American Blonde by Jennifer Niven

  I could hear footsteps clattering on the cold concrete as more people arrived. “Places!” Mr. Conway waved at me to get up the stairs.

  I walked through the hall, feeling the bright heat of the lights. I went up the stairs, one at a time. Fourteen steps up, the staircase ended at a tiny little platform. I stood on the stair next to the top and waited. I waited and waited. Finally, he shouted: “Action!”

  I tripped down the stairs, nearly somersaulting to the bottom, but caught myself just in time. I swore without thinking and then smoothed my hair and glided the rest of the way. A man sat on the couch, his gold head gleaming under the lights. He checked his watch, tapped his shoe. I leaned in the doorframe and cleared my throat and said, “Thank you for coming.” I tried my best to flit. I flitted to the curtains, to the candy bowl, and then to the couch.

  The man with the gold head didn’t turn around because he was too busy pulling out a cigarette. “You said it was important and that it couldn’t wait.” His accent was British, and he sounded impatient.

  I flitted a little more and then I sat down beside the man, this stupid man, this man I loved, and the minute I looked into his blue eyes—the deepest, truest blue I’d ever seen—I forgot to be mad. I also forgot every single line that came next.

  My God. It was all there: the darkly golden hair, the twinkling eyes, the devastating smile.

  Nigel Gray said, “There’s only one thing to do in this situation.” He glanced over his shoulder toward the doorway, as if he was making sure we were alone. Then he gazed into my eyes and took me in his arms and kissed me.

  When we pulled apart, I said, “The moon.” Something about the moon. The kiss should have been on the piano bench. We were supposed to sing a song.

  He laughed and grabbed me by my arms, just above the elbows, and pulled me to my feet. He shook me once, twice. In that famed British accent, his voice husky and low and just for me, he said, “Jane, don’t you see? Don’t you know?”

  “Don’t I know what?” My voice was a whisper. My lines were gone, but for some reason I could remember every word I’d read about him in the fan magazines. Nigel Gray is an only child from London, son of the Duke of Sutherland. He is married to glamorous German actress Pia Palmer, who is currently in England making a picture.

  He laughed and kissed me again. This time it lasted longer. I tried to breathe with his lips against mine. I tried to breathe under the hot, hot lights. His grip tightened, as if to steady me, but it only made my head go lighter. At last he let me go and the room tilted, just a little, and I waited for it to right itself.

  How many kisses were there? I’d only noticed one in the script. I said, “I love you.”

  He laughed again. Then I remembered this wasn’t my line at all. I was supposed to let him know I loved him without telling him so. I covered Jane’s poor face, which was actually my poor face. He said, “Darling, I love you too.”

  “But Maisie . . .” I was saying anything now. My lines were far, far gone. Nigel Gray is impossible not to like. Give him a chance and it’s easy to see that, beneath his beautiful exterior, he is a rock-solid fellow, the kind of gent you’d be lucky to have for a brother, a friend, or a fishing partner.

  “Hang Maisie. Don’t you know it’s always been you?”

  His eyes searched my face, running over my forehead, my nose, my lips, back to my eyes. I thought he was going to kiss me again and then instead he crossed to the piano. He sat down and played a few notes. “Do you remember the song I sang to you, back when we first met?”

  “I could never forget that.” I walked over to the piano bench and sat beside him.

  He began to sing and play. He had a rich voice, a decent voice, and he played well. Suddenly I remembered the words. I sang a verse with him and then another by myself, and then the chorus. My voice bounced off the rafters of the soundstage, echoing around us. I closed my eyes, blocking everyone out. I kept singing.

  I don’t know when Nigel Gray stopped playing, but suddenly I could only hear myself. I opened my eyes and he sat watching me. There was something behind his eyes, as if he were studying me and taking me in. The charming smile, the twinkle behind the blue dropped away, and I felt as if I could see the real him—not the actor him, but the man. I stopped singing and, without thinking, took his hand, as if he was lonely and needed comfort.

