Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram (Nicholas Lawrence Press, 2005) and Almost Famous: In and Out of Show Biz (Westgate Press, 1986) and is a contributor to many others. She’s a retired clinical psychologist, former performer and film historian. Her many lengthy retrospectives on the lives of often-forgotten Hollywood performers and others have appeared in Classic Images and Films of the Golden Age. More recently, her essays and short stories have been published in more than 90 publications. Her play Life Without was produced by S2S2S, and nominated four times by the Desert Theatre League, including the Bill Groves Award for Outstanding Original Writing and Outstanding Play (staged reading). She has an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Her memoir, As Alone As I Want To Be, will be published by Adelaide Books in 2018.
Note: As with most historical fiction, the people in this story were real. The situations, however, are wholly imagined. This is one of the stories in a series that was inspired by the lives of early Hollywood legends. It is 1949.
Phantom at the Table
She had forgotten how warm the rain can be in Los Angeles. When she left her apartment on East 57th in Manhattan that afternoon, she threw on her ermine coat against the chill. The doorman had slipped on the ice as he opened the door of her town car. Now in L.A., the limo driver had his umbrella ready as she left the terminal and held it over her head.
“Welcome home, Mrs. Selznick.”
“Thank you. But this isn’t home anymore.” Since divorcing and moving to New York, her life had been on a strong footing for the first time. And it was her life, finally. No more controlling men who knew better than she did.
The driving rain obscured the sights along Lincoln Boulevard but Irene was lost in her own thoughts. How long had it been since she had been back to the Bel Air house? She didn’t think of it as home ever since her adolescence when she could occasionally escape to see how other people lived. The Mayer estate had been more like a posh prison to her and her older sister, Edie, with whom she hadn’t spoken in several years. “The Queen of Beverly Hills,” Variety had called her – entertaining at her own estate several nights a week, featured in the society pages of the Los Angeles Times nearly every Sunday. Irene had read about her father in Variety, of course. How his biggest stars were being released from their iron-clad contracts, how studio grosses were falling, how television was swallowing up the movie business. And Mother? Irene thought of her mother as the frozen, smiling palace guard, making sure everything was where it was supposed to be. She was the quiet enforcer but Irene was hard-pressed to remember any opinions her mother might have expressed that were her own. There were the frequently recited “shoulds” about how to dress, how to speak, how to walk, and most important, the imperative to confide only in the family and no one else.
Irene didn’t harbor ill will toward any of them. Not really. It was more detachment than resentment. She had walked away from all of them, even while painfully aware of the mountain of unfinished business. She had followed the rules, mostly, dodging conflict with both parents and had moved on in stops and starts. But why think of that now? She was on a mission today. In spite of the frayed cord with what was a shadow family now, she felt an unspecified obligation to them. Well, to her father, at least. She was bringing news. And she was late. That would be the first emotional obstacle to overcome.
As the limo turned east on Wilshire toward Bel Air,, Irene reminded herself that it had been her father who invited her there for dinner that evening. As usual, her mother had called to deliver the message.
“Hello, darling. Daddy thought it would be wonderful if all of us had dinner together. Just like the old days. No husbands, no children. Just the four of us.”
What an odd request, she thought, so startling she didn’t think to ask the reason. She seldom heard from her father, in fact. She saw him briefly when her play opened on Broadway, surprised that he had flown to New York to see her or maybe to take credit for it. Dinner at Luchow’s was stilted, both of them involuntarily regressing to their familiar dinner table conversations – all about him and his business dealings. He hadn’t said a word about the play. Nor had he called later after the announcement by the Critics Circle that the play she cast and produced had been nominated for Best Play of the year. So why the command performance tonight? Is he dying? Selling the studio? Given the history, she chuckled, it must be about the studio somehow. It didn’t matter. She had her own agenda.
The limo maneuvered slowly up the driveway to the off-white mansion on St. Cloud, near the top of the mountain. She used to tell her one friend, “It was all the happiness money could buy.”
“I’ll take care of your luggage, Mrs. Selznick.”
“Thank you.” She didn’t know this driver, but she had fond memories of the other help, the real people in her life growing up.
