Official Site of Author Robert S. Levinson
PRAISE FOR PHONY TINSEL
“A delightfully improbable romp through 1938 Hollywood with all the usual Levinson wit and humor.”—MARGARET MARON, Mystery Writers of America Grand Master
“One of the freshest, liveliest and page-turningest takes on Old Hollywood ever written. Buy a copy for yourself and then rack up a few more for gifts.”—ED GORMAN, Shamus, Anthony and Spur award-winning author
“The author takes a lighter tone, peppering the tale with humor and wordplay...Fans of Hollywood’s Golden will have lots of fun with the real-life movie references.”—BOOKLIST
“A tale filled with as much ambition, greed and treachery as a Joan Crawford double-feature.”—JOSEPH FINDER, New York Times bestselling author
“Boffo!...a wry, fast-paced, often hilarious tale of love, ambition and making movies in Hollywood’s Golden Age...Truly a delight!”—THE CHRISTOPHER REICH, New York Times bestselling author
“Robert S. Levinson’s Phony Tinsel, set in 1930s Hollywood, is a twisted tale of love, sex, and egos featuring a screenwriter named Charlie Dickens and the women who sink their claws into him.”—THE JURY BOX, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine
By Robert S. Levinson
It was an accident—
Charlie Dickens thought he was invading the realm of Cecil B. DeMille when he hopped over the modest brick wall protecting the perfectly manicured forest green lawn and trudged up the inlaid marble path to the picture-perfect hilltop residence on DeMille Drive, south across Los Feliz Boulevard from the winding, tree-lined trails of Ferndell, near the western canyon entrance to Griffith Park.
Movie people had been nesting in the fashionable Laughlin Park area since the earliest days of the Silents, because of its proximity to studios like Paramount, Warner Bros., RKO, Columbia, the Fox location lot, and, of course, DeMille was now and had been for years the biggest of the big among producers and directors.
He was Charlie's first choice to produce and direct Showdown at Shadow Creek, but getting to DeMille was like trying to get through the gates of Heaven without first dying, nothing that could happen short of a miracle, especially by an untested commodity in the movie Hell of unemployed screenwriters.
More than his first choice, DeMille—peerless at bringing miracles to the screen, witness The Ten Commandments—was now his last hope.
The screenplay had been rejected by every studio in town, his agent, Roy Balloon, said, just before he fired Charlie as a client, claiming, "Nothing personal, Charles, my good man, just that you're lousy awful for my batting average."
"I'm glad it's nothing personal," Charlie said. "How about you taking another run at DeMille before you officially shoot me down?"
"Officially? What was that blowing a hole in your heart just now, gas pains?"
They were in Balloon's office, the postage stamp-size reserved for Elegant Artists junior agents recently upgraded from the mailroom, too tiny to accommodate a visitor's chair, obliging Charlie to press against the wall facing Roy's miniscule desk, arms folded defensively across his chest.
Roy seemed to regret his words immediately. He'd never been good as sustaining the tough-as-nails demeanor that seemed to be part of the black suit-black tie-black heart uniform expected of all Elegant's agents. His basso became less profundo, telling Charlie, "Here's what's what, Charles. The great man did a western two years ago, The Plainsman, with Coop and Jean Arthur, remember? He's got another one on tap for '39, Union Pacific, headlining Stanwyck and Joe McCrea, and gets underway soon as he wraps The Buccaneer with Freddie March. If you really think he'd ditch the railroad yarn for one by an unknown writer with zilch credits, a reputation to match, it marks you as a candidate for the booby hatch."
"You told me more than once, no uncertain terms, how Showdown at Shadow Creek is a great screenplay.
"What else would you expect to hear from your agent? You want to get your screenplay to DeMille, scram over to his house and plant it in his mailbox."
"What's his address?" Charlie said.
Roy gave him a disbelieving stare. "That was a joke, Charles."
"DeMille has a mailbox. I have a screenplay. Funnier things have happened. What's the worst case scenario—I get arrested for trespassing?"
Roy threw away his hands. "Giving the lie to everyone who ever read Showdown at Shadow Creek and told me, With that screenplay Charlie Dickens will never get arrested in this town."
"Like everyone who's ever read the screenplay?"
