American Blonde by Jennifer Niven


  I slid in beside her, holding them on my lap. Home of the Brave, it said on the cover of the bound paper stack. Home of the Brave, it said on the cover of the book. The car looked new, but a pile of lipsticks filled a compartment in the dash, and the ashtray was filled to the rim with red-smudged cigarette butts.

  Mudge took off her sunglasses, and started the car. “I’m to bring you to the studio with me, orders of Lucille Ryman.” She looked at me square, her eyes on my face, my dress, my shoes, then my face again. “Now what else have you got to wear?”

  We drove directly to Bullock’s department store, where Mudge picked out a capped-sleeve cotton dress that was the pure, sweet green of spring grass. It cost 150 dollars, and Mudge told them to bill it to her account. “It’s the least I can do, after you’ve traveled all this way,” she said. “Besides, you needed it.”

  We headed down Sunset Boulevard, the mountains to the north, the ocean to the west, past Schwab’s Pharmacy, the Garden of Allah, Ciro’s, the Cafe Trocadero, and the Melody Room.

  “Hold the wheel.” I reached for it as she shrugged off her mink, flinging it in the back as if it was nothing more than an old napkin, and untied the scarf so that her black hair came spilling out. She ran her fingers through it, fluffing the ends, checking it in the rearview mirror. She lit a cigarette before taking the wheel back. “Don’t ever start smoking because once you do you’ll never want to give it up. Cigarettes are worse than men.”

  Something flashed silver on her dress.

  “You’re wearing your wings.” The wings we’d earned as WASP.

  She held up her collar, turning it toward me. “Sisters forever, Hartsie.” She smiled into the distance, her hand resting on the pin as she smoothed the collar flat again. “No matter what.”

  Culver City was a mix of farmland and dime stores, bars and diners, small houses and ugly apartment buildings. Depending on the breeze, one minute the air smelled like cow manure and the next like fresh baked bread, which Mudge said came from nearby Helms Bakery. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer sat grandly in the middle of this, a sprawling, white-columned fortress.

  The red car turned down a narrow street and rolled past a handsome white building shaped like the bottom half of an H. Four stories, tall windows, rounded corners, a covered walkway leading to double glass doors. Mudge paused in front, rolling down her window. “Louis B. Mayer himself works there, along with all the producers, directors, publicists.” She turned to me. “I want you to watch out for the executives. Every one of them has a button on his desk that locks the door behind you, along with a private interview room, which is used for ‘casting,’ if you know what I mean. They promise you the moon, but it doesn’t mean they plan to get it for you.”

  We paused at the East Gate, which wasn’t a gate at all but just a paved drive with a stop sign separating the two lanes, along with a guard station no bigger than an outhouse. She flashed a bright red smile at the uniformed guard.

  “Morning, Miss Fanning. Where’s your driver?”

  “I gave him the day off. Jimmy, I want you to meet the newest MGM contract player and future movie star, Velva Jean Hart. We were pilots together in the war.”

  The guard ducked his head so he could see me. “It’s a pleasure, Miss Hart. I look forward to your pictures.”

  Mudge gave me the tour: There were the casting offices—see the people all lined up, waiting? There was the writers building, and, just past, music departments A and B. Over there was the portrait studio, where I would pose for pictures, one of the most important parts of the job when you were just starting out. Over there, the research department, where they kept thousands of files on every MGM actor, past and present. Over there, the fire department—and if I thought that was something, well Metro had its own school, barbershop, dentist, funeral parlor, and railway station. It even had its own police department—a police force of fifty officers, four captains, two plainclothesmen, an inspector, and the chief, Whitey Hendry, who’d been there as long as anyone could remember and who was also chief of police for Culver City.

  Back down there was the commissary. And just past that, the art department. Wardrobe to the right. Scoring stages to the left. Makeup, where I would be reporting every day first thing, once a contract was signed. The rehearsal halls were air-conditioned, and how many other studios could claim that?

