American Blonde by Jennifer Niven


  I wrapped the glass in my napkin and dropped the pills one by one into the prescription bottle. When Flora came in to finish clearing the plates, I said, “That’s okay, Flora. We’ll take care of it.” I looked at Mudge. She picked up her napkin, dabbed her eyes, and sniffed. “Are you all right?”

  “I will be. I just need this picture to be over, Hartsie. And now this thing with Felix Roland and Les being fired and . . .” She shook her head. “Men like Les Edgar are the reason I became an actress in the first place. He doesn’t deserve the treatment he’s getting. None of us do.”

  “You’re in the last stretch. You only have to do this a little bit longer. Remember the WASP and how we thought we’d never get through those last flight checks before graduation? Remember flying blind and what Puck told us?” Puck had been one of our instructors at Avenger Field.

  In a small voice she said, “‘You know this.’”

  “Yes. You know this. You can do this.”

  Flora crept back in, carrying dessert and a bottle of wine. She set down a new glass for Mudge, who reached for the wine. Mudge said to the both of us, “I’m sorry.” Flora laid a hand on her shoulder before walking back into the kitchen. “Sorry, sorry, sorry. She’s the only family I have, Flora—the only family—and you and the other girls from the WASP. My head is splitting.” She reached for some water. “I’m just so tired. What’s wrong with me?”

  “You’re overworked. You’ve been working too hard for too long.”

  She dropped her eyes, rubbed at a spot on the table, over and over. Gave a weak little smile. She held up the wine and I shook my head. From the prescription bottle, she popped out two little pills.

  “How long has it been going on? With Nigel, I mean.”

  “How did you . . . ?”

  “I saw him leaving your dressing room, and then Redd made that comment about Pia.”

  She sighed. “Since we started the picture.”

  “Is that why you left Redd?”

  “Redd will tell you I left him and that Nigel was the reason, but actually he left me. Redd Deeley, like all men, wanted Barbara Fanning but what he got was Eloise Mudge. They’re never as crazy about her.”

  “And Hal MacGinnis?”

  “The studio put us together. It’s good for business, good for the picture, good for Hal. He’s queer, you know.” I was beginning to feel like Alice in the rabbit hole, in a world where nothing was what it seemed.

  She swallowed the pills, the smile fading. “Nigel’s spent half his assets and his Metro trust fund to buy his way out of his marriage. Howard Strickling, Eddie Mannix, they’re all trying to help, but Pia is impossible. And now she’s here.”

  “He’s her husband. Maybe she loves him.”

  “No she doesn’t. Not anymore. She hates him and she hates me, and she’s doing everything she can to keep us apart.” She started to cry, silently, angrily, staring out into the room like a tragic widow. “I didn’t want to fall in love with him, Hartsie. Don’t you think I would have picked someone else if I could help it?” She took another drink.

  Mudge was back at work the next morning, sitting by herself between takes. She delivered her lines, did everything Felix Roland asked of her, behaved like a good, dutiful girl, was civil to others, and at the end of the day, drove off in her car and didn’t come home until late. The next day, she followed the same exact pattern. And the next day, and the next. I wondered if she and Nigel had somehow found a way to see each other without Pia knowing.

  Except for the biggest stars—Webster Hayes, Ophelia Lloyd, Nigel Gray, and Barbara Fanning—Felix Roland didn’t bother to learn anyone’s names. But he and Mudge managed to deal with each other politely. Two months after the director’s arrival, Zed Zabel wrote in his column that Roland was the egomaniac to end all egomaniacs and that Mudge was becoming more and more like Mallory Rourke, this beautiful, terrible woman who could make enemies out of loved ones and loved ones out of enemies.

  When she was home, she wandered around the house like a haint, keeping herself going with cigarettes and pills prescribed to her by the studio doctor—Seconal to help her sleep, and Benzedrine to wake her up. She seemed nervous, anxious, on edge. Sometimes she snapped at me or at Flora, and other times I would catch her crying. Sometimes she locked the door to her room and stayed away, and other times she invited people over—the neighbors and the Helms Bakery deliveryman and the studio guard who watched the house—and gave a party with only an hour’s notice. Flora said, “That girl’s not acting like herself. I’m worried about her.” We both were.

