a novel by
Book Seven in the Hollywood’s Garden of Allah novels
When Kathryn Massey stepped out of the limousine in front of the Pantages Theatre, flashbulbs exploded along the sidewalk. She closed her eyes and turned her head before she realized how crummy she’d look in the papers the next day. She turned back around, but the photographers had moved on to the next car. Fred Astaire unfolded his lean frame and waved to the fans, who roared with excitement.
He greeted Kathryn with a kiss to the cheek.
“Nervous?” she asked.
He kept his smile wide. “Piece of cake.”
“Since when is hosting the Academy Awards a piece of cake?”
“Since the day I realized they were never going to give me one. You won’t see me sweating through my tux.”
Kathryn’s date, Leo Presnell, emerged from the limo behind her. She introduced him to Fred, and together with Fred’s wife, Phyllis, they bustled past a tight core of press photographers and into the theater’s foyer.
It was Kathryn who felt nervous. Her friend Bette Davis was supposed to be a shoo-in for All About Eve tonight, but she had stiff competition from Gloria Swanson and Sunset Boulevard. Kathryn feared that Bette and her co-star Anne Baxter would split their votes and hand the Oscar to Gloria.
Bette had telephoned Kathryn that morning, wailing, “What if they don’t call my name? What if it goes to Gloria instead? How many more Margo Channings am I likely to get a crack at?”
Kathryn had no good answers, but she proposed a fortifying pre-show whiskey at the Frolic Room next door to the Pantages. But then Leo was late picking her up at the Garden of Allah, and there was traffic at Hollywood and Vine. They arrived with only forty-five minutes to showtime. Surely Bette was already running the gamut of press, fans, and well-wishers.
“Do you see her?”
“No,” Leo said, “but I need to use the john. If you find her, blame everything on me.”
“I fully intend to.”
Leo’s afternoon meeting with NBC hadn’t unfolded the way he expected. He worked for Sunbeam Mixmaster who, along with Betty Crocker, sponsored Kathryn’s radio show. It was supposed to be a casual get-together with the network brass, which Kathryn assumed meant a three-martini lunch at Perino’s. Instead, they’d lowered the boom that Window on Hollywood had cratered to number twenty-two in the ratings—not great news for a show that had once nudged the top five.
Leo melted away, pointing to the knot of people besieging Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra. Rumors were swirling that Ava had moved in with Frank. Not that Hollywood cared much about a glamour couple living in sin, but the vast expanse between Los Angeles and New York did. Kathryn knew if she could get a wedding date out of either of them, it would keep the NBC hounds at bay for a while.
As she elbowed her way toward them, she spotted Bette posing on the mezzanine steps, backlit by a spotlight suspended from the second-floor balcony. “Bette! BETTE!” But the din bouncing off the Art Deco angles swallowed her voice.
Marilyn Monroe angled the right shoulder of the gauzy concoction Gwendolyn Brick had made for her, and sliced through the tightening crowd toward Bette. She arrived at the bottom step just as Bette kissed George Sanders goodbye.
Marilyn waved, tilted onto her toes, and called to Bette, who doused her with a critical once-over, then turned her back, leaving Marilyn to stand in her shadow.
A pocket of space opened up in front of Kathryn. She went to raise her hand again, but someone yanked it down—Arlene Curtis, a neighbor at the Garden of Allah.
“I just got accosted by Walter Winchell! Thank God I found you!”
“Is he drunk?” Walter Winchell drunk and handsy at the Oscars? Now, THAT is a great story.
Arlene pulled a face. “No, but he was full of questions about Mayer.”
During tonight’s ceremony, Louis B. Mayer was to be awarded an honorary Oscar for “distinguished service to the motion picture industry.” It wasn’t as exciting as the one Bette would be getting, but a gleaming Oscar perched on a mantelpiece was nothing to sneer at.
Arlene drew in closer. “I’m not supposed to say anything, but my boss has been reviewing Mayer’s contract.” Arlene was chief legal secretary for MGM’s principal attorney.
“Reviewing it for what?”
“Loopholes. They want to cancel it three years early.”
“That’s outrageous! He’s L.B.! He is Hollywood! Are they forgetting that King Solomon’s Mines made nearly ten million?”
“Not too long ago, we would’ve dominated the top ten. I get the feeling Mr. Schenck feels it’s time for a change.”
“Are you sure?”
“Who do you think’s been typing the memos to New York?” Arlene knotted her fingers together. “A year or so ago, I ran into Mr. Mayer at the commissary. I could tell he recognized me from—you know . . .” Arlene was working in a brothel above the Sunset Strip when Kathryn’s friend met her at an MGM management party. “We swapped an I-know-who-you-are look. Would you believe he actually came up to me and said it was nice to see me doing so well for myself? He never said a word to anyone about my past. What they’re doing is real rotten. Mr. Mayer deserves better.”
“Do you think Winchell’s caught wind of this?”
“With Walter Winchell, it’s safest to err on the side of probably.”
The lights dimmed for a moment, and a deep voice announced that the ceremony for the twenty-third Academy Awards would commence in ten minutes.
Kathryn thanked Arlene and made her way to her seat in the twelfth row next to Leo, five rows behind Bette and several behind Marilyn.
