City of Whores
by Mark B. Perry
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New Year's Eve, 1951. Hollywood, California. As Tinseltown rings in the twilight of its Golden Age, a young man arrives from Texas hell-bent on exploiting his brooding good-looks in exchange for a shot at stardom - only to become dangerously entangled in the lives of one of the most powerful couples in show business. As his dream devolves into a lurid nightmare, he must choose between fortune and fame or sanity and survival in this City of Whores.
[Author’s note: In City of Whores, Dan Root is reflecting on the two tumultuous years of his youth in Hollywood when he aspired to be a movie star in the early 1950s, going first by the stage name Clifton Garrow and then ultimately Dexter Gaines. Through a set of circumstances that begin with a waiter job at a star-studded New Year’s Eve soiree in the home of Academy Award-winning producer Milford (“Milly”) B. Langen and his gorgeous actress wife, Lillian Sinclair, Dan is astonished to find himself enjoying Lillian’s southern home cooking at an intimate dinner party in the power couple’s home the very next day, sitting next to the “glamorous and unpredictable” Miss Tallulah Bankhead.
Dan also has a nervous condition that causes his hands to tremble.]
From Chapter Seven of City of Whores
Our journey had begun together on New Year’s Day, 1952, with Milly’s baffling one-eighty turn, and my staying not only for a traditional Southern dinner, but for the night and into the surreal months that dragged into the two years that still lay ahead. Too drunk to drive, and with no place to go and only eight bucks to my name, I accepted when Lilly had insisted that they make up the bed in the cabana for me. With the servants having the day off, she changed the sheets herself - expertly, I might add - as Milly leaned in the open French doors, puffing on a cigarette and chatting away, the chilly night seeping in behind him.
“I don’t know about your choice of friends, Lillian,” he said, smoke expelling from his nose.
“We can’t just toss him out into the streets, Milly.”
“I was referring to Tallu. You do realize she wasn’t wearing any panties, don’t you?”
“God only knows how you know.”
Milly grimaced, carefully stubbing out his cigarette in an ashtray. “She made certain that I did. She loves to torture me, that one.”
As for me, next to Lillian, Tallulah Bankhead was my second favorite new friend. When she had talked to me, obviously wondering why I was there in the first place, she’d seemed genuinely interested. She was further enchanted to learn that my father hailed from her home state of Alabama, and pronounced us practically “next of kin.” Struggling to make conversation, I’d asked her, “So…Miss Bankhead…what advice would you give to a new actor coming to Hollywood?”
She’d rattled the ice cubes in her nearly empty bourbon glass and raised an eyebrow, saying, “Take Fountain.”
Milly and Lilly found this uproarious, but I merely looked at her, having no clue what she meant. Then, Milly baited her: “I thought that was Bette Davis’ line.”
“Fuck Bette Davis, not that I’d want to. She’s constantly robbing from me, you know. Little Foxes, Dark Victory, and don’t even get me started on All About Eve! She stole my entire persona lock, stock, and hairdo! Even went so far as to claim she had laryngitis as an excuse to mimic my very voice!” she roared, then patted my hand by way of explanation. “Fountain’s an east-west street, honey-child. And if you ever call me Miss Bankhead again, I’ll make certain you’re the end of your lineage. Now who cares? My glass is empty.”
“So’s your bottle,” Milly said in an undertone, apparently unfazed by her histrionics.
“There’s more in the pantry,” Lillian yawned.
“I’ll get it,” I said, rising, anxious for some air.
“Would you mind grabbing the champagne from the icebox?” Lilly asked.
“And bring more collards, darling! I feel just like I’m down home again!” Tallulah added.
“Happy to,” I said, then moved through the butler’s pantry, and into the kitchen. Even before I was out of the room, I could already hear Tallulah trying to be discreet. But lowering that voice was a near impossibility.
“Who exactly is this divine creature?” was all I heard before the door swung closed behind me. Puck and Trouble perked up from their cushy little bed in the breakfast nook, and Puck stood, stretched, and shook himself before trotting alongside me as I fetched the cold bottle of champagne and then rummaged in the pantry until I found the Southern Comfort. I gave the scruffy mutt a scrap of ham from the platter on the counter, which he gobbled up hungrily, then just sat there, watching my every move with a dog’s vigilant look of adoration tinged with worry.
By the time I returned to the dining room with the improbable combination of champagne, bourbon, and collard greens, there was an explosive sound like an air raid siren after too many Lucky Strikes, and I realized it was Tallulah laughing. The three of them sat up as I entered with the bottles, their brief conspiracy interrupted.
“Please, darling,” Tallulah said, lighting yet another cigarette, “I simply must have sustenance before I fly back to New York tomorrow.”
“So soon?” Lilly asked, genuinely disappointed.
“Oh, you know, it’s this goddamned trial. I didn’t even want to press charges, I mean, honestly darling, the publicity is simply ruinous,” she said between puffs, referring to some legal trouble she was having with a former housekeeper. “And I’m still doing The Big Show on Sundays, and then, of course, there’s my goddamned book. My cup over-turneth!”