  He said, “Don’t you know it’s always been you?” I couldn’t remember if it was what he was supposed to say or if he was making it up now too. At that moment, it didn’t matter because he leaned in and kissed me again.

  When it was over, Mr. Conway said, “That was fine, Miss Hart, just fine.”

  Lucille Ryman shook my hand. “We’ll be in touch.”

  Then Nigel Gray stood, eyes on me as he pulled a cigarette from a flashing silver case. “I’m going to keep my eye out for you, Jane.” He tucked the case away, twirled the cigarette into his mouth, lit it with a flashing silver lighter, and, with a wave and a wink, swaggered off.

  Two days later, I still hadn’t heard from the studio. I told myself: That’s it. You forgot your lines and nearly fell down those stairs and made a fool of yourself in front of Nigel Gray and Lucille Ryman and everyone else. I tried to put it out of my mind, but every time the telephone rang I jumped.

  On Sunday night, Mudge and I ate a late dinner by the pool—shrimp cocktail, chicken à la king, asparagus, baked potatoes, fruit, salad. She had come directly from the set and was still wearing Mallory Rourke’s studio makeup and hair. I’d barely seen her all weekend because her days on the picture lasted fourteen, sixteen, eighteen hours, and sometimes the studio added promotional appearances on top of everything else.

  I could tell there was something on her mind. When I asked her about it, she smiled a little sadly. “At the end of the day, they’re all the same.” I tried to pass her the plate of shrimp, but she said, “I’m allergic. I asked Flora to make them for you.”

  As I ate, I thought, I could get used to this. “Who’s all the same?”

  “Men.” She pulled something out of her pocket. It glinted silver in the light. She unscrewed the cap and drank—the same flask she used to carry with her in the WASP, the one where she’d hidden her gin. She offered it to me, but I shook my head.

  I said, “Hal MacGinnis is handsome.” Hal had been a fighter pilot and captain. He’d earned the Medal of Honor, the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and the Distinguished Flying Cross. He’d been a star before the war, but was an even bigger star now.

  “He is.” She sighed, pulling her legs up onto the chair, sitting cross-legged. “Do you ever wonder why we haven’t been able to stay married to anyone, Hartsie? Maybe I shouldn’t lump you in with me. At least you only tried it once.”

  “If I’d stayed home with Harley Bright, I never would have gone to Nashville or become a WASP. I never would have gone to war. I’d never have come to California. I’d be living in Devil’s Kitchen cleaning up after Harley and his daddy and worrying about what to fix for dinner.”

  “Do you think you’ll ever get married again?”

  I stared out toward the pool and tried to picture myself married, and then I tried to picture a man who would make me want to want to be married. “I don’t know.”

  “I will. I can’t seem to help myself. But the thing I want to be remembered for is being a pilot. Being in the WASP. That’s the best thing I’ve ever done. It was the closest I’ve ever come to being truly good.” The words seemed to echo in the night air. “Until now. Until Mallory Rourke and this picture. Still, at the end of the day, I think I’d give it all away—the studio, the clothes, the cars, the house—for a good husband and a home full of children.” She stubbed out her cigarette and smiled. “Of course, if you ever repeat that to anyone, I’ll tell them you’re a liar.”

  Just after eight o’clock, we were interrupted by the jangling of the telephone. Mudge jumped to answer it,
asked who was calling, and waved the handset at me. “It’s the studio.”

  On the other end of the line, Lucille Ryman said, “Congratulations, Velva Jean Hart. The newsreel didn’t lie. I’ll see you tomorrow morning. Eight o’clock at the Thalberg Building. Tell the receptionist you’re there to see Billy Taub about your contract.”

  As I hung up, Mudge was watching my face, her eyebrows raised, the corners of her mouth curved upward. “Yes?”


  She clapped her hands together, handed me her drink, and took the phone from me. She cradled the receiver between her ear and shoulder as she dialed a number. “Redd, it’s me. . . . Don’t flatter yourself. I’m about to ask a favor. A friend of mine has a contract she needs looking at and a career that needs tending. It’s going to be a big one. . . . Because as much as I detest you, Mayer detests you more, and it’s good to keep him on his toes, especially with something”—she looked at me—“that he’s taken such an interest in. Besides, I trust you. And that’s awful hard to find in this town.”

