Watching Marilyn, p.13Jack Chapman
Something exploded back of my skull. It hurt for a while then the bright light pushed me beyond pain. I went down in the aftermath and the black sky shrank to a smothering tunnel. It went on forever and led me home through its empty eternity to the place I'd always belong.
We walked our moonlit beach again, warm breezes whispering kisses over naked skin, the sea wild and unreal on the silver screen.
Her hair was dark, her skin soft gold, sand-painted toes callused from too-narrow shoes with too-high heels. I lay against her in the surf, the waves lifting us together, pounding in and out of her until I realised she was Deborah Kerr and I was Burt Lancaster and she leapt up and ran dripping away From Here To Eternity.
We drove through the cane fields down a dirt track that was the local main road, just another Cuban road whose black top was sitting in a numbered Swiss Bank account. I had an open, Embassy pool car and my arm around Carmen, she leant jolting against me on the bench seat and waved to the donkey carts I harassed aside with the horn.
She was singing one of those throbbing, upbeat numbers she went in for, never the ballad type, no band to back her but always pushing the boundaries.
She stopped singing when two tracks crossed on a sugar plantation and I knew I had to stop driving. She got out, walked a crazy pattern and turned and stood for a while, and when she climbed back in her eyes were full of tears and this was the cross-roads where the rebels ambushed her daddy all those years before. In bed that night she cried as we made love and I knew inside she still felt fourteen and I tried to be tender.
Hard to be tender and not hit out because Carmen Guiteras was used by Batista’s secret police. The nightclub encouraged her to fraternise, too good a honey trap for overcharging ginger ale. Her line of work she got close to important men, rich Americans, legitimate and otherwise, Cuban connections, Embassy staff, Soviet, South American, some our own. Unreasonable to expect we’d stop that kind of thing in a climate hot as Havana. My job and my duty to know how much she gleaned sooner than the others. I fell in love and believed she was fond of me.
She was 23 leaving Cuba for Hollywood. Following her dream to sing with Xavier Cugat and star in movies. A million others shared the dream but she had a connection. I was a decade older getting ready to settle down. I fixed the documentation because I wanted her out of Havana where political security was thin ice in tropical weather.
Soon as Embassy pressure slackened I’d be posted home, resign to take a job on the West coast. Soon as I cleaned up the latest failed rebellion. Fidel Castro, minor-league lawyer, troublemaker, didn’t know enough to wipe his backside, but it looks bad when we support regimes that execute too many opponents so we have to exile the jailed hero to Mexico. Wanting to go with Carmen but I need to fill in paperwork for Castro. Mountains of paperwork to transit him through the USA, it crushes hope. I make calls, beg favours, arrange for Tommy and Sherri to meet Carmen at the airport.
I stay in Havana thinking about going home and I’m still there when Fidel comes back uninvited.
Dreaming of her, remembering I love her best in the morning when her eyes are innocent with sleep, love her as much swimming when the sea washes her face of make-up.
I dream I’m with her in Hollywood and she’s the star she wants to be. They’ve lit her from behind with a floor-mounted flood so a shining halo of tousled blonde frames the brave and voluptuous purity of her face and her body proud from the shadow is a bright sin sheathed in a silk night.
But something was wrong. Carmen was never a blonde.
She pulls me to her trailer before I can tell her what’s wrong, a good head below me in her spike heels. Turns and stands on tiptoes and her bright crimson lipstick leaves blood stains on my chest. We go to the bed and I lie on her but her cruel hips break their rhythm and try to throw me off. My world drains away to the jolting of a car.
"Who hit me?"
The wind past the open-topped Oldsmobile Tommy Guppy was driving was almost pleasant the way it blew through the hammering ache in my head. I had been conscious for a while but it had taken time for a rational question to work through the jagged surface of perception. It was early morning with the sun low behind us. We were descending through trees, driving into our own shadow on a deserted road.
"Must’ve been one of Sinatra’s hood pals."
"I wanna hit him back."
"Grow up," said Tommy. He kept his eyes on the road back to LA, not looking at me at all even when I vomited on the floor.
