Garland Westover isn’t answering his phone, which isn’t surprising—Gar will never answer his phone again. Gracie Kindall knows this. Mrs. Singer knows it. There are seven in all who know it. Three decided not to come to work today, and the four who did must pretend they don’t know that Garland is dead and getting more rotten by the minute.
This morning, a sunny spring day in 1929, Gracie is sitting at the desk outside Mrs. Singer’s office. This outer reception room is where the girls in the steno pool wait for assignments. There are two couches, two overstuffed chairs, and six folding chairs here on the second floor of the Reston Building, named for the late first president of the movie company. Next to the window is a bookshelf filled with books meant only to be read in the limbo of the waiting room. Across the hall is the quiet room, where the women can read or nap on one of three cots. There the blinds soften the light, and no talking is allowed—and that means no whispering either.
Gracie dials Mr. Westover’s number again with a trembling hand as if, by some miracle, Garland, the famous actor-director, the glamorous Gar, the darling of the movie magazines, the biggest moneymaker of Kaplan Famous Players Pictures, might pick up. It rings an unreasonable two minutes before she puts the handset back on its cradle.
Mrs. Singer sent a girl—one who knows nothing about it—to his house earlier this morning to take dictation. It should have been Gracie. She’s the one who’s been working with Gar for two weeks, and she has a key. It would have been more natural—that is to say, above suspicion—for Gracie to go to the house, let herself in, go into the library, and begin typing the revisions Gar would have left for her yesterday evening. As Mrs. Singer said, she didn’t have to discover the body.
But she couldn’t do it—couldn’t sit at her typewriter and work, waiting for the housekeeper to scream. If there really is a hell, that would be have been it. Gracie begged Mrs. Singer to send someone else.
Just as the workday began this morning, Mrs. Singer relented and said she would give the assignment to a girl who didn’t have a key. No one will question why one girl was sent instead of another. Stenos are interchangeable cogs in the studio machine. Attention will focus on whatever story the studio concocts to explain Gar’s death, because what actually happened is something that can never be told. The studio will tell the D.A. what to believe, and the D.A. will tell the police what to believe. That’s the way it works.
Gracie worried about Edna, the steno who went to Gar’s house. What if she tried the door, found it unlocked, and went inside, went up the stairs? Seeing something like that could affect a person’s mind. She didn’t want to hurt Edna, but it had to look as though none of them had any idea. Gracie was deeply relieved when Edna came back to the office around ten-thirty. No one had answered the door. Thank God, thank God. Gracie thanked God for a good half hour.
Now she continues to call as instructed. She will call again in five minutes, and five more minutes after that. Between calls she busies herself with checking the weekly timesheets for accuracy. She glances up to see Mrs. Singer coming out of her office, looking worried, haggard even, as she surveys the room. Today she has pulled her hair back into a chic chignon, which emphasizes the anxiety in her face. Gracie has always admired the way Mrs. Singer changes her hairstyle day to day. To her it suggests that a woman can be whoever she wants, based on how she feels at any given moment, just as actresses can inhabit a character by putting on a particular set of clothes. She has felt a connection with Mrs. Singer from the first day they met. Ever since Gracie’s job interview, Mrs. Singer has guided her through the quagmires of the job, and Gracie has slowly learned to trust her. Their bond has grown over time, and the events of last night have deepened that bond further. But still, there are some things Gracie will never share.
At the moment, three girls are waiting for assignments in the Stenography Office. Mrs. Singer looks dolefully at each one before she calls in the new girl. That girl, Maisie something, rises slowly from her seat as if debating whether to go into the supervisor’s office or to run out of the waiting room, out of the building, past the new sound stages, the commissary, Wardrobe and the dressing rooms, and off the lot. Who could blame her? She must have overheard the frightful ruckus through the wall of Mrs. Singer’s office that morning—the crying, or screeching in the case of Ida Moran, or moaning in the case of Paulette. That conversation (well, not exactly a conversation, more like a communal exorcism)—that whatever-it-was would have been enough to scare anyone away. Even Gracie was scared, and Gracie thinks of herself as a tough bird, all right. She’s been through a lot. But none of it prepared her for this.
The new girl doesn’t run for it. She goes into Mrs. Singer’s office and emerges a few minutes later, gathers up her things, and leaves. Gracie knows the assignment—Harlan Nash. He is due on the lot this morning to work on the script for the Betty Compson movie, and will soon be in need of a stenographer. Harlan is a sweet guy whose only sin is procrastination. The perfect assignment for a new girl—all she’ll have to do is pick up some office supplies at the studio store, order Harlan’s lunch, and answer the phone. He won’t write anything until two days before the script is due. And he won’t try to cop a feel or look up her skirt because Harlan isn’t interested: he’s a pansy, as Mrs. Singer would say. Gracie has already gone the Harlan Nash route and graduated to more challenging tasks.
