The Wayward Redhead
"What do I think happened to her,” said Biff Bash over the phone. He was a retired writer from Paramount’s publicity department and had the wry, bleary-eyed temperament endemic to his craft. "Nothing happened. The hip-hooray and ballyhoo of Hollywood happened."
Tom could hear him deep-dragging on a cigarette before he spoke again in his growly voice.
"Pretty Miss Nobody comes to Hollywood with stars in her eyes. Maybe she has a trophy from a beauty contest; maybe she gives herself a catchy name; maybe somebody told her she could sing. She thinks that's all it takes, a bright smile and a swing to her skirt. She goes around the block a few times, then a few times more, gets knocked around in the process, black and blues, but not the kind you can see. One day, quietly, hopelessly, she adds up the score. In the dark, rent unpaid, she piles up her belongings in the backseat of a car and drives away into the big American night. Never to be seen, heard, or thought of again.”
"Jesus, that's harsh."
"This is one heartbreaking motherfucker of a town, son. There's nothing worse in this world than being a nobody in Hollywood. How do you think I became a soulless flack, my man? You think I was born with the name 'Biff Bash’!”
"But the newspaper reports. This girl, really, never is seen again after that night in the Palatine Theater."
"It's called selling a movie, Holmes. It's called keeping the front office happy. I would think you knew that by now."
Actually, there was only one newspaper report. And it wasn’t even about the girl who went missing.
Instead, it was all about Fawn Brill, a snub-nosed blonde ingenue who was discovered at the Palatine premiere of The Cats when she won a beauty contest and a role in an upcoming Thorncraft film. A great deal was made about a missing family heirloom belonging to a great-grandmother, daughter of the Confederacy, a sunburst brooch with a large orange topaz at its center. The brooch was later found behind the screen beside a woman’s sprawled coat. Miss Brill believed quite fiercely that “the thief,” a fellow contestant, had been surprised in the act of fleeing. So righteously outraged was she over the potential loss of this sacred totem of Southern heritage that the proud starlet vowed to “see the woman in prison.” The coat was eventually traced to another contestant, never mentioned by name, merely as “some redheaded trash” (Miss Brill’s words), “whereabouts unknown.”
The newspaper was inflamed with Miss Brill’s indignation: Over a year had passed, it bristled, and still, justice went begging. The film that Miss Brill won a part in on that December night was about to be released. (A droll Thorncraft oddity, well regarded by the French and Tom alike, about a group of Vermont villagers — an artist, a crone, a gravedigger, and Miss Brill — who try to hide a corpse they each separately stumble over in a highly colored autumn field, entitled You Remember Charlie.) The interview, which was published in the reputable Charlotte Observer, made no other mention of the thieving young woman who was still missing many months later, and so the only thing Tom had to go on was the absurdly unreliable Hollywood Exposè.
Tom went back to his desk, again to pan for some accidental nugget of fact in the magazine’s lurid tale of a wayward redhead who had disappeared “strangely.” He couldn’t help but laugh at times when the story spun away from the writer, given as the magazine was to obsessive rants on “morals,” “free love” and communism. In Tom’s immersion in film scholarship, even this — smarmy scandal-magazine writing — he had studied, analyzed, and written about, a style he famously dubbed “flamboyant tabloidese.”
“It was a dark and stormy night last December,” the article began, ringing in a shameless cliche, “and it happened at the Palatine Theater, long a hangout for woo-woo Hollywood types with their ouija boards and vegetarian diets. Pinko director 'Eddie' (to the girls) Thorncraft, the fatso maestro of murder and mayhem, lost one of his daring young women, a wised-up ‘starlet’ from the pinup rags, who went by the name ‘Annie Hammerstein’ (an agent would have snipped that big honker of a name had she ever gotten near one).”
On the opposite page was a picture of Annie.
Tom took a moment to study it. The girl was on her knees, wearing nothing more than a mink stole, arms together bubbling up her cleavage. She had a vixenish face, looking up at the camera enthusiastically, mouth ajar, hint of tongue. Her long Rita Hayward hair fell back in slinky waves behind bare shoulders. Hollywood Exposè, like most pulp magazines of the time, did not have full-color printing. Every photo was a grubby black-and-white, but here the publisher had gone to special lengths. The girl’s hair was splashily overlaid in red printer’s ink, an effect usually reserved when words like “COMMIE,” “PINKO” and “FAIRY” bloodied the magazine’s screaming title lines.
Though “the Wayward Redhead” was being hung out here as some wanton tart, the photo, to Tom’s modern eyes, was playfully modest. The girl’s stole was draped in such a way as to cover with furry mink her most female part. Above her on the right, as if it were to him her tongue was flicking, was an oval inset of the dour, pear-shaped face of Edward Thorncraft, chin high, pendulous lower lip, looking veddy British indeed.
It was clear to Tom on his first reading that the disappearance of a nobody didn’t rate this much printer’s ink. Some slight, some score was being settled. The real target of so much hyperventilation was transparently the director.
