The checkered cab slid to a smooth stop at the curb, and the doorman rushed to open the back door, a knightly gesture that unfortunately demanded he also shift the umbrella he held over my head, thus exposing me to the warm July drizzle. The hot sidewalk sizzled under the surprise rain shower.
“Mr. Kaufman,” James purred, spotting the familiar face in the backseat. “A pleasure.”
George leaned over and nodded at him. He was grinning widely, a dangerous sign, surely. “Edna, you’re late.”
“I am not.” I glanced at my watch. “You’re late.” “We’ve circled the block two times. It’s maddening.”
I smiled. “George, your inner clock is always set at…Pittsburgh.” “For God’s sake, Edna, get in. James is getting wet.”
I tucked myself into the backseat as the cab sped off—a little too Wild West for my taste. We slipped breezily across two jam- packed lanes, narrowly missing a lumbering city bus. I turned to George. “I really didn’t expect you this afternoon, George. Your phone call took me by surprise.” My tone purposely suggested that his presence was not only unexpected but unwanted.
But with that wide, feckless grin still plastered on his face, he drummed his fingers on the back of the driver’s seat. “Edna dear, there are some events in life you don’t want to miss: your wedding—mine, not yours, of course—a corned-beef-on-rye sandwich at the Carnegie Deli, and the redoubtable Edna Ferber making a fool of herself.”
I bristled. “George, really. Have you ever seen me make a fool of myself?”
“Give me a day to think about it. Surely any human being on this Earth—”
I broke in. “I am not any human being. You should know that by now.”
“But you have to admit, Edna, that this…this middle- aged adventure of yours is the stuff of Arthurian—or at least Broadway—legend.”
I repeated the feeble rationale I’d rehearsed and meekly deliv- ered for a month now. “It’s just a lark, George. A lovely lark.”
That quizzical smile persisted, though his words now betrayed an icy sharpness. “Your enemies are already sharpening their swords. Or should I say pencils?”
For a moment, quaking, I glanced out the window. Crowds shuffled along, lost under umbrellas. As the cab began moving through Central Park—purposely searching for puddles, it seemed—I felt a little dizzy. I turned back, faced him. “I have no enemies, George.”
Now the smile broke into hearty laughter, uncontrolled. That was not like George S. Kaufman, esteemed American playwright and celebrated humorist. A knife-in-the-gut kind of wit, this writer, and never the rollicking barrel of laughs. Sardonic humor, sly innuendo, tricky phraseology, smart talk, outright sass—all his hallmarks, but rarely vaudevillian laugh-in-the-aisles guffaws. Until now—on this bizarre cab ride. And thus troublesome. When George approached the freedom of utter abandonment, he was at his most dangerous. Cruel, deliberate, hurtful, a man to be avoided. He was especially menacing around close friends. And I was a good and true friend, and one of his most successful collaborators on Broadway hits.
“Why didn’t you stay at the farm in Pennsylvania?” I asked him. “Well, I have a surprise, which you’ll probably not welcome. I had a talk with Cheryl a few days ago, and we discussed your… folly. Ferber’s Folly, I termed it. Then last night she called, one of her panicky calls, and I told her I’d be in the city today and would gather you from your expensive lair. I invited myself to visit with you and Cheryl.”
I smiled. “So you’ve chosen to be the pesky fly that annoys innocent folks having coffee.”
“Exactly.” His eyes twinkled. “Edna Ferber the actress, the venerable Fanny Cavendish of The Royal Family in summer stock…in…good God! Oh no!…New Jersey.”
“George, you know that I’ve always wanted to be onstage. I’ve bored enough dinner parties with that declaration. I’ve always seen myself as a blighted Bernhardt.”
He stifled a laugh. “Edna, playwrights usually run for cover.
We hide behind our typewriters.”
I didn’t like myself betraying such a weakness. “It’s something I always wanted to do.”
“Edna, I’d like to do a lot of things, but I resist the impulse.” I sucked in my cheeks. “That’s the difference between us, George. I like the novelty of surprise. You are surprised by novelty.” “Lord, Edna, are we rewriting The Royal Family in the backseat of a cab?”
Now I smiled. “George, behave yourself today.” “Why start now?’