They spoke now of her impending memoir, which was to become a bestseller later that year. But all I really knew of Tallulah Bankhead was her role in Lifeboat. It wasn’t until Lilly explained to me a few days later that I realized just how important a figure Tallulah was in the international theater. Still, it was a little unsettling how this outrageous woman always stared at my crotch.
My hands were once again shaking as I managed to get the foil off the top of the champagne bottle. I had just started on the cork when Milly leapt to his feet. “Good Lord, man, where were you raised?”
I stopped, feeling immediately shamed and embarrassed, trying not to let it show. “We…didn’t drink a lot of champagne in Tyler.”
Milly softened, as if he could tell he’d been too cruel. “I’m sorry. Here. Let me teach you the proper method. It’s not supposed to pop, you know, and you never let the cork fly out. Instead…” He picked up his crisp dinner napkin and draped it over the bottle, then gently began to nudge until there was a faint hiss. His movements had an elegance and precision to them, and my hurt quickly gave way to admiration when he dramatically whisked the cloth away, revealing the sparkling steam of the freshly opened bubbly. “It’s supposed to make the sound of a satisfied woman.”
“In which case you obviously haven’t a clue what you’re doing,” Tallulah rasped, then she and Lillian giggled.
Milly carefully held the bottle with his thumb pinched in its recessed bottom, and reached to refill my glass. “You first, young man,” he said, “with apologies for my brusque behavior.”
“Hey,” I laughed, tossing it off, “at least I learned something.”
He nodded as I toasted him, the situation diffused. Heck, a Joe could pick up a thing or two from these powerful, sophisticated people.
After a dessert of old-fashioned strawberry shortcake, Tallulah downed the dregs of her bourbon, stubbed out the last cigarette from the pack she had opened when we first sat down for dinner, and announced, “Well, darlings, I must be off. Or so my detractors say.”
“But it’s still early,” Lilly protested. “Can’t you stay the night?”
“Not this time, darling. There’s this gorgeous bartender at the Beverly Hills expecting me.”
“Picking up another strange man, Tallulah?” Milly asked, always teasing her.
“Who said anything about a man?” she growled as she knelt to let the two dogs affectionately lick her face, wobbling slightly and nearly losing her balance when she stood up again. She glanced at me, then pulled Lillian into a tight hug. Being as there was no such thing as speaking under her breath for Tallu, I distinctly heard her whisper to Lilly, “Take good care of your little pets, darling. All three of them.”
While we waited for her taxi, Milly went into his study and emerged with an expensive Argus still camera, insisting on pictures to record the occasion. Lilly and Tallu posed together, obviously dear old friends, then, at Lilly’s insistence, Milly snapped a few of me flanked by those two captivating women. Outside, we watched as her cab pulled away into the night, with Tallulah shouting at the driver, “I hate fucking Los Angeles!”
To which the hack simply shrugged and replied, “Then don’t.” Tallu roared a braying, guttural laugh as they drove off, and Milly and I joined her. We didn’t realize that Lillian was already crying. She would miss her dearest friend terribly in the months ahead, unaware of her impending betrayal.
Praise for the Book
"Subtly powerful ... a Truman Capote-like piece ... deeply affecting and tinged with pathos ..." ~ Kirkus Reviews
"... both satisfies and subverts the reader's expectations... displays an excellent sense of plot and pacing ... the historical settings sparkle ..." ~ Foreword Reviews
"... a page-turner with a big heart. It's irresistible." ~ Bill Barol, author of Thanks For Killing Me
"A delicious debut novel ... sexy, dishy, and filled with duplicity..." ~ Ann Lewis Hamilton, author of Expecting
About the Author
Mark B. Perry was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, and earned his BA in broadcast journalism from the University of Georgia. An aspiring writer and filmmaker, he moved to Los Angeles in 1986 and worked as an office temp until he wrote a script on spec for the top-ten show The Wonder Years. Not only did this writing sample lead to a freelance assignment and a staff position on the series, it was also purchased and produced as the opening episode of the 1989-1990 season, entitled "Summer Song". Its premiere was the number three show for that week in the Nielsen Ratings, outranked only by the venerable Roseanne and The Cosby Show.
After three years and eighteen episodes of The Wonder Years, Mark went on to write and produce such diverse television series as Northern Exposure, Picket Fences, Moon Over Miami, Law & Order, Party of Five, Push, Time of Your Life, Pasadena, First Years, That Was Then, One Tree Hill, Windfall, and What About Brian. After helping successfully launch the second season of ABC's Brothers & Sisters in 2007, Mark was then a co-executive producer on CBS's Ghost Whisperer. Finally, in 2011, Mark began two gloriously venomous seasons on the ABC hit Revenge before resigning to complete his debut novel, City of Whores.
As a producer on the first season on David E. Kelley's Picket Fences, Mark and the other producers received an Emmy Award for Outstanding Dramatic Series (1993). For his episode of Party of Five entitled "Falsies", he was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award for Best Achievement in Dramatic Writing (1997). And for his writing and producing services on that same series, he shared a Golden Globe Award for Best Drama (1996).