Saturday, April 14, 2012

How My Aunt Marge Ended Up in the Deep Freeze . . .

A scene from “Bernie,” with Shirley MacLaine as Marge, and Jack Black as Bernie.

By JOE RHODES

Bernie,” the new film from Richard Linklater, the director of “Dazed and Confused,” is a dark deadpan comedy that Linklater has called his East Texas “Fargo.” It stars Jack Black as Bernie Tiede — a small-town funeral director beloved by nearly everyone in Carthage, Tex., sweet-natured and gregarious, a lover of show tunes and Jesus — who ends up murdering an ornery wealthy widow, played by Shirley MacLaine. Tiede stuffs her in a freezer, after shooting her four times in the back. Her frozen body stays there for nine months while Bernie spends a big chunk of her fortune, millions of dollars, on assorted good deeds and indulgences, buying the people of Carthage pretty much whatever they want — cars, Jet Skis, airplanes — and pledging a new wing for the Methodist church with hardly anyone bothering to ask where he got so much money.

Even after the body is discovered and Bernie confesses to the crime, a lot of people in Carthage are so sure he couldn’t have done it (“Bernie? Dear, sweet Bernie?”) that the district attorney (played by Matthew McConaughey) has to move the trial two counties south just to find a jury that’s willing to convict him. It’s a story about people believing what they want to believe, even when there’s evidence to the contrary. It’s a story about people not being what they seem. And it’s a story, as the movie poster says, “so unbelievable it must be true.”

Which it is. I know this because the widow in the freezer was, in real life, my Aunt Marge, Mrs. Marjorie Nugent, my mother’s sister and, depending on whom you ask, the meanest woman in East Texas. She was 81 when she was murdered, and Bernie Tiede, her constant companion and rumored paramour, was 38. He’ll be eligible for parole in 2027, when he’ll be 69.

There are little things in “Bernie” that aren’t exactly true, bits of dialogue, a changed name here and there. But the big things, the weirdest things, the things you’d assume would have to be made up, happened exactly as the movie says they did. The trial lawyers really did wear Stetsons and cowboy boots and really were named Danny Buck Davidson and Scrappy Holmes. Daddy Sam’s barbecue and bail bonds, just a few blocks from the courthouse in Carthage (population: 6,700), really does have a sign that says, “You Kill It, I’ll Cook It!” And they really did find my Aunt Marge on top of the flounder and under the Marie Callender’s chicken potpies, wrapped in a Lands’ End sheet. They had to wait two days to do the autopsy. It took her that long to thaw.

I was living in Los Angeles when Aunt Marge was murdered in 1996 and hadn’t been to Carthage, where I was born, in quite a few years. I went back for the trial in 1998 because, let’s face it, it’s not often that someone in your family becomes the focus of a sensational murder case, on the local news for weeks at a time, the circumstances of her demise so tawdry and bizarre that the story appeared in People magazine, on “Hard Copy” and, eventually, on the guilty-pleasure pinnacle of true-crime cable-TV programs, “City Confidential.” And there was something about Aunt Marge’s ending up in a freezer that seemed appropriate. She’d always been kind of coldhearted. It was not an unfitting end.

Aunt Marge wasn’t on speaking terms with anyone in her immediate family when she died. Not my mother, with whom she’d had an ugly falling out over the terms of my grandfather’s will. Not her only child, Rod Nugent Jr., a successful Amarillo pathologist she hadn’t seen in years, or her grandchildren, who sued her over some trust money she wouldn’t let them have. When informed that Marge died, the first thing my Aunt Sue, her other sister, said was, “What a relief.”

Aunt Marge met Bernie Tiede at my Uncle Nugent’s funeral in 1990. Bernie did the embalming. He helped pick out the coffin and the headstone. He arranged the flowers, sang a hymn at the memorial service and escorted my aunt to and from her husband’s grave. He offered her his coat when a chilly breeze blew through the cemetery. She ended up wearing it home.

