Murder among the Stars
Hollywood starlet Lulu Kelly gazed through the brilliant California sunshine at the castle that rose like an enchanted dream from the mountainside. She was so awestruck by the grandeur that she almost didn’t notice when Freddie Van—former billionaire, former hobo, current private eye, and Lulu’s boyfriend—held the car door open for her.
“Holy cats!” the actress said as she looked up at the mansion that was to be her home for the long weekend. “Freddie, are you sure this belongs to Mr. William Randolph Hearst and not a sultan? It’s rather . . . a lot.”
“Being ‘rather a lot’ is what Mr. Hearst is best known for,” Freddie said. “Why do you think everyone who’s anyone is here?”
“I’m here to get the part of a lifetime,” Lulu said as she
marveled at the castle. In her successful year in Hollywood she’d gotten used to luxury and high living. Though her own rented home was fairly modest, she was often invited to the luxury estates owned by such luminaries as Mary Pickford and George Cukor. But their establishments paled in comparison to the estate known modestly as the Ranch. This was a castle, plain and simple, built for an American prince.
Not satisfied with a single splendid house, Hearst had built four. La Casa Grande with its two towers and stunning blue tile work held the place of honor as the main residence. Surrounding it were guesthouses that were mansions in their own right. Casa del Monte had a stunning mountain view. Casa del Sol faced the setting sun. And Casa del Mar overlooked the crashing waters of the Pacific Ocean. Together it was called La Cuesta Encantada—the Enchanted Hill.
“And I’m here as private eye, junior edition.” After helping Lulu clear her good name following an accidental shooting (that proved to be no accident), Freddie had fallen naturally into the investigative business. Right now he was assistant to Mr. Waters, the most sought-after PI in Hollywood.
“What a shame our first holiday together has to be a working holiday,” Lulu said a little sadly.
Freddie groaned. “Only in Hollywood would they turn a party into a tryout. Do you even have any idea what you’re supposed to do there for four days?”
“No. It’s all very hush-hush. The invitation said ‘WR and Marion Invite You to Reveal Your True Character’ in big embossed gold letters. That’s all. Veronica says that nearly
every starlet in the biz will be competing for the role of a lifetime, but no one knows any more than that.”
Freddie looked sly. “Maybe I know a little more than that.”
Lulu gasped and grabbed his hand. “Oh, my own personal investigator! Come on, spill!”
“Well, Waters may have mentioned to me that none other than Anita Loos will be in attendance.”
Lulu’s heart began to race. Anita Loos! The author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the funniest book of the last decade, maybe even of the last century! Now she was a screenwriter of considerable renown, working with her husband, John Emerson, on only the choicest projects.
“Do you think she could possibly be writing something completely new for Cosmopolitan Pictures? A real Anita Loos original screenplay?” Her eyes were aglow at the possibility.
“I wouldn’t be surprised. Would you like to work with her?”
“Like to? I’d kill for—” She caught herself short and swallowed hard, as Freddie laughed.
“It’s just an expression,” he said, excusing her.
Lulu shook her head. “But one in very bad taste for yours truly.” Not long ago, she’d very nearly killed a rival starlet. In the peculiar way of Hollywood, it had launched both of their careers to new stellar levels.
“I have to meet with Waters and find out why I’m here,” Freddie said. “I’ll find you as soon as I can.” He bent over her hand, kissing her knuckles with elaborate gallantry.
A slew of photographers was waiting for Lulu and the
nineteen other starlets invited for the weekend. A little while before, Lulu had submitted her tired face to the skilled hand of her friend and publicist Veronica, and now she was daisy-fresh and glowing, her platinum hair fetchingly curled around her ears, her sleepy eyes painted wide and alert. She smiled gamely for the cameras while she held her little terrier, Charlie, in her arms.
Lulu did what she was required to do, but after her official photo shoot she declined to pose and ham it up with the other girls. A brassy, buxom blonde sidled up to her. Lulu knew most of the other actresses—a mix of newly established A-listers and the relatively unknown group of this year’s Baby Stars. But this girl was unfamiliar.
“Are you too dumb or too smart to be out there mugging with those publicity whores?” the girl asked, fanning herself with her slim crocodile pocketbook.