He sat back, this string bean of a man, all angles, with his long quirky face hidden behind huge tortoise-shell glasses that exaggerated his huge nose. A high forehead under that Cliffs-of-Dover pompadour of uncombed pitch-black hair. Dressed in an expensive charcoal-gray suit with a wide burgundy tie, he pulled at the cuffs of his sleeves, a nervous gesture I’d become familiar with. That, and his constant tying and retying of his shoelaces. A fussbudget, nosy, abrupt, and acerbic, he looked the gangly nebbish, the butt of nickelodeon humor; but there was something else about the man. A first glance at him suggested an unattractive, bumbling sort, a sad sack; but when his face moved, when the long arms gesticulated like wild birds, there suddenly was a fierce beauty about him—an inner heat that drew you in. You saw it when he maneuvered his way around people, especially the fresh young backstage chorines he pursued feverishly. Those times revealed a magnetism that compelled, startled.
I saw it now, in the backseat of that jerky cab. His rollicking, uncharacteristic laughter made him dreadfully irritating—but oddly seductive.
It drove me mad, that warring mixture of personality. Aleck Woollcott, my sometime friend and chronic enemy, chided that I had a schoolgirl crush on the estimable George S. Kaufman. I suppose I did, but a slight, curable one. Of course, I’d never confess that to anyone. All my clandestine affairs of the heart migrated into the romantic lives of my feisty heroines.
The cab wove through the park, turned onto Columbus and over to Riverside, stopping in front of a weather-beaten building that fronted the Hudson River. Here producer Cheryl Crawford rented a furnished pied-à-terre on the top floor. Coffee, she’d said yesterday on the phone, just the two of us, an informal talk about my playing the matriarch Fanny Cavendish in her summer-stock production of The Royal Family, the hit play George and I wrote some thirteen years earlier, now to be resurrected in suburban New Jersey. Resurrected, I thought, with the end of tremendously amusing George and others of my friends. Edna gets to play actress, mouthing lines she wrote. Let’s see her succumb to stage fright, to missed cues, to blathered, tangled dialogue. To abject panic, the deer in the headlights. Summer fun for the Manhattan cosmopolites. Something to do in the hot summer of 1940 as the world out there readied for another cataclysmic war.
“George,” I mumbled as I stepped out of the cab, “just why are you here today?”
“I wouldn’t miss this for the world.” Then, a crooked smile. “And there are surprises in store for you.”
Cheryl Crawford seemed thrilled to see George. He nodded at her—he felt shaking hands with folks spread Bubonic plague— and handed her a bouquet of roses I’d not noticed until he stepped out of the cab.
“Cheryl, dear, Edna insists I go everywhere with her. Such a damper on my social life.”
Cheryl laughed but I smiled. “George trails me around like an old rheumatic dog.”
“Ah, but one looking for new tricks.”
Cheryl’s small studio was stark in its decor: a glossy black leather Italian sofa set against a white wall, a huge Kandinsky-style painting behind it, illuminated. A long, dark-wood coffee table with an amorphous Brancusi statue plopped in the middle, too large and thus one of the objects in the room your eyes found—and not pleasantly. Cheryl saw me gaping at the ungainly statue. “I’m squatting here until the work on my apartment on Forty-ninth Street is ready.” She smiled. “It’s very…European, I think.” She waved her arms around the sleek, expensive room and mentioned the name of some curator at the Metropolitan. “She’s in London for the summer. She told me to safeguard the Kandinsky.”
“I suppose so.” Cheryl glanced at it. “The sofa is a pull-out bed so I have to sleep under such…such lightning flashes of color.” Kandinsky’s swirling hiccoughs of vibrant color—all colliding and shrill—would drive me mad…and guarantee sleepless nights.
George was sitting in a side chair, eyeing a wedge of chocolate fudge. He’d poured himself a cup of coffee.
“There’s a patisserie over on Amsterdam. Wonderful.” George swallowed. “This visit is already a success.”
George was notoriously indifferent to food, save rich and creamy chocolate, which Cheryl obviously knew. I guessed the crisp apple strudel next to it was intended for me. I smiled. “George the avaricious gourmand,” I grumbled, “with chocolate smears on his cadaverous cheek.”
