Friday evening at 7:40PM Natalie’s little VW bug came to a screeching halt at the curb in front of Gil’s apartment building on Alvarado. Gil, who had been pacing the floor nervously since about 6:45, was already dressed in his aforementioned suit, duly cleaned and pressed. Upon hearing three sharp blasts of an automobile horn he hurried to the window and looked out, immediately recognizing Natalie’s car. Frantically getting himself together and feeling in his pockets for necessary items, he bustled out of the building, in his haste barely remembering to lock up. As he half jogged down the walkway towards the car, his unfamiliar highly polished oxfords clicked loudly on the cement. Upon reaching the car he opened the door and folded his frame into the passenger seat.
“Well,” remarked Natalie, “look at you!” Then she broke off, realizing that she was doing just that. Slipping into one of her many voice impressions she continued in a lighter vein, and with her best Bogie voice, “Ya look great, kid. Let’s do the town.” She leaned over toward him and winked. “Did ya bring the dough like I told ya?” “Yes,” Gil replied, unfazed by her affectation as he was beginning to get used to her playful attitude. “I went to the bank today,” he continued, attempting nonchalance, “and took out a couple hundred. “That should see us through the evening, don’t you think?”
He could see she was impressed but trying not to show it. As she started the car and began to pull away from the curb into traffic, he studied her with his developing director’s eye. He had noticed that she was often wont to use these vocal affectations as, he thought, some kind of defense mechanism, but for what he was unable to determine. He then looked at her in a different way, objectively studying her face and body instead of her mind. Her small thin face with its prominent and sharp pointed chin bespoke more of Margaret Hamilton than of Anne-Margaret. Her thin rather boyish figure, however, was not unattractive to him, as he admired her energy and her quick and deliberate movements. She seemed to him to be incapable of performing a graceless move. This led him unaccountably back into the recesses of her mind (for are not all born directors born psychologists?). He thought he glimpsed behind her playful facade and flippant manner a kind of grim determination. This is a woman, he thought, who knows what she wants. The only thing stopping her, he surmised, was that she hadn’t found it yet. Immediately a picture formed in his mind, probably due to the number of wildlife documentaries he had done, of her as a big game hunter stalking through the heart of an African jungle, ignoring the lesser animals in search of the big game—lions, tigers, and that sort of thing.
Suddenly he realized that his name was being called.
“You’re awfully quiet, Gil,” Natalie was saying in a subdued voice. “Is anything the matter?”
Wrenching himself out of his reverie with some effort he replied, “Just a little nervous I guess. I’ve never been to a real fancy Hollywood restaurant before.” Then he said more hesitantly, “Truthfully I’ve never been with a girl—woman,” he corrected himself, “since my college days. And that was just to the student union or a drive-in or something.”
Natalie gave a little laugh and then to reassure him said, “Hey Gil, don’t worry. We’ll have fun. This is your celebration after all. I’m just honored to be picked to go along for the ride.” By this time they were tooling down Beverly and within a few minutes were nearing the venerable Chasen’s restaurant in fabulous Beverly Hills.
Pulling up to the curb, Natalie got out of the car and handed the keys to the valet parking attendant who had appeared seemingly out of nowhere as they arrived. Gil, looking calmer and more relieved, was even able to bring himself to smile and take Natalie’s arm as they entered the restaurant.
Upon entering Gil looked around somewhat dazzled by the crowd of luminaries, a few of which he was already starting to recognize. A tap on his shoulder from Natalie regained his attention as she pointed to a podium to the right of the entrance, behind which stood a suave looking gentleman in tuxedo, neatly trimmed mustache and short oily slicked back hair.
“That’s the maître d’,” hissed Natalie. “Let’s go check on our reservations.”
As Gil with Natalie still on his arm approached the oily little man, the aforesaid personage looked up from his reservation book and said with bland disinterest, “Yes, sir?”
Gil managed to stammer out, “Uh, we have… reservations for eight?”
The maître d’s expression did not change. “The name?” he prompted.
“…Hall. Gil Hall,” he replied, taking only a few seconds to remember his name.
