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Whispers

Whispers

Page 2


Most mornings, Hilary worked with the plants for two or three hours. No matter how agitated she was upon entering the garden, she was always completely relaxed and at peace when she left.


She easily could have afforded a gardener. She still received quarterly payments from her first hit film, Arizona Shifty Pete, which had been released more than two years ago and which had been an enormous success. The new movie, Cold Heart, in the theaters less than two months, was doing even better than Pete. Her twelve-room house in Westwood, on the fringes of Bel Air and Beverly Hills, had cost a great deal, yet six months ago she had paid cash for the place. In show business circles, she was called a "hot property." That was exactly how she felt, too. Hot. Burning. Ablaze with plans and possibilities. It was a glorious feeling. She was a damned successful screenwriter, a hot property indeed, and she could hire a platoon of gardeners if she wanted them.


She tended to the flowers and the trees herself because the garden was a special place for her, almost sacred. It was the symbol of her escape.


She had been raised in a decaying apartment building in one of Chicago's worst neighborhoods. Even now, even here, even in the middle of her fragrant rose garden, she could close her eyes and see every detail of that long-ago place. In the foyer, the mailboxes had been smashed open by thieves looking for welfare checks. The hallways were narrow and poorly lit. The rooms were tiny, dreary, the furniture tattered and worn. In the small kitchen, the ancient gas range had seemed about to spring a leak and explode; Hilary had lived for years in fear of the stove's irregular, spurting blue flames. The refrigerator was yellow with age; it wheezed and rattled, and its warm motor attracted what her father called "the local wildlife." As she stood now in her lovely garden, Hilary clearly remembered the wildlife with which she'd spent her childhood, and she shuddered.


Although she and her mother had kept the four rooms spotlessly clean, and although they had used great quantities of insecticide, they had never been able to get rid of the cockroaches because the damned things came through the thin walls from the other apartments where people were not so clean.


Her most vivid childhood memory was of the view from the single window in her cramped bedroom. She had spent many lonely hours there, hiding while her father and mother argued. The bedroom had been a haven from those terrible bouts of cursing and screaming, and from the sullen silences when her parents weren't speaking to each other. The view from the window wasn't inspiring: nothing more than the soot-streaked brick wall on the far side of the four-foot-wide serviceway that led between the tenements. The window would not open; it was painted shut. She'd been able to see a thin sliver of sky, but only when she'd pressed her face against the glass and peered straight up the narrow shaft.


Desperate to escape from the shabby world in which she lived, young Hilary learned to use her imagination to see through the brick wall. She would set her mind adrift, and suddenly she would be looking out upon rolling hills, or sometimes the vast Pacific Ocean, or great mountain ranges.


Most of the time, it was a garden that she conjured up, an enchanted place, serene, with neatly trimmed shrubs and high trellises twined about with thorny rose vines. In this fantasy there was a great deal of pretty wrought-iron lawn furniture that had been painted white. Gaily striped umbrellas cast pools of cool shadow in the coppery sunlight. Women in lovely long dresses and men in summer suits sipped iced drinks and chatted amiably.


And now I'm living in that dream, she thought. That make-believe place is real, and I own it.


Maintaining the roses and the other plants--palms and ferns and jade shrubs and a dozen other things--was not a chore. It was a joy. Every minute she worked among the flowers, she was aware of how far she had come.


At noon, she put away her gardening tools and showered. She stood for a long while in the steaming water, as if it were sluicing away more than dirt and sweat, as if it were washing off ugly memories as well. In that depressing Chicago apartment, in the minuscule bathroom, where all the faucets had dripped and where all the drains had backed up at least once a month, there never had been enough hot water.


She ate a light lunch on the glassed-in patio that overlooked the roses. While she nibbled at cheese and slices of an apple, she read the trade papers of the entertainment industry--Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety--which had come in the morning mail. Her name appeared in Hank Grant's column in the Reporter, in a list of movie and television people whose birthday it was. For a woman just turned twenty-nine, she had come a long, long way indeed.


Today, the chief executives at Warner Brothers were discussing The Hour of the Wolf, her latest screenplay. They would decide either to buy or reject by the close of the business day. She was tense, anxious for the telephone to ring, yet dreading it because it might bring disappointing news. This project was more important to her than anything else she'd ever done.