  “One hundred seventy-six acres . . . four thousand employees . . . sixty stars, the most of any studio. More stars than there are in heaven . . . Clark Gable, Judy Garland, Lana Turner, Nigel Gray . . .” City streets, Western towns, a French railway station, European villages, a fifteen-acre jungle. It seemed like all the world was right here at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

  The general dressing room building looked like a two-story barracks left over from World War I. In front of this was what Mudge called the “star suites”—two buildings, side by side. She paused just long enough so I could read the names on the directory—Greer Garson, Judy Garland, Esther Williams, June Allyson, Lana Turner. Then she unlocked one of the doors—“Barbara Fanning,” it said in gold—and showed me into her suite, which was as large as an apartment and done up in rich shades of blue. She said, “It used to be Garbo’s,” and I could hear the awe in her voice.

  Near the dressing room building was Stage 5, and the office of Lillian Burns, the dramatic coach. We walked inside and were greeted by her secretary, who sat at a desk in the outer office, fielding telephone calls. She handed us a stack of bound white paper, which I now knew was a script, and said I was to memorize pages seventy-five through eighty and to be ready to test on Friday.

  For the rest of the day, I followed Mudge from the makeup and hair departments to wardrobe to one of the interior sets of Home of the Brave, on Stage 15, the largest in the world.

  In addition to the legendary Ophelia Lloyd, the picture costarred Nigel Gray, Hal MacGinnis, Phoebe Phillips, and the great Webster Hayes, who, for the past three decades, had been known as America’s finest actor. The producer was Ophelia Lloyd’s husband, William “Billy” Taub, one of Mr. Mayer’s top executives and the creative genius behind Immortal Wife, The Haunted Man, and Darrow. Leslie Edgar, who had won an Academy Award for The Mill on the Floss, was directing.

  While the cameramen arranged and angled giant lights and cameras, Mr. Edgar, small as a cricket, talked to his actors in a soft, gentle voice. Under the spotlights, I watched Mudge transform instantly into Mallory Rourke, Revolutionary War–era lady, torn between the love of two brothers, played by Hal MacGinnis and Nigel Gray. According to the movie magazines Ruby Poole had loaned me for the train, Hal and Mudge had fallen for each other their first day on the set. In person he was taller and broader than he looked in his pictures, while Nigel Gray was even handsomer.

  A man, about thirty, sank into the chair next to me. He closed his eyes and propped his cheek on one hand. He sighed, long and deep, and opened one eye. He studied me a good ten seconds before saying, “Never try to outdrink Webster Hayes.”

  I glanced over at the actor, easily twice his age. “I’ll remember that.”

  “Don’t let the grandfatherly demeanor fool you. He’s got the constitution of an elephant. Or an Irishman. Which sounds funnier?”

  “Elephant.”

  “Got an aspirin?”

  “No. Sorry.”

  He frowned. “Bourbon, then?”

  “I drank it all.”

  He held out his hand. “Sam.” He had rich-boy good looks, but there was something rumpled about him.

  “Velva Jean.”

  “Seriously?”

  “What?”

  “I’ve just never heard a name quite like it. Velma Jean.”

  “Velva Jean.”

  “Velva Jean. Never heard a name like that one either. Let me guess. Secretary?”

  “No.”

  He squinted his eyes at me. “Rodeo rider.”

  “No.”<
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  “Candlestick maker.”

  “Singer.”

  He shook his head. “Sorry, you’ll have to pick something else. You’re too pretty to be a singer.”

  “What do singers look like?”

  He stared out into the distance. “Faces only a mother could love. That’s why radio works so well for them.” He nodded at the script in my lap. “So that’s only for show? To throw inquisitive men off the scent?”

  “I carry it with me everywhere.”

  “Smart girl. Have you read the book?” Now he nodded at the set. “They say every person in America has read it.”

  “Well, I haven’t. I got back from England in June. They don’t seem to be reading it over there.”

  This made him laugh. “I thought I’d seen your face before. It’s a face you don’t forget. You’re the war hero.”