She walked to the front door and just for a second, hesitated. Should she knock? She had forgotten how forbidding and foreboding this place was. The neoclassical limestone exterior made it look as if it belonged in another country, another century. She took a deep breath and opened the unlocked door to the imposing two-story entrance. No one was there but she could hear voices coming from the distant dining room. She forced a smile and walked toward the noise. All three of them were seated at the table among cocktails and hors d’oeuvres.
“Hi, everybody. I’m sorry to be late. The plane was delayed and the traffic on Wilshire was awful.” She had learned early on to provide the excuses up front, forestalling the possibility of blame.
Edie, of course, was the first to pile on. “We’ve been waiting over an hour.”
Mother read her scripted lines, just like the old days. “It’s all right, Darling. We’re just glad you’re here. Would you like a drink?”
“No, thanks, Mother. I had a nip in the limo.”
She heard the familiar growl. “Hello, Irene. You’re late. As usual.” She reached over to hug her father. It was easy to maintain the distant A-frame connection since he hadn’t risen from his chair. The tension was palpable before anyone said much at all, even after a likely 20 years had passed since they all sat at this table. Like a bad movie, Irene thought, film noir. Certainly not an MGM production. They had to be bright and colorful with the inevitable happy ending.
Irene noticed that Edie looked as if she had work done on her face but that was logical, given how often she was in the public eye. She couldn’t have her celebrity guests looking better than she did. Irene knew she had to work to be cheerful with her sibling enemy.
“And how’s the celebrated Mrs. Goetz? No parties tonight?” Irene couldn’t help the snark, a conditioned response. Edie merely smiled.
The server entered with the first course, a salad.
“Oh, Morton. I’m so glad to see you. How are you? How’re the kids?”
“Thanks for asking, Mrs. Selznick. They’re all grown up. I’m a grandfather now.”
“I put a few extra croutons on your salad. Just as you like it.”
“How lovely. You remembered. Thank you.”
When Morton left, Margaret couldn’t help herself.
“You shouldn’t be so familiar with the help, Dear.”
Then Edie echoed what sounded like a well-rehearsed line, spoken while bored. “They need to know their place.”
Time seemed stopped inside Irene’s head. She could feel the oxygen thinning out and consciously struggled to deepen her breath intake. So this is how it’s going to be.
“Oh, come on. We grew up with him. He’s like family.”
Edie quickly jumped in. “No, he’s not.”
Margaret leaned forward. “Isn’t it nice that we’re all together again? Just the four of us?”
This was the opening Irene had waited to hear.
“Yes. Why are we here, Daddy?”
L.B. didn’t look up at his daughter but kept the flow of salad sailing into his mouth. He barely looked up from the stack of papers just to the left of the salad plate.
“I’ve missed you, Irene.” Another big bite, then with a mouthful, “Oh, and you, too, Edie.”
That made Irene quietly laugh. Same old Daddy. She knew she had been his favorite. Edie knew it, too, and it didn’t sit well. Why did he stoke their sibling rivalry that way? These days, Irene assumed that her parents saw Edie often, since they all entertained the same A-list Hollywood personalities.
L.B. pushed the empty salad plate aside. “Remember when we’d go fishing off the Malibu pier? We’d spend the whole day together.”
“I remember, Daddy. More like an hour. You were so busy.”
“We’d talk and talk and talk. You were a good listener.”
“Not much choice. You never asked about me or my life.”
He shrugged. “I didn’t have to. I knew what you were doing. Where you were going. Who you were going with. I knew you wouldn’t tell anyone what we discussed.”
“Yeah. I was just a kid but I knew all the secrets behind the scenes. I loved that part of it. Whose little traffic accident was being finessed, whose wife was having an affair, who was gay…”
Margaret interjected. “You didn’t tell Irene things like that, did you, Lou? She was way too young to hear that.”
L.B. and Irene grinned at each other like co-conspirators. But all that was a long time ago, she thought, and only a brief respite from the stifling and repressive conditions of her childhood. An oasis in the emotional desert.
“OK. Daddy. Aren’t you going to tell us why we’re here?”
The silence had lingered too long for comfort when Morton entered to clear the plates, returning a few minutes later with the entrée. For the first time since she arrived, she sat back in her chair and looked around the capacious dining room, larger than many people’s homes. The table dwarfed the four of them but the intent had always been clear: to keep everyone at a distance. The walls were covered with original paintings of the masters, the better to reflect the artificially cultivated values of the patriarch, flamboyantly demonstrating his success. The room housed not one but two Rodins. Tonight, she realized for the first time it was like one of his movie sets. Everything was perfect. Except the casting.
