A Burlesque starlet finds herself at the center of a Hollywood seduction. 2,678 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
New York City – 1937
I’d never met Millsap myself, or believed anyone who claimed they had.
Marvin Millsap – Boy Wonder, Burly Q Impresario, The Titan Of West Coast Tease – was as elusive as his success. While the Minsky brothers were never afraid to talk up their game, working the scene from Friar’s to Mulberry Street, Millsap was as elusive around Tinseltown as a ghost. Not that I cared for the Minskys so much, despite the hype. In fact, I avoided them like a plague, keeping to the occasional one-nighter gig in their Burlesque theatres if the price and terms were right for a limited engagement. They weren’t a fan of yours truly, either, or so went the talk. “Hot on the stage,” Billy Minsky was rumored to say, “but ice cold bitch in everyday life.”
To be fair, he was right. We all have our charms.
But Millsap? He was a different story, the kind that changed depending on who did the telling. Bootlegger money, said some. Inherited green. Murder Inc. wiseguy, big in the shylock biz. I’d heard he was a Rockefeller. That was the thing about show business: you heard a lot. But most of it? Just an illusion. Cheap scenery and a trick of the lights.
One thing, for sure: when it came to a Millsap show, money flowed like the Niagara. He’d only been on the scene for a couple of years but had made quite an impression. New York might have been the soul of Burlesque, but since Millsap landed in Hollywood, he’d given 42nd Street a run for its money.
That’s why, when I first heard the rumors of a new show six months earlier, I knew where the train was running. A spectacle! An extravaganza that would put the Big Apple to shame! The girls were in a tizzy, talking everybody’s ears off. But the one thing they wouldn’t say? A slot on Millsap’s roster was just a tiny step from a face up there on the big screen. The secret showgirl fantasy was a starring role in picture shows. Of the few who’d been scouted by casting directors, flown out for screen tests, even shot the forgettable cameo from time to time, they’d inevitably came back tail between their legs.
As for me, I had no comment. Unlike my contemporaries who’d never shut up – Gypsy Rose, for instance, or should I say homely Rose Hovick of Seattle Washington? – I believed less was more. At least when it came to my words.
But the chatter in the following weeks reached a fever pitch. A brand new theatre in the heart of Hollywood with 2,000 seats! A choreographer from Berlin, a director from Britain, Coco Chanel personally consulting on wardrobe design! Please. Coco would never lower herself to the Burly Q circuit, and only a sap bought into the hype. This was Burlesque, ripe with delusions of grandeur. We weren’t doing Shakespeare, Lord knows. I mean, who wanted to see the Lunts twirl their tittles and bump and grind?
Then a new development: the very first telegrams arrived. It was only a matter of time. “Isn’t that swell,” I said to anyone who’d listen — and threw them unopened on the mail pile. That’s when the calls began. Never from Millsap himself, mind you, but his associates. “Millsap is mounting a new production in Los Angeles and he’s dead set on you.”
“That’s very flattering. But the heat melts my makeup, you see.”
The next day, I’d find a new load of telegrams and the phone ringing off the hook.
“Five minutes,” they’d say. “That’s all I ask. You see, Millsap thinks you got the stuff. A gen-u-wine star!”
“Oh yes? Shame he can’t tell me himself.”
After that, I stopped answering altogether, handing over the task to my French maid who’d tell them I was otherwise disposed. “She’s buying at hat, mee-ster,” Marguerite would inform. “She’s taking a bubble bath. I tell her you call?”
Then the flowers started arriving by the day. Blue Belles, if you can believe it. For a showbiz wunderkind, Millsap’s lack of originality was a tad distressing, in my opinion. “Take them to the chorus dressing room,” I’d inform the delivery man, then toss the card.
One chilly March evening, something new: a living breathing Millsap associate at my dressing room door. There had been a late snow, and his seersucker coat was soaked through and grimy with mush. No overcoat, not even a scarf. Yet his skin the unnerving shade of a nut and his teeth gleamed an unnatural white. This wasn’t another Stagedoor Johnnie, that’s for sure. This guy was Hollywood, no doubt about it.
“Hope I’m not disturbing you, Miss Belle,” he said, looking completely out of place. “I’ve come quite a long way just to make your acquaintance. Did I mention how much I loved your show?”
I was still in my finale dress, the red number that dipped in all the right places, and I hadn’t taken off my makeup yet. Thank god. I feigned embarrassment nonetheless.
“My apologies. I should have introduced myself first,” he said. He reached out a hand and clearly stated his name. Mr. Dwayne Elliot. I extended my own.
