The New York Times,
At 75 S. N. Behrman, Speaking as a Survivor, Not a
Contemporary, talks of many things, but principally of
people he misses and of war and peace
By S. N.
One morning you wake up and, with no encouragement whatever
from anybody, find yourself 70. I am so inured to the
Biblical tradition in which I was brought up that I felt
that the very next day was already an overdraft. You never
think, when you are younger, in terms of decades—you are too
busy—but this particular numeral is peremptory. In a week
(D. V.), I shall wake up to 75, but I am by now so overdrawn
that I am grooved for it. Samuel Goldwyn's hilarious remarks
have been quoted all over the world for 50 years. It is
pleasant now to set down a profound one. Ira Gershwin met
Goldwyn, who is well over 80, at a party recently and
complimented him: "You're looking very well, Sam." "What
good does it do?" said Goldwyn.
In the fancy synagogues, the deceased of each week are
described as having "received the summons from on high."
They make it sound like a telegram from the boss offering a
vacation with pay. The poignant aspect of it is that almost
every morning, when you open The Times, you are made
conscious that you are not a contemporary but a survivor;
you are forced to say an unpremeditated farewell to a
In London, in 1946,I had dinner with Somerset Maugham in his
suite at the Dorchester. He said: "Whenever I come back to
London, the first thing I do is to look at the obituary
columns of The Times. I know that one morning my name will
appear in those columns, but I don't believe it!" It is
exactly true of all of us, and rightly so. Speculations
about the "next world"—is it next or is it antecedent? —are
useless because they are acts of life. It is like trying to
imagine what it is to be a rock. When it does happen, it
won't be to you that it happens because you will be gone.
You will exist only in the memories of the few who knew you.
It will always be a few, even in the case of the most
eminent. Take the most prestigious historian of 16th-century
London. He can give you only a marginal account of those who
lived in 16th-century London, only of those who achieved
notoriety in it, its rulers and its poets. The rest will
remain forever anonymous. History is for the articulate.
Sometimes the dying are articulate. In his remarkable
biography of Lytton Strachey, Michael Holroyd quotes
Lytton's last remark: "If this is dying, I don’t think much
The other day I read that Edna Ferber had died. I knew her
intermittently over a period of many years and never well.
Her obituary evoked in me a single memory and it made me
smile. I was having tea in his apartment with George S.
Kaufman. Edna came in, harried. "Oh," she said, "I had the
most terrible nightmare last night, really horrible. It's
made the whole day hideous." We inquired. "I dreamt," she
said dramatically, "that I was a wallflower at an orgy!"
Sometimes these intelligences open long corridors and wring
you. Last September The Times struck me in the face with the
announcement that the English poet, Siegfried Sassoon, had
died. It opened a long corridor, from the day I met him in
1921 to the last letter I had from him, a year ago. I had a
job on The Times Book Review. The editor, Clifford Smyth,
sent me to interview Sassoon, who was here on a lecture tour
to read his war poems. I didn't have far to go: Siegfried
was staying in Westover Court, which used to be behind the
Putnam Building on the site later occupied by the Paramount
Building. In a book published 30 years later, "Siegfried's
Journey," Sassoon described the extra illumination he got in
his rooms from a vast sign atop the Putnam Building: " . . .
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
Westover Court was a very 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
night birds who resorted to it in lieu of a forest. Westover
Court was a bachelor establishment with two-room apartments;
it was like a dormitory in a New England college. Actors and
artists and singers lived in it. The telephone in the hall
leading from 44th Street was presided over by the McGraw
sisters, who took turns. They knew all the secrets and kept
their mouths shut.
GREAT DAYS—Behrman, left, in 1940 with Maxwell
Anderson and Robert E. Sherwood during the run of
Sherwood's Pulitzer prize-winning "There Shall Be No
Night." The play, inspired by the Russian invasion
of Finland, had been staged by the Playwrights'
Company, founded by the three gentlemen shown plus
Elmer Rice and Sidney Howard.
