Fiction

Starlet

Margaret knew she’d eventually have to choose between who she was and who she longed to be.

Her father was seated stiffly on his usual horsehair chair, an empty glass of brandy by his side. Her mother hovered near the piano, refusing to meet her eye. And perched on the velvet settee her mother usually occupied, calm as could be, was Larry Julius.

She had not seen him since that day at Schwab’s. After the past few weeks, during which he had assumed almost mythic status in her mind, it was shocking to see him in the flesh, let alone in her house. Yet here he was, serenely blowing smoke rings as casually as though he dropped by all the time.

“Margaret,” her father said, his voice tight with unexpressed rage. “This…”

“Julius,” Larry prompted pleasantly. “Larry Julius.”

“This man Julius would like to speak with you.”

“Miss Frobisher,” Larry said warmly. “What a pleasure it is to see you again.” He gestured toward the brocade chair her parents usually offered to guests. “Won’t you sit down?”

Her father pressed his mouth into a thin line. “There’s no need for pleasantries, Julius. Just say whatever you have to say to the girl.” The girl, Margaret thought. It’s as if he thinks I’m his servant.

“I appreciate your bluntness, sir,” Larry said, “but where I come from, it wouldn’t be right to leave a lady on her feet.”

Mr. Frobisher looked incredulous. “And where is that, may I ask?”

“Oh…” Larry gestured vaguely. “Somewhere back east.”

Her father sniffed. “The tenements, I suppose.”

“A bit farther than that.” Larry was still smiling, but his voice had a hard edge to it. “But even Attila the Hun was known to offer a chair to woman from time to time.”

“Sit down, Margaret.” From halfway across the room, her mother’s command was clear and cutting, although she still avoided her daughter’s eye. Margaret sat.

“Good girl.” Larry lit himself a fresh cigarette. “I have to tell you Miss Frobisher, you’re a very hard person to get a hold of.”

“I…I don’t understand.”

“We’ve phoned, dozens of times. We sent telegrams.” Larry shrugged. “No reply.”

Margaret jerked her head toward her mother, who was looking at her at last, her blue eyes cold and defiant. She knew, Margaret thought. And she kept it from me. Her hand flew up to the bandage. “Oh.” It was all she could bring herself to say.

Larry chuckled. “Now, if it was me, I would have just given up on you. ‘She’s not interested,’ I would have said. ‘Why try to buy what’s not for sale?’ But Leo Karp doesn’t think that way. He said, ‘Larry, I want to hear it from the girl’s own mouth.’ So here I am. To hear it from you. And then I can go back to Hollywood, and as God is my witness, you’ll never see the likes of me darken your beautiful doorstep again.”

“Hear what from me? What are you talking about?”

Larry looked surprised. “Why, about the contract, of course.”

Her stomach lurched. “What…what contract?”

“The one Mr. Karp wants to offer you.”

Margaret felt faint. She was suddenly inordinately grateful to Larry for insisting she sit down. “Mr. Karp wants to give me…”

“A contract, yes.” Larry nodded. “That’s Leo F. Karp, the president of Olympus Studios,” he added, presumably for the Frobishers’ benefit. “It’s very rare, you understand, for him to take an interest in a young actress, particularly one with no experience. But he was tremendously impressed with the screen test of young Margaret here, and he’d like very much to put her under contract. He’s offering our standard one-year exclusive, with an option to renew. She’ll have speech lessons, singing lessons, dancing lessons. The wardrobe, hair, and makeup departments will overhaul her image. Deportment coaches will teach her how to walk, how to sit, which fork to use at dinner. Not”—he cast an admiring, if sardonic, glance around the lavishly appointed room—“that I expect she’ll need much help with that.”

“And where is she supposed to live while you people are transforming her into this creature?” Mr. Frobisher interjected. “For it won’t be under my roof, I can tell you that.”

Really? Is my father really prepared to turn me out? Margaret felt a little short of breath.

“In that case,” Larry said quietly, “she’d be given a place at the studio. It’s hardly without precedent. Many families in a similar position turn guardianship over to us. She’ll be adequately housed and supervised until her 18th birthday, which I believe is not so very far away, and then she can live on her own if she likes. She can certainly set up housekeeping on 75 dollars a week. That’s what we’d be paying her for the first year.”

“Seventy-five dollars a week? Seventy-five dollars a week?” Mr. Frobisher raged.

“Only to start,” Larry said. “By the time her guardianship ends there’s every expectation she’ll be earning significantly more than that. More than enough for her to keep herself in the manner to which she is accustomed.”

“So let me get this straight,” Mr. Frobisher sputtered. “You come in here, to my home, uninvited, offering to…buy Margaret from me for 75 dollars a week?”

“No, not quite,” Larry said cheerfully. “Obviously, we’ll need to cosign the contract, but Margaret’s salary is paid only to Margaret. If she chooses to share it with you, that’s up to her.”

“Share it? With me?” Mr. Frobisher’s already florid face turned crimson.

“Lowell, please.” Holding up her hand, Mrs. Frobisher strode commandingly to the center of the room, waiting until all eyes were on her before she began to speak. My god, Margaret thought, she thinks she’s giving a speech.

“Mr. Julius,” her mother began, “just a few short weeks ago, such an offer would have been unthinkable. Apart from the obscenity of any respectable girl earning her own living, the idea of flaunting oneself in public, for the delectation of strangers…” She shuddered. “Let us just say that for a girl like Margaret, a girl who has been raised a certain way, with certain expectations, it would be unimaginable.”

How is that any different from a coming-out ball? Margaret thought furiously. How is appearing in the pictures worse than parading down a staircase for a bunch of rich men to stare at, while the women plot to sell me to the highest bidder?

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