Johnny Fontane waved a casual dismissal to the manservant and said, “See you in the morning, Billy.” The colored butler bowed his way out of the huge dining room-living room with its view of the Pacific Ocean. It was a friendly-goodbye sort of bow, not a servant’s bow, and given only because Johnny Fontane had company for dinner.
Johnny’s company was a girl named Sharon Moore, a New York City Greenwich Village girl in Hollywood to try for a small part in a movie being produced by an old flame who had made the big time. She had visited the set while Johnny was acting in the Woltz movie. Johnny had found her young and fresh and charming and witty, and had asked her to come to his place for dinner that evening. His invitations to dinner were always famous and had the force of royalty and of course she said yes.
Sharon Moore obviously, expected him to come on very strong because of his reputation, but Johnny hated the Hollywood “piece of meat” approach. He never slept with any girl unless there was something about her he really liked. Except, of course, sometimes when he was very drunk and found himself in bed with a girl he didn’t even remember meeting or seeing before. And now that he was thirty-five years old, divorced once, estranged from his second wife, with maybe a thousand pubic scalps dangling from his belt, he simply wasn’t that eager. But there was something about Sharon Moore that aroused affection in him and so he had invited her to dinner.
He never ate much but he knew young pretty girls ambitiously starved themselves for pretty clothes and were usually big eaters on a date so there was plenty of food on the table. There was also plenty of liquor; champagne in a bucket, scotch, rye, brandy and liqueurs on the sideboard. Johnny served the drinks and the plates of food already prepared. When they had finished eating he led her into the huge living room with its glass wall that looked out onto the Pacific. He put a stack of Ella Fitzgerald records on the hifi and settled on the couch with Sharon. He made a little small talk with her, found out about what she had been like as a kid, whether she had been a tomboy or boy crazy, whether she had been homely or pretty, lonely or gay. He always found these details touching, it always evoked the tenderness he needed to make love.
They nestled together on the sofa, very friendly, very comfortable. He kissed her on the lips, a cool friendly kiss, and when she kept it that way he left it that way. Outside the huge picture window he could see the dark blue sheet of the Pacific lying flat beneath the moonlight.
“How come you’re not playing any of your records?” Sharon asked him. Her voice was teasing. Johnny smiled at her. He was amused by her teasing him. “I’m not that Hollywood,” he said.
“Play some for me,” she said. “Or sing for me. You know, like the movies. I’ll bubble up and melt all over you just like those girls do on the screen.”
Johnny laughed outright. When he had been younger, he had done just such things and the result had always been stagy, the girls trying to look sexy and melting, making their eyes swim with desire for an imagined fantasy camera. He would never dream of singing to a girl now; for one thing, he hadn’t sung for months, he didn’t trust his voice. For another thing, amateurs didn’t realize how much professionals depended on technical help to sound as good as they did. He could have played his records but he felt the same shyness about hearing his youthful passionate voice as an aging, balding man running to fat feels about showing pictures of himself as a youth in the full bloom of manhood.
“My voice is out of shape,” he said. “And honestly, I’m sick of hearing myself sing.”
They both sipped their drinks. “I hear you’re great in this picture,” she said. “Is it true you did it for nothing?”
“Just a token payment,” Johnny said.
He got up to give her a refill on her brandy glass, gave her a gold-monogrammed cigarette and flashed his lighter out to hold the light for her. She puffed on the cigarette and sipped her drink and he sat down beside her again. His glass had considerably more brandy in it than hers, he needed it to warm himself, to cheer himself, to charge himself up. His situation was the reverse of the lover’s usual one. He had to get himself drunk instead of the girl. The girl was usually too willing where he was not. The last two years had been hell on his ego, and he used this simple way to restore it, sleeping with a young fresh girl for one night, taking her to dinner a few times, giving her an expensive present and then brushing her off in the nicest way possible so that her feelings wouldn’t be hurt. And then they could always say they had had a thing with the great Johnny Fontane. It wasn’t true love, but you couldn’t knock it if the girl was beautiful and genuinely nice. He hated the hard, bitchy ones, the ones who screwed for him and then rushed off to tell their friends that they’d screwed the great Johnny Fontane, always adding that they’d had better. What amazed him more than anything else in his career were the complaisant husbands who almost told him to his face that they forgave their wives since it was allowed for even the most virtuous matron to be unfaithful with a great singing and movie star like Johnny Fontane. That really floored him.