The maître d’ frowned and made a great show of studying the reservation book intently for about fifteen seconds while Gil began to turn noticeably paler. Finally he looked up again and said with the same lack of interest, “Oh yes. Hall. Party of two.” He glanced over his shoulder at a dimly lit booth in a far corner of the room where a busboy was energetically clearing away the implements of destruction (apparently left by the last diners) onto a small wheeled cart. Then the man turned his head back to Gil and said briskly, “As you can see, we’re quite busy tonight. There will be about a fifteen-minute wait.” He turned slightly to indicate a smaller area of the room directly behind him. “If you would care to wait in the bar, someone will notify you when your table is ready.” He then closed the reservation book, indicating that their audience was at an end.
Speechlessly Gil nodded his head rather too energetically, but was saved by Natalie’s tug on his arm and he followed her in the direction of the bar.
“Stop looking stupid,” Natalie advised him, “and get me a vodka collins.”
The bar it seemed was more crowded even than the rest of the restaurant, and Gil had to shout his order at the harried bartender over several customers who were standing between him and the bar. After several minutes of shouting Gil finally got the bartender’s brief attention. “A vodka collins and—and—and—” He suddenly realized that he had no idea what he wanted to drink.
Again Natalie came to his rescue. “Make it two,” she said with surprising imperiousness.
Immediately the bartender turned and scurried away, coming back within a minute or two with their drinks which he set on the bar saying, “Seven-fifty, sir.”
Gil stretched his long arm over the shoulders of the standees and placed a ten on the bar mumbling, “Keep the change,” to which the bartender merely nodded his head and grabbed the bill. He handed Natalie’s drink to her before picking up his own. There was no place to sit, so they contented themselves with standing just behind the crowd at the bar where there was a good vantage point to do some people watching.
“Look over there,” said Natalie casually, as if she was used to dropping in for a quick drink after work.
“Where?” said Gil, a little startled.
“Over there. At that booth on your far right. Do you know who that is?”
“No,” said Gil. “Tell me.”
“That’s Mary Tyler Moore!”
“No kidding?” Gil craned his neck in the direction Natalie was pointing to get a better look. “Wow!” he said. “She looks older than she does on TV.”
Natalie gave a catty little giggle. “That’s Hollywood makeup magic for you,” she remarked.
Gil was already looking in the other direction. “Say,” he whispered almost reverently. “That guy with the bald head. Is that Telly Savalas?”
“Yeah. ‘Who loves ya, baby?'” Natalie mimicked.
By this time they still had not been notified that their table was ready. So Natalie, having run out of celebrities to mention, brightly remarked, “Say Gil, I’ll bet you don’t know what Chasen’s is most famous for. I’ll give you a hint,” she continued as his puzzled expression showed that he hadn’t a clue. “It’s not even on their menu.”
Gil literally scratched his head. “I have no idea,” he admitted. “Tell me.”
Natalie made a big show of speaking to him in a confidential whisper. “It’s chili,” she breathed.
“Chili!?” Gil scoffed with amazement. “You mean that bowl of spicy beans and hamburger that they serve at every greasy spoon in town for a buck or less? Believe me,” he continued ruefully, “I know what I’m talking about here.”
Natalie was not taken aback by his reaction. “Well,” she said, “yes and no. It is chili, but this is a special chili. It’s so special that some of the biggest stars in Hollywood even get their chauffeurs to come here and deliver it to them personally. And,” she said disdainfully, “their chili isn’t made with just any old cheap hamburger meat. It’s made with choice beef chuck and tender pork shoulder.”
At this Gil’s mouth was beginning to water in spite of himself. “You’re right,” he agreed. “That does sound pretty fantastic.”
“Plus,” Natalie told him, “they serve it in big bowls on an even bigger plate. But here’s the best part. The bowl is surrounded by little cups of toppings so that you can add as little or as much of each thing to your chili. Let me see,” she thought, “there’s chopped onions, grated cheddar cheese, sour cream, and…maybe some other stuff. I really don’t remember.”
“Wow,” said Gil, “I’ve never heard of that kind of chili before. But,” he said more seriously, “I didn’t come here to eat chili no matter how great it sounds. I want a big steak!”
At this Natalie patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry big boy, if you’ve got the dough, they’ve got the meat.”
