LA Stories

Dark Lady of Hollywood (excerpt)

The fairest hand I ever touch’d! O beauty,

Till now I never knew thee!

— King Henry, King Henry the Eighth

The next morning, I had a change of heart. I stopped by my old office on the way to my new office, shook hands with the twenty-four-year-old who had replaced me in that many hours, and picked up the plant.

If I was going down, so was the bromeliad.

As I walked into the Hacienda, I could hear a young secretary — excuse me, assistant, there’s no such thing as a secretary in this business — on the phone in some distant office, chattering away about how work was going. “It’s crazed, I’m like so crazed, I’m like, dying!” she gasped. “With this new job, I don’t even have time to be bisexual!”

I was beginning to notice how often young entertainment industry types said they were just dying when, as far as I could see, nothing whatsoever was happening to them.

I’d already met the head of Movies and Minis because, at one point earlier in our careers at another network, I had fired her. Blair Smith was about fifty now, with threads of gray in her thin, straight blond hair. She was one of those tall, big-boned women who look like men in drag. “Good to see you again, Kenny,” she said, her tone making very clear that it was not. “I’m very sorry to hear about your, ah, situation, but we’re all excited to have you on board.”

“ Blair, I want this to be business as usual.”

“Agreed,” she said. “And that’s why I’ve got your first project right here in my hand. It’s a Peters/Brown movie about a woman who’s got . . .” her voice trailed off into nothing.

“I know. I read the press announcement. Amazing that this department still has files from 1979.”

“Good.” Blair cleared her throat as if to make sure the word she’d been about to say hadn’t gotten stuck in there and screwed up her cells or anything. “Tyne Daly. But they’ve got no script, just a star. I mean this is the script, but it’s no script.” She placed a huge stack of white paper in my arms, way more paper than ordinarily required for a two-hour story. “Tyne doesn’t like it either, but she’s had two MOWs in her contract with us since before she did Cagney and Lacey. And by now we’ve got so many people attached to this project it’s cheaper to actually produce it than to pay them off.”

.I was already on the Peters/Brown area of the lot when it became clear to me it is a bad idea to swallow a handful of new prescription drugs on an empty stomach. I stopped walking as my world slipped sideways. I shook my head, trying to get back my equilibrium. At the same time, I lost control of the Tyne Daly script. Random sheets of paper fell from my grasp. Even in this alarming moment of vertigo, I couldn’t help thinking this script was probably no worse with the pages missing.

Luckily, I was near the open door of one of the sound stages on the lot. I could go inside, get out of the sun. I stumbled up the four small steps up to the narrow side door that led into the cavernous sound stage.

“Hey, the line starts back here, asshole!” I heard an angry voice say. I turned to see who had spoken. It was then that I noticed a long, restless line of people waiting to enter this particular studio. Pale, overweight people in shorts and sneakers, with tote bags and tiny cameras, itchy fingers poised to tweet should their favorite sitcom star stroll by on the way to the set. These people were shooting pictures of celebrity parking spaces. That said it all. The unruly crowd could be none other than a live studio audience.

Confused, I looked back at the sign beside the entrance: Peters/Brown Studio 7. Studio 7. Shit — of all places. Everybody in the country, probably the world, knew what show taped here in Studio 7. TV’s most outrageously popular daytime talk show, Really, Girlfriend? — hosted by the reigning queen of American pop psychology, Jazzminn Jenks.

There were two things everybody in America knew about Really, Girlfriend?: all the guests were women, and each guest was required to take off her shoes and put on pink bunny slippers before she joined Jazzminn Jenks on the pink sofa. Like a big pajama party. Jazzminn would always smile and pat the seat cushion next to her: come, sit next to me, girlfriend. Then, she and the guest would curl their big-slippered feet up under their skirts and gab.

“I’m sorry sir, I know it’s hot, but be patient. We’re not letting people in yet!” A perky, college-aged page in a bright blue blazer, her shiny black hair pulled back into tight ponytail, rushed over very importantly to block my entrance — obviously not the first time she’d done this today. She was swinging her glossy tail of hair on purpose, and her little gold nametag said she was Peggy Chen.

“It’s all right, Peggy, I’m with the network — development.” I gave perky Peggy Chen a wink, which she of course just ate up.  Then, instead of climbing up to my seat, I ducked into the tiny men’s room behind the stands and, as quietly as possible, threw up everything I’d eaten since Friends went off the air.

