American Blonde by Jennifer Niven


  SIX

  Bright and early on the morning of October 22, I stood on the steps of the Thalberg Building sandwiched by Mudge, Louis B. Mayer, and Ophelia Lloyd while a throng of reporters elbowed each other, cameras flashing. Howard Strickling and my publicist, Bernie Hanser—suntanned and brawny, with a round, friendly face—stood, arms folded, off to one side.

  Ophelia Lloyd, once the grandest movie star of all—until famously leaving the business at a too-young age—looked exactly the way she did on screen and in the photograph on her husband’s desk: diamond necklace, diamond earrings, hair swept up and off her face, which was perfectly made up. Her lips were painted a deep bloodred, and her great, blazing eyes were large and dark. She wore the highest heels I’d ever seen—dancer’s shoes with a strap around the ankle—but she was still a head shorter than I was. She might have been twenty-five or forty-five. It was impossible to tell.

  Mr. Mayer beamed like a proud father as first Mudge and then Ophelia Lloyd said a few words in tribute to MGM’s latest find—me. Miss Lloyd linked her arm through mine and told the reporters, “I know you will love this girl as much as I do, and that you will believe in her talent just as I do.” Her voice soared and lilted, the only one like it in the world, in spite of what Mudge called her “assembly line studio British.”

  “I am excited to set foot once again on the Metro lot, where my career truly began, and share its newest star with the world. As you know, we held a little contest to find her a new name and, while we received thousands of entries, and while they certainly were clever and creative, none of them truly captured her particular brand of charm.” She took a breath and drew her shoulders back so that she suddenly seemed taller than all of us. “Therefore, I have taken it upon myself to name her.” She paused, her eyes sweeping the crowd, as if daring us to speak out in protest. “I am excited to introduce everyone, once and for all, to a girl who reminds me of myself only a few short years ago . . . Miss Kit Rogers.”

  The cameras flashed and popped. One of the reporters down front called out, “Wasn’t that the name of your character in Our Growing Daughters, Miss Lloyd?” He was short and squinty, arms folded across a burly barrel chest, hands tucked into armpits, the only one in the crowd without a hat or a notebook.

  “Yes it was, Zed. It was the role that gave me my start. And now I hope it will be as lucky for Miss Hart . . .” She laughed at this, waving her hand, silly me, “Miss Rogers . . . as it was for me.”

  Zed’s eyes flickered to me. “What do you think of your new name, Miss Rogers? Or can we call you Kit?” Polite laughter all around. He was the only one who didn’t join in.

  What could I say? It sounded like something you would name a cat, but when the most famous movie actress in the world baptizes you after her favorite character, the one that made her a star, you’ve got to be polite about it.

  I said, “It’s an honor, Mr. . . .”

  “Zabel. Zed Zabel.”

  I knew his name from his newspaper column. “It’s an honor, Mr. Zabel. I’ll do my very best to live up to it.”

  Zed Zabel was looking at Mr. Mayer now, eyes aglint. “What can you tell us about Home of the Brave, L.B.? Have you mortgaged your house yet?” There were trickles of nervous laughter. The period spectacle to end all spectacles, MGM promised. The budget to end all budgets, reporters wrote.

  Mr. Mayer said, “Home of the Brave is going to make Gone with the Wind look like a Poverty Row quickie. We’ve got Billy Taub producing, Colin Fedderson designing the costumes, and author Sam Weldon working on the last polish of the script. Not to mention these two beautiful ladies.” Mudge and Ophelia Lloyd smiled royally. “It was a dark day at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer when Ophelia retired from the screen, but we are lucky to have her back. The public demanded she return.”

  “Was that what persuaded you, Miss Lloyd?” This came from a red-haired man.

  “Yes, it was, Dennis. I would not be standing here today, on the steps of this great studio, if not for the public. Everything I am, I owe to them, and I have never forgotten it.”

  Mr. Mayer boomed, “We’re also lucky to have, in her very first movie . . . Kit Rogers.” He glowed at me. “Usually, we at Metro like to take time to groom our new stars, but every now and then an actor or, in this case, actress comes along, and you just have to take a chance on them.”

