Friday, December 21, 2018

The 50th Birthday of My Dearest Vanessa Marquez

Vanessa on her 48th birthday
"...And though she be but little, she is fierce."
(William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream Act 3 Scene 2)

"Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own." (Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land)

"Well, there's many a change in the winter wind,
And a change in the cloud's design.
There's many a change in a young man's heart,
But never a change in mine."
("I Never Will Marry", traditional)

It was fifty years ago today that my dearest Vanessa Marquez was born. Many of you might know Vanessa for her roles as Ana Delgado in the classic movie Stand and Deliver (1988) and Nurse Wendy Goldman on the TV show ER. For me she was my best friend, my soul mate, the girl of my dreams, and the love of my life. I have never been closer to anyone else in my life, and I know that I never will again. She was Nora Charles to my Nick Charles, Miss Kubelik to my C. C. Baxter. She was very proud to be a solstice baby, and I would tease her about being my Christmas present for when I was five years old, even though I wouldn't know it until decades later.

Vanessa Rosalia Marquez was born on December 21 1968 in Los Angeles County, California. She grew up in Montebello, California and attended Schurr High School there. Vanessa wanted to be an actress from when she was very, very young. Vanessa sometimes said she wanted to be an actress from the moment she came out of the womb, but it was truly the case after she saw The Wizard of Oz (1939) when she was only three or four years old. She loved the movie and she would remain a fan of Judy Garland for the rest of her life. Like many in her generation (including myself), Vanessa grew up watching classic movies on television and would remain a classic film buff for the rest of her life. She also loved classic television shows, watching them in reruns as many people our age did. Her desire to become an actress would only increase after she first saw Star Wars (1977), another film she would love for the rest of her life. At eight years old Vanessa started writing letters to the various studios and important figures in the film industry (including George Lucas) expressing her desire to become an actress.

The cast of Stand and Deliver
Of course, it would be several years before Vanessa would realise her dream. She made her film debut in Stand and Deliver in 1988. Originally made for public television, Stand and Deliver was instead released theatrically on March 11 1988 (coincidentally the day after my 25th birthday). It aired on American Playhouse on PBS nearly a year later, on March 15 1989. Like many it was in Stand and Deliver that I first saw Vanessa Marquez. Along with Lou Diamond Phillips as Angel, it was Vanessa's performance as Ana Delgado that impressed me most of the young cast. Vanessa was always very proud of her work on Stand and Deliver, and over the years she would receive letters from high school students who had been inspired by the movie. She made her stage debut in Demon Wine at the Los Angeles Theatre Centre, which played from February 10 1989 to March 19 1989. She appeared alongside such luminaries as Tom Waits and Carol Kane in the play.

Over the next few years, Vanessa's acting career would begin to take off. She made guest appearances on such shows as Wiseguy, Seinfeld, Nurses, and Melrose Place. She appeared in four movies in 1993 alone, among them Twenty Bucks and Blood In, Blood Out. Even though I watched Wiseguy and Melrose Place religiously, I must confess I don't remember her guest appearances on those shows. I do remember her guest appearances on Seinfeld and Nurses quite well, thinking at the time that she was both very talented and remarkably pretty. In the years since her film debut as Ana Delgado in Stand and Deliver, Vanessa had blossomed into a beautiful young woman.

Vanessa as Nurse Wendy in a promo photo
for ER
It was in 1994 that Vanessa started a three season run in the supporting role of Nurse Wendy Goldman on ER. Indeed, she appeared in the first few minutes of the very first episode, "24 Hours". It was on ER that many first took notice of Vanessa Marquez. As Nurse Wendy, she was frequently featured in humorous subplots in various episodes during the show's first three seasons. Nurse Wendy became one of the most popular characters on ER, and there were many who missed her when she was no longer on the show. Not a few young men even had crushes on Nurse Wendy, including my brother. I was among those young men who had a huge crush on Nurse Wendy and I stopped watching ER not long after Vanessa had left the show. It would be years after getting to know Vanessa before I would confess to her that I had a crush on Wendy back in the day. I was afraid it might creep her out. Fortunately, she was flattered instead.

Sadly, many of Vanessa's experiences on ER would not be happy ones. She was subjected to both sexual harassment and ethnic slurs on the set. Unfortunately, when she reported that harassment she was fired and subsequently blacklisted. Vanessa's acting career would never quite recover. Of course, this would be complicated when she developed refractory coeliac disease in the Naughts. Quite simply, her health prevented her from ever entirely resurrecting her acting career.