  She set the receiver down with a bang. “Redd Deeley is the best agent in town. Just as long as you don’t marry him.”


  The contract was for seven years. I would receive a guaranteed salary of seventy-five dollars a week for six months, paid whether I worked or not. At the end of that six months, Metro had the option to renew for another half year at twice that amount or they could drop me, just like that, and be done with it.

  I was to accept all roles assigned to me and agree to all promotional appearances requested by the studio, as well as any travel arising out of my work; otherwise I would face suspension. I was not allowed to leave Los Angeles without permission, even when I wasn’t filming. I was not allowed to do any television work or accept any other profitable employment, which included theater, radio, and recordings.

  I was always to be on call to learn, study, and film the movies I was in. I was to be free to promote the movie or do anything MGM needed me to do, including being loaned out to another studio. I was never to refuse to sign an autograph. I was to give the studio approval over anyone I dated. And according to the “standard morals clause,” I was to “project what the studio considers an appropriate image,” which meant I must behave myself at all times.

  Redd Deeley, square jawed and strapping, sat next to me across from Billy Taub, neat and tidy in a jacket and tie—the white streak of hair smoothed back—and looking less like a madman than when I’d first seen him on the set. His office was on the third floor of the Thalberg Building, connected to the rest of the legal department by a network of intercoms and telephones. The door kept opening as men walked in and out, interrupting long enough for him to look over this or talk to them about that. He signed papers with a red pen, barely glancing at the page, and kept checking his watch. His desk was stacked with scripts, maps, drawings, lists, and three copies of the book Home of the Brave. An enormous framed picture of his movie star wife, Ophelia Lloyd, perched on one corner.

  “You’re unmarried, Miss Hart?” Mr. Taub stared up at me, a finger marking his place on the page.

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Any plans to be married in the near future?”

  “No, sir.”

  “We ask that you consult us when and if this changes.”

  “I will.” I wasn’t worried about getting married. I was worried about the fact that I wouldn’t be allowed to do recordings. I said, “When you say I’m not allowed to record, do you mean any kind of music?”

  “Is that a problem?” He glanced at Redd.

  I said, “I’m afraid so. Seven years is a long time.”

  “Is it about the money?”

  “No, sir. It’s about having control over my music.”

  “Look, this is a standard contract. You can ask your agent there. Judy Garland, Kathryn Grayson—they’ve all signed it.”

  “I would agree to it if you could take out the thing about recordings. I’ll give you a year at the most, but that’s all I can do.”

  “You’re quite the negotiator.” He glanced again at Redd.

  Redd sat back, crossed his arms, and smiled at him. “She’s certainly making my job easier.”

  I said, “There are certain things I won’t compromise on. The main reason I came here was because of music.”

  “You do realize we’re not a music conservatory. Our purpose isn’t to educate you and then send you out into the world for someone else to reap the benefits.” From the picture frame, Ophelia Lloyd’s eyes blazed at me.

  “I realize that.”

  Mr. Taub and I went back and forth, back and forth like this, Redd interjecting now and then, until finally, when Mr. Taub could tell I wasn’t going to change my mind, he stood and glowered at me. “Wait here.” He snatched the papers and stalked off, rattling them as he went.

  While Billy Taub was gone, I looked around, wondering where his private “casting” office was, and if he had a button on his desk that locked girls in. If he did, I felt pretty certain he’d never try to use it on me.

  Redd said, “I’m glad to be working with you, Velva Jean. In this business, in this town, it’s good to have a team of people looking out for you. You’ve got one of the best ones.” For a second, I thought he was talking about himself. “Barbara isn’t always an easy pill to swallow, but she’s loyal. If she loves you, she’ll fight to the death for you. If you cross her, you’re on your own.”

