American Blonde by Jennifer Niven

  And then he was there.

  And the gap closed as if it had never existed at all.

  I thought of a hundred things to ask him: What are you doing here? How did you find me? Why did you wait so long? But I didn’t say anything because he was there. No more gap. No more space. Just him and me. Me and him. Velva Jean and Butch. Butch and Velva Jean.

  Without a word, he kissed me.

  I lost myself in the warmth of his mouth, that wonderful mouth. I lost myself in him. Him into me, me into him. I could feel his heart against mine, beating a fast, hard echo of my own.

  This was the place we’d been moving toward since that first day on the mountain, the day he came riding up to see me in an old yellow truck. Toward his hands on my face. My hands on the firm, taut muscles of his back. Toward this kiss. This kiss that was like a song. First love, pure and sweet. New love, aching and raw. Old love, warm and familiar, bridging years and time.

  I wrapped my arms around him and breathed him in.

  He leaned me up against the car and stopped kissing me long enough to look at me with a crooked smile.

  “You got somewhere to go and so do I,” he said. “And I didn’t drive all this way to slow you down. But I just wanted to say hello. I’m here. And I ain’t going anywhere.”


  East of New Mexico, the landscape changed to winter. On March 25, I stopped at a service station outside of Amarillo and stretched my legs. After the attendant filled up the tank and checked the tires, he said, “I’ve seen your face. Aren’t you that actress—the little girl who sings? Kit Rogers?”

  “I used to be.” I smiled at him. “Thank you for asking.” I got back into the car and counted out the money for the gas. I caught sight of myself in the mirror, eyes bright, lips painted Headline Red.

  “Need help with directions, or do you know where you’re going?”

  I nodded at the map spread out on the seat beside me. “I know where I’m going.”

  He counted my money, then counted out my change.

  “You be safe out there, a girl like you alone on the road. Where you headed anyway?”


  He whistled, and then nodded, as if he was impressed, or maybe as if to say: That’s right. That’s exactly where you should be going. I wouldn’t have expected any other place.

  He said, “You headed to Nashville?”

  “Yes, sir,” I said, my hands on the wheel. “I am.”

  “Home to Me”

  (words and music by Velva Jean Hart)

  I’ve been driving way too fast

  But I don’t have far to go

  Over roads, across the skies

  Trying to find my way back home

  Home to where the stars align,

  Home because it’s finally time,

  Home to you

  Home to me

  I’m hanging up the fancy gowns

  Hanging up the big screen and the fame

  I’m picking up my new guitar

  And going back to my old name

  The name my mama gave me,

  The name my daddy gave me,

  Velva Jean to you

  Velva Jean to me

  I’m heading forward on this road

  Heading toward places I can’t see,

  I’m taking it mile by mile

  Heading toward you, heading toward me

  You, where all the stars align,

  Me, because it’s finally time,

  Home to you

  Home to me

  You can lose the self you are

  faster than a shooting star

  dives to earth and disappears

  in the empty, wasted years.

  When where you’ve been is gone, gone, gone,

  All you keep is the getting here

  I’ve been flying way too fast

  But I don’t have far to go

  Over roads, across the skies

  As I find my way back home

  Home where all my stars align,

  Home because it’s finally time,

  Home to you

  Home to me


  The year 1947 was, according to Fortune magazine, the greatest productive period in United States peacetime history. Before the war, the population of Los Angeles was three million. By 1946, it had grown to six and a half million.

  Movie attendance in the United States was eighty million per week. By the end of 1948, that number had dropped to sixty million per week, and the studio that fared the worst was the largest and most lucrative in Hollywood, and the richest: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

  Men like the Fixers—MGM’s head of publicity, Howard Strickling, and general manager, Eddie Mannix—suddenly, after years of ruling the town, found themselves with less and less power. As the studio system died out and the seven-year contract became a thing of the past, they no longer enjoyed complete control over their stars. But for a good many years, they ruled Los Angeles more powerfully than the mob. In the 1930s and early 1940s, the Los Angeles Police Department, the Los Angeles district attorney’s office, the gossip columnists, and many of the newspapers were all famously buyable and famously corrupt, and famously in the back pocket of the movie studios and the moguls who ran them.

