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Celluloid Hero

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Dear Buck,

Well, it’s been an awfully long time since I heard back from you, but I promised I’d write every day and I’ve mostly kept to that promise even when we were stuck on a train, so I won’t stop now. You’ll never guess where I’m writing this from. Do you remember all the times we imagined riding the trains out to California, seeing the Pacific Ocean and the palm trees, and maybe running into some movie stars? Believe it or not, I’m here! We finally made our way out traveling across the country on the Bonds tour, me, the girls, Willard, and Fred, and tomorrow we’ll be going to a couple of the movie studios to talk about making some Captain America pictures.

I can scarcely believe it, to be honest; it seems like a dream, or maybe like I’m in a movie itself, things like this just never seemed like the kinds of things that would happen to me. And I hope this doesn’t come as some kind of shock. Since I haven’t heard from you, I’m unsure how many of my letters have reached you, or what the censors might have blacked out, how much of my story you’ll have read and in which order. I hope the reason I haven’t heard from you isn’t that you’re angry at me for the program I’ve been through or for making it into the Army in the first place by agreeing to be some crazy German’s science experiment. It’s not hard to imagine how sore you’d be about that, but I promise you I’m all right, I really am. Better than all right, even, things are going great: the girls have been fantastic, and Fred is such a nice fellow to work with, it’s pretty hard to believe he’s playing Adolf Hitler. The crew treats me great and they are all as deeply committed to the war effort as I am, and I hope that if we do end up working in the pictures, we’ll be with people just like them.

Tonight’s my first real night in Los Angeles, and I’ve been invited to go to the Hollywood Canteen—partly to rally the troops, I imagine, but also partly so I can meet some of the VIPs in this town. It’s so strange, and almost comical, to think of myself here, I’m sure you’re just busting a gut over this whole thing if you’re reading this. Please feel free to laugh at me—I miss your letters and anything would be fine, even a quick pissed-off note, just to read your words again and know you’re all right.

 


 

The sun was just setting over the Pacific as Steve and his driver, Edgar, began winding their way along the serpentine roads heading toward the Hollywood Canteen. When Steve and the USO show had come in on the train, they’d passed through nearly endless acres of orange groves, their dark green leaves shimmying in the warm breeze and all the colors piercing and bright against the California sun; he’d gone through half a pad of paper drawing as fast as he could. In the distance they had seen the giant heads of oil drilling machines bobbing up and down, and now he was getting a close-up glimpse of some of them, dotted around among houses and commercial buildings. While Steve had expected this part of the country to be different from anything else he’d ever seen, the exoticness exceeded his wildest imaginings: in the courtyard of their hotel were trees with small, just-fruiting lemons, limes, and tangerines; the adobe houses and buildings with their round, arched doorways and red tile roofs were a world away from the brownstones and bricks of the East Coast; and everyone seemed to move at a lazy, sunny snail’s pace to his New Yorker eyes, all easygoing and cheerful and relaxed.

Edgar was like that; he was friendly and informal when he’d come to pick Steve up at his hotel—a beautiful place in Santa Monica nearly on the beach—but wouldn’t step foot inside the room, even at Steve’s invitation. Steve hadn’t really gotten used to this class division between “the talent” and the people who worked for them despite his weeks on the tour, but he’d immediately noticed how much worse it was here in the city of the stars. Hell, just the fact that he had his own driver and car was so extravagant as to seem like a joke, and none of it squared with what he thought this was supposed to be.

By the time they got to the Canteen, the sky was blazing orange and red and purple, casting a glow over the throng of servicemen waiting outside the enormous converted barn, the signs flickering unsteadily as they came on. Edgar had come around to open the door for him, but before Steve had fully stepped out, Willard Josephson was there, clapping Steve on the back and enthusiastically pumping his hand, steering him in through a side door marked “Volunteer Entrance.” Willard was one of their show’s producers, the only one who traveled with them, and was their primary contact with Senator Brandt’s people; Steve was really hoping that he hadn’t expected the girls to take public transportation here while he got the royal treatment in a hired car just because he was supposed to be the main attraction. Before he could ask where the gals were, he was thrust inside, face first into a wall of noise even out here on the side.

The place was absolute madness: a beehive swarming with soldiers and beautifully dressed girls and men in fine suits that were covered by aprons with a star in the middle, almost like his own outfit. Soldiers were being served from trays piled high with sandwiches, getting drinks from a couple of different bars, or sitting at small tables that dotted the periphery of the dance floor; on the riser was a full orchestra—Xavier Cugat, no less—and it was all so visually overwhelming, even to a fella from New York. Willard took Steve to the side behind the little stage, telling him to wait there while Bette Davis and Mr. Cugat made the introductions; only a quarter of the girls were doing the presentation with him, plus Fred, because there wasn’t enough room for the whole revue on this stage but Captain America absolutely had to punch Hitler in front of American servicemen.

