Video meliora proboque detiora sequor.
Seeing the better I acknowledge it, but follow the worse.
Though Racetrack Films was small compared to the Big Five, and had never even come close to so much as an Oscar nomination since the first Academy Awards were presented ten years before, EZ Shelupsky ran his lot like a smaller, sepia version of the majors. MGM had dozens of sound stages and thousands of employees, including a cast of contract players whose faces were known even in the smallest towns around the world; Shelupsky had only one sound stage, at that about as small as a high-school cafeteria, and he employed fewer than a dozen full-timers. But he did control the screens in some five hundred colored movie houses, and his featured players—Deidre Lucky, Earl Mayson, Lucy Moses, Grant Lincoln and Delila Waters— were as well known to Negro America as MGM’s Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland or Universal’s Deanna Durbin and WC Fields were on the white side of the color line. The Big Five shared an enormous market, but Racetrack Films was sole proprietor of its own special piece of real estate. That year, 1939—often considered Hollywood’s best year ever—when the majors were releasing Beau Geste, Babes in Arms, Confessions of a Nazi Spy, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, to say nothing of Gone With the Wind, EZ Shelupsky was cranking out The Brown Buckaroo, Curse of the Colored Mummy and Holiday in Harlem—and making more money on every dollar invested.
For what it’s worth, EZ could never have done it without me, or—to inject a note of modesty that is alien to Hollywood—someone very like me.
Not that a white writer would have had all that much trouble creating the plots of these pictures, which were about as original as most B-movies of the time, but the dialogue, the dark wit, the pizzazz was something a white man could not be expected to fake. Shelupsky knew enough about his audience to know that colored slang reinvented itself about every other week, that how Negroes danced and sang and played music was as changeable as the weather—Southern California excepted—and that the concerns of Afro-Americans were so different from those of the majority population they might have been another nationality. Maybe EZ was a little jealous of the majors—producing what were called race movies would certainly get you a table up front in the Plantation Club in that part of Los Angeles that white folks called “The Jungle;” it was not going to get you invited to the White House—but he knew what he had.
“Them, they got three thousand theaters to split between five studios; me, I got, on my own, five hundred houses. Let me explain you the math. When you’re adding it all up and dividing, they got six hundred apiece, sometimes, not all the time, because it flows and ebbs. I’ll give you a hint. It’s not just the screens. When you do the addition, don’t forget to carry the popcorn, the candy, the cigarettes, in some places the booze they sell in the lobby, out of all of which I get a piece. Now let me put in some algebra. Them, they got people spend a quarter every time they go to the movies? Me, I got people only spend a dime—hey, okay, your average colored theater is no Loew’s Alhambra— but my people, God bless ‘em, they spend their dime three, four, maybe five times a week. Why? Because my films are so mysterious they got to watch them over and over to find out the secret? Pretty to think so, but the real reason is simple. Colored people got nothing else to spend on. They don’t own big houses, most can’t afford cars—yeah, sure people make jokes about coons in Cadillacs, but how many Cadillacs you see and how many Negroes driving them that they ain’t the chauffeur? Even if they could afford it, they can’t get into expensive restaurants. Hattie McDaniel, a featured player in white movies for twelve years—she just won an Oscar, first and last time that’s going to happen for a long while—they won’t let her in half the night clubs in this town, and the other half don’t usually see a lot of blue eyes. What I got is a franchise, a country inside a country. You know what, when I see injustice, mis-treatment of colored people, sometimes out-and-out crime against them, as a human being I’m angry, but as a business man, a producer, as soon as they let the colored into white movie theaters I’m a dead corpse. There goes my franchise, foof. You might say I’m a split-up personality—half of me wants them to have the rights they should, the other says: Keep ‘em down a year longer. I got costs.”
Say what you will about EZ Shelupsky, and in today’s climate he is sometimes depicted as a kind of Hollywood Simon Legree, a son of a bitch—nobody ever called him anything less than shrewd: the next black actor to win an Oscar was Sidney Poitier, thirty-five years later—he was an equal opportunity son of a bitch. White, colored, Japanese, Mexican, he made everyone wait, made everyone nervous, made all kinds of people rich and all kinds of people miserable. He made me happy almost as often as he made me want to crawl under a rock and die, but whatever his effect on you it had little to do with race in a business where black-and-white was not simply what came before Technicolor. In a town where in 1938 the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP petitioned the Hays Office, the industry’s self-appointed regulator, to demand roles for Negroes that weren’t maids, doormen or railroad porters (yours truly helped frame the petition, though it didn’t do much: Gone With the Wind opened the next year with the mama of all colored maids), in Shelupsky’s films colored people played doctors, lawyers, cops, cowboys, desperados, businessmen, secretaries, farmers, teachers, ministers, even politicians. It was so rare to find a pale face in a Shelupsky film, the credits used to include “Joe Smith (or whatever the name). . . White Man.” As EZ liked to say, “At Racetrack, even the horses are colored.” Most of the people on his payroll, starting with Alma, his secretary for 12 years, were Negroes, and they got treated as badly as any secretary, casting director or writer in Hollywood, white, black or indifferent. If you could get in to see him, that is.
