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 to 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.
Today was an even more eventful day than yesterday, which I guess is saying a lot—went to two studios, the First Motion Picture Unit and Warner Bros., believe it or not, and I met with Jack Warner himself—frankly, I can’t believe that happened, so I don’t expect you to. If you’re even reading these, if they’ve even reached you, if you’re even all right. I hear the reports about Italy and examine every article I can find, trying to see if I can figure out who’s in play and where they’re fighting, and I think of you all the time. I feel pretty certain that’s where you must be, and I often find myself distracted, wondering whether you’re in the thick of it or on the periphery and if that’s why I haven’t heard back from you for such a long time. Or maybe it’s simply that the mail from soldiers in such a massive campaign moves like molasses in January and all your letters are piling up into a mountain that’s waiting for me somewhere when I get off this tour.
The car and driver I told you about picked me and Willard up this morning, and we went first to Warner. You pull up to this gated entry where a fella checks a clipboard for the day’s appointments to see if you’re allowed in, it felt very fancy. Once you’re in the studio lot, which is enormous, you can see all kinds of actors and actresses in costumes walking around between buildings. Some of the buildings are these gargantuan soundstages bigger than the whole of Ebbets Field, some are offices, but the main building where Mr. Warner works is a beautiful California-style building I think you’d be over the moon about. You’d probably love all of the buildings out here because they’re so different: they’re sort of low-slung and flat-roofed or made of adobe with arched doorways and some have the Spanish-style courtyards with palm trees, which are everywhere. You see these big brown things on the side of the road and you think it’s a dead animal, but it’s just husks from the palms that have blown off in the wind.
After Warner’s, we went over to the FMPU. They’ve both been tasked with coming up with ideas for a Captain America picture, but as studios there’s a big difference in the type of films they produce, since the FMPU is focused on the war effort and training. They also train combat cameramen, so who knows, maybe someone with your outfit learned their craft there.
Whatever we end up doing, though, it’ll require me to act, to do more than fake-punch Hitler and shill for bonds, which makes me want to throw up. It’s not something I ever imagined when I signed up for this. But Mr. Garfield (and Miss Davis) each gave me their home telephone numbers, and Mr. Garfield said he’d be happy to give me some tips and teach me the basics, and I don’t think you could even ask for a better teacher.
“I mean, I grew up in New York, I ran around with artists and writers and theatre people, but I feel like such a rube,” Steve whispered to Willard when they were alone for a minute, waiting for Mr. Warner to return from a phone call so they could conclude their luncheon. The legendary commissary was full of stars Steve recognized, many he didn’t—and the food was as amazing as he’d heard, because rationing seemingly hadn’t touched such a privileged place as a movie studio restaurant. It felt decadent, to be indulging in things the rest of the country needed cards for and waited in lines to buy—if they could be had for any price at all.
Willard laughed and knocked his elbow against Steve’s. “It’s definitely the lap of luxury compared to what we’ve been living. I for one am not grousing.” He held up his fork with the last bite of steak and rolled his eyes heavenward. “The Army hasn’t really treated you square though, have they? Making you get by on a private’s salary but hobnobbing with the stars. How many times do I have to tell you: you’re the man of the moment. You deserve a little pampering, stop feelin’ so guilty. They should be giving you a bonus or something, the money you bring in.” Well, Steve didn’t know about that; since the moment he’d stepped foot into that rehearsal studio folks were bending over backward to do things for him. Even a jaded old theatre producer like Willard treated Steve as though he were his favorite kid brother, as though this whole tour was a romp made just for them.
Today Steve was trying to keep a low profile, wearing his service uniform to their film studio meetings. They were scheduled to stop by a convalescent hospital afterward to visit troops there before heading over to rehearse the USO show at the Hollywood Bowl, so he’d brought his clown suit along, but it was nice for a change to just be anonymous Private Rogers. People kept looking at him as if they recognized him yet couldn’t quite recall from where. Mr. Warner’s eyes had widened in surprise when he’d shown up like that, but Steve wanted to be taken seriously and it would be pretty fucking hard to do that when he was in tights and pirate boots.
Steve wasn’t certain what he thought about Jack Warner: he was arrogant and kind of condescending, but he’d been making strong statements against fascism before most of America had stopped preaching isolationism, and Steve couldn’t help but admire that. Warner genuinely believed in what Captain America stood for, maybe not in the same way Senator Brandt had, but it meant a lot to Steve nonetheless—and Warner really wanted to pull this movie deal off.
When Warner rejoined them he didn’t bother placing his napkin on his lap; he was ready to leave; their audience with the king was now over with. “You have a nice chat with the FMPU fellas, see if they come up with any ideas of what they can do with a unique case like yourself. But I’ll level with you, son—Senator Brandt’s been on the horn to me a couple times already, and I think his people are feeding stories to those gossip viragos, so the wheels are already moving. Me, I think we oughta get you started with a short, something to run after the newsreel and the cartoon. Use your stage act to our advantage, capitalize on the popularity of the whole thing, then we build a story for a full-length picture off of that. It’ll reach a lot more people than some documentary piece.” With a hand on Steve’s shoulder, he turned Steve to the side a little bit, looking him up and down and squinting. Warner added, “It’s a shame that mask hides your face. Because a kisser like that could sell a million tickets alone, even without the name. We should make the most of what you’ve got.” And his look said that Steve had a lot. The hot flush of embarrassment crept up Steve’s face, but before he could tell Warner he didn’t wear the cowl all the time, he was abruptly standing and then gone, leaving Willard and Steve to share a bewildered glance, and figure out how they were supposed to find where Edgar and the car were parked.
Their next stop was Fort Roach and the First Motion Picture Unit: the group that made the kinds of pictures Steve had far more interest in and enthusiasm for. Winning Your Wings with Jimmy Stewart was exactly the kind of picture he would hope for for himself: if they could make Captain America selling bonds and raising morale feel as vital and stirring as Lieutenant Stewart had raising the call for Army Air Forces flying personnel, well, that’d be the best kind of service Steve could hope for given his situation.
It didn’t hurt that the unit was also part of the real, honest-to-god military, though Steve had no idea what kind of bureaucratic bullshit it would entail to have a captain who was still really a private, an infantryman, working within the Army Air Forces. That was probably a job for Senator Brandt’s people to hammer out with Colonel Phillips; the less he had to think about them, the better. His worries took a back seat, though, to his fascination with the work they were doing in the studio; they were toured around the place by Lt. Colonel Mantz, who ran the FMPU, and they saw animators at work, voice recording, and film editing before watching someone pretend to fly a plane on one of the soundstages. No one seemed to know whether they should address Steve as captain or private, so they simply settled on Rogers for the duration of the meeting.
Unlike Warner’s, everyone in the FMPU was in service, all wearing uniforms; many of them were older men who had long careers in the film industry already, drafted straight into the unit—or they had been 4F like him. It had the effect of making Steve feel even more like a bright but empty container, useless and only good for looking at: they were able to serve despite being otherwise ineligible, they were directly contributing to the war effort, not just a performing monkey dancing at the end of a chain, a silly little cap on his head and wearing a colorful costume. If he ended up in a romantic melodrama designed to showcase his looks rather than the promise of what Captain America should be, Steve thought he really would be just what Colonel Phillips had said: not enough. As they watched the shooting on the soundstage, Steve found himself mentally drifting away, wondering again where Bucky might be, or how Peggy and the SSR personnel were faring in bringing the fight to Hydra—without their supersoldier.
In the car as they left the studio, Steve leaned back into the seat, staring out the window as he watched the wide streets and sun-bleached buildings roll past, and Willard let him stew quietly for a while before asking, “Well, what did you think?”
“I don’t know,” Steve said honestly, because he didn’t, but after a brief hesitation added, “but making something at the FMPU felt a hell of a lot more as though I would be serving my country rather than serving the senator’s interests. I liked the colonel very much, he didn’t treat me as if I were a joke.” Colonel Mantz had been something of a daring flying ace and Hollywood stunt pilot before the war; he was funny and sharp, although Steve suspected he also drank quite a bit.
“Yeah, that was my feeling, too. A lot of those guys seemed like pretty up-front fellas, they’d be great to work with, but the kinds of pictures they’re making...” Willard wouldn’t say it with words, but his tone did—don’t get your hopes up, kiddo. “Listen, I know I’m a broken record, but you’re not a joke, you or Cap. I’ve been involved in a lot of productions and none of them were important, you know? This—this is useful. Bond sales go up twelve percent every city we go to. That means something, even though I know you want to do more.”
Steve almost blurted out what are we doing here? but bit back on the words; it wasn’t Willard’s fault that Steve was a chump in a costume instead of a fighting man, he did his best to encourage Steve every damn day. And anyway, he had no real influence over whichever kind of film they made—hell, he might even be out of a job if Steve stayed here in Los Angeles long enough and the USO show never made it overseas, as it was rumored they would do.
Seeing the young soldiers who’d been invalided home helped lift Steve’s spirits, however; their enthusiasm—the entire hospital’s excitement—at seeing the fellow from the comics and papers and newsreels reminded him that the symbol of Captain America had some value, just as Willard insisted. When they’d arrived he’d changed into the stage costume, then the head nurse and the chief surgeon walked him through the wards. It took him a few minutes to realize they were keeping him away from the most badly injured soldiers: the ones who’d be unconscious or unresponsive, the ones who’d be combat fatigued or violently bitter or terrified, and that wasn’t for someone famous like Captain America to see, they probably thought. For a moment Steve irately considered asking to visit those wards, but who would he be asking for, really—them, or himself?
Instead Steve spent time talking to the men and posing for pictures, played a game of pool with some fellows who were learning to work with one arm, and while they were leaving a couple of men were checking out of the hospital at the same time—one wearing the familiar patch of the 107th Division.
His heart faltered; for a brief, convulsive moment he thought he might be regressing to his state before the serum, but he squared his shoulders and strode over to the man, leaving Willard behind him muttering “what the hell was that about.”
“Excuse me, Corporal.” Steve tore off his gauntlet and extended his right hand. “Steve Rogers...uh, Captain America.”
The soldier blinked, looked down at Steve’s hand and then up to his eyes. “I’m sorry?” His face gave away that he couldn’t tell whether to laugh at Steve or be friendly; it wasn’t like Steve could blame him.
“It’s...uh, for publicity. To encourage bond sales. I’m with the Strategic Scientific Reserve Division, technically.” Though of course he wasn’t even certain of that anymore; he’d written to Peggy a few times but hadn’t received a reply, and once the senator and the colonel had worked out what to do with Steve that day in Brooklyn, he hadn’t spoken to him again.
“If you say so. I been out of commission for a while, I guess.” Now the guy had a definite smirk; Steve glanced at his chest for his name: Sivertson. “You a real captain?” he added, suddenly concerned that he was speaking to an actual superior.
“There’s some debate about that.” Steve grinned. “But I still have a private’s uniform when I’m out of this getup.” Whether or not Sivertson thought Steve was ridiculous, the admission seemed to make him more comfortable at least. “Could I ask you...I see you’re with the 107th, and I wondered if you know my friend, and if you could tell me where you were when you were injured. Sergeant James Barnes?”
“Yeah, yeah, I know him. I’m D Company, he was F. I came in after he’d left for specialized training but we got to know everyone soon enough once we were in Sicily, I’ll say that.”
So Bucky really was in Italy, just as Steve had thought—and feared. The Italian campaign so far had been carnage, weeks of brutal fighting; no wonder Bucky hadn’t written for so long.
“We took some terrific mortar fire in Sicily, lost more than half our guys. I don’t really remember what happened, but I got this little present—” and he unbuttoned the middle buttons of his blouse, pulled it apart to show Steve a mass of scarred and sutured skin that was a long way from healed. “And then I woke up in a field hospital and pretty soon I was on my way here.” His face softened with the understanding of why Steve was asking. “I wish I could tell you if Barnes is okay, I been here for a while plus the journey, and I don’t even know where they are now, won’t till I get back over there. But mail was pretty hard to come by sometimes, you know, and even if we got theirs in, we weren’t so sure ours were going out. Say, if you want, I could get an address and write you once I’m back. No matter what they say, I’m not staying home.” In case Bucky couldn’t write back because he was dead, or a prisoner of war, or so severely injured he couldn’t even dictate a letter to Steve, just like the boys in the mystery ward here.
“That’d be great, thank you. I’d appreciate any word at all, even if—if it might be bad news. I haven’t heard from him in quite some time.” Steve waved at Willard to bring over the paper they’d brought for autographs, and he wrote down how to reach him through the USO. At least now Steve knew, and that was something—a hell of a lot more than he’d had this morning.
The Hollywood Bowl was the most beautiful venue they’d performed in, Steve thought as he stood at the back of the magnificent auditorium—and that included his beloved Radio City Music Hall. It wasn’t simply the beautiful white shell of concentric half circles that covered the stage, but the way it was cut into the hills, surrounded by a natural beauty that the gilded and painted halls they usually played couldn’t compare with. The crew had been working all day to set up and rig confetti and fireworks to explode into the open sky, although there were quite a few War Department restrictions on what they would be allowed to do; the last thing they needed was to panic the residents of the Hollywood Hills and make them believe they were under attack. The audience was limited to five thousand for similar reasons, but if they filled every seat, that was still a very respectable crowd.
While the other performers in the show worked out their parts, Steve, Willard, and Fred spent some time going over his new speech: they were recording and transmitting the evening performances on Saturday and Sunday to troops all over the world, so Steve had to reshape it a bit to make it less about selling bonds than entertaining and recognizing their audience’s service. The afternoon shows would be largely the same as they had been on the road, but with so many servicemen in Los Angeles on their way to the Pacific theater, there was a good chance they’d see more people in uniform than they were used to. Steve had extended invitations to the men he’d met at the FMPU that day; he’d have to hunt down the manager here to make sure that he could make good on them and didn’t end up looking like an idiot if the fellas were turned away.
Would Bucky be listening all the way across the world? Steve wondered, and if he was, would he recognize Steve’s voice? Weeks of rehearsals for the show had reshaped his voice when he was on stage, he’d learned about projection, line delivery, and pacing his speech and to his own ears he sounded so different now, had no sense of whether someone who’d known him before could tell he was the same guy when he was up there.
After the cast ran through the changes to the show once, he and the girls went to the dressing rooms to set up their stuff and have some coffee, catch up on their night at the Canteen. Some of them gradually filtered away to catch the trolley back to their hotel—they had, most of them, lined up dates last night—however, Steve stayed, changing back to his uniform and taking a few minutes to draw some of the things he’d seen today before he lost the memories.
“Why so glum, chum?” Fred said as he poked his head in the door. “Thought you were taking the first steps toward silver screen stardom today.”
Steve put the pad away and capped his pen. “How did it go for you?” While he and Willard had been running around town, Fred—and a couple of the gals—had been busy making connections with some casting agents, hoping to either stay in Hollywood or come back after they returned and find some film work.
“At the very least, I can make a career out of playing old Adolf, that’s for sure—there appears to be a burgeoning industry in it.”
Steve grinned, got up to fix him some coffee. “If the Allies do our jobs right, it won’t be for long.”
Fred peered at him. “Say, you ought to go back to the Canteen tonight, maybe get set up with one of those lovely ladies who were drooling after you. Take advantage of the fact that you’re the toast of the town, and young and free.” At Steve’s shrug he added, “Or the boys, if you want. I could fix you up.” He winked and Steve laughed; though he’d never said so out loud, Steve knew he was queer, like a lot of the folks he’d met in showbiz so far. They were cautious, especially around Steve because he was still in the military, but they weren’t exactly crazy with regards to hiding it, either. “I’m worried about you, kiddo. I know none of this is what you’d hoped for for yourself, but I think being here will open a lot of doors for you.”
But they weren’t necessarily doors Steve had wanted to open; none of this would get him any closer to combat. Or to Bucky. Fred could see Steve was in the mood to wallow a little, so he squeezed his shoulder. “The hardest thing about not getting the things you want in life is learning to live with the things you do get. Don’t miss out on what life’s throwing your way because you’re still looking back at what you’d hoped for.”
“Thanks, Fred,” and Steve let him throw an arm across his shoulders and pull him tight, just the way Bucky used to do.
After Fred left, Steve glanced over at his service uniform, tossed on a vanity chair. Maybe Fred had a point: he could slip into the Canteen tonight as merely Private Steve Rogers, Nobody, and not have to worry about being anyone’s Hollywood hero.
The rumors of a Captain America film are apparently true, my sources confirm, as he was spotted having lunch incognito at the fabled Warner Bros. Commissary with no less than Jack Warner himself, and then on to the First Motion Picture Unit at the former Hal Roach Studios. Two shows on both Saturday and Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl are apparently sold out, so whoever snaps up this American hero is sure to make a killing at the box office.
I apologize for the length of time between chapters—my pain levels have been too intense to do much creative work for a while. Take my advice: if you have any physical limitations/pain issues, never agree to foster a litter of five puppies.
In my vast experience with Hollywood—all four days of it—I’ve learned that almost no one here knows what they’re doing, but they’re very good at faking it. They have no more idea of what will succeed at the box office than we would back home, and when they tell you that the public is “dying to see” someone, it’s pure guesswork, mostly motivated by their own interests or feelings. Every single person has said nearly the same thing to me—that the public is dying to see my mug on the screen and buy whatever it is I’m selling—and after the third or fourth time, it starts to smell a little bit like two-day-old fish.
Still, I’m glad to be doing anything at all other than sit in a laboratory and donate pints of my blood. I start work with the FMPU tomorrow on the short film, a slightly rejiggered version of the USO show, or something, I don’t really know yet but it should be interesting to see. It’s amazing to think I’ll be working at the same studio lot where they filmed Laurel & Hardy movies, Our Gang, so many things we’ve loved.
I went in today to meet the director and producer, some of the others in the unit. I like the colonel who runs the place, and the captain who’ll direct. Not all the personnel work behind the cameras—there are also some actors in the unit, like Ronald Reagan, do you remember him from “Knute Rockne All American,” he played the Gipper? He’s the personnel officer and I found I really didn’t like him at all, there’s a surface charm but underneath something’s missing, which probably sounds mean but I hope I don’t have to work with him too much. The producer seems rather sharp-tongued (I guess I got used to a nice guy like Willard), but I’ll wait to see what happens. As you meet more and more people here, it’s inevitable—someone you’ve seen on the screen or heard on the radio turns out to be not nearly as likeable in person, or maybe better than you ever expected they’d be. It’s all based on illusions, the personas people create, and I think in some ways I was never good with that sort of thing.
Well, of course you know that already. A lot’s been made about Captain America being honest and just and courageous, but plain old Steve Rogers is a little less pure, and having to live up to everyone’s expectations is...rough, I’ve found. Kind of exhausting, too—each night I’ve come back to the hotel and been so worn out from having to “play” to what people expect that it’s like I never took the serum at all. I swear I was more energetic that year I nearly died of pneumonia.
The shows at the Hollywood Bowl are over for now, although Willard says he’s looking into setting up more. We’ve heard many good things through about how well-received the radio broadcasts were overseas, and I hope that you had a chance to hear them. Because when I was talking to the servicemen and women, it was you I was really talking to, you who’s been guiding everything I’ve tried to do. Those words were my hopes for your safety and health, for your unit’s success, and I hope I can carry that through into the films and make you proud.
In more boring news, I’m moving to a little bungalow guesthouse for the duration of my stay here, attached to Mr. Garfield’s house—we’ll be filming this short first, which they say will take about ten days, and then jump over to Warner Bros. for a serial of six episodes, and that should take another six weeks. That puts us in line to head back east at the end of October, and then very possibly on to Europe, where who knows, maybe I’ll see you, and Agent Carter, once more.
By the time Steve reached the middle part of his bonds speech, he could tell he’d completely lost the director’s interest, and he faltered, waiting for the girls to catch up. “Okay, okay, I’ve seen enough,” Captain McLeod said, and put his hands over his eyes. This was a disaster. The girls stopped, nervously casting glances at each other, and Willard gave Steve the side-eye, an unspoken “oh hell,” because that was the worst cussing he ever did.
After a moment, the captain looked up and took a deep breath before he fixed Senator Brandt’s aide with a hopeless, sour look. “This isn’t really the type of thing we do here. We’re not Busby Berkeley. We make training and informational films for the Army Air Forces and we train combat cameramen.” He sighed again, louder than the first one. “I don’t really understand why the senator wants us to do this—especially if you’re doing a serial over at Warner.”
Calvin Corbin, however, was nothing if not dauntless; Steve supposed you’d have to be to work around the senator, who had an intense allergy to the word no. “And inspirational,” he said with forced enthusiasm. “You inspire people, otherwise why would you show some of those pictures in the theatre? Because you want the general public behind you, to sign on. And what’s more inspiring than the story of a guy who couldn’t even make the physical being transfo—” Steve abruptly cleared his throat and widened his eyes. “Uh. Gettin’ help from first-rate American science to become a super version of himself?” Nice save.
Captain McLeod looked like he could hardly believe the shit coming out of Calvin’s mouth; Steve knew that feeling all too well. It wasn’t that he didn’t like Calvin, just that the guy had no real personality of his own: everything he did was to serve the senator’s ambitions, he was a yes man, made things happen at whatever cost—even the human ones. But damned if it didn’t seem to work. McLeod turned his attention on Steve and said, “We’d need to rewrite your speech. And you ought to take it down a notch, maybe a lotta notches. What works on the stage won’t work on film.” He considered them. “If we’re going to use elements of the stage show like these girls, it has to be to show us who this ‘Star-Spangled Man’ is and why we wanna get behind him. Don’t get me wrong—selling war bonds is a noble cause. It’s just not a cause that we usually support.”
He jerked a couple fingers in Steve’s direction, signaling to walk with him. “If I sent you over to the writer’s office, you think you could work on a new script and learn it fast? I like this idea of ‘every bond is a bullet in the barrel of your best guy’s gun’ and I think that’s where we put the spotlight. In the meantime, I’ll find some of the guys who’ve worked on musicals and see what we can do for your backup. Wardrobe’ll have to make some adjustments to...all of this.” He glanced pointedly at Steve’s cowl and the little wings, and Steve felt that familiar withering inside.
“Absolutely, sir. I just revised the script a few times already, for the broadcast last weekend and for the Hollywood Canteen. I’m sure I could do a better job with the help of the professionals.” Writing had come as a pleasant surprise to Steve—he’d never thought he’d enjoy it so much, never thought of himself as a writer. But he’d gotten to know Captain America pretty damn well after all these weeks and figuring out the speeches, how to sell an idea or motivate people, was like putting together a puzzle.
“We’ll bring in a few actors you can work with, too, maybe Gable or Holden—we don’t have a lot of time to work with on a short, but we make this a story of you as Uncle Sam’s fist, swinging with pile-driving force right into the face of the Axis. And who’s behind that fist but the citizens buying bonds, and good old American industry—then we segue that into the song and dance at the end to get the audience on their feet.” He spread his hands wide, like he was showing Steve a vista. “The more effective our military against our foes, the greater the need for support: help us create more heroes like Cap here. Think that oughta satisfy your senator?”
Holy crap, could you ever see McLeod’s background as a screenwriter there. Steve was nearly dazzled by all of that; Calvin would probably piss his pants with glee. “It sounds great,” he said and hoped he showed enough enthusiasm. Learning new lines and where to put himself in the dance number would be easy enough—it was the acting with a pro that put the fear of God in him and he prayed that McLeod wasn’t serious about bringing in Clark Gable.
“I’m sorry, everyone,” Steve said later when the whole troupe was huddled together in the production office, most of the girls having a smoke while he and Willard took advantage of some spectacularly bad coffee. “This wasn’t how I expected things to go at all. I was hoping we’d just be able to put the show on film and that would be that.” The girls were trying to be as cheerful as possible, but if their roles were cut, they wouldn’t be earning as much—yet not free to pursue other work as long as they were locked into being his backup.
“We knew you were the star of the show when we signed on to this,” Willard said, and threw an arm around Helen’s shoulder. As the one with the most dance training, it’d probably fall to her to choreograph the changes to the number. “We’ll be all right. At least they have an idea that pleases both the director and the senator.” If anyone knew how difficult it could be to please Senator Brandt and his aides, it was Willard, who had to interpret their overly hands-on ideas and make them happen. Brandt had seen the show lots of times, and he always, always had notes of how to jazz things up if he thought it needed a little more juice; Steve had begun to suspect he was simply a frustrated performer who saw Steve as not just a story he could be the author of but a stand-in star, as well.
Ginny knocked his elbow with hers. “Nothin’ to apologize for, sweetie. Thanks to you I’m getting to meet movie stars, travel, and now we’ll be on the screen for more than a couple seconds in a newsreel no one pays attention to. No complaints here. And it’s still more money than a sold-out show in Omaha.”
Fred set his coffee down and gathered up his things. “I’m starting a pool on who drives to Vegas for a quickie wedding first.”
“My money’s on Stevie,” Lucy said with a wink.
With a shake of his head, Steve asked, “Anyone got any hot dates on Saturday?” He knew they’d been hoping this short film could be their ticket to stardom—but they were showpeople, so they were used to putting on a smile before stepping on the boards. It was time like this when Steve was most aware of how little he belonged with them. “Mr. Garfield and his wife are throwing a pool party in our honor, and you can bring anyone you’d like—there might be some other people he knows, too. Say, Cary Grant, Randolph Scott?” The gals’ faces lit up at once, and Ginny might have actually squealed.
“I think it’s safe to say that’s a yes,” Willard commented.
Steve stood up straight, pulled his gauntlets back on, and took a deep breath. “All right, if I’m going to do this, I’d better do it now before my resolve dies. Wish me luck.”
Following the map the production assistant had made for him, Steve made his way to the writer’s room, took a deep breath, and opened the door: four men looked up at him blandly through the hazy pall of cigarette smoke. “Hi,” he said, faking cheer, “I’m—”
“Hey, it’s Captain America,” one of them said with what sounded like condescension, sticking his hand out. Steve wasn’t sure he wasn’t being made fun of till the other three reached over their typewriters to shake his hand and introduce themselves. “We’ve all read the comics, the articles about you taking out that damn Nazi spy. Pretty good work, kid.”
“Oh. Yes, thank you. It’s good to meet you, Captain McLeod sent me over to rework the speech I usually give in the USO show.”
The last thing Steve wanted was to be thought of as difficult here, but he’d been living with this character for a while now and wouldn’t want someone who didn’t understand Cap changing his voice. The writers were used to churning out training scripts probably as fast as they could type them, not having much time to polish things—but Steve reminded himself that all the personnel came from the industry, they weren’t just soldiers. They’d have to be used to other people’s contributions, wouldn’t they?
As a unit, each of them nodded—everything they did they seemed to do at the same time, and it probably would have been amusing if Steve wasn’t so jittery. “Take a seat,” the first fella said. “We got some notes from Captain McLeod about it. Basic propaganda piece, uniting behind you as America’s hero: instead of some old guy pointing a threatening finger at them, we got a handsome, virile young man who’s already shown his valor and courage.”
Well, that certainly sounded overwrought. Steve cleared his throat. “Yeah, so...I had some thoughts about that.”
All four of them looked at him and sighed, then turned their attention back to their typewriters.
The other night when he’d gone back to the Hollywood Canteen without his costume, Steve thought he’d done a pretty good job of blending in, till Bette spied him among the mass of soldiers on the floor and laughed, pushing her way through the crowd to loop her arm through his. She’d pulled Steve to the side, where Julie was busy chatting with some cavalrymen, and said, “I’m afraid you’re never going to be incognito again, kiddo. You stand out like a sore thumb—a very well-built, handsome one.”
“I just sort of wondered what it’d be like from the regular Joe’s perspective, I guess.” Julie’d joined them for a bit, and they caught up about Steve’s meetings at the studios, his day at the FMPU, and then he’d generously offered his guesthouse so Steve wouldn’t have to live in a hotel while he was filming. The two of them had been kind enough to let him mingle for a while; Steve had kept his head down as much as possible, though he still got plenty of “you seem familiar” stares. The idea of staying with Mr. and Mrs. Garfield felt...lavish, Steve supposed, but he’d never even stayed in a hotel room before the tour and living so high on the hog would probably always be uncomfortable, no matter what. Still, he’d said yes, figuring at the very least living there would make it easier for Julie to give him acting lessons.
But he hadn’t gone back to the Canteen since that night, so once Steve finished with the script writers and a directorial meeting at Fort Roach, he took his costume and Edgar drove him over. Steve fired off an abbreviated speech like Bette’d suggested that first night—no girls, no Hitler-punching, just a casual approach and a little patter with Tommy Dorsey.
For a while Steve signed autographs and took snapshots, till Bette sidled up to him and asked, “What’ll it take to get you to dance with me, soldier?” He liked it when she called him that, maybe more than he should—it reminded him of Lehigh in a way.
“I’m...I don’t really know how to dance.” At her skeptical frown he laughed out loud; he mentioned what he’d told Peggy months ago: “Women weren’t really lining up to dance with a guy they might step on.”
“More fools they, in that case.” She shook her head. “We must change that, perhaps I’ll have Eleanor Powell teach you.” At his stricken look, she soothed, “Oh dear—no, I won’t, I promise, but you really should meet her. Come, let me introduce you to someone. I thought tonight you could help out in the kitchen, since you want a low profile.” She took him to the back and in the kitchen were Barbara Stanwyck and Gene Tierney at a counter piled high with sandwich fixings, while over washing dishes was William Powell and someone he didn’t immediately recognize. For a moment Steve thought he might choke—he’d hoped meeting all these celebrities the past few days would have left him less star-struck, but his skipping heartbeat was proof he was wrong.
Steve had seen Miss Tierney briefly his first night here, she was absolutely breathtaking—and very obviously pregnant. Her wavy brown hair was pulled back in a snood, and he was transfixed, reminded of Peggy with a sharp, nostalgic ache. One night Dr. Erskine had sent Steve with an “urgent” note to the little supplies shack that had been transformed into quarters for the only three women in the SSR; Peggy had cracked open the door, her brown hair held back in a lilac-colored snood and wrapping a thin, silky dressing gown tightly across her ample curves, and Steve had been as speechless as he was now. Of course she’d looked at the note, not inviting him inside out of the rain, shaking her head and rolling her eyes before dismissing Steve with a curt “I’ll see to it right away,” and it was only now, remembering it, that he realized the note was probably just random words on paper and Dr. Erskine had been trying to set it up so Steve could spend time with Peggy away from training.
“I think we’ve stolen his powers of speech, Gene,” Miss Stanwyck exclaimed. “Poor thing!” She held her hand out and once it finally penetrated his dim brain, he shook it as Bette introduced him around; he could get so tongue-tied he forgot that his name wasn’t usually mentioned in public and he sort of had to do that himself.
“I’m just such a fan,” Steve stammered out—the man washing dishes with Mr. Powell was a screenwriter who’d written quite a few films Steve’d seen. “Honestly, it’s such a privilege. I can’t tell you how many times I saw The Lady Eve or The Thin Man films. Heaven Can Wait was fantastic.”
“Oh, sweetheart, stay here and make a few sandwiches with us and I promise you won’t feel that way for long. You’ll be begging to get out on that floor again, all our luster will rub off.” Miss Stanwyck winked and Steve’s heart sped up dramatically. She was even more beautiful in person: she seemed to glow just as she did on screen, which clearly had nothing to do with stage lighting. “Bette, you understated what a handsome hunk he is! Look at that granite jaw.”
“Now, now,” Mr. Powell called over his shoulder, “you’ll give the rest of us an inferiority complex.”
Bette laughed and said, as she slipped out to the main room, “Back to work. Take care of him, ladies, he’s still a bit green. But he has impeccable manners, and he’s from Brooklyn, just like you two.”
“I listened to your program the other night,” Miss Stanwyck said as she tossed him an apron and she and Miss Tierney opened up a space between them. “I thought I was rather jaded after all these years of playacting, but I swear I was nearly bawling like a baby at the end. Sounded like you were speaking from experience.” She showed him what they were making—“nothing fancy, these fellas will eat anything and eat it fast”—and the three of them set up a little production line.
They all insisted, as Bette and Julie had before, that he call them by their first names, and wanted to know how much of the Captain America story was really true. Steve had a feeling that everyone he met in this town would ask that first—he understood their curiosity, but he also struggled not to feel as if there wasn’t anything interesting about plain old Steve Rogers. While Barbara didn’t have the fondest memories of her rough, early life in Brooklyn, they still found plenty to reminisce about, though Gene was a bit chagrined to admit to two people who’d grown up so poor that she was raised in Crown Heights on what Steve knew was “a pretty fashionable street. I used to wonder what it would be like to live around there.” Despite her society upbringing, she wasn’t at all ritzy, and it turned out that she was fast friends with Howard Stark: “I turned him down when he tried to seduce me, but somehow we’ve remained quite good friends.”
“Oh, don’t think for a minute he’s given up hope,” Mr. Powell—Bill—commented from across the room.
