It didn't have to be George Valentin.
This was the part Peppy kept secret, kept even from George. Especially from George, even now that they were - whatever they were to each other. "Friends" seemed inadequate, "partners" nonspecific. "Frequent co-stars" was too impersonal, and "lovers" had never applied – the hint had been there, at the start, but even when he'd lain helpless and forlorn in her guest bedroom, when it must have been time for a passionate kiss, she had supplied a friendly hug instead.
Maybe the proper word hadn't been invented. The inadequacy of words to express anything worth saying was a thing George instinctively understood, and so it only made sense that their relationship should defy the grasp of language. George and Peppy were simply George and Peppy.
Still. The Valentin pride had made it through a refiner's fine, but Peppy was not sure how he would react to knowing the whole truth about their first chance meeting.
When they're not actively making a picture together, and when neither of them is burdened by an obligation to some romantic partner or other, George and Peppy have a regular lunch date at Musso & Frank's. George enjoys meeting America's sweetheart in one of Hollywood's classic intimate-but-public venues as much as any right-thinking man can or should. It's the exact sort of event that a man leaves an indifferent Paris dance hall career and comes to Los Angeles for. Still, he sometimes wishes there were a way to see and be seen without so many goddamned people around.
He wishes this, for instance, when that ever-smiling Texas lug of a so-called actor Henry Parker comes through the door.
George lowers his cigarette and points his chin across the dining room to where Parker has entered. "I do not like that man," George says, teeth clenched and lips barely moving, a habit picked up to counteract the expressive way he'd learned to speak for silent film. Without this precaution, he can't shake the feeling that everything he says can be read from across the room. "He can't dance."
Peppy has her back to the door, so she raises her compact and pretends to check an errant eyelash, really adjusting the mirror to look behind her. She nods, as though unsurprised to confirm the newcomer's identity, and returns the makeup kit to her fashionably tiny handbag. She doesn't bother to whisper, much less mumble, but speaks in her usual lively, expressive manner. George has warned Peppy this will get her in trouble, when something she doesn't want to share is overheard. He can't exactly bring it up now, though, since he is the only one saying unkind things. "Henry doesn't have to dance," Peppy says. "That's why we're in the film."
"Hmm," George says and ads, almost into his napkin. "Well I think he's too tall." Peppy's eyebrows go up, and it occurs to George that he probably should have listed his objections to Parker in order of merit. But Peppy is smiling, she's ready to laugh, and maybe he can push forward and turn this into a joke. So he goes on. "He's much too tall. Very tall. He's going to stand around drawling and not dancing and being tall and making us all feel short."
Now Peppy laughs, the infectious laugh that America – no, the world – has loved from the first time it echoed from the Vitaphone record.
Henry Parker knows the laugh, too. He turns toward them, catches George's eye and waves brightly.
"Oh, God, he's coming over." George's lips barely move around the edges of his toothy smile. He adds a few French epithets for good measure, words Peppy probably knows by now but is well mannered enough to pretend she does not. He thinks of Uggie, lounging at home in comfortable retirement. "It's times like this I miss the dog."
"Now now," says Peppy. "Make friends with your new co-star." With a wink, she adds, "Hold out your hand and let him sniff it."
There had been calculation to Peppy and George's first meeting. Many people had guessed this -- George, she was certain, had known it from the moment their eyes first met. A dropped pocket book, an acrobatic shuffle across the security line culminating in a stolen kiss and, thanks to a cooperative photographer she had tipped off as they waited outside La Reina Theater, a candid picture and "WHO'S THAT GIRL?" blazoned across Variety.
The short, private answer was "Josefina Maria Miller," Pepita to her Argentine mother, self-christened 'Peppy' in her Texas kindergarten to escape "Jo," a monosyllable that sounded like her father's name. Joe Miller, and American oil man, had met her Mama in Buenos Aires. He had settled mother and daughter in Fort Worth, and stayed in their lives long enough to pay for Peppy's first dance class. There were worse ways for a girl to begin.
On her nineteenth birthday, Peppy boarded a bus for California. But long before Peppy came to Hollywood, she had already scripted the scene that would play out in front of La Reina, had invented it almost from the moment she knew that there was a Hollywood to come to. She blocked out the actions, tweaked the details, knowing everything but who her costar would be, the way a girl plans her wedding in every particular besides the groom.