  While the case of Barbara Fanning was invented, the actions of the Fixers in a situation like this are disturbingly true to life, right down to Howard Strickling’s “talent is like a precious stone” speech. Did Metro’s biggest star, Clark Gable, strike and kill a pedestrian with his car? Was Jean Harlow’s husband (and MGM producer) Paul Bern murdered but made to look like the victim of suicide by the men who discovered him first—Strickling, Eddie Mannix, Whitey Hendry, and Louis B. Mayer? Did popular MGM character actor Wallace Beery beat Ted Healy to death outside the Trocadero? Did Eddie Mannix have anything to do with the mysterious gunshot death of George Reeves, the last major studio scandal of its kind handled by Howard Strickling?

  Loretta Young’s pure and wholesome on-screen persona was created by MGM. When she became pregnant by married costar Clark Gable, Strickling and Mannix were the ones who shielded her from the public and made certain no one found out about the pregnancy. Two years after the child’s birth, they were the ones who arranged the bending of California state law so that Miss Young could “adopt” her own daughter from the orphanage where she’d hidden her.

  Personal memories and first- and secondhand information confirming the preceding have become part of the public record. However, any hard evidence is long gone. Even for a dogged and determined researcher, it is a frustrating quest. Howard Strickling and Eddie Mannix seem to have done a thorough job of destroying any and all pertinent records, which included crime scene photographs taken by studio photographer Virgil Apger, incriminating evidence removed from various crime scenes, and eyewitness accounts that were later altered.

  On June 22, 1951, Louis B. Mayer resigned from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, forced out by Nicholas Schenck, president of Loew’s Inc. On Mayer’s last day, Howard Strickling ordered a red carpet placed at the front door of the Thalberg Building. It was unfurled down the steps and across the walk, all the way to the street. The executives and secretaries who had worked with Louis B. Mayer for so many years gathered outside to applaud him as he made his final walk through the gate that still bore his name.

  Actor Turhan Bey said, “When Louis B. Mayer left MGM, that was the end. Of contract players, of publicity departments who nursed you through the crises of studio life, of the studio life itself. In every meaningful way, it was the end of Hollywood.”

  MGM, once the largest and most glamorous movie studio in the world, is now owned by Sony. The famed backlots, left to decay and ruin in the 1970s, are gone. In 1986, Ted Turner purchased what remained from Kirk Kerkorian, and then sold it bac
k to him after keeping the film library—some four thousand movies—which became the building block for Turner Classic Movies. Spencer Tracy, who read the eulogy at Louis B. Mayer’s funeral in 1957, said, “All the rest is history. The shining epoch of the industry passes with him.”

  Louis B. Mayer, and the studio he ran, belonged to a different era, a different world. A world where men were gentlemen, where women were virtuous, where families were loyal and loving, where pictures hung straighter, grass grew greener, picket fences shone whiter, people danced down streets and sang songs, endings were happy, and everything was sprinkled with magic dust. It was an idealized America where dreams came true, especially when there were men to protect those dreams and ensure nothing spoiled them.

  It was the America that should have been, and that never was—except as it existed on the soundstages of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

  My love for Hollywood was born in 1983 at 725 North Rodeo Drive. I was an awkward preteen, braces just off, but tall for my age with hips and a mane of unruly hair. I was at turns bursting with confidence and painfully self-conscious. My mother was researching her first book, a biography of poet and author Carl Sandburg, and I traveled with her to Los Angeles for my first time there. Several important and pivotal things happened on that trip: I went to Disneyland. I had my first glimpse of MTV in our hotel room. I discovered a band called Duran Duran in a Westwood music store. And I found Hollywood.

