MALE AND FEMALE
Joseph P. Kennedy leans his sturdy body over the tracks and peers through round spectacles at the approaching train. It moves slowly across the flat terrain, spewing sooty smoke into the cloudless Florida sky.
A whistle sounds.
The platform of the West Palm Beach train station springs to life. Porters snap to attention, a small band strikes up a catchy tune, and the others who've been waiting for the Florida Limited begin to press forward. It is January 12, 1928, and another tourist season has commenced. Lavish parties, dancing till dawn, gossip over omelets, shopping on Worth Avenue--for the next two months, Palm Beach will bustle and hum, transforming a sleepy seaside village into the world's wealthiest sandbox.
"Right on time, sir," chirps Eddie Moore, Joe Kennedy's personal secretary, trusted friend, and keeper of secrets. Both men are attired in white linen suits and white straw hats. Both have sunburned faces from the round of golf they played yesterday. The resemblances stop there. Eddie Moore is older and stooped, with thinning white hair and the stern expression of a well-trained guard dog, whereas even now, on vacation, Joe Kennedy exudes the august impatience of a man in a hurry on his way to the top. He is pacing around like his feet are on fire, displaying the boundless energy that took Joe Kennedy from the rough and tumble of East Boston to the pinnacle of American finance--and, more recently, to the enchanted land of Hollywood. At thirty-nine, he is the father of seven children, although his wife, Rose, is expecting again and due to give birth in a few weeks. She hasn't been very pleasant to be around, which is why he came to Palm Beach in the first place.
He wipes his face with a handkerchief and then glances at Eddie Moore. The stout aide hitches his trousers confidently, as if he knows the answer to a riddle.
"I've taken care of everything," he says calmly, giving his boss a pat on the back. "You got nothing to worry about."
"And the orchids?"
"Her room is like a flower shop."
Joe Kennedy nods. The black steamer glides by, its brakes squealing. Next come the passenger cars, and he examines each hopefully. On one of them he spies a pretty woman waving. "That's her!" he barks, trailing after the car. Instead of waiting for her to disembark, he bounds onto the train once it stops, rushing headlong up the stairs, pushing past a confused porter.
He moves swiftly down the corridor with the illogic of a determined child, chest out, jaw set tightly. It's hard going, because the other passengers are trying to exit. But he's been thinking about her since they first met last November. He took her to dinner at the Savoy. He wanted her then, and now, months later, his desire has multiplied like a crazy adding machine.
Then a petite woman emerges from a compartment and waves at him. "Hi, Joe!" comes her strong, clear voice. Her teeth are a dazzling white. Her brown hair shines like patent leather.
"Where's Henri?" Joe replies.
"He went to meet you."
The sight of her sends him charging down the narrow corridor, where they meet in a collision that sends both back into her berth. He pushes her gently into a closet, knocking off his glasses when his forehead bumps against the luggage rack. He presses his lips against hers. She tastes like candy.
"I missed you," he says, wiping off her lipstick with the same handkerchief that he used to dry his sweaty, nervous face. "I just wanted you to know that."
"I missed you, too. Now come meet my husband."
Seconds later Joe Kennedy is back on the platform, issuing orders at the porters while chatting amiably with Henri de la Falaise, Marquis de la Coudraye, otherwise known to the world as Gloria Swanson's third husband.
A movie star like Gloria Swanson, who has played opposite Valentino, Barrymore, and Reid, who has had three husbands and numerous lovers, who is considered to be the most glamorous woman in the world, doesn't normally allow a single kiss to upset her balance. After all, she's twenty-eight (give or take a few years) and knows very well the particular oddness of the male species. But there is something about this Joe Kennedy that sends her blood to boil.
A kiss? They are supposed to have a business relationship. And business it must remain.
"Milt Cohen resigned," she finally says, in a voice not much louder than a whisper. She's riding in a car with Joe on the way to the hotel. Henri has gone with Eddie Moore in another car. "He sent me a telegram."
The car starts to bounce across a rickety bridge. Skiffs sway gently on the placid water of Lake Worth separating the Palm Beaches. West Palm Beach houses the laborers, the maids, the cooks, and the gardeners, while Palm Beach exists as the ultimate playground for the rich. Joe promised her the time of her life.
