Excerpt from Big Red by Jerome Charyn, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Big Red

A Novel Starring Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles

by Jerome Charyn

Big Red by Jerome Charyn X
Big Red by Jerome Charyn
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  • Published:
    Aug 2022, 304 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Alexandros Mantzaris
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About this Book

Print Excerpt

The Kid from Kalamazoo, 1943

I was an actress who couldn't act, a dancer who couldn't dance, a singer who couldn't sing. So I went straight to Hollywood after my sophomore year at college in Kalamazoo. Still, I wasn't much of a maverick. I had grown up on a farm in southern Illinois. Both my parents couldn't read a word. I promised myself that I would become a reader, and I did become one, with a fierce regard for language. But language alone couldn't imprison me with its pleasures. I saw every film that reached our rural town. There were no picture palaces on the plains, but we did have fifty-seaters in every nearby hamlet. That's how I discovered the world, watching William Powell and Myrna Loy eat breakfast in their pajamas... .

I lived in a roomette at the Hollywood Hotel, right on the boulevard, near Musso's and the trolley car line, with the constant hiss of overhead wires, and despite the racket, I still felt like a grand duchess. I worked in the basement of the Writers' Building at Columbia, belonged to a shadow crew. We were attached to the Publicity Department, but we barely existed at all. I was paid seventy-five clams a week to dig up dirt on the directors and stars of every studio, including our own. I was hired as a common clerk until the studio realized I was the best damn digger on the lot.

Columbia had swallowed up all of Poverty Row on Gower Street by then. It occupied an entire avenue of barns, storage facilities, soundstages, and half-empty lots. Its Administrative Building was a converted stable. I'd never been invited to the commissary, not once. The head of our crew, a shifty character named Archibald, kept trying to get into my pants. "Rusty, you don't have much of a future here."

"I'll take my chances," I said.

I couldn't imagine ever returning to Kalamazoo. I was a fanatic about Photoplay and Modern Screen. All the dirt I collected was gold to a tomboy raised in movie houses. I knew where Gable and Lombard had their hideaway in a penthouse on Hollywood Boulevard before the King got rid of his first wife. I also knew about his dentures.

There was a deeper tale to tell. Carole and her mother had been killed in a plane crash while returning from a war bond rally in '42, and Clark was inconsolable. Louis B. Mayer had to put him on leave at MGM. I once saw Rhett Butler in rags, tottering along the trolley tracks, and I had to lure him into the Hollywood Hotel, with its long verandahs and steeples that looked like a witch's lair. The bellboys couldn't believe it. His speech was so garbled, even I couldn't understand a word. I fed him hot milk, and finally he sobered up. "Say," he said, "you're a swell kid." He left a twenty-dollar bill on the table and marched out of the Hollywood Hotel.

The King wasn't my only customer. I could point to the table at Musso's where Ty Power sat with one or two of the cowboy extras he'd picked up at Gower Gulch. I could talk about Tallulah Bankhead's conquests at the Troc, where she'd wrap a tablecloth around herself and her latest catch, a starlet from one of the minor lots. She lived at the Garden of Allah on Sunset, and it was said she loved to swim in the nude. . . . 

I didn't get fired. Archibald, who had once been a sergeant inside some crackpot sheriff's office in Sonoma County, smirked at me. "The boss wants to see ya, chicken." Archibald's smirk spread across his face like a lantern on fire. "I'm talking about the big guy—Harry himself."

I was bewildered in that dank row of cubicles where we worked six days a week. What the hell would Harry Cohn want with me? But I never bothered to ask. I didn't have to go back out onto Gower. I took the underground passageway to Cohn's castle. He occupied an entire floor in the Administrative Building. He rebuilt his offices after visiting Mussolini in 1933. Cohn had even done a documentary on Il Duce, Mussolini Speaks, and the dictator had decided to decorate the president of Columbia Pictures in Rome. Harry never quite recovered from that trip. He kept an autographed picture of Mussolini on his mantel until the beginning of the war.

Excerpted from Big Red by Jerome Charyn. Copyright © 2022 by Jerome Charyn. Excerpted by permission of Liveright/W.W. Norton. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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