Jagged Sophistication

mary-nolan-eddie-quilan-big-shotScene: Manhattan, 1931

A married banker named David, who lived in Scarsdale on the weekends but whooped it up in the city Monday through Friday, usually enjoyed simply having me over to his apartment, one of those Mission furniture and leather jobs that are so masculine one rightly suspects the decor to be making up for some internal fear on the dweller’s part. But an old friend had invited him to a party uptown one night, which he thought would be a treat for me. “I can’t imagine you get to go to many of these parties, do you?” he smiled patronizingly. I tried to look appropriately grateful.

When we arrived, it was obviously one of those shindigs where no one knew the host or hostess. David was cornered almost immediately by a client begging to know which stocks were safe. I zigzagged through the crowds until David was safely obscured. With one hand around a champagne coupe and the other insouciantly jammed into my pocket, I surveyed the crowd.

The attendees were the usual slightly demimonde who piled into the apartments and penthouses of their betters, all of whom preferred to advertise their superiority through slumming. A woman in pearls laughed gaily at a tall man, obviously already drunk, whose tie had come undone and who still wore a top hat perched precariously on the back of his head. I took a long swallow in an attempt to erase the sound of her careful trills.

A beautiful blonde, slightly blurred around the edges, swayed over to me.

“He was right,” she said to me. “You do have a blistering smile.” 

I recognized Mary Nolan. An actress who was everything I looked for in a compatriot then—glamorous, fabulous, and scandalous—she’d tried to kill herself a decade before when her married lover broke off their affair; made some films in Germany; then gamely tried to conquer Hollywood, where her Follies showgirl’s name of “Bubbles” just didn’t fly. Her arrival was heralded by the timid protestations of Will Hays and the somewhat more boisterous cries of ladies leagues.

In response to her somewhat bizarre compliment, I smiled what was surely not one of the smiles to which she was referring and said, “That’s refreshing. Most people say something about my sad eyes. No one ever talks about my smile.”

“Sad eyes are a dime a dozen at parties like this,” she said. “But you smile like you know everyone’s secrets.”

I let that one pass. And opted for a change of subject.

“Who is ‘he’?” I asked. She pointed at a portly, balding man, who waved at me over a highball glass.

“Erik Richmond,” she said with a knife-edged simper. “Surely you run in the same circles?”

I laughed. Poised hauteur, with which anyone else surely would have greeted that remark, was never my strong suit. I was smart enough to know that a certain naivete stood me in better stead than an ill-fitting air of wisdom. Though I had long ago mastered the varied utensils at high-class dinners I still routinely pretended to be flummoxed. Men found it adorable.

“The same circles, yes,” I said. “But he somewhat circles me in them.”

She looked more closely at me and I looked steadily back at her. “You’re not what I expected.”

“Is anyone?”

She smiled. “I’m Mary. For now, at least. Have you been to Hollywood yet? A sweet blonde boy like you?”

“Peter van Lawrence. And no. I prefer lurking in the shadows. Not in the sunshine.”

“That’s usually where the fun is. Pictures are dull. But as it happens, I am married to that wealthy gentleman standing near the fireplace—formerly wealthy, actually, as of two weeks before our marriage. Now we run a sweet little dress shop in Los Angeles. I’m bored silly, of course, but I have a feeling you’d make it a little more interesting. And I have a feeling you’d find Hollywood a little more interesting right now than this collection of dinosaurs.”

I looked around. “But this collection of dinosaurs outnumbers the paleontologists three to one. Surely the odds can’t be as much in my favor out West?”

She laughed. “No, but I think you’d do just fine.” Reaching into her clutch, she pulled out a silver-plated pen. In my eagerness, I assumed she was pulling out a cigarette and whipped out my lighter, aiming the flame at the pen’s point. She laughed again.

“Swift reflexes. That, I know from experience, comes in handy.” She wrote something on a card, and handed it to me. “We’re returning tomorrow morning. If you ever find yourself out there, give me a call.”

She handed me the card, kissed my cheek, and left me in a hush of silk and the clanking of too many diamonds. I pocketed the card and my lighter, and finished my drink.

David walked over. “You found Bubbles, huh?”

And you found the Scotch, I didn’t say.

“She’s pretty close to wrecking her career if she’s not careful. Universal fired her a few months back. Difficult.”

“Now she runs a dress shop,” I said. “I think I’m going to work there.”

David, who was old enough to know better but vain enough to think he wasn’t, made a moue of disappointment. “Surely not. What would you want in Hollywood that you couldn’t get right here?” Two drinks prior, his squeeze of my ass would have been subtle.

“She told me I have a ‘blistering smile.’” David looked at me, confused. I shrugged and leaned in close to his ear.

“Take me home, please.”

“Whose home?” he said archly. I looked up at him, eyes wide.

“Didn’t I tell you? I’m just a lost waif, with no home of my own.” I sighed dramatically. “I just need daddy to take care of me.”

“Daddy’s here,” he said, and damned if he didn’t lick his lips.

The next afternoon I was on a train to L.A., having emptied my apartment of my newly acquired wardrobe—and David’s wallet of its bills. I always did everything a man asked. I kept my dignity by assuming he was willing to pay the full price for it.

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2 thoughts on “Jagged Sophistication

  1. […] I had the good fortune to meet David at the Plaza’s Oak Room—though at the time, my definition of “good fortune” was somewhat flexible. And we didn’t in fact meet at the Oak Bar; to be entirely accurate, we met at the urinals in the mens room of the Oak Room.  […]

  2. […] done. Everyone could move on, and I’d head back to New York City. I never wanted to come here. It was a whim, a silly impulse that hadn’t gotten me anything more than a tan, a sock in the eye, and the chance to moon over […]

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