Fright Plan

Toward a cultural history of the vanishing lady—with a nod to Jodie Foster

Thus the trail ends—but at an open clearing, not an impenetrable thicket. "I felt free to consider the question [of the story's origin] still open," the indefatigable Woollcott concludes. "I beg leave to doubt if any man could invent a tale like 'The Vanishing Lady' and thereafter forget that he had done so."

There's one other version of the story, one I'm surprised Woollcott didn't cite, given its chronological proximity to his own collection and the fact that its teller ran in some of the same circles. That teller was none but Ernest Hemingway, the telling a passage in his novella The Torrents of Spring (1926).

This book, Hemingway's third, is an odd number—a snide parody of Sherwood Anderson's novel Dark Laughter—and among its gratuitous barbs and dated japes is a unique version of the Vanishing Lady myth. No saying whether Hemingway knew the Belloc Lowndes novel, or the Rising mystery, or Sir Basil Thomson's The Vanishing of Mrs. Fraser (1925), yet another contemporaneous rehash. Presumably it was one of these sources, or the gossipy Round Table version, that reached his orbit, since his details are essentially the same—with two points of interest.

Vanishing girl: Foster in Flightplan
photo: Courtesy of Ron Batzdorff/Touchstone Pictures
Vanishing girl: Foster in Flightplan

One is the story's abrupt ending. It's related, as personal experience, to hero Scripps O'Neil by an elderly English waitress. She and her mother, exhausted from the Great Exposition, retire to adjoining rooms in the Paris hotel. Upon waking, the girl goes next door: "Instead of Mummy there was a French general in the bed." She tries, through her embassy, to find her mother; she fails. "I never saw Mummy again. Never again. Not even once."

"What about the general?" Scripps asks.

"He finally loaned me one hundred francs . . . and I came to America and became a waitress. That's all there is to the story."

Which is either a pitiless modernism or Ernest's way with a shaggy-dog story.

The second point of interest is the dialogue just following:

"There's more than that," Scripps said. "I'd stake my life there's more than that."

"Sometimes, you know, I feel there is," the waitress said. "I feel there must be more than that. Somewhere, somehow, there must be an explanation. I don't know what brought the subject into my mind this morning."

Now there, if you let yourself hear it, is grief—for the damnable enigma of loss. And years later, a numb wonderment at the suddenness of its recurrence. Woollcott might have approved.

Flightplan's renewal of the legend may resonate with humanity's recent losses to terror attack and natural disaster—just as the story's popularity throughout the 1920s may have been a specter of the Great War and the influenza epidemic of 1918. These too have been years of wholesale loss and sudden, inexplicable grief for millions.

"There must be more than that . . . there must be an explanation." In popular fiction, always; in life, almost never. It may be that, in its eternal return, the Vanishing Lady is a myth not of resurrection but of loss repeated through infinity. It's true that the Lady, whatever shape or sex she assumes, is always found at the end of the story. It's also true that she is always, come the next telling, lost again.

Tell a story once, and the ending is written. Tell it again and again, recasting the details but preserving the dread, and it goes on forever—like loss itself.

Devin McKinney, author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (Harvard), writes a music column forThe American Prospect Online (

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