While Vanessa had lost her acting career, her love of classic films, classic TV shows, and Star Wars continued unabated. Like most American classic film buffs she was a huge fan of Turner Classic Movies. Like many of us, after she joined Twitter, she began live tweeting to the films aired on TCM. She also live tweeted to various shows she loved, such as Mad Men and Downton Abbey. Along with myself and others, she was one of the original members of #TCMParty, the group of TCM fans who live tweet movies on TCM using that hashtag. At first none of us were sure that it was really her. After all, we had experiences with people impersonating celebrities before. We soon learned that it was indeed the Vanessa Marquez who had played Ana Delgado in Stand and Deliver and Nurse Wendy on ER. One would never have thought Vanessa was an actual movie and TV star. She was so down-to-earth and unassuming that she seemed like any other TCM fan. That having been said, she was also so sweet, kind, and gentle that she became one of the best loved among us. Our mutual friend and #TCMParty co-founder, Paula Guthat, referred to Vanessa as "the Sweetheart of #TCMParty." Many members of #TCMParty developed close personal friendships with Vanessa. I don't know if we met live tweeting Mad Men or through #TCMParty (both were going on at the same time), but either way, Vanessa and I bonded and became friends. Indeed, I fell in love with her. She would become my closest friend and confidant, and the one person I love more than any other in my life.

A head shot from 2010
Of course, to those who knew and love Vanessa Marquez, it should not seem unusual that someone would fall in love with her. She was an entirely wonderful woman, a remarkable woman, and very easy to love. The first thing one might have noticed about Vanessa was that she was very beautiful. Vanessa had dark, luxuriant hair, elfin ears, big dark eyes, and a smile that would illuminate any room. And she always possessed a slender but pleasing figure. It was among Vanessa's many charms that, while she was obviously lovely, she did not think of herself as such. One time she posted a head shot from 2010 to one of the social networks. As always, I told her that she was gorgeous. Vanessa said it was due to makeup and joked, "It takes a village." I told her, "Vanessa, you forget. I've seen you without makeup. You're still gorgeous." Then there was the time that she took a Facebook quiz to determine one's type of beauty. The result for her was "adorable". She complained that for once she would like to be considered hot, mysterious, or exotic. I told her that she was adorable and gorgeous and exotic and sexy. Vanessa protested that she was only cute. I disagreed with her, telling her that to me she was glamorous and gorgeous and sexy and exotic. All of our mutual friends thought Vanessa was stunning and over the years I have encountered many men on the internet who had crushes on her from her various movies and TV shows (particularly ER), but Vanessa refused to accept the fact that she was the extraordinarily beautiful woman that she was. Of course, to me she was the most beautiful woman to ever live.

In addition to being extraordinarily beautiful, Vanessa also had the most beautiful, sexiest voice I have ever heard. Her laugh was absolutely musical. And if you thought it was beautiful in the movies and TV shows in which she appeared, it was even more beautiful over the phone. My heart would always skip a beat when she said my name. What is more, Vanessa's voice was very versatile. She was a guest voice on the episode "Sleeping Beauty" of  HBO's animated children's show Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child in 1995. She voiced five different fairies on the episode. None of them sounded alike, and none of them sounded like Vanessa. She was also a gifted singer; her voice was a dulcet soprano. Vanessa got to sing in a take-off on West Side Story on Culture Clash, the first ever Latinx sketch comedy show. She also provided the voice of a singer in the movie Under Suspicion (2000). She would sing snatches of songs to me on the phone, and it was entirely wonderful.

A head shot from either 1996 or 1997
Vanessa was also very petite. She was only 5 foot 3 and the most she had ever weighed in her life was 115 pounds. She had a very high metabolism that made it difficult for her to gain weight and to maintain that weight. It was something we had in common. Like Vanessa, I have always had a very high metabolism and difficulty gaining weight. I am only 5 foot 5 and the most I have ever weighed in my life is 132 pounds. Vanessa used to joke about our "tiny, little bodies".

