Helen's Story, Part 1
I was sitting in the reception room of Monroe James' casting office with Mother when little Miss Perfection walked in the door.
She stood about three feet tall and she had blonde ringlets. She had dimples. She had a rosebud mouth, blue eyes so bright they looked backlit, and a nose so small and perfectly formed that it looked painted on. Suddenly, a wave of anxiety swept over me so intense that at that millisecond I felt absolutely certain I knew what it was like to have been a passenger on the Titanic the moment somebody counted the lifeboats.
I gulped. My belly flopped. Little Miss Perfection calmly surveyed the room, lifted a blue cotton-sleeved arm and, with a forefinger the size of half a Crayola crayon, pointed to an empty chair.
"You can sit there, Ma," she said in a surprisingly mature-sounding voice to the short, rather nondescript-looking woman whose right hand she held.
I was doubly dismayed. Not only was this child perfect-looking, but she was obviously possessed of good moral character. The average acting brat probably would have grabbed the chair for her or himself, but not our Millie Macon, as her name turned out to be. Instead, Millie selflessly stood as "Ma" parked her ample derriere in the one available seat.
Millie stood for a moment shifting back and forth on her sturdy little legs while I pretended to be engrossed in the March 19-- issue of the National Geographic. I remember how fascinating gourd-carrying Africans had appeared to me in the moments before Miss Perfection, uh, Millie, walked in the door. All that was changed as I soon found myself the object of her precociously intense gaze. I remember it as if it were yesterday. It was like being stared at by a klieg light.
Then the klieg light spoke.
"Are you really reading that magazine," it (she) said, "or are you just pretending to?"
"Millie!" the mother mechanically chastened. "What an impolite thing to say!"
Well, the remark may have been deemed impolite in polite circles, but it was certainly perceptive. Acknowledging the futility of my pretense, I let the magazine drop.
"Well, you're a curious little one!" I obnoxiously exclaimed. I was quick to capitalize on the seniority that my twelve years afforded me. This kid, as I sized her up, couldn't have been more than seven.
Millie frowned. It was obvious from her dark expression that she didn't like being condescended to by a mere twelve-year- old. She continued to look at me with a sort of critical brazenness that reminded me of some directors I had known.
"What's your name?" she said.
"Helen Payne," I replied.
"Never heard of you."
"Well, what's your name?" I somewhat testily inquired.
"I'm Millie Macon. I'm here to audition for `The Littlest Lady'", she said. "What about you?"
Now I was in a quandary. I had been schooled by both agent and Mother not to reveal too much of myself to potential career rivals, i.e. other child actresses, and I was unsure just what to say. So I simply squirmed in my seat and looked up at Mother, who, looking up from her knitting, only seemed amused by little Millie's forthrightness. Mother flashed me her toothy smile. Reassured, I sat proudly erect and announced, "I'm here for the same thing, though I imagine I'll try for one of the older girls", adding special emphasis to the word `older'.
"Not me," she shot forth with implacable self-confidence. "I'm going to try for the lead".
"Really?" Despite myself, I was beside myself with curiosity. The `Littlest Lady'? But don't you think they'll give it to somebody famous?"
"She can't sing worth a plug nickel and this is a musical."
"Uh ......... then ... Susie Jones?"
"She's under contract to Fox and they won't let her go."
"Sez my agent, Dickie Thorne ... and he's the best agent in the whole wide world!"
I blinked and scrutinized little Millie a moment without speaking. Who the hell was this kid, I wanted to know. I had been making the Hollywood rounds for three years now and I had never seen her before. Now she stood with chubby arms crossed over her chest and tiny feet a foot apart, like a baby Napoleon set to take over the Paragon globe. I noticed now that the other three kids in the casting office anteroom and their mothers were also watching Millie with some measure of blankfaced awe.
"Dickie Thorne says to always try for the top. Then even if you don't make it at least you know you gave it your best shot," little Millie recited in that surprisingly low, oddly reassuring voice of hers.
Try as I might, I could find nothing conceptually wrong with this bit of advice. I also wondered why my agent, David Long, had not given the same advice to me. Instead his strategy vis- a-vis my career seemed to be to play it as safely as possible. I had been a child actress for more than three years now and today would mark only the second audition for a speaking part in a major motion picture I had ever been to. Mostly I was a bit player in a series of short subjects called the Kiddie Klub, which were put out by a low-rent division of Universal called Ampex Films. What's more, we (Mother and I) had had to practically beg Mr. Long David to get us this audition.
