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Hollywood in Winter

 

 

 

 

Hollywood in Winter

 

 

STANLEY LAINE

 

 

 

DEDICATION

 

To a woman I never knew

but visit from time to time.

 

 

 

Copyright © 2016 Stanley Laine

 

All rights reserved.

 

Front Cover: SelfPubBookCovers.com/RLSather

CHAPTER 1

 

 

THE VERY IDEA OF AN eighteen year old farmhand from Kansas pinning the head of a grown man underwater against the mosaic tile steps of a Hollywood starlet’s pool may seem like something from the pages of a bad movie script but in the summer of 1938 that is precisely where I ended up after a series of remarkable events. The dying man within my clutches was none other than Mickey McCormick and his arrival was the spark that ignited a powder keg of turmoil that had been building in those final weeks of that season. The drought was drawing to a close and what lemons remained in the trees were now ripe for the picking.

While the glamourous owner of the pool sat motionless in her lounger with haunted reverie hidden behind her black tinted sunglasses, Imelda London merely lifted a stale martini to her ruby lips and after a long drag off her cigarette she turned her head away from the struggle unfolding beneath the water at her feet.

“My mother will be down shortly Georgie so you had better shut him up,” she said to me so enlighteningly as though despite my obvious tussle I was merely swimming laps in the pool at her modest mansion, but it was simply Mel’s way of telling me to finish this dirty business of ours and be done with it before anyone else could know.

The first time I met her, this seemingly vacant golden-haired actress was driving her car loosely along the curb a block from the back of the Braveheart studio walls, her wavy tresses nearly covering her face completely as I sat smoking a Lucky Strike while waiting for a late-night bus ride back to my rented room. I saw the length of her hood with its silver ornament shining in the moonlight approaching me at a speed impossible to control until the brush of metal pushed me back up upon the brick sidewalk sending me tumbling into a dry shrub before the front tire stopped just short of crushing my extended legs.

As she jumped from the driver’s seat and ran around the front of the parked car she was screaming, “I was looking at you and not the road! I’m so sorry, but it was completely unavoidable!”

She crouched down beside me and brushed the tangled hair off her chin and from the high arch of her dark brows and her protruding cheekbones I recognized her face instantly, surprised by the hazel tint of her eyes beneath the street lamp which the colorless washing of the big screen had previously convinced me was a shade of blue. She looked even smaller than in the movies, not even reaching the height of my own mother who stood all of four feet eleven inches tall. Her slight frame was dressed in blue and white striped silk pajamas paired with fuzzy slippers hidden beneath a ridiculously oversized fur coat.

She held that same injured look upon her face; the one that came natural to her, the expression she was famous for in all of her movies, the pouty lips and the hurried blink of her generous lashes as she clutched my arm in her tiny hands trying to will me to rise up off the brick pavers as if injury was simply not an option.

“Come on, get up before a crowd gathers!” she begged.

I leaned forward to feel a sharp pain in my left hip and nearly pulled her on top of me trying to use her hands to steady my climb up off my own rear. She held her blonde-tinted hair back off her face and pressed it to the side of her head as she looked around to her left and then her right while a small crowd was starting to move off the sidewalks and cross the street to gather around us. She leaned back and used all of her empty weight to pull hard on my arm where the desperation of her panic and her pleading green eyes were more motivation to me than her fragile assistance could ever provide.

“Hurry,” she said frantically, “Before the gravediggers come.”

It had no meaning to me at the time, but as I would learn soon enough the moniker was meant for a special breed of people who struck their victims with flashing bulbs and pens made from poison. I knew the kind of crowd she feared as a consumer of it for I had read all about her sordid life away from the screen in the gossip magazines that were piled upon the floors of hastily constructed boxes where I waited for my turn at some pointless audition as a stunt double on the backlot of an Old West movie set. As a boy of sixteen, and despite my skill at riding horses, I was either too young for gunslingers or too white to play a believable savage and my roles were relegated to that of extras in the far distance of battle scenes. But I was good with the horses because I cared about them. I hated to see the way such gentle and noble creatures were being chewed up on movie sets like mere tumbleweeds, so I was often kept on the payroll to help keep and train the horses, for I could show riders how to make their mounts properly fall to try and avoid life-ending injury to the animals as much as possible.

Practically everyone knew about Imelda London, even a sixteen year-old runaway backlot boy like me. She was the wild girl of the silver screen. Her countless love affairs and drunken binges were the stuff of legend, and herself at only twenty-four years of age had already stockpiled a reputation as high as the hills above Hollywood. But on the screen, she was America’s harlot. Her rapturous presence and soulful gaze would haunt moviegoers well after her films ended, even when she first began six years earlier at eighteen when she stole every scene she was in, even taking the spotlight from the greats of that day. It was said no one wanted to work with her, no one wanted to be upstaged by the shadow she cast across the silver screen, and despite what most critics in the movie business considered subpar acting, the studio simply had no option but to cast her in leading roles, and she had now reached the point where her movies were becoming merely vehicles to promote her as the public hunger for her face on the screen demanded it. She was the remedy for their ills during the Great Depression, the one every woman wanted to be and the one every man wanted his woman to be.

She opened the passenger side door of her ivory car and shoved me in by my backside then running around it she brushed away the crowds from the front of her hood fanning her hands forward and pleading in her demure voice, “Please step back, I need to get this boy to the hospital.”

Seeing that it was Imelda London someone grappled the ornament from the front of her car as she got in and moving the vehicle off the curb and back into the street she slowly nudged them out of her way before she was clear of them and began speeding along down the street toward the outskirts of town.

“Let’s take a drive into the hills, out into the country and let things simmer down,” she said, as if trying to assure herself it was the right thing to do, and she nodded in agreement with herself before turning toward me as she said, “Are you hurt awfully bad?”

“No,” I said, pressing on my hip but hiding the expression of pain in my face at the tenderness of it. I had been thrown from a horse many times in my days back on the farm so I certainly did not want Imelda London to see me wince now after a mere car bruising. I sat up straight in my seat to try to seem older than I was but soon realized I was towering over her unnaturally so I slunk back down and felt the sharp pain shoot through my left leg as I jumped a little.

