American Blonde by Jennifer Niven


  There wasn’t much more to it than that. Page two of the letter was a carbon copy of a document that read Orphan Home, Lodge #8, Dell Rapids, South Dakota, History and Record of Resident. Date of Admission: Dec. 25, 1935. When and where born: Washita Co. Oklahoma, September 13, 1935. At the end of his letter, Investigator Fred Wamack said he was glad to look into the matter deeper, if she was interested. The date of the letter was December 2, 1946.

  I picked up the photograph of the little boy. “Do you think he’s hers?”

  “He must be.”

  “But why would she have given him up? She dreamed of having kids. She said she and Nigel were going to have a houseful.”

  “Maybe one reason she wanted children so badly was because she’d had to give a child away.”

  “Do you think it’s strange that a woman who kept everything doesn’t have a single paper relating to her childhood or where she came from? No birth certificate. No pictures. It’s almost as if she didn’t exist until the summer of 1933 when she signed with MGM.”

  “Think of it this way—didn’t we all start over, in a sense, when we went to the WASP? And then again after the war? How many people out here know about your ex-husband, Harley Bright? I think she wanted to give herself a new life, that’s all.”

  “You said you found the orphans’ home information in a book?”

  “It’s upstairs.”

  This time, I followed Helen to Mudge’s room. Everything was as she’d left it—the vanity table crowded with perfumes and powders, the little desk turned toward one window, the blue embossed stationery stacked on top, the blue bedspread, the blue flowered wallpaper, a script lying atop the bedside table. A Woman of Means by Sam Weldon.

  I flipped it open and glanced at the first few pages. “I didn’t know Sam Weldon wrote another script for Metro.”

  Helen handed me something. “The book.” Jane Eyre.

  I opened it, searching through from front to back. On nearly every page, Mudge had underlined sentences or whole paragraphs. “Where did you find it?”

  “In the drawer here.” She opened it to show me.

  I had not intended to love him. . . . He made me love him without looking at me.

  “Did you find anything else?” Helen asked, peering over my shoulder at the book.

  “No,” I said. Maybe, I thought.

  When I walked outside to my car, the man with the hat was gone. I climbed into the yellow Oldsmobile and headed to Hollywood.

  Fred Wamack, private investigator, worked out of an office on the corner of Hollywood and Vine. The door to the building was so narrow, I almost missed it. But there was his name on a list by the entrance: F. Wamack, P.I., Suite 202. He answered the buzzer, “Wamack.”

  “Mr. Wamack, I’m a friend of Eloise Mudge. I understand you did some work for her.”

  The door buzzed and clicked. Inside, there was a door to my right and one to my left, and a rickety staircase in the middle. I walked up the stairs and saw 202 at the end of the hall. The door stood open.

  It was just one room, bright with a corner view. Fred Wamack sat behind the desk, which was messy with papers, cigarette burning in the ashtray. He was thick and broad with a full head of hair and two chins. He was chewing gum, and he didn’t bother standing. “You’re a friend of Eloise Mudge?”

  “Yes, sir.” He didn’t offer me a seat, but I sat anyway, dragging the chair away from the wall, closer to the desk. “I know you did some work for her.”

  “That’s right.” He eyed me like I might be a criminal. “Sorry to hear about her death.”

  “Thank you. I’m just going through her files, trying to put things in order, and wanted to ask if you could tell me anything more than what was in your report, about who the child was and why she needed the information.”

  “Sorry. I’m sure I don’t need to explain client confidentiality.”

  “It’s just that I’ve got a mountain of paperwork to go through, and if you could tell me anything that might help me—”

  “If I were you, Miss . . . ?”

  “Hart.”

  “If I were you, Miss Hart, I’d stop asking questions. I’m doing you a favor by telling you that. I’m saving you a lot of trouble.”

  I gave him a sad smile. Then I glanced down and glanced up again with a look I’d seen Mudge give Felix Roland or Tauby when she wanted to get her way. “Could you at least tell me when she hired you?”

  He picked up the cigarette, pressing the gum into the ashtray with his thumb. “Last fall.”

  “Can you tell me why she needed to find this boy?”

  “No. But it seemed awful important. Know how I know? Because she walked in here off the street. No phone call. Barbara Fanning, the movie star, just as plain as you or me, sitting right in that very same chair you’re sitting in now. She said, ‘I need you to find someone for me. And I need it done as fast as you can.’ I told her if I’d known she was coming, I woulda dressed up.”

  “But she hired you as Eloise Mudge?”

  “That’s right.” He flicked the ashes onto the gum. “Said we had to keep it confidential.”

  “How did she find you?”

  “I’ve handled more than one movie star case in my career. When she asked for recommendations, my name came up.”

  “After you gave her the information, did she say she needed anything else?”

  Before he could answer, the phone on his desk rang. He picked it up. “Wamack.” He listened, dug for a file, sending other files spilling onto the floor. “Got it right here, old man.” He looked at me, covering the receiver. “Nice chatting with you, Miss Hart. Or should I say ‘Miss Rogers’? If you don’t mind, do me a favor and close the door on your way out.”