She makes the pointless phone call again and lets it ring nineteen times, then hangs up before twenty, as if twenty would prove something horrific has happened. When Mrs. Singer comes out and tells her to go to lunch, she takes her purse and walks slowly through the waiting room just as she would on an ordinary day.
“Sweetie, would you pick up my lunch at the commissary on your way back?” asks Mrs. Singer.
“Yes, of course,” she says. She glances at Mrs. Singer, but the supervisor has turned away from her, and she wonders how long they can go without looking each other in the eye.
Outside the Reston Building, Gracie turns toward the commissary. Some of the stenos go there for lunch so they can ogle movie stars. Right now Clive Brook and Gloria Swanson are on the lot. Girls like Esther Cohen, who is coming around the corner now and slipping through the commissary door, wouldn’t for the world miss the chance to see someone famous eat lunch. It really amazes Gracie, the way they report back to the eager audience in the office all the details—Greta Garbo ate her Parker House roll sans butter, and John Gilbert drank milk, milk! for goodness sake.
Gracie can’t bring herself to go into the commissary today. She doesn’t trust herself to act nonchalant. She’s the opposite of nonchalant. She wonders if that makes her chalant. As she passes the commissary door, she remembers that she’s supposed to pick up Mrs. Singer’s lunch. But it’s just too hard to enter that mob of humanity, considering the state she’s in. Better to keep walking. Walking will clear her mind, calm her nerves.
She heads deeper into the lot and finds herself walking next to a bed. She and the bed are moving at exactly the same speed, which gives her a chance to examine it in some detail. It’s covered in a white satin bedspread bordered with pink rosettes—the most luxuriously feminine bedspread she’s ever seen—and she’s suddenly overwhelmed with an intense desire to crawl under that satin coverlet and burrow into the roses. Gracie didn’t sleep at all last night, and her body is beginning to ache. But the bed makes a sudden left turn away from her and goes through the gargantuan doors of Stage 12, pushed by three fellows from the Property Department.
When she realizes the bed is destined for the set of Garland Westover’s movie, Park Avenue Scandals, she lets out an audible groan. Production is scheduled to begin tomorrow with the scene she helped him to write, the scene that had to be written on a day when he was suffering from a brain-splitting hangover. It wasn’t exactly her big break—ever since talkies began to take over the movie business, she has revised many a page of dialogue for men who can’t seem to imagine what might come out of a woman’s mouth. But Gar actually thanked her for that particular contribution in front of C.P. Silverberg, Kaplan’s head of Production, and C.P. smiled at her. C.P., who never smiles. Just ask anyone—C.P. never smiles.
Gracie watches the bed disappear into the vast interior of the sound stage as she stands at the entrance, feeling like a Lilliputian in Brobdingnag. The scene she helped to write takes place in the bedroom of a rich girl, played by Anita Page, the morning after she meets Ramon Navarro at a jazz club. It was Gracie’s idea to make it a jazz joint instead of some highfalutin nightclub, and to model it on Club Apex on Central Avenue, a favorite haunt of hers and a lot of Hollywood’s jazz babies. It was also Gracie’s idea to use her favorite band, Oliver Kendall’s Kings of Syncopation, for the club scene, and to cast her friend Birdie Lockwood as Anita Page’s maid. All that will probably go out the window now.
Gracie turns to continue her walk, but suddenly the bed comes back at her through the gargantuan doors.
As the Property guys pass, she falls into step with them. “Isn’t that the same bed you just wheeled in?” she asks.
When they don’t answer, she refines her question. “What happened?”
“They don’t want it now,” says the closest fellow.
The bed floats on down the street. Gracie can’t move. A current of molten anxiety flows through her, and her feet harden into rocks. They know. They’ve found the body. Gracie imagines the scene in Gar’s bedroom, his lifeless body sprawled across his bed—even though she doesn’t know if he’s on his bed. He could be on the floor, on the oft-employed bearskin in front of the fireplace, or at his desk, blood soaking into his leather ink blotter. She hopes he is seated in one of his antique Spanish colonial chairs, still upright, the bullet hole just a small spot in his temple. A dignified end for a star of the silver screen.
