|The Song Is You
By Megan Abbott
Published by Simon & Schuster
January 2007; 0743291719; 256 pages
The whistle isn't jaunty, not Doris Day. It's low and slow and the actor Bob Cummings would remember its hot zing for some time.
Ah yes, that bit player of definite note.
"You sound happy," he says to her, his head half turned, leaning back in his springy dressing-room chair so he can catch a glimpse of her in the corridor.
She stops, swivels her hips, and looks back at him, black eyes crackling.
"I am," she says, almost a husky coo. She laces her long, red-tipped fingers along the door frame. "I have a new romance."
"Is it serious?" he says, flirting hard. Has he played this game with her before? He lets his arms dangle boyishly from the sides of his chair.
"Not really," she replies, tilting her head. Then, with a klieg-light leer lewd as a burlesque dancer but with infinitely greater appeal: "But I'm having the time of my life."
With that, she twists her long hips back around and, with a kittenish wave of the hand, continues down the corridor, heels lightly clacking, matching her whistle in perfect time.
What is she humming?
He can almost name it, taste it even.
It reminds him of close quarters, mouth pressed against folded satin, sparkled fishnets, music throbbing unbearably, pressure in the chest and fast, jerky leg kicks in the air. A long-ago peccadillo with a clap-ridden chorus girl in a curtained booth at the Top Hat Café, an encounter so quick and so urgent that it felt like a sucker punch in the stomach.
That was it.
You're so much sweeter, goodness knows...
He will tell this story hundreds of times in the weeks and months to come under official and unofficial circumstances. He will tweak it occasionally, leave details out, add a shading of provocation or a whiff of heat. Or he'll tell it as if it were a cool exchange between temporary colleagues. He'll tart it up or iron it out, depending.
But this is how it really happened and it has lodged tightly, uncomfortably in his head on a continuous loop, winding itself through his thoughts, unfurling in his dreams. He may barely recall the movie they were shooting (The Petty Girl, right?), but he remembers everything about the costume she wore as she walked down that hall, all china silk and shocks of pleats, a curling blue flame. And the lipsticked mouth folding around the coarse and delicious whistle. His creaking, squeaking chair as he leaned back, makeup bib cocking up, he, the star, too eager, bright-eyed and chomping, aside her distinct and unfounded cool, the cool that comes from her not needing his attention at all. He could tell: she had brighter stars sniffing around her, around her creamy curves, lashes batting in chestnut hair, a turning ankle, a cloud of jasmine, a bawdy song no white girl should sing.
It was her voice that purred and snapped and stuck in his head most ferociously, making him sick with random desire, making him want to do something foul, unmentionable, unarticulated, ugly. How he'd like to fuck her into oblivion.
But someone beat him to it.
"He ain't gonna pay up, doll. No matter what the judge said. Once you're out of their bed, you lose all the angles. You should've stayed hitched and played it close to the line."
These words of advice came from next-door neighbor Beryl Doolan, who delivered them as she chipped the last bit of nail polish from her curled foot, planted flat against the edge of the kitchen table.
"Are you going to listen to her?" Peggy said, drying the last dish.
They were both talking to Peggy's cousin, Jean, the tall brunette girl, the one pulling on a pair of crisp gloves and not meeting either woman's gaze. The girl, well, she was beautiful in a toothy, sharp-dimpled way. You had to look very, very close to see the thin skein of lines around her eyes. She was still a good eighteen months away from post-ingenue.
"She don't need to listen to me," Beryl said. "She knows. She can talk to the ex-hubby 'til she's blue in the face and she ain't getting more child support. She thought she married an en-tre-pre-nure and he was just another four-flusher."
"That's enough, Beryl," Peggy said. "Christine's in the other room."
Jean pulled a lipstick from her purse and dabbed her mouth with it.
"Christine knows all about her old man," Beryl said, watching as Jean clipped her purse shut and slung it over her shoulder. "Don't she, Jean?"
Jean finally raised a pair of finely etched eyebrows and looked in Beryl and Peggy's direction as she straightened her hat.
"Five years old," she said. "And she's already got her daddy's number. I should have been so lucky."
"Oh, Jean." Peggy shook her head, hands on her hips.