Of course, with her fragile beauty, slender but attractive figure, and sweet voice there was no mistaking Vanessa for a boy. A friend of mine who knew Vanessa only as an acquaintance said that she exuded femininity. He was certainly right about that. In many ways she was very much a "girly girl". She loved makeup, beauty tutorials, jewellery, shoes, and clothes. Her apartment was filled with candles, dainty teacups, teapots, pillows, and stuffed animals. She could do her own makeup for photo shoots, stage, or film. Her favourite colour was even pink. Aside from being a natural beauty with a mellifluous voice, I think much of Vanessa's appeal was that she was just so very feminine.

That is not to say that Vanessa conformed to every expectation of a stereotypical girl. She was the biggest Los Angeles Dodgers fan I ever knew. Indeed, she was not only familiar with the history of the Dodgers, but the history of baseball in Los Angeles. She could recite details about the minor league teams in Los Angeles prior to the Dodgers' move from Brooklyn, as well as the ballparks there. I daresay Vanessa knew more about baseball in Los Angeles than most men. She certainly knew more about baseball than I ever did (I have always been the most casual of Cardinals fans).

A screen cap of Vanessa on KTLA
Vanessa also defied expectations about women in that she was the biggest Star Wars fan I had ever known. It was not simply that she knew even the most arcane trivia about the movies; her apartment was filled with Star Wars memorabilia, including the original action figures, Pez dispensers, posters, and a variety of merchandise. Vanessa was well known and much loved in the Stars Wars fan community, so much so that KTLA interviewed her for Star Wars Day (May 4) in 2010. By her own admission Vanessa was a geek. In addition to being a huge Star Wars fan, she may well have been the biggest fan of The X-Files I ever knew. We spent literally hours discussing the show. She was also a huge fan of the Sixties TV show Batman, and she once said that Adam West was her first hero. As a fellow Gen-Xer, Vanessa had grown up on reruns of classic TV shows that aired before she was born or when she was very young. She loved the original Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, Space: 1999, The Monkees, I Love Lucy, and The Andy Griffith Show. This gave us a good deal in common. Indeed, our tastes in television shows were very much alike. As I mentioned earlier, we bonded while live tweeting Mad Men and we were both huge fans of Downton Abbey as well.

Of course, as I mentioned earlier, Vanessa was a huge fan of classic films. The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars (1977) would number among her favourites for her entire life. Among her favourite films were The Apartment (1960), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946),  Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), Casablanca (1942), Dark Victory (1939), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), West Side Story (1961), and many others. She was a huge fan of film noir and watched Noir Alley on TCM religiously. She was a fan of Judy Garland, Shirley Temple, Bette Davis, and many other classic film stars. Among her favourite recent films were Down with Love (2003) and Love Actually (2003).

Like her tastes in movies and TV shows, Vanessa's tastes in music were eclectic. Like me, she loved the crooners of old, such as Tony Bennett, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra. She loved the swing music of the Thirties and Forties and even knew how to swing dance. It should come as no surprise that she adored Judy Garland. Like me, she was a fan of The Beatles, The Monkees, and other classic rock bands. Our tastes in music rarely parted ways, but one instance in which they did is the fact that she liked Latin music.

Another photo from 1996 or 1997
Given her love of science fiction TV shows, period pieces, and classic films, it should come as no surprise that Vanessa was very intelligent. In fact, I am convinced that she was far smarter than I ever have been. When discussing various Mad Men episodes she would often offer insights into the characters that had never even occurred to me. On Facebook and elsewhere she often addressed political issues and other subjects in an informative fashion that is sadly beyond many today. She possessed a good deal of knowledge about the history of Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, Hollywood, and the surrounding towns. That intelligence made Vanessa all the more attractive.

That Vanessa addressed political issues should come as no surprise to those who knew her. Vanessa was something of an activist. On December 7 1989 she participated in a rally and then a march protesting the exposure of farmers to pesticides used on grapes. Also present at the protest were such people as Cesar Chavez and Martin Sheen. In 1994 she was one of a number of Latina actresses who appeared in a public service announcement encouraging Latinas to vote. She took an active interest in the Screen Actors Guild, and took part in campaigns for various political candidates.

