by Barbara Hayes
I am still agape over the revelation of the most daring piece of deception ever perpetrated in Hollywood.
The author of it is Gene Raymond, the last person in the world I would have suspected of any such conniving. Yet for ten months—nearly a year, mind you!—Gene actually lived a double life as the mysterious ” Mr. John Morgan.”
In this audacious masquerade he succeeded not only in duping a town where nobody has ever been able to keep things under cover, but in hoodwinking his bride-to-be.
It was at eight o’clock one night that Gene first donned his disguise and so began the amazing series of events which were to launch him on his precarious Jekyll-Hyde career. That he got away with it, through elaborate lies and deepest subterfuge, gives evidence that he is not only a remarkable actor, but a man of daring and infinite resource.
On this evening, a few hours earlier, Gene had driven his fiancee to her home in Hollywood. Now, as he appeared before a deserted house among the winding hills of Bel-Air, no one would have recognized him. A hat was pulled down over his telltale blond hair, a muffler swathed his chin, and he carried a handkerchief ready to press to his face should any strangers pass. Gene Raymond had become Mr. John Morgan.
He walked briskly across the yard to the dark house. It was a large and rather rambling place, weeds grew along the walk, and a cold wind rustled through the gables.
The murky moonlight faintly revealed three people waiting in the shadows for Mr. Morgan. One of them was a lady who was, for a time, to be known only as “Mrs. Shux.” She was to become a guiding genius in the conspiracy that was afoot, through all its astonishing ramifications. The other two were men intimately known to Gene Raymond.
Flashlights were produced, and after fumbling with the lock, they entered. The musty odor of an unused dwelling rushed to meet them.
“I don’t see how you can get away with it,” the lady said to Mr. Morgan, alias Mr. Raymond.
“I’ve started it I’m going to finish it,” he said. “I’m going to buy this house to be our home, decorate and furnish it to the last detail, and it’s got to be a complete surprise to Jeanette.”
There, the cat is out of the bag.
NOW that you know what he proposed to do, the enormity of the undertaking may become apparent. It would be dismayed an ordinary mortal. Gene Raymond was not, however, to be discouraged.
This was his dream, and he has a way of making dreams come true.
“I’ve always wanted, when I married, to be able to carry my bride across the threshold of our own home,” he had told this group one night, adding, suddenly: “And why not? Why not buy a house, fix it up, put in everything we’d like—and keep it all a secret!”
Thus the ambitious stratagem began. If Gene could have foreseen all the pettifogging and chicanery it would lead to, if he had known he would have to keep his fingers crossed and lie to his beloved—yes, even steal!—he would have quailed at the prospect. But right then he went at it blithely.
First he scouted around for a house, something homey, not too big or showy, something that would be solid, comfortable, a home. He found the makings of such a place at last, an English style country home built partly of stone, with a steep roof of rolling, haphazard shingles. There were two acres, with a dilapidated stable, bridle paths, rose and grape arbors clinging to hillside terraces. Hidden among the pines was a little playhouse that was reached across a bridge of stones.
The entire place had to be remodeled, as Gene outlined the changes: take the driveway out and put in a lawn, tear down the stable and build a new one, enlarge a room here, add another there, put in new plumbing. It would all be a tremendous amount of work. He would have to find an architect willing to take a solemn oath of secrecy Gene called in Kenneth Albright, whose clever work is well known in the film colony. For a decorator, well, Gene would turn
“Mrs. Shux” into one. After all, on the correct decorating depended the success or failure of the scheme.
As the ringleader of his band of confederates, we may now reveal the identity of “Mrs. Shux”—Helen Ferguson Hargreaves, confidante and most trusted friend of Jeanette MacDonald’s. The responsibilities—and the risks—made “Mrs. Shux” blanch, but since it was Gene who asked she decided she’d do it.
No one else, not even Jeanette’s mother, was to be let in on the scheme.
Yet time and again, the super-colossal secret tottered on the brink of discovery Early in the game, Jeanette nearly caught Gene red-handed.
Gene had bought the property in the name of Mrs. Hargreaves, and then, assuming his disguise as Mr. Morgan, he was spending every spare minute at the new home, supervising the work. Neighbors decided Mr. Morgan must suffer, poor fellow, from a bad cold, for their rare glimpses of him showed only a man with sun glasses on, holding a handkerchief to his nose and peering blankly about.
Well, on this particular day, Gene had told his fiancee that he was going to the polo games, and would come from there to pick her up at the studio when she was through work.
Then and there he learned what every young husband should know —never, never tell a fib.
Jeanette finished shooting early that day, so she decided to surprise Gene at the polo games.
She arrived between chukkers and started looking for him. She wandered back and forth before the grandstand, searching the crowd. No Gene, but armies of autograph hunters, answered her beseeching glances. She signed and signed till her arms nearly dropped off, and still no Gene. Finally, worked up to a high state of apprehension, she telephoned his home.