“Mr. Elliot,” I said. “Now who might you be?
It took him aback, as I knew it would, just as I knew he was Millsap’s right-hand man and public face. That’s how it always was with important men, even ones in soaked-through sportscoats and fedoras flattened by sleet. Either they wanted women to dote on their wealth or power, or to pretend not to know about it. Either way, they were butter in the pan.
He was the latter. He gave me an infamous pearly grin — the same one that graced the inside of several glossies on the average week. Noted lothario, he played the sophisticated type, regularly appearing in the pages of Look and Photoplay with his latest Starlet Of The Week to his left. I wasn’t above perusing the gossip rags in the privacy of my evening bubble bath. Only the week before I’d run across his shiny mug. The caption read: Accompanying the young up-and-comer actress to the premiere was her escort, handsomely rakish producer Dwayne Elliot. The man-about-town is known for romancing Hollywood lovelies the likes of Marion Davies and Joan Crawford.”
And yet here he was in my dressing room, looking less Gary Cooper and more wet cat. Always a gracious hostess, I offered him a seat and a tumbler of scotch. We sat across from each other in silence as I watched him get his bearings. Two things were painfully clear, yet only one a surprise: Millsap was hell-bent on hiring me, and the man-about-town was the temperamental type, if you catch my drift.
With enough dough, people could be anyone they wished, and I could spot a fake a mile away. After years in the biz, I knew the game. Don’t trust a soul — that was one of my mantras, with a few key exceptions. Some deserved my loyalty. Like Marguerite. Or the occasional queer because we had something in common, after all; we’d spent our lives pretending. Funny enough, that made us realer than anyone. I’d known Elliot’s predilections before he took off his hat, the kind of leanings that don’t change despite the rotating cast of starlets by his side or not.
He dried off and liquored up. He began, “Just hear me out.”
Time for The Pitch. I reached over and poured myself a drink. Elliot complimented, begged and beseeched. “You’re mesmerizing. You’ve got the ‘it’ factor. You’re the real deal.”
I blushed on cue. Men like that. He talked until his drink was drained, then clinked the ice and shot me a pointed look. “Millsap needs you. This is his biggest production yet. Biggest production ever, to be blunt. And he’s got vision. The man is the toast of Hollywood, if you haven’t heard.”
“I think I have,” I said, reaching for my lighter. Instantly, Elliot was there with a flame.
“Well, he is. Millsap’s all about titillation, not raunch. Sophistication and grace… See where I’m going with this?”
Of course, I did. Millsap wanted hot raw sex appeal underneath a billow of chiffon and lace. He wanted a lady, only the kind who’d turn the crowd into a frenzied state. And he’d come to the right place.
I hemmed and hawed. “I’m terribly happy in New York,” I claimed. “I have an excellent contract here and a lovely apartment on the Upper East…”
“We’ll get you a better one in Hollywood,” he interrupted, as I expected. “The Montecito… ever hear of it? Real classy joint, lots of big names and pretty young things such as yourself. We’ll buy out your contract and up the salary so high your head will spin.”
This went on for quite a while. Millsap had a reputation. But so did I. Elliot only had to check the marquee in front. That was my name up there ten feet high. Not the one I was born with, but the one I’d spent years climbing to reach by clawing my nails to ripped bloody stubs. The name that sent dignitaries and moguls into a tizzy and turned audiences into hooting dogs. The name I’d earned. Belle, that was me. Belle De’Ville, The Dainty Debutante Of Burlesque.
Elliot spoke of the perks, the accolades, the snazzy new theatre gutted and rebuilt from scratch. A vaulted ceiling adorned with intricate latticework, gold overlay and terracotta tiles. Plush maroon seats. The latest lighting. “Wait till you see the massive chandelier,” he said giddily. “Imported from Rome!”
Total queer. Still, I couldn’t help but be charmed.
“And that’s just the beginning,” he continued, leaning forward with a glowing face. “There’s more! Lines of dancing girls, top notch comics, your name in lights… This will be a spectacle unlike the world had ever seen. An explosion so glittery to outshine even the Golden State!”
I listened respectfully. The grand finale was coming.
“And as for the headliner, well… If you grace us with the honor, Miss De’Ville, you’ll get anything you want.”
That phrase — anything you want — had a nice ring to iit.
Then Elliot went silent, his eyes hopeful. Waiting on the edge of his seat for me to answer. I reached for my fan, popped it open and allowed myself a gentle cool breeze. I contemplated the dressing room ceiling, lost in thought.
