Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Mystery of George Baxt

Pioneering Pen: George Baxt
In lofty discussions of pioneering gay writers in fancy literary journals the name George Baxt rarely comes up. But Baxt, a former agent turned writer, was far more influential than he is given credit for. His work ranges from theater and film (he wrote the screenplay for the cult fright flick Circus of Horrors) to a series of popular mystery novels, including the ground-breaking pre-Stonewall classic: A Queer Kind of Death.

George Baxt was a true character, the kind of guy you'd love to have at a party, but would hate to have on your bad side. He had a wicked tongue, spitting out barbs like watermelon seeds. I never met the man. But I'd heard over the years about his enormous wealth of knowledge about the theater, old talkies and movie stars. He knew where all the bodies were buried and was never shy about spilling the dirt.  Reading through his hilarious books, of which I have a small collection, I got to thinking. Why isn't George Baxt better known? It's a riddle I tried to solve the only way I know how, by reading everything I could find about him.
I first encountered the name George Baxt when I stumbled upon a copy of A Queer Kind of Death. Published in 1966, it featured a campy gay detective, and a black one to boot: Pharoah Love. (The spelling mistake in his first name was deliberate). Pharoah Love was an audacious "cool cat" who loved jazz, his swanky Jaguar and sexy white boys. Campy, outrageous, arch and far-fetched, the novel created a sensation. This was before gay liberation and very few "legitimate" books were published with openly homosexual heroes. (For the record, there had been gay detectives in previous works, most notably, Rodney Garland's The Heart in Exile (1953) and The Gay Detective by Lou Rand in 1960.) Baxt was shocked by the response. He hadn't thought it was that unusual. He was basically writing about people and the life he knew in Greenwich Village and the rest of Manhattan. But the book struck a Pre-Stonewall nerve. It was hip, irreverent and sexy. Anthony Boucher of the New York Times gave it a rave review, noting that the salty tale "deals with a Manhattan subculture wholly devoid of ethics or morality. Staid readers may well find it shocking, but it is beautifully plotted and written with elegance and wit." Rarely has a first book found such a devoted audience. The love affair with Pharoah Love continued. Baxt followed Queer up with two Love sequels: Swing Low, Sweet Harriet; and Topsy and Evil.
Later, I re-encountered Baxt's work when I dove into The Dorothy Parker Murder Case, the debut title in a series of mysteries he concocted in the 80s, using celebrity sleuths. He commandeered Noel Coward, George Raft, Tallulah Bankhead, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and even Alfred Hitchcock into his series, penning riotous, madcap capers with each of them that are wickedly clever and entertaining.

For my money, none is funnier than the first one. The Dorothy Parker Murder Case is a marvel to read. The writing is fluid. Self-assured. Totally committed. And absolutely hilarious. It's as if Baxt were channeling Dorothy Parker herself which is no small accomplishment. It opens with a harrowing bit of black comedy. Dorothy Parker is attempting suicide in the john of her hotel room after ordering lunch. "After slitting her wrists, Dorothy Parker sat in the bathroom waiting patiently to be rescued." That's all he needed to say. It sets the wry, but touching tone for the entire tale. I don't think anyone has written a better celebrity sleuth mystery before or after. But Baxt had the inside scoop. He was always writing about people he knew personally. He was a familiar figure in the worlds he wrote about. The more I delved into his lively, but checkered past, the more I realized where he got the raw material for his scandalous books.

Pulp Sensation: Pharoah Love

Like his most popular character Pharoah Love, Baxt was a fabulous creature of many talents and a cat of nine lives. But he also shied away from revealing interviews. Armed with very little to go on, I set out to see if I could fit together a few shreds of his life story.  His name appears on Wikipedia, and on IMDB as the screenwriter of such horror hits as the aforementioned Circus of Horrors and Horror Hotel. But there is only scant biographical information given.

Cult fave: "Circus of Horrors"
Luckily I found an obituary for him written in England. (Except for a few isolated notices, the American media failed to mention his passing in 2003.) The obit focuses primarily on his film work in that country. Baxt had moved to England in the 50s and wrote most of his scripts there. Variety had posted a rather perfunctory obituary, again primarily because of the screen credits. But there was scant material for a researcher to rely on to find out where he came from and who his family was.
His book jackets provided a few more intriguing details. On the back of A Queer Kind of Death he wrote: "George Baxt was a dropout. He left Brooklyn College to pursue a writing career." In another, he said he was born on a kitchen table in Brooklyn, New York. So taking that as a starting point, I did a little census-scouring and found that he was born in Brooklyn on June 11, 1923, the son of Samuel Baxt, an operator at a clothing manufacturer who came over from Minsk, Russia around 1906. George's mother was Lena Steinhouse whom Samuel had married in 1910. George had several siblings, a brother Morris, a sister Esther and a sister Juliette. They lived on Dumont Avenue. Nearby is an Isidore Baxt whom I presume is his uncle. He also came over from Minsk in 1906. By 1930, George's father had opened his own grocery store on Avenue L.
Baxt joked later that he had an active sex life as a boy in Brooklyn. He was not shy. One commentator quoted him as saying he "regarded gay sex among the Irish, Italians, and Jews as normal." Baxt settled down "with a boyfriend in high school, although he claimed to also have sex with teachers, particularly those in Physical Education." He was probably just being his old provocative self. But it does indicate that Baxt was a rebel with a cause early on. He claimed in yet another wry author's note that his first published piece appeared in the Brooklyn Times-Union when he was nine. He was paid a couple of dollars for it and got bit by the freelance writer's bug. He scribbled articles in high school and won the Columbia Scholastic Press Award. He sold his first radio script at 18.
Baxt went to City College and Brooklyn College before dropping out to pursue his passion for the theatre. His first venture was a musical play called Pity the Kiddies which was performed in 1942 for one night only at the Barbizon Plaza's concert hall. In March that year he performed as an actor in Theatre of the Soul by Nicolai Evreinov, staged by his friend William Boyman.

