered with red and gold crystal beads. The rubies would bring a little color to her face, which was pale despite her makeup. She would wear no other jewelry, no bracelets, no rings. Definitely no rings.

She heard the sound of her poodle, Toy, barking; that must mean that Franco was already here. Franco Zeffirelli, her favorite director and the closest thing she had to a best friend, was always punctual. She picked up a lipstick that matched the red beads on her dress and began to paint a sweep of color. Up close the shade looked alarming, as if her mouth were full of blood, but Maria knew that from a distance it would give her smile conviction.

Franco was playing with the dog when she made her entrance. When he saw her, his eyes flicked up and down, inspecting, and then he nodded. 

"I approve. Dignified but also spectacular. Did I tell you that we are sitting next to the Burtons?" Franco Zeffirelli had just directed Elizabeth Taylor alongside her latest husband, Richard Burton, in The Taming of' the Shrew.

Maria was surprised. "But do they speak French?" 

"I doubt it, but they like drama." Franco smiled.

Maria looked at the boulle clock on the mantelpiece. It was seven thirty. The ceremony would just be beginning in the church on Skorpios, the sickle-shaped island in the Ionian Sea that Onassis had bought just after their affair began and where she had spent every summer until this one. Then she remembered that Greece was an hour ahead. The wedding that Maria had first learned about from the newspapers two days before would already be over.

The most famous widow in the world, Jacqueline Kennedy, would now be Mrs. Aristotle Onassis.

"Maria?"

Franco was holding out his hand to her. It was cool and dry and he smelled faintly of limes. Maria hesitated and then crossed herself. In answer to Franco's look she said, "Always, before a performance." There was no other word to describe what she was doing tonight. She would not be singing, but she would be performing the role of a woman without a care in the world, just as intensely as if she were standing on the stage of La Scala.

Franco nodded and said, "I guarantee that you will upstage everybody, even Liz Taylor."

For a moment Maria hesitated. "I hope I can do this."

Franco raised an elegant eyebrow. "Most women would find it impossible, but Maria Callas?"

Looking at his watch he took her by the arm. "Andiamo. We don't want the photographers to use up all their film on the battling Burtons."

* * *

The play, at the Comédie-Française, was a Feydeau farce, and Maria's cheeks were aching with the effort of smiling. She was not wearing her glasses so the action on the stage was just a blur, but Elizabeth Taylor's delighted cackle in the seat next to hers made it easy to know when to laugh. She had met the Burtons before. They were the sort of shiny people that Ari adored. He had asked them to come on the Christina many times, but it had never worked out. The Burtons had their own yacht.
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