This part Steve’d grown used to: that little flutter-dip in his stomach just before he went on stage, that old familiar stuttering heartbeat in the still-unfamiliar hardy body. Weeks of this and he really hadn’t learned to accept that this was how his service was playing out, this was what Steve Rogers was now. Lucy smiled at him and winked; she was probably the gal closest to Steve in many ways, including their age and the fact that she’d grown up three streets over from his last address where he’d lived with his mother. “Don’t you worry,” she whispered in his ear, “we got our number down, even with the changes and so little room, been practicin’ all afternoon. Just follow our lead!” Then she pinched his cheek like she was his aunt or something.

“Where are the rest of the girls? Tell me they didn’t make you come out here on the streetcar like that.” Steve peered around a giant star backdrop; there was the usual bunting around the stage and a few glittery stars, but not much else he recognized. “I thought all of you’d be here.” The thought of coming all the way out to California and the girls not getting paid to work, left waiting around for him so he could play at movie stardom, gave him a sharp twinge.

“They’re having the time of their lives being slavered over by all those wolves, I think,” Fred said, dry and maybe a little discontent—he probably wanted to be out there mingling with the loftiest names in Hollywood, or maybe just making a little friendly contact with a lot of warm bodies. “And no, don’t worry, we were driven here, too. We’d have gotten horribly lost if we’d done it ourselves. Didn’t they tell you there was a small dressing room upstairs?” he added, like Steve was the most precious thing for coming here in costume. He felt his cheeks turn pink and he glanced away.

On the way in to Los Angeles Steve had written some special notes for the Canteen audience, and he’d put in for a $25 bond to raffle off along with an autographed comic book and some snapshots with him—although he supposed it wasn’t really a raffle, more like a drawing, since everything at the Canteen was free, even the stamps to mail the postcard servicemen were given on entry. Each night the picture studios offered a bond; he couldn’t compete with the rest of their gifts like extra leave, but it was something small and heartfelt that Steve was proud to do, and his mother had always said it was the little things that meant the most. The “Take a Snap with Cap” segments after their shows had always been his favorite because he could see how much it meant to people to greet him, especially the kids. Those boys in the Canteen would see combat, most of them; many would be injured, many more would die—they were worth a few bucks out of his Army pay, and where the hell was he going to spend it, anyway, since most of his time was spent on trains and stages.

Steve was nervous, more than any time since his first stage appearance: while there’d been a few servicemen here and there at the shows, for the most part he hadn’t really connected with anyone else in uniform. Would they laugh at him, or worse? he’d wondered when Willard had shown him the itinerary of star-studded appearances he’d lined up. It would be one thing to work in the kitchen here or serve drinks or food, but standing on a stage, spouting the same lines he spoke to civilians—well, that opened up the chance to look even more the goose than he already did. He may have been physically changed, he may have been playing at being the hero to the public, but the way his fellow soldiers had behaved at Lehigh was still a raw, open wound. Those years when Steve had wanted nothing more than for people to look past his physical shortcomings so he could serve his country the way these young men and women were doing, and the end result was still the same—not on active duty, clowning around in tights like an idiot.

Their truncated version of the show went off, surprisingly, without a hitch; the regular show they’d been touring around the country contained multiple acts, of which he was only one part, but here Captain America and his spangly dancers were the entire focus. The small part of him that expected the worst was instead relieved when they cheered for him with gusto, and Steve was pretty certain it wasn’t solely because of the leg the girls were flashing.

The Navy man with the lucky ticket for the bond, Ensign Pauler, was brought over to Steve and they posed for pictures, shaking hands, and Steve peered at his face. “How old are you, sailor?” Steve asked, and Pauler’d ducked his head, squinting.

“Um...” He stalled, his hands clenching into fists, and Steve knew that look: he was afraid to lie to Captain America. “Seventeen, on my enlistment form,” he eventually squeaked out. “My folks signed.”

Steve winked at him. “That’s good enough for me.” Pauler was probably sixteen at the most, then. Steve and Bucky were practically old men compared to most of the children fighting this war; meeting boys like this made him grieve for the youth they’d never experience.

