Mr. D. Runyon Smythe provides us with this charming reminiscence of the New York Literary Scene in 1957, a golden period when Anyone Who Was Anyone really wished it were 1932. Take it away, D. Runyon!
So I am sitting in my favorite booth at Mindy’s, eating rhubarb cobbler, which Mindy’s is very famous for, while I am trying to cobble together my famous “Lullaby of Broadway” column, which you doubtless know about because of the many movies and popular songs it inspires.
It is a hot day in late summer, with no new shows on Broadway for at least another month, so you may well imagine that I am up poo-poo creek, column-wise. I have a couple of lame items from the Coast, about such forgettables as Arlene Dahl and Roddy McDowell . . . you know, the sort of stuff I usually use as filler . . . but nothing eye-tingling or local. Moreover there are five column-inches of blank space staring back at me.
What to do? In such a situation a popular columnist such as myself sometimes buys jokes from the Jewish gag-touts who stand outside the Hippodrome and try to finagle you into buying a joke, although I do not like to buy them because I write better jokes myself. But here is Mickey the Mockey, one of those selfsame joke-machers from 43rd Street, and he is coming up to me here in Mindy’s. Me, the famous “Lullaby of Broadway” columnist! What does he want this time?
Mickey the Mockey is a terrific name-dropper, so I am not surprised when he tells me he eats with Mayor Wagner last night, and all of the big names are there, as it is Mayor Wagner’s monthly literary salon where the Mayor always lays out a big spread, for literary names are big eaters. There is Dawn Powell, and Truman Capote, and Mark Van Doren, and also the famous Edna de Mourcy Childs, who is one of our greatest living poets.
“Such a big name she is thirty years ago, Edna,” Mickey the Mockey tells me, “but now she lives in a tub-in-kitchen flat on St. Mark’s Place, where she eats cat food. Edna, she falls upon some hard times!”
“What do her cats eat?” I ask, for my mind is busy trying to create jokes for “Lullaby of Broadway.”
“I do not know,” says Mickey the Mockey. “I believe they starve.”
“Not a good punchline, Mickey,” I say. “That is pathetic, and ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ can never be pathetic.”
“We must do something for Edna,” says Mickey. “I believe she is an old pal of yours. You are once literary editor for her in The Tiny Magazine. You publish her poems.”
The Tiny Magazine is a legend in Gotham literary circles. During its long reign, 1927-1932, it publishes every known poet in the Western world.
However, Mickey the Mockey has his facts wrong. At The Tiny Magazine my title is actually Sports Editor, and I believe my only encounter with Edna is at Jack & Charlie’s speakeasy, where one night Edna mixes her drinks and vomits all over Herbert Bayard Swope.
I correct Mickey the Mockey on this historical point, but he waves me away with his fat hand. He tells me a scheme for putting Edna in the dough. Edna’s wealthy uncle is about to die, Mickey tells me, and he does not have any heir but Edna. But there is a catch. Edna must have a baby, or her uncle leaves all his millions to his cat, which is named Ulysses.
“Edna has to be sixty years old,” I point out, taking the last lick of rhubarb cobbler from my spoon.
“None the same there is a baby,” Mickey insists. He tells me that in the year Nineteen-hundred-and-thirty-two, Edna is briefly married to an able-bodied seaman, who deserts her. Edna puts the baby in the Foundling Home and never thinks of her again. It is a girl baby, by the way. Finally, Mickey opens his eyes wide and says, “And you know her very well!”
At this juncture I drop my spoon in my lap, for I remember that my very own young wife is a Foundling Home baby, born in 1932. She is adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Ed Sullivan, who raise her as their very own and send her to a music conservatory. I meet her one night at the Sullivans’ hotel suite, which is a very swanky place indeed, where the Sullivans always lay out a big spread, because show people and newspaper people can eat quite a lot. Their daughter, by the name of Mabel, is at the piano playing “Liebestraum,” which is my favorite. We fall in love and two months later we tie the knot at St. Malachy’s.
