Watching Marilyn, p.15Jack Chapman
We walked past the painted steps of St Patrick's Cathedral, crossed the cobbled, Transylvanian village square with the rusting brackets on the stone walls for the flaming torches, dodged through the circling cars of 1920's vintage all black apart from white-wall tyres, Sol waved a greeting to the Egyptian slaves in their loincloths. The smell of wet plaster and fresh sawdust hung in the warm, motionless air of the Fox backlot.
"So how'd you calm Sherri this time?" I had caught up with Sol back at the studio as he’d asked me to, but like everything associated with shooting films the repair of hairstyles seemed an intermittent activity.
"I told her you'd drop everything to track Guppy down. Bring TJ back."
"I can't drop everything. I've got work I have to finish. Tommy running off won't make it any easier." I recalled the look Sherri had given me, no expression I recognised, maybe it was gratitude, if so I didn’t want any. "Why don't you drop everything and track them down yourself, Sol?"
"You know why, Frank. Because I'm not qualified, I don't have the relevant experience. That sort of thing's your line of expertise."
"It won't help my reputation to start dropping cases mid-stream."
"The Monroe investigation?"
"That's confidential remember."
"What's to do? She's back here focusing on the production. Problem over."
"There might be ramifications."
"Tell you what, here’s a proposition will work for everyone. You get TJ back for Sherri, I'll keep watch on what goes on here at Fox. I mean in my position I have open access to the sound stages. Anything Monroe does I’ll hear about it, everything I hear I'll report back to you. What could be better? Me as an insider, I can detect what's going on a whole lot better than you ever could."
"I don't know. It's not that simple." Avoiding sarcasm so as not to hurt his feelings.
"This will work, all you want’s the inside dope on Marilyn. I can give that to you. Listen, remember I told you those rumours have always been she had three husbands? I’ve been asking around. Friends who go back a while in the Studio. The marriage before she got famous that no one except Mitchum ever talks about?"
"The Jimmy character?"
"Well, you listen to the gossip, when she first got married during the war maybe she didn't have all that much choice about it. Marilyn's people, her mother while she was alive, then some foster family who’d been friends of the mother or the grandmother, her people weren't rich. They weren't exactly white trash but they were hanging onto the American dream by their teeth and fingernails. They were hanging on so tight they had to let something go and that was her. She was a child bride. The foster people she’d gone to after the orphanage found this young guy for her soon as she was of age, he was pulling in a steady dollar at the factory, it was security, a kind of arranged marriage, better than back to an institution."
"Where's Jimmy now?"
"Never seems to have poked his head above the rampart of obscurity."
"He could have sold his story."
"Him being an ordinary guy, just an assembly line worker according to Mitchum, possibly he didn’t realise the value. Okay, that would be stupid. Maybe he valued privacy and honour more, it takes all sorts. Outside the movie industry there may be such people. In any case there seems to have been a divorce just before she signed her first contract with Fox."
"If the year's pinned down I can go through court records."
"Likely Nevada. Do they keep records? What's it matter to you, Frank? There's nothing urgent here. This guy vanished like everyone else who's ever been close to her. It's got nothing to do with the situation they hired you to investigate in the here and now. I’ve given you enough to make a report to our client." Sol was already talking like he was my new partner.
We turned a corner and stepped up onto the boardwalk in front of the Western Hotel, heading towards the hollow frontage of a railway station.
"I need to understand her, Sol. Whatever it is drives her to do what she does."
"Take some advice, keep it professional, don't get involved."
"Tell me the rest of whatever you know, Sol."
Marx stopped and leant against a horse trough. "Fox screen-tested her not long after the War. Signed her for $125 a week, good money in those days, double what the average guy in a factory pulled in. First thing that happened she got called into Ben Lyon's office. Ben, who was always a charming man, shows her to a chair, she sits down, crosses her legs and blinks her big blue eyes. Ben's seen it a thousand times but unlike most starlets this one doesn't have any small talk, any come-on lines. Ben's concern is Norma Baker is not going to set billboards alight. Too many hard consonants in the name. So finding the right semantics for a movie star is a real art, getting a name and a story, something the publicity guys can run with. That's the subject of the meeting. To put her at ease Ben starts by suggesting she tell him a little about herself.
