SEND ME NO
It all really started with Lew Ayres and the Butterfly. And all that great war film footage from All Quiet On The Western Front. But that was 1930. This is 1968 and we've gone from butterflies to flower people. Maybe I'd better explain it all by degrees but the small details will have to come later. It's in the fine print, like some of those sneaky contracts you've had to sign before you die.
First, you have to meet Memo Morgan again. Broadway's Mr. Memory, the man who knows everything. The photographic mind. Only there is no phony missing Shakespeare play this time and no one is about to kill Memo again. He's harmless now. But he's still Broadway in a checkered suit that is more Barnum and Bailey than Brooks Brothers.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Come with me down to the Grass Gardens, on the rainy night of February the 7th when it was trying to snow and settled for April showers. A lashing, flooding downpour that made Roseland just across the street look like a floating gambling ship.
What happened could have happened any year. Any night. When a man is marked for the bullet that will kill him, it doesn't seem to matter when it was that you saw him last. The last time is always only Yesterday. Like Stan Ellin once said, when a man has a date with a bullet, the appointment is set in the long ago when he is still in his diapers.
It wasn't Memo Morgan's bullet. Or mine, either.
It was Louis's.
Louis La Rosa.
And this is all about who got Louis.
The Grass Gardens was a modern scene from Hell. A man-made Hell, that is, where the Strobe lighting is going on and off with split-second quickness, making all the dancing couples freeze in poses of exaltation, pain, ecstasy and downright orgasm. The kids weren't dancing, really. Just swaying, tilting, grunting, groaning and assuming postures that had no resemblance to the skilful beauty of the Astaires, Kellys and Drapers. There wasn't a Charisse or Marge Champion in the mob, either. Whatever girls there were seemed to be all Ginger Rogers gone mad.
It was just sheer body movement, in-and-out of time with the laborious efforts of what was charitably called a band on the big wide apron of stage that stood bathed in the ghastliest green, purple and violet hues that ever shamed Dali.
Thump-thump-thump went a drum. Rah-rah-rah went a horn. Tinkle-tinkle-tinkle said a piano. Under and over all the musical mayhem, a steel guitar cried and cried for the mass murder being performed on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. If there was a bull fiddle, it was out to pasture for this slaughter.
I think they were playing Mozart, anyway. It was something lovely called Don't Run Your Damn Hands All Over Me but even though I'd had three martinis in Le Alpi just an hour ago, they couldn't kid me. It was daylight robbery on Mozart. I know the title only because some long-haired, jeans-and-jacket kid up on the stage apron was saying that over and over again. It wasn't much of a lyric.
I was surrounded by assassins. The squirming, groaning couples fencing me in, revealed only in the flashing glares of the Strobe lighting, were all in their dangerous teens. I might have been Father Time, even without a beard, and Jean Martha, sounding like one of the old movie stars of my youth, was damned uncomfortable.
"Ed," she whispered, hanging on to me in an old-fashioned dance form, "please, let's get out of here."
I nodded. "Soon as those damn hands stop running all over me. Pretty weird, isn't it?"
Jean's sensible eyes weren't funny.
The terrible voice of the band and the horrible bath of the stop-freeze lights was a nightmare, teenage style. An elbow away, a sweaty-faced, Messiah-bearded kid flung his arms high in human sacrifice and shuddered. His dancing partner, a taffy blonde who looked fifteen in a beaded sheath mini-skirt that showed off Sophia Loren country, shuddered back in reply. Whatever message was being transmitted, it was being shared by the sardine-jammed throng crowding the polished floor beneath our feet. Ooohhhhhhh, ahhhhhhhhh! moaned the mob.
"Are these our children?" I sighed. "Where are our parents?"
Jean stifled a nervous giggle. "When we passed this place, I never dreamed—I'm sorry. I should have settled for Roseland."
"You wanted to dance. I wanted to catch up on today's flamed-out youth. Well, we caught up. I wish I could throw them all back into kindergarten. Look at them."
"I don't want to." She had her eyes closed now, hanging on to me like I was the last man on earth. "It's like a bad dream."
"It's all of that, lady."
She was about to say something else, but shut her lips tight as a pair of holy rollers banged into us. I flung a tight smile at the offenders, spotting their come-back leers in the intermittent magic of the Strobes. They were like grinning statues. The boy, his white shirt glowing luminously, for Strobe lighting will do that, showed a round moon face, swamped with a Beatle hairdo that needed about three pairs of scissors. The girl, her eyes bulging, her pink tongue lolling, her breasts pumping like gushers, had a mile-high beehive of hair that gleamed like neon in the flickering gloom.
