Watching Marilyn, p.9Jack Chapman
"Guess who Nancy Reagan dated before she took up with Ronnie."
"The infamous Peter Lawford."
Sol was disappointed. "How’d you know?"
"I never reveal a lady’s secrets, Sol."
"That’s a handicap in your line of business."
"You ain’t paying me."
"I offer you hospitality," Sol was still disappointed. He was buying me lunch. We sat at a table in the middle of a crowded Fox Commissary but everyone was too busy to pay attention to anything we said.
I looked around the place. It was noisy. People tended to be excited, not really focussed on their food, some were dressed for the South Seas and some were dressed for snow. I recognised a few faces but no one really famous except for Will Rogers up on the wall in the big, pre-war mural.
"I think it was Tommy told me."
"He okay after yesterday?"
"Water under the bridge."
"He told you who else?"
I took pity. "No."
"He didn’t mention that at one time Nancy was romantically linked to Clark Gable?"
"That right? I heard stories say the opposite."
"Don’t believe them."
"Heard another story Clark Gable might've been Marilyn Monroe's real daddy."
Sol grimaced. "The family resemblance escapes me."
"It didn't come from any reliable source. Marilyn ever eat in here?"
"Maybe not for much longer. Rumour is the executive suite have given up and decided to suspend her again."
"You hear any more of that rumour let me know. Was there any substance in the story Marilyn was responsible for pushing Gable too far?"
"Why he died, you mean? Last time I saw him, even before The Misfits, he looked a sick man. Sure they went forty days over schedule, mostly due to Monroe and barbiturates, but I think his time had come. Exactly what is your interest in Marilyn?" Sol asked casually enough that he hoped to catch me off guard.
"I'm just a fan, Sol."
"Like I'm a devout cynic, Frank."
"But discreet," I flattered him. "I just want to understand the connections between these people."
"It’s a small town if you move in those circles. A hothouse ménage. Small town full of big people."
"Larger than life," I agreed.
"Bigger, not necessarily better. Take my advice, stay away from actresses. Plenty of secretaries around here with feet on the ground and just as good ankles."
"You don’t stay away from actresses."
"Only one I ever fell in love with was Marlene Dietrich, she didn’t reciprocate, but she tipped me a dollar on the last day of filming. You seeing anyone right now?"
"Too busy, Sol."
"I’m gonna fix you up with a date. With a real sweet, little secretary."
"Didn't you meet Sherri when she was typing up scripts here?"
"She was temporary, she's better off a full-time mother for TJ, a homemaker."
"Long as you don't still notice secretary’s ankles."
"Sounding like a big brother, Frank. You know I look after her."
"Yeah. I got to admit that."
Sol looked embarrassed. "It’s a family-sized house, too big to rattle around in alone, but I like to garden so an apartment would be no use to me. I’ve had spells of single living and never liked it. I drink only in moderation and go out to play Bridge one night a week. I think we make a good family, Frank"
"You never wanted kids of your own?"
"Look at me. I’m too scared to take that level of responsibility. It’s needed all my courage to teach TJ to play tennis."
Sol finished his club sandwich, settled back on his chair and lit a cigarette. "I was telling you about Nancy….who else she dated."
"Besides Lawford and Gable? Tell me."
"Another time in her starlet days Nancy was linked to Frank Sinatra. That’s where your invitation to Calneva came from. Sinatra owns a big piece of the resort"
"Sounds a friendly girl."
"Devoted to Ronnie. Once she’d found him the rest were history. He was the man she’d been looking for all her life. True love. Makes me feel a heel to be such a cynic."
I looked around the commissary again, full of dreamers chasing the most trivial and powerful of purposes. "You’re no cynic, Sol. This is the air you breathe."
Sol made a face, gave a little, dismissive shrug of his thin, neat shoulders. "We all need to breathe, I guess."
"Incestuous. Am I right? They make a film together and what goes on between these people no one’d believe."
I sat next to Tommy in our old Chrysler. We’d followed Marilyn to the apartment block where her psychic favoured his clients with advice and consultation. It wasn’t a low rent neighbourhood exactly but the income bracket suggested he didn’t predict race horses and lottery tickets so well. She’d hurried in wrapped in a headscarf and dark glasses. She’d been in long enough we were starting to get bored.
"It means squit to them," said Tommy. "You read the stories in Spy magazine and they’re driven to it by the sacrifice and suffering which is the price of success. Who’s kidding who? Fact is we'd all be fornicating alcoholics if we had the time and the money."
"It’s like six links to the Queen of England," I explained. "You take anyone in the world, anyone you like, random, some head-hunter in Borneo, and this individual will know someone who knows someone who knows someone who’s aquatinted with someone who knows the Queen of England."
"Was that six?"
"Whatever. It’s a consequence of mathematics, some professor worked it out. How many people you meet, how many people in the world. The law of six degrees of separation. It doesn’t have to be the Queen of England. Applies to anybody."
