A young actress works for a studio executive on matters more thrilling than movie roles. 2,521 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Hollywood – February 1938
Inside the gates of Hollywood’s grandest studio, which specifically wasn’t in Hollywood at all but in Culver City, a young woman sat waiting inside the executive suite of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer outside the office of Finbar Gregory, Vice President of Studio Relations. That part, Studio Relations, made her smile. Because he was much more than his benign title would suggest. A former sergeant in the Los Angeles Police Department, he was also the son of an LAPD police captain and had joined MGM in the late twenties as head of security for the studio. He had become the right arm or, more to the point, strong arm of MGM’s Vice President and General Manager Eddie Mannix. Mr. Gregory handled a number of delicate press and publicity issues for the studio. Rumor had it that he and Mannix never exchanged memos but met behind closed doors every morning at seven.
The young woman whose name was Rita Lake looked around the ante room and at Mr. Gregory’s secretary, Marge or Midge or something like that, and wondered if the older woman with light gray hair and a small and efficiently build, thought she was having an affair with the executive. After all, Rita had been to his office several times over the past months and since he had little to do with casting, her presence on so many occasions might be misconstrued as inappropriate.
Rita Lake wasn’t her real name; she was an actress beautiful in an unconventional way with exotic good looks that came from her father, a Russian Jew, and her mother, a Spanish beauty. She had large hazel eyes framed by neatly arched eyebrows, and thick auburn hair recently cut to the new fashion. She had a trim figure, more athletic than voluptuous, and good legs that helped her get more parts than her acting skills.
On this particular morning Rita was dressed in a brown wool suit with a matching handbag and low-heeled shoes, the hem length of her skirt set appropriately at the knee. Rita wondered if it was her wool suit in the mild dry weather or the glacial stares that Marge/Midge was shooting her that was making her perspire. She self-consciously touched the small bruise under her left eye. The swelling had gone down and she hoped that the small amount of make-up she was wearing had been sufficient to cover the black and blue mark.
She smiled at Marge/Midge who smiled politely back. On Rita’s lap was a thick manila envelope which she guarded closely with her white-gloved hands. She was about to ask Marge/Midge for the time or tell her it was certainly a warm day for February when the intercom buzzed. “Madge,” Madge, of course! “Please send in Miss Lake.”
“Right away, Mr. Gregory,” Madge told the box then turned to Rita with her polite smile, “You can go in now, dear.”
Rita stood up, smoothed her skirt, shouldered her handbag and tucked the manila envelope under an arm. “Thank you, Madge.” She opened the door into Gregory’s office and stepped inside. He was standing behind his desk.
“Please have a seat, Miss Lake.” It was always Miss Lake, never Babe, Sweetheart, Chicky, Doll-face or even Rita. This is what she liked best about Mr. Gregory. He always treated her with respect and old fashion courtesy. Even though she was just another contract player making a hundred-twenty a week, he never acted like most studio executives that Rita had heard about. No casting couch or playing grab-ass around the desk. Mr. Gregory didn’t tolerate fooling around.
Rita handed him the manila envelope. He took the package and raised an eyebrow, acknowledging its weight.
“There’s film in there, along with the pictures,” Rita said, sitting up straight in her chair, waiting expectantly. As he opened the package, Rita took a closer look at Mr. Gregory and observed, once again, how even with the expensive haircut, wire-rimmed eyeglasses and custom-made suit, the executive couldn’t shake the look of a former cop.
When Rita first started working for Mr. Gregory, she had asked around, discreetly of course, what he did exactly. One old-timer, a woman bit player, told her a story about him from the early thirties. “It was in ’32 when Jean Harlow’s husband — what was his name, Bern? Paul Bern? — supposedly committed suicide at their mansion. Fin Gregory was there that morning before the police. Hell, he was there before Mannix or Thalberg. He was there to clean up.”
Rita also knew that Gregory had a small cadre of LAPD’s finest that moonlighted for him. When they were off duty. they helped Mr. Gregory straighten out any number of small and large matters and were paid well for their services.
