In Hollywood they never see the ventriloquist for the doll…

In Hollywood they never see the ventriloquist for the doll

Photo by Ralph Morris, in the collection of the Los Angeles Public Library



Susannah Corwin

“People in the East pretend to be interested in how pictures are made, but if you actually tell them anything, you find they are only interested in Colbert’s clothes or Gable’s private life. They never see the ventriloquist for the doll.”

 Scott Fitzgerald




I am a woman of a certain age. An age at which I have gained, if not wisdom, then at least the experience and discernment to intuit that when an old friend I haven’t heard a squeak from in three years texts me late at night that what’s lying heavy on his mind is the proximity of death and the unresolved question of why — exactly — we never tumbled into bed together; and whether there’s any possibility that we might still do that, even now.

Billie, you awake? We have unfinished business. Had the last in a series of old man medical tests, a Holter monitor strapped to my chest for 24 hours. Heart checked out fine, look like I’ve had an intimate encounter with an octopus. Time to catch up.

As I said, being that “certain age” (and I hope the words “past it” have not entered your darling mind) I am able to reflect upon this calmly without even a hint of discomfiture. It wasn’t always so.

I came to Hollywood as a teenager, on a summer break from college, to look after a movie star’s kids. As it turns out summer never really ended, because here I stayed. I married the movie star, alienated my step-children, had one child of my own, went back to school, got a job assisting a hot young director, became a producer, then ran a studio. For a very long while, I ran a studio — until I didn’t.

The workings of the industry still fascinate me, yet I find them best viewed from a safe distance, and, going online instead of opening a book — a hazard that will be explained in time — I looked up “chatelaine” in hopes of finding its synonym on the Internet, and found a lot of rubbish. Things like doxy, sugar, mistress, girlfriend, or sweetheart scrolled down the screen, as I said, just nonsense. A chatelaine is a woman in charge of running a very large establishment, like a castle. She possesses the keys (both literal and metaphorical) to the kingdom. I was the chatelaine of the studio. I devoted my time there, in service of, with the burden of responsibility for — I kept its secrets and promoted its interests — and yet I felt I wasn’t really working. Working, for me, meant making a movie. Singular. It meant rising before dawn and spending all day logging a few minutes of cinematic action on film with a hundred of my best friends. Once I was running the studio I took meetings. I approved policies. I made sure we adapted to new technologies and new methods of entertainment distribution. I worried over profits, losses, and taxes. Able assistants managed my schedule, gatekeepers vetted all incoming calls, I slept late, and I was never on set. Life in a bubble makes you want to pop.

What am I getting at? Let’s turn our attention to Lilith, an ancient figure pre-dating Eve, not created from a rib but formed from the exact same stardust as Adam. Lilith wouldn’t submit to Adam’s original-male demands and so she hotfooted it out of Eden and had a high time with an archangel named Sam. Thereafter she was associated with the transgressive, the demonic, and the vampiric, all because she didn’t take to subservience. Women who wield power have had a bad rap since the beginning of time.

In my own time I have placated, seemingly demurred, smoothed, smiled, and been deemed maternal — while my step-children and son could easily dispute that — during which I quietly controlled a work force that spanned the globe and turned out a product, that, while earning billions, entertained all. It was a good run. Do I have regrets and remorse? Did I fuck up? Of course I did. Consider this, in a hypothetical pie chart of my soul it wouldn’t be all happy thoughts and an unbounded faith in my own decisions.

If you think the same standards exist for men and women who toil in the public sphere you have only to look at our present political situation to be disabused of this notion mighty damn quick. In deference to readers in the future I will briefly summarize what is no doubt etched in history. For a time a mobbed-up lout, deep in the pocket of a foreign adversary, sat in the highest office in the land. If you’re wondering how this could have happened, I will tell you a story about movie making and you can draw your own parallels.

Not too long ago, in a city much like Gotham, a very big film was being made. On this film the people who were responsible for the vehicles that moved the crew, and the trucks that carried all the filming equipment, were part of an old and powerful organization. These people were drivers, and the organization was a union.

One night at the end of a long day of filming some of the drivers — after all the vehicles were moved and parked and secured — gathered together to get their drink on. A few beers chased by a couple of shots and the partiers were well over the legal limit to drive. However, these revelers gave no concession to the law, they found limits posed no impediment to impulse. They drove off, half hammered, in their cars, SUVs, and pickups. One dawdling and particularly merry individual couldn’t, for the life of him, spot his ride. He warbled, “Dear Saint Anthony, please come around, something is lost that cannot be found,” up toward the roof of an old piano factory turned soundstage. Crickets. The last of the taillights were out. The merry individual was alone, all alone. He clicked his keys. His car’s location was revealed with a chirp. There was no way to access his wheels beside staggering through the parking lot, setting off alarms and smashing through his moon-roof. What a predicament. Yet, there was a vehicle that stood by itself, sleek, fast, finned, a marvel of steel and automotive design. It was the Batmobile. What did this driver do? He got into the Batmobile and drove off the secured set. Jazzed by his heist and feeling good he decided he wanted to feel even better. Instead of going home he jetted to his favorite bar. When last call came he left the bar wanting to feel even higher, and driving the city he spotted a streetwalker. Bada bing bada boom. Except the boom came down on him, because the prostitute he thought he was propositioning turned out to be an undercover cop. The driver was arrested. The Batmobile was placed in impound.

What were the movie producers to do? The Batmobile was meant to be filmed the next day. However, it was locked away. The police wouldn’t release it. It was stolen and not at all street legal. The mayor of the big city was awoken at an ungodly hour; he then woke the police chief. The Batmobile was released. Soon after the driver was released. The movie producers tried to fire him, but the union closed ranks asserting they determined which drivers were hired and fired, or as they told the producers, “He’s one of us.” A deal was struck; the driver was paid for the remainder of the movie but kept off set. An addled thief was kept on payroll. “He’s one of us.”

Getting back to politics, powerful men are always credited with virtues they don’t possess. Powerful women are damned despite them. Which is not to say I had been tasked with preserving the planet for the next generation, or ensuring peace and prosperity for my country. Nevertheless, I took my studio job seriously, and at a certain point, I found myself wanting to hotfoot it out of the administrative realm into the private sphere with my own version of an archangel. Did I act on that impulse? You shall soon find out.

Life never is a simple linear narrative; it’s too messy and senseless. On the other hand a memoir, no, make that a novel (a much less contentious prospect) is an attempt to resolve the random acts of a life and give them meaning — put them into some sort of context. Whether this reads as simply an insider chronicle of a life lived in Hollywood or another of those cautionary tales about the same, I’ll leave to you, gentle reader, my unknown confidant.


  1. George Kaplan

    Welcome back, Vickie! What a v. intriguing intro/prelude to the new novel. Marvelous! Well done, Ms L. I look forward to more from you, a beacon of light in a dark world.

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