  As part of her research, my mom did a round of interviews with legendary writer, director, and producer Norman Corwin, The Tonight Show founder Steve Allen, television writer and producer William Hale, and Gene Kelly.

  The vibrant and elegant Norman showed us Los Angeles. He squired my mother and me around the city, pointing out the sights, telling us the history, taking us to dinner. To me, he was Norman—kind and gentlemanly and funny. I loved my dad, but I still hoped somehow that Mom could marry Norman, because he would have been a wonderful stepfather. Only later, when I was old enough to appreciate it, would I be able to fully comprehend the scope and extent of his genius and his legacy.

  Gene Kelly was the last interview of our visit. He invited us to his home in Beverly Hills, on the world-famous Rodeo Drive. He lived in a handsome farmhouse, large and white, set back from the broad, palm-tree-lined street with the same expanse of Irish-green lawn as the others that surrounded it, and a white picket fence. There was nothing remarkable about it from the outside.

  An old man answered the door, rugged, broad shouldered, my dad’s height or a little shorter, about five feet ten. He was balding and wore glasses with thick black rims. I looked over his shoulder for Gene Kelly, but the man shook my mother’s hand, and then mine, and thanked us for coming. He led us into the house—wide and bright and spacious—and into a room that faced both the street and the backyard. It was a long room with a piano, books, artwork, antiques, various statues and artifacts, a Christmas tree in the front window with lights twinkling, and, hung on the wood-paneled walls, hundreds of framed photographs.

  Our host was a gentleman. He offered us something to drink and to eat, and then we sat, the three of us, at the end of that wood-paneled room and my mother began her interview. Oh, I thought, so this is Gene Kelly. I felt a little pang of disappointment. He seemed so old, and so unlike the Gene Kelly I’d seen in pictures and movies.

  The primary reason for the interview was that Carl Sandburg had written a poem for Gene Kelly to dance to on one of his television specials (the poem was actually titled “Lines for Gene Kelly to Dance To”). Mom asked Mr. Kelly about Sandburg and their relationship, about how the poem came to be. They talked about the poem itself, about dancing to it. Mr. Kelly told stories relating to Sandburg, to dancing, to Hollywood, and as he did, something mysterious and extraordinary happened—the years seemed to slip away and suddenly there he was sitting next to us, the Gene Kelly of Singin’ in the Rain.

  Because I couldn’t help staring at the photographs that lined the walls, he said to me, “Would you like to look more closely at them?” When I said, oh yes, I’d love to, he took Mom and me through the room, showing us each picture, each souvenir from his movies, amassed over five decades. He showed us the art he collected, the stacks of papers that comprised the autobiography he was, at last, writing, his Academy Award, and his dancing shoes. He spoke with love and affection of this person, of this film, of this experience. His warmth was genuine. He was funny and humble, for all I’d heard then or since about his ego. Perhaps humble isn’t the right word—perhaps grateful is more accurate. He seemed grateful for all he had accomplished.

  We spent the better part of the day with him, and then, too soon, it was time to go. There was dinner with Norman, and more Hollywood stories to come. But I didn’t want to leave that room at Gene Kelly’s house. Being there was like stepping back into another time, one of glamour and hard work, of camaraderie and competition, of fame and beauty and heartbreak and . . . magic.

  Mr. Kelly walked us to the door and hugged first my mother, then me. The sky was still blue but the sunlight was fading. The houses and the street looked different to me. Mr. Kelly said to my mom, “She’s a beautiful girl. She takes after her mother.” And he flashed that unmistakable Gene Kelly smile—the one you could spot in a Times Square crowd—as he watched us down the walk and waved as we drove away. As we headed back to our hotel, I felt somehow prettier. Los Angeles seemed prettier too. I no longer saw the faint brown haze of smog or the endless lines of traffic or the strip malls and grocery stores and gas stations. I could suddenly see the Hollywood he’d shown us—the magical one that was still there, if you looked for it. It was a gift. In a way, he gave me his Hollywood, and I would never forget it.

