About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
When Emily Daggett Weiss boarded the Twentieth Century Limited in the spring of 1914, bound for a brief sojourn in the West, one or two old biddies gave her the hairy eye. Woman traveling alone. No better than she should be, as her mother used to say about young women of low moral standards. Worse than the biddies, a traveling salesman winked at her.
Her attire was sober and dignified, a charcoal traveling suit and pearl gray kid gloves, auburn hair tucked out of sight under a fairly quiet hat, lined in French crepe and sparingly trimmed with ostrich pom-poms. She hadn’t worked as a chorus girl for a good five years, not since she and Adam were married, not since they became successful movie producers. She was the most powerful woman in Fort Lee, New Jersey, film capital of the world, and still strangers were thinking bad things about her because she was by herself on a train.
Turning away from them, she opened a newspaper on her lap. Between five and ten thousand suffragettes were marching on Washington for women’s rights. The train started up with a shudder. Emily would have said she had all the rights she would ever need, other than the vote, in a brand-new twentieth-century industry where women were considered the equals of men. It was she who ran Melpomene Moving Picture Studios, hiring and firing, selling and purchasing, while Adam, her husband and business partner, took care of the creative end of things.
Their partnership had created a multimillion-dollar empire whose studio occupied many acres of prime Fort Lee real estate. Their business and their marriage were the envy of their flighty show-business friends. And yet …
The train emerged from its tunnel into a gray morning, rainy and chilly. Emily looked at herself in the rain-streaked window, straightened her hat, rearranged the pins in her hair, and searched her reflected face for signs of anxiety. Something wasn’t right.
Adam had set off for Flagstaff, Arizona, the week before. Someone had told him that Flagstaff was in the desert. His plan was to film an Arabian extravaganza with camels and tents. He told Emily he would see about the camels when he got there.
Emily was to meet him on location after she tied up a few loose ends in Fort Lee. “We’ll only be separated for a week,” he said.
But a cold, clammy feeling of something not right pervaded the studios in Fort Lee. The more she explained to Melpomene’s employees that it was all the thing nowadays to make a moving picture on location, that she and Mr. Weiss would be back in no time at all, the more false warmth they put into their assent. Of course, Mrs. Weiss, don’t give it a thought, naturally Mr. Weiss must go to Flagstaff and take his leading actress. As she went out the door they shook her hand or hugged her good-bye and then looked searchingly into her eyes, as if she were leaving Fort Lee forever, as if she had a terminal illness and had not yet been told. The last one to know.
In Chicago Emily changed trains for the California Limited, the pride of the Santa Fe line. She settled her head on the embroidered antimacassar of the Pullman lounge seat and opened a fresh newspaper to survey the latest happenings. While the train was hurtling into the West, it seemed that Woodrow Wilson was declaring this day to be Mother’s Day, as a sop to the voteless women. But national politics was not interesting to her. Her attention was consumed by a nameless dread. The flat gray countryside flew away behind her, scarcely noticed. She slept badly in her shaky Pullman berth and picked at her food in the rocking, swaying dining car.
Then as the train chugged into Arizona Emily’s mood began to lift. The western sun streamed in the windows. The world seemed a better place. Flagstaff was mere hours away now. In Flagstaff, Adam had told her, the sun shone every day, no waiting for favorable weather before you could shoot a motion picture. Not like Fort Lee. When at last she joined him at the Weatherford Hotel, the finest accommodations to be had in Flagstaff, or so he said, she would lose all her feelings of unease in Adam’s warm arms. They would go out and look for camels together.
Just over the Arizona border the train slowed and stopped in Coronado Junction, with a great hissing of steam, shrieking of brakes, and banging together of couplings. On the station platform stood a tall man in tweeds and a derby hat, carrying a Gladstone bag. He looked up at the window of the train and saw Emily looking back at him. At once he recognized her. He beamed with surprise and delight; in seconds he was aboard her very car. Holbert Bruns.
Holbert Bruns, detective, man of mystery, faintly Great Dane–like, whose hooded eyes and pendulous lower lip appeared sometimes in Emily’s erotic dreams. Well, you can’t help what you dream. Emily had nothing to reproach herself for. She was faithful to Adam in every other respect, and as for the dream about Holbert Bruns in the Paris taxicab, she always forgot about it the instant she woke up. Bruns as a flesh-and-blood human being was more unsettling than erotic, chiefly because he could not be trusted to tell the truth. Nothing he had ever said to her was true. She wished he hadn’t boarded this train. Still, she couldn’t quite bring herself to scream at him to go away when he sat down next to her on the Pullman seat. For one thing it would create an unpleasant scene.
“Mrs. Weiss! What a delightful surprise.”
“What brings you to the West?”
