Doris only rarely talked about her past. This time was no exception. Maybe she figured that having to go through it with Annie and then again before the committee would be more than enough. What I did know about her, though, told me that my private redhead had more guts than a hundred gals. But for the first time I began to wonder whether what I didn’t know could hurt me and, even more importantly, hurt us.
I knew her life had certainly been no picnic. First there was her lower middle class childhood in Michigan with an abusive father. That was followed by an early marriage right out of high school to the equally abusive Jack Finerty. Finally when she could take it no more she left him and her only plan was to meet a cousin in California. He was the one who had managed to get her a start with Photoplay Magazine, which was what she was doing when we met.
After laboriously working her way up the ranks at Photoplay they unfairly let her go. With no other options she not only took a chance on me, but also with writing the novel that subsequently became a best seller and opened a door for her in Hollywood.
Before we left I called the offices of Alexis, Berg, and Weston. None of them answered and I was afraid to leave a message not knowing who might hear it. I simply told them it was very important to all concerned and gave them my number in New York. Whether they called would go a long way to clarify Doris’ status on “Heart Of China”.
I also called her agent, Danny Youngman. Danny was very concerned and kept asking me if there was anything he could do. I assured him that we had everything under control and to not worry. I wondered if he knew what a lie that was. There would be time to ask him about Johnston and Judge later.
Not being much of a flyer I was relieved when the plane landed in New York at Idlewild. Doris was very uncharacteristically quiet during the flight choosing instead to rest her head quietly on my shoulder and stare at the clouds out the window. I left her alone figuring that I’d learn her mysterious bad news soon enough.
It was late when the cab dropped us off at what was now our apartment in Soho. I tried to not let on how glad I was to be back in New York. We unpacked quickly knowing that we were meeting Annie the following morning.
A subway ride and a few blocks walk got us to Annie’s place on the East side at about 10:00am. My old friend met us at the door and led us to a dining room table that held a home baked coffee cake. After a little small talk and a cup of coffee Annie sensed Doris was relaxed enough to start.
“All right dear,” Annie began, “let me see the summons.”
Doris handed it over and we waited for Annie to carefully read it. She took off her glasses when she’d finished and thoughtfully rubbed her hands together. Annie then asked how this had all started and she listened intently as we went over the last couple of weeks.
“What do you think?” I prompted when we finished.
“You understand the background of this,” Annie said. “It began after the war as Russia quickly gobbled up Eastern Europe. Folks became concerned about how much influence the Communists had here at home. Certainly there was a fair amount of interest in socialism during the depression and the worry is that it has carried over after the war into the entertainment business. Hollywood with its left wing artsy types became an easy headline-grabbing target.
“In ’47 ten writers who refused to cooperate with the committee were blacklisted and had their careers ended. Others who didn’t give the ‘right’ answers were also put out of work.
“Now with Joseph McCarthy having restarted the hearings and their getting shown on TV they have an even higher profile than before. The fact that the senator is running for reelection this fall is probably driving this as much as anything else. The question is whether you have anything to hide.”
“Oh Annie,” Doris sighed.
“It’s all right,” Annie said calmly. “Now, what can you tell me?”
Doris took a deep breath. “I married Jack right after graduation from high school in 1933. The depression was hitting all of us very hard. The fact that he was getting bounced around from job to job was making us pretty desperate. When you get into a situation like that hearing that there’s an idea to take from the rich and evenly distribute money and jobs sounds pretty good.
“Soon we were going to meetings which continually reminded us how oppressed we were and how the workers of the world needed to stand up for themselves. I’m afraid we bought into it.”
“Bought into it how?” Annie asked.
“Jack and I both registered in the Socialist Party and participated in demonstrations in both Detroit and Lansing. Jack took on some jobs doing even more. While he never told me much I knew it involved making threats on local officials. I think he might have also been involved in some fire bombings of government offices. The insane idea was to bring about a revolution and radically change the government.”
“You knew nothing specific?” Annie confirmed.
“I knew what the goal was,” Doris said while sadly hanging her head, “and I thought I wanted it too. I was young and stupid and was being dragged into the cause by Jack. All I really knew was that I needed something different. Soon our marriage, which wasn’t much to begin with, completely fell apart. Jack was a failure at work, a failure as a revolutionary, and a failure as a husband. Drinking and abusing me turned out to be his only skills.”
Doris stopped and wiped her eyes. Not knowing what else to do I put my arm around her and kissed her lightly on the cheek. She gave me a weak smile and took a ragged breath.
“You left Jack and went to LA in the early 40s?” Annie asked after a short wait.
“Did you ever accompany your husband on any of his, uh, endeavors?”
“Yes, but only once,” Doris sighed. “I didn’t know it when we left, but he was told to break into the IRS office in Detroit and destroy some files. He left me in the car while he was supposed to get into the building. Actually he never managed to do much more than set off the alarm. When it rang I picked him up and we got away.”
“You’re positive that was your only time?”
“OK, good,” Annie smiled. “Make sure you tell these stories and make sure that you make it clear that you were forced against your will to participate. We need to build up sympathy for you and since Jack is dead and you’re remarried maybe the committee will give you the benefit of the doubt.”