  Before I could reply, a man came striding toward us. He looked like a madman, shirt untucked, ink stains on his fingers, eyes wild behind glasses, early forties on a good day. His gaze lingered on me for a fraction of a second before he thumped his copy of the script with the cigar he was holding. “The pacing is wrong. Mallory has a monologue on seventy-nine, and by eighty-seven she has one again. We need to cut one of them, but make sure we keep the information about Joseph’s whereabouts.” His hair was brown except for a single white streak, which bobbed and shook across his forehead as he talked.

  Sam sighed. “Until next time, Velva Jean.” He stood, gave a little bow, and then, walking backward, watching me, he followed the madman, expertly dodging wires and ladders as if he had eyes in the back of his head.

  The madman was now talking to the director. “Silence, everyone.” Little by little, they fell quiet. “I’d like to introduce Sam Weldon, the writer of this fine book. Without him, none of us would be here.” I glanced down at the book in my lap. There was his name below the title: Samuel Weldon.

  Over the sound of halfhearted clapping, Sam said, “Now you know where to aim the gun.”

  The madman continued, “He’s agreed to come on at this late stage and give us some help with the script. Actually, we’ve had him holed up here for a couple of months already, working away on a new draft for you.”

  “What made you decide to do it?” someone called out.

  “Other than the money, you mean? The way I see it, everyone from Groucho Marx to William Faulkner to the President’s dog has had a crack at this script. I figured it’s my story, I might as well see what I can do. I certainly can’t make it any worse.”

  Mudge lived on a palm-tree-lined Beverly Hills street in an enormous white farmhouse with window boxes of pink roses, a rolling lawn, and a white picket fence. A policeman was parked out front. As we gathered our things from the backseat, she said, “He’s only a precaution. Whitey Hendry assigned us guards for the run of the shoot.” Inside, the rooms were spacious and cheery, lots of whitewashed beams and vases of pink and red flowers and overstuffed couches and throw pillows. The dining room was dark wood and mirrored walls, an enormous grandfather clock in one corner. There was an office, a game room, a sunroom, a breakfast room, five bathrooms, and five bedrooms, not including the maid’s quarters.

  We ate dinner on the broad brick patio that stretched off the back of the house, trellises of purple flowers climbing up toward the second story. Mudge’s housekeeper, Flora Anderson, a wiry black woman with hair the color of a ripe tomato, served the food before leaving. Because of racial covenants, she wasn’t allowed to live in the house, but traveled home at the end of each workday to Leimert Park, ten miles away.

  When Flora was gone, Mudge said, “They wanted to put you up in a hotel, but I said oh no. I’ve got a great big house—bigger than I need, now that I’ve kicked out husband number three—and I just rattle around in it like an old spinster. I’m nearly thirty, if you can believe it, because I certainly can’t, and that means I’ve got about four more years before they start making me play mothers and harridans. You can stay as long as you want, Hartsie.”

  “Tell me more about the guard out front.”

  She dropped her napkin onto the plate and lit a cigarette. She stared out toward the pool and the hedgerow beyond, the smoke curling up around her face. “There are a lot of crackpots out there, especially since I took the role of Mallory Rourke.” She sighed. “Everyone’s got an opinion about who should play her. And apparently they don’t all agree I’m the best choice. ‘We want Lana Turner,’ ‘We want Greer Garson.’ Well that hurts my feelings, especially when they try to climb in my windows or leave threatening notes on my front step.” She sighed again, flicked the ash onto the ground. “I’m starting to wish I could give them Greer Garson. I’ve had two days off in the past eight months—two. I’m tired, Hartsie. I wasn’t this tired in the WASP. Sometimes I think I’m too old to do this.”

  “My sister-in-law says it’s going to be bigger than Gone with the Wind.”

  “Mayer certainly hopes so. From what I’ve seen of the dailies, though, the film creeps along like a rich old uncle who refuses to die. It’s either going to be the greatest movie ever made or the biggest bomb in box office history. But I wanted this part more than anything and I try not to forget it. Some days that’s harder to remember than others, but with any luck I’ll come out of this knowing I could do it, no matter what they said.” She stubbed out the cigarette, took a drink. “I’m sick of talking about me. One thing you’ll learn as an actress is that it’s all anyone expects you to do. You’ll get so you can’t stand yourself. Tell me about you, Hartsie.” She asked me about the past year—where I’d been, what I’d done—and then we started in on the other girl pilots we knew in common and where they were now.

