Jessica Yerdlay was an ambitious, mediocre, little known actress active during the 1950’s and 1960’s. She is probably best known for her portrayal of the flighty and self-absorbed Dora in High Times in Manhattan, a performance which could have served as an autobiographical portrayal. Yet even in a role so suited to her real personality, Yerdlay was lacking. Critics universally agreed that she was carried by Franck O’Day in the film.
Franck has said that Yerdlay’s overwhelming affection for him was apparent from their first read-through of the script. And while he admits that he did dally with her during filming – “All that adoration was impossible to ignore,” he said – it was most assuredly a one-sided love affair.
Franck met the true love of his life at the wrap party for Manhattan. As fate would have it, Bridget McSwale arrived on the arm of accountant Roger Yerdlay, Jessika’s brother. His clients included many of Hollywood’s best and brightest of the era, including his sister and Franck himself.
Bridget was originally from Kansas. She had fled a failed marriage, moving to Los Angeles in search of a better life for her and her little girl. She met Roger Yerdlay when she answered a want ad that he had placed for a secretary.
Roger hired her the moment she walked in the office, because he’d fallen in love with her on sight. Falling in love with those who can mostly take or leave you was an unfortunate, unwise trait that Roger shared with his older sister. This selfish, delusional habit of theirs would lead to dire consequences for all parties involved.
Roger had been meekly and unsuccessfully pitching his woo to Bridget for about six months. Franck had been seeing the ever-eager and always accommodating Jessika whenever he could pencil her in around his busy schedule. They had appeared regularly in all the gossip columns throughout the filming of Manhattan, and because the movie-going, newspaper-buying public likes to think that the movie stars that fall in love on the screen are also in love in real life, the studio played up the apparent romance. And Jessika went along with the fiction.
In reality, she was nothing more to Franck than a compliant companion for that long 4th of July weekend on the yacht at Catalina, an adequate hostess for Hollywood-insider parties at his house in Malibu, a warm body to thaw him after skiing in Aspen.
The worlds of these four people would collide at the wrap party for High Times in Manhattan on New Year’s Eve, 1961.
In a case of life imitating art, Franck was smitten at a party on New Year’s Eve, as was the character he played in the legendary film. But unfortunately for Jessika, unfortunately for all of them, it was not she with whom he fell in love, but the tiny vision that appeared at the party on the arm of a lowly accountant.
Franck would later say that he remembered nothing about the party other than Bridget: how they danced and chatted, their chaste kiss at midnight. He didn’t notice when Jessika left in a huff, early – about the same time the ball dropped in Times Square. He didn’t notice Roger Yerdlay sitting all alone in a dark corner of the room, getting morosely drunk, seemingly resigned to his loss to the better man.
Bridget and Franck were married in June 1962 at his house in Malibu. The clothes for the wedding party, including the adorable gown worn by Maribeth, who acted as flower girl, were designed by Paco Rabanne. An idyllic, month-long honeymoon in Acapulco followed.
Jessika Yerdlay, in an uncharacteristic display of professionalism, did not berate
Franck in the press about what she privately considered a monumental jilting. There was no reason that they couldn’t remain friends. Contractual obligations would force them to make more movies together, so why not make the most of it?
No one interviewed Roger Yerdlay about his thoughts on the loss of
his beloved secretary to one of Hollywood’s premiere leading men.
But it seemed that he, too, had accepted Fate’s decree, because he, too,
remained close to Franck and his family.
In January of 1965, principal shooting began on Two Green Keys, a film billed as “the reunion of Franck O’Day and Jessika Yerdlay.” Little is known about the film. Production stopped when tragedy overtook Franck’s wonderful little family on Thursday, July 15th, 1965.
After several calls to the O’Day home went unanswered, Franck rushed home. He found his front door standing open, and horror inside. Roger Yerdlay’s body sat at the foot of the grand staircase, drenched in blood, his face unrecognizable as a result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Bridget was sprawled face down on the dining room floor, a gunshot wound to her back. Roger
had killed Franck's beloved wife and then turned the gun on himself.
In the winter of 1965, Peter McSwale, Maribeth’s biological father, arrived in Hollywood.
He suggested to Franck that he should be granted custody of his daughter, even though
he had signed over all parental rights long ago. Franck resisted – Maribeth was all he
had to remember Bridget by. He loved the little girl, and knew that her mother would
have wanted him to raise her.
But a Los Angeles Superior Court judge awarded custody of Maribeth McSwale O’Day to her biological father, and reinstatement of the name she had been given at birth. She would thenceforth be again known as Maribeth McSwale. She was back in Kansas in time for Thanksgiving.
Jessika now had Franck exactly where she wanted him. He was a broken man – he’d lost his wife and then his child in devastatingly quick succession. He had nothing left. Jessika was there to comfort him, to give him strength. Franck was grateful for her friendship, for her company.
But Jessika wanted more. Once she had him completely under her spell, she abandoned all pretense of simple friendship, and lured a lonely and lost man back to her bed.