Downtown Strut: An Edna Ferber Mystery #4

Downtown Strut: An Edna Ferber Mystery #4

Manhattan, 1927: Edna Ferber prepares for “the Ferber season on Broadway.” On December 27, the musical adaptation of Show Boat by Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern opens. On December 28, ...

About The Author

Ed Ifkovic

Ed Ifkovic is the author eight Edna Ferber mysteries, including Lone Star and Cold Morning. His latest, Old News, publishes ...

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

As I stepped into my own living room, drawn by the excited hum of strange, eager voices, my eyes immediately caught those of a dark young man who stared back, his eyes wide  and unblinking, a sloppy grin plastered on his face. I knew I’d met him before, and recently, though I had no idea where. So young—what? twenty-one, twenty-two?—with skin the color of rich mahogany, glistening and smooth. He wanted to say something to me because the carnival grin disappeared as he cleared his throat, but at that moment my housekeeper Rebecca nudged me from behind.

“Miss Edna, quite the motley bunch, no?” She laughed and nodded toward a skinny young boy who was now standing, a nervous smile on his lips.

“Mom,” he began.

“Waters,” Rebecca said in the same buttery chuckle, “where are your manners? You weren’t raised in a barn.”

I shifted my gaze from the young man with the sloppy grin to Rebecca’s son, who started to stammer, “Miss Edna, I…”

“Waters,” I roared like a hectoring schoolmarm, “when I’m out of town you resettle the young population of Harlem in my apartment?” But my smile gave me away. Waters, like every other gangly seventeen-year-old boy in the world, stood all raw- boned elbow and jerky wrist, bending and twisting, one foot tapping the floor.

I wasn’t expected back in town for two more days, of course, but the arduous, though heady, tryouts for Show Boat had exhausted me. I’d checked out of my hotel early. Though the show was already headed back to New York, I’d originally planned on two days of idle shopping and lunches with friends in Philly. But I’d changed my mind.

Too many cities, each becoming a noisy blur.

I was thrilled that cosmopolitan Washington adored the new Hammerstein-Kern musical. My Lord, that first night it ran for over four hours, ending at 12:40 a.m., the audience on its feet, stomping, cheering, huzzahing. Not a soul left the theater. The excitement shook the rafters. I actually blushed, felt faint as I staggered up the aisles of the National Theater. The next morning the line for tickets circled the block. That was mid-November. We knew we had a hit on our hands.

From there the energized troupe moved to Pittsburgh’s Nixon Theater, the musical now drastically and painfully cut, then on to Cleveland, and now ending a rip-roaring tryout at the Erlanger in Philadelphia. Show Boat would open on Broadway—a gigantic hit, everyone whispered to me—just two days after Christmas.

Foolishly, drunk on the show’s evident success and awash in its riveting music and splendor, I’d become a camp follower, a schoolgirl with her first crush. It couldn’t last. At one point I’d also rushed to Newark, New Jersey, and then to Atlantic City, where I watched the tryouts of The Royal Family, my comedy written with George S. Kaufman, scheduled to open in New York the day after Show Boat. It was dizzying, if wonderful.

Hidden in my hotel room, I’d become homesick, desperate for Manhattan and the quiet of my bedroom. So I boarded the train at Philly, bone weary and yet exhilarated, echoes of “Ol’ Man River” reverberating in my head as the train clang-clanged into Penn Station. I wanted to be home, my door shut against the outside world. I’d lost my energy. All the pumped-up euphoria of two new shows, completed now and ready for the world to judge, left me enervated, down. It was like the morning after a successful party as you stare into your empty coffee cup and face the hollow day ahead.

When the doorman Joseph deferentially placed my suitcases inside my front door and I stepped into the living room, I didn’t expect that gathering of startled, upturned Negro faces.

Waters walked toward me, half-bowed, and smiled. How much the slender, jittery little boy he seemed, with those thin shoulders and that long, stringy neck, the bony oval face with the narrow nutbrown eyes that blinked too much. A year away from college, he was a serious prep-school lad with Joe College crew-neck sweaters and starched Arrow shirts. And, he hoped, the life of a writer. “Miss Edna, you told my mother…”

I held up my hand. “Waters, please. It’s no matter.” My smile tried to take them all in.

But the group shuffled in their seats, nervous, ready to leave, which seemed right.

“You look tired, Miss Edna.” Rebecca leaned in, shaking her head. “I’ll brew you a cup of tea and then settle you in.” She smiled back at the young folks sitting there. “I think these poets have rhymed enough verse for one day.”

