Three Strikes You’re Dead (Excerpt)
The rain had stopped, but the cold, damp wind knifed from all directions. Traffic on Broadway had dwindled to the occasional taxi slushing along the wet pavement. The figure huddled against the brick wall of one of the buildings flanking the parking lot, beyond the faint light from a single bulb mounted on a telephone pole.
Neither the wall nor a turned-up coat collar and pulled-down hat kept out the March night. The waiting figure ached, from wet face to throbbing calves to numbed, cold feet that made squishing noises inside soaked shoes. The chimes of a nearby church tolled a single note, marking yet another quarter-turn–11:15.
More than three hours. The blowhard’s probably babbling on about how he’s going to clean things up. Make the city safe. Right.
The dark green ’35 Lincoln Le Baron roadster with its side-mounted spare tire was one of only five machines left in the dingy parking lot wedged between two darkened buildings. The rest of the local do-gooders must have taken taxis or streetcars. Not everybody had the kind of money in these hard times to afford a car, let alone a Lincoln. Now if he only came out by himself…
As the chimes struck the half-hour, footsteps came from the direction of the restaurant. The figure drew in air and struggled to keep from shaking, then tensed when a man reached the circle of light. Slender…wearing a fedora…him? Yes! No, not tall enough. The man walked toward a black Chevrolet coupe as the waiting figure edged back into a recessed doorway of the building. The Chevy started with a cough and pulled out onto Broadway, and the figure relaxed the grip on the cold, nickeled steel nestled in a coat pocket.
Another quarter hour passed. More footsteps. This time it had to be him. Yes. The confident, self-assured stride, long arms swinging at his sides, his ego fed by the mindless adulation of the group in the restaurant. The love of being at center stage and hearing the applause. He headed for the sporty roadster. And he was alone.
The figure emerged from the alcove, slowly but with purpose. The shivers of a few minutes ago had passed, replaced by resolve, and the hand that gripped the automatic was dry and steady. Any lingering doubts were erased by memories and hatred.
The tall man stopped just short of his car and cocked his head as if he’d heard something. The waiting figure’s hand tightened on the gun. The tall man pivoted deliberately, noticed the figure, then leaned forward at the waist, raising a hand tentatively, as if in recognition.
The heavy, damp night muted the single shot.
I awoke at 10:30 on New Year’s morning with a headache, which surprised me. True, I had rung in 1938 at Kilkenny’s just down the street, but I nursed only three beers in that entire stretch, from about 9:00 p.m. until past 1:30. Plus I took seconds and thirds from the big spread that the Killer had laid out, in his own words, “as a way of thanking all my regular customers, who are also my dear and cherished friends, for their enduring patronage and their tolerance of my myriad foibles.” That’s how the Killer talks.
“Oh, noblest of Gaelic publicans,” I had responded in kind, lifting high my glass, “we do indeed tolerate your varied foibles, bizarre though they may be, for we–and I speak for all in this august assemblage–have at one time or another found solace in your understanding and sympathetic ear and your hospitable nature, a nature that befits one whose roots go deep into the Old Sod.”
“Malek, sit down and shut up, or better yet, have yourself another drink,” Morty Easterly bellowed. “One gasbag in this joint is enough, and as he happens to own the place, we can’t very well tell him to button his yap.”
“Point taken, albeit reluctantly,” I said amid a chorus of jeers, waving and sitting down. I kept on eating and socializing as the old year slipped away, but I declined the champagne poured with a flourish nearing midnight, and I was home and asleep by 2:00. The moral, if one is to be found: Next time, two aspirin before bed. I rolled over and turned on the squawky little radio on the nightstand to get a weather report, but all I could find was music–Crosby and Kate Smith and Rudy Vallee–plus one station where a bass voice somberly recited the major events of 1937: FDR’s second inauguration…the crash of the Hindenburg dirigible at Lakehurst…Japan’s invasion of China…the continuing Spanish Civil War…Amelia Earhart’s plane lost in the Pacific…Joe Louis knocking out Braddock at Comiskey Park for the heavyweight title.
“Tell me something I don’t know, like the temperature, will ya?” I muttered, turning off the radio and easing out of bed, making sure my feet landed on the small island of rug where I’d parked my slippers. I padded across the wood floor to the window. The sun had punched through the clouds, and the predicted flurries never showed up.
