It’s 1962, and Twentieth Century Fox is threatening to fire Marilyn Monroe. The blond goddess hires Nate Heller, private eye to the stars, to tap her phone so she will have a record of their calls in case they take her to court. When Heller starts listening, he uncovers far more than nasty conversations. The CIA, the FBI, the Mafia—even the Russians—are involved in actions focused on Marilyn. She’s the quintessential American cultural icon, idolized by women, desired by men, but her private life is… complicated…and her connection to the Kennedys makes her an object of interest to some parties with sinister intentions.
Not long after Heller signs on, Marilyn winds up dead of a convenient overdose. The detective feels he owes her, and the Kennedys, with whom he busted up corrupt unions in the 1950s. But now, as Heller investigates all possible people—famous, infamous, or deeply cloaked—who might be responsible for Marilyn’s death, he realizes that what has become his most challenging assignment may also be the end of him.
The naked actress was laughing, splashing, her flesh incandescent against the shimmer of blue, now on her back, then bottoms up, her happy sounds echoing, as if she were the only woman in the world—and wasn’t she?
She was, after all, Marilyn Monroe, and this was Fox’s Soundstage 14, where she was shooting the film Something’s Got to Give, under the supervision of legendary Hollywood director George Cukor.
Nude scenes were common overseas—Bardot had become famous flashing her fanny in And God Created Woman— but a major star like Monroe shedding for the CinemaScope camera? Just not done, even if she did have those notorious calendar shots in her past.
This was the closed set of all closed sets. A small army of security guards had been summoned by producer Henry Weinstein to cover the five entrances to the soundstage, after word of the nude scene wildfired across the lot. This was the toughest ticket in town, unless you had an in.
I had an in. Last night I’d heard from Marilyn’s personal publicist, Pat Newcomb (calling at the star’s request), that tomorrow would be the “day of days” on the Something’s Got to Give set.
“Marilyn says you wanted to visit,” Pat said, in her pleasantly professional way, “sometime during filming. And this is it.”
“Mind my asking what’s special about tomorrow?”
“She has a swimming scene and, knowing Marilyn, might just slip out of her suit. . . .”
I reminded Miss Newcomb that I needed two passes, and was assured they’d be waiting at the studio gate.
So how did I rate? Big-shot agent? Top Hollywood columnist? Producer sizing up MM for his next picture, maybe?
No. I was just a private detective, or anyway I used to be. Since my agency grew to three locations (LA, Manhattan, and the original Chicago office), I’d become mostly a figurehead, bouncing between them, handling publicity and sucking up to big-money clients. I couldn’t remember when I last knocked on a strange door or parked outside some motel with a camera, much less carried a gun.
But Nathan Heller, president of the A-1 Detective Agency, me, had indeed done a number of private eye jobs for Miss Monroe, starting with bodyguard duty in Chicago on her Gentlemen Prefer Blondes junket, and more recently tracking down a guy named C. Stanley Gifford, who she thought was her father, in the sense that he was the likeliest candidate for having knocked up Mom, who currently resided in the latest of many nuthouses.
Old C. Stanley missed the boat, or maybe his gravy train, when my client used the info I gathered to call her potential pop and say, “This is Norma Jeane—I’m Gladys Baker’s daughter.” Apparently thinking this was a touch, the idiot—unaware that Norma Jeane Baker had transformed herself, through no little effort, into Marilyn Monroe—hung up. On her second try, she got C. Stanley’s wife, who told the caller to contact her husband’s lawyer if she “had a complaint.”
Anyway, we were friendly, Marilyn and I, and for a while had been very friendly. In the interim I had transformed myself, through no little effort, into “the private eye to the stars.” This was a nice trick since I lived in Chicago, though the A-1’s ongoing security job with the Beverly Hills Hotel meant I had a bungalow whenever and for however long I might need one.
I also had an ex-wife out here, a former actress now married to a once successful producer, neither of whom I gave a shit about. I gave much more than a shit about my teenage son, Sam, who was actually Nathan Samuel Heller, Jr., only we had called him “Sam” when he was little, to avoid having two Nates around. Before long, my wife was happy not to have any Nate around.
So Sam it was, now a happy fourteen-year-old. Why happy? Wouldn’t you be, if you were a fourteen-year-old male whose father had got him onto the set of Marilyn Monroe’s nude swimming scene?
When you are divorced and your wife has custody of your only child, and the other “dad” is a film producer (once successful or otherwise), you have to work to stay on your kid’s good side. Sam was not impressed with celebrities, generally, having seen plenty, but this was different. I was fairly certain his first sexual experience had been with the signed-to-him nude Monroe calendar I’d given him on his thirteenth birthday (his mother still didn’t know about that).
This was his fifteenth-birthday present, even though this was May and the real date wasn’t till September. Some gifts you grab when they present themselves.
I’d kept the nature of what we’d be witnessing to myself, just promising Sam a “treat,” and he put up with that. We cut each other plenty of slack, since we often had half a continent between us, and anyway, in my mid-fifties, I was pretty old for a teen’s dad.
Sam looked a lot like me, identical except for his mother’s brown hair and not my reddish variety, and was already within two inches of my six feet. He was slender and so was I—I’d lost my paunch in an effort to regain my youth.
So I looked goddamn good in my lightweight gray glen plaid Clipper Craft suit with lighter gray shirt (Van Heusen tab collar) and thin black silk tie. Sam was in a tan striped Catalina pullover and brown beltless Jaymar slacks. We were a sporty pair.
Keep in mind that I was already in solid with the kid for getting him out of school for the day. This was a Wednesday, and he had something like a week and a half left before summer vacation. So I was cool, for a dad.
He did complain that I didn’t have a convertible, which in California was a criminal offense. My wheels, technically part of the A-1’s fleet, were merely a white 1960 Jaguar 3.8, leather seats, walnut interior, disk brakes, automatic transmission.
“Convertibles blow my business papers around,” I said at the wheel, tooling around the Fox lot. “And muss my hair.”
“Get it cut,” he said, rubbing his hand over the bristle of his crew cut.
“I don’t like the smell of butch wax.”
“Come on, Dad. Grow up.”
I didn’t share with Sam my opinion of crew cuts, which was that they were for servicemen, bodybuilders, and homosexuals, not necessarily mutually exclusive groups. Kids his age didn’t need having their sexuality undermined. In fact, my mission today was just the opposite.
Of course, in trying to impress my kid—whose “other” father was a producer (did I mention the fat prick used to be successful?)—I should have picked a lot other than Fox’s. The grand old studio was scrambling to stay afloat. Clouds of dust crowded the blue out of the sky over bulldozers making way for apartment buildings and office towers. The out-of-control Liz Taylor picture Cleopatra, currently filming in Rome, had required the selling off of such fabled backlot locations as Tyrone Power’s Zorro hacienda, Betty Grable’s Down Argentine Way ranch, and Lana Turner’s Peyton Place town square.
Marilyn’s new picture, which Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons called “troubled,” was in fact the only going project on the lot.
“Jeez,” Sam said, elbow out the rolled-down window. “It’s a lousy ghost town.”
The streets of this soundstage city had once been hopping with cowboys and Indians, pirates and dancing girls. Even the trees and lawns were brown and dying— palms and ferns, too. Had they cut off the water? Or had the water company cut off Fox?
As per Pat Newcomb’s instructions, I drove directly to Marilyn’s recently constructed bungalow, which had the look of a small prefab suburban house. I left Sam in the Jag and went up to the door, where a security guard was on watch; I showed my special pass, and he knocked for me.
