American Blonde by Jennifer Niven

  “They’re working awfully hard to cover things up and keep control over what we say and who we talk to.”

  “What happens next?”

  “I don’t know.”

  I thought of asking Butch why he hadn’t come to Broad Water when he told me he would, but instead I said, “Tell me about the record.”

  Butch shook his head. “I was actually going to ask if you’d mind writing a song and singing it. But you got too much on that plate right now, girl.”

  An hour or so later, when my eyes grew heavy, Johnny Clay stood up and said, “I’ll be back tomorrow to check on you. Unless you want me to stay.”

  “You go. I’m fine. I’ll be fine.”

  I walked them out, and on the street in front of the house, a motorcycle shone black and heavy, with chrome that gleamed like a devil in the moonlight. I ran my fingers along the sleek, curved lines of it. “When did you get it?”

  Butch said, “About a week ago. Want to try it out?” At first, I thought he was offering me a ride, but he waved at the seat. He showed me how to climb on, and I held on to my skirt as I swung my leg over, pulling it up just over my knees once I sat down. I wrapped my hands around the handlebars and closed my eyes. I could almost feel the wind on my face and in my hair. If I rode away right now, I could outdistance everything that had happened. I would be free.

  “It’s a 1940 Indian 440, bought off a guy I know down on Central Avenue. Four-cylinder engine that’s been rebuilt to go faster, and rides as smooth as water.”

  “How fast can it go?”

  “I don’t know yet.” A lazy smile crept across his face. “One hundred twenty, one hundred thirty miles per hour. You look good on there. I’ll have to take you for a ride sometime.” Johnny Clay was glancing back and forth between us, frowning.

  I said, “I’d like that.” Hang sometime, I thought. I wanted to ride right now, for days and days, until we ran out of land. I wanted to go faster than 130 mph, until I was only a blur to everyone else, to myself. I sat back, running my hands over the chrome.

  “You sure you don’t want me to stay?” Johnny Clay said.

  “I’m sure.”

  I didn’t want them to go and I didn’t want to get down, but Butch held the bike steady, waiting. I climbed off, and stood watching as he swung onto it, and then Johnny Clay swung up behind, the air around us pulsing from the grumble of the engine.

  I watched and waved as they rumbled away, like a B-17 taking flight. When the taillight faded, I went inside. The house felt too empty.

  It was a brand-new year and Mudge was dead.


  The studio was closed New Year’s Day, but I was back to work on Thursday, January 2. On Stage 4, I sat through rehearsal of the third Flyin’ Jenny, which we were scheduled to begin shooting January 20. It felt strange to be back under the catwalks, in the great cavern of the soundstage. The cameras stood dark and still, like men turned to stone.

  Les Edgar was directing. When we first saw each other, his eyes—red around the rims—looked so troubled and sympathetic that I wanted to run. Instead, I let myself be hugged, and when he asked how I was, I nodded and said, “I just miss her.”

  “I do too. She was one of my favorite people. She reminded me of why I got into this business in the first place—to direct genuine talent.”

  We were a small crew, just director, assistant director, wardrobe, cameraman, and a few others, including Hal, me, Babe, and Phillip Drake, guest-starring as Buck Rogers. Felix Roland’s wife, Shelby Jordan, was on the set, but I couldn’t imagine why since she worked for Warner Bros., not Metro. She sat by herself, one leg crossed over the other, twirling her sunglasses as she watched the actors.

  Mudge hadn’t even been dead a week, and there we were, business as usual. Report to the studio. Report to hair and makeup. Memorize lines. Learn songs. Take classes. Start filming the next picture.

  “What’s Shelby Jordan doing here?” I asked Babe.

  “I don’t know.”

  Everyone but Shelby stood in a tight circle as Les addressed us. “It isn’t just the studio that has suffered a loss. Each of us has worked with Barbara, and so the loss is personal as well.” Babe found my hand and squeezed it. “I want to know how you’re doing and what you need, and together we’ll get through this hard time.”

