Part OneThe Summertime Party
The first time we got lost on the way, winding up into the hills, crawling by mailboxes, peering at house numbers, finally spotting the gates by complete accident, the valet practically hiding in the bushes for godssakes. Inside, the host greeted us. He was Toby’s boss and the host of a late-night TV show, and after shaking my hand, he immediately spirited Toby away to an alcove and spoke to him in earnest tones about the day before’s diminished ratings. I moved away and stood awkwardly alone by the bar, trying not to look in the direction of any celebrities, who, it seemed to me, considered it an affront if a layperson so much as glanced at them.
This, I suspected, was why they had gathered in celebrity-only clumps around the house, though I had the sense that their behavior wasn’t particular to this party. There was one such clump on the patio by the pool, just outside the open French doors, where they were all huddled together on several chaise longues: the retired but still beautiful 1970s model, the former Saturday Night Live
cast member, a young movie actor whose cachet, like that of a wealthy fraternity boy, was somehow increased by his being known as an asshole. I made these identifications only after several furtive glances and soon felt I couldn’t risk another, so I spent the rest of the time reading the labels on the bottles of wine sitting on the bar.
Finally Toby reappeared, along with the host, who stuck his hand out to shake mine. “Nice to meet you,” he said slickly, barely looking at me, and when I said out of reflex, “Oh, but we’ve already—” he stopped me and said without a smile, “I’m just kidding.
I was twenty-nine and had only just moved to Hollywood, having met and fallen in love with Toby eight months earlier while he was visiting New York— I’d been in the audience at a comedy club where he was doing stand-up; he’d heckled me from the stage, then come up to me afterward to apologize. This was my first celebrity party. So though it annoyed me that if people spoke to me at all they did it while constantly scanning the room for someone of higher stature to talk to, being annoyed by it was a cliché; it was what everyone
had complained about when I’d asked them what Hollywood was like. And so I moved past it and instead took in the room with a sense of gratitude. This was the kind of party that I had previously only managed to spy on via the pages of InStyle
magazine. I was lucky just to be here, I told myself, and being here was enough.
Toby and I kept mainly to ourselves that night. We spoke only with a few other lowly talk-show writers; Toby was a TV writer, and outside of Hollywood his job monopolized conversations; I was a newspaper reporter with the education beat, an occupation that guaranteed my status here as a nobody. We ate alone at a candlelit table out by the pool, and then we smoked cigarettes on the front patio, eyeing the celebrities as they came and went along the steep front steps.
We left early that night, thanking the host and skittering down the granite steps, bursting with a strange feeling of relief that we were young and undiscovered. But it was Toby’s boss’s party, and this man, possessing an astonishingly mistaken sense of his own permanence in the town, had made it clear that he had a vision—his parties would become Hollywood legends, the town’s hottest tickets. A few months later, another invitation appeared in the mail. And so we went.
“Nice to meet you,” said the host again, but this time it wasn’t a joke, and I just shook his hand and smiled. I drank too much early in the evening so I could get up the nerve to look at the celebrities, and I hid in a corner, talking about elementary schools with the unfamous wife of a famous movie actor. Later Toby came to get me to smoke a cigarette and we stood with a few other writers on the small front patio, listening to the chatter of the guests inside the house. Again I felt the silent rules: the unspectacular people should gather here, should speak only when spoken to. Three months had passed since I’d moved to Hollywood, and I had spent them mainly covering school board meetings for a tiny neighborhood paper in Pacific Palisades. Toby and I had been nesting at home; at night we cooked and watched movies and cuddled on the couch. Now I wondered how Toby fared in this town of secrets that lay so close to the surface. “A four-three seven on a Wednesday night, and the demo’s a three,” I’d heard earlier as I’d passed through the living room. What could it mean? I imagined Hollywood as a brick castle; outsiders circled it looking for a door. Once you knew the password, a trapdoor opened, a magical world revealed. Now I looked at Toby; in his preppy white shirt and khakis, he was so sweet and fresh. The men at this party wore black shirts with black ties. They knew something that Toby didn’t, I thought, but I didn’t know what.
Just then the door to the patio swung open and we looked up, and there was Merv Griffin. He wore a green sport coat and he had a thin brown cigarillo in his hand.
He approached us and Toby offered him a light.
“Thank you,” said Merv, and then he was quiet.
“Did you come to the last one?” I asked him, because no one else said anything. He looked at me. “I did, my dear, and it was just as awful as this one.”
