After nearly a decade of churning out hits, Warner Bros. screenwriter Walter Adrian wants a raise on his weekly $2,500 salary. He thinks a thousand dollars more is fair—but the studio’s counteroffer is low, and dropping fast. Something is wrong, and he thinks it may have to do with communism. Though he insists he isn’t a Red, Adrian has no way of proving it. He flees to New York to ask the advice of high school buddy Jack LeVine, private eye. LeVine is broke, and has no sympathy for his wealthy friend, but he agrees to fly West to investigate his old classmate’s trouble. When he arrives, Adrian hangs dead from the gallows at the Western set on the Warners’ backlot. Behind his friend’s death LeVine finds a shadowy Cold War conspiracy, and a city far darker than anything Hollywood puts on screen.
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Hollywood and LeVine
A Jack LeVine Mystery
By Andrew Bergman
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1975 Andrew Bergman
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Walter Adrian had been nominated for Academy Awards in 1937 and 1942, for two pictures you've probably heard of—Three-Star Extra and Beloved Heart. The first of the two was a funny and noisy film about an ace reporter busting open a crime ring and getting himself a fat raise and a paid vacation. There was a lot of shooting and fast cars and dumb cops: my kind of picture. Beloved Heart was about a beautiful young school teacher dying of a dread and nameless disease, the kind that manifests itself in very white skin and very long speeches. I saw it at the Roxy, amid so much sobbing I thought I had wandered into a funeral, a funeral that had been unaccountably preceded by a stage show. I hated the picture, hated Walter for writing it, and hated myself for paying to see it. It treated death like something you see in an Easter egg and death isn't like that; it's nasty and inconvenient and enormous.
Anyhow, Walter had gotten the nominations but not the actual Oscars. He didn't really deserve to. His other distinction was that he had been my classmate and friend at the City College of New York, and unlike myself, had gone on to graduate. He became a newspaper reporter and then a scenario writer. I became a guy who lived in Sunnyside, Queens. And now, in 1947, on Valentine's Day, we hooked up professionally because Walter Adrian thought he was being followed.
It had been years since Adrian and I had last spoken. There was no rift, nothing that dramatic, just the inevitable drifting apart of friends living completely different kinds of lives. I left school in 1927 and Walter got his diploma in '28. He worked for the Daily News for four years, during which time we frequently had lunch at the Old Seidelburg, on Third Avenue, a newsman's hangout. In 1932, he sold a story to Paramount Pictures and took a train out West to see what Hollywood was all about. He saw and never took the train back. We corresponded irregularly, then not at all. In 1940, I ran into Adrian on Fifth Avenue. He was wearing a camel's-hair coat and a tweed cap, looking well-barbered and content and every inch the successful young writer. The woman he was with wasn't half-bad either, but I don't think she was in the literary line. Adrian had hugged me and pounded my back; he asked for my number and said we'd have to get together soon, to down some dark beer and talk about the old days.
Seven years later we got together. It was late afternoon of Valentine's Day and I sat in my Broadway office typing a dreary report on the tailing of an Argentinian importer named Carlos Teitelbaum. I heard the outer office door open and close and looked up to see Adrian standing uncertainly in the reception area, holding a gray fedora in his hands.
"Jack?" he said tentatively. Then he grinned. "Hey, Baldy."
"Well, Walter of Hollywood," I called out. "Come in, take a number."
Adrian walked shyly into the inner office and I rose to greet him. He didn't pound my back this time, just shook my hand and sank wearily into the overstuffed chair that faces my desk. He looked pretty awful. His thin, angular face was drawn and gray, the blue eyes had gone glassy, his slightly oversized mouth was slack and glum. Walter was wearing his black hair long; it curled around his ears and reached his shirt collar. He caught me looking and smoothed the hair back with his hands.
"Don't say it. I look lousy."
"You look lousy. How come?"
He shrugged. "Events. You haven't changed a bit though, Jack. Honestly, you're looking wonderful. When did we last see each other, before the war?"
"1940. On Fifth Avenue, in front of Saks. It was Christmas and you had a bunch of packages, including a blond one. Very nice, I remember."
Adrian didn't. "1940?" It came to him. "Oh, her." He smiled to himself, well-satisfied. "A starlet."
"It was after my first marriage. I'm married again, you know. To an incredible girl, Helen. She's almost ten years younger than I am, thirty-one, but so much wiser." Talking about her brought some color back to his face. "Weren't you married when I saw you?"
"Kind of. But no more."
I didn't feel like telling him, or hearing it myself. Being married to a private dick is no fun; it's dangerous and the money stinks. It starts with bickering, then it gets worse than that.
"Events," I said.
"Okay. Just curious."
"It's not all that interesting. Your basic falling-apart. Coffee?"
He said he'd love some, then lit up some kind of foreign cigarette with an aroma akin to what you might get off a weight lifter's jockstrap. He puffed on it and yawned. I poured out two cups of Java, handed him his, and drew a Lucky out of my shirt pocket. We sipped and puffed in silence, as if paying our respects to the memory of our friendship. It was a strained moment: we really didn't know each other anymore.