Thump-thump-thump. Rah-rah-rah. Tinkle-tirikle-tinkle. And the steel guitar let out one enormous muted sob. The singer stopped his lament, fell to his knees and kissed the floor. The place exploded. Hand clapping, screams, giggles, whistles. Jean Martha wet her lips.
"After you, Mr. Noon."
"My pleasure, Miss Martha."
We stepped over a boy in his throes on the floor. The damn lights were still going on and off. The boy had got the message. It had left him limp and on private Cloud Nine. A thin white cylinder dangled between his fingers. I knew there wouldn't be any printing on it, even if I could have seen clearly. The band struck up another insane melody. Yo-yo-you—yo, yo, you-u-u-u. . . .
Yo-yo was right. The joint was loaded with them.
We weaved, dodged, threaded our way through the crowd. The Grass Gardens was still filling up. Shirts glowed, hairdos gleamed, red mouths looked like gashed-out pits. Skirts and sequins and beads and riotous colours kaleidoscoped.
"That boy," Jean said. "Pot?"
"Mary Wanna Smoke?" I gritted but I didn't feel funny. The right to revolt, rebel and say Screw you, Dad, has its limits. To me, the place called the Grass Gardens was something out of Poe by way of the Red Death. My blue nose was slightly out of joint.
Jean huddled in her fur stole as we made the scene to the front door. She was a mystery writer and something of a short story specialist who had wanted to lap up some atmosphere. New York night-life. Mad Manhattan—that sort of thing. I felt a little sorry for her. The dream was completely gilded, tinselled and false in the Crooked City. Ask anybody who's had to live here.
The pert, rather sensible-looking young lady who had sold us two orange tickets at the grilled window behind the golden rope only fifteen short minutes ago, simpered at me. Her eyes were blue and clear, untinted by hallucinatory pick-me-ups.
"Going so soon, Dad?"
"Yeah. We're splitting, Sis."
"Too fast for you, Dad?"
"I'm too—" I had been about to make that old crack about old age but skipped it. "I have a message for you from Mom and Dad. Go home. All is forgiven."
She tilted her head back and laughed. And laughed and laughed. She got the best of me. She didn't even bother with a comeback or a topper. Feeling thoroughly aced, I steered Jean Martha out to the sidewalk and the night, doing some broken field running among the assorted odd couples coming in. The Grass Gardens dissolved behind us, like the bad dream Jean had tagged it. The driving rain had slowed to a fine mist.
"Where next?" She smiled brightly on the outside world, out-of-place under the bold psychedelic neon that advertised the place. "Roseland?" She was changing the subject and I let her.
We started down the block. My feet had begun to itch for the comfortable sanity of waltzes and fox trots. Maybe even a Peabody or a sensible samba. I felt that I had somehow sat in upon a collective insult to Terpsichore. Come back, Busby Berkeley, wherever you are!
"Don't do that," Jean said.
"Don't do what?"
"You're frowning. And you look like you want to hit someone."
"Yes, you do. Ed, they're only kids. Trying to understand, trying to fit in. They'll grow up, same as everybody else does. But right now—nothing much makes sense to them. Vietnam, civil rights issues, phonies in power."
"The bomb," I mocked. "Don't forget the bomb. That bothers them too, doesn't it?"
"Ed, Ed. Try to see their side of it—"
"Jean," I said. "You're beautiful but shut up."
"Yes, Ed." She squeezed my arm and smiled. She has a nice smile. Which was why I took her dancing in the first place. "You're handsome but you talk too much. And think too much."
"Not tonight I don't," I vowed. "The subject is closed."
I mean it but there wasn't much choice in the matter. The brave new world we had just left jumped right up and pulled us back into its troubled waters. It was February, chilly, the rain had let up and Roseland bobbed like a life buoy on the waves but the Grass Gardens had a Forget-Me-Not up its phosphorescent sleeve.
Even now it's hard to believe it happened.
The world behind us, maybe fifty yards across the street, suddenly exploded. There was a fierce, ear-shattering, thundering earthquake of sound. I felt myself rising from my shoes, lifted by those old invisible fingers again, pulled from Jean Martha's arm and flung forward like a rag doll. The building across the way vibrated, turned upside down, veered at right angles and then sprung upright, spitting masonry, timbers, marquee, facade and neon. Everything. Shimmering in the thinning rain, the face of the Grass Gardens collapsed in smoke, flame and thunder.
The concrete earth trembled, the sidewalk split and my ears clanged like dinner gongs.
From somewhere on the sidewalk, eyesight wavering, senses frugging, I saw the demolished entrance of the club through a dancing haze of pain and confusion.
