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All That Glitters
By Thomas Tryon
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1986 Thomas Tryon
All rights reserved.
In those far-off days, those olden golden Hollywood days back in the thirties or the forties, a cumbersome touring car of the Reo manufacture was frequently to be seen traversing the streets of Los Angeles. This capacious and ponderous vehicle, the kind that would stand out anywhere in any time, was most likely driven by a burly figure wearing a dark suit whose seat and elbows were shiny, and a visored chauffeur's cap, emblem of his trade. His name was Sluggo McGurk and he was an ex-middleweight contender out of Elk Fork, North Dakota, with the flattened, pulpy ears known as "cauliflower," and a nose broken numerous times, and he sported a fifteen-hundred-dollar wristwatch, diamonds and platinum. His passenger, his constant and near-sole passenger, was a woman. She displayed expensive furs of fox, mink, or ermine, and long antelope gloves and diamond bracelets, and she showed a creamy décolletage. She had bright blonde hair, the same "platinum" shade that Jean Harlow had popularized and that manicurists and five-and-ten-cent-store salesgirls imitated to the best of their pocketbooks' abilities. Her eyelashes were long and curled and thickly mascaraed and she outlined her eyes like an Egyptian queen, and when she talked it was in a kind of coaxing drawl, not southern but slangy and raffish, and she wore an amused expression on her face. By 1938 this was not only the highest-paid female star in the movies, but also one of the most famous women in the world, after Eleanor Roosevelt, after Madame Chiang Kai-shek, after Wallis Simpson, and after Greta Garbo. Soon she would be as famous as any one of them....
But that was back in the thirties and forties. Today, in the seventies, see where we are: Hollywood Memorial, where the movie stars get put away. Jesus, it's hot! Personally I don't care much for funerals—funerals are for the dead, not the living. When you're dead, that's what they give you, a funeral.
Anyway, here we are, baking in that inglorious South Hollywood sun while it beats down in one relentless glare, its rays murkily piercing through a thick, grimy scrim of haze and smog, and not a hint of breeze. My swollen eyes sting and water. With the exception of the officiating priest and the body in the casket, everyone present, so far as I can tell, is wearing dark glasses, as though to prove beyond a doubt that we are indeed in good old Tinseltown.
I played a little scene in my first movie within these cemetery walls. I must say, the place hasn't changed much, though at the time Cecil B. De Mille was still alive and kicking, cranking out the remake of The Ten Commandments. Now C. B. lies in yon splendiferous crypt, granite as the old man's jaw, the schist in the stone as glittery as Jayne Mansfield's bathroom. Scattered around and about, earning a well-marbled rest, is a galaxy of glittering names: Douglas Fairbanks (Sr., not Jr.); Peter Lorre; as well as two renowned Our Gang-ers, Darla Hood and Alfalfa Switzer (separately interred).
Tyrone Power is buried somewhere nearby, and farther off the crypt of Valentino rears up in dubious Spanish taste, though that old-time Hollywood cliché "The Woman in Black," mourner of mourners, no longer makes her yearly epiphany at the gravesite; she, too, has cooled, and is probably buried somewhere in the neighborhood so she can be as near to Rudy in death as she was in life.
Right now the clock hand is on the prick of noon and the carillon is sounding. I recognize "You Light Up My Life." Mindlessly I wonder if the original Debbie Boone version is equal to Hollywood Memorial's. Close by, among the mourners, someone is throwing up his breakfast, or perhaps is merely emotionally overcome. People can get like that at funerals.
When I played my deathless scene in these precincts thirty years ago and more, all was rest and quiet. A suitably reverential ambience. Now they've built a string of grungy shopping malls just beyond the wall—there's a goldfish shop, a video palace, a Mexican chili parlor—while in the lily-scented air the pervasive thrum of congested traffic is recognizable along Santa Monica Boulevard. That way lies Paramount Studios and Marathon Street, this way lies Columbia and old Desilu, yonder lies Hollywood and madness.
If you haven't already, check out the coffin. It's see-through. Quite a novelty, huh? Look at it, resting on its pink-scalloped catafalque, the bead-fringed, swagged baldaquin above, the solid banks of roses, gardenias, other hothouse flora (the gardenia blanket cost six hundred, easy, and is rumored to have been sent by Frank Adano, but since Frankie himself is very dead this seems unlikely; in truth, I sent it in Frank's name).
Inside the glass coffin lies Our Heroine, royally embalmed and made up, wearing a gown of ivory satin (or "ekkroo," very Babe), her blonde tresses lushly curled, a tiara of rhinestones—"strictly for effect"—sling pumps on her feet. Will her ten toes curl up, I wonder, like those of the Wicked Witch of the East when Dorothy's house landed on her? Will the coffin crack when they drop it in the hole? But of course there's no hole; Hollywood Memorial Park not give holes—not for the likes of Babe Austrian, anyhow. The coffin will find eternal rest in the mausoleum, stuck away in a large marble drawer among many drawers, a veritable filing cabinet of celebrated corpses. I am being irreverent, I know, but let's not take this whole number too seriously.