“I’m assuming that you went to meetings?” Annie asked after another short wait. “Who ran them?”
“The local leaders of the party. But occasionally we had guest speakers in to tell us how oppressed we were and to encourage us by saying the revolution was close. It was all very exciting for a while.”
“Annie,” I asked, “would the committee in DC know about this?”
“Maybe,” she replied and turning to me added, “you still think that this was orchestrated by Standish, right?”
“Yeah,” I said, “but she seems to have lots of sources so who knows where this little item really came from.”
“I understand,” Annie nodded and turned back to Doris. “You know they’re going to ask you about all this. I assume you no longer feel the way you did then.”
“Of course not,” Doris vehemently shook her head. “I’m not really sure I was in favor of it in 1935. I just didn’t know any better.”
“They’re still going to hit you hard about your background, you know,” Annie warned. “They’re also going to ask you to name names. Do you have any?”
“People supposedly from other parts of the country would occasionally be brought in to address us. They were always good looking and well dressed in order to make a positive first impression.”
“You remember any of them?” Annie asked intently.
“Oh Annie,” Doris protested, “it was over 15 years ago. I’m sure I’ve forgotten. And none of them were well known at the time.”
“At the time?” I repeated apprehensively.
“Wait a minute,” Annie stood up and walked around the table to Doris. With my redhead still seated they were just about at eye level. “HUAC isn’t going to let you get away with that. McCarthy is going to want them to badger you until they get something. So, which is it? Was it too long ago or did the speakers remain unknowns?”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Doris sobbed as we both looked at her quizzically. What was it she was holding back?
“Doris, honey,” Annie took her by the shoulders, “which is it?” We waited until she got herself under control.
“There was one speaker who’s well known today,” Doris choked out the words.
“You’ve got to tell us,” Annie pressed. “The folks in Washington won’t be this patient. They will grandstand for the cameras and use you to help them.”
“Come on doll,” I said softly.
“I only remember him because we talked afterward and he made a pass at me.”
“Obviously a fellow with very good taste,” I smiled at my distraught wife trying to get her to relax.
“Who was it?” Annie asked.
“Byron McCassley,” Doris said finally.
“Byron McCassley?” I tried the name out. “Never heard of him.”
“Me neither,” Annie added.
Doris wiped her nose and turned her reddened eyes to me. “That’s because he’s better known today as Brix Maxwell.”
It was quiet in the car on our way back to Soho. Doris looked embarrassed. I was mad, frustrated, and confused simultaneously. An argument was brewing.
“Aren’t you going to say anything?” Doris said finally breaking the frosty silence after we arrived home.
“Such as?” My response was probably not helpful.
“Damn it JP,” she complained, “I’m the one in a jam here.”
I took a deep breath and walked around the living room straightening my collection of photos that had begun to take over the walls. I wanted to say the right thing, but I also wanted her to know how angry I was. She watched me for a while but then, placing her fists on her hips, assumed the posture that usually meant trouble.
“JP!” Her face was as red as her hair.
“Why didn’t you tell me you’d met him before?”
“I, I didn’t think it mattered,” she sounded like I’d just caught her smoking behind the barn. Then she rebounded with, “how was I to know that HUAC would want to talk to me?”
“How was I supposed to sort out the case if you were withholding information?” The volume level was rising.
“Withholding information? How was I to know a chance meeting 15 years ago would matter?”
“The whole case is about 15 years ago,” I shouted trying to top her.
“We’re only in this fix because you antagonized Standish,” she said marching at me and shaking a finger in my face. I knew she didn’t mean it, but I was too mad to let it go.
“You have got to be kidding,” I yelled back probably with veins sticking out of my neck. “This is now all my fault? Come off it.”
“I suppose it’s all mine, then,” she fought back. “You’ve got a helluva nerve being mad. My career and the careers of many others are going to go right down the drain as soon as I open my mouth.”
“If you do.”
“If I do what!?”
“If you open your mouth,” I said ratcheting it up a few more decibels.
“What are you talking about?” Doris threw her hands in the air and stomped into the bedroom. I followed right behind her.
“Listen to me,” I said loudly walking up right behind her. As soon as I did she threw her hands in front of her face and a look of panic showed in her eyes. Flinching she recoiled and fell backward onto the bed. A few seconds passed. Suddenly I understood her reaction and dropped to my knees next to her.
“Oh Doris,” I said softly, “I’m sorry.”
“You scared me.”
“And you thought I was going to hit…”
As she nodded I quickly lay down beside her. We stayed wrapped around each other for a long time in silence. Doris pressed her face tightly into my chest and I gently stroked her hair. Relieved that the fight was over I didn’t care if we ever moved.
“Oh JP,” she sobbed after a while, “this whole business is making us both crazy. All that talk about Jack and then the argument. For a moment there it was 1937 and you were Jack and…” She dissolved into tears.
“Doris, I love you. You know I would never hurt you. And if you did think so, even for a second, then I’m sorry for that too.”
“I’m sorry too,” she managed to say through her ragged breathing. “I didn’t mean what I said, but what do we do now?”
