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Authors: Hallie Ephron

Photoplay

BOOK: Photoplay
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Photoplay

T
HERE
WERE MIRRORS
everywhere in Elenor Nichol's house, reflecting the perfection of the glamorous movie star's life. It would be a challenge, Duane Foley thought as he dropped his camera bag in the front hall, to keep the flash from bouncing off them, wreaking havoc with the carefully composed shots he had been hired to take during the party.

Duane lit a cigarette, inhaled, and gave a wet cough as he stooped to check his gear. He was winded from lugging his camera bag up the long driveway from the carport near the bottom of the driveway off Sunset, where they'd asked him to park. Felt like he'd run a mile by the time he'd finally reached the front steps of the white house with its colonnade and Palladian windows—­
Gone with the Wind
meets
Giant
, with a cast to match.

This gig was more than a few cuts above his usual: stalking celebrities and taking pictures “on spec,” as they said in Hollywood. Maybe he'd find a buyer, maybe the celebrity would pay him not to. His most fruitful venue was Holiday House, Malibu's exclusive celebrity hangout. His best get so far was Frank Sinatra and Juliet Prowse, walking arm in arm through the parking lot. Not because their affair was secret, but because the picture showed how much she towered over him. That same day, on a roll, Duane had snuck into the restaurant and scored a close-­up of Jack Kennedy and Marilyn all lovey-­dovey over dinner, only to have a pair of goons tackle him in the parking lot and smash his camera. Wiped out his profit on Frankie. Some days it was zero-­sum game.

Duane checked his watch and stubbed out his cigarette in the base of a potted palm. The party was supposed to have started at nine, five minutes ago, but he still had plenty of time to prep his gear. Anyone who was anyone would be fashionably late.

He loaded both of his cameras with fresh film and checked that he had new batteries within easy reach. Stashed one camera in the bag that he'd strap across his chest. Hung the other around his neck, and raised it to his face.

He aimed the viewfinder through the arched doorway into the living room, adjusted the speed, and focused, trying to capture the scale of the two-­story space. The barrel-­vaulted ceiling made the elaborately carved gilt chairs, flanked by marquetry-­inlaid end tables, look like toys. Plush couches covered in floral brocade nestled on white wall-­to-­wall, and a gleaming white grand piano stood silent in the far corner.

Empty opulence.
Click.

A single black maid in a black uniform and starched white apron came into the room and started setting out ashtrays. Duane took out his other camera, turned off the flash, and adjusted the light settings.
Click.
That one was for himself. He loved the contrast, the single dark figure, slightly blurred because of the low film speed, bent over her work in the vast white space.

The maid had started to dust the top of an end table when she stopped, mid-­wipe. She tilted her head and gazed overhead. Duane heard it, too. Raised voices. A man's, then a woman's, the words muffled. A heavy thump. Then the crash of a door being slammed open and the man's voice clearly audible. “
Puta
. You think I don't know?”

The woman's voice: “You're a fine one to be accusing . . .”

A door slammed again and the voices muted. Overhead, the crystals of the massive chandelier hanging in the entry hall tinkled as they vibrated against one another.

The maid glanced at Duane impassively and went back to her work. Duane put away his backup camera and also went back to work, this time focusing on the massive painting over the fireplace on the opposite wall, a life-­sized portrait of Bunny, as Elenor was better known, seated on one of those gilt chairs, wearing a chiffon Greek-­goddess gown the same color as those famous eyes. Peacock blue. Was it possible that eyes could be that color in real life?

At Elenor Nichol's feet stood a chubby little girl with curly reddish hair—­Little Orphan Annie, Duane thought, chuckling to himself.
Click.
But where Elenor was composed and regal, radiating contentment, the little girl's smile looked forced. Duane suspected that she was dying to scratch an itch.

He lowered the camera.
Joelen Nichol
. The daughter's name came to him, as names did, had to: names and faces were his stock in trade. Poor little thing. Must have hated that name, Joelen—­a monument to the oversized egos of her parents.