“You are hurt!” she insisted, seemingly frustrated by the possibility.

“No, no,” I replied quickly, “I am fine, just go easy on the roads will you?” while I lifted my hands ahead of me as if motioning for the engine to slow down across the ruts.

She suddenly and briskly pulled off the side of the road and stopping the car she turned in the seat toward me and said, “Take off your pants.”

I looked at her in the amber light of the car interior and asked, “What?!”

“Take off your pants; I want to see how serious it is.”

“No,” I replied, “I won’t do it.”

She started the car and pulled back out onto the road turning around into the other lane exclaiming, “Don’t be such a virgin. But if you won’t cooperate I’m taking you home with me where Mr. Pembley can have a look.”

She glanced at me with a coy expression from behind her golden locks and said, “Mr. Pembley is my butler, but he was in the war you see, and he knows about such things. He will have a look at you and then we will decide what to do about it.”

Her expression reminded me of the time I saw her in ‘The Dashing Prince’, a poorly scripted movie about a young girl who is taken as a slave by an Arabian prince but he falls in love with her and eventually makes her his queen. There was a scene in the movie where she steals a sabre from a chest in his room and as he corners her against a column she suddenly reveals the blade from behind her and pressing it to his throat the camera moves in close upon her face as her expression turns from fear to a sort of malevolent pleasure at holding the balance of his life in her hands; the power she seemed to wield in the moment and her enjoyment of it was enthralling, even erotic in a strange sort of way, to suddenly grasp the power of life or death in her hands, a split decision of love or hate, all abruptly within her control.

“What’s your name anyway?’ she asked with an expression like some kid might before a back-alley baseball game in a Brooklyn slum.

“George…George West?”

“That sounds like a real rugged kind of name,” she affirmed, “Are you a rugged sort of fellow George West?”

“I don’t know about that. I like working with horses and it seemed like a good fit…”

I felt she was having a bit of a laugh at my expense, as if she knew part of it was made up. Certainly she had been around all sorts of names that came straight out of studio boardrooms, all kinds of creations that tried to embody what the person meant to the great machine and I hadn’t intended any sort of deception, it was just what I was now accustomed to going by, so I explained, “Well of course the West part is made up. I thought it might help me in certain ways, but also, no one can pronounce the real thing.”

“Well, we will have to give that one some thought Georgie,” she pondered as though she was considering it already, “I made up my own name you know? ‘Imelda London.’ What a hoot! I thought of it myself over lunch one day and insisted on using it. It sounds mature and intelligent, don’t you think? You’ve got to go with your instincts out here Georgie, stick by your guns so to speak; don’t try to guess what someone thinks you should be because you’re likely to guess wrong and then where will you be? Under their thumb, that’s where you’ll be, and stuck being someone you don’t like very much because if you come up with something you don’t even like then you’ll be all the more obliged to change it, if only to please yourself, and then they’ll know they have you.”

As she drove she looked over to me and the silence in my wake seemed to surprise her so she asked, “You know who I am then?” raising her eyebrow at me with a sort of teasing pleasure.

“Yes, of course,” I replied.

“They tried to make me into ‘Lorna James’ but I refused. They thought it made me sound like the mysterious girl next door, the one who pines at the moon out her window wishing for a better life, but that’s not me Georgie, not me at all. I own my life Georgie, good or bad, and so in the end I know I was right, don’t you agree?”

“Sure,” I replied.

She laughed and exclaimed, “Well anyway, it’s not every day a boy gets to ride in the car with ‘Imelda London’, you know?” she asked in a self-deprecating tone of voice as though she thought her own aggrandizement was nothing but a big joke.

“I’m not a boy,” I replied, “I’m sixteen and some months beyond that, soon enough I’ll be seventeen, and besides I make my own way out here. Age is just a number, but it’s the mark that makes the man,” I declared obstinately.

“Well don’t get your feathers all ruffled Georgie,” she smiled, her face softened as she looked back out onto the road and made a right turn as she added “I didn’t mean anything by it, why you seem just as old as some of the men I’ve married,” and she laughed. “Anyhow, what’s a kid—young man,” she corrected herself beneath my scowl in the dark interior of the car before reiterating, “What’s a young man like you out here making it on your own for anyway, when you could be home getting hot meals and tucked into bed at night for free, instead of being run over by the ‘Harlot of Hollywood’?”

I did not reply and she looked several times to my side of the car before she answered for me, “Ah,” she said in a sympathetic voice, “Running from trouble?”

Still I did not reply and she raised an eyebrow to say, “Was it girl trouble?”

I looked sharply at her to deny it without saying a word and she nodded like she already had an idea formulated in her mind as she added, “Trouble with the law then?”

I looked out the window and she said nothing further about it but then she added, “I ran away from home when I was sixteen you know?”

She turned to me to gaze upon my confused expression now looking back toward her.

“Oh yes, I know, it’s not what you read at all about me in the papers is it? Let me see, how did they put it? ‘Miss Imelda London comes from a very small school in upstate New York where she studied classical acting and ballet.’ What a load of hooey!”

She shook her head and said, “But you and me Georgie, we are cut from the same cloth see, and we know how it really is out here, don’t we? It can be our little secret, something the two of us will always have between us. We can write you up some fantastical childhood too, creating something that’ll really knock their socks off and then we’ll have the last laugh won’t we Georgie?”

“I think we should,” I said, “Sure, why not?”

She drove a little and kept glancing at her side mirror before exclaiming, “How about ‘George Montclair’?” and she laughed as she continued, “And you hail from some wealthy aristocratic family in Belgium, but your father wanted you to manage the estate but all you ever wanted to do was act, so you ran far away from your plush existence to work your fingers to the bone, to come to America, to work on a ranch out West and then to seek your fame and fortune all on your own up on the big screen.”

“I like it!” I affirmed, but she continued, “Or maybe you should be ‘George Mangrove’, a Shakespearean stage actor from the Deep South, discovered by a producer who was vacationing down in New Orleans on a river boat and he dragged you all the way out here to make your big splash,” declaring as she laughed at herself.