Aside from his bookie, his barber and his tailor, no one even got on the lot to see EZ Shelupsky unless Alma gave them a four-digit code number which had to match one of the numbers she left at the gate every morning. Shelupsky hardly needed to have his secretary go this far—leaving just a name at the gate would do—but even for a studio head Shelupsky was known for a stub-born megalomania; unlike the others, this was rivaled by a kind of pig-headed magnanimity. Though he didn’t have to, he paid his players pretty much what B-movie white actors got, and treated them with an off-hand respect that con-fused them as much as it pleased.
A bundle of prickly contradictions, Shelupsky had in his decade in Hollywood created so many legends that the jokesters at Chasen’s practically choked over their Beef Belmont (braised short ribs and matzah balls—Hollywood on a plate) and claimed he had Alma write his personality quirks out on index cards so he could remember them all; less pleasantly, they claimed he had his shvartze actors wear name tags because they all looked alike. One thing about EZ: no one looked like him.
The other Jewish studio heads had sharp Eastern European features, distinct noses, jutting chins, chiseled eye sockets, even sculpted ears, but everything about EZ was rounded; though his 5-foot-8-inch frame didn’t carry an ounce of fat, he seemed to be composed of a complete set of fully integrated knobs. After the war I played tennis with him regularly, and he was all muscle, but even this was rounded, as though he had been stuffed with tennis balls in his arms and softballs in his legs; his shoulders were like volleyballs. When he pursed his thin lips in concentration, it was as if his chin and nose had decided to mate—they were that congruent. His hair was prematurely gray and thinning on top; he kept it short, which further rounded him off. If he’d worn anything but the best custom-made suits he might have looked like a stack of bowling balls, but the elegance of his dress, always in an unexpected color or an unusual stripe or windowpane check set off by a brilliant white shirt, gave him a smooth, unflappable look. He was hardly unflappable. Too many writers and directors and moviehouse owners had seen him in full flap.
From everyone else he demanded consistency, particularly in grooming (“Maybe you can’t tell a book by the cover”—this from a man who admitted he had never read one—“but it’s a good start”) and the ability to turn crap into cash (“You know why Hamlet don’t make a movie? Not enough tap dancing”), but when it came to himself he insisted only on the kind of radical contradiction that defied expectation, keeping his colleagues and employees perpetually off-balance and amusing the studio boss no end. A staunch capitalist, Shelupsky was nevertheless a student not of Dale Carnegie, whose How to Make Friends and Influence People became a bestseller in ’37 and stayed popular into the 50s, but of Joseph Stalin, EZ having recognized in the Soviet dictator the focused ability to scare the bupkes out of anyone who so much as heard his name. Of course Stalin did not share Shelupsky’s signal weakness.
When he had first come out to the coast Shelupsky visited Santa Anita almost every day. For the 1937 Kentucky Derby, in which EZ had a horse, he’d had a dedicated phone line installed on his desk, directly connected to Churchill Downs where War Admiral had, unfortunately, won. The other studio heads liked horses — Shelupsky loved them. As a boy in Poland he had used to ride Friesians, big plow horses with hooves as big as his head—“A regular sheigetz, they called me!”—but when he came to an urbanized America he’d had to give this up until he became rich enough to own thoroughbreds. Only one thing was wrong. They—the blueblood trustees of the Turf Club that ran Santa Anita—would not let an EZ Shelupsky in as a member. It wasn’t personal. He could run horses there, he could practically live in the clubhouse, he could throw his money around and hire the best trainers and jocks, but at member-ship a line was drawn. Once they let the Shelupskys in, they might as well let in the Japs and the greasers and the shines. In EZ’s words, “They anti-semitted me out.” Which is why Shelupsky and Jack Warner and the other studio heads, along with a few featured players like George Jessel and Al Jolson, and several of the bigger agents, started Hollywood Park—it was the Jewish track. “Fuck the goyim,” was so much the Shelupsky motto it might as well have been emblazoned on his jockeys’ silks. In fact it was: his horses ran under the blue and green colors of FTG Stables.