When I visited the set of “Bernie,” filmed outside Austin in the fall of 2010, that was the scene they were shooting: my uncle’s funeral and my aunt’s first meaningful encounter with the man who would end up killing her. There was a Texas actress named Margaret Bowman playing my mother, sitting in the front row. And 30 feet away from her, past a half-dozen extras playing my relatives, sat Shirley MacLaine as Aunt Marge.

I didn’t go to the actual funeral, so no one was playing me. But that’s the only thing that could have made the day feel more surreal. I met my “mother” a half-hour before the scene, when she was having her makeup done. We posed for pictures together, and when I showed them to my actual mother later, she seemed pleased enough at the resemblance. “She looks nice,” my real mother said.

But the freakiest part, by far, was seeing Shirley MacLaine looking so much like Aunt Marge. There was a natural physical resemblance. Aunt Marge, like MacLaine, had red hair and pale, freckled skin. But what really unsettled me was the look on MacLaine’s face as she went into character, with pursed lips and accusing eyes. I’d seen that face before, whenever Aunt Marge disapproved of something, which seemed to be most of the time. It usually meant she was going to tell you, in no uncertain terms, why you weren’t good enough or smart enough or otherwise worthy of her time. She used it on salesclerks, on waiters, on farmhands, housekeepers and cooks. She used it on my parents. She used it on me. I really hated that face.

After the scene was over, I had lunch with MacLaine in her trailer. She was still in costume, and I was still a little freaked out. She wound up asking me more questions than I asked her. She coaxed stories out of me I hadn’t told in years, how Aunt Marge once threatened to put me in a mental institution because I wouldn’t cut my hair; how she chased me around her yard with garden shears because I wouldn’t clean out a wasp’s nest with my bare hands; how, when I was 14, she locked me in her house for two days and wouldn’t let me call home. Finally, when Aunt Marge went to the grocery store, the maid, sympathetic to my plight, unlocked the bedroom door so I could get to the phone and beg my mother to come rescue me. She did. That was the last time I went to Aunt Marge’s house.

There were darker stories that even I didn’t know until the last few years. Aunt Marge, who loved to sew and shop and didn’t have a daughter of her own, tried to get custody of my sister, Carrie, by having our parents declared unfit. She claimed that my father was an alcoholic — which wasn’t true; he barely drank — and that she could provide a more suitable upbringing. It didn’t work. But apparently she was serious enough to meet with attorneys.

The movie makes a point of establishing how, except for Bernie, most people in Carthage did their best to avoid Aunt Marge, for fear of incurring her wrath. She grew up in Carthage and later moved to Longview, 40 miles away. Her husband, Rod Nugent Sr., made a fortune as an independent oilman, a ruthless operator. They moved back to Carthage in 1989 (just a year before my uncle died), buying a controlling interest in a local bank and building a huge Austin stone house on the outskirts of town, just off Dixie Lake Road. Marge seemed to lord her wealth and status over everyone she encountered. As one character says in the film, “Marjorie Nugent’s nose was so high, she’d drown in a rainstorm.”

Maybe she had an inflated sense of entitlement simply because she was the oldest daughter of a prominent local merchant and landowner, my grandfather, Spencer Midyett. She was 12 years older than my mother and spent a lifetime bossing her around. “She was so demanding,” my mother said. “If you did something she didn’t think was up to her standards, she’d tear it up and make you do it again.”

I always knew that my mother and Aunt Marge weren’t very close. Even so, my mother hosted her wake and said only kind things about her in public. It’s only been in recent months, since the murder, the trial and the making of the film, that she’s been willing to talk about how bad their relationship really was.

“She hated your father,” my mom told me. “I think she hated everybody. I don’t know why she was so ugly to so many people, but she was.” And then my mother said something I’d never heard her say before, something I wish I could have shared with Shirley MacLaine.

