Jagged Sophistication: The Empress of Emotion

tumblr_l0a92aFL0M1qby3a4o1_500_thumb[2]Hollywood, 1955

Everyone you thought dead was there.

Joan Crawford had eloped to Las Vegas with her fourth husband, Alfred Steele, but Billy Haines was having none of it.

“I told her an elopement took all the fun out of it for everyone else,” Billy told me over the phone when he called to invite me to the party he was throwing. “So I’m having everyone over to the house. Just something small. Cocktails around the pool.” He paused. “But black tie.”

He didn’t have to tell me. Any party for the Empress of Emotion required putting on the dog—even if it was allegedly just drinks with a few old friends by the pool. I hadn’t seen Joan in a few years, but she and Billy were still as close as they were in the old days at MGM. He remained undaunted by her increasingly terrifying demeanor, but I had long since lost whatever use I might have once held for her. Nowadays, all the news I got about Crawford was from Hedda, Louella, and Billy, still decorating her houses after all these decades. 

“Let me know if you need anything,” I said, exhaling.

“You could try quitting smoking,” Billy said good-naturedly. “Everyone else has.”

“Darling, I only smoke as much as someone can with two hands.” Billy laughed and then bade me goodbye, reminding me we had an important client coming on Monday and I should come to work early.

When I arrived at Billy and Jimmy’s house a week later, my suspicions were borne out. Not only was the place overrun with people, but there was a goddamn receiving line. Whether that was Billy being wicked or Joan putting on airs (though after almost 20 years, you could hardly still consider it an affectation) was anyone’s guess, but there was no getting around it.

“Congratulations Joan!” I said with a smile as I shook her hand.

“Peter! What a surprise! I had no idea Billy would think to invite you,” Joan said, just this side of bitchy. “Alfred, please meet Peter. He was a screenwriter at MGM ages ago.”

“Back before you had eyebrows,” I said, winking at Alfred. He pumped my hand once, grunted a greeting, and turned to the next guest.

Billy pulled me aside.

“Oh, you’re bad!” he said sotto voce. “Remember when you asked if I needed anything?”

“I do. I also remember you saying you didn’t.”

“That was before Marion showed up already tipsy. Can you keep an eye on her please?”

“Marion’s here?” I said, looking around. “Joan didn’t ban her?”

“Poor Marion,” Billy said distractedly, scanning the room for her with me. “You know when Hearst died she went to San Simeon and they closed the gates in her face?”

“I’d heard.”

“Anyway, I convinced Cranberry to let her come and she decked herself out in all the jewels she had left. She’s wearing a fucking tiara for Chrissakes. But she’s tiny! She looks like she’s shrinking!”

Just then a puffy-faced blonde drifted past.

“Marion!” Billy called. She turned and wavered over to us. “You remember Peter, don’t you?”

“P- P- Peter!” Marion said, taking both my hands in hers. “You look wonderful!”

“Marion, you may have outdone yourself. You know one mustn’t upstage Joan!” Marion giggled quietly and adjusted her tiara.

“If you’ll excuse me,” Billy said absently, returning to the receiving line to say hello to Barbara Stanwyck.

“How about we get a drink?” Marion asked, looking up at me sweetly. Billy was right—she did seem greatly smaller than I had remembered. Surely I hadn’t grown over the last decade or so.

As we walked to the bar, I finally said something. “Marion, I’m sorry if this is rude. But are you shorter than I recall?”

She giggled again and, by way of answering, lifted the hem of her lamé gown. Inches away from her diamond tiara, Marion Davies was wearing sneakers.

“I’ll be damned if I kill my back for that old b- b- bitch,” she said. Laughing, we both accepted a glass of champagne and surveyed the crowd. I knew approximately half of the crowd, the ones who now only went to parties thrown by their peers. I could have said hello; by the time I left MGM, I was on good terms with most of the power players of the time. But that was another life, and despite our differences Joan and I had always agreed on one thing: Keep looking ahead. We’d never spoken of it, but we both kept our gaze forward for the same reason: We were terrified of what might be gaining ground behind us.

Spotting Frances Marion across the room, I offered her a small wave and a wry smile, tilting my head at Marion, when my eyes flicked to her right. For a second I caught my breath. He looked exactly the same—the same build, the same thatch of blond hair, the same eager, friendly look. He felt my eyes on him and turned his head from the man with whom he was deep in conversation.

He wasn’t Todd. He couldn’t have been; not even the richest actress with access to the most skilled plastic surgeon could have retained her youth the way I thought he had for a split second. He smiled tentatively at me then turned back to his companion.

“P- P- Peter, are you okay?” Marion was tugging at my sleeve, slightly petulant that I wasn’t paying attention to her. I couldn’t blame her; no one could ever be angry with Marion, especially now.

“Sorry darling, what were you saying?”

We moved through the crowd and sank down on a couch gratefully. Marion adjusted her skirt to hide her sneakers and proceeded to ask if I’d heard about the abominable treatment she’d had at the hands of the Hearsts. I barely listened. It was all anyone could talk about at the time anyway, and I’d heard all the stories told and retold until the teller had the Hearst family practically driving her out of her home with whips cracking.

Instead I sipped my champagne, made the appropriate appalled noises, and did something I rarely allowed myself to do. I remembered.

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One thought on “Jagged Sophistication: The Empress of Emotion

  1. […] We found Billy sitting on the set in a chair with his name on it, talking animatedly to a woman with huge eyes and soft hair. She glanced over at us as we approached, and I was struck by the hardness of her features. This was a woman who could identify vulnerability but had no use for it in her real life. I immediately recognized her as Joan Crawford. […]

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