Prompt #59) I was thought to be 'stuck up.' I wasn't. I was just sure of myself. This is and always has been an unforgivable quality to the unsure.-Bette Davis (1908-1989), Academy-Award-winning American actress, author, co-founder and president of the Hollywood Canteen, a WWII club offering free food, drink and entertainment to men and women in all branches of the armed forces and to service people of all allied countries, and first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Standard disclaimer applies; not my characters or settings or backgrounds. But they are my words.
Dr. Helen Magnus stepped out of the taxi-cab, which was an absurd shade of yellow, something between a banana and a lemon, a far cry from the decent basic black of London cabs. She tipped the driver more than she intended to, silently condemning American money-all flimsy paper and all one color too- and walked through the doorway. The music was loud and fast, the dance-floor crowded with soldiers and sailors in khaki and blue. The drab colors formed an undulating pattern randomly studded with colorful gowns that swished and swayed in the surging crowd.
Helen was looking for a man, a Mr. Harry Sullivan, who held title to a large piece of property next to Decker Canyon in Malibu. There were acres of wild dry mountains surrounding the property, and Helen was scouting locations for a West Coast Sanctuary. She was eager to expand her operations in America. It was such a large country; more than one facility was definitely in order. Her contacts in the area had told her that Sullivan could be found most Thursdays evenings playing in the band at the Hollywood Canteen. Apparently Mr. Sullivan took a break from his business in contract law to play jazz clarinet. Helen shook her head. The Americans, at least on the surface, had taken a breezy can-do attitude towards the war. It made sense, she supposed. For most of them the war was worlds away.
"Good, you're here," sounded a commanding voice in her left ear. "I could use some help in the kitchen; we're swamped tonight."
Helen turned her head to see a slight, slender woman glancing around the dance floor, looking everywhere but at her. She started to speak, but the woman just held up one hand in imperious command. Helen waited impatiently. The other woman's head was held high as she scanned the crowd; her eyes large and defiant set above a slightly upturned nose and precisely defined crimson lips. Suddenly she darted into the crowd, laughing loudly as she deftly stepped in the middle of an escalating argument between two young men. The object of their attention was an attractive girl, sheathed in dark blue silk that accentuated her abundant curves. "Now boys," Helen heard the woman say, in a clipped rapid voice, distinct even over the noise of the band, "Play nice! You've got to give her a chance to enjoy a dance with both of you." Looking at the two men, with their slicked back hair and carefully pressed khakis, she pointed at one of them, "You first." Linking her arm through the other man's, she steered him towards the bar. "A drink for my friend here," she called out, then slipped back to Helen without losing a beat. "Let's get you set up in the back, Joan. It's a little lively tonight. Better get some more food out here; it'll give 'em something to do while they wait their turn to dance." Finally she looked directly at Helen, adding in surprise and with some annoyance, "You're not Joan Leslie."
Helen shook her head, "No, I'm afraid not. I'm looking for Harry..."
The other woman went on as if Helen hadn't spoken, "You're too old for one thing. And that accent! British, aren't you? How are things over there now that the war's over? Over in Europe, at least." Sticking out her hand, she took Helen's in a tight grip and shook it firmly. "I'm Bette Davis. Sorry for the misunderstanding. Who did you say you were looking for?"
"Harry Sullivan. I was told he was performing here tonight." Helen saw a cluster of men around a low stage. There was a band in full swing, a small rhythm section consisting of a bass and piano, and only two men in the horn section. She assumed the short man in the fedora swinging a bass clarinet was her quarry. It was an interesting instrument, a wide bell attached to the end distinguishing it from the more usual symphonic version.
Bette followed her glance, then looked back at her appraisingly. "He'll be on break in twenty minutes or so. Would you prefer to dance with some of the boys or help me out in the kitchen?" Her tone brooked no dissent from the offered options.
Helen began to protest, but found herself swept into the kitchen by what seemed a tidy whirlwind. Accepting the inevitable, she removed the new hat she'd purchased only that afternoon and placed it carefully on a long worktable in the center of the cramped kitchen. It had been a joy to shop in stores stocked with new, and beautiful, wares. A joy, but it also made her feel a bit guilty. No one at home had seen clothes like this in years. Patting the hat, she took off the jacket of new suit and laid it carefully across the back of a wooden kitchen chair. Then she unfastened the cuffs of her white tailored shirt and turned up the sleeves. "How can I help?" she began as she turned to find herself addressing an empty room.
A loud clatter from behind a half-open door alerted her to Bette's whereabouts. Emerging from what must be the pantry, the slight woman brought out four loaves of bread and several white paper packages. Dumping them on the table, she went over the to the counter, pulled open a drawer and turned back to Helen with a bread knife in one hand and a butcher knife in the other. "Do you want to slice or carve?"
