Hollywood, California—February 1, 1922
Preacher Roe had once said, “Ain’t no glory in killing a man—pulling the trigger don’t spare you none from the weight on your soul. So if you got to carry the burden, at least make sure you kill the man dead.”
Good advice that—except, as Buck Parvin could have told him, sometimes the dead come back.
The crowd outside of Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard strained and bulged against the wooden barricades like the ebb and flow of the tide. Several hundred people had converged there tonight, waiting to see the arrivals, hoping to spot a movie favorite or two, and maybe get an autograph or wave from the rich and famous of the screen. Press photographers jockeyed and scrummed for the best positions to shoot pictures from as soon as the first limousine in the line of cars started arriving. There was a feel to the night as if the circus was in town; a palpable sense of electricity and anticipation that gossip columnists would later describe as“like gladiator games in ancient Rome.” Moving picture premieres like this one encouraged voyeuristic abandon, giving leave for the crowd to cheer, applaud and whistle without the need for decorum.
When Buck Parvin and his wife arrived at the ornate theatre, with its open-air forecourt, he got out of the limousine, waved to the crowd and was met by a—polite—response. He turned back to the black Daimler limousine to help his wife out. “Hear that?” he asked her, taking her hand. “They’re wondering who in the hell that fella in the tailored suit is. This wasn’t a good idea. Shoulda at least worn a hat.”
“Everyone knows your face, Buck,” Nattie said as he helped her out of the back seat. “You don’t need a cowboy hat to remind people of who you are.”
“Yeah, but they’re here for Tom Mix, Nattie,” he said, straining to be heard over the noise while taking her arm in his and waving to the crown again. “Him. I don’t think this many even saw my last picture—or the one before that.”
“You’ll get ‘em back with the next one, honey,” Nattie said into his ear and smiled widely as the photographers cornered them, pointing their Speed-O-Graph cameras and setting off a frenzied barrage of shutter clicks and flash bulbs that bathed them in stark white light, hot and blinding. “Relax, will you? Nobody’s asking you to be the center of attention tonight. Enjoy it.”
“Says the lady in the red silk pajamas,” Buck replied sarcastically, nodding in thanks to the boys with the camera as they converged on the next arriving limousine.
“It’s a Japanese kimono and it’s in fashion,” his wife said, adjusting his tie. “ Sessue Hayakawa’s wife wears one everywhere she goes.”
“She’s Japanese. You’re from East Texas.”
She poked him in the ribs before slipping her arm through his and taking his hand. Buck walked her through the gauntlet of onlookers up to the theatre’s entrance manned by usher girls costumed in picturesque Arabian garb. As they opened the doors, he turned back to the crowd for a second and waved one more time. He didn’t hear his name called out once. He wondered how he could have fallen so far—so fast.
The Egyptian’s lobby resembled the interior of a museum, complete with genuine ancient artifacts in glass cases along towering plaster columns stenciled with hieroglyphics. A giant statue of Anubis stood by the doors into the auditorium. It was crowded. Buck look around and noted the faces he knew; waving to Mae Murray and Francis X. Bushman. William Desmond Taylor, the Director General over at the Lasky lot, cut through the throng of movie people to come over and say hello as soon as he spotted kimono-clad Nattie.
“Nattie, darling” he said, giving her a warm embrace. He then turned and shook Buck’s hand. It wasn’t a strong handshake. “Buck…almost didn’t recognize you in the suit and tie—out of uniform, aren’t you?”
“This get up was Nattie’s idea,” Buck said.
“I’m changing his image a bit,” Nattie said to Taylor, who leaned his head forward to hear her over the noisy din in the lobby. “Everyone’s seen Buck do the cowboy thing—I think he can be the Wallace Reid type.”
“Wally can act,” Taylor said.
“I got faith in my husband,” Nattie told him as if she’d had the argument with him before.
“Well, I have faith in you, dear Natalya,” Taylor said with a smile. “And I’m sure you’ll get Buck to do whatever you think he should. Listen, we need to talk about some designs for the next picture—-“
Buck tuned him out. He didn’t appreciate the man’s cracks about his acting or about his wife telling him what to do. Hell, he’d made fifteen pictures—most of them hits. He was no John Barrymore in his acting, but he wasn’t bad, and as for Nattie, she didn’t run his life. He didn’t like William Desmond Taylor much anyway. There was something prissy about him, something too-well mannered—too dandy. Taylor was dressed elegantly in a blue cravat and a dark gray coat with tails. He had a patrician nose and blue eyes. A touch of gray at his temples made him look distinguished and his manner towards others tended towards the paternal. Buck noticed how he held Nattie’s hand as they spoke—the casual possessiveness of it—as if she’d always belong to him no matter whose wedding ring she wore. That was another reason to dislike him.
After another minute or so, Taylor excused himself, saying he had others he wanted to greet. He quickly kissed Nattie on the cheek, and again shook Buck’s hand—his grasp felt like a wet fish. “Look forward to seeing your next picture,” he said, although Buck doubted that western pictures were really of interest to him.