It is Mabel’s birthday next day, so instead of a card I give her a double surprise. I tell her she is filthy rich, or almost so, and that she has a granduncle who is waiting to meet her. And all because she once told me she was a Foundling Home baby born in 1932.
Mabel is very unpredictable, and bursts into tears. “Nineteen-thirty-two! Oh honey, this is a lie. So long I carry this lie, now I must tell you the truth. Actually I am born in Nineteen-thirty-one. So long I lie about my age. Now you wish to divorce me, I suppose!” I take Mabel into my arms and comfort her, saying, “Twenty-six is still very young, Mabel. Too bad you are not filthy rich.”
I think about how to break this to Mickey the Mockey, for I expect great disappointment. He has a deal with me for a ten percent finder’s fee, just for connecting Mabel with her rich granduncle, only it turns out he is not really her granduncle.
Then I think about how there is a nice piece of change in this for me too, if I do not spill the beans. After all, I am married to Mabel. Mabel is very pretty and can pass for twenty-five. She does not look like Edna, but then again Edna does not look like anything. So I tell Mickey the Mockey that all is on the up-and-up, and next week we meet this fine elderly granduncle about to make Mabel his heir. I gather Edna gets something too, but those are just details.
With the help of Mr. and Mrs. Ed Sullivan we rent a suite at the Savoy-Plaza, which is one of the swankiest hotels in town, although not the same swanky hotel the Sullivans live at. We find Edna and clean her up, and feed her nutritious food for few days, because we want her uncle to believe she lives at the Savoy-Plaza and is not just an old rummy poet who lives on cat food. At first she is reluctant to eat nutritious food, however we discover she will eat tuna casserole if it is smelly enough. Soon enough the roses come back into Edna’s cheeks, although this may be because we provide her with a better quality of bourbon.
We sit Edna down at a Hepplewhite secretary (Grand Rapids reproduction) and tell her to write poems, because our plan is to tell the granduncle that Edna lives at the Savoy-Plaza because she is a successful poet.
However, Edna is more interested in the bourbon, and her hand shakes too much to hold the pen for long. So we copy a few lines from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Amy Lowell onto elegant notepaper, and leave them scattered over the desk.
Meanwhile Mabel moves in, and practices being very daughterly to Edna. She learns lines like, “That is such a beautiful poem, mother, you really ought to finish it.” And, “Mother is in her boudoir right now, for she is feeling poorly today.” Mabel thinks up that second line herself, and says she expects to use it a lot on the Big Day.
We decide to keep Mabel’s marriage a secret. The granduncle fellow sounds like the kind of guy who does not approve of newspaper columnists.
Finally the Big Day arrives. The old gentleman is dressed like Lucius Beebe in 1938. Walking stick, carnation, white tie, topper. In fact at first I think this is Lucius Beebe, but then I remember that Mr. Beebe, who is a confirmed bachelor, now lives in Nevada with his boyfriend.
Our visitor tells us his name is Cuthbert C. Childs, which is not news to us, and bows low. Mabel kisses him, and greets him as “Uncle.”
“They tell me your name is Mabel Sullivan,” Mr. Cuthbert C. Childs says, bowing low again to Mabel while tapping the floor with his stick. “I suppose Sullivan is the merchant seaman who runs off and abandons you and your poor sainted mother. Personally I do not trust anyone named Sullivan. When I enter Yale in 1885, the only music anyone ever plays is this Gilbert N. Sullivan person. Day and night, wherever you go, all you hear is this Gilbert N. Sullivan. To this day I have an earworm of ‘Three Little Maids from School Are We,’ playing at fever-pitch. I try to rid myself of it by listening to operetta and later ragtime and hot jazz, but it is all for naught.”
“Sullivan’s melodies are very haunting, Uncle Cuthbert, it is true,” remarks Mabel, who is rather at a loss.
“Well then! They tell me you are a conservatory girl and play the pianoforte exquisitely. Do you know ‘The Oceana Roll’?”
