“Slow down, Chuck, or you’ll get us both killed!”
A giggle bubbled up through her as she clutched the scarf tied around her pillowy ash-blond hair. The ends of the floral silk flapped, billowing out like a sail in the warm sun.
In spite of her protest, she loved the speed. It brought the delicious sensation of being scared and excited at the same time. Giving in to the moment, she tipped her head back against the car seat of their convertible, tore off the scarf and let her hair fly away from her face.
Fresh air and sunshine could cleanse anything. Her mother always said it took the pockets of darkness away, and that seemed to be true in Hollywood especially. She said that very thing when they came here the last time, in 1923, when she was an impressionable child of twelve, and Harlean had never forgotten it. Mother still believed Hollywood was a magical place, even though she had been too old for that magic to turn her into a star.
Harlean felt the return of that old excitement as she entered this place again. Childhood memories flooded back as she and Chuck drove between endless orange groves beneath an arc of brilliant azure sky.
This impetuous trip was meant as an escape from the darker things they had left behind in the Midwest. The sudden way they had eloped last September, with Chuck twenty and she just sixteen, had only been the start of the turmoil. Then there were her grandfather Harlow’s reproving words, and her mother’s tearful charge that she had officially just ruined her life by marrying a spoiled boy, even though he had a trust fund. That had fomented Chuck’s rabid desire to arrange their escape—and Harlean had agreed. After all, she had turned seventeen a month later, and so she, too, felt ready for a grown-up adventure.
She squeezed her summer-blue eyes closed and tipped her face up toward the sun, refusing to think about any of that anymore. When she opened her eyes again, she glanced over at her young husband, his nose dusted with a pale coppery spray of freckles, the waves of his wind-buffeted cinnamon-colored curls spilling onto his cheeks over stylish horn-rim sunglasses.
Men didn’t have a right to be so appealing, she thought to herself. No matter who was angry with her back home for their impetuous trip to a justice of the peace six months earlier, she wasn’t sorry she had gone against them to marry him. Really, was there anything more important than being in love with a man who took her breath away?
“I’m gonna do right by you, Harlean. See if I don’t,” he had earnestly promised her two days before they’d eloped, as they lay across the front seat of this same green roadster, wound together, bathed in perspiration. He didn’t know it had not been her first time, but he had confessed it had been his. That had only made her love him more.
He gripped the steering wheel more tightly now as they finally entered the vibrant city and then turned onto Sunset Boulevard.
Hollywood, she thought, her heart soaring. I’m back! Harlean hadn’t a clue where they would sleep tonight, but she knew they were going to begin their married life here. They would work out the rest of the details later.
“So, does the place look any different to you, doll?”
“Oh, gosh, it hasn’t changed a bit!” she replied excitedly as they passed Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and a crowd of tourists milling outside looking for the footprints of their favorite motion picture stars. “Did I tell you we saw Miss Pola Negri there once before a picture show?”
“You’ve told me a few times,” Chuck answered with a wink, followed by an indulgent grin.
“Most beautiful, exotic creature I ever saw.” Harlean sighed wistfully at the memory of the dark-haired superstar, wrapped in ermine, waving and tossing kisses outside of the crowded theater.
“I’ve read everything about her in the movie magazines, you know. Mommie tried to get her autograph that day but it was too crowded. When the fans surged to close around her, Miss Negri ended up leaving without signing anything that day.”
“Your mother was hoping a bit of Miss Negri’s stardust would rub off on her, no doubt?”
Harlean heard the usual hint of sarcasm in his voice. It always showed up in discussions about her mother, who he knew perfectly well had tried everything to find her own stardom when they lived here last, but Harlean was determined to ignore it. Nothing in the world could ruin the excitement of today. “She tried to get the autograph for me. Mommie’s idol was always Clara Bow.”
“The ‘It Girl,’ hmm?”
“You knew people called her that?”
“Listen, doll, I’m not a complete dunce.” He chuckled and took off extra fast from the intersection at Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea.
