Authors: Rona Jaffe
The Fame Game
For Jack Doroshow
This is the last time,
I swear, the last time I’ll ever ride the subway
, Gerry Thompson thought, feeling like Scarlett O’Hara when she dug out the turnip from the burned ruins of Atlanta. But this was New York, no burned ruin; it was life, excitement, the maddening, indifferent lover, her town even though she had not been born here, even though she had run away and returned. New York was a new job, new love, the smell of new paint in a new apartment. New York was promise even though all around you you saw failure. She gouged her way through the nine a.m. rush hour crowd, being gouged in return, stepped over a drunk left over from the night before, and emerged in the shriek of life that was Fifty-seventh Street.
The Plaza Hotel stood like an oasis in the wasteland of ugly progress. Whenever she saw it she imagined a wealthy septuagenarian peering out of one of its high windows, refusing to come out ever again into the tasteless mess below. That tasteless mess was where it was all happening. Even the Plaza was not immune; there was an office in there now, operating out of a suite, and that was where Gerry was going to work as Girl Friday to the super-publicist—personal manager Sam Leo Libra.
She had never met him. She had been hired by an employment agency in New York because Sam Leo Libra had been in California where he kept his main office. He was in New York now to open a permanent East Coast office, which would eventually be in one of those new office buildings. The employment agency woman had looked her over carefully as if she were casting her: a medium-sized twenty-six-year-old girl with shiny auburn hair, guileless green eyes, and freckles, who smiled a lot, who looked intelligent, friendly, and not easily ruffled; the sort of girl you would not hesitate to ask for directions in the street.
“Five years doing publicity for motion pictures here and in Paris and Rome,” the woman said thoughtfully. “Why did you leave?”
“Because I never saw Paris and Rome—all I ever saw was the inside of the office there from nine in the morning until eight thirty at night and then I was too tired to go anywhere.”
“Is money important to you?”
“I’m too old to work for nothing just because the job is interesting.”
“And too experienced.” The woman smiled. “You won’t be working for nothing, but you’ll be around a great deal of money, people making what seems like a ridiculous fortune for what they seem to be contributing to the world, and you may begin to think you’re underpaid.”
“I don’t expect to be paid as a star,” Gerry said.
“You’ll be getting two hundred a week.”
“Don’t be so delighted,” the woman said. “A year from now you won’t think it’s so much. You’ll still be working from nine in the morning until eight thirty at night, sometimes longer. You’ll have to be able to keep secrets, defend the wicked, lie beautifully, and never lose that look of wholesome happiness. Can you do that?”
“I’ve been doing it for years,” Gerry lied beautifully.
“I trust you have your own apartment.”
“What difference does that make?”
“The telephone. Mr. Libra doesn’t like roommates tying up the phone. You may have to get another line in any case, but if you do, he’ll pay for it.”
“I live alone,” Gerry said.
“And get an answering service.”
“Who pays for that?”
The woman looked at her shrewdly. “I should think you’d need one for your social life—you’ll be working many nights, you know. You can deduct it from your taxes.”
I suppose those people like to take over everybody’s life
, Gerry thought, wondering what this Libra was like. But on two hundred a week, who was she to complain? She’d always wanted an answering service anyway, not that she knew anyone she wanted to call her. New York had changed in the two years she had been in Europe: all the exciting single men had vanished, or perhaps she had changed.
“Oh, yes,” the woman said, not looking at her for the first time since the interview had started. “And he wants to know how often you bathe.”
“Don’t look at me. He wants to know.”
“Am I supposed to be a Girl Friday or a call girl?”
“I guess he had a dirty secretary once.”
“Well, every day, naturally,” Gerry said indignantly.
“Only once a day?”
She stared at the woman. She didn’t look any cleaner than anyone else Gerry had seen. “Once a day,” Gerry said. “And I wash my hair twice a week and brush my teeth after every meal. How often does he bathe?”
“My dear, he’s always damp,” the woman said.
That had been last Thursday, and on Friday Gerry had gone out and rented a new apartment on the third floor of a reconditioned brownstone in the East Seventies: three rooms with a working fireplace and a view of trees, for two hundred and fifty dollars a month. It was a steal, and she couldn’t afford it. But next week she would be out of her Greenwich Village rat-trap, and there would be the smell of new paint. There would be a green phone in the bedroom, a white phone in the living room, and a pink phone on the bathroom wall. With the last of her salary from Europe, except what she would need for food and subway fare, she bought a seventeen-dollar bottle of pink Vita-bath.
Now let him fire me!
So here she was on a Monday morning in March, in air that was neither chill nor warm but a heady combination of both, bathed and shampooed and perfumed, neatly made up (her hand had been shaking so much from nervousness that morning that it had taken half an hour to put on her false eyelashes), immaculately dressed, looking more like a girl on a date than a Girl Friday—but wasn’t that what Girl Fridays were supposed to look like today? It occurred to her that she was already deeply involved in her job, if only because she had involved herself in debt and could not afford to lose it. But she had always known that she would settle in New York, on her own terms; with an interesting, challenging job, a good apartment of her own, and enough money to feel she was a grown-up at last. This new job
to work out; even if it was horrible she loved it already.
The door to Sam Leo Libra’s suite was open, propped open by a metal cart holding a stack of matched Vuitton luggage six feet high. Two bellboys were busy unloading it and adding the suitcases to the assortment, also matched, that lined the walls of the foyer. A small, thin, blond girl with her hair in two ponytails sticking out at each side, in a plaid mini-suit, a schoolboy’s tie, and textured white stockings, was standing inside the foyer with a clipboard in her hands and a pair of huge tortoise-rimmed glasses balanced on her little nose.
