“No one flies to L.A. in July,” I mumbled as the driver opened the door of the limo and helped me in.
I heard someone laughing. “Edna, welcome to L.A.”
I’d just stepped off the eight-and-a-half-hour United Airlines flight from Idlewild. “I need a year to recover,” I muttered. I’d slept but a few fitful hours, fidgeted in my tight seat, and was happy to see the limo that Jack Warner had waiting for me. How insane to fly to the West Coast in summer. But business beckoned. After all, Warner Bros. Studio was filming Giant, my massive bestseller about Texas, and I was a co-producer. This was my baby, really, and when it comes to money, I cast a jaundiced eye on how others jostle my cash. And, though I was loath to admit it, the pulse and verve of Hollywood glamour excited me.
I smiled. “Tansi, honey, you’re a tonic after the abominable red eye, but even you can’t redeem California.”
Tansi Rowland gave a shrill laugh I assumed she’d acquired from years of living in L.A. She reached out and touched my arm. “You look tired, Edna. We’ll get you to the Ambassador and let you nap.”
I fell back against the soft cushions. “Lovely to see you, Tansi.”
Decades back, Tansi’s laugh was robust, a chubby girl’s rich contralto. Now it was thin and metallic. It had been over twenty years since we’d seen each other, of course. I narrowed my eyes.
Tansi, a thin, wiry woman in her forties, seemed all nerve and hot wire. Where was the vivacious, bubbly twenty-year-old I knew in New York, the roly-poly girl with the apple-cheeks and the unruly hair? Tansi still spoke with a trace of her mother’s rich British accent, albeit now flattened by a lethal amalgam of deadened New York vowels and California linguistic breeziness.
I hugged her. “Your mother says hello.”
Tansi frowned. Her mother, of course, was one of my oldest friends and the legendary Broadway actress, Bea Pritchard, trans- ported from the London stage in the twenties and the short-lived wife of Wall Street financier Howard Rowland—one of her many moneyed marriages. Tansi, an only child who trailed after her mother from one brownstone to the next, had never married and often seemed embarrassed by her mother’s public-house risqué manner. She’d drifted to Hollywood after overachieving at Barnard, but not to be an actress—she had a healthy distrust of performers, given her view of her mother’s bedroom. She was Jack Warner’s assistant.
Tansi became all business. “Tonight you’ll be dining at Romanoff’s on Rodeo Drive. Very posh, Edna. With Henry Ginsburg, Jack Warner, and George Stevens—the trinity of Giant.” She grinned. “The giant trinity.”
“So the film is going fine?” I asked, unsure.
“Marvelous.” She sounded like a Warner publicist. “You’ll want to meet Liz Taylor and Rock Hudson.” She paused. “And James Dean.”
“He’s a little unpredictable.” Again, that high-pitched laugh; a nervous sound. “He told me he’s scared of you.”
“What? I’ve never met him. Does he think I’ll bite his head off?” I shook my head. “I’ve been known to be a little tart-tongued and…and…”
“Only with fools, my dear.”
“He’s afraid you’ll ask if he’s read Giant.” “And he hasn’t?”
“No, he refuses to.”
I clicked my tongue. “Then I’ll show him no mercy.” “That’s what he’s afraid of.”
Both of us looked at each other. Only I was smiling.
# # #
That evening I dined at Romanoff’s with the battalion of men who were translating my Midas-touch brainchild into film epic. They also seemed scared of me. I like that in a man. But, of course, Henry Ginsburg was an old friend, and, as such, he understood how to handle me—no servile deprecation, no fawning, and, best of all, a witty regard for my place in the world. A large, overflowing man, nattily attired in a pin-striped Brooks Brothers suit, with bland business tie, Ginsburg was a contrast to the wiry, compact Jack Warner with his Parisian gigolo sliver of a moustache; a tidy man in an expensive, though rumpled, suit. George Stevens cultivated a casual Hollywood demeanor, a beefy man with pitch-black hair swept back from his forehead, all open dress shirt and Bwana-of-the-jungle khaki. I had a lot invested in these three men. Hence my friendly trek westward: checking in on the troops.