Looking at Millie as she calmly stood in the middle of the reception room, surrounded by other aspirants, I tried to visualize exactly what kind of an impression she would make on the casting director, Monroe James. I had heard he was a very tough man. Perhaps he would think her, with her glowing curls and kewpie doll face, a bit too cute? A tad unpolished? Maybe Susie Jones wasn't tied up at Fox after all and the part would go to her?
So intent was I on trying to visualize the future that I nearly missed the present the voice of the receptionist calling me in to audition. Characteristically, it was Mother who had to nudge me along.
"Come dear, it's your turn," she whispered in my ear.
I scrambled to my feet, forgetting all about the magazine on my lap. It smacked to the floor like a wet kiss.
Little Millie stooped to pick it up. As I turned to enter the office of Monroe James, chief casting director for all of Paragon Pictures, I saw out of the corner of my eye little Millie Macon holding the magazine aloft, looking at me and smiling.
"You'll get it," she stated, quite matter-of-factly.
I honestly forget how the audition went. My mind's a blank. I suppose my animal instincts must have taken over or something of that sort because to this day I have no recollection of what went on that afternoon after I left the reception area. All I know is that little Millie was dead right. I did get the part ... of Catherine Dovington, a spoiled little rich girl who gets to torture the "littlest lady" played by, as everyone in the world now knows, little Millie Macon in her big screen debut. Ah, yes, torturing Millie ... it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
But it's a funny thing. Because if we hadn't encountered each other beforehand in the casting office reception area, we might never have become friends. Reflective of the confidence, or lack thereof, Paragon had in our acting abilities, they decided it would be best if we were not allowed to become acquainted on a personal level, the theory being that since we played enemies in the picture, it might hurt our performances if we became friends in real life. Little did they know that we used to sneak off, me, Millie, and Tommy Triggs, to a far corner of the Paragon lot to dish the adults. That was the great thing about studios back in those days. They were so huge!
Theoretically we were chaperoned at all times, but our chaperon's attentions wandered. Mine used to take naps a lot Tommy's played pinochle with a gaffer, and Millie's quite frankly we never knew what Millie's did, but we were sure glad she did it.
We used to meet out behind the old prop building on the corner of the lot bordering _________ and _________. There Tommy would regale us with his mimicry of Paragon bigwigs like the head of the whole shebang Harry Schweinhardt.
"And this is Harry Schweinhardt after he eats sauerkraut," Tommy would say, throwing out his practically nonexistent belly and imitating Harry's bowlegged gate. Then he would emit a series of farting noises which could be considered truly inspired both in their intensity and variety.
Ever the realist, little Millie Macon wanted to know how Tommy knew this about Harry Schweinhardt.
"How do you even know he farts like that? Were you ever there when he farted?" she challenged.
Tommy, being unaccustomed to such a legalistic cast of mind, was still taking mental bows for what he considered his artistic prowess. Brought up short, he shot little Millie a hurt look.
"What do you mean, how do I know he farts like that?" he retorted. "Why, everybody in the whole world knows he farts like that, Missy Macon. Besides I have ... insider knowledge."
Millie looked doubtful.
"My agent was there when he let go a big one."
"Yeah, as a matter of fact, it was in the middle of contract talk. During lunch. At the Brown Derby. Stunk up the place something fierce, only people were afraid to let on cause Harry's such a big deal, so they just smiled over their vichyssoise."
"Hmm. The Brown Derby, huh." The wheels began to turn in little Millie's mind. It was like watching a Swiss watch precision timing.
"Your agent does business at the Brown Derby. Mine swears by the Polo Lounge. I wonder which serves better food."
"I wonder which serves better food. And who pays for it."
Now Tommy and I were both at a loss. We couldn't keep up with Millie's line of reasoning. We couldn't have cared less about who paid for what and why. But evidently it mattered to Millie.
"When I grow up I'm gonna be an agent," she announced. "Just like Dickie Thorne."
"Why, don't you want to be an actress?" Now it was my turn to be taken aback. Somehow I had always assumed that we children would all be actors and actresses forever, in a sort of career perpetual motion machine. The thought that one could actually make a decision otherwise was something I had never remotely considered.
"Heck no," little Millie replied, "I don't want to be a grownup actress at all. I think they're boring."
I was shocked by such heresy. I had been weaned on the belief that to be an actress was the most glamorous, desirable thing in the world. I felt compelled to defend the professionals, if not the profession.
"Carole Lombard's not boring!" I stated hotly. "She even swears, doesn't she, Tommy?"
Tommy nodded. I knew he knew because he had worked with her on the filming of "Moonlight in Jamaica", playing an octoroon servant boy to her innkeeper.
