1939, Los Angeles. Lillian Frost is shocked when her friend, glamorous costume designer Edith Head, hands her the script to a new film that's about to start shooting. Streetlight Story is based on a true crime: the California Republic bank robbery of 1936. Lillian's beau, LAPD detective Gene Morrow, was one of the officers on the case; his partner, Teddy, was tragically shot dead.
It seems the scriptwriter has put Gene at the centre of a scandal, twisting fact with fiction - or has he? With Gene reluctant to talk about the case, the movie quickly becoming the hottest ticket in town, a suspicious death on the Paramount studio lot and the police reopening the investigation into Teddy's death, Lillian is determined to find answers. Can Lillian and Edith uncover the truth of what happened that fateful day and clear Gene's name?
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Los Angeles Register March 24, 1939
LORNA WHITCOMB'S EYES ON HOLLYWOOD
MGM has snapped up screen rights for Franchot Tone to star in his Broadway hit The Gentle People. Eligible ladies are asking if his long-brewing divorce from Joan Crawford will finally be final by the time the actor makes his way west ... Rumblings around town that movie extras are again looking for a home of their own far from the Screen Actors Guild. Seems some of the milling multitudes who fill out the crowds for the cameras would happily part ways with SAG and form their own union. A vote on the matter is forthcoming ... They sure do grow 'em big down South, if the diamonds flashing on the fingers of oil heiress Virginia Hill are any indication. Wonder if the flame-haired beauty gets tired carting those carats around the nightspots ...
I had narrowed my options down to the corned beef hash or the turkey sandwich. I couldn't make the final decision, though. Not with the gears of seduction grinding away next door.
Him: a junior executive type, emphasis on junior. He'd coaxed a mustache onto his upper lip, but a few carefully placed drops of milk could have enticed a cat to lick it off. He sat with his jacket shucked, shirtsleeves rolled up, necktie loosened. Her: a dewy-eyed blonde. The peppy sailor hat perched on her head made her look even younger than he did.
And because we were in Hollywood – the Bronson Gate of Paramount Pictures a literal stone's throw from our adjacent tables in Oblath's Café – all the sweet nothings were about her career.
'I'm telling you, sweetheart, extra work is strictly from hunger.' Junior leaned forward, the better to share the hard-won wisdom of his weeks of experience. 'Talents like yours deserve to be front and center.' The girl, whom I'd started to think of as Trixie, nodded solemnly.
I had no intention of eavesdropping. But Oblath's was quiet in the late afternoon, the lunch service over, the cocktail rush still hours away. Aside from the chipper chock of clean dishes being stacked in readiness, the couple's palaver was my only entertainment until my friend, the costume designer Edith Head, made her way from the studio across the street.
Trixie steepled her fingers, their tips painted Ingénue Pink. 'I'd still like to sign up as an extra. Just for the work.'
'What work? A day or two a month if you're lucky, and that's provided you get in. Central Casting keeps a tight rein on those spots nowadays. Meantime, how you gonna eat?'
Trixie looked utterly downcast, as if her balloon had just popped. Even her sailor hat slumped. That cued Junior to start pitching woo like Dizzy Dean. 'But it's like I always say. You start in the background, you stay in the background. You're meant for better things. Like a studio contract. Which is where I come in.'
Listening to his line made me happy I'd packed in the acting racket. I had come to Los Angeles from New York three years earlier, obsessed with pictures and harboring vague dreams of stardom. It only took a single disastrous screen test to convince me that if I did possess any talent it would have to be carefully excavated, like a mummy from one of those Egyptian tombs, and who had the time and manpower for that? I'd opted instead for gainful employment, relieved to be off the merry-go-round yet still close enough to enjoy the music and the swirling lights.
Still, Junior made a good point. If you'd travelled all the way to Hollywood seeking silver screen glory, you might as well aim for the top. I recalled the advice of my old roommate Ruby. Don't wait for the spotlight to find you, mermaid. It'll hit someone else first. You have to run toward it, fast as you can. Of course, the spotlight never found Ruby. Only trouble did.
