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 that 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 for most people. So I truly appreciate the small 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. I'm also grateful you haven't given up on me with the erratic posting schedule; I have the whole thing plotted out, but don't know exactly how many chapters it'll be just yet—though I will promise what I think are some really fun things coming up! I also have some ideas for related stories I hope to write.
(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, Miss 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, and the searchlights waving back and forth—there were dozens 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 crowds 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. If I’m going 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 neighborhood 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 into 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 fella 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 pretty 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.