"Mmm, I'll slice," said Helen putting out one hand to take the bread knife, which the other woman quickly reversed and handed to her, handle first. Deftly, Helen slid off the wrapper of the first loaf and began slicing, alternating thick and thin slices.
Bette nodded her approval, and opened the packages, which contained slices of ham, a wedge of dull yellow cheese, and a slab of rare roast beef, pink centered and lightly oozing blood. She began to slice the beef, piling it on a white china plate. "I'm afraid I didn't catch your name...we're so busy, and I'm short-handed. Why do you want to see Harry?"
"My name is Helen Magnus, and I have a business proposition for Mr. Sullivan. He's the owner of record of some property I'm interested in." Helen had started putting sandwiches together.
"Alternate with and without cheese," Better replied as she turned to slicing the soft yellow triangle. The butcher knife mangled the cheese, and she hastily searched the drawer for a parer. "What kind of business are you in, Miss Magnus?"
"It's Doctor Magnus. And I want to build a...retreat I guess you'd call it. A sanatorium for my patients," Helen had thought this cover story out carefully. In Hollywood, rest homes for the wealthy were a growth business.
"A medical doctor?" queried Bette. Having finished slicing the cheese, she took charge of the bread knife and started in on the second loaf. Without waiting for an answer, she went on, "That's unusual. Good for you! What kind of patients?"
"Oh, people who need rest and quiet. It'll be a sort of sanctuary for those who aren't necessarily ill, but for a variety of reasons can't deal with the real world." Helen smiled, and went on, hoping to quell the questions. "Is this place reserved for military personnel?" she asked politely. She knew that it was, but she wanted to steer the conversation away from her own work.
"Yes," replied Bette. She sighed deeply, and explained further. "They need somewhere to go, and we, that is, some of my fellow performers and Hollywood in general I suppose, wanted to let them know the depths of our appreciation. Are you planning to house veterans in your establishment? God knows we'll have plenty of them."
Helen nodded, "Perhaps. It's early days yet. We have a place open in London already, and we have a location in New York." Making a wide gesture, she added, "America is such a large country it seemed wise to look at multiple sites." Although she had been in America before, this had been her first cross-country trip by rail. It was indeed a very large country.
"It's a big place," Bette concurred. "There's plenty of room for people looking to start over," she added. Stacking sandwiches onto platters she added frankly, "I'm not saying that's true in your case, but if it was...this is the place. I envy you, being independent and in charge of your own operation. The movie business isn't set up that way, and every time someone tries to change things, they get smacked down. The last time I was in England I ended up in a lawsuit. Just for trying to work outside the system!"
Helen nodded. "It's never easy for those who don't fit into the society's approved roles. If it wasn't for my father's backing and support, I would have never gained the education I did."
"You're lucky he supported you in your endeavors. My father never believed in my dreams. He provided nothing but a spur to do more, be more, achieve more...I had to prove to him what I was capable of. There was no help or support, only icy disdain and general disapproval." Bette's eyes and tone softened, "But my mother's a different story. She's supported me all the way." Tapping the bread knife on the scarred wooden table to remove the crumbs, she picked up the final loaf and started efficiently slicing it. "A few years ago I was elected president of the Academy, sort of a guild for actors. I only lasted a few months; nothing but carping and disdain for all the changes I tried to institute. Even those that supported my election kept telling me to slow down, to bring people around first, to build support gradually. Hell, no! I thought I knew better than they did. Better to get it all done before they notice what you're doing." She shook her head. "Of course the nay-sayers were right. Nothing changed, and I quit. Maybe I gave up too quickly, but it was so infuriating! No one backed me up, even those that secretly agreed with me. I think I was meant to be merely a figure head."
Helen answered firmly, "Even if your reforms failed you put the ideas out there. That's a step in the right direction."
Bette nodded in appreciation. "I certainly hope so. Not a good time to rock the boat, not with a war on, but once it's over, then we'll see some progress!"
Helen thought briefly of the destruction and death she'd seen in Normandy, and her own England. It would take a lot of 'progress' merely to return Europe to some semblance of normalcy. So many people, so many places, were irrevocably lost. The Americans had come into the war whole-heartedly, but sometimes she thought they had forgotten just how long it had been going on.
Between the two of them, they had finished all the slicing and assembling. Bette had found another platter and Helen was filling it up with sandwiches, while Bette set up a large urn to brew coffee. Gesturing at the cups drying on the draining board by the sink, she asked Helen, "Want some coffee? Or..." here she rumbled in a tin canister on the counter by the sink, "Yes, I thought so. We have some tea bags; Lipton I think. If you'd prefer tea, that is."
Helen smiled, "Yes, please."