“That sounds fine too,” I replied, “Although I’m not sure I could pull off either ruse.”

“Oh it’s all acting Georgie, both on and off the screen. Just give the people what they want, that’s all that matters. But don’t believe everything you read, or any of it. Remember Georgie, everyone thinks they want to be famous.”

She drove a little slower now as she added, “No. I think for you it should just be simpler than that, maybe we just tell the truth, after all it’ll be much easier to recall and in your case possibly more interesting. We can just say ‘Georgie West, a hard working young man who got run over by the Harlot of Hollywood’. They’ll say, ‘He won’t be the first, and he won’t be the last’.”

There was a seriousness to her tone now as she slowed the car to a near stop and turned to pull in through a gate that opened as the car approached where beyond its iron bars sat a modest looking house, by the light it appeared to me a brownish sort of brick home with two gables on each end and a center spire sort of like a miniature turret on a castle.

She pulled the car slowly around the back where she parked it on a drive beside another small structure and she turned to face me, the soft amber glow of the car lights casting a haze upon her face just like a fog lens during the more intimate moments of her movies. She was ravishing and warm, but with a devilish grin as she said softly to me, “Mr. Pembley will be asleep now. I’ve got a pool house in the back where you can sleep if you like and in the morning he will come down and have a look and if we need to get you stitched up or anything he can call someone out.”

“Where will you be?” I asked.

“I have to work of course. I have to be in the studio by seven and on set by eight-thirty. Mr. Pembley will look after you and when I get home tonight we can have dinner and see what else we can do about that name of yours.”

She opened her car door and slipped outside quietly pressing the door shut behind her, and then I followed her timidly along a path to the back of the house. She turned at one point to look toward the front of her property by the road as she heard a car approach but drive on by and when it had passed she continued to lead me to her pool house.

It was small structure like a miniature fairytale cottage, a sharply pitched roof but a low ceiling inside which seemed to be ample space for her but I had the sensation of wanting to crouch down upon entering the pool house even though there was plenty enough room to clear my head. She looked at me oddly as if wondering why I was stooped over like a monkey might do and she asked, “Does your spine hurt?” and she placed her delicate hand on my shoulder and the other hand on the small of my back and pressed in firmly to straighten me out.

“Better?” she asked.

I nodded in the dark and she reached over to a small table by the door to turn on a lamp. “Don’t worry about Mr. Pembley, he’s on our side.”

The room was small but pristine as though it had either never been used or had been used so often that it had to be cleaned frequently. She walked over to a small door and opening it she pulled out a roll of sheets and she stepped over to a low bench beside a bay window and slipping off her fur coat to let it drop to the floor she began spreading the sheets out and tucking in the corners. I noticed she looked in need of a good meal, her pajamas seemed to drape off her frame accentuated further by the stripes as if attempting to make her look taller than she was and I understood then why the cottage was so short.

When she was done she turned around and bounced on the makeshift bed a time or two as though trying to soften it up and make sure the sheets stayed tucked under and then she stood and walked over to a small cabinet where she open it and retrieved a bottle of whiskey and two small glasses. She held one of them to her lips as she rolled it back and forth sizing me up and she asked, “Do you like to drink Georgie?”

“I think I would,” I replied.

She laughed and said, “I think I would like you to drink as well, put some hair on that chest of yours.”

I felt childish when she said it but she didn’t mean it as an insult, merely pointing out that she understood I was a straight. She poured me a short glass and handed it to me saying, “Down the hatch Georgie, just grin and bear it.”

I did as she instructed and just like the pain in my hip I hid my grimace within my teeth and she smiled at my red face and said, “Courage!” with a French accent as she gulped her tall glass down.

She poured us both another glass but she held this one to her lips as she leaned against the wall and said, “My mother did not speak to me for two years after I ran away you know? Has your own mother spoken to you yet?”

I shrugged but she frowned and said, “You have told your mother haven’t you?! You can’t leave her not knowing…”

“I wrote her,” I replied, “She knows.”

“I wrote my mother at first too,” Imelda replied, “But she never wrote back, not until two years after I left, but when my first picture came out, well…”

She gulped down her drink and rolled her tongue along the rim before she added, “I’m not going to make some deep emotional scene about it. Sure, it bothered me then for a while, to think it was only convenient for her to forgive me once I reached a certain celebrity, once I gave her some sort of advantage in it. I’m sure it was embarrassing for her, to say that your daughter has run off, it must have suggested to everyone, both those she knew and those she didn’t, that she was a bad mother, made her look like a failure to even those who knew better, and then the heartbreak of it too, to have your daughter walk out and to wonder what kind of things she might be up to, what sort of trouble she is in, what she gets up to, and the sleepless nights I gave her, the years I took from her own life, to find any sort of forgiveness, well, that was enough for me, so I understood why she waited to respond, why it suddenly seemed all right to her, because the ends justified the means really, didn’t it? And now she even believes the stories they tell about me, the ones they made up about my upbringing, drama class in high school became classical acting, our dirty little rental in a factory town became upstate New York and all the imagery that it brings along with it. But it’s all right, it’s the least I can give her now, so I play along with it, for her sake because I owe her that at least.”

She tried to pour me another drink but I declined and she shrugged and poured herself another saying, “I’ll have yours then if you’re going to be such a virgin about it,” and she gulped down her drink stopping halfway this time as she asked, “What about you Georgie? Do you ever think about going back home?”

I looked at her not sure if I should say it, but the whiskey was bringing me the courage she called for and I said, “I can never go back home Imelda.”

“My friends call me Mel,” she added before she asked, “Why not Georgie, was it really that bad of a thing you did?”

“It was for Kansas,” I said.

She took the last gulp of her drink and added, “I’m liking you more and more,” and she took the bottle and glasses and placed them back into the cabinet before she closed it and turned to me asking, “Where did I leave my coat? Get it for me Georgie.”

I stepped over and picked her coat up off the floor and walked over to her where I slipped it on over her arms and she turned to me and said, “I’m awfully sorry I ran over you tonight, but in a strange sort of way I’m glad too, because I think we are going to be very good friends Georgie, I think you and me are going to be very good friends after everything and we are going to have some kind of fun.”