We still had an office thanks to the money coming in from Jack Scalligan.
Still not much of an office, still no improvement as an address. We had two desks, enough chairs for a slow Sunday and still no air conditioning.
When the cops visited in any number someone had to lean on the sill of the open window. This was Lieutenant Keats who watched languidly while his men rifled the desks and filing cabinet.
He had nodded man-to-man at Tommy when he came in and his squad were trying not to break the furniture more than was warranted. Otherwise he had a job to do and nothing was going to stand in the way.
"Want to tell me what this is about?" I asked, still feeling so bad I lacked all enthusiasm.
"The Chief thought you might appreciate us staking prior claim before the Feds make you all their own." Keats was wearing a business suit, smart but not expensive and hadn’t bothered taking off his hat so only the eyebrows gave away the sandy hair and drew attention to the intelligent, grey eyes. Big hands fidgeted on the window sill, a gold band on his wedding finger tapping the paint gave the lie to his general disengagement.
"That’s kind of you, Lieutenant."
"Pick up anything in Tahoe?"
"A little concussion. What are you doing here taking my place apart? You know there’s nothing to find. Anything of any interest you already got before."
"First time I been here."
"You’ve been to Fifth Helena. Can we have our equipment back?"
"What?" Keats was appearing polite but impassive, handing out rope for the hanging.
"Certain equipment LAPD illegally seized."
"I never been to Fifth Helena either."
"So what are you looking for here?"
"Call it simple curiosity. How much are you hiding?"
"Depends whatever your goons plant in the filing cabinet over there."
"He's a straight cop," said Tommy. He threw Keats a double arc of Lucky Strikes and matches. The lieutenant’s big hand pulled them out of the air with slow confidence.
"I’m trying to quit smoking these nails." He lit one all the same and straightaway his fingers stopped fidgeting.
"You trust him?" I asked.
Tommy looked at Keats who just looked back non-committally. "The Lieutenant’s in a difficult position. His job, the only way you can do it at all is to make big compromises. Far as he's concerned we'd be less of a sacrifice to necessity than most."
"You don't trust him?"
Tommy scowled. Keats blew smoke and shifted his weight against the windowsill. "Sometimes you have to gamble on a man's good faith, Tommy. But it improves the odds to be holding some cards."
An officer held out a box of reel to reel tapes. Keats nodded and the officer took them out of the room.
"I don't trust cops either," I agreed.
A different officer held out an old account book. Keats shook his head. "I want red covers," he said. "That ain’t red."
The officers didn’t find red covers or much else to interest them. After a while Keats was starting to fidget again. Finally when the emptying and overturning and floorboard tapping had all petered out he lost patience and levered himself off the window sill. He moved his men out by pointing a finger. At the door he turned and said "See
I watched out the window until the cop cars drove away then asked Tommy "How come they found tapes?"
"We record them, Frank."
"Whoever trashed this office before stole them already."
Tommy shrugged. "I had copies. You can never tell when you need backup."
"Seems you can never tell me. Have those tapes been here all the time?"
"I kept them safe before I brought them in."
"Under my bed."
"Any more around?"
"I think we’ve moved on, Frank. You heard the man. It’s all about the red book now."
"Why would Keats think we had a red book?"
"Maybe Scalligan told him. Maybe he’s just cleverer than we think. Leave it, Frank. It’s too dangerous."
"You get the impression our Lieutenant Keats doesn’t like us much?"
"He don’t like me," said Tommy. "We go back a way."
The barbarians were storming the gates and the Roman legionnaires were waving to them on their way to the commissary. Above the Fox entrance a helicopter hovered with just enough altitude the security guards wouldn’t be tempted to shoot the photographer hanging out the open door. The helicopter made a lot of noise but we could still hear the shouts of the mob of newsmen locked outside on Pico Boulevard.
They were out of luck. Marilyn was out of sight since the studio guards had battled her through the howling pack of reporters. Now she had them in the net she was likely to stay that way the rest of the day.
