Another weekend, another party: the way of things in Tinseltown. This wasn’t just any party, however. It was meant to be special, to paint my future as Mrs. Jack Marshall and put me on display with that godawful ruby. Red belonged on my lips, not my finger.
I accepted his proposal through a pursed-lipped okay, and had done nothing but question myself since. The world we lived in was nothing of fairytales or futures, but marriage was required. In Hollywood, we bathed in the tickling fizzle of champagne while knowing or caring little for the grime and dirt burying the Great Plains. Children and mothers and fathers pumped from long dried wells with cracked and bloody hands, praying for a drop of water to moisten their sunburned lips, while I worried over the freedoms I’d lose in becoming a bride—a great mismatch of fates.
Though not my dream, the steady beat of Jack was enough to keep me grounded. He could provide a wonderful life I’d never receive elsewhere, and despite his distaste for my education, we cared enough for each other—or perhaps ourselves—to fashion a life in those rubies and lies. Love, though he’d boasted it, did not hold a place in our peculiar relationship. I was conniving, he savvy, and together we were what Los Angeles royalty was about. Vivien Leigh, at an event with Laurence one evening, had complimented me on how lovely I and Jack looked together, and even Clark Gable (my own version of a perfect man) had commended Jack’s taste in women.
Now, I had an extravagant wedding to plan; a marriage to dread. Neither of my parents thrilled at the engagement, but both knew better than to stop me once I set my mind to something. Despite the Franc family fortune, I needed to be taken care of to survive in the depression crippled world. The nation lost fingers and toes to the black of frostbite of economic destruction, and the country was already on shaky legs; a single swift breeze could send it tumbling head over feet into the abyss it was climbing out of. I knew my meager complaints would never register in the chronicles of injustice, so I shut them up, locked them away, and surrendered the key to Jack in the form of marriage.
From the moment I awoke to the sun bleeding pink and gold across the sky, the day was different. My morning Earl Grey was too bitter and the raspberry preserves on my toast too tart. Daddy, always so alive and full of stories from the week, fell into a silent place inside his head. An aura of change sifted through the sunroom where he and I sat to breakfast and listened to a trombone’s pomp melody filter from the radio.
The atmosphere shifted again when a knock on the door resounded throughout the house. My teacup rattled on the bone china saucer as I flinched against the invasion of our solitude. When a second knock rang out right away, my gaze met Daddy’s over the lip of his coffee mug. His face grew as ashen as his graying hair, and his eyes begged me to not answer the door, to let the visitors pass us by. It wasn’t often I did as bid without good reason, and I felt this was the beginning of something new—the onset of the change I’d sensed.
I stood and made my way to the door with Arnie close on my heels, opening it to the same men in drab suits and matching fedoras I’d seen speaking with Daddy on Independence Day. One man was short, stout, and baby-faced, with bitter chocolate eyes and a built-in frown; the other stood tall and solid like a tree, complete with green leaf eyes and tanned skin.
“Virginia Elsa Franc?” the rotund man asked, studying me for a moment. An accent in his voice spoke of English roots.
My eyebrows furrowed, confusion etched on porcelain skin. “Yes. What can I do for you?”
“This is Colonel Vekris,” he said, pointing to the towering giant, “and I’m Agent MacCauley, Ma’am.”
“Agent?” I heard myself ask as my eyes drop to his unbuttoned suit jacket where a holstered revolver was plainly visible.
“Yes, Ma’am. May we come inside and chat for a—”
“There’s nothing to discuss,” my father interrupted, stretching a solid arm in front of me—protective and decided.
“Mr. Franc,” the man spoke firmly. “You admitted it was her decision to make.”
“Yeah,” Daddy snorted, “but I’ve changed my mind. Get off my property.”
My eyes danced back and forth between my father and the men before us. The air held thick tension, so syrupy I could nearly float atop it. “Decision? What’s this about?” I questioned, remaining neutral to Father’s opposition and the man’s request.