I let out a barking laugh, and he laughed, too.
Then the patio door opened again, and a man stepped out and then a woman. I recognized them immediately. They were a young couple, both pop singers, eccentric, very cool. They were known, but not by the masses; their fans were people who listened to more than Top 40. They had been popular when I was in college. The girl wore a pin-striped ochre suit with an ochre tie, her purposely stringy black hair and nerdy glasses still not able to obscure her beauty; his retro gray suit was reminiscent of flapper days. They were dressed
by Hollywood standards. But they were awkward and self-conscious; they lit their cigarettes and looked at the ground.
Their evident insecurity coupled with my confident afterglow from talking with Merv made me turn and say stupidly, “I guess there’s no chance of getting you guys to sing for us tonight, huh?”
The guy looked at me coolly. “You’re kidding, right?”
I turned away. I was humiliated, my cheeks burned. But then I thought, Well, who the hell are they, really? Washed-up singers. I’ll never see them again anyway.
But later in the evening, when Toby and I took our plates from the buffet and walked up a few steps onto the patio by the pool, looking for a table, there they were, the only ones sitting at a table set for ten.
“Should we?” I whispered to Toby, staring straight ahead.
“Why not,” he said with a shrug.
So we went and sat down with them, leaving a seat between her and me. We introduced ourselves, using first names only, and they did the same: Charlotte and Jack. We somehow began chatting about the high divorce rate among the party guests, which led me to ask if they were married, though of course I knew very well from reading People
that they were—they had married in Hollywood a few years earlier in a suite at the Chateau Marmont; she had worn a blood-red dress. And they began to tell us about their wedding, how his brother (also a famous musician) had brought his horrible children and they had tipped over the cake, and how they therefore strongly advised us— were we to ever marry—not
to invite children to our wedding, at which we all laughed, and Toby said, “At least not your brother’s children,” and then somehow, suddenly, we began to hit it off.
They admitted their suspicion that they were being used—invited to this party just to lend the host a little edge—and they didn’t know why they continued to come, because they didn’t know how to handle themselves with all these mainstream celebrities, and we laughed and Toby said, “Eh, it ain’t that hard,” and I watched with pride how at ease Toby seemed in the conversation—with celebrities!
—and then later, when Merv came up the stairs, looking for a seat, for some reason he took the one in between Charlotte and me, and then he gave Toby and me advice on where to go on an upcoming vacation—The French Riviera will bore you to tears,
he announced; try Italy or Ibiza instead—
and then more celebrities came over and sat down, until the very host himself came with his plate and sat, having decreed ours the best table in the house.
“This ain’t so bad, huh?” Toby leaned over and said to Charlotte and Jack at one point, and winked. And they laughed and I could tell they agreed; they were having fun now, thanks to us.
Later the four of us went inside to the great room, by the grand piano, and we all sat on a couch together, and I was drunk. “How come you don’t have children?” I asked, realizing at once how inappropriate it was but pushing on anyway. They talked about how hard it was being on the road, away from each other, and I admitted that never in my life had I imagined I would be at a party like this.
Then Merv appeared and walked down into the sunken room. He winked at Charlotte and me and then took a seat at the piano. The room quieted. That was the first time Merv played the piano at one of these parties—as he did afterward for several years—and back then, in the early part of 2002, at the beginning of a new century, Merv was so unhip he was hip, and it was seen as a sort of a kitschy coup to have an outdated celebrity perform. It made the night seem special, a treat of a lifetime, something you might tell your grandkids about. It conjured up old Hollywood, everyone pressed into the overflowing and dramatic great room, with its huge dark wood beams and bookshelves, and of old-fashioned, innocent pleasure; he even played “Piano Man” and we all sang along—including Charlotte and Jack. You could look openly around the room at everyone; no one was in the bathroom doing coke or slinking around dark corners talking up starlets.
That was also the night that “Summertime” became a tradition at the party. It all started with Merv at the piano, enjoying his comeback, the room quiet just for him, when an Irish girl—she was almost middle-aged by Hollywood standards, probably in her early thirties, and dowdy, a little heavy, wearing an ill-fitting green taffeta dress—stood up and said, “Merv? Merv? May I sing one?”
