Shep had breakfast as usual at Armstrong-Shroeder’s. The waitress—a pinch-faced little woman not nearly so sour as she looked—brought him the customary grapefruit juice, Danish pastry and coffee. In the headlines Il Duce was hailing the achievements of his Blackshirts in Spain. It was all over. Three do-nothing years of sophistry and hypocrisy. Shep wondered, with a mouth full of coffee-cake, whether this meant bankruptcy for the Western world. Non-intervention, “neutrality,” Munich—once more the clocks of the world seemed to be striking 1914. Everyone who came back from over there read the same signs in the darkening sky: war, this year or next. Suddenly Shep was overwhelmed with a sense of his own non-intervention. What was there to show for all his political passion (or was it merely political irritability?)—some meetings, some money, a few half-convinced friends brought around to the Government side, a telegram to Roosevelt urging an end to the embargo? Yet, Hollywood as a whole had done its share. If every community in the country had responded as well…
“Say, you’re coming up in the world, Shep. Got your name in Parsons’ column. Lemme show ya.”
The waitress lifted the paper from the counter and pointed out the item linking him with Halliday.
“Will ya still come in for breakfast when ya get two thousand a week?” she mocked him cheerfully. “Betcha won’t be able to get up so early in the morning then. Prob’bly stay in bed till noon with some glamorous movie star.”
“Oh, sure,” Shep said, uninterested, but going on with it to humor her. “With a couple of shiny Ethiopians bare to the waist fanning us with palm fronds.”
Seeing Halliday’s name in print, in the same line with his own, Shep’s optimism leapt high. He had been writing down on Love on Ice, shamelessly, or was it shamefully. But now, with Manley Halliday leading the way, they’d turn this into a real sleeper. Mil-grim had wanted a moderately priced, conventional success to balance some of the extravagant prestige pictures he liked to make. But surely Milgrim couldn’t expect routine competence from Manley Halliday. Shep drove on through the bright winter morning to the studio with his mind full of day-dreams.
The top floor of the Writers’ Building was a kind of attic, an architectural after-thought where junior-writers, technical advisers and other semi-entities were assigned to cubby-holes partitioned by beaver board. Through pull with the janitor, Shep had managed to promote a decrepit couch, though possession of a couch was usually a sign of scenarist affluence, or at least respectability.
But the second floor presented an impressive row of offices, spacious, with new Venetian blinds, and lamps and furnishings as tasteful as those in a good, second-class hotel. These were appropriate domiciles for creative personnel enjoying honorariums of from five hundred dollars a week up.
As Shep approached Halliday’s office, he passed an adjoining door on which a desperate humorist had written:
SCRIPTS Cleaned, Pressed, or Written
While You Wait!
Nice clean work done here or your money back (if you can run fast enough) H. Kurtz
Shep announced himself to Halliday’s secretary, observing that even the stenographers on this floor seemed younger and prettier. Had Mr. Halliday come in yet? No—well, he guessed it would be all right for him to go in and wait in his office. They were going to work together. “Oh, you’re Mr. Halliday’s collaborator.” The girl took this as a matter of course. After all, Manley Halliday had no important screen credits like John Lee Mahin or James Kelvin McGuiness.
On the desk Shep saw every preparation had been made for the immediate application of genius. There were the long, yellow, ruled writing pads. There were the dozens of gleaming pencils carefully sharpened to pin points. There were the scratch pads on which genius could doodle and experiment. There were the erasers, with which genius could rub out that rare mistake. On the typewriter stand waited a resplendent machine, freshly oiled, with a new ribbon. Everything, Shep thought, was marvelously virginal. The bridal suite awaited only the arrival of the groom who would apply his pencil to the germinal conception.
Shep sank into an easy chair to scan The Hollywood Reporter. In a few minutes he knew almost everything there was to know about what had happened in Hollywood in the past twenty-four hours. He knew whose preview was SMASH B.O. and whose was just OKAY. He knew who had been penciled in for the lead opposite Gable and who had been planted at Warners’. He guessed the name of the what director whose car was reported to have been parked all night outside the Bel Air home of what g.g. (the abbreviation automatically recognized for glamour girl) and he knew what famous couple it was, mistakenly reputed phtting by a rival columnist, who were actually more thatway than ever.
When the girl in the outer office said she was going down to the commissary for coffee, Shep realized it must be 10:30, time for the mid-morning break. Halliday was yet to make an appearance. He had noticed that the time at which a writer began his working day corresponded roughly to his socio-economic standing— junior writers in at 9, $350 writers at 9:30, $500-$1500 writers at 10, and from two thousand a week up, 10:30 or II, when they did not enjoy the privilege of working at home.