The drive soon took them onto a gracefully curving avenue lined with palm trees. She had only been this way once when she was here as a child. It was an up-and-coming residential area called Beverly Hills, dotted with chic, new homes. They had driven here the last time because her mother had wanted to show her the outside of the grand Beverly Hills Hotel.
“Everyone who is anyone stays here these days. All of the stars,” Jean had told her daughter. “This is the place to be seen. If I catch a break, someday you and I won’t be stuck down here on the street. We’ll drive up and park beneath that big canvas awning, then sashay inside right along with the rest of them.”
Harlean fought a wave of nostalgia as Chuck drove the roadster right up the long driveway, past the distinctive green hotel sign with the elegant scroll lettering.
“Where do you think you’re going? We’re sure to get caught,” she gasped in a panic. “This is a private road, Chuck!”
“Yes it is, doll, only for the paying guests.”
“My mother said this place costs a fortune!”
“Then it’s a good thing I have one,” he returned with a wink.
Chuck didn’t like to talk about the accident that had left him wealthy, and he had only told her the story once. It was that night on this same car seat, with the top down, beneath a vast and sparkling canopy of stars.
“At least they died together,” he had said quietly. “Father never could have gone on without Mother. She was his whole world. Like you are to me, Harlean. You’re the best thing to happen to me, the only good thing since I lost them. Those were awful times and I never thought I’d be happy ever again until the night I met you.”
Her heart wrenched. She couldn’t imagine that sort of pain. “Oh, Chuck.”
“No, I mean it, and I’m gonna marry you. I want what they had. I need it, and I’m going to do everything in my power to make you feel like a queen.”
It was the sweetest thing anyone had ever said to her. It had felt like a fairy tale that night, like being swept up in one of the romantic novels she read.
And it brought out the longing for a relationship with her own father, a man who she saw so rarely after the divorce that he too might as well have been dead. Her gentle side came from him.
“You don’t have to say that because of what we just did,” she had said with a nervous laugh.
“I’m saying it because I love you, Harlean Carpenter. I’m crazy about you, and I think you feel the same about me.”
“Of course I do, but I’m only sixteen, Chuck, and, jeez, you’re just twenty.”
“True, but I’m a rich twenty!” Pleased with the idea, he had smiled, his handsome face half in shadow from the moonlight. “Or I will be rich in November when I turn twenty-one and that trust fund is mine. Then I can take care of you in fine style. We can go anywhere in the world, do anything we want.”
“You know Mommie said I can’t get married before I’m eighteen.”
“To hell with your mommie,” he had snapped, but the vulnerable way he had just opened up to her about losing his parents in a horrific boating accident four years earlier, smoothed the harshest part of his tone.
“I’m sorry, doll. I shouldn’t have said that.” He gazed up at the sky for a long time and she knew he was considering what he was about to say. She could tell there was an internal struggle so she’d tried not to even move, fearing he would change his mind.
“It was the week after I turned sixteen. I was supposed to go out on the lake with my dad. He had it all planned. It was the thing we used to do together. He really loved that. ‘Time with my boy,’ he used to say. But I was being petulant that day, a real louse. I honestly don’t even remember why, but I told him I wasn’t going and that was that.”
In spite of his achingly quiet monotone, Harlean could hear the tremble beneath it. “He had the trip planned so my mother went with him instead.”
She watched a crystal tear fall from his eye onto the tip of his ear and disappear into a copper coil of hair. “She’d be alive today if I’d done what I was supposed to do.”
She knew that meant he would have died in her place, but she couldn’t bear to say what of course he already knew, and the guilt that must have been attached to that. Harlean touched his arm but he didn’t react to it. The moment was extinguished when he sat up, composed again. His willingness to allow more of the recollection had vanished.
“I’m sorry for what I said about your mother earlier, but you can’t let her run your life forever. Especially not once we’re married. Then we will have each other to depend on, just the two of us.”
It had never occurred to Harlean before that night beneath the stars that there might be a time she would want to avoid her mother’s powerful sphere of influence and her deep, abiding love for her only child. The two of them had been a team since the divorce and that first trip they had made to Hollywood together, one underscored by their hopes and dreams.