Lulu, momentarily too shocked by the girl’s language to speak, let her mouth gape. “Oh, too dumb, I see. Well, I’m not bothering with those photographers because they don’t count for a hill of beans. Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow are the only ones who will get any ink tomorrow. They’ll hold the rest of the photos until they see who wins. And, sister, when I win, I plan to have a photo shoot with diamonds and doves, looking like a queen slumming as a pinup. I have no time for snappers of me with a greasy morning face and bad lighting. No thank you!”
“I’m Lulu,” she began, holding out her hand.
The girl ignored it. “I know who all of you are. You’re no
competition. Why do you think I’m here? After that business with Ruby Godfrey they’ll never cast you in a comedy or a romance. It will be gangsters’ molls from here on out, toots. I’m Juliette Claire. Ugh, look at Joan Crawford, flapping those giant hands around. More like Joan Crawfish.”
“Joan’s a friend of mine,” Lulu said.
“Then you ought to tell her to keep her hands behind her back if she doesn’t want to look like a lobster. Too bad Bette Davis can’t hide those bug eyes behind her back. Oh my, look at all the bad bleach jobs out there. Pure chlorine, you can tell. Half of them will be bald in six months.” She looked Lulu over critically. “What do you use, then? It almost looks real.”
“It’s my own color.”
Juliette snorted. “Sure, and so is mine. Forget it. Just trying to be friendly.”
It was Lulu’s turn to snort. Still, she tried to be polite to this unpleasant girl. “Which studio are you with?”
“I’m freelance, sister. I have two movies coming out next year, so watch out! Let’s see, who else have they dragged out of the woodwork? That tall drink of water is Boots Mallory. She posed in her scanties, so WR will never consider her. Because he’s such a pillar of virtue! Ha!” Juliette erupted in a hideous honk of a laugh that pierced the air and made Lulu physically recoil.
“WR?” Lulu asked, composing herself. “You’re that intimate with Mr. Hearst?”
Juliette shrugged. “I will be, if that’s what it takes. You got a problem with me, sister? Didn’t think so. There’s Eleanor
Holm, still wet from the swimming pool. I hear she’s a champion on her back.”
Juliette snickered, and Lulu bristled. She’d recently seen a photo shoot with the Olympic swimmer turned actress, and admired her confident physicality. “She won a gold medal for the backstroke.”
Juliette shrugged. “Oh, is that what they call it these days? These girls all think they can get this part by impressing Marion. I know its WR who holds the purse strings—and owns Cosmopolitan Pictures. Once he finds out about some of these girls’ reputations, they won’t have a chance.”
“These are some of the sweetest girls in the business,” Lulu said hotly. “Most of them don’t have a reputation for anything other than beauty and professionalism.”
Juliette glared at her. “Well, hoity-toity. Don’t you know a reputation is easier to get than the clap out here? And easier to give. Hey, will you look at that! Who the hell invited Toshia Mori?”
Juliette indicated a striking Japanese girl standing a little apart from the others.
“I hear there’s a part for a brunette, but not someone that brunette,” the actress said. “What’s next, they audition our colored maids?”
Lulu felt her face redden. “And why shouldn’t Toshia be up for a part as much as you? She was a Baby Star, after all, and she’s filming with Frank Capra right now. How dare you imply—”
She was interrupted when several other girls joined them.
Lulu felt relieved. One more minute alone with Juliette, and she’d likely find herself involved in another murder investigation.
Juliette looked amused to be challenged. “I never imply,” she hissed to Lulu. “I make myself perfectly clear.” Then she smiled at the new girls and said loudly, “Make sure you give Lulu here plenty of room and don’t jostle her. She’s in a delicate condition.” Her hand hovered briefly over her own stomach and she winked.
“What?” Lulu cried. “I’m not!”
But she could already hear some of the other girls whispering behind their hands. Who’s the father? Will Lux fire her?
Lulu protested as strongly as she could, and the other girls said they believed that it was only Juliette’s joke. But she could still see the doubt in some of their eyes. How could one quick lie have such power?
