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Authors: Jane Lotter

Tags: #Fiction, #Humorous, #Literary, #Contemporary Women

The Bette Davis Club

BOOK: The Bette Davis Club
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Text copyright © 2013 Jane Lotter

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Published by Lake Union Publishing, Seattle

www.apub.com

Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Lake Union Publishing are trademarks of
Amazon.com
, Inc., or its affiliates.

ISBN-13: 9781503951075

ISBN-10: 1503951073

Cover design by David Drummond

For my children, Tessa Marts and Riley Marts.
And for my beloved husband, Robert Marts.

Dear Whoever-You-Are,

I don’t know how you came to hold this book in your hands. Perhaps you’re browsing in a bookshop while waiting to meet up with a long-lost high school pal. Is she late? Are you early? Maybe you received this book in a white elephant gift exchange. Maybe you’re reading it on your phone. Maybe you heard something somewhere about this novel or its author, and decided just to give it a go.

My mother, Jane Lotter, wrote this novel. Shortly after she completed it, she left this particular plane of existence. And since
The Bette Davis Club
is being republished posthumously, I have been tasked with introducing it.

I feared at first this forward would sound too similar to the eulogy I gave two years ago, in 2013, when I spoke mainly of my deep admiration and love for a woman who raised me and bestowed upon me her sense of humor (and love for all things Bette Davis and road trips, as this book demonstrates), and for a woman who was truly the greatest I have ever known. She was fun and interesting and smart and sometimes judgmental and sometimes bossy and always loving. She was human. And superhuman to me. She was everything I hope I turn out to be, and perhaps I will, if I am very, very lucky.

The truth is my mother’s death and the publication of her first and only novel are inextricable. She spent her last months trying everything possible to publish what she had spent so many years working to create. But she ran out of time. She needed to see her creative passion come to life before she faced the end of her own, and so she turned to Amazon’s self-publishing services. Her last day on earth, she held a copy of the book she had written, reflecting on what she had accomplished. She held her book, and she cried. And we all cried with her.

And then, many, many months later, our family was contacted by Lake Union Publishing. They wanted to publish Mom’s book for real. And here we are. It’s what she dreamed would happen, and it’s a real bummer she never got to see it. Though I think she knew this would happen all along.

I can’t remember a time I didn’t think of my mother as an author. She wrote and she read and she took care of my brother and me. She read to us and she proofread our homework and she made us memorize our spelling words and she made sure we could relate to Dickens and Twain and Shakespeare and Ephron and Capra and Hitchcock—all those whom she considered so singularly excellent at the craft of storytelling. Mom loved a good zinger, loved a good turn, and she loved a good story.

And she watched a lot of classic movies. And she made us—and any of our school friends who happened to be over on a Friday night—watch a lot of classic movies too. My mother loved watching classic movies the way some mothers love trying a new recipe. For us, dinner was always a variation on four different types of pasta. But we were served an endless array of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn and Bob Hope and, of course, Bette Davis. This book isn’t about Davis. But in a way, Bette Davis is the reason it exists.

My mother treated writing like something that had to be done. She loved it; it was for fun and for her soul and it was something completely her own. And now she has her chance to share it with the world. With you, dear reader.

My mom was one of the special ones. Anyone who ever met her knew it. And now, you’ll get to meet her too. I hope you enjoy the ride.

Most sincerely,

Tessa Marts

Daughter, Friend, Classic Film Fiend

CHAPTER ONE

MALIBU

I
t is late morning, and I am drinking a double martini.

I’m sitting on a marble bench, on a bluff high above the Pacific Ocean. Nearby is the large Spanish-style house—a sort of mansion, actually—that was once my father’s, but which now belongs to my older half sister, Charlotte. The sun is shining, the water is blue, the lawn is the color of money. Perfection.

Or at least it would be, if it weren’t for all the people standing around. Unfortunately, there are about six hundred of them.

Like me, they’re guests at the wedding of my nineteen-year-old niece, Georgia. Unlike me, many of them are Hollywood filmmakers and celebrities. Everywhere I look it’s designer dresses, tailor-made tuxes, and the predatory gaze of the rich and vacuous.

Restless, waiting for the ceremony to begin, many people have crowded under several large tents pitched on the lawn, where they’re helping themselves to free liquor.

Well, why not? God knows they can sleep it off tomorrow.

As for me, by tomorrow I hope to be headed home to New York. I am bored and I am lonely and I realize my friend Dottie Fielding was right when she warned me that coming out to Georgia’s wedding was a bad idea.

