Issue 27, Winter-Spring 1962
I awoke early in my apartment and rested quietly for an hour. Then I phoned my office to say that I would be in. Lucky, my secretary, was pleased, and said that she was thinking of getting married. We gossiped a few moments, then I got out of bed, slowly, and took a cold shower and shaved my beard off. I had let it grow while I was ill and seeing nobody. I regretted seeing it go and made a game of shaving, first removing one side burn, then half a mustache, then the other sideburn, until all that was left was half a mustache on a clean-shaven face. I looked like a mad Albanian peasant. I was laughing so hard I had to sit down on the edge of the bathtub.
I put on my charcoal-brown suit. I dressed neatly and carefully while listening to some of my jazz records. George Mitchell’s “Tin Roof Blues‚” which many people take for Louis, and Brubeck’s “Perdido” I put on twice, and then I went downstairs from my garage apartment and out to my car. I said hello to the woman from the yellow stucco house in front who was hanging wash in the garden we shared. “Sweet day, isn’t it?” she said. It was what she said ten months out of the year whenever we chanced upon each other in the driveway. She and her family were from Eau Clair, Wisconsin. They stayed up watching television until one or two most every morning, two sets of grandparents, husband and wife, three children. As I always did ten months out of each year, I smiled and agreed. It was very warm and sunny with hardly a breeze to move quiet, sun-blasted street.
My car was still there. I loved it. Sixteen years old, with a crushed in rear end, a torn right fender and a hood that was liable to fly open at speeds exceeding forty miles per hour. None of the original paint was left; before I bought it someone had scraped it down to its original rusty gray metallic finish which it must have had before it went under the paint spray at the Flint factory. Under the hot sun it look gruesome. My friends always said it was the kind of car hacked-up bodies of domestic murder victims were left in. I loved that old car. It ran smooth as cream. Coming back from my daily rounds at the film studios in the valley I used to beat Cadillacs and Lincolns because my car was so quick off the mark at traffic signals, not like those sluggish Firedome Eight battleships.
The top of the car was spattered with bird droppings and buds from the overhanging juniper tree under which it had been parked for the past month. I rolled down all the windows to air it out. I got in but it wouldn’t start. I wasn’t worried. It seldom did after inactivity. I got out and raised the hood and twisted the idle screw forward. When I got back in, the motor started instantly. The idle screw: it was that kind of car. I pushed open the wind vent and let the motor idle a few moments. Then I started for the office.
I felt very good driving my car for the first time in a month. I took the long way round, just to get the feel. It made the Clark Drive hill up to Sunset Boulevard in third (I had bought if for $100 after the salesman let me take it over Laurel Canyon pass without changing gears), and I turned north on the Strip towards the office, feeling better and better. The late-morning traffic was light. The Solomon Benedict Building was built into the middle of a palm-lined, grassed-up cul-de-sac where Burton Way intersected with Bedford Way and Santa Monica Boulevard. The cul-de-sac was called, legally and officially, Benedict Square. I turned in to the company parking lot and nosed in diagonally at my number, 38, between a new Chrysler convertible and a 1956 creme-and-green Cadillac belonging to fellows at the office. My car always stood out like a bloody sore thumb in that parking lot filled with gleaming new models, Lincolns, Jags, even a Mercedes, none of them ever over two years old. Status is peace carried on by other means. I had withstood a lot of pressure in not turning my old car in, and finally my bosses had put a good face on it by pointing out the old Pontiac to visiting firemen as a curio, the implication being that, of course, I had the money for a new car but felt queerly for that old wreck. Which wasn’t so far from wrong either.