He loved Ella Fitzgerald on records. He loved that kind of clean singing, that kind of clean phrasing. It was the only thing in life he really understood and he knew he understood it better than anyone else on earth. Now lying back on the couch, the brandy warming his throat, he felt a desire to sing, not music, but to phrase with the records, yet it was something impossible to do in front of a stranger. He put his free hand in Sharon’s lap, sipping his drink from his other hand. Without any slyness but with the sensualness of a child seeking warmth, his hand in her lap pulled up the silk of her dress to show milky white thigh above the sheer netted gold of her stockings and as always, despite all the women, all the years, all the familiarity, Johnny felt the fluid sticky warmness flooding through his body at that sight. The miracle still happened, and what would he do when that failed him as his voice had?
He was ready now. He put his drink down on the long inlaid cocktail table and turned his body toward her. He was very sure, very deliberate, and yet tender. There was nothing sly or lecherously lascivious in his caresses. He kissed her on the lips while his hands rose to her breasts. His hand fell to her warm thighs, the skin so silky to his touch. Her returning kiss was warm but not passionate and he preferred it that way right now. He hated girls who turned on all of a sudden as if their bodies were motors galvanized into erotic pumpings by the touching of a hairy switch.
Then he did something he always did, something that had never yet failed to arouse him. Delicately and as lightly as it was possible to do so and still feel something, he brushed the tip of his middle finger deep down between her thighs. Some girls never even felt that initial move toward lovemaking. Some were distracted by it, not sure it was a physical touch because at the same time he always kissed them deeply on the mouth. Still others seemed to suck in his finger or gobble it up with a pelvic thrust. And of course before he became famous, some girls had slapped his face. It was his whole technique and usually it served him well enough.
Sharon’s reaction was unusual. She accepted it all, the touch, the kiss, then shifted her mouth off his, shifted her body ever so slightly back along the couch and picked up her drink. It was a cool but definite refusal. It happened sometimes. Rarely; but it happened. Johnny picked up his drink and lit a cigarette.
She was saying something very sweetly, very lightly. “It’s not that I don’t like you, Johnny, you’re much nicer than I thought you’d be. And it’s not because I’m not that kind of a girl. It’s just that I have to be turned on to do it with a guy, you know what I mean?”
Johnny Fontane smiled at her. He still liked her. “And I don’t turn you on?”
She was a little embarrassed. “Well, you know, when you were so great singing and all, I was still a little kid. I sort of just missed you, I was the next generation. Honest, it’s not that I’m goody-goody. If you were a movie star I grew up on, I’d have my panties off in a second.”
He didn’t like her quite so much now. She was sweet, she was witty, she was intelligent. She hadn’t fallen all over herself to screw for him or try to hustle him because his connections would help her in show biz. She was really a straight kid. But there was something else he recognized. It had happened a few times before. The girl who went on a date with her mind all made up not to go to bed with him, no matter how much she liked him, just so that she could tell her friends, and even more, herself, that she had turned down a chance to screw for the great Johnny Fontane. It was something he understood now that he was older and he wasn’t angry. He just didn’t like her quite that much and he had really liked her a lot.
And now that he didn’t like her quite so much, he relaxed more. He sipped his drink and watched the Pacific Ocean. She said, “I hope you’re not sore, Johnny. I guess I’m being square, I guess in Hollywood a girl’s supposed to put out just as casually as kissing a beau good night. I just haven’t been around long enough.”
Johnny smiled at her and patted her cheek. His hand fell down to pull her skirt discreetly over her rounded silken knees. “I’m not sore,” he said. “It’s nice having an old-fashioned date.” Not telling what he felt: the relief at not having to prove himself a great lover, not having to live up to his screened, godlike image. Not having to listen to the girl trying to react as if he really had lived up to that image, making more out of a very simple, routine piece of ass than it really was.
They had another drink, shared a few more cool kisses and then she decided to go. Johnny said politely, “Can I call you for dinner some night?”
She played it frank and honest to the end. “I know you don’t want to waste your time and then get disappointed,” she said. “Thanks for a wonderful evening. Someday I’ll tell my children I had supper with the great Johnny Fontane all alone in his apartment.”
