The Vendome’s parking lot attendant, a pimply-faced car expert and confirmed snob, made no effort to conceal his contempt for Halliday’s old-fashioned Lincoln that towered anachronistically above the sleek Caddy V16’s the new Buick 8’s, the resplendent Chrysler Imperials and the new foreign star Rosa Risa’s chromium Mercedes-Benz, his special love. Now what kind of a jerk, he wondered, would be driving up to the Vendome in a wreck like that? That was the nice thing about this job, you drove nothing but the best. That and the tips. But what sort of a tip would a Lincoln ’32 be good for? A ’32—he pushed it into second with a disrespectful grinding of gears—what a piece of junk! Like driving a cement-mixer. Scratch went the old Lincoln fender against another fender alongside. Oh, well, it could have been worse. The jerk had gone in already, the fender was scuffed up anyway and the other car was only a Pontiac 6, a ’37 at that.
Halliday passed the glamorous delicatessen counter—which looked as if it had been moved intact from an exaggerated studio set—and paused at the entrance to the dining room, his eyes panning the tables for sight of Al Harper. From the room rose the blended aroma of expensive perfume—but it wasn’t only the Guerlain and the Caron. Halliday had often sensed that peculiar bouquet emanating from the exceedingly prosperous. Yes, Halliday felt sure, were he to come into such a room blindfold, he would know where he was, and in what company.
Looking in at all the beautiful women and men who were either handsome of face or of position or of sartorial finesse, Halliday hesitated. In a moment he would have to join them, but for these few seconds he indulged his reluctance. Did he fear these chic traps now for their own sake, after mature judgment, or merely because he had slipped down the scale to an unnoticed background figure, a Vendome dress-extra, like those ghost-stars of the silent screen now grateful for ten-dollar calls?
“Hello, sweetheart.” Halliday felt a solicitous hand at his elbow, guiding him confidently into the room.
“Oh, hello, Harper.”
Al Harper, in Halliday’s mind, was my little man. Actually he was not much shorter than Halliday. He was a bundle of acquisitive energy carefully and expensively attired, in somewhat better taste than Halliday would have expected from a Hollywood agent. His way of dressing, Halliday decided, was a successful hybrid between an elegant Wall Streeter’s and a musical comedy star’s. The suit was sharkskin from Schmidt, the tie hand-painted from Alexander & Oviatt, the white silk handkerchief artfully hung over the pocket suggested flamboyance. And the shoes, the shoes, Halliday thought, were the give-away, imported brown loafers that, like the tie and the handkerchief, lent a sportive note somewhat incongruous with the shrewd, quick look of the face.
With an insistent familiarity from which Halliday flinched, Harper did not relinquish his arm until they were at the table. There, with a mumbled back-in-a-sec, Halliday found himself abandoned while Harper crossed the aisle for a left-handed handshake with Claudette Colbert and her husband, the nice doctor whose name no one ever seemed to remember. On the way back Harper paused for a moment of homage to Louella Parsons. What is the exact word for that false smile they bestow on each other? Halliday mused. Hollywood table-hopping always opened cysts of irritability within him. Smirk ? Almost, but not quite. Simper—that was the word.
A cloud of laughter at a witty exit line trailed Harper back to his table. Halliday watched him coldly. Most of his life he had been able to afford to be quite rude to people for whom he felt no particular attraction; the obligation to be polite to everybody on the theory that sooner or later he might be of some material service to you was a serious infringement on pure freedom, Halliday thought. Only aristocrats and hoboes enjoyed the luxury of being rude on impulse.
Impervious to Halliday’s troubled silence, Harper bustled into his chair. The waiter hovered with a waiter’s mirthless smile. Perhaps a cocktail before lunch, gentlemen?
Glancing at Halliday, Harper barely hesitated before saying, “No, I think we’ll go ahead and order, Carlos.”
Halliday fought his temper. The little hustler might allow me the privilege of rejecting my own drink. He listened drily while Harper ordered Eggs Benedict, a chef’s green salad (“easy on the garlic, Carlos”); he said he would have the same.
“Well, Manley,” the pitch began, “got the script all finished?”
This was a standard opener to his writers the first day of any assignment. Halliday tried to oblige with a smile.