“Well,” I finally said, “that is an intriguing offer.”
“Is that a yes?”
I snapped my fan shut. I’d known my answer all along. Before the telegram or even the whispers of a new Millsap show. “Perhaps we can work something out.”
I’d been headed to Hollywood since the day I was born.
Hollywood – 1937
Within a week, I was living in a penthouse apartment at the Montecito. A few days later, word already was out that the Legendary Dainty Deb Belle De’Ville would be headlining Millsap’s newest show when it opened next month. Tickets were selling like hotcakes. It might have been the tail end of the Depression, but not at Millsap’s box office. Sure, Burlesque was going through hard times, right along with everyone else, but Millsap would remind audiences of better times before bread lines and hungry mouths, and feed souls with the glamour of gold inlays and dancing girls.
And I was the centerpiece. I was to get anything I want, that was the deal, and I was a girl who needed a lot. Extra-large dressing room with brass fixtures, on-call seamstress, vanities imported from France. These weren’t demands, they were basics. And, of course, the new maid.
My assistant was the most important perk of all. Millsap’s money man had tried the runaround at first. “We don’t put assistants in contracts,” he’d said. “It’s unheard of.”
“Oh, I think you heard me just fine,” I’d responded with a flutter of eyelashes and a demure smile. “Or perhaps we should get Mr. Elliot’s opinion? Better yet, Mr. Millsap’s?”
Moneybags got the point. Without me, Millsap’s show would be walking on its heels. And I didn’t want just any old broad. I had put out the call to the agency to find her before I arrived, and on Day One the applicants lined the Montecito hallway in their Sunday best. Sharp-witted charmers, pretty ones, the turned-out kind. Girls who crossed their legs daintily and spewed compliments.
Then this one girl in particular shuffled into my boudoir. She was a mousy ball of nerves. I couldn’t tell if she was pretty because her chin stretched to the floor and she wore some kind of secondhand dress. When she blushed before introducing herself, I wondered if she had mistakenly wandered into the line. So I initially stared her down.
“Have you ever been to a Burlesque show?” I asked.
“Oh no!” she piped up, then stammered. “I mean, I’m sure it’s delightful and the girls are real talented, I just…”
“Stop,” I ordered, holding up my hand. “The agency didn’t send you, did they?”
“No,” she admitted, tears threatening to burst. “I overheard two girls at the bus stop and followed them here. I’m so sorry, ma’am. I just really need a job.” She looked up, eyes wide with desperation. “I’m a hard worker and will do anything you ask.”
“Good,” I said, rising. “Start by telling the other girls to go.”
As for Tinseltown itself, I found it perfectly acceptable, though I didn’t see much. No evenings at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, no wingding blowouts at mansions in Beverly Hills, no intimate parties with Cary Grant – though his invite had come, right along with a hundred others, and I’d added it to the pile. For thirty days, I only saw the walls of the Montecito and the inside of the theatre unless you counted the interior of the chaffered Cadillac that took me between the two. Human interactions were limited to my elderly driver, the various crew members at the Revue, and staffs where I lived and worked. And my new maid, who rarely left my side.
I saw Elliot once or twice. He came to the theatre like an explosion of sun, no longer the drowned cat I had met in New York. Suntan gleaming off his white sportscoat, he made the rounds, telling everyone they were aces and gushing, “Isn’t this snazzy?” or “We sure got a show.”
As for me, he said I was “a miraculous shining star whose shimmy was destined to save the world.”
These exchanges were mercilessly short, as Elliot was always headed somewhere quick — most likely, a photo op with some poor dimwitted girl, the kind who imagined both stardom and white-picket fences and didn’t realize that as soon as the flashbulbs were off, so was Elliot, probably to some back alley bar where he could finally sigh with relief.
I didn’t fault him in the least. Because if anyone knew the necessity of putting on a show, it was me.
Unsurprisingly, Millsap and I never crossed paths. Perhaps opening night, I thought, he’d show up at my dressing room door like his lackey. But I wasn’t holding my breath. I never needed people much. Sure, I knew what others said. Uppity, they called me. Full of herself. Does she think she’s the Queen or Eleanor Roosevelt? I paid them little mind. I was The Star, and they were filler between my first and second acts tasked to kick in unison and hit their marks.
Long ago, I’d been a lot like my new maid who didn’t know her ass from her forehead, which is why I had picked her. But I could shape her into something. If I knew how to do anything, it was that. Because now I was Belle De’Ville.