“I was scared of her,” my mother said of her oldest sister. “I think Mem” — my grandmother, Marge’s mother — “was scared to death of her. Sometimes I think she was the devil on earth.”

Bernie Tiede currently resides just outside New Boston, Tex., 100 miles north of Carthage, in the Telford Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, where he is listed as Offender No. 00864378, sentenced to life. That’s where I interviewed him last spring, the first time I’d seen him since the trial, 14 years ago. In 1998 he looked more like a middle linebacker than a funeral director at 6 foot 3 and 270 pounds. He’s 40 pounds thinner now, and his hair has gone totally gray.

He started crying as soon as he saw me. We were on opposite sides of a glass window, just as in every prison movie you’ve ever seen. Five minutes into the conversation, after he asked me, “How’s your mama doing?” the guards decided it would be all right for us to be in the same room.

He came into the visitation area, a linoleum-floored cinder-block room with long tables and brown plastic chairs, and hugged me longer and harder than I’ve ever been hugged in my life. “Oh, gracious,” Bernie said. “I’m just so glad you came to see me.”

Even as he sat there in prison whites, I found it hard to imagine Bernie as anything other than the sweet, gentle Samaritan everyone in Carthage had known and loved. He became a lay preacher and featured soloist in the choir at the First United Methodist Church not long after he started working at Hawthorn Funeral Home in 1985. He sponsored Little League teams and volunteered at the local community college, working with the music and theater departments. He was on the Chamber of Commerce Christmas decorating committee. He sang at weddings and funerals and, of course, every Sunday at church. He took hot meals to shut-ins. More than one person in Carthage described Bernie Tiede as an angel. To which Danny Buck Davidson, the district attorney, responded during the trial: “Oh, he’s an angel, all right. An angel of death!”

Bernie was extremely good at his job, not just in working with the bodies (he had a special talent for makeup and hair) but also in comforting the families of the deceased. He stayed close to the grieving widows, steadying them, holding their hands. He looked in on them, sometimes days and weeks after the burial, long after his official responsibilities as a funeral director ended, just to make sure they were doing all right.

And that, he says, is why he took such an interest in Aunt Marge. He knew her reputation around town, that she could be curt and vindictive. But seeing her at the funeral, Bernie couldn’t help feeling sorry for her. That’s why he gave her his coat. That’s why, a few days later, he showed up at her house. Just to make sure she was doing all right.

“It just seemed like she didn’t have any friends,” he told me, “and I just felt this compelling desire, this need, to give her some friendship. I don’t know, maybe I thought I could rescue her.”

He invited her to go places with him. He took her shopping. He took her to dinner. Soon, it seemed, they were going everywhere together, often seen holding hands. They started taking longer trips, to Dallas, to New York, where they went to Broadway shows. It seemed an odd pairing to the gossips in town — and there were plenty — who began to speculate on the nature of their relationship. There were rumors that on those out-of-town trips, they slept in the same room. It was a brewing scandal, a whispered topic in every coffee shop in Carthage.

Robert Evans, one of Uncle Nugent’s business associates, testified during the trial that Marge took Bernie to lunch in Shreveport once and made him uncomfortable with the way they were “physically familiar.”

“I would say that the greeting kiss or goodbye kiss was not one you would give your mother,” he testified.

Bernie says now that he knew about the rumors, even understood why people might assume their relationship was something more than friendly. But, he says, there was nothing sexual about it. He thought of her as more of a mother figure and a friend. Besides, Bernie is gay.

“We never talked about that,” he said when I asked if Aunt Marge knew he was gay. “It just didn’t crop up.”

They traveled the world together, with Aunt Marge footing the bill. They went to Hong Kong and Bangkok and Russia. They cruised the Nile and the Rhine. They took trips to San Francisco and Las Vegas. There were shopping sprees and fancy meals. Aunt Marge paid for all of it, and Bernie, whose funeral-director salary was less than $25,000 a year, wasn’t about to say no.

