Read A Touch of Stardust Online

Authors: Kate Alcott

A Touch of Stardust

ALSO BY KATE ALCOTT

The Dressmaker
The Daring Ladies of Lowell

Copyright © 2015 by Kate Alcott

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC, New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, Penguin Random House companies.

www.doubleday.com

DOUBLEDAY
and the portrayal of an anchor with a dolphin are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.

Jacket design by Lynn Buckley and Emily Mahon
Jacket photograph Carole Lombard © Getty Images

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Alcott, Kate.
A touch of stardust / Kate Alcott. — First Edition.
pages; cm
ISBN 978-0-385-53904-3 (hardcover);
ISBN 978-0-385-53905-0 (eBook)
   1. Gable, Clark, 1901–1960—Fiction.   2. Lombard, Carole, 1908–1942—Fiction.   3. Motion picture actors and actresses—Fiction.   4. Hollywood (Los Angeles, Calif.)—Fiction.   5. Gone with the wind (Motion picture: 1939)—Fiction.   I. Title.
PR
6101.l426
T
68   2014
823′.92—dc23        2014020972

v3.1_r1

For my father:
You always loved a good story
.
This one’s for you
.

This is a work of fiction, although the central structure of the saga of making
Gone with the Wind
and key dates are accurate. Scenes using actual dialogue from the movie have been shortened.

LOS ANGELES
DECEMBER 10, 1938

Atlanta was exploding right on schedule.

Small darting figures danced across the lot, lighting fuses, jumping back. A single column of flame roared toward the night sky, joined quickly by another and then another. Bits of blazing debris broke free and floated upward. Houses, barns, wagons—everything ignited like parched underbrush.

“God, look at it burn!” yelled a man in a Confederate uniform. The sky above Selznick International Pictures was now a frighteningly brilliant, ferocious orange, and while men in business suits on a high platform above the fire cheered, residents of Culver City, California, huddled in their houses, wondering briefly if this was Armageddon.

Julie Crawford kept running, stumbling every few feet in the ridiculous high-heeled pumps she had thought would give her confidence on her first substantive assignment at the Selznick studio. She tried to turn her face from the blaze as she ran, but her skin felt seared with heat anyway. She risked a quick glance upward, toward the observation tower. David O. Selznick, bathed in searchlights, stood like a king, surveying his flaming domain.

Suddenly two huddled figures in a wagon pulled by a galloping horse loomed into view. Thugs swarmed forward, trying to grab the horse; the animal reared in fear. A man in a wide-brimmed hat jumped down and threw a shawl over its head; then, silhouetted against the vivid sky, flames licking at his clothes, he pulled horse and wagon to safety.

For an instant Julie felt she was actually seeing and smelling the burning of the Atlanta depot, not just imagining it. That was Rhett pulling the horse. Scarlett huddled on the buckboard; hidden from view were Melanie and her baby. Julie’s heartbeat quickened. Good Lord, that man at the top of the tower really
was
bringing
Gone with the Wind
to life, and who wouldn’t be enthralled?

“Damned if that wagon thing don’t look pretty good,” said the fake Confederate soldier in high excitement, pointing. “Old Sherman ain’t getting those munitions now!”

A roar of whooping and hollering grew as people clapped each other on the back and laughed, relieved—though still casting nervous eyes at the fire engines encircling the lot. There was no way they would be needed, they told each other. Selznick was audacious, but he wasn’t stupid. These flames would stay locked in his Technicolor cameras even as they devoured old scenery, making way for Tara, and it would all work, because this was Hollywood.

Julie stared down at the message clutched in her fist. Why was she standing here, gaping? Her instructions were to deliver this into Selznick’s hands
before
the fire began. Her first chance to escape the mimeograph machine, and she had botched it.

But it was too soon to concede defeat. “I have to get to Mr. Selznick,” she said loudly, pushing toward the tower, straining on tiptoe to see above the crowd, trying to ape the tone of self-importance everyone else on this set seemed to have mastered. “I have a message for him.”

A fireman—a real one from the Los Angeles Fire Department
or a studio extra, she wasn’t sure—glanced at her with exasperation. His face looked boiled red from the heat. “Honey,” he said, “can’t you see he’s busy keeping
us
busy? Stay back—that’s an order.”

Somebody hooted. Her own face grew even warmer.

“Who gave you the message?” asked a male voice.

She turned and saw a man leaning against the side of the wooden observation tower, wearing a black suede jacket, a rumpled shirt, and scuffed tennis shoes. His hair was dark and on the long side, as if he had postponed a haircut or two. His hands were strong and freckled; his face glowed with the usual California tan. What struck her was the level gaze he was casting in her direction, a gaze managing to juggle amusement with gravity. Not old, not young. Julie wished suddenly that she had remembered to check her lipstick.

“One of his assistants,” she said.

“Who?”

“I don’t know his name.”

He tossed the stub of a cigarette to the ground and shook his head. “Must be your first day,” he said. “You don’t bring a message to Selznick without knowing who sent it. Give it to me; I’ll take it to him.” He reached out his hand, eyes cool, a small smile pulling at the side of his lips.

“I’d rather deliver it in person,” she said warily.

His hand paused in midair, then dropped to his side. “Good, you passed that test. Never give a Selznick message to anyone else.” He grinned now, a friendly grin, beckoning her forward, pointing to the tower’s ladder. “I’ll take you up to the platform, I’m supposed to be there anyway. What’s your name?”

“Julie Crawford. I work in the main office.” She didn’t have to say she worked cranking out press releases on the mimeograph machine. He seemed very sure of himself, totally part of this new world, and it would be nice to at least give the impression she knew a
little
about what she was doing.

“So—not Irish. Probably of good Protestant stock. Where did you get that red hair?”

“From my mother,” she retorted. “And it’s not red, it’s auburn,
and I’m not feisty or tempestuous or any of the other things red hair is supposed to signify. Anyway, as I said, it’s auburn.” She bit her lip, annoyed with herself. Once again, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.

His grin widened. “My, my: touchy. You must watch a lot of movies. But I’m wondering, every girl in Hollywood these days wants to play Scarlett O’Hara. She has black hair, so Margaret Mitchell tells us. Even the fake blondes in this town are willing to be reinvented once again. Planning on a dye job?”

“No. I’m not one of them, thank you.”

He shrugged, then started up the ladder. “Okay, natural is good. Follow me.”

Julie climbed, glad she was wearing trousers. Mother would faint, but better slacks than having that Confederate soldier peering up her skirt. Even though the ladder looked sturdy, it made her nervous. The whole plywood structure felt slapped together, like everything else in this wonderful, scary place.

She stepped out at the top onto the platform and was surprised to see a good twenty people or so milling about, all looking very important. A glance at the surrounding landscape took her breath away. The fire roaring across the lot was devouring everything that had been there this morning: all the old sets for
King Kong
and
The Thief of Bagdad
. Tomorrow, after clearing debris, Mr. Selznick would build Tara right here. Julie couldn’t imagine Scarlett O’Hara’s majestic home rising from the land beneath this inferno.

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