Barbara in Hollywood

I suppose you’d like to hear about the day I met Marilyn Monroe.

Of course, she wasn’t the Marilyn then, but just a rather sweet young thing who’d been swept up by Hollywood. Nobody could foresee that she’d become the star she did. I liked her—most women didn’t.

The year was 1949, and I had just married Thaddeus ‘Skip’ Millington, the love of my life. I’d met him in England during the war, and I would have come to America as a GI Bride were it not for the unfortunate fact that Skip was already married. Our crime was to fall in love—or perhaps I should say that our crime was to act on our feelings. Either way, his wife refused to give him a divorce for nine, long and wearying years, and it was only when she herself found someone else, that Skip was finally free. We married quietly the following day.

Of course, it was all a great scandal because he was a Captain in the US Marines, and although he was promoted to Major at the end of the War, I know that our affair stopped his career from progressing as it should. I suppose officers are held accountable to a higher moral code than the rest of us mere mortals. That sounds awfully spiteful, and I don’t mean it like that, but Skip felt so guilty, and his wife, very publicly, sued for divorce on the grounds of his adultery. Sometimes I felt that our love wouldn’t be enough, but amor vincit omnie.

You must think me horribly wicked, and my poor dear mother certainly thought so. She was ashamed that her only daughter had enjoyed a dalliance with a married man—and I have to admit that dallying with Skip was absolutely marvelous. Mother was even more ashamed when I married a divorced man, which was a very odd set of double standards. Oh dear. We’d never been close. It was probably just as well that I was an ocean and a continent away from her. Ah well, she was born in a different century, so I can hardly blame her.

Anyway, Skip was based in San Diego, which meant that’s where I lived, too. To a young woman from London, it was such a thrill to travel to California. I adored going to the cinema so it was all terribly exciting, and I expected to see a film star on every corner. It was nearly as exciting to see real palm trees, and everyone had a shiny car as big as a boat, and telephones in their homes and swimming pools in their gardens. It seemed like Heaven on Earth. But I certainly landed with a bump, because I was deemed to be a scarlet woman by the other’s officers’ wives and I was never invited to any of the Base’s social engagements, coffee mornings, fundraisers, lunches or shopping expeditions. Occasionally, when they simply had to invite Skip for a formal dinner, I was allowed in the Officers Mess, but none of the women spoke to me, and glared daggers at any errant husband who dared to even look in my direction.

So, once I’d waved my darling husband off to work, made the beds and cleaned our little house, there wasn’t much left for me to do. I’d honestly thought that the war had been a breakthrough for women when it came to careers, but it turned out just to be a small blip in a long line of men being in charge. Once the war was over and men returned home, women were pushed back in the kitchen.

I was used to working and I liked working, but now I seemed to be unemployable.

Quite simply, I was lonely.

But one smile from my beloved and I knew that every snub and slur was worth it.

Oh, you should have seen Skip then! So handsome in his Dress Blues, so tall and strong, with eyes the color of a summer sky, his hair bleached blond by the sun. He looked like a movie star. And I wasn’t the only who thought so.

Anyway, to cheer me up, Skip suggested that we motor up to Los Angeles for the weekend and do all those wonderfully touristy things. Those quiet moments were the best days. I simply adored having Skip to myself without a uniform in sight.

We stayed at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel which was overflowing with actors and actresses, and glamorous people sipping cocktails at nine in the morning. I hadn’t realized that the Roosevelt had been financed Hollywood bigwigs like Louis B. Mayer, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks. It was terribly swanky and I adored it on sight.

It also turned out that Joe Mankiewicz was staying there while he worked on a new movie. He’d directed one of my favorite films, The Philadelphia Story, and I was simply dying, dying to ask him about Cary Grant.

Joe was a darling bear of a man, never seen without his pipe, although he rarely lit it. That was a pity, because I was rather fond of the aroma of pipe tobacco. Anyway, as soon as he saw Skip, he came over to shake his hand and ask him about his latest role.

“I think you have me confused with someone else, buddy,” Skip said genially. “I’m not in the acting business.”

“Then you’re a producer, right? I know I’ve seen you somewhere.”

“Sorry,” Skip said, shaking his head, his eyes sparkling with amusement in a way that made me hopelessly gooey. “I’m just a boring ole US Marine—Major Skip Millington, and let me introduce my wife Barbara.”