Most of Chicago was still asleep, or at least inside likely nursing its collective hangover. Three stories below me, Clark Street was empty save for a red streetcar that lumbered by, clanging its bell at nothing in particular. A few weeks earlier, after we had spent a Saturday night in Kilkenny’s, Walt Carlin from the copy desk at the Tribune decided he didn’t want to go all the way south to his two-room flat on 67th Street, so he bunked on my sofa. He got up in the morning griping about how noisy my place is, what with all the traffic on Clark, particularly the bell-happy streetcars. But in the two years I’d lived there, the racket had never bothered me. Maybe it’s because I’m a heavy sleeper, or maybe it goes back to the three-flat in Pilsen where I grew up. It had railroad tracks right behind it that rattled the china in my mother’s kitchen cupboard at least once every half hour, day and night, or so it seemed to me. As my father liked to say, “If you can fall asleep here, you can doze off at State and Madison the Saturday after Thanksgiving with a Salvation Army band playing five feet away.”
I measured coffee into the pot and shuffled to the front door. The Trib was in the hall on the mat, neatly folded rather than thrown down with its inside sections spilling out, as was usually the case. The talk I had with the newsboy when I gave him his year-end tip seemed to be paying off, at least for now. Sitting with a Lucky Strike and a cup of black coffee at my small kitchen table, I went through the paper. The banner story, as it is every January 1, told how the New Year’s Eve crowd jammed the Loop, and what a wonderful time they had. I figure the type for this piece just gets saved and reused year after year.
A few pages back was the headline HITLER MAKES A NEW YEAR VOW–GREATER ARMS, under which the guy calling himself Fuehrer was quoted as saying “Expansion of German fighting forces is a political necessity.” As I worked through the front section, I grinned for the first time in 1938. My day-old piece about a raid on a South Wabash handbook ran almost as I had written it, including the lead: “Bookie Carl ‘Ace’ McCabe had a deuce of a time Friday when a trio of Chicago Police in four minutes wrote him up on five separate charges of illegal gambling.” I never thought it would clear the copy desk, although that cretin of a slot man on the day side, Jasper Cams, made sure there was no byline on the story.
The lead editorial warned that “There will be no comfortable coasting in 1938” and that “Times call above all for fortitude.”
“Just what I needed to hear,” I muttered into my cup. “A stiff-upper-lip lecture to break in a new calendar.” I silently mouthed the name of the Trib’s chief editorial writer and followed it with several of the words the paper refuses to print.
Turning the page, I groaned at the three-column photo printed there–the city’s number one publicity hound and self-proclaimed do-gooder had struck again. The man who reporters privately refer to as “Goody Two-Shoes” had held another of his “Let’s Do Battle Together for a Clean Chicago” rallies, this one on the sidewalk in front of City Hall on New Year’s Eve afternoon. The extended caption (there was no story) read: “Some 100 or more interested citizens and casual passers-by listened attentively as reformer and heir to a steel fortune Lloyd Martindale exhorted them to ‘get rid of those despicable vermin known by the all-too-polite label of organized crime.’ Martindale, who many speculate is setting his sights on running for mayor in 1939, urged his listeners to demand ‘better police protection, better government leaders, and a better year ahead for all residents of our great city.'”
He closed by lambasting Mayor Edward J. Kelly as “a tool of the Nittis, the Riccas, and all of those other repugnant throwbacks to the Capone era who think it is their birthright to ply their nefarious businesses: gambling, white slavery, and drug dealing.”
It sounded familiar, and for good reason. On a blustery fall afternoon some three months earlier, Martindale had pulled the same stunt in front of Police Headquarters at 11th and State, and all of us in the pressroom begrudgingly–and under orders from our city editors–trudged outside to cover his harangues.
“Goddamn windbag knows how to get publicity, I’ll give him that much,” Anson Masters of the Daily News muttered to me as Martindale, tall, with salt-and-pepper hair well-barbered and impeccable in a three-piece blue serge suit, stood on a crate on the sidewalk and spoke into a bullhorn. He gave the newspaper photogs his sharply etched profile and berated the police for, among other things, “cavalierly allowing the crime syndicate to operate unchecked and unfettered throughout the length and breadth of our great metropolis.”