But I was weary. Red-jacketed waiters swooped down on me when I took a sip of water, and Mike Romanoff, the self-styled prince with the blustery manner, insisted on shaking my hand. Flashbulbs blinded me. Jack Benny and Mary Livingston, seated nearby, waved. I waved back. Sleep, I thought. I want sleep. My afternoon nap (a rarity for me, since I consider such indulgence a sign of weakness) had been unpleasant, disturbed by noises from the hallway. A girl’s flirtatious note, a man’s throaty roar.
So I thanked the three men, announced that I’d gladly view the dailies in the morning, and was escorted to the hotel and to my suite—too many rooms for one old lady. As I readied for bed, I stared down onto Wilshire Boulevard, then found myself gazing at the enormous vase of lush, perfumed yellow roses I’d discovered when I’d checked in. Already the petals were falling onto the floor. In California nothing stays intact for very long.
# # #
The next morning, Tansi greeted me in the lobby and led me to the studio car. A good nine hours of blissful rest behind me, I felt ready to tackle the day. Tansi was in a spirited mood, and I recalled a carefree walk through Central Park with a giddy sixteen-year-old Tansi and her regal mother—a woman who became furious when a passerby asked me for an autograph and not her. Now, all these years later, Tansi had metamorphosed into an assured self. You saw a woman with a drab flat face and a thin body, with conservative flared white-linen skirt and tame Peter-Pan collared blue blouse, her abundantly permed hair pulled back into a Gibson girl pompadour. All this was offset by bright scarlet lipstick and glistening red nails. A marvelous contradiction, really. Well, I thought, an actress’ daughter—the one who ran away to Hollywood to escape the imperial Bea. No mother to guide her, as they said in Victorian novels.
Tansi confided, “Everyone at the studio is nervous about you looking at the dailies.”
“Why, for heaven’s sake?”
“Think about it, Edna. Giant is your property. Hollywood is simply borrowing it, remaking it. What if you don’t like it?”
“I don’t expect I shall, truth to tell.”
Tansi, wide eyed: “Really?” The grin gone, she ran her tongue over glossy crimson lips.
“Because when I told Stevens that the script Ivan Moffat and that other fellow…”
“I never can remember that name. It’s so…weak. Ghoulish. Very Vincent Price. Anyway, I informed them all that the script was illiterate.”
“So I recall.”
“As it was,” I said, sharply. “But when those boys learned to listen to my book they got better.” I paused, thinking of changes to my plot, particularly the reinvention of the relationship of the spinster Luz and Jett Rink. That had not pleased me.
I tucked my hands into my lap, waited. I felt warm in the rose-colored cotton dress with the cinch belt, bought especially for this first day at the Burbank studio. But we just sat there. Impatient: “Tansi, dear, is there a reason the car isn’t moving? Do I have to fork over a dollar for gas?”
The driver suddenly opened the rear door of the limo and a man slid in, settled himself next to me, too close, I thought, and extended his hand. “Jake Geyser, Miss Ferber. I wrote you.”
Humorless, a little boisterous, hail-fellow-well-met. A Rotarian, I concluded, giving him a grim nod.
Tansi looked none too happy. “I forgot to mention that Jake was coming with us, Edna.”
I surveyed the new arrival: fiftyish, tall and lanky with a bony, vaguely patrician face, all angle and jut, razor sharp—and an alpine Adam’s apple, very mobile. It was the face of a man born to ease and minor gastrological irritation.
“Jack Warner personally assigned me to steer the production of Giant to a smooth conclusion. I’m a trouble-shooter, really. I’m the one who has to anticipate sudden disaster.”
“Do you expect me to be one of the disasters, Mr. Geyser?” For a second he seemed flustered, glancing at Tansi, as if, somehow, this were her fault. “Ah no, Miss Ferber. I’m just along for the ride.”