“Yeah, nice to see you, Mr. Taylor,” he said without much friendliness.
Nattie noticed and lit into him as soon as Taylor had gone. “Wish you could be a little more personable around Bill Taylor,” she told with a cross-sounding voice.
Did she want to fight with him right here? Right now? “Nattie, he came over to talk to you, not to me.”
“Be nice to him for me. He likes my designs. You oughta remember that.”
The reprimand in her voice disappeared as soon as Mary Miles Minter appeared. The blonde-haired actress, half Nattie’s height and ten years younger, gave her a strong embrace. Mary was a bonafide moving picture star and was Nattie’s close friend. They acted like sorority sisters at a class reunion. Buck was hard-pressed to understand how they could ever make themselves understood, when they each insisted on talking over each other all of the time.
“Buck,” Mary said with a smile, surveying him in his suit. “You’re looking very handsome tonight.”
“Thanks, Mary,” he told her, appreciating the flattery. “I’m feelin’ a bit naked without the hat and boots on.”
“Well, I think you look wonderful,” Mary said with a smile. “I’d say you make the evening worth it.”
“Whoa. Down girl,” Nattie told her, playfully bumping her with a hip.
Mary bumped her back and said to Buck, “If Nattie here ever dumps you, let me know and I’ll marry you right away.”
Buck thought he might turn ‘aw shucks’ red. He liked her. She was cute and bubbly type, the polar opposite of her grim-faced companion chaperone, an older woman who seemed to disapprove of the goings on right down to the very fiber of her being. The expression on her face was frozen and unmoving.
“Buck, you remember my mother?” Mary said. “Mrs. Shelby?”
“Of course,” Buck said. Mary’s mother regarded him warily. There was a tension to her that reminded him of a coiled rattlesnake.
“How are you Mrs. Shelby?” Nattie asked her in a cordial tone that suggested that she didn’t really like the woman.
Charlotte Shelby, dressed very plainly in a black dress with oversize buttons, and hardly the fountain of enthusiasm, only said, “Fine,” as if it was the only word she need utter.
Buck noticed Mary’s troubled look and discomfort with her mother’s taciturn response. Nattie covered it, asking the girl if she wanted to come over to the house in the morning and see a few designs. That changed the conversation. Mrs. Shelby said nothing. She didn’t have to. Her lemon-puss expression said that she didn’t think highly of any of this.
Buck felt like he needed a smoke before the picture started and told Nattie that he was going to have a cigarette. Buck walked back towards the front doors, reached into his jacket and took out a gold cigarette case. It was a bit of a silly trifle for a man who had once strictly rolled his own cigarettes—Nattie, however, had gifted him with it for his birthday and he’d forced himself to get accustomed to using it. He picked up a cigarette and stuck the case back in his coat.
He struck a match against the wall and lit up. He took a satisfying drag, placing one foot on the low concrete sitting bench. Behind the bench was one of the display cases with a few Egyptian artifacts inside: shards of pottery, a few clay figures that apparently symbolized fertility according to the card in the case and canonic jars—he really wasn’t sure what those were although apparently they had something to do with mummies. Buck caught his own reflection in the glass. Without a cowboy hat and boots, he didn’t look himself at all. He was a man in his fifties with tired, baggy eyes and well-weathered skin tanned by years under the Oklahoma sun. He had the high cheek bones of his Cherokee ancestry and piercing eyes that were a deep gray—almost black. He was tall, well over six foot-three, and wiry. The charcoal-colored suit he wore had come from the most expensive clothing store in Los Angeles and had been tailored to fit his frame. The man in the suit just wasn’t him. The real Buck Parvin was a genuine, honest-to-goodness cowboy, a horse-riding, cattle-driving, lasso-toting cowpoke from way back. He felt like an utter fake.
His new look was Nattie’s idea. Nattie—he adored her. Why couldn’t she accept that she had married a cowboy? She said she saw him as a leading man type—Wallace Reid, the dashing Famous Players star who did action, drama and comedy was the actor she wanted him to be. She’d had a big hand in the production of his last two pictures—more romantic stories than westerns—and they had both flopped abysmally at the box office. In the last picture, The City-Slicker, there had been a scene where he’d played a guitar and sang for the leading lady—the last thing a cowboy would carry on the back of his horse across the Great Plains was a gee-tar. He always pushed for his pictures to be “authentic,” but he had agreed to her suggestions because he loved her and the pictures had been losers. She had told him to give the change a little time, that audiences would accept his new image. Buck, however, didn’t think so, and neither did the studio. First National had informed him that they didn’t want her on the set during filming on his next picture—a true western story, the kind that brought in audiences—he was supposed to be getting the script soon. In fact, they’d made it clear they didn’t want Nattie anywhere around him on the next picture. He hadn’t told her yet. What was the right way to break someone’s heart?
