Jimmy Starr began his career in Hollywood in the 1920s, writing the intertitles for silent shorts for producers such as Mack Sennett, the Christie Film Company, and Educational Films Corporation, among others. He also toiled as a gossip and film columnist for the Los Angeles Record in the 1920s and from 1930-1962 for the L.A. Herald-Express.
Starr was also a published author. In the 1940s, he penned a trio of mystery novels, the best known of which, The Corpse Came C.O.D., was made into a movie.
In 1926, Starr authored 365 Nights in Hollywood, a collection of short stories about Hollywood. It was published in a limited edition of 1000, each one signed and numbered by the author, by the David Graham Fischer Corporation, which seems to have been a very small (possibly even a vanity) press.
Here’s “The Whistler” from that 1926 collection—and if you can make sense of this story, we hope you’ll explain it to us.
Sweet strains of melody drifted from the low window of the Breaking Inn, which was directly across from the massive Peerless Pictures Studio. Within the Spanish stucco building could be heard the loud clatter of dishes, and the noisy chatter of many voices, both male and female. Wild squeals of delight were intermingled with deep, coarse guffs of laughter.
The Breaking Inn held exclusive customers who were typical of its title. This was the most popular habitat of the minor-part actors in Hollywood. They always found a joyful crowd there, even if work were slack. Strange philosophies on life were always freely given by the “wise” ones. Gag men and would-be gag men exchanged comedy situations for the mild approval of others. In fact, this home-like eating palace of the film colony was the boiling pot of scandal, the home of conceited players, ambitious climbers and the usual hangers-on.
The brown plastered walls inside had vari-colored designs and held numerous autographed photos of noted actors. Dark brown booths adorned both sides, while in the center were tables seating two and four, with large, heavy chairs. The player-piano and photograph were between the doors of entrance and exit to the kitchen. On the right side near the main entrance were a soda and cigar counter. The place was spotlessly clean.
A rather stout, white-haired, pleasant-faced woman of fifty stood behind the cash register, counting the luncheon checks. She was known as Mother Miller to all in Hollywood.
Serry Shaw, comedy actress, fingered the piano deftly, playing a new popular waltz, and Mother Miller hummed the melody.
There were probably two dozen young couples standing near the piano. Others lounged carelessly in chairs, smoking and talking.
Suddenly the screen door slammed, and a tall, handsome young man of about twenty-five entered, whistling. He was clothed in a perfect-fitting tweed suit, expensively tailored. A soft collegian hat was pulled down rakishly on one side. He continued to whistle as he sauntered over to the soda fountain, unabashed by the many eyes which were upon him.
Not a person in the place had ever seen him before, yet he seemed completely at home. He turned toward them after he had ordered and smiled easily, displaying two rows of white, shining teeth. His face was bronzed as an ardent golfer’s, his brown eyes sparkled like one who seldom dissipated and his chin showed determination.
His new admirers returned to their former pastime. Serry began a new tune. This time is was one of rapid tempo—a saxophone player’s idea of music, modernly called jazz.
And the young man at the fountain began to whistle again, between spoonfuls of ice cream soda. He carried the the crashing air harmoniously.
“Do you play?” someone asked him, when he had finished his drink.
“A little,” he answered, in a well-modulated voice.
Serry moved to one side of the piano bench. He saw what was expected of him and sat down. He smiled at Serry, gratefully.
“What would you like to hear?” he asked calmly.
“Anything,” came the answer from many, who were carefully examining his immaculate attire.
His fingers ran lightly over the keys, testing the tone and foot pedals.
He began with a tune unfamiliar to them, and whistled to his own accompaniment.
Fully a minute or two must have passed unnoticed, for when he stopped there was absolutely silence; then the wild storm of genuine applause that is music to the ears of every entertainer.
This blase crowd of studio workers were transfixed with wonderment at what they had just heard. Never before had they been given an opportunity to hear such perfect rhythm.
Again he turned to smile at Serry, and then at those in back of him. They returned his smile spontaneously.
Then came a cyclone of questions.
“Where do you play?”
“I don’t usually—in public,” he answered.
“Aren’t you with some show?”
“what do you do, then?”
He avoided this question.
“What is your name?”
He passed this one on too.
“Will you play us another piece?”
He answered by turning again to the piano and playing another number unknown to them.
Within half an hour and without introduction he had become the idol of all in the restaurant. The feminine glances cast him would have made any screen sheik turn green with envy, but apparently he cared nothing for them.
He glanced at his platinum watch.
“Sorry, friends, but I must leave now. If you are here tomorrow I might possibly see you.’
