It is a strange experience reading entries in your own diary
forty or fifty years after you've written them. I began a
diary while I was an undergraduate at Harvard, in 1915. I
have kept it up ever since. I don't know what impelled me to
start it—perhaps an impulse to salvage each day from the
void. Reading this diary—sixty volumes—which I have done in
order to write this memoir, is far different from reading
history. There the characters are all strangers and are all
dead; here they are alive and present. Characters keep
appearing whose very existence I had forgotten, and yet
there they are, vivid ghosts, taut in their momentary
preoccupations, damped, as I myself was, in the imperatives
of now. Reading through these pages, I can foresee
their destinies, their futures are laid out, I know all the
crisscross lines at which my life intersected theirs. It is
terrible to become possessed, suddenly, of all that
foresight. By comparison, they seem blindfolded. As I myself
I once asked Somerset Maugham whether he would ever write
his autobiography. He replied, rather sharply, "No. Never."
I asked why not. "Because it is not possible to tell the
truth," he said. More copiously than Maugham, Mark Twain
expressed himself on the impossibility of writing an
autobiography. His reasons differ from Maugham's. I borrow
from a preface he wrote while standing morosely on the brink
of the impossible:
What a wee little part of a person's life are his acts
and his words! His real life is led in his head, and is
known to none but himself. All day long, and every day,
the mill of his brain is grinding, and his thoughts,
not those other things, are his history. His acts and
his words are merely the visible, thin crust of his
world, with its scattered snow-summits and its vacant
wastes of water—and they are so trifling a part of his
bulk! A mere skin enveloping it. The mass of him is
hidden—it and its volcanic fires that toss and boil, and
never rest, night nor day. These are his life, and they
are not written and cannot be written. Every day would
make a whole book of eighty thousand words—three hundred
and sixty-five books a year. Biographies are but the
clothes and buttons of the man—the biography of the man
himself cannot be written.
I suspect that Twain, who was an embittered man, with many
shattering private griefs, didn't want to descend publicly
into the abysms to which his private thoughts led him. I was
told by Brander Matthews, when I was in his drama class at
Columbia, that William Dean Howells, who had the run of
Twain's house, walked into his living room shortly after the
death of Twain's daughter. Twain had fallen asleep on the
sofa; Howells' entrance woke him. Howells was horrified at
what he had done—committed the unpardonable sin of snatching
a sleeping friend from oblivion and impaling him abruptly on
the sharp spikes of reality. He cried out, "Good heavens,
did I wake you?"
There will be no abysm-dropping in what follows, except for
the descents made by others. What Mark Twain felt he
couldn't do, I shall not presume to do. This will be a
memoir—a category of writing much more relaxed and
easygoing, more vagarious and permissive. By this
time—seventy-five plus—I have had just about all I can take
of myself. I am a mild manic-depressive, difficult at times
to distinguish from an acute one. To show how far it can go,
I will relate a simple incident. Not long ago—February—I
woke up and smelled the polluted air that comes into my city
bedroom. It was a mild morning; I thought that I sniffed,
even through the sourness, an intimation of spring.
Immediately, then, I felt the pain of past springs, the
stifled upthrusting longings of spring which have no
resolution. I took lien in February on the cruelty of April.
I thought, This is going too far—to borrow angst from a
problematical spring that I may not even live to see. I put
forward sensible arguments, but the still unborn spring
nevertheless had its way. The sinking of the heart
persisted. What is a sinking of the heart? Is there a
physiological change? Can it he registered on an
electrocardiograph? Has anyone a clue?
An odd quirk of destiny has put a great many people in my
way. I want, in this memoir, to return to them. I want to
revive their company, to share it.
To be brought up in a poverty-stricken household, to know
nothing but poverty in childhood and adolescence, is not so
bad while you are enduring it; it is quite tolerable, in
fact—at least, it was in my case. It is in later life that
it takes its toll. In the Providence Street ghetto in
Worcester, Massachusetts, everybody else was as poor as we
were. The rich man on the hill, who had a stucco house with
a stained-glass window, and who owned a Winton Six, was
still devoured by a passion to become the president of the
Providence Street Synagogue, directly across the street from
us. He was illiterate in Hebrew and therefore had no
standing. My father, on the other hand, who didn't have a
penny, was learned in the sacred books and did have
standing. There used to be an expression on the hill—"Does
he know the little black dots?" The reference was to the
symbols for cantilladon under the letters of the Hebrew
texts. If you didn't know them, neither stained-glass
windows nor Winton Sixes could save you. I realize now that
the Providence Street community was a theological
aristocracy, in which money gave you no status. But I have
been haunted by dreams of poverty all my life, through all
the years since I emerged from it. I dream that I am in
hotel rooms without the money to pay for them. I dream that
I am jobless and can't get a job. A favorite disagreeable
dream is that I am walking, in a heavy rain, and carrying a
leaden suitcase, from Boston to Worcester. When I get to
Worcester, there is nowhere to go. Everyone is dead. I go to
the Bancroft Hotel, go up in the elevator, and walk down a
corridor. Exhausted from the walk, my shoes and my clothes
soaking, I open a door, see a bed, and sink down on it. Then
I see that the room contains somebody else's possessions. I
must not fall asleep, lest the occupant come in. I struggle
to remain awake. I fall asleep. . . .
I went for two years to Clark University, in Worcester, then
switched to Harvard, to study playwriting with George Pierce
Baker. Harvard was idyllic then. Forty-odd years later, I
was invited to Kirkland House for a week "to talk to the
boys." The difference between the Cambridge I had known and
the one I saw in 1958 was shattering: the difference between
a small, manageable town and a swollen segment of the
Boston-Washington conurbation. After leaving Harvard, I used
to dream, in many inhospitable, jobless years I spent in New
York, that I would wake up in Weld Hall, on the Harvard
Yard. And yet the two years at Harvard were a clouded
fantasy. I was haunted by the incessant query: What would I
do when I got out, how get a job, how make a living?
Providence Street had got its licks in. My fears proved not
to be chimerical; I did have a terrible time getting a job
in New York—and in other cities as well.
I have a vivid memory of the June day when I sat in
Soldier's Field in Boston waiting for my degree. It is of
John Singer Sargent, magnificent in his scarlet robe and
bright-yellow, nicotined mustache and beard, who rose to get
his honorary degree; it was pinned on him by Abbott Lawrence
Lowell in person. After Sargent and I got our degrees, I was
assailed by a problem that I am sure did not bother Sargent
but that had for years been eroding me: What to do next?
With the production of a successful play, which came about
for me eleven years later, you acquire overnight a new
identity—a public label. But this label is pasted on you. It
doesn't obliterate what you are and have always been—doesn't
erase the stigmata of temperament. These I brought with me
to New York, where they were deepened by years of
unsuccessful job-hunting. I went to every newspaper office
in New York, and then in Philadelphia and Baltimore. I had a
half-dozen plays, but I was allowed to keep them. In
desperation, and financed by my older brothers, I went to
Columbia to get an M.A. in English. I joined a seminar in
nineteenth-century French drama with Brander Matthews.
Matthews was a tall, thin man with rather wispy muttonchop
whiskers. He was an established man of the world, easy and
anecdotal, a friend of Mark Twain, 'Theodore Roosevelt, and
William Dean Howells—in fact, of everybody whom most people
didn't know. We in his seminar read a lot from and heard a
lot about the two most popular French playwrights of the
nineteenth century, Scribe and Sardou. As an example of
Sardou's skill as a technician (or was it Scribe's?)—how
quickly and easily he could establish his leading character
as a sophisticated man—Matthews drew attention to a
restaurant scene in which the protagonist enters and says
casually to the headwaiter, "Good evening, Henry." This
established, dexterously, that the hero knew his way around
expensive restaurants. One day, I made the mistake of
bringing into class a copy of the New Republic.
Actually, I had a contribution in it. Matthews looked at the
New Republic and said, "I am sorry to see you wasting
your time on that stuff." As a staunch Republican and an
intimate of Theodore Roosevelt, he had to do his duty.
Still, Matthews was a kind man. He gave a classmate and me
cards to visit the Players Club, which thrilled us, and he
gave me an invitation to hear Henri Bergson lecture in
English. I was startled by the immaculateness and decorum of
Bergson's English. When I reported this to Matthews, he
said, "It is the English of a foreigner who doesn't know
English—only the English classics."
The M.A. gave me a leg up. My newly acquired knowledge of
nineteenth-century Parisian play techniques qualified me for
typing up and classifying the want ads for the New York
Times. The hours were from three in the afternoon to
three in the morning. I worked on the widest machine I had
ever seen; it was like driving a truck. At three in the
morning, I walked—it was then a safe and lovely walk—to my
room, on West Thirty-eighth Street. I have forgotten how it
happened, but from the third floor of the Times I
crept up to the tenth and got a job with Dr. Clifford Smyth,
the editor of the Sunday book-review section. I never
learned how Smyth achieved his doctorate; maybe it was for
marrying a granddaughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne. One day,
early in 1920, he sent me out to interview Siegfried
Sassoon, who was here to read his "War Poems." I can't
remember the printed interview, but this visit was the
beginning of a friendship that long outlasted my job on the
Times. After a few months, Smyth put me in charge of
the "Queries and Answers" column. The flood of inquiries
about obscure Midwestern poets began to bore me. I got the
bright idea of sending myself inquisitive letters. ("What
has become of Ambrose Bierce?") It turned out that "Queries
and Answers" was the pet column of Adolph Ochs, the Times'
publisher. He cherished it. He doted on the obscure
Midwestern poets; he found their view of life uplifting. He
put an end to my fascinating correspondence. The tenure I
didn't have lapsed. I had been a Times man for about
six months. I was prodded by the same old question: What to
The involuntary leisure enabled me to spend a lot of time
with Siegfried Sassoon. He had a leisure problem, too, but
it was far different from mine. He was lacerated by a
private agony. He said that when he got an idea for a poem
it took him very little time to write it; what made his
situation intolerable was that he therefore had so much time
to brood over this agony. After I got to know him better, he
confessed to me the source of his suffering. I think it did
him good to have someone to confide in. I was then so naïve
and uninformed that it shocked me, though I did my best not
to show it.
Siegfried told me his story. His antiwar sentiments had led
to a Parliamentary inquiry. What made the military scratch
their heads in bewilderment was the perplexing fact that
Sassoon's war record was recklessly heroic. He had twice
been cited for bravery. But nothing is beyond the military
mind. It came up with a solution: that Sassoon was
crazy—they called it shell shock. He was institutionalized.
Had it not been for the accidental presence there of a great
man—Dr. William Halse Rivers, a famous English psychologist
and anthropologist, for whom Sassoon's duality as a war hero
and a militant pacifist was not in the least paradoxical—he
would never, Siegfried told me, have lived through that
I recalled a remark of Charles Townsend Copeland's in
English 12, a writing course at Harvard—that poets wrote the
best prose. I nudged Siegfried toward trying his hand at
prose. I still have some pages, in his beautiful
handwriting, of a novel he began that summer but never
completed. The prose project kept our correspondence alive
after he returned to England. The eventual result is an
exquisite classic—"Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man."
Siegfried couldn't get over a feeling of strangeness in his
position as a famous war poet who had been summoned to
lecture in America. In his youth, up to the outbreak of the
war, his life had been devoted to horses and to hunting; all
his friends had been sporting people. To them he was known,
satirically, as old Sieg. If they knew—and many of them must
have heard of it—that he had written anti-war poems, they
probably dismissed it as an aberration and wondered when
poor old Sieg would return to his true vocation, foxhunting.
Siegfried was sent to Marlborough and Cambridge for
schooling. He had a hard time absorbing useful knowledge.
Aware of this limitation, and in a gallant effort to make up
for it, he spent a great deal of time, when he had to do
papers, in illuminating the first letter of each paragraph.
He supplied himself with pencils of all colors and with gold
leaf, and devoted himself to imitating the lettering in
medieval manuscripts. He found written on one of his papers,
"Very beautiful the calligraphy, but, alas, no content."
Siegfried was ploughed. He went back happily to his horses,
and to his piano, at which he spent hours playing Bach and
medieval lute songs. During all these years, he'd been
writing poetry—a secret vice. That was his situation when he
enlisted in the First World War. Up to then, he had never
felt deeply about anything. What he saw in the trenches made
him feel. The war poems were the result.
On a Sunday morning in April, 1920, I went to hear Siegfried
read his poems in the Free Synagogue, in Carnegie Hall.
Siegfried was tall, lithe, and extraordinarily handsome. He
read quietly, without striving for effect—indeed, without
inflection. I remember still the stunned silence that
followed the reading of one of his poems. I copy it from the
little book of his war poems that he left me when he
returned to England:
Does it matter?—losing your legs? . . .
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When the others come in after football
To gobble their muffins and eggs.
Does it matter?—losing your sight? . . .
There's such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.
Do they matter?—those dreams from the pit? . . .
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won't say that you're mad;
For they'll know that you've fought for your country,
And no one will worry a bit.
Except when he was away on his poetry-reading tours, I saw
Sassoon constantly for the rest of that spring, and through
most of the following summer as well. He lived in Westover
Court, on West Forty-fourth Street, and he invited me to use
his suite of pleasant rooms while he was away. Westover
Court was a real-estate folly of Vincent Astor's. In a book
published twenty-five years later, "Siegfried's Journey,"
Sassoon described the extra illumination in his room: "My
nocturnal outlook was dominated by the Putnam Building,
above which blazed the electric sign of Wrigley's Spearmint
Gum. Flanked by two peacocks whose tails were cascades of
quivering color, about a square acre of advertising space
contained the caption: 'Don't argue but stick it in your
face.'" That was the biggest sign in New York; it dominated
Times Square. There was a story about it: A New Yorker was
showing the sign off to a visiting Englishman. As the
Englishman seemed to be insufficiently impressed, the native
filled him in. He said, "There are three hundred thousand
electric bulbs in that sign." "But, my dear chap," said the
Englishman, "doesn't that make it frightfully conspicuous?"
Westover Court was an unlikely place to find in New York
even then: four stories high, built around a court, with a
tree in the middle. On winter nights, when you came home
late, the bare branches of this tree would be covered with
birds, who thought they were in a forest. Westover Court was
a bachelor establishment, with small apartments; it was like
a dormitory in a New England college. Actors and artists and
singers lived in it.
I was avid to learn about the English literary scene;
Siegfried took me to the heart of it. The Georgian poets,
theretofore names to me, were all friends of his. His love
for some of them—Edmund Blunden and Wilfred Owen, for
example—was passionate. He read their works aloud to me; he
talked for hours about their distilled virtues. I was
delighted to hear him talk about Max Beerbohm, whom he
adored. Whenever he talked about Max, he chortled with glee;
he imitated his light, penetrating voice, and the stories he
told illustrated the style, surgical and elegant, in which
Max trepanned the pretentious and the pompous. Dr. Rivers,
who, as Siegfried always said, had saved his life, had also
made it possible for him to employ it. Rivers had told him
he must get "an outside interest," and had suggested the
labor movement. Siegfried had taken his advice. He had
become actively involved. He was a friend of Harold Laski's,
and he was introduced by Laski's American publisher, Ben
Huebsch, into labor circles here. There was no one to whom
Sassoon was more devoted than he was to Ben, who was one of
the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union. I was
devoted to Ben, too; I have never known a kinder or more
lovable man. He came to my aid once by giving me a part-time
job on the Freeman, which he published, and which
many literary people considered the best-written magazine in
America. We saw a lot of Ben and of Louis Untermeyer.
