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n Autobiography 





For my wife, 

Kitty Carlisle 

The book that she asked for 








These memories, which are my life — for we possess nothing 
certainly except the past — were always with me. hi\e the pigeons 
of St. Mark's, they were everywhere under my feet, singly, in 
pairs, in little honey-voiced congregations, nodding, strutting, 
winding, rolling the tender feathers of their nec\s, perching 
sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder or peckjng a broken 
biscuit from between my lips; until, suddenly, the noon gun boomed 
and in a moment, with a flutter and sweep of wings, the pavement 
was bare and the whole s\y above dar\ with a tumult of fowl. 




hat afternoon, I went to work at the music store as 
usual. It was just around the corner from where we lived, and I 
worked there every afternoon from three o'clock until seven, while 
its owner, a violin and piano teacher on the side, gave the lessons 
which more or less supported the store. There was apparently no 
great passion for music in the Bronx at that time, and the sparseness 
of the customers, other than Mr. Levenson's pupils themselves, al- 
lowed me to finish my homework as rapidly as possible and then 
pore greedily over as many copies of Theatre Magazine as the library 
would allow me to take out at one time. 

It was, as far as I was concerned, the perfect job. There was usually 
even enough time, before Mr. Levenson returned at seven o'clock, for 
a good half-hour or so of pure, idle dreaming; a necessity as basic 
to a twelve-year-old boy as food and drink. I was thoroughly 
conscious of the fact that my own dreams of glory were quite unlike 
those of the other boys on the block, for the fantasies and specula- 
tions I indulged in, after I had reluctantly turned the last page of 
Theatre Magazine, were always of Broadway. They were fantasies 
because though I had been born in and had lived in New York City 
all of my life, I had never actually seen Broadway. 

In my twelve-year-old world it was permissible to work after school ; 
it was, in fact, rather a necessity. The four dollars I earned every 
week was an item that counted heavily in the shaky family budget, 
but the rules did not permit my going downtown alone. True, I 
had passed underneath Broadway many times in the subway on the 


way to visit relatives in the far reaches of Brooklyn, but the family 
had never yielded to my entreaties that we get out at Times Square 
and have a quick look around, and the anguish of being directly 
underneath my goal and yet not able to see it was well-nigh in- 

This afternoon, however, a kind fate was arranging a far more 
impressive look for me than I ever could have arranged for myself. 
As I entered the store, and before I could even toss my books and 
magazines on the counter, Mr. Levenson was speaking. Apparently 
he had been waiting impatiently for me to arrive. 

"Do you think," he said, while I was still in the doorway, "your 
mother would let you go downtown alone, just this once? I need 
some music for tomorrow's lessons. All you have to do is to get off 
the subway at Times Square, walk two blocks east to Schirmer's, 
pick up the music, and then get on the subway again. Do you think 
she would let you do it ? I don't want you to go without telling your 

I nodded solemnly, not wishing to put into words what I knew 
was going to be a barefaced lie. I had no idea, of course, of asking 
for my mother's consent. This was the excuse I had been longing for. 
I took the slip of paper he held out to me, tossed my books onto the 
counter, and bolted straight for the subway station, by-passing our 
house on the dangerous chance that my mother might be looking out 
the window or talking to a neighbor on the stoop. 

On the journey downtown I determined to pick up the music at 
Schirmer's as quickly as possible and then have a long and glorious 
look around. I can still recall my excitement as the subway doors 
opened at Times Square, and I shall certainly never forget the 
picture that greeted me as I dashed up the stairs and stood gaping 
at my first sight of Broadway and 42nd Street. A swirling mob of 
happy, laughing people filled the streets, and others hung from the 
windows of nearly every building. Vendors moved among the crowd 
selling confetti, noisemakers and paper streamers, and policemen on 
horseback circled slowly and good-naturedly around the Times 
Building, pressing the throngs, with no great success, out of the 
street and onto the jammed sidewalks. Nor can I deny that my first 


thought was, "Of course! That's just the way I thought it would be!" 
In that first breathless look it seemed completely right somehow 
that the glittering Broadway of my fantasy should be as dazzling as 
this even in broad daylight, but what I took to be an everyday 
occurrence was Broadway waiting to celebrate the election of either 
Charles Evans Hughes or Woodrow Wilson as the next President 
of the United States. I had merely stumbled into a historic moment. 
It was the first of many disappointments inevitable to the stage-struck, 
and after helplessly trying to push my way through that solid mass of 
humanity, I got into the subway again and rode glumly back to the 



(l have thought it fitting to begin this book with my first glimpse 
of Broadway, since I have spent most of my adult working life in and 
about its gaudy locale, and if this opening anecdote falls too 
quickly into the time-honored tradition of theatrical memoirs, then 
let the unwary reader beware at the very outset — these annals are 
not for diose unsentimental about the theatre or untouched by its 
idiocies as well as its glories. 

There is no point whatever in writing or reading a book of 
theatrical reminiscences if either the writer or the reader is to be 
hampered by incredulity, an aversion to melodrama, or even the 
somewhat foolish glow of the incorrigibly stage-struck. Like it or 
not, the credulous eye and the quixotic heart are part and parcel 
of the theatre. The theatre is not so much a profession as a disease, 
and my first look at Broadway was the beginning of a lifelong in- 

The most interesting aspect of that twelve-year-old self was not 
the naivete expressed in the fantasy of what Broadway would be 
like, but the already strong sense of dedication in that childish figure 
on the subway steps. 

Why? How does it occur? It is an interesting speculation, for 1 
know of no greater race of fanatics, no more severely lost or dedi- 
cated a tribe, than the people of the theatre. 

What special need masks those simple words "stage-struck"? 
How explain the strength of what usually amounts to a lifelong 


obsession? What sets the trigger on the inner mechanism that pro- 
duces actors, actresses or playwrights — what is the nature of the 
compelling force that marks those particular human beings and 
sets them apart for the rest of their lives? It is somewhat easier to 
understand the dedication of a scientist or a man of the church, but 
the grubby rewards the theatre offers, except to the privileged few, 
make it hard to understand the undaunted loyalty it calls forth or 
the passion with which it is pursued. 

I have a pet theory of my own, probably invalid, that the theatre 
is an inevitable refuge of the unhappy child. Like most pet theories, 
this one also contains the fallacy of too broad a generalization. 
But certainly the first retreat a child makes to alleviate his unhappi- 
ness is to contrive a world of his own, and it is but a small step 
out of his private world into the fantasy world of the theatre. We 
have all seen children create imaginary companions or even im- 
aginary parents. The daydream of attending our own funeral and 
savoring the abiding satisfaction of having our contrite and con- 
science-stricken parents stand weeping over our coffin is so usual 
a fantasy of childhood as to be almost obligatory, and it disappears 
with the other flights and fancies of childhood. But to the deeply 
disturbed child caught in a situation that he cannot resolve, the 
first wonder of the theatre comes as a revelation and a resolution 
of his unconscious difficulties. Here on a brightly lit stage, before 
a hushed and admiring audience, are people doing the very things 
he has played out in his own fantasies : assuming heroic or villainous 
guises, bathing in the applause and love of a hitherto hostile world. 
Suddenly he perceives that his secret goal is attainable — to be him- 
self and yet be somebody else, and in the very act of doing so, to be 
loved and admired; to stand gloriously in a spotlight undimmed by 
the rivalry of brothers or sisters and to be relieved of his sense of 
guilt by the waves of applause that roll over the footlights to those 
wonderful creatures on the stage. After all, is not the essence of 
acting the art of being somebody else ? Is not the craft of the play- 
wright the ability to make a fantasy of his own creation so true 
to the lives of the characters he is depicting that the audience accepts 
it as reality ? And what is any play but the expression of its author's 


conscious fantasy at that particular moment. I would hazard a guess 
that no play idea is ever completely accidental, and I would hazard 
a further guess that the temperament, the tantrums and the utter 
childishness of theatre people in general, is neither accidental nor 
a necessary weapon of their profession. It has nothing to do with 
so-called "artistic temperament." The explanation, I think, is a far 
simpler one. For the most part, they are impaled in childhood like 
a fly in amber. 

I have set down the foregoing not altogether without guile, for 
it allows me to come somewhat circuitously to my own childhood. 
Inevitably, I sheer away from the hackneyed picture of the unhappy 
child in poor circumstances who triumphed over difficulties and 
achieved success. Yet the hackneyed is sometimes relevant, for how 
else is one to understand the figure of the Sunday interview, or the 
press agent's program notes, if there is not a more conventional pic- 
ture of his beginnings ? Hackneyed or not, beginnings are necessary 
—and mine were certainly conventional enough. 



grew up in an atmosphere of unrelieved poverty, with 
what Ruth Gordon describes as "the dark brown taste of being poor" 
forever in my mouth and the grim smell of actual want always at the 
end of my nose. It was not, as may be gathered, a very happy child- 
hood and the atmosphere was not improved by the family cast of 
characters. I cannot remember who it was who said that a family 
was a dictatorship ruled over by its sickest member — he certainly 
could not have known my grandfather — but it was some such symbol 
he must have had in mind when he made the remark, for my grand- 
father, whom I adored, towered over my first seven years like an 
Everest of Victorian tyranny. He was, in many ways, quite an ex- 
traordinary man, and his effect on me in those early and crucial years 
was, I suppose, incalculable. I am certain I still bear the marks. He 
was a cigarmaker by trade, and he worked side by side on the same 
bench with his closest friend, Samuel Gompers. Together they 
hatched out the first early dream of an American Federation of 
Labor, and for a while it was a tossup as to who would lead the 
crusade, my grandfather or Samuel Gompers. The family legend 
is that they quarreled bitterly and their friendship ended on the 
somewhat comic grounds of who was to carry the briefcase in to 
Union meetings — the one briefcase they owned between them. I am 
quite prepared to believe this story as not entirely apocryphal. It 
sounds, indeed, very much like my grandfather, and exactly the 
way he was likely to behave. 


He most certainly behaved that way at home. His two daughters, 
my mother and my Aunt Kate, he looked upon as indentured 
servants sent to serve him by some fine beneficent natural law. 
I think he accepted my father's dim presence in the house with 
the passing annoyance of a GI watching a jungle fungus grow on 
his boot, and he returned my adoration of him with a deep devotion 
of his own. To do him strict justice, he had no easy time of it 
himself, and the sorry state of shabby gentility in which he lived 
out most of his life, though due entirely to his own truculence 
and innate bad temper, was not what he had been born to. He was, 
as a matter of fact, the black sheep of a large and quite wealthy 
family of English Jews, and he had apparently at a very early 
age alienated himself from each and every one of them, finally 
ending all family ties in a burst of rebellion that settled him for 
good and all in America. 

He was a man of considerable personal charm, with an alert 
and inquiring mind, but since he was always superior to the life he 
was forced to live, it served to further sour a nature already 
steeped in arrogance and gall. The bitterness and disappointments 
of his daily life he of course took out on his immediate family, and 
though I never knew my grandmother (she died shortly before 
I was born), the tales I have heard of her life with him were hair- 
raising and a little terrifying. 

He had married beneath him in the best tradition of the black 
sheep, and my grandmother could neither read nor write. His 
financial circumstances from the very moment of their marriage 
were extremely straitened, and since there was very little left over 
for entertainment of any kind, the great pleasure of my grand- 
mother's life was to have my grandfather read aloud to her in the 
evening. Charles Dickens was at the height of his fame then as a 
novelist and his works were her abiding passion. My mother has 
told me that there were difficult times when my grandmother seemed 
to survive only for the evenings, and the most vivid recollection of 
her own early childhood was my grandfather's voice reading 
Dickens aloud, and later on her most terrifying memory was when 
he would not — and the house would be completely silent, for when 


' he was in a rage or fit of depression he would punish my grand- 
mother by not reading for days and sometimes weeks at a time and 
would sit evening after evening without uttering a word. There 
would be silence throughout the evening meal and complete silence 
afterward, for he would talk to no one and would allow no word to 
be spoken by his wife or daughters. He sulked until the fit was 
over. Worse still, he would never pick up where he had left off. 
Dickens was published serially in America in those days, and he 
would start the readings again with the latest installment, so that 
my grandmother was forever in the dark about large portions of 
David Copperfield's life and did not know until long afterwards 
what happened to Little Emily. Perhaps I inherited from my grand- 
mother my abhorrence of people who sulk, for it is the one quirk 
or quality in people I cannot abide and do not suffer gladly. 

Another tale my mother told me of this perverse and unpredict- 
able man, was his reception of the news that my grandmother had 
saved, after twenty years of scrounging, enough money to take them 
all on a trip to England. How she managed to save any such sum 
out of the meager amount she was allotted to make ends meet, God 
knows, even though it took her twenty years to do it. How many 
untold small and large privations that money represented is painful 
to think of — daily existence must have been harsh enough in itself. 
But save it she did, with some involuted feminine logic that men 
are unable to contemplate or understand. And she brought it forth 
and offered it to her husband because he had been out of work for 
eight months and in such a state of melancholia, according to 
my mother, that they all feared for his reason. They needn't have. 
When my grandmother, at one of those silent evening meals, pro- 
posed that they break his streak of bad luck by sailing to London 
and that she had the money for their passage, he flew into one of 
his monumental rages. How dared she, he thundered, let him walk 
around with the seat hanging out of his pants and one frayed 
shirt to his name! It did her no good to protest that she had 
saved it for just some such crisis and that she was offering it all 
to him now. He sulked in terrible silence for another two weeks 
and then they sailed for London, all freshly and fashionably out- 


fitted; for it was not my grandfather's way to let his rich family 
have the least hint that he had been anything but a complete success 
in his adopted country. And my mother never forgot the grand airs 
he gave himself or the new and unfailing courtesy to his wife and 
daughters, a side of his they had never before seen and which was 
revealed in full flower from the moment the boat docked at South- 

The trip was not without fateful consequences of its own. My 
mother and father met in London — he followed her to America a 
year later. And on my Aunt Kate the trip produced so profound 
an impression that she never recovered from it for the rest of her 
life. She was twenty at the time and my mother eighteen, and for 
both of them it was a glimpse of a kind of life they had never 
known or were to know again. To my poor Aunt Kate, an incurable 
romantic, this whiff of how the other half lived was like some 
fearful narcotic. From that moment onward, she behaved like a 
lady of fashion, disdaining work of any sort, and was supported 
for the rest of her days — she lived to be sixty-odd — first by my 
grandfather and then by my father, whom she detested and who 
detested her in return. It was a rather strange obsession, but one 
that remained unshakable, in spite of the fact that she sometimes 
had to read her inevitable novel by candlelight, since there wasn't 
always a quarter to put in the gas meter. One of the most vivid 
memories of my own childhood is seeing her trail into her room 
with her bottle of smelling salts and a book or the Sunday papers, 
and hearing the lock click shut. Her behavior remained unchanged, 
while my mother cooked, cleaned and did the washing and ironing 
not only for ourselves but for the boarders we took in to help pay 
the rent. It drove my father crazy, as well it might, for she never 
lifted a finger to help in any way, not so much as by drying a single 
dish. Yet it was she who opened up the world of the theatre to me 
and I loved her and am forever grateful to her. It was she, too, who 
was largely responsible for the powerful effect my grandfather was 
to have on my early years. 

Shortly after the family returned to America, my grandmother 
died— heaving, I imagine, a sigh of relief that must have pushed 


her halfway to heaven — and my mother took over the role of house- 
keeper for my grandfather. This circumstance was an unfortunate 
blow to my father's courtship, for it was some ten years before my 
mother could be pried loose from my grandfather and allowed to 
marry. He was not precisely the man to let love interfere with his 
creature comforts. Besides, my mother acted as a daily keeper of the 
peace between her father and her sister, who reacted fearfully on 
each other's nerves — a part she was also to play for many years with 
her sister and her future husband, though she could not have known 
it then. Knowing my father as I do now, it does not strike me as 
at all strange that he should have been willing to sit out patiently 
an engagement of ten years. It was, on the contrary, rather typical 
of him. He is a man who has made a lifelong hobby of unruffled 
self-preservation. At any rate, the long engagement finally ended. 
They were married and set up a menage of their own, leaving my 
grandfather and his remaining daughter in a state of armed and un- 
easy truce. 

My mother and father were not to be alone for long, however. 
About a month before I was born, my grandfather appeared at 
their door at two o'clock in the morning, and roused them out of 
their bed. He was in a wild state and threatened that if my mother 
did not move back with him he would kill himself or Kate, one or 
the other. He could not and would not stand another day of it. 
In some awful way I can sympathize with him. I have a rough idea 
of what my Aunt Kate's housekeeping must have been like, since I 
once or twice sampled her cooking, and her own room, no matter 
how tidied up by my mother, always gave the impression of a 
countryside ravaged by a long and fierce war. I can't think how 
my mother and father ever agreed to this foolish and tragic plan. 
Certainly neither they nor their marriage ever recovered from it and 
my mother never ceased to look wistfully back on the only time she 
ever spent alone with my father in their thirty years of married life. 

Thus it was that I was born in my grandfather's house, and I am 
told that I had no sooner entered into the world with that age-old 
wail of protest, than I was picked up bodily by this seventy-nine- 


year-old autocrat and became his sole and jealously guarded posses- 
sion. How clearly he still stands out in my memory and how much 
of him remains! ) 

I can see him now, with absolute clarity, bending over my bed, 
lifting me high up in his arms, then putting me on his shoulder, 
taking me into the dining room and standing me in the center of 
the dining-room table. And I can still dimly see the ring of upturned 
faces smiling at me. The faces belonged to the Friday Evening 
Literary Society, of which he was president, which convened, as 
per its title, every Friday evening at our house. Supper was always 
served at ten thirty, and before the cloth was spread, he would 
march into my room, wake me up and carry me into the dining 
room. I would stand on the table, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, 
and as soon as I could collect myself, I would proceed to recite one 
of his favorite bits from A Christmas Carol, which he had taught 
me during the preceding week, and once, I believe, at the age of 
five, I did him proud by belting into Hamlet. 

Still earlier, I have another vivid memory of the terrible day he 
took me to the barber and had all my hair cut off. Without a word 
to my mother, of course. I was not quite three at the time, and my 
curls, which were the fashion then for little boys, were my mother's 
particular pride. But he had humored her, apparently, as long as he 
intended to, and since he never asked approval for anything he did, 
much less discussed it beforehand, he had simply taken me to the 
barber and returned me, fait accompli, to my mother. It was the 
only time, I think, she ever talked back to him and then only through 
her sobs, while my father was dispatched to the barber shop to try 
to retrieve a curl from the floor; which he did, and which my grand- 
father promptly flushed down the toilet. Scenes like this were the 
rule rather than the exception in my grandfather's daily life; he 
generated high drama as his key turned in the door, and I was 
usually the storm center of both his violence and his tenderness. 

Years later, another memory of him was brought sharply back to 
me on a very eventful night in my own life. My first play was being 
given a spring tryout in Brighton Beach. I was hurrying along 
the boardwalk to the theatre, when I stopped and stared at a ram- 


shackle building which had become a public bathhouse. Suddenly 
I remembered a sweltering August night long ago when my grand- 
father had led us all into this same building, then a kind of board- 
walk night club, and like a flash of summer lightning illuminating 
a dark landscape, that whole agonizing time rushed into my mind: 
the terrible heat, the oppressive silence that had filled our house 
for so many weeks, the blind panic a child can feel when he senses 
a crisis in the family — it all flooded back as I stopped and stared 
at that building. 

The crisis which I sensed but could not understand, nor do I 
suppose they could have explained it to a child of six, was that 
modern industrial methods had finally caught up with the ancient 
trade of cigarmaking. A machine had been invented to turn out 
cigars from the tobacco leaf to the finished, banded and boxed 
product, and the craft of making cigars by hand was suddenly and 
overnight revolutionized. My grandfather and my father, a cigar- 
maker by trade also, had been out of work for months. We lived 
as best we could on the paltry benefits doled out by the Cigar- 
makers Union, never a very rich union at best, and I have never 
forgotten, nor shall I, the plight of these two men whose trade had 
suddenly been snatched away from them. My grandfather was too 
old to try anything else, my father too frail. They tried desperately 
at first to hang on to their only means of livelihood by buying raw 
tobacco, making cigars in the kitchen, and peddling them from door 
to door; but competition with machine-made cigars was a patheti- 
cally lost cause. 

Finally, in this terrible summer I speak of, they had stopped try- 
ing altogether and sat helplessly all day around the house, a growing 
fear in my grandfather's eyes and a tightness about his lips that 
frightened me. Even I, who could do anything with him, could not 
penetrate his cold despair, and this particular night he had shut 
himself in his room and had not appeared for the evening meal, nor 
did my entreaties or repeated knocks on the door, when I was sent 
to fetch him, call forth an answer. I remember I had wandered 
out to the fire escape, my mother, father and aunt sitting in heavy 
silence in the stifling room behind me, when my grandfather's door 


suddenly opened and he shouted to my mother, "Lily — how much 
money is there in the house?" She told him, and he called back, 
"Give it to me and get your hats on ! We're going to Brighton Beach ! 
I've had enough of this!" He knew, of course, that it was not only 
all the money in the house, but all the money they possessed in the 
world; but he had had enough of fear and despair, and off we went 
to the seashore and a boardwalk floor show in the very building 
I was standing in front of now. I had adored him more than ever 
that night, and I thought, as I walked away from the place, what 
delight it would have given him to know that I had written a play — 
what infinite pleasure he would have taken in hurrying along to the 
theatre with me and watching the curtain go up. He was a very 
dramatic fellow himself. 

He died just a year later, when I was seven years old, in the same 
week that my brother was born, and with him went the only 
things that I remember with any pleasure of my childhood. It may 
be that I have made him sound faintly like a monster, and it cannot 
be denied that he was certainly monstrous to have around the house, 
but by the same token he was a unique figure of enormous vitality, 
color and salt. Every memory I have of him is vivid and alive, from 
the Sunday morning ritual of standing on a chair beside him while 
he dyed his hair, mustache and goatee a jet-black — he was as vain 
as he was bad-tempered — to the recollection of watching him try 
to catch a butterfly for me with his Panama hat, while a delighted 
crowd of Central Park strollers looked on, laughing their heads 
off. I think perhaps that I gave him the only peaceful and un- 
troubled emotion he ever knew in his turbulent and unhappy life, 
and he gave me in return, for good or ill, a relish for people of 
thunder and lightning and a distaste for the humdrum. After his 
death, I turned not to my mother or father, but to my Aunt Kate, 
and like all seemingly innocent happenings which afterward shape 
our destiny, this unconscious turning to my aunt was the most im- 
portant event of my boyhood. 



suppose it is a trifle too easy and, in fact, a little simple- 
minded to look down the long corridor of one's life and say with 
any degree of surety, "Here is how it happened — here is where the 
door opened — this was the turning point." After all, how does one 
know ? Suppose, for instance, there had been no Aunt Kate, or pre- 
sume she had been a less strange person than she was; would the 
door have opened differently, the path turned the other way? Per- 
haps. I cannot be certain. But/ my aunt, in her own way, had the 
same streak of iron in her that my grandfather had in him, and 
though the iron emerged in my aunt's case as a kind of childish and 
permanent romanticism, her influence on my awakening mind 
and senses, particularly in the void left by my grandfather's death, 
was a powerful and determining factor in all the young years that 

To the casual eye, she must have seemed a foolish, if not a down- 
right ridiculous woman. She was full of airs and graces that were 
faintly grotesque considering the lowly orbit in which she moved; 
but apart from her obsession, which was pathological and worsened 
with the years, she was extremely intelligent.) It is both sad and 
strange that this often silly woman, dressed usually in a most idiotic 
attire, was in fact an immensely shrewd and sensitive human being. 
The two are not mutually exclusive. I sat in a theatre a few years 
ago at the out-of-town opening of a now famous play and watched, 
fascinated and puzzled, as the actress on the stage played out the 


tragic destiny of the playwright's imagining. There was something 
about the character of this woman on the stage that tolled the bell 
of remembrance within me. It was almost as though I had known 
this woman myself — echo after echo reminded me of someone I had 
known in my own life — and suddenly I knew who it was I was 
remembering. Aunt Kate. The play that brought her back to me so 
sharply was A Streetcar Named Desire and the character was the 
unforgettable Blanche Du Bois. I do not mean to suggest that the 
story of Blanche was my aunt's story or that she was anything like 
the twisted and tormented Blanche; but there was enough of 
Blanche in my Aunt Kate — a touching combination of the sane 
and the ludicrous along with some secret splendor within herself — 
that re-awakened long-forgotten memories. I think Tennessee 
Williams would have understood my Aunt Kate at once — perhaps 
far better than I did, for in those early years I confess I was a 
little ashamed of her. She was too strange a figure for the conform- 
ing little beasts that children usually are for me to have been com- 
pletely comfortable about her. I always looked straight ahead when 
we passed other children that I knew in the street and swallowed 
my discomfort as best I could. 

It was a hazard I willingly undertook, for when we walked 
out together we were almost always on the way to the theatre, 
and that delightful prospect was enough to make me run any 
gantlet. I did not know until long afterward how she managed 
these excursions to the theatre for herself and me, and the method 
she used was, I think, very characteristic of her. Quite simply, she 
managed them through pure blackmail. After my grandfather's 
death, my father continued to support my aunt in the style, such 
as it was, that she was accustomed to. Poor as we were, this was 
somehow taken for granted — I do not pretend to understand why. 
However, Aunt Kate's style was of necessity somewhat curtailed 
now that my father was the sole wage earner. It could not possibly 
include the theatre and novels, two items she found as necessary 
to living as breathing and eating. So she promptly sat down and 
wrote a fine blackmailing letter to the rich relatives in London, out- 
lining in the best tear-drenched tradition of the period, I am sure, 


her sad plight as the now orphaned daughter, and shaming them 
into a small monthly allowance. This she used exclusively for theatre 
tickets and books, and come hell or high water not one penny of 
it was ever touched otherwise. 

I can well remember the times we went to bed in the dark be- 
cause there was no quarter to put in the gas meter; or even more 
vividly, some evening meals eaten by candlelight for the same reason, 
after which Aunt Kate would emerge from her room, attired in 
what she considered proper fashion, and be on her way to David 
Belasco's production of The Darling of the Gods or the equivalent 
hit of the moment. Incredible as it may seem, never once did she 
offer to forgo the theatre, no matter how dire the financial crisis 
might be and, equally astonishing, it seems to me, was the fact that 
she was not expected to. In some curious way I think the answer 
is that we were grateful for this small patch of lunatic brightness 
in the unending drabness of those years. Just as she never admitted 
to herself the poverty in which we lived, so through her passion for 
the theatre she made us forget it for a little while, too. 

My mother and I always waited up for her return, and then she 
would re-create the entire evening for us. She was a wonderful 
reporter. She had a fine eye for irrelevant detail and a good critical 
sense of acting values. Her passion for the theatre did not include 
being overwhelmed by it, nor was she a blind idolater of stars. 
She always sat in the gallery, of course, but she always got to the 
theatre early enough to stand in the lobby and watch the audience 
go in — in order, as she expressed it, to get all there was to get! 
She must have been a strange figure indeed, standing in the lobby, 
her eyes darting about, "getting" everything there was to get, her 
conversation, if she spoke to anyone, a mixture of Clyde Fitch and 
Thomas Hardy; her own clothes a parody of the fashionable ladies 
going into the theatre. But little indeed did escape her and she 
regaled us with all of it, from the audience arriving to the foot- 
lights dimming, and then the story of the play itself. She would 
smooth out the program on the kitchen table, and there we would 
sit, sometimes until two o'clock in the morning, reliving the play 


with her, goggle-eyed at the second-act climax, as ready to applaud 
the curtain calls as the audience itself had been. 

It is hard to realize now in these days of television, movies, radio 
and organized play groups what all this meant to a child of those 
days. It was not only the one available source of pleasure and 
wonder, it was all of them rolled into one. I remember my constant 
entreaty was, "When will you take me?" And then my aunt decided, 
with the knowledge kept from my father of course, that I was old 
enough to go. I was too young to be taken downtown to see plays, 
but from the time I was seven years old I was kept out of school 
every Thursday afternoon and taken to the Alhambra Theatre — to 
which my aunt had a season subscription ticket each year — where 
I watched, sober-faced, all the great vaudeville headliners. Then, 
still in conspiracy against my father, I graduated to Saturday 
matinees at the local stock company and a little later to touring com- 
panies at the Bronx Opera House. Not unnaturally I lived for those 
wonderful Thursday and Saturday afternoons, and in between 
waited out the days for those evenings when my aunt returned 
from the greater world of Broadway. 

The effect of all this on the curious and aloof little boy that I 
must have been is not hard to imagine. Psychologically, of course, it 
was less than salutary, and I paid the price for it in my adult 
life. A target for a child's love and affection is a basic necessity 
to the security of his early years, and my childhood world was a 
bewildering battlefield of conflicting loyalties. My aunt and my 
father were in a state of constant daily warfare. My mother seemed 
to live only to appease them, a role not unnoticed by me and de- 
plorable to me even then. Even the beloved figure of my grand- 
father had been in some ways a terrifying one. As a consequence, 
the world outside my home was seen through the filter of waiting for 
those two glorious afternoons. At school I was a lonely and alien 
figure. My given name, to begin with, was a strange one, and 
children are quick to hold suspect and to damn anything different 
from themselves, even a name. Added to this was the fact that I 
spoke with a faint English accent; and my manner of speaking, I'm 
afraid, was a trifle too literate, if not downright theatrical — the 


one a heritage from my family, the other a carry-over from Thurs- 
day and Saturday afternoons at the Alhambra Theatre and the 
Bronx Opera House. 

It is easy to understand how my aunt became for me a refuge 
against the world of reality and how the fantasy world of the theatre 
quickly became an escape and a solace. Increasingly, that world 
assumed for me more reality than the hostile world in which I 
lived — and then suddenly both refuges, my aunt and the theatre, 
crashed about my head. I was ten years old at the time and it was 
a Sunday morning, and I can still remember the sound and even 
the smell of that morning. 

We had taken in boarders long since to eke out my father's 
meager earnings, and I might add that boarders in those days re- 
ceived a full measure for their weekly room rent. Along with the 
room there were included two meals, breakfast and dinner, and 
laundry. All of this my mother did, as well as taking care of my 
brother and myself, and serving separate meals to Aunt Kate in her 
own room. My aunt, of course, weaved through the various boarders, 
who moved in and out, like royalty visiting a slum, and complicated 
the life of the household not only by the separate meals in her room, 
but by locking herself in the bathroom at the busiest hours of 
traffic and refusing to budge — another bit of Blanche Du Bois — a 
rather good example, I think, of life imitating art. 

We were all at breakfast that Sunday morning, except my aunt, 
who was already entrenched in the bathroom, when a telegram 
came for one of the boarders. He must return to St. Louis at once — 
a dying uncle or some such. He hurriedly packed his things, and as 
a parting gesture to my father, whom he liked, he left behind a 
number of books. My father was very pleased. He was not a great 
reader himself, but he had received so few gifts in his life that 
I think it was the idea of being given something that gave him a 
feeling of possession for those books and marked them as some sort 
of symbol for him. 

In the afternoon my father went downtown to put a "room to let" 
advertisement in the papers, and when he returned, went directly 
to the late boarder's room to collect his books. They were gone. 

[20 1 

Aunt Kate had taken them and blithely given them to a neighbor 
upstairs. At first he couldn't believe it — then he demanded that she 
go upstairs and get the books back. She merely laughed at the very 
suggestion of doing such a thing. One did not ask for a gift to be 
returned. The fact that they were not hers to give she blandly passed 
by — and then herself produced the straw that finally broke the 
camel's back. "Just some old socialist stuff by Eugene Debs," she 
scoffed. "Lucky to have it out of the house." 

It was unfair and unkind, and it was the last time she ever baited 
my father. All the accumulated years of rage and frustration came 
out in a great burst of violence. It was frightening to see the 
reservoir of hate in this mild little man spill over. Frightening and 
astonishing, both. I had hardly been aware of my father before. 
But Debs was his hero, and somehow his name was the touchstone 
that set off all the indignities and failures of my father's own life. 
I had never seen him like that before, nor have I since that day. 
He ordered my aunt from the house and stood over her while she 
packed. For once my mother's tears availed her nothing, and while 
I watched horrified, my wonderful Aunt Kate dwindled before my 
eyes to a frightened old maid, gathering her bits of foolish finery 
together and dropping her beloved programs from trembling hands 
all over the floor. It was a terrible scene and I'm not sure that I 
have ever forgiven my father for it, right though he was. She left 
the house that day and never returned, and for many years I was not 
allowed to see her. ( 

It is difficult to recapture now the full impact that quarrel had 
upon me. A child's world is made up of the immediate and the 
absolute. He does not look past today or tomorrow— the tragedy 
of the moment is an all-enveloping one, and in a very real sense my 
aunt's leave-taking represented both a tragedy and a crisis in my 
life. It marked an end and a beginning. All through those early 
years I had had no real relationship with either my father or my 
mother. The two dominant figures in my life had been first my 
grandfather and then my aunt. I had literally been taken over — 
alienated, if you will, from my parents at the very beginning. We 
faced a dilemma now, my parents and I, that was not easy to resolve, 


nor am I sure that we ever did resolve it. For the first time in my 
life I was entirely theirs — and we were strangers to each other, almost 
as though I had been kept in some foreign country and had just 
returned to them. 

I realize now that it was as hard for them as it was for me, but 
then I was bereft and vengeful. I needed someone to blame and I 
blamed my father. I think I dimly knew that he was a good man, but 
the gulf between us was a wide one. My aunt and the world she 
opened to me had come to mean a great deal. Now it was cut off — 
both she and it ceased to exist as though they had never been. I 
blamed him not only for the exile of my aunt but for the poverty 
in which we lived. Later on, I blamed him for the fact that I was 
unable to graduate from public school. I went to work the sum- 
mer I reached the eighth grade, and never returned to school. It 
was obvious that I could not go back — the money I brought home 
during that summer vacation was too sorely needed. I hated school, 
but I desperately wanted to graduate; even the poorest families 
in the neighborhood saw to it that at least the eldest son or daughter 
graduated. It had little to do with the idea of education ; it was the 
gesture that counted, and the gesture had meaning. It was a sign 
that however poor, no family was too poor for that. My bitterness 
and my sense of shame remained fresh for a long time. I lied when 
anyone asked me about my schooling, and each time I lied I blamed 
my father anew. 

Children are not creatures of justice — they lay blame and praise 
about them as their needs demand. Somehow, I think he knew or 
sensed this in some instinctive way, and although he had never heard 
of Freud, he made what efforts he could within the harsh realities 
of daily existence to regain his son; but the damage had been done. 
Only once did I ever feel close to him and then I was unable to 
express what I felt or let him know that I understood. 

It was the Christmas after my aunt had left the house, and since 
it was she who always supplied the tree and the presents for my 
brother and myself, this first Christmas without her was a bleak 
and empty one. I remember that I was more or less reconciled to 
it, because my father had worked only spasmodically throughout 


the year. Two of our rooms were vacant of boarders and my mother 
was doing her marketing farther and farther away from our neigh- 
borhood. This was always a sign that we were dangerously close 
to rock bottom, and each time it occurred I came to dread it more. 
It was one of the vicious landmarks of poverty that I had come to 
know well and the one I hated the most. As the bills at our regular 
grocer and butcher went unpaid, and my mother dared not even be 
seen at the stores lest they come to the doorways and yell after her 
publicly, she would trudge ten or twelve blocks to a whole new 
neighborhood, tell the new grocer or butcher that we had just 
moved in to some fictitious address around the corner, and estab- 
lish credit for as long as she could. Thus we were able to exist 
until my father found work again, or all the rooms were rented, 
and she could pay our own grocer and butcher, and gradually the 
others. This time, however, they had all of them gone unpaid and my 
mother was walking twenty blocks or more for a bottle of milk. 

Obviously Christmas was out of the question — we were barely 
staying alive. On Christmas Eve my father was very silent during 
the evening meal. Then he surprised and startled me by turning to 
me and saying, "Let's take a walk." He had never suggested such 
a thing before, and moreover it was a very cold winter's night. I 
was even more surprised when he said as we left the house, "Let's 
go down to a Hundred Forty-ninth Street and Westchester 
Avenue." My heart leapt within me. That was the section where 
all the big stores were, where at Christmastime open pushcarts full 
of toys stood packed end-to-end for blocks at a stretch. On other 
Christmas Eves I had often gone there with my aunt, and from 
our tour of the carts she had gathered what I wanted the most. 
My father had known of this, of course, and I joyously concluded 
that this walk could mean only one thing — he was going to buy 
me a Christmas present. 

On the walk down I was beside myself with delight and an inner 
relief. It had been a bad year for me, that year of my aunt's going, 
and I wanted a Christmas present terribly — not a present merely, 
but a symbol, a token of some sort. I needed some sign from my 
father or mother that they knew what I was going through and 


cared for me as much as my aunt and my grandfather did. I am 
sure they were giving me what mute signs they could, but I did not 
see them. The idea that my father had managed a Christmas present 
for me in spite of everything filled me with a sudden peace and 
lightness of heart I had not known in months. 

We hurried on, our heads bent against the wind, to the cluster of 
lights ahead that was 149th Street and Westchester Avenue, and 
those lights seemed to me the brightest lights I had ever seen. Tug- 
ging at my father's coat, I started down the line of pushcarts. There 
were all kinds of things that I wanted, but since nothing had been 
said by my father about buying a present, I would merely pause 
before a pushcart to say, with as much control as I could muster, 
"Look at that chemistry set!" or, "There's a stamp album!" or, 
"Look at the printing press!" Each time my father would pause and 
ask the pushcart man the price. Then without a word we would 
move on to the next pushcart. Once or twice he would pick up a 
toy of some kind and look at it and then at me, as if to suggest 
this might be something I might like, but I was ten years old and 
a good deal beyond just a toy; my heart was set on a chemistry set 
or a printing press. There they were on every pushcart we stopped 
at, but the price was always the same and soon I looked up 
and saw we were nearing the end of the line. Only two or three 
more pushcarts remained. My father looked up, too, and I heard 
him jingle some coins in his pocket. In a flash I knew it all. He'd 
gotten together about seventy-five cents to buy me a Christmas 
present, and he hadn't dared say so in case there was nothing to be 
had for so small a sum. 

As I looked up at him I saw a look of despair and disappointment 
in his eyes that brought me closer to him than I had ever been in 
my life. I wanted to throw my arms around him and say, "It doesn't 
matter ... I understand . . . this is better than a chemistry set or 
a printing press ... I love you." But instead we stood shivering 
beside each other for a moment — then turned away from the last 
two pushcarts and started silently back home. I don't know why 
the words remained choked up within me. I didn't even take his 
hand on the way home nor did he take mine. We were not on that 


basis. Nor did I ever tell him how close to him I felt that night — 
that for a little while the concrete wall between father and son had 
crumbled away and I knew that we were two lonely people strug- 
gling to reach each other. 

I came close to telling him many years later, but again the moment 
passed. Again it was Christmas and I was on my way to visit him 
in Florida. My father was a bright and blooming ninety-one years 
of age now and I arrived in Florida with my wife to spend Christmas 
and New Year's with him. On Christmas Eve we sat in his living 
room, and while my wife chatted with his nurse and companion, I 
sat on a sofa across the room with my father, showing him the pic- 
tures of his two grandchildren. Suddenly I felt his hand slip into 
mine. It was the first time in our lives that either of us had ever 
touched the other. No words were spoken and I went right on 
turning the pages of the picture album, but my hand remained over 
his. A few years before I might have withdrawn mine after a mo- 
ment or two, but now my hand remained; nor did I tell him what 
I was thinking and feeling. The moment was enough. It had taken 
forty years for the gulf that separated us to close. 

With my mother the gulf that parted us was even wider, and 
it remained so forever. I felt sorrow for her, I admired her, but I 
did not like her. If this seems like a heartless impertinence I do 
not mean it so. It is said in terms of compassion and not of com- 
plaint. Within her limitations she was a woman of decent instincts 
and exemplary behavior, and her lot was a hard one. The days of 
her life were spent in a constant battle of keeping peace between 
her father and her sister, and later on, after my grandfather died, 
between her sister and her husband. The struggle robbed her of 
her children — people who spend their lives in appeasing others have 
little left to give in the way of love. It was her tragedy, as well as 
my brother's and my own. At a certain age, sometimes early, some- 
times late, children make up their minds about their parents. They 
decide, not always justly, the kind of people their mothers and 
fathers are, and the judgment can be a stern one; as cruel, perhaps, 
as mine was, for it was maintained through the years and was not 
lessened by the fact that to the end of her days my mother showed 


not the faintest sign of understanding either the man she had mar- 
ried or the sons she had produced. 

Thus the scene is set. This was the world I lived in and these 
were the people who shaped and formed the human being I was 
to become. 

There were two other motivating influences — two compelling 
forces in my life at that time which, though intangible and inani- 
mate, served as sharply as the people around me to mold the direc- 
tion that all the years that followed were to take. The first was a 
goad. The second, a goal. 

The goad, in a nutshell, was poverty. Now, there is nothing about 
poverty in itself that is in any way disgraceful, and I have noticed 
that children of poor families do not in any way seem to feel 
humiliated or hampered by it. Indeed, in many ways they lead 
a freer and less thwarted life than the constantly supervised children 
of the well-to-do. Moreover, since all the other children they know 
are also poor, they take it for granted that this is the way the world 
is, and it is not until the awakening years of adolescence that an 
awareness comes that the world is somewhat unevenly divided be- 
tween the rich and the poor. 

Somehow this did not hold true in my case. I have never been 
able to explain satisfactorily to myself or to others just why I hated 
poverty so passionately and savagely. I can only remember that my 
childhood from quite early on was filled with a series of bitter 
resolves to get myself out of it — to escape to a less wretched world 
than the one I knew. I recall a few years ago having a heated argu- 
ment on the pronunciation of the word "squalor" with someone 
who insisted that it was pronounced squay-lor. I argued that it was 
pronounced squah-lor, and finally to prove my point I said, "When 
I lived in it, it was squalor!" 

Poverty was always a living and evil thing to me, and from the 
moment in my teens when I could scrape a few pennies together 
I tried, for however brief a time, to disguise the face of poverty as 
best I could. I used to go without lunch for a week or ten days 
until I had accumulated enough to eat in a restaurant that had 


tablecloths instead of having a frankfurter or hamburger at a 
Sixth Avenue sidewalk orange-juice stand, which was the usual. Or 
I would stroll into the lobby of a fashionable hotel and walk around 
for as long as I dared, making believe that I belonged there. If 
all of this has a faintly ignominious and snobbish air, I do not de- 
fend it. That is the way it was, and doubtless there must have 
been another side to me too — less foolish and perhaps more admir- 
able. Perhaps all this accounts in some measure for the extravagant 
way I have lived from the moment large sums of money began to 
pour in. I know my profligacy has been a cause of head-shaking 
among my friends, but my hatred for those years I am now speaking 
of was bound to affect me one way or the other. Either it would 
make me afraid of ever being poor again and therefore cautious 
and miserly, or it would send me sprawling among the gaudy and 
foolish goods the world has to offer, leaving a trail of greenbacks 
flowing heedlessly behind me. The latter is what happened and I 
prefer it so. I have built needless wings on my house in the country 
| ^~and planted thousands of trees on my land, so that the late Alexander 
Woollcott was prompted to remark a little contemptuously, "Just 
what God would have done if He had the money." I did not mind. 
I am not a fool about money but I do not live in fear of it. That 
fear I lived with in my childhood, and then I was through with it 
for good and all. That, indeed, was the goad and it served its 

The goal, of course, was Broadway and the theatre. I had no idea 
how I was to achieve it, but I knew at once there was no other 
world possible for me. I believed this with all the dedication and 
the mysticism of a religious. The struggle to reach that world is 
the story I have chosen to tell; for I have no wish to merely set 
down a succession of theatrical anecdotes with famous names splat- 
tered among the pages in gossip-column fashion. I have never under- 
stood the avidity with which people read about the celebrated, and 
though I have known most of the famous literary and theatrical 
figures of my time, it is not my intention to reduce these friend- 
ships to a pleasant reportage. If the reader has read this far, per- 
N haps he will already know that I consider the memories and pledges 



that were part of the struggle that preceded success the vital ones, 
and that I must set them down as though what happened was of 
great importance, as indeed it was to me, and I have set the stage 
accordingly. My feet were embedded in the Upper Bronx, but my 
eyes were set firmly toward Broadway. 




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wanted, of course, to be an actor. It never occurred to me 
that these godlike creatures did not themselves make up the words 
that flowed so effortlessly and magnificently from their lips. I think 
I believed they created a play as they went along — a belief, I am 
convinced, that some portions of a matinee audience still cling to. 
More than once, sitting in the audience at a play of mine, I have 
heard the lady behind me exclaim, "The clever things actors say! 
Aren't they wonderful!" And I have been tempted to say, "Not that 
wonderful, madame!" But I have understood her bewitchment. 
Not even in my wildest dreams of glory did I ever imagine that 
I would one day write the words for actors to speak on the stage, 
and not until long afterward did I come to know that there were 
more important figures in the theatre than the gods of my idolatry. 
Had I had the wit to perceive it, there was already a hint that I 
was a dramatist; even then I could dramatize a story and hold an 
audience, and when I inadvertently stumbled on this gift, I used 
it the way other boys use a good pitching arm or a long reach in 
basketball. It gave me the only standing I was ever to have in the 
tough and ruthless world of boys of my own age, and I wielded 
the tiny sense of power it gave me hungrily and shrewdly. Even in 
the long-ago days when I was growing up, the cult of "toughness" in 
American life was beginning to blossom and flower. The non-athletic 
boy, the youngster who liked to read or listen to music, who could 
not fight or was afraid to, or the boy who had some special interest 


that was strange or alien to the rest, like the theatre in my case, was 
banished from the companionship of the others by rules of the 
"tough" world that was already beginning to prevail. 

It is a mistake to believe that this cult of "toughness" was limited 
to the poor neighborhood in which we lived. It had begun to per- 
vade other levels of American life, and I suspect that today's bland 
dismissal of the intellectual and the overwhelming emphasis placed 
on the necessity of competing and of success are due in part to the 
strange taboo we have set against that softness in ourselves which 
brings men closest to the angels. A nation of poets would be no 
more desirable than a nation of athletes, but I wonder if that tough- 
ness and competitiveness, which have become an ingrained part 
of our character as a people and a symbol of our way of life as a 
nation, are not a sign of weakness as well as of strength. Is our 
cultural life not robbed of a necessary dimension and our emotional 
life of an element of grace? And I wonder if the fear of a lack of 
toughness in our children does not sometimes rob them of an 
awakening awareness and sensitivity in the realm of the spirit that 
are each child's birthright and his weapon of rebellion against the 
accepted norm of his time. This lack of toughness and the inability 
to compete were a constant agony of my own childhood, and I 
lived it through as best I could. 

A city child's summer is spent in the street in front of his home, 
and all through the long summer vacations I sat on the curb and 
watched the other boys on the block play baseball or prisoner's 
base or gutter hockey. I was never asked to take part even when one 
team had a member missing — not out of any special cruelty, but 
because they took it for granted I would be no good at it. They 
were right, of course. Yet much of the bitterness and envy and 
loneliness I suffered in those years could have been borne better if a 
single wise teacher or a knowledgeable parent had made me under- 
stand that there were compensations for the untough and the non- 
athletic; that the world would not always be bounded by the curb- 
stone in front of the house. 

One of those compensations I blundered into myself, and its ef- 
fect was electric on both me and the tough world of the boys on 


the block. I have never forgotten the joy of that wonderful evening 
when it happened. There was no daylight-saving in those days, 
and the baseball and other games ended about eight or eight thirty, 
when it grew dark. Then it was the custom of the boys to retire to 
a little stoop that jutted out from the candy store on the corner and 
that somehow had become theirs through tribal right. No grownup 
ever sat there or attempted to. There the boys would sit, talking 
aimlessly for hours on end. There were the usual probings of sex 
and dirty jokes, not too well defined or clearly understood; but 
mostly the talk was of the games played during the day and of the 
game to be played tomorrow. Ultimately, long silences would fall 
and then the boys would wander off one by one. It was just after 
one of those long silences that my life as an outsider changed, and 
for one glorious summer I was accepted on my own terms as one 
of the tribe. I can no longer remember which boy it was that summer 
evening who broke the silence with a question ; but whoever 
he was, I nod to him in gratitude now. "What's in those books you're 
always reading?" he asked idly. "Stories," I answered. "What kind?" 
asked somebody else without much interest. 

Nor do I know what impelled me to behave as I did, for usually 
I just sat there in silence, glad enough to be allowed to remain among 
them; but instead of answering his question, I launched full tilt into 
the book I was immersed in at the moment. The book was Sister 
Carrie and I told them the story of Sister Carrie for two full hours. 
They listened bug-eyed and breathless. I must have told it well, but 
I think there was another and deeper reason that made them so 
flattering an audience. Listening to a tale being told in the dark 
is one of the most ancient of man's entertainments, but I was offering 
them as well, without being aware of doing it, a new and exciting 

The books they themselves read were the Rover Boys or Tom 
Swift or G. A. Henty. I had read them too, but at thirteen I had long 
since left them behind. Since I was much alone I had become an 
omnivorous reader and I had gone through the books-for-boys-series 
in one vast gulp. In those days there was no intermediate reading 
material between children's and grownups' books, or I could find 


none, and since there was no one to say me nay, I had gone right 
from Tom Swift and His Flying Machine to Theodore Dreiser and 
Sister Carrie. Dreiser had hit my young mind and senses with the 
impact of a thunderbolt, and they listened to me tell the story with 
some of the wonder that I had had in reading it. 

It was, in part, the excitement of discovery — the discovery that 
there could be another kind of story that gave them a deeper kind 
of pleasure than the Rover Boys — blunderingly, I was giving them a 
glimpse of the riches contained outside the world of Tom Swift. 
Not one of them left the stoop until I had finished, and I went up- 
stairs that wonderful evening not only a member of the tribe but a 
figure in my own right among them. 

The next night and many nights thereafter, a kind of unspoken 
ritual took place. As it grew dark, I would take my place in the 
center of the stoop and, like Scheherazade, begin the evening's tale. 
Some nights, in order to savor my triumph more completely, I 
cheated. I would stop at the most exciting part of a story by Jack 
London or Frank Norris or Bret Harte, and without warning tell 
them that that was as far as I had gone in the book and it would 
have to be continued the following evening. It was not true, of 
course; but I had to make certain of my new-found power and 
position, and with a sense of drama that I did not know I possessed, 
I spun out the long summer evenings until school began again in 
the fall. Other words of mine have been listened to by larger and 
more fashionable audiences, but for that tough and grimy one that 
huddled on the stoop outside the candy store, I have an unreasoning 
affection that will last forever. It was a memorable summer, and 
it was the last I was to spend with the boys on the block. 

The following summer, since I was now thirteen years old, I 
would be able to obtain "working papers" and get a job downtown 
for the summer months. The prospect of getting away from "the 
block," of nudging closer to that small shimmering area where 
Broadway lay, made life more endurable. All that winter I con- 
cocted grandiose dreams of getting a job as office boy for Klaw & 
Erlanger, or Florenz Ziegfeld, or Sam Harris, and somehow, some 
way, working my way down from the office and through the stage 


door. As the last days of school loomed ahead, I scanned the Sun- 
day advertisements more and more desperately, searching for an 
ad that would read, "Office or errand boy wanted in theatrical 
office." There were none, of course. There were errand and office 
boy ads by the dozen, office and errand boys wanted by every other 
business under the sun; but no such ad as I looked for ever ap- 
peared, and in time to come I learned why none was ever likely 
to. Nepotism runs through the theatre with the grandeur of the 
Mississippi at flood time, and when an office boy is needed, there 
is always a nephew on hand; if a secretary is wanted, a niece or a 
cousin magically appears. This may account in part for the fact that 
theatrical telephone messages are inevitably garbled, manuscripts 
go unread, and theatrical correspondence continues to be a whimsical 
affair that goes largely unanswered. But all this I did not know then. 
I persisted in believing the ad I dreamed of would certainly appear 
the following Sunday. 

School closed and still I stubbornly waited, until it became im- 
perative that I take whatever job I could get if I was going to work 
at all that summer. In desperation I even boldly considered the idea 
of marching into a theatrical office and asking point-blank for a 
job; but I lacked the courage and, as a matter of fact, I didn't even 
know where any of the offices were. By the time I was ready to 
concede defeat, all the best jobs were gone and I took the only job 
I could get. It was quite a distance from Broadway, and the heavy 
steel door I pushed open and closed fifty times a day as part of my 
job was a far cry from the stage door I had fondly hoped to pass 
through; but I was working "downtown" and a step nearer my goal. 
If I looked northward from 14th Street, as I stood on the steps of 
the subway station each night, I could see the golden glow of 
Times Square in the distance. 

I worked in the storage vault of a large wholesale furrier, and my 
job was to open the vault as the hampers of wet skins were brought 
in and then hang the furs on racks to dry. It was tedious work, but 
it was cool inside the vault and I had ample time to read. It had 
another compensation, that job, and I took full advantage of it once 
I stoically accepted the fact that people were likely to hold their 


noses and walk rapidly away if they happened to pass within ten 
feet of me. They had good reason to. I possessed only one suit of 
clothes and that suit I wore to work every day. Not that it would 
have made much difference if I had owned a dozen suits and worn 
a different one each day, for after eight hours in a vault with un- 
cured skins any article of clothing, even a handkerchief, emerged 
smelling to high heaven. 

Out of the vault I would come at the end of each day, into the 
steaming midsummer heat, every day smelling progressively worse, 
and make my way down the subway stairs, grimly reconciled to 
the nightly battle of pushing and shoving my way into the Bronx 
Express. And therein lay the compensation. The inhuman crush in 
the subway during the rush hours was just as great then as it is 
now, and like the rest of the wretched subway riders, I would fight 
my way into the train and then fight again for enough elbow space 
to read my book on the long ride uptown. Things changed for the 
better as I began to smell really awful and the weather grew hotter. 
Avenues of space would open up around me, and sometimes if I 
resolutely leaned over a lady who was sitting down, she would give 
up by 125th Street and I would sink down into her seat with plenty 
of room on either side of me. I could not smell myself, fortunately, 
for my olfactory senses had been anesthetized by the daily smell of 
the vault, and after the first shock of having someone yell at me, 
"Boy, you stink out loud!" I pretended not to hear either the mut- 
tered threats or the imprecations of my fellow subway riders and 
would gaze innocently around me for a moment as though trying 
to discover who it was that smelled so bad, and then bury my face 
in my book or newspaper. 

A new excitement had come into my reading life — the newspaper. 
Not just any newspaper, but the finest newspaper of its era and, for 
my part, one of the finest journalistic achievements of our time. The 
newspaper was the New York World, which at the time I speak of, 
and for some years following, was in its full power and glory. I 
devoured it daily. It would be truer to say I savored it daily, for I 
read the news section cover-to-cover on the way downtown in the 
morning and sternly resisted the temptation to look at the page 


opposite the editorial page until the journey uptown at night. I 
saved and hoarded that section like the proverbial stick of candy. 
It was the high moment of my day and that was why I needed space 
around me and sufficient concentration to enjoy it to the full. All 
my new gods were on that page. Heywood Broun and then Alex- 
ander Woollcott, doing dramatic criticism; Deems Taylor, music; 
Laurence Stallings, book reviews; William Bolitho, writing about 
everything under the sun; and finally, F.P.A. and "The Conning 
Tower," illuminating not only the world of the theatre, but the 
world of wit and laughter as well, and making them both seem even 
more desirable. Every Saturday morning his "Diary of Our Own 
Samuel Pepys" appeared, and I would breathlessly go through the 
week with him on a round of opening nights, opening-night parties 
afterward, lunches at the Algonquin Round Table, poker parties at 
the Swopes', and all kinds of high jinks at Neysa McNein's studio, 
where all these giants seemed constantly to forgather as if by magic 
and spin out the nights in a spate of insults and ribaldry. Famous 
initials and names spattered the diary like a translucent Milky Way: 
G.S.K. and Beatrice— A.W. and Harpo— Alice Duer Miller and 
Smeed — Benchley and Dottie — Bob Sherwood and Marc — I. Berlin 
and J. Kern — H. Ross and Sullivan — H.B.S. and Maggie. The initiate 
knew that G.S.K. was George S. Kaufman; Dottie was Dorothy 
Parker; H.B.S. was Herbert Bayard Swope; and so on ad infinitum. 
If all this has the faint air of a star-struck movie fan standing in 
the forecourt of Grauman's Chinese Theatre and gazing down at 
the footsteps of his favorites preserved in cement, I suppose that is 
exactly what I was doing, only with newsprint instead of cement, 
and with, I need hardly point out, a slightly superior product. 

Yet no movie I have ever seen has dared to be as gauche and 
idiotically Cinderella-like as life itself dares to be and is. Even I, with 
my head full of wild dreams of glory as I closed the door of the 
vault behind me each day, would have had to stretch credulity to 
its limits to believe all the lucky accidents and the fortunate coin- 
cidences that lay in the life just ahead of me. I make no pretense 
about it and I never have — I have been extremely lucky. Such tal- 
ent as I possess I have used well and industriously, but talent alone 


is not enough. I do not mean to suggest that luck per se plays the 
major part in success, theatrical or otherwise; but I venture to guess 
that in the grand design of any successful career the element of luck 
has been a powerful factor. Perhaps luck is too easy a word — too 
all-inclusive. A sense of timing would be more accurate — or perhaps 
a quirk of character that enables its fortunate possessor to tread the 
main path and never swerve from it. Every successful person I have 
ever known has had it — actor or businessman, writer or politician. 
It is that instinct or ability to sense and seize the right moment 
without wavering or playing safe, and without it many gifted peo- 
ple flicker brilliantly and briefly and then fade into oblivion in spite 
of their undoubted talents. 

It would have been hard to convince me then that I was one of 
the lucky ones, however; for week after week the door of the vault 
closed behind me and the weeks finally lengthened out into months. 



.nd then it happened. In one day — actually in one aftei\ 
noon. My fantasy of getting a job in a theatrical office turned into 
reality, and it seemed not at all strange to me that it should. At the 
believing age, the old saw that "dreams come true" is taken quite 
as a matter of course by the very young. It happened none too soon. 
I had been two and a half years in the storage vault by this time. 
I was almost seventeen and the lingering look I turned toward the 
lights of Broadway each evening before I plunged down the sub- 
way steps, was growing daily more bitter. 

One morning in the early fall I decided in the darkness of the 
vault that when I went out for lunch that day that steel door was 
going to swing behind me for the last time. Perhaps it was because 
my head was full of the accounts in the papers of the new theatrical 
season just beginning — yet another season that I was not even a 
microscopic part of. Perhaps it was the sharp sting of going from 
the brilliant September sunshine into the darkness of the vault that 
made my lot seem downright insupportable. Whatever it was, I 
made my decision. I would not return to that vault, stack those skins 
for another day, if we all starved! 

At twelve o'clock I took down my lunch box, gave a last look 
around and walked out. I didn't give notice or say good-bye. I hated 
everyone and everything at A. L. Neuburger Furs, Inc. I ate my 
lunch on a bench in Union Square and tried to feel a lift of the 
heart or a slight taste of my new-found freedom. I could do neither. 


I well knew that I could not afford to be out of work for so much 
as a week, with the present state of things at home. For a moment 
I wavered, but not for more than a moment. Character is destiny, 
and even then I did not believe in second chances. I snapped the 
lunch box shut and stood up. I had gone over the Help Wanted ads 
while I ate. One job was more miserable than the other. Packers, 
stockroom boys, shipping clerks were all wanted in abundance. The 
halfway decent jobs (what there were of them) all starkly pro- 
claimed, "High school education necessary" — so that avenue was 
closed to me. Like Scarlett O'Hara, then not yet even born in Mar- 
garet Mitchell's mind, I resolved to think of all that tomorrow. Right 
now, I turned my face toward Times Square and started walking. 
This afternoon, at least, I'd have an authentic smell of Broadway, 
the real thing. 

I decided to pay a visit to my one and only link with the theatre, 
thin though that link was. My friend, George Steinberg, who lived 
in the apartment next to ours, had the very job I coveted above all 
jobs. He was an office boy in a theatrical office. I cultivated his 
friendship shamelessly, though it seemed to me an unjust caprice 
of fate that George, who cared nothing whatever about the theatre, 
should have an Aunt Belle who worked in a theatrical office, while 
the only relative I had who was even remotely connected with the 
theatre, was a cousin who painted posters for a movie house in 
Brooklyn. Moreover, George actually hated working in a theatrical 
office. He was as incapable of understanding my fascination for his 
job as I was of understanding his loathing of it. In an irritated way 
I think I dimly grasped why he felt as he did, for George was by 
all odds the shyest human being I've ever known — "painfully shy" 
was a phrase that fit him exactly — and I think the flamboyancy of 
actors, actresses and theatre people in general embarrassed him. Al- 
most every evening we would meet after dinner for a long walk, 
and my questions were never-ending. Why he endured them and 
how our friendship continued I do not profess to understand, for I 
was avid for every small detail of the office, and to make him talk 
about it seemed to increase his dislike of the job threefold. 

I thought of all this as I walked toward 42nd Street— the gods 


were blind indeed — and as I finally stood looking up at the facade of 
the New Amsterdam Theatre I sighed. Imagine going to work every 
day by walking through a lobby where the Ziegfeld Follies was 
playing instead of having a steel door clang shut behind you! I stood 
in the lobby and looked at the pictures for a moment before I 
pressed the elevator button. There they all were — Marilyn Miller, 
Will Rogers, Fanny Brice, W. C. Fields — and on the office directory 
next to the elevator, the magical names: Florenz Ziegfeld, George 
Tyler, A. L. Erlanger, Aarons & Freedly, and a horde of others. 

When the elevator door opened, it would not have surprised me 
at all to see Marilyn Miller step out on the arm of Florenz Ziegfeld ; 
but it was empty. I got in and managed to blurt out, "Eighth floor, 
please." As the elevator shot upward I sniffed delightedly. I am not 
certain that it is so, but it has always seemed to me that theatres, 
both backstage and front, have a very special odor of their own. It 
is an odor as definite to my nostrils as the smell of a hospital or a 
ship. I have always been immediately conscious of it, and I was 
aware of it then. 

When I got out at the eighth floor I hesitated. What in the world 
was I going to say to George ? My sudden appearance would be cer- 
tain to plunge him into a paroxysm of shyness. But I was determined 
to go through with it. I opened the door marked "Augustus Pitou, 
Theatrical Enterprises" and walked in. I recognized Aunt Belle 
immediately in the tiny outer office, just as George had described it. 
She sat typing fiercely, her head bent over the machine. Without 
looking up and before the door had even closed behind me, she 
barked out, "No casting today. Come back in two weeks." She fin- 
ished the letter, ripped it out of the roller, and as she inserted the 
envelope she spoke again, still without looking up. "Didn't you hear 
me? No casting today." 

"May I speak to George, please?" I said. 

"George isn't here," she answered, her fingers never stopping, her 
head still bent over the typewriter. It had never occurred to me that 
George might be out on some errand. If I left now, without even a 
glimpse of the office, I would have to start looking for a new job, 
and the chance would most certainly not occur soon again. 


"Could I wait for him, please?" I pleaded. 

"He won't be here any more. He quit today." 

"He quit? You mean he gave up the job?" My voice must have 
had a note of such incredulity in it that Aunt Belle looked up for 
the first time. 

"Who are you? A friend of George's?" 

I nodded. "We live next door to each other." 

"Well, he quit," said Aunt Belle. "Try and do good for your rela- 

She glared at me in annoyance, and as I still stood there staring 
at her, she said, "Well, good-bye. I'm busy. Maybe he'll explain to 
you why he walked out of an easy job that pays fifteen dollars a 
week." Her head bent over the machine again. 

In a dazzling moment, I saw the finger of fate beckoning me on. 
I took a deep breath and plunged. "Miss Belle," I said, "could I have 
the job? I just quit my old job today, too." 

The typewriter stopped and she looked at me again. "Sure, why 
not? Save putting an ad in the paper, and I got no more nephews, 
thank God. Go in and see Mr. Pitou and ask him if it's all right 
if you're the new office boy. Don't tell him you're a friend of 
George's — make like you just came around looking for a job." 

I stood there immobilized. 

"Go ahead," she said irritably, "you want the job or don't you?" 

Did I want the job! 

I walked past her and knocked on Mr. Pitou's door. It seemed an 
unconscionable time until a voice said, "Come in." Mr. Pitou was 
seated with his back to the door, his head bent over a long booking- 
route sheet, and like Aunt Belle, he did not look up. In fact, he did 
not so much as glance at me throughout the entire interview, if such 
it may be termed. 

"What is it?" he said, after a long moment. 

"Miss Belle sent me in to see you, Mr. Pitou," I replied. "Is it all 
right for me to be the new office boy?" Again I waited. Mr. Pitou 
seemed not to have heard and I did not dare to speak again. Sup- 
pose he wanted someone who had worked in a theatrical office be- 
fore; or suppose he had a nephew himself? My voice quavered a bit 
as I finally felt impelled to break the silence. 


"I'm sure I could do it," I said, "because I'm crazy about the 
theatre." Fortunately this remark was lost on Mr. Pitou, for at that 
moment he seemed to be having trouble finding a paper on his desk. 

"What?" he said. 

He paused, and for a terrible moment I thought a waft of my 
unmistakable aroma had reached him. He lifted his head and seemed 
to be sniffing the air. I moved away and stood by the open window. 
He sneezed — and my heart stopped pounding. It started to pound 
again when he spoke. 

"Fifteen dollars a week," he said. "Could you start tomorrow 

"I could start now, sir," I said. I had difficulty not shouting it at 

"That's good," he said. "What's your name?" 

"Moss Hart," I replied. 

"Mouse?" he said, mispronouncing the name immediately. "Take 
this booking sheet down to George Tyler. He's on the fourth floor. 
And take this note up to Goldie, Mr. Ziegf eld's secretary — that's 
on the floor above this. And wait for an answer in both places." 

He handed me the booking sheet and the letter without looking 
up, already lost in what I came to know as his daily bible, the 
Railway Guide, 

I closed the door behind me. "I got it, Miss Belle!" This time I 
actually did shout. "7 got it!" 

She looked up, a little startled. "What's the matter?" she asked. 

"I got the job," I said, waving the papers in my hand. 

"Well, that's good," said Miss Belle. "You can run out first and 
get me a container of coffee and some aspirin. My head is splitting." 

I did not realize until much later how fitting it was, that I should 
make my entry into the theatre with a container of black coffee in 
one hand and an aspirin in the other, but the future has seldom 
held the same roseate glow as it did for me at that particular moment. 

As it turned out, I couldn't have contrived a better beginning in 
the theatre than to start as an office boy for Augustus Pitou. True, 
Mr. Pitou was not exactly a "Broadway" producer, but his was a 


theatrical office nonetheless, and it was in the New Amsterdam 
Theatre Building, smack among the great ones, to boot. 

Augustus Pitou, Jr. (to give him his full name), and his father 
before him, was known as the "King of the One Night Stands." 
Mr. Pitou, Sr., had long since passed on, but he had left to Augustus 
Pitou, Jr., a stable of stars, a map of the United States, the Official 
Railway Guide, and the route sheets. The stars were: Chauncey Ol- 
cott, Fiske O'Hara, May Robson, Elsa Ryan, Joseph Regan and 
Gerald Griffin. With the possible exception of Chauncey Olcott, Fiske 
O'Hara and May Robson, I doubt if the theatregoing public of 
New York had ever heard of them; but to the residents of Fond du 
Lac and Eau Claire, Wisconsin, their annual one-night stand was 
an event not to be missed. 

Each year, beginning on Labor Day, six companies with six differ- 
ent stars spread out over the land, bearing the imprint "Augustus 
Pitou, Jr., presents ..." and from Labor Day until the following 
June 30, they played engagements of one night each in hamlets 
scattered north, east, south and west. Occasionally, in cities like Los 
Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, they settled in for the luxury of 
a three-day or a week's stand ; but other than that, it was : "Tonight, 
Huron, Michigan . . . tomorrow night, Green Bay." 

They left for the railroad station as the curtain fell or on the six 
o'clock train out the next morning, rode all day, and got to the next 
theatre barely in time to slap on some make-up and take their places 
on the stage. When one considers that Fiske O'Hara invariably sang 
ten or twelve songs during the course of his performance each eve- 
ning, and that May Robson — already nearly sixty — was duly ex- 
pected, as the star of her production, never to leave the stage for 
more than a few moments, the conclusion that a more rugged breed 
of actors existed in those days is inescapable. 

True, they complained a good deal, almost daily. A letter would 
arrive at the office from one star or another denouncing this season's 
bookings; for Mr. Pitou, in spite of his wizardry with the Railway 
Guide, sometimes cut things awfully close to the knuckle. There 
would be a week now and then when the poor creatures would never 
get near a bed at all, but would sleep sitting up during the day on 


the train and exist on chocolate bars and apples. In spite of this, the 
office was always crowded with actors, eager to take the long tour 
— a further proof, if one is needed, that the profession was quite as 
lunatic then as it is now. 

Nor can I ever recall an instance of May Robson's or Fiske 
O'Hara's missing a performance. And, of course, there was no such 
thing as an understudy. When the good folk of Butte, Montana, 
bought their tickets each year to see May Robson, it would have been 
a brave stage manager indeed who could have come out in front of 
the curtain to announce that the understudy was going on that 
night. Sick or well, exhausted or hungry, the curtain went up every 
night from September until the following June 30, and that was that. 

More astonishing still was the fact that one single playwright 
wrote all the plays. Each separate star had a new vehicle tailored 
for him each season, and one person executed every one of them. 
Her name was Anne Nichols. It was a sad day, indeed — nay, a 
cataclysmic one — for Mr. Pitou when Abie's Irish Rose miraculously 
turned into a success. It ruined him in more ways than one; and 
the triumph of that incredible play was to change my own fate con- 
siderably, too. 

At this happy moment, however, Augustus Pitou was safely en- 
throned forever, or so it seemed, as King of the One Night Stands. 
Each evening as he left the office he would write on a small slip of 
paper his estimate of the evening's receipts of each of the shows, 
fold it over and hand it to me. And sure enough, the following 
morning when I opened the telegrams sent in by the various com- 
pany managers from all parts of the country, Mr. Pitou's shrewd 
guess would be right almost to the very dollar. He even knew how 
much a hog-calling contest in Sheboygan would affect the receipts 
if the show played Sheboygan the same evening; or if a parade of 
the Sons of Erin in St. Louis would keep them outdoors too late 
to get them to the theatre to see Fiske O'Hara. He would smile 
happily at the telegrams, riffle through his mail, attend to such de- 
tails as needed immediate attention, and then settle back contentedly 
behind the Railway Guide and the booking sheet. 

It was the one and only thing he really enjoyed doing in a business 


that he hated. It took me a little time to realize this and at first 
I could not believe it. But Mr. Pitou loathed the theatre almost more 
than George did, if such a thing were possible. Indeed, the one thing 
that made it bearable for him at all was the fact that once the 
companies were launched on Labor Day, he need never lay eyes on 
another actor again for six whole months and could nestle down with 
the mosaic-like task of putting together next year's bookings. 

As June came on, and with it the approach of the returning com- 
panies, he grew increasingly nervous; and during July and August, 
the time of casting and rehearsing the next season's output — which 
also meant dealing with the stars themselves — he was at his wits' 
end. But by mid-September he was himself again. The white-covered 
Railway Guide appeared once more, and the voice of the turtle — 
and of May Robson and Fiske O'Hara— was heard throughout the 

I have thought it necessary to describe at some length the par- 
ticular kind of theatrical enterprise Mr. Pitou engaged in, for it 
illuminates how deeply the theatre has changed in a comparatively 
short period of time, and it makes quickly apparent die fact that I 
was still a somewhat far cry from being entangled with "Broadway." 
Yet this first active attachment to the theatre, removed though it 
was from the larger world of Times Square, had the effect on me 
of that first stiff drink on a reformed alcoholic. 

There may have been more efficient office boys than I was, but 
there was certainly not a happier one. Though I was not expected 
to open the office until nine o'clock each morning, I got there a 
full hour before— not through any sense of industry on my part, 
but simply because I delighted in just being there. Likewise, when 
Mr. Pitou left to take the 5:30 train to Bayside, Long Island, I was 
free to go also; but I seldom left the office before seven o'clock. 
Though I never learned in two and a half years how to stack skins 
correctly in their respective racks, I was able with ridiculous ease 
to use the complicated Railway Guide and lay out a booking route 
like a professional in no time at all. Even the dullest aspects of the 
job I found enjoyable. 

There was one thing, however, that I could not seem to learn, try 


as I would, and it almost cost me my precious job. I could not for 
the life of me say, "No casting today. Come back in two weeks," to 
the stream of actors that poured into the office. I had never actually 
seen an actor before, other than on the stage, and now that I was 
suddenly face to face with these wonderful beings, it seemed literally 
impossible for me to turn them away. Instead, I first asked them to 
sit down and wait for a while — perhaps Mr. Pitou could see them 
later. Then I discussed the various plays that Mr. Pitou would be 
doing and the possibilities of parts they might be suitable for, and 
while they blissfully waited we discussed everything they had done 
on the stage to date, from tentative beginnings clean through to 
minor triumphs and eventual hopes. It may be easily imagined what 
effect this unorthodox reception had on a people long used to being 
buffeted in and out of offices or summarily dismissed. 

Within a few days the news was about that Mr. Pitou would see 
anyone and everyone, that he was about to invade Broadway (a 
rumor for which I was not entirely blameless), and that a fine 
array of choice parts and splendid salaries awaited even newcomers 
with little or no experience. The consequence was that the office 
was jammed throughout the entire day. 

Mr. Pitou fought his way in in the morning, and what was worse 
still, he had to fight his way out every time he wanted to go to the 
bathroom, which was down the hall. Mr. Pitou, a slow-moving 
man, did not at first connect me with what he took to be a sudden, 
bewildering phenomenon or at the least a mistake on the part of 
the hapless actors; but quickly enough it dawned on him that I 
was the culprit. I was called in and sternly ordered to clear the out- 
side office and keep it cleared. I did my best, but in spite of myself, 
the words, "No casting today, come back in two weeks," somehow 
always seemed to emerge as an invitation to sit down and talk about 
the theatre. 

Finally, one morning Miss Belle announced tartly, "Mr. Pitou says 
that if the office is not empty when he goes to the bathroom today, 
we get a new office boy." 

Thus ended forever, I should imagine, the last dim spark of gal- 
lantry among theatrical office boys. I managed under that dire threat 


to keep the office free of actors from then on, but I found it hard 
indeed to say "no" and turn them away. I still do. 

Even now, by far the most difficult aspect of a production of 
mine which calls for a large cast is always the weeks of casting, and 
if it is a musical, the auditions. I still find it fairly agonizing to walk 
into a theatre or office jammed with actors and know that of the fifty 
and sometimes one hundred or so eagerly awaiting, no more than 
two or three at best will even get a chance to read for the part, 
though they must all be talked to or listened to and given some sort 
of reason for the rejection. 

I know I have maddened the various producers I have worked 
with through the years by the amount of time I seem to take in 
saying "no" to actors who are obviously wrong for the part at first 
glance. Yet I persist in believing that the particular way one says 
"no" to an actor on a certain day, may very well give him the 
courage to go on in a hazardous and difficult profession. 

It is equally true that after listening to a wearisome lot of people 
with no talent whatever for the theatre, men and women who would 
be better advised to marry at once or sell knitted ties in a haber- 
dashery, I feel far sorrier for myself than I do for them. But there 
can be no denying the fact that offering one's physical self for in- 
spection, exposing one's talent to the test of standing alone on a 
bare stage and speaking out into the void of a dark and empty 
auditorium, is a harsh and cruel way of pursuing one's life work. 

I have always marveled at how actors survive, year after year, 
this inhuman aspect of their profession. Of course, stars and estab- 
lished players are not usually asked to read for a part; but in the 
main, most actors accept the necessity for doing so. It is unfortunately 
a necessity, for most authors and directors, myself included, insist 
on a reading, sometimes even with leading players, before deciding 
definitely on the actor. 

It has, it must be noted, its brighter side. Sometimes an inex- 
perienced tyro reading for the first time will capture a part against 
experienced professionals. But to me it still remains the most difficult 
of all hazards in a profession studded with varying degrees of 
humiliation. The playwright, the composer and the other artisans 


of the theatre, all face exposure of some sort or another in a deeply 
personal sense. It is their work that is exposed, however, and not 
their physical self. That is the difference—and a large difference it 
is. It has always placed me squarely on the actor's side and I think 
I have profited by it. 

For the moment, nevertheless, I had to learn to say a brisk and 
authoritative "no" to all unfortunates who opened the office door, 
and once an open path to the bathroom down the hall was secured, 
I quickly became indispensable to Mr. Pitou. I am ashamed to relate 
that within six months' time I displaced the formidable Miss Belle 
and became his secretary myself. This was not quite as ruthless as 
it may appear to be, since Miss Belle worked for two other entre- 
preneurs in the adjoining office as well as for Mr. Pitou, though I 
doubt she thought any the more kindly of me for taking over her 
job. I did not give too much thought to her feelings, however, for 
by this time a whole new life had opened for me. 

I had early on joined the confederation of office boys who worked 
on 42nd Street, a sharp and knowing crew, the main by-product 
of whose jobs was the free tickets they dispensed to their bosses' 
shows: Freddie Kohlmar, of A. H. Woods' office; Jimmy, of the 
Selwyns'; Irving Morrison, of George Tyler's; the famous Goldie, 
of the Ziegfeld office; and a score of others. I could offer them no 
free tickets on my own, since the closest our shows ever came to 
New York was Albany, but I managed little favors, nevertheless, 
and very soon I was wallowing in what was for me ambrosia. In 
the first six months of my tenure with Mr. Pitou, and for the next 
year and a half afterward, I went solemnly to the theatre every eve- 
ning, with the exception of Saturday nights, when the free list was 
suspended even for the flops. 

Again, I could not have arranged a better time to have a gate 
swing open. It was the heyday of a flourishing New York theatre — 
the early 1920's. Seventy theatres were going full blast during the 
height of the season, and such pathfinders as the Provincetown, the 
Greenwich Village Theatre and the Neighborhood Playhouse were 
part of this largesse as well. One memorable week eleven new plays 
all opened on the same night. So crowded was the time that some 

1 47] 

new plays were offered only at special matinees on days when the 
play already in the theatre did not give one. It was thus that Eugene 
O'Neill was first introduced to uptown audiences. 

It was that extraordinary time, too, when a number of exciting 
new playwrights all seemed to emerge in a burst of heedless exuber- 
ance and plenty. Though the imprint of Max Marcin, Sam Shipman 
and Edward Childs Carpenter still lay rather heavily on the theatre 
of the early twenties, names like Vincent Lawrence, Robert Sher- 
wood, Sidney Howard, S. N. Behrman and Maxwell Anderson were 
appearing or were soon to make their appearance, to say nothing 
of Rodgers and Hart, Vincent Youmans and George Gershwin in 
the musical field. With my name on a "free list" every evening, I 
saw everything. I saw the failures first, of course. I was by no means 
fastidious in my choice. Just walking into a theatre and waiting for 
the curtain to go up was all I asked for. During the summer months, 
as the free lists to the hits opened up, I managed to wangle my name 
onto them — but I should like to wager that for a space of two years 
I witnessed more plays that closed in less than a week than any 
other living mortal, barring the critics who reviewed them. 

This was not without some value, I believe. I am not suggesting 
that witnessing a spate of appallingly bad plays is a creditable 
method of learning how to write a good one, but it has its points. 
Though I had no idea whatever of writing plays at that time — the 
thought never crossed my mind — I am certain that some of those 
expository first acts, some of the ineptitudes of those second-act 
climaxes, and some of the stunning lack of invention in those third 
acts must somehow have seeped into my inner consciousness. The 
big "hit" of any season always seems absurdly simple; so effortlessly 
does it unfold, that it almost seems as though it could not have been 
written any other way. Watch a failure on the same subject, and 
you will see by what a slim margin the mistakes have been by-passed, 
the cul-de-sacs averted in the hit. I am inclined to think those 
wretched plays I sat through stood me in good stead long after I'd 
forgotten what they were even about. 

I was grateful for the free tickets for quite another and more per- 
sonal reason. Those free tickets brought Aunt Kate back into my 


life. Once I had tasted the joy of being able to go to the theatre with- 
out paying for it, and of sitting in the orchestra to boot, I was deter- 
mined to find Aunt Kate and escort her grandly into the orchestra. 
I knew that she had never sat anywhere but in the gallery all of her 
playgoing life. Seven years had passed since I had seen her, and 
nothing had been heard of her at our house since that terrible Sun- 
day when she left. Her name was not allowed to be mentioned. I 
knew she was still alive, for we certainly should have heard other- 
wise, and I had long since suspected that my mother received an 
occasional furtive letter from her; but she never spoke of it and I 
did not dare ask. 

One Saturday evening, since I was bereft of the theatre, I paid a 
visit to the cousins in Brooklyn and made some discreet inquiries. 
Aunt Kate, of all things, was working only a few blocks away from 
the New Amsterdam Theatre. She had ultimately worn out her 
welcome with all the relatives she could visit for long stays, though 
she had managed to spin out these visits for five years by a carefully 
timed rotation, and for the last two years she had been custodian 
of linens in the Clara De Hirsch Home for Working Girls. 

The next afternoon after lunch I went to the drug store on the 
corner and telephoned her. While I waited for her to be called to 
the phone, my mind raced ahead to the wonderful evenings we 
would have together and to the remembrance of those old evenings 
in the kitchen, and of how much she and they had meant to me. 
Then a voice said, "Hello." It was unmistakably Aunt Kate. She 
managed still to put into the simple word "Hello" all the archaic 
grandeur, all the necessary hauteur of a lady of fashion. Of sheets 
and pillowcases, and the fact that she had been forced to go to work 
for the first time in her life at the age of sixty, there was no hint. 
There was still all of Ouida and Mrs. Humphry Ward in that 
"Hello," and I could have hugged her! 

When I said, "This is Moss, Aunt Kate," there was a glacial silence, 
and when she spoke again her voice was distant and cold. She had 
been very hurt, there was no doubt of that, by my failure to get in 
touch with her all these years, in spite of my father. But my eager- 
ness to see her again was so unmistakable and my pleasure at the 
prospect of taking her to the theatre so patent, that in a few moments 


she relented and we were interrupting each other quite like old 
times, until my nickels ran out. 

What a joy it was to hear those grandiloquent and noble phrases 
roll forth once again after all the years of silence! What a pleasure 
it was going to be for me to have someone in my life once more 
whose passion for the theatre matched my own. And how satisfactory 
her reception was of the news that I was an office boy in a the- 
atrical office — she received it as though I had announced my ap- 
pointment as Ambassador to the Court of St. James's ! With a sudden 
pang I realized all at once how deeply I had missed her. I wanted 
to run to the subway straight off and meet her that very afternoon, 
but this was one of her "working Sundays in," she grandly ex- 
plained, so we agreed to meet on the following Tuesday evening. 
I had some lunch money saved up and I pleaded to take her to 
dinner before the theatre, but she insisted I come to dinner with 
her at the Clara De Hirsch Home first and then go on to the theatre 
afterward. While I was still urging her to let me take her to dinner, 
the operator cut us off and so our meeting was left as she had ar- 
ranged it. 

This turned out to be one of the most misbegotten ideas ever 
spawned by Aunt Kate, in a life not overly concerned with the 
fitness of things; but I did not know it then, of course, and I looked 
forward to Tuesday in a state of high excitement. Sunday and 
Monday dragged by somehow, and on Tuesday morning Mr. Pitou 
announced to my chagrin that he was not taking the 5:30 back to 
Bayside that afternoon, but was staying in town to take Mrs. Pitou 
to the theatre and would I mind working a little later. There was 
nothing I could do but agree, of course. Why I did not telephone 
my aunt that I would be delayed I have no idea, but I did not do 
so and I was well over a half-hour late for our appointment when 
Mr. Pitou finally left the office. 

Once more I looked up the address in the telephone book to make 
sure and then I hurried out. The Clara De Hirsch Home for Work- 
ing Girls was an estimable enterprise charitably run by good people 
to provide unattached and homeless girls with decent food and 
shelter in a city not much interested in their welfare. Yet as I hur- 


ried toward the building at the corner of Third Avenue, I wondered 
if any edifice need actually look so cheerless and desolate. Why do 
worthy institutions or good causes always lack any single element 
of gaiety or joy? The thought was a fleeting one, for there was a 
figure on the steps staring anxiously toward me. 

It was a thin and emaciated woman who stood there, a woman 
who bore no resemblance to the bosomy and buxom Aunt Kate that 
I remembered. In a crowded street or subway I would have passed 
her by without a backward glance, for this was not Aunt Kate but 
a stranger. In a moment I was ascending the steps and I saw that 
it was indeed she. She was too upset at the moment, I think, to 
notice the astonished and unbelieving look of recognition on my 
face as I leaned over to kiss her, and now that I was here, some of 
the strain left her face and it seemed less gaunt and pinched. 

I came to know later on that I had constituted her sole topic of 
conversation with the staff and the girls from the moment she had 
set foot in the place. No doubt her inventions and tales about me 
were as unlikely as the romantic and fashionable welter of stories 
that she made up about herself, but it was a touching proof of how 
much she had loved me. And when I had finally and at last called 
her and it seemed she could produce me in person for all to see, 
her excitement had been immense. God knows what tall tales she 
had told them about my present position in the theatre. If I knew 
Aunt Kate, nothing so plebeian as "office boy" would pass her lips. 
Thus, when I was over a half-hour late, she must have stood there 
in an agony of waiting for fear that I had forgotten or would not 
appear at all. 

As we walked toward the door, I stole a sideways glance at her. 
The clothes were the same, pathetically grand and foolish, but they 
hung loosely on her, and if they had been ludicrous before, they were 
now almost grotesque. As she opened the door and stood waiting 
for me to pass her, I made myself look straight at the ravaged face. 
Surely these few years of work could not have wreaked such havoc, 
no matter how she hated it. Suddenly it struck me that she was 
dying, and with terrible certainty I knew that I had hit upon the 


We were inside now and the din was incredible. Opening off the 
main hall was the dining room to which Aunt Kate was leading 
me. It was filled to overflowing with about three hundred girls of 
all ages, and as Aunt Kate appeared with me beside her in the door- 
way, a silence fell as loud as the din that had preceded it. 

As we walked to a table at the far end of the room, six hundred 
eyes followed us in silence, and then a cacophony of giggles and 
smothered laughter began to flow over the room and over me like 
molten lava. By die time we reached the staff table, a walk that I 
thought would never end, I was in an anguish of embarrassment 
and rage. Why, oh why, had she done this to me? I forgot about 
how ill she looked and how much I loved her. I could only smother 
my anger, wipe the perspiration from my face, and sit there tongue- 
tied, staring at the plate in front of me. The ladies of the staff were 
kind souls, no doubt, and the questions they plied me with were 
well intentioned, but I refused to speak or look up; I nodded or 
grunted disagreeably, and I could feel my aunt's dismay as this 
frightful meal proceeded. I tried to recover but I could not, for 
every so often a girl stifling a giggle would come over to the table 
and ask to be introduced, and my aunt would ring out my name 
like some terrible master of ceremonies at a Rotary meeting. 

Somehow the meal ground to a finish — and ground is the proper 
simile, for even Aunt Kate sat in utter silence at the end. I knew I 
had been a wretched failure for her, but I could not speak. All I 
could think of was the gantlet to be run when we left the dining 
room — not a girl appeared to have moved from any table. They 
seemed, in fact, to be waiting for our exit. I kept hoping, vainly, that 
the staff would all rise from the table together and I might somehow 
lose myself among them, but that was not to be. 

Aunt Kate, once again the grand lady of fashion, proclaimed in a 
ringing voice, "We shall be late for the theatre," and rose from her 
chair. Immediately silence fell over the entire room. Knives and 
forks clattered against plates and then were still. And as we had en- 
tered, so we left, only this time the laughter and giggles that accom- 
panied our steps were less well concealed. I could have wrung their 
necks singly and with pleasure, though my aunt seemed to notice 


We were outside now and neither of us spoke. She was furious 
with me, I knew, but I was still too anguished to speak and offer 
some explanation for my behavior. I doubt if I could have. In a 
dismal silence we walked toward the theatre. Had I been a few 
years younger I would have been tempted to burst into tears. How 
eagerly I had looked forward to this meeting and how thoroughly 
she had managed to ruin it for both of us by the folly of meeting in 
that dining room ! Why need she always be so ridiculous a figure, so 
strange and different from anybody else? The laughter of those 
wretched girls rang in my ears, melting into the laughter of the 
kids on the block as they used to laugh when my aunt walked by, 
and I cringed. How could I have known that it was her own 
uniqueness that gave me so much that I treasured and that no one 
else could have given? I could not, of course; so we walked on in 

It was not until we reached the theatre that either of us spoke, 
and as we walked into the lobby, Aunt Kate instinctively turned 
toward the steps leading up to the gallery. Without a word I took 
her arm and steered her toward the orchestra door, and as we 
handed our stubs to the usher I said, "From now on we sit in the 
orchestra." For the first time that evening she smiled; and the sight 
of Aunt Kate sweeping through the orchestra doors, just as I had 
imagined she would, was magical. In a moment everything was 
forgotten and forgiven by both of us in the glory of sitting "down 
front." Aunt Kate sailed down the aisle like a great ship coming 
into port and sank into her orchestra seat, with a quiet sigh of being 
home at long last. It mattered not a bit to either one of us that we 
were almost alone in the theatre, for the play was one of the most 
notorious failures of the season and people could not be enticed into 
the theatre even with free tickets. We sat there with vast empty 
spaces all around us, utterly oblivious and content. 

From that memorable evening on, we were inseparable. I said 
nothing at home about our meeting, of course, but each day I called 
Aunt Kate from the office and almost every evening we trotted off 
happily together to dinner and the theatre. I never went near the 
Clara De Hirsch Home for Working Girls again. In unspoken 


agreement, we never mentioned the place, but went instead to a 
restaurant called Lorber's on Broadway at 41st Street, directly oppo- 
site the Metropolitan Opera House. 

Lorber's was a leftover relic of the nineties, and not long for the 
bustling world of the twenties, but in its own anachronistic way it 
suited Aunt Kate exactly. The walls were satin-covered, and little 
pink lamps stood on each table; an astonishingly good table d'hote 
dinner could be had for seventy-five cents. 

Somehow at Lorber's Aunt Kate did not seem out of place. No 
heads turned to look at her strange garb as we took our places at the 
table, and the old waiters never raised an eyebrow at the stentorian 
voice with which she ordered the meal. Curiously enough, she her- 
self behaved less strangely in Lorber's than anywhere else. The sense 
of belonging at last, of being in a proper setting, seemed to soothe 
her troubled spirit — for once she was not fighting the world, but was 
a part of it. She talked sensibly and shrewdly. She even discussed my 
father and herself with acute perception and understanding, and 
once she took my hand in a rare moment of tenderness and said, 
"Some day I hope you'll be as good a son to your mother as you've 
been to me." I doubt that I ever was, but I have never forgotten that 
remark or the way that she said it. It illuminated so much that was 
dark in all of our lives. 

All in all, that year marked a turning point in my life. She died 
at the end of it. I have always been grateful that the final year of her 
life was, I think, her happiest one; and of all the good things the 
theatre has given me, I count as not the least those free tickets that 
enabled me to give Aunt Kate that last wonderful year. 



suppose everyone has at some time or other speculated 
on the curious and sometimes frightening chain of events set in mo- 
tion by a single and seemingly innocent act of one's own. I have often 
been bemused by the fact that two people have met and married, 
children have been born, and lives channeled in an entirely different 
direction by the tiny beginning of an idea for a play that passed fleet- 
ingly through my mind while I was shaving or brushing my teeth in 
the morning. True, those actors who married each other after meet- 
ing in a play of mine might just as easily have met and married in 
a play of somebody else's, but the fact remains that it was at re- 
hearsals of my play that they first met, and who is to say it might 
not have been quite otherwise had they met in the rehearsal of an- 
other play and at another time ? It is an idle speculation, of course, 
and one that must forever remain unproved, for fate is an implacable 

Still, how strange a quirk of fate it is that as Anne Nichols wrote 
the opening lines of Abie's Irish Rose she was also changing un- 
alterably the life of an obscure office boy named Moss Hart. Miss 
Nichols' play, which had opened to almost unanimous critical 
disdain, had not at this moment of its incredible career turned the 
corner that was to make it a lasting theatrical phenomenon, but it 
was showing enough signs of staggering through the season to 
alert Mr. Pitou to the direct possibility that Anne Nichols might not 
be available to produce the next season's output for his stars. Miss 


Nichols' faith in her concoction, however, was monumental and 
unshakable. Her belief that the critics were wrong and she was right 
is a legend, and since it turned out that she was correct, countless 
backers of plays have lost untold fortunes. 

Mr. Pitou's predicament was a very real one. He was certain, as 
was everyone else, that Abies Irish Rose was doomed to ignominious 
failure, but so long as Anne Nichols persisted in the folly of believing 
that it was going to turn into a success, she could not or would not 
give any thought to getting on with the writing of those new plays 
that were so necessary a part of Mr. Pitou's business. I do not believe 
that Mr. Pitou wished Abie's Irish Rose to fail; he very humanly 
wanted the very obvious handwriting on the wall to transpose itself 
into a closing notice as quickly as possible, so that Miss Nichols could 
get cozily back to her proper knitting for him. But Abie's Irish 
Rose stubbornly refused to die, with a miraculous stubbornness that 
was to turn Anne Nichols into a millionaire. 

In the interim, while this maddening period of waiting was going 
on, there was one historic moment when Miss Nichols, in desperate 
need of money to keep the play going, offered Mr. Pitou a half- 
interest in Abie's Irish Rose for $5,000. It is my impression that he 
was quite willing to give Miss Nichols $5,000 purely as a token of 
friendship, for he needed her good will. Nevertheless, in order to 
make some show of putting things on a purely business basis, he 
agreed to go to the Saturday matinee, look at the play again, and 
then make his decision. Theatrical decisions, however, then as now, 
always hang by the proverbial thread. This mighty decision was not 
made by him, but by Mrs. Pitou instead, and I was an accidental 
witness to it. 

On that crucial Saturday morning, Mr. Pitou instructed me to 
meet him after the second act of Abie's Irish Rose and bring with 
me the telegrams of the grosses of the matinees of our shows on the 
road. At four thirty, I was waiting in the lobby of the theatre with 
the telegrams in hand as Mr. and Mrs. Pitou emerged from the audi- 
torium. I stood beside them as Mr. Pitou read through the telegrams, 
and when he had finished, Mrs. Pitou, who had stood silently by, 
suddenly spoke up sharply and, with an involuted feminine logic 


that was unanswerable, said, "Gus, if you put five thousand dollars 
into this terrible play, don't you ever dare say no to me when I want 
a new dress or a new fur coat for the rest of my life." I like to think 
of that heartfelt and thoroughly justified sentence as one of the most 
expensive remarks in theatrical history, for Mr. Pitou did not buy 
that half-interest in Abies Irish Rose for $5,000, and Anne Nichols 
enjoyed her millions alone. She deserved them, for she sold her house, 
pawned her jewelry and steadfastly refused to write anything else 
until her faith in that nonsensical bit of dramaturgy was thoroughly 
justified. It is extremely foolish, as Mr. Mencken so sagely pointed 
out, ever to underestimate the low taste of the American public. 

Mr. Pitou finally faced up to the inevitable. New writers were en- 
gaged to grind out the next season's output, and the plays were 
launched on Labor Day as usual — not, I might add, with overpower- 
ingly good results. The Nichols touch, such as it was, was a tried 
and true one, and the merchandise of this new season ranged from 
indifferent to just passable. There was one play among them, how- 
ever, that even the good citizens of Butte, Montana, could not 
stomach. It starred a young Irish tenor named Joseph Regan — whom 
Mr. Pitou was grooming to follow in the footsteps of Fiske O'Hara 
— and was, in a word, unforgivable. It is hard to imagine that out 
in the vastnesses of the hinterland a play's reputation would precede 
it so damningly that it could not get in and out of a town in one 
night without the inhabitants' knowing how terrible it was before- 
hand. Yet know it they did, whether advised by thoughtful friends 
from neighboring towns who had had the misfortune to have seen 
it, or through that plain sixth sense which somehow tells good folk 
to stay away from the theatre — but stay away from it they did in 
successively greater numbers. 

By the time the company had wended its noisome way through 
Illinois, the receipts were so alarming that Mr. Pitou considered 
the situation desperate enough to ask me to take plays home with 
me to read, in the hope of uncovering a new script he could finish 
out the season with. It was under these circumstances and after 
reading batch after batch of manuscripts, one more footling and 


foolish than the other, that the terrible idea occurred to me that was 
to prove my undoing. 

It was a Sunday afternoon and I remember it well. The moment 
was not accompanied by any such sensible thought as, "Why, I could 
write a better play than any of these myself." I was simply bored 
to distraction by the trash I had been thumbing through all day, 
and without thinking too much about it, I simply sat down at a 
battered typewriter that I had rescued from the ash-heap of a Brook- 
lyn relative's largesse and wrote on a piece of paper, "Act One. 
Scene One." By twelve o'clock that night Act One was completed 
and the next morning I took it into the office with me. Some demon 
of mischief was already at work, however, for on the title page I 
did not put my own name, but instead strung together the first three 
names of some of the boys on the block and listed as the author of 
the play "Robert Arnold Conrad." Candor compels me to reveal 
that the title was The Beloved Bandit, a secret I have arranged to 
keep rather well through the years. But I do not believe the demands 
of candor decree that I reveal any more of the play than that. 

The next morning I handed the act to Mr. Pitou, and with a 
proper edge of the casual in my voice said, "I read an act of a play 
last night that I think is very good. You ought to read it." 
"Who wrote it?" asked Mr. Pitou. 

"A fellow named Robert Arnold Conrad," I replied. "He's a friend 
of mine." 

"All right, I'll read it this evening. Put it in my briefcase," he said. 
And that was that. 

I do not believe I gave it even a passing thought during the rest of 
that day or evening. I'm certain to this day that I meant it to be no 
more than a mild joke between us to enliven the drudgery we were 
going through in the search for the new vehicle. But I was utterly 
unprepared for what happened the following morning when Mr. 
Pitou entered the office. With his hat still on his head, he slapped 
the act down on the desk, turned to me triumphantly and said, "We 
found it. Don't have to look any further. This is it. If the second and 
third acts hold up anything like as well, we're home. When can I 
get the second act?" 