After a few minutes of steady work, Gene waved a hand. “Listen, I’ve reached my standing limit, I’m an absolute whale these days. I think I’ll go out to sit and sign some autographs for a bit and then call it a night.” Steve took her elbow to escort her out, helping her get settled before he left her, the gorgeous center of a whirlpool of adoring fans.
“Bette was right, you’re terribly thoughtful,” Barbara said as they set back to work, and one of the junior hostesses took away a few of the towering sandwich platters.
“I was raised by my mother alone,” he responded, “and she would have tanned my hide if I’d let a lady, pregnant or otherwise, walk alone anywhere. It was what a gentleman did, she said.” Embarrassed, he swept crumbs into a pile. “Not that when I was ninety pounds soaking wet I could have protected anyone. Though I never really thought ladies needed protecting—especially smart, strong, capable ones like you must be...um, because...you know, that’s who you always play.” He squeezed his eyes closed in humiliation, recalling Peggy’s comment that he had no idea how to talk to a woman.
She let him prattle with an amused smile on her face, watching him continue to slap sandwiches together and make a horse’s ass of himself. “Oh, stop, you’re turning my head. Younger men are always so delightful.”
Was she—was Barbara Stanwyck flirting with him? Jesus, he wished Bucky were here; this was completely outside Steve’s territory.
Steve cleared his throat. To change the subject, he asked how she’d found her work at Warner Bros., if there was anything he should know before they began work on the serials. Though she answered his questions, she kept circling back around to attempts at finding out if there was anyone special in his life. It wasn’t like he could talk about Bucky, even if he knew what to say—and that had never been more than a few stolen kisses, right before he left the Port of Embarkation—nor could he mention his interest in Peggy. That may have been a source of amusement for Dr. Erskine at the time, but anything more with her was pretty much moot at this point, unlikely to ever change. So he told her flatly no, there wasn’t anyone, there’d never been any time once he joined the Army and before that there’d never been interest.
“I find that impossible to believe.”
“No, really. If it hadn’t been for my friend, I’d never have had any dates at all. Certainly not with anyone as swell as you.”
“Careful, my dear,” she purred at him, as slinky as Sugarpuss O’Shea, “or I’ll start to tumble.”
Steve opened his mouth but nothing came out; there had to be something to say here, but he had no clue what, and anxiety nibbled at the ends of his nerves. Fortunately for Steve, Bill stepped over, drying his hands on an apron. He popped his head over Barbara’s shoulder and said in that famous, droll way from a couple dozen pictures, “I think, dear boy, what this means is: the lady’s angling for a date.”
She threw a Sphinx-like smile in Bill’s direction. “Say, you’re smarter than you look.” And next thing Steve knew he’d made a date with Barbara Stanwyck.
The pool party was just getting underway when Steve and Roberta Garfield—“Robbie to my friends,” she’d insisted the day he moved into their guesthouse—finished getting everything set up. It calmed his nerves to help with the preparations; if he’d felt awkward before at the Canteen and the studios, he was practically crawling out of his skin over a social engagement like this. Julie said he’d invited only a few other people to round out the USO gang, but those few other people included Cary Grant and Randolph Scott and a few other stars he was confident he could make an ass of himself over.
And it was a scorcher of a day, too, with everyone in swimming suits, so he couldn’t really avoid showing some skin without looking like a complete bonehead. When he’d come out of the chamber after the procedure, he didn’t think too much about the way the nurse and Peggy had looked at him, but later he’d thought about it a lot, especially when the girls teased him or pretended to swoon when they caught him in his skivvies. At least, he’d always thought they were pretending.
“Sweet Moses,” Robbie exclaimed when Steve finally gave in and took off his shirt, and she dropped the martini shaker she’d been holding with a loud clang. Lucy, Dixie, and Helen burst into laughter and Dixie shouted, “See? It’s not just us.” In the few days he’d been living there, Steve had grown incredibly fond of Robbie—a gal after his own heart from the Lower East Side who’d demonstrated for unions and against the Spanish Civil War—but he didn’t know her that well and the heat spread up his neck and into his face.
“Showoff!” Julie called from across the pool, then waved him over. “Come join us before my wife decides to leave me.”
“Go,” Robbie said as Steve picked up the dented martini shaker and handed it to her; she reached out tentatively to touch his right biceps with light fingertips and sighed. “You’ll give me the vapors.”
Steve was glad he’d been introduced to Cary Grant and Randolph Scott earlier when he’d been helping Robbie so he hadn’t had time to lose the few remaining shreds of his dignity gushing over them both. The girls and Fred, though, had no such shame and had blatantly ogled them. Julie handed Steve a beer as he pulled up a lounge chair under the shade of one of the palms; Steve wasn’t sure if the serum would stop him from burning to a crisp like he’d always done before, but he didn’t really want to chance having the director blow up at him for coming onto set looking like a boiled lobster.
“How goes filming?” Julie asked. He’d helped Steve run through his speech so he wouldn’t have to use cues, taught him about hitting his marks and how to address the audience on camera, and ways to hold himself that would seem natural, kind of the way Jimmy Stewart had in Winning Your Wings.
“It’s...not really like I thought it’d be.” He told them about how they were concentrating on the inspirational message, about Cap being portrayed as the arm of Uncle Sam; it sounded really silly when you said it out loud. Steve had no idea how it would shape up, but that wasn’t his concern, as strongly as he felt about Cap’s image—he was in the hands of the filmmakers now. They commiserated with him, sharing stories about pictures they’d worked on that hadn’t necessarily turned out like they wanted.
As the conversation went on, Steve watched the girls and Fred flirting and having the time of their lives—Fred seemed to have found himself a young blond actor whose name Steve couldn’t recall right now—and realized this was the first full day off they’d had since the night of the New York premiere. Steve had stamina now, this pace was nothing to him, but they’d been going nonstop from train to show to train, city to city, and performing or auditioning every day since they’d hit Los Angeles. It was a relief to see them relaxed and enjoying themselves so much, and he allowed himself to loosen up.
Steve knew he was privileged to enjoy this company, to be part of their conversation, taking in their experiences as performers and sharing his own: they treated him as if was their peer, they respected him. Dr. Erskine had really been the only other person who’d ever made him feel respected, besides Ma and Bucky, maybe Peggy a little—he’d never expected it would be Hollywood where he’d find that.
“Garfield tells us you have a date with Barbara coming up.” Cary gave him that million-dollar smile.
“I do,” Steve said, still a little befuddled about how that came to be.
“An older woman is just what you need,” Julie said with a nod. “Especially for a first date—anything you need to know about women, you’ll find out.”
“First date?” Randy said, eyes wide. “You can’t be serious. With looks like yours?”
Steve spread his hands out—what can I say? “Well, before the program, girls never looked twice at me. The only dates I went on were double dates with my best friend, Bucky, because no one ever said yes when I was the one asking.” He fidgeted and smoothed his hair back. “Everyone thinks I’m courageous Captain America, but I’m only nervous and awkward pint-sized Steve Rogers at the prospect of a date with someone like Miss Stanwyck. I’m still not sure how it happened.”
Randy and Cary laughed and threw each other a speaking look. “You need pointers and confidence, my lad,” Cary said. “Come by tomorrow for dinner at our house and we’ll tell you everything you need to know to woo a lady like her.” Steve wasn’t certain he wanted to woo anyone—it was only a date—but he also wouldn’t turn down their hospitality. He’d read about their “Bachelor Hall” and the string of beauties who came in and out, and he knew both of them had been married before, but there was something about them together... At one point earlier in the conversation, Cary had reached over to light Randy’s cigarette and it hit Steve hard—there was an intimacy and unspoken communication in that small gesture, in the sweep of his fingertips over Randy’s knuckles, in the way they glanced at each other before Cary had leaned back in his chair, that Steve knew all too well. That was the way Steve knew he’d looked at Bucky his whole life—and the way Bucky’d looked at him after his first furlough, when their connection had shifted from best friends to something more, something he still hadn’t really defined.
“Have you heard from your friend yet?” Julie asked him, and there was a hint of knowing in his eyes.
“No, though I do have some letters waiting at the Special Services HQ, so who knows.” As the company in charge of entertainers and other personnel who didn’t fit into typical military units, they’d been handling all the fan mail for Captain America and usually didn’t bother him with letters, only had him sign stacks of photos in between shows and sent out form letters on his behalf in response. But yesterday he’d gotten word that there was something waiting for him at the office, something from Europe—he forced himself not to be hopeful, but it wasn’t taking.
“Listen, I can tell you—the Army hadn’t even started the push to Sicily when I was over there, and mail was unpredictable at best then. Don’t give up hope.” Julie handed him another beer.
Steve made a small noise of acknowledgement and then changed the subject to their latest projects. He lay back in the lounge chair beneath the dappled sun and closed his eyes, taking in their voices, the music filtering out from the living room, the girls laughing and talking and splashing around by the pool: all of it the soundtrack of this exotic new world he was living in.
Please accept my sincerest apologies for such a delay in responding to your letters of the past few weeks. I’m afraid it’s been rather hectic with the move overseas, as you can imagine, but I’ve finally had a few moments to myself. I’m writing to you through the Personnel Battalion as I wanted to ensure you received this letter—something’s come up I felt you ought to know.
We’ve received intelligence that Johann Schmidt has seen the newsreel footage and newspaper articles about your apprehension of the Hydra spy, and has redoubled his efforts to discover a working formula to create an army of super soldiers. Or if not him, then a scientist counterpart to Erskine, although we’ve been unable to ascertain if he knows there’s been only the one test so far. No one here believes that you are in any danger, but I disagreed strongly that you needn’t know and so I’m writing to you that you might be fully briefed. Intelligence believes you’re unlikely to encounter any more Hydra agents, but it’s difficult to know how far they’d go in order to secure a successful formula and whether they’d look outside Schmidt’s own genetic code for that. The colonel may have wanted you in New Mexico for such an eventuality, I suppose, and to keep you protected, but as he would say, that horse is out of the barn. I shouldn’t wish to worry you, Hydra probably believe Captain America to be merely a propaganda tool, we only want you to know so that you might stay alert to anything unusual—and cable us immediately if you suspect anything at all.
I’ve heard a rumor that your revue is coming overseas in the fall, and that you’re currently making some films under the aegis of Senator Brandt’s office. It’s my sincerest wish that you’re enjoying your newfound health and vitality and that things are going well for you in all these endeavours, and if our paths cross in Europe, I’d be most delighted to see you again. It would not have been my choice for you to leave this unit, and I miss your presence here with us, as much as I miss the good doctor. Please do keep in touch, I look forward to your correspondence so very much.
It’s been a few days since I last wrote—I’ve fallen down on my promise once again. In my defense it’s been a very unusual few days and I still can’t believe that any of this stuff has happened to me. Of course maybe none of what I’m telling you is making any sense, depending on if any of my letters have reached you, or you’re all right enough to read them...I don’t even know anymore what to think. There was a letter, finally, from Agent Carter, so I think mine must be getting overseas, but...God dammit, I’m worried about you.
I’ll start by telling you that we’re close to finishing the short film about bonds, and I’ve learned a whole lot about acting, of course, but also how pictures are made, everything from how to use the cameras to how they edit the pieces of film together. Honestly, it’s really fascinating and once the war is over I wouldn’t mind coming back to learn more about behind the scenes work—and stay away from in front of the camera.
The other reasons are a lot stranger. I finally got a date, all by myself, you’ll be very amused to learn. And I was so nervous and worried that I didn’t know how to act proper with a dame—I kept thinking about something Agent Carter said to me, that I sounded like I didn’t know “how to talk to a woman”—that someone offered to give me advice and tips: Cary Grant and Randolph Scott. Yeah, really, I swear to God. They were at a party Mr. and Mrs. Garfield threw for those of us in the tour, and they wanted me to have a great first date because it was with a friend of theirs, Barbara Stanwyck. About now you are convinced I’m pulling your leg, but I swear to you that I’m not.
I’ve met so many people at the Canteen, and Miss Stanwyck is one of them. She really did want to go out with me, so I asked and she said yes. With Mr. Grant and Mr. Scott’s help, I think I did okay, or at least not badly enough that you’d have been embarrassed for me if you’d been there. Mr. Grant and Mr. Scott share a house in Santa Monica now that they’re each divorced, and are close friends, but I get the feeling their friendship is more than a little bit like ours, if you take my meaning.
The date itself didn’t go quite as I’d expected. She’s the loveliest woman, everything you’d imagine her to be from her pictures, and everyone who knows her has only the most glowing words to say about her—her warmth and kindness and thoughtfulness seem to be legendary in this town, and with me she’s only been generous and sweet and funny. But she is very conservative politically, doesn’t like Mr. Roosevelt or his policies at all, because she pulled herself up out of poverty and she thinks everyone should be able to do the same—people shouldn’t be “soft” and “depend upon handouts.” Some of the beliefs she supports come straight out of the bigoted, uneducated mouths of people who wanted people like me to die—you more than anyone else would understand how hard that is for me to swallow.
And yet I’m hamstrung by what I’m allowed to say about that, about who I was before, so all I can do when someone talks like that now is keep my trap shut and stew. The fact that I wear this uniform seems to create an expectation that I’m a military hawk, they don’t even realize how much they sound like the fascists we’re fighting! “Get rid of the Commies, the cripples, the queers, the Jews” they think nothing of saying to me—and even if you yourself don’t believe those things, I don’t know how you can be friends with people who do, and some of the people Miss Stanwyck counts as friends are pretty damn pushy about it. I think she realized right away we were on opposite sides of these issues, and while we may not go out again on a date type date, she wants to take me horseback riding, and she teased me almost like you would do until I danced with her. I was terrible, of course. (Stop rolling your eyes.)
So, it wasn’t perfect, but I thought you’d be happy about me finally getting a date on my own. Sometimes it all feels a little like I’ve stepped into a movie myself, meeting all these stars, making friends with them. I wish so much I could share it with you in person, hear you laugh at me and my swanky new lifestyle, and take me down a peg.
In much less eventful news, the fellow from the studios who drives me, Edgar, is teaching me to drive. Now I know how you felt at McCoy when you had to learn. I wasn’t very far along in lessons so he still had to drive me and Miss Stanwyck, but I’m getting better—slowly. I just really didn’t want for him to have to drive me all the time, and there’s no streetcar that runs from here to the beach—I’ve been only once, but I want to go as often as I can, feel the sun on my face, smell the ocean air, feel the sand between my toes. Take my watercolors and paint a shore that’s a world away from the one we once knew.
“Captain America, scene twelve, take thirteen,” the fellow clapping the slate said—Steve couldn’t recall his name—and if he wasn’t dripping venom behind the word thirteen then Steve was a monkey’s uncle. The clack! sounded like he’d hit it extra hard for emphasis.
The girls sang two bars of the song, weaving their way up behind him in that diamond pattern as the camera rose up and over them, and he launched into the revised version of “bullets and bandages, tanks and tents” with its emphasis on himself as the heroic new face of Uncle Sam. And once more, Steve flubbed his goddamn lines.
He was hesitating too much in between lines, the way he had been taught to do onstage—it was a tough lesson to break. The director waited until he was finished to call “cut” this time, but he didn’t appear to be any happier with Steve’s performance. It was tempting to make excuses for himself—it’d only been three days, he wasn’t a trained actor, blah blah—but that’s all it would be, excuses to soothe the embarrassment, and he rubbed his hand over his eyes, which set the hair and makeup person trotting towards him to fix the cowl.
There were just...so many details to remember on a film set, so many things other people had to do either to him or for him, and he loathed being treated like a pampered little baby, afraid it wouldn’t take much till he began behaving like one, too.
“We can fix some of that in editing,” Captain McLeod reassured him. “But we have time for one more take today, let’s just run it again from the top. Remember, this is the big moment: everything you’ll say in the early scenes leads up to this.”
That was another weird thing about shooting a picture: they shot out of order, and Steve kept getting mixed up about which scene they were supposed to be in. Sometimes they shot scenes with the girls and he just waited in the dressing room; other times he was saying lines for close-ups with the camera right in his face and the girls weren’t even there. Poor Fred hadn’t even been on set at all.
Julie—and Bette—had given him lots of helpful advice, but when it came to putting it together as the cameras were rolling and the crew’s precious time hinged completely on Steve, it was easy to get a little lost. This was a military operation, after all—they didn’t have the luxury of dicking around because their lead was incompetent, and he’d never felt more incompetent in his life.
The clapper guy came back with a barely disguised eyeroll, the alarm bell rang, and the rolling light flashed on at the back of the soundstage; the girls launched into their song. Whatever he’d needed to give this scene, this time it took, as close to flawless as possible. The captain even gave Steve a smile. “Good, good, let’s check the film” —he glanced at the cameraman— “okay, we’ve got that one, let’s call it a day. Tomorrow we’ll get the Hitler punch.”
Now, that Steve felt confident about. As he was heading to the dressing room to change into his service uniform, he noticed a woman—second lieutenant—talking to the cameraman. She smiled and waved, motioning at him to come over. “They don’t usually let me out of the editing room, but I really wanted to see the revue live before you finished the shoot. I hope you don’t mind.” She reached out to shake his hand; she had glasses perched on the end of her nose and dark brown hair salted with gray. He hadn’t known they’d commissioned women at Fort Roach. “Thelma Morehouse,” she said, and he couldn’t help the smile that tugged at his mouth as she very obviously looked him over. “I’m a film editor. Usually I spend all day in the dark alone and I’m fine with that, but I’m from Brooklyn, had to show my support.” She gave him a wink.
“Ah, so you’ve seen my shame.” He wondered how many takes she’d had to splice together to get anything usable. “I’m not really an actor.”
“Nonsense. If you’re acting, you’re an actor.” She shook her head. “You’re fine. Have you even seen the dailies?”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake...” Steve instantly liked her; he could tell she probably cussed a blue streak as a general rule and while he was, like any gentleman, careful about language around ladies, if they swore first, that was a green light. “They haven’t taken you to the viewing room, shown you any of the film from the day’s shooting?”
“No ma’am.” He wasn’t entirely sure he’d want to see it, especially if other people were around. Thelma hooked her arm in his and said, “You probably have somewhere to be, but give me a few minutes. Mine’s not as nice a screen as the one for the dailies, but I think this might boost your confidence a little.” With a tsk she added, “Peter’s a good director, but he’s not a people person at all. Neither am I, usually, which is why I’m a film editor!”
There was a joke there Steve didn’t quite understand, but he escorted her out of the soundstage and over to a ramshackle, low building at the far end of the offices. The room was dark, with all kinds of complicated-looking machinery, and strips of film hanging everywhere like laundry day back home. She popped a cigarette in her mouth and he held her lighter; she pulled strips of films off their hangers and threaded them through a machine labeled “Moviola.”
“Here’s the end of yesterday—when you were introducing the segment where you show just what defense bonds will buy.” Steve watched himself on a little screen that protruded from the machine, the sound of his voice tinny as it squeezed through the minuscule speaker—he strode across the stage as if he knew what he was doing, but she was right, it didn’t make him want to die of shame, although he did cringe at his stiffness. A card came up that said “Insert field shots,” which he assumed meant footage the combat cameramen sent back home of men in the field: the ones who’d use the tanks and tents and bullets and bandages. She let it run until the first few bars of the song, then switched it off and turned on a light. “You’re okay, sweetie. You’re a goddamn miracle of science, no one needs you to be Spencer Tracy.”
“I’ve been spending time with John Garfield, he’s given me tips, but I feel like I’m a walking piece of wood.”
She dropped her glasses, letting them hang on her bosom from a chain. “Eh. Garfield’s one of the most naturalistic actors I’ve ever seen. He comes from one of those acting groups in New York, you can’t judge yourself against that. They treat it like a science.” She waved a dismissive hand. “I watch this shit all day long, so take it from me—no one starts out great, you get there through fucking years of practice.”
Steve wanted to hug her. “Listen, make the captain get you into the dailies each night. I promise it won’t be that bad, you might learn something. I can’t wait to see you punch Hitler, though,” Thelma added with another wink.
“Not a single date on your own? Never?” Cary looked at him with wide, disbelieving eyes, pretty much the same expression he’d had throughout Bringing Up Baby.
“The poor boy’s already answered you, at least four times. Don’t rub it in,” Randy chided, as Steve carried their drinks over to the coffee table. They’d been grilling him through dinner about his lack of a love life; Steve was relatively certain that the invasion of Sicily required less intelligence and strategizing. “We’re giving him tips, remember? And buoying his confidence. The poor boy needs buoying.”
“It’s simply that I can’t believe a little bit of science and a training regimen could produce...Adonis out of nothing.” He waved a hand around Steve’s head as if Steve were an exhibit in the sculpture wing of the museum. “You must have had the looks to begin with. Were the young women of Brooklyn struck blind in a mass hysteria at some point of your youth that they didn’t see the beauty before them?”
Steve couldn’t help but laugh, even though he knew he was turning scarlet. “Well, no, but...maybe they were blinded by Bucky. Honestly, no girl ever looked at me when they could be looking at him.”
“That’s the friend?” Randy asked, and the way he said “friend” made Steve bristle at first. He hated that he could be so transparent to anyone, let alone someone who hardly knew him.
“The one. I don’t think there was a dame in Brooklyn who wasn’t dazzled by him.”
“He’s been gone a while, has he?” Cary asked gently. He spent enough time at the Canteen, he knew what it was like for men in the service to be separated from everyone they held dear.
“He’s in Italy, I ran into someone from his division a few days ago. But I haven’t heard from him since the beginning of July, and that letter was dated shortly after he’d shipped out.” Sighing, Steve added, “I never thought my service would be...this, I guess. I’d hoped more than anything to be able to fight—to fight alongside him.”
“I read about this,” Cary said. “Post is stacking up over there like a beaver’s dam, they’re creating a unit specifically to deal with it. Don’t give up, just because you haven’t heard doesn’t mean he isn’t writing. But no telegrams to his family?” Steve shook his head. “No news is good news, then.”
Randy put a comforting hand on his shoulder. “There’s still time, you know. For field duty. Everyone always says the war will be over soon, but it doesn’t look that way, not if you’re paying attention. They’ll still need you when you’ve finished with the picture.”
“You were in the Great War, weren’t you?” Steve asked.
“Artillery, yes.” He gave Steve a kind smile. “Believe me, your job is just as important as anyone’s. Morale is...vital when you’re over there.”
They sipped their drinks quietly for a bit. Julie had warned Steve that Cary was notoriously cheap, while Randy was very well-off and generous. This was the best Scotch Steve had ever tasted, and he wondered if this was an example of Cary’s refined tastes on Randy’s well-heeled budget. “Back to my point. All this time you’ve been...Captain America, yet young ladies haven’t been hurling themselves at you like moths to a porchlight.”
The blush fired up his cheeks. He had to grudgingly confess that “there’s been some flirting, yes. But—I don’t think they’re really flirting with me, if you take my meaning. And there hasn’t been time for Steve Rogers to do much about changing that.”
They must know about such things, surely, the both of them: how many people wanted to sleep with the imaginary men they played on a movie screen instead of the real humans they actually were?
Cary lit a new cigarette and considered Steve for a moment. “Well...you tell me. Let’s play this like a scene. You pick her up, greet her at the door like the gentleman you are, and saaayyy...” They watched him eagerly; they were enjoying his discomfort way too much.
What would Bucky have said on a date with a woman like Miss Stanwyck? His mind went completely blank; all the damn double dates they’d been on and Steve couldn’t remember a fucking thing all of a sudden. “Oh. Um. Something like...‘that’s a lovely dress you’re wearing.’”
“No, dear heart, no. That’s what you say to your grandmother before you take her to Easter services.”
“Cary!” Randy exclaimed, exasperated. “He’s never been on a date without his friend! Just give him a script, he’ll be fine if we simply give him a script.” Cary Grant was the most sophisticated man in the world, he couldn’t possibly expect Steve to be as suave around women as he was, especially on a first date. Thank God he had Randy on his side.
The other day at the pool party, Steve had suspected the friendship between them was a bit more than just friendship; it had taken only a few minutes at their home for him to feel certain they were in love. There was no real effort to disguise it, yet they’d talked during dinner about their marriages, their affairs with women, too, and Cary’s relationship with the male fashion designer he’d lived with when he first came to Hollywood. It intrigued Steve: it was the first time out in the world he’d met men who openly appeared as interested in other men as they were in women. It also made him feel more at home with people he’d usually think he had nothing in common with.
“So...if I don’t compliment her outfit—and I assume I don’t mention her hair, either—then what do I do to break the ice?” Maybe he should just not talk at all. Peggy’d probably tell him to do that.
“You have half of it right—keep it simple at first: you look lovely. How much you’re looking forward to the evening. Ask after her day—‘I heard you’re filming such and such.’ We’re a horribly vain people, we actors, we desire only to talk of ourselves to a rapt audience.”
“Where are you going for dinner?” Randy asked.
“Oh! We’re driving up the coast road, I think, she said she wanted to keep our evening out of the gossip columns for now, for my sake—that it would be safer.”
They looked at each other like they knew exactly where he and Barbara would be going. “Good choice,” Cary said, swishing the Scotch around in his glass, and the two of them shared a secret smile, a little wistful. “If one of those sows gets her gossipy fangs into you at this point, you’re done for, my lad. Best to wait a bit and see how it goes before the studios offer your love life up to them.”
“There’ve been calls, I hear.” But he couldn’t do anything about it; he wasn’t allowed, according to the Personnel Battalion and the Special Services officers, to do any personal interviews yet, nothing that put him in the position of representing the Army. Apparently he was only so useful as a tool.
“Barbara can tell you how to work them when the time comes, she’s a pro. If you want my advice, though, stay away from Hopper—she’s a real America Firster and you don’t want your image wrapped up in that. It may seem as if it’s a choice between Satan and Medusa, but you’re better off with Medusa if your superiors get wind of it.” Something about that made Steve’s heart go cold.
“Jeez. How does this town even function if a couple of newspaper columnists have so much power over your lives? It’s filled with more landmines than a beach in Italy.”
“Stop terrorizing him,” Randy scolded. They really were an old married couple—Cary gave him an I dare you to do something about it look. “We have to get him prepared for his date, not paralyze him with fear.” He swatted Cary on his behind, and they turned their attention back to Steve, eyes glittering with mischief.
“So, how are you with battle tactics?” Cary asked with a deadly grin.
This was going to be a long night.
In the end, Steve needn’t have worried so much: from the moment he and Edgar arrived at her house till the end of the evening, Barbara had taken things in hand and Steve was led through the date like he was a kid in short pants again and his mother had taken him to the zoo. From her first comment on—“Why, don’t you look as handsome as could be,” which gave him the chance to tell her how lovely she looked without sounding like he was talking to his grandmother—she’d kept up steady, gently leading conversational tactics which allowed him to respond to her rather than cough up drivel to say on his own. It made him wonder if Cary and Randy hadn’t telephoned her with a warning that Steve was hopeless.
But it wasn’t more than an hour into the evening when he realized—or maybe they both realized at the same time—that this would be their only date. Cary had told Steve she was on the conservative side politically, but Steve hadn’t taken it very seriously—since Rebirth, there’d been plenty of times when someone assumed things about the man who basically wore an American flag on his body. It wasn’t his place to speak out about his personal politics, which had been made pretty clear to him from the beginning: he was here to sell bonds.
But it had thrown Steve for a loop when they’d gotten around to talking about the Army and Barbara mentioned how much she loathed Roosevelt and his social programs, as if they were weakening and coddling, and that we shouldn’t be allied with Communists, as if they were all evil. Maybe she didn’t know what it was like to be stigmatized by society, to be told you weren’t worthy of even living, he thought, but it burned him nonetheless.
His face must have betrayed his feelings—Bucky’d always called it his “little black storm-cloud puss”—because she smiled serenely, waved a hand, and said, “Oh, but let’s not waste time on politics when there’s so much else we can talk about” and changed the subject to making films. As a way to smooth things over, he confided one of his biggest fears: the hoity-toity way almost everyone talked on camera.
“I’ve never heard it before. I don’t know what kind of accent it is, but it sure ain’t Brooklyn.”
With a laugh, she asked, “You mean they speak in this manner, darling?” and it sounded just as high-class as usual, “or they talk like they just got off the bus from Queens?” Steve blinked—she sounded like anyone else he’d ever met in New York, not like...herself, or the version of herself she presented to the world. “Oh, some broad bamboozled the studio chiefs years ago—probably when talkies came in—that there was a perfect accent, one that wouldn’t betray where you came from so lowlifes like me sounded as though we had breeding. The lessons are forced on us, it sure as hell wasn’t what I came here with—though they worked on us in New York, too. More often than not it’s the ladies who are expected to practice it; you’ll notice they let Bogie or Stewart be natural.” He must have looked apprehensive, because Barbara waved a breezy hand. “Trust me, you speak well enough from your stage work, and you’re on a short timeline—they won’t waste time with elocution lessons. You have to clench your jaw like this—” and she made a grimace, reached across to press on the sides of his jaw, as if she were trying to force a puppy to give up its toy. He couldn’t help but laugh, and whatever unpleasant feelings had come up over the politics dissolved.
Steve cleared his throat. “No accent would change the fact that I’m not exactly Olivier.”
“I’m delighted to tell you that you aren’t. He’s highly overrated.”
They kept the conversation light through dinner and into dessert as she shared all kinds of secrets from her films with him, until over coffee, she prodded him to dance.
“I...actually don’t know how.” Barbara had a magnificent laugh, and she threw her head back and clapped her hands together.
“Don’t let that stop you. I’m man enough to lead, darling.” How could Steve say no? He pulled her chair out and led her to the floor, more than a little fearful of being noticed in a way that’d earn them a few lines in the gossip columns the next day, or worse still, a photograph. What if the Special Services people saw that—or God forbid, what if Peggy saw evidence that he was dating famous actresses like he was some kind of swell?
Thank God it was a slow song and he could half-ass the steps Bucky had tried to show him a few years ago; Barbara guided him with patience and a sense of humor, and didn’t make him stay on the floor for a second song. They slowly finished their coffees and then Steve paid the bill, got her wrap. Edgar drove them back down the coast road; it was a lovely night out and Barbara didn’t seem at all fussy about having the windows down—“Pfft! That’s what hairdressers are for,” she said, and begged Steve to tell her more about how he’d come to participate in Project Rebirth.
Steve walked her to the door, self-conscious and bashful again and more than a little annoyed with himself for not asking Cary and Randy how he was supposed to end the date, but just as she’d done the rest of evening, Barbara took control. She reached up to slide her dainty hand along the back of his neck, then pulled him down for a spine-tingling, long, and cinematic kiss. He may not have had a lot of kisses to compare it to, but it left him dazed and a little shivery, and when she pulled away her eyes were filled with mischief.
“I think we’ll be great good friends, even if we see the world differently. Us kids from Brooklyn, we should stick together out here. It’s a crazy town, and you can always use more friends—how about you come horseback riding with me next Saturday?”
“I’m pretty sure that’s the only thing in the world I’d be worse at than dancing.” He was still addlepated from the kiss; he couldn’t quite make sense of the fact that she still wanted to spend time with him. “But...it sounds like fun. Or at least you’ll have fun laughing at me.”
After another quick kiss and the promise to telephone him, she went inside and Steve went back to the car. Edgar laughed when he looked in the rear-view mirror. “You look like you’ve been run over by a truck.”
Steve smiled back at him. “Don’t all fellas look like that after their first dates?”
MARGARET CARTER, STRATEGIC SCIENTIFIC RESERVE, US ARMY=
CLIVE STEPS, KING CHARLES ST, WESTMINSTER LONDON=
RECEIVED YOUR LETTER OF AUG 15 UNDERSTOOD RE INTELLIGENCE AND WARNING. PROMISE TO KEEP MY EYES PEELED. EUROPEAN TOUR STILL ONLY A RUMOR BUT ALSO PROMISE TO GET IN TOUCH IF IT PANS OUT I HOPE VERY MUCH IT WILL. MISS ALL OF YOU TOO AND HOPE THAT YOU’RE HAVING MUCH SUCCESS, SAFE AND SOUND, LETTER FOLLOWS. DON’T WIN WAR TILL I GET THERE
=ROGERS, STEVEN G. PVT=
I knew going in this would be kind of a niche interest: a non-shippy WIP about Steve hanging around with Classic Hollywood people didn't exactly scream must-read. So I truly appreciate the band of you who are reading this and leaving me feedback: your encouragement is incredibly meaningful to me and I value it a lot, especially these days.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
I hope this letter finds you well. Things in Tinseltown have been pretty crazy, but that’s SOP. We’ve finished shooting the short picture at the FMPU, and I’ll see what they call a “rough cut” of it this week—that’s where they put all the edited footage together and see where they might have to make changes before they strike the final print and send it off to theatres. I’m a little nervous, I can’t lie, but Mrs. Morehouse, the film editor from Brooklyn I mentioned last letter, keeps trying to reassure me that everything is fine and she thinks the audience will love us. They were hoping Senator Brandt would fly out to see the premiere, but apparently there are committee votes he has to attend so he’ll have to wait and see it with everyone else.
