American Blonde by Jennifer Niven

  Rosie was tougher than Earl Brent and Bobby Tucker. Time and again, he stopped playing, swiveled around to face me, and said, “Singing involves the entire body. Your gestures, your movements. The way you raise an arm or close your hand, the expression on your face. All of these are every bit as important as your tone and phrasing. Again.” And he would swivel back to the piano keys and start playing.

  All my life, whenever I’d felt like singing, I sang. No thought. No worries. But now it wasn’t as simple as that. With each teacher—Rosie in particular—I was in the process of stripping away everything I thought I knew, and rebuilding as if I’d never sung before.

  When Rosie became frustrated and I became frustrated, Nigel said, “I’d like to try something else. Let’s see what happens if Kit and I move around a bit. See how we do when there’s more than one thing going on. Maybe it’ll help us to stop thinking it all to death.” He was doing this for me, I knew. Nigel Gray didn’t have to think things to death because he did everything easily. He took my hand and spun me as Rosie started to play. I spun out and then back into Nigel. Closer in, his eyes looked blue or maybe violet.

  My verse came first, so I started to sing. He twirled me and spun me. His turn to sing, as we fox-trotted and waltzed across the room. Our voices joined on the chorus. I focused on my breath, on my diaphragm, on my phrasing, on the meaning of the words—so much to remember. It was the same as counting while you danced: one-two-three-step, one-two-three-step. But then I wasn’t thinking it, I was feeling it, and all the one-two-three-steps went away, and I was Jane again, being swept under the moon into the arms of Nigel Gray.

  On January 22, I reported to the set, a jumble of wires and lights and people rushing this way and that. The most I’d had time to do was learn my lines and be fitted for my costume, a hand-me-down from Esther Williams, whose name was still stitched into the label. Mudge had promised to be there, but so far I hadn’t seen her.

  At nine thirty a.m., I rehearsed my first scene with Mr. Hayes, Mr. Arnold, and Mr. Morgan, towering over all of them by a solid two inches. I only had six lines, not counting a few lines of a song. George Washington and his men would do most of the talking. Still, director Leslie Edgar, who I also towered over, took the time to explain to me each movement, each expression, in his soft, patient voice.

  As I listened, as we ran through it, I did my best not to be too tall, while also telling myself what everybody else had been telling me: “Relax, don’t be afraid, remember not to drop your G’s, be sure to hit your marks, know when to speak, don’t shout, don’t whisper, don’t look at the camera, don’t fidget, remember your lines, don’t stand there looking like a blank wall when the others are speaking, react, listen, be Betsy Ross!”

  After we ran through it once, Mr. Hayes started bellowing for wardrobe. A girl scurried forward and bent down beside me. She tugged at my skirt, and set a pair of flats on the floor.

  When the flats were firmly on my feet, Hayes barked, “She’s still too tall.”

  “I’m sorry, sir,” I said. “But this is as short as I get.”

  Nearly three hours later, I sat alone, skirts carefully smoothed and arranged, in the window seat of Betsy Ross’s parlor. Suddenly I was twelve years old again and at the Alluvial Fair, my first time singing alone in public. I stitched the flag and began to sing. I felt strange and stiff. I could feel my hands and my back tensing up until they ached, and then I gazed out the window. There, out of sight of the cameras, but sitting where I could see her, was Mudge. She was dressed in a smart navy suit—the Santiago Blues, our official WASP uniform. As she caught my eye, she touched the cap in a salute.

  Sew thirteen stars in a field of blue—

  Sew loss and death and wars that cease—

  Sew thirteen stars in a field of blue—

  Sew hope, sew promise and peace.

  I stitched the flag and looked out the window at Mudge and that navy uniform and I thought of my brothers—Johnny Clay, Linc, Beachard—and all the men I knew and women too, including Mudge and myself, who had worn the stars and stripes.