Siegfried hated Society; he had an instinctive prejudice
against the rich, and resolutely turned down the invitations
that rained in on him from the well-heeled.
After poetry, Siegfried's second passion was music. Ben
Huebsch and Louis Untermeyer arranged evenings of chamber
music for him. He and I went to Carnegie Hall concerts in
the winter and to the Lewisohn Stadium concerts in the
summer. One bitter afternoon, I took him uptown to meet a
college friend's sister, Emily Gresser, who was a concert
violinist. We had a pleasant time at the Gressers'. Emily's
father, a nineteenth-century Russian liberal, seemed to be
awed at meeting Sassoon. He asked questions about his
ancestry; Siegfried didn't appear much interested. Mr.
Gresser ran to the bookshelves and brought over the "Samson-Talmid"
volume from the Jewish Encyclopedia. He confronted
Siegfried with pages about the Sassoon family, enlivened by
engravings of turbaned ancestors in India. One dignitary,
with an immense white beard and a magisterial expression,
did seem to appeal to Siegfried. Staring at his ancestor,
Siegfried murmured, "Sweet character, isn't he?"
I got free tickets for a play that had an engaging actor in
it named Lynne Overman. I induced Siegfried to come with me,
as there was no concert he wanted to go to that night. In
the first act, very tight, the character played by Overman
goes to see some friends off on a boat to Europe. At the
party in their cabin, he gets drunker. The second-act
curtain goes up on the man fast asleep in an unoccupied
cabin. There is a long pantomime. The man wakes up. He looks
around the unfamiliar environment. He sees a strange, round
window. He gets up, walks groggily to the window, and peers
out. He is bewildered. He returns to the bed, picks up the
telephone, and says, "Say, clerk, what's the idea of all
this water?" Neither Siegfried nor I ever forgot that line.
We used it in all sorts of situations that seemed incredible
Siegfried kept asking me to come to England. I longed to go;
I had never been abroad. I longed to see the London theatre
and its marvellous comedians. I knew everything that was
playing there and who was in it. Without any belief that I
should ever be able to manage it, I said I would try to
come. I was jobless, and had a gnawing suspicion that I
would never get a play on. I had too many plays now; it
seemed pointless to keep writing more. In "Siegfried's
Journey," Siegfried describes our meeting in New York and
how, when it came time for him to leave, we discussed the
improbable project of my coming to London. "Somehow,"
Siegfried says in his book, "I couldn't foresee Sam Behrman
as a successful writer." Neither could I. Nevertheless, it
was fun to talk about my visiting England, as it is to
wander about in any fantasy. I asked, if the impossible
should happen, where I might stay, as though there were no
hotels in London. This lit Siegfried up. "You'll stay where
I once stayed—at 40 Half Moon Street," he said. "You'll be
taken care of by 'Dame' Nellie Burton. You'll wonder how you
ever managed before you met Burton." I inquired about the
house at 40 Half Moon Street and about Burton. "Hazlitt
lived there during his last days in London," Siegfried said.
"Later, Robbie Ross lived there. Robbie was, like Rivers, my
great benefactor. I can't tell you what he did for me—for
everybody, in fact. He got Heinemann to publish my war
poems. He apologized to me for helping me. 'Forgive me,' he
said, 'but I am an incorrigible chaperon.' Arnold Bennett,
who loved him, said to me, 'Our friend Robert is the most
indirectly creative character I have known. He causes works
of art and letters to occur.' Robbie was just on his way to
Australia, to advise the museum people in Melbourne. The
next night, before dinner, he died. Gosse said that he 'wore
himself out in deeds of active kindness.'"
Siegfried's speech came in little spasmodic geysers. "Robbie
. . . he loved to support lost causes. . . . The stupendous
thing about Robbie was . . . his loyalty. . . . I've seen
heroic acts on the battlefield. . . . But I think loyalty is
the greatest heroism, the noblest; it's a steady, unheralded
thing . . . it goes along without fanfare. . . . It is
unrecorded . . . unrewarded . . . except by those who
remember it. And, you know, Robbie, he was a great
conversationalist. . . . He'd stand there . . . I can see
him now . . . in front of the fireplace in the parlor at
Half Moon Street." Siegfried smiled in recollection. "One
night . . . we were playing a game . . . improvising
epitaphs . . . what epitaph we'd want for ourselves. . . .
Robbie, you know, was always jumping in . . . flushing his
friends out of troubled waters. For his own epitaph Robbie
picked 'His name was writ in hot water.' He was Oscar
Wilde's literary executor . . . he was with him in Paris
when he died. When Wilde's body was exhumed . . . the men
were about to lift his body with their spades. Robbie
stopped them. . . . He got down into the grave and lifted
the body in his arms. . . . Yes, Robbie was loyal."
As for my future London caretaker, Dame Nellie Burton, she
had been, Siegfried told me, Robbie Ross's mother's lady's
maid. It was Ross's mother who had first owned the Half Moon
Street house. When Mrs. Ross died, Robert inherited the
house. He also inherited Dame Nellie. When Robert died, Dame
Nellie inherited the house and Robbie's friends—among
others, the Sitwells, Lord Berners, and Siegfried. When
Sacheverell Sitwell married, his wife became, in effect,
Dame Nellie's daughter-in-law. Dame Nellie let the upstairs
rooms. Lord Berners had rented one for a while. So had
Siegfried. I asked for a description of Nellie. "I can't
describe her," said Siegfried. "She's indescribable. She's
Shakespearean. You'll just have to meet her. You see now,
don't you, that you simply have to come to London?"
This remark made me feel that out of caprice, through some
failure of the imagination, I was perversely rejecting the
most beguiling of invitations. And yet the chance did come,
improbably and grotesquely and much sooner than I could have
anticipated—not through my selling a play of my own but
through a play that someone else had sold.
I saw Siegfried off when he sailed, in August. Two film
stars, Jack Pickford and Alma Rubens, who were standing at
the rail of an upper deck, had the excited attention of the
crowd. Pickford was so drunk he could hardly keep his feet.
"In the morning, he's going to have hard work recognizing
the water," Siegfried said.
There followed a series of sleazy jobs. Two of them I got by
answering Times help-wanted ads on Times
stationery. This gave me the aura of a veteran journalist.
One was from a Houston oilman who had got his photograph in
the Times rotogravure section because he had flown
his own tiny plane from Houston to New York. He hired me to
publicize his oil wells in Burkburnett, Texas. I went to
Houston, and flew in his plane from Houston to Burkburnett.
That flight and the return one induced a nervousness about
plane travel that is with me yet, When I got back to the
Rice Hotel, in Houston, I got into a hot bath and stayed in
it for hours; the tub was stationary. The man's name was S.
E. J. Cox. I inspected his holdings at Burkburnett but was
unable to form a critical judgment on them. Mr. Cox had a
handsome office in Houston, and a staff. His general manager
was an impressive-looking, soberly dressed middle-aged man
who was a Christian Scientist and was in God's confidence. I
returned to New York with him. He took me to Christian
Science meetings, at which he gave testimony. Close though I
was to the Times as an ex-employee, I couldn't get
the Burkburnett enterprise on the front page—or, indeed, on
any page. The job lapsed. Another employer was a man named
Finch whose older brother had an important government
position in Washington. I got the feeling that he was
jealous of this successful brother and wanted to outdo him
in distinction. His idea was to send news abstracts to
country papers throughout the United States which didn't
have the A.P. wire service. I had to get to his office at
three every morning to abstract from the early editions of
the New York papers. He actually got some subscriptions, but
not enough to pay his office rent or me, though I was
getting very little. Mr. Finch was a serious,
well-intentioned man who wanted the whole country to be on
the qui vive, He was very sad when he had to
During all the six or seven years I worked for the Times
and Mr. Cox and Mr. Finch, I was also working on various
plays. I was enticed by a scandal that rocked Johns Hopkins
University late in 1920. It concerned Professor John Broadus
Watson, the leading behaviorist psychologist in the United
States. He was forced to resign from Johns Hopkins because
of a nonacademic relationship with one of his pupils, whom
he later married. Unfrocked, Watson joined the executive
staff of the advertising firm of J. Walter Thompson. He
spent the rest of his now affluent life conditioning the
behavior of the consuming public. This seemed to me a social
waste. I wrote a play about it, called "The American Way."
The influence of advertising in American life—and this was
before the day of radio and television—interested me
profoundly. The first encouragement I got in New York came
from Francis Hackett, then associate editor of the New
Republic He printed as a "light middle" a piece of mine
called "The Advertising Man"—the piece I didn't dare show
Brander Matthews. (A light middle was a brief, light
article. That one of mine made the point that advertising
was the Fifth Estate; it was reprinted not long ago in a
New Republic anthology of its first fifty years.) When
the scandal broke about Professor Watson, I felt I had a
concrete and dramatic story to pin my feelings on: the
confusion of standards which condemns a valuable citizen,
because of unconventional sexual behavior, to put his
talents to second-rate, and even anti-social, uses.
"The American Way" brought Jed Harris into my life. My
agent, Harold Freedman, sent it to him in Chicago, where
Jed, who had made it known that he was looking for plays to
produce, was then press-agenting some show. Harris wrote to
me to say that he wanted to produce it, and would, as soon
as he could raise the money. But he couldn't raise the
money. Moreover, he reported that the established managers
to whom he submitted it with the offer to co-produce it with
them couldn't get excited about a play whose chief character
was a professor. There was something about professors that
seemed undramatic to them. Similarly, a great many years
later, in Hollywood, I urged Pearl Buck's "The Good Earth"
upon Winfield Sheehan, the production head of Fox Film
Corporation. He sent for me after he'd read it. The book was
before him on his desk. He shook his head. "Listen, Sam,
nobody ain't going to take no interest in no Chinaman," he
A few years later, Jed did find the money for a play by John
V. A. Weaver called "Love 'Em and Leave 'Em." Harris was
then unknown, and he came to New York to produce it. He
asked me to be his play reader and press agent. I knew
nothing about this highly specialized vocation. The dean of
New York press agents, Richard Maney, who was an entrancing
character and a very nimble writer, took me in hand. He
tutored me. No one could have been greener than I, but on
the first Sunday, surprisingly, I got a lot of stuff in the
papers. There were then fourteen papers in Manhattan, and
about sixty theatres. The theatre was the great
entertainment medium for the United States. "Love 'Em and
Leave 'Em" closed after a modest run, but it was a critical
Jed, who has been inactive in the theatre in recent years,
became an apparition in the city. There was a Svengali look
about him, and also a propulsive., avid look. He was very
dark and very thin, and handsome in a saturnine way. He was
highly articulate; he talked about the theatre, about acting
and directing, in terms of fine arts that had so far been
only rudimentarily explored. He had a corrosive humor and
was an infectious storyteller. He wowed everybody, and was
for years an obsessional subject of conversation. Plays and
novels were written about him. Actresses swooned over him;
they lived only to be directed by him, and some even died as
a result of it. At least one beautiful actress of
distinguished family was said to have committed suicide over
him. That added to his prestige and amplified his legend.
There was gossip of seductions. Every script came to him,
and any star he wanted. By the time he was thirty—in 1930—he
had made a million dollars, and had the New York theatre,
which was then the American theatre, in the palm of his
hand. Those in his orbit became his devotees, and for quite
a while I was in his orbit. As his legend grew, so did his
belief in it. In the end, this credulity undid him.
Jed's phenomenal career really started from a dingy play
script brought into the office one morning in 1926 by Philip
Dunning: "Broadway." Dunning was a friend of mine, and he
asked me to read it. I did and Jed did. Jed decided at once
to produce it. How to finance it? Jed made a suggestion. How
about my giving it to my friend Crosby Gaige? The pains of
those years were mitigated for me by the friendship and
hospitality of Crosby and Hilda Gaige. Crosby Gaige had been
a partner of Edgar and Archibald Selwyn, who had three
theatres on Forty-second Street and two in Chicago. Gaige
had a paneled office in the Selwyn Theatre Building, on West
Forty-second Street, with a pornographic collection in the
drawer of a Sheraton desk. He was tall, affable, and
enigmatic. Jed and I often wondered about his being in the
theatre at all; his chief interest was in real estate, and I
suppose that was why the Selwyns found him useful. He was
bookish; his hobby was collecting first editions of living
English authors. He had "contacts" with them—with, among
others, Arnold Bennett and Liam O'Flaherty. He had a
beautiful country place, Watch Hill Farm, at Peekskill, on
the Hudson. Alexander Woollcott, Franklin P. Adams, Arthur
Krock, George Kaufman, and Moss Hart, and the Lunts, Gregory
Kelly and his wife, Ruth Gordon, and many other actors and
actresses were steady weekend guests— you could meet almost
anybody at Watch Hill Farm. The croquet court was the scene
of passionate tournaments.
Hilda Gaige was slender, with questing blue-green eyes and
shimmering chestnut hair. There was sympathy and affection
between us always, and, on her side, an unwavering belief
that I would emerge from press-agentry. She had a wonderful
laugh. She was elfin—an adorable elf with a shadow over her.
I wondered for a long time about the shadow. It came to me
one day: it was her husband, it was Gaige. For reasons I was
never to learn, she was afraid of Gaige.
I brought Jed and Gaige together. Gaige read the script,
though Jed said that Gaige had no equipment for reading a
script and that Gaige's enthusiasm for this one was simply
an echo of his own. They made an arrangement to produce the
play together, each putting up half the production cost. In
about the third week of rehearsal, on a Sunday morning at
Watch Hill Farm, Gaige took me for a drive. He told me about
the financial arrangement he had made with Jed for
"Broadway." "I put up my half right away," he said. "That's
what we're going on now. But so far your friend Jed hasn't
put up his half. Not a penny so far from him." Gaige made it
clear by his inflection of "your friend Jed" that Jed was my
friend and not his, my responsibility and not his. But the
play opened soon afterward—directed by Dunning and George
Abbott, who by then had become a co-author—and was an
enormous success. Everybody connected with it tasted
euphoria except Jed. He was eaten with resentment that Gaige
owned half of it. On the surface, things went on amiably
between the partners. Jed liked Hilda, and she worshipped
him, as she worshipped all creative genius. She took him to
a tailor to dress him up to his newfound station. He was,
she assured him, very handsome, and it would be apparent to
the world once she had provided him with some decent
clothes. He had always been a genius, but henceforth he
would be a well-dressed genius.