Charlie could have made a clean getaway if he'd simply stuck to the plan and left the envelope containing the screenplay and a note urging DeMille to consider Showdown at Shadow Creek in the mailbox at the foot of the gated driveway, but the residence was too accessible, too tempting to resist.
He hopped over the wall and headed up the path, inspired by a new and improved idea—
Leave the envelope propped against the front door.
That way it couldn't be missed or ignored in a shuffle of the letters and packages that filled the mailbox.
Advancing, Charlie's head rang with the sound of the voice he knew so well from all the years of hearing DeMille host the weekly Monday evening airings of the Lux Radio Theater, telling him, Greetings from Hollywood, young man. I read your screenplay and it's positively brilliant. You absolutely must let me have it, please. Won't you do that for a humble filmmaker who bows in the presence of your genius?
Only it wasn't DeMille's voice he heard when he stooped to position the envelope and the door opened suddenly, throwing him off balance into a fall that landed him on his hands and knees, staring at ten perfectly manicured pink toenails.
The voice demanding to know, "Who the hell are you?" introduced him to Sarah Moonglow, not that he didn't know her before this, but only as Sarah Darling the movie star and ever a fashion queen dressed to the nines, unlike right now, only a skimpy bath towel protecting her from total nudity.
She looked older than she did on the silver screen, in her mid-to-late forties, her face well into the wear and tear of middle age, a random collection of wrinkles and laugh lines that probably took hours of Max Factor's makeup magic, resourceful lighting and a pound of Vaseline on the camera's lens to hide.
"I asked you a question," she said, sizing him up as he struggled back onto his feet. "Put your eyes back in their sockets and answer me."
"You're Sarah Darling."
"And you're not Earl Stanley."
"Earl Stanley, my gardener." She made a sly face and let the towel slip an inch, as if by accident, exposing a bit of cocoa-colored nipple long enough for Charlie to drink it in like Ovaltine. "He comes every Thursday around this time."
"Today is Wednesday."
"That explains that," she said, repositioning the towel, "Staff's day off. No wonder I've had to do everything for myself. ... You still haven't answered my question."
"A delivery boy," he said, too embarrassed to admit the truth.
"You look more man than boy to me," she said. "Either case, do you know how to deliver?" He pointed to the envelope. "Hand it over." She took it from him, managing to let the towel slip again, in a way that revealed most of one petite tanned breast; no tan lines.
"It's for Mr. DeMille, Miss Darling."
"Explaining why someone wrote his name on the envelope better than it explains why you want to leave it here, delivery boy, seeing as C.B.'s casa de la moola is across the road," she said, using the envelope as a pointer. "The highest elevation in Laughlin Park, a mixture of Victorian and Neo-Classical styles, on two-plus acres. He bought it in '16, two years after it was built." She was sounding like a tour guide. "Later, C.B. bought the house next door from Charlie Chaplin, connected them with an arboretum. This place, Moonglow Manor, is a high-class dump by comparison."
"My husband puts his personal stamp on everybody and everything. Formerly Mendelssohn. The name got changed by some immigration clerk at Ellis Island when he got here from Berlin by way of Switzerland four years ago, in '34. The way he tells it, at the time the clerk was listening to the song 'Moonglow' on the radio. You know—Benny Goodman and them others."
"You heard of him?"
"The movie producer who escaped Germany one goosestep ahead of Hitler's Nazis. A great filmmaker, who produced some of Germany's finest movies." Charlie snapped his fingers. "You married him three years ago, eloped to Reno after you starred in Daydreams for him, the picture that earned you a Best Actress nomination from the Academy."
"And a loss to that Boop-eyed upstart Bette Davis—"
"Who got the Oscar for Dangerous, like it was her consolation prize for being shut out the year before for Of Human Bondage, where she didn't get a nomination, but all those write-in votes."
"You definitely know your Photoplay, delivery man, I'll say that much for you."
"And Modern Screen, and for sure I read Louella O. Parsons' column every day in the Examiner, and Hedda Hopper since she started writing for the Times in February. And something else—I was voting, I would have voted for you over Davis, Hopkins, Hepburn, and the others."
Actually, he'd have voted for Davis, but telling her that would have been rude.
