THE TROUBLE WITH SCARLETT
a novel by
Book Two in the Hollywood’s Garden of Allah series
Kathryn Massey let the cardboard box slide out of her arms and onto the mottled linoleum, where it landed with a thud. She turned around and addressed her apple-cheeked pal standing in the doorway. “What the hell was in this?” she asked him. “Bowling balls?”
The guy dropped his suitcases, walked over to the box, and lifted out a shiny Remington typewriter. “It’s a villa-warming present from Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker.” He broke out into a giddy grin she hadn’t seen in ages. “I can’t believe either of them are my neighbors now, let alone both of them. Benchley’s in the villa next door, and Dottie’s right below me!”
Kathryn smiled back at her friend and gazed around the villa. The afternoon sun filtered through the elm tree outside the open window, filling the living room with warmth and the scent of the jasmine from across the pool.
“Well then, Mr. Marcus Adler,” she said, planting her hands on her hips, “let me be the first to officially welcome you to your new home at the Garden of Allah’s villa number twenty-three. I trust you and Mr. Remington will be very happy here.”
“It’s so bright in here!” Marcus said, setting the typewriter on his new dining table. He took a look around his new home. “I can scarcely believe all this space is mine.”
“No more dark little rooms for you, mister.”
“Quite frankly, I can scarcely believe anything about my life these days.”
Kathryn had heard that one hit movie could change a person’s life, but she’d never witnessed it firsthand before. She’d been sitting next to Marcus at Grauman’s Chinese, holding his hand when the credit for Return to Sender, a Marion Davies vehicle, flashed up on the screen: WRITTEN BY ROBERT MCNULTY. He’d let out a raw groan and clamped her hand in his fist hard enough to pop her knuckle. It didn’t take Kathryn long to figure out what had happened. McNulty was Marcus’ boss, and the fink had pilfered his credit when he saw what a socko screenplay Marcus had turned in. But to her credit, Marion Davies had squared things off with W.R. Hearst, and Marcus’ salary jumped from seventy-five dollars a month to a hundred and fifty a week. Goodbye, horrible dark little room, hello, sun-drenched villa.
The place had exactly the same layout as the one Kathryn shared with her roommate Gwendolyn, but the girls’ was painted pale coral and dotted with vases of flowers. Here, the stark white walls, bookshelves filled with Drums Along the Mohawk and Northwest Passage, and that sturdy typewriter already made it feel like Marcus’ place. Kathryn hugged her friend. “I never doubted your success for a second.”
“I got my first new paycheck yesterday,” he said. “Wouldn’t you know it? I start making decent money the same month they introduce the income tax. Maybe Hearst is right: income tax is a Commie plot and we should all refuse to pay it.”
“At least y’all earn enough to have to pay income tax.” Gwendolyn Brick appeared in the doorway, a bottle of 7-Up in each hand. The sun shone through her honey-blonde hair and onto her lightly tanned shoulders. How a movie studio hadn’t snapped her up was a mystery to Kathryn. “It ain’t champagne, but it’s all we got.”
“As long as there are bubbles.” Marcus waved her into his sunny but tiny new kitchen. They were clinking tumblers when a theatrical voice filled the place.
“Vive la villa twenty-three, bébé!”
The three of them turned to find George Cukor standing in the doorway holding an enormous magnum of Dom Perignon. When he saw that Marcus was not alone, he apologized with an endearing blush.
It had been several months since that crazy night Kathryn and Marcus ran all over Los Angeles in an effort to bail out poor George before sleazebag journalists trawled through the city lockup in search of a juicy story. Marcus had never mentioned it again, so Kathryn had decided to behave as though nothing had happened.
“A housewarming gift!” she exclaimed. “How very thoughtful!”
George looked around at the boxes. “That’s today?”
“So if the bubbly isn’t a housewarming present . . . ?”
George’s eyes smiled through his wire-framed spectacles but he said nothing more until Marcus had conjured four champagne flutes. George filled them all and asked everyone to raise their glasses. “At the risk of sounding revoltingly self-serving,” he said with a smile so wide it threatened to split his face in two, “here’s to me!”
“What’s the occasion?” Gwendolyn asked. She peered at her champagne but didn’t take a sip; her history with booze wasn’t pretty. Kathryn wondered for a moment if Gwendolyn was going to offend MGM’s best director by not partaking of his expensively delicious champagne.
George drew in a deep breath. “Mr. David O. Selznick has just bought the film rights to Gone with the Wind, and he’s asked me to direct!”
“Holy crapoly!” Marcus exclaimed, clapping a hand on his friend’s shoulder.
“That’s huge!” Gwendolyn said, and took her first sip. “I read the other day that book will have sold half a million copies by the end of the year.”
Kathryn leaned toward George and hinted a smile. “So, Mr. Cukor . . . ?”