"Tomorrow morning," I replied, too stunned to know what I 
was saying. 

"Great," said Mr. Pitou. "Take a letter to Mr. Conrad— will you 
be seeing him tonight?" 

"I guess so," I replied, truthfully enough I suppose. 

"Well, if you don't," said Mr. Pitou, still under the spell of being 
out of the woods at last, "mail it special delivery so that he gets it 
first thing in the morning. I want to point out a few things he 
ought to do in the second act." 

Still stunned, I sat down at the typewriter and solemnly took the 
long letter to Robert Arnold Conrad that Mr. Pitou poured forth. 
Why I did not tell Mr. Pitou the truth then and there escapes me 
even now. Perhaps I was too startled by his completely unexpected 
enthusiasm to puncture the bubble so quickly, or it may be I was 
suddenly titillated by the idea of carrying the joke through to the 
end; but whatever it was that possessed me to keep silent in those 
first few minutes set in motion a chain of events that I was powerless 
afterward to stop, By the time he signed the letter and handed it 
over to me, I knew I was doomed to go on. 

That night I went home and wrote Act II. It took me until almost 
five o'clock in the morning to do it, but unbelievable as it may sound, 
I finished it that night. Bleary-eyed, I handed it to Mr. Pitou the 
next morning. He promptly turned off the telephone and read it 
at once. This time his enthusiasm was even greater. 

"Mouse," he said, "telephone your friend and ask him to come 
and see me this afternoon, or give me his number — I'd like to speak 
to him myself." 

Panic-stricken, I managed to blurt out, "Oh, he's very seldom in 
his office, Mr. Pitou. He's in court most of the day. He's a lawyer." 
Quick thinking and an unholy gift of invention seem to spring to 
the aid of all liars at moments like these. 

"Well, ask him to come in and see me tomorrow," said Mr. Pitou 
after a moment. "And when do you think he'll have the third act 
finished? Did he say anything to you about it?" 

"No, he didn't," I replied a little haltingly, "but I guess he could 
have it for you by tomorrow." 


"Fine, fine," said Mr. Pitou. "He writes fast, just what we need 
right now. Better take a letter and give it to him tonight in case you 
can't get him on the phone." 

And there poured forth under my panic-frozen fingers another 
four-page single-spaced letter from Mr. Pitou. Glassy-eyed, I watched 
him sign it, and in a moment of sweet clarity the thought flashed 
through my mind : "You've got to tell him now." But before I could 
screw up sufficient courage to speak, Mr. Pitou spoke instead. 

"You know, Mouse," he said, a satisfied smile on his lips, "I don't 
often go around giving myself pats on the back, but I think my 
letter helped Mr. Conrad. I wish I had kept a copy of it. As a matter 
of fact, I wish you'd make a copy of this one right now. I'd like to 
take it home and show it to Mrs. Pitou tonight. I've been telling 
the family how you discovered this young fellow just in the nick 
of time." 

That did it, of course. To confess to Mr. Pitou that he had been 
writing these wonderful letters to his office boy was bad enough; 
but to make him out an utter fool in the eyes of his family was 
something I could not face. Any kind of delay would give me time 
to think — something was bound to happen to make that terrible 
moment of confession a little less awful than it seemed to me just 

That night I went home and tackled the third act. Alas, third 
acts are notoriously tough even for hardened veterans, and Robert 
Arnold Conrad, a tired and sorry spectacle by this time, did not 
finish the act that night. The next day another and still longer letter 
was tolled off to Mr. Conrad — longer, I believe, because Mr. Pitou 
was daily growing more proud of his new-found prowess as a teacher 
of play-writing, the while I sat there miserably taking it all down. 
During the day there was again the same insistence on Mr. Pitou's 
part of wanting to see Mr. Conrad or at least talk to him on the 
telephone, and I fended this off as best I could by muttering, "He's 
on a case — in court — he'll be finished in a couple of days." I was 
almost too tired to care. All I wanted was to finish the third act, tell 
Mr. Pitou the truth, and have it over with. All I cared about now 
was not losing my wonderful job as a consequence of this miserable 


joke. I silently prayed for a propitious moment for telling him. If 
only I could get that act finished quickly, so that there need be no 
more letters, each one of which, of course, could only make him 
feel more foolish as he remembered sitting there and dictating them 
to me, all might not be lost. 

That night I went to sleep after dinner and slept until midnight. 
Then I got up, sat down at the typewriter, and did not get up until 
I had typed "The curtain falls." It was eight o'clock in the morning. 
Now that it was done and I could tell Mr. Pitou at last, I felt strangely 
awake and refreshed. I could hardly wait to get down to the office 
and face him with the truth at last. When I walked in at nine o'clock 
Mr. Pitou was already there. I was surprised to see him there so 
early, for he usually arrived at the office between ten and ten thirty 
and he looked immensely pleased with himself into the bargain. 
Oh, God, not another letter! I thought. I must tell him immediately. 
He spoke while I was still in the doorway. 
"Got that third act?" he said. I nodded and handed it to him. 
"Mr. Pitou," I began — but I got no further than that. 
"Get your friend on the phone right away," he interrupted, "the 
damnedest thing has happened. I showed these two acts to Mrs. 
Henry B. Harris last night, and you know what ? She says this play 
is too good for the road — she wants to co-produce it with me and 
do it on Broadway. I'm going to bring the company back to New 
York, rehearse the play here, open in Rochester, play Chicago for 
four weeks, and then we'll bring it in. It will be my first New York 
production, so get your friend on the phone right away and tell him 
to come up here and sign the contract — I'm going downstairs to the 
booking office to book the time." 

I stared numbly after him as he passed me in the doorway. After 
a moment, I sat down in a chair and tried hard to think, but I could 
not think; I could only keep looking around the office as though I 
were seeing it for the last time. I was still sitting there transfixed in 
the chair when Mr. Pitou returned from the booking office. 

"What time is Mr. Conrad coming in?" he asked. "The theatres 
are all set. What time is he coming in ?" 


"Two o'clock," I replied, promptly and automatically, as though 
somebody else were using my voice. 

"Fine," said Mr. Pitou, "let's get going — we've got a lot to do 
before lunch and I want to read that third act before he gets here." 

The enormity of what I had done settled over me like a suit of 
mail. It is bad enough to make a man look foolish within the con- 
fines of his family, but quite another thing to make him a figure of 
ridicule outside, for I had no doubt that he had told Mrs. Harris the 
whole story and had showed her his letters to Robert Arnold Conrad 
as well. I stared so hard at Mr. Pitou that he finally became aware 
of it and said, "What is it? Were you going to say something?" I 
shook my head. There are certain moments when the process of 
thinking is frozen, when the ability to act, speak or move is com- 
pletely and totally paralyzed. I could no more have told Mr. Pitou 
the truth right then, or even have given him the correct time had he 
asked me to, if my life had depended on it. I took down the tele- 
grams, went through the morning's mail, and did the various other 
office chores without speaking and actually without quite knowing 
what I was doing. 

When Mr. Pitou went out for lunch, taking the third act with 
him, I again sat down in the chair and stared unseeingly around 
the office. I was still sitting there when Mr. Pitou returned from 
lunch a little before two o'clock. 

"It's just right," he said as he closed the door behind him. "He cer- 
tainly read my letters carefully." He looked at his watch. "You said 
he was coming in at two o'clock, didn't you?" I nodded. "I'm kind 
of anxious to meet him now," he said, as he picked up the Railway 
Guide and settled back to wait. 

I sat silently in the chair and watched the moments drag by. Finally 
he put the Railway Guide back on the desk and looked at his watch 
unbelievingly. "Why, it's three o'clock," he said. "Where is he?" 

This time I had to speak— tell the last lie to fend off approaching 
doom if only for a little while longer. "He must have been held up 
in court, Mr. Pitou. Sometimes they don't recess until four o'clock," 
I said, pulling out a legal term from God knows where. 

For the first time Mr. Pitou looked hard at me. He had, of course, 


no suspicion of the truth, but he sensed something was wrong. He 
rose from the desk and reached for his hat and coat. "Get your coat, 
Mouse," he said, "we'll go down to his office and wait for him, if we 
have to wait there all day. I'm bringing a company back from Omaha 
and I've got Rochester and Chicago booked. I've got to have those 
contracts signed. What's the matter with him, anyway? Come on, 
let's go." This last was added rather sharply, for I still sat there im- 

Somehow I put on my hat and coat and followed him to the ele- 
vator. I knew that I must tell him before we reached the lobby; I 
realized the terrible moment had come at last— for if we got to the 
street and he asked me for the address of the office where Robert 
Arnold Conrad worked, what in the world would I say? The mo- 
ment had arrived — there could be no more delay. I was trapped 
and I knew it. We got into the elevator and it started down. I made 
my revelation between the eighth and fifth floors as the elevator shot 
downward, and I remember every word I spoke, for the two short 
declarative sentences I managed to get out had an enviable economy 
and a dramatic brevity that I was not able to appreciate fully until 
long afterward. 

"Mr. Pitou," I began, "I have a confession to make." 

Mr. Pitou turned and looked at me a little wonderingly, as well 
he might have, for my voice had gone at least two octaves higher 
and seemed even to my own ears to be coming through an echo 
chamber some great distance away. I swallowed and got the rest 
of it out. 

"Mr. Pitou," I said, "/ am Robert Arnold Conrad." 

The elevator doors opened and we both stepped out into the lobby. 
In silence we walked the length of the lobby and out into 42nd 
Street. Only then did Mr. Pitou give any indication that he had 
heard me. 

"Mouse," he said at last, "I don't know whether you know it or 
not, but when an author writes his first play he doesn't get the reg- 
ular royalties." 

I could hardly believe my ears. "You mean — it's all right, Mr. 
Pitou?" I faltered. 


"Certainly it's all right," he replied, "as long as you understand 
that a new author doesn't get the regular royalties. We'll have to 
make out new contracts. I guess I'd better go over and see Mrs. 
Harris and tell her the good news." 

He patted me on the shoulder paternally, smiled down at me, and 
started off briskly toward 44th Street. I stood stock-still for a moment, 
and my Erst emotion, if such it may be called, was one of hunger. 
Suddenly I seemed to be literally starving. I could not remember 
having eaten anything at all for the last three days. I walked to the 
Nedick's orange- juice stand on the corner and ate one frankfurter 
after another, until all my money except the subway fare I needed to 
get home ran out. I must have eaten at least ten frankfurters, for 
the counterman finally said, "You'll be sick, buddy — better knock 

He was right. I just managed to get back to the office and into 
the bathroom in time. My debut as a playwright was a portent for 
the future: I have been sick in the men's room every opening night 
of a play of mine in theatres all over the country. 

The next day I was officially presented to Mrs. Harris, and my 
dual career as office boy and built-in playwright swung into full gear. 
It did not seem at all extraordinary to me that I should go about 
my duties as office boy in the morning, emerge as playwright in the 
afternoon, then revert to the role of office boy again at the end of 
the day: closing the windows, emptying the wastebaskets, stamping 
the mail and then taking it to the post office on my way to the sub- 
way. Neither Mr. Pitou nor I myself, for that matter, seemed to feel 
that any great change of status had taken place, which was exactly 
what I had prayed for. My relief that I still retained my job was so 
great that had Mr. Pitou asked me, he could easily have had the 
play for no royalties at all. 

By the same token, the news at home that I had written a play 
was received with hardly a lift of an eyebrow. I think that my mother 
and father, utterly unaware of the ways of the theatre, simply con- 
cluded it was some sort of homework I had done in the evenings 
that I had not finished during the day at the office. 


Only Mrs. Henry B. Harris seemed to gather a secret amusement 
from the situation, and she treated me from our first meeting on 
with a grave outward courtesy that was belied only by the twinkle in 
her eye. Mrs. Harris was rich, racy, colorful and of infinite good 
humor. She was a survivor of the Titanic disaster. Her husband, 
Henry B. Harris, the producer of such famous plays as The Lion and 
the Mouse, having perished in that tragedy, she now owned the 
Hudson Theatre on 44th Street, a yacht and a stable of horses. She 
mentioned to Mr. Pitou at our first meeting, I remember, that she 
had just turned down an offer of one million dollars for the Hudson 
Theatre, and I thought of this moment years later, when I heard 
that Mrs. Harris had come upon hard times. 

Her inordinate liking for The Beloved Bandit was something I 
could not fathom then, nor can I understand it now, for she was 
theatrically shrewd and by no means a fool about plays in general — 
another proof, as though one were needed, that quite sensible people 
make fools of themselves about plays, with a relentless inevitability 
that fills half the theatres in New York each season with pure rub- 
bish. In fact, her faith in The Beloved Bandit imbued us all with a 
foolish optimism and a ridiculous impatience to see the curtain rise 
as quickly as possible. Every afternoon we met in the large, beauti- 
fully appointed office above the Hudson Theatre, and once the 
director had been engaged, casting proceeded at a furious pace. 

Priestly Morrison, an actor of great charm and quite a good di- 
rector in his own right, was engaged to stage the play, and I sus- 
pected almost at once that he thought The Beloved Bandit was 
absolute nonsense. In those days, however, directors did not pick 
and choose or wait around for a play they liked or respected. They 
took more or less what came their way, and since the theatre was 
in a wildly flourishing state, it was common practice for a director 
to do as many as four or five plays in a season. If one or two of them 
were decent efforts, or if one of the Rvt happened to turn out a hit, 
that was all to the good — and Onward and Upward with the Arts 
for the following season. Directors did not occupy the hallowed place 
they do now in the theatre — that place was the playwright's alone. 

In spite of my suspicions, Priestly Morrison did nothing to dimin- 


ish Mrs. Harris' or Mr. Pitou's enthusiasm — he merely nodded and 
smiled at their grandiose plans for the play, and during the slight 
rewriting he demanded of me, he was scrupulously polite and non- 

In ten days from the fateful morning I had handed Mr. Pitou the 
third act, the company had been brought back to New York and the 
play was in rehearsal. Joseph Regan, an actor whose performance 
on any given night might have been presented as an appropriate gift 
to two people celebrating their wooden wedding anniversary, re- 
mained the star; but an entirely new cast was engaged. I was allowed 
the morning off to attend the first reading, but thereafter I remained 
in the office until four o'clock in the afternoon, when both Mr. Pitou 
and I would ceremoniously attend rehearsals. 

It must have been somewhat bewildering to the cast, or at the 
very least slightly unorthodox, to see the author of the play called 
to across the rehearsal hall and sent out to get a package of cigarettes 
or a container of coffee for the producer. But whatever they thought 
of this curious arrangement, they kept it to themselves and were al- 
ways unfailingly kind to me. No actor, not even Joseph Regan him- 
self, ever asked me to run out and get him coffee or cigarettes — a 
small consideration, but one which I was grateful for nevertheless. 
Only the stage manager, a hardened soul whose name escapes me, 
took an exceedingly dim view of the entire proceedings and not even 
Priestly Morrison's unflagging good humor could make him feel that 
anything but disaster lay ahead. His displeasure with the play was 
not verbal — he would merely emit long, doleful sighs from time to 
time, like a sheep dog settling down in front of the fireplace for a 
long nap — and when questioned about his heavy state of gloom he 
would simply raise his eyes heavenward and tap the manuscript of 
the play with a finger of doom. 

In spite of our dolorous stage manager, rehearsals were indom- 
itably cheerful. Mrs. Harris did not appear at rehearsals until the 
first run-through, and under the spell of her delighted and ringing 
laughter, the actors outdid themselves and the play seemed to catch 
fire and spring to life. Even Mr. Pitou on that splendid afternoon 
forgot to send me out for coffee, and Mrs. Harris shook my hand and 


prophesied a rosy future for me. Three days later the company, the 
producers and the author left for the opening performance in Roch- 
ester, New York, all of them as usual magnificently optimistic and 
each one filled with hope and dreams of glory. 




.here are many "firsts" in one's life when one is young 
and at the beginning of things; but there are certain "firsts" that re- 
main forever memorable. I had never been outside New York City 
itself. I had never ridden in a Pullman train or eaten in a dining car, 
and I had never stayed overnight in a hotel. All of these things now 
took place in glittering succession. 

When the train roared out of Grand Central station and emerged 
from the tunnel at 96th Street, I sat in my seat at the window and 
watched the squalid tenements rush past me, in one of which, though 
I could not see it, I had lived all my life. I have never emerged from 
the tunnel since then without thinking of that first ride. I sat there 
not quite daring to hope that the time would come when I would 
never have to return to the Bronx and the poverty that dulled and 
demeaned each day. 

In the dining car I sat opposite Mrs. Harris and Mr. Pitou, and 
sensed what it was like to order the food that tickled one's palate at 
a particular moment without thinking of what it cost. And when 
I settled into my room at the hotel in Rochester, I sat for a long 
moment on the bed drinking in a joyous sense of privacy that I had 
never before experienced. I would sleep alone in a room that night 
for the first time in my life. I did not know until that moment how 
starved I had been for privacy, what a precious refreshment to the 
spirit it is; there is no such indulgence in the realms of poverty, and 
only those who have lived without it can know what a prime luxury 


privacy is. From that moment on I began to fight savagely for the 
blessed solace of a door closing behind me in a room of my own. 
It was a long time before I could rouse myself sufficiently to leave 
and go to the theatre where the dress rehearsal was about to begin. 

The play was in only one set, a prime requisite of any Augustus 
Pitou production, and since the scope of the action was limited and 
the props almost primitively simple (another requisite), it was taken 
for granted that the dress rehearsal would be a simple and smooth 
one. I have learned since that the gods who hover over dress rehearsals 
are perverse, deceptive and wildly unpredictable. The most compli- 
cated shows sometimes move with a blessed smoothness, and the 
simplest ones, the ones in which nothing could conceivably go 
wrong, turn without warning into hell's own acre. I have learned, 
too, that a play with which everything is going to go well, a play 
which is destined to be a hit almost from the moment the curtain 
rises, is preceded in its out-of-town birth pangs by a series of un- 
related but inevitable omens that I have come to look upon with 
superstitious awe when they appear and a grim foreboding when 
they do not. 

When the tide is running right, the room service at the hotel is 
swift, the food piping hot and delicious, and the waiters silent and 
matchlessly efficient. The telephone service and the bellboys are 
expert and bright, the elevator doors swing magically open without 
a moment of waiting as you press the button, and the traffic lights 
turn green as you step to the curb. 

Skulk lightly around the outskirts of a play that is in trouble in its 
out-of-town tryout and you will hear the agonized pleas to room 
service that the order was given over an hour ago, God damn it! You 
will notice the glazed eye, its owner already late for rehearsal, 
watching the dials of the elevator indicator as it remains stuck at 
the top floor; and you will hear the waiter, his dirty thumb in the 
plate as he serves the soup, discourse at great length on what is 
wrong with the theatre. There will be no porters to carry the bags 
up to the room as you check in. The telephone operators will take a 
"No Disturb" call as a challenge to their ingenuity as to what early 
hour to wake you up, and, of course, there will be a taxi strike on and 


a convention in town. There is nothing more painful to an author 
with a play in trouble out of town than the spectacle of middle-aged 
men with fezzes on their heads and noisemakers in their hands, 
drunkenly greeting him in the hotel corridor as he makes his way 
desperately to his room for an all-night session of rewriting, knowing 
full well that the voices of this little group singing "Sweet Adeline" 
and "By the Old Mill Stream" will vibrate through the halls until 
the small hours of the morning. 

Not all of these omens were in operation when we arrived, nor 
would I have recognized them if they were. But the dress rehearsal 
that night was chaos of a kind to give anyone pause. Nothing went 
right. The theatre curtain jammed going up as the lights dimmed, 
and the set, of a hideous green color that I have never seen dupli- 
cated, buckled during the first dwc minutes of dialogue and nearly 
brained the character man. There was an unholy wait until it was 
secured and made fast, and the entrance of the star, trilling a lilting 
Irish ballad, was somewhat marred as he tripped over a stage brace 
and sprawled full length, all six Irish feet of him, smack into the 
fireplace. As he picked himself up, cursing, the rain which had been 
coming down in torrents all day turned into hail, and for the next 
half-hour not a word was to be heard — a small mercy for which I 
was not then sufficiently grateful. 

Nothing worked. If an actor went to open a door, it stuck. And 
at one point, when the leading lady, with a loud cry of passion, 
rushed to the window to open it and call after the star, the window 
came off the frame and she was left standing with the entire 
window in her hands. It was a nightmare of the proverbial bad 
dress rehearsal. By the second act, the actors were dithering about 
the stage, hopelessly lost in their lines, hollowly waiting for the next 
calamity to descend, and sure enough, Joseph Regan, making his 
second-act entrance through the same door, tripped again over the 
same stage brace — only this time the fireplace crumpled under the 
impact and fell in a shambles all around him. Even Priestly Morri- 
son's unfailing good spirits and courtly manners deserted him at 
this point and he stalked up the aisle muttering imprecations against 
the Irish and Irish tenors in particular. 


Only Mrs. Harris remained unperturbed. She sat there, unwav- 
ering, as each successive disaster on the stage made the play seem a 
mass of pure absurdity; leaning over to the perspiring Mr. Pitou 
from time to time, she would say quietly, 'Tm glad it's going this 
way, Gus. A bad dress rehearsal means a good opening night. I've 
never seen it fail." 

Through the years I have heard that phrase repeated over and 
over, and it is my firm conviction hardened by experience that a bad 
dress rehearsal with rare exceptions invariably means a ragged open- 
ing night. It is one of those theatrical shibboleths that have no basis 
whatever in fact; but I did not know it then and I clung to the 
good cheer that Mrs. Harris exuded. 

Somehow the third act dragged through with only the minor 
casualty of the juvenile being hit in the eye by a flying piece of teacup 
that shattered as he banged it down on the table, and when the 
bleeding subsided, the play proceeded uneventfully until the end. 
Mr. Regan did not trip over the stage brace in his third-act entrance, 
for the simple reason that it had been removed during the inter- 
mission, though the stagehand holding up the door was plainly 
and incongruously visible and the damaged fireplace still swayed 
dangerously every so often. It fell again with a tremendous crash 
just as the curtain came down, rousing Priestly Morrison from the 
depths of his seat, where he had sunk so low that only the top of 
his hat was visible. He uncurled himself slowly and came up the 
aisle to Mr. Pitou and Mrs. Harris. He raised his hat to them both 
and said, "I'm not going to give any notes to the actors tonight. 
I'm going to church early tomorrow morning and offer up a little 
prayer. I suggest everyone do the same." He bowed slightly and 
disappeared up the dark aisle. 

Mrs. Harris rose from her seat and laughed. "This is how I like 
'em," she said. "Terrible at the dress rehearsal, great on the opening 
night. I've never seen it fail." Her golden opportunity lay just ahead ! 

We walked back to the hotel through the sleeping city, too tired 
and exhausted for even a cup of coffee. I have often walked back to 
my hotel through a dark city after a bad dress rehearsal and looked 
up at the shuttered and peaceful windows of its inhabitants, some 


of them no doubt likely to be part of the opening-night audience 
the following evening. I have wondered if they ever thought en- 
viously of the rewards both financial and otherwise that come with 
great success in the theatre. I have wondered, too, if they ever 
glimpsed the other side of the coin — the tremendous toll the theatre 
takes in return in nerves, in strain, in stamina — that it takes almost 
as much as it gives and that those who court its wayward favor 
must be made of stern stuff indeed. 

Now I turned the key in the lock of my hotel bedroom and 
looked at the bed with something like alarm. The privacy I so 
longed for seemed a dubious gift right now ; though I was thoroughly 
exhausted, I felt wildly awake. That terrible "second wind" was 
gathering momentum and I knew that sleep was going to be im- 
possible. In those days, sleeping pills, that basic out-of-town necessity 
of the theatrical profession, had not yet been invented; or if they 
had, I had never heard of them. I left the light on and did not even 
bother to undress. 

I paced up and down the room and thought of the dread conse- 
quences for me if the play were to fail. I did not give a damn about 
the play — my own name was not even listed as author — and I felt 
absolutely no pride or sense of ownership in it. What I cared about 
was losing my job, and I knew Mr. Pitou well enough by this 
time to know that he would ultimately place the blame not on his 
misjudgment or Mrs. Harris', but on the trick I had played upon 
him. I did not particularly blame him — I blamed myself and the 
insane moment when I had launched blindly and unthinkingly 
into the whole idiotic business. I castigated myself for my own folly, 
until I fell asleep with my clothes still on and dreamed a sweet 
dream that the play was a glorious success. 

The early morning sunlight streaming through the windows 
brought me back to reality. It was a bitter cold winter's day, but 
at least the sun was shining. Perhaps they would be grateful to be 
out of the cold tonight, and in a warm theatre they might be a 
generous and receptive audience. I was already beginning to count 
on small omens. 

There was an eleven o'clock rehearsal at the theatre, and this 


time, to do Mrs. Harris full justice, the proceedings on the stage 
resembled something more closely akin to sanity than they had last 
night. Nothing, of course, could change the nauseous color of the 
set, but the stage brace had been set farther back of the door, so that 
Joseph Regan at least remained upright each time he entered the 
doorway. The window was bolted into the frame, and the juvenile 
and the character man, though a little the worse for wear, met 
with no further mishaps. A curious hypnotic state now fell upon 
everyone connected with The Beloved Bandit, actors and producers 
alike; and I have seen the same thing happen often since then. 
Because the horror of last night was not repeated, or was at least 
greatly lessened, everyone concerned seemed to be utterly blinded 
to the deficiencies and lacks of the play itself. The mere fact that 
the play proceeded from one act to another without disaster seemed 
to lull all minds, including my own, into a sense of sweet euphoria 
that dissipated any kind of valid judgment or even plain common 
sense. Before the rehearsal was half over, witless optimism was 
again flowing through the theatre like May wine, and since every- 
one was drunk with it, Mrs. Harris was being congratulated on all 
sides for her shrewd perception and her unshakable faith in the 

Before dinner that evening, in Mrs. Harris' room, I had my first 
martini. It was thought proper that I should, since a congratulatory 
toast was being raised to me; but I had never had hard liquor 
before, and the second martini made me quite drunk. I remember 
a great many congratulatory toasts being drunk all around, in- 
cluding a special one raised to himself by Mr. Pitou for having 
discovered Robert Arnold Conrad. We were all in a state of ebullient 
good spirits as we started for the theatre. In my mildly drunken 
state I thought the audience looked delightful as I stood in the 
lobby watching them file into the theatre, and for a brief moment 
I had a drunken fantasy of rising from my seat in the third row of 
the orchestra as the final curtain fell and making a graceful little 
speech to the audience, climaxing with that deathless sentence, 
"Ladies and gentlemen—/ am Robert Arnold Conrad." 

I took my seat just as the lights dimmed and the curtain rose. 


The audience seemed slightly stunned as the set stood revealed in 
its full ghastliness, but there was only the slightest murmur among 
them and they settled back generously to enjoy themselves. In the 
first fifteen minutes of a play an audience is the most malleable 
group in the world. Give them the slightest token that they are 
going to be entertained or moved and they become a receptive 
instrument that both playwright and actors can play upon at will. 
Then a curious thing happens. Somehow at the end of that first 
fifteen minutes an invisible bell seems to ring in the theatre, and 
if the play has not captured them by then en masse, they become 
a disparate group of people who are never welded together again. 
One can almost feel the moment when it arrives, and the inner 
ear can hear that bell tolling soundlessly. 

In the first fifteen minutes of The Beloved Bandit they sat pleas- 
antly enough, hoping against hope (or so it seemed to me) that 
they had not been drawn out of their homes on a bitter cold night 
only to be made fools of. Had the play had the slightest merit or 
even a redeeming scene or two to lift it out of the mire of its 
own monotony, I believe they would have responded immediately. 
As it was, they sat there in utter and complete silence. I do not 
know of any silence more devastating. I have sat through it more 
than once and it is a searing experience. Yet I have always marveled 
at the infinite politeness of an American audience. When it is 
perfectly plain to them that they have been sold down the river, 
that they have paid their money and they have been humbugged 
and are in for an evening of crushing boredom into the bargain, 
they do not become impolite or unruly — they sit there in a rather 
apathetic silence, and as the curtain falls on each act, they stride 
heavily up the aisle, the hope written plain on their faces that the 
next act will be better. 

They have in addition a kind of idiot genius as a group; they 
can detect falsity and reject the spurious with a lightning-like 
precision, without knowing why, of course, or saying a word to 
each other. But they are the surest barometer of a play's weakness 
or an actor's inadequacy that I know of. They knew what was 
wrong with The Beloved Bandit before the first act was half over. 


It was a fake. It was a composite of all the plays Anne Nichols had 
written for Fiske O'Hara, and while I doubt that any of those efforts 
would have won an accolade from a student of play-writing, they 
were at least true to their genre. Of their kind, they at least had 
the virtue of honesty — and The Beloved Bandit was a dishonest 

As the first-act curtain descended to an ominous silence, I sat for 
a moment trying to clear my head of the two martinis. I had no 
wish to go up the aisle and see Mr. Pitou, Mrs. Harris or Priestly 
Morrison, but I wanted to be told by somebody that it hadn't gone 
as badly as I thought it had. I decided to mingle with the audience 
in the lobby and listen for their comments. It was a mistake. I 
moved as rapidly as I could from group to group, and it was as 
though they had not been at the theatre at all. They were talking 
about everything else under the sun, but of the act they had just 
seen not one person said a word. I think I would have felt better 
about it if I had heard someone say, "Isn't it terrible," or, "Worst 
thing I've ever seen" — but I did not. The contemptuous dismissal 
of what they had seen as not being worth discussion was much 
harder to bear. 

In too short a time for comfort, the gong in the lobby signaled 
them back into the theatre. I was reluctant to go back to my seat, 
but I had no place else to go. I had not then discovered the release 
of pacing endlessly up and down at the back of the orchestra, nor 
the trick of ducking into a bar down the street for that stiff drink 
which enabled one to face the punishment that was coming. I sat 
through the second and third acts in the same grim silence the 
audience did. As the final curtain fell, a mass exodus started, as 
though twenty-dollar gold pieces were being distributed free in the 
street outside. There was not even a smattering of applause. The 
actors bowed to a solid phalanx of retreating backs, and the stage 
manager, his prophecy proved true at last, mercifully raised the 
curtain only once. 

I made my way slowly backstage, in order to postpone for as long 
as possible that inevitable face-to-face meeting with Mr. Pitou and 
Mrs. Harris, but when I got there they were nowhere to be seen. 


The stage manager, cheerful for the first time since rehearsals began, 
waved a hearty greeting to me. "Never saw one go worse," he said 
smilingly. "I've seen them go all kinds of ways," he continued, "but 
this was like spraying ether. You looking for the management?" 
I nodded. "They fled before the curtain came down. They said to 
tell you there was a conference in Mrs. Harris' room at the hotel 
and to get over there as fast as you could." 

As I started to walk away he called after me, "I wouldn't wait up 
for the notices, if I were you. I know one of the critics here and 
he waits all year for one to come along like this." 

I managed a miserable smile back at him and made my way out, 
but not before I had been accosted by the character man, who shook 
my hand fervently and said, "Went rather well, didn't you think?" 
I stared at him, not quite certain if this were not some sort of 
cruel joke, but he seemed to be quite serious. 

There is always one actor in every company, I have found, who 
no matter how badly a play has gone always thinks or pretends to 
think that it has been received splendidly and moreover takes the 
trouble to waylay you and tell you so. He stands next to you at the 
hotel desk as you ask for the key to your room. He seeks you out in 
the drug store as you purchase an extra supply of headache tablets. 
He's invariably in the elevator with you late at night as you wearily 
and at last wend your way to the solitude of your room, and always 
with that ingratiating smile on his face and those absurd words on 
his lips. Whether this is done with an eye on future plays the play- 
wright may have up his sleeve or simply to endear himself to those 
in power at a moment of crisis, I do not know; but this barefaced 
and foolish lie is always somehow harder to bear than the forthright 
disdain of an honest stage manager. 

I was prepared for the very worst when I knocked on the door 
of Mrs. Harris' suite, but to my surprise I heard the ringing laugh 
of Mrs. Harris coming unmistakably through the transom. 

I opened the door on my first theatrical conference. The con- 
ference back at the hotel after the opening-night performance out of 
town is a theatrical tribal rite, whose unchanging ritual persists 


through the years like the Hopi Indians' rain dance. The setting 
is usually the producer's or the author's suite, and depending upon 
the fame of the author or the importance of the play, it is attended 
not only by those most intimately connected with the production 
but also by what is technically referred to as "the wrecking crew": 
those friends or well-wishers who have journeyed up from New York 
in order to be the first ones back with the news of the play's chances 
of success or, preferably, in order to provide a more juicy ride back 
on the late train, its probable failure. 

If the play has the earmarks of a hit, the room is jammed, noisy, 
blue with cigarette smoke and agents, and the telephone rings with 
the constancy of election night in campaign headquarters. If the 
play has gone badly, it is as though the room were suddenly radio- 
active and only the author and the management were immune to 
the deadly fall-out. A hardy soul or two from New York, their faces 
wreathed in gritty smiles of pitiable determination, will appear long 
enough to declare with a false brightness, "It needs work, of course," 
and then flee, the sigh of their relief blowing them halfway down 
the corridor like a gust of March wind. 

There is always a table from room service in a corner of the room, 
on which stand beer bottles, whiskey, sandwiches and endless pots of 
coffee, glacially cold and notably rancid. Since room service in hotels 
in most tryout towns closes down at nine o'clock, this tribal repast 
is always ordered by the company manager at about four o'clock 
in the afternoon; and although the food is not delivered until mid- 
night, the sandwiches have been made in late afternoon and 
wrapped in a damp napkin, where they repose cold and wet until 
the conference begins. The sight of these pathetic bits of bread, no 
longer white but now a pale gray color, with slivers of rubbery 
ham and soapy cheese limply overlapping the wet edges, is enough 
to turn an author's stomach if the play has gone well — but the sight 
of them after a bad opening out of town is enough to make him 
physically ill. Usually, the butter has been placed separately in little 
disk-shaped china butter plates so dear to every hotel dining room, 
and during the conference, these become scattered all over the 
room. Cigarettes are stubbed out in unused pats of butter, and chew- 


ing gum is also disposed of thereby. If the conference has been held 
in the author's suite, the next morning, as he makes his way to the 
door to pick up the newspapers and read the first bad notices for 
the show, he is greeted by the sight of empty beer bottles, half- 
finished glasses of Scotch, and cigarette stubs swimming in melted 
butter. I have always considered it an appropriate setting in which 
to perform this grisly ceremony, and in some way I cannot clearly 
define, the horror of the room seems somehow to relieve, rather than 
add to, the pain of the occasion. 

This first hotel-room conference that I was to participate in 
differed only in degree from all the others that were to stretch 
down the years. Since both author and play were equally unim- 
portant, there were no well-wishers up from New York to witness 
the opening performance, and since the debacle at the theatre had 
been complete, all faces with the exception of Mrs. Harris' bore 
the imprint of a deep sense of guilt and a look of public disgrace, as 
though one among them had raped a ten-year-old girl and buried 
her body in the woods, and the others had helped to dig the grave. 
Other than that, however, the ritual was the same. There was the 
table in the corner, with the beer bottles, the pots of coffee, the limp 
sandwiches with the gray bread already beginning to curl around 
the edges, the little china butter plates with a goodly supply of half- 
smoked cigarettes already stubbed out in the butter, and the butt 
of the company manager's cigar floating unconcerned in the half- 
full highball glass that stood at his elbow. 

Mr. Pitou sat slumped in a chair, a heavy figure of gloom, and 
Priestly Morrison seemed engrossed to the exclusion of all else in a 
series of elaborate drawings he was executing on the blotter of the 
desk. But Mrs. Harris, a cigarette dangling from the corner of her 
mouth and a glass of beer in her hand, strode up and down the 
room as chirpy and cheerful as though the audience had acclaimed 
the play with sixteen curtain calls. She waved a hand to me as I 
came in and continued with what she had been saying. 

"I'll tell you something, boys," she said, addressing me now as well 
as the others, "the way it went tonight doesn't bother me one bit. 
Not a bit. You know why? First, this is Rochester — and what the 
hell does Rochester know about anything except Kodaks? Second, 


this is an audience play. I knew it when I read it and I still believe 
it. Give this play a chance with its own audience, boys, and you 
won't know you're watching the same play you saw tonight." 

There was a heavy silence for a moment and then Priestly Morri- 
son spoke in a mild voice. "Just what city do you think the audience 
for this play is hiding in?" he said, without looking up from his 

"Chicago," cried Mrs. Harris triumphantly. "And after Chicago, 
New York. I don't have to remind you of Abies Irish Rose, do I, 

A grimace of pain flitted across Mr. Pitou's face and he shifted 
uneasily in his chair. He said nothing. 

"I tell you what I'm going to do, Gus," she went on, addressing 
him directly, "and I'd advise you to do the same. I'm going to get 
out of here on the morning train. I'm not just going to sit and look 
at a play for a whole week that I know more about than the 
audience does. Priestly and Moss can watch the performance and 
do whatever they think necessary. Then you and I will jump on to 
Chicago next Monday night, and if the Chicago audience doesn't 
eat this play up, I'll eat my hat in the lobby. Come on, Moss, have a 
glass of beer and some sandwiches — you look pea-green, or it's 
these lights." 

Again I found that extreme emotion induced a monumental 
hunger, and I wolfed more than half of those horrible sandwiches 
and drained two bottles of beer almost without stopping to breathe. 
I dared not look at Mr. Pitou and I sat as far away as possible from 
him. Mrs. Harris chatted merrily on and my relief was enormous 
when Mr. Pitou finally arose from the chair and said, "Well, 
Priestly, I'll see you and Moss in Chicago next Monday. If it goes 
any better during the week give me a call. Otherwise, I'll be stand- 
ing in the lobby in Chicago watching Mrs. Harris eat her hat." He 
laughed mirthlessly at his little joke and slammed the door behind 

The week that followed in Rochester was perhaps the most dismal 
week I have ever spent with a play. There have been other weeks in 
my theatrical life out of town that involved more pain and moments 


of crisis, but I can remember none that was so completely melan- 
choly. There is something infinitely sad about a theatre with an 
audience of perhaps twenty or thirty disconsolate people scattered 
through its seats, and there is a touch of the sepulchral about actors 
booming out their lines into the vast reaches of an almost empty 
auditorium. I have often wondered what curious necessities bring 
these few masochistic souls to sit and watch what they have obviously 
been warned against as a dreary and unsatisfactory play. And why 
twenty or thirty? Why not two or ten or two hundred? Yet in- 
evitably with even the worst play there are always somehow twenty 
or thirty people sitting almost obscenely alone in a large theatre 
and making it obligatory for the curtain to rise. 

During the entire week in Rochester I do not believe that more 
than thirty people at the most ever filed through the doors into 
the theatre for a single performance, and the sight of them, huddled 
in lonely groups of two and three, cast a pall of misery over the 
theatre even before the curtain rose. They sat in silence throughout 
the performance, and as the final curtain fell, they clumped silently 
up the aisle and left the theatre in the same glum fashion they 
had entered it, leaving behind them the mystery of why they had 
bothered to come at all. By the end of the week, my very bones ached 
with the monotony and the indescribable boredom of watching The 
Beloved Bandit through each and every performance — for I felt I 
was honor-bound to sit through each performance and make what 
suggestions I could to Priestly Morrison. 

I have never been able to understand the enjoyment of some 
playwrights who are able to visit the theatre night after night 
during the run of a play in New York and with obvious relish sit 
entranced before the magic of their own creation. True, The Beloved 
Bandit was not a play to fill an author's heart with pride, but I have 
never been able, once a play of mine has opened in New York, 
however great a success it may have achieved, to sit through an 
entire performance. I have been able to drop into the theatre and 
watch a favorite scene or two, but I know I would find it torturous 
to watch the play in its entirety, or even to watch a large portion 
of it with any degree of pleasure. It may be that The Beloved Bandit 


filled me with a lifelong antipathy for watching my own works 
performed, and if this is true, it is the only mark in its favor that 
I can find. 

Somehow the days dragged through until Saturday night — there 
is an old and fond phrase in the theatre which actors whisper to 
each other on opening nights: "Eleven o'clock always comes" — and 
with something like a relief and even a glimmering of hope, I got 
onto the sleeper to Chicago with the company. Chicago certainly 
couldn't be worse than Rochester. 

We arrived at Chicago late Sunday afternoon and I made straight 
for the Adelphi Theatre, where The Beloved Bandit was to open the 
following night. Performances are played on Sunday nights in 
Chicago, and as the author of the incoming play, I was entitled to 
the courtesy of "free tickets" for Sunday evening. Beggar on Horse- 
back by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, was playing its 
last performance and I wanted very much to see it. It was one of 
the hits I had not been able to wedge my way into during its New 
York run. I ate a hurried dinner and then went back to the theatre. 
What a difference it was to stand in this crowded lobby and listen 
to the buzz of anticipation of a fashionable audience eager to go 
through the doors to their seats and enjoy the play. The very 
atmosphere crackled with that unmistakable and wonderful sound 
of an audience certain of the fare about to be spread before them 
and eager for the curtain to rise. It is one of the j oiliest sounds in the 

Before I knew quite what had happened, I forgot my own perilous 
state and lost myself in the glow of the crowded theatre and the 
sudden hush that pervaded the audience as the footlights dimmed 
Beggar on Horsebac\ remains still one of the landmarks of satirical 
writing for the American stage, and I sat rapt and bug-eyed with 
admiration in front of it. Its gifted approach to the satirical and the 
fantastic aspects of our national life and culture must have awakened 
some kinship to the satirical and the fantastic within me, and for 
the first time I glimpsed that there might be a deeper sense of ful- 
fillment in the art of the writer than in that of the actor. It was a 
fleeting thought only, but on the way back to the hotel I thought 


again of what the world of Kaufman and Connelly must be like as 
opposed to the world of John and Lionel Barrymore. 

The next morning, Mr. Pitou and Mrs. Harris arrived, and I 
learned with some dismay that I was being moved into Mr. Pitou's 
room. When the gods were not smiling, Mr. Pitou was apt to cut 
corners rather sharply to effect every possible economy, and I re- 
flected with no little tinge of dread what it was going to be like 
to share a room with Mr. Pitou if the play went badly tonight. 

That evening there was a gay and merry dinner for all in Mrs. 
Harris' suite, and while it was not quite so uninhibitedly convivial as 
the first dinner in Rochester, by the second martini and the third 
toast of mutual congratulations, even Mr. Pitou seemed to fall anew 
into the trap of false hope and glittering optimism. He even laughed 
aloud and joked in the taxi on the way to the theatre, and such is 
the ulfaltering faith of theatre folk that an unlikely miracle is cer- 
tain to occur on opening nights, that by the time we reached the 
theatre we were one and all of us quite blind to the fact that this was 
the very same play that had played with such dire results in Rochester 
the week before. 

My heart sank a little as I glanced over the audience coming 
down the aisle. There was a goodly smattering of evening dresses 
and black ties among them and they seemed to have that look of 
threatening benevolence so native to all first-night audiences. They 
would not, I thought, be nearly as polite in their disdain as the 
opening-night audience in Rochester. I was not wrong. 

In Rochester they had greeted that appalling set in astonished 
silence, but as the curtain rose in Chicago, after an initial gasp of 
disbelief at what greeted their eyes, they broke as one into a gale of 
derisive laughter. The laughter lasted long enough to drown out 
the opening lines of dialogue, but just as the audience grew quiet 
again, Joseph Regan made his entrance in a way that he had never 
done before. It was his own impromptu invention and he never 
bothered, then or afterward, to explain why he did it. He came in 
through the fireplace and interpolated a line of his own authorship, 
the delicacy of whose phrasing I have forgotten, but which said 
something to the effect that: "Every day was Christmas when the 


Irish came to town." The sight of Joseph Regan creeping in through 
the fireplace had numbed me to everything else for a few moments, 
but now I was conscious of a murmur going on all around me. The 
audience was laughing again, only now they were whispering to each 
other at the same time, and suddenly I became conscious of a gray- 
haired gentleman rising from his seat in the third row and walking 
up the aisle. A large portion of the audience seemed to follow his 
progress with such interest that I turned to Priestly Morrison and 
whispered, "Who is that and why is everyone watching him?" 

"That," said Priestly Morrison, not even bothering to whisper, 
"is Ashton Stevens, Chicago's leading critic, and I believe he's going 

What followed after is told quickly enough, for it happened with 
frightening rapidity. Before Joseph Regan had intoned too many 
more "macushlas" and "mavourneens" the audience started stream- 
ing up the aisle, and by the time the curtain of the first act fell, the 
seats all around me were empty and I knew that their occupants, 
like Ashton Stevens, were undoubtedly going home. This time I 
spared myself the anguish of going back into the theatre for the 
second and third acts. Instead, I walked around to the stage-door 
alley and remained there, walking up and down, until eleven 

Some perceptive fellow once remarked, "They find the draftiest 
place in town and then build a theatre around it." He was right. 
The wind from Lake Michigan whistled up the alley as though it 
had been sent there expressly by Ashton Stevens to find the author, 
but I hardly noticed it. Now that the worst had happened, I could 
think only of just how and when the blow I most feared would fall. 

Mr. Pitou, a notably slow-moving man, moved with remarkable 
swiftness in certain areas, and the area of his pocketbook was one 
that always galvanized him into immediate action. If the result of 
The Beloved Bandit was the loss of my job, what lay ahead for me ? 
The fur vault again? I knew I would never go back to that; but 
I knew too, more surely than I had ever known before, how hard 
come by was the job of office boy in a theatrical office. The prospect 
of landing another was almost impossible and I did not delude 

f8 3 ] 

myself on that score. The lucky ones who had the jobs, relatives 
or no, held on to them for dear life. 

It is noticeable, I think, that anyone who has tasted the heady 
wine of the theatre, even on its merest fringes or in the most 
menial of its jobs, is cut off from the outside world forever after. 
The world of the theatre is as closed a tribe and as removed from 
other civilian worlds as a Gypsy encampment, and those who enter 
it are spoiled for anything else and are tainted with its insidious lure 
for the rest of their lives. I could not or would not bring myself face 
to face with the fact that by this time next week I might well be a 
stockroom clerk or a messenger boy, and the world in which I had 
so fragile a toe hold would be closed to me once more — this time, 
for all I knew, for good and all. 

I walked up and down the alley, turning over and over in my 
mind every avenue and possibility of escape and refusing with a 
mixture of stubbornness and rage to accept the fact that there was 
none. At eleven o'clock I started back to the hotel. I knocked on the 
door of Mrs. Harris' suite and walked in without waiting for an 
answer, for now there was no need to delay whatever might be in 
store for me. 

The setting and the atmosphere were identical with the first con- 
ference in Rochester, but Mrs. Harris, to her everlasting credit, was 
valiant in defeat — a defeat which even her optimistic spirit had to 
concede was final and absolute. 

"You just missed seeing me trying to eat my hat, Moss," she called 
to me as I came in. She laughed and crossed to where Mr. Pitou 
was slumped down in the depths of the sofa. "Gus," she said, "we 
guaranteed the theatre here for four weeks, didn't we?" He nodded 
without looking up at her. "Four thousand a week, wasn't it?" she 
asked. Again Mr. Pitou nodded, as though naming the actual amount 
would cause him acute physical pain. 

"Well, Gus," she went on, "my suggestion is we pay the theatre 
off and close here tomorrow night. What would you say our total 
loss on the show would be, Gus? With the loss up to date and the 
guarantee and bringing the company back to New York and paying 
them off?" 


Mr. Pitou took an envelope and pencil out of his pocket and 
slowly covered the back of it with figures. He seemed to take a long 
time about it, and while he scribbled, no one spoke. When he had 
finished, he looked up and laid the envelope on the sofa beside him. 

"Well, how much is it, Gus?" Mrs. Harris asked a little im- 

His reply was so faint that Mrs. Harris had to ask him to repeat it, 
and when he did, the words emerged jerkily like a sore tooth being 
yanked by an inept dentist. "Forty-five thousand dollars," he said. 

I swallowed painfully. I had started it all in a kitchen in the 
Bronx on a quiet Sunday afternoon! 

"Can we leave the scenery here?" asked Mrs. Harris. 

"Nope," said the company manager, speaking up for the first 
time. "We gotta cart it away from the theatre." 

"Cart it away where?" asked Mrs. Harris. 

"To the city dump," he replied. "Then you wait for a windy 
day on the dump and burn it. Gotta pay for that, too." 

Mrs. Harris laughed. "Couldn't we find out where Ashton 
Stevens lives and leave it on his doorstep?" she said. And as an 
afterthought, she added, "That set and a dramatic critic deserve 
each other." 

Priestly Morrison crossed to where I was standing and laid a 
hand on my shoulder. "I'd spare myself reading Ashton Stevens in 
the morning, Moss," he said kindly. "Anyway, you'll be coming 
back here with another one some day and make him eat his words, 
won't he, Gus?" 

Mr. Pitou did not reply. He rose from the sofa and made his way 
slowly toward the door. His voice, when he finally spoke, was muted 
and forlorn. "Good night," he said, "I'm going to bed." He signaled 
to me from the doorway to follow him. I murmured a good night 
and closed the door after me. 

I stood beside him in silence as we waited for the elevator and 
in silence he walked down the corridor to the room I was to share 
with him. He's waiting till we get inside, I thought, then he'll 
tell me. 

Mr. Pitou unlocked the door and threw the key with something 


of a crash on the glass-top bureau; still in silence, he began to 
undress. There is something terribly disconcerting in seeing your 
employer, the man who holds your destiny in his hands, stand 
before you in long winter underwear. It is an article of apparel 
that can rob any situation of dignity and create an immediate 
atmosphere of absurdity. Fearful as I was of what he was about to 
say, I was suffused with so great an embarrassment that I did not 
catch the first few words of what he said when finally he spoke. 
To my surprise he was talking not about The Beloved Bandit but 
about the receipts of his other shows on the road. 

"May Robson played to under a thousand in Flint, Michigan, 
Saturday night; and Fiske O'Hara played to four hundred in 
Saginaw," he was saying. "I don't know what the hell is happening. 
This is the height of the season, they never played to those kinds of 
grosses before." He went on to list the grosses of the other shows 
and the possible adverse conditions in each town, all of which he 
knew intimately, that might account for the alarming drop in 
receipts. But as he talked on, his bewilderment only grew greater, 
for there appeared to be no logical answer to the over-all slump. 

What was happening, of course, though neither of us knew it 
then and the final grim answer was not to be a certainty until a 
few years later, was that "the road"— that staple and necessary ad- 
junct of the theatre's lifeline in America — "the road" as the theatre 
knew it and counted on it at that time was disappearing with fright- 
ening swiftness. Talking pictures had not yet arrived, of course, but 
the silent movies and the magic of early radio were making enormous 
inroads on the cultural habits of theatregoing America. Also, the 
tremendous impact of the mass-produced automobile and the fact 
that communication between peoples in small towns was suddenly 
obtainable and with ease, all played a part, I suppose, in the hidden 
revolution that was to destroy both the road and that deeply en- 
trenched kingpin of family entertainment, vaudeville. With their 
disappearance went a way of theatrical life and an irreplaceable 
training ground for young actors, for shoddy as some of the fare 
may have been, it provided a testing ground for actors that no 
school of acting, however high-minded its purpose, ever came close 


to. There is no such thing as a substitute for acting before an 
audience, no matter how grubby the conditions may be, and with 
the passing of the road and vaudeville, a large and invaluable 
audience disappeared forever, too. 

It occurred neither to Mr. Pitou nor apparently to anyone else 
in the theatre of that time that what they were witnessing was not 
a passing flurry of bad business but the end of an era, and the 
fearsome figures of A. L. Erlanger and E. F. Albee continued to 
rule over a domain that had already vanished. 

What occurred to me quite sharply, listening to Mr. Pitou talk 
on and on, was the fact that he was not mentioning either The 
Beloved Bandit or myself. It took a few minutes for the full im- 
port of this to sink in, and then a great weight seemed to lift 
from my chest. It could mean, of course, only one thing — I was 
safe! My precarious footing in the theatre was still intact. I made 
a solemn vow to myself never again to type the words "Act One" 
on a piece of white paper as long as I lived. And my relief was so 
enormous that involuntarily I gave a huge yawn right in Mr. Pitou's 

He looked at his watch and sighed. "It's almost four o'clock in 
the morning," he said. "Let's get to bed. I want to get the first 
train out of here tomorrow." 

I slept soundly that night for the first time in a week. 

Mr. Pitou was not the most cheerful of companions on the journey 
back to New York, but nothing could dampen my good spirits. 
Even Ashton Stevens' notice of The Beloved Bandit, which I read 
surreptitiously in the men's toilet on the train, failed to depress 
me unduly. He had not actually written a criticism of the play. He 
had run, instead, an obituary notice bordered in black, which 
began: "There died at the Adelphi Theatre last night . . ." and then 
went on to list the name of the play, the author and the actors. 
It was a cruel joke, of course, but I understood his irritation, which, 
I was forced to admit, was not entirely unmerited. Strangely enough, 
it didn't seem to matter very much. Nothing about The Beloved 
Bandit seemed to matter much now as long as I still had my job. 

That foolish illusion was dispelled as the train roared into Grand 


Central. As the lights flicked on, Mr. Pitou, who had seemed to be 
dozing in his chair, opened his eyes and spoke. 

"The way things are, Mouse," he said slowly, "with business on 
the road so bad and all, I'll go back to sharing Miss Belle as secre- 
tary and have John, the elevator man, empty the wastepaper baskets 
and mail the letters." 

I stared at him for a moment and then said, "Oh." 

People were beginning to rise from their seats now, and the porter 
was between us getting the bags down from the racks overhead. 
I called across to Mr. Pitou, "Is it all right if I come up to see you 
once in a while — in case things change?" 

"Oh, sure," he replied, "do that." He gathered up his things and 
started toward the door. "I'm going to have to make a run for it 
as soon as the train stops," he said over his shoulder. "I think I can 
just make my train to Bayside, so good-bye." 

I watched him make his way toward the door. By the time I 
reached the platform he was lost in the swirl of people heading 
for the stairway. I stood for a few moments uncertainly, then I 
picked up my suitcase and headed for the stairway and the subway 
back to the Bronx. 



ew york is not a city to return to in defeat. Its walls of 
granite and glass are not inclined to reassure the fearful or console 
the despairing. I love the city of my birth and I always return to 
it with a lift of the heart. When I am away from it for any stretch 
of time, I grow querulous and unhappy, and with the real ache 
of the homesick I long to get back to it. But on this, my first 
return, the city seemed forbidding and impregnable. For the first 
time I felt as so many must feel who come from the little towns 
and hamlets to challenge the city — I felt swallowed up by it, erased; 
and I felt for the first time a hopelessness, a wretched awareness 
that the best thing I could do was to forget the theatre and take the 
first job offered to me tomorrow morning. 

I think my deep and undying hatred of the New York subway 
stems from the ride home that night. I had always hated it, of course, 
as do most of its unfortunate straphangers; but it became to me 
that evening a symbol of all that I hated and a portent of the 
endless years stretching ahead of riding back at the end of each 
day to the Bronx. All the bitterness I felt seemed to be embodied 
in its noise, its filth, and etched indelibly in the lines of the faces 
of the close-packed people all around me. I walked down the steps 
of the subway station at Jackson Avenue, and as I started the 
three-block trudge home, I began to think with some degree of 
clarity for the first time since Mr. Pitou had revealed his stunning 
bit of news. 

[8 9 ] 

I decided not to tell my father or mother that I was without a 
job. That could well wait until the end of the week when I might 
have some other job and the blow would be softened by the sight 
of another pay check. I had had enough of bad news for one day 
without bringing more of it home with me. I knew, too, that the 
fact that my mother and father would completely fail to under- 
stand how much the loss of my job meant to me, would only add 
to the sense of hopelessness within me that was already heavier 
than the suitcase I carried in my hand. 

Suddenly I stopped, astonished at the sight of my father sitting 
in the window of the small cigar store about a block from where 
we lived. It was a little hole-in-the-wall cigar store run by a Cuban 
man and his wife, and there was usually another little Cuban man 
sitting in the window from morning until late at night, endlessly 
cutting and rolling tobacco leaves into cheap cigars. It had been a 
grim family jest for my father to remark when things were par- 
ticularly bad, "Well, if things get any worse, I'll have to go to work 
in the window around the corner." They had never quite come to 
that low pass, and I always shuddered a little at the prospect of 
that public humiliation. What could have happened in the two 
weeks that I had been away? The two boarders we were hanging 
onto for dear life must have left, or my mother or my brother must 
be ill. Doctor bills were an ever-present nightmare. 

I hurried past the window. My father did not see me; he was 
bent over the cigar board, his fingers deftly rolling the leaves, and 
my heart went out to him. I knew he must have been there since 
eight o'clock in the morning. I always used to see the little Cuban 
man sitting there on my way to the subway each day. Cigar makers 
of that sort were paid not by the day but by the number of cigars 
they turned out, and my father was working very late indeed. 

I would know what had happened soon enough — but why, oh 
why, I thought as I approached the house, did one disaster have 
to follow another, always in twos or threes? There was a very 
successful motion picture playing at that time called Over the Hill 
to the Poorhouse, and some sensible fellow was said to have re- 
marked, "The poorhouse wasn't tough enough — they had to put 


a hill in front of it!" I did not hear this witticism until long after- 
ward, but as I walked up the four flights to our apartment my 
feelings were more or less the same. My mother opened the door, 
and behind her I immediately saw my brother and the two board- 
ers sitting at the kitchen table. In the same quick look I noticed 
her eyes were red-rimmed with weeping. 

"What's the matter, Ma — what's happened?" I asked, still stand- 
ing in the hallway. She pulled me gently in and shut the door 
behind us. Then she led me to the front room, which was my 
mother's and father's bedroom but which we disguised as the 
parlor with a series of throws and covers when company came. She 
sat down on the bed and motioned me to sit beside her. 

"Aunt Kate died while you were away," she said and burst 
anew into quiet weeping. After a moment or two, she told me 
what little there was to tell. It had all happened in the space of a 
single night. They had been called to the hospital at two o'clock 
in the morning, and at four o'clock she had died as they sat beside 
her bed. It had been cancer but of the painless variety, and she had 
regained consciousness just a little before the end and had smiled 
at them and asked after me. My father, unforgiving while she had 
lived, had behaved with great gentleness and understanding with 
her death. She had not a penny of her own, of course, but he had 
insisted nevertheless on giving her the kind of funeral he knew she 
would have liked, and we were hopelessly in debt thereby. So that 
was why he sat in the window around the corner — he would sit 
there now day after day doing at last the one thing he feared and 
hated most, in order to see that a woman he had bitterly disliked 
was buried with decency and respect. 

The first thought that flashed through my mind as my mother 
spoke was: "I should have told her," for I had not told Aunt Kate 
that a play of mine was to be produced. I had secretly nourished 
the fantasy of saying nothing until I escorted her to the theatre for 
the opening night in New York. Both the fantasy and Aunt Kate 
were gone now, but for the moment I could feel no sense of grief 
— I seemed to be drained of all emotion. 

"How much did the funeral cost?" I asked my mother. 


"Two hundred dollars," she answered. "We have to pay it off at 
ten dollars a week. It was wonderful of them to trust us, wasn't 
it?" I nodded. I must take the first job I could get tomorrow, I 
decided, without even shopping around. My mother stood up and 
wiped her eyes. 

"We'd better not talk any more now," she said. "I was just 
starting to serve supper when you rang the bell. They've been 
very nice about everything" — she gestured toward the kitchen, in- 
dicating the boarders — "but we can't afford to have them leave now, 
we need every single penny." 

I went to the room that I shared with my brother and unpacked 
my suitcase. There on the top lay the tattered and thumb-marked 
script of The Beloved Bandit, and carefully preserved between two 
shirts, was a clean program I had saved to show Aunt Kate. I tore 
it into little pieces and tossed the pieces out the window. Then I 
went to the bathroom and turned on the water taps full, so that 
no one might hear me crying. 

The next morning I was in the subway by seven-thirty, marking 
out the want ads in the New Yor\ Times as I rode downtown. 
There were possibilities enough — none that I liked or wanted, of 
course, but I was not in a position to choose. Stockroom clerk, 
shipping-room packer, errand boy — it didn't really matter now 
which one I got. 

I decided to start the rounds at 14th Street and work my way 
uptown, but at Times Square I got off the train. Almost before I 
knew what I was doing, I began to push my way to the door, but 
by the time I had wrenched my way out, I knew why I was getting 
off and what I was going to do. Before I settled down into drudgery, 
I was going out to the cemetery to make my own farewell. 

I changed to the Brooklyn train, and on the long ride out to 
Cypress Hills I felt a wonderful quietude and peace settle over 
me. There were several different funerals wending their way slowly 
through the cemetery when I arrived, but I did not find the sight 
a depressing one. The panoply of death has never held any sadness 
for me or even touched me very greatly. I have always experienced 

[92 1 

my grief privately, and then it was done. The funeral has always 
left me unmoved. Such rites as I have attended, I have attended 
unwillingly and only as a mark of respect to the living and not to 
the dead. I have said my good-byes unpublicly; the coolly organized 
trappings of the funeral chapel have always seemed to me an 
outmoded and unnecessary ordeal. 

It was a long walk to where Aunt Kate lay buried and I lost my 
way several times. I rather enjoyed it. The cemetery did not seem 
an unpleasant place to be after the subway. It was almost a spring- 
like day for the middle of winter, and though the trees were leafless, 
the well-kept lawns around the graves were a sparkling green. I 
came to the end of a little path and there in front of me was the 
grave of my aunt, some of the funeral greens still upon it. Next 
to it was the grave of my grandfather. 

I stood there not knowing quite what to do. I had been impelled 
to come here by some force within me of terrible urgency, but 
now that I was here I did not know what to do. I could think only 
that here were the two people whose lives had meant the most to 
mine and what a pitiful waste their lives had been to themselves. 
They were both better, I knew, than life had allowed them to be; 
and standing there I thought of them more clearly than I ever had 
before. Fleeting words and moments with both of them came back 
to me with startling clarity and I suddenly realized how much of 
their hopes had been unconsciously pinned on me. I had been their 
bulwark against complete defeat. Far from feeling sorrow or self- 
pity, I began to shake with an uncontrollable rage. To take a job as 
shipping clerk or errand boy was no worse than hundreds of boys 
my own age and circumstances were doing every day of the week. 
But standing by the graves of my aunt and my grandfather, I was 
damned if I would. For all that they had been to me, I owed it to 
them not to; and out of my rage I resolved that come what may, 
I was sticking to the theatre and I would never turn back. And the 
truth of the matter is that from that actual moment on, I never did. 

There are certain great disadvantages to the truth — one of them 
is that the truth sometimes emerges as hopelessly cliche. It would 
be a brave writer indeed or an extremely foolish one who would 


contrive a scene such as I have just described without the inescapable 
feeling that it was perhaps a little too pat. Yet life often imitates 
very bad plays or movies with a minimum of effort and a dis- 
quieting ease, and the only plausible explanation I can offer for this 
is an aphorism from Pascal I came across years afterward. He said: 
"The heart has reasons which the reason knows not of." I think 
that was true of me on this particular day. I think that it is true, 
too, that men are sometimes willing to die for the very same things 
they make fools of themselves over, so that when the truth comes 
out cliche there is nothing to do but set it down. 

I made my way back to the subway, and I knew that I was 
getting off at Times Square and no place else from then on. 

As the 14th Street subway station flashed by I made a sudden 
decision. Now was as good a time as any for me to try to be an 
actor. I would never have less to lose. I got off the train, threw the 
copy of the Times, with the marked want ads in it, onto the sub- 
way tracks and walked toward the steps that led up to Times 

I had an advantage now that I had not had two years before. I was 
no longer a theatrical innocent. I knew where theatrical offices were, 
what the lingo was, and I knew too how haphazardly most of the 
smaller parts were cast. All I needed was "beginner's luck." I 
straightened my tie, fixed the handkerchief in my breast pocket 
at a more jaunty angle and stole a glance at myself in the mirror 
of a chewing-gum machine. It seemed to me I already looked 
different. I had felt like a shipping clerk or an errand boy riding 
downtown on the subway this morning, but now I felt like an actor 
and it seemed to me I looked like one. I knew the look well. The 
too eager, too bright smile, the glint in the eye serving notice to the 
steely office boy of the implacable desire to wait, if need be, all 
afternoon; the knowing air of being conscious of some secret cast- 
ing going on that the others in the already crowded office did not 
share. I practiced the look in the mirror for a moment and was 
satisfied with it. I had one other advantage as well, I reminded my- 
self. I had, until very recently, been a theatrical office boy myself, 
and for a little while, at least, I thought I could count on my 


acquaintance among the enemy to get me in to see a casting director 

Cannily, I chose an office boy who I knew had had the same 
difficulty saying "no" to actors that I had had and who also knew 
something of my ambitions to be an actor. Irving Morrison, George 
Tyler's office boy, was a kind and good-hearted fellow, and if I had 
to put a toe into the icy waters that actors daily swam in, Irving 
Morrison was by far the warmest way of making the plunge. It 
was a wise choice. He showed only a mild surprise at the news that 
I had turned actor, and though I suspected he knew I had been fired, 
he had the grace not to mention it and asked me to wait until he 
could get me in to see Mr. Tyler. There was nothing much going 
on, he informed me, but at least I could meet Mr. Tyler. 

I turned around and tried to find an inconspicuous place among 
the others who were already waiting, and while I waited I listened 
to the easy bantering talk that flowed so effortlessly among them. 
Not enough has been said or written about the way actors talk 
among themselves. It is delicious, dim-witted and valiant talk, and 
since the bulk of it is based upon harmless little falsehoods which 
everyone accepts nonchalantly, it is also gay, sardonic and very 
often sprinkled with a nice edge of malice. It is valiant talk because 
part of an actor's equipment is a gallantry he must carry along 
daily like a shield ; whatever despair he may feel as he faces himself 
in the mirror in the morning before he sets out on the daily round, 
he must learn to dissemble completely as he stands waiting in the 
outer office — not only must he look his best, but he must give no 
hint to the competitors who wait along with him to be interviewed 
for the same part, of how desperately he may need it or how slim 
the pickings have been up to now. 

It is not always easy to look one's best on a meager breakfast and 
the knowledge that lunch must be skipped, or to chat lightly while 
one stands against the light so that the shine on the suit pressed too 
often does not show. But there is a quality of childlike innocence in 
most actors that manages somehow to suspend reality until to- 
morrow and along with it a politesse de coeur toward their fellow 
actors that I do not think exists in other professions. 


One of the actors in the office turned to me now and asked 
politely, "What have you been doing lately?" 

I knew the lingo well enough to shrug my shoulders and answer, 
"Nothing on Broadway," and let my voice trail off. 

It was no doubt obvious to them all that I had never set foot 
on a stage but they included me in their chatter as though I were 
a veteran. I listened intently, for running through the conversation, 
hidden among the boasts and the lies that fooled nobody, were little 
nuggets of valuable information about what was going on in nearly 
every theatrical office in New York. When the bright-eyed girl in 
the freshly washed cotton gloves loftily announced that she had 
refused a part in the new Avery Hopwood play because the char- 
acter did not appear until the third act, two other ingenues on the 
edge of the crowd left shortly afterward. It was as apparent to 
everyone in the office that the two ingenues were making a beeline 
for the A. H. Woods office as it was that the bright-eyed girl had 
applied for the part and been turned down cold, but the information 
that a part might still be open in the new Hopwood play was well 
worth a morning's wait. 

The grapevine was apt to be hung with highly colored fruit of 
pure imagination, but to the initiate the leads it conveyed of 
what was going on were usually accurate. Another man was talking 
now and I pricked up my ears. "I don't know how they think 
they're going to cast it," he sniffed, "but they're offering twenty-five 
dollars for someone to play Smithers in a revival of The Emperor 
]ones over at the Mayfair Theatre. It's non-Equity, of course," he 
added contemptuously. 

"Who's doing it?" someone asked. 

"I didn't even bother to ask," the first man answered, and as a 
little chorus of appropriate laughter rewarded him for his sally, I 
got up and quietly made my way out. If they were having trouble 
casting it, this might be the beginner's luck I had been hoping for. 
And non-Equity or not, twenty-five dollars a week was ten dollars 
more than I had ever earned in my life. I motioned to Irving 
Morrison that I would be back and made my way to the Mayfair 
Theatre on 44th Street in no time flat. There was another hungry- 


looking actor in the Tyler office who had seemed about to make 
his way to the door just as I had. 

The Mayfair Theatre was a tiny little affair of no more than two 
hundred seats that has long since been turned into a bus terminal, 
but it seemed big enough to me as I climbed the stairs to the 
manager's office. It was owned or leased, I never quite knew which, 
by two gentlemen whose connection with things theatrical seemed 
to hang by the proverbial shoestring; and one of the gentlemen 
was sitting in the office now, puffing contentedly on a cigar. A little 
breathlessly I told him what I had come for. He pushed a copy 
of the printed play across the desk toward me and said, "Read it." 

It did not occur to me to hesitate or to be in the least nervous. 
I opened the book and plunged in. I had not seen the original pro- 
duction of the play at the Provincetown Playhouse five years before, 
but I had read it, and my English ancestry now stood me in good 
stead. The part of Smithers is that of a dissolute cockney trader 
and I could simulate the accent passably well. I had only to recall 
my father's accent, which was still pure Whitechapel, to make the 
words ring true, and my ear was a good one. The fact that I was 
eighteen years old and Smithers was supposed to be a drunken 
and battered sixty did not faze me at all nor did it seem to bother 
the man behind the desk. In some ways the theatre is marvelous — 
nothing is too preposterous not to at least be given a hearing. I 
finished the scene and handed the book back to him. The man 
behind the desk looked at me and relit his cigar before he spoke. 

"It's not Equity and the salary is twenty dollars a week." He 
looked at me inquiringly, waiting for an answer. 

"I thought the part paid twenty-five," I said hesitantly, and only 
because I was afraid of seeming too anxious — I suppose I would have 
taken twenty dollars or even fifteen! 

"Well, if we're stuck, I guess it does," he answered pleasantly, and 
then added somewhat surprisingly, "Do you happen to know what 
time it is right now ?" 

"It's about one thirty," I replied. 

"Good," he said. "Go downstairs and tell Gilpin you're Smithers 
They're rehearsing on the stage. I promised him I'd have a Smithen 


by two o'clock. If he says anything, tell him you're the best we can 
do for the money. Wait a minute," he called after me, for I was 
already out the door, "take this copy of the play down with you. I 
think we only bought two copies." 

I grabbed the book and raced down the stairs. I was an actor on 
Broadway! I knew enough to know that the management and 
the production would probably be as shoddy and threadbare as it 
was possible to be, but what did it matter? What mattered was 
that I had had the unique experience of outwitting life, and it was 
a victory that would not diminish with the years. I would remember 
it long afterward when I needed to. 

My first glimpse of Charles Gilpin, the great Negro actor, was 
a fairly typical one. He was not quite sober and he was in a smolder- 
ing rage. He was directing this revival of the play himself, for he 
had played the Emperor Jones over a thousand times. I waited 
until there was a pause in the rehearsal and presented myself to 
him. He did not seem surprised that Smithers was going to be 
played by a youth of eighteen — there was a timeless resignation and 
disenchantment about everything he did or said. He looked at me 
with a pair of somber eyes, which seemed to be burned into his 
face, and sighed softly. "All right," he said quietly, "wait." 

I wandered over to a dark corner of the stage and watched him 
rehearse the others. He was walking through his own part, but every 
so often he would flash out and act for an isolated moment or 
two. The effect was shattering. He had an inner violence and a 
maniacal power that engulfed the spectator, and he and the Emperor 
Jones were a classic example of actor and part meeting to perfection. 

Eugene O'Neill once said that Gilpin was the only actor in any of 
his plays that realized fully O'Neill's inner image of what the per- 
formance should be, and he was probably correct. Charles Gilpin was 
the greatest actor of his race. He was limited not by his own range as 
an actor, but by the limitations of the part the Negro could play in 
the theatre. Had he not been a Negro, there is no doubt that he 
would have been one of the great actors of his time, but other than 
the Emperor Jones, there were no parts of any stature that ever 
came his way. Not unnaturallv, his success in The Emperor Jones 


and the probability that he would never play anything else worthy 
of his talent embittered an already violent and hostile nature, and 
he took what refuge and solace he could find in alcohol. 

He signaled me now to come over — that he was ready to mark 
out the first act. Smithers is the only other speaking part in the play, 
and the entire first act is played by the Emperor and Smithers alone 
on the stage. I began to shake with nerves. All the bravado I had 
displayed in the office upstairs deserted me completely and I shook 
and stammered and constantly lost my place. Gilpin seemed to pay 
no attention whatever to the agony I was going through or to the 
fact that even to my own ears I sounded hollow and fake and in- 
credibly young. 

Stolidly and wearily he plodded on — mechanically he marked out 
the movement — "You stand there . . . now I come over to you . . . 
now I go back and sit on the throne . . . now you come over to 
me... when the drums start you walk to the door and listen . . . 
then you come back ... no, no ... just go back to where you were 

Finally it was over. He looked at me and sighed. "Did they 
tell you when we open?" he asked. I shook my head. "Day after 
tomorrow — you better learn the words fast," he said and started 
to leave the stage. 

I managed to gather up enough courage to go after him and tug 
at his sleeve. "Could you tell me how you want it played?" I stam- 
mered. For the first time he smiled. "You ain't as bad as you 
think you are." He chuckled. "You learn the words tonight and we'll 
have a hassle with it tomorrow." And he was on his way to his 
dressing room and the always-waiting bottle. 

There was considerably less astonishment than I would have be- 
lieved possible when I announced the news at home that evening 
that I was an actor. Perhaps everything else was overshadowed by 
the relief that though I had lost one job, I already had another at 
ten dollars more a week. There was not too much time for discussion, 
for I explained that I had to commit the part to memory that night, 
and once again my mother construed this to mean some sort of 
"homework" I had neglected during the day that might cost me 


the job tomorrow. Everyone was shooed away, just as years later, 
long after I had become an established playwright, she would say, 
"Don't go into the room now — he's doing homework," her tone 
implying that I was writing "I won't do it again" on the black- 
board. My mother never quite believed that any work one could do 
at home was quite honest, and I think she remained firmly con- 
vinced that all the writing I did at home was some sort of well- 
merited punishment for neglecting my duties on the outside. 

The part of Smithers is not a long one and I learned it with 
ease, and the next day, as he had promised, Mr. Gilpin gave me a 
"hassle" with it. He was not a good director, but he had one great 
virtue — he let an actor act and did not waste endless time in dis- 
cussing motivation and inner orientation or indulge himself in any 
of the meaningless patois and sophistry that pass so often for the 
directorial touch. He was impatient, intolerant and somewhat in- 
articulate about what he wanted — but being a first-rate actor 
himself, he knew the folly of giving lessons in acting to anyone, 
and he did not permit himself the self-indulgence of showing off to 
impress the rest of the company, as well he might have done in my 

I imagine he had made up his mind the day before that I could 
do it, and he talked to me now in a kind of shorthand — swift, un- 
adorned and, when I could interpret him correctly, wonderfully 
precise and helpful, for like everything else connected with the 
theatre, where life moves only in long, arid stretches or sudden acute 
crises, my debut as an actor was being made under the pressure 
of a dress rehearsal that evening and an opening on the following 

I had very little time for alarm as to how good or bad I might be, 
for my chief concern all through the afternoon was the fact that I 
did not know how to put make-up on my face and was too ashamed 
to admit it to anyone in the company. I solved this ignominious 
admission of my inexperience by hanging around the counter at 
Gray's drug store during the dinner hour until another actor came 
along to purchase some make-up for himself, and under the guise 
of being puzzled as to just how to get the effect I wanted, I let 


him suggest the proper crepe hair, the glue or spirit gum, the right 
shade of powder, and all the rest of the paraphernalia I needed to 
look the part of the disreputable Smithers. 

He must have given me good advice, for I was a little staggered 
as I looked at myself in the dressing-room mirror later on that 
evening. The blacked-out teeth, the rusty gray stubble, the heavy 
dissipated drooping eyelids, the thin-lipped sneer that curled and 
aged the mouth into something evil and craven were decidedly 
right. I understood for the first time why it was more or less classic 
for young actors to start out in the theatre by playing old men, and 
I perceived how completely make-up depersonalizes the actor. I was 
so delighted with the effect I had produced that I sailed through the 
dress rehearsal absolutely nerveless, nor can I truthfully record 
the traditional case of stage fright the following evening when the 
play opened. I had a mild flutter of nerves as I stood in the wings 
waiting for the curtain to go up, for mine was the first entrance in 
the play; but I think I was rescued from anything approximating 
stage fright by a sudden image that flashed through my mind as the 
curtain hit the top. "Well, I'm not wrapping packages or deliver- 
ing telegrams for Western Union," I thought happily as I heard 
a polite spatter of applause greet the set — and on I went. 

Gilpin, who came on shortly afterward, received what I sup- 
pose was a thunderous reception in terms of the tiny Mayfair 
Theatre, and with nothing more than a pleasurable sense of excite- 
ment I played the rest of the act with him as though I had been 
playing it for months. 

After the first act I did not come on again until the final few 
moments of the play and I took the opportunity of watching Gilpin 
play out the role in full from the side of the stage. At his best, which 
he was that night and not very often afterward, he was a spectacular 
and memorable Emperor Jones. Even on the wrong side of the 
proscenium, and pushed out of the way every so often by the stage 
manager, I was caught up and held by the majesty and grandeur 
of his performance. 

At the end he received an ovation, and the next morning the 
notices were glowing for Gilpin and, to my intense surprise, excellent 


for me as well. The Times commented, "Moss Hart as Smithers is a 
delight both to the eye and the ear." And even the World, while 
complaining bitterly about the general sleaziness of the production, 
went on to say, "The fault is not Mr. Gilpin's, who can never lose 
the laurels he has gained in the part, nor is it the fault of his col- 
league, Moss Hart, who does the cheap cockney trader to perfection.' , 

My surprise was genuine. In the hullabaloo of getting the job and 
opening two days afterward, I had literally had no time to speculate 
on what the critics would say. It was the first and last time I would 
be so blissfully oblivious of the critics, but now I was immoderately 
pleased by the notices— they confirmed my belief that I had noth- 
ing to do but to act from now on, and only glory lay ahead. I could 
hardly wait to get to the theatre that night and have the curtain 
go up. 

Fortunately, I did not see Mr. Gilpin before the performance, for 
it took me a long time to put on the make-up and I was still quite 
awkward about it. I expected to see him during the intermission, 
congratulate him on his fine notices, and no doubt receive a few 
words of praise from him on my own sterling performance. I did 
not know, luckily, that Mr. Gilpin was a little less than sober that 
evening and that the management had decided that rather than re- 
fund the money they would get him into his costume, push him 
out on the stage, and take a chance on what would happen. 

No doubt they needed every penny to keep going and no doubt 
they were right to take the gamble. I suppose, too, they were also 
correct in not warning me about his condition beforehand. I would 
have been too downright scared even to set foot on the stage. As it 
was, I was barely able to finish the first act and I think my very 
inexperience as an actor saved me at that. 

Gilpin made his entrance stumblingly, quite as though he had been 
pushed out from the wings — which indeed he was — and made 
directly for the throne, where he sat down heavily and proceeded to 
go to sleep. The audience sensed nothing strange in this, for it was 
in keeping with the part that it be played that way. For myself, how- 
ever, I was openly panic-stricken, and the stage manager, seeing 


the obvious panic on my face, hissed to me from the wings, "Shake 
him— go ahead and shake him. Keep playing." 

Too frightened to do anything else, I did as I was told. I walked 
over to the throne and shook him as hard as I could. He opened his 
eyes and looked up at me wonderingly-— he did not know where he 
was for a moment or two and looked around the stage and out at 
the audience in some bewilderment, as if trying to focus on what was 
going on. Again the stage manager hissed, "Keep shaking him — 
get him up on his feet." 

And again I did as I was told. I pulled him to his feet, and 
hanging onto his arm to steady him, I yelled my first line into his 
ear. Astonishingly, he answered with the correct line. He shook his 
head a few times, like an old lion at bay, and to my horror thrust 
my hand roughly away and sat down on the throne again. I stood 
there frozen, not knowing what to do next and not even able to 
hear the words the stage manager was hissing at me from the wings. 

Haltingly Gilpin began to play. His voice was thick, and he 
jumbled the cues, but he sat on the throne steadying himself until 
he regained something like control over his movements, and then he 
rose and as the act proceeded he even seemed to play with some- 
thing of his old power, though every so often he would suddenly 
grab hold of me to stop himself from falling—each time, of course, 
scaring me out of my wits. 

Throughout all this the audience seemed entirely unaware that 
anything other than the drama on the stage was being acted out 
before them, and when the curtain of the first act finally came 
down — a full ten years later, it seemed to me — a very good hand 
accompanied it. Gilpin left the stage without a word. I stood where 
I was, trembling. I was too shaken to even wipe away the perspira- 
tion, which was running down my face in all the colors of my make- 
up. The stage manager patted me on the shoulder and said, "I think 
we'll make it now—good boy!" and hurried down with a pot of 
steaming black coffee to Gilpin's dressing room. 

I walked back to my own room and sat limply on a chair, re- 
covering as best I could. I could not even summon up sufficient 
curiosity or strength to find out if the second act was going on, but 


apparently Gilpin, with the help of the black coffee, snapped back 
completely and was fine for the rest of the play. At the end, as we 
stood taking our bows, he whispered to me, his eyes twinkling, 
"You're learning to act fast, Smithers." And that was all he ever 
said about it, that night or any other night, for the same thing 
occurred not too often, but often enough to make the nights when 
;t did happen real horrors. Only once did the management agree 
to cancel a performance; the rest of the time when they saw the 
danger signals flying as Gilpin arrived at the theatre, they would 
get him dressed, push him onto the stage, and take a chance that 
he would be able to play. How he managed to get through some of 
those performances I do not know; and he was able to do it, of 
course, only because the very nature of the part allowed the audi- 
ence to believe that some of the reeling behavior going on on the 
stage was part and parcel of the play itself. But it left me terrorized 
and shaken each time it happened. 

Nevertheless, I was learning to "act fast," as Gilpin so aptly put 
it. I learned one or two things about the craft of acting and its 
relation to the other arts of the theatre that I thought sound at the 
time, and I have seen no reason to change my mind since. There is 
no arrogance like the arrogance of the beginner, of course, and 
it almost goes witiiout saying that no one ever knows as much about 
an art as the most inexperienced practitioner of it. But it seemed 
to me then, and it still does, that acting is more a fortunate quirk 
of the personality than it is anything else. Certainly, education, tech- 
nical training and the finest of Stanislavskian theories have yet to 
produce the same effect as an actor walking out on the stage with 
a curious chemistry of his own that fastens every eye in the audience 
upon him and fades the other actors into the scenery. 

All the techniques so painfully acquired, all the passionate dedica- 
tion to the methods of the various schools of acting, go right down 
the drain when this happens. And it can happen with so trifling a 
facet of an actor's personality as an arresting quality of speech or 
voice. I have no wish to minimize this gift — it is equally as valid 
as the ability to write dialogue that actors can speak, a gift which 
also requires neither education nor technical training, but without 


which no play can be written, despite dedication, the best motives 
in the world, or all the courses in play-writing strung together. Yet, 
like the perennial effusions on the art of the director, more pure 
nonsense is written about the art of acting through the years than 
one would believe possible. The very same critical acumen that 
can be so acute and penetrating in evaluating the merits of a play 
seems to stop short of an ability to divorce personality from acting, 
or direction from playing. 

I have worked intimately with two or three of the finest actors 
of our generation, and it seemed to me they achieved their effects 
with a minimum of help from me, just as I have received critical 
praise for the directorial touches that belonged more properly to the 
playwright. The great ones all have one thing in common — it is 
sometimes called "star quality," but among the learned it is more 
often discussed in terms of "level of emotion" or "playing in depth." 
To me the fact is inescapable that this magic of personal chem- 
istry occurs at the moment of conception and is, as J. M. Barrie 
has said, like charm in a woman: "If you have it, you don't need 
to have anything else; and if you don't have it, it doesn't much 
matter what else you have." Certainly, no voodoo of acting method, 
however high-minded, can bring it about, nor is there any direc- 
torial sorcery that I have ever observed that can make it happen. 

It was of some importance to me that I dimly perceived some 
of this early on, for while I do not pretend that I thought it out 
in any such clear-cut terms, I nevertheless had an inkling of part of 
it. It saved me from wasting some valuable years and perhaps 
from the greater misfortune of remaining emotionally trapped in a 
childlike idolatry of actors and acting until it was too late to do any- 
thing else. One can witness daily in the theatre the tragedy of those 
who did not turn away in time. 

With my lucky beginning in The Emperor Jones, however, no 
such depressing thoughts ever crossed my mind. I smugly concluded 
that I had found my proper niche in life, had received only what 
was my just due as an actor, and as far as I could foresee after so 
auspicious a start, there could follow only good parts, good notices, 
and, in the very nature of things, featured billing and inevitable 

[io 5 ] 

stardom. The one thing I could not foresee was that Smithers would 
be the first and last part I would ever play on the stage as a pro- 
fessional actor; it was the only major flaw in the otherwise glitter- 
ing future I had forecast for myself. So, unknowing and thoroughly 
complacent, I began to plan the next step in my acting career as 
The Emperor Jones came to the end of its fifteen-week run. 

Although I had received good notices, I knew that almost every- 
one connected with the theatre had seen the original production, 
so my performance in the revival would have remained largely un- 
observed by those who might have done me some good. Still, I 
was armed now with an answer to that traditional bugaboo of all 
beginners, "What have you done before?" and that was in itself a 
great asset. I decided not to be choosy in spite of my own high 
opinion of myself, but to take whatever came along, even a walk-on. 
The important thing was to be in back of that proscenium arch 
when the lights dimmed down, and not in front of it. Once again 
I turned to my mentor, Irving Morrison, and kindly as ever he 
obtained a letter of introduction for me signed by George Tyler 

Mr. Tyler had placed in rehearsal an English importation called 
The Constant Nymph, with Claude Rains and Beatrix Thomson, 
and since the play called for a number of extras in the crowd scene 
the letter was to the English director, Basil Dean, who like the stars 
and most of the rest of the company, had been brought over from 
England for the production. 

On the morning after The Emperor Jones closed, I presented my- 
self to the stage manager half an hour before the rehearsal began 
and waited for Mr. Dean to arrive. I was completely satisfied 
in my own mind that there would be no difficulty getting the job. 
Extras were usually hired by the stage manager sight unseen by 
the director, and with a letter from George Tyler to Basil Dean, 
I took it for granted I would be told that the job was mine and 
that meeting Mr. Dean was a formality. It was not much of a job to 
be sure, but it paid fifteen dollars a week, and I knew how vital it 
was for me to keep working until something better showed up. 

The rehearsal hall was a rather small studio on West 57th Street, 


so that any exchange between actors, director or stage manager 
was highlighted by the very proximity of one person to another. 
Actors as a rule loathe rehearsing in so confined a space, for it 
makes them unnecessarily self-conscious and usually hamstrings a 
director from doing anything more than going over lines. I soon 
gathered that Mr. Dean was using this particular day to polish 
scenes with some minor members of the company and that the stars 
themselves would not appear. Mr. Dean himself appeared briskly 
enough, and with his appearance the atmosphere in the studio 
changed markedly. The tension that he brought with him and en- 
gendered throughout the day did not dissipate from the moment he 
appeared in the doorway until the rehearsal was over, and it gath- 
ered momentum with every look and with every word he uttered. 

Mr. Dean was a famous director and undoubtedly a gifted one, 
but the one thing he did not do in spite of his gifts was to inspire 
a personal loyalty or liking from his cast. They were virtually 
frightened to death of him. As he walked to the stage manager's 
table all conversation ceased and there was a nervous coughing 
and clearing of throats all over the room. There was a soft-spoken 
colloquy between stage manager and director, during which I saw 
the stage manager hold up my letter of introduction from Mr. 
Tyler, but Mr. Dean waved the letter impatiently away and did 
not even glance in my direction. 

Quite peremptorily, without a greeting of any kind to anyone, 
he began to rehearse. He was not rehearsing the play in any chrono- 
logical sequence of scenes, but jumping from second act to first 
act, or from first to last, as he saw fit. He was fascinating to watch, 
though I was silently thankful as the morning wore on that I was 
going to be a walk-on in the play and not an actor with a speaking 

I do not think it an unjust assessment of him to say that Mr. Dean 
may well have been the last of the directorial despots, for despot 
he was. I imagine there are still directors who indulge in one sort 
or another of tyranny over actors, but Mr. Dean had refined his own 
kind into a weapon which he used with surgical skill. He did not 
tolerate discussion and he was unflinching in his demand to 


get exactly what he wanted in the way of performance. He spoke 
quietly, but his words were edged with a marvelous spleen, and his 
silences were wonderful to watch. They could be withering. His 
displeasure could be felt like a living thing, and all morning the hap- 
less actors perspired and struggled under that cold appraising eye 
and the acid tongue. 

Shortly after one o'clock he told the stage manager to dismiss 
the company for lunch, and as he walked to the prompt table, again 
I saw the stage manager offer him my letter of introduction and 
point to me off in the corner. Again he glanced neither at the letter 
nor at myself, but simply walked out of the room. There was noth- 
ing to do but wait, the stage manager informed me — perhaps he 
would take a look at me before the afternoon rehearsal began. 
I was hungry but I decided I had better not leave, on the chance 
that I might miss the right moment when he returned. Actors 
are always coming back to rehearsal with containers of coffee and 
Hershey bars and I was offered some of both by two early re- 
turnees, who were talking over the morning rehearsal as the rest 
of the company straggled back. Mr. Dean was not mentioned. 
The actors talked freely of the play and of their parts in it, but no 
word was spoken of Mr. Dean. It was almost as though by the mere 
mention of his name the atmosphere of terror he created would 
come into being and put a stop to the conversation. And suddenly 
the conversation did stop. Innocent as it was, it stopped abruptly; 
and though my back was to the door, I knew that Mr. Dean had 

I turned around and watched the stage manager go through 
the same pantomime of presenting the letter to Mr. Dean and point- 
ing to me, and with the same results. So far as Mr. Dean was con- 
cerned, it was as though the stage manager had not spoken at all. 
Mr. Dean busied himself with the script for a few moments and 
then plunged headlong into the rehearsal. It was obviously going 
to be heavy weather, for he seemed to be, if such a thing were pos- 
sible, even more testy than he had been at the morning rehearsal. 

Nothing suited him, from the manner in which the stage manager 
placed the chairs and tables for the setting of a scene, to the way the 


actors stood or sat or listened or picked up a prop or entered or 
left. He was never openly ill-tempered. That was not his method. 
A healthy outburst of temper would somehow have been easier to 
bear for everyone concerned. Mr. Dean's irritation took the form of 
a savagely accurate appraisal of each actor's inadequacy at whatever 
he was being asked to do, and it was uttered in tones of biting con- 
tempt. He had a wonderful command of irony and a subtle aware- 
ness of the essential weakness in each actor's armor that enabled 
him to pierce whatever little self-confidence or security any of them 
may have had left and adroitly tear it to shreds. 

His dislike and displeasure that afternoon seemed to focus espe- 
cially on the character man. The character man was a fine-looking 
old fellow of about sixty, but he was not a very able actor and his 
knowledge that he was somehow the core of Mr. Dean's annoyance 
with the company made him less sure-footed than he might have 
been even with such limited talent as he possessed. He fumbled 
and stumbled and was obviously incapable of doing the simplest 
thing correctly, for the good enough reason that he was so frozen 
with fear that he did not even hear what was being said. What 
seemed to make matters worse for him was that Mr. Dean seemed 
to take special pains not to speak to him at all, so that the actor ap- 
peared to be waiting constantly for the blow to fall, and until it did, 
he could do nothing. 

Late in the afternoon, just before die rehearsal ended, it did. 
Mr. Dean had apparently been saving the character man for dessert. 
After a particularly spectacular tirade at one of the ladies, Mr. 
Dean lapsed into one of his long silences, and then suddenly he 
spoke, quietly, evenly but with a deadly precision. "Would you 
mind doing that again?" he said, addressing the character man 
directly for the first time. 

"Do what again, Mr. Dean?" asked the character man, flushing 
a deep red and then going rigid with the awareness that his moment 
had come at last. 

"Why, that splendid bit of acting you were perpetrating just now," 
replied Mr. Dean with a sweetness that was almost purring. 

The character man moved his tongue over his lips as though to 


unlock his jaws and then made the hideous mistake of trying a 
riposte. "I'm pleased you thought so, Mr. Dean," he said with a 
hollow little laugh. "I'm rather fond of that bit myself. I wondered 
if you would notice it." 

"Notice it?" said Mr. Dean. "Indeed, indeed! I have been riveted." 
He smiled dangerously at the character man and addressed the rest 
of the company with a disarming frankness and charm that was 
only belied by the cruelty of the words he was uttering. "In my 
many years in die theatre, ladies and gentlemen," he said, "I have 
witnessed and been subjected to many kinds of acting, and, of 
course, styles in acting change. I do not cherish tradition and I 
welcome innovation, but I have been greatly puzzled this last few 
minutes. I've never seen anything quite like our colleague's per- 
formance before, and since I think it unlikely that we shall ever 
see anything like it again, I suggest that you all come here to the 
front with me and watch it. Baffling as it appears to me to be, we 
might all learn something." 

The company stirred uneasily, but they were as helpless as the 
character man. Actors who need their jobs are defenseless against 
a director. They rose from their chairs all over the room and came 
to the front of the hall. Mr. Dean lit a cigarette carefully and set- 
tled back in his chair. "Do go ahead, old chap," he said amiably. 
"Do exactly what you did before. We are all agog." 

There was a blood-curdling pause and for a moment or two it 
seemed as though the character man was going to protest, but 
actually I do not think he heard very much of what had been said, 
for his complexion was a dull gray now and his head suddenly 
bent over the script in his hands like some treed animal anxious to 
have the dogs called off and the killing over with. He had, of course, 
no idea of what he had been doing before, and under the circum- 
stances he could not be blamed for the absurdity of what he was 
doing now — but it was acting of the most embarrassing kind. 

Fortunately, it was soon over. Mr. Dean did not interrupt. He 
had made his point, sadistic as it was, and he did not comment after- 


"Ten o'clock tomorrow morning, ladies and gentlemen," he said, 
and walked over to the stage manager's table. 

The actors gathered up their things and filed silently out. I 
watched the stage manager, waiting for him to present my letter 
to Mr. Dean, but he had forgotten, as well he might have, all 
about me. Mr. Dean was already out the door by the time I grabbed 
up the letter from the table and ran after him. I overtook him in 
the corridor on the way to the elevator and silently held the letter 
out to him. Like the others, I was too plain scared to address him 
directly. He waved me away as though 1 were an insect buzzing 
about his head and strode on toward the elevator. He was trapped 
at the elevator doors, however, for though he pushed the button 
angrily the elevator did not appear, and he could no longer deny 
the fact of my presence or the letter I still mutely held before him. 
There was no one else in the corridor but myself and the terrible 
Mr. Dean. Without a word he took the letter from me, ripped it 
open, glanced at the contents, and for the first time I felt those 
glacial eyes turn directly upon me. 

"We want only English actors for this play," he said coldly, 
crumpling the letter and letting it fall to the floor. 

"But I just played an English part, Mr. Dean," I replied with a 
bravery I did not know I possessed. 

"Well, you must have done it very badly," said Mr. Dean in the 
pleasantest tone I had heard him use all afternoon. And with that 
the elevator appeared and he stepped into it. I did not follow him 
in — my bravery did not extend quite that far. I waited for the next 
trip down. 

It was beginning to grow dark as I started back to the New Am- 
sterdam Theatre at 42nd Street to report to Irving Morrison. I 
walked slowly, the lights of Broadway coming alive all around 
me— and I came to a bitter conclusion. Mr. Dean's conduct had 
been inhuman, but he was right — the character man was an actor 
of little talent who long since should have faced up to that fact. 
Had he done so early enough, he would not have been exposed 
to the indignity and humiliation I had just watched him suffer. In 
terms of strict justice he deserved it. 


Though I found it hard to excuse Mr. Dean's behavior, I could 
after a fashion understand it. There is something maddening about 
mediocrity that calls forth the worst in those who are forced to 
deal with it. What sort of brainless vanity had caused the character 
man to persist in a profession where his own limitations must have 
long since been apparent even to himself? Was it just plain indolence 
or was it the very haphazardness of an actor's life that had brought 
him in his sixties to the sorry moment I had just witnessed? With 
his good looks and commanding presence he might easily have 
done very well in some other field had he made the choice early 
enough. Why had he not done so? Or, like myself, had he had 
"beginner's luck," and with not much else than a desire to act 
and an adolescent infatuation for the theatre, had he set forth long 
ago on the path that had led to this afternoon's deplorable failure ? 
Had it been as unthinking and foolish as that? For back of this 
afternoon lay the failure and waste of an entire life, and it was 
failure that lacked the redeeming quality or the saving grace of 
aspiration. Almost surely he must have known long ago that he was 
second-rate and that the shoddy rewards the theatre offers to the 
second-rate do not compensate for the humiliations that go along 
with it. 

Somehow I made a complete and terrible identification with the 
character man. I do not know if it is true of others, but all my life 
I have been prey to this curious psychological quirk. If I am in the 
middle of writing a play and happen to attend the opening night of 
a play that has gone badly, I am likely to make a swift and thorough- 
going identification with both the author and the play, even though 
the playwright may be completely unknown to me. I have even 
made a melancholy identification with someone in a field quite 
unrelated to my own, and then spent a depressing few hours after- 
ward bringing myself back to reality. 

Now I made a complete identification with the character man, 
and in the immediacy of the fear that clutched my heart I felt an 
irrevocable "There but for the grace of God go I" and I could not 
shake that fear off. It took hold of me completely, and for the 
first time I faced up to the grim possibility that a passion for the 


theatre and a deep desire to be an actor might not be enough. I 
had taken both these things for granted for so long a time that to 
make a stern assessment of just how much talent I had for acting 
was almost more than I could bear to do. I do not think I could 
have done so at all without that pitiable figure of the character man 
still so clearly before me; but the truth I was resisting, the truth 
I was so reluctant to come to, the actual truth when I allowed myself 
to know it, was simply that, in spite of a lucky beginning, in spite 
of passion and dedication, I would never be more than a passable 
actor and at best an adequate one — and there is no more damning 
word to apply to acting than "adequate." 