Then I get a couple days off before I head over to the Warner Bros. studio to work on a serial. They will deliver the script to me this week, Mr. Warner’s assistant said, like I’m some kind of movie star VIP; Mr. Grant asked me if I would have script approval and I laughed. Between the Army and the studios, I don’t have any approval over anything! I guess when you reach his status as an actor you have some control over things, but I’m constantly amazed at how much power the studio heads have over even the most famous and popular actors and directors. I’ve been told some really horrible stories of the things the men who run them have forced people to do, and they would curl your hair. Sure, in the service we must give up our own will and take orders whether we like it or not, but it’s for the greater good—not so we can be sold to audiences like canned goods and they’re trying to make us as palatable as possible. I don’t trust these guys as far as I can throw them, but I’m here to do a job, so...
Between the studios and the gossip columnists it’s like being in combat, I swear; you’re constantly dodging incoming fire and watching for buried mines, and the people who’ve worked here a long time don’t seem at all bothered to live this way but it terrifies me. I’m always nervous about what someone will expect me to do or say or give up, and I don’t mind the notion of sacrifice but I’d like it to be for more than this. I suppose...this is the price for that 1A stamp and being chosen for the project, and I must try to remind myself that maybe someday it’ll be worth it when I make it over there to fight alongside you.
I don’t mean to be disrespectful of the things our fighting men are facing—I hope you know I’m joking, that I know the difference between what you all are going through and what I’m doing. I know this is the life of Reilly, but I wish so much I could share this with you in more than just letters, that you and Agent Carter could be here and safe and sound and living it up, away from danger—and dancing the night away with some gorgeous movie stars.
Steve lounged on the sofa, indolent and carefree, watching Calvin under his brows when he wasn’t flipping through pages of the Captain America script that had been delivered by messenger that morning or trying to listen to the too-quiet radio. A part of him felt sorry for Calvin, honestly, but mostly he was just grateful that someone else had to field the calls from the formidable Louella Parsons and Steve could avoid her a little while longer. Not that he was a coward or anything.
“No, no, I understand your difficulty, I do. And I wish I could—” Calvin winced and held the telephone away from his ear. Even at this distance, Steve could hear her high, reedy voice quavering with righteous indignation. “No, no ma’am, I’m not making fun of you. I swear to you I wouldn’t do that.”
His face scrunched up and he looked imploringly at Willard and then at Steve. They both shrugged, indifferent to Calvin’s suffering. Truth be told, Steve was a little cheesed off because the phone call meant he’d had to turn Quiz Kids down and it had been months since he’d had a chance to listen.
“The senator would very much like for Captain America to speak with a columnist.” Cal closed his eyes and Steve thumbed through a few more pages; he still hadn’t learned to visualize all the directions in the scripts and this one seemed full of dialog no soldier would say, so he picked up a pencil to jot some notes on it. “No. Yes. I mean, we’re very aware of how many people read your column, Miss Parsons. Oh, you have? Well, I promise to convey that to the senator. Yes ma’am, and the captain. We appreciate your forbearance.”
“Tell her about the Special Services unit,” Willard stage-whispered.
Steve flipped a page in the script and let out an irritated huff. “Are you serious?” he asked, astounded. “Betty Carver?” Calvin put one hand over the mouthpiece, held the other out in a helpless gesture—what do you want me to do? “Lady Allied agent liaising with the U.S. Army? You have got to be joking. You realize this could compromise her at the very least.”
Calvin rolled his eyes at Steve’s concern and turned his attention back to the phone. “It’s the Army, ma’am.” Cringed again. “You know what sticklers for regulations they have to be. Some of the people in charge are worried it might seem as if Captain America is speaking for the entire Army. But we’ve explained the situation and— There are a couple different groups, so I don’t think it’ll help to call them, no. It’s just a misunderstanding about what he’s doing. Once the Personnel Battalion signs off, I promise you you’ll be the first columnist we come to for an interview.” In that case Steve hoped they’d lose the paperwork or something. Miss Parsons had written a few nice little items about the Captain America Show broadcasts from the Hollywood Bowl, but that didn’t mean Steve wanted her in his business. Probing for some sort of dirty laundry in his past or chink in his armor; it was just so...crude and inappropriate. “Exclusive, yes ma’am.”
Steve continued to stare hotly at Calvin, who turned his back to Steve.
“O-o-okay, Miz Parsons, I-I will. Yes ma’am, we’ll be in touch.” Cal bent closer and closer toward the telephone base on the table as he tried to end the conversation, finally getting the handset down, covering his face with his hands. “They do not pay me enough for this.”
“Now you see why I requested the full blockade. Everyone I meet tells me horror stories.”
“She’s gonna catch up to you sooner or later,” Willard warned. “All of ’em have been sniffing around the girls already and since they’re not military, they can say whatever they want.”
Steve sat up abruptly. “What? Have they said anything?” He couldn’t imagine any of the girls being so thoughtless as to give away any gossip or even classified program secrets they’d picked up while they’d been traveling together, but Steve knew Miss Parsons, Hedda Hopper, and Walter Winchell were experts at tricking little tidbits out of people, even when the people giving up the dirt knew better. And they were vicious and desperate enough for a scoop to disregard the Army’s secrecy about Project Rebirth.
“Calm down.” Willard seemed to find Steve’s distress funny, but Calvin sure didn’t. If the general public learned the truth behind propaganda stories like the comics and the movies, Calvin would have a hell of a lot of explaining to do—not to mention enduring the wrath of Colonel Phillips. “The only thing any of the girls have said to anyone is what a great fella you are and what a privilege it is to work on the show. Everyone knows how to keep their mouths shut.” He jerked his chin toward the script, lying next to Steve on the sofa. “So what do you think? We got a hit on our hands?”
“Hardly,” Steve said, scoffing. “I mean, I guess it’s all right. I’m not an expert. But seriously—Betty Carver?” He threw Cal another narrow look.
“It’s already in the comics, whaddaya want me to do about it? I’m just the errand boy, not the big ideas man.” Except Cal had been at the project that day and he was the only person the comics writers could likely have spoken to when they were creating the storyline.
“I thought she was a nurse or something.” Steve absolutely didn’t want to read the comics, but he’d seen a few issues when people had asked him for autographs, and he’d definitely seen the girlfriend character—and her huge bosom—on the cover of the second issue. “Oh—was she supposed to be undercover as a nurse or whatever?” It was probably his fault he hadn’t paid attention before and now it was too late, but it irritated him nonetheless. “And just because Agent Carter was with me in Brooklyn doesn’t mean she’s my girlfriend, for God’s sake. That was her job, not to be my lady love. She’s her own person, I mean.” So help him, if Calvin made any lewd remarks about Peggy he’d bust him right in the snoot.
“So’s Betty Carver!” Calvin insisted. “She’s gonna be a great role for the ladies, they’ll all wish they were her, getting to run around with Captain America, saving the day. And the fellas will all envy you for dating her.”
Willard gave Steve a shrug and smiled. “Don’t worry, she’ll be fine. Maybe even flattered, especially if she’s portrayed by a pretty actress.” The two of them were going over the script together before they met with Jack Warner and the director on the movies, Delmer Daves. Steve was always glad of the company, since Willard was an experienced hand, but he had never met Peggy, he couldn’t possibly know how much she absolutely wouldn’t, in fact, be flattered. Steve wondered how much of the Captain America nonsense she’d heard—she hadn’t mentioned anything in her letter, and she wouldn’t have missed the chance to take a swipe at him if she was aware of it, and he smiled fondly at the thought.
“I gotta get on over to the Special Services Company,” Calvin said with a dismissive wave at Steve. “Just...don’t get your bloomers in a bunch, all right? There’s enough real things to worry about.” Putting his hat on, he stopped at the door and said, wistfully, “Man, do I ever miss the days when the worst stuff I had to deal with was hiding some senator from his wife after he got caught red-handed with his girlfriend by the press. Those were the days, I tell you.”
“That’s not exactly a comfort. But I hear you, pal.”
The lights came up as the title card END CREDITS faded from the screen, and Steve squirmed, scared of the silence in the screening room. He had no idea if the movie was any good, but he’d liked it, much more than he’d ever expected to. After the first couple minutes of cringing as he watched himself on the big screen and feeling as though he’d throw up, he’d settled into a more even, low-level queasiness for the rest of the viewing. The way they’d brought the girls and Fred in toward the end, after Cap had shown the viewers what their bonds would buy, was actually exciting on film—the camera swooped up and around while at the same time zooming in on him and the girls at the big finish, instead of focusing only on Steve’s dumb face. Steve may have been the star, but this felt like a collaboration.
He turned to Thelma to find her smiling warmly at him, and she slipped her hand over his forearm and squeezed. “See? I told you. You’re fantastic!” Turning all the way around to where Captain McLeod and Lt. Colonel Mantz were sitting he faced them—neither of them were prone to fits of joy, but they seemed just as excited as Thelma.
“What do you think?” McLeod asked, and for once the captain appeared eager for his opinion, his face open and encouraging.
“It feels strange to say this about something centered around me, but I thought it was great, sir, now that I don’t feel like I’m going to vomit.” They all laughed. “The writers made some really smart changes to the script to take advantage of the combat shots, but they still gave people in the audience the...the inspiration and motivation, I think, that Defense Bonds needs. Even the voiceover on those combat shots sounds good, I was kind of worried I might not be reading those lines right. The film from the field was really well chosen.” He probably sounded like an ass, but he threw a quick grin at Thelma to let her know how much he admired her work.
“You sound like you’ve been in the business for years,” Thelma murmured, and he fought with himself not to duck his head and stammer out a “thanks.”
“I think all the girls and Fred will love it, too. I’m very proud to be a part of it.”
Colonel Mantz gave a skeptical glance and said to Thelma, “Boy, you can tell he’s not one of us, can’t you? He wants to compliment everyone but himself.”
“I see a few things I want to change, nothing significant. But I believe we’re ready to go now.” The captain leaned across the empty row and patted Steve’s shoulder. “I can already see you at the premiere, surrounded by your adoring public, and every one of them will be throwing cash at the bonds people. Your chorus line, by the way, will be at the theatre every night for the first week, selling them, and we’re making some arrangements for a few special screenings to go hand in hand with your stage company’s shows.” That was great news; he’d been worried—despite Willard’s reassurances that the gals were getting some small chorus parts in musicals here and there—they were forced to sit and wait, incomeless, while he had steady work.
They talked for a while longer and gave Steve a schedule for the remaining bits he had to do, and then the men left him with Thelma, who walked with Steve in the direction of the dressing room and her office.
“I hear you’re working with Delmer Daves on the serial,” she said as Steve lit her cigarette. “I’ve worked on some pictures he wrote, I think he’ll make a great director. He sees things when he’s writing.” Her hands spread out as if to frame an unseen vista, just the way Captain McLeod had that first day. “And he doesn’t get stuck on the same-old, same-old, he likes breaking out of boxes.”
“Mr. Warner said they don’t really do serials there, that they haven’t made one since the early ’20s, when it was just him and his brothers. They leave the serials to RKO and Republic, he told me. But he wants to get as much work out of me as he can before we head off—guess he’s worried I wouldn’t come back for more features if they went that route. He’s probably right.” Some way or another, he was going to find a way to actually get over to Europe and fight. “I told him, ‘A studio that doesn’t do serials, making one with a director who’s never directed, featuring a lead who’s never really acted. What could possibly go wrong?’”
With a chuckle, Thelma responded, “Del will take care of you, I promise. He’s worked with some of the greats. And I keep telling you, you’re an actor. You’ve been one since the moment you stepped on that stage with your lines taped to the back of your shield.” That made him laugh out loud; Thelma’d told him once that she could tell he was reading off his shield in the newsreel footage of their first stage show, and that she’d found it hopelessly endearing.
“I wish you could come with me there and edit. It would make me so much happier to have a friend, I just...keep wishing I didn’t have to go. Here I felt like I was contributing to the effort, but over there...” Steve’s mouth twisted, he didn’t want to get emotional but as this time at the FMPU grew shorter, his unhappiness took up more and more space inside his head. “I’m just another frivolous fella on a movie set.”
“You will never be that.” Turning the handle on her office door, she paused, and her face had taken on a melancholy cast as she looked up at him, put her hand to the side of his face. “What you’re doing for the boys overseas matters, don’t you ever forget that. And believe me, those of us here at home appreciate what you’re doing more than words can say.” There was a little catch to her voice on the last couple words.
Oh. His heart sank, his throat took a minute to work. “You lost someone. You never said.”
Thelma nodded. “The invasion of Sicily. I got the telegram right about the time you were probably getting started with the show. But sitting at home crying wasn’t helping me or my husband, so I telephoned Paul and told him to pull some strings and get me signed up, I needed to work—and this was the work I needed most.” Her eyes were red, tears threatening at their edges, but she pretended Steve’s collar required straightening and his tie was too loose, busying herself with his appearance until she could speak again. “He was only twenty-two, you know. A paratrooper in the 504th, and oh, he was terribly proud of that and so were we. But he died for something he believed in, and I have to hold on to that.”
There was a lump in his throat; Steve had never guessed, she seemed so happy and funny all the time he’d spent around her, but that was what she’d had to do to keep putting one foot in front of the other and he wrapped his arms around her and held her close. It was the first time in a long, long time he’d touched someone this way: maybe he was a foot taller now, but it felt like holding Ma, especially there at the end when she’d been so sick and sad at knowing she was leaving Steve alone. They stood that way for a while before Thelma stepped away and wiped her eyes. “Aren’t I just an old silly. You have better things to do than comfort weepy middle-aged ladies.”
“To be honest, there’s nowhere I’d rather be right now than with you. It’s...nice to talk to someone from home, and it’s even nicer to be able to help out a friend. What I said before—I like being at the FMPU, I’ll miss it. I’ll miss all of you.” He wondered if he should tell her about Bucky, and the information Corporal Sivertson had given him and his own fears, if it would ease her heart a little to share these things with someone.
She reached inside her pocket to pull out a hankie with dainty little violets printed around the edges, blew her nose. “In that case, why don’t you hang around here for a while and help me find some more of those missing shots, and then we’ll drop the end credits in?”
After a nod, Steve hugged her again and said, “I’ll go get us some coffee and be back in two shakes.”
Steve was so sweaty under the cowl that when he tried to pull it off it stuck to his head like he’d glued it there, and he was stretching the damn thing all to hell by the time it finally came off. “Christ almighty,” he muttered, making his way toward one of the dark, low, curving terrace walls and away from Mr. Warner’s...house. If you could call an enormous Neoclassical and Spanish hacienda style mansion a house; Steve’s last apartment building could have fit inside the place. The pool glittered under the party lights far below him, and he thought about heading down there even though he could see a small crowd mingling at its edge, but as he looked around for the pathway he caught sight of Miss Davis alone in a scrap of shadow. She leaned—almost sprawled—back against the wall, her elbows resting high on the edge, a cigarette dangling from her right hand: a queen on her throne.
“Another refugee,” Bette said with a laugh, then, “come sit” as she patted the marble bench that snaked along the wall.
“This costume is really hot, I just had to get out of there,” Steve explained sheepishly, pulling at the neck. It was a little cooler out here, though not by much; a breeze floated up through the Hollywood Hills but it was as warm as the air. He’d heard about the Santa Ana winds that were so hot and dry and left people feeling on edge; he didn’t think that’s what this was, but it was one more aspect of California he found so fascinatingly different from where he’d grown up. As large as Mr. Warner’s place was—and it was enormous—when you put that many people in one place, most of them fawning all over him, his skin got too small and his lungs too tight, and panic would creep along his spine as he wondered if the serum was reversing itself. The music was too loud, the laughter too phony, the smiles and the gladhanding too hollow, and it all echoed inside his head. Stage fright he’d found he could manage, but there had never been professional training on how to deal with this. “Just taking a break?” Steve asked, gulping down some deep breaths.
“I’d normally turn down one of Jack’s little soirees, but seeing as it was for you, I wanted to put in an appearance. But oh Lord, does it grate on my nerves.” Bette took a last drag on her cigarette and opened the little purse on her other side, held out the pack to him, but he shook his head. He’d tried repeatedly to smoke both asthma cigarettes and normal ones, but all it ever did was make him sick to his stomach and cough worse, and he didn’t really feel as though he needed to start just because he had a healthier body. “Smart boy,” she said, lighting a new one and stubbing out the old one on the wall, which seemed to be some kind of statement.
“You really don’t like him, do you?” Now that he’d spent more time in Mr. Warner’s presence, Steve could completely understand that. At the meeting with Mr. Warner and Delmer Daves the other day, he’d rankled Steve before he’d even sat down by telling him they’d already picked a couple of actresses to read for the Betty part who were “shtuppable enough” to be believable as Captain America’s girlfriend, and then demanded Steve take one of them as his date to this party. Yet as angry as Steve had been, he couldn’t deny that Mr. Warner was truly supportive of both Steve as the star of these pictures and Mr. Daves as the director; he had an almost boyish enthusiasm at times. Steve liked Mr. Daves and thought they could maybe work well together: Thelma had been right, he saw with an artist’s eye, but at the same time had such a gift with words and Steve’d left the meeting with high hopes that they were close enough in interests and temperament to fit. Just as long as they both stayed on Mr. Warner’s good side, Steve supposed.
Bette gave him the side-eye. “Actually, not so’s the press would tell you, but we’ve made our peace. You know I sued him to get out of my contract, don’t you?” Steve shook his head, eyes wide. “I lost, and had to come back from England, where I’d fled to try to get out of it, with my tail between my legs. But he’s given me good pictures, and as often as he’s a complete son of a bitch, there are times when he’s thoughtful, like giving us money for the Canteen.”
“He’s...a lot of contradictions, I’ll say that.”
The corner of her mouth pulled up. “There are a great many awful things I’ve done and many more I’m not proud of, but the Canteen—that I’m exceptionally proud of, and we couldn’t have done it without Jack.”
With a sidelong glance, Steve said, “I can’t believe you’ve done anything all that bad. I refuse.”
She laughed so hard she began coughing. When she’d collected herself, she said, “That’s because you’re such a good person, you start from giving us the benefit of the doubt. Ask anyone in this town, they’ll give you a sheet of my transgressions as long as your arm, annotated with dates and locations. We’re all like that: we all have something we’re ashamed of or we’ll do anything to hide so the public doesn’t know the real us.” As she reapplied her lipstick in the tiny slice of light coming from the house, she added, “Rumor has it Crawford did stag films before she found fame. Barbara taught dance at queer speakeasies in New York before she was a Ziegfeld girl. Lolly Parsons herself helped Hearst cover up the fact that he killed someone on his yacht, they say—but she’s untouchable because she has so much dirt on everyone. And that,” she said with her characteristic flourish, “is only the tip of the scandalous iceberg. So you see, most of us here assume the worst of people, and we don’t always know what to do with someone good, like you. You’re a strange, beautiful creature to us.”
“I could tell you a few things about myself to make you change that assessment.”
For a little while Bette was thoughtful and quiet, they listened to the band play “Pennsylvania 6-5000” as Steve sipped at his drink, and then Bette commented, “It was nice, in there, what you said and what Jack said. Fun to see you with your revue again. Those girls absolutely adore you.” Mr. Warner had formally announced the serial—Captain America’s Allied Adventures, which Steve thought was a terrible title but no one had asked him—and pushed him to say a few words about it to the star-studded crowd; Steve had felt as awkward and silly doing that at a party as he had his first night at the Canteen. Still, it had given the gals some time in the spotlight, and Fred, too.
“Mr. Warner demanded I bring Hedy Lamarr as my date tonight, but I told him I was already engaged—with forty-eight of them!” Steve really loved her throaty, deep laugh, the way she didn’t care about how she looked but threw her whole body into it instead. It reminded him a little bit of Peggy, and that familiar twinge struck again, just inside his ribs. “I wasn’t letting the girls go solo; I’ve abandoned them enough out here.” Not that Steve would have objected to accompanying Miss Lamarr—she was, after all, considered the most beautiful woman in the world and you’d have to be a hopeless sad sack not to want to escort her.
“Welcome to Hollywood, kiddo. Your love life will never be your own here—it belongs to the photographers and the columnists and the box office reports. Speaking of which, the rumor is that Hedy is one of the leading contenders for your Gal Friday, or whatever it is she does in your stories.”
“I don’t know, honestly, I’m just...wherever they point me, I go.” He shrugged. “Miss Parsons is still chasing after an interview with me, seems to believe I’m dating up a storm or something. I think Barbara or maybe Mr. Grant tried to put her off the scent.”
“God! Those bitches, they never stop.” Bette waved her cigarette. “That was me, my dear, I have been trying to steer Lolly clear of you now for days. We must keep you as pristine and innocent as possible for as long as possible.” She flashed him a saucy grin. “Listen, come to the Canteen tomorrow night, Hedy will be there, you can meet under better circumstances and then you’ll be well acquainted by the time you two read together. She and Marlene are on KP duty—I can’t keep those Krauts out of the kitchen.”
Maybe it was too forward considering Bette was one of the most famous women in the world, not to mention married, but Steve slipped his arm around her waist and she smiled, then leaned her head on his shoulder. “Who is it you’re missing so much, dearest?” she asked, dreamy and soft. “I can’t help it, I see a sadness in you once in a while, right at the corners of your eyes, and I don’t think it’s simply because you’re not fighting overseas.”
Of course she’d guess that—she studied people for her performances. “That whole thing with my leading lady... There was a woman with our unit in basic training, I guess I think about her a lot, how I might never see her again now that we’ve gone separate ways. I liked her a lot, and I don’t think she minded that I did. And my best friend...there hasn’t been any news from him since before Sicily, I don’t know if he’s even okay.” She made a humming sound, patted his hand; she’d probably heard a thousand boys say this at the Canteen. “It’s funny sometimes, now that I’m here, I see all these things and find myself constantly turning to point them out to him—he loved architecture, buildings, used to drag me around New York to look at them. He’d be over the moon about all the styles we’d never see back there—this estate would make him drool. He got a job at an architecture firm copying drafts and making blueprints, there was an older fella there who encouraged him to study to become an architect himself. Now...I don’t know. If he comes back in one piece, could he even have that again? Everything’s so uncertain. The world he knew is sort of gone. And he won’t be the same.” Damn, Steve was just dumping all his problems on poor Bette, babbling at her, a selfish ass.
“They’re putting a bill through Congress, I’ve heard. To help servicemen pick back up, go to school.” That was the voice of someone who’d given a lot of “chin up” speeches at bond rallies, Steve knew it all too well.
“I write Bucky every day. But I don’t know if he knows how much I’ve changed, or what he’ll think. Peggy at least knows how much I’ve changed, I’m just not sure how much that matters. Everything I did—this—I just wanted to have his back. And hers.”
“You have a great deal weighing on your heart.” Bette patted his knee again and said, “Listen. In less than a few months your entire life has gone topsy-turvy. You’ve mostly been alone and on the weary road, without the ones dearest to you and you fear for their safety. No wonder you hide outside at your own party—you’re overwhelmed. What do you say we blow this joint and head for the beach? We’ll steal some hooch—Jack can afford it—and walk in the sand and get snockered.”
That actually sounded pretty good. At the edge of the doors to the main living room, Steve could see Dixie, one of the girls who sat on the motorcycle in the show, in close conversation with Bill Holden, whom they’d both met at the FMPU—they seemed quite wrapped up in each other. “Can I just let one of the girls know I’m sneaking out? Because I think that sounds fantastic, but I don’t want to just ditch my dates, all forty-eight of them.”
“I love that I’m stealing you from forty-eight young and desirable girls.” Bette flipped her gleaming hair back. “I’ll go get my stole.”
That made him stop. “Oh, of course, you came here with someone. I’m sorry, that’s so rude of me—you don’t have to go just because I’m down in the dumps.”
With a rueful laugh, she said, “God no, don’t be—my husband hates these things. My date’s actually Olivia de Havilland and her husband. Believe me, they’ll do quite fine without me, might even give them an excuse to slip out.” Behind her hand, she whispered, “Entre nous—Livvie’s bringing suit against Warner Bros. Right now, she dislikes Jack more than anyone.” Bette grinned and Steve could only shake his head—he wasn’t sure he could be surprised anymore by the crazy things they got up to out here. Bette shooed him toward the house. “Just don’t let Parsons see you in there or we’re busted.”
As they headed toward the long serpentine driveway and past the waiting photographers, Steve spotted a strange, owlish little man who, despite holding a camera, seemed to have no interest in taking anyone’s picture. The man tracked their car as it went past, staring intently not at Miss Davis but at Steve. He made a mental note of the man’s appearance—the serum had given him an acutely sharp memory—and filed it away, just in case.
Hollywood News and Gossip
by Louella Parsons
Dearest Readers, I hope you will forgive your faithful columnist for not yet having secured the exclusive interview with everyone’s favorite super-stunner, Captain America, that I’ve hinted at for a while now. Not for lack of trying—I’ve spotted him at Warner Bros. studio head Jack Warner’s kick-off fête for Cap’s soon-to-be picture; at the Hollywood Canteen; and on the studio lot, and yet still run afoul of his Army guardians who insist I must go through proper channels. It appears that securing a face-to-face meeting with this brawny beefcake is more difficult than the Allies’ landing in Italy, but like any good soldier, I shall push forward toward my objective and remain dauntless in the face of enemy fire.
The stalwart Captain’s bond-drive short premieres soon, so those of you who’ve been unable to make it to the sold-out stage performances may now see firsthand what all the fuss is about. I asked Mr. Warner if Captain America’s leading lady has been cast yet: they are reading some of Hollywood’s brightest, prettiest lights this week for that very role. He also let slip the tidbit that the Captain’s heroic heart may belong to a real-life lady spy just like the role that’s being cast. Won’t that make the girls’ hearts flutter when the picture debuts, wishing they could be in her shoes!
Wait, wait, before anyone writes to correct me! Yes, the word "beefcake" dates to about 1949, but I just love it so much in this context that I've decided Louella Parsons could totally have coined it—because, you know, I can. \o/
I'm soooo sorry for the lengthy delay between chapters—between work and being overextended with Cap RBB and Vividcon deadlines, I got backlogged, but I'm determined to get back in the swing with this, because I love writing it and you guys are absolute aces with your support. Unfortunately I got some really bad news today that will likely have a big impact on my life and my writing time, but I vow to do everything I can to deliver more timely updates!
The short feature that will run before the main attraction had its premiere last night, at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre—I swear you would go nuts in that place, it’s gigantic and lavish, just like it seems in the newsreels. And the premiere was a disaster.
More truthfully, I was a disaster, the film wasn’t, nor the event. They really do roll out a red carpet for premieres, though it’s a little hard to see it, what with all the flashbulbs popping, the camera lights—there were a dozen of photographers from the movie magazines and newspapers, each one wanting you to give them a smile and a wave, and I felt like I was blind after only a couple minutes.
As for the disastrous part: I spent the first half of the show with my head in a toilet in the men’s room, dry heaving. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a case of nerves as I did last night, not even when I first stepped onstage with the USO show, and it didn’t help having Willard and Fred behind me in the stall, trying to give me a pep talk but only pointing out how much everyone expected from me and making me feel worse.
I didn’t even think I could get that queasy after the project, thought those days were well behind me. What made it worse was that they wanted me to take one of the actresses who’s reading for the movie serial as my date, and this time I couldn’t bluff my way out of it. So who knows, maybe you’ll see something about me stepping out with Miss Gail Patrick in some newsreel, but I assure you, it was just for the evening and I doubt she’ll ever want to speak to me again since I left her alone for half the evening.
We went to dinner first at the famous Brown Derby, because they want you to be seen by the press, and then to the theatre. We had a lovely time before the movie started: Miss Patrick studied law and she’s just brilliant and funny, and nothing like the bad-girl roles she keeps getting. She’s tall and elegant and if you have to be forced into a date, she’s a pretty great one to have. I was almost beginning to believe that I was getting the hang of this dating thing: spending all that time with Miss Stanwyck has helped, and I don’t think you’d have been too embarrassed by me. Then we had to run the gauntlet of the crowd and the photographers into the theatre, where we met up with everyone—the director and producers, and of course all the girls, who were there both to watch the film and to sell bonds before and after the show. And give a few kisses, too—if people pledged to buy bonds they’d get kisses or pictures with the dancers; the really big spenders would get one from Miss Patrick. Although the biggest ticket came from one of our producers, who paid a ridiculous sum of money for me to give Miss Patrick a kiss, can you believe it?
Then we got settled in the front row of the theatre and I could feel my dinner wanting to come right back up. Fred and Willard were furiously stage-whispering at me when the lights went down, and then I bolted for the men’s room. Fred said he gave Miss Patrick my apologies. It was utterly humiliating.
All those benders in Brooklyn and I think I only puked a few times, but there I was, supposed to be this perfect specimen, losing my dinner. I did feel better after a bit, enough that I could get a hold of myself and make it back for the end. I had already seen a rough cut of the picture, so I didn’t miss much, though the final product with all its polish on is quite a thing. I wonder if you would like it—and I hope you will get to see it. I think Miss Patrick was just being nice, but she told me she understood (she said she almost fainted the night of the premiere of My Man Godfrey).
If anything, it reminds me once more that I don’t belong here; most people here crave attention, and being seen in public doesn’t bother them one whit. When I was rehearsing the show back in New York, I went to the Stage Door Canteen a couple times and to the theatre, once to a ball game to throw out a pitch, as Captain America. And even though I hadn’t done it for long, somehow...it felt different. Less desperate. There’s a quality to Hollywood, a pressure to be on top, that is very different from the theatre world in New York. I often wish I’d tried harder to stay there and work with the Signal Corps on their propaganda films in Queens.
But this is the hand I was dealt and I know it could be worse—and it’s too late to turn back now. I just have to hope I don’t humiliate myself the next time.
“Honestly, if you truly want my opinion,” Steve said, turning in his seat so he could face Delmer Daves and Jack Warner, and he wasn’t convinced that Warner ever wanted his opinion but that had never stopped him before, “I would love to work with all of them. And I felt like Miss Patrick and I really hit it off the other night.” Though the less said about those circumstances, the better.
Del flicked his gaze toward Mr. Warner, who responded with a huff. “Patrick’s too old for you,” was all he said, and Steve found himself narrowing his eyes at Warner. “No one’s gonna buy a dame with seven years on our hero. Youth, strength, virility. That’s what you’re about.”
And here Steve thought it was fighting the Axis. “She doesn’t look in the least bit older than me,” Steve said, as evenly as he could, but Warner wasn’t giving in. Fine. They’d narrowed the field of actresses down to three, but it seemed as if Warner was never happy with anyone, or maybe he just didn’t want anyone that Delmer Daves and Steve Rogers wanted.
“And I’m not convinced Lamarr is worth a deal with MGM. She’s supposed to be an American agent—her English is fine, but she still sounds like she’s Hitler’s sister.” Del put his hand to the side of his head, rubbing his temple, sharing an appalled glance with Steve; they both sighed. He was such a coarse man sometimes, so thoughtless; he knew damn well she’d risked her life fleeing fascism.
“You’ve already griped about Lupino, too,” Del pointed out. Steve had really liked Ida Lupino’s reading of the character; she reminded him an awful lot of Peggy, and though she was petite, she came across as tough as steel and he thought they could work well together. Not to mention that she came from a famous English theatrical family, which wouldn’t hurt in terms of boosting Steve’s acting abilities: he could learn a lot from her. Even if no one else knew about Peggy or what she was like, the idea of having a tough leading lady who’d been born in England pleased him.
“She’s a pain in my tuchas,” Warner muttered darkly, his eyes trained on Steve’s so Steve felt like it was him he was talking about. “She’s been on suspension more often than she’s been working.”
“Why on earth would you suspend her?” The words slipped out before Steve could stop them. She’d been amazing in High Sierra and They Drive By Night.
Warner favored him with a withering stare. “Because she keeps turning down roles that she feels are beneath her.” Wow, how dare she want something she was happy to work on, Steve wanted to say, but didn’t.
“I’d be thrilled to have her, she’s perfect,” Del said, and fortunately that seemed to be that, because Warner shrugged and got up. So after all that melodrama about taking Hedy Lamarr and Gail Patrick on dates, Steve wouldn’t have the chance to work with either.
“All right, we’ll get contracts to the—” and Steve braced himself, because he knew Warner was going to call her a bitch and he was just about to rise and say something himself when Warner hesitated, looked sourly at him, and said “girl.”
“Woman,” Steve said.
“Miss Lupino. We’re already behind schedule, so light a fire under this.”
