Joan Crawford in Vancouver

1950

The last light of the sunset over English Bay was a burnt orange. A False Creek mill, fully engulfed, filled the local skies with smoke. It had been an afternoon and evening of distant sirens. She watched the changing light from the window of the Sylvia Hotel lounge.

Rocky Solesino played his horn with anxious ease. Muted for the small room, so even occasional quiet laughter could be heard over the jazz. The woman in a Givenchy suit sat in a dark corner, chain smoking and drinking a large vodka on ice. The waiter arrived with another.

“Any news of the fire,” she asked, sounding amused.

“They’re just letting it burn out, Miss Crawford,” the waiter said, standing erect in his perfect waiter’s jacket. “Radio says it’s too big for the local fire departments to handle. All that wood around the place. Dry from the summer.”

“My cousin, Rhoda, was in a big fire once,” the woman said. “She worked in the Sen Sen factory in Chicago, Illinois. The place burned flat back in ’35. I was in Hollywood then, of course. I mailed her a cheque for her misfortune. All of Chicago smelled like burnt Sen Sen for an entire week after. No one could hang out their laundry. Ever smell burnt Sen Sen?”

“No, ma’am.”

“I imagine it was quite intolerable.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Bring me another in ten minutes.”

“Yes ma’am.”

She lit a cigarette with a gold cigarette lighter, and inhaled a quarter of it on the first draw. Then she picked up a pen next to an open moleskine, and began to write. 

I remember the day Barbara S. and I drove out to see a property in Malibu. What a dump. But someone said it would be quite the location one day. I wasn’t convinced, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to invest with that sanctimonious bitch. She’s so bitter and undependable. But we had a picnic lunch out on a bluff over the beach. We shared a couple bottles of wine, and I remember her hand on my knee. It seemed to get dark awfully fast, and we took rooms at a local hotel. That night, she snuck across to my room. I’ll admit that she seduced me. I was weak, and had had too much to drink. She took advantage. At breakfast, she behaved like nothing had happened. I was deeply hurt, and I hired a separate limousine to take me home.

She put the pen down, and read what she had written. Rocky Solesino was playing something new he called Boplicity. There were more sirens, closer now but seeming to come form no identifiable direction. She looked up and saw three motorcycle cops ride by on Beach Avenue with their lights flashing.

They waiter arrived with a fresh drink.

“Sounds like marshal law out there,” she said.

“There are reports of looting in the downtown, ma’am,” the waiter said. “Someone’s thrown a brick through a window of the Hotel Vancouver. It’s strange; this is normally such a quiet little town.”

“A fire brings out the worst in people, let me tell you. I remember Rhoda telling me that when the Sen Sen factory got back up and running, an employee got fired for pouring several gallons of Tabasco sauce into a batch. They didn’t find out until after they’d shipped it out. Too late by then, of course. Sen Sen customers worldwide were burning their tongues on the stuff.

“I never enjoyed Sen Sen how about you?”

“I usually have some nearby, ma’am,” the waiter said.

“Why not just a stick of gum or a mint? Why Sen Sen?”

“I’ve never given it much thought, ma’am.”

“Well there you are, you see. It’s the trivial that makes us what we are. The sum of human minutia. That’s the secret of Hollywood’s success, you know. Showering the audience with the banal, some catchy tunes about nothing at all and a big finish. There doesn’t even need to be a plot to a Hollywood movie. Just a couple tap dancing tarts with some cleavage and lots of leg. That’s what sells popcorn.”

“Yes, ma’am. Shall I bring another in ten minutes?”

“By all means, Godfrey. Consider yourself on auto-pilot.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

As the waiter turned to go, there was a blunt explosion in the distance. The windows of the hotel shook, and glasses and bottles behind the bar rattled.

“Goodness, what was that?” the woman said.

“Not the Nine O’clock gun,” the waiter said, consulting his wristwatch. “It’s never that loud, and it’s already 9:15. I’ll ask the desk clerk.”

“Please do, and report back.” The woman raised her glass in a salute to the retreating waiter, then took a gulp. Then she picked up her pen again, and began to write.

