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Watching marilyn, p.8
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       Watching Marilyn, p.8

           Jack Chapman
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In Hollywood players move in herds. Winners run with winners. Losers leave with all the other losers.

  Once you’d have put Ronnie Reagan in the action but never more than the B-list, and now he was reduced to television. His contract hosting General Electric Theatre brought in big bucks until the show was cancelled and then he'd moved to the lower-budget, Death Valley Days. At least he’d made enough money to never need work again if he didn’t like what came his way.

  Ronnie turned his cream Cadillac through the big gates on Sunset Boulevard and over the bridge into the grounds of the Bel-Air Hotel. It was only a few minutes from the industry of Fox studios but the gates led to a better world. On my side of the convertible the waterfall cascaded into a lake where the swans were making a last, lazy patrol this June evening. On Reagan’s side the redwood grove along the stream opened onto a wide, green lawn. It was approaching 7 p.m. and the redwoods cast long shadows.

  "Play it straight, you don't have to be nervous of him," Reagan advised.

  "That's okay."

  "He's someone appreciates you being direct."

  "He's lost a lot of elections being direct."

  "We all get knocked down, pal. Goes with the game. I learnt that lesson in college football, happens to everyone. What counts is you keep getting up and getting up until you're the one guy left standing when the whistle blows."

  "You ever thought of moving into politics, Mr Reagan?"

  "You think California’d vote for an actor?"

  "You only need fool enough of the people enough of the time. Isn’t that what actors train for?"

  He turned and flashed his trademark grin at me. "The way I see it, the best view of government is in the rear view mirror driving away."

  On the other side of the bridge was the hotel main building, two-story, mission-style, pink stucco. The tower that topped it was smothered in red trumpet vines. We drove on past and through shady arcades where the trees foamed with white and yellow blossoms. All those lush acres must have taken a lot of irrigation. There were bungalows around the grounds and Reagan drove up to one and parked in a private courtyard with a small fountain and a discreet sign announcing we’d arrived at the Presidential Suite.

  There were glazed French doors fronting onto the patio. The first door Reagan tried opened into a neat, unused bedroom maybe as big as my apartment. We backed out and walked a few steps more to go through other French doors into a large, living room complete with a real fireplace. The fire was unlit but it had the ex-VP standing in front of it.

  At least with Reagan his career slide was a shallow one, ambling towards a sunset on some horse ranch in the hills, the occasional nostalgia spot as guest on a mid-ratings, network comedian’s show. But Richard Nixon two years before had been Vice President of the USA. Limo's, airliners and flunkies at the snap of his fingers. Always a dangerous position unless the VP can clamber into a dead man’s shoes and Nixon didn’t have the feet to follow Eisenhower. He had experience in plenty since he started out as Congressman for California in '46, the same year Marilyn had been elected California Artichoke Queen, and in the radio age he'd had it all. People still liked what they saw of her but with Nixon in this new age of television they didn't appreciate his face.

  The new age was politicians like movie stars and voters who didn't care if JFK won through fraud in Chicago because Jack was a good-looking winner and Dick looked a loser. He'd been pushed out of the herd. Conventions stopped going crazy when he walked on a platform. Last year he had fallen so far behind the new players he couldn’t win Governor even in his home state California. His career had gone ballistic the way those Apollo rockets haul up for fifteen seconds after launch then turn nose down and self-destruct. So now he'd announced his retirement from politics and here he was, hanging out with Ronald Reagan, the other yesterday man.

  I guessed they rented the Presidential Suite to impress someone but even if it was only themselves it pushed credibility. If any lingering illusion of power decoyed me in their game I’d be dragged down with them because this was the company of losers, and I guessed that’s why they picked me.

  Admittedly Nixon was more substantial in the flesh than he’d been on the television debates. He stepped forward and offered a firm handshake, man to man, it was a salesman's performance but a good one. "I understand you're investigating Miss Monroe."

  I glanced at Reagan who just grinned and shrugged.

  Nixon waved us into a couple of easy chairs each side of a low coffee table.

  "If you have any professional concerns I can certainly assure you that your employer Mr Scalligan would approve of this meeting. We have mutual interests. I'm prepared to help in whatever way I can."