The place was on fire, the crumpled, devastated facade was yawning like the Pit. Flames raced, black smoke billowed. From inside somewhere, a hellish chorus of agonized, terrified screaming went up. The damn Strobes must have made it seem like the end of the world for those poor kids trapped inside—
I saw Jean Martha, some twenty yards to my left, sprawled in the rain-drenched gutter, trying to rise. Her fur stole was coiled like a snake about her throat. She suddenly spread out in the gutter, collapsing like the rag doll I felt I was. She looked like a smoked-out cigarette.
And then, like they used to say in the pulp magazines of the Thirties, Bedlam reigned.
The whole world had gone to Pot.
THE MOVIE MURDERER
We have to back-track here. It's necessary or you won't know where this is going. So let's twist the hands of Time and go to Jim Downey's theatre restaurant on Eighth Avenue. Just a few hours before I took Jean Martha to Le Alpi and then to the Grass Gardens. The time was seven o'clock, nineteen hundred Army Time. I was meeting Jean at eight in Le Alpi. But before that, I had made a date with Memo Morgan in his favourite watering hole, Downey's.
In the frantic Fifties, it had been mine too. A good spot to meet with actor pals, writers, producers and most of the Times Square crowd who make Show Biz their raison d'etre. That's French, of course, but I think it really means hell-on-earth, cross-to-bear and your-red-wagon combined.
I parked myself in a quiet corner at the end of the long, grained-wood bar and set up office over a Beef-eater martini.
The place was packed, per prescription. The back walls over the booths are lined with glossy, life-sized blowups of the movie and stage stars who have graced the boards of Broadway and Jim Downey's place. They look down at you from all sides. Over the top of the long bar, a montage of old newspaper headlines makes for a better view. It's kind of rattling I think to have Henry Fonda looking straight at you while you down a martini. Ethel Barrymore, bless her, doesn't help either. It's a helluva lot less personal reading about Lindy landing in Paris, the start of World War One or the sinking of the Titanic.
Still, the room is alive with people, too. Big, little and small celebrities who talk, eat and relax even as you and I. The names range all the way from Jason Robards Jr. to Arthur Hill to Will Gregory. That night was no different than usual. Downey's was jumping.
I spotted Dave Burns, still in his Hello, Dolly! moustache, growling affectionately at Jack Gilford above two schooners of beer. A table away, Chester Morris was doing a magic trick with the silverware on his table. They all caught my eye and waved hello. Two fine comics and a Hollywood oldtimer. Morris' smile was wide and honest. Ginger Rogers and Lauren Bacall were having an animated just-between-us-glamour-girls confab right in front of the cloakroom. You could smell the glitter and the gold that hung like celestial mists about their tall trim bodies. Two pin-up dreams from the green years of the long ago. Adulthood hadn't robbed them of one iota of sex appeal.
Downey's is that kind of hangout. People who make ten grand a week rub shoulders with actors working for scale in off-Broadway shows. Also, you can find one fairly successful private detective with an office and secretary just off Times Square.
The martini burned going down and I was mentally kissing Ginger and Lauren on their pink lips when Memo Morgan materialized at my elbow. Suddenly, he was there, as obvious as a brass band and as colourful as a Disney TV programme. The horseblanket coat was striped, the tie was right out of a baggy-pants burlesque comic and the face with its lumps, broken nose and gash-mouth shone like a tomato from under the brim of a borsalino that had to be a Charles Bickford reject. A dead cigar poked from his lips.
"Noon," he boomed. "You alone?"
"You always ask me that. My answer's always the same. I don't bring company when I make an appointment. What gives?"
He didn't take the stool next to me but leaned in close, the cigar barrelling over to the other side of his mouth. He smiled.
His grin hid his little eyes. Morgan's face was a fooler. Except for his eyes, he looked dumb and simple. The clothes always emphasized his bumpkin facade. But he had never fooled me. Broadway's Mr. Memory had once won almost a hundred grand on The Sixty Four Thousand Dollar Question way back in the dark ages of Television.
Morgan cased Bacall and Rogers, sniffed the air and winked at me. The cigar was unlit and chewed down to the band.
"All Quiet On The Western Front," he said in a low voice. "You fill me in on the movie. Right off the top of your head. Then we'll talk."
I shook my head, eyeing the last of the Beefeater. Same old Memo. The movie bits. The memory routine. He tested all his friends and even his enemies with memory tests. But never without a reason. Never without a motive that spelled money.
I sighed. "Okay, memory man. 1930. Universal Pictures. Won the Oscar as Best Picture of the Year. Put the studio in the black and saved their bacon. Lew Ayres and the butterfly. Directed by Lewis Milestone. My choice for the best war film of them all. That good enough?"
"Ace," he breathed. "You're an ace. What about the boots?"
"Boots?" I echoed.
"Yeah. Boots. For walking. You dig? Tell me about the boots."