I met a fellow name Roderick B. in Hollywood in 1942. He was a hand model for a couple of fountain pen companies. He did cuff links, too. The irony was that he had the single ugliest face I’ve ever seen on a man. His hands were masculine yet slim and graceful, but he had the mug of a troll. All over America, people were buying fountain pens and cuff links because of those lovely hands, while only an arms length away was the hideous face of an ogre.

In 1943, to avoid the lucklessness of the draft, he joined the Marine Corps and ended up in the South Pacific. And I know what you’re thinking, dear reader, but you’re wrong. He didn’t gallantly and selflessly get his lovely hands blown off in some glorious wartime action. He survived intact, demobbed, and in 1946 he landed the contract of his life with the Parker Pen Company of JanesvilleWisconsin. He modelled his hands holding the best the company had to offer, and helped Parker come back after the war.

Part of the deal was a signing bonus, a brand new 1946 Cadillac Series 62 Convertible Coupe, red in colour. Roderick loved that car. He drove it all over LA and especially Hollywood, trying to attract attention. I guess he thought of it as a mask to cover his hideous face.

As a result of images of his hands appearing in magazines and on billboards far and near, Roderick received scads of fan mail from all over the world. Dames, and even a few fellows, were nutso over Roderick’s hands, and just assumed that, as a result of their tender lines, he must have the face and gentle disposition of Prince Charming. Which he didn’t. Besides looking like a gargoyle, he drank too much and liked slapping women around.

So in 1947, he got all cozy with this Anita Filippone woman. They met at the wedding of a mutual friend in Van NuysCalifornia. Some people are naturally attracted to the stunningly ugly, and Anita was one of those.

From the start, the relationship was a rocky one. There were rumours of Anita having to lay low for days at a time while she recovered from black eyes and split lips. Roderick emptied her bank account and took up residence in her apartment, uninvited. But she stood by her ugly man for reasons I can’t explain.

Now all of this time Roderick is fully aware that Anita Filippone is the niece of Jack Dragna, the LA mob boss. But he doesn’t care. It doesn’t sink in for him that you just can’t go on using and abusing the niece of a LA mob boss without it eventually coming back on you. Maybe he had a death wish, like some said.

He and I met late in ’47 over coffee and pastries, and I pointed all of this out to him. But he told me to mind my own business, that not all relationships were the same. He told me that Anita Filippone got as much out of their little affair as he did. And he said that his prominence as an internationally recognised hand model for the Parker Pen Company made him immune to the petty concerns of the rest of the planet. I paid the bill at the end of our little nosh, and never saw Roderick again.

A month later, there was a front page news item in the LA Times. The headline read, Hands Found in Cadillac Convertible Those of Parker Pen Co. Hand Model. The severed hands had been discovered gripping the steering wheel of Roderick’s beloved Cadillac. It was found parked out front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. I recall trying to establish the significance of the Cadillac being parked out front of Grauman’s, but I didn’t get it.

A month later, it was announced that Anita Filippone was to marry an eastern torpedo by the name of Sergio Fiocco. Soon after, she disappeared into the Mafia infested suburbs of New Jersey.

The woman stopped writing, and looked up to see that a fresh drink had been delivered while she wrote. And the waiter stood there with yet another.

“A fresh one every ten minutes,” he said, and placed the drink on the table. “As requested, Miss Crawford,”

“Thank you,” she said, still a little lost in 1947 Hollywood. “What was that dreadful boom about? It sounds like the chaos is getting more chaotic by the minute.”

There was sporadic gun fire in the distance, rapid fire and single shots, along with small explosions and pops coming from the surrounding neighbourhood. A nearby air raid siren began to wail.

“News from over the radio is strangely dire,” the waiter said. “When it comes through at all. Throngs have taken to the street. Many neighbourhoods are burning out of control. That boom was a liner on the inlet side of the harbour exploding. The police are in disarray, and the mayor is considering calling in the army. There are rumours, however, that members of the military are deserting. Some churches around the city have flung open their doors, and are proclaiming this the end of time.”