He nodded at Cheryl. “Edna likes to use big words. As a child in Appleton, she swallowed a dictionary. That explains her sudden digestive surprises.”
Cheryl had invited me for coffee, a social invitation to review our final arrangements for my participation in her production of The Royal Family in the middle of August in Maplewood, New Jersey. Although our paths crossed around Broadway over the years, we’d never been friends. “Come for coffee,” she’d told me. “A chat.”
I knew she was close to George and his wife Bea—more so, his wife—and George often insisted she and I would like each other—two driven, single women, hard-nosed. I’d be the judge of that.
“You two look alike,” he’d said.
Nonsense, of course. Cheryl was a tiny woman, slender, late thirties, with fits of restless energy. With her blue-gray eyes lost in a drab plain face, with curly close-cropped brown hair, she often seemed all business and purpose. She had to be—this vagrant woman producer in the exclusive man’s-club world of Broadway. A “producer in skirts”—the dismissive phrase bandied about. She spoke in a clipped, forced voice with dry, hard-edged wit, and often reminded me of a character from a Damon Runyon story: hard-boiled, no-nonsense, and unblinking. A hard-drinking, chain-smoking woman. Like me, she sometimes wore mannish tailored suits, though I softened mine with obligatory strands of pearls and flowery brooches stolen from some Victorian treasure chest. George once insisted we were Siamese twins, joined at the hip.
“No,” I countered, “joined at the intellect.”
Now, idly but pleasantly, we chatted about the production of The Royal Family. Cheryl, a successful Broadway producer, had envisioned a summer stock with veteran Broadway actors in celebrated plays at the end of their New York run, with topnotch crews. She’d located a vast unused movie theater opposite the train station in bucolic Maplewood, a half-hour train commute from Penn Station, and was making a go of it—cheap tickets, short week runs, big names like Tallulah Bankhead and Paul Robeson and Luise Rainer. And me, Edna Ferber, writer and notoriously a non-actor who harbored delusions that…well…
Well, that was now reality. George and I had written The Royal Family back in 1927, a huge Broadway hit, then a splashy 1930 Hollywood movie called The Royal Family of Broadway, starring Frederic March, a veritable comedy-drama that everyone said was based on the Barrymore family—matriarch Mrs. Drew and her grandchildren, John and Ethel. But not Lionel, the boring brother. George and I protested. No, no, impossible, barely recognizable, though no one believed us. If anything, it was based on an earlier theatrical family, the Davenports. Who? folks questioned. Oh, really? Yeah, sure.
Infuriated, Ethel had threatened to sue us (and so, mockingly, did the frivolous Marx Brothers), and Ethel still cold-shouldered me at cocktail parties. She had a magnificent harrumph sound, very haughty, perfected through years of natural bile, that echoed off sleek Park Avenue walls. Robert Benchley once claimed she spoke in an Episcopalian voice, measured, deadly, each syllable heavy as iron. I found it amusing that she refused the celebrity that George and I inadvertently (yes, unintentionally) delivered to her. The Royal Family ran for 343 performances.
Now it would run for one week in New Jersey with me as Fanny Cavendish, the craggy, grumpy, but eminently elegant matriarch of the legendary Broadway family. My moment in the dramatic sun.
And I feared I’d misstepped. At the moment the nagging presence of George Kaufman at my elbow suggested I was right. Despite his satiric wit, George had the uncanny bad luck to be in places where disaster struck. He was the sort who mindlessly stumbled onto the platform just as two trains collided. Or the manhole cover exploded as his taxi zoomed over it. All of which thrilled him. Now, I supposed, I was providing the unnatural disaster he dared not miss. It had been Cheryl Crawford’s idea that I play the part—admittedly she’d heard tales of me kvetching about my untapped dramaturgical genius. When George and I wrote the play, I suggested I play Julie, but George cast a jaundiced eye on me, and never answered. But now I suspected
George had put the bug in her ear. Get Edna, Cheryl. Crowds will gladly pay a dollar-fifty for that three-ring circus.
Cheryl was watching George closely now. I’d missed something being said.
Which was why I narrowed my eyes at him—he was blithely snapping up another piece of chocolate—and asked, in an exaggerated Southern belle inflection, “George, dear, are you coming to see me perform?”
