Privates Jim Clarke and Joe Bean guffawed as they read over their buddy’s shoulder. Jim jested, “Sweetie, huh? I thought you shook that busted Valentine months ago.”
Joe carried on, “Sweetie’s sweet on you, Bill!”
“Can it!” barked Sergeant William Jefferson as he crumpled the telegram in the palm of his hand. Handling women the morning after his arrival to the States was not on his agenda and Sweetie, whose name personified her behavior, caused a sickening pang in the pit of his stomach. “Not now,” he thought, “… not ever.”
Since Sweetie moved from their hometown in Childress, Texas to succeed as an actress in Tinsel Town, their relationship had been as prosperous as her career in acting. Currently, she was a server at the Cocoanut Grove, a popular nightclub at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, and the closest she had been to playing opposite Clark Gable was when she spilled gin and tonic all over his wing tip shoes.
When he enlisted in the United States Army, Bill wrote to her out of sheer boredom and just assumed they would never see one another again. Their letters volleyed back and forth and he grew accustomed to the idea of having a girl with no strings attached. Then he made the unfortunate mistake of informing Sweetie about his military leave and she insisted he and his chums visit Hollywood for an extra boost of confidence before heading back to the Lone Star State. Truth be told, he was downright overjoyed to receive the telegram ensuring her absence for the day.
Jim interrupted his train of thought, “Well, that throws a wrench the plans, don’t it, Hoss–”
Bill cut him off, “I thought I told you to drop the ‘Hoss’, Private. And, yeah, it changes things. Do y’all still want to do the grand tour?”
“You bet! I want to visit the Canteen, too. It’s just off of Sunset Boulevard,” Joe plucked a road map from his back pocket and unfolded it onto Bill’s lap. “My cousin wrote and told me about it,” he jabbed the map on the intersection of Sunset and Cahuenga, “Opened just last year and the place is crawling with movie stars! I’d love to get one look at Bette Davis, she runs the joint.”
Jim chimed in, “Bette Davis… that ol’ Popeye? Give me Betty Grable any day.”
The three men shuffled through the revolving doors of the hotel lobby and began their venture into the hurly burly of Hollywood, California.
“Hey, look over here,” bellowed Joe, “it’s Joan Crawford’s handprints!” Bill ignored his pal while he sat on the curb outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and focused on downing the hot fudge sundae he had just purchased at C.C. Brown’s Ice Cream parlor. Jim and Joe made him feel restless from their starstruck fantasies of meeting someone famous in a candid setting. Agitation heightened from waiting over an hour in line at the parlor because, according to Joe, it was a prime spot for sightings.
“John Barrymore and I have the same shoe size!”
Bill swiveled around to see Jim placing his foot in and out of various slabs of concrete, “Look, fellas, I don’t know if I’m feeling so swell. That hot dog we had for lunch is really barking. Why don’t you guys go on to the Canteen while I head back to the hotel?” He lied through his teeth, but lately Bill had trouble socializing and pretending his life was peachy after all of the things he had seen overseas; the situation was far worse than any Hollywood film portrayed.
“Aww, c’mon, Sarge! You’re gonna miss out on the best opportunity of your life. You might even forget ol’ Sweetheart,” teased Jim.
Joe joined in, “Yeah, Bill, come on! You may never get a chance like this again. It’s a guaranteed good time and there won’t be any broads in your face.” After poking at the last bits of his sundae, Bill reluctantly agreed to tag along.
As they approached Caheunga Boulevard, the men were greeted by a sea of blue, green, and khaki circling the entrance the Hollywood Canteen. A neon light flashed “SERVICEMEN ONLY” and accompanied the rope-style cursive letters spelling out the title of the establishment, Hollywood Canteen, a font Roy Rogers would enjoy.
Laughter, chatter, and big band music erupted from the front door as Jim and Joe shoved their hesitant sergeant through the line. He recognized a beautiful, blonde actress from an Andy Hardy film greeting a few soldiers with a kiss on the cheek. “Hello, soldier,” her tone was hopeful, “aren’t you coming in?”
