Chapter 32: “Black Boy” Goes to New York

Summary: Inspired by his friend, boxing champion Jack Dempsey, Frank writes another play, “Black Boy.” Paul Robeson is signed to play the lead, but the production in New York does not go smoothly. In Stony Brook, Aggie tends to her mother, who has suffered a stroke, and awaits the birth of her third child.

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One morning, I had a long letter from Izzy. Mama was getting homesick for America. Izzy thought it was because Mama didn’t want to be an ocean away if Papa should ever send for her. Also, the British studios were slowing down, and very few jobs were open for writers. Izzy would like to bring Mama home.

I cabled Izzy to do whatever she thought best. If she wanted a job, I was pretty sure I could get her one in Hollywood. Izzy answered that she was afraid she couldn’t stand the gaff of an American studio. She felt she needed the training that would come from writing for a newspaper. Even the English fan magazines had taken note of my parties and friendship with Marion Davies. Since Marion was such a friend, couldn’t I ask her to get Izzy a job as reporter on Hearst’s New York Journal?

Asking a favor from a friend is something I’ve always enjoyed about as much as having a hacksaw applied to my right arm. However, I forced myself to make a sally on Marion’s dressing room, which was actually a tidy little bungalow of eight rooms, complete with kitchen and baths, and exquisitely furnished with rare antiques. I found Marion squatting on the thick pile carpeting of the living room, surrounded by yards and yards of turquoise blue taffeta.

“G-g-going to save m-m-money. M-m-make myself a d-d-dress,” she stuttered through a mouthful of pins. “And when I g-g-get it d-d-done, I’ll m-m-make one for you, Aggie.”

“That’s darling of you,” I said. Then, stammering a little myself, got out my request about Izzy.

“S-s-sure. I’ll f-f-fix that right up,” said Marion. “Easy as p-p-p-p—

“Pie,” I put in to end her struggles.

Marion grinned, and went on happily slashing away at the taffeta. I hurried to the telegraph office and sent a night cable to England, telling Izzy everything was arranged for her new job and to bring Mama home.

A few days after that, my secretary told me she’d heard that Marion and Mr. Hearst were leaving for the East unexpectedly, and it was rumored they might take a tour of Europe. I ran right to Marion’s bungalow. She wasn’t there. And when I phoned the beach house, I found she’d left that morning, leaving not one word about Izzy. Oh well, I thought, just another Hollywood promise. Then came a wire from Albuquerque: “Dear Aggie, Forget what you wanted but whatever it is just let me know and you will have it. Love, Marion.” I answered immediately care of the MGM New York office. Marion never did make that dress she promised me, and I suspect she never finished the one she was making for herself, but Izzy got her job and, as “Dorothy Van Dyke,” wrote sob sister stuff for the Journal for three years.

Izzy got that boost around the same time that Frank had a blow. One Sunday morning, we were awakened by a special delivery letter from Hugh Ford. It seemed that Ford had surprised his partner with Frank’s “The Gentleman” all right. But George Tyler had surprised Ford by secretly purchasing a play for Glenn Hunter in England. Now there was a dispute as to which play should be produced. Would Frank take $1,000 to extend Ford’s option for a year? I felt very bad about this as I loved “The Gentleman.”

“Imagine each partner buying a play without telling the other,” I said to Frank, almost in tears.

“It’s sure rough on the authors,” said Frank. “Either I or the Englishman who wrote Tyler’s play is due for a damned big letdown.”

“It’s as crazy as the pictures,” I said.

“No use grumbling.”

“But it’s going to be hard on you, just sitting around and waiting.”

“I’m not going to sit around and wait,” said Frank. “I’m going to write myself another play.”

“Another play? Oh, darling, how wonderful!”

“Got the flash for it last night while I was gabbing in the kitchen with Jack Dempsey.”

“I noticed you didn’t come to bed until all hours,” I said.

“Jack’s a great guy,” said Frank. “A really great guy!”

