Scene Dwellers – #3 Nick & Nora

#3 Christmas with Nick & Nora in The Thin Man (’34)

Eleven years before ‘chestnuts roasting on an open fire’ defined Christmas tradition, Nick (William Powell) and Nora (Myrna Loy) presented a more tantalising yuletide tableau vivant. In the Charles holiday economy, a tree doesn’t hold centre stage as a solemn totem worthy of veneration. Nora gripes about having to trim it and leaves the chore until the last minute. Asta lifts his leg on the indoor commode. On Christmas morning, sparsely festooned with bulbs, balloons and spray of tinsel, the woodland seasonal merits zero sentiment from the contented spouses. Nick uses the tree for target practice, firing round after round from a toy shotgun, a gift from the missus. Muffled in fresh fur, Nora offers a portrait in forbearance as she observes the sharpshooter’s antics, even as he aims backward with a mirror guide and knocks a hole in the window. Nick and Nora give us hedonist playtime, which involves loot ranging from cheap diversion to opulent prize, such as Nick’s miniature firearm and Nora’s new watch and luxe coat. The couple exhibit little interest in tradition or even practicality with the trinkets. Shattered glass in December introduces an unwanted element of air conditioning in the room; meanwhile, Nora’s full-length pelt array for loungewear veers toward extreme.

Nick: Say, aren’t you hot in that?

Nora: Yes, I’m stifling. But it’s so pretty.

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Christmas morning grants a reprieve from polite manners; for the day that’s in it, one can indulge and act a bit greedy with the gift-wrapped. Moreover, tradition often spoils the pursuit of fun. Nick and Nora promote the benefits of clowning around for adults. In a film full of sourpusses and worrywarts, they find respite in playtime, throughout the scene and as it closes, when they link arms and skip off to change clothes in order to resume work on the case.

25th April 1934: Myrna Loy (1905 - 1993) and William Powell (1892 - 1984) play sleuthing couple Nick and Nora Charles in 'The Thin Man', directed by W S Van Dyke. In this scene Nick practises his aim using his feet to steady the muzzle of the gun.

We locate another highlight during this scene in the tone of their wisecracks, which are sophisticated, not puerile; their language games mark high water in a gag pool that includes deft wordplay and grammatical nuance. They discuss newspaper coverage of the roughneck who broke into their hotel room and shot Nick during a struggle.

Nick: I’m a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune.

Nora: I read where you were shot 5 times in the tabloids.

Nick: It’s not true. He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids

xmas morn Nick and Nora Myrna Loy William Powell Thin Man

His punchline hones the confusion that occurs through the misuse of ‘where’ in an adverbial clause. As an adverb, ‘where’ indicates two different places in their exchange: to the source of the reports and the physical spot of our hero’s gunshot wound. In the rule for correct usage, ‘where’ immediately follows and modifies a noun of place in an adverbial clause. Instead, Nora uses it to modify a verb and befuddles the sense of place. Nick’s retort chides Nora for moving ‘in the tabloids’ to the end of the sentence, rather than the grammatical usage, that places it after ‘I read’. His joke points out how easily syntax muddies and obscures clarity in meaning when there’s too much space between an adverb and the word it modifies. Nick also twists the word ‘tabloids’ to serve as a double entendre, one that connotes a more delicate region of the male anatomy. Elaborate wordplay underscores their egalitarian relationship. They fling verbal volleys together and in company.

The Thin Man That’s Asta’s Christmas present

In another scene, during the Christmas party they host for reporters and friends, Nora displays a close attention to the denotative slippage that’s possible in our tongue. One idea might bleed into another. Things have multiple contexts and interpretations. Nick and Nora understand and appreciate verbal nuance, which accounts for some measure of their success in the detective business.

Reporter: Say listen, is he working on a case?

Nora: Yes, he is.

Reporter: What case?

Nora: A case of scotch. Pitch in and help him

Nora reminds the newshound that ‘case’ has more than one definition, and at the same time, she steers the reporter from being a nosey-parker and back to the cocktail party at hand. An additional example of Nora’s quick-witted wordplay occurs after the armed roughneck invades the couple’s boudoir and police arrive. Officers begin the room search in Nora’s bureau, starting with the delicates. She exclaims: What’s that man doing in my drawers?