No one knew what to do then; there was a feeling that something very distasteful had just occurred, and Merv said, a little rudely, “Darling, do you know who I am?” but that didn’t faze her at all; she stared back at him full on and said, “Come on, love, just one.” And we all stared at him, waiting for his reaction, and then someone booed, and then there came a chorus of boos, and Merv, apparently feeling he had somehow egged the crowd on into this impolite territory and now needed to make up for it, shushed the room and held his hand out gallantly to the girl. “What shall I play?” he asked.
“ ‘Summertime,’ ” she said, and he began to play.
The young asshole movie actor immediately stood up and left the room, making a great show of it. A couple of starlets followed him out. But everyone else stayed.
“Summertiiiiiiime, and the livin’ is eaaaaaaaaaaaasy,” the girl bellowed.
She had a very decent voice, deep and strong, but I was embarrassed for her. My cheeks burned as if I were the one singing; I could barely look at her. And when she finished Merv shook her hand and kissed her cheek and then stepped away from the piano, saying he’d had enough, and then we all blamed the end of Merv’s singing on her.
The four of us headed outside for a cigarette, Charlotte critiquing the girl’s range, and about ten minutes later Merv stepped out, too, and stood with us, smoking his little cigarillo. Charlotte and Jack began to clap for him, their cigarettes dangling from their mouths, and Toby said, “Bravo! You were very gentlemanly.”
“Yes, well done in there, Merv,” I added.
And Merv Griffin looked down at me, as if trying to recall where he had seen me before. “My Genevieve is here,” he said out of nowhere.
And then he looked over his shoulder, down onto the street.
There was a golden Rolls-Royce there, its back window open halfway, and a little white dog had its head out, panting heavily and looking sprightly around.
“Genevieve!” Merv called. “Come here, girl!”
She looked up at him and started to bark, and then a driver stepped out of the front door and opened the back door, and the little dog jumped down from the seat and ran through the open gate and up the steps, breaking two of the little glass candleholders that lined the darkened stairway on the way up. She found Merv and jumped at him, up on his legs. He reached down, picked her up, and said, “Ah, my little Genny.”
That moment to me felt magical, and I suspended the scene in my mind so I could go back and play it again and again like an old movie—Merv’s glance down at the Rolls, the driver slowly stepping out of the car in a crisp white shirt, the little dog bravely jumping up the steep steps, and the reunion shot of little Genevieve jumping into Merv’s arms. In the slow-motion background Charlotte and Jack were laughing at something Toby had just said, and Toby was petting the dog in Merv’s arms, and they were all smiling.
And suddenly the evening inspired a glossy déjà vu, like a lovely and familiar drug, and though I almost refused to acknowledge it, I could feel a nostalgia for the evening already setting in, a longing just for the existence of this night building before my eyes.
But after a while I sensed that Toby was growing tired, and I knew that even though the party was still in full swing—it was perhaps only midnight— soon he would say he wanted to go home. I knew that Toby was not as impressed by celebrity as I was. He worked for a celebrity, after all, wrote his jokes, met the stars who came on his show. “They’re people just like you and me,” he said. He had promised me that I would get used to it, the way he had. And in fact, his confident sense of belonging to this world was part of what had attracted me to him in the first place. But though his shrugging off of fame was appealing, I had a hard time imagining ever doing it myself. And so now when, after a few minutes, Toby yawned and said he wanted to go home, I couldn’t stop myself from feeling resentful. We told Charlotte and Jack we were leaving, and she said we should all get together sometime, and I said by all means we should, and they walked us to the door and we said good-bye.
In the car I didn’t look at Toby as I said softly, “Why would you drag me out of a party like that? When will I ever get to be with people like that again?” Toby looked at me for a while. “Smooch,” he said, using our shared nickname, “she gave me their number.”
“What?” He took a small piece of paper from the inside pocket of his jacket. Charlotte and Jack,
it said, and their phone number. “I gave her ours, too,” he said.
“Jesus,” I said. “Well, we can’t call them.”
“Why not?” he said. “Of course we can.”
“What would we talk about? What would we invite them to?”
But three days later the phone rang and it was Charlotte, inviting us to dinner.
“What?” I said when Toby told me.
“On Thursday night. Pane e Vino, eight p.m.”
“First of all,” I said, “who ever actually goes through with calling other couples when they meet them at parties, even if they do ask for their number?”
“So? We liked them and they liked us.”
“They’re celebrities, for godssakes. Don’t they have enough friends? What do they want with us?” From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Love or Something Like It by Deirdre Shaw. Copyright © 2009 by Deirdre Shaw. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.