American Blonde by Jennifer Niven


  We rounded the corner and Zed Zabel stood leaning against the wall, as if the sheer weight of his ego was holding up the building. “Kit Rogers. I wondered when you’d appear.”

  Johnny Clay said to me, “Who’s this?”

  “No one.” I kept walking, looking up and down the street in front of the Hall of Justice. I’d come with Bernie, but I didn’t see his car.

  Zed charged after us. “You ready to talk yet? Because I’m hearing some pretty nasty rumors about the cause of death. I wonder what you can tell me?”

  I said to Johnny Clay, “Did you drive?”

  “I took the streetcar.”

  “I can take you home, Kit. Give us a chance to have a nice, long chat.”

  Johnny Clay took my elbow, steering me away as fast as he could. “I don’t like his face.”

  I heard a honking horn, and Bernie’s car came swinging up along the curb.

  Zed called, “Johnny Clay Hart?” We turned at the same time. Before I could ask how he knew my brother’s name, there was a snap and a flash.

  My brother threw down his cigarette and swaggered over to Zed Zabel. “Hey, nice camera. Can I see?” Before the reporter knew what hit him, Johnny Clay pulled the plate out of the camera and dropped it onto the ground, smashing it under his heel.

  “Fuck you, Hart. I’ll just charge MGM for a new one. We can put it on your sister’s tab.”

  “You don’t have to.” Johnny Clay handed him a ten-dollar bill. As my brother and I moved away, Zed Zabel stood watching us go, too quiet for comfort. I took my brother’s arm and held on to him firmly. He was here and alive and breathing. He said, “You’re going to be fine, little sister. You need to trust me on that.”

  We were at the car too soon. I wanted to keep walking, keep my arm through his, but suddenly we broke apart.

  “I can come back over tonight and stay if you want.”

  “I’m okay, Johnny Clay. You can’t stop your life for me.”

  He screwed up his face and gazed up toward the sun. “I’m always going to be right here,” he said to the sky. “I’ll never leave you, Velva Jean. Don’t you ever worry about that.” It was what he’d said to me when Mama died.

  “Promise?”

  “Promise.” He offered me his hand and we shook on it, just as we had when I was ten and he was twelve.

  In the car, Bernie wanted to know about Zed Zabel—what he wanted, what he’d asked. As we headed northwest on Temple, crossing the streetcar tracks, I said, “Where were all the other guests? Hal? Babe? Sam Weldon?”

  “There were so many of us that weekend. You know.” He glanced at me, shrugged. “Mr. Mayer and the detectives in charge thought it best to offer only key witnesses; otherwise there would be so much repeat testimony. Longer for everyone involved, then no one gets anything done.”

  “Has this happened before with one of their stars? A sudden death like this?”

  “I’m sure it has.”

  “Are they always so protective?”

  “This is Metro, kiddo. We’re a family. That means we look after our own. Someone’s hurt or in trouble, we rally.”

  In front of the house, we said good night, and as I came up the walk I could see something on the front step. I tucked my purse under my arm and bent to pick it up—a bouquet of white gardenias, tied with twine. No note, just flowers. Gardenias in winter, even though they were out of season. Full and sweet and alive.

  The morning after the hearing, I was called to Mr. Mayer’s office, where he leaned on his desk, hands folded, and explained the importance of loyalty and discretion while Mr. Strickling and Mr. Mannix looked on, as stoic as Mount Rushmore.

  Mr. Mayer said, “Miss Rogers, talent is like a precious stone.” I glanced at Mr. Strickling and resisted arching an eyebrow. Really, Mr. Mayer? You don’t say. In my head, I recited it along with him. “Like a diamond or a ruby. You take care of it. You put it in a safe, you clean it, polish it, look after it. Miss Fanning was one of ours. In that way, she was our responsibility, one of our most important stones. Her death was tragic, but there’s nothing we can do about the fact that she’s gone.” Mr. Mayer dabbed at his eyes, dry as they were. “What we can do is protect her and take care of what remains of her—her image and the way she’s remembered—as best we can. You need to trust me to do my job, and I need to trust you to do yours.”