I was obviously going to miss my writer’s meeting. Besides, I’d lost most of the script. So, clinging tight to the railing, I half-walked, half-crawled up to my seat in the back row, and then waited in the dark, alone in the empty stands. I’m pretty sure no one could see me up there.

And then, suddenly, there she was: Jazzminn Jenks, striding out onto the stage, surrounded by an entourage of very thin, worried-looking female assistants dressed in various shades of black. She was five feet tall and no more than ninety pounds, most of it cleavage. She looked about thirty-five years old, which meant she had to be over forty. She had a gleaming, shoulder-length pile of that Hollywood hair, bright blond, its roots a black starfish washed up on a sandy beach.

But right now, Jazzminn Jenks wasn’t smiling her billboard smile. She was screaming. From betwixt her pink-frosted rosebud lips came these words, in a shriek like mandrakes torn out of the earth: “These are the wrong fucking slippers!!! Get me the right ones, Goddamnit!!! NOW!!!”

I hate to argue with Shakespeare, but when it comes to what goes on behind the scenes in the entertainment industry, sometimes the fault is in our stars.

And then, clutching a pair of pink bunny slippers exactly like the one that had caused Jazzminn’s sudden meltdown, emerged the loveliest creature in the world.

Most radiant, exquisite, and unmatchable beauty!

A cascade of warm, brown curls that glinted with golden lights flowed down the back of her soft white dress. Her flawless skin was the color of sweet honey dripping from a spoon. Her slightly slanted eyes were a shade I’m not even sure I can describe — green, I guess, but alive and sparkling with bright particles of amber and silver and gold.  From whence could a person who looked like this possibly have come? What country, what century, what planet?

She also had these really great tits. I look at tits. I’m not fussy about size or anything. I just like them all, as a category.

Without saying a word, the creature took away one pair of Jazzminn’s size-four pink bunnies and replaced them with the other. Then, carrying one of the wrong fucking slippers in each hand, she disappeared.

“Hi, everybody, I love you!” Jazzminn called out, running to the front of the stage in her enormous pink slippers to blow big handfuls of kisses, left and right. From somewhere in the wings, streams of little pink soap bubbles wafted into the air. “Maybe your mother doesn’t love you, or your father doesn’t love you, or your therapist doesn’t love you — but I love you,” she crooned. “Because — who am I?” With an exaggerated gesture, she lifted one small hand to cup her ear. “Come on, gang. You know the answer. Who am I?”

“Our girlfriend!” the audience shouted back in happy unison, their long, sweaty hours in the heat instantly forgotten.

I don’t remember who Jazzminn’s guests were that day. My ears were deaf to what they had to say. I could think of nothing but the barefoot, honey woman in the flowing white dress, and whether I would ever see her again.

Before I knew it, the show was over. Jazzminn Jenks had worked her talk-show magic on the audience. They appeared excited and happy as they grabbed their tote bags and cameras, scuffling out of their seats to head for, I don’t know, Universal Studios or Knott’s Berry Farm or something.

They had to step over me on the way out, though. I had, by now, pulled out of my dreamy trance, only to realize I felt not a whole lot better than I had when I came in. I motioned my fellow audience members to go past me, which they seemed only too happy to do. Yeah, definitely going to Universal Studios.

“Excuse me, sir, are you all right?” I sensed a hand on my shoulder. Not a particularly light touch — a firm, warm hand. I opened my eyes to behold the woman with the unruly brown hair and the green-gold-silver-amber eyes, staring down at me with an expression of deep concern. She was here.

I lifted my head and stared back.  “Yeah, thanks,” I finally said, my voice raspy and soft. Definitely not the sound I was going for. “I . . . came here right from a workout at the gym, and I forgot to eat anything. I’ll be fine.”

“Maybe you should have some fruit juice. We have all kinds of juice backstage.”

I shook my head. I shouldn’t have — it hurt. “I’m fine. Terrific. Really.”

.“Well, okay. But if you need anything at all, just let me know. I’m Jazzminn’s personal assistant. Just call down for me. I’m Ophelia.”

Her name was Ophelia? Ophelia, as in wacky virgin from Hamlet? Chaste treasure, maiden presence — sweet Ophelia? Hello, it didn’t take a scholar to figure this one out. This wonderful, not-at-all-blond person, whose roots miraculously matched the rest of her hair, was the Dark Lady, the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, the Dark Lady of Studio 7, the Dark Lady of television’s most popular daytime talk show, Really, Girlfriend? My Dark Lady.