With the fight over we were able to think rationally again. I was glad that the thinking hadn’t forced us to move off the bed.
We agreed there were two options. One involved giving up Maxwell’s name. The fallout from that plan was hard to imagine. Certainly he’d be called by HUAC and so would Berg and Weston. The movie would be halted and who knew how many others involved would be tarnished. The other choice was to tell her story, try to gain sympathy from the committee, and simply leave Maxwell out. While that sounded fine Doris was worried about lying under oath.
After running over each plan again I asked if she had a way to get in contact with Maxwell. I felt that either way he had to know what was going on. I also wanted to know how he’d managed to remain untouched by HUAC.
Although she didn’t have his home number she did have one for National Pictures. She hoped that somehow we would, at least, be able to leave a message. I decided that it was time to take Maxwell up on his “if there’s anything you need” offer from our day on the set.
“National Pictures,” chirped the receptionist after I’d once again worked my way through the long distance operators.
“This is JP Parker,” I said. “I need to leave an urgent message for Brix Maxwell. Tell him I want to take him up on his offer. Also tell that it’s a matter of career and death.”
“A little dramatic, isn’t it?” Doris smiled weakly after I hung up the phone.
“You do want him to call, don’t you?”
We didn’t have to wait long. Calculating the time change it must have been about 6:00pm in LA when our phone rang. They’d apparently handed him the message as he finished the day’s shooting.
“JP my friend,” the familiar voice crackled through the receiver. “What the hell, ‘a matter of career and death’?”
“Are you at a private phone?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’m home. Where are you? There was a rumor around the set about Washington serving your wife? Is that where you are?”
“No we’re home in New York at the moment,” I said and then asked, “who told you?”
“Hmmm,” he mumbled, “I don’t know. But folks knew your wife got called by HUAC. Man the whole studio’s got its knickers in a twist.”
“Nice of them to call,” I said sarcastically.
“Come on, you know what it’s like. Everybody’s scrambling and covering their ass.”
“Yeah,” I replied flatly.
“So what is this ‘matter of career and death’?”
I paused for a moment and then, not knowing another way to bring up the subject, said, “know anyone named Byron McCassley?”
There was silence on the other end of the line. At first I thought he’d hung up, but not hearing any click I simply waited. His voice was very different when he came back on the line. It sounded strained somewhere between anger and panic.
“What are you going to do?” He said nervously. “What do you want? Are you trying to jack me up? You bastards, you’re going to name names.”
“You son of a bitch! How much money are you after?” His voice was out of control and I had to cool my heels until he ran out of steam.
“Look Brix,” I said in the calmest voice I could, “I called because we’re trying to find a way out of this mess without hurting anyone.”
“So, it’s money then. You want money.”
“Brix please. We’re on your side. All I really want is information.”
The conversation went in circles like that for a good ten minutes. He was truly in a frenzy. I put Doris on the line and fortunately she was able to reason with him. She also told him how we knew. After a while she nodded to me and handed the phone back.
“All right,” he sounded beaten. “I trusted you before and it was OK. I guess I don’t have a choice.”
“Tell me about those meetings,” I said.
Maxwell told us that they had meant nothing. He’d been hired by the promoter of the event simply to appear and read a script that had been prepared for him. At the time he was one of many starving actors in New York and was desperate for work of any kind.
After what he felt was an embarrassing experience, as well as performance, he went back to New York and fired his agent. Soon he latched on to another one who saw his potential for the movies. The new man had Maxwell change his name, his looks, and completely restart his career as if he’d just arrived in town. A few theater rolls later and he got a call from Hollywood to come out for a screen test. It took some time, but eventually he hit the big time. With every year that passed he became more convinced that his original acting jobs as Byron McCassley had been forgotten.
“All right Brix,” I said. “Let’s see if we can keep it that way. But surely there must have been other people who knew of these appearances. Why haven’t they come forward?”
He sighed and then made little clicking sounds with his tongue. “I made some helpful connections.”
“Can I ask who?”
“Eve Standish, for one.” He didn’t sound proud of himself.
“What do you mean?”
“She got wind of Byron McCassleya long while ago,” he said slowly, “and called me up. This was before all the HUAC insanity. She was already very powerful and not knowing what she was going to do with the info, I went to see her.”
“You have any idea how much of this company town’s information she controls?”
“I’m learning about it as I go.”
“OK then,” he cleared his throat and paused. “Well, we worked out a deal.”
“Can I ask what kind of deal?” I said fully expecting the answer to be blackmail.
“I, uh, sort of provide a service,” he said and then after a pause added, “you know.”
Thinking back to the foot that massaged my shin during a recent dinner I felt fairly sure I knew what he meant. “Sexually, you mean,” was my educated guess.
“Yeah, once in a while.”
“I’m sorry Brix.”
“Yeah,” I sighed, “but at least I understand things much better now.”
Taking an accurate stab Maxwell inferred, “what’d you do, turn her down and piss her off?”
“Maybe something like that.”
I could hear the embarrassment in his voice, but he managed to recover well enough to make a sour joke. “Well, at least you don’t have to feel like a concubine.”
“But she’s still screwing you just the same, isn’t she,” he added.