Jack was. And so were Jim Corbett and “Strangler Lewis,” who later we came to know well. All three fighters were titans of mayhem, and all courteous, considerate, and with as much gentleness as you could ask for in a babysitter. Frank had them all figured out.

“Don’t you see, Aggie,” he said. “Those three guys were champs. All time greats. And you can’t be great like they were without being smart. Plenty smart! And a really smart guy knows there’s enough trouble in the world without punking around trying to stir up more.”

Jack Dempsey was planning for his return bout with Gene Tunney and, of course, couldn’t take any chances with bootleg liquor. However, Frank had discovered a place where he could buy Amer Picon. This French cordial was so little used in this country, there’d be no reason for a bootlegger to fake it, and Jack permitted himself a drink or two. Often, he and Frank would sit in the kitchen for hours, a cold ham between them, Frank with his Scotch and Jack sipping Amer Picon.

“And what Jack’s told me about the prize fight game!” Frank went on. “The times he ‘rode the rods’ into a town and begged an advance from some small time promoter so he wouldn’t have to go into a bout starving. Bernard Shaw’s ‘Cashel Byron’s Profession’ is really sissy stuff. Those plays William A. Brady put on with Jim Corbett are just fake melodrama. I want to write something that’s real. It’s got to be tough and rough and brutal. And some of it’s going to have a bad time with the Anthony Comstock people.”

Frank blocked out his idea in a few days, but when it came to dialogue he found he needed a collaborator.

“I just can’t hit hard enough,” he said. “I’ve got to find somebody who’s been in the ring himself and knows every dirty angle there is to the game.”

Jim Tully had recently published “Beggars of Life,” a harsh, yet sensitive, memoir masterpiece. He’d been a professional boxer in his early years and a hobo before that. Someone told Frank a remark Jim had made about Betty Compson. “That broad,” he’d said, “has splendor.” The richness and power of the phrase appealed to Frank. “Tully’s my man,” he said.

Jim was a strange, maimed spirit. In him were deep wells of sympathy, compassion, and understanding. But he was also capable of bitterness and savage rancor, which was understandable considering the muck and poverty from which he had risen. His rancor often turned against the rich, the happy, and the successful. Charlie Chaplin and Mickey Neilan had been the two who’d given Jim his start in Hollywood and a chance to write. He’d turned on both with wild hatred. He’d even written a book, “Jarnegan,” exposing about every sin that Mickey had committed with a few added that Jim had thought up for himself. Recently, Jim and Charlie Chaplin had made headlines with fisticuffs in a Hollywood nightclub.

Jim was working with Frank at our house one Sunday afternoon, with papers spread all over the living room, when Marion Davies dropped by with Harry Crocker and Charlie Chaplin. I rushed ahead of them into the living room and told Jim and Frank who had come. Frank looked startled, and Jim’s face grew as red as his hair. His green-blue eyes glittered malevolently.

“I don’t know if I can stand coming face to face with Chaplin,” he declared. “I may do anything. I may even kill him.”

Just then Marion came in with Harry and Charlie.

“Charlie,” I squeaked, “you know Jim Tully, don’t you?”

For a moment, the two eyed each other like a couple of fighting cocks. Then Jim rose slowly from the couch.

“How are you, Charlie?” he said, and held out his hand.

Charlie took it. I gave a sigh of relief that must have sounded like a minor balloon explosion, and quickly ordered drinks for everybody.

In scarcely more than a month, “Black Boy” was completed. Frank sent the manuscript to New York, where three managers put in bids for it. Frank chose Horace Liveright.

“He’s the brightest guy in New York,” Frank told me. “Published Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson and a whole bunch of others. And he’s daring too. He won’t pull any punches. And of course, all the literati will go for anything he puts on. “

Always before, my pregnancies had been accompanied by the worst kind of worry and heartbreak. With Ruth there had been the car accident and the loss of Frank’s finger, the hard work wasted, and the bitter disappointments about “The Rosary” and the Rinehart script. With Mitch, there’d been our dreadful poverty, Ruth’s near fatal illness, and the awful scramble to get “Rich Men’s’ Wives” written. Now that Frank had two plays accepted and my picture career was going so well, what was there to worry about?

