By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Housekeeping, even at celebrity homes, is a tiring line of work, and especially for a woman approaching 60. And so in 1983, after moving to and from 10 employers, and to the motels she stayed at in between, Marilyn quit the business altogether. She set up house on the 19th floor of the Mark Wilshire apartment building, which sported a pool on its roof. "I loved it," she says, "because I'm a swimmer and because that was my idea of glamour! Wilshire Boulevard was just lovely then. My favorite thing to do was go shopping, what else? And going to the elegant places where the celebrities went -- the Beverly Hilton, Beverly Wilshire and Beverly Hills Hotel. Oh, I loved the ritzy places, and belonged to the Century City Health Club. The ritzier the better for me."
(One day, however, she got a glimpse of that starry world's mortality. On a Beverly Hills street, a man caught her attention, not just because the man happened to be black, but because he looked so ill. It was Sammy Davis, who had autographed her napkin years before.)
In the summer of that year, Marilyn met Royce, an encounter she remembers as if it had happened half an hour ago. "I was having lunch at the Tea Room in Bullocks Wilshire when I saw this woman who stood out from everyone else -- I just couldn't take my eyes off her! She looked like Scarlett O'Hara with this magnificent big picture hat on. Then when I went to the ladies' lounge, I found her there, singing an opera aria. So I introduced myself."
"I DIDN'T LIKE IT HERE THAT MUCH -- I'M USED TO GOING out every night of my life," says Royce Reed, the fluttery hands in full motion, as though conducting an invisible orchestra. "I'm used to New York, I'm used to elegant places, elegant food. We had the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, the Luau Room owned by Steve Crane, Scandia. LaRue? We lived in those places day and night. Now we have nothing."
When she speaks of her present living arrangements, her voice tends to roll abruptly from a purr to a rebuking growl. Royce is far less forgiving than Marilyn of the urban decay she sees all around her, as well as the changes in the fashion world she once moved in. She is strictly old-school, for example, on the subject of fur. "They don't torture these animals, they put them to sleep quietly," she insists. "I love animals and I would love to keep them as live pets, but I can't! You don't discuss fur with people who don't understand fur -- you dismiss them or have them taken away."
As a matter of fact, when she met Marilyn in Bullocks Wilshire, Royce had just bought a mink coat for herself and was living at the Chancellor Hotel, near the epicenter of a formerly vibrant Wilshire Boulevard chic. "Dahling," she says, recalling nearby restaurants, "I was one of those who spent fortunes at the Windsor, and at the Cove across the street -- elegant, elegant. If you had to be in Los Angeles, the Windsor and the Cove were the best places, and Perino's -- the original Perino's -- was the only elegant restaurant in Hancock Park. For years I had an apartment next door, in the 3000 block of Wilshire at Norton."
If there is a Los Angeles to Royce's liking, it is the one she arrived in as a 20-year-old from Manhattan with her family in the late 1940s -- a culturally arid landscape that was nevertheless alleviated by oases like Rodeo Drive and the Sunset Strip, civilized greenbelts offering radiant cocktail lounges, nonstop conversation and decent French food.
"She likes beautiful," Marilyn explains.
"I don't understand anything else -- it's living death," Royce says.
"I offered to take Royce's life story down, 'As Told to . . .,'" Marilyn says.
But Royce hasn't taken her friend up on the offer, and for an outsider, interviewing her soon becomes a frustrating search past dropped names and anecdotal windows that briefly open, only to slam shut when she is asked to elaborate about her past. "Why would I want to review it?" she asks rhetorically. "We've had books written about my family -- The Annals of Lancaster County." Royce has considered writing a book herself about her career in the clothing business, but figures no one would buy it, because "you have to write about sex and disgusting things."
"My life history is very elegant," she will allow, "16 generations from Philadelphia and Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. I have a pedigree, a coat of arms, ye-e-s-s. We go back to Frankfurt, Germany, 400 A.D. My mother was from New Orleans going back to France."
But surrounding these tantalizing specifics are a haze of context and an eagerness to change the subject -- and some frankly bewildering claims. "My father helped build the atom bomb," she'll mention offhandedly, the next moment explaining that he was the chief accountant on the Manhattan Project. Further probing elicits the response that his family "was from Tarrytown on the Hudson, and Manhattan, for about 11 generations. They had an electrical business in New York they owned for 200 years, they had stores, they were billionaires." Eventually there is only this flat admission: "I'm well-established. I've never been in jail, never been arrested. I'm quite reputable. I wasn't born poor."
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