I had not even had to look for her. She had found me. She had touched me.

“You take care, then,” she said, turned, and began to skip down the stairs toward the stage.

“Wait . . . I think . . . maybe some juice might help after all,” I called after her. Actually, I was suddenly feeling a great deal better. Not bad at all, in fact. But it was much too soon to let her go.

“Sure. I’ll get you some. Back in a sec.”

“Ophelia! Where the fuck are you?” It was the voice of Jazzminn, howling from somewhere backstage.

In a few moments, I could hear Ophelia murmuring something backstage to Jazzminn. “I don’t know what Ophelia told her, but soon a whole bunch of those thin young women in black, led by Ophelia in her flowing white dress, began appearing at my side. They were bearing bottles of juice of all kinds and colors, their faces contorted with anxiety.

“Thank you all, but this one will be just fine,” I said, motioning at whatever it was Ophelia held in her incredibly soft hand. Her hand had to be soft, didn’t it? “The rest of you can go.” Relieved, the anxious little women quickly dispersed.

I gave Ophelia a calculatedly weak smile as she placed in my hand a frosted plastic bottle containing, Jesus, what was this, a banana-coconut smoothie. It was thick, slippery, and sweet. Not a beverage, not solid food, but something wretchedly in-between.

“This is wonderful, thanks,” I murmured. “And, I’m sorry — I didn’t even introduce myself.” I shook her hand. Very soft indeed. “I’m with the network — development. Ken Harrison.”

“You’re a network executive?” She seemed to like that. In fact, she sat down next to me, so very close. “I’m very interested in development, where everything is still fresh and open to change, you know? I’ve been working for Jazzminn Jenks for the past four years, but actually I’m an actress. I’m studying drama at Lana Bishop in Hollywood.”

An actress? Oh, great. No matter what kind of encounter I tried to have with an actress, it always turned into an audition. But, at this moment, her acting aspirations just might be something I could work with. I needed something to capture her interest, something to hold her before she disappeared, melted away into nothing like everything else. In the past eight months, I’d had just about as much nothing as I could take.

“Really?” I managed to sound surprised that I had met an actress in Los Angeles. “That’s fascinating. I’m involved in a lot of casting for the network shows.”

I had said the word “casting” in front of an actress. I waited for the Pavlovian response. Her eyes began to sparkle again. My God, what marvelous eyes. “Ophelia, I’d really like to thank you for helping me out today. Let me take you to lunch this week. We could talk about your career. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I have been in network television for more than ten years.”

“Ophelia, I need you. Is that guy dead yet or what?” bellowed Jazzminn Jenks.

Ophelia jumped from her seat and made a face — not at me. “Um . . . when were you thinking?” she asked, hesitantly.

“Tomorrow?” I said quickly — then forced a chuckle. “I didn’t mean to sound pushy, it’s just that I’m booked with lunch meetings for the rest of the week, and I had a cancellation for tomorrow. I’m not sure that’s going to happen again for a while. Things have been just crazed.”

“Oh, yes, here too! I’m just dying!” Ophelia nodded happily.

Ophelia!”

“All right — tomorrow,” Ophelia said. “We usually break right around noon, so if you come by here then, I can meet you. Right now, I have to go. Good-bye . . . Ken?”

I nodded. “Ken. And . . . Ophelia.” I wanted to say her name. Lovely — although it did cross my mind that’s a hell of a lot of syllables for a man in my condition.

“Noon, then. I’ll drop by.” I gave her an enigmatic half-smile, the kind that usually worked with women and always worked with actresses. I haven’t forgotten everything, you know.

Diane Haithman was an Arts Staff Writer for the Los Angeles Times until October, 2009 and is a major contributor to Deadline Hollywood industry website and its print publication, AwardsLine. She recently joined the adjunct faculty of University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism, teaching Feature Writing. Prior to joining the Times, Diane was West Coast Bureau Chief and Hollywood columnist for the Detroit Free Press, based in Los Angeles. Diane is a graduate of the University of Michigan Honors College with a joint degree in English and Psychology. She is co-author of the book The Elder Wisdom Circle Guide for a Meaningful Life (Penguin/Plume 2007). Her most recent novel, Dark Lady of Hollywood, was published March 15, 2014 by Harvard Square Editions. Visit www.dianehaithman.com.