I saw a great deal, in those days, of Arthur Krock. We had
practically adjoining offices—he at the Times and I
at Jed's, in the Selwyn Theatre Building. Krock was a
theatre buff; he was teeming with ideas for publicizing
Jed's show. He was fascinated, as everyone was, by Jed. He
was a regular member of the Gaiges' weekend set at Watch
Hill Farm. He was fond of Hilda and had what I thought was a
not completely admiring intimacy with Crosby. A sentence in
my diary for November, 1926, reads, "A publicity idea of
Arthur Krock's for 'Broadway,' a picture-story series for
the Evening World, sent me scurrying." The Evening
World ran the story, and Arthur was pleased to see his
brainchild in the flesh. In the four and a half decades
since, I have not seen him at all. Having no longer to
devise publicity ideas for "Broadway," he has employed his
time becoming eminent on his own.
During that period, I developed a telephone phobia, which
has stayed with me. I have never since been able to
dissociate the ring of the telephone from the imminence of
danger. "Love 'Em and Leave 'Em" hadn't required much
tending, but a big hit is demanding. Jed would call me up at
two or three in the morning to berate me for something I had
done badly or failed to do at all. A telephone call I got
one morning, though, was from Osbert Sitwell, about whom I
had heard a good deal from Siegfried. Siegfried had asked
him to get in touch with me. Sitwell was in town only for
the day; he had to go to Washington. Could we meet for
lunch? I said that I'd love to but that I had a lunch date
with Jed Harris. Sitwell said he'd love to meet Jed. We made
a date. Sitwell was young, very handsome, full of vitality
and good humor. He had the look of a Hapsburg prince. He at
once told me Siegfried's news: that he was working on a
prose book, and seemed very happy and absorbed in it. I said
I was glad to hear it. Sitwell, was full of curiosity about
the play Jed was doing; he loved the theatre and listened
with absorption to Jed's satirical account of "Broadway" and
the actors and the "dictated" performances—dictated,
naturally, by him. I asked Jed to tell Sitwell a funny story
about a Jewish ham actor—a tragedian with a big voice and no
talent. Jed loved to tell stories and went to it. Sitwell
was delighted. Jed's success with the British aristocracy
temporarily mollified him. He had been very angry with me
that morning. The moment Sitwell was gone, he let me have
Although the New York theatre was a multifarious enterprise
then compared to what it is now, it was also cozier then.
Production costs were not high. There were three or four
extra-string critics on each of the papers, since there
might be several openings each night, but there were only
ten or twelve accredited producers. Most of them invested
their own money in their productions, as the Theatre Guild
did in its first, glowing years. (Much later, things had
changed to the point where George Kaufman told me that to
finance a play of his he had to appeal to a hundred and four
investors—all strangers.) There were marvellous actors who
could play high comedy—a genre that has practically passed
out of existence. (For a time, Philip Barry, Arthur Richman,
Paul Osborn, and I were the only American writers of high
comedy.) There was Holbrook Blinn, an actor of such skill,
subtlety, and magnetism that I am sure he could have matched
the famous English specialists in high comedy—Charles Hawtry,
for instance. There was Ina Claire. (Arthur Richman and I
were both lucky enough to have Ina in our plays.) There were
press agents who were beautiful stylists. There was Richard
Maney. Above all, there was Samuel Hoffenstein. He was press
agent for Al Woods, an unwashed and illiterate one-eyed
manager who had made a fortune producing melodramas. Woods
would get on boats to Europe at the last minute without
baggage, or even a toothbrush, He was a well-known
character. The producer Sam Harris was a character. So was
William Harris. (They were unrelated to each other and to
Jed.) There was David Belasco, who was a clerical fake;
there was Arthur Hopkins, who was a genuinely spiritual man.
I used to wait for Sundays to read Hoffenstein's publicity
pieces about Al Woods. They were based on the assumption
that Al was a shy, scholarly man who locked himself in his
office to decipher palimpsests. Sam would invade Al's
lucubrations with vulgar monetary information—how the
Wednesday matinée had sold out, what this week's gross,
barring accident, would certainly come to. At the mention of
money, Al would shrink away. He would implore Sam to leave
him alone with his studies, but Sam wouldn't go. The fun
came from the fact that the cozy small town knew about Al.
We didn't know, as we laughed over these pieces, that their
author was to write "Poems in Praise of Practically
Nothing," a book that was found on Justice Oliver Wendell
Holmes's bed table when he died. There was the producer
Henry Miller. Arthur Richman was a friend of Miller's and
used to stay with him in his house in Connecticut. Miller
had a limousine with the biggest tonneau Richman had ever
seen in his life—a special model. Driving into town one day
with Miller, Richman said, "Do you really need a car this
size?" Miller, melancholy, stared at the vast empty space.
"I know," he said. "It's beginning to get on my nerves. It's
like a Wednesday matinee in Baltimore." There were
playwrights, and there were plays, and, on a level of their
own, there were plays by Eugene O'Neill. The theatre in the
twenties was organic, lively, and multifariously cozy.
With the money pouring in from his half interest in
"Broadway," Gaige took a magnificent apartment on Fifth
Avenue. It had a walnut-panelled living room. I went up
there to inspect it; Hilda showed it off to me. She was
forlorn. She drew the curtains and lit the drawing-room
lights to show me how it would look at night. Suddenly, she
gave up. She sat down and stared at me. "I can't," she said.
"Do you think I'm terrible? I've got to leave Crosby.
Haven't you known it?"
"I didn't know it was as serious as that."
"You'll be my friend, won't you You'll see me through it,
When I left her, on the way downtown, I saw it as an
inescapable fact of life: walnut panelling could not patch
up an unhappy marriage.
A new excitement arose. "Broadway" was going to London. Jed
asked me to prepare a glossary to explain the esoteric
Broadway argot to English audiences. I was longing to go.
Jed vetoed it—because, I think, he knew how passionately I
wanted to go. I could feel my hope of seeing London and
seeing Siegfried again crumble. Hilda knew how I felt about
going. The idea of the trip had made a great change in her.
She was wildly excited. She had a consuming interest in the
English Royal Family. She read and read about them. She knew
their homes, their most distant connections, their habits.
She forgot how unhappy she was. She was transformed. She
asked me up to dinner with Gaige. At this dinner, Gaige
droned on, mostly about the eccentricities of my friend Jed.
Halfway through, Hilda couldn't stand it. She burst out at
him. "Why don't you tell him?" she cried.
"Oh, I've been working up to it." He addressed me. "You're
coming with us," he said. "You're going to do that glossary
in London." He lifted his wineglass. "Let's drink to the
voyage. For Hilda and me, it'll be a second honeymoon. Won't
it, darling?" Over his wineglass, he winked at me.
In December of 1926, we sailed on the Majestic, formerly the
Bismarck—an emolument of the First World War. The ship was
immense, luxurious, confident. It had swimming pools and
Ritz dining rooms. Few of the passengers gave any thought to
its history or had any curiosity about it. The other day, I
read about this journey in my diary. I was astonished at
what I found; it was like reading someone else's diary. I
had been a great admirer of Joseph Conrad; I had read most
of him. But until I read this diary I had forgotten that on
that journey I met Richard Curle, one of Conrad's closest
friends—indeed, his literary executor—and that he talked
endlessly about his hero. Curle—his name, his appearance—had
vanished from my consciousness until he made this
Philip Dunning was on board. I worked with him on the
glossary for the ignorant Londoners and helped him prepare
the play script for publication. He was a very decent man,
in a state of shock over the bonanza that had overwhelmed
him. Novelists with a first success have usually had years
of writing experience behind them—short stories or
journalism or other novels—but you can have a theater
success without such experience. Dunning had simply hit it,
as you might strike oil or a mining lode. The London company
was on board, second class. We were constantly watching
rehearsals. A fellow-employee, Paul Streger, was there. He
was ambitious to be a director, and Jed had sent him to take
charge of the company. This was a boon to me. At home,
Streger and I and Herman Shumlin, another Jed recruit, had
formed a triumvirate to console each other under the lash.
Shumlin and Jed had grown up together, in Newark, New
Jersey. They were boyhood friends, before their lives really
got started, and when their lives did get started, the
friendship ruptured. It took each of us a long time to
alleviate the traumas that were inescapable when one was
employed by Jed. From my diary I see that I was forever
trying to escape from the frantic social life of the ship
and from rehearsals of "Broadway" to the privacy of my
cabin, to work on one or another of three plays I had on
tap. I wonder now how I could have worked on them with such
intensity. Couldn't I see that they were dubious ventures? I
couldn't. I didn't suspect how inadequate these plays were
until they were produced. But then you have to believe in
what you're doing while you're doing it, no matter how
deluded that belief may be. The trouble is that when you get
older and your critical faculty sharpens, the generation of
excitement over an idea becomes less and less frequent,
until, finally, it is extinguished altogether. I once asked
Maugham why he had stopped writing plays. "Because I no
longer get ideas for plays," he said. He meant, of course,
ideas he could believe in.
Always on the scent of first editions, Gaige spotted the
name of Richard Curle on the passenger list. Curle had been
in America lecturing on Conrad. I still don't remember what
Curle looked like—only that he was a morose man, who seemed
to be carrying a burden too heavy for him. He talked
incessantly and with tragic concentration about Conrad. He
had been with him on his last day. Curle had arrived at
Conrad's country place the night before. Conrad, who had
been suffering from attacks of rheumatic gout, which had
tormented him for years, had gone to bed, but they sat up
into the early hours, talking. Conrad, Curle said, was a
great talker, and that night he was at his best. In the
morning, after breakfast, the vein continued, and Conrad, in
wonderful spirits, insisted on driving Curle to see his new
house, about eight miles away. He became ill again on the
way. They turned back. The next morning, he was dead, of
heart failure. "On this ship on this very ship—he returned
from his American visit, and I met him at Southampton,"
Curle said. "He was adored by your people. It was touching
for me, deeply touching, after my talks about him, to have
your countrymen come up to me—yes, they come up to me and
they make me feel that because I loved Conrad . . . well,
they looked on me as a friend because they loved him, too."
Alone in my cabin after one of these sessions with Curle, I
brooded about Conrad's death. Curle had said that Conrad's
mind was teeming with ideas that he longed to set down on
paper, and that he was tortured by the conviction that he
never would—a conviction Curle did not share, because
Conrad's conversation was so vigorous that Curle could not
associate it with death.
Gaige invited Curle to dinner with us. I asked Curle an
unfortunate question. I asked whether Joseph Conrad had ever
written a play.
"He hated the theatre—despised it."
"Didn't he admire Ibsen?" I asked.
"He despised him. He called him 'an old fake,'" Curle said.
"So he never wrote one?" said Gaige.
"He did, as a matter of fact. 'The Secret Agent.'
Dramatization of his own novel."
"Did it succeed?" asked Gaige.
"Disaster. The whole thing nauseated Conrad. Nothing about
the theatre could he stand."
"I hope that you don't share Conrad's aversion to the
theatre," Gaige said to Curle. "I'd very much like you to
see the rehearsal of the play I'm doing in London. It will
be valuable to my young friend here, as he is preparing a
glossary." He turned to me. "Whatever Mr. Curle doesn't
understand you'll have to explain."
Curle, who perhaps felt a bit ashamed that it had slipped
his mind that he was with a theatrical crowd, and feared
that he had been perhaps too vehement about Conrad’s
contempt for the theatre, said he'd love to see the
rehearsal. Hilda begged off. I sat with her for a few
minutes. A steward handed her a cablegram. She tore it open.
She began burbling with delight. "Wonderful! Seats for the
last performance—Gerald du Maurer. I never thought I'd get
them! You'll come with me."
"What will Crosby be doing?"
"Oh, he's seeing some English author. Imagine! Our first
night in London—and 'The Last of Mrs. Cheyney'!"
Hilda was as elated about Sir Gerald du Maurier as she was
about the Royal Family.
I had had, all my life, a nostalgia for England. On the boat
train, I had a thrill of recognition when I found that we
were in Surrey. I knew Surrey—its fields and its sheep and
its houses—from the photographs in Country Life,
which I used to study in the periodical room of the
Worcester Public Library. I never missed an issue either of
that or of the Illustrated London News. The streets
of London were strange but familiar, too. In a deep sense,
it was a return. I had grown up, on Providence Street in
Worcester, in the nearly constant company of William
Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. When the taxi turned into
Half Moon Street, I recognized it and felt snug in it; it
was exactly my idea of what a London street should be. The
parlor-maid who admitted me took me upstairs to my room. She
told me that Miss Burton was expecting me and would soon
summon me for tea. I drew the curtains back and looked up
and down the street. I was pleased to see at one end of it
the shop of Trumper's, the hairdresser, because Siegfried
had told me, with a certain fine edge of reproof at the
self-indulgence, that Osbert Sitwell sometimes went to
Trumper's twice a day. I was in a state of scarcely
controllable excitement. I was in London! I had dreamed of
it—tried, with some success, to imagine it. I had gone
innumerable times to see friends off who were going to
London, but that I would ever be going myself was not
conceivable. Here I was. There, actually, was Trumper's, an
appointed servant of His Majesty.
Presently, I heard a light tap at the door. It was the maid.
Miss Burton was in the parlor, awaiting me for tea. I went
downstairs. Siegfried had not prepared me for the Presence
that greeted me. Dame Nellie was short, almost spherical,
with a large expanse of face and innumerable chins. She had
prominent blue eyes, an encompassing smile, and an
expression of benevolent innocence. She was highly
decorated; spangles and ornaments of odd shapes were pinned
to her bodice. She had a mass of gray-brown hair piled up in
a minaret; semiprecious, pale lights gleamed from the
minaret, too. It was a congeries of ornaments and
unclassifiable styles, but somehow I was soon aware that
Miss Burton securely dominated her effects—that she had a
style of her own. There was a quickening reassurance in her
directness; you felt that she was a force of nature—that
nothing could swerve her from a decision or a loyalty. She
became a fixture in my life at that moment and remained so.
Miss Burton welcomed me warmly.
I asked how Siegfried was.
"Oh, you know 'im, 'Is usual—broodin' an' moodin'."
A tall, middle-aged, ectoplasmic, lemonish man made a
tentative appearance. Miss Burton introduced him. "Mr.
Fleming. 'E's in rear double. I'm sure you'll 'ave plenty in
Miss Burton held a chair for me. Mr. Fleming sat opposite.
Miss Burton took command at the head of the table and began
to pour. It was an immense tea. I had never seen such a
lavish tea: plovers' eggs, meat sandwiches, bread and butter
with strawberry jam, crumpets, scones, and a heavy cake that
looked like a Christmas cake.
"Mr. Fleming is a Theosophist," Miss Burton said.
Mr. Fleming's head, perched on a long neck, nodded
vehemently, as if pulled by an elastic. I had not yet heard
Mr. Fleming say anything.
From where I was sitting, I was looking directly at the
fireplace. I began to populate this room with the artists
who used to come in late at night for advice and
encouragement from Robert Ross—poets, painters, composers,
playwrights. I saw Ross, a keen-eyed, subfuse figure,
standing in front of this very fireplace coining epitaphs.
But Miss Burton was dredging around for subjects that Mr.