"What's she going to tell? Now she's got the contract she's not going to announce she'd been married four years to a blue collar worker she abandoned because he'd be an anchor on her ambition. Studios don't want married starlets when half the girl’s job is to hang off Rock Hudson's arm at premieres and look like there's some chemistry going on. Later on of course they need to get hitched before they're assumed to be thirty year old virgins, but only ever hitched to other stars.
"Anyway, so she tells Ben she's all alone, an orphan, playing the Mickey Rooney card. Orphans always sound good in Hollywood. She informs him all she knows about her family is that her grandmother was a direct descendant of some President last century, James Monroe. You heard of him?"
"I must have heard of a good two or three of our historic Presidents. It's the Monroe Doctrine legitimises Kennedy blockading Cuba. They passed the law to throw Spain out and now it’s Russia’s turn. Her grandmother died when she was a year old, so Marilyn told me."
"What I heard the old lady died in a straitjacket in Norwalk State Hospital. You believe in bad blood? They say different generations it comes out different ways. But it always comes out. Anyway, Ben Lyon suggested she take her grandmother's name and they chose Marilyn for alliteration. Not to mention the subliminal message, any analyst would tell you those soft mmm sounds associate with what you want to hear from a woman in bed. Fox never played up the President angle though, history's dust."
"Even in 1820 the Monroe Doctrine wasn’t so sexy."
"Flexing muscle to kick European empires out of our backyard because the US needs to sell into those markets. Marilyn Monroe's ancestor if you believe her. But you shouldn’t, it wasn’t true."
"You sure know a lot of history for a hairdresser."
"More politics than history. Working with actors. Lot of actors would make good politicians they stay sober enough and hire a speechwriter. You'd be surprised."
"Not necessarily. You certain it was Groucho you're related to?"
"Speaking of relations, can I assume you're agreeable to the proposal about your own family?"
"Sol, if I thought there was anything to worry about you know I'd be there. But all Tommy wants is take his son on a vacation. He thinks he's entitled as the kid's father and I sort of agree with him. Give him a week he'll bring the boy back, they'll have had a great time."
"Maybe that’s what he intends, maybe not. You trust him? He’s exposed you. Want to hear how? Tommy does intemperate things when he‘s desperate for his son to admire him. He makes promises, he tells TJ things he thinks will impress the kid, to make TJ proud of his father, about how clever and important what he's doing is. All kinds of things. Like how you and him bug the homes of big movie stars, break into their places and know all their secrets."
"It's not in the plural, Sol."
"It's still not anything he should shout his mouth off about because it’s totally illegal, and if it became necessary to give the cops a convincing rea
"Whatever it takes."
"Blackmail's an ugly word, Sol."
"Blackmail's a good word. It's an effective word. I just know you want to help." Sol reached up to slap me on the back. A neat young woman walked by the plaster horse trough we were leaning against and Sol put on a smile like Stanley finding Livingstone for her. They exchanged a few pleasantries and some mild flirtation before she continued on towards the Fox administration building.
"She's a great-looking girl, isn't she," said Sol. "She's a secretary to one of the producers. Just divorced. You want me to fix you up when you get back from finding TJ?"
"What do you mean?"
"Don’t get me wrong, she’s a nice girl, needs some company. Same as you do."
"Aiming low for me, Sol? A secretary? You don’t have any starlets to bribe me with?"
"I wouldn’t do that. Not to you. Not an actress. I respect you too much, Frank. Listen, I got to get back. Look after this business for me and I'll keep watch on Marilyn for you. Deal?"
I let Sol go back to work and strolled in the heat over to Lane Sickert’s office.
"How much do you know about Sol Marx?"
"I think I've probably heard the name, but that's all. You spell it with an X or a KS?."
"He claims to be more Groucho than Karl."
"That’s where I heard the name. And the wisecrack a few times. He’s one of those costume designers all the stars insist they have first call on."
"Would you describe him in any sense as a lady's man, Lane?"
"What particular sense would interest you?"
"Any kind might interest Fox Security."
