American Blonde by Jennifer Niven


  A voice hollered at me to come on. “Everything is okay. You’re safe.” But I couldn’t move. I was still frozen, eyes still closed, by the time Johnny Clay reached me.

  The next thing I knew, I was on the ground, looking up at the water tower as if it were a giant beanstalk. My brother wrapped a blanket around my shoulders, and Flora held out something foul-smelling and told me to drink every last drop of it. I didn’t want to drink it, and I told her this, and she and my brother made me drink it anyway.

  The guard was there, or one of them, and Butch Dawkins handed me a hot cup of coffee and told me to drink this down too. I heard the wail of a siren on the next block, and I closed my eyes just for a second, sending up a short, sweet prayer of thanks because it was important to be thankful, even at a time like this. “Nigel,” I said, though I couldn’t hear my voice. “He’s by Grand Central Station.”

  The next thing I knew, I was staring at a dingy white ceiling. The part of my mind that was working and with me thought, What am I doing on the floor?

  And then I saw that I was on a bed and not the floor at all, and a man in a white coat leaned over me and said very slowly, “Can you hear me, Miss Hart? Do you remember what happened?”

  “Yes,” I said, but my voice sounded thin and raspy, like an old man’s. “There has been a murder.”

  “But you are alive. . . .”

  “Not me. My friend. Although someone tried to kill me. The same person. They were getting away with it, you see, but not now.” I started to laugh like a villain in a movie. I laughed and laughed, the sound of it echoing off the white, white walls of the room. The only decoration was a large framed painting of horses grazing in a valley, placid and dull and hanging too high on the left side. I stared at it, fascinated.

  Then, as I watched, the horses galloped out of the painting, toward my bed. I covered my head, and my shoulder shot through with pain so sharp, I caught my breath.

  The man in the coat told me to relax, to be calm, to concentrate on breathing. Behind him, through the window in the door, I could see a dark-haired man in a suit and another man beside him with a face like a bulldog and his hat pulled low, like a gangster. Before my eyes, they multiplied until thirty or forty of them crowded in the doorway, reaching for me.

  “Don’t let them in here,” I said. “Call Dr. Murdoch.” I clutched at the doctor’s coat, my hands opening and shutting like mouths. For a moment, I thought my hands were talking, and so I waited politely, letting them go first. When they only sat dumb and silent, I repeated, “Call Dr. Murdoch.” Then I pulled the doctor close and whispered, “Tell him I’m the evidence he needs. I am the evidence.”

  THIRTY-SEVEN

  I woke up in a white room, my brother sitting beside me. I blinked at him, but he was out of focus, as if there were two of him sitting very close together. When he saw that my eyes were open, he stood up and frowned in a worried way. He looked like he hadn’t slept for days.

  “How long have I been here?” My voice was garbled and strange, my throat raw. That’s not my voice, I thought. They’ve replaced my voice with someone else’s.

  “Since Sunday.”

  “What day is this?” Where did my voice go?

  “Tuesday.”

  My shoulder was throbbing a little. My head ached, as if it had been split in two. I closed my eyes and opened them again. “You look blurry.”

  “It’s the belladonna. You’ve still got it in your system. The doctor says it’ll take about ninety-six hours before it’s out of you. Your vision should clear up in a few days. You had us worried, little sister.”

  I tried to sit up, but it hurt too much, so I stayed still and contented myself with smoothing down the covers. “What happened?”

  “Don’t you remember?”

  “I remember parts of things.”

  “It’s probably better that way.”

  Images of scenes and places drifted in and out like clouds. I remembered the rain first. But I had a memory of snow as well. A French village. A Paris street. A waving flag. The world from much too high. And Nigel. Something about Nigel. The harder I tried to focus and think, the more my head pounded.

  Finally, I said, “Nigel.” Johnny Clay would know whatever there was to know and why I was asking.