It was a conclusion I did not come to easily. I was wrestling with 
a dream that had satisfied the needs of my childhood, and the ele- 
ments of fantasy attached to that dream ran deep and strong. To 
give it up, to let it go, was to relinquish a secret part of myself that 
had sustained me through the years. Without it a new fear settled 
over me. I felt suddenly more alone than I had ever felt before — 
without the theatre as the goal that gave direction and point to 
my days, I felt engulfed by a world that was alien to me, a world 
I felt I was unequal to cope with. All the anxieties and insecurities 
of my years and my nature seemed to rise up in defense of the 
dream I had cherished for so long and that must have been a substi- 
tute and a symbol for so much. But I suddenly and sharply knew 
once and for all that however I remained attached to the theatre, 
it would not be as an actor. 




.here are certain crucial moments in life when the 
emotions one feels come perilously close to the mawkish, but the 
pain of those moments is not any the less acute because the moment 
itself happens to be a small or an unexalted one. I walked on, over- 
whelmed by a sense of sorrow and personal loss, and by the time 
I reached the New Amsterdam Theatre I knew that the dream of 
being an actor was behind me — that if I was to be a part of the only 
world I cared anything about, I must find some other way. And 
I knew now how bleak those prospects were. 

As I waited for the elevator to come down, I wondered if it would 
not be wiser to walk out of the lobby and get the smell of the 
theatre out of my nostrils for good and all. But I remained standing 
there, watching the indicator as it marked the slow downward count 
of the floors. The elevator doors opened and a young man stepped 
out into the lobby. His name was Edward Chodorov, and let no 
one say that luck does not play a large part in the fashioning of 
any career. There is not the faintest hint of the mystic in my nature, 
but I have seen the large role that coincidence and chance play in 
all of our lives too clearly demonstrated to reject as mere supersti- 
tion that portion of our destiny or fate called luck. It is as inexplic- 
able as fate itself and as inexorable. 

Would I not have gone on to write plays if Chodorov had not 
stepped out of the elevator at that particular moment? Of course. 
I am not suggesting anything so foolish as that. But Chodorov 

["4 3 

walked into my life at a moment when a different corner turned, a 
chance meeting missed, might very well have changed the whole 
course my life was to take from that time on. It is a prime example 
of what I mean by luck, that I did not take the elevator up to see 
Irving Morrison that evening but instead walked out of the lobby 
with Edward Chodorov — and into six years of apprenticeship and 
work that I am convinced made a fundamental difference in all my 
years in the theatre that were to follow. 

Edward Chodorov had drifted into the Pitou office during my 
days of glory as office boy and we had hit it off immediately. He 
was exactly my age but I had never met anyone like him before. 
Though he had presumably come into the office as an actor looking 
for a job, he did not talk like an actor and he certainly did not look 
like one. He had a copy of the American Mercury stuffed into his 
overcoat pocket, and under his arm he carried a large volume, in 
German, on the influence of Max Reinhardt on the world theatre. 
No actor I had ever seen before had carried such props, and from 
the moment he sauntered in, full of easy assurance and with a care- 
fully tailored avant-garde manner, he made a formidable impression 
on me. 

He talked of Meyerhold and Georg Kaiser and Jacques Copeau 
— names that were utterly new to my provincial ears — and in sub- 
sequent visits he demolished my own heroes of the day with a 
cascade of invective that was wonderful to listen to. His attitude 
toward the theatre was as unsentimental and cynical as mine was 
stage-struck and hero-worshipping, and when I had recovered from 
his monumental disdain of almost everything I had heretofore held 
sacred, it was as though a fresh gust of wind had blown through 
the musty pages of the theatre magazines I still pored over, and 
I could never look at them in the same way again. 

He had taste and wit and a gift for exploding pretense in a quick, 
bold comic way that dissolved me into helpless laughter, and he 
dispensed these wonders before my newly opened eyes and ears 
with the expert ease of a circus barker performing in front of a 
country yokel. There is no doubt that I was a flattering audience 
and there is no question that he enjoyed showing oif before me, 


At the same time the narrow horizons that had constituted the 
theatre for me up until then were being widened and enlarged almost 
without my being aware of it. 

We had not yet become close friends at that time for the reason 
that he had a faculty of suddenly appearing and then disappearing 
again quite as suddenly for months at a time, so that any kind of 
sustained relationship was impossible. But I always enjoyed his 
reappearance and the gallows humor with which he related some 
exploit or other of his own making that had turned out a shambles, 
as they invariably did. He had a wonderful Don Quixote quality 
about him always, and I fitted into the role of his Sancho Panza 
with no trouble at all. He had just returned from one of his periodic 
disappearances and had been up to the Pitou office to see me — 
unaware, of course, of The Beloved Bandit and all that had hap- 
pened since. I filled in the details for him, including what had 
happened that afternoon and my present despair as to just what 
to do next. 

He listened with an interested eagerness that was one of the 
unexpected charms of a man who liked to talk as much as he did, 
and when I had finished he said explosively, "Time! Time! That's 
what we need — Time! We need to escape being swallowed up. 
That's what we've got to fight tor— Time!" 

It was typical of him, and it was touching as well, that he should 
include me in this battle cry, for I knew that he rather looked down 
his nose at my own timid theatrical ambitions. His own ideas for 
himself were a good deal more grandiose. Though he had never 
spelled them out exactly, I had gathered that he was to be a com- 
bination of Max Reinhardt, Eugene O'Neill, Robert Edmond Jones 
and the Shuberts. The pivot on which his enthusiasms swung would 
vary from time to time, but there remained always the grand scale, 
the large canvas, and now as ever he was equal to the occasion. 

Eddie's scheme of things invariably included biting off more than 
he could chew and a deep aversion to anything approximating logic. 
His appetite for the implausible and the audacious remained un- 
chastened by experience, and what he was proposing now was quite 
in key with everything else about him. 


"A man offered me a job yesterday," he was saying, "and I told 
him I'd let him know by tonight. It's to take over and direct a 
little-theatre group at the Labor Temple. It doesn't pay much, but 
this man owns a summer camp and he hinted if I made good he 
might consider me for the job as social director at his camp this 
summer. See what I mean?" 

"No, I don't," I replied. 

"You're not using your head," he said and shook an impatient 
finger under my nose. "We need time — time! Once you step out 
of the theatre you never get back inside — you mustn't step back- 
ward — there's no escape from the civilians — you know that. Now, 
we'll take over this little-theatre group together — do a group of 
one-act plays — you direct three and I'll direct tfiree — and this sum- 
mer I'll go to his camp as social director and you'll be my assistant. 
See? Three solid months in the country with a salary and all ex- 
penses paid. It'll give us time — time to think, to plan." 

"But did you ever direct a little-theatre group before?" I asked 
a little breathlessly. 

"No," he answered. "What's that got to do with it?" He looked 
at me eagerly, his eyes alight with pleasure at the prospects of wind- 
mills in the distance. 

"Well, neither have I," I said. "I don't know any more about 
it than you do." 

Again the impatient finger was being shaken under my nose. 
"You'll get nowhere with that attitude, my boy," he sighed, "in the 
theatre or out of it. We must improvise — improvise ! — play it by ear. 
These people are amateurs." 

"But so are we in that field, Eddie," I protested. 

"And who's going to tell them that" he cried triumphantly, 
"unless you do. All you have to do tonight is to sit there and look 
bored. You can do that, can't you?" 

"And what about afterward — what happens when we have to 
get up on our feet and put these plays on? Won't they catch on 
to us?" 

He laughed aloud. "Right now," he said, "standing here unem- 
ployed on the corner of Forty-third Street and Sixth Avenue, either 


one of us is a better director than Philip Moeller or Robert Milton. 
Want me to prove it?" 

"No, no," I said hastily, for I well knew he could convince me 
that the moon was green. "Just te U me what to do so I don't make 
a fool of myself. Perhaps if we told them the truth . . ." 

"The first thing you've got to do," he said severely, "is to stop 
being so damned ethical. All right — we've never directed little 
theatres before. Well, we're doing it now. Why advertise it? We 
just go ahead and do it. The point is," he went on, "you can't hock 
moral scruples. If you could, we'd all be eating more regularly, and 
you're not exactly in a position to be this finicky, are you?" 

That settled it. Actually, it was nothing so high-minded as moral 
scruples that held me back, but plain, ordinary cowardice. Though 
I vaguely knew the mechanics of directing, it was one thing to 
have observed Priestly Morrison directing but quite another to get 
up on my own feet and do it myself. Furthermore, I completely 
lacked Eddie's abiding faith that he could master whatever situa- 
tion arose, or talk himself out of it — sideways, backward, or straight 
down the middle. Yet the point he made was unanswerable — time 
to avoid being swallowed up; time not to turn the wrong way and 
be unable to get back — that was the thing that mattered most now, 
and in spite of my fears, I knew that I must follow my friend Don 
Quixote toward the windmills. 

I watched him take over the little-theatre group at the Labor 
Temple that evening, lost in admiration for the brilliant way in 
which he convinced not only everyone there but himself as well 
that he knew exactly what he was talking about, which of course 
he did not. Much of what he said lay well beyond the realm of 
common sense, but even I, who knew that most of the time he didn't 
have a clue as to what was going to come out next, was sometimes 
swept along by the authority with which he conveyed to the 
spellbound little group a skill and a knowledge he did not possess 
at all. It was a bravura performance of audaciousness and pure gall 
that made it very hard for me to keep looking bored as I had been 
instructed to do, and when at the end of a solid hour of talk he 


finally sat down, I was hard put not to join in the applause that 

He winked at me as he cupped his hands to light a cigarette, and 
if I had not actually known what frauds we were, I might almost 
have believed, as everyone else in the room seemed to, that two 
young Max Reinhardts had, by some miracle, come to take over 
their little-theatre group. This country has reason to be grateful 
that Chodorov's talents did not take a turn toward the career of 
revivalist preacher. Had they done so, our rivers, fields and streams 
would be full of his converts being baptized in a faith that he im- 
provised as he led them to the river banks and that he knew no 
more about than he did little-theatre directing. He could hypno- 
tize a group of people into believing almost anything he wanted 
them to believe, and more often than not, in the process of doing 
so, he also succeeded in completely hypnotizing himself. 

As we walked back to the subway station later that evening, well 
satisfied with the way the first meeting had gone, I was a little 
startled to hear Eddie saying, "The impact on our culture of the 
little-theatre movement is very possibly the beginning of a renais- 
sance in our literature as well." 

I almost turned around to see whom he was talking to, for I 
could not believe he was addressing this balderdash to me, his friend 
and partner in crime. But he was. For the moment he had quite 
succeeded in believing what he was saying himself and he would 
go on believing it till the moment when, as it always did, his own 
sense of humor came to his rescue and unhypnotized him. Until 
then all I could do was nod and try not to get hypnotized myself. 

Two evenings later I conducted my first rehearsal. 

It was as ticklish a business as I figured it was going to be, not 
made any the easier by the group of sullen and rebellious faces that 
stared resentfully at me as I sat at a table in the front of a bare 
rehearsal room. I knew the cause of their bad temper and I did not 
blame them. Every single one of them had ardently wished to be 
with Eddie and not with me. There had been a great vying and 
jockeying the evening before, when the entire group had been split 


into two units, one to be directed by me and the other by Eddie, and 
though their conniving had been painfully obvious, I did not hold it 
against them. 

Eddie had made a great impression. He had dash, color and an 
electrifying way with him, and the idea of being shunted off to what 
must have seemed to them no better than an assistant sat very 
badly indeed. There were sibilant whisperings (quite palpably meant 
to reach my ears) of possible withdrawals, some uncomplimentary 
references to myself, and even outright declarations of how unfair 
the choosing had been. 

Actually, this was not true. Eddie had not selfishly or greedily 
chosen the best actors for his own unit, but had quite rightly cast 
the two groups of plays as he thought best for the plays and for the 
limitations of the people themselves. Though he had tried to make 
this clear, the impression remained that Eddie's was a superior group, 
and paramount in all of their minds right now was the fact that 
the favored group was to be directed by Eddie while they, the un- 
lucky others, were to be directed by me. 

Even had I been an experienced director and not a raw amateur, 
it would have been a difficult situation to handle. As it was, I simply 
sat stalling for time, and under the pretense of thumbing through 
the plays on the table before me, preparatory to starting the re- 
hearsal, I kept nervously thinking of how best to get off on the 
right foot. I rejected a reiteration of what Eddie had told them the 
night before, knowing that would merely add to their annoyance. 
I decided quickly against a humorous approach, which, if it fell flat, 
as seemed likely in their present mood, would confirm their already 
low opinion of me; and something within me — perhaps my own 
sense of injured vanity — refused to make the effort to charm them. 
Instead, I decided to behave with an authority I certainly did not 
feel, but which I felt I must make them feel, and quickly, too! 

I rapped on the table for silence, and when the room did not 
quiet immediately, I sent a withering glance at the offenders. I 
was not going to speak or make a move until there was absolute 
quiet, and I indicated my irritation by something that approximated 
a snort of disdain. Not for nothing had I watched Basil Dean use 


peevishness as a weapon! There was an unpleasant pause and it 
seemed likely that several of them were defiantly going to keep 
talking, but I held my ground and in a few moments I knew that 
my approach had been the right one. The room became surprisingly 
still and I had their attention, if nothing more. I had won the 
first round. 

The real test would come when I distributed the parts. Amateur 
actors are notoriously petty and their malice toward a director is 
straightforward and unsubtle, for unlike professional actors, they 
are paying the director's fee out of their own pockets. And since they 
usually cannot be "sacked," they intrigue endlessly against the direc- 
tor as part of the pleasure of rehearsals and quickly sabotage any 
effort on his part that seems to them not to take into quick account 
their own estimation of their ability to play a particular part they 
have set their hearts on. At the time I knew little of this, of course ; 
but I made an instantaneous and lucky guess about actors in general, 
whether amateur or professional, that was to serve me in good stead 
then and afterward. 

In some measure an actor is rather like a thoroughbred horse — 
he knows at once if the rider is afraid of him, and immediately he 
senses this, he takes the bit in his teeth and the rider is never really 
in control of him again. 

To gain control of a cast, to get control early and to keep this 
control in an iron grip, is essential to a director facing a new com- 
pany for the first time. There will be times — even whole days, per- 
haps — when a director, if he is a good one, will not always know 
what he is doing or if what he is doing is actually right for the 
actors or the play. He must proceed to do it, nevertheless, with cer- 
tainty and surety and never relax his control for a moment — the 
more uncertain he feels, the more sure-footed he must appear. He 
can always change everything he has done at the next rehearsal, 
but on the day that he is floundering and insecure himself, he must 
never allow the actors to know it. All is lost if he does. 

Actually, the only bad behavior I have ever witnessed in the pro- 
fessional theatre was that ghastly moment when a star or a cast of 
actors became aware that their director was not in control of either 


the play or themselves. It is then that "temperament" sets in and 
makes rehearsals hideous, but it has always been my opinion that 
"temperament" is little else than a mask for panic, and when people 
are panic-stricken, they of course behave badly. Why should they 
not? Actors know that on a certain not too distant night they will 
be up there on a brilliantly lit stage, naked and exposed, and if they 
cannot trust, or have lost faith in, the man who is to guide them and 
see them through that moment, they strike out in fear and hide their 
panic in bursts of temper and impossible behavior. 

Watch a cast of actors with a director they trust and who is in 
control of rehearsals every moment of the day or night, however, 
and you will observe the atmosphere and the discipline of a research 
laboratory. It has always seemed to me that the first necessity a 
director faces is the creation of a climate of security and peace, in 
which actors can do their best work. And he creates this most surely 
by assuming and maintaining an ironclad control of the proceedings 
from the moment the actors pass through the stage door on the first 
day of rehearsals until the curtain rises on the opening night in New 

After all, actors are not acting machines. Rehearsals, and most 
particularly the early days of rehearsals, bring to the surface of each 
actor his own special insecurity about himself and the job he faces, 
and it is part of a director's task to perceive this weakness as quickly 
as he can and within the limits of the time at his disposal, to make 
each actor secure in himself and his part, and establish himself 
as the person around whom must flow all the hidden but vital 
mechanism of bringing a play to life on a stage. 

I do not know how I knew any of this then, nor even how I 
glimpsed a small portion of it, sitting at that table with my knees 
knocking together with nervousness; but it was lucky for me that 
I sensed the essential part — to gain control early — for from down the 
hall came the sound of Eddie in rehearsal, and echoing into my own 
rehearsal room came his roars of anger, his crows of delight, and 
then the excited laughter of his group as they reveled in the pleasure 
of the electric personality who was directing them. It was lucky for 
me, too, that I had not chosen to compete with Eddie on his own 

[ I22 1 

terms, for I could only have emerged a miserable second best. In- 
stead, I distributed the parts in the three plays in my best Basil Dean 
manner; and without taking any notice of the protest and outrage 
that was all too plain on several faces, I proceeded to plunge into the 
rehearsal of the first play. 

The rest of that first evening was a grim business indeed. I 
matched their hostility with a sullenness of my own and I equaled 
their bad manners with a contempt for their behavior that I did not 
attempt to conceal. When the rehearsal ended at eleven o'clock, I was 
limp with exhaustion from the effort of imposing my will on a 
group of people resentful of my very presence; but I was determined 
to hold on to the job in spite of them. 

Eddie was correct — a summer free with a salary and all expenses 
paid was a goal worth fighting for, and it would have taken a good 
deal more than one grisly evening to make me throw in the sponge. 
Nevertheless, when I met Eddie outside the building late that night 
and we walked toward the subway together, I could easily have 
punched him in the nose with a great deal of pleasure. He was 
fresh as a daisy — indeed, he was exhilarated enough to have con- 
ducted an all-night rehearsal then and there. And his first words 
to me were, "See? I told you how easy it would be. It's almost a 
shame to take the money, isn't it?" 

I was too weary to answer. I grunted something in reply and 
listened to him hold forth above the clatter of the subway wheels 
on the Meyerhold theory of expressionism without saying a word 
until we changed trains at 149th Street and went our separate ways, 

Rehearsals took place three times a week, and the next one, 
though not exactly pleasant or marked by any special esprit de corps 
flowing between director and cast, was at the same time less painful 
for me than that initial baptism of fire. For one thing, they had all 
turned up — a fact which I sharply noted as I walked into the room. 
I had actually expected several resignations and was quite prepared 
to deal with them; but apparently they had all gone out for coffee 
after that first rehearsal, talked me over among themselves, and 


decided they were sufficiently intrigued to come back once more and 
see what would happen next. 

The fact that they had all turned up gave me my cue. If anything, 
I was more high-handed and testy than I had been two evenings 
before. I must have been relaxed enough, however, shortly before 
the rehearsal ended, to have made an imaginative leap in the scene I 
was directing that ignited a spark of excited interest or grudging 
admiration among them. It is a lovely and rewarding moment when 
this happens. I could feel it happen with the actors I was talking 
to and in the rest of the group who were watching me from various 
parts of the room. Though there was nothing but silence in the room 
except for the sound of my own voice, it was almost as though ap- 
plause had broken out — a special kind of applause that is reserved 
for unexpected victory. I was conscious of it almost immediately, 
but I was wise enough not to push the advantage. Though it was 
not yet quite eleven o'clock I said, "That's all for tonight," and pick- 
ing up my hat and coat, put on my Basil Dean manner again along 
with my overcoat, and walked out. 

I knew now that I could drop diat fatuous pose whenever I saw 
fit to do so, but it had served me well enough. I had begun to weld 
them to me as a group and on my own terms. Though I might not 
teach them very much about acting, they would at least learn to 
mind their manners with the next hapless fellow who directed them 
and give him a decent chance. As it turned out, I think I learned a 
good deal more from them than they did from me. Although they 
were amateurs, and not very talented ones at that, it is almost 
impossible to direct a group of people for the stage without learn- 
ing something valuable about the theatre somewhere along the line. 

In my own case, I became aware almost for the first time of the 
inner structure of a play, for the good and simple reason that I 
had to. After a good many false starts and quite a bit of stum- 
bling around, I was finally forced to go back to study the author's 
intent in each play I was directing — to gain a knowledge of how 
each play was built to achieve the effect the author wanted and to 
decide on how best to translate what I had learned into a perform- 
ance that maintained an audience's interest without foreshadowing 


or destroying the climax, and at the same time preserving the entity 
of the play as a whole. This was a good deal more than just seeing 
to it that the actors did not bump into each other, which was more 
or less what I had been doing and which I soon discovered would 
not work. 

I was directing three one-act plays — one by George Kelly, one 
by Lord Dunsany and one by Susan Glaspell. They were as unlike 
as three playwrights could possibly be and I began to be fascinated 
by the problems each play brought with it. The mechanism and con- 
struction of a play began to hold far more interest for me than the 
actual staging of it, and all through that winter I read every pub- 
lished play I could get my hands on. When my neighborhood 
library in the Bronx ran out of published plays, I went down to the 
main branch at 42nd Street and sat in the reading room all day 
long, completely and utterly absorbed. With my days free, I sup- 
pose I could have and should have taken a job during the day to 
supplement the paltry sum I was earning in the evenings, but I 
could not tear myself away from my obsession with the mechanics 
of play-writing. 

I do not believe that play-writing can be taught any more than 
acting can be taught, and I am quite certain that I did not con- 
sciously think of play-writing seriously in relation to myself, for 
all during that time it never occurred to me to read a book on how 
plays are written. I simply read the plays themselves. I read the 
published version of plays that I had seen and then plays that I 
had never seen, sitting there day after day like a bacteriologist trying 
to isolate a strange germ under the beam of a new and more power- 
ful microscope. Whether I was conscious or not that I wanted to 
write plays myself is perhaps academic, for there is no doubt that a 
good deal of this exploration rubbed off on me whether I knew it or 
not. I began to perceive and place in proper perspective the distinc- 
tion between plot and character, the difference between tricks of 
the trade and honest craftsmanship, and though I was hardly aware 
of it, I began to discern the gradual steps by which a play is built 
and, in the really good plays, the wonderful economy with which 
each salient point is made and not a moment on the stage wasted. 


Another thing I seemed to be unaware of, though it was taking 
place under my very nose, was that my group had made a complete 
reversal in their feelings about me. They liked me now! It was, 
as Eddie pointed out, shaking a finger at me, obvious to everyone 
but myself. I suppose I had become so absorbed in my daytime life 
of reading plays that I was hardly conscious of the three evenings 
each week I rehearsed with the group, except as a necessary inter- 
ruption to earn money. 

But as the days of the actual performance approached and we 
rehearsed four and sometimes five evenings a week, I could not help 
noticing how eagerly each word of mine was listened to and how 
highly charged the atmosphere had become with a kind of grave 
dedication on each actor's part to give me his best. Finally, on the 
evening of the first dress rehearsal I received what I suppose was 
the accolade of their change of heart — I was asked to go out for 
coffee with them after the rehearsal. I did not have sufficient char- 
acter to refuse and it was too close to the actual performance to 
tamper with the fine ensemble spirit I had apparently engendered. 
I got a bit of my own back by having not just coffee but a full- 
sized meal and letting them pay for it. I felt I had earned it. 

The performances, which took place on four successive nights, 
two evenings being allotted to my group and two to Eddie's, were 
an unqualified success. Though Eddie's group made by far the 
greater impression, my own acquitted itself quite well, and both 
groups were, we were assured on all sides, the best ever seen on 
the stage of the Labor Temple. We had hoped under the flush of 
such success that there would be immediate word forthcoming, 
from the gentleman who owned the summer camp, about our 
promised jobs for the summer; but he was wily enough to insist that 
we do another group of plays for the spring season before he made 
up his mind. There was nothing for us to do but continue; for in 
spite of Eddie's high opinion of himself, there was no great clamor 
for his services in the professional theatre, and certainly none for 
my own, but I was determined now to have that summer job. 

A vague sort of plan, too hazy and unclear even in my own mind 
to discuss with Eddie, was beginning to formulate itself as a course 


of action whereby I could attach myself to die theatre again, and the 
first step was to make certain of landing that job for the summer. 
Perhaps it was a desperate effort to insure it that led me to so foolish 
an undertaking as I now embarked upon. I can think of no other 
reason compelling enough for me to make so complete a fool of 
myself. It is astonishing how wanting anything badly enough can 
invariably suspend judgment, intelligence or plain common sense, 
in all sorts of people, from those who want a job for the summer 
to those who want to be President. 

A few evenings after the final performance, the group met as a 
whole to discuss the new series of plays to be done for the spring sea- 
son. Eddie suggested, again unselfishly, that we switch groups, and 
I was touched and pleased to find that my group elected by unani- 
mous consent to stay on with me. A little drunk with power at this 
obvious testament to my directorial charm, and overzealous now 
about protecting the summer job, I decided not to do another group 
of one-acters, but to do a three-act play instead. This was idiocy of 
an inspired kind, for neither the group nor I was ready to tackle 
a three-act play yet. To compound the felony, I chose, of all things, 
that most difficult of plays to do even for professional actors — Ibsen's 
Ghosts. The dour Norwegian and my inexperience as a director 
met head on and there was never any doubt as to who would emerge 

Rehearsals were a misery both for myself and the cast from the 
moment the first line was uttered, but I was either too stubborn 
or too cowardly to admit my mistake and switch to something more 
feasible. Instead, I bluffed and blundered and took refuge in displays 
of bad temper, thereby not only undoing all the good I had done, but 
making it altogether impossible for us to do anything but go 
steadily along to the disaster I had chosen. 

I am certain, too, that it was no one's fault but my own that a week 
before the performance the leading man threw his part down on the 
floor, kicked it across the room, and walked out. It was far too 
late now to attempt to get anybody else up in the part and I de- 
cided in another moment of lunacy to play Oswald myself! There 
could be no question of calling the performance off — with my eyes 


fixed on that summer job, I would have played Camille if necessary. 
I doubt if I or the audience would have fared much worse had I 
done so. I suppose I secretly felt that a brilliant performance of 
Oswald by myself would save the day; but Eddie, attending the first 
dress rehearsal at my request, soon dispelled that illusion. He came 
backstage shaking with helpless laughter. "I'm sorry," he said, "but 
the whole thing is ridiculous, and you, my boy — to put it in the 
kindest fashion possible — are ludicrous." 

"I don't care about that," I said miserably. "Is it bad enough to 
make us lose that job?" 

"It's bad enough, all right," he replied, "but it's too late to do any- 
thing about it now." He shrugged his shoulders. "I've got something 
else in mind, anyway — even better. So don't worry. But for God's 
sake," he went on, "as long as you've got to go through with it, 
can't you do something about making that final moment when 
Oswald says, The sun, Mother, I want the sun,' sound a little less 
like you were asking for Grape Nuts for breakfast? It's bloody 
awful." And he went off into gales of laughter again. 

I have not entirely forgotten to this very day the agony of having 
to walk out onto a stage and play for an entire evening a part that, 
as Eddie quite properly said, I was ludicrous in. It has made me 
suffer and sympathize with actors who are miscast in a play, for 
they invariably know it, and it can only be the urgency of meeting 
the rent and telephone bills that enables them to do it for more 
than the two performances which were all that I had to suffer 

Nevertheless, by some miracle of unknowingness, even by amateur 
standards, the audience sat solemn and polite throughout the two 
evenings we performed Ghosts, and though very little applause 
greeted the final curtain, at least laughter, that nightmare sound to 
even amateur actors' ears, did not punctuate the proceedings. At the 
end of the second and last performance, I sat wiping the make-up 
off my face with so great a sense of relief that even the thought of 
the summer job, which was never very far out of my mind, was 
momentarily gone in the pleasure of knowing that Ibsen and I had 
parted company forever. 


One thing was clear at any rate. I had evidently been wise to 
put the idea of acting behind me — to fail as dismally as I had failed 
these past two nights was a depressing enough proof that I had been 
right — but it was a small consolation. Wiping the marks of the 
wretched Oswald off my face, I could see the want ads of the New 
Yor\ Times in front of my eyes, and once more I decided no — there 
would be no turning back, whatever happened. Though exactly 
what would happen, except simple starvation, I failed to see. 

I was suddenly aware of Eddie's grinning face in the mirror in 
front of me and I felt his hand fall heavily on my shoulder. "I 
bring you incontrovertible proof that He who watches over Israel 
does not slumber," he said, talking into the mirror. And as I turned 
around to look up at him he whispered, "We got the job!" 

Sure enough, the gentleman who owned the summer camp was 
coming into the room smiling, not glowering. "You liked it?" I 
asked ingenuously. 

"It was hopeless," he replied, still smiling, "but it was Ibsen, that's 
the point. I like a young fellow who makes this kind of mistake — 
that's the kind of fellow we want on the staff at Camp Utopia." 
And he held out his hand to me. 

This somewhat enigmatic compliment was an excellent clue to 
the character of my future employer. William }. Perleman was a 
would-be playwright, not yet produced, and part owner of a summer 
camp, to both of which endeavors he brought artistic and intellectual 
pretensions, and no talent of any kind whatever for either enter- 
prise. Yet in his bumbling way he was a sweet-tempered man and 
certainly a most forgiving one, considering the travail Eddie's in- 
experience as a social director was to put him through. He shook my 
hand again warmly, and after another complimentary word or two 
to the effect that "large mistakes were the only kind to make," he 
smiled his way out. 

Almost before I could realize the wonderful turn for the better 
my fortunes had taken, I became aware that I was suddenly raven- 
ously, wolfishly hungry. As always, at a moment of triumph or dis- 
aster, the first return to reality was announced by my stomach. "How 
much money have you got?" I asked Eddie. 


"Three dollars," he answered. 

"I've got two," I said, throwing caution to the winds. "Let's go 
out and eat all we can get for five dollars." 

"Get the rest of Oswald off your face," said Eddie, "I'm going 
to treat you to a bottle of wine." 

Jubilant, I made short work of the last traces of Oswald and I 
was even a little more than jubilant very shortly afterward, since 
Eddie's idea of a bottle of wine was changed to straight gin by the 
time we sat down in the speakeasy around the corner from the 
Labor Temple. 

By the third gin I was so murderously hungry and riotously drunk 
that in order to get the food on the table as quickly as possible, 
1 cheerfully agreed to all the lunatic plans Eddie was suggesting for 
our debut as social directors. At that time, one could get a really 
mountainous amount of food for very little money, and I ate the 
greater portion of it myself, hardly stopping to interject a word or 
to object to the utter nonsense that Eddie was spouting. By the end 
of the meal we were both sufficiently sober for Eddie to discuss in 
more sensible and less grandiose terms our plans for the summer, 
which was actually then only about six weeks away. 

"The greatest asset a social director can have," he said, "is a stock- 
pile of special material . . . comedy skits, songs . . . especially the 
newest stuff from the musical comedies. It's a must, we've got to have 

"How do you get it?" I asked. "We can't afford to go and see the 

"There are ways," he answered mysteriously. 

"How?" I demanded. "If we can't get to see the shows, how do 
we get it?" 

"Go home and get some sleep," he answered, still with an air of 
mystery. "Get some sleep and I'll show you how we get it. We'll 
start collecting the stuff tomorrow night." And that was all I was 
able to make him say on the subject the rest of the evening. 

There were indeed ways, as I was to learn in the following weeks, 
or at least Eddie's ways, of collecting the necessary material for a 


social director's portfolio. One of them was for us to arrive on the 
sidewalk in front of the theatre of a reigning musical comedy hit 
just before intermission time. We then mingled with the audience as 
they emerged into the lobby at the end of the first act, picked up a 
program that someone inevitably dropped and left on the lobby 
floor, and brandishing the program conspicuously in front of us, 
walked back into the theatre with the audience to see the second act. 

Though this system restricted the amount of material we could 
steal, the authors of musical comedies and revues invariably save 
some of their heavy ammunition for the second act, and there were 
always reprises of songs from the first act. There were a few 
theatres, of course, that issued intermission checks to the audience 
to stop just such banditry, but there were not many of these. The 
New Amsterdam Theatre, where the Follies was playing, issued 
these checks and moreover kept a sharp lookout for intermission 
crashers, but I knew the ticket taker and he allowed us to pass 
through not once but several times. The Follies was very necessary 
for us to see, for it contained not only a large amount of special 
material in skits, but Fanny Brice as well, of whom I was to do an 
impersonation for several summers thereafter. 

After each show, it was our practice to go straight to Eddie's 
house and between us piece together all the material we had stolen 
from the show with the help of a pocket flashlight and notes scrib- 
bled on the program. It was quite astonishing how accurate our 
thievery became after a time. We were very often able to piece 
together whole sketches word for word, and what we couldn't 
remember we wrote ourselves. 

There were three new musicals opening that spring just before 
we were to leave for the camp, and to pilfer from these in their 
entirety Eddie had an even more ingenious scheme, for he felt it 
was vital to his prestige as social director to be able to present 
material from the newer shows on Broadway. 

His theory was that on an opening night the stage doorman could 
not yet possibly know the chorus boys by sight, since the show 
itself was but barely installed in the theatre. Therefore, just before 
the half-hour was called on the opening night we were to brush past 


the doorman with a hurried and excited "hello" or "good luck" as 
though we were part of the chorus, cross the stage, and go out the 
pass door from the stage into the theatre. We were then to hurry 
down to the men's room, lock ourselves in a booth, and remain 
there until we heard the overture begin, when we would walk up- 
stairs and stand at the back and see the entire show. Eddie's other 
contention was that there was always so much excitement on an 
opening night and so many hangers-on standing about in the back 
of the orchestra that we would never be noticed. 

He turned out to be correct on both counts: the stage doorman 
grunted a hello as we brushed past him, and no one paid the slightest 
attention to us as we stood in the back — but it took a good deal of 
passionate argument to overcome my initial timidity and even out- 
right threats on Eddie's part to get me to screw up my courage 
sufficiently to brush past the first doorman. It all worked like a 
charm, however, and was well worth the anguish I went through. 

I was greatly surprised all those hectic few weeks by the industry 
and concentration Eddie showed in scrupulously planning each 
week of the camp season, which was to last from Decoration Day 
until Labor Day. It was unlike him to maintain a pitch of excite- 
ment about anything once the windmill had been tilted at, and I 
was immensely relieved to see him buckle down and set a definite 
schedule for each play and each musical we were to do. 

This singular enthusiasm and industry did not, regrettably, per- 
sist past Decoration Day; for just before we were to leave, Eddie 
received an offer to join a company that was to make a tour of 
South Africa in the fall. The appeal to his sense of the spectacular 
that the very words "South Africa" made was immediate and pro- 
found. He promptly lost all interest in the summer job and went 
through with it, I believe, only because it was a way of marking 
time until the fall. 

Moreover, with the usual theatrical nepotism, he had engaged as 
other members of our social staff his sister Belle, a cousin, Eleanor 
Audley, and three of the members of his group from the Labor 
Temple. All of them were not only as inexperienced as we ourselves, 
but were to remain throughout the summer his willing and adoring 


slaves, taking his indolence for the musings of an artist and his 
pulverizing lack of organization as the unmistakable mark of genius. 

It had been a necessity between the end of my employment at 
the Labor Temple and the beginning of the camp season to take a 
temporary job of any sort to fill in the time and earn some money, 
and I took the first job that came along. It was not a very likely job 
and I lasted exactly a week at it. I was no better at being a floor- 
walker at Macy's than I had been at playing Oswald. Not only did 
my mind wander alarmingly, so that I found myself walking out 
into 34th Street one afternoon for a breath of air (an unheard-of 
thing for a floorwalker to do while on duty, I was told), but the 
collecting and writing up of the material we were gathering was 
spilling over into the days as well as the nights. 

Very often we were unable to finish setting down at night all 
that might be useful to us from the show we had seen that evening, 
and it was the kind of work that had to be done by both of us to- 
gether, for what one of us failed to remember, the other always did. 
Macy's solved the difficulty for us by firing me at the end of the 
first week, and I then conceived the bright idea of getting a job 
that required only night work, sleeping a few hours during the 
day and having the rest of the day and evening free. Eddie was 
skeptical, but it turned out there was plenty of night work to be 

One of the astonishing things about the astounding City of New 
York is that it contains a large population of people who work 
only at night. A great portion of the city's daytime life is supported 
by these night people, who keep the necessary circulation flowing 
through the city's hidden veins at night, so that it comes alive 
each dawn when other millions of day people continue the city's 
life, largely unaware of those others who all through the night have 
made ready for them. 

The job I selected was at the New Yor\ Times, classifying and 
routing to their proper departments the handwritten want ads that 
had passed over the Times' counter during the day. The hours, from 
eleven p.m. until seven a.m., fitted our requirements perfectly, allow- 


ing me to go straight to the Times from the theatre, be home by 
eight thirty in the morning, sleep until one or two in the afternoon, 
and be at Eddie's house by three o'clock to start correlating the 
material, until it was time to be in front of whatever theatre we 
were crashing at intermission time that evening. 

After two or three weeks of this I found myself falling asleep in 
the subway and riding past my station almost every morning, 
leaning against whatever I could find that was fairly soft and fall- 
ing promptly to sleep. Strangely enough, I found this rather rugged 
schedule no hardship at all. For one thing, there was something 
poetic and quite magical about the city at night which I deeply 
enjoyed being part of. Our lunch or supper hour at the Times was 
between the hours of three and four o'clock in the morning. I would 
eat as quickly as possible, and with another fellow who worked 
beside me, walk the streets until it was time to get back to work. I 
have no gift for describing the peculiar quality of magic the city 
possesses at that hour of the night; but it contains an elusive magic 
and wonder of its own that is never glimpsed, I am certain, except 
by night people such as I was then myself. 

Though my eyes kept closing constantly, almost without my being 
aware of it, so that I sometimes would go to sleep in the middle of 
a sentence, I felt not in the least tired, but on the contrary remark- 
ably fresh and alive. The prospect of getting away completely for 
three whole months from the surroundings I had lived in all of my 
life kept me buoyed up and keyed to a feverish pitch of excitement 
that seemed to banish fatigue or exhaustion. 

The mere idea, little enough in itself, of not returning home each 
evening and walking those four flights up the grimy stairway to 
our apartment, filled me with an almost unbearable sense of ex- 
hilaration and freedom such as I had never before known. It is 
hard to describe or to explain concisely the overwhelming and suf- 
focating boredom that is the essence of being poor. A great deal 
has been written about the barren drudgery of poverty; but I do 
not recall that the numbing effect of its boredom has been much 
written or talked about. Yet boredom is the keynote of poverty— 
of all its indignities, it is perhaps the hardest of all to live with — 


for where there is no money there is no change of any kind, not 
of scene or of routine. To be able to break out of its dark brown 
sameness, out of the boredom of a world without movement or 
change, filled me with a deep excitement. The thought of escaping 
from another city summer, with its front stoops and fire escapes 
filled with tired, sweating adults and squalling children, into a 
world of green lawns and shady trees made sleep an unnecessary 
indulgence, and seemed to give me the energy of ten men my size 
and weight. 

I realized suddenly and acutely that the summers had always been 
the worst time of all for me: the season of the year that I hated the 
most. There is anonymity about poverty in the wintertime; it re- 
mains hidden behind drawn curtains or blinds. But in the summer 
the choking heat of the tenements sends it sprawling out onto the 
stoops and fire escapes and sidewalks, to be nakedly exposed for 
the offense and the ugliness that it is. I knew now why I had always 
dreaded the approach of warm weather, but as this particular spring 
deepened into early summer, I could almost sniff the aroma of 
country meadows even in the bowels of the subway or in my cubby- 
hole at the New Yor\ Times. 

When the great day arrived at last for us to leave for Camp 
Utopia, the moisture in my eyes which my mother mistook for 
filial sentiment (it was to be my first long absence away from the 
family) was, I suppose, actually something akin to tears of joy at 
getting the hell out. 

Rarely have I set forth on a journey with such a lift of the heart. 
Innocence, however, always carries the seeds of its own destruction 
and I carried mine to Camp Utopia that glistening summer's day, 
like Dick Whittington approaching London with his heart on his 
sleeve and his possessions on his back, hearing nothing but the lovely 
sound of Bow bells in the distance. 


'amp utopia was a fair enough sample of summer 
camps in general to give me a rough idea of what life as a social 
director was going to be like. 

The camp nestled beside a pretty pine-wooded lake in the foot- 
hills of the Poconos in Pennsylvania; it consisted of a large central 
building, which housed the dining room, and cabins built along 
opposite sides of the lake, the lake itself supposedly keeping the 
men and women apart at night — a remarkably naive assumption, 
as though a body of water or even a ring of fire could accomplish 
the impossible! There were tennis courts, a swimming dock, canoes 
and rowboats, and a social hall with dance floor and stage, which 
was the hub and core and heartbeat of everything that took place 
in camp in the evenings — at least until the lights were turned out, 
at which time traffic on both sides of the lake front took on the pro- 
portions of a rush hour at Times Square. 

Camp Utopia was neither the largest nor the smallest of the 
camps I was to work at in the five years that followed, some of 
which ranged in accommodations for guests from two hundred to 
fifteen hundred on crowded weekends. But I remember it kindly, 
for it had the virtue at that time of being almost brand-new — I 
believe this was its second summer of operation — so that the clientele 
was not sufficiently incrusted in its folklore to immediately com- 
plain almost before they had unpacked their suitcases that last year's 
social staff was infinitely superior to this year's — a complaint I was 

[*3 6 ] 

to run into with infuriating regularity at every camp I worked at 

The world of summer camps, and a very definite world it was, 
was entirely new to me, of course; and since that world no longer 
exists as it did in those days, I think it is of some interest, quite apart 
from myself, as a curious kind of Americana that blossomed and 
flourished in the 1920's, for it is unlikely to appear in the same form 
again. Adult summer camps at that time represented quite a new 
way of summer vacationing for thousands of young people of ages 
ranging from twenty to thirty, marking as it did the first breaking 
away from the old regulation summer hotel, with its standard long 
front porch where fond mamas rigidly chaperoned demure young 
daughters, and circumspect young men carefully carried their mando- 
lins along on hayrides and thought twice about asking a girl for 
a good-night kiss. 

When the first summer-camp owner, whoever he was, hit upon 
the idea of banishing the front porch and fond mamas in one fell 
swoop and substituting rustic cabins along a lake front instead, he 
struck a responsive chord in thousands of rebellious young breasts 
that beat furiously with the new-found sexual freedom of the early 
twenties, and they flocked in ever-increasing numbers to sample the 
particular mixture of free-wheeling camaraderie that each camp 
cannily offered. I do not mean to suggest that these camps were 
simply carnal spots set in sylvan glades, and certainly a great show 
was made of sternly patrolling the cabins; but there can be no ques- 
tion that the firm rock on which the great popularity of summer 
camps rested was the ageless Gibraltar of sex. 

Summer camps still exist today, of course; but they are a far 
cry from the uninhibited ones of my own apprenticeship. Indeed, 
the camps of today would be almost unrecognizable to a guest or 
to a social director of those days. Today, the entertainment programs 
are completely professional and booked into the camp by Broadway 
agents, and the larger camps frequently have well-known names at 
large salaries perform for its guests on weekends. The golf course 
employs not one but usually three golf pros, and the tennis courts 


and swimming activities are likely to be in the charge of a former 
college or Olympic champion. 

At the time I am speaking of, however, the entertainment in toto 
was provided by the social director and his staff — every item of every 
day and evening was devised, rehearsed and presented by him and 
his assistant, and a back-breaking job it was! Out of the summer 
camps of those early days emerged such figures as Danny Kaye, Don 
Hartman, Dore Schary, Lorenz Hart, Garson Kanin, Arthur Kober, 
Phil Silvers, and countless others. It is constantly suggested in well- 
meaning press interviews that the summer camps provided the 
training ground or springboard that enabled these talented gentle- 
men to make the leap to Broadway and Hollywood. It may be so, 
and I am not prepared to argue for anyone but myself, but in my 
own case, social directing provided me with a lifelong disdain 
for the incredible contortions of the human spirit at play, and a 
lasting horror of people in the mass seeking pleasure and release in 
packaged doses. Perhaps the real triumph of those summers was 
the fact that I survived them at all; not so much in terms of emerging 
with whatever creative faculties I possess unimpaired, but in the 
sense that my physical constitution withstood the strain, for at the 
end of each camp season I was always fifteen to twenty pounds 
lighter and my outlook on life just about that much more heavily 

To understand the stresses and strains a camp season entailed, 
and which a social director of those days labored under, it is neces- 
sary, I think, to set down an actual week's schedule of camp activity, 
which was repeated, though with different material of course, every 
week of the entire camp season. 

Monday was campfire night. This was presumably an informal 
get-together, for the new guests usually arrived on Sunday; and a 
campfire in the woods, with entertainment provided while marsh- 
mallows and hot dogs were being roasted over the fire, was sup- 
posed to initiate the new arrival into the carefree camp spirit. I 
suppose it did — but since the wood for the fire, as well as the hot 
dogs, marshmallows and the blankets to sit on, had to be dragged 
out into the woods by the social director and his staff, it did not 


hold quite the same easygoing informality and gaiety for us that it 
did for the guests, to say nothing of the fact that the entertainment 
around the fire had to be devised and rehearsed, and was not in- 
formal at all. 

Campfire night always held a special kind of torment for me, for 
Eddie had delegated to me at the beginning of the season the task 
of leading the community singing that opened the festivities as the 
campfire was lit, a job that I was unfortunately good at and which 
I whole-heartedly loathed. There was always a good deal of heckling, 
actually quite good-natured, as I stood up in front of the fire to 
start the singing off, and it had to be answered with equally good- 
natured banter in return on my part. It was a rare campfire night 
that I did not devoutly wish that I could disappear into the air or 
sink into the earth. 

I had two other regular spots in the campfire programs. One, a 
Shakespearean recitation, usually a soliloquy out of Hamlet, Mac- 
beth or Romeo and Juliet, and a "boy and girl" number complete 
with ukulele, which I strummed and sang to while a female guest, 
carefully selected that afternoon as the best of a bad lot, sat on my 
knee and sang along with me. The fact that the crowd was usually 
insistent that we encore the number by doing the Charleston together 
did nothing to minimize the deep hatred I held for each Monday 
night that stretched from June to September. 

Tuesday night was costume or dress-up night. Depending upon 
the whim of the social director and the kind of costumes at hand, 
the night was designated and proclaimed as "Greenwich Village 
Night," "A Night in Old Montmartre" or "The Beaux Arts Ball." 
The social hall had to be decorated by the staff to simulate old 
Montmartre or Greenwich Village, and tables and chairs were set 
around the hall in night-club fashion. It was imperative, moreover, 
that the guests, both male and female, turn out in appropriate cos- 
tumes, for the evening was a failure if they did not; so most of 
Tuesday afternoon from after lunchtime on was spent in going from 
cabin to cabin and helping guests prepare their costumes or cajoling 
them into getting themselves up in one if they showed a disinclina- 
tion to do so. 


Most girls arrived in camp with some sort of catch-all costume 
for dress-up night, as advised in the camp brochure; but the men 
usually brought along nothing but the inevitable white flannel trou- 
sers and blue sport jackets. We had a supply of costumes in the 
camp wardrobe that could be used for just such emergencies week 
after week, and I have yet to see a figure of a French apache on 
the stage or in the movies that does not give me a shudder as I 
recall how many unwilling male guests I badgered into being an 
apache from old Montmartre. We seemed always to have had more 
apache costumes in the wardrobe trunk than any other kind, though 
"A Night in Old Japan" was a close runner-up for the male con- 
tingent for reasons that now escape me. 

For "A Night in Old Montmartre" one or possibly two Grand 
Guignol sketches were usually presented — with the result that there 
was almost never any catsup to be had in camp the next day because 
we used it to simulate the streams of blood always necessary in the 
Guignol sketches, and the social staff's hair was usually matted or 
streaked with catsup that would not come out for the next two days. 

On "Greenwich Village Night" there was a good deal of candle-lit 
free-verse poetry reading, usually done by Eddie, and a good deal 
of Edna St. Vincent Millay usually read by me. No one was ever 
more weary of hearing, "My candle burns at both ends, it will not 
last the night" than I was by the end of that first summer. And there 
were quite a few evenings when I was not quite sure that I would 
last the night myself, Edna St. Vincent Millay or no Edna St. Vin- 
cent Millay! 

For "A Night in Old Japan" we presented our own version, com- 
plete with local jokes and lyrics, of The Mikado, and for "Beaux 
Arts Night" there were tableaux of guests, decked out in silver and 
gold gilt paint, gilded and arranged, of course, by a sweating and 
cursing social staff. 

Wednesday evening was "Games Night," and between dances, 
potato races, sack races, one-legged races and peanut relay races 
were run off for prizes, and though no entertainment was deemed 
necessary by the management for this carefree evening, it was 
thought essential, nevertheless, for the social staff to encourage par- 


ticipation in the games by setting the example of being the first 
ones out on the floor for each game and seeing to it that the shy or 
unattractive girls in particular were included in at least one game 
during the evening. It is not easy to feel die proper compassion for 
a shy girl or an ugly duckling when you are tied into a sack with 
her and are hobbling down the social hall to the finish line. On the 
contrary, rolling a peanut along the floor side by side with a bad- 
complexioned girl with thick glasses and unfortunate front teeth 
does nothing to kindle the fires of pity within you, but instead 
makes you want to kick her right in her unfortunate teeth. 

There was no escape possible from this nightly gallantry, how- 
ever, for the one camp rule that was inviolate — that could never 
be broken under any consideration — was that the male members of 
the social staff dance only with the girls who were not being danced 
with, and that the shy and ugly ones be "socialized" with first. It 
was up to the social staff and to the social director and his assistant 
to set the example for this, not only so far as dancing was con- 
cerned, but in every other aspect of camp activity. 

There was actually a sound reason for this. The population of 
every summer camp was always predominantly female — the girls 
sometimes outnumbering the men two to one — and this thorny 
problem the wily camp owners met by hiring college boys instead of 
professional waiters to wait on tables, for these college boys were 
part of the social staff after their duties in the dining room were 

Indeed, it mattered very little how sloppy a waiter a young medical 
or legal student might be if he was a good dancer and "mixed and 
mingled" well in the social hall. The trouble, of course, lay in the 
fact that the college boys disliked dancing with "the pots," as they 
called them, quite as much as we did, and devised all sorts of 
stratagems to be out on the floor with an attractive girl in their arms 
almost before the first note of each dance number sounded from the 
orchestra. It was always necessary to make a blanket rule at the 
beginning of each season that if a girl was not dancing after the 
first sixteen bars of music, she must be danced with forthwith. And 
there was a further ironclad rule that no one girl was to be danced 


with more than once in an evening, for it was the boys' practice to 
latch onto a pretty girl and dance every dance with her, proclaim- 
ing loudly and innocently that they had danced every dance that 
evening and had not sat out one ! 

By the middle of July in every season, it was always necessary to 
ship one or two insubordinate waiters home for flouting this rule, 
for inevitably love blossomed between a waiter and a guest, and 
when that happened, he would defiantly dance every dance with 
his beloved. There was nothing to do but ship him home as a stern 
example to the others. I was not always certain that it was exactly 
love that blossomed in a waiter's bosom, for once a waiter glimpsed 
that unmistakable light in a girl's eyes, it almost inevitably followed 
that the hapless girl, for the entire span of her two weeks' vacation, 
barely saw the sunlight from then on. Instead, she was in the kitchen 
most of the time helping him polish silver and make salads, and 
then setting his tables for him. These poor creatures would arrive 
in camp with a decent glow of health on their cheeks and leave two 
weeks later hollow-eyed wrecks. 

Curiously enough, this practice of guests' helping waiters in their 
work was not frowned upon by camp owners, but in a way had 
their blessing, for I don't suppose the waiters could have gone on 
moonlight canoe rides night after night and been up at six thirty 
every morning to prepare for breakfast without some sort of unpaid 
slave labor to help them. And I am certain it was love by and large 
that kept the camp silverware as clean as it generally was. Week by 
week one could very often tell whether or not love was rampant 
among the waiters by the way the tables were set or how the salads 
were decorated, and when love ran riot in the kitchen, it played hell 
with the dancing in the social hall at night. 

I am certain, too, those camp years ruined the pleasure of dancing 
for me forever. It is seldom now that I will venture out onto a dance 
floor. For six whole years I danced with nothing but "the pots," and 
that was enough to make me welcome the glorious choice of sitting 
down for the rest of my life. 

The one night in camp when there was no dancing at all was 
Thursday night, and it may be imagined that sometimes it seemed 


to the social staff that Thursday was terribly slow in arriving or 
had disappeared out of the week entirely. That was the night for 
basketball, played by a team of our own waiters against a team of 
waiters from a neighboring camp, sometimes in our own social hall 
and sometimes in theirs. 

This night was always held up with a great show of largesse by 
camp owners as the night that the social staff was entirely free to 
rehearse the weekend's play and musical, but it was not entirely as 
generous as it sounded. Thursday night after the game was the night 
that the owners always chose to give a party in their own quarters 
for specially selected guests, and to this party the social staff was not 
only invited but more or less ordered to appear, for they were ex- 
pected to supply the necessary entertainment for the festivities. The 
idea was, I suppose, that since the social staff had not entertained 
guests for the entire evening, they must now be panting to do so, 
beginning at midnight. 

Another occupational hazard of camp life, and a dire hazard it 
was, was the parties tossed two or three times each week by the 
guests themselves in their own cabins after the social hall closed, 
and to which the social staff was always bidden. It seemed to be 
taken for granted by any and every guest that included in his 
weekly rate, was the right to the private as well as the public services 
of the social staff, a conclusion that most camp owners concurred 
in, and if you refused to appear at parties, either in self-defense or out 
of sheer exhaustion, there were always loud and long protests the 
next morning that the social staff refused to "socialize" and that next 
summer they would certainly go to a camp that had a social staff that 

We could escape only some of the parties and the others we suf- 
fered through as best we could, for if there was one thing worse 
than entertaining the guests ourselves, it was being entertained by 
them at their own parties. Almost every guest who gave parties had 
a sneaking suspicion that he or she was equally as talented as the 
social staff. This was their chance to prove it — and the remem- 
brance of various young men, a salami sandwich in one hand and a 
glass of celery tonic in the other, bellowing out "I'm the Sheik of 


Araby" can still chill my blood; or the recollection of countless ill- 
advised girls giving their own rendition of "Dardanella" is enough 
even now to make me wonder how I lived through six solid years of 
it, without entering the realm of the demented. 

There was one hazard of camp life, however, that the social 
staff did not share. It was faced exclusively by the guests themselves, 
and it provided the staff with an endless source of entertainment 
and pleasure. The hazard was a simple one, but it was unfailing and 
constant in every camp I ever worked at. Both male and female 
guests always arrived in complete anonymity except for the initials 
on their luggage; and when they decked themselves out in their 
summer finery for their first appearance in the social hall or the 
dining room, it was impossible to tell whether a shipping clerk or the 
boss's son had arrived in camp. By the same token, it was impossible 
to tell whether a private secretary to a Wall Street broker or a steel 
executive was making her first appearance, or, what was more likely, 
a salesgirl from behind the glove counter at Bloomingdale's was 
beginning her two-week vacation. 

Each suitcase bulged with a hard winter's saving of every penny 
that could be spared and strategically spent on a series of flamboyant 
sport shirts and doeskin trousers, or flowered prints and organdy 
dresses, to say nothing of the very latest in the way of bathing suits 
and costumes pour le sport for every hour of the day that might 
dazzle and titillate a member of the opposite sex. There were, of 
course, some well-heeled boys and girls among the guests, and I 
suppose even a boss's son or a private secretary to a Wall Street 
broker occasionally turned up. But in the main, the bulk of the 
contingent that descended on the camps every summer was composed 
largely of shipping clerks, bookkeepers, law clerks, receptionists, and 
what-not, who spill out of New York City and it environs for 
their annual two-week vacation. 

And since part of that vacation at camp had as its goal sex on the 
part of the boys and marriage on the part of the girls, there was a 
better chance for the achievement of these goals if both partners 
gave no hint of their true status while in camp, but played the game 
of letting the other one assume that each was heir to a junior execu- 


five's job or a wealthy father. It was a game of endless variations — a 
stately minuet of lying and pretense, and the social staff watched it 
flower and blossom every two weeks with no little delight and a good 
deal of malice. 

We even aided and abetted the masquerade whenever we could, 
not only as a method of revenge against our mortal enemies — the 
guests — but because it was uncommonly instructive and somehow 
wonderfully comic to see the citadel of virginity being stormed each 
day and wavering uncertainly every evening before a pair of white 
flannel trousers. It was impossible to tell, of course, if those trousers 
encased a young man on his way up the executive ladder, or a 
packer who worked in Gimbel's basement. Nor could the white 
flannel trousers themselves tell if the girl beneath the flowered 
chiffon he held in his arms as he danced around the social-hall floor 
was really the young lady of means she seemed to be. 

We made bets on the outcome of the more spectacular stormings 
of the fort and we listened with unending pleasure to the lies that 
blew through camp like thistledown in a field of clover. It was one 
of the few outlets we had for anything approximating glee as the 
camp season rolled on. Even this source of amusement was apt to 
wear a little thin by the time Friday morning came around, for 
Friday evening was "Drama Night"; and with Eddie's staggering 
lack of organization, both Friday and Saturday nights — Saturday 
being "Musical Comedy Night" — were always torturous and exhaust- 
ing beyond belief or necessity. It was, of course, no easy task to 
present two one-act plays each week, as well as what we called 
"An Original Musical Comedy" on the following night, in addition 
to all our other activities. 

Nevertheless, it could have been done without the back-breaking, 
brain-fagging effort it always was, if Eddie had made the slightest 
effort to organize his work at the beginning of the week in even 
the mildest degree. This, however, he would not or could not do. 
Parts for the plays would not be distributed until late Tuesday after- 
noon, and on Wednesday night Eddie would quite likely change 
his mind and decide to do two other one-acters instead. We almost 
never got the script of the musical comedy until Thursday after- 


noon, and since songs and dance routines had to be learned for 
this, in addition to the script itself, by Friday morning, rehearsals 
for both shows were usually shambles. 

Invariably, if Eddie switched plays in the middle of the week, 
the entire staff would have to heave to and help repaint the scenery, 
to say nothing of the fact that ingenious ways had to be devised to 
distribute small slips of paper with key speeches typed on them 
among the props and furniture so that we could have a glance at 
them occasionally and know what, if anything, we were going to 
say next. It was somewhat easier to arrange this if the plays called 
for an exterior set, for the slips could be pinned on the backs of 
bushes or even pasted unobtrusively on the top of a stone wall or 
fence. In the interiors, Eddie's wizardry at devising bits of business 
that allowed us to walk to a spot that held a piece of paper con- 
cealed from the audience's view, and that seemed part and parcel of 
the rightful movement of the play, was unparalleled. His genius 
for this sort of thing reached a new height even for him, when in 
one particular play which called for an outdoor set, but which had 
of necessity to be played throughout in extremely dim lighting, he 
put the typed slips of paper behind rocks and next to each slip of 
paper a small flashlight. As we switched on the flashlights for a 
quick glance at the speech coming up, he had one of the characters 
in the play remark, "An unusual amount of fireflies about for this 
time of year, aren't there?" Considering the fact that the play took 
place in the dead of winter and we were bundled up in coats and 
mufflers, there were indeed an unusual number of fireflies about. 
The audience never even sniggered— which was, I chose to think, a 
rare tribute to the high caliber of our acting. 

By Thursday evening of almost every week, all-night rehearsals 
after the camp owner's party was over were usually an absolute 
necessity. We would begin rehearsals at about one and continue 
through in the darkened hall until six or seven o'clock in the morn- 
ing, and it was under these conditions that Eddie was always at his 
best. Indeed, it occurred to me more than once that a goodly portion 
of his disorganized behavior was perhaps an unconscious arranging 
of just such tension and pressure to allow him to work in the way 

[i 4 6i 

he enjoyed most. There are a good many theatre people whom I 
suspect of arranging just a shade more than is absolutely necessary 
to be under constant fire, merely to indulge themselves in a public 
exhibition of their innate grace under pressure. Whether Eddie 
did this unconsciously or not is perhaps beside the point, for it was 
on these nights, as the hours wore on and everyone else approached 
the threshold of exhaustion, that Eddie was at the top of his form. 

He drank countless cups of black coffee to keep himself awake, ate 
innumerable Hershey bars to give himself energy, and was capable 
of quite brilliant bits of invention as the night wore on and he drove 
the rest of us unmercifully, achieving in one compressed, agonizing 
rehearsal what might have been easily and just as well accomplished 
in four leisurely and sensible ones. But that was not his way, and 
perhaps it was his strength as well as his weakness. Hollow-eyed, 
we would stagger out of the social hall to get what sleep we could 
until nine o'clock, when we had to appear in the dining hall for 
breakfast, ready to joke and "socialize" with the guests and pick up 
the day's activities. 

At four o'clock that afternoon the doors of the social hall were 
again closed for our dress rehearsal, and there we stayed until 
eleven, when the show was over. Then, good or bad, applause or no 
applause, we scrambled up the hill to the dining hall and ate an 
enormous meal in the kitchen. Then back down the hill again to 
the social hall at midnight to go through the same procedure as on 
the night before. Only this time, since it was the first complete run- 
through of the "Original Musical Comedy" and the chorus line was 
made up of guests who had volunteered to be in the show, tempers 
ran extremely short as the rehearsal veered toward five a.m. 

Saturday was a complete repetition of Friday — up at nine and the 
daytime activities until the dress rehearsal at four; only at this 
dress rehearsal fulminating pandemonium was the rule. These 
weekly musicals — stolen, slapdash and amateur though they were 
— were elaborate and difficult in terms of light cues, props and 
quick changes of costume and scenery. Since the general level of 
weariness and irritability was pretty high by Saturday afternoon, 
the dress rehearsals of the musicals were major horrors that went 


on until we could see the audience coming down the hill to the 
social hall. We then drew the curtains and prayed for the best, the 
hammering and setting up of the scenery sometimes drowning out 
the overture being played by the six-piece orchestra. 

The members of the social staff were barely on speaking terms 
with the social director or even with each other by the time those 
curtains drew apart again on the opening number. What usually 
saved whatever remained of the staff morale by the end of Saturday 
night was the fact that we were all far too exhausted to remember 
what the bitter quarrels of the afternoon had been about. 

There was always after the Saturday night show the inevitable 
farewell party of a guest who was leaving the next day, but we were 
allowed to skip breakfast on Sunday morning and were not ex- 
pected to make an appearance until the two o'clock buses arrived 
to take the departing guests to the train. There, standing on the 
steps of the dining hall, the social staff en masse sang camp songs 
and parodies of popular songs of the day, with guests' names and 
camp catch-phrases scattered through them, and clowned and ca- 
vorted and created a general bruhaha until the buses and cars left. 

We returned to the steps at three thirty, when the same buses 
came back from the station with a new load of camp guests for the 
next two weeks, and a group of welcoming camp songs was then 
sung for the new arrivals. Here a peak of hilarity was reached by 
Eddie or myself, pretending to be a dumb bellboy and mixing up 
the new guests' luggage, or opening a girl's suitcase and letting her 
underthings spill out and then conducting a mock auction of her 
effects. There was always a large audience for this ridiculous ritual, 
for the guests remaining in camp always assembled around the steps 
not only to see the social staff "make fun" but to inspect the new 
prospects for the two weeks coming up. 

Sunday evening was a fairly easy night for the social staff, as a 
movie was always shown in the social hall But it was preceded by 
a "Roxy Presentation," which served to introduce and show off 
the social staff individually to the new guests and in which we each 
did a number, musical or dramatic. Then, sometimes even as the 
movie screen was being lowered, the social staff was on its way to 


bed, bone-weary and almost mindless, as another week of camp 
life dropped behind us. I sometimes fell asleep on the edge of the 
bed half undressed on Sunday night, only to awake an hour or so 
later with a groan of recollection, that this time tomorrow night I 
would be standing in front of the campfire and leading the com- 
munity singing, and that another week would be starting all over 

Thus, in somewhat formidable but necessary detail, a social direc- 
tor's week in camp. 

It must not be supposed, however, that life at camp was com- 
pletely without its compensations or even actual rewards and en- 
joyments. For one thing, it was the first time I had ever actually 
lived in a realm of trees and lawns and flower beds, and the pleasure 
of awakening in the morning and glimpsing a pine-fringed lake 
outside the window as I opened my eyes, instead of grimy courtyards 
and a network of clotheslines, was considerable. Each morning it 
gave me a moment of undiluted pleasure, and it was a moment that 
remained undimmed, no matter what other ignominious hours the 
rest of the day held. 

For another thing, the food at camp, while actually no great 
shakes by gourmet standards, was at least varied, well prepared and 
decently served, and the fact that I had a choice of what to eat 
was a special kind of enjoyment. I had not realized how weary I 
had become of the unending stream of stews and hamburgers 
which was the general family fare at home, until I sat down to the 
first three or four meals at camp — each meal different. I ate pro- 
digiously all summer, as though I could see, as each meal slipped by, 
the slew of stews and hamburgers that was going to face me again 
all winter. 

Perhaps the greatest reward that first summer in camp offered 
was the fact that I learned how to swim — thanks to being uncere- 
moniously dumped in the lake by a group of waiters that I had 
penalized the night before for sneaking out of the social hall and 
skipping the last three sets of dances. Like most city-bred children 
whose summers have been spent on the curbstone in front of the 


house or hanging around the candy store on the corner, I was 
deathly afraid of the water. While I stoutly maintained those first 
few weeks at camp that I had no time free for anything but a 
quick shower, secretly I longed to be able to paddle a canoe and get 
out to the middle of the lake and even hide away alone for a half- 
hour or so from the hubbub of camp in one of the bends of the 
shoreline, but non-swimmers were strictly forbidden to use the 
canoes and a rowboat somehow negated the whole idea of escape. 
Actually, I was even frightened of being out in a rowboat alone, 
and so I gave the lake as wide a berth as possible. 

After that initial toss into the water, however, and the knowledge 
that I would not immediately sink and drown, I got up at dawn 
the following morning and began two weeks of swimming lessons 
with the lifeguard — a young fellow who rather fancied himself as 
an actor, but whose pleadings had received short shrift from Eddie. 
In return for promising him a part in a play to be put on the 
weekend his girl friend was to be at camp, he used his proper talents 
and taught me how to swim — not too well, perhaps, for my timidity 
was still great, but well enough to be able to take out a canoe. 

From the moment I pushed that first canoe away from the dock 
and paddled awkwardly toward the center of the lake, I experienced 
a lift of the heart that more than made up for all the brainless boy- 
and-girl numbers I had to sing with girl guests, or all the Japanese 
costumes I draped around the men's unwilling shoulders. It made 
a vast difference, my being able to swim that first year and all the 
years thereafter that I spent at camps. 

The lifeguard could barely walk across the stage, much less act, 
but I kept my promise and got him a part the week his girl came 
to camp, for I knew I was greatly indebted to him. Almost every day 
after that first canoe ride I managed to steal away for a half -hour and 
paddle swiftly to the middle of the lake, where the sounds of camp 
were not only muffled but somehow not unpleasant; I would drift 
idly, letting the clup-clup of the water against the sides of the canoe 
lull me into a peaceful ignorance of the fact that in an hour or so I 
would be doing my impersonation of Fanny Brice as "Mrs. Cohen at 
the Beach" or leading the Charleston Contest. 


Every so often I would manage to skip dinner, and with a couple 
of bottles of Coca-Cola and some cookies and boxes of raisins in the 
bottom of the canoe, I would make straight for a little island at the 
far end of the lake and have as much as two glorious hours all to 
myself. It was in these hours, as I lay naked on the grass, letting the 
late afternoon sun dry off the best swim of the day, that I would plan 
the campaign that was to get me back into the theatre again. This 
time it was not just dreams of glory or any one grandiose plan, but 
a slow strategy of gaining a foothold that, if it worked, might fix 
my feet firmly in the theatre. I did not mention these schemes even 
to Eddie, for I could not bear to have the fantasy I was building 
punctured or exploded — at least, not just then. These hours tiiat I 
managed alone on that island at the end of the lake were a necessary 
oasis, a refreshment of the spirit, that I needed to see me through 
that first summer, for I loathed much of what I was doing and the 
desire to pack up and go home was an almost daily temptation. 

I hated being pleasant to large numbers of people, the majority 
of whom I despised. I resented the meaningless impudence of being 
on tap as extra entertainment for the bunk parties we were forced 
to attend, and most of all I hated the ridiculous, clownish figure 
I was in my own eyes as I capered around the campfire or "made 
fun" on the dining-room steps. Had I not learned to swim and con- 
trived those occasional hours alone, I very much doubt if I could 
have lasted out that first season, for I could not shake the inner 
picture I had of myself that made my days and nights in the social 
hall acutely painful. 

Lying alone on the little island, I was able not only to make peace 
with the repugnant tasks I was called upon to do each day, but even 
to see how summers at camp fitted in perfectly with the plan I was 
weaving to take me back to the theatre. Anything that served that 
purpose was endurable, humiliating or not! Also, the moment I 
was out on the lake, however briefly, I began to see that in spite of 
the crudity of most of the plays and musicals we did, they were 
nevertheless pieces of theatre put on behind footlights for an audi- 
ence's approval, and as always, the moment one draws a curtain 


and dims the lights, one begins to learn something of value about 
the theatre itself. Some of the lessons I learned at camp served me 
very well later on in the professional theatre, for certain absolutes 
obtain in the amateur as well as in the professional theatre. 

For one thing, I became convinced that talent by itself is not 
enough, even an authentic and first-rate talent is not enough, nor 
are brilliance and audacity in themselves sufficient. There remains 
the ability to translate that talent, whether it be for acting or play- 
writing, into terms that fulfill the promise of a play so that the per- 
formance succeeds in realizing the full measure of its potential. Too 
many plays emerge better on the printed page than they do behind 
the footlights. For in the workaday theatre there seems to be a 
hidden conspiracy to defeat a play the moment "End of Act Three" 
is typed on the author's typewriter, and it moves into inexorable 
operation the day rehearsals begin. The rocky shoals that beset a 
play's wavering course to the tempestuous shores of Broadway are 
strewn with the wreckage of good plays and good actors whose 
authors or directors grew tired just a trifle too soon in Boston or 
Philadelphia, or failed to withstand the hurricane blows of New 

In those summers at camp I began to learn to push past exhaus- 
tion and to think on my feet, and to become slowly aware that 
weariness and exhaustion were the twin sirens of the theatrical deep. 
Let them take over and they will rob one of courage and the ability 
to improvise in a crisis, for stamina in the long run is as necessary 
an adjunct to success in the theatre as talent itself. Time after time 
at camp that first year, I watched Eddie bring order out of chaos 
and turn a dress rehearsal that was a shambles into a show of con- 
siderable merit by the sheer dint of a kind of buoyant and contagious 
courage that made him deaf to the babble of defeat going on about 
him, and by an ability to remain untired at all costs. These two 
priceless assets — qualities that seem to stem one from the other — 
were as valuable as any talent for the theatre that he possessed, and 
its lesson was not lost upon me. Years afterwards, both in camp 
and in the professional theatre, weariness was the villain I fought 
and wrestled with, much as a revivalist preacher casts out the devil, 


and three-o'clock-in-the-morning courage was what I prayed for far 
more than for inspiration or an ingenious device to bring the second- 
act curtain down. 

It was lucky that I made my peace with the camp routine when I 
did, for as the season rolled on into August, each day's and night's 
activities became doubly difficult. August, and not April, to para- 
phrase T. S. Eliot, was the crudest month. By August the camp was 
at its most crowded and noisome, the staff at its lowest ebb in both 
body and mind, and the petty quarrels that could be smoothed over 
and forgotten in a day in June or July now flared into bitter open 
enmity. The social staff barely spoke to one another. Even the waiters 
risked open rebellion, for they knew they would not be fired in 
August when the dining room was filled to overflowing and guests 
were sleeping six to eight in cabins meant to accommodate only four. 

To add to our woes, that nightmare of all social directors, a rainy 
spell, began in the middle of August that year and continued for 
nine solid days. 

The few daytime activities the social staff could take advantage 
of to give them time to rehearse in order to prepare for the evening's 
activities were the tennis tournaments, the swimming meets and the 
golf matches — and we went to great pains to see that they took place 
almost daily. Now, with all outdoor activities cut off and the social 
hall thrown open from ten in the morning until midnight, we were 
at our wits' end trying to fill the days as well as the nights of eight 
hundred sodden, disgruntled and increasingly furious guests. 

At nine thirty in the morning, Eddie and I would look out of 
one of the rain-splashed windows of the social hall and see a long 
line of yellow raincoats and black umbrellas streaming down the 
hill toward the social hall — and groan out loud. They had no 
place else to go, of course; and when they got there they sat in 
maddened, steaming heaps, smelling of overshoes and mud, and 
glared balefully at the social staff, daring us to amuse them. Their 
hard-earned vacations were being hopelessly ruined, but any com- 
passion we may have felt for them was extremely short-lived, for 
in some inexplicable way they seemed to blame the social staff not 


only for our inability to keep them entertained fourteen hours a day 
but for the rain as well. 

They complained bitterly to William J. Perleman. By the fifth day 
of the downpour they checked out of camp in droves, and as the 
sky showed no signs of turning off its seemingly inexhaustible water 
tap, Mr. Perleman, driven frantic himself by a mass exodus in the 
height of the season, lost his proverbial sunny disposition and gave 
way to immoderate fury, castigated the social staff as slovenly and 
lazy, and screamed that they were ruining the good reputation of 
his camp for superior entertainment in good weather or bad. Actu- 
ally, this was highly unjust, for we were not only doing everything 
possible to keep the angry guests occupied and amused, but several 
highly improbable things as well. In addition to treasure hunts, 
square dances, spelling bees, and a county fair set up inside the social 
hall, complete with barkers and booths, and a musician dressed up 
as William Jennings Bryan who fell into a tub of water when 
a baseball hit the plank under him, Eddie gave tango lessons and I 
held symposiums on "Companionate Marriage" and gave character 
analyses by handwriting. I knew as little of handwriting analysis as 
Eddie did of the intricacies of the tango, but by the eighth day of 
rain we were performing in a kind of stupor and not quite in full 
command of our senses. 

On the evening of the ninth day we held our breath as we saw 
the sun manfully trying to arrange a sunset through the still-lower- 
ing clouds, and at that first glimpse of pale sunlight, Eddie, a little 
hysterical, took a spoonful of mustard he was about to dab on a 
frankfurter and splashed it across the table at me. I took a spoonful 
of mustard and returned the same in kind to him. And suddenly, 
as though at an awaited signal, mustard and chili sauce were 
being tossed all over the dining room onto faces, dresses, walls and 
ceiling. It was known as the Great Mustard Fight — and why some 
four hundred people splashing mustard at each other and screaming 
with laughter should have considered it hilarious, I cannot explain; 
but eight days of rain in camp can bring one perilously close to the 
threshold of insanity. There was a limit, apparently, to what even 
our healthy young nervous systems could stand, and eight days was 


that limit. In the years to follow, I went through other rainy spells 
at other camps and they were always horrors; but nothing ever 
matched the unremitting downpour at Camp Utopia. 

With the sun overhead once more, we managed to achieve a 
second wind, somehow, and plowed through the rest of the season, 
not without a few stern measures being taken by W. J. Perleman, for 
Eddie's eyes were turned toward the upcoming South African 
tour, and his lack of interest in what went on on the stage of the 
social hall of Camp Utopia was painfully obvious and his rehearsals 
increasingly disorganized, even for Eddie. 

One historic Saturday night's musical comedy was improvised 
right on the stage after the curtains parted, with Eddie shouting from 
the wings what to do next, no rehearsal of any kind having been 
held beforehand. The audience howled and jeered, and that Sunday 
we did not appear on the dining-room steps to sing farewell songs 
to the departing guests. We were right back on the steps, however, 
to sing welcoming songs to the new batch of guests that arrived from 
the station, on the shaky assumption that the new arrivals would 
not have had time to compare notes with our audience of the night 

And then, suddenly, it was Labor Day — and my first season in 
camp was over. 

I was fifteen pounds lighter. My face was pallid; those nine days 
of rain and the subsequent all-day rehearsals in the social hall in 
preparation for the Labor Day weekend had robbed it of the last 
bit of tan, and my eyes seemed to have sunk far back in their sockets. 
It was too bad that we had not scheduled some scenes from Julius 
Caesar, for though I had eaten like a horse all summer, I had the 
lean and hungry look that Cassius is supposed to have and could 
have played him without any make-up at all. 

By the afternoon of the day after Labor Day, the camp was empty 
of guests, waiters and social staff — not a single remnant remained of 
the summer except myself. It was as though a sudden outbreak of 
cholera had emptied the place of all humankind, and only the trees 
and the cloudless sky looked down on what had been, just the day 
before, a teeming, roiling mass of humanity that overflowed the 


lawns and walks and dotted the lake with every available canoe 
and rowboat. I was staying on for three or four days by permission 
of William J. Perleman, while the local workmen closed up the camp 
for the winter. 

Eddie had left on the early-morning train for New York, his 
nose pointing straight to South Africa, where indeed it took him 
in company with a troupe that included Luther Adler and Harry 
Green, and I did not set eyes on him again for over two years. The 
rest of the staff, still barely speaking to each other now, became as 
one with the last of the departing guests and cluttered around the 
buses, cars and piled-up luggage, and it was I alone who stood on 
the dining-room steps and waved them off. 

I stood on the steps and looked down the cabin-lined paths toward 
the lake. There was not a soul to be seen — not a single girl drying 
her hair in the sun, her shoulder straps pushed down as far as the 
law would allow; not a single boy doing push-ups in front of his 
cabin, showing off his muscles to the girl. The silence of a lovely 
September day was unmarred by wolf calls, whistles, or the shrieks 
of girls being pinched on their bottoms through a bath towel as they 
ran toward the showers. Not one ukulele strummed, not one record 
played "Indian Love Call," while another record drowned it out 
with "The Japanese Sandman." And the dining room, a roaring 
boiler factory at each mealtime, was empty and silent behind me. 

I strolled down to the social hall and peered in; the litter of the 
farewell Labor Day Carnival still strewed the floors and walls. On 
the empty stage lay the tin shovels and pails I had used the night 
before in my impersonation of Fanny Brice as "Mrs. Cohen at the 
Beach." Two straw hats, kicked clean through the center now, that 
Eddie and I had used for our Gallagher and Shean number, rested 
on the footlights, and tossed heedlessly over one of the musician's 
stands was the black cape I had used for my Hamlet soliloquy at the 
last campfire. I smiled benignly on it all and strolled on down to 
the lake. Next Monday morning I could awake without the knowl- 
edge that I would have to do a Charleston encore that evening — 
and next Monday was what I wanted to think about. 

It was to have time to think that I had asked permission to remain 


these three extra days in camp alone. I took my favorite canoe and 
paddled straight out toward the island. Never had camp seemed 
so pleasant, and I knew that never again would it be like this. But 
summers in camp were part of my plan now, and they would remain 
part of my life until I was permanently attached to the theatre. 

It had become clear to me, or so it seemed in those hours I had 
managed to snatch away on this island, that only by a process of 
ruthless elimination and no daydreaming whatsoever would I find 
a path of re-entry into the theatre. Acting was out of the question. 
That I already knew, for even my success as an actor in certain parts 
in the plays we had done this summer had not changed my mind 
on that score. I had ruled out very quickly the possibility of getting 
another job as a theatrical office boy, for if I was going to have to 
swallow being a social director every summer far into the unfore- 
seeable future, I wanted a good deal more than just free theatre 
tickets and the smell of a theatrical office. I wanted nothing less than 
to be an active part of the theatre itself. 

I thought long and hard and from every conceivable angle, 
including that of lying about my inexperience and trying for a job 
as a stage manager, but I felt that even if I were not quickly found 
out, I might very well starve in the process of trying, for stage man- 
ager jobs were almost the hardest to come by. I had even, in a wild 
moment or two, considered writing a letter to Edgar C. Davis — a 
credulous and seemingly demented Texan, who poured thousands 
of dollars into a play called The Ladder, giving the tickets away 
free — and asking him to subsidize me until I found my place in the 
theatre. But subsidize me for what ? I had composed half the letter 
in my mind when I stopped. Even a crazy Texan did not dish out 
money to an unknown youth from the Bronx simply because he was 
stage-struck ! I made a list of other possible and perhaps saner bene- 
factors of the theatre, including Otto Kahn, and then tore it up. 
My own sense of reality set me to laughing even as I put down the 

Finally, I came to the conclusion — and so simple it seemed 
that I wondered why I had not hit upon it right off— that the only 
way for me to get past a stage door again was to write a play. 


Nothing short of that would bring me within sniffing distance of 
the grizzled old doormen that guarded the backstage portals. There 
was no hesitation once I thought of it — it was as though another 
apple had dropped on Newton's head and my own theatrical law 
of gravity established once and for all. I knew instantly that I 
was right. It struck me even then how downright accidentally a life- 
long vocation can be come upon. I have wondered since if others 
have experienced the same strange difficulty of perceiving where 
they really belong. 

Having stumbled dim-wittedly upon the correct choice, how- 
ever, I proceeded to plan as carefully as I could for its achievement. 
I was not fool enough to think that plays were easily written, or 
even if they were, that they had any certainty of success or of 
production. A number of years might pass and a number of plays 
might have to be written before one even received production, let 
alone achieved success. The question was, how to exist and earn a 
living in the meantime? I dismissed the facility with which I had 
tossed off The Beloved Bandit as a snare for claptrap writing — 
indeed, some of its shoddy dialogue still echoed embarrassingly in 
my ears. Even if I could quickly write another play on the kitchen 
table at night after a day of work as a shipping clerk or an office 
boy, the chances of its being any good were highly unlikely. 

Instinctively I knew that I would need a certain sense of com- 
posure, a time to work when my mind was fresh and all my senses 
alert, if I was to have a fair shake of the dice for the high stakes of 
the game I was going to play. If I was going to attempt to be a 
playwright, the first necessity was to arrange to have my days free, 
and Eddie and this past spring and summer had shown me a heaven- 
sent way. If I could convince William }. Perleman to let me continue 
directing plays at the Labor Temple and also get one or two other 
little- theatre groups to direct (for one group alone would not pay 
enough for food and the roof over our heads), social directing dur- 
ing the summer would see me through the year until the little- 
theatre groups picked up again in the fall. Except for the summers, 
only my evenings would be taken up with work and I would have 
the days free to write plays. It seemed simple, conclusive, almost an 


accomplished fact. All I would have to do from here on in, as a 
famous playwright once fatuously remarked when asked how a play 
of his was coming along, was to "dialogue it." "It's all right here 
in my head," said this fool, tapping his brow. "All I have to do now 
is dialogue it." 

Paddling back across the lake in the twilight, "dialoguing it" 
seemed the easiest thing in the world to do. The hammer blows of 
the workmen boarding up the dining-room windows echoed softly 
across the water and seemed like the gentle tap-tap of fame already 
knocking at my door. 

Three days later I was home once again, ringing the doorbell I had 
rung for so many years and waiting for the door to open. 



.twasacurious homecoming. I don't know quite what I 
expected after this, my longest absence from home. I suppose I had 
carried back from camp with me a fantasy of change — that some- 
how my mother and father and brother would be "different," that 
even the dingy rooms and the threadbare furniture would be less 

Nothing, of course, had changed. Pleased though they were to see 
me, my mother and father were utterly incurious as to what the 
summer had been like or even what I did at camp, and my brother 
Bernie as usual ignored me, speaking only when I pointedly asked 
him a direct question. Almost before I sat down, the litany of unpaid 
grocers' and butcher bills, the two boarders' rooms unrented, and 
the rent three months overdue now that must somehow be paid by 
the first of the month, began as though I had never been away. In 
less than half an hour I settled back into the old thralldom; it was 
as though not a day had passed since last spring and I had simply 
emerged from the subway that evening as usual. 

But there was a difference in this homecoming — a very significant 
difference. And I wonder if a first absence away from home marks 
for others the same curious emotional change in family orientation 
that this absence did for me in my relationship with my mother 
and father, and most of all with my brother. Is there a precise 
moment when we see our parents as though for the first time — 
look upon them with eyes that seem to see them as strangers see 


I think there is such a moment — a moment when we see oui 
parents plain, not when they are grown old and are a symbol of 
ancestry to be honored or tolerated and when we can no longer 
know what they were like, but a moment when we see them 
suddenly for the first time as people. It is a fleeting moment and it 
passes, to be quickly replaced with the usual facade of filial devo- 
tion — that coin of the realm that passes for affection between the 
generations — but when this moment occurs, it seems to cut through 
a lifelong incrustation of love and hate, and for however brief a 
time it lasts, we see our parents as the fallible human beings they 
are and for a little while we hold them blameless. 

The precise moment happened for me as I stood in the hallway 
in front of our flat, pressing the doorbell and waiting for the door 
to be opened. When my mother opened the door, I stood blinking 
at her as though it were an unexpected and surprising stranger I 
was seeing, instead of the face of my earliest memories, the face and 
eyes I had looked up into from the time my own eyes had sight in 
them. But in a very real sense, or so it seemed to me, I was gazing 
at a stranger — for the first time I was seeing my mother as the 
person she was. Even as we threw our arms around each other and 
embraced, and her first words of greeting reached my ears, I was 
conscious of hearing her voice as a stranger might hear it — not as 
her son — without the clatter of a thousand admonitions, beseech- 
ings and warnings echoing in my ears. It was a young voice with 
music in it — not the voice whose every nuance I thought I knew so 
well; nor was it the face I carried in my mind's eye, lined and 
careworn, a face twisted by a thousand demands — so that I was 
impelled to look at her before I kissed her, and I was surprised to 
find her face still young and unmarked. 

Behind her my father stood waiting, a stranger, too. In back 
of him my brother stood, grave and unsmiling — all three of them as 
curiously removed and remote from myself as figures glimpsed in 
a distant landscape. In these first few hours at home, I moved 
through the familiar rooms a stranger myself — almost an observer 
— seeing clearly my father's corrosive sadness and defeat, under- 
standing for a little while, and able to forgive, my mother's tyranny. 


But my thoughts turned mainly to my brother and myself. We 
had lived all of our lives together, he and I, yet between us there 
existed only the slimmest line of communication and not the slight- 
est awareness of each other — of what we might be like as human 
beings. We were more than strangers — we were alien figures who 
slept in the same bed together each night, the breach between us 
widening as we awoke each morning and, almost without speaking, 
went our separate ways. 

Why could we find no words for each other? Was it the seven- 
year difference in age that separated us? Was it simply the years 
that kept us locked mutely apart ? I did not think so. The age span 
narrows as one grows older, and a boy of twelve is already an individ- 
ual, he has tastes and strong judgments and a temperament already 
formed — and of these things in my brother Bernie I knew nothing. 
In the uncomfortable and uneasy silence that had become a way of 
life between us, I could discover not the slightest clue to the kind of 
person who was growing up beside me, and now for the first time I 
felt the need to know. 

Puzzling it out, trying to fit the separate pieces of our lives to- 
gether, I thought I could understand why we had had almost no 
chance to know each other, or even feel the lack of a normal rela- 
tionship between us. After all, he had been only five years old when 
I was working in the music store afternoons after school, a bare 
seven when I was first locked away in the fur vault, and hardly 
eleven years old when I returned from Chicago after The Beloved 
Bandit, a full-fledged failure at eighteen. I had been out of the house 
and into the world almost before he could put words together; 
but now he was twelve and I was nineteen, and I was puzzled by 
and resentful of this total stranger who slept beside me. Perhaps for 
the first time, in these months away, I had felt an unconscious need 
for the brother I had never had, or a desperate want of someone to 
confide in. Whatever it was, I felt a compelling need to try and 
bridge die gap between us. 

In the first day or two at home I became sharply aware of some- 
thing that I had not been fully conscious of before. The major deci- 
sions of family life were left to me, and it was taken for granted 


not only by my mother but by my father as well that I, and 1 
alone, should make them. My mother turned to me and not to my 
father, even in the smallest crises of daily living, and with a some- 
what late and guilty clarity I realized that in these last few years 
my father had receded more and more into the dim background 
and I had replaced him, as husband and father. This is not an un- 
usual occurrence in families of our circumstance. The breadwinner, 
whether he likes it or not, and sometimes unbeknownst to himself, 
gradually assumes a role that is not rightly his, and should not be. 
And when this happens there is a displacement in the family picture, 
a twisting and disorientation of family relationships that the years 
afterward fail to make whole again. It is not surprising that my 
brother should have rejected a brother he had never known or re- 
fused to accept the substitute father I had become. 

Poverty does more than rob one of creature comforts and the 
right to live with dignity— its thievery can encompass the loss of a 
brother and father as well. Shaw was correct when he declared 
that poverty was a sin against God and man alike, and he might 
have added that ugliness, which is a concomitant of poverty, can 
be equated with evil. I resolved to do something about both. 

I looked around me at the ugliness in which I had spent the first 
nineteen years of my life. I watched my brother, more with- 
drawn and distant than ever, and I decided that somehow or other 
I must manage to take him away with me to camp the following 
summer. He would be almost thirteen by then and a job as busboy 
in the dining room would not be impossible for him to handle. 
If I could also contrive to get my father a job in the canteen that 
dispensed cigarettes and soft drinks in the social hall, our combined 
salaries, if we watched every penny during the summer, might enable 
us to move to a different flat in a different place — as far away as 
possible from this present ugliness which was choking us all. If it 
did nothing more than serve to bring Bernie and me a little closer., 
it was worth the try. 

It did not. It was a long time before we reached each other un- 
encumbered by the past, and those lost years I still hold guilty of 

[i6 3 ] 

denying me the companionship of the witty, beguiling, sweet- 
natured human being to whom I am now devoted. 

I hated to let a moment of time slip away now, but I let almost a 
week go by after my return to the city before I called on William 
J. Perleman and asked to take over the little-theatre group at the 
Labor Temple again for the new winter season. I thought it wiser 
to allow a little time to elapse before we met again, for I was certain 
that his memory of that last unrehearsed musical at camp was still 
green. It was indeed, and he grumbled and harumphed a good deal 
about Eddie's disorderliness, of which he held me a part. But he was 
surprisingly sympathetic to my aspirations as a playwright and will- 
ingly gave me the job. He even suggested another little-theatre group 
— flourishing, or rather, withering away — in the far reaches of the 
Bronx, which was in need of a director, and gave me a letter to 

I was launched even more quickly than I had dared hope. By 
mid-October I was commuting every other evening between the 
Upper Bronx and 14th Street, and by November I had already 
started a play. Even with two groups to direct, the combined fees 
amounted to less than twenty-eight dollars a week, but it was enough 
to get thinly by on. The important thing was that I had my days 
free to write now, and I plunged ahead with a supreme inner con- 
fidence and a pencil that never seemed to hesitate above the paper. 
It had not taken me long to come upon an idea for a play, since I 
had hit upon, unsurprisingly enough, that most cliche of all play 
ideas — the boarding house, with each lodger having his own separate 
dramatic and soul-searing story. It had seemed to me, of course, like 
an utterly new and God-given inspiration, happily fresh and un- 
touched as a source of stage material. 

All winter long I wrote slowly and carefully each and every day, 
unconsciously using every timeworn device and cliche-ridden bit 
of stagecraft I had ever seen, blithely convinced all the while that 
what I was setting down was completely new and even daring! 
I wrote happily on, blind to the fact that the dialogue was turgid, 


the invention imitative, and the style an unholy melange of Eugene 
O'Neill and George Kelly. 

Furthermore, in the true classical tradition of a first attempt, it 
was to be a deeply serious and startlingly candid examination of 
life's bitterness and ironies, told with unrelenting rectitude, and 
making no concessions to the popular taste of the day. It contained 
among other things my mother as the chief character who ran the 
boarding house, my father as the janitor and handy man, two 
immensely talented but unlucky actors easily identifiable as Eddie 
and myself, and a composite portrait of my aunt and my grandfather 
embodied in the character of a Southern lady of vanished grandeur 
around whom the Furies played and whose tragic death gave the 
play its final curtain, as well as a resounding speech of wisdom and 
compassion by the author. It was a perfectly terrible play in every 
respect, but this I did not know — not, at least, immediately. 

I finished the play in mid-February on a note of triumph and with 
exultant admiration for my own rare gifts as a playwright. But I 
made myself keep, not without some difficulty, my promise to put 
the manuscript away for a week and not look at it. Somewhere or 
other I had picked up the information that veteran playwrights 
always let a play cool off, so to speak, before they read it through 
again for a cold, unemotional appraisal. This had struck me as a 
wonderfully professional custom, and since I considered myself a 
professional now — though an unproduced Bronx one, to be sure — 
I was pathetically eager to use every professional trick that came 
to my attention. 

Accordingly, on a bright February morning a week after I had 
written The Curtain Slowly Falls, I went into the bathroom, locked 
the door, and settling myself with a pillow behind me in the empty 
bathtub, I opened the closely written pages. The play's awfulness did 
not dawn on me slowly — the full impact of its hackneyed dreariness 
hit me by the sixth page. I was hard put to finish it without getting 
out of the bathtub and flushing it down the toilet, and it was difficult 
by the second act for me to believe that I had written it at all. I lay 
there afterward for a long while — wondering at my own naivete 
of a week before and marveling at the self-delusion that seems to 

[i6 5 ] 

impose itself on a writer's senses, even such a neophyte as myself, 
the moment he picks up a pencil and starts to write. How could I 
have gone so miserably wrong? Amateur though I was, I should 
have known better. At least I'd been exposed to enough decently 
written plays to make the mound of paper lying in the bathtub 
beside me seem incredibly inept. Not one line of it seemed to me to 
give the slightest indication that I could write postcards, let alone a 

I suspected one way I had gone wrong from the start; and forever 
afterward it made me more than a little leery of those golden nug- 
gets of advice so capriciously tossed out by elder statesmen of the 
theatre to credulous beginners, one of which I must have stumbled 
across and taken to heart: "Begin by writing of what you know best 
— do not wander off in fields that are strange to you. Take for your 
setting and characters only the places and people you know and 
stick to them." So went this preposterous bit of dramatic wisdom, 
thereby discounting the vital and immeasurable quality that imag- 
ination gives to all writing, whether it be for the stage or anything 
else. Since this bit of nonsense had issued from the lips of a quite 
famous playwright, I had slavishly followed it, writing of a place and 
people I knew, but completely failing to allow imagination to riffle 
through the pages as it might have done had I chosen a setting and 
characters not so highly colored by my own attitudes and prejudices. 
I had simply set down what I knew best, and stuck to it. The play 
had verity; what it lacked was the breath of life and imagination 
—two necessary ingredients for what is usually called creative 

Well, the time had not been wasted. To be aware is to be fore- 
warned. I would not, I thought, make the same error again. Yet 
despite the force with which this simple truth struck me, I kept 
making this identical mistake for years afterward. Play-writing is a 
most devilish profession. It is not only the most difficult of literary 
forms to master — one of the reasons, I suppose, that it pays so 
handsomely— but it is a craft one never seems to truly learn anything 
about from one's past mistakes. 

It is taken for granted that a cabinetmaker or a shoemaker, or a 


lawyer or a doctor, for that matter, starting with a certain degree of 
talent for his profession, does, after the practice of that profession 
for ten or twenty years, learn how to make a good cabinet or a 
decent pair of shoes, or plead a case or diagnose an illness correctly. 
Not so the playwright. He is quite capable after twenty years of 
practice of having a left shoe for the second act when a right shoe 
is obviously called for, and is as unable to perceive the tumor in the 
third act that stares him in the face as the merest beginner or even 
someone who has never written a line for the stage. 

If it maddens and seems inexplicable to the critics and public that 
a playwright of standing and success should be represented one 
season by a mature and sure-footed work, and the following season 
by a most barbarous bit of stagecraft that does not seem to have been 
written by the same fellow, it frustrates and bewilders the play- 
wright also. He then bitterly asks himself, "Do I know nothing at 
all about my profession? Is it possible to write a success one season 
and an abysmal failure the next? Am I never going to learn any- 
thing about this craft I practice ?" 

The answer I suspect is, "Yes and no." One does learn a little 
through the years, of course, but what one learns is the surface tricks 
of play-writing, never how to avoid the major errors. Perhaps the 
reason that one can never practice the art of play-writing with any 
degree of sureness or security is that each play has a peculiar and 
separate life of its own. The problems of one play are not the prob- 
lems of another, and the very mistakes that have been avoided in 
the previous play bear no relationship to mistakes that must be side- 
stepped in this present one. Unlike the surgeon who knows exactly 
where he must make the incision and tie of? the blood vessels, or the 
lawyer who has legal precedents on which to base his case, the play- 
wright confronts in each new play an operation that has never 
been performed before, or a brief that is being written for the first 
time in the history of legal annals. 

With each new play the playwright is a Columbus sailing un- 
charted seas, with the unhappy knowledge that those unfriendly 
Indian tribes — the critics and the public — will be lining the shores 
at the end of the voyage waiting to scalp him, even if he survives 

ri6 7 ] 

die mutiny. Little wonder that he shivers and shakes and groans 
too loudly in the public prints and into the ears of his forbearing 
friends when he writes "Act I" anew. For if he is a man who respects 
his craft and not merely a dealer in theatrical merchandise, he very 
well knows that no matter how skillful or successful he may be, 
each time he scribbles "Act One" on a blank piece of paper he is start- 
ing afresh, and, if he will allow himself the full and bitter truth, 
he is writing a play for the first time. His years of experience and his 
past successes count for nothing. Each time, if he is honest, he must 
face his own inadequacy and come to terms with it, for he has 
learned almost nothing about his profession in the meantime. 

There have been times, not unfew, when I considered that I had 
done neither myself nor the theatre any great service by getting out 
of that bathtub, tossing the manuscript into a bureau drawer, and 
resolving to go on being a playwright. At that moment of bright 
illumination, however, I was so fired with my discovery of what 
I thought had led me astray and so keen to put my conclusions to 
the test, that I was ready to begin another play immediately. But I 
knew that would have to wait. 

Late February and early March were the times when all camps 
engaged their social directors for the coming summer, and getting 
a job that would include my father and my brother Bernie was not 
going to be quite as easy as getting a job alone. But on that score I 
was determined, no matter what sort of job I had to take or in what 
kind of place. I ruled out even trying for the big camps or hotels 
in the Catskills — the area that later became known as the "Borscht 
Circuit" — on the grounds that my experience of only one summer 
as an assistant director would preclude my landing a social director's 
job, for I knew that only if I were hired as social director could I 
insist on having my father and brother with me. There would be 
plenty of other places to pick and choose from, I decided, even 
without the Catskills. I was wrong. 