Elenor Nichol's big break had been the sudden death of Joelen's father, Joe Baumgarten until Universal christened him Fox Pearson. Sad story. He drowned in the Beverly Hills Hotel pool during a glitzy bash celebrating the premiere of a film that would have been his breakout role—­or that's what the papers said after, anyway. Didn't hurt that the name of the film was
Dark Waters
, or that he'd been dragged to the bottom of the pool by the cast on the broken leg he suffered while performing his own stunts in the movie's final apocalyptic fight scene. Too bad Duane hadn't been the Johnny-­on-­the-­spot photographer who'd snapped the famous picture of some screenwriter, Arthur something or another, attempting to administer artificial respiration.

The headline in the Sunday morning
Los Angeles Examiner
read: “Rising Star Drowns in Dark Waters.” The photograph had lived on in the annals of Hollywood lore, long after Fox Pearson's celebrity status expired, and turned into something of a Hollywood in-­joke: as if a screenwriter could breathe life into an actor.

Elenor made headlines, too, as the photogenic grieving widow (she draped herself in black lace and carried baby Joelen to the funeral). One of the film's uncredited producers, Howard Hughes, supposedly paid her a condolence call. Duane wished he'd been a fly on the wall for that one. Soon the pair was spotted around town together. Chasen's. Perino's. Ciro's. Holding hands. Smooching. Arguing. Fighting. He called her Bunny, and the nickname stuck. With Hughes as her short-­lived Svengali, Bunny was soon auditioning for roles opposite A-­list actors like Tony Curtis and Montgomery Clift—­and getting them.

That oil portrait must have been made a few years after Bunny ended it with Hughes. She supposedly went on to have affairs with Dean Martin, wrestler Tony Altomare, and a parade of increasingly forgettable dark, husky men before hooking up with her current Argentine playboy. The
National Enquirer
called Antonio “Tito” Acevedo “Mr. Charm and Smarm,” and hinted that he had Mafia connections. Rumor had it that Tito would soon find himself recast as Bunny's ex. And that was if Bunny was lucky.

Duane shook himself from the Hollywood gossip and focused on the painting. How long had that poor little girl had to stand there? When his daughter Susan had been that age—­five or six, he guessed—­she wanted to be outside, running around.
Susan.
He hadn't seen her or his now ex-­wife in nearly a year, not since Marie packed up and moved to some god-­forsaken corner of Maine, as far away from Duane as she could get. Marie had hated Hollywood, hated the movie business. Hated the way it was all about youth and money. The way surface was all that mattered—­never mind that capturing surfaces was how Duane made his living.

Susan turned sixteen next week, and it would be the first birthday Duane that wouldn't be there to capture her blowing out her candles. His daughter did not resemble the girl in the portrait, but he recognized the look in her eyes, the same look he'd seen so many times in his wife's, that urgent wish to be
anywhere but here.

It was nine-­thirty and still no guests had arrived. Duane turned and stepped into the entry hall. A liveried waiter—­probably an out-­of-­work actor—­stood behind a makeshift bar just beyond the entrance to the dining room. Duane stepped over and pointed to a bottle of Chivas Regal, and the waiter filled a shot glass.

Duane knocked back the drink. He winced at the burn as it went down. Relaxed a notch as heat flowed up his neck and into his face. He shook himself and aimed his camera up the broad winding staircase. These were the kind of stairs you'd expect to see a glamorous, formally dressed ­couple dancing down. The two figures who appeared at the top of the stairs were not Fred and Ginger, though those dresses could have been straight out of one of their films.

Duane tightened the focus on what he thought at first were two young women striking a pose, their chins raised. Then he realized that the shorter one, the one with a reddish bouffant, had on an emerald-­green satin gown that was too long for her. The other one, tall and slender, wore a pale yellow cocktail dress with a high neck and full skirt that was too short. They were only kids, about the same age as his daughter, all tarted up to look like glamour girls.

The redhead had to be Bunny Nichol's daughter, Joelen. No longer six years old. Duane captured her mid-­descent, arm linked in her friend's. Joelen must have inherited her auburn hair and the freckles that spattered across her face from her conveniently deceased father.