Willard and one of the volunteer staff brought him over to a counter where he could have a drink mixed by Buster Keaton himself—Bucky was going shit over that—and sign autographs, and watch the rest of the evening’s entertainment. Every once in a while he’d look over and catch Lucy’s eye where she might be dancing with a serviceman or chatting with an actor, or he’d see Yvonne or Lillian waving at him from the depths of a sea of uniforms, until one time he looked up from all the comic books or Captain America show flyers getting thrust into his face to see Bette Davis and John Garfield standing in front of him.

The utter delight on both of these big stars’ faces flabbergasted Steve as Miss Davis reached forward to shake his hand, introducing herself and Mr. Garfield as if Steve wouldn’t know who they were otherwise. Despite the weeks he’d been doing this, Steve still hadn’t embraced the fact of his celebrity—even when he’d been posing for photos with the Broadway stars who’d come to see their first shows at Radio City.

“We’re so very pleased you could join us here,” Miss Davis said, clasping his hand in both of hers, a warm smile on her face. “When we found out you were coming to Los Angeles, we simply had to have you come by, didn’t we?” and she turned those enormous eyes of hers to Garfield’s.

“I was certain what we saw in the newsreel was stagecraft,” Garfield said, shaking Steve’s hand too, “until you picked up both those girls as if they weighed less than that shield!”

“Balancing is the hardest part, to be honest. On stage I usually have a prop motorbike with three girls on it. There are a couple wires to help me keep it steady or those gals would sail right off.” He’d learned that the hard way—it was one of the most challenging parts of developing the show, after simply learning to speak in front of an audience and not go mute with terror. The first time they tried it, Steve knocked one dancer unconscious when the prop bike had wobbled as he was hoisting it up, and to his horror she’d slid off the seat like it had been greased; the other gals had been pretty badly banged up when they’d fallen on top of her.

“May we borrow the captain?” Miss Davis asked the boys who surrounded them in a pool of adoring glances. “We promise to give him back in a bit.” She had a presence, a confidence, that could only come from success, and Steve instantly liked her. The two of them steered Steve to one of the tables lining the walls, over near the talent entrance so it was slightly less teeming with humanity—but only slightly. “We wanted to be certain you didn’t feel like you were here just as an attraction,” she said as Steve pulled her chair out for her, and then sat down—across from Bette Davis, he was sitting at a table with Bette Davis.

“We’ve both been on some of these bond-selling tours, working with the USO, we know it can be a bit of a grind. You must be exhausted by now, how long’s it been?” Mr. Garfield asked. Steve recalled that he’d been overseas once already with the USO, and hoped to go again now that the Army was moving up into Italy.

“On the road since mid-July. I admit I used to think sleeping in a Pullman car berth would be the height of luxury for a poor Brooklyn kid, but I’m definitely over that now.” Steve smiled to let them know he wasn’t getting ritzy about it, but neither of them paid it any mind.

“Brooklyn, huh?” Mr. Garfield said. He pointed at his chest. “Born on the Lower East Side, but I spent a lot of time in Brownsville till we went up to the Bronx.” There was a kind of tightness to his eyes when he said it that Steve recognized; he was pretty sure that was how he must look when he spoke of his childhood.

“I’ll be!” You could almost believe you weren’t talking to two huge movie stars, and he began to relax as the two of them reminisced about some of their favorite places until Miss Davis rolled her eyes, poked Garfield in the side, and said, “Oh, listen to you two. You can talk about the Old Neighborhood with the captain later. So much business to attend to!”

“I’m not really a captain, Miss Davis. That’s just the stage...character, I guess you could say. Still sort of a lowly private, technically speaking. I think.”

“None of that ‘Miss’ stuff, now. You call me Bette, and this is Julie. We only call him Johnny when people are listening.”

At Steve’s confused look Garfield said, “Jacob Julius Garfinkle, at your service. But all my friends and family call me Julie.”

“That must get confusing with Mr. Stein.” Jules Stein was one of the people who’d helped Miss Davis—Bette—and Garfield get the Hollywood Canteen off the ground, along with Cary Grant; Steve had read everything he could get his hands on when he’d heard Los Angeles would be the tour’s eventual destination.

“He can’t wait to meet you, kiddo,” Bette said, “but he’s down with a cold. Listen, we were talking with your manager there, and we’d love to have you come back as often as you want while you’re in town. You needn’t do the patter or the music, just talk to the boys in uniform the way you did tonight. We can beam you to the fellas overseas along with whoever guests that night, they’ll be thrilled. I’m here most nights and I could tell they adored you, and don’t even ask me about the ladies—you’d think some of those gals weren’t working with the handsomest men in Hollywood the way they were looking at you.”