“What nonsense,” the woman said, lighting a cigarette. “What kind of government do you have in this country?”

“We’re a parliamentary democracy, Miss Crawford.”

“Sounds like dime store Bolshevism to me.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

As Rocky Solesino turned a chart on his music stand, there was another explosion, this one closer and far louder than the last. A plate glass window that faced English Bay cracked, and then shattered. Out on the bay, a freighter at anchor had exploded and was now listing heavily to port. It issued black smoke.

“That’s rather extreme,” said the woman.

“Yes, ma’am.”

A smallish, bored looking maid arrived at the blown out window with broom and dustpan.

“What do you think might have caused that?’

“Perhaps the current high pressure front, ma’am?”

“Ah, of course. Carry on.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She took up her pen once more.

It may not be a topic for polite conversation, but I’ve often wondered how many pairs of pants a man will own in his life. I certainly don’t mean an average sort of man who might buy one or two pairs of pants in a year, and simply wear them to death. I mean a man like, say, Cary G. Now there’s a fellow who has a pair of pants for every moment of the day – morning, afternoon and evening. No one shade of blue or grey or brown or even taupe or white suffices. He simply must have a spectrum of blues and greys and browns and stripes and checks and cuffs and pleats and creases and waistbands and buttons and zippers and worsteds and flannels and gabardines and hopsacks and wool and cotton and linen and silk blends. And nothing off a rack, mind you. Each pair custom tailored.

Of course the same can be said of items in my wardrobe, but I’m a woman after all. He’s a man. And can’t a man stand stoically and manfully in one or two pairs of pants instead of foppishly losing himself in a trouser jungle? And no, I’m not implying any metaphors here – at least not consciously. I’m just asking a question.

You see, I once stood in Cary G’s trouser jungle. It was at his Santa Monica beach house in 1936, the one he shared with Randolph S., just after the whole awful Virginia Cherrill mess. It was a massive place, most of it closed off and under dust sheets.

It was Sunday morning after an all night party. It was getting light. Everyone was very drunk, and none of us was thinking about going to church. Cary G. and Randolph S., our hosts, had disappeared around 3 a.m. It made sense to most of us that they had, like reasonable people, gone to bed. The house had seven available bedrooms. The rest of us should have been able to find a place to lay our heads on our own.

At some point during the night, Kate H. and I had fallen into conversation about all manner of Hollywood mayhem. By 4 a.m., she’d come up with the idea that we needed to explore the beach house, find the correct bedroom, and discover once and for all whether Cary G. and Randolph S. were indeed sleeping together. Normally I couldn’t have cared less, but the vodka was working its strange magic on me, and Kate H. was very persuasive.

So we started walking the halls of the massive barn, opening doors here and there. The last door I opened led into a parlour-like room that was brightening nicely in the morning light. There were vases of flowers, large well kept tropical plants, a couple overstuffed chairs and a wall of mirrors, some of which swung on hinges. But what caught my attention was a folding door that had been left open onto a walk-in wardrobe. I stepped in, and was amazed. This was no mere clothes closet; it was a haberdasher’s warehouse, several feet wide and running for what seemed the whole length of the house. It looked like miles of men’s clothes. Jackets, suits, tuxedos and, yes, pants. There was row on row of ties. The floor was lined with shoes, and there were shirts of every description. On a shelf above it all was a long row of hatboxes and hats on blocks. It all had the fresh scent of Tennessee Cedar and expensive men’s cologne. At one end of the closet was a wall of drawers. I stepped up and, I’m a little ashamed to say, began opening them. It was all men’s under garments, pyjamas and socks.

Bored by that, I turned around and walked down to the other end of the closet. It was there that I encountered Kate H. standing in front of a dressing table. It had a large mirror and a stool tucked underneath. On the table top were the usual comb and brush, balms, ointments and lotions. And there was a large ornate cigarette lighter like the ones you’d see in drugstores. It caught my attention, seeming out of place, so I attempted to pick it up. And when I did, the wall next to the dressing table slid away and we were bathed in light.

