When Charlie Chapin moved with a big collection of friends to Montecito some distant bell rang out signaling a kind of carnal shift in the firmament. Consequently, the dialog of the day was an unending speculation on who was listening to the ring and what they where doing at that moment. The headquarters for the group was a charming Mediterranean styled hotel, The Montecito Inn, that Chaplin had created as a first class hideout and pleasure palace. Charlie was experiencing one of the worst years of his life. His hair went from dark to snow white in a matter of months.
The source of his pain was threefold. First his beloved Mother, who was for many years confined with mental illness, was dying and this broke his heart. He and his brother Sydney tried to care for her and always knew she loved them deeply. The brothers had been cruelly separated from her at an early age, an experience that would haunt Chaplin throughout his life. In fact this trauma explained many of his motivations while creating the plots of his films, words of his songs and so much of his tumultuous personal life.
The second painful conflict in Chaplin’s horrendous year was his extraordinarily bitter divorce that ended in record-breaking $825,000 settlement, on top of almost one million dollars in legal costs. This second wife, Lita Grey, was working for Charlie at his Hollywood studio when she was 12 years old. At the age of 15 she was pregnant by him and at 16 they married. Now after only three years they divorced.
At this same time he was tirelessly battling a Federal tax dispute and navigating a heated affair with actress Marion Davies, the lover of William Randolph Hurst, one of the world’s most powerful men.
To complete the suffering genius’s struggle there was his turbulent production of a film called, “The Circus”. Numerous problems and delays had occurred, including a studio fire, badly processed film that ruined the first three months of shooting and the theft of the final reels that were only recently returned. All this and his owing back taxes culminated in film’s release being stalled. It was this agonizing uncertainty that drove the debauchery and excess that played out nightly at the Inn.
Chef Victore called Paco at Diehl’s to place a huge order acting as the new head of the Montecito Inn’s kitchen. He was now liberated from his punishing position working under Chef Pulga at El Mirador. Knowing full well how to produce a complete continental style menu and all the regional Spanish favorites, he was happily in the center of a hurricane that maintained a constant parade of actors, musicians, artists and legendary personalities from all over the world.
“Now please deliver everything as soon as you can. If you only have part of it bring that on. There will be so many parties Paco. You must come tonight. Just find the kitchen door and you know I will be there.” Chef Victore added. “The woman are unbelievable and most of them are wearing very little. Oh and please bring some rum. We can make daiquiris.”
Paco was instantly amused and accordingly made plans for the evening even though in his heart he knew that he and Victore were a dangerous combination. Looking up now toward the storefront he could see a beautiful young woman entering who he recognized from her photos in the newspaper. It was Merna Kennedy, the star of Charlie Chaplin’s new film “The Circus”. Paco remembered the article said she was a dancer with muscular legs and that helped her gain the role of the circus bareback rider. Now he was curious to actually see those legs so he walked purposefully over to Salvador now brilliantly presenting his menu to five stunning starlets and Miss Kennedy at the soda fountain. Paco stood by appearing to be waiting to confirm some information on an order but really he was visually dinning on the exceeding loveliness of the showgirls.
Also excited by the new arrivals, up at the entrance in front of the long glorious produce stand now filled to the brim with finely stacked citrus and perfect specimen vegetables, Quincy and Patrice began a daily routine, a little remnant from their Vaudeville act.
Quincy started, “What did you do with the peaches? And what about the pears? You are so dizzy! You are the dizziest Dame I ever met!”
Then Patrice, “I’m not dizzy, not dizzy at all. You know, I’ve come to the conclusion I’m very, very bright.”
Quincy returned. “Oh, so you made up your mind you are very bright? Tell me, how bright are you?”
Patrice, “Well, you know those crossword puzzles? I make them up.”
Quincy, “That should be interesting. O.K. I want to see it. Make one up. Let’s have it.”
Patrice. “O.K. What starts with W and I don’t know how many letters? What is it?”
Quincy, “It starts with W and you don’t know how many letters? What is it?”
You made that up? You couldn’t have made that up. Somebody must be helping you. (His eyes rolling) Don’t tell me the answer let me think of it. Does it jump? Does it swim? Does it run? I don’t know I give it up.”
Patrice, “Well, men shave with it. That’s a little hint.”
Quincy, “Men shave with it. It starts with W and you don’t know how many letters? Well the only thing I can think of that men shave with is a razor.”
Patrice, “Yes! You got it! That’s it, that’s very good.”
