Watching Marilyn, p.10Jack Chapman
The Calneva Lodge Resort Hotel and Casino stood almost three feet over the Nevada border. As with most good things God had handed out a majority of the South-West quota of political hypocrisy to California. Left short and brazen Nevada never got round to serious legislation about gambling any more than about marriage or prostitution.
Calneva was on a wooded promontory at the north end of Tahoe, deep blue water of the lake on three sides. The low-rise, main building housed the casino and usual hotel facilities. The fifty or so guest cabins scattered among the trees gave privacy with good views over the rocky shore to the snow-topped Sierra mountains on the far side of the water.
Tommy got out of the Oldsmobile, looked round to take in the place and stretched, stiff from the drive. He went back to the trunk to get out the bags and came to a stop like a kid finding his first candy floss machine. He was looking at a man in a grey flannel suit, white shirt and blue polka-dot tie. The man was getting out of a blue Cadillac with the licence plate JOE D.
"We’re at altitude," said Tommy. He sounded awestruck. "We’re up so far we’re in heaven."
"Seen how much they charge?"
"You don’t know who that is, do you, Frank?"
The man was suntanned like he spent time in the open. He had prominent features and smoked a cigarette as he strode down the path to the nearest cabins. "Well he's familiar."
"That‘s Joe DiMaggio."
The baseball legend Ronnie Reagan admired so much. The man must have been getting on for fifty, a decade since he'd last played a pro game, but still a solid, lean physique. Eight years since the divorce. I'd worked that out after Reagan had estimated six or seven. Time was moving on. What was DiMaggio doing here now, in the same place as his ex-wife Marilyn Monroe?
It was late afternoon, the entrance lobby of the hotel not busy this time of day. There was a lot of chrome, strip lighting and expensive wood. From deeper in the interior came a purposeful but restrained clink of dollars from the blackjack, craps and roulette tables in the main casino. Out here a glossy board promised a Dean Martin cabaret that evening in the Celebrity Showroom.
We left a suitcase each with the Front Desk clerk and followed his direction to the Circle Bar.
It had been a long drive. Balanced on the barstool and holding onto the counter I limbered up enough to lift the frosted tequila cocktail, then kept tilting back to inspect the big, coloured glass dome in the ceiling. There was enough looming glass up there to make a thinking man nervous enough about it crashing down so he needed a drink to steady his nerve.
The bartender was a Latin type, made the most of it, thin moustache, black hair, olive skin, the looks of a thin-lipped Valentino.
"What’s your name, pal?" Tommy asked, his technique to establish good relations with the bar as fast as he could.
"Me? Jesus Diaz."
"Jesus?" Tommy wasn't bothering to pronounce the J as an H either.
"Is okay, Señor, no one forcing you to kneel. My country it's a common name."
Tommy nodded an acknowledgement the bartender could have that name. "Didn‘t sound like you come from around here."
"You don’ theenk, Gringo?" He looked familiar as well but didn't have the shoulders to be another baseball player. If he’d been on screen it would be Mexican typecasting, second row of the bandits prancing around on horses.
"Frank Sinatra really own this place?"
"What makes a crooner buy a casino?"
Jesus Diaz waved a casual adios to the brace of San Francisco widows who were blowing blue smoke out of cigarette holders while they admired his tight, barman outfit from the opposite quadrant of the wide, circular counter; everyone making it plain they were saving something for later. He jiggled his cocktail shaker over his shoulder. "Maybe ‘cos he could. Look around ouside. The lake, the mountains. Big scenery out there, right? I'd buy this place I had the money."
Tommy held out his glass for a refill. The bartender somersaulted a bottle and asked, "Drive up from LA?" He was already bored amusing us with his joke accent.
"Been sitting in a car most of nine hours. Didn’t get lost much either."
Tommy took the glass back and swallowed. "There’s a first time for everything."
"Mostly our guests fly into Reno. Mr Sinatra’s just installed a pad for helicopters on the roof here, makes an easy hop from the airport."
The bartender smirked at me like he knew I couldn’t afford a helicopter. I ordered another tequila. "He should have invested in Vegas, saved fuel."