“I can’t believe you’re going to that circus,” Dottie had said to me, back in Manhattan. “Not now, not with things the way they are. Besides, from what you’ve told me, you’re not overly fond of your sister.”

“Half sister,” I said. “Anyway, her daughter’s sweet.”

Dottie’s my oldest, dearest, and, believe it or not, kindest friend. And as my closest friend she’s earned the right to be, well, blunt.

“You can’t even afford a decent wedding present,” Dottie said. “Nothing that would go over with that crowd. You could take something out of your inventory, I suppose. Ship the happy couple a chunk of old Pennsylvania Station. Ha! There’s an
objet
one doesn’t stumble over every day.”

Dottie, I should tell you, is in her late fifties. She owns a chic little shop in Greenwich Village that’s filled with French Art Deco antiques. As an antiques dealer, she has quite an eye and makes a good living selling the overpriced to the overindulged. I, too, have an eye and a shop full of old things, but lately my eye wanders—with the result that I don’t much care if I sell anything or not.

“Please tell me you’re not going to Georgia’s wedding,” Dottie said.

I shrugged. A few days later, I boarded Amtrak. (I love flying about as much as Indiana Jones loves snakes.)

Of course, unlike most of the mistakes I’ve made in life, I know why I’ve come to California. To this impressive residence in the hills of Malibu.

I’m here because I’m broke—insolvent, in debt, in trouble—and my half sister, Charlotte, Georgia’s mother, offered me a train ticket and a place to stay, which at least meant a break from my financial worries. I’m here because I always liked Georgia when she was a little girl, though it’s been years since I last saw her. And I’m here because it’s a rare opportunity to visit this beautiful estate, a property that currently belongs to Charlotte, but which was once, briefly, our mutual childhood home.

I suppose I’d pictured Georgia’s wedding as an all-expenses-paid vacation, like winning a trip in a raffle. But nothing’s really free, is it? People always make you pay one way or another.

A tall, gray-haired gentleman in a tuxedo stands near me, lighting a cigar. His midriff contracts as he sucks in air, but the moment the tobacco is lit his stomach relaxes into its natural position, resting contentedly against his waistband. His clean-shaven face is vaguely familiar to me, though I can’t think how I know him. He’s aging and careworn but not unattractive, and he savors his cigar in a way that says he’s pleased with the world and his place in it.

I peg him at sixtyish, which would make him a decade-ish older than I am. Behind a pair of dark-rimmed glasses he has what they used to call bedroom eyes, and he looks like someone who has definitely rumpled his share of sheets over the years.

“Lovely day,” he says. He has a British accent, which I imagine means that—like me—he grew up in England. He gestures toward my bench. “Might I?”

I tell him he may.

He seats himself, sticking one foot out a little and jiggling his trouser leg to get comfortable. “You don’t mind?” he says, holding up the cigar.

I shake my head. I’m of a generation that is not necessarily repelled by the smell of burning tobacco. Besides, at the moment I’m smoking a Pall Mall, so I can hardly object to this fellow’s own bad habit.

“Party of the bride or party of the groom?” he says.

“Bride,” I say. “Maternal aunt.”

“Groom, father of. Well, truth of it is, I’m Tully’s former stepfather. Course, his mum left me long ago. Haven’t seen much of the boy since.” He coughs. “Thought I’d show up just the same, memory of happier times and all that. Family is everything, isn’t it?” He holds out his hand. “I’m Malcolm Belvedere.”

That’s it, I knew I recognized him. Even I know that name: Malcolm Belvedere is probably the most powerful studio head in Hollywood, one of the last of the old school. I reckoned Georgia ran with the glitterati, but I had no idea she was marrying into royalty. This man is responsible for hit movies playing at malls and multiplexes all across America.

I’m dying to tell him—that when it comes to Hollywood filmmaking—I’m tired of all the computerized rubbish and cartoonish action pics, but instead I take his outstretched hand and simply say, “Margo Just.”

“Shall I call you Miss Just?”

“No,” I say. “Just Margo.”

He smiles. “Then call me Malcolm.”

I look again at his eyes. They’re soft and intelligent and a touch tired.

I’m wearing a borrowed Donna Karan—strapless, ochre-colored, cocktail-length—and suddenly wonder how I look in it. Good, I hope.

“When I came up just now, you were gazing out there,” Malcolm says, gesturing with his cigar toward the ocean. He peers into the distance. “Something in the water?”