Lulu tried to act natural, but it was hard. A better girl, she told herself, would be plotting revenge. Or a worse girl. In any case, a more typical girl. She still wasn’t used to the way girls out here could sabotage each other so viciously. She longed, more than anything, to be quietly alone with Freddie. But he was already on the job, and she didn’t know when she’d have a chance to see him.
An imposing older woman in black came up to the young actresses. Her dress was of such good material, so finely tailored, that it took Lulu a moment to realize it was essentially a servant’s livery. It was as simple and chic as a Chanel frock, and the shining chain holding the housekeeper’s collection of
keys might as well have been a platinum accessory. Her steely hair was severely coiffed, her lips a long, elegant line. She’d been a beauty in her day, Lulu thought.
“I am Mrs. Mortimer, the housekeeper,” the woman introduced herself, giving a stiff nod of her head. “I am in charge of your comfort and will ensure that your stay here at the Ranch goes smoothly and without incident. Miss Marion does not care for incidents.” She looked sharply at a couple of girls. Her gaze seemed to rest the longest on Juliette. Lulu suspected the housekeeper was competent enough at her job to have done her homework about all of the guests.
“Should you have any difficulties, please come to me before they get out of hand,” Mrs. Mortimer went on. She gave a hint of a smile and briefly met Lulu’s eye. “Early intervention can prevent a host of problems. Please follow me.”
She gave another sharp bow of her head and walked purposefully away without a backward glance, trusting that the girls would follow. Lulu watched her with admiration. What a strong, competent-seeming woman. She supposed being a housekeeper at a place like the Ranch might almost be like being an executive at a big company, hardly like a servant at all.
Much to Lulu’s annoyance, Juliette maneuvered to walk beside her. “Why the sour puss? Oh, my joke earlier? Well, what’s a little reputation? They’ll know it ain’t true . . . in nine months or so.”
Lulu gave her no encouragement, but Juliette seemed to like having an audience. “I was talking to Dolores, that giant
over there.” She nodded toward a tall, striking, dark-haired beauty of superbly buxom proportions. “She told me Marion herself was originally up for the role we’re all here fighting over. Even old WR had to shoot her down. Whatever the part may be, if they have all of us here, it’s obviously for a young beauty queen. Can you imagine an old hag like that trying to play twenty?”
“Hush!” Lulu hissed. Ahead of them, she could see Mrs. Mortimer stiffen, though she didn’t turn. Lulu was sure she could hear.
“She’s nearly forty, and WR still has her playing ingenues. It’s ridiculous. She should shove off center stage and leave it to the next generation. You know, girls like me who don’t have to provide favors to the lighting supervisor to make sure we’re shot in flattering light.”
Lulu gasped. “Marion is a beautiful woman and a great actress.” This last might have been a slight exaggeration, but Lulu felt the situation called for adamance. “She could adapt herself to any part. That’s why this job is called acting. A skilled actress doesn’t have to rely on being eighteen. But for some, that’s all they’ve got.” She looked pointedly at Juliette, who sniffed derisively.
“Oh, I’m going to put on one hell of a show for Marion . . . and a different kind of show for WR, if that’s what it takes. She won’t know I think she’s a ridiculous has-been, and he won’t know I think he’s a disgusting old lecher. And if Marion tries to get that part, I’ll show her exactly how easily a prettier, younger woman can take her place.” Juliette snapped her
fingers and strutted off, following Mrs. Mortimer to her room. All the while Mrs. Mortimer stiffly ignored her. She had to have heard, though. Lulu wondered if any of it would make its way back to Marion Davies.
As the rest of the girls were directed to their rooms in the main house, Lulu and some of the others waited in the hall. Veronica pulled Lulu away for a private chat. She wanted to share her theories about what might be expected of Lulu this weekend.
“The scuttlebutt is that whoever can make Marion laugh the most gets the part,” Veronica said. She tossed back her sensible brown bob. “I miss the innocent, simple old days when all an actress had to do to get a role was show a little leg. Or heaven forbid, be able to act. But this! Everyone is determined to be funny, but they know they have to toe the line with WR. If it were up to Marion, whoever got drunkest and danced longest on the tabletops without falling off would take the prize.”
