“Reds in the Beds” – Chapter 1

"Reds in the Beds" by Martin Turnbull - book 5 in the Hollywood's Garden of Allah novels

REDS IN THE BEDS

a novel by

Martin Turnbull

Book Five in the Hollywood’s Garden of Allah series

CHAPTER 1

Kathryn Massey unclenched her fists and wiped the clamminess from her palms as best she could with a pitifully inadequate lace handkerchief. She hadn’t expected to be this nervous—it was hardly the first time she’d appeared on the radio—but she’d never shouldered the duties of host by herself. With only a few minutes before showtime, she could feel sweat prickling her scalp, so she cast about the Hollywood Canteen for a distraction.

She found it in the indomitable form of Bette Davis shouldering through the crowd like General MacArthur storming the Pacific. First to the sandwich table, then to the coffee station, where she stopped by a cluster of tuxedoed Warner Bros. executives before she pressed through a jungle of servicemen toward Kathryn, shaking hands as she went.

Bette’s famously large eyes bulged when she broke free of the throng. “Heavens!” she exclaimed, accepting Kathryn’s hand to help her climb onto the edge of the stage. “What I wouldn’t give for a bourbon!”

“What else did you expect on closing night?” Kathryn glanced at Harry James and his orchestra, who’d launched into “Waitin’ for the Train to Come In.” It was her cue that she’d be up next. She wiped her hands again on the limp handkerchief.

Bette shrugged. “I can scarcely believe it’s all coming to an end.” She examined Kathryn’s face. “Are you as nervous as you look?”

For over two years now, Kathryn had appeared on the Kraft Music Hall radio show as the resident Hollywood gossip columnist, and had proved that she could match Bing Crosby’s impromptu banter quip for quip. A couple of weeks ago, NBC approached her with an idea for a special broadcast from the Hollywood Canteen on its closing night. “Bing’s going to be back East promoting Duffy’s Tavern,” they said, “so we want you to host it.”

Kathryn figured if she could pull this off, who knows what it might lead to? Her own show? She’d barely been able to contain her excitement, but now the dread that she might screw it up was pressing on her shoulders.

As the Harry James Orchestra plowed into its final sixteen bars, Bette and Kathryn positioned themselves in front of the chrome microphone with “NBC” painted in red along the base. A technician at his console held up his right hand. He folded his fingers one by one until he was down to his thumb. Kathryn took a deep breath.

“A big hello to all our radio listeners across these United States. My name is Kathryn Massey, and I am thrilled to welcome you to a very special edition of Kraft Music Hall.” While Harry James played the show’s jaunty theme song, the navy blue and army green uniforms erupted into a roar. “We are broadcasting to you live from the world-famous Hollywood Canteen, which closes its doors tonight.

“We have a number of special guests, and I’ll be welcoming them to the stage very soon. But first, I want to thank and congratulate the woman without whom the Hollywood Canteen would never have become such a vital epicenter of the war effort here.” Kathryn raised her arms. “Come on, fellas, help me give the loudest cheer you can muster to the tireless Miss Bette Davis!”

This time, the crowd—not just the servicemen, but the dance hostesses, kitchen staff, and all the volunteers—let loose with a foot-stomping ovation so thunderous that the wagon-wheel chandeliers started to sway.

“Thank you, everybody!” Bette shouted into the mike. “Really, and I mean this from the bottom of my heart, it’s been my greatest pleasure and deepest honor to serve our brave boys.” She wrapped her arm around Kathryn’s waist. “It’s the least we could do.”

Kathryn showed the crowd a piece of cardboard. “Bette, I want you to read the statistics printed on this card to show the people at home what an undertaking this has been.”

Bette took the card and scanned the figures. “The Hollywood Canteen has been open three years, one month, and twenty-eight days, during which time we have fed nearly four million servicemen, poured nine million cups of coffee . . .”

As Bette made her way down the list, Kathryn looked out across the hundreds of faces, every last one of them thrilled to make it into what had become a Los Angeles institution during the war. But then the one brooding face among a thousand buoyant ones caught her eye. She swallowed hard.

