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The Great Pretenders

The Great Pretenders

by Laura Kalpakian
The Great Pretenders

The Great Pretenders

by Laura Kalpakian


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The daughter of Hollywood royalty, Roxanne Granville is used to getting what she wants—even if she has to break the rules. But after a falling-out with her grandfather, a powerful movie mogul, she has to face life on her own for the first time.…

Roxanne forges a career unique for women in the 1950s, becoming an agent for hungry young screenwriters. She struggles to be taken seriously by the men who rule Hollywood and who often assume that sexual favors are just a part of doing business. When she sells a script by a blacklisted writer under the name of a willing front man, more exiled writers seek her help. Roxanne wades into a world murky with duplicity and deception, and she can’t afford any more risks.

Then she meets Terrence Dexter, a compelling African American journalist unlike anyone she’s ever known. Roxanne again breaks the rules, and is quickly swept up in a passionate relationship with very real dangers that could destroy everything she’s carefully built.

Roxanne Granville is a woman who bravely defies convention. She won’t let men make all the rules, and won’t let skin color determine whom she can love. The Great Pretenders is a riveting, emotional novel that resonates in today’s world, and reminds us that some things are worth fighting for.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101990186
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/16/2019
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 1,045,064
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Laura Kalpakian has won a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, the Pacific Northwest Booksellers' Award, the Anahid Award for an American writer of Armenian descent, the PEN West Award, and the Stand International Short Fiction Competition. She has had residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Montalvo Center for the Arts, and Hawthornden Castle in Scotland. She is the author of multiple novels and over a hundred stories published in collections, anthologies, literary journals and magazines in the U.S. and the U.K. A native of California, Laura lives in the Pacific Northwest.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Will it rain? Though clouds glower overhead, I lift the black veil on my hat and put my sunglasses on so I don't have to meet anyone's gaze as we listen to the droning voice extolling Julia Greene's accomplishments as if she had just graduated rather than died. Errant, uninspired raindrops descend, enough that women pull their mink stoles closer, and many people look up, surprised. In this vast sea of celebrity-the stars who glitter in the cinematic heavens and the producers, directors, and studio heads who make their lives hell-no one believes there can be rain unless the director says, Cue the thunder. We, the family, are seated in front of the mahogany casket, which is bedecked with orchids. Beside me Leon is stoic, not an expression that reflects remorse. Does he regret breaking Julia's heart? Does he even care that she died alone in Paris? The thought makes me want to cry all over again, but hearing her voice in my head-Never forget that you are Roxanne Granville, named for the romantic heroine of a great play-I forbid myself the luxury of tears. I remind myself that she sent me to L'Oiseau d'Or, a Parisian finishing school for the contemptibly rich, where I learned one never admits there's anything one can't endure except for vulgarity. Like this vulgar send-off. Look at all this gaudy array of stupendously garish floral tributes. It's as though they were ordered by some freewheeling set designer operating without a budget. Julia, with her standards, would have laughed at every ostentatious moment, but she would have understood that it could not be otherwise. This is Hollywood, after all.

She would not have been amused to see some of these faces, since Julia didn't share Leon's rabid anti-Red convictions. John Wayne, Ward Bond, Gary Cooper, Hedda Hopper, Cecil B. DeMille, Ginger Rogers, and all the rest of Leon's staunch allies from the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, they're all here, looking stylishly somber. Every one of them is well aware that we are simultaneously the audience as well as the actors in this mourning drama. Even a funeral becomes a theatrical occasion.

Besides all the famous names, there are dignitaries from a dozen philanthropic arts boards that Julia generously funded. Their women look like moneyed bonbons. Our sweet neighbors, Fred Astaire and his wife, they're here, and dear Buster Keaton with his always-sad eyes. All of Empire Pictures is here, not just the production chiefs, the financial wizards, and Melvin Grant's whole law firm, but all of wardrobe, makeup, set design, down to the lowliest gaffers and carpenters. Empire people loved Julia; she always threw a massive Christmas party on the winter solstice and then insisted that the studio close down between Christmas and New Year's. Paid vacation for everyone! When she and I left California in '49, Leon ended that practice. Leon casts a long shadow over all these Empire people, hundreds of them. I have vowed to myself that before this terrible week is over, I will step out of his shadow. I hope I have the strength. Julia always told me: "The more strength you use, the more you will have." I'm counting on that to be true.

