Anita Loos: The Soubrette of Satire
“Work is more fun than fun.” ~ Noel Coward
F. Scott Fitzgerald became the spokesman of the 1920s, but it could have been Anita Loos if she had been game for the role. Her novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a story of a beautiful gold-digger’s antics, is just as evocative of the bathtub-gin era of American history as Fitzgerald’s early work, This Side of Paradise.
Perhaps the mantel went to Fitzgerald and not Loos because of her special affection for the demi monde—shady ladies, con men and charlatans all-around—rather than spritely flappers and their coiffed beaus of the Ivy League. Maybe it was the rakish company she kept—hustlers, tarnished ladies, and the occasional con-artist gentlemen, along with Hollywood’s working class of writers and actors. Or perhaps she was simply too old when the jazz age was ushered in; she was nearly forty when Blondes was published in 1925. When asked if she was a flapper, she characteristically replied, “The only thing I ever flapped was the pages of a yellow legal pad.” Like Fitzgerald’s, her first novel became an instant bestseller, selling out in a day. Blondes’ sardonic depiction of the underside of jazz-age frivolity, a theme Fitzgerald would later tackle with high seriousness in Gatsby. Truth be told, Loos was simply too busy working to care about her cultural ranking or place on the bestsellers list. She liked having a hit on her hands, but the work was its own reward.
After the fuss over Blondes had settled and she’d had her fill of being a fêted author, she returned to Hollywood in 1931 to resume her screenwriting career. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had offered her a thousand dollars a week to join their stable of writers. One of her co-workers was Fitzgerald, whose literary star had fallen hard. One of her first jobs for Irving Thalberg, the head of the studio, was to re-write his adaptation of Katharine Brush’s novel Redheaded Woman, a saga about a trollop’s progress from secretary to wife of an aristocrat. It was comfortable territory for Loos—questionable class climbers were her specialty.
Corinne Anita Loos was born in 1888 in Sissons, California. Her father, R. Beers Loos, noticed right away that little “Nita,” the runt of the family with a mischievous demeanor and soulful, luminous eyes was a natural performer. He became a stage father. His connections in the San Francisco theater world got five-year-old Anita cast in A Doll’s House, followed by the leading role in David Belasco’s production of Little Lord Fauntleroy.
Anita’s parents’ marriage was unhappy: “My mother was an earthbound angel and Pop was a scamp.” She preferred her father’s company, though she resented being the family’s main source of financial support when he failed to keep various theater managing jobs.
At sixteen, shy of five feet tall and with a boyish figure, she looked the baby vamp. Her youthful appearance, mature personality, and versatile acting ability kept her center stage. Her father loaned her to the Empire in exchange for pirated scripts that came from cribbing Broadway shows and then selling them for a fraction of the cost of royalties. For a time, Anita did double duty. Outfitted in a blond wig and billed as Cleopatra Fairbrother, she performed at the Empire while acting at the Lyceum under her own name.
Despite her stage charisma, Loos didn’t fit in at school. The girls thought actresses little better than prostitutes, while her child-like looks didn’t appeal to the boys. She later recalled that she knew she was destined to be an outsider, largely commenting on life rather than participating. She also knew that she hated acting; the profession was full of “numbskulls and narcissists.”
Anita Loos wanted to be a writer. She spent hours reading at the San Diego library and in her dressing room at the theater. She hatched a plan to become the New York correspondent for the local papers that were more interested in what was happening in the big city than in their own backyard. Though never having set foot in New York City, she created a credible bulletin of events by assembling article fragments from New York papers. Her ingenuity got her a job writing about sports and entertainment for the New York Morning Telegraph for ten cents a word.
Loos’ father suggested that she try penning a drama. He’d written several one-acts for his own theater and helped her with the form. Her first produced play was The Soul Sinners, a piece of juvenilia she was later happy to forget. Emboldened, she turned her attention to film. Her first script, The Road to Plaindale, depicted a world-weary couple who moves to the heartland only to regret it. She sent it off to the Biograph Company in New York, and in a few weeks she received a letter of acceptance and a check for twenty-five dollars. Within in the next six months, she sold seven more scripts, making $105, an impressive sum for a newcomer.