Oh God. The two of them burst into laughter at the rapid creep of fire up his face. Steve tried to brush it off, but Bette locked her arm through his and leaned into him. “Oh darling, you’re so precious. Take my word for it—the women in this town will eat you like a sandwich. You won’t make it out of here alive, not a handsome hunk of man like you. And you’ll have the time of your life being devoured.” Every time a woman flirted with him it startled him, like being poked with one of Dr. Erskine’s large needles; Steve still couldn’t shake the belief that all the gals in the U.S. hadn't conspired to pull his leg, no matter how many times he looked in the mirror and saw someone who, objectively, could pass for attractive.

He’d been watching the floor for a bit, noticing some fellows from a Colored unit, and he said, “It’s really nice to see that you’ve kept this place open to everyone in uniform.” She swiveled around to look at some of the dancers. “It’s enough to put up with that sort of thing at work,” she commented acidly, “but we don’t hold to that here. We’re all working for the same thing. Everyone in uniform is in this thing equally.” Steve made a noise of approval and nodded, and she gave one of her famous husky, full-throated laughs. “Jack Warner griped at me that I was too pushy when I was trying to sell bonds, so I reminded him that my best-loved roles were always the ones where I played a bitch. Good luck to anyone who tries to make me stick to the status quo and keep my mouth shut.”

The three of them spent the better part of an hour talking and laughing, pausing occasionally to sign an autograph or deal with the business of the Canteen; it impressed Steve that someone as busy as Bette or Julie were with their work made time to be here nearly every night to run the house. Naturally, they’d been curious about how much of the comic book Cap story was true; Steve told him what he could about Project Rebirth, which wasn’t much, but that led to the revelation that Bette had had a fling with Howard Stark a few years back. They found numerous connections like that between them—he couldn’t wait to get back to his hotel to write to Bucky about all of it. Julie had been turned down for service due to a bad heart, channeling his desire to serve instead into the USO and the Canteen, and making a few war-themed morale pictures. They neither of them had many great things to say about Jack Warner, whom Steve was to meet the next day, but they both agreed with Senator Brandt’s people that Steve would be a natural in front of a camera and that was the studio to do it—not to mention giving him some tasty morsels of gossip so he’d feel a bit less intimidated.

He got the distinct impression they’d been feeling him out about his personal politics as they talked, not to mention his dating status. When they introduced him around to the other stars working at the Canteen that night, Steve was certain of it: Rita Hayworth was there, Linda Darnell, Gene Tierney—another Brooklynite—as well as some young ladies just beginning their careers, and some who didn’t even work in front of the camera. All of them young enough for him, and most important, eligible, and if it hadn’t been charming he might have been offended. “If you can come by on Friday, Barbara Stanwyck and Hedy Lamarr will be here,” Garfield said with a bit of a smirk and a very actorly curved eyebrow.

When they walked him out a while later, past the surging tide of troops waiting to get inside and the popping flashbulbs of the newspaper photographers, his head was still swimming from everything that had just happened: the fact of being invited here by them both, the warm welcome of the servicemen, the ease and warmth of their conversation and friendship. While not the service he’d wanted to give for his country, he reminded himself that he was doing something for others and at least able to make them happy for a little while. Steve’s car was waiting across Cahuenga Boulevard when he left, and Edgar opened the rear passenger door for him again, pampered movie-star style. Edgar drove him home through the dark hills, a fingernail moon with a single bright star at its shoulder hanging above the Pacific Ocean, and Steve indulged in room service for a late supper, finishing his letter to Bucky, his head in the clouds.

 


 

Hollywood News and Gossip
by Louella Parsons

The talk of the town last night was Captain America’s star-spangled appearance at the Hollywood Canteen, where the ladies swooned and the gentlemen cheered, especially the lucky sailor who was awarded the hero’s gift of a $25 war bond and a signed Captain America first-issue comic book. Rumor has it America’s Captain will be meeting with studio heads to discuss bringing his patriotic man with a plan to the silver screen. I chatted briefly with Bette Davis after his show, who gives us hope that the costumed cutie will be at the Canteen, revving up the engines of our boys heading overseas, for the duration of his stay in town, assuming he can fit it in between his show’s slate of appearances at the Hollywood Bowl and the making of a major motion picture. If we’re fortunate enough to see the Captain lick those Axis enemies on celluloid, who might his leading lady be? Davis is surely too old to play his love interest, she insists with admirable candor, and her schedule wouldn’t allow it. I can see this shaping up to be a competition almost as fierce as for the role of Scarlet O’Hara.