I can’t remember the interview I did with Sassoon for The
Times Book Review; it couldn't have come to much, but the
talk I had with him on that first meeting did. It led to a
friendship that lasted for more than 40 years. He told me
his story. The war poems were so bitterly antiwar that their
publication led to a Parliamentary inquiry. Sassoon faced
court-martial. What made the military scratch their heads in
bewilderment was the perplexing fact that Sassoon's war
record was recklessly heroic. He had been cited for bravery.
But there is nothing beyond the military mind; it came up
with a solution: that Sassoon was crazy—they called it shell
shock. He was sent to a lunatic asylum. Had it not been for
the accidental presence there of a great man, Dr. William
Halse Rivers—a famous English psychiatrist and
anthropologist for whom Sassoon's duality as war hero and
pacifist was not in the least paradoxical—he should never,
Siegfried told me, have survived that experience.
I saw him constantly the rest of the summer and went to many
of his readings. Sassoon was tall and lithe and
extraordinarily handsome. He read quietly, without "effect,"
without inflection. I remember the stunned silence that
followed the reading of one poem at the Free Synagogue in
Carnegie Hall. I copy it from the little book of his war
poems that he left me when he returned to England:
DOES IT MATTER?
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 hunting
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 your 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.
I found out not long after that Sassoon was lacerated by a
private agony. What made his situation intolerable was that
he had the time to brood over this agony. He explained that
when he got the idea for a poem it took him very little time
to write it. But how could he forget when the anodyne of
creation had worn off? I recalled a remark of Copey's—Charles
Townsend Copeland's—in English 12 at Harvard: that poets
wrote the best prose. I nudged him toward trying prose. I
still have some pages, in his beautiful handwriting, of a
novel he began that summer, which he never completed. The
prose project kept our correspondence alive after he
returned to England. The eventual result is an exquisite
classic: "The Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man."
Some six years after I met Sassoon in Westover Court, I
became a trans-Atlantic traveler myself and I often stayed
with him in various houses, including Heytesbury House, in
which he died. Staring at the sensitive face of the young
Sassoon in The Times, as the memories crowded in, I found
myself again smiling. On my first visit to London, Sassoon
took me to see Sir Edmund Gosse. Gosse was perhaps the last
of the great Victorians still living in London. He was of
medium height, compactly built, with gray hair parted in the
middle. He wore a black patch over one eye. I discovered
later that he shifted this patch from eye to eye, according
to mood, thereby anticipating an advertising genius by about
50 years. It was February; I stood shivering in the icy
hall. Sir Edmund noticed this. "Our guest is cold," he said.
"We must go into the library." The difference in temperature
that was perceptible to Gosse was imperceptible to me: I
shivered in the library.
Gosse had a booming voice; his sentences were beautifully
designed; he took pleasure in pronouncing them. He was
delighted with a method he had discovered a week before for
getting away from an evening party at Buckingham Palace. "I
took Lady Gosse by the arm," he said, "and started her on a
round of admiring the pictures. We toured the room, admiring
each picture, until our tour led us to the entrance doors.
We walked through these with the abstracted air of art
lovers on the quest for still more bounties. Isn't it
Gosse never stopped talking, Siegfried punctuating here and
there with appreciative exclamations. Sassoon must have
felt, finally, that I was being left out of the
conversation. He made an effort to admit me.
"Mr. Behrman," he said, "has a play in London."
Gosse made a show of interest.
"Ah," he said. "Really? And who is in it?"
"Noel Coward is in it!"
"Ah! Noel Coward! That young man!"
"Do you know him?"
"Certainly I know him. I met him at dinner at Sir James
Somewhat satirically, Sassoon said: "Was he nice to you?"
"Nice to me! Why he fluttered round me like a butterfly
around an OAK!"
