An ex-studio boss hosts Hollywood’s hottest acting couple at a dinner party that turns disastrous. 4,268 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Ben Robbins was sitting at his desk, considering the best approach to take with Rob Tracey. Many in Hollywood had tackled this test. Few had passed.
Tracey was nothing if not elusive. He had been pursued for many projects over many years. Early on, he had learned always to say yes. So he did. The most seasoned veterans would heed his siren song. Even those who knew that “yes” was his fallback position could not resist. Having Tracey star in a movie was worth any amount of effort. Years were lost, sometimes the entire project, as filmmakers tried to get a script into the shape he wanted. He seemed far too young to have enticed so many pictures onto rocky shoals.
But getting him from that first “yes” to the first day of shooting could prove a treacherous, even deadly, effort for any project.
Tracey, was a serial enthusiast, warming up to an idea quickly, only to drop it without a backward glance. That’s what lawyers are for. He was a master juggler – keeping projects in various stages of limbo, as directors or producers or studio executives or other bankable stars waited for him to decide up or down on moving forward.
He was the Svengali of reworking. Subplots were changed, or added, or subtracted; supporting roles beefed up – unless they cut, changed from men to women or women to men. Or he might want the location shifted to Europe or China or New York, with appropriate supporting roles and accents gained or lost; or moved from mountains to coastline or small town to megalopolis – or the reverse. He might need key plot points re-focused or details blurred. Or positive traits made provocative, or negative traits written out.
Many movies had improved during this process of trying to lure him in – emerging as better iterations. Some hadn’t. Projects could be caught in the Tracey quagmire for years, only to be substantially overhauled for another actor or actresses. But many other projects died waiting for him to commit.
Ben, a recently exited studio head, was still surprised that director Milo Flintridge had helped set up this dinner. But Ben knew that his own recently launched production company’s film project Double Or Nothing could be retooled for Tracey. Ben was sure he would have realized this even if Milo hadn’t suggested it. It was obvious. Ben still couldn’t understand why he hadn’t seen it himself.
Ben decided that the most effective approach tonight was straight ahead. This movie was what the evening was about. Small talk was a waste of time.
It was a terrific story and the lead, if played right, was Oscar-worthy. Ben was sure of it. He knew the entire movie was a winner. And the role of Harry was essential to every important beat. The character was dynamite and would own the picture.
Ben knew that the superstar actor was considering at least five projects seriously now, as well as a slew of lesser contenders. But another that had seemed about to go had just fallen out. Ben felt that Double Or Nothing now could jump to the head of the pack.
It was a small dinner. Just Rob and his wife, the stunning actress Alexandra; Milo and his flirtatious third wife Francesca, the Italian movie star whose first big Hollywood action movie was a bonafide hit, and Steve Loughlen, Rob’s lawyer. Gil Skidmore, Steve’s husband, had another dinner and could not make it.
Ben’s wife Dianne had brought in Jeff from Cosmo’s to handle the food and they had mapped out simple classic courses. First was a cold cucumber-watercress soup with mint; then, grilled Santa Barbara spot prawns with burrata, figs and beets over butter lettuce and arugula. Then grilled wild salmon with fiddlehead ferns and roasted new potatoes with truffles. Followed by flourless chocolate cake with homemade salt caramel gelato.
There was no steak or lamb chops involved, since Rob didn’t eat red meat. His intolerance to eggs ruled out pasta for the second course. And because he didn’t like fruit sweets, he set the dessert agenda as well. But these were minor food issues in a town where the most outlandish food requests could be expected.
Gone were the days when lactose intolerance was as complicated as it got. Ben and Dianna had entertained through Atkins and neo-Atkins. The Scarsdale Diet had migrated south to the Duke Diet, to the Palm Beach Diet, to the South Beach Diet, to the Argentine Diet, now to the Paleo Diet. Food deliveries of entire meals, or just special protein shakes went in and out of fashion. Meanwhile, gluten-free was now virtually pro-forma. And Tracey had been ahead of the curve on the fruit ban – the latest digestive blip was no fruit of any kind after noon.
