Dorothy Millette, raised in an orphanage, was the common-law wife of 1930’s MGM Executive Paul Bern. They met as acting students and lived together in the late 1920’s as husband and wife until Millette was committed to a sanitarium for mental instability. After moving to California Bern continued to pay for Millette’s living expenses at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. When Bern married actress Jean Harlow, Millette left the Algonquin and journeyed to San Francisco and then Los Angeles. On the night Paul Bern committed suicide, Millette was the “Mystery Woman” who visited the Easton Drive residence. Some suggest she shot Bern, and then fled. Bern’s longtime secretary disagrees, stating, “Dorothy did not murder Paul Bern. She was a gentle spirit.”
—Samuel Marx and Joyce Vanderveen, Deadly Illusions: Jean Harlow and the Murder of Paul Bern

 

Dorothy Millette Postcard 1 cent

Easton Drive, Beverly Hills, 1933
The Mystery Woman’s Visits

“There was a woman I knew in New York. She was an actress…breathtaking, enchanting, indescribable…the loveliest girl I’d ever seen…an ethereal will-o’-the-wisp. We were madly in love. We lived at the Algonquin for more than five years.”
—Paul Bern

DET PAINTER: Did you ever leave San Francisco prior to September 4th?
MILLETTE: I stayed at the Plaza under D. Millette Room 305.
DET PAINTER: You didn’t take the train to LA and a taxi to Miss Harlow’s house?
DET PAINTER: Mother Jean reported a Peeping Tom. Was that you?

Everything is white—the moon, the lily pond in its somberness, the hoot owl between the quaking aspens. I watch through sheer curtains. The phone rings again as she floats out of her bath, hair in a towel, Harlow, a steamy Nefertiti, her footsteps on a stair, her thoughts shaded by overhanging trees, limbs quiet as a riverboat gliding over the bay’s nerveless quivering. She takes silkily reptilian steps not disturbing her head-wrap. She lights a cigarette, staring at her shoulder. A patio door has been left open and I walk into the quiet house. Night lamps cast silvery nets and try to catch me. My foot sinks. The white carpet threatens my shoes with its pale quicksand. I touch the pampas grass dreaming of breeze. White tassels, white ermine. The stillness of death, which are the wages of sin. Baby, I need to see you, a woman calls. Coming, Mama. I sit on the love seat. It is the night of strange fish somersaulting, the night I, the woman who lives in the overcast, the woman Harlow’s never heard of, emerges from the underbrush. I am the phantom in high heels from the past, this common-law-wife. An old affair, the windows are nailed shut on. Airlessness.

&

Her mother calls her Baby. The orphanage superintendent’s pale eyes would grow peculiarly soft as he sucked the marrow from his soup bone, as he told the cook how much we orphans could eat. You’re a pretty baby, he said to me. I was sure he wanted to boil me in his meat soup. Early summer they marched us to the fields. Late summer we husked, the straps cutting our ankles. The trash corn stank with mosquitoes and flies. I listened there for earthworms inching through the soil like dark threads running alongside my toes. I steal one of her chair tassels. Her hair, the color of spun glass, has stolen my man. Tonight I must snatch him back. I hear him through the trees. A field needing to be weeded. For the little beggars (even the pretty ones) a buckwheat gruel with rocks and bits of stick.

 

Dorothy Millette Postcard 1 cent

Easton Drive, Beverly Hills, 1933
Dorothy Eats Chocolate Cake

“Dorothy told MGM Executive Paul Bern that she was moving to San Francisco. Bern asked her not to come to Los Angeles. The housekeeper claimed that she saw a ‘strange woman’ on the grounds on the night of Bern’s suicide. She heard an unfamiliar woman’s voice, and a scream and later, she found a woman’s wet swimsuit by the swimming pool, near to two empty glasses. A piece of chocolate cake had been eaten. Bern never ate cake.”
—Samuel Marx and Joyce Vanderveen, Deadly Illusions: Jean Harlow and the Murder of Paul Bern

DET PAINTER: What part did you play in Mr. Bern’s life?
MILLETTE: We met in summer stock, performing Shakespeare. Paul fell in love with me, calling me mysterious.
DET PAINTER : When did you last see him?
MILLETTE : Two nights ago…
DET PAINTER : Were you the last person to see him alive?
MILLETTE: I don’t know. My darling was alive when I left in the limo he’d called earlier.

