In the photo of my mother that bothers me the most, five men are sitting on a white sofa and she’s draped across their legs. Her dress is guava-pink, or salmon-coloured, and she’s wearing heels. She has one knee bent, making the hem of her dress ride up nearly all the way, revealing her thighs. There’s no underwear on show or anything, but the picture still bothers me. Saboia said: Honey, it’s a hell of a photo. Fucking genius. Let’s use it. But I said no. He thinks, or rather, he never stops telling me, that these days, stick a few photos in a book, even just one, and it sells better. Because pictures have that power, they spark people’s imaginations: folks want to see more, hear more, buy more, he says, when they see a photo.
Like I said, I disagree. The way I see it, my mother’s story doesn’t depend on the photos she took herself, just as it doesn’t depend on the ones already out there, of her on stage.
The five men in the photo Saboia likes so much were important to my mother. She knew each of them very well. Maybe that explains the goofy expression. With her hand resting on someone’s leg and the other arm flung over her head, behind her hair, her lips are pressed together in a smile that hides her teeth. Today, if she was shooting even the simplest commercial, they would be saying: Come on, darling, big smile now. That’s it, open up. But I can hardly imagine the great Neide Laet doing that.
Saboia told me that my mother was completely anti-commercial. And in this lay her strength, and the appeal of my book.
The age of great songwriting had been and gone. By the time she was thirteen, Neide Laet already drank, and smoked, and stood on the steps in Praça Ramos feeling profound. Mortensen was not her father. The girls at school agreed that he really should have been her father, but he was not. Mortensen was Marilyn Monroe’s father. When she was little, Neide once showed her mother a picture of a tall, slim man sporting a pencil moustache and a grey suit, and asked: Is this him? He resembled Clark Gable, but they both knew that the man in the picture wasn’t an actor. It was Mortensen, Marilyn’s father.
At the L.A. county register, the mother of the future American actress gave the girl her maiden name, Baker. Marilyn never acknowledged Mortensen as her father. Neide may have picked up this detail from her own mother, who would read to her in bed about the lives of singers and actresses, until she fell asleep. A similar story about Mortensen did the rounds at birthdays and family parties throughout Neide’s own childhood, at times told by her mother, and even, at others, by her school friends.
Almost all the great radio singers teach us the same lesson. Neide’s idol, Dirce di Falco, would only let herself be photographed with her eyes closed, her chin raised and her lips parted, standing at a Zenith microphone in its diamond-shaped frame. Neide modelled herself on the old stars of Radio Kosmos and TV Excelsior. It’s well known that at her peak, she carefully crafted her image, handpicking camera angles, a classic repertoire, and the scandals which the fabulous Neide herself confirmed in the pages of Sétimo Céu. And although she was not always one of those divas fixated on fame, there was a time when she rose to new heights and took her place among those who had, undoubtedly, made it. We’ve all heard of what artists tend to call their Moment, when, seized by the desire to break new ground, they reinvent themselves. Neide’s moment was not exactly one of these. She shone brightly, no doubt about it, but the light was altogether her own.
This excerpt from Um álbum para Lady Laet was translated at the Literary Translation Winter School in Paraty in July 2014, organised by the British Council, the British Centre for Literary Translation, Universidade Federal Fluminense and the Fundação Biblioteca Nacional.
The translators were Rahul Bery, Ana Fletcher, Lucy Greaves, Annie McDermott, Zoë Perry and Jethro Soutar, working with Daniel Hahn and José Luiz Passos. You can read about the challenges they faced during the translation process on the British Council’s Word of the Day blog.
Sophie Lewis writes for the And Other Stories blog about the editor’s experience of the workshop.