The next time I went to England, Sassoon told me of another
visit he had made to Gosse. Lady Gosse had just died. It was
a radiantly happy marriage which lasted over 50 years.
Sassoon went to pay a condolence visit. He expected to find
his old friend depressed; on the contrary, he was in great
form, exuberant. He jumped up from the sofa when Sassoon
"Ah! Siegfried! It does me good to see you. 'The thoughts of
youth are long, long thoughts.'"
Sassoon said he was pleased to find him in such good
"At my age," said Gosse, "death becomes such a commonplace
that you can't take it seriously."
The last time I saw Sassoon was in Cambridge, England, in
1952. He had just come from hearing Robert Frost, and he
said that he was so moved by Frost's reading that his eyes
filled with tears. That notice in The Times permitted me to
do very little else that day but remember. I browsed among
the books Siegfried had given me. One was a charming book of
drawings: "Sketches Near Salisbury." I had come to spend my
last night in England in a cottage Sassoon had taken near
Salisbury. The next morning he drove me to Southampton when
I boarded the Queen Mary. The book, inscribed to me, is
Fitz House - 23-4-32
On Shakespeare's Birthday
Off to catch the boat
Siegfried Sassoon was one of the few men I have known who
had the attribute of nobility.
I was telling the editor of a local magazine the other day
about the frustrating difficulty I had getting a job after I
graduated from Harvard in 1916. He said that it was very
different now. "Anybody with any talent at all," he said,
"is snapped up immediately after they graduate and often
before they graduate. Often, they're put in jobs which are
much too big for them." He told of one young man who was
made book editor of an important magazine. He felt himself
that he wasn't equipped for the job, but the managing editor
I have a single, vivid memory of the June day when I sat in
Soldiers Field in Cambridge 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, pinned on him personally by Abbot
Lawrence Lowell. After Sargent and I got our degrees, I was
assailed by a problem which, I am sure, did not bother
Sargent, but which had for years been eroding me: what to do
next? It took me 11 years to find out. I tried everywhere to
get a job, went to every newspaper in New York and even to
Philadelphia and Baltimore. I had some 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
I took a seminar course in 19th-century French drama with
Brander Matthews. He was a tall, thin man with rather wispy
mutton-chop whiskers. He was an established
man-of-the-world, easy and anecdotal, the friend of Mark
Twain and William Dean Howells, in fact of everybody whom
most people didn't know. We read a lot and heard a lot about
the two most popular French playwrights of the 19th 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
worldling, Matthews drew attention to a restaurant scene in
which the protagonist enters and says casually to the head
waiter, "Good evening, Henry." This established, so
dexterously, that the hero knew his way around expensive
He told us a lot about the bitter rivalry between the two
playwrights. When Sardou was dying—or was it Scribe?—the
doctor said to him: "Pouvez-vous siffler, Sardou?",
and got the prompt reply: "Pas même siffler Scribe."
He explained that siffler meant to breathe and also
to hiss in the theatre.
One day I made the mistake of bringing into the small class
a copy of The New Republic. Matthews looked at it and said,
"I am sorry to see you wasting your time on that stuff." He
was a stanch Republican and a friend of Theodore
Roosevelt's. Still, Matthews was a kind man. He gave a
classmate and me cards to visit the Players' Club, which
thrilled us, and me an invitation to hear Henri Bergson
lecture in English. I was startled by the immaculateness and
the 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. degree gave me a leg up. I got a job on The Times
typing up and classifying the want ads. The hours were from
3 in the afternoon to 3 in the morning. I worked on the
widest machine I had ever seen; it was like driving a truck.
It was safe and lovely to walk to my room on West 36th
Street at 3 in the morning. I can't remember how it
happened, but from the third floor I crept up to the 10th
and got a job with Smyth, the editor of the Book Review. He
was a kind man, and after a few months he put me in charge
of the Queries & Answers column. The flood of queries about
obscure Middle-Western 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 & Answers was Mr. Ochs's favorite
column. He liked the obscure Midwestern poets; he found
their view of life uplifting and salvationist. He put an end
to my fascinating correspondence. The tenure I didn't have
lapsed. I was confronted by the same question that hit me
the day John Singer Sargent got his degree: "What to do?"