“Not really,” I say. “Only a very old . . . sea monster.”

“A refreshing change from whales, I’m sure,” he says. He gazes a moment more at the Pacific. “I don’t remember seeing you at the rehearsal dinner,” he says finally.

I decide to leave out the truth—that I wasn’t invited—and tell a half-truth instead. “Couldn’t make it,” I say. “I was tying up some business in New York.”

“Ah. That sounds important.”

“It wasn’t, I’m afraid.”

“You’re English,” he says.

“Sorry, no, American. Born here in California.” I flick the ash of my cigarette onto the ground, as if to note the spot. “However, I spent the second half of my childhood at a boarding school in England. It left a mark.”

“Not too Dickensian, I hope?”

“More
Jane Eyre
.”

“Still, they must have got a few things right,” Malcolm says. His green eyes sparkle. “You turned out beautifully, if I may say so.”

“Oh, you can say it,” I reply, taking a drag off my cigarette before stubbing it out on the ground. “Whether or not I’ll believe you is something else entirely.” He laughs good-naturedly, which makes me want to go on talking with him.

“What about you?” I say. His pronunciation is upper class, so I take a guess. “I should imagine you’re from London.”

“I was born within the sound of Bow Bells—”

“Cockney?” I say, laughing. “I don’t believe it.”

“Within the sound of Bow Bells,” he repeats. “My mum was a charlady, my dad worked in the fish market. Always thought I’d follow in his footsteps. But when I was just a lad, a friend got me a job at Twickenham Studios, and I discovered I liked the film business. Soon after that, I came to the States, found a tailor”—he fingers his lapel—“and got my teeth fixed.” He has brilliant white teeth and he flashes them my way.

“Oi,” he says, “an’ I dropped me bloomin’ Heast Hend haccent.” He puffs on his cigar. “That, my girl, was over forty years ago. And in all the years since, all those years of making movies in America, I have never ceased to profit from this country’s endless appetite for amusement, coupled with its astonishing weakness of intellect.”

“Well,” I say, “since I’m a Yank, I’ll have to watch myself or you’ll think I’m dim.”

“Not at all,” he says. “You are a delightful exception to the rule. There will always be exceptions to the rule. Though mind you, never enough to have any effect whatsoever on the entertainment turned out by Hollywood.”

He has me there.

“You live in New York?” he says.

“Yes, for many years.”

“I enjoy Manhattan. I have a place in SoHo where I stay sometimes. Perhaps we could have lunch one day?”

“I’d like that,” I say. And anyway, as my friend Dottie would point out, the first rule for a woman in financial difficulties—a woman such as myself—is to accept any and all offers of free food and drink.

“I also have a beach cottage in the Hamptons,” Malcolm says. “Ever get out there?”

“Sometimes. At the invitation of friends.”

“Well, consider us friends, and consider yourself invited.” He takes a card from his wallet and holds it before me, pointing at various numbers. “Cell phone, landline in Manhattan.” He slides his finger farther down the card. “This number is my beach place.”

He hands me the card. It is a thick, creamy vellum, the very weight of which says money. It is not, I suspect, the card he distributes to men and women with whom he does business. Rather, it’s the valentine he hands out to unattached women with whom he desires monkey business.

I can’t help myself. I picture dinner for two in a cozy house at the beach: cracked crab, oysters on the half shell, candles flickering on the table. Malcolm and I sipping cocktails while we wait for his Viagra to kick in. Later, we’ll roll around on the sandy shore of the Atlantic, a middle-aged version (well, late middle age) of Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster. Oh, Malcolm, I find myself thinking,
From Here to Eternity
—or possibly From Here to Next Tuesday.

Even when I’m feeling sad, I’m susceptible to an intermittent optimism. It’s like when you drive down a street looking at houses, saying to yourself, I’d adore living there. Or there. Or maybe in that one over there. Tudor, Victorian, American Bungalow. They all look good because you know nothing about them. You don’t know if the plumbing’s bad or the roof leaks or the neighbors are snake handlers. Yet you can’t help picturing yourself moving in, snugging up to the fire, and being suddenly very happy.

Malcolm glances at his wristwatch. A flicker of concern crosses his face.

“Everything all right?” I say.

He runs a hand through his hair, or what’s left of it. “I’m afraid I don’t know the answer to that question,” he says. He stands and again flashes that smile. “I hope you’ll excuse me, Margo. It’s been so very pleasant chatting with you.”

BOOK: The Bette Davis Club
9.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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