The tall man broke his silence, speaking as though he’d known me a thousand lifetimes. “Tell us, how good is your German, Ginny.”
I went to my room and locked the door, shutting myself away from any distractions as I contemplated what was presented to me. For a time, the weight upon my shoulders was too great to bear before others. There was much to think on; too much to contemplate in the handful of minutes I had to myself. Only when Mother threatened to have Daddy remove the hinges from the door did I retreated from my refuge. I’d be late for my own party if I didn’t, but at even the gala I refused to be forced to socialize or greet guests.
My mind fluttered alive—each thought a butterfly escaping its cocoon and taking flight for the first time. An influx of information and knowledge, enough to flood my soul and suffocate my will, shook me to the core. The world was mad, insane in its chaos and disarray; in its hate and fear.
“You want another martini, baby?” Jack’s voice interrupted the butterfly procession, scattering them about over my head to the rhythmic beat of drums and trumpets from the band. I’d have a hell of a time reining them back in.
I glanced down at my empty glass, where two green olives slid along condensation left by the chilled gin. Lifting them to my mouth, frustrated by the constant invasion of my thoughts, I bit into them with ferocity, feeling the pop and squish between my teeth and giving me a few more drops of liquor, before lifting the glass toward my intended. “Please,” I demanded in monotone annoyance.
He drifted away, graceful and steady like the star he was, stopping every few moments to greet one of our guests and pick up the slack left behind in the wake of my tumultuous mind. I’d been an abhorrent hostess at my own engagement party, but those judging my lack of decorum could burn with the devil. My mood was in disarray from the visit with the suits earlier in the morning. What they asked of me . . . it was all too much.
“You don’t need to do it, Ginny.” Daddy’s voice severed the air, killing several of the monarchs thoughts flittering about. I hadn’t spoken the thoughts aloud, but he’d obviously seen them stretching and occupying all available space surrounding me. I lifted my eyes from the inward musing as Daddy took the seat to my right and placed his whiskey on the table.
Before acknowledging his comment, I snatched it up and took a swift gulp, begging the liquor to burn me alive like a witch at the stake and allow me an escape from the harrowing choice I had to make. “Well,” I asked when the flame in my throat subsided. “Are you doing it?”
“You know I am.” His eyes were cumulonimbi, both thunderbolts of reprimand and raining floods of pride held welled within for me, his only daughter. I was everything tenacious—the fervent woman he’d wanted me to become. That drive, however, may have been the reason I faced such a choice.
Since the Great War, he’d been adamant about changing the country’s perception of the German-Americans, and now he was asked to do so in an entirely different way. But what they’d asked of me . . . it provoked my patriotism while challenging the fabric of my constitution.
“I don’t want you doing this,” my father grumbled, stealing his drink back from my sweaty hands. “You don’t belong in the middle of it, Ginny.”
“And an old man like you does?” I snapped back, the rubber band I’d been since childhood: smart, sassy, and angry. He raised a thick, gray brow and ground his teeth together, an ominous warning I recognized from a lifetime of loving discipline. “I’m sorry, Daddy.”
He pulled my hands into his own—two generations displayed in his veins and wrinkles and my smooth, flawless skin—and running his thumb over the ruby ring. “I won’t be old until I have grandchildren,” he said, forcing me to shudder against the onslaught of babies, diapers, and bottles invading my thoughts. “Besides, printing propaganda from behind a desk in Los Angeles is hardly in the middle of it.”
We stood, and I rose to my tiptoes to plant a rouged kiss on his round cheek. “I’ll think it over,” I said, thumbing the lipstick off his fair skin—an aged version of my own. “If you’ll excuse me, Daddy, I’m going inside to muse for a bit.”
“Escaping your own party?” he asked with a twinkle lighting his eyes like beams of sunlight after a rain storm.
A smirk played at the corners of my mouth as I placed a quieting finger over my crimson lips. “Shh. Don’t tell a soul.”
“I’ll cover for you. Go on inside.”