When we stepped through the opening in the wall, we were in a weird sort of cathedral, all mahogany and brass. There were balconies and spiral staircases three stories high. It was topped at the sides by a clerestory of blue, gold and red stained glass. The ceiling itself was a dome of stained glass in a web of lead. The walls, all of the way up, were lined with books. Old leather bindings like you’d see in a Universal vampire picture. There was a forest of tropical plants, and in the middle was a huge cage filled with brightly coloured tropical songbirds and a massive tree growing up to the top.

Off to the side of the cage, on an inaccessible balcony twenty feet off the floor, stood a sad shabby looking old man in a tattered tuxedo. He looked down at us, smiled and snapped his fingers three times. The hundreds of birds in the cage went silent, and then slowly and quietly began to make the most beautiful music. The shabby old man remained silent until the right moment, and then began to sing. He was a glorious tenor, and his voice filled the cathedral. The birds were the perfect orchestral accompaniment. Kate H. and I stood dumfounded.

Che gelida manina,
se la lasci riscaldar.
Cercar che giova?
Al buio non si trova.
Ma per fortuna
é una notte di luna,
e qui la luna
l?abbiamo vicina.
Aspetti, signorina,
le dirò con due parole
chi son, e che faccio,
come vivo. Vuole?
Chi son? Sono un poeta.
Che cosa faccio? Scrivo.
E come vivo? Vivo.
In povertà mia lieta
scialo da gran signore
rime ed inni d?amore.
Per sogni e per chimere
e per castelli in aria,
l?anima ho milionaria.
Talor dal mio forziere
ruban tutti i gioelli
due ladri, gli occhi belli.
V?entrar con voi pur ora,
ed i miei sogni usati
e i bei sogni miei,
tosto si dileguar!
Ma il furto non m?accora,
poiché, poiché v?ha preso stanza
la speranza!
Or che mi conoscete,
parlate voi, deh! Parlate. Chi siete?
Vi piaccia dir!

It was over too soon, after only a few minutes. Then the old man went silent, and looked down at his shoes as the birds resumed their frenzied forest song. We didn’t applaud or beg for more. In that place at the moment, it seemed wrong.

We never did find Cary G. and Randolph S. in the sack together. But it didn’t really matter. It was just a drunken schoolgirl pursuit, after all.

MGM released Love on the Run a few weeks later, and I forgot the whole thing. That is until May, 1937.

I was in San Francisco for the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge. The city was full of the stinking rich and the stinking destitute. It was a Thursday, and that night after the big celebration I had my driver take me to one of my favourite bars in the city. It was a joint called Mick’s down near the wharves. Sure, I was slumming. But a girl’s got to spread her wings. Anyway, it was a quiet place where people went to drink and get drunk, and that was for me.

The stretch Lasalle was a little out of place in that neighbourhood, so I got out and sent the driver away. I had him drop me a few blocks away from my destination so I could walk and take the fetid waterfront air. Most of the people on the sidewalk were there because they had no place else to go. The men walked with their hands in their pockets and their heads down. The few women I saw were bundled in ragged winter coats in spite of the warm spring evening.

 There was the racket of shipping noise from the docks, and the cars and transports on the street. But faint and underneath it all, just a little distant, there was music. Or shall I say, strangely familiar singing.

 The singing got louder as I got closer to Mick’s, and I had the oddest thought: Could it be the tenor – the solitary one on the cathedral balcony accompanied by a symphony of tropical songbirds?

Of course not. The tenor had been a dream. I’d been in a vodka induced trance in that beach house. But the voice was louder and more familiar as I approached. And then I was there, standing in front of Mick’s and the shabby looking old man in the tattered tuxedo. It was dark and he stood in the yellow light of a lamp post. There were no song birds this time, but the trucks, cars and cargo cranes were his perfect accompaniment.

Donna non vidi mai…
simile a questa!
A dirle: io t’amo,
a nuova vita l’alma mia si desta.
-“Manon Lescaut mi chiamo!”
Como queste parole profumate
mi vagam nello spirito…
e ascose fibre…
vanno a carezzare!…
O sussuro gentil, deh! non cessare!
Deh! non cessare!!!