The 15-minute diatribe, delivered with the style and fervor of a sawdust-trail evangelist, drew applause and cheers from a couple of dozen spectators, most of them middle-aged women, who almost surely had been brought along by Martindale and his sidekick, a red-haired fireplug named Lumley.
About ten uniformed cops stood off to one side watching the performance, shaking their heads and making behind-the-hand comments to one another. As we trooped back into the building, I asked a lieutenant I knew casually what his opinion of Martindale was. “Well, what do you think?” he shot back, rolling his eyes. “Don’t quote me, not that anyone would be interested in my opinions, but he’s a bullshit artist, and if he ever becomes mayor, which I seriously doubt, I’m moving to the suburbs. And I hate the suburbs.”
I looked again at the photo of Martindale, fist in the air and jaw jutting like the prow of a battleship as he stood in front of City Hall, and I wished I had the same doubts about Martindale’s success as the police lieutenant. It seemed to me that Martindale really could end up running the city. After all, look at what good old-fashioned stem-winding oratory got Huey Long down in Louisiana: a governorship, a Senate seat, and a bullet.
I tossed the paper aside and proceeded to waste the afternoon. None of the football games on the radio interested me, although I’d read a lot in the sports pages about Whizzer White of Colorado and how good he was and that he should have won the Heisman Trophy instead of some Yale swell named Clinton Frank. So, while I had a can of tomato soup and an apple, I listened to some of the Cotton Bowl game; however good this Whizzer may have been, he wasn’t good enough this time because Rice beat Colorado.
This was Saturday, which meant I had the next day off too, and around 7:00 I decided to catch a movie at the Chicago Theatre–”Wells Fargo” with Joel McCrea and Frances Dee. I peered into the bathroom mirror and poised my comb, trying to decide if the patch of gray behind my left ear had begun to spread. Given that the rest of my hair is sort of dusty-colored, it didn’t seem to stand out all that much anyway. I put on a white shirt and my navy blue suit, and the bright red tie with swirls that Norma used to say made me look like a floorwalker at Marshall Field’s. As I slipped on my overcoat, I noticed that the right sleeve was fraying. I snipped off the loose ends with the kitchen scissors and went to the front closet, where I grabbed the new dark blue Dobbs hat–my Christmas present to myself.
Down on the street, the wind swirled and had teeth. There were no cabs in sight; maybe all the hackies were hung over like the rest of us. I waited 10 minutes for one, then gave up and grabbed a southbound Clark streetcar. I was one of just six riders, and three of the others–two old geezers and a double-chinned woman in a brown babushka–were asleep. The woman snored softly, the purse she clutched to her mountainous bosom rising and falling with each breath. A young couple held hands and gazed unblinking at each other, their mutual enamor blocking out the mean surroundings.
I settled into a cold wicker double seat and started in on the Trib sports section I’d brought along for company, but the bare bulbs gave off so little light that I finally gave up. As we clattered toward the Loop, I looked out on a succession of darkened storefronts–butchers, dry cleaners, drug stores, auto mechanics, currency exchanges, grocers, haberdashers, and a Woolworth’s five-and-dime. Other than the austere and depressing lobbies of the transient hotels, only the saloons were open, their neon window signs for Schlitz and Pabst and Blatz cutting through the murk like welcoming beacons.
I grew up in the comfortable boredom of Pilsen, a well-scrubbed Bohemian enclave of apartment buildings and small houses on the Near Southwest Side. After I got married, we lived in a brick six-flat in the Logan Square neighborhood up Northwest. Now, for the last two years, I’d had a taste of what I felt was the real Chicago: North Clark Street. If any thoroughfare throbbed to the rhythms of the city, this was it. I hated living alone, but at the same time, I loved Clark Street.
