I Was Once a Co-Respondent as told to Grace Verne Silver

Everyone has read of framed-up divorce cases, manufactured testimony, hotel evidence, and all that sort of thing. This story which Sonya told me revealed a new twist to an old graft, and I pass it on to you so far as possible in her own words. Women will chuckle over it; men, possibly, will learn to be wary.

"Hotel evidence" is common enough in England, and in states like New York, which permit absolute divorce only on proof of infidelity. Of course, one must have money to pay for the framing. Usually the wife gets the divorce, and she has plenty of real evidence; but the other woman is one whose position must be protected at all costs. The wife is a good sport; and in return for a suitable financial settlement agrees to protect the reputation of her husband's new sweetheart by suppressing the real evidence. In its place she submits a carefully framed, legally perfect story which her husband's lawyers prepare for the purpose.

The law is technically satisfied; there are no messy details to smirch any of the principals. The husband's reputation is not damaged by being caught with a pretty young girl, though I hate to think how his friends would rib him if she were old and ugly! Everyone, including the dignified judge, understands that he has merely done the chivalrous thing by both wife and sweetheart.

Every successful divorce lawyer has a few girls he calls on for such cases, just as a doctor keeps a list of trained nurses. For several months I was just such a professional co-respondent, I won't say what I think about some of the lawyers I worked for! As a matter of fact, when a man is in love, he really doesn't care about playing around with a paid-for, strange woman. Besides, he's under a nervous strain, waiting for his witnesses to break in and catch us "in flagrante delictu." Men, expect on a bathing beach, are usually more modern than women. They are not accustomed to wearing revealing clothes, like us girls. They're actually shy and afraid of the co-respondents they're planted with, and not a bit amorous.

Of course, in those days, I was really an extra girl in the movies. But this happened during the transition period, when silent movies were going out and talking pictures were coming to the front. Talkies were a wonderful invention; but many a movie extra starved, even committed suicide in those days, when Hollywood imported stage actresses from New York, and threw us old timers of the silent films overboard. Few of us survived. Some got married; I became a co-respondent. I'm not proud of it, but even movie extra girls have to eat sometimes; at least, we prefer to. Unlike many other women, we do know about men. We have to, or starve.

Don't get me wrong, now. Few movie extra girls were ever immoral. They worked too hard, didn't have time or money to cut up. We worked four days to get each day's work. And by the time we got home our so-called eight-hour day, counting time in for transportation, preparation for the job, cleaning up afterwards, fixing clothes and so on, had stretched to twelve or sixteen hours. We never dared to have any dark circles under our eyes, either. Make-up never was made that would conceal the effects of a night's dissipation from the camera in a close-up. We learned how to get jobs -- and meals -- from men; and how to lure and tantalize and still keep our virtue; to get as much and give as little as possible. We were grafters, of course; but most of us were innocent. If we had also been ignorant, we'd have starved or gone back home.

As I say, I'm ashamed of a lot of things I did in those months, but there is one case I'm proud of. I'm glad I farmed Viola's husband. You know, in algebra, two minuses make a plus; two negatives make a positive. In this case, two frame-ups made justice.

You may not know that some lawyers hire men as well as girls. Their duty is to frame wealthy wives. Unlike the husbands we girls worked with, these wives wouldn't know they were being compromised till it was too late. Sometimes it was done so a husband could get revenge on a wife who refused to "co-operate" with him; often it was done to force a mother to give up her children. Not that the man wanted the kids, but he wanted to hurt their mother. Marriage is supposed to protect women and mothers, but such lawyers and their agents would use the laws to take kids away from women on the ground they were "unfit" to care for them. Personally, I think even a "bad" woman is usually a good mother; at least she know how to safeguard her own daughters from her own mistakes. Anyway, what kind of a mother can a mere man ever be? Compared with these male co-respondents us girls were angels. This case I'm telling you about was originally like that.

Let's change names, for safety. I don't want any libel suits. They were all movie people, only a lot higher in the game than I was in those days. Viola did "characters" and "bits"; sometimes she got as much as ten or fifteen dollars a day. Her husband, whom we called "Old Man Mosher", did "westerns" and "peasants," when he did anything, which was not often. Viola wasn't more than forty, though she looked sixty. I used to tell her to fix up younger.