Steve made a face, glancing at Del, who shook his head—no, they weren’t behind schedule. Much as he didn’t like being a show pony, he’d hate it if there was something he’d done—or not done—to throw a monkey wrench in their plans.
With a twitch of his fingers, Del motioned for Steve to follow and they went out to the lot, the sun making Steve’s eyes water after being inside so long. They walked toward Del’s office building, got some coffee, and the two of them set to work going over some of the script details so Steve could see the shape of the serial’s individual chapters. The nice thing about working with him, Steve had already discovered, was that Del didn’t view actors as an unfortunate necessity; he genuinely liked them and wanted to write the best dialog for them or direct the best performance they could give, and it buoyed Steve’s confidence that maybe he wouldn’t completely botch this thing. “This isn’t just about selling bonds, now—we’re telling a story, showing the public that there’s more to you than simply catching a spy here or there or punching someone out,” he’d said the day they began pre-production.
There were necessary elements to the story, though: Calvin had presented a long list to the producers the day Steve moved over to Warner Bros., and no one wanted to end up on Senator Brandt’s bad side. “I’ve been fielding calls about working with you,” Del told him. “Usually you’d never catch a soul with more than a few high-profile pictures under their belt willing to work on a serial, but this is a fantastic opportunity to be seen supporting the war effort, maybe even more than appearing at the Canteens. They’re willing to throw prestige out the window.”
That surprised him. “Wouldn’t that mean less pay?”
“Probably, but the important thing is image. I’ve got a couple of irons in different fires right now—as soon as I’m done with this, I’ll be doing a submarine picture with Grant and Garfield, and I’ve also got a script, might even direct, a Hollywood Canteen story. They loved the script for the Stage Door Canteen picture, so they’re clamoring for more of that sort of thing. People here see that, want to be a part of it—it’s a way to serve, too, in their way. You’re the man of the moment for that. Everyone wants to be your buddy.”
Ducking his head, Steve said, embarrassed, “That’s what the show producer, Willard, says all the time.” He shook his head, because honestly, it was still so strange.
“We’ve pulled in Ward Bond to play your somewhat crusty career Army CO, and—” he showed Steve something called a “casting call” with the remaining roles they would be filling in the next few days.
“I don’t have to read with people anymore, do I?”
Del gave a wave of his hand. “Nah. The casting director and I both know what we’re looking for here, we’re going to take advantage of that popularity, but we’ll find you the right people.”
Steve bent his head to read some of the notes Del had written on the script draft, and tried to screw his courage to the sticking post: if there was ever a right time to bring this up, it’d be now.
“So...uh. About the casting.” Steve scratched the back of his head, ran fingers through his hair. “One of the things I admire about the Canteen is that it’s open to servicemen of all races—I’ve even seen WACs there. If I’m to have this squad with me” —and he flipped through the script to the page where Cap and his soldiers were marching through the forest— “I’d really like to have more than simply a bunch of Caucasian guys like me. I’d like it to be more like the area I grew up in.”
Del’s brows knitted together, and Steve thought for sure he was in the soup now. But instead Del said, “I knew I liked you.” He stroked his chin in thought. “We’ll get a lot of pushback about it, but it won’t be the first time I’ve dealt with that mindset. And right now, even Jack won’t tell you no. There’s never been a situation like this and he hates it, hates not being in control of everyone, but if that’s what we want, we’ll get it. I know a couple of actors and I’d love to give them the opportunity.”
Such a sense of relief flooded through Steve that he laughed out loud. “I built this up in my mind so much, I was afraid you’d say no.”
“Don’t be afraid to speak your mind. That’s kind of what this character’s about, this whole picture’s about, right? Might as well take advantage of that image. Make a difference.”
Everyone was staring at them, Steve knew, which made him about a thousand times more awkward as he tried to carve a path through the Sunday crowd of the L.A. Farmers Market. Steve had lost this round when Mr. Warner had thrown another one of his demands at him: Steve’d had his way about casting actors of different ethnic backgrounds, Del’s request for crew and talent had succeeded, but the bill came due when Warner popped in to the production office and said, ominously, “Now you owe me one.”
The “one” turned out to be taking Ida Lupino to the Farmers Market so they could be seen around town together when Steve was in a captain’s service uniform—even though she was married, an apparently overlooked detail that mystified Steve, since everyone would know they weren’t having an affair and being blatantly public about it. Edgar swore he did stuff like this all the time: drive married or even queer stars to social engagements in public places so that all the press would take their photos, and maybe even provide a strategically placed gossip columnist with a quote. But Steve wasn’t like any of those folks—though he’d been seen by the public without the cowl, he hadn’t really been seen for Cap appearances when out of the clown costume since that first picture was taken on Pier 13. Warner had to forcefully insist that this was good for the pictures, good for the whole bonds program and the service that had helped him become what he was—and Steve never welshed on a debt.
Still, he couldn’t say he wasn’t having fun. Ida was perfect for the role of Betty Carver; the longer he was around her, the more convinced he was of that. She was nothing like the shady dames she often played: no wonder Ida was often suspended, he thought, she wanted and could do so much more than Warner allowed her to, and Steve didn’t blame her for speaking up about it. She had a sly sense of humor and worldliness that enthralled him. Already he’d learned so much from the people he’d worked with, and he wondered sometimes if Bucky and Peggy would even recognize the person he’d become.
“Are you all right?” Ida asked, passing change over to the vendor for some peaches, then handing him the sack to put in her shopping bag. These days he made a great pack mule; too bad he didn’t have this strength back when he’d had to carry groceries up five flights to his apartment.
He smiled. “I’m fine. Just thinking of some absent friends.”
“The girl Betty’s modeled after.”
He tried on a smile. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust her, but he wasn’t sure how much he could stand to talk about that. “One of them, yes. Would you like to get lunch?”
It was obvious she caught his deflection. “Oh yes, let’s. It’s long past time you were introduced to Mexican food.”
Over lunch they discussed the picture and Steve tried to ignore the way other diners were glancing at them. She told him about her family’s theatre background, and her disputes with Warner. But she wanted to know more about him and wasn’t giving up easily, no matter how many questions he dodged. “You can keep trying to avoid talking about yourself, but I’ll have my way eventually,” she said after throwing up her hands. A young woman approached her, holding a cash register receipt out and asking Ida for an autograph.
“Oh. Will you now.”
She made a face and waved her fork at him. “You’re stuck with me for quite a few weeks, you know.” With a sigh, she relented. “All right. I cry uncle. You’re quite stubborn.” When he kept smiling at her as his only response, Ida stuck her tongue out, then asked, “What question aren’t you asking me? Is it how to kiss on screen? Or something even more embarrassing?”
“No, not that. Though I suppose we’ll have to address that, won’t we?” God, he dreaded that scene.
“Out with it.”
“It’s just...what’s it like to work with Humphrey Bogart?” and he couldn’t help himself, he laughed at the face she made.
“You just won’t reveal anything, will you?” Ida said, her mouth a moue of disapproval.
“Sort of by necessity. A lot of stuff about me is classified.” He looked down at the table. “It feels very strange to be out here like this, being seen. Since this started, if I’m in public, it’s in costume—not that people haven’t seen my face, they have, of course, but not when I’m supposed to be Captain America. This isn’t even a real captain’s uniform; they pulled it from wardrobe at the studio; I’m still technically just a private. I think.” With a shrug, Steve added, “Guess I’m not used to being told what to do with my personal life.”
“Being pressed to go out with someone, yes, it’s odd. This entire town is very strange. But it’ll be in the papers that we were having a nice chat, they’ll present it as us getting to know one another, and then Mr. Warner will leave you alone for a little while.” Ida flashed a wink and a frisky smile at him. “And I have the pleasure of your company and...that face and those shoulders.”
Steve exhaled loudly. “If my...well, I guess original commanding officer...if he saw me like this out in public, he would probably expire from apoplexy.”
“How entertaining. Let’s hope he sees it. Imagine the obituary.”
Steve was just about to get up and pull her chair out for her when he glanced over toward the entrance on their right. There was that strange little photographer who’d been outside the party at the Warners’ the other night. It was more than just puzzling, how he watched Steve; the hair on the back of Steve’s neck stood up. “Do you know a lot of the Hollywood press photographers?”
Ida followed his gaze. “Not many. Why?”
He jerked his chin in the man’s direction. “I keep seeing that photographer, but he never seems to take a picture.”
With a shake of her head, Ida said, “Don’t recognize him, no, but that doesn’t mean much. I try to pay as little attention to those things as possible when I’m out of the studio. I’d go mad otherwise. Maybe he has a secret crush on the Star-Spangled Man with a Plan?” she teased.
The man must have picked up on Steve’s interest in him, because he played with his camera, then darted out the side entrance. For a moment Steve considered chasing after him, but he didn’t want to be seen ditching Ida if anyone important was watching.
Clearly, she sensed his agitation, though, because she stood and picked up her shopping. “I think we’ve completed your trial by shopping fire. How about we save the rest for our first day of work?” He was surprised to find he was looking forward to it.
Fortunately for Steve, the first day of shooting Captain America’s Allied Adventures didn’t require much in the way of acting. True to his word, Del had rounded out the cast of the soldiers who would become his squad—in the comics, he discovered, they were calling them the Invaders, for reasons he couldn’t fathom—and even rewrote a couple parts to be servicemen from different Allied countries. The scenes they were shooting brought the ragtag group together by way of a North African firefight: in one, Steve burst through the enemy lines where the men were pinned down by tank and artillery fire to rescue them. All that was required of him for the day was to learn how to handle the Tommy gun, learn throwing a knife somewhat believably—a skill he was definitely looking forward to picking up for real—and run from mark to mark on cue.
The new costume was terrific: lighter, stretchier, and much airier under the hot lights of the soundstage; the hardest task was not messing up the makeup once he did work up a sweat. Ida was never even called to set, though she made sure to come by later in the day so that when shooting wrapped, they could practice lines together in her dressing room. Anyone else and Steve would have been certain they had less than savory intentions, but Ida was as much a straight-shooter as you could find in this town.
It was getting dark by the time he began walking toward the car. He hadn’t seen the lot like this before: the buildings cast long, deep shadows, there were no actors in costume walking from one soundstage to another, only a few crew passed by carrying gear. In the quiet, it was fascinating—he walked by a giant outdoor façade the spitting image of the Houses of Parliament, and opposite that, the steps leading up to the Capitol Building in Washington. He wished he’d had his pad with him so he could sketch it out, but when he turned back toward the dressing rooms to get it, he realized someone was calling his name.
“Steve! Captain!” No one called him Captain, even though it said “Captain America” on his set chair. When he turned he saw Miss Lamarr waving and walking toward him, a funny smile on her beautiful face. “Didn’t you hear me? I’ve been trying to get your attention for a bit now. I’m not used to being ignored, you know,” she added with a laugh.
He was very surprised to see her—and thrilled, because he’d never really had a chance to say how sorry he was that she wouldn’t be playing Betty, and hadn’t seen her since they’d read together. Of course she looked stunning: though the evening wasn’t cool at all, she wore a fur stole around her shoulders, and a little oval hat and deep blue dress that complemented her porcelain skin. “What a great surprise,” Steve said, and kissed both her cheeks, the way everyone here seemed to do. “You look beautiful,” because he was still following Cary’s advice. “But what are you doing at Warner, especially this late?”
“Pfff,” she spat out, waving her hand, “Mr. Mayer and Mr. Warner are still tossing me about as if I am a ball. I told him no for your picture—it would have been so lovely to work with you, but I did not want the terms, you understand. So now I think he wants to seduce me and make some kind of offer, as if I’m to be a mistress.”
All he could do was make a noise of sympathy and shake his head, because he couldn’t begin to understand these sorts of men himself and it gave him a headache to try—and he was sure Hedy could take care of herself. She’d made her way to America on her own, he was pretty sure the Ecstasy Girl didn’t need him to give her unsolicited advice about wolfish men with ulterior motives.
“I’m heading to the car, can my driver give you a lift home?” He held his arm out and she slipped hers through his.
“Oh no, I have my own. But aren’t you sweet for asking.” Maybe he didn’t know much about flirting and still didn’t know how to talk to a woman, but he was pretty damn certain she was making love to him—her eyes were glittering, and she ran her other hand up and down his arm as they walked. “Where are you going so late? Have you been to dinner?”
He was just about to answer—and maybe suggest they go for a bite, because he could practically hear Cary in his head telling him not to waste an opportunity—when a young man breathlessly cycled up to them, hollering “Captain—Cap! Captain America!” and Steve thought the kid might have a heart attack. He’d gotten used to the pages who zoomed around here on bikes, but he wasn’t expecting one to come looking for him.
“Slow down, fella. What’s the commotion?”
The kid hopped off his bike and handed him a packet. “This came from the Army!” he said, as if he thought he was handling classified intelligence. “They made my boss sign six ways till Sunday for it, and everywhere I went they told me I just missed you. Didn’t want to get in trouble if I couldn’t deliver something from the Army.” Like he’d get put in front of a firing squad if he didn’t. Steve took the envelope and it felt like—letters. A handful of letters. Marked from the Special Services Company—of course, they would have known where to find him today.
“Th-thank you,” he stammered out, and he wasn’t sure if he was supposed to tip the boy, but his heart was thundering in his chest and before he could get hold of himself, the kid had hopped on his bike and pedaled away. Steve finally remembered that Hedy was standing there with him and he raised his head, looking into her huge, worried eyes. “It’s something...I think it’s something I’ve been waiting for for a long time. I’m almost afraid to open it.” If he didn’t open it, nothing bad could have happened. Everything was all right.
Hedy leaned in to him, put her hand on his chest, her face wrought with concern. “You must open it, though.” He didn’t want to leave her, but... “Go, dearest. Go find out what’s inside,” and she leaned up to kiss him lightly on the lips. Steve blinked—that was not what he’d expected. “Call me another time and take me out for a proper evening, all right?”
“Of course. Yes, of course. I’d like that very much.” He hoped he was conveying the right amount of enthusiasm, because he really did want to spend some time with her, but his head was spinning and even Hedy Lamarr wasn’t going to drag him away from what could be letters from Bucky, or something official from Peggy and the SSR.
Numb, he got to the car and Edgar opened the door for him, his face just as worried as Hedy’s had been. “You need to get home right away?” he asked, and Steve nodded—he didn’t want to lose it in front of Edgar by speaking.
Usually he made a stop inside the Garfield’s house to say hello and tell them about his day, but tonight he fled to the safety of his bungalow and threw himself on the bed, tearing open the thick envelope. Five letters dropped out, all of them from Bucky, with postmarks ranging from the end of June through early September. For a brief second Steve thought, annoyed, “Seriously, pal, only five?” but obviously they were simply the ones that had made it through—how many others hadn’t made it to the States yet?
The first two were just brief, typical Bucky notes: describing some of the fellows in his unit as they traveled to—hah, not England like he’d said, but North Africa, and the unpleasant voyage over. When he’d said he was shipping out to England, Steve had assumed he was just guessing or simply bullshitting, because they weren’t allowed to say where they were going to civilians, not even best friends.
The third and fourth detailed, without saying where he was, the terrible food, terrible heat, and terrible soldiers from other countries Bucky didn’t think were up to snuff. None of it important, all of it wonderful. But it wasn’t until the last one he realized how mixed up all their mail had become, and how confusing it was on both sides—and how goddamn much he missed Bucky.
In receipt of your letter dated August 18, and pal, I got no idea what is going on. Who the hell is Willard, or Fred for that matter? What do you mean you’re punching Fred every night and twice on Wednesdays and Sundays, and why? What the hell does Hitler have to do with it? And who the ever-loving fuck are “the gals”?
If you went and found a way into the Army I swear I will pound you to a pulp when I see you. Assuming you live long enough, because what is this shit about you on a cross country train trip? What on God’s green earth could you possibly be doing in Chicago? Ma and Pop haven’t said anything to me about you going on a trip—but the last two letters I got from home were out of order, and yours are postmarked from Chicago and Kansas City and do they even know what you’ve got up to? Did you find some kind of war work that needs artists, is that it? Not that it’d make me feel any better about you traveling so far, especially as it’s summer and you could be in places that’ll be bad for your asthma, but at least if you’re in a room somewhere, making posters or whatnot, that’d be okay, I suppose. You aren’t in any kind of shape to be traveling so far, especially by train—what kind of crazy outfit would put a fellow like you in that position? Did you lie again and not tell them about your health problems?
I keep getting stuck thinking about you trying your luck at that Expo like you said, and I wish to hell now I hadn’t left. I thought there was no way you’d make it in that time, but I can’t see how you’d be in a job and traveling and talking about the USO and supporting the war effort otherwise. I’m really sort of clutched over this, because I don’t know if these people you’re talking about have your best interests at heart.
Mail is not very regular here—it pains me that maybe you’re not getting my mail regular either. And I’m concerned. There’s not much to do over here besides fret about you, and Ma and Pop and the girls, because it’s either worry about you or worry what’s gonna happen to me, and I’d much prefer the first one. What have you gone and got yourself into this time, Steve?
Please write back soon and explain all of this to me. I miss you, pal, and I’m not gonna sleep well till I know what the story is.
I know I keep apologizing, but I'm sorry for the delay between chapters. Between work and signing up for fandom challenges, I was a bit overextended, and worst of all, I did not expect to get cancer in the middle of all of it. Surgery is in a couple days, so I hope that after some recovery I'll be back on track with this (and on the off chance something bad happens, a friend has a basic outline of where this will go and will find someone to finish it for me because I really don't want it to drop!).
I can’t tell you how happy I was to finally get some of your letters the other day. I’ve mentioned many times in my own correspondence that, unfortunately, your own letters have not found me for quite some time—but yesterday I was so relieved to receive a small bundle of them, most postmarked early after your arrival overseas. It seems that we’ve criss-crossed each other this entire summer, and it also appears that my letters about the project and about becoming “Captain America” haven’t made it there yet, or possibly even will at all.
I apologize for the confusion this must have caused, and for worrying you. Seems at this late date it doesn’t make a lot of sense for me to go back and fill in the story, so I’ll just keep writing and telling you about my life and hoping that by now, those missing pieces are trickling in—who knows, stranger things have happened. Maybe it will all fall in place for you. And with any luck, I’ll be overseas by fall, and I can tell you whatever else you want to know—and when I do you can yell at me to your heart’s content.
At least now I know some of my correspondence has made it over there, even if it’s not the useful stuff. I’ve heard a terrible mountain of mail’s piling up in the European theatre, so the Army is creating a postal brigade who will be tasked with getting it all moving again. I imagine it must be terribly difficult to make sure post gets to the units in the field, with the speed of change that’s occurring as the war progresses. Every day the news is increasingly dire, and every day my worry for you grows, for all our Allied servicemen and women, and I pray for your safety. I pray also to make use of what’s happened to me and join the fight—it’s been downright painful to watch everything from the third base line, able only to weakly cheer you on.
Everyone reminds me that I’m doing an important job—the other night we went down to San Diego, which is the most beautiful town I think I’ve ever seen, and we sold over two million dollars worth of bonds in one night—that buys a lot of bullets and bandages. “We” being me and Miss Hedy Lamarr, if you can believe it: she’s under contract at MGM, though she came to read for my movie here at Warner’s, only it didn’t work out. Still, we hit it off when we read together and I have seen her a few times since then, and we might officially go out one of these nights, once my filming schedule is ironed out.
The hours are longer than I ever expected: you take long breaks in between every scene setup, the hair and makeup people are always fussing after you, everything is fiddly and involved and discussed to death by committees of people whose jobs you don’t even know. The fellas from one union or guild are never allowed to work on something represented by a different union, so you can imagine how much time it takes if someone isn’t around from, say, the lighting union but the lights have to be set up.
Still, I realize how easy I have it—I’m living the high life while you are probably going without, in danger, suffering. An hour doesn’t go by I don’t think of you, Buck, or Agent Carter, what you’re going through, and I miss you more than I can say.
“Cut!” The rolling light at the back of the soundstage shut off and the warning bell rang. “Guys, don’t look at the camera,” Del’s assistant said, frustrated, as the rear-projected forest scene switched to the countdown leader. Poor guy—it had been a difficult day, and it was only their fourth full day of shooting.
They reset and the fella with the slate jumped in front of the camera. “Thirteen apple, take three.” He snapped it shut, the red light flicked back on, and Del called action again. The trickiest part of this marching shot had been getting the hang of staying upright when the rolling walkway jolted into action; they’d ruined the first handful of takes when one or another of the actors went down like bowling pins, a different one each time. Steve resolutely stared straight ahead, keeping his shield still, acting as captainly as possible. Though Steve didn’t think this take was different—they were simply walking, after all—it seemed satisfactory to Del; after a short break, they switched to the set designed to look like a destroyed town in North Africa for a scene that actually took place prior to the forest march they’d just shot.
The fun part was that Steve got to use the lessons from the other day and shoot the Tommy gun, do some stunts here: he was an ace at pretending to punch someone by now, the stunt man was highly experienced—not to mention a former prizefighter—so Steve could mix it up a little if he felt like it. Sometimes he and Julie sparred at Julie’s boxing gym in West Hollywood, but Steve remained pretty cautious about punching anything for real: he still hadn’t had the chance to see what his limits were. One of these days he’d go out to Randy and Cary’s ranch, really let loose and see what he could do. Race a horse, lift a cow or something.
Steve remained still while Annie the makeup lady whipped out her Max Factor kit and dirtied him up to look as though he’d been in a firefight; then Del, the stuntman, and Steve quickly blocked the next shot out. This was another part of the segment where Cap met the men who would become his squadron after he’d saved them from a Nazi prison camp; it picked up from his first day on the set.
They got in a solid afternoon of shooting, running around, and punching Nazis—hands down the most fun Steve had had since this whole picture-making began. But then they hit the two pages of dialog where Steve had to rally his new squad to fight their way through the destroyed city under heavy bombardment and away from their captors.
“Why, we don’t stand a chance, Cap!” Mack, who was playing one of the Americans, shouted. “We’ll never make it. We can’t go forward or we’re dead.”
“Come on, men, don’t give up, we’ll get these son of a guns! Double time, follow me to freedom!” Steve called, swinging his arm, firing at his off-screen enemies. Del sharply called cut.
“Maybe we oughta try that when you’re not laughing.” He pursed his lips, the faintest trace of amusement on his face.
Honestly, Steve wasn’t sure he could ever deliver that line without laughing, but how did he put this respectfully? “There’s—well, I think this section... It’s just—I’m not sure an experienced soldier would say that. To other soldiers, anyway. And Mack’s line might seem a little cowardly. I...uh...well. I had some notes.” Quite a few, actually, he and Willard had sat down with the script the first night he had it. Maybe Steve hadn’t been at basic as long as most men had, but he was confident he could make the script sound better.
Closing his eyes, Del heaved a sigh. If he was pissed off, Steve couldn’t entirely blame him—some annoying upstart challenging the script of a seasoned writer. Del eventually opened his eyes, gave Steve a pained but tolerant smile, the same kind Willard had often given Steve in the early days of the USO show when Steve flubbed his part.
“You’re definitely becoming an actor.” Steve was certain that wasn’t a compliment. Del reached out and squeezed his shoulder, cast a glance at the other actors, and said, “Fifteen minutes, fellas.” Everyone beelined for the coffee at the back of the soundstage as Del pulled him over toward the director’s chair. “All right, show me what you got, soldier.”
“Tell me all about the letters,” Hedy said, fluffing some of the already quite fluffy pillows on the enormous, plush, sapphire-blue sofa, beckoning him down. “You were so...what is the word? Thunderstruck. Such a strange word—it’s lightning that strikes, isn’t it.”
“That’s a good point.”
He sat at what he thought was an appropriate distance from her, but she pouted those plush lips and tugged him a little closer. When he’d arrived at her lovely but modest-by-Hollywood-standards house, Hedy’d surprised him by requesting to stay in rather than go to Perino’s, where Cary had insisted Steve should take her. He was glad she had, because without all the fussing of waiters and gawping of patrons they’d been able to sink into each other’s company and enjoy the meal her housekeeper/cook had made, one of Hedy’s favorite dishes from home. As they’d dined, Hedy told him more about how she’d come to the States, about escaping her Nazi husband and watching the rise of National Socialism—and most intriguing of all, the racy scandal after making Ecstasy and its legacy on her life.
On the trip down to San Diego for the bonds show, he’d confessed to seeing it in New York when it had finally shown there, and she’d rolled her eyes and shook her head, waving any further confessions off. She’d probably heard way too much about it from every drooling fellow she met. But as they’d continued to talk about other subjects, they’d discovered a mutual homesickness for the worlds they’d left behind, the people they might never see again. He’d thought, more than a few times, how melancholy she was when not putting on the role she was expected to play; she disliked the way people often stared at her or asked for autographs outside the Canteen or USO stage, and Steve found he identified with her fiercely. It might even be the main reason she found him attractive, he considered: she recognized a kindred private, unhappy, lost soul beneath the perfect exterior everyone wanted a piece of.
The appearance was, despite that wistfulness, the most fun he’d had on stage: when she performed, Hedy seemed to have a ball, flirting with him, working the audience into a frenzy by teasing the possibility of a kiss with Captain America. At the last minute, at Bob Hope’s suggestion, she pulled a serviceman waiting to ship out to the Pacific up on stage and gave him the kiss instead—and it brought down the house. Steve pretended to retaliate: he swung Martha Raye into his arms and dipped her before planting one on her cheek. As soon as he let her up, Martha grabbed his shoulders and pretended to swoon so he’d catch her; she then clutched the back of his head and pulled him in for a longer kiss on the mouth. Steve had barely been able to keep it together, he was laughing so hard. For their last show, Hedy had pushed Martha away to give Steve an even longer kiss, and the audience erupted into a frenzy.
Now they were having coffee on her sofa, the phonograph playing Vera Lynn quietly in the background, and Steve realized he felt surprisingly unawkward about the strong possibility he’d be spending the night in Hedy Lamarr’s bed. Considering he’d seen her en déshabillé in a Manhattan theatre only a few years ago when he’d seen Ecstasy, the fact that he wasn’t stammering and bumbling felt like a major achievement.
“Oh, the letters,” Steve responded, pulling at his collar. Of course she’d notice the effect they’d had on him, but he didn’t know of a way to explain how much Bucky—and Peggy—meant to him, how grateful he was for the tiniest crumb of information from or about them. Though perhaps she understood, missing her own people as much as she did. “I haven’t had word from my best friend for months, since shortly after the USO tour began. I’ve been afraid maybe he’d been hurt—or, well, you know.”
Hedy nodded sympathetically. “I thought perhaps they were from a girl.” Steve could only smile at her fishing for information on his personal life; she leaned closer to him, enough so he could smell her perfume: deep and floral and intense, mysterious, foreign.
“Oh, I don’t—I don’t have one. A girl.” It almost made him laugh, recalling Cary’s incredulous outrage weeks ago.
“What fools, if no one has snatched you up.” Her fingers danced up and down his arm. “All through dinner you listened to every word I spoke. You barely even speak of yourself, as if I’m the center of the world. You look at me with such respect. What girl wouldn’t adore that?” All he could do was shrug. She shifted closer. “But I think your friend is very important to you, also, maybe more important than those girls, anyway.”
“I...” How was he supposed to respond? “There is a girl, but we’re not—she was with the science division I was part of before the...improvements.” Steve was embarrassed that now he was stammering, but Hedy seemed to find it charming, which was certainly a nice change of pace. “Nothing ever happened.”
“But you liked her.” Her hand rested on his knee now, and he gulped—oh, not being awkward hadn’t lasted very long at all. “Maybe as much as you like your friend.”
He couldn’t help it, he stiffened at that; she didn’t seem the type to judge such things, but you could never be certain. “I guess so.” Heat spread up his face; he was relapsing to his old ways and it was so disappointing.
“Were the letters worth waiting for? Is he all right?”
“Yes. And no. He hasn’t received many of my letters, though I’ve written him nearly every day, so he doesn’t know about any of this.” He waved a hand in front of himself. “The few he didn’t get were out of order, so he’s very confused. I’m afraid when he finds out what happened, he’ll be disappointed or angry. He wanted me to stay safe at home.”
Hedy took a breath, her enormous eyes fixed on him. “If he feels the same way, he won’t stay angry. Who could stay angry at you? You’re one of the loveliest boys I’ve ever met.” There was the word “boy” again—she’d called him that a number of times and it made him laugh each time.
“Are you trying to remind me that I’m a younger man?”
“I adore younger men, they are so much more enthusiastic and helpful,” she said with a musical, soft laugh.
“Hedy, there’s only about four years’ difference with us!”
Her glance from under her eyelashes was terribly provocative. Maybe it was the wine he’d had with dinner, or the flirting, but all this made Steve feel lightheaded and thick. “Oh, I’ve known boys like you in the theatre,” she said and ran the backs of her fingers along his jaw, before delivering a tantalizing kiss to his lips. “But that won’t spoil our fun, I think.”
Why try to hide it, Steve supposed, if she’d already guessed; apparently he was just that transparent. “Does it...bother you?”
With a faint huff, she waved a hand and said, “Americans!” in a tone that really meant “so provincial.” Christ, she really was so much like Peggy it almost took his breath away.
“Did they like girls, too? Those theatre boys,” Steve asked as he slid his arms around her, his hand gliding through her silken hair, kissing her again more intensely. No wonder all the servicemen who’d kissed her had swooned; he felt dizzy himself.
“Why, yes, some of them.” She gripped the back of his head, pulling Steve down with her on the sofa. “But I assure you, none like you,” she teased when she’d finally pulled away form the kiss. Hedy laughed and rubbed at his mouth with her sleeve—her lipstick was mostly off her lips and on to his. “No one is like you.” Steve could feel those words all the way inside him, like a caress.
It was so greedy of him, but he wanted to hear her compliment him some more, tell him that he was desirable and worthy. “Oh? How’s that?” and he slid the shoulder of her silky blouse down, the strap of her camisole, chased by his mouth on her warm skin.
“Oh, you are a work of sculpture,” she sighed, and he thought Hedy knew why he was asking, but she would have some fun with it. “An artist made you up from a fantasy so we girls would lose our heads and dream of taking you to our beds.” She glanced pointedly toward the hall.
A small part of him thought maybe this was stepping out on Peggy—or even Bucky, although he didn’t even know what that could mean and it wasn’t at all logical. As if she knew what he was thinking, Hedy’s perfectly arched brows winged up her forehead and she smiled, inviting and maybe a little smug.
Romantic, a fantasy hero—that was what he wanted to be for her, just like a matinee idol in a picture, one they starred in only for themselves. Steve lifted Hedy off the sofa with his strong arms as she threw her head back and laughed, her dark brown hair catching the lamplight, shining mahogany. “Show me the way,” Steve said.
Hedy stretched a shapely arm to the left and he followed her direction, bringing her closer to his mouth for a scorching kiss. Her bed was as enormous as the sofa, the centerpiece of a room that looked like the set of a high-class European movie, and he lay her down on top of it. She pulled him down to her by his tie, grinning at him like a cat. His hand slid up the leg of her trousers, unbuttoning the blouse and pulling it free before slipping his hand inside to cup a small, perfect breast. The lightning strike of pleasure sizzled up Steve’s spine, as Hedy sighed into his neck, her hands making swift work of his shirt, and she gasped just a little once it was off.
This was what he’d never hoped to dream of as his first time making love to a woman—and not being the type to kiss and tell, Steve would have to keep it all to himself.
Now that Steve had found out what all the fuss was about, he understood why so many men were such fucking boors about getting it. Not that he would ever be one of them—he could just see it, was all he was saying.
Hedy let him light another cigarette for her and leaned back into the satin-covered pillows, blowing smoke up toward the ceiling; her exquisite figure was covered only partly by the sheet and she stretched a leg out toward him, rubbing the sole of her foot over his left thigh. Jesus, if she keeps that up, I’ll be hard again in seconds. The serum made him horrifyingly easy to arouse, far worse than he’d ever been as a fifteen-year-old, and Steve wasn’t certain how any normal gal would react to him being ready to go again less than fifteen minutes after they’d made love.
“Why do you want so badly to go fight?” Hedy asked. They’d lounged about in a post-coital sprawl while she quizzed him about what had driven him to sign up with the SSR and the experiment, how the stage show got developed, before circling back around to Bucky and Peggy, whom she appeared to be incredibly interested in. “Do you believe your friend thinks less of you, or your secret agent?”
“No, no, not at all. I’m the only one who thinks less of me, I suppose. All this work to get me like this, to make me powerful, but I’m in Hollywood, making pictures. Asking people to shell out money for bonds. The only chance I’ll have to fight Hitler is on the cover of a comic book or a nice actor on stage.”
“What did they use?” Okay, that was horribly distracting, the way she moved her foot even closer to his crotch, and he almost blurted out top secret information in his lust-fog before he forced himself to focus.
Scrunching up his face, Steve flashed an admonishing look. “Not much I can tell you beyond what you’ve already read.”
