Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Beau Jest: Beverley Nichols

One of the most curious figures of English letters is Beverley Nichols (1898–1983). A Renaissance man of the Roaring 20s and the 30s, Nichols was a handsome, debonair writer and playwright, a pianist, songwriter, actor, mystery writer, gardening expert, sparkling wit, bon vivant, cat champion, noted children’s author, and what used to be described delicately as a “confirmed bachelor,” despite a 40-year long relationship with his male companion. For decades he was inescapable on the British literary and social scene. He knew and was lauded by many of the leading lights of his day. And he outlived many of his staunchest rivals.
Having taken the glitterati by storm with the publication of his precocious memoirs Twenty-Five, coyly penned when he was just 25, after he had finished at Oxford, Nichols went on to write over 50 books, many of them bestsellers. One of my favorites is Prelude, which is set at a public school, and reminds me in some ways of Alec Waugh’s classic The Loom of Youth. It is a charming bit of fluff, with some subtle gay undertones, and proof that Nichols was as good as, if not better than his contemporaries, Michael Arlen and Max Beerbohm. (below, detail from the cover art of Prelude.)

But mention his name today and most people have no idea who you are talking about. And I am not just talking about people in America. Even in his beloved England, Nichols is now nearly forgotten. A dutiful biography by Bryan Connon went a long way to reviving interest in him, but Beverley Nichols still remains one of those singularly talented authors who has fallen unfairly through the cracks. (That’s Nichols, below, at his thatched cottage, with his pet pooch Whoops.)

And yet, what a strange, marvelous creature he was! Reading his books, one feels that Nichols would have made a terrific house guest. While he probably wouldn’t lift a finger to help set a fire, or clear the table, he’d pay his way with witty anecdotes culled from his many years cavorting with celebrities, both haut monde and demi-monde. I’d like to grill him about Nellie Melba, the great Australian opera diva. Nichols ghostwrote her memoirs and later tossed off a perfectly brilliant roman a clef, Evensong, about her. It was made into a 1934 film starring Evelyn Laye and Emlyn Williams. But it is the appearance of opera legend Conchita Supervia in it that makes it especially memorable. (photo below, from the film.)

I first stumbled upon the unusual name Beverley Nichols during one of my Somerset Maugham phases (which every young writer goes through). I came across a book entitled A Case of Human Bondage (who could avoid picking that one up at a used bookstore?) It is a scathing attack on Somerset Maugham, mostly for treating his wife, the lovely and influential interior decorator Syrie Maugham, like dirt. What is shocking about this rather short book (it is literally an idee fixe set down on paper) is how relentless it is! There is little attempt on the part of Nichols to balance his criticisms. It is mean-spirited and yet mesmerizing. And he really captures the esssence of Somerset Maugham’s darker side, although the author of Of Human Bondage liked to compliment Nichols on always looking “spruce.” 

Most scholars and biographers bend over backwards to either prove their points or at least offer a countering opinion. Not so with Nichols, who rarely minced words, although the tone of many of his books is rather mincing to say the least. I found I could not stop re-reading sections of this vicious volume to friends. I asked a writer chum of mine in England if he had ever heard of this fellow with the odd first name, Beverley (at least on this side of the Pond, most men are not called Beverley, even with the extra “e”). My pal vaguely recalled seeing Nichols out and about, an eccentric raconteur who was a fun addition to a party. But he could not add much to my knowledge of who this man really was. Or how he came to write this wickedly fun little book.
My appetite whetted, I devoured the few more books by Nichols I could find. This was back in 1998 just as eBay was getting going. I found copies of his much-admired gardening books via Australia, Canada and Great Britain. I even ordered some from Hong Kong. It seemed as long as there was a sun setting on the former British empire, one could find a copy of a book by Beverley Nichols, even if it was dog-eared or ex-library. And for mere pennies! 

These gardening tomes, originally designed with whimsical illustrations by Rex Whistler, (and later by William McLaren) were also a revelation since they are told from the point of view of a man who clearly spent a great deal of time admiring his garden but who did very little actual gardening himself! He relied on the help of his staff, in some cases inherited from the home’s previous owners. 