  “He’ll be okay. He lost a lot of blood, but he used his tie as a tourniquet. Bastard saved his own life.” I could hear the admiration in his voice, in spite of himself.

  “He was shot.” That part was coming back to me. “More than once.” Something else came back—Babe’s face floating toward me through the hazy, foggy mist of my brain. “Babe King. Babe King shot him?”

  “And you. She was the one who gave you the belladonna. It was the blueberries, which weren’t really blueberries.”

  “She fell.” I could suddenly see her face, the wide eyes, the open mouth as she dropped away into nothing.

  He shook his head, which meant Babe was dead. Good-bye, Babe. Good-bye, Edna.

  “No one will know what she did. I mean regarding Mudge.”

  “They know. Your friend Sam is working on a piece about it. A nice little tribute to Edna Mudge, and the studio that created her.” His eyes went bright and sneaky. He smiled, and just like that, he looked like my brother again.

  “Sam was here?” I glanced around the room, as if somehow I’d overlooked him.

  “That’s right. We all were.”

  “How did you find me?”

  Johnny Clay shifted in and out of focus so that there was one of him, then two, then three.

  “Flora got to the house and saw the note Helen wrote you about meeting Nigel. She called Helen at her hotel because she smelled a rat, and when Helen told her about the blueberry delivery from Nigel’s secretary, Flora called me. I guess Nigel Gray doesn’t have a secretary, just some business manager named Clarence So-and-so.” He kicked at the bed, studied the floor. When he looked up again, he was as serious as could be. “But I’ll always find you. You can count on that.”

  I reached out my hand, even though my arm felt like a dead weight. He held my hand, gave it a squeeze, and smiled again. “Besides, I owed you one, little sister. I figure now we’re even.”

  I slept for hours.

  When I woke this time, it was evening or maybe late at night, and Butch Dawkins was propped in a corner chair, head tipped back, eyes closed.

  I couldn’t remember ever feeling so tired. Everything about me ached and hurt, as if I were coming to life after a long, long sleep. My own eyes were heavy, and I watched Butch for a few minutes without saying anything. When I couldn’t keep them open any longer, I let myself drift, knowing he was there.

  I woke up later—minutes or hours, it was hard to tell—and this time he was awake and sitting up, head resting on his hand. He was staring out the window, as if he were deep in thought.

  “Hey,” I said.

  He turned his head, dropped his hand. “Hey.” He walked over to the bed. In his eyes, I could see the worry. “How are you feeling?”

  “Hungry.”

  He laughed, shook his head. I could see the relief wash over him, loosening the tight, tense lines of his face. “You’re one down-home, girl, Velva Jean. That’s. Fo. Sho.”

  I looked him right in the eye, fixing a stare on him so that he couldn’t get away. “When I had my accident at Camp Davis, when I nearly died, I had a dream that you were at the hospital.”

  “Are you asking me if I was there?”

  “Yes.”

  “What do you think?”

  “I think you were. And the song you wrote, the one I carried with me to England and France and Germany, ‘The Bluesman’—was that about me?” I could feel myself fighting to stay awake. I shifted a little, tried to sit up, but my eyes were so heavy. Why were they so heavy?

  “What do you think?”

  “I think it
was.” As if he didn’t know his own song, I quoted it back to him. “‘It don’t matter where or when, or who or what or why—I’ll love you forever and on the day when we die.’”

  “Sure sounds like words to me. And not much of a riddle.”

  My eyes were closing again. I couldn’t remember ever feeling so tired. “Will you be here when I wake up?”

  “Yes.”

  I woke sometime Thursday feeling whole, as if I’d been put back together. Butch was still sitting in the chair, as if only minutes had passed. He said, “Helen’s here. She wants to see you.”

  While he went to find her, I tried to take stock of things. My head felt good and clear. No headache. No pain. Maybe just a little twinge in the shoulder and ankle. I felt awake. More awake than I had in months and months. I smoothed my hair and for the first time wondered what on earth I must look like.

