Design for Dying
A Lillian Frost and Edith Head Novel
Tom Doherty Associates
Copyright © 2016 Renee PatrickISBN: 978-0-7653-8184-2
All rights reserved.
THE HEM OF the dress was drenched in blood. I could only hope no one would notice.
"If a romantic afternoon listening to the Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl is in your plans, try this stunning gray worsted suit that will ensure his eyes are on YOU, not the stage. A nipped-in waist and mauve accents bring out the natural beauty that any lover — music lover, that is — will appreciate."
A graceful model strolled a platform in front of fifty Los Angeles ladies of leisure. Tremayne's fall fashion show brought them to the department store to lunch, browse, and with any luck, spend thousands. Every shopgirl had been pressed into service in the backstage frenzy of last-minute alterations. Some of us were better at it than others. Still bleeding from where a needle had pierced me, I pushed the next beauty forward and dragged myself clear of traffic.
"Or perhaps modern music is more your style. Then it's dinner and dancing at the Cocoanut Grove. Wearing this gown of midnight-blue satin you'll captivate any dance partner. Bell sleeves sway sensuously as you glide across the floor. And be sure to put your best foot forward in a pair of silver sandals."
Pure corn, but the patter played. The audience oohed appreciatively as the gorgeous strawberry blonde pirouetted. Even I couldn't see where my blood had stained the gown. With a curtsy to her imaginary partner, the model stepped behind the curtain and fell into a chair next to where I was sucking the pad of my thumb.
"Good luck dancing in these. It's like wearing mousetraps." The strawberry blonde, my fellow Tremayne's employee Priscilla Louden, pried the offending shoes off her feet. I peered through a slit in the curtain as the announcer started her spiel.
"Back home after your fantasy evening, keep the romantic mood alive with an alluring gown and robe in blushing rose. A marabou collar adds just the right soft touch. Is that matching marabou on the pumps? Mais oui."
The statuesque brunette on display pressed her cheek into the feathers as if lost in memory. For one terrible moment I thought she was going to sneeze.
Priscilla, having changed into a simple blue dress, joined me at the curtain as the well-heeled matrons applauded politely. "Did it go over?"
"We won't know until they open their pocketbooks. Where's Mr. Valentine? We pull out all the stops and he misses the show."
The proceedings over, we started for the sales floor. Georgie, a stock boy, chased us down.
"Mr. Valentine needs to see you, Lil."
"Now? And it's Lillian."
"Right this minute. I've got Frank Buck orders to bring you back alive." He eyed Priscilla up and down. "Does your beautiful friend need company?"
"Aren't you a cute kid?" Priscilla said.
"Kid? I'm plenty grown already." Georgie puffed up his gangly physique, but all it did was awaken his cowlick.
"Any chance you'd tell Mr. Valentine you couldn't find me?"
"For fifty cents."
"See you later," I told Priscilla.
* * *
EN ROUTE TO his office I pondered the possible meanings of a summons from Mr. Valentine. Heart sinking, I deduced it had to be the hat display.
Mr. Valentine ran Tremayne's second floor — millinery, foundation garments, and other mysteries of womanhood — like a retail Mussolini. He groomed every display, negligees arranged by shade, girdles by suction power, priciest hats out front. Two days earlier I'd seized the initiative, moving an inexpensive black toque to a position of prominence because it was a dead ringer for one Katherine Hepburn wore in Stage Door. It had been a hot seller ever since.
You can't argue with numbers, I'd tell Mr. Valentine, using one of his pet phrases in my defense. I built up a good head of steam as I charged across the floor, but I knew the outcome would be as predictable as a Gene Autry western. I'd state my case, then surrender gracefully. Jobs were tough to come by. I'd rather eat than be right.
I pushed open the door to the stockroom that doubled as Mr. Valentine's office, and any fight left in me drained away. For one thing, the boss looked more somber than angry, jowls drooping over his florid pink shirt. For another, he wasn't alone. With him were two men who didn't seem the type to frequent Ladies' Lingerie.
"Miss Frost. Thank you for coming. I'm sorry to call you back here."
A thank-you and an apology? This did not bode well.
Mr. Valentine mopped his brow with a monogrammed handkerchief, which he then waved toward his visitors. "These gentlemen are from the Los Angeles Police Department. They would like to talk to you." Spent, he dropped his considerable frame into a chair pushed against the shelves of hatboxes.
The taller of the two men stepped forward. The fedora held at his side had swept his hair back into a sleek dark brown V. Beneath it blue eyes coolly appraised me. "Miss Frost, I'm Detective Morrow. This is Detective Hansen."
His reedy partner, resting his haunches on a step stool, nodded in my direction. He then returned his gaze to the boxes of brassieres opposite him, seemingly staggered by what they represented.
"What can I do for you?" I'd once stolen a licorice wheel on a dare, but that was back in New York when I was eight. It seemed unlikely that Mrs. Fishbein at the candy store had the resources to track me down sixteen years later and three thousand miles away.
"I believe you know Ruby Carroll," Detective Morrow said.
Ruby. The person I knew in Los Angeles most likely to land in trouble.