Fleming and I had in common. " 'E is, in fact," Miss Burton
was saying, determined that Mr. Fleming should not be
underrated by a visiting American, on whose previous
conditioning you could not count, "a very 'igh-placed
Mr. Fleming, busy at the crumpets, made a deprecatory
gesture and shook his head.
"We do a bit o' crystal gazing 'ere and there, don't we, Mr.
Mr. Fleming, agog over the plovers' eggs, nodded.
"And would you take it amiss if I told Lieutenant Sassoon’s
friend 'oo appeared to us one day in the crystal?"
Mr. Fleming shook his head.
Miss Burton leaned a bit across to me with a stentorian
whisper: "Mme. Blavatsky."
I felt I was under false pretenses with Mr., Fleming and
Miss Burton. Theosophy was not in my realm. I didn't know
what it was. I didn't know who Mme. Blavatsky was. Miss
Burton made things worse by adding a cubit to Mr. Fleming's
stature in Theosophy. "'E 'as the very 'igh regard of Mrs.
Besant," she said. "In fact . . ." Miss Burton cupped her
mouth with her hand. "Not only," she said portentously, "did
Mrs. Besant come 'ere to sec Mr. Fleming but she brought . .
." Her voice dropped, as if she didn't want herself to
overhear. "She brought Messiah!"
The parlormaid came in and whispered to Dame Nellie.
"Oh, yes," Dame Nellie said to me. "Lieutenant Sassoon on
the phone for you, Brenda will show you—in the 'all."
I followed Brenda into the hall. I told Siegfried that I had
to go to the theatre. I promised to come to his flat, in
Campden Hill Square, right afterward. I made my excuses to
Dame Nellie and Mr. Fleming, went to my room to dress, and
took a taxi to the Berkeley, where the Gaiges were staying,
At dinner, I told Hilda about the wonderful new experience
I'd just had meeting Dame Nellie. She made me promise that I
would take her to Half Moon Street. We taxied to the
theatre. As the cabby held the door open for us, he sighed.
He looked very melancholy. He said, "It is indeed the last
o' Mrs. Chynee!"
Hilda adored the play. She was starry-eyed. She missed no
scintilla of the somewhat narrow panoply of Sir Gerald's
public behavior. But it made me restive. I was impatient for
the streets of London. I wanted to roam them, to possess
them. The last thing I wanted to do that night was see a
play; I resented the play for keeping me off the streets. I
longed to see Siegfried and Campden Hill Square. (How
idyllic that sounded in itself! ) From there, I determined,
I would walk back to Half Moon Street, no matter how late or
how far. The play over, Hilda and I joined in the fervent
farewell ovation given to Sir Gerald by his admirers. When I
said good night to Hilda, I told her I was going to see
Sassoon. She longed to meet him as well as Miss Burton. I
promised to arrange that meeting, too.
In the taxi, I looked for the street signs. I was aware,
suddenly, of the joy of not being encrusted in numbered
streets. To go up Broadway or Fifth Avenue is like tracing a
trial balance; there is no mystery in arithmetical sequence.
The streets of London had caprices of their own; they took
no dictation from the rigidities of arithmetic. I tried to
memorize the streets as I passed them, in order to
facilitate my intended walk back from Siegfried’s apartment.
The taxi began going up. Campden Hill Square was a plateau.
As I climbed the stairs to Siegfried’s apartment, I heard,
on the piano, Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue—Siegfried's
charming welcoming ode, because he used to play it all the
time at Westover Court. I used to tease him over his
After we had greeted each other, he said, "Osbert told me
about meeting you in New York. Jed Harris made a great
impression on him. He was very taken with him."
"Oh, Jed makes a great impression on everybody. He's a
I sat on the sofa. Siegfried pulled up a chair. He offered
me a cigarette. "You look well, Sam. How long has it been?"
"Six years. I was glad to get Sitwell's message about your
"Yes." He pointed to a mass of pen-written manuscript on his
desk. "I've been struggling. I find I can't do it unless I
shut myself off completely. Ghastly life."
"I got a bad report on you from Miss Burton."
"What did she have to say about me?"
"She says you're broodin' an' moodin'."
Siegfried slapped his knee hard; he always did that when he
was greatly amused. "Leave it to Burton! No one can sum up
the truth in a few words the way she can."
"But explain to me about Mr. Fleming. I am a little confused
about Mr. Fleming. Does Burton believe in all that
"I'm sure she thinks it's all flimflam. She's a realist, if
ever there was one. About Fleming she says, 'Mr. Fleming, 'e
belongs to the spirit world; 'e's a man of the spirit, but
'e likes 'is food regular.' She's a great character part.
You ought to write a play about her."
We both sat for a moment in a marvel at the phenomenon of
Siegfried said, "What's new with you—about your plays? Any
luck with them?"
"Harold Freedman's got the Theater Guild to take an option
on one of them."
"What does that mean?"
"They pay me five hundred dollars for six months. They're
supposed to produce it by spring."
"I hope so."
"That would be wonderful."
"Meanwhile, here I am where I want to be. In London. And I
am, I'll have you know, a lexicographer." I explained to him
about "Broadway" and my job of translating its dialogue for
He looked at the clock on the mantelshelf. It was after two.
"You must he tired. I can always go back to that thing." He
pointed to the pile of manuscript.
"What are you calling it?"
"'Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man.'"
"I'd love a look."
He got up and picked up a chapter. "About fifty pages. Take
'em along to Half Moon Street. They'll put you to sleep." He
slipped the fifty pages into a manila envelope.
"Fine," I said. "I was going to walk, but with these I'll
take a taxi."
"You'd better. It would be a considerable walk. You'll find
a taxi rank—bottom of the square. Will your lexicography
permit you to have lunch?"
"Of course," I said. "My staff does the heavy work."
"Naturally. Friday, I'll take you to my club."
We said good night on the landing. Campden Hill Square was
asleep—an expanse of darkness. I
walked to the corner and found a taxi. It was cold. I let
myself into Half Moon Street with the key Miss Burton had
given to me, found my room, with the bedside lamp on,
undressed, and got into bed. I was startled. There was
something warm and furry in my bed. I jumped out to
investigate. It was a flat, hot stone covered with a fur
wrap. It was a mercy. I said a prayer of thanks to Burton,
stretched out comfortably, and immersed myself in
Siegfried's memories of the—to me—least likely of
enterprises, foxhunting. I'd never heard of anyone in
Worcester, Massachusetts, who engaged in so bizarre an
I was entranced. I slipped mesmerically into Siegfried's
handwritten fifty pages—scarcely an erasure in them. I had
never before read anything that brought so close the feeling
of the earth, its scent and taste, its contours, the zest of
open air, the voices of birds and animals, the lives of
foliage, hedges, flowers, the excitement of the chase, the
community of horses, dogs, huntsmen, and grooms galvanized
by a single impulse, their consciousness merged in sky and
forest. In Worcester, somehow, though it was surrounded by
nature, there was, at least around me, no cult of nature.
There was also in Siegfried's impassioned pages involvement
with golf and cricket. I came nearest to him when he wrote
about cricket, because it reminded me of the involvement of
my crowd on Providence Street in our scratch baseball games
on lopsided, gravelly sandlots. But the chief delight was
Siegfried’s humorous sensitivity to the people of his world:
the grooms, the farmers, the clergymen, the noble lords who
mastered the hunts. What struck me was the homogeneity, the
classlessness. The Horse was the cynosure. When I finished
the fifty pages, I fell into a dream. What must it be like,
I wondered, to have been born as Siegfried was born, in the
English country, in an established hierarchy, with these
fields and wealds and streams and forests to roam and hunt?
Mr. Gresser, the father of the girl violinist whom I had
taken Siegfried to see, had told me when I next saw him that
the Sassoons were the oldest Jewish family in existence—that
compared to them the Rothschilds were upstarts. I began to
muse on this. My family was as old as Siegfried's; there are
no age differences in human families. What Mr. Gresser must
have meant was the oldest recorded Jewish family.
When I asked my father about his father and his father's
antecedents, I couldn't find out very much. My father
himself didn't know. He came out of darkness, out of
mystery. The ancestry he knew was traditional, impersonal.
There were no people in it, no individuals, nothing
idiosyncratic. There were historical concepts. Carnage.
Persecution. No people. Victims. No games. Escapes. I
scanned a sentence before I put the light out: "Rooks would
be cawing in the vicarage elms, and Burley, with its huddle
of red roofs and square church tower, was a contented
looking place." Worcester looked neither contented nor
discontented—just somnolent. I fell asleep trying to effect
a transposition of locales: What must it be like . . .
The next morning, just before noon, Jed telephoned. He had
arrived the night before from Paris. He had called me; I had
not been home. He had just called the Gaiges; they were out
shopping. There was something in the way he said this that
boded ill. By this time, I knew him well. They were out
shopping on his time, and even at his expense. I could tell
that he resented their presence in London; the detail that
Gaige had financed the entire production constantly escaped
him. He was in a bad mood. So was I. I had, just an hour
before, received a devastating cable from Harold Freedman.
It was open before me. It read, "Guild unable to produce
play this season. Think can get them renew option. Maurice
Wertheim wants to see you on return. No hurry. Best Harold."
Jed asked me to meet him at the Strand Theatre, where
"Broadway" was to open. I said I'd be there. I took the
cable back to my room to ponder it, though there was nothing
much to ponder. It had killed two dreams; the intertwined
one was of the moment when I could tell Jed that I was
quitting. It was a dream the three of us shared—Herman
Shumlin, Paul Streger, and I. We lived for the moment when
we would give up our jobs. I decided I wouldn't tell
Siegfried about this cable; it would distress him. I
wouldn't tell anyone.
I found Jed at the Strand with a Captain Troubridge, the
manager of the theatre, and John Balderston, the London
correspondent of the New York World. They were both
eating out of his hand. Jed was in wonderful spirits, fed by
his conquests, and was perfectly charming to me. Balderston
had dramatized, very successfully, Henry James's unfinished
novel "The Sense of the Past." Balderston called his play
"Berkeley Square." It was later to run in New York with
Leslie Howard—an enchanting performance—and was now running
in London with Jean Forbes-Robertson and Lawrence Anderson.
Everything was milk and honey. I owed Captain Troubridge and
Balderston a lot just for being there. They didn't know what
they had saved me from.
I was to see a great deal of John Balderston and his
attractive wife, Marion, on this visit and on subsequent
visits to London. Balderston worshipped Jed. Indeed, Jed's
effect on people was extraordinary; the forward thrust of
his personality, the physical embodiment of his total
self-belief, was hypnotic. He simply knew that he was
destined for mastery, that his success with "Broadway" was
merely the first rung of a career in which he would be
omnipotent. And it was so—for a long time, it was so. No
managerial personality in the theatre since has so
magnetized attention as Jed did for a decade. He was so
articulate about the plays he produced that he gave the
effect of directing them, even though he engaged directors.
Jed became bewitched by England and the Parliamentary
system. One day, sorting out his ambitions, he said to me,
"You know, I think of settling down in England. And, you
know, if I did, and if I went into politics, I think I could
have the same career Disraeli did." I repeated this one day,
as a kind of joke, to John Balderston. To my surprise,
Balderston said, with perfect gravity, "I have no doubt
whatever that Jed could."
My friendship with Siegfried enabled me to shuttle between
Captain Troubridge's office in the Strand Theatre and the
elite of the London literary world, to which I had no valid
admission ticket. Siegfried invited me to go with him to a
tea party at Sir Edmund and Lady Gosse's. The cable from
Harold Freedman about the rejection of my play by the
Theatre Guild made me more than ever conscious of having no
admission ticket. There was a great crowd; I heard storied
names—Edith Sitwell, Geoffrey Scott. What was I to do? How
was I to survive? I felt completely out of my depth, a yokel
who had stomped into a Parnassian séance. Gosse was talking
about "my substantial political victory in Italy." Was Gosse
running for office in Italy?
Was it a private joke? Then Gosse rose to greet me, a tidy
man with a booming voice. His gray hair was parted in the
middle; he wore a patch over one eye. Siegfried told me
later that he changed the patch from eye to eye as it suited
him. Gosse went on to tell of a transatlantic crossing he'd
made to America after the Civil War. The passengers all ate
at one long table. He told of the super-elegance of an
American lady. There was a great salmon in the middle of the
table. "'Do you mind, Mr. Gosse,' she said, 'if I assist the
salmon?' I wondered what she thought she could do for the
salmon that the salmon couldn't do for itself."
My life was saved by Lady Gosse, who spoke as softly as her
husband boomed. She took me into her confidence about an
indiscretion of Viscount Haldane's. She told me of a great
party at the Duchess of York's, and Viscount Haldane's
inspiration for getting out of it. He made a tour of the
drawing room admiring the pictures; he admired and admired,
till he found himself out in the hall. "Wasn't it wicked of
him?" she said, smiling delightedly at me behind her hand.
I'd have liked to sit with Lady Gosse forever. Siegfried
took me away, though, to show me an early Sargent of Gosse
and a caricature of Swinburne. We returned to the tea table.
I sat beside Miss Sitwell. I got fixed on her fingernails.
Her hands were beautiful, the nails abnormally long and of
what was then a strange color—pale silver, the color of a
fish's belly. Gosse was talking of her verses in a
just-published book. He made a critical comment on one poem.
Miss Sitwell bridled. Gosse rolled over the bridle. To
console Miss Sitwell, I asked her whether she would care to
go to the opening of "Broadway." She said she'd love to go.
Miss Sitwell was impressively cozy. Siegfried and I took her
home. In the cab, she expanded on Gosse's effrontery; I was
rather astonished at the ferocity with which she attacked
him. "He rapped me on the knuckles as if I were a
schoolgirl," she said. Then she remembered that I had
invited her to the opening of "Broadway." She asked
Siegfried if he would take her. Siegfried consented.
"Broadway" opened at the Strand Theatre two nights later.
The house was full, the audience dressy. I sat with Anita
Harris, Jed's wife. I saw Siegfried and Edith Sitwell. I saw
Richard Curle with Hilda. I saw the Balderstons. I saw
Arnold Bennett—a hero of mine, because I greatly admired
"The Old Wives' Tale." "Broadway" is a gutter play, about
the lowest forms of human life, set in a degraded cabaret
frequented by rival bootlegger gangs with guns at the ready.
I wondered how this genteel audience could respond to it.
When I looked at Curle, I wondered, What would Joseph
Conrad, who despised Ibsen, think of this? That it was
better than Ibsen, probably. What was Arnold Bennett
thinking? I was never to know; he does not mention this
first night in his published journals.
I spoke with Siegfried and Miss Sitwell in the intermission.
Miss Sitwell said she was having a lovely time. Gaige,
Hilda, and Curle joined us. Miss Sitwell and Siegfried
begged off coming to the Gaiges' opening-night party at the
Berkeley. Jed was threading the lobby, eavesdropping on
comments. Hilda waved to him. He waved back but did not join
At the party, everyone felt that the play had gone very well
and would be a hit. Balderston telephoned a newspaper from
the party and had St. John Ervine's notice read to him.
"It's a money notice," he announced.