(Not that Peppy Miller ever planned her wedding. She planned red carpet premieres.)
In Peppy's first mental rehearsal, her script starred Charlie Chaplin. Who else but the Little Tramp in his choreographed awkwardness could have played it out so perfectly?. Even when he was casting lustful glances at Edna Purviance, they both seemed so innocent, part of an otherworldly dream. As Peppy and the movies grew older, she considered Douglas Fairbanks: mask over his eyes, his shirt half open, capturing a pirate ship single-handedly, or foiling the Sheriff of Nottingham. But in the movies he was perhaps too much of a rake. And in reality, well, Mary Pickford would be on his arm.
In the weeks that she worked behind the counter at a department store on Wilshire, Peppy folded stockings and packaged perfume with her hands, and, in her head, auditioned leading men for the role in her Hollywood debut.
One of the men she thought of was the tall Texan Henry Parker.
"Why, Mr. Parker," Peppy says, offering the newcomer her hand to kiss. "What a delightful surprise."
"What a surprising delight." George echoes her tone and gesture, in such a winsomely over-the-top tone that, when Peppy kicks his shin under the table, he supposes that he deserves it.
Parker isn't sure what to do with Peppy's hand, so he looks past it and grabs George's, squeezing hard and pumping vigorously. The way they learn to do it in Texas, George supposes. He'll have to ask Peppy to show him, if he ever gets the feeling back. While George discreetly rubs the back of his hand, trying to restore some sensation to it, Parker helps himself to an extra chair and says, "I still can't believe I'm making a picture with the two of you."
"Indeed," says George. "They once told me I'd never have to share billing with anyone besides Uggie." Peppy clears her throat and gives a singular pout. "Before I met Miss Miller, of course." It's an old routine for the two of them, but it makes Parker laugh.
Then he turns to Peppy and says, "That's right. You started out as one of George here's fans."
For just a second, Peppy Miller's famous smile freezes. "That's one way of looking at it," she says. And just like that, her good humor is back again, leaving George to wonder what he's missed.
Back in the '20s, Henry Parker had acted in a series of what the wags liked to call "horse operas," his career mostly owing to his ability to look good in a cowboy hat, and (rumor had it) his father's friendship with fellow Texan Howard Hughes. But he always rescued and then kissed a pretty girl on screen, and his premieres would draw a decent-sized crowd of photographers and press. One of his films came out a week before A Russian Affair, and Peppy was there.
But it wasn't the time. If she messed the moment up, she could be removed for good. Instead of "Who's That Girl?" the headline might have read "Crazed Fan Fracas at La Reina Red Carpet." It would be easy for a displeased star to make her persona non grata at the security lines. She had seen it before, girls too eager or too familiar, told in no uncertain terms that they were no longer welcome.
And once she was there, Henry Parker didn't feel right. He was pleasant enough toward his fans but the scene Peppy needed to play required a touch for comedy that Parker lacked in person as much as on screen.
Besides. She'd have needed to get on her toes to place a kiss on Parker's cheek. He really was too tall.
"So when is Zimmer going to lend you to Paramount?" asks Parker, slapping George on the back. "I can teach you how to ride a horse, if that's what you're worried about."
Parker is on loan from another studio, where he mostly makes Westerns. Somewhere along the line, he has developed the inexplicable idea that, since Kinograph has brought him over to ruin musical comedy, George is likewise obligated to experiment with horse opera.
Peppy rescues George, with a light for his cigarette and a question for Parker. "Don't you remember A Moroccan Affair? The studio rented a stable of Arabian horses from a genuine sheikh for that film."
Moroccan had been 1924, so if Peppy knew anything about that film, she had read it in Variety. George gave her a smile to thank her for the save, and declined to mention that the horses had been ridden almost exclusively by stunt men. For insurance reasons, of course.
"Oh yes, of course," Parker amends. "I meant, if you want to learn to ride Western saddle. There's not much to it. Of course, you'd have done – horse –things – before. I’m not the expert on your films that we all know Miss Miller is . . ."
This is the second time Parker has alluded to Peppy's supposed history as an enthusiast of George's career, and once again it's clear that she's not amused by the remark. George is through being subtle and diplomatic. He says,"I'm surprised your studio doesn't put out even more of those films in a year, when one considers that you only have to make half a picture." Parker laughs uneasily, scratching the back of his neck. "Well, I wouldn't put it that way –"
"How would you put it?" Peppy says. She may not be certain what George is getting at, but she knows how to play off of him.