What an adventure that had been!
The rooming house on Gramercy Place, with the tiny sagging beds and the paper-thin walls, her mother’s auditions most days on the bustling Paramount and Fox studio lots, the parade of costumed actors that would pass by Harlean as she waited patiently outside on the curb with only a book to keep her company, and the promise of an ice-cream soda afterward… So many memories of that time would never leave her.
Harlean had known from an early age how much her mother relied on her as she tried to make it in the motion picture industry. They had become more like best friends than mother and daughter during those crazy, whirlwind days, and she had relished the sensation because it made her feel important to a mother she idolized.
Their bond became unbreakable, no matter what Chuck thought or felt about her. Harlean was determined to love them both, and have them both in her life, along with this exciting new chapter back in Hollywood. In time, she would convince him of that and they would learn to respect one another. The prospect of their future here was too thrilling for anything from the past to ruin it.
They pulled to a stop at the top of the incline before the monolithic white hotel. She nervously smoothed out the front of her skirt as she watched well-heeled guests coming and going through the main entrance. Women wore calf-length dresses, silk stockings, wide-brimmed hats or crocheted caps over stylishly bobbed hair set in tight finger waves. Men were turned out in expensive double-breasted camel-hair suit coats and fedoras. A bellman in a red uniform and white gloves rushed over to open her car door.
“We’re really staying the night here?”
“We’re paid up for the week. I wanted to surprise you,” he said with pride.
Love really was like a whirlwind, she thought. It could catch you up and carry you along so that nothing else mattered.
They were shown to a large, terra-cotta roofed bungalow overlooking an emerald-green lawn flanked by bougainvillea and hibiscus. The glistening new hotel swimming pool, surrounded by a ring of towering palm trees, lay beyond and gave everything a tropical feel. Harlean went to the patio door to take in the view past the painted wicker furniture while Chuck tipped the bellman and asked him to bring a bucket of ice. She knew it was for the bottle of bootleg gin he had buried in his suitcase. Never mind that Prohibition had made it illegal. Chuck always said that particular law didn’t apply to people with money, or an ounce of ingenuity, anyway.
When she heard the door close, Harlean turned around, awestruck. “Everything is so beautiful.”
“You are beautiful.”
He came toward her, tall and sinewy, then drew her into an embrace. He always smelled like sandalwood cologne and Ivory soap. The combination was intoxicating. Sunlight streamed in behind them, making all of the silk, rose and gold-colored chintz in the room shimmer.
This was an enchanted place, just like all of Hollywood.
“Are you going in for a dip, to wash off a bit of that road dust?” he asked as he pressed a featherlight kiss onto her cheek, then another and another.
“I have a better idea,” she said coyly.
“Yes, much better,” she said as she drew the draperies and luxuriated in the warmth of the sun. Then she wrapped her arms around his neck, closed her eyes and kissed him.
* * *
An hour later, Harlean dove gracefully beneath the surface of the sparkling turquoise water of the pool, then rose to the top with all of the finesse she had honed as an athletic tomboy not so long ago. After the way his parents had died, Chuck didn’t like to swim, but he seemed perfectly content to sit on a padded chaise beside the pool on the patio and watch his young wife.
He was the first image that came into view when Harlean rose out from under the water, his face with a halo of sunlight behind him. She loved the way he looked at her, always with adoration and lust. The combination meant love to her. Most of the time, he really did seem like a character out of one of her favorite novels, a wealthy and handsome young man, who had come into her life and swept her away.
Energized by the swim, she smoothed her wet hair back from her face, then propped her elbows up onto the edge of the pool. Chuck, relaxing in his khaki shorts and white polo shirt, smiled down at her.
“How would you like to go to the pictures tonight after supper? Lights of New York is playing over at Grauman’s.”
“Oh, could we, Chuck? That’s an actual talkie!”
“Your wish is my command,” he said and made a gallant half bow from his waist.
“I love Grauman’s. Mommie and I went there to see Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It’s beautiful inside. That was the same night I saw Miss Pola Negri.”