  “You mean lying?”

  He flopped back in his chair as if I’d climbed over the desk and struck him. The corners of his mouth dipped so far down, they touched his chin. “I mean repeating the facts as we’ve discussed them, and remembering that we are, here at Metro, a family. Family looks after family.” His voice was terse. “It’s terrible enough that Barbara Fanning is dead. There’s nothing to be gained by leaving the public with a last, gruesome image of her dying of convulsions on a bathroom floor.”

  CUPID STRIKES KIT ROGERS

  “Love will help me through this sad time.”

  Modern Screen

  January 8, 1947

  Hal MacGinnis and Kit Rogers are costarring as Jenny Dare and Rick Davis in the Flyin’ Jenny films, and now, it seems, they are costarring in life. Handsome Hal, who once dated the late Barbara Fanning, first met Kit on the set of Home of the Brave, her first picture.

  It’s a situation neither expected to be in, given the fact that they are in deep mourning for their mutual friend. Grief has brought them together because they understand what it means to lose someone so dear—and so suddenly. On the nights Hal works late, Kit waits for him as a dutiful sweetheart should. When he’s finished, they tear away in his car (or hers) and take in a movie. If he’s too tired, they just sit and talk.

  Kit and her beau seldom join the café set because, as Kit says, “This isn’t the time for parties. We just lost Barbara, and the last thing we feel like doing is dancing the night away at the Trocadero.” They prefer private time, during which they share memories of Barbara Fanning, often share tears, and cheer each other onward. Their busy careers often make this difficult, but, as Hal says, “At least we know we can count on seeing each other on the set.”

  It’s an upside-down situation, but love’s a funny thing. No matter what they’ve been through and how they got together, we’re still betting that their love will prevail.

  NINETEEN

  The funeral service was held Saturday, January 11, at Forest Lawn Memorial Park’s Church of the Recessional, in Glendale. When we arrived by studio limousine, the streets outside were lined with cars, buses, and taxis. Thousands of people walked to the church from all directions, and thousands more gathered inside the cemetery grounds. I wore a gardenia in my hair.

  It was unusually warm for January. The sun was blazing. There was no breeze. The limousine dropped Flora and Johnny Clay and me in front of the church, which sat on the side of a hill, surrounded by tall trees. It was a storybook chapel made of stone, and even though it only sat 150, some eight or nine thousand people surrounded it. Policemen barricaded a red carpet, which led from the cemetery road to the main entrance of the church. We walked down this as fans waved autograph books. “Kit!” they called. “Kit Rogers!” they shouted. I stared at the ground, at my own feet. When a girl threw her pencil in my direction, trying to get my attention, Johnny Clay picked it up and threw it right back at her. I heard the popping of flashbulbs and the shattering of glass as they dropped to the sidewalk.

  Inside, the chapel was overfilled with flowers. My head went light from the smell. Through a doorway, I could see the pallbearers gathered. I caught a glimpse of the church itself, of people already seated, and, at the front of the room, the mahogany casket.

  Someone ushered us into a back room, the one reserved for family. At twelve fifteen, Bishop Wade Lyman appeared and spoke in low tones. “It’s time. If you’ll follow me.”

  We were taken to the main entry, just outside the chapel itsel
f. We stood outside the doors, waiting to go in, and when she saw the coffin, Flora’s face crumpled. The church doors stood open, and I could hear the voices of the fans gathered outside.

  A few minutes before twelve thirty, Redd Deeley arrived. A minute later, the voices of the crowd rose to a roar. I turned to see Billy Taub and Ophelia Lloyd walking up the red carpet, arm in arm. There was another roar as Nigel Gray, by himself, walked past the crowd, hands reaching for him.

  Then Bishop Lyman was leading us up the middle aisle, and all the people already seated in the church turned to stare. There were famous faces and nonfamous faces. Down toward the front I passed Butch Dawkins and a young colored man, wearing their best suits.