  When my eyes grew heavy, she finally said, “You go on up, honey. I could talk your ear off. It’s just so good to have you here. I’ve missed you. I miss the WASP. I miss flying. It was a good thing, what we did.”

  “It was.”

  My room was at the top of the stairs, looking out over the swimming pool and garden. The wallpaper was a cheerful pink and green, and the bed, which faced two broad windows lined with matching window seats, looked large enough to sleep eight. A vanity table took up part of one wall, and the rest of it was given over to a door that opened into a small bathroom tiled in pink and black.

  I unpacked my suitcase and hung my clothes in the wardrobe. Then I sat down and flipped open the script I’d been given to learn. Under the Moon was the story of a dull mouse of a girl who, for years, is overlooked by the man she loves, until the day of his wedding, when she finally tells him how she feels. I paced up and down and read her lines out loud, but no matter how I said them they sounded flat and forced.

  After a few minutes, there was a knock on the door, and Mudge poked her head in. “How’s the studying?”

  “I don’t have any idea what I’m doing.”

  She walked over and picked up the script. “Believe it or not, this is the same story I tested with, thirteen or fourteen years ago. The writing wasn’t any fresher then.”

  “I’m trying to figure out why this Jane character would sit back and let the man she loved get away. All my life, I’ve been fighting for things I believed in. I don’t know how to play a girl like this.”

  “Sure you do.” Mudge sat down next to me. She’d washed off her makeup, and now I could see the dark shadows under her eyes. “She’s just another role, like pilot or spy. And maybe she doesn’t seem like us, Hartsie, and maybe you don’t think you’ve got anything in common with her, but at the end of the day, all she wants to be is loved, and who can’t relate to that?”

  Hours after we finished running my lines and I’d gone to bed, I woke. The room was dark and still, and for a moment I didn’t know where I was. Then I smelled the gardenias, the ginger, the warm salt air. I could hear voices coming from the backyard. Mudge was still up. But then there was a man’s voice, deep and rumbling.
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  I opened the window and leaned out, but I couldn’t see anything except the trees and the sky. All this life. All this color. It was hard to believe there was ever a place where the sun didn’t shine every day, the houses weren’t enormous, the lawns weren’t manicured, the flowers weren’t blooming, and the people weren’t beautiful. I thought, That is a California sky filled with California stars and soon you’re going to be one of them.

  FOUR

  I arrived at Stage 8 early. Casting director Lucille Ryman was around fifty, attractive, and dramatically blonde, while director Jack Conway was a good ten years older than that. He said, “Velva Jean Hart. The war hero. I’ve seen the newsreel.” Then he barked, “She needs more makeup.” A man rushed forward, carrying a small suitcase in his arms. He opened it as he stood there, and I could see brushes and pots of rouge and powders, and tube after tube of lipstick.

  Ms. Ryman said, “Not too much. I want her to look like herself.” She stood back, arms folded.

  Mr. Conway said, “Fine, but we need to darken the lipstick.”

  The stage was made up like a Victorian home, the rooms laid out side by side. Through the doorway of one, a staircase led upward. Mr. Conway told me he wanted me to come down the stairs, and that I, as Jane, would find the man I loved waiting for me. That I only had a few precious moments to profess my love once and for all, before it was too late, but that I was frightened because this was the bravest thing I’d ever done. He went up the stairs himself and came down fast, nearly running, and then the rest of the way slowly, as if he was trying to be controlled and calm. He crossed into the living room, stopping in the doorway. He leaned against it, cleared his throat, and said my first line.

  He moved again. “Then you cross to here. Then here and here, as if you’re not sure where to land. You just flit about.” He moved around the room, straightening the curtains, rummaging through a crystal candy bowl. “Then, finally, over to him. You don’t have much time! He has to leave any minute for his wedding!”

 
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