  We shot the scene three times, and when it was over and I’d gotten through it, my face was hot and my palms were hot and I thought: You did it, Velva Jean. You made it through your first day. Mudge and Leslie Edgar told me I was good, that I’d have a long career, and then Mudge was whisked off to wardrobe and Les was whisked back to the set. I stood by myself feeling lit up and limitless, and wanting the moment to go on and on.

  “Very nice, Miss Rogers.”

  I turned to see Harriet Fields, who taught pop singing. “Miss Fields?”

  “Mr. Katz asked me to be here for the first song.”

  “What did you think?”

  She smiled in an apologetic way. “As I said, it was very nice. But I’m going to do you a favor. I’m going to tell you right now that no one expects you to be Judy Garland. Just feel comfortable with the songs you have to sing and do the best you can. ”

  As I watched her walk away, my face and palms were three times hotter. No one expects me to be Judy Garland? Well, that’s fine. Because I’m going to be better than Judy Garland. Just you wait and see.

  A voice behind me said, “She can go to hell.” Sam Weldon stood, script under his arm, smiling at me with one corner of his mouth. “The question is how do you think you did?”

  “I think I was pretty good, better than I expected to be.” I tried to sound calm and cool, but my voice cracked. We came out of the soundstage and started toward the dressing rooms.

  “You were better than I expected you to be too.”


  “You might remember that flattery isn’t my strong suit.”

  “I do.” In the sunshine, I could feel the anger fading a little. “The thing that makes me maddest is she’s never given me a chance. From day one, it’s been ‘Judy this’ and ‘Judy that.’ I’d rather be judged on what I can do instead of who I’m not.”

  When we reached the stairs to my dressing room, I paused before going up. Sam draped an arm across the railing. “You know it’s a shame.”

  “What’s a shame?”

  “That I don’t date actresses. After that performance today, you proved you are one.”

  He still wore a cocky grin, but the expression in his eyes was sincere enough for me to say, “Thanks, Sam. Really.”

  “Don’t mention it. Unless, of course . . .” He looked at me and I looked at him, and there was a kind of hum in the air as neither of us said anything. Suddenly, he leaned in and kissed me. He kissed me like there was no question that I would kiss him back, as if he had every right to kiss me outside my dressing room, in plain sight of everyone, his hands on either side of my face. I felt my arms reaching for him, wanting to wind around his neck, as if they had a mind of their own, and then I broke away and slapped him.

  I don’t know which of us was more surprised. He put his hand to his mouth, and said, “Jesus, Pipes.”

  “I’m sorry, but you can’t go around kissing people like that.”

  “I don’t go around kissing people. I thought I’d try kissing you. Let’s face it, we’ve been wanting to since the first time we met.”

  “I haven’t.”

  “You’re not the only one. I’ve been thinking about it too.” When I didn’t say anything, he started to laugh. He said, “You should see your face.” He laughed till he had to wipe the tears from his eyes. I could still hear him as I ran upstairs and went inside and shut the door.

  January 26, 1946

  Dear girl:

  Thank you for your thoughtful Christmas gifts, and for the checks, which I wish you wouldn’t send. We got along fine before, and I worry you don’t keep enough for yourself. I’m putting most of the money away for the children, so that they can go to college if they want to. It’s also there in case you need it someday.

  Johnny Cl
ay left here in November, and we haven’t heard from him since. He said he was going to see a friend, and after that, he wasn’t sure. I don’t want you to worry that you haven’t heard from him. That boy is just trying to find himself, Velva Jean, like everyone else after this war. You have to give him time.

  Don’t you worry about us either. In spite of a hard winter, we’re all in good health, and everyone sends their love. Ruby Poole’s baby came early—a little girl they’re calling Mollie. Mama and baby are doing fine. We can’t wait to see this picture of yours and to see your sweet face.

  Granny says to tell you she’s proud of you. You always were one to put your mind to the things you want and do them. You remind me of your mama in that way.


  Daddy Hoyt


  On March 1, Felix Roland replaced Les Edgar as director of Home of the Brave. Phoebe Phillips was forced to drop out of the picture due to pneumonia. And Nigel’s wife, Pia Palmer, arrived from England.

