American Blonde by Jennifer Niven

  “Thanks, Walter.” She introduced us, and the man walked us through so we could go over the engine ourselves, like good, responsible pilots, the way they’d taught us to do in the WASP. Then we were inside the open cockpit, Mudge in the pilot’s seat and me directly behind her. We tied our hair back, pulled on helmets and goggles, and went through the flight check.

  Then we were off down the runway, and climbing into the early morning sky. And suddenly, there was the Pacific Ocean, stretching out across the horizon so that it looked as if the world ended with California. As we flew, the sky turned golden, and when the gold-orange-pink of day finally reached us, we held up our arms and tried to touch it.

  The blue of the water stretched out below us, behind us, in front of us. To the north I could see the road that hugged the coastline, weaving along, ocean on one side, and on the other, sloping green mountains and rugged cliffs. To the south, I could see the boardwalk, unfurling like a carpet. We dove low enough to see the paint-faded shacks advertising carnival prizes and fortunes, beer and barbecue, and went soaring over the Santa Monica Pier, with its roller coasters and Ferris wheel. The beaches were hard and tan, stretching out of the water and toward land for what seemed like miles. I loved the white dunes of North Carolina, but the ocean seemed broader here, as if there was nothing beyond it but more ocean and endless sky.

  At first we sang at the top of our lungs, but then we shouted the things we didn’t want anyone else to know, our voices drowned out by the roar of the engine and the wind and each other so that we only heard ourselves. Down we’d go, nose to the earth. Butch Dawkins is on my mind! Up we’d go again, into the sky. Do I love him? I don’t know! We flew up the coast, where the cliffs grew higher and wilder, and islands of rock jutted out of the water. We swept low over those islands, low over the water, then back up into the sky.

  We stayed up for an hour, maybe longer, and finally Mudge brought us in. Back on the ground, we climbed out of the Dauntless and onto the runway, and she laughed as she pulled off her goggles. Her face was flushed, her eyes bright, her hair windblown. She didn’t look like a glamorous movie star. She looked like the girl I’d met at Avenger Field years earlier. “I wish there was a way to live up there, Hartsie. I haven’t figured it out yet, but if I ever do I’ll let you know.”

  The sky was bright blue by the time Hal and then Johnny Clay arrived, by himself. Even as my pulse continued to race from the flight, I felt a sinking in my bones. Butch had said he’d come, or I thought he had. I wondered if he’d ever meant to at all or if maybe I’d only heard what I wanted to hear. I told myself: Enjoy the moment. Don’t let him take it away.

  While Hal and Johnny Clay took their turn in the Dauntless, Mudge stood apart from me, eyes skyward. I could see how much she wanted to be back up there.

  When the boys finally came in, she said, “Maybe we could go again, just for a few minutes,” but Hal said, “Shit, people. It’s past ten.” We gathered our things and raced each other across the runway, Johnny Clay in first place, me in second, Mudge on my heels, Hal groaning in last place. I pushed myself like a racehorse in the final lap until I passed my brother, who cursed a blue streak.

  As I ran, I felt strong and happy and grateful I was there, at this moment, with these people. I heard a tune beginning and I chased it. When Hal reached me, he scooped me up onto his shoulders, and the four of us sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” all the way to our cars.


  Broad Water sat on Palisades Beach Road, a narrow ribbon of highway that wound along the seaboard. The house was a three-story, thirty-four-bedroom white Georgian mansion on twelve acres of Santa Monica beach. A parking attendant took the keys to our cars, and inside the main entrance, Ophelia Lloyd swept toward us, arms extended, and welcomed us to their home.

  We were given the tour. One hundred eighteen rooms, fifty-five bathrooms, thirty-seven fireplaces, three guesthouses, two swimming pools, four tennis courts, an art gallery, a gold room decorated in gold leaf, a theater with a movie screen that rose out of the floor with the push of a button. We were directed through the living room and drawing room, walking under Tiffany chandeliers and over Oriental rugs, past life-size painting after life-size painting of Miss Lloyd in her more famous roles, to the double stairway that led to the ground floor and party room, painted white and gold and dripping with chandeliers, where two handsome men in uniforms stood behind a long wooden bar, which served only milk shakes.

