Taking his unique brand of historical fiction to the highest seats of our country’s power structure, Max Allan Collins delivers a sordid tale long on wit and rich in detail. When Forrestal suspiciously commits “suicide,” the Chicago P.I. uncovers a top-secret, reprehensible alliance between the U.S. government and a Nazi cabal. With a supporting cast that includes Harry Truman, Teddy Kollek, Jack Anderson, and Drew Pearson, Majic Man is a who’s who of American post-war history.
“Heller possesses a refreshingly gritty underside, reflected in a past that encompasses a stay in the psychiatric ward, perjury, and sensitive casework for the highest levels of society and government. There’s magic of a literary kind here: full-bore suspense coupled with an ingenious take on an overworked pop-historical touchstone.” —Publishers Weekly
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The leaves were turning, but a humid summer heat hung on, a nasty, sticky reminder that our nation's capitalwith its languorous "y'all" cadence, profusion of shade trees, and palatial private homeswas still a provincial Southern town, right down to the squalor of its colored slums. The strict segregation here made my Chicago look like a pillar of racial equality, and even worse, there was no air-conditioning.
Getting around Washington in my blue two-door rental Ford sedan was a mystery not easily solved even by Nathan Heller, President of the A-1 Detective Agency (corner of Van Buren and Plymouth in the Loop, second floor). Laid out like spokes on a wheel around the hub of Capitol Hill, the primary sections of the city were labeled after the compounded cardinal points of the compassNW, SW, NE and SE.
But only that NW corner of the city seemed to count, everything interesting crammed into it, from movie palaces like Loew's Capitol to department stores like Garfinckel's, from restaurants like Olmstead's to hotels like the Ambassador, where I was staying. Along NW's 16th Street and Massachusetts Avenue were sixty or so embassies and chancelleries, not to mention various union headquarters and trade associations. The closest thing to D.C. having a Main Stem was NW's F Street where 14th Street crossed it; but even there, any night including Saturday, the lights were dim, sidewalks rolled up, most restaurants closing by eight p.m.
The only action was the occasionalcocktail lounge, like the Ambassador's High Hat; first-class hookers and bored government girls made it easy to get cheaply and/or casually laid in that town; or so I understand (besides which, bubbly blonde Jeannie who worked at the Farm Credit Administration has nothing to do with this story).
Many of the important politicians who didn't live in suburban Virginia or Maryland lived in NW, including most congressmen, as well as the client who'd summoned me hereJames Vincent Forrestal, who rented a big colonial house on Woodland Drive, behind the swanky Shoreham Hotel and overlooking the leafy vastness of Rock Creek Park.
From a modest Irish Catholic background, Jim Forrestal had stormed the Anglo-Saxon bastion of Wall Street to become a key player at the powerful investment banking firm of Dillon, Read & Company, eventually becoming president. In 1940 he traded that million-dollar-a-year position for a one-dollar-a-year job as one of President Franklin Roosevelt's administrative assistants. Not long ago Forrestal had been appointed Under Secretary of the Navy, and was currently applying his considerable managerial skills to mobilization and production.
This was the second job I'd done for Forrestal this year. The first one was a freelance Naval Intelligence job, which even today is classified; despite that mission's failure, I had apparently impressed Forrestal to the degree that he'd chosen to hire me again.
A butler tried unsuccessfully to take my hat and showed me to a book-lined study, where Forrestal sat behind a massive mahogany desk, leaning back, smoking his pipe, a thick, brown-bindered document in his hands like a hymnal. The desk was littered with file folders and loose paper, as well as several stacks of imposingly thick books (Outline of History by H. G. Wells, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years by Carl Sandburg), mingling with a banker's lamp, framed family photos, pipe rack-and-humidor, candy jar, and ashtray.
Forrestal was as tidy as his desk was cluttered: three-piece Brooks Brothers double-breasted gray worsted, gray-and-blue striped four-in-hand tie. My navy-blue tropical suit from Sears was lightweight and, theoretically, cool; but I was working up a sauna sweat, the windows closed, the chamber stuffy with the memory of stale pipe smoke. Forrestal seemed aloof from such petty matters as climate.
