Saturday, November 21, 2009

"The Vanity" - a Louise Brooks short story, part 7

Here is the seventh installment of "The Vanity," a short story by Robert Murillo.

I looked at my watch. It was 10:13. To my right, there remained one more piece of furniture to uncover. Chances were it was a headboard, bed stand, or even a vanity that matched the mirror and tallboy. All Stephens’ furniture. I pointed the flashlight and through the tears in the sheets I saw something made of wood. Cherry-wood. But from the shape, there was no way to determine what exactly lay underneath. To my right, at my feet, there was an old five-gallon bucket with an inch or two of paint that had long ago hardened into a solid mass. I flipped the bucket over and sat down, staring at the old threadbare cloth before me.  I know, I know. You would have already yanked it back to see what was there. But why? If this were the Stephens’ furniture, then this was an exercise in futility and frustration. Whatever was there—it no longer mattered.

And what I had seen along the wall returning back toward the attic entrance was mostly cardboard boxes, parts of an old stove, maybe some smaller appliances (kitchen items), some tall lamps, a fish tank, a couple of large suitcases, and a trunk with clothes hanging out. Nothing large, nothing covered. Certainly no furniture.

I stared at the scene before me. What if there was a vanity beneath the sheet? What if, by some miracle, it actually was Louise Brooks’ vanity? And, what if the negatives were still there, taped to the bottom of that right-hand drawer? What exactly was I supposed to do? What exactly was I involved in here? I mean, was I messing with some time warp here—or was I the warped one? Could I end up back in time by finding these photos and attempting to return them to Louise Brooks in 1927? Or was I the biggest butt of someone’s brazen joke?

I stood up, grabbed the corner of that old sheet and pulled it back in one violent sweeping motion reminiscent of the matador’s cape as the bull charges by. But my ‘cape’ ripped, dust flew everywhere and the flashlight slipped from my hand, falling hard on the floor.  It broke apart, pieces scattering.  Darkness.

I reluctantly crawled around, found most of the pieces and sat on the bucket,  in the near pitch black, attempting to reassemble the flashlight. And then I heard something. Or thought I did. I was not good with insects and darkness and close quarters. Claustrophobia? Arachnophobia? Trust me, knowing what it’s called doesn’t help. And knowing I couldn’t get the damn flashlight to work, I suddenly felt the anxiety of panic. I needed to leave.  Now.

I turned around and saw the dim light near the attic opening in the far end of the attic floor, a beacon to freedom.  I moved quickly toward it, stumbling about, ironically, like a Keystone Cop, tripping over the broom, eventually scrambling down the attic steps and into the safety of the well-lit second-floor hallway—clutching the flashlight as if it were a life preserver. After catching my breath. I looked around, collecting my sanity—and felt like a horse’s ass.

As I continued downstairs and on to the kitchen, I may have flipped on an extra light…or two. I placed the flashlight on the small round table and grabbed a beer. I took a long drink and assessed the damage to the flashlight. Not serious. A battery was missing—a most willing sacrifice to the spiders for allowing my safe return to where there was light. I found my supply of batteries in my “junk drawer,” replaced the missing one, flipped the on switch. Let there be light! I was back in business.

There was one more thing I needed to do before I went back upstairs. I walked to the dining room and turned on the computer.  I checked my email for any messages from the Louise Brooks Society. And damned if there wasn’t a reply from a Mr. Thomas Gladysz, the director and founder of the Louise Brooks Society. His brief note stated that he had attached what he believed was a sample of Miss Brooks’ handwriting. I grabbed my letter addressed to Eddie and held it up against the attachment on the screen. Here’s part of the letter to Eddie:

I will attempt to make this brief.  I know that I  have not been the “good wife,” but I will not apologize for what I am.

And here’s part of the handwriting sample that the Louise Brooks Society provided—an amazing note written by Louise Brooks regarding Bud Schulberg’s contract with Clara Bow! The date on the note was 10/4/25.