Thinking of Ruby made me sad. I distracted myself with a newspaper left behind at lunch. Hungary had invaded Slovakia. Adolf Hitler had triumphantly sailed into the harbor of Memel on a battleship to crow over Lithuania's ceding of the seaport to Germany. Some suggested this would mark an end to Nazi aggression, but English prime minister Neville Chamberlain warned the world not to hold its breath.
Say, how were our prospective lovebirds getting along?
'So what's doing this weekend?' Junior asked Trixie with exaggerated casualness.
'Nothing much. Rinsing out a few things, going to the pictures.'
He shook his head, dismayed by her naïveté. 'No, you've got to go out! Make an impression! Be seen!'
'By who? Nobody knows who I am.'
'They'll never learn if you stay at home. You should let me squire you around.'
'Before I've had my screen test? I'm not sure I see the sense in that.' No babe in the woods, our Trixie. I was starting to like her.
As Junior fumbled for an answer, my thoughts turned to my own plans for this spring weekend. Saturday night I'd likely see a picture or two in the company of my beau Gene Morrow, unless Los Angeles' criminal fraternity demanded his attention; the LAPD never rested, no matter who had a premiere. Then I'd make a rare foray into work on the Sabbath. I was social secretary to Addison Rice, the semi-retired, movie-mad industrialist whose lavish get-togethers drew Hollywood's elite. Sunday's affair would be a croquet bash. I'd spent the morning walking the course with Addison's gardener Mr Ayoshi, who marked every place a hoop sullied his handiwork on a map of the grounds. Over each stake that had been hammered into the earth, he simply lowered his head in despair. When Addison's enthusiasm for the sport waned – around two-thirty Sunday afternoon, I'd wager – Mr Ayoshi would return the landscape to its customary Edenic splendor. The pending party had prompted my visit to Oblath's; I'd asked Edith to raid Paramount's extensive research library for books on the game.
I glanced across Marathon Street but saw no sign of my friend. Trixie looked over at me, Junior pivoting in his seat to see what had caught her eye. Back into the newspaper I dived. Ronald Colman would be replacing Ray Milland as the lead in Paramount's upcoming adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's The Light That Failed, a casting decision I approved of wholeheartedly. Not that anyone had asked.
Swinging her searchlight gaze around the otherwise empty restaurant, Trixie said, 'I don't understand why we're here. Couldn't we meet in your office across the street?'
Junior pressed a palm to his chest, playing aggrieved. 'What? You don't think I'm trying to take advantage of you?'
'No, it's nothing like that —'
He made to leave, and Trixie frantically waved him back into his seat. Junior raised both arms in the classic cardsharp's move: nothing up my sleeves, no tricks in my pockets. 'Can't say as I blame you. I could feed you some malarkey about wanting to keep you a secret until the contract is signed, or say that going on the lot can overwhelm people.'
It overwhelms me, I thought. Every time I go through that gate to visit Edith.
'But the truth is' – here Junior let out with a sigh meant to sound world-weary, but that only made it seem like the chicken croquettes weren't sitting right – 'the truth is you remind me of why I got into pictures in the first place. Finding talent the right home. I want to concentrate on that. Keep it pure, away from the greasepaint and Klieg lights.'
The kid had nerve, considering he still probably had his confirmation suit hanging in his closet. Trixie gnawed the inside of her cheek, her resolve wobbling. Hold the line, Trixie. Don't fall for his bunk.
But now I had to wonder why I wasn't on the Paramount lot, either. Edith never abandoned her post, yet the parley at Oblath's had been her suggestion. Her wanting to meet away from the studio implied she had news she didn't want the walls to hear. Perhaps she was leaving Paramount. Edith had been officially running the studio's Wardrobe Department for a year, but she'd intimated the steady procession of big names brought in to design various pictures made her feel as if she were understudying her own position. Her tenuous hold on the job could have finally worn her down. Or maybe the development was a sunnier one, and she was going to get married to Bill Ihnen, the man whose company she'd been keeping of late. A June wedding would make for a most pleasant affair. Thoughts of what I might wear to it sidetracked me from the temptation of Trixie.
