HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD
by Melodie Johnson Howe
I am often asked if being an actress has informed my writing, especially with the Diana Poole series. The answer is yes, but not in the way one may think. Here is an example.
A PR man for Universal Studios (I have long forgotten his name so I’ll call him Mr. PR) asked me to meet him in wardrobe one morning. When I arrived I found an array of tight fitting mini-dresses hanging on a clothes rack in the dressing room. It wasn’t so surprising except each dress had a matching cane. The wood handles were painted white as were the tips. The middle sections of the stick were covered in pink suede, or yellow tweed or blue satin depending on the dress I would wear.
Mr. PR, blond and baby-faced, wore a gray suit and looked to me like an up and coming insurance sale man. He stood next to the clothing rack with pride glowing on his chubby cheeks.
“We’re going to have lunch with James Barron at the Brown Derby at noon.”
At the time, Barron was a major syndicated columnist for Daily Variety and had big clout in Hollywood.
Mr. PR continued, “You’ll wear the pink outfit.”
“What’s the cane for?” I asked, suspiciously.
“It’s not a cane.” He snapped with derision. “It’s a walking stick.” I knew the look on his face well. He was dealing with another recalcitrant dumb blonde.
“And I’m going to carry it?”
“Yes. But you don’t carry it. You stroll with it. You lean on it in a sexy way.”
He left the dressing room and the fitter pinned me tightly into the dress, then took it to be sewed.
As the dress was being tailored for me, Mr. PR explained his great idea.
“Melodie, now listen to this carefully. Here’s the story you tell Barron. Because you are so beautiful and sexy you were constantly stalked by men. One night a man attacked you but luckily you had an umbrella and you were able to fight him off with it. Ever since that horrible event you have carried a walking stick.”
“To fight men off.”
I gaped at him. “You’re kidding.”
“Melodie, this has come down from the higher ups. They’ve spent a lot of money on these clothes and walking sticks.”
After he left me to put the refitted dressed back on, I made a phone call to one of “the higher ups.” The gist of the conversation was, “You’re under contract. Just do it, Melodie. You’ll get space in Baron’s column, your name will be spread around the country and the cane story will soon be long forgotten.” I was also reminded that I had refused to play a Turkish belly dancer and a few other things I wouldn’t agree to, then he hung up.
I stared into the three-way mirror. A sexy young blonde in white Courage boots, short little tea cozy of a dress, who was so beautiful she had to fight men off with a cane. First I wanted to laugh them I felt completely shattered. The “suits” didn’t know what do with me. But did I?
In the parking lot of the Brown Derby, Mr. PR handed me my cane and we began to walk to the entrance. It was a hot summer day and my tight knit dress felt like a wool scarf wrapped around me.
“Melodie,” he growled.
I stopped and looked at him. “What?” I snapped.
“Yes,” he hissed.
“It’s the cane. It makes me want to limp.”
“Well stop it. It’s not a good look.”
We started to walk again. “You’re still limping,” he snarled.
“I can’t help it. “ I began laugh. “It seems like a natural thing to do with a cane.”
“This isn’t funny. And it’s not a cane. It’s a walking stick.”
”What if Barron doesn’t ask me why I’m carrying this thing?” I shook it at him.
“He will. And if he doesn’t, you’ll bring it up.” He opened the restaurant door and we tumbled in, angry and hot.
We were escorted to Barron’s corner table. Trying not to limp, I trailed the cane behind me as if I were dragging a rake. As we were seated, Barron, who looked to be on this third martini, eyed the cane and me with bloodshot jaded disdain, and I felt it deep in the pit of my stomach. A faded lecherous grin formed on his lips as he watched me trying to figure out what to do with the damn thing. I decided to rest my hand on its handle, but the floor was slick and the cane slid out from under my loose grip, clattering onto the floor.
Mr. PR picked it up for me.” Your walking stick, Melodie.” He spoke too loudly and stiffly like an actor with stage fright.
Baron said nothing. Flushing and embarrassed, I turned around and hung it on the back of my chair. Barron beckoned the waiter. As we ordered, the cane fell off the back of my chair. Barron sipped his martini, wryly observing me. The waiter picked the cane up and graciously asked if he could take it for me. I graciously replied that he could. Mr. PR started to yell “No!” but got hold of himself just in time.
As I sipped white wine and ate a Cobb salad, Mr. PR told Barron about my upcoming show on Bob Hope’s Chrysler Theater called “Kicks.” He listened, in a stewed daze of amusement, and asked me a few vague questions about the show, which I answered. Soon I began to feel a foot under the table jabbing mine. It was Mr. PR man signaling me to bring up the subject of the walking stick. I didn’t. Nor did Barron.
The lunch over, the waiter returned with my matching cane. I laid it across my lap and said nothing.
Barron, sipping the last of his coffee, finally asked me, “Are you going to tell me about that?”
“What?” I asked innocently
“The cane.” He sighed and his rubbed his red face.
“Walking stick,” Mr. PR blurted.
“No.” I said.
Barron suddenly came alive, and looked at Mr. PR as if he’d been double-crossed. And I realized that he had to have his hook. He had to play the game he had so much disdain for. He could show all the contempt for me he wanted, but he still needed his phony story. So Mr. PR told him about me, the walking stick wielding beauty, and we left.
In a week the story began to pop up in newspapers across the country. Mr. PR would send me copies, proud of his work. I loathed it. I loathed Barron. I loathed myself for being involved in it. My cynicism was set in cement.
Later, when I was writing my first novel, the main character, genius detective Claire Conrad, appeared using a walking stick. And she didn’t limp. It was as she said, “an affectation I can’t do without.”
And Diana Poole, the actress in my short stories? The cynicism that formed me forms her giving her a darker depth.