The Facts in Back of Lily Torrence (2): Barbara Stanwyck

Biographer Axel Madsen says “unearthing the truth about [Stanwyck’s] sexuality would remain impossible,” but also notes “people would swear she was…Hollywood’s biggest closeted lesbian.” And most Hollywood historians admit there’s something to rumors that Stanwyck’s marriages to Frank Fay and Robert Taylor were studio-backed “lavender marriages” created to keep the closet sealed tight.

Gay in Hollywood

Homosexual characters figure prominently in Lily Torrence. Lily’s mentor, the glamorous and powerful Deborah Boynton, is a lesbian. Her ex-husband, Ted Hardy is gay. Was this an intentional lavender marriage, or just a willing blindness to reality on the part of two young and ambitious people? Ted was the bigger star when they were married, but Deborah would prove decisively more ruthless in her ambition.
Though utterly destroyed by shame and alcohol after their divorce,Ted has resurrected his career with the help of his iron-willed second wife, a strong faith, and a hit play. It’s not that he is “cured” of homosexuality, but that to indulge that appetite would be a betrayal of the woman who is now the center of his life. So he suppresses, and finds, the book hints, other outlets for his desires.
In my book, the characters are in the grip of their times, the 1930s and ‘40s. A 2017 reader has an entirely different frame of reference. Today there is a level of acceptance that simply did not exist back then. If you were a public figure, especially in Hollywood, you were not gay.
But, in a way, so what? After all, to be in the upper echelons of Hollywood, you had possibly already given up your name, your family history, your cultural background, your natural hair color or hair line. You may well have had sex you didn’t want to have, given up a child or a spouse, and betrayed the one friend or colleague you had sworn never to desert. After all that, the loss of one’s open expression of sexuality was perhaps a minor quibble, or in an overwhelmingly closeted world, maybe even a relief.

Was Lisa Pilsbury . . . funny?

There was a tap on the door, and Deborah stuck her head in. “Hi.” “
Hi,” Lily said, locking her plans away into a hidden place in her mind. Deborah smiled. “How are you?”
“Oh, fine, fine. Just doing some thinking.”
“They’re playing cards in the dining room.”
“Oh,” said Lily. “I’m not much for cards.” She knew about the card game. But she still felt uncomfortable with the others. She had come here to be an actress, not a cook.
Deborah sat in the barrel chair next to the nightstand. She held a tall, frosted glass. Lily knew there would only be water in there.
“Well, I have a little bit of news. I spoke to some people at the studio when I
went in on Friday. I got a call back today. There’s a part for you.”
Lily’s heart pounded. She could feel a blush burning her face.
Deborah held her hands up in a stop sign. “It’s not big. It’s a chorus part. A backstage murder mystery. But they said there’s two production numbers that you could be in.”
“Oh gosh!”
“That starts right away. Maybe Wednesday. I’ve got a phone number—”
“Oh, Deborah!” Lily swung her legs out of bed and reached across to hug Deborah. “Oh, thank you so much.”
“Now, it’s just a door. How far it goes depends mostly on you.” “Oh, I know, I know.”
“Which is not to say—if you want my advice?” “Oh, yes, please.”
“Don’t come on pushy. That shows fear, not confidence. Your job right now is to look natural when the camera finds you, and stay out of the way. I know that’s hard, because you want to show them everything you can do. But it’s better to let the audience find you, to think, who is that girl. Besides, there are going to be more parts for you. I’ve got a few more peaches in the pantry.”
“Deborah, I’m so grateful! When you said you were going to see about a role for someone, well, I guess I assumed, well.” Lily recalled her fear and greed and pride on the day she had followed Deborah around. She felt ashamed. “I guess I assumed you were talking about someone else.”
Deborah took Lily’s hand. “Now, who else would that be? I admit, I was being coy. I didn’t want to say anything too soon.”
“You said your protégée, and I didn’t—”
“You’re it, sweetie. There’s no one else.” Deborah took a drink of the cold
water. “Now, being on film, that’s not like anything else. An inch looks like a mile. I think you have something, a spark, an honesty, and they’ll see it. The audience. It’s almost scary. All those professionals at work, every trick in the book, but the audience still knows things these men don’t know. And if you’ve got something, the crowd’ll see it. I don’t mean pretty eyes or a nice figure, I mean something deeper. Good or bad, they’ll see it.”
“Oh, come on.” Lily was fascinated. Deborah rarely talked about her career or her work. “Like they can see through you? You’re kidding me.”
Deborah set her drink on a magazine that lay next to the lamp. “I don’t mean they can read your mind or see your soul. God knows, some of the blackest hearts in the world have sold themselves like lunch meat, but movie crowds have an ear for false notes. That’s why Joan Crawford could play Norma Shearer, but not vice versa.”
Lily was surprised. “Because she’s a better actress?”
“No, because she is totally devoted to Joan Crawford, the star who was created for the audience, but also by the audience. She becomes whatever she thinks the audience wants, and the audience appreciates that devotion.”
“Just like you!”
“No,” said Deborah. “There are things I won’t do. Things I wouldn’t try.”
Lily tried to put into words the complicated feelings she had for Deborah. It wasn’t easy. “I like that you are, I don’t know, independent?”
“At least from men. In your pictures, you don’t throw yourself at them, they come to you.” Lily hoped that she sounded sincere, not fawning. She really did admire Deborah.
“Hmmm. Really?”
“Don’t forget, I was part of the crowd. Still am. And you’re like that in real
life. You are independent. You have a career, a house, a family, but…you know.” “But no man.” Deborah smiled. “No. Not now. Not for a while. But I was
married once. I gave it everything I had.”
“You wouldn’t let him make you get married.” Lily tried not to say it, but it just spilled out.
“Who? Do what?”
“That agent man.”
Deborah seemed surprised. “That was a private call.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry. It was Marty Nuco, wasn’t it?”
“Do you know him?”
“Oh, no!” Lily protested. “Just the name. But isn’t that what agents and studio executives do? Make you marry someone just for appearances? Just so they can control you? You’re so wonderful to me.”
Deborah’s flash of anger seemed to die away. “Oh, sweetie, don’t worry about me.” She patted Lily’s arm. “I might get married again, or I might not. Maybe when this war is all over, and the good ones come home.”
“Like Glen Spangler?”
“No, not him.” Deborah took a sip of water.
“Is it because of him? That he’s…not interested?”
“No, not the way you mean. Now that you’re here, one thing you should never do is play the gossip game. Others will do it, but don’t you.”
“Sorry,” said Lily.
Deborah paused. The ice cubes in her glass settled themselves as if getting ready for a bedtime story. “You will hear rumors about everyone, and they’re all vicious or unbelievable—that’s why they get passed around. No, Glen doesn’t go for men. No men for Glen. He likes women, but only as accessories. Being his wife would be a full time job.”
“I didn’t, don’t, think he was…” Lily stammered. “I mean, like you say, the audience can tell—they know something’s missing. I didn’t get that feeling with him.”
“How about me?” Deborah said. “Ever get that feeling of something missing?”
Lily was surprised by the question. “No, I don’t think so. I’ve seen you do lots of different things, comedy, drama, and I ate it up.” She was thinking, she couldn’t mean that.
“That’s one reason I live out here,” Deborah said. “I stay off the party circuit. I don’t care about rumors in the company town but I do care about them. The audience. In that way I guess I am a little bit of a slave to my image. My personal life is not going to interfere with that rapport. I’m no Elysia Tisbury.”
“I never heard of her.”
“Exactly. She’s a pretty darn good actress who never made it. Leading lady type. But the audience could tell something was missing.”
They chatted on for a few minutes about a song that was on the radio. Then Deborah said goodnight and went to her room down the hall.
Lily thought for a few minutes. Deborah was so direct most of the time, but  this conversation was puzzling. She got up and walked down to the kitchen to get a drink of water. Moira was in there, sitting at the kitchen table with her feet up on a chair, blowing smoke rings and playing solitaire. Lily already felt easy enough  with her to ask her just about anything.
“Who’s Lisa Pilsbury?”
Moira laid a black jack on a red queen. “I think it’s Tisbury. Some actress.
New York.”
“Was she, uh, funny?”
“I don’t know about that.” Moira chuckled. “You mean a lez? So they say. But then they say that about every actress. Why?”
“Oh, her name came up.”
“It still does, from time to time.” Moira peeled off three cards. “Yeah, she was probably funny. But she couldn’t keep it under wraps. No sin goes unpunished, especially the sin that dares not speak its name.” A husky laugh escaped from her. “I musta heard that in a play once.”

Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder

In Lily Torrence, a hotshot young writer directer, Max Beckerman, and a talented older mystery writer, Lyman Wilbur, team up to write a screenplay for a hardboiled murder story called Double Down. And they respect each other’s abilities, but hate each other. This is the engine that drives Lily. And it is closely based on fact.
In 1943 Paramount Pictures bought the rights to the James M. Cain novel Double Indemnity, and hired Billy Wilder to direct it, and he, in turn, hired Raymond Chandler to co-write it. Part of the reason for this was that Wilder, a German immigrant, was not completely comfortable with American vernacular, in particular the sort of streetwise lingo that tough characters in movies were always spouting. Chandler, of course, had honed his skills in this kind of dialogue and description through years of writing pulp magazine stories and his Philip Marlowe novels.
Wilder was a bon vivant, a wit, extremely well-connected in Hollywood. He was just getting started on his career as one of the greatest writer-directors in the history of movies. Chandler was quite a bit older, a recovering alcoholic with an English prep-school education, who, despite his success as a “pulp” writer (a success that paid extremely poorly) never gave up his literary aspirations. And he was a complete outsider at the Hollywood studio where he now worked.
The tension of working together all day, combined with their equally matched egos and well-honed irritabilities led to several well-remembered explosions, which are recounted in biographies of the two men. They got off to a bad start when the neophyte Chandler, not realizing the work was a collaboration, started writing the screenplay on his own. In Wilder’s recollection:
“He had no idea that I was not only the director but was supposed to write it with him.
He came back in ten days with eighty pages of absolute bullshit. He had some good phrases of dialogue, but they must have given him a script written by someone who wanted to be a director. He’d put in directions for fade-ins, dissolves, all kinds of camera moves to show he’d grasped the technique.
I sat him down and explained we’d have to work together.” (James Linville, “Billy Wilder” 1996).
Here’s how the scene plays in Lily Torrence.
“How was your weekend?”
“Productive.” Lyman stood and handed him a sheaf of papers, about thirty pages, neatly typed. “I didn’t nearly finish, of course, but I would call it a good start.”
“Was ist das?” Max looked at the gift. “Double Down. Act One, Scene One.” He read a few lines, then riffled through the pages, stopping here and there. He  read out loud: “‘Camera follows Archer into the office. The ice-cool blonde eyes him. Close up of her thin, gold pencil tapping the desk indolently.’”
He looked at Lyman. “You read the screenplays I gave you?”
“Yes, I—”
Max cut him off. “Mister Wilbur, a screenplay is not something you throw together over a weekend.”
Lyman smiled, and his pipe clicked between his teeth. “Of course. I—”
“And camera movements are not dictated by a beginner writer to a director.” Max could hear his voice rise. He adopted a friendly, teacherly tone instead. “We will work together on writing this picture. You will help me turn this admirably flavorful novel you wrote into a usable set of dialogues. He says, she says. That is all, and it is enough.”
Lyman blinked at him for a long moment. “Naturally, I expected there would be revisions.”
“Revisions!” For just a moment, Max considered throwing Lyman’s papers at his puffy, offended face, and just dropping the whole project.
You will have guessed that “Max” and “Lyman” are stand-ins. Once these two characters are established, the story moves off on its own. Max is accused of shooting his wife’s lover, and Lyman gets involved in proving Max’s innocence. Of course Wilder never shot anyone, and Chandler would have danced if he had. But that’s non-fiction, so ugly in its pettiness. In Lily, Lyman doesn’t save Max—the facts of the case to that—but it’s the impetus for him delving into much seamier and sadder lives, as we’ll talk about in future installments.
Read More:  “Billy Wilder: On Raymond Chandler,” interview by James Scott Linville, The Paris Review Interviews, Vol 1, 1996, and at
Zolotow, Maurice, Billy Wilder in Hollywood 1977.
McShane, Frank, The Life of Raymond Chandler 1976.