  Zed called out, “The movie that much of a sinking ship, L.B.?” Some of the other reporters laughed. “And what do you say to the other Revolutionary rip-offs? I hear Warners has Flynn and Olivia de Havilland suiting up for King’s Mountain, and got Zanuck’s Tyrone Power as Benedict Arnold and Betty Grable as Abigail Adams. Sounds like they’re giving you a run for your money. The question is if Home of the Brave and Metro are up for that kind of challenge.”

  Mr. Mayer narrowed his eyes in Zed’s direction. “Home of the Brave is going to blow all other ships out of the water.”

  After the press conference was over, Miss Lloyd dropped her smile and air-kissed me on either cheek. “Best of luck to you, Kit, and do let me know if you need anything.” She nodded at Mudge. “Barbara,” she said, and her tone and look were cool.

  “Ophelia,” Mudge replied in the same exact voice. Miss Lloyd went tapping off, followed by a small army of assistants.

  I shadowed Mr. Mayer as he shook hands all around and then walked off with Howard Strickling, who stuck close by him. As they opened the door to the Thalberg Building, I ran up the stairs after them, in time to hear Mr. Mayer say, “Never again. If I so much as see his fat, stupid—”

  “Mr. Mayer?” He turned, blinking at me as if he were trying to place where he’d seen me before. “I want to thank you for your belief in me, but I’m not ready to be in a film. I’m afraid I’ll only make a mess of things and make a fool of you, and I don’t want to let anyone down, least of all myself. It would be like taking a plane up before I’d learned to fly.”

  “Nonsense. Your test was one of the best I’ve seen in years. I want to put you on screen while that face of yours is still fresh in the public’s mind. Did you see those people out there? The cameramen and reporters? Well, now those people are out there”—he pointed toward the street, toward Los Angeles—“and it’s burning a hole in them to tell your story. Let’s don’t ruin that for them.”

  He ducked inside, Mr. Strickling on his heels, the door swinging closed behind them. When I walked back down the steps, Zed Zabel was waiting. “Not getting cold feet, are we, Kit?”

  Mudge blew cigarette smoke in his direction. “Go home, Zed. Don’t you get tired of coming to parties you’re not invited to?”

  “Not on your life.”

  She steered me away from him, toward the soundstages. “You have to be careful with reporters, Hartsie. You’ll need to watch out for Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. They’d sell their own children if it meant a good story, but if you’re nice to them, they’ll be nice to you. But don’t trust men like Zed Zabel. He hangs around the nightclubs and the studios, trying to gain entry, just so he can unearth dirt to print in his filthy column.”

  I was barely listening. “Mudge, this movie is enormous and important. I’m not an actress. I’m not ready.”

  “Think of it as going up in a plane for the first time. At some point, you had to take the controls and fly it yourself. You can do this, and I’ll be there.” We paused in front of Stage 15. “Let’s face it, girls like us don’t get a lot of opportunities in this world. We make our opportunities. Never forget why you’re here.”

  I felt like I had to keep moving, I’d written to my family the night before. Until Lowell Grann came walking up our mountain, I’d never thought twice about being an actress or coming to California, but now that I am, I can see it was the right thing to do. I’ve never forgotten Darlon C. Reynolds telling me to get out there and experience every type of music, and I think he also meant every type of life.

  I hadn’t hea
rd a word from Johnny Clay since I left North Carolina, and I hoped that, wherever he was, he was okay, and that he was also finding his place.

  Later that morning, I was on my way to drama class when I ran into Sam Weldon outside the scenario building, where the writers worked. “So. Kit Rogers. Not sure how I feel about the new name.” The script was tucked under his arm. With his other hand, he scratched his forehead, cigarette burning red. “Sounds too much like an Old West outlaw. You know, grizzled beard. No teeth. Makes it harder to know what to call you.”

  “How about my real name?”

  “Too easy. I kind of like Pipes. Because you’ve got a hell of a pair. Seriously, if they had to butcher my story by adding songs to it, I’m glad you’re the one singing them. Besides, there’s not much more they can do to screw up this script.”