Cheryl sputtered, looked confused. “George, you didn’t…” George never looked up. “Everyone is, Edna. We’ll talk of this for years. You’ll have to move to someplace no one goes to.
“Please stay away, George.” “Not on your life.”
Cheryl jumped in, nervous. “George, you told me you’d talked to Edna.” A look of horror on her face, she turned to me. “Edna, George is up to no good. You see, our director Lawrence Burton is suddenly hospitalized and will be gone all summer, so I begged George to be the director of The Royal Family. A last-minute replacement. He said…”
“What?” I screamed. “George, when were you planning on telling me?”
“Just about now.” His eyes got wide and shiny. “What fun we’ll have, Edna.”
George as director was legendary: authoritative, driven, but often horribly cruel. Dare I say…maniacal?
Cheryl sat back, flustered, but finally smiled. “All right, then, it’s settled.” A cautious pause. “More coffee, Edna?”
I glared at him. “So that’s why you intruded on this after- noon chat.”
“My dear, I wanted to see the pleasure in your face firsthand.” “Good.” Cheryl looked content. “Edna dear, you’re going early, you said?”
“Yes.” My one-word response was glacial.
The one-week rehearsal didn’t start for another week, but I’d be leaving in two days. I wanted to wander about the town—to collect myself, unhampered by busybody friends and a willful mother back in Connecticut. I’d be in the city for two more days, camping out with Peg Pulitzer, already having shipped a trunk on to Maplewood. Curiously, I’d have to memorize the lines I’d written myself. I’d forgotten so much as life moved on. In The Royal Family, Fanny’s granddaughter Julie wants to leave the stage for a bizarre South American marriage. Grandson Tony (like pleasure-seeking and flamboyant John Barrymore, but don’t tell anyone) has headed to Hollywood to lead a wild, dissolute life. The matriarch Fanny sees her beloved world crumbling. She insists there must always be a Cavendish headed out on the road or trodding the Broadway boards. Though she dies at the end—yes, this is still a comedy, though of manners—her resolve successfully holds the family to the age-old theatrical tradition. Success! Somehow I’d have to embody Fanny’s venerable position—the steely-eyed, steel-ribbed woman who holds the play together. If I wrote the part, I could play the part. I told myself that over and over. Sometimes—early mornings—I actually believed it.
Earlier on the phone Cheryl told me she was hoping for a serene, uneventful summer. Last year actress Jane Wyatt, granting an interview to a giddy high-school student, announced that she was traveling shortly to Italy and hoped to meet Mussolini. “A firestorm, that indiscreet remark,” she’d added. “She also mentioned the Pope, but the protest lingered.”
I’d shivered. “That horrid man. Hitler’s brutal sidekick.”
Cheryl was now talking about a phone call earlier that week from Bea, George’s wife. “I found myself saying yes, though I don’t know why.”
“What are we talking about?” I asked.
Cheryl looked irritated that I’d not been paying attention. George was snickering. “Cheryl, Edna’s already on that stage, taking a bow and accepting my bouquet of golden rod.” Cheryl leaned in. “George didn’t tell you? Good God, George, what do you tell Edna?”
“Only what she doesn’t want to hear.”
I offered a sickly smile. “Obviously not always.”
“Bea asked a favor,” Cheryl went on. “It seems she has an old friend from her very short time at Wellesley, whose son is an actor. He asked to understudy the part of Tony, Louis Calhern’s part. I told her we’ve been using another bit player, mostly unnecessary, but…” She breathed in. “Well, this Evan Street is now our understudy.”
A bad feeling in my gut. “What do you know about him?” “I checked, of course. A brief time in Hollywood where everyone spends a ‘brief time,’ a couple minor roles on Broadway, good-looking, eager.”
George was staring at the Kandinsky. “And obviously a charmer, if he got Bea to pimp for him.”
“Well, Bea rarely asks for favors.”
“Which is why she is always granted them,” George noted. I added, “I doubt if we’ll need him for one week’s play-acting.” Cheryl shrugged. “Won’t hurt.”
“George, did you know about this?” I pointed a finger at him. “Bea may have mentioned it.”
“What do you know about this Evan Street?”
