The Mmm Girl – Extract

I sat in the dark, watching myself in Technicolor. It was less than a week since my test. Grace and Berniece sat beside me, while Ben and Leon were two rows ahead.

‘Look at you, so pretty,’ Berniece whispered. ‘Gee, I’m proud.’ She’d come up from Florida with Mona Rae, who was five years old. They were staying with me at Ana’s house. Watching myself nervously light a cigarette, I shuddered. Though I enjoyed sifting through stills, this was different somehow.

The sequence ended and somebody switched on the lights.

Leon lit up a cigar.

‘So, girls,’ he said, grinning. ‘What do you think?’

‘She’s good, isn’t she?’ Grace said, standing up.

‘I think so, yeah. Her skin glows – it photographs like real flesh. And that’s rare, believe me.’

‘Of course, she has no technique.’ Mr Lyon smiled over at me. ‘But that can be learned. I showed the test to Darryl over the weekend, and he wasn’t sure.’

‘That’s Mr Zanuck, right?’ Grace walked beside him as he led us out of the room. ‘Is he the boss of this place?’

Mr Lyon’s office was away from the main lot, in a two-storey executive building by the infirmary.

‘I’ve worked in this business twenty years,’ Grace said when we reached his office. She pushed me into a chair. ‘I know when a studio’s on the up, and believe me, this is as good as it gets.’

Berniece took my hand, and stood close to me.

Mr Lyon sat down behind his desk, playing with a pen.

‘Are you related?’ he asked.

Grace put her arms around my shoulder. ‘I’m Norma Jeane’s legal guardian,’ she said. ‘I got her out of the orphanage. Berniece is the sister she never knew she had.’

‘This girl has sex appeal,’ he told her. ‘Most actresses have to fake it. I was in a film with Jean Harlow, years ago, and she had the same quality.’

Grace nodded. ‘That’s funny – even as a little girl, Norma Jeane was just like Harlow. Or Alice Faye.’

His secretary brought in some papers.

Ignoring us, she poured Mr Lyon a shot of whisky. A second later, a telephone rang in the lobby, and she hurried away.

Mr Lyon began filling in a form.

‘I’m going to offer you a stock contract, Norma Jeane. You’ll earn seventy-five dollars a week. After six months, we’ll review your progress.’

He handed me pen and paper, but I didn’t notice. I gasped. Grace hugged me, and Berniece gave me her handkerchief.

I signed my name and Grace countersigned. ‘It’s a legal requirement,’ Mr Lyon explained. ‘You’re still a minor, as you’re not yet twenty-one. By the way, have you decided on a name?’

‘Y-yes, I mean…well, Berniece helped me. And Aunt Grace, too. I’m going to be Marilyn, like you said. For the last name, I chose Monroe. It comes from my mother’s side.’

‘Marilyn Monroe.’ He gazed at me thoughtfully. ‘Yes, I like it. The two M’s will bring you luck.’

His secretary peered through the glass door. He nodded.

‘Can you report to the publicity department on Monday? Ask for Roy or Harry – they’ll draft a press release.’

He came to shake my hand but Grace got to me first.

‘Well goodbye, Marilyn,’ he chuckled. ‘And welcome to Twentieth!’

He held the door open for all of us. We tiptoed out of the executive building, and laughed as we crossed to the main lot.

*

We’d booked a large table at a Chinese restaurant, near the studio.

Grace and Uncle Doc had come together, and little Mona Rae sat on Berniece’s lap. Mother had borrowed a hat, and refused to take it off.

‘Let’s raise a toast to our girl!’ Doc stood and raised his glass, splashing red wine on the table. He wore a sharp gray suit and still had the same moustache as my father’s. ‘Because we’re gathered here, with all the family.’

‘Norma Jeane has no family,’ Mother said. ‘She never did, and never will. A mother and father, living under God. That’s how it should be.’

Ana excused herself and took Mother to the bathroom.

A waiter served strips of chicken, mushrooms and peppers, with bowls of rice and noodles.

‘Are you going to be in the movies, Aunt Norma?’ Mona Rae stared at me curiously.

‘Some day, I guess.’ I leaned over and kissed her forehead.

Berniece smiled sweetly. ‘I’m so excited for you, Normie – I mean, Marilyn.’

‘I can’t help thinking of Jimmie. I hope he won’t take it too bad.’

Last week I’d gone to Vegas to finalize our divorce. Jim wasn’t there, but his lawyer spoke for him.

Grace shrugged. ‘It was good while it lasted.’

Ana returned with Mother, who said she was tired and wanted to go home. We finished eating and shared the bill.

Walking out into the street, Uncle Doc stumbled. He grabbed my arm. ‘You know I can help you,’ he said. ‘If you need it…balancing the books. I’ve got experience.’

‘Thanks,’ I said, and opened the door to the black coupe. Ana got in beside me, while Mother squeezed in the back with Berniece and Mona Rae.

The others went to bed, and I stayed up with Ana, who was reading from the Bible. She stopped in mid-verse, and touched my blonde hair.

‘Honey,’ she said. ‘Remember your old piano – the one Gladys gave you?’

‘Yes, of course.’ I pictured it in the house we’d shared, and recalled my lessons, and Mr Kimmel. ‘Grace’s sister brought it over. It’s in the attic now.’

‘Oh! I thought it was gone!’

‘Grace paid off the installments, you know, when your mama got taken away. It’s yours, Norma, whenever you want it.’

‘I’d like that.’ A grin spread over my face, and I blushed.

‘You’ll be a great actress one day, dear. You have a way of reaching people, feeling what they feel.’

‘If that’s true, Nana, I owe it to you.’

I lay my head on her shoulder and closed my eyes. I didn’t move until she fell asleep. Then I took a blanket from the chest and covered her. She stayed for hours on the couch, never stirring. I wrapped myself in her shawl and sat on the armchair, imagining my piano, white and pristine, and a child of my own to play it.


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