Watching Marilyn, p.4Jack Chapman
Sherri was watching Ben Casey on television when Sol Marx let me in.
To look at him you’d think the guy had secret vices. Sol had a fussy, effeminate manner, wore tight trousers and gossiped over much with a sharp tongue and high voice. He was a thin man, with thinning hair combed straight back and a thin, pencil moustache, slightly under average height. Sol worked as a hairdresser over at the Fox Studios, had done so for close on two decades. Women hung round him like flies on meat. Maybe he knew something regular men don’t.
Sherri only turned from the screen long enough to notice who I was. "You want to fix Frank a drink, Sol?" she offered so I wouldn’t disturb her concentration. Sherri had moved in with him over a year ago, long enough it was as much her home as his.
I followed Marx out to the kitchen trying not to stare at his tight butt. He flapped a finger at me "Tequila Sunrise."
There was a good smell of coffee in the big kitchen full of shiny gadgets but Sol liked to think of himself as a sophisticate so I went along with him. "Okay, but hold the sunrise, Sol."
"Anything you like." He was pleased he’d got close. "So how’s business?" in a tone like business was our personal peccadillo. He swirled ice around a glass and flourished a bottle he’d dug out of a cupboard.
"Come to ask a favour."
His mouth dropped open. "A detective favour?" It was hard to tell when Sol Marx was serious assuming he ever was. He passed me the glass.
"Maybe you could give me some idea what Tommy Junior wants for his birthday?"
Sol acted thoughtful while he fixed himself some concoction needing an olive on an umbrella. "It’s a difficult age."
"Growing up. Moody. He mostly just reads Superman comics."
Sol waved his cocktail glass at the ceiling from where the Beach Boys were distantly competing with Dr Casey. "Bedroom."
There was something I needed to know. One thing about Sol, he was a showbiz encyclopaedia. "You know Ronald Reagan, Sol?"
"Sure. Great head of hair."
"He’s got kids, right?"
"Yeah, sure he has, regular family man."
Sol’s free hand went to his forehead. "Well, I remember there was a lot of talk when the first one came along."
"You remember that?"
"It escaped me."
"Because Ronnie always said the act outside marriage is a sin as told in the Bible."
"Now myself I always thought that was a mistake in the translation. But the Reagans, they got hitched March of ’52, William Holden was best man, and the kid arrived around October and that’s why I remember. But hey, sometimes they’re premature."
"I’m not asking for a character reference, Sol. Just an age."
"The oldest kid, she’d be coming up ten or eleven now. Dutch Reagan and Nancy Davis, it’s a marriage that’s lasted."
"How well you know the Reagans?"
"You’d be surprised how many hours a day a star spends in makeup, Frank. More time than on the sound stage some of them. I keep telling you I know everybody. Those two more in the old days than now. These days Ronnie’s mostly just on television and Nancy’s a real stay-home housewife."
"You think their Patty Ann would like to come to Junior’s birthday party?"
"Say, it’s an idea."
I let the idea take shape a while and looked around the kitchen trying to guess what Sherri had cooked for dinner but whatever it was the remains were already in the trash and the dishwasher. "You knowing all the stars the way you do, Sol, ask you a professional secret?"
"Is it true Marilyn Monroe dyes her hair?"
"Everyone knows that."
"I mean all her hair?"
"Exactly which parts of her coiffure do you think I styled, Frank?"
"I just thought..." I shrugged.
Marx put his mouth right next to my ear, whispered "All of it. Trust me. I should know."
"Especially. It’s attention to detail marks out a professional."
"I heard she sometimes isn’t all that professional."
"Goes to bed every night in pincurls and a hairnet, that's how dedicated to her public image she is. Could explain why the husbands get disillusioned fast."
"I mean the way she behaves. General attitude."
"Sure, she can be difficult. Turns up late or never. Goes home early, lot of the time she’s drunk or pilled to the gills on set. Lot of people say she behaved so bad making The Misfits that's what caused Clark Gable's heart to give out."
"I heard that."
Sol twirled his cocktail umbrella thoughtfully. "Misfits was John Huston directing. Assignment before on Let’s Make Love George Cukor had to suspend shooting for a few weeks while he sent her to a clinic to dry out. It’s a pattern, maybe it’s a cry for help. Same trouble the year before while she was making Some Like It Hot for Billy Wilder."
