"But tiara has originality. The standard line runs 'the sky was a shimmering tent,' " I offered. "It goes with, 'The lawn was a velvety blanket.' "
She shuddered. "Manicured is what they used to say. Oh god, if you live long enough you hear every word trashed." Like awesome. Today a friend sees a movie loaded with special defects and it's awesome or amazing. Someone slurps an over-priced chocolate mousse and it's awesome and amazing. I try to avoid those with a vocabulary of 400 words, but this becomes more difficult each day. Edith Wharton claimed that Americans suffered from imitative behaviour; it now extends to language. Just gimme some good old slang like the purity of the word: malarky.
My hand gripped her shoulder, gently. "Malarky, Hope." I stopped, realizing I hadn't before uttered her name.
"Yes, chappy. There's no malarky to Hope. And never confuse Hope with Faith, Felicity or Chastity." I had no idea what we were talking about. What a perfect afternoon.
We were both now a tad tipsy and plumped down on pillows like Buzz, with the champagne between us. I didn't say anything. I couldn't. You know that feeling? Well, I seldom do -- not unless I'm a little bit in love or intimidated. More champagne was poured and cigarettes lit. As I gulped the fresh air, she looked at me oddly as if to ask if I had a heart condition.
"Buzz told me you were from Los Angeles. At some point. Does that mean--" I quickly interrupted: "Yes. My entire family was in show business."
She seemed a little disordered. Was she hearing funereal organ music for prayer? And then she'd be forced to admit, as the pitiful tart says in Billy Wilder's "Ace in the Hole": Kneeling bags my nylons. It was time to put her at ease. "There were three ministers. My father and two brothers-in-law." Her face softened like pinkish spun sugar."I know all about religion from backstage. I've seen and heard too much, so I've only -- ever -- felt comfortable in a theatre, any kind, anywhere. Theatre is love. Church is sanctum of smug, smarmy, self-righteous bigotry coming from the most appalling 'pewed' people. Both are concepts of performance art."
"A life of extreme contrasts, with an amusement tax," Hope said, giving me a sweeping gaze of approval.
"A life of shadow and surface," I suggested. The substance is my intolerance of hypocrisy, naivete and sentimentality. Yet everything contradicts, because life is an irreverent comedy. It doesn't carry a tax, but it does have a price. And I am often overdrawn at the comedic bank. Fierce independence, personal fulfillment and romantic dreams spin off in wildly different directions. The worldling learns that there are no easy solutions in this hall of mirrors.
"Take care of the sense," Hope said, quietly, "and the sounds will take care of themselves." Quoting Lewis Carroll, a most favorite author, she said he was worldier, wiser, and, definitely wittier than Noel Coward. She'd known him in the '20s but they only worked together on the Hecht-MacArthur film, "The Scoundrel." He liked her, she said, "Because he knew I didn't give a damn and he did give a damn" -- specifically about his own celebrity. He took himself very seriously.
Speaking in her low, butter-milky voice, while Cicero still splashed and Buzz semi-snored, she recalled that Coward and Alexander Woollcott, the arrogant, snarly and hilarious critic-essayist and radio personality -- the pus bag who inspired "The Man Who Came to Dinner" by Kaufman & Hart -- had a rivalry mixed with admiration. At a weekend party, which Aleck hosted, Coward took stage center and purred that he'd finished a new play for the Lunts, and he would read the first act.
"Where?" Aleck demanded.
The play turned out to be a major flop called "Point Valaine." Noel Coward leaves a legacy of six enduring comedies of character -- outshining any comic playwright of the last 100 years (Neil Simon writes sitcoms). When Coward tries to be 'dramatic' he's a soggy scone and woefully sentimental. "Valaine," (1935) was a singular turkey for the Lunts: set on an island in the West Indies, Lynn Fontanne (a missionary's daughter) owned a hotel and Alfred Lunt was her #1 servant-lover. When she has an indiscreet dalliance with a guest, Lunt plays savagely on his accordian - I'm not making this up -as she musically growls, "Have you gone mad?" He quickly insists upon slobbering "--my kisses on your lips and my spittle on your face."
Then he leaps off a balcony to his death. Oh dear.
Coward later admitted that first-nighters were comatose and the experience strained his friendship, for a time, with the Lunts. (It might be a hit today with drag queen Charles Busch in the Fontanne role). They'd all met in the early '20s and speculation persists that "the boys" had a quick intermission. Coward later wrote the triangular sex comedy, "Design for Living," for the three of them. But throughout the long marriage and career of the Lunts there was never a smidgen of scandal. Biographers conclude -- and probably correctly -- that the stage provided a sex life. They smooched and cuddled which their female fans adored. So in love. Now that's enough. Lord Alfred and Lady Lynn. The stage was their entire life.