“There are seventy-two pieces!” the girl was repeating crossly. “Seventy-two pieces, and don’t you dare let one get in here before I’ve counted it! Where are the coats? Where are the coats?”
“They’re on the elevator,” one of the bellboys said.
“You left my mink coat on the
“The elevator operator will watch it, madam.”
“Excuse me,” Gerry said, “I’m Geraldine Thompson, Mr. Libra’s new assistant. Is he here?”
“I don’t know; I didn’t count him,” the girl said. She pushed the enormous glasses up on her nose and looked at Gerry pleasantly. “I’m his wife, Lizzie Libra.”
She wasn’t a little girl at all—she was forty years old. It was a shock: the tininess, the blond ponytails, the little-girl clothes, and then suddenly the wicked little face, the eyes circled by crow’s feet magnified by the lenses of the glasses. It wasn’t an unpleasant shock but rather interesting.
“What do they call you? Gerry?”
“Well, you can call Room Service and tell them to get that trash out of here, and then have them bring some more coffee and some Danish—there’ll be people coming in all morning. Get cigarettes too, one pack of each brand and six packs of Gauloise for me. Have you met my husband?”
“No. I was hired here while he was on the Coast.”
“You’ll find him in there,” Lizzie Libra said, waving at the suite, and went back to her list.
Gerry went down the carpeted foyer into the large living room. Tall windows gave a view of Central Park, the fountain on the Plaza, and the tiny hansom cabs waiting across the street. It was absolutely still except for a soft sound that sounded like breathing. She realized that all the windows were closed and the sound came from an air conditioner and a humidifier that had been newly installed, their warranty tags still attached. There were crystal vases of fresh flowers everywhere. God, it was hot and humid, like a greenhouse. The smell of the flowers rose up in the artificially humid air and on an empty stomach this early in the morning it was a little sickening. She went over to the window but discovered all the windows had been sealed shut. Not a breath of street air or a particle of grit could enter. She lit a cigarette and watched the smoke vanish like magic.
The customary painting above the fireplace had been replaced by a life-sized oil painting of Sylvia Polydor, one of the great ladies of the screen, who had been Sam Leo Libra’s first really famous client. People always said: “Oh, Sam Leo Libra, that’s Sylvia Polydor’s manager.” Her portrait was elaborately framed and lit from below by one of those oil painting lights. It was like someone in business framing his first dollar bill.
On the desk there was an office telephone the size of a baby switchboard, bristling with push buttons. Next to it was the hotel telephone. Gerry called Room Service and then located the rest of the office equipment: the typewriter, the address books, the steno pads and pencils, the appointment book. Now there was nothing to do but wait. The breathing of the humidifier felt like a monster in the room with her. She wandered into the bedroom.
The bedroom was immaculate although more Vuitton suitcases of various sizes and shapes were arranged about the wall space. There were two double beds separated by a night table with a push-button phone on it. The windows in here had been sealed shut too, and there was a new air conditioner and humidifier breathing away. There were no flowers. She remembered her mother, who was a terrified woman, often saying that you should never sleep with flowers in the room because they breathed your air and there was not enough for you.
“Mr. Libra?” she said timidly.
There was no answer. No one was there. The bathroom door was ajar, with the light on.
no Mr. Libra. Maybe he was like the Wizard of Oz, just an amplified voice and a lot of machines. She felt so nervous she had to go to the bathroom immediately. She opened the door and went in.
The floor of the bathroom was partially covered by clean white towels. At the far end, kneeling on the tile and completely engrossed in his task, was a man with maroon-colored hair in a maroon silk bathrobe, painstakingly scrubbing the marble floor with Lysol.
Gerry let out what must have sounded like a startled squeak and backed out of the bathroom, but not fast enough, for the man looked up. An expression of terror crossed his face, then anger. She knew then who it was: the Wizard of Oz himself, behind his own battery of machines and protection.
“Who are you and what do you want?” he said sharply.
“I’m Mr. Libra’s Girl Friday and I’ll use the bathroom when you’re finished, sir. I’m sorry to have bothered you, I didn’t see you,” she said, smiling weakly and waving her hands like a duck. What an impression she was making! He’d probably either fire her right now or make her finish cleaning the already clean floor, and she couldn’t decide which would be worse.
Sam Leo Libra stood up and walked carefully across the clean towels. He looked calm now. She noticed that his hairline was very low, and his hair was indeed damp, glistening as if he had just washed it. Reddish-brown hair sprouted from the neck of the immaculate white T-shirt he wore beneath the maroon silk robe and crawled down his wrists and the backs of his white hands. That hair, too, glistened with health. He looked like a very clean, newly washed ape.
“You’re Miss Thompson,” he said.
“I’ll call you Gerry, you call me Mr. Libra, not sir. I’m not that old.”
“Yes, Mr. Libra.” She guessed him to be about forty, the same age as his wife.
“You can’t trust a new place,” he said, gesturing at the immaculate bathroom. “They clean it, but you never know what kind of slobs were there before. Don’t you agree?”
“Why don’t you go down in the lobby to the Ladies’ Room. I’ll be through here in about fifteen minutes.”
The power play
, she thought, beginning to wonder if she was going to be able to like him.
Make the employees know their place. The public Ladies’ Room is good enough for her. Okay, if he wants to play, I can play too
“I’ll be right back,” she said sweetly.
She took her time coming back, stopping at the magazine stand to buy a newspaper. The papers were full of second-page obituaries devoted to the recent death and funeral of Douglas Henry, one of the old-time movie stars with two first names. She read about it coming up in the elevator: one of the pallbearers had been Douglas Henry’s personal manager and publicist, Sam Leo Libra. It was well known, the newspaper said, that Libra kept only twelve clients, no more, no less, and there was speculation in Hollywood and New York about who would be chosen to take Douglas Henry’s place in the Libra stable.