Baxt claimed to have been in the armed services which might explain the gap in his career credits from 1942 to 1945. But I have not found any records of such service. He also claimed to have been a "propagandist for Voice of America." In 1946, he wrote a one-act play Laughter of Ladies that was produced at a theatre showcase on 47th Street. A year later he penned a comedy, Alex in Wonderland, about a Jewish family in Canarsie. Boyman announced that Molly Picon, the Yiddish actress, was set to star in it, but it never seems to have gotten off the ground. Later he changed the title to Make Momma Happy and it made the rounds. At one point Sidney Lumet (son of the famous Yiddish actor Baruch Lumet, and later film director) was slated to appear in it. 

Laughing Lady: Grayson Hall

In 1948 Blanche Yurka announced she was to star in Laughter of Ladies. Then Estelle Winwood was added to the cast. (In his Tallulah Bankhead book, which features Winwood, Baxt makes it clear that Yurka was fired because the producers and directors found her wanting. He also makes the outlandish claim she was a murderess, but that's another story.) The play failed to get picked up. It was eventually staged with Grayson Hall (of Dark Shadows fame) in a New Jersey summer theater in 1953, and went on tour to Hartford and Philadelphia in the fall. It never appears to have made it to Broadway. 
Obviously George Baxt was having a hard time gate-crashing the Great White Way. He often got pocket change by pitching stories to Walter Winchell. "Always on the hunt for new clients," his UK obit says, "he would ride in the elevator in the Algonquin Hotel to find out who was staying there." This experience would serve him well later in his Dorothy Parker novel. As an actor's agent, he was not always a good judge of up-and-coming talent. He admitted to throwing a young James Dean out of his office because the kid needed a shower!

Missed Opportunity: James Dean
Later Baxt found side work as a disc jockey to make ends meet. An announcement in the Times in 1953 says he had signed a rental lease at 449 E. 58th Street. (Apparently there was nothing odd in those days about publishing one's address in the paper). Judging by the tony East Side address, he couldn't have been doing too poorly.
In the mid-50s he segued from radio into television. He scouted talent for The Big Show, helping Tallulah Bankhead land a lucrative gig on there. By 1955 he penned a comedy for NBC called The Way Things Happen starring Peter Lind Hayes. He made a bigger splash with a David Susskind production of Mrs. Miniver for TV, starring Maureen O'Hara in the Greer Garson role. Keir Dullea and Juliette Mills co-starred.
In 1956 he returned to the theater, writing a sketch for Ben Bagley's show The Littlest Revue at the Phoenix. But nothing came from that. His dream of making his name on the stage came to a crashing halt.
Faced with the distressing fact that he couldn't catch a break on Broadway, and that several of his clients were blacklisted as Red sympathizers, Baxt escaped to England, and accepted an offer from producer Hannah Weinstein to work on the British TV series Sword of Freedom. "I went to England on a three-month contract and stayed five years," he later said. The show starred Edmund Purdom, of The Student Prince fame, as an artist and freedom fighter in Florence during the Renaissance. "A lot of later famous people starred," Baxt quipped.  "Joan Plowright played Mona Lisa. I wrote 10 of the 39 episodes. I used to call it 'The Sword of Boredom.'"
Eager for a change, Baxt began writing horror films for British producers, and struck gold. Circus of Horrors was cited by the New York Times as "the crispest, handsomest and most stylish movie shocker in a long time." The eerie 60s camp classic Horror Hotel (aka City of the Dead) from Amicus Films, featured a suave Christopher Lee in a bookend cameo as a devilish professor.

But horror was not all Baxt was up to. One of his niftiest flicks was Payroll, a taut gangster film, featuring Beckett actress Billie Whitelaw.

Gangster Noir: "Payroll"
Horror Classic: "Shadow of the Cat"
In 1961, Baxt wrote the eerie thriller Shadow of the Cat, about a fierce feline seeking revenge on those who murdered its mistress. Creating an aura of suspense, director John Gilling filmed it entirely from a cat's-eye view. Other credits include Burn, Witch, Burn. Not surprisingly, Baxt also had a hand in the camp classic The Abominable Dr. Phibes starring Vincent Price. Although uncredited, Baxt is said to have come up with the now-famous device of having Phibes rise out of the floor playing his ghoulish pipe organ.
Perhaps longing for his show biz roots, or the gay life of Manhattan, Baxt returned to Amerca in the early 60s. He landed a plum assignment, writing a new adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernel for CBS. Starring Maureen O'Hara, Zachary Scott and Michael Rennie, it was another David Susskind hit. The Times called it "exciting and richly mounted."
He collaborated on a new suspense series My Son, the Detective that was probably too camp for its own good. He also wrote episodes of The Defenders. In 1963 Broadway beckoned anew. Judy Holliday was set to play in Baxt's latest play, Not in Her Stars, with Martin Gabel. But nothing materialized. Gabel went on to act in Marnie instead. Then in 1964 the play was revived. Nancy Walker the comedian was slated to direct. Jane Wyman hoped to bring it to Broadway with co-star Anita Louise. Alas, it too, like Phibes's organ, was a mere pipe dream.
No doubt these repeated failures broke Baxt's spirit. He abandoned the stage completely. For two years he seems to have done nothing, or so reports in the Times indicate. Two years of silence. But Baxt broke that silence with his outspoken first novel, A Queer Kind of Death and his career took a whole new turn. He wrote the two Love sequels, then launched a new series of "wild, wacky, and weird" mysteries featuring detective Max Van Larsen in such farcical fare as A Parade of Cockeyed Creatures. Among Baxt's other books are The Affair at Royalties (1971) and Burning Sappho (1972).

