American Blonde by Jennifer Niven


  I started shouting. “Hey! Hey you! You there! Where are you going?” My voice was carried up and away by the breeze. I picked up my skirt and waded into the shallows, up to my shins, and the water was like ice.

  The figure seemed to stop, to turn, and then it just stood there, the tide causing it to sway back and forth. The sea was choppy and rough, and as a large wave crashed in, the figure lost its balance. I was too scared to go after it—in this dark, in this cold, in this rough water—and so I stood frozen and useless, waiting for it to reappear.

  The waves roared in, rolled out, roared in, rolled out, and suddenly there came the figure drifting with them. At first, I thought he was dead, but then he pulled himself up and brushed the hair off his face and waded toward me. It was Hal, and he was crying.

  I put my arms around him and he carried me up onto the sand, away from the water, where we both sank onto the beach and he rested his head on his hands and just sobbed. I put my arm around him and rubbed his back, and finally just sat with my hand on his arm, gripping the skin where it was cold and wet, feeling the goose bumps under my fingers.

  Sometime later, Sam came to check on me in my room. When he knocked on the door, I said, “Come in,” without thinking or caring who it might be. He found me sitting on the veranda, watching the waves.

  He didn’t say anything at first, just sat down heavily on the chair next to mine and looked out toward the horizon. Finally, he said, “The police are gone.”

  “And Mudge?”

  “She’s with the coroner.”

  The word sounded so final—coroner. Like corpse and gravestone and funeral. These were words without hope, words that meant endings. The end. My mind drifted. Sam was saying something else.

  “What’s that?”

  “Do you want me to stay?”

  “I’m okay.”

  He leaned down, a hand on each arm of my chair, his face inches from mine. “You let me know if you need anything. And, just in case, lock your door.”

  He made me get up and follow him out so that he could hear the lock click into place. I went back to the balcony, suddenly all alone, the most alone I’d ever felt in my life. I felt empty and washed away. The tide roared in, the tide rolled out. In, out. In, out. I finally fell asleep in my chair, and even after I did I could hear the roaring and the rolling, in and out, in and out.

  ZED ZABEL’S HOLLYWOOD

  “Barbara Fanning Falls to Death in Home of Movie Couple”

  Await Autopsy to Determine if Inquest Needed in Death of Actress

  HOLLYWOOD, December 30—AP—As the rest of the world celebrates the spectacle of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Home of the Brave, Hollywood mourns Barbara Fanning, glamorous Metro star who most recently brought Mallory Rourke to life. Miss Fanning died Sunday from a head injury, suffered in a fall at the residence of Home of the Brave producer Billy Taub and his wife, actress Ophelia Lloyd (who plays Martha Washington in the picture).

  The accident occurred during a weekend party attended by a small group of film notables, all friends of Mr. Taub and Miss Lloyd connected with Brave. Among them were director Felix Roland and his wife, publicist Shelby Jordan, screenwriter/author Sam Weldon, stars Nigel Gray, Hal MacGinnis, Phillip Drake, and Babe King, agent Redd Deeley, costume designer Colin Fedderson, and MGM’s newest discovery, Kit Rogers, who, as many already know, is a longtime friend of Miss Fanning’s.

  A spokesman for Taub said that Miss Fanning apparently lost her way in the pitch-black house during a game of Murder in the Dark. The accident is eerily (and, some might say, conveniently) reminiscent of the one that befell Primula Niven in May, when, during a game of Sardines, she mistook the basement of Tyrone Powers’s home for a closet and tumbled to her death down a flight of stairs.

  Metro’s biggest star, Nigel Gray, is reported prostrate over the loss. MGM said an inquest doubtless would be held, but no date has been set. Studio physician Dr. Edwin Atwill said the official cause of death was a “trauma sustained by accidental injury.”

  Coroner Benjamin H. Nigh asked police to investigate and said that results of the autopsy and investigation would determine whether an inquest will be held.