Irene reconsidered how she would bring up her news. Should she wait until the end of the meal? Should she defer until she heard her father’s reason for the dinner? She didn’t like to admit it, but there was still a part of her that felt like a child in his presence. He wasn’t a large man, his face a stoic Rorschach, making him seem invincible and commanding, even in his own home. If his news was bad, she reasoned, she might not get her moment at all. Growing up in a show biz family left her with an awareness of timing and staging.
Margaret smiled at her husband. “Look, Lou. Mildred prepared your favorite meal, beef stroganoff.”
Irene knew her family was never short on irony. The daughters had been invited for some sort of mysterious special occasion but the meal had been selected to please the boss. Why did she think it would be any different? There was something so predictable, familiar in its demeaning pathology. The sauce smelled good, though, the plate garnished just so.
L.B. suddenly pointed toward her. “You’re staying here tonight.”
Edie responded quickly. “Well, I’m not. I have a house to go to. And a husband.”
Irene chose to ignore the slime on her divorced status. She had promised herself not to get distracted or get caught up in this again.
“No, not tonight. I reserved a suite at the Beverly Wilshire. I have to get back to New York tomorrow.” No reason to stay any longer than necessary, she thought. But now time was running out on this gathering and there had been no discussion of consequence.
L.B. paused, gesturing with his fork in front of his face. “You know, you girls turned out pretty well. Edie, you’re the best hostess in all of Beverly Hills. Like a movie star without having to work for it. Your house is like the goddamned White House. Everyone wants an invitation. And Irene. Well, you’ve surprised us all.”
Uh oh. She opted for a decidedly lighter tack. “Because I divorced David?”
“No, no. Though I told you he was a no-good asshole. Never liked his father, either. Cheaters, liars, Pagans, Communists.”
Cue the smoothing mother. “We don’t need to go into all that, do we, Dear?”
Irene sat, waiting for the next line. She knew there was more. There was always more.
“Irene, you’ve become a successful producer. Who knew you had it in you?”
She was used to this backhanded praise. To dissect it would be too complicated and not the goal of the evening’s mission.
Was this the opening she needed? She started to feel some internal pressure, a sudden urge to bolt. Her heart increased its tempo and her mouth started to go dry.
She sucked in her stomach and began with simulated cheer. “I have an announcement.”
Edie declared as if she knew what it was. “You’re getting married again!”
“Absolutely not.” She laughed, easing her own tension. “Better than that, I hope. And more permanent. I’m writing a book.”
She looked at everyone’s blank faces, one by one. Her mother predictably poured syrup over the portentous disclosure.
“That’s nice, Dear. But I don’t know how you find the time with everything else you’re doing. You’re so busy back there in New York.”
Edie couldn’t help herself. “What’s it about?”
With his expected demeanor of certainty, her father signaled he knew by wagging his index finger.
“It’s about me. Who better to write my biography than my own daughter? I could have the studio guys do it but they’d get it all wrong.”
Her breathing grew faster now. She felt frozen in the well-padded chair. When Morton came in to retrieve the plates, she felt both relief and impatience.
“For dessert, Mildred has prepared petit fours, Boston cream pie and chocolate cake. We also have vanilla ice cream, if anyone would like it.”
Irene couldn’t imagine eating now. She had barely made it through the entrée, which wasn’t all that good. Too heavy, like everything else tonight. She and her mother both declined. Edie asked for a piece of the cake. L.B., as usual, wanted it all.
“Just bring me a piece of everything. Ice cream on the side.”
As he left the room, Irene knew the spotlight was on her. Time for her close-up.
“Daddy, I’m sure your life would be a fascinating read but I’m writing an autobiography.”
Her mother smiled and nodded. “So it’s about your father?”
Irene had learned to respond to her mother’s limitations with patience. It was even more important tonight to keep it all as neutral as possible.
“No, Mother. Auto. As in self. It’s about me.”
Edie emitted an unguarded and inappropriately raucous guffaw. “Why would anyone want to read about you?”