"He works as a hairdresser so you‘re asking if he's a fruit, is that it?"
"He's living with my sister."
"Maybe bad luck and poor judgement is a trait in your family."
"I'd appreciate a sensible answer."
Lane pushed the cigar box across the wide, polished desert of his desk and stood up. "Help yourself. I won't be long." He went out to an office across the hall where presumably someone did real work. After a while he came back holding a manila folder with a few sheets of typewritten paper in it.
"What happened to the Cuban cigars, Lane? These are cheap imitations." I complained.
Lane sat heavily in his chair. "Studio's economising," he said. "We all got to do our bit. Next couple of months they’ll be starting redevelopment of the backlot into a shopping centre and hotels. More profit in real estate than in making films now."
"I just walked through there. Fox is going to tear down the Kansas saloon and the harems of old Baghdad?"
"That’s progress." He flipped open the manila folder. "You asked about Sol Marx. Steady employment record. Keeps his nose clean and looks like he can ask what he wants for salary. No record of anything that would embarrass the Studio."
"No peccadilloes the narrow-minded might find peculiar?"
Lane Sickert shook his head. "He‘s never married but off the record he seems to have shared his house with a string of make-up girls and hopeful starlets over the years. Far as we're aware it's always been indeterminate if they were lovers or lodgers. And given the nature of this place the lack of gossip is remarkable in its own right. The man’s discreet about himself which is as good a character reference as you’ll get for anyone around here."
"I appreciate your telling me. I’ll owe you one. While I’m here could you pull Marilyn Monroe’s file for me?"
Lane smiled in disbelief. "Give me back that cigar, you opportunist bum."
It was late enough on Saturday for the traffic to be heavy with families coming back from the beach. Even at the weekend it was too early for Marilyn to be as drunk as she sounded when she telephoned to accuse me of stealing her diary. I parked in the drive at 12305 Fifth Helena alongside her Cadillac convertible, the rear leather seat cluttered with discarded sweaters and unpaid traffic tickets, keys left dangling in the ignition.
Mrs Eunice Murray the housekeeper looked suspicious and dour but after letting me in disappeared somewhere in the back of the house. According to Tommy, Eunice was a long-standing associate to Dr Greenson hired to report to the analyst on his patient’s progress.
Marilyn must have made an effort to pull herself together. Eunice had pointed me through to a sparsely furnished room where Marilyn was working out with weights on a red sparkle vinyl, exercise bench. She wore shorts and a halter top. Her flesh was pale and she wore no makeup. She was flushed and unsteady and lacked rhythm but working obsessively, working on her high anxiety, sweating out the booze and pills and whatever else was circulating in her system. When she stopped she ran a towel across her face.
"Do we have an appointment?" she asked.
"You shouted at me to get me here straight away. About an hour ago."
She had to think. It was a distraction from controlling what was inside her. She shook her head. "I haven’t seen you since Calneva."
"I left kind of sudden."
"Remember I told you about going to Stratford upon Avon? The disruption?"
She sat down suddenly on the red sparkle bench. There was nowhere else to sit in the room so I leant on the wall next to a white-painted lamp in the shape of a six-foot-high palm tree.
"Sometimes it all just goes wrong and there’s not a thing you can do," she was staring at the floor like a small child concentrating, careful not to slur her words but her voice had lost the child-like innocence. "So that afternoon Sir Larry took us over to see Romeo and Juliet, Stratford upon Avon, the Royal Shakespeare Company. Romeo didn’t seem to be at all in love with Juliet and vice versa, but they deserve their reputation regarding sword fights. I'd say you couldn't beat them except for a professional stunt crew. It was a matinee performance when no actor is sharpest. Because stage is a different rhythm to a studio, I’ve done theatre, some, and matinees are always full of school parties. So they get to the part where Romeo thinks Juliet is dead in her tomb, this pinnacle of high drama. The audience on edge, hushed, they know something Romeo doesn’t but no one dares shout out. Some schoolgirl, middle stalls, has to cough right at this moment, one long, loud, choking cough. Bad. And it's like a crack in the damn, it breaks the tension exactly when they’d wound to a climax. In just a few seconds a whole tidal wave sweeps through the auditorium. Throat-clearing coughs, nervous coughs, smoker’s coughs, bad cold coughs. Like a mustard gas attack in a World War One movie. It goes on and on, round and round, every time they bark themselves out in one part of the house it sets off the audience in another part. Stalls, circle, upper circle, back to the stalls. It goes on for ever and the infection spreads across the lights and the actors start to catch it and they’re all coughing in this mad, self-inflicted epidemic. Before the curtain comes down it’s driven Romeo to a strangled suicide and he’s still choking post-mortem when Juliet wakes up to a stage-full of spear-carriers barracking her with this coughing chorus that goes on and on and on." Marilyn shook her blonde head helplessly.
