Wednesday, December 8, 2010

327 Chesterfield Road - Part 13

“I was not one to attend many Hollywood parties,” Genevieve started. “Don’t misunderstand. I was invited to a great deal of them. I think the most exciting part was being invited, not the party itself. I was just a little self-conscious and less self-assured than I needed to be. I was never truly comfortable wrapped in the glamour of a night full of champagne and caviar. Beautiful people, draped in gorgeous clothes standing around a sparkling pool were enough to make me break out into hives. No, I enjoyed the invitations much more than I enjoyed actually attending.

“There was a party of note that I attended in Beverly Hills one summer evening that changed my life. I met the man that I would eventually marry. I also met two women that became fixtures in my life - one for a season and one for a lifetime.

“The party of which I speak took place almost two years after my arrival in Hollywood. I had played small roles in three films by that time. The studio was still molding me, but the leading lady roles I desired had yet to come. There was a protocol to when you could be handed the meaty roles. I was just biding my time. I wasn’t unhappy. I was working. I was in Hollywood chasing my dream and living comfortably. I didn’t have a lot of money, but I had enough to allow me peace of mind.

“As I said, this particular party was held in Beverly Hills. I had not been to Beverly Hills at this point. As nervous as I was about the party, I was equally excited to see some of the mansions. I was just as star struck as any tourist might be upon a first visit. The studio was very keen on their players being photographed together anywhere that press photographers might be. A party full of beautiful people - Hollywood people - was just that kind of place. They would be waiting outside the gate for a chance to photograph the car as it drove by. If the circumstances were exactly right the flash bulb would illuminate the interior of the car and show who was inside. There was also the hope that if it was you, you might find yourself featured in the pages of Photoplay or Modern Screen. Any press was not good press in those days, but good press made people hungry for more of you.

“I arrived at the home of Mr. Goetz on the arm of Thomas Van Alden. He was a song and dance player at the time. He was very good looking. He had been hand picked for me by Mr. Goetz. Tommy and I were friends. We had known each other for about a year. We would have lunch together when we were both on the lot. The thing about Tommy was he was a homosexual. I knew it and so did the studio. In those days it was such taboo to be a homosexual. So in order to keep Tommy’s reputation from spreading to the gossip columns, the studio worked very hard to keep his personal life private and his public life adorned with beautiful women. I didn’t feel beautiful enough to be one of those women, but I liked Tommy an awful lot, so it was definitely more pleasure than work to attend a party on his arm. His popularity as a rising star didn’t hurt things for me either. It was good publicity for me to be photographed with him.

"I had been loaned a gorgeous ice blue gown by the studio. I felt like a princess while wearing it. It had a kind of draping at the top of the bodice and that draping carried over to the cap sleeves.” As Genevieve described the top of the dress she brought a hand up to her chest as if to feel the folds of the draping. She moved her hand gently to her shoulder as she mentioned the sleeves. “The bodice was very form fitting and belted at the waist.” She touched the place where the buckle would have been before placing her hands back in her lap. “The bottom part of the dress was full skirted down to mid calf. It was one of Mr. Christian Dior’s “cocktail dresses.” We used to call them “late afternoon” dresses, but this was just a little more formal so the designers of the time had to come up with a new name for it – naturally. Mr. Goetz had also personally secured me a pair of diamond drop earrings from Harry Winston.” She was so deep in that memory that Jack expected her to get up from her chair and walk around the room as if the party was still going on. When she realized she had stopped talking she looked at the three of them. “I doubt any of you care about that much detail of a dress, but it was beautiful. I had plenty of other beautiful dresses that I actually owned, but there was something special about that one.

“Walking into that party was like walking into a fairytale. It was the grandest house I had ever seen, let alone been inside. At this point in my career I still lived in an apartment. This was a palatial mansion with marble floors and a grand staircase.” She wanted them to be able to visualize what she was describing, but doubted that any of them had seen anything that magnificent. She then had an idea. If any of the three boys had been looking closely they would have seen the spark of it change the expression on her face. “It was like Norma Desmond’s mansion in Sunset Boulevard.” She lost herself in thought. “Gloria Swanson. What an actress. I wish I had known her.” She realized she had wondered down a side street in her thought and quickly made a u-turn to get back on track with her story. “You must recognize the title Sunset Boulevard, Jack?”

Jack nodded his head in response to her question.