I was greeted by Pat Newcomb—slim in a yellow blouse and tan slacks, thirty or so, her light brown hair cut chin-length. We knew each other only slightly. She was attractive, but not too attractive—that wouldn’t do for the woman assigned by the Arthur Jacobs PR agency to be Marilyn’s right hand.
The interior was mostly one big bustling room, as buzzing as the lot was otherwise dead. A battalion of technicians was at work on creating the fabled Marilyn Monroe “look.” Each seemed to operate off caffeine, as one hand would bear a coffee cup, the other whatever tool of the trade was required: comb, brush, makeup jar.
Wearing only a flesh-colored bikini, the object of their artistry reclined on a slant board like the bride of Frankenstein waiting to be awakened. She was more slender than I’d ever seen her, but her prominent rib cage made her handful breasts jut nicely, and her narrow waist and flaring hips suggested a voluptuousness that wasn’t really earned.
I shouldered my way in. “Afraid I’m gonna have to take you in for public nudity.”
Marilyn beamed at me but didn’t turn her head—her makeup man of many years, Whitey Snyder, a pleasant sharp-featured guy, was using a watercolor brush to highlight her cheekbones.
“Are you going to make me laugh, Nate?” she asked, with only a hint of her trademark halting screen delivery. “Because if you are, I am going to have to throw you out on your you-know-what.”
An almost naked broad using a euphemism like “you-know-what” was pretty funny.
“I wouldn’t want to ruin your face,” I said.
“Takes more and more work to make it a face,” she said, rueful but good-humored. Her mouth was on, but not as full as before, if just as lushly red. Her whole look had been adjusted to make the switch from the fifties to the sixties, more fashion model than pinup.
At a counter facing the slant board, a heavyset woman in a pale blue smock was mixing body makeup. Then she began applying the goop with a rubber-gloved hand.
“I’m going to be in that chlorinated water a long time,” Marilyn said by way of explanation, batting her mascaraed lashes at me. “This is the mixture Esther Williams used to use. Where’s your son?”
“Out in the car.”
“Leave him there. We’ll let him see the magic. But not how the trick is done. . . . Ooh, this is nasty stuff. Again, you know, it’s because of the water. . . .”
A skinny effeminate man also in a pale blue smock had begun spraying hairspray that turned her platinum locks, already put to the test by God knew how many and what chemicals, into something brittle and stiff.
“Everybody! This is my friend Nate Heller—you know that private eye on TV? Peter Gunn? He’s based on Nate. . . .”
Everybody gave me a fraction-of-a-second glance, and a few even pretended to be impressed. They’d have been more impressed if Peter Gunn hadn’t been canceled recently.
Having tossed me my cookie, she said, “You run along, Nate.”
I ran along.
(By the way, Peter Gunn was not based on me, though I was a paid consultant the first season.)
When I climbed into the Jag, Sam gave me a wide-eyed welcome. It was like looking into the mirror and seeing my fourteen-year-old self look back at me. Horny fourteen-year-old self.
“Was she in there?”
“Jeez, Pop. What was she wearing!”
“Quit talking like an old Charlie Chan picture.”
“All Charlie Chan pictures are old. What was she wearing?”
He leaned against the leather seat and smiled to himself. He was gazing straight ahead—into that calendar he kept hidden under his gym socks. So I started up the Jag and headed through the lot to Soundstage 14.
Funny to think that Marilyn Monroe was the last hope of this dying beast. She’d been at odds with Twentieth Century–Fox almost from the start. Back in the middle 1940s, she’d struggled to get picked out of cattle calls, just another pretty blonde looking for extra work or bit parts. Then she’d tried to get noticed in small roles. Finally she worked her way up to being the worst-paid star on this or any other lot. Something’s Got to Give signaled her exit from Fox bondage—that one last picture she owed them.
From what I’d read, it wasn’t much of a picture, and of course getting stuck with lousy scripts had been why Marilyn had walked from Fox back in the fifties and gone east to form her own company. She’d wound up in the prestigious Actors Studio, a fairly unlikely berth for a bombshell.
Not that Marilyn was your average bombshell. She’d married Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, hadn’t she? She even turned her bubbleheaded shtick into something more with her Bus Stop and Some Like It Hot performances. Who but Marilyn could have found nuances in dumb-blonde roles?
She was special, and I liked her, on-screen and off. She had a reputation for driving directors and costars and studio execs crazy, but I knew that came from a kind of cockeyed perfectionism born out of insecurity. The hard-drinking, drug-abusing Marilyn of rumor was a stranger to me. I’d always found her sweet and sexy and funny, if needy, and if she had a bad side, I’d been privileged not to see it.
Anyway, this Something’s Got to Give should have been an easy payday for her. She had a copasetic costar in Dean Martin—she hung around with the Rat Pack boys, having been Sinatra’s sweetheart off and on— and the director was on her very short approved list with the likes of Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock.
Trifle though it might be, the picture was a remake of a comedy classic, My Favorite Wife, where remarried hubby Cary Grant is confronted by his suddenly-not dead first wife, Irene Dunne, who’s been on a desert island with hunk Randolph Scott. Similar shenanigans should ensue second time around, with the current loosening of the Production Code meaning the sex stuff could be sexier stuff.
So the gig should have been painless for Marilyn, but the papers said she’d been out sick for half the production days. On the phone last night, I’d asked Pat Newcomb about it.
“So what’s up? Is Marilyn really sick?”
“She has been, yes. Sinusitis, flu, running a high temperature. The studio’s own physician has found her unfit for work.”
“So the columns saying she’s being a prima donna, that’s crap?”
A pause. “Mr. Heller, Marilyn is a star and has certain . . . eccentricities, and expectations. But no, she’s really sick.”
“Not so sick that she didn’t show up to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to the president at Madison Square Garden the other night.”
It had been a big, gaudy televised event. Marilyn had done her dumb-blonde bit, not this new sixties model, and Jack Kennedy had damn near drooled over the attention. No wonder Jackie Kennedy had stayed away.
“That had been agreed to months ago,” the publicist said, defensively. “The studio tried to renege at the last moment, but how does a star like Marilyn turn down a command performance for the president?”
“She doesn’t,” I said. “But what kind of studio doesn’t see the PR value in that?”
“This one,” the publicist said bitterly. “They let Elizabeth Taylor run wild and stick adultery in their faces and rack up cost overruns that would bankrupt a European nation, and then punish Marilyn for it.”
“Is this a happy set I’m visiting tomorrow?”
Her tone lightened. “Oh, yes. And you have to love it—Marilyn knows just how to play these kind of people.”
These kind of people were mostly men, of course. And Marilyn had known all she had to do to get them eating out of her hand was take off her clothes.
When Sam and I stepped onto Soundstage 14, the world turned a bilious shade of pink. The elaborate, expansive set would have filled Soldier Field: spread out before us was the ass end of a stone-and-stucco Mediterranean mansion with a vast, angular pool surrounded by rococo lawn furniture and bushes and trees, one bearing a tree house.
Catwalks and lighting platforms made a spiderweb sky. A dapper little old gnome of a man was strutting around up there barking commands, and spotlights took various angles, as if searching for an escaped prisoner. This, I later learned, was Cukor, who—other than issuing very general orders, including the obligatory “Action!” and “Cut!”—gave Marilyn scant direction that afternoon.