The streetcar bulled through the Fullerton intersection. On the right a couple of blocks farther south was the warehouse where Bugs Moran’s crew got machine-gunned at point-blank range on Valentine’s Day 1929, and it had to have been Capone’s men–dressed as cops, by God. Only in Chicago. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the papers called it, and why not? It was a massacre, all right. I already was working for the Tribune then, but I was stuck inside on rewrite. When word came in to the local room about the shootings that Thursday morning, I tried to persuade Bob Lee, the city editor at the time, to send me up there to lend a hand with the coverage. But his snappy reply was that the p.m. papers were going to beat us on the story for their home-delivered editions anyway, and that I should stay put and take phone dictation from the battery of reporters he’d dispatched to the warehouse. I did what I could to liven up their flat copy, and I made it a lot peppier at that.
Pardon the horn-tooting, but by then I was the best the Trib had at writing news features–human interest stuff, but with solid reporting behind it–and if I’d been up there at the site, I would have turned out a better piece than the whole damned bunch combined. They were reporters, but so was I, and I was something none of them was–a writer.
The red streetcar had crossed North Avenue, passing the two big German gathering places called the Red Star Inn and the Germania Club, which faced each other like blocky sentinels proclaiming Teutonic glory. But another few blocks farther south, in the shadow the downtown skyline, the street changed its character again, for the worse. Stooped men in rags, many bare-headed and seemingly oblivious to the cold, sat on the sidewalks with their backs against the walls of flophouses and saloons or stood in alleys, silhouetted in the Styxian glow of fires in salamanders, those 40-gallon drums whose blazes were likely fueled by newspapers or oily rags. Some nipped from pint bottles wrapped in paper sacks, which they passed to eager neighbors. This was skid row. Not the Skid Row, which was a mile or so away on West Madison, but real enough in its degradation. The editorial writers were always wringing their hands in print about these stretches of misery and what should be done about them, but nobody had yet come up with a good answer. Maybe there wasn’t one, at least not as long as this Depression had its fangs dug into us. According to the Tribune, FDR definitely wasn’t the solution, but then I never thought the paper had given the guy a fair shake, although you wouldn’t hear me saying it within a cannon shot of Tribune Tower.
We clattered across the river on the Clark Street drawbridge, which put us in the Loop. I got off and walked two blocks east to the Chicago Theatre at State and Lake–the biggest movie house in the world, somebody called it, probably the Balaban & Katz chain, which ran the place. Whether or not it was the biggest, it was grand with its mirrors and gold railings and wide, sweeping staircases and thick carpeting and chandeliers. I’d been going there for movies and stage shows almost since the day it opened, which was the year after I graduated from high school in 1920. And that’s where Norma and I had our first “downtown” date in 1923–to see Richard Barthelmess and Dorothy Gish in “Bright Shawl,” followed by a vaudeville show that bored both of us.
On this New Year’s night, not even a quarter of the seats were taken. I had liked Joel McCrea in other movies, but you can have “Wells Fargo.” It was too long, with too many slow spots. He was better in “Barbary Coast.” After the movie, the screen went up, the curtains parted, and Ted Weems and his orchestra started playing on the stage, so I got out fast. Several years before, Norma and I had danced to Weems at a downtown hotel, I forget which one, and I didn’t need that kind of memory.
At twenty past eleven, I stood under the marquee of the theater and paused to absorb the warmth of its hundreds of small light bulbs. I hadn’t eaten since early afternoon and decided to treat myself to a late supper at Henrici’s. I went the half block south and turned west onto Randolph, where the Rialto’s movie palaces trumpeted in three-foot-high letters their starring performers: Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray, John Barrymore, Mae West and Nelson Eddy, and a young comedian named Red Skelton, who was live on stage.
The Randolph Street sidewalks that twenty-four hours earlier had overflowed with revelers now were almost deserted. Henrici’s wasn’t crowded, either. I gave my coat and hat to the checkroom girl and turned to the tuxedoed maitre d’, whose supercilious grin had been frozen onto a long, sallow face. He sniffed twice and led me across the black-and-white checkerboard tiles and past a half acre of starched linen on empty tables to a spot near the back of the paneled, high-ceilinged dining room. Dropping a menu on my plate as though it, and I, were tainted, he executed a snappy about-face and returned to the comfort of his rostrum.
After ordering a Schlitz on draught from a marginally friendly waiter, I saw her, alone at a table under a landscape painting, reading and sipping coffee. Her short brown hair framed that delicate, famous face, which I had in right profile, and she wore a pale blue, two-piece outfit that probably cost more than I made in a month.
