American Blonde by Jennifer Niven


  We sat in the center section of the theater in one of the middle rows, Johnny Clay to my left, Butch to my right, Hal and Mudge sitting directly in front of us. Hal said, “Don’t worry, everyone, I’ll be slouching down once the picture starts so you’ll be able to see the screen.”

  Nigel Gray and Pia Palmer glided down the aisle and sat at the end of Mudge’s row. As Pia settled into her seat, she leaned into Nigel, perfectly at ease. In a moment, Mudge turned around and batted her eyes like Mallory Rourke. “So, Johnny Clay Hart. Are you going to Tauby’s for the weekend?”

  “I don’t think we were invited, were we, Dawks?”

  “No, sir.”

  Mudge said, “Oh well, you can be my plus one, and Butch can be Hartsie’s. You have to see this place to believe it. Bigger than the royal palace, and right smack on the beach. There’s nothing like waking up to the sound of waves outside your window.” She looked at him through cat eyes. “Just bring your own hooch because there’s no alcohol at Broad Water, ever since Ophelia famously went on the wagon. Speaking of, where’s my flask?” I opened my purse and handed it to her.

  Sam Weldon and the redhead came down the aisle and took a seat at the end of our row. When he saw me looking, he pointed at the redhead. “I found her.” He sat back, draping his arm over her seat. Meanwhile, Mudge and my brother were laughing at something, which got Nigel’s attention. He stared at both of them so long and so obviously that Pia Palmer craned her neck to see for herself.

  Then the screen lit up. The lion roared. The music swelled. The credits appeared. An MGM picture. A William Taub film. Directed by Felix Roland. Adapted for the screen by Sam Weldon, from his novel. Starring Webster Hayes, Ophelia Lloyd, Nigel Gray, Barbara Fanning, and Hal MacGinnis, with Babe King, Edward Morgan, Frank Mitchell, Phillip Drake, on down the list. We were all clapping and cheering.

  Johnny Clay whispered, “Where’s your name, Velva Jean?”

  I felt my heart sink. In front of me, I heard Hal say, “Where’s Velva Jean?”

  Suddenly, on a screen all its own, words flashed up in blazing red, white, and blue letters: And MGM’s Newest Discovery—Kit Rogers as “Betsy Ross.” In William Taub’s production of Samuel Weldon’s Home of the Brave.

  A rousing overture followed—the musical score taking flight and carrying the audience with it—as the first lines of the book rolled across the screen. Then, just like that, Betsy Ross’s face appeared. She was saying how honored she would be to sew the flag, how happy she was to be asked. Sketch by sketch, she looked at George Washington’s design ideas and then she set these aside and told them her own vision for the stars and stripes. The men thanked her and left, and she started to sing.

  I was singing up there, where everyone could hear it. People like Nigel Gray and Ophelia Lloyd. People like Harriet Fields, who’d made me think I couldn’t do it. People like Jacqueline Cochran and General Hap Arnold and all the folks back home on Fair Mountain, who would see it at their local theaters. People like Darlon C. Reynolds and maybe Judge Hay of the Grand Ole Opry. People I didn’t even know.

  Too soon, it was intermission, and instead of getting up to find the ladies’ room or stretch my legs, I sat right there—like almost everyone else—and waited for it to continue. Mudge didn’t turn around this time, but sat looking at the screen, where the word Intermission blazed in red letters. Up there, she and Nigel were two young people in love. And now, after all they’d been through, on screen and off, they weren’t even getting to celebrate together. I looked at Mudge, and it hit me, just like that, how alone she really was.

  Fifteen minutes later, the lights were dimmed once again. I was swept up in the story of these brave young soldiers and the brave women who waited for them at home, of the brave President who led them, and the brave widow who sewed the first flag. As Mudge and Nigel reunited on-screen, I started to cry. Across the rows of seats, I heard the sounds of sniffling and purses clicking open, of tissues being passed around. I touched Mudge’s shoulder to let her know I was there. She took my hand and held it tight, and then there it came—“The Star-Spangled Banner.” Not the orchestral version, but just my voice, by itself. In it, I didn’t hear the frustration of the day I’d recorded it. Instead, there was the pain and loss and joy and triumph and hope of the war and the victory.