Paradoxically, his feeling for the other half of the gentile species was altogether different. “Shiksas got refinement,” he would say to his casting directors, as though there was a chance in hell they might mistakenly cast a colored Jewess. “Let the other guy have a million Fanny Brices— give me a Claudette Colbert every time. Your high-class shiksa she don’t even shit. Maybe pees a little.” In 1936 he divorced his first wife, who apparently was too often in the powder room engaging in smelly Hebraic physicality, and took up with the platinum-haired princess of Hollywood, Nora Bright. Not only was she no semite, but she loved horseflesh, loved the track, loved betting, and just adored being Mrs. EZ Shelupsky. For one thing, the roles got better—every studio head in Hollywood was her husband’s best friend. For another, EZ worked so hard he bothered her for sex only once a week—it wasn’t that she didn’t like action, but her tastes, it turned out, were identical to her husband’s: along with the ponies, she had a fondness for the ladies. Either way, she would have understood: EZ was tired at night for good reason. He gave at the office. And on the set. Sometimes in his marvelously capacious Brewster towncar on the way to the track. But never there. Horse racing was his religion. EZ avoided synagogues. His temple was the track.
In the depths of the depression, Shelupsky’s horses ate better than 99% of the American people, and he spent more on his ponies on any given day than was needed for a month’s care and feeding of the average American family. By 1939 FTG Stables carried forty-eight thoroughbreds, and his trainer was none other than Ozzie Hirsch, whose horse had almost beat out War Admiral in the Derby. Though Ozzie would train a pot-bellied pig if an owner required it, Hirsch liked leggy, short-coupled horses with tight conformation and good manners, which was pretty much EZ’s taste in actresses, one of which—a striking octoroon with an aggressive set to her chin; like so many of the new wave of actresses, if you cut her hair and taped her breasts she could pass, á la Marlene Dietrich, for her own leading man—was just leaving when Alma buzzed me in. “Mr. S, Laurence Bellringer coming through.”
“EZ!” I said, as though I had not seen him for a long time. It had been five weeks, a century in Holly-wood. Shelupsky did that to people. If you were working on a script, you would see him three times a day and get phoned five times in the middle of the night, but as soon as you were off payroll you became a stranger. I found myself pumping the studio head’s meaty hand like a well handle in Botke, the Polish village of Shelupsky’s youth that the mogul talked about sometimes when he was in the mood. “You look so good.”
“You got five minutes, Larry. You wanna kiss my ass with it, be my guest.” Shelupsky examined his Gerard Perigaux. “Nu?”
“The year is 1654—”
“They had a New York in sixteen-something?”
“Nieuw Amsterdam, you’re right,” I said, having learned early that any piece of information a third-grader might be expected to know had to be passed along in a tone of voice that was as much complicitous as informative— of course you know this, EZ, of course you know that. “Of course you know the Dutch are in charge, EZ, and the mayor, what they called the burgomeister — of course you know that—is the famous one-legged Peter Stuyvesant, a real sneaky bastard—think Charles Laughton, but pre-menstrual. First line of the movie: ‘I want this scum off my island!’”
“Ah,” I whispered dramatically. “I got you at scum. The fourth word in the movie and I got you.”
“What you got is four minutes.”
“The scum in question is on a boat, the St. Cathriene, which is jam-packed with . . .”
Shelupsky rolled his eyes. “Less than four minutes and you’re playing acting school? Just give it to me, what’s on the boat? Coconuts? Booze? The Harlem Globetrotters?” Suddenly he had a thought. “Chorus girls?”
“None of the above, EZ. What’s on the boat is . . .”
“Either tell me what’s on the boat or get the fuck personally out of my office, Bellringer.”
I allowed my voice to drop an octave. I had taken a risk. Now was the pay-off. “What’s . . .on . . .the . . .boat . . .is . . .”
“Wha-at?” I spelled it out. “J-E-W-S.”
Shelupsky’s office suddenly became so quiet you could hear a featured player’s contract being torn up on the floor below. The studio head looked at his watch, platinum and gold, a gift from Nora, after all. Slowly he raised his eyes. “What?”
“Jews,” I said.
“Jews, like . . . Jews."
“What Jews? Colored Jews? You want I should make a movie about colored Jews? Larry, sometimes I think you got shtupped so much in the rear end it made your brains fluffy. My young friend, Racetrack don’t make movies about Jews. Despite what they think at the Turf Club—and those fucking cock-sucker goyim, no offense, should go intercourse themselves—Jews are white people. Racetrack don’t make movies about white people. Racetrack makes movies about coloreds. Jesse Lasky makes movies about white people, Sam-my Goldwyn makes movies about white people, everybody else makes movies about white people. EZ Shelupsky makes movies about not white people. That’s why I got you to write for me. If I was so stupid to make movies about white people you’d be out of a job. Because what you know about white people you could write in a homo picture book. Anyway, even the regular studios don’t make movies about Jews.”