“Thanks, Daddy.” I smiled and walked through the patio door.
“Oh, Ginny?” he called after me. “I have a bottle of Plymouth from ’32 in the cabinet. Have at it.”
A laugh bubbled to my lips, so light and free, it belied the depths of my sensibilities. “You do know that gin doesn’t get better with age, right?”
Daddy held a hand to his chest in faux pain. “I’ll not have you speaking like that, Ginny. You’ve gotten better with age, after all.” With an uproarious laugh—the kind that washes away trepidations—he shooed me into the house and turned back to the party.
I took the stairs of the illustrious mansion with grace and mastery. It was all I ever knew, yet something deeply appreciated by my parents. I recalled little of my earliest years, but I’d heard the stories of how we struggled while Daddy was fighting in the muddy trenches of France. All I remembered of the time before California’s palms and beaches was the stench of blood from a meat packing plant a block away from where we lived in the Bronx. The odor permeated the curtains and sheets and pillows with death; California was truly a breath of fresh air.
Without Hollywood, I’d be sitting in a small flat with my parents, washing and sewing buttons onto sweaty cotton shirts the way Mother did in the years Daddy was away at war. And without Jack, I’d be lost to the cause of feminist tenacity and never know the grandeur of a family and home. There are worse things I could think of.
I should’ve been reigning in Hollywoodland—the heir of a queen of cinema and king of print—but I was as restless as a honeybee in spring, flitting from flower to flower until I’d had my fill. Knowledge was my nectar, the sugar of life, and I was a living, breathing contradiction of everything society thought I should be.
Be beautiful, it said, sitting me high upon a pedestal of glamor and grace, but don’t be vain.
Be witty, the world said, so I studied hard, but don’t be too smart.
Be a wife, they chimed, so I accepted Jack’s proposal but never question a man.
I’d been set up for failure, the plight of every woman who donned fuchsia silk and long strands of Fijian pearls the color of pistachios. The difference between me and all the other women was that I refused to be that which others wanted, for I was a black star in a world of brilliant light.
When I reached my room, I flipped the electric switch and watched the area flood with muted light, and walked across the plush plum carpet to the bookshelf which lined an entire wall from floor to ceiling. My hand slid along the leather bindings of works by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Agatha Christie, and George Orwell, feeling the frayed stitching tickling my fingertips. Margaret Mitchell’s new book, Gone with the Wind, sat in grand honor, worn more in its first year of print than many of the others. Hemingway wasn’t allowed on the shelf since Mother said it was unsuitable for ladies, but I’d snuck his last novel from the college library to add to my collection.
It was a rare occasion when someone was invited into my sanctuary, for it was holy ground. Jack had been in only once when we first began seeing each other, but the first words out of his mouth were about the money I’d wasted on books during a depression. He could go to hell because he’d never understand why I wanted an education or why I refused to rely on him for the entirety of my future. Happiness was something I held in my own hands, and no one would be the master of it but myself.
“Why aren’t you downstairs at the party, Virginia?” Jack’s deep voice filled my ears, replacing the peace with edginess. We lived there on the edge of pain and pleasure, hatred and lust, but was uncertain I could exist like that forever.
“I’m sorry,” I finally responded, not turning from my books. “I have a headache. Too much gin.”
I felt his dark presence before his hands descended to my waist, slipping down my flat belly and cupping my sex through the silk gown. “I know the perfect way to cure a headache, baby.”
October 1, 1937
I was wrapped in gold and champagne silk with pearls hanging down to my belly, knotted with a brooch from my great-grandmother’s antebellum days in Kentucky. My hair matched the fabric of my wedding gown as I stared into the mirror, embellished with feathers and jewels and a chiffon veil flowing out behind me. Our wedding day came with the speed of a freight train and the ferocity of a dragon. It flew around my head for months, threatening my sanity, but was now a living, fire-breathing, earth-crushing beast owning my existence.
