“Billie? Your name’s Billie?” He seemed surprised I was a girl…

HOLLYWOOD & MINE

By

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

3.

I was working in a seafood bar. It was called Toninno’s and was owned by my mother’s second cousin’s husband, Silvio. He was what Brits of the upper-middle class might once have called an unsavory individual, if not for the fact he was so unsavory that the term didn’t pack the requisite punch. One evening Silvio (yes, like the character from The Sopranos or the mediocre Dylan song) entered the prep-kitchen in which I had a blade wedged deep within an unfortunate bivalve. I had barely managed to pop open the abductee from Duxbury Bay with a swift twist of the knife, exposing it glistening and heaving into the air, when Silvio — who I had always been encouraged to call Cousin Silvio although he wasn’t my cousin, one of those peculiar family quirks — snatched the squishy thing from my hand and plopped it into his capacious gullet. “Like an ocean breeze,” he confided, giving me an indefinable wink. I scowled at this, a scowl that only deepened as he beckoned me into his office like Caligula summoning a catamite to his bedchamber.

The office was behind the kitchen and before the walk-in. In my three weeks of employment, the office was always locked and empty. This time it was brightly lit and the door was wide open; it housed a desk, a filing cabinet, and a rotary phone. The walls were covered with yellowed family photographs of Cousin Silvio’s mother and father (wiry, with jet black hair molded into pompadours, and in later years a crew cut for him, and one of those head capping short flips of the fifties for her) and a coterie of plump little boys, the plumpest of which — I assumed — was married to my second cousin. Silvio pushed the only chair in the room my way, it didn’t look like it could accommodate his broad behind, and he leaned back against the desk. “So, you good with kids?” I asked if he wanted me to baby sit and he replied, “Kinda, I got a cousin, a real cousin,” like I was some shoddy substitute for a true blood tie, “out in Hollywood. He needs a nanny for the rest of the summer. Dave Taylor. Ya know?”

Yes, I knew. Dave Taylor (Toninno) was thirty-eight, handsome as hell, and had just peaked at the box office in a movie about an over the hill baseball player. He recently had done his duty to the studio in a press junket and I had seen him as he saturated the afternoon airwaves on Donahue and The Mike Douglas Show and Merv Griffin’s extolling his aw shucks old fashioned sense of chivalry, his reverence of women, I’m just a lucky guy from the North End, his fairy-tale marriage — and his two beautiful children, who he and his wife were raising to be just plain apple-pie eating good natured all Americans — or something to that effect. I bought into the mythos, I was a half-wit adolescent, and I leapt at the chance to travel west.

The gold kissed couple that had entrusted me with the development of their offspring had me take a cab into Beverly Hills from LAX, which cost a head spinning thirty dollars. The movie star and studio executive had never called or set eyes on me — the entire transaction had been overseen by Silvio — whose only intimation as to my future had been advice to pack a lot of sunscreen. On arriving at their front gate I was buzzed in via intercom by nine year-old Andrew, a rangy little guy with an elfin face and a polished vocabulary. His little sister, Isabel, tailed behind him at all times like a stubborn satellite. They were cute and then some. They peered up at me quizzically as Andrew pronounced, “I’m supposed to show you your new room. Candice left last week. How old are you?” I replied that I was nineteen, to which he responded, “Okay, please follow me.” Then, still staring at me he said, “Billie? Your name’s Billie?” He seemed surprised I was a girl. I assured him my name was Billie Price and he nodded like all he needed was voice confirmation of my gender and then he set off with Isabel in tow.

The house, strike that, make it: the mansion was eleven thousand square feet and shaped in a U around a tiled courtyard, in its center a glistening blue pool. The east wing housed the kitchen, the maid’s room downstairs, the kids’ rooms upstairs and my room adjacent. The core of the home had the living, dining, and entertaining areas, and the west wing was for the grown-ups, I supposed a kind of marital Shangri-la, buffered from the day-to-day events. At the time I had very romantic notions.

My introduction to Andrew and Isabel’s parents took place that night in the kitchen while I was doctoring a can of baked beans with onions and ketchup, topping some iceberg lettuce with Seven Seas Italian, and grilling some hot dogs to feed my new charges. I didn’t know if it was the processed feast I was preparing for the kids, or just my face that caused Mrs. Taylor’s jaw to drop when she sighted me. (If I had spent the time to consider, I would have definitely said it was the presence of breasts on my torso that set Mrs. Taylor off.) On the other hand, Mr. Taylor was grinning like he’d just got the Governor’s reprieve from the electric chair. He flung out his arms as he approached me and crowed, “Billie! Billie’s a nice East Coast girl! Harvard, right?” Mrs. Taylor stared at Mr. Taylor. “My cousin said you went to Harvard! Billie Price from Harvard!” I nodded as he gave me a one armed hug around the shoulders. Apparently Mrs. Taylor had been led to believe I was a young gentleman from Harvard, a former camp counselor who was related by marriage to her husband. A suitable replacement for Candice, who, as it turns out had shagged Mr. Taylor one afternoon while the kids were at school and she was on the lot.

At the time I was the only thing they had going, so instead of packing me off back to Boston, I was given a schedule and a cash float and let loose with Andrew and Isabel. The kids guided me to their favorite place, Coldwater Canyon Park, a triangle of green just above Sunset Boulevard, where they played with their friends and I met their friends’ summer companions, a group of young women just like myself; all between eighteen and twenty-one, all college girls. We congregated while the children ran and screamed and pelted each other with dirt and foliage and played our own games, which tended to be verbal instead of physical. Our favorite was a variation on the current, “Who’d ya rather?” It involved calling to mind some prominent fossil and querying, “Would you sleep with X for a million dollars?” Followed by the admonition, “Oh. Oh. And, you have to be serious!” For example, I was asked, “Would you sleep with Ronald Reagan for one million dollars?” Recalling that the presidential candidate was in his seventies and older than my grandfather, I declined. “Okay! How about Ed McMahon?” was the next challenge.

“No way!” I shrieked, while Polly, an intense red head that was studying Law at USC took a drag on her cigarette and then dropped the butt beneath her heel and ground it out.

Polly squinted in the direction of Nell, her eight-year-old summer task, and said, “I would.”

“Ew,” we girls chorused around her.

“I sure as hell would,” Polly rejoined. “I’m up to my eyes in school loans. Screw the million. I’d do it for ten thousand dollars and a Quaalude.” Polly made us all seem frivolous. Here was a girl who really did take the game seriously. She tapped another cigarette out of her pack and held it unlit by the side of her jaw with studied grace. There were tortoise shell combs pulling back her hair at her temples, which tumbled in perfect waves over her shoulders. She wore a vintage blouse with shoulder pads. Her expression was wry, and she looked as if she was ready to face down Spencer Tracy in divorce court on behalf of Judy Holliday. Note: if you haven’t seen the old film Adam’s Rib I recommend it.

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