"The studio drumbeaters call him the Master of Suspense," the piece snickered, "but it was blubberpuss director Edward Thorncraft who was left hanging when a Leggy Redhead took a powder during the premiere of his latest shocker, ‘The Cats.’ The party girl said she would do anything to land a role in Tubby’s next picture and came to the theater, as they say in LaLaLand, ‘to audition.’ Word was she gave her best performances in private, but this night she deigned to strut her titular talents in a beauty contest where the artistes, for a change, had to keep their clothes on. It was during said exhibition of — you should pardon the expression — ‘talent’ at the Palatine Theater on the night of December 17, 1964 that the wayward redhead with the blackest black book in Hollywood went more wayward than usual."
The article proceeded to jimmy-rig the story of a missing person into a full-blown schlock scandal, linking the girl on slim to no evidence to the director Edward Thorncraft and his "heady circle of pinko screenwriters, lavender yes men and yellow lapdog movie stars." According to "Those Who Know" (the magazine's patented phrase for its network of housemaids, chauffeurs, tennis coaches, “best friends,” call girls, and gigolos who for a quick fifty would talk freely about their employers), the "Sinuous Sin-tress" was no stranger to the upper climes of Beverly Hills and was passed around there "like an after-dinner mint."
This, thought Tom, must have come as a blow to what Hollywood Exposè relentlessly claimed was Thorncraft’s retinue of "light-in-the-loafer lads who go into chirpy raptures and make goo-goo eyes at each other over Sir Lardo's so-called ‘masterpieces.’”
The article, as was the house style, was printed on coarse pulp pages that were colored — a Hollywood Exposè trademark— “urine yellow.” So Tom had described them in an essay when he conjectured that though the pages were meant to be a nose-thumbing celebration of yellow journalism, the color unintentionally revealed the jaundiced viewpoint of the publisher, Foxleigh Pennyworth, a notorious right-wing crank, hated by all except the lowest common denominator in the reading public. The Great Unwashed had made Mr. Pennyworth (born Frank Gluck, Ocean Grove, New Jersey) a millionaire many times over and a frequent losing litigant in libel suits. He famously didn’t care. His mission was righteousness, to bring down the free-loving commie movie stars in the name of truth, justice, and the American way.
To this end, each article began under the magazine’s “Seal of Disapproval,” a perverse logo depicting the Three Wise Monkeys. Except in this case, Hear-No-Evil was leaning forward with his ear cupped, See-No-Evil peered through zoomed-out binoculars, and Speak-No-Evil had shout lines radiating from a megaphone.
Pennyworth used a small stable of writers, though it was said some of these were merely pseudonyms for himself. In any case, his fingerprints could be found muddying every article. The magazine’s specialty: leering cheesecake photos; the accidental snapshot of some he-man star who, caught in mid-motion, seemed to drop a wrist; the beloved actress without makeup in devastating close-up — all provided excuses for captions heavy in words like “sick,” “degenerate,” and “without any visible means of support.” Even “starlet” was a damning designation with a double meaning.
When the magazine went on the warpath like this, facts were expendable. There was little Tom could learn here about the real Annie Hammerstein. He tallied it up:
FACT: She came from Montana. (There was a photo of teenage Annie Hammerstein sitting on the wooden gate of a corral; snowy mountain in the distance; jeans with thick rolled-up cuffs; pigtails, one over the shoulder, one in front. Sweet toothy teenage smile.)
FACT: She was a roller-skating ‘space cadet’ at Sammi’s Drive-In. (Photo showed her in the middle of two other uniformed “space cadets,” looking, in their slanted silver-lamé flight caps, like a singing trio.)
FACT: She had, as a girl, been arrested for shoplifting. She was a teenager at the time, the record was sealed, but the scurrilous Hollywood Exposè had somehow procured a photostat. Apparently, Pennyworth’s dark army of “Those Who Know” extended to the wilds of Montana.
Curiously, despite the mention of “the blackest black book in Hollywood,” no names of straying husbands in dream movie-star marriages were divulged, no arcane peccadilloes of the New York “commie sophisticates” were gloated over, as they surely would have been had Pennyworth really been in possession of the black book to back up his customary slanders in court. Tom suspected the book didn’t exist. In fact, he found little reason to believe the missing girl was anything other than the sort of optimistic innocent that Biff Bash had described. Just a poor kid who had come to Hollywood with a dream. Another beautiful loser.
FACT: Annie Hammerstein disappeared forever on December 17, 1964.
Here’s how the article put it: “While Eddie was ‘entertaining’ — if you will — the curvy blonde contest winner in his curtained opera box high in the dark of the Palatine Theater, the Wayward Redhead was sashaying her way behind the screen, clutching ill-gotten booty to her much too ill-gotten bosom, when she made a wrong turn in that shambling old mausoleum of a theater. What happened next, no one knows. At least, no one is talking. Thorncraft and all the fell powers of Universal Studios are making sure of that. As for the hapless Redhead… well, just between me and thee, seems she simply walked right out of this world.”
Days before when Tom found the magazine at MovieWorld, Woody thumbed through the article to see the pictures. The red-inked Redhead all at once triggered a memory, and Woody, that great encyclopedia of Hip Hooray and Ballyhoo, recollected a wild local legend about a girl who “walked off the edge of the world” inside a movie theater. Sometimes it was Grauman’s, sometimes it was the Egyptian. Apparently, this was where the legend started, in a tossed-off aside about the Palatine in Hollywood Exposè.
The Palatine… always at the center of all mysteries.
Preview: In movies, the script is fate.
Loving this story