“She just kind of blossomed,” Bernie said of those first few years, trying to explain why the notoriously cranky widow behaved so differently with him. “She liked to go to concerts. She liked to travel, and I don’t think she was able to do any of those things when Nugent was alive.

“We had a ball,” he said. “I think I probably saw her happier than anyone in her family ever did. Including her husband. She kind of opened up to me. She became a different person.”

For a while anyway. As time passed, Bernie noticed that Aunt Marge was becoming more and more possessive. She seemed to resent his having other friends and expected him to be available for her whenever she wanted, 24 hours a day. She’d page Bernie at work, sometimes three or four times in an hour, to demand he run some sort of errand for her. He went to her house and made coffee in the morning, had lunch with her every afternoon.

“I picked out her clothes; I helped her with the laundry,” Bernie testified during the trial. “I, on occasion, trimmed her toenails, helped her pull out the long hairs that grew in her chin, combed her hair in the morning. . . . Everything that you could imagine, she had asked me to do that for her.”

He did it, Bernie says now, because he didn’t want Marge to feel abandoned. And also because the perks were pretty good: all that first-class travel, all the clothes she bought him, the $7,000 Rolex. In 1993, three years after they met, Marge talked Bernie into quitting his job at the funeral home and working for her full time, as her “business manager.” She gave him access to her checking accounts so he could pay her bills. And, he says, she encouraged him to spend some of the money on himself. She wanted him to buy a house and a new car. She also rewrote her will, making Bernie the sole beneficiary. It seemed like a pretty sweet deal.

“The money was a lure, O. K.?” he told me, admitting that he didn’t trim Aunt Marge’s toenails just out of the goodness of his heart. “I was also afraid to leave her. She could be very vindictive. I’d seen that.”

Bernie thought about leaving her for months before he killed her. He just couldn’t work up the courage. He even fantasized about hitting her over the head with a baseball bat but couldn’t bear the thought of her suffering.

“She was just so controlling,” he said. “She felt like she could own me, and I guess to some degree, she did. It was like that feeling I’ve read in some books about spousal abuse, that type of thing where a woman keeps going back to her husband even though she knows she shouldn’t. And I felt like that sometimes.

“I felt like I was in prison. And now I know what that feels like.”

I’ve now seen the movie “Bernie” twice and, except for a few insignificant details — Aunt Marge’s hair was never as long as Shirley MacLaine’s; Danny Buck Davidson (short, doughy and distinctly doubled-chinned) looks nothing like Matthew McConaughey — it tells the story pretty much the way it happened. As far as I know, my cousin Rod, Aunt Marge’s only child, hasn’t seen the movie yet. But I guarantee he won’t like it. I wanted him to be a part of this article. I called his home a dozen times, getting nothing but voice mail, until finally his wife, Sylvia, answered. As soon as I told her why I was calling, she said, “We don’t want to talk to you,” and immediately hung up.

I got a letter from his Dallas lawyer, Charles M. Hosch, a few weeks after that. It warned that he expected to be asked to “weigh every syllable” of this article “against the strictest requirements of the law.” The letter goes on to say that any characterization of Aunt Marge as “unpleasant” was based on a faulty assumption. “The reason was that Marjorie Nugent was painfully shy,” the letter contends. “The story lines about her murderer have been untrue also. He is not sympathetic. He preyed on an elderly, vulnerable widow. He deceived her, stole her savings and tried to use her money to buy friends.

“Marjorie Nugent’s son and grandchildren do not want their mother and grandmother’s memory ridiculed and dragged through the mud, or her murderer celebrated. After many years, they have found rest. We may hope that Marjorie Nugent is beyond all this, in a place of light and peace.”

It was a week before Thanksgiving in 1996 when Bernie finally snapped. When I asked him what happened that day, he became defensive and visibly frustrated for the only time in our two-hour visit, waving his hands in the air, letting out an exasperated sigh.