At one in the morning, Jed said he was leaving, and asked me
to go to his suite with him; he was also staying at the
Berkeley. When we got there, he called room service and
ordered coffee. He was quite amiable. "One thing about you
I'll never understand," he said, "is how you can spend so
much time with the Gaiges."
"I like them very much," I said "Gaige has always been very
kind to me. I love Hilda."
"A lot of good that'll do you." He was smiling. He had
anticipated this conversation. He had decided to play it
friendly. "I've bought a play. 'Coquette.' I'm putting Helen
Hayes in it. That'll give you a nice little job when you get
"Not me. I'm quitting."
"Hecht and MacArthur are working on a terrific play for me.
Chicago newspaper life. 'The Front Page.' What I've seen of
it is terrific. You'll have a ball with that. You'd be very
foolish to quit. I've read your plays. You'll never get
anywhere with them. They're thin."
"The Guild doesn't think so."
Jed looked at me pityingly. He was silky. "Poor, deluded
boy. Why do I call you boy? You're at least five years older
than I am. I don't like to break it to you. But I'd better,
to keep you from making a mistake. You know, I'm a master of
espionage. My spies are everywhere. I know what's going on
in every office. The Guild will never do your play. They
have other plans. You'd better stick with me."
"There's one thing you don't understand about me."
"There are many things I don't understand about you." Jed
sipped his coffee. "Your devotion to the Gaiges, for
"You keep harping on the Gaiges. You forget that Gaige has
financed this whole production. You never put up your share.
Is that why you hate Gaige?"
"You're a stooge for Gaige. You're in love with Hilda. Just
because she hates Gaige doesn't mean she'll give you a
break. Get on to yourself."
"I'm on to you."
He got up, walked over to me, and said quietly, "If there
were no penalty for homicide, I'd kill you."
I left. I walked down the hall to the lift. I was blind with
rage and frustration. Jed was right about the Guild. Harold
Freedman's telegram was the proof. I wondered whether the
Gaiges' party was still on. I had left my overcoat in their
suite. I went back there and rang the doorbell. Hilda opened
the door. She looked very tired. She managed to smile at
me—wanly. "Party's over. Crosby has gone to bed."
I apologized for intruding on her. "I'll just pick up my
coat and run."
"Please don't. Sit for a minute and talk to me. I feel sort
of— What did Jed have to say?"
I followed her into the drawing room. I sat wondering how I
could edit Jed's remarks to make them presentable. She sat
opposite me in a big armchair, her hand over her face. I
decided how to edit Jed. "Oh, he's very high. Full of plans.
He's got Helen Hayes for a new play he's doing, and he's
crazy about another one, by Hecht and MacArthur. It's all
about Chicago newspaper life. He . . ."
I saw then that Hilda wasn't listening. She was crying. She
had given up, her head in her arms. I got up. I wanted to do
something for her, to say something. I felt that the best
thing I could do for her was to leave her alone. I went into
the hallway, picked up my coat, and left. I walked to Half
Moon Street. Second honeymoons, I reflected, were no more
solace than walnut panelling.
The following morning, I went down to what Max Beerbohm
called "the street of the ship-shops" and got myself a
second-class cabin on a ship sailing next day. I rarely make
a decision without regretting it. This was not a decision;
it was a compulsion. Freedman had cabled me not to hurry,
yet I was hurrying. Jed knew about my vacillations and was
counting on them. That's why he had told me in detail of his
inviting prospects. But while these conflicts were going on
in my incorrigibly wavering mind, I went through all the
motions—paid for my ticket and put the seal on the
compulsion. Siegfried, I knew, was about to visit Thomas
Hardy, and I went at once to Campden Hill Square. I told him
that I was going back to New York and that I had quit Jed.
He was sorry about the former and glad of the latter. Then
he began talking about Hardy. He venerated him beyond every
other living writer. He described the village of Dorchester,
in which Hardy lived; his simple house, surrounded by trees;
his friendship with his beloved sheep dog, Wessex. Siegfried
conveyed the simplicity and the greatness of his idol. He
showed me some of Hardy's letters to him; the qualities he
adumbrated were in the letters. "'True Thomas,' Gosse calls
him," Siegfried said. He told me he was leaving London.
There were too many distractions there for the work he
wanted to do. He was going to look for a suitable country
house he could buy, where I could come to stay. On the
chimera of this next visit, we said goodbye. I must let him
know about my play; he would let me know about the house.
On the way back to Half Moon Street, I wondered, What must
it be like to be going to the Hardy country on such a bright
morning, to be welcomed there by its creator and proprietor?
At Half Moon Street, I found a message from Hilda. I called
her. I had left her, early that morning, weeping. Now she
was excited. She told me that Crosby had left for Paris, but
that wasn't what she was excited about. She was excited
because Captain Troubridge had called her from the theatre
to tell her that the Prince of Wales was attending the
performance that evening. She must, of course, go, and I
must take her. I had intended to spend the evening packing,
but I promised. I sought out Miss Burton to tell her my
problem. She brushed it aside. She was sorry I was leaving.
So would Mr. Fleming be. "'E 'as taken a shine to you," she
said. As for the packing, she had always packed for Robbie's
mother, and, she didn't mind telling me, "she 'ad more to
pack than you 'ave, and she always said, 'No one can get so
much in so little as you can. 'Ow do you do it?' she'd sy. I
never let 'er watch me."
I granted Burton similar privacy. I carried my briefcase
down to the study, took out my notebook, and tried for
several hours to work. But my thoughts kept wandering to the
simple, tree-surrounded house in Dorchester, to True Thomas
and his sheep dog.
Captain Troubridge provided us with seats in a box, and we
saw the Prince of Wales plain. He was, as a matter of fact,
extraordinarily handsome and debonair. Hilda drank him in.
She was a bit ashamed of doing so, but we were at a
considerable distance—the Prince sat in an orchestra seat.
We both noticed that the audience left him in peace; no one
Hilda was upset when I told her that I was leaving the next
day, but she didn't try to stop me. She knew how unhappy I
was working for Jed, and she approved of my quitting him. To
dispel the gloom, she said, "And I haven't even met Burton.
Tell you what—I'll pick you up and take you to the boat
train. I'll come early, so I can meet her."
In the morning, Burton knocked at my door. "Mrs. Gyge." She
started downstairs. I followed. I was a bit apprehensive
about her meeting Hilda; she had one day said to me, "I 'ave
to sy I don't like women very well—they're fair to the eye
an' rotten to the core. I'm speakin' general. An' that way I
don't like 'em. I won't use their tricks." Nevertheless, she
welcomed Hilda with enthusiasm.
Mr. Fleming was standing at attention in the parlor. He was
presented to Hilda. He took to Hilda. It was the first time
I'd heard Rear Double say anything: "I don't believe, Mr.
Behrman, you've ever seen my room. I have some mementos I
would like to show you before you leave. Won't you both do
me the honor?"
Hilda and I said we'd love to. All three of us followed him
upstairs. He ushered us into his room. It was a very
commodious room, somewhat dark, with shaded lamps. There was
the smell of incense. The effect of the room was Oriental,
Indian: buddhas; brass vases, heavily scrolled; ivories.
There were three large photographs, elaborately framed in
what looked like teakwood.
Burton pointed out to us the photograph of a dark, lowering
lady with a deadly serious expression. "Mme. Blavatsky,"
As if compelled by her hypnotic expression, we all stood
before Mme. Blavatsky.
Mr. Fleming breathed her name, staring at her reverently.
"Dear Mme. Blavatsky. Dear Presence. She was often here,
wasn't she, Burton?"
"Indeed she was," confirmed Burton. "In and out."
Mr. Fleming then stood, in a votive attitude, before the
photograph of an incredibly graceful and handsome young
Indian. "I hardly need say who this is," Mr. Fleming said.
But Burton did. "That's Messiah," she said crisply. "Looks
it, don't 'e?"
Presently, Miss Burton was hugging me goodbye.
Hilda and I took a cab. I hadn't told Hilda about Harold
Freedman's telegram. I hadn't the heart. At the train, she
said, "Where will you be when you get back?"
"I don't know."
"Leave word at my apartment—address and telephone number."
"I will, of course."
"Goodbye, darling. I just want to tell you a little plan I
have—have had for a long time for you. Your play will be a
great success—I know it will. The minute it happens, I'll
find you a nice apartment. I’ll furnish it for you. You'll
leave those mangy rooms you live in and walk into your
charming apartment—your first home."
I ran onto the train.
On the way to Southampton, my thoughts were full of Hilda. I
saw her beautiful blue-green eyes when she said goodbye to
me. They were misted, not for this parting but for her own
sorrow. I remembered the conjecture that Jed had flung at me
about my being in love with Hilda. I was thirty-three. Hilda
was at least ten years older. Jed couldn't have been more
wrong; I am sure he knew it.
In my small cabin on the ship, I sat down and lit a
cigarette. I tried to face the future. On a stupid impulse,
I had made myself jobless. I was again prey to the perennial
erosion: What next?
The year before that, I had been introduced by an old friend
and collaborator, J. Kenyon Nicholson, to the
well-established and esteemed literary agent Carl Brandt, of
Brandt & Brandt. Nicholson, with whom I had written three
plays, was from Indiana and was a friend of the Hoosier
novelist and essayist Meredith Nicholson (not related), who
took an interest in Ken Nicholson—or Nick, as he was known.
Nick was an extremely personable young man, and Meredith,
who was the author of a successful novel, "The House of a
Thousand Candles," thought that his own agent, Carl Brandt,
might help him. Nick and I had this in common from the
start: we didn't want to write literature, we wanted to
write plays. Therefore, Carl Brandt, in his turn, introduced
us both to Harold Freedman, whom he had just engaged to
start a drama department for him. Carl told me long
afterward that he couldn't for a considerable time
understand why he had engaged Harold Freedman for a selling
job. In the first place, no one he had ever met was less
theatrical, in approach and style. Harold spoke almost
inaudibly and with great difficulty; every sentence was
interlarded with "er"s. He was practically inarticulate. He
was also Scottish. His family had emigrated from Scotland
when he was a boy, and settled in Pennsylvania, where they
had a go at farming. That didn't work out. His parents and
his three brothers moved to Washington and started a
wholesale industrial-paper business, which still exists, and
became very successful. Harold came to New York and enrolled
at Columbia, where he majored in chemistry, with a side
glance at drama. After his graduation, he joined the
Washington Square Players, which was the matrix of the
Theater Guild. It was hard for Harold's friends to imagine
him as an actor, but he was one for a time. In any event,
the connection proved valuable, for him and his later
clients, because he came to do a lot of business with the
Theatre Guild. Among his early clients were Robert Sherwood,
Maxwell Anderson, and Philip Barry. It was a useful
connection for the Guild, too: at a moment when it found
itself in the financial doldrums, Philip Barry provided it
with Katharine Hepburn and "The Philadelphia Story."
Harold carried reticence to the point of mania. For him,
secrecy was a way of life. He regarded the commercial
Broadway theatre as a kind of stock market, where careers
could be made or broken by the drift of rumor. I had been
with him for a long time, and he had sold many plays for me
and written many Hollywood contracts, before I knew where he
lived. If we were going uptown in a taxi, he would get out
at a street corner, so that I wouldn't know which house he
lived in. I was with him for a month in London once. I saw
him constantly, because he was arranging a contract for me
with Alexander Korda. I didn't know till I returned that his
wife, May, who by that time was a friend of mine, had been
there all the time. This foible of secrecy became a kind of
trademark for Harold. Stories about it were rife. The
director Guthrie McClintic was fond of telling how Harold
called him one day and said he had something to speak to him
about. Guthrie asked Harold to meet him on the stage of the
New Amsterdam Theatre, where he was rehearsing. Harold came,
as had been arranged, at five o'clock. Guthrie dismissed his
actors and called Harold over. Harold made sure that the
last of the actors had gone, but he still seemed insecure
about transmitting his secret. He looked around nervously at
the vast gloom of the New Amsterdam stage, lit by a single
ghost light. Guthrie saw that Harold was nervous. Who could
tell what spies were lurking in the shadows? Guthrie took
him into Marilyn Miller's dressing room. Harold closed the
door, which Guthrie had left open. By this time, Guthrie had
begun to lose his temper a bit. He demanded communication.
Harold leaned close to him and began to communicate, but, as
Guthrie told it, "his voice was so goddam modulated that I
couldn't understand a single word be said."
One episode involving Harold is an office legend at Brandt &
Brandt. Carl Brandt had employed a young man of
prepossessing appearance to come in and learn the business.
He had been a football star in college, was very
good-looking, genial, and a snappy dresser. He stayed about
a year and decided that he would do better in Hollywood. He
did. He married film stars. On his last day at Brandt &
Brandt, he went around to say goodbye to everybody. Coming
into Freedman's office, he put out his hand, and wrung
Harold's with Rotarian fervor. He said what a pleasure and
privilege it had been to know Harold and to study his
working methods. To show his gratitude, he made a large
offer. "Now, Mr. Freedman," he said. "Is there anything I
can do for you in Hollywood? I'll be only too happy to do
it." Harold's whispered answer was distinct. "Yes," he said.
"Don't mention my name."
Harold's secrecy fetish, in an odd way, generated
confidence. Though he drove film executives and the local
managers crazy, they trusted him. In Hollywood, visiting a
friend, I met an august film tycoon. He asked me whether I
had an agent. I said I had, and told him who. He was
abashed. "Oh, have you got an agent!" he said. Harold was
religious. He had high ethical standards; he expected the
people he dealt with to live up to them. When they didn't,
he remembered it and made opportunities to even the balance.
The delinquents found themselves living up to standards that
they had never professed. In time, Harold's stable of
leading playwrights here and in England made his position
very powerful. Terence Rattigan had an almost filial
devotion to him. Harold represented John Osborne. In a
coffee shop one day about fifteen years ago, I was asked to
join Herman Levin (the producer of "My Fair Lady"), the
writer Harry Kurnitz, and the actor Martin Gabel. Levin was
very funny on the subject of the martyrdom involved in
dealing with Harold Freedman. The pivot of his grievance was
Freedman's inhuman choice of a summer place—an unmapped spot
called Deer Isle, in Maine. Only Freedman would choose a
remote place like that in which to spend the summer. First,
there was the difficulty of getting him on the phone. It was
always busy. Harold was always talking to Italy or to
London. Then, when you did get him, there was the problem of
understanding what he said. To converse with him, said
Levin, was to be cradled in hesitation. I used to visit
Harold summers in Deer Isle. It was indeed a difficult place
to get to; after you thought you had arrived, you still had
several hours to travel. Harold would be on the phone all
day and into the night: to Ischia, where Terence Rattigan
was on holiday, which meant that he was working on a play;
to Manchester, England, where a play of Enid Bagnold's was
opening; to San Francisco, where Ina Claire was living.
There is an amusing caricature of Harold by Will Cotton that
shows him grappling with a couple of telephones, both of
which he is answering simultaneously, his eyes looking in
every direction. Harold did not represent actors, but he did
cosset them. In 1932, a play of mine called "Biography,"
which was about to be produced, urgently needed a star.
