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Babes in Tinseltown
In 1936, Frankie Foster leaves her Georgia home with high hopes of becoming a movie star in Hollywood. She soon finds work as an extra in a swashbuckling costume picture, but when the producer drops dead at her feet during filming, Frankie knows she must discover the truth if she is to save the picture and her own fledgling career. A Mystery of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Historical (Hollywood 1936) Mystery by Sheri Cobb South; originally published by Belgrave House
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Told you so ... told you so ... told you so ...
To nineteen-year-old Frankie Foster, hurtling through Oklahoma at a blistering speed of forty miles per hour, the rhythm of big wheels on iron rails was strangely reminiscent of her mother’s voice. Not that Mama would be so cruel as to say “I told you so.” No, instead she would give her youngest daughter the pitying glances and sad, sympathetic smiles that were worse than any amount of scolding.
But then, her mother had never really understood Frankie’s fascination with the movies. To Mama, Hollywood was only one step removed from Sodom and Gomorrah. “All that smoking and drinking,” she’d fretted when told of her daughter’s ambitions, “to say nothing of the s-e-x.” This last was said with a furtive glance at her husband, as if the Honorable Hubert Foster might hand down Solomonic wisdom from the judge’s bench, yet be wholly ignorant of how his three daughters had been conceived.
In the end, it had been Esther, the colored woman who had cooked and cleaned for the Fosters as long as Frankie could remember, who had come to Frankie’s rescue.
“Children gonna grow up, Miz Foster, and there ain’t nothin’ you can do about it,” she’d said, dispensing homegrown wisdom along with mashed potatoes and gravy. “Can’t hold back the tide, so you might as well go with the flow.”
And that, eventually, had been that. But now the green Georgia hills had given way to flat brown plains, and the trip that had once seemed so exciting now appeared a frightening leap into the unknown. She found some small comfort in the fact that she was not the only one making such a journey. During the occasional stretches where the tracks ran alongside Route 66, she could see sad-looking processions of heavily laden Model T’s bearing grim-faced men and weary women. These were the people described by the newsreels as Okies, those displaced farmers who had abandoned their draught-ridden lands in search of greener pastures in California. Would they understand her need to go there, she wondered, or would they say she was crazy to leave a comfortable home with a loving family?
With a screech of the brakes, the train lurched to a stop.
“Tulsa!” bellowed the conductor. “All out for Tulsa!”
Half a dozen passengers disembarked and twice as many new ones pushed their way aboard, scrambling for the few remaining seats. Not for the first time, Frankie was thankful her mother had insisted on a private compartment. Once the new passengers were safely on board, the train jerked into motion again. Frankie settled back in her seat and cracked open her brand-new copy of Gone with the Wind, the book everyone seemed to be talking about. She had paid a whole three dollars for it at the St. Louis station, but the purchase had made a statement of sorts: Mama had never let her read it back home, claiming it was full of filthy language. Frankie wasn’t quite sure how Mama knew this when she hadn’t read it herself, but her mother seemed to operate on the principle that anything that popular must be immoral.
She had hardly read more than a paragraph or two when the sliding door to her compartment slammed open and a broad-shouldered young man in a letterman’s sweater burst in.
Frankie looked up from her book. “I’m sorry, but this is a private—”
“You’ve got to help me,” he interrupted breathlessly. “They’ll be coming after me, see?”
“Why?” Wide-eyed with apprehension, Frankie suddenly remembered everything Mama had ever told her about the dangers that might befall a young woman traveling alone. Still, this young man didn’t look like a criminal or an escaped convict or a madman. True, his soft felt cap and the V-necked sweater worn over his shirt and necktie were more casual than the flannel suit and fedora favored by most rail travelers, but after two days spent in stockings and heels (to say nothing of foundation garments), Frankie felt this circumstance was more to be envied than condemned. “What have you done?”
“I jumped the train,” he said, as if that should explain it all.
“You’re not supposed to jump on trains?” asked Frankie, bewildered by the unexpected intricacies of railroad etiquette.
He grinned, revealing two deep dimples. “Sure you can, as long as you’ve got a ticket—which I don’t.”
As if on cue, the conductor’s voice floated down the passage calling, “Tickets, please! Tickets!”
“Uh-oh, looks like you’re done for,” said Frankie, not without sympathy.
The stowaway gave her a measuring look, then stole a furtive glance back down the passage. “Maybe. Then again, maybe not.”