Joe shook his hand. “Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Well, thank you for your service, Major, but I gotta say, the country’s gain is Hollywood’s loss. Say! I could get you a screen test like that!” and he snapped his pudgy fingers.

Skip laughed. “I haven’t acted since my college days so I’ll have to give that a pass.”

“Sure I can’t change your mind? The audience would eat up your kind of all-American looks with a spoon.”

“An activity I prefer to reserve for myself,” I interjected tartly.

He turned to look at me for the first time, his bushy eyebrows shooting upwards.

“Say, you’re British! The business can always use a British accent—you guys are pure class.”

“Thank you very much,” I smiled. “One tries one’s best.”

He grinned at us both. “I can see my pitch isn’t working on you two.”

“We are neither actor nor actress, Mr. Mankiewicz,” I smiled. “But I simply must say how much I enjoyed The Philadelphia Story. I saw it four times at the cinema. Is it true what they say about Cary Grant?”

“Depends on which rumor that you’ve heard?”

“Oh, glory! How delightful! Do tell me about all of them, please?”

He grinned. “Well, I could tell you a story or two, but how about you guys come by the studio. I’m shooting a new movie with Bette Davis, All About Eve.”

I glanced at Skip, thrilled with the idea. “Oh, darling, let’s! It sounds such fun and I’ve never been to a film studio.”

“Sure,” Skip said easily.

And so we arranged with Joe to visit at the Twentieth Century Fox lot the following day.

I adored our cherry red Cadillac Convertible and I adored the California weather—sunshine every day. Such a change from a gray and dreary bomb-damaged London with its rationing and endless queues. Skip drove with the top down all the way to Century City, south of Santa Monica, and I felt like I was with my very own film idol. Every day, Skip made me feel worshipped and loved.

Joe had left our name with the sweet little security guard at the entrance, and he told us where to park.

The film set was lit up like a Christmas tree, scaffolding bristling with lights, all pointed at a make-believe theater lobby.

It was absolutely thrilling to see Bette Davis stride onto the set, a cigarette in one hand and her script in the other.

Joe waved at us to join him, and we sat in a pair of canvas directors’ chairs and felt terribly important.

“Bette is such a professional,” he said happily. “Always letter perfect. No—syllable perfect. She’s a director’s dream: the prepared actress.”

“I’d always heard she was difficult,” I whispered.

He shrugged. “Only because she’s so good—she holds everyone to the same high standard. She can be tough.”

“What’s happening in this scene?” Skip asked.

“We got Bette playing Margo Channing, an aging actress…”

“She’s 41!” I said huffily.

I was a little sensitive on the subject since I’d reached the grand old age of 30 before getting Skip to the altar.

“Yeah, Bette’s getting a little long in the tooth for Hollywood,” he said, with no trace of irony. “Then there’s Anne Baxter playing Eve Harrington, an actress who’s pretty much taken over her role as the big star.” He dropped his voice. “It’s a good thing that Bette and Anne get along or there could have been fireworks, what with Anne having the title role.”

“Gosh, yes!” I said, listening avidly.

“Then we have George Sanders playing the important theater critic, Addison deWitt; and a new girl … uh Marilyn something. It’s just a bit-part for her. She’s lucky to have a speaking role, if you ask me.”

I think he might have said something even more indiscreet but one of the young men employed as a set ‘runner’ interrupted, so we sat back to enjoy the scene.

Bette looked stunning in a black silk cocktail dress and so teeny-tiny, barely more than five feet; her imperious eyebrows tilted up, and her supercilious mouth tilted down. Anne Baxter was adorable in navy velvet, and George Sanders looked very distinguished in evening dress, his pocket handkerchief folded just so.

I was astonished to see a young makeup artist hurry over and brush a little powder over his forehead.

“The studio lights are hot,” said Joe. “Makes everyone perspire like crazy. By the end of a long day, it gets pretty ripe in here.”

“Fascinating,” I said, slightly appalled.

And then a fourth person walked onto the set. I say ‘walked’, but really she glided, part-angel, part-Amazon, and all woman.

Even Skip sat up straighter, then grinned at me and squeezed my hand. “I prefer brunettes,” he said.

“I should hope so!” I chuckled, but my gaze was on the blonde goddess.

