Bob made a face in the mirror, sucking in on his right cheek and squinting his right eye. What the heck, he thought, maybe I should make this face tonight as the lightbulbs flash! What has Don gotten me into?
He shook his head. Bob didn’t want to go out tonight. It was yet another prearranged publicity affair, designed for him to be seen – to allow photographers to take his picture from every angle, and plaster his face all over newspapers, fan magazines, and wire services. He was already tiring of the process.
But it was the process. It was what he’d signed up to do when he put his signature on the dotted line of the MGM contract and, with that, he was required to go along for the ride. He was, after all, a star, wasn’t he?!
Yep, he was a star. Or so he was told. So all those screaming, fawning, sometimes-fainting women seemed to indicate. How in the world did he bring about such attention?
His reflection smirked back at him. Don’t believe it, Arly, it told him. There were still times he could think of himself as only Arlington. That was his name. Don’t believe a word of it, Arly. You’re still a doctor’s son from Nebraska. And you’re better off always remembering that you’re a doctor’s son from Nebraska, not the “Man With The Perfect Profile.”
Bob picked up his tortoise-shell comb from the carefully-laid-out toilette in front of him. As he swept his painstakingly cut hair away from each side of his widow’s peak, seeing the sheen in his dark strands, he knew the truth. He was a created man. He was no longer his own person, and he’d accepted the role. It was now his job, day by day, to uphold this extravagant, unreal image.
The image, as it looked back at him, finally seemed all in one just-right piece for the evening, so he and it shrugged, and he stepped away from the mirror. His hat and overcoat were on the bed, and Bob grabbed both before leaving the bedroom.
“How long have I been waiting, Bob?” his agent asked him as he came down the stairs. “I’ve already had two drinks, and I’m feeling, well, I’m feeling just about right.”
“Then I did you a service, didn’t I?” Bob replied with a grin. “I’ll have to catch up, mind you, so we’ll both be ready for the evening, and in just the right spirits.” He shrugged into his coat, put his hat atop his head, and waved away the house staff’s efforts to be part of his departure. “Let’s get this show going. Who am I to wine and dine tonight?”
“Marion, I don’t know,” Barbara squirmed in her over-stuffed armchair. It certainly wasn’t the seat making her uncomfortable.
“Honey, why not? You have to get out for a change. It’ll be good for you!” Marion Marx wouldn’t give up. Her best friend was having second, even third, thoughts. Marion watched her twirl a lock of silky hair around her left forefinger, her legs tucked under her and her elbow propped on the chair arm.
Barbara’s lack of confidence was obvious. The stubborn, sad set of her lips showed lines that didn’t usually appear on her soft face. “I don’t know,” she repeated.
Leaning out the bathroom door to chat with her friend, Marion had just soaked a pair of hose in the sink. She disappeared again to hang the hose on the shower. Back in her bedroom, she dropped hard on her bed and leveled a stare at Barbara.
“Zeppo’s made arrangements. We have reservations. You’re going with us. End of discussion.” Marion fell against her pillows, propping up on one arm. She watched Barbara’s reaction, knowing this was the only way to handle her when she got into this mood.
“Before you say anything more,” Marion continued, “I know how uncomfortable this makes you. I also know how miserable you are, honey. Ever since you left Frank....”
Barbara turned her head away. The tears were coming.
“It’s been hard on you, and on Dion. We’re here to help you, and you know that.”
“I do, Marion, I do. I don’t know what I’d have done without you both.”
Marion leaned over to the nightstand and picked up a box of tissues. “Here, sweetie,” she handed one to Barbara.
“You don’t have to worry about being without us," Marion continued. "That won’t happen. But understand – part of us helping you get back on your feet involves making sure your career stays on keel. You can’t let Frank Fay or anything about him take you down!”
Marion’s laughter rang out. “That’s my girl!” Her giggles slowly subsided. She’d intentionally drawn out Barbara’s fighting side. “So, we won’t let Mr. Fay get in the way, will we? Zeppo’s put together a great night at the club, an evening for you to be seen with the right people.” She winked. “Ready?”