  A cross of pink roses sat in front of the coffin. An arrangement of yellow roses sat at the head, sent from my friend Gossie, who had never even met Mudge. A huge bouquet of white roses sat at its foot. A large attached card read: Mr. and Mrs. Louis B. Mayer.

  Suddenly, I was looking down at Mudge, her eyes closed, her lips on the verge of a smile. Fresh roses were pinned to her shoulders, along with her silver wings, the only jewelry she wore. She held a nosegay of roses in her hands. She looked peaceful, as if she was sleeping, as if she was a fairy-tale princess waiting to be kissed awake. I said, “Mudge. It’s me.”

  She lay still, her eyes closed, her lips on the verge of a smile. I was ten years old again and staring down at my mama, wanting her to get up, waiting for her to wake. I was twenty-four years old, saying good-bye to one of my best friends. After this moment, I would never see her face again.

  I said, “I hope wherever you are, you’re okay. I hope it’s a better place, and I hope my mama’s there to greet you. I hope you don’t feel any pain ever again. I hope no one ever hurts you or breaks your heart. I hope you can be happy.”

  A little woman with white hair played “The Lord’s Prayer” and “Ave Maria” on the organ. Then Bishop Lyman took his place at the altar. His voice rang through the church, bouncing from the rafters. I looked up at the altar, at the stained glass windows above the bishop’s head. “Whenever there was a call,” he was saying, “she always came; witness her war experiences flying for the WASP. Witness all the loved ones here today who loved her in return. She had a lot of friends. From the doors of hell, deliver her soul. May she rest in peace.”

  Bishop Lyman moved aside and a man took his place to sing “The Lord’s Prayer.” Then I walked to the front of the church, past the coffin. As I did, Billy Taub and Ophelia Lloyd stood and, side by side, left the church. People turned to watch them go.

  I had chosen the songs—“Wild Blue Yonder,” and “Beyond the Keep,” which I’d written when I was in the WASP. As I sang, the people from each bench stood and, one by one, came forward to pay their respects.

  The bishop signaled for the doors to open so that some of the people outside could come in at last to pay tribute. Over a thousand people filed in, walking past the casket. When I finished the song and they were still coming in, I started to sing an old marching tune from our days at training camp in Sweetwater, Texas.

  In the land of crimson sunsets,

  skies are wide and blue,

  stands a school of many virtues,

  loved by old and new.

  As I was singing, another voice joined in. Loma Edwards stood, hands resting on the pew in front of her, chin up, shoulders back, eyes on mine. She had been bunkmates with Mudge and Sally Hallatassee and me at Avenger Field, but had washed out before graduation.

  From somewhere on the other side of the church, another voice blended with ours. It belonged to a tall woman with wavy hair, standing with her arms at her sides. It took me a moment to recognize her because I hadn’t seen her since the WASP. Our other bunkmate, Paula Hodges.

  Gone before are many daughters,

  to carry on her name,

  may we live in faith and honor,

  yet to bring her fame.

  Another voice and another and another came chorusing in, as Janie Bowen and Ruth Needham and Shirley Bingham and my friend Helen Stillbert, all WASP, stood singing. And then a handful of other girls whose faces I recognized, but whose names I couldn’t quite place.

  And then one more voice joined in. A middle-aged blonde woman, perfectly made up, stood on the edge of one of the back rows next to a man in a wheelchair who I knew was Floyd Odlum, president of RKO. Even from across the room, I could see the silver wings gleaming on her dress. This was Jacqueline Cochran, the woman who had taught us to fly.

  Long before our duty’s ended,

  a mem’ry you shall be,

  in our hearts we pledge devotion,

  Avenger Field to thee!

  When we finished, the room went still. No one spoke. No one moved. No one breathed. And then Paula sang out, “If you have a daughter, teach her how to fly, If you have a son, put the bastard in the sky.” Her voice, full and earthy, filled the church.