“No, darling, I meant what did Stark pull out of his little bag of tricks? Which of his inventions.”
Steve’s eyebrows flew up. “Do you know him?” Could she know about the Vita-Ray machine?
The noise she made reminded him of Bucky’s grandmother whenever they’d reeled off some ridiculous story about why they had skinned knees and bloody noses or where they’d found those perfect apples. “Unfortunately.” She seemed distracted, maybe because he’d changed the subject—or maybe just Stark being Stark.
“What did he do?”
“What did he not do, that is the real question.” Sometimes her accent was more pronounced, usually when she was angry or excited. Hedy sat up against the tufted headboard and stabbed her cigarette butt into a large purple glass ashtray. “I have always been fascinated by science, I create little things all the time, little inventions, you know.” It didn’t surprise him, he’d immediately understood how intelligent and clever she was on that trip to San Diego. “My friend George and I—oh, you see, we figured out a guiding system, for torpedos, that sort of thing. But the Navy turned us away, and I told Howard Stark about it later and he promised to show this to someone higher up in the military—he had many connections in the War Department, he told us. But it never happened.” With a scoff, she added, “If he hadn’t been so concerned with getting into my skirts, perhaps he wouldn’t have had to lie that he would help. I doubt he ever even tried.”
That reminded Steve of what Gene Tierney had said about Howard trying to seduce her; it wasn’t as if he could defend him, not to women he’d treated that way. But Gene had stayed friends with him... “What happened to it?”
“Ha! They kept our patent—the Navy. Ah, I haven’t thought of it for some time. C’est la vie.”
There was no certainty he’d see Howard Stark again, even if he did make it over to Europe and the SSR, but Steve had thought they’d formed a connection, especially after Steve had found the submersible. The night before he’d left for England, Stark had come by the barracks with some Scotch and they’d talked about the events, reminisced about Dr. Erskine. Steve didn’t want to make empty promises that he could do something, not to Hedy, but he said, “If I can, I’ll help with your invention. Whatever I can do, I will.”
Hedy looked at him funny: wry amusement and keen interest. “I believe you will.” Pulling the sheet up around her, she got off the bed and turned to Steve. “I am first on the call sheet tomorrow, so I must go to bed.” With a shake of the head, “Sleep.”
Was Hedy—was she kicking him out? “Beg your pardon?”
“Work tomorrow, for both of us.” Oh yes: over dinner she’d mentioned another movie Mr. Mayer had stuck her in where she was playing an “exotic temptress” because they didn’t seem to know what to do with her after Algiers. Leaning over the bed, Hedy kissed him.
He got up, began dressing mechanically, and she laughed at his befuddled face. “Darling, this isn’t the end. We’ve only just begun. But I do need my beauty sleep, you know.”
Oh. Maybe this was how they always did things in Europe. “So, I’ll see you again.”
The way Hedy looked at him with such exasperated fondness—despite the circumstances of her kicking him out—made him want to preen. It also reminded him painfully of Peggy. “I’m not so foolish as those girls who let you get away.”
Rumors are swirling that Star-Spangled Man With a Plan Captain America and Most Beautiful Woman in the World Hedy Lamarr are officially an item, and we couldn’t be more pleased to see this handsome hunk of man find himself such a gorgeous gal. While I’ve yet to get a formal interview—tell it to the War Department, dear readers!—I caught up to him after one of the duo’s delightful stage appearances to sell war bonds, and he was gentleman enough not to tell whether those kisses extend beyond the stage. Hedy has a reputation for enjoying the quiet life so I’ve yet to spot them together off stage, but my sources are impeccable—and that twinkle in Cap’s dreamy blue eyes was confirmation enough, if you ask me.
Aaand we're back! With any luck, I'll be updating more often now that life is settled down a bit.
It’s incredibly frustrating, when something important happens, not having you here to share it with. There are times when these events in my life don’t even feel real simply because I can’t tell you about them, see your response. Because right now I definitely have something I would have shared with you if I could: you know that event that you used to always tell me I should experience, too? Well, the event has transpired and I’ve finally experienced it—and you were right, it is most definitely worth doing. You always did say I’d be a late bloomer.
Damn, how I wish I knew whether or not you’re receiving all of these letters yet, if you’ve caught up on the missed correspondence—because I don’t know if you’ve read my previous letter where I mentioned I was seeing a certain actress, the one who starred in that very risqué movie we saw a few years ago? I don’t want to be ungentlemanly and name names, but...well, she’s quite something. Really something. Things heated up very quickly with us, obviously!
That’s, of course, not the only thing that happens when we’re together. As I mentioned, if indeed you saw the letters, we’ve done some bonds shows together and raised a lot of money, and we’ve worked together at the Hollywood Canteen, so we talk a lot, and enjoy each other’s company. Honestly, she’s such a swell gal, so very interesting, nothing like you’d expect her to be from her pictures or the articles written about her. She’s quite an inventor and tinkerer, always showing me clever ideas and new things, and very intelligent and worldly; I feel like I’m learning so much from her. (And no, I don’t mean that, get your mind out of the gutter.) I don’t think she wants a courtship—which I suppose is appropriate, considering how difficult her past was and what she wants her future to be. Last night we learned to play bridge with Miss Davis and her husband and Mr. Grant and Mr. Scott, so believe me, it’s all very...normal, really, this is not some big glamorous life where every day is just parties and champagne and caviar. Like me, she appreciates her privacy and quiet time, and we go to museums and art galleries or the beach when we’re not working. She’s happy to sit for me, too, and let me sketch.
Another life event: took the test, and now I’ve received my driving license from the state of California! I’d have to do it again if I want one in New York, but for now, I’m officially approved to drive a car here, and while Edgar still drives me to and from the studio, Robbie and Julie have loaned me one of their cars when I’m on my own personal time.
So, two big life achievements to tell you of, but how I wish I could do it in person, my friend. I can’t wait to see you again.
It was late when Edgar steered the car on to the Garfields’ street. Under his breath he cursed in Spanish, which Steve had never heard him do—there was a car parked half on the road just after the curve, a pretty dangerous move on the dark, narrow, winding streets of this part of the Hollywood Hills.
This was the worst day Steve had experienced since he first stepped foot into the rehearsal hall of the theatre on 43rd Street. Everything had gone wrong on the set, everything, from minor mishaps to major: flubbed lines resulting in multiple takes well into the double digits; equipment failures and disasters, including one where Steve partly tore Ida’s dress off when her sleeve caught on the buckle of his utility belt; then at the end of the long, terrible day, Steve’s crowning achievement of crashing through the wall of a background that had taken the set designer two days to paint. Ida’d teasingly asked him if he was tired because his love life was keeping him up too late, but he’d wished he could have used that excuse: he hadn’t socialized much for days, mostly spent his time memorizing and practicing lines with Ida herself.
Delmer Daves was not the type to raise his voice, but even his nerves frayed when they lost so many hours. He’d been forced to call it quits for the day after Steve’s mishap with the backdrop—they were on much too short of a schedule by that point, and there wasn’t time for Steve’s amateurish fuck-ups.
The pace of filming had picked up tremendously once Mr. Warner had set a ridiculous date for the premiere. Steve was unable even to visit the Canteen for some days, surprised to find he missed it a lot—at least there his performances mattered and allowed him to connect with other military men. Tomorrow was another day, he thought, trying to pep himself up, and the set would be fixed and Ida’s dress repaired, and he vowed not to let it get him down.
As they passed the awkwardly parked car, turning in to the driveway, Edgar’s headlights hit the interior—there was no one inside. “Maybe they broke down,” Steve suggested; Edgar flicked his eyes to the rearview mirror and said, “Shoulda pushed it somewhere safer. I coulda plowed right into ’em.”
Just as he said that Steve saw the car’s probable owner, only slightly hidden by bushes near the gateposts: that owlish little photographer with the glasses who never seemed to actually take any pictures. Pathetic guy must have thought he was invisible. Peggy’s letter popped into his head—cable us immediately if you suspect anything at all—and Steve instantly knew the man must be a German spy, skulking around for Schmidt with his nefarious intentions for Captain America.
Edgar slowed the car when he saw Steve sit up and forward, but Steve motioned at him to keep going: he needed a few minutes to think of what to do, weigh whether he should find a way to communicate with the SSR or take this on himself. “You want I should stay?” Edgar asked when they pulled up to the house. “Seems like that little fella’s got you in a tizzy.”
“Nah, I think I can handle it. It’s so late, and I don’t want you to have to stay out any later.”
Edgar looked as though he was ready to argue, but then thought better of it—he’d come to know Steve pretty well from teaching him to drive and was well aware of what a stubborn SOB Steve could be. “All right. See you tomorrow morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Can’t let today bring you low.”
“Low” seemed to be a word people used around him a lot lately. More than a few times, Hedy had expressed a similar sentiment, in that way of someone recognizing their own melancholy in another’s face.
“Promise I’ll perk up,” Steve said, exiting the car, and he hit the car roof a couple times to tell Edgar to go. He was so tired he wanted to head straight to his bungalow, but this unexpected wrinkle called for a visit with Julie and Robbie. After a cursory knock, Steve opened the door, met with a shriek from their four-year-old daughter, Kathy, as she raced pell-mell toward him with her arms held wide. Steve scooped her up, wiggling in his arms. “What are you doing up so late, young lady?” Her hair was damp and she was wearing her blue nightgown, and he squeezed her tight.
“Someone fought me tooth and nail over bath time,” Robbie said, wiping her hands on a towel. “Once that battle was won, it was on to the deadly skirmish of the toothbrush—terrible attrition.” Steve blew a raspberry on Kathy’s neck and she squealed; carrying her on his shoulder, he teased her all the way to the bathroom about not brushing her teeth till she relented and let him pour some tooth powder on the brush, supervising the half-hearted attempt to appease him.
Kathy, the poor little bug, suffered from severe asthma as Steve had; the evening of the pool party, she’d had a scary attack, probably from too much activity. Nothing had helped—Robbie’d told him that Kathy suffered bad side effects to the shots and nebulizer like Steve had once done—except Steve’s care, and he’d talked Robbie through it till Kathy was stable enough to take to the doctor. He was everyone’s hero after that, and Kathy and the Garfields’ baby son adored him. Never having had a family of his own besides his mother—and sometimes Bucky’s—Steve found it unexpectedly delightful to be part of this one.
Robbie threw her hands in the air when she saw Steve’s success. “You’ve missed your calling. This is the battlefield you should be fighting on. Willful children are putty in your hands.” Steve laughed, but it wasn’t a real one: honestly, perhaps being a nanny couldn’t be any worse than what he was currently doing—he should throw in the towel.
They tucked Kathy into bed and returned to the living room, where Julie had already fixed Steve a drink, handing it to him with a nod. “You haven’t stopped in for days, what’s up?” Julie asked.
“We almost hit a car tonight, just at the corner, and I saw that fella at the end of your drive, you know the one I told you about after Mr. Warner’s party?”
“The guy who was acting like a photographer but not taking pictures?” Robbie asked, puzzled.
“The same. I thought maybe he was here for something...an interview or a photo spread for one of the magazines?” There was a bewildering amount of movie magazines out there which were always hungry for material about the most popular actors. Steve would never understand why people cared so much about celebrities.
“No, absolutely not.” Julie’s eyes narrowed as he scanned Steve’s face. “What is it?”
Sucking in a breath, Steve considered his options: he probably shouldn’t tell civilians about this sort of thing, but he was reasonably convinced by now this might be a serious security matter and he needed some help. “I have some intelligence that there could be...German agents, or someone working for the Nazis, seeking...information about me.” Robbie’s eyes went wide. “Or do something worse.” Steve pressed his lips together; he didn’t want to put them in danger, but nothing felt right here.
Julie set his drink down. “Well, say. Let’s go find out exactly what he’s up to.”
“Oh, here we go,” Robbie said, rolling her eyes.
But Julie was already storming to the door. “Come on, Cap. Let’s go teach this guy a thing or two.” He was rolling his sleeves up as Steve dashed after him.
Julie was a little fireplug of a guy, didn’t even come up past Steve’s shoulder, but somehow he got the feeling the guy would be in worse danger from Julie than from Steve. “Really, I can take care of this. We don’t know what we’re dealing with yet—could be dangerous, better if you stay back.”
Julie laughed. “I know I told you about fightin’ in the Golden Gloves tournament. I was a semi-finalist, you know.” He’d been a street brawler, too, just like Steve and Bucky, and had once told Steve that if it hadn’t been for acting, he’d have ended up a gangster and would probably be dead by now. In fact, the play Golden Boy had been written with Garfield in mind, even though he hadn’t played the role. But none of that mattered if they were dealing with a true German agent.
“For Pete’s sake, Julie, let Steve handle it. Isn’t this what he was made for—taking care of Nazis?” Robbie stood at the door, shaking her head as Steve took off his jacket, rolling his own sleeves up. Well—it’d been a damn long time since he’d had a good dust-up, and there was no one else around who’d know about this. You could do worse than team up with John Garfield for a little brawl, but he’d never hear the end of it if something dire happened.
They were almost to the end of the driveway when their quarry must have spotted them, because he bolted from the nearby bushes, beelining for the roadway. He’d made it about a third of the way up the property while Steve was inside, yet it was absolutely nothing for Steve to dart ahead of him and block his way. Maybe he didn’t really know what Steve was capable of. He grabbed the guy by the back of his jacket and lifted him up about a foot, squawking and flailing. “Who are you?” Steve demanded, but he had to admit, this was almost kind of disappointing. He’d really wanted a little...action.
“Hey, you’re only using three fingers!” Julie marveled, grinning at Steve. “That never really gets old.” He had his right in a fist, drawn back and ready for punching, but this creepy little man didn’t appear to want to give him a reason to do it.
“Lemme down! Lemme down! You can’t do this to me!” For good measure, Steve gave him a shake; he did notice that there wasn’t a trace of an accent, though.
“Not till you tell me who you are and what you’re doing here. Are you a Hydra spy?”
“Sp-spy? What? Who, me?” he squeaked. “Why would you think I’m a spy?”
“I keep seeing you, everywhere I go. You have a camera, but you never take pictures and you’re always watching me. Nobody else, just me. Might as well tell us who you work for because I have a strong feeling we’ll be a lot nicer to you than the government will.”
“Wh-what? Government?! I’m not a spy!” Sweat broke out on the man’s forehead.
“Oh really?” Julie said. “You’re sneaking around after Captain goddamn America, keeping tabs on him, trespassing. Sounds like a spy to me, pal, and ten to one the War Department will think so, too. We oughta rip you a new one and save the taxpayers some money.”
“Put me down and I can explain,” he pleaded. Steve yanked on the camera strap slung over his shoulder, tossing the camera to Julie, who opened it up and pulled the film out, dropping it on the ground. The little guy groaned and gave an ineffectual kick.
“Is it the Skull? Do you work for Schmidt?” At this point, he kind of felt like it didn’t matter what Julie heard, Steve just wanted answers and to know what they were dealing with. He hoisted the fellow up higher, acting like he’d drop him on his ass. “Tell me something useful and I’ll think about putting you down. I can do this all day.”
“Really, I’m not a spy! I’m just a freelance photojournalist, I swear. I work for some rags, one of ’em hired me to dig up some dirt on Captain America.” That was absolutely not the answer Steve expected—nor, apparently, had Julie, because they both stared at each other for a while with their mouths open till Julie shrugged and the little guy made a listless pedaling motion, like somehow he could shake himself loose from Steve’s grip. “Quite a payday if I could find out something...less than savory about you.”
“I don’t believe you.” Steve gave him another shake and tossed him in the air for good measure, but then set him down. He wrapped his hand around the man’s pudgy biceps and squeezed until he got a yelp.
“You can call it in, sure! Just ask ’em, they’ll tell you!”
“I know most of the gossip columnists—since when do they hire some sleazebag like you for this kinda thing?” Julie asked. “They gotta know no one in this town will give them the time of day if they pull a stunt like this.” Steve wondered if maybe it was Miss Hopper, trying to give Miss Parsons her comeuppance for talking to him.
The guy gave a snivelly laugh. “This ain’t like Photoplay or Walter Winchell. You won’t find them at the newsstand. These guys like digging up the dirt, there’s quite a financial incentive for stars to keep it out of the press. Lucrative.”
Steve immediately thought of Cary and Randy and his blood boiled. “Lucrative. Too bad you won’t be able to spend any of that windfall in jail.”
The guy was sweating more profusely now, they’d really scared him. “Lucrative for them. I’m just the one doing the legwork, it only pays a little more than the regular mags.” Did he think Steve and Julie were supposed to feel sorry for him? “I wanted to go overseas, report on the war, not stuck in this loser town. Can’t get any work, most of the time, what with the war on. This comes along and...”
Julie was shaking his head, frowning at Steve. “I think I’ve heard of this—jackasses wanting to expose the big stars. Used to be the louses sent things to the studio and threatened to send it to the press, the studios paid them off. Now I guess they just say they’ll publish it themselves. Everybody’s losing their damn minds.”
“No one believes you’re as gee-whiz apple pie as they say you are. They think you’re a plant. Or a scam.” If Steve hit him the way he wanted to, he’d probably drive the fella’s rib cage right through and out his back, but it took everything in Steve not to sock him one.
“What the hell would I be planted here for?” Steve said, incredulous and with the final speck of his patience vanishing. Oh, he didn’t want to hear any more; after this shitty day he was one hundred percent done. “Do you believe him?” Steve asked Julie.
“I don’t know. Maybe.” And Julie took a swing at the guy’s jaw, knocked him flat on his ass. “But it don’t hurt to be sure.” He smirked and hauled the man up to drag him toward the house. “You can tell your story to the police. I’ll let them have the fun of sorting out whether you’re just a garden-variety sleaze or a real Nazi spy.”
A malicious grin spread across Julie’s face, and Steve could feel one of his own coming on. “Of course, if Captain America says you’re a spy, I’m pretty sure who they’ll believe,” Steve said. All right, so this job did have a few benefits beyond his improved health and strength. Just for the heck of it, Steve brought a foot down on the camera as he passed, the crunch as it splintered under his foot a soothing sound for the end of this lousy day.
“And then you threw him into jail?” Hedy asked, her eyes wide as could be. She’d been running her fingers through his hair while he told her the story, his head pillowed in her lap, and it was so tranquilizing he was in danger of falling asleep.
“Mmm...no, we ended up calling in the MPs, and they interrogated him for a while before they fed him to the regular cops.” Steve and Julie had figured that bringing in the military police might scare both the photographer—whose name turned out to be Julius too, much to Julie’s disgust—and his employers in some small way, and it did seem to have the desired effect: the telephone number had been disconnected and the office empty, Steve found out later from the officer who followed up with him. “I think more than anything they just wanted to prove I was something I’m not, blow a hole in the image the show created.”
“But why?” Hedy asked, rubbing her thumb in circles around his temple. As much as he enjoyed their sexual relationship—he was twenty-five, after all, how could he not—it was evenings like this he might actually enjoy better: she fed him so well that without the serum he’d be fat as a pig, and they talked for hours, about everything.
“Imagine the scandal if they could prove Captain America was sleeping with an actress out of wedlock, or he’d become a Commie sympathizer because he was living in the same house as John Garfield’s ex-Commie wife.” Steve shrugged, Hedy made the little “ach” sound in her throat that amused him so much—her never-ending impatience with American provincialism. Imagine if the SSR and Colonel Phillips, or worse, Peggy, found out, Steve thought, but kept that to himself. “I mean, I guess that’s what they wanted. Julie says Hollywood is changing, getting meaner, seedier, as if that’s possible. I don’t know. Maybe people are just...tired. They don’t care anymore about what’s right. We’ve been in this war for less than two years, and it feels like people are losing hope.”
Steve hadn’t had anything to compare changes to, of course. Yet there were still weeks to go before the last chapter of the serial finished filming, and he couldn’t wait: he’d long since moved past disliking Hollywood and moved on to utter exhaustion from trying not drown in a sea of vanity and mendacity. Robbie had told him one day that the Garfields didn’t own the house they’d invited Steve to live in with them: Julie had insisted on a clause in his contract with Warner’s that he be allowed time off each year to return to the theatre in New York, both of them determined not to “go Hollywood” by buying a house and living here year-round. Steve had liked them even more after that.
“Darling,” Hedy said, her fingertips lightly dancing along his scalp, “you’ve had a beastly week.” He really had—after the set incident, hoping to put that terrible day behind him, Steve had promptly knocked out the fellow he was “fighting” on set that day when he’d accidentally swung the prop shield into the man’s head. Last night he’d been helping Bette in the stock room as she took inventory (because he could lift the heavy cartons and barrels with ease and it made her laugh), when Miss Parsons finally got her interview wish, colliding with him just as he exited the room. She’d thrust her arm through his, forcing Steve to accompany her back to the nearby table she’d lurked at for some time, waiting to pounce. There’d been no Willard or Calvin to step in, so he’d been just about to pull up a chair when Bette cleared her throat loudly and cast a glance at the chair; Steve recalled her calling Miss Parsons “an incontinent sow” who left little puddles of urine on the seats. “I can’t stand her being here,” Bette’d warned. “Cleaning up after her. Never sit in a seat she’s just vacated.” At the last second Steve had steered Miss Parsons over to the anteroom at the back stairs where they could “talk more easily,” making it clear he could give her only a few minutes of his time. And there was still all of Friday to come for more things to go wrong. “Why don’t we drive up the coast this weekend for a holiday? Rosalind has a quaint place in a little town called Solvang we could use.”
He grinned up at her. “Wouldn’t that increase our risk of being found out? Think of the infamy and scandal!” It wasn’t like film stars weren’t assumed to have loose morals, but Steve didn’t want to put her in a bad situation, especially after all that nonsense with the photographer. Sex might not be the only thing they had in common, but it was still pretty compelling: she appreciated his enthusiasm and stamina, and he appreciated her worldliness and willingness to show him all the ropes—he’d learned immediately just where that actor’s head had gone in the infamous Ecstasy scene, and exactly why it drove a lady wild. Steve was, however, keenly aware Hedy was not in this looking for a lifelong love: she knew he’d head overseas eventually and into war, and she wanted a family man, someone stable and reliable. They were both content with what it was, at least right now.
Hedy leaned down, her sumptuous mouth a hair’s breadth from his own, her lovely eyes glittering, and she tugged a little on his hair—which made him melt, every time. “You know how adventure thrills me.”
Okay. Maybe this place wasn’t all bad.
Hollywood News and Gossip
by Louella O. Parsons
I know I’ve promised repeatedly, dear readers, that I would catch our heroic honey Captain America for a full interview, but despite our mutual hotspotting it’s escaped my grasp—the Army is quite determined! I may be thwarted on length, but I do have a tasty bon-bon at long last to tide you over: I was able to catch this busy bee for a few moments the other night at the Hollywood Canteen, where he played straight man for Jack Benny. Cap confirmed for me that he was as charming in person as he is on stage. I knew that little glimpse at the show wasn’t wrong—ladies, if I weren’t a happily married woman...
I first asked him, once more, if the rumors are true he and the lovely Hedy Lamarr are tete-a-teteing, and he gallantly insisted yet again they are simply great good friends and the time they spend together isn’t quite the romance of the century we reporters are making it out to be. He told me the pair first met when MGM was considering loaning Hedy to Warner Bros. for the Captain America serials.
“I’d never really been anywhere besides New York before I joined the Army,” he told me with a laugh. “So I’ve learned a great deal from her about Europe, and what’s happened over there. It’s a unique perspective, one you won’t get in the newspapers, and it reminds me what we’re fighting for,” he said, referring to intrepid Hedy’s escape from her brutal Nazi husband. “She has a great sense of humor, like so many of the friends I’ve made here in Los Angeles, and I think that’s helped when we’ve been on stage with the bonds shows. I think people can tell we’re friends, that we get a kick out of each other.” In anyone else, my friends, I’d swear they were hiding something, but Captain America simply oozes integrity—it’s apparent the moment you meet him.
Some of that coterie of friends he refers to include the leaders of the Hollywood Canteen, of course—Miss Bette Davis and Mr. John Garfield, who with his wife, Roberta, even opened their home to the Captain for the duration of his stay while he films the Allied Adventures. But we hear tell many of Hollywood’s most luminous luminaries are to be seen buzzing about him, including Cary Grant and Barbara Stanwyck—apparently no one can resist the Star-Spangled Man, no matter what their sex or what their politics!
He swears he’s not that irresistible: “I feel like I’ve been nothing but lucky since I arrived here. Everyone’s been so welcoming and generous and thoughtful, and willing to not only put up with my greenness but to help me learn as much as I can. The picture I’m working on with Ida Lupino, for instance: she’s been so helpful, teaching me all the finer points of acting in front of a camera, how to use my voice, to move. It’s been a fantastic experience.”
My next question concerned his future here in Tinseltown—ladies, I’m heartbroken to say, he won’t grow any moss here. It was just inked that very day: he’s stamping his passport to entertain the troops overseas with some of his revue, joining Bob Hope’s show.
“I’m really excited about the chance to bring the show to all the men and women serving over there, and you couldn’t ask to learn from anyone better than Mr. Hope. Beaming the shows to the troops via the radio has been great, but it’s not the same as being there live—every time I’ve had the chance to work with our men in uniform, such as at the Canteen, I’ve found it so inspirational. Not to mention, being in Europe puts me a little closer to the action,” he added with a wink.
So, when will we see the pictures he’s currently filming? I asked, not even attempting to hide my disappointed pout. If that’s all we’ll have to tide us over other than the comic books, we must have something to look forward to! “I believe the first one will premiere before we leave for Europe. I’m afraid I can’t give you exact details.” Of course not—silly of me to ask, I wouldn’t wish to endanger anyone for the sake of this column! Then he flashed me a boyish grin and asked, “Maybe you’ll accompany me to the premiere?”
Well, this columnist needn’t be asked twice—Captain, it’s a date!
Buck, I have the most terrifically exciting news—I already posted a letter today, but I couldn’t wait to tell you: I’m heading overseas! Of course, you know as well as anyone that I can’t spill the details in print about where we’re going or when, but it shouldn’t be long now. At the Canteen I meet all kinds of fellas who’ve met up with a brother (and one who met up with his sister, who’s a nurse in Hawaii) or best friend from another unit in the theatre, and I have every intention of finding a way to make that happen for us—we’ll finally catch up with each other.
Yes, I realize I’m still their prancing pony, but for the first time in ages I’m sincerely happy, knowing there’s a goal, something to keep going for, an outcome which brings me closer to you and the unit I began with, and to certain people in that outfit. I will make use of what others sacrificed to bring me.
While there was always a plan to send the revue overseas, someone else helped speed things up: we’re traveling with Bob Hope, if you can believe it. He’s been such an assistance to me, full of advice, and he enjoys our show so much he wanted us to be part of a program to bring entertainment to as many camp locations as possible. We can’t swing the whole crew, obviously—there are forty-eight girls alone, without the crew and musicians—and deciding which of the girls must stay behind will be hard. Although a few of them might not mind because they’re getting steady work in the pictures here, which is wonderful. Jeanette, a tall, leggy brunette who I’m pretty sure you’d like very much, will even be dancing with Ann Powell in a musical soon, I hear.
Calvin and Willard will come along, keeping everything on track with Mr. Hope’s people; it sounds like the logistics of the camp shows near combat areas are almost as complex as the Sicily invasion itself. The girls will have to trade in their caps for helmets, maybe me, too. It’s been tactically challenging to put everything in motion with Senator Brandt’s office, the Special Services Company, the Personnel Battalion, and the USO itself, but we came through the fire and they affirmed we could officially announce it—I didn’t really do much other than smile a lot in meetings and turn on the charm (stop laughing), but I can’t help feeling it wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t grown quite so famous. When I’m out of uniform, I can sometimes still pass as a regular civilian, but this thing has grown much bigger than I ever expected and privacy is getting harder and harder to find.
I’m so very ready to go, it’s all I can think about. It seems like forever until filming stops, but I have to remind myself we’re well past the halfway point and I must hold on to that and the fact that soon I’ll see your smile again, hear your voice when you tell your stories. In the meantime, however, I’ll keep writing, and I hope you will too and that before I leave here I’ll see more of your correspondence.
Steve wondered if this was how the men of the Seventh Army felt when they received word they’d be first to land in Sicily.
Ida smirked at his distress and arched a very sarcastic brow. “All the company you’ve been keeping with exotic European temptresses and you haven’t had enough practice with kissing? Don’t tell me you’re afraid of one little smooch. Big strong soldier like you.” She poked his chest.
Steve threw her a narrow look. “It’s only...” With a sigh, he said, “You yourself said screen kissing is a different beast.” Everyone would see how new these things were to him, it’d be immortalized on celluloid.
“Well, certainly. But you needn’t be afraid.” She dropped her arm, the script pages fluttering, and took his hand. “Oh, look at you blush. Listen to me. It’s about creating a sense of romance, about conveying the characters’ connections. You needn’t necessarily truly kiss me—the mechanics of it all depends on where they put the camera. If you really need an out.”
She was best pleased with herself. How did husbands or boyfriends handle their girls making love with near strangers? Maybe they were just used to it; he wasn’t the jealous type, but he recalled being harpooned by more than a few wistful pangs over Bucky’s sweethearts. “You mean if they shoot over my shoulder.”
“Exactly. Even if they don’t, it’ll be much simpler than you’re making it out. If you want my opinion, the dialog is far worse.”
“God, I know.” Betty Carver was supposed to be tied up in the evil Dr. Kruger’s lair, the bait to trap Captain America and his squad. Once they’d fought their way in past the bad guys and freed Betty, she and Cap would finally have their kiss after all these days of shooting scenes full of banter and flirtation. Despite being scripted, the banter had always felt natural and spontaneous with Ida, and sometimes the flirtation maybe just that little bit real. It wasn’t such a mystery, Steve supposed, that so many actors fell for their co-stars.
And usually Del did right by Steve when it came to action dialog, but some of the romantic stuff with Ida was pretty overwrought. Still, kissing would be worse than any words—he couldn’t imagine himself not being awkward, coming over as clearly out of his element. It was such an intimate thing and there he’d be, mashing his mouth against someone else’s he wasn’t personally involved with, twenty feet high.
“If you haven’t had enough practice with Hedy, we can take care of that right now.” She waggled her eyebrows.
“I don’t need practice!”
“Don’t be absurd, everyone needs practice. Especially for this. You’re such a child,” Ida cooed.
“Don’t most women think all men are children?” He wasn’t entirely certain he could disagree.
She couldn’t seem to help it, Ida laughed, and he did, too. “You’re adorable. It’s too true.” She walked the length of her dressing room, spun around, came back to Steve, and grabbed him by the star on his chest to pull him down. “Move into it this way, like an action scene. Angle your head slightly, chin left, forehead down.” Standing on tiptoes, she angled her head the other direction and pushed up till her mouth was almost near his. “If the camera is at your shoulder or just behind, it’ll look as though we’re kissing. If it’s forward, catching us in profile, we’ll need to actually press together. Not open-mouthed.” She put her lips to his, but it wasn’t really a kiss, more of a brush. “Now slide those giant arms around me, just like Bogey and Ingrid did.” He slipped his hands up to caress her shoulders. “They’ll stand me on an apple crate so we’ll be square in the frame together, and I’ll put my arms around your neck like so.”
And she really did kiss him this time, but it was as chaste as it could be, over rather disappointingly quickly. Ida glanced up at him, mischief in her eyes as Steve rubbed her lipstick off his mouth. “Nothin’ to it.” He really couldn’t have been luckier in his co-star.
“You’re a pro. Still nervous?”
“That’s not the word I’d use.”
“Oh, Steve. You didn’t have much experience before—before all this, did you?” The way she scanned his face, her keen understanding, reminded him so much of how Peggy’d looked through him in the car on the way to Project Rebirth. “I know how eager you are to be done here and get to the front, but it would be a shame to have all this in front of you and not enjoy it.” She laughed and pinched his rump. “Just a little, anyway. Now, let me get to makeup or I’ll be late.”
Steve had already been to makeup and hair, so he went off to the set, where they were buzzing around setting the doctor’s lair up—at least, dressing it for the aftermath of the fight they were yet to film. Those pages were for tomorrow, he thought, or maybe late today if they had a good day, he could barely keep track anymore—some days, Del was rewriting whole sections on the fly.
Artie, who played the English officer in Cap’s squad, was regaling the rest of them with a familiar song—if you hung around with soldiers, that was:
Hitler has only got one ball
Göring has two but very small
Himmler has something sim’lar
But poor old Goebbels has no balls at all
As he hit the last words, Ida swanned on to the set, her hand splayed wide over her chest. “Goodness, such ribald talk! And when a lady’s present.”
“Where?” Artie asked with surprise, glancing around the set.