Ignoring her sputtering protests, he pulled the door shut behind him and flung himself down on the seat beside her, knocking them both backward until she was lying prone on the seat with him stretched out on top of her.
“Sorry, toots, but this is a matter of life and death.”
With that, he pressed his mouth to hers just as the conductor rapped on the compartment door.
The conductor, hearing no response from within, rapped again. Still no answer.
“Tickets, please,” he said again, sliding the door open. “Tick—“
He froze. Inside the compartment, a young couple lay locked in a passionate and, yes, horizontal embrace, the young woman all but invisible except for a pair of slender stocking-clad legs writhing and kicking in such a way that the skirt of her blue suit was rucked up to her knees.
“Sheesh!” muttered the conductor, backing into the corridor and closing the door. “Newlyweds! You’d think they could at least wait until dark!”
Her attacker did not release her right away, but waited until the conductor’s call for tickets faded down the corridor before sitting up. “Whew! That should do the trick.”
“How dare you?” Frankie sputtered, painfully aware of the fact that she sounded like the heroine of a Victorian melodrama instead of a modern twentieth-century woman. To cover her own embarrassment, she made a great show of straightening her skirt, tugging at the peplum of her belted jacket, and adjusting the angle of the tiny blue hat perched atop her fashionably marcelled brown hair.
“I said I was sorry,” he reminded her.
“You also said it was a matter of life and death. I didn’t believe you then, either.” As if to prove the point, she scrubbed at her abused mouth with the back of her gloved hand. Mama said a lady should always wear gloves, but Frankie hoped she never had to explain how this particular pair had become stained with lipstick.
“It’s true,” he insisted. “I’ve got to get to Nevada, but my Tin Lizzie died along the way, and I don’t have time or money to waste in fixing her. So I hopped the train.”
“Are you one of those Okies?” asked Frankie, curious in spite of herself.
He bristled at the perceived insult. “Not on your life! I just graduated from Texas A & M with a degree in engineering. I’ve got a job at the Boulder Dam waiting for me. A good engineer can earn over two thousand dollars a year, you know. By the way,” he added, holding out his hand, “the name’s Mitch Gannon. And you?”
Frankie hesitated for a moment, then offered her gloved fingers with the air of one bestowing an undeserved favor. “Frances. Frances Foster. I’m an actress.”
His eyes widened in admiration. “No kidding? What pictures have you been in?”
“None yet,” she admitted, wishing she didn’t sound so apologetic. “I’m on my way to Hollywood.”
Something in his tone suggested he saw a great deal more than she had intended. She tossed her head, and immediately regretted it as her little blue hat lurched sideways. “Just because I’ve never made a picture doesn’t mean I’m completely lacking in experience. Why, I’m known all over Georgia as the Snowy Soap Flake girl.” It wasn’t a lie, exactly. Anyone with a radio tuned to an Atlanta station would know the jingle, even if they’d never thought twice about the girl who sang it.
“The Snowy Soap Flake girl,” she repeated impatiently. “You know, like on the radio: ‘For whiter blouses, shirts, and socks, Gentle enough for your frilliest frocks, Only fifteen cents a box, Try new Snowy Soap Flakes.’ ”
He shook his head. “Never heard of ‘em. But if they ever make a movie about laundry detergent, I’ll bet you’ll be a shoo-in for the starring role.” With this assurance, he rose from the seat and reached for the door.
Frankie was suddenly and perversely reluctant to see him go. Rude and arrogant he might be, but his was the first friendly face she had encountered since leaving Atlanta. Her cheeks grew warm at the memory of just how friendly he could be. Still, surely even his company was better than being alone.
“Where are you going?”
He jerked a thumb in the general direction of the dining car. “Out to see if I can snag a pack of cigarettes.”
Frankie’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “I thought you didn’t have any money.”
“I didn’t have enough money for a ticket. But I won a little bit back at Tulsa station, pitching pennies with the porters. I should be able to come up with fifteen cents for a pack of Lucky Strikes, anyway. Thanks again for all your help.”
With one last grin and a wink, he was out the door. Frankie watched it slide closed behind him, her bosom swelling with indignation. Thank you for all your help. As if she’d had any choice in the matter! He was just the sort Mama had always warned her about. Besides being rude and arrogant, he gambled and smoked cigarettes. She thought of that other vice, the one Mama could not even bring herself to speak aloud. Was it possible that he—? Then she remembered the way he had kissed her, and decided that nothing he might do would surprise her.