"A man like Mr Sinatra moves in exclusive circles. Down in the desert it's a different place. Let me put it this way, the level of celebrities and socialites we get here don’t want to be mixing with riff-raff in Vegas."
"That’s real interesting. I heard Frank has a couple of investors in the Calneva going by the names Wingy and Skinny," Tommy prompted. "Not the same class as Jesus maybe, but still, not often you find celebrities with names that exclusive gracing the Chamber of Commerce."
The thin shoulders shrugged. "Business is business. Now the previous owner was a man named Biltz but they usually called him The Duke of Nevada. He was uncle to Mrs Jacqueline Kennedy. Classy enough for you?"
"Can’t beat a Kennedy connection these days," I agreed. "She ever come here?"
"The President does. Only he don’t bring family if you understand what I mean."
"Maybe I should ask Miss Monroe when I get a chance to interview her."
"That what you’re here for?"
"Apart from the scenery."
"Interview huh? That means you're a journalist or a cop."
"Which is best?" Tommy asked.
He evaluated Tommy a moment, eyes narrow. "Tough call. But you're a cop for sure."
"Accredited journalist," I said pointing at my chest. "My partner there takes the photographs."
Diaz shrugged. "Hope you brought sweaters. I hear it’s hot on the coast right now, but even July up at this altitude it gets cold of an evening. And I mean a man can catch a serious chill."
"Miss Monroe ever come in for a drink?"
"Pays to be careful when a man meets a change in climate," the bartender seemed stuck on weather for conversation. "Too much oxygen compared to LA might go to his head, affect his judgement."
"We’ll be sure not to inhale before we acclimatise," Tommy promised.
"Long as you stay breathing somehow," Jesus Diaz moved off around the perimeter of the bar to refresh the widows’ cocktails.
Tommy examined his glass to decide how long he could make it stretch until someone with a bottle passed this way again.
"You think Sinatra has made this venture a going concern?"
I looked around the Circle Bar, almost empty despite being a size a hundred serious drinkers could lean around the perimeter without clashing elbows. But it was still a slack time of day and so far we hadn’t inspected the gaming tables. "It's a classy place."
The hotel brochure said Calneva Lodge started up in the Roaring Twenties, located to cater for the seriously rich San Fran fun set. It claimed to be the oldest casino in America. In most States a counter-claim would result in a police raid so no-one was arguing the record.
"Thing is," said Tommy, "unlike Vegas there's plenty of attractions here don’t involve poker chips. Some of the legal ones even free of charge. Tahoe's got forests, plenty of wildlife. There’s boats in Summer. Winter it's got skiing. A lot of customers are going to be tempted out of the casino once in a while."
"Not for an investor if the big money comes from gambling."
"No one ever claimed Sinatra could plan a business as well as he could sing."
"Yeah. What he is good at is getting close to people. All those stories about him and the Mob. I did some asking around back in LA. And I wasn
"Like forging a connection between these businessmen, so-called, and the Kennedys."
"Sinatra’s not so close any more. There’s embarrassment and divided loyalties since the kid brother got to be Attorney General and started shafting the Mob."
"So Sinatra and his pals are encouraging Monroe to pay back the President?"
"It’s always possible."
"If she's out to shaft the President why did the White House invite her to JFK’s birthday?"
"Well, they're arrogant bastards and she’s a big draw at a fundraiser."
"With an obsession he’s broken his promises to her? Sometimes I think the government don't understand women."
"On the assumption we're talking experts, Tommy..."
"Listen, just suppose you invite your goddam saint of a sister to sing Happy Birthday at my next. Just supposing anyone gives a damn to celebrate, what you think Sherri's going to start screaming after she grabs the microphone? Give her an audience she sure as hell ain't gonna bill and coo over me."
"Well, that's you and that's her. It's not the way it works if you're famous."
"Hell it isn't. You told me the way Monroe looked on television singing that Happy Birthday to him."
"Matter of fact, yeah. That wasn't real, Tommy. I keep telling you. That was a public image. Deep down these people aren't real. Not like Sherri, not like me, not like you. When Marylyn acts like she thinks some guy is the sugar candy mountain it don't necessarily imply in fact she thinks he is."
