A fellow Hollywood researcher and writer recently moaned to me what a challenge it is to tease fact from fiction in a place built on fabrication. The product of this town – the movies – was born of imagination, and the people who made them – stars, moguls, directors, writers, craftspeople of all kinds – became obscured behind a gauzy curtain of (usually) self-serving fairy tales.
“What is the accurate story?” wasn’t the question that sold tickets, newspapers, and fan magazines, but “What is the most interesting story?” The daughter of a laundress becomes a Boston debutante. A Romanian refugee is now a member of European royalty. A shoeless kid from rural Georgia metamorphoses into the scion of a cotton plantation owner.
People moved to California in order to reinvent themselves in an attempt to leave their often-wretched past behind. And where better to do it in a city whose stories, myths, and legends were created?
I was surprised when my friend expressed his frustration. While I certainly understood it, my reaction was the opposite. What makes this an endlessly fascinating topic to explore is that the truth about how Hollywood movies were made is so hard to know. In real life, it’s difficult to live with “fake news” and revisionist history, but deliberately obscured truths are all part and parcel of the allure of golden-era Hollywood, if you ask me.
And that’s why I decided to call my eighth and second-last Hollywood’s Garden of Allah novel:
CITY OF MYTHS
Book 8 in the Hollywood’s Garden of Allah novels
by Martin Turnbull
DUE FOR RELEASE IN FEBRUARY 2018
For the cover of this book, I wanted to incorporate the symbol that has come to represent the film industry: the Hollywood sign. But I asked my cover designer, Dan Yeager to give us a view of the “H” from the rear. I wanted it to represent the underbelly flipside to all the glamorous portraits, the razzle-dazzle dance numbers, and the sweeping romantic music as the screen fades to black. The tension between what was put on screen at odds with the human cost it took to get it there is something I find endlessly fascinating and is the overarching theme of my novels. I think that the backside of the “H” in the Hollywood sign symbolizes that struggle perfectly—what do you think?
When you live in a city built on shifting sands of myth, it can be hard to know which way is up.
Kathryn Massey spends her days spreading rumors and keeping secrets. Losing herself one headline at a time has left Kathryn’s personal identity scattered—and dumps her at the narrow end of the bargaining table with the man she trusts the least.
Gwendolyn Brick has simpler aspirations. As a costume designer, her sights are set on glamour, not heights of fame. But her friendship with Marilyn Monroe puts her directly into the crosshairs of studio head, Darryl Zanuck—and he’s someone you don’t say no to.
Marcus Adler is stuck in a much more precarious situation. Exiled in Rome but under the spell of an unexpected romance, he’ll have to learn to say goodbye to everything he’s accomplished in order to give love a chance.
In City of Myths, the road through Hollywood bears sharply to the right as those who dare to play its game can easily become lost in its intoxicating glow.
Marcus Adler vaulted onto the stone balustrade at the eastern rim of the Trevi Fountain and twisted the zoom lens on his camera. Louis Jourdan sharpened into view as the early afternoon sun reflected off the white marble, highlighting the actor’s aristocratic face. Marcus waited for a movie-star smile and knew right away his photo was a keeper.
Jean Negulesco, the director on Three Coins in the Fountain, had kept a sure hand through long days toiling in the relentless Roman summer. But September was around the corner, which meant that in four days the cast and crew would be boarding a Pan Am flight back to the States.
Everybody else would be resuming their lives and tackling the next film, but for Marcus, it meant picking up his life again.
Hello Garden of Allah Hotel.
Today they were shooting the final scene where the three couples reunited around a deserted Trevi Fountain to what Marcus guessed would be the swell of the movie’s theme song—the on-set rumor was that Frank Sinatra was going to record it.
But two rolls of film and only one usable photo was not a great ratio.
Negulesco walked out from behind the enormous Technicolor camera and approached Jourdan with a beckoning hand. As Marcus lifted his Leica to readjust the zoom, he heard a metallic clattering at his feet. One of his cufflinks bounced off the stone and plopped into the water swirling eight feet below.
It wasn’t just any cufflink; it was half of his favorite pair, two gold studs embedded with three tiny emeralds apiece. Strictly speaking, they weren’t his; they belonged to someone he’d been avoiding ever since he arrived in Italy.
Not that Marcus wanted to see Oliver Trenton. Of course, he wanted to, but Marcus knew it wasn’t healthy, so he’d avoided walking past the seminary where Oliver had enrolled in the Jesuit priesthood nearly three years before.
Filming had taken them all over the city, but never near Piazza Colonna. They were there right now, a couple of blocks from it.
Four more days, Marcus told himself, then you’ll be out of here and you can put this behind you.