“Mr. Weiss and I are going to make a moving picture together.”
“I see. And does he still force you to climb out and dangle on the edge of cliffs for the sake of making pictures?”
“Do you still burn up irreplaceable historical documents for the sake of the Pinkertons?”
“I don’t work for the Pinkertons anymore,” Bruns said. “Anything I burn, I burn for my own sake.” He took out a pipe and filled it with fragrant tobacco.
She narrowed her eyes at him.
“It’s true, Mrs. Weiss. I left the Pinkertons last year, and since then I have been in business for myself.”
“Are you on a case?”
“Always. Always on a case.” He scratched a match on the sole of his boot, held it to the bowl of his pipe, sucked at the pipe stem. A cloud of smoke formed around them.
“What sort of case?” she said.
He smiled. “Always confidential.”
“Won’t you tell me?”
“The current case involves a missing person; that’s all I can tell you.”
“But to beguile an idle hour, Mr. Bruns, surely…”
He looked her in the eyes and laughed. “You must be bored indeed.”
“Yes, I am. I’ve read all the newspapers and magazines I bought in Chicago. But on top of that I’m curious about the work you do. Perhaps you can tell me, in general terms, how one goes about finding a missing person, without betraying any confidences.”
He puffed on the straight black stem of his pipe. The bowl—round, brown, gleaming—glowed red inside. Emily noticed that Bruns’s thumbnail was clean and well-trimmed but not professionally manicured. More clouds of smoke enveloped them.
“In general, then, the technique is to discover as much as possible about the person who is said to be missing. Who says this person is missing? That’s the first question.”
“Presumably, the one who is paying you to find this person says he is missing,” Emily said.
“Quite so. But to himself, he may not be missing, if you get my drift.”
“Oh, I do. And of course you would work with local law enforcement officers.”
He gave her a long stare, perhaps attempting to determine whether she was trying to be funny. “Not in these parts, Mrs. Weiss. There is no law west of the Pecos, at least none worthy of the name.”
“So, to continue. I would find out what makes my client think the subject is missing. Then I would determine what the subject’s habits are, who his friends are, and incidentally whether they, too, believe he is missing. Sometimes this involves a certain amount of surveillance.”
Emily jotted a few words in her pocket notebook. “Spy on the man’s friends. Right.”
“Of course. They could be hiding him. Say, are you writing a book?”
“I thought I might make a moving picture. Then what?”
“Then I look for the subject’s assets. People have to eat. I find out whether he has put money or valuables away, where he might have put them, whether he has touched them after he went missing. If he hasn’t—well, then I begin to suspect foul play.”
“Foul play.” She noted it down.
“So you’re putting a lot of effort into your case right now.”
“It’s keeping me busy. As for you, Mrs. Weiss, I hear you’ve been busy yourself, doing good works.”
“Yes. They say you saved Flo Ziegfeld’s marriage to Billie Burke last month.”
“That was nothing,” Emily said. “Miss Burke stopped by our studio in Fort Lee, and I gave her a bouquet of flowers to take to Mr. Ziegfeld on the steamship.”
He smirked, if a Great Dane could be said to smirk. “That’s not the way I heard it.”
“Do tell. I wonder where you heard it.”
“Mrs. Weiss, my field of inquiry is the moving picture business. I hear many things.”
“People will always be talking.”
“So the story about the steamer trunk…?”
“Just a story.” She shrugged. “I believe in marriage, Mr. Bruns. I believe that married couples owe each other fidelity.”
“Ah,” he said. Of course Bruns had heard that speech from Emily on another occasion, years ago in Fort Lee, when he tried to get her to leave Adam and run away with him to Nebraska. Still, it was important to her to make the point again, especially with him sitting so close to her, the warmth of his left leg somehow penetrating her gabardine skirt and two silk petticoats. She moved away from him slightly and thought about the incident with Billie Burke.
It happened on the second to the last day of shooting for Divine Retribution. Agnes Gelert, Melpomene Pictures’ only big-name female star, was emoting for the camera after her fashion; Emily was working behind her desk in her office. The days of anonymous movie actors were past and gone. No more were the principal actresses in studio films known to the moviegoing public only as the Vitagraph Girl, or the Biograph Girl, not since the lovely Florence Lawrence left Biograph for Carl Laemmle’s IMP in 1910 for a chance to have her own name up on the movie screen. After that, all the popular actors and actresses demanded to be known, and to be well paid for being known. And the public demanded to know them, even to know, as far as possible, the details of their darlings’ private lives.
Many studios in the modern day employed publicity people to invent these details. Melpomene did not, not yet, and so when a woman arrived at the studio and identified herself as a reporter from Photoplay magazine who wanted to do a feature on Agnes Gelert (formerly known as the Melpomene Girl), Emily told the receptionist to show her into her office.
