Fiction

Starlet

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

Her mother barreled on. “Times may change, Mr. Julius, but nice people do not. And something upon which all nice people agree is that a respectable woman’s name should appear in the newspaper but three times: when she is born, when she marries, and when she dies. A respectable woman is the soul of discretion. Her life is spent in the sacred service of her husband and her children—if she is lucky enough to have them—and in upholding the standards of her community. That Margaret seems to feel otherwise can only reflect badly on Mr. Frobisher and me. The only excuse I can offer is that she lived with us as an only child for 17 years and that we indulged her.”

Hardly.

“While I have known for some time of Margaret’s vanity and…shall we say…unbecoming ambition, I told myself that this was simply a young girl’s fancy, and that when the time came she would put such childish, selfish things aside and do her duty to those who gave her a home. Instead, by consorting with you and others of your…your persuasion, she has severely jeopardized her future, and made a mockery of all that Mr. Frobisher and I have offered her.”

“Hear, hear,” Mr. Frobisher said.

“Quiet, Lowell.” Mrs. Frobisher turned to her daughter. “Margaret, I put it to you. You have heard Mr. Julius’s offer. If you want to go with him, we will not stop you, but we will wash our hands of you.” For a moment, the icy film over her eyes suddenly seemed to thaw, giving her a vaguely haunted look, as if she were looking at something terrible that only she could see. “You will be on your own, without support or family. Should you wish to return to us or to Pasadena at any time, you will find the door firmly closed.”

“Or?” Margaret whispered. Her throat was dry.

“You may stay,” Mrs. Frobisher said simply. “We will do whatever we can to repair your damaged reputation. We will bring you out in whatever way is available to us. In return, you will do your duty. You will behave like a respectable young woman. No movie magazines, no truancy, no late-night disappearances from dances with young gentlemen.” Margaret blushed. She hadn’t realized her mother knew about the Phipps McKendrick episode. “You will obey us unquestioningly,” Mrs. Frobisher continued, “until you are married to an appropriate young man. And you will put all thoughts of Hollywood”—her mother almost spat the word—“out of your head forever.”

Here it was. The choice that a small part of Margaret had always known she would one day have to make: the choice between who she had always been, and who she had always longed to be.

She thought of her life in Pasadena. Her house. Her friends. She thought of how her father used to push her so high on the rope swing in the backyard she could almost touch the branches of the eucalyptus tree with her toes, how her mother had held her in the water when she taught her how to swim. She imagined herself as the calm, smiling wife of Stephen Van Camp or Frederick Harrington or Phipps McKendrick, living in a beautiful house, arranging flowers in a crystal vase, receiving a chaste kiss from her tired husband as she greeted him at the door with his whiskey and slippers at the end of a long day. She imagined walking in the park with Doris, the two of them pushing their babies in carriages as they gossiped about who was having an affair with his secretary, who was secretly living apart, who was soon to be blacklisted from the next benefit committee or party or ball.

Then she thought of Olympus Studios, of the magical world behind its shining gates. The orange-scented air, the hushed frenzy of the soundstages, the shady bungalows containing the secrets of the stars.

“Well, Margaret?” Mrs. Frobisher cleared her throat. “What will it be?’

***

No tears. Not a single one.

Larry Julius had never seen anything like it. The day he’d left home you could hear his mama’s anguished wails all the way to 14th Street. Sure, he knew these fancy-schmancy society types could be pretty cold fish, but disowning an only daughter without so much as a sniffle? As though it were all just an unfortunate inconvenience, as though they were getting rid of a cook who had burned the roast one too many times. And the words that woman used! Lived with us for 17 years…those who gave her a home. Not once did she use the word daughter. Not once did she so much as mention the word love. It was all very upsetting, not to mention suspicious. When it came to smelling a rat, Larry Julius had the best nose in the business. And his nose was telling him that something was very, very rotten in Pasadena. He just didn’t know what.

The girl sat beside him in the backseat of the Phantom, perfectly quiet, the glow of headlights and the shimmer of moonlight illuminating her soft yellow hair. Larry had to fight a sudden, wild urge to throw his arms around her and hold her tight. Not in a romantic way; he wasn’t a cradle robber, for god’s sake. He just felt as if someone should show the poor kid some affection.

But she didn’t seem to need any. She stared straight ahead, clear-eyed and unblinking, like some warrior queen fearlessly surveying the oncoming hordes. Yep, this one had some steel in her spine, all right. Steel, Larry thought suddenly. She was going to need a new name for the pictures. What about Steele?

No, that didn’t sound right. Too masculine, too unforgiving. This dame needed something classy, something that sounded expensive. They couldn’t use Gold—for obvious reasons—or Silver…

“Sterling,” Larry said aloud.

She turned to him, a marvel with her clear, dry eyes. “What did you say?”

“You need a new name. What about Sterling? Margaret Sterling.”

“Margaret Sterling,” she said, trying it out.

“Sounds good, right? Like one of those dames you might come across in finishing school.”

“Margo,” she said suddenly.

“What?”

“Margo. For the first name. I think it’s better. More unusual. Margo Sterling. People will remember it.”

Larry grinned. His whole press team couldn’t have come up with anything more perfect. Boy, this kid was something else, all right. “I can already see it in lights.” ♦

Excerpted from Rachel Shukert’s novel Starstruck. Copyright © 2013 by the author, reprinted courtesy of Random House Children’s Books.


Rachel Shukert is the author of two autobiographical books: Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going to Be Great. Starstruck is her first novel as well as her first YA book. She lives in New York with her husband, but is about to move to L.A. to write other stuff, which she is trying very hard to convince herself will not change her dramatically as a person. Follow her on Twitter @RachelShukert.

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