Thursday, September 15, 2005

Omaha doesn't run much to evening clothes

Excerpt from Hedda Hopper's Hollywood (1962)

Just before that he'd arranged for her to visit the Strategic Air Command base at Omaha, Nebraska. Typically, she went though with the visit alone. Going on from there to Hollywood, she told me about it over dinner at the home of Billy Haines, once a picture star, now a top decorator with Joan among his customers.

Nothing would suit but I had to see SAC, too. She fixed it with General Thomas Power, the commander in chief. The Air Force flew me out from Los Angeles. Joan, who'd meantime returned to New York, came on from there on a commercial flight that got in an hour ahead of me. I found her waiting at the airport, with the mayor of the city in tow. She hadn't yet checked into the hotel suite we were sharing, so we went straight to the SAC, where General Power took us through the most amazing setup you could dream of. Joan and I rode to town together in the chauffeured limousine Mr. Mayor had put at her disposal.

She had enough luggage and hatboxes with her to fill a department store. She carried a jewel case two feet long. "I always travel with it," she told us. "By the way [this to the mayor] would you be kind enough to provide someone to guard my jewels. I'll need two men--one for day and one for night."

"Certainly, Miss Crawford," he said, hypnotized. "Whatever you need, just ask for it."

Our suite consisted of a living room and two separate bedrooms, one for Joan, and one for me. As soon as we'd checked in, she unpacked. For our two-day visit she brought twenty-two dresses, which she spread out all over the room, and fourteen hats. "I don't know what I'll want to wear," she explained seriously when my eyebrows hit my hairline, "so I brought them along in case."

We were no sooner unpacked than she rang for an iron and ironing board. The iron the bellboy brought wasn't the kind she liked, so she sent him out to buy a new one. With it, she proceeded to press every one of the dresses and hand each in its cellophane wrapper in her closet.

"Would you like to see my jewels?" she asked. I nodded, speechless. She unlocked the case and -- abracadabra! -- It was like peering at Aladdin's treasure, half a million dollars' worth; trays and trays loaded with diamonds and emeralds and pearls, bracelets and necklaces and earrings.

"This is the most dangerous thing you've ever done," I said. "Someday you'll wake up with your throat cut."

"But I always have it guarded," she said, "and I keep it beside me on the plane."

"Why isn't it in a safety deposit box?"

"I like to look at them," she said, as though she were talking to an idiot.

I went into my room for a minute. When I came back into the living room, she had disappeared. "Where are you?" Her voice came from the bathroom: "In here." She was on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor. "It wasn't very clean!"

Next to the goddess in their prayers, many of the worshipers place a compulsive kind of cleanliness. Sinatra, Jerry Lewis, Doris Day --they'll shower three times a day like pilgrims in the Ganges trying to wash away their sins. But only Joan and Garbo will personally scrub the bathroom or kitchen floor to make sure there are no germs lingering there.

The mayor returned to make us his guests at a small dinner party. We both wore simple dresses because Omaha doesn't run much to evening clothes. We were back in the hotel by eleven-thirty and had Mr. Mayor and two or three others up for a drink.

As soon as they had said their good nights, Joan, who doesn't smoke, flung every window wide open and carried the ash trays out into the hall, where her night guard had dutifully stationed himself outside the door. She gathered up the glasses and washing them in the kitchenette off the living room. She then unlocked another item of her luggage that the bellboy had staggered under when we moved in.

It was a massive chest perhaps a yard long, packed with ice. It contained four bottles of hundred-proof vodka, bottles of her favorite brand of champagne, a silver chalice, which she took out for her bedtime ceremony. Into the chalice she poured a split of champagne and raised it in a simple toast, "To Al," before she put it to her lips.

"What do you want for breakfast," she asked when the chalice was empty.

"Can't we order in the morning?"

"No, I like breakfast when I get up. I'll put our order in tonight." I settled for juice, coffee, and a boiled egg. That taken care of, we agreed that eight-thirty in the morning would suite us both as time to arise. Come the morrow, I'd bathed when at eight-thirty sharp there was a rapping at my bedroom door. In the living room stood a waiter ready to serve us. Outside the front door stood a new guard, keeping the daytime watch.

Then we spent a full, fascinating, reassuring, awe-inspiring day at SAC; saw the H-bombers take off in a practice scramble; again met General Power, who gave us dinner. I started sleeping more easily from that night on as a restful of what I'd witnessed. It seemed to me to be an up-to-date necessity in a fearful world where the best rule for America's conduct was advocated by Teddy Roosevelt: Speak softly and carry a big stick. The next morning, every inch a star and clean as a hound's tooth, Joan flew on to Chicago, with her twenty-two dresses, fourteen hats, jewel case, ice chest, and silver chalice, to scrub another bathroom if she had to.


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