On the fringes of the brightly lit set, an inky darkness prevailed. In one such pocket Sam and I positioned ourselves.
When a blue-robed Marilyn arrived with Pat Newcomb, a phalanx of attendees formed around her like Secret Service agents guarding the president. This group included Snyder and other hair and makeup techs, as well as Marilyn’s acting coach, Paula Strasberg, a fat witchy-looking figure in a black muumuu. Another slant board was waiting for Marilyn between takes, but the truth is—except for a lunch break, which for her was coffee—she never got completely out of the pool, once she got in.
She just swam happily, the center of attention in the elaborate set in the cavernous soundstage, queen of her domain. At first—when she slipped out of the blue terry-cloth robe, and into the pool—she wore a flesh-colored swimsuit. But after only a few minutes, a voice called down from a catwalk.
Not Cukor’s, rather that of one of the two cinematographers (one camera was going poolside, this other up top) yelling down, echoingly, “I’m sorry, darling—but the lines in the swimsuit are showing up!”
This was a stilted reading, obviously planned, but Marilyn quickly, and deftly, slipped off the suit. That left only the very sheer bra and panties beneath, and those soon followed, deposited at the edge of the pool as if put out to dry.
Sam’s mouth was hanging open. I started to laugh, then realized mine was yawning, too.
She was a vision, a nymph, if a nymph was as womanly as that, a pink ghost flickering beneath the turquoise glimmer, occasionally exposing more than just a limb, a delicious rump, a pert breast— even the amber pubic triangle made its presence known, if fleetingly.
Pat Newcomb, at my side, said softly, “Having fun?”
“I guess she’s showing the Fox boys she isn’t over the hill.”
The publicist grunted a little laugh. “She had to get Black Bart’s blessing, you know.”
She nodded toward the stout woman in the black muumuu, just beyond the big camera. “Had to have Paula’s blessing. Had to be approved ‘Method’ technique for Marilyn to swim in the nude.”
“Yeah? What’s the scene about?”
“Tempting her husband out of Cyd Charisse’s bed.”
“This is the method that would do that.”
Cukor would occasionally call “Cut,” mostly for a camera reload, and during one such break, Pat called an assistant director over and said, “Now.”
Soon a couple of photographers came in, and the publicist walked them to their respective spots and said, “You have half an hour, fellas. Don’t waste it.”
They didn’t. They had those new motor-driven Nikons that could snap half a dozen frames per second.
They caught her bobbing in the turquoise water. Got her pool-side getting in and out of the nappy blue robe, even providing a few glimpses of dimpled behind. Captured incredible shots of her gripping the pool’s rim while a shapely leg slid up onto the Spanish tiles. All that, and one dazzling, knowing smile after another. . . .
Then when she sat on the steps and let the robe disappear and showed the fantastic sweep of her back into her narrow waist and out into the full hips, water beading, sparkling on that gorgeous flesh, audible gasps (including from Heller Father and Son) could be heard.
She just looked over her shoulder at everybody, with that old Betty Boop innocence, as if to say, “Whatever are you boys so excited about?”
And my son said, “Best birthday ever, Dad. Hell. Best dad ever.”
And father and son just stood there in the dark, bonding, ignoring each other’s erection.
Two weeks ago, more or less, I had left Marilyn Monroe on top of the world, or anyway the part of it that included a soundstage swimming pool at Twentieth Century Fox, whose executives were at her feet. Now, having breakfast at Nate ’n Al’s in Beverly Hills, I was reading in the LA Times about a very different Marilyn from the one Sam and I had watched doing a sexy water ballet.
According to Hedda Hopper, Marilyn had been “half mad” on the set of Something’s Got to Give, unable to remember her lines, sleepwalking through her performance, and—on the day of her nude swim—stripping off her Jean Louis bikini, so high on drugs “she didn’t even know where she was.”
Around me in the showbiz-heavy deli, Marilyn arguments pro and con raged, and when I went around picking up various other papers, including the trades, I found amazing quotes: director Cukor saying, “This is the end of the poor girl’s career,” Fox studio head Peter Levathes claiming, “Miss Monroe is not temperamental, she is mentally ill,” producer Walter Bernstein insisting, “By her willful irresponsibility, Marilyn Monroe has taken the bread right out of the mouths of men who depend on this film to feed their families.”
“This film” had officially been shut down by Fox for recasting or outright scrapping, and Marilyn fired.
I pushed aside half a plate of scrambled eggs and lox, quickly paid the check, and tooled the Jag back to my bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. My digs were just the basics—living room, marble fireplace, two bedrooms, two baths, private patio. The spare bedroom had a desk that I used for work, and from there I tried to phone Marilyn at her North Doheny Drive apartment, but a dozen rings got me nowhere.
Trying Pat Newcomb at the Arthur Jacobs agency got me a little somewhere—a receptionist put me through to the publicist’s male assistant, who took my name and number and said he would pass it right on to Miss Newcomb, who was out.
I went on about my business, spending the day at the A-1 office in the Bradbury Building in downtown Los Angeles—we were hiring, and my partner, Fred Rubinski, and I interviewed half a dozen ex–LA cops. Despite what Jack Webb might have you believe, not every LA cop is intelligent, reliable, and honest, and it was a chore.
Anyway, the following Monday I was reaching for the phone to make a TWA booking back to Chicago when the damn thing rang, making me jump a little. Maybe I wasn’t as tough as I used to be.
“Sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner,” Pat Newcomb said. She sounded tired.
“I guess you’ve had your hands full.”
“I have. I’m at Marilyn’s now, as it happens.”
“The Doheny pad?”
Marilyn’s actual residence was an apartment on East Fifty-seventh in New York, but since she and Arthur Miller divorced, her Hollywood address had been at a triplex in West Hollywood, owned by Frank Sinatra. Frank’s Negro valet, George Jacobs, lived there, and usually one or two of the singer’s squeezes, or sometimes a pal needing a temporary roof. Which category Marilyn fell into, I wasn’t sure.
“No, she’s not there anymore,” Newcomb said. “She has a house in Brentwood.”
“How’s she doing? This shit in the papers, it just doesn’t let up.”
And it hadn’t.
“It’s a smear campaign by the studio.”
“You’re not asking me to believe Hedda Hopper is untrustworthy, are you? She has such a nice smile.”
“She’s a bitch,” Pat snapped, maybe not reading my sarcasm. “As for Marilyn, she’s had a rough couple days and nights, but . . . Well, come see for yourself.”
“Yes. She wants to see you. She likes you.”
“Don’t sound surprised. Haven’t you noticed how lovable I am?”
She wasn’t in the mood for banter, and just gave me the address and the directions.
On the way over, I wondered if I would at last encounter the Marilyn of Hollywood rumor—the notorious drug-addicted dumb-blonde diva. Would I finally see that dark, self-pitying side of her that had caused, supposedly, half a dozen or more suicide attempts? Would she be a slurry wreck, or perhaps a paranoid harridan blaming the Fox executives for all her woes?
The closest I’d come to knowing the troubled Marilyn was the occasional very-late-night phone call from her—I was one of her long-distance buddies who she might reach out to when she was having trouble sleeping. Insomnia was her real archenemy, worse than Fox or Hedda Hopper.
That phone-friend list must have been fairly long, because I’d had only five or six of these calls over the years, coming at two or three in morning, and always starting the same way: “This is Marilyn Monroe. You know, the actress?”
That was silly, of course, but usually enough time had passed since I’d heard from her to make it credible, coming from that oddly shy, modest part of this girl who must have been in some manner an egotist to have made it so far.