  On December 23, 1983, one month after our visit, Gene Kelly’s home was destroyed by fire. He told reporters he had left the Christmas tree lights on because he felt a responsibility to his fans, who liked to drive by or walk by and see them. His artwork, his antiques, his papers, his photographs, his Academy Award, his dancing shoes—all of it, destroyed. Mr. Kelly and his two grown children barely escaped. His publicist said, “He has nothing this morning but a pair of pajamas.”

  My mother wrote him a note to tell him how deeply sorry we were, and how much we were thinking of him. A week or two later, he wrote her back to thank her. It was true, he said, that his treasures were gone. They could never be replaced. But the memory of them remained.

  Six years later, my mother began working on a book with the actor James Earl Jones. The book became Voices and Silences, his autobiography. I once again tagged along on interviews and television and film sets, not only getting to know James Earl, but for the first time receiving an inside glimpse of the inner, everyday workings of the industry and of the world behind the curtain. At the time, I was in college in New Jersey, but often traveling with Mom, and it was after watching James Earl Jones and Robert Duvall at a grueling location shoot in a buggy, muggy Louisiana swamp that I decided: As soon as I graduated, I was going to Hollywood.

  To this day, living here, I see the city the way I saw it after an afternoon spent at Gene Kelly’s house. I see what it was, what it tries to be, where it came from, how it began. I can see the orange groves and tinsel and the klieg lights surrounding Grauman’s Chinese, and all the places now gone that existed in a different era, a different world—Ciro’s, the MGM backlots, Central Avenue, the Cocoanut Grove. I can hear the music. I can see the stars. I can feel the magic.


  As always, I could not have done this alone. Enormous, jubilant, heartfelt thanks to my mentor (and BFF) mom, Penelope Niven, my rock of a fiancé, Louis Kapeleris, and my three steadfast (and highly entertaining) literary kitties—patient Satchmo, sweet Rumi, and live-wire Lulu, who went through her own share of eye troubles and sleeplessness in order to keep me company (often sitting by my side and gazing at the computer screen with me) day in and day out, long hour after hour.

  Thanks to t
he outstanding Plume team—my splendid editor, Carolyn Carlson, as well as the wonderful Ramona Demme, Mary Pomponio, Elizabeth Keenan, Ashley Pattison McClay, Clare Ferraro, Kathryn Court, Phil Budnick, John Fagan, Lavina Lee, Kym Surridge, Jaya Miceli (art director extraordinaire), and Sara Wood (who created the absolute knockout of a cover)—for giving Velva Jean such a good home for the past five years, and for all they have done and continue to do for Velva Jean and me.

  Thank you to the experts who generously answered question after question about all things poison-related or Hollywood-related or murder investigation–related so that I could write the most historically/technically/logistically sound book possible. First and foremost, Dr. Michael Wilks, senior forensic physician, Thames Valley Police (and his partner, my cousin Sandy McClean). But also Dr. James Klaunig, former state toxicologist of Indiana and current professor in environmental health at Indiana University; Joanne Parrent, of Parrent Smith Investigations; retired North Carolina policeman (and honorary cousin) Doy N. Newell; Glynn Martin, executive director of the Los Angeles Police Museum; author and forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs; the Margaret Herrick Library; the Hollywood History Museum; the Hollywood Heritage Museum; the UCLA Film & Television Archive; the Louis B. Mayer Library at my film school alma mater, AFI; the USC Cinematic Arts Library; the Annenberg Community Beach House (which, back in its Marion Davies heyday, provided the inspiration for Broad Water); the Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center; and the Los Angeles Public Library.

  Much of my research was gleaned from my own extensive Hollywood library, but one book in particular became my bible—M-G-M: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot by Steven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester, and Michael Troyan. Thank you for writing it!

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