“Gosh, it’s been so long since I’ve even thought about these things,” he said. “We’re talking 16 years ago. I don’t sit and ponder this stuff. Please forgive me, but I don’t even think about that day. Is that some kind of dissociative disorder? I don’t know! I don’t know! Somebody called it that. Do I shelve some thoughts and put them away? Of course I do. Just like you do.”

But during the trial, Bernie described the day in detail. He went to Aunt Marge’s house around 7 a.m. to make her breakfast, then went back to his home to take a shower. Before he left, he noticed a Browning .22-caliber rifle that she kept around to kill armadillos and scare blackbirds and squirrels away from her bird feeder. Bernie moved it into a bathroom near the garage.

He came back to the house around 10 a.m. to drive Aunt Marge to the dry cleaners in Longview. She was in the garage, ahead of Bernie, when she stopped to pet her dog, Bo, a Chow mix. Bernie took the rifle from the bathroom and shot Aunt Marge in the back. She fell after the first shot but was still breathing. Bernie shot her three more times.

He dragged her body down a hallway and into the utility room where the Amana deep freezer was waiting. He removed enough food so that Aunt Marge — 5 feet 2 inches tall — would fit. He wrapped her in the Lands’ End sheet, stuffed her inside and covered her up with the food he’d taken out. He hosed away the blood in the garage, found the spent rifle shells and threw them away. He left the rifle by the freezer. And then he went on with his day. He went to a rehearsal of the Panola College production of “Guys and Dolls” and that night at Pizza Hut bought dinner for the cast. Everyone who saw Bernie that day — for that matter in the days and weeks that followed — said he seemed just fine, as if nothing in his life had changed.

Bernie continued to sing and preach at church, to pay Aunt Marge’s bills and make sure her yard was mowed, her driveway swept. If anyone asked to see Marge, he’d tell them that they just missed her, or that she was taking a nap. He promised he’d give her the message and see that she called back. On the outside, he was all smiles and reassurance, the way he’d always been. On the inside?

“I was freaking out,” he said. “Oh, good gracious. I thought every moment, I’m going to be found.”

If he’d done things differently, Bernie might have gotten away with it. He has gone through the scenarios a thousand times in his head. She was, after all, an 81-year-old woman with a bad temper and a heart condition. He could have just waited her out. Or he could have disposed of the body. “Someone said I could have dropped her from an airplane into the Gulf of Mexico,” he said. “And if I’d done that, I would not be here with you in prison. I’d be on the lam somewhere. She wouldn’t have been found. But none of those things occurred to me, because it was not premeditated. It was not my intention to kill her that day. I never thought it through.”

He knew that, eventually, someone would find her. He convinced himself that would be for the best. “I wanted her to have a proper burial,” he said. In the meantime, he continued to spend her money on himself, on others, on the town. He bought several planes and hangars and installed them at the Panola County airport. He invested in the Boot Scootin’ Western Wear shop. He pledged money to the church’s building fund. He bought cars for at least 10 people. In the nine months before he was arrested, he spent an estimated $2 million. And he convinced himself it’s what she’d have wanted.

“She wanted me to enjoy the money,” he said. “She said that to me.” It’s why she’d given him unfettered access to her accounts, why’d she left him everything in her will. “She was mostly concerned that it didn’t go to anyone in her family. ‘Not one thin dime,’ she used to say. Good gracious, how many zillions of times must she have said it.”

As the months passed, Bernie’s lies became more elaborate. He started telling people that Aunt Marge was in Ohio, visiting her sister. Or that she was in the hospital, having suffered a stroke that left her speechless. “I’m not a very good liar,” Bernie told me. “I told a whole bunch of lies, so many that I couldn’t remember who I told what. I don’t know how I pulled it off, but apparently I did.” He sounded, momentarily, proud. “I’ve heard some people say, ‘He could have won an Academy Award for that performance.’ ”

Aunt Marge’s stockbroker grew suspicious when she didn’t thank him for sending a Christmas turkey, and even more so when she didn’t show up to sign some important investment documents. He called the Sheriff’s Department, which had also received an anonymous tip telling them to look for Marge. Finally, a deputy called Rod, Aunt Marge’s estranged son, and suggested that something might have happened to his mother.