  It is, of course, too early to know how this will affect the Home of the Brave box office, but the question right now seems to be: Can anything hurt it? In its first week of release, the picture has already broken records, leading both Warner Bros. and RKO to shelve their own Revolutionary War–era projects.

  SEVENTEEN

  Monday morning, I woke up in my bed thinking: I should get to the studio. I’ll be late. And then the nagging feeling crept in—something bad has happened. You’re just too tired to remember. Something terrible.

  Like a flash, it came back to me—Mudge on the bathroom floor, the men from the studio, the coroner taking her away.

  I wanted to go back to sleep so that I wouldn’t have to think about it or remember, but instead I got up, pulled on a robe, and went downstairs. She was everywhere—her perfume, her photos, the throw pillows she loved to look at but hated to sit on, the piano she didn’t know how to play, a pair of her high heels set neatly by the closet door because Flora had no doubt picked them up from the living room floor and put them there.

  Even with all of this, the house felt empty, as if it had died too. Mudge’s overnight bag was where I had left it in the entryway. I picked it up and carried it upstairs to her room, where I sorted through the clothes and shoes, her hand mirror, flask, magazines, hat, and her silver wings.

  I set her powder and lipsticks and face cream on the vanity table along with her brush and comb. I didn’t bother unpacking the other things, but I pulled out the jewelry. At the bottom of the bag, I spied a piece of cream-colored paper, Ophelia Lloyd’s name at the top.

  Dear Miss Fanning, Please enjoy your time at Broad Water. The only place off-limits to you is my husband’s bedroom. Perhaps this time you will remember that. In other words, make yourself at home, but not too much at home. Cordially yours, Ophelia Lloyd.

  Mudge’s death covered the front page of every newspaper. The stories all said the same thing: During a celebratory weekend for Home of the Brave, beautiful and glamorous Barbara Fanning had died. The nation mourned Mallory Rourke.

  At the studio, I drove past reporters looming and clamoring outside the gates and went directly to Howard Strickling’s office, where Tauby, Miss Lloyd, and the rest of their weekend guests were gathered. Mr. Strickling and Mr. Mannix sat hunched over in their chairs.

  Mr. Strickling said, “Because of the delicate situation involving Nigel and Barbara and the fact that he’s a married man, our lawyers have advised us not to mention Miss Palmer’s presence.”

  Tauby frowned. “But she was there when police arrived.”

  “She was in her room by the time they got there. Police detectives will be here at eleven to interview you. We ask that you remember the things we went over Saturday evening before the police and Coroner Nigh showed up.” And then, in case we’d forgotten, he repeated them: An innocent game; a terrible accident; a call to the police as soon as we found her (at twelve forty-five a.m.); just like Primmie Niven (“Mention Primmie Niven.”) . . . That’s all, thank you, the end.

  Three hours later, in Louis B. Mayer’s office, two uniformed detectives and two plainclothes detectives thanked me for coming and offered me a seat beside Mr. Strickling, Mr. Mannix, Whitey Hendry, and two men I assumed were Metro lawyers.

  Mr. Mayer sat behind his desk. He nodded at me. “No reason to be nervous, Kit. Just tell them what happened.”

  I recognized one of the suited detectives as Nick Agresta. Under thick black brows, he smiled at me, but it made him look slick instead of friendly. He said, “We won’t keep you long, Miss Rogers. Since you were the one who found Miss Fanning . . .”

  One of the lawyers said, “She’s already given you her statement.”

  “Un
derstood. Just a question or two. Procedure.” He sighed. “Am I right that your brother was there? One Johnny Clay Hart?”

  “He was there during the day. He left after dinner.”

  “What time would you say that was?”

  “Around nine, maybe a little before.”

  “Why didn’t he stay the night?”

  “He’s a musician. He and his band were playing Saturday at the Downbeat.”

  “Central Avenue?”

  “Yes.”

  “Your brother was friends with Miss Fanning as well?”

  “They’d only just met through me.”