"She bounces like a rubber ball," said Sol. "This is the Playboy bounce all over but ten times bigger."
"You remember the Playboy bounce?" It wasn’t the sort of history would obviously interest Sol and I didn’t know if he’d been at the Studio that many years.
"Everyone thought she was finished in the business that time too. Posing anonymously for some cheap calendar because her career was so underwhelming no one would recognise her. Then the breaks came and she was famous and Hugh Heffner got hold of the negatives. Great publicity for Playboy as their first butt-naked Sweetheart of the Month but the moral outrage looked the end for her. She had no option but to come clean to the columnists, said how she’d been desperate for money for car repairs. That must’ve struck a chord with the public. It ended up confounding convention and boosting her career, same as the Vogue photoshoot has made her valuable to Fox again despite how drunk she was."
"Lot of people bounce better when they’re drunk."
"They never understood Marilyn makes sex wholesome. Same as Colonel Sanders does for the less salubrious parts of chicken. She reinvented the whole lust and innocence thing. Want to see if we can get in?"
We turned away from the pandemonium of the gates and the security line. Sol led me a couple of blocks to the side door of a hangar-sized sound stage. There was another uniformed guard outside it, tall and thin and listing like a man with sore feet.
"Got you in on your rest day, Bernie?" Sol asked. He pulled out a carton of Marlboro.
The man selected a cigarette and lit it. "You know it, Sol. The office cancelled leave again. Who’d have guessed. All the time things going on behind the scenes we never know about."
"Okay if we have a look around?"
"I’ve got strict orders. Mr Cukor’s closed the set to everyone non-essential."
"Yeah? They started back at work already?"
Bernie shook his head. "Not yet. But everything’s ready when they are."
"That’s a real shame. Let me make the introductions." Sol flicked a thumb at me. "This is my cousin, Shamus O’Malley, all the way from Bokoshe, Oklahoma. I promised him a peek at a real movie set. First time he’s been in the big city." Sol clapped me on the shoulder apologetically. "This Mr Cukor that Bernie mentioned is George Cukor the famous film director. Bernie here’s responsible for keeping undesirables out from under him. I guess he doesn’t have a choice in the matter."
Bernie wavered in the face of a country cousin needing to be impressed. "Couple of minutes, Sol, and my job’s on the line. No more."
"Owe you," promised Sol. We slipped through the small door in the bigger sliding section they used for scenery. There was a paper notice stuck on the door that strictly banned admittance to anyone not directly associated with the production of Something’s Got To Give.
At the other end of the set was half a ranch-style house, walls held up by wooden props behind. A gantry of lighting rigs where the roof ought to be. In front was a life-size swimming pool full of twinkling blue water. There was a jointed camera crane and long sound boom suspended over the water. The set was all brilliantly lit like an oasis of summer and the abandoned equipment around the rest of the sound stage was dark and sinister in comparison. There was no one in here except us and an eerie silence hung like a blanket in the air.
We walked over until we reached the edge of the pool. "This Nick and Ellen’s place?"
"Yeah, I heard they’ve been working all night to pull it out of mothballs."
I tapped my foot on the tiled flags of the pool surround that turned out to be made of painted board. "Any bunkers under here?"
Sol looked offended like I’d betrayed a trust.
"Sorry. Did it have to be Shamus O’Malley?"
"Bernie’s Irish. And Oklahoma’s got some great songs."
"This film really going to get finished now?"
"Marilyn turned up this morning with half the journalists in America. Her and Dean Martin have been in conference with Cukor ever since. The studio is still nervous, she's still got the same erratic potential, but Fox needs a box office draw and she attracts the publicity."
There was nothing else to see on the empty set. We thanked Bernie and went off to get pancakes and coffee.
The commissary wasn’t as noisy as the last time I’d been in the place. There were still people in clashing costumes, men sweating in Victorian wing collars trying to impress girls in ostrich feathers. The legionnaires clustered round a long table but they were talking with a lack of animation. Will Rogers was still up on the wall, not looking so confident he knew what was going on today. Everyone was waiting and everyone was conscious they weren’t the centre of attention this morning.