  Then it was back up a sweeping staircase, across marble floors, and suddenly we were outside. Eighteen broad columns stood at attention on the beach-facing side of the house, looking out over the sand, the ocean, and a long swimming pool with a Venetian marble bridge arching above the water. The air was surprisingly warm.

  My bedroom was on the top floor, at the end of a long hallway lined with Oriental rugs and murals on either wall of English country scenes—horses and carriages, elegant estates, foxhunts. Mudge’s room was next to mine, and Hal’s was at the other end of the hall. Johnny Clay would leave after dinner for Central Avenue in order to be back in time for his show.

  When Miss Lloyd said that several of the guests had already arrived, Mudge asked about Les Edgar. “He was such a part of the picture, it seems fitting he should be here too.”

  Miss Lloyd said, “No, Les won’t be here. But isn’t it fortunate that Pia Palmer could join us? I can’t imagine what it must mean to Nigel.” Mudge’s face went blank as Miss Lloyd gave her a bright smile. To all of us, she said, “You’re just in time for lunch, so please come down as soon as you’re ready.” Then she was gone, shoulders back, head high, gliding down the hall.

  Johnny Clay wandered around my room while I unpacked. It was actually more of a suite, with its own living room and a terrace, which looked out on the ocean. It was thick with French antiques, and a giant flower arrangement sat on the coffee table, filling the room with spring.

  My brother said, “There’s a note.” He pulled it out of the flowers. “‘Welcome to Broad Water, Miss Rogers. Please enjoy your time away. You have earned it! I hope you will make yourself at home and let us know if there is anything we can do for you. Cordially yours, Ophelia Lloyd.’” He held it up so I could see the stationery—a thick, heavy cream—and her name, in flowing red letters, engraved across the top.

  He said, “You know your friend Hal is queer.” He opened the terrace doors, and the breeze blew in.

  “Don’t say anything about that to anyone, Johnny Clay.”

  “Mudge already promised to kill me if I did.”

  “Since when are you and Mudge such good friends?”

  “Since she needs someone to talk to other than a girlfriend like you or Hal—a man who can listen to her heartbreak and make her feel she’s still attractive.” He picked up a piece of fruit and knocked on it. “Whoever heard of glass fruit? Just once I’d like to see a rich person who knows how to spend money.”

  “Did Butch say whether he was coming?”

  “Coming where?”

  “Coming here, Johnny Clay.”

  “Why would he come out here?”

  “Because I invited him.”


  “What do you mean, ‘why’?”

  “I’m just going to say this once, little sister. You be careful. Next to you, he’s about the best friend I got, and I’d hate to have to break his fingers. I mean it. He’s not someone you mess with unless you know you want to mess with him. He ain’t like me in that way.”

  “Has he said anything to you?”

  “He knows better than that. If he said one word to me, I’d have to knock him flat. But I’m not blind or stupid. He don’t lead girls on, and he don’t flirt. Shit.” He sighed. “He doesn’t flirt. He wants a woman, he takes her, but there ain’t—there hasn’t been anyone who stuck. You’re not the kind men mess with, Velva Jean. You’re the kind that sticks. You go down that road with
him, you got to be sure.”

  “Maybe he’s not sure. Maybe I’m not the one he’s looking for. Maybe he’s not even looking. He might not be ready for someone who sticks.”

  “Maybe not. If he was, I’m the last person he’d tell.”

  There was a rap on the door, and Mudge and Hal came in. Hal said, “We all got flowers. Did yours have a note?” Johnny Clay handed it to him.

  Mudge took a drink from her flask but didn’t offer any to the rest of us. She frowned at the room. “You know this wallpaper cost nearly ten thousand dollars?”

  My brother shook his head. “Rich people.”

  Several of the guests sunned beside the swimming pool, including Pia Palmer in a black two-piece bathing suit. She looked at us and said, “How lovely to see you,” in an accent as neat as a freshly made bed. Then she picked up a book and didn’t look at us again.

  We found a spot on the other side of the pool. Johnny Clay said, “That’s one cool dame. A little too cool, if you ask me.”

  “Where did Mudge go?”