Not only were most camps unwilling to take the chance of making 
a social director out of someone with one summer's experience as an 
assistant, and including two members of his family in the contract 
as well; but the majority of camp owners, unlike the bemused 


William J. Perleman, were aghast at my suave patter of doing Kelly, 
Shaw and O'Neill on the stages of their social halls. They were, in 
fact, appalled at the mere suggestion of such a thing. Too late did 
I discover that my unquestionably high-falutin' and foolish approach 
sent them hurrying to the telephone to call back their old social 
director of the previous summer, good or bad! I frightened them 
off one by one by my stupid emphasis on "art and uplift" in the 
summertime. How could they know I did a wonderful Fanny 
Brice, an impeccable Charleston, played the ukulele and "made fun" 
on the dining-room steps, when I talked only of Edna St. Vincent 
Millay and Lord Dunsany? I ruined every good lead and chance 
I had, and by the end of March I was desperate. By April, I knew, 
only the dregs were left, the jobs that no self-respecting social 
director would even consider taking, since they not only paid the 
lowest salaries but they no doubt offered the foulest working con- 

The owners of these ramshackle resorts, however, no doubt 
counted on and patiently waited for just such fools as myself to turn 
up in April, when there was no choice of anything better, and on an 
unlucky April day I arrived for a fatal interview with Mr. Axeler, 
the owner and guiding spirit of a summer camp called not "The 
Dregs," as it might rightfully have been labeled, but the "Half 
Moon Country Club." He was a short and stocky little man with a 
bright and metallic eye and the mark of a crank stamped clearly all 
over him. 

I was not especially put off, however, by this, my first impression 
of him. All camp owners, of course, had something of the crank 
in their make-up, since no man in his right mind would choose to 
run a camp as a way of life in the first place. There was money 
in it, of course, but not enough money to warrant the wear and tear 
which running a camp entailed, and in point of fact camp owners 
were not, almost without exception, actually much interested in 
making money. It was the life itself, the idea of running a summer 
camp, that they deeply relished. 

They were a special breed of men, these fellows, with the flush 
of megalomania on their cheeks, the glint of the true hysteric in 

ri6 9 ] 

their eyes; and their camps were their overpowering obsession. They 
came truly alive only in the summers, and then not with a whimper, 
but with a great bang. They seemed to hibernate in the winter 
months, half-heartedly pursuing some trumped-up profession, but 
it was the happy megalomaniacal summers they waited for, marking 
time till they could reign as the unrivaled monarchs of all they 

They thought of their camps as little kingdoms, where they indeed 
reigned supreme, and depending upon their inner picture of them- 
selves, which usually resembled Napoleon, they issued their own 
codes and edicts all summer long in the most regal fashion and their 
wives and children reigned as the royal family, with a ready-made 
retinue of poor relations who were being given a two-week vacation 
free of charge as part of the emperor's largesse. Their prime minister, 
of course, was the social director, and woe betide him if he did not 
stand in well at court, poor relations included! 

I played Disraeli to these idiot Victorias for six damnable years, 
and it is no small accolade I bestow on Mr. Axeler as the worst 
by far of them all. In a wide choice of egomaniacal cranks, the 
laurel wreath is unquestionably his and his alone. For one thing 
he had charm, which most of the others did not; and for another, 
he was a pathological liar, and in the end I don't know which I held 
most against him, his charm or his lying. 

I sat across the desk from him, carefully screening my answers 
to his questions; but so genuine was his interest and so refreshing 
his candor compared with the others I had interviewed, that very 
soon I was disarmed sufficiently to fall back into my plea for Kelly, 
Shaw and O'Neill as part of the summer's dramatic program, in 
spite of the fact that I had privately sworn to stay clear of these 
names that had already proven anathema everywhere else. 

Far from being put ofT, Mr. Axeler seemed quite intrigued. He ad- 
mitted that the level of entertainment in the social hall of the Half 
Moon Country Club had not been on so high a plane heretofore, but 
he saw no reason whatever for not trying to raise that level. He 
deftly suggested that audiences, even in summer camps, invariably 
rose to an appreciation of what was offered them if it was properly 


presented, and moreover, he announced, he would enjoy taking the 
gamble of doing some of the things other camps had not the 
courage or the gumption even to try. 

I could hardly believe my ears! I had sat down opposite him with 
a heavy heart, convinced that I must take this job, if I could get it, 
under any conditions that were set down, and my first look at him 
and the fact that at the end of April the Half Moon Country 
Club was still without a social director, gave me every reason to 
suppose that this was a camp and a job too shoddy for anyone else 
to consider. After fifteen minutes of listening to Mr. Axeler talk, 
I was quite oppositely convinced that I had fallen into a tub of 
honey — that my luck in being turned down by all the other camps 
was almost too good to be true. This of all jobs seemed to be the one 
made to order for me. 

I hesitated and stalled for as long as I dared before I came point- 
blank to the question of my father and Bernie. With as much 
bravery as I could summon, for I was not at all certain that I could 
bear to give the job up if he refused my request, I told Mr. Axeler 
it would be impossible for me to accept an offer that did not in- 
clude my father and brother. Again Mr. Axeler astonished me. He 
would be glad to find a job for my brother in the kitchen and place 
my father in charge of the canteen in the social hall, in return 
for a small concession on my part. Would I be willing to go up to 
camp two weeks earlier than usual and get the social hall in readi- 
ness for the Decoration Day weekend ? 

The Half Moon Country Club was in Vermont and it was a little 
more difficult to get everything in order there than it was in camps 
closer to New York. Of course I would, I assured him immediately; 
but since next week would be the first of May, how would it be 
possible to engage a social staff and an orchestra in the short time 
that remained ? All that was already done, he airily explained. The 
country club was run in conjunction with a boys' camp on the 
shores of Lake Champlain, just down the hill from the club itself; 
and the camp counselors were all young men carefully selected with 
an eye to their previous dramatic training; they were eager and 
available at all times to do anything I needed them for. Even the 


camp nurse was studying to be an opera singer on the side and she, 
too, was to be considered part of the social staff. An orchestra of 
six pieces had already been engaged and they also, it seemed, were 
not only first-rate musicians but had fine singing voices and doubled 
as actors as well. 

Much as I wanted and needed the job I hesitated. It was un- 
orthodox, to say the least, for a social director not to engage his 
own social staff — the staff he selected during the winter and the luck 
or good sense he had in choosing the right one made the difference 
between a good summer or a terrible one. I had never before heard 
of a staff being engaged before the social director, and noticing my 
flicker of hesitation and doubt, Mr. Axeler opened a drawer of his 
desk and drew out a legal-looking bit of paper. 

"I'm fixing the contract to include your father and brother," he 
said, "and don't worry about the staff — take my word for it. I'm 
taking a gamble on you — you take a gamble on me. Here — just fill 
in your father's and brother's names and sign it." 

He smiled that wonderfully candid and honest smile of his and 
pushed the paper across the desk toward me. I returned his smile 
even though, as I had suspected, the salary was ridiculously small 
and my father and brother were to get nothing at all but board and 
lodging — their salary was to come out of a common pool of tips 
from the guests, that was divided up among the waiters and other 
help at the end of the season. 

"Maybe we don't pay as much as some other camps do," said Mr. 
Axeler as I sat staring at the contract in front of me, "but we make 
up for it in a lot of other ways." He rose and came from behind 
the desk, a pen in hand. "By the end of the summer you'll want to 
pay us for giving you such a fine vacation." He chuckled. "Here — 
sign it — so I can officially welcome die newest member of our Half 
Moon family." 

He smiled even more winningly and offered me the pen, his other 
hand resting paternally on my shoulder. His hand remained on my 
shoulder while I signed my name in the two spaces indicated, and 
before I even had time to blot the signatures, he had somehow 
whisked it from the desk and was escorting me to the door. He 


stood cordially shaking my hand at the doorway and beaming good 
will all the way down the corridor. 

"Anything you need — anything you want — drop in any time and 
just ask me for it. I'll have the train tickets for you and your father 
and brother for May fifteenth, and I'll be up at camp a day or two 
before you arrive waiting for you. You've done a very good thing 
for yourself today," he called jocularly over his shoulder as the door 
closed behind him, that forthright smile still lingering on his lips. 
Basking in the security of a job at last and the warmth of that 
smile, I whole-heartedly agreed with him, having no inkling what- 
ever that I had just signed a contract with one of the most thorough- 
going rascals I was likely to meet for quite a while. 

That evening, hesitantly and using all the powers of persuasion 
at my command, I outlined to my mother and father and brother 
the change I contemplated making in their lives. I was quite pre- 
pared to argue all night and if necessary until an hour before the 
train left for Vermont, for I knew how big a change I was asking 
them to make. I was prepared to argue interminably, but I was 
by no means certain I could make them accept it, for to separate 
my mother and father for the first time in their married life, to 
put all our belongings in storage, to send my mother off to live 
alone in a furnished room for the next four months, was no small 
thing to ask. 

I well knew my mother's intense and fierce feeling for the tiny 
world of her family and the grim battle she waged against any part 
of it being separated from herself. Only bleak necessity had allowed 
me to escape for so small a time as I had. To my complete surprise, 
it was she who was the first to agree — the first to see the wisdom 
of the move — the first to declare herself in favor of the whole idea 
of change. To this day I do not understand why. It was opposed 
to her every trait of character — to everything she seemed to hold 

The simple truth perhaps was that she, too, may have come to 
the end of her rope in the ceaseless struggle of staving off day after 
day the butcher, grocer, milkman and landlord. She would have to 


do it still, of course, wherever we moved, but at least the old pleas 
and lies would not seem so worn and threadbare with a new 
butcher and landlord to tell them to. It may have been quite as 
simple as that. I cannot otherwise explain her immediate and de- 
lighted welcome of a change to which I had expected to find 
her in bitter and implacable opposition. I was a trifle stunned, in 
fact, by my almost too easy victory, but my mother's quick and 
unexpected agreement had an electrifying effect on all of us. 

We talked and shouted and interrupted each other and began to 
plan immediately on where we would go— even of the possibility 
of finding a small flat and doing without boarders to help pay the 
rent, an idea that had not occurred to me but which delighted 
us all, for we shared an equal distaste for the dismal people who 
seemed forever to be moving among us. 

The prospect of sitting down to a meal by ourselves and not having 
to share the rooms we lived in with others was something to savor 
and relish, even in anticipation. We became, all of us, a little intoxi- 
cated with the excitement of the great change to come, and by 
the time we went to bed that evening my brother spoke to me not 
as a stranger, I thought, for almost the first time. 

"What's camp like?" he asked, as we lay side by side in the dark. 

I tried to tell him and I spoke also of the good times I hoped 
we would have together, rushing headlong and too fast into an 
intimacy that he was not yet prepared to give, and he relapsed 
back into silence. But I was well content. It had been a remarkable 
and lucky day, and whatever misgivings I had about going to camp 
with a staff I had never laid eyes on, I brushed aside as the usual 
twinges of my overcautious nature and refused to be deviled by them. 
It was enough to fall asleep with a job safely tucked under the 
pillow and the knowledge that come fall, my eyes would not open 
each morning on that same grimy courtyard. 

The next two weeks seemed to fly by with an unholy speed. 
There did not seem to be quite enough hours in the day for all 
that had to be done in the time that remained. The little-theatre 
group at the Labor Temple and the group in the Bronx were wind- 
ing up the year with public demonstrations of their art. My days 


were filled with dress rehearsals and my evenings with the per- 
formances. The clutter of more than nineteen years of living 
had to be gone through and some of it discarded before our belong- 
ings could be put in storage, a task complicated by my mother's 
desire to hold on to every scrap. A place had to be found for her 
to live in while we were away and, if possible, a new flat spotted 
for our return. And endless hours on my own part were devoted 
to reassembling all the material Eddie and I had used at camp 
the previous summer, a good deal of which I had thoughtlessly mis- 
laid and now could not find in the welter of furniture and boxes 
piled in every room. 

In the midst of these last hectic days I made the unpleasant dis- 
covery that I possessed no summer clothes at all other than two pairs 
of bathing trunks faded green by the sun and a couple of sport 
shirts rather badly frayed around the collars. At Camp Utopia I 
had filled in my scant wardrobe by liberally borrowing whatever 
I needed from Eddie. All I had with which to make my debut as 
a full-fledged social director at the Half Moon Country Club, except 
for those bathing trunks and two bedraggled shirts, was the blue 
serge suit I walked around in every day. 

Now, a sport coat and white flannel trousers were as necessary to 
a social director as a suit of armor to a Knight of the Round Table — 
perhaps a little more necessary, for a Knight without armor at King 
Arthur's Court would appear less foolish somehow than a social 
director making announcements in front of the curtain on show 
night, or appearing in the dining room and on the dance floor of 
the social hall, in a blue serge suit. 

He need not outdress the Beau Brummells who arrived in camp 
every two weeks with wardrobes whose colors put the Japanese 
night moth to shame, but whatever else his wardrobe lacked, how- 
ever sparse it might be, a sport coat and a pair of white flannel 
trousers were the dead rock bottom he could get by on. Those he 
had to have. I knew I could not go to camp without them, yet I 
doubted, in fact I knew, that by the time we paid the necessary 
deposit to the storage and moving people and left enough for my 
mother to live on until I could send her some money from camp, 


there would be nothing at all left to buy a handkerchief with, let 
alone a sport coat and a pair of white flannel trousers. 

It was going to be embarrassing, but I would have to ask Mr. 
Axeler for a small advance. After all, he had said, "Anything you 
want, anything you need, just ask for it" — and this request after 
all was as much for his sake as for mine. He would certainly under- 
stand that a social director in a blue serge suit was a downright 
impossibility. Mr. Axeler did understand. Quickly and sympatheti- 
cally he proved to be as charming, as forthright and as good- 
humored as he had been at our first meeting. Of course I must 
have the sport coat and the white flannels. He saw that at once. And 
perhaps even a change of sport coats and a pair of gray flannels 
as well. 

There was one little hitch, however. He had partners, and one 
of the strict rules between his partners and himself was that no 
one of them was ever to advance any sum whatever to any of the 
employees no matter what the circumstances. He must have seen 
my face fall, for the smile came brightly on as though he had touched 
a switch under his desk, and his voice grew cheerful again. He had 
a solution, never fear. A dear friend of his owned a haberdashery 
store on Eighth Avenue. I was to go there, mention his name, select 
whatever I needed or wanted and have it all sent direct to the Half 
Moon Country Club and charged to him personally. Wouldn't that 
solve the difficulty? It would indeed. I thanked him profusely. We 
talked for a few minutes more, but now I could hardly wait to get 
out of the office and over to that haberdashery store. 

Though I had never had the wherewithal with which to indulge 
myself, I was at that time and for a long time afterward absolutely 
clothes crazy. It amounted to a hunger for clothes I could never 
seem to satisfy. I professed to scorn the high-style outfits most 
male guests paraded around camp in, but secretly I envied them. I 
craved and coveted the sky-blue turtleneck sweaters and the striped 
jackets with brass buttons, with a multicolored handkerchief peeking 
discreetly out of the breast pocket, and a tie that matched, and 
white suede shoes with patent leather tops. I craved those absurd 
getups with a real passion. 


It may be imagined, then, with what haste and urgency I made 
my way over to Eighth Avenue and that haberdashery store. I stood 
outside the shop admiring the display of shirts and coats and 
trousers in the windows for a full five minutes, and when I opened 
the door to step inside, it seemed as though every article of apparel 
on the shelves and hangers trembled with pleasure in anticipation 
of being on my person. I could hardly see anything at all at first, 
not because I had been standing in die bright sunlight outside, but 
because my eyes seemed blinded by the dazzling array of rainbow- 
hued wonders that might soon be mine. 

I could hardly speak for a minute or two. Never before had I 
been in a clothing store with the opportunity of saying, "I'll take 
this — and give me two of those — " no one who has cared 
about clothes as I did, and who has never experienced the joy 
of being able to buy clothes for the very first time, can know or 
understand the almost sensual pleasure this can be. I proceeded to 
go on what can best be described as a "clothes drunk." I bought and 
bought the way a man, about to fall off the wagon, blindly and 
blithely starts on a lost weekend. I went a little berserk. The sport 
coat and the white flannel trousers were bought almost without look- 
ing at them, and I went on to splurge in sweaters, shirts, socks, ties 
and what is known in haberdashery circles as "novelties" — kerchiefs 
to wear twisted around the neck instead of ties, reversible two-toned 
pullovers, a beach jacket, and sandals with flying fish all over them, 
and the crowning purchase of all, an utterly useless but completely 
irresistible smoking jacket with what appeared to be a coat of arms 
embroidered in silk thread-of-gold on the breast pocket. I stood 
in front of the mirror in it, staring at myself absolutely enraptured. 
Where or how or under what circumstances I expected to wear this 
thing of glory, even I could not have explained; but I knew that I 
was incapable of not buying it. Even the clerk who was waiting on 
me demurred at this obvious bit of folly and suggested I think it 
over and come in and try it on again when the owner of the shop, 
Mr. Axeler's friend, would be there himself to advise me, but I 
could not be dissuaded. Think it over indeed! I could almost not 
bear to take it off and hand it back to him to wrap. 


By the time I finished, I had bought in all about $135 worth of 
clothes — an amount of money that in those days could have outfitted 
at least three people for two summers. The clerk, himself a little 
flushed at so large a sale, shook my hand and promised faithfully 
to explain everything to Mr. Axeler's friend and have it all charged 
and shipped immediately to Mr. Axeler in Vermont. I think he 
understood in a dim way the extent of my passion. I staggered out of 
the store as a drunk might stagger into the dawn from an all-night 
bar, wonderfully warm inside and satisfied to the core, my thirst 
quenched at long last. I well knew that I had bought foolishly and 
wildly, that I could not afford any of it, that I did not even know 
how it could be paid for. But for once, none of that seemed to 
matter in the least, any more than tomorrow's hangover seems to 
bother a man at the height of a wonderful jag; and trancelike I 
moved through the remaining days until we left, thinking of practi- 
cally nothing but those clothes. 

I opened each package over and over in my mind, I saw myself 
entering the dining room or social hall in one of the two-tone pull- 
overs with a yellow kerchief tied around my neck. I even found a 
one-act play to do that would give me a chance to wear the smoking 
jacket on the stage. I might even, I thought, give a select party 
or two in my own cabin and as host wear the smoking jacket. I could 
barely wait for the sun to go down each evening and to come up 
again the next morning. My impatience to be off was doubled by 
the fact that each day that passed was one day less we would have 
to spend in that hated flat. 

Yet when the day at last arrived and I opened my eyes to look 
for the last time at the streaked wallpaper on the bedroom walls, 
the elation that I had expected to feel was strangely missing. I could 
not think why. Perhaps the end of anything is somehow a little 
sad. Perhaps it seemed the final erasure of my aunt and my grand- 
father, whose living presence these rooms had known; or it may be 
that my feeling of abhorrence for the place was already expended, 
now that we were to leave it forever. 

We must all have felt something of the sort, each one in his own 
way, for we walked down the four flights of stairs to the street 


soberly and without speaking, and stood, still silent, on the stoop 
in front of the house. To my mother's credit, she was for once un- 
tearful. Now that she might have rightly shed a tear or two, watch- 
ing her family leave her and going off while she was to live alone in 
a furnished room, she was dry-eyed and cheerful. There was, as a 
matter of fact, no time for much of anything in the way of emotion. 
The moving van was at the curb, the men already clambering down 
from the truck, mercifully cutting short the good-byes. There was 
time for nothing but a quick kiss to each of us before she had to 
return upstairs with the moving men. She waved again from the 
front window as we got to the corner, and then we climbed the sub- 
way steps and were on our way. 



JLhe ride to Vermont was an overnight one; and by 
coach, as we were going, it was long, hot and uncomfortable. The 
train seemed to make endless little stops, so that it was impossible to 
sleep except in fits and starts along with the train. Even if we could 
have slept, hunched up in the seats as we were, we gave up the pre- 
tense long before the train pulled into our station at six o'clock 
in the morning. 

We scrambled onto the platform with our suitcases and bundles, 
unwashed, unkempt and hungry, and stood blinking in the uncer- 
tain light for a glimpse of the car that was supposed to meet us. It 
was nowhere in sight, nor was there anything to be seen that looked 
like a diner or restaurant. Quite some distance across the tracks 
there seemed to be a place with a light still on that looked like 
an all-night coffee shop or a bar and grill, but it was too far away to 
go and run the risk of missing the car. There was not even a ticket 
taker to ask a question or leave a message with. The ticket window 
was shut tight. 

We sat down on our suitcases in the empty station and waited, 
shivering a little with sleepiness and hunger. "They must have had 
a flat tire," I said cheerfully, and then with a further attempt at 
cheerfulness, rendered quite hollow by the fact that my teeth were 
chattering, I spoke again. "Bad beginning, good ending. Isn't that 
what you always say, Pop?" I asked. He did not answer and I did 
not speak again. We just sat — staring miserably up the one road 


leading to the station that the car might appear on. Finally I got 
up and walked over to a door marked "Gentlemen." Inside, the 
washbasin was filled with cigar butts and what appeared to be a 
sodden remnant of the Police Gazette. The floor was littered with 
cigarette ends and toilet paper that had been used in lieu of towels — 
though how anyone could have washed his hands in that basin 
escaped me. 

I let quite some time go by before I emerged from the washroom, 
because I was shaking with rage and a strange kind of panic. Our 
arrival seemed to me (who was forever on the lookout for omens, 
good or bad) to be an omen that foretold the whole horrible sum- 
mer that lay ahead — I seemed to know at that instant that some- 
thing was rotten in both Denmark and Vermont. I stood in that 
filthy washroom in a morass of indecision, unsure of whether 
to wait right there in the station for the next train out and go back 
to New York, or to go on. But where was the train fare to come 
from? And go back to what? Our furniture was in storage, my 
mother was in a furnished room; and outside my father and 
brother sat on two suitcases waiting for me to lead them on to the 
summer of milk and honey I had promised. 

When I rejoined them, and sat down on my suitcase again, I knew 
we must go on, for there was no place else for us to go. 

At eight thirty or thereabouts, some two and one-half hours late, 
a car drew up to the station with a fearful grinding of brakes. The 
driver, a grizzled, taciturn, unpleasant man, did not even bother 
to get out, but called out of the side of his mouth, "You the social 
director? Get in." I stared at him for a long moment. In some 
fatheaded way I had half expected Mr. Axeler himself to be in the 
car, to welcome us and smooth everything over with his easy 
charm and ready smile. Now there was not even a word of apology 
or regret for the two and one-half hours we had sat there waiting. 

"Could we get a cup of coffee before we start?" I asked. "We've 
been sitting here a long time." 

"You can get coffee at camp," he replied disagreeably, still talking 
out of the side of his mouth and making no move to help us load 
our suitcases and bundles into the car. He barely waited until we 


were seated, and then he slammed away from the station with the 
same grinding of brakes and squealing of tires. It did not occur to 
me until we were already under way to ask, "How far is it to camp ?" 

His reply, and he addressed no further words to us the rest of 
the trip, was, "Forty-five miles. And it'll take just as long as it takes 
me to get there," he added, just in case I might ask him a further 

We rode in silence, too dispirited to talk among ourselves, but 
as I stared at the Vermont countryside whipping by, my spirits 
rose in spite of myself. One could not remain low in mind for long 
in the face of those beautiful hills and the fresh, clean fields dotted 
with trim farmhouses and grazing herds. Vermont is a feast to the 
eye, and a first glimpse of it on an early spring morning is enough 
to lift the heaviest heart or the lowest of spirits. I felt the weight 
on my chest begin to lighten. Things may not be as bad as you 
think, I told myself reassuringly. Everything was bound to take 
on a sinister look in that dark, depressing station, with no breakfast 
and that long, long wait. Anyway, why not wait and see? How 
could anything be really bad in this beautiful setting? My spirits 
shifted suddenly from low to high and I began to sing, partly out 
of relief but mainly, I think, because I was so pleased to feel my 
confidence returning. 

Long before we reached the road that led into the club itself, the 
surrounding countryside suddenly changed for the worst. The hills 
and green fields stopped abruptly, as though a stage manager had 
called out, "Strike the set," to a crew of stagehands, and in place 
of the shimmering hills and lush green fields came a barren reach of 
flat, stony land with stunted trees and great rolling beds of poison 
ivy stretching away as far as the eye could see. There seemed to be 
nothing else on either side of the car for miles and miles, though 
I knew we must surely be approaching Lake Champlain itself and 
I had heard of its beauty and had seen photographs of it. Indeed, 
the Half Moon Country Club featured a stunning picture of the 
lake on the cover of its booklet. 

Suddenly the car made a sharp turn around a bend and I saw a 
sign, hanging crookedly between two entrance posts, proclaiming, 


"Entrance Half Moon Country Club." I stared hard at the sign, its 
painted letters peeling and flaking off, and I felt that tight knot 
beginning to form in my chest again. First impressions are likely 
to be true ones, and the first impression one received of the Half 
Moon Country Club even as one approached it was one of sloven- 
liness. It was not really dirt that one was conscious of, for dirtiness 
is not always immediately visible to the naked eye; but slovenliness 
and loose management are somehow instantly and unpleasantly 
apparent, even as one drives through an entrance gate. 

The crooked sign that swung lopsidedly in the breeze swung from 
chains that had the rust of years on them, and the boulders that 
lined each side of the dusty road had not seen a coat of white paint 
since they had first been put in as markers. What had once been a 
sorry attempt at flower beds between the boulders was now just 
weeds and poison ivy, and the road itself had large holes in it, still 
filled with rain puddles, so that the car had to twist and turn to 
escape the deepest ones. The very last hole, and the largest of all, 
the driver did not see or did not bother to by-pass, so that a wave of 
stagnant water swept over the car and drenched us all. The car had 
come to a stop in front of the main building of the Half Moon 
Country Club, and it seems quite fitting to me now that for the 
first moment or two after we got out of the car we actually could 
not see the building, or anything else, for that matter. Our faces, 
our hair and clothing streamed muddy water. 

We stood there sopping wet — wiping the mud from our faces and 
eyes, and trying to look about us. The driver of the car had dumped 
our sodden suitcases and paper bundles on the ground beside us 
and rattled off without so much as a word of apology for the soak- 
ing. There was no one in sight, nor was there any sign of life 
within the building itself. I looked up at it and my heart sank. It 
was badly in need of a fresh coat of paint and its roof was pock- 
marked all over with sunbaked brown spots where the shingles 
had fallen off and had not been replaced. The middle section looked 
like nothing so much as an abandoned old shack — such as a fishing 
club might have put up to spend a few uncomfortable nights in — 
that had been added to in haphazard fa k shion until it had grown to 


be the ugly mass of wood and dented fly screens we now stood in 
front of. Torn yellow shades hung askew from the upstairs windows, 
and some badly worn and rapidly unraveling wicker furniture stood 
ghostlike on the porch. 

My brother shot me a look. No words were needed for me to 
know what he was thinking. I looked away and spoke with an 
irritable assurance that could have fooled nobody. 

"All camps look like this before they open," I said. "They're 
getting everything ready for Decoration Day. Don't let's just stand 
here looking — let's go find somebody." 

I led the way inside and they followed, our shoes sloshing over 
the empty porch. There was a tiny lobby and registration desk just 
inside the door, and beyond this a rather large lounge or sitting 
room, with a sagging ceiling and enormous overstuffed chairs all 
garishly slip-covered and stiffly set out to face what appeared to 
be the dining room beyond, since we could see tables and chairs 
stacked high against one wall. 

We proceeded on through, and since there seemed to be no 
sign of life in the dining room either, we went on in to the kitchen, a 
smoke-blackened cavern whose walls and cupboards suggested that 
the fire department had just left and there had not yet been time to 
wash away the soot and grime. The stove was thickly caked with 
last year's grease; a pile of dirty cups and saucers lay in the sink, 
a filthy dishrag flung over them. But an unmistakable coffee pot 
stood on the stove. It was a badly battered and dented old-fashioned 
enamel coffee pot, but I have never seen a more welcome sight in 
a kitchen anywhere. We made straight for it like lost souls. Holding 
my breath I shook it, then sighed with relief to find it half full 
and still warm. There was not a scrap of food to be found anywhere 
— at least none that had been left out in the open. A starving mouse 
would have headed back to the hills after one foray around that 

The icebox and one cupboard, however, had shining new pad- 
locks on them — a pretty good hint of where the food was hidden 
— and probably the only new things in the whole damn place, 
I thought bitterly, as I walked back to the stove. "At least let's get 

[i8 4 ] 

warm and dry off," I called to my father and brother. "There's no 
food any place except what's locked up." 

But my brother let out a sudden shout of victory. Rummaging 
around in the back of one of the cupboards he had come up with a 
box of Fig Newtons, obviously left over from last summer. They 
were hard as rocks, of course, but not moldy, and after submerging 
them in the boiling coffee for a while we stood by the stove fishing 
them out with spoons, downing the first food that had passed our 
lips in over fourteen hours. 

It was while we stood by the stove gulping the last mouthfuls of 
the coffee and scooping up the fast disintegrating Fig Newtons, 
that the first sign of life at the Half Moon Country Club came in 
through the screen door that led out of the kitchen. He was a 
young man, a few years older than myself, with a fat, good-natured 
face covered at the moment with a thick layer of dust and wisps of 
straw and sawdust sticking to it, and he seemed totally unsurprised 
to see us standing around the stove, our damp clothes sending up 
little clouds of steam around our heads. 

"So you got here," he said, addressing me directly. "The new 
social director, huh?" 

I nodded. "I was beginning to think we had made a mistake — 
that we got here on the wrong day." 

"Oh, no," he answered, "it's the right day. Mr. Axeler expected 
you all right. This your father and brother?" He evidently knew all 
about us. "My name's Herb Morris," he added, as we shook hands 
all around. "I'm the desk clerk when the season begins. Right now 
I'm unpacking new crockery and putting mattresses on the beds. 
Want me to take you to your bunks?" 

"Thanks," I replied. "But where is Mr. Axeler?" 

He gestured vaguely toward the outdoors. "Out there some place," 
he said. 

"We didn't see him any place around when we drove up," I 
said. "I'd like to get to him." 

"Oh, you'll see him," said Herb, smiling, "you can't miss him. 
He's on a horsed 

[i8 5 1 

I looked at him, for the smile apparently meant to convey some- 
thing. "On a horse?" I asked. 

"Never gets off it all summer," said Herb, and smiled broadly, 
"except to eat and sleep and go to the bathroom. He runs the whole 
place from that damn horse. We call him the Mad Cossack. You'll 
catch onto things soon enough. Want me to help you with your 
stuff?" He moved toward our suitcases and bundles. 

"Thanks, Herb," I said gratefully. "That's about the first kind 
word we've had since we got off the train." 

Herb grinned. "A kind word is what everybody needs the first 
time they get a look at this place. This way to the slave quarters, 
folks. Follow me. Your father's bunking in the main house, so I'll 
take him upstairs first." 

We followed him up the stairs to a series of cubbyholes under 
the roof. There were four of these cubicles, each with walls and a 
door, but they could hardly be called rooms. There was no window, 
only a skylight, and though it was a cool spring morning outside, 
the airless, sun-baked room was already sweltering. 

"Who else sleeps up here, Herb?" I asked, looking around the 
place in dismay. 

"The baker and his two helpers," he replied. "They think it's 
cool up here, I guess, after standing in front of an oven all day. 
Here, let me open the skylight for you. I had to close it on account 
of the rain yesterday. It's not so terrible when it's open, but you're 
a dead duck if it rains during the night and the damn thing won't 

I hardly dared look at my father. He was sitting on the edge of 
the uncovered mattress, staring about him. He was not used to 
luxury in his surroundings, God knows; but he was shaken, I 
could see, by the utter squalor of this miserable hole under the 
roof. There was nothing I could find to say to him. I dared not 
try to explain away this new catastrophe. My brother was looking 
directly at me again and saying nothing. 

"Why don't you unpack your stuff, Pop," I said instead. "I'll 
go find Mr. Axeler and come back for you." I turned to Herb again. 


"Where do my brother and myself sleep?" I said, so inaudibly 
that he had to ask me to repeat it. 

"Oh," he answered, "your brother bunks in Buckingham Palace 
with the rest of the kitchen help, the waiters and me, and you're 
all by yourself in the Bastille, over by the social hall. Come on," 
he yelled cheerfully, "this way to Buckingham Palace." 

Buckingham Palace turned out to be a converted chicken house 
some hundred yards back of the kitchen, set tastefully between the 
cesspool and the incinerator, and landscaped at its entrance by 
uncovered garbage pails. One had to stoop to enter it and stay bent 
over until one stood in the middle under its V-shaped ceiling. It 
had been turned into a kind of army barracks, with two long rows 
of army cots lined up against both walls, foot lockers under the cots, 
and hooks in the wall above each cot to hang clothing from. There 
was an open shower and toilet at the far end of the room, unin- 
hibitedly free of either shower curtain or door. Some naked electric 
light bulbs hung from the ceiling, last year's flypaper and dead flies 
still sticking to the cords. 

Herbert bustled about seemingly oblivious of what we were think- 
ing and feeling, which must have been all too clear from the stricken 
looks on our faces. 

"Take this bed here next to mine, Bernie," he said. "These are the 
only two beds in the whole place that don't get the smell from the 
kitchen, the cesspool or the garbage. That's the one good thing 
about being up here first. Last year I had that bed over there, and 
half the nights I slept outside and let the bugs eat me, because I 
could stand the bugs better than the smell. Ready for a look at the 
Bastille?" he finished brightly, turning back to me. 

"I think," I said darkly, "I think I'm ready for anything now." 

I followed him out without looking back at my brother. What 
was there to do or say until I could think of a way out? I walked 
along with Herb, seemingly incapable of thinking of anything but 
finding Mr. Axeler and demanding our fare back home, contract 
or no contract, furniture in storage or no. Herb whistled cheerfully 
beside me. 

"It's pretty crummy all right," he said blithely, "but what the hell ? 


Once you're here you're stuck good. It's too late to find another job 
for the summer. That's how he hooks everybody and keeps you 
here. If you need to make your tuition for the fall term in school, 
like me and the waiters and the rest, why once he's got you up this 
far away, what can you do?" 

"But you were here last year, Herb," I said. "Why in the world 
did you come back?" 

He shrugged. "Bad timing. My uncle promised me a job in his 
store and went back on his word. I waited just too long, so I had to 
run back to the Mad Cossack. It was the only summer job I could 
be sure of getting, and I need that tuition money. You'll get used 
to it. You get used to anything if you need the dough bad enough." 
He chuckled. "But I'll bet I'm the only one here from last year at 
that. He never gets the same dopes here twice." 

"But how does he get guests to come to this place, Herb?" I 
asked. "They don't have to come up here — they can go to some 
decent place." 

"Oh, it doesn't look as bad as this when it gets fixed up. He sprays 
some paint around and spreads some gravel, and puts some lousy 
geraniums on the porch and in the dining room." He grinned. 
"The slave quarters remain the same, though — just the way you saw. 
He gets away with it because the guests who come here are mostly 
the parents of the kids in his camp down by the lake. They only 
stay three or four days at best and they don't care much. They don't 
give a damn about having any fun — they don't expect to enjoy 
themselves. They just come up to see their kids swim around or get 
a medal for archery, and then get the hell out. He's got them 
hooked because it's the only place they can stay that's near the kids' 
camp. But last year he decided he wanted to attract a young crowd, 
so he built a social hall and hired a five-piece band and a social 
director." He stopped and laughed aloud. "That poor bastard social 
director! I bet he won't forget last summer for the rest of his life 
— that is, if he isn't in the booby hatch right now." He looked at 
me sideways. "How did you get hooked into this, by the way? 
From the guff he hands out in the office?" 

I nodded. 


"Yeah, he can sure make it dreamy," he went on. "I thought I 
was coming up to the Waldorf last year. I couldn't believe my eyes 
when I got here." 

"Well, I'm not going to stay here," I said hotly, "I can tell you 

He seemed genuinely surprised. "You're not?" he asked. "You've 
got something to go back to ?" 

"No," I admitted, "but I'm not going to stay here." 

"I see," said Herb politely, immediately discerning the emptiness 
of the threat. "Well, in case you do stay, there's your cathedral. 
That's the social hall." He pointed to an unpainted building a few 
hundred yards ahead. 

I followed his finger and stared at a small unpainted structure 
open on three sides and festooned across the front end with a score 
of what had once been Japanese lanterns and which now hung in 
ribbons, swaying limply in the breeze. 

"Not exactly the Palace," said Herb, watching me stare. "Better 
come inside and have a look, anyway," he added. "If you do decide 
to stay, there's a hell of a lot to do." 

Silently, I followed him across the field into the social hall. It 
was unpainted inside, as well as out, and had been constructed in 
the cheapest possible fashion. One good Vermont storm would have 
smashed it to smithereens, and I wondered how it had survived the 
winter winds. There were some non-survivors of the winter litter- 
ing the floor — a chipmunk, several field mice, and a number of 
bats that had perished, I thought bitterly as I stepped over them, in 
a search for either entertainment or food. I stood staring up at the 
tiny stage. The curtain, half drawn, had a great hole in it, and 
what I at first took to be some sort of free-hand design across its 
center was merely bird droppings. The one trough of footlights 
had been viciously kicked in, a farewell gesture, I had no doubt, 
of that "poor bastard social director." I kicked at it myself and two 
beer cans rolled slowly out. 

The floor of the stage itself was carpeted with the glass of 
broken light bulbs, and directly in the center stood a great mound 
of empty Coca-Cola bottles, at the top of which was a stick with a 

fi8 9 ] 

pair of torn lady's underpants hanging from it — a forlorn token 
of one of last summer's victories. I walked up onto the stage and 
peered into the one dressing room. Some animal had also died there, 
and although its remains were nowhere to be seen, the stench was 
deadly. I held my nose and walked over to read some words that 
were scrawled across the make-up table mirror. It was one succinct 
sentence consisting mainly of four-letter words and it suggested 
what Mr. Axeler could do with himself, his social hall, his guests 
and his camp — and it did not lean heavily on innuendo. I was glad 
I had braved the smell and walked over to the mirror. I felt better 
somehow for having read that message. 

A large wardrobe trunk stood in one corner of the dressing room; 
I wanted to inspect it, but Herb's voice was calling to me from 
outside the social hall. "Hey, come on," he was shouting, "let's get 
going. I've got to get back to the mattresses." 

I went out the back way and joined him. "All right," I said, "just 
show me where I bunk. I'll have to stay here for tonight anyway." 

Silently he pointed to a tin-roofed shack almost directly in front 
of us. He sighed. "That's it," he said, "that's the Bastille. It's all 

I stared at it incredulously. "But that's a tool shed, isn't it?" I 
asked, still unable to believe what my eyes were seeing. 

"It was a tool shed until last year," said Herb. "You hit it right 
on the nose. I guess the Mad Cossack ran out of lumber when the 
social hall was finished, so that's where the social director bunks." 

He walked ahead of me and pushed open the door. "Phew," 
he exclaimed as a burst of fetid air rushed to meet him. "They ought 
to keep this door open. You could fry eggs in here with that tin 
roof." He stood aside to let me enter. Even Herb preferred to stay 
outside and let me look around alone. 

I did not linger long. Rust-colored water, dripping slowly from 
the tin roof, had run down the discolored walls and formed little 
pools on the earthen floor which was rudely covered with wooden 
slats set fairly wide apart. One good rain could set the whole place 
awash, it seemed, for the ground under the slats was pure mud. 
Old toothpaste tubes, bottle caps, a shredded athletic supporter, and 


some rusted sardine cans lay scattered underneath the slats, just 
where they had been tossed the summer before. Whatever else he 
may have been, my predecessor was not a neat man, a fellow who 
could have believed that cleanliness had anything to do with 
godliness, and he had been richly free of the phobia that dirt breeds 
disease, for that room was as dirty per square inch as anything I 
have ever seen. 

The temperature must have been somewhere in the high nineties 
and the air was as rank as the Jersey flats at the end of a heat wave. 
I began to feel a little queasy. I looked briefly at the army cot, its 
uncovered mattress darkly stained with spilled beer and coffee, and 
quickly rejoined Herb outside. I took a great lungful of fresh air, 
walked past him, and then threw myself full length down onto the 

Herb kneeled down beside me solicitously. "You all right," he 
inquired, "you feel sick?" 

"No," I said. "I just had to lie down some place. I'm dead tired." 
It was true. The full flavor and scope of the morning's disasters 
seemed to have swept over me as I stood in that sweltering, filthy 
room, and I was suddenly desperately, deeply tired. I doubt if I 
could have walked another hundred yards. 

Herb sat down beside me and chewed on a blade of grass for a 
while without speaking. "It won't be easy to get that fare back to 
New York out of him," he finally said. "That's been tried before." 

I lay face down for another moment or two without answering. 
Then I sat up and looked back at the tool shed and the social hall. 
"No, I'm going to stay, Herb," I said. "I've got no choice — I've 
got to." I told him briefly of our plight, of our stuff in storage and 
no place to go back to, even if I could find another job in the city 
quickly, which I very much doubted. 

"Yeah, I guess you're stuck," he said. "But you know something?" 
he went on. "Now that you know you're hooked and you've seen 
it, crummy as it is, it won't seem so terrible now. You'll see — that's 
the way it was with me." 

He rose and stood peering down at me. "Anything else I can do 
or tell you about before I kick off ? I've got to be getting back." 


"No, thanks, Herb," I answered gratefully. "You've helped a lot 
just being around. Just tell me where I go to get my mail. I'm ex- 
pecting some." 

"There's no mail here for you yet," he said. "I'm in charge of the 
mail. No letters came for you at all." 

"Not letters," I said, "packages. Some large packages. They must 
be here some place. They were sent up over two weeks ago." 

He shook his head. "Haven't seen a sign of 'em," he said. "Did 
you send 'em c.o.d. or express collect ? Because if you did, they won't 
deliver them up here — you got to go down into town and claim 
them at the post office." 

"Oh, no," I answered, "they weren't shipped c.o.d. They were 
charged to Mr. Axeler personally but shipped direct." 

Herb stared at me wide-eyed. "Charged to Mr. Axeler person- 
ally," he said. 

"That's right," I replied. "He told me to charge it. I needed some 
clothes and he sent me to a friend of his and told me to charge 
anything I wanted to him and have it sent up." 

Herb continued to stare. "And the man said he would?" he asked. 

"No," I said, "the owner of the store wasn't there when I went, 
but the clerk who waited on me said he would tell him and send 
it up the next day. That was over two weeks ago," I added, "they 
must be here some place. You're sure they're not, Herb?" 

Herb gave me a slow, patient smile, the smile of forbearance one 
gives to a not too bright child. "Yes, I'm sure they're not," he said. 
"How much did the bill come to?" 

"It was quite a lot," I admitted. "I went a little crazy. I bought 
a hundred and thirty-five dollars' worth of clothes." 

He burst into laughter and flopped down on the ground beside 
me, still laughing. "You're crazy, all right," he said. "Not because 
you bought that many clothes, but because you believed anybody 
who knew Mr. Axeler more than Hvg minutes would let him charge 
a package of spearmint gum. Why, they won't trust him for a 
nickel around here. He has to pay cash before they even take a 
bunch of celery off the truck. You've got about as much chance of 
seeing those clothes up here as I have of flying over the lake by 


waving my arms up and down." He waved his arms up and down 
and fell to laughing again. 

"But why would he send me there, Herb?" I protested. "Why 
would he do a thing like that if he knew the man would never 
send them?" 

"Search me, brother." Herb shrugged. "He'll do anything or 
say anything to get out of a tight spot or to get you up here. The 
first time I walked out of that office he had me believing I was like 
his son and that by the end of the summer he might make me a 
partner in the damn place. He can make you believe the moon 
is green if he wants to. Those clothes are still right in that store 
where you bought them, boy, believe me!" 

I looked at Herb and drew a deep breath. There was no question 
that what he was saying was true. I knew those clothes would never 
arrive now, and it was almost the crudest disappointment of all. 
In some ridiculous fashion those clothes had remained at the fore- 
front of my mind all through this horrible morning, and my first 
thought, once I knew that I would have to stay, had been of those 
packages waiting to be opened. They would have made up for a 
great deal. 

For the second time in my adult life I felt like crying, and almost 
did. I was silent for so long a time that Herb finally turned to me 
and said, "What the hell? It's only clothes, and you won't have 
to pay for them now. Just wear what you've got." 

"That's the trouble," I said bitterly. "This is what I've got." I 
gestured to the badly rumpled blue serge suit on my person. 

"You mean that's all you've got?" asked Herb. "You came up 
here with that and nothing else?" 

"That's all," I replied, "except for some bathing trunks and two 
sport shirts. What am I going to do, Herb?" I went on anxiously. 
"I can't walk around like this all summer." 

"Gee, you can have anything I've got," he answered, quickly 
sympathetic, "but my stuff won't fit you. I'm too fat. Maybe when 
the waiters get up here you can borrow some things from them. 
They're a nice bunch, but they don't usually have too much in the 
way of clothes, I can tell you." He sighed. "You'll just have to hit 


him for some dough and go into town and buy some stuff, I guess," 
he said doubtfully. 

"But will he give it to me?" I persisted. "That's what I did before 
and that's why he sent me to that store. He wouldn't advance me 
a cent." 

"Oh, that's why he did it," said Herb. "Now I begin to see the 
light! Yes, sir, he parts from a dollar very slowly, I can tell you. 
You'll just have to keep after him till you get it, I suppose. Wait 
till he gets off that horse to go to the bathroom or something, then 
hit him over the head. Hey, lookit," he suddenly exclaimed, "over 
there." He leapt to his feet and pointed to a small building some dis- 
tance away across the field. Two men, arms waving wildly above 
their heads, were running around the building and looking over 
their shoulders as they ran. 

Herb squealed and jumped up and down with pleasure. "You'll 
see the Mad Cossack and his horse in a minute now," he yelled. 
"He's chasing 'em back inside." 

"What is it?" I shouted back at him. "What's happening? Who 
are those men ?" 

"That's the bake shop," said Herb, "and those poor jerks are 
two Hunkies or Poles — they don't speak hardly any English — that 
he got up here as bakers. They took one look at the Iron Maiden 
they were supposed to work in and decided to quit beginning yes- 
terday morning. He's been chasing 'em back in ever since with a 
whip. Yep, here he comes!" 

With a wild Cossack yell, or what I took to be a wild Cossack 
yell, Mr. Axeler rounded the corner of the building on his horse. 
It was a large black animal and he rode it well. He was dressed 
in riding breeches and puttees and a glaring red shirt, his uniform 
for the summer, I was to learn. And sure enough he carried a long 
black whip, which he used with extreme skill and dexterity. 

At sight of him the two men fled around the corner of the build- 
ing, arms still waving, only to come back into sight a moment later 
with Mr. Axeler close at their heels and snapping the whip around 
their feet, so that blobs of mud spattered over their clothes. I 
watched, dumfounded. He was obviously not trying to hit them 


with the whip, for he could have easily sliced them to shreds, but 
only to frighten them back into the bake shop. They all circled 
the building two or three times more, the two men running wildly 
in front of the horse, the whip slashing the ground all around them, 
until finally the poor creatures gave up and retreated to the doorway 
where they stood shaking their fists at Mr. Axeler. He motioned 
them back into the bake shop with the butt end of the whip, and 
with a last shaking of fists, they went in and closed the door be- 
hind them. 

Herb was still hopping up and down beside me. "Hey, you Mad 
Cossack you," he now yelled across the fields, knowing full well 
Mr. Axeler could not hear the words, "hey, you son-of-a-bitch you, 
your poor bastard social director is here. Come on over, you son-of-a- 
bitch Cossack, and say hello." 

Mr. Axeler, conscious of someone yelling across the fields, turned 
the horse around and looked in our direction. Herb waved cordially 
at him. "You stink on ice, you Mad Cossack you," he yelled exuber- 
antly and waved him toward us. 

Mr. Axeler nudged the horse and galloped quickly over. He 
reined the horse to a circus-like stop directly in front of me and 
smiled down. It was the same candid, forthright smile, a little more 
dazzling in fact now that he was seated on a horse. 

"Welcome, welcome," he said, "welcome to our Half Moon 

I looked up at him and opened my mouth to speak. Before I 
could get a word out, he had reined the horse around and was 
galloping off, calling back over his shoulder, "We'll talk, we'll talk. 
Lots to do first; lots to do. Anything you want, anything you need, 
just ask." 

We watched in silence until he disappeared over the horizon. 
"Yeah," said Herb sourly, breaking the silence, "anything you 
want, just ask. Some fat chance . . . and first you gotta catch him. 
Now you see what I mean, don't you?" 

"Yes," I answered heavily, "now I see. Thanks for everything, 
Herb." I held out my hand to him and we shook hands rather 
solemnly. His unfailing good spirits seemed to have deserted him 


momentarily and he walked away dispiritedly without another 
word. I stood for a moment longer in the open field, then I moved 
slowly toward the Bastille. If I was going to sleep there tonight, there 
was certainly, as Mr. Axeler phrased it, lots to do, lots to do. 

I kicked open the door and walked in. There flashed to my mind 
the fantasy I had concocted back in New York of playing host to 
a select party and wearing that glorious but now non-existent smok- 
ing jacket, and I laughed aloud as I looked around me. My second 
season at camp and my first as a full-fledged social director has 
officially begun, I thought bitterly, as I reached down and began 
to gather up the mess from beneath the slats of the floor. I won- 
dered ruefully if the theatre was really worth it! 


kJ'oME ten days later, the weekend before Decoration Day, 
the first guests began to arrive, and the summer of my discontent 
swung into full gear. It was not, I must record truthfully, a summer 
of complete, unrelieved misery. At twenty one does not remain 
utterly miserable for long stretches of time, no matter how bad 
the conditions may be under which one lives and works. At twenty 
one awakes every morning with the dewy-eyed illusion that this 
day cannot be as bad as the day before, and the resilience of 
twenty — the ability to bounce back in spite of bad food, long hours 
and sleeping in a wet, airless hole — is prodigious. Until the very 
end of the summer I was never quite as miserable as I had been the 
day of our arrival, because there was literally never any time after 
that to stop and think of how miserable one was. The small daily 
miseries of the Half Moon Country Club faded into the large 
catastrophes that came along one by one and reached a climax at 
the end of the summer in a disaster of Gotterdammerung dimen- 
sions. These recurrent catastrophes were the peaks of the ice- 
bergs that dotted the journey across the sodden sea of that sum- 
mer, and one or two of them, I must admit, were of my own mak- 

The first one came with the very first show and on that 
Decoration Day weekend. Pigheadedly, I had chosen to go ahead 
with my program of O'Neill, Shaw and Kelly, despite the pathetic- 
ally inadequate facilities of the Half Moon's social-hall stage, and 


for the big Decoration Day splash I elected to put on The Emperor 
Jones and play the leading role myself. This was stubbornness of 
a very tall order indeed, particularly since those sterling actors I had 
been promised, the counselors of the children's camp, had not yet 
arrived and I was left with only the six musicians and the operatic 
nurse to help me put on the play. 

Doggedly, almost revengefully, I went ahead nevertheless; mainly 
I think as a just punishment for Mr. Axeler, for from the very 
beginning it was easily apparent how bad it was going to be and I 
could certainly have switched to something else. But I suppose it 
must have given me some sort of grim satisfaction to know that 
the first and one of the most important shows of the season was 
going to be a fiasco, for this was one of the few ways I had of 
getting back at Mr. Axeler. 

The Decoration Day show, the July Fourth show and the Labor 
Day show were the high-water marks of the camp season that a 
social director tried to make as good as possible— presenting himself 
and his staff as contenders for the laurels of the competitive camp 
circuit and trying to insure a better job for himself the following 
season. Not only was his own reputation as a social director at stake 
with these three shows, but the reputation of the camp as well. For 
on those weekends the camp was at its most crowded, and on the 
Decoration Day weekend especially, the guests who saw the first 
show of the season were the ones most likely to go back to the city 
and spread the word that Camp So-and-So had a fine social director 
that summer. Moreover, a good report spread by the guest grapevine 
after the Decoration Day weekend could easily help to keep the 
camp filled for the rest of the summer. 

I was thoroughly aware of this, and of the fact that I was quite 
likely digging my own grave as well as burying Mr. Axeler, since 
other camp owners kept an up-to-the-minute check on what was 
going on in rival camps and which social directors were doing the 
best shows. But my fury and resentment at Mr. Axeler were such 
that I was perfectly willing to foul my own nest if I succeeded in 
unfeathering his. For one thing, I still smoldered and smarted over 
the slick way I had been completely hoodwinked and trapped, and 

[i 9 8] 

for another, my clothes problem, with the arrival of the first guests, 
had become suddenly and painfully acute. It was the clothes, I 
think, more than anything else that made me plunge implacably 
and vengefully ahead with The Emperor Jones. For though I had 
caught Mr. Axeler unhorsed two or three times, my pleading had 
got me exactly nowhere. He feigned astonishment at his friend the 
haberdasher's failure to send up the clothes and blandly suggested 
I drive into the village, get what I needed and charge it to him. But 
not one cent of hard cash could he be pried loose from. 

When I taxed him with downright dishonesty and refused to 
go on another fool's errand, far from being outraged, he was charm 
and urbanity itself. "Maybe you're right," he admitted, "these Ver- 
mont shopkeepers are funny about money." 

"Everyone's funny about money," I said acidly, "especially when 
they don't get paid." 

He laughed delightedly, as though I had just made a quip of 
Oscar Wildeian flavor. "Money, money, money," he chortled. "It's 
good I don't think about it too much — I wouldn't sleep nights. 
Come," he added, smiling that damnably honest smile of his, "I'll 
show you the books — I'll open the safe in the office. Any money you 
find there, you take and go buy the clothes. Every cent of ready 
cash we have we use to get the camp open every year, and until 
the guests start to pay there's not a penny left over. The cupboard 
is bare, my boy," he sighed, "but come around and ask me again 
next week and you won't go away empty-handed." 

As usual he was lying. It was not until the end of June, some five 
weeks later, that I was able to gouge twenty-five dollars out of him 
and finally buy that pair of white flannel trousers and a blue sport 
coat with brass buttons. Meanwhile, it was necessary to come to 
terms and quickly with my lack of wearing apparel. I knew I 
couldn't appear in the dining room for all three meals in the same 
blue serge suit without advertising my plight, and while I could 
walk around camp during the day in bathing trunks and a shirt, a 
jacket was demanded in the dining room for all meals, and I could 
not forever continue to wear bathing trunks at night in order to 


preserve for the shows the one good pair of pants I possessed, even 
if that were feasible. 

I solved the problem ingeniously enough, since it had to be solved, 
but it was a painful and humiliating solution that I came up with. 
To this very day I can still feel a flush of embarrassment when I 
think of the absurd spectacle I must have presented for five solid 
weeks, and for years afterward I would cross to the other side of 
the street if I recognized a guest of that summer who had seen me 
in one of the grotesque getups I affected, for I used the costumes in 
the camp wardrobe trunk and pretended that my comic appearance 
was part of a social director's job of "making fun" for the cus- 

Actually, I suppose, I was lucky to find even a wardrobe trunk 
at the Half Moon Country Club, though every camp no matter 
how small possessed a costume trunk which was replenished from 
year to year by purchasing cheap castoff outfits of any description 
from the big Broadway costume companies, Eaves and Brooks. For 
a hundred dollars or so, Eaves and Brooks would ship to camps a 
conglomerate assortment of costumes that were too threadbare 
for further rentals, but which might still be usable in camp shows, 
and the wardrobe trunk was considered as necessary a part of 
social-hall equipment as the front curtain. 

The costumes, needless to say, were discolored and musty, and 
sometimes almost in shreds, but by switching them around with a 
redoing here and there, they could be made to serve well enough 
for a season and were invaluable if one were doing a play or skit 
that called for a military uniform or a Spanish dancer's outfit or the 
inevitable Indian chief's headdress. 

Once my mind was made up as to what I had to do, and that 
appearing in the costumes was the only way out, I took the stuff 
out of the trunk in the dressing room and spread them about me 
on the stage. True to form, Mr. Axeler had purchased the cheapest 
and oldest rags that could be bought, and most of them were stiff 
not only with the sweat of last summer, but with the perspiration 
of the hundreds of panic-stricken amateurs who had worn them 
all across the country and sweated off their stagefright in them. 


I selected the least smelly and disreputable of the lot, then sum- 
moned the six musicians, who were at the moment my complete 
social staff. "I'm going to pep things up a little in the dining room 
and the social hall," I announced. "I'm going to come in in a differ- 
ent costume for each meal and also in the social hall at night, and 
whatever I wear I want the trumpet and the sax to give me an 
appropriate fanfare before I appear. See?" 

They did not see. They looked at me as though I had taken sud- 
den leave of my wits. 

"It's simple enough," I went on. "For instance, I'm going to come 
in to lunch today as a Confederate general." I held up a bedraggled 
uniform, its epaulettes hanging over the shoulders in shreds, for 
illustration. "Get it? Well, you precede me and play 'Dixie' — play 
it twice, walking in and out among the tables. Then I'll make an 
entrance. And if I come in tonight as Paul Revere, you play 
'Yankee Doodle.' I'll always let you know beforehand what I'll be 
wearing. It's a good stunt and it works fine," I added, with a cer- 
tainty I was far from feeling as they continued to stare at me. 

"Well, it's 'Dixie' for lunch," I said irritably. "I did this last year 
at Camp Utopia and it was a big hit, so just do it," I lied. 

"Okay," said the piano player resentfully, "I guess we have to 
do it." They shuffled off, muttering among themselves. This was 
their usual display of enthusiasm for anything they were asked to do, 
particularly if the request came from me. They took very little pains 
to hide their dislike and resentment of me, and I in turn made no 
bones about how I felt about them. They were a sorry, pimply- 
faced lot and from my first glimpse of them I had known what to 
expect in the way of help. It came as no surprise to me that they 
would not take kindly to the idea of being impressed into The 
Emperor Jones as jungle natives, of having to black up, not just 
their faces, but their entire bodies as well; but there was nothing 
they could do about it. 

They walked through the days in a stunned, somnambulistic 
fashion, as if they had never quite recovered from the initial shock 
of finding themselves where they were. They had been as stunned, 
in fact, as I had been by their first look at the Half Moon Country 


Club, but they played each of their musical instruments so horribly 
that I could feel no sympathy for any of them, and they had been 
remarkably lazy and unco-operative in helping to clean out the social 
hall, and even their own quarters, which were even filthier than 
mine were. 

I watched the trumpet player and the saxophonist take their 
instruments and walk out of the social hall, and I looked down at 
the uniform I still held in my hand. It was almost lunchtime, and 
if I was going to do it, I must do it now, or I knew I might not 
have the courage to do it at all. I got into the trousers and coat, tied 
the sash around the middle and placed the hat (at least a size too 
small for me) on my head. I tried not to look into the mirror 
but I could not refrain. I looked ridiculous. The effect was lugubrious 
and sad, somehow, not comic. I looked woebegone and foolish, like 
a child caught in the act of trying on his father's clothes, and the 
expression of exasperated martyrdom on my face added to the 
impression that someone had just shouted, "Take those things off 
right away and put them back." 

But I had gone too far now, with both the musicians and myself, 
to back down, in spite of my image in the mirror; and the effect 
would be even more ridiculous, I told myself, if I walked into the 
dining room in a blue serge suit while the trumpet and saxophone 
played "Dixie." I grimly glued on a mustache, then watched from 
the window until I was sure that the last guest had entered the 
dining room. Then I ran as fast as I could across the fields until I 
reached the porch of the main building. Being caught in the open 
sunlight in that outfit, and having to explain why I was got up in 
such fashion, would have robbed me of whatever little courage I 
had left. 

The two musicians stood waiting sullenly inside the doorway. 
"All right," I said, "go on in and play." They put the horns to their 
lips and blasted into the opening bars of "Dixie." From the porch 
outside I could see every head in the dining room turn. I watched 
the two musicians march amongst the tables, blaring away, and took 
a deep breath — they were almost through the second chorus. I had 


to get in while the music still played or I knew I might turn tail 
and run. 

I took another deep breath and stalked into the dining room, 
pausing dramatically in the doorway. "General Nuisance of the 
Deep South," I announced in a billowing Southern accent, "is up 
North here in your midst for a short stay to see how you damn 
Yankees socialize in the hot summer weather, and has been dele- 
gated by your social director to make the following announcements 
of the events of the afternoon." I stopped and gave what I presumed 
sounded like a rebel yell. The entire dining room broke into de- 
lighted laughter and applause. They had listened thunderstruck for 
a moment, as well they might have, in stony silence, not knowing 
quite what was going on; but now they realized that it was the 
social director "making fun" in the dining room. 

They greeted the announcements I made of the afternoon's events 
with more shouts of laughter and applause, and I finally sat down 
at my table to eat lunch, dripping wet and throbbing with embar- 
rassment and rage. The rage was directed at Mr. Axeler, who had 
appeared in the dining room in the middle of all this and was 
now moving among the tables and beamingly accepting compli- 
ments on how well the new social director "made fun." He even had 
the gall some weeks later to suggest that I keep on with it, even 
after I finally had some clothes of my own, and I strongly suspected 
him of holding back the twenty-five dollars he grudgingly gave me 
until the very last moment, for there could be no doubt that the 
guests liked it. Too well. To my horror they looked forward to 
these appearances and even tried to guess what disguise I would 
turn up in next. 

That evening I appeared in the social hall as Tecumseh, an old 
Indian scout, and was greeted by shrieks of appropriate laughter 
and applause, and the following day at lunch, to the tune of 
"Turkey in the Straw," I walked in as Daniel Boone, coonskin cap 
and all, thereby anticipating the Davy Crockett craze by some 
twenty-five years. But the more they laughed and applauded, the 
more I loathed them, myself and my employer. And every time 
I entered the dining room or social hall in some ridiculous getup 


I had to take a deep breath the moment before, because I trembled 
for fear that somehow a stream of filthy epithets would, in spite 
of myself, issue from my lips, instead of the announcements of the 
afternoon's or evening's activities. 

It was in this actively vengeful mood that I went through with 
the rehearsals of The Emperor Jones, knowing full well it was 
going to be bad, but never, even in my wildest fantasies of evening 
the score with Mr. Axeler, imagining just how much of a nightmare 
that evening was going to turn out to be. It may well be that my 
appearances as Long John Silver, Louis XIV and Abraham Lincoln 
during the days preceding the show had ill prepared the audience 
for my appearance as the Emperor Jones on the social-hall stage 
that Saturday night. The clientele of the Half Moon Country Club 
were ill-prepared enough, of course, in quite another way, to witness 
the O'Neill tragedy. I doubt if ten persons among them had ever 
heard of O'Neill at that time, and their expectation of the big 
Saturday night show on the Decoration Day weekend was always 
of a musical potpourri of some sort, full of topical allusions and 
camp jokes. 

It could have been predicted, I suppose, but it had not occurred 
to me, that when I came onto the stage as the drunken, tragic em- 
peror, they took it for granted that this was a skit satirizing my own 
comic getups, and they roared with laughter. The fact that I was 
in blackface seemed to make it even funnier, and they applauded 
generously and patiently waited for me to burst forth in song or 
go into a soft-shoe routine. When it slowly dawned upon them that 
they were being asked to sit through a serious and tragic play, I could 
feel them settle back, angry and disappointed. A few people in 
the front row got up from their seats and walked out, raising their 
voices above mine on the stage to announce they were going to 
play cards. 

I had other things to worry about, however, than a disgruntled 
audience and a few walkouts at that moment. Even nature herself, 
it seemed, had chosen to conspire against me this terrible evening. 
The day had dawned bright and hot, but suddenly in mid-afternoon 
the sun had disappeared and a mass of freezing air had settled 


over the countryside. I learned later that this brief cold spell is 
something of a Vermont phenomenon, appearing sometimes in late 
spring or even early summer. An actual frost could make a sudden 
quick havoc of the Vermont countryside and damage crops and 
flowers in its brief overnight stay. 

This fiendish cold spell had chosen to make its appearance on 
the afternoon of the day I was doing The Emperor Jones, the greater 
portion of which is played by the emperor stumbling through the 
steaming jungle clad in nothing but a loincloth. I had shivered with 
more than the cold as I made up, for hailstones as large as marbles 
had fallen over the camp at dinnertime and immediately afterward 
the sharp stinging cold of a winter evening had settled in. 

The audience had arrived wrapped in sweaters, raincoats and 
blankets they had taken from the beds, and a biting wind whistled 
through the open social hall. I was all right, of course, during the 
first scene, where the emperor makes his appearance in uniform 
before he flees the palace to the jungle. But what would happen 
when I appeared in a loincloth and had to speak the recurrent line, 
"I'se meltin' wid de heat," I did not choose to think about. 

Sure enough, at my first appearance in the second scene, naked 
except for the loincloth, and my first cry of "I'se meltin' wid de 
heat," an irrepressible giggle escaped from the darkened hall and 
swept over the footlights. I quaked inwardly and waited for the 
worst to happen. The worst was not long in coming. 

There were a few "ssh-sshes" from the more well-mannered and 
sympathetic of the audience ; but when the skinny, silly-looking and 
easily recognizable musicians stepped out from behind the card- 
board palm trees and stood there shivering, the entire social hall 
broke into a gale of uncontainable laughter. They were funny- 
looking enough, God knows, without their teeth chattering and their 
legs shaking from the cold, but they had so resented having to put 
on the black body make-up that they had applied it to themselves 
in streaks and patches. They looked now like nothing so much as 
six refugees from a leper colony or the victims of some virulent 
skin disease. 
Moreover, the drummer, who had rather a large pot belly for 


one of his tender years, had chosen out of some ostrich-like vanity 
not to apply the black make-up to this portion of his anatomy at all, 
so that a round white globe swung gently above his loincloth and 
made him appear about to give birth at any moment. I dared not 
steal more than a glance at him myself, for shivering and miserable 
though I was, I would have been hard put not to have joined in 
the uncontrollable laughter that greeted his every movement across 
the stage. Not unnaturally he thought his loincloth had come un- 
stuck, and the more frantically he tugged at it and tried to cover 
himself, the more the audience howled. 

To make matters worse, when the tom-toms started, two or three 
of the musicians gave a terrible start, quite as though they had not 
heard the drums all through rehearsals, and one of the loincloths 
actually did come unstuck on one of them. He made a tremendous 
grab and retrieved it just in the nick of time, but not before the 
audience had given him a round of applause and shrieked with glee. 

My own teeth were chattering now, not only with the cold but 
with the agony of knowing that I must play it through to the end 
somehow, for The Emperor Jones is really a lengthy one-act play 
and is played in its entirety without intermission. There was no 
chance for me to get off the stage, for either me or the audience to 
recover ourselves, and I could tell they were now in a state approach- 
ing hysteria. They could not help themselves by this time, and 
laughed at nothing and everything. When this kind of laughter 
sweeps through an audience it is a kind of mass hysteria. 

They laughed in that social hall when there was seemingly noth- 
ing whatever to laugh at. Even the recollection of something earlier 
would send someone in the social hall off into a peal of laughter on 
his own, and the rest of the audience would helplessly join in. 
They stamped their feet and banged on the chairs and whistled each 
time that idiot musician with the pot belly had to cross the stage, 
exactly as though he were Gypsy Rose Lee doing a strip-tease, and 
finally they began to beat time with the tom-toms, drowning me out 
altogether. I was beyond caring now, however. I doggedly mouthed 
lines and kept thinking of standing under a hot shower and drinking 


some boiling coffee to get warm again, if ever I could. I seemed to 
be aching cold in every joint. 

At the final moment of the play, when I lifted the revolver to my 
temple and shouted, "The silver bullet!" and pressed the trigger and 
the off-stage revolver did not go off, it mattered very little. In an 
evening of such glorious failure, the traditional blank cartridge 
failing to go off seemed no more than a slight mistake. Even the 
audience was too exhausted from laughing to do more than send 
up a token roar at this ultimate fiasco. I dropped down to the stage 
anyway, dead in more ways than just play-acting, and waited for 
the curtains to close. They slowly drew together, and to my amaze- 
ment the closing was greeted with a tremendous salvo of applause 
and cheers. 

I could not understand the applause at first, until I realized I had 
evidently given them as good a time for the wrong reasons as if I had 
put on a funny, regulation Decoration Day show. I took one half- 
hearted bow and marched wearily off to the showers, the still shiver- 
ing musicians trailing silently after me. It was over, at any rate, and 
I could even feel a kind of comradeship for those hapless musicians 
who had suffered through it with me. 

It was not quite over, however. What we did not know until we 
stood under the showers was that the end of The Emperor Jones 
was not yet, and that its marks would remain, like the Scarlet Letter, 
to brand us for quite a while. At first we thought that the black 
body make-up would not come off our bodies no matter how hard 
we scrubbed because the water trickling thinly out of the nozzle 
was, as usual, barely warm. But as we scrubbed and scrubbed each 
other until our bodies grew red and burning, it became apparent 
that the body make-up I had found in the make-up box in the 
dressing room must have been purchased by Mr. Axeler from the 
leftover stock of some store in the village and had probably been 
lying on the shelves ever since local minstrel shows had gone out 
of style in the State of Vermont. Whatever ingredient it originally 
contained to make it wash off with soap and water had long since 
evaporated along with minstrel shows. 

I dispatched one of the musicians for a can of kerosene and we 


doused ourselves with it, but the stuff still clung in large black 
spots to various portions of our bodies and faces with octopus-like 
tenacity. It did not come off that night or the next morning, or for 
some weeks following. 

The musicians went off the following day and among some 
secluded rocks began to acquire an all-over tan; this helped some- 
what, in the sense that they finally achieved one color all over, with 
what appeared to be black polka dots underneath. But since I could 
not take the time out for a suntan, I walked around with my black 
spots open to view in all sorts of untoward places until the beginning 
of August. All that finally served to remind me of that night was 
the mustache I grew to hide an upper lip that still looked as though 
I might plunge into an imitation of Charlie Chaplin at any moment. 

But there was one figure of that summer that was to remain 
with me for thirty years afterward. His name was Joseph M. Hyman 
and he was a paying guest of the Half Moon Country Club. He had 
wandered into one of the last rehearsals of The Emperor Jones and 
had stood at the back for almost two hours quietly watching us. 
Now, a social director did not take kindly to guests wandering into 
the social hall during a rehearsal, but there was not much he or his 
staff could do about it. Since we could not order a guest out of the 
hall, our only defense against guests who plunked themselves down 
on chairs directly in front of the stage and stared at us while we 
rehearsed, was to give cues to each other in absolute whispers the 
moment any guests appeared. It always worked well. The starers 
and gapers, unable to hear anything of the rehearsal, grew bored 
quickly and usually wandered out of the hall in very short order. 
This particular guest, however, whom I had glimpsed out of the 
corner of my eye as he came into the social hall, did not plump him- 
self down into a chair in front of the stage, but remained where he 
was at the far end of the hall, watching and smoking one cigarette 
after the other until the rehearsal ended some two hours later. 

This was such strange behavior for a guest that I was sufficiently 
intrigued to come down from the stage, instead of leaving by the 
back door, and cross the length of the hall to where he still stood. 

"You're a bitter-ender," I said. "Like what you saw?" 


He did not reply, but offered me a cigarette instead. "How did you 
happen to get to a place like this?" he asked. "You deserve something 

"It's a long story," I replied. "I'm trapped like a rat for the summer 
anyway. You interested in the theatre?" I asked. 

Again he did not reply directly. "You seem to be pretty short- 
handed," he said. "If you need someone to work the lights and the 
curtain I'll be glad to help out. I'll make myself available for 
all the rest of the rehearsals whenever you need me." 

I looked at him, for he was obviously dead serious and the offer 
was a kind one — there was no doubt about how short-handed I 
was and how desperately I needed someone I could depend on to 
work the light cues and curtains. 

"You mean it?" I asked. "You have to stick around here a good 
many hours and maybe all night long on Friday. You won't get 
much chance to do anything else, you know." 

"I know," he replied, "but if you want me to, I'll do it. It's not 
such a big favor," he grinned. "From what I've seen of the other 
guests I won't be missing much!" 

"It's a big favor to me," I said gratefully. "Can you meet me back 
here about five o'clock ? I'll have the light cues all written down for 
you and we can go over them together." 

"Sure," he answered, and held out his hand. "My name is Joe 
Hyman, by the way." 

It was the first time I heard the name of the man that I was to turn 
to so many times afterward in time of distress or decision. We 
shook hands and walked down toward the lake together, neither 
one of us having the faintest awareness that at every critical moment 
of my life from that time onward Joe Hyman would always be at my 
side. He was then a man in his middle or late twenties, his gaunt 
and saturnine features indelibly trademarked by a smile of derision 
and disbelief that seemed to hover forever about his lips. In spite 
of his misanthropic mien, however, there was about him an aura 
of innate goodness that belied the cynical gleam in his eyes. He was 
stubborn, tactless, outrageously certain of his opinions, anti-social, 
and chronically unenthusiastic about life in general and people in 


particular, to almost the same extent that I was opposite in all these 
things. Two more diverse people in temperament and character 
would be hard to place side by side in enduring friendship. 

Yet out of this first meeting came one of the most rewarding 
relationships of my life. I suppose his passion for the theatre was 
the bond that initially sealed the friendship between us, for he was 
a businessman who hated business, and he was in fact as wide-eyed 
and stage-struck about the theatre as I was. For some reason, and it 
must have been a twisted reason of his own for he had a maddeningly 
perverse turn of mind, he believed in me immediately, and luckily 
for me he was a man of incorruptible honesty and steadfastness. 



Ly chief concern, now that the opening show and the 
opening week of camp were over, was for my father and brother. 
I had had no choice but to let them survive as best they could 
through these first two weeks, for I was having some difficulty in 
surviving them myself. I suspected, however, that whatever hopes I 
may have had of bridging the gap between my brother and myself 
had now grown slimmer, if indeed they had not vanished altogether. 

He had had, of course, no actual knowledge of what my duties 
as a social director would entail; but I knew that some of the postur- 
ings and foolishness he would see me engaged in would come as 
something of a shock to him, for he had never before seen this side 
of me; he was then, as now, a shy, private and intensely conventional 
fellow, but I took it for granted that in the loose and silly climate 
of camp he would accept my sometimes embarrassing behavior as a 
necessary part of my job. Unfortunately, he did not. Whatever 
hope there may have been for any kind of intimacy between us that 
summer vanished the day I stood in the doorway of the dining 
room dressed in that first ridiculous getup. 

He had a tray full of dirty dishes in his hands when I made my 
appearance as a Confederate general — and for a moment I thought 
he was going to let the tray drop to the floor. Instead, he stood staring 
at me as though he were looking into a distorting mirror in some 
nightmare amusement park, and then dashed out red-faced and 
indignant. At my subsequent appearances he scurried out of the 


dining room as fast as possible, as if to disclaim any part of family 
relationship between us, and he avoided me as much as possible — 
not without, however, casting a malevolent glance in my direction 
if our paths happened to cross. 

My father was an altogether different story — my father, in fact, 
turned out to be the surprise of the summer, for if my brother was 
seeing a side of me that he had never known before, I was seeing 
my father in an altogether new and quite astonishing way. From 
the night the canteen in the social hall opened and he stood behind 
the counter dispensing soft drinks, cigarettes and cigars, ten years 
seemed to drop from his shoulders and he became a loquacious, 
merry and delightful human being. He quickly established himself 
as a camp favorite, and he knew it and enjoyed every moment of his 

Though neither his sons nor his wife seemed to have been aware 
of it, the simple fact was that my father had grown increasingly 
lonely as his role in the family circle grew dimmer and as my 
mother's dominant personality gradually rubbed out his own more 
gentle one. He had withdrawn more and more silently into himself. 
As I returned home each evening, I had grown used to seeing him 
sitting at the window, wrapped in an old gray sweater. Now he 
blossomed in a hundred different enjoyable ways. There was some- 
thing heart-warming as well as faintly comic in seeing him hurrying 
all over camp at a fast clip, with never the slightest reference 
to the hacking cough that had seemed as much a part of him as the 
old gray sweater and his silence. 

The cough and the sweater and the silence disappeared forever, 
as his loneliness was replaced by the newly discovered pleasure of 
being accepted for the sunny creature he really was, now that he 
was at last relieved of the role of husband and provider, and there 
was never the slightest complaint about the terrible cubbyhole he 
slept in or the long hours he worked. I doubt if he noticed either 
one, so heartily did he continue to revel in and enjoy every moment 
of what was to me this most miserable of summers. 

I was grateful enough that this should be so, not only for his 
sake but for my own, for there was little I could have done about 


it in the way of help. The daily routine of camp activities was now 
in full swing, and as they ground steadily along I had time for 
little else but to grind ponderously along with them and to fall 
heavily into bed in the Bastille each night, trying not to lie too long 
awake in contemplation of the next day's program. 

After a few weeks I settled into a lengthy siege of melancholia, 
from which I could not seem to rouse myself and on which outward 
events, including the ever-recurring camp crises, major or minor, 
seemingly made no impression whatever. There is a point where 
bottled-up rage, combined with the continuous and unending 
drudgery of a job that one hates, can give rise to a kind of homi- 
cidal mania. By the end of July, when campiire nights, dress-up 
nights, games nights, Saturday night shows and guest parties all 
seemed to blur together in a stream of deadly tedium, I began to 
indulge in a series of conscious daytime fantasies that had a touch 
of the paranoiac in them. I would "fantasy" myself setting lire first 
to the social hall and then to the main building, and these fantasies 
were not merely simple instantaneous bursts of psychic satisfaction 
that flashed through my mind, but hour-long, consciously induced 
daydreams filled with minute and scrupulous detail, all constructed 
anew each day, with a beginning, a middle and an end. The end 
was always, of course, the gratifying picture of the charred remains 
of the Half Moon Country Club still smoking behind me as I took 
off down the road to the railroad station to catch the train for 
New York. 

Another manifestation of my sickly state of mind at this time 
was my deep and obsessive concern with money. I not only literally 
counted out every penny I spent, I grew incapable of spending the 
most trifling sum without experiencing a real and sharp stab of 
pain at the pit of my stomach, and almost without being aware that 
I was doing so, I gradually began spending less and less, until I had 
stopped using my money completely. Instead, I would stand by the 
canteen in the social hall of an evening and cadge cigarettes and 
Coca-Colas from the guests. I was open and shameless and com- 
pulsively driven into what was little short of outright begging night 


after night, and though I understood very well what I was doing, 
I could not stop. I would stand at a guest's elbow, staring hungrily 
at him as he smoked or drank, until he was sufficiently embarrassed 
to offer me a cigarette or a Coke, and for the space of six weeks I 
drew not one penny of my salary except the ten dollars I sent to 
my mother every Monday morning to pay for her room and board. 

For the last two weeks of this curious period I would not even 
buy toothpaste and did not brush my teeth at all, nor would I send 
out any laundry, since we had to pay for laundering ourselves, and 
I grew a sparse and scraggly beard in order not to buy razor blades 
and shaving cream. I was not only unshaven, but unwashed and 
dirty as well. Then, as strangely as it had begun, this obsession about 
money completely disappeared. With it a large portion of the 
melancholy and despair seemed to lift also, and I shaved off the beard 
and was clean once more. 

It was not that life in camp grew any more pleasant, for as the 
season rounded into August, the guests came in ever-increasing 
numbers, and the social activities pulsed and throbbed through every 
hour of the day and evening at a constantly accelerated pace. I think 
I finally was beginning to realize that the summer was coming to 
an end, a fact that had seemed to hold no reality at all for me during 
the endless month of July. Now that I believed it with some degree 
of inner conviction, I began to mark off the days remaining until 
Labor Day as I dropped off to sleep each night, much as prisoners 
are supposed to mark off a calendar as they await the end of their 
prison term, and the last two weeks of camp rushed headlong into 
the big Labor Day weekend almost without my being aware of it. 

On Labor Day night, as the curtains closed on the final show of 
the season, I stood on the stage stock-still for a long moment, wait- 
ing to have the realization that it was over and done with at last 
flood through every particle of my being — but nothing happened. 
I could feel nothing at all but the same dull insensibility with which 
I had managed to blot out so much of the summer. What we badly 
needed at this moment — waiters, musicians and all — was an innocent 
relief of some sort to snap the tension, such as the Great Mustard 
Fight at Camp Utopia. But we were all too weary, and desperately 


sick of each other and of the Half Moon Country Club, to do anything 
more than apathetically kick the footlights in, half-heartedly pile a 
mound of Coca-Cola bottles in the center of the stage for the social 
director of next summer to clean up, and then trudge silently off 
to bed. 

I looked around the Bastille for the last time and remembered my 
first horrified glimpse of it — it seemed years ago now — and tired 
as I was, I walked over to the garbage pails in back of the kitchen 
and came back with two paper bags full of garbage. It was a silly 
and mean thing to do, but I carefully placed the bags outside the 
door to be distributed the next morning under the wooden slats. 
Then, deeply satisfied and strangely wide-awake after this gratifying 
bit of malice, I began to pack. There was an early-morning train 
out, and what I now wanted more than anything else in the world 
was to collect my salary from Mr. Axeler and get my father, my 
brother and myself on that train. 

There was not going to be a moment wasted, if I could help it, in 
putting Mr. Axeler, his horse, his smile and his damnable environs 
behind us. I dropped off to sleep finally, allowing myself the last 
indulgence of a fantasy that consisted of returning to New York, 
forming an Association or Union of Social Directors, and black- 
listing Mr. Axeler and the Half Moon Country Club right off the 
summer-camp circuit forever. 

How absurd it was to dream of triumphing over Mr. Axeler in 
terms of anything except fantasy was exquisitely demonstrated the 
next morning in very short order. I had grown so used to accepting 
the unmistakable figure on horseback on some corner of the horizon 
as the first sight that greeted my eyes as I left the Bastille in the 
morning, that I was immediately conscious that something was 
amiss when I stepped out of the doorway for the last time and the 
horse and rider were nowhere to be seen. I was uneasily aware that 
the landscape lacked an unmistakable trademark, much as a sailor 
might be made uneasy if he were to sail into the Strait of Gibraltar 
and the Rock did not loom slowly out of the mist. My disquiet 
was heightened by an unusual amount of activity which could be 
heard going on in the office behind closed doors as I passed it on 


my way into the dining room, and I hurried through breakfast 
and came out to the desk to have a talk with Herb Morris. He, too, 
was nowhere to be seen, but I hung about a bit and finally the door 
to the office opened slightly and he emerged looking white-faced 
and shaken. 

A premonition of the disaster about to befall us swept over me, 
but I dismissed it instantly as being too macabre for even my active 
imagination to accept. "What's up?" I said to Herb. "What's going 
on in there? Where is Mr. Axeler? What's all the mystery about?" 

He shook his head and motioned me closer to the desk, his eyes 
large and solemn. "There's going to be a meeting of all the em- 
ployees — counselors, waiters, kitchen help, everybody — in the dining 
room at eleven o'clock," he whispered. 

"What for?" I whispered back. "What's happening?" 

"Mr. Axeler took the late train out of here for New York last 
night," he replied. "He left a letter. The partners got it this morning. 
There's only enough dough to get the kids and the counselors home 
by train. Nobody's going to get paid, not a cent. They're in there 
now trying to scare up enough money between them to get the rest 
of us home somehow. Even the waiters' pool of tips is gone." 

I stared at him stupidly, too stunned to take in quite everything 
he was saying. "I don't know what most of us are going to do for 
tuition money for the fall term," he went on. "It has to be paid by 
the fifteenth of September. Almost everyone let their salary ac- 
cumulate so they could use it for school." He looked at me sharply. 
"You drew most of yours during the summer, didn't you, to send 
home? You're lucky, brother." 

I shook my head at him, still unable to speak. He whistled softly 
and then sighed. "Well, we'll all get the glad news in a few minutes. 
I'll see you at the meeting — I gotta get back inside." He grabbed 
some ledgers from under the desk and disappeared into the office 
again. I stood where I was for a moment or so more, and then 
walked outside and wandered off into a field, avoiding everyone I 
saw. I did not want to be the bearer of this news or discuss it with 
anyone. I wanted time to think, but I could not seem to think clearly 
of what had to be faced now, and quickly, too; nor could I bear to 


try to find my father and brother and break the news to them myself 

I could think only of the boils I had suffered, the filth I had slept 
in, the sweat and loathing I had poured into every moment of this 
horrible summer; and I reflected bitterly that in some way I should 
have known this would happen and been smart enough to have with- 
drawn my full salary week by week. Of course, this was sheer 
nonsense, for there was no way I could have foreseen this ultimate 
disaster. But the more I thought of it, the more insanely sensible 
it seemed that I should have known it, and I wandered over the 
fields in a torment of self-contempt at my brainlessness and a blazing 
fury at Mr. Axeler. Had that horse of his turned up at that moment 
I would have tossed rocks at the poor animal. 

At eleven o'clock I joined the employees' meeting in the dining 
room. They all knew the worst now and sat in grim silence as one 
of the two partners spelled out the extent of the carnage and what 
little they could do about it. We were all to be given notes for our 
salary, which were to be paid in full as soon as possible in the fall — 
a grandiose promise that fooled nobody ; and the waiters' pool of tips 
was to be figured on the basis of other years' pools, and that, too, 
was to be paid in full. And since the children were of first con- 
sideration and would have to be sent back by train, the counselors 
would accompany them; and all the others would be given an equal 
amount for railroad fare that would take them as close to where 
they were going as the sum allowed. The rest of the way they would 
have to hitchhike. 

As far as I could make out then and afterward, Mr. Axeler had 
not actually absconded with any money, but had simply not kept 
his partners directly informed as to the true state of the camp's 
income and outgo — not unnaturally a somewhat difficult job to per- 
form while in the saddle. And since his partners had been no more 
successful in catching him unhorsed than the rest of us, he had smiled 
his way through the summer and only dismounted long enough to 
write them the letter they had found in the safe this morning instead 
of the money. 

We lined up glumly in front of the table while a sad-faced partnei 


doled out a sum to each of us for train fare that would at least 
take us out of Vermont. 

I stood beside my father and brother in the line. Their reaction 
to what had happened was typical, in a special way, of each of 
them. My father remained unruffled and philosophical, his chief 
regret (or so it seemed) being only that this blissful summer was at 
an end. He seemed unaware of, or unwilling to face, the fact that 
our always shaky financial structure had finally and at last hit rock 
bottom; but I did not press the point upon him. I was grateful 
enough for his sunny good humor. His lifelong habit of blotting out 
anything that was "upsetting" or "unpleasant," a trait which I had 
always found infuriating, I now accepted with relief and gratitude. 
For the first time I envied and almost admired what I had always 
considered a cardinal weakness of my father's character. 

My brother remained silent as usual, but there was no hint of 
recrimination in his attitude. I think perhaps we were closer together 
at that moment than we had ever been before. He knew quite as 
well as I did how desperate our situation was, and that the sorry fix 
we were in, to say nothing of this whole miserable summer he had 
suffered through, had originated with me. But his silence conveyed 
understanding, not blame. There is a quality of silence quite as verbal 
as words, and his wordless sympathy formed the first slim bond that 
had ever existed between us. Though we did not speak, our eyes 
occasionally met as my father burbled on, and I correctly detected 
an unspoken agreement between us to share this family crisis 
together and say nothing. I began to feel better in spite of myself — 
sharing a common disaster always lightens the burden — and my 
spirits lifted still further when it turned out that after buying my 
father a ticket straight through to New York, there would still be 
enough money left to get my brother and myself as far as Albany. 

This was far better than I had dared hope. The sad-faced partners 
had behaved like gentlemen. With a little luck on the road we might 
be able to make it in little more than a day and a night. 

It was not, as it turned out, either a hard or unpleasant journey. 
Had we had enough extra money to buy food, it would actually have 


been a quite enjoyable way of traveling. Hitchhiking was an accepted 
courtesy of the road in those days, and we thumbed our way from 
one car to another with no difficulty whatsoever. Hunger, however 
— real hunger, not the hunger of an appetite waiting with the knowl- 
edge that it will soon be appeased — was something that neither my 
brother nor myself had ever experienced before, and we learned 
quickly enough what a devilish traveling companion it can be. I 
discovered on that journey that there is an appetite beyond hunger — 
an appetite beyond appetite, that comes from the contemplating of 
hunger itself — and it is an experience I have no wish to repeat, 
despite the testimony of saints and martyrs of the state of grace that 
is achieved once the demands of the body are spurned and over- 

If ever I needed an illustration that I am an earthbound creature, 
tied to the gross and ignominious demands of my body, I received 
it on that hitchhike, for when we left the train at Albany, we had 
little more than the subway fare we would need to get home with. 
That little we soon spent as the first pangs of hunger attacked us. 
For the rest of the way, though it was not long in terms of time, 
we simply did without. It was an unedifying twenty-four hours. 
Hunger seems to etch each gnawingiy empty moment with a re- 
markable clarity, and I can still recall with acid sharpness the 
tantalizing picture of a small child seated alone at the roadside, 
a large box of raisins in its lap, cramming fistfuls into its mouth, 
while I stood watching it malignantly— and I remember the over- 
whelming temptation I had to grab the box of raisins and run, 
though I either lacked the courage or was not yet quite hungry 
enough to do so. 

I remember, too, quite as vividly, watching a man at a gas station 
toss a half-eaten sandwich onto a rubbish heap, where it lay a little 
dusty but still quite edible, and considering whether to pick it up 
surreptitiously after he had moved away. Again I did not possess 
sufficient courage, or some foolish nicety of pride prevented my 
boldly snatching at it. But I am certain that, given a few hours 
more of hunger, no such civilized considerations would have stopped 
me from making straightaway for that bit of bread and meat and 


gobbling it up, no matter who was watching. I have always readily 
understood since then how a hungry man could contemplate crack- 
ing a safe or smashing a bakery window, and it has never surprised 
me that the stark streak of barbarism beneath the surface in all of 
us is but thinly held in check. 

Nevertheless, we arrived back in the Bronx not one bit the worse 
for our fast, except for an excessive irritability on my part, and on 
my brother's, an alarming tendency to be sick after each mouthful 
he ate. There was not much time, however, to waste on either 
irritability or an upset stomach. 

My mother's furnished room, now occupied by my father as 
well, was luckily paid for until the beginning of the following week, 
and the landlady had already agreed that my brother and I could 
sleep on the sofa in her living room for a night or two; she would 
also trust us for meals. But it was plain that this arrangement, good- 
willed as it was, could not last for more than a few days at most. 
The landlady had troubles of her own and could ill afford to add 
ours to them. We were, if we dared to face the fact honestly, actually 
homeless, and though a strange roof was temporarily over our heads, 
we were, except for the remnants of the last ten dollars I had sent 
her that remained in my mother's purse, penniless as well. 

At no one time that I could remember had our fortunes been 
at this low an ebb. Again my mother surprised me. Her defenses 
where her family was concerned were paper-thin, and her given way 
in a crisis was usually to dissolve into helpless tears as a practical 
method of meeting the crisis head-on. But now, as on the day of our 
leave-taking for camp, she remained dry-eyed and clear-minded. She 
had even, awaiting my return, written down on the back of an en- 
velope a list of a number of relatives, and beside each name she had 
set down a sum she thought it likely we might be able to borrow 
from them. 

I took the envelope and quickly added up the column of figures. 
It was woefully inadequate for our needs. As closely as I could figure 
it, we needed not less than $200 to see our furniture out of storage, 
including the transportation of it to wherever we went, and with 
the month's rent in advance that was always demanded on a new 


apartment, plus the amount we would need to live on until I could 
get my little-theatre work started again in late October — all this 
could not possibly be managed on less than $200, a sum that would 
loom large at any time but at this particular moment seemed 

We knew not a single soul, either relative or friend, who possessed 
enough ready cash to allow the borrowing of $200. Poor people 
know poor people, and rich people know rich people. It is one of 
the few things La Rochefoucauld did not say, but then La Roche- 
foucauld never lived in the Bronx. 

I stared hard at the envelope and hopefully enlarged the sum my 
mother had set beside each relative's name. It came to no more in 
aggregate than a paltry $110. I refused point-blank to borrow it. 
To borrow this money and dissipate it on furnished rooms, I pointed 
out, critical though our situation was, would only serve to precipitate 
a worse crisis in very short order. There was, of course, an ever-pres- 
ent alternative, but the thought of it was chilling. The alternative 
was to face the blunt fact that my scheme of social directing in the 
summers and little-theatre work in the winters was not going to 
work. If that was true, there seemed to be no choice but to give up 
the idea of writing plays and take a regular job in the workaday 
world tomorrow morning. I did not suggest this. I barely allowed 
myself to think it. It had taken so long to get this far and, incon- 
siderable though the distance was, I clung fiercely to the advantage 
of having my days free to write. It represented the one good 
chance I had of entering the theatre again, and to give it up, to 
turn back now, I felt, was to turn away from the theatre forever. 

I well remembered Eddie's admonition: Never go back — you're 
swallowed up if you do! It sounded in my ears again with an ir- 
revocable rightness. Self-pity is not a pleasant emotion and it is a 
fruitless one as well, for its point of no return is an onset of black 
despair in very short order. I gave way to both now. I sat silent 
for so long a time that my mother finally began to clear the dishes 
from the table. I knew they were all waiting for me to speak, to 
come to some sort of decision, but I could not. I was dissolved in a 
kind of wild panic — a new and sudden panic that had nothing to do 


with our present reality. I could not put a name to it, though I could 
dimly surmise its content. 

I have always had a strong, almost an overpowering, sense of 
family unity. Its roots are perhaps racial and lost in the atavistic past 
of a people whose history is a stern one; or it may be that I had 
inherited a good deal more than I suspected of my mother's own 
deep feeling of family ties. I felt those ties slipping away now, felt 
our family, small as it was, disintegrating before my eyes. It was 
the unreasoning panic one feels as a child, not as an adult. I was 
gripped by an intense anxiety, by wave after wave of a heart-clutch- 
ing fear that left me without speech. I cannot recall another emotion 
so engulfing, so choking in its intensity, and I believe some remnants 
of that moment remain with me still. It could account in some 
measure for my curious habit in later years — a habit of such repetitive 
pattern that it might almost come under the heading of "mania" — 
of buying apartments and houses, decorating them to the hilt, and 
then abandoning them with almost the same compulsive ferocity 
that had given me no rest until they were furnished, with every 
match box and ashtray in place. It was as if no one apartment, no 
one house, was ever secure enough against the picture of family 
dissolution I still carried with me. 

The new one ... the next one . . . and the grander one, was al- 
ways the house or apartment that would push the panic safely and 
farther away, and forever shatter the picture of sitting around that 
table in a stranger's kitchen, with no home of our own. It may be, 
too, that the buying sprees at Carder's were tantamount to the end- 
less decorating of houses, the sets of gold cuff links and shirt studs, 
the countless gold cigarette cases and keys and chains and rings and 
watches that I bought so heedlessly — all were talismans against a 
repetition of that moment. 

I got up from that table now and walked out of the kitchen and 
out of the house. The house was about three blocks distant from our 
old place, and I walked back to where we used to live and stared 
up at the fourth-floor windows. Our apartment was already rented, 
the window of the front room, where my brother and I had slept for 
so many years, inevitably draped with a woman's figure leaning 


out, a small child on either side of her, all of them staring idly down 
into the street below, much as my brother and I had done in our 
early childhood. Even now, with the few coins from my mother's 
purse jingling in my pocket — all the money we possessed in the 
world — it was still a comfort, a victory of sorts, to be out of those 
hated rooms and to know that we would never go back. 

I felt decidedly better for having looked at it. Anything, even our 
present state, was better than living in the symbol of defeat those 
rooms had become for me. The sight of the familiar windows, the 
discolored stoop with the broken railings leading down into the 
janitor's apartment, the fire escapes laden with stunted geraniums 
and drooping rubber plants, had the tonic effect of clearing my 
mind of all regret and stiffening the resolve that was already taking 
shape in my mind. I had only to think of it as our home once again 
and to envisage walking up those steps into the dirty hallway and of 
climbing those four flights of stairs, to know that being homeless 
was not the worst of all possible evils. The real evil was to live on 
in it, not to fight one's way out, and suddenly I was able to think 
clearly again. To turn back now was to give up more than just the 
idea of becoming a playwright — it was to relinquish as well the 
vision of a way of life. I knew now that I was not prepared to give 
up my chance at that vision without a struggle. Somewhere in this 
city must be someone who could lend me $200. There must be 
someone I had not thought of or had forgotten, someone who must 
be remembered now. 

I thought at once of the richest person I had ever known — Mrs. 
Henry B. Harris. She had liked me and she was a woman given to 
impulsive generosity. I turned away and walked quickly toward the 
candy store on the corner. To the side of it were the same steps I 
had sat on, in those summers that now seemed of an altogether far- 
away and ancient time, telling the gang stories of Dreiser and Frank 
Norris, buying my way with the only coin I possessed. It had seemed 
easy enough to dream of the theatre then. 

There was another group of kids on the steps now, another gang 
almost indistinguishable from my old one, and I looked at them 
enviously. Whatever dreams they were having of growing up would 


be safer dreams than my own had been. The theatre, in more ways 
than one, is a curse. 

I looked up Mrs. Harris' number in the telephone book and gave 
the number to the operator. The connection was made almost too 
quickly. Mrs. Harris was out of the city and would not be returning 
until late November. So much for the richest person I knew. 

I thought briefly of Mr. Pitou, but he was not rich in the sense 
Mrs. Harris was, and I had cost him dearly enough already. He had 
every reason to refuse me, even if I could think of a good enough 
reason to ask for the money, and I did not relish the asking. I longed 
for Eddie to be back from South Africa, not that he was likely to 
possess $200, but because he was always wildly ingenious in situ- 
ations that demanded evoking money out of thin air; and I was of 
a mind, in this present moment, to clutch at straws and miracles, 
even of Eddie's unsteady kind. I considered briefly going to Wash- 
ington Heights and asking Eddie's parents for the money. They 
knew me, of course. But even as I thought of it, I knew that it was 
unlikely they would have it to give, nor had I any right to ask it 
of them. 