“Hey, stranger, where you been all our lives!” I crossed the street and shook hands with Andy and Joel, who ran the gas station across ,the boulevard from the agency. They were war friends, wiry and peppery, in their early forties. They had married once each, and now they were living with their mother, who cooked for them and was a physiotherapist at a Jewish hospital. Joel owned a small boat which he kept down at San Pedro. For over a year he kept asking me to come sailing one weekend, and when I finally did we weren’t out an hour before we ran into a small fleet of Yugoslav tuna tugs with colored lamps and gay flags hanging all over them. Joel hollered over and got us invited aboard two of the tugs lashed to each other. Those Slavs were really jumping. Steaks, slivovitz, the works. It was their national feast day or something. We went down into one of the tugs and stayed all day, eating and drinking and singing to an accordion. The captain asked Joel to marry his daughter and Joel said sure, any time. Everybody pounded everybody else on the back and yelled “Muy drug’’ all day long. I had a ball. Joel was so drunk that one of the Yugoslav tuna sailors had to take his boat back for him. Joel’s buddy, Andy, was even smaller, and a pugnacious man. He owned the parking lot concession for the night club next door to the gas station, and his right hand tended to be bandaged from slugging drunken playboys who cracked wise about the Jews. He was thinking of going into the picture frame business because the oil company that controlled the property on which the station sat had decided to close out the business. Neither Andy nor Joel was bitter. “It’s the way the ball bounces,” shrugged Joel. “It’s their way of making a living,” said Andy. The friends were excellent mechanics and also thieves. Whenever my car needed repairs they fixed it up practically for free. But let a Cadillac or Lincoln roll in with a dirty spark plug, if they thought they could get away with it the boys would rip out the transmission and give in a bill for $400. That’s how they were. During the war, they had been artillery officers in the Pacific. Once, over Buna, both had been flying as artillery spotters when their plane ran out of fuel and crashed to the ground. They were proud of the incident and liked to talk about it.
“Where you been, boychik?” chirped Joel. Sick for a while, I said. “Sick hell,” rasped Andy, “he’s just enervated on too much pooo-oo-nn-tang.” This like to broke the boys up laughing. I must have been paler than I thought. They were being gentle. Joel said, “Say, boychik, what’s this I hear about you leaving the office?” He nodded over at the four- story pale blue penthouse building across the boulevard. “Say it ain’t so. Shoeless Joe.” I said yes, I had given notice, though I hadn’t decided just when. It might be months. My bosses were amenable. Some wanted me to stay. The consensus was, there was no rush.
Andy said disgustedly, “Ah, you’re a hothead. You need a psychiatrist. A good job like that.” Joel asked, with real concern, “What’ll you do?” I thought and said, I’m not sure. Maybe look around.
Joel cocked a quiet look at me. “Mishuga, jobs like that don’t grow on trees. Go first to a headshrinker. Andy and me went last year and he said we ought to leave Mama, remember, Andy? The goneff. He’s never tasted Mama’s knadlach. Still it was worth it for the laughs. I dated his receptionist until I found out she was going to him too. It’s a funny world.” A car drove up to the gas pumps. It was a new Imperial. Maybe it had a dirty spark plug. Joel and Andy jumped to service it, all smiles and chatter. I started to walk away. I heard Andy say, mournfully, “Hey, mister, you’re leaking oil bad.” I crossed the street. Just before I went into the office Joel shouted, ” We’ll miss you, boychik!” I waved and went inside and walked upstairs.
It was like stepping into a jungle of cold air. The air-conditioning was on. At the moment I did not feel like facing my assembled colleagues, and slipped into my private office just off the third-floor corridor. I closed the door behind me and pulled the Venetian blinds and snapped on the floor lamp. Lucy had gotten everything ship shape for me. I sat down in my red leather chair and looked through the interoffice memos piled in my IN tray. Then I buzzed Lucy. “G’morning, sweetie,” she crackled through the box. “You know, there’s a meeting.”