"Horror on Snape Island" Poster
In 1972 he returned to the silver screen to write Tower of Evil (aka Horror on Snape Island), based on his novel of the same name. He did not always have the Midas Touch when it came to books. His 1979 novel, The Neon Graveyard, a scathing send-up of Hollywood, was panned by Newgate Callendar in the Crime Books review section at the Times. That proved to be one of the few bad notices he ever got. Even the great doyenne of mysteries, Ruth Rendell, who was not known for dispensing superlatives with ease, described Baxt as "brilliant and hilarious," adding, "I love reading George Baxt."
Baxt caught his breath and dreamed up the celebrity sleuth series which put him back at the top of his game. He even wrote himself into a few, depicting a character named George Baxt. It was his own Hitchcock moment. He continued to write until the 1990s. According to Village Voice theater critic Michael Feingold, who wrote about Baxt and interviewed him when the latter was living in Los Angeles, Baxt was very proud that the clever epigrams in the Dorothy Parker volume were all his own creation. "He told me that the people who made Mrs Parker & The Vicious Circle," Feingold recalls, "had tried to get him to share the historical basis for the lines he wrote so they could use them in the script.  He said, 'I invented them and if you want to use them, you'll have to pay me!'"

Witty Muse: Dorothy Parker
Towards the end of his career, he was wooed back into writing again about Pharoah Love, his most popular creation, whom he'd killed off in Topsy & Evil. He penned two "sequels," A Queer Kind of Love and A Queer Kind of Umbrella, set in Chinatown and using a second Pharoah Love character. But they did little to revive interest in him or his earlier work. By then his accomplishment in writing successful gay mysteries was overshadowed by the impact of Joseph Hansen and his Brandstetter mysteries which were more in the traditional hard-boiled vein and much more accessible to a wider audience. Most people I've talked to who are interested in vintage gay literature (and believe me, it's a vanishing breed) have never even heard of George Baxt. He died at the age of 80 in 2003. Typically the New York Times didn't even bother to write him an obituary even though he had been one of their favorite authors.
I wish I had met George Baxt. Maybe somewhere along the line I did, but didn't know it. Although from what I've read that sounds hard to do. Journalist Tom Vallance once described meeting Baxt: "I had lunch with Baxt just once, several years ago in New York, and found him wonderful company with great zest and a rich fund of anecdotes. He could also be caustic, and he had been known over the years to have alienated some of his friends. His family described him as 'outrageous and curmudgeonly, a complaining, perpetual naysayer', but added that he always remembered to phone on birthdays and give presents to the children."
I can see Baxt as a doting crotchety uncle. But one also gets the sense reading about George Baxt that he was pretty much a loner. On one book jacket he described himself as "a collector of film and theatre books [who] sits up till all hours for old movies on television." He said his best friend was his VCR. Clive Hirschhorn, author of The Warner Brothers Story, recalled to Vallance that Baxt's "knowledge of movies was truly vast -- he could name all the girls who dance on the aeroplane wings in Flying Down to Rio!"
While there is not much else about George Baxt online or elsewhere, he is mentioned in a fun book of recollections by Wendy Werris called An Alphabetical Life. In it she describes a luncheon at Pete's Tavern in Manhattan in 1986 when she first met him. "Baxt was a rather small man in his mid-sixties, plump yet graceful and with thinning gray hair. Although I was friends with several gay men at that time, I had never met such a flamboyant queen as he. If you can imagine a swish, fey and girlish Phil Silvers, you'll have a picture of George Baxt. He was hilarious and irreverent. He batted his eyelashes to make a point when telling a dirty joke. His Brooklyn accent was delicious, and he had stories to tell about every great star from the Golden Age of Hollywood and beyond. You never heard dirt dished until you heard it from the mouth of George Baxt."
Werris goes on to share some of his sizzling anecdotes involving Sal Mineo and what randy things Baxt wishes Gidget had done in her movies besides just going to Rome and Hawaii. In just a few snippets of conversation, Werris captures the ribald spirit of the man. It's the same priceless humor you can enjoy simply by reading any of George Baxt's campy books or seeing one of his thrilling movies.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Great Escape

In the quiet of night, a man awakes. The walls of his dull cell closing in on him. Faced with a sense of dread since daylight is still hours away, he plots his escape. Resist the darkness! he shouts to no one. You are alone! The future, a mirage, hidden by hurdles so high they cause vertigo. Get over it. The wall, that is. Take flight!

So what does he do, this man locked up in solitude, condemned to death? He pops a DVD into the television and vanishes into another man’s dream. This time, it’s Robert Bresson’s astonishing film Un condamné à mort s’est échappé (A Man Escaped), the perfect antidote to self-pity.

Bresson’s extraordinary legacy is relatively new to me. Somehow in my film classes in college, we skipped over his contributions to cinema. Perhaps the department was too wrapped up in Truffaut and the nouvelle vague, and its world of ennui. (Truffaut, typically, characterized A Man Escaped as a movie about a man battling boredom.) Like Jules Dassin, whose film noir fantasies deserve to be better known, Bresson’s vision and artistry dazzle as much as they delight. Spare, luminous, breathtakingly honest, his films speak volumes, without almost saying a word.

In A Man Escaped, the word is all. It is the mechanism of hope. For the Christ-like prisoner, bloodied and beaten, wears handcuffs that stifle his ability to express himself. Later, after removing his handcuffs with a safety pin, he shows his defiance, in fact, the spirit of the Resistance, by refusing to turn over his pencil. His writing utensil is his weapon, and means of escape. He counts the knocks of his condemned neighbors, who tap on the thick concrete walls to which he presses his ear. He marks their messages, as he counts the days, by scratching, leaving jagged, seemingly meaningless scrawls on the surface. He is like the Cro-Magnon artist at Lascaux, leaving cave-dwelling representations of life outside. The prisoner, Fontaine (the name is itself literary, as in the legendary storyteller Jean de la Fontaine, and implies a flowing pen) then expresses himself in meticulously written notes passed along by his confreres, willing to risk their lives to get the word out. Writing is everything in this scripted dreamscape.

In fact, Bresson opens his film with a handwritten message saying that the story we are about to see is true, “unadorned.” But we know that is not the case. Film is a lie. Art can never express reality. It must prevaricate, twist, and reshape, fine tune, to make a point, like the graphite at the tip of the pencil. It is the essence of propaganda. And yet, by holding back, trapping us like prisoners ourselves, imposing his pacing, his style, his vision, Bresson achieves the perfect lie. He makes us believe in something which is intrinsically false, deviously surreal. A fable.