When Shep heard Halliday coming in, shortly after eleven, his sense of exhilaration was so intense he wondered self-consciously whether he should rise. Halliday came in coolly self-possessed. If this was Shep’s idea of how a great man of letters should enter a film studio, it was no less Halliday’s. For he had thought it out quite deliberately. It was not a putting on of airs but an arming for the fray.
They said good morning quite formally. Shep put his hand out and Halliday touched it and gave it back to him. Neither of them seemed to know how to begin. They were both shy men, really, and the process of creating anything in pair, even so public a document as a screenplay, was embarrassingly intimate.
Halliday looked up and studied Shep. The boy smiled at him nervously, ill at ease. He seemed like a nice boy. Big-boned, husky, good-natured, easy-going. Twenty-two or -three. That wonderful age. He had been twenty-three when he finished friends and Foes, twenty-four when it came out. That was the way to be twenty-four. God, how right he had felt when he was twenty-four. These writers today didn’t seem to click that young any more. They had to develop, and they didn’t do much of that. They weren’t naturals.
But the boy was waiting, with his brown mooncalf eyes … oh, hell, this was the trouble with pictures; it wasn’t writing, it was diplomacy. He would have been wonderful at it once when he wasn’t so tired. But in those days, of course, he hadn’t needed pictures. He had been able to indulge himself in a lofty contempt for movies. Halliday sat down at the desk.
“All these writing supplies inhibit me. When I was writing my books I was always trying to find a pencil. And my portable was forever getting stuck.”
It was Shep’s cue to tell him some of those stories of writers’ Hollywood debuts. A writer is applying for a job. The producer hands him a pencil. “You’re a writer—go ahead and write something.”
“Yes, they were telling that one fifteen years ago,” Halliday smiled. “And the one about Maeterlinck. Goldwyn—I suppose it’s always Goldwyn—handing him a big pencil and saying, ’Now I want to see this worn down to here by five o’clock.’”
Shep had a few new ones. At least they helped postpone the question of just how you go about starting to write a nonsensical musical with a Manley Halliday. Dorothy Parker leaning out the window of the Writers’ Building screaming, “Let me out of here—I’m just as sane as you are!”
Halliday smiled thoughtfully. “Yes, that’s a good one. Those are really anxiety stories. The age-old protest of the weak against the all-powerful.”
Shep felt flattered.
“Of course we have our Guild,” he said. “We’ve gained some concessions for screenwriters—a little more dignity.”
Halliday looked at him. Yes, he was perfectly sincere, perfectly sincere and fairly intelligent. So he would not tell this young man how much he disagreed.
“A screenwriter, in fact no kind of writer has any dignity unless he can control his own material,” was all Halliday said.
“Maybe that will come some day,” Shep said.
“In a major industry like this one—with a bigger market every day? I don’t see how.”
“I thought I was supposed to be the materialist.” Shep grinned.
“I’m not completely opposed to dialectical materialism” (with a kind of inverted snobbery Shep was surprised that Halliday even knew the term). “I think it’s an interesting theory. It only becomes eye-wash when it’s used to explain everything. Then it seems to me to become cant.”
“I don’t know,” Shep said. “When you try to understand the dynamics of civilizations the main idea still makes sense to me— the kind of society we have at any particular time is decided by the methods of production.”
Halliday looked at him, faintly interested, faintly amused. “I’m not sure you aren’t right.” And then he added, “But I’m not sure you are, either.”
To Shep, this was an almost incomprehensible statement. Quick to read this in his eyes, Halliday said, “That’s probably the biggest difference there is between our ways of thinking.”
The scream of the noon siren brought a violent punctuation to their exchange of definitions.
“Good thing Milgrim hasn’t got a dictaphone in here, Mr. Halliday. We’d be arrested for taking money under false pretenses.”
“Yes, how did we get so far from what we’re being paid to talk about?”
“I’m afraid it’s my fault. There are too many things I want to ask you.” “Don’t worry. We’ll give Milgrim his money’s worth. We need half a day to get to know each other well enough to work together.”
He picked up the little four-page trade paper and began to examine it. This two thousand a week was easy money. But his mind kept throwing up barricades to keep that college musical at safe distance. Running down the Rambling Reporter column, Halliday read out an item describing a spectacular rhumba danced the night before by a pudgy, elderly producer and a new Latin starlet called Conchita.
