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All the Stars in the Heavens

October 2000

A cold gust of wind sounded like a faraway train whistle as it blew through South Bend that morning. Winter had arrived early in Indiana, in the middle of October beneath a cloudless sky.

There was proof of it everywhere.

The mighty Saint Joe River had frost on its banks as it twisted past Saint Mary’s College in hungry green torrents. Overhead the sun was centered in the sky like a yellow diamond on blue satin. The farm fields surrounding the school were flat and fallow, faded to a dull gold that would soon turn white with the first snow. A tall heap of cornhusks burned in a nearby field; by the time the smoke reached Saint Mary’s, its scent was sweet.

Roxanne Chetta hung her head out of a window in the art studio in Moreau Hall and took a slow, final drag off her sunrise cigarette. As she exhaled, the smoke burst into small blue curls before disappearing into the cold air. She put the cigarette out on the windowsill, snapped the window shut, and shivered. She pulled the hot pink bandana out of her hair and retied it, anchoring her bounty of wild curls off her face so she could see.

Roxanne stood back and squinted at her senior arts project, an ambitious painting, twelve feet high and fifteen feet wide. She had painted it over the course of a year, stealing late nights alone in the studio between the janitor’s final rounds and the first class of the morning to make perfect what she knew could never be.

At twenty-one, she was a young artist, but she was a practical one. As the sun shifted in the skylight, the studio was drenched in color, a sort of woolly pink. Roxanne saw something new in the painting, or in this instance, something to refine. She patted the pockets of her overalls, searching for the palette knife.

Sister Agnes Eugenia, around eighty years old, observed the art from the open door. She wore the traditional habit of the order of Saint Joseph, a billowing dark blue tunic with a wimple attached to a blue veil, and a silver crucifix around her neck. She placed her hands in the deep habit pockets. “What is it?”

“It’s a blizzard,” Roxanne said as she found the knife in her back pocket.

“I can see that. But where?”

“Bellingham, Washington.” Roxanne stepped close to the painting and, using the blade, followed an edge of a wide brushstroke, lifting off a thin layer, refining a line. She wiped the knife on her pant leg, leaving a white smear of paint.

The painting, depicting the woods of Mount Baker in snow, was blanched and textured, speckled with painterly shadows of gray. The trees were layered in line, form, and depth in shades of white from milk to chalk. Roxanne had painted diamond dust, snow that does not cling but blows through in a haze of glitter, with tiny pointillist dots of silver, barely discernible on the field of white. The painting was an expanse of stillness. There was a purity to the image, a grace that comes when a place is rendered sacred upon discovery.

“You’re from the Northwest?”

“Nope, never been there,” Roxanne admitted. “Then how do you know how to paint it?”

“Well, that’s the point. The how. The painting is an interpretation of a story I heard as a child that I’ve been told is true, but to me it’s just a dream. I tried to paint the past, if anybody can actually do that.”

“So you made it up.”

“I guess I really wanted to prove Einstein’s theory that imagination is more important than knowledge.”

“Is it?”

“I think so. Don’t you? You’ve never seen heaven, but you believe in it. And from the looks of your habit, you’ve staked your life on it.”

“You’re blunt.”

“I’m from Brooklyn. Blunt was invented in Red Hook.”

“Yes, well, here at Saint Mary’s in 1962, when I was dean of students, that attitude would have put you in detention.”

“Thank God it’s not 1962,” Roxanne said without taking her eyes off the painting. “I do not like to be confined.”

“That’s obvious.”

“What are you doing up so early, Sister?”

Sister Agnes folded her arms into her sleeves. “If you must know, I’m having a spiritual crisis.”

“Oh, Sister, if you’re having one of those, come sit by me.” Roxanne sat on a work stool and pulled up a folding chair for the nun. “I love a lapse of any kind.”

“Something tells me you’re the wrong person to confide in,” Sister said as she sat down.

“Probably. But right now, I’m all you’ve got. Father Krauss is doing laps over at the Regina pool, and he won’t be finished for an hour. Talk to me.”

Sister Agnes Eugenia shifted in the chair. She patted her crucifix, and took a deep breath. “I spent my whole life in anticipation of everlasting life, the eternal, heaven, whatever you want to call it. I’ve lived in service to the idea of it, and guess what? Now I can’t see it. I thought when I got closer to dying, I would be able to see it.”