Nick’s reaction shot to the literal and figurative collision of Nora’s utterance enjoys the full extent of the lady’s double entendre.

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Sophisticates trade wordplay; as a result, the duo honour and elevate their audience.


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Lady Grit

Newsflash, it wasn’t just all glamour and cocktails on set, some roles demanded the real thing, and these women embraced the challenge. This section is dedicated to the actresses who went above and beyond expectations to make the role more authentic. Also, to the women who had to fight the studio bosses to get fair treatment and fulfill their creative vision.

Bette Davis | Dorothy Arzner | Hedy Lamarr | Joan Crawford | Ginger Rogers | Anita Loos | Myrna Loy | Rosalind Russell | Tallulah Bankhead | Lana Turner | Veronica Lake

#1

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Bette Davis goes the extra mile to create verisimilitude for her character’s injuries in Marked Woman (’37).

‘I remember only one little fracas without which life wouldn’t have been the same. In the film, Janie is seduced and dies. To avenge her murder, I inform on the racketeer who, as a warning to the other girls, has me beaten and scarred for life. After I had been beaten to a pulp by Mr. Cianelli’s henchmen in the awful vendetta, my director Lloyd Bacon, had me bandaged by the makeup men for the first hospital scene in which Bogie was to visit me. I was to be half dead. I don’t think I ever looked so attractive. Lily Dache herself could have created that creamy puff of gauze at the peak of her inspiration. It was an absolute gem of millinery. After I studied myself in the glass and weighed the possibility of wearing the creation someday at Ciro’s, I smiled sweetly and left the studio for lunch. Instead I went to my doctor.

“I have just been beaten by a gang of thugs, Doctor, and my cheek has been carved by a knife. Would you please bandage me?”

When I drove through the studio gates on my return, the watchman turned pale and picked up the telephone. Word was passed through the lot that production would have to be held up.

“Davis has had a terrible accident!”

They came running from all directions and Bacon saw his schedule go down the drain. I quietly walked onto the set and got into the hospital bed. A parent weeps and wails for his missing child but the safe return is usually greeted by fury.

“You mean you’re all right and this is your idea of makeup?”

“You believed me, didn’t you? So will the public.”

From The Lonely Life (1962).


#2

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Dorothy Arzner stands up to studio bosses. [Episode 5]

Excerpt from Boze Hadleigh’s 1978 phone interview with Dorothy Arzner, taken from Hollywood Lesbians (1994).

BH: Were you assigned to direct so many actresses because of your gender?

DA: They would avoid me for westerns or action pictures. If it was a love story, then they thought of me. The studios’ A-scripts often eluded me. I would be given an actress’s first starring assignment—not quite an A –picture in terms of prestige, but unequivocally not a B-picture. If the actress became a star, they got someone else to direct her.

DA: They wouldn’t trust a woman with an A-1 budget.

BH: I read that for your first movie, you insisted on a big-budget project. Is that true?

DA: I let [executive and producer] Walter Wanger know that I would rather do an A-picture at Columbia, which was then a second-tier studio, than a B-picture at Paramount.

BH: So they were prepared to humor your desire to direct, but only with a minor project?

DA: I backed them into a corner. I wasn’t about to do it their way. I had years of experience and results behind me. I didn’t want to have to start all over again, at the bottom—where they might have kept me, out of bigotry.

BH: It’s almost surprising to younger people that such an illustrious career as yours began with your being a secretary.

DA: Do set the record aright—I was a typewriter. Or a “typist” now. Scripts, on a typewriter. The machine was called a typewriter and so was the girl who used it. That one machine has created more opportunities for women than any other I can think of.


#3

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Hedy Lamarr endures being stabbed with a pin for Ecstasy (’33). [Episode 8]

‘About that other torrid love scene. This, we shot indoors. I was told to lie down with my hands above my head while Aribert Mog whispered in my ear, and then kissed me in the most uninhibited fashion. I was not sure what my reactions would be, so when Aribert slipped down and out of camera, I just closed my eyes.

“Nein, nein,” the director yelled. “A passionate expression on the face.” He threw his hands up and slapped them against his sides. He mumbled about the stupidity of youth. He looked around and found a safety pin on a table. He picked it up, bent it almost straight, and approached. “You will lie here,” he said. “I will be underneath, out of camera range. When I prick you a little on your backside, you will bring your elbows together and you will react!”