There were compensations, though not monetary, on The Times.
I got to know E. M. Kingsbury, an editor. H. L. Mencken said
that the best writer in America had never had his name
signed to anything. He meant E. M. Kingsbury. We used to
meet in a bar on 44th Street after work. He suggested a
game. He would say the first line of a poem; I was to follow
up with the next line. The first one to get stuck would pay
for the drinks. "When the hounds of spring are on winter's
traces . . ." Kingsbury's scent—as well as his memory—was
much keener than mine. I paid for the drinks. But these
losses were recouped in more lasting ways. E. M. Kingsbury
was one of the most erudite and delightful men I have ever
known. I went to see him many years later in his office at
The Times. We had a warm reunion. We went to the bar; we
resumed the game. Yeats this time. Kingsbury won.
The Harvard I knew was idyllic. For years I used to dream
that I would wake up in Weld Hall. I still dream it
occasionally. About 10 years ago I was invited to spend a
week in Kirkland House, "to talk to the boys." I wished that
they would talk to me, but they didn't. I expected to be
needled, which would have been fun, but not at all; they
The difference between the Cambridge I had known and the one
I saw now was the difference between a small, manageable
town and a swollen segment of the Boston-Washington
conurbation. Exotics crowded each other in the streets—town
and sari. Headmasters complained to me about the
difficulties of finding apartments and the astronomical
rents. Cambridge, I was told, was overcrowded and had become
a very expensive place to live. I met Dr. Gaylord P. Coon,
the senior college psychiatrist. I told him that in my day
we had the Infirmary; that I had once spent two blissful
weeks there getting over the flu, but that we had no clinic
for psychiatry. I asked him how it was that we got along
without it. Could it be that the proliferation of Freud's
ideas and the creation of the profession of psychoanalysis
had stimulated the profusion of disease? He said he didn't
think so. The need had been as great in my time, but the
afflicted, not knowing where to turn, had kept their secrets
In any case, he was hard put to it to take care of the
undergraduates who came to him daily. He introduced me to a
new category: the Icarus-afflicted, and two classes in that:
vertical and horizontal. Marathon runners, messengers in
plays—horizontal; high divers, chronic fantasists—vertical.
The discussion started with Dr. Merrill Moore, whom we both
knew. He was Eugene O'Neill's doctor and a marathon
sonneteer; he wrote sonnets by the thousands. Him, Dr. Coon
classified as horizontal. I was fascinated by Dr. Coon's
account of how he had, daily, in his variegated and cunning
disguises, to circumvent Icarus. I got a lot out of that
week at Kirkland House. Dr. Coon talked to me, even if the
Should the summons come abruptly and should anyone bother to
make note of it, the memorialist might say: "His last years
were overshadowed by the Vietnam war." It is so. This war,
which has extinguished so many lives, has darkened mine.
People are encapsulated in fear, and many serious
commentators doubt the durability of our political system. I
have lived through many Presidencies and heard many
Presidents and near-Presidents. When I was a boy in
Worcester, Mass., I wandered into Mechanics' Hall to hear
Dudley Field Malone booming an introduction for Woodrow
Wilson. It was a noon meeting and hardly anyone was there. I
was there because it was the Day of Atonement and I had an
hour off from the Providence Street Synagogue. This windfall
came to me because they were intoning the prayers for the
dead and those whose parents were still alive were not
permitted to remain. Malone—without meaning to—sounded like
Hubert Humphrey. His barrage was followed by a dissertation,
measured and uninflected, by Woodrow Wilson who, without
meaning to, sounded like Senator McCarthy.