The cufflink glinted on the concrete bottom of the fountain. He jumped down from the balustrade and skirted around the fountain’s edge until he was close enough to dip his fingers; the water was refreshingly cool in the stifling August heat. Marcus thought of the pool at the Garden of Allah, and how this time next week he’d be able to dive in any time he wanted. God, how he’d missed that.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Negulesco announced to the crew gathered around the Piazza di Trevi. “We have dust in the camera. Mr. Krasner and his team will need several hours to clean it all out, so I’m calling an early lunch until two o’clock.”
Marcus turned back to the water. It didn’t look too deep. Knee height, maybe? Waist deep at most. With any luck he could slip off his shoes, wade in, collect the cufflink, and wade out again before anyone objected.
“Marcus?” Negulesco curled a finger. “May I have a word?”
He joined the director in the doorway of a gelato store. “I got a great shot of Louis, and another of you two just before the camera clogged.”
“We need to talk.”
Jean Negulesco was an urbane Eastern European who eschewed shouting in favor of expressing himself with an air of genteel authority that brooked little opposition. However, in Marcus’s experience, no pleasant conversation ever started with the words “We need to talk.”
“Sure. What’s up?”
Negulesco took a long pause, heavy with apprehension. “Let’s walk.” He led Marcus out of the piazza and into one of the narrow lanes that made up the labyrinth of Rome. “River of No Return has been a rough shoot. Otto Preminger and Marilyn Monroe have not gotten along very well and evidently it shows. Zanuck has decided that a number of scenes require reshoots, and he wants me to step in.”
“For no screen credit, I assume?” Marcus asked.
“‘Take one for the team’ is how he put it.”
They turned onto a wider thoroughfare, Via del Corso, where a long newsstand hawked an array of European and international newspapers. The headline straddling The New York Times was about the Korean war. Marcus ached to find out what was happening back home, but Negulesco pressed on. This was no casual stroll.
“Does this mean you want me to accompany you on the set when we get back?” Marcus asked. “Kathryn Massey wrote to me the other day. She told me that Monroe—”
“Zanuck has plans for you.”
“Some other movie?”
Demetrius and the Gladiators and Prince Valiant were currently shooting on the Fox lot. Did either of them have a troubled script?
Negulesco remained silent for half a block. “He wants you to stay in Rome.”
Marcus halted out front of a basket store. “Nope.” He shoved his hands down his pockets and rattled the loose change inside. “I took this job so that I could get off the graylist. And when we’ve finished, I get to go back to LA and start my life over.”
“I know,” Negulesco replied quietly.
“I’m getting on that Pan Am flight and neither you nor Zanuck can stop me.” The edges of the lira coins dug into Marcus’s fingers. He pressed them harder until they hurt. “I’ve been counting the days since we got here. He can’t snatch this away from me.”
Negulesco wrapped an arm around Marcus’s shoulders and pulled him farther along the sidewalk. “There are worse things in the world than having someone like Darryl Zanuck owe you a favor.”
Marcus shrugged away the director’s arm. Its intended intimacy wasn’t lost on him, but it felt like a heavy yoke. The two men veered into a side street. It was a relief to step away from the unsettling bustle. “What were his words, exactly?”
“It was a P.S. at the end of his telegram. He said that he had extra duties for you to complete.”
“But he didn’t say what?”
“You’re to expect a telephone call sometime next week.”
“Don’t those trans-Atlantic calls cost a fortune?”
“They do, which means it must be important. And that means he trusts you. Trust is not a quality that comes easily to the Zanucks of this world.”
“So I’m supposed to wave you off at the airport, then sit around until the telephone rings?”
“Think of it as enjoying the Eternal City on someone else’s dime,” Negulesco advised. “And while you’re here, maybe you’ll have to run a few errands.”
They were standing at a pasta store window that held fifty different sorts, composed like a Picasso cubist sculpture. The arrangement was astonishingly clever, and must have taken hours to assemble.
I’m a forty-seven-year-old messenger boy.
“You won’t be off any list, gray or black, until Zanuck says so.” Negulesco pulled at Marcus’s elbow. “Let’s take a breather on that bench over there in the shade.”
It was noticeably cooler on the south side of the street. Marcus felt the tension slip from his shoulders. “If you were to take an educated guess about what these errands might be . . .?”
The director watched an old lady dressed from bonnet to shoes in widow’s black shuffle past, dragging a shopping cart behind her. Every dozen steps or so, she stopped to fan herself with her purse or nod to a storeowner she knew.
“Movie audiences are getting more sophisticated. Fake backlot versions of the Spanish Steps and the Colosseum don’t cut it anymore. For pictures like Three Coins in the Fountain, the studio is selling Europe as an authentic shooting destination. I imagine Zanuck’s going to want lots of scenic pictures of Rome.”
“That’s not something he needs to place a trans-Atlantic call for.”
“I know, which is why I’d put my money on Bella Darvi. She’s one of his new protégés. Her name came up a few times in that telegram. With The Robe poised to clean up at the box office, I think he’s looking at casting her in The Egyptian.”