Halfway through the war, Kathryn had been recruited by the FBI. It was more like conscription than recruitment, really, leaving her little option but to spy on her neighbors, friends, and coworkers. For Kathryn Massey, the face of the Bureau was Nelson Hoyt, who stood in the crowd smiling that unctuous smile of his. She hadn’t seen it since a particularly nasty clash outside the NBC studios on the day Japan surrendered. But here he was, popping up again like a groundhog with distemper.

Kathryn felt Bette’s fingernails jab into her waist. Bette’s eyes flared. For God’s sake, say something!

“Thank you, Bette,” Kathryn burst out. “Four million thank-yous, one for each of the servicemen who have passed through these doors.” Her first guest joined them onstage. “Next up, I am excited to welcome one of America’s favorite vocalists, here to treat us with a slice of ‘Shoo-Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy.’ Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Miss Dinah Shore!”

* * *

A dry Santa Ana wind blew along Cahuenga Boulevard as Kathryn lit up a Chesterfield and rested against the Canteen’s northern wall. Apart from that one little glitch near the top of the show, everything had gone exceptionally well, but she hadn’t approached the NBC brass yet. She needed a cigarette first.

“I believe congratulations are in order.”

Ugh. Him. Kathryn fired off her best stink eye. “I think the show went very well.”

“I’m talking about your recent nuptials.”

“I hoped I’d seen the last of you.”

“I take it your mother was happy to learn you’d finally settled down?”

My mother? The streetlamp behind Hoyt’s left shoulder threw his face into shadow, obscuring his smile. But Kathryn could tell from his tone that it was more of a smirk. “Of course,” she lied.

“Married life is treating you well?”

“It is.” At least that much was true. Kathryn and her husband had found a way to make their marriage work—a plan that chiefly entailed separate villas at the Garden of Allah. She started for the Canteen’s entrance, but Hoyt stopped her with a simple statement.

“I have something I need to ask you.”

When the FBI says it has a question, a girl had better stop.

“Ring Lardner Junior. How well do you know him?”

The non sequitur propelled Kathryn to face him more squarely. “The screenwriter?” When he nodded and crossed his arms, she knew she had to give him some sort of answer. “He and Garson Kanin holed up with Katharine Hepburn in the villa next to mine to bash out the screenplay for Woman of the Year. Outside of that, I’ve seen him at parties here and there.”

“What about Lewis Milestone?”

The sudden switch raised Kathryn’s eyebrow. “He directed The North Star, which Lillian Hellman wrote. She’s one of my neighbors, too. I went to the premiere at the Carthay Circle, and Lillian introduced us. He and I had such a long chat that I turned it into an interview, mostly about the war movies they—”

“I saw the interview.”

She threw her hands up, wishing now she’d made her getaway. “Then why even ask?”

“One more, and I’ll let you go back inside.” Passing headlights caught him full in the face. He smiled again, this time not nearly so smugly, and it reminded her that he was halfway decently attractive. For an FBI fink. She made a go-ahead-ask-your-damned-question gesture.

“Leilah O’Roarke.”

Kathryn tried to cover her surprise with a cough, but knew the guy was too shrewd to be fooled. He would be aware that Leilah’s husband headed up security at Warners, but did he also know she ran a trio of high-class brothels? Or that her best friend, Gwendolyn Brick, had sold Leilah black-market nylon stockings during the war?

“She shops regularly at Bullocks Wilshire, where my ex-roommate works. Gwendolyn’s mentioned her a few times.”

Hoyt nodded slowly.

“What do these people have in common?” Kathryn ventured.

“Who said they had anything in common?”

Kathryn stubbed out her cigarette into the gravel. “Suit yourself, Mr. Mysterious.” She headed for the Canteen’s front door and didn’t even break her stride when he called out,

“See you around . . . Mrs. Adler.”

* * *

For a couple of hours, Kathryn worked the donut table with Martha Raye and Billie Burke until there was nothing left to hand out, and then accepted a series of invitations to dance. Even though she wasn’t officially a hostess, she figured it was the final night, so she said yes to every soldier, sailor, marine, and pilot who asked her.

It was one o’clock in the morning when she looked around for Bette to say goodbye. The kitchen supervisor guessed that Bette was hiding in the office. “But knock gently, she’s probably asleep.”

Kathryn pushed open the office door and peeked inside. Bette was sitting on the ratty sofa with her shoes kicked off, resting her feet on a stack of city directories. One hand held a half-filled tumbler of something Kathryn guessed was stronger than grape Kool-Aid.