  “Has anyone ever told you that you’re terrible at giving compliments?”

  “Yes. I imagine you’re good at it though. Southern belle and all.”

  “I take it you weren’t happy having to write in Betsy Ross?”

  “Let’s put it this way. Historically, we don’t even know for sure that she sewed the flag, but by the time L. B. Mayer and Billy Taub are done with her, moviegoers across the country are going to think she single-handedly won the Revolutionary War, not to mention that she was a hell of a singer.”

  A group of contract girls swished by in a cloud of perfume. They glanced at Sam—to see if he was someone, to see if he was watching—and he smiled like a rake in a novel. “Ladies.” They went off giggling. He watched them. I cleared my throat. He turned back to me. “Pipes. Sorry, what were you saying?”

  “I wasn’t.”

  “Right. Well then, what do you think of the story?”

  “I haven’t read it yet.”

  “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were trying to flatter me.”

  “I’m not.”

  He dropped the cigarette, stubbed it out with his shoe, shoved his hands in his pockets. “No, you’re not. Much as I enjoy flattery, it’s refreshing. This place is full of people who do nothing but flatter from sunup to sundown. They excel in flattery. They’re paid a lot of money to flatter. Frankly, I’d rather be insulted. At least it’s honest.”

  “Is that an invitation?”

  I cocked my head and smiled. He cocked his head and smiled.

  “Speaking of invitations, I’d like to extend a more overt one. Have dinner with me. If all goes well, have more than that.”

  “I’m afraid I’m busy tonight.”

  “Tomorrow night, then.”

  “I’m pretty sure I’m busy then too.”

  “Ah, the hard-to-get type. My favorite. Or maybe you’re just old-fashioned. I’m not as crazy about that one.”

  “Good afternoon, Mr. Weldon.”

  “Good afternoon, Pipes.” I could feel him watching me go and so I swished away like the contract girls, sending my hips from side to side like a metronome. He was still laughing as I passed Main Street.

  I reported to Miss Burns and had a voice lesson with Miss Fogler. Then I met with Harriet Fields for pop music. She had the thinnest painted-on eyebrows I’d ever seen.

  For ten minutes she told me about her work with the unparalleled Judy Garland, and then she said, “We’re going to focus on scales.”

  I thought she meant for a few minutes, but she meant for the entire hour. I sang up and down, over and over. The only thing that changed was the vowel sound. “Sing ah,” she’d say, smacking the piano with a baton. “Sing e.” “Sing eh.” “Sing oh.” Then we started all over again with consonants. “Sing caw.” “Sing muh.” “Sing tee.”

  Afterward, I reported to Earl Brent for my jazz singing lesson. When he started me on scales, I said, “I just spent an hour doing this with Miss Fields. I’m as warmed up as I’ll ever be.”

  “It’s customary to spend the first several lessons vocalizing, Miss Rogers.” But he stood and sorted through the sheet music stacked atop the piano. He pulled out three songs and said, “Let’s see how you sight-read.”

  We started the lesson without accompaniment because Mr. Brent said this was the way of finding your key, the one you felt comfortable in. “The right key is almost always found in the last note.” Once I found it, I set aside the lyrics and sang the vowels and then a single melodic line, the same one over and over, until my intonation was clear. I may have been singing nonsense words again, but at least I wasn’t doing scales.

  The thing I liked about jazz was that you could change up the rhythm, shortening and lengthening the notes in whatever way you wanted to. You could sing them one way once and a completely different way the next time around.

  “Good work, Miss Rogers,” Mr. Brent said at the end of our session. “I think you’re coming along nicely.”

  As I walked out of his studio, the air seemed a little sweeter, the sun a little brighter. I thought, Maybe Kit Rogers can do this movie after all.

  Back in my box of a dressing room, I vocalized as I checked my reflection, reached for a lipstick, ran powder over my freckles. Part of learning to sing all over again was practice. Practice, practice, practice. I swept my hair back with one hand and tried to decide if I liked myself as a blonde. Then I gathered my things, including my script, and on second thought went back for the Home of the Brave book.