Bresson’s mastery of cinematic techniques was not entirely new to me. I’d seen Pickpocket (1959), and was swept away by its ingenious visual legerdemain. It’s a confidence trick par excellence. So it was no surprise, when I finally encountered his earlier masterpiece, A Man Escaped (1956), that I was left reeling by Bresson’s level-headed, painstaking artistry. But what did surprise me was an indisputable realization, a kind of revelation, one that confirmed what I had felt about Pickpocket, but was too circumspect to fully believe: a subtle, between-the-lines homoeroticism at the core of Bresson’s work.

Director Robert Bresson

Watching Pickpocket, I was amazed by the similarity between the act of stealing and that of cruising. For both entail a mindset of hunting for prey: stalking, plotting, and circling one’s victim, culminating in the act itself, a violation, which is breathtakingly intimate, yet brutally anonymous, and over in a flash. Bresson captured this exotic, hyper-masculine underworld in the haunted expression of the thief’s eyes, the furtiveness of his hand movements, the ruthlessness of his stalking, and that of his cohorts. It is a subterranean set, a secret fraternity of mischief and mendacity.

Intense focus: from Pickpocket

This unspoken language is also at the heart of A Man Escaped. For what begins as a simple prison film, of a single man’s plot to escape, suddenly takes a dramatic turn halfway through when a young man, a changeling, is dropped into his lap, so to speak. The boy, a satyr-like waif, Francois Jost, is an enigma. Half Resistance fighter, half German turncoat, he embodies the duality of Vichy France. A mere 16, he is filthy, disheveled, and infested with lice, but not enough to be undesirable. Bresson cleverly cast a handsome young man, Charles le Clainche, without any acting experience, whose vacant, yearning glances suck you in. It’s a child’s face, but also a punk’s mask. Could he be a spy? A plant? Or is he like Parsifal, the “naive fool”? Could he be the condemned man’s soul mate, his brother in arms, who helps him find the Holy Grail?

We are left wondering, just as the prisoner too wrestles with his dilemma. Should he trust this mysterious stranger with his deep, dark secret? Ironically, it is because of the urchin’s lack of artifice that he is embraced, and accepted. Jost admits to having just a few lice, which surely a Nazi spy would never do. A liar would never be so fair, so lacking in guile. He’d be all or nothing, not ingenuous. Jost’s naivete is Fontaine’s ticket to freedom. And vice-versa. The boy is propositioned. Will you come with me? Or must I kill you? The youth chooses life.

A partnership is signed, not with a pen, but with a regard, a nod, a supreme gesture of submission: “Yes.” From there, the pace picks up. The static quality of the first half of the film is replaced by a state of ramped-up drama, of action. The rope, made out of sheared bed linens and clothes, serves as a tightrope, and ultimately as a lifeline.

But first, the man who seeks life must kill. The German guard is slain, off-screen, the only clue to his fate, a faint, garbled sigh as the soldier is stabbed to death with his own bayonet and slumps to the ground. Having killed for freedom, Fontaine turns to his partner, and helps him down the rope. The boy leaves his shoes and coat at the prison, half in and half out, braving this new frontier without protection. There is no holding back now. The couple climbs down the final wall to the ground below.

And then the moment of climax. “Jost!” the man exclaims, clutching the boy to his side, pulling him tight in a spontaneous embrace, their bodies so close it’s almost a kiss. Savoring his triumph, the man does not fall to the ground, or cry out “Free At Last,” or “Vive La France,” or even “Thank God!” His only sound is the name of the boy he has rescued. The man he loves. "Jost!"

But Bresson lets the boy have the last laugh, with a wink and a nudge. For Jost is slightly embarrassed by his savior’s devotion. He cracks a joke, about what his mother would think if she saw him like this (poorly translated below). It’s the perfect note to end on, a play on words. Le mot juste. Jost’s jest.

For this is not just a film about war and the inhumanity of man — it’s a film about loneliness. And the quest for love. Jost’s awkward ragamuffin is not only Fontaine’s partner in crime, but his savior. They walk off together, not into the sunset, but towards a new dawn.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

His Kind of Man

In honor of Noirvember, an annual celebration of all things film noir, I am reposting this piece I did a few years back about the movie Her Kind of Man (1946), not to be confused with the later His Kind of Woman. It sure as hell ain't no Laura or Out of the Past, but Her Kind of Man has plenty of curious twists and turns, and is well worth a watch. I'll be posting more Noirvember tributes as the month progresses. 

Three on a match: Zach, Janis & Dane

Certain films encapsulate all the quirky elements that I love about vintage Hollywood, and in particular film noir. Her Kind of Man, a dark, rarely shown 1946 melodrama from Warner Bros is just that type of picture. Starring two of my favorite Hollywood actors, Zachary Scott and Dane Clark, it’s the intriguing tale of a romantic triangle (revolving around Janis Paige) set amid swanky gambling joints and nightclubs at the end of Prohibition.


What sets this decidedly B-movie apart from the usual film noir fare of the period is the other passionate triangle at its core. Like another of my faves, Gilda, this flick has a carefully hidden homoerotic subplot that bubbles up through the cracks in its screenplay. Gilda was released shortly before Her Kind of Man and I wonder if the latter wasn’t produced quickly to cash in on the A-list flick’s appeal. Directed by Frederick de Cordova, it bristles with flair but falls a bit short of the mark.

Staff and Rod: Glenn Ford sizes up his boss George Macready

In Gilda, you will recall, the relationship between handsome, young Glenn Ford and his older mentor, played with chilling sangfroid by George Macready, oozes a sinister sort of subterranean subtext that makes you wonder whether Macready is more in love with Ford than his sultry wife Rita Hayworth (no small feat considering how gorgeous Hayworth is in that film.) All the signs are there, though. The way the two meet late at night in an alley; how Macready sets Ford up with new clothes, fancy digs, fine jewelry and a high paying job; and the jealousy he exudes once Ford and Hayworth hook up. Such hidden gay angles were often evident in 1940s mysteries and suspensers. John Huston’s take on The Maltese Falcon played up Peter Lorre’s effeminate character and the queer rapport between Sydney Greenstreet and his “gunsel,” Wilmer, played by Elisha Cook, Jr.