But I immediately understood that this was not true. His forced jocularity, his physical proximity, his narrow-slatted glance—the eyes held too short a time, then focused elsewhere— suggested there was a problem in paradise. I wondered when I’d discover it. Jake Geyser leaned back, fumbled with a worn leather portfolio, and stared straight ahead. A cigarette smoker, I realized, given the pungent scent off the English tweed sports jacket and the artfully creased flannel trousers. An affected man, but not people smart. A dangerous man because he’d been given the job of gatekeeper.
And something else. As the limo cruised down Wilshire, along the Strip, through the wide, palm-fringed avenues, out to Burbank, Tansi got noticeably quiet, her body hugging the doorframe, her head tucked in, reminding me of a frightened wren. She seemed taken with the landscape, a tourist in town. The climate of the car sobered, chilled, with me watching them both and realizing—with some fascination—the deep dislike the one had for the other. The spinster Tansi with the Hollywood glitter eye shadow at odds with the servile factotum with the graying temples and the lacrosse-player profile, a man whose duty it was to keep things kosher.
But what things? His presence in the sleek car suggested a problem. Two guides? Who was I—an Eisenhower cabinet member? Or was his presence a reminder to Tansi to keep still? A problem—I smelled it. I knew it to my marrow.
Tansi and Jake positioned themselves on either side of me in the hot projection room, beseeching me to take coffee, a Danish, some water, maybe tea, an avocado salad, anything, everything. Tansi lost all humor, ill tempered now. Jake Geyser kept clearing his throat.
I leaned into Tansi and whispered, “What aren’t you telling me?”
The remark caught her off guard. Without thinking, her eyes staring at the as-yet blank screen, she whispered back, “I can’t tell you.” She realized she’d slipped and started stammering.
I shifted to Jake, rigid beside me. He’d overheard my off- hand remark to Tansi. Still looking straight ahead, he declared, “I think you’ll enjoy this. I…”
For a reason unbeknownst to me—had there been a transition I’d somehow missed?—he began rambling about his ivy-covered undergraduate days, his merry hours on the Princeton fencing team, varsity, summers at his grandparents’ beach house in Tidewater, Virginia, something that connected to a scene I’d be watching: Rock Hudson as the Texan Bick Benedict wooing the feisty Liz Taylor as Leslie, in ole Virginny. When the lights suddenly dimmed, he shut up as though slapped.
I got caught up in the flickering images—and, with a tightness at my throat, I heard Liz and Rock mouthing my words, albeit bowdlerized by Moffat and what’s-his-name. I found them satisfying, a little like a gentle wash of warm water over the body. Rock seemed wooden, almost freakishly large, but then—that was my Bick Benedict, a man who comes to understand his inner power and beauty only with decades of living behind him. And Liz Taylor, luminous with those violet eyes and that aristocratic chin, well, she filled the screen with the resolve, grit, and ferocity of coquette-cum-steel woman. I closed my eyes for a second: this was good stuff, truly.
But I was not prepared, not really, for the footage of the young James Dean—the rebellious, moody Jett Rink, the desperate wildcatter, the driven boy. That is, my Jett Rink. The way he cocked his head, brought his hand to his brow, and the walk—a strut that was still somehow a slouching glide. This was ballet. This was a new man, light years from John Wayne or Gary Cooper. This was—I remembered a statue of a young wrestler I’d seen in a museum in Naples, a Pompeiian boy, tight, tense, ready to pounce. Somehow, watching him now, I forgot that I had not written James Dean’s life—only Jett’s. But it was as though he’d entered my book before I’d written it—and told me what to say. I fairly lost my breath. Tears came to my eyes and I fluttered, a little foolish and unhappy. Liz Taylor stood on a stretch of arid land and then, suddenly, James Dean filled the screen, and he mumbled. I had no idea what he said.
Jake Geyser grunted, almost involuntarily, and what registered was his dislike of Dean. Tansi, on the other hand, seemed to hold her breath, fearful of moving. She gripped the back of the seat in front of her.
When it was all over, I said aloud in the sudden brightness of the room, “I didn’t expect James Dean to be…” I stopped, the writer suddenly wordless.
Tansi breathed in. “I know, I know. There ought to be a law.”
I turned to Jake. “But, Mr. Geyser, I sense something in you…”
“Not really.” He turned away.