“Doesn’t this all seem a little desperate to you?”
“Now you’re getting it!” Veronica said. “I have no idea what this script will look like, but based on the buzz, it’s going to be the biggest thing ever. And you can bet that Marion Davies was behind these ridiculous shenanigans. She’s bored! A gin-soaked bird held prisoner in a gilded cage. The whole thing smacks of one big spectacle for her personal entertainment.”
“Are we really all supposed to act like fools for her amusement?” Lulu asked.
“Who knows? But she was a Ziegfeld Follies girl, and then
did mostly comedies until Hearst pushed her into dramas. She’s basically a champagne bubble ready to pop. She can’t be as wild as when she was a sixteen-year-old chorine, but she still surrounds herself with all the funny and bright young things. Maybe she’s looking to relive her stolen youth through you all. To see herself as young again. I’d say a bawdy joke and a squirting boutonniere might be the way to win her over.”
“That’s sad,” Lulu mused. “If I were her I think I’d rather—”
Veronica interrupted her. “Take it from me, you have to put on a show. Don’t worry. We’ll figure something out once we have the lay of the land. Luckily I know you’re a girl who can think on her feet.”
The ladies were led back outside by courteous staff members to their respective guesthouses. As she was ushered along the shade-dappled tile pathway, Lulu did a double take when she thought she caught sight of a familiar—and unwelcome—face near the trucks that were unloading copious amounts of liquor. Black hair, flashing eyes, the sensuously curving mouth of a Caravaggio . . . She gasped. It couldn’t be Sal! What on earth could he be doing at the Ranch? An icy chill ran down Lulu’s spine even as the hazy San Simeon sun beat down upon her.
Sal had been an unexpected hit in the Hollywood social scene, schmoozing with some of the biggest names, and everyone seemed willing to ignore his shady profession. Gangsters were superstars, and Sal seemed to have a knack for buying his way into the right society. She’d heard there was a movie in
the works based on his life story. Some even said Sal was going to star in it.
She craned her neck behind her, trying to get a better look. But the man, whoever he was, had vanished. My mind must be playing tricks on me, Lulu thought. Sal would never manage to get an invitation to the Ranch.
“Looks like you’re with me,” Boots said, tucking her golden-brown hair behind her ears. “Casa del Mar, right?” Lulu had never met her before, but she liked her right away for her easy, straightforward manner. She was all legs and angles, but she carried herself with a natural grace that gave her a sylph-like beauty.
“Me too,” said Eleanor. The catty Juliette was right—Eleanor’s dark hair did almost seem like it was fresh from the pool, slicked back away from her face, wet-looking, curling at the tips. But it was a good look for her. She seemed strong, ready for anything. Lulu saw her eyeing the unloaded liquor.
“Guess I didn’t have to smuggle this in,” Eleanor said, giving them a peek at a flask from her satchel.
“Better to be prepared,” Boots said. “Hearst might have enough booze to fill his swimming pool—both his swimming pools—but I hear he restricts his guests to two drinks apiece, and I intend to have a good time while I’m here, even if I know I don’t have much chance of landing the role.”
“Ditto,” Eleanor said. “We might as well live it up for a weekend, right, girls?”
Toshia joined them. “I don’t know why I’m here,” she confessed. “We all know they’ll never give me the part, unless
there’s one for a maid or a concubine. And if the concubine is the star, it goes to Myrna Loy in eyeliner. All I’ll ever get are the roles Anna May Wong turns down.”
Boots gave her a hug. “Just enjoy the party, lady. We Baby Stars have to stick together. This one, though.” She patted Lulu on the back. “She might have a chance. She’s got the goods, dimples and all.”
“I think Juliette is the one we have to watch out for,” Eleanor said. “She’s sneaky, mean, and ambitious. The trifecta of successful starlets.”
“I agree,” Toshia said. “Girls like her might get theirs in the end, but in the beginning they usually do pretty well.”
Boots and Eleanor exchanged a quick look. “Well, maybe we can fix the odds a little bit,” Boots said.
While the maids unpacked their suitcases, the girls were summoned to the main house for a cocktail party. Drinks—all two of them—would be served in the Assembly Room. But as Lulu was about to leave, Charlie made his needs known with a yip, so she slipped away with him for a quick stroll around the grounds before getting dressed.