I began to thrash wildly about the back corners of my mind. 
Priestly Morrison might give it to me, for he had been quite out- 
spoken in his belief that I could write, in spite of his close acquaint- 
ance with The Beloved Bandit, but I had no idea of where to find 
him. He did not seem to be listed in the telephone directory; but 
even as I turned the pages, vainly seeking his name, the name of 
another who had evinced a belief in my ability flashed into my mind. 
Joe Hyman. He had come back to camp once more during the sum- 
mer, and again he had worked the lights and curtains, and again we 
had talked at length about the theatre. It was stretching our slim 
summer acquaintance a good deal to call it a friendship, but I had 
gathered in one of our talks that he was a full partner in the second 
largest knitwear business in the city, and that was enough for me to 

For a terrible moment I could not remember the trade name of 
the concern, and his own name was not listed separately, but then 
it came to me and I gave the number to the operator in a voice that 


was considerably more husky than my usual one. The words "last 
chance" seemed to glow on and off in the glass door of the tele- 
phone booth as I gave my name to a voice that said, "Holman 
Knitting Mills, good afternoon," and waited. 

Joe Hyman came to the phone immediately and his voice was 
warm and welcoming. He would be in the office all afternoon, he 
said, and he would be glad to see me any time I came. I would be 
there within half, an hour, I informed him, a little breathlessly. I 
hung up the receiver and bought myself a cherry soda to steady my 
nerves. I must make sure to present my request for the money 
correctly. There would be no second chance; no new $200-names 
flashing providentially into my mind if I failed. 

On the subway ride downtown I thought of something else he 
had said in one of our talks together. I reminded him of it as I 
sat across the desk from him in his office, although not at all in the 
way that I had intended. Anyone who has ever sat across a desk 
from another man and asked him for money knows what an un- 
pleasant and unhappy business it is. Like the effort to end a love 
affair, there is no nice way of doing it. I struggled through a few 
minutes of chatter, and then in spite of the fine dignified scene I 
had played out for both of us in my mind coming downtown in 
the subway, the words began to emerge quite differently. I was 
startled to hear myself speaking in a belligerent tone, wholly foreign 
to the way I felt and which I could do nothing to modify. 

"If you meant what you said," I was saying aggressively, "this is 
the chance for you to get into the theatre. You told me this summer 
you wanted to sell your share in the business some day and produce 
plays. Well, I'm going to write plays, and if you'll lend me two 
hundred dollars you can produce them. This is a good chance for 

I stopped, as astonished as though someone else had been speaking. 
Even to my own ears it sounded crude and insufferably patronizing. 
What a way, I thought numbly, of asking a comparative stranger 
for money! What in the world had prevented me from telling him 
simply and truthfully that I was dead-broke and that without his 
help I might have to give up the idea of play-writing entirely. The 


truth was simple enough, and it had a ring of decency about it in 
contrast to the hollow nonsense I had just spoken that must have 
rung as falsely in his ears as it did in my own. 

I stared miserably across the desk at him. He had listened to me 
quite straight-faced, but now he smiled. "All right," he said, "we're 
partners. Do you want it in cash or by check ?" 

"Cash," I replied quietly, too surprised to add a "thank you." He 
reached into his wallet and counted out $200. 

"You go ahead and write 'em," he said, handing me the bills, 
"and maybe I will do just that . . . sell this business and produce 
plays. Not right away, perhaps, but someday. Meanwhile, I'll be 
around if you need me to manage your fortune." 

I said "Thank you" a little lamely and we shook hands. 

I rode the subway back uptown, with my hand clutched around 
the bills in my pants pocket so tightly that I could hardly open it 
when I arrived safely back in the Bronx. It was more money than I 
had ever seen at one time ; more money than I think my parents had 
ever seen at one time before, too, when I tossed it on the bed in my 
mother's room. They stared hard at it and at me, as though to make 
sure I had not stolen it, but I brushed all their questions impatiently 
aside. The story of Joe Hyman could wait. What I wanted now was 
the details of the apartment for rent in Brooklyn that my mother 
had written to me about a few weeks earlier. I wanted the move 
made by tomorrow night, if possible. Not one penny of this money 
was going to be wasted on furnished rooms while we shopped around 
for an apartment, if I could help it. We had been too close to the 
edge for me to relish looking over it again. 

My mother had not actually seen the apartment. It had been 
looked at by some Brooklyn relatives and reported on as a pleasant 
three rooms in a new building, within the price we could afford 
for rent without taking in boarders. 

"Take it," I said without hesitation. "Go downstairs and phone 
them to take it for us, and tell them we'll be out there tomorrow 
morning to pay the deposit." 

"But we've never seen it," my mother protested. "And it's over an 


hour's subway ride away — it's only one station from Coney Island." 

Brooklyn, then as now, seemed another country to inbred New 
Yorkers, and to my mother's loyal Bronx ears I might well have been 
suggesting a trek into the western wilderness. 

"It doesn't matter," I insisted. "The only thing that matters is to 
get settled quickly. I'll phone the storage people while you're talking 
to Brooklyn. I want to be in that apartment by tomorrow night." 

My sense of urgency prevailed. Even Santini Brothers, the storage 
and moving people, who were generally not prepared to act this 
quickly in what was their busiest month, succumbed to the bribe 
of an extra five dollars for hurrying. The infinite speed that only 
money can buy was not lost upon me. In less than an hour all ar- 
rangements had been made, and at eight o'clock the next morning 
we were on our way to Brooklyn. The furniture, I was assured, 
would be arriving by ten. It was something to know we would be 
eating a meal in a kitchen of our own by evening. 

Our new home was indeed well over an hour's subway ride from 
even Times Square, a fact that was to devil me considerably later 
on, but now I could only enjoy the idea that we were getting almost 
as far away from the Bronx as it was possible to get. That single fact 
in itself was of no small moment in my eyes, though the new apart- 
ment was something of a shock to all of us. The three tiny rooms 
on the ground floor dashed the fond hopes we had held after 
gazing admiringly at the brand-new building they were in, but 
compared with what we had left they were the Taj Mahal as far as 
I was concerned. 

The building itself had a little forecourt with trees and a tiny 
fountain, around which was set on three sides, with no protruding 
fire escapes, the apartment house itself. Our apartment had evidently 
been designed as a superintendent's or janitor's quarters. It lay 
directly at the entranceway and conveyed a view from all its win- 
dows of moving feet on the street outside; there was no sense of 
privacy, unless the shades were kept drawn at all hours. 

With the six rooms of furniture that my mother had insisted on 
keeping, those tiny rooms would be overpoweringly cluttered, but 
no matter. At last there would be no other people moving about in 


them but ourselves. I paid the deposit to the superintendent, and as 
the moving van arrived in front of the building, I announced I was 
going for a walk to explore the neighborhood while the van was 
being unloaded and our belongings moved in. This was true only in 
part. The actual truth was that I was ashamed of seeing our shabby 
furniture brought in under the curious eyes of our new neighbors, 
and snobbish enough to want to detach myself from the scene. 

I walked hurriedly away from the building as the moving men 
started to unload the van. I stopped after a block or so at a candy 
and stationery store to buy some pads of yellow paper. I also wanted 
to know if there was another beach this close to Coney Island. It 
might be a place to work until we got settled in. There was indeed 
another beach, eight or nine blocks away, straight ahead in the 
direction I had been going. I bought a supply of candy bars and a 
box of cheese crackers and headed for it. 

It was a sweet, mild September morning and I was surprised to 
find the beach deserted. There was not a soul to be seen upon it. It 
was a stretch of sand that edged the bay, and if it was always as 
empty as this, I decided, it would be an excellent place to work until 
the weather drove me indoors. I felt fatigued, but the impulse to 
get to work was strong. Time presses terribly at twenty, in con- 
tradiction to the testimony of the senescent, who claim the years 
of age fly by with winged speed; or time pressed upon my own 
impatient spirit with a passionate sense of life passing by that only 
twenty can feel. 

I looked across the bay to Manhattan, and for a moment my high 
spirits were dampened as I reflected that I seemed to be moving 
farther and farther away from Broadway instead of closer to it. 
Only for a fleeting moment, however. For on this special day noth- 
ing could dampen my high spirits for long. It seemed to me I had 
grasped one of the theatre's deepest secrets. Survival. This hidden 
secret is seldom spoken of in books or schools that teach the hopeful 
how to act or how to write plays. The Art of Survival is seldom even 
mentioned. Yet it is as prime a requisite for a theatrical career as 
talent itself, for with an ability to survive, everything is possible, 
and without it . . . nothing. 


I knew that I would survive now, that I would get on with the 
business of writing plays, and keep on with it no matter what other 
Mr. Axelers the future held in store. To be concerned now about 
whether any of those plays would ever see a Broadway production 
seemed like an ungrateful repayment for the almost miraculous good 
luck that had taken me this far. Whatever guardian angel there was 
watching benignly over me, he had produced Joe Hyman, some 
pads of yellow paper, and an empty, sunny beach; and in the light 
of what had happened these last three days, I could ask for no further 

I fixed a mound of sand to lean against, waggled my backside into 
it for a more comfortable seat, and settled down to write a play. 



.our years later, almost to the exact day and at almost the 
identical spot on the beach where I had sat four years earlier, I sat 
again, my pockets stuffed with a supply of candy bars, a pad of 
yellow paper again on my knees. It seemed to me remarkable that 
so much and so little had happened since that other September morn- 
ing when I had first made my way to this same spot. 

I had returned only a day or two before from another season of 
social directing, but this time as social director of the Flagler Hotel, 
the Fontainebleau of the Catskills. In those four years I had gone, 
like Kansas City, about as far as I could go. I was now the most 
highly paid, the most eagerly sought-after social director of the 
Borscht Circuit. The summer of my novitiate at Camp Utopia and 
my summer of serfdom at the Half Moon Country Club were bitter 
but distant memories, something to be told to the staff as laughable 
but almost unbelievable tales out of the past, considering my present 
high eminence. 

This past summer at the Flagler, I had arrived for the beginning 
of the season with a personal staff of twenty-six people, not including 
waiters or musicians. The staff included not only a future night- 
club headliner and two future soloists of the Philharmonic Orchestra, 
but it also included as my chief assistant a solemn-faced young man 
of quiet but unswerving ambition, named Dore Schary. My position 
as King of the Borscht Circuit was largely undisputed. My chief 
competitor in the field was one Don Hartman, the social director 


of Grossinger's Hotel — a curious quirk of circumstance, considering 
the fact that Dore Schary was to become head of Metro-Goldwyn- 
Mayer and Hartman the head of Paramount Pictures. Not one of 
us would have believed this to be in the realm of even remote possi- 
bility in that summer of 1929 — though we were, all three of us, not 
inclined to be modest in our estimates of what the future held in 

A good deal more than just my own status as a social director had 
changed during those years. Camps and hotels with social staffs had 
taken an enormous leap forward. Money was plentiful and the com- 
petition keen. Both camps and hotels kept enlarging their social 
staffs and bettering their ability to provide greater social activities, 
particularly in the realm of shows, with each new summer. 

The Flagler Hotel, whose proprietors had begun to feel the cut- 
ting edge of displacement by their deadliest rival, Grossinger's, had, 
the summer before I arrived, decided to build the finest social hall 
on the Borscht Circuit and engage the best social director, barring 
Don Hartman, that they could get to run it. They had built what 
was, when I arrived to take it over, a completely equipped little 
theatre seating fifteen hundred people, whose electrical switchboard, 
fly loft and scenery dock compared more than favorably with some 
New York theatres. It was the pride of the Catskills. Its audience 
dressed to the hilt for the Friday and Saturday night shows. At the 
height of the season, such was my weighty reputation as a social 
director by then, overflow crowds came from other hotels from miles 
around to see the shows, even though they were charged an admis- 
sion fee, and on Saturday nights a couple of hundred were always 
turned away. 

As the director in charge of all this grandeur, I had long since 
disdained to stoop to such primitive means of thievery as sneaking 
into theatres during intermissions and standing at the back with a 
pocket flashlight to scribble notes on a program. My seats to theatres 
were now paid for by whatever camp I chose to give the benefit of my 
services the following season, and I was accompanied by a stenogra- 
pher, also paid for, who at the touch of my fingers at her elbow, 


would take down exactly and expertly whatever portions I wanted 
stolen of the particular show we were witnessing. 

Even during the camp season itself, the demands of my time 
were no longer incessant. I did not participate to any great extent 
in campfire nights and games nights, and though I still sang "boy 
and girl" numbers in the musical shows and performed the redoubt- 
able "Mrs. Cohen at the Beach" several times each season, it was 
the ability, week after week, to present full-length plays like The 
Show-Off and The Trial of Mary Dugan, and short ones like The 
Valiant — which Dore Schary played to perfection — that kept the 
social hall jammed and kept Don Hartman, a few miles away at 
Grossinger's, well up on his toes. 

Had I been prepared to derive any sense of pleasure from these 
triumphs, I would have been forced to agree that I had come a long 
way from the days when Eddie and I, and afterward I alone, had 
dragged the wood for the campfires and the blankets for the guests 
to sit on out to the woods unassisted; a long way indeed from the 
indignity of wearing, in lieu of my own clothes, the remnants of 
the camp wardrobe trunk, and a longer way still from being at the 
mercy of Mr. Axeler and his ilk, or sitting glassy-eyed with exhaus- 
tion through bunk parties I dared not refuse to attend. 

But not a long enough way, I thought sardonically, to be any 
farther than this beach I was still sitting on come each new Septem- 
ber. I had now survived six summers of social directing, and six 
winters of little-theatre work, and with each winter I had faithfully 
kept to my intent and completed a play. All of them reposed 
safely and out of sight on the top of an unused shelf in the kitchen. 
The seventh awaited only the pencil I held in my hand to start taking 
shape on die yellow pad of blank paper on my knee. I gazed across 
the bay to Manhattan, as I had done at the start of each of these 
Septembers, but not quite as hopefully, not with the same certainty 
that this would be the last September I would be here. 

All six plays had been submitted and read by the play readers 
of the best managements on Broadway, and all six had been speedily 
refused and returned. Somewhere or other along the line, I was in 
error; an error either of thinking or of execution. Each successive 


play had been better than the one before, of this I was convinced, 
if only in terms of professionalism. I had taken great pains to better 
each play's craftsmanship. I no longer allowed myself to be seduced 
by the dangerously sweet music of my own words. I played them 
back, as it were, and listened with a cold and critical ear. The last 
two had been written, I thought, with a greater degree of economy 
and a surer sense of the theatre than I had ever achieved before. 
Yet these, also, had been promptly and unregretfully returned. Un- 
questionably, some necessary element or ingredient was missing 
in those plays, some one aspect of writing for the theatre had es- 
caped me — barring, of course, the unpleasant possibility that I lacked 
any talent for play-writing whatever. I was altogether unprepared 
to accept this last assumption as a fact, true or not. At least, not yet, 
but it seemed to me a reckoning of some sort was not only necessary 
but long overdue. For one thing, I was aware that social directing 
could not go on forever. Fads and fashions changed in social 
directing as much as in anything else, so that this year's top social 
director might well be the summer after next's assistant, or even a 
mere member of the staff. Even so, I roughly estimated that I still 
had three big-league summers left and I was determined to make 
the most of them. Making the most of them, however, did not 
include simply doing more of the same, if that meant finishing a play 
each winter and returning to this beach each fall to write still an- 

Continuous and heedless writing, a dogged plowing ahead in 
spite of failure, represents industry and little else if it does not also 
include a willingness to explore the anatomy of that failure. I was 
prepared not to set down another word on paper until I had satis- 
fied myself that I was at least using the tools correctly; and I had 
reached a point where I was no longer certain, in spite of a growing 
technical dexterity, that this was so. There was an indication of a 
kind that I was not. In my pocket reposed a letter that was to have 
a considerable effect upon me. It was from Richard J. Madden, of 
the American Play Company, to whom I had sent two or three 
plays, and his letter was one of two rejections I had received 
at camp a few weeks earlier. Mr. Madden had written at some length 


explaining his own refusal, and it was not so much what he said as 
the fact that his words mirrored, to a great extent, the content of 
the other letter. 

Both readers were kindly disposed to consider future plays of 
mine, but in Mr. Madden's words, "Since by far the best part of 
the plays you have sent us have been the comedic moments, why not 
try writing a comedy? I am inclined to believe very strongly that 
you could turn out a good one." I read the letter through again, 
then put it back in my pocket, still as frankly and thoroughly 
puzzled as I had been at its first reading. It had never occurred 
to me that any of the six dramas I had written contained any 
comedic moments at all, other than those demanded by the char- 
acters themselves and in very sparse terms at that. 

There was a logical reason for this. I was a full-blown snob so 
far as comedy was concerned. My gods of the theatre still remained 
Shaw, whom I considered a writer of political and social ideas rather 
than comedy, and O'Neill, who represented the drama of the emo- 
tions. Like all snobs, I dismissed everything in between. I had no 
taste for the popular comedies of the day and little admiration for 
those who could turn them out successfully. I had no idea whatever 
of how to go about writing a comedy, for my own idea of comedy 
did not seem to be at all the popular conception. Only in the 
comedies of George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly did there seem 
to be a kinship with my own sense of the ridiculous and the out- 
rageous. They were the exception to my snobbishness. I did not 
look down my nose so far as Dulcy, To the Ladies, Beggar on Horse- 
Bac\ or Merlon of the Movies were concerned, but it seemed to me 
utter foolishness to try to ape these two masters of the form. They 
ruled unquestioned and absolute in the field of satirical writing 
for the theatre. Nobody else could touch them. 

With a bravado I did not feel, I considered Madden's letter again, 
for if I could bring myself to attempt a comedy it would only be in 
the tradition of Kaufman and Connelly, or not at all, and I was 
neither so brave nor so innocent as to consider that an easy under- 
taking. Nevertheless, if I was going to examine the reasons for my 
failure realistically, it was pure blockheadedness not to gravely 


estimate the truth of Maddens words. If he was right, then I was 
wasting my time by turning out pseudo Shaw and O'Neill year 
after year. If whatever capacity or talent I possessed might lean in 
quite another direction, I could do no better than try to prove it or 
disprove it to my own satisfaction. I most certainly had little to lose 
in trying. Again my predilection toward omens and portents played 
a decisive part. This would be my seventh play, and seven was a 
lucky number. I decided to try a comedy. 

A little grumpily I removed the mantle of Shaw and O'Neill 
from my shoulders and regarded the yellow pad of paper on my 
lap. Without thinking too much about it, I scribbled a title across 
the blank sheet. I usually came by a title last, sometimes quite a 
while after the play itself was finished, for titles seemed to me, then 
as now, the least important part of a play, but I had a slight comedic 
idea in the back of my mind that this title would fit. It seemed also 
to suggest neatly what I was certain would be my one and only 
attempt at writing a comedy. The title I had scribbled across the 
paper was Once in a Lifetime, and staring down at it, I began to 
block out in my mind the opening scenes of the play. 

It will be remembered that talking pictures had arrived with the 
impact of a thunderbolt in 1928, and by 1929 Hollywood, at first 
skittish and unbelieving, was shaken to its roots and in the midst 
of a tremendous economic and artistic upheaval. I had, of course, 
never been anywhere near Hollywood, but this did not stop me 
from imagining what might conceivably be happening in Holly- 
wood now with the sudden advent of talking pictures. 

A comedy, particularly a satirical comedy, is always conditioned 
by its author's attitude to the manners and mores of the climate in 
which he lives, and it would seem that a thoroughgoing first-hand 
knowledge of what he is writing about would be his first necessity. 
This is not always true, particularly so far as satire is concerned. 
It is sometimes far better for a writer to allow a lively imagination 
to roam over the field he has chosen than to research that field 
within an inch of its life — the danger being that what emerges is 
likely to be all research and no play. By and large, an audience 
usually knows as much as an author does before he starts his re- 


search, and that is all they want to know or should know. The 
author's creative imagination and satirical viewpoint must do the 
rest. An audience is not interested in how hard the author has 
worked at his research or how much material he has unearthed, and 
they do not take kindly to his parading in front of the footlights his 
hard-earned knowledge. They are quite right. They have not come 
to a schoolroom; they have come to a theatre. 

I did not consider that my complete ignorance of Hollywood 
or of the making of motion pictures was any bar whatever to my 
writing about both with the utmost authority, and I proceeded to do 
so with the invaluable help of that renowned trade paper, Variety. 
A weekly copy of Variety was the full extent of the research I did 
on Once in a Lifetime, and I could not have done better. Variety 
viewed the Hollywood scene with a shrewd and shifty eye. Not 
taken in by Hollywood's boasts or wails of protest, its reporting of 
the current crisis was first-rate. Between the lines of the special 
language used by its writers to put a declarative sentence into simple 
English, a cunning eye could catch an enveloping glimpse of the 
wonderful absurdity of the Hollywood scene. I read every word 
Variety wrote about it, and no oceanographer or marine botanist 
ever came up out of the Sargasso Sea with more prime specimens 
than I did out of those weekly issues. In a very real sense, the play 
might well have been dedicated "With love" and "Without whom" 
to that astute and all-knowing journal. 

To my surprise, the play itself was finished in something under 
three weeks' time, a fact which I viewed with something akin to 
alarm. I genuinely mistrusted the ease with which I had written it, 
for I had never written a play, barring that first abortive effort for 
Augustus Pitou, in anything short of four to six months' time. I took 
it for granted, I do not know quite why, that the more agony a 
play generated in the writing, the better it was likely to emerge as 
a play. I am inclined to believe now that the very opposite is likely 
to be true. Agonizing effort has a way somehow of permeating the 
stage and drifting out across the footlights. 

The airiest comedies, the most delightful ones to watch, are usually 
the ones in which the author has shared some of the audience's 


delight beforehand, and there was no question that I had had a very 
good time indeed in writing Once in a Lifetime — a good enough 
time to make me thoroughly suspicious of it. I had no idea whether 
it was very good or no good at all. I read it over several times, trying 
to measure its worth against the standards of the Kaufman and 
Connelly comedies, but I could come to no conclusion. It seemed 
to me the play had a fresh and impertinent quality, but I had no 
idea whether it was funny or not. I had arbitrarily set myself the 
task of writing in a style altogether new to me and in a kind of 
idiomatic language that was foreign to my ear. I had no yardstick 
by which I could judge it. There was only one way to find out if the 
play was any good and that was to see whether an audience laughed 
at it. I decided to create my own audience. I made the decision in 
the Hudson Tubes, where I was reading over the play for still an- 
other time while on my way to an evening rehearsal of a Newark 
little-theatre group which I was directing for a second season. 

My status as a director of little theatres had changed as sharply for 
the better as my standing as a social director. I could pick and choose 
at will which little theatres I would direct now. I had chosen to 
direct two groups in Brooklyn and one in Newark, and although 
this necessitated my spending an inordinate amount of time in the 
Hudson Tubes and the subway, I did not mind. The group in 
Newark was an interesting one. The people in it were a good deal 
more mature than any I had ever directed before, and they were in 
all ways superior to the usual run of little-theatre groups. Dore 
Schary, the leading spirit of the group, himself engaged in writing 
plays and short stories on the side, and almost all the others were 
aspiring scenic artists, directors-to-be or dedicated amateur actors 
who hoped to graduate into the professional theatre in very short 
order. They made it their business to see everything worth seeing 
on Broadway and their critical judgment was generally sound. They 
would not be an easy or a flattering audience. Quite likely the oppo- 
site, which was exactly the test I wished the play to have. 

I had never done such a thing before, but I decided suddenly to 
call off the evening's rehearsal and read Once in a Lifetime to them 
instead. Their reaction, good or bad, would most certainly settle 


the chief reservation I had in my own mind about the play. I would 
soon know whether it was funny or not. Laughter cannot be faked, 
no matter how much good will an audience has toward an author. 
For an audience, whether it consists of one person or one thousand, 
shortly becomes a valid one in spite of itself the moment the mechan- 
ism of listening starts to operate. Every author, unless he chooses to 
be willfully self-deluded, carries a Geiger counter in his inner ear 
that tells him quickly enough whether he has struck the false 
politeness of hollow laughter or the real thing. There is no mis- 
taking it. 

As I opened the door to the rehearsal hall, I hesitated and briefly 
reconsidered. Like a man with a toothache, whose pain disappears 
as he sits waiting in the dentist's outer office, I was no longer so 
certain that I wanted to know if the play was good or not. But my 
curiosity, to say nothing of my vanity, was far too great to allow me 
to draw back now. I barely acknowledged their good evenings, and 
quickly trapped myself by making the announcement that there 
would be no rehearsal tonight and that I would read them the new 
play I had just finished. 

The announcement was received with considerable excitement. 
They were well aware that I was a would-be playwright, but it was 
a part of myself I kept entirely separate from my work with them 
and seldom discussed. Ever since my first unpleasant experience 
with little-theatre groups, I had been at some pains to maintain 
an attitude that was impersonal and scrupulously businesslike, from 
first rehearsal to last, and I intended, if I could, to keep to that atti- 
tude now. I wanted their laughter, not their praise, but I was not 
unaware of the hushed expectancy in the room as I opened the 
manuscript and began to read rather nervously. The first laugh 
was a long time in coming. I was making the mistake, of course, 
of listening only for laughter, and no play can create laughter at the 
outset without a necessary exposition of its characters and its premise. 
Nevertheless, they were a quick and knowing audience. I had not 
been wrong, at any rate, in one respect. Hollywood and talking 
pictures were a prime subject for satire, and the time was evidently 
ripe for it. 


Satire, more than any other form of writing for the stage, depends 
on timing; the audience must be ready to acknowledge that the 
culture it accepts and lives by is a proper subject for the playwright's 
sharp stings, and ready for the astringent look the satirical play- 
wright is asking them to take at themselves. I read on, not only 
greatly encouraged by that first laugh but by their immediate per- 
ception of what the play intended to say and the way in which it 
was going to say it. Laughter was coming more often now, and I 
began to read less nervously and with greater conviction. 

I have always been a good reader of my own work, and that is a 
danger I have had to make myself aware of and guard against as 
best I could. If one is going to read a play to a group of people, 
it is witless to try to read it badly even if one could, and since I 
read extremely well, I have had to accustom my ear to the nuance 
of just how much a play's favorable reception was due to my reading 
of it and how much to the play itself. The process of reading the 
first draft of the play aloud can be an excellent barometer of its 
strength as well as its weaknesses. If one listens correctly and 
refuses to be fooled by the good nature of the listeners, there is a 
great deal that can be learned from it. There could be no mistaking 
now, for example, the fact that I had written a very funny first act, 
a somewhat unfulfilled and commonplace second act and a quite 
flat third act. Long before I came to the final curtain, I was com- 
pletely aware that I had sacrificed a good deal to the speed with 
which I had written the play, although there was no question that 
in spite of its obvious lacks, the play had a wonderful surging 
vitality, which was, perhaps, its most valuable asset. Most remarkable 
of all, however, was the fact that I could make an audience laugh 
and that I had an unsuspected and surprising flair for the satirical 
— and that at last, if this audience was any judge at all, I had written 
what might very well be my first salable play. 

I was quite as excited, when I finished, as they were, and in the 
shouting discussion that followed, my mind was more taken up 
with how quickly I could manage to rewrite the play and get it into 
Richard Madden's hands than with what was being said about the 
play itself. I pricked up my ears, nevertheless, at what Dore Schary 


was saying now, and I stopped thinking about Richard Madden 
and, as it turned out, about anything and everything else for the next 
three weeks, except the name and person of the man he was speaking 
of. He was speaking of Jed Harris, and in the theatre of the middle 
and late twenties it was a name to conjure with. 

Harris had sprung out of nowhere with the velocity of a meteor 
streaking across the sky. He had flashed suddenly across the stodgy 
theatrical firmament of the early twenties with the hard white light 
of a winter star, and he continued to light up the theatrical heavens 
with an unerring touch that had something of the uncanny about it. 
He could seemingly do no wrong. Production after production, 
whatever play he turned his hand to, was catapulted into immediate 
success, and his vagaries, his flaring tempers, his incisive way with a 
script were already a legend and fast becoming Broadway folklore. 
I do not think it too great a stretch of either logic or imagination to 
say that every aspiring playwright's prayer in those days probably 
went exactly along the same lines, to wit: "Please, God, let Jed Harris 
do my play!" 

Above the hubbub in the room, Dore Schary was clamoring for 
my attention. "Jed Harris would go for this play like a ton of 
bricks," he was saying, shouting a little to make himself heard above 
the others. "Don't wait to rewrite it — just send it to him the way it 
is — tomorrow morning, if possible. I'll make a bet with anybody 
that he buys it." 

"It isn't that easy, Dore," I protested. "Even if I were willing to 
send it out in this shape — it isn't that simple. Every play written 
is automatically sent to Jed Harris first. What chance would I have 
of even getting my play read? And if the play's got anything at 
all," I went on, "it's got a kind of on-the-nose timeliness. If it kicks 
around too long it will just evaporate into a collection of old Holly- 
wood jokes. I want to get it read as soon as possible." 

"Wait a minute," he cried triumphantly, "suppose I could fix it 
so that you didn't send it to Jed Harris' office at all, but right to the 
hotel where he lives? What about that?" 

I shook my head ruefully at such innocence in the ways of 
Broadway, and laughed. "Remember what Judge Brack said when 


Hedda shot herself? 'People don't do such things!' he said. Well, 
unknown playwrights from Brooklyn don't send plays to Jed 
Harris direct — and don't think his office is going to tell you where 
he lives, either. They guard that secret with their lives." 

"Not his office," he persisted. "His sister. His sister Sylvia lives 
right here in Newark and I know her. This is where Jed came from 
originally. I'm going to call her right now." He turned on his heel 
and walked out. 

I shrugged my shoulders and began to gather my things together. 
He would discover quickly enough, I knew, that theatrical producers 
were as protected and impregnable as a feudal monarch in a turreted 
castle. He was back, however, almost before I had finished stuffing 
the manuscript into my briefcase. 

"She says to go ahead and do it," he cried, decidedly pleased with 
his success and the look of surprise on my face. "He lives at the 
Madison Hotel," he went on, "and she says to send him a telegram 
saying you want to bring the play to him personally. Then you can 
do your own talking and get him to read it right away. Well" — he 
grinned — "how about that? Got any other excuses for not sending 
it to him now?" 

"No," I replied, catching something of his excitement. "What do 
I say in the telegram? You've managed everything else so far, you 
might as well tell me what to say." 

The whole thing had somehow taken on the aspect of sending 
off a prize jingle to a national magazine contest. The racket around 
the table was tremendous. The entire group crowded around us, 
offering suggestions at the top of their voices. High-sounding phrases 
and one or two flagrant untruths were briskly shouted down before 
we could get enough quiet to compose a telegram that would not 
obviously find its way into the wastebasket. In the end, what was 
turned out was a long and rather stiff telegram, its too studied word- 
ing, I thought uneasily, having the effect of threatening Jed Harris 
with the loss of a possible masterpiece. But I was in the mood to go 
along with anything now. The entire evening's proceedings, begin- 
ning with my sudden decision to read the play, had been so un- 
orthodox that by this time it seemed quite in the nature of things to 

[244 1 

send off a lengthy telegram to )ed Harris, blithely signed by myself. 

Nor was this the end of it ! Everyone trooped down to the Western 
Union office to see me dispatch the telegram and then went on to an 
all-night diner for coffee and doughnuts to celebrate, quite as though 
Jed Harris, now that the telegram was sent, had already bought the 
play and set a rehearsal date. 

I waited for my train in the Tubes station in Newark, in a foolish 
and happy daze. I had missed the last express to New York by a 
good hour and the locals ran on an intermittent and whimsical 
schedule of their own. The journey home would take a good three 
hours, but I did not mind. I thought of the telegram winging its 
way above me as I rode underground and I could not refrain from 
the warming fantasy of believing that Dore's words had the ring 
of truth in them. Jed Harris would read the play at once and buy it. 

I dozed and came awake again, always with the voice of Jed 
Harris in my ears and the satisfying phrase, "Well go into rehearsal 
in three weeks," ringing loud and clear. By the time the subway 
local reached my station in Brooklyn, I had cut the time and the 
words down to, "We'll go into rehearsal Monday." 



»T seemed that I had only been asleep a bare moment 
or two when I opened my eyes to see my mother standing over me 
with an unmistakable yellow envelope in her hand. "It came over 
an hour ago," she was saying, "but I didn't want to wake you. You 
got in so late last night." 

"You should have got me up," I shouted. "Maybe the appoint- 
ment was for this morning. What time is it?" 

"What appointment?" she asked bewilderedly. "It's almost twelve 

But I had already snatched the telegram out of her hand and was 
tearing it open. Half asleep as I was, I knew Jed Harris was going 
to see me. Theatrical producers did not send telegrams merely to 
say "No." I stared down at the curt message on the telegraph blank: 
"Be at the Madison Hotel at two o'clock this afternoon. Jed Harris." 

The matter-of-fact words sent me leaping out of bed into the 
kitchen to gulp down some coffee and to read again and again 
the telegram which I still clutched in my hand. It is an exhilarating 
experience to witness for the first time one's own name coupled 
with that of a celebrated one. It heightens the illusion of immediate 
attainment, even though the juxtaposition of names occurs in so 
slight a way as on a telegram. 

While I shaved and dressed I tried to tell myself that it was 
absurd to reach this pitch of excitement over what was, after all, 
merely a summons and nothing more. Obviously, Jed Harris did 


not produce every play he read. Yet try as I would to keep fact and 
fantasy from running together, I could do nothing to prevent the 
laughter of the audience of the evening before from re-echoing in 
my ears. If the play evoked the same kind of laughter from Jed 
Harris, then this might well be the last subway ride I would ever 
take. I had long since known the first use I would make of money. 
It would be to take taxis whenever and wherever I wished, for so 
little as a half -block if I chose to, and never ride underground again. 

Above the roar of the subway, now, I tried to fashion in my mind 
the way the interview might go. To be too much in awe would high- 
light the eagerness of the unproduced playwright. On the other 
hand, too great an insistence that he read the play immediately 
might be equally foolhardy. 

I tried to recall the pictures I had seen of Jed Harris in magazines 
and newspapers. It was a face that leaped back into one's memory 
with razor-sharp definition: the gaunt features, the clean-shaven 
cheeks thinly ringed even in the pictures by a dark shadow of beard, 
and the unforgettable hooded eyes, veiled and threatening, with a 
promise of future rancor even as the lips arranged themselves into 
the semblance of a makeshift smile. There was no clue whatever as 
to what to expect or how to behave, for if the eye of the beholder 
is quite properly the place wherein beauty lies, it is not unreasonable 
to conclude that the beholder's unconscious carries along as well a 
vision that is even sharper than what his eye takes in. He carries 
into a first meeting with the celebrated a prefabricated legend of 
a thousand bits and pieces, and it is generally never a person he sees 
or talks to but the reflection of that legend. 

It puts both parties at a distinct disadvantage. The celebrated figure 
is almost always a disappointment in terms of the legend, and it is 
hard to see how it could be otherwise. A first meeting with the 
famed generally precludes anything but the most strained of con- 
versations and is equally awkward and uncomfortable for both hero 
and hero-worshipper. 

Nothing, however, could have properly prepared me for the 
tongue-tied shock of my first visit to the celebrated Jed Harris. Like 


everything else about him, it was unexpected, perverse, and calcu- 
lated to disconcert even the most cynical and hardy. 

I gave my name to the clerk at the desk of the Madison Hotel 
and waited nervously while he muttered into a telephone that was 
just out of sight. "Mr. Harris wants you to wait," he reported after 
a moment. I glanced at the clock over the desk. It was a quarter of 
two and I was early for the appointment. It had not occurred to 
me, in my eagerness, to check the time. I walked to a chair in the 
lobby that faced the clock and sat down. 

The Madison was largely a residential hotel and its walnut-paneled 
lobby had style and elegance. I watched its well-dressed occupants 
come out of the elevators and stroll to the desk, to leave keys or 
receive mail, with the discreet authority and poised assurance of the 
well-to-do. As I watched, my mind raced ahead ignobly to the 
pleasantries of behavior that money makes possible. It was a form 
of daydreaming I often indulged in. A too constant preoccupation 
with money may seem to indicate the lack of a proper sense of moral 
values, but I did not consider this to be so. It is not as craven as it 
may appear to those who have always had money and given little 
or no thought to its possession. Let them be without it for a while, 
and they will soon discover how quickly it becomes their chief con- 
cern. People with children do not think much about the gift of 
parenthood, but most childless couples think of little else until such 
time as they have a child of their own or succeed in adopting one. 
Parenthood and money are not so disparate as they may seem to be, 
if one considers how largely these twin obsessions engage the 
thoughts of a goodly portion of mankind. Once achieved, they soon 
cease to dazzle and very quickly fall into the natural order of things ; 
but it is surprising how the lack of one or the other, particularly 
money, can occupy the mind to the exclusion of more noble senti- 
ments. I have always accepted my pleasure in money as something 
eminently sensible and not as something crass or base in my nature 
that need be hidden or denied. 

I had become so deeply engrossed in my own daydreams of 
plenitude that when I next glanced up at the clock it was twenty 
minutes past two. I rushed up to the clerk at the desk and gave 


my name again. "Mr. Harris knows you're here," he replied. "We're 
not allowed to ring him until he calls down." 

At four o'clock a new desk clerk replaced the one I had spoken 
to. I tried my luck again, but with no better result. Mr. Harris could 
not be disturbed. From the clerk's tone I gathered that orders from 
Mr. Harris were not lightly trifled with. I walked back to my chair 
and sat down heavily on the newspapers which I had already read 
from cover to cover. I had long since passed the point of taking 
what comfort I could from the well-publicized fact that theatrical 
people are notoriously late for appointments; and, as usual, nervous- 
ness had increased my always large appetite beyond its ordinary 
limits, but the newsstand in the corner of the lobby was elegantly 
above carrying anything so plebeian as candy bars and I had not 
dared leave the lobby for fear the summons would come while I 
was gone. 

As the hands on the clock veered toward five, I began to be con- 
cerned about my rehearsal in Brooklyn, which was an early one 
this evening; but I was determined not to jeopardize the chance of 
having the play read, no matter what. After all, Jed Harris had 
replied to my telegram with undeniable promptness and I was 
credulous enough to believe that theatrical history might be in the 
making upstairs. For all I knew, I told myself reassuringly, a pride 
of famous names might well be closeted with Jed Harris right now, 
reshaping the destiny of an as yet unborn hit, and who was I to 
chafe at being kept waiting. 

For want of anything better to do, I took the manscript of Once 
in a Lifetime out of the envelope and began to read it. I soon put 
it back. The dialogue that had seemed sparkling, impudent and 
twinkling with humor the evening before now seemed astonishingly 
tepid. The thought of those intense eyes scanning these pages made 
the idea of sudden flight extremely tempting; but I had witnessed 
stage fright too many times to give way to it now. Instead, I sat 
and stared miserably at the clock. 

At twenty minutes past five, the clerk motioned me toward the 
desk. With what I hoped would appear a casual saunter, I strolled 
toward him. I might have spared myself the trouble. He was busy 


riffling through those mysterious bits of red and green strips of 
paper that desk clerks seem to be endlessly engaged with and did 
not even look up when I stood in front of him. "Mr. Harris says to 
leave the manuscript and be here at twelve o'clock tomorrow," he 
remarked flatly, and held out his hand for the envelope. I handed 
it over to him without a word. It had not occurred to me that this 
meeting which I had been bracing myself to face for three and a 
half hours, would not take place at all. I felt immeasurably let down 
and curiously cheated. 

A little dazed I walked out of the lobby and made my way to 
the nearest drug-store luncheonette. By the third hamburger, I felt 
a good deal better and of a mind to believe that the postponement 
was something of a blessing in disguise. After all, he obviously in- 
tended to have the play read by tomorrow morning— otherwise, 
why the instructions to meet him at twelve o'clock? My mood re- 
verted at once to the great expectations of the night before and it 
was with some difficulty that I could bring any attention to bear on 
the evening's rehearsal in Brooklyn. 

Sleep that night was an uneasy business also, and I was up and 
shaved and dressed long before I needed to have been, in order 
to be on time for my appointment with the great man. Promptly at 
noon I presented myself to the same desk clerk, and the same busi- 
ness of muttering into a telephone just out of my sight was gone 
through again. To my immense surprise, however, the clerk was 
blandly repeating to me the exact words of the day before. "Mr. 
Harris wants you to wait," he said succinctly and disappeared 
behind the cashier's window. I stood uncertainly for a moment, not 
quite prepared to believe what I had just heard, then walked toward 
the same chair I had sat in yesterday. 

"But it can't be the same as yesterday," I thought; "there's no 
point to it. Why did he answer my telegram? Why did he ask 
me to leave the manuscript ? Why would he ask me to come back ?" 
I had plenty of time to think these and many other thoughts as 
well, it turned out. The clock over the desk slowly meted out time 
from twelve to one, from one to two, and then from two to three. 
As the hours passed, I veered from bitterness to amusement and 


back to bitterness again. But I was determined to wait it out, now, 
if I sat there all night and all of the next day. Some time or other 
Jed Harris must emerge from one of the elevators I sat facing, and 
when he did, he would find me keeping a grim vigil ! 

I was on my way over to the newsstand to buy some magazines 
when the clerk signaled to me. "Mr. Harris," he said, seeming in 
no way surprised at the extraordinary procedure of the last two days, 
"Mr. Harris wants to see you at ten o'clock tomorrow morning. Ten 
o'clock sharp" he added — which was to me one of the great under- 
statements of the time. "Tell Mr. Harris," 1 began — and then stopped. 
If Mr. Harris wanted to play games, I would play along with him. 
I nodded my head solemnly to the clerk and walked out of the 
lobby once more. It was not yet four o'clock and I had no rehearsal 
scheduled for this evening. 

I made my way from the Madison Hotel to a restaurant called 
Rudley's at 41st Street and Broadway, where at four o'clock every 
afternoon a small group, of which I was a member, forgathered for 
coffee. Whenever I could arrange to be in town from Brooklyn 
I joined them, and there were many times indeed when I made a 
special trip in to take part in these daily discussions, for, like myself, 
it was a group of "have-nots," an acid brotherhood of kindred 
spirits all desperately trying to fight their way into the theatre and 
unseat the mighty. 

A great deal of the satisfaction and pleasure I derived from these 
meetings was due to the fact that we were all, almost without excep- 
tion, a supercilious and malicious lot. Having nothing to lose, we 
had a great deal to say. No aspect of the theatre pleased us. Let Wooll- 
cott praise a play, and we immediately damned it and, in the bargain, 
accused him of logrolling for his Algonquin friends. Let Percy 
Hammond jeer at a performance and we were quick to defend it. 
If an actor or actress pleased the public, they did not please us. Our 
condemnation and contempt were reserved for success, and our 
enthusiasm for the calamitous failures, usually of the imported kind. 
Very few American plays or playwrights, particularly the newer 
and younger playwrights, met with our approval, and when we did 
give it, it was grudging and reluctant. We were bitter, jealous, 


prejudiced and thoroughly unfair, and I can recall no discussions on 
the theatre since then that were as deeply satisfactory. 

The most exhilarating theatrical discussions are usually those 
denigrating success, and I am certain that in all the little restaurants 
and bars that dot the theatrical district of today, just such groups 
are stirring their coffee and pouring their spleen into the hides and 
reputations of the successful. It is a game as ageless and fascinating 
as the theatre itself, and each time one of the mighty falls, the glad 
cry of "Bingo!" is joyfully voiced with all the resonance of a 
hallelujah chorus. 

There was already a full quorum at work on somebody's reputa- 
tion when I entered the restaurant and made my way to the group's 
usual table. The more or less permanent members, the ones who 
were usually to be found in their same uncharitable places every 
afternoon, were already there. Eddie Chodorov, long since returned 
from his African journey; Oscar Serlin, the only would-be producer 
among us; Edward Eliscu, a former social director (like Chodorov 
and myself) now turned lyricist; and a young man by the name of 
Lester Sweyd, the acknowledged chairman and arbiter of the group, 
were already at work, derogatives and disrespect flashing like knife 
blades on the play which had opened the evening before. The only 
faces missing were those of Preston Sturges, a young fellow who 
joined us occasionally and whose views on the theatre were so lofty 
that he looked down upon even us, and that of a disconsolate young 
actor named Archie Leach, whose gloom was forever dissipated 
when he changed his name to Gary Grant later on in Hollywood. 

As usual, Lester Sweyd was banging furiously on the table and 
trying to stem the drift into disorder. It was never quite clearly 
known how Lester had assumed his position of leadership, for he 
was the only one of us with no clear-cut theatrical ambitions of his 
own. He was, instead, as he himself phrased it, a "believer" in 
talent, and to disagree with Lester once he "believed" was to open 
the floodgates of a Niagara-like power of invective that could over- 
flow for days on end. Very few people chose to disagree with him. 
How he arrived at his choices, or by what standards he chose to 
"believe" in the talents of certain people and not in those of others, 


was his own secret and one that no one dared question, once he 
announced his annual slate. 

He held sway among us for the very good reason that his knowl- 
edge of the theatre was boundless and he possessed total recall of 
everything he had ever seen in a career of theatregoing that had 
apparently begun at the age of two. Moreover, he kept encyclopedic 
records and diaries of everything he witnessed and was invaluable 
as a court of last appeal in a time before theatre yearbooks began 
to make their appearance. His judgments were not always sound, 
but the fact that his own ax was already ground and his opinions 
were untinged with the acrimony and bias of our own separate 
hobbyhorses and pet hates, allowed him to take precedence in the 
daily mayhem that went on around the table. 

I was anxious to regale the group with my saga of the Madison 
Hotel, but I hesitated because I had somehow neglected to inform 
Lester that I had written a new play. This was lese majesty of a very 
high order indeed! Quite some time ago Lester had indicated that 
he "believed" in Oscar Serlin, Archie Leach and myself, and this 
knighthood rested somewhat heavily on all of our shoulders. We 
well knew that the conferring of this honor implied a scrupulous 
and immediate reporting to him of every theatrical activity, large or 
small, on the part of all three of us. Not to do so was not only to 
incur a wrath that was Jovian, but also to risk upsetting one of his 
well-laid campaigns to bring at least one foot of his proteges inside 
a theatrical door. He was forever accosting play readers, secretaries, 
casting directors, and even office boys, or whomever else he could 
waylay in the streets and alleys around Times Square, and saying, 
"The best young actor around right now is Archie Leach" ; or, "Keep 
your eye on a writer called Moss Hart— he's a comer"; or, "If you 
want to put some money into a play, give it to Oscar Serlin — he's 
going to be the big new producer." His faith in those in whom he 
"believed" was touching; but like all true zealots his possessiveness 
was overwhelming. 

He could turn in a flash on one of his selections and toss the 
crystal ball, through which he had so clearly discerned the talented 
one's future, smack into the transgressor's face. Not the slightest 


margin for error was allowed. The unspoken rules were expected to 
be obeyed to the letter, and woe betide the protege rash enough 
to break one ! 

Nevertheless, the temptation to regale the group with my adven- 
tures of the last two days overcame even my timidity in facing Lester. 
I waited until the play under discussion had been thoroughly drawn 
and quartered, from the first-night audience reaction down to the 
reviews in this morning's newspapers, then leaped headlong into 
the refreshing pause that always followed a thoroughgoing damna- 
tion and told my story. 

Lester's response was immediate and typical. "You're wasting your 
time," he snapped. "Jed Harris will never do that play." 

"That's a damn-fool thing to say," I retorted in spite of myself. 
"How do you know? You haven't even read the play." 

"I don't have to read it," he barked back. "I know he won't do 
it. And why haven't I read it ? You let me read all your lousy ones," 
he added waspishly. 

"You can read it," I said placatingly. "I have a carbon copy and 
I'll bring it in to you tomorrow." 

"I'm busy tomorrow," he said blackly, and left the table and the 

I tried to call him back, but the others were too eager to hear about 
the new play to let me go after him. They insisted, correctly, that 
he would be unable to resist reading it — which of course he could 
not, and he at once became Once in a Lifetime's most fierce and 
passionate champion. 

That night I went to the theatre alone. I sat in the balcony of the 
Broad hurst Theatre and watched ]une Moon being performed on 
the stage below, much the way a young medical student might sit in 
a hospital amphitheatre and watch a noted pair of surgeons perform 
a difficult operation. George Kaufman and Ring Lardner were at 
their satirical best in ]une Moon, and the experience of seeing two 
skilled men function at the top of their form is a very special pleasure. 
I watched June Moon that evening with a private admiration of my 
own, for I could not help comparing it with my own first effort 
at satire. It was not too far removed in attitude from the play I had 


just written, and in spite of the identification I made between the 
two plays I did not feel I had come off too badly. 

June Moon was sharp-edged and pointed, where my own play 
wavered uncertainly, swift and deft, where mine shifted emphasis; 
and the keen eye and sure hand of George Kaufman were stamped 
on both play and performance with the indelible professionalism 
that was his personal trademark. But in spite of Once in a Lifetime's 
obvious lacks, I did not feel the same sense of inadequacy at the 
thought of Jed Harris' reading the play that I had felt yesterday. I 
could look him straight in the eye tomorrow when we met, with 
no false humility — presuming, of course, that we did meet. For I 
had decided that great man or not, this was the last time I would 
present myself to that desk clerk. 

At ten o'clock the next morning I stood in front of the desk, and 
while the clerk went about his usual ritual of muttering into the 
telephone, I composed in my mind the short note I intended to 
leave in Mr. Harris' box when the usual message came through. 
"Mr. Harris says to come right up," said the clerk, confounding me 
and the biting opening sentence I had just contrived. "Suite eight- 
ten and twelve," he said a little impatiently, as I continued to stare 
at him. I looked at him blankly for a moment more and then turned 
toward the elevators. 

The upper regions of the Madison were thickly carpeted and 
elegantly empty. I walked down the silent corridor to the door 
marked eight-ten and twelve, and knocked softly. The door of the 
suite was more than half open as though its occupant were waiting 
just inside the doorway, but there was no answer to my knock. I 
waited and knocked again. There was still no sound from within. 
I pressed the bell just at the side of the door and heard it buzz loudly 
inside the apartment. 

After a moment or two, a muted voice, seeming to come from 
some distance away, called, "Come in; come in." I pushed the door 
open, walked past the little foyer and into the living room. The 
room seemed peculiarly lifeless. There was not a stubbed-out ciga- 
rette in any of the ashtrays, not a book or newspaper lying about, 
not a half-empty glass standing on any of the tables, or any of the 


other little telltale signs of life that give even hotel rooms an air of 
occupancy. For a moment I wondered if in my nervousness I had 
not misunderstood the number the desk clerk gave me. While I 
stood uncertainly, the voice, this time much clearer, and seeming to 
come from the bedroom, again called, "Come in!" 

I crossed the living room and walked into the bedroom. One of 
the twin beds had been slept in, and its covers were kicked off or 
pushed onto the floor; the two ashtrays on the night table between 
the beds were filled with half-smoked cigarettes. The table itself was 
piled high with a mound of play scripts, and on the opposite bed 
two manuscripts had been carelessly tossed, one of which I noted 
quickly was the blue-covered manuscript of Once in a Lifetime. 

The shades were still drawn and the room was in half-darkness. 
Its famous occupant was nowhere to be seen. I stood just inside the 
doorway not knowing quite what to do. A bedroom, particularly 
the bedroom of someone whom one has never met, is an extremely 
personal room to move about in. The voice called out again, "Come 
in; come in," this time unmistakably issuing from the bathroom. 

The bathroom door was on the right, just out of my line of 
vision, and as I turned toward the voice I could see that it was 
standing open. A little mystified at the strange ways of the cele- 
brated, I moved toward it, and as I reached the threshold I stopped 
dead. Mr. Harris was in front of the washbasin and mirror, stark 
naked. He was shaving himself and he did not turn around until 
he had completed shaving the side of his face he held the razor to. 
Instead, he addressed my image in the mirror, with the easy polite- 
ness of two people greeting each other in a drawing room in 
Grosvenor Square. 

"Good morning," he said. "I'm sorry I couldn't see you until 

I have no recollection of what I said to this, or even if I made any 
reply at all. I was suffused with embarrassment. I did not know 
where to look or what to say. My nervousness at meeting Jed Harris 
for the first time would have been great in any event, but the shock 
of coming upon him in this way was overwhelming. I have no idea 
what the expression on my face in the mirror showed of my feelings, 


but if he had planned to have my mouth drop open in surprise and 
dismay, he achieved his goal easily. 

He finished the side of his face he was busy with, held the razor 
under the water tap, and turned his full nakedness upon me. "I 
read your play last night," he said, still as though he were fully 
clothed, "and I liked a great deal of it." 

Again, I have no recollection of replying. There is nothing so 
exasperating, or that succeeds in making one feel quite so foolish, 
as pretending not to see something that one is seeing. I looked up 
at the ceiling and down at the floor. I stared at the shower curtain 
and at the light fixtures above the mirror — I looked everywhere but 
at the uncovered figure in front of me. Finally I fastened my eyes 
on the part in his hair and kept them fixed there, looking, I knew, 
exactly as I felt, an acutely embarrassed and tongue-tied fool. 

So far as Mr. Harris was concerned, he might have been receiving 
Lord Chesterfield himself for an early-morning call. He was cour- 
teous, almost excessively polite and extremely talkative. Unfor- 
tunately, I did not hear a great deal of what was being said. I 
watched him finish shaving, wash and dry his face, and then sit 
on the edge of the bathtub and delicately pick some dead skin from 
between his toes. A word or two would penetrate, but that was all. 

If Mr. Harris noticed my dumb-struck and rigid silence, he gave 
no sign of it. Talking all the while, he passed by where I still re- 
mained in the doorway, and began to dress himself in the bedroom. 
As he stood in his underwear, finally and at last, I began to hear 
what he was saying — and I regretted every word I had missed. There 
is no question in my mind but that Jed Harris is one of the finest 
conversationalists on the subject of the theatre that I have ever 
listened to. If there is such a thing as "creative" talk, he possessed 
this skill to its fullest degree. Only one other person I have listened 
to since matched him in brilliance: the late Irving Thalberg could 
generate in a hearer the same sense of excitement, the same tingling 
stimulation, the same feeling of participating in a discussion that 
was highly charged with the all too rare atmosphere of listening to a 
first-rate mind talking with the effortless ease of an accomplished 


Even in my present disoriented state, I could tell that this was 
theatre talk of a kind I had never heard before, and as the haze of 
my embarrassment began to lift with each succeeding article of 
clothing that he put on, I began to listen intently. His criticism of 
Once in a Lifetime was sharp, penetrating, full of a quick apprehen- 
sion of its potentialities as well as its pitfalls, and included an 
astonishingly profound understanding of satirical writing in general. 
His nimble tongue raced from Once in a Lifetime to Chekhov, to a 
production of Uncle Vanya that he was contemplating, to a scathing 
denunciation of his fellow producers, to a swift categorizing of cer- 
tain American playwrights whose plays were not worth the paper 
they were written on, and back again to Once in a Lifetime — in a 
dazzling cascade of eagle-winged and mercurial words that left 
me a little breathless. 

I was too deeply fascinated, too strongly impressed by this burst 
of eloquence to break in upon it and put the question I was burning 
to have answered: Did he like Once in a Lifetime well enough to 
do it? I could not, however, bring myself to speak and break the 
spell. I listened with all of my mind alert to the rich and unending 
flow of imagery that poured forth over every aspect of the theatre. 
And before I was quite aware of what was happening, his coat 
was over his arm and he was walking out of the bedroom and out 
of the suite toward the elevator. 

"Are you going downtown?" he asked as he pressed the elevator 
button. I nodded. "Good," he said, "you can drop me." 

In the elevator going down, walking through the lobby, and inside 
the taxicab into which he leaped as we left the hotel, he continued 
to talk with the same soaring agility and quick brilliance that sent 
each sentence blazing vividly into the next. He had a wonderful 
trick of locution which he used with great effect. No matter how 
grandiloquent the words, the delivery of them was almost whispered. 
Whatever he gave utterance to was spoken so quietly, with such 
deliberate softness, that one leaned forward to catch what he was 
saying with the most intense concentration. 

He was talking still when the taxicab came to a stop in front of 
the Morosco Theatre on 45th Street. He called out a good-bye 

[ 25 8] 

over his shoulder and leaped out of the cab. I watched him disap- 
pear down the stage alleyway, a little stunned and somehow 
curiously fatigued. This singular, intensely alive man created so com- 
pelling an effect by the sheer dynamic force of his presence, that 
when it was removed, the remarkable exhilaration and excitement 
he induced were replaced by a sudden and complete weariness. 

I sat in the back of the cab for a long moment after he was out 
of sight, not yet in full possession of my everyday self, until the 
taxi driver called over his shoulder, "Where to, buddy?" Only then 
did it occur to me that Mr. Harris had left me to pay for the cab, and 
I remembered as I paid off the driver that I had watched Jed Harris 
put everything else in his pocket but money. I walked toward my 
more native habitat, the subway, musing on the strange ways of the 
celebrated and trying to sort out in my mind exactly what this 
astonishing interview had meant in terms of Once in a Lifetime. 

In the massive flow of words I had listened to, I could fix on none 
which expressed his outright desire to produce the play, nor could 
I fasten on any which showed a complete lack of interest in it. I 
was at a loss as to what to do next, for having at last met the great 
man, I was convinced that no such simple procedure as a telephone 
call or letter would suffice to pin down the slippery and formidable 
gentleman who had received me in the nude and allowed me to 
pay his cab fare. I decided to let matters remain as they were for a 
while and do nothing. It seemed to me that a strategy of silence 
would have a greater effect on Mr. Harris than almost anything 

The discussions during the next two or three days on whether or 
not this was the right thing to do were loud, violent and opposite. 
The stage-struck group in Newark maintained that as long as con- 
tact had been made, it was foolish not to push the advantage; and 
my own astringent group in Rudley's Restaurant, led by Lester 
Sweyd at his most intractable, insisted that I withdraw the script 
immediately and submit it at once to other managers. One of the 
grave dangers inherent in the various stages of any theatrical career 


— whether it be budding, quiescent or diminishing — is the advice of 

The frivolity with which all theatrical activity is conducted has 
one consoling feature— there are no rules of behavior that apply 
regularly to any part of the theatre. There is nothing that one can 
say about acting, writing, producing or directing that cannot be 
revoked in the next breath. Nothing is immutable. The logic of one 
year is a folly of the next. 

Probably the saving grace of the theatre as opposed to motion 
pictures and television is that unlike those lunatic worlds, repetition 
in the theatre usually breeds failure. There exists in the theatre, 
perhaps to a greater degree than in any other art form, a kind of 
rough justice in that its practitioners receive, if they stay in it long 
enough, just about exactly what they deserve — no more and no 
less. It is what makes the theatre the most dangerous of all public 
forums, but also the most satisfactory — and a field of endeavor where 
advice, however well intentioned, can never take the place of one's 
own judgment, good or bad. Every time I have departed from my 
own values and substituted those of others, I have suffered the 
inevitable consequences. 

I listened to everything that was said by both groups, not always 
without an inward wavering and uncertainty, but in the end I did 
exactly what I had intended to do in the first place, which was 
nothing. I was greatly surprised some two weeks later when Lester 
Sweyd awakened me one morning with the news that Sam Harris 
had read the play and that I had an appointment to meet with his 
general manager, Max Siegel, that afternoon at the Music Box 
Theatre. The voice on the telephone raced on with such headlong 
speed that at first and in my still sleepy state I could make no sense 
at all of what he was saying. When I put the pieces together finally, 
it was too late to be angry; it had been dim-witted of me to have 
expected that the copy of Once in a Lifetime, which I had dutifully 
given Lester to read, would lie fallow in his hands. 

What he had done was to turn over the play without my knowl- 
edge to one of the newer play agents that he "believed" in, a Miss 
Frieda Fishbein. Miss Fishbein, a season or two before, had suc- 


ceeded in selling Elmer Rice's Street Scene to William A. Brady, 
after other agents had been unable to dispose of it. And since Street 
Scene had turned into a major success, all theatrical doors now were 
open at Miss Fishbein's approach and a good deal of red carpet was 
unrolled for her coming and going. Whatever plays she submitted, 
good or bad, were read with promptness and alacrity, on the basic 
and unsound theatrical assumption that where one hit came from 
another hit must surely lie in wait. Lester had simply disagreed with 
my strategy of waiting for Jed Harris and had gone ahead on his 

Far from excusing the fait accompli he was presenting to me, he 
was loud in praise of himself and as loudly insistent that I get 
into town as soon as possible for a meeting with Miss Fishbein before 
the afternoon meeting with Max Siegel. 

It was not, of course, an unhappy quandary for an unproduced 
playwright to be in. Though nothing but silence had ensued since 
my meeting with Jed Harris, my heart was still set on his producing 
the play. Nevertheless, Sam Harris was a distinguished producer 
in his own right, and if his interest in Once in a Lifetime was a 
genuine one and not just play-agent's talk, it might serve to heighten 
Jed Harris' interest or even push him into a decision. 

Miss Fishbein, a large lady with a mass of red hair and many 
rings and necklaces, was given little chance by Lester to do much 
talking while we lunched, appropriately enough, at Rudley's. But 
I gathered that she agreed with him that Jed Harris was given to 
expressing a deep interest in plays he had no intention of doing and 
took an active pleasure in torturing writers with the promise and 
lure of a Jed Harris production without ever actually committing 
himself, thereby keeping the play off the market and out of the 
hands of other managers. I nodded agreeably, but I had no thought 
of passing up the possibility of a Jed Harris production if Jed Harris 
decided to lure me, false promises or no. 

We stood outside the Music Box Theatre, a little early for our 
two o'clock appointment, and with broad grins told one another 
that of course this was where Once in a Lifetime would open. We 
were not being more than ordinarily fanciful. The Music Box is 


everybody's dream of a theatre. If there is such a thing as a theatre's 
making a subtle contribution to the play being given on its stage, 
the Music Box is that theatre. Except for the Haymarket Theatre in 
London, I know of no other that possesses so strong an atmosphere 
of its own, as living and as personal, as the Music Box. Even in 
broad daylight, as we stepped inside its doors and into the darkened 
auditorium, there was an indefinable sense that here the theatre was 
always at its best. 

We walked up the stairway to the mezzanine and were shown 
at once into Sam Harris' office, where Max Siegel was waiting. 
I looked around me with deep satisfaction. Sam Harris' office was 
exactly what a distinguished theatrical producer's office should be, 
but more often is not. There is a vast difference in a producer's office 
when it is situated in a theatre instead of being contained in a 
series of chromium and steel cubicles of an ordinary office building. 
The theatre loses something when its business is conducted in the 
atmosphere of ordinary trade. Its people are not at their best on the 
forty-first floor of Radio City or in the high reaches of the Paramount 
Building, for although it tries very hard to seem so, and every now 
and then rigorously pretends that it is, the theatre, strictly speaking, 
is not a business at all, but a collection of individualized chaos that 
operates best when it is allowed to flower in its proper medley of 
disorder, derangement, irregularity and confusion. Its want of 
method, its untidiness and its discord are not the totality of anarchy 
it so often seems to be, but the natural progression of its own strange 
patterns, which sometimes arrange themselves into a wonderful 
symmetry that is inexplicable to the bewildered outsider. 

Most of the furniture in Mr. Harris' office had quite obviously 
been reclaimed from various unremembered failures. Nothing could 
otherwise sensibly explain the stiff Italian Renaissance chair that 
stood behind the French Empire desk, or the early American benches 
that served as end tables for lamps and ashtrays. Even the sofa 
and easy chairs were a strange conglomeration of Georgian and 
modern, with wildly contrasting coverings; but the over-all effect 
of this unholy mixture was somehow wonderfully theatrical and 
cozy. No stage designer could have contrived a set of such marvelous 


theatricality and correctness, or one that so instantly told the exact 
function of the room. 

Max Siegel, Sam Harris' general manager, was himself a smiling 
and cozy fellow, who put me at my ease right off. He was cheerful 
and congratulatory about the play, and explained that after reading 
it he had sent it off to California to Sam Harris, who was visiting 
in Hollywood with Irving Berlin, and he had a telegram from Mr. 
Harris which he wanted me to read. He picked up the telegram 
from the desk and read it: " 'Like play. Ask the young author if he 
would be willing to make a musical of it with Irving Berlin. Sam 
Harris.' " 

I was silent for a moment after he finished reading and then I 
looked at Lester and Miss Fishbein. To my surprise they were 
smiling delightedly. Without hesitation I rose from my seat and 
spoke directly to Max Siegel. When I think of the conceit, the 
self-importance and the pomposity of the words I used, I blush a 
little still, but I said them then, loud and clear. 

"I do not write musical comedies, Mr. Siegel," I said, "I'm a play- 
wright. I write plays — only plays." I looked sternly and directly at 
Lester and Miss Fishbein, then turned toward the door. They stared 
at me aghast, as well they might have, and since they made no move 
to get up, I started out. 

"Wait a minute," said Max Siegel sharply. He laughed — and his 
laugh somehow saved the day. "You don't have to write musical 
comedies if you don't want to," he said. "Let me send Mr. Harris 
another telegram." He picked up a pencil and wrote hurriedly on a 
piece of paper. "How's this?" he asked, reading aloud what he had 
written. " 'Young author says he is playwright and does not write 
musical comedies. Are you interested in play as play and not as 
a musical.' What about that," he inquired, "does that say it plainly 

"Yes," I replied, and added boldly, "But another producer is 
interested in the play just as it is without songs and dances, so he'd 
better make up his mind." 

Miss Fishbein and Lester were shooting deadly looks in my direc- 
tion, but their annoyance was lost on Max Siegel. "Mr. Harris is a 


quick decider." Fie chuckled. "You may have an answer tomorrow 
morning." He held out his hand. "It's interesting to meet someone 
who turns down Sam Harris and Irving Berlin in the same breath," 
he said. "It doesn't happen every day in the week, but I happen to 
think you're right." 

It was my turn now to grin at my furious and still silent com- 
panions. I shook hands with Max Siegel and marched out of the 
office, trailing behind me a cloud of artistic integrity that lasted all 
the way down the stairs and into the street outside, where Lester 
and Miss Fishbein found their voices in full and resonant volume. I 
shrugged my shoulders and remained blandly adamant. The truth 
was, I suppose, that I still held high hopes that at any moment a 
message would be forthcoming from Jed Harris, and my courage, 
if it can be called courage and not unmitigated gall, in so airily dis- 
missing one of the masters of American music, was based largely 
upon the secret illusion I cherished that Jed Harris would finally 
decide in favor of Hart instead of Chekhov. 

When they move at all, things move with the speed of light in 
the theatre. There was a message to call Max Siegel waiting for me 
when I awoke the next morning. "I have a telegram from Sam 
Harris," said the voice on the phone. "It says, 'Tell young author I 
will produce his play if George Kaufman likes it and agrees to 
collaborate. Is he willing to collaborate with Kaufman ? Am sending 
play air mail to Kaufman direct.' " 

"Do you mind reading that to me again, Mr. Siegel," I said. I 
knew very well what the telegram said, but I was sparring for a 
moment of time to make up my mind, and a moment was all that I 
needed. "Tell him yes," I said, almost before he had finished reading 
it again. "When will I know whether Mr. Kaufman likes it or not?" 
I asked. 

"He usually reads a play the day he gets it," replied Max Siegel, 
"and I'll call you right away. He ought to have it by day after 
tomorrow, so I should think you'd have an answer by about Thurs- 
day. Okay?" 

"Okay," I answered. 


"I'm going to draw up the contracts now," he said. "That's how 
sure I am that he's going to like it. Don't write any musical comedies 
in the meantime!" His laugh came merrily over the phone. "Good- 
bye, playwright," he added, and the connection at the other end 
clicked off. 

I could hardly wait for four o'clock that afternoon to break the 
news of what I had done to the group at Rudley's and most 
particularly to Lester. I thought I knew pretty well what their re- 
action would be, and if I was right it was the better part of valor, 
I thought, to brave Lester's wrath among the safety of numbers. 
I was correct on all counts. Lester's wrath was great, and if the 
argument about my tactics with Jed Harris had been loud and 
vehement, the debate on my willingness to collaborate with George 
Kaufman was now outraged and violent. 

"It will be his play!" "No one will ever know your name is on the 
program!" "You might just as well say 'By George S. Kaufman' and 
leave it at that!" "He'll get all the credit!" "They won't even know 
you had anything to do with it!" "A first play is what you establish 
your reputation with!" "You're just handing your play over to 
Kaufman and saying good-bye to yourself!" 

The voices around the table grew so loud that the manager, ac- 
customed though he was to loud talk from that corner of the room, 
came over and asked us to quiet down or to leave. It did me no 
good to protest that I knew very well that all or a good part of 
what they were saying might more than likely be true, but that 
what I was seizing was the main chance — the golden opportunity of 
working with the Herr Professor himself. There would be other 
plays to write, I argued, and if I emerged with little personal recog- 
nition from this one, the apprenticeship was well worth it. My 
arguments had as little effect on them as theirs did on me. I finally 
took a cowardly refuge by stating flatly that all this bellowing was 
largely academic. George Kaufman might be thoroughly uninter- 
ested in Once in a Lifetime, and even if he was interested, I had not 
yet signed any contracts; when the moment came for that, there 
would still be time to reconsider. 

This bit of subterfuge fooled nobody, of course, Lester least of 


all, and I carefully remained absent from Rudley's for the next 
three days. My mind was made up, and though I had every inten- 
tion of sticking to my decision, I well knew that continued argument 
carried with it the danger of making the half-truth seem valid. Eddie 
in particular was a most convincing and persuasive talker, who 
could brilliantly pervert any discussion to his own ends, sometimes 
purely for the pleasure of winning the debate. I did not wish to be 
shaken, for the more I thought of it, the more certain I became that 
a chance to work in collaboration with George Kaufman would be 
of greater value to me in the end than even a production as sole 
author of the play, by Jed Harris or anyone else. 

It seemed imperative that I acquaint Jed Harris with this fact 
as soon as possible, for so far as he was concerned, he must still 
believe he held the right to produce the play if he chose to do so. 
Nevertheless, I let two full days go by before I could summon up 
enough courage to put through a call to the Madison Hotel. Having 
seen him plain like Shelley — plainer, perhaps, than ever Shelley was 
seen — I was aware that his reception of the news that I was with- 
drawing the play might range anywhere from magnanimity to cold 
fury, with a likelihood of something fairly bloodcurdling in between. 
I called the hotel at the unlikely hour of nine o'clock in the morning 
in the hope that he could not be disturbed and I could leave a mes- 
sage, but to my horror the call was put through immediately. 

The low but intensely alive voice of Jed Harris came over the 
wire with the same vibrant urgency and excitement that any kind 
of contact with him immediately generated. Even on the telephone 
that quiet voice contained all the power of his presence. Stumblingly, 
I blurted out my story. There was nothing but silence from the other 
end of the phone, while I awkwardly backed and filled and ex- 
plained and excused, and I finally ground to a halt and waited. I 
gave thanks to Alexander Graham Bell for an invention that could 
put this much distance between me and the silence at the other end 
of the phone. 

When he spoke at last, the tone was as hushed as ever, the voice 
even softer and more silken. "I think you're doing exactly the right 
thing," he said. "I'm going to do Uncle Vanya as my first production 


of the season. Chekhov has never been produced well in this country, 
don't you agree?" The question was asked respectfully, in the man- 
ner of one expert on the Russian theatre consulting another expert 
on a point beyond the comprehension of the mere layman. My relief 
was so great that I could do nothing more than grunt some sort of 
acknowledgment in reply. 

There was another little silence and then the voice came softly 
through again. "Do you know George Kaufman? Ever met him?" 
he asked. 

"No," I replied. 

"Has he read the play yet, do you know?" he inquired. 

"He may be reading it today," I answered. "He should have 
gotten it by this morning. That's why I wanted to call you before he 
read it, just in case he liked it. And I want to thank you, Mr. Harris, 
for being so . . ." 

"Listen," the voice cut in, "this is George Kaufman's home tele- 
phone number. Put it down. You call him right away and tell him 
that Jed Harris says that this is just the kind of play he ought to 
do. Good-bye." 

And before I could utter a word, there was a click from the re- 
ceiver at the other end. I sat staring at the telephone, wondering 
anew at the unpredictability of Jed Harris, and for a moment I had 
a strong impulse to call him back immediately and thank him. I 
would drop him a note and do it properly, I decided, after I talked 
to George Kaufman; and I picked up the telephone again. 

The number had barely buzzed once when a voice said, "Yes?" 
Not "Hello"— just "Yes." "May I speak to Mr. Kaufman, please," 
I said. "This is he," said the voice bluntly. 

"Oh," I said and paused lamely. I had expected to give my name 
and state my business to a secretary before being put through. I 
had always taken it for granted that a secretary was as much a part 
of a famous playwright's stock in trade as a typewriter and blank 
paper. It was disconcerting to find myself talking to George Kauf- 
man without that small moment of preparation beforehand. 

"Yes?" said the voice again, this time quite testily. 

There was nothing to do but speak up. "My name is Moss Hart," 


I said, plunging. "You don't know me, Mr. Kaufman, but Sam 
Harris is sending you a play of mine to read." I paused, suddenly 
overcome with timidity. 

"I received it this morning," said George Kaufman. "I am reading 
it tonight." 

"Oh," I said again, and stopped, thereby reaffirming the impres- 
sion, I thought hopelessly, of what a brilliant conversationalist I 
was. There was nothing but silence from the odier end of the tele- 
phone, so I gulped and continued. "Well," I said, "Jed Harris has 
read the play and he asked me to give you a message. He said to 
tell you that this was just the kind of play you ought to do." 

Even as I spoke the words I was dimly conscious of their peculiar 
ring. But I was so relieved to have it quickly over and done with, 
that for a brief moment I did not realize no reply had come from 
the other end of the wire, and for another moment I thought we 
had been disconnected. 

"Hello? . . . Hello?" I said into the receiver two or three times. 
But we had not been disconnected. The voice of George Kaufman 
was glacial when it again sounded over the telephone. Each word 
seemed to be incrusted with icicles. "I would not be interested in 
anything that Jed Harris was interested in," he said and hung up. 

I put down the telephone and stared stupidly at it in complete 

Not until long afterward did I learn that George Kaufman and 
Jed Harris were at that particular moment at the climax of a cor- 
rosive theatrical quarrel, a quarrel of such bitterness that it has 
remained irreconcilable to this very day. 

Obviously, the motive of that seemingly innocent message was to 
produce exactly the deplorable result that it had had. There could 
be only one explanation: If Jed Harris intended to punish me for 
withdrawing the play, he had deftly accomplished his purpose in 
the most stinging and hurtful way. It is the only conclusion I have 
ever come to on this ill-natured and wayward bit of wickedness, for 
when I next met Jed Harris some three or four years later, the trepi- 
dation that awesome gentleman still inspired in me precluded any 


kind of inquiry on my part. I was still not brave enough to cross 
swords with him, and by that time it no longer mattered. 

It mattered very much indeed at the moment however. I remained 
sitting in the chair by the telephone, too numbed by the sudden 
collapse of my hopes of working with George Kaufman, to do any- 
thing more than stare out the window and perceive the full idiocy 
of my behavior. I briefly considered calling Lester, Miss Fishbein, 
and even Max Siegel, but I doubted if there was anything very much 
that Max Siegel could do now to repair the damage, and I was in no 
mood for either "I told you so" or the disclosure of what a complete 
fool I had been. 

I finally went about my business and did nothing. The play might 
be sold elsewhere, of course, and I supposed that I would be consoled 
and even console myself with the idea that this had been a blessing 
in disguise, but I knew I would never believe it. The chance of work- 
ing with George S. Kaufman was gone, and I could not take the loss 
of that opportunity lightly. I was then, and am still, all things being 
equal, a great believer in the element of luck in the theatre — in that 
strange alchemy of timing that seemingly by chance and little else 
brings together an admixture of talents which, working in combina- 
tion, infuses the theatre with a magical alloy that blends it into a 
mosaic-like junction of play, playwright, actor and director. It was 
my deep-rooted and perhaps childish belief in the mystique of this 
process that had made me grasp so eagerly and so unhesitatingly at 
the chance of working with George Kaufman. 

I had felt in that moment when Max Siegel read me Sam Harris' 
telegram that luck was running my way, and I felt just as strongly 
now that fortune's wheel had seemingly spun past me. It would be 
nonsense to suggest that a complete reliance on so dubious and un- 
certain an element as luck does not imply an evasion of the other 
substantial realities that go into the making of any career, theatrical 
or otherwise. But I have seen the element of luck operate conversely 
too often not to remain convinced that it plays an exceptional and 
sometimes absurd part in the precarious charting of that thin line 
that divides success from failure. I am not an optimist where fate 
is concerned. I do not belive that one's destiny is resolved before- 


hand. It is a doctrine I have always rejected as indicating a certain 
poverty of mind or as the excuse of the insolvent, for it is a dogma 
that allows inaction to become a virtue. Nevertheless, I could diink 
of no action on my part that would retrieve the disaster of that morn- 
ing, and I went through the rest of that day and evening in a state 
of real wretchedness. 

I was asleep when the telephone rang the next morning, but 
contrary to my usual custom of putting the pillow over my head and 
turning over, I got out of bed and answered it myself. 

"Is this the young author?" the voice of Max Siegel came cheer- 
fully over the telephone. 

"Yes," I answered, thoroughly wide awake in a moment and shak- 
ing a little with excitement. 

"Can you meet George Kaufman here at the Music Box at three 
o'clock?" he went on. 

"You mean he read it?" I asked incredulously. 

"Certainly he read it," said Max Siegel. "That's what he wants the 
meeting for this afternoon. He likes it very much — I told you he 
would. What's the matter?" He laughed. "You sound like you don't 
believe it! It's true. You'll be here at three o'clock then?" 

"Yes," I managed to reply. "Three o'clock, the Music Box." 

I hung up, and startled my mother, who had just come into the 
room, by throwing my arms around her and kissing her three or 
four times soundly. 

"We're going to be rich," I said gleefully. "This time next year 
we may not even be living in Brooklyn." She smiled, pleased at my 
good spirits, but refrained from asking if they were once again based 
upon my "homework." She had been through six years of varying 
forms and degrees of enthusiasm every time I finished a play, and I 
have no doubt she had heard a version of the same speech before. 

"I'm going to work with George Kaufman, that's the difference 
this time," I said. "George S. Kaufman," I repeated, rolling out the 
name luxuriously. 

She stared at me blankly, the name having registered nothing at 
all, and then added hastily, "That's very nice." It was the tone of 
voice and the expression she reserved, I remembered, for such mo- 


ments as when I would rush to show her a new stamp I had gar- 
nered by barter in my stamp-collecting days. 

''You go ahead and do your shopping." I laughed. "I'll make my 
own breakfast." She smiled encouragingly, obviously pleased that 
she had not deflated my good spirits by her unawareness of who 
George Kaufman was. 

"If you're going to bring him home to work with you," she said 
politely, "I hope you won't do it until after next week. We're having 
the painters next week." 

"I'll explain that to him," I said carefully as I made my way 
toward the kitchen. 

While the eggs fried, I composed in my mind a graceful little 
speech of gratitude I intended to deliver to Mr. Kaufman at the right 
moment after all the business details were out of the way. It sounded 
a shade too reverential even to my own ears, I decided, as I tried 
speaking it aloud while I waited for the coffee to boil, but there was 
no time to polish it up now. That could be done on die subway on 
the way into town. 

I hurried through breakfast as quickly as possible and got to the 
telephone to acquaint Lester and Miss Fishbein with the happy trend 
of events, but more particularly to insist that for this first meeting I 
wanted to meet with George Kaufman alone. As I suspected, this 
did not sit any too well with either one of them, but I was firm, 
and at three o'clock I walked alone up the stairs of the Music Box 
Theatre to the mezzanine and knocked on the door of Sam Harris' 

Max Siegel, smiling as usual, stood in the doorway, and behind 
him, slumped down in one of the large armchairs, I caught a glimpse 
of George Kaufman. That first glimpse of George Kaufman caught 
fleetingly over Max Siegel's shoulder made all the caricatures I had 
seen of him in the Sunday drama sections through the years come 
instantly alive. The bushy hair brushed straight up from the fore- 
head into an orderly but somehow unruly pompadour, the tortoise- 
shell glasses placed low on the bridge of the rather large nose, the 
quick, darting eyes searching incisively over the rims, the full sensu- 
ous mouth set at a humorously twisted tilt in the descending angu- 


larity of the long face — each single feature was a caricaturist's 
delight. It was easy to understand why he had been caricatured so 
often. It was not a handsome face in the way the word handsome 
is generally used to describe men's looks, but it was an immensely 
attractive one. He had the kind of good looks that men as well as 
women find attractive. 

Though it was rather a mild October day, he sat in the chair in 
his overcoat, and around his neck was wrapped a long blue woolen 
scarf that hung outside the coat and came almost to his knees. His 
legs were twisted or, rather, entwined one under the other in the 
most intricate fashion, so that one wondered how he would ever get 
out of the chair if he had to do so quickly, and one arm was stretched 
clear around the back of his neck to the opposite side of his head 
where it was busily engaged in the business of scratching the back 
of his ear. 

"This is the young author, George," said Max Siegel, ushering me 
to the center of the room. 

"Hi," said Mr. Kaufman wearily. He lifted in greeting one finger 
of the hand that was not engaged in scratching his ear, but he did 
not move otherwise. Even the one finger was lifted slowly and with 
infinite lassitude. 

"Sit down," said Max Siegel, and smiled reassuringly at me. I 
retreated to the sofa at the other end of the room, but my eyes 
remained fastened and expectant on the figure slumped in the arm- 

"You want me to do the talking, George ?" said Max Siegel after 
what seemed to me an unconscionably long time. Again the one 
finger of the disengaged hand rose slowly in assent. "Mr. Kaufman 
is willing to work with you on the play and he has suggested some 
terms for a division of the royalties," said Max Siegel, consulting a 
typewritten slip of paper on the desk. "Would you prefer to go over 
them with your agent?" he asked, coming over and handing me the 
paper. "I think you'll find they're very generous terms," he added. 

"I'm sure there will be no difficulty," I said. I took the slip of paper 
from him and put it in my pocket without looking at it. My eyes 
were still riveted on the unmoving figure in the armchair. There 


was another long silence, and a long drawn-out and mournful sigh 
came from the depths of the chair, followed by a slight but unmis- 
takable belch. It was a somewhat surprising sound — a cross between 
a prodigious yawn, a distant train whistle hooting over a lonely 
countryside, and the satisfied grunt of a large dog settling down in 
front of the fireplace. It was followed by still another silence while 
Mr. Kaufman's eyes restlessly searched for something they seemed to 
find missing on the ceiling. He had a perfect view of the ceiling, 
for he was now sunk so low in the chair that only the top of his 
head was visible from where I sat. The long legs wrapped one around 
the other in a tight sailor's knot obscured most of his face, but now 
the legs moved slightly and his voice issued clearly from behind 

"When can we have a working session ?" he said. 

"Whenever you want to," I answered quickly. "Right away — any 
time — now." The words came out in too great a rush, but there was 
nothing I could do to stem my eagerness. Behind the legs the arms 
rose slowly and one hand reached into an inside pocket and with- 
drew an envelope, while the other hand found a pencil in the hand- 
kerchief pocket. I could not see his face, but he was holding up the 
envelope and evidently regarding some notations on the back of it. 

"Would eleven o'clock tomorrow morning be all right?" he asked 

"Fine," I replied. 

"My house," he said, "158 East 63rd Street." The envelope and 
pencil were moving down and going back into his pocket and one 
arm was going around the back of his neck again to scratch his ear. 
I waited and looked inquiringly across the room to where Max Siegel 
sat behind the desk. 

Max Siegel winked at me and addressed the armchair. "Is that 
all you want of the young author now, George?" he said. 

"That's all," came the answer, "except a second act." 

Max Siegel made a slight gesture back to me, which seemed to say^ 
Well, that's it, I guess. I cleared my throat and took a deep breath. 
It seemed that the moment for my graceful little speech had arrived. 
I had polished it up rather well in the subway, I thought smugly, and 


I knew it by heart. I rose from the sofa and stood in front of the 

"Mr. Kaufman," I said, "I would like you to know how very much 
it means to me to . . ." and that was all I said. To my horror, the 
legs unwound themselves with an acrobatic rapidity I would not 
have believed possible, and the figure in the chair leaped up and out 
of it in one astonishing movement like a large bird frightened out 
of its solitude in the marshes. He was out of the chair, across the 
room, had opened the door and was flying down the stairs, the blue 
scarf whipping out behind him. 

I stared dazedly after the retreating figure until it disappeared 
down the stairway. "What have I done?" I stammered. "What did 
I do?" 

Max Siegel, to my intense relief, was shaking with laughter. "You 
haven't done anything," he answered. "Maybe I should have warned 
you. Mr. Kaufman hates any kind of sentimentality — can't stand it!" 
He started to laugh again, but controlled himself. "Maybe I should 
have told you about George over the phone, but it never occurred 
to me that you were going to make a speech at him. Did you actually 
prepare a speech of thanks?" 

I nodded sheepishly. 

"Well, no great harm done," he said. "He had a barber's appoint- 
ment that he had to get to, and you saw to it that he got there on 
time." He handed me a sheet of paper with a check attached. "I'm 
certain Miss Fishbein will agree these are very generous terms, so 
you can just fill in the contracts and sign them. That's a check for 
five hundred dollars for your advance royalty. Congratulations." He 
held out his hand and smiled. "If you want to, you can make the 
speech to me so it won't be a total loss." 

I smiled back and shook my head. "Is there anything else I ought 
to know about Mr. Kaufman?" I asked. 

He hesitated and laughed again. "There is, but if I started you'd 
never make that eleven o'clock appointment tomorrow morning. 
Anyway, it's like marriage — nothing anybody tells you about it is 
really any help. You've got to live it out for yourself; and if I know 
George, you'll be living it out every day from now on. Get a good 


night's sleep — that's the best advice I can give you." We shook 
hands warmly and I walked out into the bright October afternoon. 

I stood for a moment outside the Music Box and looked up at 
its columned facade with a new and proprietary interest, the con- 
tracts and the check rustling importantly in my pocket. There could 
be no doubt of it now; at last I was on my way. 

The rest of that shining afternoon had a quality of incontinent 
pleasure that I can still recall as vividly as though it were yesterday. 
The jubilant meeting with Lester and Miss Fishbein, the fusillade 
of congratulations and obligatory misgivings when the group for- 
gathered at Rudley's, and that last look at Times Square lighting 
up for the evening just before I walked down the subway steps to 
go home; the same subway steps, I reminded myself, that I had 
darted up to have my first look at Broadway long, long ago. 

I looked back at the lighted canyon, its daytime ugliness softened 
into something approaching beauty by the magic of the October twi- 
light deepening around it. The knowledge that I was going to be 
part of it at last brought me perilously close to that wonderful mix- 
ture of emotions that makes one want to laugh and to cry at the same 
time. It is a mistake to dismiss such a moment as maudlin. To do so 
is to rob oneself of one of the few innocent pleasures the theatre 
offers. I enjoyed that last lingering look unabashed by its senti- 
mentality and unashamed of its bathos. I deserved that moment, it 
seemed to me, and I allowed myself to enjoy it to the full. 

I was wise to have done so, for my family's reception of the news, 
when I stood in the doorway and announced in ringing tones that 
I had sold the play, in no way matched my own triumphant glow. 
They received the news with an air of amazed disbelief and infuriat- 
ing calm. Even the check, which I unfolded carefully and placed in 
the center of the dining-room table to be admired by them and by 
myself all over again, was viewed with an irritating detachment and 
a quite evident distrust. 

"I suppose you know what you're doing, taking all that money," 
said my mother warily, "but I wouldn't touch it until after you've 
worked with this Mr. Kaufman for a while — in case he asks you to 


give it back. I certainly wouldn't go around spending it with Eddie 

I lost my temper, picked up the check and what remained of my 
triumphant glow, and spent the rest of the evening on the telephone 
rekindling the embers of my triumph with Lester, the unsuspecting 
Eddie, Joe Hyman, and Dore Schary. And as a consequence and in 
spite of Max Siegel's advice I spent an almost sleepless night, chew- 
ing over and sorting out the insistent but contradictory advice I had 
received from each one on how to meet the first test with George 
S. Kaufman on the morrow. 




.he next morning at five minutes of eleven, I rang the 
bell of 158 East 63rd Street. The rather modest brownstone house 
was a little disappointing to my fancy of how a famous playwright 
should live, but the street was fashionable and the maid who opened 
the door was a reassuring sight. She was in uniform, a starched white 
cap perched correctly on her head. More like it, I thought, as she 
held the door open for me to pass her. I walked in and glanced 
quickly down the hall at a dining room leading out into a little 
garden. There was a bowl of flowers on the polished table flanked 
by silver candlesticks. Just right, I told myself satisfactorily and 
looked inquiringly at the stairway. 

"Mr. Kaufman is waiting for you," said the maid. "The top floor, 
just go right up." 

I walked up the stairs and stopped briefly at the second landing 
to look at a drawing room and library divided by the stairwell. Both 
rooms might have come straight out of the movies as far as my 
innocent eyes were concerned. I knew at once that my first goal the 
moment the money began to roll in, beyond the taking of taxicabs 
wherever and whenever I wanted to, would be to live like this. It 
was an illuminating and expensive moment. 

The doors on the third floor — evidently bedrooms — were all tightly 
closed, and as I reached the fourth-floor landing, Mr. Kaufman stood 
awaiting me in the doorway of what turned out to be his own bed- 
room and study combined. After the elegance and style of the 


drawing room and library, this room was a great blow. It was a 
small, rather dark room, furnished sparsely with a studio couch, a 
quite ugly typewriter desk and one easy chair. It was hard for me 
to believe that a stream of brilliant plays had come out of this monk- 
like interior. I am not certain what I expected the atelier of Kauf- 
man and Connelly would be like, but it most certainly was the 
opposite of this. There was no hint of any kind that this room was 
in any way concerned with the theatre. Not a framed photograph or 
program hung on its walls, and except for an excellent etching of 
Mark Twain, it might well have been, I thought regretfully, the 
bedroom and workroom of a certified public accountant. My initial 
disappointment was to deepen into an active loathing of that room, 
but at the moment, my eyes after the first quick look were focused 
on its occupant. 

Mr. Kaufman was in the process of greeting me with what turned 
out to be his daily supply of enthusiasm so far as the social amenities 
were concerned; that is to say, one finger was being wearily lifted 
and his voice was managing a tired "Hi." He had moved to the 
window after this display of cordiality and now stood with his back 
to the room and to me, staring out at the gardens of the houses on 
62nd Street. I had not been asked to sit down, but I was too un- 
comfortable to remain standing and after a moment of waiting I 
sat down in the armchair and stared at his back. His arm now 
reached around his neck to scratch his ear, a gesture I was to come 
to recognize as a prelude to a rearrangement of a scene or the 
emergence of a new line; now he remained for a few moments en- 
grossed in the movements of a large cat slowly moving along the 
garden fence as it contemplated a sparrow on one of the leafless 
trees. This backyard spectacle seemed to hold him in deep fascina- 
tion until the cat leaped up into the tree and the bird flew off, where- 
upon he turned from the window with a large sigh. 

I looked at him, eager and alert, but there were still other things 
of moment that caught and held his attention before he addressed 
me directly. As he turned from the window, he spied two or three 
pieces of lint on the floor, and these he carefully removed from the 
carpet with all the deftness of an expert botanist gathering speci- 


mens for the Museum of Natural History. This task completed, 
he turned his eye toward a mound of sharpened pencils on the 
desk, found two whose points were not razor-sharp or to his liking, 
and ground them down in a pencil sharpener attached to the wall. 
In the process of doing so, he discovered some more lint at the side 
of the desk and this, too, was carefully picked up, after which he 
held up and inspected a few sheets of carbon paper, found them 
still usable, and placed them neatly beside a pile of typewriter 
paper, which he neatly patted until all its edges were perfectly 
aligned. His eyes darted dolefully around the room again, seeming to 
be looking for something else — anything at all, it seemed to me! — 
to engage his attention, but the carpet being quite free of lint, his 
gaze finally came to rest on the armchair in which I sat, and he 
addressed me at last. 

"Er . . ." he said, and began to pace rapidly up and down the 
room. This, too — the word "Er" used as a form of address and 
followed by a rapid pacing — I was to come to recognize as the actual 
start of a working session: a signal that lint-picking, cat-watching 
and pencil-sharpening time was over and that he wanted my atten- 
tion. During all the time we were engaged together on Once in a 
Lifetime, he never once addressed me by any other name but "Er," 
even in moments of stress or actual crisis. Perhaps he felt, being the 
innately shy and private person he was, that "Moss" was too in- 
timate a name to call me; and to address me as "Mr. Hart" seemed 
a little silly, considering the difference in our ages and positions. 
But somehow or other I recognized at this first meeting that "Er" 
meant me and not a clearing of the throat, and I waited attentively 
until Mr. Kaufman stopped his pacing and stood in front of the 
armchair looking down at me. 

"The trouble begins in the third scene of the first act," he said. 
"It's messy and unclear and goes off in the wrong direction. Sup- 
pose we start with that." 

I nodded, trying to look agreeable and knowing at the same time; 
but this, like my disappointment with the workshop of the master, 
was my second blow of the morning. After the brilliant peroration 
on satire in the modern theatre that I had heard from Jed Harris, 


I had been looking forward with great eagerness to that first talk 
on play-writing by the celebrated Mr. Kaufman. I had expected to 
make mental notes on everything he said each day and put it all 
down every evening in a loose-leaf folder I had bought expressly for 
that purpose. But this flat, unvarnished statement that something 
was wrong with the third scene of the first act seemed to be all I was 
going to get, for Mr. Kaufman was already moving past me now on 
his way to the bathroom. I turned in my chair and looked at him as 
he stood by the washbasin and slowly and meticulously washed his 
hands, and I was struck then and forever afterward by the fact that 
his hands were what one imagines the hands of a great surgeon to be 

This impression was further implemented by the odd circumstance 
that he invariably began the day's work by first washing his hands 
— a ritual that was, of course, unconscious on his part, but which 
he would sometimes perform two or three times more during each 
working session, usually at the beginning of attacking a new scene, 
as though the anatomy of a play were a living thing whose internal 
organs were to be explored surgically. I watched him dry his hands 
and forearms carefully — he took the trouble, I noticed, to undo the 
curls of his shirt and roll them up — and as he came back into the 
room, walked briskly toward the desk and selected a pencil with 
just the right pointed sharpness, I was again startled by the inescap- 
able impression that the pencil held poised over the manuscript in 
those long tensile fingers was a scalpel. 

The pencil suddenly darted down onto the paper and moved 
swiftly along the page, crossing out a line here and there, making 
a large X through a solid speech, fusing two long sentences into 
one short one, indicating by an arrow or a question mark the con- 
densation or transference of a section of dialogue so that its point was 
highlighted and its emphasis sharpened; the operation was repeated 
with lightning-like precision on the next page and the next, until 
the end of the scene. Then he picked up the manuscript from the 
desk and brought it over to me. 

"Just cutting away the underbrush," he said. "See what you think." 
I took the manuscript and read with astonishment. The content of 


the scene remained the same, but its point was unmuddied by repeti- 
tion, and the economy and clarity with which everything necessary 
was now said gave the scene a new urgency. The effect of what he 
had done seemed to me so magical that I could hardly believe I had 
been so downright repetitive and verbose. I looked up from the 
manuscript and stared admiringly at the waiting figure by the desk. 

Mr. Kaufman evidently mistook my chagrined and admiring 
silence for pique. "I may have cut too deeply, of course," he said 
apologetically. "Is there something you want to have go back?" 

"Oh, no," I replied hastily, "not a word. It's just wonderful now. 
Just great! I don't understand how I could have been so stupid. The 
scene really works now, doesn't it?" 

It was Mr. Kaufman's turn to stare at me in silence for a moment, 
and he looked at me quizzically over the rims of his glasses before 
he spoke again. "No, it doesn't work at all," he said gently. "I thought 
the cuts would show you why it wouldn't work." He sighed and 
scratched his ear. "Perhaps the trouble starts earlier than I thought." 

He took the play from my lap and placed it on the desk again. 
"All right. Page one — Scene One. I guess we might as well face it." 
He picked up a pencil and held it poised over the manuscript, and 
I watched fascinated and awestruck as the pencil swooped down on 
page after page. 

If it is possible for a book of this sort to have a hero, then that 
hero is George S. Kaufman. In the months that followed that first 
day's work, however, my waking nightmare was of a glittering 
steel pencil suspended over my head that sometimes turned into a 
scalpel, or a baleful stare over the rims of a huge pair of dis- 
embodied tortoise-shell glasses. I do not think it far-fetched to say 
that such success as I have had in the theatre is due in large part 
to George Kaufman. I cannot pretend that I was without talent, 
but such gifts as I possessed were raw and undisciplined. It is one 
thing to have a flair for play-writing or even a ready wit with 
dialogue. It is quite another to apply these gifts in the strict and de- 
manding terms of a fully articulated play so that they emerge with 
explicitness, precision and form. All of this and a great deal more 


I learned from George Kaufman. And if it is true that no more 
eager disciple ever sat at the feet of a teacher, it is equally true that 
no disciple was ever treated with more infinite patience and under- 

The debt I owe is a large one, for it could not have been easy for 
him to deal with some of my initial blunderings and gaucheries, par- 
ticularly in those first early days of our collaboration. He was not 
at heart a patient man or a man who bothered to tolerate or main- 
tain the fiction of graceful social behavior in the face of other 
people's infelicities. In particular, easy admiration distressed him, 
and any display of emotion filled him with dismay; the aroma of a 
cigar physically sickened him. I was guilty of all three of these 
things in daily and constant succession, and since he was too shy 
or possibly too fearful of hurting my feelings to mention his dis- 
tress to me, I continued to compound the felony day after day: 
filling the room with clouds of cigar smoke, being inordinately ad- 
miring of everything he did, and in spite of myself, unable to forbear 
each evening before I left the making of a little speech of gratitude 
or thanks. His suffering at these moments was acute, but I con- 
strued his odd behavior at these times as being merely one more 
manifestation of the eccentricities that all celebrated people seem to 
have in such abundance. And the next morning, as I sat down, I 
would cheerfully light a cigar without pausing to wonder even briefly 
why Mr. Kaufman was walking as quickly and as far away from me 
as it was possible for him to get within the confines of that small 

It did not occur to me, I cannot think why, to be either astonished 
or confounded by the fact that each time I rose from the armchair 
and came toward him to speak, he retreated with something akin 
to terror to the window and stood breathing deeply of such air as 
was not already swirling with blue cigar smoke. Nor could I under- 
stand why, after I fulsomely admired a new line or an acid turn of 
phrase that he had just suggested that seemed to me downright 
inspired, he would scratch his ear until I thought it would drop 
off and stare at me malignantly over the top of his glasses, his face 
contorted with an emotion that seemed too painful to find expression. 