“You’ll enjoy working for Milgrim,” Harper assured him. “That’s why I was so happy about getting you this job.” (—But it was really Ann who got me this job, Halliday was thinking.) “I could of had you at National weeks ago. But after all you’re an important writer. I realize that. Some of these agents out here, just because you haven’t got any credits and you’re a little hard to sell, they’d of grabbed that National thing and Harry Nochel would of beaten your brains out. Punch in at nine, so many pages a day, you know, the same way he treats those dogs who get three-fifty a week. But you—even if you don’t have any credits—you’re a highly sensitive personality. You need a producer who’s a gentleman, a personality with some background. That’s why I think working with Victor is such a sweet set-up for you. Victor has a brilliant mind. And did you get a load of that library? Why, you take that Harry Nochel, he has all he can do to read a synopsis, how Harry Nochel ever got where he is I’ll never …”
Harper’s words hung in mid air, then suddenly fell away into a pocket of silence. Approaching the table with a beautiful, dime-a-dozen blonde was a bald-headed man with the body of a gorilla wrapped in a richly tailored double-breasted suit, an ugly man who dressed and carried himself as if he were irresistibly handsome.
“Harry! sweetheart!” Harper half rose and tried to embrace Nochel across the table. “Hello, Al,” Nochel said. There was a disagreeable line to his mouth, Halliday noticed, even when he was smiling. “When do I get that check for last Friday night?”
“It’s in the mail already, Harry. So tomorrow you don’t have to worry where the next meal is coming from.” He winked at the girl. Nochel and the blonde laughed. They knew where everything was coming from.
“How about a little golfie this Saturday?”
“Gonna be in Palm Springs.”
“Yeah? Maybe I’ll be down too. I’ll look for you, sweetheart.” Then, in a quieter tone, the proper vessel for sincerity: “Say, Harry I caught I Married Your Wife at the sneak Monday.” Here words failed Harper. He merely blew a little kiss of appreciation.
“Darling, I’m but starved,” the blonde said.
“What a girl,” Nochel said admiringly. “Eats more than Sea-biscuit.”
The couple moved on to other tables, other left-handshakes, other lies.
Halliday watched Harper’s face assume the mood of their previous conversation. Harper’s was a chameleon face, Halliday decided, adjustable to whatever type Harper found himself addressing. A moment ago it had been the kind of face that went with Nochel’s poker games and his blondes in Palm Springs. But now Harper’s face wore a sober look, the expression of a man who does not live by bread and smart deals alone, who appreciates “better things.” Harper had never read a Halliday novel. But he identified this client with a vague upper reach. “Better things” were also associated in Harper’s mind with impractical things, poems, censorable plays and books that couldn’t get past the Hays Office, things studios didn’t want. Manley Halliday was very nearly something the studios didn’t want, and as a trim little weather-vane on a Hollywood roof-top, Al Harper inclined toward condescension when facing Halliday. But Al was one of those shrewdly ignorant men who knew enough to know how much more there is to know, and he had the semi-illiterate’s respect for books he would never read. So braided through his condescension for Halliday’s lowly status in the industry there was admiration for Halliday’s literary reputation. A Pulitzer Prize winner, he kept saying to himself, look at his suit, I can buy and sell him a thousand times over, but still, a Pulitzer Prize winner. “Now let’s see, where was I, Manley, what was I telling you?”
“I think you were telling me how lucky I was to be working for such a brilliant man as Victor Milgrim.”
“Oh, yeah—Manley, the reason I wanted to have lunch with you the first day on the job is this: I’m not the kind of agent that just collects his ten percent and kisses you off. I worry about you, sweetheart. I want to see you make good. Now let’s face it, Man-ley, just between ourselves, you need a credit.”
“How about my books? Aren’t they credits?”
Halliday felt absurdly proud of this little demonstration of twilight courage.
“Sure, sure, in a way.” Harper could afford to be magnanimous. “But you know what I mean, a picture credit. That’s why I’m so happy about placing you with Victor Milgrim.” (Halliday noticed the solemnity with which nearly everyone pronounced the full name, as if it were already a symbol like Patrick Henry or Mahatma Gandhi). “I’ll tell you, Manley, I’m looking ahead. This should be the beginning of a highly profitable connection for you. Despite what’s happened to you, Victor Milgrim still has a lot of faith in you. He tells everybody he meets that you’re one of his favorite American authors, and you know, sweetheart, that kind of word of mouth ain’t bad. Say, by the way, Manley, I promised Victor I’d get him a whole set of your books autographed. He’s got books autographed by all the authors who’ve worked for him, Aldous Huxley, Vicki Baum, Jesse Lasky, Jr … but all your books except that one in Modern Library are out of print.”
