When I met him, it was by chance in December of 1940 in a quiet bar on Sunset in LA. I can still remember it as clear as if I were looking square into those energy filled blue eyes right now.
He was a bit too shiny for the place, even Hollywood had the everyman’s bar, but no one seemed to pay him much attention. It was as though he was part of the furniture. He belonged there.
I slid onto a stool as Eddie walked up to take my order. “What’ll you have? Bit early for you isn’t it?”
“Just a beer today, Eddie. I got a date later.”
Bushy brows above coal black eyes rose and tobacco stained teeth showed between thick lips. “Bring her by here. I’ll set you up nice.”
I smiled thanks, but didn’t commit to anything. Figaro’s Bar was fine for a few with the boys on a stag Friday night, but a dame didn’t belong here.
I picked up the mug of amber liquid and took a sip. My smile was the show of appreciation Eddie had waited for. He was one of the best in the business. He remembered what people liked, and I liked my beer warm. You can’t taste an iceberg. If I wanted something cold, I’d have asked for milk. A smile of appreciation meant a return customer, worth more than a tip. Not that he’d ever admit that.
Leaning against the bar, I checked the mirror that ran above the length of bottles and glasses. I didn’t see any of the boys around to talk with. That’s when I saw him. Like I said, he was shiny, shiny on the outside of a worn out inside. He had pages of paper in front of him and the glass he had wasn’t for beer.
“Guy’s a writer,” Eddie said, following my eyes, “comes in here round this time every day. Says it helps him to, how does he put it . . . “escape the fortress of sterility and stagnation and discover life anew.” I asked if it was the wife, he said she wouldn’t be caught dead in here. I get the feeling he wishes she would be caught dead somewheres else.”
I didn’t like the chuckle Eddie gave. Maybe it was the amusement in his eyes. He thought he was being funny. Death wasn’t something I played around with, even in jest.
Writers were strange people. They could make you believe things by using words and nothing else. It was like Houdini without the tricks or Beatty without the whip and chair. Everything was laid out in front of you plain as day to see, but you still got fooled. And they somehow got us to buy words. Words we could get anywhere else.
No film or sound effects, just words, and you would swear you heard explosions, music, and you felt the girl in your arms and smelled the perfume as you kissed her. You got all warmed up while reading scenes you’d never see in a movie in a hundred years.
I saw this as a chance to find out how it all worked. Normally I wasn’t the interrupting kind of guy, but he looked like he was the type that might not mind. And if he said no, then I could move on.
He saw me coming. I guess it’s hard to miss me, being a big six footer with red hair. Hollywood wasn’t overrun with my type at that time, but I wasn’t ever mistaken for Leslie Howard or Spencer Tracey. One I would have socked you for comparing me to, and the other I’d pay you for the compliment.
He laid his pencil down about the time I reached his booth. “Is there something I may help you with?”
Up close, I could see the shiny wasn’t the polish of culture, but a paleness he had. He was paler than any man I’d ever met outside a funeral parlor.
He did have class, and some rubbing elbows with culture was obvious. The man was educated for sure. Better, even more than the people I met though my work, and I met a lot of people up and down the money line.
“Eddie said you were a writer,” I said, looking down at the pages in front of him, “and I wanted to ask you something.”
He smiled and leaned back stretching his shoulders. “Of course, have a seat and ask away. I believe my fingers need a rest, and I might even find within this,” he tapped his temple with his index finger, “quickly dimming mind of mine an answer, if I have one left. A writer knows very little about writing. He’s either always too busy in the middle of it to think about it, or to busy criticizing someone else’s work as beneath his own to actually know what writing is all about.”
I slipped into the booth. “So, how do you do the magic that you do with words? How do you take something so simple and turn it into something people, thousands of people, will breathe heavy over rushing to turn the page?”
“By being a whore.”
That wasn’t what I was expecting. “A what?”
He emptied his glass and signaled to Eddie before answering. He laughed. “My apologies, an old joke between an even older friend of mine and I. Firstly, there is no simple thing in this world to write about.” The blue eyes stared down at his hands, laced before him on the table.
He squinted his eyes a moment before picking up his pencil and slowly began to turn it between the fingers of both hands. “How many ways may one describe a blade of grass? What about being in love? No author, no author worth being called as such, would ever allow himself to say so simply his character is in love, unless he has spent the first 300 pages of his 400 page manuscript giving his audience the truth of it in his actions and begin. The admission of being in love is for the benefit of the all too knowing flower he’s been chasing after.”
“To be a success as a author? Write with your heart, put your life into your characters and lay yourself bare upon the page without fear or shame. That is art. That is being an author. If you want to eat and survive as a writer, add sex and crime, the violence and lies the public wants to read about. Add the downfall of the proud and successful man in favor others. Pride goeth before the fall, and after the fall rises the bank account. Follow those rules, and you will grow ever larger in the land of film and camera. You will never be able to call yourself an author. You will be a writer, just as the person assigned the obituary page is a writer for the Times.”
I remained silent. In under two minutes, the illusion I had of a writer, or was it an author, had evaporated like a left open bottle of gin. I don’t think I’d ever heard anyone sound so bitter and passionate about something all at the same time. “Then why do it at all if you hate it so much, if it puts you through this?” I pointed to the glass as Eddie set another one filled to the rim with ice and something too clear for midafternoon drinking alone.