“That’s exactly right, EZ.”
“Exactly right is not an argument, Larry. If you’re agreeing with me, we’re not having a discussion. In other words, we don’t need other words. Larry, what are you trying to say, that you want me to get out of the colored movie business and go into the Jewish movie business?”
“No, sir. Race films are a good business, and as far as I can see they’re good for my people.”
“Damned straight. They give colored people hope, dignity, a sense of who they are. You think I’m in this for the money? I’m sure you do, and you’re not wrong. It’s a business. But so’s poetry. You know what’s the motto of MGM? Ars Gratia Artis. It’s on all their pictures. Means “art for the sake of art.” Louie Mayer told me when he stuck it on his movies he didn’t even know if it meant anything. And you know what? It don’t. Without art being a business, it wouldn’t be fly-paper on a wall. You think Rembrandt painted for the pleasure? It was his racket. He got paid for it. Also Beethoven with piano playing. Also . . .” Here the studio head seemed to run out of famous artist-entrepreneurs. He tried another tack. “You know the letters we get from colored people thanking us for giving them movies of their own? Without Racetrack Films, Larry, the American Negro would be invisible, even to himself. So what’s with you and Jewish movies? Is this a joke or what?”
“You know as well as I do, EZ, that colored films don’t have a future.”
The studio head looked at me like I had questioned the sanctity of democracy, or capitalism, or horse racing. “I know no such a thing.”
“Then you’re not as smart as I think you are, EZ. As everyone thinks you are.”
EZ’s mouth twisted up like a deftly peeled lemon rind. “Okay, I’m listening.”
“We’re going to have a war.”
“Maybe,” Shelupsky said. “Probably. If it isn’t on Roosevelt’s mind, even though he keeps denying, it’s on that bastard Hitler’s. Eventually. Yeah, I agree. So?”
“So people like me are going to be in the service, and certain barriers are going to fall.”
“As much as I’d like to think so, Larry, I’m not sure. I’m sure they got homos in the Navy, but that’s the Navy. It’s the tight pants.”
“Not homos, EZ.”
“Harvard men?” Shelupsky was much impressed with the fact that though I was more educated than he, he was the one who signed the checks. “Or is that the same as homos?”
I wonder which he thought was worse. “Neither homos nor Harvard men, EZ. Negroes.”
“From your mouth to Roosevelt’s ear. But to tell you the truth, I doubt it.”
“Even now, theaters in the North are dissolving the color line. In New York there’s no such thing as colored-only houses. Maybe a few in Harlem, but that’s just geography. Dark people are going to light people’s shows, but light people aren’t going to dark people’s.”
“New York ain’t America.”
“San Francisco? Chicago? Detroit?” I said. “You know that it’s happening all over. Even in L.A.”
“Two-thirds of this country is in little towns where the mayor can’t read and the whole city council is spelled K.K.K. That’s the America you’re not looking at. All of life isn’t a big city.”
“Things are going to be changing, EZ. You don’t want to hang your hat on something that’s not going to be there when you want to put it back on your head.”
Oddly, perhaps because it seemed to echo Shelupsky’s own inconsistent syntax, this thought seemed to strike home. He looked at me for a moment like an equal. No, not regarding race. I would never know what was in the studio head’s heart regarding the colored question. But as a movie man.
“You trying to tell me something, Bellringer?”
“That I’m in a dying business?”
“It’s got some life in it, but not a lot.”
“It’s always darkest before the storm,” Shelupsky said.
There was no sense in correcting him, especially when he was right. “So we should branch out,” I said.
“If I’m right, we. If I’m not, not.”
“You’re offering me a partnership in my own company?
Is that what you’re saying?” “Is that too uppity for you, EZ?”
Shelupsky did not like being on the wrong end of the racial stick. He was a big contributor to Negro colleges, Negro hospitals, everything Negro but the NAACP, which to EZ’s mind was just another way to say “Commie.” That year we had sent a delegation to the World Conference Against Hate in Moscow. “I think you’re a disgusting cock-sucking, homosexual faggot, Larry. But as a colored man, I don’t condemn you. You were born the way you are.”
“I was also born a disgusting, cock-sucking, homo-sexual faggot, EZ.”
“You mean to say that kind of thing ain’t a matter of choice?”
“Is this about who I fuck or movies about Jews?”