  Johnny Clay came back that night by himself, driving my secondhand car, the one I’d given him. He left early Friday morning. Three hours later, I met Redd Deeley outside Stage 5 because he’d said he wanted to discuss something important. When I got there, he held up a key.

  “What’s this?”

  “The key to your new dressing room.” He began walking toward the barracks building, and I fell in step beside him.

  “Why am I getting a new dressing room?”

  “Not just any dressing room.” He led me to the star suites, up the stairs and past the doors that read “Lana Turner,” “Esther Williams,” “Greer Garson,” to one that read “Kit Rogers.” He unlocked the door, pushed it open, and inside it looked exactly like a large, comfortable living room, decorated in cheery red and white. A red vanity table was built into the wall at one end, a door beside it leading to an enormous bathroom. Another door opened onto a walk-in closet. A full bar, stocked with various bottles and crystal glasses and a gold ice bucket already filled with ice, covered one wall. I could still smell the paint.

  Redd handed me the key. “That’s not all.” From under his arm, he pulled out a sheaf of papers. “Your new contract.”

  “I’m not up for renegotiation yet.”

  “Apparently Home of the Brave’s box office is making Mayer feel generous. One thousand dollars a week. It’s Christmas all over again.”

  “What’s the catch?”

  “No catch, other than pairing yourself romantically with Hal MacGinnis, which we could have predicted. Take a spin or two at Ciro’s, eat a steak at Tom Breneman’s, share a milk shake at Schwab’s, let the public think you’re an item. This is good news, kid. It’s okay to be glad about it.”

  “I don’t know what to say. Did everyone on the film get new contracts or just me?”

  “You, Nigel, Hal, Babe, Ophelia. I don’t know about the others because I don’t represent them.”

  “Is this . . . normal after a movie does well?”

  “Not at all. Not like this.” Redd poured us each a drink.

  I thanked him, took a sip. “Did Mudge ever mention a Rebecca to you? Maybe a girl at the studio or a part she played, or someone she knew while you were married?”

  He narrowed his eyes into the distance. “No. At least I can’t think of anyone. Maybe she was a friend outside of work? Or a fan?”

  “Maybe she was family?”

  He shook his head and gave a sad smile. “The only family Barbara had was me, her friends, Flora, and this studio.” Then he tipped his glass back and drank.

  When I got home that night, I expected to see my brother, but instead Zed Zabel was parked in front of the house. As I pulled in the driveway, he stalked toward me like a man with a mission. “Busy day?”

  “Go away, Zed.”

  “Be happy to after you answer a question for me.”

  “Just one?”

  “For now. I want to know what went on at Broad Water last weekend.”

  “That’s not a question.” I brushed by him to the front door, digging for my keys.

  “I’ll rephrase it, then. What went on at Broad Water last weekend? Let me guess, Strickling and Mannix were first on the scene. Hendry too, I imagine. They gussied up the body, gussied up the guests, got everyone in line, and then called police.”

  “I can’t talk to you.”

  “Can’t or won’t?”


  “All right, but you will. Once you get tired of being told to shut up.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  “You will. By the way? Congratulations on the new contract. I’m sure you’ll do everything you can to earn it.”

  “Goodnight, Mr. Zabel.” I turned the key and slipped inside, shutting the door before he could say another word.

  At ten thirty a.m. Monday, January 6, I reported to the Hall of Justice, a fourteen-story white granite building with an arched entranceway. Reporters were gathered outside its doors like vultures tracking the wounded. In an inquest, witnesses testify in front of jurors, but this was what they called an “informal” inquest, which meant we were to be interviewed privately in the coroner’s office so that he could determine whether an inquest would be needed at all.

  Bernie was in charge of getting me there on time, and as we walked toward the building, he said, “Don’t be nervous. This is simply routine. They want to ask you a few questions, but nothing you haven’t already answered for police.”