"Is there a moral to this story?"
"No. But I guess there ought to be."
"Something about the benefit of keeping quiet?"
"Sometimes I think it would be easier to die young, but then you'd never complete your life, would you? You'd never know yourself...Or Romeo."
"Do you know yourself now?"
"Some places I do. Theatre’s a different world. Domains adjacent."
"Like Canada," I said. "Maybe Will Shakespeare did get round to us."
"It’s where I belong. Where I sleep when I can." She lo
"I wasn’t doing anything special."
"You’re never so alone as Saturday night," Marilyn said.
"Why don’t you come to the point?"
"Can I get you a drink?"
"Let’s both of us not drink any more. You were pretty desperate to get me over here. Now you’re evasive."
"I can’t decide if I trust you. That’s because I don’t know who you are."
"Nobody good or nobody bad?"
"Whatever it is I’m on your side."
She got up and walked out of the room, one foot in front of the other, it was good control considering her unfocussed eyes. I followed her into the kitchen. She found two teacups and a bottle of vodka to pour us a slug each despite what I’d said. She walked out again and I followed her through to the room with the white piano. Eunice wasn’t here either, or Maf, the only sound in the house had been the gurgle of the vodka bottle. I worried about making a noise when I trod across the tiles.
This time she settled a little unsteadily on the piano stool. "Why did you come here?"
"Like I said, you told me to. You seemed to think I might have stolen your diary."
"Can you help me get it back?"
"Why? You need it for your Press conference?"
"How do you know about that?"
"Good question, you didn’t invite me."
"Don’t keep kidding you’re a journalist, Frank."
There was a book on top of the white piano. It wasn’t red. I leaned to see the spine, it was Milton's Paradise Lost, a cheap binding you could tell by the creases someone had opened it once. She pushed it away and it fell onto the floor. She opened the lid of the piano and indicated I should look under it. All I could see was piano insides.
"That’s where I keep it, Frank. It isn’t there."
"You hid your red diary in the piano?"
"It was a good hiding place. You never found it."
"You weren’t so clever at Calneva. I guess you haven’t seen it since then?"
"Someone stole it."
"No one’s offered to sell it back?"
"I thought it must be you."
"Someone took it off me."
"That’s a mystery."
"It was wrong what you did."
"I’m sorry. Wrong things can be necessary."
"It was wrong. You have to get it back for me, Frank. You owe me that."
"Is what I think you wrote in your diary really in there?"
"That’s a private matter."
"Not if it’s the President. It just gets very dangerous."
"Then it shouldn’t be in the wrong hands. You better find it for me, Frank."
"If I could find it we’d need to talk about what happens next."
"Can you find it tonight?"
"That’s not likely. And I have other things to do"
She nodded like the decision was made. "Come back later, Frank. Don’t matter how late. I have to go over to Peter Lawford’s party for a couple of hours anyway, need to talk to some people first, but come back and tell me how you’re finding my diary. I won’t sleep, not while it’s gone."
"You trust me now?"
She shook her head and quickly swallowed everything in her teacup. "Who else ought I trust?"
Out on the drive I took the keys from her car ignition, considered hiding them in the glove compartment but dropped them in my pocket. If she wanted to go to Lawford’s or anywhere else that night, as drunk as she was she could call a taxi.
Watching Marilyn by Jack Chapman / Mystery & Detective have rating 3.2 out of 5 / Based on16 votes