Schulberg made a fortune out of the contract he signed with Clara Dec. 1923 at $50 a week. (She worked in 13 pictures in 1925)—

The letter to Eddie was written slightly more than two years after the Clara Bow note above. And in ink. The Bow missive was slightly more slanted, and written in pencil, but there was little doubt that it was a match.

Okay. I accepted the letter as real. And let’s assume Miss Brooks left the letter in my mailbox. Why would she think I could get the negatives for her? And why would she think they were still here? Then again, if she were back in October of 1927, she would naturally assume the furniture she and Eddie had was still here—as would be the negatives. And am I making any sense?

I sat there in the dining room, took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Why did I have this feeling I was missing something? Or had forgotten something? It was like that brain fog we get when we find ourselves in a room wondering why we had gone there. I decided to let it go; if important, it would come to me if I didn’t think about it.

While I had the computer on, I thought I would google DeCaccia Brothers—the furniture makers. I found some pictures of the most amazing Art Deco furniture I had ever seen—much more art than anything functional. And then I read “…due to the high manufacturing expenses involved in the creation of Mood and Image furniture, DeCaccia Brothers stopped production during the early years of the Depression. 1933 saw the end of the line of Mood and Image.“

I paused. But not for long: The damn furniture upstairs in the attic wasn’t the Stephens’ furniture!  It was the Sutherlands’!

Eddie must have sold the furniture with the house. It also explained my brain fog—my mind trying to tell me how the DeCaccia Brothers furniture could be paper-lined in 1938 and still be the Sutherlands’. The Stephens probably re-lined the whole furniture set while they awaited delivery of their own furniture from New York or some local furniture outlet.

I finished the beer—grabbed the flashlight—flicked up my hood and headed back to the attic, skipping stairs, dodging spiders and arriving at the far end of the attic draped in cobwebs. I stared at the last of the unveiled furniture: two cherry-wood bed stands. And a matching vanity.

It was now 11:45. I had taken a long hot shower and put on some clean Levis, an old Hawaiian shirt and some flip-flops. I sat at the dining room table—my office. I had pushed aside manuscripts, research notes and my keyboard. In front of me was the right drawer from the vanity. A remarkable cherry-wood front with a detailed brushed-pewter circular pull of concentric rings seemingly receding into infinity. In the center of the rings was a small five-pointed star. Within the drawer, not coincidentally underneath the regular lining, was a carefully scissored newspaper lining from the same Los Angeles Herald I had discovered in the tallboy. Mrs. Stephens, for whatever length of time she used the re-lined vanity, never realized the envelope was as close as the thickness of the bottom of the drawer. Astonishing.

Equally as fascinating—or mind boggling—was the idea that if I gave the envelope to Louise Brooks, or whoever was in that car tonight, and it was 1927 in her world, would the envelope be in the drawer in 1938 when Mrs. Stephens was using the vanity?

Brain squeeze.

I had already carefully pulled off the tape, though in doing so I tore some of the surface of the envelope. I wiped most of the grime away with a dry cloth. Long parallel scratches stretched across the bottom of the envelope where the constant opening and closing of the drawer had worn away the surface of the paper. The envelope was the same coloring of the large manila envelopes still used today. And similar in size to ones I occasionally use to ‘snail mail’ my manuscripts to Alan. In spite of its four score years, it was in surprisingly good shape and the writing on the front was clearly readable. Written across the front of the envelope in faded pencil was:

                                                                                 Louise Brooks

In the upper left-hand corner, partly unreadable because of the tape damage, was a professionally printed return address:

De Mirjian Stu
1546 Broadw
New Yor

Unbelievable. I sat there no longer doubting that I was holding an envelope that belonged to Louise Brooks. An envelope that for eighty years had somehow survived, shielded from the elements and possibly protecting these personal images of her. If it were a hoax, well, all I could say was, “Good job!”  For now I was a believer. Somehow, I was involved with a beautiful starlet from 1927 who not only thought I was her husband Eddie Sutherland but wanted me to fork over the envelope.