“Then you have an idea of what I’m talking about. There were chandeliers and velvet curtains. There were vases full of fresh flowers everywhere. It was magnificent, overflowing with enchantment. Walking through an archway into another room transported one to another place. Each room was grandly decorated and felt like what I imagined a royal palace must look like, but we were just regular people, not royalty. I was afraid to touch anything. I couldn’t imagine the expense if I broke something. A borrowed dress, borrowed diamonds and a house full of expensive things certainly didn’t help to calm my nerves. I can recall it today as if I was inside of it only yesterday. I think the memory has always stayed with me because it was my first glimpse from the inside of true Hollywood glamour and wealth. I was envious of it all and I had the drive inside of me to work hard and achieve it myself. That was part of my,” she took a breath while searching for the correct word, “problem, if you will. I was uncomfortable at the parties because I was happier working than attending a party as myself. I enjoyed the work; the ability to hide behind the mask of the character I was playing. At a party I had to be myself. The more I worked and lost myself in a character, no matter how small the role, the more anxiety I felt just being myself. That anxiety never subsided and it’s the main reason I left Hollywood.

“I’m getting ahead of myself. Forgive me. Let me return to the scene of this party.”

As she sat there looking at the three boys hanging on her every word she realized that an apology was not necessary. They were a captive audience – her captive audience. They were there to listen to her, to share in a moment of her life. She smiled, swaying a little to the music, until Henry shifted on the sofa and his movement shifted her focus to the present.

“Tommy left me alone fairly soon after we entered the main room. He spotted a man with whom he had once had a love affair and dashed across the room to say hello. Life for a homosexual back then was different than it is today. It was a love gripped by secret.” Jack felt the insecurity of his feelings for Henry rise in his chest. He lowered his eyes from Genevieve to his hands nestled in his lap. He didn’t know if it was fear or shame that caused him to do it. “It’s a shame really,” Genevieve continued. “My homosexual friends were the kindest, sweetest men I’ve ever known.” Jack returned his gaze to her eyes.

“Once inside, there were no photographers so Tommy and I didn’t have to stay together. We just needed to leave together. Any other woman of my age would have found that moment of freedom exhilarating – working the room unfettered by the arm of a man. I was not one of those women. I made my way to a waiter and took a glass of champagne from his silver tray. I was hoping it would calm me down, but also afraid of drinking it too fast. Being intoxicated and nervous was not a place I wanted to find myself.

“I walked across the room and through a set of French doors and into a setting that took my breath away. It was the most gorgeous pool and grounds I had ever seen. Granted, I hadn’t seen much growing up in Paradise Falls, but still. I was in awe. The water in the pool was crystal clear. The reflection of the blue bottom making the water seem as if it too was blue. Isn’t it amazing how reflection tricks us into seeing something we want to see or believe we’re seeing? Anyway, There were pillars holding up arches at the far end of the pool. That’s where the bar was placed. There were palm trees all around the property, but especially around the pool area. The twilight sky was a lovely fade of pink to purple. There was a slight breeze blowing. I remember it because I was afraid it would undo my hair. I was just standing, marveling at the setting, astonished that I was actually standing in it – more astonished that I’d been invited to stand in it – when a man approached me. He said, ‘I noticed your glass was empty. Would you like another glass of champagne?' I turned to look at him. He was so handsome. He had dark hair and ice blue eyes. Yes, ice blue like my dress, but piercing in their intensity. I felt my face get hot. I must have been blushing three shades of red. He smiled at me; his perfect white teeth offset by his sun-bronzed skin. He was the epitome of tall, dark and handsome. He introduced himself as Billy Rogers. He was a director and slightly older than I was. He was so charming. I should have been a little more wary of him than I was, but he put me at ease. I agreed to that glass of champagne and by the end of the evening I had agreed to go on an actual date with him.” The boys watched her excitement grow. Jack leaned in as if to absorb her energy. “I’m jumping ahead again.”

“We sat on a couple of chairs off to the side of the pool where we could actually talk without too many people around us. I was sipping my champagne, but before I knew it, my glass was empty and he was motioning for a waiter to bring us two more glasses. We must have sat there for two hours. I was getting tired and really wanted to go home. We stood up in preparation to leave when I heard someone call his name. We both turned. It was a beautiful blond woman about my age waving and walking toward him. When she reached us she greeted Billy with a kiss on each cheek. She seemed so full of life and energy. She was the opposite me. She was that vivacious girl who could work the room while I stood against the wall wishing. Billy introduced her to me. That woman was Tippi Hedren. That was before she starred in The Birds of course.” She gave a nod to Kevin. He smiled back at her and nodded at her acknowledgment.