In addition to being intelligent, Vanessa was also the sweetest, kindest, and most gentle person I have ever known. She was extremely loyal to her friends. During the making of Stand and Deliver, Vanessa became very close to Jaime Escalante, the real life teacher upon whom the film was based. When Mr. Escalante developed cancer, Vanessa helped raise funds to pay his medical bills. She was one of the pallbearers at his funeral. Vanessa was extremely protective of her friends. If a troll on Facebook or Twitter ever attacked one of her friends, Vanessa was always the first to come to his or her defence. At least in my case, Vanessa could even recall the most trivial things about me. She remembered my favourite movies were Seven Samurai (1954) and The Apartment (1960), my favourite TV shows were The Avengers and The Monkees, and my favourite rock group was The Beatles. She remembered that Virginia Mayo and Ann Blyth numbered among my favourite actresses (and, to be honest, I think she might have been a little jealous of Ann).

Vanessa with Cheryl Ladd in a promo shot for
the TV movie Locked Up: A Mother's Rage
Indeed, so protective of her friends was Vanessa that she would not even let me use my usual self-deprecating sense of humour. As I have gotten older I have a throwaway line that I often use, "..when I was young and cute." If I used it on Vanessa, she would simply respond, "You're still cute, silly!" God forbid I ever referred to myself as stupid, as Vanessa would correct me right away, "You're not stupid!" In some respects, it was funny given Vanessa could be self-deprecating herself. The closest we ever came to an argument was over her hairstyle as Nurse Wendy on ER. The producers wanted her to get her hair cut and so she did. She had wanted the "Rachel" hairstyle from Friends that was so popular at the time, but unfortunately Vanessa's naturally curly hair would not cooperate. The hair stylists on ER had to style Vanessa's hair with a flip. Vanessa thought it looked awful. As usual I told her she was still gorgeous. She informed me that as a boy I didn't realise how important hair was to girls. Regardless, I still insisted that as Nurse Wendy she still had her beautiful eyes and beautiful smile and that her hair wasn't that bad. She was still gorgeous. Vanessa still insisted she looked awful as Nurse Wendy. Here I must point out that Vanessa always referred to me as a "boy" and herself as a "girl" and I did the same. We may have been two middle-aged people, but to us we were just "a boy and a girl".

Vanessa not only cared about other people, but she loved animals as well. She volunteered at her local animal shelter until she learned that she was allergic to dog and cat hair. From time to time she would post pictures of animals up for adoption to various social networks. She often asked about my cats and worried about them almost as much as I do.

Of course, our debate over Nurse Wendy's hair demonstrates that Vanessa could be stubborn at times. At times Vanessa experienced financial difficulties and I would tell her I could send her money. She always refused. Because of her health, two of our friends offered to move her in with them so that they could look after her, but she always refused. Vanessa did not like accepting help from others, even though she was always the first to offer help to others in need. Vanessa could not seem to accept that her friends wanted to help her partly out of selfish reasons. We wanted to keep her alive and with us for as long as possible.

Another head shot from 2010
I have to believe much of Vanessa's refusal of help offered to her sprang from the fact that she had always been self-reliant. When Vanessa was a little girl she wanted to take tap dancing lessons. Her mother told her that she could not afford them. Vanessa then set about baking cookies and cakes. Every Saturday and Sunday she would go to the local supermarket where she would have her own little bake sale. Vanessa was then able to pay for her tap dancing lessons herself and her mother consented to take her to them. It was that self-reliance that allowed her to survive so much sadness in her life, including being blacklisted as an actress and her various health problems.

While Vanessa could be stubborn and was very self-reliant, she was also very much a romantic. It was yet another thing we had in common. She loved romantic comedies, particularly the classics from the Thirties to the Sixties. She not only watched both Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding and Prince Harry and Megan Markle's wedding, but she posted about them to various social media outlets as well. While she sometimes espoused some cynicism about St. Valentine's Day, she celebrated it anyway and was very happy when I wished her a happy Valentine's Day. Among our many discussions about The X-Files was how we both wished Byers of The Lone Gunmen could have settled down with his true love Susanne Modeski and have a happy life. One of Vanessa's friends, who had known her before I did, told me that Vanessa had always wanted to fall in love. Sadly, Vanessa herself told me that she had never had a boyfriend or a serious relationship.