"Well, you know. There's plenty of perfectly good footage from silent pictures. Action and so forth. So they keep that, put in sound, write some additional dialogue and – it's like the same film. But better!"
"Brilliant. The audience can pay twice for the same film but –" George tries to say 'better,' but even in jest it sticks on his tongue.
If Parker notices George's irritation, it doesn't show. George is starting to wonder if failing to notice other people's irritation, no matter how clearly it might be expressed, is the Texan's way of navigating this town. As if to prove this point, Parker offers cheerfully, "You ought to try that with some of your old films. You could do The Moroccan Affair all over again, but this time the sheikh's horses stay where they are."
"Oh!" Peppy exclaims. "I could put on a blonde wig and pretend to be Constance Gray. George, we have got to talk to Mr. Zimmer about this! It appears our man Parker has seen the future."
"Indeed, my dear," says George. "And what a future it is."
Constance Gray, George's co-star in A Russian Affair, had been a puzzling variable in Peppy's calculations. On the one hand, George was a tantalizing target because he always arrived and left by himself. He had a sickly wife who always stayed home (if she ever existed, some columnists had their doubts), and he never seemed to hobnob with his human co-stars. So, while Peppy waited in the press of people outside the theater, she could be confident he would emerge alone.
If she had been inside at the premiere, though – and she wasn't; it was invitation only and besides, she would never have gotten such a good place in the line if she'd stayed in the theater through the end of the film – but if she'd seen his stunt with the curtain call, she might have hesitated. She read about it later, how he left Constance standing in the wings, reluctant to share the spotlight with anyone but Uggie, who after all was an accessory rather than competition.
When she read about it later (read between the lines on page 3, where her invasion of the red carpet had pushed all mention of the actual premiere, an unintended consequence that almost got her thrown out of Kinograph when she finally got in), she wondered if she had dodged a bullet. Maybe she had just gotten lucky in taking George by surprise, could just as easily have been shouted away ("Fan Fracas!"), depending on the mercurial star's whim.
No matter how much a girl worked and planned and calculated, so much in Hollywood depended on luck.
These days, Clifton drives for both of them.
Nominally, he is still employed by Peppy because, after she was so instrumental in getting him back on his financial feet, George felt it would be horrifically gauche to poach from her staff. In practice, though, they work at the same studio and George – once he had his finances in order and certainly only by happy coincidence and the vagaries of the Los Angeles real estate market – owns a home on the same block as Peppy's. Happily, Clifton, who had uncomplainingly forgone salary for a year during George's misfortune, now makes equally little fuss about being paid twice. Not that he has any interest in luxuries for himself but -- Peppy once whispered to George – Clifton has a beloved granddaughter who, once she saw Sparkle of Love, wanted to take dance lessons of her own.
The car, with loyal Clifton at the wheel and George and Peppy in the back seat, is usually a forum for merry and unrestrained conversation, the things even Peppy wouldn't say in front of other people.
Today, they sit in silence, shrinking into opposite walls.
George doesn't mind quiet, typically; he wishes the modern world let a man spend more time alone with his thoughts. But he minds Peppy being quiet, because it isn't like her. After they ride a few blocks without speaking, he can't take it, and offers, "So we're making a film with Parker. That should be – fun."
Instead of turning toward him, Peppy watches her fingers trace a pattern against the window. "It still bothers you," she says. "I didn't realize how much." He doesn't think she means working with Parker. He's been complaining about it, but mostly for fun, and there's no reason his dislike of the man should surprise her. He waits for her to go on, and finally she looks at him and says, "The silent films. You still miss making them."
"I –" George begins, and he's not sure where to go from there. Of course, he misses the way films used to be. He had no idea that was in question. He tries to parse what she's really asking, and he finally says, "I love the pictures we make together. I'm even reconciled to everything that goes with it. If taking accent lessons so that I sound –" And here he does a passable imitation of Al Zimmer's broad New York vowels "- 'still French but not too French' -- if that's the price I pay for dancing with you, well –" And here he tries a smile, the 'every man loved by everyone' smile that has ended so many uncomfortable conversations in the past.