Quincy, “You made that up? I’d brag about that if I were you”, (making a “She’s crazy” sign with his finger).
Patrice, “Yeah, (with a big self satisfied sigh), I have brains. I have brains I haven’t even used yet.”
Quincy, “Well leave them alone. Don’t bother with them. If you had another brain you’d have one. You have brains? You know all the answers and you’re not dizzy? Listen to me little lady. You are plenty dizzy! You look to me like you’re always up in an aero plane. Have you ever gone in one?”
Patrice, “No, no, no I would never go.”
Quincy, “Afraid to go in an aero plane? There’s nothing to be afraid about. You see, the first thing they do when you step into an aero plane is strap a parachute on your shoulder and if anything happens up in the air all you do is you jump out and the parachute opens nicely, and then you land on the ground.”
Patrice, “Well but supposing the parachute doesn’t open nicely?”
Quincy, “Then you just write a letter to the factory and they send you another one.”
This was a popular routine by George Burns and Gracie Allen that always merged into "Do You Believe Me - I Do", a song and dance performance peppered with little interchanges. Quincy and Patrice perfected this enough to go on tour with the Orpheum Circuit Road Show, riding a train that pulled into small towns from New York to California. When it ended in Santa Barbara they disembarked and sat on the beach, arm in arm, with a pile of suitcases, as the sound of the giant engine faded away.
Midway in the song, dancing together all along, Quincy said with an adoring smile, ”You know I think you’re very nice”, and Patrice, twirling lightly, returned, “Yes, and I’m smart too.” The act continued. Quincy snapped, “Oh yes, if you’re so smart name three nuts”, and Patrice answered, “Well walnuts and chestnuts and…forget me nuts.”
Then during more dancing, perfectly in sink, they sang more humorous chitchat that caused the little Diehl’s market audience to be soundly amused. The bevy of showgirls, provocatively perched on soda fountain stools, were giggling and producing vigorous scattered applause at key moments.
Quincy, “What did you take up at school?”
Patrice, “Anything that wasn’t nailed down.”
Quincy, “Your too smart for one girl”
Patrice, “I’m more than one.”
Quincy, “You’re more than one?”
Patrice, “My mother has a picture of me when I was two.”
Quincy, “Do you like to love?” Patrice, “No.”
Quincy, “Like to kiss?” Patrice, “No.”
Quincy, “Well what do you like?”
Patrice, “Lamb chops.”
Quincy, “Lamb chops? Could you eat two big lamb chops alone?”
Patrice, “Oh no not alone, with potatoes I could.”
The act finished with a fancy juggling of oranges. While all this progressed Paco was able to see first hand the noted well muscled legs of Merna Kennedy as he walked over to one of the tables that always accommodated Oren Star, who had just ordered his usual late morning black coffee with an orange-currant scone. He inspected every page in the New York and London Times, reading aloud to whoever was nearby, not really caring if anyone was interested.
Today the entire market stopped to listen as Starr read the endlessly fascinating account of the opening of a fabulous tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. Finding Tutankhamen changed the world as it influenced all manner of fashion, architecture and design. It had been years since Howard Carter, upon making a small opening in the wall that separated him from the first storage room, first walked into the antechamber uttering the famous four words, “I see wonderful things”. A huge dispute with the Egyptian government had kept him away and the entire process halted until now.
Paco passed around the rotogravure section that pictured unbelievable images of golden statues, stunning alabaster urns with inset turquoise, onyx and lapis decorations, clothing articles and most exciting, many exquisite pieces of jewelry. Now the showgirls huddled over the page with the necklace and bracelets picking out the ones they wanted, knowing full well that copies, like everything else from the tomb, would be available very soon.
Esperanza sat on her throne of a cashier’s stand soaking up all the chatter from the Chaplin troupe with only a mild interest in Oren’s reading. She was mostly inspecting her dark red lacquered fingernails and adjusting her blouse to the most alluring position. A shiny braid that wound around her head held three creamy gardenias that scented her entire area.
Walking in from the rear and taking a seat at the table closest to her was the beloved baritone, Fortuno Bona Nova. Small framed but impressive in his distinguished highborn Spanish attire, he caused interest wherever he went. There could not be anyone more interested in him now than Esperanza who had recently announced they were engaged. As their eyes met emitting an almost visible electricity, Esperanza’s perfectly shaped eyebrows arched seductively. Fortuno responded with a sly smile and a swipe of his mustachio, drawing her attention to his dazzling white teeth and moist lips.
