Today, while Washington is lolling over brunch, Kitty O'Neil is going to be set on fire in Hollywood.
She will be wrapped in a suit of something called Nomax, given a three-minute tube of oxygen, spread with glue, then lit with a torch. She will run or jump or cartwheel - whatever the director of the "gag" wants. After a couple minutes, some men will hurl her to the ground and start putting her out like a rag.If they don't work fast enough, or if the fire penetrates the suit, she's dead. "Just like that," says Kitty O'Neil, snapping her fingers.
She doesn't hear the snap. Kitty O'Neil is deaf.
She has been deaf since infancy. "When I was four months old, I got measles and smallpox," she says. "My fever was so high, it killed the nerve. My mother packed me in ice to save my life." She says her parents didn't know she couldn't hear until she was two.
Kitty O'Neil says this, like she says most things, smiling brightly. The words are a little hard to understand. But not the smile.
She is 32. She weights 97 pounds. She wears wide-wale corduroys and suede pumps and nail polish that perfectly matches her violet blouse. She could be a sales girl from Garfinckel's on her day off.
Kitty O'Neil is a daredevil. She is the first woman ever to become a member of Hollywood's prestigious Stunts Unlimited - 37 people who put their lives on the pay line for quick cash and esoteric celluloid glory. She is 5-foot-3 and apparently fearless.
Yesterday she came to Washington to receive the Volta Award of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf. The award is in recognition of her overcoming her handicap and for her efforts in aiding the deaf. She accepted it with characteristic grace.
In a way, Kitty O'Neil's world is like a great seamless bubble. You don't hear the phone ring, or babies bawl, or Mozart, or sirens, or the sound of rain dripping through junipers. Kitty O'Neil doesn't really say what it's like. All she says is she wouldn't trade it. Not for anything. "I like my deafness," she says. "It's a challenge. I'm not afraid of it." All her life, she's been seeking risk. The bigger the better.
Like the time she drove a rocket-propelled, needle-thin, 38-foot car painted midnight blue and pasted with Valvoline stickers across a dry lakebed in Oregon. That was three years ago. She went 512 miles per hour and set a world land speed record for female drivers. (Now she wants the men's record.)
Or like the time last Feb. 14, when she jumped off a 127-foot hotel into an air bag on the pool deck. That gag was for TV's "Wonder Woman." "If I hadn't hit the center of the bag, I probably would have been killed," she says, as if she's talking about groceries.
She has driven in off-road races. She has competed in A.A.U. diving and swimming meets. She has done 100-foot falls into water; "cannon-fired" car rolls - almost anything crazy-sounding you can think of. Her dream at the moment is to be the first human through the sound barrier in a land vehicle, which would mean exceeding 750 miles per hour. This fall she will pilot a hydroplane on Lake Mead for a try at a world record.
She isn't rich. Top Hollywood stuntmen make up to $100,000 a year, though her salary is probably about half that (according to a spokesman at Stunts Unlimited). "It's never really worth it," O'Neil says. "The government takes half anyway. I'm not in it for the money."
She's in it for the simple psychic thrill. Daredevils are coming into their own in the etherized '70s, when taking risks is an airy out from a deskbound world. In California there days there exists something called "Escape Country" - a kind of high-risk Disneyland where you pay your nickel and take your risk - hang gliding, motocross, you name it. Last year's film, "Hooper," with Burt Reynolds, was a kind of valentine to the profession of stuntmen and has done much to popularize the breed.
The guys at Stunts Unlimited "are just like my brothers," O'Neil says. Says Andre Williams, secretary of the organization: "It's true. They all love her. They communicate with her in their own way. They make up hand signals. They think she's as brave as anyone.Although they didn't at first."
How come she isn't scared; a semi-cowardly visitor wants to know. She is poised on a sofa at the Bell Association's headquarters in Georgetown. Two feet over sits her traveling companion, Marie Payne. Marie translates for Kitty when people don't speak slowly enough for her read their lips. The two live together in Glendale, Calif.
"Scared?" she says, as if the word were Arabic."What for? I love danger. I have a deep faith in God. Danger demands using everything you've got to overcome it. That is attractive."
From a bulky briefcase now comes a gaudy technicolor photo of a figure engulfed in flames. "Here she is being put out," says Payne. "I think that gag was two years ago."
Yeah, I got burned in my eyes and my nose and my eyebrows and the back of my head," says O'Neil.
She says she's not sure when the gift of risk first surfaced in her, though she has a fragment of memory. "I was four. I was sitting on my father's lap while he was mowing the lawn. I couldn't hear the engine under us, but I could feel the vibrations. I loved those vibrations." She thinks the vibrations were a way of cutting through the bubble of soundlessness.
Today, when she feels a little bored, she'll take out the vacuum cleaner and do the rug. She could do it all day, says Payne. "She gets this serene look on her face. You and I, all we hear is noise."
She plays piano and cello by vibrations, too. "I can feel the highs and lows. And I can dance the same way. Disco. But I don't go out that much." (She is divorced and says she doesn't have time for a steady man.)
Her mother, a Cherokee Indian, first taught her about the phenomenon of sound by placing her daughter's hand on the side of her neck while she spoke. That was in Wichita Falls, Tex., when Mrs. O'Neil was founding the School for Listening Eyes.
"I know I'm deaf. But I'm still normal. The way I look at it, being handicapped is not a defect. People say I can't do anything. I say to people I can do anything I want."
Like leaping through fire, crashing into buildings, rolling cars. Rolling cars is about her favorite gag, she says.
"I rolled my first one when I was 16. It was my mother's."
"Yeah, she totaled it out," says Payne.
"It was my mother's favorite car, too."
These days she drives a Toyota Celica. She hasn't rolled it on the highway yet. But she keeps getting speeding tickets. "55 is too slow," she says grinning.
She thinks she'll keep doing stunt work another two years or so. Then she'll retire and found two schools - an athletic training school for the handicapped, and another she wants to name One World Communication. The idea, she says, would be to make the world of the deaf meet at the middle.She's not sure how she'll do this, only that she will. In fact, she's concentrating on it now.
"Concentration is everything. There are two books I live my life on: The Bible and 'The Power of Positive Thinking'. With those, you can do anything." CAPTION: Picture 1, Kitty O'Neil, by John Mcdonnell of The Washington Post; Picture 2, Kitty O'Neil with Hal Needham and "the Motivator"