Peppy isn't going to be called off that easily. "It's not what you wish we were doing," she persists.
"I don't –" George sighs. "I don't want to stop the clock. I don't think I can fight the future. Not anymore. But. I'm not inclined to sit there and smile while Henry Parker suggests I vandalize all my best work."
"Ahh." Peppy looks back toward the window and, if George is not mistaken, even the unflappable Clifton's eyes shift in the rear view mirror.
"You know what I mean, Peppy." George touches her shoulder instinctively. She looks down at his hand like she might shake it off, but she doesn't, and he slides his fingers down to touch her wrist. "You would have been wonderful in silent pictures. You were wonderful. I would have cast you in Tears of Love in a heartbeat."
"Don't say that! Norma was wonderful."
"Of course he was," George agrees, and then just as truthfully, says, "You would have been better. It's not your fault that you came in when you did, just when talkies were starting. You were in the right place at the right time."
"I'm proud of the pictures I've made, George. All of them."
"You should be!"
They stare at each other for a moment, then Peppy says, "So what are we arguing about?"
"I don't know." George lets go of her hand and rolls his head back to look at the ceiling of the car. "I suppose everyone wants the world to be the way it was when they were twenty-five."
"I just turned twenty-six," Peppy reminds him. "Does that mean it's all downhill from here?"
"Let's hope not." He smiles, and she smiles back and it could all end here except he can't help saying it. "You did like my old films though. If you hadn't, you wouldn't have –"
"Been your number one fan. Just as Mr. Parker reminded us." The hard edge is back in her voice, and George remembers that the conversation at the restaurant had unbalanced her in its own way. He shouldn't have forgotten this because, quite frankly, some triviality upsets George every day – people who deal with him know to expect this; he is bothered that so many things bother him, though not enough so far to change -- but for Peppy it is rare.
"Peppy, darling," George says. "No one thinks that you owe your career to me. Quite – " This is not the time to stumble on his pride. "Quite the opposite, these days. People don't say that to you, do they?"
"Not very much. Not anymore." She sighs. "I'm not worried about what people think, George. I don't suffer so much in the confidence department. I don't need your reassurance that I deserve my career."
"Good. Because you danced your way onto that lot, all on your own." George may have painted her beauty spot, but he had long ago given up the illusion that her stardom was his creation.
"I don't need your reassurance," she repeats. "But I sometimes wonder what you'd think of me if I wasn't your number one fan. If I hadn't just happened to stumble into you in front of the La Reina that day, because I was so overcome with your fame."
"Ahh," George says, and he chooses the next words carefully. "It has occurred to me that being so very innocent, spontaneous, and entirely without guile must require a good deal of preparation."
"It was hard work," she agrees, "being that spontaneous."
He pats her hand. "You needn't worry. I worked that out a long time ago. But – surely, you wouldn't have been there if you hadn't admired my films."
"I did," she says. "I do. I saw A Moroccan Affair every night of the two weeks it played in Fort Worth. But you must realize that – well -- you weren't the only candidate."
He should have realized this, of course. If Peppy had planned everything out so carefully, and so far ahead, she couldn't have counted exclusively on George being available. Now he tries to imagine how he would have felt if that Variety headline had involved another man. Would he even have noticed? Would he have been jealous? Would he have seen Peppy in the Kinograph lot and demanded she be removed.
"Who—?" He asks. "If I may so bold as to inquire? Who were the other candidates?"
"Well for one –" Peppy coughs. She puts a hand over her face and peers through the fingers. "Henry Parker!" she announces, then covers her eyes again.
"Parker!" George imagines the headlines, the pictures. He wants to sputter out all of his objections to the man's dimwitted horse operas, then realizes he's spent most of the afternoon doing just that. Peppy's timing is, as always, suspiciously impeccable. And yet – George doesn't have it in him to mind. "Peppy," he says. "Darling." She lowers her hand, cautiously, and he takes it. "The thing is. You would have had to stand on your toes to kiss Parker. The man is too damn tall."
"I know," Peppy says earnestly. "That was exactly the problem."
Then she smiles. Then George smiles. Then they are both laughing, and in a moment even Clifton is laughing too.
They're going forward. It's going to be all right.
It didn't have to be George Valentin.
Simply and forever, though, Peppy is glad that it was.