Harper made this statement of fact sound rather like an accusation, Halliday thought. He tried to listen to what Harper was saying. Harper talked rapidly, with nervous assurance and Halliday heard the words running together, faintly, still fainter, as if he were moving away from Harper, through a long tunnel, tunneling back through time, a year, two years, back to the inside room in the kind of Hollywood hotel never mentioned in columns or featured on the air, with a guest-list that ran to cockroaches, extras, has-beens, the blonde, Georgette whatshername, who had been almost, a star in Thirty-one, who was always on her way into or out of one of those terrible laughing-crying drunks and who paid her rent by making available to the manager her tarnished favors … Where were all the notes he had made on that place the Hollywood Arms, into whose scabious arms, he remembered writing somewhere, floated the flotsam and jetsam of industrial turnover—in an industry that turned over more frequently than the average restless sleeper. He himself had floated into the Hollywood Arms from the Plaza, and before that, one step up, the Roosevelt—“one more week, if you could only wait one more week, my agent assures me there’s something coming up at Paramount”—oh God, the cliche of the empty-pocket clamping down on your tongue like a leaden bit, And he had come back to Hollywood for money, because Hollywood was money. An agent absurdly named Phil Coyne as in morality plays had promised money and Manley had pulled himself up out of that bender. Help me Help me 1 am lost I lift up mine eyes to the hills but there are no hills only this world of darkness, this dark world honey-combed with narrow hotel rooms where a million Manley Hallidays lay with damp towels on their throbbing foreheads. Benders cost money. You go on a bender because you have no money, so having no money costs money … Jere cost money. He had known it would cost money to have Jere. What he had not known is that it would cost more money not to have Jere. Jere and her poems privately printed to make her happy. But they had not made her happy. All they had made was another subject for her analyst, another hour, another fifty dollars, fifty after fifty after fifty, down the drain of introspection-made-easy, down down down down dropped Jere Doctor I adore Manley … only man I ever really loved really really loved … but I can’t stand for him to touch me, Doctor … I love him I miss him and yet … I hate to be drunk I hate it I try not to but I need one so badly and then I can’t stop always was my trouble they built me with sleek lines and a high-powered motor but no brakes I never could stop 1 drive through railings and I’m falling falling falling as in a dream only Doctor that isn’t true about never hitting bottom I do hit bottom oh I do 1 do and I splatter all over the place thousands of little pieces of me strewn over the world and only Manley can pick them up and put me together and Manley won’t come oh why won’t he come he wants me to stay in little pieces. The Farm one hundred dollars a day Manley darling I ran away I couldn’t stand those horrible guards all they want to do is try and get you into bed no darling it’s true I swear it’s true $50 $100 $50 $100—”I believe she’s cured of the physical desire for alcohol, Mr. Halliday. Of course she still requires” $50 $100 $50 $100 and the letters from Douglas, righteous and accusing My allowance failed to arrive for the second straight week. You don’t seem to realize how embarrassing it is not to be able to pay my roommate back the day I promised. Marylou is coming up for the Christmas Dance and I can’t very well explain to her that I haven’t money enough to buy her a corsage. Money money a detail a flyspeck enlarged to the size of an elephant.
And in his room at the hotel waiting for the phone to ring like a hungry extra …
Years back he had written just such a story for Red Book called The Telephone Slave and everyone had thought it was quite brilliant. There he was, Manley Halliday, the victim of his own brilliant plot, answering each ring with half-muffled hope, borrowing on insurance, selling first editions against that just-around-the-corner day when Phil Coyne would talk someone into giving him a job. There was that inevitable afternoon when he realized he had called Coyne five times without a return, when he was told once too often that “Mr. Coyne’s just stepped out” and “Mr. Coyne’s out of the city until some time next week.” That’s when he had sat down in his dark cubicle at the Hollywood Arms and written identical letters on Hotel Roosevelt stationery to every important producer in town. “… although I have been back in Hollywood for some months, it is only this week that I find myself in sufficiently good health to accept a studio assignment. I assume that you have some acquaintance with my written works but in the event that you have not, I trust you will permit me a moment of immodesty in which to remind you that critics have been kind enough to consider only Hemingway my equal as a master of modern dialogue. I am so bold as to write you directly because I have come to have a genuine regard for the motion picture medium and I believe I could make a significant contribution to its …” Oh Christ, he had wanted to cry out I am hungry. I need work. But after many drafts the letter had gone off.
Every day for three weeks Manley had called Coyne’s secretary to find if there had been an answer. Finally he had stopped calling. And then, the very day he received the bill from Jere’s latest sanitarium—that refuge for broken-down socialites on Long Island—for $800 which might just as well have been $8,000,000, Mr. Coyne’s secretary called. There was a letter for him, from Joe Munger of Monarch. “Shall I mail it out to you?” asked the sweet voice of unconcern. “No—no—I’ll be right down!”