I approached the waiting chair opposite Forrestal, who rose and flipped the binder onto the desk, extending his hand. Surprising power resided in the small man's grip, a fact he tried a little too hard to demonstrate. Standing perhaps five inches shorter than my six feet, Forrestalslender, fit, late fortiesdraped himself in the controlled dignity of the statesman, but any air of elitist intellectualism was offset by the battered features of his spade-shaped face, with its broad flattened nose (he'd boxed at Princeton) and lipless slash of a mouth over a ball-like cleft chin.
"Thank you for coming, Nate," he said, fixing his intense blue-gray eyes on me.
"I wouldn't have," I admitted, settling into the hard captain's-style chair, "if your telegram hadn't specified this was personal."
His mouth seemed faintly amused around the pipe stem. "Not interested in government work?"
"No. And I hope this wasn't a ruse to get me back working for Navy Intelligence ..."
He shook his head. "This is a private matter, Nate ... though when we get into this war, I may call on you againto serve your country."
There wasn't a war, not yet, so I just asked, "What sort of private matter?"
"My wife," he said, and he turned one of the framed photos toward me. "Josephine."
It was a rather exotic photo, dating I guessed to the late twenties or early thirties: a raven-haired beauty in an Oriental-pattern frock clutched a large reflective glass ball, like an absurdly oversize Christmas ornament.
"Well, she's lovely," I said.
And she was: a lanky, elegant woman with large dark eyes and bee-stung lips in an almond-shaped face, the dark hair bobbed in the Jazz Age fashion, a pale beauty in the manner of Louise Brooks or the early Myrna Loy.
"She's still quite lovely," he said, with all the warmth of a scientist describing a microbe. "Jo is an unusual woman. Unfortunately, at present, she's like a fine Swiss watch whose mainspring has been too tightly wound."
"I'm not sure I follow you, sir."
The gray-blue eyes stared blankly at me for a few moments, then he said, matter-of-factly, "Let me share a bit about her background."
In my business, I talked to plenty of husbands with cheating wives or otherwise troubled marriages, and no matter how hard they tried to suppress it, the emotion showed through. Not this guy.
"Jo's a Southern girl, and well-bred," he said, gesturing with pipe in hand, "but she's always had a rebel streak. She didn't finish college, rather became a Ziegfeld Follies chorus gift. The editor of Vogue met her at a party, was impressed by her wit and charm, and soon Jo was modeling, then writing a monthly column."
That explained the photo: it could easily have been snipped from those smart, pretentious pages.
"I met her at a party myself and, like that Vogue editor, was impressed," he said. "Witty, fashionable, sharp as a tack.... I'd never met anyone quite like her. Never have since."
Some admiration had crept in his tone now, but still no emotion or, for that matter, affection.
I asked, "How long have you been married?"
"Since nineteen twenty-five. We have two sons." He turned another of the framed photos toward me, displaying two handsome dark-haired lads perhaps seven and ten, wearing short-pants school uniforms with ties and caps, attire no more humiliating than getting tarred and feathered.
"Nice-looking boys," I said.
He nodded and turned the photo back his way, never mentioning them by name. To call this guy a cold fish was to give a dead mackerel a bad rap.
"Jo did much better when we lived on Long Island," he said, leaning back in his swivel chair, puffing at his pipe. "She's a wonderful horsewoman, a frequent prizewinner, and in Manhattan she was able to pursue her various other interests ... theater, fabrics, flower arrangement, interior decoration."
"This was back in your Wall Street days."
He nodded, then shrugged, barely. "I was busy with my work and she was content to run with her circle, to '21' or wherever. Of course, even before I met her she had quite an array of unusual friendsGeorge Gershwin, P. G. Wodehouse, Eddie Cantor, Bob Benchley, Jack O'Hara."
I tried not to look impressed.
"So you've gone your separate ways for some time now," I said, trying to lay the groundwork for the inevitable suspicions of infidelity I'd surely been summoned to confirm.