“Neither,” he said. “You know I don’t care about your personal life. You’re a terrific writer. An artist. Even Michelangelo, I heard this somewhere, was queer as a lead penny. Most painters, in fact. It’s an artistic disease. If God was to strike dead every poof in Hollywood, we’d be down to one feature a year and it would be terrible. But your idea that Racetrack should make Jewish films, that’s…”
“Laughable,” I said. “Like what, talkies?” This was a low blow. Shelupsky had been late making the transition from silents. He was sensitive about it. He saw himself as an innovator, but he had missed that one. “Start a new company. No relation to Racetrack. There’s a lot of talent here. Jewish talent.”
“The refugees? Larry, they don’t even talk English.”
“Joseph von Sternberg?”
“Two apples don’t make a fig tree.”
“I’ll write the dialogue. We’ll get the refugees for story, for structure. The whole German movie industry is here, and they’re all Jews.”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean they should write movies for Jews. Let them write for everybody, like the rest of the industry. You know how many Jews there are in America? Two percent of the population. I looked it up.”
“You’re doing pretty well with ten percent of the population, and most Negroes don’t have two nickels to rub together. And don’t forget Europe. That’s sixteen million more Jews, at least.” I allowed myself the luxury of a wink. “I looked it up.”
“Jews go to movies? Who knows if they do?”
“You think they don’t?” “Yeah, they probably do.”
“A couple or three titles a year, something big that other people will go see as well. Gone With the Wind, but for Jews. Or maybe just about them.”
“I got no distribution. What am I going to do, show it in Selma, Alabama? Philadelphia, Mississippi? If it’s a picture that’s appealing for Jews, then it’s got to be shown in houses in Jewish neighborhoods. In L.A., I wouldn’t even have distribution in Boyle Heights, the biggest ghetto east of Warsaw. I got three screens in Watts, but I don’t got Boyle Heights.”
“The Big Five will fight to give you distribution. They’re your friends.”
“They’re my friends because I’m not a competitor. And they’ll take half the gross. And all the popcorn and candy.”
I was waiting for this. Shelupsky’s internal adding machine was already computing cash-flow, negotiating gross versus net, figuring angles. That was his job, and I trusted him to do it well. If the deal didn’t make money then it wasn’t a deal, but there was something I could do to nudge it ahead, like a player at a pinball machine supplying a bit of body-English to drop the steel sphere into the right hole. “With all you’ve done for the colored people, EZ, don’t you think it’s time to do something for your own?”
He smiled. “To the Jews I give already plenty. I gave a wing to Cedars of Lebanon. There wouldn’t be a Cedars if not for EZ Shelupsky. You can’t die of cancer in L.A. without reading the name EZ Shelupsky. Don’t make me out a cheapskate for the Jews.”
“Anyone can give money, EZ. You can give your talent, your skill, your heart.”
“Larry, I thought you was one hell of a writer, for a colored man or even a white man, but now I see you are a topflight bullshit artist also. I take off my hat to you.” One beat, two, three. “There was Jews then, in New York?”
“That’s when they arrived. In 1654.”
“They had immigration? Then?”
“Immigration?” “Ellis Island.”
“No,” I managed to get out, forgetting in my excitement with the way the conversation was going that I had to be careful in presenting facts. “Only Peter Stuyvesant. The mayor, the head of the colony. And he didn’t like Jews.”
“Who does? So what happened?”
“Ah,” I began.
“Don’t ah me—what am I, a ear-nose-and-throat? Do I look like a doctor to you?”
“EZ, you look like a man on the verge of something really big, really—”
“Then hold the ahs in your overworked tuchis and tell the story. I admit: You got my interest.” Shelupsky turned a look on me that probably had been invented by Stalin. “So far.”
The problem was that in my excitement at having his ear, I ended up telling EZ Shelupsky not one story, but three. More or less I had figured out the central tale, but I was having trouble stitching the plots together: the package eluded me. At $500 per for six weeks, I could write bang-up dialogue—alcohol and the occasional stick of weed helped—but when it came to structure and plot, I was compelled to fall back on the Hollywood concept of character that derived from the patented personality of the actor playing the part: a David Niven type was thus suave, English, polite and selfless, so he never got the girl; an Errol Flynn buckled swash, so he did; a Cary Grant, though born Archie Leach, a lower-class Brit, be-came the soul of blue-blooded American charm, swinging from debonair to flaky, and would always come through in the end, so his bipolar personality dictated the plot as well. At Racetrack I had my own stable of similarly type-cast stars, practically members of the family to Afro-American moviegoers, but here I was out of my depth: with no actors attached—Racetrack had no stable of white players—I had to invent real characters; with only the rudiments of history, I had to invent a story—and then structure that over a hundred minutes of screen time. However brilliant I was at dialogue, EZ was not paying me $500 a week to learn someone else’s job. Enter Fritz von Blum.