In the same hall I heard Eugene Debs at a meeting also very
poorly attended. I have never forgotten his appearance, his
fervor, his eloquence. No speaker I have ever heard gave
such a quick sense of genuineness. I am sure he would have a
great following if he were alive now. I heard William
Jennings Bryan. He was, oddly enough, intentionally funny.
He spoofed his own attempts to win the Great Prize. He told
of arriving at a South American port on a gunboat. He was
greeted in the harbor by a salvo of cannon shots. It sounded
to him as if it had the makings of a Presidential salute. He
began to count, breathlessly. He counted up to 21. "But," he
lamented, "they went right on firing."
I am a registered Democrat. I've voted for Democrats all my
life. (I defected only once to vote for John Lindsay. My
vote is powerful; my man made it.) In due course, I voted
for Lyndon Johnson. There was, in any case, no real choice.
How odd that a democracy of 200 million people should be so
rigid in its political habit, so unproductive and
unimaginative, as to confront us with the choice it gave us
I remember the distress with which I watched the Republican
convention on television. Governor Rockefeller was howled
down by the Goldwater mob in the balcony. He gave up finally
with the wistful remark: "After all, this is still a free
country." It wasn't at that convention. Goldwater's infamous
remark—"extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice . . .
moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue"—which he
later tried to explain away with his customary ineptitude,
was the pivotal sentence of his speech. He waited to deliver
it and got the howl of approbation he knew it would get.
Then came Johnson and the escalation of the Vietnam war, the
repudiation of his own arguments against Goldwater. Our
leaders lie to us and betray us. It is the sense of this
that is behind the alienation of the young.
I quite agree with W. H. Auden when he says that writers
have no special qualification for passing judgment on
political matters. I agree, too, with Mary McCarthy, who
says in effect that even the most distinguished writer
wouldn't have the competence to be mayor of, say, Sandusky,
Ohio. In Sanche de Gramont's "Epitaph for Kings" I see a
quotation from Louis Madelin: "The French Revolution was
caused by a group of writers who believed themselves to be
thinkers." I agree with all three of them. Still, in spite
of my occupational handicap, I am after all a citizen and a
voter. I can't help having opinions. And I know what I
dislike. I have never disliked anything as I do the Johnson
Administration and the image of Johnson himself as projected
in his public utterances. He has befogged the country in a
miasma of cant. Eisenhower pulped the language; he made a
mollusk of it, spineless and faceless. Johnson has
brutalized it. "Nervous nellies." Could this be addressed to
parents who do not want their sons to be killed or mangled
in Vietnam? "Hang up the old coonskin." At what cost? "Does
it matter losing your legs?" To say nothing of your life.
Now we are confronted by Mr. Humphrey. If I am right in
believing that the country—certainly the young—seethes with
moral revulsion of this war, then what on earth is the sense
of considering as Mr. Johnson's successor a man who has for
four years collaborated and propagandized for that war? The
political columnists tell us, in extenuation of Humphrey,
that he never liked or believed in the war. In what
category, humanly speaking, does this leave him? No.
Evidently Mr. Humphrey would rather be Vice President than
The unfeeling sentimentality with which our bigwig
politicians talk to the people passes belief. As reported in
The Times, Hubert Humphrey pressed hard on the pathos pedal
in a speech in Wisconsin. He described the tears in the
President's eyes when he spoke of the ordeal faced by his
sons-in-law, who were going to Vietnam. Didn't it occur to
Mr. Humphrey that the direct implication of this is that the
President was moved to tears by the war only when it came
close to home? Can it be that Mr. Johnson is a "nervous
nelly"? The great reassurance, the cleansing wind, has been
the emergence of Senator McCarthy. He was the first to stand
up and be counted. He is courageous. The rallying to him of
the young and their improvised effectiveness is thrilling. I
am hoping against hope that I will be permitted to vote for
In the last years another reassurance has unexpectedly come
my way. Seven years ago I was elected to the Board of
Trustees of Clark University in Worcester, where I had been
an undergraduate for two years. I never found out properly
what a trustee is supposed to do. I once asked Dr. Abram L.
