The ex-WWII Army officer with the mogul relative isn’t sure showbiz excites him. 2,201 words. Part One. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
December 1945 – On the set of MGM’s Up Goes Maisie shoot
Dave pushed the studio mail cart around the perimeter of the darkened sound stage until the sudden burst of brilliant light from a working set flooded his eyes. It was a scene set in a business school classroom, one of the opening shots in a Maisie series film; rows of cute extras taking their places at typing tables. Watching them from her chair, awaiting her call, was the film’s star, Ann Sothern. Every Maisie movie was a cash register for the studio and she was its cashier. She sat legs crossed in ankle-strap shoes, in a tight dress, waiting for the director’s signal to take her place for the shot. Dave had seen so many famous faces since he’d began at MGM the month before that Ann Sothern, though lusciously sexy, was by now to him just another recipient of studio mail. Up close, even the thick mask of makeup couldn’t distort her perky blonde beauty. Her smile broke out her dimples and her eyes radiated that glow he’d come to see as only emanating from actors with the elusive star quality that created box office.
Dave Meltzer had strict instructions to hand-deliver a letter only to her, not to any maid or assistant. It was a fat envelope plastered with registered mail stickers from a law firm. At her dressing table, she studied the pages, following the text with her pen. “What do you want to do after the mailroom?” she asked Dave, picking up the phone.
“Not sure. I’ve only been here a few weeks.”
“Nothing got you gaga to write screenplays, direct, produce, or at least hump some of these gorgeous girlies around here?”
“I push my cart around hallways, between offices and over sound stages. I stack mail, hand it to the people and go on my way.”
“You need to start shmoozing, kid. Talk to the people you deliver to. Make friends. Kiss a few asses. Learn the landscape.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Dave said. “Thanks.”
Dave stood watching the shoot from outside her dressing room as the director rehearsed the typing lesson scene. Then a soft female voice from behind him punctuated the clatter from the machines. “Excuse me, you’re from the Executive Mailroom?”
He turned and saw a shapely platinum blonde with luminous green eyes in a silky beige blouse, tight fitting jodhpurs and Mary Jane flats. She was in her early twenties but emitted the alert aura of authority he’d only sensed before in much older women.
“These pages need revision,” she said, handing Dave a manila envelope. “They go to Thelma Robinson in the writers building. She’s waiting for them now.”
He took the envelope, ogling her somewhat too long.
“Wake up, mailroom man,” she said, snapping her fingers to bring him out of his trance. “There’re lots prettier girls here to leer at. Remember to tell Thelma that the new pages are needed for the first scene after lunch. I have to check something nearby. I’ll walk as far as the admin building with you.” She turned and extended a hand. “By the way, I’m Carolyn Marcus, production assistant and all- around Miss Fixit. And you?”
“Dave Meltzer, official mailroom nobody,” he replied as they shook hands.
She turned to face him. “Are you the Meltzer related to L.B.?”
Dave was stunned. “I—I suppose I am, how did you…”
“Everyone knows everything around this place. You are mishspoocha, some kind of great nephew?” Her command of the yiddish pronunciation and her last name were clues to her ethnicity, and Dave felt oddly comforted. “Studio people love mystery relatives.”
“Happily, I’m the invisible man.”
“It’s Hollywood, honey. You see, if no one was quite sure if you were related to L.B. or not, they could only guess. Maybe you’re a real close blood connection or even possibly his secret love child. And over time, this being MGM, the love child rumor would flourish.”
“And that’s better than if I was really related. Which for better or worse, I actually am.”
“Far better for your career. There are people here who aren’t related to L.B. but who everyone thinks are related and who have drawn MGM paychecks for years. Nobody really knows or asks. And for obvious reasons, those mystery relations get deference because in addition to greed, fear rules Hollywood. God forbid someone they called a ‘shmuck nephew of L.B.’s brother’ gets back to L.B.,” she said, slicing a hand across her neck. “Curtains.”
Ann Sothern popped her head out the dressing room door and handed Dave the signed paperwork. “Ah, I see you’ve met the gorgeous Carrie. Take this poor boy in hand, he’s cute.” the actress said, walking back to the set.
Once they reached the administration building, Carrie told Dave, “This is where I get off. Quick now, after you deliver your envelope, go directly to the writers building. Do not pass GO. Do not collect $100,”she said, laughing at her own Monopoly allusion.
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied with a faux salute. “But I have a question.” He came up close, virtually nose to nose, triggering what he knew was an electric charge between them. “Are you free for dinner tonight? I’m dying for Chinese food but I have no idea where to get anything edible.”
She smiled, sizing him up as if making up her mind if he was good-looking enough (he was) or tall enough (over six feet for certain) or bright enough (his intellect shone).And no small potatoes as part of her quick take was that he was related to L.B., and named Meltzer, and Jewish. “Best bet is the Formosa Café over on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. The food is so-so but you’ll see lots of famous drunks at the bar.”
“Not interested in drunks famous or infamous. But I am interested in your life story to date.”
”Just my biography?” she replied playfully. ”It’s kind of brief and probably boring. But I am related to someone at the studio, too, so be careful.”
“Want to tell me who?”
“Sure, it’s my dad. He’s an electrician at MGM and he got me the job. So, see, we’re both products of nepotism.”
The food at the Formosa was faintly passable for Dave who’d been spoiled by too many Sundays at Ruby Foo back home. But the conversation was worth the price of the dinner. She’d been born and raised in L.A., had two older brothers who were also recent G.I.s and lived with her parents in the Fairfax neighborhood in a faux Tudor dollhouse on a postage stamp-sized lot. She’d graduated from USC with a degree in education but MGM paid a lot better and she was saving money to get an apartment of her own.