“I think so too,” I said as she opened the door and stepped outside and I watched her walk briskly but quietly back to the front of the house along the same path we had followed. I looked out at the pool, to the dark water undulating in a light breeze, its smoother parts reflecting the moonlight and the stars above my head. I looked for a light switch and found one on a post by the path and flicking it I saw at the bottom of the pool beginning at the steps, a mosaic pattern of Poseidon laid on the floor of it in black tiles.

I turned the light back off and walked around to the cottage side again as I pulled out a cigarette and smoked beside the black pool as I saw an upstairs light turn on in the house and the shape of her figure move toward it and close the curtains further muting the light from inside. I walked around to the far end of the pool and saw the lemon trees that lined both sides of her back lawn with short beds of flowers planted between them and an open expanse in the center where it appeared a tent was in the process of being hoisted, as a series of poles and stakes were sticking out of the ground and rolls of white canvas were lying all about just waiting to be stretched.

I knew in the morning I would need to leave before the mysterious Mr. Pembley would even be awake as I needed to get back to the Braveheart studios first thing to clean the stalls and for feeding before we had an early morning scene to shoot of a Civil War march through Atlanta where a boorish actor who was playing some General was unwilling to accept even the slightest of advice from me whom he considered a mere stable boy and as I did not like the way he treated his horse, constantly digging the heels of his boots into the sides of the poor animal, causing it to develop some bruising and mild scarring. I stopped scolding the man as he one time tried to remove me from his sight with his crop so I simply began placing horse manure in his boots in the morning whenever I saw him digging his heels into the animal the day before. Despite his complaints to the director he soon got my message and ceased doing it.

After my last cigarette I returned to the cottage and laid down upon the bench, which was softer than I imagined it would be but in the morning when I woke I was sore all along the left side of my body and noticed a tremendous bruise upon my waist just above my hips but nothing I had not seen before working back home on the farm. I was certain I had risen before even Mel and I made my way back along the path, but the gate was already open, so I walked out into the street and toward the studios to catch an early morning bus along the way. My knee was stiff and my ankle sore and I was not looking forward to a day of rigorous work but it had to be done, yet upon arrival at the studio gates I was refused entry into the stables. Mr. Scott at his post said, “No son we got the call first thing this morning. You’ve been moved up to scripting. You’ll work with the actors on practicing their lines and take corrections back to the writers.”

“But I don’t understand,” I asked Mr. Scott and he smiled with his broad face and repeated, “You’ve been promoted son, you’re on the inside now, not outside. I got the call from my boss straight out of his bed I tell you, who got the call from Mr. Braveheart’s secretary himself. He had explicit instructions that you were to be moved up to scripting.”

I sat on the curb outside the studios confused by this sudden change of fortune but it was obvious even to a nimrod like me that Mel had a hand in it, wielding her power like the sabre in ‘The Dashing Prince’, her motivations unclear to me yet, perhaps part of it as a sort of obligation with maybe a shred of guilt over the accident ruminating in her mind but regardless I was on the inside now and because of her the doors would be open to me for at least the time being, so long as I remained in her favor, I suspected. But as the actual studio doors would not be open to me for at least another hour, I sat on the other side of the street and smoked my Lucky Strike as I watched a new day rising.

CHAPTER 2

 

 

AS MR. PEMBLEY PLACED his large cold hands onto my side I suddenly sat up with a jolt like an electric shock as he calmly assured me, “There there Master West simmer down. Did that hurt when I pressed on your ribs?”

“No it’s your hands old man, they are as cold as ice!” I exclaimed angrily as I held my shirt up just above my stomach while he continued to examine me by pressing his fingers around my torso cautiously. Mel was sitting in her living room with us, smoking a cigarette and sipping on a gin and tonic that Mr. Pembley had poured for her just before the examination began. She was smiling at me, looking as cool and collected as ever in her purple silk evening dress, her legs crossed, the top one bouncing in a steady rhythm while she watched Mr. Pembley move his hands and make quiet noises of concern that began to worry me.

“All right Master West,” said the tall man with a stone face that looked chiseled from a granite block beneath thin, slicked back hair, his uncomfortable looking high collar poking out of an overcoat with split tails in the back, “Let’s drop your drawers and have a peek.”

“Not with her in the room,” I protested, pointing at Mel in her crushed, blue velvet chair. I was sitting high on a bar stool she had dragged across the carpeted floor before the examination began, the room was plush and comfortable, fancy in the right places with tapestry wallpaper and oriental rugs scattered around, a big poof ottoman sat in the corner and a large fireplace that was never used with a marble mantle surrounding was centered along the far wall.

Mel replied, “Don’t be such a virgin Georgie!” but seeing the stubbornness carved into my brow she relented and snuffing out her cigarette said, “All right you big baby, I shall cover my eyes, is that good enough?”

“I suppose,” I said, and she turned in her seat a little and placed her hand in front of her face like a horizontal blinder.

I slipped down off the stool and unbuckled my belt to drop my trousers nervously to just above my knees while Mr. Pembley went to work but I blocked his hands before he touched me and said, “Easy with those mittens mister.”

He was bent over and he looked up at me from behind his small round glasses and said with a devilish grin, “Of course Master West.”

I nodded apprehensively and removed my hand to allow him access to complete his examination.

“Tell me old man,” I started, “Did she give you that name, Mr. Pembley, or have you always had it?”

“I’ve had it as long as I can remember,” he replied, undistracted from his task.

Mel piped up, “Georgie, Mr. Pembley is the only authentic thing in this room.”

There was a graceful lamp on the table next to her, two white porcelain egrets for its base whose surface was as clear and smooth as Mel’s own skin, and it had a sort of green glass palmetto leaf-work for its shade. Mel had turned her head slightly to address me and was peeking out surreptitiously from behind her hand until I immediately pointed at her and grunted, “Oh no” wagging my finger toward her as she smiled and quickly resumed her position behind her hand.

I said, “Anyway, I don’t believe it.”

“About Pembley?” she seemed confused.

“About nothing else being authentic…”

“Oh,” she interrupted, “Well it’s only your second night here, so you’ll see soon enough.”