She always said it like that to me, half reprovingly, and also to let me know that she knew I was very bored by the ceremony of the Monday morning meeting. Of course, I said, come on in with your notebook. I sat back. Lucy, discreet person that she was, came in by the hall door. She was, as usual, brightly dressed and plangently made up, her coal black hair done up in a new-look bun, her large bright eyes heavily mascaraed. Lucy was almost fifty and had a seven- teen-year-old daughter who played tennis and was doing badly in school. We talked about her problems a lot. A few months ago I recommended a remedial teacher, a friend of mine who had been thrown out of the Pacoima school system for “past activities.” Esmeralda, my friend, had been good for the girl, and Lucy had been grateful to me. She was always being grateful for something, starting with our first week together when she knew I wanted to get rid of her. Slowly I had come to like and respect Lucy. She was a lady, a confused lady, a chronic, quite secret alcoholic and way, way out on some crazy limb of her own. She had braveness. And, also, she had persisted in liking me even though I didn’t treat her well those first few weeks. Later on, I realized just how clever she was. Though frightened and a little mousy now, she had been around a great deal. When we finally got to know each other we used to sit around in the afternoons laughing together while she told stories of her lovers. She was very fast at shorthand and bloody awful at typing. But she was my right arm. I could tell Lucy anything. She was the person I had bequeathed my apartment to.
She remained at the door. “Hello, sweetie, how do you feel?” Not half bad, I said. I got up and kissed her on the cheek. She began to cry. I had learned not to become angry when she did that. “I’m not sad, you know,” she said. Sure, I said. She sat down on the couch and began, skillfully, to wipe away the tears. How was it, being Les’s secretary? I asked.
She looked up and grinned, showing those marvelous white young teeth of hers. “Don’t ask,” she said. “I think he hates me.” He hates everybody. How’s everything around here? I asked. She gave me a run-down, what clients had departed, what new clients had come in, who was squabbling with whom, which secretary was sleeping, or militantly not sleeping, with what agent. Normal, I said. “I suppose that’s one word for it,” Lucy said.
I sat on the desk and told her I wanted to dictate a short letter before I went to the meeting. Lucy was great. She never once asked me when I was going to leave. The letter had been bothering me for weeks, all the time I was lying in bed and growing my beard and watching television from 8 A.M. to one in the morning, getting up to go to the lavatory or make myself a sandwich in the kitchen. I had even taken my phone off the hook.
It wasn’t an important letter, merely to a corresponding agent in New York to tell him that one of my clients had gone east. It had been on my mind. The client in question, a writer-director, wasn’t poor but I liked him. Also, for himself, he needed work. I consoled myself that he had probably pulled a good job his first week in New York, but I didn’t like the fact that I had delayed this long, out of laziness. Before I’d gotten sick, I had been doing things like that. If it hadn’t been for Lucy checking up on me I probably would have done more. Okay, I said, here goes. She flipped open her pad and I dictated the letter, making up an excuse for the delay as I went along. Lucy took shorthand with her legs crossed and in perfect posture. It was only last year that she had graduated secretarial school, and she was always trying to do things the correct way, even when she was half crocked. She had, considering her small body, rather long and beautiful legs. That was one thing, I don’t think she knew I liked her legs. All the while I was dictating the telephone and buzzer kept going. Lucy told them I was out.
I got up and straightened my tie. Lucy asked, before I went down to the meeting, would I go out and say hello to Shirley, my other secretary. I said I would, later. Shirley was eighteen and cute. She had visited me during my illness and had gotten into bed to watch the Democratic convention on TV with me. We had taken off our clothes and fooled around and not much else, the kind of thing you stop doing at her age. Shirley was a nice hamisheh but I didn’t feel, in view of our history, like putting her first on my list of hellos. I did not tell Lucy any of this. She had been advising me for months to get it over with already with Shirley, and I wasn’t much in love with the prospect of my two secretaries coffee-klatsching over my sexual regressions. Not that I had any assurances they weren’t already, anyway.
I said Geronimo, and slipped out the door. I had to walk down the stairs and out the side door to get in through the ornate front entrance. It was hot as a stove out, and the sun striking the cement pavement of the cul-de-sac like to blinded me. Just in case Joel and Andy were waving from the gas station, I waved back, and then the pneumatically operated door swung open before I touched it. It was that kind of thing, later to be found in the American Express building in Paris, which gave me the creeps. Involuntarily, as I always did when entering the ground-floor suite where the agency brass lived, I hunched my shoulders slightly and went into a kind of subtle crouch.