Only Waters laughed out loud, but I noticed that the lanky lad with the infectious grin widened his eyes. It bothered me. How did I know him? Something about him seemed familiar, but that made no sense: my social circle of young Negroes in their early twenties was nonexistent, really. Tall, angular, yet with a slightly pudgy, bloated face, as though he’d never fully shaken off the last of his baby fat, he was not handsome but incred- ibly attractive. That deep mahogany hue, yet with a sprinkle  of reddish freckles around his nose and eyes that gave him a mischievous look. The eyes, yes, they looked familiar. Slatted, almost Asian perhaps, the edges lined with darker ebony, so much so that it could be stage makeup, a chorus girl’s kohl-rimmed look. An amalgam of hard and soft, that face: the rigidity of his jawline at war with the puffiness of his cheeks. A gentle boy, I thought, yet when he stared at me, the eyes looked steely and fierce. I was startled.

Waters was still apologizing.

Last summer, when Waters was visiting his mother and staying with relatives in New Jersey, he scooted in and out of my apartment, the soon-to-be high-school senior always in a hurry, stacks of library books clutched to his chest—or spilling out of the overstuffed briefcase he often carried, an old-timer’s briefcase with buckles and clasps and weathered leather. One afternoon he confessed a desire to be a novelist, and though I had a profes- sional writer’s dread of the amateur short story cavalierly thrust at me, I asked to read something he’d written. The short narrative he’d given me described his dead grandfather, Rebecca’s father, a colorful if eccentric man everyone called Captain Tom, a towering, gaunt patriarch with straightened black hair and a thick, whiskey voice. A good man, and beloved by Waters. The piece was crude and overblown, yet it had spark, energy, verve. So I encouraged the quiet boy to spend hours reading in my personal library. There were days he never seemed to look up from a book.

Then, wandering the city streets, especially up to Harlem in search of the young writers of the new Harlem Renaissance that everyone was talking about—capitalized now, so dubbed by the New York Herald Tribune—he’d become friendly with a small coterie of neophyte writers and actors, young men and women who hung out at the public library on Lenox Avenue, in the lobbies of the Lafayette and Lincoln Theaters, at St. Mark’s

A.M.E. Church on 138th and St. Nicholas Avenue, starry-eyed young folks who hungered to be a part of the throbbing, jazz-infused world of this Negro flowering—followers of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, and Wallace Thurman, writers not much older than they, in fact, but already established, celebrated.

Intrigued, caught by Waters’ infectious excitement, I agreed to meet them one afternoon in my apartment—the first of two casual lunches I hosted. I found them refreshing and eager, brimming with enthusiasm, though a tad leery of me. Then the summer ended, and Waters returned to school and I headed to Europe for a brief sojourn.

When I left for the Show Boat tryouts, I’d told Rebecca that Waters, on Christmas break from his prep school in Maryland and staying across the Hudson River in New Jersey, could meet his friends in my living room one afternoon, with Rebecca serving them lunch. Waters had insisted there was no place where they could gather for a long, talkative afternoon. I had a few qualms, to be sure, because I guard my privacy and I’m covetous about my expensive rooms, but I trusted Waters. They’d be under the watchful eye of Rebecca. Frantic with concern about Show Boat and The Royal Family, I’d forgotten all about it…until I walked back into my living room.

Now, stunned into silence, they stared back at me. Waters cleared his throat. “You remember my friends…” His outstretched arm swept the room.

I remembered three of them, of course. “Sort of,” I grinned. “You remember Lawson Hicks.” Waters pointed at a good-looking young man. In his early twenties, Lawson was tall and slender, very light complected, sporting richly pomaded straightened hair and a slice of manicured moustache over his full upper lip. A matinee idol, this one, I had thought the two times we’d met before, with his deep-set black eyes, his Leyendecker chin, and his baby-boy dimples. He had the habit of throwing back his head so that the overhead light accentuated the high cheekbones. Dressed in billowing creased trousers and a robin’s-egg blue dress shirt, his feet shod in spiffy two-toned black-and-white shoes, he slouched on the sofa, a man comfortable with his God-given beauty. He nodded at me, smiled, then stood up and seemed ready to bow. I remembered him as the author of exquisite little poems, rhapsodic and lyrical, one of which had been published in The Crisis. I did remember something else—he wore his unabashed ambition so arrogantly that I imagined he could startle other souls into uncomfortable silence. A budding actor, Waters had told me. I remembered that I liked this cagey man who aimed to please, who flattered me when he didn’t need to. I liked him, I supposed, because he was so good looking, fresh scrubbed, intense. A cocky lad with fire in his belly. But I suspected his talent was a narrow kingdom, genuine though limited.