Even his passion to remove each dead cigar butt from the room 
almost before my hand had reached the ashtray with it, and his 
obsession with keeping the windows wide open on even the most 
frigid days, did nothing to alert me to his suffering, and I was, 
seemingly, deaf as well as dense when his diatribes against people 
who made speeches at each other took on added strength and fervor 
with each passing day. 

I suppose his worst moment of the day came at my leave-taking, 
when he could sense another little speech coming on. I know now 
that he evolved various stratagems of his own to escape these 
eulogies, such as rushing into the bathroom and with the water 
taps turned full on calling out a good-bye through the closed door, 
or going to the telephone and with his back to me hurriedly calling 
a number; but with something approximating genius I nearly always 
managed to find the moment to have my say. He seldom escaped! 

Mr. Kaufman spent a good deal of his time, particularly in the 
late afternoons, stretched out full length on the floor, and it was 
usually at one of these unwary moments when he was at his lowest 
ebb and stretched helplessly below me, that I would stand over 
him and deliver my captivating compendium of the day's work. 
Something like a small moan, which I misinterpreted as agree- 
ment, would escape from his lips and he would turn his head 
away from the sight of my face, much the way a man whose arm 
is about to be jabbed with a needle averts his gaze to spare himself 
the extra pain of seeing the needle descend. 

All unknowing and delighted with my eloquence, I would light 
a new cigar, puff a last fresh aromatic cloud of smoke down into his 
face, and cheerfully reminding him of the splendid ideas he had had 
for the scene we were going to work on tomorrow, I would take 
my leave. I have never allowed myself to think of some of the im- 
precations that must have followed my retreating figure down the 
stairway, but if I was torturing Mr. Kaufman all unknowingly, 
the score was not exactly one-sided. Quite unaware that he was doing 
so, he was on his part providing me with a daily Gethsemane of 
my own that grew more agonizing with each passing day, and 
though his suffering was of the spirit and mine was of the flesh, 


I think our pain in the end was about equal, for I was as incapable 
of mentioning my distress to him as he was of mentioning his to 

The cause of my agony was simple enough. Mr. Kaufman cared 
very little about food. His appetite was not the demanding and 
capricious one mine was — indeed, his lack of concern with food 
was quite unlike anyone else's I have ever known. The joys and 
pleasures of the table seemed simply to have passed him by in the 
way that a dazzling sunset must escape the color-blind. He ap- 
parently needed very little food to sustain him and cared even less 
when and how it was served. He had his breakfast at ten o'clock 
in the morning, and work was enough to nourish him thereafter 
until evening. His energy, unlike my own, seemed to be attached 
not to his stomach but to his brain; and his capacity for work, 
which was enormous, seemed to flourish and grow in ratio to the 
rattle of a typewriter. 

True, every afternoon at about four o'clock, apparently as a con- 
cession to some base need he knew existed in other human beings 
but did not quite understand himself, tea would be brought in by 
the maid. Six cookies, no more and no less, and on gala occasions 
two slices of homemade chocolate cake would lie on a plate naked 
and shimmering to my hunger-glazed eyes; and, as I could sniff the 
tea coming up the stairs or hear the teacups rattling on the tray 
outside the door, my stomach would rumble so loudly and my 
ravenousness would be so mouth-watering, that I would get up 
and walk about the room, pretending to stretch my arms and legs, 
in order to control myself, for it was all I could do not to grab and 
stuff the minute the maid set the tray down. 

My predicament was further complicated by the fact that Mr. 
Kaufman was always scrupulously polite and devilishly insistent that 
I help myself first, and since I was only too aware that he took 
only a sip or two of tea and never more than one cookie, which 
he absent-mindedly nibbled at, I could never bring myself to do 
more than slavishly follow his example for fear of being thought 
ill-mannered or unused to high life — until one day, maddened by 
hunger, I gobbled up every single cookie and the two slices of 


chocolate cake while he was in the bathroom washing his hands. 
Whether it was the mutely empty plate or my guilt-ridden and 
embarrassed face staring up at him as he approached the tea tray, 
I do not know; but from that day onward, little sandwiches began 
to appear, and tea time to my vast relief was moved up an hour 

Meanwhile, in spite of the separate and unwitting mortifications 
which we daily afflicted on each other, work proceeded with a 
grueling regularity and an unswerving disregard of endurance, 
health, well-being or personal life that left me at first flabbergasted 
and then chastened and awestruck at his unrivaled dedication to the 
task in hand. It was a kind of unflagging industry and imperturbable 
concentration that anyone, not just myself, might well marvel at, 
for this eminently successful man labored each day quite as though 
our positions had been reversed and this were his first play, not 
mine ; his great chance to make his mark as a Broadway playwright, 
not my own. There was an element of the demoniacal in his tireless 
search for just the right word to round a sentence into its proper 
unity, for the exact juxtaposition of words and movement that 
would slyly lead the audience along the periphery of a scene to its 
turning point and then propel them effortlessly to its climax. 

His ear for a comedic line was faultless and his zeal for the precise 
effect he wanted boundless. No moment, however small, seemed un- 
important enough to escape his almost fierce attention, and his grasp 
of the play's latent values was immediate and complete. My eyes 
and ears were opened anew each day to the thousand-and-one 
endless details that go to make up the subtle and infinitely fragile 
clockwork of a play's interior mechanism, and to the slow cultivation 
of its subsoil that gradually makes it blossom into something vital 
and alive. I watched and listened with the consecration of a yogi, 
and yet in awe of him though I was, it never occurred to me not 
to disagree when I thought he was wrong, whether on the reshap- 
ing of a scene or even on a newly coined line which he liked and I 
did not. This was not a special bravery on my part or some noble 
effort at keeping my own identity intact — it had simply never 


entered my mind to be timorous with him or to be in any way 
discomforted by his manner. 

I was all the more amazed to discover later on that this gentle 
man with whom I had been at once thoroughly at ease and com- 
pletely comfortable, this same kindly and understanding man at 
whose side I worked each day, could instantly succeed in disquieting 
the most formidable men in the theatre or out of it and, by his 
mere presence in a room, frighten the daylights out of half the 
people there. There could be no doubt about the effect his presence 
created. Head waiters cowered and the wits of the town watched 
their tongues as he loomed up in a doorway, the eyes over those 
tortoise-shell rims seeming to examine the room for a sign of the 
inept, the fake or the pompous. 

Famous raconteurs seemed to wither and dwindle under that 
penetrating glance, for he could puncture pretense or bombast 
with an acid verbal thrust that would be repeated with malicious 
glee in every corner of the so-called charmed circle before the sun 
set. Even such rugged specimens as New York taxi drivers or talka- 
tive barbers quailed at his stare and were silent until he was safely 
deposited out of the cab or the chair, and so fearsome a practitioner 
of the art of discomfiture as Alexander Woollcott admitted that 
George Kaufman was the one person who could always make him 
uncomfortable and ill at ease. 

This side of him at first bewildered and astonished me. I never 
ceased being surprised at the startling and sometimes numbing effect 
he created among even the most seemingly secure and self-assured 
people, for unquestionably he did indeed intimidate even his close 
friends. But the result, though trying on the more timid of them, 
was not without its compensations. People took pains to be at 
their best with him, and just as a mediocre tennis player will some- 
times play above his game when he is matched with a superior 
opponent, people were generally stimulated into their level best 
when he was about. It is my own guess that his somewhat terrifying 
manner, far from being any sort of pose, stemmed from the fact 
that he more than most men simply refused to resort to the banali- 
ties of what usually passes for polite conversation; faced with some 


of the cant and nonsense that a good deal of theatre talk consists 
of, he allowed himself the luxury of saying exactly what came into 
his mind as the only proper answer to the extravagant claptrap 
and twaddle he was often forced to listen to. It is not difficult to 
acquire a reputation for asperity and irascibility, particularly if one 
has die courage to indulge this luxury as a matter of principle and 
it is accompanied by a tart and ready wit. 

These he had and the audacity to use them, for unlike most of 
us, he was not driven by a savage necessity to be liked. He cared 
little for the good opinion or the admiration of the special world 
he moved in and was a celebrated part of. He adhered strictly to 
his own standards and judgments, and they were stern ones. The 
most striking characteristic of the personality he presented to the 
world at large was an almost studied aloofness and indifference, 
and it struck me as remarkable how the world at large continually 
tried to break through this wall and win his approval on any 
terms he chose to make. Indifference can be a wonderful weapon — ■ 
whether it is used as ammunition in a warfare between lovers or as 
a mask for timidity and shyness, for behind that mask of disdain 
and unconcern lay the diffident and modest man whom it never 
entered my mind to be afraid of. 

Perhaps better than most I came to know that this seeming in- 
difference was the protective coloring of a temperament whose secret 
and inmost recesses held a deep reservoir of emotion; that it was 
the superficial exterior of a man who chose to reveal himself only 
to a very few, but whose emotions could be fervent and profound. 
I knew how quickly he could be seized and touched emotionally 
and how susceptible he was to the dark doubts that licked at other 
men's souls. Somehow or other, I do not know why, or quite under- 
stand how, I seemed to have managed from the very beginning to 
by-pass both the facade and the legend and immediately to fall into 
a warm-hearted and gay relationship in which he bore no re- 
semblance to the tales I heard or to the scenes I witnessed of his 
cantankerous behavior with other people. 

He was not, of course, without his own mischievous and annoying 
qualities, even for me. He could be willfully stubborn on small 


tilings with a dogged and inflexible obstinacy, and perversely fair 
and just on large issues to the point of exasperating saintliness; and 
he had an abundant share of inconsistent and crotchety prejudices 
that extended over a wide area and included, most particularly and 
actively, waiters who never seemed to be able to take down his order 
correctly, people who tried to tell him jokes, and any fellow passenger 
he happened to find himself next to when he was in an elevator 
or on a train and who had the misfortune to recognize him and 
attempt to engage him in conversation. If I was with him at one of 
these awful moments, his churlishness would make me cringe and 
I would move away and pretend we were not together, but to my 
unfailing amazement it was always him they apologized to and me 
they glared at. Like "the man who came to dinner," whom he 
resembled in a muted way more than he ever suspected, he suffered 
daily from the gross inadequacies of the human race; but these 
failings, however infuriating, were seldom sufficient — after a small 
but satisfactory explosion of irritation — to keep him from walking 
toward the typewriter with alacrity. Nothing in the world, as far as 
I could tell, ever stopped him from doing that — and as he walked 
toward the desk I would marshal my wits and try to think of a 
bright line to begin the day's work. 

By the end of the first month of our working together, however, 
I was in a state of constant weariness. I attributed a great deal of 
my brain fag to simple malnutrition, but actually what I was suffer- 
ing from was insufficient sleep. Our working hours were from eleven 
o'clock in the morning until five thirty or six in the evening, at which 
time I would eat a walloping dinner and rush off to Newark or 
Brooklyn for my little-theatre rehearsals, which began at seven 
thirty and usually continued until midnight and sometimes past. 
By the time I reached home again, after the obligatory socializing 
with the cast over coffee and cake, it was usually three or four in the 
morning. Since I had to be up shortly after eight o'clock in order to 
allow enough time for the long subway ride, which would get me to 
158 East 63rd Street at five minutes of eleven, by the end of the 
month I was desperately trying, in those archaic days before Benze- 


drine and Dexamyl, not to let Mr. Kaufman notice that my brilliance 
seemed to diminish with startling abruptness at about two o'clock 
in the afternoon. 

I did not dare, however, give up my little-theatre work. Apart 
from the necessary weekly income that it provided, the basket I 
carried most of my eggs in was too precariously balanced to shake, 
even with a Broadway production in the ofBng. I knew well enough 
that failure is the norm of the theatre, not success. 

It was fortunate for me that Mr. Kaufman was the most incurious 
of men. The state of my health or the vagaries of my personal life 
held little interest for him, nor did he seem to connect my after- 
noon lassitude with either one or the other. It did not seem to surprise 
him that I grasped the smallest opportunities to take quick cat 
naps, sometimes even while he was washing his hands in the bath- 
room or taking a telephone call, and though he was vaguely aware 
that I was engaged in some sort of amateur theatricals in the 
evenings, it never seemed to occur to him to ask exactly what it was 
diat I did. How he imagined I earned a living I do not know; but it 
was just as well that he was without curiosity on that score, for I 
had dropped Shaw and O'Neill from my repertoire and was now en- 
thusiastically rehearsing the pirated works of Kaufman and Connelly. 

I had switched to Kaufman and Connelly shortly after seeing 
]une Moon and before I had the faintest idea that I myself would 
be working with one-half of the famous team. Now that I miracu- 
lously was, there was no way of changing back even if I wanted 
to. I breathed a sigh of relief, nevertheless, as each day passed and 
Mr. Kaufman's lack of interest in my personal life remained un- 
touched, for it was the practice in those days for directors of little- 
theatre groups to escape, by any means they could devise, the 
payment of royalties to authors, for the good enough reason that 
no royalties to an author meant more money to the director, and 
I had long since hit upon the simple expedient of taking whatever 
play I wanted to do and giving it a new title of my own. Thus, 
Beggar on Horsebac\, Dulcy and To the Ladies, all three of which 
I was busily rehearsing each evening after I finished the day's work 
with Mr. Kaufman, were being presented as: Dreams for Sale, 


Mrs. Fixit and The Superior Sex, by James L. Baker and Michael 

I had never dared face what I would say if he ever questioned 
me about my evening activities; only once, when I asked if we might 
stop work early that particular afternoon because I had a dress 
rehearsal in Newark, was Mr. Kaufman's interest sufficiently aroused 
to inquire, "What play are you doing?" I was able to gulp an 
answer, "Dreams for Sale," and as I saw his eyebrows arch question- 
ingly at the title of a play he had never heard of, and as my heart 
began to race with the lie I was about to tell him — at that same 
moment his eye, luckily, spied a new piece of lint on the carpet and 
his interest in my personal life vanished. 

As best I could and as much as I dared, I tried to end my nightly 
rehearsals earlier, but my weariness persisted. I had about reached 
the decision that I would have to borrow money enough to live on 
from Joe Hyman until Once in a Lifetime was produced, when the 
weariness disappeared as if by magic, never to return in quite the 
same degree. The magic was accomplished by two events that took 
place one after the other on the same day, and they instantly banished 
not only weariness, but also any idea I may have been cherishing 
of how hard my lot was. In quick succession, I met Beatrice Kauf- 
man and I took a headlong plunge into the off-stage private world 
of the theatre that I had read about and mooned over for so long 
and of which I longed to be a part. Even the brief glimpse that 
I had of it was sufficient to keep me awake for quite a while after- 
ward, for it came at just the right moment. 

One morning, as I reached the fourth-floor landing at eleven 
o'clock as usual, I was surprised to see Mr. Kaufman in conversa- 
tion with a handsome woman whose luxuriant hair, brushed straight 
back from her forehead in a high pompadour, was tinted a bluish- 
gray. I was aware, of course, that other people occupied and moved 
about in the rooms below us, but I had no idea who they might be. 
Mr. Kaufman had never spoken of a wife or child, and he did not, 
to me at least, appear to be a married man — but then it was hard 
for me to conceive of Mr. Kaufman as a man who had ever had a 
mother or a father, much less a wife! He seemed like a being who 


sprang full-grown out of the typewriter each morning and went 
back into it at the end of each day. I had as little knowledge of his 
personal life as he had of mine. Once the door closed behind us at 
eleven o'clock, no person other than the maid who brought up tea 
ever appeared and I had never glimpsed anyone other than the same 
maid as I walked down the stairs in the evening and let myself out 
the door. 

I must have stared at them both in open-mouthed surprise, foi 
their conversation ceased as I appeared on the landing and they both 
turned toward me. Mr. Kaufman lifted the usual one finger in greet' 
ing, and then seeming to summon up all the social graces he 
possessed for the effort, he said, "Moss Hart — Beatrice Kaufman." 
We smiled at each other and I stood uneasily on the landing, un 
certain as to whether I should go into the room. I am a little loath 
to record that I at once took it for granted that Beatrice Kaufman 
was Mr. Kaufman's sister, but that, indeed, is what I did assume. 
For one thing, I had never heard anyone introduced in that fashion 
before. In the Bronx or Brooklyn, introductions always took the 
form of, "This is my wife, Mrs. So-and-So," or even more simply, 
just, "My wife." For another thing, in Brooklyn or the Bronx, a 
man and wife always occupied the same bedroom, and I knew Mr. 
Kaufman did not share his room with anyone else. Incredibly simple- 
minded though it seems, I did not discover that Beatrice Kaufman 
was Mrs. George Kaufman until a good deal later on, so that the 
mildly confused look that came into Mr. Kaufman's eyes when I 
politely inquired now and then how his sister was, is easily accounted 

They picked up the threads of their interrupted conversation after 
that somewhat less than revealing introduction, and I stood watching 
Beatrice Kaufman admiringly. She was not in the conventional sense 
a beautiful woman, but she had uncommon distinction, an individual 
style, and a unique and singular quality of her own that lent to 
everything she said and did a special radiance. She had the gift of 
imbuing even the smallest of daily undertakings with an enkindling 
gaiety and an intoxicating flavor. It was a gift which was peculiarly 
hers and hers alone. I had never listened to or looked at, at such 


close quarters, anyone quite like her. I eavesdropped shamelessly. To 
ears used to listening to the female chatter of the Bronx and Brooklyn, 
her talk seemed to come straight out of Somerset Maugham, and 
though I could make little of what she was saying in terms of the 
people she was talking about, I knew she was recounting some tale 
of the world I had read about for so long in F.P.A.'s column. I 
marveled at the grace and ease with which she sent Mr. Kaufman 
into willing and ready laughter — no small feat in itself — and I was 
fascinated and charmed by the vibrancy and force of the woman her- 

This is the kind of woman I will get to know, I thought, when I 
become a part of that world myself. It was worth any sort of 
weariness a thousand times over. 

I stared at them enviously and thought, How wonderful to have 
a sister like that — and as I watched and listened, hoping she would 
not finish the conversation too soon, to my surprise she suddenly 
turned to me and said, "I've left strict orders with George, and I'm 
depending upon you to see that they're carried out. He's to stop 
work early today and come down to tea. You're to come with him 
to make sure he gets there." She gave me a quick conspiratorial 
smile and then she was gone. I looked after her and then at Mr. 
Kaufman, who was already making his way toward the typewriter. 

"Beatrice is having people for tea," he said grumpily as he 
removed the cover. "And of course the world is supposed to come 
to a full stop." Not, "My wife is giving a tea this afternoon," mind 
you — just, "Beatrice is having people for tea." I took it for granted 
anew that his sister was having a cousin or an elderly aunt, whom 
he was reluctant to see, in for a family tea — but that she was arrang- 
ing it, nevertheless, in a devoted, sisterly fashion. 

The sparkling flood of light her presence seemed to create re- 
mained in the room like an afterglow long after she had gone. It 
took me a while to settle down to work after the door closed behind 
her, and then I was brighter for having caught even that fleeting 
glimpse of her than I had been in days. The creative impulse is a 
mysterious one. It ignites and flourishes under the strangest of 
stimuli. I do not know precisely why the sight of Beatrice Kaufman 


should have unlocked my creative mechanism and set it wildly in 
motion, except that she seemed to be so striking a symbol of the 
world which lay just behind success in the theatre that she made 
the goal itself seem tantalizingly nearer and the drudgery and the 
weariness worth while. Both drudgery and weariness seemed to 
have vanished now. I could have worked right through the night. 

It came as something of a shock when Mr. Kaufman glanced at 
his watch and said, "It's quarter of five." The day had sped by 
without my usual battle to keep awake or of my even being aware 
that no battle had taken place. He walked to the door and opened 
it. A babble of voices came up the stairway from the rooms below. 
"They're here," he sighed. "We'd better go down." He ran a comb 
through his hair, adjusted his tie, and motioned me to follow him. 
I was mystified by the number of voices that came more clearly now 
as we walked down the stairs. It did not sound at all like a family 
tea party. With some little alarm I realized I was not dressed for 
anything more than that— indeed, I was hardly dressed suitably 
for even that. I was wearing my ordinary working and rehearsal 
clothes, an old sport coat with brass buttons, and a pair of faded, 
unpressed brown flannel trousers. It was too late to think about the 
way I looked, however, for we were on the second-floor landing 
now and I was following Mr. Kaufman toward the drawing room. I 
drew back at the threshold and stopped dead. The room was alive 
with people and I recognized every single one of them. It seemed 
to my dumfounded eyes as if one of those double-page murals of 
the great figures of the theatre and literary world that Vanity Fair 
was always running had suddenly come to life. 

Everyone I had ever read about or hero-worshipped from afar 
seemed to be contained within my awestruck gaze, from Ethel 
Barrymore and Harpo Marx to Heywood Broun and Edna Ferber, 
from Helen Hayes and George Gershwin to F.P.A. and Alexander 
Woollcott— as though some guardian angel of the stage-struck had 
waved a wand and assembled a galaxy luminous enough to make the 
most insatiable hero-worshipper's hair stand on end. I had the feel- 
ing that mine was doing exactly that, for I was seized with a kind 
of stage fright that made my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, 


and I was horribly conscious of my clothes. Only a stare from over 
those tortoise-shell rims made me move forward into the room. 

"Alfred Lunt — Moss Hart," said Mr. Kaufman. Alfred Lunt held 
out his hand and I managed to shake it. "Leslie Howard — Moss 
Hart," and again I smiled and shook hands, not yet daring to trust 
my tongue to come unstuck. "Get yourself a drink and bring Miss 
Parker one, will you?" said Mr. Kaufman. "Dorothy Parker — 
Moss Hart." 1 presented Miss Parker with the same glazed smile 
and stood grinning crazily at her, unable to get my upper lip down 
over my teeth. Neysa McNein— it was unmistakably she — called 
to Mr. Kaufman, and he turned away, mercifully releasing me from 
any more introductions. 

"Don't bother about the drink," said Miss Parker. "Mr. Benchley 
and Mr. Sherwood are arriving with reinforcements." Her own 
slight smile seemed to indicate a willingness to talk, but Mr. Bench- 
ley, arriving with the drinks at that moment, came between us, and 
someone I could not see was putting a pair of arms around her 
in an embrace. With an inward sigh of relief, I moved toward the 
center of the room and stood by myself, watching and listening. 
To my further relief, no one paid the slightest attention to me, and 
the room was so jammed I felt my clothes would not be much 
noticed if I made myself as unobtrusive as possible. 

A butler nudged my arm and said, "Tea or a drink, sir?" "A 
drink, thank you," I replied and took one from the tray. I took a 
long swallow and looked around me delightedly. Six months ago, 
I thought contentedly, even six weeks ago, this would have been 
pure fantasy. Maybe this time next year I'll be talking to everybody 
here. A group of people in front of the tea table moved away, and 
Beatrice Kaufman seated behind it suddenly caught sight of me, 
smiled brightly and waved her hand. I smiled and waved back. 

At the far end of the room someone began to play the piano, and 
though I could not see who was at the keyboard, I knew that it was 
probably George Gershwin. I smiled to myself. I remembered how 
I had stolen some of the songs from Lady Be Good to use in camp, 
and I listened to him play with a special pleasure of my own. I 
began to enjoy myself hugely. It was far better, this secret enjoy- 


ment, I thought, than any kind of chatter could possibly be, even 
if I could manage to bring myself to talk to someone. The butler 
moved by me again and I relinquished my empty glass and took a 
fresh drink. Herbert Bayard Swope, on his way to join a group near 
the fireplace, found me directly in his path and said with great 
heartiness, "Hello, there, how are you?" He had obviously mistaken 
me for someone he thought he knew; but I smiled back and said, 
"Fine, how are you?" Speech had not only returned, but I was able 
to match his own heartiness in reply. I took a long swallow of the 
drink and looked around the room carefully. Why not talk to 
someone after all? What a line, juicy bit it would make to report 
to the group at Rudley's. I could already hear myself artfully work- 
ing a celebrated name into the conversation and then casually 
remarking, "Oh, yes, I was talking to him just the other afternoon." 
It would be a gratifying moment. Whom could I talk to, I won- 
dered, that would impress them the most? There was almost too 
great a selection of the celebrated to choose from; for nearly all of 
the figures, which were damned and envied at the table at Rudley's 
every afternoon, were scattered around the room. 

There was no question, however, as to who would impress them 
most. I had noticed him at once, even while I stood gaping at the 
threshold. And my eyes had searched him out several times since 
then, but always he was the center of a group that seemed to ring 
him in and roar with laughter at whatever he was saying. I looked 
around the room once more, and this time to my surprise Alexander 
Woollcott was alone. He had moved as far away from the piano as 
he could get and was sitting in a chair in the opposite corner of the 
room, calmly reading a book amidst all the hubbub. It seemed to 
me an astonishing thing to be doing at such a time, but then the 
celebrated seemed to be full of endless and varied eccentricities. By 
the same token, I reasoned, taking another large swallow of whiskey, 
he probably would not think it strange if I interrupted his reading 
and engaged him in conversation. 

I made my way slowly over to where he sat and stood for a 
moment gathering my courage and my wits for the proper opening 
gambit. I glanced sideways at the title of the book he was reading 

[ 295 ] 

and saw that it was a new mystery novel that I had just finished 
reading a few days ago myself. What better opening than that could 
I possibly have? Alexander Woollcott was a famous connoisseur 
of murder and mayhem and I was also an aficionado of this par- 
ticular form of literature. We had that in common to start with, 
anyway, and then we could branch off into the theatre and all his 
various enthusiasms, every one of which I knew by heart. I moved 
closer until I was right beside him, then coughed discreetly to 
attract his attention. 

"You'll like that very much, Mr. Woollcott," I said, pointing to 
the book, and smiled engagingly down at him. 

Mr. Woollcott withdrew his gaze slowly from the page, and his 
eyes, owlish behind the thick spectacles, fixed themselves on mine. 
"How would you know?" he said. 

The tone was so acid that the words seemed to ferment as he 
delivered them. The owlish eyes gleamed fiercely behind the glasses 
for a moment more and then removed themselves from mine and 
returned to the book, quite as though I had splattered against the 
walls and was no longer visible. I devoutly wished I could have 
done so. I would indeed have given anything to be able to vanish 
into thin air in front of him, but I could only stand for still another 
harrowing moment, rigid with embarrassment, until my legs were 
able to move me away. I retreated to the center of the room in a cold 
sweat of self-consciousness. There are moments so mortifying that 
one's inner sense of confusion and shame seem completely exposed 
to the eyes of every passing stranger. I knew well enough that no 
one had overheard this passage with Woollcott, but I began to 
tremble with apprehension lest anyone else speak to me. Suddenly, 
I began to be painfully aware of how raw and unqualified I was to 
move among these people, and how ludicrous it was to fancy myself 
ever becoming a part of this exclusive, tight little world. As quickly 
as I could, I threaded my way through the jammed room and fled 
down the stairs. 

The next morning, my determination to be part of Woollcott's 
world more firmly strengthened than ever by the preposterous 
beginning I had made, I was galvanized into a kind of working 


fury. Out of just such ignoble moments and motives, do plays and 
novels sometimes emerge. For I do not think that these vain and 
foolish spurs to creativity obtained only in my own case. On the 
contrary, I am inclined to believe that just such petty considerations 
often seductively quicken the wheels of creation. If we could ever 
glimpse the inner workings of the creative impulse, coldly and 
without pretense, I am afraid that to a larger degree than we choose 
to admit of so exalted a process, we would discover that more often 
the siren enticements of worldly pleasures and rewards spark it 
into life than the heroic and consecrated goals we are told inspire it. 
I have noticed that the lofty and lonely pinnacles inhabited by 
the purely creative are sometimes surprisingly and most comfortably 
furnished by Westinghouse, and a new convertible generally waits 
outside. There is nothing necessarily unacceptable or unworthy 
about this, but the pious nonsense that regularly issues from those 
domiciles — about the lacerations to the spirit that the throes of 
selfless creation impose and the unworldliness of the rewards these 
artists seek — is irritating to listen to. I knew what I wanted and 
why, at any rate. And crass as it may sound, it not only left my 
creative spirit unblemished but it heightened my capacity to enjoy 
unashamed the inglorious but satisfying mess of pottage that success 
offers to the less honorably inspired of us. 



set such a furious pace in the weeks following Beatrice 
Kaufman's tea party that to my own amazement and to Mr. Kauf- 
man's as well, I think, the second act was completed and the struc- 
ture of the third act was planned and roughly committed to paper 
in scenario form. To my further surprise, Mr. Kaufman called a 
halt. I had begun to think of ourselves as a great force of nature, 
like Victoria Falls, pouring forth and stopping for nothing. "I think 
a little breather is indicated before we plunge into the third act," 
said Mr. Kaufman. "We'll take tomorrow off." And then, accurately 
gauging the expression on my face to be the onset of a forthcoming 
burst of eloquence to commemorate the completion of the second 
act, he added wickedly, "There must be somebody else you want 
to say a few words to," and he rushed into the bathroom and turned 
the water taps full on! 

While he was washing his hands, I eased my way over to the 
desk and stealthily turned over an envelope lying on top of the 
pile of manuscript to steal a look at the notations typed on the back 
of it. Mr. Kaufman's appointments and reminders to himself, which 
he typed out daily and later stuck in his breast pocket, always fas- 
cinated me, and whenever I could, I would shamelessly rubberneck, 
for they invariably listed meetings with a number of people whose 
juxtaposition on the same day never ceased to tickle my fancy. The 
list for tomorrow, freshly and neatly typed, with three dots between 
appointments, said in part: "Francis Fox . . . Scalp Treatment"; 


"Aunt Sidonia . . . Gloria Swanson." The jump from Aunt Sidonia 
to Gloria Swanson was just the kind of unlikely contiguity that 
delighted me, and there was an even more satisfying conjunction 
farther down on the envelope, for later in the day, which read: 
"Inlay . . . Croquet mallet . . . Norma Shearer." Satisfied that Mr. 
Kaufman's day would be as piquant and provocative as I had hoped 
it would, I turned the envelope over again and moved away to con- 
sider what my own one-day's respite would be. It took no great 
amount of searching to know what would give me the most pleasure. 
My day would not be as colorful as Mr. Kaufman's, but it would 
from my own point of view be equally diverting. I planned simply 
to stay in bed all day and eat! I would eat until I fell asleep, and 
when I awoke I would eat again until I dozed off. The very thought 
of the amount of food I would down filled me with content; but 
Mr. Kaufman, emerging from the batiiroom, put an end to it. 

"By the way," he said, "Sam Harris is back from California and 
he wants to meet you. I told him we wouldn't be working tomor- 
row, and he'd like you to come to the Music Box at eleven o'clock. 
Is that all right ? I'm going to call Max Siegel now." 

I nodded agreeably but seethed inwardly, and instantly made 
another solemn resolve. From the very first moment I could arrange 
to do so, I would never put a foot out of bed until noon. The solemn 
vows of our youth are fervently pledged but usually kept with 
inconstant faithfulness. This one, however, along with my resolve 
never to ride in the subway again once I had money enough to 
take taxis, I have had no trouble in remaining faithful to — and 
with no little pleasure and profit to myself. 

There is ample evidence, I am certain, that the early-morning 
hours are the golden ones for work, and the testimony of such 
loiterers as myself on the enduring joys of late-rising carries little 
weight with folk who are up and about at dawn, busily improving 
those shining early hours. They continue to have my blessing from 
the depths of a warm and skeptical bed. I accept their data on the 
beauties of the early morning along with their thinly veiled scorn 
of my own pitiable indolence; but the truth is, I have never been 
able to understand the full extent of my loss. The Bay of Naples 


and the harbor at Rio de Janeiro were still there at one o'clock in 
the afternoon when I first laid eyes on them, and were even more 
beautiful, it seemed to me, for my being wide awake and thoroughly 
refreshed when I did look upon them. So far as I know, anything 
worth hearing is not usually uttered at seven o'clock in the morning; 
and if it is, it will generally be repeated at a more reasonable hour 
for a larger and more wakeful audience. Much more likely, if it 
is worth hearing at all, it will be set down in print where it can 
be decently enjoyed by dawdling souls, like myself, who lumpishly 
resist the golden glow of dawn. 

I was not, therefore, in the best of moods for a first meeting with 
Sam Harris as I climbed the steps to his office the next morning at 
a little before eleven o'clock, and it is not a small compliment I 
pay him when I say that after a few minutes in his presence, I 
no longer regretted that my dream of stuffing and sleeping had 
come to nothing. Sam Harris was an irresistible human being. From 
the moment Max Siegel offered his usual introduction, "This is the 
young author, Mr. Harris," and Sam Harris came from behind 
the desk with his hand extended and said, "Hello, kid," I was in 
love with him and his willing slave. 

This was not, I was to discover, an unusual occurrence. Few 
people in the theatre or out of it remained aloof to the wise and 
tender sense of life that seemed to envelop Sam Harris and to touch 
everything about him. The extraordinary effect he produced on 
people was somehow made all the more striking by the fact that at 
first glance he gave the impression of being a most ordinary little 
man. He was short and chunky, with a pushed-in face that was 
saved from downright ugliness by a pair of the brightest and kind- 
liest eyes I had ever seen, and a smile of such warm-heartedness and 
amiability that words like "goodness" and "humanity" leaped fool- 
ishly into the mind. 

Most amazing of all, perhaps, was how immediately one was 
persuaded that this ordinary-appearing little man, of obviously little 
education or learning, was a man of impeccable taste, with a mind 
of vigor, clarity and freshness. He was elegantly turned out, from 


the pearl stickpin in his chastely hued tie to the fine linen cuffs 
appearing with studied correctness from under the sleeves of his 
beautifully tailored suit. He spoke softly, but with a pithy and 
trenchant conciseness, and his replies to a question were sometimes 
startlingly laconic. It made the first few moments with him difficult, 
for neither Mr. Kaufman nor Max Siegel had forewarned me before 
this first meeting that Sam Harris was more than a little deaf. He 
pretended, however, to hear everything, and some of the elliptical 
conversation that I was puzzled by on that first day was due to the 
fact that he was as vain about his growing deafness as he was about 
his appearance. It was the only vice, if vanity is indeed a vice, that 
I ever discovered he possessed. 

He was exceptional also in the sense that a man without vices 
is usually humdrum and dull, and Sam Harris was anything but 
dull. He had color and gaiety and humor, and a most marvelous 
bonhomie with theatre people that extended all the way from 
stagehands to stars. Everyone in the theatre adored him. In a jungle 
profession, where the petty snipings of envy and mean-spiritedness 
are the passports to everyday conversation, the reverence in which 
he was held was a little awesome. So, too, was his renown for the 
way he could handle the most difficult of stars. On these vulnerable 
and trigger-tempered creatures the effect he produced was espe- 
cially astonishing. An actor locked in a tantrum of rage and frustra- 
tion at the end of a disastrous dress rehearsal would fall into sweet 
reasonableness at the sound of the first soft-spoken words uttered 
by Sam Harris. In a twinkling the hoarse words of rage would be 
muffled and the gentle voice of Sam Harris would take over. His 
secret, I think, was a simple one. Violence is strongly attracted by 
serenity, and Sam Harris was by all odds the most tranquil human 
being I have ever known. The world he lived and worked in was 
a world whose daily climate was governed by the uproar of hysteria 
and turmoil, and against this howling calliope of egomania he 
moved with a calm and a quietude that instantly subdued the most 
savage and ungovernable outbursts of temper and temperament. 
No matter how loud the blast or how extravagant the explosion, his 
untroubled serenity was the balm that allowed the bluster to die 


down and the bellowing to slacken into something that approached 
a common ground peaceable enough for rehearsals to continue. 

I would be doing him a disservice to suggest that his nature was 
entirely saintlike or that he did not possess a good-sized temper 
of his own. He was too merry a fellow to accommodate much of 
saintliness, and when his temper flared, as it did occasionally, it 
was marvelous to see him wrestle with it, for it was a rip-snorting 
affair while it lasted. Actors themselves seldom provoked it, for he 
was excessively sentimental about theatre people and notoriously 
soft-hearted about actors in particular. Their lawyers or agents, how- 
ever, were the worm in the heart of the rose, and about these he 
would fulminate with unsentimental gusto. Other than that, little 
else about the theatre daunted him. He was a gambler of unwaver- 
ing courage, once he placed his bet on an author or star he believed 
in; and his single-minded passion to give a good play a fine produc- 
tion remained undiminished to the end of his life. He was a great 
gentleman of the theatre and, so far as I am concerned, its last 

We got along famously, once the first moment or two of stiff- 
ness had passed and my enjoyment of him outran my shyness. 
"How are you two fellows getting along?" he asked. And when I 
replied, "I'm starving most of the time, but I think we've got 
a good second act," he roared with laughter. After that, I rattled 
on unrestrained, telling him all sorts of things about myself I could 
not recall ever having told anyone else; for it was quite evident 
that he liked me immediately, and there is nothing that so quickly 
opens the floodgates of friendship and intimacy as that light in the 
other person's eye that unmistakably signals a delight and pleasure 
in one's company. 

I must have talked on interminably, for Max Siegel finally 
reappeared and, surprised to see me still chattering away, said, 
"You got an appointment at the booking office, haven't you, Mr. 
Harris?" Sam Harris nodded and came from behind the desk. He 
led me toward the door and rested a hand affectionately on my 
shoulder. "We'll be seeing more of each other, kid," he said. "I 
hope a lot more. I think you're going to write some interesting 


plays." He smiled that special smile of his and waved as I started 
down the steps. I waved and smiled back and walked out of the 
Music Box lobby curiously jubilant and elated, though I could not 
understand why until a few minutes later. Suddenly I knew. Sam 
Harris had made up my mind for me. 

For some two or three weeks past I had been shirking the making 
of a decision that had to be made, and now, still without knowing 
quite why I was doing so, I knew that I had made it. This hour 
with Sam Harris had pushed me over the brink. The decision was 
not an easy one to make. It was already March, and the owners 
of the Flagler Hotel had been pressing me since early February to 
sign a new contract as social director for the coming summer at the 
largest salary I had ever received and one which they claimed, 
truthfully I believe, to be the largest sum ever to be offered a 
social director in the history of the Borscht Circuit. I had backed 
and filled and excused and put them off in every way I could think 
of, but eager as I was to put that part of my life behind me, I had 
to face the possibility of what I would do if the spring tryout of 
Once in a Lifetime, which was planned for the last two weeks in 
May, was a failure. No camp or hotel, of course, could wait until 
the end of May to engage a social director, no matter how sought- 
after he was — March, indeed, was the very latest they dared wait 
and they had so informed me. But suppose Once in a Lifetime was 
only half-good and needed to be rewritten over the summer — what 
then? Some plays — in fact, a major proportion of them as I well 
knew — were summarily abandoned in Asbury Park or Atlantic City 
and never came to New York at all. If Once in a Lifetime were to 
meet this same fate on its tryout, how would I get through the 
summer and what would we live on until the little-theatre groups 
started up again in November? For though I was earning a good 
deal more money now, both summers and winters, than I ever had, 
it seemed to disappear with annoying swiftness — a phenomenon, 
I might add, that has plagued me down the years with dogged 
persistence. That morning, however, I had finally come to a decision 
of sorts — a safe compromise, so it seemed to me: the bright idea of 


having Dore Scliary substitute for me as social director until mid- 
June, when I would certainly know which way the wind was 
blowing; and then I could take over myself. 

This was actually what I was on my way to try to do as I walked 
out of the Music Box. I was fairly certain the proprietors of the 
Flagler, anxious to have me as they were, would agree to these 
terms, and I had made the appointment to meet them and sign 
the contract at two o'clock this afternoon. Instead, I turned into 
the Piccadilly Hotel, next door to the Music Box, and marched 
resolutely toward a telephone booth. I dropped a nickel nervously 
into the slot, and as I closed the door of the booth, I knew I was 
going to burn the last bridge behind me. Fresh from the presence 
of Sam Harris, it seemed a simple and easy thing to do — and some- 
what shakily I did it. I emerged from the booth and walked out 
into 45th Street again, a social director no longer, but a playwright 
come hell or high water — though no one on the street seemed to 
notice the startling change in me. 

The next morning, arriving for work, I was conscious of a subtle 
difference in the atmosphere. Even before I had settled myself into 
the armchair and surreptitiously unwrapped the first Hershey bar 
in my pocket, Mr. Kaufman said, "Er . . ." and was pacing rapidly 
up and down the room. Cat-watching, lint-picking, ear-scratching 
and the straightening out of typewriter and carbon paper seemed 
to have been dispensed with. Even the pencils had all been sharpened 
before my arrival, and though Mr. Kaufman proceeded to wash his 
hands as usual before opening the pile of manuscript on the desk, 
he washed them hurriedly and kept up a running fire of comment 
about the third act from within the bathroom. We had long since 
agreed upon the opening scene and he quickly typed a description 
of the set, read it aloud, and then turned toward me with a tentative 
opening line of dialogue. I nodded and suggested a following line, 
and the opening pages of the third act began to spin from the type- 

I have always been more than a little puzzled by the fascination 
that the mechanics of collaboration seem to hold for most people, 

[ 304 1 

fellow playwrights and laymen alike. I have been endlessly ques- 
tioned about how one proceeds to write a play in collaboration, a 
good deal of it on the basis, I am sure, of trying to ferret out just 
who wrote which particular amusing line in what particular play. 
But since I considered that no one's business but our own, I have 
always deepened the mystery by smiling inscrutably and pointedly 
turning the conversation into other channels. Actually, the process 
of collaboration is exactly what the dictionary says it is: a union of 
two people working in agreement on a common project. 

It requires no special gift except the necessary patience to accom- 
modate one's own working method harmoniously to that of one's 
collaborator. In Once in a Lifetime, it is true, there was a complete 
play to start from; but other plays were started from scratch and 
every line and idea, including the idea of the play itself, was so 
tightly woven into the mosaic of collaboration that it would be im- 
possible to tell who suggested which or what, or how one line 
sprang full-blown from another. When the basic idea of a play was 
a good one, our collaboration worked well, and when it was not, it 
did not work at all. The mechanics of collaboration in the plays 
we did together remained as simple as putting a fresh sheet of paper 
into the typewriter and laboriously plugging away until that page 
satisfied both of us. It pleased me to make a mystery of our play- 
writing partnership, for the sole reason that the mechanics of two 
people writing together are no less dull and flat than the mechanics 
of one person writing alone, and I preferred to let the inquisitive 
lady on my right drink her demitasse with the idea still intact in 
her mind that I was a young man of rare and mysterious gifts. 

There can be no mystery, however, about the fact that collabora- 
tion is an infinitely more pleasurable way of working than working 
alone. Most human beings fear loneliness, and writing is the lone- 
liest of the professions. Writers agonize a great deal about the 
loneliness of their craft, and though the wailing is apt to be a little 
deafening at times, they are telling the truth. The hardest part of 
writing by far is the seeming exclusion from all humankind while 
work is under way, for the writer at work cannot be gregarious. 
If he is not alone, if he is with so much as one other person, he is 


not at work, and it is this feeling of being cut off from his fellows 
that drives most writers to invent the most elaborate and ingenious 
excuses to put work aside and escape back into the world again. 
Collaboration cuts this loneliness in half. When one is at a low point 
of discouragement, the very presence in the room of another human 
being, even though he too may be sunk in the same state of gloom, 
very often gives that dash of valor to the spirit that allows confidence 
to return and work to resume. Except on the rarest of occasions, 
writing is a cheerless business. I have not the least doubt that some 
young writers of promise have retreated to Hollywood or television 
simply because they hated being alone. I do not blame them, just as 
I am never unmoved by the suffering of a fellow writer when he 
cries out that he is "blocked." It is a protest, I think, against his 
unalterable fate of being alone, and it is a desperation I can under- 
stand and give full sympathy to. When later on I went back to 
writing plays by myself, I looked back to the warmth and com- 
panionship of collaboration with the nostalgia of the exile for his 
homeland, and I confess that I have moments of missing it still. 

Some of the formal quality of our collaboration began to thaw 
slightly as we approached the end of the third act. For one thing, 
Mr. Kaufman suddenly grew talkative as he picked lint off the carpet 
or watched the cats in the backyard gardens across the way. This 
was formerly a silent business and I generally used the time to stuff 
Life Savers and bits of Hershey bars into my mouth, for I knew 
that nothing was expected of me until Mr. Kaufman was ready to 
say, "Er . . ." and begin his pacing. Now, however, he grew down- 
right loquacious for a man of his taciturn bent, and to my vast 
surprise, I discovered that he loved gossip, the more indiscreet the 
better. It was a most unlikely side for a man of his nature to have, 
but there could be no question that he relished and delighted in 
the peccadilloes and indiscretions that float about the world of 
theatre folk like motes in the air on a hot summer's afternoon. He 
was aware that I was personally unacquainted with most of the 
people he gossiped about; but I knew the names, of course, and 
that seemed to be enough for him. 

To my further surprise, he turned abruptly toward me one morn- 


ing and said, "Let's have lunch out today. There seems to be a slight 
household crisis going on at the moment." 

Lunch! I stared at him— we had never had lunch, as I under- 
stood lunch, in the four months I had been sitting starved in that 
chair. He must have caught my look, and completely misunder- 
stood it, for he added, "You'll be able to eat something by about 
one thirty or so, won't you?" I nodded slowly at him and wondered 
what in the world he thought the constant chomp-chomp of Hershey 
bars in my jaws could have meant all through those long after- 
noons. Obviously, he was still totally unaware that some form of 
food was a necessity to most ordinary human or animal organisms. 
A dog, I reflected bitterly, would have slim pickings in Mr. Kauf- 
man's house if he could not provide himself with a few Hershey 
bars on the side, or whatever the equivalent of Hershey bars is in 

The lunch he provided that afternoon, however, was a full one. 
During the course of it, I was somewhat startled to sense that he 
wanted to ask me a question but that he was embarrassed to do so 
and was hesitating. He seemed to dismiss it from his mind for a 
moment, but I could see he was going to ask it after all. 

"What would you think," he finally said, "if I were to play the part 
of Lawrence Vail ? We ought to begin to think about casting pretty 
soon, now." 

In spite of myself, I laughed. Scratch a playwright and you find a 
frustrated actor! 

He joined in my laughter, then added hastily, "Of course, it's a bit 
of a trick because I've never acted professionally, but I think I can 
do it and it would give that part the kind of authenticity it should 

"It's a wonderful idea," I said, "it couldn't be cast better." I meant 
what I said. The part of Lawrence Vail was that of a famous Broad- 
way playwright who is brought to Hollywood with frantic pleas and 
pressures for his immediate arrival, and then is kept waiting for six 
months without being able to see anyone at all or to find anybody 
who seems to know what he is even there for. The part, though 
it appeared in the second act only, provided a Greek chorus of sanity 


to the lunacy prevailing all around it, and it was important to the 
play that it be played well. Some of my favorite lines in the play 
were contained in that part, and I knew they would never be acted 
better than the way Mr. Kaufman had read them in the privacy of 
his bedroom when he tried some of the scenes aloud for himself 
and for me. Not all but certainly some playwrights can give a better 
performance of their plays in a bedroom or study than those plays 
ever receive on the stage; just as some composers can sing their own 
songs far better sitting alone at the piano than any great star of the 
musical stage can sing them with a full orchestra at her feet. 

Mr. Kaufman seemed inordinately pleased at my enthusiasm. So 
much so, that he seemed to want to hurry me through my cheese and 
apple pie in order to get back to the typewriter, but I was not to be 
pushed! I rightly guessed that the next full-sized lunch would be 
a long time in coming, and I took my own sweet time with each 
mouthful — in spite of the fact that he called the usual terrorized 
waiter for the check, paid it, and sat impatiently piling up little 
blocks of sugar all around the sugar bowl. 

"If you take larger bites," he finally remarked, "we could finish 
the third act in a week." 

He was right to the exact day. A week later he typed "The curtain 
falls on Act Three" and quickly dashed into the bathroom to escape 
what he correctly surmised would be a few grandiloquent words 
from me to set the occasion more firmly in his mind. This time, evi- 
dently suspecting a whopper, he turned not only the washbasin 
taps on full, but the bathtub faucets as well, and began to take off 
his shirt and tie. He smiled and lifted one finger in farewell, know- 
ing it was impossible even for me to make a speech to a man who 
was stripping down to get into a tub. 

"The usual time tomorrow," he called out over the noise of the 
running water. "We'll have to let Sam Harris know what we'll want 
in the way of actors. We'll go over the list together up here and 
then go down to the Music Box," and a little too pleased with 
himself, he nudged the door with his foot and carefully closed it. 



-r. kaufman and Sam Harris, in the days that followed, 
seemed to me to be casting the play a little too quickly for comfort, 
but as the inexperienced member of the trio I kept my reservations to 
myself. They were scrupulous about consulting me on every final 
selection, but I could sense when they both agreed completely on an 
actor or actress, and for the most part I remained silent or agreed 
with them. The fact was, I was enjoying these days of preparation for 
rehearsals far too much to worry over anything. These days were 
the dividends I had awaited with growing impatience to collect. 

A play for me never really takes on an aspect of reality until 
it has left the dry air of the study and begins to sniff the musty 
breezes of a bare stage, with actors reading aloud at auditions. Only 
then does it begin to come alive. I have never quite understood 
playwrights who find auditions and rehearsals a grueling bore, or 
whose real pleasure in their work ends as it leaves their typewriters. 
For me, the excitement of auditions, the camaraderie of actors in 
rehearsal, the tight and secret conspiracy against the world, which 
begins to grow between actors and authors and directors and is the 
essence of putting on a play — this, to me at any rate, is the really 
satisfying part of the whole process, and the only thing, I think, 
that ever persuades me to walk toward a typewriter once again. 

After the grind and imprisonment of those months in 63rd Street, 
the lazy freedom of sitting through auditions at the Music Box 
was glorious, to say nothing of the bliss of being able to dash into the 


little drug store next to the theatre between readings and gorge 
myself on chocolate malteds and hamburgers. I more than made up 
for the Spartan diet of tea and cookies I had been on for so long. 
Each day was a holiday so far as I was concerned, and almost before 
I was aware of it, or would have dreamed it possible, the play was 
cast and I was walking toward the Music Box for the first rehearsal. 
My excitement was intense. The bits and pieces of scenes I had heard 
read aloud at auditions had whetted my appetite to the bursting 
point to hear the play read in its entirety and in sequence. 

My impatience was such that I was, unhappily, the first person to 
arrive. The stage was empty except for the two stage managers who 
were setting out chairs in a wide semicircle and placing a table in 
front of the chairs where Mr. Kaufman, Sam Harris and I would 
sit. They stared at me, surprised at my undignified promptness, and 
I thought I saw a good-humored wink pass between them, for I 
had evidently violated by my early arrival one of the major tenets of 
the code of first rehearsals. There seems to be a rigid code of be- 
havior for the day of a first rehearsal that is as stately and as set in 
its pattern as a minuet. The minor actors are always the first ones 
to arrive. Then the principals stroll casually in, depending upon the 
order of their billing, timing their arrival by some inner clockwork 
of their own. Just before the appearance of the author, director and 
producer, the star appears — or if the star is of sufficient magnitude, 
she will appear last. The wink between the stage managers was a 
testimony to my newness as an author, but I did not mind. This 
was where I wanted to be, and it was a mark of what patience I 
had left that I had not arrived even before the stage managers 

Gradually, the bit players and minor principals began to arrive; 
then, since there were no stars in Once in a Lifetime, the leading 
players— Aline MacMahon, Hugh O'Connell, Blanche Ring and 
Grant Mills — came onto the stage and took their places in the semi- 
circle of chairs, all of them shining with that false brightness that 
actors seem to bring to a first rehearsal along with their cigarettes. 
I could hear Sam Harris and Mr. Kaufman talking in the back of 
the theatre, and now they came down the aisle together and up 


onto the stage, Sam Harris greeting all of the company even to the 
bit players, with a word or two or a pat on the shoulder. Mr. Kauf- 
man muttered something to the first stage manager, and then sat 
down at the table and motioned me to sit beside him. Sam Harris 
sat down on the other side of Mr. Kaufman, with Max Siegel in 
the chair next to him. The stage manager called out, "All right, 
ladies and gentlemen — will you please be sure to use the fire buckets 
next to your chairs for your cigarettes. Thank you." He sat down 
again and turned toward Mr. Kaufman. I found it difficult to 
breathe; I cleared my throat with what sounded to my own ears 
like an artillery barrage. 

Mr. Kaufman opened the manuscript on the table before him and 
quietly pronounced what have always seemed to me to be the 
four most dramatic words in the English language: "Act One — 
Scene One." There was a fractional pause and then the first line 
of the play came from the semicircle of chairs. It came rather list- 
lessly and quite flatly, and so did the second and third lines. My own 
nervousness is affecting my hearing, I thought — and I brushed aside 
the impression I was receiving of the way the play was being read 
and tried to listen less nervously. It was not, however, just my own 
taut nerves that were making the opening lines sound so trite. The 
lines that followed were coming out dull and flat as well, and the 
play itself sounded entirely lifeless even in this opening scene. It 
seemed increasingly lifeless as the second scene droned on. I glanced 
sideways at Mr. Kaufman to see if his face was mirroring my own 
disturbance, but he seemed to be unaware of how badly the play was 
emerging. He was busily making notations on each page of the 
manuscript and seemed not to be listening at all. I looked past him 
at Sam Harris and Max Siegel, but they too seemed undisturbed. 
I could not understand it. Surely they were hearing what I was 
hearing — the sogginess and downright dullness of the play must cer- 
tainly have been as apparent to them as it was to me. How, then, 
could they sit there so placidly unconcerned while my own ears 
were rejecting every line as it was read! 

What I did not know, of course, was that all plays sound frightful 
at the first reading. It appears that still another aspect of the code 


of behavior of a first rehearsal is that actors, for reasons known 
only to themselves, consider it a breach of professional etiquette to 
read the play well the first time through. The stars or the principals 
mumble through their parts in a hopeless monotone, and if one of 
the minor players, new like myself to the proper procedure, reads 
his one or two speeches with a semblance of performance peeping 
through, he is stared at and contemptuously dismissed as a "good 
reader" or "radio actor," and the mumbling goes agonizingly on. 
The result of this witless but unshakable convention is that a new 
playwright will listen to his play being read for the first time by 
the company that is going to perform it and quake in his boots, 
wondering as he suffers through it what in the world he has wasted 
two years of his life on. Actors, of course, maintain that no such 
code exists at all and that their own nervousness and nothing else 
makes them read so execrably, but I have never quite believed it. 
They may well be telling the truth, but twice I have listened to a 
first reading in which the stars gave as brilliant a performance at 
the first reading as they subsequently gave on the stage, and I have 
never ceased to be grateful to them for it. 

Gertrude Lawrence, at the first reading of Lady in the Dar\, and 
Rex Harrison, at the first reading of My Fair Lady, plunged into 
their parts with an electric excitement, from the first line onward, 
that was contagious enough to make their own excitement spread 
through the rest of the cast like a forest fire; it made this usually 
dispiriting experience a thing to be set apart and remembered with 

As the end of the first act of Once in a Lifetime ground down 
to what seemed to me to be a slow death rattle, not only my under- 
garments were drenched with perspiration but my suit as well. I 
could feel my jacket sticking wetly to the back of the chair. The 
stage manager finally called, "Ten minutes, ladies and gentlemen," 
and I rose from the chair and looked miserably at Max Siegel, not 
daring to look at either Mr. Kaufman or Sam Harris. Max Siegel 
came over to me. 

"What's the matter," he asked. "Not feeling well?" 

"It sounded so terrible," I said, "so plain awful." 


He laughed and his laugh never sounded more reassuring. "But 
it always sounds terrible at a first reading," he replied. "Didn't you 
know that? The second act will sound a little better, and by the 
third act they'll begin to forget themselves and even act it a little 
bit. You watch." 

He was correct. The second act did indeed sound like something 
that mildly approximated a play, and the third act even began to 
have a hint of amusement in it. I began to breathe again instead 
of wheezing, and when the stage manager dismissed the company 
for lunch at the end of the third act, I was amazed to find I even 
had an unmistakable sign of an appetite. It had seemed to me in 
the middle of the first act that I would never touch a morsel of 
food again, and I knew that to be a sign of how badly I had thought 
things were going. 

By the time the company reassembled for the afternoon rehearsal 
at two o'clock, I was in high spirits once more and considered my- 
self a hardy veteran of rehearsal behavior. Nothing would throw 
me now, I thought. But I still had two other disappointments to 
face that afternoon, one after the other in quick succession, and 
these I did not recover from as quickly. Mr. Kaufman was famed 
as a topnotch director and I had been eagerly looking forward to the 
moment when I would see him in action. I considered I had been 
cheated out of those little talks on play-writing I had expected to 
have from him and on which he had remained silent through all 
the months of working together. I could not see how he could 
very well do me out of the obligatory discussions he would now 
have with the cast, however. A day or two of these informal but 
enlightening talks from the director to the actors, on characteriza- 
tion, motivation and the level of performance that would best ex- 
press the tone and attitude of the play itself, were what I had been 
given to understand every noted director did as a matter of course, 
and I had again come armed with a little notebook in which I 
intended to jot down the salient points he made while I sat in the 
back of the darkened theatre. I was an old hand at taking down my 
own homemade brand of shorthand at the back of dark theatres, 


and I expected to store up a good deal of valuable information for 
further use from these first rehearsal seminars. 

To my surprise, the floor of the stage was already marked out 
with chalk, and the chairs and an old sofa were set out to represent 
the first scene of the play when the cast returned from the 
luncheon break. There was, apparently, to be no discussion at all! 
I could hardly believe what was taking place, but without so much 
as a word to the actors Mr. Kaufman already had the script in his 
hand and with no further ado was staging the opening scene of 
the play. Nor was this all. He spoke in so muted a tone that I could 
gather nothing of what he was saying — not that he was saying 
much of anything. He seemed mainly to be seeing that the actors 
did not bump into each other. The first scene, though not a long 
one, was nevertheless a scene which I took for granted would take 
at least two full days to stage, but it was staged in a little less than 
an hour. I watched astonished and disgruntled. The movement of 
the first scene marked out, Mr. Kaufman came from the stage down 
into the auditorium and asked for the scene to be run again so that 
he could see it from the front. The actors ran through the scene 
and he walked back up onto the stage once more. Aha, I thought, 
this is his method, to stage it roughly and then have his talk with 
the actors. It was merely a question of approach. Now, with the 
mechanics out of the way, would come the discussion of the playing 
of it. The motivations of the movement, the psychological back- 
ground of each character in relationship to the actor himself, and 
all the rest of it. 

Nothing of the sort occurred. Mr. Kaufman sidled up to Aline 
MacMahon in what seemed to be some slight embarrassment and 
began a whispered colloquy with her. She nodded in agreement to 
whatever he was whispering; then he moved to Hugh O'Connell 
and began to whisper in his ear. I began to squirm around in my 
seat with irritation. I had carefully sat myself down about three rows 
from the back, well over to one side of the theatre, so as not to 
have Mr. Kaufman feel that I was breathing down the back of his 
neck while he worked, but now I got up and moved down to the 
third row on the aisle. He had walked over to Grant Mills and was 


now whispering into his ear in the same infuriating fashion. Even 
in the third row I could not hear one word of what was being said. 
It would not have done me any good, either, to move up onto the 
stage itself, for he spoke so quietly that not a word of what he 
was saying could be overheard even at arm's length away. 

He proceeded in just this fashion not only for the rest of that 
afternoon, but for the rest of the three weeks' period of rehearsal. 
By the third day I glumly put my notebook away before I left the 
house to go and sit morosely through still another day of watching 
what might well have been a silent movie of a man directing a play 
— directing the first play, moreover, about the "talkies," I thought 

Gradually, however, and in spite of my annoyance, I could begin 
to see the pattern of his direction emerge. He gave no lessons in 
acting nor did he use the power some directors wield to hold a cast 
helpless before him while he discusses his own interpretation of 
the playwright's meaning, or with becoming modesty performs each 
part for each actor in turn to show how easily it might be played to 
perfection with just a modicum of his own talent. Instead, he 
seemed to allow the actors to use him as a sounding board. He 
watched and listened and without seeming to impose his own 
preconceived ideas of how a scene should be played, he let each 
actor find a way of his own that was best for him; and slowly^ 
with no more than a whispered word here and there, the scenes 
began to take on a directorial quality and flavor that was unmis- 
takably his. The sovereign motif of his direction seemed to be an 
artful mixture of allowing actors the freedom to follow their own 
instinctive intelligence and taste, and then trusting his own ear for 
comedic values — an ear that had the unerring exactness of a tuning 
fork. With no directorial vanity or ego of his own, he was able 
to indulge the actors in theirs, and an actor's ego in the early days 
of rehearsal is like a blade of new spring grass that will grow and 
reseed itself if it is not mowed down too quickly by a power- 
driven lawn mower — the lawn mower in most cases being the 
overenthusiastic imposition of a famed directorial hand. Unlike a 
newer school of directors, he made no pretense of being either 


a built-in psychoanalyst, a father figure or a professor in residence of 
dramatic literature — a combination of roles which is sometimes 
assumed by directors and which always plays havoc with the stern 
business of getting a play ready to open. 

The results of what seemed to be his detached and reticent direc- 
tion were remarkably effective. The actors, a little at sea at first, 
gradually found their own balance; and since it was theirs and not 
a false one imposed by the director, they flourished and blossomed, 
and the play quickly began to establish an architecture of its own. 
All too often, or so it seems to me, a play has been so minutely di- 
rected to within an inch of its life early on in rehearsal, that some 
of its more simple and basic values are sacrificed to a showy but 
costly series of brilliant directorial moments, and these values are 
never thereafter recaptured. To my jaundiced eye, the best-directed 
play is the one in which the hand of the director remains unnoticed 
— where the play seems not to have been directed at all, but merely 
mirrors the over-all perception and sensitivity of a hidden hand that 
has been the custodian of the proceedings on the stage, not the star 
of them. Though it was dull to watch and I continued to feel that 
I had somehow been cheated out of my just due, I could not deny 
that each day he accomplished more than I would have thought 
possible, and on the evening of the eighth day of rehearsals, the 
first complete run-through of the play was given for Sam Harris. 

Max Siegel, as usual, accompanied him, but no other person was 
allowed in the theatre. Mr. Kaufman did not hold with the theory 
or the practice of having run-throughs for his friends or friends of 
the cast, or even for people whose judgment he respected and 
trusted. He held firmly to the idea that no one person or collection 
of persons, no matter how wise in the ways of the theatre, could ever 
be as sound in their reactions as a regulation audience that had 
planked down their money at the box-office window, and in the main 
I think he was correct. There is perhaps something to be learned 
from a run-through for friends or associates; but more often than 
not, it can be as fooling in one way as it is in another. I have witnessed 
too many run-throughs on a bare stage with nothing but kitchen 
chairs and a stark pilot light and seen them go beautifully, and then 


watched these same plays disappear into the backdrop the moment 
the scenery and footlights hit them, to place too much reliance on 
either the enthusiasm or the misgivings of a well-attended run- 
through. The reverse can be equally true. However well or ill a 
play may go at a run-through, there are bound to be both some 
pleasant and some unpleasant surprises in store for the author when 
it hits its first real audience. 

We received neither enthusiasm nor misgivings from Sam Harris 
at the end of the first run-through of Once in a Lifetime that evening. 
I was disturbed by his silence, but his curious non-communicativeness 
did not seem to disturb Mr. Kaufman at all. "You'll seldom hear 
praise from Sam Harris," he explained, "you'll only hear what he 
doesn't like. I don't think he was too displeased tonight or we'd have 
heard a little more from him. I imagine he's waiting until the play 
shakes down into a better performance before he says anything 
much." And with that I had to be content. Mr. Kaufman was too 
busily engaged with all the many details of production that engulf 
a director from that moment onward to give much time to the 
business of reassuring an increasingly nervous collaborator. The end 
of the afternoon rehearsal usually saw him in conference with the 
scenic designer, the costume designer, the prop man or the electrician, 
and the same conference with one or more of these same gentlemen 
took place again at the end of the evening rehearsal. 

Once in a Lifetime was a large production. It called for six elabo- 
rate sets, a flood of costumes and a quantity of rather bizarre props, 
including a half-dozen live pigeons and two Russian wolfhounds. 
The pigeons and the wolfhounds were already being used in re- 
hearsal to allow the actors to grow used to them, or to allow them to 
grow used to the actors. But since neither the pigeons nor the two 
wolfhounds seemed to respond as readily to Mr. Kaufman's whis- 
pered murmurings as the actors did, and as his patience with humans 
did not spill over into the animal world, I thought it politic under the 
circumstances not to add to his burdens by voicing my own moments 
of uncertainty. Part of the daily panic I was feeling, I suppose, was 
due to the fact that after the first easygoing week, the production of 
a play suddenly increases in tempo until it becomes a headlong rush 


to meet the deadline of opening night, and with a complicated pro- 
duction there is never enough time to do the necessary little things — 
mainly because of some impossible rulings by the unions that hedge 
the theatre in on every side and effectively strangle the concentrated 
and creative work a play should be allowed to have in rehearsal. 

It was all going too fast; there were a hundred things still undone 
that I knew could not be done now before we opened. What I had 
not yet learned, and would have to learn the hard way, was that once 
in rehearsal a play — and everyone and everything connected with it — 
is sent spinning down a toboggan slide on which there is no stopping 
or turning back. Whirling down the slope one can only take the 
twists and turns as they come and hope to have sufficient luck to 
land safely. It is a marvel to me that so many do, for there are no 
exceptions made — the same rule applies to everyone — and the tobog- 
gan slide is especially iced for each new play. 

Before I could believe it was happening, I was dazedly packing 
my suitcase to go to Atlantic City for the dress rehearsals and the 
opening. My own numbing anxiety was in no way helped by the 
attitude of my family, all of whom had made a complete turnabout. 
After their early conviction that the $500 I had received as advance 
royalty on Once in a Lifetime was highly suspicious and that eventu- 
ally I would be asked to give it back, they were now as firmly 
convinced that the rosiest of futures awaited only the rising of the 
curtain. My mother in particular was in a state of blissful certainty 
that somehow I had at last stumbled into a profession which, while she 
did not profess to understand it, at least gave the appearance of being 
respectable ; and in the eyes of her friends, a profession that was per- 
haps only a rung or two below that of lawyer or dentist. For quite 
some years now she had labored under the burden of being unable 
to explain to her friends exactly what it was her elder son did for 
a living. My summers were not too difficult to explain, though 
nothing, God knows, to be proud of, measured against sons who 
were studying medicine or dentistry or the law; but the work I did 
in the wintertime completely defied explanation or understanding. 
She had maintained for a while that I gave "speech" lessons in the 


evenings; but a son who lay around the house all day and did some- 
thing so outlandish at night was obviously nothing to boast about. 
She had, I knew, always refrained from any mention of my "home- 
work" as seeming to put an official stamp on my difference from 
other people's sons, but now suddenly she could point to that differ- 
ence with pride. 

Once in a Lifetime was booked to play a week in Atlantic City 
and a week in Brighton Beach, and the theatre in Brighton Beach 
was not too far from where we lived. The neighborhood was already 
well plastered with billboard posters announcing its coming, and 
my name, along with George Kaufman's, was prominently dis- 
played. My name had also appeared in newspaper announcements 
of the play, and even the more theatrically obtuse of her friends could 
no longer be unaware that her son might be of some consequence at 
last! I truly believe that it was not the possibility of anything so un- 
believable as riches coming out of all this, but simply the fact that 
my activities, always so mysterious and faintly spurious in the eyes 
of her friends, had taken on the aura of respectability. I knew very 
well that, having now seen my name on those billboards, she would 
be unable to accept the fact that my brand-new "respectable" pro- 
fession might easily vanish within the space of two weeks, and I did 
not mention it. Her pleasure and her satisfaction were so apparent 
that I could not bear to disillusion her, and for much the same 
reason I said nothing to discourage my father's and my brother's 
equally unrealistic optimism and high expectations. 

I kissed them all good-bye and took the subway to Pennsylvania 
Station, where I joined the company on the Atlantic City train. The 
"opening night" glaze already filming my eyes was apparent enough 
to make Max Siegel take one look at me, laugh, take a flask from his 
hip pocket and usher me quickly into the club car for a stiff drink. 



wTLANTicciTYinthe spring of 1930 was bursting at the 
seams. Every hotel seemed to be filled to capacity and overflowing 
into the boarding houses that dotted all the side streets. The board- 
walk, always crowded during the fashionable strolling hours, was 
even jam-packed during the late afternoons, so that the people on 
its outer edges seemed in some danger of being pushed onto the 
sands below. 

I stared down from my hotel window at the sparkling ocean and 
at the pleasant pattern the strollers made along the sun-splashed 
boardwalk, and alert as always for omens, good or bad, I told myself 
that these holiday-minded folk were bound to be a good audience 
for a new comedy. Though I could not see their faces clearly, I pre- 
ferred to imagine them as already wreathed in smiles of good will. 
After all, I thought reassuringly, Atlantic City was the top tryout 
town of the Eastern Seaboard, and the audience that would file into 
the Apollo Theatre on Tuesday night would not only be a knowl- 
edgeable one but an understanding and forgiving one as well, for 
they were used to tryouts here and did not expect a new play to be 
airtight. They would accept its lacks as part of the whole holiday 
spirit that pervaded the resort itself. And unlike that bitter winter's 
day in Rochester that ushered in the opening of The Beloved Bandit, 
today was mild and balmy and sweet with a lovely tang of freshness 
as the breeze rolled in from the ocean. 

I stood by the open window breathing in the day and looking 


down at the bright panorama spread out below me, and for a few 
moments my spirits soared and my faith in omens worked its usual 
magic. Yet as I turned away from the window and walked toward 
the bed to unpack my suitcase, I could begin to feel gloom settle over 
me once more, and try as I would, I could not shake it off. It was 
a misery as unreasoning and persistent as it was unshakable. I had 
wrestled widi it all through the last week of rehearsal, through the 
wakeful hours of each night, on the train coming down, and now I 
could feel the same unmistakable flicks of anxiety and panic uncoil- 
ing and welling up within me. 

"No one," I said aloud to the empty room as I slammed my things 
furiously into the bureau, "no one is worried but you, and they all 
know a hundred times more than you do, so stop it!" Saying it out 
loud helped for a moment, but for no more than a moment. The 
gloom deepened into the frozen panic that Max Siegel had seen clearly 
mirrored in my eyes as I stepped onto the train a few hours earlier. 
I threw myself on the bed and lay staring up at the ceiling. I knew 
little of psychoanalysis — its methods and its meaning were unknown 
to me — but instinctively I felt that I must make a final effort to try 
to understand the state of terror I was locked in, or it would take 
over and immobilize me completely. I lay on the bed for almost an 
hour, and the conclusion I came to, while not a very satisfactory one, 
at least had the virtue of presenting me with a calmer exterior and 
the ability to get out of the room and go to the theatre to face what- 
ever I might have to face with some degree of composure. 

What I was finding it impossible to face, I concluded, was the 
possibility of failure. Too much was riding on the success of Once 
in a Lifetime for me to be able to bear the idea of its failure with 
ordinary fortitude or even common sense. I was discounting the 
dread possibility in a way that Dr. Freud would have understood at 
once. I was obviously arranging an unconscious barter with the gods 
— offering up, as it were, my pain as a token of worthiness, making 
my suffering a silent plea for their clemency. It is not, I believe, 
uncommon behavior for people under strain and tension awaiting 
the outcome of an event upon which all their hopes are based; but 
as I dimly perceived that this was what I might be doing, some of 


the pain eased, and consumed with the idea that I had divined a 
startling new truth, I walked out of the hotel and toward the 
theatre. Like all major discoveries made in a hotel room on the 
eve of an opening, however, this one lasted exactly the same amount 
of time — that is, it survived until I reached the theatre and walked 
through the stage door, where it evaporated and merged into the 
anxiety-ridden atmosphere backstage. 

The first dress rehearsal, already well under way by the time I 
reached the theatre, although no one seemed to have noticed my 
absence, was going badly. The actors, without make-up and in their 
street clothes, sat numbly in their dressing rooms or hung about in 
disconsolate silent little groups in the wings, waiting to be called 
on stage when and if the stagehands had changed a set or after the 
electricians had adjusted and focused the lights. Little mounds of 
cardboard coffee containers, of half-eaten sandwiches and stale 
doughnuts had already begun to pile up in odd corners of the stage, 
in the dressing rooms and on the empty seats of the dark theatre. 
A false gaiety, as depressing and as soggy as the doughnuts them- 
selves, punctuated intervals of equally false camaraderie between 
the actors and the stagehands, and finally disintegrated into a hollow 
shell of silence in which no one spoke at all. 

The first dress rehearsal, in short, was proceeding in quite the 
usual way, being neither better nor worse than it usually is, for a 
large production in the throes of a first dress rehearsal is a dis- 
spirited and agonizing process. With it begins the age-old battle to 
allow the play to emerge in spite of the production, for at this stage 
of the game each bit of technical virtuosity or stagecraft — that ex- 
travagant effort by the lighting expert to suggest a pearly dawn, 
which takes a good three hours to achieve, and is thoroughly dis- 
turbing to the scene being played in front of it; that charming but 
useless conceit of the scenic artist to have a terrace where none should 
be, thereby limiting the acting area to a cramped boxlike space in 
front of the footlights; the extraordinary concoction by the costume 
designer that does not allow the leading lady to sit down in her 
evening gown, or a hat that completely covers her face from all but 
the first three rows of the orchestra — all of these in the first hours 


of putting a large production together seem to matter more than the 
play itself, and unless the battle is met head-on with a tough 
mind and an iron will and the sheer physical endurance to keep 
constantly alert, fiercely watchful and thoroughly ruthless, a play 
may be smothered or defeated by the intricacy, the trickiness or even 
the downright beauty of a production. 

Perhaps sheer physical endurance is the prime requisite. It is 
almost impossible to convey to an outsider the atmosphere of a 
theatre during those endless hours of unrelieved tedium. The dismal 
waiting about, the awesome hopelessness of shouting at stagehands 
who can hear nothing and are obviously blind as well, the whispered 
but venomous arguments in the back of the theatre with the scenic 
artist, the lighting expert and the costume designer — all of this, 
strung out over a period of three days and nights, is my own private 
conception of what hell or eternal damnation must be like. There 
exists among the laity a mistaken idea that dress rehearsals are ex- 
citing and glamorous. It needs correction. They are pure hell! This 
particular hell, fortunately, was Mr. Kaufman's, not mine, although 
as an anguished onlooker I seemed to be doing a good deal more 
turning on the spit than he was. 

I prowled uneasily around the theatre, moved about in the wings 
among the little groups of weary actors, wandered back and forth 
between the auditorium and the dressing rooms, finding little com- 
fort on either side of the footlights and growing increasingly more 
certain that the play would never open by Tuesday, if at all. Mr. 
Kaufman walked silently up and down the aisle, a dim blue-suited 
figure, talking softly now and then over the apparatus that con- 
nected him with the stage manager backstage; or sat quietly in a 
seat in the very last row of the theatre, seemingly undisturbed by the 
chaos that was taking place in front of his eyes ; and when I hoarsely 
whispered to him that the change from the first scene into the second 
had taken twelve minutes instead of two, he looked at me over the 
rims of his glasses and replied with a kind of lunatic logic, "I know. 
I've been right here all the time," and let his unconcerned gaze 
wander back to the stage again. 

The comforting figure of Sam Harris was nowhere to be seen. I 


learned from Max Siegel, smiling as usual, that Mr. Harris had cast 
an experienced eye on what was obviously going to be a rocky 
series of dress rehearsals and had retreated to a chair on the board- 
walk or to his hotel room and would not be visible now until curtain 
time on opening night. "He likes to keep himself fresh," said Max 
Siegel. "Why don't you do the same thing?" he added. "You can't 
do any good here standing around and looking green. You're just 
scaring yourself and the actors. Why don't you go out and get 
some air?" 

I turned away without answering and wandered backstage again. 
In a little while I wandered listlessly back into the auditorium and 
slumped down into a seat for what I thought was to be five minutes 
of closing my eyes against the mayhem that was taking place on 
the stage, but which turned out to be two hours of the best sleep 
I had had in two weeks. 

I seem to have no clear recollection of the next forty-eight hours. 
The scenic and light rehearsals went on, the dress parade took place, 
the actors began to appear in their proper costumes in the right 
scenes and at the right time. My memory of those hours is actually 
of a feeling or a sensation — of a curious illusion which is still vivid 
and remains remarkably clear in my mind to this very day. During 
those last two days before the opening I seemed to be under a con- 
stant hallucination that I was floating down an underground stream 
whose dark waters seethed and eddied with the faces of actors, stage- 
hands and Mr. Kaufman — where the shore was lined with endless 
mounds of discolored coffee containers, half-eaten sandwiches and 
doughnuts — and that I was being borne swiftly and implacably to- 
ward an improbable island over which the precise, invariable voice 
of Mr. Kaufman echoed and re-echoed with a sepulchral clarity, 
although I could not always understand what he was saying. 

I returned to reality, if indeed it may be called that, with the ar- 
rival of Joe Hyman in my hotel room at six thirty on the night of 
the opening. He found me standing in my underpants in front of the 
washbasin in the bathroom, with my hands outstretched beneath 
the electric light bulb over the washbasin mirror; I had pulled the 
cord of the light bulb, then fallen into some bemusement of my 


own, and instead of turning on the water taps I had remained stand- 
ing with my palms upturned under the bulb waiting for water to 
gush forth. "Of all nights for the water to be turned oil without 
warning," I said bitterly to him by way of greeting. "How am I 
going to shave? I can't go to the opening looking like this!" 

Joe Hyman turned on the water tap and said, "Hurry up and 
shave and I'll buy you a good dinner. If things are as terrible as you 
look, you'll need one." 

There was always a gentle hint of mockery in everything Joe 
Hyman said, even when he was being most grave. It was the most 
immediate and personal thing about him and it either attracted or 
repelled people who knew him only slightly. It was just what I 
needed right then. It cleared the air of actors, stagehands, even of 
Mr. Kaufman himself, and brought the real world back into focus. 
To my surprise, I ate and thoroughly enjoyed the large lobster din- 
ner he bought me, and aided by his brisk matter-of-fact presence I 
even talked sensibly for the first time in weeks about the play. I 
had been right to allow him and no one else to come down to the 
opening. By urgent pleadings and a few not so veiled threats, I 
had persuaded all of my little coterie — Eddie Chodorov, Dore 
Schary, Lester Sweyd, et al. — not to come down to Atlantic City 
for the opening, but to wait until the following week at Brighton 
Beach. I wanted Joe Hyman and no one else with me tonight. 

The initial performance, the raising of a curtain on a play before 
its very first audience, is for me at least the worst two hours of that 
play's existence, whatever its subsequent fate may be. No one really 
knows anything much about a play until it meets its first audience; 
not its director, its actors, its producers, and least of all its author. 
The scenes he has counted on most strongly, his favorite bits of fine 
writing — the delicately balanced emotional or comedic thrusts, the 
witty, ironic summing up, the wry third-act curtain with its caustic 
stinging last line that adroitly illuminates the theme — these are the 
things that are most likely to go down the drain first, sometimes with 
an audible thud. The big scene in the second act, or the touching 
speech that reflects all of the author's personal philosophy— that 


cherished mosaic of words on which he has secretly based his hopes 
for the Pulitzer Prize or at the very least the Drama Critics Award — 
such things the audience invariably will sit silently but politely 
through, patiently waiting for the reappearance of that delightful 
minor character, who was tossed in only to highlight the speech, or 
for an echo of that delicious little scene which was written only as 
a transition to the big one. 

It is a humbling process, and the truculent author whose pride or 
vanity seduces him into believing that his play is above the heads 
of its out-of-town audience, is due for a rude surprise when his play 
reaches New York. There are, of course, plays that have withered 
out of town and then blossomed in New York, but they are the 
exceptions rather than the rule. By and large, an audience is an 
audience is an audience, as Gertrude Stein might have said, and the 
acid test of a play is usually its very first one. It is that first audience 
that I most fear, for regardless of what miracles of rewriting may 
be undertaken and even brilliantly carried out, the actual fate of a 
play is almost always sealed by its first audience. 

A New York opening night is not something to be borne with 
equanimity, but after four weeks out of town, unless one is willfully 
blind and deaf to the unmistakable signs that an audience gives to 
even the most sanguine of authors, the ballots are already in and 
counted — the ball game has already been played and lost. Audiences 
do not vary that widely, nor for that matter, do critics. The New 
York notices will generally be more perceptive of the author's in- 
tent, more astute in distinguishing the first-rate from the cleverly 
contrived, but they will fasten on the weakness of a play or a per- 
formance with the same kind of exasperating genius that out-of-town 
audiences have shown from the first performance onward. It is 
permissible, of course, to believe in miracles as one makes one's way 
to the theatre on the night of a New York opening; but it is safer 
and less painful in the end, I have found, to continue to believe that 
miracles, like taxi accidents, are something that happen to other 
people, not oneself. 

We strolled slowly along the boardwalk to the theatre, my dinner- 
table calm suddenly giving way to a mounting excitement and 


dread, distributed in equal parts at the pit of my stomach Even Joe 
Hyman, walking beside me, lapsed into a strange loquaciousness to 
cover, I realized, his own excitement. Neither of us said one word 
about the play. I discoursed learnedly and at length on one of my 
favorite topics, the evils of poverty; and Joe Hyman, paying no at- 
tention whatever to what I was saying, held forth on the superior 
taste and chewing consistency of salt-water taffy in the days of his 
childhood over the present poor makeshift specimens that we passed 
in store after store as we walked along. The lobby of the Apollo 
Theatre, when we reached it, was a reassuring sight. It contained 
within its jammed confines that happy buzz that I had come to 
associate with an audience about to enter a theatre for an evening 
of already assured pleasure. Pushing my way through, I heard 
"George S. Kaufman" and "He always writes hits" with punctuated 
regularity, and just before I reached the ticket taker a man behind 
me announced loudly, "I'll lay you two-to-one right now this show 
is a hit — I'll put my money on Kaufman any day of the week." 

Joe Hyman presented his stub to the ticket taker, who nodded his 
head to me in recognition as I passed through. Joe and I shook hands 
silently, and I watched him proceed to his seat in the fourth row on 
the aisle, with the lingering, beseeching look a child gives to its 
parents when he is about to have his tonsils removed, but Joe did 
not look back. I turned and looked over the heads of the crowd at 
the back of the theatre for a glimpse of Mr. Kaufman. Mr. Kaufman, 
Max Siegel had informed me, never sat for the performance of a 
play — the first performance or any other one. He stood at the back 
of the theatre, not looking at the stage, but pacing furiously up and 
down and listening. Under the mistaken idea that he might expect 
me to do the same thing, I had not arranged for a seat, but stood 
dutifully waiting, anxiously casting about for him to make his ap- 

The house lights dimmed to the halfway mark, warning late- 
comers to get to their seats. There was still no sign of Mr. Kaufman. 
I wondered if I had misunderstood Max Siegel — I had not been 
understanding more than half of what was said to me these last 
few days — and I had a moment of wild panic, feeling certain Mr. 


Kaufman had met with an accident on his way to the theatre and 
that the curtain would rise without him, leaving only me in charge. 
Then, from somewhere over my shoulder quite close by, came an 
unmistakable snarling voice: "Stop talking and sit down, you son- 
of-a-bitches." A group of latecomers, rather a large group, gave one 
startled glance at the grim figure staring at them over the rims of 
his glasses and scurried silently down the aisle. If Mr. Kaufman saw 
me, he gave no indication of it. 

His wild pacing had already started. Back and forth across the 
back of the theatre he paced at a tremendous clip, staring down at 
the carpet and heedless of what or who might be in front of him. 
The ushers threw him a sidelong look and gave him a wide berth. 
He paced up and down like a man possessed, as indeed he was 
possessed at those moments, by a demon that only the laughter of 
an audience in the proper places could exorcise. For an uncertain 
moment I considered falling into step beside him, but another look 
at that formidable figure made me think better of it. Instead, I 
started my own pacing from the opposite side, so that we passed and 
repassed each other as we both reached center. 

Thus began accidentally, for me, at any rate, a ritual that has 
persisted ever since. I have never since that night sat in a seat for 
a performance of one of my own plays. How many hundreds of 
miles I have paced in how many countless out-of-town theatres I 
hesitate to think. The mileage, to say nothing of the wear and 
tear, has been considerable. Moreover, my ear and my brain, at- 
tuned since that first memorable pacing, have never had the en- 
joyment of hearing the audience laugh — they are trained to hear 
only the silences when laughter is supposed to come but does not. 
It may account for my look of very real surprise when people have 
said to me, "It must be wonderful to hear a theatre full of people 
roar with laughter at something you have written, isn't it?" I have 
always answered, "Yes, it is," but actually I have never really heard it. 
I have always been listening ahead for the next line or the next 
scene, when laughter may not come. 

The theatre went dark and the audience fell silent as the foot- 
lights glowed on. The curtain rose to a spatter of polite, obligatory 

applause, but I resolutely kept my face from the stage, fiercely de- 
termined to emulate my hero, whose eyes were glued to the carpet 
and whose legs were taking even longer strides as he came toward 
me. Aline MacMahon made her entrance and a second or so later, 
with her third line, the entire audience broke into a roar of laughter. 
It marked the first time I had ever heard an audience laugh at 
something I had written. 

I stopped dead in my tracks as though someone had struck me 
hard across the mouth, and the Lobster Newburg resting fitfully in 
my stomach took a fearful heave and turn. I was near the stairway 
fortunately, and I raced down to the men's room, making it only 
just in time, and there I remained for the next fifteen or twenty 
minutes. I could hear applause and knew that the first scene had 
ended, and could tell by the other kind of applause that Blanche 
Ring had made her entrance in the second scene, but I dared not 
go upstairs. Each time I tried to leave I got only as far as the bot- 
tom of the stairway, and then returned to be sick again. 

Finally, in the middle of the second scene, I could bear it no 
longer. The audience was laughing almost continuously now and 
it was intolerable not to be able to drink it all in. I raced up the 
stairs and for a few seconds stood gaping at the stage, grinning 
foolishly and then breaking into delighted laughter myself as the 
audience laughed. 

I might have stayed that way for the rest of the act, or indeed the 
whole show, but for the figure that loomed up suddenly beside me 
and interrupted his pacing just long enough to remark thinly, 
"There were plenty of places where they didn't laugh while you 
were doing whatever the hell you were doing." He made a grenadier- 
turn and was off like a whippet to the opposite side of the theatre. 
Thoroughly ashamed of myself, I resumed my own pacing; and we 
passed and repassed each other without a word until the curtain fell 
on the end of the first act. 

I could barely wait for Joe Hyman to get up the aisle, but I could 
tell from the applause and from that wonderful buzz that came 
from the audience itself on all sides as the house lights went on, 
that the first act had gone wonderfully. Joe Hyman did not stint. 


For once he "gave satisfaction," as my mother would have said. "If 
the rest of it keeps up like this, my boy, you can give up the lecture 
on the evils of poverty," he said, his face wreathed in one big sat- 
isfied grin. I looked around for Mr. Kaufman, but of course he had 
gone backstage. He was to be discovered already seated as the cur- 
tain rose on the second act, and he would be putting on his make-up 
now. I moved about trying to find Max Siegel or Sam Harris; but 
Max Siegel was nowhere to be found and Sam Harris was sur- 
rounded by a large group of people. He caught sight of me over the 
edge of the group and winked broadly. There could be no doubt 
that he was immensely pleased. 

The ushers began to shout, "Curtain going up, second act . . . Cur- 
tain going up . . ." and the audience started to stream back down 
the aisles with avidity. The pace with which an audience returns 
to its seats after an intermission is always a dead giveaway on how 
the play is going. If they linger to chatter in the lobby or sip their 
orangeades at the back of the theatre, it is always a fairly good sign 
that things are not going any too well. I am always infuriated by 
stragglers, but one cannot blame an audience for being reluctant to 
return for more of the same if what they have already sat through 
has been dreary and dull. It seemed to me that this audience could 
hardly wait to get back to their seats. 

Mr. Kaufman's reception, when the curtain rose on the second act, 
was the biggest of the evening. That gaunt, saturnine figure, his eyes 
peering malignantly over the rims of his glasses, seemed to amuse 
them before he even spoke — and the very first line he uttered got 
the biggest laugh in the play so far. Indeed, they laughed twice at 
it, so to speak—once a great roar, and as the roar died down they 
gave another burst of delighted laughter. Then they broke into 
applause, completely drowning out his next line, but he craftily 
waited them out, then signaled with his eyes to Leona Maricle, to 
give him the cue again. He was quite wonderful in the part and in 
complete control of the audience. His timing was perfect, he looked 
exactly what he was supposed to be — a New York playwright 
venomously dedicated against all things Hollywood — and he played 
with the resourcefulness and skill of an actor who had been all his 


life on the stage. In my opinion he never received enough credit for 
his performance. Not being a "real" actor, he was received by the 
critics with the good-humored tolerance reserved for a theatrical 
trick or a parochial joke; but it was far above anything of the sort. 
Every line he uttered, even some of his pantomime, drew huge 
laughs, and when he made his exit in the middle of the second act 
a resounding round of applause followed him off. 

And then a terrible thing happened. An extraordinary quiet set- 
tled over that eager, willing audience! 

There were laughs, of course, during the rest of the act but they 
were scattered and thinnish and sounded as though the audience 
were forcing themselves to laugh at things they didn't quite find 
really funny. It was as though they wanted the play to keep on being 
as good as it had been and were eager to help as much as they 
could by playing the part of a still delighted audience. The second- 
act curtain, nevertheless, descended to a polite but disappointed hand. 

I did not wait for Joe Hyman to come up the aisle this time. With 
grim foreboding I made my cowardly way to the stage alley around 
the corner, where I stood miserably biting my nails and saying si- 
lently over and over, "Oh, God, is it going to be like Chicago again?" 

I went back to the theatre after the curtain had risen on the third 
act, to find Mr. Kaufman already pacing furiously up and down. 
I resumed my own pacing and we passed and repassed each other, 
though he did not speak to me nor I to him. The third act played 
more or less like the latter half of the second — scattered thinnish 
laughs — and finally in the last scene, a scene made all the more 
lethal because the scene itself was more elaborate in decor and lavish 
in costume than any other in the play, no laughs at all. It was the 
scene we had labored hardest on, and true to form, the scene which 
we both liked the best and were secretly the proudest of. With a 
silent and disgruntled audience watching it, the elaborate set looked 
ridiculous and the expensive costumes foolish and a little vulgar. 

A deadly cough or two began to echo hollowly through the audi- 
torium — that telltale tocsin that pierces the playwright's eardrums, 
those sounds that penetrate his heart like carefully aimed poison 
darts — and after the first few tentative coughs a sudden epidemic of 


respiratory ailments seemed to spread through every chest in the 
audience as though a long-awaited signal had been given. Great 
clearings of the throat, prodigious nose-blowings, Gargantuan 
sneezes came from all parts of the theatre both upstairs and down, 
all of them gradually blending until the odious sound emerged as 
one great and constant cough that drowned out every line that was 
being uttered on the stage. 

I stopped pacing and stared balefully at the serried rows of heads 
and the backs of necks that stretched straight down to the footlights, 
as if my fury could spray itself over those heads and throats like an 
insecticide and make them stop. And my eye was immediately struck 
by the changed postures of that audience. In the first act they had 
sat erect in their seats and leaned forward a little, attentive and 
eager for every word coming over the footlights. Now they sprawled 
every which way. Some of them had even slumped down in their 
seats as far as they could get, and their heads rested on the back of 
the seats. I have watched the same silent spectacle since then, and 
even without coughs, it is as good and grim an illustration of a 
disappointed audience as I know of, and another excellent reason 
why a playwright should never sit through one of his own works. 
Looking at the heads of an audience from the back of the orchestra 
will tell him a good deal more than sitting in a welter of well- 
wishing friends in the third row. I walked away and leaned against 
the wall, waiting for the coughing to stop, but of course it did not 
stop. It continued growing in volume for the rest of that lumpish 
and hulking scene. The curtain finally and at last came down on 
what at best could only be described as reluctant and somewhat 
fugitive applause. 

Mr. Kaufman had disappeared at least five minutes before the 
curtain fell, and I remained where I was at the back of the theatre 
waiting for Joe Hyman to come up the aisle. I could see his face 
long before he reached me. It looked sad, sullen, and somehow five 
years older than when he had come up the aisle at the end of the 
first act. He reached my side and, never a man to mind putting the 
obvious into words, said, "You got an act and a half of a hit. What 
you need pretty badly is the other half." I stared dumbly back at 


him without replying. "Shall I wait for you back at the hotel and go 
home tomorrow morning, or would you rather I went home to- 
night?" he asked. 

I found my voice, though it sounded squeaky and high-pitched 
and the words came out almost like a bleat. "Better go home," I 
said. "There's a conference in Mr. Kaufman's room right away and 
I think he'll want to go right to work after we finish. Looks like 
there's quite a lot to do, doesn't it?" I asked needlessly. 

Joe Hyman nodded, and the gentle note of mockery was in his 
voice again. "While you're working tonight, just keep thinking 
'Well, at least I'm not up at camp doing "Mrs. Cohen at the Beach." ' 
That'll help." He held out his hand and I took it. "It's an awful good 
act and a half, though," he said. "I'll call you from New York to- 
morrow or the next day. I better run now if I'm going to catch that 
train back." And he was gone. 

I waited until the last stragglers had left the lobby and then walked 
slowly up the boardwalk toward the hotel. I was in no hurry to get 
there, even at the risk of keeping Mr. Kaufman waiting. Had it 
really gone as badly as I feared it had, and if so, what would Mr. 
Harris and Mr. Kaufman do? Sam Harris was no Augustus Pitou, 
but I remembered I had heard him say to someone or other during 
rehearsals, "You can't pinch pennies in show business, but the great 
secret is to know when to cut your losses. Make up your mind 
quickly, take your loss and run. Just not doing that little thing has 
caused a good many managers to die broke." I shivered a little in 
the warm night air and found that I was already in front of the 

Inevitably some of the other passengers were talking about the 
show as the elevator ascended. "What did you think of that thing 
tonight?" said a fat suntanned man addressing another fat sun- 
tanned man standing next to me. "I saw you in the lobby, didn't 

"Yeah," said the man at my side, "after the first act everyone 
could have stayed in the lobby. They got a big juicy flop on their 
hands if you ask me." 


Who's asking you, you fat, overfed, overdressed son-of-a-bitch, I 
thought sullenly as he pressed himself against me. 

"You're Beacon Sportswear Sweaters, aren't you?" said the first 
man to the man at my side. "I'm Ladies Cashmere Woolens." 

"Yeah, Beacon Sportswear. You know the line?" the man next to 
me asked. 

I longed to answer him myself, but I lacked the courage. "I know 
the line," I ached to say; "and your sweaters are lousy — lousier than 
our third act. I'm wearing one of them right now. They stretch and 
they unravel. And if you know so much about plays, why don't you 
make better sweaters, you pompous bastard?" I added silently and 
illogically as I pushed past him to get off at my floor. 

I made my way miserably down the corridor, but in front of 
Mr. Kaufman's room I turned away and walked a few doors further 
down to my own room. Whether because of the tension of the 
evening or because of what Mr. Sportswear had just said in the 
elevator, my face and forehead and eyes were burning as if with a 
high fever. I let myself into my room, and without turning on the 
lights — I had no wish to be mocked by the little pile of telegrams, 
stacked neatly on the bureau, which I had opened with such amuse- 
ment and pleasure earlier in the evening— I walked through the 
dark room to the bathroom. I filled the washbowl with water as 
cold as I could get it to run and dipped my face and finally my 
whole head into it. In the dark bedroom I changed my shirt, which 
was limp and dank with perspiration, and as I stood buttoning it 
the telephone rang. With a pang I remembered I had told the family 
to call me in my room at eleven thirty sharp, before I went to the 
conference, so that I could tell them how the opening had gone. It 
rang again, and I let it ring without moving to answer it. There was 
no point in giving them bad news until I knew just how bad the 
news might be. Still less point in trying to put a good face on it 
or attempting to whitewash the evening's calamity — my mother 
would catch me out at once. Better to let them think they had 
missed me. 

I walked out of the room, with the telephone still ringing, and 
down the hall to Mr. Kaufman's room again and knocked on the 


door. Mr. Kaufman's voice called, "Come in, come in," and I walked 
into the room to find no one there, surprisingly enough, but Mr. 
Kaufman himself. I had expected to see Sam Harris, Max Siegel, 
the stage manager, the company manager, and even some of the 
group I had seen talking to Sam Harris during the intermission. Mr. 
Kaufman's conferences were evidently not going to follow the pre- 
scribed ritual. The wrecking crew and even Sam Harris were ap- 
parently barred. 

Mr. Kaufman, in pajamas and bathrobe, was seated on the sofa, 
the script already on his knees, a pencil poised above it, and a sheet 
of yellow paper and carbon stood ready at the typewriter. He did 
not look up but gestured toward a table on which stood a Thermos 
of coffee and two thin sandwiches. "Those are for you," he said. 
"We'll be working all night, and room service closes at one o'clock." 
I stared hungrily at the sandwiches, but another gesture had mo- 
tioned me over to the sofa. I sat down beside him. 

"You know what didn't go as well as I do," he said. "Curing it is 
another matter. We'll get to that later. Let's cut right down to the 
bone first, to give us a clean look at what we've got. It won't Rx 
what's wrong, but at least it will improve the good stuff that's there." 
Nothing in his tone or manner indicated that there was any thought 
of abandoning the play. I could easily have thrown my arms around 
him and hugged him, and my sigh of relief must have been so 
audible that he turned to me and said, "Did you say something?" 
I shook my head. The pencil in his hand began to make quick, 
darting marks on the manuscript, bracketing the cuts on page after 
page. It was astonishing to find how much of what we had written 
was unnecessary, how we had underestimated an audience's ability 
to grasp what was needful for them to know without restating it 
not once but sometimes two or even three times. It was reassuring 
to find that so meticulous a craftsman as George Kaufman himself 
still had to learn the hard way the ever-constant lesson of economy. 

There was a knock at the door and I opened it to find Max Siegel 
standing in the doorway with a number of typewritten sheets in 
his hand. "Mr. Harris' notes," he said, handing them over. "How's 
the young author? Not discouraged, I hope." He waved to Mr. 


Kaufman over my shoulder and walked away. I presented the notes 
to Mr. Kaufman. He placed them on the table beside him without 
so much as a glance. "Later," he remarked, without looking up from 
the manuscript, and the pencil darted surgically over the pages. 