“I met him once or twice at some dinner his mother hosted. She’s a schoolteacher in Scarsdale. We actually had to go there.”
I smirked. “Lord, a pioneer into uncharted wilderness. You and Ponce de Leon.”
“No Fountain of Youth, I’m afraid. It was Scarsdale, Edna.
People believe in manicured lawns and manicured lives.” “You didn’t like him,” I concluded.
George’s eyes were shiny. “Good for you, Edna. He’s tall and athletic and dark and handsome—too handsome, really. Large cobalt-blue eyes. A real lady-killer. Ladies deny such men nothing.”
“We’ll see about that.”
“Edna, I said…ladies.” His mouth was filled with chocolate, so his words were mumbled.
Cheryl was trying to say something, finally cutting in. “You two. You’re always writing dialogue you’ll never use.”
“Cheryl, you want to say something?” From me, all smiles. “Well, this dashing hero, in fact, just called me. He thanked me for giving him a chance. He wanted Maplewood desperately, he said. He claims to know so much about my theater—a lie, of course. Yet he did seem to know Maplewood. The town. God
knows why. That gave me pause.” “What’s your point, Cheryl?”
“He flattered me mercilessly, even lowering his voice provocatively. I enjoyed every second of it, though I believed none of it.” “That’s why you’re different from Edna,” George insisted.
“She believes all of it, but enjoys none of it.”
“Anyway,” Cheryl went on, “he’s rather a bold sort. Unapologetically brash. He may kill Louis Calhern to get his chance at playing lead.”
The play starred veteran actors Louis Calhern and Irene Purcell, both solid Broadway troopers. Louis was inspired casting as Tony—dark and striking and muscular—and very charming. The compelling cosmopolite. He’d have to watch his back with that aggressive understudy.
George shrugged. “Frank Resnick is stage manager, right?” Cheryl nodded.
“Not Frank from The Front Page?” I asked. “I’ve met him.”
George nodded. “Exactly. Perfect for the job. The ideal stage manager. Taciturn, deliberate. A no-nonsense guy. A man whose pointed finger makes you jump hoops.”
Cheryl added, “You know, he begged for the summer job, which surprised me. He’s left the hit The Fear Factor at the Selwyn just to work summer stock with me. Unheard of, really. When I asked him why, he said he needed a change. Manhat- tan was getting to him, he said. Another lie, I figured. But he seemed hell-bent on being in New Jersey this summer. I found it a little odd.”
“It is odd,” I volunteered. “I’ve had only one short conversation with him—at some cocktail party. Like me, he didn’t want to be there. You talk to the man for a few minutes and he looks as though he’s fallen asleep. Then he’ll mumble yes or no or maybe.
Then he turns his back on you.” I frowned. “Quite the summer you’ve orchestrated for me, Cheryl.”
“Only the best,” she said without a smile.
“He’d best control this…this Evan Street.” I sat back and sipped my coffee, watching Cheryl over the rim. She avoided looking at me.
“I wonder about that.” Cheryl looked to the door. “What?” From George.
“Well, when he called—earlier today, as I said—I mentioned Edna’s visit for coffee and…”
“And he wants my autograph?” “He invited himself over.”
“For Lord’s sake, Cheryl.” I put down my cup a little too quickly.
“He has that way about him.”
George was enjoying this. “Cheryl, I’ve never considered you subject to frivolous whims and idle flattery—surrendering to a man’s charms.”
Cheryl didn’t seem pleased with that. She celebrated her own toughness, this feisty woman who’d made and sold bathtub gin during Prohibition and was a legendary hard-nosed poker player. Now she stood and moved dishes and plates into the kitchen, ignoring a look from George. She frowned at the Kandinsky, and I didn’t blame her: it seemed a fourth presence in the room. Her back to us, Cheryl spoke firmly. “I kept saying no, no, no, and ended up giving him directions.”
Of course, at that moment—with the exquisite timing of a Broadway melodrama—the doorbell chimed. Cheryl jumped, I flinched, and George simply shook his head. “Act one, scene one.” His voice was laced with a mixture of amusement and, I thought, dread.
