Progress toward publication of “Citizen Hollywood” – the 3rd novel in the Garden of Allah series – is about to take a big step: I’ll soon be sending the manuscript to my editor, Meghan Pinson, for the first (of two) round of editing. But for those readers out there who’d like a taste of what’s coming, I am very pleased to present the first chapter.
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Book 3 in the Garden of Allah series
Gwendolyn Brick could feel the resentment filling her like a blister. As the curvy cigarette girl at the Cocoanut Grove, she was used to being ogled, but the looks lingered longer now. They came with a smirk from the men and a sneer from the women, and there was no point pretending she didn’t know why.
It was inevitable that someone would say something. Sooner or later, a snarky bastard was going to have that one drink too many and snap off some smart line to impress his friends.
When she spotted two men in suits of imitation vicuña following the maître d’, she pegged them as trouble. They reeked of midlevel studio yes-men with enough power to sway pretty young girls. The maître d’ sat them near the dance floor, which meant they were well connected and not the sort she could afford to rebuke—especially now that Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen had bought the Trocadero. All Cocoanut Grove staff had been instructed not to put any client’s nose out of joint. No exceptions.
People were less inclined to be seen at a nightclub with mob connections, but Siegel and Cohen were influential men and their aggressive marketing had bitten into the Grove’s business. It was ten o’clock on a Friday night, and the outermost ring of tables was largely empty.
Gwendolyn had seen studio execs like these two bozos a thousand times before. They were lining the far edge of their table with empty highball glasses to advertise their drinking prowess, and within an hour, they were at four apiece. Gwendolyn watched the one with the red hair open his platinum cigarette holder and screw up his nose in annoyance. There was nothing for it but to take them head-on.
The blond one wore a pencil moustache that looked suave on Clark Gable but slimy on him. “Cigar,” he said. “Cuban if you have it. Any brand.” She handed him a one-dollar cigar and he gave her a twenty-dollar bill. “You can keep the change if you just say it for me.” A drip of sweat snuck out from under his toupee and rounded the back of his ear, but he was too plowed to notice.
“What is it you want me to say?” Gwendolyn asked.
Pencil Moustache leaned forward. “Fiddle-dee-dee.”
Gwendolyn let out a soft groan.
Back in the days before David O. Selznick cast Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind, every pretty girl from California to Maine reveled in the sparkling hope that she might be Scarlett O’Hara. Gwendolyn had even wrangled herself into what she thought was her screen test, but turned out to be Hattie McDaniel’s for the role of Mammy. Gwendolyn was just there to give Hattie someone to act off. Not that it mattered, because it became the most disastrous screen test in history. Gwendolyn’s dress caught fire and she stumbled into the backdrop and her hoop skirt flipped up, and she wasn’t wearing panties. And the camera was still rolling. In Technicolor.
“The fiddle?” Gwendolyn stalled.
Pencil Moustache grabbed her by the elbow. “Come now, you sweet lil ol’ Southern belle, you.” His fingers bit into her skin. “Say it and my nineteen bucks in change is all yours.”
Gwendolyn felt her eyes tearing up. Her gaze fell on a table of two couples. The women were talking and nodding with their heads almost close enough to touch, and both were looking directly at her. The men were simply staring at her.
She pulled out her widest smile. “Come on, fellas. How about you give a poor working girl a break?”
The guy pulled out another twenty and dropped it next to the other. He ran the tip of his finger along the edge of her tray and pushed down on it. If he let go suddenly, Chesterfields and Monte Cristos would launch in every direction. She felt his other hand wrap around her arm like a python; her hand began to throb. His chum began to snort with laughter.
Whiskey breath filled the space between them. “Less the buck for the cigar, that’s a thirty-nine-dollar tip for you, Scarlett, my dear. Not bad for three little words. Come on. Say it like you did in your screen test. Just for me.” He pushed down on the tray a little bit harder.
“Why you wanna get me in troub—”
“I hope you’ve got a very good reason why you’re manhandling my sister like that.”
Gwendolyn watched Pencil Moustache’s eyes widen as he took in all six feet four of her darling baby brother. He released her arm and cautiously lifted his finger from her tray.
Gwendolyn turned around and drank in the sight of Monty in full dress uniform. The five gold buttons down his front picked up the lights from the stage and seemed to glow like beacons against the stark alabaster of his jacket. His face was granite, but she knew that look in his eye. She used to see it when he’d just gotten away with mischief, like stealing fresh cookies from the window sill of the Crowley place around the corner.
Monty stepped up to the table and saluted. “Petty Officer First Class Montgomery Brick of the U.S. Navy, at your service.” The two lowlifes attempted salutes. “And may I present my sister, Miss Gwendolyn Brick.” The men nodded at Gwendolyn. Monty rested his palms on their table. “I’m going to assume that what I saw as I came to greet my sister after a six-year tour in the U.S. Navy helping to preserve peace during these troubled times wasn’t what it looked like.”
The men nodded slowly, as though hypnotized.
“Very good.” Monty straightened up. “Now, if you gentlemen have everything you need in the way of tobacco, I’d like to accompany my sister on her break.”
Monty led Gwendolyn to the bar at the rear of the Cocoanut Grove. Chuck, the bartender, held out his hands. “Give me your tray,” he said. “Your brother’s just had a word with the boss. You got yourself a double break tonight.”
As they walked through the bustling foyer of the Ambassador Hotel, Gwendolyn decided she wanted Monty all to herself. Opportunities like this came once every five or six years and she had to make the most of it, so she guided him out toward the deserted pool area. They stepped outside and looked up at the sky. The stars were sprinkled above them like crystals.