Mr. Pembley rose to stand up straight as I began pulling up my pants and I asked him, “Well what’s the verdict Doc?”

“A contusion…some bruising… little more than that. Nothing a little ice can’t heal.”

“So no big payout, eh?” I laughed, “What makes you such an expert anyway? Where did you say you got your degree from?”

He smiled at me as he straightened my collar and replied, “I’m sure Miss London has told you already, about my having been in the war.”

I nodded looking at his stone face feigning suspicion as I said, “She might have mentioned something.”

“Well, in the trenches you had to do what you could,” he explained, “There weren’t many medics on the fields and as my hands were large and being older than most of the boys down there I suppose they saw me as a sort of authority on the matters of battle wounds. So I did what I could in a pinch and sometimes things worked out all right.”

“Oh he’s just being modest,” Mel interrupted, having uncovered her eyes and already lighting another cigarette, “I’ve met some or his old war buddies, they come here to the house looking for an autograph from a real live movie star but they always leave a story or two behind about Frank’s time in the war, and about the lives he saved. Frank’s a decorated hero you know?”

“If you say so Miss London,” he smiled humbly and bowed a little to her as she rose and said, “Mr. Pembley I’m taking the car and going to Romano’s to have dinner with Georgie.”

She looked at me and said, “They have the most beautiful fountain in the middle of the courtyard nestled inside vine-covered walls and it’s so loud you can barely hear yourself speak during the meal, which can have its advantages depending on who you are with. In our case I think a nice quiet table in the corner will do.”

Mr. Pembley smiled at me but then he turned to Mel and asked, “Will Master West be returning to the pool house this evening?”

Mel looked at me and I made no expression so she replied, “Of course he will.”

Pembley looked over the top of his glasses at her and then at the empty glass on the table and asked, “Do you think it’s such a good idea Miss London? You have the hospital tomorrow.”

She snapped, “Don’t be such a stiff Frank,” then she softened as she gazed upon the fatherly concern brushed upon his craggy face as she explained, “I won’t touch a drop at dinner and besides, Georgie won’t be on the curb tonight distracting me.” She laughed as he smiled politely but left the room unappeased.

She passed in front of me and grinning said, “We can swing by your old place so you can get your things on the way home.”

 

*****

 

On the drive into Los Angeles I noticed how far Mel had to lean forward in her seat to see over her hood.

“Your ornament,” I remembered.

“Oh it’s the third I’ve had replaced. I have a box of them I take down to the garage to have it fixed when it starts to bother me. A man I know in Sacramento sends them to me now and again as a sort of joke between us but I have far more than I will ever use so I’m happy when someone takes it as a souvenir.”

I smiled and shook my head but followed with a personal question, “Why were you driving in your pajamas last night?”

She lifted her chin and explained, “Sometimes I can’t sleep and the night air passing between my windows when I drive rejuvenates me, like I can finally breathe again and the feeling of freedom it gives me. I never know where I’m going to end up. Just look at us! Before last night we were complete strangers, and now…”

“Yes,” I affirmed.

She turned her head and smiled at me and I said, “Thank you Mel for whatever you did to get me on the inside today…”

She chortled and raised her hand to stop me and say, “It was nothing. A telephone call for a friend, nothing more to it. You would have done the same for me, I am sure of it.”

Our windows were down a crack and the fresh air was cool and clear, but the scent of her perfume was frozen within my nostrils and I looked as the glint of her platinum and diamond earrings swung like a pendulum across the dashboard whenever cars passed by us on the road. Her necklace was flat on her smooth chest and as we arrived in front of the restaurant she looked into the mirror to check her makeup but it was flawless of course, her eyes outlined in black pencil and lashes thick and long. The light powder on her face hid the tinge of a tan on her skin, her evening dress form-fitting and merely a size that might suit a large child.

She looked at me and said, “It’ll be a little harried getting in the door Georgie and you might hear a few questions that are difficult to know how to answer but just smile and pretend you could not hear them over the crowd. Just place a finger behind your ear and push it forward like this,” she demonstrated then licked her fingers and scooting up close to me in the seat she smoothed my bangs up off my forehead and added, “But never never ever ever tell them your real age Georgie. Always say you are eighteen until you really are. You are on the inside now so the studio will never dispute it. Understand?”

I nodded and she pointed to my door saying, “We go out on your side.”

We poured from the vehicle in front of Romano’s to a flurry of flashbulbs and voices crying out from behind ropes running along the edge of a thick black carpet, “Imelda! Imelda!”

As we reached the halfway point to the door Mel stopped and turned toward the crowd wrapping her hand around the inside of my elbow and her other hand holding her diamond sequin bag as it covered the outside of my wrist and she smiled allowing them to photograph us for a moment or two before someone’s voice rang out over the crowd to ask, “When is your new movie going to be in the theaters?”

She surprised me with a strong voice, louder than I thought capable from her tiny frame, “Just as soon as we are done filming it!” There was an over-generous laugh until another voice called out, “Who is your new leading man?”

I looked at her face, she held it upwards as though capturing the lights from above our heads, she looked brilliant, almost unreal like she did on the big screen not the warm amber lit one I had known from the dashboard lights, and she smiled brightly answering the question differently from what I thought they were asking as she called out, “His name is George West and he helps me with all my best lines.”

She lifted her handbag and shaded her eyes from the lights above us even though it was not really necessary but it gave the impression that we were standing in a live theater because that is how one expects to see a real actress when looking out into the audience from center stage.

Then she let go of my arm and she walked up to the rope where people were jostling for position to have little slips of paper and menus signed. She stood patiently signing every one and answering questions in the more personal tone of voice I was now familiar with but I could not hear her answers above the din of the crowd. Some people reached out to touch her arm or tug at her dress that was so tight it afforded no loose fabric for them to grasp. Some were staring at her body, examining it like a doctor might, surprised at how tiny her frame was, not the giant they imagined from the big screen with the tricks of the camera angle. It was as though they were surprised to find she was human and in some ways it disappointed them.