Gene had meanwhile hurried back from the honeymoon house and was coming up the walk when he heard his telephone ringing. Even as for you or me, it became a matter of vast urgency to reach it before the party hung up. All out of breath, he jerked off the receiver.
“Gene! What are you doing there? You said you’d be at the polo game!”
“But I was going to pick you up at the studio,” he stalled.
“What have you been doing?” demanded his bride-to-be.
Gene took a deep breath, crossed his fingers (a gesture what was to grow on him) and managed to stammer out something an unexpected conference. Anyone else but this young man with the open, honest face would have been discovered, but Gene emerged safely that time.
Other narrow escapes were to follow.
HE had his heart set on obtaining some of the ‘MacDonald plaid to use in decorating a divan in the little playhouse, now painted white and converted into a music studio. Jeanette gets a bolt of the MacDonald clan’s plaid from Scotland now and then. There was only one thing to do—steal that bolt.
While Jeanette was out of the house he crept upstairs in the approved manner of burglary, hoisted the plaid out of a closet, and hastened for the front door. It was at this exact moment that Jeanette arrived home.
Hastily, Gene shoved the bolt under a davenport, contriving thus to hide it along with his nervous confusion. Next day he came again, and this time his bold thievery was detected by Sylvia Grogg, Jeanette’s secretary. Gene had to let her in on the secret. Afterwards, she became an invaluable aid as a secret operator in the MacDonald home.
The plaid fitted in beautifully. Gene used it to upholster a divan, made it into frames for the pictures to be hung on the studio walls, and even trimmed the Venetian blinds with strips of it. Then he moved in twin baby grand pianos, in white, with white chairs and rugs. It was the coziest spot on the whole estate.
As the chief counselor in these goings-on, Helen (Mrs. Shux) had her hands full. Through many ingenious hints, she finally found out all of Jeanette’s preferences, her most minute likes and dislikes. Even so, every purchase was made “on approval.” Jeanette’s bedroom was Helen’s particular triumph, decorated in dusty pink with an effect so breathlessly lovely that the new mistress hasn’t made a single change.
The problem of getting the furniture was indeed difficult. For instance, when Gene prepared to move his piano from the home he gave to his mother, to the new residence, he faced a grave problem.
Possibly you never thought of this, but all the secrets of Hollywood are known to the moving companies. They are first to learn when a wife takes her trunks out to ship them to Reno, and first to learn when a secret bride moves in. They know who is buying a house and who selling, who is rich, who poor. In short, these movers seem to know everything.
Yet somehow, Gene had to get his piano moved secretly. Finally, he hit on a way. First he had the piano moved to the Hargreaves’ home in Beverly Hills. Then another moving company was called to tote the piano to the honeymoon manse. . A classic example of going all around Robin Hood’s barn! After the piano was moved, Gene was in for another close call.
He had constructed dog kennels for his and Jeanette’s pets, building them along the path to the new stable he had erected. He wanted the dogs and the horses there, too. Gene had bought White Lady, riding horse at Kellogg’s ranch, to be presented to Jeanette as his gift for her birthday, which was the day following the wedding. In the stall next to White Lady was Black Knight, the horse given him last August on his birthday, by Jeanette.
But Jeanette was boarding her dogs at Happyland, a de luxe resort for lucky canines. Shortly before the wedding, therefore, Gene sent out for Stormy Weather, the gray Skye terrier; Nick, her Newfoundland pup; and Sunny, the lamblike Bedlington. With merry barks the dogs inspected their new homes and made friends with Gene’s three dogs, Mike, Trey, and Askim.
Then Jeanette decided to run out and visit her dogs at Happyland, and of all days, she chose her wedding day!
WHEN Gene learned this, his heart turned heart handsprings, but he rose valiantly to the emergency.
“Hold her for an hour,” he said. “I’ll fix it.”
In that hour the dogs were whisked back to Happyland, where in due course Jeanette arrived for a ten-minute romp with them. As soon as she left, back to town came the dogs. It must have been very confusing, even to the dogs.
The catastrophe averted, Gene went for a final survey of his and his confederates’ handiwork, and found it good. The last stick of furniture was in place. In Jeanette’s dressing room were her perfumes, her dresses, hats, shoes, everything. Not one minute detail had been overlooked
The job was done.
But would Jeanette like it? Had they correctly divined all her tastes? Gene was on the verge of the jitters, for fair. This test was far more important than the most critical review of a movie, this was the crux of all his plans. If she didn’t like their home, he was sunk.
Gene carried his bride over the threshold, just as he had dreamed. Then he set her down, carefully. His voice, of a sudden, failed him. So did his pretty speech, so hopefully prepared
“This—this is our new home,” he faltered.
Jeanette didn’t understand, at first. The suspense must have been terrific for the nervous new husband.
Then, suddenly, the full realization burst upon Jeanette.
The excited tour of exploration that followed must have been a memorable experience. From room to room they wandered.
When at last they had seen it all, Jeanette looked at her husband.
“All my life I’ve dreamed of a home, and looked forward to one of my own,” she said. “I came into it tonight.”
Gene’s secret was a success.