By this time they had both drained their drinks and a uniformed waiter was tapping Gil on the arm. “Hall, party of two?” the waiter asked. And as Gil nodded his head the waiter continued, “This way to your table, sir,” and strode briskly out of the bar. Natalie, once again grabbing Gil’s arm, made haste to follow the waiter, her little legs nearly breaking into a trot as she did so. As for Gil, he was having a hard time keeping his attention on following the waiter as they threaded their way through the packed dining room. His country upbringing and subsequent LA greasy spoon experiences had not prepared him for the elegance that was Chasen’s. The walls he noticed were covered by rich dark hardwood paneling, while the spacious comfortable looking booths were upholstered in deep red leather. The tables were laid with pristine white linen tablecloths and the luminaries that occupied the booths in the center of the room were attired in fine looking suits and designer dresses and were all laughing and talking as if their lavish and expensive meals constituted a bacchanalian revel.
Soon Gil and Natalie were seated in the far corner booth that the maître d’ had indicated, and menus as large and thick as The New Yorker were placed in front of them. The lighting was dim, but fortunately there was a small lamp in the center of their table which Gil switched on.
After a few minutes of perusal Gil looked up over his menu at Natalie and said hesitantly, “So…what looks good to you?”
“I’m about hungry enough to eat a horse,” Natalie replied brightly and quickly. “How about the Porterhouse for two?”
“That sounds good,” said Gil with a gulp, noting the price on the menu. “Baked potato or French fries?”
They settled on baked for Natalie and French fries for Gil and within another minute or two Natalie had talked him into ordering a couple of large house salads, a shrimp cocktail for each of them, and was hinting at him severely that he ought to do something about getting a wine list.
Gil surreptitiously patted his bulging billfold for reassurance, then began glancing around nervously, hoping to spot a waiter.
Noticing his feeble efforts with impatience, Natalie put her finger to her lips and emitted a sharp whistle that would have shamed a construction worker, bringing a startled waiter to an abrupt halt in front of their table. She glanced at him briefly. “A wine list if you don’t mind,” she told him with careless ease. “And when you bring that, we’re ready to order.” Then she turned to Gil, batted her eyes provocatively and said in a much more girlish voice, “That okay with you, Mr. Hall?”
As Gil mumbled his assent the waiter, evidently impressed, quickly scurried off to do her bidding, returning a scant thirty seconds later with a padded leather wine list in one hand and pen and order book in the other. As Natalie scanned the wine list Gil managed to give the waiter their orders without stammering too many times.
“Very good, sir,” the waiter said neutrally. “And how would you like that Porterhouse?”
By way of reply Gil looked at Natalie rather helplessly and, catching his eye, she turned again to the waiter and said, “Oh, just throw it on the grill long enough to warm it up. We’ll take it from there.”
“That would be rare then?” the waiter asked in confirmation.
“You betcha!” Natalie affirmed. “And oh, bring us a large bottle of your best California cabernet.”
The waiter took the wine list from Natalie with a reverent light in his eyes. “Allow me to recommend the Buena Vista ’68. Very reasonably priced, I might add, at only twenty-five dollars a bottle.”
“Sounds good,” said Natalie without blinking an eye, although Gil found it necessary to once again bury his head in the open menu.
The waiter then took Natalie’s menu and, after managing to pry Gil’s from his trembling fingers, hurried away to place their orders. When he was gone Natalie winked at Gil. “Some fun, eh?” she remarked lightly. Then more seriously, “Gil, if you’re going to make it as a top-flight director in this town, you’ve really got to cut out the country boy stuff. If you don’t act like a big shot, like you really know what you’re doing, nobody in this town is going to pay attention to you, let alone trust you with their multi-million dollar projects.”
Gil look abashed and mumbled something about not being used to living like this.
“I know,” she reassured him kindly patting his hand. “This is why we’ll consider this a sort of test run. Once you get established we can do this every week, and lunch on Wednesdays if you want.”
Gil didn’t reply but looked at her worshipfully. Now slightly embarrassed herself, she avoided his gaze by turning her head from side to side furtively scanning the room. “Hey, look over there.”
“Where?” Gil said.
“In the second booth to your left,” said Natalie pointing with her chin so she wouldn’t be noticed. “I think that’s Nicholson over there. The lighting is so dim I can’t be for certain. What do you think?”