Dianne had long ago become expert at accommodating vegans. Raw food habitués, however, were still tricky even for her. Ben always wanted to use a variation of that Lubitsch line, “This is a restaurant, Madame. Not a meadow.” But Dianna somehow always made it work.
Before each dinner party, the drill was for Anita, his assistant, to call the office of each guest and go over food issues. This call was so crucial to any successful dinner that Ben always insisted his office do it – not Dianne’s assistant. Even if guests had dined at the house many times before, Anita called – if only to make sure nothing had changed. Her assignment was not just to learn specific allergies but any new dietary requirements, even new likes and dislikes. This information was keyed onto the master list on his computer and set the menu parameters.
Dianna knew how much this dinner meant to him, however. So she had made all these calls herself. She had two pages of dietary notes by the time she was done.
Ben noted the time on his Dupre-Lafon desk clock and realized he still needed to double-check the wine before the guests arrived – to make sure nothing was off. But he went over the plan once again.
Milo had suggested this right after the last casting fiasco. He knew that the project Rob had been looking at most favorably was about to blow up and thought Double Or Nothing could slide right in. It was ready to move, and those other projects would take too long to ramp up. Milo knew that Rob wanted something that would start mid-October. This could do it.
Milo knew about the sudden opening in Rob’s schedule because he and the star were talking almost daily about vacation plans. Milo had invited Rob and Xan (as Alexandra was known by intimates) to come on the boat in August. They became close after Rob had passed on Splash Down and it went on to win three Oscars, including one for Best Director. The actor who ultimately took the role of Jack, which Rob had passed on, had been nominated.
Milo and mega-producer Nate Levinson were renting the Getty boat for the third year in a row. They planned on two weeks in mid-August, since Levinson was set to wrap production in late July. Shooting on Tracey’s current film was due to end about the same time. Milo felt this group would work – not just because of timing. Francesca and Gwen Hedges, Nate’s wife, got along.
Ben knew that multibillionaire Jake Harris was going as well – though Milo hadn’t told him. And that there were more staterooms to be filled.
But Milo said he and Rob had talked about this project and Rob displayed his usual enthusiasm. Milo said he had stoked it as much as possible.
Ben was still unclear why Milo was helping. It was even more mystifying after Ben realized that Milo had no intention of being in the director’s chair for this one. So it wasn’t self-interest, the industry’s essential glue. Was Milo paying back Ben for when, as the new studio head, Ben had been there for him? He asked Milo, but the director just smiled and shook his head. “This is a good project,” Milo had insisted, side-stepping the point. “I might just need a producing credit.”
Ben heard the front gate buzzer. He adjusted the music level for the living room, then walked to the pantry to double-check the wine.
By the time he got to the living room, Milo and Francesca were there talking to Dianne. Steve was just walking in. Ben gave first Steve and then Milo a hug hello – and each received a strong pat on the back as well. Milo got a few extra.
Ben then walked over to Francesca. He grabbed her hands in both of his, then took a step back to admire her at arm’s length as she stood to greet him. She was wearing a red dress that left nothing to the imagination.
“If you get any lovelier,” Ben warned, “it will be illegal.” Her laughter shimmered with delight. She tossed her hair back as she did so, and Ben could see teardrop ruby earrings glistening against her cascading dark curls. Ben wondered if they were JAR. Out of the corner of his eye, Ben could see that Milo, still standing, looked proud during the exchange – as if his taste were being validated.
They all sat down, since it would probably be at least another forty minutes before Rob and Xan showed up. The couple traveled on movie-star time.
Ben used the wait to unpack details of the project for Steve. Ben had always thought Gil, with whom he had more far contact, was the smart half of the couple. But Steve was quick – he grasped all the movie’s varied beats, and saw immediately how it could fit into Tracey’s body of work. The project could play on Tracey’s persona while playing off it. Steve got it completely.
It was 50 minutes before the couple showed up. When they walked in, it was as if arc lights had turned on.
Alexandra Hobart walked in first, a diaphanous blonde so lovely, Ben always thought, that you had to fight the urge to marvel that she was could string words together coherently. A woman this beautiful didn’t really need any other asset. Her large slate blue eyes were fringed with thick dark lashes. On anyone else, they would have been a powerful focal point. But on Hobart it was extraneous.