The dark, youthful grace of that girl in the arms of an aging fat man aroused in Shep an unsophisticated bitterness. “These pretty little girls in the arms of those ugly old men—I should think there wouldn’t be enough money in the world to make them do that.”
Halliday put the trade sheet down and looked at Shep tolerantly. “If you’ll forgive me, that’s your youth talking. These old men have more in common with those young girls than you’d have. The same sort of people, inside. They’re both interested in money.”
Halliday’s thinking was full of surprising little turns and twists. It was difficult to label and Shep always felt a little lost away from his cubby holes. He couldn’t even be sure if Halliday were conservative, liberal or radical. He simply seemed to be standing off and observing his world with an indefinable blend of romanticism and cynicism.
Halliday was making a few tentative scratches on one of the pads. Shep was tempted to bring up some of the questions he still wanted to ask about Halliday’s books. But when he saw that Halliday apparently had no intention of settling down to their story conference, he wondered if his role in the collaboration shouldn’t be as a kind of sergeant-of-arms who calls the meeting to order.
“Mr. Halliday, I’d a hell of a lot rather talk about your work than this script of mine, but, well, if you could tell me more of what your objections were, maybe that’d help get us started on a new line.”
Halliday rubbed his fingers over his eyes and tried to concentrate. “Well, even in a light romantic comedy like this, I’d like to see an authentic background. The campus in your story is the familiar Alma Mammy, complete with cheerleaders and coeds from Central Casting. You and I ought to be able to do something a little better than that. Even if we can’t do anything revolutionary, maybe we can make it look as if we’ve been inside an American college.”
“I started out to make it my own school.” Shep was a little shamefaced. “But then I began to make concessions to what I thought Milgrim’s idea of college would be. By the time I got through I guess it was a casting director’s dream.”
“I believe in starting from a real base, Stearns. Even fantasy has to have a keel. Where is our college? Is it U.C.L.A.—so much like a movie campus that it’s another of those cases where art and reality begin to overlap? Is it one of the big Mid-Western State campuses? Or a middle-size school like Oberlin? Or is it Yale or Princeton, or Amherst or Williams, or Dartmouth, Colgate or Webster? The quality of our campus is bound to influence the kind of story we tell.”
“Okay. That’s a good start. I picked Webster because I thought an Ivy League college would give us more contrast. A short-order waitress coming to a big U.C.L.A. or Ann Arbor dance is much less of a story.”
“Webster …” Halliday was trying to give it serious thought. “No place for scholars or snobs. None of your Yale or Princeton aristocracy, except a few who wander in by mistake. Couldn’t pass their college boards or something. When you think of the undergraduate body of men, unimaginative, rather wholesome, future solid-citizens, high-class Babbitts, from middle-class families that are well-fixed rather than wealthy in the traditional sense. Not much artistic life—maybe a few outdoor poets who also ski very well …”
Shep had to grin at this snapshot of his college. “That’s a little hard on us, but pretty much true. Of course Webster was shaken up a good deal by the depression. The depression was our World War. Only we reacted to it almost exactly the opposite from the way you did. From everything I’ve read—here I go talking about your books again—the young intellectuals staggered away from the War as they would from a terrible accident. All they wanted to do was forget the whole dirty business. And if Wilson and his Fourteen Points was Democracy, you could have that too. Just leave me alone, you all seemed to be saying. Let me have my fun and let me have my thoughts but don’t give me any petitions to sign and from now on keep your goddam causes to yourself.” Halliday was listening carefully now.
“Yes,” he nodded encouragement to Shep with a smile so gentle it seemed to belie the words that accompanied it. “Guilty as charged.”
Shep was on his feet, popping his ideas with an enthusiasm that Halliday found rather attractive, if somewhat silly.
“Our machine had been in a smash-up too. But we wanted to remain on the scene of the accident and see if we could fix it. We thought we could save it. Instead of a lost generation, I guess you might call us a found generation. We found out what was wrong. We were pretty damn sure we’d have something new out of all this mess that would be better than anything you had before.”
“We had our tinkerers, too, our socialists, anarchists, Tolstoyans…”
“No, Mr. Halliday, those were freaks. When I was at Webster, nearly all the intellectuals thought this way. In your day I probably would have been a young snob who wrote bad sonnets for my friends. But at Webster in ’35, my chief inspiration was the strike in the nearby marble quarries. And the big worry was, how to find a job when we got out.”