Evan Street, the unknown actor, strode into the apartment as though he’d recently conquered in battle, rushing into the center of the room, standing there ramrod straight, arms on hips, head tilted to one side, a dazzling smile directed at no one in particular. The behavior silenced all three of us. I thought suddenly of a Broadway curtain going up and the lead actor assuming the stage and expecting and obtaining the burst of rowdy applause from his loud and devoted claque. But no one applauded now. Evan Street laughed at something no one else heard, and half-bowed.
You saw a young man who seemed a refugee from a nineteenth-century melodrama, the swashbuckling hero—true, sans moustache or goatee—but with coal-black hair abundantly swept back from an imposing brow, a wide expansive face, darkly tanned, with a chiseled chin and riveting cobalt-blue eyes that seemed to purposely not blink. Tall, slender with a sinewy muscular frame, he stood there, a man used to being consid- ered overwhelmingly attractive, and thus deferred to, willingly, happily. Now, after another rumbling laugh, he seemed to be waiting for an offstage cue to speak. George cleared his throat, and Evan Street spoke. “Hello.” A velvet voice, a lover’s smooth tenor, calculated, one that no one is born with.
He was still not looking at any of us, his greeting addressed to the Kandinsky on the wall.
It struck me that there was something wrong with his attire. Once you moved your gaze from the classical profile, eerily reminiscent of John Barrymore himself—once you allowed yourself to ignore the rich blueness of those eyes—you noticed the shabby pale blue dress shirt, frayed at the cuffs, the old-fashioned white linen sports jacket, the dark stain on one knee of his rumpled slacks, the cracked leather of his unpolished black-and-white tie shoes. A floppy derby hat, bent, protruded from a pocket of his jacket. The cultivated facial expression and the careful haircut clashed with the Hoover-village tramp. A poor boy, this one.
His was, it turned out, a gaudy cameo performance. He refused coffee, though he did eye the remaining apple strudel with a covetous eye. George had already devoured the remain- ing chocolate. Evan announced that he’d stay but a second, and began an apology about intruding that rang false. He spoke of the honor of being a part of our ensemble—of working with Cheryl, of working with George and me. “Miss Ferber, you and Mr. Kaufman wrote those words.” Something I already knew, thank you very much. To George in an old boy’s-club chuckle, “You, too.”
To which George grumbled, “Only the funny parts. Edna wrote the stage directions.”
He stayed for perhaps fifteen minutes, doing virtually all the talking now, charming, laughing, flattering, twisting his body left and right, yet rarely looking any of us in the face. It was, perforce, Shakespearean monologue. A feckless Romeo in a West Side pied-à-terre, with nary a Juliet in sight. “I just wanted to say hello. I know I’ll never be onstage in Maplewood, but to watch Louis Calhern doing Tony—an honor for me. I met Fredric March, you know. I understudied for him at a playhouse in Pasadena, in fact. He told me…” And off he went, lionizing, name-dropping. The fate of modern theater rested on his broad shoulders. Atlas in stage makeup. And Hollywood: that new theater for the world. Another horizon to conquer…someday… first to watch the master…New Jersey…Maplewood…
I interrupted him. “Have you been in Maplewood before?” That stopped him. He hesitated. “No.”
But that was a lie, I sensed—blatant, deliberate. A dark shadow in the eye corner, his head bowed. And for a moment I froze: I did not like this young man. True, I found most young men callous and vainglorious and…well, annoying. A cocksure and preening lot, most of them. The depth of oil cloth. Here, in Evan Street, was their unofficial leader. I understood how easily he could charm folks, particularly unsuspecting women—like, especially, Bea Kaufman, herself delirious around compelling and romantic bounders—but there was something else about this Evan Street: a streak of sly cunning that smacked of cruelty.
And just like that he was gone. Perfunctory handshakes, a curtain-call bow, servility that suggested its opposite—and still an avoidance of eye contact. Waving his hand in the air like a passenger setting sail for Europe from a Manhattan pier, he disappeared.
“Well,” I said, “that’s a show that’ll close on Saturday.”
Cheryl was biting a nail. “I may have made a colossal mistake listening to Bea.”
“Get used to it.” George grinned. “I have.”
“But I have to act with him.” I glanced toward the doorway. “Only if Louis Calhern dies.”
I shivered again.