“Aren’t nuns supposed to have blind faith?” “Supposedly.”

Roxanne picked up a can of turpentine and a rag. She dabbed a corner of the painting where a drop of paint had dripped. “If you don’t mind me prying, why are you having a crisis?”

“I went to the doctor. Evidently, I have a bad heart.”

“A nun with a bad heart. That sounds like a logline on a poster for a potboiler from Warner Brothers in the forties.”

“You know about old movies?”

“It’s a family thing. I’m the great-niece of Luca Chetta. He was a scenic artist in the movies, back in the day—they called him a scene painter. He got his start during the golden age of Hollywood.”

“The best movies were made during that era.”

“I think so. My uncle Luca knew all the stars. They acted, and he painted.”

“So art is in your veins.” “I like to think so.”

“So why Bellingham, and why a blizzard?” “The Call of the Wild.”

“Clark Gable and Loretta Young,” the nun mused.

“Uncle Luca painted the cabin and the saloon. And while he was painting, he fell in love. He told my mom the story behind the movie so many times when she was growing up that she passed it along to me. It’s a love story.”

“How grand.” Sister leaned back in the chair. For years she had been the nun who chose the films the order watched on Friday nights. Sister Agnes liked movies made before 1950, and very few thereafter. “So what’s the story?”

“Oh, Sister, it’s a doozy. It’s right here on the canvas.” Roxanne stood and pointed at the artwork. “You see the snow.”

“I do.”

“And I see snow. But I also see adventure. Risk. Mayhem. Mirth.

Romance. And sex.” “Sounds like an epic.”

“With a secret. A secret hatched in a blizzard.”

Roxanne had painted smatterings of Tiepolo blue on the frosted roots of the trees, revealing something hidden deep in the earth like rare truffles. The meaning of Roxanne’s painting was in the blue.

Just as a blank page is eventually filled with letters in blue ink, those letters become words, which become sentences, which become the scene, which becomes the story that carries the truth.

The truth is where the story begins.

The story isn’t the art, nor its players, nor the paint, the technique, or the interpretation. The feelings are the art. The rest is just the way in.

Chapter One

Vine Street looked like a painting that morning.

The sun blinked behind a roll of fog over the Hollywood Hills, turning the world into a watercolor still life. A row of pepper trees on either side of the wide street shimmered in the light, their mossy leaves tinged in yellow spun like coins as a breeze blew through their branches.

The delivery boy took a deep breath, inhaling the scents of tuberose and gardenia from the flower arrangement he carried. The spray was almost as tall as he was, and certainly wider. Long stems of white delphinium framed the bouquet, their blossoms shaking like bells as he walked.

The boy noticed a lemon grove next to the studio and thought about picking a few later to take home to his mother, who would surely peel the skin into curls, soak them in boiling water, then roll them in sugar until they were candy sweet. Oranges, lemons, and limes were ripe for the picking; between the sunshine and the citrus fruit, even the poorest children looked robust.

California was a dreamscape in 1917, the emerald Pacific lapping at its jagged coast with crests of white foam. The land was rocky, the air dry, the foliage green, and the sky blue.

There was ongoing speculation about undiscovered gold mines and untapped veins of silver ore deep in the earth. On the surface, railways connected the west to everyone else, zigzagging across the state like zippers. As far as the eye could see, the landscape was filled with potential.

Show business was exploding. No longer were live theater, burlesque, and vaudeville the backbone of American entertainment; pennies weren’t dropped at the arcades or buckets of silver in the nickelodeon. Now there were moving pictures, and audiences could not get enough of them.

Barns were raised, not to house cattle and horses but to host actors, cameras, sets, and lights. California’s clement weather meant round-the-clock production, and producers reveled in the possibilities for profit.

If you were beautiful, young, and lucky, you might make it big in pictures, but if you couldn’t catch a break, you could serve the anointed whose dreams had come true. You might cook and clean for the stars, drive them to the studio, sew their costumes, paint scenery, style their hair, or write their scenarios. You could be useful here. There were many stories to tell, and many hands needed to bring them to life.

The barn doors of the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company rolled open to reveal a movie sound stage in full production.

The clatter of making a silent picture was deafening. Orders were shouted over the clang of metal, the drone of machines, and the screech of a rip saw. As the orchestra warmed up, the haphazard sound of scales, the pluck of violin strings, the low bellows of a trumpet, and the bright tinkle of piano keys underscored the din.

