American Blonde by Jennifer Niven


  A woman’s voice said, “Yes, sir?”

  “Get me a list of patriotic days of the year, please, Doris, disregarding July four.”

  “Certainly, sir.”

  He handed me a stack of pages, longer than my contract. What does your father do for a living? Where did you grow up? What are your hobbies? What is your favorite food? Where did you go to school? Who is your ideal man/woman? What are you most afraid of? What is the bravest thing you’ve ever done?

  He said, “Once you fill out the questionnaire, we can create your studio biography.” He pressed the button on the box again. “Doris, get me Bernie Hanser.” To me, he said, “Bernie will be your personal publicist. Good guy. Southern. From West Virginia, like myself.” He wrote something in my file and then closed it. “Talent is like a precious stone, Miss Hart. Like a diamond or a ruby. You take care of it. You put it in a safe, you clean it, polish it, look after it. There’s only one of you, one of Nigel Gray, one of Barbara Fanning, and because of that you have to be protected. It’s what we do here.”

  At wardrobe, they measured every inch of me. I learned that my hands and feet were too big, my chest too small, and that I was, at five feet six inches (and three-quarters), too tall, but “thankfully not as tall as Ingrid Bergman.” The woman who weighed me said I could stand to lose five pounds, “preferably on the hips and not the chest,” because it would make my cheekbones “more prominent.” She asked me what my regular diet was and when I said, “I eat anything I want to,” she scribbled something down on an index card and handed it to me. Prescribed diet: eight glasses of water a day. Breakfast: plain toast. Lunch: cottage cheese and fruit. Dinner: boiled vegetables and one small piece plain fowl, fish, or beef. No desserts!

  In the makeup department, I sat in a barber’s chair under bright lights while my teeth, smile, nose, eyes, eyebrows, ears, and cheekbones were examined by a team of men in lab coats. They talked about me like I wasn’t even there, discussing what to do about my freckles (violet-ray treatments) and my teeth (caps for the front two to make them more even) and the little scar on my lip, which had been given to me by a Nazi officer. My eyes and cheekbones were my best features, even if my eyes were a darker green than they would have chosen, and my eyebrows needed to be plucked and arched. One of the men drew on my face with a fat black pencil, and when I asked him what on earth he thought he was doing, he said, “Trying out the possibilities.”

  In the hair department, the one and only Sydney Guilaroff—the man responsible for the most glamorous heads in Hollywood—stood back and studied me, his own head cocked, cigarette in one hand. He was a dapper, balding man, trim in a handsome gray suit with a lavender pocket handkerchief.

  “A natural beauty. Good coloring.” His assistant followed him, making notes. Mr. Guilaroff gestured as he talked, waving the cigarette like a baton. He came forward and touched my hair, holding the ends, examining the color and the feel of it. “It’s too curly. We can give it a wave, which will take some of that out, control it more. The hairline is good. I don’t think we’ll have to lift it. The cut is terrible.” For the first time, he spoke to me directly: “Who did this to you?”

  I had done it to myself, in a bathroom in Paris, with a set of cutting shears loaned to me by a family from the French Resistance. “I did.”

  He frowned. “The color too, I see.” He moved behind me and set his hands on my shoulders. He studied my reflection for about three minutes. “You’re an American hero, are you not, Miss Hart?” Before I could answer, he snapped his fingers at his assistant, and said something to her about color number this, and number such-and-such and so-and-so. She wrote everything down, nodding so hard I thought her head would snap off. He beamed at me in the mirror. “What do you think . . . of blonde?”

  Mudge arrived before I was done. She dropped her mink onto a chair and lit a cigarette. She said hello to Sydney, hello to Arlene Dahl, hello to Phoebe Phillips. She stood chatting with Sydney, watching him work.

  Afterward, when he was finished, Mudge inspected my head from every angle. “Sydney, you’re inspired. It’s the hair she should have been born with. What do you call it?”

  “Blonde.”

  “Not just any blonde, darling.” She winked at me. “American blonde.”