For every time Ben heard her speak, he knew that her voice – more than her beauty or even her relationship and marriage to Tracey – was what guaranteed the stardom Hobart had so avidly sought.
Her dark voluptuous voice played against all that luminous fragility – the timbre and tone of a luscious brunette issuing from this porcelain sylph. Beneath every sentence lurked a promise of something intoxicating ahead. A whisper of pleasure and excitement. Even when asking a question, she sounded provocatively knowing. For her many fans, this touch of abandonment was only hinted at – but it was in every word she spoke.
Off-screen, she still had traces of her rural Tennessee accent – and more than a trace after a few drinks. Her language was X-rated – though her posture was perfect.
Hobart had been flown out to Los Angeles four years ago – specifically to meet Tracey. She had come in to read for a part in his new film. Hollywood had beckoned Hobart after she had starred in back-to-back-to-back Broadway hits.
She got on that plane as soon as Hollywood called. And never looked back. She landed the part in Tracey’s film – and the star of the movie as well. The outsized, industrial-strength fame of movies was what she had sought. Unlike many other actors, she basked in the white-hot light of celebrity. But she was already beginning not even to notice the small pluses – the way chefs could make whatever she asked the waiter about, whether or not it was on the menu; or that a bottle of Cristal was open and on ice whenever she walked into a restaurant.
In this, she was the polar opposite if her husband, who entered the room a step behind her. Some years ago, he had decided he wanted stardom expunged from his life. But this was impossible. He was an international sensation. He blazed in any room. It was uncanny.
Tracey was handsome in a clean-cut, all-American way, sandy haired and chiseled. Not tall, though. Ben wondered why the tabs always labeled him as over six feet. There was no way. There was also nothing brooding or mysterious about him. What he had, though, was a powerful punch of star appeal. Your eyes gravitated to him whenever he walked in a room. And stayed there.
Tracey had become a huge star before he was 20, and had lost none of his mega-wattage over the last 11 years. He not only came with his own spotlight, he seemed perfectly back-lit as well. Even in this room, his smile was incandescent.
He usually had at least 15 projects in some stage of development at any given time. It may have been partly due to his unstoppable enthusiasm. Rob always reveled in the moment– enjoying things 200 percent. No one, Ben thought whenever he saw Tracey, could be in such a great mood all the time. There was something opaque about him, Ben always thought, under all that hearty fellowship and high spirits. Maybe that’s what made him a star, Ben decided. An essential elusiveness that seemed rooted at his core.
Xan asked for a gin and tonic almost as soon as she walked in. She declined the champagne that Francesca was drinking and the serious red wine that Ben and Dianne had started on. Milo had given him a head’s up that she favored gin, so they had three kinds to offer tonight. She opted for Hendricks. Ben was glad to see the cocktail was in her hand by the time she finished kissing everyone hello – giving Steve an extra hug in the process.
Rob put his arm around Xan as soon as they sat down on the sofa. As always, the couple sat knitted together. He stroked her arm, the fingers of his other hand entwined with hers.
Rob’s shining adoration was tinged with awe. Looking at them, Ben saw Rob as a smitten teenager. Yet Ben would bet the star had never not gotten the girl. It was irritating, Ben thought while looking at Rob. Usually these guys who peaked in high school were never heard from again – and here was Tracey, king of the Hollywood prom.
Ben had stopped listening when the conversation had turned to children. He knew he should, but he was going over what he wanted to say about the movie. It took everything he had not to start right in on the plot. This is why Rob had come, after all, and Ben found it hard to focus on anything else.
Yet he knew he had to wait at least until the appetizer, if not the entrée. Anything earlier would hint at desperation. So he sat, smiling and swirling his wine – until the second round of cocktails. Dianne could see what he was about to do. She reached over to touch his arm, trying to stop him from starting the narrative. But he was not to be deterred.
He could quickly tell that Rob liked the story. Beyond his usual enthusiasm, he was asking the sorts of questions actors bring up when they picture themselves in the role. Ben knew to discount the way Rob leaned forward intently, moving his hand from Xan’s shoulders to her knee. At some point in the story, close to the fire, Rob stopped massaging it. Ben hoped that meant Tracey was actually engaged.