* * * *
Many miles later, the train drew into the Pasadena station with a long hiss like a sigh of relief. Frankie stuffed Scarlett and Rhett back into her purse, then stood up and stretched her cramped muscles. She picked up the jacket she’d shed somewhere around Albuquerque, shrugged her arms into the sleeves, and gathered her bags. As she exited the train, a red-capped porter offered to take them, but she shook her head. Mama, she knew, would disapprove of a lady hauling her own luggage, but in spite of what Frankie had told the presumptuous Mr. Gannon, she was not at all certain she would find work quickly. Better to save what money she had, and let the porter earn his tips elsewhere.
Outside the station, she blinked. Spring had scarcely touched the mountains of northern Georgia, but here the sun shone blindingly bright on green palm trees and scarlet hibiscus swaying in the gentle breeze beneath a brilliant blue sky. The colors were almost too beautiful to be real, like the picture postcards friends sometimes sent from Rock City or Florida or even Niagara Falls, and which always made her feel envious because her friends were traveling and seeing the world, while she was sitting at home reading postcards.
But this was no postcard, and it was no vacation. However strange it might be, this was home now. Somehow she had expected it to feel more familiar, more welcoming. She remembered seeing the old newsreels of Greta Garbo arriving at this very same station. There had been a man to meet her—Frankie couldn’t remember who he was, but she was sure he’d been somebody awfully important—and he had given her an enormous bouquet of roses, and they’d both smiled for the cameras. Frankie didn’t expect to be met with an army of photographers, much less an armful of roses. Still, she’d never imagined her glamorous new career would begin this way, with her standing beside the curb alone and lost, like a discarded mattress or an old Frigidaire.
“Pardon me, little lady, are you looking for someone?”
Frankie turned and saw a short, stout man bearing down on her. He was wearing a pin-striped suit with a gold chain swinging from his watch pocket. A cigar dangled from one corner of his mouth.
“I—I’ve just arrived,” Frankie explained quite unnecessarily, given the pile of luggage at her feet. “I’m still trying to take it all in.”
“You’re an actress, right?” The stogie bobbed up and down as he spoke.
“Yes, I am,” said Frankie, pleased and gratified to be recognized as such. “How did you know?”
“You’ve got the look, kid. You’ll go far. Yes sir, you stick with old Herbert Finch, and he’ll make you a star.” He thumped his chest, giving Frankie to understand that he himself was “old Herbert Finch.”
“Can you do that?” asked Frankie, regarding her new acquaintance with wide-eyed admiration.
He removed the cigar with pudgy fingers, then laughed, revealing a gold-capped tooth. “Can I? Honey, I’ve been making stars for more than a decade. Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg—all of ‘em come to old Herbert when they need fresh talent. Hey, but I mustn’t keep you standing here. You must be starved after your trip.”
“No, no,” Frankie hastened to reassure him. “I’m in no hurry, Mr. Finch—no hurry at all!”
“Call me Herbert. Say, let’s go get a bite to eat, and we’ll talk about your future in the movies.” He gestured toward a sleek black Studebaker parked beside the curb.
* * * *
Mitch Gannon, observing this scene from a distance, hefted a dented footlocker onto his shoulder and tapped the shoulder of a freckle-faced porter very nearly his own age.
“Hey, who’s the suit?”
The porter followed the direction of his gaze until he spotted Frankie and Finch. “Fellow talking to the doll in blue? Calls himself Herbert Finch. He hangs out at the station looking for slick chicks traveling solo.” He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “From what I hear tell, he promises to make ‘em famous, then once he gets ‘em alone—fffft!”
Mitch didn’t have to ask for a definition. “Not this one, he’s not!” He ground out the words through clenched teeth. “Flag me a taxi, will you? I’ll be right back.”
Without hesitation, he strode across the platform and seized Frankie by her blue-clad elbow.
“C’mon, honey, I’ve got a cab waiting.”
“But—but—” Her gaze fell on the trunk balanced on his shoulder. “Where’d that come from?”
“Don’t change the subject.” Ignoring her outraged protests, he picked up the largest of her bulging suitcases and set out for the nearest taxi stand.
Frankie cast an apologetic glance at the sputtering Herbert Finch. “Oh dear! I’m sorry—I’d better—where can I reach you?”
Finch made no reply, but muttered something under his breath and took off in the direction of a shapely young blonde farther down the platform.
“I hope you’re happy now,” Frankie scolded Mitch as she joined him at the waiting taxi. “I was just about to have lunch with a real live talent scout!”