"I know where they did the location shoots, just up the coast from San Diego, I grew up there. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon have to hide out from gangsters disguised as part of an all-women band. Jack Lemmon has that line on the beach ‘Look how she moves! That's like Jell-o on springs!’"
"Other than how she moved she had problems," Sol stated. "Tony was scripted to kiss her and got so overwrought at the number of times she ruined the scene he claimed it was like kissing Hitler. Another scene she fluffed the line "It's me, Sugar" on 30 consecutive takes. Billy Wilder had the line written on a blackboard, it took her another 17 attempts to say it right. Someway short of the line when she had to search through some drawers saying "Where's the bourbon?" She said lots of things, `Where's the bottle’, ‘Where's the bonbon?’, but she didn’t mention bourbon. After take 40 Wilder pasted the line in one of the drawers but she started opening the wrong drawer. Wilder had it pasted in every drawer, she finally got it right on take 59. But things were going bad with Arthur Miller by then and listen, it’s only ever directors, agents and other actors. With the make-up artists, cameramen, sound guys, she’s always a perfect lady."
Ben Casey had finished in the other room. You could hear through the open door there was a news flash, some East Germans mown down by border guards while trying to cross the Wall the communists had put up across Berlin.
Sherri came in to join us. "You think there's going to be another war, Frank?"
"Not if I can help it. I just came about Junior's birthday."
Sherri started to make coffee. "This is a hell of a world for a kid to grow up in," she complained.
"What? Kids these days?" Upstairs the Beach Boys were playing Surfin' Safari a third or fourth time. "They got everything. By the time Junior's our age he'll be living on the Moon."
"They're going to blow the world up," said Sherri. "H-bomb missiles. Reds starting World War Three."
"Only a matter of time," Sol Marx agreed though he didn't appear too worried. Maybe that was what Sherri saw in him.
"We were in the middle of the Depression when I was Tommy Junior's age," I mentioned. "You don't remember the Thirties too well, Sherri? I guess maybe you weren’t old enough to understand what went on other than being the youngest you got fed before the rest of us. You think the Sixties are worse than the Thirties?"
"He'll be living on the Moon with radioactive mutants," Sherri insisted.
"Sol though he could pass on an invitation to Patty Ann Reagan. You know, Nancy Reagan’s kid?"
Sherri looked at the glass in my hand and poured herself a cup of coffee. "I don't believe TJ's into girls that much." She'd got into the habit of calling him TJ now, probably to avoid using the Tommy word
"Not that he's told you," Sol Marx said. "But if Patty's like her mother at all she'll like boys enough."
"We aren't up to that class of entertaining," Sherri shook her head. "The Reagans? They wouldn't want to mix."
"Hey, this is me," protested Sol. "What kinda social standing you think I have, Sherri honey? I mean put yourself in their position. What's a star without hair, right?"
"It’s just the kid after all," I added. "We aren’t asking to borrow their swimming pool."
"Who needs it. Sol’s having our own pool put in out back," Sherri said. She moved over to stand beside him. Sol put his arm around her. With Sherri in slippers they were the same height, seemed to fit together as a piece.
"That right? Business good?" I said.
Sol shrugged. "This heat it’s almost a necessity. Anyway," he gestured at the ceiling, "it’ll give TJ an excuse to leave his sty. Give me some exercise as well I do a few lengths in the morning, " he moved to the kitchen back door leading Sherri by the hand.
The way she went after him she looked a lot happier than she ever did with Tommy Guppy those last few years. I had to like Sol Marx to a degree at least despite myself. The guy made good money close to the top of his profession, he provided a decent home, put on a Hollywood front but was relatively stable given where he was coming from. All in all he seemed to suit my little sister which was what counted even if beyond comprehension.
Outside Sol sipped his drink and squinted through the low sunlight at the new oblong excavation in one corner of his sprinkler-green lawn. The hole was big enough for an elephant's graveyard. Beyond there was a 6 feet barrier of Manzanita and Wild Lilac, flamboyant and private like Sol himself. "Business, tell the truth it’s a little slow over at the studio, but I got a hell of a lot of overtime from Cleopatra last year, you see the hair on those Roman chicks? Well that’s paying for the pool and some besides."
