Timothy X. Farrell suddenly visualized the opening shot to the film that he had planned to make of Daphne Du Maurier's lush novel Rebecca. He had just pulled into the driveway to Laurel House, set high above the slow-churning Potomac River, and there before him in the icy silver moonlight was the start of his movie had David O. Selznick not outbid him for the movie rights and then hired Alfred Hitchcock, of all people, to direct.
Plainly, a true disaster was now in the making.
Attendants parked cars in front and to the side of the mock-Georgian facade of the house of what would have been his brother-in-law, Blaise Delacroix Sanford, had Timothy and Blaise's half sister, Caroline Sanford, ever had time to get married in those busy years when, together, they had created a film studio that, for a time, nearly changed movie history until . . . What was the name, he wondered, of Olivia De Havilland's sister? The one who was now the lead in Rebecca.
Timothy parked at the front door. He could almost hear what's-her-name's voice over the screen: "Last night I dreamed I had gone back to Manderley"--or whatever the line was. Purest junk, of course. Timothy preferred his own "true to life" Hometown series of movies, but the public was supposed to be more at home with beautiful houses and beautiful people and a dark mystery at the heart of it all; not to mention a great fire that reveals a terrible secret. Even so, he had wanted desperately to direct Rebecca: something un-Farrellesque in every way.
The butler was since his time. "Sir?"
Timothy gave his name. Then: "Is my film crew here?"
The butler was now all attention. "Oh, yes, Mr. Farrell! This is an honor, sir. To meet you. Your camera people are setting up in the library." The drawing room was full of Washington grandees, some elected; some born in place, like Alice Roosevelt Longworth, wearing for once the wrong blue; some newly arrived from abroad now that England and France were at war with Germany. Nevertheless, for an average American like the butler, the defining, the immortalizing presence of The Movies took precedence over everything else. "Shall I show you into the library, sir?"
"No, not yet. I must say hello. . . ."
Timothy had forgotten the rapid lizardlike Washington gaze when someone new enters an important drawing room. Conversations never drop a beat and all attention remains fixed on one's group and yet the newcomer is quickly registered and placed and then set to one side, until needed. The Hollywood stare was far more honest, more like that of the doe frozen in a predator's sight line. Fortunately, Timothy's face was not absolutely familiar to anyone except Frederika Sanford, Blaise's wife, who now moved swiftly through her room filled with guests, many in military uniform, some drably American, some exotically foreign, like the embassy attaches. War or peace? That was the only subject in this famous "city of conversation," or the new phrase that Frederika used when she embraced the brother-in-law that never was: "The whispering gallery has been roaring with the news that you were coming here to make a film."
Frederika was now a somewhat faded version of her original bright blond self. Timothy recalled how Caroline had always preferred her sister-in-law to her half brother Blaise. But then Frederika was a born peacemaker while Blaise liked to wage war, preferably on every front. At the far end of the room he was regrouping his forces beneath a Sargent portrait of his father. Blaise was now stout; mottled of face--had he taken to drink? He looked like one of Timothy's Boston Irish uncles. To the troops attending him, Blaise was laying down the law as befitted the publisher of the Washington Tribune, which was still the Washington newspaper despite the efforts of Cissy Patterson, whose Times-Herald, published in bumpy tandem with William Randolph Hearst, was only just--at last--making a profit.
Cissy was standing beside Blaise. She was almost as red-faced as he, and even across the room, Timothy could hear the growl of her laughter. Cissy was a reluctant supporter of the Roosevelt Administration while Blaise had been, more often than not, a critic of the New Deal. But on September 1, Germany had invaded Poland. Two days later, England and France had declared war on the aggressor; and the New Deal was history. There was now only one issue: should the United States cease to be neutral and help finance England in the war against Germany? Cissy was beginning to revert to her family's isolationist roots; her cousin Bertie McCormick's Chicago Tribune had already declared war on both the President and the British Empire, while her brother, Robert Patterson, creator of the New York Daily News, was, true to the family's Irish heritage, no friend to England. Timothy himself was less provincial than these great Irish publishers, possibly because, unlike the McCormick-Patterson clan, he had been brought up poor enough to have no passionate interest in anything but himself.
"Basically," he heard himself saying to Frederika, "it's got to be a pretty neutral documentary. L. B. Mayer says I have to be fair to all the people who want us in the war and to all the ones who don't. I'm not to offend a single ticket-buyer."
"What do you want?" Frederika's practiced vague stare suddenly focused on Timothy as he took a glass of ginger ale from a passing waiter.
"I'm neutral. Pretty much," he added.
"Like America!" Frederika laughed. "Come say hello to Blaise. He's delighted you're making this film. Just as long as you do it entirely his way."
"He changes from day to day. We've got three thousand English people here in town, all working out of the embassy."
"To get us into the war?"
"Splendid party, Mrs. Sanford!" A huge, dark-haired, ruddy-faced Englishman complimented his hostess while giving Timothy the swift Washington lizard's gaze that asked two simultaneous questions: Who are you? Can I use you?
Frederika introduced Timothy to John Foster. "He's . . . what at the embassy?"
Copyright © 2001 by Gore Vidal. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.