Gil craned his neck a little too obviously but she let it pass. “Looks like him,” Gil confirmed. Then, “I wonder who that gorgeous chick with him is.”
Natalie squinted in their direction. “Once again, it’s hard to tell. But I think it’s that no-talent Lee Radziwill.” She leaned toward Gil and whispered in his ear, “When God was passing out brains she thought he was saying braids and said she didn’t want any.”
This miraculously caused Gil to give a slight chuckle. He was beginning to relax a little now that the ordeal with the waiter was over and he had mentally reassured himself that Natalie’s extravagance wasn’t going to break the bank.
She’s right, he thought. If I ever want to amount to anything in this town, I’ve gotta act like I belong.
Encouraged by Gil’s reaction to her little joke, Natalie stood up and waved in the direction of the booth in question and said in a loud but pleasant voice, “Hey, Jack!”
The man looked up and gave a tentative do-I-know-you wave back.
Throwing all her chips into the pot, Natalie got up and walked briskly towards the booth, leaving a dumbfounded Gil to stare after her. He had barely time to shut his mouth before Natalie returned with a man in tow who was obviously Jack Nicholson. As they approached and Natalie reseated herself, he followed suit and plopped himself down beside her on the outer portion of the booth saying, “Mind if I take a load off?” Then he leered at Natalie and continued in his patented drawl. “Well, well, if it isn’t the lovely Natalie Fine. How’s old Rod Gorman these days?”
“Pretty good,” she said.
Nicholson looked at Gil for the first time. “Who’s your young friend?” he said. “You two having a romantic evening, or are you just babysitting?”
Natalie looked at him severely. “Stop kidding around, Jack,” she said, obviously for Gil’s benefit. “This is Mr. Gil Hall, Hollywood’s hottest new director.”
Gil, still not being able to summon up the power of speech, clumsily reached across the table and hesitantly extended a limp hand in Nicholson’s direction.
Nicholson, continuing to eye him as he would a fish that might be too small to bother with, did not respond for a few seconds until an elbow from Natalie caused him to take Gil’s hand and give it a perfunctory shake. “Well, well,” he said again, “done anything I might have heard of?”
For the umpteenth time in the space of less than an hour Natalie again came to Gil’s aid. “I’ll have you know, Jack,” she said to him in a confiding voice as if she didn’t want anybody else to hear, “Mr. Hall just wrapped a very important prestige documentary for Stupendous Pictures and has a number of other projects in development.”
Nicholson raised an eyebrow. “That so?” he said, now actually looking at Gil as if he might have suddenly been transformed into somebody worthy of notice. He gave Gil a sly grin. “Stupendous Pictures, eh? How is the old devil? I haven’t seen the old son of a bitch since the Thanksgiving party.”
Gil thought maybe he was hallucinating the whole scene and that somehow perversely gave him courage. “Oh, pretty good,” he said. “That was one weird party.”
“Yeah,” said Nicholson. “I dropped in for a while with Hopper and Fonda.”
“Yeah,” Natalie put in quickly. “Mr. Hall and I were at the party.”
“No kidding,” said Nicholson. “Didn’t see you there, but then we spent most of the time out by the pool.” He winked at Gil. “We wanted a little privacy if you know what I mean.”
“Right,” said Gil, now to his surprise feeling almost confident. Could he really be having a normal run-of-the-mill conversation with Jack Nicholson? He thought it might be time to take Natalie’s advice. “I didn’t get out to the pool,” he admitted. “I was kinda busy talking over some things with Ford.”
This time Nicholson raised both eyebrows. “Ford Copley?” he said. The satirical twang in his voice was now gone.
“Sure,” replied Gil. “You know him?”
“Do I know him?” said Nicholson. “I almost got the part of the young don in his latest picture. Unfortunately he opted for Bob. Say,” he said seriously, “these, ah, projects of yours, anything I might be right for?”
Gil was suddenly feeling about six inches taller. He looked over at Natalie, whose expression told him she was with him all the way.
“We haven’t got as far as final script and casting,” Natalie broke in, “but I’m sure Mr. Hall will have his girl give your agent a call if anything looks like it’s gonna be greenlighted.”
