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Unraveling the Mystery of "Madame Mystery"
An episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" leads down a rabbit hole connecting James Dean to the author of "Psycho."
Long ago, when I was young and spent the night at my grandparents’ house, my grandmother would let my brother and me stay up late and watch Nick at Nite. That’s how I absorbed dozens of old sitcoms, from Mister Ed to Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp. It’s also probably the reason that I still enjoy watching reruns of Alfred Hitchcock Presents thirty years after first hearing “Funeral March of a Marionette,” the show’s famous theme song. The other day, I caught an episode that MeTV was showing, one I didn’t remember from my (admittedly unsystematic) viewing of the show in the past. The episode, “Madame Mystery,” first aired in 1960 and ended up surprising me with its roundabout connection to James Dean, the subject of my recent Esquire magazine piece and upcoming book.
The story is rather devious, if not particularly complex. Jimmy Dolan, a young Hollywood publicist, wants to take advantage of the sudden death of actress Betsy Blake, who died when she crashed her speedboat into another boat. His plan is to stage a grand funeral, lard the tabloids with stories about the “real” Betsy, and then start rumors that she’s still alive in order to gin up publicity for her last movie, due out in theaters a couple of months later. He hires a writer to turn out articles like “Love Secrets from Beyond the Grave” and “I Was Betsy Blake’s Astrologist,” and over the course of months, the plan works, turning the dead Betsy into Hollywood’s biggest star, and Jimmy into a bigshot.
Then Betsy returns, very much alive. A weird “twist” ending follows.
“Madame Mystery,” like many episodes of Hitchcock’s show, suffers from a short run time and the 1950s reticence to have the courage of its convictions. It similarly suffers from a small budget that never lets it give a sense that Betsy was actually famous or that Jimmy’s plans had a real impact outside of the small beach house where all of the action occurs.
But only a few minutes into the show, I had the distinct feeling that James Dean had inspired it. Betsy’s death and afterlife are too similar to be coincidence. Gender-swapped, with a speedboat substituted for a race car, the parallels were nonetheless obvious. The articles about Betsy were the same types of articles that the tabloids had written about Dean.
Then, near the end, Jimmy even referred to the other Jimmy by name.
However, for the story to work, Betsy has to be an aging has-been, and that is one area where the plot didn’t ring true. It’s difficult to imagine millions of fans, and hordes of teenyboppers, mourning and obsessing over a middle-aged woman who hasn’t been a top-tier talent since the War. When Jimmy compares her to Rudolph Valentino and talks about the lovelorn mourners for Betsy, it’s distinctly laughable.
Curious about the origins of the story, I looked up the credits for “Madame Mystery” and learned that screenwriter William Fay adapted the episode from a story by Robert Bloch published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1958, “Is Betsy Blake Still Alive?”, later reprinted as “Betsy Blake Will Live Forever.” (In some versions of the story, her name is spelled “Betsey” and others “Betsy.”) And sure enough, Bloch discusses James Dean in the story. “Alive, she’s just a middle-aged tramp who hits the sauce,” Bloch’s publicist Jimmy says. “Dead, she’s a legend. She’s right up there with Valentino and Harlow and James Dean. Her old pictures are worth a fortune in rerun rights. I tell you, it adds up!”
It seems clear from Bloch’s references and the 1958 composition date that Dean’s death was the inspiration for his tale. The twist ending, by the way, won’t be much of a shock if you also know that Bloch wrote Psycho. Suffice it to say, the man had some themes.