I ordered the roast beef plate and sipped beer from a pilsner glass as I watched her. I had known she was in town, of course, what with all the publicity and the reviews. But I never expected to see somebody like that alone without an entourage or bodyguard or escort as a buffer against the masses.
I can’t say what made me decide to go over to her–maybe it’s what Norma had often called my “essential brashness.” I walked the 20 feet and stood beside her table, waiting to be noticed. She looked up, her intense blue eyes questioning but not hostile.
“Pardon me,” I said, making an awkward attempt at a bow. “I don’t mean to disturb you, but I just had to tell you how much I liked you in Victoria Regina–I saw it two weeks ago, right after it opened. It’s the only play I’ve seen in at least a year. And I’m awfully glad you brought it here at last.”
“Why, thank you very much,” Helen Hayes said as if she meant it. She smiled primly. “And please don’t apologize. You are most definitely not disturbing me, Mr.…”
“Malek. Steve Malek.” I spelled it.
“Which would make you a Czech, isn’t that so?”
“Sure is. Both of my parents were born in Bohemia.”
“Were you, as well?”
“Afraid not. I’m 99 and 44 one-hundredths percent Chicago.”
“And you should be proud of it. This is a great city,” she said with conviction, dabbing her lips with her napkin. “Tell me, Mr. Malek, would I be too bold if I asked your line of work?”
“Not as bold as I am for intruding. I’m a reporter, a police reporter. With the Tribune.”
Her smile grew to a laugh, but I could tell it wasn’t at my expense. “I should have guessed!” she trilled with unsuppressed pleasure, clapping once. “I’ve known a lot of newspapermen, including my own husband, and all of you have something in common. It’s a certain…”
“How about ‘essential brashness’?”
“Well…I might not have termed it that way exactly, but I suppose it comes pretty close to describing…”
“Is everything all right, Miss Hayes?” The maitre d’ was breathless from sprinting across the room.
“Oh yes, Emil, of course it is, although you’re sweet to look after me, as you always do.” She touched his arm in affirmation. I’ve just been getting reacquainted with an old friend. Have you met Mr. Malek, from the Tribune?”
Emil furrowed his brow and looked with uncertainty from the actress to me and back again. “I…don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.” He turned to me, nodding stiffly. “Sir.”
“Emil.” I dipped my chin in return to show there were no hard feelings about the way he had high-hatted me when I came in.
“Are you having supper?” Helen Hayes asked, and when I told her I’d just ordered, she urged me to join her, patting the chair at right angles to her own.
“But it looks like you’ve already finished,” I protested.
“I just had a snack. That’s all I usually eat after a performance. But I need more coffee, Lord, several cups more, to get me through this,” she said in a stage voice, shaking a sheaf of papers she had just picked up. “And I would very much like the company. Emil, have Mr. Malek’s meal and drink brought over here.”
“Yes, Miss Hayes,” he responded, doing another about-face, this one not at all snappy.
“I don’t believe Emil cares a whole lot for me,” I said as I sat down.
“Oh, don’t worry about him,” she replied gently. “He’s not nearly as stuffy as he puts on, and he’s very protective of me. I’m here several nights a week after the performance, usually by myself–I often like being alone after working–and Emil views himself as my guardian, my protector. Actually, almost nobody ever approaches me. Maybe they don’t recognize me, or if they do, they choose not to come over.”
“I almost didn’t come over myself. Thanks for pretending that we have known each other.”
She tilted her head gracefully in what may have been a practiced gesture, although with her it seemed natural and spontaneous.
“Not at all, Mr. Malek. Now if you’d been, say, an accountant or a stockbroker or an optometrist–not that those are bad professions, mind you–I almost surely would not have invited you to join me. But a newspaperman–that’s different. You as a group are among the most interesting people in the world. And in candor, I was feeling sorry for myself. Also, as I told you, I welcome the company.”
“Feeling sorry for yourself? Why?”
“This!” She stuck out her lower lip and shook the sheaf of paper again. “Mr. Malek, when we left New York and took Victoria Regina on the road in the fall, I got this crazy idea that this cast could rehearse another play, The Merchant of Venice, as we go across the country and then give a few performances of it, very few, in certain cities. I told myself, and everybody else, that it would keep us all fresh and stimulated. But that was a bald rationalization on my part; I am thirty-seven years old, and I have always wanted to do Shakespeare.”