“Great!” said Nicholson, sounding genuinely pleased. “I’m with Sandy Bresler, case you didn’t know.” He stood up and extracted a business card from his inside jacket pocket which he handed to Gil. “Here’s his number.” Gil numbly took the card and jammed it into a side pocket of his jacket. “Glad to meet you—Gil, is it?”
Gil shook his hand vigorously. “Right. Gil Hall,” he said as if he actually meant it.
Nicholson gave them both a wink. “Good to see ya again. Ya get more charming every day, Natalie.” He gave a feigned shrug of regret. “Sorry to break this up, but I see your waiter coming with a giant tray and besides,” he looked back over at his booth where a woman was taking short quick puffs on a cigarette with obvious irritation and giving him impatient looks, “I think I’d better get back to old Radzi-Wadsy. She looks like she’s about to have a fit or somethin’. You two lovebirds have a great evening,” was his last remark as he walked back to his table.
Gil heaved a great sigh of relief, to which Natalie responded with a wink and a wide grin. But before either of them had a chance to say anything, the waiter was there unloading a tray that contained their shrimp cocktails, a basket of breadsticks, their bottle of wine, and two long-stemmed wine glasses. These he placed in their proper positions without comment. Then he uncorked the wine and poured a small amount into Gil’s glass.
When Gil looked at him questioningly, Natalie prompted him, “Go on, taste it, dummy. He’s waiting for your approval.”
Gil quickly obeyed, took a small sip and mumbled, “Tastes okay to me.”
This seemed to satisfy the waiter, who then filled both their glasses, then straightened up and said to Gil, “I’ll be back with your main courses in about fifteen minutes, sir, if that’s all right with you.” Gil gave him a nod of assent and the waiter turned and strode hurriedly away.
After he had gone Natalie took a quick look over her shoulder in the direction of Nicholson’s table. Noting that he was busy having an animated conversation with his date who looked none too pleased, Natalie turned back to Gil, leaned over her cocktail and said, “Congratulations Gil, I’m proud of you.”
Gil blushed and stammered, “Well, thanks.” Then he added, “I don’t know what possessed me to say that about Ford Copley. I mean, I’ve never even been introduced to him.”
“Nonsense,” replied Natalie. “You do what you have to do in this business in order to get noticed. Now see, Nicholson thinks you’re an up and coming director. Within a few days that’s going to be a topic of conversation all over Hollywood. This town runs on gossip, you know, and people here like nothing better than to think they’re in the know about the next hot young actor, director, whatever.”
Gil looked a bit relieved and pointedly studied his wine before taking another cautious sip. Natalie, apparently satisfied, said nothing further but grabbed a breadstick and then dug into her cocktail with gusto, alternately taking a mouthful of shrimp and a bite of her breadstick. Gil watched her for a few seconds, fascinated, then followed suit. A scant few minutes later they had both finished their cocktails and Natalie resumed the conversation.
“You know, Gil,” she said thoughtfully, as if she had just come to some decision, “I think you just might have what it takes to succeed in this town. So, like the man says on TV, tell you what I’m gonna do.” Again she lowered her voice and leaned across the table toward him. “I’ve got a bulging Rolodex in Gorman’s office I don’t know what to do with. But the names in that Rolodex read like a Who’s Who of the most famous producers, directors and actors in Hollywood. Also, I have a pretty good idea of what many of them are looking for. What I’m saying, I guess, is that I’d love to be your, well, sort of agent, you know, see if I can get you work.” She grinned and tried to make light of it. “I promise not to charge you more than ten percent.” Then she said more seriously, “With your permission, of course. Now, what do you say to that?”
This time Gil took a large swallow of his wine before replying, “Ah, I don’t know what to say, Natalie. I guess I need all the help I can get. Thanks.”
She nodded her head. “Okay then, it’s settled. But you’ve got to do something for me in return.”
Puzzled, Gil nonetheless said, “Sure. Anything I can do.”
“Well, it’s this way,” she said, and a kind of soft unfocused look came into her eyes, as if she was seeing something that wasn’t there or remembering something that she hadn’t thought of for awhile. “I’ve got a stack of unsold screenplays almost literally in the trunk, as they say. If you could help me, you know, tell me what you think is wrong with them, why I haven’t had any takers, I’d appreciate it.”