“I read character for a living, sir.” I was furious at his dismissal.
He looked back. “My job is to honor Warner Bros. Studio, Miss Ferber. Not to denigrate its stars.”
I rolled my tongue into a cheek. “You let your body do that for you.”
Tansi savored the exchange, emboldened by my comments. “Jake is a stickler for punctuality, cleanliness, and law and order, I’m afraid. Jimmy Dean is usually late if he arrives at all. He doesn’t shave, he doesn’t bathe, he’s disorderly. Some days he’s the opposite of everything I’ve just said. Charming, funny…”
“I can’t wait to meet him,” I said.
Jake, I noticed, was drumming his index finger on the chair rail.
I’d my doubts about casting the feckless, untested Dean as the destructive Jett Rink, until Gadge Kazan arranged a private showing of his unreleased East of Eden. I’d left the projection room convinced in the rightness of George Stevens’ move, mesmerized by the darkswept performance. And when East of Eden opened, and James Dean suddenly—overnight, as it were—emerged as a movie sensation, the new image of Hollywood, the face on the cover of Photoplay and Movie Screen, the mumbling, plaintive voice of the lost and wayward youth, well, I knew he’d bring his peculiar stamp to the part with the authority of the branding of a prize steer at Reata Ranch. But I hadn’t expected the sheer translucence—yes, that was the word—of his performance.
Both guides now closed in on me, grasped my elbows, and squired me out.
“Could you two please let me do my own walking?” I said, annoyed. “I’ve managed to go from point A to point B in this lifetime without bouncing off the walls like a drunken sailor on leave.”
Both mumbled apologies, but each still tried to edge in. Day two, I thought, of what already seemed like the one-hundred-year war.
# # #
Later that afternoon, happily abandoned for a couple hours by Tansi and Jake, I sat in an easy chair in the Warner Blue Room. Idly, I leafed through the movie script. I was not happy with the considerable changes to my plot, and now there was talk of major shifts in the climactic gala celebration near the end of the movie. Jett Rink, the brutal oillionaire, drunk and spiraling toward his ugly end. The studio was going for over-the-top melodrama. Character, I kept telling myself, is more important than plot.
“Edna, I’ve been looking for you.” A deep voice from the doorway. Flat, brusque, gravelly, but oddly melodic and filled with laughter.
I looked up, smiled. “I was wondering where you were.”
I’d met Mercedes McCambridge in New York, a few summers back. The two of us immediately liked each other. Three, maybe four scintillating lunches in New York that summer. A Broadway matinee, a dinner. I’d sent her flowers when she won her Oscar for All the King’s Men. Now Mercedes played the ill-fated Luz Benedict, Bick’s unmarried older sister—a feisty, no-nonsense, rough-and-tumble Texas woman whose sudden death inevitably leads to Jett’s great fortune…and the beginning of his fall from grace. The veteran actress—“Call me Mercy, for mercy’s sake”—was a look-straight-in-your-eye woman, the only women I can tolerate. A woman cut from my own precious cloth. Other women, the coy, flirtatious, frothy girls—especially the weak and martyred patient Griseldas, mooning and hoping for favor, a man’s nod—well, I spit them out like so much bile.
Now Mercy, pushing a youthful forty, reached over to hug me. Dressed in a dull calico flare skirt and a muslin blouse with a corduroy vest (“I’m in costume for still photographs”), she struck me as Annie Oakley, with fierce, intelligent eyes. You saw the wide Midwestern face, the strong carriage, and the nervous gesture of slender fingers casually pushing through uncombed hair. Pioneer woman, with Max Factor rouge and the vaudevillian laugh.
We chatted like old coffee chums, leaning in, small talk about New York friends and acquaintances. Mercy asked about Kitty Carlyle, Bennett Cerf, Dorothy and Dick Rodgers, others. Theater folks, fine people, all. Though I always maintain that I loathe gossip, I yammered on about dinner parties where all the wrong stuff was served—and said. Faux pas among the four hundred, as it were. Mercy also knew Tansi’s mother, Bea Pritchard, who’d once upstaged Mercy in a Broadway outing.