But I’d never got a drugged-up or drunk Marilyn on the line—just that familiar, breathy female voice. The kind no healthy heterosexual male would respond to with, “Do you have any idea what time it is?”
What you say is, “Yeah, I remember you. I think maybe I saw one of your pictures,” or maybe, “I know you. I’m a detective, remember?”
And she would laugh and you’d talk till finally she started getting sleepy enough to sign off.
Brentwood had recovered from its disastrous fire of the previous November, once again a sleepy upper-middle-class community whose main drag was San Vicente Boulevard, its wide median home to sculpted coral trees. I wheeled the Jag onto Carmelina Avenue, a winding affair off of which were various greenery-swarmed cul-de-sacs. I was looking for Fifth Helena Drive, only Pat Newcomb warned me that it wasn’t marked—I had to count the cul-de-sacs, plus she described the houses on either corner.
Somehow I got it on the first try, though calling this short narrow strip a cul-de-sac was rather grand—I knew an alley when I saw one. At the mouth, on either side, were the homes the publicist had described for me, and at the end of the alley were two more homes, a two-story to the right, and Marilyn’s to the left.
You couldn’t see much of Marilyn’s place, though—a whitewashed seven-foot brick wall smothered in blooming bougainvillea vines blocked everything but a glimpse of red barrel-tiled roof of what would prove to be the garage.
The Jag I left half on the grass in case some other vehicle needed the space, and stepped from air-conditioning into a pleasantly warm sunny Cal afternoon, kissed with a nice coastal ocean breeze from the west.
Hollywood royalty lived here, but I was informal—black-collared gray Ban-Lon sport shirt; beltless, cuffless H.I.S. gray slacks; black suede loafers—and I’d taken to going hatless. Our young president’s fault.
I knocked at the double scalloped-topped wooden gate, and then knocked some more, and at last a middle-range female voice (definitely not Marilyn’s) responded drowsily from a distance, making three sluggish syllables out of “Yes.”
“Nathan Heller,” I said to the gate, loud but not yelling. “Miss Monroe is expecting me.”
The breeze ruffled pond fronds as footsteps minced on hard surface.
The gate wasn’t locked, although swinging it open seemed to take a lot out of the small dowdy middle-aged woman. She had short-cut wispy dark hair and unflattering dark-rimmed cat’s-eye glasses, and her shapeless floral housedress covered a stumpy asexual figure.
She gazed at me as if we were both underwater and I was a rare fish she’d come across, only she wasn’t interested in rare fish.
“You are . . . ?”
“Nathan Heller? Miss Monroe’s expecting me?”
Was there a fucking echo in here?
“Oh. Yes. Well, all right.”
She turned her back to me and trundled across the tile courtyard toward the house, a quietly handsome L-shaped Spanish colonial with stuccoed adobe walls. But this absentminded troll belonged guarding a ramshackle middle-of-nowhere mansion, the kind where you ask to use the phone because your car broke down, and wind up a mad doctor’s next experiment.
She was reaching for the front door, but I said, “Let me get that,” ever the gentleman. Glancing down at the four tiles on the doorstep, depicting a coat of arms, I noted an inscription in blue on gray: Cursum Perficio.
“What’s that mean?” I said, more to myself than my hostess.
“Latin,” she whispered, as if this were a secret. “For ‘I have completed my journey.’ Marilyn finds comfort in that.”
She gave me a sick smile and went in. I closed the door after us, moving through the entryway into a wide living room dominated by a fireplace and glass doors onto the swimming pool. Thick white carpeting and textured white walls made a sharp contrast with bright colors courtesy of Mexican art and dark, rustic furnishings that matched the open beams.
In a white cotton short-sleeve blouse and dark capri pants, Marilyn—sitting Indian-style on the carpet near the unlighted fireplace—wore only a touch of lipstick, her platinum hair tousled, though her toes did reveal red nails. She had a fresh, freckled, youthful look, more Norma Jeane than MM.
She just smiled and waved, like a beauty queen on a float who’d spotted a homely gal friend in the crowd, and returned to her dictation.
Because that’s what she was doing, giving dictation to Pat Newcomb, who was seated on a Mexican-style wooden chair with insufficient cushions, taking down Marilyn’s crisp words on a steno pad. Some kind of list was in her lap. The publicist was looking haggard, though still attractive in her eternal sorority-girl way; she was in a blue blouse and darker blue slacks.
“ ‘Shutting the film down was none of my doing,’ ” Marilyn was saying. “ ‘I hope you know that. I am working to get us all back working again. Say hi to your lovely girls. Love, Marilyn.’ . . . How many does that make?”
Newcomb’s smile was strained. “That’s one hundred and four.”
I had taken a seat at a low-slung black-leather-covered coffee table nearby. Newcomb glanced at me, and I must have raised an eyebrow or something, because she explained: “Marilyn has dictated telegrams to every crew member on Something’s Got to Give. Each one personalized.”
Marilyn was nodding. “I always know everyone on the crew. . . . Hi, Nate. Thanks for coming.”
“Hi, Marilyn. Pleasure’s mine.”
She little-girl frowned at me. “You saw that ad, didn’t you? The one signed by all the crew members?”
I nodded. In Variety, an ad supposedly signed by all the propmen, carpenters, electricians, and so on had said: “Thank you, Marilyn Monroe, for the loss of our livelihoods.”
Newcomb said, “It was a fraud. We called around. Nobody on the crew knew anything about that ad. Everybody knows Marilyn is a friend to the workingman.”
Marilyn giggled. “That sounds dirty.” She had a glass of champagne going, resting where the carpet gave way and the fireplace began; no bottle was in sight, though.
The publicist shut the steno pad. “That’s it, then?”
“No! Send this to Arlington, Virginia. You know where.”
“Marilyn . . . honey . . . what—”
Comically commanding, Marilyn pointed at the publicist. “Write! I have to decline a formal invitation, don’t I? It wouldn’t be polite otherwise, would it? . . . ‘Dear Attorney General and Mrs. Robert Kennedy. I would have been delighted to have accepted your invitation honoring Pat and Peter Lawford.’ ”
Newcomb was hunkered over her pad like a slave at an oar, pencil tip scratching paper.
“ ‘Unfortunately, I am involved in a freedom ride protesting the loss of minority rights belonging to the few remaining . . .’ ” She looked toward the open beams for guidance. “ ‘. . . earthbound stars.’ ”
“Signed, respectfully . . . ?”
“Keep writing. ‘After all, all we demanded was our right to twinkle.’ ” She blurted a “Ha!” and rocked on her bottom, then had a sip of champagne.
Then she remembered me. “Nate, would you like something? There’s plenty of Dom Pérignon.”
“I bet there is. No.”
“I can get you some other drink, what is it you like? Rum and Coke?”
“I switched to vodka gimlets.”
“Ooh, how sixties of you. I can have Mrs. Murray fetch you—”
“Is that your housekeeper or—”
“She’s more a companion. Social secretary.”
She’d have made a better companion or social secretary for Vincent Price than Marilyn Monroe. But whatever she was, I hadn’t even seen her go. Mrs. Murray had vanished without even a puff of smoke.
“No, thanks,” I said. “You girls finish up your work.”
Marilyn shrugged exaggeratedly, then extended both hands. “That’s all! We’re done!” She clapped once, got to her bare feet. “Come on, Pat—don’t be so glum. We’re making strides.”