The New York Hat, a twelve-minute one-reeler, was her first produced script. D.W. Griffith directed and Mary Pickford starred in the story of a young woman, whose purchase of an expensive hat results in scandal when local busybodies slyly spread rumors that there must be a man involved since she’s too poor to buy such finery. With what would become her trademark humor and wit, Loos keeps the potentially moralistic, preachy tale lighthearted. Playing the child-woman, not unlike Loos herself, Pickford became enormously popular. With the success of The New York Hat, Biograph came to rely on Anita for material, and, though they didn’t pay as well as other film companies, she gave them first refusal.
Loos was convinced that married life was a clumsy, messy business and delayed it for as long as she could. For reasons she would later find inexplicable, she married Frank Pallma despite her father’s warnings that marriage was a mistake for an artist. After six months, Anita told Frank that she was going out to buy hairpins and never returned.
During the infancy of the industry, many women found their way into writing for movies. Half the films between 1911 and 1925 were written by women, and the numbers remained strong through the next several decades. Griffith had recently merged with two other film giants to form Triangle Pictures, and he wanted her on board. He paid her seventy-five dollars a week plus a bonus for the scripts that went into production.
Anita moved into the Hollywood Hotel, a place for actors and writers who couldn’t afford a house, and got to work. Triangle’s script department was supervised by Frank Woods, who became an avuncular presence in her life. She quickly tackled her first Triangle Pictures screen credit, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The consensus at the studio was that Loos was good, but they wanted more action and fewer words.
When Triangle Productions lured Douglas Fairbanks from Broadway, Griffith wanted to keep him before the camera, and Loos was set to the task of writing scripts to make that happen. Whether His Picture in the Papers was found in the files at Triangle and revised for Fairbanks or whether it is a Loos original is unknown. It was certainly about a character Loos could have invented: the hero falls for a girl who wants him to get his pictures in the papers. He gets involved in a series of improbable adventures and winds up on the front page of all the dailies. It was a hit for Fairbanks. They would make nine more movies together following the formula of a not-so-bright man who gets caught up in a series of escapades, extricating himself only through sheer physical ability—designed to show off his physique and acrobatic talents.
These pictures—five made at Triangle, the other four at Famous Players-Lasky—captured Loos’s ethos: if you wanted something badly enough you could will it into happening. She was earning as a writing team with John Emerson $500 a week and getting as much publicity in Photoplay as Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford. One paper dubbed her “The Soubrette of Satire.”
While collaborating with John Emerson during her stint with the Fairbanks unit, Loos had begun to find herself attracted to him, despite his self-confessed promiscuity. Her friends warned that he was much older than she and narcissistic, but she was tired of being “fly-paper for pimps.”
When Loos’s and Emerson’s contracts were not renewed at Famous Players-Lasky, Anita was soon hired by William Randolph Hearst to write movies for his mistress, Marion Davies. In what would become a pattern, Loos had Emerson written into her contract. As she had done for Fairbanks, she created stories that best showcased the performer’s unique charm. The plot of Getting Mary Married centers on a wealthy ingénue who according to her father’s will loses all her money if she marries. The family falls all over itself trying to find a man interested in Mary and not her money. Hearst objected. He didn’t think there was a man alive who wouldn’t fall in love with Marion, money or not. Loos argued that there was no plot without conflict. Hearst relented as long as there were plenty of close-ups of his mistress. Getting Mary Married was one of the few Davies’ films to make money. Hearst wanted Anita to write more films for Marion, but she didn’t like his bullying. She was getting enough of that from “Mr. E” (what she now called Emerson), who signed his name to her scripts but did little else. Soon a better deal came along that would take her to New York.
The Schenck Studios hired Loos to write scripts for Norma Talmadge, a friend of hers from her days of working with Griffith. She created a number of flapper roles for Talmadge—A Temperamental Wife, A Virtuous Vamp among others—that were box office hits. Loos and Emerson took up residence at the Algonquin Hotel. Along with her good friend actress Tallulah Bankhead, Anita didn’t enjoy the Round Table crowd of witty New York literati who met weekly to gossip and as they saw it formulate literary taste. Anita found them overly rehearsed in their “spontaneous” witticisms. They seemed to her to spend more time talking about themselves and drinking than working.