The doorbell chimed and the girls started giggling and raced the rest of the way down the stairs, all semblance of maturity dashed. One of them left behind a gold high heel on the stairs.
Cinderella's slipper
. The girl in yellow ran back and grabbed it, hopping up and down as she put it back on. Then she joined Joelen, who'd barely beat out a uniformed maid to open the door. Guests—­about a dozen strong—­surged into the entry hall.

The girl in yellow hugged one of the men and the woman with him. Her parents, Duane surmised, overhearing the girl call the woman Mom
.
Not A-­list, Duane could tell—­no furs or conspicuous jewels.

Joelen was greeting Rock Hudson and Doris Day, who'd come in together. Duane aimed his camera in their direction.
Click.
Rock had his arm around Doris—­Duane liked to think he was on a first-­name basis with the stars he most often photographed. He knew for a fact that “America's most eligible bachelor” was the square-­jawed actor's most successful role, but he'd never gotten a picture that proved he was anything but.

The girls collected ladies' fur coats and stoles—­completely unnecessary in the Southern California heat—­and staggered across the living room to the door at the far end. Duane followed, hanging back until they'd gone in and dumped the coats on a couch. He caught a shot of them checking themselves out and mugging in one of the gilt-­framed mirrors that hung on the wall of that room, too.

When the doorbell chimed again and the girls skipped off, he slipped inside the room. This had to be Elenor Nichol's office. A movie poster from
Black Lace
, the actress's first major role, hung on the wall, a framed certificate beside it for her Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress. On the shelf below sat a row of blank-­faced mannequin heads, each wearing a wig of black hair styled in different lengths.

Click.
That would be another for his private collection. Duane edged closer to the desk. Correspondence was strewn across it. His heart kicked up a few beats. He was aiming his camera when he felt a hand grip his arm.

“Mr. Foley?”

Duane recognized the short, heavyset man with salt-­and-­pepper eyebrows sprouting above sharp eyes. Sy Sterling was the entertainment attorney who was Elenor Nichol's manager, and the man who'd hired Duane to immortalize this event.

“Just shooting background,” Duane said.

“Of course you were.” Sterling gazed at him with iron-­cold eyes. “Miss Nichol's daughter and her little friend? They are off limits.” Sterling's voice was tinged with an Eastern European accent, and Duane was pretty sure that he hadn't been born with the last name Sterling. “And I will not want to find you wandering the house. Are we clear?”

Duane smiled. He smiled because he didn't need a translator to get the point, but also because it occurred to him that with just a shade more of an accent, Sterling could have voiced Boris Badenov on that cartoon show his daughter used to watch after school.

Sterling narrowed his eyes and shifted an unlit cigar from one corner of his mouth to the other. “
Goot
. You know your job.”

The doorbell rang again and Sterling pushed him out of the room, closing the office door firmly behind them.

By now, the house was full of ­people. Beautiful women with gay laughs who'd lit up cigarettes when they arrived and sparkled with jewelry; fresh-­shaven men who smelled of musky cologne. Liveried waiters threaded their ways through the crowd with shots of whiskey and glasses of champagne and trays loaded with canapés of pâté and smoked salmon. Someone was playing “Moon River” on the piano.

Duane snagged another whiskey and chased it with a fat cocktail shrimp before moving through the crowd, taking pictures and taking names whenever he needed to, though in this crowd he recognized most everyone. The doorbell kept ringing and Joelen and her friend—­Deirdre, Duane gathered, was her name—­collected more coats and ferried them to the office. Joelen might not have inherited her mother's looks, but she had that
je ne sais quoi
that casting directors called sex appeal
,
an innocence combined with a voluptuous figure, her flesh soft and unblemished like fragrant bread dough. Duane felt aroused and protective at the same time, and he wasn't alone. Men's gazes lingered on Joelen a few moments longer than they needed to. Her friend in the yellow dress trailed along in her wake.

The house was packed when someone must have cued the piano player: the music that had been nonstop broke off midstream. After a few beats of silence, there was a fanfare, a pause, then a dramatic crescendo. The house was hushed and many of the guests crowded into the two-­story entry hall. Duane squeezed his way to the foot of the stairs.

On the upstairs landing, Bunny Nichol and Tito Acevedo appeared. Duane raised his camera.

BOOK: Photoplay
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