George returned her grin. “Yes, Miss Massey . . . ?”
“Excuse me for being nosy but, you know, professional curiosity and all that. Care to share with us who you see as Scarlett O’Hara?”
“You might want to tell your former boss that she’s a front runner.”
Kathryn bit into her top lip. Anything connected to Gone with the Wind was big news these days, but she could use none of this information in her Hollywood Reporter column. Only one woman in Hollywood could do that: Louella Parsons.
Parsons ruled the world of Hollywood gossip like a barely-literate Borgia, and had managed to engineer for herself an unimaginable coup: forty-eight hours of exclusivity on all scoops. The fact that she wrote for the all-powerful William Randolph Hearst probably had something to do with that. So why then, Kathryn wondered, was George Cukor throwing around this precious information as though it was yesterday’s confetti?
“Oh!” George snapped his head around to face Kathryn’s doe-eyed roommate. “I’ve just put two and two together. You must be Gwendolyn. The girl with the brooch.”
Marcus and Kathryn couldn’t have made Cukor’s bail that night without pawning Gwendolyn’s only real piece of jewelry—a sparkling diamond brooch that was a gift from one of her admirers.
Kathryn watched George blanch. “I never properly thanked you—either of you—for what you did that night. I’ve been terribly remiss.”
Kathryn gave a discreet shrug. “Some sleeping dogs are better left alone,” she said.
But she was already mentally writing her headline. “So,” she asked him, “when are you sharing your news with Louella?”
George’s face soured. “Miss Louella Parsons and I are not currently on speaking terms. This week, she barged onto the set of Camille uninvited and ruined one of Garbo’s most difficult scenes. The whole thing upset Garbo so much that she flung her script at Louella. Unfortunately, it hit an antique lamp instead and shattered the damn thing. Then Garbo stormed out and went home. A complete waste of an afternoon. I was absolutely furious!” He let a string of silent moments slip by to let his audience picture Greta Garbo, usually so reserved, erupting like an opera diva.
Then he permitted himself a sly smile and laid a gentle hand on Kathryn’s arm. “My dear, this one is all yours.”
Kathryn heard her friends softly gasp as she held the director’s unblinking gaze. George couldn’t possibly mean what I think he means. That would be inconceivable. She laid her hand on top of his and squeezed it gently. “This one?”
“Selznick has acquired the rights and has signed me on as director. It’s all yours for the next twenty-four hours.”
Kathryn’s throat went dry. She looked down at her empty champagne flute. “Louella always gets the scoops first.”
The director’s eyes gleamed. “Apparently not always.”
* * *
It was well after eleven o’clock by the time Kathryn got the night guard to let her into the Hollywood Reporter building. The newsroom was deserted; rows of empty desks were lined up in the shadows like tombstones. Kathryn had only the faint glow of the streetlights to guide her. She felt her way to her desk and flicked on her lamp. It eyed her silent typewriter in a solitary circle.
She had until midnight. That was when the morning edition was put to bed and couldn’t be changed. Everything she wrote was supposed to go through Billy Wilkerson, the paper’s owner, but he hadn’t answered her calls to his home or his men’s club. The course of history, she decided, would have to change without his approval.
She slid a fresh sheet of paper into her typewriter.
Selznick Nabs GWTW Screen Rights, Taps Cukor As Director
Considering Tallulah Bankhead as Scarlett
by Kathryn Massey
Her fingers recoiled from the typewriter. You can’t do this, she told herself. It was idiotic to think she could get away with breaking the unbreakable rule. Louella would have her guts for garters. And the most powerful man in the world was the last person she wanted as an enemy.
She re-read what she had written. “You were a nice dream while you lasted,” she told the sheet of paper, and pulled it out of the typewriter. A crash of glass splintered the silence and Kathryn poked her head into the corridor. The light was now on at the far end of the corridor.
“Hello? Anyone there?”
Wilkerson’s office door was slightly ajar, allowing a slice of light to etch the parquet floor. As she drew closer, she could hear heavy breathing coming from inside. The last thing she wanted to do was walk in on her boss making out with someone. Especially if that someone wasn’t his wife.
But when she heard Wilkerson yell, “JESUS CHRIST!” she decided he was in pain. She pushed his office door open and peeked inside. Her elegant boss sat cross-legged on the floor with one hand bunched around the other. Blood was seeping out between his fingers.
“Mr. Wilkerson! Are you all right?”
He didn’t register surprise that anyone was there. “You got a handkerchief?”
“In my purse. I’ll go get—”
“Breast pocket.” He jutted his head toward the suit jacket slung over the back of his chair. Kathryn rounded her boss’ desk and pulled out a linen handkerchief. It wasn’t until she knelt down to tie it around his finger that she smelled the pall of whiskey hanging over him.
