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The great pretenders, p.1

The Great Pretenders, page 1


The Great Pretenders

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The Great Pretenders

  Praise for The Great Pretenders

  “What a good book! Engagingly readable, full of Golden Age of Hollywood glitz—and a wonderful story of idealism, courage, and the price of love. Enjoyed every page!”

  —Diana Gabaldon, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Outlander

  “In her riveting new novel, Laura Kalpakian has given us a heroine to cheer for in this juicy tale of Hollywood. Roxanne Granville’s journey from diffident daughter of privilege to boundary-shattering career woman who takes on both the Hollywood blacklist and the racial prejudices of the early Civil Rights era is breathtaking and moving, even epic.”

  —Melanie Benjamin, New York Times bestselling author of The Girls in the Picture

  “Set against the glitter of Hollywood during the McCarthy era, one courageous woman, forced to start anew, reinvents herself as an agent and ends up selling blacklisted scripts. The screenwriters she represents are every bit as forbidden as the African American man she falls in love with. Kalpakian has written a timely story that deftly deals with racism and the fight for justice. The Great Pretenders is poignant, touching, and often filled with laugh-out-loud wit.”

  —Renée Rosen, author of Park Avenue Summer

  “A fascinating journey into the intrigues and hypocrisies of 1950s Hollywood, coupled with an indomitable heroine who dares to shatter the rules. Exciting, fast-paced, and revelatory.”

  —C. W. Gortner, author of The Romanov Empress

  “Both a wild romp through glittering 1950s Hollywood and a poignant journey of love and courage in the blacklist era of the silver screen. I was swept away by the passionate story and whip-smart writing. Laura Kalpakian’s clever prose introduces us to a vibrant woman we can admire—a woman both brave and vulnerable. After one fearless choice, her life seems to careen toward certain wreckage, yet Roxanne is there to show us that integrity and love are the conquering powers. Deeply moving, intelligent, and charming, this is a story to savor.”

  —Patti Callahan Henry, New York Times bestselling author of The Bookshop at Water’s End


  An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

  1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019

  Copyright © 2019 by Laura Kalpakian

  Readers Guide copyright © 2019 by Laura Kalpakian

  Penguin Random House supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin Random House to continue to publish books for every reader.

  BERKLEY and the BERKLEY & B colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Names: Kalpakian, Laura, author.

  Title: The great pretenders / Laura Kalpakian.

  Description: First Edition. | New York : Berkley, 2019.

  Identifiers: LCCN 2018037214| ISBN 9781101990186 (paperback) | ISBN 9781101990193 (ebook)

  Subjects: | BISAC: FICTION / Contemporary Women. | FICTION / Historical. | FICTION / African American / Historical.

  Classification: LCC PS3561.A4168 G74 2019 | DDC 813/.54—dc23

  LC record available at

  First Edition: April 2019

  Cover art: car © Roger-Viollet / The Image Works; Woman © AGIP / Bridgeman Images

  Cover design by Vikki Chu

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.


  For Zai Pakradouhi McCreary

  And for her great-grandmother,

  Pakradouhi Kalpakian Johnson


  Praise for The Great Pretenders

  Title Page




  Part I: A Daughter of EmpireChapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Part II: The ChallengerChapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Part III: The Red and the BlackChapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-one

  Chapter Twenty-two

  Chapter Twenty-three

  Chapter Twenty-four

  Chapter Twenty-five

  Chapter Twenty-six

  Part IV: A House Made of StrawChapter Twenty-seven

  Chapter Twenty-eight

  Chapter Twenty-nine

  Chapter Thirty

  Chapter Thirty-one

  Chapter Thirty-two

  Chapter Thirty-three

  Chapter Thirty-four

  Chapter Thirty-five

  Part V: The OublietteChapter Thirty-six

  Chapter Thirty-seven

  Chapter Thirty-eight

  Chapter Thirty-nine

  Chapter Forty

  Author’s Note

  Readers Guide


  About the Author

  Here’s looking at you, kid.



  A Daughter of Empire


  Chapter One

  Will it rain? Though clouds glower overhead, I lift the black veil on my hat and put my sunglasses on so I don’t have to meet anyone’s gaze as we listen to the droning voice extolling Julia Greene’s accomplishments as if she had just graduated rather than died. Errant, uninspired raindrops descend, enough that women pull their mink stoles closer, and many people look up, surprised. In this vast sea of celebrity—the stars who glitter in the cinematic heavens and the producers, directors, and studio heads who make their lives hell—no one believes there can be rain unless the director says, Cue the thunder. We, the family, are seated in front of the mahogany casket, which is bedecked with orchids. Beside me Leon is stoic, not an expression that reflects remorse. Does he regret breaking Julia’s heart? Does he even care that she died alone in Paris? The thought makes me want to cry all over again, but hearing her voice in my head—Never forget that you are Roxanne Granville, named for the romantic heroine of a great play—I forbid myself the luxury of tears. I remind myself that she sent me to L’Oiseau d’Or, a Parisian finishing school for the contemptibly rich, where I learned one never admits there’s anything one can’t endure except for vulgarity. Like this vulgar send-off. Look at all this gaudy array of stupendously garish floral tributes. It’s as though they were ordered by some freewheeling set designer operating without a budget. Julia, with her standards, would have laughed at every ostentatious moment, but she would have understo
od that it could not be otherwise. This is Hollywood, after all.