Rod, his daughter Jennifer and several Panola County deputies went to the house off Dixie Lake Road on Aug. 19, 1997. They were looking for evidence of where Marge might be, a hospital bill perhaps. They found her in the freezer instead. The deputies put the freezer, its contents undisturbed, on the back of a pickup truck and hooked it up to a generator. That’s how they drove Aunt Marge to the coroner’s office in Dallas, still frozen solid.

“I deserve to be in prison,” Bernie told me, “of course I do. But not for as long as I have. There are people in here who have done things more heinous than I can imagine in my wildest dreams, and they’ll be going home before I do.” He was crying again. “I’ve adjusted. But I want to feel the grass under my feet. I want something other than concrete. I want to step on carpet again. I have not stepped on carpet in 14 years.” He leaned in, his shaky voice barely a whisper.

“I want to go home,” he said, as the tears flowed. “Every day I want to go home. And one of these days, they’re gonna let me.”

I think my visit to the “Bernie” set may have been more unsettling to some of the cast and crew than it was to me. As Skip Hollandsworth, who co-wrote the screenplay, introduced me around, a few people clearly weren’t sure how to react. Should they apologize for making a comedy about my aunt’s murder? Should they say they were sorry for my loss? I told them not to worry about it. “Bernie’s not the first one who thought about killing her,” I told them. “He’s just the first one who went through with it.”

Besides which, the whole thing felt like farce from the moment it happened, even to the family. I mean, seriously, under the chicken potpies? Shot and then frozen by the nicest man in town, who spent her money to finance the Boot Scootin’ Western Wear store (and also, it turned out, some German gay porn)? How is that not funny? There has been some talk that, if the movie does well, a producer might even be interested in a Broadway musical version. This does not strike me as a terrible idea.

But it has taken awhile for my mom to adjust to all this. She has slowly come to accept that the movie version of her sister’s murder is the version that most people will know. She’s not yet comfortable with the idea that people at the grocery store will most likely be whispering behind her back, that people who don’t know her will act as if they do. She’s an 83-year-old woman in a small Southern town. She’d rather have kept this all to herself.

Last spring I drove her to the Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, where Shirley MacLaine was touring with a one-woman show called, simply, “An Evening With Shirley MacLaine,” in which she sits onstage in a comfortable chair, shows photographs and movie clips from her life and career and tells stories about all the famous people she has known. Reincarnation is mentioned. As is Frank Sinatra.

After the show, I escorted my mother backstage, past the long line of fans who wanted autographs or advice on what to do when the Mayan calendar ends. We elbowed our way past a couple of security guards and finally into a back hallway, where MacLaine was surrounded by a small circle of V.I.P. well-wishers. She abandoned them as soon as my mother entered the room.

I was going to introduce them, but there didn’t seem to be any need. MacLaine came rushing toward her, arms outstretched. “I’m happy you came,” she said to my mother. And then, for a very long time, they hugged, neither of them saying a word, both with tears in their eyes. Maybe it was just the emotion of meeting a movie star, but it felt like something more than that, for both of them. For a moment, it felt as if Shirley MacLaine had become Aunt Marge again, but this time she wasn’t making that face.

“I will see you again,” she said, before she touched my mom’s cheek.

“I hope so,” said my mother, who looked happier than I’d seen her in years.

Joe Rhodes is a writer based in Los Angeles.

Editor: Adam Sternbergh

A version of this article appeared in print on April 15, 2012, on page MM40 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: How My Aunt Marge Ended Up In The Deep Freeza....
NYT

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