In fact Gracie has heard a different account, a foul and degrading one, and despite whatever sins Gar committed in his storied life, the many broken hearts, the starlets used and thrown to the curb, she doesn’t want to think of him that way.
After the Property guys disappear behind Stage 8 with the now unwanted bed, an angry mob charges out of the stage, headed straight for her. Her heart jumps and goose bumps pop out on her arms before she realizes it’s not a mob and it’s not angry—it’s just a bunch of extras on their way to the commissary. As they pass, one of them yells, “Hey Gracie!” and Gracie waves.
“Happy birthday! I missed you last night. I thought you were going to swing by the club after the party.” It’s Birdie. Slender and loose-limbed, she’s dressed as an eighteenth-century slave for a plantation scene.
“I was,” Gracie answers, “but I didn’t feel all that good, so I went home and fell into bed instead. I’ll come hear you sing next time. I promise.” Gracie hates lying to Birdie, but it’s better not to get her involved.
“I’m going to be singing every Thursday, but that’s not my big news. The big news is… Are you ready? I got the part!”
By the sound of it, Birdie is thrilled by this bit of good fortune. What a lovely way to be, thinks Gracie. Heaps of hope and the happiness that comes with it. “That’s grand, honey,” she says. “I knew you would.”
The two young women walk arm in arm down the street, back toward the commissary.
“I’ll have a couple of lines tomorrow, then a couple more on Friday,” says Birdie. “Tomorrow is ‘There’s a gentleman here to see you, Miss Morrow’ and ‘What shall I tell him, then?’ They said I have the perfect face for a lady’s maid. I don’t know if I should be happy or insulted, but it’s enough to pay my rent for two months, so I guess I’m more happy than anything else.”
Gracie takes Birdie by the shoulders. “That’s it in a nutshell!”
“What?” says Birdie.
“How I think about this place. I never know whether to feel happy or insulted—I bounce from one to the other every day. Sometimes every hour. Any little thing can give you just enough hope to keep going. Otherwise, it’s just one big insulting mess.”
Birdie places her fingers on Gracie’s cheeks and pushes them gently to make an involuntary smile, which makes Gracie smile for real.
“You know, you do look a little peaked, honey,” says Birdie.
“Yeah, I don’t have much appetite. Listen, could you do me a favor and pick up Mrs. Singer’s lunch for me? The smell of that chicken soup is making me queasy.”
“Sure,” says Birdie.
As Gracie watches her disappear into the commissary, she thinks that someday, when her ideas actually count for something at Kaplan, she’ll write a role for a colored girl that isn’t a maid or a slave.
She wishes she could tell Birdie that there probably won’t be any work for her tomorrow. She’s not sure how long it takes to replace a director and star, but wouldn’t it be a bit unseemly to go ahead with the shooting schedule while Garland Westover is lying on a slab in the morgue? Will they even make the picture at all?
She’s suddenly anxious to get back to the Stenography Office and see if the news of his demise has reached the studio muckety-mucks. All she wants at this moment is to stop pretending, to go on with life the way it was yesterday. When Birdie comes to the door, Gracie takes Miss Singer’s box lunch and heads off with a hurried good-bye.
Madeleine Singer closes her office door and walks to the window. After only a few seconds, she pulls down the blinds and returns to her desk. She is no longer comfortable in this office that has been her pride and refuge for the past twelve years. Suddenly she can’t quite square what she teaches her girls with what has happened.
Gathering the few sheets of paper off her desk—the new girl’s employment application, her steno and typing tests, and two letters of recommendation—she walks to her filing cabinet and slides them into the proper folders. Madeleine likes to keep her desktop neat, a vast expanse of mahogany innocent of clutter. But even this working principle is now in question, as is everything else she has ever believed about how to do her job.
Just in the last hour, she has delivered her standard “we are all professional ladies” lecture to the new girl. It goes something like this: “The studio relies on us, as professional women, to comport ourselves with the utmost probity even in the face of eccentric and disreputable behavior. You will be working for some very creative nonconformists, and you may from time to time be required to remind these men that this is a place of business.”
Today, when she reached this part of the talk, she faltered for a second. Madeleine wonders now if the new girl could see how difficult it was for her to continue. Trying to put the unnerving events of the previous evening out of her mind, she told the girl she had every right to return to the Stenography Office if any “boss” got fresh or tried any funny business with her. “What is sometimes called for,” she added as usual, “is a good, hard slap. Work can usually resume once the slap has delivered its intended message. Bohemian types sometimes just need to understand their boundaries.”