The tone of what might be called the “herbaceous border” series, which began beautifully with Down the Garden Path (a typically wry Nichols title) is downright delicious. Nichols pokes fun at his stuffy neighbors and prissy socialite friends, as well as excoriating his ego-crazed gardening rivals. And he does it all with stylish, effortless prose that is a joy to read. The book was a runaway bestseller and helped restore Nichols to the limelight. His star had been a bit dampened after his early brash successes by a series of less-than-stellar journalistic efforts. His diversity, however, was astonishing, ranging from books on politics and religion, to folk tales and treatises on flower arranging. I was not as enthusiastic about some of these, such as The Star Spangled Manner; Are They The Same at Home?; Women and Children Last; Uncle Samson. What one discovers here is Nichols struggling to find his niche, while being paid handsomely to do it. Ironically, he wouldn’t have been able to afford the squire lifestyle which he described so vividly in his various “country” series if he hadn’t done these rather humdrum hack jobs.

Down the Garden Path was followed by a succession of equally amusing books: A Village in a Valley and A Thatched Roof. Then Nichols traded up, buying a Geogian pile, glorified in Merry Hall and its two follow-ups: Laughter on the Stairs and Sunlight on the Lawn.

He later sold that white elephant and moved to a grim sort of rowhouse with an ugly backyard which he tried (vainly, I believe) to improve with brick walls and lavish garden ornaments. It was written up in Green Grows the City. That is the only time I felt Nichols was faltering. (That’s him, below, gazing adoringly at his “folly” in the odd corner of his tight plot.)

He later returned to a more luxurious lifestyle with another country house, Sudbrook Cottage, this time immortalized in Garden Open Today, and later, Garden Open Tomorrow. One of the best of the later books is Down The Kitchen Sink, a culinary excursion that is filled with brittle asides about nosy neighbors, and cottage chitchat.
For my money, however, I have a special place in my heart for Nichols’ eccentric mystery novels. No Man’s Street. The Moonflower. Death to Slow Music, etc. These curious efforts began, one has to believe, as a bold attempt to cash in on the rage for Agatha Christie style whodunnits. Nichols’ take on it, however, was typically subversive and slightly wacky since his character, Mr. Green, solved crimes not with his insightful intellect or his magnifying glass, or even his snooping skills, but with his incredibly sensitive nose. He had an inordinately gifted olfactory ability, which led to some pretty startling surprises.

It’s clear reading these potboilers that Nichols was having a great deal of fun pushing the envelope of the genre, satirizing his friends (including Noel Coward and Ivor Novello, whom he considered his rivals as well), and introducing slightly risque gay themes into the plots at a time when such things were still tightly wrapped in the closet.

Beverley Nichols also had a serious side and this is evident in some of his political screeds, such as his pacifist tract: Cry Havoc!, or the immensely passe Verdict on India. And some might question his mental faculties while reading Powers That Be, a rather hodgepodge examination of psychic phenomena. 

No, Nichols belonged in other realms divorced from otherworldly forces or dry diplomatic diversions. Perhaps one can argue that his book on his family’s painful bouts with alcoholism, Father Figure, suffers a bit from this tendency towards being “de trop”, but who can resist its opening line? — “The first time I remember my father he was lying dead-drunk on the dining room floor.” Or this later comment? “The occasion of my third attempt to murder my father can be precisely dated and it is not a date that I am likely to forget.”

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Killing Time: Leopold and Loeb

(Fresh from viewing PBS's riveting new documentary about Leopold and Loeb on its American Experience series, I have taken the opportunity to repost one of my earlier pieces regarding the literary legacy of these two enigmatic figures. Here is an excerpt from it.)

While conducting research a few years back at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, I stumbled upon a mention of the vast collection of Erle Stanley Gardner's papers in the center's online catalogue. Gardner was a tireless workhorse who wrote or dictated reams of prose everyday: letters, proposals, lectures, novels and essays. He wrote at least two Perry Mason novels a year, as well as dozens of others under various pseudonyms. His correspondents numbered into the thousands. He seems to have responded to nearly every fan letter he ever got. His collection is sprawling, running to over 33,000 items, and includes a replica of his private writing studio from his California ranch. It would take a lifetime to pore through it all, which might explain why there hasn't been a biography of him written since the 70s. But a hint in the collection guide's "Gay Lives" section led me directly to a pair of folders of documents relating to Nathan Leopold, the luckier half of the infamous duo Leopold and Loeb.

On a cold day in Chicago in 1924, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two teenage friends from affluent Jewish families, kidnapped a 14-year-old school friend, Bobby Franks (Loeb, who was a second cousin of his, had played tennis with him just the day before), and murdered him in cold blood by beating his head in with a cudgel. Then they poured hydrochloric acid over his genitals and face and stuffed his naked corpse into a culvert, before demanding $10,000 in ransom from his parents for his "safe return." Why? "For the thrill of it," they said, cooly and unapologetically. At the time, their diabolical actions were dubbed "the crime of the century," even though the new century was not much older than the youths themselves. But in some ways the title still stands since the senselessness and incomprehensibility of their crime was never equalled. Far worse things were done in the decades that followed, but no single event had quite the resonance of this inexplicable act.