I shrugged. Aribert took his place over me, and the scene began again. Aribert slipped down out of range, on one side. From down out of range on the other side, the director jabbed the pin into my buttocks “a little” and I reacted!

“Nein, nein.” I had reacted the wrong way. “Elbows!” he yelled.

So, several takes and jabs later, we were getting nowhere. And now I shall quote an article by Gene Youngblood, staff writer for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner that appeared in the issue of January 28 th , 1966.

More than 250,000 feet was cut from Ecstasy before its release. These were the love scenes reportedly so “sizzling” that producer Josef Auerback called them “too sexy” and ordered them burned. “The love scenes were real,” Auerback said in a 1952 interview “since Hedy was engaged to her leading man at the time”

Thus de Machaty and his pin. Thus Hedy Kiesler and her reactions.

So now, I shall tell you how it was. Some of those pin-pricks shot pain through my body until it was vibrating in every nerve. I remember one shot when the close-up camera caught my face in a distortion of real agony … and the director yelled happily, ‘Ya, goot!’

Ecstasy and Me: My Life as a Woman (1966).


#4

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Joan Crawford breaks an ankle during production of Dancing Lady (’33) yet the show goes on.

‘And then I broke my ankle. In the script I was supposed to sprain it. I guess I overacted that scene. The second day I took the cast off to dance with Fred Astaire, and was so thrilled to be dancing with him that I could have danced on my head. When the dance was filmed, the cast went back on. This was Fred’s first movie, a sort of trial balloon. It was one of those incredible breaks for me, both to dance with him and have him there.’

-A Portrait of Joan: The Autobiography of Joan Crawford (1962).


#5

swing-time-shampoo

Ginger Rogers solves the shampoo problem in Swing Time (’36).

‘Swing Time had a scrumptious score from Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields. In a charming and intimate scene, Fred sang one of the loveliest numbers in the film, ‘The Way You Look Tonight.’ According to the script, I’m angry at him and go into the bathroom to wash my hair, leaving him alone in the living room. Trying to ease the situation, he sits down at the piano and sings the song. I hear it, get caught up in his mood, and open the door. I walk into the living room with my hair full of bubbly white soap. The shampoo was the problem.

George Stevens had ordered various kinds of soap and we did take after take, trying first one soap and then another. Nothing worked. By the time I got to Fred at the piano, the soap would be running down my face, down my neck, down my back. It looked terrible and felt awful. Next we tried shaving cream, but that didn’t work, either. Somebody came up with the idea of beating the white of an egg, so we tried that. This time I had egg streaming down my face from the heat of the overhead lights, which were cooking the eggs as I stood there.

Ugh! It was a mess. Then an inspiration came to me.

“George, why not try whipped cream?”

Someone ran down to the commissary and returned with gobs of freshly whipped cream.

The stuff was piled on my head like a frothy cap. I went through the scene and this time, it worked! I was more pleased than anyone else during shooting that the cream didn’t run. The minute the take was finished, I went to my dressing room and washed the soap, eggs and whipped cream out of my hair. I had to redo my entire makeup, which by now looked like a color television test pattern. That scene, by the way, was the inspiration for shampoo commercials throughout the next decade.’

– -Ginger: My Story (1991).


#6

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Anita Loos saves the script for Blossoms in the Dust (’41) and then protects it from Greer Garson’s attempt to change it.

‘A time came when, much against my will, I was argued by producer Bernie Hyman into writing a movie far outside my own field. It concerned a distinguished lady in Texas who had made a career of rescuing illegitimate children and raising them in her own private orphanage. The Texas lady was widely quoted for her statement that “There are no illegitimate children, there are only illegitimate parents.” And MGM paid a large sum for that single line as a basis for a movie to be titled Blossoms in the Dust.

It was a very tough assignment because there wasn’t any plot. I went through weeks of the agony, frustration, trial-and- error that only an author can know. Several times I hit on the story line; followed it through with elation until, at the climax, the whole thing fell apart. At length I made an appointment to go to Bernie the next day and admit defeat. Dreading the encounter, I fell asleep nursing a grudge against Bernie for handing a gag writer like me such a hopeless assignment. But then, next morning, I woke up to find that a complete story line had been worked out by my subconscious mind during sleep.