Still, I couldn’t keep the demons of logic out. Even if I were a character in this clandestine time-drama, it still remained an affair between Eddie and Louise—eighty years ago. Not only that, I could be messing with time. I admit my sources were not Einstein backed, but didn’t we all learn while watching Star Trek and Back to the Future the irrefutable fact that altering the past can have catastrophic effects on the future?

I looked long at the envelope. I thought about that wondrous face peering out of the rear window of that classic car, appealing for help and…

Goddammit—I’ll do it.
Whether she saw Eddie Sutherland or she saw me when she drove by, I was the one who saw her and I was the one with the envelope in my hands.

I turned the envelope over. The flap was open. Should I just tape it down and not look inside?  The fact that the envelope would be open probably never occurred to Miss Brooks—why would it?  On the other hand, if she thought I was Eddie Sutherland, then she knew I had already seen the negatives. Therefore, her intent was not preventing Eddie from seeing them but from his using them against her. Why else? Still, did this give me the right to take a peek? What do you think? I think I needed another Corona.

Back at the dining room table and with half the beer consumed, I had made my decision. As long as Louise gets the envelope with everything in it, then it’s not going to hurt anyone if I take a look. And to be perfectly honest, how could I not look? I was in the midst of some kind of rare and remarkable juxtaposition of time. I didn’t want to regret not doing anything. And never did she say in her letter NOT to look inside the envelope. Lundy logic prevailed. I went in.

For the second time that day, I was about to enter—via an envelope—a different time…a different world. I had no idea if I was about to discover poisonous spiders that were about to defend their adopted home or if I were about to unleash a bright flash of light hurling me through space and into a different dimension.

I took a deep breath, parted the opening and slowly reached in, carefully pulling out…a newspaper clipping! It was folded in half. I laid it on the table and opened it; surprisingly, as fragile and brittle as it was, it was in good readable condition. At the top half of the article was a headline and, just below, a photograph of a young woman I recognized immediately: my mystery lady—the beauty in the backseat—Louise Brooks.

There was no way of telling what newspaper the article was from. My guess was it was the New York Times. The story’s lead line was “New York, Dec. 26.”  The year was definitely 1925 as it preceded her marriage to Eddie, yet she was already an established Ziegfeld showgirl. For someone born in 1906, it was astonishing her accomplishments: her success as a dancer and showgirl, a featured member of the Ziegfeld Follies, a budding starlet and now suing the fairly powerful and influential photographer, John De Mirjian. All this by nineteen years of age!

The article, I believe, was poorly written and even smacked of sexism. Although she admitted to have done what was expected of all showgirls at the time, she still believed she was justified in filing an injunction suit to prevent camera man Mr. De Mirjian from ever supplying press agents, periodicals, and the public generally with any showgirl’s pictures—particularly hers.  A most courageous and inspiring undertaking.

That article appears on the following page.

She obviously won her case. I could not find when this happened, but I would assume because of the late date in 1925 when she filed the injunction, she most likely received the negatives in 1926. The same year she married Eddie. I reached again for the envelope. Were those famous negatives still there? And, if so, had they been destroyed by cruel and patient time—leaving nothing more than a crumbling pile of black dust? Or…?

My guess was that her intent was to destroy the negatives before Eddie might do something stupid with them. Particularly if his ego were damaged by her affair with new boyfriend George. With her meteoric success in the movies since 1925, she must have been concerned that if any of these photos appeared now, it might be detrimental to her continued success and her chances for real stardom. I had to think she regretted not destroying them when she first got them. Possibly, with the battle won and the negatives in hand, she never thought to. But now, separated from a cuckolded Eddie and without having access to them, she wanted them in hand once again. Maybe she felt Eddie might possibly sell them off to the highest bidder or worse—blackmail her. Whatever the case, my guess was she hoped that Eddie would be the gentleman she had known—although more recently a boring workaholic—and place the envelope in the mailbox.*

But had the images disintegrated—or whatever film does—over time? I do know that a dry and clean environment will protect negatives for a long time and being placed in an envelope and stored in the attic may have unintentionally but fortunately been best for their preservation. I hoped they were intact.  Because it was very important to her—and, to be honest, because I would love the opportunity to see them.  Nude pictures of Louise Brooks? Even in negative, I was sure they would be a pleasure to behold. And don’t think I don’t know what you’re thinking—and I’m not feeling guilty about it at all.