The cab was an extravagant $1.85, plus a quarter tip. Hollywood was a cruel geographical joke on the moneyless, with studios and agencies scattered from Universal City thirty miles across the valley to Culver City. He tore open the letter—he had not mentioned salary but Phil Coyne could settle that now that Munger was interested—and read:
Dear Mr. Halliday,
I was very happy to receive your letter for otherwise I would not have known where to get in touch with you.
Mrs. Munger happens to be one of your most enthusiastic admirers. Her birthday is next month and as an extra little “surprise” I’d love to present her with autographed copies of your books. I would consider it a great personal favor if you would inscribe these “To Mona” with some appropriate personal sentiment.
As to the question of an assignment, frankly we have nothing at the moment suitable to an author of your accomplishments. But I shall certainly keep you in mind, and meanwhile I shall be deeply indebted for your kindness in complying with my request.
With kindest personal regards,
Joseph B. Munger JBM/ar
Mona. The name was a faint tinkle of a distant bell. Not Mona Moray, who inspired that terrible fight between him and Jere the night of the Neilan party at the Ambassador! By God, he did remember something years ago about Mona’s giving up her career to marry some big Hollywood shot … the point of this latest joke would have made him laugh if it hadn’t drawn blood. Fifteen letters to producers begging a job and his only answer is from Mrs. Munger nee Moray, whose husband can have no idea what significance these books—and their author—once had for her.
Well, to hell with Joe Munger and his great personal favors. He knew what that deep indebtedness was worth.
Capitulating to himself, Manley had sent the Modern Library High Noon (costing with author’s discount 57 cents) to Mona with a restrained, dignified inscription. He had never been sure whether it was venality or vanity or nostalgia or simple generosity that had impelled him.
“—but speaking very frankly …” the words sneaked up on Halliday as if they had been stalking him and suddenly cornered him. Frankly Halliday brought his mind back to the conversation with a bitter wrench, Hollywood’s favorite adverb, “frankly, Manley,” Harper was saying, “I wish I hadn’t had to ask for this advance.”
“But you were able to get it?”
Harper tapped his inside pocket. “Give it to you when we get out. It isn’t the wisest thing to do with Victor Milgrim, but since you seem to need it so badly … One thing I’ve learned in my dealings with Victor, he has no patience with any kind of failure, creative, financial or what-have-you. By nature he’s a winner himself. He likes front-runners. He’ll pay a man anything as long as he’s on top. The fact that you have such an immediate need for the money he’s paying you may put some doubts about you in the back of his mind. Of course it’s nothing serious, nothing a good script won’t cure.”
“Some of the best writers in America never got out of debt to their publishers,” Halliday said quietly. But perhaps he had only said this to reassure himself, for Harper did not seem to hear him.
“In getting your two G’s in advance, I had to make one little promise to Victor Milgrim, sweetheart. I don’t think you’ll mind.”
“What was that?” Halliday said. He was afraid he knew.
“Well, I—you know this town, Manley, there’s bound to be a little talk about your drinking. So Victor wanted you to give him your word you wouldn’t touch a drop until the script was finished and okayed.”
“Didn’t you tell him I haven’t had a drink in seven months and twenty-three days?”
“Oh, sure, they know, they know that, Manley. Otherwise they wouldn’t of hired you.” Harper was uncomfortable. “It’s just that—well, you understand, two thousand a week is a lot of money and you can hardly blame Victor for …”
“I haven’t even wanted a drink in seven months and twenty-three days,” Halliday said testily. “In the last three-and-a-half years I have been drunk exactly twice. What does Milgrim want, a signed pledge stamped by a notary public?”
He wanted to say much more. He wanted to say how his flesh was made to crawl. He wanted to say: After twenty years of fame, I will not be talked to by you people like a delinquent schoolboy being considered for his first job. He wanted to say— but, oh hell, there was that nice check in Harper’s pocket.
“Manley,” Harper was saying, “you’ve got to pitch in and give this everything you’ve got. Believe me, sweetheart, it’s your big chance. The script has to be only terrific.”
Guiltily, Halliday caught himself thinking less of the meaning of Harper’s words than of how he said them, the inflection, the phrasing. He could not help running Harper through his character-machine that broke him down into special peculiarities, details of dress, eating habits, idiosyncrasies, distinguishing features of face. For the process of writing (not movie writing but writing) had become a reflex and he was forever adding to the notebook in his mind flash impressions, happy phrases, bits of dialogue, give-away traits. Harper’s habit of grinning deceptively before saying something particularly threatening, for instance …
But he must stop this, he warned himself. He must listen to his little man and his serious words of local wisdom. For this was his big chance and that script did have to be, in their glib jargon, only terrific. Even if Al Harper saw this as the ultimate goal toward which everyone should want to aspire, while Manley Halliday knew it was simply buying time for a second chance.