Newcomb smiled, nodded wearily. “We are. I’m really happy to see you in such good spirits.” “You have to be in good spirits to fight back. And that’s what we’re doing. And after this good news—”
I interrupted: “What good news?”
She turned her big blue eyes on me, very wide. “I guess it hasn’t hit the papers yet. Might be on the radio and TV.”
“What might be on the radio and TV?”
“Dean. Dean Martin? My costar?”
“Yeah, guy who used to work with Jerry Lewis. What about him?”
Her smile was fetchingly smug. “Those smart-asses at Fox didn’t think to look at his contract— he has costar approval! When Kim and Shirley turned them down, they talked Lee Remick into taking my part. . . . Lee Remick? I mean, she’s cute, but. . . . Anyway, Dean quit the picture.”
Newcomb was smiling. “That’s right. He said, ‘No Marilyn, no Martin.’ ”
“He’s a sweetie,” Marilyn said, and her eyes got misty. “I mean, it’s touching, isn’t it? That kind of loyalty? In this town?”
She swallowed, and Newcomb went over and gave her a hug, then moved away, saying, “I better get out of here. I have a hundred and five telegrams to post.”
Marilyn’s smile was a beacon in the little room. “Yes, you do! Now scoot!”
Newcomb scooted, though she did take time to cast me a glance and a smile. I did her the same.
As the door closed, Marilyn came over to me and said, “Your turn,” and gave me a big hug. She smelled great—Chanel No. 5, as usual, but probably not directly applied; she always dumped a bottle in her bath.
“I have to say you look great,” I said.
She spread her hands in a presentational manner. “Not bad for thirty-six, huh? You think I’ve lost too much weight?”
“I like you any way I can get you. But this, this I think is your ideal fighting weight.”
“Fighting weight is right,” she said, and made two fists and held them up muscleman style. “You have no idea what these bastards are trying to do to me.”
“What can I do to help?”
She gave me another hug, then a sweet, short kiss that hovered somewhere between brother and lover. “First let me give you the dime tour. Don’t you just love this place? It’s my safe haven, it really is.”
So she took me by the hand like Mommy leading her favorite little boy, chattering on about how it was the first home she’d ever owned and how she cried when she signed the papers, pausing when we reached a point of interest.
To the left of the living room was a small dining room that led to a bright, cheery, wicker-filled sunroom at right and a modern kitchen at left, the latter a real point of pride to her.
“Have I ever cooked for you? You would love my pasta. And my guacamole? To die for. Remember when I was Jewish for a while?”
“Sure,” I said. When she was married to Miller.
“Well, I can still whip up a mean borscht, and my matzoh ball soup is incredible. You just won’t believe it. You are Jewish, aren’t you?”
We’d never talked about it.
“Yes and no,” I said. “My mom was Irish Catholic and died when I was a brat.”
“How sad. . . .”
“My pop was a nonpracticing Jew, and the only part of it I have any interest in is that food you were talking about.”
“Well, it doesn’t hurt to be Jewish out here.”
“Done wonders for Sammy Davis, Jr.”
She laughed a little too hard at that. She seemed a tad high, but I’d been around enough pill-poppers to recognize the signs, and these weren’t those. This was a combo of champagne and renewed self-confidence, and nice to see. Fun to see.
Back through the living room, she led me to the master bedroom, which had a witch’s hat fireplace (maybe this was where Mrs. Murray disappeared to) and blackout curtains, with a portable phonograph on the floor, Sinatra albums scattered nearby. The double bed with its white satin comforter took up much of the space in the modest-sized room.
“Everything looks a little naked,” she said. “There’s a lot of stuff I bought in Mexico that hasn’t come yet.”
Then she caught me looking at the pills on her small round- topped nightstand—dozens of little bottles crowding a tiny lamp with a couple of red-covered spiral pads stuffed between.
“Those are all empty, Nate, except for one bottle of sleeping pills—go ahead, look.”
“No, I believe you. It’s your business, anyway.”
She put her arms around my waist from behind, pulling me near her with a nice familiarity. “I’m clean. I’m not taking anything except a little chloral hydrate, if I’m having sleep trouble.”
“Well, that’s great.”
“I have a fantastic shrink right now, and he’s done wonders. And, anyway, I never have any trouble kicking.” “Really?” “Yeah, I’m a freak of nature. All I have to do is decide I don’t need to take anything anymore. Cold turkey is just a deli sandwich, far as I know.” I didn’t know whether to buy this or not, but didn’t say anything. I turned to face her, still close enough to whiff the Chanel.
She said, “My biggest problem right now is sinusitis, and all I’m taking, cross my heart, is liver extract. You know, every day I called in sick, Fox’s own doctor came and looked at me, and said I wasn’t fit for duty. I’ve been fighting cold and fever and ten kinds of God knows what since last spring.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t stand so close to me, then. Why don’t you stop in an hour or so.” She laughed at that, gave me another quick kiss, and took my hand again, back in tour-guide mode. “None of the rooms are big,” she was saying, “but they’re nice. Wait till you see it fully decorated.”
Another bathroom joined the other two bedrooms, across the hall. One she described as the guest bedroom, outfitted with walnut cabinets and a twin bed, but the other was designated her “fitting room,” with a large wardrobe cabinet (“Not much closet space—Depression-era home, y’know”) and three floor-length mirrors hinged together into one big viewing space.
The fitting room had another function—two telephones, one pink, one white, perched on a walnut table near the door. They had endless spiral cords, which enabled her to walk around the house talking and even take a phone to bed.
“The pink phone’s a number for . . . usual callers. The white phone has a number only for special, select people . . . like you, Nate.”
She gave me that number and, feeling special and select, I jotted it in my little notepad.
“Actually,” she said, and bit her lip, shyly, “those phones are kind of why I wanted you to come see me.”
She nodded, frowned, glanced toward the hall. “Why don’t we go out and sit by the pool.”
We did that, settling into black wrought-iron chairs. This was a more modest pool than the Fox soundstage one, and she quickly said she rarely used it, but encouraged guests to do so. We had a view of the narrow sloping backyard with eucalyptus and other trees.
Some hammering and other construction sounds came from her guesthouse, and I had the feeling that was partly why we were seated here, where our conversation would be concealed.
“I have to be careful,” she said softly. Then she smiled past me at Mrs. Murray, framed in the glass doors. She gave her housekeeper/companion/social secretary a little wave and the woman smiled and nodded and faded back into the living room, like a ghost.
“She’s a ray of sunshine,” I said.
“I don’t really like her,” Marilyn said, matter of fact. “But she’s a friend of Dr. Greenson’s and needs the job.”
“Dr. Greenson is . . . the shrink you mentioned?”
She nodded. “The remodeling I’m doing?” She flicked a red-nailed finger toward the guest house and the hammering. “Mrs. Murray’s son-in-law Norman is doing that. He’s harmless. Maf likes him.”
“My little poodle. Short for Mafia. Guess who gave him to me?”
“Ha! You’re good. Anyway, Maf tags around after Norman, and that’s fine. When I have company, Maf can be a pesky little bother, the sweetie.”
I shifted, and the wrought-iron squeaked. “So what do you need, Marilyn?”
She gave me an impish look, reached over and squeezed my hand. “What if I said I needed a man?”
“I’d say you came to the right place.”
“Could I trust you not to fall in love with me?”
“No. But you can trust me not to marry you. I’ve married one actress and that’s my limit.”
