With his father, oilman C.E. Whitney,
at their home in Los Angeles.


Rebecca and the Strip

By William W. Whitney

In 1940 I had been working at the Raymond & Raymond Gallery in New York, and was transferred to their gallery on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. The Strip at that time was an area of two to three blocks of shops, art galleries and nightclubs, all one-story structures recently built in a style one might call set-designer Colonial. They were all painted white. It was the white-set era in films. A white baby grand piano in the living room was a must. White was in.

The Strip had a certain very definite glamour. Located there were Ciro's and the Macombo, the elegant nightclub-restaurants favored by Hollywood luminaries and therefore constantly mentioned in national and international press coverage of the Hollywood scene. Adjacent to the Macombo, Adrian opened a small exclusive boutique. William Haines, a major star whose film career was terminated for refusing to play the studio game, reinvented himself as a successful interior designer and, in one of the most handsome buildings on the Strip, presided over a fine antique store. Near Haines was the studio and shop of Allen Adler, whose handcrafted original designs of flatware and other silver items are now in museums and much sought by collectors.

There were two other smaller, more intimate nightclubs on the Strip: The Gala and The International. The International was owned and managed by a rather forbidding short, rotund woman with a prominent nose who definitely did not offer a welcoming presence to her club. Consequently, she was known as "Tess the international mess" or "Tess, the nose that everyone knows." In spite of Tess, the club was a success. The draw was Johnny, a tall, blonde, extremely handsome young man in white tie and tails who sang beautifully -- and was actually a lesbian.

Although I never entered the Macombo or Ciro's, I did go to The Gala several times. It was a small, intimate club. The structure had been a typical modest stucco bungalow of the 20s, situated about a half block up the hill from the Strip. The interior was painted a bright red and over the bar hung a red and white striped awning. It was a spot favored by Dietrich. The entertainment was light years from the deafening over-amplified blast of a nightclub today. It was intimate and, when the singer performed, hushed. The Gala was intimate by necessity because the place was small. The tables were about the size of a large platter, and a couple or single was often seated with others. It thus so happened that Veronica Lake, a minor star of the time, and her current companion were seated at my table. I was fascinated by the manner in which she negotiated her drink while avoiding the long drop of her straight blonde hair that completely covered her right eye.

The Gala was owned and managed by a man and wife team and the husband, accompanied by a piano, provided the sole entertainment. He had a cultivated voice, not a great voice, used no mike and in a confiding manner, as if directed only to you, he sang. His repertoire consisted of popular German and French songs, plus the lesser-known gems of the Broadway greats: Porter, Berlin, Rodgers, etc. When he sang you could hear a pin drop. It was a spell of enchantment.

*

It was a quiet afternoon on the Strip and there were no viewers in the Raymond & Raymond Gallery. In walked Joan Fontaine.

Her recent acclaim as the star of Rebecca had already given her an assured presence far different from the shy ingenue portrayed in the film. She had her eye on a painting displayed in the window. She bought it and asked if it could be delivered the following day. I assured her it could, since I would be the deliverer.

The next day about 5 p.m., after closing the gallery, I went to Fontaine's home in Beverly Hills with the painting. The maid let me in and told me Miss Fontaine would be home shortly. She asked me to wait in the living room and returned to the kitchen where she was preparing the evening meal.

Soon Fontaine's husband, the distinguished English actor Brian Ahern, entered. He told me to take the painting upstairs and leave it in the master bedroom at the head of the stairs and proceeded to another part of the house. I got to the bedroom and sat for a moment, with the heavy painting resting against my knee, deliberating on where to place it.

Just then Joan Fontaine returned home, came directly upstairs and as she entered the bedroom cried out in alarm: "What is that strange man doing in my bedroom!?" She ran downstairs, where Ahern calmed her and explained my presence. I made a hasty and apologetic exit under her still indignant gaze.

-- excerpted from William Whitney's final article, published the week he died in The Sophisticate, the journal of the Art Deco Society


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