“Lots of cowboys in pictures,” Nattie had told him. She was right about that—and none bigger than Tom Mix. His arrival brought a happy roar of welcome from the crowd in the forecourt. Camera flashes lit up the front of the theatre, turning turned the falling dusk into surrealistic daylight. Buck craned his neck to get a look. Tom walked into the theatre to applause, saluting his friends while also dealing with questions from reporters and photographers beseeching him to, “look over here… this way Tom…just one more!” He gave everyone what they wanted and they ate it up.
Mix wasn’t afraid to wear the white cowboy hat and white boots—well, white everything—when he went out in public. In fact, he never did otherwise. Everything about him said “cowboy”—he was the genuine item— and as showmen went—from his equally-famous horse, Tony, to his fleet of purple sports cars emblazoned with his initials set in diamonds, and his house in the Holmby Hills with its electric roof sign advertising that it was his house—there was no equal a character in Hollywood. He was a show-off from the top of his twenty-gallon hat right down to the tip of his monogrammed leather boots.
Buck was a little envious of him. Mix would pass him in popularity soon enough—if he hadn’t already. They didn’t make the same kind of pictures—Tom’s were full of incredible stunts and comedy and showing the old West as it really had been wasn’t high on Mix’s list. He seemed to be what audiences wanted to see and Buck had a niggling feeling that, just maybe, his times top cowboy had passed.
Mix spotted him standing there and momentarily abandoned the reporters to greet him. “Buck, you old cowpuncher!” he said with a friendly smile, shaking hands with a tight grasp. He was almost a foot shorter than Buck—even with the lifts in his cowboy boots that added a few inche—and a bit soft around the middle, but he acted ten feet tall and able to whip any man alive on sheer confidence alone.
Buck shook his hand and said, “Tom, good to see you again.” Flashbulbs went off in his face.
Tom continued shaking his hand—mostly for the cameras. “Say, a bit underdressed tonight, aren’t you?”
Parvin admired his poise and publicity-savvy. Mix knew how to work a room and he was so goddamn likeable. “Well, Tom,” he replied with sheepish grin. “I didn’t want to show you up.” He brushed the top of Tom’s shoulder—nice suit. “Seeing how it’s your premiere tonight and all.”
Reporters laughed—some noted the exchange on their notepads. “Ho, ho,” Tom said with a laugh. “You know, I saw your last picture. A good one.”
“I’m always happy that people enjoy my pictures,” Buck told him. It was a well-rehearsed response that he’d used for years.
“Alright, boys,” Mix said to the reporters, who waited on him like starving dogs waiting to be tossed a bone. He moved closer to Buck. “Here’s a picture for tomorrow’s front page: two old cowboys who’ve made good.”
The photographers obliged and shot more photos. The barrage of flashbulbs were blinding and they made Buck’s eyes hurt.
One reporter threw out a question to Mix. “So which one of you is the bigger star?”
“Who asked that?” Mix said with a mock scowl and raising a fist. “Fella, if you gotta ask that question, then obviously you don’t know it’s me.”
That got him a laugh. Mix was better with a quick quip.
Another question: “Who’s the better cowboy?”
Mix raised an eyebrow at Buck—don’t answer that.
“Go ahead—it’s your premiere,” Parvin replied with a shrug.
“Six straight rodeo cowboy of the year awards,” Mix said to the reporter. “You do the math. Last question now, fellas.”
Another reporter asked, “Who would win in a gunfight?”
Tom Mix paused, sighed, and then said, “That’s a good one. I’d say ol’ Buck here would get the best of me in that one. He brought Roy Smiley to justice—Smiley was the fastest gun there’s ever been some, people say. But Buck faced him and he was faster.”
“I just got lucky,” Buck said—another line in his usual repertoire. His head was starting to throb from the camera flashes. “Coulda gone the other way.”
Mix generously dismissed that with a wave. “Buck was a lawman. When I was doin’ stunts in the rodeo, he was out there chasing down the bad guys across all of Texas and Oklahoma. This man, gentlemen, is a real cowboy hero and every time I see him, I thank him for being a great American, and shake his hand.”
That was a cue for another photograph. Tom winked, shook Buck’s hand again, and said, “See you inside for the picture. Hope you like it.”
“From what I’ve heard, it’s gone be a big hit,” Buck told him. It was only common courtesy to speak well of another movie star’s new picture—and it would be a big hit, he had no doubt about it.
Tom Mix clapped him on the back, tipped his salute, and departed with his entourage of press people. Buck threw his cigarette down on the floor and crushed it out under his heel. His head hurt and cold sweat trickled down the back of his neck.
Nattie, who had come looking for him, said, “There you are. You know, Tom Mix winked at me as he passed by—and what’s wrong?”
“Head hurts,” Buck told her, massaging his temples. He blinked to clear the tiny dots in his vision, but they refused to go.
He nodded. “Bad enough. Maybe we can just skip the picture, huh? I ain’t up to it now.”
Nattie gave him a sympathetic pat on the face. “Fine by me, cowboy. If that’s you want, we can call for a car and head home.”
Buck told her that might be for the best. All of that talk about Roy Smiley had reminded him of Preacher Roe’s warning and the burden he carried of being Buck Parvin.