A 9-11 Memory that Recurs

A 9-11 Memory that Recurs

Berry Berenson Perkins has been on my mind for four years

It is not possible to think one-by-one of 3,000 people none of whom you ever met. It is, however, possible to think of one human being you’ve met, even briefly, sometime in your life, and it is of that human being I have been thinking more and more through these past four years, and will be thinking about on this coming Sunday, September 11, 2005.

Her name was Berenthia (Berry) Berenson Perkins, a/k/a Mrs. Anthony Perkins, and she, along with 91 other persons—five of them mass murderers—was aboard American Airlines Flight 11, Logan Airport in Boston, to LAX in Los Angeles, when it crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, New York City, at 8:46.40 a.m., on the beautiful, balmy, blue-sky Tuesday of September 11, 2001.

Berry Berenson Perkins was flying home from a summer holiday at Wellfleet, on Cape Cod. She was 53 years old, but my memory of her goes back to when she was in her gorgeous, vivacious mid-20s, and is stuck there. I would guess the woman of 53 was no less a knockout than the girl—the newly married young mother to be—of 25.

I interviewed her once, maybe twice, at her and Tony Perkins’ upper-floor Chelsea brownstone apartment. She was three months married, seven months pregnant. My story would go on to mention what she’d worn at their wedding in Wellfleet—a granny dress, American Indian jewelry, and pearls—and when she and Perkins subsequently got remarried in Central Park, I would cheerfully write: “The bride wore barefoot.” A nice conscientious young copy editor changed that to “The bride was barefoot,” thereby letting the air out of the whole story.

But now, here in Chelsea, her husband the actor was somewhere unseen upstairs, calling down occasionally: “Berry, telephone for you.” His wife was with great good humor, despite her bulging prenatal discomfort, trying to keep command of a helter-skelter scene which included a collie named Murray, another collie—son of Murray—named Gregory, a number of cats, two unidentified girlfriends of Berry’s, and an all-purpose household maid named May.

Gregory, the younger collie, did No. 1 on the couch on which Mrs. Perkins was lounging, and then, removed to the floor, did No. 2 on the hooked rug, leaving May the maid and Mrs. Perkins, collapsing in laughter, to dash here, there, and everywhere with paper towels. No pretense. No embarrassment. No “side.” No nothing. The interview—how she’d met her husband—proceeded from there.

She’d met him at a party given by the actress Ruth Ford, a co-star of Perkins’ in the film “Play It As It Lays,” and then had had the bright idea of getting to see him again by playing reporter and interviewing him for Interview, then still Andy Warhol’s magazine.

Oh, oh, the Beautiful People. Well, yes, Berry Berenson—writer, photographer, sometime actress—was indeed a goldfish at swim in a sea of Beautiful People. It was her natural element. She was not only born to privilege, but to cultural privilege. The younger daughter of diplomat Robert L. Berenson—her sister is actress/model Marisa Berenson—Berry on her mother’s side was the granddaughter of famed Paris designer Elsa Schiaparelli. She was also the great-great-niece of Bernard Berenson, the aesthete and art collector to whose villa in Italy the whole world of chic regularly repaired.

Yes, she was all that, but she was also the girl who set her cap for Tony Perkins, 15 years her senior, whom she must have known had had more than one of what Time magazine used to call a “great and good friendship” with, among others, Tab Hunter and Rudolf Nureyev. She set her cap for him, got pregnant by him, married him, had two children with him—sons Osgood and Elvis Perkins—and stayed loyal to him for the 19 years from the marriage in 1973 to his death of complications from AIDS in 1992.

This was the woman who was killed by Mohamed Atta al Sayed and his fellow fanatics on the morning of September 11, 2001—killed by what somebody, I forget who, pegged as the fusion of 13th-century mentality with 21st-century technology—and you know what? She was precisely in almost every way what Islamic fanaticists most hate, most dread, and would most destroy everywhere throughout the world—the free, bold, imaginative, competent, sexually aware, gay, in its original sense, courageous 21st-century woman.

Long before “Psycho,” or “The Trial” or “Pretty Poison,” or “Catch-22,” or five dozen other movies, Tony Perkins starred in a picture called “Fear Strikes Out.” It was about a Red Sox baseball player named Jimmy Piersall who had a number of emotional problems—he once hit a home run and ran the bases backwards, to make some sort of point—but at this remove I like to think that that title, “Fear Strikes Out,” may have also applied to Berry Berenson Perkins as those bastards were taking over the plane, cutting throats, and roaring at 700 mph toward the North Tower.

I don’t know if she still had her shoes on or if the bride—the wife, mother, widow—wore barefoot. I only know that I am, four years later, even more God-damned angry.