The Big Fadeout

by Stephen Whitty

A few jobs in Hollywood are glittering and exciting and rewarding. The rest aren’t. 2,534 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.


Errol Flynn sat at the bottom of his kitchen stairs, sobbing.

His hands hung between his tuxedoed knees, shaking. In his left fist he had a broken arrow, the shaft snapped roughly in two near the head. In his right, he had a bottle of whiskey. There were red smears on the arrow’s feathers, and crimson fingerprints on the bottle.

It wasn’t his blood.

“It’s not my fault,” he said.

It never is.

They wrap their nice new Pierce-Arrow around a lamppost at 90 miles an hour? Not their fault. That lovely lady they met at the Trocadero on Friday night turns out to be 15 years old on Saturday morning? Not their fault. Oh, and nine months later, when she’s heading for the maternity ward in a hurry? Not their fault either. These people? No, never.

And cleaning up after themselves? That’s not their job, either. That’s my job. And that job, very basically, meant making sure that the studio’s stars were kept out of trouble and able to work. Get out my wallet and pay the cops, pay the lady, pay the reporters. Hold my nose and pick up their dirty laundry and shove it someplace where it won’t smell, where it won’t be seen. The studio’s money, sure, the studio’s orders, but still my job. And I don’t like it any more than I did when I started.

But I like paying my bills, occasionally, so I keep doing it.

Which is why I was standing in the kitchen of a movie-star mansion at two o’clock on a Sunday morning, watching Captain Blood go to pieces.

“Where is she?” I asked.

“Upstairs.”

“Master bedroom?”

He looked at me with genuine shock.

“I sleep with my wife in that bedroom,” he said, his outrage flashing through his tears. “Certainly not. No, the girl’s in the green bedroom at the end of the hall.”

Right. Of course. Because God forbid he meet a woman in a bar and bring her back to the master bedroom. What kind of fellow did I think he was? That would have been an outrageous insult to his wife’s honor. So much more sophisticated to lay his floozies in the guest room down the hall. So much more gentlemanly.

I brushed past him and went up the back stairs.

The house was one of those huge Mediterranean villas that sprouted like mushrooms all over Los Angeles in the 1920s, when The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse was in theaters and everyone thought a couple of arches and a pile of stucco made their place look like this year’s Ramon Navarro. Upstairs, my footsteps sounded like hoof prints in the tiled hallway. It didn’t matter. The servants had their own rooms over the garage and Flynn’s wife was away, so I didn’t have to tread carefully.

Flynn and Lili Damita had been married for about two years by now, but the house looked like they’d just shacked up. Half the furniture was French and precious, full of paint and curlicues; the rest of it looked like it had been slapped together somewhere else by a one-armed carpenter. On one wall, there were oil paintings of ladies in bustles, carrying parasols and promenading through parks; on another, there were blurry snapshots of Flynn and his friends, all bare-chested and grinning and posing with whatever beautiful animal they’d just killed. If Flynn’s marriage was as cockeyed as the decorating, I wasn’t surprised he was on the prowl.

The first room was huge and pink and full of tiny satin pillows that looked like they’d been made for a doll’s house; I figured this was the holy matrimonial bedchamber and passed it by. The second door was locked. The third opened into a blue guest room that had a battered leather suitcase and a man’s trenchcoat thrown over the back of a chair, but nothing else. I kept looking.

I found the injured woman in the fifth bedroom.

She was lying face down on the floor. The mint green carpet was already stained red under her head. I came in quickly and checked her pulse – strong but fast – before turning her over.

My first job was to see where she was bleeding and what I could do about it. Flynn’s original panicky phone call – “I think I’ve hurt someone” – wasn’t much help in the diagnosis. There was blood all over her face, but no sign of a wound; however he’d hurt her, it was still fresh. I went into the bathroom for an armful of pretty guest towels, trimmed in stiff white lace. It’d be a nasty surprise for Mrs. Flynn when she returned from whereever she was, but she’d have a nastier one if I didn’t quickly find out whether or not I had to get this dame to a hospital.

I went through three or four towels before I’d cleaned off her face enough to see the wound, an ugly shallow groove about the width of a pencil lying flat across her scalp, three inches above her right ear. That explained all the blood; as any prizefighter will tell you, even a tiny cut there is going to bleed like hell.