Gunsel for Hire: Falcon fortune hunters

In Her Kind of Man, the romantic ménage à trois is even more convoluted. First off, we have Zachary Scott playing a tough crime czar (a bit of a stretch for the refined esthete from Texas) who has a strange tie to his cabaret owning sister, played with elegant restraint by Faye Emerson.

Twisted Sister: Faye Emerson

Then a nightclub singer, Janis Paige, captures his interest. At first she just flirts with Scott, then marries him, all the while being courted by another man, Dane Clark — shades of Gilda. Earlier, after nearly being shot by a disgruntled gambler named Bender, Scott is rescued by a mysterious young man, played by Harry Lewis, who goes by the deliciously camp handle, “Candy.” The bow-tie-sporting lad is smitten with Scott, looks up to him as a dark knight, and will do anything to join his gang. When Bender, soothing his wounds, asks Candy what his connection is to Scott, the gunsel shoots back, “I’m his governess.” Soon after, Scott slaps Candy hard across the face for being indiscreet. Scott sends him away, then says revealingly, “Some guys are like women. Slap them down and they’ll love you even more.”

Dandy Candy: Harry Lewis

The bizarre relationship is further underscored when in another confrontation Scott slaps Lewis a second time. Janis Paige, who stumbles in as Candy leaves, rubbing his cheeks, says to him, “Did you get your bonus?” That’s an odd touch of sarcasm for a wife to make to one of her husband’s underlings, especially since she is supposed to be the “good girl” in the flick. The S/M subtext is practically explicit. Her role as honorary fag hag is further illuminated in a funny dance number she does at the club, featuring a group of sailors who seem more interested in each other than her.

My Salts!: Janis Paige with her "sailors"

This is followed by a scene in which Scott is supposedly cheating on his wife with two lissome party girls, with Candy standing guard. Suddenly the two men leave together and one of the girls cries out to Candy, “Hey, what about us?” Candy shrugs his shoulders wistfully, smiles, and follows after Scott. Moments later, when Scott is tracking down Paige, who has run off again with Dane Clark, Candy says to Scott, “Hey Boss, I never thought I’d see you chase a dame.” Scott counters by saying, “Only when there’s an angle… a reverse angle.” One doesn’t have to probe too deep into tortured dialogue like that.

Playing all the angles: homme fatal Zach

The fresh double talk continues when Dane Clark comes up against Candy, whom he keeps calling “sucker.” He’s been beaten up by Candy and his henchmen after a sparring match with Scott (one of the funnier sequences in the film since it is obviously just an excuse to get both Clark and Scott to take their shirts off.) Clark thanks Lewis for the “massage” he gave him, adding, “You wouldn’t want one yourself, would you?” If as much screen time were given to Clark and Paige as a romantic couple one could overlook this ripe dialogue between the male characters, but Candy is in almost every scene.

The Mirror Crack'd: Zach, sister slayer.

At the end of the movie (SPOILER ALERT), after snitching on his boss, Candy still runs to save Zachary Scott, but to no avail. Scott shoots his sister dead (a Freudian alter ego scenario that seems to come right out of a Balzac droll story) then is killed by her vengeful husband, Joe, played by George Tobias. Candy, surprisingly, survives, as do Clark and Paige, who, one assumes, will live on happily ever after, making little babies and avoiding the evil, twisted corners of the underworld. 

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Case for Robert Hichens

Robert Smythe Hichens

Nearly forgotten today, but once one of the most popular and prolific authors of his time, Robert Hichens deserves to be rediscovered and celebrated. Unfortunately his name is overshadowed by another Robert Hichens who was the quartermaster on the Titanic and is still a figure of great controversy. On Wikipedia, the writer Hichens is now awkwardly called Robert Smythe Hichens to differentiate him from the other, although as far as I know he never used his middle name in any of his books.

He was born at Speldhurst, Kent, November 14, 1864, and educated at Tunbridge Wells and Clifton College, then became a student at the Royal College of Music, London. He was drawn, however, to journalism, and soon became the music critic of London World, replacing George Bernard Shaw. Hichens wrote his first novel The Coastguard’s Secret, at the age of seventeen. He followed this with approximately one novel a year, many of them quite popular. His style was slightly purple, as far as the prose, but his themes captured the yearning on the part of his generation for adventure and psychological intrigue. He often wrote about people in extreme situations, on the brink of insanity or murder. His novel Bella Donna (1904), set in Egypt, was a compelling tale of a beautiful woman who poisons her husband to death. It was first made into a film starring Pola Negri, then remade in 1946 as Temptation with Merle Oberon.


Perhaps the quality of his work is not on the same level as other writers I’ve singled out here, including Patricia Highsmith (who also often wrote about murder) and Beverley Nichols who had a lot in common with him, but Robert Hichens had more success than any of them.

His book The Garden of Allah was a phenomenal bestseller in 1904 when it was published, and later turned into a theatrical extravaganza on Broadway and London. In 1919 it was staged at the Powers Theatre for three nights with a “company of 100 Arabs, Algerians, Armenians with their camels, horses, donkeys, goats and other livestock.” The tale was filmed numerous times, most notably in 1927 as a silent starring Alice Terry. David O. Selznick revived it in 1936 as a Technicolor vehicle for Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer. The novel was also the source name for the legendary Hollywood hotel, The Garden of Allah (Dietrich in fact had once lived there.)

Hichens’ specialty was the romantic melodrama, usually set in the Middle East, with exotic occult themes. Hichens had a passion for Egypt, and wrote an acclaimed book about its architecture and monuments with illustrations by Jules Guerin. Today the book is considered a collector’s item primarily for its evocative depictions of the Nile and atmospheric ruins. It has its odd revealing moments in captions such as “The half-naked workmen toiling and sweating in the sun.”