Blum may have been his real name—why would anyone make that up?—but I never bought the “von,” which seemed of a piece with the shamelessly ersatz nobility of a Mortimer de Rosenne [Marvin Rosen], a Hayward Sigalle [Howard Siegal] or a Clarence LeVigne [Charley Levine]. These producers, talented as they were, managed to undercut their own legitimacy by claiming a pedigree that was clearly wishful, the kind of who-are-you-kidding I was later to witness among my own people when they named their children Percy 23X or Shaquila. Sure, John Garfield had started out in life as Jacob Julius Garfinkle, Kirk Douglas as Isser Danielovitch Demsky, and Sylvia Sydney was born Sophia Kosow, but they were freshly christened according to the demands of a studio system producing movies for an American audience that the studio heads sincerely believed was mono-cultural. Of course it wasn’t; Hollywood’s Moishe-come-latelies saw only us and them. But why change your name when as a producer or a writer it never appeared on a marquee? Von Blum? Unlike his fellow kraut Jo Sternberg, who became Josef von Sternberg in California, Fritz had added on the noble von while still in Europe, where he was a mainstay at UFA, the MGM of Germany, having written twenty-two films before Hitler came along and declared the German film industry judenrein. So it was something of a surprise that Fritz’s first words to me were, “You know, Mr. Bellringer, I have never before worked with a nigger.”
We were in my bungalow at the Garden of Allah, pretty much the only place in L.A. that would accept coloreds—that is, outside of the dark neighborhoods—and for the moment I was confused. Here was this little German twerp wearing clothes that had been out of date in America when they were new, along with bottle-bottom green-tinted spectacles I suspected were pure window glass—you could see his pale eyes through them without distortion. Maybe five-foot-five-inches, probably with elevator shoes, von Blum was of a peculiarly translucent peach complexion, a squashed-in nose, his strawberry hair buzz-cut in a style that would not be popular in America until after the war, and on his left cheek a scar, about an inch-and-a-half long. Aside from that he looked like anyone else who was part European intellectual and, with a head too big for his body, part newt. “You know, Mr. von Blum, we American niggers don’t like to be referred to as such. One of those things. Try colored.”
“As in the French flag?” he asked.
Because Fritz so far had not so much as cracked the rumor of a smile—now the only clue was the sensation that little lights had been lit behind his eyes—I did not get it. “What?”
Abruptly I caught on and despite myself, let loose a laugh. Most people in Hollywood would not have called it the tri-color, because to do that one had to speak French, or be familiar with something other than the daily truths the American Communist Party was force-feeding the entire film community, including me. And of course it was a political joke. People did not make political jokes in Hollywood in 1939. Anything political was as serious as our films were not. “You’re a funny guy, Mr. von Blum.”
“Doctor, if you must.”
“You want me to call you doctor?”
“Preferable to mister, but if you don’t mind Fritz will do. I did not intend insult. For me, Negro, black, colored, Congolese, darkie, kaffir, African-American— they are all the same. In German, nigger is not a bad word, merely a description. Maybe that too has changed. I come from a world where there is only one race, of which I am not part, by official decree. So it is hardly possible I carry in me ill-feeling against another. I meant no harm, I assure you.”
“Well, just for the record, we don’t call it the National Association for the Advancement of Niggers. I know you’re new here.”
“I love California.”
“As well there are no brown shirts marching in the streets, and that I can work in film, movies as you say, for a number of years now not a possibility in Germany. Ubi bene, ibi patria.”
“Where it is good, there is one’s country. Please tell me about this film. Mr. Shelupsky is paying me, so we should commence our labors. We will enjoy working together, no?”
“I don’t know that anyone enjoys working for EZ.”
“Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.”
“Over my head.”
“An idiom. Means: I don’t comprehend.”
“Not a problem, Larry. Soon you will be speaking Latin like Augustus. Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit. Perhaps even this will one day be pleasant to look back upon.”
