Excerpt from WHIMPER, KNOCK, BANG
Updated: Feb 10, 2018
A thick, shrouding copse of honeysuckle opened to reveal an ornate, iron gate swung wide. Gleaming Cadillacs, Rolls Royces, and Bugattis idled in a line in the drive, waiting to deposit the evening’s guests.
“I don’t know why Graham couldn’t drive,” said Faye.
“He could have, of course,” said Jack, sitting easily behind the wheel as they rolled slowly forward to a valet. “But it’s ridiculous to ask him when I’m perfectly capable.” He glanced at her slunk low as if avoiding appraisal. “Are you embarrassed?”
She scrunched her mouth. “No.” But it was low and insincere.
Jack chuckled. “Poor kitten. You needn’t claim me like a stray tonight. After we hand over the car, you may go on ahead as if I’m not here.”
“Don’t be absurd. If I didn’t want you on my arm, I wouldn’t have asked you to come.”
“Right. And I always say yes.”
“That sounds suspiciously like you fault me for asking.”
But before he could answer, they pulled to a stop, a valet opening Faye’s door. “Good evening, Mrs. Dillon.”
Jack gave the Duesenberg key to the overdressed lanky young man. “Not a scratch.” Then he put Faye on his arm and headed for the front door.
For all its decadent reputation, the house on North Linden in Beverly Hills was rather square. Not a Spanish Colonial nor a French Norman manse, which were all the rage in LA, but a hybrid of ancient Greek architecture and the newest in Art Deco style. It was a sprawling, pale buttermilk yellow cube. What appeared to be two stories was actually one, banks of floor to ceiling windows were framed by massive columns with carved setbacks and lit by pendants that were easily six feet tall. No lighting was spared, it glowed warm and inviting. A gray and cream diamond-patterned marble veranda led to the glass front door hidden neatly in one of the tall banks of windows. It might have been missed had it not been open, so Jack and Faye walked right in.
The interior as cutting-edge as the exterior, it was a wide-open space with a series of vignettes created by soaring half walls and soft light, chaise longues and sofas. Guests dressed in the finest suits from Savile Rowe and the latest lines from Milan milled and lounged, eating, drinking, talking, and laughing. Waiters in black tie and tails weaved around guests with trays of champagne, crisp and briny oysters, caviar, deviled eggs, citrusy shrimp cocktail, smoky salmon, honeydew, and buttery foie gras. Doors and windows left open on the uncharacteristically warm night, Cole Porter blew in on a breeze from a jazz band playing on the back lawn.
They were greeted by a gape-mouthed Edmund Lowe striding briskly towards them. “Jack Dillon. As I live and breathe.” They embraced like long-lost friends, but there was a measuring, too. “Did I know you were coming? God, I’m ashamed. I’ve only got the Canadian Club but gobs of it. Not your single malt, I’m afraid.”
“It was last-minute, friend. And you know I love whiskey as long as it’s straight and in my hand.”
After a warm and easy embrace of Faye, Edmund threw an arm around Jack’s shoulder and turned. “Ken. Kay. Would you look who’s here? The Dillons. Both of them.”
Kenneth MacKenna looked up from the bar and smiled, then put up a parenthetical finger. His statuesque wife, Kay Francis, strode across the living room, arms out. She embraced Faye and Jack, then turned a discerning eye on him.
“Kay, you look ravishing. How long has it been?”
“Too long. Where have you been keeping yourself? Faye would have us believe holed up at the Ambassador singlehandedly trying to keep LA in jobs.”
“Not entirely,” he said. “The Grove has a nice little party scene.”
“Oh, Kay, he’s being modest as always,” said Faye, “and ever fishing for a compliment. There is nothing little about the Grove’s party scene. It’s all the rage, thanks to Jack.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” said Jack.
“No, sweetheart, of course you wouldn’t,” said Faye, smoothing her hand down a lapel. “That’s why I must.”
He took her hand and kissed it, his smile glowing if insincere.
Ken arrived, thrusting a drink into Jack’s hand and giving him a gregarious handshake, his drink spilling. “Jack, God, it’s been ages. Sorry I haven’t been to the Grove lately, sport. But Faye tells us you’re doing well, despite it all.”
Jack glanced at Faye’s proud smile and twinkling eyes. She was a master at telling the good story. “Yes, well…surviving.”
“More than that.” Faye leaned in, brushing Jack’s arm. “It’s the place to be in all LA.”
“Except here,” Edmund chimed in before taking a sip of his drink.
“Of course,” Jack agreed good-naturedly. But there was the subtlest hint of hostility between them. He turned back to Ken and Kay. “I hear congratulations are in order. No doubt you’ll be as happy as Faye and I.”
“We can only hope,” said Kay.
“Where’s Lil?” asked Faye.
Edmund nodded toward the kitchen. “No doubt molesting the staff for more deviled eggs. Why don’t you go and rouse her, dear?”
After she walked off, Jack turned to Kay. “I have to say, I loved you in The False Madonna.”
“Oh, now you’ve done it,” said Ken, elbowing him.
Kay gave Ken a scolding look, then turned to Jack, pure delight on her face. “Oh, go on. Did you really? I think it’s my best work to date.”
“Absolutely. Why, you were so natural, so—”
“Sympathetic,” she supplied.
“Yes. That’s exactly right.”
“Oh, good. The Warners have been a dream. If I’d stayed at Paramount, I’d be cast as every female villain that came along.”
“Sometimes people only want to see you a certain way, sweetheart,” said Edmund.
“But day-in and day-out, it’s tiresome,” said Kay. “Give me something else and I’ll give you a star turn.”
“Kay is more than one note,” said Ken.
“God, Ken, I know. We all know,” said Edmund. “But people cannot abide by change, even if it’s for the better, even if they never knew how good they might have it. Haven’t you read the papers? We’re in a depression.”