"What does that mean? They're not real? They're not flesh and blood? They got no emotions same as me and you?"
"How can I explain this? These people, stars, politicians…. You ever see Invasion of the Body Snatchers?"
"Some dumb reviewer thought the plants were communists? My guess is he’d never met a genuine Red."
"Important people, movie stars, politicians, they're the first people the alien pods would take over."
"Now you're kidding me, Frank. Tell me you're kidding."
"I'm kidding you, Tommy."
"But I'd have to say that supposing they'd taken me over as well."
"You don't know what you're talking about, Frank. That's okay. That's normal. It's reassuring."
Jesus Diaz, the latin bartender, had reappeared. Seeing how Tommy was looking at him and tapping his empty glass on the polished wood he came over and poured refills. He showed class by not even bothering to ask our room number.
Tommy drained most of his bourbon fast and kept the attention of the barman like a mongoose playing on a snake. "That was Joe DiMaggio I saw over by the lake when we were coming in, right?"
"Could be. But he likes his privacy," Diaz said.
"Thought it was him."
"Booked in yesterday."
"And the ex-Mrs DiMaggio also just arrived," I chipped in. "Interesting combination."
"Miss Monroe's a frequent guest. Only no-one's supposed to know. Mr Sinatra reserves a chalet she can use any time, right beside the one he uses himself, best view of the Lake."
"She likes her privacy as well?"
"That's why we’re all not in Vegas."
"Could be real difficult with Marilyn and the old Yankee Clipper both here at the same time."
The bartender leant forward on the counter, he was more talkative now, getting Americanised. "Strange thing. After all this time and everything between them the guy still loves her. Couldn't make it plainer. And come to that she still likes him. It's like an old friend kind of affair. But Joe's a believer in the dream, a man less dissolute would be hard to find. Drinks sweet vermouth on the rocks. All he ever wanted was exclusive rights on his wife and roses growing over the porch."
I went along with him. "Way I heard it, what she wanted was an Oscar and low-cut dresses. So Joe made an ultimatum, either she could belong to her fans or to her husband. One or the other. And the way Miss Monroe is, Joe was shown the door."
Tommy motioned Diaz to fill up his glass again. I made a mental note about counting how many he was putting down. He was starting to look relaxed after the journey but possibly losing the chronology of our conversation. "Tell you something about climate, Jesus. You think you get the big chill here? You need to warn us? Listen, I was in Korea and she came out one winter to entertain us. 1st Marine Division. Must have been around ’52 in the mountains outside Seoul. Temperature sub-zero, 13,000 men sat butt-freezing on the ground in fur hats and parkas waiting for her. Then this helicopter comes in low over the hill and she jumps out wearing a skin-tight, satin evening gown, bare shoulders, bare arms, not much else than sequins and spike heels, the guys go crazy. She might have sung a few songs, no one could hear, all they cared was she wiggled a lot. Looked like she was keeping warm but I heard she caught pneumonia and had to be hospitalised in Tokyo."
I shrugged. "That was then. Seems like her career's fading these days."
"Think so?" the bartender asked.
"What's she doing here? She's supposed to be in the middle of making a film on the Fox lot."
"That the film she’s been shooting with Dean Martin?"
"Allegedly. But she’s on suspension."
The bartender swivelled his eyes then ducked and pulled a copy of Variety from under his counter. "Came in today, but Mr Sinatra don’t want this lying around with the other house magazines." He passed it over to display the front page. In the headlines Fox had announced abandonment of work on Something’s Got To Give and were suing Marilyn Monroe for three quarters of a million dollars.
"She’s got problems," Diaz said. "Dean's here. Frank’s here. Joe’s here. They're all here. Anyone they could assemble. They’re going to work something out."
Tommy was reading through the article. "That’s not what it says in this rag, She ain’t suspended anymore. She’s sacked."
Diaz narrowed his black eyes. "Don't believe too much what you read. That's a murky world. Everything more complicated than they've time or inclination to tell you. You want some certainty in this life then believe me, the only simple things are the hacks who write for the papers."
"Did I show you my press card?" I asked.