I stepped over peg and string markers and stood on the edge. "That was amazing hair. They need to go this deep for a pool or are you hoping for oil?"
"Deep end’ll be over here, and you got to leave room for the filtration plant. Little pool house next to it, just a changing room really, save people dripping in the house. They’re coming to put it in next week. Prefabricated sections, they just drop them in. You’re welcome any time, Frank. Bring a friend, we could have a meal."
"You dating again yet, Frank?" Sherri asked.
"I got too much work on, keeping me too busy."
Sherri had lowered herself into one of a pair of sun loungers and hitched up her skirt so her tanned legs could catch the evening rays. I cleared my throat cutely, "Hey, Sis, I didn’t even get the time to eat since breakfast. Any chance you could make me one of your sandwiches? Tuna, I don’t mind."
She looked at me but got up and went anyway. Not even Tommy ever faulted her in the kitchen.
"I heard about Cleopatra. Big budget."
"Way, way over budget. So over the executives at Fox don’t hold out hope of a return on investment. They've sunk enough dough they'll never see back that it could break the studio system. End of an era. Rumour is they're gonna have to sell Century City backlot for real estate. Only way they can finance their debt before they even think about anything that ambitious again."
"That a problem for you?"
Sol shook his head. "The backlot? My point of view stars’ll always need perfect hair. Thankfully the Union negotiates a better rate on location than in the studio. I’ll be okay assuming movies survive at all. But believe me there’s some very worried guys in the executive suite. Between them and the New York office they’ve got more to lose than I have."
"So if they run into trouble on any of their current films?"
Sol shook his head. "You mix desperate times and desperate people. Bad news."
That evening I kept Tommy company in the Palomino again since he’d not yet outstayed his welcome with the proprietor and talked about the case and Marilyn Monroe instead of talking about the Sherri, Sol and Tommy Junior situation.
"She’s over the hill," said Tommy loudly.
I drank beer. "Thirty Six. That’s how old she is." I knew because Carmen was four years younger. Had been. Would stay young. "How old are you, Tommy?" I could have worked that out too if I wanted.
"For a movie actress anywhere thirty’n over’s over the hill. Monroe, she’s too old now."
"She don’t look old."
"Ageing like a butterfly."
I lifted the beer again and looked at it. "No one gets old in California. You know that. We’re all too beautiful."
"Young person in California moves towards age it doesn’t happen."
"Not in this town. Some night there’s a knock at the door and they bundle you in the back of some truck. Ship you as freight to some Old Camp in Florida no one ever comes back from."
"She’s going to hear that truck," said Tommy.
"Only chance you got is head North into Oregon. Build a log cabin in the woods. Hide out."
"I thought of that," said Tommy.
"What stopped you?"
Tommy raised his glass and brushed his arm against the pocket he kept Junior's photograph. "Couldn’t find North."
Well that just might be true. Tommy could find wilderness closer to home.
He waved to the bartender for refills. He was serious now.
"Who's paying for this?" Tommy asked.
"You," I said.
"Who's paying me? The both of us? This case?"
"I told you. Man called Jack Scalligan."
"But we're not on the Twentieth Century payroll."
"Not exactly. Cheque was posted from a lawyer’s office in Freeport."
"Some place the other side of Miami. It was a real big cheque."
"I know where it is. Freeport, that’s the Bahamas. You must have been past it plenty. It's next to friggin' Cuba."
"No. It just looks that way on a map."
"So what's local boy Jack Scalligan doing with his bank account somewhere looks near Cuba on a map?"
"It sounded a great location to the guy in our bank pursuing our overdraft."
"What's it sound like to you?"
"Like Fox don't want us on their legitimate books."
"Someone sure don't."
The jukebox in the Palomino was playing Jerry Butler's version of Moon River but all the same the bartender reached up to turn on the television over the bar for the sport news. As the tube warmed up we caught the ‘and finally’ spot, ending the regular bulletin so viewers remembered they always left laughing. In Asia the Soviets had exploded their biggest H-bomb yet and in Iowa a farmer was building a fallout shelter for his 200 cows. Then the sport presenter started with news the National Baseball Hall of Fame was honouring Jackie Robinson as their first elected coloured player and the bartender didn’t find that funny.