  Cast and crew gathered on Stage 15 for Felix Roland’s first day on the set. He was a man with a reputation for hunting, gambling, womanizing, and hard drinking. Someone said he had begun his career as a stuntman, known for being the most fearless and reckless of them all. In other words, he was the exact opposite of Leslie Edgar.

  On the sidelines, Billy Taub, looking rumpled but wired, chewed pills from a prescription bottle. Nigel sat in a chair, reading through the script and making notes on the pages, while Pia Palmer—cool and slender, dusky auburn hair swept up—lounged by his side. On the other side of him was a freckle-faced, doe-eyed girl of seventeen or eighteen, as slim as a Dresden figurine. This was Babe King, who would now be playing Mallory’s sister, Anne.

  “Have the fireworks started yet?” Sam Weldon appeared, lighting a cigarette. He was looking at Mudge standing across from us beside Hal, her face rigid.

  “Fireworks? You mean because of Felix Roland?”

  “Among other things.”

  Before I could ask him what he was talking about, Mr. Roland kicked over a chair to get our attention. The chair went clattering across the floor as he stood, arms crossed, his gaze moving over every single one of us like a searchlight. “Before we get started, I want to get this out of the way. Les Edgar is a great director. I respect him. No one can direct a dialogue scene like he can. It’s bullshit that he’s just a woman’s director. He’s not. He can direct anybody. But he’s not here now. I’ve been working for three years straight on six different films. I don’t want to be here any more than you want me here. You’re tired, I’m tired, and we all want this to be over. I’m not here to hold your hand or be your pal. I don’t give a goddamn if you’re in the midst of a divorce or if you just lost your dog. I don’t care if you go out every night and make love to a McCormick Reaper, as long as you’re on time the next morning. We’ve got one month to wrap things up. If you’ve got questions on the script, ask the writer or the producer, but only on your own time.”

  The first scene was one Mudge had shot months before with Phoebe. It called for Babe King, as Anne, to sob as if her life depended on it. By now, Mudge could look at her lines once and know them. She had been in character for over a year, so Mallory was always somewhere nearby, within reach. Mudge could cry on a dime, but Babe was clearly having trouble, and the two of them had already been rehearsing for a week.

  At first, the best Babe could do was cover her face with her hands and make sobbing noises. Mr. Taub called for glycerin tears, but Felix Roland said, “This is MGM. This is Home of the fucking Brave. They can use glycerin over at Fox or RKO. Or—where the hell are you from?”

  “Columbia,” Babe choked out.

  “Or Columbia. Save the glycerin for Rita Hayworth.”

  They rehearsed the scene again and again, adjusting lighting and wardrobe when Mr. Roland thought they needed more contrast and color, but when it came to personal direction, he left it up to the actors. “Ham it up,” he told them. “Just get in there and ham it up.”

  Finally, Mudge threw down the prop sword she was holding, and wheeled on Babe. “This is ridiculous. We’ve already shot this scene. Phoebe could cry like that”—she snapped her fingers—“and now we’re having to do it all over again and wait on you.” She turned on Felix Roland. “Les Edgar knew these characters as well as the writer does. He was able to help us find their pulse and breathe life into them—”

  “Which is exactly why he isn’t here anymore,” Mr. Roland barked at her. “We don’t have time to locate pulses, Miss Fanning. We’re over schedule and over budget as it is.”

  Babe interrupted him. “Stop it. Stop talking.” She said to Mudge, “Don’t blame him. You’re right—I should be able to do the scene, no matter what. After all, that’s what they pay me for.” She sounded so upset, I was surprised she wasn’t crying. “Slap me.”


  “As hard as you can. I won’t be responsible for holding things up.” When Mudge continued to stare at her, Babe turned to Mr. Roland. “Or you do it. Or someone. Surely, one of you has dreamed of slapping an actress before. Now’s your chance.”

  For a second, I thought the director was going to slap her, but then, without warning, Mudge hauled back and hit her. Babe’s eyes went wide, her hand to her cheek, and then she started to cry.