The Melpomene Girl’s real private life would have horrified most of her fans. Emily herself had made up some harmless (if false) details, summarized in a prepared handout, which she forced Miss Gelert to parrot to reporters as a condition of continued employment.
The rowdy Miss Gelert was Melpomene’s most valuable star in spite of her off-camera behavior. The camera loved her eyes, enormous and haunting, her rosebud lips, all freshness, innocence, and fun, and her figure, so slim and graceful. The silent screen did not reveal her grating voice or vulgar utterances to the moviegoing public. Why should Emily let them know what she was really like?
The reporter who came into Emily’s office wore a brown scratchy-looking tweed walking suit, horribly unbecoming, a dowdy hat, drab kid gloves, wire-rimmed pince-nez eyeglasses, and no makeup whatsoever, not a trace. Still, there was something remarkably attractive about her face, an almost feverish sparkle in her blue eyes that the glasses could not conceal.
“Miss Gelert is busy on the set right now,” Emily said to her, “but I’m sure she can talk to you as soon as she finishes filming this scene. Meanwhile, perhaps you’d like some tea.” She lit the gas ring and put a kettle on to boil. “While you wait I can tell you some things about Miss Gelert’s life. For example, she was born in the town of Michigan City, Indiana, where her father was a Baptist minister. Do sit down.” Emily gestured toward the sofa, upholstered in plum-colored silk, one of the many touches indicating that this was a woman’s office.
“Yes, yes,” the reporter said. “All of that is well known. What I want to ask her about today is her liaison with Florenz Ziegfeld.” She drew a pencil and a stenographer’s notebook from her smart leather handbag. Emily glimpsed inside the heavy bag a mother-of-pearl cigarette case. Or, it might have been the handle of a pistol.
“Ziegfeld, the impresario?” How had this person heard about Agnes and Ziegfeld? Nobody knew about that. If the story came out it would mean ruin, not only for Agnes but for Melpomene Studios as well. “There is no liaison. Mr. Ziegfeld may have taken a fatherly interest in Miss Gelert a few years ago, when she was dancing in his Midnight Frolics. Why, Agnes is barely nineteen.” In fact the girl was twenty-six, but nineteen was the official studio figure. “Mr. Ziegfeld must be—oh, I don’t know—”
“Forty-seven,” the reporter murmured.
“And he’s a married man now, married to Miss Billie Burke, herself a famous star of the stage.” Emily took two porcelain cups and saucers out of her desk drawer.
The reporter’s eyes, blue as sapphires, flashed behind the pince-nez. “So you are not aware that Miss Gelert and Mr. Ziegfeld plan to sail away to Europe this evening on the Mauretania.”
“That can’t be true,” Emily said. “Miss Gelert has to be here tomorrow to finish filming Divine Retribution.”
The reporter laughed with scorn, a high, tinkling laugh. “Mrs. Weiss, you are naïve to expect Miss Gelert to respect any obligations she may have to your studio. It is my understanding that Miss Gelert fears neither God nor man.” It dawned on Emily that this person was Billie Burke herself, heavily but not impenetrably disguised. With the firearm in her handbag she clearly meant to threaten Agnes Gelert, or worse.
“Ah, the teakettle,” Emily said, and busied herself with tea balls and preparations. While Miss Burke peered anxiously through the glass door and out into the studio, no doubt seeking to draw a bead on Agnes, Emily stirred a sleeping powder into the woman’s tea. “One lump or two?”
“Two, please. And a little milk.”
“You might as well be comfortable,” Emily said. “Miss Gelert will be another fifteen or twenty minutes. Here, put this pillow behind your head. I embroidered it myself.” Half a cup would be enough to put a woman of Miss Burke’s size and weight to sleep for several hours; Emily watched her as she drank it down. “Would you like a digestive biscuit?”
“Thank you, no. I’m watching my figure,” Miss Burke said, and sank further into the sofa with a sigh. Behind the wire pince-nez the beautiful lashes fluttered shut.
Emily covered Miss Burke with a paisley shawl and then went straight to Agnes Gelert’s dressing room. There her worst fears were confirmed. A steamer trunk stood packed and ready, labeled for the stateroom of Florenz Ziegfeld aboard the Mauretania. She rushed out into the studio. Agnes was still in the arms of Harley Crowther, visibly suffering the pangs of movie fate while the film director screamed at her and the camera rolled. Ed Eardley, Melpomene’s aged prop boy, stood watching the scene, a brace and bit dangling from his arthritic fingers.
“Psst! Ed!” Emily beckoned to him. “Is your cousin Frank still looking for work?”
“Can he be here in two minutes?”