"Like a truck driver," he iterated solemnly. I think our conversation was starting to bore him because he got that faraway look in his eyes like you would see sometimes when he was on the set. Like none of it mattered to him in the slightest and he would rather be elsewhere. Way elsewhere.
"Well, maybe not her," Millie conceded as she made patterns in the dust with the toe of her patent leather shoe. "But Norma Shearer's sure boring."
"Who said so? Dickie Thorne?"
"No, I thought of that myself," little Millie shot back. "I met her at Veronica Blankford's birthday party, and all she did was sit and smile and stare and Dickie Thorne says her eyes are much too close together".
I rolled my eyes with this last reference to Dickie Thorne.
"Well, she can't help that, her eyes, I mean," I hotly replied. Actually, I had no idea why I was defending Norma Shearer. I had never even met the woman, and Mother had said that the only reason Norma got good parts was because she was married to Irving Thalberg. But I felt compelled to contradict little Millie at every turn. Perhaps it was career rivalry starting to kick in, or perhaps it was just the way little Millie stood her ground foursquare like a miniature pugilist defending her corner of canvas. Whatever the reason, I wanted to counterpunch.
"Personally I feel that to be an actress is one of the most profound and exalted things one can do with one's life," I forcefully orated, mimicking somebody, I couldn't remember just who.
Tommy let out a belly laugh.
"Why, you sound just like old Miss Snithaven, this elocution teacher I had when I was five," he cried, voice cracking in amusement. "She was always gassing off about `the exalted nature of acting', too."
Then the memory came rushing back to me, like a rubber ball batted against a brick wall.
"You had Miss Snithaven? I had Miss Snithaven too!" I exclaimed.
"Well, well, well," Tommy huffed magisterially, almost unconsciously throwing out his nonexistent belly and patting it with both palms.
"He's doing his impression of Charles Laughton doing his impression of Henry VIII," I thought.
"Small small small small world," he continued to huff.
"Oh, I adored Miss Snithaven!" I replied, cupping both hands together and gazing heavenward. I don't really know where I got this bit of business from. We child actors tended to collect mannerisms like felt collects lint. You could almost call it an occupational disease.
"Hmm," Tommy said, observing me with clinical detachment. And the way he pulled at his lower lip reminded me of a certain fat director I had had who used psychological manipulation to elicit performances.
"I heard weird rumors about old Miss Snithaven," he muttered confidentially.
Little Millie and I both looked at him. Then we looked at each other. Then we looked at him again and sighed. We both knew he was going to drop a bomb. He knew he was going to drop a bomb. The only question was how long he would make us writhe in suspense.
"But I better not spread idle gossip," he continued predictably. "Ma says it ain't nice".
"Tommy, I'm going to kick your skinny ass if you don't tell me this instant!" little Millie burst forth. She didn't often swear, well brought up child that she was, but when she did, it was like Krakatoa, East of Java. There was no doubting her volcanic resolve.
"Millie, such language!" Tommy gasped, falling back a step in mock horror. "I'm shocked! Worse than that. I'm disillusioned!"
"Now!" Millie bellowed. You wouldn't think to look at her that her little lungs could hold such a volume of air. If she didn't continue in acting, I could foresee her as a drill sergeant, in the United States Marine Corps.
"I heard Miss Snithaven was a dyke," Tommy replied, as cheerfully as if commenting on a sunny day. "Billy Ward told me."
"Oh, Billy Ward, he's a big fat liar," I said. Billy Ward was another juvenile actor we all knew, who was perennially typecast as a big, fat, braggart in kiddie serials. I was about to say that I wouldn't believe anything Billy Ward said, but little Millie interrupted.
"A dyke? What's that?" She really wanted to know. Her backlit blue eyes looked as big as the proverbial saucers. Her pink mouth formed a soft O. She was genuinely perplexed. As was I.
"It's a kind of wall, isn't it?" I inquired hopefully, but doubtfully. I knew that if it came out of the mouth of Tommy Triggs, it must be pure filth.
"Naw, it's a pervert," Tommy shot back. "Geez, don't you girls know nothin'?"
Now little Millie was practically beside herself with curiosity. She stood toe-to-tiptoe with Tommy Triggs, as if doing that would bring her somehow closer to the truth.
"What's a pervert?" she practically begged of him.
By now I had become more than a little annoyed at Tommy. He had no right talking about such things in the presence of a mere baby of eight. Even I knew what a pervert was, or thought I did. It was one of those men who, my dad said, thought they were women who worked in Wardrobe and Makeup. What all this had to do with Miss Snithaven, I was queasily unsure.
"Tommy," I announced, "I don't think we had better talk about such things in front of Millie."
