“The Afterlife Court is now in session, the Honorable Saint Peter presiding,” the archangel Gabriel shouted. “First on the docket today, June 28, 2003 A.D., is case number four trillion, three hundred and nineteen billion, seven hundred and sixty-eight million, eight hundred and thirty-seven thousand, nine hundred and twenty-four: the case of George Baxt.”
“The particulars, please,” asked St. Peter, seated above.
Gabriel resumed. “Mr. Baxt –- not Baxter, but Baxt, B-A-X-T, was born June 11, 1923. He arrives here following complications from heart surgery. Mr. Baxt was a writer by trade, writing a number of screenplays, but his forte was books, specifically mysteries, of which he wrote 26.”
Baxt looked at St. Peter. “That is correct, sir.”
“He was a popular author not only in America, but in France, Germany and Japan. One of his specialties was writing celebrity mysteries, of which he wrote about a dozen, putting certain Hollywood and entertainment figures into detective cases.”
A woman’s shout was heard at that moment. “Yes, and I’m one of those figures!” She marched down the center aisle of the huge courtroom, an attractive blonde wearing a form-fitting white satin gown. She clearly was not happy.
“I know her,” someone in the audience whispered.
“This is gonna be fun,” someone else said.
St. Peter rapped his gavel. “Order in the court.” He looked down at the blonde. “Even though I know your name, state it for the records, please.”
“Name –- Carole Lombard, born Jane Alice Peters if you need to be official about it -- and I’m here to testify against Mr. Baxt!”
Baxt gulped. “Uh-oh,” he softly said.
Lombard turned toward him. “No, no, it’s not as if I want you sent down below. I mean, you didn’t kill anybody –- at least not literally.”
“No,” he replied with a sigh of relief.
She gave him an icy stare. “But what you did to my reputation came damn near close.” She turned to St. Peter. “Perhaps if you have a literary purgatory, he could spend a little time there.”
“Have you been in a purgatory, Miss Lombard?” Baxt asked.
“Classified information,” St. Peter interjected. “Let’s get on with this case. Now, Miss Lombard, what is the nature of your complaint against Mr. Baxt?”
“Specifically, Your Honor, it deals with a book he wrote called ‘The Clark Gable and Carole Lombard Murder Case,' where Pa and I got to play Nick and Nora, of a sort,” Lombard replied.
“The last book I wrote, in 1997,” Baxt said. “Now, Miss Lombard-—“
“You can call me Carole. You too, Your Honor,” she said, pointing at St. Peter. Isolated giggles erupted from the gallery.
“Anyway, Carole, detective stories with celebrities are nothing new,” Baxt said. “It goes back to when you were alive -– remember the film ‘The Gracie Allen Murder Case’?”
“Sure I do,” she retorted, pacing up and down the aisle as if she were Felix, the fabled animated cat. “I have no qualms with the concept. You can write on any topic you darn well please, although it’s kind of interesting that you never wrote a detective case involving a particular celebrity until after they had passed on. A Garbo book in '92. Dietrich in '93. Loy with William Powell in '96.”
“Legal reasons, Carole, legal reasons.”
“Okay, but that’s not the point. Heck, I don’t mind if anyone wants to use me as a character in a book. I’m kind of flattered by it, to tell the truth. Garson Kanin, who at least knew and directed me, put me in his ‘Moviola’ book. But if you’re going to write about me, get the facts straight.”
“You’re saying I didn’t?”
“In a number of instances. First of all, the book is set in late 1939, just before Clark is set to visit Atlanta for the ‘Gone With The Wind’ premiere and I’m going to join him, but you have me preparing to shoot ‘Made For Each Other’ with Jimmy Stewart, That movie was released in February 1939, a month before I married Clark!”
“I apologize. I should have researched my timeline better.”
“To compound that, later on in the book you have me talking about making ‘Mr. & Mrs. Smith,’ which was a year away from filming!”
“Again, my mistake.”
Carole shook her head. “And about a dozen times, you have me going ‘Hee hee hee,’ as if I’d undergone a partial lobotomy or something.”
“Well…” There was a touch of trepidation in Baxt’s voice. “I tried to have you come off in the book as rather intelligent, really.”
“With ‘Hee hee hee,’ I come off like a dimwit, and that infuriates me. You probably also thought Goldie Hawn was dumb from watching her character on ‘Laugh-In.’ “
“You know who Goldie Hawn is?” Baxt asked incredulously.
“Hey, I keep up,” Lombard said. “I like her –- she’s keeping the tradition alive -- and that daughter of hers is pretty damn good, too.” She paused. “But forget about what you did to me. What you did to my friends was far worse.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Well, first of all, one of my good friends, both on earth and up here, is Jean Harlow. In fact, did you see that march of mine up the aisle of the courtroom? Jean taught me to do that just like she did in ‘Libeled Lady.’ “
“I thought I recognized that.”
“Well, Jean is mighty ticked off at you –- Bill Powell, too. In the book, you claim that Jean died from syphilis Powell had given her. Well, that claim is simple, utter-–“
St. Peter hurriedly rapped his gavel. “Carole, we know all about your vocabulary. That word you were going to use isn’t allowed here.”
“Thanks for cooling me off, Your Honor,” she replied. “You’re even better at controlling my language than Gable.”
She turned to Baxt. “Anyway, what you wrote about Harlow simply isn’t true. It was renal failure. If they’d had kidney dialysis and transplants in the thirties, chances are she would’ve survived. And what you said about Bill -– my first husband, and a man I care a lot for, even if our marriage didn’t work out -– was mean and cruel. But that’s not the only horrible thing you wrote about other people in that book.”
“No. You also say that I believed Lansing Brown killed Russ Columbo because they were lovers and Russ wanted to marry me. That last part was true –- Russ indeed wanted to marry me –- but the first two are, well, nonsense.” St. Peter smiled at her.
“What happened to Russ was an accident, pure and simple. I never, ever, blamed Lansing for what happened; in fact, I consoled him for weeks on end. He never forgave himself.” She shook her head in regret.
“And saying the two were lovers? Listen, I knew a few guys who liked guys in Hollywood, like Mitch Leisen, though he went both ways, and Billy Haines. From what I gather, you’re in that boat, too.”
“And that doesn’t bother me -- like they said on that TV show, ‘not that there’s anything wrong with that.’ But I’m pretty darn certain Lansing and Russ weren’t in that crowd.”
Lombard turned to St. Peter. “I could go into a few other things, but that’s really all I have to say, Your Honor. I only hope for Mr. Baxt’s sake that he can defend himself.”
With that, she left the courtroom.