As he reached the door, Serry called to him:
“Can’t you get back tonight? We’ll all be here. We’d like to have you so much,” she pleaded, smiling a delicious smile with lips that fairly dripped with shining redness.
He stopped, the door half open, and hesitated before replying:
“I might. I’d like to. I like you—very much.” With that he was gone.
He had not said this in an awkward manner, but it had sounded as if his thoughts had been muddled. Many pondered over his last remark, especially Serry, who already held in her heart a mild infatuation for him.
“Isn’t he the handsomest thing!” exclaimed Helene Vann, a small-part actress.
Many of her sex voiced the same belief. Some of the boys who were less conceited than the others also agreed.
Dave Nichols, one of the Peerless casting directors, entered with a much-too-large cigar thrust carelessly in the side of his tobacco-stained mouth. He was a chap far too young to look well with one of Havana’s products in his face.
He greeted them with a sneering “Hello,” which was, despite the sneer, received with cheerfulness. Their nonchalant air was part of the game. They had to appear brave and diplomatic before the person whom their jobs depended upon.
“Did you see the new leading man as you came in, Dave?” asked one of the men.
Dave said he had not and appeared uninterested. His questioner persisted:
“Don’t know who he is, but he’s much better looking than Rodney Rolton. Good chance to make some money on a new ‘find’.”
“Can he act?” asked Dave, gulping down a pinkish fountain concoction.
“He’s got a good camera face,” continued the man.
“That’s all that’s necessary.” Dave proceeded to light a cigarette.
“Nowadays,” supplemented his companion.
Serry broke up the happy throng.
“Got to beat it back on the set,” she sang to them, as she tripped gayly through the door, waving.
As she passed through the massive stone archway, leading into the studio, she threw the old gateman a kiss, and glanced up at the large gilt letters over the archway, which read:
“Peerless Pictures Studio, Inc.”
“Al Levy, President.”
“Al Levy, President.”
Serry’s thoughts then turned to the unknown man who had just recently wandered into Breaking Inn. Perhaps she was just a tiny bit in love with him. She didn’t know just what it was, but she had a vision of his handsome, smiling face before her. She wondered. . . .
Where had he come from? Who was he? Why had he come? Why did he always whistle? And why was there an air of boredom, or was it sadness, about him? Serry had a great many things to think over during the afternoon. Would he come back that night?
The greenish-blue rays of the Cooper-Hewitt lights greeted her as she entered the large enclosed stage. The set represented the lobby of a country hotel. She detested hick comedies, but still, she sighed, one did have to make a living. . . .
“Whereya been?” asked the cameraman, who was sitting on an unused lamp box.
“Over to the Inn,” she replied, flopping down beside him and extracting the cigarette from his stained fingers for her own use.
“There was a ‘phone call for you.”
“When?” she asked, rather surprised, not being able to remember anyone who would call her at work.
“Just before you bounced in.”
“Know who it was?”
One of the assistants handed her a penciled note.
“Pardon, Billy,” she said, reading the note. He nodded.
The note was nothing but a number for her to call.
Not recognizing the number, she hesitated before going over to the ‘phone booth in the corner of the stage, now hidden by sets to be used by other companies.
Finally she got her party.
“Did someone there leave a call for Miss Shaw?” she asked.
“Yes, this is the party,” came a masculine voice.
“What was it you wanted?” she inquired, trying hard to recall the tone of the voice.
“This is The Whistler—I met you this afternoon at The Breaking Inn.”
“The Whistler?” she repeated.
“Yes, the chap who played the piano for—“
“Oh, yes!” Immediately she was all ears; her eyes brightened; her heart beat faster; she was nervous; her hand shook as she held the receiver.
“You were kind enough to ask me to return to your little food palace this evening, but I’m afraid I shall be unable to come.”
Serry’s tone changed to one of deep regret.
“Oh, I’m so sorry!—we wanted you so much.”
“That’s very kind of you, and I am sorry, too, but I am almost sure I shan’t be able to come.”
Suddenly Serry realized a strong desire to see him that night. Should she ask him to her little bungalow? Would he think it a bit bold?
“Well,” she hesitated— “If you find you have nothing to do, won’t you come over to my home?” The last had been said in confused jumble, as she was overly anxious for him to answer.
No answer came.
“Hello,” she exclaimed, thinking he had left the ‘phone.
“Yes, I should very much like to come,” he said slowly. “If you will give me your address I promise to do my best.”
Serry repeated her address twice to be sure he had heard correctly.
Afterwards she hoped she had not sounded like some schoolgirl making a date with her first beau. But she did want to see him. Strange, she was affected this way. It has never happened before. In fact, men played a very small part in her life. That is, they had, until he had come.