  She would not have been amused to see some of these faces, since Julia didn’t share Leon’s rabid anti-Red convictions. John Wayne, Ward Bond, Gary Cooper, Hedda Hopper, Cecil B. DeMille, Ginger Rogers, and all the rest of Leon’s staunch allies from the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, they’re all here, looking stylishly somber. Every one of them is well aware that we are simultaneously the audience as well as the actors in this mourning drama. Even a funeral becomes a theatrical occasion.

  Besides all the famous names, there are dignitaries from a dozen philanthropic arts boards that Julia generously funded. Their women look like moneyed bonbons. Our sweet neighbors, Fred Astaire and his wife, they’re here, and dear Buster Keaton with his always-sad eyes. All of Empire Pictures is here, not just the production chiefs, the financial wizards, and Melvin Grant’s whole law firm, but all of wardrobe, makeup, set design, down to the lowliest gaffers and carpenters. Empire people loved Julia; she always threw a massive Christmas party on the winter solstice and then insisted that the studio close down between Christmas and New Year’s. Paid vacation for everyone! When she and I left California in ’49, Leon ended that practice. Leon casts a long shadow over all these Empire people, hundreds of them. I have vowed to myself that before this terrible week is over, I will step out of his shadow. I hope I have the strength. Julia always told me: “The more strength you use, the more you will have.” I’m counting on that to be true.

  Leon takes my black-gloved hand and squeezes it as if I am three again, a child who needs to be reassured. My grandparents are the only real parents I ever knew. I call them Leon and Julia because that’s what they called each other. Grandma and Grandpa are the sorts of names you might give to a tugboat. Leon and Julia are yachts, sophisticated, strong-willed, charming (manipulative, many would say), elegant, powerful personalities. The same cannot be said for the woman on my left, Florence, my mother, sitting beside her inebriate third husband, Walter. In the row behind us I cringe to hear my brother-in-law, Gordon, inadequately suppress a burp. He sits with my sister, Irene, and Jonathan. Jonathan and I have been friends since we were tots, brother and sister without shared parents.

  I was basically orphaned and went to live with my grandparents when my father, Rowland Granville, returned to his native England and the West End stage, and my mother, Florence, decamped with a South African animal wrangler she met on a movie location. I was about three. Honestly, Florence was no loss to me. Then—and now—with a sidelong glance she can reduce me to self-hating pulp. That’s why she’s sitting to my left. On the right side of my face I have a birthmark, like rouge too eagerly applied from my temple to my cheekbone. It’s easily subdued with makeup except when I am upset for any reason, and then it’s an unfortunate barometer of my emotions. An imperfection I can never quite forget, certainly not in a city that worships physical beauty, and really, what other kind of beauty is there?

  Standing together, at some distance from the rest of us, I notice many Negroes. I recognize a few cooks from the Empire commissary, and a few Empire janitors, and servants from Summit Drive, including Clarence, of course. Impossibly tall, thin, stoic, terse, his hair sprinkled with gray, Clarence runs my grandfather’s house the way a conductor runs the Philharmonic. Perhaps the solid woman beside him is his wife. Only I didn’t know Clarence had a wife. That strikes me as suddenly curious. I’ve known Clarence for twenty-two years, all my life, and I didn’t even know he was married? The others, earnest-looking, middle-aged men decorously holding their hats, I don’t recognize any of them. One older gent is in a wheelchair with a tall young man beside him who holds an umbrella over his head, as if protecting the older man is a solemn duty. He closes the umbrella as the rain ceases, but he does not lose his air of vigilance.

  I shiver. Leon puts an arm around me and pulls me close to him, and then I’m really afraid I will cry. I love him so much, but I still feel sharp little stabs of resentment. Was Leon with that slut Denise Dell when Jerrold Davies called him with the news of Julia’s death? At least Denise and her pimp mother, Elsie, have the decency not to show their faces here today.

  How could Leon have chosen Denise over Julia? For forty years, Julia was more than a wife; she was his partner in creating, maintaining, and advancing Empire Pictures. She read and evaluated scripts, helped to make casting choices, offered sotto voce comments on-set, and watched the endless boring dailies in our screening room while I slept in her lap. Who else but Julia Greene, with her enormous verve and charm, could have persuaded George Gershwin to write music for a frothy Max Leslie comedy in 1937? Sure, George agreed to write for Sam Goldwyn’s Follies, but Empire is a much smaller outfit; Empire could never pay what Sam Goldwyn could pay—but George was happy to do it for Julia.