Leon takes my black-gloved hand and squeezes it as if I am three again, a child who needs to be reassured. My grandparents are the only real parents I ever knew. I call them Leon and Julia because that's what they called each other. Grandma and Grandpa are the sorts of names you might give to a tugboat. Leon and Julia are yachts, sophisticated, strong-willed, charming (manipulative, many would say), elegant, powerful personalities. The same cannot be said for the woman on my left, Florence, my mother, sitting beside her inebriate third husband, Walter. In the row behind us I cringe to hear my brother-in-law, Gordon, inadequately suppress a burp. He sits with my sister, Irene, and Jonathan. Jonathan and I have been friends since we were tots, brother and sister without shared parents.

I was basically orphaned and went to live with my grandparents when my father, Rowland Granville, returned to his native England and the West End stage, and my mother, Florence, decamped with a South African animal wrangler she met on a movie location. I was about three. Honestly, Florence was no loss to me. Then-and now-with a sidelong glance she can reduce me to self-hating pulp. That's why she's sitting to my left. On the right side of my face I have a birthmark, like rouge too eagerly applied from my temple to my cheekbone. It's easily subdued with makeup except when I am upset for any reason, and then it's an unfortunate barometer of my emotions. An imperfection I can never quite forget, certainly not in a city that worships physical beauty, and really, what other kind of beauty is there?

Standing together, at some distance from the rest of us, I notice many Negroes. I recognize a few cooks from the Empire commissary, and a few Empire janitors, and servants from Summit Drive, including Clarence, of course. Impossibly tall, thin, stoic, terse, his hair sprinkled with gray, Clarence runs my grandfather's house the way a conductor runs the Philharmonic. Perhaps the solid woman beside him is his wife. Only I didn't know Clarence had a wife. That strikes me as suddenly curious. I've known Clarence for twenty-two years, all my life, and I didn't even know he was married? The others, earnest-looking, middle-aged men decorously holding their hats, I don't recognize any of them. One older gent is in a wheelchair with a tall young man beside him who holds an umbrella over his head, as if protecting the older man is a solemn duty. He closes the umbrella as the rain ceases, but he does not lose his air of vigilance.

I shiver. Leon puts an arm around me and pulls me close to him, and then I'm really afraid I will cry. I love him so much, but I still feel sharp little stabs of resentment. Was Leon with that slut Denise Dell when Jerrold Davies called him with the news of Julia's death? At least Denise and her pimp mother, Elsie, have the decency not to show their faces here today.

How could Leon have chosen Denise over Julia? For forty years, Julia was more than a wife; she was his partner in creating, maintaining, and advancing Empire Pictures. She read and evaluated scripts, helped to make casting choices, offered sotto voce comments on-set, and watched the endless boring dailies in our screening room while I slept in her lap. Who else but Julia Greene, with her enormous verve and charm, could have persuaded George Gershwin to write music for a frothy Max Leslie comedy in 1937? Sure, George agreed to write for Sam Goldwyn's Follies, but Empire is a much smaller outfit; Empire could never pay what Sam Goldwyn could pay-but George was happy to do it for Julia.

I close my eyes and think back to those childhood days and nights at Summit Drive when George and Ira Gershwin were among the not merely famous, but legendary guests, all of whom basked in the Greenes' hospitality. Actors, writers, directors, producers, composers, editors, cameramen, set decorators, and costumers, as well as the city's great philanthropists, they all came to croquet parties, tennis matches, late-night suppers on the candlelit terraces, musical evenings, movies in the screening room, lavish Easter egg hunts for the children, annual New Year's Eve galas, intimate dinners, leisurely lunches by the pool-oh, and the Christmases! Everything Julia did, she touched with glamour. If I think of that now, I will cry. I mustn't cry.