Bette nodded and filled a banged-up kettle at the sink, then set it on a burner on the stove, pausing to light the gas with a long wooden match. "I'll have it too. I end up drinking coffee all night here, then can't get any sleep. And I have an early call tomorrow." She set the cups next to the kettle, which was beginning to gently rock from the heat. Placing the bags inside, tags hanging out, she pulled forward a small tin of sugar and set it on the table. "Do you take milk? No lemons, I'm afraid. They're hard to get, even here where they grow them."
"A little milk, but no sugar," replied Helen. Lemon was an indulgence she'd given up long ago, and she had never been fond of sugar in her tea. The open generosity of the American people was almost overwhelming. She might have written it off to her hostess being an actress, but it had been the same with almost everyone she'd met here.
"Hey Bette," came a voice from the doorway. A vibrant brunette stood there, rain dripping her the curled ends of her hair. She wore a belted skirt and brightly flowered silk shirt, and a damp raincoat hung over her arm. "Sorry I'm late. The director wanted me to stay and go over a few things."
"Is that all he was going over?" asked Bette wryly. The younger woman grimaced and gave Helen a pointed look of inquiry. Bette immediately began a brief introduction. "Joan, this is Dr. Helen Magnus. Helen, Joan Leslie, an up-and-coming actress and invaluable kitchen help. Helen's been filling in for you, willingly enough considering she was drafted!" Gesturing at the filled platters, Bette added, "Why don't you go ahead and take these out? I'll bring the coffee when it's done brewing." Joan nodded and headed out with the first of the platters. A roar went up from the crowd outside as hungry men descended on the fruits of their labors. The kettle began to sing, and Bette filled the cups with hot water and brought them over to the table. Reaching into the Frigidaire, she pulled out a glass bottle of milk and put it on the table.
As they fixed their drinks, Bette pulled out a pack of cigarettes and offered them to Helen. Helen shook her head, and the actress quickly struck a match and lit one. After the first deep inward breath, she exhaled curls of thin grey smoke with appreciation. "That's better," she said. Pointing at Helen, the tip of the cigarette glowing like a red eye, Bette asked abruptly, "Do you ever wish you could live forever?"
Helen started a bit, then calmly occupied herself preparing her tea while she prepared a response. Looking down into the steaming liquid, watching the milk form clouds beneath the surface, she answered quite honestly, "No, I don't. It might be pleasant at first, having all the time in the world to learn and explore, but I imagine it would be hard to carry on when everyone around you is growing older." Looking directly at Bette, she flashed a smile, "It's an odd question. Why do you ask?"
"I was reading a book by a countryman of yours, Oscar Wilde. The idea of never growing old caught my imagination. People who meet me are always surprised I don't look like I did five, ten, fifteen years ago. There's an image of me caught on film, a reverse of Wilde's story. And those images will be there long after I'm gone." Laughing, Bette added, "At least I hope my films last that long!"
"I'm sure they will," replied Helen. This was not a conversation she expected, with someone she'd only just met, and who was apparently a well known actress. As for Mr. Wilde, well, he had been Nikola's friend, not hers. "People do change, whether it shows on their face or not."
"That's true," replied Bette. "And a good thing too, considering the alternative. It didn't work out so well for Dorian Gray. "Looking out the open door into the music- and smoke-filled room, Bette's face grew somber. "Look at those boys out there. I wonder how many of them will never come back," she said, a soft rasp edging her voice. "So many have died, and more will die before this is over. Only photographs will remain. They'll be frozen in time, always staying the same age, never growing old..." Taking a sip of her tea, after carefully blowing on the surface, she grimaced. "I forgot to add sugar."
Helen pushed the small tin of sugar towards Bette. "Here you are." Tapping her spoon against the rim of the cup, Helen went on, "Those of us who survive the conflict must work to make their sacrifice worthwhile."
"I suppose," replied Bette. "Do you have any children, Dr. Magnus?"
Helen shook her head, trying not to think of the potential child she'd left behind in England. That was a dream best kept secret and hidden, for many years to come.
"I don't either," said Bette, regret lending a soft lilt to her voice. "Sometimes I think I never will. But each of those boys is someone's son, and I don't know how anything can make up their loss. This place is a kind of contribution, and you'll make a difference with your sanatorium. And I suppose my little entertainments count for something. After all, in my industry we work to fashion a world apart from this insanity, an escape..."
"A sanctuary of sorts," concluded Helen. The two women smiled at each other, then Joan Leslie came swirling into the room with two sailors in her wake.
"The band's taking a break and the fellas are howling for coffee!" Joan said as she directed the two men to lift the heavy urn and maneuver it out of the kitchen. She filled a tray with cups and followed them back out.
Bette stubbed her cigarette out in a heavy glass ashtray on the kitchen table and got up. "Come on," she said to Helen. "Let me introduce you to Harry Sullivan so you can get on with your work, and I'll get back to mine." She held out a hand to Helen, shaking it firmly, "It was a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Magnus."