Anita and Mr. E. married in 1920. As a wedding present, Joe Schenck, Norma’s brother-in-law and Anita’s boss at the studio, sent the couple on a European honeymoon. In Paris, Anita went shopping with the Talmadge sisters at Lanvin. When she entered the shop the manager swept her off to her office. She wanted to copy Anita’s boyish, “windswept” bob for her mannequins. She looked like a pert, provocative school girl, a style she would never outgrow. The manager also loved the short length of her dress’s hemline and took scissors to her own inventory. She couldn’t be more pleased that her image was affecting Parisian style. Loos would remain slender and preternaturally youthful looking well into her seventies.
During the next four years, she and Mr. E. took up residence in a small house in Gramercy Park, but by 1924 their savings had dwindled due to Mr. E.’s spending and imprudent investments. Rather than ride her coattails back to California, he stayed in New York while she boarded a train headed west to work on a new Tallmadge picture.
Apparently, out of a combination of boredom and annoyance with her good friend H.L. Mencken for bringing on the train his ditzy blonde “lady friend” who accompanied her halfway across country, she began work on the novel that would become Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, creating a complicated depiction of such a willing male playmate. In Los Angeles, she decided that Mencken would get a kick out of the manuscript and mailed it to him. It was a diary with grammatical errors and written in short story form. Not only did Mencken laugh; he insisted that it had to be published. He recommended Harper’s Bazaar, who accepted it immediately. Anita was urged to carry on with her heroine’s adventure.
Written in semiliterate stream of consciousness, Blondes tells of the adventures of Lorelei, a woman who men want to possess for her beauty, while she wants to possess them for their wealth. The novel conveys Anita’s views on love. In her world, sex has nothing to do with romantic love and practically everything to do with acquisition. She also conveys through her obtuse character her own soft spot for hustlers who overcome their limitations. Lorelei maintains her illusion of purity against all odds believing that she is equal to or better than other women.
Mencken convinced her to weave the tales into a novel and sell it to Liveright, who proved to be the highest bidder. The house’s list that year included Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, Hemingway’s In Our Time, Faulkner’s Soldier’s Pay and poetry by Eliot, Pound, and Robinson Jeffers. One critic called it the most notable list ever published by an American house. Blondes sold out overnight, and the second printing went so quickly that two more printings were released before the end of the year. The reviews noted Loos’s sly, ironic humor. And they credited her for being the first American author to make sex a fun read. The novel made her an international celebrity.
Mr. E was pleased with the infusion of cash but not with his wife’s fame. Mencken had written, “a husband may survive the fact that a wife has more money than he, but if she earns more, it can destroy his very essence.” This became prophetic in Anita’s case.
Loos did not rest on her laurels. She was restless when she wasn’t working. When MGM offered her a contract she took it. Again Mr. E. was more than happy to stay behind. Anita returned to California alone, and, at forty-three, resumed her old career writing for star personalities, this time Jean Harlow. The studio saw femme fatales as her specialty. They also valued her skillfulness with double entendre and innuendo in getting provocative material past the censors.
When Irving Thalberg died in 1936, life at MGM for Anita changed dramatically. Thalberg had been a task master but was fair. He also cared about making good movies. She saw Mayer and the majority of MGM producers as “foes to entertainment.” She believed that she could be happy anywhere if she was happy in her work. She did not renew her contract. Sam Goldwyn at United Artists was prepared to give her $5,000 a week, and she accepted. But Goldwyn was an erratic boss. She frequently went to work unsure of the film she was supposed to be making. She wrote in her diary, “Am pretty blue and despondent, but mustn’t let anyone know since nobody’s more unpopular than a broad singing the blues.”