The Robe was Fox’s first picture in the new widescreen CinemaScope format and was set to premiere in LA the following week. In her most recent letter, Kathryn had told Marcus that Zanuck was expecting the movie “to out-DeMille DeMille.”
But it was Marcus who had originally planted the idea for The Robe in Zanuck’s head. Hope warmed his chest as clues started to fall into place.
“Does Zanuck want to film The Egyptian at Cinecittà?” he asked Negulesco.
“The studio still has a mountain of frozen funds locked up over here—but that might be an excuse.”
“If they film in Italy, he might have to make a trip to ensure the cast and crew are happy.”
“He didn’t do it for Three Coins.”
“Ah, but our picture doesn’t feature Bella Darvi.”
Another puzzle piece. “She isn’t just a protégé, is she?”
“You asked for an educated guess, Marcus. And if life has educated me about one thing, it’s that men like Darryl F. Zanuck can think with only one part of their anatomy at a time.”
Halfway down the block, a church bell announced that it was one o’clock.
Negulesco got to his feet. “There’s a place not far from here that serves the best saltimbocca alla Romana in the whole city. Care to join me?”
“Thanks,” Marcus said, “but I need time to think. I’ll see you at the Trevi.”
Negulesco headed back the way they’d come, dissolving into the crowd of hungry locals emerging from doorways in search of lunch. “Ciao!” and “Benvenuto!” echoed off the walls as cafés and bars started to fill.
Marcus stood up and pulled his shirt away from the sweat that coated his back. He thought more clearly when he was in motion, which usually meant swimming laps, but the Garden of Allah pool was 6,327 miles away, so he’d have to make do with walking.
He turned left and headed toward the church. The bell was silent now; it had done its duty for another hour. But as he drew closer, a growing sense of trepidation rose in his throat.
Jesus H. Christ on a bicycle built for two, you’ve got to be kidding me.
For more than a month, Marcus had done everything he could to avoid standing in this exact place. Every time he’d found himself close by, he’d gone out of his way to steer clear of the Jesuit seminary off the Piazza Colonna. And yet here he was ten steps from the matching pair of ornately carved doors that separated him from Oliver. His fingers instinctively reached for the edge of his left sleeve to fiddle with the gold-and-emerald cufflink that now lay at the bottom of a fountain.
A burly man wearing a dark blue suit swept past Marcus; their shoulders brushed as he marched toward the church door. He grasped the circular brass doorknocker and pounded it against the wood.
“APRA QUESTO PORTELLO!”
During his time in Rome, Marcus had picked up a fair smattering of Italian. Open this door!
The man tightened his grip and assaulted the door. “APRA QUESTO PORTELLO!” His bellowing brought no response. He pulled off a shoe and struck the door with the heel. The sharp sound made café patrons look up and pigeons take to the air.
“DEVO PARLARE CON QUALCUNO! OGGI! ORA!”
I must speak with someone! Today! Now!
He struck the door again and again until a chunk of weathered wood broke off and fell at his feet. The man gathered it up off the cobblestones, took a couple of steps back, and threw it at the doors.
“NON SIETE UN SANTUARIO! SIETE UNA PRIGIONE!”
You are not a sanctuary! You are a prison!
His face now flushed bright, he turned and stomped past Marcus, muttering a stream of Italian too heated for Marcus to catch. The lunchtime crowds parted for him as though his fury were a contagious disease. Soon he was out of sight and the street gradually resumed its customary hubbub.
Marcus walked to the doors of Oliver’s seminary. The chunk of wood was an angel, about the size of his palm.
Three years ago, when he’d first arrived in Rome to work on Quo Vadis, Marcus had been a refugee. He had seen the Eternal City as an escape hatch from the Hollywood blacklisting that had killed his career.
But now it felt different.
Dusty. Dirty. Decaying.
The magazines might have dubbed it the center of the burgeoning jet set, but to Marcus it felt like a city stuck in its Roman Empire glory. It was the past, and he wanted to get on with his future. He felt like taking off his own shoe and banging it against the doors. That nutty guy was right. You are not a sanctuary. You are a prison.
City of Myths is due for release in FEBRUARY 2018
For tons of photos and information about the places and people mentioned
in the Garden of Allah novels, visit Martin Turnbull on Facebook
and/or go to his Photo Blog on his website.
Hollywood’s Garden of Allah novels:
- Book 1 – The Garden on Sunset
- Book 2 – The Trouble with Scarlett
- Book 3 – Citizen Hollywood
- Book 4 – Searchlights and Shadows
- Book 5 – Reds in the Beds
- Book 6 – Twisted Boulevard
- Book 7 – Tinseltown Confidential
- Book 8 – City of Myths (due out February 2018)
- Book 9 – Watch this space for future announcements