She laughed soundlessly, flicked her head, and the platinum stuff bounced. “Maybe one of these days or nights, we can have a little fun. Would you like that, Nate?”
“I don’t hate the thought.”
Her eyes widened and her smile broadened. “Did your son have fun? At the set?”
“I’m sorry they shooed you off with the photographers.” She shivered. “I was in that water for four hours!”
“Sam would’ve liked to meet you.”
“We’ll correct that one of these days.” She shifted; more squeaking. “Now . . . about my phones.”
“What about your phones?”
“I want you to tap them for me. You know—record my calls?”
“I know what phone-tapping is, Marilyn. Why?”
Her eyes went to the pool, where sunlight glittered like her best friends. “It’s this studio fight. I’m trying to get reinstated, and I’m having to talk to some . . . unlikely bedfellows.”
“For instance—if you can believe it—Darryl Zanuck. He never liked me, you know. Thought I was just another bimbo—didn’t ‘get’ it. But he gets it now. He and Spyros Skouras are trying to get reinstated, too—trying to sell the Fox board that these Wall Street lawyers who took over don’t know rule one about movies. Rule one being, don’t fuck with Marilyn unless she’s in the mood.”
“And for this you need your phone tapped?”
“Yes. I want to keep track. What do they call it, a paper trail? I want a tape trail. Do you know how to do that?”
“Not personally, no, but there’s a guy we use.” Roger Pryor, an ex–FBI man, did all the A-1’s work out here. He was a whiz at this spy stuff.
“When can you . . . Sorry.” She had raised a finger to her lips, and was looking past me.
A guy who might have been Tony Perkins’ homelier, taller brother ambled over, a tool kit clanking in his grasp. He was wearing coveralls and a blank expression. “Excuse me, Miz Monroe. I need to get some things from the house.”
“That’s fine, Norman. You really don’t have to ask.”
“Well, I saw you got company and figured maybe I should.”
“That’s thoughtful, Norman. Thanks.”
He ambled off.
“That was Norman,” she said.
“If this is about something else,” I said, “something more than just this movie studio nonsense, you should tell me. Like you’d tell your shrink.”
“What makes you think that?”
“The way you couldn’t meet my eyes when you were going on about it. If you’re in trouble, if somebody’s bothering you, I am that man you said you needed.”
“No, really, Nate—just do this job.”
“Okay. I’ll find out when my guy is available, and call you on your private line. You’ll need to make sure both Mrs. Murray and Norman are out of the house.”
“That shouldn’t be a problem. There’s always shopping to be done. Will a thousand-dollar retainer do?”
She’d anticipated this and drew a checkbook out of her capris. She was handing me the check with her famous signature still glistening when Mrs. Murray stuck her head out of the house, like a cuckoo from a clock, and informed Marilyn that Mr. Zanuck was on the line.
I wasn’t an actor, but I knew my cue. We both stood, then I got one more quick kiss from Marilyn, and took my leave.
Pulling the Jag away from the peaceful little hacienda, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more to this than Marilyn was sharing. But for right now I’d have to settle for the thousand she’d given me.
When I exited the unmarked cul-de-sac onto quietly residential Carmelina Avenue, I noticed a nondescript vehicle parked just around the corner. On my right as the Jag turned left, the white panel truck may or may not have been there before. On my way here, I hadn’t been in any kind of investigative mode, and was trying to find the unmarked street half of a strange address.
Maybe it was this phone-bugging job of Marilyn’s that made me notice now.
But I would like to think I hadn’t been so distracted that seeing the enclosed Hollywood TV Repair van, parked near the mouth of Fifth Helena, wouldn’t have jumped out at me, anyway.
And now we had the disturbing coincidence of this vehicle belonging to Roger Pryor, the guy who did A-1’s electronic surveillance work. The same Roger Pryor whose name had popped into my head when Marilyn asked me to tap her phone.
Of course another question also came immediately to mind: Did Roger’s job in Brentwood have anything to do with Marilyn?
She was not the only actor or actress living around here; probably not even the only famous one. And you didn’t have to be in show business to get spied on—one of the doctors or lawyers living in these nice, mostly mission-style homes might be checking up on their better halves. Not all tennis coaches coached on the court, you know.
Still, that surveillance van was parked within spitting distance of Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn Monroe. Who had just hired me, for stated reasons that I didn’t feel covered all her actual concerns, to tap her phone.
I pulled over and parked in front of an English Tudor mini-mansion where palms had been banished from the lush landscaping. This neighborhood was money—modest money compared to Beverly Hills or Bel Air, but enough so that a truck like that couldn’t park forever without annoying somebody.
And when people in a neighborhood like this got annoyed, they let somebody know about it.
Sitting in the parked Jag, watching the white van in my rearview mirror, I wondered if there was any chance Pryor himself was on this job. He had only a handful of employees, and was fussy about his equipment, which he created himself; he was an inventor and tinkerer whose skill in the bugging department dated back to his decade-long stint with the FBI after the war.
Pryor, or one of his boys, might be sitting in that van listening to a tapped phone or bugged room, but I doubted it. First, though this was a pleasant enough June afternoon with ocean breeze making the trip inland, the inside of that van would be an oven.
Second, Roger was more advanced than that. His favorite toy, whether he was bugging a phone or a room or a whole damn house, was a line transmitter, to send eavesdropped conversions by radio waves via FM bands to voice-activated tape recorders as far away as a quarter of a mile.
If he was tapping a phone, Roger would simply gain access to the house, posing as a telephone company repairman, and replace Ma Bell’s phone transmitter with his own gimmick, a bug that looked exactly like what he’d removed. Or he would switch phones entirely, with an identical pre-bugged model.
If he was bugging rooms, Roger would use carbon button mikes, tiny things that could be hidden most anywhere, hooked up to a radio frequency transmitter tied in to (again) a voice-activated tape recorder.
That, beyond the ability to recognize some of the hardware, was about all I knew on the subject. And I wouldn’t have known that much, caring only that jobs got done (not how they got done), but I’d spent enough time with Roger to have some of it creep in by osmosis. He was proud of his work and liked to brag and chatter about his latest gizmos.
That truck was probably empty right now. The voice-activated four-track tape recorders didn’t have to be checked or reloaded for hours. More important to the program was moving the truck now and then, so as not to attract undue notice in these well-off surroundings.
Toward that end, sometimes Roger would bring in one of at least two other vehicles and alternate—Ace Roofng Company, Acme Carpet Cleaners, Southland 24-Hour Plumbing & Heating.
All it required was occasional new paint jobs, a few magnetic business-logo signs, and, presto, the surveillance fleet was ready to snoop (no truck bore Pryor’s own logo, though).
I got out and stretched. In my sport shirt and slacks, I looked not at all suspicious, and of course the Jag was right at home. I crossed the street, which had very light traffic, and walked up to the van and circled it.
Nobody in front, of course.
I knocked at the back door. If someone was in there, my knocking might be ignored, so I had to keep it up a while—long enough for any occupant to get worried that my metallic banging would attract more attention than just dealing with whoever was out there.
Nothing to do but head back to the Jag, where I sat on the passenger side so that it looked like I was waiting for the driver. I angled the rearview mirror to keep the white van in sight, and about fifteen minutes in, I laughed, thinking that this was the first time I’d felt like a private eye in years.