"Yes," I said. "We used to room together."
The stockroom door swung inward and Miss Baker, an older saleslady with posture worthy of West Point, entered clutching an order slip. She stopped short at the sight of Hansen, then turned and noticed the rest of the party.
"Not right now, Miss Baker," Mr. Valentine said.
"I only need to see if we have the Mesdames Choice No-Bones Corset, large." With desperation she added, "It's for Doris Pangborne."
Mr. Valentine made a shooing gesture with his pocket square. Poor Miss Baker about-faced and went to meet her fate. Asking Doris Pangborne to wait was like trying to flag down the Super Chief, futile and life-threatening.
Detective Morrow turned to Mr. Valentine. "Any chance you could let Miss Frost sit down, maybe keep people out?"
"Certainly." Mr. Valentine hoisted himself out of the chair and held it for me, then fixed the door with a vigilant Rin Tin Tin stare.
"You can watch better from the other side," Hansen said, his voice a dry twang. He ushered Mr. Valentine out of the room then resumed his perch on the step stool.
"When was the last time you spoke to Ruby?" Detective Morrow prompted.
"It's been at least six months. I catch a glimpse of her sometimes when I visit the girls at Mrs. Lindros's place."
"Six months. You two didn't stay close."
"We weren't exactly friends by the time I left."
Hansen leaned forward. "What were you then?"
"I couldn't say. We had a fight before I moved out."
"Not twelve rounds or anything. We argued."
"The typical things girls argue about. Odds and ends going missing, leaving the place a mess. With the two of us in that tiny room, I'm surprised we put up with each other as long as we did."
"Close quarters. I understand." Detective Morrow smiled as he said it, and I felt absurdly grateful.
"Can you tell me what this is about? Is Ruby in some kind of trouble?"
Detective Morrow glanced at the floor. He was about to speak when Hansen piped up. "She's dead. That's a kind of trouble."
I saw the dirty look Detective Morrow fired at his partner, then the storeroom swam a little. I'm crying, I thought. Then I heard Ruby's voice in my head. Good thing you didn't wear mascara, mermaid. It'll be easier to fix your face later.
The next thing I knew Detective Morrow was kneeling beside me, offering his handkerchief. "I'm sorry, Miss Frost. Take all the time you need."
"What happened to her?"
"She was found in an alley not far from Mrs. Lindros's boardinghouse. She'd been shot."
"Shot? She — she wasn't the Alley Angel, was she?"
Hansen was standing over me now, too. "Why do you think that?"
"I read about it in yesterday's newspaper. I know the store where the body was found. I still live in the neighborhood. I thought, 'I hope that's not anyone I know.' I even thought ..."
Detective Morrow finished the sentence when I faltered. "That it could have been you." After a pause he said, "Yes, Miss Frost. I'm afraid that was Ruby Carroll."
There'd be no stopping the tears this time. I dabbed them away and held out Detective Morrow's handkerchief. Instead of taking it, he pressed it against my punctured thumb. "Keep it. You shared a room with Ruby. We're hoping you can tell us about her."
I nodded several times too many, still struggling to accept what Detective Morrow had told me.
Stay calm, mermaid. Look 'em in the eye and tell 'em what they want to hear. It's the only way to get by in this town.
I shouldn't have been surprised it was Ruby's advice that came back to me. She wouldn't have been jolted by news like this. At the boardinghouse we liked to pretend we were tough. You have to when you're facing the world on your own. But Ruby didn't need to fake it. She'd earned her wisdom the hard way. She was the McCoy.
And now she was gone.
HOLLYWOOD IS LOUSY with beauty queens. Ruby taught me that. Every girl convinced she's the next Jean Harlow comes to town with a sash buried in her suitcase proclaiming her Miss Apple Blossom or Harvest Princess.
Ruby's secret sash declared her Miss Johnnycake of Smithville, Ohio. Or maybe it was Indiana. Ruby didn't dwell on specifics. It was a small town without a smidgen of glitter, and she was desperate to escape it. Along with a six-month supply of cornmeal, she won a train ticket to Los Angeles and a screen test.
As for me, I was Miss Astoria Park of 1936, crowned the day the city christened the swimming pool. My bone-dry red velvet bathing suit won me a screen test of my own. I didn't have stars in my eyes, though. What I did have was a love of the movies and an appreciation for the labor it took to make them. Both came courtesy of my uncle Danny, who toiled for years as a set painter at the Paramount Studios in Astoria. He'd bring me to work with him occasionally, telling me to church mouse in a corner. I'd drink in the hubbub behind the scenes then marvel at the transformation that occurred when the cameras rolled. Actors would take their places, and the flats that Uncle Danny and his boisterous pals had erected and painted would become a banker's office or a police station before my eyes. In the soft flicker of light at the Prospect Theater in Flushing, I'd thrill whenever Danny leaned over and whispered, I did that bit there, pet. Thanks to Danny, hard work and magic were indistinguishable for me.
