a novel by
Book Three in the Hollywood’s Garden of Allah series
Gwendolyn Brick, the curvy cigarette girl at the Cocoanut Grove, could feel resentment filling her like a blister. She was used to being ogled, but the looks lingered longer now. They came with a smirk from the men and a sneer from the women, and there was no point pretending she didn’t know why. Sooner or later, some snarky bastard was going to have one drink too many and snap off some smart line to impress his friends.
When she spotted two midlevel studio yes-men in suits of imitation vicuña following the maître d’, she immediately pegged them as trouble.
Rumors were spreading around town that Hollywood Reporter owner Billy Wilkerson had sold the Trocadero up on Sunset Boulevard to some faceless consortium. And everybody knew what that probably meant: the mob. And in Los Angeles, that meant Bugsy Siegel. Siegel or no Siegel, all Cocoanut Grove staff had been instructed not to put any client’s nose out of joint. No exceptions. Gwendolyn hadn’t been worried. She’d assumed people were less inclined to be seen at a nightclub with mob connections, but it was now ten o’clock on a Friday night, and the outermost ring of tables was still empty. In the years Gwendolyn had worked there, she’d never seen anything like it. It was not a good sign.
Gwendolyn had seen studio execs like these yes-men bozos a thousand times before. These two were lining the far edge of their table with empty highball glasses to advertise their prowess, and within an hour they were at six apiece. Gwendolyn watched the one with red hair open his platinum cigarette holder and screw up his nose in annoyance. There was nothing for it but to take them head-on.
The blond one wore a pencil moustache that looked suave on Clark Gable but slimy on him. “Cigar,” he said. “Cuban, if you have it. Any brand.”
She handed him a one-dollar cigar and he gave her a twenty-dollar bill.
“You can keep the change if you say it for me.” A drip of sweat snuck out from under his toupee and rounded the back of his ear, but he was too plowed to notice.
“What is it you want me to say?” Gwendolyn asked.
Pencil Moustache leaned forward. “Fiddle-dee-dee.”
She let out a soft groan.
Back in the days before David O. Selznick cast Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind, every pretty girl from California to Maine had reveled in the sparkling hope that she might be Scarlett O’Hara. Gwendolyn had even wrangled herself into what she thought was her screen test but had turned out to be Hattie McDaniel’s for the role of Mammy. Gwendolyn was just there to give Hattie someone to act off. Not that it mattered, because it became the most disastrous screen test in history when Gwendolyn’s dress caught fire. She’d stumbled into the backdrop and her hoop skirt flipped up, revealing that she wasn’t wearing panties. The camera had caught it all. In Technicolor.
“The fiddle?” Gwendolyn stalled.
Pencil Moustache lurched to his feet and grabbed her by the elbow. “Come now, you sweet lil ol’ Southern belle, you.” His fingers bit into her skin. “Say it and my nineteen bucks in change is all yours.”
Gwendolyn’s fingers gripped the sides of her cigarette tray. Her gaze fell on a table of two couples. The women were talking and nodding with their heads almost close enough to touch, and both were looking directly at her. The men were staring.
She worked up her widest smile. “Come on, fellas. How about you give a poor working girl a break?”
The guy pulled out another twenty and dropped it next to the first one. He ran the tip of his finger along the edge of her tray and pushed down on it. If he let go suddenly, Chesterfields and Montecristos would launch in every direction. His chum began to snort with laughter. Whiskey breath filled the space between them.
“A thirty-nine-dollar tip for you, sugar. Not bad for three little words. Come on. Say it like you did in your screen test. Just for me.” He pushed down on the tray a little bit harder.
“Hey now, why you wanna get me in trouble?”
“I’d like to hear the answer to that.”
Gwendolyn’s heart skipped a beat. She could recognize that deep drawl from a hundred paces. She watched Pencil Moustache’s eyes widen as he took in all six foot four of her darling baby brother. The jerk released her arm and cautiously lifted his finger from her tray, then sank back into his chair.
Gwendolyn turned around and drank in the sight of Monty in full dress uniform. The five gold buttons down his front picked up the lights from the stage and seemed to glow like beacons against the stark alabaster of his jacket. His face was granite, but she knew that mischief in his eye. She used to see it when he’d gotten away with stealing fresh cookies from the neighbors’ window sill.
Monty stepped up to the table and saluted. “Petty Officer First Class Montgomery Brick of the US Navy, at your service.” The two lowlifes attempted salutes. “And may I present my sister, Miss Gwendolyn Brick.” Monty rested his palms on their table. “I’m going to assume that what I saw as I came to greet my sister after a six-year tour in the US Navy helping to preserve peace during these troubled times wasn’t what it looked like.”
The men nodded slowly, as though hypnotized.
“Very good.” Monty straightened up. “Now, if you gentlemen have everything you need in the way of tobacco, I’d like to accompany my sister on her break.”
Monty led Gwendolyn to the bar at the rear of the Cocoanut Grove where Chuck, the bartender, held out his hands for her tray. “Your brother’s just had a word with the boss. You got yourself a double break tonight.”
As she walked through the bustling foyer of the Ambassador Hotel with her brother, Gwendolyn decided she wanted him all to herself; she hadn’t seen Monty since he set sail for Guam. She guided him toward the deserted pool area and they stepped outside.
