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  • Published: 30 April 2024
  • ISBN: 9781761345449
  • Imprint: Michael Joseph
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 352
  • RRP: $34.99

The Studio Girls


3 October 1955

I can’t get the sound of the camera shutter out of my mind.

Have I done the right thing?

Think about the rent.

It started innocently enough, with me in my swimsuit by the pool. Danny has always been a gentleman in the past, so I wasn’t worried. Besides, the money was too good to turn down.

The first few shots were of me lounging in my bathing suit, dangling my feet in the pool. But then he moved on to the real reason I was there.

‘That’s lovely, honey.’ Click. ‘Drop the beachball.’ Click. ‘Turn to face the pool and look back at me.’ Click, click. ‘Good! Stay like that, but unfasten the top of your bathing suit.’ Click, click, click. ‘Attagirl. Now let it fall.’ Click, click, click, click. ‘Turn to face me.’ Click, click . . . CLICK!

Think about the dress.

‘Do I have to show my face?’

He shrugged. ‘Men don’t just want tits and ass. They want a pretty face. But you could wear a wig if you like. And we could play around with sunglasses for some of the shots. Besides, my client is in Europe. No one here will ever see the pictures.’

What other choice did I have?

I hope Danny’s true to his word. The movie studios are quite uptight about their stars. I don’t want to lose a part once I’m famous because of these silly photos.

And I WILL be famous! Mark my words.


27 December 1999

Breakfast at Sal’s Diner on a Monday feels odd. It’s not our regular day, but with Christmas falling on Saturday this year, we’ve had to reschedule.

Julia had suggested giving the whole thing a miss this week and I’d agreed. ‘Fine by me. We’ll see each other at the Studio Club reunion on Tuesday anyway.’

But Peggy wouldn’t hear of it. ‘We won’t get a chance to talk properly at the reunion. Besides, I’m sure we’ll all need to debrief after Christmas.’ So here we are.

Peggy waves as I wend my way to our regular table, and I make an exaggerated ‘O’ with my mouth to demonstrate my shock at her punc­tuality. Peggy used to be the most reliable of us all, but these days she has a lot on her plate – too much, if you ask me. Between shooting her long-running TV show At Home with Peggy Carmichael, her church commitments, the charities she runs and her ever-demanding daughter, it’s a miracle she finds time to squeeze in a weekly catch-up with her two oldest friends.

She rolls her eyes at my expression and stands so she can greet me with a kiss. ‘Don’t look at me like that, Sadie.’

Even dressed casually, Peggy is the epitome of style. Her thick blonde hair is smoothed back into a low ponytail, and she’s wearing designer jeans and a white T-shirt topped with a fashionable (and no doubt expensive) coral linen blazer. Personally, I favour comfort over fashion, but today’s outfit – a mustard-coloured velour tracksuit with sneakers – is a particularly poor effort. The fleeting look of distaste on Peggy’s face confirms this ensemble is one that should be reserved for early-morning dog walks only.

‘I can’t believe you’re the first to arrive,’ I say, as Peggy sits and I slide into the opposite side of the booth.

‘I couldn’t wait to get out of the house. Harmony and the kids are still at my place. She arrived on Christmas Eve and announced that she and Jett had split. She’s moving back home.’

‘Again?’ I fish in my handbag for my glasses so I can read the specials menu.

‘Yes, again.’ Peggy sighs as she watches me perch the specs on the end of my nose. ‘I don’t know why you bother with those. You don’t need to read the menu. You always order the same thing.’

‘The specials change weekly, and I like to make an informed choice.’

Peggy’s expression reveals her scepticism at my explanation, but she doesn’t argue. ‘Right. Anything good on there?’

‘You’d be able to see for yourself if you put on your reading glasses.’

‘Touché. But they make me look like an old granny.’

‘You are a granny.’

She pokes out her tongue and we both laugh.

‘So how long do you think you’ll have Harmony for?’

‘Who knows? I honestly don’t want to think about it. Let’s talk about you instead. How did you survive the holidays?’

‘Fine,’ I say, not wanting to go into detail about my sister’s visit from New York. ‘Hannah was the same as ever.’ I have had a turbulent relation­ship with my only sibling since our teens, but age has mellowed us and for the past ten years – since my Gianni died – Hannah has insisted that we spend Christmas Day together.

Peggy knows what I mean without me having to explain. She’s heard it all before. ‘You saw Angela and her family, though?’

I smile. ‘Yes, on Christmas Eve. That was wonderful, as always.’

Every year Gianni’s sister, Angela, and her husband, Gabe, open their home to a seemingly endless stream of relatives and friends, who arrive carrying trays of lasagne and cannelloni. Gabe, beer in hand, tends to the pork spit roast in the yard while Angela brings out platter after platter of appetisers. The abundance of good food and wine and effervescent company is always bittersweet. I’m glad to be counted as family by these beautiful people, but being with them always makes Gianni’s absence palpable. It breaks my heart that his nieces and nephew call me Zia, but the youngest of them can’t remember their Zio Gianni.