What Mr. Shelupsky was paying Fritz was $100 a week, slave wages by Hollywood standards but more than respectable at a time when high-school teachers made that much in a month. Still, Fritz wasn’t a high-school teacher but a screenwriter with credits from Berlin to Vienna. Beyond the kind of ethical twinge that never lived long in Hollywood, I felt the strange form of guilt that inspires not one’s conscience but one’s fear: if EZ could do this to von Blum, he could do it to von Bell-ringer. It was something like the fear that would be attributed to thoughtful but passive Christians in Germany: Today they come for the Saturday people, tomorrow they will come for the Sunday people. Worse, after working with Fritz for only three hours, it was clear he was the pro and I the amateur. I had made eleven films for EZ at Racetrack, but they were hardly art, unless writing snappy dialogue for Buck Brown, our reigning western star, could be considered cowboy verse. Fritz had collaborated on The Blue Angel, had been a contract writer for UFA, working with F.W. Murnau, G.W. Pabst and another Fritz—Lang. He was an old drinking buddy of Billy Wilder, who many years later told me at a party that he had learned a basic lesson from Fritz: “An actor enters through a door, you’ve got nothing—an actor enters through a window, you’ve got a situation.” Fritz and Marlene Dietrich used to do cocaine together. On top of that, the man had written five novels (most Hollywood writers had never read that many), and in his spare time had been a columnist—a cultural columnist, no less, until the Nazis took over—for Die Welt, which in its pre Hitler heyday made our L.A. papers look like the Ozark Bugle. So I was less concerned with my partner’s skills than with the bigger picture: In the interstice between Fritz’s leaving and my walking to Schwab’s, just across Crescent Heights Boulevard, for a pack of Luckies, I had a chance to reflect on the risk I was taking. EZ Shelupsky did not tolerate losses.
If my idea failed for a new direction at Racetrack, EZ would boot me so far off the lot I’d never again see so much as a hundred bucks a week. I was an educated Negro with expensive tastes in clothes, whiskey, residence and men. Where was I to go if EZ tossed me out? The white studios were unlikely to hire me. What was I supposed to do, work for a living? The WPA had just dumped three-quarters of a million men off government payrolls. As we used to say in the Party, “On a clear day in Hollywood you can see the class struggle.”
These trepidations occupied my mind as I let myself back into the bungalow to find a stranger sitting on my green leather sofa behind what had been a locked door.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Bellringer,” the stranger said.
Even seated he was clearly of good size, maybe six-foot four-inches, with an athletic heft to his shoulders. His tan shoes were shined to perfection, and suitably large, as was the hat on the sofa next to him, a putty-colored fedora with a thin band of light-blue silk that picked up his eyes, which were kind, though whether by nature or intent I could not tell. His jaw was square, his mouth soft, almost permanently puckered, but his nose was aggressive, like a fighter’s. His hair was brushed straight back and shiny black. No Easterner, his deep even tan was years in the making. I tried to put all this together, including the charcoal suit, a soft fabric, maybe cashmere, fashionably single-breasted and top-stitched, that must have cost a mint. John Garfield meets Cary Grant meets John Wayne? I couldn’t peg him. Could he be a cop? Instantly I catalogued what was in my bungalow and felt the fear of the occasional pot-smoker, then instantly relaxed. In that suit, if this was a cop I was Mae West.
“Do I know you?”
“Allen Sloane.” Getting up off the couch, the man was bigger, broader. He seemed to fill the room. His hand reached around mine like a ratchet. “Please excuse my coming in this way. The nice people in the lobby let me in. Told them I was your cousin.”
“Some people don’t look at these things.”
“Really? I never seem to meet them.” Then it came to me. It was just a name out of the Los Angeles phone directory, unless you recognized it. I recognized it now, though I would have imagined him different, an Edward G. Robinson, not a George Raft. “Oh, that Allen Sloane,” I said. “Yes, please sit down. Can I get you something? I don’t know what I have. Gin. Bourbon. I may have some rye.”
“Don’t drink during the day,” Sloane said. “I do smoke.”
I watched my guest slip a flat gold cigarette case out of his right-hand jacket pocket, flip it open with the same hand and then, with a speed and grace that made it seem easy, light up a Viceroy—it was the only brand with a filter-tip in those days—with a matching gold lighter that magically appeared in his left. I pushed an ashtray full of yesterday’s butts toward the man, who smiled regally. “I hear you’re doing a script for EZ Shelupsky,” Sloane said.
“How do you know that?”
“In my business, you have to know everything.”
“Because it’s not, you know, known.”
“I’m sure you’ll do well with it. I saw The Sepia Stranger. Liked it a lot. Very good dialogue. Jazzy.”
Script-writers rarely hear compliments, unless they are nominated for an Oscar, something that I often dreamed of but, considering my situation, might never occur. Well, maybe it would with this one—a film that wasn’t made, from a script that wasn’t written, off a treatment that was only in my head, and which itself was so far little more than a pleasant blur waiting to be formed by an émigré German Jew who spouted Latin. In pursuing this I had neglected to ask myself the obvious question: What was a white man doing looking at race films? “You don’t have to lie on my account.”