The girl smiled, all straight, shining teeth and two sets of dimples. The smile was so charming that Peggy couldn't help but smile in return. Even Beryl, nursing a hangover from a late-night party at her apartment next door, managed a grin. Everyone smiled when Jean Spangler smiled. That's why they all said she'd make it someday. And why no one had been surprised when the leading men started circling.
"Are you coming home after you meet with him?" Peggy said, walking her cousin out the front door. Behind them, Jean's daughter, Christine, came running out of the house, following her mother down the front path.
"No." Jean kneeled down and kissed her daughter hard on the cheek. "Can you watch this little darling?"
"Sure. Are you working at the studio tonight?" Peggy asked her.
Jean patted Christine's neat row of blonde bangs and then stood up. "Yeah," she said, winking at Peggy. "Wish me luck."
"I had this dream about you last night, Jean," Peggy had said, rubbing her face tiredly, her cheeks still pink and soft from her sleep.
"That so," Jean murmured, straightening a stocking.
Many evenings, the family listening to the radio, Peggy and Rich felt their collars scratching, the closeness of the living room, Mama Spangler's nerves on edge, and Jean's little girl, Christine, playing jacks soundlessly for hours, the most blank-faced five-year-old you ever saw. When it was late and just the two of them, they'd make a cocktail, sometimes two, with whatever Jean's boyfriends had left behind. Sometimes soft-tongued scotch, other times the tingly zing of fine stone-white gin.
Jean didn't mind and often she'd get home early enough to join them, wilted gardenia in her hair, the musk of nightclub smoke and long ocean drives radiating off of her. She had fine stories to share, of star sightings at Trader Vic's, seeing the Will Mastin Trio at Ciro's; her voice -- warm and flat with strange pitches to it -- seemed engineered to accompany late-night drinking in cramped spaces, the tightness of frustrated day-living giving over, lovely-like, to the breaking freedom of faint, early intoxication.
That night, however, they'd just about given up on Jean. Peggy was working up the energy to go into the kitchen and soak the gluey red bottoms of their sloe-gin fizz glasses when she finally heard a car idling in front of the apartment.
"Carriage turned back into a pumpkin," Rich murmured, reaching behind his chair to lift up a blind slat.
Peggy smiled tiredly and leaned across the end table to look through the slat, too.
"Dim that light," Rich barked suddenly, before Peggy could get a look herself.
She did as he asked.
"What is it?"
"Jean," she'd said in the dream. "Jean, you were on fire."
Jean nodded, saying, "From the inside out." Suddenly, long strands of inky tears dropped from her eyes.
"From the inside out," Peggy repeated, and suddenly she was crying, too.
She wanted to tell Jean so she could get the picture out of her head. That was what she wanted. The old story about the kid who dreams about a marshmallow sundae and wakes up with a big bite out of his pillow -- that was how Peggy felt. When she woke up, she was afraid that if she looked at her hands, they'd be smudged with soot from reaching out to Jean's face. When she woke, she stayed in bed for twenty minutes, arms under the covers, afraid to see.
But when she tried to tell Jean, when she got out of bed and found her ironing her burnt-orange "audition dress," Jean barely looked up from what she was doing.
It wasn't until an hour later, when Peggy was putting on her hat to take Christine to play in the park, that Jean approached her.
"Tell me again about that dream." Her hands were clasped in front of her.
Peggy slid her hat off and met her cousin's gaze. She told her the dream once more. This time, she told her everything.
"What do you think about it, Jean? I tell you, it spooked me," Peggy said, laughing eagerly. "I sure was glad to see you this morning. Isn't that funny?"
"It spooked you."
"Well, sure, I mean, it was awfully strange, wasn't it? I'm not superstitious, but..."
Peggy looked Jean in the eye, those midnight-satin eyes of Jean's. She looked and looked and then saw that something had passed over from her to Jean. The picture she couldn't get out of her head had gone over to Jean's and now they both had it reeling and reeling, like a record skipping. She looked at Jean and also at Jean's hands clutched before her.
"Forget it, darling," Peggy said with a grin. And she put on her hat. "Heck, night before last it was all about Tyrone Power kidnapping me on his big old pirate ship."
The tight look in Jean's eyes loosened a little. And then a little more. She finally grinned.