“And, of course, Bella Davenport.” Waters grinned foolishly and stumbled over the name. I squinted. Of course? Why? I wondered. The young woman didn’t stand, but she inclined her body toward me, a soft, rumbling laugh coming from the back of her throat. Bella, an actress and playwright, statuesque and lithe, her movements self-consciously sensual, deliberate—so light-skinned she could pass for white. The one-act play I read of hers dealt with a jazz songstress dying of a cocaine overdose in the dressing room of Barron’s Exclusive Club up on 134th Street and Seventh Avenue, a play titled Snow, which I’d learned—how could I know this?—was street lingo for the lethal drug. Dressed in a plum-colored chemise, her slender feet shod in buckled high-heeled shoes, her hair straightened and bobbed, she was a speakeasy flapper out of the pages of The Smart Set, albeit Negro. Bella, if I remembered, was Lawson’s on-and-off lover. Like him, she was ambitious, though I sensed he was more the dreamer. She was more at home with hard-bitten reality. Bella, with the slow, calculated turn and tilt of her perfumed neck, could make men whisper inanities when their wives were conveniently out of the room. A beautiful woman, but chiseled, sleek, the ebony diamond. “And you probably don’t remember Ellie.” I cast a quick glance at Waters because this last introduction seemed so dis- missive. Yet Ellie took no offence; in fact, rolling her tongue into her cheek, she appeared amused by the young boy’s tactless words. Ellie, small and wrenlike, with reddish-black hair pulled back from her high forehead, had a little-girl beauty, a sharecropper Pollyanna, the girl in the room you didn’t notice until she spoke…and then you found yourself wrapped around her melodic, almost falsetto timbre. She was dressed in a simple chiffon smock, though a shrill blood red in color, and, unlike Bella with her crimson lipstick, Ellie wore absolutely no make-up. “Of course I remember Ellie,” I remarked. “You wrote a poem I liked…”

Ellie was nodding her head up and down.

They all looked a little in awe of me, which is the way I wanted the whole world to be, truth be told. In my world interlopers tended to keep their distance, though they might scowl or whine. Bores ran for cover. Fools were never suffered…

Waters paused, an awkward silence filling the room, and the young man with the grin cleared his throat again.

“And then these…people,” Waters ploughed on. “You don’t know them.” Everyone laughed nervously. “Roddy Parsons.” He pointed to the young man I believed I’d met elsewhere, a man who stared at me now, a twinkle in his eyes, on the verge of telling me something. But Waters quickly moved on, pointing. “This is Harriet Porter. And this is Freddy Holder.” Both of them looked ready to bolt the room, each glancing at the other. Neither smiled. Not that I expected an obsequious response whenever I entered a room, even if it was my room, but both of them struck me as vagabond souls who’d found themselves on the wrong subway platform. They sat together, bodies touching, though I got the impression of strangers brushing against each other in an elevator. They appeared younger than the other three, though it might have been their clothing: well-worn bulky sweaters, stretched out a bit. Harriet’s dark blue one over a rag-tag skirt, Freddy’s dark brown crew neck worn over wrinkled work pants, frayed at the knee. They formed a contrast to the polished look of the others, almost deliberately so, I thought. Freddy and Harriet seemed habitués of street corners. I’d seen such young souls when taxis delivered me up Broadway or Seventh Avenue toward Riverdale: high-school boys and girls who gathered in packs outside the be-bop jazz clubs and the dim-lit and poorly disguised speakeasies, their nodding heads inclined toward the jazz wailing from inside or the street corner hum of illicit boozers. Poor boys and girls, they were, mostly, and hungry to be grownup.

They glanced at each other, nervous, and the silence in the room was palpable. Waters felt a need to flesh out the history. “I heard Harriet read at a poetry reading at the Y uptown. I liked her poems a lot. Then Roddy heard her read somewhere—and talked about her. And then I met her friend Freddy who…”

Freddy broke in. “Sometimes doesn’t write at all.”

His voice alarmed me: raspy, phlegmatic, a slow drawl, yet laced with quiet anger.

“We gotta go,” Harriet added, half-rising.

But no one moved, though their bodies shifted in their seats. “Miss Edna,” Rebecca said, “let me make you that pot of tea.” She headed toward the kitchen.

Silence, uncomfortable.

“What are you all writing these days?” I asked. No one answered me.

“They were talking up one of Lawson’s poems,” Rebecca told me, looking back over her shoulder as she walked away. “I like it. But then I like everything they write.” She chuckled.