Hope Williams spoke fondly of Coward, with clear, crystal-like thoughts. "He was a prodigy -- aloof, almost alien. Before America entered World War 2, he was here for pro-British reasons, maybe a bit of Allied spying...We spent a weekend together in Fairfield, Connecticut, where his producer-manager Jack Wilson and his wife lived. She was a white Russian. Beautiful. Natasha Paley. Jack had stage-door johnnied Noel years earlier in London. Noel was captivated by this handsome, adoring Yalie. From lovers, they became friends and business partners until the '50s when Jack became alcoholic and Noel discovered financial mismanagement. Did you realize that Jack (John C. Wilson) 'directed' the original 'Kiss Me, Kate'? Until he got bloated, he had the pick of the incoming crop -- but nothing disturbed his marriage. If you must live with someone, it can be an ideal arrangement. It's an exchange of money, status, acceptablity, companionship. So much rot is written about the Happy Marriage, my god. I've never known any. I have observed pretense and couples playing 'let's pretend.' It's all nonsensical sentiment. It's not a state for which I have the slightest sympathy. The Hollywood Ending. It does't exist." She then spoke of the mariage blanc -- what the French call the 'marriage of convenience,' and how, in days when it wasn't simply convenient but required, it really worked : Cole & Linda Porter, producer Guthrie McClintic & Katharine Cornell, novelist-photographer Carl Van Vechten and actress Fania Marinoff -- all of whom were not only allies but also the best of friends.
"How do you feel about love?" she asked.
"Love or sex? Love is tough, sex is easy. Even educated fleas do it."
Buzz roused himself with a whooping stretch. "I heard every word you two said. C'mon, Hope, with whom did fat Aleck do it?"
"Woollcott?" she said dismissively. "He had the mumps as a youngster, so he couldn't do it."
"Mumps," Buzz sneered. "That entire Algonquin set musta had the mumps. KKerist! I exclude George Kaufman cuz Mary Astor's diary, read during her divorce, described his appendix." Buzz gave us a jaunty wink as he stumbled into the salon and headed toward the galley. We heard a clatter of pans from there, a few bumpity-thumps and I knew he had just collided with the unbreakable. High time for a pertinent movie review and how -- I believe -- Vernal Miller became Buzz Miller.
The Blue Dahlia (1946)
The one original screenplay by Raymond Chandler, esteemed by the British literati as a brilliant writer, though viewed by many US critics as just another hard-boiled technician. He wasn't interested in adapting his own novels; the idea of reworking his material bored him stiff. Chandler was under contract to Paramount which needed a new movie for its box-office hottie, Alan Ladd, immediately. Ladd began his career in radio because he was so small. His height differs, according to the account. Five feet 5 inches or 6 inches. One inch makes a big difference. He had scored earlier as a gangster whose demeanor was far removed from the thuggish features of George Raft. Critics applauded his emotionless, unsmiling, "cold angel face," the Sunday School boy as a killer. He was teamed with Veronica Lake who was just over five feet. Ray Chandler called her Moronica Lake.
Chandler did a treatment and before a line was written the film went into production. "How do I get myself into these jams?" he asked. Soon the shoot caught up with pages coming from Chandler. What to do? He made a Faustian bargain. He'd scribble at home - round the clock - on vitamins and alcohol if the studio provided Nurses & Secretaries & Limos to hustle over pages as he pulled them from his typewriter. At end, he collapsed. The film was a smash hit, but the War Department, it's said, demanded plot changes. It didn't want returning vets suffering from nightmares. So, the killer of Ladd's unfaithful wife turns out to be a sleazy house detective, and the film became, in Ray's view, "another whodunit." In Chandler's script, vet Alan Ladd has a wounded war bud, William Bendix, with a steel plate in his noggin'. Now and then he hears an awful "buzzzzing noise." He's nicknamed Buzz. When the "monkey music" goes off, he kills the rouged dame who's servicing servicemen. "They say the film is good," Chandler said, adding: "Good original screenplays are almost as rare in Hollywood as virgins."
If you forget the watered-down ending, it's cynical, kick-in-the-teeth fun, and you get to hear Buzz order a bourbon straight -- with a bourbon chaser! (I'm reminded that Tallulah's last words are said to be, "Bourbon! Morphine!") Anyway, by the time Vernal completed his first dance audition he was Buzz Miller and this happened shortly after "The Blue Dahlia" opened. Our Buzz was starting to uncork yet another bottle of champagne, but Hope Williams urged him to save it for another day - giving me a meaningful glance, as I myself hiccoughed. We stacked the pillows and returned glasses and snacks to the circular table. Buzz was at the bookcase again, pulling out a book of memoirs by Noel Coward and pointing at Hope. "He calls this lady 'beguiling' -- godamnit --"a brilliant but disappointingly brief stage career.' Now, listen: 'her lack of ego lured her away to gentler pleasures.' " He stopped reading. His eyes teared. We can all talktalktalk and still be misunderstood.
"Buzz, I wanted gentler pastures. You must tell Paul - sometime - about Eva Tanguay." Then to me: "He has scrapbooks." Buzz turned pale, clammed up. "Naw. She was a pervert. You just wanna change the subject."
"I like perverts," I gambled. "It simplifies matters. Take my word for it."
Hope moved to the door. I wondered if I'd see her again. "Buzz has my number." An address book wouldn't fit into her purse. And I was too shy to offer her mine; besides, she knew where to reach me or how. Hope squeezed my hand. "Chappy, the hardest thing to do is look at your own soul. Damn few do. Cause damn few are even alive." She brushed my cheek, then hurried down the steps to the foyer door. "There's no universal code or view of life," she murmured, "other than the importance of freedom. And we know that. A line from 'Holiday.' Life's a grand little ride, if you take it yourself." Her blue eyes imparted overbred wisdom. I wanted more, a lot more.
Very gracefully, Hope Williams slipped away.
(End Part 1)