"What's the use?" she'd say. "I'm too old and tired and worn out to compete with you pretty flappers anyway. Besides, the older and tougher I look, the better "character" I am, and the more work I get. I need the money."

It was true. She really did get a lot of work by just being utterly different, a type. She had a small ranch outside of Universal City and she would feed the chickens, milk her own cow, work her garden, -- she actually plowed with a one-horse plow! She'd get up at three or four in the morning to get the work done, while her husband was getting his beauty sleep. She'd fix her old flivver, too. Then she'd wake him up, feed him, and they'd drive round -- she would, with him back-seat driving. I mean -- looking for work. There was no Central Casting Agency in those days and all of us extras used to make the rounds from one studio to another, morning and night, when we were not working. Universal City, Culver City, Hollywood, back and forth. One might easily drive fifty to seventy-five miles in a day, looking for work and not getting it. Viola would let three more get in the back seat and ride around in "Aunt Lizzie." I often went along.

She'd get more work than I would, too, and I was dressed to kill. She'd come straight from the ranch, often with her old khaki clothes on, or divided skirt, and hunter's boots covered with dirt, her hair blowing till she looked like a hag. And they pass me up and she'd get the job, and the order,

"Come just as you are; don't change your clothes and don't you dare to fix your hair."

After all, you can't imitate poverty, or misery, or despair or dirt like you can live it. Viola lived. Her "characters" were not made up, dressed up dummies. They were herself. Movie work, with her was just a means to get the money to pay for the ranch, and live; she had no ambitions for that sort of a career. She loved animals, land, and things that grew, that were real, not our make-believe world.

I used to remonstrate with her about the way she took care of that old husband, Mosher. She'd answer:

"I'm merely being grateful. Once he helped me over a bad time in my life. He's not strong, and he's thirty years older than I am. The work won't hurt me. I think he's fond of me, in her way. I'll not break his heart if I can help it. After he is dead I'll still be young enough to enjoy life. I've got the place paid for, too."

"Huh! You may think he is a weak old man. I think he is just plain lazy; he's stronger and healthier than you are, and he'll outlive you, too. Don't forget that he worked three other wives to death taking care of him before you took over the job. You get five times the work he does, you pay the bills, you take care of the home and ranch and you're the auto mechanic. And he -- he sleeps!"

All of us knew how he was always falling asleep after lunch, had to be woken up to face the camera. It was no use talking to her; women are fools, that way. She had no children and he was her baby, I guess. She was an orphan and he was her father, too. But he wasn't much of a husband. That Yankee conscience of hers kept her with him, even when she would almost fall in love with some better man whom could have taken proper care of her. She'd taken n a life-job and wouldn't quit.

But did you ever see the luck some people have? Old Man Mosher, after sitting round all his life letting someone else take case of him, after being a completely successful failure at most every job he tackled, inherited a million dollars. An only cousin, with whom he quarreled with forty years before and had never heard from since, dropped dead without making a will, and Mosher was his sole heir, Viola borrowed money so he could go east and settle the estate. After she got things fixed up so she could leave the ranch she also went east. Mosher didn't waste any time after she got there. He told her promptly that he wanted a divorce.

It's common enough for old men to want young women. If they are rich, they get them, one way or another. Viola had deliberately made herself old and faded. She was glad enough for him to get a divorce, was perfectly willing for him to file the complaint, didn't ask for any alimony. I tell you, she was so tired she just didn't care; freedom at any price looked good to her. Her husband explained he had to have legal "ground." She did not object when his lawyer arranged for her to be found in a disreputable nightclub. Perfectly regular, only the husband usually does that sort of thing. Her husband filed suit on the customary grounds, naming witnesses.

The thing that Viola didn't know was that the "guilty party," both in her home state and in the one where the hearing was to be, loses all right to alimony, may also be deprived of any so-called community property. Old Mosher demanded even the California Ranch which her own sweat and blood and tears had paid for. That's how and why I came into the case. Viola wrote to her sister, who is still working in the movies, and outlined the situation, and sister Helen sent for me.