"You offered. But I’ve seen one before."
I had a small table to myself over by the door from where my surveillance was no less discreet than any of the paying customers booked into the Calneva to rub shoulders with the stars. Maybe I’d have been impressed the same if it wasn’t work but a professional attitude makes a difference, that’s why card dealers, waiters, barmen, they’re never fans. But the diners and the drinkers were getting their money’s worth that evening. Marilyn seated at the best table in the middle of the Celebrity Showroom with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Joe DiMaggio. They gave the appearance of a convivial bunch and though Marilyn was drinking Dom Perignon ’53 champagne in a determined fashion she was staying sober enough to keep up her part in what looked a great conversation, whether it was about crooning, sex, sport or income tax the room was too noisy to overhear.
A few minutes after nine p.m. a comedian came on stage and started a routine. Even though he was only Dino's warm-up people began crowding in from the bars and the crap tables. I’d finished eating, in no mood for company and couldn’t see anything that would interest Jack Scalligan. When a pair of middle-aged couples came by looking to park their finery I charmed the ladies by donating the table and went to find Tommy Guppy.
He was in the Indian Room sitting near the massive stone fireplace with one of Sinatra’s alleged business partners. A man called Sam Giancana, a celebrity in his own right to anyone who read the crime pages of a Chicago newspaper. Giancana wore a dark suit that accommodated his thick-set body like only a very expensive suit could manage. He had thinni
"We got Irish. We got Latinos. Now we got Italians. Any minute the fuckin' Apache Nation's coming down the street," Tommy claimed emphatically.
"You can trust Italians," Sam Giancana said broking no argument. Neither paid any attention to me.
"You're fuckin' kidding."
"I'm telling you."
"All right tell me. Tell me. You tell me why." Tommy was drinking bourbon. It was on expenses, he was drinking in quantity.
"You can eat the cuisine," stated Sam Giancana flatly.
Tommy looked amazed. "I been places I could eat fuckin' worms I was hungry enough."
"It's a civilised cuisine, you know that," the Italian shouted through wet lips. He poked a finger at Tommy. "That tells you something. That tells you what you dealing with, a civilised people, sophisticated. You can have confidence."
"I can eat bullshit for nothing."
The last couple of San Francisco retirees decided now was the time to make for the Showroom and watch the comedian.
"You want to impress a girl, that's where you take her. First date, no risk. That's with Italian. The other hand you eat Anglo crap for instance you must have something against your stomach." Giancana tapped the side of his head forcefully. "Psycho."
"I know a place you get a reasonable burger, you’re hungry enough. Not far from here," I said, no better reason than they might not've noticed me.
"What I know about Italian restaurants," Tommy enunciated carefully. "Chrysler in New York, they got that skyscraper 200 stories high. Coca Cola they got their main office 150 stories high, in Atlanta somewhere. General Motors take up most of the Empire State Building. Believe what you read and the Mafia's bigger than all of them together and still they run the business from the back of some spaghetti place in Brooklyn. Some hole in the wall pasta dive with a glass shop-front and a wooden door, not even a proper maitre d', they run the whole fuckin' Mafia from a table in the back corner."
"Listen..." I said.
"You listen. Me, I don’t have to. He don’t know what he’s talking about. He knows nothing. What fuckin' Mafia?" Giancana shouted. He had the unwavering attention of the two ugly men leaning over-much weight against the far end of the bar. They might all have looked less insulted if Tommy had the sense to headquarter organised crime in Chicago instead of New York.
"The same Mafia which is allegedly bigger than General Motors, Coca Cola, Chrysler, you name a legitimate business, all put together the thing's got more turnover," Tommy stated.
"His wife left him," I explained to Sam Giancana.
"I'm really surprised."
"Fuckin' whore," Tommy said.
"He didn't like the woman it has to be said, but she ran off with a hairdresser. It hurt his self esteem."
"He should see a fuckin' psychiatrist."
"I can't afford a fuckin' psychiatrist. That's why I take it out on fuckin' Italians," Tommy answered.
"It's not his fault," I stated.
Giancana got suddenly mad, knocked over his chair as he stood up and took a swing at Tommy.