  Following the last line of the song, the theater was silent as a tomb. Then, as one, everybody was on their feet, making so much noise I wondered if the roof of the theater might blow right off. I hugged Mudge, Hal, my brother, Butch. At the end of the row, Sam Weldon was slapped on the back by a dozen hands, and I saw the redhead plant a kiss on his mouth.

  Velva Jean Hart, as Kit Rogers, as Betsy Ross, appeared in seven of the film’s scenes, and she was good.

  THIRTEEN

  Afterward, we emerged from the dark of the theater into the white-bright klieg lights. I shaded my eyes with the hand that had been shaken, moments earlier, by some of the biggest names in Hollywood. For a second, I couldn’t see because the camera flashes were blinding. I held on to Butch’s arm and there, like the yellow brick road, was the red carpet stretching into the crowd that was gathered, into the night. Mudge wiped at something on my cheek. “Lipstick,” she said.

  Johnny Clay rubbed his eyes, pretending it was the lights, but he couldn’t fool me. The movie had choked him up. He said, “Little sister, that was about the best thing I ever saw. You been working on your voice, Velva Jean. Yes, sir.”

  Mr. Mayer stood beaming, Mudge on one side, Babe King on the other. He leaned in to Babe and said something as Mudge, cradling an enormous bouquet of flowers, waved to the crowd and announced her gratitude to Leslie Edgar, without whom she couldn’t have delivered such a fine performance. “Every night, after I left the set, I drove to his house and we prepared for the next day’s work, even though he was no longer working the picture.”

  One of the reporters shouted, “Over here, Miss Rogers!”

  “Kit!”

  “Kit Rogers!”

  Butch said, “Go on. I’ll be here. I’m not going anywhere.”

  He nodded me forward so that I could shake the hands of the men and women who held theirs out to me, and so I could answer questions from the press: Where did you come from? Is it true you’re an orphan? That both your parents are dead? Is this your first picture? Is that your brother? Is he under contract to Metro too? Who’s the gentleman you’re with? Do we hear wedding bells? What do you call your new hair color? What’s next for you, Miss Rogers?

  I told them Yes, this is my first picture. Yes, that’s my brother—he’s a musician, not a movie star. That’s my friend, he’s a musician too. This color? It’s called American Blonde. Yes, I am grateful—to Mr. Mayer and Lucille Ryman and Ophelia Lloyd and Arthur Rosenstein and my friend Barbara Fanning and all the nice folks who believed in me, most of all my family.

  Ophelia Lloyd swept in and air-kissed both of my cheeks. She said something about how proud she was, as my mentor, and what it meant to her to see the name she had chosen for me, the name of her favorite character, up on that screen. As she talked, I caught Sam’s eye through the crowd. He held up his cigarette, like he was toasting me.

  When can we next see you on the screen, Miss Rogers? Will you make a record?

  I said I’d been working on a series of pictures based on the comic strip Flyin’ Jenny. We’d already shot two of them, and the first one would be released sometime in January. In that moment Mr. Mayer appeared and said, “As you can imagine, we’ve got big plans for this little girl.” Howard Strickling and Mr. Mayer’s family fell in line behind him. “This is only the beginning, folks. You haven’t even begun to see what she can do.”

  Across the street at the Roosevelt Hotel, we danced in the ballroom and on the terrace and around the pool. Waiters in tuxedos and white gloves carried silver trays of scotch and champagne or caviar, raising them above their heads as they stepped, precise
and delicate as ballet dancers, through the crowd.

  We helped ourselves to the food, and people called out: Kit Rogers, what a voice you have. You were wonderful as Betsy Ross. We loved you in the picture. Someone bumped my elbow—Babe King, as breathless as if she’d been dancing all night. “Oh, Kit, can you believe it? Mayer’s offered to steal me away from Columbia, not just for the next picture, but for good.” Her mother was nowhere to be seen.

  I said to Butch, “Do you want to get some air?”

  Without answering, he led me through the ballroom and past the orchestra, through the lobby and the hotel bar and the Cinegrill restaurant, with its mural of moving pictures, champagne glass stools, and red Formica bar. We found ourselves outside on the terrace.