"Yes, and we've both liked it that way. The problem is ... well, actually, Nate, there are two problems. The first is this town ... Washington, D.C. It's been an enormous strain on Jo, trading in Long Island and Manhattan, horse shows and café society, for this dreary parade of politics."
This didn't seem to be heading where I expected.
Forrestal was shaking his head, somberly. "Such a different social milieu, here, such a narrow focusthe cocktail and dinner parties in this town don't dwell on the arts, it's all public issues and campaign talk."
"Noel Coward and Cole Porter don't come up much," I said.
"Not as regularly as Robert Taft and Wendell Willkie." This dry reply was surprisingly close to humor. "Jo's dislike of Washington has exacerbated her other problem ... drinking."
"She had that problem before your move to D.C.?"
"Yesonly not to this degree. Not to where it was affecting her ... mental capacities."
So that was it: Jo Forrestal was drinking herself into the laughing academy.
I asked, "How's all this manifesting itself?"
The slash of a mouth flinched in something that wasn't exactly a frown but sure wasn't a smile. "I'd prefer you speak to Jo and learn for yourself. She has a job for you."
I frowned. "She has a job for me."
He pointed with the pipe stem. "Yes, and I want you to take it, and take it seriously. If you don't investigate thoroughly, if we only pay lip service to her concerns, we would be courting disaster."
Now I was completely confused. "What concerns?"
But he would say no more; he wanted me to hear it from Mrs. Forrestal's lips.
And I did, the following morning, only not with her husband around. Forrestal was otherwise occupied, off rebuilding the Navy's fleet or something. The heat hadn't let up and I was looking like a tourist in my maize sportshirt, tan linen slacks and brown-and-white loafers as I made my way toward a specific picnic table in Rock Creek Park, as instructed.
On my way from where I left the rental Ford off the intersection of the parkway and New Hampshire Avenue, I passed a white marble statue of a heroic figure poised on tiptoes with arms outstretched, as if about to dive over the landscaped bank into the nearby river, where no boatspleasure or otherwisedisturbed the glassy surface. A memorial to the victims of the Titanic disaster.
I was settling in on the bench at the rustic table, wondering if I'd just encountered an omen, when the gently building sound of hoofbeats announced the arrival of my client's wife. On the bridle path just below the slope of this picnic area, Jo Forrestal trotted up, or rather the black stallion she was astride did. She pulled back on the reins of the sleekly beautiful animal, bringing it to a stop, and swung her leg over, stepping down with the grace of a ballerina and the confidence of the experienced horsewoman.
Her white blouse with black scarf and black riding breeches and boots bespoke a chic simplicity, her black hair longer than in the vintage Vogue photo, and just as the horse was shaking its mane, she did the same with hers, the black blades of her hair shimmering into place at either side of her pale oval face.
Slender, regal, eerily reminiscent of cartoonist Charles Addams' Morticia, Mrs. Forrestal walked the horse to a nearby signpost that advised no littering, and tied it there; the stallion promptly deposited several road apples at the sign's base, whether a token of defiance or sheer illiteracy on the animal's part, who can say?
She strode confidently toward me, removing her black leather riding gloves, then extended a slender hand, which I took and shook. Like her husband, she had a firm grip, but she didn't try so hard.
"Jo Forrestal," she said. Her voice was low and melodious. "And you're Mr. Heller."
We were close enough that I would have caught liquor on her breath, if it had been there: nothing. Of course, maybe she was a vodka gal.
"Yes," I said. "But why we don't make it 'Nate.'"
"And 'Jo.' "A smile tickled lips that were wider than the Clara Bow rosebud of the Vogue photo.
"Step into my office," I said, gesturing across the picnic table. She sat opposite me, the wind whispering through the row of smoke-colored beeches that stood nearby, disinterested observers.
"Surprisingly cool here," I said, "for as hot as it's been."
She was a handsome woman of forty but looked every year of it; the dark, magnetic eyes had sunken, and drink had etched tiny lines in what was still a fine face.
"It's always cool in this park," she said. "Lovely year 'round." She gestured toward the colorful wildflowers hugging the feet of the beeches.
"Your husband said you love to ride," I said. "Must be a godsend to have this park so near your home."
