Jagged Sophistication: Cranberry

1931:  American actor Joan Crawford (1904-1977) sits on a stool with her face in her hand while Clark Gable (1901-1960) smokes a cigarette in a chair next to her on the set of director Clarence Brown's film, 'Possessed'. Crawford wears a blouse and a pleated skirt; Gable wears shirtsleeves.  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Hollywood, 1931

A catnap and change of clothes later, I was downstairs swanning around among Patricia’s guests. Unlike her tennis party, these were genuine movers and shakers, people Patricia had assiduously collected as much for the reflected glamour as for what they could contribute to an evening. There were stars and writers (of books, not scripts), philanthropists, starlets, extra men, and a handful of notorious names that added a frisson of excitement I would quickly recognize as a hallmark of Patricia’s gatherings. Because no one knew what to expect at one of her parties, everyone was eager to attend.

Warned by my experience the previous night, I alternated between champagne and seltzer. I threw everything I had into the party, smiling, laughing, chattering, lighting cigarettes and fetching full glasses. By the time dinner was served and we were all laughingly finding our places, I had charmed half the party.

I was seated next to a Southern brunette and a fetchingly silvered older man who exuded gravitas. As the former debutante drawled her way through conversation with the man on her right, I turned to the man on my left.

“We didn’t have a chance to meet earlier,” I said. “I’m Peter Van Lawrence.” He deigned to glance at me.

“You’ve proved remarkably resilient,” he said. “I understand you’ve been in Los Angeles for less than a month?”

“That’s right,” I said, forcing myself to remain at the same conversational pitch even as I feared what was to come.

“And in that span of time you’ve ingratiated yourself into Patricia’s homelife and the office of Allan Short. That’s mighty fast work for someone so young.”

“Perhaps you’re unaware, but being pleasant has its advantages,” I said too sharply. He smiled down at his plate, neatly unfolding his napkin and smoothing it on his lap.

“Yes, I’ve also heard how pleasant you can be,” he said. “From a mutual… well, I wouldn’t call him a friend. Not of yours, certainly.” 

“Oh? One meets so many people, you know. Could you be more specific?”

“No doubt you know his beach house better than the man himself. Julian Templeton?” He turned to face me for the first time. “I see your eye is almost healed,” he whispered viciously.

The soup was served then, though if that was a rescue or not I don’t know. Interrupted, the man on my left, whose name I still didn’t know, turned to the woman on his other side, leaving me shaking. Thanks to the largesse of Patricia and Allan, I had managed to almost forget about Todd, but this nasty old queen had reminded me of everything that had happened the week before. Unconsciously, I reached up to stroke under my eye, which had faded enough to leave just the impression that I was sleep deprived (which, of course, I was).

In New York, I moved among so many different, compartmentalized crowds that I was able to slough off relationships and entire groups without much effort. One can disappear into the crowds of Manhattan at will, if one wants to badly enough but I was beginning to realize that I wouldn’t have that luxury here. I had appeared too abruptly and far too easily for people’s tastes. This man’s disdain wasn’t a one-off; it was a harbinger.

For the rest of the night, I ate whatever was put in front of me without tasting it and replied to the garrulous brunette’s babble automatically. Whatever charm the evening had held for me, a glamorous party where for once I felt I belonged, disappeared at the mention of Julian’s name.

As the party was ending, I slipped up to Patricia and told her I was worn out from a long day. She looked at me questioningly, but said nothing, instead kissing me on the cheek and sending me upstairs.

I sat at my window for a long time that night before sleep came.

The next morning I woke at dawn and drove to MGM. Whatever my future held—and I was beginning to doubt very strongly that screenwriting was it—I had been given some assignments, and I vowed to make good on them. Men like Richard I had no qualms about crossing or discarding; ditto for Julian and his concubines. But Allan had taken a shot on me, and I had the felling that despite his talents and seniority his position would always be a precarious one at best with MGM, just one candid photo away from dissolving. I would not disappoint him.