It was based on the Texas lady’s precept that even the most perfect orphanage creates traumas that can harm children for life; they should be gotten into real homes just as soon as possible.

With this as a premise, my story evolved around a crippled orphan whom the heroine undertook to cure and, during the process, developed a blind mother-love for the little boy. But with his cure, a day approached when she must hand him over for adoption. At which our heroine deviously found fault with the most ideal foster parents. Then, in order to provide a normal home for the child, she decided to abandon the work of a lifetime; desert all the future orphans who might need her, in order to satisfy a possessive love for one single boy.

However, in a struggle with her conscience, our heroine’s better nature won out. She released the child to a worthy young couple and continued the work to which she had dedicated her life. When I kept my appointment with Bernie that morning, it was not to admit defeat but to tell him my soap-opera plot for which, as I recall, he kissed me.

In the making of the movie, emotionalism often used to spill off the sound stages onto the side lines. One day Bernie phoned me to hurry down to the set immediately. And there I walked into pandemonium.

Rehearsals had been in progress for the scene in which our Orphanage Lady and the little boy were to part forever. But the star who was playing the heroine objected violently to a certain line I’d written. In answer to an admonition not to cry, the small ex-cripple was to say

“But I can cry inside, can’t I?”

Now any child actor is a natural scene-stealer and it appeared that, during rehearsals, ours had caused even the cameramen and electricians to grow misty-eyed. So our star broke up the rehearsal to issue an ultimatum: unless the line was taken away from the little boy, she would walk off the set. “It’s not in the psychology of a child to ask such a question,” she argued. “On the other hand it would be quite in line for me to say ‘But you can cry inside, darling!”

That small actor had run up against a more powerful scene-stealer than he was and the argument might have gone on endlessly while the studio clock ticked away at several thousand dollars a tick. So Bernie insisted that we all repair to L.B.’s office for arbitration.

And when the tough old autocrat heard that line, he himself dissolved into tears and ordered it to be kept where it belonged, in the mouth of a toddler.

As for me, the film that I had at first considered my Waterloo won me my first and only award of merit. And I hope it wiped out the derelictions of that Red-Headed Woman of mine.’

–Kiss Hollywood Goodbye (1974).


#7

The Thin Man Nora Charles Myrna Loy Entrance

Myrna Loy makes a grand entrance in The Thin Man (’34).

‘”Can you fall?” Woody asked. “Do you know how to do a fall?”

I said, “I’ve never worked for Mack Sennett, but I’m a dancer. I think I can do it.” I would have done anything for Woody, because I was devoted to him.

“You just trip yourself” he explained, “and then go right down.”

He put a camera on the floor, a mark where he wanted me to land, and we shot it without any rehearsal. I must have been crazy. I could have killed myself, but my dance training paid off. I dashed in with Asta and all those packages, tripped myself, went down, slid across the floor, and hit the mark with my chin. It was absolutely incredible!’

–Being and Becoming (1987).


#8

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Rosalind Russell on pulling a sickie during production of The Women (’39) in order to protest Norma Shearer’s diva tactics. [Episode 4]

‘Norma had it in her contract that only a man could be starred with her. On any picture. No woman’s name could be up there with hers. For The Women she’d capitulated and said Joan Crawford might also be starred above the title, but when it came to me, that was another story. She must have felt she’d been pushed far enough. I, on the other hand, wasn’t willing to settle for billing that said “with Rosalind Russell” underneath the title. I’d already starred in pictures and I didn’t care to be demoted.

I thought about the situation. When it comes to a fight with management, a performer has only one weapon: he can refuse to perform. The employers have everything else: they have the lawyers, they have the contracts, the courts will usually back them up. But if a performer gets sick, what can his boss do?

About five weeks into production on The Women, I got sick. You couldn’t pull that trick in the first few days, they’d just replace you. I never attempted it again in my whole career, and I only did it that once because I had a feeling I could make it work. There had been signs and portents. I’d gone to luncheon where I met Louis B, Mayer, and he’d said “I hear you’re stealing this picture,” and I said, “I’m tryin’, I’m always tryin’.” And Life Magazine had been sniffing around again. And I just had this feeling in my bones.