  We reached the front doors just as Mr. Mannix and Mr. Strickling were walking in with Nigel Gray. More reporters circled inside, humming and hovering until they caught sight of Nigel shadowed by Mr. Mayer’s top two men. This shut them up instantly. The cameramen stood, cameras in their hands or at their sides, flashbulbs stilled. As we passed by, up the iron-and-brass stairs of the lobby, through marble columns, past marble archways, a copper-colored ceiling over our heads, someone said, “Well, there’s the end of the whole goddamn case.”

  The Hall of Justice housed the sheriff’s department, the public defender, the district attorney, and the municipal courts. The coroner’s office was on the ground floor, in the windowless belly of the building. Unlike the one above, this hallway was cramped, the air smelling of formaldehyde.

  Inside the chambers, the witnesses were assembled—Nigel, Billy Taub, Ophelia Lloyd, Felix Roland, Bernie, Strickling, Mannix, Dr. Atwill, Whitey Hendry. The entire cast of Metro’s loyalest supporters. Also Lieutenant Detective Nick Agresta, five of MGM’s attorneys, and my brother.

  I took a chair beside Johnny Clay. “What are you doing here?”

  “Didn’t you hear? The police invited me.”

  One after another, witnesses were called into the coroner’s office. One walked out, another walked in. I glanced up, making sure no one was listening to us. I caught Nick Agresta’s eye and looked away. “Why do they want to talk to you? You weren’t even there.”

  “I don’t know. They came to the Dunbar and told me to get my ass over here.”

  I heard my name. Johnny Clay nodded his head at me, winked, gave me that smile that said everything’s okay, you’ll see, we’ve been through worse, even though I knew a part of him must have been as nervous as I was. As I stood, Howard Strickling and two of the MGM lawyers stood also and followed me into the coroner’s office.

  As a mousy girl with a bored expression typed along, I stated my name and address and swore to tell the truth to Coroner Nigh, the man in the gray suit who’d shown up at Broad Water. The country doctor, Frederick Murdoch, who wasn’t a country doctor at all but chief autopsy surgeon for the County of Los Angeles, made notes on a legal pad.

  Coroner Nigh said, “Was the deceased someone you knew in life?”

  “She was.”

  “What was her name?”

  “Eloise Mudge.”

  “Her legal name was Barbara Fanning. Is this the person you mean?”

  “Yes, but I wasn’t aware she’d changed her name.”

  “She changed her name legally in 1935. On December twenty-ninth, you were the one who found the body?”

  “I found her on December twenty-eighth.”

  “Why do you say December twenty-eighth?”

  “Because I found her before midnight.”

  I heard one of the lawyers shift in his chair. He said, “Miss Rogers is confused about the time.”

  “I’m not. There are clocks all over Broad Water, which made it easy to keep track of what time it was.”

  The coroner made a note on a legal pad of his own before continuing. “She was dead when you discovered her?”


  “She was still alive?”


  Here, he frowned at Howard Strickling, who said, “I believe all of this has been covered and re-covered, Ben.”

  “I’m interested in covering it again.” To me, the coroner said, “What time was this?”

  “Approximately eleven forty-five p.m.”

  “The record indicates she was discovered at a later time.”

  “I found her at eleven forty-five p.m.”

  Mr. Strickling said, “You have to understand that it was a hell of a night. Miss Rogers was in shock—the discovery of her friend’s body—”

  “I didn’t discover her body; I discovered her. She was still alive when I found her.”

  When one of the lawyers started to speak, Coroner Nigh spoke over him. “You are certain of the time you found her?”

  I looked at Mr. Strickling. “Yes.”

  “What did you do when you found her?”

  “I checked for a pulse and noticed a rapid heartbeat, very faint. I shouted for help and tried to resuscitate her.”

  “Did you discover any wounds on the person?”

  “A bump on the forehead.”

  “What position was the body lying in?”

  “She was lying across the bathroom floor on her right side.”

  “You didn’t find her lying facedown, as noted?”

  “No, sir. She was lying on her right side. I had to roll her onto her back to try to revive her.” I could hear both Mr. Strickling and the lawyers muttering and shifting.

  “And where did you learn this method of resuscitation?”

  “During my time as a WASP.”

  “Dr. Edwin Atwill arrived shortly after and took over examination and treatment, is that right?”