  Fifteen minutes later, Mr. Taub was back, papers in hand. He said, “You’ve got a deal, Miss Hart. We’ve changed the recording clause from seven years to one year, and raised your salary from seventy-five dollars a week to one hundred fifty. I’m assuming that addresses your concerns?” He smiled.

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Any others we should discuss at this time?” I decided it was actually a baiting kind of smile.

  “I don’t think so. No.”

  “I’m glad to hear it. The studio will open a checking account for you at the Culver City branch of the Security Pacific Bank. Do you need us to find you an apartment?”

  “I’m staying with a friend right now.”

  Redd smiled at Mr. Taub once again. “I believe you know her. Barbara Fanning. The girls were pilots together.”

  Mr. Taub said vaguely, “Is that so?” as he plucked a pen from its holder and laid the contract out in front of me. There, in black and white, was “Velva Jean Hart” and a line above it. I held the pen over the page. For once, I wasn’t going to think or question or wonder what if. In thick black ink, I signed my name.

  Metro’s head of publicity was Howard Strickling. He was as tall, dark, and handsome as the movie stars he handled, but he wore a navy blue suit that wasn’t flashy or fancy and spoke matter-of-factly—with a sometimes stutter—as if he didn’t have time to waste. He sat in a beaten-up leather chair behind a desk with a carved ivory lion looming at one end, a photo of Joan Crawford thumbing her nose on the other. He said he needed to hear my life story, every detail, and that I shouldn’t leave anything out.

  I told him about Mama dying when I was ten and Daddy going away, about being raised by Sweet Fern, and saving up my money to go to Nashville. I told him about marrying Harley when I was sixteen, and divorcing him when I was twenty. I talked about Nashville and Darlon C. Reynolds and my friend Gossie, who took me in, and learning to fly, and then applying to be a WASP. I mentioned half-Creole, half-Choctaw Butch Dawkins; Ned Tyler, the boy I’d loved who died in Blythe, California, when his plane crashed into a mountain; the fact that I was almost killed myself at Camp Davis when my B-29 was sabotaged. Then England and France, the Resistance and Émile Gravois and his team and Gossie’s aunt, who smuggled downed pilots out of Paris. Being captured by the Germans and tortured and shipped off to a concentration camp, which was when I escaped. Killing a man, maybe more, as we tried to get away, and then what he already kne
w from the papers about saving Johnny Clay and stealing a German plane to get us home.

  Mr. Strickling said, “Miss Hart, it’s come to our attention that your father has a police record. Perhaps you can explain.”

  I didn’t ask how he knew. Mudge had already warned me that they would do their research and that it was better to get it all out in the open at the start.

  “My father never meant anyone harm, but he did like to drink. He was happy when he drank, never mean. And he would never hurt anyone.”

  “‘Drunk and disorderly,’ ‘drunken conduct in a public place.’ He seems to have spent more than one occasion in jail.”

  “When I was growing up, the sheriff in Hamlet’s Mill would sometimes bring Daddy in, more to keep him from wandering off or getting into mischief. My brothers liked to make him stay in jail a night or two because they felt it was good for him.”

  “When was the last time you saw your father?”

  “I haven’t seen him in years.”

  He sat back in his chair. “So for all you know he may actually be dead.”

  “I—well. I suppose he could be.” Even after all Daddy had done and not done, even after all these years of not seeing him, it wasn’t something I liked to imagine.

  Mr. Strickling said, “Is that everything?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “If there’s anything you’re holding back, anything that might prove embarrassing if the media gets hold of it, now is the time to let me know. If you tell me now, I can make sure that anything like that stays out of the press. Or if we can’t keep it out of the press, I can make sure it’s revealed in the most positive light possible. I don’t want any surprises when I open my morning paper.”

  “That’s everything.”

  “Good. When were you born, Miss Hart?”

  “November 5, 1922.”

  “We’ll need to change the date. Shave two or three years off your age, maybe give you a more patriotic birthday. Not July fourth because that belongs to Mr. Mayer, but perhaps Lincoln’s birthday.” He pressed a button on a little box on his desk.

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