By 1938, Anita was back at MGM. She did polishing jobs for them on a number of forgettable scripts until they bought the Broadway hit, The Women, an expose by Clare Boothe of in-fighting Park Avenue matrons. For a year, a number of writers worked on the adaptation, including Fitzgerald, who thought it a spiteful portrayal of femininity. Loos loved it. It captured precisely what she might overhear while having her nails done at Elizabeth Arden. She re-wrote the script in three weeks. The studio assembled a cast of leading ladies: Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, and Paulette Goddard, who would become one of Anita’s closest friends. She loved her time on set, watching the women compete for their own interests while director George Cukor struggled to keep them in line.
After the success of The Women, Anita spent five years working on middling projects and then briefly freelanced at Fox before deciding that fifty-five was the perfect time to return to New York and start a new life. She had had a few ideas for a play brewing for some time but the one that stuck was a cocktail party comedy about the potency of illusion called Happy Birthday. After several false starts, it finely debuted in 1946, starring Helen Hayes. Its trial run in Boston suggested that it would flop on Broadway but Loos worked on improving the script until opening night. It was a hit and ran for 600 performances.
In 1949, the second Broadway adaptation of Blondes, this time a musical, was also successful in large part because it launched the stage career of Carol Channing, who was a smashing success as Lorelei. Believing strongly in her star power, Loos had refused to let the show go on without her.
Her secret to success was to keep all burners going at once. In 1950 she wrote a novel, A Mouse is Born, about a film star who while confined to bed awaiting the birth of her first child recalls her checkered career. The novel sold poorly and the reviews were lukewarm, but she was too busy to notice. She had been hired to adapt Collete’s Gigi for stage. With Audrey Hepburn in the title role, the play opened on Broadway and made Hepburn an instant star. It ran for a year and went on to become a memorable film.
For the next twenty-odd years of her life she went on writing plays and reworking old ones. One was produced in London, others in smaller cities. But she did not have another work produced on Broadway and had in fact tired of the uncertainty and complexity of getting a project off the ground. She said, “It was easier getting a camel through a needle’s eye than getting a show on Broadway.”
She had one more act, as a memoirist. After learning that the stage actress Beatrice Lillie received a healthy advance for her life story, she wondered if a publisher would be interested in her Hollywood reminiscences. Three publishers jumped at the proposal with Viking coming in with the highest bed, a $25,000 advance with a generous royalty scale. Her breezy, seemingly tossed-off style took a lot of patience and revision. It was no different with her memoir, which took two years to write. She published A Girl Like I in 1966 to rave reviews. The critic for The Nation proclaimed that the book was “perhaps the most remarkable Hollywood memoir every written for its candor, wit and its intelligence.” The New Yorker hoped for a second installment. Though she was close to eighty and finding it harder and harder to buckle down to the usual regime, she obliged and produced Kiss Hollywood Good-by, which also sold well.
At the end of her life, Anita Loos was modest about her accomplishments. “I am a storyteller. That’s my only gift as a writer. And I am sure that’s why I was successful in the early days of the movies when plots were all that mattered.” She never let adverse criticism get her down or praise go to her head. The important thing was simply to keep working, as she had done for more than sixty years, producing screenplays, novels, memoirs, stories, plays and magazine articles.
She died of a heart attack on August 18, 1981. In a brief essay, she wrote, “All that anybody needs to learn are two short words: Behave yourself.” While she might have written about those who played the lines of social convention, she had always conducted herself marvelously, though with a generous and memorable dash of insouciance.
In 1922, Loos wrote the screen treatment, Wife Insurance, published here for the first time. With more development and tinkering with character and plot, the treatment became the film Red Hot Romance, directed by Victor Fleming and staring British actor Basil Sydney. This “thrill,” low-budget comedy spruced up with elaborate exteriors to give it an expensive look, describes the antics of Roland Stone, a spoiled young man living off his future income. Once he discovers that his late father’s will stipulates that he must sell life insurance at a profit for a year before the family estate goes to him, he devises a series of schemes and travels to exotic locales in his quest for success.
The Missouri Review would like to thank the film historian Cari Beauchamp, Angela Shanahan, the executor of the Loos estate, and Nancy Kauffman of the George Eastman House for their assistance with this project.
K.S. & S.M.