Irene dreaded her father’s reaction but he remained silent, studying the white tablecloth directly in front of him. It was perfect timing for Morton to deliver the desserts. If it had been a movie, she thought, there would be a loudly ticking grandfather clock.
L.B. dug into the Boston cream pie with alacrity. “Your years with Selznick could be a major motion picture – a horror movie. Great topic for a book. If it sells, the studio might buy it.”
Irene felt some inner homunculus pushing her forward into the abyss.
“Well, the publisher wants stories from my life. My whole life.” She tried out a chirpy laugh. “You know, people are fascinated by us. We’re famous. At least, you are, Daddy. The editor wants to read stories from my childhood.”
She wasn’t prepared for the total silence again and was startled when Edie spoke.
“What did you write about me?”
Out of the corner of her eye, she could see her mother fall back into her chair, as if swooning. Her words spilled out in an accusatory way, but with a whine.
“Oh, Irene. How could you? Your father spent so much time and money managing what goes out of this house, haven’t you, Lou? What will Louella and Hedda say?”
L.B. was still again, escalating the tension. It was uncharacteristic of him to edit himself or control his impulses. In a rapidly spewing internal dialogue, Irene worked to reassure herself that she doesn’t live inside this family any more. That she’s nearly 40 years old, divorced with two children. That she’s a successful Broadway producer. That she has friends, even some doting men in her life. The deafening stillness was interrupted intermittently by the clanking of his fork against the plate as he devoured the pie.
Never one to absorb subtlety, Edie repeated herself, this time a little louder. “What did you say about me?”
Perhaps it would be enough to quell the unspecified threat, she thought. Maybe they’d settle for this. It was all about containment now.
“I wrote about how you teased me all the time about my stutter. I think you liked to see me cry.”
As usual, Margaret stated the revisionist history. “Edie wouldn’t do that, Irene. You two girls got along just fine.”
It was as if the corpse of the old script had been resuscitated. Edie cocked her head to one side, like she did when she would tease Irene. “Rene, Rene, Rene, who s-s-s-s-stutters a-a-a-all the t-t-t-time.”
Irene let her have that one. It only proved her point
“I also wrote about how you were the pretty one.”
Margaret nodded. Edie was quick to agree. “Well, that part’s true.”
Now that she had delivered the news, Irene began to formulate her departure strategy. It hadn’t been so bad, after all. She could feel her breathing returning almost to normal. And then he spoke.
“What else, Irene? About the family.”
“Oh, I don’t really want to…”
His tone grew more insistent, the one few safely ignored. “I want to know. What else?”
This was the moment she was dreading. She scanned her memory, trying to come up with something that would be prudent, long forgotten in the past, something that wouldn’t raise the temperature.
“Um. I wrote about how you wouldn’t let me go to college.”
She watched all three of them visibly relax. It had been just the proper disclosure, apparently. Oddly.
“I did you a favor. Girls don’t need to go to college. You and Edie have done just fine without that bookish folderol. Your mother taught you everything you needed to know.”
“Thank you, Dear.” Margaret seemed relieved.
Irene couldn’t leave it alone. She wondered how long she could quell the rising volcano. “But you wouldn’t let me read books, either. I had to sneak off to the library after school to read anything other than textbooks.”
Margaret in her reassuring tone added, “You’re right, Dear. If I saw a book in your bedroom, I’d tell Mildred to throw it out.”
Irene wouldn’t let her family know how appalling this had been to her, then and now. But she serendipitously had found the perfect example. Now if she could only find an exit line…
“What else?” the lion roared as he stuffed the remainder of the ice cream in his mouth.
She quickly reviewed some of the stories in the book, ones that could be considered neutral or even flattering. She knew about her mother secretly sending money each month to her father’s older sisters when he wouldn’t cough up a cent. That went on for years. He thought they were deadbeats, undeserving of their brother’s largesse. Irene adored her aunts. No, that probably wouldn’t be a good choice. No reason to create dissent between her parents.
OK, she said to herself. This one will be in the book. She understood she was entering a minefield and would wonder later why she took such a chance. But there was one particular event she needed to discuss, a harbinger. She decided to lead into it slowly, shaping each word like a sculptor.