“It’s very good,” Waters volunteered. “It’s about Jungle Alley, you know, up and down 133rd Street. Thereabouts. You know, the jazz clubs…” He breathed in. “The rhythm of…jazz beats… Folks walking the sidewalks…Saturday night at the Catagonia Club…”

Harriet spoke over his words. “I don’t like it. It’s…phony.” Lawson bristled.

“It’s nothing new…” Harriet was going on, but stopped, unsure of herself.

“Perhaps I’ll read it later.” I turned away. The telephone was ringing, and I could hear Rebecca answering it in the kitchen.

Lawson spoke to my back. “Thank you.” Harriet made a grumbling sound.

Looking back, I caught a glimpse of Waters, his head nodding, gesturing. At once everyone began moving, reaching for gloves and scarves. A respectful move because he understood that I wanted to be alone in my apartment, sitting in my workroom with a cup of hot tea while I caught up with my mail. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Lawson slipping into a tan Chesterfield overcoat.

But in that moment I noticed Bella narrowing her eyes at Ellie, her mouth set in a grim line, though she immediately turned and touched Roddy’s elbow, so quick a gesture as to seem accidental. Lawson, buttoning his coat, stepped toward her.

Suddenly, jarringly, there was a confident rat-a-tat on my door, just as Rebecca stepped back into the room. “Mr. Harris is here to see you, Miss Edna. Joseph told him you were back. I insisted you’d just got back…” She paused. “Well, he…”

The rapping on the door swelled, insistent. An impatient man, this Jed Harris, a man used to getting his way. Rebecca hurried to open the door, and Jed stood there, one knee slightly bent, one hand cradling his feathered fedora against his chest, the other fanning a sheaf of papers. For some reason there was a scowl on his face. He stepped into the foyer, barely glanced into the room, his back turned away from the staring young folks, dismissive. “Edna, I was gonna leave the dialogue changes downstairs but the doorman said you’d returned.” He frowned. “You didn’t tell me you were coming back so soon.”

I made a joke of it. “You didn’t get my wire?” But his face was tight, the eyes unblinking. “I was tired, Jed. I…”

He kept frowning. “Thought I’d hand them to you, explain the changes. I think my changes are important.” A sly grin covered his face. “I know you don’t like changes to your words, but Ann Andrews can’t deliver some of your complicated…” He stopped and for the first time turned to look at the young folks in the living room, all of them staring at him. He wasn’t happy. “But it looks like you’re having a party.” He fairly snarled the line.

“Parties only begin when you arrive, Jed.”

He narrowed his eyes. “That’s because I’m the only person I enjoy talking to.”

One of the young girls laughed—I think it was Harriet—and Jed flinched, threw a smoldering look in her direction.

“Leave the pages with me,” I told him. “We’ll talk later.” He didn’t like that. He stepped back, deliberately lit a cigarette, and proceeded to blow thin wisps of blue-gray smoke into the air, purposely creating crude circles that escaped from his lips and drifted to the ceiling. A performance, I thought—one from a pouting child. “Sure,” he whispered, and I knew from experience that his whispers were dangerous.

Jed was the brash, young producer of The Royal Family, and already he’d provided George and me with frayed nerves, bilious indigestion, and the occasional insidious migraine that puts me in bed for a day. The new and improved wunderkind of Broad- way, Jed Harris had experienced an unparalleled string of recent SRO hits with the likes of Coquette and the urbane Broadway, and he insisted that The Royal Family was the ultimate hat trick. An insomniac, he also had the misguided habit of phoning me at three or four in the morning to discuss cast changes, the disgruntled stage crew, his detestation of the actors—he famously announced that intelligence was wasted on actors—and his disaffection with my co-playwright George Kaufman. I put up with it a few times, but finally demanded he stop. With someone else, I’d have slammed down the receiver the first time he called, indignant; but Jed Harris, with the low tantalizing voice, had a way of charming me. Glib, suave, using that mesmerizing voice, he kept me on the line. Foolishly, I let him. He wooed me. I let him. I disliked the power the man had over me, and I disliked the fact that I found him—well, appealing. No one else liked him, a situation he relished. He cultivated hostility like a gardener who coveted only weeds. Ina Claire once resoundingly slapped him in the face, which immediately qualified her for Great White Way sainthood. People feared him.

But a whole part of me got quiet and scattered whenever he was around. I was too old for such puerile shenanigans. The man was a destructive imp, slick and devious. Meshugenah, George Kaufman insisted. Plain crazy.