She has never questioned the wisdom of this advice. It worked for her when she was a young stenographer, and she has always assumed that it will be sufficient for the girls in her charge. But now she isn’t so sure.
The phone rings, and Madeleine realizes that she has been standing for some time at her open file cabinet, staring at nothing. She takes the call—a request from the Payroll Department for a girl to do some typing—and assigns the job to one of the stenos in the waiting room. It’s 1:45 now, and the wait is becoming unbearable. Surely someone knows by this time what has happened. She picks up the phone and dials Mr. Silverberg’s office.
“Good morning, Lily. Madeleine Singer here. I just thought Mr. Silverberg should know that I sent a girl to Garland Westover’s home this morning, and there was no one home. We’ve been calling ever since and getting no answer.”
She waits for a response from Lily, Mr. Silverberg’s long-time, long-suffering secretary, but the line seems to be dead. “Lily?” she repeats. “Lily?”
She is about to hang up when Lily’s voice finally comes over the line, so hushed as to be almost inaudible. “Madeleine, listen. Something’s happened. I can’t say what, but don’t call Garland’s number anymore. I’ll tell you more when I see you. All right?”
“All right,” says Madeleine, trying not to sound relieved, even though she has never felt such relief in her entire life.
“And don’t breathe a word of this to anyone. Understand?”
“Yes, yes, of course,” says Madeleine.
The line goes dead, and she thinks for a moment that she might cry. The worst is over now, and life will soon go back to normal.
Her hand is still on the phone when someone knocks on the door. It’s Paulette, who was there last night and isn’t handling it very well. Madeleine sighs—will this be another crying spell? But Paulette just wants to say she’s back from lunch.
“All right,” Madeleine says. “Would you tell Mary Ann she can go?”
As Paulette is closing the door, Gracie slips through with a box from the commissary.
“Close the door,” says Madeleine, and Gracie sits across from her and pushes the lunch across the desk.
“They know,” says Madeleine. “But that doesn’t mean we can relax. They’re probably deciding on the official explanation right now. Just remember, Gracie, whatever they say, don’t be surprised, don’t question, and most of all don’t call attention to yourself.”
Gracie nods. She is already familiar with official explanations, having seen the unofficial side of several debacles already in the course of her studio career. But she has never been this close to the truth.
Madeleine takes the ham sandwich out of the box and pushes the rest toward Gracie. “Would you like some potato salad, sweetie?”
Gracie shakes her head without looking up. She can’t help thinking that things are about to go south.
A Good, Hard Slap is an exploration into the consequences of silence in the face of sexual abuse and harassment. The story begins at a fictional Hollywood movie studio in 1929, the day after a well-known actor/director has been murdered. The novel’s protagonist, Gracie Kindall, and several other women who attended her birthday party the previous night know the murderer and have heard her confession. In a series of flashbacks into the lives of Gracie and her friends, the novel delves into the reasons why the women have decided to help the murderer escape the law.
In the real world, it’s only recently that women have banded together to uncover the pervasive problem of sexual assault and harassment. The #MeToo movement has gained widespread participation in the movie business, where sexual assault has been especially egregious all the way back to the silent era. That’s why I made this novel the story of women in the steno pool of Kaplan Pictures, a typical Hollywood dream factory and protected hunting ground for sexual predators. In the early days of Hollywood, it was the studios themselves that protected the miscreants, usually with ruthless publicity departments and men who were employed as “fixers.”
The possible repercussions of covering up sexual assault are many, and I’ve written a scenario that leads to suicide and murder. In an age when women rarely saw justice, it was inevitable that some would take it upon themselves to seek revenge. By the end of the story, three needless deaths are the collateral damage of the studio publicity machine and the silence it enforced.
But revenge and silence are only part of this exploration. As the story unfolds, it dips back in time to recount the women’s previous experiences, most notably Gracie’s. A betrayal by her high-school boyfriend has caused Gracie to lose faith in love, and when a decent guy falls for her, she has a hard time giving her heart. As she slowly overcomes old emotional scars, she suffers new ones from her culpability in enabling the sexual predator who has been murdered. Gracie and the others are left wondering what role their silence has played in the tragedies that unfold.
Catherine Bator lives in San Francisco with her husband and incorrigible fox terrier. She made the shortlist for the 2021 First Pages Prize, and has published short fiction in The Coachella Review and Tertulia Magazine. She worked with comedy writers at MGM and Paramount before receiving her MFA in Writing in 2016 from the University of San Francisco.
Embark, Issue 15, October 2021