Shep had been in the Victor Milgrim office only twice before, for two minutes of routine charm when he was first hired, and for a ten-minute monologue by Milgrim on his ideas for developing Love on Ice when Shep was assigned to screenplay. The proportions of the room met the generous standards of Hollywood’s inner circle, but Victor Milgrim had proud confidence in the superiority of taste that marked his furnishings. It was all authentic Chippendale personally purchased for Mr. Milgrim by Lord Ronald Acworth, World-Wide’s British representative. As in his film productions and his racing stable, Milgrim had demanded the very best. Not even previously imported Chippendale would satisfy him, lest he should be inadvertently duped by reproduction. The possibility that a copy could be rung in on him from the British Isles did not suggest itself to him. Although his knowledge of England was limited to a few ceremonial tours, Milgrim had an abiding, almost mystical devotion to the Empire. Several people had seen him cry unabashedly, even ostentatiously, at Edward’s abdication speech.
The mellowed mahogany was set off by rich wine-red carpeting, eighteenth-century brass and royal blue draperies selected by one of Hollywood’s more discriminating decorators, Fanny Brice. One entire wall was lined with books in fine leather bindings, mostly sets, Shakespeare, Thackeray, Hardy, Galsworthy, Kipling, Shaw, with a few of the American bestsellers that had inspired Milgrim films. One of the sets elegantly bound in full morocco consisted of all the scenarios of Milgrim productions, some thirty-seven of them, all with the name of Victor Milgrim stamped across the backbone, the embossed gold letters seeming to add the name of Milgrim to the immortals among whom it stood. On the walls behind the great mahogany desk were handsomely framed 11” X 16” autographed photographs of President Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Ambassador Kennedy, the Duke of
Windsor, Bernard Baruch, Winston Churchill, James B. Conant, Thomas Lamont and Governor Merriam of California. Mussolini, on whom Milgrim had made an official call in 1935 when his film Moll Flanders had won the Italian cinema award, had recently been removed. Now that Merriam had at last gone down in defeat to make way for the candidate who inherited the following of Upton Sinclair, the big bald head with the dull political face would probably be removed too. Milgrim was nominally a Republican, just as he was nominally a monogamist, but his first loyalty was to success, contemporaneous success. Even last week’s would not do. Having fought his way up from borderline illiteracy to the point where he could discuss literature with Somerset Maugham in an accent that had more in common with Maugham than with his childhood neighbors, it was only natural that he should identify himself with and cultivate the main line of prestige. Archbishop Cantwell, Henry Luce, young Vittorio Mussolini, fresh from aerial triumphs over naked Abyssinians, whoever held, for almost any reason at all, positions of prominence, were honored guests of the studio.
The wide expanse of the Milgrim desk supported hundreds of items, pieces in an endless game played between Milgrim and Miss Dillon. He was always snatching things up and laying them down on the wrong pile; she was forever rearranging so that the huge desk should not appear cluttered. At the moment Miss Dillon had gained the upper hand. In fifteen or twenty neat piles were scenarios to read; multiple note-pads to catch the happier results of “thinking out loud”; the schedule of appointments for the week, professional, social and the large category in which these intermingled; regret-letters to sign, letters to schools and institutions, flattering letters to people who in large ways or small could be of service to World-Wide Productions; a letter to an old friend refusing a loan of five thousand dollars; a check for $7800 lost to Val Steffany, the agent, at the last Saturday-night poker game; several advertising lay-outs for Desired from which he was to pick the one he liked best; the stills of a dozen undiscovered ingenues from whose ranks Milgrim hoped to select the ideal Heather for his next five-million-dollar epic; a file of B.O. returns on his last picture and the week’s reviews; the evening papers with those parts marked by Miss Miller that would be of special interest to him (Miss Miller, waiting for her chance to be promoted to assistant producer, even red-penciled story possibilities in topics of the day).