I am driven into the lonely canyon where the mansions have yet to be built. The limo pulls away and I make my way toward the house where the pool lamps are lit. Gnarled oaks too close to the long driveway follow me with their eyes, and the shrill birds drink from the dark beyond the mosaic tiles. I walk in my shoes built up so I appear taller. Dearest Dear, is that what he calls her who Hollywood decrees queen? I will see you, my husband, after years of separation. I am well. Given a clean bill of health from the sanitarium. My unglamorous illness like those sharp-bladed yuccas sticking up from lawns is stamped brown by the heartless drought.

&

The girl who calls herself D. Millette sat all last night in the gravelly sand rocking herself. My breasts ached, and the front of my shirt was wet. I used to fish with kids at the orphanage, and not use bait. No frog or minnow, no night crawler or lure; our saliva only. What would I catch with pieces of my own flesh? Groupers and catfish, the snook, the rocky crevices that invite jewfish. Hot nights in New York I slept in a turban to keep my spirit inside my body. The heat tried to steal my wishes. I knock. There is fear in me.

&

Wearing only bathing trunks, he opens the door and takes my hand, his dark eyes invite me to swim with him. Surely, you will love me again. In the bedroom I change into my yellow suit and eat the piece of chocolate cake left by the housekeeper. Lanterns hang from palms and arch over the green pool. Listen, soon the wind will come up and shake thunder from the sky. Turn onto your back, darling, and hold me in the water, I am Dorothy, I am you, content with chastity. Watch the lightning. Never let go near windows during a storm, Paul. A girl glued together with false eyelashes and tasseled lingerie, is that who you replaced me with? The cigarettes Paul smokes are golden seeds, sparking into the gloom. Long dead jokes, half in shadow. Our past. He gives me a drink, we laugh. The lightning cracks, and the moon swims out of the clouds. A female white spotted bamboo shark who means no harm. Get out of my life, he says. Get out of my life.

 

Dorothy Millette Postcard 1 cent

Dorothy at the Algonquin, 1933
New York, NY

“She was known as Mrs. Bern. Then her behavior became increasingly erratic and she developed a religious mania, it was as if she fell asleep and couldn’t wake up. I paid for her stay at a sanitarium. I supported her after her release.”
—Paul Bern, Jean Harlow’s second husband.
 

The moon rises the color of dead leaves in the Persian carpet. I am cured. No longer a fragile blond actress. I like sitting where ceiling fans stir the air–dark sleek marten’s color, the sifting motes of dust tickle me. Between my fingers a daydreaming cigarette has been burning for years. The sanitarium is behind me. The lobby no longer crisscrossed with lines of spiders. Small biting mouths that live in the silken tunnels, and if it were not for the stickiness of the webs I would once have fallen into the ceiling. While I drink coffee in the deep-cushioned leather chair, I am free of the lizards that climbed the skin of my legs, I am cured. I no longer speak of how I slept through time with a deity. What was my form before? A green perch? The Nile mummified? The boy pharaoh lost all appetite when the royal embalmers drew out his organs and filled him with breadfruits and raisins and jasmine. I was called to join him in the tomb to serve him spice meats and fill his chalice with wine. To be his handmaiden in the next life. You will never hear me tell how honored I felt when they wrung my neck. They did not embalm me, or draw out my brain through my nostrils. I was a space in the past of a river. The thickness of stopped time. I am cured. Given a clean bill of health. The fruits and incense turned old inside the boy. Slave dogs murmured as they crumbled into dust. Certain fish eat best when they eat one of their own; I have seen hake float to the surface choked by their breeding mate stuck in their throats. When the teeth grow backwards it is hard to look at the sky. A storm is coming. In this body the skin cracks open between your toes and the worms wiggle in. You must dry your feet thoroughly when it rains. I do not like the rain. Although, I am well now. Cured.

 

© Stephanie Dickinson
[This piece was selected by Rachel Wild. Read Stephanie’s interview]