"You never know, Peg. I hear Ty Power sure does get around."
"I could be next. Or you."
Wire Service, October 8, 1949
Dancer and film actress Jean Spangler was reported missing today by her cousin, Peggy Spangler. A divorcée, Spangler left her Wilshire District home at 5 p.m. Friday, kissing her five-year-old daughter, Christine, good-bye and telling her cousin that she was going to meet her ex-husband, Dexter Benner, to discuss an increase in child-support payments. Following this meeting, she was going to work on a night shoot for a new film.
This morning, after Spangler failed to come home, her cousin went down to the Wilshire Division of the LAPD and filed a missing-persons report.
Jean Spangler, a former dancer at Hollywood nightspots such as the Earl Carroll Theater and the Florentine Gardens, recently completed shooting a small part in The Petty Girl, with actor Robert Cummings.
Wire Service, October 9, 1949
During a 100-man search on Sunday, a Griffith Park groundsman found what is believed to be the purse of actress Jean Spangler, missing since Friday night. The groundsman reported finding the object near the entrance to the park. The purse's handle was broken, but it still contained a wallet and other items. Those contents include a mysterious note believed to be in Spangler's own handwriting:
The search of Griffith Park has turned up no additional clues.
Spangler's cousin, Mrs. Raymond Spangler, told police that Jean said she was meeting her ex-husband, Dexter Benner, to discuss child support and then to work. "But she winked as she said it," her cousin told reporters. Benner denied having seen Jean for weeks, a story supported by his new wife, Lynne. Police also report that a check of the studios determined that no movies had been in production the night of the seventh. Jean had last been seen at a local market where the clerk said she appeared to be "waiting for someone."
Los Angeles Examiner, October 12, 1949
Through the bright lights of the Sunset Strip, police yesterday traced the dim trail of actress Jean Spangler, missing since Friday and feared the victim of a killer.
Witnesses came forward to tell of seeing her in a café and riding in a convertible with a strange man on Friday night and Saturday morning, but none could guess her fate.
The search for "Kirk" and "Dr. Scott," mentioned in a note found in her discarded purse, was fruitless.
Her friends knew of no one among her many men friends who was called Kirk or whose name might be shortened to that.
But people who knew her by sight said she was in Sunset Strip nightspots Friday with a tall, good-looking man whom none had ever seen...
Terry Taylor, proprietor of the Cheesebox Restaurant, 8033 Sunset Boulevard, says she sat at a front table there with a man -- "clean-cut fellow, about 30 or 35, brown hair, neat, medium build, tallish." That was early Saturday morning, around 1 or 2 o'clock.
Joseph Epstein, who sells papers there, saw her between 1 and 2:30 that morning, standing outside the café. He is positive of the identification.
Al Lazaar, a radiocaster pseudonymed "the Sheik," who does table-interview broadcasts from the restaurant, approached her about 2:30 that morning, at the place. He said she appeared to be arguing with two men, and he veered away when they signaled they did not want to talk over his microphone.
Cinestar, Gil Hopkins, Reporter
Some days, he could scarcely believe his luck. Here he was, Gil Hopkins, just some kid from upstate New York, hopped off the Greyhound bus three years back still knocking the snow out of his shoes. Now he's strutting around the Warner Brothers lot like he owns the place. From writing crop reports for the Syracuse Post-Standard to interviewing Lana Turner for the reading pleasure of just under one million starstruck housewives -- all in a few easy steps. God bless this crazy country.
Sure, he wasn't exactly fulfilling anyone's youthful ideal of the muckraking reporter, including his own. But he'd tried the newshound gig for the better part of a year and it never really took. Turned out he was born to this, not so much reporter as candyman, spinning knots of sugar into cotton candy so fine you could see through it. And yes, sometimes it was as routine as working the line at Ford Motors. Some days, he'd be counting the seconds before he could finish the frothy on-set interviews and escape to the back lot with the grips and, occasionally, some hep outcast actor like Bob Mitchum or John Ireland, to smoke reefers and shoot crap. And yes, his editor might not be pleased to know his star reporter was spending more time shaking dice out of his trouser cuffs than coaxing verbal bonbons from the mouth of yet another leading lady. But everyone at Cinestar liked the results, the airy cream puffs he bestowed with sticky fingers. And he wasn't one to take things for granted. He loved this god-awful burg, this frontier mirage, the kind of place where a fellow like him, saved from the salt mines of Onondaga County, could end up in a job where he's having a heart-to-heart with June Allyson about her trademark bangs one minute, and the next he's joining her husband, star Dick Powell, at an after-hours gambling den in Santa Monica. What a story. Like something he'd spun himself from so much cane sugar.