“If you hum a few bars I’ll fake it,” Mabel replies, scooting over to the piano stool. The old gent goes, “buh-buh-buh” a few times, then coughs into his pocket square. Mabel plays “Hands Across the Sea” instead, and Uncle Cuthbert starts to tap his feet. “Ah, yes. That’s it,” he says.
Mickey the Mockey and assorted other acquaintances on hand now look at each other, and me, for the old gent is clearly past it. But we must ignore that and press on to affairs of business. “Sit down, Mister Childs,” says Mickey, leading the dapper reprobate to a vast chintz-covered chesterfield by the window. “I am the money manager for Edna and Mabel. Oh yes I am. That is why I invite you here today. I understand you wish to settle your estate.”
“My estate, it is gone,” says Cuthbert Childs, and we momentarily sink into gloom. “I sell it for ready cash and marketable securities in the year 1952, top of the market. I believe it is now a convent school.”
“Such good news that is, I suppose,” says Mickey the Mockey. “And now you wish to make your niece Edna your heir. Or heiress.”
“Where is Edna?” says Uncle Cuthbert, banging his stick. “It is my understanding she wishes to meet me here today.”
“Mother is feeling poorly,” Mabel says, swiveling on her piano stool and shuffling some sheet-music. “She is up ever so late last night, trying to finish one of her epic poems.”
“Take me to her bedside,” says Mr. Cuthbert Childs. “I have not seen her since the Harding Administration.” So we all go into Edna’s bedroom and find her fast asleep, or maybe passed out from the many bottles of top-shelf bourbon adorning the night tables. Uncle Cuthbert leans over to kiss his niece, but jumps up with a start. “Why! She is stone cold! How long has she been lying there?”
It is true. Edna is dead. Later the coroner says it is a brain hemorrhage, but probably she just drinks herself to death, like many a poet before her. But this is neither here nor there. Right now Mabel and I are most embarrassed and we blame ourselves.
“Would you like a cup of tea, Uncle?” Mabel asks, trying to smooth things over. But Cuthbert Childs sits in a chair, weeping. “This morning I think I have an heir, a lively young niece, a niece who writes those poetry things. Now I am an old man with nothing, save a bundle of cash and marketable securities.”
Mabel runs over and kneels by his side. “You still have me, Uncle. Your loving grandniece.” “It is too late, alas, my dear!” sighs Cuthbert. “In clearest black-and-white, my last will and testament sets forth: ‘My entire assets are bestowed upon my niece Edna de Mourcy Childs, in the event she has living issue, unless she predecease me; in either which-wise the entirety goes to my cat Ulysses.'”
“You can change the will, Mister Childs,” says Mickey the Mockey. “I’m a money manager and I seen it done. They have these new things called codicils. You just add them to the end of the will and put your initials. Sure, that’ll work.” Mickey the Mockey runs to the living room for some of the notepaper we write poems on.
He is about to write out a codicil for Uncle Cuthbert, but Uncle Cuthbert is not interested. He takes off his shoes and climbs into the sack with the dead Edna. “Here is a codicil for you to initial, Mr. Cuthbert Childs,” says Mickey, waving a sheet of notepaper. Just put your JH right here!”
“No, alas, it is too late,” says the old gent. He pulls the bedclothes over his face, and expires, then and there! This is a great disappointment to us all. Like Mr. Cuthbert Childs, we start this morning with such high expectations, and now all we have are huge bills to the Savoy-Plaza and the East 58th Street Liquor Shoppe. “This cat Ulysses, this is one lucky cat,” moans Mickey the Mockey.
But Mabel has an idea. “Why not initial this codicil ourselves, Mister Mickey?” she says. “I’ll write his initials and you other people witness it.” “That is a feasible idea,” says Mickey the Mockey, and so we do this. Unfortunately the will is tied up in probate for twenty years, and by the time Mabel gets the money we are divorced and she is married to a plastic surgeon in Palm Beach, Florida.
This is why I still write the “Lullaby of Broadway” column for the New York Graphic-Tribune, and Mickey the Mockey still peddles bad jokes on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Forty-third Street. In case you wonder what becomes of Ulysses the cat, well Ulysses the cat is dead these many years.