That caused her to throw her head back with laughter and the two of them hurled a few of what Steve could only surmise were English insults at each other before the assistants swarmed around them and someone hollered “Quiet on the set!” Steve gathered in a breath: Ida’d have told him if she thought he was a horrible stage kisser. He’d thought she might have enjoyed herself in her dressing room, since teasing him was her favorite sport, although she usually preferred an audience for that.
All right, Steve thought, squaring his shoulders: he’d gone through the project and become a super soldier, he’d managed to stand front and center on a stage and read lines, he’d acted in a motion picture, he kept company with some of the brightest stars in the Hollywood firmament. A film kiss is nothing.
But he had plenty of time to stew in his own fear, because the scenes leading up to the kiss seemed to take forever—Steve was sure the clock was actually moving backwards. Once lunch was over, though, they hit the kissing page.
“Cap, they made it out with Dr. Reinstein! You can still catch them!” Ida said breathlessly as soon as Steve had pulled the gag from her mouth. Of course it was barely on; they wouldn’t want to ruin her lipstick.
“That’s all right, Betty, we’ll get him next time. They won’t get far—not with the US Army on their tails, and me at the front of the line.” He reached behind to undo the ropes around her wrists. “Did those dirty Krauts hurt me?” Steve winced. “Shit. Sorry, sorry.”
“Shall I inspect you for damage? I don’t mind.” Ida winked.
With a roll of his eyes, he said, “I’ll go again.” One of the earliest lessons she’d taught him: the editor could cut there and insert a covering shot of her face later, allowing them to keep the camera rolling during the scene. But the second time he did the same damn thing, except he got tangled up on “at the front,” stuck on the f like a record skip. And then he messed it up a third time. “Shit, I can’t seem to talk.”
“Okay, kids, cut,” Del called. His brows went up as Steve cleared his throat. “Should we give you a moment?” Del might have been smiling, but Steve was pretty sure he was annoyed. Steve would certainly be annoyed if he were the director.
With an apologetic grimace, Steve said, “Sorry, nerves. I can do this. Honest.” The camera was over his left shoulder; Ida jerked her chin in that direction, reminding him that it was only an illusion and it wasn’t a big deal. She smiled, and Del called for action again.
“Did those dirty Krauts hurt you?” Well, he cleared one hurdle.
“I’m fine now you’re here. And you know I can take care of myself.”
“I’ll say.” There would be a covering shot later of him regarding her admiringly.
“I can brave anything when I know you’re coming to my rescue.”
He once more undid the ropes that were now even more loosely gathered around her wrists and she fell into his arms. “May I kiss you?” Steve asked.
“Oh Cap, you don’t know how long I’ve wished you would,” Ida sighed as she swooned, and Steve leaned forward exactly as she’d shown him, acutely aware of the camera behind him. Of course he leaned too far too fast and bonked his chin against her jawbone. Pulling back, an apologetic grimace on his face, Steve said, “Don’t cut, I’ll go again. Again.” Ida grinned mischievously; this time he got it, pressing his lips only lightly to hers as she wrapped her arms around his shoulders.
They broke apart, her eyes glancing right. “Listen—is that sound the tanks from your battalion?”
“No. Just the pounding of my heart.” That would be the line the scene cut on, thank god, because he wasn’t sure he could keep it together if he had to say that more than once.
When Steve let Ida go, the actors playing his squad applauded and heat fired up his cheeks—he shook his head and mouthed “jackasses” at them. “There you go, your first stage kiss. Not quite so terrible, eh?” Del teased. And then, “But I hate to break it to you, that wasn’t a print. We have to run it again.”
It was possible Del was toying with him. Ida said, “I’m having a jolly time, don’t mind me,” with a shark-like grin. Then she leaned in and whispered, “Soldier up, Cap, and lay it on me.”
“Sex hygiene films?” Steve squawked. “You can’t possibly be serious. Why in hell would they want me?” He was fully aware of how hysterical he sounded, but really, this was getting absurd, piling indignity upon indignity. And it wasn’t like he was some kind of expert on sex or the clap.
Willard, at his left, had the nerve to laugh, and Steve narrowed his eyes, scowled, to no effect whatsoever. They were sitting on a patch of grass near the gate, shaded by office buildings and palm trees, eating lunch, because presumably Calvin thought bad news went down better with a soda pop and sandwiches. Though it was October, Los Angeles remained blisteringly hot, and they were all mopping their foreheads in between bites. Outside, thankfully, there was a small breeze and room for three men, not the case in his dressing room. “It’s just one of the informational films, not the only one. Certainly you watched a few in basic training?”
“Not really, no. I was at Lehigh for a little over a week before the...project kicked into gear.” He was plenty familiar with them, but the SSR had operated on a different plan than most basic training did, and they’d been on an accelerated schedule.
Steve flipped through a few more pages of the scripts Cal had brought him. “Oh good lord—‘contaminated women’? They’re human beings, you can’t refer to them that way. They’re just trying to make a living. If a woman has the clap it’s because some fella gave it to her in the first place. For Christ’s sake.”
Calvin rolled his eyes. “They wanna scare the soldiers. How you gonna do that if not harsh language.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Steve responded, pointing to a page, “through these terrifying close-ups of sores on a penis? Guys getting tied down in a mental ward?”
“But you’re not the one who has to tell them all that. All’s you gotta do is introduce the topic, and then the major takes over with the rest of the talk.”
This was who he was now, apparently: costumed schmuck, hygiene film host. He read a line out loud: “Don’t be so weak as to let some ignorant mug persuade you that you must seek sex relations to be a good sport. Willpower and self control are vital to serving your country to the best of your ability.” Steve groaned. “Believe me, I spent time with these fellas, and this won’t make them any less foolish. If they want to go sporting, they’ll go, whatever the consequences.”
Willard always tried to be the voice of reason. “Steve, come on. There’s five of them there, don’t get all tied in knots over that one alone. They’ll slot right in once you get back to New York. It’s a day’s work, at most.” His face brightened. “The Signal Corps is in Queens, think how happy you’ll be to be back there.”
“I’m from Brooklyn,” Steve said, but he got the point. He glanced at Cal, like Cal had ever done anything to help him. “I suppose there’s no way I can say no, since I’m only the trained monkey. This has already been arranged with the Special Services CO and the Personnel Battalion, I assume.”
Calvin shrugged and wiped off the sweat dripping from his forehead, put his handkerchief in his pocket. “There’s nothin’ to it. Say a few lines introducing each topic, give ’em a pep talk, collect your paycheck. Bing bang boom.”
“That’s almost exactly what you said before you shoved me on a stage. You told me the Army would play ball if I did that, and look at me now.” Also, he didn’t get a paycheck for this, but he left that alone.
“You can really carry a grudge, can’t you?”
“You don’t know the half of it.” For a moment Calvin looked as though he might actually be afraid of Steve’s wrath; it was sort of gratifying in a petty way.
“I think it’s a nice sign that they think you’ll have such a great impact on the fighting men. That Captain America carries such weight,” Willard offered.
“Why can’t any of these be informational films about destroying German bunkers or blowing up Panzers instead of how to pack your footlocker and the dangers of drinking.” Or worst of all, using your rubber rations to avoid the pox.
“Because they’re kids, and kids are more likely to scare and listen to a fella like you. If they’ve been paying attention to the papers, they’ll know your history of squiring gorgeous dames around, and, well, you got a certain...youthful enthusiasm, if you catch my drift, instead of being a pompous old fart.”
Throwing the script off to the side, Steve ran his hands over his face, then tugged on his hair. If he had time in New York before embarking overseas there’d be no real way to wriggle out of this, but maybe Mr. Hope could help him figure something out or pull some strings. Monkey with the schedule a little—what good was that kind of clout, if you didn’t abuse it. The military had been showing perfectly fine instructional films for nearly two years, they’d survive without Captain America weighing in on how to test a rubber.
Calvin put his hat on, stood, and pulled Willard up. “You’re just lookin’ at things the wrong way, Rogers.” He sighed. “Fight, fight, fight—that’s all you ever think about. Isn’t there anything else you ever wanted to do since the project besides fight?” If it’d been him, he’d be living pretty high on the hog.
Steve shrugged, pulled a face. “You mean like my lifelong dream of riding in a dirigible during a thunderstorm? Mountain climbing in an avalanche?”
Willard flashed Calvin a commiserating glance. “Youth—and super serum—is wasted on the young.”
With a supercilious wink, Calvin said, “Embrace what God and science gave you, buddy, enjoy yourself.” As he headed for the waste bin by the coffee truck, he shook his head hopelessly and added, “See you in the funny papers.”
It was ridiculously tempting to throw the script at the back of his head.
“I can’t believe you said that,” Robbie scolded, dropping some apples into the bag Steve was carrying for her as they navigated their way through the L.A. Farmers Market. “Under no circumstances are you allowed to take that harpy to your premiere. It will be a nightmare.” It was a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, just the two of them because Julie was doing some insert shots on his last movie before heading to the Canteen. And Robbie was still stuck on his invitation to Louella Parsons for the first serial premiere—every time he attempted a subject change, she brought it up again.
“In my defense, I was trying to put her off guard. I thought she’d be flustered, since she’s married. I never expected her to say yes in her goddamn column for the whole world to see.” Really, he’d simply hoped to shut her up.
“Well, here’s what you do: make sure Jack or someone else high up insists you take Ida, because she’s your co-star, and as terrible as you feel after inviting her, you have to do it, it’s a directive. She knows perfectly well no one at that studio says no to Jack Warner. Then you placate her by arranging to have her sit in the front row with your entourage, but not next to you. Put that—that lackey of the senator’s between you, maybe your producer, too. She’ll feel like you’ve thought of her, and even though she’ll be miffed, it will at least satisfy her. No scorching gossip later on.”
That was actually a pretty fabulous plan; Steve shouldn’t have been surprised, Robbie was brilliant. He took her elbow to escort her around a pack of screaming kids, all of whom appeared to belong to a red-faced man in a Naval uniform who clearly had no idea what to do with them—probably home from an injury or on furlough and thought it might be a fun time to take his and the neighbors’ kids to the market. Bet he’s wishing he was back at Guadalcanal or something.
“Splendid idea. You should plan military campaigns, I’m sure you’d do a better job than many of the generals.” Steve smiled.
“You can’t imagine. If women were in charge, none of this would have happened, we’d have taken care of Hitler and Tojo at the beginning.” She gave an airy wave.
“If only you had been,” and he made a mocking face at her. They made their way through the stalls, Steve telling her about some of the week’s events shooting, but when she didn’t respond as he recounted his terror about the kiss, he began to worry—she should have howled with laughter. When he’d picked her up that morning she’d seemed distracted, but he had assumed once they were shopping and talking, she’d come out of her funk.
“Robbie... It seems like something’s wrong—maybe I’m misreading things and it’s none of my business, but if something is wrong, would you like to talk?”
Robbie peered at him. Her suspicion, at least, felt kind of familiar—Bucky often got into moods like this, and when Steve tried to bring him out of it, he’d behave as though Steve was devious, conniving. Couldn’t be trusted with such secrets. It wasn’t until Bucky’d left for Camp McCoy that Steve had learned the causes of those moods and that he was the root of them. It was always about trouble in love, wasn’t it, Steve thought.
After some fishing around in her handbag, she pulled out some Doublemint and popped a stick in her mouth, handed one to him. Regrouping, Steve thought, giving herself time to think, as Bucky would. Robbie walked ahead, then turned to him with a sad smile on her face. “I’m fairly certain Julie’s having an affair again.”
His heart plummeted. “Oh.” Steve scrambled for something to say. “Wait. Again?” The noise and bustle of the Farmers Market suddenly felt like way too much. “God, I’m sorry, that’s not the point. Ignore me. Has something happened, did he say something to make you think that?”
Robbie scoffed. “I know how it happens, the signs. He’d never say anything. Doesn't have to.” Then she spat out, “Fucking men.”
“I just...I don’t know what to say.” It was impossible to defend the members of his sex in situations like this one. “What the hell is the matter with him? You both seem so happy, so suited to each other.” But he didn’t live inside their house, he didn’t see them every moment of every day...
Her face softened then, and she gazed up at him, eyes bloodshot. “Oh, see, this is exactly what I was afraid of—ruining your friendship.”
They were heading in the direction of the parking area, probably unconsciously on both their parts. They’d planned on getting lunch, but now he wanted to take her home, or maybe find a bar where they could sit in a dark corner and let her rant for a while. She stopped abruptly. “Oh, weren’t we to have lunch?” she asked.
“What’s that line—‘when I’m in trouble, eating is the only thing that consoles me’?”
That got a laugh from Robbie. “We’ll stop at the deli on the way home.” In one of his letters to Bucky he’d complained about the lack of a decent deli out here; thankfully Julie and Robbie were true New Yorkers and had understood his plight, introduced him to a hidden treasure on Melrose. With a light hand on his arm, Robbie said, “Look, Steve, yes, it has happened before. A few times. This town is drenched in attractive young women, and they’re surrounded by attractive men who love their attention.”
“That’s no excuse.” But he knew just how intoxicating it had been to have lovely young women nearly hurl themselves at him after a show or catch the appraising eye of a handsome fella.
“I’m not making one.” Robbie held her hands out. “Marriage is complicated, Steve. It’s hard to stay...united, all the time, even when you love each other, love your family. A place like this makes it twice as complicated. You lose track of what’s right, give in to things you maybe shouldn’t.” It sounded like there was possibly more to this than what she’d told him, but he didn’t want to press. “I really don’t want your friendship to be ruined over this. Selfishly, because I value you, too.”
He sighed—it was thoughtful of her to want to spare his friendship. “I’ll worry about that later. Right now, I care about you.” Of course Steve had never had that kind of connection to anyone yet, and he’d grown up without having married parents where he could witness the complications she spoke of. The closest thing had been Bucky’s parents' marriage, which had been complicated primarily by Mr. Barnes’s dipsomania.
They were quiet on the drive home. At the house Steve made sure to keep her company till Julie was due home. He’d planned to go to the Canteen with Hedy that night, they’d talked about doing something with Marlene Dietrich afterward so he could get to know her—she would be joining Mr. Hope’s show overseas—but he didn’t feel like seeing anyone. She’d understand, he knew.
Steve made himself—what was this, a late lunch or an early supper?—something to eat, grabbed a beer out of the icebox and pulled a lawn chair into the shade of the little backyard. There was a backlog of newspapers and Saturday Evening Posts and Life magazines to catch up on, see if he could read between the lines of the reports from Italy, but he found he kept reading the same sentences over and over.
Idealizing people was never useful—they usually disappointed you in one way or another. The only people who’d never fallen from the lofty heights of Steve’s good opinion were his mother and Bucky. And he had no right, really, to feel so gutted by Robbie’s revelation—it was her life, after all, not his—yet he did, maybe because Julie and she were so different from everyone he’d met here and he’d thought they were special somehow. They were simply normal people, making the same mistakes all people did.
The excitement about his future felt muted now. Steve couldn’t wait to make it out of this lousy town.
I can’t tell you how delightful it was to receive your cable. Of course we’re grateful that the man you apprehended wasn’t a spy and that you and your friends are all safe. But I must confess it was the first laugh I’ve had in so very long a time, and I’m most grateful for that. You are quite the storyteller even within the confines of a telegram; I’m sure the situation wasn’t half so ridiculous nor you so bumbling as you make it out. Don’t forget I saw you go after that Hydra agent—once you’d got past knocking me to the ground—and I’m well aware of your capabilities.
It was also wonderful to hear the news of your impending visit. While I know you can’t specify dates or locations, you shouldn’t concern yourself with that, as I’ll be able to track such information down through channels. I know you won’t believe it, but Stark is quite looking forward to seeing you again, it’s all he talks about. I do believe that we should see your film soon at one of the picture nights.
Every day we make progress, although I feel sometimes you might have quickened that progress if you’d been able to stay with us. With any luck, we’ll be near the front by the time you’ve arrived, testing out some of Stark’s latest inventions, and can coordinate a meeting. We hear a little of your adventures in Hollywood, but obviously we’ve missed some thrills; I would have given a large sum of money to see the look on that photographer’s face when he came face-to-face with Captain America.
It’s become quite cold here now, rainy and dreary, and while the bombing raids have slowed, there are still times when it feels as if it will never end; our nerves are shot, tempers fray. Rationing and loss have taken their toll. But then the sun will shine, or the unit will have a night down the pub singing songs, or there’s a dance, and we’re reminded of just why we crack on.
Do keep writing or cabling—your letters will find me wherever we travel, the Personnel Battalion have been quite efficient in sending them along. I’m sorry to hear you haven’t had the same luck corresponding with your friend; if there’s anything I might do to help in locating Sgt. Barnes, please let me know—we’ve made quite a few connections over here, now that we’re in the thick of it.
With much anticipation at seeing you again,
The song Artie sings is to the tune of the Colonel Bogey March. There are multiple variations of it—and a couple different claimants for writing credits—depending on what country you're from and where you learned it; I used the one I was most familiar with. It's also the most pernicious earworm in history and I apologize if anyone got it stuck in their head.
At the home stretch! Just a couple more chapters after this one, and I aim to finish by end of November if at all possible. Thank you for sticking with me, it's been quite a ride—and I will have a few follow-on stories after this main one is complete.
Not much new to report on this front. Same old work, broken up occasionally by the Canteen, even more rarely, socializing. Still no new letters from you. I did get a letter recently from Miss Carter, and that was nice, though of course she couldn’t tell me much about their orders.
Had a nice break from the Hollywood part of Los Angeles—Randy Scott invited me out to his ranch way outside the city. He’s been growing food for the war effort there, you could call it the state’s largest victory garden. I helped him pick things and pack it up, lift heavy stuff. It was surprisingly interesting and I learned a lot. Look at me, a farmer. Gave me time to myself to think, sketch, and write a little (I’m behind in all my correspondence except you). Mr. Grant was off to keep company with some social set he doesn’t share much about, I read that he’s been seen with some heiress or other. I can’t say I understand but Mr. Scott didn’t seem perturbed, though he did seem a little lonely. Or maybe that’s just me putting my own feelings on to him.
I follow the news of the European theatre closely, imagining where your company might be, what they’re facing. If any more of my letters have made it to you, even if they are confusing or strange, I hope they bring you a little happiness, too, in all the difficulty. With any luck, I’ll see you soon.
They were in the middle of a scene where Steve, Ida, and Ward Bond stood in front of a large map, discussing strategy for a raid on a Nazi stronghold and putting little flags here and there, when it abruptly got eerily quiet on set. He’d had pages of dialog to master and didn’t notice at first, even though Ida and Ward had swiveled around in the camera’s direction. The last time Steve had heard a silence like that was in the bar where Bucky worked when the game on the radio was interrupted with news the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. This was only slightly less upsetting than that: Jack Warner was standing behind Del, surveying the soundstage like a king.
Warner waved his hand to indicate they should keep going, but it took a few more takes before they each stopped fumbling their actions—Ida and Ward may have been seasoned vets, but they were just as rattled as Steve was at Warner descending from the mountain. He motioned for Del, Ida, and Steve to follow him to the table in back, pouring coffee from the urn, while everyone else tried to pretend they were doing their jobs and not eavesdropping, hoping for some kind of nugget they could give the gossip columnists.
Del had had plenty of meetings with Warner, but they’d always taken place in his office, Warner had never strolled on set. Every time Steve had seen him they’d been in the offices or the commissary; clearly he preferred his cast and crew interactions on his own turf, the better to intimidate them, Steve supposed. Warner gave Steve a once-over. Oh. This is about the test screening.
They’d put a rough cut of Chapter One in front of an audience two nights ago; Ida and Del had attended but Steve had begged off, uncertain if he could handle listening to people criticize as they filed out, or maybe worse, reading their comment cards. Ida’d telephoned him afterward, assuring Steve that every comment she’d heard was positive and it had been enthusiastically well-received: people laughed where they should have, cheered when they should have. But she was practiced at this sort of thing and she could take it or leave it; Steve hadn’t quite learned to steel himself against the slings and arrows of critical audiences yet and the last thing he needed was a Bronx cheer at his own picture. At his most anxious he’d imagined them throwing tomatoes or much hardier objects right at his kisser; at his least worried he heard catcalls and sneers. “They weren’t coached to like it,” Ida’d insisted. “The theatre doesn’t tell the audience what they’ll be watching, the marquee only reads ‘Special Screening,’ so believe me, they didn’t go in predisposed to great good will for you already. Or me, or anyone else. You earned it.”
Steve preferred to see the finished chapters. He’d followed Thelma’s advice to watch the dailies as often as possible, and he’d been impressed, sometimes, with the magic of processed film—the kiss scene was actually lovely in its rough edited form with the covering shots inserted. They’d used a soft focus on Ida’s face that made her luminous, and you could easily forget the dialog when you were dropped into her eyes. But the dailies were as much as he cared to see at that point; he was obligated to do these films and as far as he was concerned, he fulfilled the obligation in the daily work—he needn’t set himself up for more misery after hours, too. Maybe that made him petulant, he didn’t care.
Warner fixed him with an impatient stare. “We’re going to make this a full-length feature.” Never let it be said Jack Warner wasted time with social pleasantries. “Screw the serial, we’re recutting into two, maybe three, pictures. The test was through the goddamn roof, I don’t want to waste time with all the garbage in front of the main feature that everyone’ll forget as soon as it starts. Not when we can be the main feature.” Oh, the dollar signs were practically flashing in his eyes.
“Really,” Steve said, flat, annoyed, and he wasn’t the type to bother disguising it. He didn’t believe for one moment Warner hadn’t planned this all from the beginning, led him down the garden path for the senator’s benefit.
“Yeah, really. You should be happy about this, kiddo. You’re a bona fide fucking star. We’re gonna open the first picture as wide as we can, put all the rah-rah patriotism behind the promotion...everyone’ll be talking about it. The USO will be pissing their pants over how much bread they’ll rake in when we put donation set-ups in the lobbies. It’ll work gangbusters for everyone.”
Except for Steve Rogers, soldier in the SSR. “Revising now’ll mean more time in editing. You’ll have to push back the premiere.” He continued to stare blankly at Warner until he turned to Del. “Did you know about this?” Both Ida’s and Del’s eyes were wide, wary; Steve supposed real pictures might garner them more opportunities for awards though maybe that was a little uncharitable.
Ida put her hand on Steve’s forearm and squeezed, but Del was almost grimacing as he met Steve’s glare. “No, this is news to me.” Del pointedly didn’t look at Jack when he said it, a scowl growing on his face. This could unravel the control he had over the picture: whether serial or feature, he was supposed to be the director. In charge. The last thing Steve wanted was to make Del and Ida uncomfortable—or risk their futures with a notorious bastard like Warner—but god dammit.
“Happy, remember?” Warner asked. “A feature is a hell of a lot more prestige than a serial.” Like Steve had ever given a flying fuck about prestige. He’d been happy to cede control of his life to the U.S. Army—you knew when you enlisted that your life stopped being your own, but that’s how an army functioned. That’s how a team functioned. This wasn’t for a team, though, it was for the senator, or worse, money. Well, nuts to that.
“And a lot more lucrative. For the studio.”
“I don’t see why you’re getting so pissy about this, Cap.” Warner never called him that now that Steve was working for him—it was always kiddo, or son, or Rogers, but Steve when he was most unctuous. “I could tell you were gonna be a pain in my tuchas the first time I met you, but I didn’t think you’d be this much of a fucking pain.”
What did he want Steve to do—stand up like a seal and clap? Maybe, Steve supposed, since that’s all the senator’s office had ever wanted him to do. “I’m not staying here. I have signed transfer forms and an agreement with the USO to be in Europe by November 12, at the latest. I have no intention of additional shooting, or a third film, or anything other than the remaining schedule on this final chapter. Of the serial.”
Warner rolled his eyes and exhaled loudly. “Simmer down. Hold your melodramatic horses before they run you into the ground. Nobody’s making you stay.” He threw Del a beseeching look, and even seemed to be trying to get Ida on his side, when he’d never usually bothered to look at her. “Whatever extra shots we need we’ll get by next week. I got no intention of keeping you around any longer than what we originally agreed to.” Warner took Steve roughly by the arm, steered him to the back of the stage near the rolling light; Steve glared pointedly at his hand.
“You’re not the first actor to get a stick up his ass about me, you won’t be the last. But I’d appreciate it if you’d at least give me the benefit of the doubt—all I ever wanted with this was to keep the momentum going for the war effort, give ’em someone to root for. People are getting worn down, they’re starting to wonder why forty-three’s almost over and we haven’t licked Germany or Japan yet. They need something positive, and that’s you.” He poked the star in the center of Steve’s chest.
Steve rolled his head around on his shoulders, scratched his neck. Yeah, all right, he had to hand it to Warner—he’d faced a lot of opposition when he began making anti-fascist movies before the war’d even started. “Sorry,” he managed to make himself say. “It seems like they keep coming up with ways to prevent me from getting overseas and making use of...this.” Steve waved a hand up and down in front.
Warner shrugged, tilting his head. “Rogers, you are an absolute goddamn ordeal of a human being. You know that saying ‘I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy’? Why, I absolutely would wish you on our worst enemies. Not one damn soul who’s ever dealt with you longer than five minutes doesn’t believe you should be an even bigger pain in Hitler’s lily-white Nazi ass than you are in ours. No one wants to keep you here, trust me.” His eyes twinkled; insulting people made him genuinely happy.
He patted Steve’s arm, shaking his head like he couldn’t believe it was his misfortune to know him, and walked away, muttering, “Don’t bother coming to meetings with Daves. Until you’re gone, there’s gonna be a wide berth between you and me.”
Steve wasn’t sure, but he thought he heard something about pitying the German high command.
“And then he basically said I was such a pain in the ass that no one wanted me around, so good riddance to bad rubbish.” Thelma handed him another sandwich and he unwrapped the wax paper, balled it up, and sent it sailing toward the trash can. “Anyway, at least it didn’t dissolve into a shouting match, so I’m grateful for that. My temper usually gets the better of me and makes me behave like a jackass, or so Bucky says. Ida told me afterward—I think she was trying to soothe my nerves—that she’d had a row with him once and he told her to shut up, that she was paid to take what he dished out. And she told him to stuff it—that she might be paid to take it, but not bloody well near enough.”
Thelma laughed, just as Steve had when Ida’d told him that. “Jack is...not a forgiving soul at the best of times. But he likes to have his enormous ego stroked, and he probably feels your awe for him has been insufficient.” She had a gift for descriptions. They watched some young men in uniform walk past with their girls, most likely on their way to the La Monica ballroom. “That’s why he’s always suspending some actor or other—they have the nerve to ask for better projects, which doesn’t convey reverent thanks for getting the goddamn contract he gave them in the first place.”
“Far be it from me to understand all this, but if that many people are unhappy with contracts, why not just ditch them altogether? Why practically indenture them, what good does that do for getting a performance out of someone? I don’t see why actors can’t just work for whoever they choose, when they choose.” He finished his second sandwich and Thelma handed him a third—she’d brought five for him, because after they’d started meeting for Sunday lunches at the Santa Monica pier, she’d learned fast just how much he ate. He felt guilty for making her go to so much effort, but she insisted she liked being a mother again—making sandwiches for him, baking pies and cakes.
“It’ll take a few high profile people to accomplish. Before the war, I’d heard rumblings, and I think once it’s over, the system’s primed for change.” She reached into the hamper and pulled out a dish with a rhubarb-apple brown betty and Steve was afraid he’d drool before he got to it. “And there’s whipped cream. Finish your sandwiches first.” Thelma had his number, she had since the beginning.
“I suppose all the men who run studios have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. People in power always do. It’ll take someone like Mr. Grant or Mr. Gable or someone like that to change it.”
“Did you know I’m working on something with him right now—did I mention that?”
“No, I don’t think so. I really liked his narration on Wings Up.” He hadn’t yet met Mr. Gable, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to, since he’d heard some pretty nasty stories about him—though Steve wasn’t going to get into that with Thelma. Not on their Sunday lunches.
“Of course you did. Of course you saw Wings Up.” Steve was sure she was mocking him, but the thing about Thelma was that her face mostly didn’t change expression. It had taken him a while to figure out when she was sarcastic and when she was sincere. He wondered if that might have something to do with working in a field so dominated by men. Editing used to have a lot of women, Thelma’d told him once, till sound came along and then men decided it was much more worthy of their interest. He was damn glad she was still at it; he couldn’t imagine what things would have been like out here without meeting her.
“By the way, I talked with someone from the Signal Corps. You shouldn’t worry about those informational films—they’re so tickled about the idea of you dropping by the studio and doing introductions that you can write your own stuff. Choose whichever topic interests you—if you don’t want to talk about willies rotting off, then don’t.”
He wanted to feign shock, but they were past that now, so he settled for a smirk. “Thanks. I’ve settled into a kind of miserable acceptance, but I’ll consider what else I could do on the train back. I’ve grown pretty good at convincing people to do things—or at least to part with their money.”
“Everything’s much more...military back there, you know—Army Pictorial Services. Won’t be quite the pickings for dating beautiful stars.” She elbowed him hard, and he scoffed.
“To be honest, I won’t mind. It’ll be good to start thinking like a soldier again. It’s very...relaxed out here.” Steve watched some women in rather revealing bathing suits dart in and out of the waves down below them. With a flourishing gesture, he added, “Not that I won’t miss certain things about Southern California.” When he turned to her, she was biting her lower lip to stop the grin. He finished the last of the sandwiches and the dessert quickly, drained the last of his Pepsi-Cola.
“You don’t regret everything about this...assignment, do you?”
Everything he regretted had happened back in that lab in Brooklyn: not seeing the Hydra agent in time, not protecting Dr. Erskine, not being the only super-serum success. “You know I don’t.” Steve leaned over on the bench and pressed his arm against hers.
“I can’t wait to see you on my screen in some newsreel from the front.” She swept a hand out. “Some breathless narrator describing your one-man raid on a Nazi bunker, or leading a hundred Allied prisoners to freedom.”
“Someone’s been reading my scripts.” He shook his head. “I don’t think they’ll let me swap the tights out for a real uniform.” As she was putting the containers back in the hamper, Thelma’s gaze lit on a bunch of fellas, all of whom were shirtless and wearing snug trunks, carrying some beach towels. Steve still hadn’t got used to the casual way people wandered around the areas near the beaches in getups you wouldn’t be caught dead in till your ass was on the actual sand back home.
“Do you think you’ll meet up with your friend, or with the lady agent?” Thelma thought his stories about Peggy were perfect script material for some war-torn romance, and she was absolutely fascinated by it, no matter how much he insisted nothing had happened.
“Here’s hoping. But everything’s changing over there so fast, who knows what we’ll face once we get over there.” Sometimes Steve couldn’t believe he was actually saying those words, that his dream of going to Europe was coming true at last. His greatest fear was that by talking about it at all he’d completely jinxed it and something catastrophic would happen within the next few weeks to jeopardize the trip. He still didn’t trust that Warner’s plans for the pictures weren’t simply the beginning of something far worse to come.
“Jack’s so shady that no life can grow where he’s walked for at least fifty years. But I don’t think he’s that dishonest, Cap,” Bob Hope had told him the other night at a ball, where Steve had been the guest of honor. He’d made his appearance, spoken to the guests for a little bit, but the fact that most of them were big-money Republicans wasn’t terrifically appealing for him. Not to mention that he knew all the ladies would want to dance with him, and he still couldn’t do more than shuffle around while his partner led. Mr. Hope had added, “He took a lot of heat for his stance back then, and I think he wants to see you over there in action for the Allies just as much as anyone else.” Steve hadn’t said what he’d been thinking—that no one in the Army had wanted to see him in action, which was the entire reason he was in Hollywood.
Steve stopped woolgathering and looked at Thelma, who was distracted, too, looking off beyond the pier railing. Eventually she realized he wasn’t speaking anymore and smiled. “I think we should have a nice Sunday stroll down the beach, don’t you? Walk off some of that dessert.”
He followed to where her gaze had been, and laughed. “The destination wouldn’t be, say, Muscle Beach, would it? Or something to do with those fellas a few minutes ago?”
“They could be enhanced soldiers, Steve, from another secret government program. It’s in the interest of science. Or national security.”
“Mm-hmm.” Steve picked up the hamper and took her arm. “Oh, I meant to ask you—what are you doing the twenty-third, the weekend before Halloween? Cary and Randy are having a sort of goodbye and Halloween party for us. I’m going as Captain America.”
Thelma threw her head back with a laugh and leaned into his side. “Wild horses couldn’t hold me back.”
It had been so long since he’d seen rain that Steve was enjoying just sitting at the wide-open patio doors, going over the last script and listening, smelling—he could almost pretend he was home. Everything seemed to shut down in L.A. when it rained; traffic had been terrible on the way home from the studio, but the rain made everything fresh and crisp in a way he didn’t think was possible here. To think that a couple days ago he and Thelma had been sitting on the pier eating a picnic lunch and it was nearly ninety degrees out.