"Here’s me thinking she must have one hell of a special social life."
"What I’m saying, Hollywood and Politics. They all sleep in the same bed. It was Sinatra introduced Marilyn Monroe to John Kennedy, and Kennedy to the Mafia. And Sinatra used to be sweet on Nancy but she married Reagan who switched allegiance from the Democrats to Nixon who somehow is linked to Jack Scalligan and that blows your Cuba theory right out the water, Tommy."
"I always liked Nixon," said Tommy, "He was Vice President when Eisenhower ended the Korean War."
"You like Pop art, Frank?"
"I can take it or leave it. Mostly one picture at a time would be enough for me."
"Repetition adds up to reputation, that's what Andy Warhol says."
Jack Scalligan was reading out of the catalogue he held. "These repeated images symbolise depersonalised creations of the mass media," he told me. He was wearing white shoes like they wear on yachts that don’t lean over too much in a wind, which didn't enhance his image as any kind of art expert.
"That's who did these, Andy Warhol?"
"In avant-garde circles this guy is the new sensation. Started out as a commercial artist, adverts, packaging design, decided it was a real art form. So now there’s a whole movement coming out of New York. This is Warhol's first West Coast exhibition, I'm thinking of investing before prices go through the roof. What d'you think?"
Scalligan had said to meet in the old Ferus Gallery on La Cienega Boulevard. I looked at the silkscreen print that could have been a duplicated photocopy if it wasn't so big, five images by five in crude colours, orange and pink predominant, then alongside the same five by five faces repeated in black and white.
Scalligan checked in his catalogue. "Marilyn Monroe. Images based on a publicity still from the 1953 film Niagara."
It hadn't been a great film but she looked younger than she did now. "Someone from LA, Miss Monroe sure suits back East."
"Everyone likes a change."
"East coast, West coast. There's Los Angeles, there's New York. Where else you’d want to go in America?"
"Plenty of places."
"It's a hollow country."
"That's the empty heart. And not exactly in the middle."
I waved my finger round the Warhol exhibition, the multiple screen prints of Marilyn were hanging above a picture of Jackie Kennedy. On the next wall was a blow-up of Che Guevara, hero of the Cuban revolution.
"Those three together, that’s interesting. The implied connection."
"And the Campbell's soup cans, and Elvis, and the Statue of Liberty. It’s how conspiracy theories start, Frank. What've you got to tell me?"
"My contacts at Fox say Monroe is going to be removed from the cast of Something's Got To Give on grounds of repeated, unjustifiable absences."
"Hell, Frank, they're putting a press release out over the wire right now. Chronic lateness and drug dependency. It'll be in all the late editions. You got to do better than that. Fox are telling the co-stars they can take up other engagements to get them off the payroll, Dean Martin, Phil Silvers, everyone."
"You know she's planning to go to Calneva?"
"Sinatra's place? Haunt of the rat pack?"
"Peter Lawford connects her to that crowd, and them to the Kennedys. What she told me was she's going to meet some people there she believes can solve all her problems."
"Now that's interesting, Frank. You know who?"
"I will when I get there. Looking forward to the vacation."
"You won't get past the door at Calneva. You need to be on the special guest list, or spend good money and book well ahead."
"I thought that Press card you gave me opened all doors."
"Only doors where prestige isn’t a factor."
"Maybe I have influential friends, Jack. Matter of fact we're already booked into a cabin, Tommy and me."
Scalligan looked dubious.
"The name Richard Nixon sound familiar?"
"He talk to you?"
"Any idea why he should take an interest in the work I’m doing for you?"
"That’s his business."
"He seems to think it is."
"Like I said before, don’t get too close to Monroe, not at Calneva, not anywhere. Don’t get too close to Nixon either."
"It’s the celebrities starting to follow me around," I pointed out.
"Nixon’s a powerful man."
"Kind of man you think is big because he makes you feel small?"
"Take it easy, Frank. Lay off thinking and just do what you’re told."
"You don’t like the way I operate there’s plenty other desperate suckers need the work."
"I considered it. You know a Private Detective called Ruditsky?"
"His name’s some way in front of mine in the directory. I was always unlucky with the alphabet."
Scalligan moved on to a picture of a Coca Cola bottle. It looked better from a distance. Up close you could see it was all paint and no cola. "After their divorce Joe DiMaggio hired Ruditsky to follow Marilyn and see if there was another man."
"How did that work? Ruditsky's LA-based. Joe and Marilyn were living in New York. Joe played his entire career for the Yankees."
"Born and brought up in Martinez, California. They commuted. East Coast, West Coast."
"Hollow country. Was there another man?"