And why, you may well ask, a glass coffin? Is she Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Evita Perón? I hide my smile, thinking of Sleeping Beauty imprisoned under glass, waiting for the kiss of love to restore her to life. But nobody's kiss is ever going to restore this beauty; there's not a breath left in the old fraud. This whole thing has been a fairy tale, a charade in the good old Hollywood style. "The Life of Babe Austrian." And who will play it onscreen? Not Judy, for sure. And where is Betty Hutton when we need her?
I'm standing here choking on the smog, Angie is next to me on one side, Pepe Alvarez on the other. We practically have to hold each other up. "Conspirators" is the word for us. No, that's not really true. Actually we're upholding legend. Hollywood depends on its legends—"legend" connoting a certain paucity of truth; we won't find much truth around here today.
I note how few others among Babe's older friends seem to be present at these cryptside obsequies. But, then, I quickly remind myself, why should there be, when Babe outlived almost all of her contemporaries? Though I myself am here as a bereaved friend of the deceased, still I am an alien, or at least feel like one. I knew Babe over a period of more than thirty years, but it isn't she, the late, great Babe Austrian, who has drawn me hither, but another, to whom I humbly pay my silent tribute. Rest, perturbed spirit—I am silent as the everlasting tomb, granite-mouthed. My lips are sealed just as the crypt will soon be.
Look, what I know, I know. And what I set down now in these pages is not the heresy it may appear to be; rather, it is the plain and relatively unvarnished truth. If Frank were still alive, he would certainly support me in my intention to tell it as it happened. I believe that Frank, who was responsible not only for Babe's career but for so many others, would want the truth revealed; he always loved a good laugh. Certainly Babe wanted it, requested it of me—dying wish and all that. Besides, the real story is too good to be buried here with Babe.
As for me, the name's Caine. Charlie Caine. Not Charles Foster Kane—there's the obvious difference in spelling, and also I seldom use my middle name. Moreover, Citizen Kane was released in 1941; I considerably before that.
I hail from that same small American whiz-through town that half the nation comes from. I am possibly its most famous citizen, not that that counts for much. I'm hardly its "favorite son." I've yet to move or shake the world much, but I've found my niche and that alone has taken some doing. I cling to this, my niche; I nestle there, quite comfortably. I live part-time in New York City, part-time in Los Angeles, near but not in Hollywood, on a street without sidewalks where it takes forty minutes to bring the police if you're being ripped off. I used to act in the movies, but haven't seen the inside of a studio in many years, nor care to ever again—I really hated getting up at that ungodly hour. My friends are trained; they let me alone from eight to four to get my writing chores done, and I turn out something reasonably publishable every few years. I know where the bodies are buried. And, given the chance, I tell.
When I got here, April first, some thirty years ago, they were tearing out the goldfish pond in the Paramount gardens. That fishpond used to be famous. Dottie Lamour once posed beside it in a sarong, Veronica Lake in her peekaboo bang; Bing Crosby tapped his pipe out against its rim. But sacrilege was committed: the pool was ripped out, the hole macadamized so studio heads could park there. That same day, April Fool's, as I walked around the lot I saw the writing all over the wall. What did it say? "Many are called but few are chosen"? Maybe. I don't think so, though. For sure it didn't say that someday somebody was going to try to make a movie star out of someone named Pia Zadora.
Babe Austrian was clearly one of the chosen ones. And after she was chosen, she proved indestructible, a Hollywood institution, like Hedda or Louella and Oscar and C. B. De Mille, like the Farmers Market, freeway smog, Barney's Beanery, Knott's Berry Farm, and the forecourt at Grauman's Chinese. Babe Austrian was a star. A big shining star. She was a star through five decades and longer—a show-biz phenomenon, one of the Greats. She was a major stage and vaudeville attraction before I saw the light of day, and the first time we met I was barely twelve years old. "Met cute," as screenwriters like to say, so cute that if I'd been five years older I'd probably have gone to jail for the number I pulled with her. Though I was only a Cub Scout at the time, my actions were hardly of Cub Scout ilk, and as it was, I got kicked the hell out of the Beaver Patrol. I'll get to that unfortunate encounter presently. Babe and I met a second time aboard the Super Chief; this was on VJ Day, August 15, 1945, halfway across the state of Iowa, with fairly deducible results; she was a famous movie star, I a mere nineteen-year-old sailor heading for the ComPac fleet. And we met yet a third time in a Seventh Avenue hotel suite during a New York heat wave in the early fifties.