The boys' homoerotic attachment to each other gave their maniacal compact as amoral "Supermen" an added frisson of bloodlust, at a time when such subjects were strictly taboo. During their trial the judge refused to let the jury, or any women and reporters in attendance, hear the sordid details of their peculiar sexual predilections. This only added to their notoriety, even if references in court to "mouth perversions" and "interfemoral intercourse" were edited out of news accounts or sealed as privileged testimony. But the truth is that their crime was absolutely arbitrary and pointless. There was no sexual gratification and no previous pattern of sadistic behavior. 

It was ultimately, however, despite their carefully executed plans, a very imperfect crime. They never got the ransom money and were quickly caught. The acid they used concealed nothing, and the eyeglasses Leopold accidentally left at the scene sealed their doom. Both confessed too easily and immediately blamed the other. In fact, the "crime of the century" was an inept fiasco, unworthy of the tribute. And yet rarely has a pair of such mismatched misfits generated so much media attention. Their case has captivated each new generation of writers, jurists, psychiatrists, criminologists, filmmakers, and artists. Perhaps their story is so popular because of their failings, their tragic flaws, which render them more human, less evil. 

The curious friendship between Erle Stanley Gardner (above) and Nathan Leopold began shortly after Gardner reviewed the novel Compulsion, by Meyer Levin, for the New York Times in 1956. Gardner lauded the novel, which was a fictionalized account of the case, as a "masterly achievement in literary craftmanship," but stated that "the last chapter has been omitted." He wanted to know, "What has happened to the one central character who has remained alive?" That is -- Nathan Leopold. It was an open challenge. And one that Leopold responded to immediately. Days later, Leopold wrote an admiring letter to Gardner, thanking him for his kind and supportive words about his right to rehabilitation and telling him how much of a fan he had always been of his Perry Mason novels. Leopold was limited in the number of letters he could write from prison, and had to include his convict number "9306-D." All his letters were read and approved by prison censors. 

Gardner, who seems to have been flattered by Leopold's interest, quickly wrote back and began a lengthy correspondence that led to a close friendship for the rest of their lives. Gardner also ended up writing the introduction to Leopold's memoir Life Plus 99 Years. The latter did a great deal to help Leopold eventually get parole, as did efforts by Gardner and his team at the Court of Last Resort, a legal think tank that Gardner established which took on special cases and examined the pros and cons of rehabilitation. The Court became a popular TV show. And in 1957 Gardner's most famous creation, Perry Mason, was lighting up the boob tube, with Raymond Burr bringing justice to his falsely accused clients week after week. So it's no wonder that Gardner was drawn to Nathan Leopold's predicament. He loved a tough case as much as Perry Mason.

The notion that a confessed killer who barely escaped the death penalty could ever get parole seemed far-fetched when Leopold and Loeb first went to prison. But by the late 50s, public opinion on prison reform had changed dramatically and Leopold saw a way out. This was partly in response to the wave of juvenile crime that was sweeping across the nation, a point Gardner hammered home in his introduction to Leopold's memoir. Leopold's crimes no longer were so singular, or so scary, he said. Far worse things were happening everyday across the country. In fact, the Clutter family murders which Capote immortalized in In Cold Blood were just around the corner. Gardner, along with Carl Sandburg and Elmer Gertz, who represented Leopold, managed to convince the parole board that Nathan Leopold deserved a second chance. He was finally released from prison in 1958, having served 33 years of his life sentence. (Dickie Loeb had been killed in prison by another inmate in 1936.)

I find the exchange between Gardner and Leopold fascinating. It's not often, I would think, that a convicted murderer develops a friendship with a mystery writer and manages to get this famous author to write for him. (Norman Mailer comes to mind but he was not really a mystery writer so the connotations are different.) The friendship between Gardner and Leopold is paradoxical too because the entire notion of the "perfect murder" which had been Loeb's idée fixe stemmed from his reading pulp detective fiction of which Gardner was one of the earliest masters. No doubt for Leopold this added a level of nostalgia to his interplay with Gardner since it had to remind him of Dickie Loeb. He must have been tickled pink by the irony of it all. 

