When the guests of Willa McPherson arrive at her home for her annual soiree, they expected to find their host alive.
Willa was a legend, a remnant of a long past golden age. Bronze curls and thick eyelashes. Always setting trends and surprising the expectant, watching public with her fashion choices. She wasn’t a movie star, but she may as well have been for how many magazine covers she graced, and how many photos of her—and her exclusive parties—ended up splashed onto Page Six. She traipsed through life, and when she had a man on her arm, it was he that was lucky, never the other way around. Even the world counted itself fortunate just to have her among its residents.
So when the guests received their invitation for her prestigious party, they reacted with shouts of excitement, joyful giggles—sometimes even fainting—at being one of the chosen few to be in the presence of the incomparable Willa.
Guests felt the same as they exited their cars to join the crowd—dressed to impress, in their glamorous ballgowns and perfectly tailored tuxedos—the night of the dinner. Although they only had a week’s notice to find their outfits, each person was in the night’s standard of black tie, restricted to only variations of black, white, and gray in a nod to the theme of film noir.
Into an elegantly lit parlor, waiters ushered in the guests: a mix of celebrities, politicians and fellow socialites people Willa crossed paths with at one point or another. At the front of the room, a black velvet curtain hung from a silver rod above.
It built anticipation, but the rows of chairs in front of it had a different effect: confusion. Attendees of Willa’s previous parties had never seen a setup quite like this. Cirque du Soleil performers spiraling down from the ceiling on hoops and ribbons? Yes. The Rockettes flown from across the country for a one-night only show, legs kicking high and their sequins sparkling under chandelier light? You bet. A garden party equipped with luxury tents to retreat from the sun’s rays? It was so popular, people tried to replicate it to varying degrees of success, but never to her level.
In comparison, chairs in rows like they’ve been lifted from a theatre? Not nearly as impressive.
“Maybe she brought the cast of So Sings the Bird?” one guest uttered to another. If there was anyone who could snag the most popular Broadway show in recent memory and bring it to her home, it was Willa.
“I think she’s going to give her own performance,” another proposed. “Like a cabaret.”
With drinks in hand, they filed into the rows, and when a woman in a high-collared dress and pillbox hat with a netted veil stepped out from stage right, whispers of, “Who is she?” rolled through the guests like a tide gently lapping up onto shore.
Her feet stopped at a podium set just off-center to the curtain. “Welcome everyone,” she said, her voice quiet, and not without a tremble, very much unlike the woman they came to see. “I am here tonight to share that Willa McPherson is dead.”
The words were blunt as an axe. Silence turned into whispers. In some pockets, the sound of laughter.
“Is this a film noir mystery? How perfect,” one man said, and others joined in. That must be it. Willa’s such a genius, they agreed.
“No, no.” She held her hand out to try to silence the crowd. “She’s really gone.” With a nod towards one of the party workers, the curtain drew back. Every inch glimpsed behind the fabric led to more and more cries and unbelieving murmurs. Before the guests were enough flowers to form a sorrowful garden, a large portrait of Willa at the Met Ball two years before, and, at center stage like she always was, a marble urn.
“Willa died 10 days ago after a year’s long battle with cancer,” the woman said. “Although much of her life was very public, she and had a private side which led her to keep the news of her illness to her and her family.” She looked up from the piece of paper she had on the podium, tears sliding down her cheeks. “I know this all is a shock to you, but she did not want a public announcement, and paparazzi swarming—”
A fedora-wearing man shot up from his seat. “What is this? Is this some sick joke?” He aimed an accusing finger out at her, the sneer on his lips one of pure revulsion. “Who even are you?”
The woman’s face turned, her eyebrows arching in a way those in the crowd had seen Willa’s do as well when confronted with a question she didn’t care for. “I’m her daughter, Elise McPherson.”
Gasps bubbled up from the chairs as the man fell back into his seat. The fact Willa had a child was not a secret. Nearly 40 years earlier, a photographer snapped a photo of her coming out of her apartment with a swaddled child in her arms before she quickly slid into the waiting car. The picture was seen across the country in print and on TV, as people wondered: Is it really her child? Who’s the father?
She eventually admitted to having a child, but never said any more on the matter. Despite living most of her own life quite publicly, Willa wanted her child to have privacy.
She got her wish. Until that day, no one had ever seen a photo of her daughter’s face unblurred or unobscured by a hat, coat, or Willa’s hand into a camera lens. It gave Willa an air of mystery, and people loved her even more for it.
“Her last wish was that people get to know her as more than just the “It Girl,” Willa McPherson. Although many people thought they knew who she was, they only knew aspects, and over the years, she tried to give hints through her parties for those who cared to look,” Elise said.
Beyond the flowers, a 20-foot screen shifted from silver to black, the only trace of the original color lingering in the words, Remembering Willa McPherson. A slow, yet plucky tune played while photos of Willa appeared and dissolved, each of a different celebration, each with another factoid about their much-loved woman.
The equestrian themed party was Willa’s nod to growing up on a farm in Kansas. The Queen of Hearts theme was not only a tribute to her love of card games, but also the feeling she was trapped in her own looking glass. Her Day of the Dead party honored her best friend, Josephine Romero, who died a few months before.
“Tonight’s festivities are a culmination of this, a grand reveal on her terms. Much like film noir, her favorite film genre, my mom was an enigma, and not just one extreme or another—celebrity or mother—she led a life of middling,” Elise said as an image flashed on the screen. Cast in black and white, Willa sat at kitchen table, her hair in a ponytail, Elise in her lap, both hunched over a crossword as the morning bathed in the light.
Fingertips touched lips, tears welled in eyes at the novel sight of the normally primped Elise captured in everyday life.
“Despite lacking technicolor, my mom believed thought it captured all life in its truest form, she said: infinite shades of gray, and few stark opposites.”