He smiled at her. “And that you didn’t give in,” he said. They both laughed. “They’ll never believe that,” she said. And then Johnny, being a little phony in his turn, said, “I’ll give it to you in writing, want me to?” She shook her head. He continued on. “Anybody doubts you, give me a buzz on the phone, I’ll straighten them right out. I’ll tell them how I chased you all around the apartment but you kept your honor. OK?”
He had, finally, been a little too cruel and he felt stricken at the hurt on her young face. She understood that he was telling her that he hadn’t tried too hard. He had taken the sweetness of her victory away from her. Now she would feel that it had been her lack of charm or attractiveness that had made her the victor this night. And being the girl she was, when she told the story of how she resisted the great Johnny Fontane, she would always have to add with a wry little smile, “Of course, he didn’t try very hard.” So now taking pity on her, he said, “If you ever feel real down, give me a ring. OK? I don’t have to shack up every girl I know.”
“I will,” she said. She went out the door.
He was left with a long evening before him. He could have used what Jack Woltz called the “meat factory,” the stable of willing starlets, but he wanted human companionship. He wanted to talk like a human being. He thought of his first wife, Virginia. Now that the work on the picture was finished he would have more time for the kids. He wanted to become part of their life again. And he worried about Virginia too. She wasn’t equipped to handle the Hollywood sharpies who might come after her just so that they could brag about having screwed Johnny Fontane’s first wife. As far as he knew, nobody could say that yet. Everybody could say it about his second wife though, he thought wryly. He picked up the phone.
He recognized her voice immediately and that was not surprising. He had heard it the first time when he was ten years old and they had been in 4B together. “Hi, Ginny,” he said, “you busy tonight? Can I come over for a little while?”
“All right,” she said. “The kids are sleeping though; I don’t want to wake them up.”
“That’s OK,” he said. “I just wanted to talk to you.”
Her voice hesitated slightly, then carefully controlled not to show any concern, she asked, “Is it anything serious, anything important?”
“No,” Johnny said. “I finished the picture today and I thought maybe I could just see you and talk to you. Maybe I could take a look at the kids if you’re sure they won’t wake up.”
“OK,” she said. “I’m glad you got that part you wanted.”
“Thanks,” he said. “I’ll see you in about a half hour.”
When he got to what had been his home in Beverly Hills, Johnny Fontane sat in the car for a moment staring at the house. He remembered what his Godfather had said, that he could make his own life what he wanted. Great chance if you knew what you wanted. But what did he want?
His first wife was waiting for him at the door. She was pretty, petite and brunette, a nice Italian girl, the girl next door who would never fool around with another man and that had been important to him. Did he still want her, he asked himself, and the answer was no. For one thing, he could no longer make love to her, their affection had grown too old. And there were some things, nothing to do with sex, she could never forgive him. But they were no longer enemies.
She made him coffee and served him homemade cookies in the living room. “Stretch out on the sofa,” she said, “you look tired.” He took off his jacket and his shoes and loosened his tie while she sat in the chair opposite him with a grave little smile on her face. “It’s funny,” she said.
“What’s funny?” he asked her, sipping coffee and spilling some of it on his shirt.
“The great Johnny Fontane stuck without a date,” she said.
“The great Johnny Fontane is lucky if he can even get it up anymore,” he said.
It was unusual for him to be so direct. Ginny asked, “Is there something really the matter?”
Johnny grinned at her. “I had a date with a girl in my apartment and she brushed me off. And you know, I was relieved.”
To his surprise he saw a look of anger pass over Ginny’s face. “Don’t worry about those little tramps,” she said. “She must have thought that was the way to get you interested in her.” And Johnny realized with amusement that Ginny was actually angry with the girl who had turned him down.
“Ah, what the hell,” he said. “I’m tired of that stuff. I have to grow up sometime. And now that I can’t sing anymore I guess I’ll have a tough time with dames. I never got in on my looks, you know.”
She said loyally, “You were always better looking than you photographed.”
Johnny shook his head. “I’m getting fat and I’m getting bald. Hell, if this picture doesn’t make me big again I better learn how to bake pizzas. Or maybe we’ll put you in the movies, you look great.”