She nodded. "Thirty miles of bridle paths, even a practice ring and hurdles. Saving grace of this goddamned town."
"I gathered from Mr. Forrestal that you're not wild about D.C."
"I hate this fucking hellhole."
I was glad I was sitting down; such coarse language was unexpected from so refined and stylish a lady. Shit, what was I to think? On the other hand, she was a former chorus girl.
"Do you have a cigarette on you?" she asked suddenly.
"Sorry, no. I don't smoke."
"No bad habits, Nate?"
"Not that one."
She thought that over, then said, "Jim tells me you're from Chicago."
"I went to the University of Chicagobriefly."
I grinned at her. "So did Ithe same way."
"I don't know'24 maybe? Kinda lost track."
"You were just after me, youngster. I think it was '20 when I ran off to New York. There was a town."
"Chicago or New York?"
"Take your pick. Either one is utopia compared to this shit-bucket."
These occasional profane eruptions, from so chic a source, seemed calculated to me; she seemed to want my attention. Well, she already had thather husband had paid for it.
"This burg does seem a little dull," I admitted. "There's more nightlife at a monastery."
Her eyes and nostrils flared. "You are so very right! No theater, no fashion, no art! No one to talk to, or anyway no one worth talking to. Nobody but these hypocritical fucking pompous politicians and petty fucking public officials with one hand in your pocket and the other on your ass."
From over at the signpost, the stallion whinnied, as if underscoring its mistress' displeasure.
"Okay, then," I said. "It's a dull town. We got that much established."
She laughed a little, mildly embarrassed. "Sorry. I guess I should've brought my cigarettes."
"What's really bothering you, Jo?" I asked gently. "Why do you need a detective?"
She swallowed and the confidence vanished; suddenly she seemed trembly as a bird, and the melodious voice took on an unexpected shrillness.
"It's my boys," she said. "Michael and Peter. They're going to kidnap my boys."
"I'm ... I'm not sure. This is going to sound crazy, Nate."
"Jim's made a lot of enemies. You know, everybody talks about the Nazis, Hitler this, Hitler that. But in the great scheme of things, they're nothing." She clutched my hand; squeezed. "It's the Reds we have to worry about, Natethe Reds!"
"The Russians, you mean."
"Yes, but more likely their ... minions."
"Have there been threats?"
"No, but they follow me. They listen to everything I say, they've tapped the phones, bugged our house. Why the hell d'you think I wanted to meet you in the fucking park?"
I thought, Because your house isn't air-conditioned?
But I said, "Wise precaution."
She was shaking her head; the black scythe blades of hair swung. "But it's more, so much more than just the surveillance.... I've always been sensitive, Nate. Do you believe in extrasensory perception? Psychic powers?"
"Sure," I lied.
The big dark eyes got bigger, brighter. "Well, I've had dreams ... vivid dreams. And I have good intuition, I can sense danger, the way ... an animal can. Like a horse knows when to rear up."
"Yes! And Michael and Peter, they're just boys, they're so helpless ... Michael's thirteen, Peter eleven, they're off at private school, at Aiken School ... that's in South Carolina."
"And you sense they're in danger."
"Yes. But not just them ... me, Jim, my family, my friends ... any way they can get to us. There's so much treachery all around us."
"What sort of treachery?"
She frowned, turned her thoughts inward. "I sense it, but also I catch them behaving suspiciously."
"The household staff, for one."
"You need to investigate all of them! And Jim's assistants at the Navy Department, and I'll make you a list of my newer acquaintances ..."
Her eyes narrowed. "Isn't it convenient that they've suddenly become my friends at this particular stage? Doesn't that make your hackles tingle?"
My hackles were tingling, all right, but I just said, "You're rightmake me that list, it'll be helpful."
"You may find that many of these people ... perhaps even all of them ... are working together to harm everything near and dear to me. The only person I trust is Jimand that's why I asked him to bring somebody in from outside, someone that he trusted. You, Nate."
"I appreciate your confidence in me, Jo." I patted her hand. "And I promise you I'll give this my full attention. I'm not going to let anything happen to you or your boys."
"Thank you, Nate ..."