"At least you didn't have to fire him. Firing people isn't pleasant but you'll have to get used to it. You have a bunch of worthless hangers-on sucking you dry."
"I'd get rid of all the deadwood. Your dressmaker, your production manager, your accountant. Milt Cohen is just the start."
She knows he's right. But Milt had been her lawyer for the past five years, and she trusted him. Yet like the others Joe mentioned, she couldn't keep him on permanent retainer. Rather than accept this change, Milt resigned instead. His telegram made her cringe. REGRET YOUR ATTITUDE EXCEEDINGLY. It hasn't been easy, carrying out the changes Joe suggested. But what else could she do? She was nearly broke, and Henri isn't in a position to help. A title sounds nice, but being a marquise doesn't pay the bills. And the bills! They kept piling up, so high it felt like she'd never dig out.
"There it is," he says, nodding toward a huge building. "The Royal Poinciana."
The enormous wooden hotel, painted a vivid lemon yellow, extends some six stories above the palm and pine trees that surround it. It seems to stretch across the land like a giant who has decided to take a nap. Hotel? By the looks of it, an entire army could stay here. No wonder Joe likes it so much: it is bold and brash and rich, just like he is.
They pull into the long driveway that leads them through a grove of coconut palms. It takes several minutes to reach the front entrance, so vast are the hotel grounds, every inch perfectly manicured. Finally Gloria can see what awaits: a crowd of bellhops and other uniformed personnel has gathered on the stairs of a grandiose front colonnade that resembles something out of ancient Athens, except bigger. Much bigger.
"Everybody in Palm Beach is lining up to meet you," he tells her, his voice lilting like an excited Irish lad. "It'll be the same way tonight down in Miami. Remember that party the chamber of commerce is throwing in your honor?"
"Do I have to go?"
"They're paying you a thousand bucks to smile and wave."
A thousand bucks to smile, when so many toil away just to put bread on the table. She'll never forget how magical it was to open her first pay envelope as a professional actress: $3.25 for an hour's work for Essanay Studios. It was a wedding scene. Gloria brought a bouquet of flowers to the picture's star, Gerda Holmes. Then the director yelled "That's it!" and it was over. Days later the studio hired her as a stock player for twenty bucks a week.
Joe pulls to a stop, and even before Gloria can step out of the car, the hotel manager presents her with a corsage of orchids. She accepts them graciously. But she doesn't particularly care for orchids. They are too delicate and hard to care for. She likes durable plants, the ones that can survive with little water or sunlight.
But she says nothing, because Joe is beaming. The orchids were obviously his idea, and he is quite satisfied with himself. Women should always let men try to make them happy. Sometimes they actually succeed.
In a parking lot of crushed shells, some Seminole Indians have set up a makeshift booth to sell trinkets, mostly bird feathers and raccoon pelts. They stand in impassive silence, wrapped in colorful patchwork blankets, watching the white people pass by.
"Are they the real McCoy?" asks Frank Hearn, trying not to gawk. He's only been in Miami for a few months and some aspects of the city still thrill him. The white sand of the beach. The mansions on Brickell Avenue. The tall hotels along Biscayne Boulevard. It's a city where anything can happen. Like these Seminoles. They wrestle alligators, man against beast as only Florida can offer. That would be a hoot to see. Frank, though, could see only half of it. He wears an eye patch to cover his missing left eye.
"Probably," sniffs Parker Anderson Jr.
"They look real." So much for the small talk. The two men didn't drive out to this dusty corner of northwest Miami on a lark. There's business to take care of. But Frank can't help it. His nerves are jangling and he feels dippy tonight. His feet crunch against the shells as he walks. His throat is parched and he needs a drink. Up ahead is an enormous building four stories high and half a block wide, sitting on a barren swath of undeveloped land. A blue neon sign blazes in the night: palmetto jai alai fronton. Frank has never seen a jai alai match before. Doesn't know the first thing about the sport, other than you can bet on it.
And that's the problem.