Speaking of heat, today it would soften an interstate highway. Not a healthy, bright heat, like a hot Fourth of July in Missouri, not even the humid heat of the Eastern Seaboard in August, but a thick, greasy heat, rancid, like oleomargarine on a slab of moldy bread. Cut it with a knife. Look at the way those gardenias are already wilting around the bier. I notice how the priest is managing a little savvy. He's donned smoked glasses, along with the rest of us. They look good on him, too, real Movieland stuff. The smog gets to us all, even Holy Mother Church. And even the limo drivers in their badly wrinkled suits of sweaty broadcloth leaning against the black cars lined up along the curve are wearing them. Surely this isn't merely Babe Austrian's funeral; they must be sodding down some Mafia chieftain, a capo da capo. I'm reminded of the demise of Frank's famous mobster pal, Bugsy Siegel, lo these thirty years ago; funny, wasn't it, how Frankie left Bugsy at the rented residence of Miss V. Hill a scant six minutes before the guns began blasting away. I mean, he was out of there—had a hot date, otherwise he'd have been perforated, too.
As I understand it, Bob Hope's been asked to say a few words today in memoriam. This is good, I think. Babe should not be laid to rest without a touch of Hopian gallows humor—Babe always loved a good gag. Did she ever! Glancing around among the somber and attentive faces, I see Phyllis Diller's; she appears to have the church giggles, as befits. Oh, Phyllis, if you only knew. Dean Martin is as tanned as a cigar-store Indian, but looks strangely sober and a bit sheepish. Dino loved the Babe. Does he want a drink? I wonder. I know I do. And I'm A. A.
My wandering mind tends to wonder what those two news hens–gosspists, Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, would have made of this scene. Hedda, née Elda Fury of Altoona, Pennsylvania, was a terror, a badly biased "reporter" of Hollywood Didos, but I think she'd have gotten a bang out of this ersatz pageantry. (Hedda was sharp as the proverbial tack; Lolly, usually sauced, never knew her spigots from her sprockets; but both had long been amused by Babe Austrian, as indeed who among us gathered here was not?)
Bob has finished his bit and now they're wheeling the coffin away. It's on a cart something like a hospital gurney; its wheels squeak. Into the crypt goes Babe, just like your stock certificates and the family jewels. Everybody's splitting now, can't wait to get home to the pool. A vodka-tonic awaits. I bet even the priest could go for a tall, frosty Tom Collins about now. Spike heels are sinking into the turf all over the place. Notice how everybody's talking at once? Nobody's wiping any eyes or blowing any noses or going prostrate from grief. George Burns dies, you cry a little, maybe. "Poor George, we'll sure miss him," sniff, sniff. But not with Babe Austrian. With Babe you say, "What a great old broad," and you drag out one of the old jokes—"Babe Austrian's car breaks down, see, and there's this hick farmer driving a load of hay, see, and so Babe says, 'Hay, fellow—'"
When I was six or seven I heard my first Babe Austrian joke. My brother told it to me; we were sliding down the cellar hatchway doors and I got a sliver in my behind. And I saw my first actual picture of her on the back of a Dixie Cup cover. I peeled off the paper disk with its tab and there she was, an ice-cream icon, radiantly platinum, flashing those pearly-whites, with this prominent pair of tits, curvy in a way that gave seven-year-olds big ideas, not that we could do anything about it ...
I saw my first feature movie in the year 1931. Babe Austrian was not in it. Jackie Cooper was. I was led by the gentle, callused hand of our hired girl, Jessie, following my older brother with his hand in my mother's, across the marble lobby of the Loew's Poli Theatre, the premier movie palace of our city, whose wondrously tall mirrors reflected glittering sights I had never thought to see in this lifetime. I have vivid impressions of crystal chandeliers, dripping prisms, a bubbling fountain, also marble, a grand staircase, broad, with many narrow steps and brass railings polished to a gleaming finish, and standing easels advertising scenes of garish or alluring form from the Coming Attractions. In the eye of memory, that movie lobby seems large as the municipal railroad station waiting room, and as glamorous as the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.
Our arrival at the Poli Theatre had been timed to coincide with the commencement of the early-evening show. My father was to meet us there after business hours, but when we got to the theatre he was nowhere to be seen and Mother said we would just go ahead on in. Walking past the discreetly located candy counter (no popcorn at Poli's—yet), we encountered a broad bank of closed brass-framed doors, at one of which an usher appeared, dressed in a nifty bellboy's red uniform with frogging and gold buttons, a navy-blue stripe down each trouser leg, and a trim pillbox on the side of his head anchored by a strap under his chin, and reeking of aplomb. When the door closed behind us, I found myself drowning in the most palpable darkness I had ever experienced. The newsreel was on. I instantly panicked; my ears were assaulted by the deafening sounds of rapid gun and cannon fire, while a soundtrack voice accompanied by imposing blasts of music intoned a majestic narration (I think the Japanese had invaded Manchuria that spring), and I clung the tighter to Jessie's hand.
Excerpted from All That Glitters by Thomas Tryon. Copyright © 1986 Thomas Tryon. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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