“Tip and I, that’s what I called her, Tip. Tip and I got along famously for a while. Even as I began to date Billy, it seemed what he and I had in common to talk about was Tip. She and I became fast friends where as Billy and I was a slow development. She was our icebreaker. It’s funny that he introduced us, but she was what always eased us into a conversation. I would tell him about our shopping sprees or afternoon teas. Sometimes Tip and I would go to the same audition. We never felt in competition with each other. We were just two girl friends at the same place at the same time for the same job. I think those were the stories Billy enjoyed the most.

“Tippi was a very good friend of mine – for a while.” The words “for a while” were tinged with sadness. Jack hoped for an explanation of the sadness.

“Things changed when she met Peter Griffith. I didn’t like him. It was a trust issue really. I had no reason not to, but I didn’t trust him. I had been raised to trust people until they gave me a reason not to, but with him I just felt in my bones that he was no good for Tip. I guess I thought our friendship was strong enough that I could tell her how I felt. It wasn’t. She loved him and what I said to her about him really hurt her feelings. She never forgave me and I lost the first real friend I ever had in Hollywood. I tried for a couple of years to get her take my calls or see me, but she wouldn’t. She and Peter divorced before she even made The Birds. She never reached out to me after the divorce. Maybe she was embarrassed. I don’t know. Missing her in my life got easier until one day the missing was almost nonexistent. Almost.”

“I forgot to tell you about Lana Turner.” She shook her head in disbelief at her own forgetfulness.

“As I was preparing to leave Mr. Goetz’s party I was searching for him and for Tommy. I wanted to thank Mr. Goetz for inviting me to his party and I wanted to tell Tommy I was ready to leave. I found Mr. Goetz first. He was talking to a blond woman. There were a lot of blonds in those days.” She said this very matter-of-factly as a comic with a dry sense of humor might say the punch line to his joke. “As I approached, he saw me, called out my name and motioned me into their conversation. The woman quickly turned to look at me. She was beautiful. Older than I and very glamorous. She had dazzling green eyes and full red lips. She was statuesque. I was, of course, at a loss for words. What kind of actress did I think I was going to be when I couldn’t talk to people? Oh well, I turned out to be a pretty good one if I do say so myself.” She smiled at the three of them. “Back to Lana. Mr. Goetz introduced us. He told her about the things I had been a part of at the studio. She seemed genuinely interested and thought I was delightful. You know I never did find Tommy. After meeting Lana I forgot to continue my search for him. When I went outside to get our car to take me home, he had left a note for me. It turns out that he and his ex left early. I guess you could say that I was the last thing on his mind that evening.

“You can imagine my surprise when Mr. Goetz called me the next day to say that Lana had requested that I screen test for a part in her next film The Bad and the Beautiful directed by Vincent Minnelli. I was over the moon. I did screen test for that film, but Mr. Minnelli wanted to go with a different actress for the role. That didn’t change anything for Lana though. She became a mentor to me. She and I didn’t do things together like Tip and I had, but she was always there if I needed to talk. She would listen and give advice. I adored her and she me.

“One of the best things that Lana ever did for me was introduce me to Douglas Sirk. Oh I thought he was a brilliant director. I loved his use of color and shadows. The saturation of vibrant colors in his films was kaleidoscopic for the eye. All those rich colors and textures from fabric to paint was a visual pastiche. His use of mirrors was so exciting. I love reflection shots in a film. I wanted to be part of one of his pictures. After the time that Lana had introduced us, there were three pictures he directed that I was perfect for. Well, perfect in my own mind. He didn’t see it that way I guess. I tested for him for the role of Kay Scott in All That Heaven Allows to no avail. Gloria Talbott got that role. I tested for him again for the role of vixen Marylee Hadley in Written on the Wind. He gave that part to Dorothy Malone. I must admit she was perfect in the role. He liked me though because he kept asking me to come back and test for him. Imitation of Life was the third time I tested for him. Lana was actually starring in the film. It was for the role of Sarah Jane, a very light skinned black woman passing as white. Lana lobbied for him to cast me, but he felt that Susanna Kohner was a better fit for the role. I never took any of it personally and Lana didn’t take my not being cast as a personal affront against my skills. She had seen me work. She knew I was talented. It just wasn’t the right part at the right time. I did finally get my chance to work with Douglas. It was the picture he was directing after Imitation of Life. It was called A Complicated Endeavor. I was the supporting lead. I was playing one of two wealthy sisters who ran away from home to try and live life without their family’s money. The funny thing is the production ran out of money. It’s hard to believe that anything like that can happen, but it did. I think the studio just didn’t really care that much for the picture so they didn’t try to save it. We never finished it. My brief opportunity of working with Douglas turned out to be my last. He was so disenchanted with the studio and the film industry in America at the time, that he left the United States and filmmaking. Most of the world doesn’t remember how good he was.” She looked at Jack. “I bet you do, Jack. Do you know how good he was?”