He furrowed a brow, “Without paying?”
She eyed his name embroidered on his dress uniform, “You’ve got your ticket,” she made a sweeping gesture at his clothes, “that’s all the payment we need, Sergeant Jefferson.”
The Canteen was lined from wall-to-wall with actors, actresses, entertainers, and more soldiers than he could count; some leaned against the snack bar waiting for sandwiches and coffee while others danced with volunteers and famous leading ladies.
His gaze wandered to the stage where a drummer began a heavy down beat to a familiar song conducted by none other than Benny Goodman. A mural was painted on the west wall above the bandstand to create the illusion of a theatre stage with red, velvet drapes.
The crowd applauded alongside the blaring trumpets and Benny’s crying clarinet, then soldiers, sailors, and airmen alike started hopping around the dance floor. Jim and Joe quickly joined, but Bill decided to hold back and get his bearings on the premises.
All along the snack bar, men cracked jokes and swapped war stories with well known stars. Hedy Lamarr emerged from the kitchen dawning an apron and sudsy rubber gloves.
Bill thought he heard her whisper to another woman about the soap running low. He couldn’t quite pinpoint how he knew the actress until she nodded at Hedy and greeted him with her smiling, big, blue eyes, “Hello, Sergeant. What can I do for you? How about a sandwich?” He shrugged. Bette Davis, the Canteen’s president, prodded further, “Oh, come on, how about some coffee? We have a whole supply of cigarettes for every member of our armed forces, so don’t hold back. Surely, you’d like something.”
“Alright,” he nodded, “coffee will do, and while you’re at it… if you see my old pal Private Joe Bean on the dance floor give him a shove. He’s wild about you.”
“I’ll see if I can arrange something, but we’ll get Miss Dietrich to pour some coffee for you.” Bette grinned and disappeared.
“Wait! Miss… Dietrich? As in, Marlene?”
Bill was baffled. The stunning creature he had seen onscreen soon stood before him with a cup of coffee and a dirty apron. Her German accent was thick when she spoke, “Two creams in your coffee, Sergeant?”
Bill could hardly muddle up an answer, “Uh, n-no thank you, ma’am. I’ll have it black.”
“If that is how you like it, that is how you will have it!” Marlene poured the coffee and delicately pushed it across the bar towards him. Everything from the lines around her smile to the part in her hair made him feel as though he had stepped into the moving pictures. For years, Bill had followed her career and reveled in her mystique. Marlene possessed a quality many of the domesticated housewives lacked. Perhaps if Sweetie played hard-to-get, then he would give her the time of day; Miss Dietrich’s characters certainly gained his respect exuding these qualities. He had so many questions he wanted to ask Marlene, if only he had the chance, but he was too prideful to ask her out on the dance floor. Instead, Bill thanked her for the coffee and found a small table under a mural with a caricature of a man sprawled on the ground and the words, “With one more stroke to the shapely head, he fell across the floor” accompanying the image.
Jim and Joe danced for what seemed like hours before they sat down at the table with Bill— he had his coffee refilled at least two times since by Spencer Tracy and Linda Darnell. “Bill, you’re missing out on all the fun! Don’t be such a stick in the mud. Get out there and dance,” Jim wiped a bead of sweat from his brow.
Joe butted in, “And you’ll never guess who I talked to! Bette Davis walked right up to me, as if she knew exactly who I was. I could have died!”
Bill chuckled under his breath, “I’ve seen plenty of action just sitting at this here table, fellas, and I gotta tell you… I’m not all that impressed by your dance moves. Disgraceful, gentlemen.”
A pair of legs approached the table, “More coffee? I remember…” she paused, “you like it black.” Marlene winked at Bill and reached for his cup.
“N- no thank you. If I have another cup, I’ll never get to sleep tonight.”
Marlene scoffed, “Who needs sleep?”
Jim piped up, “What this man needs is a dance partner!”
“Oh, he does?” She plopped the coffee pot down on the table and began untying her apron from behind, “That can be arranged.”