  Miss Burns taught drama, Miss Bates taught ballet and movement, and Miss Fogler taught voice—speaking, not singing. Her office was on the back of the lot in a little green bungalow.

  I sat in a hardback chair and read aloud a poem that she’d handed me. Then I lay down on the floor and read it again, bouncing a book on what she called my diaphragm. Then I sat in the chair again and read a story from the book. She gave me a hand mirror and I recited sentences over and over in front of it: “I did not want to pet the dear, soft cat.” And: “How. Now. Brown. Cow.”

  All the while she would say things like, “Sit on it, child! Make your voice come up from down there—down there. That’s good, that’s good.”

  Her own voice was full and lilting. She said, “My job is to place the voice because a resonant voice records better than a thin one. Now. There is a lot of work to be done here—goodness, a lot! But I promise you that when we’re finished, that Southern accent will be exorcised.”

  I posed for publicity pictures at the portrait studio, swinging a tennis racket, balancing on ice skates, sitting atop a horse and then a bicycle, eating an ice-cream cone, petting a dog. In movement class, Miss Bates went over the proper MGM way to get up out of a chair while keeping the knees together, and how to tuck the bottom when walking. She demonstrated how to make exits and entrances. She said, “An actress has to have a look of authority when she enters a room. Body language is important. Posture is important.”

  She said it was a process, that it would take weeks and weeks of training until we learned how to hold our hands and our heads, and how to know the right angle for the camera. Once we learned, we must keep studying and practicing so that we never lost it. She said there were some actresses who had been at Metro for years who still hadn’t learned, which was why they would never be movie stars.

  The last class of my first week was with Sam Katz in the musical department, which was spread across five separate bungalows that Mudge called Tin Pan Alley. The windows to the bungalows were open, and I could hear someone on the piano, and someone else singing scales. Then another piano started up, but instead of fighting each other, the notes from the three different melodies merged together into a symphony of promise. This is why you’re here, Velva Jean. I closed my eyes and listened for as long as I could.

  Inside Sam Katz’s office, the walls were covered in framed posters of the more famous MGM musicals. I strolled down these like an avenue, taking in every one.

  Mr. Katz asked me to sing anything I wanted, and I chose one of my own songs, one written years before called “Yellow Truck Coming, Yellow Truck Going.” While I sang, he perched on a desk and listened with no expression at all.

  When I finished, he said, “Do you read music?”

  “Yes.”

  “Do you play piano?”

  “Guitar and mandolin, but I’d like to learn.”

  Mr. Katz pulled a stack of sheet music off the desk and handed it to me. “Pick one of these and sing it.” I chose “Begin the Beguine,” from Broadway Melody of 1940.

  Afterward, he said, “You’re a very promising diamond in the rough. You’ve got one heck of a voice, but we can help it be even better. Where did you study?”

  “I didn’t. But everyone in my family is musical. We kind of picked it up as we went along. I came here to train.”

  “You’ll have to unlearn things as well as learn. I want to warn you that it’s going to feel like starting from scratch. I’ve seen people come in here who think they know all there is to know about music, maybe they’ve had years of training, only to discover they don’t know anything at all.”

  “In t
he end, all I care about is my voice, and what’s good for it.”

  “All right then. We’re going to assign you to Bobby Tucker to work on your phrasing. You’ll work with Harriet Fields for pop singing, Earl Brent for jazz singing, and Arthur Rosenstein for vocal form. It will take a team, but that’s what we’re here for. With some hard work MGM might—just might—be able to turn you into a singer.”

  The office of Louis B. Mayer was on the ground floor of the Thalberg Building, and was the largest room I’d ever seen. Everything was white—walls, ceilings, lamps, chairs, sofa, grand piano, and an enormous leather crescent-shaped desk, which stood fifty or so feet from the door and was built on a platform. A man sat behind the desk wearing a dark three-piece suit and round wire-rim glasses.

  At first I thought I was dreaming. Maybe I had died and gone straight to heaven and here was God himself to greet me, looking not like God at all but like the president of a bank or a stout little owl. The man’s secretary, Ida Koverman—who had two assistants and a secretary of her own—looked like a kindly grandmother, but didn’t act like one. She announced me, her tone clipped and disapproving, as if she was afraid I would track dirt onto the thick white carpet.