“How is the battle-ax?” she asked me.
I grinned. “Looking for her next husband.” “It’s hard to believe she’s Tansi’s mother.”
I shook my head. “Oh, but of course, Mercy. The wilder the mother got—remember when she wore that revealing gown to the White House and Hoover got the hiccoughs?—anyway, the more outré her mother got, the more puritanical Tansi became.”
“But she and Jake Geyser will be the death of you,” Mercy said. “Jake is Warner’s menacing bull dog in Oxford camouflage.”
“Which leads me to ask you, Mercy, what’s going on? Jake Geyser and Tansi hinted at some problem that I’m not supposed to know about. Why on earth does Warner have Jake hovering around me like a dazed summer moth?”
“I’m not supposed to tell you. We have orders.” “But of course you will.”
Mercy’s mouth drew into a thin line, but the corners suddenly turned up, a timid smile, and the eyes had a glint in them. “Of course.”
But we both stopped, almost on cue, and turned to the open doorway. James Dean stood there, leaning against the doorframe in costume: the tight worn jeans, the ten-gallon Stetson on his head, wisps of almond-blond hair over his ears, an unlit cigarette in his mouth. A cocky stance, practiced. Yet on his nose horn- rimmed glasses, incongruous, but oddly appealing. His fingers drummed on the wood frame.
I stared, mute. It was, I suppose, when I thought about it later, a little like looking into the sun, or a cup of cold spring water that slackens a desert thirst. He was, quite frankly, a calculated presence, a deliberate act of utter coolness: the wrestler’s body, so muscular and taut, sinewy through faded denim; and the face—that hint of boyish hair, the strong chin, the half-closed eyes, and the impossible sensual lips. This was either an actor at his craft or, truthfully, the sudden shift of seismic current. Calm down, Edna, I told myself. He’s a boy. He’s an actor.
And short. I’d thought him taller, I’d thought him towering. I was a tiny woman myself, barely five feet, with a big head. He was a small man with a big head. I knew him.
“Jimmy.” Mercy waved at him. “Come and meet Edna Ferber.”
“Madama,” he said to Mercy, using the name he called her in the film. He didn’t look at me.
“Come in,” Mercy motioned.
He seemed as though he intended to walk in, in fact, his feet seemed to move, but oddly his hand rested on the doorframe, a statue, all angle and graceful line. The cigarette twitched in his mouth. He bent in, mumbled.
“What?” Mercy asked.
“I got another letter,” he said, the words clipped, loud and spaced out. He sounded surprised at his own voice, but there was anger there, too. And frustration. The eyes closed, then popped open, and I thought of boys caught stealing apples from a greengrocer’s stand. I expected him to run away. And now he seemed to see me for the first time. “Miss Edna,” he said, slurring the words and half-bowing, the cigarette bobbing.
I didn’t know what to say. “Mr. Dean…” I began. “Jimmy, ma’am.”
“I saw you on Broadway in The Immoralist.” He twisted his head, intrigued. “And?”
“You were sadly miscast as the effeminate Arab boy Bachar.” Flat out. Challenging, in control.
He pulled in his cheeks, making his face look hollow, and held my eye. “Which part of me was miscast, would you say? The effeminate part or the Arab or the boy?”
I paused. I had no idea what I wanted to say. I recalled the provocative scissors dance the homosexual houseboy Bachar had performed onstage, a seduction of an ambivalent Michel—a stage bit that garnered him incredible praise. But he had seemed so wrong as the weak, ineffectual but manipulative street urchin. In slippers and nightgown, doing a ballet, flitting and snipping the air with a pair of shiny silver scissors. He was too masculine, I’d thought. But what I wanted to say now was that he’d redeemed himself in East of Eden, that his depiction of the troubled Cal Trask, the bad seed Cain of Steinbeck’s Eden, had been mesmerizing. That was believable—and thrilling. But my throat was dry, and my head throbbed. And by the time I opened my mouth to praise him, he had walked out of the room, just turned and walked away.
When I looked back at Mercy, the woman was laughing softly, and I had trouble looking into her face.