She told Ed what she wanted his cousin to do. “And let me have that, please. I have some holes to bore.” Back in Agnes’s dressing room, she took the brace and bit and began to ventilate the steamer trunk. It wasn’t long before Agnes appeared in the doorway.
“Why are you boring holes in my luggage?”
“I’m afraid I can’t approve of your plans to leave Fort Lee before you finish this picture.”
“And you’re gonna sink my trunk? You can’t keep me here, you know, Mrs. Weiss.” She took off her movie costume and threw it on the floor. “It’s a free country. Lincoln freed the slaves, in case you hadn’t hoid.”
“Did he? How interesting,” Emily said.
Agnes smeared her face with cold cream and began to towel it off. “The Mauretania sails in two hours, and I mean to be on it.”
“Why don’t you take the studio limousine?”
“So your driver can run me to Trenton and back while the ship sails without me? I’ll be sure and do that, I don’t think.”
Emily squatted back on her heels and surveyed her work. Twelve neat holes, each half an inch in diameter. “There, that ought to be enough.”
“I get it.” Agnes inspected her face in the mirror and reapplied a little powder and lip rouge. “You think you’re going to lock me up in my own trunk until after the ship sails.” She slipped into a flowered street dress, one arm at a time, wiggling.
“That would be foolish of me, wouldn’t it?”
“I’ll say it would. I’m not completely green, you know.”
“A pity. Now let’s open up this steamer trunk and make sure I didn’t damage any of your clothes.”
“You open it up.” Agnes tossed her the key. “And I’d better not find out you stole anything. Mr. Ziegfeld’s man will be here any minute to pick up my things; you can give him that key. As for me, I’m getting away from here before you try something funny.”
“I don’t do comedy, Agnes.”
“Ha-ha. Well, neither do I. I’m seriously getting out of this lousy studio. I can’t stand woiking for you another five minutes, you and your rules about the clean life and your fake stories about me. Why should I be ashamed of who I am? Who cares how old I am, for instance? Who cares whether I like to take a drink now and then, or who I choose to spend my time with?” Hurrying now, she did up the buttons of her dress. “Or whether I show up at this stinking studio or not. Once, just once, I want to sleep past eight o’clock without people yelling at me.”
“Won’t you miss your dinner?”
“Shut up, Mrs. Weiss. Just shut up. You think you’re smotter than me just because you married a rich guy.”
“No, I think I’m smarter than you because you’re stupider than me.”
“We’ll just see about that. It just so happens that I’m deeply in love with Flo Ziegfeld. Who happens to be rich, richer than Adam Weiss, rich enough to buy you and sell you and your stupid contract.”
“And who also happens to be married.”
“So what? And let me tell you something else. If I find out you got shavings all over my best clothes you’ll hear from Mr. Ziegfeld’s lawyers.” She jammed a hat on her head.
“Miss Gelert, you have a contractual obligation to be here tomorrow morning at seven to finish this moving picture.”
“Sue me.” She grabbed her handbag and gloves.
“I’ll do better than that. I’ll kick your hind end up between your ears.”
She backed through the door. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“No? Watch me.”
“Mr. Ziegfeld’s man will come for my luggage,” Agnes said, still backing up. “Good-bye, Mrs. Weiss. Don’t think it hasn’t been fun, because it hasn’t.” She turned and rushed out of the studio, right through the front lobby and into a waiting cab.
It was Melpomene’s trusty receptionist who helped Emily unpack the steamer trunk, select Agnes’s prettiest dress, and wrestle it onto the unconscious form of Billie Burke. When the man came to take the trunk to Ziegfeld’s stateroom on the Mauretania, Miss Burke was attractively nestled inside it among Emily’s pillows, still fast asleep. How could Ziegfeld resist her? How could he think of the trashy Agnes, with his own fair wife in front of him? The cab outside the studio that Agnes boarded in her haste was a movie prop driven by Ed Eardley’s cousin Frank, who had instructions to drive her to Trenton and back and deliver her to the studio at seven the next morning.
When Agnes did arrive at the studio the next morning, exactly on time, for a change, Emily fully expected her to throw a fit. They were all used to her fits. Instead of that, she gave Emily a long, cool stare and got straight to work. In fact she acquitted herself so well that Adam promised her the leading role in his Arabian epic, and the following week the two of them took off for Flagstaff.
Once again proving that all’s well that ends well.
Yes, there were flowers involved, three camellias, to be exact. Emily placed them in Miss Burke’s lovely bosom before closing the trunk. She also took the liberty of lifting the gun from Miss Burke’s handbag. She had it with her still; a woman never knows when she might need a pearl-handled revolver.
Copyright © 2011 by Kathleen Dunn