Barbara dabbed at her eyes. “No ... but I’ll do it.” Hopping out of the chair and going to the dresser mirror, she looked at Marion’s reflection over her left shoulder. “Who am I scheduled to meet? Is someone supposed to sweep me off my feet – for the cameras?”
“Oh,” Marion’s eyes twinkled, “only the most glorious specimen of masculinity in Hollywood, and the world.”
“Think I’m kidding? Just wait. He’s amazing, I've been told. His name is R. T.”
Barbara was heading out the door and only barely heard the last comment. "I'd better get ready then. I’ve got a lot of work to do if I’m to be ready for the most glorious specimen of masculinity in the world.” Her hand on the doorframe, she turned to Marion one last time. “Ar-tique?” she mumbled, almost to herself. “Mmmm ... why haven't I heard of him? Hope he’s not disappointed.”
Zeppo preferred to drive himself when he had the chance. Tonight, since it was just him, Marion, and Barbara, he helped the ladies into the car—Marion in the middle and Barbara next to her—and he comfortably slid behind the driver’s seat. It was a nice ride to the Trocadero, down Sunset Strip, and as they enjoyed the evening’s warm breeze, he knew Barbara was nervous. Marion and he had discussed the chat the ladies had that afternoon, and he knew this arranged meeting must be a real winner to encourage his depressed houseguest.
Marion, as usual, chattered about everything and anything.
“What about that new dress I brought home?” she asked, turning to Barbara. “Did you get a good look at it? My goodness, I’ve never seen anything so pretty!”
Before Barbara could answer, Zeppo quipped, “Yeah, but that’s what you say every time you bring home a new dress ... oh, every few days?”
Marion ignored him, and both she and Zeppo were happy to hear Barbara laugh at their good-natured bantering.
She elbowed him, despite their close quarters. “It is quite possible, dear husband, that a more beautiful dress is around every corner!”
“Your outfit tonight, Barbara, is stunning,” Zeppo wanted to turn the conversation toward their friend. “I’m sure you’ll swivel the head of every man in the place.”
They pulled up to the front of the club. Before Barbara could answer, her door was opened by the valet. “Miss Stanwyck,” he greeted her. “So nice to see you!”
The young man’s genuine delight raised Barbara’s spirits and while she smiled and thanked him, he reached in for Marion’s hand. Zeppo came around to the front of the car and gave him the keys. “Please park in the usual spot, Andrew.” With the keys, he included a wad of bills, which the young valet took with a salute.
“Thank YOU, Mr. Marx!”
Arm-in-arm with his two ladies, Zeppo walked through the front door of the Trocadero. Smoky, dark, loud ... the room assaulted them, as it did each time. They were regulars, everyone who worked there knew them and almost always saw the three of them together, especially lately, since Barbara’s well-publicized divorce from Frank Fay.
“Mr. Marx, Mrs. Marx, Miss Stanwyck.” The club’s manager was immediately at their side. “Your table awaits you.” He walked a few steps ahead, and with a hand protectively on each arm, Zeppo followed, escorting the ladies to a familiar spot, just to the edge of the fray but close enough to see everything around them.
The table was in shadow, along with two others beside it, one on either side. As the manager made sure they were settled and comfortable, and drinks immediately brought to them, Zeppo looked to his right, nodded, and cocked his head slightly in Barbara’s direction.
Marion noticed her husband’s distraction, though Barbara did not. She was politely engaged in light conversation with a matronly lady at the table to her left. She was turned toward the other woman, a smile pasted on her lips, a few words of commiseration placed in just the right places.
As soon as Marion was certain Barbara wouldn’t hear, she leaned over and whispered to Zeppo, “Who’d you nod to?”
“R. T.'s agent, of course.”
“You see who’s coming in the door, Bob?”
Having just completed his second drink, Bob lit another cigarette. He glanced at the front. “Yeah, Zeppo Marx. And his wife?”