Walter must have been thinking the same thing.
"Long time, huh, Jack?"
"Long time, Walter." I stared out my window, across the airshaft. The clerks at Fidelity Insurance stood at the files, eyes on the clock, winding down another day of pointless employment. I spun back around in my chair.
"You going to tell me what the problem is, Walter, or am I supposed to tease it out of you?"
Adrian blinked and looked annoyed, not at me, I think, but at the fact that he had a problem at all. He leaned forward and tapped his cigarette into an ashtray I had stolen from El Morocco.
"I'm being followed, Jack. All over New York." He raised his head from the ashtray. "What do you make of that?"
"A pair of socks. What do you mean, what I do make of it? Nothing. I've got to have a little background. The pertinent questions are for how long, why, and by whom?"
Adrian sat back in the chair and shook his head. "I wish I could answer you, Jack. Who and why I draw a complete blank on; how long is about four days."
"When did you get into town?"
"A week ago." He remembered his etiquette. "I meant to call you, Jack, socially. For dinner ..."
I held up my hand.
"Spare me, Walter. This is a business call."
"Business—friendship. I came to you because you know me and I know you. We can level with each other. We can trust each other."
"Check. We're both great guys. Why are you in New York?"
He crossed his legs; the right one started jiggling. "I wrote a play, Destiny's Stepson." He smiled before I could say a word. "I know the title stinks, but it's a good play. Returning soldier confronts family. Obviously, I want to get it produced here. I've been meeting with some money men. So far, no dice."
"No dice? For a hotshot screenwriter? That's hard to believe."
"It's not so unusual. Theater people in the East look down on screenwriters. They resent the kind of money we make and take it out on us professionally.
They claim we can't write seriously, that we've been compromised forever."
"And that's why you can't find a backer for your play?"
Adrian shifted in his seat, looking glum. "It's the only reason that makes any sense to me," he said, knitting his fingers together.
"How about some reasons that don't make any sense," I said. "You got any of those?"
"No." It was a cold and final "no," the kind that generally precedes "trespassing."
"Fair enough," I told Adrian. The hell with it, there was no sense pushing him. "What do you want from me?"
"Find out why I'm being followed."
"You don't have a clue?"
"None whatsoever," he said flatly.
"Ex-wife, anything like that? Think hard, Walter. I'm not trying to be nosey, it's just that a tail can have its source in something you might think trivial or forgotten."
He pretended to think about it, then shook his head vigorously.
"Nope, Jack. As for my ex-wife, she got alimony, and plenty of it, for three years. Then she remarried. No reason for her to have any interest in my affairs."
I beat out a little Krupa time on the top of my desk. Adrian was as communicative as a toilet seat, but I didn't think he was holding out on me for any malicious reason. That's what bothered me: it's the ones with good intentions who get you pushed off the tops of buildings.
"What you're basically asking from me, then, is to tail the guy who's tailing you, find out who's paying him, and why."
"That sounds about right," Walter said vaguely. He was thinking about something else as he said it, then stood up abruptly. "You busy tonight, Jack?"
"How about dinner at Lindy's, six-thirty? I just want to get back to the hotel and take a shower." His eyes were pleading for a yes so I gave it to him.
"Six-thirty it is."
I walked Adrian to the door. He opened it and suddenly gripped my upper arm.
"Jack, if I made a big mistake, would you still go to bat for me?"
"Depends on the mistake and on the bat."
He smiled and his eyes relaxed. For the first time since he had arrived, Adrian was in the same room with me.
"I knew you would," he said, and left.
I went back to my desk and stuck my feet up on the windowsill. The clerks at Fidelity were getting their coats and lining up at the time clock. I felt a familiar pang and wished for nothing more complicated than to punch out with them and ride the subway home to the wife, kids, and leaping pooch. Dinner, the sports pages, radio, yell at the kids a little, and bed down with my gentle and obliging missus. Not big demands, just impossible ones.
I watched the clerks file out and wondered about the possible dimensions of Walter Adrian's mistake, pretty sure that I was getting into another ungodly mess.
Adrian had gotten there ahead of me and was waiting in front of Lindy's, taller than most of the people who swept past him into the restaurant. It was a surprising night for February, mild and wet and gusty; the screenwriter's hair was blowing about wildly and he stood tightly wrapped in his raincoat like a ship's captain in an epic storm.
"Why didn't you wait inside?" I asked him.
Adrian just shrugged and we pushed through the revolving doors into the brightly lit interior. Lindy's was a famous hangout for show business types, gamblers, and dress manufacturers who thought they fit into the first two categories. The cheesecake was legendary, but I did not really like Lindy's at all; it was full of comedians, professional and amateur, who belittled each other and pretended it was done out of affection. The camaraderie and warmth was as genuine as an electric hearth.
We got a booth near the back and ordered a couple of drinks. Adrian looked better, having shaved, changed, and freshened up.
"Where did you leave him?" I asked.
Our drinks arrived. The fat gray-haired waiter wanted to know if we were ready to order. When we said no, he grunted and walked away.
We clinked glasses.
"To old friendship renewed," said Adrian, his eyes glittering. He seemed very happy.