One of his most intriguing works is An Imaginative Man (1895), a tale of madness and dissolution in which a young man wracked with jealousy over another man kills himself by throwing himself off the Sphinx, dashing his brains against the ancient rocks surrounding it.

Hichens also wrote a classic tale “How Love Came to Professor Guildea” that some consider one of the finest supernatural short stories ever written. In later years, he turned to detective fiction, perhaps to reach a wider audience or to cash in on the vogue for mysteries. One of his best-known works was published in this period: The Paradine Case (1933), which reflects Hichens’ themes perfectly, as well as the man. It’s based in part on the murder of James Maybrick, the alleged author of the Jack the Ripper diary which was the subject of intense scrutiny a few years back. That proved to be a modern-day hoax; the ink used by its supposed author was found to have chemical components that had not existed in the 19th-century. But Maybrick, who had no connection to the later scam, was a fascinating character nonetheless. His wife, Florie, had been accused of poisoning him to death in 1889 with arsenic she’d removed from fly paper traps and then served to him in meat juice. Some believe she was falsely accused since Maybrick was already an arsenic addict. She was convicted nonetheless and sentenced to life imprisonment, although she was released in 1903, and wrote a book entitled Mrs. Maybrick’s Own Story: My Fifteen Lost Years.

Hichens seized upon the love triangle that led to Maybrick’s murder for The Paradine Case, which was quickly snatched up by David O. Selznick and turned into a vehicle for the comeback of Greta Garbo. She decided, however, that she didn’t want to make her return to the screen as a murderess and the part was offered to Ingrid Bergman, who eventually decided against it. Alfred Hitchcock was hired to direct it as the last movie in his contract with Selznick. It proved to be one of the costliest he ever made, coming in at over $4 million and only taking in half that amount. It is now considered one of his flawed pictures, but retains a devoted fan base. I, for one, think it is one of his best because it does not rely on showy stunts or elaborate scenery. It takes place almost entirely in a courtroom and relies on brilliant camera work to create suspense.

Selznick insisted on casting his new discovery Alida Valli, above, a sultry Italian beauty whom he was grooming as the next Garbo. Hitchcock, who was fond of her, later said that she was too impassive and lacked enough fluency in English to put over the very talky script. Watching it again recently, I felt that the real problem in her performance was nerves. You can actually see her skin tremble in certain closeups. Gregory Peck, too, was miscast. While certainly a wonderful actor and a draw at the box office, he just doesn’t come across as an aristocratic English lawyer. Hitchcock had wanted Laurence Olivier. The picture was stolen by the always astonishing Ann Todd, and Ethel Barrymore, who won an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Charles Laughton’s browbeaten wife.

While Hichens certainly was inspired by the notorious Maybrick case, he also used elements of an even more sensational trial, that of the wife of Prince Aly Kamel Fahmy Bey, who in 1922 fatally shot her husband at the Savoy Hotel. Marie-Marguerite Laurent had married the volatile Egyptian playboy and converted to Islam. He kept trying to subjugate her and forced her to perform unusual sexual practices. It came out during the trial that he had engaged so often in anal intercourse that she required an operation to repair the damage. It also came out that he was having a clandestine affair with his male secretary.

Scandal at the Savoy

The trial was a sensation. The defense painted the victim as an evil monster whose “Oriental” perversions were the real culprit. Laurent was acquitted. The homoerotic element is still apparent in the novel as the valet (called Latour in the film) is slavishly devoted to his master, the blind soldier. This relationship is further developed in the movie. Louis Jourdan, as Latour, is stunningly handsome, and Hitchcock made the most of his looks. He is played as a moody pretty boy who worshiped his master, almost to the point of obsession. The man driving the trap and pony which takes Gregory Peck to the manor house where Jourdan still lives pointedly refers to him as “a queer one”. While a common expression, the use of it here does not strike me as accidental. Selznick and his various writers (including Ben Hecht who doctored the script) wanted to emphasize the strange erotic tie Latour had to his blind superior.

Louis Jourdan: villainous valet

Alida Valli, too, reflects the aura of the Fahmy case. She is the Continental femme fatale. At first she appears to be falsely accused. A mere innocent. But as the film progresses, one begins to question her part in the murder. Was she envious of Latour’s close ties to her husband? Did she kill her husband out of spite, in a jealous rage? By the end she has more in common with the murderess Marie-Marguerite Laurent than Mrs. Maybrick. Gregory Peck even says to her at one point, “When this is all over, you’ll be lunching at the Savoy again.” Audiences seeing this film in 1947 when it was released, especially in London, would surely have remembered the notorious case on which it was based and would have laughed at this telling line.

Hitchcock apparently had his own reasons for being drawn to The Paradine Case. In his youth he had known a beautiful girl named Edith Thompson, who had been convicted of conspiring with her boyfriend Frederick Bywaters in murdering her husband, Percy. It was a case which fascinated him and might have been instrumental in many of the themes he explored in his films. She was executed for the crime…by hanging.

Edith Thompson: convicted killer

Latent homosexual themes were not unusual in Robert Hichens’s novels. One of his finest works was a sensational satire that came out in 1894 entitled The Green Carnation. Dealing with the decadent aesthetic movement in London society, it was a thinly disguised roman à clef based on Oscar Wilde and his relationship with the much younger Lord Alfred Douglas. The book was subtle but pulled few punches. In describing the circle of men who sported green carnations in their lapels in deference to Esme Amarinth, the character obviously based on Wilde, Hichens writes: “All the men who wore them looked the same. They had the same walk, or rather waggle, the same coyly conscious expression, the same wavy motion of the head.”