  Nigel Gray and Pia Palmer, a good six inches separating them, sat by the pool watching the dancers. I heard someone say, “I’m surprised she would even come.”

  I followed Butch past everyone to the far end, which was emptier and quieter. We took a seat on one of the lounge chairs, side by side, facing the pool. He said, “This is your night. Are you sure you don’t want to be mixing it up?”

  “I’d rather sit here with you.”

  “In that case . . .” He took off his jacket and his tie, loosened his collar, and leaned back with the lazy grace of a panther. He nodded at my hair. “I like the flower.”

  I touched it, careful not to knock it loose. “It isn’t real. Gardenias aren’t in season. I wish they were because the smell reminds me of home.” Summer nights on the porch, telling stories after supper, the air sweet and heavy.

  “It’s the flower of love. That’s what someone once told me. Secret love.” He smiled. I smiled. “So this acting thing—is this what you want to do now?”

  “It’s more about the singing than the acting for me.” I let myself think of my voice, coming out over the screen so that everyone could hear it, of how my voice would carry itself to theaters around the country, maybe even around the world.

  He pulled out some tobacco and a pack of white paper and began rolling a cigarette, right on his leg. “We’re recording some songs for a little label down at Central. If you want to write anything or give me something you got, I’d love to hear it.”

  We talked about Central Avenue and music, and then our conversation shifted to what we’d been doing since we last saw each other at Camp Davis in North Carolina. He’d gone ashore on D-day with the 4th Infantry Division, 4th Signal Company. He’d fought at Saint-Lô, Hürtgen Forest, and the Battle of the Bulge. He’d lost more friends than he could count.

  I told him about England and France and Germany, about Fresnes prison, and Romainville, and the cattle car to Ravensbrück.

  Butch shook the hair out of his eyes. “My mama used to say, ‘Where you been is gone, gone, gone. All you keep is the getting there.’ The people I know who been at war, we all got the same story.”

  “It’s what you do with it afterward.”

  “That’s right.”

  We were quiet as the thought settled in. Butch said, “You know, at first I couldn’t write about the past couple years, but lately it’s all I write about. I don’t play those tracks at the Downbeat though.” He grinned. “I’m on my best behavior there.” He took a drag on the cigarette, blew the smoke out ring by careful ring. “But it’s not just about using where you been to help you write songs; it’s about how you live the everyday.”

  We watched people jump into the pool in their evening gowns and tuxedos, the women coming up without their diamond necklaces and bracelets, and the men diving to retrieve them.

  I said, “I like that so many people are here going after what they want. When I was growing up on Fair Mountain, the biggest thing anyone wished for was a new bait line down at Deal’s.”

  “Never underestimate a new bait line.” He cracked a smile at me, slightly crooked, gap between his teeth. Butch didn’t smile a lot, but when he did, he was the best-looking man I’d ever seen. “You were good in the picture. You’ve always gone after what you want.”

  “So have you. It’s a hard thing to do.”

  “It’s harder not to. It’s easy to forget what you want sometimes. Just don’t let them change you or what you want to do.” He nodded toward all the Hollywood people gathered in and out of the pool and then grinned at me again, dark hair falling down over one eye. “Now I sound like your brother, lecturing you. It’s just that I’m invested.” The look in his eyes was too direct, and suddenly I thought: Something’s happening here. This isn’t the Butch I knew before the war. He may not be speaking the words, but he’s telling me something just the same.

  Someone screamed from the pool, followed by wild laughter. The sound of it jarred me because I’d forgotten where we were. Judging by the look on his face, Butch must have forgotten too. He bumped my knee with his. “I should get on back. We’re playing a gig tomorrow night and I’m still working on a couple of songs. You okay to get home?”

  “The limo will take me. Do you want him to drive you downtown?”

  “I’ll take the streetcar or a bus or maybe I’ll hitch a ride. Don’t worry about me.”

  We made our way back through the Cinegrill, the hotel bar, and the lobby. On the street, we stood in the shadow of the lights, still blazing, from the Chinese Theatre.