I glance sideways. Leon's profile is dignified, even regal, but I have come to see him not as a child regards a beloved grandparent, but as a grown woman judges a man who has disappointed her. My respect for Leon has ebbed, and like the beach at low tide, you see all sorts of trash and debris and garbage, mud you never knew existed while you floated on bright water.

Despite his dalliances, Leon and Julia stayed married. She always believed Empire Pictures was Leon's true mistress, but her stunning collection of jewelry testifies to his many infidelities-and his remorse. However, his affair with Denise Dell did not end like his other affairs. Denise absorbed his time and energy, and finally, his loyalty, and his love. As the affair went on-and on and on-Julia and Leon engaged in long bouts of screaming, oaths, and threats. Their anger then decayed into cold silence. Julia moved into her own suite at the opposite wing of the house. Leon was seldom home anyway. By my last year in high school the mansion on Summit Drive had fallen silent, a thirty-five-room cocoon of unhappiness from which no butterfly emerged. Julia cloaked her bitterness with the dismissive phrase "No fool like an old fool." But that old fool broke her heart. All she could salvage was her pride. She took that (and me) and moved to Paris in 1949. I could write a book about Paris, about the people I met at Julia's weekly soirees, Thursday evenings in our 8th arrondissement apartment near the Parc Monceau, about going to little smoky bo”tes and hearing Sidney Bechet play, about L'Oiseau d'Or, for that matter. (I was the only student who rode a bicycle to the school-very much frowned upon by les grandes dames!) I would have stayed in Paris happily, but Julia insisted that an American girl needed an American education, so I went to Mills College in Northern California, where earlier this month Jerrold Davies made a transatlantic call to tell me that my grandmother had died of a heart attack.

But Jerrold is not here for the funeral. Jerrold can't even return to the US. He fled a subpoena from the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950 and went to Paris, where his Best Picture Oscar for The Ice Age sits on the rickety shelf of a Left Bank apartment. He uses the Oscar as a hat rack. Simon Strassman fled to Mexico in '51. I think his passport was revoked. Nelson Hilyard is dead, a suicide. Of the old guard Empire writers who delighted my childhood, only Max Leslie is here, standing between his grieving wife, Marian, and his longtime secretary, Thelma Bigelow.

"Come on, Honeybee. Let's go home." Leon holds my hand, raises me to my feet. "We're done here."

He takes my arm, and as we start toward the cars, a swarm of uniformed drivers races up the hill, like infantrymen armed with open umbrellas to shield us from the light rain. Nothing can ward off the throngs of gawking fans, though police have cordons to keep them in place. Nothing can protect people like us from the press. Flashbulbs sparkle across our vision as Leon waves photographers away.

"Smile, Ginger!"


"Over here, Miss Stanwyck!"

"Hey, Coop!"

We avert our eyes and hurry past. We know the press is merciless and always will be. The relationship between the press and the picture business is that of mutually voracious cannibals.

Our driver shepherds us to the Rolls, closes the door behind us, starts up, and drives off. We all fall back into the plush seats, sighing. Jonathan passes around his hip flask. Irene, in her cool, blonde, graceful way, takes a genteel swig from it. Gordon prefers to sip from a bottle of Pepto-Bismol. Leon declines the flask. I take a gulp. Walter finishes it off and hands it to Florence, who doesn't notice that it's empty. Everyone but me opens their sleek cigarette cases, gets out a smoke, and lights up.

Leon takes my hand in his. "I'm proud of you, Honeybee. You did fine. Julia would have been proud too. You are a credit to her, to me, to Empire Pictures."

Leon always talks like that, as though Empire Pictures is actually a living thing that can have credit bestowed upon it-or conversely, that can be diminished. He always reminds me I am a daughter of Empire, and while I recognize the benefits, I'm tired of the responsibility. I retrieve my hand from his, roll down the window, and breathe in. Deep.

Chapter Two

The next day the family rode together in the Bentley to a lawyer's office in a shabby downtown district. Garbage blew along the gutters. Irene and Gordon both commented on the general decay, and Florence wondered aloud why Julia would have chosen this nobody lawyer.

"Mr. Wilkie," said Leon with a tight jaw.