“Careful,” he said. “Broken glass.”
Thick shards of what had been a bottle of Royal Crest lay scattered around him.
“Had a bit of an accident?” she asked, winding Wilkerson’s handkerchief around his index finger, which had a nasty gash along nearly its whole length. “I think this might need stitches.”
“Forget it,” Wilkerson mumbled. “I deserve to bleed to death.”
She helped him stand up. “Bleed to death?” she asked, fashioning the ends of the handkerchief into a knot. “Now you’re just being melodramatic.”
Wilkerson parked his backside against the edge of his desk and slumped over his bloodied finger, nursing it with his other hand. He was stony with silence for a moment or two, then mumbled something that sounded like “Sananee . . .”
“Sana . . . what?”
“Say, what are you doing here, anyway?”
“I came across a big scoop. Or at least I thought so, but it didn’t check out.”
He raised his head slowly and looked at her for the first time. His eyes were bloodshot and she could tell he hadn’t been listening.
“Santa Anita,” he said, low and hoarse.
It took a moment for the meaning of those two words to sink in. “You lost a stack of dough at the racetrack? Can’t have been the first time. If you don’t mind me saying, Mr. Wilkerson, you smell like a whiskey factory. Perhaps you ought to think about going ho—”
“It wasn’t just a stack o’ dough.” Wilkerson’s eyes shifted away from her. “It was the whole goddamned payroll.”
Kathryn felt her jaw drop and a volley of questions pelted her mind. He gambled the payroll away? The whole thing? Am I the only one who knows? Will he remember he’s told me when he sobers up in the morning? Should I tell someone? Why is he telling me?
The urge to slap her boss consumed Kathryn like a brushfire. She crossed her arms and anchored them there. “All of it?”
Wilkerson kept his head hung low. “There’s nothing you can say to me that I ain’t already said a hundred times tonight. I’m a bastard an’ deserve to be shot. My staff’s gonna walk out on me, and they should. They deserve a boss who will look aft’ them. Ev’thin’ I’ve worked so hard for, ev’thin’ the Hollywood Reporter stands for will be pfffft.” He looked up at her, creasing his sweaty brow. “What did you say that about a scoop?”
“It’s not important.”
“It was important enough for you to come into the office at midnight.”
“I thought it was,” she corrected him. “But on reflection, it’ll cause more complications than it’s worth. So don’t worry about it. You should think about getting to a hospital. That cut looks—”
“Really, Mr. Wilkerson, I don’t—”
“Come on, out with it and let me be the judge.”
She shifted her weight from one foot to another as she related the Gone with the Wind news. Wilkerson’s eyes grew to saucers and his smile stretched from ear to ear. “How’s your source?”
“The horse’s mouth.”
“One of the horses in the stall next door,” she conceded.
“Oh boy, is that old nag going to be pissed when she reads the morning edition!”
“We can’t publish this,” Kathryn told him. “You know the rule. We break it at our mortal peril.”
Wilkerson’s dark eyes narrowed and a crafty smirk played on his face. “You telling me you don’t have the gumption to play with the big boys? Kathryn Massey, I’m surprised at you. I thought you were made of sterner stuff.”
“Me and my sterner stuff are just fine, thank you very much, but somebody in this room has to be sensible. Let us not forget, you’re down an entire payroll.”
“William Randolph Hearst can go screw himself. This is what we’ve been waiting for. Why wouldn’t we print this?”
He started to bunch his hands into fists, but it loosened Kathryn’s handiwork and he started to bleed again. She went to retie the makeshift bandage but he brushed her away. She grabbed his hand anyway and pulled it toward her, tightening the handkerchief while she kept him firmly in her gaze.
“We’ll be crossing a line here, Mr. Wilkerson. Outscooping Parsons will unleash the four horsemen of the apocalypse, followed by the seven plagues, the hounds of the Baskervilles, and the entire contents of Pandora’s box. There would be no going back.”
Wilkerson drew in a deep breath. “GO!” He pushed her toward the door. “I’ll get the print room to hold the front page. I promised it to DeMille, but he can bite my ass.”
Kathryn stood at his office door and stared at her boss, willing him to change his mind. He stared back at her. “What now?” he demanded.
“This is insane. You’re drunk. This cannot possibly end well.”
He leaned over his desk and jutted out his chin. “I’ve got the guts if you want the glory.”
It was quite possibly the one thing Billy Wilkerson could have said to make her change her mind. Oh my God, Kathryn thought, he’s actually going to let me do this. He trusts me, she realized for the first time. He trusts me. She looked at her watch; it was twelve minutes to midnight. “Is there even going to be a Hollywood Reporter tomorrow?”
“What are you going to do about the payroll?”
“If you can dig up a scoop like that, I can dig up three hundred grand.”