"I admire your excellent judgment, delivery man," she said, and lowered the towel to provide him a brief, tantalizing peek-a-boo of both breasts, at the same time undressing him with a seductive stare.
"Something else, Mrs. Moonglow—"
"Something else, Miss Darling, I'm a screenwriter and—"
"That explains why you're working as a delivery man."
"It's my screenplay you're holding. Showdown at Shadow Creek. Mr. DeMille is my last hope at getting it produced, why I—"
"Couldn't Max be your last hope?"
"Mr. Moonglow already rejected it. Twice."
"That was before he heard C.B. is anxious to get his hands on Shadow Creek at Sundown."
Charlie's pulse skyrocketed. "When did he hear that?" he said, not bothering to correct her about the title.
"Possibly tonight. Third time can be the charm, especially if Max has a chance to achieve the impossible and outdo DeMille. Let's talk about it some more, delivery man. I want to know everything."
She motioned him inside and, in closing the door behind them, lost hold of the towel. Charlie froze, his eyes welded to her perfectly proportioned body. She fed on his admiration and wondered, "Are you sure today is Wednesday, not Thursday, because my garden needs watering real bad."
Twenty minutes later they were in bed.
Charlie was late meeting Polly Wilde at the Nickodell Restaurant's seductively under-lit bar between Paramount and RKO on Melrose, nicknamed "Stage 35" by studio hands who regularly sneaked over during working hours to indulge their need for a quickie pick-me-up or two or three.
It wasn't quite seven o'clock, but the brown leather booths lining the back wall were already full, boisterous conversations and mumbled exchanges overlapping, drowning out songs booming from some invisible jukebox. A number by Bing Crosby, "Dinah," ended and was followed by another of the crooner's big hits, "Out of Nowhere."
Polly was at the counter sharing a loud laugh with an executive type, hers the loud squeal Charlie could identify in total darkness, like she was summoning hogs to a feeding trough. It was her only feature he found annoying, but he had learned to live with it since they fell in together a year ago, the rest of her too irresistible to, well, to resist.
She was a robust farm girl, like him in her mid-twenties, hair the color of hayride straw and a strawberries and cream complexion dotted with freckles and stamped finished by the dimple in her chin. Not beautiful. Pretty in a grown-up Shirley Temple way, sexy like an overripe, athletic Lana Turner whenever she stepped out wearing a sweater and a skirt, her preferred mode of dress most of the time, including the day they met.
She'd struck up a soda fountain conversation with him over morning coffee and sinkers at Schwab's Pharmacy on Sunset, a favorite haunt of the industry's unemployed, Polly wondering if Charlie knew it was here that Turner, a Hollywood High schoolgirl, was discovered by Billy Wilkerson, publisher of the Hollywood Reporter.
"Sitting on this very stool," she said, with the exuberance of someone waiting for lightning to strike again.
"Gee whiz, no kidding?" Charlie said, too taken in by her innocent ocean blue eyes to dash her dream by explaining that Wilkerson first spotted Turner at the Top Hat Café, a student rendezvous point a mile or so east of Schwab's, at Sunset and McCadden Place.
"No kidding," Polly said.
"Hollywood High, that where you go?"
"Silly man," she said, slapping his shoulder and initiating him to her laugh, which drew the curious attention of everyone in the pharmacy, including the out-of-work actors who routinely used the magazine rack like a library, scanning Variety and Reporter for job leads. "I'm an actress is all."
"Have I seen you in anything?"
"Not so far. I'm working at the Farmers Market down on Fairfax while I'm waiting out my big break. Behind the counter at Contento's Guaranteed Garden Fresh Fruits and Vegetables, selling fruits and vegetables. Our tomatoes are especially something special to try you're ever in the mood for tomatoes. They're a fruit, you know, tomatoes?"
"You're some tomato yourself," Charlie said, too smitten by her to engage in any subtlety.
Polly poked his arm and aired her laugh. "I bet you say that to all the girls."
"Not even if I knew all the girls, but you are definitely one girl I'd like to know better."
"Are you a producer? I hear that a lot from producers. Also, there was once a guy who said he was a director, but he really wasn't I found out after."
"I'm a writer. I write movies."