Uncle Danny and Aunt Joyce had raised me after my mother died when I was three and my father stepped out for cigarettes and never came back. Danny, front row center the day of my Miss Astoria Park triumph, insisted I take the trip west. The Astoria Studios had closed in 1932 and he'd been painting houses ever since. "You should see where they're going to make movies from now on, love," he'd said. I boarded the train with the inexpensive grip he'd bought for me. Inside was a loaf of Aunt Joyce's soda bread. I made it last all the way to Omaha.
On my big day I arrived at the Lodestar Pictures casting office and learned it's always someone else's big day, too. Name a type of girl and she was there waiting. Curvy blondes, fiery redheads, sultry brunettes. All of them dressed to the nines, brimming with confidence, and gorgeous.
Unnerved by the competition, I sank into a chair next to a petite blonde with eyebrows so thin they seemed to have been sketched in as placeholders. They loomed over an angular face that could be dismissed as sharp. Huge brown eyes anchored it, though, and the square neckline of her dress set it off beautifully. She knew how to exploit what she had.
"Join the party," she said as I sat down. "Some crowd, huh? The cream of the crop fresh off the farm."
"I didn't come from a farm. I came from a swimming pool."
The blonde offered me a cockeyed grin my comment didn't deserve. "As long as you made it, sweetie. I'm Ruby, by the way. Ruby Carroll."
"Lillian Frost. Glad to know you."
"Lillian Frost," she repeated with a sideways look. "Lucky you. You won't have to change your name. It's your first test, isn't it? Stand up, give us a look at you."
At five foot eight I towered over her. I was wearing what was supposed to be my lucky suit, a navy blue number with crisp white trim and a matching hat bought specially for the trip.
"You've got a nice shape, mermaid," Ruby said. "Must be all the swimming."
I couldn't bring myself to tell her that I wasn't capable of a dead man's float, that I hadn't bought the bathing suit responsible for my trip to Hollywood to get it wet. Instead I blushed and thanked her.
For the next two hours I listened to Ruby hold forth on the subject of crashing the movies. I was so spellbound I almost didn't hear the heavyset woman with a pince-nez and a clipboard calling me to my shot at stardom. Ruby told me to break a leg. I should have taken her literally.
Standing still and smiling for the camera I could manage. I even sashayed back and forth without falling down. The acting was what tripped me up. The scene I had to read was from some misbegotten costume drama. One line — "The chancellor shall hear of your impertinence" — still haunts my sleep. The director, a fellow New York refugee half in his cups, walked me through the speech a few times, but I wasn't very good and we both knew it. I could only hope the film was reduced to ukulele picks in short order. Maybe the descendants of King Kamehameha would have better luck with Madame Renault than I did.
I was in no rush to return to the dicey boardinghouse on Yucca Street where I'd paid a month's room and board, so I waited for Ruby. She wouldn't tell me how her test went. "You've got to put it behind you and think about the next one," she said, then suggested dinner out to celebrate my maiden Hollywood effort. I wound up with the check and didn't mind.
"At least this test was bona fide," she said. "One guy I saw had some racket going. I was such a rube, I didn't catch on until I was alone with him in his office. He makes movies for a 'special market,' he says. Takes the pictures himself. Kept the Brownie in the corner right next to the clothes hanger for my dress. I scrammed pretty quick. Started learning the ropes as his door was closing."
"How'd you land this test at Lodestar?" I asked.
"You might as well start learning, too, mermaid. In this town, it's who you know. Which is why I'm always glad to know anybody."
* * *
THE SCREEN TEST didn't pan out. At the end of my allotted month to be discovered, Ruby asked me to share her room at Mrs. Lindros's boardinghouse. By then I'd grown accustomed to navigating Los Angeles by streetcar and bus, as well as to the city's near-constant sunshine. I traded in my return ticket. New York would be waiting when I finally tired of California's weather.
I soon fell in with the other girls, several of whom had already tried rooming with Ruby, and initially had a ball. Casting calls, late-night gab sessions, trips to the beach on the Western Avenue streetcar. Ruby ruled the roost, the queen bee who deigned to share her secrets with us. What sob story to tell Mrs. Lindros when you were late with the rent, how daubing Vaseline on your eyelashes before bed made them grow more lustrous. Once I overheard her consoling a weepy housemate who feared she'd "gotten in trouble" by giving her a doctor's name. "He can take care of it if it comes to that," she'd said. "I've seen him a time or two myself." Being around Ruby was exhausting and exhilarating. We sought her approval even as we feared her judgment.
Her romantic entanglements with a procession of men claiming to hold sway at one studio or another were a reliable source of entertainment. "No more swimming for me, mermaid," she'd say as she dolled herself up before the cracked mirror in our room. "My ship has come in." She always wound up back in the water soon enough. Ruby would simply reapply her war paint and target her next prospective meal ticket.
A gift-wrapping position at Tremayne's Department Store during the Christmas season led to a permanent job offer. I accepted, with vague plans of someday being promoted to buyer. I didn't weep for my stillborn acting career. You can't give up a dream you never really had.
My newfound sense of responsibility blew a chill into my relationship with Ruby. I couldn't help her anymore, even if only by faring worse than she was. I was merely a warm body taking up the other forty percent of the room.