“You were strict with us in every conceivable way, Daddy, rules about everything – who we could talk to, what we should discuss, what we could wear. You wouldn’t let us close our bedroom door even if we were alone. You didn’t want us to be around boys or have friends outside the family.”
She saw him nodding. “I was always thinking of you girls. You were my only concern. I treated you with no less care than I would my stable of shining stars.”
Of course, she knew that wasn’t true. It was seldom about their welfare. The only time he was home was for dinner. And then all he talked about was his day at the office. But that wasn’t the topic here. Stay on track, she reminded herself.
“Remember the night you invited Charlie Chaplin over for dinner? I wanted very much to meet him. I loved his movies. I waited for that night all week. It’s all I could think about. I wondered if I might talk to him about his work but I knew I shouldn’t. It would have made you angry.”
Her mother smiled, reminiscing about what she thought had been a lovely evening at home.
“I remember that night very well. Thelma called his cook to find out what he liked and made his favorite dinner. Veal scaloppini, as I recall it, with raw cauliflower and hollandaise. It was a perfect meal. Cocktails before. Didn’t we have a string trio that night, too? After we dined, you took him into the den for cigars and brandy, Lou. It was a wonderful evening.”
As usual, her father’s impatience broke through, fracturing the warmth of her mother’s words.
“Why would you write about that? It’s shabby to use Chaplin’s name to sell books, Irene.”
In spite of the alarms going off in her head, Irene continued. This might be her only chance, not only to clarify that evening but to warn her father of what was to come – in print.
“There was much more going on that night. First, Edie, you were all over him. You kept smiling at him, making goo-goo eyes, laughing too hard at all his jokes, sitting too close on the sofa. It was embarrassing.”
Edie stiffened to defend herself. “I was just being polite. A good hostess.”
Again, Irene let this ridiculous assertion go. No point in getting distracted with family garbage. At least not this particular bundle.
“But the part that was confusing to me then, the part you’re all forgetting. He brought a guest with him that night.”
Margaret bristled. Irene had sensed this might rile her, perhaps more than it would her father. “Oh, yes. That woman.”
“Mother, it wasn’t a woman. It was a girl. A teenager. She couldn’t have been much older than we were.”
Edie tried to get the focus off her attempted seduction of Chaplin.
“I remember now. She looked like she had troweled the makeup on. Drowned herself in cheap cologne. Clothes too tight. Whoa. How could I forget that?”
A funny little smile crept over her father’s face. Irene had seen that face before, as he sat behind his massive desk at the studio. He put on that smile when Garland walked in or when he looked at Lana Turner. His features softened.
“She was lovely.”
When her mother spoke, it was so soft. It was almost a whisper.
“They all were.”
So many scenes flooded back in that moment but Irene had to be selective. Say it and get out of there. “She was underage. After all your pontificating about right and wrong, lecturing us about proper conduct. It was confusing to me then. Not now, of course.”
L.B.’s voice suddenly grew louder and full of tension. He banged his fist on the table. “I couldn’t control who Chaplin brought into my home. He was a guest.”
Seeing her father come undone surprisingly emboldened her.
“Daddy, you controlled everything and everybody. This one seemed to slip through somehow. Why is that?”
She knew she was taking a risk but it didn’t matter anymore. Nobody confronted L.B., especially not a woman. Especially not his daughter.
“I wanted to sign Chaplin. His career had fallen in the toilet with the talkies. I could have had him for next to nothing. Why do I have to explain this to you? This is my family, not yours. Don’t you ever forget that.”
Of course, he had always made that clear. The family was merely the petals of a daisy with her father at the center. She saw her mother shift uncomfortably in her chair. Her smile looked frozen in place as she spoke.
“Well, I didn’t see anything. I thought we were just having a pleasant evening.”
The family dynamics flashed through Irene’s head like a movie trailer. Daddy was always right, no matter what. And Mother was half-blind to all of it. She didn’t want to stop to comment, tempting as it was. There would be time in the book for that. She knew she had to finish this off.
“I didn’t know what was happening that night, why I was so uncomfortable. I do now.”
The silence was almost like white noise. Her words sliced right through it.
“Chaplin was screwing that poor girl. Or was about to.”
Her father waved his hand in dismissal. “That’s none of your business, Irene. Mine, either. Men will be men. You can’t fight nature.”