  “Why are you looking at me, Velva Jean? I’m not her keeper.”

  Johnny Clay pulled off his shirt and dove into the pool. As I arranged myself on a lounge chair, I saw Pia watch him over the page of her open book. Hal yawned and stretched. “I’m going to say hi to the others.”

  He stood up at the same moment Mudge appeared, in a daring red swimsuit, hair loose under a bright red sun hat. She spread her things out on her chair—towel, sunglasses, magazines, flask. She looked exactly the same as she always did, but there was something brittle and controlled about her movements, as if a storm was brewing and she was trying hard to keep it away. I thought, Uh-oh.

  She called out to Johnny Clay. “How’s the water?”

  “Why don’t you come see?”

  She laughed like this was the funniest thing, but it was the laugh she used on camera. Mudge said, “Watch my things, won’t you, Hartsie?” and sat on the edge of the pool, kicking her legs and looking everywhere but at Pia Palmer. Johnny Clay swam up and tried to pull her in, and she splashed him, careful not to mess up her hat or her hair.

  One by one, other guests appeared—Mr. Roland and his wife, Shelby Jordan, a stylish brunette, much younger than her husband, who was a publicist for Warner Bros.; Phillip Drake and his date; Bernie Hanser and his wife; and others I recognized from the cast and crew. Rosie and Sam Katz weren’t there because they were already at work on another film score, and Webster Hayes had sent his regrets, which was no surprise to anyone since Broad Water was a dry county, so to speak.

  Beach chairs were carried out onto the sand, and rackets were carried onto the tennis courts. We could soon hear the sounds of three or four games going on at once. Johnny Clay swam laps, cutting the water with long, mean strokes, as women around the pool watched, their husbands or boyfriends heading for the ocean waves with surf boards or standing around smoking cigars and discussing the pictures they were making.

  At one o’clock, Babe King and her date, Redd Deeley, appeared from the house. Her mother wasn’t anywhere to be seen. They made their way down the row of sunbathers, stopping at each chair to say hello. Babe’s lips were brightly painted, but otherwise she didn’t wear a stitch of makeup. In the sunlight, I could see her freckles. Under his arm, Redd carried a copy of a script—Latimer.

  When they got to us, Mudge shaded her eyes from the lounge chair next to mine and looked up at them. “Redd Deeley, as I live and breathe. And look. How sweet. You’ve brought your child star, Babe Fanning. I’m sorry—Babe King. I hardly recognize you without your mommy.” She took off her hat and fluffed the ends of her hair. “How are you enjoying my castoffs?”

  Babe blinked her big doe eyes. “I wasn’t aware they’d offered you Latimer.” She took the script from Redd, smiled the sweetest smile, and clicked away as Mudge’s mouth popped open. Redd followed, calling over his shoulder, “Sometimes I wonder if you know how you sound. There’s only one child at this party.”

  Mudge shouted, “You’d be surprised what I know.” She watched after them, and then turned to me. “What do you think she meant by that?” She lit a cigarette, sitting up straight and stiff, like she was on alert. “I can’t lose Latimer. Not with Pia here. If I don’t see him at work, I won’t see him.” Her voice cracked.

  “You should talk to Redd.”

  “Maybe I will.” She stubbed out the cigarette and went off after him.

  I felt my eyes getting heavy, and soon I couldn’t keep them open anymore, a combination of warm sun and the sound of the ocean. When I woke up, Pia was standing over me. She said, “I didn’t want to wake you, but I wondered if you had some oil I could borrow.”

  From the chair next to mine, Babe said, “I’ve got some.” She fished around and handed it to her. As Pia sat down, rubbing the oil onto her arms and legs, Babe raised her sunglasses and looked at me. “I’m so relaxed, I’m bored.”

  “Let’s go for a walk or ride bikes.”

  “Bikes sound fun.”

  We tried to find our way through the house. I told Babe I’d meet her at her room, which was next to Hal’s. As I walked to the other end of the hall, I could hear voices, loud and angry, coming from Mudge’s room.

  “Metro is my studio, not hers. She belongs with Harry Cohn and all his two-bit thugs over at Columbia, not at Metro. Never at Metro.” Mudge.