Wife Insurance: A Screen Treatment
by Anita Loos, 1922
Old Henry S. Stone, head of the Anglo-American Life Insurance Co., with headquarters at Washington, D.C., made pots of money at the insurance racket, and then shuffled off leaving a typical tightwad’s will.
His only son and heir, Roland, had never amounted to much, being easy going and not interested in work. So the old man had arranged to leave him an income of $35.00 a week until the age of twenty-five when he would come into the bulk of his inheritance, the old man figuring that Roland might learn the true value of money through the meagerness of his weekly stipend. As Roland was twenty-one at the time of his father’s kick-off, the will provided him with four years in which to find out the value of the dollar.
However, Roland had an altogether different philosophy of life. Figuring that he was to be rich at the age of twenty-five he merely ran up bills for daily necessities of life, which in this case, consisted of expensive motors, yachts, airoplanes, vintage wines, sable line overcoats, and huge quantities of flowers sent to the girl of his dreams, Anna Mae Byrd, the daughter of old Colonel Byrd of Virginia.
Roland might have lived a very comfortably in the aristocratic old Stone mansion on Connecticut Avenue, except for the fact that he had no money for the servants required by such a large establishment. However, in the place of staff, he had one man who was everything combined—cook, valet, secretary, companion, guide, philosopher and friend—and who worked without any other salary than the promise of Roland that he would be paid when Roland came into dough.
This factotum’s name is Fingey Tucker, an ex-gangster and a gentleman to the core, played by Jimmy Durante.
We pick Roland up at the age of twenty-four years, six months—with only six months to go before he will be a rich man. But things are in a bad way, for Roland’s creditors, after three years and a half of stalling, have closed down on him and supplies had been cut off at their base.
Finally Fingey, always a man of resource, has an idea. Why not start to sell off the furniture, bric-a-brac, and objets de vertu, in order to get ready cash and stop the squawks about money mad creditors?
This idea strikes Roland as being masterly—so Fingey picks up a couch and starts to square with the delicatessen.
“Wait a minute!” cries Roland, grabbing up a large marble nude of a beautiful woman. “See if this will satisfy the plumber!”
Fingey takes one look at the marble lady. Says he, “She’s a little bit static for the plumber, Boss—a little static!”
However, balancing on the couch on his back and carrying the nude, Fingey has again started off when Roland picks up a small ivory elephant, puts it in Fingey’s other hand and says, “Take this and buy Miss Anne Mae some orchids.”
We now go to the home of Anna Mae Byrd, whose father, the Colonel, has been hanging around Washington for forty years, waiting for a job first promised him by President Garfield.
The Byrds are poor but proud, and Anna Mae is much courted as one of the prettiest girls in Washington.
Her greatest admirer, next to Roland, is a small time lobbyist named Jim Conwell. Anna Mae is not in love with Conwell but he is always bragging about his high connections and making the old Colonel extravagant promises about the influence he can bring to bear on the President to get the Colonel a big diplomatic post, so Anna Mae is grateful to him.
The day in question, she is serving tea to Conwell, and thanking him for his exquisite little antique ivory elephant which Conwell tells her he picked up that morning in a pawn shop. When Roland rolls in and presents Anna Mae with the orchids for which Fingey paid be hocking the selfsame ivory elephant, Anna Mae is so taken with admiration for the exquisite bit of ivory that she tosses Roland’s orchids aside with scarcely a glance—and to add insult to injury, Jim Conwell sits on them.
This indignity rather puts the crusher on Roland, and he hasn’t the nerve to go through with the errand on which he came—namely to propose marriage to Anna Mae. Discouraged, he finally leaves and goes back home to consult Fingey.
Roland finds Fingey in the bathroom mixing up a tubful of gin, and tells him that they made a mistake in not sending Anna Mae the ivory elephant instead of converting it into orchids. Roland explains that Anna Mae was so delighted over the elephant that, had he given it to her himself, he feels sure she would have accepted the proposal of marriage in the right spirit.
“So,” says Roland, “we’ll lay off the orchids and send her an antique the next time I get the courage to propose.”
Fingey considers this not a bad idea, and looks about Roland’s room for a proper bit to offer a lady.