  I smiled up at him. He smiled down at me.

  He said, “Congratulations on the picture. Thanks for letting me be a part of it.”

  “You’re invited for the weekend.” Even as I said it, I knew he wouldn’t go, but I was spinning from the marquee lights and the champagne and him and the late, late hour.

  His dark Indian eyes regarded me over his cigarette, and the way he looked at me made my neck go hot. “That so?”

  I met his gaze, not blinking. “You said you’ve been thinking about me.”

  “You been on my mind.”

  “You’ve been on my mind too.”

  “Well then. I’m thinking we need to talk about all this thinking.”

  For one second, two seconds, three seconds, time stopped and everything was suspended. It was just Butch and me, alone on a street corner, no marquee lights, no cars racing past, no orchestra music, no people. I could hear my heartbeat in my ears like the drums on Central Avenue.

  “But not here, girl. Not here.”

  Like that, the lights of Hollywood were burning around me again, and I heard the music, the car horns, the laughter and chatter of a thousand people. Time caught up, the moment had passed, and even though it was too late, I couldn’t let it go. “Johnny Clay’s coming for part of the day tomorrow, but he’s not spending the night.”

  He stubbed out the cigarette. “All right then.”

  He reached out and for a moment I thought he was going to touch my face, but instead he unpinned the gardenia from behind my ear. My hair came loose, and I touched it where the flower had been as he tucked the gardenia into the buttonhole of his jacket, over his heart. “I guess I’ll just have to go on thinking a few hours longer.”

  I watched him go, jacket hooked over his shoulder, making his way eastward down the street. Butch Dawkins had been on my mind for at least five years now, maybe more. I tried to remember what year it was I’d met him, when he and Johnny Clay first came riding up to Devil’s Kitchen in Danny Deal’s old yellow truck. I’d been a married woman then. It would have been 1940, or somewhere around in there. Butch had started out as Johnny Clay’s friend, but then he became mine. We were friends who talked music and wrote songs together, and the last one he’d written, a song called “The Bluesman,” had stayed with me like a ghost.

  Tomorrow, I thought. He’d as good as said he would be there.

  I crossed the street to the Chinese Theatre and stood on the broad forecourt, surrounded by the handprints and footprints and signatures of the stars, and found an empty square. I kneeled down and pressed my hands against t
he cement, until I could almost feel them making their mark. Then I pulled out my lipstick and wrote Dear Sid Grauman, Live out there! Kit Rogers, 12/27/46.

  At six a.m., Mudge and I packed our bags for the weekend and left the house. We weren’t due at Broad Water till ten, but we wanted to watch the sunrise from the beach. We hadn’t slept a wink.

  I drove and Mudge sat beside me, one arm out the window, hair blowing in the breeze like a dark cloud. I glanced in the rearview mirror now and then to watch the sky lightening behind us, as if it were chasing us. I followed Mudge’s directions, but before we reached the beach, she pointed me to the Santa Monica Airport.

  “What are we doing here?”

  “You’ll see.” As we passed through the gate, she said, “Pull up over there, Hartsie.” She waved toward one of the hangars.

  The airport had been the base of the Douglas Aircraft Company during the war, and the place still bore the look of wartime. A canopy of chicken wire stretched like a roof across the terminal, parking lots, and hangars. On top of this sat thin and flimsy wood-frame houses surrounded by fences, clotheslines, and trees made of wire with leaves made of feathers, spray-painted to look real. The runway was painted green like grass. The tallest hangar had been built to look like a hillside. From the air, the enemy would have thought this was just another neighborhood and never would have known there was an airfield here.

  We were out of the car and walking across the pavement toward a sleek, thirty-foot-long dive bomber, painted black, a white star on the side and on the tip of each wing. Mudge threw her arm around me. “The Douglas SBD Dauntless. It’s got a maximum speed of 255 miles per hour, a rate of climb of seventeen hundred feet per minute, a ceiling of 25,500 feet, a range of a little over one thousand miles, brakes so accurate that you can pull yourself out of a near-vertical dive . . .”

  As she rattled off the facts and figures, a man strode toward us and shook our hands. “It’s ready for you, Barbara.”

 
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