  I close my eyes and think back to those childhood days and nights at Summit Drive when George and Ira Gershwin were among the not merely famous, but legendary guests, all of whom basked in the Greenes’ hospitality. Actors, writers, directors, producers, composers, editors, cameramen, set decorators, and costumers, as well as the city’s great philanthropists, they all came to croquet parties, tennis matches, late-night suppers on the candlelit terraces, musical evenings, movies in the screening room, lavish Easter egg hunts for the children, annual New Year’s Eve galas, intimate dinners, leisurely lunches by the pool—oh, and the Christmases! Everything Julia did, she touched with glamour. If I think of that now, I will cry. I mustn’t cry.

  I glance sideways. Leon’s profile is dignified, even regal, but I have come to see him not as a child regards a beloved grandparent, but as a grown woman judges a man who has disappointed her. My respect for Leon has ebbed, and like the beach at low tide, you see all sorts of trash and debris and garbage, mud you never knew existed while you floated on bright water.

  Despite his dalliances, Leon and Julia stayed married. She always believed Empire Pictures was Leon’s true mistress, but her stunning collection of jewelry testifies to his many infidelities—and his remorse. However, his affair with Denise Dell did not end like his other affairs. Denise absorbed his time and energy, and finally, his loyalty, and his love. As the affair went on—and on and on—Julia and Leon engaged in long bouts of screaming, oaths, and threats. Their anger then decayed into cold silence. Julia moved into her own suite at the opposite wing of the house. Leon was seldom home anyway. By my last year in high school the mansion on Summit Drive had fallen silent, a thirty-five-room cocoon of unhappiness from which no butterfly emerged. Julia cloaked her bitterness with the dismissive phrase “No fool like an old fool.” But that old fool broke her heart. All she could salvage was her pride. She took that (and me) and moved to Paris in 1949. I could write a book about Paris, about the people I met at Julia’s weekly soirees, Thursday evenings in our 8th arrondissement apartment near the Parc Monceau, about going to little smoky boîtes and hearing Sidney Bechet play, about L’Oiseau d’Or, for that matter. (I was the only student who rode a bicycle to the school—very much frowned upon by les grandes dames!) I would have stayed in Paris happily, but Julia insisted that an American girl needed an American education, so I went to Mills College in Northern California, where earlier this month Jerrold Davies made a transatlantic call to tell me that my grandmother had died of a heart attack.

  But Jerrold is not here for the funeral. Jerrold can’t even return to the US. He fled a subpoena from the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950 and went to Paris, where his Best Picture Oscar for The Ice Age sits on the rickety shelf of a Left Bank apartment. He uses the Oscar as a hat rack. Simon Strassman fled to Mexico in ’51. I think his passport was revoked. Nelson Hilyard is dead, a suicide. Of the old guard Empire writers who delighted my childhood, only Max Leslie is here, standing between his grieving wife, Marian, and his longtime secretary, Thelma Bigelow.

  “Come on, Honeybee. Let’s go home.” Leon holds my hand, raises me to my feet. “We’r
e done here.”

  He takes my arm, and as we start toward the cars, a swarm of uniformed drivers races up the hill, like infantrymen armed with open umbrellas to shield us from the light rain. Nothing can ward off the throngs of gawking fans, though police have cordons to keep them in place. Nothing can protect people like us from the press. Flashbulbs sparkle across our vision as Leon waves photographers away.

  “Smile, Ginger!”


  “Over here, Miss Stanwyck!”

  “Hey, Coop!”

  We avert our eyes and hurry past. We know the press is merciless and always will be. The relationship between the press and the picture business is that of mutually voracious cannibals.

  Our driver shepherds us to the Rolls, closes the door behind us, starts up, and drives off. We all fall back into the plush seats, sighing. Jonathan passes around his hip flask. Irene, in her cool, blonde, graceful way, takes a genteel swig from it. Gordon prefers to sip from a bottle of Pepto-Bismol. Leon declines the flask. I take a gulp. Walter finishes it off and hands it to Florence, who doesn’t notice that it’s empty. Everyone but me opens their sleek cigarette cases, gets out a smoke, and lights up.

  Leon takes my hand in his. “I’m proud of you, Honeybee. You did fine. Julia would have been proud too. You are a credit to her, to me, to Empire Pictures.”

  Leon always talks like that, as though Empire Pictures is actually a living thing that can have credit bestowed upon it—or conversely, that can be diminished. He always reminds me I am a daughter of Empire, and while I recognize the benefits, I’m tired of the responsibility. I retrieve my hand from his, roll down the window, and breathe in. Deep.

  Chapter Two

  The next day the family rode together in the Bentley to a lawyer’s office in a shabby downtown district. Garbage blew along the gutters. Irene and Gordon both commented on the general decay, and Florence wondered aloud why Julia would have chosen this nobody lawyer.

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