I could only guess at the passage of time by the increasingly loud 
rumblings of my stomach. That large lobster dinner I had eaten 
with Joe Hyman seemed some years away. Moreover, I had re- 
turned it to the sea early in the evening and I was beginning to 
grow a little dizzy with hunger. I waited until Mr. Kaufman found 
it necessary to go to the bathroom and then dived for the sandwiches 
and coffee, stealing a look at my watch at the same time. It was 
almost four thirty in the morning and we were only just past the 
middle of the second act. 

Mr. Kaufman, returning from the bathroom, walked toward the 
bureau instead of going back to the sofa, and rummaging under a 
pile of shirts he brought out a large brown paper bag. "Fudge," he 
said casually, "for energy. Have some." He held the bag out in front 
of me and I tentatively picked out the daintiest piece I could find, 
conscious as always in his presence of my undisciplined appetite. 
"Have a good-sized piece," he said sharply, "you won't even taste 
it that way. I make it myself," he added, with a satisfied chuckle. 

I looked up at him in surprise. What was even more surprising 
was the fact that his eyes were shining with the first hint of pride I 
had ever seen glisten in them. I had tried once or twice to discuss 
some of his work that I particularly admired, but careful as I had 
been to keep any hint of admiration out of my voice, his replies had 
been so lackluster and his indifference so obvious that I had quickly 
dropped any mention of the plays and never returned to it. To my 
astonishment, he was now standing over me, waiting as eagerly for 
me to taste the piece of fudge in my fingers as he might wait for a 
notice in the Times the morning after an opening night. I bit into 
it and carefully let it melt in my mouth before I gave my report, 
for his eyes were intent on mine and the expression on his face was 
so childishly expectant that I knew my judgment must be a con- 
sidered one before I pronounced it. 

The very first bite told the whole story! It was awful fudge — 


gummy and sickly sweet. I did not have the heart to tell him so. 
"It's just wonderful," I lied. He smiled delightedly and popped a 
large piece into his own mouth, still looking at me with the look 
of fevered expectancy that a favored relative fixes on the family 
lawyer about to read the will. Evidently "just wonderful" wasn't 
going to be enough. "I didn't know you could make fudge," I said 
thickly, trying to make the words sound enthusiastic, for the horrible 
stuff was sticking to the roof of my mouth and had worked its way 
around my back molars and gums. 

"Can't buy it this way anywhere," he said, deeply pleased with 
himself. "Never the right consistency or not sweet enough. Matter 
of fact" — he went on chewing contentedly — "This isn't quite sweet 
enough either. I'll make a new batch to take to Brighton Beach 
next week." 

Oh, God, I thought . . . not sweet enough! If he makes me take 
another piece I'll be sick right in front of him. "Have some more," 
said Mr. Kaufman, helping himself to another piece and holding the 
bag out in front of me. "Best thing I know of to keep you awake." 

It'll keep me awake all right, I thought, as I plunged my hand 
in the bag and tried to pick out the smallest possible piece. Just 
keeping it down will keep me awake. "Thanks," I said brightly, "it 
certainly does seems to give you energy, doesn't it?" And I walked 
into the bathroom. I flushed the lump of wretched stuff down the 
toilet and emerged from the bathroom falsely chewing away like the 
traitor I was. 

Through the years the brown paper bag full of that terrible fudge 
emerged from a good many other bureau drawers. Mr. Kaufman 
rarely traveled without it. It was as much a part of his traveling 
equipment as the sharpened pencils, the carbon paper, the typewriter 
and the special hand soap. And the memory of that brown paper 
bag coming toward me at four or five in the morning is still enough 
to engender a slight feeling of queasiness. His staunch belief in the 
energy-giving properties of his own fudge, however, worked like 
magic — at least, for him — for he worked through the rest of the 
night without so much as a pause or a single yawn. 

It was just after seven thirty in the morning when he closed the 


manuscript and walked to the windows to draw the curtains and 
pull up the shades. The bright sunlight made me blink my eyes and 
made me realize that I ached all over with weariness. "I've called 
rehearsal for eleven o'clock. We never got to Sam Harris' notes," 
he added with a regretful sigh. "Oh, well, we'll get a chance to go 
through them between the morning and afternoon rehearsal. Good 
night — or good morning — whichever you prefer." He opened the 
windows, then pulled the curtain and shades to once again and was 
taking off his bathrobe and making for the bed as I murmured a 
good night and closed the door after me. 

The rest of that work-filled week in Atlantic City was a testimony 
to the remarkable continuity with which George Kaufman func- 
tioned — to the unity of purpose and dogged persistence with which 
he cut away every superfluous word of the play until its bare bones 
lay exposed. It was a striking illustration of his dictum "First things 
first," for he refused to be swerved or stampeded by anyone, Sam 
Harris and Beatrice Kaufman included, until he had achieved what 
he chose to call "A naked look at the play itself — I don't care if 
the curtain comes down at ten o'clock." Indeed, at the Friday eve- 
ning performance, the final curtain actually did come down at ten 
fifteen — he had cut a little too deeply, he grudgingly conceded — and 
some of the cuts were quickly restored for the Saturday matinee; 
but for that one alarming evening the play must have given the im- 
pression to the bewildered and stunned audience of being hardly a 
play at all, but merely a series of loosely connected scenes strung 
causelessly together. 

There is always one performance in the life of a play that is in 
trouble out of town, where the entire enterprise, from the idea of 
the play itself right down to its settings and its actors, succeeds in 
looking utterly ridiculous and gives to everyone connected with it 
a sense of deep and complete humiliation. We had apparently 
reached that terminal point in record time. It was on that black 
evening also that both Sam Harris and Beatrice Kaufman returned 
to New York, leaving behind them, or so it seemed to my appre- 
hensive ears, an impression of extremely cautious and guarded op- 


timism as to the play's ultimate chances, in spite of the careful way 
they phrased everything they said. Nevertheless, that savage and 
ruthless cutting job accomplished exactly what he had meant it to 
do: it revealed as nothing else could have the deep trouble we were 
in, for stripped of its excess verbiage Once in a Lifetime emerged 
as a play of sound satiric viewpoint but very little substance. It was 
possible, it seemed, for an audience to laugh long and loud at a 
play, and yet leave the theatre dissatisfied and disappointed — a phe- 
nomenon that I have noted in a good many other plays through the 
years, sometimes in plays of sound enough ideas, but which re- 
mained unhappy casualties because of this fundamental lack of what 
an audience compellingly demands. 

I was learning in that memorable week still another aspect of how 
baffling a quarry an audience can be. Some basic human element or 
ingredient was missing in Once in a Lifetime, and in spite of its 
high sense of fun and rollicking good spirits, the sum total of the 
evening did not add up to that magical sense of enjoyment that 
sends an audience out of the theatre completely satisfied and breeds 
long lines at the box office afterward. Each night after the labor 
of cutting was over, we sat in Mr. Kaufman's room and discussed the 
nature of the disease, but curing it, as he had tartly remarked after 
the opening performance, was another matter. The gravity of the 
trouble we were in was obvious enough; the remedy was not so 
easily come by. We discussed and quickly discarded any number of 
devices which we sensed were palliatives rather than the pure oxygen 
the play needed, and as I watched Mr. Kaufman stride toward the 
windows at the end of each night to pull aside the curtain and let the 
dawn streak in, I marveled anew at his resiliency — at his uncommon 
ability to stand up under the punishing load of work he was carrying 
and still retain his full zest and vigor. 

I had ceased to be astonished by the freshness with which he would 
attack each new day's rehearsal after a night of little or no sleep, but 
as I made my own weary way down the corridor to my room, my 
befuddled brain continued to marvel at him. I still do, and I con- 
tinue to wonder why I have allowed myself to follow the same 
foolish path. The playwright who directs his own work is playing a 


fool's game. The schedule he must keep and the load he must carry 
is an inhuman one and it does not always work to the advantage of 
his play. If the play is in trouble — and trouble is the out-of-town 
norm — he will more often than not be forced to rewrite whole scenes 
during the night, have the rewrite typed and ready for an eleven 
o'clock rehearsal, rehearse throughout the day, watch the perform- 
ance that evening, making his notes to give to the actors after the 
curtain comes down, as well as judging how well or ill the new 
scenes played, and then go back to his room to repeat the same 
procedure over again every night until such time as he is lucky 
enough or clever enough to have rescued his play. Apart from the 
labor and tension of the original rehearsals, after two or three weeks 
of this grueling schedule on the road, the playwright who is his 
own director would be wise not to go to a doctor for a checkup 
at the end of it. He is very likely to be unpleasantly surprised at the 
results of his cardiogram. Yet there is no recovery, it is only fair to 
say, as quick as the recovery from a hit. The roses appear in the 
playwright's cheeks again with amazing swiftness, and the sparkle 
of health in his eye gives the lie to the lunatic battering he has just 
put his physical and nervous system through. 

Perhaps it is precisely this unholy knowledge that has caused me 
to persist in continuing to direct my own plays against all the dictates 
of common sense, considering that I have teetered along the edge 
of that porcupine padi so many times before. Vanity, I can only 
presume, inevitably triumphs over plain common sense, for I am 
certain that some of my plays have suffered at my own hands as 
director. I have long since reached the conclusion that I am a better 
director of another's work than of my own— yet I very much doubt 
if my egoistic sense of pleasure in directing my own plays would 
allow me to let another man stage them. It is strange that this should 
be so, for the rewards to a playwright as the director of his own plays 
are minor compared to the awareness he has of the price he must 
pay for this indulgence, but vanity is part of a writer's strength as 
well as his weakness. Without vanity a writer's work is tepid, and 
he must accept his vanity as part of his stock in trade and live with 
it as one of the hazards of his profession. 


Something of the sort must have held true for George Kaufman, 
for as I saw him toil under the grind of rewriting and rehearsals I 
wondered why he usually chose to bear the double burden of play- 
writing and directing at the same time. It seemed to me a sleeveless 
errand that vanity alone could explain. More than once as I watched 
him labor, the thought crossed my mind, "What a social director 
he would have made," for he was seemingly immune to weariness 
and his capacity for working around the clock would have made 
him the loved and envied of the entire Borscht Circuit. By the end 
of the first week's tryout of Once in a Lifetime at Atlantic City, the 
rigors of social directing seemed to me in retrospect like so much 
child's play. 

On the journey back to New York, I wondered sleepily not if or 
how we were going to be able to fax the play — my brain seemed 
to go dry and my wits to scatter if I attempted to focus on it — I 
wondered instead if the new social director at the Flagler was as 
dog-tired as I was! There was one salutary thing about social direct- 
ing, I morosely concluded. "Mrs. Cohen at the Beach" did not need 
a second act, and if I had to pick up social directing again next 
season, I would remember it. It was cold comfort, and the sight of 
Max Siegel, unsmiling for the first time, did not make it a par- 
ticularly warming journey. 

For the first time in my life I found myself walking down to the 
subway at Times Square with a sense of actual relief. I needed to 
be alone, to escape from Once in a Lifetime — to look at no one con- 
nected with it, to have no one ask me about it, or ask me to think 
about it. I needed to shut it out of my mind and psyche, if only for 
the measure of a subway ride back to Brooklyn. Brooklyn, however, 
was holding a surprise in store that I had not quite reckoned with 
and one that was hardly likely to promote forgetfulness. 



know of no group of people as idiotically confident of 
success as a playwright's family while his play is still in its tryout 
stage. In spite of everything I had said over the telephone to my 
mother from Atlantic City, in spite of my insistence that they must 
all think of the play as still "trying out" and not as an assured 
success, I was welcomed home on a note of unqualified triumph. 
Everything short of flags and a brass band greeted a returning hero, 
whose own doubts about the play jangled like sleighbells in his 
ears as he listened to the neighbors' fulsome congratulations and 
their repeated assurances that they could hardly wait to get to the 
theatre. My mother could barely wait to get me inside the apartment 
to proudly parade for my inspection the two new dresses she had 
bought to celebrate. These twin purchases were explained by the 
fact that since she expected to attend every performance throughout 
the week, as well as the opening one, it was hardly to be expected 
that she could appear all week in the same dress. My father and 
brother had settled for new ties and shirts and would wear their 
best blue suits every night, but since different neighbors would be 
attending the play on different nights it was no more than seemly 
that she be dressed as the occasion merited. I could only gather that 
she meant to alternate the dresses, as alternate neighbors attended 
the performance, for at the end of an hour of listening to light- 
headed plans and dreams of the rich, full life we were going to 
live, I nodded "y es " to everything. It was plainly hopeless to try to 


persuade her or my father or brother, for that matter, that Once in a 
Lifetime might turn out to be a little less than the shower of gold 
they had already concluded it was. 

To do them justice, this conviction, which seemed so firmly rooted 
and fixed in all of their minds, was not entirely without a basis in 
reality. For one thing, the notice in Variety had been a surprisingly 
good one. If one took the trouble to read the notice carefully, how- 
ever, the reviewer's certainty that a hit was in store for Broadway 
the following season was based almost entirely on George Kaufman's 
accepted wizardry of being able to pull a large number of rabbits 
out of his play-doctor's hat. For another, Dore Schary, Eddie 
Chodorov, Lester Sweyd, in fact everyone who should have known 
better and curbed his tongue, had called and offered congratulations 
in my absence. To my vast surprise, they continued to misread the 
Variety notice when I talked to them myself on the telephone, and 
they put down my reservations and rumblings to what they laugh- 
ingly termed, "success modesty." Obviously, the reports that had 
seeped back to Broadway from Atlantic City had all been good: 
"Kaufman is working on it night and day," the grapevine had re- 
ported — and that was enough for Broadway to know. 

By Monday afternoon, the day after my return and the day of 
the opening at Brighton Beach, I too had succumbed to the general 
elation. The same self-delusion that had enveloped everyone con- 
nected with The Beloved Bandit, as it transferred from Rochester to 
Chicago, fell into place again and operated with equal magic. I 
reread the Variety notice and managed to translate what it plainly 
stated into something it did not say at all. By the time I left the 
house that evening and took a trolley car to Brighton Beach, I was in 
high spirits. I got off the car four or Rvc blocks before I reached the 
theatre, for I was early and I wanted to enjoy this sudden and un- 
expected tranquillity. I wanted also, in my usual way, to seek some 
omen that would make secure my high hopes for tonight. Reason 
or logic has little to do with these moments of self-deception, which 
come into play at moments of crisis. We all wear these atavistic 
wishing caps in one form or another. I still search for opening- 


night omens, good ones or bad ones, and I invariably find one. I 
found one now. 

Hurrying along the boardwalk I came suddenly upon the bath- 
house that had once been the night club my grandfather had taken 
us all to on that far-off midsummer night. The facade had been 
altered almost beyond recognition, but there could be no doubt that 
it was the same building. That night and this place had been too 
sharply etched in my memory for me to mistake it. I stopped and 
stood in front of it for a few moments. Everything else but the 
memory of that night and of my grandfather vanished from my 
mind. It had been a long time since I had consciously thought of 
him or of my Aunt Kate, but they came back sharply now. Much of 
what I was and what I had done, this very journey that was taking 
me along this boardwalk and past this bathhouse, to a theatre where 
a play of mine was to raise its curtain in less than an hour — a great 
deal of both of them was embedded in every step of that journey. 
And if I needed an omen for tonight, there could scarcely be a 
better one. This shabby relic of middle-class gaiety had been for my 
grandfather a cry from the heart against his lot. He would be 
pleased at the journey I was making, no matter what happened to- 
night. I hurried past it, my spirits soaring higher than ever. 

The crowd that filled the lobby of the Brighton Beach Theatre 
looked surprisingly like a cross section of a Broadway opening night. 
I was startled by the turnout. It was stupid of me to have forgotten 
that the Broadway regulars would of course have waited to test 
themselves against the play at Brighton Beach, rather than make 
the journey to Atlantic City. The sight of them lowered my spirits 
by a good fifty per cent. Agents whose clients had been turned down 
for parts in the play buzzed softly to scenic and costume de- 
signers, who likewise had lost out on their own bids. Even some of 
the very actors who had auditioned for us, unsuccessfully, were 
present, to prove to themselves, I suppose, how prejudiced and un- 
seeing authors and managers can be. They would be bringing no 
great good will down the aisles with them when they went to their 
seats. Rival managers whose agenda for the new season also included 
a topical comedy had come to have an appraising look at the possible 


competition. They would judge and compare silently, without bene- 
fit, if possible, of laughter. The jungle drum beaters were also rep- 
resented in almost their full strength — those faceless folk on the 
periphery of the theatre to whom it is all-important to be in the know 
and to know in advance just how good or how bad the incoming 
merchandise is likely to be. 

I stared resentfully at the ones I knew and realized with some- 
thing of a start that I myself had been an enthusiastic member of 
the same club, though it did not seem possible that my own eyes 
could ever have glistened with the same cannibalistic glee that 
seemed to shine from every countenance at the possibility of immi- 
nent failure. This same anticipatory buzz would have sounded 
equally in key, it seemed to my ears, rising from the throats of a 
group of savages grouped around a tribal pot, over whose rim rose 
the steaming heads of George Kaufman and myself. Ticket brokers, 
columnists, a delegation of some of Mr. Kaufman's Algonquin set, 
as well as the faces of some of my own friends, appeared and dis- 
appeared in the throng. One heart-sinking look was enough to send 
me quivering backstage, my pulses pounding. I crouched against a 
piece of furniture that I knew would not be used until the third act 
and I remained there until I heard the curtain rise and the first laugh 
waft backstage. 

Mr. Kaufman was already pacing furiously when I stole back into 
the theatre and he did not recognize my presence by even that one 
lifted finger in traditional greeting. His race across the carpet was if 
anything more frenzied than it had been at Atlantic City. His long 
strides had a hint of the pursued in them and his head seemed sunk 
into his shoulders. He knew, of course, far better than I did, the 
composition of tonight's audience, and that the closer one drew to 
Broadway, the larger the lacks in a play loomed. Tonight was as 
close as one could get without actually opening on Broadway, and 
this audience would pounce on every lack. I listened for a moment 
or two and then stopped my own pacing and stared at him. The 
actors were giving a nervous and strained performance — cutting 
into their own and each other's laughs, their timing sky-high, and 
their voices pitched at that taut level that always heralds a shaky 


performance. Yet the audience, even this audience, was responding 
to the play with unrestrained laughter. "They like it," I whispered 
to him as he passed me. He did not reply, but continued his pacing. 

As he passed me again a moment or two later, he stopped long 
enough to state flatly, "They'll like it better when they stop laugh- 
ing. They haven't long to wait." I looked after him wonderingly. 
Was he never satisfied ? What more could he want or ask ? He was 
right, however. The ethics of the wrecking crew, curiously enough, 
are as strong as their malice. They adhere to a strict code of theatre 
behavior that contains its own kind of rough justice. The two things 
are not mutually exclusive, though they may seem so. In operation 
it is unfailing. If in the first fifteen minutes a play begins to play 
like a hit, no matter what ill will or personal animus they may have 
brought to it as single members of the audience, they give it as an 
entity their unalloyed blessing and reward it with laughter. This 
does not deny the fact that individually they might be better pleased 
if the opposite were true, but once the indications are clear that a hit 
is about to be revealed before them, the excitement of being present 
and part of the event itself is enough to outlaw their personal feel- 
ings and make them a good audience — sometimes better, in fact, 
than an audience of friends and well-wishers. For one thing, they 
are sharper and more acutely aware of the skills of the playwright 
and the actor, and their very malice creates an electricity of its own. 
It heightens and sparks both play and performance, so that a posi- 
tive crackle of wills and wits pervades both sides of the footlights, 
and when the battle is joined, the evening is a memorable one for 
all concerned. 

The first act of Once in a Lifetime played like a hit of vintage 
rare, and when the curtain descended at the end of it, it was greeted 
with spontaneous and ungrudging applause. As Mr. Kaufman had 
prophesied, the faces coming up the aisle were not particularly happy 
faces. It was as though a hundred pairs of shoulders had shrugged 
in unison with the unspoken message: "A hit is a hit. You can't stop 
it. Might as well get on the bandwagon early." But their faces re- 
layed in the same silent fashion that they didn't have to be happy 
about it either, by God. "Just be patient — it won't be too long," I 


thought, paraphrasing Mr. Kaufman's cynical assessment of their 
laughter and their applause, and scurried backstage to avoid the folly 
of the premature congratulations I saw plainly mirrored on the faces 
of some of my friends as they struggled up the aisle toward me. They 
caught a glimpse of me and raised their arms above their heads in 
congratulation, but I turned on my heel and ran. Let them put it 
down to nerves, mock modesty, or what they would— I preferred not 
to face them just yet. 

The second act played exactly as it had in Atlantic City, with the 
exception that from Mr. Kaufman's exit onward the silence was 
deadlier. There were no willing, scattered laughs now. There was 
instead a kind of rapt attention, as though they must make thor- 
oughly certain that no sound disturbed the passengers while the 
crew sank the ship. This, in a sense, was what they had come for, and 
their silence had the breathless hushed quality of a death watch. The 
curtain fell to a thin round of obligatory applause, but the faces 
coming up the aisle were relieved and smiling this time. It did not 
comfort me or make me feel any the less bitter to know that I had 
been guilty of exactly the same behavior at other people's plays. The 
theatre breeds its own kind of cruelty, and its sadism takes on a 
keener edge since it can be enjoyed under the innocent guise of 
critical judgment. Charity in the theatre usually begins and ends 
with people who have a play opening the week following one's 
own. Their unlikely benevolence is not so much a purity of heart 
as the knowledge that they face a firing line with rifles aimed in 
exactly the same direction. 

I waited now for Eddie and Dore and the others to come up the 
aisle. They, at least, wished me well and I wanted desperately to 
hear something good about the play, no matter what, in spite of 
what my eyes and ears so plainly told me. They were slower this 
time in coming up the aisle and their faces were the unsmiling ones. 
For a brief moment I felt sorry for them. Greeting an author on the 
opening night of a play that is going badly is in some ways com- 
parable to taking a marriage vow. You are damned if you do and 
you are damned if you don't. Not to greet him if he catches your 
eye is impossible as well as painfully obvious, and to murmur eva- 


sively when one stands face to face with him is nothing short of out- 
right cruelty. Yet the truth is too painful for him to hear, even if 
one has the courage to state it, and the truth is exactly what he least 
wishes to know. It is an impossible moment. Politeness does not 
suffice and good manners are somehow an affront. I have evolved a 
credo of my own which serves the occasion but does not attempt to 
solve the insoluble. Simply stated, I tell the truth to an author on an 
opening night out of town, and on an opening night in New York I 
do not. The truth is not always a virtue. There are times when the 
truth is unnecessary as well as needlessly cruel, and a New York 
opening night is one of those times. By then the die is cast, and at 
that moment the author is at his most vulnerable. It is unfriendly not 
to tell him the truth out of town when it may yet do some good, but 
by the same token it is nonsense to do so at a time when it can be 
of no service whatever. The truth at that moment can only succeed 
in giving the teller the smug satisfaction of virtuous honesty and do 
the author no good at all. The truth will be his soon enough and 
he will nourish it for a long time to come. 

My friends cushioned the truth and made it as palatable as they 
could — there was no way of making it pleasant and I did not press 
them. What, after all, was there to say after that painfully weak 
second act ? It was Joe Hyman, as it turned out, who bore the brunt 
of my explosive behavior that evening, when he gravely remarked, 
with that edge of mockery in his voice, "What happened to all that 
work you were supposed to be doing? This is the same play I saw 
in Atlantic City." My rage found a target. The defeat of my hopes 
uncoiled like a cobra within me and I lashed out at him with almost 
a sense of relief at no longer having to repress the black sense of fury 
and defeat I had kept concealed from everyone, myself included, 
until that moment. He did not answer, nor did anyone else inter- 
rupt me. When I finished I turned and walked out of the theatre. 
I felt strangely better. The worst had become true and there was 
only one more act to live through. I had the courage not to return 
to the theatre for the third act. Not until I had seen the last of the 
audience, including my family, leave the theatre and the lights on 


the marquee go out, did I venture to go backstage to find out what 
Mr. Kaufman's working plans might be for the following day. 

Mr. Kaufman was not there nor had he left a message for me. 
Neither Sam Harris nor Max Siegel was to be seen either, all three 
of them, it seemed, having driven back to New York together im- 
mediately after the third-act curtain had fallen. 

As usual, there was that minor player, about to deposit his dress- 
ing-room key with the stage doorman, who informed me brightly 
that he thought the play had gone wonderfully and that all of his 
friends were certain we were in for a long run on Broadway. I am 
ashamed to record that my ego was so limp and my spirit so im- 
poverished that I walked him to the subway to hear in greater de- 
tail just how wonderful his friends had thought it was. I willingly 
paid the blackmail of having to listen to how his own part could 
be strengthened to the greater good of the play. At that particular 
moment it was worth it. 

There is this much to be said for the value of out-of-town notices. 
If they are good, they can be acknowledged as good for business 
and for the morale of the actors. If they are bad, they can be brushed 
aside as out-of-town notices and what do out-of-town critics know 
anyway? My mother achieved this solid professional viewpoint in 
exactly one night, or by the time I had awakened the next morning. 
Standing over me she announced that she had read the local papers 
and compared their notices to the review in Variety. Her pro- 
nouncement was professional and exact. "What do Brooklyn papers 
know about a play, anyway ? If they were real critics they wouldn't 
be here in Brooklyn!" She handed them over, and my own pro- 
fessionalism being neither as steadfast nor as flourishing as her own, 
I read them avidly and not without a painful twinge or two. The 
worst, naturally, was the paper I happened to pick up first. "It is 
probably unfair," the notice ran, "to infer that the good parts of a 
play are written by one man and the inferior parts by another, but 
judging by the records of both names listed on the program last 
night, the first act and a half of Once in a Lifetime, which is very 
good indeed, was written by George S. Kaufman, and the rest by 


Moss Hart. Mr. Kaufman's witty hand is everywhere in evidence 
during the hilarious first part, but he seems to have left the type- 
writer in the custody of Mr. Hart for the rest of the play. He had 
better get back to it as fast as he can, if the lavish Sam H. Harris 
production unveiled at the Brighton Beach Theatre last evening, 
etc., etc." The other Brooklyn papers were less damning, but meager 
indeed in their praise, which consisted mainly of listing the actors 
and saying they were all good. "Well, bully for the actors' morale," 
i thought briefly. "I hope it's in better shape than my own." 

I glanced sourly up at my mother, who stood rereading the Variety 
notice and smiling and nodding her head in agreement, and got 
out of bed and out of the house as fast as I could. I had no wish to 
hear how much the neighbors had liked it or how violently they 
disagreed with what the local papers said, which I could see she 
was firmly determined to tell me, neighbor by neighbor. I went to 
the drug store on the corner and telephoned Mr. Kaufman from 
there. If the news was going to be bad, I wanted to be alone to hear 
it. "Were you planning to work today, Mr. Kaufman?" I asked 
with as much casualness as I could summon into my voice when 
his hello came through the receiver. 

"I think we both need a respite for a couple of days before we 
tackle it again," he replied. "By the way," he went on, "don't let your- 
self be upset by what that silly bastard said. How the hell would he 
or anyone else know who wrote which parts of a play ? It's damned 

"I'm not upset," I said almost jubilantly. As long as we were going 
to tackle it again, what difference did it make what anyone said ? 

"Good," he said. "See you there tonight." And the connection 
clicked off. 

I made another telephone call to apologize to Joe Hyman and 
then returned home to eat a huge breakfast, my mind tumbling 
with ideas about the play and as refreshed as though I had returned 
from a month in the country. It is possible that fear in one form or 
another is as much responsible for that occupational illness, writer's 
block, as any of the traumatic experiences a writer may have gathered 
in his childhood. 


The second night's performance of a comedy is generally a let- 
down for both actors and audience. It is a letdown, that is, unless 
the second-night audience has been told by the reviewers in their 
morning newspapers that the play is funny. Having thus been re- 
lieved of having to exercise their own judgment, they then enter the 
theatre laughing at the ushers as they receive their programs, and 
the actors have only to stroll through their parts to be hilariously 
accepted and applauded. It is a sheeplike exhibition and a dispiriting 
one to watch. The second-night audience of Once in a Lifetime, hav- 
ing been told what to expect, entered the theatre feeling already 
cheated. One could almost feel them stiffen against the play as they 
settled into their seats. They opened their programs with an air of 
preparing themselves not to be amused. Actors can do little with a 
disgruntled audience. They can win over a cold audience, but not 
a disapproving one. Even the first act, which contained genuine 
laughter if an audience met it halfway, played soggily. Moreover, 
the actors, keyed to the quick perception of the audience of the 
night before, suddenly found themselves adrift in a sea of unknowing 
silence, where before waves of laughter had always safely borne them 
along. Perhaps even more disconcerting than this unexpected still- 
ness was the sound of a single laugh that kept staunchly and hollowly 
resounding through the silences. It was my mother's laugh, and I 
could easily have throttled her! The actors gave up when the biggest 
laugh in the first act was again met with a thudding silence, and 
played from that point onward with an air of undisguised martyr- 
dom that made the play seem endless. 

Mr. Kaufman, other than giving me his traditional single finger 
lifted in silent greeting, spoke not a word during the first act nor 
throughout the rest of the evening. If he was dismayed by the dismal 
reception the play was receiving, he gave no sign of it. His pacing 
continued, but it was neither more nor less fervent than it had been 
on any of the other evenings I had watched him. I chose to interpret 
his silence as a tacit agreement that this was one of those evenings 
and one of those audiences that must somehow be lived through and 
on which comment was superfluous. One could only blot it out and 
hope that by tomorrow evening the memory of those notices would 


be partially dimmed. Not everyone in Brooklyn, I thought grimly, 
reads the newspapers or they would vote more sensibly and spend 
less time at the ball park. 

To a large degree this was true. As the week wore on, the audiences 
grew noticeably better, though increasingly smaller in number. 
There were, it seemed, just so many friends and neighbors of my 
mother and they apparently all sat in the balcony. Her faith in the 
play remained unshaken and her ringing laughter cut through each 
silence, but her influence on the Brooklyn theatregoing public was 
obviously negligible. By Thursday evening the gaps in the back rows 
of the orchestra were alarming. I had another and deeper cause for 
alarm by Thursday evening, however. Sam Harris and Max Siegel 
had appeared only once since the opening night at Brighton Beach. 
They sat through the second performance, but I had purposely 
evaded meeting them on that depressing evening. Their absence was 
unsettling, but I refused to let it or the fact that Mr. Kaufman had 
given no sign of being ready to go to work yet disquiet me unduly. 
Perhaps it was pointless for them to keep coming back to look at the 
play until we knew how we were going to fix it, and Mr. Kaufman 
had said he had wanted a respite before we tackled the play again. 
He was not a man to equivocate or to give his word lightly where 
work was concerned. I could not completely down, however, a feel- 
ing of haunting uneasiness as each night's performance came to an 
end and there was no suggestion of a meeting for the following day, 
and I took what comfort I could in the fact that he still gave notes 
to the actors after each performance and continued to make little 
cuts in scenes. There was, moreover, the solid certainty of his presence 
in the theatre each night as the curtain rose and the reassuring sight 
of his pacing back and forth until the last curtain fell. 

When he did not appear as the house lights dimmed for the final 
performance on Saturday night, my stomach took a nasty turn. The 
absence of that familiar figure pacing to and fro in the dark suddenly 
exploded all the gnawing doubts I had been able to keep within 
bounds until now. I paced back and forth alone for a while and then 
gave it up. I realized that I was hearing not one word that came 
across the footlights. I left the theatre and scanned the street outside. 


The street had that special emptiness of streets outside of theatres 
after the curtain has risen. For some inexplicable reason no one seems 
to pass by after curtain time. The street goes as silent and dead as it 
might in the middle of the night. The only sign of life now on either 
side of the street was the Negro attendant sweeping up the ticket 
envelopes and cigarette stubs in the lobby behind me. I walked to 
the corner and stood there aimlessly, chilled by the emptiness around 
me but unable to go back into the theatre until I could stem the sense 
of unease Mr. Kaufman's absence had stirred up. He would have to 
be there, I knew, in time for his appearance in the second act, but 
his failure to turn up in time for the first act took on a growing but 
deadly significance in my mind. It was unlike him not to appear 
tonight of all nights. He was a bitter-ender, for one thing, and for 
another he was scrupulous about watching each performance from 
the beginning, no matter how well or how badly the play might be 
going. Short of a traffic accident, I could not account for his absence, 
and the longer I waited the more forbidding his lateness seemed to 

I did not see a car pull up and stop in front of the theatre until 
I became aware that the figure helping someone alight from the 
car was Mr. Kaufman himself and the woman he was helping out 
was Beatrice Kaufman. He looked quite startled, as well he might 
have, when my own figure dashed out of the shadows and ran to- 
ward him yelling, "The curtain's up," in a tone of wild jubilation. 
I stood in front of them both, grinning foolishly, so relieved at seeing 
him that I was unconscious of how idiotic my behavior must seem. 

Beatrice Kaufman gave me a puzzled hello, and after a moment 
Mr. Kaufman recovered himself sufficiently to ask, "How is it 

"Great," I found myself unexpectedly replying, though I had 
barely seen any of it. 

"Well, that'll be a nice change," he remarked and started toward 
the lobby. 

Fortunately, they entered the theatre on a burst of laughter, so 
that I was not made out a complete fool — but laughter, even with 
this easily pleased Saturday night audience, stopped exactly where 



it had always stopped before. At Mr. Kaufman's exit, dead center 
in the middle of the second act — almost as though some hand had 
pulled a hidden switch that controlled the audience's mirth — all 
laughter ceased abruptly. For the first time, however, I listened for 
the expected silence, and when it came I did not, as I had done 
throughout every other performance, quail inwardly. That long- 
awaited signal from Mr. Kaufman had been given and it remained 
in my ears now, filling in the silence. At the end of the first act he 
had approached me and said, "Come back to the dressing room at 
the end of the show so that we can talk for a few minutes, will you ?" 
And from that point onward I had hardly bothered to listen to the 
play at all. 

In the middle of the third act, a portion of the evening's listening 
that was always the hardest for me to bear, I walked out into the 
lobby for a smoke. Now that I knew we were actually going to work 
I could spare myself the needless pain of watching scenes that were 
going to be tossed out or completely rewritten. 

A playwright is almost invariably to be found in the lobby 
throughout one of the bad scenes of his play — during the very 
scenes, in fact, that warrant his most serious attention; but these are 
the scenes, of course, that he finds the most painful to watch. No 
matter how inveterate a smoker he may be, he will somehow man- 
age to contain his longing for a cigarette through the good scenes. 
Indeed, it would be hard to drag him out of the theatre then under 
any pretext. Ten lines before a bad scene approaches, however, his 
need to smoke becomes savage beyond endurance and he gives way 
to it. He remains puffing away in the lobby until the scene is over, 
timing his re-entrance with a splendid ingenuity. He can somehow 
manage to escape the scenes most in need of work until the last 
possible moment. His excuse to himself and to others is a valid one — 
he needs the solace of a smoke. It is hard after all to deny a man the 
steadying influence of a cigarette. The practiced "out-of-town" eye, 
however, can tell to a nicety just how badly a play is still in need of 
fixing by the length of time an author spends smoking in the lobby. 

I felt no sense of guilt about stealing out to the lobby, for we ob- 
viously were going to arrive at an entirely new last act, and I began 


to sort out some possibilities in my mind. I have had the good for- 
tune of being able to work almost anywhere at all. I have written 
in subways, on shipboard with people chattering away in deck chairs 
on either side of me, in theatre lounges with actors rehearsing on 
the stage above, in kitchens, in automobiles, and on beaches or be- 
side swimming pools with children cavorting about in the water. 
No particular exercise of discipline is inherent in this ability to work 
in whatever setting happens to fall my way — it is a lucky or acci- 
dental gift of concentration and I have always been grateful for it. 

I walked up and down the empty lobby, hardly conscious of where 
I was, and when one of the doors of the theatre opened, I was so 
immersed in a tangle of thoughts for a new last act that I stared un- 
seeingly at Beatrice Kaufman for a good thirty seconds before I 
recognized her and smiled back. She stopped to light a cigarette be- 
fore she moved toward me, and I was conscious once again that she 
somehow managed to infuse even so small an action as the lighting 
of a cigarette with a distinctive quality of her own — just as the way 
she puffed on the cigarette in its green paper holder was peculiarly 
hers, fastidious and feminine, yet with a delicate sensuality. The 
gray smoke curled lazily around her face until it blended with the 
color of her hair, and she seldom removed the holder from her lips 
while she talked, so that her entire head was usually haloed in a haze 
of smoke that made her own bluish-white hair seem to rise out of 
the smoke and become a part of it. It lent a frisky and rakish air 
to everything she said and made it sound faintly reckless. 

We talked for a few moments about the play, easily and lightly. 
Her very presence was enlivening after the dreariness of this past 
week — there had been little chance to talk to her in Atlantic City — 
and as always, her effect on people and certainly on myself was to 
induce a sense of exhilaration and gaiety. 

I heard myself saying now with the intimacy of old acquaintance, 
"We'll probably be seeing a good deal of each other during the re- 
write this summer." 

She did not pause in her reply, but her expression changed slightly. 
"I won't be here this summer," she said. "We've taken a villa in 
France for three months— in Antibes— Woollcott and Harpo and 


Alice Miller and I. I'm leaving next week." I sensed she was about 
to go on, but my face must have shown such open mouth-watering 
envy that she burst into laughter instead, and said, "I hope it's as good 
as all that! Will you tell George I've gone on to the Dietzes' and that 
I'll send the car back for him?" She held out her hand. "Good-bye," 
she said and started for the street door. 

She had half opened the door when she turned and came back. 
She hesitated and seemed to be searching for the right words, but 
they eluded her, for she sighed and somewhat nervously, I thought, 
lit another cigarette. She smiled uncertainly for a moment before 
she spoke. "You'll be spending summers in Europe yourself some 
day," she said. "You're going to be a very successful playwright. 
You'll be writing other plays." 

Again it seemed to me she seemed to be regretting the impulse that 
had made her return and speak at all. She moved quickly to the 
door, smiled another good-bye over her shoulder, and was gone. 

I looked after her for a moment, a little warning flick of panic 
beginning to flutter once more. I suppose the difference between the 
chronic worrier, the man who seizes on words or even nuances of 
voice to feed the mainstream of his fears, and the man who worries 
not at all until catastrophe is full upon him, is only an apparent 
difference, since both attitudes are aspects of the same neurosis. 
Given a choice, I should unhesitatingly choose the latter kind, for 
if catastrophe is inevitable it is at least less painful to meet it in one 
piece rather than in sections, but one is given little choice in such 
matters. I seem to have been born a chronic and fretful worrier with 
an antenna capable of picking up stray words and looks that to a 
nature other than my own would be imperceptible or nonexistent. 
I picked up the phrase, "You'll be writing other plays," and bit into 
it, turning it over and over, screening it from every angle of the dis- 
quiet that I felt mounting within me. I seized on the word "other" 
and could not let it go. The word had an ugly connotation. What 
did it mean ? There were no "other" plays but this one, so far as I 
was concerned. Why had Beatrice Kaufman turned back, and having 
decided to speak, why had she been reluctant to say what she evi- 
dently had meant to say, except in those veiled and shadowy terms ? 


There had been an undercurrent of downright compassion in her 
tone that I did not like. I liked it less and less, the more I thought 
about it. 

I waited impatiently for the third act to end. I watched Mr. Kauf- 
man take his bow and then hurried backstage. Actually, I think 
I knew what he was going to say before he spoke. He was experienc- 
ing the same difficulty finding the right words that Beatrice Kauf- 
man had encountered, and his first words confirmed the truth that 
I was already half prepared for. 

"This has not been an easy decision for me to make," he said 
slowly and then paused. "It's taken me all week to come to it," he 
went on, "but I'm certain now that I haven't anything more to offer 
to this play. Someone else, or maybe you alone, would be better than 
I would be from here on. I've gone dry on it or maybe I've lost my 
taste for it. That happens sometimes." 

He picked up a towel and began to wipe the cold cream from his 
face, waiting for some kind of response from me. I stared at his 
image in the mirror, unable to utter a sound. 

"I'm sure you'll get it done again," he said finally. "There's a lot 
of good stuf? there and you may suddenly get an idea that will crack 
the second and third acts. I wanted you to know that I want no 
part of any rights or royalties for whatever work I've done. It's 
yours free and clear. I've spoken to Sam Harris and he'll make a very 
generous arrangement on the scenery and costumes with any pro- 
ducer who wants to do it. Sam Harris would like you to come in 
and see him on Monday, by the way. I imagine he wants to tell you 
himself that . . ." 

He left the sentence eloquently unfinished. I had my breath and 
my wits back again and I could see he was embarrassed and un- 
happy. He was waiting for me to speak but I could still find nothing 
to say. At least he had spared us both such grubby phrases as, "I'm 
sorry it had to turn out this way," or, "I hope you'll call me some 
time," and I was silently grateful to him for it. 

"You're sure you've gone dry on it, Mr. Kaufman?" I finally 


He nodded slowly. "I'd be no use to you any more/' he said and 
looked longingly at the door. 

"I see," I said and moved toward the doorway. He looked grateful 
in his turn that there were to be no speeches on my part, and he 
solved the question of how to have the agony over and done with 
as quickly as possible by raising that one finger in a gesture of good- 
bye. I murmured, "Good-bye," and closed the door behind me. 

There is a certain excitement about bad news that is curiously sus- 
taining and in a strange way almost stimulating. Until the shock 
of it has worn off and reality comes back into focus again, there is 
a heightened sense of being alive, almost a buoyancy of the spirit, 
until its import reaches through the walls of self-defense and what 
has seemed impossible to accept becomes an actuality. I walked 
along the boardwalk surprised and then astonished to find that I 
was not feeling bad at all. Other than that first crushing moment 
in the dressing room, I had felt nothing except the pressing neces- 
sity of getting out of the room and the theatre as fast as possible. 
Now I was conscious only of a weariness that held something akin 
to boredom in it. If Once in a Lifetime had reached a point of no re- 
turn, so had I. It was almost a relief to know at last that it was over, 
for there was no doubt in my mind that this was the end of it. 

Mr. Kaufman had colored the truth more than a little when he 
said that there would doubtless be another production under a 
different management. It was understandable that he should do so 
under the stress of the moment, but it was not true and he must 
have known it was not true with the same certainty that I did. If 
George Kaufman and Sam Harris relinquished a play as unfixable, 
there was little or no likelihood of another management's picking up 
the challenge. George Kaufman was usually the man they called in 
to fix the unfixable. His reason for dropping Once in a Lifetime was 
obvious, and since there are no secrets in the world of the theatre, 
this one would be common gossip up and down Broadway by Mon- 
day morning, no matter what carefully worded announcement from 
the Harris office appeared in the theatre columns of the Times, I 
leaned over the railing and looked out at the ocean and began to 


whistle an old camp song. I would be back in camp next summer 
no doubt, but by the following winter I might have another play. 
Once in a Lifetime had ended, but the world hadn't and neither had 
I. It was the mark of a professional, I decided, to be able to take it 
this easily. 

It was not until I sat down on a bench and, for want of anything 
better to do, began idly to watch the passers-by, that my mood 
changed, with a swiftness that at first startled and then overwhelmed 
me, from one of relief to one of black despair. The charge that deto- 
nates the explosions of rage or bitterness which occur within us is 
often disguised quite innocently. The boardwalk that evening was 
full of couples my own age and younger, for though it was only the 
end of May, it was like a midsummer night. They strolled slowly 
and happily along, hand in hand or arms around each other's waists, 
heads pressed closely together. Without knowing that I was doing 
so, I must have made a bitter identification with them and with my 
own youth. I stared at these strangers passing in front of me, and 
all the hopelessness I had been unable to feel before welled up now, 
transformed into a rage that was like pain. I had had no youth as 
these young people were having it — no idle sweet time to savor the 
illusion that life was beginning and that love was the key to its 
mystery and its flavor. I had let the theatre rob me of mine. With a 
stab of grinding jealousy I realized I had never gone "steady" with 
a girl — the small fugitive attempts I had made had always ended 
quickly, with the knowledge that I had neither the time nor the 
money necessary for it. Time that was free I had hoarded as some- 
thing to be used only for work, and money that could be spared 
was already earmarked for plays that must be seen. I had walked 
through the years, single-minded, shutting out everything but the 
goal I had seen shining so steadily in front of me — averting my 
eyes from everything but the glow of footlights — and now those years 
were over and done with, as irretrievably finished as Once in a Life- 
time. These light-hearted couples seemed to crystallize the waste I 
had made of them — a waste that seemed to have led me nowhere 
but to this boardwalk tonight. 

In the bleakness of that realization it seemed to me that this life 


long intoxication with the theatre had been a barren and unprofit- 
able waste. I could hardly bear to look at those unconcerned carefree 
figures. Regret and even self-recrimination are bearable emotions. 
The unbearable one, for me at least, is the hatred of one's self that 
follows waste, the waste of one's talent or one's affections. The self- 
hatred that destroys is the waste of unfulfilled promise — the sterility 
of a thankless affection. I leaned over the back of the bench and 
turned toward the sea again to shut out the sight of those couples 
passing before me. 

I have no idea how long I remained there, staring out at the 
ocean, but if I were asked to pinpoint the exact moment or moments 
that have marked a turning point for me, I should unhesitatingly 
choose this as one of the decisive ones. In every career, in every pro- 
fession, there must occur a like moment: when the will to survive 
falters and almost ceases to exist — when the last reserves of ability 
to pick up and go on seem to have been used up. This was that 
moment for me, and its saving grace was a strongly developed sense 
of irony that began to break through and give me a glimpse of the 
truth. It rescued me then, and it has come to my rescue many times 
since. A sharp sense of the ironic can be the equivalent of the faith 
that moves mountains. Far more quickly than reason or logic, irony 
can penetrate rage and puncture self-pity. It can be, as it was for 
me then, the beginning of the first small steps toward clarity; for the 
truth, of course, as I began to glimpse it slowly, was that it was 
more than a little ironic for me to envy now what I had never envied 
before and nonsense to consider as wasted the years in which I 
had chosen to do exactly what I wanted to do. 

It was not accidental that I was sitting on this bench, nor would 
I have had it otherwise. I had never wanted any idle sweet time to 
savor anything other than the mystery of how to get through a 
stage door. I had what I wanted even now, just as I had always had 
what I wanted, and just as these boys and girls had exactly what 
they wanted. I would be no whit happier in their shoes, and never 
would have been, than they would have been in mine. The true 
waste of these years would be to let them slip through my fingers 
tonight — to accept as final the decision that George Kaufman had 

[ 3 6o] 

lost his faith in the play or had gone dry on it. If he had gone 
dry, he must be led to the well again— if he had gone stale, he must 
be refreshed. Just how this was to be accomplished I had no idea, but 
it must be done speedily. Delay would produce a finality of its own. 
I got up from the bench, walked back along the boardwalk to 
where the streetcar stopped and waited for one to take me home. 
The streetcar was full of the same young couples, but I looked at 
them now with neither envy nor jealousy. I could hardly keep my 
eyes open. I wanted a good night's sleep more than anything in the 
world right now, and fortunately I got one. I slept as though some- 
one had hit me over the head. 

My relationship with George Kaufman did not include intimacy. 
His nature did not allow him those easy interchanges between peo- 
ple that ripen into swift friendship. The paradox was that he had a 
quick sympathy and understanding that made one feel at times that 
one was on the brink of intimacy, but he invariably retreated behind 
a barrier of cool detachment that he either chose to maintain or 
could do nothing about. I had sensed this quickly and had respected 
it, and I had never tried to pass beyond the limits he himself set. 
Ours was purely a working relationship that was comfortable and 
friendly during working hours, but remained aloof and distant 
away from the typewriter. It precluded any personal appeal to him 
on my part on the basis of sentiment. Mr. Kaufman would be 
reached, if indeed he could be reached, on the specific level of work 
or not at all. Anything else was a waste of time or plain wishful 

Early the following morning I walked back to the little beach 
where I had written Once in a Lifetime and arranged to go to work 
— a supply of yellow pads in one hand and a bag of sandwiches 
and soda pop in the other. The one good chance of winning Mr. 
Kaufman back to the play was to devise new second and third acts 
that might strike him as worth the extra gamble of picking up 
the pieces again, considering the time and effort he had already 
put into it. The difficulty lay in the fact that they must be invented 
today and presented to him if possible not later than tomorrow, or 

[ 3 6i] 

it might well be too late. He was the most sought-after director in 
the theatre, and for all I knew might already have embarked on 
some other venture. He usually went from one play right on to 
another, sometimes being represented by two or even three plays 
in the same season. It was unlikely that he would remain inactive 
with the new season stretching this far in front of him. His telephone 
was probably jingling with offers right now. It was an unpleasant 
thought and I did not allow myself to linger on it. I put it firmly out 
of my mind and stared down at the yellow pad resting on my knees. 
I had enough to think about otherwise. To ask him to rewrite two 
full acts, even if I were lucky enough to come up with them, was 
rather a large order, but there was time enough to do it if I could 
get him to agree. It had been done before — that was what spring 
tryouts were for, or some of the solid hits of every other season would 
never have reached Broadway, and a number of new playwrights 
would have expired with them. 

The formula of the spring tryout was a boon to a new playwright. 
The two or three months' layoff for rewriting, after which the play 
was reopened, was economically possible to the theatre of those days; 
and it gave the playwright a decent chance to redo his play and, 
more important, to learn his craft without the shadow of theatre 
party dates that must be met, booking jams on the road and the 
scarcity of New York theatres looming constantly over his shoulder. 
There are plays that can be rewritten in two or three weeks on the 
road and there are plays that cannot. It takes time to unravel the 
mechanism of a play without destroying its over-all structure, time 
to think through and select the good and bad of audience reaction 
and friendly advice, and more time still to reach a fresh viewpoint 
or attitude on the work to be done if one is not to make the same 
mistakes all over again. It is difficult for the new or even the practiced 
playwright to work well under conditions which include the in- 
evitable deadline of a New York opening only two weeks away, let 
alone to learn anything worth knowing in the only laboratory where 
the art of play-writing can be successfully taught, which is back of 
the proscenium. I was fortunate to have been a new playwright in 
a time when the theatre contained a reasonable continuity and did 


not resemble a wild game of roulette played on the lucky chance that 
a play either opened in not too great trouble or closed a month later 
in New York. In the theatre of today, it would have been impossible 
to do what needed to be done within the limits of the lunatic im- 
mediate-hit or immediate-flop procedure that now prevails; nor 
would I have had the irreplaceable opportunity of learning my 
profession with the proper tools, the most important of which is 
not a pencil or a typewriter, but the necessary time to think before 
using them. 

It was almost dark when I started for home, my pockets stuffed 
with pages of yellow paper scribbled over with a rough scenario 
of new second and third acts. That there were still great unresolved 
holes in it, I knew, but what it lacked in finesse it made up for, I 
thought, in new invention. Of necessity I had had to leave certain 
troublesome areas untouched and plunge ahead, but I had had a 
bit of luck now and then along the way— enough at any rate to 
make me feel that there was an outside chance that Mr. Kaufman 
might accept it. The trick now was to smooth it out and be able to 
present it to him as skillfully as possible. There is nothing deadlier 
than having someone read aloud the outline of a play, and it is 
equally deadly to read a typed resume full of careful omissions that 
only serve to highlight the weaknesses and bury the good points. 
It was far better, I knew, to memorize the scenario completely and 
rely on my ability to present it sharply and adroitly, covering its 
lacks and taking advantage of ever one of its virtues. I was con- 
vinced it had several, and I did not intend to ad lib them tomorrow 
or trust to the inspiration of the moment. 

I chased my mother out of the kitchen, with the supper dishes still 
unwashed in the sink, put a chair against the door to bar any inter- 
ruptions and sat down to memorize the outline incident by incident, 
strengthening its weak spots and heightening its strong points as I 
went along. It held up well, even under my anxious testing. The 
thinking was fresh, the invention seemed amusing and the con- 
struction was sound. If only I could tell it to Mr. Kaufman tomorrow 
as well as I was telling it to the kitchen sink now, all would be 


I presented myself to the maid who opened the door of 158 East 
63rd Street at ten o'clock the next morning, and smilingly walked 
past her into the house. She had no reason to suppose that I was not 
simply reporting again for work with Mr. Kaufman as I had done 
all winter, and this, of course, was what I had counted on. I had 
decided it was much too risky to telephone for an appointment 
first, and I had come early enough to insure his being in. She re- 
turned my good morning and indicated that Mr. Kaufman was up- 
stairs as usual, and I walked up the stairs and into his room without 

He was having his breakfast and in the middle of a phone call, 
and he was very surprised indeed to see me. The startled look he 
gave me over his glasses was quite as though he had seen a ghost 
or some forgotten figure out of the dim past. While he finished his 
telephone conversation I walked over and stole a sideways glance 
at the pile of manuscripts on his night table. The top one was titled 
Grand Hotel, and the pile was thick enough to make me feel I had 
been wise not to let another day pass in getting here. He hung up 
and said, "Good morning," pleasantly enough, though his voice still 
held a tone of puzzled surprise in it. 

I knew better now than to make any kind of prefacing speech. 
Instead, I took out an envelope from my inside pocket, much like 
the one he himself used each day, and glanced briefly at the notes 
I had typed on one side of it as a guide to help me begin. "I worked 
out a new second and third act, Mr. Kaufman," I said, "and I'd like 
you to hear it." 

"Right now?" he asked, looking quickly at his watch. 

"It won't take long," I lied, knowing full well it would take at 
least an hour or as long as I needed to finish. 

"Mind if I keep eating?" he said. 

"Not at all," I answered. "I'll just keep talking." 

I started right off. The crackle of cornflakes followed by the crunch 
of toast is not the most helpful of accompaniments to the telling of 
a story, particularly of so crucial a story as this one represented to 
me. The sound was terribly disconcerting, but there was no help for 
it. I was lucky to catch him and have him listen, and the very fact 


that he was willing to listen I took as a sign that he was still un- 
committed to any one of those manuscripts on the night table. I 
consciously slowed down until he had finished the second cup of 
coffee, though he was giving me all of his attention, and mentally 
noted that memorizing the scenario had been a stroke of absolute 
genius! I could watch him intently now, the outline thoroughly in 
my head, hastening the telling when his interest seemed to flag or 
matching the glint of interest that came into his eyes occasionally 
with an excitement of my own. He smiled once or twice and laughed 
outright at an old line of dialogue we had discarded and which I 
had purposely stuck back in a new place when it fitted perfectly. 
It had been a favorite line of his which had never worked, and I 
used it craftily. I knew it would please him. Had there been other 
little wiles I could have thought of or used I would have used them 
all shamelessly. Sometimes play-writing only begins when "End of 
Act Three" is typed on the manuscript. 

I finished at last, flushed and a little breathless. I looked at my 
watch. It had taken just over an hour, even rushing it a bit now and 
then. Toward the end Mr. Kaufman had retreated to his favorite 
position, stretched out flat on the floor, and now he slowly and 
silently arose. He walked to the window and stood staring out at 
that damned cat which seemed to hold such fascination for him. He 
turned back toward the room and picked a few bits of lint off the 
carpet before he looked directly at me. 

"What's the matter?" he asked suddenly, giving me a strange look 

I must have been holding my breath without being aware of it 
and I imagine it gave my eyes a somewhat bug-eyed expression, 
"Nothing is the matter," I answered. "I'm just waiting." 

"How soon could you move in here?" he said. 

"In here— with you?" I asked stupidly. 

"Not in this room, no," he said not unkindly. "In the house. 
Beatrice goes to Europe today and Ann is leaving for camp. I meant 
Ann's room. That's a full summer's work you've laid out, you know, 
with evenings included. We could get into rehearsal by August, I 
think, if you moved in here and we worked straight through." 


"I'll go home and pack a suitcase and be right back," I said and 
started for the door. 

"Tomorrow morning will do," he called sharply after me. "I'll be 
looking at you all summer." 

"You had a whole day off yesterday," I called back and closed 
the door behind me. 

It was done — and I had also achieved the first moment of intimacy 
I had ever been able to allow myself with him. I celebrated both 
victories by having a full-course steak dinner as a second breakfast. 
The occasion seemed to call for nothing short of that. 


A lay-writing, like begging in India, is an honorable but 
humbling profession. I had privately decided that with an outline 
before us and armed with the knowledge those two weeks of play- 
ing before audiences had given us, we could finish the revision in a 
month or very little more. I soon saw, however, that Mr. Kaufman 
was not far wrong in his estimate. He did indeed look at me almost 
all summer long, including most of the evenings. What I failed to 
take into account was that an outline or scenario is an imprecise 
instrument at best. It cannot be followed slavishly, for as the out- 
line is translated into dialogue, it shifts mercurially under one's fin- 
gers, and the emphasis of a scene or sometimes a whole act will 
twist out of control, taking with it large parts of the carefully plotted 
scenario that follows after. 

We spent the first few days painstakingly setting down and enlarg- 
ing the outline I had memorized, but by the third day of actual 
work many of the things that had seemed so promising on yellow 
paper disappeared under the harsh glare of the sheet of white paper 
in the typewriter. Nevertheless, some of the better invention remained 
and even what was unusable served a purpose; but it was apparent 
not only that there was a full summer's work ahead but that we 
would actually be lucky to complete it by August. Mr. Kaufman 
accepted the fact without complaint, and for my own part I was 
too pleased and grateful to be back at work to mind, however long 
it took. What I minded, as we settled down into a daily grind, was 


not work, but the heat and hunger, one or the other of which seemed 
to be ever present, and which in combination became my chief con- 
cern. New York, that summer, was teaching those unlucky enough to 
have to remain in the city that the Upper Reaches of the Amazon, 
though not in the same latitude, were perhaps no hotter than the 
Jewel of the East could be if it chose to rub its inhabitants' noses into 
a bit of subtropical weather. Heat wave after heat wave broiled the 
buildings and the pavements with almost no respite, so that even 
in the evenings the baked brick and stone seemed to give off a heat 
much like that of a baker's oven that had not yet cooled. The tar 
in the asphalt paving melted each day and oozed blackly from the 
cracks, and the parched people still trapped in the city walked heavily 
along the streets looking wilted and beaten. The weather made the 
headlines in every edition, and the heat headache I awoke with 
every morning seemed to throb a little more dully as I read, "Heat 
Wave Unbroken" or "No Relief in Sight." 

The heat became a living and evil thing, for air conditioning, that 
most glorious of mankind's inventions since the discovery of the 
wheel, was not in general use — and if it had been, I doubt whether 
Mr. Kaufman would have considered it anything more than an un- 
necessary or unworkable toy. He seemed impervious to the heat, 
and other than washing his hands more often than usual, his only 
concession to it — made, I think, more for my sake than for his own 
— was a small electric fan that tiredly plop-plopped around in an 
uneven contest with the waves of hot air that came in through the 
windows from the furnace outside. This useless object was placed 
on the floor in a far corner of the room so as not to ruffle the papers 
on the desk. Once, in extremis, I moved it to a chair where I fancied 
some of the slight air it circulated might blow directly on me. In- 
stead, it blew the papers from the desk all over the room and four or 
five pages blew right out the window and skittered into the adjoin- 
ing yard. I had to hurry downstairs and retrieve them under Mr. 
Kaufman's baleful eye, and to make matters worse, I got stuck try- 
ing to climb back over the fence of the house next door and had to 
call for the maid to help me down, while Mr. Kaufman watched 
from the upstairs window. It was an ignominious performance, 

[ 3 68] 

and after that I let the fan remain where it was and sat as still as I 
could in the leather chair trying not to think of either the heat or 

Heat, of course, is supposed to diminish or even rob one entirely of 
appetite, but my unfortunate appetite was apparently sturdy or ro- 
bust enough to defy, like the United States mails, heat or sleet or snow 
and let nothing deter it ! There were even times when I grew hungry 
enough to forget about the heat and to see mirages of food heaped in 
front of me, for Mr. Kaufman's delicate appetite, slim enough in 
the winter, seemed to all but disappear with the first robin. With 
warm weather, long before the first heat wave enveloped the city, 
a salad and a not too lavish plate of thinly sliced cold meat became 
the unvarying menu of each day's main meal, and when on a cool- 
ish day lamb chops occasionally appeared, my old struggle not to 
grab and stuff was like a man wrestling with his faith. I had made 
the terrible mistake, when he asked me the first evening of my arrival 
what I took each morning for breakfast, to reply genteelly, "Oh, just 
orange juice, toast and coffee." And I had watched him write it down 
on a slip of paper and hand it to the maid to give to the cook, know- 
ing even as the words left my lips that I had made a fatal error. It 
was impossible after that to fill up with a decent breakfast to fortify 
myself against the rest of a day where lunch remained as always tea 
and cookies and little cucumber or watercress sandwiches served 
in the middle of the afternoon, and though cookies and a full pitcher 
of iced tea were left on the desk, when evening came and that tidy 
little salad and platter of cold meats stared up at me from the table I 
was always ravenous. 

By the third week of my sojourn, when I was not lying awake all 
night cursing the heat and my ungovernable appetite, I sat staring 
during the day at Mr. Kaufman from the depths of the leather chair, 
not thinking of the next line or scene, but torturing myself with 
fantasies of thick roast-beef sandwiches or chicken soup with the 
chicken still floating around in it. He must at times have thought I 
had taken leave of my senses, for I caught him once or twice staring 
at me malignantly over his glasses. My own eyes were glazed, not 
with inattention or boredom, but with hunger. 


By Thursday evening of each week, which was the evening Mr. 
Kaufman played poker and I returned to Brooklyn to visit my 
family, even my mother's cooking, ordinary at best, seemed positively 
Lucullan, and the relish and appetite with which I ate everything set 
before me must have given her the impression that she had turned 
into Escomer, or at the very least the best cook in Brooklyn. I was 
always sprightlier and more nimble-witted on Friday morning than 
on any other day during the week, a fact which seemed to puzzle 
Mr. Kaufman considerably. 

By the middle of July, Mr. Kaufman became aware that something 
was wrong with the weather. Even an extra washing of the hands 
did not quite do the trick, and toward the end of an unbroken two- 
week stretch of scorching days and nights he suddenly announced 
that he was taking the weekend off to play in a croquet tourna- 
ment in Long Island. I could hardly believe my ears. I had been 
sitting glassy-eyed all that day, watching the perspiration from his 
forehead drip slowly onto the typewriter and marveling at the fact 
that he would pass his limp handkerchief over his face and never 
once make the slightest reference to the weather. It was positively 
inhuman, I had been thinking to myself just before he spoke, not 
only to be nobly above man's baser appetites, but to be hermetically 
sealed in against the weather as well! I was human enough to be 
meanly delighted that the heat had finally got him. He was pale 
and drawn, and looking at him, I decided I probably looked even 
worse. I had not realized that after six years of camp — of being out 
of the city all summer long — I was now starving for the feel of grass 
under my feet instead of pavement and longing for the sight of trees 
and water and an expanse of sky. I could barely wait for the day's 
work to end. 

Five minutes after he placed the cover over the typewriter I tele- 
phoned the Flagler and asked if they would have me as guest per- 
former for the weekend. They would be delighted, it seemed, and I 
managed to catch the evening train for the Catskills. 

That weekend was the last time I did a boy-and-girl number in 
a revue, "To be or not to be" at the campfire, "Mrs. Cohen at the 
Beach" in the Saturday night musical, and used my full bag of social- 


director tricks in the dining room, at the indoor games and around 
the swimming pool. I was welcomed back like a reigning opera 
star and I did my stint gladly to pay for my free weekend; but 
even while I performed, and afterward when I mingled with the 
guests and staff, I wondered how I had ever lasted through six 
summers of it. I shuddered to think that I might have to come back 
and do it again, if Once in a Lifetime failed. The things that are 
bearable at a certain period of one's life, out of necessity or made 
possible by youth itself, are unbearable to contemplate doing again 
when that time is over. By Sunday night I was champing to return 
to the city. Those three days, though I did not realize it at the time, 
did more than just rescue me from the city's heat — they were a bles- 
sing in disguise. That weekend, and all that it implied, was just what 
I needed to see me down the home stretch, for without wanting to 
or meaning to, I had been faltering and dragging my heels. 

As a rule, the writing of a second act seems to drag on forever. It is 
the danger spot of every play — the soft underbelly of play-writing, 
as Mr. Churchill might put it — and it is well to be aware of it. A 
first act carries an impetus of its own that is almost sufficient to carry 
the writer along with it — the excitement of a new play seems to 
supply the energy and freshness needed for each day's work at the 
typewriter, and there are some first acts that literally seem to write 
themselves. That is why, perhaps, Bernard Shaw is said to have re- 
marked, "Anyone who cannot write a good first act might just as 
well give up play-writing entirely." It is second acts that separate the 
men from the boys. We were still mired in the second act when Mr. 
Kaufman gave way to the heat, and I suspect his giving way to it 
may have been partly due to his sensing that a point had been reached 
where a halt might be not only helpful but downright necessary. 

Whatever the reason, he returned from his own weekend refreshed 
and fired as I was with brand-new first-act energy. Cooler weather 
also coincided with our return — an omen I was quick to seize on as 
a good one and which was borne out by the fact that lamb chops as 
well as dessert appeared on the table twice that week. By the middle 


of the following week, the second act was finished and we both 
seemed to breathe more freely. 

With the beginning of the third act the pace accelerated. We 
were due to go into rehearsal the beginning of the second week in 
August, and Mr. Kaufman passed up several of his poker evenings 
and worked straight through. We were losing part of each day's 
working time now for recasting and sessions with the scenic artist 
and costume designer. Two new scenes had been added, one of them 
quite elaborate and calling for the interior of a Hollywood night club 
called the Pigeon's Egg, where the patrons sat at tables encased in 
huge cracked eggs and the waitresses were attired as pigeons, feathers 
and all. This was one of the new inventions I had concocted during 
my solitary day on the beach. 

There was some doubt now in both our minds that we would 
finish in time, and Mr. Kaufman grew noticeably edgy. But four 
days before rehearsals were scheduled to begin he turned toward me 
and said, "I think you ought to stand up or lie down or shut up or go 
away or something — I'm about to type The End.' " He typed the 
two words and grinned. "No farewell speech to the troops?" he 
asked. He was delighted, I could tell, to have finished with a few days 
to spare. 

I shook my head and grinned back, but I did not share his pleasure. 
I had secretly hoped that we might have to work right through until 
the evening before rehearsal. The truth was, I hated the idea of 
this four-day wait, for eager as I had been before to have rehearsals 
start, as each day brought them closer, I pushed the thought firmly 
out of my mind and tried to maintain the illusion that they were 
still far off. While one is in the throes of work it is easy to hold to 
the fantasy that success is almost certain to crown so sterling an 
effort, but as the day of rehearsal relentlessly approaches, the fantasy 
begins to chip away around the edges and the certainty seems to 
grow slimmer and slimmer until it is swallowed up by a new dog- 
matism — the certainty of failure. It is commonly called "rehearsal 
jitters" and I evidently had a severe case of it. I packed my suitcase 
reluctantly and went back to Brooklyn to wait. 

It is not the best time in the world to be around one's family, and 


I mooned about the house for those four days, succeeding in making 
both my family and myself utterly miserable. Only those who have 
lived at close quarters with a bad case of pre-rehearsal nerves under- 
stand in some measure the unbalanced behavior of the schizophrenic. 
Brooklyn is a large borough, but it seemed to me that I walked over 
most of it in those four days, for there was not enough money to do 
much else but walk, and when I could no longer stay in my skin and 
remain in the apartment I got out and walked. In the evenings I 
twisted the dial of the radio from station to station until it drove them 
all crazy, or flew out of the house in a temper when I was asked to 
stop. In a decently arranged world playwrights would be allowed, 
or even made, to go, a week before rehearsals begin, to some isolated 
spot not even within flying distance of their families, where their 
wants would be attended to in silence and their lunacy understood. 
I think even my mother was glad to see me leave for rehearsal on 
Monday morning. She reminded me that a mother's heart went with 
me, but its balm did not last out the subway ride to Times Square, 
and I walked through the stage door of the Music Box with that 
age-old mixture of foreboding and cowardice that marks the true 
professional. It seemed to me I was some light-years removed from 
the wide-eyed hopeful who had walked shyly through this same stage 
door last spring, overawed by the stage managers, embarrassed at 
being too early, and ridiculously eager for a sniff of the excitement 
and glamor of a first rehearsal. I was arriving now not ahead of the 
actors but with the management this time, and I would not panic 
at that mumbled first reading of the play, but behind my professional 
manner lay the cowardice gained by a knowledge I had not had 
before. I knew now that beyond this first rehearsal lay those minutes 
alone in the hotel room before going down to the theatre to face the 
first performance. I knew the torment of pacing up and down in the 
dark, waiting for the sting of an audience's silence when laughter 
did not come, and the pain of watching those faces come up the aisle. 
I could almost feel the fatigue of night-long revisions and the weari- 
ness of waiting for dawn to come through the blinds so that we could 
stop rewriting and get some sleep before the next day's rehearsal — 
and I shrank from facing it all again. I longed to settle back into my 

[ 373 ] 

ignorance of last spring. It was all to be gone through once more, 
but this time there was the added knowledge of knowing that the 
stakes were higher. I had had my second chance. 

Sam Harris, coming through the stage door just behind me, 
phrased it neatly with that facility he had for putting everything 
there was to say into a short sentence. "Hi, kid," he greeted me, 
"we're playing for keeps this time, eh?" I nodded glumly and walked 
to the table where Mr. Kaufman already sat waiting, and a few 
moments later the stage manager rapped on the table and called the 
company to attention. 

All the little absurdities and affectations of a first rehearsal were 
again present, but I did not suffer from them too greatly. The actors 
heaved and mumbled, and Max Siegel smiled sunnily at everything. 
Mr. Kaufman made his coded chicken marks on the manuscript, 
seeming not to listen to a word that was being said, and Sam Harris 
sat rigidly in his chair, his face inscrutable. There were the usual 
long pauses that had maddened me before, where the parts had been 
typed incorrectly, and the resultant frenzied search for a pencil by 
the actor whose part was wrong and who had apparently never 
thought of bringing a pencil to rehearsal, though he had been in the 
theatre for forty years. An actor's pained surprise at the need of a 
pencil at a first rehearsal runs parallel to his bewilderment at having 
to open a door or a window for the first time at a dress rehearsal in 
the actual set. He seems never to have opened a door or a window in 
his life, or even to have seen one before, and he will fiddle with one 
or the other and delay the proceedings until one has the impulse 
to leap over the footlights and hit him — or better still, push him 
straight through it. The rococo politeness and hoary theatrical jokes 
that always accompany the search for a pencil, while the sense and 
meaning of the scene being read is lost entirely, is hard to bear, for 
of course the actor who now has a pencil cannot then find his place. 

I sat patiently through it all. My chief interest was in listening, or 
trying to listen, to Jean Dixon, who had replaced Aline MacMahon 
in the leading role, and Spring Byington, who had taken over the 
role of the Hollywood gossip columnist played in the tryout by 
Blanche Ring. Miss Dixon was a prime mumbler and nervous as a 


cocker spaniel to boot, but every so often in spite of her mumbling an 
incisive manner and a corrosive delivery of a line with just the right 
emphasis shone brilliantly through, and Spring Byington's motherly, 
wide-eyed mendacity hit the exact fraudulent key the part called for. 
I tried now and then to gauge how the new second and third acts 
might be going by darting overt glances at Sam Harris' face, but I 
might have spared myself the trouble. It remained throughout like 
something carved out of stone on Mount Rushmore, nor could I 
much blame him. It was hard to tell from the way it was being read 
whether those two acts had been improved or were even worse than 
they had been, though the actors laughed helpfully as actors always 
do. They had laughed just as appreciatively last spring and were 
just as surprised as we were when the audience did not laugh after 
the curtain was up. Reliance on actors' laughter is the furthest reach 
in self-deceit, and I shut my ears to it. The second act actually did 
seem better, but I could tell nothing whatever about the new third 
act because the typist's errors were so numerous and the scrambling 
for pencils and the hemming and hawing of correcting parts so dis- 
tracting that it made any kind of judgment impossible. I gave up 
listening entirely and made chicken marks of my own on the stage 
manager's pad until the reading was finished. I would have to contain 
myself as best I could until the play was roughly staged. The typist 
had either been typing some other play or we had worked badly. 
What little I heard sounded terrible. 

The rehearsal period of Once in a Lifetime's reopening was per- 
haps the worst three weeks I have ever spent in rehearsal in the 
theatre. I knew well enough by now that Mr. Kaufman's directorial 
method of whispered consultation with each separate actor was 
unendurable to watch for more than one or two days at the most, and 
where before I had been content to watch the play grow slowly, 
sitting through the false starts and the fumblings until play and 
performance developed, now I wandered restlessly in and out of 
the theatre and even tried staying away from rehearsals for two full 
days, in order, so I told myself, to get a fresher look. It was a useless 
dodge. I was unhappy in the theatre and miserable away from it. 


The truth of the matter was that I was no longer willing or able to 
trust my own theatrical instinct or judgment — it had been wrong 
before, so my reasoning went, therefore how could I judge what was 
good or bad now ? I had not thought the old second and third acts 
were bad originally — ergo, how could I tell now if they were any 
better ? I walked to rehearsals under an umbrella of disquietude and 
held it open over my head in the theatre through every rehearsal 
that I watched. When this happens, the playwright is incapable of 
judging a baby contest at Asbury Park, much less a play. Everything 
takes on the coloration of his own anxiety, and what he sees invari- 
ably looks not better but worse. I longed for Mr. Kaufman to break 
his rule and allow a few friends in for the first run-through, but 
I did not have the courage to suggest such a thing — indeed, I barely 
had enough courage to come to it myself! 

At the end of the first week, the same slim audience of Sam Harris, 
Max Siegel, Mr. Kaufman and myself sat solemnly through the first 
run-through and solemnly said good night afterward. It was a little 
more than I could bear, and I found enough courage when Mr. 
Kaufman was out of earshot to grab Max Siegel firmly by the lapels 
and whisper, "What did Mr. Harris think of it?" 

"He didn't say," was Max Siegel's unsatisfactory reply. "But I 
think he liked it or he would have said something. I liked it, if that's 
any consolation." 

It was not — and I realized dully that it would not have mattered 
if Sam Harris had gone out of his way to praise it, for his praise in 
my present state of mind would have lasted only long enough for 
me to tell myself that neither he nor anybody else would really 
know anything until the curtain rose in front of that first audience 
in Philadelphia. 

I seemed to have spent the final two weeks of rehearsal almost 
continuously in the company of Max Siegel. I would dutifully appear 
at the beginning of each day's rehearsal, remain long enough to make 
Mr. Kaufman aware of my presence, and then streak upstairs to the 
Sam Harris office and by hook or crook inveigle Max Siegel to come 
with me to the drug store next door. I used his sunny nature and 
God-given optimism the way a dentist uses novocaine on a throbbing 


molar. Max Siegel had apparently emerged from the womb liking 
the world and everything in it, and he liked everything we had done 
to the play. He liked everything he saw at every run-through, and 
every actor in the cast; and seated on a stool next to him at the drug- 
store counter I ate hamburger after hamburger and let him dull my 
pain. Each day I increased the amount of anesthesia he provided, so 
that finally not only was he having lunch and dinner with me, but 
he was walking me around the streets at night after rehearsals were 
over and until he had to go home to his wife. I think if he had not 
been married I would have insisted that he come home with me, and 
the night of the last run-through in New York I almost asked him 
to take me home with him! 



A here is a phrase that has gone out of fashion now, but it 
aptly describes the mood of my leave-taking for Philadelphia: the 
"white feather" was not painted on my suitcase, but it might just as 
well have been, or stuck in the band of my hat. I said good-bye to 
my family, a far soberer good-bye on their part this time than the 
roseate good wishes that had sped me off to Atlantic City. Even my 
mother now dimly realized that my new profession was largely a 
gamble in uncertainties so far as eating and paying the rent were 
concerned, for we were once again coming to a dangerously low 
ebb financially. Indeed, without my brother, who had his first job 
that summer, I doubt that we could have managed at all. It seemed 
to me diat the white feather fluttered in the breeze for all to see as I 
walked down the subway steps to take the train to Pennsylvania 

This time I did not need Max Siegel's invitation to join him in a 
drink. I borrowed his flask and had two stiff drinks before the train 
was well out of the tunnel. They helped considerably; and the 
atmosphere of a company on the way to an out-of-town opening is 
always so sanguine and high-spirited that it is hard to remain down- 
cast, surrounded by so much good cheer and hopeful expectation. 
Apart from the buoyant spirits actors carry with them on any jour- 
ney, they usually carry along as well for these three or four weeks 
out of town their cats, their dogs, their parakeets and canaries, and 
sometimes even their tropical fish, all of which lend a carnival air 


to even a journey to Philadelphia. By the time the train pulled into 
the Broad Street Station I was feeling surprisingly cheerful. I had 
been too greatly dispirited during rehearsals to try to restore my 
lack of confidence by searching for a good omen, but I felt so much 
better now that I began the search as the train slowly moved into 
the station. I did not have to search far or for long. The heat, as we 
stepped down from the train onto the station platform, was grisly. 
The dogs and cats began to pant at once, and their owners drooped 
visibly, along with my new-found cheerfulness. The true believer 
does not pick and choose his omens. The range is limited and the 
selection strict. The first one is the one that counts, and according 
to the rules of the game this was it. 

I picked up my suitcase and followed Mr. Kaufman heavily 
toward the taxi stand, my shirt already beginning to stick to my 
back. Cool and unwilted, Mr. Kaufman ordered our bags dropped 
with the doorman at the hotel, then drove straight on to the theatre 
to have a look at the new set which he had ordered to be put up 
first. I could not believe, as the taxicab stopped in front of what 
looked to me like an armory, that this was the theatre we were going 
to play, in spite of the posters outside. It seemed to cover a square 
block. The Lyric Theatre in Philadelphia, now mercifully torn down, 
was a great barn of a place, about as appropriate for the playing of a 
comedy as the interior of a steel mill in Pittsburgh and just about 
as hot. It was, in fact, where large touring musicals generally played, 
but it was the only theatre on the road at this time that was free and 
Sam Harris had taken it. 

It seems incredible now that theatres in New York and all the 
other major cities of the East remained open all summer long with- 
out benefit of air conditioning, but they did, and people astonishingly 
enough went to them uncomplainingly. Two giant-sized electric fans 
on either side of every theatre proscenium were kept running until 
the house lights dimmed, and were turned on again for each inter- 
mission, but the heat generated by an audience on a hot night was 
still formidable. The make-up ran down the actors' faces, and the 
audience itself was a sea of waving programs and palm-leaf fans, 
the rustle of which sometimes drowned out the actors altogether. 


Nevertheless, summer-long runs in Philadelphia, Boston, Washing- 
ton and Chicago, with every theatre in full swing, were an accepted 
fact, and the new season in New York actually began on August 
15, or at the latest Labor Day, heat waves or no heat waves. 

I followed Mr. Kaufman through the stage door and wandered 
aimlessly about while he conferred with the carpenter and elec- 
trician. The Lyric Theatre backstage smelled stalely of that last tour- 
ing musical, and the auditorium, of its last perspiring audience. I 
looked up and counted what seemed to me to be at least seven bal- 
conies running clear up to the roof, and I wondered briefly why 
anyone would climb up there in the heat and how they would man- 
age to hear anything if they got there. The back rows of the huge 
orchestra seemed difficult enough to reach with the loudest human 
voice, and my heart sank as I visualized subtle comedy lines being 
shouted into that vastness. I slid down into a seat and stared at the 
asbestos curtain. It would have been far better, it seemed to me, to 
open cold in New York and take our chances than to try the play 
out in this monstrous cave. It would not have astonished me to see 
a covey of bats fly down from the balcony or out of one of the boxes. 
As if to illustrate my thoughts, two moths rose slowly from the red 
plush a few seats away from me and flew languidly off. I watched 
them settle on the back of the seat in the row in front and was sud- 
denly in good humor again. I think the idea of the animal or insect 
world ultimately taking over this rookery delighted me. It was cer- 
tainly the last place for humans to witness a sparkling new satirical 
comedy, but my cheerfulness had returned. 

A good many of the company had wandered into the auditorium 
from backstage to have a first look at the Pigeon's Egg from out front, 
and in a few minutes Mr. Kaufman came through the fire door and 
the asbestos curtain was taken up. The company burst into laughter 
and then into applause. It was a remarkable set— an immense ba- 
roque affair that in terms of decor and good taste might have been 
termed Early Frankenstein — and a wonderful conception of Holly- 
wood extravagance at its wildest. Even without the actors in it, it 
was preposterous enough to be amusing all by itself. I was delighted 
with it. It seemed to me that every funny line in the scene would be 


enhanced by this setting, and fortunately it was the last scene in the 
play. Everything seemed suddenly and miraculously better. Though 
it was tempting fate to switch omens, I decided that those two 
moths were the omen I had been looking for and moreover that it 
would be foolish to dampen my sudden good spirits by sitting 
through hours of scenic and light rehearsals where nothing much 
happened except the slow rotting of my mind. I got up from my 
seat and walked out of the theatre, leaving Mr. Kaufman in 
full charge of the drudgery that lay ahead. I had read somewhere 
that some playwrights filled in these useless hours by visiting a 
museum or even going to a movie, and while I was incapable of such 
blithe behavior, I had a pleasing enough prospect of my own in 
view. An author's living expenses out of town are always paid for 
by the management, including the food he eats, as long as he eats 
it at the hotel, and the hotel was just where I was going. I could do 
nothing about the heat, but this time at least I would not go hungry. 

Some of the world's pleasantest reading is contained in a good 
hotel menu, and I sent for one before I even unpacked my suitcase; 
I also found out just how late room service remained open at night. 
I had eaten scarcely anything through the four days and nights of 
dress rehearsals in Atlantic City, though I had known that Sam 
Harris was footing the bill, and I was not going to be the same kind 
of fool again. Fresh from Mr. Kaufman's Spartan teas of water- 
cress and cucumber sandwiches, I ordered an afternoon tea of my 
own. It was extraordinary how much smaller the Lyric Theatre 
seemed in my mind's eye after Lobster Newburg and Baked Alaska, 
and I took care to see to it that my mind's eye remained on that 
same crystal-clear level. 

I ate my way through four days and nights of dress rehearsals in 
Philadelphia and slept beautifully in spite of the heat. Everyone 
noticed my changed demeanor, and Max Siegel commented on it, 
but I could hardly explain that a midnight snack each night, and 
a waiter staggering through the door with a loaded breakfast tray 
every morning, was the source of my wholesale enthusiasm for 
everything about the play and the performance. The company man- 


ager might have a nasty moment when he looked at my bill, but it 
was certainly to Sam Harris' advantage to have me as fresh as 
possible for whatever work needed to be done after we opened. 
My soaring good spirits had even dissipated my fears about facing 
the opening — never, in fact, had the play's chances seemed so bright. 
This almost fatuous optimism was not entirely due to food, I suppose, 
but to the fact that anxiety had taken a manic swing, as anxiety 
has a way of doing, but I have an idea that a full stomach was not 
unhelpful in keeping the swing upward. 

I was not even particularly unhappy when Joe Hyman telephoned 
on the morning of the opening to say that he had a bad summer 
cold and would have to come down to Philadelphia later in the 
week. He was surprised at how cheerful and well I sounded, and 
indeed it was hard for me to recall the abject terror in which I had 
spent the hours waiting for his arrival in Atlantic City. I felt en- 
tirely capable of going through this opening alone and actually 
impatient of the hours that remained until it was time to go to the 
theatre and see the curtain rise. 

I sat pleasantly through a final light rehearsal and spent the rest 
of the afternoon trying to find a dozen different ways of working 
the title of the play into those traditionally funny telegrams to the 
cast. I was surprised to find that it was suddenly six o'clock and time 
to get ready. I looked out the window and saw, of all things, a 
rainbow. To a man who was willing to believe that moths con- 
stituted a good omen, that rainbow seemed to be the ultimate sign 
that everything now seemed to be conspiring in our favor, includ- 
ing the weather. A fierce thunderstorm late in the afternoon had 
bathed the city in coolness and I leaned out the window and felt 
the first breeze that hinted of fall. That fresh cool air would certainly 
put any audience in the best of possible moods, and while I was 
not yet ready to accept such a heresy as a painless opening, I could 
not deny the fact that contrary to the way I'd expected to feel, I 
was not only feeling no pain at all but a distinctly pleasant excite- 
ment. The rainbow seemed to call for something more than just 
staring at it, and obeying a sudden impulse, I went to the telephone 
and asked the bell captain if he could get me a bottle of Scotch. Rich 


people in the movies were always sipping Scotch highballs while 
they dressed for dinner, and though Sam Harris was paying for 
this one, I sipped it slowly in the bathtub and mused on how 
pleasant might be the shape of things to come — large sums of money 
in particular. I was sorry now that Joe Hyman was not here to lift 
a glass to the future with me and then walk serenely off to the 

Even Mr. Kaufman seemed to have an unwonted air of gaiety 
when I ran into him backstage on my rounds of wishing the cast 
good luck, and Sam Harris in the lobby gaily reported that the 
absence of a full quorum of the wrecking crew tonight was due to 
the fact that so many plays were opening out of town all at once 
that they had to make a choice of the one that would give them the 
most pleasure to see fail. "Looks like they've written us off already." 
He laughed. "But I have an idea we may fool them." It seemed to 
me that he exuded a note of confidence tonight that had not been 
there before, and the Lyric Theatre, with its orchestra almost entirely 
filled, did not seem nearly so barnlike or impossible to play in. I 
looked impatiently at the last stragglers going down the aisle. I 
wanted not so much for the play to begin as to have the first act 
over and done with. I knew they would laugh at the first act. 
What happened after Mr. Kaufman's exit in the second act would be 
the test of how well we had worked. I kept watching the giant fans 
on each side of the proscenium, and at last they slowed down to a 
whirr and the house lights dimmed and the footlights came on. 

I don't know whether it was because this was the largest audience 
we had ever played to or because it was an uncommonly generous 
one, but the volume of laughter was greater than it had ever been 
before, even for the first act. The revisions we had made in it to 
make it of a piece with the new second and third acts had tightened 
some of the arid spots and made the laughter almost continuous. It 
had always played well, but now it played thunderously. The 
applause lasted a good half-minute after the curtain came down. It 
was a little too early to gloat ; but if the second act was right, it was 
going to have its best chance with this audience, and I could hardly 


wait for them to get back to their seats. Sam Harris made no com- 
ment other than a laconic, "That act's been improved, kid." Like 
myself, he was marking time. 

It seemed an unconscionably long intermission until the house 
lights dimmed again. Mr. Kaufman received his usual reception as 
the curtain rose on the second act and his usual round of applause 
as he made his exit. I held my breath — the next few minutes would 
tell the story. 

I did not have to hold it for long. They were laughing loudly 
now in all the places where there had been only silence before, and 
as the laughter kept on without any sign of diminishing I began to 
bang delightedly on the back of the orchestra railing with my fists. 
A blue-suited figure was immediately at my side. "Don't interrupt 
them, you fool," hissed Mr. Kaufman, but I could tell he was as 
delighted as I was. The wonderful sound of laughter kept coming 
in wave after wave, and in spite of that pacing figure nearby, I began 
to laugh with them myself. It seemed impossible not to. I was, I sup- 
pose, a little light-headed with relief. The second act came down to 
even greater applause than the first and an unmistakable buzz filled 
the theatre even before the house lights came up. 

There is something almost touching about the way an audience 
comes up the aisles when it has been thoroughly satisfied with a 
play. They beam at each other with pleasure, as though they had 
been given an unexpected present. It is a rewarding sight. Sam 
Harris, caught in the crush coming up the aisle, saw me and 
winked broadly, and right behind him Max Siegel's smile seemed 
to be running straight off his face and into his ears. I waved and 
indicated I would meet them in the lobby. 

I was eager to eavesdrop and hear what the audience was saying 
about the play, though lobby-listening is a dangerous occupation. 
A playwright is likely to hear last night's bridge game being dis- 
cussed instead of his play, or how well little Robert is doing since he 
changed schools. Lobby-listening even at an acknowledged hit in 
New York is likely to yield no more than, "I don't know what 
they're raving about, do you?" or, "It's just an evening's entertain- 
ment, that's all," to a playwright's outraged ears. But tonight they 


were actually talking about the play. I threaded my way from group 
to group and heard them saying, "Funniest play I've seen in years," 
and, "Wait until this hits Broadway," and reminded myself that 
this was the time I usually spent in the stage alley, afraid of what I 
might hear if I remained in the lobby. 

I listened so avidly that I failed to meet Sam Harris and Max 
Siegel — the ushers were already calling out "Curtain going up" by 
the time I had had my fill. I followed the audience back into the 
theatre, gathering up the last morsel of comment and relishing every 
word. I suddenly realized I had also neglected to say a word to Mr. 
Kaufman, until I saw him beginning to pace back and forth as the 
house lights began to dim. I went over to him and tried to modulate 
my excitement to a pitch that would match his own usual con- 
servatism. "They seem to like it, Mr. Kaufman," I said. 

To my surprise, he put a hand on my shoulder and said, "You 
deserve it," and then quickly walked away. Only the rising of the 
curtain saved him from one of my commemorative speeches. 

The audience's response to their first sight of the Pigeon's Egg 
was almost excessive. They gave a great whoop of laughter and 
then broke into applause that lasted through the first few lines of 
dialogue. I took my place at the back of the orchestra rail, prepared 
to behave with a little more decorum this time and not laugh along 
with them, even though this was the act we were both certain con- 
tained the funniest moments of the play. 

Their laughter came promptly as the applause died and the 
scene went on, but it was not, I quickly noticed, of the same kind. 
The ear could tell the difference almost immediately. It was a little 
forced, as though they were unwilling to believe that so good an 
evening might be going downhill and were perfectly prepared to 
laugh at costumes and props until the play came to life again. But 
the play was not coming to life again, even with the best of intentions 
on the part of this eager-to-laugh-at-anything audience. In spite of 
themselves, their laughter was growing weaker and more fitful, and 
finally at about the middle of the act it ceased altogether. I looked 
around for Mr. Kaufman. For once he had stopped his pacing and 
was standing staring at the stage as aghast as I was. We had gone 


terribly wrong somewhere and there was no point in going over 
and asking him how or why. 

He came over to me just before the third act ended and whispered, 
"We're too close to a hit now not to get this right. Meet me in the 
room in half an hour." 

I watched a bewildered and disappointed audience file out of 
the theatre, and on my way back to the hotel I walked behind a 
man and a woman discussing something in so aggrieved a tone that 
I knew they must be talking about the play. 

"It sure as hell didn't hold up, did it?" I heard him say. 

And the woman, equally offended, replied, "I don't understand 
how the same two people could have written that last act, for the 
life of me." 

I was tempted to join them and say, "May I introduce one of 
the idiots, madam?" In a way I felt quite as victimized as they did. 

We had both largely recovered, however, from our own shock 
and disappointment with the third act by the time we sat facing 
each other in Mr. Kaufman's room half an hour later. One thing 
was inescapable. Two acts were right now, where only one had been 
right before. It seemed impossible not to be able to lick a last act 
that was all that seemed to stand in the way of a smashing success. 
That had been Sam Harris' sanguine conclusion, Mr. Kaufman 
reported, and he was staying right on in Philadelphia, a sure sign 
that he believed it could be done. Mr. Kaufman's own belief that 
we could do it was tonic. 

He brought out a new box of fudge, placed the manuscript on 
his knees, poised a pencil above it for the first cuts, and went right 
to work without further discussion. It was the same old method — 
cuts down to the bare bones of the last act to get a clean look at it, 
until we could glimpse what was wrong and had an idea of how 
to solve it. It was dawn as usual before we finished, for although 
there was only one act to cut, we spent the last two hours writing a 
new scene that might get the act off to a better start, and we were 
encouraged the next evening to find that it did. 

We worked through the following night on another scene, and 


that, too, was an improvement; but nothing we wrote seemed to pro- 
vide a clue for that straight line we were seeking. New scenes, even if 
they are wrong, will sometimes point out the direction in which 
a play should move, but nothing seemed to offer us the slightest 
hint that we were on the right track. There was something stub- 
bornly wrong with the basic idea of the last act that evaded all our 
efforts to fix it. 

Mr. Kaufman, never a man to spare himself or his collaborator 
where work was concerned, worked like a man possessed. Some- 
thing more than just a play seemed to be at stake. His professional 
pride was involved now and made insupportable the fact that he was 
this tantalizingly close to a hit and not quite able to achieve it. He 
drove himself, and me along with him, at a merciless pace and to a 
point where each night we worked until it appeared that not another 
word could be dredged up, yet the night's work was far from being 
ended. After flinging himself on the sofa for a few minutes and clos- 
ing his eyes in exhaustion, he would get up and walk to the type- 
writer again. I lost count of the number of new scenes that were 
written every night, staged the next day, and played, rough or not, 
that same evening, only to be tossed out after one performance. 

The actors accomplished prodigious feats of memory, learning and 
unlearning new scenes for performance after performance, but as 
a consequence the first two acts were becoming a little shaky and 
were not playing nearly as well as they had played. When actors 
walk into a first act with a new last act in their heads almost every 
night, it is not unnatural that it should play havoc with their over- 
all performance. Actors cannot be expected to remember new lines 
each night and still give the old ones their proper value. 

By the end of the first week the first two acts had begun to lose 
that wonderful sheen and precision of the opening performance. On 
Monday night of the second week there was scarcely a third of the 
orchestra filled, and the theatre again began to take on that cavelike 
quality which had appalled me so when I had had my first look at 
it. A week of disappointed audiences and uncertain performances 
was beginning to take its toll at the box office. Out-of-town audiences 
are extremely sensitive and well aware of the role they play. They do 


not resent being used as guinea pigs to test out a new play, but they 
pride themselves on their ability to pick winners. Word is passed 
around rapidly among out-of-town theatregoers, and they can 
stay away from a play on which the report is bad with an obstinacy 
that borders on the sinister. The word had evidently gone out on 
Once in a Lifetime, although we told each other that the heat was 
actually the villain that had caused our business to drop with such 
frightening swiftness. A new heat wave had engulfed Philadelphia 
with such scorching intensity that it dwarfed the New York heat 
waves I had grumbled about and made them seem almost elfin by 
comparison. The city emptied under our eyes. By the third day of it, 
offices and shops were sending their employees home at one o'clock 
in the afternoon, and the baking streets seemed to be bare of every- 
thing except traffic policemen, children dousing themselves under 
fire hydrants, and water sprinklers endlessly sloshing water over 
the dusty pavements. 

No one could work through such heat and remain unaffected by 
it, but I began to doubt that the heat was the sole cause of Mr. Kauf- 
man's moody and restive manner with the company as he rehearsed 
during the day or his increasingly pessimistic air as he watched the 
play each night. Imperceptibly at first, and then unmistakably, I 
began to detect little telltale signs of discouragement which seemed 
to grow larger as I watched for them. He worked through the nights 
and days without letup, but he was strangely silent now when the 
result of all our labors was being played night after night to audi- 
ences of sometimes less than a hundred people. It was disheartening 
to watch a new scene that had seemed promising in rehearsal spin 
itself out before rows of empty seats, and programs waving listlessly 
to and fro in the heat. Laughter is contagious and does not spread 
easily among people huddled together as if in self -protection against 
the emptiness around them. We were literally working in the dark 
— it was impossible to tell from these audiences what was good and 
should be saved or what was bad and should be tossed out. What 
little laughter there was came strangely and in curiously isolated 
spots, and sometimes laughter came where none at all was called 
for. Though I would not have admitted it to anyone, I began to mis- 


trust everything we were doing. We had either lost control of the 
play or the last act was incurable. Mr. Kaufman's silence might very 
well mean that he had come to the same conclusion and was as 
loath to put it into words as I was, but while it remained unspoken, 
miracles were still possible. Self-deception is sometimes as necessary 
a tool as a crowbar. 

As our third and last week in Philadelphia began, however, I 
could sense that whatever his thoughts might be they were not too 
far from my own. Very few plays are without faults of one kind or 
another, but few plays succeed with a bad last act. The best kind of 
fault for a play to have is first-act trouble, and the worst kind last-act 
trouble. An audience will forgive a slow or even a weak first act, 
if the second act grows progressively better; and a third act that 
sends the audience up the aisles and out of the theatre with the im- 
pression of a fully rounded evening, can sometimes make that hair's- 
breadth difference between failure and success. A bad third act or 
even a poor last fifteen minutes of a play can be ruinous. It can some- 
how wipe the slate clean of all that has gone on before and com- 
pletely negate the two acts preceding it, and if a playwright is not in 
control of his last act in the final week of the tryout, it is unlikely 
that he ever will be. 

Mr. Kaufman brought it out into the open finally on the Tuesday 
night of that last week. He was taking the midnight train to New 
York to meet the boat that was bringing Beatrice Kaufman back 
from Europe the following morning, and he would return in time 
for the matinee tomorrow. He tossed the new scene we had played 
that evening into a wastebasket in the corner of the dressing room 
and removed the last of the make-up from his face before he turned 
to me directly. 

"I think we ought to face the fact that we may have to settle for 
what we've got," he said. "We must give the company a chance to 
play the same show four nights in a row before we open in New 
York," he went on, "and I've got to have a good crack at getting back 
the performance of the first two acts to where it was when we 
opened here or we'll stand no chance at all. I'm going to freeze the 


show as it stands on Thursday night — no more changes — that's it. 
Hot or cold. That all right with you?" 

"What do you think our chances are in New York with this last 
act, Mr. Kaufman?" I asked. 

"Not wonderful," he replied, "if you have to have my honest 
opinion." He was silent for a moment and then continued. "Com- 
edies usually have to be ninety-five per cent airtight— at least that's 
been my experience. You can squeak by with ninety per cent once 
in a while, but not with eighty-five, and according to my figures, 
not to keep any secrets from you, this one just inches over the seventy 
mark. I don't know what son-of-a-bitch set up those figures, but 
there you are. Well, no one can say we didn't try. We're freezing 
the show Thursday night, Sam," he called over my shoulder to Sam 
Harris, who had appeared in the doorway. "And good-bye — I'm 
just going to make that train." 