"Jeepers creepers, are you sure about this?" asks Frank, his handsome face twisted in confusion as he glances down at Parker Anderson. Frank stands well over six feet with an athletic build. Parker is almost a foot shorter and is as round as a beach ball. He looks soft but isn't. Parker knows how to play every angle in this city. It just seems like he plays them all at once.
"Sure I'm sure. I told you, it's been in the works for a month. And tonight's the night."
"I hope you're right."
Parker's squeaky voice drops an octave. "This is a sure thing, Frank. I'd never give you a bum steer. These poor spic jai alai players don't make two dimes to rub together. They hate the owner of this place. He treats them like slaves. They want in on this, trust me." Then he chuckles. "You could say I'm doing this out of the goodness of my heart."
"I didn't know you had a heart."
"Maybe not, but I have a brain. And this is on the up-and-up, old boy."
Parker pops a Marmola Diet Tablet into his mouth and starts chewing. He eats those things like candy because he wants to drop fifteen pounds of girth. His pants always seem like they're about to bust open, and his shirttails never stay tucked in. Frank, on the other hand, stays thin from all the scrambling he has to do every day to make a dime in the real estate business. There's barely time to eat, he's been so busy pounding the pavement.
The two men pay their admission of twenty-five cents and proceed in. The lines at the betting windows are short. Overhead, on a large tote board, an urchin is poised on a ladder, wiping away the old odds and scrawling the new ones with white chalk. Most sets of eyes are fixed on the board. Others study programs in anguished silence.
"Let's see." Parker scans the tote board. "The third match just started. The one we want is the fifth. Do you remember what I told you?"
"The play is Garate straight."
Parker nods emphatically. "You got it, old boy."
"Garate straight in the fifth," repeats Frank slowly, as if he doesn't believe the sound of his own voice.
"Mack!" Parker waves over to another young man, one of his college buddies most likely. There are legions of them, and most are cut from the same cloth as Parker: friendly, pampered, jovial. This Mack turns out to be no different than the others, a quick smile and slicked-back hair. Frank cuts out after the introductions are made. His throat is parched and he could use a drink of something.
A nice-looking doll hands him a bottle of what looks like beer. Frank drops a dollar bill on the counter. She smiles at him and he tells her to keep the change.
"It's my lucky day," he grins, always glad to leave a nice tip. There might be plenty more nice tips in his future--if Parker Anderson isn't cheesing him, that is. Word is that the fix is on in the fifth, and those in the know will stand to rake it in. Frank can see on the tote board that Garate is currently listed at six to one. Not bad odds, and a $300 bet will turn into a nice clump of kale. But those three hundred bones in Frank's pocket, that's all he's got.
Out of the corner of his good eye he can see Parker guffawing and backslapping with his old chum. He's got a smile nothing can wipe away. Happy-go-lucky, that's Parker Anderson Jr. But is this jai alai match really in the bag? Frank has seen Parker lose his shirt at the Hialeah racetrack, putting his faith on dope that turned out to be bunk. Every man has a weakness, and gambling is Parker's.
Frank drains his beer. The tote board still lists Garate as six to one. Parker is jawing away, merry as ever. Frank sucks on his cheeks, studying Parker carefully. He recalls the things Irene Howard, his fiancee, said about Parker. He's swell and sweet, a good egg from what I can see. Irene is a keen judge of character, mostly. They both liked Parker from the moment they first met him. It was in Italy last spring, on the beach in Rimini. They saw this young American tourist wearing purple espadrilles and a Basque beret, painting watercolors of the Grand Hotel. They got to talking to him, realized he was a good sport, and then the three of them spent a month getting drunk.
Turned out Parker was from Miami. He was a recent college grad having some fun on the Continent, but soon enough he'd be heading back home to get set up in the real estate biz. And that got Frank thinking. After all, real estate was the reason he came to Florida. He was going to make a killing in the Sunshine State. The first city he tried was St. Pete but things didn't go as planned, to say the least. He got mixed up in something stupid and lost his eye and all his money. But he found Irene and two years later there he was, floating through Europe on Irene's dime. Sure, it was swell, but he didn't have a career or even the whiff of one. And he was turning thirty. He was getting antsy, ready to stake his claim in this world.
From the Hardcover edition.