  On the set, Sam Weldon said, “She’s decided to behave herself at work, I see, now that everyone’s stopped speaking to her. What about you, Pipes? Are you ready to misbehave?” Each day, he thought of a new way to ask me out, and each day I said no.

  I usually beat Mudge home even when I went out after work for my studio-arranged dates—to Ciro’s, with its walls and sofas of green silk; Earl Carroll’s supper club, which featured a revolving stage, swings that could be lowered from the ceiling, and “the most beautiful girls in the world”; the Palladium, where seven thousand dancers swayed across the kidney-shaped floor as the lighting changed to suit the music; and the Cocoanut Grove.

  One night, I waited up for her and asked her where she’d been. “Oh, I had a date with Hal,” she said. I knew that wasn’t true because I had seen Hal earlier at the Trocadero.

  Two days later, I asked her the same thing. This time, she said, “I was just driving,” as if she’d learned her lesson about making up stories.

  NINE

  Our first scene on June 5 called for Mallory Rourke to gallop through the Lot 3 lake on horseback. When Felix Roland shouted for the stuntwoman, Mudge said, “I can do my own stunts. I’ve done them before. I’m a pilot, for God’s sake. Just because I’m thirty doesn’t mean I can’t ride a horse.”

  “No one’s saying you can’t ride a horse.” Roland barely looked at her. He shouted again for the stuntwoman and went storming away.

  Mudge picked up her skirts and followed him. “Let me do this, Felix. Please.” He must have heard the same thing in her tone that I did—determination, the need to prove herself—or maybe it was that the stuntwoman wasn’t anywhere to be found and he was, as always, in a hurry to move on. Or maybe it was that Pia Palmer was there watching everything and he felt sorry for Mudge. Everyone on the picture seemed to know about the affair, and Pia hadn’t done much to make friends.

  “All right,” he said. “You’ve got one shot.”

  Fifteen minutes later, the cameras rolled as Mudge tore across the banks and into the water on the back of the horse. She was halfway across the lake when the animal reared up and sent her flying.

  Felix Roland, Billy Taub, Nigel, Hal, Sam, me—everyone went into the lake after her, as the camera truck carrying six photographers and Technicolor equipment sat forgotten. The animal wrangler guided the horse back to shore, and then I heard the wail of an ambulance siren. The man-made lake was wide and long, but there was no current, no rocks, nothing but brown water, thick as sludge, that you couldn’t see through. Parts of it were up to ten feet deep.

  Suddenly, Billy Taub had Mudge in his arms—her head limp, black hair hanging like seaweed. He said, “I’ve got her,” as if we couldn’t see, and then he set her down on the ground.

  “No one touch her,” said the studio doctor, a man named Atwill, pushing his way through.

  By this time, Mudge had opened her eyes and was looking up at all of us looking down at her. “I’m fine. Just embarrassed.” She sat up coughing, and wiped the hair from her face. When she saw me, she said, “Some stuntwoman, Hartsie. I’m glad Jackie Cochran wasn’t here to witness this.”

  Howard Strickling and Whitey Hendry arrived on the side of an MGM fire truck. Seconds later, the banks of the lake were swarming with men in uniform, men in suits. Mudge said, “Everyone do
es not need to be here. I’m okay. I’m fine. Nothing broken, nothing so serious that it will hold up filming. Just much, much more embarrassed now.”

  Dr. Atwill felt around her limbs and head and ribs. Finally, he said, “She’s bruised her knee and I’m afraid she’s cracked a few ribs, but she’ll be fine.”

  Sam found me as Mr. Roland shouted once again for the stuntwoman. “You okay?”

  “I’m fine. As long as she’s okay.”

  “She’s okay. She’s stronger than you think.”

  Before I could ask how he would know, Babe’s mother pushed Babe toward Felix Roland. “If you can’t find anyone else, my daughter can do it. She’s young, of course, but an excellent equestrian. She can wear a black wig and a black cloak and no one will ever know.”

  Roland looked over her head and all around, no doubt for the stuntwoman. When she didn’t appear, he frowned at Mrs. King. “We’ve already wasted too much time on a scene that should have taken five damn minutes. Are you sure she’s up for it?”