She moved and mumbled a little, coughing huskily while I cleaned her up. She was hurt for sure, but I began to think she wasn’t unconscious so much as just falling-down drunk. That was OK by me. It made things easier. I went back into the master bedroom, retrieved surgical tape out of the medicine cabinet and a pair of manicuring scissors out of the vanity. Then I went back into the green bedroom and went to work. I cut away a patch of hair and improvised some butterfly-stitches. After about five minutes the right side of her head looked a little like Boris Karloff’s in the movies, but at least the bleeding had stopped.

I wiped off my hands with the last of the guest towels and sat back on my heels to look at her.

She was pretty, in a desperate kind of way, but childish. I couldn’t figure out if she were 16 trying to pass for 24, or 24 trying to look 16. She had red hair and chalk-white skin, but that could have been the loss of blood. Her shoulders were narrow, and her sharp hips pushed against the thin shiny satin of her dress like sickles; the beige edge of a falsie peeked its head out from where the bodice had slipped. She looked like someone who’d never had enough money or food as a kid, and probably didn’t have enough now. She looked all kinds of hungry.

I searched the room. It took me a minute to find the broken arrow, buried in a plaster wall. It still had a tag with “Warners Prop Dept” wrapped around it. On a hunch, I got down on my hands and knees and looked a little harder. Sure enough, there was a shiny red apple under the bed, with a chunk chipped out. I pulled out the arrow, picked up the apple and, after a second peek at the patient, headed downstairs.

Flynn was still in the kitchen, but with a fresh drink and a smile. He was one of those godawful drunks who was actually at his most sober seven or eight drinks in. At six, he’d sob and slur his words; at nine, he’d stumble and swing at people. But at seven or eight, he’d briefly pull it all together, slick as a snake in silk.

The problem was actually getting him to stop at seven or eight.

“Hello, old sport.”

That was another thing about Flynn at seven or eight drinks; he started talking like you were his long-lost cricket chum and C. Aubrey Smith was going to come around the corner with the gin-and-tonics.

“Sorry about the bother,” he continued. “You get it fixed up all right?”

I threw the apple at him. It made him spill most of his highball.

“Whose idea was the William Tell act?”

He tossed the apple into the sink. “Hers, of course. Had to see her hero in action.”

I could see him starting to warm to the memory.

“Not a bad idea, though, actually. I should probably talk to the venerable brothers Warner about it,” he said. “You know they have me starting a Joan Blondell comedy next week? Formidable bosom on that one, and a refreshing forgetfulness about brassieres. But, please, a screwball comedy? Not the meat that my hungry fans are craving, eh? They want me in tights, with a sword in my hand and a horse underneath. Anyway, I think they’d go for Tell and the apple. Girl might have hit on something. Make quite an epic. What do you think?”

“I think you still haven’t asked me how she is.”

“Well, I know she’s not dead, old man,” he said. “I could see that the minute you came through that door. You’re not a good enough actor to hide that. As my critics will tell you, I know all about acting that’s not good enough. I’ve built a career on it.”

He flashed me a grin. I wanted to feed it back to him, tooth by tooth.

“You could have killed her,” I accused. “As it is, you came within a couple of inches from taking out her eye.”

“Wasn’t my fault. She moved. She’d been drinking, you know.”

I almost wanted to laugh. I let it pass.

“Is there anybody else in the house,” I asked. “I saw a suitcase and a man’s trench in the guest room.”

“That’s Hermann. Seem to have misplaced him. Don’t worry about Hermann. He’s an old friend. I can depend on him for anything.”

“Except for getting you out of jams like this one.”

“Well, that’s your job, isn’t it, old sport?”

I turned quickly and went up the stairs then. Because he was right. But doing that job properly made walking out of the room right then a very good idea. Because if I stayed any longer I might leave the studio’s leading man with a broken nose — and cause a hell of a problem for whoever was shooting that damn Blondell picture.

So I went back into the green bedroom and shook the woman’s shoulder gently. She didn’t move. I shook it again, not so gently. She rolled over. I knelt down and picked her up. Luckily she was as light as she looked. Last Christmas I’d had to pick up Wally Beery from the middle of a Beverly Hills street where he’d decided to sleep off a particularly merry party. I ended up with a backache through New Year’s.

I placed her downstairs on one of the couches in the living room, and sent Flynn off in search of her purse. He brought back a sad little cloth thing with a broken clasp. I turned it upside down and spilled out its contents on the cocktail table. A pack of Black Jack gum, two sticks left. Some loose shreds of cigarette tobacco. A book of matches from the Club Intime. A black wallet, worn, with four dollars inside and a pawn ticket from Greenglass Loans. There was no I.D.

“I guess it’s too much to hope you actually got her name.”