“You never have?”
“Never. Not once. Be very careful what you wish for, Mr. Malek, because you might get it,” she said with feeling. “I’m playing Portia”–she tapped what I now realized was a script–”and we’re supposed to give our first performance of ‘Merchant,’ a matinee, right here in Chicago at the Erlanger two weeks from today. Never in the history of the American theater has a cast been more unprepared, and I include myself, particularly myself, in that indictment.
“Well, you’ve heard quite enough of my problems. Let’s talk about you and newspapers. My husband, Charles–Charles MacArthur–worked as a reporter here some years ago, before he moved to New York and we got married. We live up in Nyack, not too far north of Manhattan. He’s back home now, working on a screenplay. When he lived in Chicago, before I knew him, he was on the Examiner, and also your Tribune. I suppose you’re too young to have known him?”
I smiled. “For the record, you and I are just about the same age. I’ll be thirty-six come March. But I didn’t get onto the Trib until your husband had gone East. Of course I’ve seen his and Hecht’s play, The Front Page, and I do know him as a reporter by reputation. God, the stories they still tell about him in the local room–that’s what the Trib calls its city room. He’s a legend.”
“Oh?” Her eyes danced and she clapped her small hands. “What kind of stories?”
“Well…here’s one, although I’m a little fuzzy on some of the details. Apparently, he was sent by the paper to a small burg over in Michigan to cover a trial. I think it was when Henry Ford sued the Trib over something they wrote about him that he didn’t like. Anyway, so the story goes, MacArthur–your husband–commandeered a streetcar, tossed the motorman off, took the controls, and ran the thing at full speed to get to the courthouse, which sat up on a hill overlooking the town. The police chased after the trolley, so MacArthur got off at the top of the hill, took some cannonballs that were piled up next to a Civil War statue, and rolled them down on the town coppers like bowling balls, which sent the cops racing for cover while the locals stood around and cheered.”
“Come to think of it, I believe Ben–Hecht that is–mentioned that episode once. To hear Ben and Charlie talk, and how they both do love to talk, those were boisterous days on the Chicago newspapers. Is it still like that?”
“I wouldn’t say so. Since the Crash, everything’s been, well, more serious.”
“From what I’ve seen, that’s the case just about everywhere,” she said solemnly, sipping coffee as the waiter arrived with my dinner and more beer. “How did you get started in the newspaper business, Mr. Malek?”
“When I was a kid, I figured I’d be a streetcar motorman, which is what my father is and always has been, at least as far back as I can remember. But in high school, my junior year it was, I volunteered for the school paper because it seemed like that’s where all the good-looking girls were. And I ended up liking it, the paper, I mean, the reporting and the writing. Well, when I graduated, I knew college was out of the question. There was just no money either for me or for my sister, she’s three years younger. The advisor on the school paper was impressed with my work and said he’d put in a good word with a guy he knew at the City News Bureau. That’s mainly a police reporting service that the papers all use, and…”
“Oh, yes,” Helen Hayes said. “I’m sure I’ve heard Charlie talk about the City News Bureau.”
“Sure, you would have. It’s been around forever, and almost every reporter in town gets his start there. Anyway, I signed on, and it was pretty rough at first. The pay is terrible, and the police out in the precincts make fun of you and play tricks like stealing your notes and things like that. But if you’re serious about your work, and good at it, the coppers end up accepting you–most of them are pretty good guys, actually. And it’s great training; you cover murders, auto crashes, fires, the works. Besides, putting in your time there is almost a necessity for getting a job on one of the dailies.”
“What do you do at the Tribune?” Her eyes fastened onto me, suggesting that what I had to say was important.
“I cover police headquarters, which is down at 11th and State. I’ve got the day shift.”
“Sounds impressive. Are you happy?”
“It’s a job.”
She considered me with a thoughtful expression. “You don’t seem terribly enthusiastic for someone in such an exciting line of work.”
Looking back on that evening, I am still surprised by how much I opened up to her. I like to think I’m good at getting other people to talk about themselves, but I hadn’t talked much about my own life for several years, with reason. But here was someone–and not just anyone–who seemed genuinely interested.