On one corner of the desk was a framed title page of the scenario of his first triumph, Orphans of the Night, autographed by the entire company. The director of Orphans was a charity case at the Motion Picture Relief Home now and the female star, Betty Grant (about whom people would say occasionally now What ever happened to Betty Grant?), had just been told by Miss Dillon that Mr. Milgrim was engaged in finishing one picture and planning another and could not say when he would be free to give her an appointment. On the other corner of the desk was a color photograph of a creamy full-length Alexander Brook painting of Mrs. Milgrim, the former English beauty Maud Leslie, painted some years ago, though not so many as the glossy youthfulness of the face would indicate.
Milgrim was tilted back in his chair with his hands to his eyes in a gesture of weariness when Shep approached. “Hello, Shep,” he said (last time it had been “Stearns”), rising to extend a limp hand that had been for too many hours making notes, turning synopsis pages, picking up phones, shaking other hands and emphasizing decisions or suggesting emotional nuances. Who’s Who had Milgrim down for not quite forty, though his hair was thinning rapidly and what remained had long been prematurely gray. He was not a handsome man but he dressed in such excellent taste and had such an abundance of personal magnetism that he would have been immensely attractive to women even without the glamour of his office.
“How about a cup of coffee?” He buzzed for Miss Dillon. “My doctor tells me to cut out coffee, but how the hell can I stand this grind if I don’t take something to keep me going?”
He smiled the smile that melted hard-trading agents and headstrong directors, softened bitchy stars, warmed cynical playwrights, and charmed beautiful women.
Shep just sat there waiting. There was nothing to say. Milgrim had seemed to make it clear that he did not really consider this a two-way conversation between equals. Milgrim was being the good guy, the rare creature of success who manages to remain a regular fellow, who somehow achieves high office without the usual medieval maneuvering. Shep was conscious of admiring a performance rather than responding to his appeal. He merely wondered when Milgrim would work the conversation around to Love on Ice. He wished he could come right out, lay it on the line, Well, Milgrim, am I in or out?
Milgrim sipped his coffee slowly, and Shep could see that he even drew satisfaction from these periods of let-down, as the cross-country runner measures his achievements by the muscle aches and the painful breathing. “The trouble with me, Shep,” Milgrim began a confession the young man was sure he had recited many times before, “is that I put too much of myself into every picture. Too many details, too many responsibilities, it’s what killed Thalberg. But I’m not just trying to make another Box Office Champion. I’ve got to make sure every picture with my name on it”—
—“Five or six times,” Shep thought irreverently.
—“has the Milgrim feel to it.”
“Playboy was a marvellous job,” Shep put in for punctuation. “I honestly didn’t think you could change so much of what Synge wrote and still come so close to the original flavor.”
Shep heard himself say this as if he were sitting on his own lap, both dummy and ventriloquist. Why, he wondered, are we left no area between outright rebellion and groveling sycophancy ?
“I dreamt of doing Playboy ever since I saw the Abbey Players do it on Broadway when I was only an assistant producer.” Mil-grim rewarded Shep with another smile for having introduced one of his favorite subjects. “I knew I could lick it, even if it did take me twenty-three writers, and I wound up having to write most of it myself. You don’t make pictures like Playboy for money. No, that was a labor of love, just like I Die But Once.” Die was last year’s historical fiction bonanza, which had just been released. “Naturally I’m not in business to lose money. But something Irving told me when I was a kid I’ve never forgotten—” the voice lowered in reverence as the local saint was invoked—
“ ’Pictures are more than a great business, Victor. They’re a social responsibility.’”
While Milgrim paused dramatically, Shep tried to imagine what possible connection there could be between social responsibility and Love on Ice.
Love on Ice seemed to be completely sidetracked in the teeming depot of the Milgrim mind. “Shep, the trouble with this business is that there’s too many people in it who have no real loyalty to it. All they’re doing is selling their minds to the highest bidder. They have the same sort of contempt for pictures that whores have for the act of two-dollar passion. They just don’t have the foresight to see that our medium is going to begin where the other arts leave off.”