The air was thick with the scents of sawdust, tobacco, and fresh paint.

The boy observed the mayhem. It was as if he were peering into the gears of a Swiss watch, its workings synchronized on a vast concrete floor cluttered with equipment. The crew, in a perpetual hurry, rushed past him carrying all elements of spectacle, from costumes to props.

His boss at the flower shop had said, “Time is money,” but here, they really meant it.

Overhead, electricians atop the steel flyspace sorted cables and manned the rigs to operate the lights. The crew dropped wires through the open mesh like marionette strings. A gaffer scaled a ladder to flip the metal barn doors on a light.

Painted backdrops hung neatly from the ceiling like decks of cards, ready to descend with the hoist and release of a pulley. The soles of the carpenters’ workboots on the open metal grid above looked like brown tiles to him. Below them, a stage manager hollered as the crew hoisted mattresses into the air with military precision and dropped them in place on wooden boards that faked box springs as set decorators moved in to dress the beds.

Where there had been nothing, there now was a world.

Two men rolled a flat on wheels into position. It was painted with trompe l’oeil bricks and a sign that read Children’s Ward. A scene painter followed, dabbing at the lettering until it was just right.

The movie camera, a black box with a thick glass lens, was centered on long black sticks in the middle of a platform on wheels. Under a sheath of midnight-blue velvet, the operators removed large wheels of film from tin canisters and snapped them into place. A cameraman stepped onto the lift and repositioned the camera. Slowly, like a barge, the rig and the cameraman floated into place in front of the hospital set.

Nearby a young actor, dressed as a patient, sat in front of a mirror as a makeup artist dipped his thumbs in gray powder and filled in the sockets under the boy’s eyes to make him look ill.

An extra dressed as a doctor buttoned his lab coat, while a gaggle of young actresses, one more stunning and white-hot blond than the next, stood in their satin slips, smoothing their stockings and pulling nurses’ uniforms over their creamy shoulders. The delivery boy watched them through the flowers, knowing he shouldn’t. A pretty nurse winked at him as she snapped the garter of her stocking. “Are those for me, squirt?”

The ladies laughed as the boy backed away in fear. A rolling rack of costumes careened through like a runaway train car, just missing him.

The director, Robert Z. Leonard, redwood tall with the face of a bulldog, paced, studying the scenario typed on yellow paper as though it were a bad headline on the front page of the Los Angeles Tribune. He was thirty-five years old but had the wizened countenance of a much older man, a man with too much responsibility and not enough time.

Behind the camera, musicians took their seats. They wore casual open-collared shirts and gabardine trousers. The trombonist wore a natty panama hat tilted back on his head so the brim wouldn’t interfere with the slide bow of his horn. They chatted about upcoming gigs as the conductor flipped through his sheet music.

“Hey, mister, is this where they’re filming The Primrose Ring?” the boy asked.

“In all its glory,” the conductor replied.

The delivery boy looked around. Everyone on the sound stage had a purpose; remembering his own, he hollered, “Flowers for Miss Murray.” Louder still, “Flowers for Miss Murray.”

Off in a corner, the actress Mae Murray took a long, slow drag off her cigarette, exhaling puffs of white smoke into the air that formed a pompadour cloud over her platinum blond hair, tucked neatly under a nurse’s cap.

“Over here, kid.” She waved and relaxed into the rest chair, a contraption that actors could lean against without wrinkling their costumes. The slant board had a pillow behind her neck covered in satin, another at her waist. Two flat arm boards kept the sleeves neat.

Mae wore a crisp white nurse’s uniform, and her face was covered with a thick paste of pale makeup to match. Her blue eyes were rimmed in black kohl, like sapphires set in onyx. Petite, with lovely legs and delicate hands, Mae knew how to smoke without disturbing her carefully drawn bee-stung lips, which had become her signature. It isn’t many things that make a movie star memorable, it’s usually one thing; for Mae Murray, it was her lips.

“From Mr. Lasky, ma’am,” the boy said as he wedged the flowers onto a nearby table filled with similar arrangements. He wanted to tell Miss Murray that he loved her in the movies, but he was overwhelmed. This was the first time he had ever delivered flowers to a star, and he was awestruck. Perched on the slant board, she looked almost as big as she did on the movie screen.

“You tell Mr. Lasky he’s a peach.” Mae handed the boy a dollar, which was more than his weekly pay.