Finding one presented a problem to which Harold devoted
himself. I was in the Belasco Theatre one evening. In the
intermission, I found Harold waiting for me. He had come to
give me the glad news that he had persuaded Ina Claire to
play "Biography." He performed a similar service in the case
of another play of mine, "No Time for Comedy," winch
urgently needed a brilliant leading man to play opposite
Katharine Cornell. He provided Laurence Olivier. It was an
enjoyable moment for him when he was able to tell me that he
had persuaded Noël Coward to do Alfred Lunt's part in my
first play, "The Second Man," in London, and, thirteen years
later, that I could count on Rex Harrison for Olivier's part
in the London production of "No Time for Comedy."
It has been urged against Harold that he preëmpted the
functions of management—that he was a frustrated producer.
He was not; he was a functioning producer. He had all the
fun without having to bear the ultimate responsibility. He
was one of the few men I have known who have done exactly
what they wanted to do and have had no wish for extension.
He was powerful and he knew it. He was pleased with being,
for all practical purposes, a one-man business. He could
have sold out to the giant corporate agencies for a very
large sum, but he was never in the least tempted. He enjoyed
the way of life he had made for himself. He lived in the
Volney Hotel, on East Seventy-fourth Street, for thirty-five
years; he built a house on Deer Isle because he had lived in
a boarding house there in his vacations while he was still
at Columbia. He loved the theatre. He loved plays. His
loyalty to his clients was unflagging. When they died, this
loyalty seemed to intensify; he worked unceasingly to keep
their plays in motion. He had a very shrewd notion of the
capacities and the limitations of all the producers. He did
everything he could to supplement their limitations. These
were sometimes so wide that they made Harold the virtual
producer. But he never wanted to be a real producer. I once
said to him, "You know more about the inside workings of the
theatre than anyone else. Why don't you write a book about
it?" "Because I can't write," he said. When he got difficult
plays on—Mary Chase's "Harvey," Enid Bagnold's "The Chalk
Garden"—and they were well received, he savored the joys of
successful management. The vast success of Jean Kerr's
"Mary, Mary" almost made him complacent. In my own case, be
persisted with "The Second Man" after it had been rejected
by every management in New York, including the Theatre
Guild, which finally produced it. An odd quirk of Harold's
relationship with producers was that although in many
instances he liked them and they liked him, he became their
deadly enemy when a play he had sold them was in production,
which was when their limitations, from his point of view,
began to show, The source of the quarrel could he major or
minor—publicity, what Harold thought an inept casting, a
dress or a pair of shoes worn by the ingénue—but the
intensity was fixed, and it was maximal.
Harold's sudden death, in February, 1966, affected his older
clients grievously, and, for all I know, his younger ones
also. Is it proper for an agent to build up so potent an
influence over his clients that they feel crippled when he
dies? Whether it is proper or not, his clients were
certainly grateful for his influence while he was alive.
Irene Mayer Selznick, in a letter to her friend Enid Bagnold
after Harold died, spoke of his death with indignation. "How
dared he!?" she demanded. I apologize to the shade of Harold
Freedman for not complying with the request he made of the
willing Hollywood-bound young man in the Brandt & Brandt
office, but his life was closely and constantly intertwined
with mine. From the day in 1925 when he began to sell my
first play until the last day of his life, when he called me
at five-thirty in the afternoon to advise me about a
perilous project I threatened to embark on, he was
omnipresent. In this last conversation, he asked me to think
over the suggestions he had made; he would call me in the
morning to check. In the morning, he was gone; he had died
in his steep.
When I got back from London, at the very end of 1926, I
found Nick established in a nice job. Because we had written
three unproduced plays together, he had been chosen to teach
dramatic writing at Columbia. He was also established in a
grisly rooming house on West Thirty-sixth Street. As I was
jobless, I moved in with him. Nick now had academic
friends—girl students attracted by the looks of the
Professor, though they were repelled by the looks of the
Professor's quarters. The horrified glances of our friends
at what they beheld after climbing four flights of
uncarpeted stairs made Nick and me feel that we should put
up some kind of ameliorative sign. I happened to read a
novel by Gilbert Cannan about an English pacifist who was
being sent to jail for his unpatriotic utterances on the eve
of the First World War. His friends gave him a farewell
dinner. One of them made light of his impending
incarceration. "We are going to prison! Bah! What is that?"
he said. "One must live somewhere." The last four words
struck me as a possible motto for our room. Nick agreed. We
had them printed on a strip of cardboard, signed Gilbert
Cannan, and tacked it up on the wall.
Nick and I wrote a series of stories about our
fellow-boarders; some of them were printed in the Smart
Set. We planned to make a book of them, and have often
regretted since that we didn't. We were interrupted in our
Balzacian labors by two accidents. A play written by Nick on
his own, "The Barker," was produced and was an immediate
hit. It had Walter Huston as its star, and it presented, to
a famished American public, the alluring Claudette Colbert.
Not long afterward, "The Second Man," which I had written on
my own, was produced and was also a success. We took down
Gilbert Cannan's sign, but we held on to it in case we
should need it again.
The three plays Nick and I had written together were now,
owing to their distinguished authorship, produced. They
failed. Still, the production of these plays—the innumerable
rewrites, the rehearsals, the tryouts—kept Nick and me and
Harold Freedman fairly busy for quite a spell. One of them
was produced and directed by Winthrop Ames, a grandee whose
family had a town in Massachusetts named after it. Winthrop
Ames was a director of great sensitivity. He kept asking me
to rewrite the second-act curtain line of the play he was
putting on. Nick was busy rewriting one of the other plays.
I wrote nine curtain lines for Ames. He didn't like any of
them. Neither did I. I never saw the play except in
Nick and I took these failures lightly. It is easier to
stand failure in the lee of a success. I was swimming in
plays. Novels were sent me to dramatize, and plays by
fledgling authors (how narrowly I was now removed from
them!) for the same purpose. By that time, I had made
considerable headway with the adaptation of a little
anonymous English novel that had somehow fallen into my
hands and captivated me. It was "Serena Blandish: or The
Difficulties of Getting Married," by "A Lady of Quality."
Whoever she was, she certainly had it. The book is
enchantingly written, with irresistible style and humorous
invention. It also has a tough awareness of the metallic
facts of life. I asked Harold Freedman to get me the
dramatic rights. I had gone to work on it even before he got
them and before my first play had opened.
Back from England in early 1927, Jed Harris, whose mind it
had slipped that my plays were thin, had gone for the idea
of "Serena Blandish" when I told him about it. He decided
that it was a starring vehicle for an uncannily skillful
actress, Ruth Gordon. I have said that the New York theatre
then was cozier than it is now. Alexander Woollcott helped
cozy it up. He idolized Jed Harris. "Why don't you face it,
Aleck? You are in love with me," Jed said to him once. "I am
afraid that you suffer from delusions of grandeur," Aleck
said. Noël Coward arrived from London. "I've simply passed
out over Jed Harris," he told me. He applied to Jed the
sobriquet Destiny's Tot, and this stuck to Jed for quite a
One day, in the subway station at Times Square, I ran into
Marc Connelly, by then a well-known playwright. He was
excited. He had some-thing to tell me. He walked with me to
Jed's office. He'd read a book by Roark Bradford, "Ol' Man
Adam an' His Chillun," which had completely entranced him.
He had already begun to dramatize it. He began rhapsodizing
about it: a fish-fry; colored cherubs; all the characters
colored, including De Lawd, who pays them a visit; "a whole
mess of firmament." I'd known Marc for some years, and I'd
never heard him so excited about anything. It did sound
entrancing. I told him so. I said I'd speak to Jed about it.
"He'd be wonderful for it," said Marc.
I told Marc to go back to work, and repeated my promise to
speak to Jed.
At dinner that night in Dinty Moore's, I told Jed about my
meeting with Marc. I told him the idea of the play—that it
sounded just up Marc's street and altogether entrancing. Jed
was skeptical. Marc had a reputation for dilatory work
habits. "Marc'll never finish it," he said flatly. "He can
talk a play, but he'll never write it."
"I think he will. He's very hot on it. With some
encouragement from you, I'd bet on it."
"You know Marc!"
"Call him up. Offer him an advance. It'll turn the trick.
I'm sure of it."
Jed thought a moment. "What's his number?"
I gave him Marc's number. Jed went to the telephone booth.
When he came back, he told me, with sardonic intonation,
that Marc said he had enough done so that he could finish
the play in six weeks. "I told him that was too fast—to take
three months. What'll you bet that's the last I'll hear from
I wouldn't bet.
One Sunday night perhaps four or five months later, I went
to some kind of benefit at the Theatre Guild. There I ran
into Marc Connelly for the first time since the day I had
met him in Times Square. I asked him how he was getting on
with Jed and with "Ol' Man Adam an' His Chillun," by now
retitled "Green Pastures."
Marc looked grim. "It's all off with Jed and me," he said.
"Here. Read this letter Jed sent me."
He handed me the letter. I read, "Dear Marc, I cannot go on
with your play, because you appear to be taking too great an
interest in the production."
I was astonished. I looked at Marc.
"That's all you have to read," he said. "The rest just
compounds my felony."
I finished the letter and gave it back to Marc. "Too bad," I
said. "What are you going to do?"
"Find another producer. Have got one reading it this minute.
I'm not worried. It's the best thing I've ever done." He
smiled, his natural sunniness restored. "I've dug up a dream
actor to play De Lawd."
I went home troubled by this. I was troubled by the possible
effect of this letter. The success of Marc's play, as of all
plays, was problematical. That was not the point. Jed was
rolling in successes, but wasn't it reckless of him to write
a letter like that to a well-known and functioning
playwright? I sat down to write in my diary; I noted the
meeting with Marc, conveying my troubled feeling about it.
My concern for Jed rather surprised me. Was I fond of him?
Whether I was or not, I was fascinated by him. At his best,
he was irresistible. No matter what else one might say, Jed
was a primal force, an artist. He was not, as so many
producers are, an assembler, an exporter-importer; he was an
But much happened before that. My first chore on my return
from London at the end of 1926 had been to have lunch with
Maurice Wertheim, one of the directors of the Theatre Guild.
There were six of them—Lawrence Langner, Theresa Helburn,
Lee Simonson, Helen Westley, and Philip Moeller were the
others—and they were an unusual group of people. They were
all, in the best sense, amateurs. No individual or group
since has done for the American theatre what the Guild did.
It brought the New York theatre into the twentieth century.
It demolished the cliché that nothing in the theatre can be
accomplished by committee; it accomplished everything that
way. It produced Eugene O'Neill and Shaw, even to the
eccentricity of devoting three evenings to "Back to
Methuselah;" it taught an audience to come to the theatre at
four-thirty in the afternoon, go to dinner, and return for
the rest of the play, and, moreover, it made the audience
like it. At the beginning of January, 1927, it had four
hits, two of them by Sidney Howard. It had produced plays by
Georg Kaiser and Franz Werfel. It was very successful; its
directors had long since lost their amateur standing. They
maintained it within themselves.
It was now, though, about two years since my first interview
with Theresa Helburn, at the Guild Theatre, on Fifty-second
Street. A small woman, she sat behind a glass-topped desk in
a small office. Underneath the plate glass was a great ruled
chart spotting the Guild productions all over the United
States. Someone once said that Terry was the ablest
executive in the United States—that she could have run
General Motors. She could have. Terry smiled at me and said,
"Well, we like your play." I thought there I was, but I
didn't know Terry—not for a long time. I was to learn that
she was not self-indulgent. She didn't put on a play just
because she liked it. It had to be a passion. And even if
she was impassioned, she was helpless unless her colleagues
were equally impassioned. She would sigh, and reflect on the
intractability of people—how difficult it was to move them
At last, Harold Freedman had got them to promise that they
would do my play for a spring tryout. Maurice Wertheim had
now invited me to lunch at a place I had never been to—the
Bankers' Club, at the top of a building down Wall Street
way. I had always found Maurice warm and friendly. I got
from him vaguely the feeling that he would like to be
hail-fellow-well-met but didn't quite know how. This was
appealing. His appearance was the totality of correctness:
beautifully dressed, of course, and manners in the pink of
courtesy. He was good-looking. He had a short, flat-surfaced
nose; he looked like a middle-aged kitten, a kitten with
worries. I knew that he had been sent by Terry to break the
news to me that they had to postpone my play, and that he
didn't at all like the assignment. Mr. Wertheim began to
explain. They were, at the Guild, suffering from an
embarrassment of riches. Their plays were too successful.
Therefore, the actors playing them were tired; they had
overworked them. They had overworked the Lunts. The Lunts
demanded a holiday, and they deserved it. Here was the nub:
they wanted the Lunts for my play, and the Lunts wanted it,
too—Alfred had told him personally that my play offered him
the best comedy part he had ever had in his hands—but they
were adamant about going to Europe in the spring, and if
they did my play, they could stay in it only seven weeks.
I said that I'd rather have seven weeks with the Lunts than
seven weeks without them.
Maurice said he quite saw my point of view. Did I see his?
By this time, I was having a good time with Maurice and
found myself liking him very much. I left him without
knowing the fate of my play but with a nice feeling that I
now had a friend who belonged to the Bankers' Club.
One morning, the phone rang. It was Maurice Wertheim. His
voice was less modulated than usual. He seemed excited.
"Well," he said, "we've had a board meeting. You said you'd
rather have seven weeks with the Lunts than seven weeks
without them. We're giving you seven weeks with them.
Starting April 11th."
I could tell that he was elated, even triumphant, at being
the transmitter of this news. I thanked him.
"Call Terry right away," he said. "See her today."
I said I would. I called Harold Freedman to report, then
called Miss Helburn. At two o'clock, I went to see her in
her office. Miss Helburn, her hair lavenderish, greeted me
warmly. She had a disarming smile.
Terry turned to my play. It had not been easy, she said, to
get Miss Fontanne, who was triumphantly playing the star
part in "Pygmalion," to follow it up with a small and
subsidiary part in my play. Her wish to give her husband the
chance to play the leading part had helped. The Guild was
going ahead, and was happy about it. Should the play go
over, the Guild wouldn't necessarily have to close it when
the Lunts left. It could be recast and—with the help of
Gray's Drug Store, a cut-rate theatre-ticket
emporium—perhaps run all summer. I asked how you could
possibly recast the Lunts. It wouldn't be easy, said Terry
smoothly, but it might be contrived. Who would come to see a
play in which the Lunts were not, I inquired dolefully. The
vast audience that had never seen them, she said, as well as
the selecter audience that had missed them in their brief
engagement. She made it seem that the brevity of their
engagement was an advantage, since it increased the audience
that hadn't seen them. She was extremely adroit.
I went to a pay phone across the street to call Harold
Freedman. He laughed when I told him how Terry had
transformed the horrid prospect of replacing the Lunts into
a rosy vista. He knew Terry very well and appreciated her.
The moment I left the phone booth, I ran into Lee Simonson.
He greeted me robustly. "You've seen Terry? Then she's told
you! I'm delighted. I love your play. I wish I were doing
the set for it. Congratulations!"