The stars were sprinkled above them like crystals. She tightened her hold on his arm and led him to the diving board. His cotton jacket smelled freshly laundered and felt smooth under her hand as they sat side by side. “Why didn’t you let me know you were coming?” she asked. “How long can you stay?”
Monty seemed broader, thicker across the chest than when she last saw him. He even seemed taller. Navy life must really agree with him, she thought.
“Sorry for the short notice, Googie, but I was given forty minutes to pack. I’m only here for one night.”
“One night? Mo-Mo! Not fair!”
“No, it’s not fair,” he agreed, “it’s the navy. I’m en route to New York. The brass decided I was the best choice to head up the US Navy exhibit at the World’s Fair.”
“What an honor!”
“Between you and me, it’s really a recruitment drive. That Hitler bastard is on the march.” He stared out across the pool for a moment, then snapped out of it. “At any rate, as soon as the ship docked, I hotfooted it over to your place. I thought that roommate of yours might tell me where you were.”
“Kathryn’s on a train convoy to Dodge City. Some sort of publicity campaign Warner Brothers is putting on for the new Errol Flynn movie.”
“Lucky for me, some old drunk appeared and told me where you worked.”
Gwendolyn took his broad hands and sandwiched them between hers. “I’m so glad to see you. I know how much you love the navy life, but I hate not seeing you whenever I want. Ten years and I’ve never really gotten used to it.”
Monty’s face turned grim. “To be honest, I’m kinda worried about you.”
“Me?” Oh, dear God, no. Gwendolyn felt herself go pale. Surely he hasn’t seen my screen test all the way over in Guam?
“It’s probably not my place to say.” Monty screwed up his face in a pained grimace. She could see it was an effort to push his words out. “You’ve been hacking away at this movie-star game now for years, but really, Sis, where’s it gotten you? Have you even been in one movie yet?”
Gwendolyn didn’t like where this conversation seemed to be heading. “For your information, I had a screen test for David Selznick. Ever heard of him?” Monty shook his head. “He’s the guy producing a little picture called Gone with the Wind. I’m good friends with his wife, Irene, and her father is Louis B. Mayer. He runs MGM and earns more money than the president. So it’s not like I’ve been spinning wheels in the mud here.”
Monty’s handsome face softened from a frown into the hint of a smile. “A screen test for Gone with the Wind? How come you haven’t mentioned this in your letters?”
Because the screen test ended up being the most mortifying moment of my life, she thought. “I didn’t want to jinx my luck.”
Gwendolyn had grown accustomed to thinking of the moment she flashed her hoo-ha at the camera as the three seconds that killed her Hollywood career. It wasn’t until Greta Garbo pulled some strings to get her a role in George Cukor’s new picture, The Women, that she’d regained traction. “I didn’t get the part, but I’m going to be in a new MGM picture.”
“Is it a big part? What’s your character like?”
Gwendolyn broke away from her brother’s gaze. “It’s just a walk-on, really. No lines or anything.” She looked back at him in time to see his smile fade into the shadows.
“Googie,” he said, “ten years and all you’ve got to show for it is a screen test and one little bitty role?”
Gwendolyn let go of his hand. “Do you know how rare that is? One in a hundred thousand hopefuls gets a screen test. They have to be very, very impressed with you to order up one of those.”
After a few silent moments, Monty said, “Once my stint at the World’s Fair is over, they’re making me a chief petty officer.”
“That’s good, right?”
“For an enlisted guy, it’s pretty good, yeah. And they’re restationing me.”
“Which means what?”
“They’re moving me.”
Gwendolyn wanted to grab her brother’s hand again and squeeze it real hard. Please say Long Beach! Please say Long Beach!
“I’m being transferred to the Philippines.”
She crossed her arms over her thin uniform, feeling suddenly cold. “Where’s that?”
“It’s in the Far East. South of Japan.”
“Subic Bay is the biggest navy installation in the Pacific. This is a big step up for me, Googie.”
“You’ve really made a good life for yourself, haven’t you?” Gwendolyn took her brother by the arm and snuggled closer. “I’m very proud of you.”
“I’ll be in New York until the end of July and ship out to Subic Bay right afterwards.” Monty stiffened his spine and cleared his throat. “Why don’t you come with me?”
“Move? To the Far East?”
“That part of the world, it’s a wonderful place to live. I know tons of guys who’ve been stationed there and they all say the same thing.”
“Hooray for you, Monty, but my life is here. I’m building a career.” As she heard the words come out of her mouth, she knew how ridiculous they sounded.
You’re twenty-nine years old, she told herself. You know very well hitting thirty in Hollywood is like hitting sixty everywhere else. You don’t have many chances left.
Monty winced. “Spending ten years selling cigarettes to drunkards and letches for a screen test and a bit part ain’t no career.” He grabbed her pinkie finger and wiggled it the way he used to when they were kids back in Florida with their boozed-out mother sprawled on the couch and nobody else to look after them. It was their way of saying You and me forever.
Don’t say it, she thought. Don’t say it.
“Oh, Googie,” he said, “how much longer will you wait for a break that might never come?”
Book 1: “The Garden on Sunset“
Book 2: “The Trouble with Scarlett“