  “She’s better suited to the role. You’d hate playing such a plain, pathetic character. Let it go.” Nigel.

  “Let it go? Don’t tell me you’re sleeping with her too.”

  “Do you hear yourself? I don’t know what’s worse, the accusations or the paranoia.”

  “I’m sorry, it’s just . . . this whole thing with Pia . . .”

  “In case you’re forgetting, we need her to sign the papers. That’s why she’s here.”

  “It’s taking her an awfully long time to sign them.”

  “She’s the one in control here. Not me, not you, not us. I love you. You know that. Don’t pretend for one minute that you doubt it. I’m doing the best I can.”

  Glass shattered as something smashed against a wall.

  Nigel: “I cannot talk to you when you’re hysterical.”

  Mudge: “When will you realize she’s not going to let you go?”

  “Then screw the bloody divorce. I send her back to England and you move in with me.”

  “It’s bad enough I’m your mistress, Nigel. I’m not going to live like one. We’re going to live respectably or not at all. If you don’t think I’m worth marrying, I’m sure there’s someone out there who does.”

  I eased away from the door. As I did the floor creaked. I froze as the voices went silent. Mudge’s door flung open. “Hartsie?” Her face was tearstained, and there was a red mark on one cheek, as if she’d been slapped.

  “I’m going bike riding. I just came to change clothes. Are you okay?”

  Mudge brushed the tears away, like she’d just remembered them. “Of course. I’m fine. I’ll be down in a bit. Enjoy your ride.”

  Inside my bedroom, through the wall, I listened to the rise and fall of voices. They were quieter now. When there was no more shouting or breaking of glass, I changed into white shorts and a red blouse, and went to find Babe.

  When we went down fifteen minutes later, Nigel and Pia were on the tennis court with Felix Roland and Shelby Jordan, Bernie and his wife played cards in the shade, and Mudge and my brother were walking away, Mudge’s arm through his. She steered him by the tennis courts, right under Nigel’s nose, parading my brother like a prize horse. As she passed, Shelby said something that set Pia to laughing.

  One of the servants helped Babe and me with the bicycles, and we wobbled off down Palisades Beach Road, singing songs and enjoying the breeze. I thought she seemed freer and happier without her mother around. We rode for an hour, all the way to the pie
r and back to Broad Water. Babe let go of the handlebars, holding her arms out like bird wings. “It’s everything I thought it would be, Kit!” I couldn’t tell if she meant the bike ride or the beach or the weekend or Hollywood or California, but whatever she meant, I agreed with her.

  Johnny Clay and Mudge hadn’t returned, and at four o’clock, Ophelia Lloyd appeared to announce sunset cocktails—nonalcoholic, of course—on the terrace. Guests wandered up to the house in tennis clothes and bathing trunks, and Babe said, “I’m going to take a shower.”

  “Me too.” We were expected to dress for dinner, so I gathered our things, and then I picked up Mudge’s as well because there was no telling when she’d be back.

  Sam Weldon swaggered onto the terrace just as the sun was setting. He kissed the cheek of our hostess and shook the hand of our host, who had finally appeared to greet his guests. Sam made the rounds like a politician, and when he reached Mudge, Johnny Clay, and me, he said, “I come bearing sustenance.” From his jacket, he pulled a bottle, half-empty, and filled each of our glasses. Across the porch, Felix Roland raised his glass and said, “Thank God you’re here, Weldon.”

  “Proposals of marriage will be accepted, Roland, but only from the women.” Sam sank down beside me in an empty chair. “You first.”

  I took a drink of lemonade.

  “You’re looking lovely, Pipes.” He glanced around. “Where’s your date?”

  “He’s getting ready for a show.”

  “Is he a circus performer?”

  “Musician. He and my brother have a band.” I nodded at Johnny Clay, who sat with his feet propped on the railing, listening to Mudge. She was wearing her slinkiest evening gown, a light silvery blue.

  “Brothers don’t like me. Their sisters, on the other hand . . . well, you can imagine.”

  “Which is why brothers don’t like you.”

  “You’re a cold woman, Pipes. I take it you’re not going to tell me about the date.”

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