"What's wrong with Melvin Grant?" asked Florence. "He's been your attorney for eons."

Leon did not reply. I too said nothing, though I knew very well why Julia chose someone else to represent her interests. Melvin Grant would protect Leon even if it meant protecting Denise Dell as well.

Our driver stopped in front of a dingy, four-story building. The street was packed with big cars illegally parked, and uniformed chauffeurs who stood by their vehicles, smoking. "We must be late," Gordon remarked. "It looks like everyone else is here."

"Well, they can't start without us, can they?" asked Leon.

We stepped out, evading winos who sidled up, panhandling, though they retreated when Leon exited the Bentley. Leon has always exuded authority with his erect, even regal carriage, broad brow, horn-rimmed glasses, his ring of wiry gray hair, and his elegant suits. We walked single file to the door, gingerly sidestepping wads of snot, old chewing gum, and cigarette butts. Florence and Irene pulled their fur coats close at the throat. I hate fur coats; I'm too young to be taxidermied. But like everyone else, I'm wearing unadorned black-black coat, black Dior suit, black gloves, black hat and handbag.

At the elevator an old Negro slid aside the metal grille. "Goin' to Mr. Wilkie's office, yes? All you fine folks goin' there today," he said as he punched the buttons with knobby, arthritic fingers. He stopped at the fourth floor and pointed to a door that read Arthur Wilkie, Attorney at Law.

Mr. Wilkie's secretary, a withered woman who introduced herself as Mrs. Wilkie, greeted us at the door and offered to take our coats, but we all declined. She asked if we wanted coffee or tea, and we declined. She led us down a dirty hall to a conference room where the ghosts of a hundred thousand cigarette butts lingered and dust motes caught the morning light. We were seated at a long table where places had been reserved for the six of us. I knew, or recognized, most of these over-upholstered ladies and gentlemen from Los Angeles arts foundations Julia had long supported. I certainly did not know the five well-dressed Negroes, though I had seen them at the funeral. They all sat together, their faces dark masks of discretion. Beside the old gent in the wheelchair was the man who had thought to bring the umbrella. He was not wearing sunglasses today. His face was so beautifully sculpted it ought to have been on a medallion. He and I were the youngest people here and our eyes met briefly before everyone turned their gaze to Mr. Wilkie, who began with conventional condolences.

Reading Group Guide

The Great Pretenders
Laura Kalpakian
Discussion Questions

1. Uncontested assumptions about women’s roles—sexism—constrict Roxanne’s possibilities. So pervasive are these in the 1950s that she scarcely recognizes their effect. (“Isn’t that what women have always been?” Jonathan quips. “Bartered, baffled, and dim—but kissable.”) After her encounter with Irv Rakoff, Roxanne begins to understand that these underlying notions are rooted in questions of power. How does she use that insight as she establishes herself as an independent agent? Does she fight sexism? Does she use it to her own advantage? How has the role of women in Hollywood changed? How has it stayed the same?

2. Born into Hollywood royalty, a milieu that values beauty in women above all, Roxanne Granville remains always at a disadvantage. How does the birthmark on her cheek affect her life?

3. These characters are constantly being challenged to make choices that can cast them into a net of lies, and potentially into ruin. They are asked to choose between families or lovers. Between personal loyalties or political principles. Between fronting for others, taking the credit, sharing the spoils, or maintaining one’s own work. Who among them makes reckless choices? Who takes calculated risks? Do the individuals in the novel sometimes not know the difference?

4. “To live in Hollywood is to know that fame, money, reputation, friendship, even love and marriage are conditional, flimsy and often for effect. No one is invincible.” Is Roxanne’s early observation borne out in the novel? What is the role of reputation in Roxanne Granville’s Hollywood?

5. How important is the press in the book? Not just the Challenger, but the big daily newspapers, the scandal rags, the trade papers, gossip columns, the critics. Is Roxanne correct in describing the press and the picture business as “mutually voracious cannibals”?

6. Irene and Roxanne, though not actually related, are truly sisters, and yet their values remain very different. How do their values impact their bond? How and why are they reconciled? At the end of the book, do you think Irene will be supportive of Roxanne and her choices?