"Like what, for instance?" Challenging him.
He thought about it. "Like Lost Horizon."
She squealed. "You wrote that? I loved that picture."
"No, not that, exactly. Like that. Mine's Forbidden City, where a detective chases a gangster into a desert ghost town inhabited by people who'll never die as long as they stay put, and both fall in love with the same woman."
Polly's jaw fell open and she pressed a palm to her heaving bosom. "I so love it, it's divine. Who's in it, Mr. Clark Gable and Mr. Spencer Tracy, maybe? And Miss Myrna Loy as the girl, or maybe Miss Irene Dunne?"
"My agent couldn't sell it," he confessed, "so it's sitting on my One of These Days When I'm a Hot Property shelf, but the girl I created for Forbidden City's definitely more like you than either Myrna Loy or Irene Dunne."
She measured him with silent uncertainty before stretching out a grim smile. "You are playing with me, right? You sure you're a writer, not a producer or—" rolling her eyes heavenward—"a director?"
"Reading it, would that convince you?"
Polly lit up at the prospect. "I'll let you know after I read it," she said.
Charlie was confident Polly would find herself in the character of Cassandra. He'd written her so any actress could be cast, even a Marie Dressler type, especially if Charles Laughton and Wallace Beery played the detective and the gangster. Vague descriptions, a screenwriter's trick—the way the Hollywood game was played.
Later in the day, Charlie delivered a copy to Polly at Contento's Guaranteed Garden Fresh Fruits and Vegetables, leaving with a complimentary bag of oversized, vine-ripened tomatoes and a date to meet again tomorrow morning at Schwab's.
Instead, she surprised him by showing up shortly before midnight at his miniscule one-room apartment, half a converted garage on a shabby low-rent street in the Westlake Park district, her pounding on the door drawing him out of a dream about her and his first restful sleep in weeks. He thought he might still be dreaming when he opened the door and saw her feasting on him, clutching the screenplay, verging on tears. Her voice broke telling him, "Once I started, I couldn't put it down, not for one second. Your address was on the title page. I had to come and tell you how beautiful and moving the story, your writing a miracle. And yes, Mr. Charlie Dickens, I am Cassandra."
They made love that night.
Two weeks later he moved in with her.
They'd been together ever since.
Now, her interplay at the Nickodell bar with that guy, whoever he was, raised the usual hackles of jealousy on the back of his neck.
Not that he was possessive, he was—
Yes, he was.
Resentful of anybody who invaded his territory, stole a minute of his girl's time, even now, this minute.
Crosby had been replaced on the overhead by his late rival, Russ Columbo, who'd been accidentally shot and killed four years ago, Columbo's silky voice gliding through his biggest hit, "Prisoner of Love."
That was Charlie, a prisoner of love, even though he was wearing the stain of Sarah Darling on his conscience and his cock-a-doodle-do.
On the drive over he had convinced himself it was a business decision to reward Sarah's lust for the good deed she would be doing him by bringing Showdown at Shadow Creek to her husband's attention, selling him on the idea of making it a Max Moonglow production.
Charlie crossed to Polly, rested a hand on her back and said, "Guess who."
Without turning, she said, "Mr. Salmon, say hello to the late Mr. Dickens."
"Hello, late Mr. Dickens," Salmon said, turning to expose a mouthful of teeth the size of Mah Jong tiles. "Your lady friend has been bending my ear about your wonderful screenplays." He sounded in his cups. He toasted Charlie with his highball while his free hand wandered onto Polly's knee.
Charlie's jealousy got the best of him.
He brought one up from the floor.
It landed with a crack on Salmon's aquiline nose. Blood spurted like water from an open fire hydrant on a hot summer afternoon. Salmon toppled backward from the bar stool, landed on his back on the concrete floor, out for the count.
The room, momentarily gone silent, exploded noisily. A dress extra in white tie and tails checked Salmon for a pulse and shouted for someone to phone for an ambulance. One of the three men who had locked onto Charlie and wrestled him into submission added the need for someone to call the police.
Polly gave him a pitiful look, stepped over, and said, "You ought to be ashamed of yourself for what you did to poor Mr. Salmon," and fled, ignoring his pleas for forgiveness.
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