“In my day,” Halliday said, “the world was waiting with open arms—all the better to crush you with, my dear. Anyone from one of the colleges who had a fairly respectable record—hadn’t raped the Dean’s wife, at least not publicly—could step right into a good New York job. At least—and maybe this is what gives any period its character—he thought he could. Our problem was, as you say, the other way ’round—were we offering ourselves to a system that rolled us flat and stamped us out like sheet metal?” “The question Ted Bentley kept asking himself.”
“Exactly. High Noon was important because it ran head-on into the central moral dilemma of our day. Wealth was supposed to be everybody’s goal, yet Ted Bentley only began to feel like a failure when he gave up the small salary of a faculty member for the big money on the Street. He had a foot in either world and satisfaction in neither.”
“God, it is striking how completely opposite your problem was. Yours was such a world of material success. But the world we found was a world of material failure. When the pump runs too fast you say, ’There must be something in this world more precious than water.’ But when the pump doesn’t run at all, all you can think of is to try and get a couple of drops on your tongue.”
“Yes, that’s true,” Halliday said. “We talked of Rimbaud and Baudelaire and Pater. You talked about strikes and fascism and Public Works. But, Stearns, from an artistic point of view, I can’t help thinking we had a little the better of it. Our age forced moral decisions on us that seem to me to make for better art. In this decade of yours, a playwright like Odets yells STRIKE and everybody puts him up with Chekov and Ibsen. You can talk about your Depression Renaissance, these Writers and Artists Projects and all the rest. But just think of what we had: The Waste Land and Pound and Cummings—your poets are midgets compared to them—and our novelists. Why, in one year, 1925, we published An American Tragedy, Arrowsmith, Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer, and The Great Gatsby. And books by Ellen Glasgow, Willa Cather, Tom Boyd, Edith Wharton, Elinor Wylie and some I’ve forgotten. Yes, and our stage was alive. We had O’Neill of course, and the Theater Guild really stood for something and there were intelligent plays by George Kelly, Max Anderson and Elmer Rice, Don Stewart—Eddie Mayer. And we had actresses, Cornell and Helen Hayes, Judith Anderson and Laurette Taylor, and Pauline Lord, Jane Cowl and Ina Claire. Oh, sure, they’re still around but believe me, they aren’t the same. We were all in love with our stars—maybe that made the difference. There was something special about those days. People were wittier and they did things better. And we knew how to give them that feeling that they were better than anyone had ever been before. Look at our athletes, Bobby Jones and Johnny Weismuller, Red Grange, Babe Ruth, Tommy Hitchcock, Hobey Baker and Dempsey and Tilden—they weren’t only champions, they had a grace, a spirit, they knew how to be champions. I don’t know, maybe I’m just getting to be a crotchety old man, but it seems to me our magazines were better, the Mercury, and Vanity Fair, and the New Yorker was even fresher and more alive. And the songs, why were our songs so much better, Embraceable You and My Man and Who—I’ll never forget the first time I heard Marilyn Miller sing it—and the Garrick Gaieties, Now tell me what street compares with Mott Street in July … you don’t have anyone who twinkled like Marilyn Miller, haunted you like Jeanne Eagels—I even think our movie stars were better, Valentino was so much more what he was than any of yours today, and Doug had more energy and Pickford and Gish were more wistful, and Barbara La Marr and Swanson were more stunning and Carmel Meyers was wickeder and Colleen Moore was cuter and Alyce Joyce and Billie Dove had that breath-taking beauty you don’t see any more. And we had Lindy. God how we loved Lindy. Maybe that’s what’s gone—that capacity for abstract love. Anyway, it seems rather symbolic, doesn’t it, your Charles A. Lindbergh, the appeaser and our Lindy, the blue-eyed boy, the Lone Eagle, Horatio Alger in an airship conquering space.”
Shep noticed patches of color faintly flushing Halliday’s cheeks. Shep had seen men proudly possessive of a college or a club, able to enjoy the achievements of classmates or fellow-members as if they were their own. But he had never been confronted by vicarious pride extending over an entire decade.
Even while an inner voice cautioned Shep not to be carried away, that borrowed nostalgia seized him again. Damn it, it had been more fun in those days—at least there were no wars or breadlines to threaten them—they had enjoyed that exhilarating sense of kicking over traces—and there was a special glow around a Marilyn Miller, a Helen Morgan. And there was some special happy-go-lucky zing to Sweet Sue and The Girlfriend. Yes, and the writers were all originals, from Eliot and Pound to Hemingway, Lewis, Dos and Halliday. Sometimes you despaired of your own decade-on-a-hotseat. These Troubled Thirties that had smothered all those bright candles cheerfully burning at both ends. Sometimes you wearied of the voice of crisis forever simpering at you through the inexhaustive vocal cords of H. V. Kaltenborn, always there to explain away the inexplicable. What a jolly, irresponsible year 1925 must have been, with stocks going up, gin going down and nothing more serious to worry about than this morning’s hangover. And yet, as Halliday had pointed out, it wasn’t all glitter, jitter and right-off-the-boat. There was that serious work, damned hard work and damned good work; strange how the decade that had made a virtue of irresponsibility produced more responsible artists than any American decade before or since. The big writers had been producing in those days, with books appearing regularly in healthy flow. There was nothing like it now.