The technician’s lab coat could have been left over from an After the Bomb sci-fi movie. Originally it must have been a normal shade of white but the sleeves were scarred with solder-iron burns and the creases belonged to the floor of his locker at the Fox Television Studios.
He worked in a backroom somewhere along a maze of narrow corridors that spread out from the rear entrance to the building. The room was full of equipment could make a casual visitor nervous of electrocution when squeezing between the racks. There were thick, trip-up cables snaking across what little of the floor stayed visible. It was a windowless room and airless despite the fans that distributed an undercurrent of overheated insulation. Neon tubes across the ceiling made everything over-bright and everywhere hummed in an ominous manner. It was a room for machines and no one came in except they had business with those machines.
"Five years from now every home in the country’s gonna have a Video Recorder next to the television," he said. The machine must have been around six feet high and half a ton discounting the metal frame it was on.
"Could be," I agreed.
"See, the way it stands the stations got to do lots of time shifting. You get some major event evening peak time in Los Angeles but in New York they’re all going to bed. Same when Washington is breaking news with a breakfast Press Conference while the West Coast are still asleep. So we use this baby to capture live pictures and our stations rebroadcast in a wave across the country just when anyone wants it." He was making conversation while he finished looping the tape from the top spool through all the rollers to the empty lower take-up spool. It was a dextrous job but he’d had practice and wanted me to admire it.
He stood back to critically examine the alignment of everything. "So the time comes you got one of these critters in your own home you can pick to watch what you want and when you want it. Major sports event, soaps, movies, it’s the future. Anything, anytime. Colour even."
"How much does it cost?"
"This one? I don’t know. Fifty grand. Price’ll come down."
"Is it any use if I don’t have a television?"
He gave me that look of hidden pity reserved for men with no legs and a steel plate in their head. "Wait and see. The world's changing faster than you think. Things you won't believe. The future's television. Next month Bell are bouncing pictures off the Telstar satellite right across to England. And that's just a start." He flicked a switch or two and bent down to check through a ventilation grill that the valves of the VTR were glowing hot then pointed to a blank screen on another rack and prodded his index finger at a red start button.
A white dot expanded into life from the middle of the dark square and a second or so later applause crackled out from the speaker. The picture was a little fuzzy, shot with a long focus lens and the stage spots not as good for television cameras as studio lights, but you could recognise a small, grey Peter Lawford alone at a podium left side of stage. It was JFK's 40th Birthday Gala and Democratic fundraiser. It was a big event because Kennedy was youngest President, first Catholic President, and first birthday party to pack Madison Square Garden with so many friends willing to pay so much good money for an invitation to go wild about everything.
Lawford was making a long introduction for Marilyn Monroe and the first time he prompted she didn’t come on stage and he had to start over again and make up more things to say. Either it was her usual unreliability or it was planned that way to heighten expectation because when she did finally appear in the spotlight in the middle of Lawford’s desperate extemporising she was wearing a dress made her look naked except for spangles and 17,000 excited Democrats went wilder than ever and Lawford shouted "Here’s the late Marilyn Monroe." It sounded a clever ad-lib at the time but within a few months it would sound different.
Her platinum hair was unruly, her voice more throaty and breathless even than her usual act. When she sang "Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday Mr. President, Happy Birthday to you," it was just like they were alone together.
She was centre stage no more than two minutes. At the end of it Lawford introduced JFK who came to a microphone and waited for just a second before he said in that flat, New England voice "I can now retire from politics having had Happy Birthday sung to me in such a sweet wholesome way." The timing wasn't great but it got the roar his speechwriters anticipated from an audience that could see Kennedy wasn't thinking of retirement and Marilyn could never be anything less than undiluted sex.
"That’s the future right enough," said the Fox technician. He pressed the rewind button. "Only thing I can’t figure out’s whether politics is gonna be a branch of show-business or the movies gonna be an arm of government."
"Assuming it makes a difference."
"Things are changing all right. You think we could’ve ever broadcast pictures of a woman that close to faking an orgasm if the U.S. President wasn’t watching to make it legitimate?"
"She broke bounds with that performance," I agreed. "Can I see it again?"
Watching Marilyn by Jack Chapman / Mystery & Detective have rating 3.2 out of 5 / Based on16 votes