Irene knew, of course, these things happened in the business where there seemed to be no ground rules. She didn’t care about Chaplin’s reputation for bedding young girls. She knew how the business of seduction worked. This was much closer to home. The non sequitur between that night and her father’s sanctimoniousness was too dissonant to ignore.
Her eyes met his, black and cold. “Daddy, did you sign that girl to a contract?”
Once again, the scene was interrupted by Morton who entered with a whoosh. Margaret had likely pressed the bell summoning him like a 911 call.
“Would anyone like more dessert? Something else, perhaps?”
When no one responded, he backed out with the same velocity with which he entered.
L.B. cleared his throat. Irene got a whiff of his aftershave, now wafting over the table.
“Irene. I won’t discuss this with you. What goes on at the studio is not your business.”
There had been many like that young girl, likely passed around. All part of being “studio property.” But she knew her scene in tonight’s family drama was almost over. It would be futile to continue and anything that followed would be awash with the familiar family clichés. She rose to leave.
“Don’t go.” His forcefulness startled her. For a second, she hoped he wanted to discuss it, to finally break through the two-dimensionality of their relationship. He continued. “I have something to say to you. Both of you. Sit down.”
Irene looked over at an alert and anxious Edie and noticed her mother staring into her own lap. She sat, thinking this to be perhaps her last act of obedience to her father.
“I called you both here because I want to say….Your mother and I are getting a divorce.”
Irene quizzically looked to her mother. “What? Mother?”
He cut her off. “It wasn’t up to her.”
Margaret spoke as if announcing the results of her bridge game. “It’s true, Dear. It was your father’s decision. It has been coming for a long time.”
Irene assumed there was another woman or women. It had to be somebody special because her mother had endured his persistent infidelity over the years.
“Daddy, is there someone else?”
“Of course not. And it’s none of your business.”
Edie, roused from her stupor, swiveled her glance back and forth between who she thought were her loving parents. “I don’t believe it. It can’t be true. What will I do? What will people think? What will Bill think? What can I tell him?”
L.B.’s easily roused anger returned. “This is about the family, Edie. Not Bill. And not you.”
Irene watched her retreat, just as her mother had done all those years. Don’t ask, don’t tell. And, above all, don’t confront.
L.B. pulled his soiled napkin off his nap, threw it on the table and rose. “I’m going back to the studio for a while. I have a meeting with Dore Schary. Good night, girls. Good night, Margaret.”
The three women sat stiffly in their chairs, watching him walk out the door. It was likely only seconds, but it seemed longer. “I’m going home,” Edie choked out. “I can’t take this any more.”
When she was out of sight, Irene turned to her mother, a question in her eyes. Irene was suddenly feeling the weight of the evening but she knew she had to finish this conversation because these conditions would never be the same. Some invisible layer had been peeled away.
“I’m sorry. You did your best. I know that.” Her mother merely nodded. “Aren’t you angry at him?”
“Of course. A little. I knew about…his life outside the family. But I didn’t know about her.”
“I’ve just put it together myself over the past few years. How you kept it all together, the family illusions, minimizing conflict. I always wondered why Daddy was the only one who was allowed to get mad.”
Her mother nodded again. Irene had an idea. But maybe it was too soon. What the hell, she thought. She’d laid so much out there tonight already. She reached into her purse and pulled out a business card. She looked at it and handed it to her mother.
“This is my publisher’s card. Just a thought. When you’re ready, I’ll bet you have a story to tell.”
Margaret abruptly dropped the card on the table. “I could never do anything like that. It wouldn’t be fair to your father.”
Irene laughed. “Fair? You’re concerned with fairness? Think about it while your lawyer is negotiating with his, while he’s trying to screw you out of your life. You’ve never been on an equal footing. Can’t you see that now?”
Irene got up, came around behind her and gave her mother a hug. “I have to leave in the morning but I hope you’ll come and visit me in New York any time you want. Good night.”
She walked out of the dining room for what could be the last time. She turned around for one last look and saw her mother sitting at the massive table alone, staring at the card.
She did what she had come to do but she knew there would always be a need for further family excavation. There would be another chapter to write. No matter what, her father would land on his feet. Or someone else’s. She was eager to return to New York where the weather was the only thing that chilled her.