“The Whistler,” so that’s what he calls himself. This unusual title added to his attraction. Had he some deep mysterious past he wished to forget, of was he just eccentric? She fancied many things as she strolled slowly back to the set, where the boredom of producing comedies to make others laugh was in progress.
Serry, frivolous creature that she was, longed to do great things. She had entered the “movie game” hoping to be a great star of emotional roles. She had started at the very bottom a year before—and there she had remained. Rising from a mere comedy leading lady to even small parts in dramatic films was a hard, tedious climb.
Her thoughts of The Whistler were interrupted by the director’s call.
“All right, Serry, let’s have a close-up of you and Sid here on the stairway.”
She glanced hastily into a large mirror, dabbed her tiny nose with a large fluffy puff and took her place beside the comedian on the rickety stairway.
The scene was soon finished, but then came many others; of her walking down the stairway, displaying her shapely ankles, running to the clerk at the desk excitedly, registering disappointment and then anger. It was nearly six-thirty when she had finished.
The sun had just disappeared behind the Hollywood hills. A wan, blue dusk remained—inviting the poet to fancy strange shadows playing among the drooping pepper trees along the boulevard. The Whistler, clad in white flannels, sports shoes, dark blue coat, white shirt, gaudy tie and straw hat set at rakish angle, strolled slowly down the street. Some whom he passed turned and peered after him, wondering just who was the handsome man.
He breathed deeply of the pleasant atmosphere. His thoughts were varied and rather congested. Had Serry affected him in any way? That could hardly be possible, he assured himself; women held no powers over him. He remained completely immune to all feminine lures and temptations. A strange man, a strange man indeed. . . .
He stopped at a cigar store to ask directions to the street Serry had given him. Unfortunately, he had walked a block too far. He retraced his steps and turned to the right at the corner.
The number was not difficult to find. Serry lived in a court of bungalows and each number was illuminated.
The Whistler mounted two brick steps and tapped the English knocker lightly. It was a charming bungalow. A bit of pleasant crudeness moulded by a modern American architect for exotic design.
Serry opened the heavy hinged door, gayly, her eyes sparkling a delighted greeting. She wore a dainty crepe of white embroidered with brilliant silks. Her hair was fluffed winsomely.
“Oh, I’m so glad you were able to come!” she exclaimed, taking his hat and following him into the large room, which was tastefully appointed.
“I’m glad, too,” he murmured, waiting for her to be seated.
“Here, sit by me on the divan. That is—unless you prefer the other chair.”
The Whistler did not prefer the other chair.
“Did you have a hard day’s work?” he asked.
“Not so very. You know I like my work immensely. In fact, the more I work, the happier I am!”
“A lovely disposition to have.”
“Still, it’s awfully sad, or rather discouraging—sometimes,” she said slowly in a mournful tone.
“I want to be a great actress. I want the world—its people—to love me—like I love them. I want them to feel like I do, I want them to laugh when I do, I want them to cry and feel sad when I do. I guess . . . I want them to be just like me.”
The Whistler laughed silently. Serry looked into his eyes to see if he were making fun of her.
“It must be nice to feel like that—to have a wish so great. I hope, for your sake, that it does come true. It will probably will.”
“Why do you think so?”
“You are a very strange girl, Serry, and it is the different people in this world who usually do the greatest things.”
“You are not very ordinary yourself.”
“You think so?”
She nodded, lighting a match for the cigarette he was holding. She moved the ash-tray a bit closer to him.
“Why?” he asked in a nonchalant tone.
Seery hesitated at first.
“Why, in the first place, you have thus far remained incognito. Your name is unknown, your past is hidden, your future is uncertain.”
“What makes you think my future is uncertain?” The Whistler was startled and amused by her last statement.
“I am not as dumb as I look. You are a thinker.”
“Great thinkers seldom know their future.”
“Go on!” He was very much interested in her now.
“I believe it’s because they think very little of themselves. Of course, some may, but not you. You, to yourself, are very little.”
“Where did you learn character analysis?”
“I read a lot,” she said simply.
“What do you read?”
“A bit of Shaw, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Byron, D. H. Lawrence, Hecht, Sherwood Anderson and Gourmont.”
He was thinking deeply again.
“Are you disappointed?” she ventured.
“Not in the least; I am amazed.”
“You have read them?” Her eyes were very earnest.
“Yes, and many more.”
“I thought so. What do you think of them?”
The Whistler waited long before answering.
“Nothing at all,” finally.
Serry was startled beyond words.
“Is it very hard to get into pictures?” he asked suddenly.