  He said, “Thank you, Ida.” She bristled out.

  I began the long walk to the desk. I was wearing my new green dress and suddenly I felt gaudy and too bright. In the midst of all that white, the color of my own dress hurt my eyes.

  The man stood and I could see that, even on the platform, he was short. He called out, “Miss Hart, lovely to see you. I’m sorry it’s taken us so long to be introduced.” He held out his hand. “Louis B. Mayer. Welcome to MGM.”

  He punched a button on his desk and from a great distance, there was the sound of a lock clicking into place, and I thought, Uh-oh. He waved to me to sit in one of the white chairs. After I’d taken my seat, on the edge of my chair, ready to outrun him or knock him down if he made a pass, Mr. Mayer sat, beaming. He was sixty, round, and balding, and didn’t look at all like the most powerful man in Hollywood.

  The windowsill behind him was covered in framed photographs—three women who, by the looks of it, were his wife and daughters, and J. Edgar Hoover. A pitcher of orange juice and a glass sat on one end of the desk, along with a white telephone, a day-by-day calendar, pens and pencils, and various papers.

  He said, “You’ve got a fine singing voice. And of course you’re quite the heroine.” He leaned forward, hands clasped, eyes narrowing into bright little beads. “I can sense stardom. You have it. In my long career, it’s rare to come across this kind of talent. I haven’t done so nearly as many times as you would think. Greer Garson, Nigel Gray, Judy Garland.” He delivered the lines easily, as if he’d rehearsed them. I thought: That isn’t a platform at all. It’s his stage.

  He smiled, a kind uncle, a generous father. “Your name has to change; I’m sure you realize that. Double names aren’t glamorous and they’re too difficult to remember. We thought we’d let the fans choose your new name. After all, you’re a national heroine. You belong to America, and because of that we think it’s important they’re in on this from the beginning.”

  “But people have read about me. They know me as Velva Jean Hart.”

  “They know you as the courageous girl pilot with the million-dollar smile.”

  I said, “Mr. Mayer, I thought you liked me in the newsreel. But now you want to change everything—my hair, my teeth, my birth date, my accent. My name.”

  “Don’t think of it as changing you, Miss Hart. Think of it as enhancing what’s already there and bringing out your very best.”

  “I’m sorry, but I can’t let you change my teeth or zap off my freckles.”

  He stood so suddenly and with such authority that I stood too, without thinking. “You were a spy, Miss Hart. I’m assuming to be one you had to take on another identity, perhaps change your appearance, your name, your background. Think of acting as another form of spying. We figure out what role you need to play and then you play it, on and off the screen. You play it with everything you’ve got, as if your life depends on it. That’s why we gave you a contract. Now, what’s say I’ll do my job and you do yours?”

  He walked around from behind his desk, a neat and portly little man who would have come up to my ear if he’d been standing on the floor beside me and not on a platform. “If you ever have a serious problem of any sort, I hope you’ll call on me and I will do everything I can to help you. You’re part of the MGM family now. Welcome home.”

  We celebrated at the Cocoanut Grove, with its live palm trees, Moroccan chandeliers, and ceiling of stars. Guy Lombardo and his orchestra played waltzes as Veronica Lake glided by with a man in a pin-striped suit. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz sat at one of the little round tables, smoking cigarettes and drinking cocktails.

  Men and women crowded the dance floor, like a party on New Year’s Eve. Frank Sinatra, Mickey Rooney, Ava Gardner, Carmen Miranda, Lana Turner, Artie Shaw, Jack Carson, Tyrone Power—more stars than in the MGM commissary.

  Mudge said, “There’s no such thing as dancing here. You come to sway.” She wore a blue satin gown with a fur collar, and a clip of diamonds in her hair. Every time she turned her head the jewels caught the light.