There was a quick knock at the door of the bungalow and then Julie peeked his head around, waving some pages at Steve. “Hey, pal, you got a few minutes? I was wondering if I could call on your expertise for this submarine picture I got coming up.” When Steve turned toward him, Julie stopped, eyebrows jumping up his forehead. “Uh oh, look at the dark cloud that just appeared above your head. I’m on your shit list, ain’t I?” Bucky’d always said Steve had the sourest puss around when he was displeased and you could see it for miles, like the light on the Empire State building; it made people want to smack him.
“Afraid I’m not very well versed in anything naval.” But Steve set his own script down and moved into the living room out of politeness.
“So what gives?” and the light seemed to go on, and Julie added, “oh, Ro talked to you, didn’t she?”
Steve spread his hands out in front of him, sat on the small sofa. What difference did it make—it wasn’t his life, and it was only his business insofar as he was a friend to both of them and he stayed on their property. “It’s not my place to judge.” Which would have had Bucky rolling on the floor laughing and Steve almost winced when he said it.
“Well, you’re our friend, both of us, so it seems to me you got every right to judge.” Julie parked himself next to Steve and sighed. “Wish I could say I was a better man and worthy of your good opinion. But as you can see, I’m not. And I’m not making excuses—it’s over now, and I’m just trying to be...you know. I’m workin’ on it, with Robbie.” He shrugged. “Not that this is my first time fucking up. I was always afraid that would happen to me here—that it’d be even easier to make mistakes. And when you do fuck up in Hollywood, there’s a whole studio behind you working to make it disappear, make it seem like nothing ever happened. Sometimes you start believing all the lies.”
Julie had often reminded Steve a little too much of Bucky: there was a bit of darkness under his bright light, a restlessness that made you feel like you’d never know which way he’d turn. He’d get low, too, and keep to himself for long periods because it was easier to hide whatever made him feel that way. So while Steve might not necessarily understand cheating on the one you’d chosen to cherish and honor, he definitely understood why someone would chase something they thought might bring light to the gloomy corners of their mind.
He’d always kept his own feelings close to the vest, maybe a little too close. “I...there’s so much I have to keep secret now and can’t talk about, but in some ways that’s been easy, because I didn’t tell people what I was thinking much before. You always knew when I was angry or unhappy, but I got used to keeping everything else back, I guess, because so many people thought I was worthless. A waste of space.”
“Me and Robbie talked about that once, after you moved in. Very private, we thought. Quiet and thoughtful, she said, but I kinda thought maybe it was...being careful.”
Steve nodded. “I had my art, my best friend. Got used to thinking I didn’t need much more than that—I wasn’t expected to live that long, anyhow. My father died when I was an infant, so I never knew him, and my ma never remarried, she had her hands full raising me. There was a doctor once, I think, at the hospital where she worked, but nothing happened.” He got a familiar twinge thinking about Bucky being in the same division as his father, and his own failure to carry on that legacy. “So it was just her and me for a lot of my life, and other than Bucky’s family, I didn’t really see what made relationships solid, how people kept going through problems.”
“Bucky’s your pal in Italy, right?” Julie’s shoulders relaxed.
“Yeah. I never had a date he didn’t fix up for me, never went with anyone.” He lifted his brows, gave Julie a half-hearted smile. “I’m no expert at how to make things work, is what I’m saying, I suppose.”
Julie gave a little laugh, relieved to see Steve at least trying to understand. “I got it. But you’ve been in love, right—that agent you talked about?”
He wrinkled his nose. “I don’t think I know her well enough yet to say ‘in love.’ And god only knows what she thinks of me.”
“Oh, buddy, I think it’s safe to say that she’s got eyes for you, too. I don’t think there’s anyone of the female persuasion who wouldn’t have eyes for you.”
Steve’s cheeks burned and he ducked his head. He’d never really talked like this with someone who wasn’t Ma or Buck, and he was decidedly awkward but it also felt good. This didn’t repair everything, of course, but he thought he could at least leave Los Angeles with his friendship intact, and Ma had always told him that forgiveness was a gift, the most important one you could ever give. “What’s this expertise you were hoping I could provide?” Steve asked, nodding at the script. “Like I said, I don’t much about naval stuff.”
The corner of Julie’s mouth quirked up. “Del told me all about the books you’ve read on everything from great battles in history to command tactics. The swabbie stuff I can get from the fellas down at the Canteen, no problem, and Cary, he’s great at doing that in-charge captain part. But I want to bring in some strategy stuff, know how these guys’d do tactical planning—my character’s a toughie and volunteers for a pretty dangerous mission. Wanna know how he thinks, why a fella’d do that sort of thing,” he said with a wink.
Thelma had said that Julie approached acting like a science. “I’ll give it a shot.” He looked at the script cover and huffed. “Destination: Tokyo. That’s a great title—how come I can’t get a great title like that?” Steve had no idea what the features would now be called, if they’d stick with Allied Adventures, but he sure hoped not. “That sounds jealous, doesn’t it? Does everyone get jealous of others’ projects out here?”
“All the fuckin’ time. We’re all fueled by envy and jealousy.” He flipped the script open. “Maybe you can con Del into using it first for you—Destination: Berlin: A Captain America Adventure.”
Shaking his head, Steve said, “Too many colons.”
They both chuckled, and Julie reached out to give Steve’s shoulder a squeeze. It felt good to see his real smile once more.
Bette looked especially harried when Steve saw her at the Canteen; she never got flustered, no matter how crazy the place was, but she’d thrown him on kitchen duty with Hedy, Marlene, and Bill Powell with hardly a word and then disappeared to the back rooms for most of the night. Not that he minded—Marlene was a hoot, regaling them with amazing stories that ranged from working in silent pictures in Germany to the Third Reich’s attempts at making her their leading film star, and she didn’t seem to give a damn that people knew she liked ladies as well as men. He wondered briefly if he should introduce her to Bess from the revue.
Steve and Hedy had driven up the coast to Malibu on Saturday, spending the day on a secluded and quiet beach, seeing only one other soul the entire time. Occasionally that day, when they’d been swimming and soaking up the sun, he’d wondered if she was more homesick than usual, knowing he was leaving soon for Europe and wishing she could go back there with him. But he hadn’t wanted to prod, figuring she’d tell him in her own time, and Steve supposed this was what he and Julie had been talking about before—how difficult it was to make things work between two people, even when they were as casual an item as he and Hedy were. She’d seemed more distant tonight though, more than once lapsing into German with Marlene until Bill made fun of them and said he’d have to report them as spies.
He’d gotten a schedule down pat for the nights when he wasn’t on stage here—he’d spend a few hours making sandwiches or pouring drinks, sometimes carrying crates of donations here and there, and then an hour on the floor for autographs and pictures. Eventually he left Hedy and Marlene alone to talk in the kitchen and to get out on the floor with Bill; after, he went in search of Bette. He found her near the front door, handing out postcards with some of the other hostesses. “Is everything all right?” Steve asked her, shaking hands with a few Air Forces men he recognized who’d come in a couple times before.
“Oh, no, it’s fine,” Bette said, seeming not at all fine. Steve took her postcards and handed them to one of the gals, steering her away from the door. She pulled a face but smiled at him. “That obvious, am I?”
“Not at all.”
Squinting at him, Bette gave one of her throaty little laughs. “It’s nonsense, really. I’ve been on the telephone all day, and I hate spending time on the telephone. Some silly Marine felt she should break a measles quarantine the other day to come see Gene, you know, it’s the only time she’s been here since you saw her last. Now Gene has the German measles, and we’ve had to tell everyone who wasn’t already quarantining their personnel to keep them on site. It’s a terrible headache, and I’m also quite worried about Gene.”
“Oh no. The baby.” That was frightening news, and Steve put his arm around Bette to pull her close. “I can see why you’re so concerned.”
“Why anyone would be so foolish to sneak out with the possibility of being that sick just for a goddamn autograph... Now how many other kids will be quarantined because of this one, unable to ship out or even just to have fun? You can’t get sick, can you?”
Her change of topic threw him for a minute. “What?”
“Because of this”—and she ran a hand up and down his chest—“you can’t get sick, can you?”
“I don’t know.” He’d wondered about it—everything they’d told him made it sound like he’d be able to survive even serious injury, so he was pretty confident German measles wouldn’t even slow him down. But of course, he could be a carrier, he supposed, and that was always a logistical nightmare when people were barracksed together.
For a while, Bette let Steve hug her, and then she pushed him away with the flat of her hand, rolling her enormous eyes. “Go on, get out there on the floor. You needn’t babysit me.”
“I’m pretty good at it, though. I take care of Kathy Garfield all the time. Four-year-olds love me.”
“Ha.” She studied his face. “Are you and Hedy through? You two don’t seem quite as smitten as you had been.”
“Now who’s obvious?” Steve shrugged. “I don’t know. We spent the weekend together, but she seems distracted lately. I wondered if it might be homesickness. Why, have you heard something?” The way people gossiped in this town, Steve supposed someone else might find out they were splitting before he would. He knew she had many friends who were men, most of them not actors, and that was exactly what Hedy’d been looking for in her life. If she’d found someone already, he would be glad for her.
“Not yet, but if I do, should I say?” Bette asked.
Steve was never certain what to tell people about their friendship, but opening up a little more hadn’t exactly killed him the other day, so... “We aren’t that serious. I really like her, a lot, but we’ve talked about what we both want in the future.” People must think he was really strange for being all right with that kind of arrangement; Steve had always thought people made things more complicated than they had to be. You could love more than one person at a time.
Her smile was very cat that ate the canary. “Look at you. So progressive. Not a proper role model. You’ll give all those Republicans on the USO tour absolute fits.”
“Oh good, I hope so.” Bette shooed him away and he went back out to the floor, laughing at her laughing at him.
Steve had been signing autographs—there was a new issue of the Captain America comic book out, apparently—for a while when a slinky redhead clamped a hand on his arm, one of the actresses he’d seen a few times here, though they’d never met. “Dance with me,” she said, and tugged on his arm while the fellas around him whistled.
“I don’t—I can’t— I’m afraid I’m not really much of a dancer.”
“Why, that’s perfect, since I am. You can just follow my lead.” Her smile was positively terrifying as she dragged him into the maelstrom. At least the band was playing “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and not something slow. “You don’t remember me, do you, Steve?”
He drew his head back, feet not doing much more than shuffling a little. No one here ever called him Steve within earshot of the servicemen. It wasn’t that his identity was completely secret, but they kept it fairly quiet. “Should I?” Her forwardness might have been charming, in other circumstances, but it set him on edge just now. It would be so easy for an agent of the Axis to just slip him some poison in a crowd like this—which was ridiculous to even think about, he knew, but the scripts had started to work on him and it was easy to think of everything as melodrama.
“You used to call me a twerp, when you bothered to notice me at all.”
He peered at her green eyes, the faint dusting of freckles visible even under her heavy makeup—she must have come from the studio. Her red hair reminded Steve of Miss Hayworth’s, and something about her hair and heart-shaped face struck a chord: a schoolyard, a composition book flying at his head. “Wait. You’re from—no. That can’t be. Patsy Costello?” She’d been a year behind him in school, lived not too far from Bucky’s last place.
“Patricia Cosgrove now, please. The studio head said my name was too Mick.” She’d beaned him with her book once after classes when a bunch of boys had teased her about her red hair, even though Steve wasn’t one of the boys who’d said anything—he just happened to be unlucky enough to stand nearby.
“I’ll be.” Steve blinked, stunned but happy. Wait till Bucky heard about this. “How do you do, Miss Cosgrove?”
“Quite well these days, Captain. Most of the objects of my affections actually return them. The only names anyone calls me are sweetheart or gorgeous.” There was a devilish light in her eyes.
“In my defense, I probably called you a twerp because I had no idea what to do about a girl with an obvious crush on me. That had never happened before, and hasn’t happened since.” No halfway intelligent male would ever call her anything like that again—she was tall and sophisticated and shapely and had a saucy smile, and probably didn’t chuck notebooks at anyone’s heads.
“I refuse to believe that.”
He shrugged and allowed her to keep moving him around the floor. “People say that to me a lot these days. But this is all...well, man-made. The only dates I ever had were ones Bucky dragooned into going out with me, back in Brooklyn, anyway.”
“And now you’re going with Hedy Lamarr.”
“Well. A lot’s changed.” He ducked his head. “It’s incredible to see you again. So you’re out here to act in films?”
“I started out in New York, as a Ziegfeld girl. Came out here for musicals, but they liked my look enough to put me in a couple of comedies. Still a second-stringer, though. At MGM, unfortunately, if you were thinking of putting in a good word and using your influence.”
“Even if it was Warner Brothers, my word wouldn’t mean much and I have precisely zero influence. Why do you think I’m here instead of fighting in Europe? Plus, I think Jack Warner will be glad to see the back of me.”
With a wicked grin, she said, “Who wouldn’t be glad to see your back side? I can tell you the hostesses all like it quite a lot.”
Yikes. He exhaled loudly. “You’ve filled—grown up—I mean, you’ve turned out—pretty swell...”
“Don’t strain yourself.” She was laughing at him, just the way Peggy had, but there was no malice in it, only fondness. “You still don’t know what to do about talking to girls, do you?”
“Not even the tiniest bit. I work with Ida Lupino, spend time with Hedy and Bette Davis and all these lovely ladies here, and haven’t learned a goddamn thing. Though I promise not to throw rocks at you if you follow me home from school.” It wasn’t like he’d thrown them very hard...
“It’s charming,” Patsy said, and leaned up to kiss his cheek. “You’re somehow still you, even after all this.”
“Do you think so?” Maybe he wouldn’t be so very unrecognizable to Bucky and to Peggy as he’d worried. “Hey, would you like to get out of here, maybe go for a drink? It would be so nice to catch up with someone from the old neighborhood, especially before I leave for overseas. Someone who knows all the same people.”
“I’m on shift here for another forty-five minutes. I’ve been eyeballing you all night, waiting for a chance to pounce, but I didn’t want to make it seem like I was on the prowl, you know, what with Miss Lamarr here. And I have a fiancé, too, though he’s in the Pacific.”
He held up his hands. Once again he wasn’t sure how to explain how things were with Hedy. “Promise I’ll behave. And Hedy won’t mind. She gets a little homesick, too, so she’d be happy I ran into someone from home.”
“All right. Meet you at the back entrance then.” Steve watched her slink through the crowd till he couldn’t see her anymore. It made him feel both impossibly old and somehow young again.
The surprising news out of Warner Bros. is that Captain America’s Allied Adventures is no longer on the slate as a serial. Test audiences went wild for the first footage of the war pic, Jack Warner says, so they’ll be recutting it into two feature films, possibly even three. With just a few more weeks of filming, typewriters must be on fire in the writers’ room churning out new script pages to bring the costume caper all together for a feature. If anyone can make it work, it’s the notoriously determined Jack Warner—and our indefatigable Captain. Although, if we didn’t know better, we’d wonder if this might not have been the plan all along and a clever way for Warner management to drum up publicity and those all-important bond sales.
Not much more to report than last time—still just plowing ahead, anxious to get out. They’ve decided to make the serial into feature films instead. Mr. Warner swears it won’t mean I have to stay here longer than scheduled, but I won’t believe it till we’re on the ship and the ship is on the Atlantic.
I think I mentioned a couple letters ago that I ran into Patsy Costello, all the way out here. I swear at least half the people I meet in Los Angeles are from Brooklyn, I don’t know what it is, but she’s the only one I’ve met who I knew back in the old days. We’re meeting for drinks again tomorrow, which is pretty generous of her when you consider what complete shitheels we were to her once we found out she had a crush on me.
Oh, I learned how to ride a motorcycle. A scene called for me to steal a motorbike from my Nazi enemies, and even though all I do is sit on it while they project a film behind me to make it look like I’m driving, the man who coordinates all the fights and stunt work asked if I wanted to learn to drive it for real—so of course I said yes. You know me. It wasn’t easy, and I fell over a lot, but now I’m officially qualified to drive one. Maybe I should learn to drive large trucks, and then I’ll be ready for anything.
Hope you’re getting these letters. Hope you’re all right.
“People don’t really drink out here the way they did back home, do they?” Steve asked, noticing how Patsy was leaning heavily against the bar, pleasantly sozzled, he could tell. It didn’t seem to do much to him, but then, he’d driven them here, so he didn’t want to have too many anyway.
“It’s because it’s so spread out. Can’t walk home as easy and yurk in an alleyway when the mood arises, and the streetcar doesn’t go everywhere.” She rested her cheek on her arm, watching him out of the corner of her eye. Steve was glad she had a roommate, because he was pretty sure someone would have to put her to bed tonight. The bars in Chinese restaurants always had the cheapest drinks, she’d told him when he picked her up, and steered him to this place because it was popular with the film set so the management shooed photographers away—it was across the street from a Warner Bros. lot, which made sense and definitely didn’t hurt business. Stars loved to drink. You’d never know that Patsy worked in the pictures, though, because she was dressed like any girl you’d see sitting on the stoop at home: a cotton summer dress, sandals, her hair down and loose, the only makeup a little bit of lipstick and rouge—well, the false eyelashes might give her job away. He never met regular girls who could put those on very well.
Patsy had been telling him more about how she wound up dancing back in New York, why she’d decided to pursue acting dreams in California, how much of a struggle it was just to reach what she’d referred to the night they met as second string. It was a little bruising to hear: how many people in this place had struggled and suffered to get what he’d been given and hated? Were they jealous of him, the same way Steve had been poisonously jealous of the men who’d gone off to fight with no trouble at all? How many times, in the early days after Pearl Harbor, had Steve seethed at Bucky over his quick acceptance into the Army? Maybe someone was seething about him and he’d been too blind to notice.
“I suppose I ought to visit MGM one of these days, as I know so many people there now. Maybe you can tour me around.”
“Shhh...” She put her well manicured finger to her scarlet lips. “I’m gonna maybe jump ship, to Columbia,” Patsy whispered, as though she were disclosing vital intelligence.
“Your secret’s safe with me.” Steve shook his head, scowling. “I can’t believe the way you’re treated like indentured servants by the studios. It’s terrible.”
“You’re still a fella who gets cheesed off easy, aren’t you? I like that you’re still like that.” She laughed at herself. “Makes me wish I hadn’t moved on from you. What a lucky girl I’d be now if I’d stuck it out.”
Steve had always liked an up-front gal, and he smiled at her. “I just think people should be free to pursue their own work, is all. What right do those men have to force people on to contracts and threaten them with suspension if they don’t like the what they get? Both Mr. Garfield and Miss Lupino have been suspended plenty. It’s not fair.” He shook his head. “I have a friend who thinks it’ll change, but not right away.”
“I hope he’s right. Might be easier for people like me to get somewhere.”
“She. She is a film editor,” Steve said, sipping his drink. At least, he thought, they did have a union these days, so there was that.
“Wouldn’t be Thelma Morehouse, would it?” Patsy rolled herself up to a sitting position, knocking back the rest of her drink. He wasn’t certain she should have another one, but it wasn’t his right to tell her to stop, so he signaled the bartender for another gin rickey.
“Why, it would, in fact. Do you know her?” It surprised him, because Thelma had said she didn’t get out of the editing room much. But he supposed there weren’t a lot of women editors he might have had the chance to meet, and Patsy’d figure that out.
“Nope, but I know of her. There’s not enough women on the crews—hard not to know about the few who aren’t in front of a camera. If you ask me, there should be way more women behind it.” Something dark, hurt, passed across her face, but she blinked and drew patterns in the condensation on her glass.
Steve thought of Ida’s keen interest in Del’s job and how much time she spent around the crew. “I couldn’t argue with that.” Resting his chin in his hand, Steve sighed. “At least with the Army, you know what you’re getting into. What you’re really signing up for.”
“Ha. That’s what my boyf—my fiancé says about the Marines. I can’t get used to saying fiancé—he proposed to me right before he left, so it still seems so phony. Dahling, let me introduce you to my feee-aahhn-saaaay.”
“A leatherneck, huh? You didn’t mention that the other night.”
“Oh, don’t go getting all rigid. I swear those quibbles about which service is better give me such a headache.” She grinned, and for a second she looked just like she did back in 1935 at Erasmus High.
“I’m not. I might be in the Army, but Cap’s supposed to be for all the servicemen and women. Other countries, too—haven’t you heard my speeches?” He acted as though he was affronted and she huffed at him.
“Who ever woulda thought you’d turn out to be such a good speaker.” She laughed to herself. “I guess I woulda. For a couple years there I thought you hung the moon. A lot of the girls had eyes for your pal, Barnes, and I remember a couple of other dreamboats everyone sighed over, but I thought you were it.”
“Bucky was already fielding offers by fifth grade, but I think I was still stuck in a girls are yeucchy phase till about...eighteen. So I didn’t quite appreciate your charms at that time.”
It was clear she didn’t believe him. “Where is Barnes these days? You two were attached at the hip.” Something lit her green eyes up. “Say...who ratted me out to you two, anyways? How did you find out I was sweet on you?”
Steve wrinkled his nose up, squinting at her. “You know, I don’t remember... Oh, wait, I think it was Molly Scanlon, maybe? She was your pal and wanted Bucky to notice her, I think. Which, if I recall correctly, Bucky already had.” She was a very pretty girl who’d gotten busty a lot earlier than her friends. Still, by the time they’d hit high school, Patsy’s crush on Steve had long-since melted away, too late for him to do anything about it, and he was far too cowardly to ask her to any dances.
“But you’re doin’ all right for yourself, aren’t you, Steve? You’re making a difference. And you’ll keep making a difference, I know it. It’s not just the muscles. When you get over there...”
Steve did not want to hear it. “You asked about Bucky, before—he’s in Italy, as far as I know. I have to think he’s okay because his family hasn’t said anything, so no telegrams, I guess. But it’s hard, and there have been so few letters. I really don’t know how he is. It’s just been...difficult.”
“Don’t I know it. Al writes, but...they’re pretty far and few between.” Her eyes closed, and Steve wasn’t sure if she was falling asleep from the alcohol or trying to hold back tears. “Oh, hey, you were a baseball fan—I’m engaged to a Giant.”
“Well, I suppose that’s not as bad as a goddamn Yankee, but still. Not exactly a Dodger.”
“Bums,” Patsy said and elbowed him in the side. “Army wanted him, said he could basically just play ball for his service, but he said nuts to that and joined the Marines.” She seemed quite tickled by that, and Steve supposed he would have been too in her shoes.
“Oh, hey, I remember now! You were quite a player yourself—you were one of the best throwers I ever saw. Maybe as good as Bucky.”
“You gotta be kidding me, are you pulling my leg? Because I wasn’t one of the best, I was the best, there wasn’t a better fielder at Erasmus or the whole neighborhood than me.”
“That’s a fair claim,” Steve agreed, nodding. He was afraid she might pick something up off the bar right here in the Formosa and pitch it through the window.
“But what good did that do me? No boy wanted a girl who played ball. Why do you think I became a dancer?”
Cripes, Patsy looked like she was about to cry. “Time to take you home, I think.” She’d long since sailed past the pleasant part of pleasantly sozzled. As he pulled her off the barstool and draped her sweater over her shoulders, he said, “You know, I have a feeling he’ll make it back to you. He’ll be all right. I really believe that.”
“And you’re Captain goddamn America, so I guess it must be true,” Patsy said, slapping his chest just where the star would be.
The new script pages from the writers were actually pretty good, Steve thought: they’d brought in a few new elements to the story entirely, and added a few pieces that would tie the already-filmed stuff together. He and Ward Bond had spent a few minutes reading through all the new stuff with Del for their scenes, blocking everything out, while the set guys put things together behind them. They were back in “Tunisia” today, fake palm trees dotting the background, rubble strewn everywhere.
While the cinematographer made light adjustments, Steve and Ward ran lines. It had taken Steve a little time to warm up to him in some ways, only because, as he’d told Ward when they were first introduced, “You were absolutely terrifying in The Mortal Storm. I couldn’t shake that Nazi’s face for days.”
“I hope so. Everyone should see what those guys are really like, don’t you think?”
For the duration of the shoot, if he caught Steve looking at him, Ward would get a crooked smile, narrow his eyes and lower his head, looking at Steve from under his brows, just like his Nazi character in the film. He was doing that right now.
With a shudder, Steve said, “Jesus, don’t do that. How’m I supposed to work today?”
Ward cackled with glee. He was another person who’d been turned down for service due to health reasons, and knowing that about him had helped Steve get over his aversion to Ward’s politics when they occasionally reared their head.
“You know, my wife wouldn’t sleep with me for a week after she saw the picture. She kept looking at me funny, said I’d need to just sleep on the sofa until she felt better.” He poked Steve’s shoulder. “How’s that short-timer’s disease coming? Imagine it must be hard to work when all you can think about is getting out of here and over there. I envy you.” His schedule was incredibly busy and he hadn’t had a chance yet to go overseas, but maybe he meant something else...
“Because you wanted to enlist?”
“Yeah.” Ward shrugged, and Steve knew the meaning of that gesture all too well. They’d turned him down because he had epilepsy.
The corner of Steve’s mouth tugged up in a commiserating smile. “I tried five times. I think epilepsy’s the only condition I didn’t have that they could turn me down for.”
Ward studied him with sharp understanding. “Glad that they were able to solve some of those problems. I can see why you’re so eager to get out of here.” His mouth twisted. “A couple months ago at the Actors Guild meeting, there was a dust-up over members who’d ignored the Victory Committee’s requests to entertain or do camp tours. How lopsided they said it was when some of us give and give, but the shirkers won’t go where they can’t take a hairdresser or stay in a five-star hotel. I mean, hell, I can’t sing or dance, but I can do a comedy sketch or recite some lines from Shakespeare just fine. Those boys would be happy to have a pretty actress they’ve never even heard of stand in front of ’em for a few minutes and wave.” Ward shook his head, a touch of bitterness in his eyes. “It stings, sure, for the fellas, sometimes—Bob Hope told us about a heckler who said he’d be funnier in a uniform. They don’t know why you’re not in the service, too.”
Steve felt an acute sympathy: for so long, he’d selfishly assumed no one could possibly understand how it felt to be held back from service, when here he was, surrounded by people who’d been thwarted and now were trying to serve in whatever small capacity they had. “But you can’t tell them the government says ‘No,’ and you gotta stand there and take it,” Steve said. “But, you know, there’s always a couple of jackasses, and the rest of ’em, they appreciate it—and they’ll never forget that you cared enough to show an audience just how bad the Nazis are and why we have to stand up to them.” Steve shrugged. “Or serve them a sandwich at the Canteen or stand on a stage in a camp.” Maybe it was hypocritical—all this time feeling defeated and useless and here he was, parroting the very things others had said to him. Why are you so keen to fight? There’s so many important jobs. Embarrassed, although Ward wouldn’t know why, Steve dropped his head down. “You know—they also serve who only stand and wait.”
Ward smiled. “Or entertain and raise money with bonds, or lay a comforting hand on someone’s shoulder.”
The assistant director shouted, “All right, everyone.” Steve pressed his lips together, considering Ward for a few seconds, and said, “Say. I haven’t been back to the hospital I toured when I first got here. Would you like to go down there this weekend, maybe I could bring some of the dancers along, and we could lay a comforting hand on a few shoulders?” He should see if Patsy wanted to come with—she’d done a pinup for Yankee magazine, so the boys in the Army would be familiar with her and probably drool at the sight of her.
His face brightened. “That’s a swell idea. I’d like that very much. Bet I could rustle up a few pals, too—you think the boys’d like to meet John Wayne?”
The alarm bell sounded and the red light went on, so they clapped each other on the back and took their positions. In the scene, Steve and the actor playing his sergeant in the squad, Bob Mitchum—fairly green, like him, and a bit of a roughneck—were being handed a mission from their CO.
Ward pushed his hat back, scratching his head, stuffing the piece of paper he held—it was always little things like that, realistic human touches, Steve admired in the seasoned pros—back in his pocket. “We won’t make it any farther if we don’t take out those eighty-eights. I won’t lie to you, Cap, there’s no backup here. You got twenty miles to cover on your own, straight down between their flanks. It’s an operation for at least four companies, but all you’ve got is your squad. Can do?”
He cast a glance toward Bob—they would do some covering close-ups later—and they shared a look, and Steve hefted his shield. “Can try, sir.” Then the two of them gave Ward a salute.
“The whole battalion’s counting on you.”
Steve and Bob gave their best resolute nods and squared their shoulders. “We won’t let you down,” they chorused.
“All right, boys. Have at ’em.” Ward exited to their left as Del called cut.
Every scene completed made his heart beat a little faster—he was just that much closer to being finished. When they had to do multiple takes it made him feel like he was breaking out in hives. “Good job, fellas, that was great. Let’s get your close-ups,” Del said, and Steve heaved a sigh of relief.
“You do that a lot, did you know?” Del asked as Steve walked off camera to stand by him and let the others do their close-ups first.
“Do what?” People claimed he did lots of things a lot—pick fights, get sick, work himself up.
“Always wait for others to go first. Can’t tell if it’s out of generosity or nerves.”
Steve scoffed. “Not nerves, not for scenes where I don’t have to kiss anyone, at least. I just...guess I got used to always waiting most of my life, being at the back of the line.” He cast a glance around the stage—it had always been laughable that he was the star of this show. “Waiting sort of reminds me that...I haven’t come so far from the little guy I once was.”
Del nodded, though he probably didn’t really understand what Steve was saying. “I know how eager you are to finish, but sometimes I wish we could have worked together more in the future.”
“Me too,” Steve said, and found he genuinely meant it. If he were to come back, Delmer Daves was one of the people he’d most want to see again. “But never say never, right?”
“The reason we’ve called you in here today,” Calvin began grimly, standing in front of the room as if he were the big man in charge, and Steve glared at him. “What?”
“You make it sound like we’re going to fire them all or something.” Steve held his hands out. The whole revue—all the dancers and the crew who’d remained in Los Angeles—were packed into a studio meeting room that Warner Bros. had loaned them so they could figure out who was coming to Europe and who’d stay behind.
Willard interjected, “Let me do this, okay? Criminy.” He cleared his throat, the producer in his element; he’d been delivering bad news at auditions for years. “We have to cut the dancers down to sixteen girls, and we can maybe bring a couple of you for crew—we’re gonna have to rely on ourselves for a lot of elements we didn’t have to before. We’ll have some help over there through the Special Services Company, and Mr. Hope’s crews, but we’ll all have to pitch in. And now we have to figure out which of you that’ll be.”
“We’ve been talking about this,” Helen said, raising her hand like they were in class. “We figured we might as well get a jump on it, you know, so there was no surprises.” It was kind of a given that Helen, as the most experienced dancer, would be going, since she’d have to adjust the choreography; they already had a jump on that from their appearances at the Canteen, but they used an even smaller group there.
“I figured the ladies’d be ahead of the fellas on this,” Steve said, and Cal shot him a look. If only Cal wasn’t coming along, too.
“We gotta make sure that the boys get the prettiest ones,” Cal said, “this ain’t a family show—they want to see a little leg, some bosom.” What a surprise that Cal was still single.
“All right, look,” Willard said, shaking his head. “Some of you have work here, right? Jeanette, Yvonne, Cathleen, you’re all on contract now.” They nodded. “And some more of you are picking up some jobs in New York when we get back.” A few more said yes. “Well, that’s something. Not great—we still got thirty of you to go.”
Ginny, the one Steve had always been closest to, looked as if she would cry, staring at Steve with her huge brown eyes, brows tenting together in anxiety. “What if...what if some of us don’t want to go? I know it makes me an awful coward, and I don’t want to leave you, Steve, but I don’t want to go to Europe. I don’t want to be close to the fighting. I met a fella in Minneapolis and we started writing to each other, he’s stationed at Camp McCoy.” That hit Steve hard. “I want to be with him, I don’t want to get hurt. I’m so sorry, Stevie,” and she let out a shuddering breath. She stared at him with puppy eyes, hoping for some kind of reprieve, perhaps.
A few of the gals murmured their assent. It hadn’t even occurred to him that some of them would be afraid to go, and Steve went to her, guilty, and pulled her into a hug. “No, no, of course it doesn’t make you a coward. I don’t—I can’t believe I didn’t think about this. Consider what kind of stress this might put on you all.” The camp shows were a lot closer to the front lines, it wasn’t like working with the Red Cross as a Doughnut Dolly or something, and these women hadn’t signed up expecting to perform adjacent to a war zone.
Traveling across the country on a train with almost fifty women had given Steve a much clearer picture of just how difficult life could be for the female sex than he figured most men had. Sharing a train car or dressing room, surrounded by boxes of sanitary products, all their myriad underthings hanging everywhere to dry every single day, helping them with makeup or mending costumes or doing their hair...none of that had ever bothered him, had really had much impact at all. But they’d have it a lot harder getting thrust into a military, mostly men’s, world, one that would offer them no accommodations, that could be flat-out intolerant, even hostile. Few women would have the ability to knock a Private Hodge on his ass—much less the encouragement Peggy’d had from Colonel Phillips.