Sachar, the president of Brandeis. He said: "A trustee is
supposed to do what the president wants." This didn't help
me because Howard B. Jefferson, then president of Clark,
never asked me to do anything. He explained to me once the
plight of the small college. "The technical colleges," he
said, "can get plenty of money. You can get anything for
science. But a small liberal arts college like Clark,
devoted to the humanities, has tough sledding."
Though I contributed nothing, I got a great deal from these
seven years as a Clark trustee. Worcester is 45 minutes from
New York by plane, but those 45 minutes take you into
another America. Most of the trustees come from outside
Worcester: from the faculty of Radcliffe, from Florida, from
all over. I have never seen a group of people who work
together with such devotion and disinterestedness. Clark is
their cause; their work for Clark is the animating scruple
of their lives. At one meeting the choice of candidates for
honorary degrees was in progress. Dr. Jefferson reported
that several undergraduates had petitioned for Danny Kaye.
One of the trustees inquired: "Who is Danny Kaye?" In a time
when second-rate movie actors become instant statesmen, I
found this cultural lag on the part of my colleague
The great project during the time I was there was the
building of a new library, the Goddard Library, named in
memory of Robert Hutchings Goddard, the pioneer in rocketry
who taught for a time at Clark. His widow is now a member of
the Board of Trustees. They hired a consultant, Keyes
Metcalf, the great library expert. He brought in a measuring
tape; he had measured the distances between chair and
reading table in many libraries, and he had a precise notion
of what that distance in the Goddard Library should be.
Another trustee, the wife of an important industrialist who
lives in Worcester (she is now chairman of the board) has
made the building of the library her pet project. She
describes herself as a housewife but she is a visionary. An
argument arose about the tables in a new dormitory. She
opted for wood, good solid oak or pine. Those who were for
vinyl or some sort of plastic objected to wood because the
students would carve their initials in it. "Let 'em carve,"
she said. She won her point, which, as I observed, was par
for the course.
Here in New York, when I get tied up in knots about
Vietnam—when a dinner guest, a charming and intelligent
university teacher, tells me that, after all, it is a small
war and I reply, with perhaps too much heat, that for those
who die in it it is as big as a war can be—I simmer down
after the guest leaves and it is soothing and reassuring to
think: "Well, up there in Worcester, they are measuring and
planning and building a library that will nourish
generations hopefully saner than ours."
A few years ago, in my mad, gay sixties, I began to work on
a book. I had (even then!) begun to brood over the past. I
made "a little list" of those I had known who were gone and
whom, had I the power, I would most like to resurrect. The
book was to be called: "Five I Miss." The five were: Chaim
Weizmann, Ernst Lubitsch, Harold Ross, George Gershwin,
Rudolph Kommer. The last was a singular character who was
deeply loved by a few people. Alexander Woollcott once wrote
a profile of him called "The Mysteries of Rudolpho." Kommer
came to New York as theatrical correspondent for the Vienna
Freie Presse. Later he became chef de cabinet for Max
Reinhardt and arranged his American tours. Him I have made a
leading character in my first and last novel. Kommer had his
He did this because Czernowitz, which was Rumanian from 1918
to 1940 and is now, as Chernovtsy, in the Ukrainian Soviet
Republic, had a reputation for venality so pervasive that
its citizens always pretended to be from somewhere else when
they traveled. It was his act of defiance.