"You believe the studio’s publicity office she only married twice. First Joe DiMaggio which lasted no time then Arthur Miller. Both wealthy, well-known and on the public record," Sol told me.
"Off the record there’ve always been rumours about Marilyn’s early days. Some contradictory, mostly untrue given the nature of gossip in this town. There’s stories about her and various executives using the casting couch to mutual advantage. Enough of that goes on but the man who gave Marilyn her break was Ben Lyon who was a straight and decent individual. There are the usual slanders about early pregnancies and abortions but that’s just malicious, though the Playboy cover added fuel to the fire. The sad fact is that lies mostly flourish because the truth’s too tedious, but with Marilyn there’s always this lingering something makes you think her past really could hide murky secrets.
"Back then, Ben could see from her screen test the camera liked her, but what convinced him she could be a star was that she liked looking at the rushes too. Lot of actors hate viewing themselves on the screen, as others see them, but not Marilyn. She had total self-belief."
Sol, pushed his plate away and started peeling an orange, He had an appetite. "One source I trust. You get him in the right mood Robert Mitchum claims to have known her before either of them became famous. This was a story he used to tell after they made River of No Return together. Not a great film, don’t bother if you haven’t seen it. But way before that film, during the war, Mitchum was just another young actor couldn’t get a break. At that time they were taking on anyone and everyone at the aircraft factories so he
"No great looker? Then how did he recognise her?"
"Make of it what you will, that’s the story."
"This the same Mitchum you see waving a white stick at a dog’s arse?"
"All I can tell you. Unlike most, Bob Mitchum doesn’t need to make things up to impress people."
"I always thought he was a goddamn war hero. He’d want some distraction from the fact he was just working an assembly line. So what happened to this Jimmy?"
"What do you think? Studio publicists wiped him from history. By the time they’d rewritten her life it was as if Jimmy didn't exist anymore He was a nobody, factory worker, he didn’t enhance the glamour image. Okay, a film actress can play the wife of a working man in a movie and that’s cute and noble but let’s be real, to actually go home and wash blue collars just isn’t anybody's fantasy. What they want you to believe is she grew up a sweet, little girl in the LA Orphan’s Home, looking out the window every night at the Paramount water tower in the distance and dreaming she’d grow up to be a star. It’s on the record she was modeling immediately before she got a studio contract and she’d presumably ditched the husband by then."
"Because studio’s like their starlets single, right? What was this Jimmy’s other name?"
"Hell, I don’t know. If I was ever told it wasn't a name to remember. A name like mine for instance you’d think the Senate would have investigated me by now. I tell them I’m Groucho’s side of the family not Karl’s. But the first husband, who knows, it’s just a story and he was out of it long before anyone was taking notice of her."
"You think Marilyn Monroe really existed before she was famous?"
"Her kind of fame creates reality around itself."
Bernie the Security Guard came over to sit down at our table now we were all old friends. The holster of his revolver banged against the chair and his coffee sloshed on the Formica. He seemed excited. "You missed something, Paddy."
"Just after you two left Mr Cukor brought Marilyn and Dean onto the set. Mostly just for light levels and for the still photographer to take publicity shots. So of course they put her in the pool in a swimming costume. Sol, you got your timing all wrong for peeping at that set. Guess what the lighting crew came out and told me, she just went ahead and stripped right off. Skinny dipping in there. Bet you wish you’d been around to see that, Paddy. What a story to take back to Oklahoma."
"Lot of years have gone by, but it’s the Playboy bounce come around is my guess," said Sol.
"Sounds like she's abandoned hope of ever being a serious actress," I said, not bothering with Shamus and Paddy anymore. "Sounds like she's so desperate to stay in the frame she's hiding behind her body."
"Yeah, well it’s certainly working," said Bernie.
I looked at the clock up on the commissary wall. It was still early. "Was she drunk?"
Watching Marilyn by Jack Chapman / Mystery & Detective have rating 3.2 out of 5 / Based on16 votes