“Oh, that’s real nice of you, Miss Dietrich, but I’m fine sitting and watching. Honestly!” Bill clenched his jaw and hoped the three of them would give up on this dancing business. He especially didn’t want Marlene Dietrich to discover his two left feet.
“Sergeant, I thought you—of all people—could follow orders!” Marlene placed her hand over his and pulled him from his seat and tossed her apron to Joe, “Take care of this for me while I take care of your friend.”
“Miss Dietrich, I’m no Fred Astaire. If you need to get back to—”
Marlene interrupted, “Soldier, if you don’t know how to dance, just say so. I’ll lead.”
Before he could object, she wrapped her arm around his waist and yanked his hand to rest on her shoulder, “It’s very simple, the Lindy Hop, in the open position. Right foot, left foot, right foot and I do the opposite, you see?” Bill wrestled his way embarrassingly through the song while Marlene remained patient and breathed a sigh of relief with the final notes. He blushed and pulled away to return to his table. She questioned him, “So you’re going to give up?” Bill felt ashamed of his behavior, he didn’t even think to thank her for the dance. “It’s a slow song now. We can talk… and you can lead.”
“I think I can manage…” Bill placed his hands at her hips and moved her slowly about the dance floor. They discussed the weather in California and after he admitted that he loved her films, she began describing a humorous story about her costume in her next film Kismet with Ronald Colman.
“Irene, the costumer supervisor, had designed my tights to look like chains. After hours of poking and prodding with pliers, they closed the links and discovered I could not move my legs. So, they just slapped gold paint on them instead and sprinkled my hair with gold dust. My legs are worth far more than four coats of Sherwin-Williams.”
Marlene laughed boisterously at the ridiculousness of the situation as one song bled into the next.
“Miss Dietrich, if you don’t mind me asking… why did you move to America?”
“You may call me Marlene, Sergeant. I suppose because of human decency. The Germans and I no longer speak the same language—that includes Herr Hitler and Doctor Goebbels. In fact, they wanted me to stay and be a poster girl for their Nazi propaganda. Idiots. ” Her brow furrowed indignantly.
Bill was taken back by the boldness of her words, “I’ve been stationed there for six months. We’ve seen more than America is leading everyone to believe. Horrible things.”
“I’m sure. There is no dignity in my home country. That is why I am here, where democracy and humans matter. And here,” she released her hand and pointed to the floor, “I am happy to serve those who serve their country. I am happy to show servicemen a good time and dance with those who hesitate because their mind is still on the barracks…” A small smile empowered her lips, “How long are you on leave?”
“Just until the end of September…” Bill opened his mouth to speak, then hesitated as the next song ended, “… I had no idea you felt this way about Germany. I guess it’s something they don’t tell you in the movies.”
She reared her head back and laughed, “Certainly not!” Bill didn’t know how to respond or what to say next. He was reluctant to detain her for another song, but she acted as though she had no intentions of letting go.
They danced for the rest of the evening—fast, slow, the Charleston, the Lindy Hop—until Benny announced the final dance. Marlene said, “My! I’ve forgotten my coffee duties, let’s hope your friend, the Private, saved the day!” She paused and looked at him as thoughts swam in her head, “I will be touring overseas sometime within the next year or so. Perhaps you will be stationed in a country I visit … I hope.”
Bill snickered, “I’d love to meet again, but the odds are slim.”
“Never underestimate Marlene Dietrich, Sergeant!” She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek, “One for the road. Goodbye.”
“Goodbye…” Bill’s cheeks felt like the color of a fire engine as he stumbled over to the table where his friends sat. They looked exhausted, head in hand, “What’s the matter, fellas?”
Joe groaned, “We was ready to go four dances back, but we didn’t want to break up your little love affair with the pair of legs!” He shoved the pot of cold coffee at Bill, “Some dame came by and swiped her apron, but forgot to take this. I’d have poured some for myself, but I need a little something. Sweetener, ya know?”
Bill looked at the coffee sloshing inside the pot, then over his shoulder to see Marlene talking lightheartedly with Bette at the snack bar, “No, I’m afraid I don’t.” He smiled.