Her frock was the color of champagne with quite a décolletage that she filled to perfection. She wore elbow-length evening gloves to match her dress, and a white fox-fur coat. She seemed tall next to Bette and Anne, her face so young and lovely and fresh. Her red-painted lips were naturally pouting, and she had a tiny beauty-spot above her mouth—an imperfection on other women, but not on her.

Women like that make the rest of us feel like potato farmers. I have nothing against potato farmers—I used to be one; I simply mean that her beauty was on such a level, the rest of us were mere peasants by comparison.

But then I noticed something: her hands were shaking.

Underneath the beauty and glamor, the poor creature was utterly terrified.

“Positions, everyone! On your marks,” one of the runners yelled.

Joe leaned forward, his attention suddenly acute as the actor and three actresses moved to their places where little pieces of Scotch tape had been stuck to the floor.

“Tape rolling … lobby scene, take 1 … action!”

The clapperboard snapped shut and Bette spoke first, the words rolling from her like a sparkling fountain.

“I distinctly remember, Addison, crossing you off my guest list. What are you doing here?”

“Margo, you do remember Miss Caswell.”

“I do not. How do you do?”

“We’ve never met. Maybe that’s why.”

“Cut!” called Joe. “Marilyn … you need to smile more. You’re excited to meet the great Margo Channing. You’re a fan!”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Mankiewicz,” she said, her cheeks flushing at being singled out.

“Sure, kid,” he said, with a kind smile.

“Tape rolling … lobby scene, take 2 … action!”

“I distinctly remember, Addison, crossing you off my guest list. What are you doing here?”

“Margo, you do remember Miss Caswell.”

“I do not. How do you do?”

“We’ve never met. Maybe that’s why.”

“Miss Caswell is a graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Arts. Ah, Eve!”

“Good evening, Mr. DeWitt.”

“Cut!” Joe called again. “Marilyn, honey. Stop looking so scared. Act excited.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Mankiewicz,” she said breathlessly.

He muttered something under his breath.

“Tape rolling … lobby scene, take 3 … action!”

“I had no idea you two knew each other,” said Bette, her character acting rather smug.

“We must have met in passing,” said Anne Baxter, totally in control of herself and her lines.

“That’s how you met me,” said Marilyn. “In person.”

“Cut!” yelled Joe.

“The line is ‘in passing’, not ‘in person’!”

Marilyn hung her head and apologized again. Skip threw me a look.

“Tape rolling … lobby scene, take 4 … action!”

“We must have met in passing.”

“That’s how you met me,” said Marilyn. “In passing.”

The scene seemed fine to me, but Joe made them do it three more times and Marilyn fluffed her line each time.

“Good God, have you read the script?” Bette asked coldly.

“Yes! Yes, I have,” Marilyn said helplessly.

“Then trying same the correct line in the correct place,” Bette snapped.

“Tape rolling … lobby scene, take 8 … action!”

“Then you two must have a long talk,” Bette’s character said to Anne Baxter, a great lady bestowing a favor.

“I’m afraid Mr. DeWitt would find me boring if we talked for too long,” Anne Baxter said ingenuously.

“You won’t bore him, honey,” said Marilyn as Miss Caswell. “You won’t even get a chance to talk.”

I slapped my hand over my mouth and giggled. She was funny! What marvelous comic timing. But once again, Joe called ‘cut’, saying that she’d delivered the line too quickly.

The next take it was too slowly, and we could all see that Bette Davis was growing irritated. Anne Baxter and George Sands simply continued gracefully, neither denigrating Marilyn nor supporting her.

“Have you ever been in a film studio before?” Bette asked impatiently.

Marilyn’s lips trembled. “Yes, ma’am. But just the one time.”

Bette pressed her lips together and tossed her hair.

“Then try to get your lines right, or your second appearance could well be your last,” Bette barked loudly.

Skip pulled a face, and I had to agree. Watching this poor young woman do take after take was like seeing a car crash in slow motion. I had to watch the 11th take through my fingers and I held my breath, until Joe called out:

“That’s a take it. Print it. Well done everyone. Take five.”

Marilyn gave a wobbly smile as Bette and Anne talked quietly together and George Sanders lit a cigarette. She stood there for a moment, alone and friendless, then suddenly bolted from the room.

“You’d better go check on her,” Skip whispered to me.