[…]

Norma Shearer wouldn’t give in on the billing, so I wouldn’t come to work. I wasn’t holding up production, they had plenty to shoot, but I let it be known that I was going to be under the weather for quite a long time.

I lay out in my garden, looking up at the sky, and every day Benny Thau, who was in charge of talent and their problems, would phone and ask how I was coming along, and I’d say, “Not very well. I don’t feel very well.”

The last time he called—it was the third or fourth day of my strike—he said, “Oh, something happened this afternoon. Norma Shearer says you’re so good in this film that she’s going to allow you to be starred too.”

“That’s very nice of Norma,” I said.

Pause. Then Benny spoke again. “Do you think,” he said, “you’d feel well enough to come to work tomorrow?”

“Hmm,” I said. “I’ll call my doctor, Benny, and I’ll make a stab at it.”

(At the completion party for The Women at the Trocadero, I was dancing with Cukor when Ernst Lubitsch fox-trotted by and said to me, “If you want more close-ups in the picture, never mind dancing with the director, you’d better dance with Norma Shearer!” So then Norma and I did a turn on the floor.)’

— Life is a Banquet (1977).


#9

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Tallulah Bankhead weathers bouts of pneumonia during production of Lifeboat (’44). [Episode 8]

‘Hitchcock offered me $75,000 to play the leading role in Lifeboat, and off I dashed to Hollywood. It had been eleven years since I faced a camera, a rich trollop playing fast and loose with Robert Montgomery in Faithless.

Flouting the screen’s bylaws, canons and taboos, Hitchcock confined the entire action of the picture to a forty-foot lifeboat adrift at sea. The plight of the passengers was the result of a U-boat torpedo. Although the derelict craft was supposed to wallow for days in the Atlantic, beset by hurricane, death and destruction, the picture was made in a studio with the drifters photographed against a bogus ocean. In the trade these are called process shots. In the picture the players were shivering from cold, but in its making I sweltered for fifteen weeks. I had to wear a mink coat. Blazing lights were focused on my every move. In a bow to authenticity, tons of water were sloshed over us at intervals.

I was black and blue from the downpours and the lurchings. Thanks to the heat, the singeing lights, the fake fog, submersions followed by rapid dryings-out, I came up with pneumonia early in November. Temperature 104 degrees, and rising.

A Dr. Fox dosed me with sulpha drugs. After three days I tottered back to the boat, rubber-legged and dizzy. Three more days amid the ice and brine and the bluster of the Nazi agent (Walter Slezak) who hoped to do us all in, and my temperature shot up to 104 again. Guess what this time? Another case of pneumonia!

The return engagement with Dr. Fox upset me. Only one more shot remained. I had reservations back to New York on the Super Chief. And here I was flattened by my idiot devotion to the show must go on drivel! Of course I’d returned to the studio too soon.

Sick as I was, I was frantic at this delay. There was no flying back to New York in December of ’43. The armed forces had priority rights on all planes. So I steeled myself to go on with the picture, pneumonia or no pneumonia. To my delight and surprise Dr. Fox didn’t argue.

“You are letting me return without protest?” I said. “Why?” “Because I’m anxious to see what’s going to happen to you. You’re the most defiant, contradictory patient I ever treated. I think you’re part yogi. You retard your pulse at will, speed it at will. You have the arteries of a girl of sixteen. I don’t think anything can kill you. So GO to the studio!”

So off went your germ-ridden heroine. Chest out, chin up, pain-wracked, oozing that old “the coward dies a thousand deaths, the hero dies but once” moonshine. I should have been sent to a mental institution.

— Tallulah: My Autobiography (1952).


#10

Lana Turner on the set of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) with John Garfield and the director Tay Garnett

Lana Turner manages to talk Tay Garnett down from an epic bender, saving The Postman Always Rings Twice (’46) from the scrapheap.

‘What the public never knew was that we almost couldn’t finish the film. Tay Garnett once had a drinking problem. He’d been on the wagon for three years when we went down to Laguna for the beach footage. A fog rolled in, and we had to stop shooting until it lifted.