So much passion was passing through these two that it captured the attention of everyone. This grand romance was something of a miracle for Esperanza who grew up abnormally tall and seriously overweight, often the brunt of much bullying. Only recently when her elder sister became a beauty consultant for a door-to-door cosmetics company did the big woman bloom. The two traveled to Los Angeles for a special training session where it was discovered that Espe had the perfect face to demonstrate the amazing effect of rouge and mascara with artful shaping of the brows and painting of the lips. On top of this she contracted a very harsh case of the flu that left her pounds lighter and once up and healthy this serendipitous combination made her astoundingly beautiful overnight. Still mystified by the effects her new born appearance had on men, she was understandably fearful inside that Fortuno, a celebrated idol to many, would love her and leave her if she gave in to his desires so when he proposed she fainted.
Just as everyone fell into a blissful state, experiencing the couple’s love and sensuality second hand, there came through the back entrance a well dressed woman in an absurdly ornamented hat that included two stuffed birds and a bouquet of silk violets, with three children in tow. She headed directly to Fortuno and to Esperanza’s horror, kneeled to kiss his feet and whimper, “Tu amor, tu amor, tu amor. Soon the two little girls in matching yellow pinafores and the boy in a sailor suit joined her. They were begging, “Papa, Papa, via en su casa, por favor, por favor”.
Esperanza’s huge luminous eyes were frozen as black tears began to seep down her bright pink cheeks. Salvador, sensing the gravity of the situation, bolted from behind the soda fountain and stood between Espe and the cruel event now unfolding. The baritone, all the while glued to some unknown point on the ceiling, finally stood with a flourish and walked out, with what would later be known as his wife and three children following behind.
Sal and Espe grew up all most next door to each other on the lower East side of the city so he knew her inside and out. He walked over and gently took an arm, escorting her to the ladies Room where she stayed for most of the afternoon. Everyone else moved on with downcast eyes sensing the heaviness of spirit that had just settled like a dark cloud. Paco went back to his order desk and then packed the truck for his final delivery of the day to The Montecito Inn. As he started to leave Salvadore emerged, a distraught Esperanza on his arm, her face looking like a messy artist’s palette with all the fine makeup smeared, marred with lines of dried mascara. Paco just opened the delivery truck door and the two were seated next to him as he drove them home.
Sal and Paco shook their heads watching the big woman hurry to her door. Parking only one house away, they stopped and walked to the big front porch that was filled with aging furniture, toys and some laundry drying on an old hat rack at the end. This was Casa Rodrigez where Salvador, his wife, five children, little brothers, the entire family, four generations in all, lived a rich and spirited life in high style with very modest means. Almost every dinner was chicken with beans and rice and vanilla flan or rice pudding as desert but the tastes were so outrageously delicious and the volatile personalities bouncing off each other with such good humor made life a banquet. Paco wanted to stay but this evening he needed to make his delivery to Chef Victore and stay on for an inside look at Chaplin mania, a subject that had the entire town mesmerized.
Before he left Sal brought out two cold cervezas and they sat together on the porch sinking into an old sofa with serapes covering nearly half a century of wear.
“So Paco, what was that all about when we were kicked off the ship?” Sal asked. “You knew him? And you hate him? Who is he?”
Paco admitted, “He is my Father but I don’t know him. He disappeared when I was born. I didn’t know he was Captain of The Portafortuna. I’m sorry Sal. It was such a nightmare. I’m just worried he will cause trouble. He knows where we live. They say, because of him we are marked for death. He is a gangster. An important part of the Syndicate, you know what I mean? This changes everything for me. I’m always looking over my shoulder to see if I’m being watched. I can never have a woman like you have. And”, picking up a little toy motorcycle that looked like a tiny Indian, “No children for me”.
Now, as two little sons raced by sparring with toy weapons and the splendid Beatrice, Sal’s always pregnant wife, came menacing by, waving a wooden spoon and reeling off threatening curses in Spanish, he turned to Paco and in all confidence said, “you could be lucky?” And then dissolved into a deep peel of laughter that lifted their spirits.
“What happened to you? Sal asked, “The Biltmore party was wild and I saw Louise Hay. We were this close”, demonstrating by touching noses. “I just walked right up to her and bowed in her face. She smiled. It was wonderful. You should have come. There was a big jazz band that played until two. Where did you go anyway?”
