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In the theater, reality and make-believe blend so intimately that Tim Briscoe was convinced that he was playing the role of detective when he stumbled upon the lifeless form of Nellie Brant. But the corpse was real, even though everything and everybody else seemed fictitious.
There was the elusive man who wore dark glasses, the actress who chose sudden death as the background for an audition, the ex–silent-film star who stooged on quiz shows for his daily bottle, and Maggie, who loved him but didn't believe in the effect of too many Scotches.
This backstage mystery was written by a man who knew the theatrical world inside out. The characters and scenes are as authentic as Variety, as real as a closing notice.
Read an Excerpt
I was in bed—which IS where I usually am at ten o'clock in the morning—when the phone rang.
"What's with you? This is Nellie." As though it was necessary to tell me who it was with that croak for a voice, even if she did wake me up. I lit a cigarette because she liked to talk for a long time and so do I and she was paying for the call and I didn't have anything else to do.
"I'm still in bed."
"Well, do you think you could get that long lean brownness the hell out of that bed for a job?"
"How much? It's a nice bed."
"Twenty-five a day for maybe three days or more. Of course, if you're not interested, I got a book full of youth and beauty right here at my elbow."
"If it's more of those smoker pictures, the answer is no."
"Now, Timmy, darling, you know that wasn't my fault. They told me that short was only for advertising purposes. Besides, the money was good."
"Well, I don't need that kind of advertising yet. What's the gag this time?"
"Can you be in my office in an hour?"
"Tell me now."
"I tell you nothing till you sign Nellie's little receipt book. Do you or don't you?"
"Make it an hour and a half?"
"Who's there with you?"
"Nobody," I said. "And besides, what's it to you?"
"If there's nobody there, you can make it in an hour. Eleven sharp. Those are my last words." And she banged up the receiver.
Twenty-five bucks a day for three days…that must be a picture… maybe I can get a close-up… be nice to the cameraman and the assistant director… one good close-up… who knows what might happen? Once more into the breach, dear friends…
So I got up, showered and started to get dressed. Thank God I had a clean shirt and my suit had just been pressed, because for twenty-five bucks a day, no matter what tricks Nellie was cooking up for me, I had to be good. I got into my gray double-breasted, which is one of my two answers to a couple of my more unkind friends that I have got another suit besides a dinner jacket. I did look through the pockets of my evening clothes to see how much money I had. There was nine dollars and some change together with match folders from the Barberry Room, the Stork and the Ruban Bleu. Diana, the woman I'd been out with last night, and I had certainly been on the town. I had to get this job of Nellie's or I was going to be very, very hungry in a couple of days.
I put the money in my pocket and the folders in the bureau drawer where I save the ones from the tonier places. It sometimes impresses people when you're trying to get a job if you pull out one from the Stork or "21." I finished dressing and put on my coat and hat and went out.
The rooming house where I live was nicknamed the Casbah by one of the inmates after seeing that Boyer movie a long time ago and the name stuck. It's just off, but not quite far enough off, Sheridan Square and on Saturday nights when the visiting firemen make a tour of Greenwich Village—which usually means Jimmy Kelly's or a couple of the joints on Fourth Street—we get the usual drunks being sick in the vestibule or ringing the bell and asking for Marge. The Casbah like most rooming houses usually has a couple of transient Marges in spite of the professional jealousy of Helga who runs it, but on a Saturday night the Marges can pick their own drunks.
In the hall I ran into Kendall Thayer, who promptly hit me for a couple of bucks and I, like a dope, let him have them.
Whenever I get really depressed, which isn't often because I have a lot of little tricks worked out to keep it from happening, I think of Kendall Thayer. He's a but-for-the-grace-of-God-there-I-go lad. He's me in corn-starch. Years ago he was a very famous silent picture leading man with a swimming pool and the works, but the bottle moved in and the works moved out, and now he's ended up just another lush in the smallest and cheapest room in the Casbah, and, believe me, that's small and cheap.
