Los Angeles, January 1924
The club was downtown under a Venice Beach grocery store, and a very far cry from the harem-like decadence of the Cocoanut Grove, where I’d had dinner the night before under the palm trees. Bunty’s this place was called, according to my source, though there was no sign of any sort over the door. A fug of smoke so thick it stung your eyes hung low like a dirty bit of lace over the roped-off dance floor where six girls dressed in some exhausted-looking silk flowers were doing an unenthusiastic hula.
My backhander bought me a table at the front along with a glass of something they called bourbon, which was probably about as authentic as the dancers’ costumes. I took one sniff and put it to the side. Above me, on the balcony, men were leaning over and cat-calling. In Harlem, a place like this would be stuffed full of wannabe sophisticates out to claim their stake in history by taking part in the Jazz Age. Whatever that is. Fitzgerald and his like have a lot to answer for. I met him in Paris once. Unlike most of his acolytes, he struck me as the real deal, dead set on taking the road to destruction just as fast as he can travel.
I was thinking about him as I sat, not drinking my drink, watching the dancers in that louche little club making their dates with their exit. I was thinking, I could be just like him if I let myself. Not the writing, but the self-destruct thing. I was thinking that I had a hell of a lot more reason than Fitzgerald too, because to my knowledge he’d never seen what I’d seen.
But that’s a path I never take. What happened in Europe, what I saw, it could have destroyed me, but I won’t let it. That’s the difference between me and the others. That sounds smug. I’m not smug, but I’m darn sure I’m not gonna let myself wallow either. I know I’m one of the lucky ones. I owe it to the rest to make the most of it, and that’s what I’m doing. If I’m not happy, then I ought to be. I’m good at what I do. I like it too. I have any number of people happy to claim I’m their friend. Any number of women too, though I’m not one of those guys who needs anyone except myself. I’m not lonely, I’m self-reliant. That’s what the war taught me more than anything, that the only person you can depend on is yourself. I’m happy. Why shouldn’t I be happy?
I’d taken a sip of the bourbon. It was just as bad as I’d thought it would be. Thankfully, my thoughts were interrupted by the MC announcing the next act. I didn’t recognise her at first. I was expecting a blonde, and the person who walked onto the stage had black hair. I was expecting the soft curves and low-cut dresses she wore on screen, not a man’s dinner suit. I was expecting her to sing something bubbly, light, fun, flirty. I was expecting her to be sexy, vampy, maybe even cute. Like her movies. What I got – my God, what I got.
She sang a jazz number I didn’t recognise, though it was, needless to say, about a woman done wrong. Her voice was husky, smoky, the sort of voice that makes your hair stand on end. She didn’t milk it, the way another singer might, and it was all the more believable for that, her song. She stood there in front of the band, in her too-big man’s suit with her slicked-back hair and her face completely devoid of cosmetics, all big eyes and pale cheeks and sultry mouth, and I’ve never seen any woman so incredibly sensual in my life.
I’d been sceptical about her ability to act. That was why I’d come here, on a tip-off. I realised two things at that moment. She was wasted on the screen. And I wanted her.
I don’t know what it was that made me notice him. Usually when I’m singing I don’t notice anything or anyone save for the band. He was alone, which was unusual, but it wasn’t that. It was the stillness of him. The way he was watching me, so focused, utterly intent. I let him catch my eye, something I never do because it gives men all sorts of wrong ideas. And some women. In the early days, when I first started singing here, when I first realised that I had to sing somewhere, even if walking on stage alone brought back such painful memories, back then, I used to – sometimes. I tried both, men and women. Neither worked as well as I hoped. Maybe because I thought they wouldn’t.
But this man. I’d never seen him before, that much I was sure of. He wasn’t good-looking enough to be in films. His hair was cut short, no floppy bit at the front to slick back, but really short, like he didn’t want to be bothered with it. There were lines on his high forehead. He was clean-cut, no fashionable moustache. A strong jaw that a camera would have loved. Deep-set eyes. I couldn’t see the colour in the fug of the club, but I could feel them on me. Boring through me. Watching.
I sang two songs. Songs that would have surprised Daisy, shocked her even, but I can’t sing the old stuff, and this new jazz, it suits me. I don’t just mean my voice, but the lyrics, the mood. So sad. Like they were written for me. When the dancers came out at the end of my slot, I could have edged backstage as I always did, but I didn’t. Even though he made no sign, I went over to his table and sat down opposite him. His eyes were blue. He was younger than I’d thought, maybe thirty. And he had that indefinable air about him, of wealth or power or both.
‘You were staring,’ I said, by way of introduction.
‘You were extraordinary.’
‘I can hold a tune.’ I shrugged, but I was pleased, and that surprised me, because my singing, it’s very personal. You’ll say that’s a contradiction, because if it was so personal then I wouldn’t do it on stage. But no-one knows me here – or if they do, it’s the kind of place where they choose not to say. And Bunty’s, it’s like no place I’ve ever performed before, there’s nothing to remind me of those times. When I sing here, the songs are for me. Just for me. So like I said, I was kind of surprised to be pleased, because usually I don’t give a damn.
‘Is there somewhere we can talk?’ he asked me.
Did he mean talk? I was pretty shocked to discover I hoped not, though he made me nervous. Or I made myself nervous. The way I’d noticed him. The way my body noticed his, such a contrast between us, in the way he filled his dinner suit. There was a kind of ruggedness in him that I liked. He wasn’t smooth or debonair or any of those movie-star qualities I saw day-in day-out on set. His appeal was much more kind of basic – and I don’t mean like that phoney, Tarzan of the Apes either.
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