One day, I marched into Irving Thalberg’s office and declared dramatically, “Irving, you’re going to find this out sooner or later, so I’d better tell you myself. If you’re angry about it, you can break my contract because it’s nobody’s fault but my own….”

“For God’s sake!” Irving broke in. “What have you done?”

“Well, er, how can I explain it?” I stammered. “It’s just that, er, I’m going into production in October.” Irving let out a whoop of a laugh. “Having a baby? Is that all? That doesn’t hurt a woman. It won’t keep you away from the studio for more than a couple of weeks. Forget it, and get back to work.”

I’d hoped instead for some heavenly rest. In my daydreams, I’d be poking around old castles in the Loire country of France, gliding over waters heavy with history in Venetian gondolas, with perhaps a side trip to Egypt to see the pyramids and The Sphinx. But there was no standing up against Irving’s directive. I slouched back to my office, hoping that for my third baby the upchucking would pass me by. It didn’t. For a couple of months, I became the pretzel industry’s greatest consumer.

Finally, my time of internal turmoil came to an end, and with my record unblemished. I might be sick five or ten or twenty times a day at home or even in my limousine. But never, never, did I let this happen at a studio conference. I was feeling fine, and was deep into the problems of a new picture for Marion Davies when Frank phoned the office and read me a telegram. It was from Izzy. Mama had had a stroke, and was not expected to live. Frank said he’d already sent Olaf for me, and I told him to collect the children and have the maids start packing. Four hours later, we were all on our way East. No asking permission from Irving this time. I just wired him from the station, saying that as much as I loved him and the studio, I had to be with my ill mother.

During the ten-minute stop at San Bernardino, we were walking the children up the platform to look at the engine, when Frank suddenly turned to me.

“Aggie,” he said, “what doctor do you think Izzy will have for your mother?”

“Why, the old one we’ve always had, I guess.”

“A general practitioner,” said Frank, “and a good one. But I’ve got a friend in New York, Dr. Philip Stimson. He’s young, but he’s headed for the top. I’m going to telegraph and ask him, as a personal favor, to get the best specialist in the city out to Stony Brook for a consultation. Get the children back on the train. I’ve just enough time to send the wire.”

At Holly Tree House, I found Mama glazed–eyed and in delirium. But when I spoke to her, she knew me and murmured, “Oh Aggie! So…glad…you’re here,” and gave me a half-grin.

Izzy told me Mama had been sinking fast, her death almost a certainly. Then the specialist Dr. Stimson had sent came and ordered a drastic new treatment. From that time, Mama improved. Although partially paralyzed, she was to be saved for us for six more treasured years. The relations between Frank and Mama had been a hurt I’d tried to keep as deep down in my heart as I could. His sending that wire to Dr. Stimson eased the burden.

Before long, Mama was able to sit up in bed, a flowered wrap over her shoulders. She’d smile at me, take my hand in her bony fingers, and whisper, “Aggie, my little Aggie!” It was some time before speech fully returned to her. The pathetic half twist to her mouth when she smiled never left.

One day the phone rang, and I answered. It was Papa.

“I’m sorry to hear your mother is so ill,” he said.

“But she’s going to get well. She is!” I cried.

“Glad to hear that,” he said politely. Then, after a moment’s silence, “I’d like to see my grandchildren. Could I come out some time?”

“I don’t see why not.”

He came not once, but several weekends. It was a shock to me to see that, instead of the impressive figure I’d remembered, he was really a smallish, unimportant looking man. Pathetic, too, or at least I imagined so. He’d study me with a shy little smile that seemed to say there was so much he wanted to tell me, so much he wanted to explain. The redheaded woman. The hardships he’d brought to Mama and Izzy and me. But, if he really wanted to talk about those things, he never found the courage to start. He always inquired about Mama, but never asked to see her. And, of course, we never told her he was in the house. Sometimes I was tempted to. It might have been some comfort to her to know that Papa had come to us at last.