  The rest of the WASP joined her till I thought we’d raise the roof. “Singing zoot suits and parachutes and wings of silver too, he’ll ferry planes like his mama used to do.” We repeated the lines twice, and on the last time through, the entire congregation was singing.

  At the cemetery, after the burial, Sam took me aside. He said, “I want to make sure you’re okay, and I want to make sure you remember to eat a good meal. I guarantee she’d want you to take care of yourself and keep on living.”

  Someone walked up and coughed once just over my shoulder. Butch said to Sam, “Sorry to interrupt.” He held out a white rose. “For you,” he said.

  I took it from him. Thank you for the gardenias. Thank you for this. I opened my mouth but nothing came out. I nodded at him because it was all I could do. My eyes were stinging and a lump was growing in my throat. He nodded at me and backed away, as if to say, Go on, do what you need to do. I handed Helen my purse and carried the flower over to the grave. I kneeled down and set it in the middle of the earth, a single white bloom. “Good-bye,” I whispered. For that instant, the world seemed to go still.

  From somewhere up above, I heard Helen say, “The car’s here, Hartsie.” And everyone was moving again, saying good-bye. I hugged and was hugged, one friend after another. I thanked them all for coming.

  Sam put his hat on and kissed my cheek. His fingers brushed the other cheek like a warm breeze. “You know where I am, Pipes.”

  “I do,” I heard myself say. “But I can’t be any good to anyone right now, Sam. I’m sorry.” I could see the surprise and maybe the hurt in his face. “I’m sorry,” I repeated.

  After a long pause, he nodded. “Okay then.” He nodded once more. “Thanks for letting me know.”

  Johnny Clay was saying, “I’ll see you back at the house, little sister.”

  Over his shoulder, I watched Sam walk away and told myself it was for the best.

  Inside the car, Helen handed me my purse, and I sat back against the seat, feeling empty. The girls started talking over each other, catching up after all this time.

  I stared out the window, the blue sky tinted dark through the glass. The crowd had gone, the cars had gone. The cemetery looked empty, except for a 1940 Indian motorcycle parked at the curb, a black Buick Roadmaster, and three figures—my brother, Butch, and a young colored man—kneeling beside Mudge’s grave, cleaning up the ground around it. I craned my neck so I could see through the back window as Butch stood, watching us go.

  I promise you I’m doing everything I can to make sure we get to the bottom of this, Miss Cochran had said after Sally was killed. We don’t know that it’s sabotage, but if it is, I plan to find out and something will be done about it.

  Only nothing was ever done about it. Not then, not now. Mudge’s death was being swept under the carpet just as Sally’s had been, and I owed it to her to find out what had happened.

  ZED ZABEL’S HOLLYWOOD

  “No Fanning Inqu
est”

  HOLLYWOOD, January 13—AP—The DA’s office said today no inquest will be held in the death of Barbara Fanning, screen star, who was fatally injured in an accident at the home of Billy Taub and Ophelia Lloyd on December 29.

  The coroner’s report said merely that the tragedy was accidental. Miss Fanning supposedly took a fatal fall during a parlor game after a dinner party.

  District Attorney Carveth Rash said he’s satisfied that Miss Fanning’s death was accidental, caused by tripping over a rug in the dark and hitting her head. He announced that the investigation is formally closed.

  With this news, Nigel Gray is on his way to England for a promotional tour for Home of the Brave, and Ophelia Lloyd has checked herself into Rockhaven Sanitarium for “a much needed rest.” Her husband, Billy Taub, has begun preproduction work on the Nigel Gray/Babe King starrer Latimer with director Felix Roland, as Miss King moves into MGM, having officially left Columbia for what everyone knows are much greener pastures. Miss Fanning’s onetime paramour Hal MacGinnis has signed a lucrative contract with True Story to write a series of articles about his friendship with the late star. And Kit Rogers is set to premiere her first starring picture for Metro, Flyin’ Jenny: Red, White, and Blonde, January 15.

  Some much needed uplift for the movie crowd in mourning. Seems like life goes on, and quite nicely, for those who keep their minds on the job.

 
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