It was painful and disorienting: Halliday standing up for his heroes—his beauties—his songs. For here was tacit acceptance of the morbid arithmetic that he had ceased to live beyond 1929. Actually, Halliday had been—was still—a young man in the Thirties. Yet he seemed to see nothing strange in regarding the Thirties as an age in which he was only an interloper, if not a phantom, a man who spoke of himself as ten years dead.
A momentary silence had fallen over the conversation after Halliday’s backward flight. Hold on to yourself, Manley. He had not meant to give way like this. Trying to pick a locale for the story, discussing Stearns’ college days, 1925, Marilyn Miller and Jeanne Eagels—Lord, what a hopeless meander. Damned unprofessional, this wandering off from the starting line. Probably would have been healthier to draw a collaborator who never heard of my books—who didn’t give a damn for the Twenties … Funny, when I think of home, I don’t think of Kansas City, I think of those years, a gracefully swinging cantilever bridge gaily illuminated by twinkling evening lights. Now I know the Twenties were just a ten-year stretch to be followed by another ten-year stretch—and another, and another …
“It must have been a fascinating period all right,” Shep was saying. “I wish to hell I had seen it. But from the point of view of economic morality, it was bankrupt as hell, wasn’t it? All that crazy speculation, people buying stuff they didn’t need, with money they didn’t have. And all the fat cats repeating ’Business is fundamentally sound.’ That’s what fell on us like a ton of bricks —and we’re still trying to dig ourselves out from under.”
Shep let his bitterness grow now because he felt a little ashamed of his yearning for an era so irresponsible and economically false. This must be some flaw in him, this longing to go back to a ball to which he had not been invited, in a ballroom which had been torn down years before he had even learned to dance. After all, what better proof of those ten years’ sickness than the way they had crippled Halliday?
Now that he had absorbed the initial shock of meeting Halliday, he had made his adjustment by considering Halliday as a relic somewhat miraculously brought back to life. For Shep, an enthusiastic collector of symbols, Halliday was a most satisfactory personification of the Twenties—his brilliant success in 1920— his youthful fame, so perfectly in step with the Myth of Success and the Cult of Being Young—his personal crash in 1929 that coincided so neatly with the Wall Street debacle—then the backwash after the wave has broken: the sorry end of the “perfect marriage,” the “posthumous” novel in 1930, a failure that seemed to indicate a spiritual dead end, and which the critics attacked with a ferocity that suggested that they were sitting in judgment on an era rather than a book—and then the twilight years; Halliday a wandering wreck, occasionally appearing in mass circulation magazines with stories increasingly ordinary—and then finally, darkness—Hollywood. Oh, it was perfect. It could not have jibed more neatly with Shep’s theories if he had made it all up himself. It was really most obliging of Manley Halliday to have his first success in the first year of the Twenties and crack up in the last.
“I suppose it’s natural for you to turn on our generation,” Halliday said. “It’s one of the eternal cruelties that a son can only gain his independence by kicking his father in the teeth. But we did quite a lot, really. We cleared the landscape of all that rotten Victorian architecture—even if we had nothing to put in its place.” He attempted to smile. “I suppose we could go on comparing notes this way for days, maybe months. But after lunch we’ll get down to business.” Halliday glanced at his watch. “Good Lord, almost one o’clock! I’m supposed to be at the Vendome. I’ll try to get back by two-thirty. And this afternoon let’s say the first one who gets off the subject pays the other one five dollars.”
“Okay, Mr. Halliday, we’ll make like honest scriptwriters who never read a book in our lives.”
“Right. Only synopses of bestsellers.” In Halliday’s voice was unexpected warmth. Boy had met Author, the first hurdle of self-consciousness was cleared, and now it seemed as if they would be able to work together. “Till later then, Stearns.”
From the window Shep could see Halliday emerging onto the studio lot. The Eastern cut of his clothes and the old homburg set very straight on his head advertised his failure to come to terms with this casual environment.