Don leaned forward. “Yes, the Marxes. But do you see who’s with them?”
Bob had been around Hollywood long enough to know about the Barbara Stanwyck. He was aware she was the consummate professional. There was no missing that elusive, mysterious allure that followed in her wake, wherever she went.
She is sexy.
Don grinned. “That’s right.” He let it sink in. “So? What do you think?”
“What do I think about what? What the....?”
At that moment, Zeppo and Marion were getting settled. Barbara chatted with a woman at the table on the other side of them. Bob watched as Don and Zeppo exchanged meaningful glances, nodding at each other as if sharing an important secret.
“Don? Is this why you brought me here tonight?”
His agent was on his fourth drink. “So, what do you think?!” His cigarette was down to a nub, and he opened his gold monogrammed case for another. Reaching over to Bob’s hand, he pulled the other burning cigarette tip to meet his own. A deep inhale was followed by a puff of smoke swirling between them.
“Stanwyck?” Bob repeated. “With all the starlets in town ... why her?”
“C’mon, Bob. You’re relatively new. Your career’s on the rise and the boost will do you good. Barbara, now, she’s solid in the business, yet she’s had a string of bad luck, and it’ll look great for her to be seen with you.” Don put thumbs up. “It’s a big win for both of you. Zeppo and I talk, y’know.”
Bob took a gulp of a new drink. “I’m sure you do.” His words were dry, his grin lopsided. “So, Miss Stanwyck and I are pawns, are we?”
“Bob, Bob, Bob.” Don tried to sound hurt but couldn’t quite hide the humor. “You know I’m here for you. I’m doing what’s best for you.”
Bob’s attention was caught by the glint from the diamonds on Barbara’s arm. His mesmerized glance followed her wrist as she picked up a cigarette and leaned towards Zeppo, who lit it for her. So entranced was he in her actions that he didn’t hear Don.
“Bob ... Bob!”
He was still peering into the light, toward Barbara Stanwyck’s profile. She hadn’t yet noticed him, so he had a few minutes to collect himself. She wasn’t beautiful, but she was such a class act, and there was something ... something almost vulnerable beneath that glamour. This was even more attractive than her sensuality.
Bob cleared his throat, and rested his cigarette in the ashtray. “As ready as I’ll ever be.” He ran his left hand over his hair.
Don stood, Bob followed him, and they took the few steps into the visibility of all at the Marx table.
Marion gasped. Zeppo smiled. “Dear?” he asked. “You okay?”
Marion didn’t realize she’d made a noise. She’d heard of Robert Taylor, seen him in the newspapers, even glanced him across a room at a recent press function. Yet she’d not, until this moment, seen him up close. No man had a right to be so beautiful!
“Sorry, that was rude of me.” She had the grace to blush. Zeppo laughed heartily, and Don grinned. He was used to seeing women react this way. Robert Taylor was his goldmine.
All their eyes turned to Barbara. She hadn’t said a word. Hadn’t uttered a sound. But she stared. She certainly stared ... and Bob stared back. Their companions gave them a few moments of silence.
“Barbara?” Zeppo finally turned to her. “Barbara, we want to introduce you.”
She never stopped looking at Bob. “Oh, okay. Well, I think I’m here to see someone else but, while we wait, please do introduce me.”
Zeppo and Marion exchanged curious glances. “Who else are you here to see?” Marion asked.
Barbara finally focused on her friend. “Well, you told me this afternoon I was here to meet Ar-tique, didn’t you?” Everyone burst out laughing, especially Bob, and Barbara was left with a stunned, almost frightened expression. “What’s so funny?”
Bob sobered first. “Miss Stanwyck, please let me explain. You are here to meet someone, and as I’ve just been informed, that someone is me. I’m R.T., Robert Taylor ... not Ar-tique.”
He leaned down, extended his hand, and as their fingers met, everyone else seemed to disappear. Bob and Barbara walked to the dance floor. They fit together perfectly – as it had all been originally planned. Little did anyone know at that time....