She came out of the pool and he wrapped her in the towel, then closed his arms around her.
After she dressed, they went to a cute little malt shop on Sunset Boulevard and sat in a red leather booth along the windows. Harlean loved the bustling city view.
She had changed into a conservative gray skirt, a short-sleeved rose-colored angora sweater, white socks and sneakers. He never liked the way men stared at her, even with her face freshly scrubbed, free of cosmetics, and her short blond hair brushed back from her face, yet they did anyway. She was as aware of their attention as he was, and she could feel Chuck bristle each time.
“Mommie always says it’s just my hair that makes them look since there aren’t many gals with my particular shade.”
“More likely, it’s the face and body that goes with it,” he said, but he wasn’t smiling.
She didn’t like Chuck to feel jealous, but having been a bookish tomboy not so very long ago, secretly she reveled in the sensation she had when men acknowledged her. Mother had always been the beauty of the family, tall and shapely, with a dignified air. It had been difficult growing up in the shadow of what had seemed to her like a very bright light. But things were changing. She wasn’t in that shadow at the moment. The sunshine belonged to her. Being back in an exciting city like Hollywood was only the beginning of a transformation that she could actually feel. It was exciting just to contemplate growing into her own version of womanhood here, and the things that might mean for her life with Chuck. She wished she could tell him about it, but she wouldn’t dare. At least not yet.
* * *
The theater was packed since this first full-length talkie was the hottest ticket in town and people sat chattering excitedly and then cheering as the house lights were lowered. Harlean loved not having to read the dialogue and she found the new style of film, hearing what she was seeing, entirely captivating.
After it was over, and the audience had applauded, Harlean and Chuck walked outside beneath the bright theater lights and into the cool evening air. There were more handprints and signatures here now than when she was last here. It was exhilarating even to contemplate that stars like Mary Pickford, her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, Tom Mix and Harold Lloyd, true Hollywood royalty, had stood in these very spots and pressed their hands and shoes into wet cement to the cheers of adoring crowds.
She found Clara Bow’s square and stood in those footprints for her mother’s sake. She shivered at the feeling of being so close to the impression of someone so famous. She would tell her mother all about it when she phoned her on Sunday. Teenage fantasy spurred her on, and her heart beat very fast as she wondered what it must be like to be so adored by legions of fans, or to step before a camera knowing your hairstyle, your outfits and even your lipstick shade, would be copied around the world.
“Here’s Pola Negri, doll!” Chuck called out. Then he held up his hands as if he were holding out a microphone. “Say a few words to your fans, Miss Negri,” he playfully bid her.
Harlean smiled, then lowered her head and lifted her eyes as she’d seen the exotic actress do in the magazines. Then, with just a touch of embarrassment, she read what Negri had written in the cement.
“‘Dear Sid, I love your theater. April 1928…’ Oh, gosh, Chuck, she just did these! That’s so exciting to think!”
“What is your favorite thing about being such a big star, Miss Negri, adored everywhere?”
Chuck’s prompting made her giggle.
“Going to bed with my interviewers, most definitely.”
“Why, you vamp.” He smiled.
“How would you like to be my next conquest…what’s your name again?” she asked, innocently batting her eyes and thoroughly enjoying the sudden silly role playing.
“McGrew’s the name, Chuck McGrew. But I’ve got to warn you, I’ve got a very jealous wife.”
“Is that so?”
“Oh, absolutely,” he said with a devilish grin as he wrapped an arm around her shoulder. “But what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.”
“If I’m a vamp, you, sir, sure are a cad.”
“Admit it, that’s your favorite thing about me.”
“Not my absolute favorite thing,” she returned, happily playing along as they walked out onto Hollywood Boulevard toward their car.
“Time to get you to bed, doll.”
“I thought you’d never ask,” she teased. He held the door and she climbed into the shiny green roadster.
“I’ve got a surprise for you.”
“For Miss Negri, or your wife?”
“Why don’t you surprise me on that score?”
“A cad and a rake,” she said as he slid onto the seat beside her and started the great rumbling engine.