Tommy dodged the fist and had punched Giancana away by the time the oversized men crashed over from the bar and pushed their guns in his face. Tommy put his hands up in surrender and let them get close-up personal with their barrels to emphasise how big a mistake he’d made before he ducked into a Judo tsukuri he’d learnt in the Marines to dislocate the bigger one’s arm while he tripped him to the ground. Maybe Giancana’s bodyguards had orders not to actually shoot anyone indoors where it might cause embarrassment but I considered Tommy was lucky to have the second man down and be kicking him in the guts before Frank Sinatra burst through the doorway and started shouting "Hey, you mind, pal?"
"I don’t mind," Tommy said a little breathless. He shrugged like it was no big deal and backed off a couple of steps. Dean Martin and Peter Lawford had followed Sinatra into the room but after a quick appraisal made straight for the counter and expertly diverted the barman’s attention from the unpleasantness.
Everybody looked at Sinatra. He had on an immaculate black dinner jacket and tugged indignantly at a chunky gold cufflink, adjusting a crisp, white shirt-sleeve more for show than he was unfamiliar with this kind of situation. Frank always had those staring eyes. There was something missing behind them. Whatever it was couldn’t have been too relevant to getting on in life but all the same it definitely wasn’t there. "I run a respectable operation here. No punk comes in my place and starts busting things up. Understand me?"
"It’s okay, Frank," Giancana stated hoarsely. He had a handkerchief to his face. He didn’t sound too drunk any more. "My associates are going to take this piece of vermin away some place and settle our business."
Sinatra shook his head. He was a foot shorter than the gorillas who were upright again and flexing what muscles still worked but he waved them away and they held back once he’d glanced at them with those empty eyes. "Sam, allow me to make the rules in my own establishment? I’m going to suggest to this gentleman he retires to his cabin for the night where the bar’s going to deliver a complimentary bottle of his choice to keep him company. The rest of us, we’ll have a drink and cool down here."
"Fine by me. Saves me from drinkin’ with fuckin’ Italians," Tommy walked steadily over to an outside door and through into the night.
Sinatra put a hand on Giancana’s arm to keep him where he was and said, "Hold on, Sammy. I’m saving lives here. He don’t look altogether safe for your boys to play with."
Giancana decided it was better to treat it as a joke and snorted down his nose. He jerked a thumb and sent his goons back to their corner. The one with a shoulder out of joint was starting to feel the pain and they both looked embarrassed but Giancana’s expression hinted their troubles were only starting.
The barman brought a bottle of champagne over and put three glasses on the dark polished table before picking up Giancana’s chair. We sat down and Sinatra poured. "That guy a friend of yours?"
"Sure. Everyone likes Tommy. He’s such a mess he has to make you feel good about yourself in comparison."
"Any other time he’d end up at the bottom of the lake. You appreciate we just don’t need to offend the Nevada Gaming Board at the moment."
"Trouble is people watch too many gangster movies," Giancana protested. He dabbed at where the champagne was stinging his lip. "Joe Public always believe what they see on the big screen. They act tough. That's a dangerous thing." Scowling over at his henchmen. "These days even gangsters try to imitate the movies. All that exposure. I don't consider that's businesslike."
"This is fun time, Sammy. People come here to forget business," Sinatra said. He looked at me over his glass, eyes like drills, "Ain’t that right?"
"Who can resist having fun. We’ve met before, Mr Sinatra, it was a long time ago, similar surroundings."
"The nightclub at the Hotel Nacional in Havana. You were there with Lucky Luciano that night. You wouldn’t remember me, but maybe you remember the singer? She had a lot of talent. She was young. She was very beautiful. Her name was Carmen."
Giancana reacted at the mention of Luciano, "Not so Lucky, the poor bastard, took an unfortunate journey at Capodicino Airport six months ago. Somewhere he wasn't intending. But you know what they say, 'See Napoli and die.'"
"Carmen Guiteras," I said.
Sinatra stayed inscrutable. "Sorry, Pal, I meet a lot of people. I can’t remember them all."
Watching Marilyn by Jack Chapman / Mystery & Detective have rating 3.2 out of 5 / Based on16 votes