  Back at Mudge’s house, I phoned Dr. Murdoch, and when I couldn’t reach him I tried Lara Yacoubian, secretary to the coroner. She answered on the first ring, and I could hear voices in the background. When I told her who I was, she whispered, “I can’t talk right now,” and then, louder, “Could I have him return your call?”

  “Get back to me when you can,” I said, giving her the number. “I wanted to know if Dr. Murdoch saw anything in the autopsy relating to Benzedrine or Seconal.”

  After hanging up, I dialed the operator and placed a long distance call. After a few rings, a voice crackled on the line. “Dell Rapids Home, how may I help you?” It was a woman’s voice, pleasant and cheerful.

  “Yes, I’m interested in making a donation to the children’s home.”

  “Bless you, dear. Just one moment, please.”

  I heard her walk away, shoes tapping across a hard floor. My heart started to race. A minute ticked by. Through the phone, I heard the sound of shoes tapping again. A woman’s voice said, “This is Ella Kingery. I understand you’d like to make a donation?”

  “Yes, ma’am. I read an article about how the orphanage needs funding. I’m interested in contributing, but I’d like to know more about the home first.”

  “Of course. I don’t know how much you know already, but we were built in 1910, and the building was dedicated in 1911. Nearly eight thousand people attended the ceremony. We have twenty-six children, ages six to seventeen, and twenty-one elderly. We have a staff of nine, including myself.”

  She rattled off details about the reading room, nursery, infirmary rooms, quarantine rooms, barn, machine shed, silo, and hog house, and said the home sat on 172 acres. The staff and residents ran the farm, under the supervision of a hired farmer, both to supply the home and to sell products in town. The children divided work between the home and the farm, depending on age and gender. They received lessons in etiquette and moral education, held worship and sermons in the parlor and scriptural lessons at meals. They attended church weekly, rode the horses, listened to the phonograph, played baseball and croquet, and even had visits from Santa.

  I told
her this all sounded fine, and I wanted to write a sizable check, perhaps five hundred dollars.

  She said, “This is quite generous, Miss . . .”

  “Rogers. Kit Rogers. I was orphaned myself.”

  I waited for the name to mean something to her, but she just said, “Thank you, Miss Rogers,” and gave me the mailing address.

  “Would it be possible to make the donation in the name of a particular child?”

  “An unusual request, but I’m sure we’ll be happy to oblige. The child’s name?”

  “John Henry Briggs.”

  “John Henry. Yes, we can do that. Are you a friend of John Henry’s?”

  “No, ma’am, but a good friend of mine was.” I asked the next question that came to mind. “Once a child like John Henry is brought to the home, what are the odds of him leaving before he’s of age?”

  “By law, surviving parents can remove children at any time. In 1921, we instituted a policy that legal guardianship is signed over to the home when the children arrive, and the children are discharged when they reach an adult age, or when a single parent remarries.”

  As I clicked off the line, I thought, Maybe I can go there. I had visions of myself in disguise, showing up as Mudge, asking to see my son.

  That evening, Helen and I worked in the game room, digging through boxes and books. Police had discovered another dead girl down in Bronzeville, near Central Avenue, this one strangled by a silk stocking. They’d also discovered, at the Greyhound Express station downtown, a suitcase belonging to the Black Dahlia.

  Helen said, “Apparently there were these stacks of letters from servicemen, and her replies to them, sealed and unsent. The letters were wrapped in red ribbon. I don’t know why I find that the saddest detail of all.”

  According to her mother, sister, and friends, Beth, as the Black Dahlia was often called, had been engaged to a boy named Matt Gordon. Before he could marry her, he was killed in a plane crash five days before the war’s official end. The newspaper said the letters in the bus station suitcase reflected a young girl who had been deeply hurt many times by men. In the end, she appeared to be just another girl who wanted someone to love her. I thought Beth Short not only looked like Mudge; she sounded like her.

  In three days’ time, more than one hundred suspects had been rounded up and questioned in the Black Dahlia murder case. As nearly a thousand policemen and newspaper reporters combed the city, going door to door, exploring clues from downtown L.A.’s Biltmore Hotel to the culverts of Malibu, the late, great Barbara Fanning was forgotten.

  Helen said, “It makes you think—what happened with Mudge, what happened with these girls. It makes you realize how important our time is. My parents want me to come back home and marry someone named Sterling Archer Sanford the Third.” Helen never talked much about her upbringing, but I knew she came from money. “But when I marry—if I marry—it’s going to be because I want to.”

  We worked until midnight, and before I went to sleep, I read the first few chapters of Jane Eyre.

  When we are struck at without a reason, we should strike back again very hard. . . . I am not your dear; I cannot lie down: send me to school soon, Mrs. Reed, for I hate to live here.

  Mudge hadn’t underlined just the romantic passages of Jane Eyre. The first pages were as marked up as the later ones.

  I set the book aside and picked up A Woman of Means by Sam Weldon. It was the story of a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who marries well and has a child, only to have that child taken away from her by the man she loves. A note on the last page read, SW—This draft best yet. Thank you for creating something I can be proud of. xx BF.