"You know him by sight," Helen began. "Here's a list of pictures he once worked in. That's your conversation material. He likes voluptuous, dark types like you; he's easily flattered and thinks he was a great actor. Probably he won't remember you; no matter if he does. You'll be just a movie actress at a Long Island studio. I'll deposit a thousand dollars to your account here, get you a letter from the Hollywood bank to Mosher. He's replaced his cousin as president of some New York Bank. You'll transfer your account to his bank. First see Viola and get the lay of things; after that, use your own judgement and if you need more expense money, Viola can fix it up with me."

When I called on Viola she looked ten years younger.

"It's perfectly scandalous how losing my husband has improved my looks," she laughed. She had ideas, too. I was to have the use of an old abandoned studio, built over a residence. I was to have a "Director" -- her brother, a cameraman, a few extra actors for atmosphere. We planned things carefully.

Really, Mosher was too easy. I guess he was lonesome. He missed the lights and cameras and his cronies of poorer days. He was really nice, -- lots of men are, till they marry the woman. I knew men, and he didn't know women; he does, now!

He brought me presents, showed me the sights of New York. I took him to the "studio" a couple of times to see me work. I worked, too; that director really did know things, and I had my first thorough screen test right there. Within a week Old Man Mosher had got so home-sick smelling the grease paint that he begged us to let him do a bit -- something -- anything. My "director" agreed. He could get into bathing trunks, do some swim stuff in the pool and some beach scenes in the fake comedy we were making. It was a scalding hot day, and Mosher was tickled pink; we made him work hard, too. By noon of the second day he was all in. He went over to set No.3, where there was a tempting Louis Quinz bed, lay down and went to sleep.

The rest of us went to the office and had a conference with Viola, her lawyer and the "extras" (for witnesses). Viola decided<

"We're already now to shoot the last scene."

I put on a lacy thing like the Platinum Blonde wears on the screen, crept gently in bed with Mosher. I slipped my arm under his neck, drew his head over on my breast, looked tenderly down at him from my half-raised position. The camera was already in place; Klieg lights went on; they didn't wake Mosher -- he'd slept through many a similarly lighted scene in his movie days. The old "silent" camera started turning, so as to miss nothing. The Director bawled through his megaphone in traditional style (can't do that now in talkies!)

"All set! Ready! Camera -- GO!"

Old Man Mosher sat up in bed, clutching at me with a gesture of fear, as if claiming protection. Only half awake, he thought he was doing a movie sequence when the Director bawled at him:

"Put your arms around that girl!" He did so.

"Now. Hold her close! Kiss her." Mosher didn't have to be told to kiss me the second time; I have nice lips!

"Now jump off that bed, both of you! Register surprise, you bob! That's it; put your arms around the girl -- you're supposed to protect her. All right, OUT!"

The resulting close-up showed Mosher and me in loving embrace -- and his bathing trunks didn't show in the picture! Black darkness settled over the set, which had looked just like a nice hotel bedroom. Old Man Mosher had done his last movie "bit."

When the lights came on again, and he saw his wife and her lawyer, and the witnesses, it dawned on his slow mind that he had been framed. But he had no proof. The new-made bank president did not want that picture shown in any divorce court. He began to realize, with a little help from the lawyer, that all the previous scenes he'd voluntarily worked in led up to this last climax. He couldn't afford to be laughed at. Even though bitterly angry and -- they say -- deeply grieved, he withdrew his suit against his wife the very next day and allowed her to file one against him, naming me as co-respondent. She gets fat alimony, and is back on the ranch enjoying life.

That was the best paid job of the sort I ever had, and the last of its kind I ever had to take. That film made a dandy "test" when it was run off in a Hollywood projection room. Some people who knew Viola in the old days got a lot of fun out of it, and Viola's sister, who is tops now, persuaded her studio manager to give me a real chance. Of course, some people did wonder why Viola's brother afterwards married me, in spite of her naming me as co-respondent! Hollywood soon forgets however.

I'm still mean enough to be sinfully proud of that job. I framed a man who framed a good woman; that's sound justice, I think.

 

Proceed to Story Three

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