“I’ve had better assignments than this,” I told her. “I covered both City Hall and the County Building several years ago. I don’t mean to brag, but I was considered one of the top young reporters on the paper, particularly when it came to news features and human-interest stories. Then, well…I got so I was drinking more and more. It sort of snuck up on me. And I’ll be honest–it affected my work.”
“The newspaperman’s curse,” Helen Hayes pronounced sympathetically. She looked down at her coffee cup, then glanced fleetingly at my almost-empty beer glass. I’d heard enough stories about Charles MacArthur to know that he had his own demons.
“I’m real careful these days,” I put in quickly. “No more of the hard stuff. None. I limit myself to beer now, and not too much of that, either. A few people have tried to get me to look into this new thing called Alcoholics Anonymous, but I don’t need it. I really have cut way back.”
“That’s good to hear,” she said with conviction. “Do you have a family?”
“I did until two years ago. A wife and a son. I’m divorced. That happened mainly because of the drinking, too.”
“Mmm. And do they live in Chicago?”
“On the Northwest side, Logan Square. Norma works at a bank up there; she’s an assistant to the head cashier, a good job. And my son, Peter, he’s almost twelve, in the sixth grade. I see him weekends, usually Saturday. Except this one. He and Norma are visiting her parents over in Indiana near Fort Wayne, where she comes from. I’ve been telling Norma how I’ve cut back so much on the drinking. I’d like for us to get back together, but she has said no unless I quit totally. She’s one of those who wanted me to try this ‘Anonymous’ thing. The others were an editor at the paper and my parents, who still live in the same building where I grew up. But like I said, I don’t drink much at all anymore. I’m okay.”
She gave me a nod and an understanding look. I talked some more about myself and went into detail about a few of the stories I’d covered, like the big to-do over Sally Rand and her famous fan dance at the Century of Progress World’s Fair in ’33 and the John Dillinger shooting outside the Biograph Theatre on Lincoln Avenue the next year. After Dillinger got gunned down by the G-men, I went up there in a cab and wrote a terrific feature, lots of color and quotes, about the mood around the movie house and how people were coming from all over town just to see the spot, even though Dillinger’s body was long gone to the morgue. I even recited a few sentences from the story to Helen Hayes, who was nice enough to act like she admired the prose.
It was now well past midnight. Henrici’s was almost deserted, and at the opposite end of the big dining room, busboys were putting the chairs upside down on top of the tables and mopping the floors. “I’ve so enjoyed myself, Mr. Malek,” the actress said, reaching across the table and giving my hand a squeeze. “Thank you so much for joining me.”
“I’m the one who should be doing the thanking. I barged in on you, and not only did you welcome me, you let me run off at the mouth.”
That drew another of her pleasant laughs. “Ah, but you made me forget all about The Merchant of Venice for most of an hour, and I can’t even begin to tell you how much that means. Would you be interested in seeing the performance? It may be the only one we ever do! I’ll have two tickets left in your name at the Erlanger box office, but I won’t guarantee the quality of the production.”
“I’d be honored to go. Before I forget it, I was amazed at the way you aged–what was it, fifty years?–as Queen Victoria. How long does it take you to get all the makeup off?”
“Not as long as you’d think. But then, after all this time, I’ve got the routine down pretty well,” she said, calling the waiter over. She asked him to give her my check.
I jumped up. “No, I can’t let you do that. I want…”
“This is my treat, Mr. Malek. I really must insist.”
“Miss Hayes, we have had a wonderful conversation, and you did let me run on about myself, which I appreciate. I feel really good right now, and I want to hold onto that feeling. But I can’t unless I pay for my dinner. Besides, you have already offered me two free tickets, which I plan to use.”
“I won’t try to argue with that logic,” she answered merrily. “And I certainly don’t want to risk losing a potential member of the audience. There may be few enough of you in the theater as it is.”
“I don’t believe that for a minute,” I answered as we rose to leave. “A dollar says you get great reviews.”
“No bet! I wouldn’t put it past you to bribe your own paper’s critic–Charley Collins, isn’t it–just to win the wager.”