Ben was roughly a quarter into it when William came in to announce dinner. Milo broke in with, “To be continued.” Dianne was the first to stand up. She walked over to Francesca and took her arm, chatting with her quietly as they walked into dinner. Ben wondered if they were talking about the ruby earrings.
Ben waited until they were all seated before continuing. The two waiters started pouring the wine, a spicy Corton-Charlemagne chardonnay. He had thought it would work with the slightly garlicky soup. And it did. Not that Ben was eating. Rob’s interest in the piece seemed palpable. He felt buoyed by the actor’s response.
Ben was just winding up Act 3 when the waiters began bringing in the second course salad of prawns. The design on each plate was architectural. Ben, who usually cared little for or about salad, smiled down the table to Dianne.
But when Xan saw her plate she tensed up and put her hand on Rob’s shoulder. He turned to Dianne. “Xan can’t eat shrimp,” he said. “I thought we told you.”
Dianne looked unpleasantly surprised. Her dinners were carefully orchestrated to run like clockwork. Not sputter out at the start. She had made the calls personally. She was sure Rob’s office only mentioned his dietary issues. Alexandra had not even come up. Dianne wanted to demand why Rob’s office hadn’t told her. Instead, she looked toward Ben and began profusely apologizing.
“I am so very sorry,” she said, keeping any hint of irritation out of her voice. “This is terrible! It should never have happened. I can’t believe my assistant didn’t get this straight.
“I knew about you and eggs,” she said, gesturing toward Rob. “That’s one reason we didn’t have a pasta starter. You know, Jeff makes such delicious mushroom ravioli with truffles! But I somehow missed this about Alexandra and shrimp. I am so so sorry!!”
“It’s easily taken care of,” Ben broke in. He wanted Dianne to stop talking. He knew he should have had Anita make the calls. This would never have happened if she had handled it. “Xan, we’ll just give you this without the shrimp. It will probably taste even better!”
He motioned to one of the two waiters hovering near the table and then slowly repeated the gist of what he had just said – as if the waiter hadn’t heard. The man spirited away Alexandra’s salad.
She visibly relaxed now that the shrimp was no longer in front of her. As if, Ben thought, it was going to jump off the plate and burrow into her chest. “Please, everyone,” Alexandra said with the beginnings of a smile. “Don’t wait. Start eating. It’s going to get cold!”
Dianne was still too intent on apologizing. “We should have known,” she insisted. “Allergies are so dangerous. We try to take care of this before – which is why that phone call is so important. You never know what people are going to be allergic to – or just don’t like. You know, I keep a file on this, and cross reference it. For example, Rob, I certainly know about gluten!”
“Forget it, Dianne,” Ben said, “Things happen.” This was not offered as reassurance. He wanted her to move on. Now.
But it was as if a pause button had been pressed for the dinner. Ben tried to pick up the story where he had left off, but he could sense Rob was not listening. Then, sooner than he expected, Xan’s new plate was brought out. Everyone started eating again.
Suddenly, Alexandra sat up straight – even straighter than usual. She was known for her perfect posture, but her long, graceful neck seemed elongated. Ben could have sworn she grew two inches. Her fork clattered onto her plate and its echo resonated in the sudden silence. Ben thought the reverberations got louder in the stillness. Xan’s translucent skin was flushing pink across her cheeks. Her hand went to her throat as she took a deep breath.
Rob leaned over and put a hand on her shoulder.
“You okay darling?” he asked. Again, everyone stopped eating. Milo put down his fork, which had been suspended halfway to his mouth. They all looked at Xan.
“My tongue feels strange,” she said. Her voice was slightly raspy. She took a deep breath. “It is sort of tingling. The whole back of my mouth feels weird.” she said. Then she shook her head slightly, and laughed. “But it’s nothing,” she said, “I didn’t eat enough today. And it’s probably some sort of nervous psychosomatic reaction, after seeing that shrimp on my plate.”
Rob rubbed the back of her neck. “Well, it’s all fine,” he reassured her, as if speaking to a small child. “It’s gone now.” He leaned over and kissed her shoulder. Everyone returned to their salad. Ben tried to pick up his story.