Jed pushed the papers at me, but made no move to leave. You saw a small man standing there, wiry and compact, slender as a pencil but with the suggestion of taut, high-strung muscles. Looking at him, you sensed that he was hairy, some simian creature loosed on fashionable Broadway. His dark face, that chiseled chin, and the perpetual grainy beard stubble,  cast him as a faintly dissolute speakeasy dandy from a Damon Runyon tale, a man whose sartorial splendor was always impeccable, the creases in his trousers just so, cascading over his shoes just so; the shirt collar crisp; the fedora worn with the jaunty calculation of a Broadway prima donna, inclined on the small head so that it suggested an appendage acquired at birth. Worse, the hooded eyes possessed no humor, though he’d wisecrack like a smart aleck schoolboy. Not only that but, frighteningly, those black onyx eyes had a hard quartz-like polish, as though squinting at a sun no one else saw. They were the eyes of a man who was purposely evil—or just plain mad. Which didn’t matter because the result was the same. “To be sexy,” he once purred at me, “you’ve got to have menace.” You avoided men like Jed. I, on the other hand, looked forward to his visits, though I hated to admit it.

He was just twenty-seven. I…well…wasn’t.

While I was glancing at the typed sheets he handed me, some- thing was happening in the room. Waters and his friends had become quiet, slipping back into their seats though most now wore their overcoats. Of course, I figured they all knew who Jed Harris was, his ferocious power on Broadway, this golden boy—but Waters, a gutsy seventeen-year-old, said something to him about seeing Coquette—how much he loved Helen Hayes, how much…

He stopped, sputtered, and I looked up, bothered.

Jed’s icy expression stopped him cold. I found myself looking from Jed to the young folks. Jed’s eyes swept over their faces, and there was nothing welcome about the look. I said something about the group of young writers and actors, talented men and women, but I realized something was wrong. A raw buzz of electricity hummed in the room. No one moved, yet everybody seemed to be in motion. Facing them, rigid, this small man took them all in. As I watched, Jed’s glare moved from Roddy to Lawson to Ellie, but finally caught the eye of the beautiful Bella, tucked into a side chair, her presence partially obscured by Lawson, who was leaning forward. A tense moment, Jed and Bella holding eye contact for a brief moment—and I knew at that second that the two of them knew each other.

“Have you met…” I began, but Jed backed up, swagger in his step, and turned to leave. “Jed?”

Without saying a word he was gone, the door slammed.

The mood of the room shifted. When I glanced at Bella, she pushed herself back into the cushions of the chair, folding her body in, her long arms wrapped around her chest as though she were a child defending herself. Her striking face was flushed. She was staring across the room, seemingly fascinated by the German pewter candlesticks on my fireplace mantel. What she was doing, I realized, was avoiding Lawson, who’d turned his body so that he now faced her. His lips were drawn into a straight, disapproving line, yet when he raised a hand to his face, I noticed his fingers trembling. And the look in his eyes was both sad and curious. At that moment Roddy stood up and hurriedly buttoned his overcoat. He glanced from Lawson to Bella, sarcasm lacing his words. “Ain’t you the brave guy though?” For a moment I was confused. Yes, it was a line from the popular play Broadway, a tag line with faddish currency among theatergoers. Cartoon characters used it in the funny papers. It made everyone laugh.

No one laughed now.

Odd, I thought, that quotation coming from this young man, and said so bitterly. A pause. Then he mentioned Jed’s name, not friendly. Bella glanced at him, a sideways twist of her head that attempted to be coy but came off as apologetic. A sliver of a smile crossed her lips, but just as quickly disappeared, a feeble gesture, a little flirtatious, that told me that she liked Roddy. Lawson, meanwhile, was trembling. While I was watch- ing this little drama, Ellie bounced up, made a dismissive grunt that seemed to take in the others, and picked up a glove she’d dropped to the floor. She turned, colliding with Freddy, standing there with his arms folded over his chest. Everyone stammered goodbye, over and over, and thanked me as they scrambled to the doorway, their arms holding bundles of their writing. In a flash, they were gone, with Freddy and Harriet doggedly fol- lowing the others out the door.

Jed Harris had said not one word to any of them.

Waters, looking the baffled schoolboy he was, shot me a worried look.

“Well,” I began.

In a squeaky voice he asked me, “Did something just happen here?” He opened his eyes wide, wide.

I grinned. “And I was thinking on the train ride back that it would be nice to return to my apartment where nothing ever happens.”

Something had, indeed, happened.

Mystery Delivered Weekly

The Poisoned Pen Press Newsletter