Like all first-line salesmen, Milgrim was his own best customer. The coffee and the benzedrine, brewed together on the inextinguishable blue flame of his ego, were producing a characteristic regeneration. Throwing off the weight of fourteen hectic hours in this office, he rose from his chair and began his famous pacing. Although Shep knew he was saying whatever came into his head, his words had the timbre of brilliance. Since the death of Thalberg, so many people had turned to him in their need for a substitute genius that he had answered the call.
“Twenty years from now, if we can keep improving our product as much as we have since the War, the Hemingways, Fitzgeralds, the Wolfes and the Hallidays will start out as screenplay writers instead of novelists. Wait and see if I’m not right, Shep. The great American writing of the future will be done directly for the screen.”
Shep, waiting for Milgrim to come to the point, wondered how much this heady alchemist knew about “the great American writing.” It was studio-writer talk that the only form of writing with which Milgrim was acquainted was the synopsis. Perhaps his knowledge of modern American literature had come to him in that same easy-to-swallow capsule form. But he had the chameleon talent for taking on the intellectual coloration of whatever idea he happened to fasten onto. An accomplished rustler of the mind, he could sneak into other people’s intellectual pastures, ride herd on their ideas and quickly brand and market them as his own.
“The Sun Also Rises reads like a screenplay …” Milgrim had this bone in his mouth, Shep conceded. But where was he running with it? “Almost all dialogue, dramatic climaxes, description stripped to bare essentials. And Farewell to Arms—that was pure pictures. And wasn’t Fitzgerald writing movies when he had Gatsby staring across the Sound to the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock? And look at Halliday—God knows he wrote like an angel—you could never get on film the marvellous style, but the characters, the scenes—the party in the Nogent hospital in Friends and Foes, and that drunken ticker-tape dream in The Night’s High Noon… I’d make that in a flash—if I could only lick the Hays Office angle …”
Only Shep’s outer ear was listening to Milgrim now. Withdrawing from this room, from the self-hypnotic music of the Milgrim profundities, from the momentary anxieties of his own film career, he was with his own thoughts of Manley Halliday. That assignment in American Lit—The Night’s High Noon. He had taken it back to the dorm to skim through for a quiz next day, found himself reading and marveling at every line, and had hurried to the library as soon as it was open to get more of Halliday.
Whenever Shep thought about the Twenties after that—and he thought about them often, drawn toward them with an incomprehensible nostalgia for a world he never knew—he was really thinking about The Nights High Noon, Friends and Foes, The Light Fantastic and even the lesser novels and short story and essay collections.
As a child of his time, Shep belonged with the school of social significance, but at odd moments, like the clandestine cigarette smokers behind the school-yard wall, he would sneak off to his admiration for Halliday, the grace of the prose, the interest in people rather than programs, manners rather than class doctrine.
“By the way, have you ever read Halliday?” Milgrim was asking. “Do you like his stuff?”
For a moment Shep just looked at him. “Do I like his stuff? I think he was up there with the best we had.”
The Milgrim smile was a little smug and possessive. He always smiled for things he had or for impressions he wished to make.
“Think you’d like to work with Halliday?”
“Work with Halliday! Are you kidding? He’s dead, isn’t he?”
Milgrim looked at the young man and smiled the smile of superior knowledge. “He’s in the next room reading your script.”
The rest of what Milgrim said was lost on Shep. Manley Halliday in the next room. (Manley Halliday in the next room.)
“If he likes the set-up he’s going to work on it. I thought I’d keep you on with him. The scene is your college, so you should be able to help out a good deal with the background. And I’d like you to check over his dialogue. Probably a lot of new expressions you can drop in to make the kids sound right. Like this word meatball you use, and wet. Manley” (the chilling effect of this casual use of the great name drew Shep back to the conversation) “may be a little out of date. Come on in and meet him.”
For the second time that day Shep felt himself going through the motions of simulated casualness. Shaken, mystified, he followed Milgrim through the doorway.