I slid the negatives—or sheet film—out of the envelope. No black dust. There were three of them. They appeared unblemished, perfect. These so-called sheet films were larger—maybe four by five inches—and slightly thicker than the negatives with which I was familiar. Each sat inside a paper pocket that covered the bottom third of the image. I’m sure they were used to protect the negatives from rubbing against each other—and probably a safe way to hold them up to the light without inflicting them with any oily fingerprints. Each pocket bared the name and logo of Mr. John De Mirjian, photographer.

Suddenly, the phone rang. Who in the hell…?


“This will be your neighbor, Jay.” He was doing his Damon Runyon. “I am sorry to disturb you at such a late hour, but as I am taking a leak, I am looking out my bathroom window, and it is while finishing my call to nature, I am able to see lights flashing in your attic. As you have reminded me over the years that the attic is not a place which you are likely to frequent, my curiosity and concern as to whom is there, indeed got the better of me; hence I am phoning—you got ghosts, buddy?”

I let out a sigh of relief. “Jay, yeah. No. No ghosts. Things are fine. I was working on my book, and I thought I heard somebody upstairs. I took a break and grabbed the flashlight and did some exploring. That’s all. Everything’s cool. Probably some ghosts moving around. Appreciate the call, though. And, by the way, you do a lousy Nathan Detroit.”

Jay snorted and laughed. And was gone.

The room, quiet again, took on an almost queer, odd feel. The soft hum of my old electric Telechron was the only noise in the room. Both hands on the clock pointed straight up—midnight.  Sunday morning.

I laid out the negatives in front of me, randomly picking up the one on the right. I lifted it up to the overhead light. The image, reversed in its blacks and whites, showed Miss Brooks facing the camera in a three-quarter view, her arms extended out above her head in what appeared a ballet pose—she looked like a dark, enchanting nymph—her normally ebony hair, a brilliant white. She wore only high-heel shoes.

The second negative was a side view of her, facing to her right, again blacks and whites reversed. That famous ‘helmet’ of hair with the bob in the back and those bangs and spit curls gleaming white. Artistically posed, she held a large fan discreetly and strategically placed with her left hand, a drape hung over an extended right arm and she wore a necklace. Nothing more. This one, I will share.

The last negative of Louise Brooks was indeed the most revealing: a tribute to all that is woman. Facing the camera, totally nude, she appears to be emerging from a gossamer womb. My guess is Mr. De Mirjian was thinking Aphrodite, the goddess of Love and Beauty, who had just sprung from the foam of the sea. Without doubt, even in negative, a most artistic and remarkable image. Looking down slightly to her left, her arms delicately extended, allowing the gossamer to drape behind, she was undeniably the essence of female splendor.

I sat there for a few minutes, revisiting each negative, thinking I would never see them again once delivered to their rightful owner. I finally picked up the envelope with the intent of returning the negatives to where they had secretly lain for all those years. Except as I did, I noticed there was one more item in the envelope. I turned the envelope upside down and out fell… a key.


*  Interesting sideline: recently, I read an article in the L. A. Times, headline: “Celebrity Rocked by Nude Photo Scandal!” Nicole Ritchie lost her digital camera at a nightclub, and it seems the camera’s memory card had X-rated photographs of her and her celebrity friends. She had demanded the employees of the famous nightspot to turn on the lights and get everyone to search for the camera. Miss Ritchie was in a corner going totally nuts, fearful the photos would turn up on the Web. What’s that old saying? “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

1 comment:

  1. You posted, "the last negative" and "facing the camera, totally nude...", but there is no corresponding picture. Just wondering.


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