"To crime," I replied, delicately sipping my iced bourbon. "The tail, Walter, where did you leave him?"
"There isn't any tail, Jack. I made that up before."
He opened up his menu and studied it.
"No tail," I said quietly, as if to confirm it. I was surprised and not surprised. "You want to explain why you told me you were being followed, Walter?"
Adrian wouldn't lift his eyes from the menu.
"Don't be angry, Jack. I do need your help." He finally looked up. "But I couldn't just come in off the street and spill. I had to see how I felt with you, had to chat and get comfortable. Trust is very important in something like this."
"Like what I need you for. When you asked what the problem was, I said the first thing that sounded plausible. Being followed sprang to mind. I used it in Murder Street." He smiled. "Fooled you."
"That's not so hard."
The waiter returned and wouldn't leave until we ordered. Walter and I both opted for the brisket. The waiter tore the menus from our hands and departed.
"Okay, Walter, for real this time: what's the problem?"
The writer finished off his manhattan and coughed a bit, his cheeks flushing red. Then he folded his hands before him.
"It's kind of a long story," he began. "The background, that is."
"There aren't any short stories in my business."
"So you'll be patient?"
"I'm even patient with strangers, Walter."
He was moved by the remark. His eyes went a little wet and he nodded.
"I know, Jack. That's why I'm talking to you." Adrian rubbed the corners of his eyes. "Okay. The short of it is that my career is on the rocks."
"What's the long of it?"
"The long of it is that I don't know why."
"All right, let me try and get a handle on this," I said. "'On the rocks' means you're not getting work?"
"It is very complicated, Jack. It's hints, rumors, feelings that I get. Plus actual tangible trouble that I'm having with Warners."
"What kind of trouble?"
"Contract trouble." Adrian put one of those foreign butts in his mouth and lit up. I offered him a Lucky.
"For the love of God, Walter, those things smell like yak shit. Take a good old American Lucky."
Adrian smiled and crushed out his cigarette, accepting one of mine. I lit us both up.
"This contract trouble," the writer continued, plumes of smoke curling from his nostrils, "is very unusual, Jack. I've been on the Warners payroll since 1938 and it's the first time we've run into any problem."
"They don't want to renew?"
He shook his head abruptly, either to shut off my line of questioning or to mute the conversation until the waiter, who was setting down our two bowls of barley soup, had departed. When he was out of earshot, Adrian leaned forward and whispered.
"They are giving us money problems."
"And 'us' means you and who else?"
"My agent, Larry Goldmark." Adrian spooned some soup into his mouth, managing to drool a bit on his chin. "The bare facts are this: my current contract runs out on April 6 and we've been renegotiating since December. I was getting twenty-five hundred a week and we asked thirty-five." He looked down into the floating barley, suddenly embarrassed by the gross amounts of money he was talking about.
"Seems fair enough to me," I said. "The way prices are shooting up, how do they expect a fella to live on twenty-five hundred a week?"
Adrian did not find my remark amusing. I had not expected him to.
"Don't bust my nuts, Jack," he said coldly. The writer's moods were as wildly unpredictable as an infant's. "You can't possibly understand the role of money out there."
"I understand the role of money everywhere, Walter. It buys things: slacks, automobiles, legs of lamb, sex, fillets of fish, people."
"No, Jack," he continued, determined to beat his point through my head. "In the movie industry, money is a symbolic gauge of your standing. It measures you and determines your social and professional standing. Exactly and to the dime. Listen, I know the numbers are obscene, wildly out of line. In a world where people live and die in the streets, where children in the capitals of Europe go hungry, where Southern sharecroppers work from dawn to dusk for miserable, grotesque wages, that people should earn a quarter of a million dollars a year to write romance and trash is disgusting. In a decent society, in a society of equals, this wouldn't happen. I know all that, Jack."
Adrian had raised his voice and was punctuating his words by beating his spoon on the table. A platinum blond at the next table and her companion, a fat man with a green cigar in his face, peered at us while pretending to look down at their menus.
"You took the words out of my mouth, Walter," I told him. "Now why don't you slow down and tell me precisely what the problem is. I'll try and keep my bon mots at a minimum."
The writer slumped back in his seat and idly ran his spoon through his soup, making little waves in the bowl.
"You see, Jack," he said in an educational tone, "the studios use dollar amounts to pin labels on people: Big Star, Declining Star, Featured Player. Major Writer, Slipping Writer, Hack. It is very conscious and very, very cruel."
"And you think you're slipping?"
"That's what the negotiations tell me. And I'm baffled, hurt, amazed. I've done great work for Warners in the past couple of years. Berlin Commando grossed three million bucks, Boy From Brooklyn did two-seven. That's serious dough."
Excerpted from Hollywood and LeVine by Andrew Bergman. Copyright © 1975 Andrew Bergman. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Basically silly attempt at a noir policier. Jack Levine, a New York private detective, goes to LA to investigate an issue for a friend, who dies in suspicious circumstances. Bergman has an occasional nice turn of phrase, but the plot (related to the House Unamerican Activities Committee) is a stretch and the use of real historical characters is unrealistic.