“Thank you, Miss Murray!” The boy tipped his hat and ran for daylight as a dresser lifted the white shoes off Mae’s feet.

“That’s better.” Mae wriggled her toes in the thick white stockings. “I’ve got big feet.”

“I’ve seen bigger,” the dresser lied.

“Not on a frame this small. They’re freaks of nature. Look at ’em.” Mae twirled her foot in a full circle. “Canoes.”

“These shoes are too small,” the dresser admitted. “But they’re all we’ve got.”

“You don’t see the shoes.” Robert Leonard handed Mae her script. “If I wasn’t married to the director, I’d demand shoes that fit,”

Mae teased.

“Darling, you know about budgets.”

“Yeah, yeah. Kiss me, Bobby.” She puckered her lips. Her husband kissed her. Mae flipped through the script. “Lot of weeping and wailing here.”

“Mr. Leonard? We need you to choose the background.” Ernie Traxler, the assistant director, an energetic young man of twenty-four, eager to impress the boss, handed the director a list of names.

Robert scanned the list and handed it back to Ernie. “You choose them for me. You did well with the town-hall scene.”

“Thank you, Mr. Leonard. I’ll take care of it.” Ernie smiled. “See you on the set, hon,” Robert said to his wife.

“Miss Murray. Your lunch.” A runner approached with a tray. “What’ve we got today?”

“Ham sandwich and lemonade,” the boy said as he hooked a tray onto the arm of the slant board. The costumer draped a large, starched linen napkin over Mae’s costume to catch any crumbs.

“I should be eating a rare steak and raw tomato. That’s how Mary Pickford stays slim.”

“B-but you ordered . . . ,” the boy stammered.

“Teasing ya. Ham for the ham, honey.” Mae smiled as she lifted the bread and removed the meat. She ate half a slice of the bread sparingly buttered.

The crew dropped a row of leather harnesses covered in beige velvet and attached to long ropes secured with iron bocklebee clasps from the overhead grid. Ernie Traxler led a group of extras dressed as fairies onto the set. The men wore thick green leotards with chest armor made of silk leaves; the women, pale green tulle skirts with satin vests.

Four little girls dressed in taupe undershirts and leotards, with a flounce of green tulle tied at the waist, were led to the dangling yokes. One girl began to whimper fearfully, and two cowered away from the harnesses. But the fourth girl raised her arms eagerly.

“Uncle Ernie!” She smiled. “Up!” “You’re a good girl, Gretch.”

Ernie helped hoist his four-year-old niece into her harness. Gretchen grinned, extending her legs behind her and her arms to her sides, as though she were in flight. Gretchen began to swing in the harness as the crew loaded the rest of the girls into theirs. Two of her fellow fairies began to cry, the first rumbles of a revolt.

“Look at Gretchen, girls. She doesn’t cry.”

Gretchen was a few feet off the ground. “Higher!” she commanded. The stagehand guided the rope on the pulley heavenward as Gretchen made her ascent. The higher the girl went, the happier she was.

Gretchen’s cousin Carlene, emboldened by her cousin’s courage, raised her arms. Ernie hoisted his daughter into the harness. She did not smile, nor did she extend her arms; instead she kept her eyes on Gretchen, gripping the straps with her hands as though she were under a parachute.

Mae Murray looked up at the children as they hovered over the crowd. Mae’s highest dream was to become a mother, but it hadn’t happened. Doctors had advised her to adopt, believing that she could not have a child, but she was only in her early thirties, and she held out hope that there would be at least one baby for Robert and for her. Gently the crew raised the children in the harnesses to meet Gretchen, who was now about ten feet in the air. The first assistant director placed the extras beneath the fairies as the cameras pushed in to film the dream scene.

Gretchen dropped from the sky in a flourish. She had blond ringlets and pink cheeks. Her costume sparkled with flecks of diamond dust, and woven through her hair was a garland of tiny stars, a crown fit for a princess. She extended her arms and smiled, looking in the direction of the camera, but not into the lens. Mae shook her head. “Who’s the blondie?”

“That’s my niece,” Ernie Traxler said. “Gretchen Young.”

“She’ll have my job one day,” Mae said as she stepped off the rest chair and entered the scene.

All the Stars in the Heavens
by by Adriana Trigiani

  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0062319205
  • ISBN-13: 9780062319203