Paco was gazing at some distant landscape, “I just went off to the beach and the strangest thing happened. Sal, you know the Clark girl? Huguette? Well I went to the beach to cool off and down the shore a girl came dancing up and grabbed my hand. We walked for a long way and then climbed the steps up to the Cemetery. She sat on the bench near the edge of the cliff and I just talked to her. We walked way down to the big wall covered with vines and I helped her over the top to her own property. It was Huguette Clark, you know, Bellesguardo”.
Sal was scurrying around now chasing one little guy who was attempting to escape with out his clothing and as Paco left he said, “Yeah Buddy, it’s the women who make it all better, chica-chica brother.”
It was nearly six when Paco pulled into the parking rotunda and around to the kitchen entrance of The Montecito Inn. Inside he found Chef Victore butterflying shrimp with two helpers who were chopping tomatoes, tomatillos, onions, cilantro and peppers for salsa. He pointed to a giant basket of avocados and said, “por favor?” Paco took off his fine tailored Diehl’s delivery jacket and rolled up his sleeves, grabbing an apron, and began cutting up the dark leathery skinned fruit making perfect quarter moon slices and drenching them with lemon juice to preserve their buttery green color.
“You are here on the very best night me amigo”, Victore said. “Chaplin is having auditions for his movie. He wants Circus people so if you open that door and peek out you will not believe your eyes! It’s fantastico, magico! Clowns and magicians and beautiful women! It’s incredible and they are all hungry and very thirsty”. He was filling platter after platter as the waiters came through for refills.
True and more as Paco pushed the swinging door to see this sight for himself. The spacious lobby that opened out to a big patio restaurant and garden was filled with a mind-bending array of spectacularly costumed performers. In many cases they had their equally well-dressed animal co-stars. Just in front of him was a magnificent Clown in a billowy white satin suit, a big ruff around his neck. He was dancing with three huge white poodles that were at that moment standing on their back legs and twirling around, all in matching high peeked hats embellished with silver sequins and diamonds. A stately blond woman with pigtails that were wired to stand out, topped with a daisy decorated straw hat, dressed in a revealing little gingham pinafore was comforting her small curly lamb.
The beautiful Merna Kennedy, with those fabulous legs, was far across the room posing on the back of a braided well decorated dapple-grey pony complete with three ostrich plumes on his head. She was a delicious sight as the flash bulbs exploded. Her frilly short tutu displaying silky stockings and pink satin toe shoes that tied far up her legs. Her little horse bucked at the photographer’s lights and she jumped off with surprising grace. The housekeeping staff, standing on the sidelines, was kept very busy with brooms and dustpans, continually cleaning up the mess.
Further on appeared the giant Russian with his famous feline act setting up a tight rope with the help of his chunky little harem girl helper. The cats were waiting; two or three together in cage-like suitcases, for their release that promised nice little dried liver treats after each trick. Paco could see their ears twitch with annoyance as a row of five tap dancers in bathing suits made a huge racket singing, “By the Sea, By the Sea, by the beautiful sea”. And on they went weaving through the crowd.
Passing the audition area with this mind bending collection of performers, Paco teamed with Chef Victore to carry a savory assortment of appetizers and fruit daiquiris to the pool area where a stunning group of nearly naked women were playfully batting around hundreds of pink balloons, now bouncing off the turquoise water that was sudsy and piled high with masses of bubbles. The sight of the drinks compelled a number of the soaked and soapy starlets to leave the pool and circle around Paco and Victore, dripping with excitement. The girls took the drinks, next their trays and then their clothes, with wet kisses, hugging them closely and pulling them willingly into the bubbly soup.
Paco was thick headed and still dazed by the excesses of the night before. As he parked The Indian and removed his leather jacket he felt the card that Wright Ludington had given him at the Gypsy Camp. He propped it up against the lamp base at his desk and eyed it throughout the day. Around three he made the call. A pompous voice answered asking, “Who may I say is calling?” A little unnerved Paco explained that he had been directed to call by Mr. Ludington. “Oh my God, what does he want with you? ” Sounds of disgust and then some muffled shouting, “Just let me do it”. Soon the voice was back, “Allow me to see if the Master is in”. More scuffling and quickly a deep voice that was actually Wright Ludington inquired, ”Who is this please?” After some explanation, Paco had a 5:30 appointment to bring his portfolio and meet with this man he knew had one of the region’s finest art collections. He was so excited that he could think of nothing else for the rest of the day. Even the memory of floating in Charlie Chaplin’s pool filled with pink balloons and playgirls evaporated.