“Tell it to Sweeney,” recommended Mitch, unrepentant. “Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to talk to strangers?”
“You mean like the kind you meet on trains?”
The porter cleared his throat. “Maybe it’s not my place to say, miss, but if you ask me, it’s a good thing your boyfriend came along when he did. That Mr. Finch, he’s a bad egg if there ever was one.”
“He’s not my—what do you mean, a bad egg?”
“He’s always hanging around the station watching the trains come in. When he sees a pretty girl traveling alone, he offers to make her a star.”
“What’s wrong with that?” Frankie asked. “Everyone could use a little help in starting off on a new career—except, of course, people who throw away perfectly good jobs to go following other people where they’re not needed or wanted,” she added with a darkling glance at Mitch.
Mitch acknowledged this verbal thrust with a grin, but the porter’s expression grew even more solemn. “Oh, he gets them started on a new career, all right, but not the one they came to California for.”
Frankie, bewildered, would have asked for an explanation, but Mitch threw open the back door of the taxi with a flourish.
“Madam, your chariot awaits.”
The taxi driver, waiting at the wheel with an expression of patent boredom on his weathered face, tapped the ash from his cigarette to the pavement below. “Where to, miss?”
Frankie hesitated, not knowing how to answer. Mitch regarded her with raised eyebrows and an infuriatingly smug smile. Once again it was the porter, stowing her suitcase into the taxi’s trunk, who came to her rescue.
“If I were you, miss, I’d try the Hollywood Studio Club on the corner of Lodi Place and Lexington. The rent’s cheap, and it includes two meals a day.” Sensing that these attractions were insufficient to tempt her, he added, “Myrna Loy used to live there, you know.” He slammed the trunk closed as if to emphasize the point.
“Oh, I loved her with William Powell in The Thin Man!” Frankie enthused. “All right, the Hollywood Studio Club it is. And thank you so much—you’ve been so very helpful!”
She pressed a dime into his palm, and bestowed upon him a smile so dazzling in its brilliance that the hapless porter was reduced to blushing incoherence. With a jaunty wave of one gloved hand, she swung herself into the back seat of the taxi and began straightening her skirt.
“Turn down the wattage before you electrocute the poor guy,” recommended Mitch, giving her a nudge.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m sharing a taxi with you, remember?”
Frankie slid over grudgingly. “I thought you were getting off in Las Vegas.”
He shrugged. “I changed my mind.”
“But you had a job waiting!”
“Yeah, well, maybe I have a hankering to work in the movies.”
Frankie gave a disdainful sniff, and fixed her attention on the passing scenery. Mama, she knew, would be appalled at her lack of manners, and with good reason: Frankie shuddered to think what might have happened to her if she’d gotten into Herbert Finch’s car. Now, alone with her rescuer, she found herself strangely at a loss for words. She was more than a little embarrassed at having so easily fallen for what should have been an obvious trap, and chagrined to think that the first person she should meet on her big adventure probably thought she had no more sense than a—than a—
“Oh, look!” Frankie’s self-consciousness was banished by the sight of huge white letters spelling out HOLLYWOODLAND against the distant green hillside. “I’m really here! Somehow it didn’t seem real until now.”
Her enthusiasm was contagious, and Mitch entered into it wholeheartedly. She had apparently decided to forgive his officious behavior at the station, and as long as she was pelting the taxi driver with questions, she was unlikely to press him on certain subjects he would prefer to avoid. After all, what possible explanation could he give for chucking a perfectly good job and lighting out for California, all because of a girl he happened to meet on a train? Okay, so maybe he’d done more than meet her. Still, she wasn’t the first girl he’d ever met—ever kissed, either, for that matter. That was no reason for him to become her self-appointed protector. Besides, any amorous pursuit of Frankie Foster was doomed from the start. If ever a girl was the Marrying Kind, it was Miss Pure-as-the-driven-Snowy-Soap Flake Frances Foster, and he’d never met a girl less interested in marriage—except for maybe Barbara Malone, the toast of the A&M locker room, but Babs was a different class of female altogether.
So there was no logical explanation for his actions except that he was a complete lunatic—and yet, if he had it all to do over again, he would do the same thing. Somebody had to look after the girl and make sure she didn’t jump into the car with every Tom, Dick, and Harry who offered to make her a star. It might as well be him. And if her dreams of Hollywood stardom came crashing down around her, somebody would have to pick her up, dust her off, and put her back on a train to Georgia. He could do that, too; he’d always heard it was pretty country.