He loved the children. Ruth entertained him with her fantastic imaginings and Mitch with his interest in machinery. Papa would praise all these traits and say again and again, “You’ve got a fine family, Aggie. A wonderful family.” But despite the expensive gifts he brought the children, they never really accepted him. He was a stranger to them as he was to me.

Preparations began for the production of “Black Boy,” Frank and Jim Tully’s play. Jim had work to finish up in California so it was Frank who had to go over script changes and cast suggestions with Horace Liveright. Like Jim Tully, Liveright had a split personality. He had real flair and love for good writing, but he had a greater love for his reputation as the most successful and daring publisher in New York. He loved money or perhaps the excitement of acquiring it. A third compulsion was to possess the hearts and souls of all around him. He must impress, impress, impress. Although capable of the utmost daring, he would sometimes panic about trivial mishaps. Another fatal fault at the time of Frank and Jim’s play was his heavy drinking.

Frank’s first meeting with Horace was a honey. Frank told me, “Look, Aggie, this guy meets me at New Rochelle, all excited because he’s wrecked one of his fenders on the way to the station. From his driving, I’m surprised he’s got a car at all. Then, no sooner do we get to his house than he says we’ve got to take a walk. He claims he thinks better walking. So he leads me to a little hill, and below are some formal gardens and a great dump of a mansion. Liveright grabs hold of my arm. ‘Someday, I’m going to own an estate like that. I may be just a pimp and a panderer. I may get stage girls for the rich men who back my plays and my publishing house. But someday I’m going to be big—big!’”

“The crazy thing about it, Aggie,” Frank said, “was that the mansion Liveright was worshipping wouldn’t have been in good taste even for a mausoleum. And what a bunch of junk to tell someone the first time we’ve met! But the guy’s smart. He understands what Jim and I are trying to say in our play all right. And he’s engaged Paul Robeson.” Paul Robeson was our friend for years and years. He had a marvelous mind, mellow and prankish humor, and was a natural friend to all children. At that time, everyone who knew him loved him, and he loved his country and its people.

“Just because I’m black,” he once said to me, “why should I feel bitterness? American has been swell to me, and I’ve had a good life.” He had only one complaint, and that a just one. It was uncomfortable and degrading for him not to be allowed in good hotels. On tour, he had to put up with tawdry accommodations or foist himself on his friends. My favorite memory of Paul Robeson is—and always will be—the time we took the children to dinner at his apartment in Pasadena while he was making a motion picture. How he romped with the kids, sang for them, even made records with them that they took home and cherished for years, his magnificent voice mingled with their tone-deaf and out of key voices!

With Robeson signed up, the casting of the play ran afoul of race discrimination in its ugliest form. The story of “Black Boy” is that of a great hulking simple-minded Negro scouted by a white vulture of a manager, carried to a world championship, then destroyed, body and soul. The dramatic strength of the play was the conflict between “Black Boy” and the manager. Frank and Liveright approached every important actor in New York. Some found excuses for not taking the role, others came out frankly with, ”Me? I won’t play opposite a n_____r.”

The only female part in the cast was that of a young “high yaller” girl. One day, Liveright phoned Frank excitedly, “I’ve found the perfect girl. Wonderful actress! Wonderful type! Meet me for lunch at The Marguery tomorrow.” The Marguery was the most exclusive lunch spot in New York, and I tried to send Frank to his appointment as well groomed as possible. In the lobby he was met by Mr. Liveright, accompanied by a beautiful, trim-figured girl with just the faintest tinge of coffee in her complexion.

“Meet Miss Fredi Washington,” said Liveright, and then hushed his voice to a whisper. “We’re taking her to lunch. Will that be something! A colored girl eating lunch at The Marguery!” As Frank remembers it, Liveright brought Alexander Woollcott and O.O. McIntyre over to his table and introduced them to Miss Washington.