  I was halfway down the stairs when I saw Mudge, still in costume, walking out the door of her star suite. She glanced around, to her left, to her right. I opened my mouth to call to her, hand in the air, but then she looked behind her, nodding to someone, and Nigel Gray appeared. Without a word, she went one way and he went the other.

  KIT ROGERS

  1946 ~ 1947

  The American Blonde

  by Louella O. Parsons

  Who is the young lady who stands to captivate a nation?

  From the obscurity of an ordinary, simple home this patriotic Cinderella has quickly vaulted to the top in the motion picture world with a role—her very first—in the biggest picture of all time . . . Home of the Brave. A picture which is being rewritten just for her.

  For starters, the girl can sing. But there is something in her voice that transcends mere vocalizing. Kit Rogers is a blonde-haired, green-eyed beauty, just nineteen years old. Orphaned quite young, she is strictly the all-American girl, with a charm and sparkle that stamps her a daughter of Uncle Sam. As if that charm and sparkle weren’t enough, she was born on February 22, a birthday she shares with President George Washington.

  Miss Rogers made international headlines this past summer as the brave and daring aviatrix who flew for the WASP and her country, rescuing her brother from death and thwarting the Germans’ plans for victory. Miss Rogers was selected by Mr. Louis B. Mayer as being the ideal young American girl of today. She has given up her smart little uniform for pretty dresses and high-heeled shoes, and traded in her pistol for a lipstick. Beauty professionals predict her hair color, American Blonde, will become the top requested hair color in the country, once Home of the Brave debuts.

  “When Miss Rogers came into my office,” Mr. Mayer tells me, “I knew she had that rare thing—personality. She is beautiful, but more essential than beauty is that quality known as screen magnetism, which she has in spades.”

  “I was so happy when they offered me a contract,” declares Miss Rogers, “and I think Hollywood is the most beautiful place in the world. If only my poor dead parents could be here to see my dreams come true.”

  SEVEN

  Home of the Brave was, at its core, the story of two brothers, Daniel (Nigel Gray) and Joseph (Hal MacGinnis), soldiers in the Revolutionary War who are fighting for their country and for the love of the same woman, Mallory Rourke (Mudge). While the brothers are at battle, Mallory and her sister, Anne (Phoebe Phillips)—secretly pining for Daniel—protect the family homestead, and Mallory smuggles secrets to the Patrio
ts. Six years after the story begins, at war’s end—after he has lost his brother and all of his friends and nearly lost his own life being run through by a sword—Daniel comes limping home to brave Mallory (as poor Anne watches on), carrying the battle-scarred flag, never imagining that the woman he loves has been at war herself.

  It was to be an epic picture, shot in Technicolor and featuring a cavalcade of Metro stars in cameos. It would be MGM’s tribute to our returning heroes and to our triumphant nation.

  In the opening scene, George Washington (Webster Hayes), George Ross (Edward Arnold), and Robert Morris (Frank Morgan) call on young widow Betsy Ross (Kit Rogers), who, cut off from her family and struggling during wartime while still mourning the death of her husband, has no choice but to earn money mending uniforms and making tents and blankets for the Continental Army. When George Washington and his committee show her a sketch of the design for a national flag, she suggests the stars and stripes.

  I was given seven scenes and three songs, one of them a kind of duet with Nigel Gray. The week before shooting my first scene, the two of us worked with Arthur Rosenstein in his studio. Rosie (as Nigel called him) was, with Sam Katz, in charge of the score. He was a large, white-haired bear of a man with glasses. After one time through the song, he pushed up his sleeves and announced, “Even though this isn’t a conventional duet, it’s still a duet, so we’re going to rehearse together until we get it right.”

  We worked for two hours. Nigel was charming and polite. He wasn’t a natural singer, but he knew something about how to breathe and drop his jaw and pronounce his vowels so they were clear and you understood every line. He knew how to interpret, how to pull back and give more where needed. We went over how to raise the soft palate and lower the back of the tongue to create a round space for a greater sound. We went over how to elongate our pronunciation and cap off the vowels.

 
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