  I laid the script and book aside thinking that when it came down to it, I hadn’t really known her at all. And then I got out of bed and found my hatbox in the back of my closet. I sat down to look through it, as if I were someone discovering these things for the first time. If this hatbox was all that was found of me one day, stored in a bus station locker, what would strangers be able to tell of my life and who I was from a collection of clover jewelry, letters, carved wooden figures, a parachute rip cord, my WASP wings, an emerald from the Black Mountains, a little gold wedding band from France, and a handful of songs?

  TWENTY-FOUR

  It felt good to be back at work, back in a routine that would make the real world go away, at least for a while. We were filming Flyin’ Jenny Meets Buck Rogers at the Los Angeles Airport, which substituted as Airdale, Jenny Dare’s home base. The film’s stunt coordinator, Bud Bowdoin, went over the plane with me—range, twelve hundred miles; service ceiling, twenty-six thousand feet; rate of climb, 1,850 feet. As the mechanic refilled the oil and swung the propellers through ten rotations to feel for resistance and any possible hydraulic lock, Bud said, “You know Mayer doesn’t want you doing this.”

  “I know.”

  Mr. Mayer and I had already discussed it before the first Flyin’ Jenny installment: We cannot have you doing your own stunts. What if something should happen to you? His voice had climbed an octave and his ears had turned red. I’d heard the stories about Mr. Mayer’s histrionics, his ability to fall on the floor and foam at the mouth and pitch the biggest tantrum you ever saw, bigger and more spectacular than any tantrum thrown by any star.

  If someone fills in for me, the audience will be able to tell, and this is Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, sir. They’re going to expect more than that. I knew it was the one thing he wouldn’t be able to argue with, and he didn’t.

  The plane was what they called a Twin Beech, because of its two engines. It was a small, low-wing airplane that had seen war service. It could carry six passengers, and fly a maximum speed of 225 mph.

  When the mechanic was finished, I told Bud I wanted to go over the plane myself. He shook his head. “He’s already gone over it, and it checks out fine.”

  “Sorry, Mr. Bowdoin, but I’m a pilot through and through. One of the first things we learned in the WASP was that you don’t take off without first going over your plane.”

  He looked at Leslie Edgar, who consulted his watch. “That’s fine, Kit,” Les said. “But move as fast as you can, before we lose the light.”

  As the entire crew waited for me, I went over everything—brake fluid, rudder cables, hydraulics—searching for any sign of tampering or foul play. This wasn’t something to be hurried along. This was, potentially, my life.

  When I was done, Hal MacGinnis and I climbed inside the cockpit, pulling on helmets. The rest of my costume was a pair of tan breeches, a red blouse, a tan scarf, black boots, and red goggles. The view out the window was wide and open. The passenger terminals were still housed in temporary, two-story wooden frame buildings that were under construction, and jackrabbits lived along the runways in the weeds that grew there. I studied the cockpit as Bud showed me the throttle levers in the center, the prop levers to the left, the mixtures to the right, all the handles and buttons and switches. We started the engines, which took a lot of priming—seven strokes with full resistance.

  With props at fine pitch and throttles open, the gear warning switch clicked. I selected the RH engine and pressed the start button. It fired after five revolutions with a cloud of smoke and a roaring rumble that I felt in my bones. I pressed the start button on the LH engine and went through the same process.

  Bud shouted his last instructions before he walked away: “Remember to lock the tail wheel. Line her up and push the T-bar on the lower section of the throttle quadrant. Try with one of your brakes to check if it’s locked. No flaps for takeoff. Power up to thirty-six inches MAP. Get the tail wheel off the ground, and liftoff follows at sixty knots.”

  Hal was so broad and tall, he barely fit inside the plane. The sight of him, hunched up in the copilot’s seat, knees to his chin, started me laughing, which got him laughing. Over the rattle of the engine, he hollered, “Studio wants us to go to Ciro’s tonight, depending on
what time we’re through.”

  “That’s fine. We don’t have to stay long. By the way, do you know why Shelby Jordan is suddenly hanging around Metro?”

  “Keeping an eye on her wandering husband? Or maybe doing some wandering of her own with Buck Rogers?”

  “Phillip?”

  “That’s the rumor.”

  I accelerated to ninety knots on the climb, and I could see the city spread out beneath us. These first shots would be filmed from the ground, and I searched for my marks. As soon as I found them, I climbed higher and faster, higher and faster, pushing the little plane as far and fast as it would go.

  I took the plane into a roll, and even though Hal had been a brave pilot in the war, he held on tight because I’d caught him off guard. I shouted, “Sorry, too fast.”

  “That’s okay. Send her into another one.”

  I took the plane into another roll, and another. Over my radio, Bud said, “What the hell do you think you’re doing up there?” What I was doing was thinking of Mudge and the time we borrowed the Douglas SBD Dauntless from Santa Monica Airport and went flying over the water. I was thinking of her face, of how happy she’d been, of how she’d wished she could live in the sky.

  Hal flicked the radio off. “Let’s give ’em a show, Kit Rogers.”

 
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