I frowned. "Again. Slower, old buddy."
Now, he grimaced and the cigar barrel-rolled again. His tiny eyes glittered. "It's seven o'clock, Noon. Guy's coming in here at once. That gives us two hours. So he knows we can't see the movie or go to a library or anything like that. But I made a bet. For seven big ones. You're my proof. He says he'll take your word. You tell him about the boots and I win seven hundred bucks. I'll give you ten per cent of the take."
I grinned. Now, I understood him. "Tell me what the bet is."
Memo Morgan looked happier. He relaxed a little.
"This guy says that I'm wrong when I said that the boots went from Ben Alexander to Russell Gleason. He says Owen Davis, Jr. Now I'm asking you. Am I right or wrong? You tell me. I met this gink in here at five o'clock and he says I don't remember right. We were all talking about war movies and the gab got around to All Quiet. Come on, Noon man. You yes me or no me. The guy says he'll take your word. He reads a lot of them letters you write into Films In Review and he says you rate with him as an expert."
"You're the expert. You're famous for your memory. Why won't he take your word? Or wait until tomorrow. You could check with the New York Times or any film library in town. Even Million Dollar Movie must have a print on that old goldie."
"Out-of-towner." Morgan's sniff was mighty. "It's you or nobody, sweetheart. We got a deal?"
I shrugged. "You knew you were right all the time. Russell Gleason inherited the boots after Ben Alexander lost his leg."
"Noon, baby. You always were the Ace. Can you make it convincing to this clown?"
"Depends. What's his name?"
"Tod Crown. Real estate man from Chicago. In town to pick up a piece of Merrick's new show. Loaded I guess. Wants a little action to while away the hours while Merrick splits up the angels."
"If he wants action, he ought to try the track or the stock market. Wall Street could use his money. Things are pretty tight from what I hear."
"Yeah. Yeah," Memo Morgan agreed. "The pound's gone down, ain't it? You could fill this guy in on a whole lot of All Quiet, huh? Just to make it look good?"
"Memo," I laughed, "don't hustle me. We're all movie buffs together. What you don't remember about All Quiet On The Western Front wouldn't fill a contact lens."
He took his cigar out of his mouth and waved it. His tiny eyes shone with enthusiasm. "Oh, you don't do so bad, either, Noon man. I never met anybody else that could tell me who played Bill Powell and Gable as kids in Manhattan Melodrama. But you knew."
"That meant something before Television, Memo. Now, it don't rate anything. Everybody can catch up now. I just happen to have a head like a sponge."
He chuckled. "What are you drinking?"
"Beefeater. And you can buy me one. I've got a date with a lady in about one hour."
"Are there any other kind?"
We both laughed while he dug out one of his fantastic wallets that was a combination bill holder and all-purpose junk box. Scraps and stubs and bits of paper strained for freedom from the thing. Memo has a notation on everything. People are always asking him things—like where's Oshkosh, who's Yehudi and how high is up?—his memory isn't always enough. He has to prove it.
Glasses clinked behind us. A woman laughed. A man's big voice rose on the punch line of a dirty joke. Morgan placed a grimy five dollar bill on the bar and motioned to the bartender.
He eyed me with what I assumed was fondness as the Beefeater filled my empty glass.
"Russell Gleason, huh? Now who the hell would remember him except an ace like you? Man, you're tough. Too tough."
"I remember every foot of that flick, Memo. Guess I've seen it maybe two dozen times. As a schoolkid and all the way up to right now. Here's to boots, boots, boots." I tilted my glass and he watched me. Memo Morgan does not drink.
If you're unfortunate enough not to know that movie, Lew Ayres and his German schoolchums are rah-rahed into enlisting in World War One by their jingo schoolmaster. For the fine glory of the Fatherland, Ayres is followed into service by Ben Alexander, Russell Gleason, Billy Bakewell and Owen Davis Jr. Alexander is sent off to war with a fine pair of leather boots. When he becomes the first casualty of the group, losing a leg at the front, the boots pass on from man to man, with Russell Gleason being the first inheritor. I had always marveled at how Director Lewis Milestone had used the boots as a gimmick to depict the death of all the fine young men. The last legatee is Ayres, until he reached for a yellow butterfly while on sentry duty in the last month of the war and is picked off by a French sniper. To my mind, it is still the finest anti-war film ever made and nobody has ever replaced Louis Wolheim's portrait of the German Sergeant who became a second father to the kids at the front. Battered-puss Wolheim with his growl and his great humanity.
I winked at Memo. "Who played Kat?"
He sneered. "Louis Wolheim. You kiddin' me?"
"Just testing. And I suppose you do know who played Lew Ayres' mother?"