19 FRED BARRETT
Angel Face, 1952 ,USA, Director Otto Preminger
It’s a pleasure to be called Shirley, thank you. So much of my life I’ve been called Miss Preston. Mr Barrett always called me Miss Preston. He was very formal, of course. His good manners might have had something to do with his first name. I know he hated being called Fred. His friends at the golf club would ring and ask to speak to Fred and sometimes they would call at the office and I would hear them say Fred to his face and slap his back. Mr Barrett would smile because he smiled at everybody but I could tell he hated being called Fred. I felt that Mr Barrett spent his life trying to be someone other than Fred. His dress was impeccable, and I don’t think I ever saw a crease in his double breasted suit, a hair out of place or a day when his moustache was not trimmed to the exact length.
Perhaps that was why Mr Barrett enjoyed being a lawyer so much and why he was so good at it. In court he was Mr Barrett, and there he could be what he wanted. Not that I ever had the chance to see him in the courtroom. My working life was restricted to the office. Mr Barratt called the office his backroom. I enjoyed the work. I typed complicated documents, met his customers and organised the diary for Mr Barrett. I even had my own assistant. Working for Mr Barrett was my second position after I left secretarial school. I stayed with Mr Barrett until I retired. I even followed him from Los Angeles to Las Vegas when we moved the office out there. That was a big decision for me but I thought why not. I would only be swapping one boring suburb for another.
I also knew Mr Barrett would look after me. He was a criminal lawyer but, because of his sharp brain, he also understood corporate law. Mr Barrett always had one eye on the assets that belonged to his clients and he always had a clause in his fee that would provide an added bonus for the company. He arranged and managed my pension fund which is why I am so comfortable now. If he was always looking to grow the income of the business, Mr Barrett was not mean with his employees. He wanted everything in the firm to be top class. He paid good wages, and I had to fit out the office with the very best furniture available.
Although it was obvious Diane Tremayne had killed her parents, all the lawyers wanted to present her defence. The exceptions were those who worked in the DA’s office. Young Diane was rich and beautiful and looked stunning in the newspapers. She was twenty three years old. The boyfriend was thirty five and he was, well, Frank Jessup was attractive. Frank was a tall and well-built man and he had been a racing car driver. A rich heiress falling for the chauffeur, you can imagine. The case was all over the Los Angeles Times. Of course, Mr Barrett was interested. Even if he had lost the case, the firm would have benefitted from the publicity. And there was not only the very high fee but the added bonus Mr Barrett could take from the funds left to Diane. Most lawyers would have simply taken the money and let Diane and her boyfriend go to the gas chamber but, no, Mr Barrett worked hard preparing a defence, although none of us expected a not guilty verdict. Well, Mr Barrett surprised us all and won.
I know people have said that it was my idea to have Diane and Frank marry inside the prison, marry so that the jury would hesitate about handing out a death sentence to two lovebirds. I wish the rumours were true but they are not. I do tell myself, though, that maybe I put the idea in Mr Barrett’s head. For a while, when I was young, I used to read the society columns, and nothing interested me as much as the weddings of beautiful rich folk. One day Mr Barrett came out of his office and asked me to order him something for lunch. I was having my usual coffee and bagel and reading about this upcoming wedding between a movie star and a heiress. I oohed and aahed and said how exciting this wedding would be. Mr Barrett forgot his lunch order, and he asked me why so many people like to read about rich couples getting married. I told him that I could only speak for myself. I said seeing glamorous people in love and imagining them having lives that would not tarnish that love made me happy. Mr Barrett listened, nodded his head and stroked the side of his nose the way he did. Within the week Diane Tremayne and Frank Jessup were married inside the prison hospital.
It happened in the hospital because Diane had had some kind of nervous breakdown. Indeed, it was a bedside wedding. Did the wedding convince a jury that Diane and Frank were an innocent couple? I doubt it but it must have swayed some of the members, those with hearts like mine. But the main problem for the prosecution was that their case relied on a car expert explaining how the car had been altered to cause it to reverse, crash over a cliff and kill Diane’s parents. The truth is that the technical expert that can outwit Mr Barrett has not been born. And as Mr Barrett understood, few men like to think that another man knows more about cars.
I know Diane killed three people, four including herself, but I always felt sorry for the girl. I didn’t like Frank’s other girlfriend, Mary, nor was I keen on Bill, the guy who was her alternative to Frank. Apart from Diane none of them were what I call loyal. Diane was such a small sweet thing, really beautiful. Then, that’s me, I want rich people with big weddings to be happy. Today, Diane Tremayne would have been given psychiatric treatment. I suppose her love for Frank is best described as an obsession. Diane loved Frank Jessup enough to kill her step-mother. The poor father that Diane killed was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Diane adored her father. After the trial, and after they were released and when Frank went to the Tremayne home to collect his clothes and said no to her, well, Diane loved Frank enough to drive her and him over the same cliff where her step-mother and father were killed. If that isn’t love, I don’t know what it is, and every time I think about a desperate young girl putting the car into reverse and taking her and Frank Jessup to their deaths, well, it dries my throat. Some women, though, should learn to let go. My brother had a terrible time with his first wife. He didn’t drive her over a cliff, of course, or alter the gear shift on the car of Mom and Pop. I would not say Frank loved Diane. He wanted her. Men can be like that.
I came to Las Vegas in 1964. I actually came ahead of Mr Barrett. That was an exciting time for me. I had to set up the new office and everything. Mr Barrett was sixty when we came to Vegas. The truth was that he was no longer so fashionable in Los Angeles. Mr Barrett said he had lost his edge. I was surprised he was not tempted to retire. He had enough money. I suppose I felt sorry for him, and that was another reason why I came out to Las Vegas. Of course, he had identified potential customers well before we left Los Angeles. He had also decided that the firm would now take on bread and butter real estate work. We hired a young solicitor for that. Mr Barrett planned that whatever happened the real estate work would keep the company in the black. As it happened, Mr Barrett had plenty of criminal work. I thought he would be uncomfortable with some of our new customers but Mr Barret had a smile for everybody even if it was only ever just a smile. As he said to me one time, ‘Miss Preston I’ve had my back slapped by men who thought they were rough, now I have my back slapped by the genuine article.’ There were no special deals in Las Vegas for the firm because none of our new clients had what you called corporate funds, and that was a disappointment. The new clients had plenty of money, of course, which was why they were willing to pay such high fees to the firm. I know that Mr Barrett became friends with Sam Rothstein. Sam managed the casinos in some of the hotels and he used to come into the office and show me his card tricks. I never ever used formalities with our Las Vegas clients. Most of them preferred me to use their nicknames. Sam Rothstein was known as Ace, and even Mr Barrett was willing to call him Ace.
Towards the end there was talk of Mr Barrett standing for Mayor of Las Vegas. He had the right connections. I can tell you, if he had stood he would have been elected. But by then Mr Barrett was an old man. ‘This has come too late for me, Miss Preston’ he said. And he was right which, of course, was not unusual for Mr Barrett. He died when he was 82 years old. Mr Barrett was asleep and in his bed. Being Mayor of Las Vegas would have aged Mr Barrett, I think. Who knows, it might have killed him. I have just had a chill down my spine. I was thinking of one of the friends of Sam Rothstein. Nicholas Santoro was not a pleasant man, although all of our new clients were charming to me, even Mr Santoro. The stories about Nicholas Santoro that I heard, though, were terrible. Even just thinking about Mr Santoro and some of those stories sets my teeth on edge.
Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest travel book No Tall Heels To Tango is now available here.