  Babe’s mother poked her so hard she jumped. “I’m sure,” Babe said.

  Ten minutes later, she was dressed in a black wig and black cloak, and ten minutes after that, the shot was done. As Mudge watched from the banks, Babe nailed it on the first take, body bent low over the horse, heels dug in, flying across land and water like hellhounds were on her tail.

  I met with Rosie afterward to go through my songs, which we would record once I’d wrapped my scenes. I stood at the piano and said, “Felix Roland is worried I don’t know what I’m doing.”

  Sitting at the keys, Rosie frowned at me over the top of his glasses and pushed up his sleeves. “The only person Felix Roland believes in is Felix Roland. Now. These songs have to be as polished as the dialogue scenes. Each word carries meaning. You can’t just throw them away. But we’ll get there. You’ll get there.”

  The one he wanted to work on was “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a song that made me want to give up singing. It was the first song that ever made me think: You can’t do this, Velva Jean. You aren’t good enough. You don’t have it in you. The thing of it was, it hadn’t even been written till 1814, thirty-one years after the end of the Revolutionary War, but because one of the lines was in the title, Mr. Mayer said the audience would expect to hear it.

  I told myself to focus on the meaning of the words instead of worrying about breath control and finding my soft palate and rounding my throat. Halfway through, Rosie banged on the piano and said, “You sound like Velva Jean Hart, mountain girl, not Kit Rogers, movie star. Yes, you are Betsy Ross, but you’re also Kit Rogers. What is the thing that sets MGM apart from Warners or RKO or Paramount? The sound. You could walk blindfolded into a theater and know right away if it’s an MGM movie up on that screen by the particular style and tone of the Metro voice. You need to put yourself aside and focus.”

  I thought, Maybe I want to sound like Velva Jean Hart. We started again, but this time instead of thinking about the words I was singing, I did my best to sound like everyone else.

  In my dressing room at the end of the day, I sat staring at the stack of sheet music, the words and notes a wild, spidery jumble on the page.

  I jumped at the knock on the door. “Come in.” When nothing happened, I stood and opened it.

  Outside, a man leaned on the railing, as if he were made of time, chatting with someone down below. In the afternoon sun, his hair and skin burned gold. He turned around and flashed me a smile, the one that made women and men of all ages want to follow him anywhere. “Hey, little sister. I’m sorry I didn’t get here sooner.”

  I threw my arms around him, and instead of picking me up or hugging me, he patted me, like I was a stranger. I said, “Dammit, Johnny Clay. I’m not letting go till you hug me proper.”

  His grip on me froze and then tightened, as if he wasn’t sure what to do. And then he swung me off my feet, big arms around me, and squeezed the breath out of me. When he let me go, his face was wet, and I wasn’t sure whether it was from my tears or his own.

  He stood with his hands in his pockets, looking down at me. He wore a dark red shirt, the sleeves rolled up, underneath a gray vest and gray pants. His shoes shone like glass.

  I said to him, “Are you a gangster?”

  He laughed. “No, Velva Jean.”

  “What have you been doing? Why are you dressed like that? Why didn’t you let me know you were here?”

  He sighed and stretched his neck. His hair was longer, the wartime crew cut grown out, and combed back. He was as good-looking as ever, even more so, his skin and hair a deeper gold under the California sun.

  “I can’t believe you’re a movie star. Look at you, Velva Jean. I mean, shit. You look like Ginger Rogers, and you sound like an English lady.” He lit a cigarette. I watched his hands—the maimed finger, the scars on the knuckles. The lighter was sleek and silver, as shiny as his shoes. Initials were etched into the side, but I couldn’t read them. He flicked the lighter closed and slid it back into his pocket. “I know all about me. I want to hear about you. You can tell me while you give me a tour.”

  I took Johnny Clay around the lot in the secondhand car I’d bought with one of my first paychecks, showing him Tin Pan Alley, the commissary, wardrobe, makeup, hair, the police department, the school, the soundstages. I wanted to introduce him to everyone. I wanted to say, There he is, in person, my own brother standing right beside me, after all this time, he’s here, he’s here, he’s here.