Once again it was over too soon, after only a few minutes. Then the old man went silent, and looked down at his shoes. The trucks, cars and dock machinery resumed their discordant noise. No one applauded or beg for more. In that place at the moment, it seemed wrong. One man passing by, looking out of place in an expensive suit and trench coat, tossed a dime at the tenor’s feet and kept walking.

When I approached him with a ten dollar bill, he said, no no no, and walked away, fading like a ghost.

When she looked up again from her writing the lounge was empty, as was the stage where Rocky Solesino and his quartet had been. In the bay, all of the freighters were in flames, and there was a large pulsating crowd of people with torches yelling and chanting on Beach Avenue in front of the Sylvia Hotel.

The waiter came with a fresh drink. “The Chef asks if you’ll be ordering dinner, ma’am. He’s anxious to get home to his family, if his services are no longer required.”

“My goodness, where is everyone?”

“Most of the staff has abandoned their posts, Miss Crawford. Some of the guests have gone to their rooms. Others are trying to get transportation out of the city. Where they intend to go is the question, though. Reports are that every major city on the planet is in flames and the people are rioting. All of the world’s major governments have fallen.”

The lights dimmed for a second, and then went out completely. The waiter placed a lit candle next the one already on the woman’s table. “I was expecting a blackout, ma’am. The rest of the city is already in the dark.”

Across English Bay, the woman could see Kitsilano and Point Grey in flames. There were more explosions and gun fire from nearby.

“What’s causing this,” she said, sounding scared for the first time. “Why isn’t someone doing something?”

“Perhaps what they’re saying is true, Miss Crawford. Perhaps this is the end.”

“It can’t be, I‘m contracted to do three more movies.”

The crowd in front of the Sylvia Hotel now seemed like a galaxy moving around a spot at its centre where they were piling park benches into a pyramid that peaked high above the mob below. When it reached its desired height, someone, a single man, climbed to the top and stood there. At first he was unrecognisable, silhouetted against the flames of the city across the bay. Then people began throwing their torches onto the pyramid, and it quickly ignited. In the growing light from below, the woman could now recognise the man. It was the tenor. He seemed unconcerned with the increasing flames. He stood passively atop of the pile of burning benches. Then the deafening rabble became quiet, and in a moment, standing in the growing inferno, the tenor began to sing.

Nessun dorma!
Nessun dorma!
Tu pure, o, Principess,
nella tua fredda stanza,
guardi le stelle
che tremano d’amore
e di speranza.
Ma il mio mistero è chiuso in me,
il nome mio nessun saprà!
No, no, sulla tua bocca lo dirò
quando la luce splenderà!
Ed il mio bacio scioglierà il silenzio
che ti fa mia!
(Il nome suo nessun saprà!…
e noi dovrem, ahime, morir!)
Dilegua, o notte!
Tramontate, stelle!
Tramontate, stelle!
All’alba vincerò!
vincerò, vincerò!

It was over too soon, after only a few minutes. Then the old man went silent, and looked down at his shoes as the mob resumed its frenzied cry. There was no applause or people begging for more. In that place at the moment, it seemed wrong. The flames leapt up and consumed him.

The woman watched slack jawed as the mob threw more combustibles onto the blazing pyramid. Then she fell onto the floor of the Sylvia Hotel lounge and wept.

She awoke in her room at 7.00 a.m. Her head ached and she wanted to gag on the smell of smoke. The phone rang.

“Wake up call, Miss Crawford,” said a cheery voice.

“Yes, thank you.”

“Your direct flight to Los Angeles has been cancelled, but we were able to get you a flight to Portland, Oregon. It leaves at 11.30 a.m. You’ll have to make your own connection from there. I’m sorry it’s the best we could do under the circumstances.”

“Yes, thank you. Is there any news – of what happened last night, I mean?”

“The Management has asked us not to comment, Miss Crawford. Shall we send up breakfast?”

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