“I could no more hate writing than hate my wife. My distaste is for the need of the graven green images upon paper. Image is everything in this land.” He held out his arms to encompass what I thought must’ve been all of Hollywood, but might have been the whole country. “Money ruins creativity, art. Its purpose is to create demons and evil. It creates enemies of friends, jesters of genius.”
“Then write what you want and to hell with them all,” I said, staring at his drink, not able to look into his eyes. They were full of life and anger. Maybe it wasn’t anger, but it was something. I feared the electricity would leap across and electrocute me on the spot. That’s when I noticed the bubbles in his drink.
A smile spread across the handsome face and the worn and frayed interior of the man inside disappeared. “I have too many responsibilities to completely alienate those who sign checks. I knew what I was doing when I became a writer instead of an author. Being an author . . . you become famous after you die, and people realize the genius of your prose and storylines and plots. To make a living until you die, you write for the magazines or for studios who then bastardize your work to beyond recognition. You copy yourself and repeat the process, repeatedly. What works once will work again. I continue to write for myself, for after my death’s success.” He laid his hand flat on the pages in front of him.
I shook my head. I couldn’t understand why stay in such a business. “Looks to me like this job would wear you down, but instead, with that fire you’re showing, you look like you’re still enjoying it. Why not try something else?”
The man stared at the glass on the table, an index finger circling the rim. “You need to find the energy to keep going in any business . . . the purpose. Where do you discover the inexhaustible fount of will power to keep going for anything? Some think my fountain is found in this.” He picked up the glass and took a sip.
“A glass of soda?”
He set the glass back down and looked at me. The smile breaking the mood again. “Very observant of you. For years, until perhaps a year ago, this would have been filled with gin, no ice. I imagine it wasted more of my years of authorship than any other contributing factor. Looking back, I escaped being a success early on. Have you ever ridden on top of a taxi in New York City?”
My beer stopped half way to me mouth. “You’re kidding, right?”
“With enough gin inside of you, or other inebriates available, you’ll do anything and be famous by morning. Now, I find the ability to be an author while in peace. Peace is a selfish desire in a city of constant motion and a world of responsibility.”
I thought about that one a second. It was beyond me then, but as time passed, I grew to understand it.
He pointed his pencil at me. “To the subject of energy when faced by time after time of breaking your personal contract, your oath with yourself, never to be a writer again to make a living, I have one thought that comes to mind. Vitality shows in not only the ability to persist but the ability to start over. I am the king of starting over.” He stared into my eyes and this time I couldn’t let go.
“Hey, Scott, telephone.” Eddie’s voice echoed in the quite bar. I almost jumped.
“Pardon me for a moment,” Scott said sliding out from the booth.
As he went to the phone, I glanced over at the pages he’d been working on. Across the top of one, sticking out from the stack was scribbled The Love of the Last Tycoon. Maybe it was going to be a movie or something. I could see Clark Gable in something with a title like that.
Scott hurried back to the table. “My apologies, but I must rush out.” He gathered the pages into a stack, and shoved them into a leather satchel. “It completely escaped my mind about a movie premiere I am to attend tonight.”
“Oh, which one?”
“It’s a Columbia picture with Rosalind Russell and Melvyn Douglas. I believe the title is This Thing Called Love or some such. My companion is to write about it in her column.”
He reached out one hand and I stood taking it. “Nice to have met you,” Scott said.
“You to, hope you keep that vitality going. Oh, and have a Merry Christmas.”
“You as well.” He smiled, turned, and headed for the front door. Vitality was in his steps if not in the color of his skin. How a man could have lived in Hollywood and have been so sickly white was beyond me.
I guess that vitality thing goes for people like me too. I take a hit but I keep coming back to be hit again or maybe dodge the punch next time. Too bad you can’t know where the punch is being thrown from every time.
Setting my empty mug on the bar, I fished into my pocket. “Scott took care of you,” Eddie said.
“No, he’s a good guy, especially when he’s not around those society types. He likes being a normal guy. I don’t treat him like nothing special except keeping people out of his business when it gets crowded in here. Not that many people bug him anymore. Stars fade after a while.”
“Was he in the movies?”
“Nah, he was a hot shot author. He was big time. The biggest.” Eddie stepped away to the cash register and came back. “Here, you can borrow this. And I mean I want it back.” He pointed at my chest like he was aiming a pistol. “He signed it for me and everything. Got it?”
I did. I looked at the cover.
The Great Gatsby
“Vitality shows in not only the ability to persist but the ability to start over.” F. Scott Fitzgerald (September 24, 1896 – December 21, 1940)
Fitzgerald was living in Hollywood with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, when he died the morning after attending a movie premiere with her. His wife, Zelda, was living in various asylums in the Carolinas at the time due to schizophrenia. She had even attempted to jerk the steering wheel out of Scott’s control, which might have killed them both. Their granddaughter says despite what some say about her grandmother being misdiagnosed, her mother, Scottie, the only child of Scott and Zelda, said Zelda was indeed insane.
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