And then that day, a day that seemed like one more flossy strand of gossamer, easily flung off. A ten-minute interview with Lauren Bacall about her wardrobe choices for Key Largo, then Gil Hopkins -- "Hop" -- was back in the makeshift alley with Moe and Leo and Stu, throwing dollars down and losing big.
Two girls were hanging around smoking and watching the dice. A colored girl, Iolene, who sang in the movie, and an extra, a sloe-eyed white girl wrapped tight in a palm-frond bra. Next to Iolene's sly grin and browned-butter looks, the white girl nearly disappeared, save the crinkling hula skirt and the brick-red pout -- a little bored, a little agitated. They were complaining about being summoned for an evening shoot that ended up being called off on account of a leading lady in the hospital with a bad case of the DTs. Both girls had canceled dates for nothing.
"Take some, nice and easy, honey." Iolene passed the joint that one of the boys had offered her to her friend. "You look like you need it."
The white girl took the joint and jabbed it between her lips, but her eyes were on Hop.
"You're the pits," she said, shaking her head. "I never saw a worse crap shooter."
Hop rose from a half-squat and shrugged. "The one thing your mother never taught me."
She laughed, joint cradled daintily in her mouth. "I guess I could show you a thing or two."
"That's all you need," Iolene said, taking the joint back. At first Hop wasn't sure if she was talking to him or the girl. "You got enough trouble with fellows number one, two, and three."
"Maybe," the girl repeated, stroking her fronds with a mix of meditation and provocation.
"I don't have to be number four," Hop said, throwing down the last of his bills. "I'd settle for three and a half."
Iolene grinned. "Only a half, huh? That sure is a pity," she said with a wink.
"It's my secret shame." Hop grinned as Stu threw the dice. He came up empty again.
The girls both laughed, but he wasn't sure if it was at his joke or his loss.
"So, which one of you is buying me a drink," Hop said, eyeing them.
Stu smirked. "It ain't gonna be me," he said, picking up his money.
"Why just one of us?" the white girl said, eyes glazing over from the reefer.
"Okay, but I only cadge drinks from friends. Or at least acquaintances," Hop said, pulling on his suit jacket.
"Jean," she said, the joint dropping her voice a register, turning it throatier. "I'm Jean. And you know Iolene."
"That I do."
Copyright © 2007 Megan Abbott
Reprinted with permission.
On October 7, 1949, dark-haired starlet Jean Spangler kissed her five-year-old daughter good-bye and left for a night shoot at a Hollywood studio. "Wish me luck," she said as she crossed her fingers, winked, and walked away. She was never seen again. The only clues left behind: a purse with a broken strap found in a nearby park, a cryptic note, and rumors about mobster boyfriends and ill-fated romances with movie stars.
Drawing on this true-life missing person case, Megan Abbott's The Song Is You tells the story of Gil "Hop" Hopkins, a smooth-talking Hollywood publicist whose career, despite his complicated personal life, is on the rise. It is 1951, two years after Jean Spangler's disappearance, and Hop finds himself unwillingly drawn into the still unsolved mystery by a friend of Jean who blames Hop for concealing details about Jean's whereabouts the night she vanished. Driven by guilt and fear of blackmail, Hop delves into the case himself, feverishly trying to stay one step ahead of an intrepid female reporter also chasing the story. Hop thought he'd seen it all, but what he uncovers both tantalizes and horrifies him as he plunges deeper and deeper into Hollywood's substratum in his attempt to uncover the truth.
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Megan Abbott was born and raised in the Detroit area. She graduated fro the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English Literature. She received her Ph.D in English from New York University in 2000.
She has taught literature, writing and film at New York University and the State University of New York at Oswego.
She lives in New York City.