After dinner they stood on Santa Monica Boulevard, each tentatively waiting for the other to suggest a destination other than home. “I’d ask you back but once my dad finds out you’re Jewish, an ex-Army officer, an Ivy League Columbia man, and heaven help us even possibly related to L.B., you’d never escape his clutches. So have you got a better idea?”
“I’d like to see L.A. lit up at night,” Dave ventured, changing the subject in a direction with considerable sexual promise. “Maybe the Hollywood sign. The shots you see in movies.”
“Your car or mine?” she asked. Dave did a mental estimate of the cubic feet of the back seat of Murray’s Packard versus the rumble seat of her small Chevy roadster, and it was no contest. “We’ll take mine. It’s got a bigger windshield for the view.”
She nodded with a wry smile. “Sure, the windshield.”
She directed him up to the top of Laurel Canyon, and then pointed to a turn. “Go down about a mile. By the way, do you mind if I call you David? I like it better.” He agreed and steered the car down the hill to a glittering view of the landscape carpet of L.A., its low line only broken by a handful of what passed for skyscrapers clustered downtown. He shut the engine, reached into the back seat for his portable Fada radio, spun the dial to a music station and stopped at a new Ella Fitzgerald-Duke Ellington number called I’m Beginning To See The Light…”
“You like jazz?”
“I do. Look, David, if we’re going to play ‘what do you like?’ and ‘what do you hate? before you attack me, can we shortcut it? I only have one question I’m really interested in about you — for now. Then you can get on with ravishing me all you want.”
‘Ask two,” Dave said, moving closer.
“One will do,” she replied, turning to face him. “You’re here a month or so. You’re related to the biggest man in town, you are too good-looking to be true, you have all the checkmarks for the fast lane up the studio ladder. So where do you see yourself climbing? Call it social research.”
Dave smiled. ”Funny. Ann Sothern asked me the same thing this morning. Is this a matter of interest studio-wide or just personal?”
“No, seriously, I’m interested. Every young guy in the movie business here has a scheme to vault the rocks and crannies of every mountain in his way and has no compunctions about stepping over the bodies on the way up. You think you might wind up being groomed for bigger things by L.B.?”
“Is this a Jewish girl’s husband potential research or are you really just curious?”
She pushed him, slid away and crossed her arms. “That snide remark is out of line, David. It’s below you, really,” she said with a look of mock indignation. “Just for that, don’t you dare to propose to me, ever!” She burst out laughing as Dave’s face went pale momentarily before it dawned on him that she was kidding. What she didn’t know was that he wasn’t making a joke. From the first moment he’d laid eyes on her that morning, he knew that it was only a matter of time before he was down on one knee, opening the velvet box with a tiny ring, swearing eternal love.
“I’m here nearly five weeks. Give me a little time before I propose. As to my future, well, I must have passed L.B. ten times in hallways and sets since I started. And all I got for my big smile was a thin smile back and a wave. Once he actually said, ‘Regards to your poppa, Danny.’ That’s it. So much for nepotism. He doesn’t even remember my name.”
“Don’t be such a skeptic. So you have no big Hollywood dream?”
“Not so far. But I’ve been all over the studio. The sets, the offices, the famous faces, the energy of the place, and I gotta say, I’m really kind of bored by the movie business.”
“No starry musings about sitting in screening rooms puffing cigars? Or, better yet, getting blow jobs from statuesque starlets?”
Her candor was slightly unnerving but it didn’t matter. He was smitten. “You may think I’m delusional but frankly I have more fun selling cars on weekends than I do pushing a mail cart around the studio daydreaming about shouting orders at intimidated underlings someday.”
“It’s an interesting psychology. You’re not disillusioned since you’ve not arrived with illusions. And you’re bored in a milieu where half the guys in the world would kill to be in your shoes. That true?”
“It is. Very much. I have this theory. It’s new, totally unscientific, probably immune to proof. But here it is: I think to make it here, to be a real big Hollywood guy, you need to possess a special gene. The Hollywood gene. Something that’s part of your genetic code at birth. I’m already convinced I don’t have it. It’s the ability to hand out shit and the capacity to eat shit.”
“So this shit gene, you’re absolutely convinced it’s missing from your makeup?”
She leaned back on the headrest and took out a cigarette. Dave leaned over and lit it for her, sliding closer, rubbing hip to hip. He kissed her softly on the forehead and the cheeks. Then he gently removed the cigarette from her lips, cradled her chin in his hands, and drew her into a long passionate embrace. She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him back. He eased off her and she smiled.
“So tell me David, if you don’t think you have the Hollywood gene, what is the gene you do have? The used car salesman gene?”
“I might decide on law school. I’m told that, with my undergrad degree from Columbia, I might make it into Boalt Hall at Stanford. As to the movie business, well, I just went through one war and what I’ve seen tells me that, if I hang in, it’s going to be another very long war. And I’m tired of warfare.”
She sat upright, running her fingers through his dark hair, turning his face to hers. “You are the first guy I ever went out with in the movie business who didn’t fill my ears with a half ton of bullshit about what he was going to be. Good for you, David Meltzer. You are truly sui generis, I gotta say.” She cuddled close, nuzzling his ear and kissed his cheek softly. “So tomorrow, like to come over for bagels and lox? But there’s a price.”
“You’ll have to endure a grilling by my dad. He’ll say something like, ‘What? You know my Carrie a whole two days and still haven’t proposed? Shmuck, what’s taking you so long?’”