They wanted her to be larger than life in physical appearance but it was more than even she could pull off. Off camera all she could give them was her personality and her behaviors; the things that made her seem unbreakable because she had ‘seen and done it all’ in their minds from what they had read in the gossip rags. They believed she was doing the things they could only dream of, things that were forbidden because they themselves were either too fearful or too moral. And yet she lives as a testament that you can do all of these and still live to tell about it; to show that one can lead a life of debauchery, even deceit, and yet she could still shine like a polished hood ornament even though it had traveled down a long and dirty road.

She backed away from the crowd and returned to my arm as a small man in a red uniform at the door moved down toward us and extended his arms to motion us forward and invite us to step inside.

When we reached the door Mel turned to point to a fancy car that had just pulled up to the curb as a famous actor and his wife stepped out and the crowd swooned at them as Mel said, “See Georgie, already they have forgotten me. Make the most of your moments when you have them for they are fleeting and if you blink you might just miss them.”

Inside the restaurant they tried to seat us at her usual table by the fountain but she insisted on a seat in a darker corner of the room and she waved Raoul, the Maître D’, off with her hand and said, “No, give me the other one.”

He nodded and escorted us toward the back where a narrow red curtain partially obscured the seat. Romano’s was a gritty, brick-walled Italian eatery famous for its family style dinners and celebrity patronage and unless you were on the ‘A-list’, so to speak, there was little or no chance of you getting a table, but occasionally there would be openings and patrons waiting outside who might have been standing there all night just to stargaze would be allowed to come in and dine.

We had no sooner sat down at our table when an older couple walked up to us and the lady said, “Excuse me but are you Imelda London?”

“Sorry to spoil your evening but yes I am,” she replied.

The couple smiled at each other and the woman held out a small piece of paper, but as soon as she had done it, our waiter Remy arrived with an open bottle of white wine and began shooing the couple away but Mel reached out her hand and took the paper from the lady and asked “What is your name?”

The lady said, “Trudy Williams,” and then added, “This week is our thirty-five year wedding anniversary and we have seen every single one of your movies. Our family all put their money together to buy us one night in the Royale and a dinner at Romano’s. We hoped and prayed we would see a movie star tonight, but we never dreamed it would be you.”

“That’s so sweet,” Mel expressed and added, “But thirty-five years with anyone is even more incredible so I’ll tell you what, I’ll sign something but only if you’ll sign this for me.” She held the slip of paper up to her chest and sat high in her chair as though she was making a proclamation, “That way whenever anyone tells me that true love is a thing of the past I can show them your names and say, ‘I know the Williams and they have been together at least thirty-five years, so don’t tell me true love is dead’.”

Taking the woman’s pen Mel picked up the menu off our table and began signing it on the front asking the man, “What is your name sir?”

He smiled and said, “George.”

Mel glanced briefly across the table at me and smiled beneath her lips as she wrote on the menu, “To my good friends George and Trudy Williams, a happy 35th wedding anniversary, and here’s to many more just like it. Imelda London.”

Then she held out the blank slip of paper and said, “Now you sign your names here.”

They did as she instructed and when they were finished she handed them the menu and took the paper back and folding it she placed it inside her handbag as they thanked her when Remy stepped in front of them asking, “Now please lady and gentleman, back to your table so I can serve Miss London her wine.”

“Oh yes,” Trudy said, “Thank you and goodbye Miss London,” and she nodded at me.

“Goodbye Trudy,” Mel said, but as soon as they were out of earshot she whispered to Remy, “Put their bill on my tab and have Raoul call the Royale and move them into the finest suite they have and send me the bill for their entire stay.”

“Yes Miss London,” Remy replied and he poured her a glass of wine and then me before starting to step away but she added, “Remy, I want champagne tonight, I feel like celebrating new friendships.”

“Yes Miss London, shall I take this?” he said as he began to re-cork the bottle but she said, “No just leave it here in case we get thirsty.”

He laughed and said, “Yes Miss London,” as she drew a cigarette from her bag and I reached into my pocket for my matches to light hers, choosing one for myself that she had offered from her silver case. I said, “That was very generous of you Mel, to do what you did for them, I hadn’t realized you were such a humble person.”

She had her elbow on the table and was leaning her chin on the palm of her hand, “I’m just showing off for you,” she said, “I’d like you to get the idea that I’m a good person, otherwise our friendship might not go very far, for I don’t believe you care very much for bad people.”

“What makes you say that?” I asked, curious as to her preconception about me.

“When you worked in the stable…I heard a little rumor about the gift that was left in Sebastian Benoit’s boots and I also heard the reason why. It just got me to thinking that you don’t care very much for cruel people like that.”

“He is the only one at Braveheart studios I have met quite like him.”

“Tell me Georgie, why do you call it Braveheart studios? The name is Braveheart Pictures.”

I paused to respond not really knowing the reason why but then I offered, “I guess because when I think about the place, I think about all the people that go into making a picture. A picture to me speaks of the subject and the painter, the actors and the director, but very little about everything else that went into it.”

“Yes but don’t ever let Mr. Braveheart catch you calling it anything other than what it is.”

“Mel,” I tried to ask non-intrusively, “You don’t work for Braveheart, in fact you work for the other studio, the enemy, but how did you swing things for me there?”

She smiled as she sipped her wine while waiting for the champagne, “In this business someone is always waiting in the wings hoping that when your number is up you might jump ship, so burning bridges is never a good thing around here. The more friends you have the better, no matter what studio they work for, so everyone plays nice when there’s some potential gain in it for them. I suppose ol’ Braveheart hopes one day when my number is up I might just come work for him, you never know. His studios are full of actors and actresses who have done much the same thing.”

I thought about it as I sipped the wine but it was not sweet like I expected and I made a funny little face that caused Mel to laugh and say, “You’re such an awful virgin Georgie,” and she laughed again even louder.

Remy arrived with the bottle of champagne and he poured a generous amount, leaving the bottle behind and as soon as he stepped away Mel lifted her glass holding it out to wait for mine and we clinked them as curious eyes looked across the room at our toast and she whispered, “We’ve started the rumor mill running now Georgie, we’ve really done it this time, by morning it’s likely to be reported that we are engaged and perhaps even honeymooning on the Riviera.”