I thanked him.
Simonson was a medium-sized, dark man with a black mustache.
He vibrated with energy; he gave the effect of a projectile
about to he shot out from something. "We were all happy
yesterday when we settled it finally about your play," he
said. "You have a strong ally in Wertheim. Phil Moeller will
direct it beautifully. We feel that you are our author." He
dived across the street into the Theatre Guild.
I wanted more than anything to go home and collect my
thoughts. Once there, I sat and thought. Well, here it was!
Meeting Simonson gave me a clearer notion of the Theatre
Guild. He said he wanted to do the set for my play. Why
didn't he? He was a sixth of the producer. The whole,
evidently, preferred Jo Mielziner, who did it. Terry! I
couldn't get over Terry. She was very sophisticated, with
lively humor. I had an intuition that her colleagues were
children to her. She humored them. In the succeeding years,
as the Guild did many of my plays, this first impression was
confirmed, constantly and entertainingly illustrated,
One day soon afterward, my phone rang. It was Jed, in high
dudgeon. "When in the hell are you going to get on with
those 'Serena' rewrites?" he demanded. "The play is in poor
shape. I don't have the nerve to send it to actors!"
I told him that I was going out of town the next day to work
on it—something I had just decided.
"I've got a great idea for Martin," he said. "Aleck
Woollcott thinks it's a stroke of genius. A. E. Matthews. Do
you know him? He could charm a bird off a tree. The part's
so goddam marmoreal—Martin's such an inhuman bastard. Aleck
says Matty'll take the curse off it."
I added my congratulations to Aleck's on Jed's stroke.
Mollified, Jed went on, forgetting that he was ashamed to
send the play to actors, "And I've got a great idea for the
Countess—Constance Collier. Aleck thinks that's great, too."
I joined Aleck.
"Constance says she'd love to play it. All I need is a
I promised to get him one. I repeated that I was leaving
first thing in the morning.
"Where you going?"
"That's hell and gone out of the way!"
I said that that was why I chose it. "Guild's trying out
your play, I hear."
"Yes. In April."
"How long will the Lunts be in it?"
"You're an idiot. So is Harold, to let you do it. If you'd
saved the damn thing for me, I'd have given you a regular
production. I've been casting it. Thought of putting Lou
Calhern in it. He'd be perfect for it. How stupid can you
be—you and Harold both? Call me tomorrow from that swamp in
Vermont." He hung up.
I had discovered Woodstock through an accident while
staying, as a paving guest, at Aleck Woollcott's satrapy—an
island on Lake Bomoseen, Vermont, about a half hour from
Rutland. He had fallen in love with the island. He bought
property and built a house there. As it was inconceivable to
Aleck to stay anywhere alone, he developed a scheme: he
would fill the house with his friends and, since he could
not himself afford to entertain on such a scale, charge them
seven dollars and fifty cents a day. I went up for a week,
which was about all I could afford. 'When I got there, I
found Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, and Harpo Marx. It was
very pleasant. Aleck presided at all the meals, which were
good, and talked. It was all he asked; I had never seen him
as happy or in such good form as he was at Bomoseen. He was
possessive; he didn't like any of his guests to go to the
mainland. The island was small and a bit claustrophobic. I
had a longing to tread the streets of Rutland once, and
asked him how I could manage it. He heaped scorn on me for
entertaining such a vulgar impulse. A half hour or so in
Rutland made me quite willing to return to the island. Aleck
was excited about starting a series of pamphlets on public
questions; he bemoaned the absence of pamphleteering in this
country and wanted to enlist Ben Hecht for this.
"Broadsides!" he would cry, "What this country needs are
broadsides! To arouse controversy!"
At the weekend, two women arrived—Cornelia Otis Skinner and
Eleonora Mendelssohn. On Saturday, Miss Skinner wanted to
take a drive to show Vermont to Miss Mendelssohn. Aleck
consented to this. I went with them. Miss Mendelssohn was a
German actress of great beauty. She had been a member of Max
Reinhardt’s company at home and had appeared in several
plays in New York. While we were driving through the
beautiful countryside, on a perfect day, Miss Mendelssohn
became suddenly ill. Greatly concerned, Miss Skinner
directed the driver to go to Woodstock, where her father
lived. He would get a doctor Miss Mendelssohn could rely on.
I was quite excited at the prospect of meeting Otis Skinner.
He was a hero of mine. I had seen him in the Worcester
Theatre as Colonel Philippe Bridau in a play adapted from
the French, "The Honor of the Family." I had never forgotten
his swashbuckling entrance, late in the first act. Things
were not going at all well for the family, but the Colonel
had such immense authority and decision that you knew he
would turn the tide. It began to turn with his entrance. I
had also seen Otis Skinner at the Colonial Theatre in Boston
as Hajj, the beggar, in Edward Knoblock's "Kismet." I
remembered him lying on his stomach by a pool, holding an
undesirable character under the water and vaingloriously
defining himself: "To the Caliph I may be dirt, but to dirt
I am still the Caliph!"
We drew up in front of a modestly substantial house on a
tree-lined street. Mr. Skinner opened the door. He and I
went to the car to help Miss Mendelssohn into the house. I
was engaged in a piece of business with my hero. I felt as
if I were following a stage direction. Indeed, I was—Mr.
Skinner's. He was very definite and decisive in his
direction, and immensely gentle. I was surprised at his
size. I had remembered him, from the stage, as gigantic; he
was an elderly, worn, and thoughtful man of medium height.
He looked like a university professor at the end of an
exhausting seminar. I remembered what an Englishman, W.
Graham Robertson, who had been a friend of Henry Irving's,
had said to me when I asked him whether Irving was tall: "He
was tall when he wanted to be." Mr. Skinner must have wanted
to be tall on the two occasions when I had seen him. The
doctor arrived. I wandered to the back porch. I looked down
at the river that ran along the back of the house. My eyes
followed the river. Just a few houses above, it curved away
and ran under an iron bridge. The back yards between the
houses and the river were all garden. I walked back into the
living room. Mr. Skinner was talking to his daughter. He got
up when I came in.
"I've been looking at your river," I said. "It's so
Mr. Skinner's face lit up with pleasure. "I'm glad you like
it," he said. "We love it."
"Could I—do you think . . ."
"Take a ramble? Of course. Do. It'll soothe you. The doctor
is with your friend. He's very good. Don't worry. He'll have
her right in no time. Do take a stroll."
Cornelia encouraged me, too. Mr. Skinner took me to the
front door. "Follow to the bridge. Cross the bridge. Then
follow the river to the next bridge. We are rich in
bridges." He smiled. "But come back to us." I had never
encountered so benign a presence.
As I walked down the street, I could hear the river. Some of
Mr. Skinner's neighbors had very large houses indeed. To the
right of me ambled the village green. Beyond the green I saw
a great porch-enclosed wooden building. The Woodstock Inn.
It was built in the eighties, and looked it. Ladies were
sitting on the porch in rockers. The street curved to the
left to the bridge. Crossing the bridge, I stopped and
looked back over the gardens running down to the river,
including Mr. Skinner's. Looking the other way, I saw the
uptown, or upriver, bridge. I walked toward it, about half a
mile. The houses on this side of the river were less
manorial—just nice houses among trees and flowers. The road
curved and was intermittently hilly. On the left, covering
the side of a hill, was the village churchyard,
well-populated but spacious. When I got to the next bridge,
I stopped again. The river was turbulent here; I looked down
on its cavorting. Walking up the incline from this bridge, I
passed a series of very handsome houses and a beautiful
church. Who were the people who owned these houses?
Presently, I found myself treading a sidewalk. The street of
residences had become a very leisurely business street: a
drugstore, a market, a specialty shop. Some of these had
benches in front of them for the weary. When I got to the
end of this street, I found myself back on the green and
facing the Woodstock Inn; the river almost encircles the
town. I understood why Mr. Skinner had chosen Woodstock to
end his days in.
For the next forty years, the Woodstock Inn was to be my
working home. The walk I had just taken was to become my
fixed walk, day and evening, for all those years.
When Jed hung up that day in 1927, I put in a call to the
manager of the Woodstock Inn to make a reservation, and was
promised Room 202. What a succession of managers I have
dealt with since! I have outlived so many of them.
I arrived in Room 202 after a long trip by bus to White
River Junction, from which I took a taxi to Woodstock. The
village had done nothing to make itself accessible; you had
to be single-minded to visit Woodstock. But I found a bridge
table in Room 202 for my typewriter; the manager had kept
his promise. There was also a message from Harold Freedman.
I called him. He had had a letter from the author of "Serena
Blandish"—the Lady of Quality. She was very much upset by
the nomenclature of several characters I had added. In my
first draft of the dramatization of her book, I had called
one Roderick, with the comment from another character that
his name conveyed a rugged strength that did not altogether
conceal the hard fact that he was a poor weakling. I had
called another—out of fanciful reaching for a highborn
English name—Ottoline. Roderick, she wrote Harold, happened
to be her husband's name, and Ottoline that of one of her
friends. She was very much upset. Harold must write her that
I would change these names. I changed them on a pad beside
the telephone while I was talking to Harold. I told Harold
to write her that the deed was done. I still didn't know who
the author was. I asked Harold to tell me. He said he would
another time, and hung up. (Eventually, he told me it was
For a period of several weeks, I walked the bridges daily
and sat in my large room, full of light, going over the
packet of notes I had gathered on the play: from Jed, from
Aleck, from David Burton, whom Jed had engaged to direct it.
The weeks went by. I thought I would like to live here the
rest of my life. I had friends in the village: the drugstore
man (New York papers, cigarettes, magazines, telegrams); the
lady in charge of the Woodstock library, a tiny, ivied old
brick building next to the Inn; the barber; the chauffeur
supplied by the Inn, who kept the shoe store. He was a
native and a charmer. He told me of bitter rivalries among
the local hierarchies; they were intricate and fierce. He
had an animus against a special hierarchy he always referred
to as the Ladies on the Green. These ladies owned the
beautiful houses that had made me wonder at their opulence
on my first walk through the village. The ladies were very
rich; they came from Chicago, Boston, and Detroit. They were
a power; in fact, they were the power. A Hollywood
company had proposed shooting a film in the village.
Everybody was excited—the drugstore man, the Inn people.
Everyone thought how great it would be for the village. But
the shoe man was skeptical. He had told them, at their
Rotary meetings, not to let themselves get excited. "The
Ladies on the Green will never allow it," he said. And,
indeed, they didn't. The film offer was refused. Another
town grabbed it. You could do nothing against the Ladies on
the Green. They were ruthless. They had the power. They
objected to the film on the score of its morality. As my
chauffeur repeated this, he snickered scornfully. He knew
them all; he knew their private lives and their diversions.
Who were they to talk about morality? Situations like this
made him cynical and bitter. The only thing you could do, he
said, was to love your family and make as good a living for
them as you could. You would get no help from the Ladies on
Jed called me frequently. He was very amusing—in good humor,
because things in the theatre were all going his way. I
would read him scenes written in longhand; he would ask me
to type them up and send them. He would tell me all the
gossip, and stories about Aleck's avid interest in "Serena
Blandish." Aleck greatly admired Ruth Gordon; the fact that
she was going to star in the play made his interest in it
more than avuncular. Jed's comments on the works of his
rival producers were trenchant. For most of them he
predicted early closings. Then he would, without false
modesty, enlarge on the felicities of his own productions.
Snow came. The snow got so heavy it was no longer practical
to walk the bridges. This was a deprivation, but I could
still visit my barber, whose shop was on the second floor of
a building down the street from the Inn. He was a grizzled
oldster, wiry and full of general comment. I complained to
him about the snow and the bridges. "This is nothing," he
said. "You should have seen this past Christmas." He pointed
to the window. "Snow come up to there. At lunchtime, I jest
walked out that winder. Saved me the stairs."
When I finished rewriting "Serena," I celebrated by
commandeering the local philosopher and shoe man to drive me
to the Hanover Inn, on the Dartmouth campus, for a festive
dinner. I had already stolen away there several times for a
treat. The food at the Hanover Inn was excellent; they
served hot corn bread, which was delectable. I enjoyed
strolling around the Dartmouth campus and visiting the
On the day I was to leave for New York, I was delighted to
get a call from Alfred Lunt. A gourmet and a chef himself,
he inquired how the food was at the Woodstock Inn. "Simple
but bad," I said. He sympathized. He had been going to a
cooking class, and he was beginning to feel some confidence
in his own authority. He would make it up to me when I got
back. He would give me a bang-up dinner. Alfred had always
fascinated me—on the stage and since I had got to know him
personally. He had tremendous strength shadowed by
Alfred began to talk about "The Second Man." "Lynn'll be
magical in it," he said. "We love it, but probably they
won't like it." His voice swerved off at the dismal prospect
of what "they" would do to it. I had noticed that Alfred
often referred darkly to an invisible and malevolent force
that existed, seemingly, for the sole purpose of destroying
him. I had teased him about this before.
"Who are 'they'?" I asked. "The Ladies on the Green?"
"Ladies on the Green? How charming? Tell me about them."
Alfred fell in love with the Ladies on the Green. A villager
himself (he grew up in Genesee Depot, Wisconsin, a village
not far from Milwaukee), he loved small-town intrigue and
"You must get Lynn to tell you her story of the lady on our
green in Genesee Depot." (The Lunts lived in Genesee Depot
He'd bought a suit in London to wear in my play, he said. It
rather shocked Aleck. "He calls it my purple suit," Alfred
said. He said he practically knew his part already—not from
studying it but from reading it.
"I am doing it just to say one line in it," he said.
I asked what the line was, but he wouldn't tell me, and
never did. "It would spoil it for me if I told you," he
This was one of the first of a number of conversations I had
with Lynn and Alfred over four decades. They have wildly
humorous imaginations. Their feeling for human idiosyncrasy
is instinctive and unerring, their gift for echoing it
uncanny. Their repertory is practically endless,
encompassing their vast experience—offstage and on—with an
international assortment of people ranging from the Genesee
Depot lady on the green to Winston Churchill.
Some weeks earlier, in New York, Maurice Wertheim had called
me up to invite me on a yachting cruise. He had chartered
from Claude Graham White his yacht, Ianara, for an August
cruise along the coasts of Norway and Sweden. He was
inviting ten people. Would I like to come? I am never able
to think on the telephone. I said yes, since my vocabulary
becomes restricted to this one word when I am asked anything
on the telephone. As soon as Maurice hung up, I knew that if
my play failed I would be in no mood for yachting trips.
Well, August was still a long way off.
Lawrence Langner called me. I had had various conversations
with this protean man. He was Welsh, dark, and handsome. He
came here, when young, from England and started out as a
patent lawyer. By this time, he had his own firm—perhaps the
leading patent-law firm in the United States. He was one of
the founders of the Washington Square Players. He wrote
plays and books, and had the courage to engage in
acrimonious exchanges with Bernard Shaw. He held his own. On
Broadway, he was known as the Persian. This was because he
was so volatile that he was intangible. He was thought
slippery; the truth is that he was absentminded. He couldn't
remember names, or even identities, so what were thought to
be insidious evasions were, I came to see, genuine and
innocent lapses of memory. Many years later, at the opening
of my play "Jacobowsky and the Colonel" at the Shubert
Theatre in New Haven, I was standing with him and Miss
Helburn in the lobby of the theatre. Looking around the
lobby, Lawrence said, "Oh, there's Gene O'Neill's son.