“Come in if you’ve got a light,” Bette told her.

“Since when is Miss Davis without means to light a cigarette?” Kathryn asked.

“Ordinarily, I wouldn’t be caught dead without matches, but this ain’t no ordinary night.” Bette held out her cigarette while Kathryn pulled a book of Mocambo matches from her purse.

Kathryn lit Bette’s, then one for herself, and joined Bette on the sofa. “You going to miss all this?”

“It’s been a hell of a lot of work,” Bette admitted, “but so damned fulfilling in ways I never imagined when we first started.”

“You should be very proud. Tonight went off without a hitch.”

“Except for that moment at the top of the broadcast. Rule number one: No dead air.

“Don’t remind me!” Kathryn helped herself to a slug of Bette’s tumbler. Whiskey. Expensive.

“So who was he? The handsome puss with the chin and the smirk. Don’t tell me you’ve taken a lover already. You’ve only been married three months. That’s the last thing I need to hear—I’m getting hitched soon.”

Kathryn had shared her secret with only a very small handful of people. She’d told Humphrey Bogart, but that had backfired and gotten her mired even more deeply with the Bureau. Still, she knew she needed to do something, and Bette knew a thing or two about survival.

“Remember that night you sang on Kraft Music Hall? We were in my dressing room when the New York Times arrived for an interview.”

“Sure I do.”

Kathryn gulped another belt of Bette’s whiskey. “The Times thing was just a cover. He’s actually with the FBI.”

“NO! What did he want?”

Kathryn had never suspected Bette Davis was so shockable. “To recruit me as an informer. The Bureau harbored strong suspicions that Bogie was a Commie.”

Bette got up from the sofa and headed for one of the filing cabinets, where she pulled out a half-empty bottle. “Don’t stop now.”

“Long story short: Bogie was one of my neighbors so I told him, and we hatched a plan. We nearly got away with it, but not quite. All I managed to do was piss off the Bureau, who then threatened to short-circuit my career by spreading a rumor that I’m a lesbian unless I did what they wanted.”

“Bastards! Wait—is that why you got married so suddenly? And your husband, the screenwriter, is he your actual husband, if you catch my meaning?”

This was the first time Kathryn had alluded to her sham marriage to someone outside the Garden of Allah. It made her feel naked.

Bette dropped back onto the sofa and held her refilled tumbler out for Kathryn. “My dear, that makes you far more interesting than I ever gave you credit for.” She let out a belch, then paused for a moment. “You know how all my Canteen volunteers were ID’d and fingerprinted by the FBI?”

“You said it was just a formality.”

“So I thought! About a year ago I found out that they had this place under surveillance.”

“Why?”

“In their eyes, my policy of allowing anyone of any race to dance with whomever they wished was a breeding ground for Communism. They convinced themselves that the Commies sent party members in here to stir up trouble. They expected a race riot every night!”

Kathryn could feel Bette’s high-priced booze beginning to calm her Nelson-Hoyt jitters. “That’s absurd.”

“Try and tell them that. They now suspect me of being a Communist. Or at least a sympathizer. Does that make me a Pinko? I can never keep that baloney straight. It’s such a relief that we’ve made it to the end without so much as a flicker of a race riot.”

Kathryn got to her feet. It was getting close to two a.m. and she was beat. “I’m glad your tango with the FBI has come to an end. I fear mine is only halfway through.”

Bette alighted from the sofa and took Kathryn’s hands in hers. “You can’t let them do this. Didn’t we just fight a world war to ensure we keep our First Amendment rights? Otherwise, what the hell were the last three and a half years for? We need to come up with a way to get them off your back.”

Kathryn felt tears sheen her eyes. Bette had a lot to lose if the FBI decided to take her down. “But what can we do?”

“I haven’t the foggiest idea,” Bette said, squeezing Kathryn’s hands. “Tell you what. Bill and I are getting married at the end of the month. Once we’re back from the honeymoon, let’s get together. I’ll make sure the maître d’ at Chasen’s gives us a quiet corner booth. Surely we can come up with something, because if a couple of smart broads like us can’t do it, then this whole damn country is in far worse trouble than either of us realize.”

~~~oOo~~~

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~~~oOo~~~

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