  I sat down and the chair grabbed me like it had the arms of an octopus. "What would those interests be, if you don't mind me asking, sir?"

  He was straight to the point, no small talk. "You may recall when Arthur Miller was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he refused to name Communist writers he’d known and associated with in Hollywood."

  I nodded agreement.

  "The evidence was incontrovertible. Miller’s HUAC dossier was one and a half inches thick. He was cited and convicted of contempt of Congress but fled with Monroe to England so he couldn’t be apprehended. Somehow because of Monroe’s lobbying of powerful sympathisers that conviction was overthrown on appeal. She mixes with dubious people. There are concerns that our crypto-communists and their liberal stooges could exploit Monroe’s connection with Kennedy. I would certainly like to know if her potential for damage will be translated into actuality."

  "It’s not altogether obvious about anything she’s going to do."

  "Don’t you know?"

  "She told me she was going to Calneva, up at Lake Tahoe."


  "That’s the place she spoke of."

  Reagan’s voice cut in, smooth and resonant compared to Nixon’s abrasive tone. "That’s Frank Sinatra’s resort up on Crystal Bay, runs it as a hotel and casino."

  "And the scene of her alleged liaison with John F. Kennedy," Nixon recalled. He looked at me and said "It would be no bad thing for you to keep a close eye on what goes on up there."

  "I considered that, sir, but it would be difficult. The whole resort is solid booked through to the end of summer."

  Nixon glanced across at Reagan who nodded. "Leave that to me. I'll make a call."

  "Sinatra has dubious connections but there has never been any doubt about his patriotism," Nixon said. "Does he have any influence with her?"

  "Frank and Marilyn go back a while," Reagan said. "Though they’ve never been linked romantically. That’s surprising with the journalistic habit of treating two people in the same room for more than a handshake as the equivalent of sharing a bed."

  "A suspicious man might say Sinatra was saving her for Kennedy."

  Reagan shrugged his broad shoulders. "Whatever. They’re friends or users, nothing more. Though Frank was Billy Wilder’s first choice for Some Like It Hot, interesting to have seen the two of them act together."

  "This is really all about Kennedy, right?" I asked Nixon.

  "It’s about Monroe’s moral weakness. It’s about her danger to national security. It’s about revelations whether true or otherwise which may do incalculable damage."

  "I can see she’s an embarrassment."

  Nixon was intense as a tiger in a cage. Even with no hope left of eating the tourists he couldn't help salivating. "Miss Monroe wants our honoured President to admire her mind as well as her body. She is a Hollywood star who knows nothing about politics, not much about Washington, less about how the Cold War has deteriorated. She set about learning these things like she would learn a script. After each assignation with John F. Kennedy she has written down in careful detail whatever Kennedy said to her. Whatever would help her match his interests, his preoccupations, his worries. Remember thi
s is a time when John Kennedy needs distraction from the world going crazy, the Bay of Pigs, the Berlin Wall, from Castro openly siding with the Soviet Bloc. Kennedy can be indiscreet. Miss Monroe has been devising her script using all the careless asides of a man who knows important secrets and never shrank from trying to impress a woman. We know she's been writing down everything in a pocket book bound with red covers, part notebook, part diary."

  I began to wonder if the people bugging Marilyn’s house might be working for parties other than Ted Kennedy. "How do we know this, sir, if you don’t mind me asking?"

  Nixon shook his head. "That we've established these facts is the important thing. The red book is the important thing. We don't need concern ourselves over methods."

  "In my position I have to be concerned. About any involvement by LAPD, FBI, Secret Service. About any other agency might not like trespass on their interests."

  "The FBI belong to Hoover. They have no loyalty to the White House," Nixon said. It didn’t help much.

  "What do you want from me?"

  "Get that red book."

  "To attack Kennedy with proof of an affair with Marilyn?"

  "The man may be corrupt, he may deserve to be brought down, but in eyes of the American people the office must stay inviolate. We want leverage without damaging the image of the Presidency."

  "What’s in this for me?"