“Allison? Elizabeth?” He was genuinely confused. “I don’t remember, honestly. We moved past introductions pretty quickly.”

“You met her at the Club Intime?”

“Yes. We started chatting and hit it off. Interesting little place. Full of characters.”

“It’s a clip joint,” I said. “Half the women are whores and most of the busboys are pushing tea. The only reason it hasn’t been raided yet is that the owners are paying the cops twice the going rate. What price did she quote you for your little date?”

“I hardly have to pay for it, old man,” he said with a thin smile.

“Well, you’re paying for this one way or another.” I added a little savagely, “Actually, you’d better hope she is a pro. If this gal really is on the level, it’s going to cost you more. You meet a girl at a bar, get her drunk, and nearly kill her with a bow and arrow? Leave a scar along the side of her head? And that’s just assuming she’s not a minor. If she’s underage, trust me, you’ve got a whole other armful of problems.”

“I’m not concerned with my…”

“Well, let me tell you what you should be concerned with,” I interrupted. “Fixing this is going to cost a chunk of change, and you’re the one on the hook for it. Because, believe me, you can bet it’s not coming out of Jack Warner’s pockets. It’s coming out of your salary. Never mind the rug upstairs, which you’d better get cleaned before your lovely wife gets home from wherever she is. Unless you want to add the cost of a divorce.”

Flynn looked a little pale at that. Maybe it was all starting to sink in. Or maybe just the alcohol finally was. He sat down, hard, on the arm of the couch.

“What do we do now?”

“We? Me. I take this girl where she can sleep it off, and then I have a conversation with her and figure out just how much her end of things is going to cost,” I said. “You go to bed. You stay in bed. And then tomorrow you tell your houseboy to call Acme Cleaners about the rug. And then you go into the studio and see Warner and find out how much he’s going to hold back out of your paycheck for this little escapade. If you go in on your knees, maybe he won’t suspend you, too. Or be a real bastard and loan you out to Columbia for two pictures and no money, so Harry Cohn can work you like a rented mule.”

I fetched my coat and opened the front door, then doubled back to pick up Allison, or Elizabeth, or whatever her name was. Flynn looked up at me, his eyes wet. That little window of sobriety was closing fast. Time to leave.

“You’re a real friend,” he said, the words already sliding into each other. “There wasn’t anybody else I could call. Real friend.”

“I’m not your friend,” I said. “If you forget everything else about tonight, remember that. I’m just the janitor.”

I carried the girl in my arms and headed out. Suddenly a fat middle-aged man with a stiff clothesbrush haircut filled the front door. He had a chest thick with silver-tipped hair, like a badger’s. Not a pleasant detail, but I couldn’t help noticing because he was naked from the waist up. Below, he wore red boxers and black socks with garters. He had Flynn’s house keys in his hand.

“Bitte?” he said.

“Hermann,” I guessed.

“Hermann!” Flynn yelled.

I pushed past him and his strong smell of schnapps and put the girl in the back seat of my Packard, under a throw rug. I sped off, the back tires burning rubber… If I stayed there any longer, I was surely going to start knocking Flynn around myself.

And, like I said, that’s not my job.

About The Author:
Stephen Whitty
Stephen Whitty is an award-winning film critic, journalist and author of both fiction and non-fiction whose work has appeared in the New York Daily News, Village Voice, Entertainment Weekly, Cosmopolitan and a variety of national and international publications and websites. A busy lecturer and two-time chair of the New York Film Critics Circle, his most recent book is The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia.

About Stephen Whitty

Stephen Whitty is an award-winning film critic, journalist and author of both fiction and non-fiction whose work has appeared in the New York Daily News, Village Voice, Entertainment Weekly, Cosmopolitan and a variety of national and international publications and websites. A busy lecturer and two-time chair of the New York Film Critics Circle, his most recent book is The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia.

  2 comments on “The Big Fadeout

  1. Thanks for the kind words, Steven. Flynn titled his own memoir ‘My Wicked, Wicked Ways’ — and he wasn’t exaggerating!

  2. Excellent story. Loved the narrator’s hard-boiled voice. I don’t know a lot about Flynn, but the story makes me want to do some research. Also appreciated a tale set in the classic Hollywood period.

Leave a Reply to Steven ... ‘The Big Fadeout’ Cancel reply

​Commenting at Hollywood Dementia
is a privilege, not a right.

Your name will be kept confidential if you want. Comments are monitored. So please stick to the story's characters and plots because this is Hollywood fiction, remember?