“Sure,” Gil replied again. “Be glad to. But I have to tell you, I’m no writer.”
“That’s just the point,” she said earnestly. “I’m the writer, and I’ve got a feeling that one of my problems is I’m a little too, well, writerly, if you know what I mean. But you, you’re a director. You probably see things differently than I do.”
“I don’t know about that,” he said, attempting modesty but failing. “But I’ll be glad to read them and tell you what I think.”
“That’s all I ask,” said Natalie and she spoke no further, because she noticed their waiter returning with a busboy in tow. As the busboy collected the cocktail glasses and the breadbasket, the waiter placed before them two huge plates, a large bowl of the house salad, and a large platter containing a gigantic Porterhouse steak. Handing the now-empty tray to the departing busboy, he cut two generous portions of the steak, placed one on each of their plates along with the potatoes, refilled their wine glasses from the bottle, and then said simply, “Enjoy your meal,” before turning on his heel and hurrying off at the same speed as before.
Without further ado Natalie grabbed a bottle of A-1 from the condiment rack on their table, dumped a large quantity over her steak and began to attack it much like a lion does a fallen gazelle. Gil watched in fascination for a few moments before reaching for the ketchup bottle and then digging in himself. As he began to eat he had two immediate thoughts: One was that this was quite probably the best meal he’d had in his admittedly sheltered life, and two, My God, where does she put it? By the time he’d taken about two bites of a sampling of everything on his plate, she was nearly through with her piece of steak and was grabbing for the carving knife and fork to cut another. Her only comment was, “Don’t mind, do you, Gil? I’m really starved.”
Gil mumbled something like, “No, no, go right ahead.” Fortunately he found himself perfectly satisfied with the amount of meat that had been set on his plate, for within a surprisingly few minutes Natalie had cleaned most of the meat off the Porterhouse and was now going after the bone. A few minutes later, after having cleaned her plate and belching daintily, she looked up at Gil for the first time since she’d starting eating and said brightly, “How about some dessert?”
Somehow his astonishment at her appetite had relaxed him enough for him to actually catch the attention of his waiter who was standing nearby, and he said, “A couple of dessert menus, please?”
In a few moments the waiter returned with a couple of menus, and a busboy loaded their now finished main courses onto a tray and quickly departed.
They studied the menus for a few minutes while the waiter stood there patiently. Natalie decided on a slice of chocolate cake while Gil opted for his old favorite, apple pie, as well as a pot of strong coffee which they both needed after the wine. As the waiter took the menus away Natalie said, rather humbly he thought, “Thanks for the great meal, Gil.” Hesitantly she reached her right hand across the table toward him and said, “Are we partners then?”
Gil took a deep breath, then before he could think about it grasped her hand firmly, shook it and said, “Deal.” As he released her he continued. “So, when do you want me to take a look at these scripts of yours? I mean, it’s not as if I’m doing anything right now. In fact, with the money I’ve got, I figure I could take a year off. Even two if I’m careful.”
Natalie looked horrified. “That’s the last thing you should do,” she said emphatically. “You’ve got to get out there now while you’re hot because people are gonna hear your name on a lot of lips, if I know Nicholson.” Then her features relaxed. “But about my scripts, I have to tell you, it’s gonna be awhile. You see, next week I’ve gotta go back east. It’s a family thing, you know. Every Christmas Gorman locks up the office for two weeks, so I get a paid vacation. I always go back and spend time with my parents the last two weeks of the year. My father’s in his seventies, you know, retired, and not in very good health. So I don’t want to stand them up now.” She gave a little helpless shrug like, What can you do?
Gil, who had no intention of ever seeing his parents again, nodded. “Sure. I understand. So, when you do get back?”
She gave him a tender look and said, “Tell you what, Gil. If you like, maybe I could get back a few days early and we could spend New Year’s Eve together. Would you like that?” Gil surprised himself by saying, “Yes, Natalie, yes, I would like that a lot.”
“Okay then,” she said and was about to say more, but the waiter was returning with their desserts.
And so after coffee and dessert Gil rose, this time taking Natalie by the arm. He had already asked for and paid the check, leaving a large tip for the waiter. Then they strolled out into the night to reclaim Natalie’s VW.