She had written the script without the security of a signed contract, strictly on speculation, and she had made up her mind to sell it only if she was signed to direct and was guaranteed final cut.


Already, Warners had hinted at a record offer for the screenplay if she would reconsider her conditions of sale. She knew she was demanding a lot; however, because of her success as a screenwriter, her demands were not entirely unreasonable. Warners reluctantly would agree to let her direct the picture; she would bet anything on that. But the sticking point would be the final cut. That honor, the power to decide exactly what would appear on the screen, the ultimate authority over every shot and every frame and every nuance of the film, usually was bestowed upon directors who had proven themselves on a number of money-making movies; it was seldom granted to a fledgling director, especially not to a fledgling female director. Her insistence on total creative control might queer the deal.


Hoping to take her mind off the pending decision from Warner Brothers, Hilary spent Wednesday afternoon working in her studio, which overlooked the pool. Her desk was large, heavy, custom-made oak, with a dozen drawers and two dozen cubbyholes. Several pieces of Lallique crystal stood on the desk, refracting the soft glow from the two brass piano lamps. She struggled through the second draft of an article she was writing for Film Comment, but her thoughts constantly wandered to The Hour of the Wolf.


The telephone rang at four o'clock, and she jerked in surprise even though she'd been waiting all afternoon for that sound. It was Wally Topelis.


"It's your agent, kid. We have to talk."


"Isn't that what we're doing now?"


"I mean face to face."


"Oh," she said glumly. "Then it's bad news."


"Did I say it was?"


"If it was good," Hilary said, "you'd just give it to me on the phone. Face to face means you want to let me down easy."


"You're a classic pessimist, kid."


"Face to face means you want to hold my hand and talk me out of suicide."


"It's a damned good thing this melodramatic streak of yours never shows up in your writing."


"If Warners said no, just tell me."


"They haven't decided yet, my lamb."


"I can take it."


"Will you listen to me? The deal hasn't fallen through. I'm still scheming, and I want to discuss my next move with you. That's all. Nothing more sinister than that. Can you meet me in half an hour?"


"Where?"


"I'm at the Beverly Hills Hotel."


"The Polo Lounge?"


"Naturally."


***


As Hilary turned off Sunset Boulevard, she thought the Beverly Hills Hotel looked unreal, like a mirage shimmering in the heat. The rambling building that thrust out of stately palms and lush greenery, a fairytale vision. As always, the pink stucco did not look as garish as she remembered it. The walls seemed translucent, appeared almost to shine with a soft inner light. In its own way, the hotel was rather elegant--more than a bit decadent, but unquestionably elegant nonetheless. At the main entrance, uniformed valets were parking and delivering cars: two Rolls-Royces, three Mercedes, one Stuts, and a red Maserati.


A long way from the poor side of Chicago, she thought happily.


When she stepped into the Polo Lounge, she saw half a dozen movie actors and actresses, famous faces, as well as two powerful studio executives, but none of them was sitting at table number three. That was generally considered to be the most desirable spot in the room, for it faced the entrance and was the best place to see and be seen. Wally Topelis was at table three because he was one of the most powerful agents in Hollywood and because he charmed the maitre d' just as he charmed everyone who met him. He was a small lean man in his fifties, very well dressed. His white hair was thick and lustrous. He also had a neat white mustache. He looked quite distinguished, exactly the kind of man you expected to see at table number three. He was talking on a telephone that had been plugged in just for him. When he saw Hilary approaching, he hastily concluded his conversation, put the receiver down, and stood.


"Hilary, you're lovely--as usual."


"And you're the center of attention--as usual."


He grinned. His voice was soft, conspiratorial. "I imagine everyone's staring at us."


"I imagine."


"Surreptitiously."


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"Oh, of course," she said.


"Because they wouldn't want us to know they're looking," he said happily.


As they sat down, she said, "And we dare not look to see if they're looking."


"Oh, heavens no!" His blue eyes were bright were merriment.


"We wouldn't want them to think we care."


"God forbid."


"That would be gauche."