I smiled and looked around the room. It was full of familiar faces I had seen up on the movie screen back in Wallow, Kansas, where once a month a new picture-show would come into town usually a year after it had already made the circuit. The old theater leaked in the rain and everyone knew on these nights it was ill-advised to sit in the center, but some unsuspecting couple come into town from the surrounding county might not be wise to the idea yet and being out on a date might get razzed by the guys for trying to sit on the fringes suggesting they had ideas of ‘making out’ during the movie, to which the girl would be inclined to sit in the middle after all and many an evening of first love was ruined by a stray storm rumbling in off the plains.

But here I was, a runaway farm boy from Kansas sitting at the table with Imelda London, a goddess by anyone’s standards really, sipping champagne, and seeing jealous faces of some of Hollywood’s leading men who had courted some of the most beautiful leading ladies on and off the big screen. It was nearly preposterous to consider, all because she hit me with her car and felt responsible and maybe a little frightened over it.

But what was most striking to me about Mel is how she wasn’t much different than any other girl I knew when you got right down to it. She was not some glass object that sat upon the shelf at all as I might have imagined. She had a strength and independence about her, deep within her spirit, and while she might not be baling hay or milking cows, she had her own burdens to bear and her own sort of callouses to heal. But she was as lovely as a fresh spring rain and I was beginning to grow fearful that the moment might pass, that I might just blink and miss my opportunity.

I wasn’t star-struck by her any more, I was thunder-struck. I could feel her presence within me, sense her vibration of life, and in many ways, understand her. As I sat looking at her I realized she was looking right back at me and I wondered what it was that made her befriend me. She was certainly well past her obligation by now and I don’t even think she felt any guilt about the accident after all, but in some ways I sensed that she liked how her friendship with me was teetering on the brink of illicit, a twenty-four year-old woman with a sixteen year-old boy really, as if I was something she had never tried before. She said herself I seemed older than some of her husbands, of which there were only two that I knew loosely about and neither marriage lasted more than a year, and being raised on a farm I was perhaps stronger, taller, more developed than boys my age and perhaps if not for my naiveté I could pass for something nearer to eighteen or even twenty, but I was not sure if that was truly the reason.

The one truth I was afraid to admit was that her affections toward me, and by affections I am speaking in strictly friendly terms, were out of mere pity, like taking in a stray dog. I was not here looking for sympathy, I was already making it on my own. Certainly my room in Mrs. Castelo’s Boarding House was humble, but it was my room, and I ate two meals a day and had a clean shirt to wear every morning. No one handed me any of it, and I was just starting out, who knew where things would land for me, with or without Mel’s help. There was nothing to be ashamed of in what I was doing before she got me on the inside of the studio and there would be no shame in going back outside of it, if it so pleased me. But if I knew that her affection was born out of pity it would devastate me to my very core not because of how it would make me feel about myself, but because of how it would make me feel about her. I wasn’t an autograph seeker; I wanted to be a friend.

“Snap out of it Georgie, I asked you a question,” she said to me, kicking my shin beneath the table with her pointed shoe.

“Sorry, I was lost in a thought, you were asking me…”

She smiled because she knew I had not heard her say a single word and I began to suspect she hadn’t even said one but she continued as though she had, “Are you all right with spaghetti and meatballs or is it too common for someone in the West family that hails from Kansas?”

“Oh far too common,” I protested sarcastically, “I was expecting oysters and foie gras!”

“I don’t believe you for a second Georgie,” she said to me as she pointed to Remy and made a little wavy sign with her finger, her own universal symbol for spaghetti I presumed.

Once the meal arrived I enjoyed watching her suck up a strand of pasta one at a time leaving a red ring on her lips and the more champagne she drank the slower she drew them up into her mouth and she let out a quiet little giggle after each one, and when the champagne was done she resumed drinking the white wine remarking, “This is going to be murder on my head in the morning but sometimes a little pain is worth a thing or two.”

She suddenly stopped and pushed her plate away to smoke while I continued eating and between bites I said, “Mel, may I ask you a personal question?”

“Of course Georgie, my friends can ask me anything they wish and they might even get an honest answer, some of the time.”

I cleared my throat and asked, “Now strictly speaking from what I read in the gossip rags, I believe you have been married twice?”

“Three times,” she replied, “But only divorced twice.”

“Then you are still married to one?” I asked crest-fallen.

“No, one of them was annulled the same day, so I’m not sure if that counts.”

I laughed but she continued, “Two were attempts at arranged marriages by the studio. I was young and not successful yet, so I was more eager to go along with things. I had my little victories along the way, making my own name for one, some flexibility on costumes and scripts, little rewards that probably didn’t seem like much to the studios. But my first marriage I was only nineteen and well, surely you read about the man already, but he did not really like women you see, which was fine by me because I had no intentions of making it a real marriage anyhow. I moved into his house and he had all sorts of strange and exotic pets; a tarantula, a snake, I was quite frightened to even open drawers and closets because I never knew what I would find. We agreed even before we were married to having separate rooms and there was talk right after about splitting up but we decided that we should wait it out a year and then divorce, but I moved out that very day we were married. We were shooting a picture that never even made it to the theaters so once that fell through there was really no point in continuing the charade. So we happily called it quits and he went back to his life and I remained in mine.

“My second marriage was one year later, I think, when I was twenty? I’m not entirely sure. He was and up-and-comer in the studio, the next big thing and I really sort of liked him as a friend. I wouldn’t have chosen him as a husband though, his name was Clark Shipley but they were making him change his first name for obvious reasons and he wasn’t happy about it. I was starting to get my own movies at the time and was able to carry more weight in the studio as a result and he was always begging me to convince them to let him keep his name.”

“Well what happened?” I asked impatiently.

“He kept his name but I had our marriage annulled on our wedding night.”

“Whatever for?”

“He was in love with another woman, a seamstress in the studio and it seems our marriage was causing a problem to say the least. I might be anything you say but I’m no man-stealer and especially when I had no feeling for the galoot so I annulled it and told him to keep his name, to quit the business and go back to his sweetheart. I even wrote her a letter explaining the whole thing, that it was a mistake; that we never even kissed, and she took him back with open arms.”