She tightened her grip on his arm and led him to the diving board. His cotton jacket smelled freshly laundered and was smooth under her hand. They sat side by side and she asked, “Why didn’t you let me know you were coming? How long can you stay?”
Monty seemed broader, thicker across the chest than when she last saw him. He even seemed taller. Navy life must really agree with him, she thought.
“Sorry for the short notice, Googie, but I was given forty minutes to pack. I’m only here for one night.”
“One night? Mo-Mo! That’s not fair!”
“No, it’s not fair,” he agreed, “it’s the navy. I’m en route to New York. The brass decided I was the best choice to head up the U.S. Navy exhibit at the World’s Fair.”
“What an honor!”
“Between you and me, it’s really a recruitment drive. That Hitler bastard is on the march. The military’s been gearing up all year.” He stared out across the pool for a moment, then snapped out of it. “At any rate, as soon as the ship docked, I hotfooted it over to your place. I knew you worked nights, but I thought that roommate of yours might tell me where you were.”
“Kathryn’s on a train convoy to Dodge City. Some sort of publicity campaign that Warner Bros. are putting on for the new Errol Flynn movie.”
“Lucky for me, some old drunk appeared and told me where you worked.”
Gwendolyn took his broad hands and sandwiched them between hers. “I’m so glad to see you. I know how much you love the navy life, but I hate not seeing you whenever I want. Ten years and I’ve never really gotten used to it.”
Monty’s face turned grim. “To be honest, I’m kinda worried about you.”
“Me?” Oh, dear God, no, Gwendolyn thought. She felt her face go pale. Surely he hadn’t seen her screen test all the way over in Guam?
“It’s probably not my place to say.”
“You’re my only living relative, which means you get to say it anyway.”
Monty hesitated, but not for long. “You’ve been hacking away at this movie-star game now for years, but really, sis, where’s it gotten you? Have you even been in one movie yet?”
Gwendolyn wasn’t sure where the conversation was heading, but she didn’t like the sound of it. “For your information, I had a screen test for David Selznick. Ever heard of him?” Monty shook his head. “He’s the guy producing a little picture called Gone with the Wind. I’m good friends with his wife, Irene. Her father is Louis B. Mayer. He runs MGM and earns more money than the president. So it’s not like I’ve been spinning wheels in the mud here.”
Monty’s handsome face softened from a frown into the hint of a smile. “A screen test for Gone with the Wind? How come you haven’t mentioned this in your letters?”
Because the screen test ended up being the most mortifying moment of my life, she thought. “I didn’t want to jinx my luck.”
Gwendolyn had grown accustomed to thinking of the moment she flashed her hoo-ha at the cameras as the three seconds that killed her Hollywood career. It wasn’t until Greta Garbo pulled some influential strings to get her a role in George Cukor’s new picture, The Women, that she’d regained traction. “I didn’t get the part, but I’m going to be in a new MGM picture.”
“Is it a big part? What’s your character like?”
Gwendolyn broke away from her brother’s gaze. “It’s just a walk-on, really. No lines or anything.” She looked back at him in time to see his smile fade into the shadows.
“Googie,” he said, “ten years and all you’ve got to show for it is a screen test and one little bitty role?”
Gwendolyn scowled. “Do you know how rare that is? One in a hundred thousand hopefuls gets a screen test. They have to be very, very impressed with you to order up one of those.”
Monty let go of her hand. After a few silent moments, he said, “Once my stint at the World’s Fair is over, they’re making me a chief petty officer.”
“That’s good, right?”
“For an enlisted guy, it’s pretty good, yeah. And they’re restationing me.”
“What does that mean?”
“They’re moving me.” Gwendolyn wanted to grab her brother’s hand and squeeze it real hard. Please say Long Beach! Please say Long Beach! “I’m being transferred to the Philippines.”
She crossed her arms to keep warm. Her uniform wasn’t made for plying the outdoor cigarette trade. “And where’s that, exactly?”
“It’s in the Far East. South of Japan.”
“Subic Bay is the biggest navy installation in the Pacific. This is a big step up for me, Googie.”
“You’ve really made a good life for yourself, haven’t you?” Gwendolyn took her brother by the arm and snuggled closer. “I’m very proud of you.”
“I’ll be in New York until the end of July and go to Subic Bay right after that.” Monty stiffened his spine and cleared his throat. “Why don’t you come with me?”
“Move? To the Far East?”
“That part of the world, it’s a wonderful place to live. I know tons of guys who’ve been stationed there and they all say the same thing.”
“That’s okay for you, Monty, but my life is here. I’m building a career.” As she heard the words come out of her mouth, she knew how ridiculous they sounded. You’re twenty-nine years old, she told herself. You know very well that hitting thirty in Hollywood is like hitting sixty everywhere else. You don’t have many chances left.
Monty winced. “You’ve spent ten years selling cigarettes to drunkards and letches and all you’ve got to show for it is a screen test and a bit part. That’s no career.” He grabbed her pinkie finger and wiggled it the way he used to when they were kids back in Florida with their boozed-out mother sprawled out on the couch and nobody else to look after them. It was their way of saying You and me forever.
Don’t say it, she thought. Don’t say it, don’t say it, don’t say it.
“Oh, Googie,” he said, “just how much longer are you going to wait for a big break that probably will never come?”
This chapter is also available to read on my website: