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By Robert S. Levinson


Slug Line: Sweethearts
By Neil Gulliver

When the phone rang and the stranger's voice said my ex had become the prime suspect in a murder one, I had no way of knowing I was about to stumble into possibly the best kept secret in all of show business history:

Elvis and Marilyn had a torrid love affair in the fifties and their sexually-charged love letters still existed.



Come again?

Presley and Monroe?!


If there was any truth to the secret, the story was worth a million dollars. The love letters, if they could be found, more.

Ask Jackie O's heirs about that.

But right now the secret wasn't even a rumor and, before it became a whole lot more, other ancient secrets involving lesser icons from the Golden Age of movies would begin to unfold almost as often as bodies began dropping left and right.

"How did you get my home number?" I grouched at the caller, not happy about being interrupted at this crucial moment in my life.

I was sitting in my apartment, in my underwear. I had been struggling for three hours to come up with a clever lead for my next column for the Daily, tormenting myself with one false start after another, the way I've been doing ever since I got promoted (if promoted is the right word) off the crime beat six years ago.

Yeah, that Neil Gulliver.

That's me.

The one whose face adorns the sides of a million or so buses, his thirty-eight years looking a good ten years younger thanks to a boyish grin, a youthful twinkle in his inquisitive hazel eyes, and a great art department retoucher, who also took away the small scar half hidden above his right eyebrow--result of an insane moment years ago that put two bodies in the ground--to prettify a set of features that more call good-looking than good grief!--when judged by current standards--and sit well on an angular face not as firm as it used to be and a broad forehead that grows taller as my widow's peak continues its retreat to the rear.

That one.

The Neil Gulliver who writes about people at their best and their worst and most of the time tries to lay in enough humor to get his readers chuckling over their breakfast cereal without dribbling too much milk out the sides of their mouths and down their chins.

I seem to have what Noel Coward called "a talent to amuse," and isn't it better to go for a laugh, something to give people a smile to start their day, than wallow in the kind of blood and gore that comes with the crime beat?

I'll level.

There's a lot about those crime beat years I miss.

Not the killings or man's redundant inhumanity to man.

I never needed a crime beat for that.

Growing up, I heard plenty on that subject from relatives who had marched off to wars in the foolish belief patriotism carried a sharper edge than protest, including my dear dad, who learned firsthand about the phantom pains that attack missing limbs and pounded into me the concept that honorable intentions can begin with saints and end with fools, as easily as the other way around.

I was feeling the old rush now, as the stranger said, "Maybe you didn't hear? I tell you your ex wife is a murder suspect and all you can give me is some smart lip over how I got your home phone number?"

"It's unlisted," I said. "The phone company isn't supposed to give out my number."

"People are not supposed to commit murders, either, but it may be the message never got through to your ex wife. Anyway, I told her I would call you and she give me the number. Consider yourself called."

"Wait! Don't hang up!"

The silence had a smirk all it's own before the unfamiliar voice responded, "Now you're interested all of a sudden?"

In fact, I was interested the moment he spoke Stevie's name, but you're not supposed to show anyone you're carrying a torch.

Especially not strangers.

It's a guy thing.

It allows you to smile on the outside while your heart keeps hemorrhaging on the inside. Mine has been at it for seven years, since Stevie slipped me the legal papers that said we could still be husband and wife, but not with each other.

I was slow to understand that some form of love survives a failed marriage, slower than Stevie, but I got there, learning there is no divorce from true friendship.

I still adored the kid I once loved with unabashed passion.

Always would.

And, I loved the grown woman she had become.

If you knew Stevie the way I knew Stevie, you'd understand why, but first you'd have to get past her image as "The Sex Queen of the Soaps."

Yeah, that Stevie.

Stephanie Marriner.

That's her.

And, please, don't be fooled by what you think you know from what you read too often in the supermarket rags or see on E.T. and Hard Copy.

You ever get close enough, look deeply into Stevie's eyes so you can examine her soul. And discover the person who exists inside the image. Even if, like me, you have to fight through the act she's putting on most of the time.

"Gulliver? You there?"


"I said, so now you're interested, huh?"

After another moment, I responded, "You sound like a cop. Are you a cop?"

"No. I'm a schmuck for making this call."

"Definitely a cop," I said.

Lt. Ned DeSantis could have been Scrooge the way he misered his facts, so after he was off the line I swung around to the computer and accessed the Daily's Metro news bank and scrolled through the first disjointed and sketchy chunks of background.

The victim was one John "Black Jack" Sheridan, a Broadway playwright who moved to Hollywood and became a widely-acclaimed director, but the last thirty years had turned him into a trivia question.

I'm a major movie fan, but I had to be reminded Sheridan was still alive last month, when Stevie told me he was the author and director of an Equity-waiver theater production she had agreed to star in, Marilyn Remembers, a one-woman show that recreated the great loves in the life of Marilyn Monroe.

She was all excitement over the phone, bubbling with that little girl disingenuousness she turns on and off like a kitchen faucet. The idea was to open the play in L.A., eventually move it to London and--on waves of critical acclaim for her performance--Broadway! (Whenever Stevie said the word, the exclamation point was attached.)

"Blackie Sheridan wrote it especially for me," Stevie said brightly. "He watches my show religiously, and he says I am the best thing he has seen on a screen since Monroe. Incendiary sex appeal is what he said we have in common, me and Monroe, and only Jean Harlow and Rita Hayworth before

"Not Madonna?"

Stevie let the question hang for a moment before answering in a dismissive tone.

"Madonna has a mole."

"So do you."

"Not where it shows, honey, although I admit showing it to you plenty of times."

"Earning my eternal gratitude."

"Not how I earned it, baby," she said, falling into her tough act.

I had no snappy rebuttal, only the wistful memory of the sixteen year-old girl-woman who had swept me off my common sense at a rock concert and soon agreed to share her life with a newspaperman eight years her senior.

Maybe I should have seen it was the kind of marriage that works best for better people than Stevie and I proved to be and was destined to fail.

Maybe I did and merely denied the fact for seven years, by which time Stevie was the reigning "Sex Queen of the Soaps" on Bedrooms and Board Rooms and I had learned more about myself than I needed to know.

Was it the father in me that drew me to her in the first place and keeps the protective spirit alive, or was it her need to have a father?

Stevie had grown up an orphan, in the broadest sense of the word. She never really knew her father, who disappeared without a word when she was five, and not a trace since, although from time to time Stevie has hired private detectives to go searching. Her mother was hardly more than an overgrown kid herself, who loved her daughter dearly, even when she was off loving somebody else, leaving Stevie to survive for herself.

And, Stevie was and is a survivor.

And, blessed with a streak of generosity that--given her own bleak upbringing--understandably plays out through charities and causes that help children with histories more desperate and needs even greater than Stevie ever suffered.

Not that you'll ever hear about it.

The money and time she contributes are always cloaked in anonymity. Stevie demands that in order to protect the profane public image she has so carefully groomed and because, as she puts it, "Who I really am is my business. Period."

When Stevie has to be out front, like at a Pediatric AIDS benefit or Jerry Lewis's annual MD fund-raiser, she'll go into a dumb act, maybe let a four-letter word slip out accidentally on purpose, or show more cleavage than the camera lens can handle, to lead the public into thinking she's there only as a publicity stunt.

I keep thinking I'm going to blow her cover one of these days. When I'm angry enough at her to care. Meanwhile, we both love her and she would hate for me to ever stop, and she rarely makes a decision without soliciting my opinion. Sometimes, she even pays attention.

It's not as simple as that, of course, this life after a divorce that was never my idea, where I may have signed off on custody of my soul, but I'm still working on it. Give me another hundred years to get it right, please.

Talking with Stevie about Marilyn and the play, I recognized that the only opinion that mattered was her own.

She declared, "It's about time people in this business took me seriously, Neil. I'm a damned fine actress. The play can be just what I need to show the town I am more than just another--"

"Pretty face," I said, helping her with one of her favorite subjects.

"Exactly! Oh, Neil, honey. Marilyn Remembers can do it for me. My ticket to the big screen and the juicy roles Pfeiffer and Stone and Basinger and, oh, suddenly, Gwyneth Paltrow get, and--oh, you know?"

"I hope you're right, doll. Where's the money to finance this thing coming from? Black Jack Sheridan save his money, or is he planning to dip into your piggy bank?"

Stevie snorted away the suggestion. "Blackie has the backing he needs from an English producer who is due out here any day. Jeremy Brighton? I talked to him and he sounds legitimate, but I want you to meet him. Blackie, too. Tell me what you think."

"Of course," I agreed, anxious to please.

The meetings were still on hold, although the play had been in rehearsal for two weeks. Stevie did not want me around until she was comfortable with her performance. She phoned daily with a progress report and by yesterday had substituted short-tempered, liquid outbursts for her initial exuberance.

She made no effort to disguise the problems she was having with Sheridan, whom she'd taken to calling Monster Man.

"I'm thinking about walking, honey. I'm going to have words with Monster Man tonight, and either he gets my message loud and clear or they can start looking for a replacement."

"Don't do anything rash, okay?"

"Have you ever known me to do anything rash?"


She hung up.

I counted the seconds before she called back.

Stevie always called back.

"Honey," she sighed, making the word two elaborate notes on the musical scale, "Nobody, not even a Blackie Sheridan, is going to come between me and my Broadway debut, so don't be the least bit surprised when I fly you in to the Big Apple for the opening night."

Forty minutes later, I was negotiating a freeway exit north of Calabasas that put my old Jag on a direct course west to the Motion Picture Retirement Estates. It should have taken twenty minutes longer to get there, but I had ignored the sixty-five mph speed limit.

I was anxious to reach Stevie.

For Stevie's sake.

Stevie has a history of disintegrating under pressure and turning bad situations into Bedlam.

Being accused of first degree murder is a bad situation even for her.

I followed the posted signs off the main road and past the arched entrance of the Motion Picture Retirement Estates. It was almost noon. The sun was hiding behind slashes of painted cloud in a sky the leukemia-blue color of used laundry detergent.

I had declined numerous invitations to visit the MPRE that started arriving after the Daily promoted me to the column. I didn't want to risk confirming my vision of the place as a way station between the glitter and the graveyard for stars who had fared less well in life than on the silver screen.

The MPRE wasn't just a haven for nameless faces. Big names resided here, too. Even Norma Shearer, the Queen of the MGM lot, who married Irving Thalberg, won an Oscar for The Divorcee, and, at the time of her death, was staying several miles down the road in a Motion Picture Country Home cottage full of memories and not much else.

So, I made my excuses and steered clear, fearing permanent damage to the giant screen images I grew with and still savored through the cable movie channels and the videocassette rentals. I dreaded rounding a corner into someone whose fame was humbled by reality and the passage of time, some withering beauty or a hero hobbling on a cane or confined to a wheelchair.

A Channel 2 news team was packing and stowing gear as I pulled into a space near the front entrance of the mission-style main building. Other news wagons were already on the way out, their coverage done. The parked vehicles included two LAPD squad cars and an unmarked with a red gum ball on its roof.

A frail, nervous woman in her middle forties, small deep-set eyes behind Coke-bottle lenses in tortoiseshell frames too large for her emaciated face, sat behind the reception counter. High cheeks and a hawk nose. Small eyes that contributed nothing under her taut Louise Brooks haircut, a white-streaked, bottled orange instead of black. Wearing a school teacher's ink-black dress with a high Peter Pan collar that hung loose from her broad shoulders and hinted at pendulous breasts proportionately out of synch with the rest of her.

A name plaque identified her as Miss Toby Latch.

I gave her my name, and she put an open palm between us and stopped pulling anxiously on her hanky while she tapped out three numbers on the phone and mumbled into the cupped mouthpiece, her eyes angling to keep me in view.

Behind her in the open clerical area were three tightly placed rows of old-style teachers' desks, nine desks in total, all unoccupied. A bank of mismatched file cabinets under built-in shelves jammed with supplies filled the back wall. To her left were three mahogany doors and a massive oil of a proud, hawk-nosed man, in a hand-carved, gilded frame that dominated the room. I recognized him--David Wark Griffith, the silent movie director who is credited with almost single-handedly inventing the vocabulary of film.

The click of a lock.

The door to my immediate right opened.

The heavyset man framed in the archway wore an expensively cut crimson blazer at war with the gold button holding it closed over his ample bay window and a pair of checkerboard slacks that emphasized his long, spindly legs.

"Spoon, Mr. Gulliver. Michael Spoon," he said, in an Irish tenor that fit him better than his clothing. His neck was as wide as his moon-pie face, making it impossible to button his shirt and raise the knot on his subtle silk tie. "Folks call me Mickey. I run this place. Executive director." He moved forward with a dancer's grace, his hand extended, unleashing the kind of smile actors save for auditions.

Spoon's smile was handsome enough to offset undistinguished features showing the effects of too much booze. His alert green eyes tended to disappear inside the upper folds of his doughy cheeks, crackling red and accentuated with slivers of blue vein on loan from the mother load decorating his puff pastry nose. He was in his early to midthirties, gasping for air like any breath might be his last.

Spoon pumped my hand in a tight salesman's grip, wet with perspiration. That made me aware of the beads of sweat visible across the upper ridge of his small, elegant mouth and raining gently down his high forehead from a jungle of lackluster, sandpaper blond hair. "Ms. Marriner will sure be glad to see you," he said, wheezing and sighing at the same time. His breath smelled of stale mints. "You're all she has been talking about since she woke up and found Mr. Sheridan dead."

Stevie woke up to find Sheridan dead?

"Please run that by me again, Mr. Spoon."

The smile slid off Spoon's face. "She was in Mr. Sheridan's cottage when she--" He pressed three fingers against his lips, raised his eyes to the cottage cheese ceiling, coughed his throat clear. "There I go, talking out of turn again. The detective said to just wait for you and bring you on over."

"On over where?"

"Mr. Sheridan's cottage. They weren't finished when he sent me. You should of seen the madhouse. Not this many TV cameras and news people since the time Hal Roach came to visit. You know who that was? Hal Roach?"

"Of course," I said, dismissing the subject with a gesture before he could act on his eagerness to tell me. My imagination pictured Stevie rolling over in bed, throwing out an arm to cop a close-eyed feel, checking to learn why her "incendiary sex appeal" had failed to get a rise from Sheridan and--

The sedative wasn't invented that could get her down from the wall she had to be climbing.

I was close to it myself. "Take me there, okay?"

Spoon nodded.

The receptionist looked up from her hanky pull. "Your cart should be recharged by now. Save you five minutes' walking time."

"Thank you, Toby," Spoon said, acknowledging her with a cheeky grin. A rush of minted breath filled the space between us. "We operate our own little fleet of golf carts, Mr. Gulliver. The Estates grew large and complex in recent years, and they became a way for us to better serve our and--"

"You Gulliver?"

A voice behind us interrupted Spoon's commercial. No doubt the man who had pushed open the entry door was the plainclothes cop who probably belonged to the unmarked outside. Most give it away by the cheap cut of their wrinkled suits, the gravy stains on their ties, and a high gloss on their rubber-cushioned shoes. This one advertised it, wearing his gold badge on the outside of his jacket pocket.

"Lieutenant DeSantis. We were just heading your way."

"S'okay." He crossed his arms on his chest and his hard brown eyes covered me with disinfectant. "The crime lab boys finished up faster'n we expected, so--"

I recognized his voice from the phone call.

"Where's my wife?"

"Your ex-wife," DeSantis corrected me. "What took you so long, Gulliver? Stop to change your unlisted phone number?" He made a production of the word unlisted.

"Miss Marriner. Where is she?"
"Where you'd expect to find a television star?" DeSantis said sarcastically, tossing a thumb over his shoulder. "Outside there, signing autographs."

He stepped aside as I charged for the door.

Stevie was beyond the veranda, leaning against one of the twin pillars that rose from a used-brick wall three feet high to support the clay-tiled roof, smiling and chatting amiably while putting her name to scraps of paper.

There were six or eight people around her. Most looked old enough to be residents. I thought I recognized one of them from a character part in the original fifties movie version of The Naked City. They were either sympathizing with her for the ordeal she had been put through or telling her how wonderful she was on Bedrooms and Board Rooms.

Stevie had on a Bugs Bunny tee shirt that flattered her extravagant chest and tight-fitting, stone-washed jeans; soft leather boots that quit at her calves, and a pair of oversized, gray-tinted Carrera racing frames pushed back onto her blonde head, the hair pulled off her face into a pony tail that stopped somewhere below her shoulder blades.

Just enough makeup for real life. And all the cameras and media teams that would have raced to the far valley, anywhere, on a murder one call starring a hot celebrity. Eye liner highlighted the shimmering green and yellow of her eyes; blusher hid freckles that never entirely disappear. A light dab of color revealed the natural pucker of her perfect lips.

Two uniformed officers stood at parade rest a respectful distance away, exchanging tight-mouthed grins, clearly awed at being this close to a genuine star. Most people are, but then, most people have never been married to one.

I thought, Maybe if I'd never started treating her less like a wife than some prized possession, we might still--

I pushed out a breath and called out her name.

She looked up and turned to verify it was me, smiled, and sent me a kiss. "Finished in a minute, honey. I don't want to disappoint these dear fans of mine."

She meant it, but at the same time she wanted to be rescued.

Stevie and I had lived together long enough for me to read that on a glance.

I angled my body sideways and gently sliced a path to her, ignoring grumbles from a few who thought I was trying to fudge a place in line.

Stevie threw her arms around me. Found my lips. Whispered into my ear, "Get me out of here, please, baby. Please."

Her body trembled inside her clothing.

She was more frightened than I had ever known her to be.

End of Chapter One

Excerpted from The Elvis and Marilyn Affair by Robert S. Levinson. Copyrightę 1999 by Robert S. Levinson. Excerpted by permission of Forge Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.