I'd ordered the turkey sandwich when the café's door opened. Junior sat bolt upright. Trixie did likewise without even seeing who'd entered the joint and practiced batting her eyelashes. A bright girl. We'd all be working for her someday.
The man loitering in the doorway, hands deep in his pockets, surveyed the room with a puckish expression under his trilby. His mind, I knew, was already cranking out jokes. Junior signaled to him but the man breezed past his table in favor of mine, absently peering at me.
'Hello, Mr Wilder.'
A Continental sound of recognition emerged from Billy Wilder's throat. 'Ach, yes,' he said. 'You are Edith's friend.'
'Lillian Frost,' I filled in for him. Knowing Edith and working for Addison, I was accustomed to being recognized purely by function. 'What brings you here?'
'Squabbling with Charlie.' Wilder waved in the direction of the Paramount lot, where his writing partner, Charles Brackett, was apparently still prisoner. 'My choices were taking the air or putting him out of my misery. This seemed the wiser option. Although why I ventured here I don't know. It's the only place in town you can get a greasy Tom Collins.'
'I heard that,' the waitress snapped as she deposited my turkey sandwich on the table. It looked like she'd spilled a Tom Collins on it.
'You are meeting Edith?' Wilder asked.
'Yes. Just passing the time listening to that junior executive make his pitch.'
Wilder glanced over his shoulder at Junior, flashing his pearlies our way. 'Executive? Bah. He's a messenger. Zips around on a bicycle delivering scripts. He doesn't have an office. I didn't even think he had a necktie.' Wilder peered at Junior again. 'Son of a bitch, is that my tie? One went missing from my desk.'
Junior seized the opportunity afforded by the eye contact to bound over, hand extended. Behind him, Trixie gaped. 'Hey, Mr Wilder, it's Jerry! You remember me, don'cha?'
'Of course.' Wilder's eyes twinkled, admiring the kid's moxie. He decided to play along. 'Your comments on the script were very helpful.'
'You're the scribe. I just try to think of the audience.' Junior looked at me askance, his expression indicating he thought Wilder could do better. 'I've got a talented little lady over here I'd like you to meet.'
'Yes, I see. Talented at what exactly?'
Trixie grinned at Wilder in a manner that seemed distinctly unwholesome.
Naturally, Edith Head bustled into the restaurant at that exact moment. She looked crisp and clean in a tan dress with a matching short sleeve jacket, its front unadorned by buttons. The books clutched to her chest and the spectacles beneath her precisely trimmed dark hair lent her the appearance of the world's most sophisticated schoolgirl. She stopped short, discomfited by the gaggle of guests around my table.
'Our Head of costume has arrived at last.' Wilder bowed gallantly in my direction. 'I couldn't allow your friend to be alone. Sadly, I didn't arrive in time to prevent her from ordering food.'
A loud clatter of cutlery followed. My waitress had heard that crack, too.
'Thank you, Billy,' Edith said. 'It's so nice to have you back from MGM.'
'I needed the break. I can't listen to Mayer anymore. And I can't play my little flute, because Brackett broke it over his knee in a fit of pique. I don't know why. It was almost in tune.' He pulled out the chair opposite mine for Edith. 'Don't let me keep you two. My young friend and I have some business to discuss.' Junior eagerly hooked Wilder's arm and dragged him toward the table where Trixie, so help me, curtsied.
Edith seated herself. She shooed the waitress away, using the gesture as an excuse to peer back at Wilder and his new companions. Adjusting her thick glasses by their temples, she said, 'Why on earth is he sitting with Jerry the messenger?' 'He sees some of his own pluck on display.' Since we'd met, Edith Head had become my staunchest ally, my fiercest advocate, and my most indispensable nag. Using the same gentle seismic pressure that had forged the mountains of California, she had pushed me to claim a place for myself in this new land. And solve a murder or two along the way.