"What Joe was up against, the short period they were married, she was filming The Seven Year Itch. Final straw was where she stands on the subway grate and her skirt flies up around her. They were on location in New York and Billy Wilder re-shot that scene over and over for five hours, the crowd on the street hooting and whistling every time her panties came in view. When Joe had enough he stormed off to a bar where his old drinking buddies persuaded him to put his foot down, make her choose, marriage or career. That night Marilyn threw him out of the bedroom and started divorce proceedings on grounds of mental cruelty."
"Sounds hard on the guy, but nothing criminal."
"Nothing Ruditsky found. That’s why I didn’t hire him."
We took most of the day driving to Calneva. A long haul up Interstate 5 from Los Angeles then across onto I-80 to make it over 400 miles before we had to seriously think about local directions. A while after Sacramento we started passing ghost towns left behind by the Gold Rush. The temperature kept falling and we climbed the High Sierra into white-topped ranges that were mountainous enough they blocked the scenery. On top of the Donner Pass Tommy opened his eyes to point out the place where one Winter ninety settlers coming from Mississippi in a wagon train got stranded by eighteen feet of snow and started eating each other. But that was in the old days.
It was a tough story and after we dropped back down through the forest line into the township of Truckee I pulled the Oldsmobile I’d hired on Jack Scalligan’s charge card into a small, roadside diner. There was a hoarding advertised Hot Coffee, Pie and Full Grill. Inside it was clean and warm and the waitress looked friendly. The diner had plastic flowers and red plastic ketchup containers shaped like tomatoes on all the tables, most of which were empty that time of the afternoon. It was an establishment aiming for the passing tourist trade, neatly arranged on each formica tabletop were paper place mats explaining the history of the Westward migration when California still belonged to Mexico, how Truckee was named after a Paiute guide, and why the Donner Party’s big mistake was trying to come through a hundred years before the diner had opened for business.
After I’d absorbed the local history and drunk most of the first cup of coffee I looked at the cheap map I was using. "Shouldn’t be far now."
"Not far from here’s where I come to hunt and fish every year," Tommy said resentfully around a full mouth.
"In a casino? You kept that from me."
"We’re still in California, Frank. Damn casinos got to be over the State line. Where I go is ten, fifteen miles north from here." He waved out at the street with the remains of his Cannibal Burger. "But they got these new tourist developments springing up all over, gonna spoil the whole country. This used to be someplace you could escape the crap, leastways they never had electricity. You know I been bringing Junior the last couple years?"
"This is where Sherri didn’t want him going?"
"There’s a cabin belongs to a guy was in my old unit. Stayed on to train mountain warfare up here for the Marines until he retired the service. Bought himself a great little place in the mountains way off the beaten track. Bunch of us meet up every year. Some of the buddies I was with in Korea. Last year I started teaching Junior to hunt ‘n fish. He’s a good fisherman, just needs a little more patience."
"I bet you and the old crowd have a great time. Drinking beer, shooting guns, telling stories about women. What mother wouldn’t want that for her twelve year-old son?
"You could come, Frank. Hell, I invited you often enough."
"Fish? I hate fish. Every fish I’ve met was slimy and cold. What I like is electricity, taps with hot water, sewers below my feet. I like to know where things come from and where they’re going. And if I'd known this was a full day's drive from civilisation I'd have laughed harder."
"I was planning to take him rafting down the Truckee River. This pal I’m telling you about, when he got out the service he started a business gives guided tours for vacationers, goes up to a staging point with an inflatable, runs a few rapids, looks worse than it is, you don't even need to be fit, camping overnight. What a kid needs is some adventure in his life."
It struck me there was a dimension to Tommy Guppy I didn’t know much about. "Look, I’ll try and talk to Sherri again."
"You think she’ll want to listen after you mention my name? Hell, I’m only his father. That doesn’t give me any rights apparently."
"All I can do is try, T
"TJ's your nephew. You need to tell her she’s way out of line trying to arrest his development."
"I’ll do my best"
"It's your sister exposing him to the influence of that fruit."
"You give a damn about your family?"
"Sol took them in, gave them a good home. He treats them with respect."
"He's a fag. You know what that means?"
"He's a hairdresser, Tommy, it's different values. In Hollywood it's a respected profession. Times change."
"You happy about what a goddamn son-of-a-bitch fairy's doing with your sister?"
"I think he's lonely."
"He ain’t normal that’s for sure."
"Well normal can get scary sometimes." I looked at him. "If you wanted TJ off Sherri to spend a week up here you shouldn’t have picked a fight with her."
"She shouldn't have worn those leather trousers," Tommy complained, "She looked like a fuckin' stampede."
"Neither of you got nothing better to do the rest of your lives than tearing each other apart?"
Tommy stared out the window into the far distance for a while. "Nothing I can think of," he decided.
I finished off the coffee which wasn't as good as the burgers and tossed him the Oldsmobile keys. "Assuming you really know how to survive this goddamn wilderness you drive us the rest of the way."
Watching Marilyn by Jack Chapman / Mystery & Detective have rating 3.2 out of 5 / Based on16 votes