  “I see. By the way, you were something else in Home of the Brave. Quite a splash for your first picture. Started your next one yet?”

  “Yes, actually a while ago.” I wondered what this had to do with Mudge and the investigation.

  “Do we get to see more of Betsy Ross or is it another character?”

  “Another character.”

  “One more thing.” He fished a pen from his jacket pocket. “If one of you gentlemen has a piece of paper, I’d love to get her autograph for my niece.”

  “We can do better than that,” said Mr. Strickling. “We’ll get her publicist up here with a stack of photos.”

  Mr. Mayer buzzed Ida Koverman and told her to get Bernie on the line.

  Mr. Strickling said to Lieutenant Detective Agresta, “How old is your niece?”

  “Twelve, maybe thirteen.”

  “In that case we’ll get him to bring up some official Kit Rogers merchandise—your niece is too old for coloring books, but how does a candy box, some badges, and a music box sound?”

  “It sounds like I’m her favorite uncle.”

  I cleared my throat. “Did you want to ask me about the way I found her and what she went through before she died?”

  The room fell silent, and I suddenly felt like the uninvited other woman, showing up unannounced. Nick Agresta made a show of flipping through pages in his notebook, where he hadn’t written anything down. “I think I have all that here. I’ll let you know if I come up with any other questions.”

  Sam was waiting for me in the lobby of the Thalberg Building. When he saw me, he smiled, but it looked forced. “Pipes.” He opened one of the glass front doors, and we stepped out into the day, bright and blue and sunny.

  “I’m on my way to my music lesson, but I’m already late.”

  “I’ll walk you.” We went down the stairs and past the gate and the line of cars waiting to get in.

  “The detective barely asked anything.”

  “That’s because he’s on the payroll.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “The studio keeps men in every police department in the city, just in case Whitey Hendry can’t get to the scene first. Strickling handles the press, Hendry handles the law.”

  “So why interview us at all?”

  “Because it doesn’t look good if they don’t at least pretend to go through the motions.”

  “They can’t get away with that.”

  “They can. And they have. And they will again as long as there’s a studio system. It was worse in the thirties. Anyone could be bought back then.”

  In Tin Pan Alley, I could hear music coming from Rosie’s studio. My Monday afternoon singing class. Just like any other Monday afternoon. Except that it wasn’t.

  “You said something this weekend about the guest list being straight out of the gossip columns. What did you mean by that?” We weren’t walking now; we were standing.

  “It’s a small town, Pipes. Everyone’s connected.”

  “But you were talking about the party.”

  “Babe King and Redd Deeley. Redd Deeley and Barbara Fanning. Barbara and Nigel Gray. Nigel and Pia Palmer. Pia and Felix Roland. Ophelia and Tauby, of course. Taub and almost every actress who’s ever gone under contract to MGM. Taub and Shelby Jordan, who divorced him to marry Collie Fedderson, who divorced her so she could marry Roland. Which brings me to Collie and Hal—the jury’s still debating that one, so mark it as conjecture at this point. Shall I go on?”

  “Ophelia Lloyd and the mystery man from her bedroom.” Mudge and Tauby.

  “You get the picture.”

  “How do you know all this?”

  “When I first got here I—let’s call it dated a gossip columnist.”

  “Of course you did.”

  “It’s good to see you smile.”

  “It’s good to know I can.” I could feel the smile going, even as I tried to hold on to it.

  “Let me take you to dinner, Pipes.” His tone had shifted. I could hear concern there, which was the last thing I wanted.

  “I can’t tonight.” I might have gone to dinner with flirty, wisecracking Sam, but instead it would be sweet, concerned Sam who was possibly in love with me, and he would only make me cry and lean on him, and I couldn’t cry yet because I had to figure out what had happened to Mudge, and plan her funeral, and get through this somehow.

  “Another time, then.”

  “Sure.”

  He smiled, easy, charming. “You just let me know.”