Of course, looking back I am not sure it can be said Vanessa never had a boyfriend, as I think I may well have filled that role. At the very least, she had a boy who was hopelessly, desperately in love with her and still is. Having known each other for years I have to believe that Vanessa knew I was in love with her. Sadly, I never told Vanessa that I love her, something that I have regretted ever since. That having been said, I used every synonymous phrase there is. I told her that I cared for her. I told her that she was my favourite person in the whole world. I told her she was the most wonderful woman in the world. I told her that to me she was perfect (which, if you are a fan of Love Actually, is pretty much the same as "I love you"). I told her that I adore her (which, if one is a fan of The Apartment, is pretty much the same as "I love you"). I have been referring to Vanessa as "dearest" for a long time. As might be expected, I was always and still am very protective of Vanessa. I worried about her and would go into a blind panic if she was sick. I once told her that her being in danger was my worst nightmare. I could also be a little jealous. Vanessa had a crush on CNN reporter Jim Acosta and I would react with mock jealousy any time she mentioned him. She also had crushes on Leonardo DiCaprio and R2-D2. I would evince mock jealousy at the mention of the former, but I figured the latter was a losing battle (I think R2 was my only serious rival). I now know that many of our mutual friends took for granted that I am in love with Vanessa.

Vanessa with R2-D2 from
the shooting of Return of Pink Five
While I am certain that Vanessa knew I was in love with her, I don't know if she was in love with me. We never talked much about how we felt about each other, each of us having been hurt repeatedly in our lives. Too, living nearly 2000 miles apart there didn't seem to be much point in talking about it. I know for certain that Vanessa loved me. During our "argument" over Nurse Wendy's hair on ER, she said, "I love you, but..." and went on to explain how as a boy I didn't understand how girls are about their hair. I think it is certainly possible that Vanessa was in love with me. She could recall minutiae about me. She always expressed admiration for my knowledge of popular culture and my talent as a writer.  When as a Fan Favourite on TCM I introduced A Hard Day's Night (1964) with Ben Mankiewicz, Vanessa made sure to tell me how good I was. As I mentioned earlier, she always corrected me when I insulted myself. Vanessa always remembered my birthday and did something special for it. Although it was rare, she could be jealous. While I wanted to move to California to be with her, I have to wonder that she didn't want me to move out there too. When talking about the Los Angeles area, she would often say, "If you ever move out here..." and once even "When you move out here..." She even thought I was cute and once insinuated that she even thought I was handsome. Given the way I look, that could be proof Vanessa was in love with me, as I can't see anyone thinking I am good looking otherwise (and right now in my head I am hearing her correcting me, "You are cute!").  Just as I doted upon Vanessa, she doted upon me. I suppose that since Vanessa probably knew with absolute certainty that I am in love with her and did not object to that fact, she could have been in love with me too.

Regardless, Vanessa and I were very, very close. The past several years we interacted every day, whether on various social media outlets, through texts, or on the phone. Vanessa was my best friend and my closest confidant, and I believe I was the same for her. We both knew secrets about each other that no one else knew. Vanessa told me things in confidence that I will take with me to the grave. We told each other the various details of our lives, both the successes and the failures. She was happy for me when I was a Fan Favourite on TCM and when I won the 50 States in 50 Movies contest for Missouri on TCM Backlot. I was happy when Vanessa got to visit the Batman exhibit at the Hollywood Museum, when the TV channel Pop started rerunning ER, and any time one of her movies was shown on television. We were each others' biggest fans. We each worried about the other when he or she was sick. Our lives were intertwined in a way that only the lives of relatives and significant others are.

Of course, I am not the only one who loves Vanessa. She had many friends who love her and a legion of fans around the world. Vanessa was an extremely talented actress. She did much more than play Ana Delgado in Stand and Deliver and Nurse Wendy Goldman on ER. She had a career that included work in film, on television, and on stage. And Vanessa always received good notices for her work. Even when a particular movie or play wasn't especially good, Vanessa always received good reviews for her performances. Of course, Vanessa would have been special even if she had never been an actress, and not simply because she was remarkably beautiful and extremely intelligent. Vanessa was a kind, gentle, warm hearted woman who was loyal to her friends and genuinely cared about people and other living things. She always accepted people as they are. It is with good reason that she was "the Sweetheart of #TCMParty." Vanessa Marquez was not simply the most important person in my life. She was the most remarkable one as well. While Vanessa is no longer with us, what would have been her 50th birthday is a time for those of us who love her to celebrate her life.

1 comment:

Caftan Woman said...

"The pain of grief is just as much part of life as the joy of love:it is perhaps the price we pay for love, the cost of commitment."