  They got the scene in one take, and afterward Babe dried her eyes like nothing had happened, and Mudge stalked off the set without a word.

  My own scene was brief—a quick send-off for my husband, Captain Ashburn (played by romantic up-and-comer Phillip Drake), who was going off to war. Mr. Roland made certain I knew my marks, and then said: “You’ve lost one husband already. You can’t stand it if you lose this one. On film, this scene will last ten seconds, so let’s not turn it into Birth of a Nation.”

  He was awful, but we got it in one take. When I was finished I went outside to look for Mudge—at her star suite, in the makeup and hair departments. As I came out of the wardrobe building, Babe King was walking past. “Did you find her? Is she okay?”

  “I’m sure she’s all right. How’s your cheek?” Out of costume, Babe looked all of twelve. Her nails were short and painted to match her lips, and a ring on one finger was her only jewelry. I could see her freckles.

  She laid a hand to her face. “It’s fine. Just embarrassed, like the rest of me. Are you headed to the dressing rooms?”

  We walked there together, Babe telling me that she was under contract with Columbia, but Harry Cohn had set her free this once because, mean and nasty as he was, he knew a good picture when he saw one. This was her big opportunity, and she didn’t want to muck it up.

  They’d put her in the army barracks–style general dressing room building, two doors down from me. The door to her room opened and a woman appeared, bracelets clacking, her perfume crowding the air. It was hard to place her age, but everything about her was just a shade too bright—hair a little too blonde, face a little too made up. Babe frowned at her, as if she could see the woman through my eyes.

  “What are we talking about, kiddies?”

  “Mother, this is Kit Rogers.”

  The woman held out a hand glittering with rings, and I remembered something I’d read in the fan magazines: Babe King moved to Hollywood when she was fifteen with her mother and her pet rabbit. “Yilla King,” she said. “I read about you in the papers. Babe’s underage, you know, which is why I have to babysit her. Union rules.” She winked at Babe, who looked away.

  That evening, Mudge and I ate dinner silently, her mood hanging over us. At first, she made small talk, but her mind was clearly somewhere far, far away. I wanted to ask where she’d gone when she left the set, but instead I concentrated on my plain chicken and vegetables, wishing for real food.

  We were just finishing our meal when Redd Deeley came muscling through the door, Flora at his heels. He snapped at Mudge, “I heard you walked of
f. That you threatened Billy Taub. Threatened?!”

  “Redd Deeley, don’t you barge in here without knocking.” Mudge stood and threw her napkin onto her plate. “This isn’t your house anymore.”

  Flora was apologizing over and over, and Mudge said, “It’s not your fault, Flora. Don’t you worry. If anything, he’s my fault. I was the one who married him.”

  He shouted, “You listen to me. If you quit this film, you will be in court till your last day on earth. You will never work again on stage or screen. Taub and Mayer will see to that. And so will I. Do you understand me?”

  She picked up a glass and threw it at his head. Flora started clearing the plates, taking away the ammunition. I stood up to help her as Mudge shouted back, “Get out. And leave your key.”

  “Not until you promise me you’ll report for work tomorrow, and every other day until this picture is done.”

  “And what if I fire you?”

  “Good luck finding anyone stupid enough or crazy enough to take you on.”

  “Redd, I can’t go back. There’s nothing left in me. I’m tired. I’m thirty, but I feel eighty.”

  “Is this about Roland or is this about Pia Palmer’s arrival?”

  She looked up at him, her face white.

  “I thought so. You finish what you started. Don’t treat this like one of your marriages.” He sent something spinning across the table—a prescription bottle. “Treat this picture like what it is—the thing you love most in this world. You do what you can to see it through. And you know that when you walk away, after you’ve said your last line, you’ll have done the best work of your career.” When she only stood there, hand closed around the bottle, he said, “I’ll take that as a ‘Yes, Redd.’”

  He marched out, slamming the front door as he left. Mudge sent the bottle of pills zinging into the wall. She said, “Of all the—” and then sank into her chair, put her head right down on the table, and sobbed.

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