I tried to cool myself with a lace fan given to me for the occasion. The summer heat had yet to recede back toward the desert, and the ocean offered little relief from the blazing temperatures, proving the feral beast had found me.
Jack was everything I expected during the wedding preparations: absent. Since working on his latest film took priority, he’d only been near when he needed my body to fulfill his desires. Sad though it may be, this was how I preferred my fiancé. Missing was better than ever present. If marriage could guarantee such a wonder, I would be content in my solitude.
The one thing Jack involved himself in was the planning of the honeymoon. It would be a short-lived jot to Palm Springs to stay in the El Mirador Hotel, where I could spend my days in the blue waters of the pool while Jack played golf with the handful of groomsmen he’d insisted should come along.
I, however, was anticipating in earnest the day we’d returned to Jack’s—my—exquisite home in the Hollywood Hills. But not for the house itself. No, for as soon as we returned to Los Angeles, Jack would be flying with the rest of the film crew on a huge propeller airship to the Hawaiian Islands to finish his movie. I’d marry him and do what was expected, but find solace in the fact he’d be gone for the two months following.
“Are you ready?” Mother asked from the doorway, and I offered a weak smile through the mirror of the vanity where I sat. She was the epitome of the Jazz Age, a bearcat dame in every way, who refused to grow out her brunette bob though the style was trending toward longer tendrils. Her burgundy tainted smile was stained as though she had an eternal sip of merlot on her lips, instead of the scarlet which I loved to wear. “Everyone is waiting on you, dear.”
My unpainted eyelids dropped as I closed them against the emotion welling up like a rainstorm. When the cushioned seat dipped as Mother sat beside me, I reopened them. “Perhaps they can wait a bit longer.”
“Oh, Mama,” I cried, grabbing tissues and dashing the tears from my peony pink cheeks. “What am I doing? He doesn’t love me, and I sure as hell don’t love him, and that doesn’t even matter. ”
Mother watched me with knowing eyes, aged with wisdom and experience. “Love isn’t all there is in life, Ginny. Sometimes, two people can help each other, and that replaces a need for love. Sometimes—”
“Honest to goodness, I’m not interested in love,” I swore, knowing the truth of it in my pounding heart. “Love is a weakness that women can’t afford, and Jack... We’re cut from the same cloth, but I don’t think that’s a good thing. He’s fun...at times, but that’s not enough to make a marriage. That isn’t what you and Daddy have. It’s more of the fact that I abhor Jack at times.”
She brushed a strand of my golden hair from my cheek and pinned it behind my ear. “Who doesn’t abhor their husband at some point, honey. We’re women, after all, and this is our lot in life. I almost left with you while your father was fighting in France. I was treated very poorly for having a German husband during the war. But, when he came home with a bullet wound in his shoulder and eyes filled with the death and pain he’d seen, I knew I had to stay with him. It was the best thing I’ve ever done.”
“You never told me this.” I watched Mother with confusion.
“No, I didn’t, honey. Sometimes, the things we think are for the best...are not.”
I laughed between rivers of tears, dubiety sinking further into my heart and soul. “If this was supposed to be a chat about how I belong beside my fiancé, it didn’t help much.”
Smiling as soft as the silk of my gown, Mother stood and straightened the strand of pearls I donned. “And sometimes, mothers get to pass on wisdom in a riddle. No matter what you do, Virginia Elsa Franc, you know what’s best for you.”
I married him there on Mother and Daddy’s sprawling lawn, with the sun setting behind us and keeping the night heated as it dipped below the horizon. Afterward, the cocktails flowed and men and women from all over the country danced on pretentious airs of imagined importance.
Jack swept me, his bride, away as the chiming grandfather clock struck midnight, escorting me back to the Biltmore Hotel and consummating our marriage by taking me on my knees. Romance was mislaid to the night, and afterward, I lay on my back, with my new husband’s arms heavy and suffocating around my waist, wondering why the suitable things in life—like me and Jack—are not always meant to be.
Marriage was my second regret.