Sam Harris looked after the figure hurrying down the stairs and 
laughed. "You know, I think he's glad to duck out of town, kid. 
He runs down those stairs like he just heard tonight's receipts." 
He laughed again. "A hundred and four dollars and eighty-five 
cents," he said. "We jumped eighty-five cents over last night. That 
just about pays for what the actors eat in that night-club scene." He 
glanced briefly at the wastebasket and the typed pages scattered 
over the floor around it. "Come on out with me and have a beer, kid. 
This is your first night off, isn't it?" I nodded. "Do you good to for- 
get the show," he said and started down the stairs. "Never saw two 
guys work harder. That last act's a little bastard. I've sat through 
quite a few tough ones in my time but this one is something special. 
A couple of beers will do us both good." 

Serendipity is a word that has fallen into disuse, but there are few 
words in the language that so graphically characterize the combina- 
tions of fortuitous and random circumstances that make up the be- 
hind-the-scenes history of almost every play. It describes precisely 
what happened that night and afterward as a result of my evening 
with Sam Harris. In the little speakeasy just around the corner from 
the Ritz Hotel, we sat drinking beer after beer, our tongues loosened 


and our minds, a little drunkenly after a while, going over the play, 
scene by scene and almost line by line. 

I was surprised in the beginning at Sam Harris' loquaciousness, for 
I had never before heard him talk at such length. His comments on 
the play were usually tersely worded typewritten notes, delivered to 
Mr. Kaufman's room by Max Siegel every evening after the per- 
formance. Mr. Kaufman did not suffer gladly a nightly conference 
with a producer, even if that producer was Sam Harris. It occurred 
to me for the first time to wonder if even Sam Harris might not be 
a little intimidated by George Kaufman. Tonight, with Mr. Kauf- 
man on a train bound for New York, Sam Harris' criticism of the 
play was far more explicit than his notes had ever been, and I listened 
as intently as my fuzzy-mindedness would allow after the third 
bottle of beer. He was a sound and shrewd judge of a play and an 
old and crafty campaigner in evaluating its chances, but his talk — 
pithy though it was, and full of the insight of his years in the 
theatre — did not always make clear his meaning. His turn of phrase 
was somewhat cryptic and his conversation followed an enigmatic 
and circuitous course. Though I kept nodding my head in agree- 
ment, I was not always certain that I had grasped the significance 
of what he was saying. 

Just before the place closed, when the waiters were piling the chairs 
up on top of the tables all around us in a last despairing gesture of 
getting us to leave, my ear caught a phrase he had used once or twice 
before, but whose meaning had escaped me. "I wish, kid," he sighed, 
"that this weren't such a noisy play." 

"Noisy, Mr. Harris?" I said, determined to understand what he 
meant by that word. "What do you mean by a noisy play?" 

"It's a noisy play, kid," he reiterated without explanation. "One of 
the noisiest plays I've ever been around." 

"But why, Mr. Harris?" I persisted. "It's no noisier than any other 

pl ?7*" 

"Oh, yes, it is," he replied. "Just think about it. Except for those 
two minutes at the beginning of the first act, there isn't another spot 
in this whole play where two people sit down and talk quietly to 
each other. Is that right, or isn't it?" 


I looked at him, a little stunned, and said, "Is that what you mean 
by noisy?" 

"Maybe noisy is the wrong word," he said. "But I've watched this 
play through maybe a hundred times, and I think one of the main 
things wrong with it is that it tires an audience out. It's a tiring play 
to sit through, kid ... I can almost feel them begin to get tired all 
around me. That stage is so damn full of actors and scenery and cos- 
tumes and props all the time they never get a chance to catch their 
breath and listen to the play. Sure they laugh, but I think they're 
longing to see that stage just once with maybe two or three people 
on it quietly talking the whole thing over. Give them a chance to sit 
back themselves and kind of add the whole thing up." He signaled 
the waiter for the check, then laughed. "Once this show gets under 
way nobody ever talks to each other. They just keep pounding away 
like hell and running in and out of that scenery. It's a noisy play, 
kid, you take my word for it." 

I stared at him silently, my mind racing back and forth over what 
he had said, an odd excitement beginning to take possession of me. 
He got out of the elevator at his own floor a little tipsily, but I was 
wide awake now. I took the elevator down again and began to walk. 
Far from clutching at straws, it seemed to me that Sam Harris in his 
own paradoxical fashion had put his finger straight on that unfath- 
omable fault in the third act that had defied all our efforts. The more 
I thought of it, the more certain I became that he was correct, though 
I could not define why. A curious kind of interpenetration occurs 
when one watches a play night after night. Impressions are registered 
unconsciously that emerge as full-blown concepts — sometimes when 
a chance word or phrase is spoken by someone else. What Sam Harris 
felt, so closely matched some of my own unconscious thinking, 
though I had not been able to put it into words, that it had almost a 
quality of revelation about it. 

I was much too stimulated now to think of going to sleep. It was 
a fine moonlit night and I kept walking. I tried to find my way to- 
ward the park, for the air in the streets was still stifling, but I stum- 
bled instead upon a children's playground. It looked a little weird 
in the moonlight, but it was an open space among the buildings and 


something approximating a breeze seemed to be blowing through it. 
I walked to a swing and sat down in it. I swung back and forth, and 
the higher and more wildly I made the swing go, the greater im- 
pression of coolness it created. I was a little apprehensive that a po- 
liceman might happen by and wonder what a grown man was doing 
in a child's swing at four o'clock in the morning. I became absorbed 
in threading my way through the labyrinth of that third act, and 
with a shock of recognition I thought I saw clearly where we had 
gone wrong, and then, in a sudden flash of improvisation, exactly 
the right way to resolve it. I let the swing come to a full stop and sat 
there transfixed by the rightness of the idea, but a little staggered at 
the audacity of it, or at what it would entail. 

It called for tossing the Pigeon's Egg out of the show entirely — the 
specially constructed tables, feathered costumes and all — and bring- 
ing the part of the New York playwright, which Mr. Kaufman 
played and which disappeared from the play after the second act, 
back into the third act, for a quiet scene with Jean Dixon. The train 
scene of the first act, which had brought them all out to Hollywood, 
could be repeated and was the logical setting for it. 

I began to examine it slowly and meticulously, fearful that like 
most four-o'clock-in-the-morning inspirations, it would explode in 
my face, but it did not. Its very simplicity was its virtue, for while 
at first glance it seemed like a deceptively simple idea— if tossing 
$20,000 worth of scenery into the alley may be termed simple — it was, 
like all simple ideas, startling in how much it would accomplish by 
its very simplicity. Everything clicked into place with an almost 
mathematical accuracy. New lines began tumbling into my mind 
faster than I could remember them, and the new scene on the train 
began to blossom and grow in a way that not only convinced me of 
its rightness, but made me itch to call Mr. Kaufman in New York 
and get him out of bed to tell it to him, but my audacity had limits 
and common sense told me to wait and present it to him face to face. 
It would be difficult enough even then, I suspected, to persuade him 
to make so drastic a change at this stage of the game; but it seemed 
so singularly right that I could barely wait for his return. 



was waiting for Mr. Kaufman in his dressing room when 
he came back the next afternoon. He was late and the first act was 
almost over, but there was no time to waste and I talked quickly 
while he put on his make-up. It would have been better perhaps to 
wait until after the matinee and to be able to tell it to him less hastily, 
but if he agreed to do it, every moment was going to count. Simple 
idea or not, it still had to be written, and I had had time enough to 
realize that more work was involved than at first met the eye. He 
listened attentively, but I could tell he was rejecting it long before 
I had finished. Sensing his rejection, I presented the idea in the worst 
possible manner — it began to sound lame and foolish, even to my 
own ears. 

"I see what you mean," he said when I had come to the end, "and 
I see what Sam Harris meant, but it's too risky. It's too big a change 
to make with only three days left. Suppose we did it and it didn't 
work ? We could never go back to a third act we had so little faith 
in that we discarded it the last three days in Philadelphia, and ask 
the company to open with it in New York. We've unsettled this cast 
enough as it is. Whatever chance we've got is going to depend on 
how good a show the company gives on the opening night. I don't 
think we dare take this kind of a gamble now. It's too late." 

I had no ready answer, and even if I had been prepared to argue, 
the stage manager was already knocking at the door and calling out, 
"Second act, Mr. Kaufman." I followed him down the stairs and 
went straight back to the hotel. It seemed to me doubtful that even if 


my very life depended upon it I could watch that third act again. At 
four o'clock in the morning I had seen a new third act playing 
brilliantly, and it was still lodged hopelessly in my mind. 

I threw myself on the bed and stared up at the ceiling, turning 
over bit by bit everything Mr. Kaufman had said. I was no longer so 
certain of my own brilliance or that I had found an inspired way of 
snatching victory from defeat. In the excitement and enthusiasm 
of last night I had never stopped to consider the possibility of the 
idea's not working and the consequences if it did not. There was no 
guarantee that it would, however right it seemed to me, and every- 
thing he had said was true, of course, but I was stubbornly sure that 
the consequence of not taking the gamble would be equally disas- 
trous. I looked at my watch and decided to take a final gamble of my 
own. The matinee had been over for half an hour and Mr. Kaufman 
would be in his room. He was not an easy man to tackle once he had 
said no to anything, but there was little to be lost now in trying to 
make him change his mind. I was certain that unless we at least made 
the attempt, the fate of the play was already sealed. 

I walked down the hall and knocked on his door. For a moment 
there was no answer, but then his voice called out, "Who is it?" and 
I called back, "It's me." "Come in — I'm in the tub," his voice called 
again, and I walked through the suite to the bathroom. For once he 
looked beaten and exhausted, as though my old enemy, the heat, had 
finally claimed even him. He lay in the tub, his head resting on the 
back of it; his eyes were closed, and he barely opened them when I 
came in. They remained closed all the while I talked, a small boon 
for which I was grateful, for I could not judge how well or how 
badly I was succeeding, and I took my time. I went over the same 
ground I had covered in the dressing room, but I presented it well 
this time — so well, in fact, that I convinced myself all over again — 
and was making an impassioned plea for taking the gamble, in spite 
of everything, at the end. 

When I had finished he did not move, but reached for his glasses 
on the edge of the tub and put them on; he seemed reluctant to stir 
even an arm from the coolness of the water. Now he regarded me 
silently over the rims of the glasses. "You have as much right to say 


yes to anything about this play as I have to say no," he said slowly. 
"It may be that my timidity at making this big a change, in the time 
we've got left, is too great," he went on. "You know what's at stake 
as well as I do, but if you feel this strongly, why don't you skip the 
show tonight and stay here and make a rough draft that we can work 
on when I get back. Maybe I'll be able to see what you see — or at 
least see it more clearly than I'm able to see it now." He sighed. "I'd 
like to play my part of the show tonight right from this tub. Might 
help business, too." He closed his eyes wearily again. 

I forgot about dinner and went right to work. When an idea is 
sound it writes easily, and I struck pay-dirt early. All the old stum- 
bling blocks that we had uselessly battered our heads against seemed 
to resolve themselves smoothly and naturally once the Pigeon's Egg 
had been pried loose from the play. The price we had paid for an 
audience's momentary laughter and applause at a set had been enor- 
mous. Freed from the inflexibility of that scene, exposition that had 
lacked subtlety became manageable and scenes that had remained 
lumbering and clumsy seemed suddenly skillful. A play can be black- 
mailed by its scenery more often than anyone connected with it is 
likely to realize. 

The rearrangement of the third act was too involved to do any- 
thing more than attempt the sketchiest of rough drafts, but by the 
time Mr. Kaufman returned from the theatre I had something ready 
to show him. A good deal of it had to be indicated in a kind of code, 
with arrows pointing from my own yellow sheets of paper to the 
manuscript, but he was reading it with more than just polite interest, 
and when he had finished he carried the yellow sheets and the manu- 
script with him toward the typewriter. "Well, here goes twenty 
thousand dollars' worth of scenery," he said and inserted a new piece 
of paper in the roller. 

I sat staring at him, mesmerized. Instead of the elation I had ex- 
pected to feel, I was seized by a sudden panic at the enormity of what 
I had started and of what we were about to do. "If this doesn't work 
and we can't go back to the old third act, Mr. Kaufman, what hap- 
pens then?" I asked. 


He looked at me quizzically over the glasses. "I sue you," he re- 
plied. "Hand me that box of fudge and let's get to work." 

I watched the rehearsal the next day with feelings not unlike, I sus- 
pected, those held by the company itself. The company received the 
news of the change in glum silence and went about the business of 
rehearsing it as though each new line brought them closer to a bog 
of quicksand. It was a messy job of restaging, and I admired more 
than ever Mr. Kaufman's forbearance and patience, with time run- 
ning against him and a reluctant and dissatisfied company to re- 
hearse. The combination of old and new was confusing and there 
was no question but that the cast was seriously disturbed and its mo- 
rale at a low ebb. 

The morale of a company is one of a play's hidden assets and some- 
times its most valuable one. If it remains high in spite of a rocky 
time out of town, an electric opening-night performance in New 
York can cover a multitude of sins. A company with high morale, 
whose faith remains unshaken in its author and director, can accom- 
plish incredible feats of memorizing new lines and business overnight, 
but it asks in return, and rightfully so, sufficient time afterward to 
perfect the performance. Nothing contributes more strongly to a 
company's insecurity than desperate last-minute changes that rob 
them of the chance of being at their best on an opening night. Their 
faith in Mr. Kaufman did not waver, but their alarm at being asked 
to make so drastic a change, with a New York opening less than a 
week away, was quite evident. It made itself apparent in a dozen 
different ways, and I could not tell whether the new scheme had any 
real merit or was just a hodgepodge of the old and new that might 
play less well than what we were discarding. 

The company's unease seemed to fill the theatre and communicate 
itself even to the stage managers, who took forever placing the chairs 
for each new scene. It was a long rehearsal and rough on everyone, 
Mr. Kaufman included. He had to learn new lines himself, as well 
as redirect some of the old stuff, and stage the new train scene — and 
all of it had to be done for the evening's performance. Everything 
had to be tried this night or not at all. The next day was Saturday 


matinee and the last performance but one in front of an audience be- 
fore we opened in New York the following Wednesday night. I did 
not blame the actors for feeling that the old third act with all its faults 
was less hazardous for them than running the gantlet of a New York 
opening night with untried material. At least they had played the 
other and knew all of its pitfalls. 

As the afternoon wore on I slumped farther and farther down in 
my seat, and finally I could sit still no longer. I made for my usual 
refuge, the stage alley, but after one grim look at the Pigeon's Egg 
set stacked up against the wall waiting to be carted to the storehouse, 
I beat a hasty retreat back into the theatre. I had looked at the set 
triumphantly on my way into rehearsal this morning, happy to be 
seeing the last of it; but this morning's courage seemed to be oozing 
out of my fingertips, and there was no Max Siegel this time to anes- 
thetize me for these next few hours of waiting. 

Along with Sam Harris he had been in New York for the last two 
days wrestling with the opening-night ticket list, for the laws by 
which the theatre is governed remain immutable. Hallowed by time 
they are not susceptible to change— and the two most inviolate are 
opening-night tickets and pictures in the lobby. However dire the 
straits a play may be in, they take precedence above all else, and al- 
though they seem almost purposely absurd, any appeal from their 
divinity is useless. A company is kept up until Ryc or six in the morn- 
ing during one day of the out-of-town tour — thereby making a re- 
hearsal call, however urgent, impossible the following day — so that 
pictures may be had in time to fill the lobby frames on the opening 
night; and management and author alike must rid their minds — at 
this most vital time and no matter how critical the state of the play — 
of everything but the crucial dilemma of who shall be seated next to 
whom and where on the opening night. Since not one person out of 
a hundred ever bothers to look at the pictures in the lobby on opening 
night and almost no one at all is ever satisfied with his opening- 
night's seats, it is difficult to understand why these rites remain un- 
disputed, but they are as reverently preserved and as imperishable 
an idea as the Kingdom of Heaven. 

I would have given much for a Max Siegel smile right then, no 


matter how illusory or mistaken, and Sam Harris' presence would 
have halved the burden of guilt I was beginning to feel, since in a 
way he was as much to blame for that set sitting in the alley as I was, 
but they would not be back until curtain time, and then only with 
luck. I did not believe my taut nerves would stretch the distance until 
then, and I did the first two things that occurred to me. I telephoned 
Joe Hyman and asked him to get on the six o'clock train for Phila- 
delphia, and I sneaked back to the hotel and ordered the largest din- 
ner even I had ever had the gall to order. Terror, as always, had in- 
creased my appetite, and the amount of time it would take to con- 
sume that mass of food would fill in the waiting until it was necessary 
to go to the theatre and face what had to be faced. 

I was almost comatose with food by eight o'clock. I walked to the 
theatre swaying slightly and hiccuping as though I were drunk. I 
stopped at a drug store and slowly sipped two glasses of plain soda 
water, but the spasms seemed to grow worse instead of better. I have 
since learned that a serious attack of hiccups can be caused by anxiety 
or fear, and this must have been true in my case, for by the time I 
reached the theatre I could barely talk. I wheezed a few words to Joe 
Hyman and Sam Harris, but the hiccups were coming with such 
intensity and with so few spaces to breathe in between that I fled 
gasping back to the drug store. I gulped some paregoric under in- 
structions from the pharmacist and then held my breath while he 
pressed his fingers behind my ears, and even blew into a paper bag 
while I counted slowly up to one hundred — but to no avail. I had 
drawn an interested little group of bystanders during these experi- 
ments ; an old lady at the drug counter offered the suggestion that the 
best way to cure hiccups was to scare the living daylights out of the 
victim, a method which had invariably worked, she insisted, when 
she was a little girl. Since I was not a little girl, and frightened enough 
already, it seemed to me, I left the drug store and returned to the 

The first act was nearing its end by the time I arrived and not go- 
ing too badly so far as I was able to make out, but each body-shaking 
hiccup I gave, no matter how hard I tried to strangle it before it 
emerged, echoed with such resonance in the emptiness of the theatre 


that it seemed to roll down the unfilled rows, across the footlights, 
and punctuate every other line the actors were speaking. To my hor- 
ror, a few people in the audience began to laugh at the unearthly 
sound I was making, for by this time my wheezing and whistling 
must have sounded like a dog baying at the moon. I ran out of the 
theatre and walked around the corner to the stage alley. One look 
at the Pigeon's Egg set, which had not yet been carted away, set me 
off again and I fled the alley to the street. I walked up and down, 
cursing the heat, the hiccups, Philadelphia, the food I had eaten, the 
Lyric Theatre, and anything else that came into my mind. I was 
growing frantic that I might have to miss the new third act if the 
spasms did not subside, but they gave little sign of doing so and I 
dared not go back into the theatre. It seemed to me I was roaring like 
a calliope. Every few minutes I kept glancing at my watch, knowing 
by the time exactly what portion of the second act was being played, 
and finally I could bear it no longer. I walked in the balcony entrance 
and ran up the stairs. 

The exit doors on each landing were dimly lit but I saw no sign 
of an usher anywhere, and I kept on going. I came out into what 
must have been the topmost gallery ; there was not a soul in it, and it 
was so far from the stage that I could well believe that even my hur- 
ricane gusts would not echo down. I took a seat in the last row and 
watched the puppet-like creatures on the stage playing out the last 
scene of the second act. I knew by heart every line they were mouth- 
ing, of course, so it mattered little that I could not hear much of 
what they were saying — and if I could not hear them they probably 
could not hear me. Looking down from my aerie there seemed to 
be not more than twenty or thirty people in the orchestra. Actually 
there must have been a hundred or so, and we might well have 
jumped another eighty-five cents, but I was well past caring about the 
nightly receipts. 

During the intermission I opened an exit door and walked back 
and forth along the platform of the iron stairway outside the gallery, 
taking deep breaths of air. I came back inside and sat down, hic- 
cuping as noiselessly as I could, and waited for the house lights to 
dim. I was terrified when the fans stopped whirring and in the sud- 


den silence I gave the loudest and longest series of hiccups I had 
given vent to all evening. But nothing, I was now determined, was 
going to get me out of the theatre. The audience must have been 
talking among themselves as they settled back into their seats after 
the intermission, for there was no sign that anyone had heard me, 
and I was thankful that in the new arrangement of the third act Mr. 
Kaufman was already safely backstage. The third act opened now, 
not with the Pigeon's Egg, but in the Hollywood film studio, and the 
second scene of the third act was the new train scene with Mr. Kauf- 
man and Jean Dixon. The first scene seemed to be playing better 
without the Pigeon's Egg, but the train scene, of course, would tell 
the whole story. 

The first scene ended, and as I waited for the lights to come up 
on the train scene I began to wonder if the old lady at the drug 
counter might not have been correct; for at that moment I felt as 
though the daylights had indeed been scared out of me — the palms 
of my hands were icy and wet with perspiration and my stomach 
had twisted into a hard knot — but my hiccups had miraculously sub- 

The curtain rose on the train set, and immediately that most ac- 
curate of all barometers gave an unmistakable sign that we were on 
the right track at long last. The audience broke into understanding 
and appreciative laughter — not the whoop of laughter that the 
Pigeon's Egg always dazzled them into giving, but the more valuable 
laughter of an audience that was taking the play into its own hands 
and carrying it along with them. Jean Dixon was seated alone in the 
Pullman car, but her aloneness in a train that was obviously headed 
back to New York told them all they needed to know without a line's 
being spoken. They made the leap for us themselves without a word 
of exposition, and the stage, quiet and silent for once, seemed to cre- 
ate by its wordlessness the exact sense of drama and climax that we 
had previously tried so hard to achieve, without success. The vital 
scenes of a play are played as much by the audience, I suppose, as 
they are by the actors on the stage. As surely as one can sense that an 
audience is lost, I could tell that this one had been captured. The Pull- 
man porter entered and a moment later Mr. Kaufman followed him 


on. The biggest laugh that tiny audience was capable of giving 
greeted his appearance, and I knew that our search for the right last 
act had ended. 

I could barely hear the words being spoken on the stage, but I 
did not need to. I sat back and listened to the audience. The quiet 
scene Sam Harris had asked for was playing line after line to the 
biggest laughs in the play. Even some of the perfectly straight lines 
seemed to evoke laughter, and the laughter mounted until it became 
one continuous roar. I closed my eyes and just listened until the scene 
was over, then I walked downstairs and watched the final scene of 
the play from the back of the orchestra. With die momentum of the 
train scene behind it, it played flawlessly. That small audience actu- 
ally broke into applause once or twice. Those crucial last few min- 
utes had been redeemed. Once in a Lifetime, in Philadelphia at least, 
was playing like a hit right up to the curtain. 

I left the orchestra rail and leaned against the back wall. The ex- 
haustion I felt was due in large part no doubt to that violent attack 
of hiccups, but neither hiccups nor the strain of sweating out the 
last act could entirely account for the almost overpowering weariness 
that had taken possession of my mind as well as my body. It was a 
strange inner tiredness of a kind I had never experienced before. I 
watched Sam Harris and Max Siegel applauding along with the rest 
of the audience as though they were seeing the play for the first 
time, and I saw Joe Hyman leave ;his, seat and dash up the aisle in 
search of me. But I was suddenly too ¥red to want to hear what they 
had to say, or to care. I had finally touched bottom so far as Once in a 
Lifetime was concerned. I wanted the New York opening and Once 
in a Lifetime itself over and done with, whatever the outcome. For 
the first time, success or failure seemed not to matter. Without any 
sense of elation or triumph, I stared at the curtain going up and down 
and listened to the audience applauding. I seemed to have used up 
the last reserve of response or emotion. I wanted of all things to go 
home, and I wanted to go home with the passionate unreasonableness 
of a six-year-old. 



.t is always a little dismaying to discover that the truth, as 
one explores it, consists largely of a collection of platitudes. More 
often than we suspect, the old wives' tales are not merely a caricature 
of the truth, but its faithful echo; and among the most banal in a 
profession where old wives' tales are commonplace are the proverbial 
tales of the anguish and frenzy of the last few days before a New 
York opening. These hours have been portrayed in movies, in novels, 
and even upon the stage itself, in such hackneyed and platitudinous 
terms that their banality grates upon the ear with the brassy clink of a 
worn-out cliche. The distraught playwright, the nerve-torn actress, 
the harried stage manager, the tight-lipped director, the stubbornly 
optimistic producer, all are such familiar and stock figures that their 
anguish has been robbed of reality and their frenzy skirts the edge 
of farce. Yet the truth in this instance is substantially the same as the 
parody of itself it has become. 

As the train from Boston or Philadelphia pulls into Grand Central 
or Pennsylvania Station, returning a company from its tryout tour 
for the New York opening, each member in this changeless drama 
relinquishes his sanity, takes his place as a stereotype, and begins to 
live out his own cliche with almost clocklike precision. The uneasy 
discovery that the truth bears a strong resemblance to travesty, or 
to every bad movie or play about the stage one has ever seen, does 
not alter the nature of the role each performs or the misery which he 
feels while he performs it. However trite the sufferings of the last 
few days before a New York opening may seem to the outsider, they 


usually contain enough real anguish to make them the Book of Com- 
mon Prayer of the Theatre — and I began to learn it chapter and verse 
even before the train from Philadelphia reached New York. 

I had watched the last two performances of the play in Philadel- 
phia with a detachment and self-possession that I had never been 
capable of before. I had been able to look at the matinee and then 
the night performance, not with indifference, but with so great a 
loosening of the emotional tie between the play and myself that it 
made the turmoil of my usual watching seem foolish and remote. 
It was an experience so new and so enjoyable that I boarded the mid- 
night train for New York convinced that I had come of age. No one, 
however, comes of age in the theatre. If he does, he takes his place 
among the disenchanted — or joins the ranks of those Philistines who 
mistake the theatre's incoherence and fanaticism for muddle and 
moonshine. My self-delusion lasted as long as it took me to walk the 
length of the Pullman car to my seat. Almost every member of the 
company had bought an early Sunday edition of the New Yor\ 
Times at the station newsstand, and they had the drama section 
spread out on their laps, revealing, as I walked by, the pictures of the 
opening on the front page, or the large opening advertisement on the 
inside page. My detachment and self-possession vanished after the 
first quick glance, never to return. By the time I turned the key in 
the lock of our apartment in Brooklyn, I had taken my rightful place 
in the old wives' tale, and I played my part exactly as it had always 
been played — with every platitude intact! 

One thing, however, was never to be the same again. My brother 
and I became friends at last, and that simple fact did much to see me 
through the time-honored anguish and frenzy of the next few days. 
It is hard to estimate the way or the moment in which two human 
beings are able to reach one another. The process, of course, is a grad- 
ual one, and perhaps my own unreadiness had always been as great 
as his; but the moment of my homecoming from Philadelphia 
marked the beginning of closeness between us. Perhaps events them- 
selves create their own readiness, for I was immediately conscious 
the moment I opened the door, that this homecoming was different 
from any other. I had lived for so long as a stranger with my family 


that it had never occurred to me to seek counsel or comfort among 
them, but tonight I was secretly pleased to find them all waiting up 
for me. I am by no means certain that blood is thicker than water, 
but an opening the following week can thicken it as nothing else can. 
I warmed my hands and my heart in their affection and wondered 
why I had never found solace with them before. There is nothing 
like tasting the grit of fear for rediscovering that the umbilical cord 
is made of piano wire. 

I felt closer to my mother and father than I had in years, and my 
brother in particular was a surprising source of comfort. I began to 
look at him and to listen to him with a sense of wonder and discov- 
ery. The last year had changed him greatly, and it was the year, of 
course, that I had seen the least of him. His diffidence had vanished 
and with it his withdrawal from me and his silence. We sat at the 
kitchen table talking together for almost an hour after my mother 
and father had gone to bed, drinking the last of the coffee and fin- 
ishing off the sandwiches. It was the first time such a thing had hap- 
pened between us, and as we talked, I became slowly aware that be- 
hind his unusual talkativeness, behind his innumerable questions 
about the play, lay a secret pride in me. He had cut out all the picture 
spreads and ads from the Sunday papers, and presumably as a 
joke, had tacked them all over the kitchen walls for my homecom- 
ing. He had also collected every word that had appeared anywhere 
about Once in a Lifetime, and as I turned the pages of the neatly 
pasted scrapbook he presented to me, it was my turn to be silent. I, 
who was never at a loss for words, suddenly could not find my 
tongue. The stranger at whose side I had slept for so many years was 
offering his friendship and I did not know how to bridge the gulf 
between us. I managed to thank him, after a moment, and we talked 
on easily enough, but behind the casual words we spoke, each of us 
in his own way was reaching out across the years to the other. I lay 
awake for a while in the dark after he had gone to sleep, relishing the 
new idea of having a brother. It was enjoyable enough to send me off 
to sleep for the first time in many a long night without thinking 
about George Kaufman. 


The golden rule for die last three days before an opening is that a 
company must be kept together as constantly as possible, even if 
some of the rehearsals that are called are purely trumped-up ones 
and fool nobody, including the company itself. If it is impossible to 
rehearse on the stage because the scenery is not yet set up, or the 
scenic designer is still lighting it as he always interminably is, then 
the rehearsal is held in the lounge of the theatre or in a rehearsal 
hall. Almost nothing is accomplished, for the actors walk through 
these rehearsals in a state approximating somnambulism, but the rule 
and the theory behind it is a sound one. Left to their own devices, a 
company might conceivably gain the impression that the world had 
not stopped in its tracks for these three days and that all life did not 
hang in the balance of those two and a half hours three nights hence. 
Moreover, misery does indeed love company, and there is nothing so 
soothing, not to say downright invigorating, as the shared misery of 
people in the same boat. Tempers may flare and patience reach the 
vanishing point, but temper or even the drudgery of walking through 
the play in an empty rehearsal hall can be a safety valve for taut 
nerves, can prevent the panic that can rise in a company left to wan- 
der too loosely in these last days. 

If I had been inclined to doubt the rightness of this procedure, all 
of my reservations would have vanished by the afternoon of the day 
following my return from Philadelphia. I had passed the morning 
easily enough in telephoning, but by mid-afternoon I could scarcely 
stay in my skin. Though I knew no rehearsal was scheduled until the 
next morning at eleven, I could not remain away from the theatre. 
I had no idea why I felt it imperative to be there, but I took the sub- 
way into town, and at the first glimpse of the scenery piled up on the 
street outside the Music Box as I turned the corner of 45th Street I 
felt immediately better. I moved toward it with a lift of the heart 
and hurried through the stage door as though I were leaving enemy 
territory for the safety of the U. S. Marines. There are few things 
duller to watch than scenery being set up on a stage, but that after- 
noon I found this dull business comforting beyond measure. I 
watched every bit of it with pleasure and even fascination. I sat or 
walked up and down in the aisles of the empty theatre hour after 


hour, or wandered baskstage and swilled coffee with die stagehands, 
and knew that this peace I felt would last only as long as I remained 

It must have been eight or nine o'clock in the evening when to my 
surprise I saw Mr. Kaufman wander slowly across the stage, and I 
immediately rushed back to talk to him. He seemed equally surprised 
and a shade embarrassed to see me and quickly mumbled something 
about wanting to ask the stage manager if we could use some hand 
props at tomorrow morning's rehearsal, but I knew at once that he, 
like myself, had been impelled to seek such comfort as he could find, 
and the only place to find it was here. We had been talking for only 
a moment or two, when Sam Harris appeared suddenly from behind 
a piece of scenery, and our presence was evidently as disconcerting 
to him as mine had been to Mr. Kaufman. He muttered something 
about stopping by on his way to dinner and beat a hasty retreat. Mr. 
Kaufman disappeared shortly afterward, but I was delighted to 
know that as the time drew near for each one to take his place on 
the firing line, veteran and neophyte alike was affected in much the 
same way; I had merely arrived earlier in the afternoon. 

The company, when they assembled for rehearsal the next morn- 
ing, greeted each other with the hungry affection of exiles returning 
to their native land. They had evidently spent a completely miserable 
day with their husbands, their wives, their cats or their tropical fish, 
and were happy to be back among their own kind, amidst people 
who were using the only language they cared to hear spoken at this 
particular moment. 

Unfortunately, it was also the moment that saw the end of Mr. 
Kaufman's forbearance and patience. The frenzy, in other words, 
was starting exactly on schedule. Its cause was simple enough. 
Though the stagehands had worked through the night, it now turned 
out we could not get the stage, although more than enough time had 
been allowed and a free stage had been promised for eleven o'clock 
this morning. The lighting as usual had held everything up, and 
Mr. Kaufman, who hated to rehearse in a hall or in the lounge, was 
furious. This was just the sort of small crisis that threw him into a 
temper — and Mr. Kaufman in temper was a formidable figure. A 

genuine crisis he met head-on and with enviable calm, but small ir- 
ritations he had no capacity whatever to meet. In addition, his chief 
weakness, even beyond inept waiters and people who insisted on tell- 
ing him jokes, was what may be best described as "inanimate object 
trouble," and a rehearsal hall or a theatre lounge inevitably brought 
out the worst in him. His difficulty with inanimate objects seemed 
to be that all kinds of furniture contrived to take on a malevolent 
and almost human design the moment he entered the room. Chairs, 
lamps, ashtrays and tables seemed to move imperceptibly out of line 
and craftily place themselves in his path. His progress through a 
room would begin peaceably enough, but by the time he had stum- 
bled against a chair, knocked against a lamp and banged his elbow 
against the ashtray as he sank down onto the sofa, his threshold of 
irritation had been breached. He would sit muttering oaths under 
his breath and stare malignantly at the furniture, and the same pat- 
tern more or less would be repeated when he left the room. It put 
him in foul humor for a good while afterward, and I had learned to 
steer clear of him until he had rubbed the bruised knee or elbow suf- 
ficiently and was out in an open space where no furniture could move 
toward him. 

I held my breath now as we all filed into the rehearsal hall, for a 
rehearsal hall is just that — a large empty hall with nothing but chairs 
in it, and usually old and rickety chairs at that. Every one of them 
seemed to perk up and form an invisible phalanx of enmity as Mr. 
Kaufman entered the room, and then move quickly into position. 
I cannot swear that I saw them move, but they seemed to tremble 
with anticipatory glee. Mr. Kaufman usually surveyed the furniture 
in a strange room with equal enmity and distrust, trying to gauge, 
I always thought, from which side the attack would come or which 
chair he would bang himself against first. But he was deeply engaged 
in conversation at the moment with the two stage managers and he 
passed through the doorway without looking up. He did not go very 
far. Though the stage manager on either side of him did not so much 
as even brush against a chair, Mr. Kaufman ran smack into one be- 
fore he was ten steps into the room. He gave a howl of surprise and 
rage and kicked the offending chair clear across the room, stubbing 

[ 4 o8] 

his toe, of course, in the process. He snarled viciously at one of the 
stage managers who tried to help him and limped toward the table, 
where he promptly banged his elbow as he sat down ; and, as he sat, 
there was a sound of ripping cloth and one and all knew that a pro- 
truding nail in the seat of the chair had torn a hole in his trousers. 
Not a soul laughed. Indeed, everyone looked stricken. His whole as- 
pect in these moments was so terrifying that I firmly believe that if 
he had ever slipped on a banana peel in Times Square the entire area 
would have been clear of people before he rose to his feet again, for 
he somehow managed to convey a sense of individual blame to any- 
one who happened to witness this unending warfare with inanimate 

There was complete silence in the hall now, for there was every 
indication of heavy weather ahead, and to make matters worse, Mr. 
Kaufman began to sneeze and could not stop. He was susceptible to 
drafts and convinced that the merest puff of air could lay him low, 
and a great scurrying took place to close the offending windows. 
Some of them would not close, others were too high to reach, a win- 
dow pole could not be found, and the two stage managers were wet 
with perspiration by the time the windows were wrestled with and 
all the chairs shifted to the far end of the hall away from the draft. 

It was not the best of circumstances in which to start the final days 
of rehearsal, and Mr. Kaufman's mood was not improved by the 
news which arrived in midafternoon that the stage would not be 
available until tomorrow. It was the company's turn now to lose their 
tempers, and they proceeded to do so each in turn and according to 
the size of their billing in the program. It was hard to blame them. 
Actors like to adjust their voices and pitch their performance to the 
size of the theatre they are going to play in, and the sooner they are 
able to do so, the more secure they feel. They are correct, of course, 
for a performance suited to the Lyric in Philadelphia might well be 
out of scale in the Music Box. The news that they would have only 
one day on the stage of the Music Box, instead of the two days they 
had every right to expect, cut through, for good and all, the heavy 
cream of false politeness that had so far acted as a cover for panic and 


Miss Dixon promptly broke out in hives, Miss Byington grew 
waspish, Hugh O'Connell sulked, and Grant Mills could not remem- 
ber a line. Mr. Kaufman, with a real crisis at hand, was instantly all 
patience again and at his most winning and understanding; but even 
he could not save the evening rehearsal from the depressing and un- 
mistakable walk-through that it was. I rode home with the uncom- 
fortable knowledge that tomorrow's rehearsal, though it would take 
place on the stage of the Music Box, might not be very much better. 
Everything was obviously proceeding according to schedule. Frenzy 
had arrived on time. The next step, according to the timetable, was 
anguish. There was evidently going to be plenty of it around, or 
enough, it seemed to me, to justify those foolish plays and movies 
about the theatre that I would never laugh at so easily again. 

On the day before a New York opening, a company moves within 
a solar system of its own. It is a planet in outer space, detached from 
the moon and stars, and its orbit is the stairway from the dressing 
rooms to the stage. Each actor sits at his make-up table, staring into 
the brilliantly lit mirror at his own image, making the proscribed 
movements that will detach him still further from the world of real- 
ity and allow him to achieve the anonymity of complete disguise. 
The more he becomes at one with the part he is to play, the less of 
himself that peeps through it, the further he sinks into the atmos- 
phere of make-believe and unreality, the safer he feels. He is seeking 
a judgment from the real world, not of himself but of the hidden 
image he carries within him that is both his goal and his refuge. The 
general conception that all actors are born exhibitionists is far from 
the truth. They are quite the opposite. They are shy, frightened 
people in hiding from themselves — people who have found a way 
of concealing their secret by footlights, make-up and the parts they 
play. Their own self -rejection is what has made most of them actors. 
What better way to solve the problem or to evade it than to be some- 
one other than the self one has rejected, and to be accepted and ap- 
plauded for it every night. They have solved the problem, but not 
its torment. It is what makes every opening night so painful an ex- 
perience. Little wonder that on the day before an opening the atmos- 


phere backstage reflects each actor's anxiety at meeting the test anew, 
for the judgment does not lessen but is compounded by the years, 
and it is always agonizing no matter how many times an actor has 
walked out onto the stage to meet it. 

It was just as well that I had reconciled myself to a bad rehearsal, 
for the proceedings on the stage of the Music Box were more like 
a series of nervous explosions than anything else. Hats and dresses 
that had fit perfectly well in Philadelphia seemed to have come back 
from the cleaners a size too small. Entrances were missed or exits 
bungled, and doors that had opened with ease and props that handled 
without difficulty before, now presented mysterious problems each 
time one was opened or picked up. Mr. Kaufman rode out the storm 
like a pilot searching out the eye of a hurricane — unruffled, detached 
and ready to report back to the weather bureau that the storm was 
not a dangerous one. But by the end of the afternoon rehearsal I was 
in no such state of calm. If the final run-through tonight emerged 
looking anything like this one, I doubted my capacity to sit through 
it, or perhaps even to live through it. Mr. Kaufman's composure 
would have to do for both of us. I intended to hijack Max Siegel and 
make him walk the streets with me at the first flash of thunder. 

There is no need to try to understand the eternal perverseness of 
the theatre, or to attempt to explain why an afternoon rehearsal can 
be a shambles and an evening rehearsal on the same day be orderly, 
smooth and perfect in every detail. Like a good deal of the theatre's 
disorderliness, it defies explanation. It is simpler to say that the eve- 
ning run-through of Once in a Lifetime was flawless. Every mistake 
of the afternoon had corrected itself; every error in light cues, every 
blunder in props, every imperfection in costume had vanished. The 
rehearsal was faultless except in one particular: the acting was com- 
pletely hollow. Its emptiness may have been due to the difficulty of 
playing comedy in an empty theatre, for a preview audience the 
night before an opening was the exception, not the rule, in those 
days. But granting this difficulty and making all allowances for it, 
it was hard not to be aware of the falsity of the playing. Not one 
performance carried conviction. Each actor seemed to lack fluidity, 
bounce or humor, and in consequence the play very soon took on the 


patina of its acting. By the time the final curtain fell, the play seemed 
to me to be as brittle and humorless as the performance. I walked up 
the aisle and stood a little away from where Mr. Kaufman and Sam 
Harris were talking, not eager to have my judgment corroborated. 
I was more than willing to attribute my feelings about the play to 
my own unsteady nerves. It would be small comfort to know that 
they were steadier than I gave them credit for being and that the 
play was as frail as it looked. 

Mr. Kaufman started backstage with his notes for the cast, and 
Sam Harris was about to follow him when his eye fell upon me. He 
walked over to where I stood and peered at me closely before he 
spoke. "I think you need a drink, kid," he said. "Come on up to 
the office." I followed him meekly, though I did not want or need 
a drink, and had it been anyone other than Sam Harris I would 
have refused. What I wanted was to crawl into the subway and get 
home as fast as possible. I hated the play and every actor in it, and 
my mood was far too truculent to chance talking to anybody, Mr. 
Kaufman included. I did not, as it turned out, utter a word for the 
next four hours. Mr. Harris' intentions were kindly and I have no 
doubt that the color of my face must have seemed ashen even in the 
semidarkness of the theatre, but it was very soon apparent that Mr. 
Harris' invitation was not altogether altruistic. Mr. Harris badly 
needed a drink himself for his own reasons. He wanted someone to 
have it with him, and what was more to the point, he had evidently 
been having a few drinks on his own all through the evening. 

It occurred to me that he walked up the stairs a little strangely, 
and now he seemed to be having considerable trouble finding the 
ice and the glasses. As I watched the amount of liquor he was pour- 
ing into each glass I realized he was determined to find a happy 
oblivion for these next few hours and that it was to consist largely of 
his self -conceived mission of cheering me up. Though his movements 
were uncertain, his sense of dedication was not. He plunged im- 
mediately into the task at hand. "You worried about this play, kid?" 
he asked. 

I nodded, deciding that the quicker I let him cheer me up the 
sooner I would be on the subway. Unfortunately, there is almost no 


protection against being cheered up and I have always been sadly 
unfitted for dealing with people who have had a drop too much. 
My nodded agreement to his question was unwise. He mistook my 
silence for emotion too deep to be expressed and changed his tactics 
accordingly. I could tell by the way he looked at me that he felt that 
stronger medicine was going to be needed, and with the first spoon- 
ful I knew I was going to get the full dose. 

"Did I ever tell you about George M. Cohan and the first play 
he ever wrote?" he began. "Felt just the way you do now, kid. He 
was just about your age, I think, and I was still managing Terry Mc- 
Govern, the prize fighter. The theatre was easier in those days, but 
the people got just as scared. Let me tell you first how George Cohan 
and I happened to meet ..." 

He settled back comfortably in the large chair behind the desk, 
clinked the ice merrily against the glass for a moment, and told the 
tale with loving attention to detail. The theatre may have been easier 
in those days, but everything apparently took a great deal longer, 
for by the time Mr. Harris reached George M. Cohan's first play and 
Mr. Cohan's triumph over his fears, a good hour had gone by, two 
or three more drinks had been consumed by Mr. Harris in the telling, 
and we were only just approaching the beginnings of the famous 
partnership of Cohan and Harris, which I could sense I was going 
to receive a full account of. I dared not look at my watch or appear 
to be restive, for Mr. Harris' mind was completely unclouded and his 
eye, like the eye of most deaf people, was an inordinately keen one. 
Obviously, the only attitude to assume was to indicate that some of 
Mr. Harris' cheerfulness had communicated itself to me and that I 
was no longer so much in need of his ministrations. 

It was a second fatal error! Like my silence, my sudden cheerful- 
ness again decided him on a new tactic. He stopped the Cohan and 
Harris saga abruptly, mixed himself another drink, and sat down 
next to me on the sofa. He fixed his eyes rather sternly on mine and 
said, "All of this stuff I've been telling you was just to take your mind 
off things so you could listen to what I really wanted to say." He 
cleared his throat importantly and paused before he continued. 


"Now, I'm going to tell you why you shouldn't worry too much 
about this play, kid." 

I returned his gaze hopefully and for a few moments it seemed 
that we would be leaving the office very shortly, for after a preamble 
on why most dress rehearsals are bound to be disappointing to the 
author, he stopped as if to marshal his thoughts. I was so certain that 
this would be his final few words of wisdom and cheer, I was already 
calculating whether or not I had missed the last express to Brooklyn 
and would have to take the long ride by local. 

To my amazement he rose from the sofa, planted himself in front 
of me, and announced firmly, "The reason you shouldn't worry 
about this play, kid, is because it's got a good story. Let me tell it to 

I stared helplessly up at him, convinced that I must now say some- 
thing even at the risk of hurting his feelings, but he had already 
moved away to the center of the room and was launched into telling 
me the full story of Once in a Lifetime, He was not a man to skimp, 
and liquor seemed to sharpen his memory rather than curtail it. He 
started with the rise of the first curtain, described the set and the 
lighting meticulously, and then proceeded to act out each part with 
every bit of stage business intact. Where he did not remember the 
exact line, he ad libbed his own interpretation of it, and since he was 
his own audience and enjoying his own performance immensely, he 
laughed loudly at all the appropriate places. I sank back into the sofa, 
horror-struck, as it dawned on me that nothing could prevent him 
from going through the entire play, scene by scene and line by line, 
and that I would sit here trapped until the final curtain. At the end 
of the first act he took an intermission by mixing himself another 
drink and describing why the audience would like what they had 
seen up until then, and after a refreshing swallow he placed the glass 
on the desk and said, "Second act. Now, listen to what happens 

There was little else to do but listen with awe-struck attention. In 
spite of the fact that my eyes occasionally closed, it was somehow fas- 
cinating to watch Sam Harris pretending to be Jean Dixon and 
George Kaufman, mimicking their readings and even falling into 


a good facsimile of Miss Dixon's slouching walk and Mr. Kaufman's 
grim leer over the tops of his eyeglasses. His performance was giving 
him such unalloyed pleasure that at another time I might actually 
have enjoyed watching him, for all of the sweetness of his nature 
shone through his innocent enjoyment of himself. 

By the time he approached the end of the second act, however, I 
could keep awake only with enormous effort. I dared not lean back 
on the sofa, for I would have gone promptly to sleep, and though I 
shifted my position constantly, my head kept dropping down onto my 
chest. Only the fact that one of my feet kept going to sleep, sending 
shooting pains up and down my leg, saved me from drifting off. I 
roused myself for the intermission, and while Mr. Harris explained 
why the audience was still liking it, I stood up and stretched dis- 
creetly, It helped a little, but not enough. As I watched him fill his 
glass and get ready for the third act, his enthusiasm and vitality not 
one bit abated, I was overcome anew with sleepiness. I gave a terrible 
shudder and so loud a sigh when he announced, "Third act; here's 
what happens now," that he looked at me sharply and asked, "Not 
getting a chill, are you, kid?" 

I shook my head and went back to my seat. I sat on the very edge 
of the sofa this time, planted my elbows firmly on my knees and 
placed one hand at each temple for the double purpose of keeping my 
head upright and holding my eyelids open with my fingertips. I 
could do nothing about the enormous yawns that were issuing from 
my mouth, one after the other; but Sam Harris was so deeply im- 
mersed in his attempt to do full justice to the third act that he seemed 
not to notice or even to be aware of my presence. 

He was in full swing again, roaring through the train scene with 
tremendous verve and gusto, and that last drink seemed to have 
unleashed a hitherto unrealized athletic capacity for playing comedy. 
He bounced from one chair to the other as he switched parts, and 
finally, to illustrate Hugh O'Connell's moment of triumph just be- 
fore the final curtain, he leaped onto a stool in front of the fireplace 
with the agility of a mountain goat. I had noticed that the light was 
changing through the curtained windows behind the desk, and now 
I saw the first faint streaks of daylight beginning to filter through 


them. There was silence suddenly and the silence startled me into 
wakefulness. Sam Harris was standing in front of me, placing his 
straw hat on his head. 

"Go on home and get a good night's sleep, kid," he said. "I think 
you'll sleep better now." 

I got up stiffly from the sofa and followed him out of the office 
and down the stairs. As we came into the street, he stopped dead and 
blinked with surprise at the daylight. "What the hell time is it?" he 

I glanced at my watch. It was just a few minutes short of five 
o'clock. "It doesn't matter, Mr. Harris," I said. "I wouldn't have slept 
much tonight anyway." 

He shook his head ruefully and laughed. "That play still needs 
cutting. That's all I can say, kid," he said and we started toward 

Even in my close to sleepwalking state I could see we were going 
to have a fine day for the opening. The morning sky was cloudless 
and there was a hint in the air that the day would be warm but not 
too hot. It was pleasant to know that much about tonight anyway. 
We stood silently at the corner of 45th Street, waiting for a taxi to 
appear. It was strange to look up and down a Broadway whose every 
square foot I thought I knew and find it looking completely different. 
The long ugly thoroughfare looked clean and friendly. I thought 
I had seen Broadway in all of its various guises, but I had never seen 
it like this. It looked, of all things, sleepy and innocent. The tawdri- 
ness and the glitter were gone. It seemed to stand hushed and wait- 
ing — as if eager to welcome all the new actors and playwrights strug- 
gling to reach it. 

"Well, you can't go home now, kid," said Mr. Harris, breaking the 
silence. "By the time you get to Brooklyn you'll just have time to 
turn around and get back to rehearsal. What time did George call 
rehearsal for?" 

"Eleven o'clock," I replied. 

"There you are," he said, "no use going home. Better go to a hotel." 

"No," I said, "I'd better go home." 


"What for, kid?" he persisted. "What's wrong with going to a 
hotel ? You'll get a few hours' sleep, anyway." 

"I'd rather go home, Mr. Harris," I replied carefully and with 
emphasis, and stepped away from him to signal a taxi I saw in the 
distance. I could feel him looking at me, and as the taxi drew up he 
came toward me and held out his hand. 

"So long, kid," he said, "see you at rehearsal," and stepped quickly 
into the cab. 

I looked down at my hand and stared at what he had slipped into 
it. It was a one-hundred-dollar bill! He had, it appeared, gathered 
the reason for my insistence on going home. I stared down at the 
lovely banknote in my hand for a long moment before I made my 
decision. After tomorrow night, I might well be able to afford to 
stay at the best hotel in town ; but then again, I might not. After to- 
morrow night — or rather tonight, I suddenly realized as the dawn 
grew brighter — it might be a very long time before I even saw a 
hundred-dollar bill again. Now was the time to live richly and fully, 
if only for a few hours, and not waste this lovely windfall of fate on 
a small side-street hotel. It might actually be an excellent omen for 
the opening if I had the good sense to make full use of it. 

I crossed the street and walked up the steps into the Astor Hotel. 
There was no question that I had chosen the right omen the moment 
I entered the lobby. I felt better in every stiff joint. The night clerk 
looked at me suspiciously, but I was ready for him. 

"I want a suite on the Forty-fifth Street side — just until tomorrow 
morning. My play is opening tomorrow night at the Music Box and 
I've got a rehearsal at eleven— we had a longer dress rehearsal than 
I expected. By the way," I added, with the proper touch of casualness, 
"could you change this for me ? I seem to have nothing small to give 
the bellboy." I handed the hundred-dollar bill to him across the desk. 

His attitude made a quick turnabout from the suspicious to the 
reverential. He pushed the register card toward me respectfully and 
held the pen out deferentially. 

"Would you like to leave a call and your breakfast order with me, 
sir?" he asked as he brought me the change. 

"Yes," I replied. "And is there a masseur in the hotel, by the way?" 


He nodded. "Have him come in at nine o'clock and wake me up for 
a massage, and I want a barber and a manicurist at a quarter of ten. 
I'll have breakfast at ten thirty — orange juice, toast, coffee, bacon and 
eggs. I think that will be all." 

"Thank you, sir," he said, and pressed a buzzer under the desk. 
"Take Mr. Hart to ten-fourteen," he said as he handed a key to the 
bellboy, "and wait and find out if the suite is satisfactory. I think 
you'll like it, sir — it's one of our best. If not, the bellboy will show 
you another. Good night, sir. I'll take care of all of this for you." We 
bowed slightly to each other and I followed the bellboy toward the 

There can be no false economies in the rich full life. Excess is the 
keynote or it cannot be enjoyed at all. I gave the bellboy two brand- 
new one-dollar bills and was rewarded by a rich full bellboy smile. 
We both knew that I was overtipping outrageously and we both en- 
joyed it, each for his own reasons. The bellboy bowed himself out 
and closed the door, and I walked to the window, opened it and then 
leaned over the sill staring at the marquee of the Music Box across 
the street. There was an impersonality about my name looked at 
from this height. This is the way my name would look to strangers. 
I stared down at it with the utmost pleasure. Only three short city 
blocks separated the New Amsterdam Theatre from the Music Box, 
but the journey between them had been a long one. Whatever the 
outcome of tonight, my name next to George Kaufman's on that 
marquee represented triumph. I remained at the window for quite 
a while. I lowered the shade reluctantly, afraid that I would have 
trouble getting to sleep now, but my head had barely touched the pil- 
low before I was off into the kind of sleep that only babies and old 
dogs in front of fires are supposed to enjoy. 



JLhereare more expert masseurs, I have since found out, 
than the gentleman who woke me up at nine o'clock the next morn- 
ing and proceeded to go to work on me, but it was the first massage 
I had ever had and I have never enjoyed any since then as much. 
Every twist and stroke of his fingers represented part of that hun- 
dred-dollar bill, and my muscles seemed to know it and respond with 
pleasure. The barber and the manicurist timed their arrival perfectly 
to his departure, and I sat contentedly for my first manicure and my 
first shave in a private suite. The barber and the manicurist were 
somewhat startled to find their client with a bedsheet wrapped 
around himself toga-fashion, but I explained that I had needed to 
have my suit pressed immediately, and the reason for my overnight 
stay. They were at once all solicitude and understanding. Barbers 
and manicurists who cater to theatre folk are a special breed — they 
know how to be silent after failure and talkative following success, 
and the Astor made a specialty of caring for theatre people. Those 
two knew all about every new play coming in. They had taken care 
of Sam Harris, Arthur Hopkins, Charles Dillingham and practically 
everybody else for years. The barber insisted on calling down to the 
men's shop in the lobby and ordering me a new shirt for the opening, 
once he caught a glimpse of my wrinkled and soiled one hanging 
over the chair, and after they had finished, all three of us stood by 
the window and looked down at the marquee of the Music Box as 
they wished me good luck. 

No day of an opening, it seemed to me, could possibly be starting 
better than this one. 


I could easily have eaten two full breakfasts, but there was barely 
time to get downstairs, pay my bill, and be across the street for re- 
hearsal at eleven. I took a last look out the window and a quick 
glimpse at myself in the mirror before I closed the door. There was 
no question but that the rich full life agreed with me. I looked as 
smoothed out and as fresh as I felt. Whatever I had spent, I had had 
more than full value in return. It did not occur to me until I was 
going down in the elevator that what with overtipping the barber, 
the manicurist, the valet and the masseur, I might very well have 
overspent, but I had not. I had fifteen dollars left, and I walked 
through the stage door of the Music Box the most relaxed and satis- 
fied of mortals. Appropriately enough, Sam Harris was the first 
person I saw. 

"Get any sleep, kid?" he greeted me, and grinned. 

"Best sleep I've had in years, Mr. Harris," I replied truthfully 

George Kaufman, standing beside him, remarked, "That's the time 
to sleep — before the notices." 

But nothing could shake my eighty-five dollars' worth of well- 
being. I turned a Max Siegel smile on everyone in sight. 

The rehearsal was a short one — a last unnecessary running over of 
lines in the lounge of the theatre. Actually, there was no reason for 
a rehearsal at all, except to provide a common meeting ground for 
opening-night nerves, and the cast was dismissed at one o'clock. It 
left a long afternoon stretching ominously in front of me and my 
high spirits, which I was determined not to lose. Once again I turned 
to Joe Hyman. I called him and asked him to please drop every- 
thing and meet me in front of the Plaza Hotel at two o'clock. 

There are certain days when everything one touches, when every 
idea that comes to mind, is completely right, just as there are certain 
years in the theatre when one can seemingly do no wrong. They are 
balanced by those other years when it seems impossible to do any- 
thing except to do it badly; but I did not know this then. Today any- 
thing I chose to do seemed inspired. I had often longed to take a 
hansom cab for a ride through the park, and it had always seemed a 


ridiculous indulgence, but I had fifteen dollars left out of that hun- 
dred-dollar bill, it was a beautiful September afternoon, and this of 
all days seemed the proper time for extravagance. I could not have 
hit upon a better way of weathering these hours of waiting. 

We rode around the park together, Joe Hyman and I, by turns 
talkative and silent, but the awareness in each of our minds of 
the opening just a few hours away seemed to heighten the color of the 
leaves on the trees and etch the buildings more sharply against the 
sky. There is a kind of inner excitement, of pain that is somehow 
pleasurable, that adds an extra dimension to our awareness of the 
visible world — the eye seems to look at old scenes and see them with 
a new depth and clarity. I looked at the Central Park I had always 
taken for granted and watched it unfold before me with unexpected 
and surprising beauty. We rode four times around the park and 
might easily have gone round a fifth time, for Joe Hyman refused 
to let me pay for anydiing today and the time seemed to flash by 
with unnecessary speed. It was suddenly time to send telegrams to 
the company and to meet the family for dinner, and just as suddenly, 
in the way time seemed to be rushing headlong toward eight thirty, 
it was time to leave them in Joe's charge and go on ahead to the 
theatre to wish the company good luck. Time seems to quicken on 
opening nights and take on a velocity of its own, just as, I imagine, 
time must seem to hasten for the very old, accelerating with a swift- 
ness imperceptible to the rest of us. 

I walked toward Once in a Lifetime for the last time — that final 
walk every playwright takes toward his play, knowing that it is no 
longer his, that it belongs to the actors and the audience now, that a 
part of himself is to be judged by strangers and that he can only 
watch it as a stranger himself. The main consideration of his day, 
the keystone that has dictated his every waking moment, the cause 
that has enlisted his being for all these months, is at an end. He moves 
toward his destination with mixed emotions — it is the completion 
he has sought, but there is the ache of finality in it. He is at last a 
spectator— a spectator with the largest stake in the gamble of the 
evening, but a spectator nonetheless. 


There was already quite a sizable crowd of first-night gawkers and 
autograph hounds in front of the Music Box as I hurried toward it, 
and the two mounted policemen trying to herd them to the opposite 
side of the street were having rather a hard time of it. The crowd 
ducked out of the way of the policemen and their horses with prac- 
ticed skill, and the few who were pushed to the opposite curb were 
smartly back at their old positions in front of the theatre in no time 
at all. It had the brisk and innocent liveliness of a children's game, 
with no malice on either side, and as I pushed my own way through 
the crowd to the stage door I was tempted to turn and shout, "It's 
not so wonderful being on the inside as you think — you're better off 
out here!" The panic I had managed to postpone all through the day 
had suddenly caught up with me. The timetable of the theatre is 
never very far off. It may vary a little, but opening-night nerves always 
arrive more or less as promised. Mine had merely been delayed. 

I took the bundle of telegrams the stage doorman handed me as 
though he had put a red-hot poker in my hands and then promptly 
dropped them on the floor. He picked them up and stuffed them into 
my pocket without a word, as though he had performed the same 
service several times before this evening and expected to do it a few 
more times as well, and I started up the stairway for the dressing 
rooms on legs that seemed to have no relationship whatever to my 
body. Two sticks carried me along, and the hand with which I tried 
to open the first dressing-room door shook so that I could not turn 
the knob. Hugh O'Connell opened the door from the inside and then 
stood there looking at me like a rabbit trapped in the glare of auto- 
mobile headlights. He kept wetting his lips to speak, but no words 
emerged, or it may be that I did not hear them, for my ears had gone 
the way of my legs. 

It was just as well that my high spirits had vanished in one fell 
swoop. Even false cheerfulness would have withered quickly in those 
dressing rooms. The atmosphere in each varied from calm to con- 
trolled hysteria, depending upon the opening-night temperature of 
its occupant. Jean Dixon, vacant-eyed and pale in spite of her make- 
up, stared at me for a long moment as if trying to focus on who I 


was, nodded abstractedly, and then resumed a panther-like stalk up 
and down her dressing room. 

Next door, Grant Mills sat looking at himself in the mirror and 
grinning idiotically. He kept bobbing his head up and down and 
rubbing his hands together in some silent colloquy with himself. 
Spring Byington looked so near to being embalmed as she sat 
solemn and still amidst the mounds of flowers in her dressing room, 
that I decided to go downstairs and sit on the stage for a while 
before continuing the rounds. 

I seemed to be having a little difficulty breathing myself. I sat on 
a chair in the stage manager's corner and took the bundle of tele- 
grams out of my pocket, and by purest accident the first two 
telegrams I opened were from the barber and the manicurist of the 
Astor Hotel. It was just the sort of happy coincidence to steady the 
nerves and to restore the faith of a believer in omens. Immediately 
some of the bright promise of the morning, some of the buoyancy of 
that ride around the park, began to return. 

My spirits lifted with each telegram that I opened. Opening- 
night telegrams may seem a foolish and perfunctory convention, 
but they are not. However naive or fatuous their phrasing may be, 
those words are the only ones likely to penetrate the minds and 
warm the hearts of the people who receive them at this particular 
moment. They may seem dull-witted and senseless the next morn- 
ing, but opened backstage in that chill interval of waiting for the 
house lights to darken and the curtain to rise, they perform the 
admirable function of saying that hope still runs high. Far-fetched 
little jokes seem uncommonly humorous in opening-night telegrams, 
and ten words with an unexpected name signed to them can be 
strangely touching. 

There were a good many unexpected names in the telegrams I 
opened now, as touching to me as those two from the barber and the 
manicurist. That bundle of telegrams seemed to contain a cross 
section of the years: the names scrambled the years in wild disorder 
— George Steinberg and Irving Morrison; the box-office man at the 
Mayfair Theatre, where I had played The Emperor Jones; guests 
from camp I had all but forgotten; Augustus Pitou; a group of the 


boys to whom I had told those stories on the stoop outside the 
candy store, who carefully explained who they were; Priestly Morri- 
son and Mrs. Henry B. Harris; some old neighbors in the Bronx; 
all the little-theatre groups; Mr. Neuburger of my fur-vault days; 
Mr. Perleman of the Labor Temple; the tongue-tied athletic instruc- 
tor who had taught me how to swim, Herb of the Half Moon 
Country Club . . . The years leaped out of each envelope with 
quicksilver flashes of memory, the old jumbled with the new. Time 
seemed to stop as I looked at each name and the years each name 
recalled, and something like calm began to settle over me. 

In the darkness of the stage manager's corner the years that I held 
in my hand seemed somehow to have been arranged in a design 
of marvelous felicity, all of them taking me to this hidden corner to- 
night. I looked around me with an air of wonder and of disbelief. 
The green shade of the electric-light bulb on the stage manager's 
stand was focused not only on the prompt script of a play, but on 
what had once been an impossible dream and was now a reality. 
The muted sound of the audience out front, the muffled gabble of 
the stagehands as they called a reminder to each other of a changed 
light cue or prop, the colored gelatins in the banks of the lights 
above me, the stage manager's checking the set for the last time, 
the minor players already beginning to hover in the wings, the 
voiceless hum of excitement all around me— these were the sights 
and sounds that no longer belonged to an old dream, but to this 
corner where I sat and was part of them. I sat on in the chair, riffling 
through the telegrams again, forgetting that I had not wished the 
rest of the cast good luck, that I had not yet seen Sam Harris or 
Mr. Kaufman — I sat on, unwilling to relinquish the serenity this 
spot seemed to give me. 

Not until I heard Max Siegel's voice saying to the stage manager, 
"They're all in; take the house lights down," could I bring myself to 
move. I walked through the pass door into the theatre, and in the 
half-light I peeked through the curtain below the stage box to steal 
a quick look at the audience — that foolish and hopeful look a play- 
wright sometimes takes in those last few minutes before the curtain 
i ises. What he sees is almost always the same sea of faces — the same 


well-wishers and ill-wishers, the same critics, the same agents, the 
same columnists, the very same first-night faces in exactly the same 
seats they have always sat in, the old faces a little older, the young 
faces a little stonier— and why he expects some miracle to have 
changed them into tender and benevolent faces I do not know, but he 
does. Perhaps the miracle lies in the fact that he should persist in 
thinking that tonight, for this opening, the miracle will have 
occurred; but as he anxiously scans row after flinty row, he sees that 
no miracle has taken place, except the dubious one that the same 
people have managed to be sitting in the same seats again, and he 
closes the curtains hastily. No group of people can look as hard and 
unyielding as first-nighters seem to look, viewed from that vantage 
point. Even the faces of one's friends seem to be set in concrete, 
and each critic as one spots him appears to be hewn from the same 
block of granite as his heart. 

I fled up the aisle and almost collided with Mr. Kaufman, whose 
pacing had already begun. He muttered something that might have 
been either "Good luck" or "God damn it" and was on his way 
again. Applause turned me toward the stage. The curtain was rising, 
and Hugh O'Connell and the set were receiving their regulation 
round of applause. Jean Dixon made her entrance, the applause 
swelled, and as it died down she spoke the opening lines. I held my 
breath to wait for the first laugh, which always came on her second 
or third line. No sound, however, appeared to be issuing from her 
lips. One could see her lips moving, but that was all. No sound came 
forth. Hugh O'Connell spoke, but no sound came from his lips, 
either. They seemed to be two people talking to each other behind 
a glass wall. 

The audience began to murmur and turn to each other in their 
seats. My heart skipped a beat and I looked wildly toward Mr. 
Kaufman. He stood frozen in his tracks, staring at the stage. Jean 
Dixon and Hugh O'Connell were talking steadily on, unaware that 
they could not be heard, but aware that something was gravely 
wrong, for the murmur from the audience was loud enough for them 
to hear it now and I could see Jean Dixon's hand shake as she lit 
a cigarette. Still no sound came from the stage, and in the silence 


a man's voice from the balcony rang out loud and clear: "It's the 
fans — turn off the fans!" 

The audience broke into relieved laughter and applause. I saw 
Mr. Kaufman make a dash for the pass door that led backstage, 
but before he was halfway down the aisle, the fans on either side 
of the proscenium began to slow down. In the opening-night excite- 
ment, the electrician had simply forgotten to turn off the fans — one 
of those simple little opening-night mistakes that lessen the life span 
of everyone concerned by five or ten years! The nightmare had 
lasted no more than a minute in all, but it is not one of the minutes 
I should choose to live over again. Invariably, when horrors of this 
kind occur, the audience behaves admirably and they did so now. 
They not only applauded that unknown hero in the balcony, 
but they rewarded Jean Dixon with a generous round of applause 
when she went back and started the scene all over again. She could 
not, of course, go off the stage and re-enter, but aware that not a 
word of the scene had been heard, she calmly took a puff or two of 
her cigarette, waited until the fans had stopped, and began the scene 

From that moment onward, both play and audience took on 
something of the quality of fantasy — it was being played and re- 
ceived like a playwright's dream of a perfect opening night. The 
performance was brilliant and the audience matched it in their 
response. One of the theatre's most steadfast beliefs is that there 
is never again a sound of trumpets like the sound of a New York 
opening-night audience giving a play its unreserved approval. It is 
a valid belief. Bitter words have been written about the first-night 
audience, but the fact remains that there is no audience ever again 
like it — no audience as keen, as alive, as exciting and as overwhelm- 
ingly satisfactory as a first-night audience taking a play to its heart. 
It can unfurl the tricolor of its acclamation and make flags seem to 
wave from every box; just as in reverse its dissent can seem to dangle 
the Jolly Roger from the center chandelier and blanket the audi- 
torium in leaden disapproval. 

The sound of the audience's approval was unmistakable, even 


to my own anxious ears. At the end of each act the applause broke 
before the curtain had quite touched the floor. The second act played 
better dian the first, and the third act — that vulnerable, exasperating 
third act, the act which had held the play in jeopardy for so long — 
seemed to have written itself, so effortlessly and winningly was it 
playing. It was almost irritating to watch it play with such inevitable 
rightness and ease, remembering the bitter struggle it had given us. 
The final lines of the play were being spoken now, and then it 
came — an explosive crash of applause as the curtain fell. It came like 
a thunderclap, full and tumultuous. I tried to disengage myself and 
measure the kind of applause it was, but I could not. It sounded like 
hit applause to me, and it was keeping up. Except for one or two 
critics with early deadlines dashing up the aisle, the entire audience 
was remaining in its seats and keeping the curtain going up and 
down. The cast stood bowing and smiling — they had taken their 
individual calls and the entire company was lined up on the stage. 
No other calls had been set, and the company was bowing and 
smiling somewhat awkwardly now, in the way actors do when they 
are no longer in the frame of the play; but still the applause showed 
no sign of diminishing. 

To my amazement, I saw Mr. Kaufman step forward and signal 
the stage manager to keep the curtain up. I stared at the stage in 
disbelief. He was about to do something so implausible that I could 
hardly conceive of his doing it — he was about to make a curtain 
speech. I could not believe my eyes. More than once he had expressed 
his scorn for authors who made opening-night speeches, and he had 
expressed it in such scathing terms that it seemed impossible that 
he was about to make one himself. The audience seemed almost 
as surprised as I was. The applause stilled immediately and an eager 
"shushing" took its place. He came forward another step, peered 
at them over his glasses, and waited for complete quiet. 

"I would like this audience to know," he said carefully and slowly, 
"that eighty per cent of this play is Moss Hart." That was all. He 
stepped back and signaled the stage manager to lower the curtain. 
The audience sat bewildered for a full moment and then broke into 
perfunctory applause. They had expected a witty speech in the 


manner of the play — or in the caustic tradition of George S. Kauf- 
man. Their disappointment and their lack of interest in what he 
said was clear, but they obligingly applauded for another curtain. 

I stood staring at the stage and at George Kaufman. Generosity 
does not flower easily or often in the rocky soil of the theatre. Few 
are uncorrupted by its ceaseless warfare over credit and billing, its 
jealousies and envies, its constant temptations toward pettiness 
and mean-spiritedness. It is not only a hard and exacting profession 
but the most public one as well. It does not breed magnanimity, 
and unselfishness is not one of its strong points. Not often is a young 
playwright welcomed into it with a beau geste as gallant and selfless 
as the one that had just come over those footlights. 

A hand was tugging at my sleeve and Max Siegel was whisper- 
ing some words in my ear, but I moved quickly away without 
answering. I did not trust my voice, and I was ashamed to have him 
see that my eyes were blurred. 

[428 1 



.he proceedings which take place backstage on an 
opening night, immediately following the fall of the curtain, follow 
a set pattern and are almost a law unto themselves. At least half of 
the audience hurries through the stage door to jam the stairways, 
throng the dressing rooms and overflow onto the stage itself. A 
kind of formalized bedlam ensues in which the same words echo 
up and down the halls and float out the open doors of every dress- 
ing room. No one is expected to believe the words which are being 
spoken or the emotional kisses and embraces which usually precede 
them; they are always the same and are used for both failure or 
success. Not to come backstage and speak them, however, is con- 
sidered a remission of friendship or downright cowardice. Both 
sides know exactly what is expected of them, and the performance 
backstage sometimes equals or betters the one which has just 
taken place in front of the footlights. With an obvious failure, or 
what seems to be an obvious failure, the embraces and kisses are 
of necessity a little more flamboyant, the words a little more 
belligerent, and the recurring phrase, "Well, / loved it," uttered 
with great vehemence, is to be heard on all sides. No one is actually 
lying, for short of a blatant or outright fiasco, everyone is aware 
of the complete untrustworthiness of critics. Everyone knows that 
it is just as likely for the certain failure to be greeted the following 
morning with glowing and triumphant notices as it is for the 
apparent success to receive its death sentence. 
There are some opening nights, however, when a play seems 


destined for success in spite of critical perfidy, and on these nights 
the backstage throng assumes the proportions of a hysterical and 
unruly mob. On these occasions a backstage appearance is no longer 
an unpleasant duty, but a vital necessity — it seems to contain some 
basic need of human beings to identify themselves or to be identified 
with success. On such nights the dressing rooms and stairways are 
a solid mass of humanity crushed one against the other into every 
available inch of space. Once in a Lifetime must have had all the ear- 
marks of such an evening, for I could hardly fight my way through 
the stage door. I struggled up the stairway to reach Mr. Kaufman's 
dressing room, but there was a great horde of people clustered in 
front of it waiting for the crowd within to come out. Beatrice Kauf- 
man caught sight of me, blew me a kiss and waved to me to make 
my way in, but I shook my head. What I wanted to say to him 
could not be said in front of strangers. I shouted back, "Tell him I 
was here," and pushed my way down the stairs again. 

Each dressing room and every landing was jammed — swarms of 
people surged in and out of the densely packed rooms, all talking at 
once. I caught a glimpse of Jean Dixon and Hugh O'Connell over 
the tops of heads and started toward them, but the congestion was 
too great, and as I reached the stage I heard Sam Harris' soft 
laughter rise from the crowd that surrounded him; but I made no 
attempt to go toward him. 

I felt unaccountably disconnected from the uproar that was taking 
place all around me; none of it seemed to have any connection with 
what had made the evening possible — with hotel rooms, a typewriter 
and curtains drawn against the light; with pacing up and down in the 
dark; with actors in bathrobes standing on a stage after a perform- 
ance, the pilot light etching the exhaustion on each face under the 
make-up — none of this seemed to have anything to do with any of 
the people who had been part of all that had gone before. Those 
people were disappearing under my eyes, had vanished already in 
fact, and suddenly I knew what was vanishing along with them: 
that tight little cabal against the world — the conspiracy that had 
begun with the first day's rehearsal and had been pledged in stale 
sandwiches and cold coffee in cardboard containers, the unspoken 


compact of long days on dim stages and dirty out-of-town dressing 
rooms, the common bond of the same shared hopes and fears — that 
sustaining conspiracy was over and the world had moved in. That 
old secret world removed and remote from everything but the 
play and ourselves had ended. 

I walked across the stage to where my family and friends stood 
waiting, a little knot of alien corn in the mass of black ties and 
jewels and evening gowns that swirled all around them. I felt as 
alien as they looked. We stood uncomfortably together, not quite 
knowing what to do. After I had kissed my mother and father and 
listened to the congratulations of Dore and Lester and Eddie and 
the others, I stood helplessly rooted to the spot. I felt my face 
freeze into an apelike grin and tried to unleash my tongue, but 
I could not; nor could I think of what to do next. I had lived for 
this moment for so long that it was difficult to accept it as reality — 
even now it still seemed frozen in fantasy. I have always under- 
stood the unbelieving look in the eyes of those whom success 
touches early — it is a look half fearful, as though the dream were 
still in the process of being dreamed and to move or to speak would 
shatter it. 

It was Joe Hyman, not I, who finally shepherded all of us toward 
the stage door and took everyone to a restaurant to wait for the 
notices. Somewhere or other along the line of that long wait I began 
to believe that a play of mine had opened on Broadway and that 
the notices I was waiting to read might transform that lifelong 
fantasy into a reality that would change my life from this moment 
onward. Someone gave me a drink and I began to shake so that it 
was impossible to lift the second drink to my lips — a fortunate 
moment of panic, I believe, for two drinks under the circumstances 
might easily have made me quite drunk and would have robbed me 
of the pleasure of being able to hear the notices read aloud. That 
fateful moment is not one to be missed. Whatever the state of one's 
nerves, it is wise at all costs to remain clear-headed on the gambler's 
chance that the notices will be good, for good notices read aloud 
are a joy not to be cheated out of. In that first reading, each word 


is glorious, and no words of praise afterward will ever shine with the 
same splendor. 

The notices of Once in a Lifetime as I listened to them were a blaze 
of glory — each word incrusted with a special luster of its own, and I 
made the sound decision never to look at them again. They could 
not possibly be as brilliant, as peerless, as superlative or as down- 
right wonderful as I now thought them to be, and I paid them 
the honor of letting them remain an imperishable memory. When the 
last notice had been read, I took that second drink, for I knew now 
that my life was indeed changed forever — and I drank a silent toast 
to the new one. 

Is success in any other profession as dazzling, as deeply satisfy- 
ing, as it is in the theatre ? I cannot pretend to know, but I doubt it. 
There are other professions where the rewards are as great or greater 
than those the theatre offers, there are professions where the fruits 
of success are as immediate, and still others where the pursuit of 
a more admirable goal undoubtedly brings a nobler sense of ful- 
fillment. But I wonder if success in any of them tastes as sweet. 
Again, I am inclined to doubt it. There is an intensity, an ex- 
travagance, an abundant and unequivocal gratification to the vanity 
and the ego that can be satisfied more richly and more fully by 
success in the theatre than in any other calling. Like everything else 
about the theatre, its success is emphatic and immoderate. Perhaps 
what makes it so marvelously satisfying is that it is a success that is 
anything but lonely — everyone seems to share in it, friends and 
strangers alike— and a first success in the theatre is the most in- 
toxicating and beguiling time imaginable. No success afterward sur- 
passes it. It roars and thumps and thunders through the blood the 
way that second drink seemed to be coursing through my veins 
right now, so that it seemed hardly bearable to have to wait until 
tomorrow to start savoring it. 

I asked someone what time it was and blinked my surprise when 
I was told it was four thirty in the morning. It seemed but a few 
short minutes since we had waited impatiently for two thirty to come 
to be able to read the first notice in the Times. The morning editions 


appeared very much later in those days, and it was the custom to go 
directly to each newspaper in turn and wait for the first copies to 
roll off the presses. Everyone in the theatre knew what time each 
paper would appear and where to go for them. The Times appeared 
first at about two thirty, the Tribune about three, and the Daily 
News last at four o'clock in the morning. The World was far down- 
town on Park Row and would have to wait until tomorrow, but with 
three ecstatic notices under my arm, the World, in more ways than 
just the name of a newspaper, could wait. 

We were all standing outside the News Building, where the last 
notice had been read — or, rather, acted out brilliantly by Dore 
Schary — and just as it seemed to me but a few moments ago that 
he had read aloud those exalted words in the Times, so it seemed 
now to be some years ago and not just yesterday that I had watched 
another dawn lighten the sky, as it was about to do once more. It 
seemed impossible that it could have been only yesterday that I had 
sat listening to Sam Harris tell me the story of Once in a Lifetime — 
it seemed to have been someone other than I who walked out of the 
Music Box with him to see that other dawn beginning. That other 
I now seemed someone infinitely different from my present self — 
a fearful, inept, wretchedly uncertain fellow. He was someone I 
knew and remembered very well, but it was a memory already 
growing shadowy and dim. 

Can success change the human mechanism so completely between 
one dawn and another? Can it make one feel taller, more alive, 
handsomer, uncommonly gifted and indomitably secure with the 
certainty that this is the way life will always be ? It can and it does ! 
Only one aspect of that other self remained to spill over into the 
new. I was once again wolfishly, overpoweringly hungry. It would 
take at least two more successes to make me lose my appetite, and 
it is only fair to point out that success can and does accomplish this, 
too. Everyone but me, however, had eaten during the long wait for 
the notices, and only that bitter-ender, Joe Hyman, was not too 
exhausted by this time to declare himself ready to sit through a full 
meal with me. The others were visibly wilting and I did not press 
them to stay. My family had long since gone home on the strength 


of that first glowing notice in the Times — indeed, their own glow 
must have sped the train halfway to Brooklyn with no help from the 
subway system at all. 

I protested a little during the good-byes, but I was secretly relieved 
that the others were going now, too, for a childish reason of my 
own. It satisfied my sense of drama to complete the full circle of 
Once in a Lifetime alone with Joe Hyman — the circle that had 
begun with a dinner alone with him before the opening in Atlantic 
City and would end with this dinner alone with him now after 
the opening in New York. It is a childish game I have always played 
and have never been able to resist — a game of arranging life, when- 
ever possible, in a series of scenes that make perfect first-act or third- 
act curtains. When it works, and it often does, it lends an extra 
zest and a keener sense of enjoyment to whatever the occasion may 
be where my thirst for drama has contrived to make life imitate 
a good third act. It worked beautifully now. 

I cannot recall one word that was exchanged between us, but it 
must have taken a fairly long time to satisfy my sense of the 
dramatic entities, for when we came out of the restaurant it was six 
o'clock in the morning and broad daylight. For the second dawn in 
a row I peered down the streets of a sleeping city, searching for a 
taxi. This dawn, however, was going to usher in an historic moment. 
My last subway ride was behind me. Never again would I descend 
those dingy steps or hear those turnstiles click off another somber 
day behind me. 

Joe Hyman asked, "Got enough money to get to Brooklyn?" 

I nodded. That fifteen dollars was still intact — there could not be 
a better way to spend it than to keep that long-ago promise to 
myself, and a taxi ride to Brooklyn was keeping it with a vengeance. 

A cab pulled up beside us and Joe Hyman and I silently shook 
hands. The driver eyed me warily when I gave him a Brooklyn 
address, and I was conscious, looking at Joe Hyman, of how dis- 
reputable I too must look. I looked at him again and burst into 
laughter. His eyes were red-rimmed with excitement and weariness, 
his face grimy with a full day-and-night's growth of beard, and his 
suit looked as though he had slept in it. The driver obviously and 


quite rightly was wondering if there was enough money between 
us to pay for that long ride, or if we had not already spent every 
cent in some speakeasy. I took a ten-dollar bill out of my pocket 
and waved it at him and climbed into the cab. I waved at Joe Hyman 
through the rear window until the cab turned the corner, and 
then settled back in the seat, determined that I would not fall asleep. 
I had no intention of dozing through the first ride to Brooklyn 
above ground — I intended to enjoy every visible moment of it and 
I very shortly reaped the reward for staying awake. 

No one has ever seen the skyline of the city from Broooklyn 
Bridge as I saw it that morning with three hit notices under my arm. 
The face of the city is always invested with grandeur, but grandeur 
can be chilling. The overpowering symmetry of that skyline can 
crush the spirit and make the city seem forbidding and impenetrable, 
but today it seemed to emerge from cold anonymity and grant its 
acknowledgment and acceptance. There was no sunlight — it was 
a gray day and the buildings were half shrouded in mist, but it was 
a city that would know my name today, a city that had not turned 
me aside, and a city that I loved. Unexpectedly and without warning 
a great wave of feeling for this proud and beautiful city swept over 
me. We were off the bridge now and driving through the sprawling, 
ugly area of tenements that stretch interminably over the approaches 
to each of its boroughs. They are the first in the city to awake, and 
the long unending rows of drab, identical houses were already 
stirring with life. Laundry was being strung out to dry along roof 
tops and fire escapes, men with lunch boxes were coming out of 
the houses, and children returning from the corner grocery with 
bottles of milk and loaves of bread were hurrying up the steps and 
into the doorways. 

I stared through the taxi window at a pinch-faced ten-year-old 
hurrying down the steps on some morning errand before school, 
and I thought of myself hurrying down the street on so many gray 
mornings out of a doorway and a house much the same as this one. 
My mind jumped backward in time and then whirled forward, 
like a many-faceted prism — flashing our old neighborhood in front 


of me, the house, the steps, the candy store — and then shifted to the 
skyline I had just passed by, the opening last night, and the notices 
I still hugged tightly under my arm. It was possible in this wonder- 
ful city for that nameless little boy — for any of its millions — to have 
a decent chance to scale the walls and achieve what they wished. 
Wealth, rank or an imposing name counted for nothing. The only 
credential the city asked was the boldness to dream. For those who 
did, it unlocked its gates and its treasures, not caring who they were 
or where they came from. I watched the boy disappear into a tailor 
shop and a surge of shamefaced patriotism overwhelmed me. I might 
have been watching a victory parade on a flag-draped Fifth Avenue 
instead of the mean streets of a city slum. A feeling of patriotism, 
however, is not always limited to the feverish emotions called forth 
by war. It can sometimes be felt as profoundly and perhaps more 
truly at a moment such as this. 

It had suddenly begun to rain very hard and in a few minutes 
I could no longer see much of anything through the windows. All 
too quickly I made that swift turnabout from patriotism to en- 
lightened self-interest. I closed my eyes and thought about how I 
would spend the money that would soon start to pour in. To my 
surprise, affluence did not seem nearly as easy to settle into as I 
had always imagined it would be. Try as I would, I could not think 
of how to begin or in what ways I wanted to spend the large sums 
that would now be mine to command. I could think of little ways 
to spend it — new suits, new shirts, new ties, new overcoats — but 
after that my mind went disappointingly blank. In some ways 
sudden riches are no easier to live with than poverty. Both demand 
artistry of a kind, if one or the other is not to leave the mark of a 
sour and lingering cynicism, and opulence in many ways is harder 
to manage than penury. It is, however, one of the pleasantest prob- 
lems with which to drift off to sleep. It is a problem that apparently 
also induces the deepest and most refreshing kind of sleep. I cheated 
myself out of the major portion of that first taxi ride by sleeping 
soundly through the rest of it. The driver had to leave his seat and 
shake me awake to collect his fare. 


I was wide awake again, thoroughly wide awake, and disappointed 
to find the shades still drawn and the family fast asleep when I un- 
locked the door and stepped into the apartment. It was, of course, 
only a little after seven o'clock in the morning, but today was too 
memorable a day to waste on anything so commonplace as sleep. 
I was tempted to wake them up at once and show them the othei 
notices, but I went into the kitchen instead and fixed a pot of coffee. 
I wanted a little more time alone to think about something. 

I stood in the doorway of the kitchen while I waited for the water 
to boil and gazed at the sleeping figure of my brother on the day- 
bed in the dining room, and beyond it at the closed door of the 
one bedroom where my parents slept. The frayed carpet on the 
floor was the carpet I had crawled over before I could walk. Each 
flower in the badly faded and worn design was sharply etched in 
my mind. Each piece of furniture in the cramped dim room seemed 
mildewed with a thousand double-edged memories. The ghosts of 
a thousand leaden meals hovered over the dining-room table. The 
dust of countless black-hearted days clung to every crevice of the 
squalid ugly furniture I had known since childhood. To walk out of 
it forever — not piecemeal, but completely — would give meaning to 
the wonder of what had happened to me, make success tangible, 

The goal behind the struggle for success is not always one goal, 
but many — some real, some hidden; some impossible to achieve, 
even with success piled upon success. The goal differs with each of 
us in the mysterious and wonderful way each human being is differ- 
ent from any other, in the way each of us is the sum total of the 
unexpressed longings and desires that strew the seas of childhood 
and are glimpsed long afterward from a safe distance — a submerged 
iceberg, only the tip of which is seen. 

Whatever dominant force in my nature shaped the blind demands 
that made it imperative to me to make the theatre my goal, had 
taken possession of me early and I was still possessed by it. What ful- 
fillment it held I would know only when I walked resolutely out of 
one world and into another. I poured myself a cup of coffee, and 
by the time I had finished it, my mind was made up. 


It is always best if one is about to embark on a wild or reckless 
venture not to discuss it with anybody beforehand. Talk will rob the 
scheme of its fire and make what seemed mettlesome and daring 
merely foolhardy. It is easier on everyone concerned to present 
it as an accomplished fact, turn a deaf ear to argument, and go 
ahead with it. 

I awakened my brother by dumping the papers on the bed for him 
to read and then called through the bedroom door to my mother and 
father to get up right away. I gave them barely enough time to read 
the notices and then plunged. "We're moving into New York today 
— as soon as you have a cup of coffee — and we're not taking anything 
with us. We're walking out of here with just the clothes on our 
backs and nothing else. The coffee's on the stove, so hurry up and 
get dressed." 

My mother stared at me and then spoke quietly, as if a raised voice 
at this moment might send me further out of my senses. "Where 
are we going?" she asked logically enough. 

"To a hotel," I said, "until we find an apartment and furnish it." 
There was a stunned silence and before anyone else could speak, I 
spoke again, not impatiently but as if what I was saying was inargu- 
able. "There's nothing to pack; we just walk out of the door. No," 
I added in answer to my mother's mute startled look around the 
room, "not a thing. We leave it all here just as it stands, and close 
the door. We don't take anything — not even a toothbrush, a bath- 
robe, pajamas or nightgown. We buy it all new in New York. We're 
walking out of here and starting fresh." 

My mother walked to the window and pulled up the shades as 
though she might hear or understand what I was saying better 
with more light, and then turned helplessly toward my father. 

He was the first to recover his breath and his wits. "We just paid 
two months' rent in advance," he said, as though that solid fact 
would help me recover my own. 

"That gives us the right to let this stuff sit here and rot, or you can 
give it to the janitor," I replied. "We're walking out of here with 
just what clothes you put on and tomorrow we'll get rid of those, 


This second bit of information created an even more astonished 
silence than the first. "Don't you understand?" I heard myself shout- 
ing. "All I'm asking you to do now is — " 

"I'm not walking out of here without the pictures," my mother 
said with great firmness. 

It was my turn to be astonished. "What pictures?" I asked. 

"All the pictures," she replied. "The baby pictures of you and 
Bernie and the pictures of my father and my sister, and Bernie's 
diploma and your letters, and all the other pictures and things I've 
got in the closet in that big box." 

I threw my arms around her and kissed her. I had won. It was 
being accepted as a fact — incomprehensible but settled. 

"One suitcase," I ordered. "Put it all into one suitcase, but one suit- 
case — that's all." 

I looked at my brother, who had remained silent through all of 
this. He handed the papers back to me with a flourish and winked. 
"Don't you have to give some of the money to George Kaufman?" 
he said. 

"Half," I replied. "But my share will be over a thousand dollars 
a week." 

"That'll buy a lot of toothbrushes," he said. "I'm going to get 
ready." And he climbed out of bed. 

My mother and father stared at us as if to make sure we were not 
indulging in some elaborate joke for their benefit. 

"It's true," I said soberly. "It's not a salary. I get a percentage of 
every dollar that comes into the box office. Don't you understand 
how it works?" 

Obviously, they did not, and I realized somewhat belatedly that it 
had never occurred to either of them to translate good fortune in the 
theatre into anything more than what my mother's friends defined 
as "making a good living." No wonder my proposal had sounded 
lunatic, but now as the belief came to them that what I had just 
said might be the literal truth, they were suddenly seized with some 
of my own excitement. My mother's reaction was a curious one. She 
burst into a peal of laughter. She had a merry and ringing laugh 


and it was contagious. My father and I joined in her laughter, though 
we would have been hard put to tell exactly what we were laughing 
at. I was reminded of that moment and of her laughter long, long 
afterward, when I heard someone say, "Nothing makes people 
laugh like money — the rich get wrinkles from laughing." It was said 
sardonically, of course, but it is not without an element of truth. 
Money does generate its own kind of excitement, and its sudden 
acquisition creates an ambiance of gaiety and merriment that it 
would be nonsense to deny or not to enjoy. It induces, moreover, 
a momentum of its own. Everything moves with an unaccustomed 
and almost miraculous speed. 

We were all ready to leave in less than an hour, despite the fact 
that there were more things of heaven and earth in that box in the 
closet than could be contained in one suitcase. I carried die box, 
my father and brother each carried a suitcase, and my mother, 
her victory complete, hugged a brown paper parcel of last-minute 
treasures that had turned up in an old tin box. We walked out of the 
door and waited in the lobby while my brother hurried out in the 
rain to try to get a taxi. The rain was pouring down in a great 
solid sheet now and gusts of wind were slashing it against the build- 
ing. I watched it burst savagely against the glass doors of the lobby 
and was seized by a sudden and irresistible impulse. 
"I forgot something," I said shortly. "I'll be right back." 
I unlocked the door of the empty apartment and closed and locked 
it again carefully behind me. I took one quick look around to keep 
the memory of that room forever verdant and then walked to each 
window and threw it wide open. The rain whipped in through the 
windows like a broadside of artillery fire. I watched a large puddle 
form on the floor and spread darkly over the carpet. The rain 
streamed across the top and down the legs of the dining-room table 
and splashed over the sideboard and the china closet. It soaked the 
armchair and cascaded down the sofa. It peppered the wallpaper 
with large wet blotches and the wind sent two lamps crashing to 
the floor. I kicked them out of my way and walked over to the 
daybed, which was still dry, and pulled it out into the middle 


of the room, where a fresh onset of wind and rain immediately 
drenched it. I looked around me with satisfaction, feeling neither 
guilty nor foolish. More reasonable gestures have seldom succeeded 
in giving me half the pleasure this meaningless one did. It was the 
hallmark, the final signature, of defiance and liberation. Short of 
arson, I could do no more. 
I slammed the door behind me without looking back. 

To everyone's surprise, including my own, a strange silence fell 
upon us in the taxi, in spite of the fact that my brother read aloud 
the glowing notice in the World, which he had picked up on his 
way to get the cab. Instead of heightening our excitement or rein- 
forcing our high spirits, it seemed, curiously enough, to put a 
damper on them. My brother stared out the window and my mother 
and father stared straight ahead, silent and solemn. I talked on for 
a moment or two and then grew silent myself. Perhaps there was in 
all of us, including myself, a feeling of unreality in what we were 
doing or a separate awareness in each of us that this great change — 
this almost too great change in our life — would change us, too, as a 
family; that the struggle which had welded us so tightly together 
was over now, and success in some mysterious way might separate 
us, each from the other. 

My mother, still silent, took out her handkerchief and wiped 
her eyes. They were not, I suspected, tears of joy for my success. 
They were not tears for the beginning of something, but for the end 
of something none of us could name. Not until we came within 
sight of Brooklyn Bridge did anyone speak. Then, as suddenly as 
it had fallen, the silence lifted. Crossing the bridge, as it had for me 
earlier that morning, seemed to put an old way of life behind us 
and make inevitable the new one we were rushing headlong into. 
We started to talk, all of us at once, almost at the same moment, 
as if crossing the bridge had cut the ties irrevocably and was a symbol 
of entry into a world as dazzling as the skyline in front of us. 

Suddenly no one seemed to have an unexpressed thought. Every- 
one talked incessantly, oblivious of what anyone else might be say- 

[44i 1 

ing. We were at 34th Street before I thought to glance out the 
window. I had told the driver to take us to the Edison Hotel on 
47th Street, for no other reason except that it was practically around 
the corner from the Music Box and seemed more of a family hotel 
than any other I could think of; but as the cab moved into Times 
Square, I asked the driver to stop first at the Music Box. 

Even through the rain-splashed windows of the cab, I could see 
a long double line of people extending the full length of the lobby 
from the box office. The line spilled out under the marquee where 
another line was patiently forming under umbrellas. I got out of 
the cab and walked into the lobby and stood gaping at all the people. 
It was not yet half-past nine in the morning. How long I stood 
there, forgetful of everything else but the wonder of that line, I do 
not know, but the box-office man, looking up for a moment to glance 
across the lobby, caught sight of me and smiled. There is no smile 
as bright as the smile of a box-office man the morning after a hit. 
It flashes with the iridescence of stage jewelry under spotlights and 
is as wide as the proscenium itself. His smile did not waver — it grew 
more brilliant as the telephones jangled behind him and visions of 
ticket speculators, like sugar plums, danced across his mind. 
He waved me over to the head of the line and stuck his hand out 
through the opening in the grille to shake my own. 

"A year at least," he said, "It's the hottest ticket in town. What 
can I do for you?" 

"I wanted to draw $500.00," I said quickly. "I'm moving into town." 

"Sure, sure — anything you want," he said. He reached for an 
I.O.U. slip and rapidly filled it in. "How do you want it?" he 

"A few fifties," I replied, "the rest in twenties and tens." 

I signed the slip as he counted out the money, conscious that the 
people immediately in back of me were whispering to each other. 
"It is not George Kaufman," I heard a woman's voice say. "It must 
be the other one." 

As nearly as I could, I tried to achieve a look of modesty with 
the back of my head while I waited for him to finish. He pushed 
the rather formidable stack of bills toward me and his smile floodlit 


the box office. "Come around any time," he said, "we'll be here for 
a long, long time." 

I doubled the bills in my fist and walked out and into the taxi. 
Without a word I went through the pretense of counting the 
money, thoroughly aware of the awed silence around me. 

"When," my brother said quietly, "do they change the name of the 
theatre to the Money Box?" 

It was the first of a perpetual and unremitting series of bad puns 
that he was to launch and send racketing down the years, and the 
effect of this historic first one was not only uproarious but explosive. 
We started to laugh and could not stop. We laughed as though we 
were out of our wits, uncontrolled and breathless with laughter, and 
startled because we could not stop laughing, try as we would. My 
brother's words seemed to have touched off the edge of hysteria 
our overwrought state had brought us to. The exhaustion and 
excitement of the last few days and of this morning needed a release, 
and that atrocious pun had been both a means and a blessing. We 
laughed as though we might never stop. 

The driver, too, started to shake with laughter and turned around 
apologetically. "I don't know what you're laughing at, folks," he 
said, "but it must be pretty good to make people laugh that way." 
No one could answer him; we were all still helpless. He burst into 
laughter again himself and turned the cab toward Broadway. 

My fatal weakness for standing aside from whatever was happen- 
ing around me and translating it into vignettes of drama overcame 
me once more. I could hear myself telling the whole story to Sam 
Harris. Unresisting, I let it assemble and take shape in my mind. 
The wait for the notices, the first taxi ride home, the decision to 
walk out and leave everything behind us, the trip back to open the 
windows and let the rain pour in— I could hear myself telling it all 
to him, right down to counting the money in the cab, our paroxysm 
of laughter, and the cab driver turning around to add the final 
touch. I could see myself some time later this afternoon standing in 
his office in the Music Box and telling it to him with the proper 
embellishment, making it all come out a rounded, dramatic entity. 


I could see his eyes squint with amusement as I told it and hear his 

soft laughter afterward. I could even, I thought, hear his comment. 

"Not bad, kid," he would say. "Not a bad curtain for a first act." 



About the Author 

MOSS HART and the American theatre of the last twenty- 
five years seem to be synonymous. Alone, and with George S. Kauf- 
man, he has written some of its most successful plays; and, with 
scores provided by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Kurt Weill and Ira 
Gershwin, some of its more memorable musicals. His Lady in the 
Dar\, starring the late Gertrude Lawrence, remains one of the mus- 
ical theatre's most cherished memories; You Cant Take It with You 
and The Man Who Came to Dinner, written with George Kaufman, 
are still two of the highlights of American stage comedies. Mr. Hart 
is the director of his own plays and musicals, as well as the works of 
others, his latest directorial erTort being the now legendary My Fair 

He is married to Kitty Carlisle, actress and television star, and is 
the father of two children, aged eleven and eight; they live in New 
York City, where he was born. 

Mr. Hart was, for seven years, president of the Dramatists Guild 
and is now president of the Authors League of America. 






*PP 1 '70 


Act one, main 

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