And she half-rose, leaning across the picnic table, and kissed me full on the lips.
She was gazing at me rather lasciviously, stroking my face as I said, "You're welcome," and then she stood, the nervousness gone, the confidence snapping back into place, and strode over to her horse, untied it, mounted and galloped off.
Now Jo Forrestal was clearly nuttier than a Baby Ruth bar, but her husband had come to the conclusion that the best way to snap her out of this was for me to take her fears seriously, and do a full, for real investigation. Forrestal figured that by demonstrating to her that her suspicions had no basis in reality, his wife would return to reality, herself. I didn't know whether I agreed with this approach or not, though I did agree with his thousand-buck minimum retainer.
"This business with the Reds is my fault," Forrestal admitted to me over the phone. "I'm afraid Jo has heard me rail on about the Communist threat to such an extent that it's entered into her alcoholic delusions."
So I spent a month doing full background checks on Forrestal's household staff, his assistants at the Navy Department and Jo Forrestal's new D.C. acquaintances. I also had the house swept for electronic bugs, and kept the place (and Jo Forrestal, and later Jim Forrestal) under surveillance for several days each, to see if anybody else was watching them. Finally I spent a week at the Aiken School in South Carolina where Michael and Peter Forrestal were enrolled. I got to know the boyssweet, reserved kidsand the faculty, as well. I knew all of this was wheel-spinning, but the money was good.
And of course I discovered no kidnap plan, no electronic bugs, no Reds under any beds, and nobody conspiring against Jo Forrestal, with one notable, and possibly irrelevant, exception. As a by-product of my investigation and surveillance, I discovered that Jim Forrestal was a first-class tomcat.
This guy went out with more good-looking women than Errol Flynn, and his crowd seemed to know about it, and accept it. He frequently took babes other than Mrs. Forrestal to afternoon teas or cocktail parties, before heading downtown to one of several assignation hotels; where the Under Secretary of the Navy was concerned, the fleet was always in. If Jo Forrestal had been my client, and this a divorce case, I'd have had the goods.
When I presented my detailed report to Forrestal (which of course omitted his philandering), I gently brought the subject up.
"I may be out of line, Jim," I said, "but your wife's drinking, and her mental condition, might be her way of sending you a message."
"I don't follow you, Nate." He was again seated behind his big desk, puffing a pipe, looking wiser than Sophocles.
"Hey, maybe I'm not qualified to make this call, I mean I'm no head doctor ... but if she feels threatened, maybe it's all the dames you're bangin', on the side."
That impassive puss of his remained that way. Finally he said, quietly, "I've placed my trust in you, Nate. I hope you don't plan to take advantage of my faith in you with some cheap extortion scheme."
"Hell no. You're paying me plenty. It's just ... you got a smart, good-looking wife. She's got herself in a mental jam. Maybe what she needs is some attention from the guy she married."
"That's okay ..."
"You're not qualified."
I shrugged, and rose. "No extra charge for the unwanted advice.... You want me to present this report to Mrs. Forrestal?"
Perhaps my mentioning what I knew about his extracurricular activities colored his judgment, but at any rate he hefted my typed report and said, "No. This will be quite sufficient. Thank you, Nate."
Obviously, I'd had occasional contact with Jo Forrestal throughout the investigation, and we'd become friendly, though I'd kept my distance after that kiss she deposited on me, at our first meeting. So I wasn't entirely surprised when she showed up that night at my room at the Ambassador.
I also wasn't surprised she was drunk: I had discovered, during my tenure as a Forrestal employee, that the only time she didn't drink was when she went out riding.
She wore a classic black dress, side-buttoned and beautifully draped over her slender curves; the black arcs of her hair barely brushed her shoulders. Liquor didn't make a weaving wreck of her: the only major indications she was smashed were how hooded those big dark eyes were, and how exquisitely foul her mouth got.
Still in the doorway, she said, "I read that feeble fucking excuse for a report of yours."
I was in T-shirt and slacks, just getting to ready to shave and go out for supper. "Jo, I did a thorough job. Nobody's trying to kidnap your boys; nobody's trying to hurt you."