Rita guessed Mr. Gregory was in his fifties but might be younger since his dark hair had gone gray early, with some white starting to creep in. He was medium height with a square build and broad shoulders. His complexion was ruddy and his light blue eyes behind the lenses were always alert and searching. Today, he was in shirtsleeves; his suit jacket hung neatly on a coatrack in the corner next to pictures of himself with L.A. dignitaries on the wall. Rita thought it curious that there were no pictures of Mr. Gregory with movie talents or starlets. Yes, he was all business.
He shook the contents from the envelope onto his desk: several photographs and a reel of 16mm film spilled out. He looked over at Rita. “You’ve been busy, I see,” he said.
Rita tried to sit up straighter. “Yes, I’ve been a busy girl…”
The executive looked at her closely. “How’d you get the shiner?” he asked, without looking up from his desk.
Once a cop, always a cop. Rita let out a nervous laugh and touched the bruise with her finger. “It was a parting gift from our friend last night.”
“Did he hurt you? I mean, anywhere else?”
“No, I was able to tear myself away with a sharp knee to the groin. Then that knock-out powder you gave me went to work. He crashed into his coffee table and was out like a light.”
“No, I checked his pulse before I left. He was still alive.”
Mr. Gregory chuckled. “Yeah? That’s too bad.” He went through each photograph, one by one, making approving noises with each picture. “Nice shots. Do you mind telling me what type of camera you used?”
“It was a Leica 35mm Rangefinder, small and compact to fit in my handbag and doesn’t require too much light.” The camera was a present from her old boss, a fashion photographer back in New York. Rita had worked for him as an assistant after it became clear she wasn’t going to cut it as a fashion model.
The VP held up more of the manila envelope contents. “You were able to get these nude photographs and documents? How long were you there after he was knocked unconscious?”
“Five minutes or so. I thought he’d have some clever secret panel behind the bookcase. But there was just a box in the corner of his bedroom closet that had everything: documents, film reels, photographs.”
The executive shook his head and then picked up the reel of 16mm film. He pulled out a strip and held it up to the window behind his desk.
Rita explained the footage. “It’s a pornographic movie he was sending out. Mostly to Central America but a few went to Europe; Belgium and France are his biggest markets. One or two to Berlin.”
“Anyone we know in the film?”
Rita hesitated. There were two very major stars in the reel but she didn’t want to mention their names. “Yes, you’ll recognize them, even though the quality and lighting are pretty awful. This guy was a director?”
Gregory laughed. “Yeah, that’s why he was kicked off the lot two years ago. That, and for the fact he was getting one of our child actors drunk every day so he could manage him better. The kid’s mother found out and came straight to Mr. Mannix about it.” He rolled the film back into the reel and put it back into the envelope. “I’ll watch it later.” He looked over at Rita and she could swear she saw him blush. “I’m sorry, Miss Lake, but for an old cop I can’t stomach this sort of thing. It’s my Catholic upbringing or being married so long.”
Rita felt a renewed respect for Mr. Gregory. But discussing pornography didn’t bother her; she’d been able to watch some of the film with the clear objectivity of a detective.
Gregory continued. “If you don’t mind me asking, Miss Lake, where exactly did you watch this?”
“I went over to the editors building. I have a friend there.“
“A discreet friend, I hope…”
“He owed me a favor. He showed me how to use the Moviola then he went outside for a smoke and I locked the door behind him.”
“Good. I suspect our director pal will find out this reel is missing in due time.”
“I dug down deep into the box and pulled out whatever I could find. Hopefully, he thought the whole thing was just a bad date with a girl who could say ‘No’.” Rita had met the pornographer by “accident” at a small cocktail party at a friend’s apartment on Gower. She was charming but didn’t have to be; the chump cut a path through the small crowd to Rita the minute she walked in the door wearing red chiffon.
Mr. Gregory was drumming his fingers. “Well, let’s assume he didn’t take himself to the hospital. So he’ll start putting two and two together soon. So we’ll have to move fast.”
“It could be he figured it out before going down for the count. That’s probably why he slugged me.” It had been getting late in his filthy little apartment and Rita wasn’t sure how much longer she could hold off his advances. Finally she asked for a cocktail and; when he went into the kitchen, she took out the small packet of sedative. When he returned with their drinks, Rita distracted him and dumped the entire contents into his Rob Roy.