I raised my eyebrows but did as he asked. I suspect he was one in a long line of men who felt the need to protect little Marilyn. It wasn’t her fault—shouting at her was like shouting at Bambi.

I followed her out of the studio, the crystals on her gown glinting in the sunshine as she hurried across the dusty lot and into the ladies powder room.

Through the closed door, I heard the sound of her vomiting, and I felt so terribly sorry for her. She appeared a few minutes later, her face flushed and her eyes red, the sadness on her face turning to horror as she realized that I’d heard her.

Her gaze dropped to the floor, and she rinsed her mouth self-consciously, finally turning to acknowledge me.

“I just get so horribly nervous,” she said. “I hate it.”

I squeezed her hand sympathetically. “I understand, dear, but why do it if you hate it?”

“Because … because … I love it, too!” she said, her eyes lighting up with a childlike excitement. “When I was growing up, I didn’t like the world around me because it was kind of grim. Some of my foster families used to send me to the movies to get me out of the house and there I’d sit all day and way into the night. Up in front, there with the screen so big, a little kid all alone, and I loved it. When I heard that this was acting, I said that’s what I want to be.” She shrugged. “So here I am. I know I’m terrible…”

“You’re not terrible!” I said quickly.

“That’s awfully sweet of you to say that, but I know I am.”

“Not at all. You’re actually very funny with perfect comic timing.”

Her eyes widened. “I am?”

“Yes, and with a little more confidence, I feel sure that you’ll do wonderfully.”

I was so surprised when she threw her arms around me and hugged me tightly.

“Thank you, ma’am,” she said. “I sure appreciate that.”

She checked her lipstick, then glided from the powder room, her head held high.

What a strange place Hollywood was—a land where everything on the screen was fake and nothing was real. I was very glad that I wasn’t an actress.

I walked back to Skip, deep in thought.

“Everything okay?” he asked.

“She’s a poor thing,” I said, shaking my head. “She said she was brought up in foster homes. And I think she’s lonely.”

Joe interrupted whatever Skip was about to say.

“Hey, you guys want to be extras in the background? You don’t have to say anything—we’re shooting a crowd scene next.”

Skip grinned at me and nodded. “Sure, why not?”

It appeared that I was about to become an actress for the day after all.

As we motored back to the Roosevelt happy and tired, Skip tuned the radio to a news station. It had been such an exciting day, and we still had to shower and dress before dinner with Joe and one of the film’s producers.

As we pulled in the hotel’s palm-fringed parking lot, we just caught the end of the radio announcer about Kim il-Sung meeting with Stalin.

“Who’s Kim il-Sung?”

“The Premier of North Korea,” Skip answered grimly.

“Korea? What’s happening in Korea? Why’s he visiting Stalin?”

“There’s a lot of tension there—guerilla action on the border.”

“Good God, surely not? Isn’t the world weary of war?”

“You’d think so. But something’s brewing.”

I didn’t know then how prophetic his words were, or how much the Korean conflict would come to dominate our lives.

Skip opened the Cadillac’s door and helped me out.

“Korea: that’s on the 38th parallel, isn’t it?”

Skip laughed. “It is. Anyone would have thought you’d worked for the British government as a spy.”

I laughed. “I was never a spy, as you well know.”

“No, just doing something very top secret,” he said, tapping his nose.

I ignored his teasing. “Someone should write a book, a thriller, and call it ‘The Thirty-Eighth Parallel’.”

“You should write it, Miss Smarty-pants.”

“That’s Mrs. Smarty-pants to you, Major Millington.”

He grinned his adorable smile and swept me into a Hollywood kiss.

“And don’t you forget it, Mrs. Millington.”

“Never,” I breathed, lost in the fervent joy of being in this man’s arms.

We’d had a wonderful day in Hollywood, a punctuation mark in our happiness.

As for Miss Marilyn Monroe, I never did meet her again.


I hope you enjoyed that gallop through Hollywood of 1949. All About Eve was a commercial success. I have invented Bette Davis’ comments to Marilyn Monroe, but it is true that during a scene that took 11 takes, Marilyn vomited from sheer nerves.

The film premiered in 1950, the same year that the Korean War began.

If you enjoyed the characters of Skip and Barbara, you can meet them again in my duel-timeline novel
The Lilac Cadillac