She looked thirty-five. A good thirty-five, but thirty-five. And out here in Hollywood that might as well be a hundred. The young beautiful girls thronged through the city like lemmings, lasting one year, some two. Some of them so beautiful they could make a man’s heart almost stop beating until they opened their mouths, until the greedy hopes for success clouded the loveliness of their eyes. Ordinary women could never hope to compete with them on a physical level. And you could talk all you wanted to about charm, about intelligence, about chic, about poise, the raw beauty of these girls overpowered everything else. Perhaps if there were not so many of them there might be a chance for an ordinary, nice-looking woman. And since Johnny Fontane could have all of them, or nearly all of them, Ginny knew that he was saying all this just to flatter her. He had always been nice that way. He had always been polite to women even at the height of his fame, paying them compliments, holding lights for their cigarettes, opening doors. And since an this was usually done for him, it made it even more impressive to the girls he went out with. And he did it with all girls, even the one-night stands, I-don’t-know-your-name girls.
She smiled at him, a friendly smile. “You already made me, Johnny, remember? For twelve years. You don’t have to give me your line.”
He sighed and stretched out on the sofa. “No kidding, Ginny, you look good. I wish I looked that good.”
She didn’t answer him. She could see he was depressed. “Do you think the picture is OK? Will it do you some good?” she asked.
Johnny nodded. “Yeah. It could bring me all the way back. If I get the Academy thing and play my cards right, I can make it big again even without the singing. Then maybe I can give you and the kids more dough.”
“We have more than enough,” Ginny said.
“I wants see more of the kids too,” Johnny said. “I want to settle down a little bit. Why can’t I come every Friday night for dinner here? I swear I’ll never miss one Friday, I don’t care how far away I am or how busy I am. And then whenever I can I’ll spend weekends or maybe the kids can spend some part of their vacations with me.”
Ginny put an ashtray on his chest. “It’s OK with me,” she said. “I never got married because I wanted you to keep being their father.” She said this without any kind of emotion, but Johnny Fontane, staring up at the ceiling, knew she said it as an atonement for those other things, the cruel things she had once said to him when their marriage had broken up, when his career had started going down the drain.
“By the way, guess who called me,” she said.
Johnny wouldn’t play that game, he never did. “Who?” he asked.
Ginny said, “You could take at least one lousy guess.” Johnny didn’t answer. “Your Godfather,” she said.
Johnny was really surprised. “He never talks to anybody on the phone. What did he say to you?”
“He told me to help you,” Ginny said. “He said you could be as big as you ever were, that you were on your way back, but that you needed people to believe in you. I asked him why should I? And he said because you’re the father of my children. He’s such a sweet old guy and they tell such horrible stories about him.”
Virginia hated phones and she had had all the extensions taken out except for the one in her bedroom and one in the kitchen. Now they could hear the kitchen phone ringing. She went to answer it. When she came back into the living room there was a look of surprise on her face. “It’s for you, Johnny,” she said. “It’s Tom Hagen. He says it’s important.”
Johnny went into the kitchen and picked up the phone. “Yeah, Tom,” he said.
Tom Hagen’s voice was cool. “Johnny, the Godfather wants me to come out and see you and set some things up that can help you out now that the picture is finished. He wants me to catch the morning plane. Can you meet it in Los Angeles? I have to fly back to New York the same night so you won’t have to worry about keeping your night free for me.”
“Sure, Tom,” Johnny said. “And don’t worry about me losing a night. Stay over and relax a bit. I’ll throw a party and you can meet some movie people.” He always made that offer, he didn’t want the folks from his old neighborhood to think he was ashamed of them.
“Thanks,” Hagen said, “but I really have to catch the early morning plane back. OK, you’ll meet the eleven-thirty A.M. out of New York?”
“Sure,” Johnny said.
“Stay in your car,” Hagen said. “Send one of your people to meet me when I get off the plane and bring me to you.”
“Right,” Johnny said.
He went back to the living room and Ginny looked at him inquiringly. “My Godfather has some plan for me, to help me out,” Johnny said. “He got me the part in the movie, I don’t know how. But I wish he’d stay out of the rest of it.”
He went back onto the sofa. He felt very tired. Ginny said, “Why don’t you sleep in the guest bedroom tonight instead of going home? You can have breakfast with the kids and you won’t have to drive home so late. I hate to think of you all alone in that house of yours anyway. Don’t you get lonely?”
“I don’t stay home much,” Johnny said.
She laughed and said, “Then you haven’t changed much.” She paused and then said, “Shall I fix up the other bedroom?”