Serry was disappointed that he had so disinterestedly dropped her favorite subject, which she had little chance to discuss. There were few, that she knew, who could intelligently carry on a conversation of the literary geniuses, past and present.
She had hoped . . . oh, well.
“I don’t think it would be hard for you to get in.” This was dry. She pouted a bit.
“Then I shall work tomorrow.”
“You certainly have a lot of confidence in yourself.”
Serry was beginning to hate The Whistler. Why, she didn’t know, unless it was his sudden change of manner.
“Conceit never hurts anyone.” She hoped he would start another argument.
He did not answer.
Serry went back to her frivolous pose.
“There might be some work on the Jackson set tomorrow. I think they are doing a ballroom scene. Of course, there will be a lot of extras needed. Have you ever put on make-up?”
“I want a part. I want to make love on the screen.”
“Ah, another sheik!” she squealed sarcastically.
The Whistler straitened up and leaned over for another match.
Then he spoke:
“My one ambition is to be a star—a real one. There are so many half-witted men on the screen now—I am not half-witted. I shall be a star!”
The last was said spiritedly. He was so confident. Serry half believed that he would win. People like that startled Hollywood; made the entire village open its eyes wide and gaze in amazement. People like The Whistler played hell with the old timers.
Serry laughed to herself. He was kidding—just saying foolish things to amuse her. No, he could never be a real star. He was too great an artist now. He had brains—he wouldn’t be foolish, no. . . .
“You don’t believe me, do you?” he interrupted her thoughts.
Serry glanced suddenly across the room. She felt like laughing. He was a fool after all.
Then with all seriousness:
“No and yes. I do believe you—and I don’t. I think you are a great entertainer. It is natural. Your ‘line’ is like your playing—you are marvelous. No, I have decided, you shall never be a real star.”
“Sorry, Fontenelle wrote something I can’t get out of my mind. You remind me of it.”
“He once said, ‘A beautiful woman is the hell of the soul, the purgatory of the purse and the paradise of the eyes’.”
“Why should I remind you of that?” Serry asked.
“A strange thing has come over me. I love you!”
Serry gave a tiny gasp, she closed her eyes tight.
“Don’t,” she cried, moving to the far end of the divan.
The Whistler did not move. He gazed ahead unseeingly.
“I’m sorry if I have offended you,” he said, finally, in a strained voice.
“Why did—you say—that?” she pleaded brokenly.
“I meant it, I guess. I do things like that sometimes. But, Serry dear, this is the first time I have ever told anyone I loved them.”
Serry’s brain was in a whirl. She could not collect her thoughts. Of course it was not the first time anyone had said they loved her—far from it. But it was the way The Whistler had said it—he meant it. Her womanly instinct told her that.
She could not say she loved him, and yet she was unable to say she did not. It was all too sudden. She must have time to think. Still, she knew that would make it worse.
The Whistler had gone for his hat. He stood waiting—waiting.
She must say something. Her lips moved, but no sound came forth.
At the slam of the door she jumped. Her eyes had been closed. Was he angry? No, that couldn’t be it. He would come back—if what he said was true.
“Oh—” Serry burst into tears, throwing herself down upon the divan, her tiny form shaking with sobs.
The Whistler hurried down the street until he came upon the boulevard. The bright lights of the street annoyed him. He wanted to be alone, and everything was so—so sort of jazzed up, he thought.
Finally he came to a dark street. The warm air was perfumed with the scent of honeysuckle, and wild roses intermingled with the spirited odor of pepper and eucalyptus trees. He slackened his pace as he passed two young people walking slowly arm in arm muttering sweet love nothings.
The street ended abruptly in the side of a hill, where board steps led to a real estate tract newly opened. The Whistler sat down on these. Here he could see all of Hollywood and the western part of Los Angeles. Thousands of lights gleamed like tiny fireflies.
The Whistler shut his eyes tight. He wanted to be away from it all. He hated the rush of streets and avenues below him. If only Serry were here. . . . Perhaps he could make her believe.
He sat for hours—until a cool wind reminded him it was late.
At six o’clock the next morning The Whistler reached a pajama-coated arm out of the door of Serry’s bungalow and grasped the morning paper. When his arm was extended, it showed plainly that he had on one of Serry’s silk embroidered pajamas.
Serry hurried off to the studio at seven-thirty, leaving The Whistler at the door thrilled with the passionate tinge of her parting kiss.
He stood watching her fleeing form with longing eyes. He closed the door slowly after she had waved to him at the corner.
The Whistler spent the entire morning searching through her personal belongings. At the end of his four-hour survey of the house, he was none the wiser. He had read letters by the score and personal thoughts jotted down here and there by the dozen. Yet there was something missing. He had peered into every crevice, he thought.