Not that it felt good or bad—butt-in-the-seat surveillance is always boring as hell—but it did seem right. I took my paperback of The Carpetbaggers from the backseat. I picked up where I’d left off,
Flicking my eyes to the rearview about three times a page. It was a stupid goddamn book but I couldn’t stop reading it, except when a red Mustang convertible with some giddy girls in their late teens pulled into the mouth of the Tudor’s drive and two got out and two others stayed in the car and all four were in bikinis, their hair wet, towels over arms. They were probably legal age but I wasn’t proud of the thoughts I was having. Wasn’t ashamed, either.
That teenage tail almost made me miss the guy in the gray repairman’s coveralls who was approaching the rear of the van. He parked another vehicle somewhere down the street, no doubt.
As I was climbing out of the Jag, the girls giggled and pointed at me—at my age, I never knew whether it was a compliment or not—and the guy (who might have been Roger, but his back was to me and it was half a block down) was working a key in a rear lock.
He climbed in, shut the double door.
I crossed the street and jogged over.
I could hear him moving around in there as I raised my knuckles to the metal and knocked. After only two raps, the doors parted and presented a sliver of a pleasant-faced Roger—in the mode of dealing with a curious neighbor. He seemed about to say “Yes” when he frowned, then a half smile formed though his shaggy eyebrows kept frowning.
“Nate?” he asked.
“It’s not my stunt double.”
He froze while trying to process my presence. His hair a golden, thinning blond, his face a broad, bland oval with a well-creased boyishness, he was about forty and five ten or so, with a modest paunch. He looked convincing in the repairman uniform, which even had a sewn-on Hollywood TV Repair insignia. Actually he had a long-ago legal degree he never used, which had gotten him into the FBI.
“What the hell are you . . . ? Get up in here.”
He shut me in.
It was predictably warm, though a good-size floor fan was going, up near the divider closing off the front from the back, the path of the blades cooling both us and a three-tiered metal rack with eight reel-to-reel upright recorders churning, amidst various electronic gadgets and gauges, a few lineman headsets tossed casually here and there. This was at my left as I crouched inside the windowless rear doors. At my right was a small, well-worn yellow-and-gold nubby upholstered couch, which my host plopped down on, leaving plenty of room for me.
“Want a cold one?” he asked, digging in a cooler just beyond the couch. He demonstrated what he was offering by holding up a sweating can of Schlitz.
“Why not?” He church-keyed it open and I took that one while he fished for another.
“What’s the occasion?” he asked. Very good-naturedly, and if I hadn’t been in the business myself, and hadn’t known Roger, I’d have missed the suspicion. “You never bother dropping by my little penthouse on wheels when I’m doing a job for you. And I’m not doing a job for you.”
I sipped the Schlitz. With the beer, and the ?oor fan, it was like sitting on a back porch somewhere in the dead of summer.
“That’s the funny thing,” I said. “I just told a client, oh . . . not an hour ago . . . that I’d be getting back to her with details on how my man would be around tomorrow to put a bug on her phone.”
He laughed. “Do tell. And I’m that man? And you spotted the truck, and decided to save yourself a phone call?” He sipped the beer.
“Here’s the thing,” I said, and wiped foam off my upper lip. “My client? It’s Marilyn Monroe.”
I’ll give him this much—he didn’t cough beer out of his nose or anything, and the eyes flickered only a little, not even enough to make the shaggy eyebrows wiggle.
“I thought she lived over on North Doheny,” he said casually.
“No you didn’t.” I gestured with a hitchhiker’s thumb. “You know she lives down this highfalutin alley. Are you bugging her phone, or her bedroom, or her whole damn house?”
He gave me another half a smile, then shook his head and gave me a hooded-eyed look. He brushed a little spilled foam off his gray coveralls. “What if I said this was a divorce case?”
“I’d say you’re full of shit. Who hired you, the studio?”
He shook his head, and the smile widened into a give-mea-break-buddy grin. “Look, Nate—I have a client. And it’s not you. There’s such a thing as ethics and professional courtesy and conflict of interest and, you know, all kinds of factors at play.”
“This afternoon,” I said, “or tomorrow, I would have given you a call, telling you Marilyn wants her phones tapped. Wants tapes of all her calls. And you’d have said, ‘Sure.’ Or would you have told me no, because you already were doing a job involving her? That kind of ethics and professional courtesy and conflict of interest, Roger?”
His face went expressionless; then one caterpillar eyebrow jerked. “I could claim that . . . but you wouldn’t believe me.”
“So . . . are you going to screw it up for me, and tell Marilyn she needs somebody to come in to sweep for bugs? Least you could do is give me the job.”
“Answer my question, Roger. You already have her phone tapped?”
“The house . . . ?”
“No. Just the bedroom. Master bedroom. I can pick up some stuff from other rooms from there. Small house for a big star.”
“Who’s your client?”
He shook his head, drank his beer, then leaned back with folded arms and a defensive posture. “No. I can’t do that.”
“Let me give you your options. First, I can tell Marilyn her house is bugged and help her get rid of the pests . . . and no you don’t get the gig. After which the A-1 can, in future, find some firm other than Pryor Investigative Services, Inc., to use for its surveillance work. How much do you bill us on the average year, do you suppose?”
“. . . And the other option?”
“You can tell me who your clients are, and I will give Marilyn a bullshit story about how she needs to be discreet in her pillow talk, because once she has her own phone tapped, it’s easy for somebody else to listen in.”
“Well, that’s true, actually.”
“And I will send you in to do the phone-tap job for me, as promised.”
He twitched something that was neither a smile nor a frown. “The thing is, Nate . . . I already got more than one client, here. It’s one of those situations where the commodity in question has a lot of interested buyers, and why not keep them all happy, and me prosperous?”
“You wanna give me the ethics speech again, Roger, the conflict of interest thing? I think maybe I missed part of it.”
He moved a palm against the air as if he were polishing it. “Anyway, Nate, these are not the kind of clients you pull anything on.”
“What, are you worried? Is this van bugged? Are your clients listening in on us?”
“Really, Nate. These aren’t pleasant people.”
I let an edge into my voice. “Who wants to hear Marilyn’s bedroom talk, Roger?”
“Well, you wouldn’t know the intermediary’s name, probably. But it’s . . . Christ on a crutch, Nate, it’s for Hoffa.” He whispered as if afraid his own machines might pick it up: “Jimmy fucking Hoffa.”
I frowned. “Jimmy Hoffa wants to know who Marilyn is diddling? The head of the Teamsters cares who a Hollywood sex symbol takes to bed?”
He made a palms-up gesture with his free hand. “I’m in the surveillance business, Nate. Mine is not to reason why. Mine is but to make the recordings and gather same and ship ’em the hell off.”
Hoffa wasn’t just a name in the headlines to me. Everybody knew him as a controversial labor leader with obvious ties to organized crime. But I knew him personally. In 1957 Hoffa had hired me to infiltrate the so-called Rackets Committee run by Senator John L. McClellan. I had done this, but with the full knowledge of Robert Kennedy, chief counsel of the Rackets Committee.
As a double agent, I’d done Hoffa a good share of harm, but the president of the Teamsters Union didn’t know as much. Jimmy still thought I was a dirty ex-cop from Chicago. And maybe I was. But I’d never really been his dirty ex-cop from Chicago.
Nonetheless, I knew better than most the dangers of tangling asses with the affable, ruthless Teamster boss.
As reel-to-reel tape hummed on the rack nearby, Roger was saying, “And I’m pretty sure Hoffa is in this with another guy nobody oughta try to fuck with. Old friend of yours, Nate—Chicago friend?”
“I have a lot of Chicago friends.”