"Trés gauche." He laughed.


Hilary sighed. "I've never understood why one table should be so much more important than another."


"Well, I can sit and make fun of it, but I understand," Wally said. "In spite of everything Marx and Lenin believed, the human animal thrives on the class system--so long as that system is based primarily on money and achievement, not on pedigree. We establish and nurture class systems everywhere, even in restaurants."


"I think I've just stumbled into one of those famous Topelis tirades."


A waiter arrived with a shiny silver ice bucket on a tripod. He put it down beside their table, smiled and left. Apparently, Wally had taken the liberty of ordering for both of them before she arrived. But he didn't take this opportunity to tell her what they were having.


"Not a tirade," he said. "Just an observation. People need class systems."


"I'll bite. Why?"


"For one thing, people must have aspirations, desires beyond the basic needs of food and shelter, obsessive wants that will drive them to accomplish things. If there's a best neighborhood, a man will hold down two jobs to raise money for a house there. If one car is better than another, a man-


-or a woman, for that matter; this certainly isn't a sexist issue--will work harder to be able to afford it. And if there's a best table in the Polo Lounge, everyone who comes here will want to be rich enough or famous enough--or even infamous enough--to be seated there. This almost manic desire for status generates wealth, contributes to the gross national product, and creates jobs.


After all, if Henry Ford hadn't wanted to move up in life, he'd never have built the company that now employs tens of thousands. The class system is one of the engines that drive the wheels of commerce; it keeps our standard of living high. The class system gives people goals--and it provides the maitre d' with a satisfying sense of power and importance that makes an otherwise intolerable job seem desirable."


Hilary shook her head. "Nevertheless, being seated at the best table doesn't mean I'm automatically a better person than the guy who gets second-best. It's no accomplishment in itself."


"It's a symbol of accomplishment, of position," Wally said.


"I still can't see the sense of it."


"It's just an elaborate game."


"Which you certainly know how to play."


He was delighted. "Don't I though?"


"I'll never learn the rules."


"You should, my lamb. It's more than a bit silly, but it helps business. No one likes to work with a loser. But everyone playing the game wants to deal with the kind of person who can get the best table at the Polo Lounge."


Wally Topelis was the only man she knew who could call a woman "my lamb" and sound neither patronizing nor smarmy Although he was a small man, about the right size to be a professional jockey, he somehow made her think of Cary Grant in movies like To Catch a Thief. He had Grant's style: excellent manners observed without flourish; balletic grace in every movement, even in casual gestures; quiet charm; a subtle look of amusement, as if he found life to be a gentle joke.


Their captain arrived, and Wally called him Eugene and inquired about his children. Eugene seemed to regard Wally with affection, and Hilary realized that getting the best table in the Polo Lounge might also have something to do with treating the staff as friends rather than servants.


Eugene was carrying champagne, and after a couple of minutes of small talk, he held the bottle for Wally's inspection. Hilary glimpsed the label. "Dom Perignon?"


"You deserve the best, my lamb."


Eugene removed the foil from the neck of the bottle and began to untwist the wire that caged the cork.


Hilary frowned at Wally. "You must really have bad news for me."


"What makes you say that?"


"A hundred-dollar bottle of champagne...." Hilary looked at him thoughtfully. "It's supposed to soothe my hurt feelings, cauterize my wounds."


The cork popped. Eugene did his job well; very little of the precious liquid foamed out of the bottle.


"You're such a pessimist," Wally said.


"A realist," she said.


"Most people would have said, 'Ah, champagne. What are we celebrating?' But not Hilary Thomas."


Eugene poured a sample of Dom Perignon. Wally tasted it and nodded approval.


"Are we celebrating?" Hilary asked. The possibility really had not occurred to her, and she suddenly felt weak as she considered it.


"In fact, we are," Wally said.


Eugene slowly filled both glasses and slowly screwed the bottle into the shaved ice in the silver bucket. Clearly, he wanted to stick around long enough to hear what they were celebrating.


It was also obvious that Wally wanted the captain to hear the news and spread it. Grinning like Cary Grant, he leaned toward Hilary and said, "We've got the deal with Warner Brothers."

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