The symbiosis throughout the correspondence between Gardner and Leopold is revealing too of Leopold's uncanny people skills. In all his letters, Leopold is a master at flattery and charm. He downplays his talents and paints Gardner as an extremely generous man who is going out on a limb to take on Leopold's case. Leopold constantly criticizes his own prose style and laughingly admits that he only wanted Gardner to write the introduction so that the reader wouldn't be too disappointed in the final product. It's a clever ploy to win over the immensely successful author (who never really achieved literary recognition for his immense output, and only won an Edgar award for his non-fiction book The Court of Last Resort). Leopold must have known that by stroking Gardner's ego he was nudging the door open to his own freedom.

But there's no denying that the friendship was genuine. Leopold may have seen the advantages of his connection to a famous writer who went out on a limb to help him achieve parole. In one letter Leopold offers to put up Gardner in his tiny apartment in Puerto Rico (after his parole) if Gardner were to visit. The idea of Gardner shacking up with this notorious killer is too good to be true. It's not clear from the correspondence if Gardner ever took him up on his offer. 

What is most surprising about this cache of letters is that no one seems to have read them, at least not in the context of the literature surrounding the case. Hal Higdon's book The Crime of the Century (Putnam), which came out in 1975, makes no mention of Gardner at all. Likewise in the latest book on the case: Simon Baatz's For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder that Shocked Chicago (Harper's, 2008) Gardner's name does not appear anywhere within its more than 500 pages despite the fact that he was instrumental in helping Leopold achieve parole. 

Like many, I first learned of these two infamous "thrill killers" by watching the film Compulsion starring Orson Welles. It's a brilliant, still underrated film, which thanks to a new DVD release is having a much-deserved second life. Based on the novel by Levin (1956), the film takes a psychoanalytic view of the case. Dean Stockwell played the part based on Nathan Leopold with a sad neurotic genius while Bradford Dillman took on the smooth, devil-may-care Dickie Loeb in his usual deft manner. Welles' take on Clarence Darrow is a sight to behold and proof that he was as great an actor as he was a director. Apparently, however, he was a difficult cast member and took off for Mexico before the film was finished. His closing remarks, Dean Stockwell stated in his memoirs, had to be pieced together from leftover scraps by a clever editor. 

What most of us have forgotten is that Compulsion first ran on Broadway as a stage play. It was part of Zanuck's option when he purchased rights to the novel that Levin had to write a dramatic version first which would open prior to the film, generating word of mouth and a great deal of advance publicity. Levin eventually disassociated himself from the staged version, after arguments with the producer Michael Myerberg who brought in Robert Thom to revamp the script. The play opened in October, 1957 at the Ambassador Theatre with Dean Stockwell in the Nathan Leopold role (he was trying to break out of his earlier goody-good child star roles) and Roddy McDowall (who also needed to move away from being typecast in his Lassie roles) in the more glamorous Loeb part. Included in the cast was Howard da Silva, Frank Conroy (who ended up having a near-fatal heart attack during the run) and a very young Susanne Pleshette as "the Fourth Girl." Cy Coleman provided the music! It ran for 140 performances. 

Compulsion, it turns out, was not the only novel based on the case. In 1957 Mary-Carter Roberts wrote Little Brother Fate (Farrar, Straus & Cudahy) which uses the Leopold and Loeb case as part of a tripartite retelling of three famous 20s crimes. The other two being the Snyder-Gray case, used by James M. Cain in Double Indemnity (Raymond Chandler wrote the screenplay) and the notorious Halls-Mills "Lover's Lane" case which remains unsolved. Roberts' take on Leopold and Loeb is more about the strange hold one boy had over the other, and less about the actual killing. Anthony Boucher in the Times called it "vivid and penetrating," a portrait of "larger-than-life characters...in all their torment." He included it in his list of best books of the year.

Another novel that year also examined the case: James Yaffe's Nothing but the Night (Little Brown). Siegfred Mandel in the Times stated that it was more tightly written and neatly plotted than Compulsion with more stress on the guilt of the parents, but that it "avoids the homosexual tie." This is odd considering the paperback version blatantly used gay pulp style cover art to market it. Yaffe said: "My object was to do a novel which would give the feeling that the boys were not obviously different from any other boys, that the same thing would happen to anybody... I give the reader the feeling that these were his boys." 

