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Photo by Nathan Hurst on Unsplash
Photo by Vita Vilcina on Unsplash
Pearl Lusk (AP Photo / Anthony Camerano via The New Yorker)
Olga Trapani Rocco (via AP Photo / John Rooney via Shutterstock)
"On the morning of December 31, 1946, two young women, among many other people, got on a subway train separately at the Fifty-fifth Street B.-M.T. station in Brooklyn, and sat down across from each other in a car as the train moved off toward Manhattan. They had never met, had never spoken, but their lives had been drawn together and the entwinement was a sinister one. They were both working girls and more than ordinarily attractive. One of them was tall, with pale, clear skin and large, dark eyes and shining black hair; she was twenty-eight years old, and her face, besides being beautiful, had an interesting, troubled look about it. She had noticed that the other girl was carrying a gift-wrapped package about the size of a large shoe box. It had an aperture at one end, from which protruded what looked like the lens of a camera. Without thinking much about it, she wondered idly what kind of gift was inside the package. The other girl was barely nineteen and was small and blond. Her name was Pearl Lusk. Only a week earlier, on the day before Christmas, Pearl had found herself disillusioned with New York and its ways, but the mood hadn’t lasted long. Now, as the subway train jounced and clattered along, she felt excited and happy. She held her gift-wrapped package carefully on her lap with both hands. Every now and then, she glanced briefly at the tall, dark girl across the aisle, as if to make sure she was still sitting there.
Except for two things that happened to her on Christmas Eve, Pearl Lusk had been pleased with New York ever since she came to the city to seek her fortune, and she told everybody so. She had arrived in the autumn of that same year of 1946, some months after graduating from high school in Quakertown, not far from Philadelphia. For a while, she lived with her mother and her stepfather in Brooklyn, but as soon as she got a job—as a salesgirl in a department store—she moved to a furnished room all her own on the upper West Side of Manhattan. She did over both herself and the room almost at once. She began using mascara for the first time, and she settled on a darker shade of lipstick than the girls at Quakertown High had gone in for. On the advice of an expensive hairdresser on West End Avenue, she abandoned her blond bangs and thenceforth lifted to her new world a head of carefully tousled blond curls. She hung pink curtains at the one window of her room and bought a lavender coverlet for the studio couch. She made friends quickly with many of the salesgirls at the store and lunched at a soda fountain every day and dined in a cafeteria almost every night with large groups of them. Her favorite lunch was African-lobster-tail salad and Coca-Cola, followed by a junior banana split. Her favorite dinner was chicken potpie with mushrooms, pecan pie with whipped cream, and coffee. She was healthy and cheerful, and grinned and laughed a great deal, often for no particular reason. Soon she began having dates with young men who worked at the store. As the holiday season approached, her landlady more and more frequently called her to the telephone in the downstairs hall. On evenings when the telephone didn’t ring for her, she read twenty-five-cent editions of popular novels and detective stories, one after another, lying at ease on the lavender coverlet of her studio couch.
Pearl was a well-brought-up girl and never went out with young men to whom she had not been introduced, no matter how handsome they might be. On Thanksgiving Day, a man, whom she considered the handsomest she had ever seen, except for certain movie stars, tried to pick her up on the subway in Brooklyn when she was going to see her mother. Although she talked to him in her amiable way, she refused to have a drink with him or to give him her name and address. He told her his name was Allen La Rue. Afterward, from time to time, she thought somewhat regretfully about his good looks and romantic name, but on the whole she was glad she hadn’t consented to go out with a stranger. What with the crowded lunches and dinners with the chattering gangs of salesgirls, the occasional dates with the fellows she had met at the store, and the twenty-five-cent books, she was contented and occupied. Then, on Christmas Eve, after only three months of her new life had been lived, the department store laid her off, along with batches of other salesgirls, because the Christmas rush was over. On top of that, her landlady told her that same day that she was getting tired of calling her to the telephone and in the future would call her only if her mother wanted to speak to her.
By thus eliminating Pearl’s salary and obliterating her social life, the department store and the landlady were unwittingly preparing Pearl for her next encounter with the handsome stranger she had once fended off. She ran into him the second time in a subway train in Brooklyn on the evening of the day after Christmas, when she was on her way back from her mother’s, and this time she agreed to get off with him at Times Square and have a drink. She ordered her favorite, which was Scotch whiskey and 7-Up. She told him about losing her job, and about the landlady, and he was sympathetic. Later on, she remembered that his manner had seemed to change subtly as they chatted over their drinks that evening. “He seemed interested in me like any other man at first,” she told an Assistant District Attorney, “but the more I talked the more I felt like he had some different kind of interest in me.” At any rate, after she had talked awhile, the man said he had a job for her if she wanted it. He told her about the work, and she was enchanted. It reminded her of the sort of thing Perry Mason, the lawyer, was always asking his secretary, Della Street, to do in those absorbing novels by Erle Stanley Gardner that she had been reading. Besides being the handsomest man she had ever seen off the screen, she thought Allen La Rue was by far the best-dressed. He had on a double-breasted gray suit with widely spaced pencil stripes and sharply pointed lapels, and the coat had padding that emphasized his broad shoulders and made the cloth drape smartly down to his narrow hips. His white-on-white shirt had a collar with extra-long points, and he wore a striking blue tie with a flowered design in ivory and gold. Before the evening was over, Pearl had enthusiastically accepted the job, her employer was calling her Pearl, and she was calling him Allen..."