Peggy nods and, perhaps sensing my melancholy, changes the topic. ‘I hope Julia won’t be too much longer. I have news I’m dying to tell you.’

Before I can ask her what sort of news, Joe appears with a pot of coffee and pours us both a cup. ‘Would you like to order yet, ladies, or are you waiting for Miss Newman to join you?’

‘We’ll wait, Joe, thanks. Julia will be along any minute,’ Peggy says, and then, as if summoned by the mention of her name, Julia sweeps into the diner, breathlessly spouting her apologies as she makes her way to the table.

‘Darlings, I’m so sorry,’ she says. ‘Tony called just as I was about to leave and I simply couldn’t get away. You know what he’s like.’

‘Coffee, Miss Newman?’ Joe asks.

Julia bestows her most charming smile on him. ‘Goodness, Joe, am I ever going to convince you to call me Julia? “Miss Newman” makes me feel so old.’

Joe blushes. He has had a crush on Julia from the day he started working here, and she can’t seem to stop herself from fanning the flames. The fact that Julia is old enough to be his mother doesn’t seem to bother either of them. To be fair, Julia looks damn fine for sixty-five.

Obviously she has good genes, because while Peggy spends a fortune on maintaining her looks – having her hair coloured and styled and booking herself in for ‘spa treatments’ (otherwise known as cosmetic surgery) – Julia is ageing naturally. Her shoulder-length hair is a glossy grey, a colour not that far removed from the ash-blonde she sported in her youth. The crinkly laugh lines around her eyes and a somewhat crepey neck are the only real signs that she’s entered her senior years. In a turtleneck and sunglasses she could easily pass for forty-five or younger. Even now, years after she filmed her last movie, she still deports herself like the star she used to be.

Once upon a time, Julia Newman was one of the most recognis­able faces in Hollywood, but her onscreen career was short lived. After making ten movies in under a decade she gave it all up to start her own production company in the 1960s, which has now grown to be one of the biggest studios in America. Her face might not be gracing our screens anymore, but as one of the richest and most powerful women in Holly­wood, she’s as much of a public figure as she ever was.

Peggy shuffles over and Julia takes a seat beside her. ‘Coffee would be great,’ she says. ‘Thank you, Joe.’ She looks at him with doe eyes and he scurries off to the kitchen.

‘Didn’t you just spend Christmas with Tony?’ Peggy asks. ‘Haven’t you had enough of each other? More to the point, isn’t his wife sick of you?’

Julia laughs. ‘She doesn’t mind. She knows there’s nothing romantic between us. Besides, he was calling to talk business.’

As far as ex-husbands go, I’m willing to bet that there’s not a nicer one than Tony. He and Julia have been divorced for many years now, but they spend nearly every holiday together and talk on the phone most days. To the outside world this probably seems strange, but it’s not that surprising, really. Their marriage was never a traditional one. It was a union based on mutual need rather than love. Julia used to say that was the secret to their success. Her vision combined with his business acumen – and a timely injection of funds courtesy of Tony’s wealthy family – were the building blocks that took Jeweltone from a niche production company back in the 1960s to the behemoth it is today. Although they have long been divorced, the business keeps them intimately connected, and they’re still the best of friends.

I cock an eyebrow. ‘What business were you discussing? Anything exciting?’

‘Unfortunately not. Can you believe I’ve been offered a role in a sitcom? As a grandmother, for heaven’s sake!’ Julia screws up her nose.

I look at her incredulously. ‘How on earth did that come about?’

‘Tony, god love him. I was complaining about missing the more creative side of filmmaking. I was talking about directing, of course, but Tony misinterpreted my words and put out feelers for acting roles.’ Her cheeks flush pink and she takes a sip of water.

‘Doesn’t matter how you got the role, it’s still exciting to be cast,’ Peggy says. ‘Congratulations!’

‘Good grief, I’m not going to take the job.’

‘Why not?’ Peggy’s tone is defensive. After all these years and all her success, Peggy is still sensitive about the fact that Julia was a bona fide movie star, whereas her fame came through roles on the small screen.

‘It’s humiliating enough that Tony went about begging people to cast me, but this being the only role on offer is downright mortifying.’

Peggy opens her mouth to argue but I nudge her under the table with my foot and she has the good sense to close it again.

Julia throws up her hands in frustration. ‘It’s insulting, that’s what it is. I mean, not that I was looking for an acting gig, but if I was, I wouldn’t want to play someone’s grandmother. Why is it that women our age are never the main character? We’re always an add-on – someone’s mother or wife, never someone’s lover. And god forbid an old crone like me be cast as the lead. There are no major roles for women in their sixties.’

‘You’re the head of a studio,’ I say. ‘Can’t you do something about that?’