The publisher, Heinemann, suggested that Hichens not use his name on the book. It was published anonymously. This led to speculation, just as the publisher intended, that it had been written by an insider in Wilde’s circle. Some accused Ada Leverson, “the Sphinx”, of having penned it. Others Reginald Turner, Wilde’s best friend. Still others openly accused Oscar Wilde of writing it to enhance his already scandalous reputation. Wilde guessed the authorship and sent Hichens a telegram warning him to skip town before he sought his revenge. It was a lampoon. But Wilde was annoyed enough that he sent a letter to the newspaper stating categorically that he could never have written a book that was so “middle class.” It was a pompous boast that underscores his arrogance and insecurity. He had already confessed to Ada that he thought the book was surprisingly clever.

Bosie and Oscar

It is clever. And wonderfully witty. Hichens had the “perfidy,” to use Bosie’s term, to steal his friends’ best lines and use them in the text. You can’t help when reading The Green Carnation to feel as if you are sitting right next to Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas at one of their intimate dinners. In fact, Hichens had gathered his material while on a trip up the Nile with E. F. Benson and Reggie Turner during which he met and befriended Douglas. Later in London he was introduced to Wilde and wrote down everything the man said to him. It all makes for a lively novel and one of the rare documents that truly captures the wit and charm of Wilde in his prime. 

Sadly, it was just a year later that Wilde was arrested and disgraced. Hichens, who perhaps felt that his book was contributing to Wilde’s scandal, asked his publisher to recall the novel from stores. It was not until 1949 that he consented to have it reprinted (below) by the Unicorn Press. Before doing so he wrote to Lord Alfred Douglas and asked for his permission. It was a gracious act and Douglas gave his consent without any reservations. In the new edition, Hichens used his own name and wrote a revealing introduction that recounted how he had come to write it. The book was out of print for decades afterwards and only recently has been reprinted.

Despite these tidbits gleaned from his books, there is scant information about Hichens, the man. He never married. In 1947 he wrote his memoirs, Yesterday. But he was extremely discreet, even coy, about his personal life, which is not surprising when you consider what had happened to his friend Oscar Wilde. It seems obvious that he was indeed homosexual. Rupert Croft-Cooke, in his chatty biography of Bosie, calls Hichens an “intelligent queer.” Hichens made a great deal of money during his long career and lived in luxury in Switzerland and along the Mediterranean until his death at 85 in 1950. Details of his personal life are sparse. He seems to have had a long-standing friendship with the Swiss author John Knittel. 

Robert Hichens and his friend John Knittel.

So is it worth reading any of Hichens’ exotic romances today? I think so. One has to read them in the light of literary archeology. The themes are dated; the style antiquated. But they reflect the cunning of a clever wordsmith, and are sparkling touchstones that evoke the spirit of their times.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Riddle of Jessie Reed

(As anyone who has followed this blog knows, I am obsessed with the story of Jessie Reed, the ill-fated Ziegfeld Follies showgirl who married my grandfather Leonard Minor Reno. Two years ago, I published my account of her mysterious life HERE on this blog. I had to cut portions of it out in the interest of brevity, but I am still keen on finding out definitively when and where she was born and who her parents actually were. For that purpose, I am now posting this sidebar regarding her roots that I initially had left out. My hope is that somehow someone reading this online might hold the key to her origins.)

Perhaps the greatest mystery about Jessie Reed is who she really was. In past articles and books about her (many of them riddled with errors) her maiden name was given as Rogers. As previously mentioned, this was the name Ollie used when describing her during his court appearance in 1917. Or so I thought. It turns out that the source for this quote is a heavily redacted transcript of Ollie’s trial that Dan Caswell had used in his spurious memoirs which were serialized in 1922. Either Caswell had misquoted Ollie or perhaps the court stenographer had heard him wrong. Or maybe “Jessie Rogers” was simply Jessie’s stage name at the time. For there can be no doubt that on her first marriage license her name is clearly given as “Jessie May Richardson.” Likewise in the handwritten church ledger. But then just a year later her name is listed as “Jessie May Richards” on her daughter’s birth certificate. So which is it? Richards or Richardson? Adding to the confusion is the fact that Jessie’s death record gives her maiden name as “Richard.” 

One can easily go mad poring through Census records, as I have done, on microfilm or online, hoping to find Jessie Reed in one of them. Despite countless hours, I have not found one iota of evidence that Jessie in any of her guises appears in the 1900, 1910, 1920 or 1930 censuses. I have combed every record, using every possible variation of her name (Reed, Rogers, Richard, Richards, Richardson, and Reno) and followed every possible lead to no avail. This is surprising since almost always there is some record, no matter how off (a botched birth year, or a daughter incorrectly listed as a son, for instance). But in Jessie’s case every possible candidate I have researched has panned out as someone else and been eliminated. It also appears that the name “Jessie May” was the “Jennifer” of its day. Thousands of girls born between 1890 and 1900 had that name, making research all the more frustrating. It wasn’t until 1928 that Jessie Reed started to use the name Jessica. In fact, the name Jessica rarely appears in the 1900 or 1910 censuses anywhere in Texas and I’ve come to the conclusion that Jessie just made it up because it sounded more mature and perhaps in her mind glamorous.

Adding to the confusion of Jessie’s roots is her marriage license with Dan Caswell, the document that was of such interest to reporters back in 1920. That too should be a slam-dunk, at least in a normal, non-theatrical world, since most people rarely lie or misrepresent themselves on official documents during such happy (one assumes) circumstances. But in Jessie’s case, nothing is ever simple, and never cut-and-dried. She had a genius for disinformation. Jessie gives her birth date as July 3, 1898 on that document. And claims her birth name was Reed. She gives her parents’s names as James and Anna Reed. No doubt Jessie was reluctant to give her name as the former Mrs. Debrow (or Durburrow, as it were), and she had already divorced Ollie in 1917. She used the stage name Reed here since it was the name she was best known by and because she didn’t want Caswell to know she had been previously married. She also tweaked the birth year, perhaps because Dan was born in 1899 and she didn’t want him to think she was older than he was. 

