The afternoon wore on and the party got bigger and louder. Waiters appeared out of the aether to bring drinks and empty ashtrays. Plates of deviled eggs and buttered radishes manifested to get nibbled at. For Donnie, it all felt cheekily fun. Actively interloping at one of the parties the gossip rags always called a “lavish soiree.” As soirees went, it was pretty good, if not lavish, even if he didn’t know too many people and he wasn’t nearly drunk enough to start introducing himself to people he only recognized from movie posters or from sneaking around lot offices with terrified secretaries in tow. At least it was free.
He kept his distance from Rob Blunt, his replacement on The Gentlemen, who spouted Alliance drivel all night (“The projectionists’ union, even if they are right, will end up bankrupting the country with their demands!”) and bragged about getting a gun license to protect himself from violent “agitators.” He offered private shooting demonstrations to Nancy Edelweiss, a new dancer-type starlet who repeated back his Alliance points with the skill of a woman who knows men don’t want a conversation so much as an audience.
Donnie peeled off from the main ballroom group and found a smaller backroom of mostly men and some women chatting and listening to a phonogram playing Paris 1945 with Django Reinhardt, the one made with the “Jazz Club Mystery Hot Band.” The crowd here was decidedly more lavender: Set designers, assistants, accountants, hair and makeup boys, the odd producer and Best Friend of one of the big faces in the other room. It felt a bit more cozy and genial than the pearls-and-lacquer ballroom. Donnie lingered in the doorway for a while, wondering if he should make himself more comfortable (or make a new friend) when one of the boys called out.
“Oh Roy! You have to put on that album you played for me, it’s a scream.”
“Alright, but we gotta keep it low, so huddle in girls,” said what was apparently Roy. Donnie walked across the room and leaned in close.
An unlabeled record was put on the photograph. The needle dropped.
“Oh DADDY oh yes….” The voice was deep, velvety, and instantly recognizable.
“Daddy yes. Pet me Daddy. I’m Daddy’s little puss-puss aren’t I? UGH puss-puss—me-OW, me-OW-OW-OW. I’m the puss-puss and I’m going to scratch you! Muwah! Did I scratch you BAD Daddy? Oh! OOOH! You make me PURR Daddy!”
Donnie, mouth wide open, asked first. “Is that Edgar Allsort?”
“I don’t know!” said Roy. He wore a nice sweater and wavy combed hair. “I got Edgar’s office mail on Thursday like I always do and this was just in it. No stamp, no mailing address. Just a note that more instructions were to come.”
“What did Edgar say?”
“He listened to it in his office, told me it was an bad impersonator, and to destroy it immediately.”
Donnie did an eyebrow at him.
“I did destroy it! But not before going down to the Music Building to make a copy. For private use only, honest.”
Donnie patted him on the shoulder as they listened to the rest. There was much excitement about a ball of string and where it might end up. Don found Randy O’Reilly drinking with Vincent Vail in an empty corner near a buffet bar.
“Randy, there’s something in that room you owe it to yourself to listen t—”
Just then there was a fabulous commotion. The doors swung open into the main room. A group of photographers’ flashbulbs went off outside, rendering the crowd flat as silhouettes. In walked the cast and director of The Cut Glass Bowl, still somehow elegant and camera-ready after a night of dancing and cocktails at Ciro’s.
The sea of ballroom people parted for them as yet more waiters appeared to take their coats and furs. In addition to the cast, most of the “Zuzis Circle” was there—people like Clay Breton, Katrina Roxworth and evergreen superstar Richard Norwood. Spruce Taylor was nowhere to be seen, and neither was the movie’s actual leading lady, Tessa du Maine.
“As I live and breathe, Dicky Norwood!” Randy gasped like he’d seen a ghost. “We were roommates for ten years and I haven’t heard from him since, can you believe?”
“Good ol’ Dick Wood,” Vincent said.
“Excuse me, I’m going to go catch up.” Randy moved out toward the main room.
“I’m surprised he showed up at all. Always a homebody that one.” Vincent swirled his drink around his glass. “You never see him in the scene. I suppose he has to keep up appearances.”
Randy came back with a full-on stormhead. He poured himself a double scotch, neat.
“What’s the matter? He forget your name?” Donnie said without kindness, feeling his drinks.
“That would’ve been tolerable,” Randy huffed. “The only youth I ever had I wasted on that man. We cooked together, sold ties together, even punched each other on the jaw from time to time—and what does he do when he sees me, his fellow traveller?” Randy knocked back the scotch.
“ ‘Hello Randolph. Nice to see you again.’ And then he walks away. Not even a handshake!”
He refilled his glass, glaring at Vail. “And as he says it, he does that smile thing, where he doesn’t quite look at you. And that accent. I didn’t know he took it out on the town. That’s your handiwork, Vincent. ‘Richard Norwood’ is a testimony to your skill and artistry. A great whopping wowza.”
Vincent turned to Donnie. “When Ricky first came to town he was a lovely boy. Handsome, full of vim—an acrobat back in vaudeville I believe—but more of a Rosalind than a Richard really. Accent like a Liverpool fishwife. Completely lost on set, never knew where to put his hands. But he photographed brilliantly and looked smashing in a tux. So I coached him. And when coaching didn’t work I began telling him. And when telling didn’t work, I ordered him.”
“You hollowed him out and stuffed him full of yourself,” Randy said.
“Several times.” Vail smiled. “But it was a success. He became the perfect, charming leading man. A gentleman, on screen and off. I even let him borrow my accent. Then he decided he was far too much a gentleman for comedy or light musicals anymore and dropped me like an unwanted child. He only does drama now, real drama, hanging with the Zuzis set behind those tall walls.”
And that’s why you’ve switched to drama and serious pictures Donnie thought, in a kinder way then he was used to.
Randy finished his scotch. “Castle Zuzistein. I bet they’re building more matinee idols out of parts of discarded heartthrobs. I got half a mind to go over there and read him the riot act in fr—”
Vail grabbed his shoulder. “You’ve an entire mind to sit here and preserve the damned dignity of your countrymen and the Commonwealth. If it helps I hear he’s dead broke.”
“Broke?” said Donnie.
“Oh yes, something about an illicit shipping deal gone wrong, ties to the German black market. That fiancée of his. All very seedy. My little bird in Fortress Zuzis told me he was drinking himself blind over paying hush money to keep it from the FBI just this Thursday.”
Donnie did the math. It fit. The dinner with Cecil. The same day the recording arrived.
There was a crash and scream from the other room. Vincent peeked his head ‘round.
“Oh it’s nothing, Lana Turner has collapsed.” He handed Donnie a serving tray. “Do get some cocktails, Randy has commandeered the scotch for the Antipodes.”