He sat humped over in a straight-back chair thinking deeply. His eyes wandered over the room. Ah, the vase on the mantle remained untouched.
He leaped toward the mantle, hand outstretched, clutching the vase. It slipped from his grasp and fell to the floor crashing to small bits. He knelt hastily, brushing the china away.
In The Whistler’s hand was a tiny package of tissue paper browned with age and tied with a small faded pink ribbon. He sat on the floor unwrapping the package carefully.
“Oh, God! She had remembered! She had remembered all these years. God! What a wonderful woman!”
Tears streamed down his face and his mouth quivered, as he held a small ring. The silver was worn off, and the imitation diamond was loose in its black setting. He handled this carefully, and after gazing upon it for a long time, he placed it back in the tissue as he had found it.
The Whistler wore a different expression as he swept up the broken china vase. It was an expression of a man who had suddenly gained success. He gloated in his happiness.
After he had arranged everything in its original place, he sat down at the small desk, drew out a sheet of paper and proceeded to write.
An hour passed and he was still at the desk He had written only a page, but he had pondered over every word. His thoughts had raced away with him. He read the note over.
This completed, The Whistler departed after a longing look around the room. He had left the note standing against the inkstand on the desk. Anyone entering the room would see it upon the first glance.
He walked briskly down the boulevard wearing a broad, happy smile. He felt like shaking hands with everyone, but those he passed were total strangers. He nodded, however, to two or three who appeared as though they wanted to speak.
His entrance at Breaking Inn was without ceremony, except for the stares of those who had seen him the day before. His eyes searched for Serry, but were unrewarded. He sat at the soda fountain.
Practically the same people were hanging around, talking as loudly as possible and of the same subjects they had discussed the day before. The Whistler listened, hoped to hear something about Serry.
Two girls and a young chap in make-up had persuaded him to play for them again. As his hands caressed the keys, a blanket of silence smothered out the rambling conversation.
It was in the midst of his second piece that Serry made her entrance. The Whistler had not turned his head, but instinct told him of her presence.
He did not turn until he had finished the piece. The applause was loud and boisterous. He nodded his thanks, smiling.
“Hello,” greeted Serry, coming over to him. “When did you arrive?”
“Just a few moments ago,” he answered, holding her hand.
Some of the girls whispered and cast envious glances toward Serry, who appeared immune to all.
He arose, taking his hat from a nearby chair. Serry stood watching him in wonderment.
Leaving her abruptly he walked to the door.
Turning, so as to face all, he said:
“I am very sorry, but I must leave you all. You have been very kind to me, and I hope some day that I may be able to show my appreciation. I think it will be soon.”
He stopped to look at Serry, who was standing very still with wide eyes.
“The Whistler is saying farewell to all of you. When I return—if I do, maybe some of you will learn my true identity. I am sorry I cannot tell you know, but that is impossible.”
Serry held our her hands, muttered something and dropped to the floor.
All eyes were on her for an instant and then to the door. The Whistler was gone.
When Serry opened her eyes she was in her own home in her own bed. Two of the girls from the Inn were bathing her head with cold cloths and rubbing her hands and arms. One of them handed her the note left by The Whistler.
“Dearest Serry:“Now you know who I am. I know who you are. I have found the ring. Thank God for that. After these years of separation, we have found each other—and both of us kept our promise. You will understand, dear, why I have left. You were wonderful last night not to expose yourself when you saw your locket on my watch-chain. But your eyes told me, dear, so that is why I searched for the ring this morning.“To think, sweetheart, that after eight long years away from each other, testing our faith, love should bring us back together again.“I have thanked God for keeping you, for guarding over you and making you such a wonderful woman.“Darling, I have a confession to make. You will remember my declaration that I would become a real star? I have succeeded! Most triumphantly. Several evenings ago I was asked to play at a certain producer’s home. So, you see, I was not making idle boasts after all. His wife was very charming—but her soul, a glass house well-lighted. After I had rendered several numbers, I boldly broached the subject of playing in pictures. She called her husband in—and after a severe argument (and the woman won as usual) I was granted a long-term agreement to be featured in several large productions. You will find the contrat in this envelope. The signatures are missing. I have cast them to the winds. I shall not be a real star, as you term it—but you must admit that I gained my ambition. The politics of Hollywood are horrible, and I am a poor politician, to say the least. I have proved to myself many things.“One is that I love you—love you most devotedly.“I shall tell you all later . . . .“I bid you sweet adieu—for just seventeen days.“THE WHISTLER.”