Teaches Greek at Yale. I want you to meet him." He hailed
O'Neill, who came over. Lawrence said, "Oh, Gene, I want you
to meet . . ." He couldn't remember my name. We had by then
been working together for almost twenty years. I supplied my
name, and things went along. (I told this story when I spoke
at his funeral, and it got a titter of recognition from his
friends in the congregation.) His mind was always teeming
with large ideas. He was a remarkable man and a very decent
one, with a strong, mystic faith in an underlying impulse
toward justice. In the headlong rush of his activity, he
found time to build and start the Shakespeare Theatre in
Stratford, Connecticut, and also the Westport Country
Playhouse. When Lawrence died, in 1962—not long after Miss
Helburn, in 1959—the Guild died, too. Lawrence, in his phone
call, spoke to me about casting. What would I think of
Margalo Gillmore for the ingénue As I adored Margalo, both
onstage and off, I said that would be fine with me.
In the middle of March, Miss Helburn called to tell me that
rehearsals were about to start. Here it was at last!
There is really nothing in the world so heady for a writer
as theatrical success. It is instantaneous. It is
unmistakable. That must be why so many novelists yield to
the temptation to have a go at it. But it is (in spite of
what many practicing novelists say) much more difficult to
write a good play than it is to write a good novel. Many
novelists have found that out. The author of a well-received
novel never knows whether his book, even if it sells, is
also read, Nor does he know where his reader yawns—at what
page he may decide that he wants no more of it, and throw it
aside in disgust. The novelist's audience is invisible; the
playwright's is right there with him. With a successful
play, the author is reviewed every night, and is in no doubt
about what kind of review he's getting. Robert Sherwood once
wrote a novel, and complained to me that it was reviewed
under the heading "Other Books," and that was that. Sinclair
Lewis was a friend of mine. Somehow, though I read most of
his novels as they came out, I didn't read "Babbitt" till
long after it was published. While I was reading it, with
excitement and admiration, I was also reading a play that
Lewis had just written and was hacking with his own money.
It is a quirk of my temperament that I am always lost in
admiration of people who can do things that I can't do—like
solving mathematical problems or writing novels. Reading
"Babbitt," I felt distress that Lewis should abandon a field
in which he was a master for one in which he was inept. His
play was no good at all, and I knew that he would lose every
cent he was putting into it. The very day I finished
"Babbitt," I went to dinner at "21" and was hailed by Lewis.
He was having dinner with the company that was rehearsing
his play. He came over to my table. He was swimming in
euphoria. I decided to be severe with him. "Look, Red, I've
just read 'Babbitt.' It's—well, you know how good it is.
Tell me, why should a man who can write a novel like that
bother with plays?"
Lewis saw that I was serious. He sat down. "Listen," he
said. "Do you know what a novelist's life is like? I sit up
there in Vermont for a year writing a novel. When it's
finished, I write to my publisher to tell him I've finished
my book. He, to be nice, says he'll come up to see me. He
comes up. That's it. Hell, I'm gregarious. I like people!"
With a schoolboy's grin of delight, he went back to his
table in an ecstasy of gregariousness. The blueprint of
disaster which those in the know had diagrammed for his play
was followed exactly. The last time I ever saw Lewis, before
he went to Italy, where he died, he told me what that
particular venture had cost him. Gregariousness came high.
The heady experience of being present at a successful first
night of one's own play came to me on April 11, 1927, when
the Theatre Guild produced "The Second Man." The play had an
extracurricular advantage working for it: it had only four
characters and one set. The Guild did well by it: the four
characters were played by Lynn Fontanne, Alfred Lunt,
Margalo Gillmore, and Earl Larimore.
I owe this play to the most tenuous and untraceable of
accidents—to the chance reading of a sentence. I have never
been able to remember where I read that sentence. It was
quoted somewhere—perhaps in a newspaper, perhaps in some
literary review—from a letter of Lord Leighton's. The part
of the sentence that impressed me reads, ". . . . for,
together with, and as it were behind, so much pleasurable
emotion, there is always that other strange second man in
me, calm, critical, observant, unmoved, blasé, odious." I
wrote a short story based on Leighton's second man, which
appeared in the Smart Set. One winter, stuck for an
idea and jobless, I dramatized this short story. It took
three weeks for me to write the play and almost two years
for Harold to sell it.
It wasn't till 1928, when I went to London for the English
production of "The Second Man," with Noël Coward in Alfred
Lunt's role, that I found out who Lord Leighton was. I met a
lady who had known him, as she knew everybody—Sibyl Colefax.
London is very hospitable to new playwrights; Sibyl was one
of the first new friends I made there, and she remained my
friend till her death. She'd been very excited, she told me,
when she read the excerpt from Lord Leighton's letter in the
theatre program. She had never before seen it; she wanted to
read it all. She demanded to see the whole letter. As it had
not been written to me, I couldn't supply it. But she told
me how characteristic even this excerpt was of Lord
Leighton's eroding self-dissatisfaction. He was, at the end
of the nineteenth century, wildly successful, he had
everything—very good looks and vast success as a
portraitist. He was president of the Royal Academy. But this
excerpt from a letter of his confirmed a suspicion she had
entertained about him: that he wasn't taken in by his
success that, like the protagonist of my play, he knew he
was second-rate. He was not deceived; he knew. His
career could be summarized as Harold Nicolson summarized
Lord Curzon's: "He had successes but no success."
A quarter of a century later, I was to run into Lord
Leighton again. This was in the Villino Chiaro, Max
Beerbohm’s little house in Rapallo. We were going through
Max's book of caricatures "Rossetti and His Circle."
Suddenly, there was Lord Leighton.
I said to Max, "But he's the man who gave me my first play!"
"I'm glad he did that," said Max. "He gave me this
caricature. He was one of the hollow men."
The caricature is a masterpiece. Lord Leighton is handsome,
elegantly bearded, and cravatted to perfection. Rossetti is
lying on a sofa; you see only his slippered feet. Leighton
is haranguing Rossetti's feet; they are so relaxed that you
are sure their proprietor is asleep. You are sure also that
Leighton doesn't much mind; he is listening to himself. He
is trying to induce an "up-and-do" attitude in Rossetti:
Think not for one moment, my dear Mr. Rossetti, that I
am insensible to the charm of a life recluded, as yours
is, from the dust of the arena, from the mire of the
marketplace. Ah no!—I envy you your ivory tower. How
often at some Council Meeting of the R.A. have I
murmured within me that phrase of Wordsworth's, "The
world is too much with us!" But alas, in all of us there
is a duality of nature. . . . You smile, Mr. Rossetti,
yet I am not disemboldened to say to you now, as I have
often wished to say to you, in the words of the Apostle
Paul, "Come over and help us!" Our President—I grant you
in confidence—is not of all men the most enlightened.
But I, in virtue of what is left to me of youth and
ardour, conjoined with the paltry gift of tact, have
some little influence at Burlington House. Come now!—let
me put your name down in our Candidates' Book.
I was awfully green when "The Second Man" went into
rehearsal. We were to open "cold," without a road tour. We
rehearsed on the top floor of the Guild headquarters. The
day before we started, I had a long talk with Philip
Moeller, my director. He directed five of the eleven plays I
did for the Guild over the next twenty years: two for the
Lunts, one for Jane Cowl, two for Ina Claire. I was lucky to
find Phil Moeller; he suited me perfectly. He was a restless
and volatile character, impassioned about art. His great
love was music; he studied scores, and when he was directing
a play he was animated by ideas of counterpoint and harmonic
structure. In one scene of "The Second Man" he had Lynn sit
at the piano and play a haunting passage from "Der
Rosenkavalier"—this at a time before that music had become
familiar through repetition. He wrote plays himself. One,
"Madame Sand," was well received critically, if not
popularly. He was quirky, mercurial, and impulsive. He
blurted out what was in his mind. This sometimes caused
outbursts of temper between him and his actors, or his
authors. He never retreated; he relied on Miss Helburn and
Mr. Langner to patch the differences up. Mr. Langner
sometimes made things worse, but Miss Helburn was
infallible. There was an innocence about Phil Moeller. He
lived alone, saw very few people. Miss Helburn used to be
exasperated with him because he never went to the theatre.
Aside from his directing, he cared about nothing but music
and painting. When anything pleased him, he became
The Guild headquarters was a transformed private residence.
The top floor, where we rehearsed, must have been the
ballroom. The stage manager had chalk-marked the floor,
indicating the doors and windows—and the staircase and the
gallery, for the hero lived in a duplex. In this area Phil
Moeller deployed his actors. I sat in a chair on the
sidelines to watch. I was fascinated to observe how, for
these virtuoso actors, the stage space was measured in
inches for each turn, each approach, each retreat. They had
to consider how their faces and bodies looked from all
directions and from all angles. Half the time, I didn't know
what they were doing or why. As for the words, they sounded
like so much gibberish. At one point, during a murky
passage, Lynn came up to me. "I suppose it all sounds like
nothing to you," she said. I admitted that it did, rather.
"You see," she said, "we're not thinking of the words now,
just the movements, but I promise you—it'll be all right."
She smiled at me and squeezed my hand. I have never
forgotten this little errand of mercy. Alfred Lunt's
readings—and not merely on the first day—were very casual,
only sporadically vital, and, in the main, uninterested. I
didn't know what his performance was to be like till the
opening night. Some days, Lynn advised me not to come at
all. I took her advice.
And then, suddenly, it was over. The play opened. I sat in
the first row of the balcony and got a headache. It is the
only time I have ever gone to an opening of my own in New
York. Harold Freedman came up during each intermission to
tell me how he thought things were going. As I watched that
first performance, I realized that I'd had not the remotest
idea of what Lynn and Alfred could or would do. The
illuminations of the script provided by the actors dazzled
me, because I had not perceived them during the rehearsals.
Lynn's part was a small one, but now, in the performance,
she gave it overtones that I hadn't known were there. For
example, I had written a line for her about another
character, who bored her: "He never has anything interesting
to say." What I heard was "He never has anything interesting
to say—never, never, never, never, never": a perfectly
graduated diminuendo of "never"s, conveying an endless vista
of boredom, the last "never" faint (but audible), faint with
the claustrophobia of boredom. Alfred, all the way through,
had the audience mesmerized; he did what he wanted with
it—made it laugh and made it listen. In his last scene, on
the telephone, when the character played by him calls up the
character played by Lynn to win her back, at the moment when
he says, "Thank God you're laughing," the audience laughed.
Later, in his dressing room, Alfred told me what a lifesaver
that laugh had been.
Just before the curtain fell, I saw an element in the play
which I had not written—certainly not consciously: the
dramatization of a terrible moment, a watershed moment, when
you face nullity. The non-hero has been abandoned by the
older woman who loves him and by the young woman whom he, if
he had been less practical, might have loved. He has just
seen the younger woman out. My stage direction reads, "He
leaves the door, goes to the telephone." That walk from the
door to the telephone shafted a light on the play and the
character which I had not foreseen. It was a moment of
self-confrontation, of complete awareness. Why hadn't he
taken a chance? Why hadn't he tested himself? Perhaps he was
better than the louse he knew himself to be? When he picked
up the telephone to get back what he didn't want, Alfred's
eyes went insane. By arrangement, Harold Freedman met me
before we went backstage. We took a turn around the block.
We were both under the spell of Alfred's terrifying little
walk to the telephone. He'd made Calvary out of an innocent
The reviews, with one exception, were enthusiastic. The
exception was Aleck Woollcott, in the World, who said
I was like an outsider peering through the plate-glass
windows of an opulent house to observe how the well-bred
inhabitants behave. I was solaced for this by a review in
the Nation by Joseph Wood Krutch, who went all out
for the play. One of the daily reviewers said the problem of
selection facing the Pulitzer Prize committee would be
greatly eased by this production. But the committee spurned
an easy out; it preferred the hard way. Nor has it ever
deferred to me since, though I have nudged it about twenty
times. I was solaced also by the fact that the play sold out
at every performance. At the end of the first week, Alfred
sent me a telegram in Worcester, Massachusetts, where I had
gone to see my mother. "We sold out last night with thirty
standees," Alfred wired. "That's pretty good for Good
Friday." My first royalty check exceeded a thousand dollars.
I stared at this check with incredulity.
What would "The Second Man" come to if it should he
beautifully produced now? It would probably seem very
old-fashioned and, in Jed Harris's word, thin. But for a
time it had—and gave me—a lively reputation. Years later,
during the war, when Harold Ross asked me to go to England
to describe London in wartime for The New Yorker, I
went to see Somerset Maugham, then in New York, to ask his
advice. He gave me a letter to H. G. Wells. In it he
introduced me as the author of "The Second Man." And just a
few years ago I wrote a fan letter to Frank Swinnerton,
because I had greatly enjoyed a reminiscent book of his. He
answered with a charming letter in which he said that he was
happy he had entertained me, because I had entertained him
with "The Second Man." He wrote as if he had seen the play a
week before. Actually, he had seen it when it was done by
Noël Coward in London in 1928.
Those few hours in the Guild Theatre on April 11th changed
all my circumstances for the rest of my life. I was deluged
with offers. My diary lists them. Frank Crowninshield, the
editor of Vanity Fair, asked me to write twelve
pieces for him—one per issue for a year. I began to get film
offers; they came rapidly. I put them off, because none of
the material that was offered appealed to me. At about this
time, I met Harold Ross. I loved him from the day I met him
to the day he died. He asked me to write for The New
Yorker, then two years old. I wrote a profile of George
Gershwin. It was a vertiginous time. I found myself in a
millstream of sociability in New York and in London:
incessant contact with great theatre stars, with rich people
and social people; at posh hotels, at parties, and on
yachts. But through it all I never shook off the plaintive
counterpoint of my origins—the memory of my parents, and
their poverty. An odd illustration: Late one night, in
Copenhagen harbor, on Maurice Wertheim's yacht, I'd been
unable to sleep. The captain had invited me to join him on
deck when I felt like it. I dressed and went up. He was a
most agreeable man. I stood beside him as he steered the
elegant, slim white craft through the shipping in the
harbor. There was a moon; the scene was serenely beautiful.
But I was not present. I was, unaccountably, in my father's
insolvent grocery store in Worcester, Massachusetts. An
itinerant huckster had advertised a show to be given in
Mechanics Hall. Wonders were promised. Most of the boys in
the Providence Street grade school were going. I longed to
go. I asked my father if he would give me the admission
price—fifteen cents. He looked at me with pain in his eyes.
He had to refuse. I saw how keenly he wanted to give me the
fifteen cents. He then told me he was going to be forced to
close down the grocery, since it was doing so badly. I left
the captain and the moonlit shipping and went back to my
(This is the first part of a three-part article.)