‘Believe me, I’m trying, but I’m only one voice at Jeweltone. And, to be honest with you, there’s a lack of great scripts – at least great commer­cial scripts. It’s hard to get a project over the line if the team can’t see how we’d make money out of it.’ She looks at me. ‘You should write some­thing for us, Sadie. I could produce and direct. We could cast Peggy as the lead.’

‘That would be great,’ Peggy says. Her eyes flash with excitement. ‘Wouldn’t it be a blast to all work together again? Just imagine the fun we could have.’

Julia claps her hands and beams, clearly pleased with herself for coming up with this suggestion, but it’s not something I can get on board with, even hypothetically. Best to be up-front about it. ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t do that.’

Peggy frowns. ‘But—’

I raise my hand and motion for her to stop. ‘No. Let’s not go there. I’m not a writer anymore. Can we please change the subject?’

Peggy looks like she wants to argue the point, but eventually she says, ‘Okay, okay. I think it’s a shame, that’s all.’

Always the peacemaker, Julia redirects the conversation. ‘What’s your gossip, Peg? I’m dying to know.’

Peggy leans forward, resting her elbows on the table, beckoning Julia and me to come closer. ‘Oh, girls,’ she says, her voice almost a whisper. ‘I can’t believe this. I have news about tomorrow night’s reunion.’

Before she can elaborate further, Joe arrives with Julia’s coffee and asks if we’re ready to order. We’re creatures of habit. Peggy has waffles, Julia has an egg-white omelette and I order two eggs, sunny side up, bacon, toast and a hashbrown. Just as she does every week, Julia comments that I am so lucky to be able to eat what I want without gaining weight.

‘Good grief, Julia, you’ve been saying that since we were girls sharing meals together at the club, and for decades I’ve been telling you the same thing: stop worrying about your weight. You are gorgeous. A few extra pounds won’t change that. At our age, we need to embrace who we are.’

Julia looks embarrassed. ‘I know you’re right. It’s habit, I guess, after all those years of being forced to diet by the studio.’

‘Jules, seriously, eat a donut every now and then, would you? It’s not a crime, and besides, they’re delicious.’

She laughs. ‘So I hear.’

Peggy seems keen to move on. ‘Do you remember Babs, from the club?’

Julia nods. ‘Of course. She’s one of the reunion organisers, isn’t she?’

‘She’s on the committee,’ Peggy says. ‘And she’s also on the board of my Books for Kids charity. We had a book drive before Christmas and Babs called me this morning to give me the final figures.’

‘Right,’ Julia says, glancing towards the kitchen. ‘I hope our food won’t be long. I’m starving.’

‘Julia, listen!’ Peggy snaps. ‘Babs said she’d just looked at the RSVPs for tomorrow night and that the turnout was excellent. And then she told me something I could hardly believe. Girls, you’ll never guess who’s coming to the reunion.’

Goosebumps rise on my skin despite the warmth of the room. I suddenly know what Peggy is about to say.

Peggy pauses, her eyes darting from me to Julia and back again before she finally announces, ‘Vivienne Lockhart!’

I let out an involuntary gasp but say nothing. I have no words to express the mix of emotions I’m experiencing.

Julia’s mouth tightens. ‘Are you sure?’

‘Who knows if she’ll actually go through with it, but she’s replied to say she’s coming. Frankly, I’m shocked that the committee was able to find her. No one has heard from her for years.’ She turns to me. ‘You haven’t been in touch with her, have you, Sadie? I mean, if she was going to contact anyone it would be you.’

I shake my head. All four of us were close back in our Studio Club days. Vivienne and I were roommates, and she was more like a sister than a friend to me. I tried my best to stay in touch with her after she left Hollywood. Not that Julia and Peggy know that. At the time of her depar­ture, Vivienne was persona non grata as far as they were concerned. We exchanged letters and even spoke on the phone occasionally at first, but after a while Vivienne stopped writing and I lost track of where she was. It’s been decades since we communicated.

She was on the cusp of being a star back in the 1950s, so none of us could believe it when she suddenly left Hollywood. She’d worked so hard to be taken seriously as an actress, and I thought – we all thought – she would let nothing stand in the way of her success. Being her roommate, I knew her better than the others and maybe that’s why I still have a place in my heart for Vivienne.

‘I don’t think I can be in the same room as that woman,’ Julia says. ‘Maybe I won’t go.’

‘Oh, Jules.’ I reach across the table and take her hand. ‘There will be more than a hundred people at the function. Even if she does come, you don’t have to talk to her. In a crowd like that, she’ll be easy to avoid. You’ve been looking forward to tomorrow night for ages. And with the old place up for sale, this might be the last chance we get to spend time there. Don’t let this news stop you from coming.’

There’s a look of grim determination on Peggy’s face. ‘That woman’s caused enough heartache. Vivienne Lockhart can’t be allowed to spoil our reunion too.’

The Studio Girls Lisa Ireland

The Studio Girls is a sumptuous, nostalgic journey back to the glamorous Golden Age of cinema and the intoxicating world of Tinseltown, where nothing is quite what it seems . . .

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