“My favorite things about his movies are the exact same things you mentioned that you love. No one else was using his techniques. He was one-of-a-kind.” Jack’s confidence in his choice of words was apparent by the approving look he received from Genevieve. Jack was always one to be passionate about something that he truly loved and enjoyed. Old movies were something he was easily passionate about.

Genevieve looked down at her hands delicately perched in her lap. She looked at her right hand and knew exactly where to take her story.

“I should tell you that I married Billy. I loved him so. He proposed to me at Harry’s. I had told him the story of eating there my first night in Hollywood. He thought it would be the perfect, sentimental place to ask for my hand. He was right. You’ll remember, I hope, that I saw Joan Crawford there on that first night.” They all nodded their heads yes. “Well, on the night Billy proposed Elizabeth Taylor was there. She was already a star by this time and she knew Billy. She strolled right over to our table to say hello. He introduced me as his fiancé. He hadn’t even asked me yet. I was completely caught off guard. He pulled the ring out at that moment. Elizabeth was so delighted by the inspired proposal that she motioned for the waiter to bring a bottle of the restaurant’s best champagne – on her. Billy was a wonderful man – exciting, spontaneous and never dull. He was my first lover.” She bluntly said the words without a second thought. It wasn’t until she noticed the look of surprise on the boys faces that she realized she might have embarrassed them.

“Did I embarrass you?” Genevieve asked.

“No ma’am,” Kevin answered. It was odd that the least talkative of the three of them was the only one to answer. Jack and Henry were just shaking their heads.

“Good. I should mind my manners though.” The twinkle in her eye was the same as you might expect from Santa Claus. There was no malice and no disrespect, just pure enjoyment.

“We lived happily for a few years, but things did start to sour for us. I was working a lot and that kept me away from home. He was not working as often and that made him antsy. He needed to work. He was kind of a workaholic. I don’t mean that in a bad way. He always had time for me and for us, but he needed to have a project. When one project was ending he needed to be part way into the next project.

He was approached about directing a film called The Key of Passage. The studio was also interested in me starring in the film. I think that’s the reason they approached him to direct it. I think they thought if he was directing I would be more willing to star in it. It was a bad script and turned out to be a forgettable film. The notices for me were good. The critics praised me for rising above my bad material. The notices for the film were bad and the blame was totally placed on him as the director. Neither of us should have chosen the project, but we did. The failure of the film put a strain on our marriage. We probably shouldn’t have worked together, but we did and we couldn’t go back to before. Our marriage never fully recovered. He wasn’t getting as many offers to direct as I was getting to act. We went through a period of separation and then decided it best if we divorced. It was a very difficult time for us, me especially. I couldn’t believe I was divorcing the man I now know was the love of my life. Again, I can’t go back to before. After our divorce was finalized an amazing thing happened. We became friends – good friends. It took both of us by surprise. That’s the reason I still wear this ring.” She held up her right hand to show the ring. It was the same ring Jack had noticed the first night he met her when she was holding the curtain to the side.

“The marriage that is signified may have ended, but the friendship that the ending begat was too important. The ring wasn’t tainted with bad memories. It became a symbol of undying love between two people better as friends than partners. I just moved it over to my right hand. It’s still a beautiful ring. What girl doesn’t want to wear diamonds?”

Jack sat there thinking about Genevieve and all the stories she had told them so far. She was smart, funny, a little sarcastic and always honest. She was more than just a lonely old lady; she was a former actress who had many stories to tell. She just needed somebody who would listen and he was glad to be one of those people.

©2010 Michael Rohrer