1930s hollywood, benita hume, constance bennett, david niven, douglas fairbanks, douglas fairbanks jr, dwight taylor, f. scott fitzgerald, greta garbo, Irving Thalberg, john gilbert, lady sylvia ashley, marion davies, merle oberon, norma shearer, ramon navarro, robert montgomery, ronald coleman, sheila graham, william randolf hearst, zelda fitzgerald
We are getting down to the wire, my editor and I. Ruth is being ruthless. We have to bring the word count down, so we are slicing. Imagine a life so fascinating that it defies the normal word limit of an average book. That’s Sylvia.
The following is an excerpt from the glamour days of Hollywood, 1937. It takes place at Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg’s beach house in Santa Monica where they held their weekly brunches for the moving pictures’ elite. This scene is based on a true story. F. Scott Fitzgerald would be dead in only a handful of years after this party.
The Thalberg’s butler admitted two new guests into the long hallway between the foyer and patio. Norma rose, setting her empty Mimosa glass on a small side table, “Time to welcome the stragglers.”
It turned out to be two writers from MGM: Dwight Taylor and novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald and his columnist girlfriend, Sheila Graham, were renting a cottage up the coast in Malibu while he worked on some scripts for the studio.
Taylor was taller than Fitzgerald by half a foot and both were dressed in the typically disheveled manner associated with writers. Their khaki linen trousers were veined heavily with creases and Fitzgerald’s seersucker jacket had a squashed look as though he’d napped in it. His wavy dark hair was sprinkled with white flecks and swept up from a high forehead, giving him an expression of expectation. He was handsome, if a little frayed around the edges. Sylvia caught a faded glimpse of his dapper past in the way he stood, his shoulders squared, chest forward.
“Oh dear. Look what the cat brought in,” shot Constance (Bennett).
“I hear his estranged wife is in an asylum in North Carolina. Used to be quite the ballerina.”
“Their poor little girl is practically an orphan. Breaks my heart,” said Benita (Hume) softly.
Sylvia pitied the man. She had followed his brilliant literary career in the states as her own star was rising on the London stage. But since then, their lives had followed very different paths.
Sylvia wondered briefly, as she watched Fitzgerald and Taylor accept Mimosas from a passing waiter, what her life might have been like if she hadn’t married Tony and left the stage. Her career had meant so much in the beginning, but ultimately it became clear that it was simply a vehicle for the way of life that she craved.
Sylvia leaned back in the loveseat. She was the toast of Hollywood, with an adoring husband and the world at her feet. It was precisely the security and lifestyle she’d always dreamed of. They could travel anywhere they wished and throw fabulous parties with the worlds most famous and fashionable in attendance. She was in love, had everything she truly needed, and felt lusciously content.
Sylvia snapped out of her reverie as someone began playing a piano in the living room. Fitzgerald now stood with Taylor to her left, close enough to overhear their conversation.
“I better lay off this stuff. Don’t want to look like a rummy with these swells. Here,” Fitzgerald handed his drink to Taylor.
“Best behavior’s the thing. Top notch, isn’t it? I wouldn’t be surprised if Garbo herself was sitting by the pool,” Taylor answered.
“A fellow could lose his job if he wasn’t careful here. Is that Marion Davies?”
Fitzgerald waved away a waiter who was offering another Mimosa.
“Might well be. She’s got that massive estate Hearst built her just down the beach,” Taylor answered, emptying half of his drink.
Just then, a man in white riding breeches and black boots approached Fitzgerald and Taylor.
“I say, aren’t you the novelist?” the man asked. It was the actor, Robert Montgomery, who happened to be a huge fan of Fitzgerald’s.
“Why didn’t you bring your horse in?” replied Fitzgerald glibly.
Without a word, Montgomery turned on his heels and walked away.
“That was badly done,” Taylor pointed out.
“Where’s his sense of humor? I’m going to need to steady my nerves for this crowd. Make sure I don’t go overboard?”
With that, Fitzgerald lifted a glass from a passing tray and downed it in one gulp, “Alright, you’re my witness. That’s it for me. Let’s see what the spread’s like. People do actually eat here, don’t they?”
The two men moved toward the dining room, out of Sylvia’s earshot.
Constance clicked her tongue, “Now there’s a fish out of water.”
Sylvia watched Norma move through the shade around the pool to where Irving stood with Doug, Jayar, David and Ronnie. She seemed to be ushering the men towards the living room.
Sylvia noticed how deliberately and slowly Irving moved as he held Norma’s arm. She sensed he might be in some kind of discomfort, pain even. She made a mental note to ask Norma about it later.
“Looks like it’s time for the piano bar,” Merle (Oberon) said stretching.
The four women rose slowly to follow the other guests inside. Removing her glasses and large straw hat, Sylvia noticed Taylor and Fitzgerald making their way in from the dining room. They were both holding empty Mimosa glasses. Before they reached the living room, a waiter bearing two fresh drinks intercepted them.
In the living room, the group formed a semi-circle around the piano. Ramon Navarro was singing in his lovely tenor, his fingers gently flicking up and down the keys.
When Taylor and Fitzgerald entered, Sylvia noticed Fitzgerald’s glass was empty again.
After two gently crooned songs, the group began to relax and speak quietly in small groups. The mellow mood was broken when Fitzgerald, rather loudly announced, “I’d like to sing a song.”
The room went silent.
“What would you like to sing?” Norma asked a little too politely. Sylvia could sense her discomfort.
“It’s a song about a dog. Have you got one? I could use a dog for this number.”
Norma was at a loss. In a kind of daze, she called her maid to retrieve their poodle. She was unused to requests being made of her and didn’t know how else to respond.
Fitzgerald spoke to Navarro, working through some sort of accompaniment. Navarro looked amused, and just a little pleased, to be part of the unexpected turn of events.
The maid returned with the Thalberg’s Black Standard and placed her uncertainly in Fitzgerald’s arms. He nodded to Navarro who began to play a lullaby, then began singing:
“In Spain, they have the donkey
In Australia, the kangaroo,
In Africa, they have the zebra,
In Switzerland, the zoo.
But in America we have the dog—
And he’s man’s best friend.”
The guests watched blankly, their faces completely void of expression. Norma visibly held her breath. Sylvia thought she was probably anticipating a vulgar punch line, praying it wouldn’t come.
Fitzgerald sang another verse, ending with the innocent chorus:
“But in America we have the dog—
And he’s man’s best friend.”
It turned out to be nothing more than a drunken rendition of a children’s song, inappropriately delivered to Hollywood’s elite. It appeared to Sylvia that they did not know how to react–such simplicity wasn’t in their repertoires. She felt pained for Fitzgerald, who struck her as nothing more than a child in a grown man’s clothing.
Unfortunately John Gilbert, sensing his hostess’ annoyance, as well as the general discomfort of the other guests, began booing. Fitzgerald, smiling sheepishly, quickly finished up the chorus, set the dog down then taking a sloppy bow, walked out of the room.
A few guests clapped unenthusiastically then Navarro began a lively tune. The relief was palpable. Order was restored and serenity billowed in the wake of pending disaster.