“Benedict Agency, good morning... Benedict Agency, good morning,” droned the switchboard operator, Rita, whose boyfriend was one of Micky Cohen’s hoods. Rita was attractive in an inquisitive, bulky way, but men, including myself, stayed away from her. “G’morning, lover,” said Estelle, the slim, harebrained receptionist. “Where ya been keepin’?” Estelle had just got married and had had to fight her fiancé, an orthodox Balkan from Riverside, who insisted that she shave her head before the wedding ceremony as a good wife should. Keeping cool, honey, I replied. I reminded myself to ask Lucy if she was serious about getting married.
Walking past the rows of desks I said hello to the secretaries and answered questions about my health. The doors to the private offices were open, their inhabitants already in the boss’s office for the meeting. I noticed that all the interoffice memos in the IN and OUT trays were lying face down. That was a new rule, to prevent clients from reading what the agent said about them. Clients who dropped in unannounced always complicated an agent’s job. Hermione, the outlandishly brawny office manager, stopped me. “How do you feel? Everybody’s been so worried about you.” I said, Hermione, I feel just fine, and then stepped into the solemn ceremony of the Morning meeting.
Everybody was there, in Sol’s newly decorated Swedish modernistic warehouse of an inner office, with its three-legged chairs and ceramic tables and originals on the walls and suffused lighting and the Brancusi out in the mosaic tiled garden back of the slatted picture window. All the agents were there too, pads and pencils out, ties off, some unshaven, sipping coffee or munching Danish delivered daily by Sol’s private baker. Only two women were present, Sol’s faithful secretary, Natasha, and Laura Collins, head of the literary department and Sol’s partner. The atmosphere of thinly concealed tension had a neutralizing effect: the men were demasculinized and the women defeminized. All three of Sol’s telephones were off the hook. The Monday morning meeting was sacred, used by the owners of the firm to learn what had been happening during the previous week and to present to the agents the “situation in depth,” as Laura liked to call it. It was also the meeting to discuss problems, plot strategy and where the agents had to ’fess up in public about their promises and boasts on the previous Monday. Tomorrow’s Tuesday meeting, in Laura’s office, concerned literary department problems solely. Wednesday morning the agents met again down at Sol’s for a “vulnerability” meeting: to try to detect, by joint conspiracy, which Hollywood stars were the least happy with their agents and most open to “The Approach.” Thursday morning was the television meeting, where the new pie in the sky was cut up. Friday there was no meeting. The agents could relax.
”... and I’m glad to announce that Horace Mock’s wife called to report Horace is resting comfortably at Cedars of Lebanon,” Sol was saying when I walked in. Heads turned towards me and Sol looked up. “Glad to see you again,” he said.
Glad to see you, Sol, I said, taking my place with three other agents from my floor on Sol’s expensive gold-threaded Italian-imported couch. “Also,” Sol resumed, “it is my misfortune to tell you that Bob Sylvester died over the weekend. Natasha, send the usual flowers.” “Gee, Sol,” piped up Stanley, head of the television department, “I saw Bob only two weeks ago.” “No,” said Mai, the with nest of the ground floor agents, “that can’t be right. He’s been in a tent that long.” “Oh,” subsided Stanley, almost in a grumble. I picked up my pad and pencil (embossed, like all the others, with my name in raised, sequined letters) and made a doodle. On the other side of the large, parabolic room the two agents I worked most closely with acknowledged my presence, Les with an automatic wink, Howard with a secretive grin. Whenever Howard’s ex wife, a Chicago model, came into town I let them use my apartment in the afternoons. Howard was going with a hysterical Cajun, a Louisiana swamp woman he had met at A. B. Mayer’s funeral. He was a bug on small-arms hunting but had to keep his .38 in the office for fear his lady friend would get at it. She had once been an attorney but wasn’t much of anything now except a case. Howard was my best friend in the office.