“I hadn’t any idea you’d noticed, Ed,” said Jack.
Edmund chuckled, but it was hard-edged. “You were always good for a laugh, Jack.” He swept a hand to indicate the party. “I consider this my patriotic duty. After all, champagne and caviar provide jobs, too. Why, you should know that as well as anyone.”
Jack nodded, though he didn’t like to be chastened, least of all by Edmund Lowe.
“I only meant that the average man is counting his pennies,” continued Edmund. “Buying a movie ticket is a risk.”
“So much of life is a risk,” said Jack. “But, damn, it should be lived fully and truly, despite it all.”
“Here, here,” said Ken, lifting his glass. “To living fully and truly, despite it all.” They lifted their glasses and toasted, Edmund and Jack glancing at each other as they drank.
Edmund flitted away to greet some more guests, leaving them to chat and drink some more. After a time Ken and Kay moved on promising to find him later.
Greeted all the while by friends and acquaintances, Jack finally wandered into the dining room where there was a spread of heartier fare that rivaled any restaurant in the city. Broiled chicken, roast turkey, rack of lamb, prime rib, lobster, potatoes julienned, diced, and au gratin, asparagus, broccoli, and artichoke hollandaise, Lindbergh salad, mixed green salad, watercress, string beans, creamed onions, carrots Vichy, and Brussel sprouts. He filled a plate, then went to the bar to refresh his drink.
On his way he passed another table, this one filled entirely with desserts. Crepe Suzette, chocolate puffs, green apple and pumpkin pies, caramel custard, rice pudding, baked cherries, compote of fruit, baked Alaska, and French pastries. All of it for a weekly soirée. Eyes wide, in that moment he realized just how much he had been holding back, everything that was his, he counted the cost of it. At home for Faye. Even at the Cocoanut Grove he would provide a menu of food and drink so rich, then take the crumbs and nurse his drink. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d strictly indulged in anything. Feeling his overburdened plate, he knew he would be back.
No sooner had he sat to eat than a black velvet skirt appeared before him. His eyes crawled up the dress to see a much-changed Lilyan Tashman-Lowe standing regally before him. Tall and lithe, a platinum bob smoothed to her head, sky-blue eyes and fox-features drawn seductively, nevertheless, she was thinner and more tired around the eyes than he had ever seen.
She extended a limp hand. “Jack Dillon,” she said with a husky, honeyed voice that brought her easily from silent films into the talkie era.
He stood and kissed her warmly, feeling her more fragile frame.
“You beautiful man. Where have you been keeping yourself? All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Or hadn’t you heard?”
He smiled. “How is it possible you grow even more beautiful year after year?”
“It’s not, of course. And you’re a poor liar.” She glanced at his full plate. “I’m turning our girl over to you.” Faye stood rigidly beside her. “She won’t eat if I’m not. I must make the rounds.”
They watched her walk off until she was well out of ear shot.
“Don’t say it,” Faye hissed under her breath. “Don’t hint. Don’t even think it or I’ll scratch your eyes right out.”
“What am I thinking? That she’s got thin?”
“You…can be such an ass sometimes.”
“What’s wrong with her?”
“A stomach upset that won’t seem to go away.” Her voice had gone light and dismayed, anger replaced by fear.
Jack turned to look at her, not merely placing his eyes on her, but really seeing. What he saw he would have sworn she was incapable of being. She was soft and open. There was tenderness and vulnerability.
He gently sat her down. “Let’s get you something to eat.”
After a few grudging nibbles, Faye went off with another friend. This was their way, long-established, at parties. Each was comfortable, gregarious, and interesting enough to let the other go. Like a wave meeting the shore, they met up, then wandered off again, back and forth.
After mingling for a while, he found Faye sitting with Lilyan and Edmund and Joan Crawford. He stood back, too far back to hear, but the four of them seemed to be regaling a small crowd of hangers-on with a story, each taking a turn between laughs. They were so comfortable, the four of them, as if they had done this routine before. Faye the only one among them who didn’t get paid to act.
“She wants me to be jealous, ya know.” Rosy and reeling, Doug Fairbanks, Jr. had sidled up to him, putting a heavy hand on his shoulder and nodding to his wife.
“I don’t think any wife wants a jealous husband,” said Jack.
“Now that’s a lie because Joanie does. And, damn it all, I am. I mean, God, look at her. Too much woman for me.”
Jack knew enough not to say anything.
“They say she and Gable are having an affair.”
“Who are they?”
“Probably right, that’s who they are.” Doug took a long sip of his drink. “I can’t divorce her, the pretty thing, because I’m still in love with her. But sometimes when I’m angry enough I think about doing it just for spite. And, God, it feels good.”
“Doug, you’re drunk. You don’t mean to divorce your wife. And on such gossip.”
Doug, playful and light, slapped Jack on the cheek. “You’re right, of course. You’re always right. And so damn good it hurts me to look at ya. The golden boy. But divorce is an industry in this town same as the rest of it.” Doug peered at him pointedly. “No one looks askance at it anymore.” Then he slapped Jack on the back and walked off.
He looked back at Faye again. In nearly a decade together he had known one feeling with unwavering certainty, through the resentment and coldness, through bitter fights and distant love – pride. She had always been pretty, stylish, and interesting. In public she was quick to smile, ready with a laugh or a story. Perfecting joie de vivre with such élan, it was near impossible not to be a little in love with her at parties. But he refused to hang on her every word like the men and women paying court to her now. Would not follow her like a fan in Photoplay. She looked up and he caught her eye, tipped his head and raised his glass. She smiled so warmly he nearly thought she loved him, so he turned and walked away.
© Catherine C. Heywood 2017