“I don’t want to go somewhere I gotta wear a helmet just to be on stage,” Debbie said miserably, bursting into tears. “I’m a coward, too, and I don’t even have a sweetie,” she sobbed.
Steve and Willard and Cal all stared at each other, numb. They’d thought the women would have to draw straws or pick numbers or something—that they’d fight to go.
“All right. Okay.” Willard ran his fingers through his hair with a sigh. “I’m sorry, ladies. You’re right, of course. So. How many of you want to stay home?” At least half the rest of them and two of the fellows on the rigging crew raised their hands. Both of them were very young, and Steve remembered now that they’d mentioned their draft numbers would be coming up soon enough. “Well, that certainly solves a lot of problems, doesn’t it.”
As far as Steve counted, that made twelve of the gals, then. They could work with that, and he looked at Willard for support. Willard nodded and shrugged, not especially happy but not discouraged, either, and then he turned to Helen, almost beseeching. “And you can work something up?”
She looked at the girls who’d be going, and nodded—she was probably already cooking up a new routine, taking into consideration each of their strengths and styles. “Let’s face it, they don’t have to see the whole song and dance. The number was always kind of over the top. They’ll want to hear from Cap, they’ll want to see our legs, ogle our busts—Calvin’s right about that—and maybe they’ll hope we’ll also flash some panties. And then we shove a movie star on stage. Everybody’s happy.”
Cal, of course, snickered at that. “We don’t need to shove a movie star on stage. That’s what we got Captain America for now.”
Steve rolled his eyes.
After the situation with the girls, Steve went to Hedy’s; she was always good at getting him out of his own head when he was full of gloom. He was still trying to come to terms with not having Ginny nearby when they were traveling—and he couldn’t understand why no one was furious with him for being so oblivious, so focused on what he wanted that he hadn’t bothered to think of how it might affect them. But now he was with Hedy, and they were lying in bed, drinking thick, dark coffee and relaxing, and she had been telling him all evening he was a better man than he believed and anyone who knew him well wouldn’t think ill of him. She kept running her foot up and down his thigh, though, so he was terrifically distracted.
“I’ve met someone,” Hedy said, and Steve nearly spit his coffee all over the coverlet.
“You don’t beat around the bush, do you? Or worry about timing.” He twitched the sheet away from her and she grabbed it back, laughing.
Hedy was very skilled at making her laugh a little wicked. She poked him with a red-varnished toe under the sheet and took a drag on her cigarette. “Would you rather I told you before we made love? And how often have you asked me that question of late? ‘Hedy, have you met someone else? It would be all right if you have.’” Her impression of his earnestness was hilarious—and painfully accurate. He grabbed her foot and tugged; when she squeaked, he rubbed her foot in slow, sensual circles till she moaned instead.
“So you’re dumping me?” As far as letting someone down easy went, this was as decent as you could expect, but it stung a little, no matter how much he’d expected it.
“Don’t be silly,” she huffed. “What nonsense, dumping you. I am not. We agreed to be honest with each other, didn’t we?” At his nod, she stroked her hand up and down his arm, snugging up next to him. “I knew him before, he was a screenwriter. But then he went into the Navy. We—what is it, when you meet again?”
“Reacquainted?” Steve asked. She could be self-critical about her English, but in fact she was excellent.
“Yes, we became reacquainted at a show a while ago.”
“You’re dumping me for a squid?” At his fake outrage, she pinched him, right on the soft skin under his armpit. “Ow.” He leaned over and kissed her nose.
“He’s back at duty, I may not see him again for a while. I only wished you to know right now.” Hedy shifted, the sheets falling away; her skin looked so rosy in the low light. “Jealousy is a waste of energy. There are so many better things we can do with your fire.”
He set his cup on the nightstand and turned sideways to face her. “This fella better treat you right, if things get serious. I’ll come right home if he doesn’t and teach him a lesson.”
“Oh, Steve!” she said, throwing her arms around his neck, showering him with kisses, tears in her eyes. He blinked at her abrupt change of tone. “I shall miss you so much! You’ll do great things, I know you will, but I’ll miss you terribly.”
Aw, hell. “Don’t do that, or I’ll cry, too. And anyway, I’m not gone just yet. There’s still time for us.” He pulled her against him.
“I hope you find your Peggy and your Bucky. I hope you find what you have been looking for.” Hedy let Steve wipe away her tears.
Rising starlet and Army magazine pinup girl Patricia Cosgrove was seen cozying up to handsomely heroic Captain America in a famous Hollywood watering hole. But it’s “just friends” again for Tinseltown’s hottest date, apparently because the two knew each other growing up: they’re from the same block in Brooklyn, and flame-haired beauty “Patsy,” who’s engaged to a U.S. Marine, was a year behind Cap at Erasmus Hall High School (other famous alums: Clara Bow and Betty Comden). . . With just a few days to go on his now-multiple picture deal at Warner Bros. before entertaining our brave boys overseas, the Captain still found time for a surprise visit to a rehabilitation hospital, bringing along co-star Ward Bond and a few new friends, including John Wayne and Randolph Scott, as well as the lovely ladies of his chorus. Imagine being one of the young men recuperating there and seeing that star-studded lineup show up practically unannounced!
This might be my last letter to you from Hollywood! Tomorrow’s the final day of filming, after that is a good-bye party, and then we leave. We were set to take a train to Chicago, then on a different line to New York, before sailing for Italy—but now we’re traveling in airplanes to New York, instead, can you beat that? Always wondered what it would be like to fly. One more new thing to share with you when we meet again.
Other than that, even less news to report than before—we did one last show at the Hollywood Bowl, went back to the hospital for visits with the wounded, and I think I’ve been dumped. Not sure about the last one, though.
I’ll try to write from the road and wherever we end up over there. Hope I’ll hear from you before I leave or maybe when I get there. So glad to be heading home, even if it’s a brief stay, and I promise I’ll stop in to see your family. I feel like I’m shedding my skin, starting anew, despite still wearing the costume and standing on a stage. At least I’ll do it overseas.
Steve’s final appearance at the Hollywood Canteen turned out to be a hell of a lot more fun than any performance they’d given since arriving in California. Most of the credit for that went to the dancers—some of the gals who were staying in Los Angeles or New York swapped places with the ones who were to accompany him overseas. Fred joined him for the first time in ages; he’d picked up a couple of small, not-Hitler parts in Warner Bros. pictures recently, so Steve hadn’t been fake-punching him here for quite some time. As much fun as it was to stand on the Canteen’s stage with performers ranging from the Marx Brothers to Rita Hayworth, working with Fred and the gals was like home: comfortable, easy, familiar.
They’d at least had one last full show with everyone on stage: Steve had asked Willard to book the Hollywood Bowl, for old time’s sake, and the broadcasters beamed the show to the troops in the Pacific that night. Steve arranged to feature an appearance by Patsy at the show’s opening, hoping that her fiancé might hear her voice.
Before he took the stage at the Canteen, though, Steve worked his usual shift in the kitchen and signed autographs on the floor. After he made the evening’s drawing for a twenty-five dollar bond and a tour of the Paramount lot, Steve remained on stage. He caught Bette’s eye as she chatted with some Marines; Julie stopped what he was doing over by the entrance to the kitchen, giving Steve a puzzled look. “I hope you folks won’t mind if I say a few extra words tonight. It’s my last time here at the Canteen”—that was met with a gratifying chorus of aaawwws—“and I’ve been saving some of this up for when I shove off.” He looked out at the sea of faces, all gazing up at him as if he truly was someone special.
“They might call me a super soldier, but I really just represent every person in a uniform who’s ever visited this place. I could have been a regular foot soldier, or a flyer, or a sailor from the British Commonwealth. Or a Chinese air cadet over here learning how to fly, or maybe one of our Russian allies. I might have been one of our fighters from the Colored units, or come from across the Pacific: from the Philippines or even Down Under—Australia or New Zealand. I might have been a Free Frenchman, or from South America, or from our neighbor, Mexico. I could have escaped from Scandinavia, or Greece, or Czechoslovakia, or Poland, or any of the other countries that have been represented here by any of you. I’d say I could have been a WAC or a WAVE or a WASP, but I think a uniform skirt probably looks a lot better on them than on me.” He was met with laughter, and someone shouted out, “You got great gams, Cap, don’t worry!”
For once, Steve wasn’t overcome with embarrassment. “Of course, maybe a skirt would be an improvement over these tights.” There was more laughter, but he could see both Bette and Julie were wondering just what he was leading up to. “See, I was just as scared and awestruck as you were the first time I set foot in the Canteen, maybe even had it worse, because I had to come up on this stage. But I’ve been welcomed here like I never was anywhere before—and not just because I was Captain America. I was welcomed as a soldier, as someone who’s trying to do his part for his country, same as all the men and women who come through those doors. And when we’ve come here, we’ve seen people we could only dream of meeting, right up close, right here—danced with them, talked with them, shared our fears and hopes with them, and we found they were as real as they are famous. They wait on us, and wash our dishes, and make us laugh and forget how things are for a little bit—where we’ve been and where we’re going.” Steve found his voice hitched a little there, and he swallowed, wishing he’d thought to bring some water on stage with him.
“Most of all, a lot of us arrived here lonely, or homesick, but while we were here, we didn’t feel so lonely or homesick anymore. And I believe I speak for all of us when I say to Miss Davis and Mr. Garfield that ‘thank you’ isn’t really adequate for what you’ve created for us. More than a million of us have come through these doors, and because of you, your hard work and leadership and generosity, the whole motion picture industry’s been here to welcome us, every night, and make us feel like we’re the stars. You worked tirelessly to bring this Canteen to life and give us all a home away from home. So before I go, please join me in expressing our appreciation for them, and welcome Bette Davis and John Garfield up on the stage with me. Give them a big, big hand.”
Steve reached down to swing an arm around Bette and lift her up on the stage, Julie hopped up next to him, shaking his head, an “I can’t believe you” look on his face. The applause was thunderous, accompanied by whistling and stomping and pounding on tables. Bette pursed her lips, but it was clear she was trying not to smile and not very annoyed with him; she took Julie’s hand to wave to the audience, both of them shooting Steve looks. It took a few minutes for the applause to die down and for them to reach the edge of the stage. Bette turned to him at the riser stairs. “You're terribly naughty, you do know that?” She asked Julie, “Did you know he was plotting to do that?”
Julie held his hands up. “Not a chance, Boss, I swear! Though I’m not sure I’d have told you if I had, because you deserve the cheers, and more. So good for Steve for cooking it up in the first place—maybe we oughta make it a nightly event.”
“Don’t you dare,” she said, threatening, which made Julie’s eyes shine with mischief. Knowing these two, now, Steve could imagine them having a competition every night to see who could generate the most applause for the other one.
“I meant it,” Steve said. “Every word. Thank you both, for everything.”
“I know you’ll be plenty goddamn happy to see this place in the rear-view mirror, but do you think you’ll miss us, even a little?” Bette asked.
Steve answered, “More than you know,” with such vehemence that he surprised himself. Yes, he had grown tired of this city, but this was the first time he’d really had more than a few true friends, and he couldn’t just toss that aside.
“And you won’t skip out on your party, will you?” Julie asked, because he did know Steve, just that well.
“I think if I tried that, Robbie’d have me drawn and quartered or brought before a tribunal. So, no.” Steve gave him a crooked little smile.
Bette took Steve’s arm. “Come, I’ll take you out the back way so you won’t be mobbed. We can save our tearful goodbyes for the party.” But she turned those huge eyes up to him and said as they walked, “This place will never be the same without you.”
For Steve’s last day of filming, they’d arranged to focus on the personal, quieter scenes—the day before they’d shot the big fight and triumph over Cap’s enemy, General Kruger. It made sense, why Del had chosen to save these scenes for last: many of the actors and crew were already emotional as their work came to a conclusion and that would translate to the audience, right down the line. They were his last scenes, too, with both Ida and Ward, so he put everything he had into them.
They began the morning with a radio call between Cap and Betty—in the scene, his squad was stuck out in the field after a mission, communication made difficult by dropped connections or static. It created the perfect star-crossed romantic scene Ida claimed the audience would adore: Cap’s emphatic declarations that he’d make it home to Betty no matter what the Krauts threw at them, Betty begging Cap to be careful, and each of them missing half of what the other said when the line fritzed out. “Miscommunication bumps up the tragedy and makes all the ladies sigh,” Ida insisted, and holy cow, was she good at playing that sort of thing: she could cry on command, she swung from angry or annoyed to quivering-lipped fear in a blink, imbuing the script with a soft, vulnerable kind of bravery that made Steve forget the lines he was feeding her for the close-ups. You’d never be able to tell they’d already filmed the pair’s happy reunion a couple days ago, replete with another—much easier this time—kiss.
Following that scene would be Cap’s conversation with his CO, but that was a lot shorter, and primarily close-ups, where Ward read lines for Steve to react to; he’d shoot his later. Then the crew set up for the final scenes with the squad's actors, which in the script took place just after those radio conversation scenes, and Steve would come in from camera left as it followed him. It was all one take in a long shot, a lot of dialog to keep track of without a cut. The actor playing their radio man, George, took the handset away from Steve. “Betty’s worried about you, isn’t she, Cap?”
“She’s worried about all of us,” Steve said, rough and tough per Del’s direction, because they never wanted the heroes to seem too vulnerable. “So’s the colonel. You think you can tear those numskulls away from their feast to listen to some news?”
They’d filmed a semi-comedic scene earlier of his squad on a scrounging mission, putting together what they could to make a Christmas dinner. Steve strode over to where they bickered over who’d get what, standing in front of them and squaring his shoulders as they snapped to attention.
“As you were.” Steve looked them over. “Well, boys, we got something of a tough break. Just radioed in to the CP and got word that there’s no landing field between here and our base where they can get a plane in to pick us up. That means only one thing—we got a long hike ahead of us. Now, unless we stick together and work together, we’re gonna be in trouble—plenty. The most important thing is that you eat as well as you can, stay warm and dry, take those pills, or you’re gonna get sick and make it that much tougher on the rest of us. Be careful. As soon as the sergeant’s ready, we’ll shove off. Okay.” He waved his hand at the items spread out on the tarp. “Dig in.”
He turned and took a couple steps to his left, over to Mitchum. “We got about two hundred miles, by the most direct route,” Bob said, referring to an earlier scene that showed him on reconnaissance, and Steve whistled. Bob gave him a wry smile. “You ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie. Some of the fellows, I don’t know... They’re in rough shape just from getting out here, Captain.” That was the centerpiece of their previous action scenes: two of the men sustained injuries, and one was feverish and sick.
Steve said, “The most important thing is that we cleared the way for our men and they took out those positions. Listen, you and me, we know what this play was all about—we laid down a bunt and let the other guys hit the home run.”
“You saying we were the sacrifice play?”
“Could be. That’s what we trained for, isn’t it? But I don’t think they’re gonna count us out just yet and forget about us. Standing here talking about it won’t get us any closer to home, though.”
“Yes, sir, Captain.” Bob slung his canteen over his shoulder, and Del yelled “Cut.”
Steve thought it was a pretty good take—he hadn’t flubbed a single line, he’d hit every mark—but he waited to see if Del thought so, too. The big grin on his face said it must be a print.
“That’s a wrap, Cap,” he said with a chuckle. “Your final scene in your first full-length feature—how does it feel?”
The crew and the other actors gave him a round of applause, joined by Ida and Ward. Steve turned in a circle, looking at them all, a surprised smile on his face, and then they were all shaking his hand, murmuring “good job” and “great work, Rogers.”
“Last scene.” Steve said, looking at Ida. “It feels...unreal, I guess. Like it can’t possibly be the end.”
“You were smashing,” she said.
“One step closer to getting on that plane.” Del scrutinized his face. “Just think: you’re almost out of here.”
Steve drew a deep breath. “I know. There’ve been times I thought it wouldn’t come true, that they’d take the opportunity away from me just as I was leaving and it was an elaborate prank. That making films was the only job I was good for.”
“I read about your Canteen speech this morning. You have a knack for talking to people, but I don’t doubt the War Department will see you’ve got more value than this. I don’t doubt there are greater things coming.” Steve, though, had kind of given up hoping that was true. “You still worried about the premiere?”
Steve nodded. “I spent the last one with my head in a toilet.”
Del laughed. “Premieres are nothing, now. We can’t have the big crowds, the arc lights, the microphones anymore. Wave to the fans, smile for the photographers, go inside. That’s all you have to do.” He slipped his arm over Steve’s shoulders and they walked toward the soundstage door. “Oh, I almost forgot—the first picture’s got a new title. Captain America: Call to Arms. There’ll be a text intro about the program of science and training that made you a super soldier before the story kicks into gear.”
Call to Arms. What a relief: Steve actually liked that one, it fit with the beginning of his story, with his real life. “I’ll see you and Mary at the party?”
Del’s smile always made him look so boyish, so “aw shucks” and a little goofy. “If they let me out of the editing room on time, I promise we’ll be there with bells on.” Before Steve stepped out the door he turned around, looking back at the soundstage he’d spent the past few months in, at the cast and crew, who still had some work to do on scenes they didn’t need him for. He would miss them, but he also hoped that he wouldn’t see them again—at least not till after the war was won.
“That doesn’t look good,” Steve said, spying Cary across the crowded living room. He seemed to be on high alert—in his ridiculous Prince Valiant costume—peering out the back doors that led to the street. Randy, who was dressed as Sir Gawain, sidled up next to Steve, interrupting the conversation he and Patsy were having with Thelma and her husband, Ralph. Hedy wasn’t fond of big parties, so she’d begged off in favor of staying home for one of her open houses for servicemen; fortunately Patsy’d been game to come along and didn’t seem to care if they ended up in the gossip pages. He supposed it would be good for her career, regardless of what anyone might write later, to meet so many successful actors.
Thelma hadn’t believed that he’d really show up in his stage costume as he’d said he would—and she’d been right: he’d worn the captain’s service uniform from wardrobe instead, still mostly free of badges and ribbons except for the Purple Heart they’d given him for Rebirth. There were still quite a few months to go before he’d receive a Good Conduct medal—“It’ll never happen, you can’t behave that long,” Calvin had said once—but he was always happier wearing something other than the stage outfit.
“Aren’t you a clown,” Thelma had said when she saw him, rolling her eyes. It was hard to take her seriously in her Minnie Mouse outfit.
“I know, I know. I’m a drip. But I spend almost every day in a costume, in tights for Christ’s sake. Let me have some dignity at my own party,” Steve had pleaded, much to everyone’s amusement and laughter.
“We might require a little super-soldier assistance,” Randy said with chagrin, leaning over so he could be heard above the piano someone was playing—Gershwin had never sounded so forceful.
“Is there a problem?” Quite a gathering had formed around the door.
“Typical boys letting loose, but...” and he didn’t really have to say more. They threaded their way through the crowd; a couple times Steve had to bodily pick people up and move them in the small space. More than a couple young ladies in very revealing costumes squealed with delight when he did and he blushed, laughing shyly. When he moved them, Steve didn’t recognize either Dixie or Yvonne at first: one was dressed as Theda Bara’s Cleopatra and the other as the Bride of Frankenstein, wrapped in bandages. They must have been just as happy to chuck their regular costumes as Steve was.
“Oh shit,” Steve said when he reached the door; he’d heard them before he saw them: some fellows out on the pavement yelling their fool heads off and lighting fireworks—or maybe even a pistol? That could get Cary and Randy in a hell of a lot of trouble.
“Tell me, did they make you bulletproof, my lad?” Cary asked.
Steve blew out a hard breath. “Not as far as I know. And I’d hate for this to be the time I find out for sure I’m not.”
Peering around the door jamb, Steve recognized Bob Mitchum and three other young guys—he thought they were actors who’d come as dates of the dancers in his revue—weaving between the cars or jumping up on them, throwing things around. Broken glass glittered at the base of many of the cars. This would make the gossip columns for sure once the cops showed up; you could get away with a lot in this town, but not foolishness that preyed on the jumpiness about the war and potential attacks by the Japanese.
And it definitely wasn’t fireworks—Steve saw the glint of a gun in one man’s hand. “Do you think that’s a real pistol or a prop from the set? And what the hell are they shouting about?”
“I think it started when one guy said the reason we haven’t won yet is because they were rejected from service,” Ruthie explained, poking her head in between Steve and Cary. “They’re so loaded they think they’re calling out Hitler and Goebbels and Himmler to come over and fight them like men.” Steve rolled his eyes; he had a feeling this was more than just booze-fueled. “But they mentioned you!” Ruthie added with great cheer.
“Well, someone’s gotta shut them up,” Steve said. “Guess if they’re talking about me, that’s my cue.” Jesus, if that was a real gun, he could just see them popping a few slugs into a cop car if one rolled up to check out the disturbance. He hadn’t thought to bring his shield, so he went around to the side of the house and grabbed two trash can lids, nesting one inside the other by bending the edges. Might as well use what you know. It wouldn’t stop a bullet, but it could slow one down. Holding his little shield in front of him, Steve eased his way between the cars on the street, approaching them with that friendly, casual attitude Bucky had used with guys who’d tried to grind Steve face-first into the dirt.
Not that he didn’t find this somewhat hilarious: their brave attack on the enemy out here on a Santa Monica beach, their puffed-up yelling and shooting at...palm trees and shrubs, apparently. One of the guys tried shimmying up a palm when he saw Steve coming, but Steve easily jumped up and picked him off of it with one hand, bounced his head off the hood of a nearby car, and let him slide to the ground. The other three were slippery, like drunkards always were, but he got the fella with the gun and found it was—thank god—firing blanks, and stuffed it in his waistband. Then he corralled Bob, because they knew each other and he knew when he was beat, and as soon as Bob had stopped his chest-beating, the other guy came quietly. “All right, soldiers, let’s get you back to base,” Steve said, grabbing the unconscious one and shoving the other three inside, where he was amused to see Julie give one of them a cuff on the ear. That’s why he seemed familiar: he had a small part in Julie’s latest picture, though Steve couldn’t recall his name.
He fixed the trash can lids and replaced them, and once inside the house, he was met with a round of applause. “All in a day’s work,” Steve said, holding up his hands.
Patsy brought him a drink and said, “Captain America for Victory.” Steve grinned at her.
The rest of evening was uneventful and he spent it mostly sitting—on the sofa, or the low wall out by the pool, or on the beach—surrounded by the women in his life, whom he allowed to cry all over him about how much they didn’t want him to go. A few men gave him the waterworks, too. Steve eventually gave up trying to hide because each time he did, someone found him and the crying began again; the only safe place was the bathroom, since Bob was passed out in one bedroom and the guest room was being used for a tryst.
Julie brought him a drink when he saw Steve was pinned down by his wife and Ida, each crying on a shoulder, and Steve could only smile helplessly at him.
“I don’t know if I can handle any more women crying on me,” Steve said, pleading for Julie to rescue him.
Julie snorted. “Come on, you gotta stand up, anyway, for what we’re about to do.”
Oh no. “Don’t you dare run away, kid. After the Canteen, you’re just gonna stand there and take your praise like a man, ’cause it’s your turn now.” Julie made a fist and shot him a warning look; it went well with his costume, his own old boxer’s shorts and robe and boots.
He looked over toward the piano where Randy was tapping a fork against a glass to get the crowd to quiet down. Julie climbed up on a chair. “Everyone, thank you for coming out tonight to say goodbye to Captain America and the wonderful, talented people in his revue.”
Willard was beaming at Steve from the kitchen; he could just see Fred over in a corner next to a young man, but only some of the gals who’d made it tonight were inside to hear the good wishes—maybe they were off having trysts of their own.
“I know some of you have had the chance to tell young Captain Rogers here how much we’re gonna miss him, but I haven’t.” Julie leaned down toward Bette, standing by the piano. “Bet, you wanna get up here with me?” Julie asked, encouraging her to join him. “No, she don’t want to climb on a chair, she’s a shy lady. But I know she wants to say the same thing as me: Steve, getting to know you and the rest of the gang has meant the world to all of us. When we first heard you were joining us here in Hollywood, I don’t think any of us expected you’d stay long enough so we could get to know you and become a friend, but we’re awful glad you did. All those tear stains on your uniform jacket from the ladies—and some of the fellas—might give you some idea of how much you’ll be missed.”
There was laughter, and Steve ducked his head, blushing.
“I’ve seen first-hand the effect you’ve had on the boys who come in to the Canteen, night after night, and what an impact you’ve made on us in the film industry here. Anyone who’s met you has no doubt that this is only the beginning for you, that you’re capable of the greatest things and you’re gonna have the chance to prove it. We’ll be hearing a lot more about you. Each and every one of our lives is better for having known you, Cap, and we want you to know that wherever you go, our hearts go with you.”
Julie lifted his glass and Bette did the same, looking up at him with tears in her eyes. “So, a toast: to Captain America and his USO show, and to their continued safety and success. Those fellas over there don’t know how lucky they’ll be to have you.”
She may not have wanted to attend the party, but Hedy did surprise Steve by asking to go to the premiere. Shortly after they began dating, he’d told her all about the fiasco of the FMPU premiere, which she’d found hysterically funny but adorable, too, she’d insisted. “I would not like to squander my last evening with you,” Hedy said, and it choked him up a little, because the gossip columnists would have a field day after their continued denials of a romantic connection and he always hated to put her on the spot. She didn’t seem to mind, after all— “It will tie them up in knots, we may as well have fun on our last evening out. Soon enough they’ll have someone else to talk about for me, and they already talk about your friend from Brooklyn.”
Steve thought he was fortunate to have arrived in Hollywood at a time when premieres were pretty scaled-down affairs—no giant spotlights, limited crowds, a smaller pool of photographers—but that didn’t mean they were quiet ones, and they still seemed like an enormous waste of money. Fans shouted for attention and autographs as they snaked their way in to the Pantages Theatre, and flashbulbs popped by the dozens, leaving him with pink spots in his vision. Ida and Hedy had both opted for less ostentatiously glamorous gowns, and he appreciated that neither of them wore mink stoles or thousands of carats’ worth of jewelry.
Del had let Steve know that he didn’t consider this version a polished, final cut, they just hadn’t had enough time to finesse things after Warner’s change of plans. They were racing to strike prints that would follow Steve across the country and across the ocean: European theatre troops would see the film first, although a slightly different version than folks at home once it made it to movie houses. Steve was pleased to think about the movie giving the military personnel some enjoyment: he’d seen from Peggy’s and Bucky’s letters just how much even the smallest of things could mean to someone wearied by war, and he wondered if they’d have the chance to watch it.
To Steve’s untrained eye, the picture looked pretty good: the production values were greater than his previous job, most conspicuously, but the acting from the pros in the cast almost made him look good—or at least less wooden—and the story held together better than he could have hoped. It wasn’t his own true story, nor was it the revised version from the comic books, but it had its feet in both of those tales: less about Steve the transformed, sickly young man and more about Cap the leader cobbling together his crack squad and fighting the good fight when called upon. Del had a particular skill in portraying the esprit de corps of soldiers, but he also gave every woman a perfect heroine in Betty Carver. Not that Steve didn’t still hate that name.
After the screening was over and the applause died down, they made their way to the lobby—him, Ida, Del, and Jack Warner—to answer questions from the press and placate Miss Parsons by giving her a few exclusive comments. She hadn’t been happy about sitting a few seats away from Steve, but with Hedy attending, there wasn’t much she could do about it, and Calvin had fawned over her thoroughly to keep her occupied.
Steve had said a lot of his goodbyes at the party and at the Canteen; when he left, his heart was heavy with more he’d had to say tonight: Bette and Hedy and Ida, Thelma and Del and even Jack Warner. His plan was to spend his last night at the bungalow packing up his few belongings, spending time with Julie and Robbie and especially the kids. He’d never had the chance to say a proper goodbye to Bucky’s little sisters and brother, and he wasn’t going to make that mistake again.
They’d let Kathy stay up till Steve returned from dropping Hedy off, and he tucked her, sleepy and silly, into bed and read her a story till she fell asleep. Steve stroked her hair, considering: maybe, when the war is over, this is something I could have, too.
He hugged Julie and Robbie tightly, afraid he might tear up if he lingered. The whole night had felt way too much like saying goodbye to Bucky at the Expo, watching him recede into the distance, Steve wondering if he’d ever see him again. Steve had always been given to the melancholic, but he knew his ties here were tenuous at best and he really had no certainty of visiting this world or seeing these people again.
In the wee hours of the morning, when everything was close and quiet, he finished packing and pressed his real uniform. Sleep was next to impossible; he dozed off briefly, the scent of the night-blooming jasmine that ran along the back wall in his nostrils. When he gave up and opened his eyes, it was only twilight, just before dawn.
So he picked up the phone and dialed Hedy; she answered, voice rough with sleep. “Did I wake you?”
After a pause, she said, “You know I must be up in a few minutes, anyway. It’s all right.”
“I just wanted to say...I just wanted to say again how much I’ll miss you. How much I hope everything works out for you in the future, whichever way it goes.” A few times he’d wondered if there really was someone else she was interested in or if she was merely letting him go off to find his “lady agent” without guilt. “And I’m sorry I’m leaving so close to your birthday.”
“I will miss you too, Steve, so very much.” He could imagine her sitting up in bed, brushing her hair back from her face. “I wish, sometimes, that I could go with you. Go home. But I don’t think I can ever go back there, not soon, anyway.” Then she gave a little laugh. “But couldn’t we put on such a show for the boys over there!”
“If we did, it’d be a good thing to be a super soldier, because I’m pretty sure every fella on the continent would be lining up to take a shot at me, they’d be so envious, and that’s the only way I could get out alive.” He swallowed. “I’ll write you, if that’s okay. As often as I can.”
“Oh, darling, of course, and I shall write you, too.”
They talked for a little while longer about inconsequential things—Del had said they might get three features out of the footage, and she promised to attend every one and send him her honest, critical review—and then he rang off.
Edgar was picking him up in a limousine, along with Helen, Dixie, Ruth, and Annette. Mr. Warner had wanted them to “leave in style,” so he’d arranged a fleet of them for all the gals and Willard and Fred. Steve fired off a couple quick notes to Bucky and to Peggy while he waited and drew some last-minute sketches of the place, leaving the letters for Robbie to post and the sketches for Julie.
The four dancers came flooding into the guesthouse after dawn, all wound up about the fact that they’d be flying in an airplane for the first time, chattering away just like they’d always done on the road. It felt good to hear their voices like that again.
Steve stuffed his sketchbook and stationery into his duffle bag and zipped it up, his heart hammering with excitement. Maybe he wasn’t heading to Europe as a combat soldier, but he was heading there all the same, and in pretty good company. He picked up his bag, smiling, and said in his best Captain America movie star voice, “Okay, ladies, saddle up: we’re going to Europe.”
Captain America: Call to Arms
by Louella Parsons
We’ve heard a lot about Captain America since his KO of a sinister Nazi agent earlier this summer—and regular readers know I’ve certainly written a few words about this patriotic pleaser and super Super Soldier. Not everyone’s been able to catch his star-spangled revue on their barnstorming tour of America to drum up bond sales, but now everyone can see what all the fuss is about on the big screen, and trust me, folks, you’ll love it.
His first reeler was a short film to show the folks at home what defense bonds buy for our fighting men, filmed over at the First Motion Picture Unit. The reception to this little project was so enthusiastic that Warner Bros. wanted to give the Captain his own dramatic story line, penned by Delmer Daves—and helmed by him in his first directing effort. It’s a picture filled with patriotism, tender and heart warming romance, and plenty of exciting action scenes. It’ll have the boys overseas hoping Cap will lead them straight into Berlin!
The Captain, who’s otherwise known as Steve Rogers when he’s not rousing the crowds, is a true screen discovery who plays the part with a sincerity that’s dramatically effective—you’d never know he was new to the acting biz. The always lovely Ida Lupino, as lady Agent Betty Carver and Cap’s comely love interest, is something to shout about, and the two make for a winning combination we’d love to see more of. Fortunately for us, there’s at least one, maybe even two more installments in the once-serialized story, which also features an excellent Ward Bond as Cap’s commander and young Robert Mitchum as his right-hand guy. Cap’s nemesis, megalomaniacal general and scientist Dr. Kruger, is seemingly dispatched quickly in this installment, but I’m sure we’ll see him again as the heroes make their way to Berlin to crush their Nazi foes.
It’s the sort of story almost all of us are looking for these days, that reminds us of what we’re fighting for—but it’s not just a war picture. It’s also a story about the nature of strength and courage, and of friendship, and what it means to sacrifice. There’s a fast, thrilling climax that will have your pulse doing a jitterbug routine. I could have sworn this 93-minute corker was only 15 minutes long, it moves so quickly. If you’ve never had the chance to see Captain America in action, run to your local theatre—I guarantee you won’t regret making Captain America: Call to Arms your first time!