He barely got through two more sentences before Xan put down her fork again. “I’m sorry, but my tongue does feel tingly,” she insisted. No one was disagreeing. “Something is wrong.” Her cheeks were now a deep pink, and her neck and chest turning a soft rose.
“But there’s no shrimp,” Dianne seemed to be pleading, as she got up from her chair. Ben could see she was near tears. But all he could think was: Not another lost dinner.
He turned to the waiter, busy pouring more of the Pinot Grigio that Ben had chosen specifically for the shrimp. “Call 911. Now.” Milo already had his phone out, but he motioned the waiter to do this immediately, too. When the waiter dashed out of the room, Milo hurried after him.
Dianne walked around the table and knelt down between Ben and Xan. “What can we do for you?” she asked.
Steve had also gotten up, and was hurrying around the table toward Xan. Her breathing seemed to grow more ragged, and she was groping for her husband’s jacket pocket.
“She has to have her shot,” Rob said. His voice was louder than normal, but he still sounded calmer than anyone else in the room. “I don’t know what’s up here. But she is having an allergic reaction. She needs it now.” He grabbed her hand with one hand and reached into his pocket with the other.
“Here’s your EpiPen,” Rob said slowly and distinctly as he pulled a small slim object out of his pocket. “Do you want me to–”
She pulled it out of his hand.
That same moment, Jeff from Cosmo’s burst into the room. “We didn’t change plates,” he announced, as if this would fix the problem. “We gave her the new salad on the same plate. I am so sorry. So terribly, terribly sorry. I thought she didn’t like it – not that she couldn’t have –.”
Ben cut him off. He didn’t want to hear. He still couldn’t believe his careful plans had led in this. “Just tell me you called 911,” he said quietly. “I don’t want anything else from you.”
“Yes,” Jeff said, “They’re on the way.”
He couldn’t be sure whether Xan had heard any of this. The actress had grabbed the pen, pulled off the cap, hiked up her skirt and, with one swift motion, injected the epinephrine deep into her thigh.
Within seconds, her breathing seemed less labored. Ben thought the scariest part was seeing Alexandra Hobart slumped over. He was just relieved to hear the wail of a siren as it neared the house.
Tears started to trickle down Xan’s face. Rob gently pulled the EpiPen out of her hand. He began stroking her hair. Francesca, who had been sitting in shocked silence, had gotten up, walked around the table and was soon kneeling beside Xan, much as Dianne had before. She didn’t know what else to do, so she stroked Xan’s arm in a way she hoped was soothing.
Ben heard the front door open. He went out into the hallway – grateful to have a reason to leave that room. What a nightmare.
Two emergency medical technicians were striding down the hall toward him. Milo was leading the way and Dianne following behind.
“Good to see you,” Ben said. “She’s allergic to shrimp and she may have somehow eaten some.”
The medical team walked into the dining room, pausing at the threshold to take in the scene. They went over to Hobart, still slumped at the table. Ben saw that her face was no longer severely flushed. She now had a waxy pallor. It still looked grim, Ben thought, but was probably an improvement. At least she wasn’t going to die at his house, he thought, grasping for something positive.
Francesca yielded her spot as the men walked over. They clustered around the slight figure in the chair, while Rob talked quietly with them. As they began to work on her, the room fell silent.
“We’re going to take you to the hospital,” one said to Xan. He was speaking clearly and distinctly – the way Rob had just minutes before. “We’re going to start you on an IV on the way. So you can start getting fluids even before you get there. We have a stretcher –”
“She can walk out with our help,” Rob insisted. He helped Xan stand up. “That’s better for us.” Dianne came toward the now ashen-faced actress, to see if she could help. Xan’s eyes snapped into focus as Dianne drew closer. She shrank back against her husband and started to sob.
“She’s exhausted,” Rob explained, as he continued walking her toward the door. Steve fell into step with Rob and asked if he wanted him to come in the ambulance. “Why don’t you follow us in your car?” Rob asked. “That way we have one at the hospital.”
Steve nodded. He quickly kissed Dianne goodbye and then shook Ben’s hand. “We’ll get back into this.” He looked at Milo as he spoke, not Ben.
This book excerpt first posted here on March 10, 2016.