Each day we’d go down to the beach and sit there in the dense mist, waiting and hoping. After several hours the production people would give up and send up back to our lodgings. Hoping the weather might be better in a new location, we packed up and moved to San Clemente. But we found ourselves socked in there, too. Then we got a report that the weather was about to clear in Laguna, so back we went to the starting point. But the fog still hung over the beach for days and days, and the costs kept mounting. The studio’s budget people were frantic. Tay Garnett kept begging for a little more time, but the fog didn’t lift and days stretched into weeks. That’s when Tay fell off the wagon.

Nobody could control him. He was a roaring, mean, furniture-smashing drunk. The girl friend he’d brought along stayed for a while, then gave up. The studio sent nurses, but even they couldn’t help. Rumors flew like sparks—Tay Garnett would be replaced, or the production would be shut down. That was when John Garfield and I got together to discuss the situation. I respected John as an actor, and we had developed a certain steamy chemistry as we performed together. His private habits were his own concern—he had a penchant for picking up girls, sometimes two at a time, and a reputation as a demon lover. He died young, in bed, which was understandable.

Since Tay had been drawing good performances from us, John and I both hoped he wouldn’t be replaced. So we decided to go and see him. John went first. He forced his way past the nurses, who were there not only to care for Tay but also to protect his visitors. When John came back, he said “It’s terrible, Lana. He didn’t know who I was. When I tried to talk to him, he’d say, ‘Sure, Johnny boy, whatever you think.’ But a moment later he’d start shouting, ‘Who the hell are you? Get out of my room.’ Then he came at me with that cane he always carries. I don’t know how much longer we can hold out, Lana, and if he goes or they shut down the picture, we’re both burned.”

“Maybe,” I said, “if I went to see him …”

John didn’t think I should. But I called one of the nurses and asked her if I could stop by for just a few moments. First they had to quiet him down, she told me, but eventually they let me in the room. The nurses had managed to take his cane away, and what I found was a besotted man who regretted what he had done. I did my best to comfort him, and he sniffed and begged my forgiveness. Now he was rational enough to be sent back to Los Angeles for treatment. By the time he returned a week later the fog had obligingly lifted, and we were able to complete the film.’

–Lana: The Lady, The Legend, The Truth (1982)


#11

Veronica Lake and Fredric March

Veronica Lake strikes back at Fredric March during I Married a Witch (’42).

‘And I hated Fredrick [sic] March.

I don’t believe there is another actor for whom I harbour such deep dislike as Frederick March. It’s strictly personal. We all know and recognize what a fine and distinguished actor he is. But working with him gave me the feeling of being a captive in a Charles Adams tower.

He gave me a terrible time during I Married a Witch. I’m sure that despite what René thought, March considered me a brainless little blonde sexpot, void of any acting ability and not likely to acquire any. He treated me like dirt under his talented feet. Of all actors to end up under the covers with. That happened in one scene and Mr March is lucky he didn’t get my knee in his groin.

What he didn’t realize was that this sexy, no-talent Brooklyn blonde had a vindictive streak in her. I set right out to give it back to Mr March. I got to do it twice, really. There were other very small moments when I felt I’d pushed back a little. But two incidents stand out in my mind as particularly effective examples of getting even with my co-star.

One scene had me in a rocking-chair. A picture falls off the wall and strikes me unconscious. I’m supposed to sit in the chair without movement while March desperately attempts to talk to me. The shot was medium, showing only the two of us from waist-high. We were into the scene and he came close to me. He was standing directly in front of the chair. I carefully brought my foot up between his legs. And I moved my foot up and down, each upward movement pushing it ever so slightly in his groin. Pro that he is, he never showed his predicament during the scene. But it wasn’t easy for him, and I delighted simply in what was going through his mind. Naturally when the scene was over, he laced into me. I just smiled.

The second time I was able to give vent to my vengeance was during a scene in which March was supposed to carry me off into the distance. The cameraman rigged a forty-pound weight under my dress. We did the scene’s opening business and then Frederick picked me up. Naturally, he expected no difficulty with tiny little me. But that forty pounds of extra dead weight made one hell of a difference. I could hear March grunt under his breath as he valiantly carried out the script’s directions. We did the scene three more times and each one brought on a definite decline in his strength. He put me down for the final time and scowled at me.

“Big bones,” I said and walked away. He heard about what had been done a few days later and the wall was built permanently, never to come down again. We’ve seen each other a few times since then and we never speak to each other. Oh, well.’

–Veronica: The Autobiography of Veronica Lake (1970).

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