"Yeah, yeah," she said, and brushed by me. I had a small suite, and the outer area boasted a couch and a few chairs, as well as a wet bar with a single bottle of Ronrico rum and some warm Cokes, and a table where I could work, my portable typewriter and various field notes still arrayed there. She went immediately to the bar, fetched the ice bucket and thrust it into my arms.
"Fill it," she said.
I went out and down the hall to an ice machine and filled the bucket and came back; fixed two water glasses of rum and Coke and ice, and joined her on the couch, where she sat, smoking.
"You disappoint me," she said, taking the drink.
"The Reds aren't out to get you. Honest."
"You didn't dig deep enough. You didn't look close enough."
"I dug. I looked."
She clutched my armmy bare arm. Her nails, which were painted blood red, dug into my flesh. "They're insidious, Nate. You've got to stay on the case."
"There's no case, Jo. This town is just getting to you."
"Fucking town!" She gulped at the rum and Coke, then gulped at it two more times, finishing it. She stabbed her cigarette out and stalked over to the wet bar and was making another (with damn little Coke), as she said, "Jim's the only one I can trust. Jim, and you."
Why did I have her trust?
She settled in next to me, answering my unspoken question. "The same instincts that tell me who to suspect, tell me who to trust. And I trust you, Nate."
"Jo, nobody's after you. Really. Truly."
"Nate, you have to help me...."
And she kissed me. There was urgency in it, and something that might have been passion, and I felt her arms slip around me.
"I need you, Nate." She pressed my right hand to her small firm left breast. "Please help me."
This time she put her tongue in my mouth, and she was a lovely woman, but she was drunk, and she was nuts. Plus, she was my client's wife.
On the other hand, the asshole was catting around on her, so it would serve the bastard right....
"No," I said, pushing her gently away. "Jo, we're not going to step over that line."
"You don't understand," she said, pressing against me, slender fingers finding their way into my hair, a giddiness working itself into her voice. "My husband wouldn't mindwe've always had an open marriage, Jim and I. We've both always been fiercely independent! Free spirits...."
As free spirits went, Jo was in one hell of a cage, and her pipe-sucking Brooks Brothers husband was an unlikely candidate for tree nymph.
Besides, in shadowing both of them, I'd seen Forrestal score with half a dozen dames in under two weeks, and Jo's assignations were strictly with booze bottles.
So I pulled away, rose, poured her another drink, and stuck to my story: nobody was after her or her boys. An hourand three drinks and six cigaretteslater she seemed to be listening to reason.
She was shaking her head, staring into her sickness. "But these dreamswhat you say are delusions ... they're so vivid, Nate. The feelings seem so real."
"The feelings in you are real," I said, and took both her hands in mine and looked right at her, made sure she was looking back at me. "Listenlet me tell you something about myself that I don't tell just anybody."
She smiled sexily; and she was sexy, bonkers or not, drunk or sober. "You'd share something personal with me, Nate? Something private?"
"Yes," I said, and I told her about my father killing himself with my gun.
"He was an old union guy," I explained, "and he hated the cops, he hated the system, but I managed to get myself on the police department, and it ate him up inside. Later on, when he found out I lied on the witness stand, for money, he used my nine-millimeter to blow his brains out. And I found him like that, at his kitchen table."
Her eyes weren't hooded, now. "Oh, Nate ..."
"Anyway, I had some problems sleeping after that. I saw a guy, what they used to call an alienist."
"Yeah. And it helped."
"You think ... you think that's what I should do?"
"Yes. Talk to somebody like that, who can help you sort out the truth from the bullshit."
She just sat there quietly for the longest time; and suddenly the former Vogue model seemed like a little girl, a kid.
And in a kid's tiny voice, she said, "All right. I'll do it."
Then she kissed me again, and I might have reconsidered my noble stance where bedding her was concerned, but the truth is, I had just enough time to still make my date with Jeannie from the Farm Credit Administration (who maybe had a little to do with this story, after all). So if my conscience kept me from sleeping with Jo Forrestal, that conscience was blonde.
And that would have been the end of it, if it hadn't been the beginning.