  "Whatever your interests are, Mr Watson, it will be of mutual benefit to pool what we know."

  "I’d have to check with my client."

  "Mr Scalligan? That won’t be a problem. All he wants is to discover what her intentions are. So do we. In fact you will continue to act for, and report to, Mr Scalligan in all matters. This will be our last meeting."

  I was wondering about Scalligan again. Nixon had named him twice but I hadn’t mentioned him at all.

  "Why not talk to her direct?"

  "And trust her? I understand she sees a psychiatrist on a regular basis," Nixon said.

  "Psychoanalyst. A New York drama coach persuaded her the way to be a better actress was to get in touch with her subconscious. But yes, shrinks, doctors, masseuses, hairdressers, psychics, she keeps a lot of people busy."

  "Astrologers?" Reagan asked.

  "Wouldn’t surprise me but I couldn’t say from personal observation."

  "Nancy believes the stars control our lives. I tell her they sure do in this town, Honey," Reagan grinned.

  There was a discreet tap on the French windows before they opened and a room service waiter pushed a trolley through. We stopped talking while he took away the big glass ashtray which nobody had used and put down linen wrapped silverware on the table between our chairs. He lifted the silver dome from the serving plate with an elaborate flourish to reveal a pile of steaks. He nodded discretely to each of us in turn and left without a word.

  "You want something to eat? There's plenty here." Nixon offered.

  I thought better of it and left them to their supper.

  The Japanese stone lanterns the Bel Air had switched on when the evening turned into a warm, dark velvet made the grounds of the hotel even more like fairyland. I walked back without hurrying across the perfect lawns and under trees I didn't know the names of. Blossoms drifted fragrance that recalled the narcotic perfume of unattainable women.

  I strolled on past the radioactive blue of the swimming pool and reached the main building. I was intending to ask the concierge to get me a cab but curiosity delayed me in the entrance given it was a haunt of the rich and famous. When I looked through into the bar the only customer I recognised was the lone figure of Lane Sickert leaning with his back to the counter watching me.

  "Off your usual territory," Lane observed. He waved for the barman to give me a drink.

  "I like a change of scene now and again."

  "Ronnie not giving you a lift back?"


  "Man comes into a bar has a right to be off duty. You don’t need to protect your sources from me, Frank. You arrived here with the Gipper, all I have to do is tip the bell boy, but why not give me your version."

  "How about me and the Gipper hit the place looking for a good time?"

  "Didn’t he tell you? Ronnie’s mother Nelle just died, an upright woman by all accounts, she visited prisons."

  I picked up the drink he’d bought me and gave him a run-down of the meeting I'd come from.

  "Those two together? What are they up to?"

  "They didn't think it necessary to explain their motives too much. I don’t know what’s going on."

  "The studio, the Police Chief, the money guys, no-one knows how to deal with Nixon. He's too honest, that's the trouble. The Kennedys they know, they're comfortable, the money guys can negotiate. But Nixon, it's like he's got principles. How do you deal with an honest politician?

  "Could an honest politician afford a joint like this?"

  "Marilyn and Arthur Miller used to stay here when they were together. Was Nixon in bungalow 96?"

  "It was the Presidential suite."

  Lane Sickert shrugged. "Number 96 is where I’d go to soak up atmosphere, fine, pink bungalow, secluded. She was here generating publicity a couple months ago to pressure Fox to reinstate her contract, Vogue used 96 for a photo shoot. The photographer kept it tasteful but she got drunk, stripped off and posed nude just like the old days. Some serious actress."

  "That why you’re here, Lane? Soaking atmosphere, or checking for nudes?"

  "Always working, Frank. So speaking as Fox Security in respect of one of our stars, I’d like to know, you acting in her interest or against it? No prejudice either way, the studio’s pragmatic, long as you keep us in the clear."

  "Same priorities you had when Carmen died. Least you’re consistent."

  Sickert waved for more drinks and offered me a cigar. It was a good cigar but a poor distraction. I put it in my pocket. "Maybe later."

  For the first time I went back over in my mind what Nixon had said, how much he knew, what his sources and his interest might be, but all I concluded was everyone was hiding something.

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