“Well, Miss Lake, you seem to be a pretty tough young lady.”
“Mr. Gregory, I played field hockey at Vassar for four years. They don’t make them any tougher.”
This made him smile. Then he opened a top drawer of his desk and pulled out a long white envelope and a wooden box. He slid the envelope over to Rita. “There’s a little bonus in there for you for handling the rough stuff.”
“Thank you.” She took the envelope without opening it. There wasn’t any need to count the cash; Mr. Gregory was a man of his word.
Gregory opened the wooden box. “And as tough as you are, I can’t have you taking these risks without protecting you in a proper manner.” He took out a blue steel handgun and held the short-barreled revolver so Rita could examine it. “This is a .38 snub nose, what we cops refer to as a Detective Special. It’ll fit it in a handbag, it’s easy to fire and it’s lightweight.”
At first, Rita was shocked that Mr. Gregory recommended she arm herself. But she remained silent and listened intently.
“I’ll straighten out the paperwork for a license and I have a Sergeant friend who works out of the station on Wilshire who’ll give you a lesson on how to use it.” He looked over at her, his face showing concern. “You’ve never fired a weapon before, have you, Miss Lake?”
“Just a neighbor’s BB gun; I shot him in the leg. Accidently, of course.” Rita pointed at the Detective Special. “What about the bullets?”
Mr. Gregory wagged a finger at her. “You’ll get those as soon as the Sergeant thinks you’re ready to use them on your own. I don’t want you to shoot yourself or someone else.” Then he added, “I don’t mean to alarm you but we seem to be headed for the Big Leagues now. What do you think?”
Rita responded not with fear but with a smart remark. “I think I need a raise in pay.”
Mr. Gregory smiled. “That will come in due time, Miss Lake. Now, can you see the Sergeant today by any chance?”
“Sorry, I actually have an acting job for a studio.”
“Will you be on the lot?”
“I’ve been loaned out to Paramount for a 1 pm casting call. It’s a Randolph Scott picture. They want me for the part of a dance hall girl. I get to sing…”
“Can you sing?” He asked it in a way that didn’t sound insulting. “You don’t seem the type.”
Rita laughed. A real laugh this time, because she was no longer nervous in his presence. “We’ll see. I don’t think they’re expecting Jeanette MacDonald.”
The VP stood up, signaling that their meeting was over. “I’ll be in touch. Once again, on behalf of Mr. Mayer, Mr. Mannix and myself, I want to thank you for your continued discretion in these matters. And please look out for yourself.”
Mr. Gregory handed her the gun, grip first. She stuffed it in her handbag along with the envelope, and stood up to go. But Rita stopped before she got to the door and turned towards Mr. Gregory. “What happens next? Was this about blackmail?”
"Blackmail’s a part of it, yes. Plus, he was making money from the distribution of these blue movies on the black market.”
Rita faced him and moved back towards his desk. “The actors in the film looked drunk, confused, as if they were part of a dream. They fell out of camera range and then were herded back into focus by someone. The camera never moved.”
“That’s because the camera was hidden. He probably used narcotics: cocaine, heroin on the actors. You can’t make people do those things with just booze.”
“He had cocaine in his apartment. He tried to entice me with it.”
Gregory walked around the desk and put a fatherly arm around Rita and guided her to the door. “Miss Lake, it’s better you don’t think too hard about such things. Just be thankful you got out of that apartment with only a black eye. We’ll handle everything else.”
Rita knew what he meant by “we’ll handle everything else.”
Gregory opened the door. “Now, Miss Lake, if you run into our director friend at any time you call the number I gave you awhile back — you still have it, right? — and Madge will put you right through. But, after today, I don’t expect you’ll be running into our director friend.”
He said this matter-of-factly but Rita felt a small chill at the base of her spine. As Rita walked by Madge’s desk and made her way to the stairs, she realized she had left Mr. Gregory’s office richer and better-armed than when she’d entered. And now, if the day held any promise, she would get to sing.