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Forever Fabulous 

Happy hours with Royce and Marilyn

Wednesday, Jun 2 1999
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Photo by Kevin AckermanDUSK, LOS ANGELES. A THOUSAND CARS ARE JOINING THE rush-hour conga lines of traffic fleeing downtown's office center. Soon the streets will be deserted of men with briefcases, and the sky emptied of corporate helicopters -- to be replaced by the occasional urban hawk searching, in the darkening curfew, for a careless pigeon. Inside a neighborhood bar that is neither dive nor tourist lounge, a few old-timers fortified with drinks and paper plates of happy-hour food watch a movie wind down on television. Except for the TV and a popcorn maker it's pretty quiet here, and pretty blue-collar, too, which is why the two women dressed like grandmotherly Holly Golightlys, their wide-brimmed hats smartly raked and enormous rings cincturing manicured fingers, stick out like a pair of Christmas trees planted on a 50-yard line.

Royce Reed and Marilyn Hoggatt, you see, are emissaries from a more refined time, women who do not end their sentences with prepositions, nor with the declarative question mark that is the California style. They are ladies who appreciate the snug fit of custom-made gloves, who know the difference between a cocktail ring and a solitaire -- and wince whenever their club sandwiches arrive with crusts untrimmed.

Their anachronistic mannerisms and codes of dress are part of an unfaltering faith in style, a faith that has been rewarded with a kind of unified field theory of life. Yet even a consoling world-view cannot shield an elderly woman from the rough realities of living downtown on a fixed income. For that, Royce and Marilyn must rely on one another, and a friendship that is a constant adjustment of needs and wants that are seldom completely in sync.

"I'm used to elegance, elegance," Royce says of downtown. "This is not my home, this is hell on earth! The noise of the helicopters and sirens day and night -- oh, my gawd, you'd lose your mind!" There's more than a trace of Norma Desmond in the voice and the eyeliner, and listening to her makes an interviewer feel more than a little like Joe Gillis. "I'm a clothes person, a fashion person," Royce will tell you as she sips a sauvignon blanc. "I was raised by rich, rich, elegant people who bought only the finest, everything made to order. You cannot handle anything else, as a woman -- it is your life."

"I've always liked clothes," Marilyn concurs. "My mother made mine -- as an infant, child and teenager. Even when I went to college, she made complete sets for me."

When Marilyn graduated from high school in 1941, a teenage girl's look was composed of "bobby sox, blouse with collar turned out, a sweater, string of pearls and always a pleated skirt." Today, Marilyn is swathed in a faux-leopard-skin shawl that is echoed by leopard-skin accents on her hat. Royce's own black fur chapeau matches the rest of her raven-hue ensemble. The two women live in an adjoining hotel that is a clean, well-lighted place by downtown standards, though a planet or two removed from, say, the Biltmore up on Olive Street. Wilshire, which Marilyn reverently refers to as "the big boulevard" and which has figured so many times in both their lives, dead-ends a few blocks away.

Marilyn is 5 feet 9 inches tall, large-boned and easygoing, while her Maroc-scented, wire-waisted friend stands 5 feet 4 and bristles with the steely self-confidence one acquires from working nearly half a century in fashion merchandising. "I know everyone in the rag business," Royce pronounces in the elongated, gravely accented vowels associated with breeding. "I went to work as a gift counselor and then bridal consultant in 1949 at J.W. Robinson's, which was on Seventh Street and owned by Mrs. Harry Robinson and the Schneiders, Carlos and Walter." When she speaks, her hands often flutter through the air in dramatic gestures. "Mrs. Robinson was exquisite -- a Beverly Hills socialite who would come in with her chauffeur, mink coats and her poodle, Happy."

Marilyn is a former schoolteacher and "executive housekeeper" whose good-time Ohio twang occasionally horns into her conversation -- which she says is a bit embarrassing, as her father was chairman of Wittenberg University's public-speaking department. Their stay at the hotel began some 11 years ago and has lasted far longer than either expected -- or wanted. Marilyn looks on the bright side, pointing out the proximity of Macy's and the exercise she gets from walking to nearby stores and her manicurist. Royce isn't so sanguine. "I'm 16th-generation back East," she is fond of saying. "I only exist here, it's not my territory."

The pair's exile is not just a matter of geography, though, it is one of time -- a time whose fashions and manners have been pulled out from beneath them by a nightmarish undertow called progress. "A man did not get into a restaurant without a suit and a tie," Royce laments of this vanished era, "nor a woman without a cocktail dress."

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