  Back in my dressing room, I said, “You promised to tell me how you got to California.”

  He sat in one of the matching club chairs, legs stretched out in front of him, drinking Coca-Cola from the bottle, taking his time getting settled, and finally he said, “Your friend Helen sent me some books after we first got home. Now, I ain’t much of a reader, but I thought I’d give it a try since she went to so much trouble. So I took For Whom the Bell Tolls up to Devil’s Courthouse, climbed up on the rock, and said, ‘Okay, let’s see what you got, book.’ Three hours later, I finished it, the only book I ever read from start to finish. You ever read it?”

  “No.”

  “This guy in the book, he knows he’s going to die. ‘There is only now,’ he says. ‘If now is only two days, then two days is your life and everything in it will be in proportion.’ It took me a while to figure out what he meant, but once I did, I got to thinking about this two days business.” He took a swig from his bottle. “Ever since I got shot the second time, I been nothing but angry at everyone, even myself. You probably already knew this, but I didn’t.” He fixed his eyes on me, as if daring me to say yes, I did know it all along.

  “Daddy Hoyt guessed it.”

  He nodded. “Well, I wanted to wring the neck of every German and Jap on the planet. But this is what I figured out—all that anger goes back before the war. I’d like to kick the ass of every son of a bitch that ever hurt anyone or anything. I want to kill the sickness that took Mama, and punch Daddy till he can’t stand up for taking off on us. I been holding on to every bit of anger I ever had, since I was a boy—at Sweet Fern, at Danny for dying and leaving her alone, at Harley Bright, at Blackeye for what he did to Lucinda and making me nearly kill him. Even at you, Velva Jean. I mean let’s face it, there’s something humiliating about getting rescued by a girl, and not just any girl but your own sister.”

  He finished his drink, set the bottle down on the floor, and leaned forward. “The thing about carrying around all that anger is that it gets heavy after a while and your arms get tired. A couple of weeks after you left, I thought: What if I just give up that anger and decide to be happy while I can? What if this is my two days and I’m wasting it by being so mad?”

  I stared at him like he was a stranger.

  “So I started thinking about what I wanted to do with a year of unemployment, thanks to the Army. I thought about roping cattle or staying in the military. I w
ent down to Hamlet’s Mill for a week and followed Sheriff Story around to see if maybe I wanted to go into law enforcement, but I’m sick of wearing a uniform and taking orders. So that got me to thinking about music. You got another Coke?”

  “What? Oh. Of course.” I stood up, walked to the little refrigerator that sat in one corner. I pulled out a bottle, popped the top, and handed it to him. “So music . . .”

  “Yeah. I mean I never been as natural at it as you, little sister, and I never been as focused, but I know I got a good voice and that I can play guitar better than a lot of ’em. Anyway, a buddy of mine was in Chicago trying to get up a band. He asked me to sit in. We been traveling the country ever since—Memphis, New Orleans, Austin. A guy down in Texas asked us to come to L.A., play at his club, with the chance to make a record.” As if he suddenly remembered something, he checked his wristwatch: black band, square face. He stood, handing me the two empty Coca-Cola bottles. “I got to get back.”

  “But you just got here.”

  “Well, if you’re free tonight you could come hear us. You got a piece of paper?” I handed him paper and a pen, and he scrawled down an address. “We go on at eight, which means nine. If you come, you make sure they know you’re there so I can introduce you around. Bring some friends if you want. Make it a party.”

  I walked him back to the gate as slow as I could so that it wouldn’t be over and he wouldn’t be gone. I was afraid if I let him out of my sight that I might never see him again.

  His eyes swept over the Thalberg Building, the gate, the sign that read “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.”

  “You done good, Velva Jean.” He smiled, not flashy this time, but the sweet smile that he used to save for Mama. “I like to think I’m doing some good now too.”

  At home, Mudge took up residence on the living room sofa, every part of her propped up with pillows, as if she were broken in a hundred places. The accident had made her unusually sweet and quiet, a sweet and quiet I hadn’t seen from her in weeks. “Thank you, Flora,” she said when Flora brought her a drink. “Thank you, Hartsie,” she said when I brought her a new ice pack for her knee.

 
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