I gave Mel a confused expression and then asked, “And number three was Charlie DeWhitaker, the Almond King, what happened there?”

Her face turned serious and she picked up her glass holding it to her cheek as she closed her eyes and said, “A most wicked, wicked and cruel man Georgie. I thought I was finally marrying for love, not love of him but for love of his money, but it was a big mistake and he was not the man I thought he was. The marriage lasted a year which was a year longer than it should have and I’ve hated almonds ever since. I’m never going to marry again Georgie. I’ll go to my grave an old spinster.”

She already told me what kind of man he was but not why, and I felt intrusive pressing further but I had to ask, ”Mel, why do you say…”

But she opened her eyes wide and looked squarely into mine as she interrupted me to ask, “Why was it you said you left Kansas after all?”

She knew I would not answer, not yet, nor would she answer the question I was going to ask; my feeling was that it was too soon in our friendship to reveal secrets of such magnitude and so I understood why she asked me in the way she did. I raised my wine glass and clinked it against hers and said, “Here’s to rumors and innuendo Mel.”

 

*****

 

After dinner we drove east and found a little park where she pulled off and turning on the radio she tuned the dial until we heard some soft music she enjoyed. We rolled down our windows to let a cooling breeze drift across the dashboard and she slid in next to me as if wanting warmth. I put my arm around her narrow shoulders and felt her firm body lean into mine. The pain in my hip was radiating down my leg as she was tucked in tightly against it and she had forgotten all about the incident. She lifted her face toward me and her eyes were glassy. I placed my lips on her forehead and then the top of her head where I could feel heat rising up to tingle my mouth and the scent of the perfume in her hair filled my breathing.

It was one of those moments where I thought about blinking but knew that should I do so I might just miss the chance to kiss her and when she leaned her head back again to speak I placed my mouth upon hers. What is it like to kiss a movie star such as Imelda London? It was like placing the petals of a rose between my lips, like shimmering wet velvet on the tip of my tongue, the taste of champagne still lingering on her chin. She welcomed the kiss and retuned it back to me but then leaned her head over and exclaimed, “Georgie, I’m drunk as a skunk. Do you think you can drive us home now?”

I hesitated to respond, I was not sure of the implications of her suggestion, but I answered as honestly as I could without trying to spoil the moment, without trying to blink, “I’ve never driven a car before, I’m not sure I know how to…”

She pressed her hand to my chest and put her face in mine saying, “Don’t be such a virgin, it’s so simple a monkey could do it.” She turned her head and pointed forward saying, “You just push that thing there and move that, then turn this and press that…oh you’ll figure it out Georgie.”

I wasn’t sure whether there was a double entendre in her words, but from a practical standpoint on the point of driving a car it didn’t seem all that different from what I had driven on the farm back home just arranged a little differently and so I lifted her across my lap and set her in the passenger seat but she swung her head around to land on my shoulder and exclaim, “Oh no, we forgot your things!”

“It’s all right; I can get them another time.”

But she slurred her words, “I can get you whatever you need, you can just leave everything behind, I can buy you anything you want.”

I did not care for the insinuation, it was the manifestation of a motivation for her friendship I feared and I quickly snapped, “I don’t need your money!”

But she pouted by poking out her plush bottom lip and said, “I didn’t mean anything by it Georgie, I know you don’t need my money. It’s not what you think at all. I just meant…”

I patted her knee and said, “All right Mel, I understand…”

She put her hand to her head and said, “Oh now I’ve gone and ruined everything…”

But I quickly replied, “You haven’t ruined anything, I just misunderstood why you said it.”

After starting her car I made a few practice runs around the park before heading out into the street. With some lousy and occasionally incorrect directions from Mel I successfully got us back to her mansion safely where I opened the gate and drove around the back just as she had done the night before.

I stepped out of the car, careful not to disturb Pembley when I pressed my door to close it quietly and going around I opened hers and helped her slide out to which she exclaimed, “I’m hot Georgie, I want to go for a swim.”

“This time of night?” I asked.

“We can swim any time we want to; it’s my damn pool, and my damn house.”

She drifted toward the back stepping haphazardly along the path and when she reached the water’s edge she slipped off her shoes and dropped her body into the water making a big splash on the way down. I threw off my own shoes and socks and slipped in after her where she was floating on her back looking up at the stars and I swam under her as she put her arms around my neck and began kissing me more aggressively than we had in the car, so much so that I was out of breath. I pulled at her wet hair seemingly twice the length now and she lifted herself nearly out of the water on top of me before she spoke.

“Let’s stay home tomorrow,” she said.

I blinked and replied, “I can’t Mel, I have to work.”

“So do I but life will go on without us Georgie.”

“I can’t Mel.”

She put her head on my shoulder and even despite her condition she understood my predicament, and perhaps considering her own situation now she said, “Ohh, I have the hospital visit tomorrow…I’m going to have such a headache, I never should have touched a drop, why did you let me do it Georgie? I blame you completely for it.”

I laughed and replied, “There is nothing I can tell you to do or not do Mel. Of that I am certain.”

But she complained, “You’ll have to go with me then. I’ll need a steady hand.” She kissed me again and said, “Take me back to the house now and tuck me in bed.”

I lifted her in the water and walked to the steps carrying her out of it picking her shoes up along the way by leaning down and letting her grab them then I moved along the path. She was light as a feather and I think I could have carried her across a desert that night. When we reached the back door to the house I jiggled the knob and it opened as I set her down to say, “I’m I’ll wet Mel and I don’t want to leave a slippery trail on your marble floors.”

***

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Hollywood in Winter

Imelda London was the greatest rising star of her day in the heart of the golden age of Hollywood but by the end of her brief run she became a virtual unknown. Her reputation for fast living helped overshadow the secrets she tried to keep meticulously hidden from the public eye. Her life was remembered as short and self-indulgent but she left an indelible mark on the lives of the few who really knew her and now the missing chapters of her story can finally step forward into the light.

  • ISBN: 9781310243905
  • Author: Stanley Laine
  • Published: 2016-06-22 20:40:08
  • Words: 60214
Hollywood in Winter Hollywood in Winter