We continued bantering as we got our coats from the girl in the checkroom, who was glad to see us leave. Realizing for the first time how short she was, I helped Helen Hayes with her coat. At that moment, I felt very much the bon vivant. Even Emil eyed me with respect, albeit grudging, I’m sure. “Where are you staying?” I asked her.
“The Palmer House. It’s a nice, short walk, and I need the exercise.”
“Only on the condition that I escort you as far as the lobby,” I insisted. “I will not have a national treasure walking our rough, dark streets alone after the witching hour.”
“A handsome speech, sir, but State Street is hardly rough and certainly not dark,” she riposted. “However, I shall welcome the company.”
So it was that I strolled south along State Street with America’s most famous stage actress on my arm. I would have liked to run into someone I knew at that moment, but I had to settle for the beat cop at State and Washington, who touched the brim of his cap when we passed. “Evening, Miss Hayes,” he said, beaming.
“Good evening, Mr. Garrity,” she responded with a mock formality. “Pleasant night for the season, don’t you think?” When we were beyond his hearing range, she turned and winked up at me. “See, I’m perfectly safe. I have friends in high places.”
“As well you should be. By the way, that hat makes you look very debonair.”
“Thanks, it’s new. I like hats a lot. Almost always wear one. That’s how I got my nickname, ‘Snap,’ as in snap-brim. As I like to say, a man is known for what’s on his head as well as what’s in it.”
“I can’t decide whether that is glib or just plain corny. Probably both,” she concluded.
“Probably,” I agreed. I felt agreeable. “You’ve surely heard this a thousand times, but I thought you were wonderful in A Farewell to Arms. I saw it right here in the Loop, in ’32, I think it was.”
“Mr. Malek, most of us who work in the theater and in films never tire of hearing praise. I know I certainly don’t. I adored making that picture, and I thought it turned out well, never mind that Mr. Hemingway grumbled about the ending. Working with Gary Cooper was grand–especially the love scenes. Oh, my! I truly believe I was envied by the entire female population of Hollywood, and that included Hedda Hopper and Luella Parsons!” We both laughed.
“You know, I have come to enjoy this city so much,” she said, turning to look up and down State, with its department stores looming on both sides, their darkened hulks interrupted by the lights of an occasional bar or restaurant, plus the marquee of the Roosevelt Theatre. “The people are so warm and friendly here; they don’t seem to have a lot of pretensions. But I know it’s got a reputation as a brawling gangster town, or at least it did, to hear Charlie and Ben go on about it. Is that the case now, too?”
“There are still plenty of gangsters around, God knows, and plenty of rackets, too. But these guys today are nowhere near as flamboyant as they were before Prohibition got repealed. Most of them, at least the smart ones, try to avoid notoriety now. We–the press, I mean–still try to make them sound more legendary and colorful than they really are. We even tag them with nicknames, or at least take the names somebody else gave them and make sure we always use them in print. Like Jake ‘Greasy Thumb’ Guzik, Murray ‘The Camel’ Humphreys, Hymie ‘Loud Mouth’ Levine. But honestly, most of these guys are lowlifes…nothing more than bums.”
“I’m not surprised to hear that. Still, there’s quite a history, isn’t there? Here’s one story I can tell you. Several years ago, when Charlie and I were living in Manhattan, we threw a small party for our daughter Mary’s first birthday. Charlie had told some of our guests that Al Capone was going to show up. When they learned it was just another one of his gags, everybody laughed it off except an Italian opera singer named Lucrezia Bori, who had really believed Capone was going to be there. She was angry, and to calm her, Charlie somehow got hold of Capone’s number in Chicago and telephoned him. It turned out that Capone was a big fan of Lucrezia and her singing, but he wouldn’t believe she was on the line until she sang an aria. She did, and then Capone knew it was her and everybody was happy.”
“That’s quite a story,” I told her as we got to the hotel and went through the revolving door into the lower lobby.
“I’ll never forget that evening,” Helen Hayes said. “And this has been a very pleasant evening, too, Mr. Steven ‘Snap’ Malek. You are engaging company, and I wish you the best in your work and in your personal life. By the way, on top of everybody else you’ve met in your interesting life, I don’t suppose you knew Al Capone, too, did you?”
My answer was a smile, and we shook hands like old friends in the lower lobby of the Palmer House.