I made more doodles while the meeting got down to business. Laddie, the ex-paratrooper whom everybody but Howard disliked (Howard found a reason to like everybody), nudged me warningly. I wrote down on the pad, “Leave me alone or I’ll tell them what Frank Sinatra told me about you,” and showed it to him. He showed me the finger surreptitiously. Laddie every Monday morning announce dhow he was going to bring Frank Sinatra into the agency. By now it was an office joke.
As far as I could tell, the meeting was going off smoothly enough. Sol, the president and chairman of the board of the agency, a former dry goods peddler from the East Side of New York, was keeping a sharp, sad eye on his grammar: whenever he forgot himself with a “Goddammit!” it was usually a sign that someone in the assemblage, not excluding himself, had goofed. He wasn’t using any “Goddammits!” this morning. But you never could tell with Sol. Sometimes, to everyone’s relief, he forgot. But also sometimes, when he forgot, Natasha was at his elbow with a coy sibilant reminder, “Mr. Benedict, last week you asked me to remind you about Sophia Loren’s new contract,” and if Sophia Loren hadn’t yet signed her agency contract some agent was bound to catch it in the neck. Everybody in the room except the owners of company stock feared Natasha. She didn’t mean anything by it. She was only doing her job. And watch as closely as we could, none of us agents could ever detect the slightest glimmer of a smirk of satisfaction on Natasha’s open, American face when she unlocked a can of peas.
It was Sol’s custom to open the Monday morning meetings not with a prayer but with a soft, lugubrious report on which of the Hollywood moguls was sick, dying or dead. For the agents this pensive little service performed the duty of letting them gather their wits, gauge the boss’s temper, prepare their pitch and pop a Miltown down the hatch. That was over now. Business had begun.
“Okay, fellas,” said Sol, “what’ re our worries?” An unheard, collective sigh rippled around the room as legs stretched out, bodies fitted into chairs. The first to speak up was Chubbie, a stockholder by virtue of his mother’s having lent Sol money in the early days. He usually spoke first on Monday mornings in order to impress the company directors with his right to keep the stock and also on the principle that he who buys the first drink is ever afterwards remembered and seldom asked again. He was the schnook of the class, the one who liked to think he was capable of brazening it out with the pros of the game, a fear ridden china doll of a man cursed with just enough brains to know his own impotence. Chubbie had a psychosomatic eye twitch but otherwise would have made a perfect shoe salesman. He was a religious faddist. This year it was Vedantism, and he came to the office earlier than anyone else in order to listen to a Vedantist radio program on Station WBDO out of Salt Lake City; his wife, a friend of mine, abused and laughed at him.
“We’re in trouble with A.,” said Chubbie, mentioning an aging lady star. “Lazner Agency is romancing her hard and I think she’s going to leave us.”
“What’s the matter, fellas?” demanded Sol. “Why can’t we get work for this lady?” Several agents, including myself, reported their efforts at the studios to get A. a job. Sol broke in. “What about Wilfred Morganstern at Metro? Christ, they used to be married. Don’t he believe in old times?”
Mai Miller, the smooth swarthy agent who covered M-G-M, muttered, “I’ll work on the momser. But you know, Sol, let’s face it in the confines of this room. She’s an old lady. Dry skin. Eyes. You know. Steady Eddie Lopat, he got old too, went to Baltimore.”
“Okay,” said Sol, “we keep trying. Laura, give her a few things to read. It’ll keep her occupied.” Laura Collins replied in her dry skeptical voice. “She don’t want to read, Sol. She wants to work.” Laura adjusted her Hattie Carnegie pearlgray hat and straightened her severely tailored Balenciaga suit. She usually wore a hat in the office, always a soft felt slouch.