I gave the book project up; I felt that it would take too
much research and run the danger of being too anecdotal. I
look over some of these anecdotes now—for George Gershwin,
singularly, in the week which Mayor Lindsay has designated
"Gershwin Week," a felicitous choice which justifies—if it
needed justification—my crucial vote for him. A night in
1926. I was walking up Broadway with George toward Child's
on 59th Street. The newspapers were black with screaming
headlines announcing the marriage of Irving Berlin and Ellin
Mackay. We were talking about it, everyone was talking about
it. George stopped, seized by a disturbing thought. He
looked at me with his candid brown eyes. "You know," he
said, "it's a bad thing for all song writers." I am a
collector of enigmatic remarks; I have never been able to
make out what this one meant. Could he have feared that
there would be a mass drive on the part of all song writers
to marry Ellin Mackays and that this would distract them
from their work?
I see an item, too, about Ira Gershwin—happily still with
us. He loved Coney Island. On a hot night, in August, about
midnight, he had a compulsive wish to see Coney Island. He
got a taxi and away we went. As we drove along the spangled
Elysium, Ira, gazing with happiness at the electrified
ferris wheel and chute-the-chute, made a large gesture. "My
Deauville!" he said.
With Harold Ross I came upon another enigma, which, at the
time, baffled both of us. It had to do with Ross's mother,
whom he brought from Aspen, Colo., and installed m an
apartment uptown. I never met her, but we heard a lot about
her. For one thing she rather sniffed at The New Yorker. She
demanded of her son why he wasn't on The Saturday Evening
Post. One day she called him up at the office in great
excitement. She was breathless. "Harold," she said, "I saw
the most beautiful theater in the world last night. You've
got to come with me. I'll go again just to show it to you."
There was no escaping. A dutiful son, Ross went and reported
to his friends. "The most beautiful theater in the world
turned out to be a Loew's movie house!" He loved to tell it
and his friends loved to listen.
On a Sunday not long after, I was invited to come out to
Sands Point by Nicholas Schenck, the eminence grise
of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; he was known to the ranks as the
General. I arrived about noon and found the General at
breakfast and, to my delight, Ross sitting beside him. On
Ross's other side was Joseph Schenck, the General's brother.
We had coffee. Neither of the Schenck brothers was a snappy
conversationalist. There was a lull. I gave Ross bad advice.
"Tell them," I said, "about your mother and the most
beautiful theater in the world." Ross did. He didn't get
from the brothers the reaction to which he was accustomed.
There was a heavy silence; Ross saw that he had made a
gaffe. Finally, the General put his hand on Ross's arm and
spoke in a gentle, admonitory voice, as to an erring son:
"But, my dear Harold, do you know what we've spent to
redecorate that theater? Six hundred and seventy-five
thousand dollars! It is the most beautiful theater in the
With that the General and his brother got up and left. Ross
growled at me:
"For God's sake, will you tell me what the hell we've been
laughing at all this time?"
I reneged on "Five I Miss," but I am not quitting. I have
been reading Montaigne for many years and have a little
library about him and his times. I read, as they came out,
Donald M. Frame's lucid translations and, later, his
absorbing biography. Just the other day, in Andre Gide's
last book, "So Be It, or The Chips Are Down," I came upon
the following passage:
. . . We should particularly like to have, not so much
monologues of great men, even if they were Racine and
Pascal, as their conversations, discussions between
Montaigne and La Boétie, rambling conversations among
Racine, La Fontaine and Boileau or even with Father Bouhours,
like the interview, so wonderfully noted down, of Bernardin
de Saint-Pierre on a visit to Jean-Jacques. That is what
would really inform us. But everything sinks into the past,
even what we are taking care to note down today."
I have been wanting for a long time to write a play about
Montaigne. I shall have a try even at his conversation with
La Boétie. You couldn't write a play about Montaigne without
writing dialogues between him and his best friend. I shall
do this with the more security because Gide will never see
it. No one probably will ever see it because I am not
writing it for production nor even for publication. It will
serve to keep me in touch, for the rest, with a sane and
independent and civilized mind in a time of killing and
terror—like our own.
S. N. BEHRMAN has written, among plays, "Biography" and
"No Time for Comedy" and, among books, "Duveen" and "The