Like the rest of us, he feels that a break is just around the corner, the break that will get him another movie contract and put him right back up there. After all, he says, C. Aubrey Smith and Edmund Gwenn can't live forever, just as I say that Tyrone Power and Hank Fonda and Gregory Peck weren't born on a movie set, and people lent them dimes to eat in their day, too.
Kendall manages to get odd jobs once in a while with radio audience-participation shows where they have plants in the studio. He usually gets five bucks a throw and six cakes of soap or a carton of breakfast food, which he tries to peddle to other people in the Casbah, but recently business has been off all over town.
"You going out, Tim?" he asked me.
"Yeah, got a call," I said, dealing him out the two dollars. That left me seven.
"Going to be out long?"
"I don't know. Hope it's for a job. Why?"
"I was just wondering if you'd let me have the key to your door. I left your phone number and I'm expecting a call and it's rather important. I'd prefer it didn't come over the house phone." I could understand that because the only phone besides mine in the Casbah is out in the hall and everybody knows what is said over it even before the person talking.
So I said, "Sure. Here's the key, but don't mess with my studs and cuff links." He gave me what, I am sure, back in the silent days was famous as his rueful smile, and I went on downstairs and out on the street.
I stopped at the Riker's on the corner of Sheridan Square for orange juice and coffee and went down the subway hole at exactly ten forty-five.
I took the uptown local to Fourteenth Street and closed my eyes and prayed. If there's one thing that's going to drive me nuts quicker than anything else, it's living on a local subway stop.
I used to be able to treat it as a game. But now I've gotten superstitious about it. It's become an omen, and can wreck my whole day.
If, when I get to Fourteenth Street, which is an express stop, and the express is waiting right there… it's a red-letter day. Then all I have to do is run across the platform and there I am at Times Square in two stops. But when the local pulls in and there isn't an express there, I start quietly blowing my top. It's ridiculous, I know, but so is the superstition about whistling in dressing rooms or saying the last line of a play in rehearsal. I don't suppose I make or lose two minutes either way, but this subway business when it doesn't work out right is the black cat across my path, or the broken mirror. And today when I decide I'll take a chance and change to an express, it gets lost over in Brooklyn or someplace and I know of two locals, at least, that beat me to Times Square. That was a sure sign that today was going to be a not day and I should have stayed in bed.
I got to Times Square nervous and mad and feeling like saying to hell with Nellie and going over to one of the flea-bag movies on Forty-second Street and giving my evil omens time to cool off. I would have, too, except that I had just seven bucks in the whole world, and twenty-five bucks is twenty-five bucks.
So I walked up Times Square past the Paramount Theater Building—which when I first came to New York was considered a cathedral of the motion picture or something, but is now just where high school kids play hookey with name bands. And then on the corner of Forty-fourth Street, which I had to pass to get to the Shubert Building and Nellie's office, was Walgreen's Drug Store.
When you're in grammar school, there's always a Sweet Shop or Pete's where you go after school and hang around. In prep school or high school there's the Jigger Shop or Joe's or Ye Sweete Shoppe, and in college there's the Den or Mike's, so you might know that when you enroll in the theater there would be some hangouts, too. There are, and one of them is Walgreen's Drug Store. And it's the first rung on the ladder. When you get a little bit better jobs you start dropping in at Sardi's, and then, maybe the first time you get billing, it's "21" and Toots Shor's or the Stork or Morocco, and when you're tops it's the Colony at the right table.
Anyhow, here's Walgreen's. I guess it's a good idea having a place like that. Trying to get ahead in the theater is a lonely business and any opportunity to huddle in groups is gratefully received. But I didn't have time to huddle this morning.
The little bar in Sardi's restaurant was empty except for the bartender polishing glasses. After all, eleven o'clock is a little early even for actors to start in—except the ones that can't get out of bed without brushing their teeth with a belt of gin, and they were still in bed… belting away.