“So I hear. And one of ’em is Sam Giancana, right?”
Warm though it was in the enclosed space, I felt a chill, and it wasn’t the beer and it wasn’t the floor fan.
From Hoffa we’d gone in an instant to the current operating head of the Chicago mob. Called “Mooney” by friends and foes alike (it signified his craziness), Giancana had started out a street punk on the Near North Side’s Patch, worked his way up to the Capone Outfit, where he became Tony Accardo’s bodyguard. Once the top chair was his, Giancana wrested the numbers racket from the colored gangsters and expanded every other criminal enterprise in the Windy City.
Now he was a well-dressed psychopathic moneymaking machine with all kinds of show business pals, including Frank Sinatra—it was enough to make me wish I hadn’t introduced the two of them.
“Is he a friend of yours, Nate—Giancana?”
“We get along. Never really had any trouble with him.”
“That friendship you had with Frank Nitti, back when you were starting out, it’s held you in good stead.”
“Yeah.” I didn’t want to talk about it. “So Hoffa’s your client, and you think Giancana is, too. Why do they care who Marilyn is entertaining?”
He blinked at me, then grinned—amused, amazed. “You’re kidding, right? Marilyn’s your client, and you don’t know?”
“Don’t know what?”
He had the goofy grin of a high schooler telling a pal about a girl who put out. “Her and the prez—that poon hound Jack Kennedy. You know the Kennedy boys, don’t you, Nate? More famous pals of yours. You bragged about your Rackets Committee days in the press enough.”
“I don’t brag. My press agent does.” I shrugged. “I’m aware Jack has a wandering eye.”
“Also a wandering dick.”
I grunted a laugh. Pawed the air. “But this is silly, Rodge. I mean, ridiculous. Marilyn and Jack Kennedy . . . the president . . . of the United States? They’re, what—having an affair?”
“You are a detective, Heller. Trust me on this one—I heard it with my own ears. Those aren’t tough voices to ID— unless maybe it was Vaughn Meader and Edie Adams havin’ fun with me.”
He was referring to a couple of well-known impressionists, the former a Kennedy mimic, the latter Ernie Kovacs’ sexy widow, who did a mean Marilyn.
I motioned with my half-empty beer can, the tapes whispering at me. Grinned at him. “Come on, Rodge. You’re saying the president of the United States himself just stops by Marilyn’s place, and partakes of a piece of ass, while the Secret Service waits on the front stoop? Don’t the neighbors mind?”
Pryor shrugged. “He doesn’t stop by her house.”
“Then how the hell do you know—”
“Tapes I heard are from . . . another place.”
“What other place?”
“Another place Hoffa’s guy asked me to cover.”
“Do I have to ask again?”
“Heller, honest to Christ, you don’t wanna know this.”
“Whose place, Rodge?”
“. . . Lawford’s place. That big beach mansion out Santa Monica way.”
“Peter Lawford’s place.”
“What other Lawford is there?”
“Peter Lawford, the actor, who’s married to Pat Kennedy, the president’s sister. . . . That Peter Lawford’s place.”
“I told you. A detective. There’s four bedrooms in that joint. All covered. Funny thing is, even with famous people? Listening to people screw? Bores the fuckin’ tears out of me, at this point in my jaded career.”
I finished the beer, then said, “Gimme another.”
He selected another Schlitz, like I gave a damn what brand, opened it with the church key. It foamed nicely. I drank. And thought. Roger and I didn’t have to discuss why Jimmy Hoffa and Sam Giancana might want incriminating tapes on JFK, although their real mutual enemy was brother Bobby, who had made a hobby out of targeting organized crime, and was an old, hated adversary of both men.
Finally, with a glance at the wall of recorders, I asked, “Why so many tapes rolling, Roger? One little blonde woman, one little bed, one little microphone?”
He looked mildly surprised that I’d figured out the significance of that. “Well, you know, with these electronics, you need a backup.”
“Right. What, six, eight backups? What’s this about, anyway?”
“Like I said, I . . . got a couple other clients.”
“Wanting the same . . . commodity?”
“Same sort of stuff, yeah.”
“Are they really good clients? The kind of clients who give you maybe half the work your agency does, that type client?”
“Nobody gives me more business than the A-1, Nate, you know that. You and Fred are good to me. You’re great.” He shook his head, his expression ominous. “But this is not shit that you need to know.”
Interesting—he’d already told me Hoffa and Giancana were involved. This was something or somebody more dangerous?
“Roger, I’ll just find out myself, other ways—you mentioned I was a detective, remember? But that will waste time and piss me off and, by the way, cost you your favorite meal ticket. Like we used to say downstairs at the PD in Chicago, when we got the goldfish out . . . the rubber hose? Spill.”
He spilled. One set of tapes, he said, was for the LAPD’s notorious Intelligence Division.
That was a surprise. “Don’t they have their own surveillance experts?”
“Yeah, but this they don’t want traced back to them. Frankly, I think it’s a job they’re doing for Fox. The movie studio?”
“I know what Fox is. Why wouldn’t Fox go directly to you?”
“Everybody’s got layers of protection, these days, Nate. Nobody wants anything coming back on them.”
“I’ll remember that. Who else?”
“Who else what?”
“Who else are you making goddamn tapes for?”
“You really don’t want—”
I grabbed him by the front of his coveralls, fists full of cloth. “You shouldn’t give a girl a beer, Roger. We lose all sense of propriety. Now, when I toss you into those fucking tape recorders, you won’t get hurt that bad, probably. But your toys might get broken. Wouldn’t that be sad?”
“Nate! Stop it!” He pulled away from my grasp and flopped back on the couch. “Come on. We’re friends. Business associates.”
“Is that rack of shit screwed in? Or will it tip over?”
“I do certain sub-rosa jobs.”
“All your jobs are sub-rosa.”
“Not this sub-rosa.”
“What are we talking about, Roger?”
“. . . Spooks.”
I blinked. I admit it—I blinked.
“Roger, you’re not talking about ghosts.”
The Company. CIA. Christ, why would they care who Marilyn was fucking? The FBI I could understand—everybody knew J. Edgar Hoover and the Kennedy brothers were not each other’s biggest fans. That Hoover kept a legendary cache of dirt on the rich, famous, and powerful.
“And . . . that’s it? That’s the client list?”
The shaggy eyebrows climbed his forehead. “Jesus, Nate, isn’t it enough?”
“That’s a lot of tapes you got spooling.”
“Well, of course, one set’s for me. For the safe-deposit vault. You never know when you, uh, you know . . . you need to know?”
I wasn’t sure what that meant, and wasn’t sure I wanted to.
“Sorry about getting rough,” I said.
“It was the beer.”
“No. It’s Marilyn. I like her. And I don’t like seeing all these dark clouds gathering around her. So this conversation, Roger, it never happened. I will call you tomorrow at your office—you’ll be in? Good. And we’ll set up you going over to her place, and putting the tap on for her.”
“Okay. You mind if I check on my other stuff, while I’m there, if she isn’t looking?”
I belched. The beer.
“Let your conscience be your guide, Roger,” I said, and climbed out of the van.
Copyright © 2011 by Max Allan Collins
Max Allan Collins is the bestselling author of crime fiction including Road to Perdition and the Perdition Saga, and the award-winning novel based on the film American Gangster. He has won two Shamus Awards for Nathan Heller novels. He also wrote the Dick Tracy comic strip for fifteen years, and is an independent filmmaker. He lives in Eastern Iowa.