7. Many of these characters engage in socially unacceptable love affairs, not merely unwise unions, but outright forbidden. Are these people changed by the experience? Are there regrets or insights gleaned? What are the costs to the lovers themselves? To their families and friends? To their reputations? Are these the sorts of relationships that still, in our own day, extract a heavy price from anyone brave or foolhardy enough to engage in them?

8. Returning to LA after Julia’s death, Roxanne’s feelings for Leon remain ambivalent. She does not want to live in his shadow, and makes a great show of independence. Yet she makes many important decisions based on resentment, affection, respect, and other complex emotions she feels for her grandfather. Despite her bravado, why can she not quite free herself from Leon Greene?

9. Roxanne Granville assumes that black people exist to serve white people, herself in particular. The servants at Summit Drive, for instance, are mere backdrop for her. She never suspects that Julia contributes to civil rights causes. How and when does Roxanne start to question her assumptions? How does Terrence Dexter enrich her understanding of the way family and society work—and how they ought to work? Why are both Roxanne’s and Terrence’s extended families so vehemently against their affair? Does Roxanne’s meditation on family Christmas day, 1955, seem utterly improbable for that era? And now? What do you think?

10. Terrence and Roxanne are each brought up with a serious set of doctrines, Terrence in the Baptist church and Roxanne in the Church of Rick and Ilsa. When they first meet they are utterly ignorant of the other’s beliefs, even though they both quote “scripture.” How essential are these beliefs to their relationship? Do they learn from one another? How?

11. The novel is bookended by two funerals. Roxanne comments on the theatrical aspects of each. Is she correct in thinking that they are similar?

12. Terrence Dexter, a seasoned reporter for the Challenger, goes to Montgomery, Alabama, to report on the bus boycott. What does it mean to him, personally and professionally, to be a participant in these events instead of just a witness? How does his time there affect his relationship with Roxanne? With his own family? How does it change him? Can you imagine the book he is writing? Would you want to read it?

13. Roxanne is fond of quoting Julia’s maxim, “Glamour is nothing more than knowing how to talk fast, laugh fluidly, gesture economically and leave behind a shimmering wake.” Do you think Roxanne ever quite figures out what her grandmother meant by this? Julia makes it sound easy; is it? Is this description of glamour allied to the notion of panache that figures so prominently in Roxanne’s vision of herself?

14. Terrence says, “Leon Greene is right. Movies are powerful. They don’t just reflect the way we live, they shape the way we live.” Do you think this is true? Do you think that today’s more diverse films still shape the way we live?

15. In 1957, The Bridge on the River Kwai won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, which was given to the author of the novel, Pierre Boule. Monsieur Boule did not even speak English. The actual screenplay was written by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, blacklisted writers who had fled the country, Foreman to England, Wilson to France. (Their credits were not restored until 1984.) Do you see parallels between The Bridge on the River Kwai and Adios Diablo? Why did Carleton Grimes not shut down production on Adios Diablo when he could, before the truth comes out? Can you think of instances today where the tainted reputation of filmmakers or actors is enough to tank a multimillion-dollar movie?

16. “Max, Simon, Nelson, Jerrold, taught me, early on, that the dramatic core of any film is characters who are being tested. Whether high drama or slapstick, High Noon or Duck Soup, the characters don’t have to be saints, they just have to be interesting, have interesting motives, and respond to unlooked-for challenges.” Is this an accurate description of what makes a good film? Now that films are able to depict sex, does that alter the standard?

17. People in the novel are always talking about loyalty as a laudable value. Who are the loyal characters? What or whom are they loyal to? How are they tested?

18. Roxanne describes her job like being “the feeder in the zoo, the guy who walks around with the bucket full of meat and throws it at the lions, and the bucket of bananas for the monkeys and the bucket full of palm fronds for the giraffes. Occasionally I wear a pith helmet. It’s a jungle out there.” What sorts of havoc did television wreak upon the 1950s entertainment world? Why are Gordon and Carleton and Leon so afraid of it?

19. Who are the great pretenders of the title? Are pretenses, lies and secrets all the same thing?

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