  Helen hurried in, tears in her eyes. “Hartsie.” She put her arms around me and hugged me as tight as she could. Helen was not one to hug or cry, and she pulled away quickly. “This is my fault. I took the message. I put the blueberries in the salad. I believed her when she said she was Nigel’s secretary. She made herself up—wore a disguise. I didn’t recognize her.”

  I took her hand. “You didn’t know.”

  She shook her head and gave my hand a squeeze. “That is the last time I ever cook. Mark my words.” She wiped her eyes. “You had me frightened. Not just me, all of us. Your brother would have killed Babe King himself if she wasn’t already dead.”

  “I thought you were supposed to go home with your parents.”

  “I couldn’t leave until you were better. I’ve got a flight out this weekend. I need to go back and tell Sterling Archer Sanford the Third I can’t marry him.”

  “Where’s Flora?”

  “She’s here. She’s been so worried. I’ll get her for you, but first . . .” She pulled something from her handbag. “I don’t want to overwhelm you or take too much out of you, but it was one of the last books I searched.” She turned the spine, leather-bound and worn, so I could see it. Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell. “It’s a story about an orphaned seamstress who meets a man and falls in love. He takes her in, but then he leaves her, and the girl is all alone. Until she gets a chance at a new life where she can have love and respect, as long as no one finds out about her secret—the illegitimate child she’s hidden away.”

  She handed the book to me, and then she handed me something else. “This was inside.”

  It was a faded photograph of two smiling girls, side by side, the older looking at the younger with love. On the back, someone had written, “Edna and Eloise, 1922.”

  “MURDER AND MOVIE STARS AND A TALE OF TWO SISTERS:

  A Cover-up in Hollywood”

  by Samuel C. Weldon

  The Hollywood Reporter

  The Los Angeles newspapers have been filled lately with news of what some are calling the Lone Women Murders. These women were not well-known or famous, but hundreds of people are being rounded up and interviewed as part of ongoing investigations into the deaths, and hundreds of others are coming forward each week to confess to the crimes.

  A girl named Eloise Mudge died December 28, 1946, but no one is talking about her.

  Why should anyone care about Eloise Mudge? Because Eloise Mudge was also known as Barbara Fanning, one of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s most popular stars.

  There now. I’ve got your attention. After all, we love to read about movie stars, especially when they are very famous, and especially when there’s even a hint of scandal involved.

  But Barbara Fanning was just another actress. I’m more interested in the girl she was off camera.

  Here’s why: Eloise was the girl behind the famous face. She was an ordinary girl who grew up in Carmen, Oklahoma, in an orphans’ home, left there by her mother when she was three. Her sister, Edna, was just a baby at the time, and the two girls were dragged in and out of that home until Eloise was old enough to leave for good, on her own. It was Hollywood that got her out of there: specifically, a chance to test for MGM.

  The movies were never her dream. Stardom was what younger sister Edna longed for. Instead, Eloise looked ahead to marriage and children and family. She wanted a house of her own, somewhere to call home.

  But Hollywood came calling before any of those things, and she discovered she was a natural on camera. After all, hadn’t she been playing a role all her life? The dutiful orphan and protective older sister.

  Her death is well-known, but the circumstances are not. No one cared much about Eloise Mudge, orphan girl, but everyone cared about Barbara Fanning, movie star. The men of Metro cared most of all. The death of Eloise Mudge would never have caused headlines, but the death of Barbara Fanning was worrisome business from the start. First, there was the location of the death: Broad Water, the estate of MGM producer Billy Taub and his wife, actress Ophelia Lloyd. Second, there was the potential scandal of it all. It was clear to those at the scene that night that Barbara Fanning did not die accidentally, which meant the unthinkable: Someone from the studio had murdered her.