“What do you think—a colored girl in The Marguery,” he whispered to the columnists. “What do you think of that?” One of the gentlemen grunted, “So what?” The other didn’t answer. And Mr. Liveright’s great stunt never received one line in the newspapers.

Rehearsals began. After a week, Jim Tully arrived from the coast. The perfect agreement he and Frank had had while writing the play suddenly blew up. Jim didn’t see anything the way Frank did, and he ended each dispute with a real crusher. “This Dazey!” he’d say in earnest, sepulchral tones, “What can he know about life? He’s a Harvard man.”

Directors were changed, and Liveright began to act uncertain and alarmed. Once he called a meeting with not only Jim and Frank and the director, but the leading lights of his publishing house. Discussion was frenzied when the phone rang. Liveright’s secretary jumped for it, then handed him the receiver, whispering, “Important.” For some moments, Liveright listened, his face growing more and more haggard. Then he put back the receiver, and faced the play conference with piteous expression.

“Gentlemen,” he announced, “the pool in International Combustion has broken wide open.” Frank was irked. “Suppose Liveright did lose a few smackers in the stock exchange,” he told me. “What the heck has that got to do with our play?”

The greatest worry about the production was still the role of the prizefight manager. Finally an actor of great talent, but also with a reputation for instability, was signed on. This actor was unstable all right. One rehearsal he’d have magnificent command of every scene, the next his performance would be slipshod and meaningless. After every rehearsal, good or bad, he’d come to Frank for praise and comfort.

“Do you think I’ll be good?” he’d plead.

“Wonderful!” Frank would say.

“But how can I stand up against Robeson?”

“You’ll smother him.”

Finally, after three weeks of rehearsals, Frank couldn’t stand this actor’s erratic portrayal and the ensuing condolence any longer. Just before the White Plains premier, the actor came sidling up to Frank for the usual praise, Frank decided to try a different psychology.

”You were horrible,” he said. “I don’t think you’ll ever get by.”

“That’ll fix him,” Frank told me proudly. “Just what he needs to prod him into a great performance.” When Frank went to the White Plains theatre for the opening, another member of the cast met him at the stage door. “Scram quick, he said. He’s drunk and he’s got a big knife. He says he’s going to kill you.” Frank fled without seeing the performance.

Another actor, competent if not great, was engaged for the role. “Black Boy” went on to its tryouts in Wilmington and Hartford. Meanwhile, Mama was improving steadily. The baby was only a few weeks off so there was no sense in going back to the West Coast. Wanting to be what help I could, I tagged along with Frank into the “sticks.” It was a real battling tour. Every night after the show there’d be heated conferences. By this time my stomach stuck out like a porch, but I could still type fast. I was asked to sit in on the arguments and get the scenes on paper.

One night in Hartford, Harold Friedman, the agent, came up from New York, and also young Maurice Hanline. At 12:30 a.m., the conference started. The whole play was to be gone over. Perched in a hotel chair, I sat at a card table and, reaching over my tummy, pecked away on our portable typewriter. Tully suggested lines. I typed them out. Frank roared objections. I retyped the scene with the parts Frank objected to left out. Then it would be Tully’s turn to roar. This went on and on. Occasionally Maurice Hanline would suggest dialogue sequences of his own. These were typed and roared at in turn. It was well after daylight before the meeting broke up. Not more than three or four changes had been agreed on and put into the play. Frank almost had to carry me to bed. Then he took off my shoes and stockings and brought a cold towel for my head.

”Want me to rub the back of your neck, Aggie?” he asked.

I did and as he was trying to loosen the tightness, I groaned, “One thing for sure. If there’s anything to prenatal influence, this kid of ours, girl or boy, will start off with a hate against being a writer.”

“Yeah,” said Frank. “This is really rougher than the movies.”

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