Sol said, “All right, so she wants to work. Find her a property.” Laura raised her eyebrows. “So then what. We going to buy it for her?” Sol thought a moment. “Nah,” said Sol. “Better she should go to Lazner. That bum.”
Mai said quietly, “Sol, then there’s B.,” mentioning a medium rank male star.
“Natasha, find out his contract dates. Mai, relax. I know he’s a problem. It’s only because he wants to play Beethoven and Schweitzer and crap like that. But he’s not in bad shape, objectively. Subjectively, let him go to a psychiatrist. He’s got no keeping money. He falls into jobs Palance won’t have. Four or five independent pictures, 65G’s plus 25 per cent, like Robert Ryan, and he’s got an insurance policy for life.”
“Okay,” said Mai, “but he’s still worried. And when he’s worried I’m worried. Chubbie, give me a hand next time he drops in. He likes you.” Mai knew Chubbie hated him for coming into the agency after Chubbie and pulling in three times die amount of business. Discreetly, he shiwed Chubbie, but when out in the open was magnanimous and seldom let an opportunity pass to ostentatiously give Chubbie a pat on the back. It cost him nothing and anyway you never could tell when Laura would start getting sentimental over the sons of those who had befriended him.
“Next case,” said Sol.
“C, ” said Jack, the resident company lawyer, a phlegmatic, unemotional negotiator who was reputed, on no hard evidence, to have won his share of the agency in a Palm Spring poker game. He was less of a lawyer and more of an agent than any of us now. “Remember how we decided to dump him last week? I asked him to come in. But one look at that mouth and I was afraid to offer him a release. I thought he’d hit me. Mai, call him and dump him.”
“Thanks a lot,” said Mai. Everyone laughed quietly.
“Oh, before I forget, you all know,” said Sol, “that Robert Sherwood died over the weekend.” Howard said, “So did Bernard DeVoto.”
Les said, “Well, Princeton beat Yale.”
Tony, the big ex-football player from Southern Methodist with a beautiful evangelist wife who went to the Tia Juana bullfights every weekend, said, “D., Sol. It’s like butting my head against a wall.” “What is it, the money?” asked Sol.
“She keeps wanting a hundred thousand,” said Tony.
“Bring her down to earth,” said Jack. “There’s nobody who’s a hundred-thousand-dollar mother in the business today.”
“So put her back on a horse,” said Sol.
Les said, “E., Sol.” Sol was surprised. “What about him?
I thought we were working him.” “Sure,” said Les. “But commissions still going to MCA, not us. Do we want it that way?” “Look,” said Jack, the lawyer, “his contract with MCA expires a year from now. Let’s keep him working on single stupids and then lock him up in a term contract some- where.”
“He wants a term contract now.”
“So don’t get him one.”
“Fellas, anything for F.?” requested Mai. Round the room a series of negatives from twenty agents. “Sol,” said Mai, “she’s a problem all right. She hocks me nice. But it’s still hocking.”
“Let’s put her in television.” said Sol. “She’s finished in movies.”
“She don’t want television. She hates it.”
“Does she hate to live? Take her out to lunch and start insinuating. Next case.”
And so it went. The problems, the dilemmas, the traffic jams, the emergencies and crises and panics. As the meeting went on, Sol’s temper shortened. He grew tougher. A large part of him hated the business now that he was almost a millionaire. He thought he belonged at a higher station in life and cursed his early lack of education. About once a month he would come into my office and I would give him a list of books. The last time we had met on the street he said, “You know, kid, Tom Jones is marvelous. Art. I hope nobody makes a picture of it.” I liked him. Considering that, on balance, I had lost him more money than I made him, he had been good to me.
In the middle of the agents’ reports he burst in with a long, passionate speech about how the picture business was dying and how the agency must adapt to television. Since everyone in the room knew that the agency had had the jump gotten on it in television by rival agencies, and was fighting a losing battle, and had heard the same fervent speech every Monday for the past year, they just waited. When Sol was spent, they got down to business again.