  “The person died not long after, is that right?”


  “You were present at the moment of death?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “How would you describe the behavior of the person in that final moment?”

  “She suffered violent convulsions before losing consciousness.”

  “She was suffering convulsions?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “The victim was not, to your knowledge, epileptic?”

  “No, sir.”

  “Earlier that day, did the person act in any peculiar or unusual way prior to her death?”

  “She couldn’t stop laughing and she was talking nonsense, as if she’d had too much to drink. Her face was flushed and when I found her she was burning up, like she had a fever.”

  “The person had been drinking?”


  “For how long?”

  “I’m not sure what time she started, but I smelled alcohol on her after dinner. I think she had been drinking earlier in the day.”

  As Mr. Strickling emphasized that Barbara Fanning was by no means an alcoholic, that she was merely in a celebratory frame of mind following the premiere of Home of the Brave, Coroner Nigh consulted his notes and consulted Dr. Murdoch in hushed tones. Finally, he looked up again and said to me, “The statement is correct—that is your testimony in relation to the matter, under oath, is it?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  By now, my heart was thudding in my chest, so loud I could hear it in my ears. I didn’t look at Mr. Strickling or the lawyers, although I could feel their eyes on me. I folded my hands in my lap and stared straight ahead, until Coroner Nigh thanked me for my time and said I could go.

  Back in the secretary’s office, I sat down and caught my breath, as if I’d run for miles. Mr. Strickling and the lawyers followed me out and formed a huddle with Eddie Mannix a
nd Whitey Hendry. When the next person was called—Nigel—Mr. Strickling and the lawyers followed him in. This happened with each witness. I wondered where Sam and Babe and Hal and the other guests were, and then everyone but Johnny Clay had been interviewed, and when it was his turn, Mr. Strickling and the lawyers thanked the coroner and Dr. Murdoch and put on their hats and went home. Johnny Clay went in alone.

  Because I was the only one left, the secretary and I talked about movies and the weather until the telephone rang. She was still talking twenty minutes later when my brother walked out, shaking Coroner Nigh’s hand, shaking the hand of Dr. Murdoch. The secretary stared at my brother, placing the phone in its cradle, and when he winked at her and kissed her hand, she almost passed out on the floor. “And what’s your name?” he asked her.

  “Lara,” she breathed. “Lara Yacoubian. You should go out this way to avoid the reporters.” She showed us the back door. After a short flight of stairs we were up and outside, on the Broadway side of the building. The sky was a bright blue. I breathed in the fresh air.

  “What did they ask you?” I asked Johnny Clay at the same moment he asked me.

  He lit up a cigarette, his hand shaking a little. “Shit, Velva Jean. Shit.” He inhaled and let the smoke out. “They asked me how well did I know her, and what was going on between us. What did Nigel Gray think of the two of us being so chummy? Was he jealous? Did he say anything to me that day? Did he tell me to stay away from his girlfriend?” He inhaled again, let it out. “The worst kind of trouble is the kind you don’t go looking for.”

  “I need to know something.”

  He fixed me with a look. “Was anything going on between me and Mudge?”


  He didn’t blink or flinch. He looked at me straight. “No. Not the way you mean.”

  “You looked friendly Saturday night.”

  “Yeah, but that’s all it was, and that was mostly her anyway. She was sore at her boyfriend, and I knew it. I was only helping her out because the guy’s a louse. Scout’s honor.” He held up his fingers and spat on the street, as if to prove it.

  “The thing that bothers me the most, Johnny Clay, is that it’s too much like the WASP. A girl died, but no one’s doing anything about it. Instead of answering police questions—real questions—I’m signing autographs. They tell reporters she died from a fall, and they tell us what to say, and then they sit there in that inquest, ready to pounce if I tell what really happened. Meanwhile, I’m being handed new contracts and moving into a fancy new dressing room and starting new pictures. It’s like my friend Sally Hallatassee all over again. Like the time I almost died because Bob Keene sabotaged my plane, and everyone just sat there and said, ‘Accidents happen.’”

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