'Congratulations on getting to dress Ronald Colman,' I said, eager to flaunt my fresh knowledge.
'What?' Edith fussed with the stack of books as I explained.
'Oh, that. I've known about that for weeks.' She slid two tomes across the table, leaving a script directly in front of her. 'The croquet books you asked for. Seems like a great deal of fun. The clothes certainly look comfortable.'
'You're welcome to come. You have a standing invitation to any and all of Addison's activities.'
'I'm tempted, but I'm afraid my Sunday is spoken for.'
Her every waking minute, as far as I could tell. I nodded at the script. 'Is that your latest masterpiece?'
'One of several on my plate at the moment. It's the other reason I wanted to see you today.'
Off the lot, I thought as I wiped my fingertips with a napkin. Edith threw another glance at Wilder then turned to look pointedly back at Paramount before pushing the bound pages over to me.
STREETLIGHT STORY by George Dolan and Clyde Fentress
'Don't think much of the title.' I fanned the pages. 'Is it a musical?'
'Heavens, no. A crime story. A B picture, to be honest.'
'I often like those more than the featured attractions. So there's a big, juicy murder.'
'More than one. May I have some of your water?' Edith didn't wait for my reply. She helped herself to a sip, leaving a ghostly imprint of lipstick on the glass. I had never seen her so nervous. 'It recounts a bank robbery, and the pursuit of the men responsible. I'm afraid I only recently learned the truth about the picture.'
Edith reached across the table and took my hand. 'The script is based on the California Republic bank robbery of 1936.'
I pushed my sandwich aside. I couldn't eat now. Or for the foreseeable future.CHAPTER 2
On April 14, 1936, I was still living in New York City with my uncle Danny and aunt Joyce. I couldn't say with certainty what I did that particular Tuesday, but I could hazard a guess. Odds were I went to work in the basement of the Empire State Assurance Company, where I was a mediocre typist but excelled at avoiding the wandering hands of my boss Mr Armbruster. On the train ride home to Flushing, it's possible I tried to talk myself into entering the Miss Astoria Park beauty pageant, with its grand prize of a Hollywood screen test, being touted in the newspapers.
Three things I could guarantee were true of that date, though. I had potatoes with my dinner, I wondered if anything special would ever happen to me, and that night I went to the pictures.
On the other side of the country that morning, three men pulled up outside the California Republic Bank branch on Vermont Avenue near Franklin in a black Ford. One of the men, Leo James Hoyer, remained in the car while the others, Borden C. Yates and Giuseppe 'Gio' Bianchi, went inside brandishing guns. Several bank patrons said the belligerent Bianchi behaved like a mad dog while Yates was quiet, even solicitous, fetching a chair for an elderly woman who felt faint. The two men exited the bank with twenty thousand dollars in cash.
They made it as far as the Ford. A police car in the vicinity responded immediately. The officers exchanged fire with the bandits. Bianchi and Patrolman Wendell Starnes were both killed at the scene. Starnes left behind two young daughters. Patrolman Eamonn Murphy took a bullet in the leg but continued to fire at the fleeing Ford containing Hoyer and Yates.
Two days later, Hoyer was found dead of injuries sustained in the shootout by Los Angeles Police Department Detectives Gene Morrow and Teddy Lomax. Only Borden Yates remained at large, the stolen twenty thousand dollars still missing. Teddy got a line on Yates's location. He and Gene followed the lead to a rundown Victorian on Bunker Hill, not far from where Gene grew up. The tip proved out. Yates's gentlemanly days had ended at the bank; he emerged from the house guns blazing. Teddy Lomax fell at once. Gene, in turn, cut Yates down with a shot that an eyewitness described as 'worthy of Wild Bill Hickok'.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Script for Scandal"
Copyright © 2019 Renee Patrick.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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