(Excerpt from chapter 45, “Through the Wall; A Year in Havana (p. 176, Freedom Voices)”
West Hollywood, circa 1971. A drifting net of cigar smoke let me know the world-famous director was at his desk; I’d have to steal down the stairs past him and out the glass doors to get to the pool. I peered at the man who, from that distance with his longish white hair, resembled a relative of Mark Twain, his thick mustache yellowing like the pages of a cherished book. As usual, he sported one of his khaki jump suits—the kind mechanics wore–with “Trumbo” embroidered on the pocket. He was sitting at his desk, a converted marble bar, listening to the “Johnny Got His Gun” sound-track. I had heard the track at least a dozen times when I was at the studio recording the Lord’s prayer for one of Johnny’s flashbacks. That was after Johnny—actually Timothy Bottoms—had recovered. The actor had suffered a breakdown prompted by his insistence on simulating, by floating in water, the soldier he would play who had lost all limbs in the war and could not hear, see, nor speak.
Now and then, the man in the jumpsuit would scrawl something in a manuscript. He looked perturbed. Not like he looked when he’d situate himself in the tub, his typewriter propped on a tray, only to emerge after his wife, Cleo, smiled that the soles of his feet were going to shrivel up and fall off.
Slowly, I started down the shag stairs, pokadotted from scouring after too many poodle mishaps. Nothing, my mother had admonished, nothing must disturb the great writer while he was at work; we must not tax the hospitality of our hosts during the year we lived with them. The Trumbos had graciously offered to put me up in Hollywood while my mother tied up loose ends in Mexico. When she arrived in the States, they extended the offer to both of us until my mother was able to secure a job and apartment of her own.
“Well, well, well! Who have we here? What are you doing here pequeñita? Come here, come here!” Trumbo’s gravelly voice beckoned.
“Go there?” My curls shook up and down.
“Don’t you want to see some magic?”
“Don’t you have to write?”
“Write?” Trumbo asked with amusement. Some of the most creative stories he had invented were the ones to extend his deadlines. Then he’d essentially begin and finish works of pure genius within that stolen time frame. “Why?”
“I don’t know.”
“If you don’t know, how am I going to know? Come here, come here. There. Sit right there on that bar stool. Up you go. Look.” The man put his elbow on the counter. As he spoke, his words wheezed with cigar smoke. “See this nickel? I’m going to make it disappear.” He began rubbing it into the skin of his forearm, just above the elbow. “Oh, look what a klutz. I always drop it! Wait look. See, I think it’s going, going. Gone! See? Nothing in my hand.”
He laughed and repeated the trick until I persuaded him to give me a clue. After I had mastered that one, he showed me one in which two pieces of toilet paper stuck on his finger nails with some spit were really two doves that magically flew away and returned.
This inspired me to break out the plastic vomit from the Hollywood Magic Store.
“Don’t move. I’ll clean it!” Trumbo scooped up the barf in some Kleenex, skipped off to the bathroom and shut the door. I heard the toilet flush. Trumbo had also once flushed his daughter Nicola’s plastic Magic Store dog poop down the toilet and actually ate Chris and Mitzi’s Magic Store rubber chocolates.
Trumbo stuck his head out of the bathroom, waiving the rubber vomit. “You had me fooled!”
I grinned. “Are those real gold?” Now that I had Trumbo’s attention, I could ask about the statuette trophies.
He shook his head. “Gilt maybe.”
I was disappointed.
“That’s an Oscar,” said the man who was also known as one of the Hollywood Ten. “I got it for The Brave One–a movie I made.”
“Who’s Robert Rich?”
Trumbo’s smile faded. “I was in hiding then.” Trumbo was the man credited with breaking the blacklist by announcing to the world at the strategic moment that he was the academy-award winner, Robert Rich.
“Margot!” my mother shouted from the top of the stairs. “I told you not to bother Trumbo! Look. I can see he’s upset!”
“That little angel bothering me? Not in the least, J. She’s been superb!”
“Christ, it’s hot!” The woman with big fifties hair and the beauty of a black and white film actress made her way down the stairs, her one-piece flaring over the top of a pair of slender thighs. Towel slung over her shoulder, sunglasses, book and Ginger-ale in hand, she was well-equipped for poolside lounging. “Every time I see that pool, I think of what Bill Foster said,” she smiled.
“See, your memory’s better than mine!” Trumbo commented in his usual good-natured way.
Trumbo had a reputation for an eidetic memory; for recalling, word for word, the exact dialogue or passage in any book, the number of the page on which it appeared, whether it was the right or left page, top or bottom—or at least he had a talent for convincing people of as much. Jeanette, on the other hand, liked to believe her memory was like a sieve, though in fact she could remember historical details and statistics that marveled the average listener. Her weakness lay in remembering emotionally-charged data.
“So what did Chairman Bill have to say that you remember?” Trumbo asked.
“Well, you had been embarrassed about the old house. About it being in Beverly Hills, with the Ionic pillars. Because he was the head of the Communist Party. You apologized. Then he said, ‘Nonsense. Come the Revolution we’ll all have swimming pools.”
“Well? He was absolutely right! Many of us who were blacklisted did end up with swimming pools, now didn’t we?—in Mexico of course.” Trumbo chortled. After his year in prison, he had moved his family to México City.
Then, just like the Mexican morning sun hundreds of miles away would be suddenly overrun by the afternoon onslaught of coastal clouds, my mother’s eyes went far away again, where they went when they became all teary. Her tongue curled visibly in the corner of her mouth as she concentrated on smoothing out her runny eye-liner. Really it was as though my mother had remained in Mexico, along with my father’s ashes. Ironically it was not my father’s absence, but my mother’s, which seemed to me the most palpable, the most like this new concept: “death.”