"Yeah, I guess you're right," Tommy conceded. Why he had suddenly become so agreeable, I didn't know. Perhaps he thought I would rat on him to the powers that be. Harry Schweinhardt wouldn't like it one bit if he knew Tommy was out behind Soundstage 6 corrupting the morals of not one, but two minors under contract to him.
"After all, she's just a kid," Tommy chuckled affably. With that, he reached out a bony hand to tousle little Millie's blonde ringlets, but she twisted out from under his touch like a dandelion in a windstorm.
"Wait a minute," she demanded in that low voice of hers, as Tommy stood there, scarecrow arm extended in space. "I said I wanted to know what a purr-vert is!"
If I hadn't been teed off at Tommy for broaching the whole subject, I would have laughed. The word "pervert" coming out of the mouth of little Millie seemed so incongrous---like a two-year- old swearing. It made me wonder what the American public would think if they could see us here. Did they really think we were the two-dimensional characters we played? It was something I resolved to think about some more at a later date. For now I was content with righteous indignation.
"Now you've gone and done it!" I exclaimed to Tommy as Millie, convinced we were conspiring to keep her in the dark, did a slow burn. "You've got her all worked up!"
Tommy peered at Millie like a mongoose peers at a snake. Then he looked at me and shrugged. There was a moment's pause when neither of us said anything. As the soft California breeze lazily stirred the tops of the palm trees like upended dust mops, it was clear to all three of us that we were on the verge of one giant lurch toward adulthood.
It was I who broke the silence.
"There's no going back now," I said to Tommy. "You'll just have to tell her. "And me", I could have added, but didn't.
Given the all clear, Tommy portentiously cleared his throat.
Well, if you insist, little one," he condescended. "I will tell you. In the case of old Miss Snithaven, a pervert is a lady who..." Here Tommy cast a sidelong glance at Millie. It was his undoing. Perhaps it was those klieg light eyes boring into him like the cold eyes of Truth; perhaps it was the looming, vengeful image of Harry Schweinhardt, but in an instant all bravado drained from him. He suddenly looked like a very nervous groom about to deflower a skittish bride.
"Oh, a pervert is a lady who...um...uh...well...er..kisses other ladies!" he finally blurted out.
Now it was my turn to be disappointed. I felt like an airless balloon. I had been expecting a far more, well, graphic description from Tommy. Why, the National Geographic, with its bare-breasted, plate-mouthed natives could have done better!
Millie continued to stare at Tommy as if he were something not quite alive.
"What?" she said, her eyes dimming not a kilowatt. Her palpable incomprehension compelled Tommy to add by way of further explanation a grudging, "You know, like your parents do."
"My parents are divorced!" Millie factually shot back. But the full import of what Tommy meant must have hit her in that split instant, because she suddenly turned beet red and looked away. We followed her gaze through the chain link fence which bounded the Paragon lot, across Melrose Avenue to where three black children, a girl and two boys, stood pitching pennies against the side of an orange house.
"That sure looks like fun," she finally sighed.
Tommy and I exchanged knowing looks. We both knew that little Millie had wanted to know the awful truth about Miss Snithaven, but in the parlance of today's youth, the truth had "freaked her out."
"Well," Tommy said lamely, as if making amends, "we could pitch pennies here".
Millie looked around her at the patch of greenery we stood in as if seeing it for the first time. All it was was a few olive trees, some bushes, patches of grass and dirt. Two weeks ago, I knew it had been used as one backdrop for a movie set in England at the time of the Crusades.
"Where?" Millie said, "against a tree? We'd have to go somewhere and find a wall. And anyway," she added, as critical as any schoolmarm, "it wouldn't be the same."
"Aw, suit yerself," Tommy whined. Never a font of patience in the best of times, he was fast losing what little he had with me and Millie. Thrusting his boney hands into his trousers pockets and standing large feet set apart, he delivered his exit line.
"You dames are darn hard to please," he growled out of one side of his mouth. With that, he turned on his heel and abruptly strode away.
When he was about ten yards from us, he threw over his shoulder, "See ya later, alligators!"
"We're not alligators, we're actresses!" little Millie threw back, her low voice rising ever so slightly through the mild California air. Even at that early date, she loved to get the last, literal word in.
Looking back on her subsequent career from the vantage point of over four decades, I must admit that Millie's hard-edged contentiousness has been a trait that has generally served her well. But I have set out to tell a long story and I don't want to get ahead of myself. Back in the spring of l937, the consensus of opinion was that our Millie Macon was a somewhat bossy, but on the whole good-hearted little acting brat. At this point in filming The Littlest Lady who could imagine that she was about to become an industry whose earnings would exceed the gross national product of several countries?