The effect of three books coming out within one year inspired some soul-searching. Rabbi Newman placed an ad in the Times promoting "Criminal Responsibility," a sermon he was giving at Rodelph Sholom on the novels by Yaffe and Levin. Nothing But the Night was optioned to be made into a film. Bernice Block, who had produced Dino with Sal Mineo for TV's Studio One, bought the screen rights and announced that she had contacted Elia Kazan as a possible choice for director. Perhaps she had Sal Mineo in mind for the lead. But nothing came of it. It would have been fascinating to see Mineo tackle the part of Nathan Leopold. 

In 1964 actor Don Murray, of Bus-Stop fame, announced that he had optioned Life Plus 99 Years and was going to make a film. It was to be directed by Paton Price (who later directed episodes of Surfside 6 and The Partridge Family). Murray actually went to visit Nathan Leopold in Puerto Rico. But unfortunately nothing came of it either. 

Long before any of these versions appeared, however, the story of Leopold and Loeb inspired a play by Patrick Hamilton in 1929 called Rope's End. Hamilton set the tale in Mayfair, London, England, rather than Chicago, giving it more of an aristocratic edge. It was produced at the Strand in 1929. Lee Shubert produced it later on Broadway at the Theatre Masque and the Maxine Elliott Theatre. It starred Ernest Melton as Rupert Cadell; Ivan Brandt as Charles Granillo, and Hugh Dempster as Kenneth Raglan. Reginald Denham directed. It does not seem to have made much of a dent. And no one would remember it at all if Alfred Hitchcock hadn't directed a film version of it in 1948 called Rope starring James Stewart, Farley Granger and John Dall. Arthur Laurents and Hume Cronyn adapted it for the screen. 

In both the play and the movie, the focus is on how two sensually corrupt and spoiled youths (more explicitly homoerotic in the stage version) plot to commit the perfect murder. They kill a friend of theirs, stuff his body in a trunk, then throw a cocktail party for him, inviting his family. They are outsmarted by their mentor, a Nietzchean professor, who is appalled that they took his dark philosophical musings to an illogical extreme. The film is not one of Hitchcock's most popular, despite excellent performances from Granger and Dall and an experimental approach that involved a series of very long takes. The problem is that James Stewart is miscast as the dark professor who misleads his protegees. If James Mason or Claude Rains had played the part, it might have been more convincing. Ironically the film was criticized by the Anti-Defamation League for portraying two Jews as homosexual murderers. 

I have my own peculiar connection to the Leopold and Loeb case. My mother's guardian, Elmer Gertz, (above), had been the lawyer who helped Nathan Leopold finally get parole after being in prison for over 30 years. It wasn't until after my mother died in 1993 that I finally got to meet Mr. Gertz and talk to him specifically about the case. He told me a lot of interesting things, most of which has been fully documented in his two books of memoirs. When I asked him directly about the rumors of Leopold and Loeb's being lovers he told me a funny story. He had gone to stay with Leopold and was shocked to find that in his bedroom he kept a photograph of Elmer Gertz and beside that one of Richard Loeb. Leopold said they were the two most important men in his life. After Leopold got married in Puerto Rico to the widow of a local doctor, he took the picture of Dickie Loeb down.

I asked Gertz if he had seen the film Swoon by Tom Kalin (1992) which had just come out. He said he had and that he liked it which surprised me since he was a man in his 90s at the time. Swoon takes the Leopold and Loeb case to a completely different level, offering a post-modern account of the crime. The homoerotic relationship is made the central theme. With striking photography, props and costumes, Swoon breathed new life into a story that by the 90s was becoming routine. The film reawakened interest in the case and since then there have been a number of plays and films and even graphic novels that touch upon the case. 

The film Murder by Numbers, by Barbet Shroeder, is said to be based on the case, although the story line is much different. In 1985 John Logan wrote a play called Never the Sinner which was inspired by the actual court transcripts. It won the Outer Circle Critics award. A play version of Rope has been making the rounds, using the film script as much as Hamilton's original. In 2003 Stephen Dolginoff premiered his musical Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story. It has appeared in many productions around the world. In 1999, Kevin Spacey's Darrow 91 in the series Haunted History recreated parts of the famous trial with Jamie Harrold and Barry Del Sherman as Leopold and Loeb.

One of the most intriguing tidbits I gleaned from Simon Baatz's book is that F. Scott Fitzgerald told a newspaper reporter from the New York World in 1927 over lunch at the Plaza that he was writing a novel based on the story of Leopold and Loeb. One can only imagine what might have been. Coming on the heels of The Great Gatsby, a novel by Fitzgerald on the "crime of the century" might just have been "the great American novel" we've all been hankering for.