  This would never do. Particularly if that someone was another Metro star, an even bigger star—the biggest star of all. I’m talking, of course, of Nigel Gray, famous for his charm and good looks and devastating British accent, as well as, most recently, his romancing of Miss Fanning in spite of his marriage to the late Pia Palmer.

  Metro, so famously run under Papa Louis B. Mayer like a very large, very affluent family, clearly believed that one of its own was guilty. And so it set out to protect him. Fortunately, there is just such a team in place for just such an occasion. I am talking about Howard Strickling, Eddie Mannix, and Whitey Hendry. These are the Fixers, folks. Every studio has them—those men who rush to the scene of a brawl or a drunken binge or any site where scandal might be brewing around their stars. But no Fixers are as powerful as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s.

  Their main missive is to protect the image of the studio. Even if you have to call a murder an “accident,” plant wiretaps and snitches and spies at every restaurant, doctor’s office, or drugstore in town, use scare tactics and henchmen to keep your employees under control, round up innocent people to direct the spotlight elsewhere, deliver threats, blackmail, pass out suspensions, etc. In short, you do what it takes, and if anyone gets in the way of that, you take care of it.

  Johnny Clay Hart, brother of Metro star Kit Rogers, a longtime friend of Eloise Mudge, recently witnessed this firsthand when he was brought in for questioning in the case of murder victim Jeanne French. Hart never knew French, never even met the woman, and was nowhere near the West Los Angeles murder site the night French was killed. But Kit Rogers had been poking around just a little too much about who might have killed her friend, and so her brother was implicated.

  Nigel Gray did not kill Barbara Fanning. In trying to protect him, the studio pronounced him guilty.

  Babe King killed Barbara Fanning. At first glance, the motive might seem clear: professional jealousy. The younger actress offs the older one for a chance at her place in the spotlight, at the same roles, the same dressing room, perhaps even the same man.

  But this is a story about two sisters.

  Babe King’s real name was Edna Mudge. There was only one person who knew Edna’s secrets—secrets she was determined to keep. That person was her sister, Eloise. Eloise, dutiful orphan and protective older sister, knew too much. And so she had to go.

  Never mind the ruined lives and orphaned child Edna left behind. After all, she had found a home at MGM. When she killed once, they protected her. When she tried to kill again—her victims this time: Nigel Gray and Kit Rogers—she ended up killing herself.

  But was Edna Mudge the only murderer here?

  THIRTY-EIGHT

  On March 13, five thousand fans waited outside the Shrine Auditorium downtown. A dozen or more searchlights
panned the sky. A radio reporter was set up near the entrance, broadcasting live. He had to shout over the noise from the crowd, the sound of applause as more stars arrived, of music swelling out and around us from inside the auditorium. “I’ve been covering the awards since 1929, and I can honestly say this is the most glamorous ceremony of all. The war is over. The ermine and sequins are out. We’ve been deprived for so long that we are making up for lost time.”

  Inside, I took in the view—the stars laughing and talking to each other. There was Gable. There was Hepburn. There was Errol Flynn. Lana Turner. Tyrone Power. Every star in the galaxy gathered under one roof. Looking at them, in their diamonds and black ties, it was hard to believe anything terrible or tragic could ever happen. Even if the sun didn’t shine here every day, it wouldn’t matter. They would just paint the skies blue.

  Jack Benny was our host, entertaining the crowd with his usual patter. The cast of Home of the Brave sat together. Johnny Clay was my date. My gown was blue, in honor of Mudge. I wore her Rebekah ring on my right hand.

  Billy Taub and Ophelia Lloyd sat on the end of the row in front, Felix Roland and Shelby Jordan to their right. The rest of us fell in around them—Webster Hayes, Hal, Collie, Rosie, Redd Deeley, Phillip Drake, and Nigel, wearing a sky blue tie that matched his eyes.

  “You’re all here,” the usher had said as he led us to the seats.

  He meant, you’re all sitting here, but I thought, Not all of us.

 
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