Nellie's alleged office is across the street from Sardi's in the Shubert Building, and Nick Stein with a couple of polo-coated singers was already in the elevator when I got on. Nick's an assistant press agent and runs a syndicated gossip column in a lot of out-of-town newspapers. I give him tips once in a while, and he mentions me once in a while and also gives me ducats for shows he's handling, which are useful for paying back obligations and, sometimes, you can even sell them.
"What's with you, Tim?" Nick asked me. "Get any items? Did you make the rounds last night?"
"Yeah," I said. "When I think of the ulcers I save you…" I told him one I'd heard about the Broadway producer who'd been clipped for plenty by three previous wives, so now, every time he gave his current wife a present he actually insisted she sign a paper saying it was hers only so long as she was married to him. "How's that?"
"Not bad. Stop by the office with me, and I'll fix you up for a show tonight." So I rode up to the tenth floor, and Nick gave me three seats to one of his frantic flops one jump ahead of the stop clause.
Coming back to the hall with the tickets, the indicator said both elevators were on the ground floor, so it was quicker to walk down to Nellie's office. Somebody else was on the stairs a couple of flights below me. I couldn't see who it was though I could hear shoes clanging on iron treads. Whoever it was seemed to be in an awful hurry.
Nellie's roost consists of two connecting cubicles at the end of the dark corridor. Waiting actors are the only ones that ever use the tiny front room, except when Henry Frobisher is producing a play and then Nellie gets grand and installs a secretary who is usually some unemployed actor working for peanuts on the chance that Nellie will get him a job with Frobisher, which, of course, she never does.
The first room was empty when I opened the door and walked in, which wasn't unusual because most people who make the rounds have learned that Nellie doesn't show till after lunch unless she's very busy and that's practically never. By waving aside the stale cigarette smoke laced with gin that hung from the ceiling like portieres, I could make out Nellie leaning over her desk and I started to walk back to her.
I guess I must have said something silly, like "Boo! you pretty creature." I usually do, but it didn't make any difference whether I did or not because Nellie didn't hear me. Nellie couldn't hear me. Nellie was dead.
I just stood there staring at her. She was flopped across her desk and had filed herself about as neatly as anything else in that rats' nest on her old-fashioned country editor-type filing spindle. I could see the heavy wrought-iron base of the spindle jutting out around the edges of her right breast. There wasn't much blood, which is probably the reason I didn't start heaving, because in the army I developed sort of a thing about blood.
Nellie alive and kicking is nobody's dream girl. She's a chiseler, an agent, a sharpie with a shady buck. She's fat and sloppy and although she undoubtedly owns another dress, I don't remember ever seeing her in any but this mottled grayish-green job which bitchy actors are apt to swear stopped being a dress years ago and now just grows on her like moss. But all the same, I was kind of fond of her.
I felt for her pulse, which wasn't—and that's all. I've done enough of those where-were-you-on-the-night-of bills in summer stock to know better than to start juggling bodies around now.
Lying open and almost hidden under one pudgy arm and doing its bit toward helping her hair sop up the blood was Nellie's Youth andBeauty Book, which was, besides the phone and spindle, all of Nellie's office equipment. In it she kept all the names of actors and producers she knew, listed her appointments and stuffed it full of letters and bills. She must have had it refilled every year because it always had the same tooled leather cover.
Falling into the old first-act routine, I slid the book out from under her arm and looked at the page for today. As I figured, my name was down for an eleven o'clock appointment. There were three other entries ahead of mine. One I knew very well: Maggie Lanson. She was to be there at eleven, too. Nellie was supposed to have been at Chez Ernest, the chi-chi dress place at ten. The other name I couldn't recognize. There were just initials for the last name. It was Bobby LeB. and he had an appointment for ten-thirty. That was all for the morning, but in the afternoon she was to see Henry Frobisher at his office at three-thirty, and she had a dinner date with a little ingenue around town I knew, as who didn't, named Libby Drew.