But I think it is reasonable to assume that Jessie would not have needed to fabricate the day and month of her birthday. What advantage would there be in that, especially since others in her close-knit circle, the many showgirls Dan and she were traveling with, would have known what her birthday was? Nor would she have felt compelled to invent false first names for her parents. In an interview that occurred shortly after she wed Caswell, Jessie was asked if her maiden name was Reed and she insisted it was. The interviewer, perhaps hoping she’d slip up, asked her if her parents’ name was also Reed. Jessie said of course it was. But when asked about her previous marriage, and daughter, Jessie cut the interview short. 

I decided to try the Houston city directories. In the 1910/1911 edition, which was compiled in July 1910, there is a listing for a “Miss Jessie Richard,” “cash girl at Alkemeyer” living at 1505 Elysian. Alkemeyer was a dry goods store very similar to Levy’s (which Jessie had claimed to have worked at in one of her early Ziegfeld interviews.) Alkemeyer is also the store Ollie had once been caught breaking into. By using the street index that accompanies the directory, I found a woman named “Mrs. Willie McCorquodale” also living at that address. She lists herself as “Widow of Glenn.” A quick glance at the marriage index for Texas reveals a “Willie Richard” who married “G. McCorquodale” in 1907 in Orange, Texas. Richard, as I mentioned, is the maiden name given on Jessie’s death certificate. Could Willie have been this Jessie’s aunt or sister? It seemed unlikely she would be her mother since her marriage was only five years earlier than Jessie’s. 

It took some doing to find Glenn McCorquodale in the 1910 Census. His name was badly mangled. But he is there in Orange, listed as a plumber, but also as “widowed.” This is strange, but telling. Both Willie and Glenn are listed as “widowed” in the same year even though they are both still very much alive. I suspect that means they were separated or divorced and too ashamed to admit it. The Houston directory gave Mrs. Willie McCorquodale’s profession as “operator at the American Laundry.” This jibes nicely with the anecdote that Jessie was working at a laundry when she was younger. She could have been helping Willie at her job. I had no luck, however, finding any sign of Willie Richard in the census from 1900 or 1910 or later. Nor is she in any of the Texas death indexes. She simply vanishes from the records. (Her former husband, Glenn, however, does not. He was apparently killed by his second wife in Orange, Texas in 1942.)

The subsequent Houston Directory, from 1912, shows a “Jessie Richards” living at 2308 Rusk Avenue, working for Nabisco. I thought back to the published anecdote that said Jessie had worked there. But the more I pondered this entry the more it became clear that this has to be a male. All white women in the directory are listed either as Miss or Mrs, unless they were widowed. Strikingly, this was not true if the female was designated as “colored.” So this is probably not our Jessie, but it could be her father. On Jessie Reed’s death certificate, her father’s name is given as Jessie, although the informant —“hospital records” — may not be very reliable. 

That same year there is a “Miss Jessie Richardson” listed in the directory on Hardcastle Street. But that is all it says. There is no information to link it definitively to Jessie May Richardson except that it is the only time a lady with that name appears. There is also, however, a listing for a “James C. Richardson, paving contractor” at 709 Rusk Avenue. What’s interesting about this, besides the fact that Jessie gave her father’s name as James on her marriage license to Caswell, is that Ollie Debrow and his family are listed as living at that exact same address the year before. 

There is another “Miss Jessie Richards” living at 836 Arthur Street, who shows up frequently in these early city directories. But this Jessie killed herself in 1915 by drinking carbolic acid and has no connection to Jessie Reed.

The one fly in the ointment to these directory clues is the fact that Jessie was allegedly 14 when she married Ollie in 1912. She had claimed she was born July 3, 1898 on her marriage license to Caswell, but 1897 is the date most often ascribed to her. It also happens to be the birth year on her Social Security record where she is listed as “Jessie M. Reed.” 

But if we assume that Jessie is one of these people in the Houston directories, then I wonder if she really was born in 1897. Wouldn’t one have to be a few years older to be listed individually in a directory? It doesn’t make sense that a 13 year old girl, in 1910, would be listed in a street directory even if she were working at the time. So either these people are not our Jessie Reed, or Jessie was fudging her age all along. 

And then there’s the issue with her first marriage to Ollie Debrow. Looking at their marriage license poses new questions. According to state law at the time, a 14 year old girl could get married legally but only if she had consent from her parents. Jessie claimed that her parents had died before she got married, and that she was an only child. So without them, if she was in fact telling the truth, who would have been her legal guardian? Was it this fellow W. B. Kyle who acted as her witness? Looking closer, one notices that the section of the license where the spouses swear that they are legally of age is not filled out. It’s left blank. This would seem to indicate she wasn’t of legal age, but where then are the signatures of her legal guardians? 

Another reason I question her official birth year is that during his trial, Ollie had claimed to be roughly the same age as Jessie, meaning 14 or 15, when they got married, but according to the census of 1900 he was born around 1890 which would make him 21 years old at the time he married Jessie in 1912. (His WWI registration card in 1917 says he was born in 1892. His death certificate, with his sister as informant, says 1896, but he's listed as a "messenger" in the 1905 Houston Directory, so it seems unlikely he was younger than 15 at the time.) If Ollie was indeed 21, that was the legal age he would have had to be to get married without parental consent. But it also means he was stretching the truth on the witness stand. He might also have been exaggerating about Jessie being 14. An article published in 1920 when she married Dan Caswell insinuated that Jessie Reed was actually ten years older than she let on. The author gave no proof. But it is intriguing. And it might explain why it has been so difficult to find Jessie in the censuses. 

I did ultimately succeed in finding her in one census, the 1940 one, which was released in 2012. She’s listed in Chicago as “Jessie Reed,” divorced, “nite club hostess” (stated on the wrong line), living at the Metropole. Her age is given as 42. But in the space where she was asked where she was born it says “Alabama” not Texas. Was Jessie trying to throw would-be snoops off the track? Or just having the last laugh? Or was she simply telling the truth? The Texan Cinderella may not have been from Texas after all. Hopefully as other vital records are digitized, more, as they say, shall be revealed.

(If anyone has more information about Jessie Reed’s origins or relatives, please feel free to email me at brooks/underscore/peters@AOL.)