She found something fantastic around every turn. In one fountain, dolphins sported around naiads. In another, a cunningly placed conch hid essential parts of a naked and brawny Poseidon.
“Guess I don’t have to bother going to Europe now,” she told Charlie as she gazed at a row of armless marble statues imported from Greece and Italy.
She whipped around, startled, when she heard a giggle
from the foliage, and a dark-haired, impish head poked out.
“Don’t go even if you get the chance,” the girl said. “It’s deadly dull, and no one speaks properly, even the English.”
“Hello,” Lulu said. “Are you family?”
Charlie pushed his way into the shrubbery and looked pleased when he emerged again not only with an entire girl, but with a graying, portly dachshund on a leash. When Lulu could only see her peeping face she’d thought the girl must be a teenager. She had bright precocious eyes under arching brows, and a hint of lip rouge.
But when she emerged completely from the bushes she looked like a totally different girl. Her hair was gathered in long twin braids that fell over her shoulders, tied with pink bows. She wore a high-waisted short frock with frills and petticoats, ruffled white socks, and black patent-leather shoes. Her body was slim and straight, her chest perfectly flat. At first Lulu thought she must be a very small woman dressed for a costume party. But no, she was a little girl after all, and apparently much younger than she first appeared.
“I’m Patricia, Marion’s niece.”
“I’m Lulu.” She held out her hand.
“I know that,” Patricia said, giving it a businesslike shake. At their feet, the two dogs struck up their acquaintance with posterior sniffs. “Golly, everyone knows who you are now. Did you really, truly shoot someone? Gosh, how exciting!” She heaved a dramatic sigh. “I never get to do anything. Dinner in the nursery, bed by eight. It’s a sad and sorry life for a girl like I.”
“Well, at your age . . . ,” Lulu began, then stopped herself. How old was Patricia? She talked like a young woman and dressed like a child. Lulu was perplexed. Perhaps children raised by millionaires matured differently than poor children. She’d have to ask Freddie later.
“Tell me what it felt like,” Patricia begged. “Did the blood get on you?”
What a morbid little person she was. But her eyes seemed eager as Charlie’s when he smelled a treat. Lulu could tell she was simply longing for experience—any experience. Lulu remembered that feeling. It had been replaced only a few weeks ago with a fervent hope that nothing dangerous or exciting would ever happen to her again.
Against her better judgment, Lulu told her about the terrible ordeal that had been cleared up only a few weeks before. She left out many of the more sordid details that the studio lawyers had managed to conceal from the press. “The scene called for me to shoot the gun, so I did. I had no idea it was loaded.”
“And they never figured out how the bullets got in there? Strange. I pored over the stories in WR’s newspapers. It always seemed to me as if the relevant particulars were somehow . . . missing.” She gave Lulu a canny look that made the actress feel decidedly uncomfortable.
“Accidents happen,” Lulu said, neglecting to mention that the victim, rival actress Ruby Godfrey, had loaded the gun herself in a desperate play for publicity.
“I bet Ruby had something to do with it herself,” Patricia
said. Lulu kept her face resolutely expressionless. A few of the papers had speculated on that, but no one seemed to take it seriously. This girl was too perceptive for her own good.
“She has an interesting face, that Ruby,” Patricia continued. “Always looks like she’s up to something. Which is good for an actress, maybe, but not so good when you actually are up to something. You, on the other hand, look as innocent as a May flower.” Patricia scrutinized Lulu’s face, and Lulu got the distinct impression she was trying to imitate her expression. “You could get away with anything. That must come in handy.”
“How old are you?” Lulu finally couldn’t help but ask.
She thought it would be an innocent question. After all, children got asked that all the time by tedious adults who couldn’t think of anything more interesting to ask. So she was surprised to hear Patricia give a sharp intake of breath, almost a sob, while a look of something strangely like fury flashed across her face.
Then, just as suddenly, it was gone, replaced by a bizarre look of affected innocence. “I’m ten,” Patricia said, and now her voice was pitched up an octave, squeaky and girlish.