  We were joined by Hal MacGinnis and contract players Phoebe Phillips and Laura Burdine. Phillip Drake—mustached and dimpled, a younger Clark Gable—pulled up a chair and wedged it between Phoebe and Laura, and then Tom Vreeland appeared with a tray of drinks. “What are we celebrating?” he asked as he set them in front of us.

  “The newest Hollywood star.” Mudge raised her glass. “To Hartsie.”

  “To Hartsie,” everyone echoed, and then we all clinked glasses as a photographer stopped to take a picture. Hal grabbed Mudge and kissed her. The flashbulb popped and shattered, and then another cameraman was there, and another. After they were done, I could barely see the table.

  My head whirled with the dancers—movie stars, all of them. Even the people who might not be movie stars looked like they could be. Everyone so polished and beautiful, like brightly plumed birds.

  “Do you want to dance, Velva Jean?” Hal stubbed out his cigarette and stood, as tall as one of the palm trees. I could still see a blur of red lipstick on his mouth.

  “Yes.” I took his hand and let him pull me to my feet, my head barely reaching the cleft in his chin. “I do.”

  To: Leslie Edgar; Sam Weldon

  cc: Louis B. Mayer

  From: Billy Taub

  Re: Home of the Brave

  October 10, 1945

  Based on the strength of Velva Jean Hart’s screen test, Mayer and I want to write in a part for her as Betsy Ross. Because of the overwhelming excitement regarding this girl, my mind is to add five or six scenes and perhaps a song or two for her to sing. We cannot tell you how strongly we feel about this matter or how important we feel it to be. We think it is the difference between a successful picture and an unsuccessful picture; the difference between a new star and a girl who will never make another picture here. . . . The curious charm that Hart had in the newsreel and in her test—the combination of exciting beauty and fresh purity—certainly ought to be within our abilities to capture.

  One thought is that it would be powerful to have Betsy Ross present at the reading of the Declaration of Independence, and to welcome her own husband home at the end of the war.

  To: Sam Weldon; Billy Taub

  cc: L. B. Mayer

  From: Leslie Edgar

  Re: Home of the Brave/Ideas for scenes

  October 10, 1945

  Perhaps we can have Betsy present at a ceremony related to the June 14 Continental Congress flag adoption.

  While her home is shared by the British and while the Continental Army is at Valley Forge, let’s show her sneaking away to sew the bags as the enemy lodgers are sleeping in the other room, thus unde
rscoring her bravery.

  Re: her second husband, Captain Ashburn, we don’t want to upset the ending with Nigel Gray’s character returning home, but it may be possible to merge Betsy’s loss at learning her husband’s fate with Gray’s triumphant homecoming, both singing a song as a kind of poignant duet.

  To: Billy Taub

  cc: Leslie Edgar; Sam Weldon

  From: L. B. Mayer

  Re: Home of the Brave

  October 11, 1945

  All possible scenes you mentioned sound good. Make sure they are interspersed throughout the film so that Betsy Ross doesn’t disappear for very long. I like the idea of a duet at the end, as long as they are in separate locations, each thinking he/she is singing the song alone. This kind of ending could be even more powerful than the original, underlining her loss and his loss as well, but also his victorious return to the woman he loves.

  Put in Phillip Drake or someone like him as Betsy Ross’s second husband. And, if at all possible, create a scene for Miss Hart and Nigel Gray, however brief.

  To: Billy Taub

  cc: L. B. Mayer; Leslie Edgar

  From: Sam Weldon

  Re: Home of the Ludicrous

  October 12, 1945

  Schedule permitting, perhaps Lassie could tote Betsy Ross through the blizzard to Valley Forge so that she can deliver those home-sewn gunpowder bags herself. At this point, the dog seems to be the only MGM star not attached to the picture.

  To: Sam Weldon

  cc: Louis B. Mayer; Leslie Edgar

  From: Billy Taub

  Re: Home of the Brave/Ideas for scenes

  October 13, 1945

  Lassie is currently shooting Courage of Lassie, but write the scene with Betsy Ross struggling through snowstorm to Valley Forge alone and on foot, and have it to me with the others listed above.

 
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