“I never lie,” Sloane said, quite seriously. “I make a habit of it.”
“In the film business you might have to, from time to time.”
“That’s why I’m not in the film business,” Sloane said.
“Sometimes I wish I could say that. You get like a hop-head. They give you lots of money, you spend it because that’s what you do out here, then you need more and you’re pretty much at their mercy.” For the life of me, I had no idea why I was saying this. I didn’t know Sloane, except by reputation, and would never have said this kind of thing to my own friends. But there was something in Allen Sloane that made me feel he could be relied upon. Maybe the man could have me killed—no maybe: certainly Sloane could have me killed—but he wouldn’t betray a confidence. That was what they said. I believed it. “What can I do for you, Mr. Sloane?”
“Well, let’s say we can do for each other.”
“That would be . . .nice.”
I took a pack of Luckies out of my pocket, fumbled with the match, lit up on the second try. We smoked for a while, the haze rising as our silence filled the void between us, binding us perhaps, until Sloane ground out his butt decisively in the filthy ashtray.
“I’m fucking EZ Shelupsky’s lady,” he said.
“I beg your pardon, Mr. Sloane?”
“Allen. That’s not something I need to know.”
“It’s all right, Larry. We’re in love.”
“I mean, Mr. Sloane—”
“Allen. I mean, it’s not something I’m comfortable with.”
“I understand.” He reached up slowly with his right hand and scratched his right ear, then his left. They were actually quite small, too small for a man that big. “Why not tell me a secret then? Something personal.”
“I’d rather not.”
“But I told you one.”
“Still . . .”
“You could tell me a little secret.”
“Allen . . .”
“Or maybe not. You could tell me what I do know. You could tell me you’re a Commie.”
“That’s not true.”
“Don’t ever lie to me, Larry.” Sloane shifted on the sofa so that his head was tilted back, his blue eyes darkening at that angle, as though seeking perspective. “You’re not going to lie to me, are you?”
“You’re a card-carrying member of the American Communist Party—is that right or wrong?”
“It’s not . . .wrong — exactly.”
“Right or wrong, Larry?”
“Mr. Sloane . . .”
“Allen, it’s right, but . . .”
“But not something that’s going to help you with the EZ Shelupsky’s of this town, is that it?”
“In a nutshell.”
“And you’re a homo.”
I felt I was floating down a river, the current taking me where it would. “I’m not sure I know what you mean.”
“You’re asking for a diagram? You’re a colored queer, right or not?”
“I see myself more as a sexually emancipated Negro, but it’s not worth the argument.”
Sloane laughed. His teeth were large, and the bit of unevenness to them gave him a young look, as though unfinished, but only for a moment. His eyes opened wider, searching out mine. “The last thing I’d want is to argue about it, Larry. Pretty much we define ourselves.”
“If this is blackmail, Allen—”
“I don’t go in for that, Larry. Aside from some troubles I’ve had with certain stupid laws that shouldn’t be on the books, I’m an honest man. I wouldn’t do anything like that. It’s just that I told you a secret, and I want you to know I trust you with it. You should trust me with yours. Also I know you’re close to broke, or maybe already there, and you need this money off Shelupsky. And a fresh chance. We both need something off EZ Shelupsky.”
“I understood she’s a lez.”
“I heard that, too,” Sloane said.
“I’d rather not talk about Mrs. Shelupsky,” Sloane said, as though I had brought her up.
This took a moment to deal with. “Mr. Sloane, Allen . . .I don’t know what this has to do with me.”
“You don’t?” Sloane said. “Well, maybe you don’t. But as soon as you stop looking like you swallowed something not kosher, Larry, I’ll tell you. In fact, I’ll tell you in my car.”
“In your car?” I had visions of scenes I myself had written, cheap scenes that ended predictably, and not well. But it didn’t make sense. Why would Allen Sloane want to kill me? And if he did, why not right here? And why this business of secrets?
“It’s not like you think, Larry,” Sloane said with a big grin as he stood, towering over me and dominating the sunny, unkempt room like one of those palms in West-lake Park where Wilshire Boulevard slices right through it. They renamed it MacArthur Park after the war, but the palms are still there. “You like the ponies, right?”
“I sometimes, I mean, I used to…”
“Come on, Larry. Get your hat. I’m going to introduce you to a horse.”
BASED ON A TRUE STORY
Set in post-WWII Africa, Polynesia, and Hollywood, the three novellas that make up Based on a True Story reveal the roots of contemporary life in a world at war with itself.
2009 BRONZE MEDAL FOR LITERARY FICTION
- Independent Book Publisher Awards