  Inside his studio, Rosie looked up from the piano. He pushed the bench back and lumbered toward me. “There you are,” he said, and it was so simple and so kind and so like Daddy Hoyt. He patted me on the back and said it again. “There you are.”

  I wanted to run out the door, far away from him and all that sweetness and concern, but instead I let him lead me across the room and set me on the piano bench, where he said, “There you are, there you are,” as I started to cry.

  On Tuesday, December 31, Nigel Gray met with reporters at his Mandeville Canyon home. He said he was glad to cooperate, glad to answer any questions regarding the death of Barbara Fanning and that he had nothing to hide. When asked about the nature of his relationship with Mudge, he said, “My wife and I have been apart for years. Due to our demanding schedules, we agreed long ago to end the marriage amicably, staying together in name only for the sake of our children. I didn’t set out to fall in love with someone else. To be perfectly frank, as Pia will tell you, I’m married to my career. But then I began work on Home of the Brave, and—well—I met Miss Fanning.”

  At this point, Louella Parsons wrote, He shrugged with all the innocence of a boy—a boy who has just lost the brightest light in his life.

  Where were the children now? Back in England with the nanny. And when did Pia plan to return to them? In a week or two. Would Nigel be going with her? He wasn’t sure. It depended on his work schedule.

  Throughout the interview, Pia sat beside him, looking “composed.” When asked to comment, she said, “I am glad I could be here for Nigel during this time. I only wish I could have been there during the weekend, when he needed me. I will do my best to help him get past this. But don’t forget that I also mourn the loss of my dear friend Barbara Fanning.”

  The headlines read: “Actor Nigel Gray Faces Questioning in Actress’s Death.” The newspapers speculated about Nigel’s relationship with Mudge, as the gossip columnists, kept on a firm leash by the studio publicists, wrote about Nigel without using his name. Dorothy Manners reported, “They say the shocking death of Barbara Fanning was due to an accidental fall during a party game, but knowing the bright, laughing girl well, I believe she died of a broken heart and loneliness. She had been deeply in love with a married man who refused to leave his wife to marry her.”

  I spent New Year’s Eve night at home alone, my birthday present from Mudge on my lap. It was a 1930s National steel guitar, built out of brass and covered in nickel silver. The face was engraved with a lily of the valley design, the flowers and vines twining their way across the surface. The strings were raised high off the ebony fingerboard so they could be played with a metal slide, or an old broken bottle top, like the one Butch Dawkins al
ways used.

  I ran my hands over it, feeling the cool nickel, tracing the lilies. Then I tried out the metal slide, moving it across the strings, trying to sound out a melody on the guitar. The guitar was heavy and I wasn’t used to the strings and the slide. I would have to learn to play it, just like I was learning everything else. In fits and starts, I played for an hour or two, maybe longer, and then I stretched out on the floor and closed my eyes.

  I would need to talk to Mudge’s lawyers about the will and deal with her papers and figure out what to do about Flora. Because Mudge didn’t have any family, all the loose ends, everything there was to do, would fall to me.

  Mudge will never know a single day of this year. As each week passes, she’ll begin to disappear, until she’ll be just a memory—that poor, dead actress who left us too soon. What was her name? She was in that movie, Home of the Brave. You know the one. Fell down at Ophelia Lloyd’s house and bumped her head.

  I must have drifted off, because I woke up to the sound of banging. A voice outside hollered, “Open up, Velva Jean. It’s cold out here.”

  Johnny Clay stood on my front step. He hugged me hard and said, “We came to check on you and make sure you’re okay.”

  Butch was walking up after him. He said, “I’m sorry about your friend.”

  We went on in and I sat on the sofa while Johnny Clay poured us drinks. He dropped down next to me and said, “What happened, little sister?”

  I told them everything. When I was done, they had a hundred questions—about Nigel, about Pia, about Strickling and Mannix and Hendry.

  “They said it was an accident.”

  My brother sat back. “You don’t believe it.”

 
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