The news about Mayer consumed her thoughts as All About Eve picked up six Oscars, Judy Holliday won for Born Yesterday, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis sang “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” from the new Disney cartoon, and Edith Head picked up two Best Costume Designs for All About Eve and Samson and Delilah.
By the time Darryl Zanuck was accepting his Thalberg Award, Kathryn was wondering how best to tip off Mayer. Did he even need to be tipped off? If there was a groundswell brewing, surely his stoolies had already told him.
When Charles Brackett presented Mayer with his honorary Oscar, Kathryn was struck by the self-effacing way Mayer approached the podium. All finagling flew out of her head when Mayer gave his unexpectedly brief speech.
“This is truly a thrilling experience,” he said, looking at nobody in particular. “I’ve been very fortunate in being honored in many ways, but this stands out above all because it’s from the men and women in the industry I love and have worked so hard in. And it fills me with humility and a great sense of responsibility to the future years to come.”
By the time he shook hands with Brackett and made his way out of the spotlight, Kathryn felt like a rat. He’s been good to you, she castigated herself. He’s given you scoops over Louella and Hedda and Sheilah, made you the envy of the dance floor, and found work for Marcus when he was blacklisted. No, she decided, at the very least, I need to make sure he knows what’s going on.
After the ceremony, as the theater rustled with silk, organza, chiffon, and congratulations—sincere or otherwise—Kathryn found Bette and her indomitable mother, Ruthie. They both wore faces bleaker than a Massachusetts ice storm. Bette met Kathryn with a jaundiced eye.
“Don’t worry,” Bette said, “I possess no sharp objects. Everyone’s jugular will survive the night intact.”
“Are you terribly disappointed?” Kathryn asked.
“I’m ropeable! This was my last shot. It’s all grandmothers and character parts from here on out.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Just you watch. I’ll be the go-to dame for the ‘Crazy Spinster Neighbor’ and ‘Grandma with Dementia’ roles.” Bette’s disdainful gaze landed on Marilyn as she chatted with Bill Holden and Joe Mankiewicz. “She’s what they want now. Pretty, blonde, and dumb as dirt. Just look at who they gave Best Actress to this evening.”
“Neither Judy Holliday nor Marilyn Monroe is dumb as dirt,” Kathryn interjected. “If that’s the way you’re going to be, I’ll leave you to stew in your own juices.”
“Please don’t,” Bette conceded, to Kathryn’s relief. “You’re right. Let’s go find a drink before anybody else wants to bury me in their heartfelt sympathies.”
“I just want to congratulate Mayer. I’ll meet you out front. Leo’s there somewhere with a limo big enough to house the LA Rams.”
Kathryn picked her way backstage where Edith Head buttonholed her. “I’d forgotten how heavy these little golden guys are!”
Kathryn doubted that. Edith’s first Oscar, just last year for The Heiress, was on a prominent shelf in her office. Still, two Oscars in one night was a significant achievement.
As she embraced Edith, Kathryn spotted Mayer slipping out the stage door. She made her excuses and followed him into the service lane behind the theater, mildly surprised to find it empty except for Mayer staring at his award.
As she drew closer, she caught his contemptuous look. “I came to offer my congratulations.”
Mayer held his Oscar up so that it caught the light of a street lamp at the end of the alley. “I just heard someone calling this the Kiss of Death Award.”
“That’s awfully mean-spirited.”
“In other words, the Thanks for Everything but Your Best Work Is Behind You So Please Get Lost Award.”
“If you don’t want it, I’m sure Bette Davis would love to—”
“I meant what I said tonight.”
“I could tell.”
Mayer lowered the trophy. “It left a bitter taste in my mouth, but I’m not going to let it spoil a memorable night, so thank you for seeking me out. I appreciate that.”
Kathryn fought the urge to fidget with her clutch purse as Mayer raised a wary eyebrow. “I came to see if you know what’s going on with your contract.”
“How do you mean?”
He’s not as well connected as I assumed. Maybe that’s the problem. “You need to know that Nick Schenck and your head of Legal have been combing your contract for something that will allow them to cancel it early.”
Mayer tried to keep his face immobile. “I don’t believe you.” His voice had turned acerbic.
“My source is pretty good.”
“Tell me who told you.”
“I can’t, but she is on your side.”
“You’re playing with my career, my legacy, on the word of some girl?”
“What’s gender got to do with it?” Kathryn started to wish she’d kept her trap shut. “It appears Winchell’s caught a whiff of it, although I’m not sure how much he knows. The point is, someone’s looking to sink your career—”
“No, Miss Massey. The point is tonight was supposed to be a career highlight.”
Don’t shoot the messenger, Bucko. “When did I get demoted from Kathryn to Miss Massey?”
“When you decided to shove rumors of my demise in my face.”
“I came out here to warn you. If I’d known I was going to get accused of—”
“Of what? Fishing for one of your precious scoops? I had you pegged as a cut above Louella and Hedda. But now I have to wonder if I’ve been wrong about you this entire time.”
Kathryn dropped her gaze to Mayer’s Oscar. He gripped it between two fingers, dangling it by its head like a stale cigar.
They were suddenly drenched in the headlights of Mayer’s roaring limo. She stepped back as it pulled up. Mayer got in and slammed the door, leaving Kathryn to choke on the exhaust and wish she were more like Louella and Hedda, who wouldn’t hesitate for a second to announce this betrayal to the world.
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