They said it would never last, 52 years ago

CLEARWATER

It was a weekday afternoon in the winter of their lives, a time for cheesecake and all the best stories. Joe sprang from his chair.

"Which cheesecake are you going to have?" he asked his wife.

"You like chocolate better," Alice said. "Why don't you eat that one?"

Joe is 90. His legs are giving way, but his eyes shine. Alice is 80, lithe and limber with curls the color of copper coins. Joe is always bringing Alice things as if he owes her the world on fine china.

They were famous once. Alice starred in Ice Follies and Holiday on Ice. Joe was a lousy skater, but a great stage manager. He also managed Sonja Henie, but no one compared with Alice.

They'd never really shared their tale before, but Alice had recently started writing it down. Maybe people needed to hear this improbable love story, people who had been married two, three, four times, or people coming off the high of their wedding and sinking into the prickly truth of commitment.

If we could do it, she thought . . .

Joe brought Alice cheesecake but forgot to remove the plastic wrap. Alice sighed and peeled it away.

• • •

The first time Alice Quessy heard of Joe LeMac:

A mutual friend invited her to Joe's birthday party. His friends were going to build him a gravestone. There would be scotch. Alice was from Boston, a straitlaced perfectionist on stage since age 3. She did not go.

Several years passed. Joe went to a skating show at the Saxony Hotel in Miami. He saw a tiny woman on the ice, twirling to ballet and jazz. Soon she would join Joe's company, Ice Follies, on tour. What drew him in was not mysterious.

"Her looks!" Joe said. "I'm going to marry that girl."

The first time he asked her out, she said no. She was going through a divorce. Still, Alice was intrigued. Joe's pants were too baggy, but he was charming, "a real joker, anyhow," she said. "He'd tell you a couple that would frost your socks." The second time, she said yes.

The romance roared for four months through Salt Lake City, Peoria, Ill., and Troy, Ohio. Alice always exited stage right and locked eyes with Joe. Everyone knew they were an item. He lavished her with jewelry and flowers. Alice, who just wanted someone compatible, told him to stop bringing her things. He wouldn't.

"I'm crazy about you," Joe said. "Marry me."

She thought about it.

"Yes," she said. "I think that will work."

Alice was the star of the show. Joe was a company man. Two weeks before their wedding, Alice got fed up with a parasol in a skating routine. The spokes kept falling in her face.

"I am not skating with this parasol anymore," she told Joe. "Do something with it."

"Let me tell you something, young lady," Joe said. "You'll skate as directed. It's in your contract."

Her eyes flickered.

"I'm warning you, Miss Quessy," Joe told his fiancee. "I'm going to fine you."

Alice snapped the parasol over her knee.

He fined her.

He's still paying for it.

• • •

People ask Alice and Joe their secret, especially this time of year when everyone is thinking about love. Alice tells them a few things.

One. It's fate.

"I think it was meant to be," she said. "Destiny plays a very large role in your life."

Two. Your gut.

"It's very important for people to follow their intuition," she said. "There's a deep-seated feeling that you have inside that will tell you one way or the other."

Three. Stubbornness.

"If you truly love one another and you have any values in life, yes, you will work at it. You won't just give up."

Alice and Joe wanted more than anything to prove people wrong.

• • •

They planned to get hitched in Cincinnati. Alice went that day to get her hair done.

When Alice came out of the hotel salon, she saw friends' faces. They met her eyes and looked away. Everyone knew, but no one would say.

"Where's Joe?"

She stormed the lobby counter for messages. The show's general manager grabbed her.

"There is something I need to tell you," he said. "Mr. LeMac has left town."

Joe was in Cleveland.

Alice composed herself and skated that night, flawlessly. She walked backstage before the finale, past an enormous blackboard that usually had instructions for the ensemble skaters. Someone had erased it and written:

ONE FREE WEDDING CAKE (5 TIER) TO THE FIRST COUPLE TO MARRY.

Alice finished the show, went to her room and sobbed herself to sleep.

Joe got to Cleveland and talked to a friend. He was 38, never married. Did he really want to do it?

"I love the girl," Joe said.

"Then why don't you go back and marry her?"

"That's a good idea."

At 3 a.m., Alice heard a knock on her door.

"Who is it?"

The voice was low. Another knock.

"Look, you have to answer me," she said, "or else I'm going to get on the phone and call the house detective."

"It's Joe."

They went to the courthouse the next day, Jan. 30, 1960, between Alice's first and second show. Joe went out for a smoke while she got ready. When she looked outside, she saw him running back and forth across the highway with a friend, dodging semis for no good reason. Alice sighed. She would either marry him, or he would get hit by a truck.

After the third show, they had a wedding reception with the cast. They caught guests taking bets on how long they would stay married.

Days later, a silver bucket of champagne showed up at their door with a card.

Congratulations on one week. They said it would never last.

• • •

After the cheesecake, Alice got up to fetch the card and pink roses Joe gave her for their anniversary.

Joe leaned in.

"She's got a lot of talent. Immensely talented. She's wonderful."

Joe collected the dishes. He turned on the water and washed off bits of cheesecake, bracing himself on the sink.

Alice showed off the card.

I love you more than ever. I'm more thankful for you every day we're together. And I hope you're as happy to have me in your life as I'll always be to have you in mine. Lots of love and kisses, Joe.

She leaned in.

"He's very kind, very dear," she said. "He's a gentleman. He's got a big heart."

She peeked over her shoulder.

"I'll never find anyone like Joe."

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8857.

They said it would never last, 52 years ago 02/10/12 [Last modified: Friday, February 10, 2012 12:48pm]

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