Johnny said, “Why can’t I sleep in your bedroom?”
She flushed. “No,” she said. She smiled at him and he smiled back. They were still friends.
When Johnny woke up the next morning it was late, he could tell by the sun coming in through the drawn blinds. It never came in that way unless it was in the afternoon. He yelled, “Hey, Ginny, do I still rate breakfast?” And far away he heard her voice call, “Just a second.”
And it was just a second. She must have had everything ready, hot in the oven, the tray waiting to be loaded, because as Johnny lit his fast cigarette of the day, the door of the bedroom opened and his two small daughters came in wheeling the breakfast cart.
They were so beautiful it broke his heart. Their faces were shining and clear, their eyes alive with curiosity and the eager desire to run to him. They wore their hair braid old-fashioned in long pigtails and they wore old-fashioned frocks and white patent-leather shoes. They stood by the breakfast cart watching him as he stubbed out his cigarette and waited for him to call and hold his arms wide. Then they came running to him. He pressed his face between their two fresh fragrant cheeks and scraped them with his beard so that they shrieked. Ginny appeared in the bedroom door and wheeled the breakfast cart the rest of the way so that he could eat in bed. She sat beside him on the edge of the bed, pouring his coffee, buttering his toast. The two young daughters sat on the bedroom couch watching him. They were too old now for pillow fights or to be tossed around. They were already smoothing their mussed hair. Oh, Christ, he thought, pretty soon they’ll be all grown up, Hollywood punks will be out after them.
He shared his toast and bacon with them as he ate, gave them sips of coffee. It was a habit left over from when he had been singing with the band and rarely ate with them so they liked to share his food when he had his odd-hour meals like afternoon breakfasts or morning suppers. The change-around in food delighted them— to eat steak and french fries at seven in the morning, bacon and eggs in the afternoon.
Only Ginny and a few of his close friends knew how much he idolized his daughters. That had been the worst thing about the divorce and leaving home. The one thing he had fought about, and for, was his position as a father to them. In a very sly way he had made Ginny understand he would not be pleased by her remarrying, not because he was jealous of her, but because he was jealous of his position as a father. He had arranged the money to be paid to her so it would be enormously to her advantage financially not to remarry. It was understood that she could have lovers as long as they were not introduced into her home life. But on this score he had absolute faith in her. She had always been amazingly shy and old-fashioned in sex. The Hollywood gigolos had batted zero when they started swarming around her, sniffing for the financial settlement and the favors they could get from her famous husband.
He had no fear that she expected a reconciliation because he had wanted to sleep with her the night before. Neither one of them wanted to renew their old marriage. She understood his hunger for beauty, his irresistible impulse toward young women far more beautiful than she. It was known that he always slept with his movie co-stars at least once. His boyish charm was irresistible to them, as their beauty was to him.
“You’ll have to start getting dressed pretty soon,” Ginny said. “Tom’s plane will be getting in.” She shooed the daughters out of the room.
“Yeah,” Johnny said. “By the way, Ginny, you know I’m getting divorced? I’m gonna be a free man again.”
She watched him getting dressed. He always kept fresh clothes at her house ever since they had come to their new arrangement after the wedding of Don Corleone’s daughter. “Christmas is only two weeks away,” she said. “Shall I plan on you being here?”
It was the first time he had even thought about the holidays. When his voice was in shape, holidays were lucrative singing dates but even then Christmas was sacred. If he missed this one, it would be the second one. Last year he had been courting his second wife in Spain, trying to get her to marry him.
“Yeah,” he said. “Christmas Eve and Christmas.” He didn’t mention New Year’s Eve. That would be one of the wild nights he needed every once in a while, to get drunk with his friends, and he didn’t want a wife along then. He didn’t feel guilty about it.
She helped him put on his jacket and brushed it off. He was always fastidiously neat. She could see him frowning because the shirt he had put on was not laundered to his taste, the cuff links, a pair he had not worn for some time, were a little too loud for the way he liked to dress now. She laughed softly and said, “Tom won’t notice the difference.”
The three women of the family walked him to the door and out on the driveway to his car. The two little girls held his hands, one on each side. His wife walked a little behind him. She was getting pleasure out of how happy he looked. When he reached his car he turned around and swung each girl in turn high up in the air and kissed her on the way down. Then he kissed his wife and got into the car. He never liked drawn-out good-byes.