So I sat and wrote. I rewrote, revised, reworked three script treatments, switching genders, nouns, and intentions. Virtuous girls found the rewards of sin to be irresistible; wicked women found salvation. If thoughts of the viability of “A Wise Guy” had ever crossed my mind, no such thoughts were occurring to me now. I threw everything I had into those scripts, and I finished around one p.m.

During that time, I was interrupted only once around nine a.m., when Bob came in just long enough to throw a sneer in my direction, pick up his typewriter, and walk out. A pale, thin, equine man came in carrying his own typewriter and settled in at Bob’s spot.

“I’m Johnny,” he said. I smiled.

“I’m busy.”

Halfway through my congratulatory cigarette, Allan walked in.

“Have you even been on a set?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “Just on display.” He laughed but something in my voice cut it off.

“Well,” he said uneasily, “I want you to come with me to one now. I want you to meet Billy Haines before we get started on ‘A Wise Guy.’”

“Allan, I don’t know—” He interrupted me when he spotted the dueling stacks of scripts on my desk.

“What’s this? MGM’s newest boy wonder strikes again?”

“You could say that.” He grinned.

“I had a feeling you’d fit in here. Come on. You’ll love Billy.”

Reluctantly I stood up, grabbed my hat and coat, and followed Allan. We walked into the bright California sunshine and then immediately into a pitch black warehouse where men in work clothes scurried around, loudly squawking to each other in Brooklyn accents. One wondered if, between the crew and the actors, there was anyone left to turn on the lights in Brooklyn.

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.

“Billy, meet Peter,” Allan said. Billy stood up to shake my hand.

“You weren’t kidding about this one,” Billy said to Allan. He turned to me. “I’m thrilled to be working so closely with you, Peter.” He squeezed my hand before releasing it. Allan snorted.

“Good luck, Billy. This one’s the real wise guy.”

“Is that so? And where do you hail from, Peter?”

“The wheat fields. I’m fresh off the bus, wide-eyed and looking for love. Can’t you tell?” Billy laughed.

“Allan, you’re right about that, too. Peter, this is my friend Cranberry.” She nodded at me. I took my courage in my hands.

“Billy, Allan, I’m happy that both of you love my script so much, but I have to tell you that I don’t think my working at MGM is a good idea. It’s been a pleasure, but I think my next adventure is calling me. Thank you both.”

I walked quickly away. Once back outside in the glare, I walked a few yards and then leaned against a covered wagon parked at an odd angle on a New York City street and lit a cigarette. There. It was 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 some movie stars.

“Do you have a light?” I looked up into Joan Crawford’s giant eyes. Wordlessly, I pulled out a lighter and lit her cigarette. She inhaled and then blew the smoke straight up.

“It’s none of my business, but you seem remarkably dumb for such an allegedly bright young thing.”

“Oh? Who’s been boring you with tales of my brightness?”

“It’s a small town,” she said with a shrug, half turning from me. “You’ve made quite a stir among certain groups.”

“And that’s exactly why I’m hitting the road. La Grande Station, here I come.” She faced me.

“Did you get your feelings hurt? Did someone bring up something tawdry from your past? None of that matters here, not really. Not if you have someone watching out for you. I could turn your hair white with survival stories. I did what I had to do because I refused to end up fat and old and ugly and boring. Billy knows. Billy knows everything about me. A lot of less friendly people, do too, but they can’t touch me as long as the box office numbers stay strong.” She dropped her cigarette on the ground. “What I’m saying, one transplanted New Yorker to another, is that if you want it here, if you want to build a life for yourself, fuck them. If you start paying attention to what they say, you’re sunk.”

“Miss Crawford? They’re ready for you!” someone called out. She acknowledged them with an athletic wave, then turned back and kissed me on the cheek.

“Allan and Billy can help you, but you have to want it. And something about you makes me think you do. It’s okay to want things. I went out every night and danced the Charleston until my feet bled. Now here I am, the biggest moneymaker at MGM. Giving advice out for free.” She sighed. “Listen to me or don’t, but don’t let some catty fags run you out of town.”

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