“I got it, Boss,” he says brightening up. “You go right back and propose and I’ll carry her this.” At which he starts to pick up an eighteenth century bed.
Roland, always bashful, thinks so little of the idea that he crowns Fingey with a bookend. But Fingey is sincerely worried about losing Anna Mae, and tells Roland that if he stalls much longer, the girl will be snapped up by Conwell.
So Roland calls her up on the phone and, prompted by Fingey, manages to get out a proposal.
Much to Roland’s surprise, he learns that Anna Mae has loved him for months and doesn’t care how soon they get married.
Fingey, almost as delighted as his Boss, hears her reply over the telephone, goes over, picks up the bed, and starts out the door.
“Where are you going?” asks Roland.
“I’m going to hock this, Boss,” he says, “and buy her a ring!”
“Wait a minute,” cries the now courageous Roland. Then he speaks into the phone and asks, “Which would you rather have—an engagement ring or a bed?”
Anna Mae almost falls over in a faint.
That night at a cheap speakeasy which is a hangout of the lower grade of lobbyist, Jim Conwell is holding a meeting with Samson Bullova, the Minister of War of the Kingdom of Dalbania and Bullova’s lady friend, the Countess Munito.
Bullova, it seems, is getting ready to pull off a revolution to dethrone the king. Now, the American Consul to Dalbania has recently resigned, and Bullova has come to Washington to see if a new Consul can be appointed who will be easy to swing around to the new regime after the revolution.
“We want some old fool,” explains Bullova, “who looks respectable enough to get the appointment, and yet, on the other hand, can be—well, manipulated.”
“I see,” answers Conwell. “And I think I know the very man. Old Colonel Byrd of Virginia—clean record, easy to handle, and been waiting forty years for the job.”
Bullova and the Countess agree that Byrd sounds promising.
“In order to have him well in hand,” continues Conwell, “I’ll go along as his secretary and keep an eye on the old boy.”
And so the matter is settled—with Conwell delighted at the possibility of being able to keep an eye on Anna Mae in for-off, romantic Dalbania, without competition of Roland Stone.
Those of you who have tears to shed, unlock the shed, for it came to pass that Roland had to say goodbye to his beloved.
The parting is so terrific that Roland finally gets up courage to face Colonel Byrd and ask if he and Anna Mae can be married before he leaves. Colonel Byrd reminds Roland that hasn’t enough money to pay his own bills, much less to take on a wife.
“But,” insists Roland, “in another six months everything will be all right.”
“That,” answers the Colonel, “is what Garfield said to me in Eighty One.”
The Colonel, in fact, refuses to be moved, so Roland says a tearful goodbye to Anna Mae, promising to sail for Dalbania the day he receives his inheritance.
By the time Roland’s twenty-fifth birthday rolls around, he and Fingey have just one chair and nine cents to their name.
The executor of the Stone estate is Lord Mickleberry, the English partner of Roland’s father in the Anglo-American Life Insurance Company. He arrives at the Stone mansion in a taxi with Roland and Fingey, who went to the station to meet him. They haven’t enough to pay the taxi, but, assured of Roland’s riches, Fingey nonchalantly tells the taxi to wait.
They enter the Stone parlor, with its simple furnishing of one straight-back chair. Lord Mickleberry, on being offered it, looks about the otherwise empty room and comments on the lack of décor—to which Roland replies that “we Americans have very simple taste.”
Lord Mickleberry extracts a large paper from his portfolio and reads Roland the bequest, which is to wit:
“That Roland, having lived on an income of $25 a week, should now have learned the value of money. And that now he is to be given a job in the Anglo-American Insurance Company, in which he will learn the value of earning money. He is to hold the job for one year, and if at the end of the year, he has made money for the company, he shall have proved his worth and shall be given the bulk of the estate. If, however, he loses money for the company, the estate will go to a home for indigent street sweepers.”
Roland is brought back to earth by Fingey digging him in the ribs and asking, “Hey, Boss, how are we going to pay for that taxi?”
Roland looks about the room. They only have one asset left and Lord Mickleberry is sitting on it.
“Sneak the chair out from under the sucker!” he says sotto voce to Fingey. So Fingey lures his lordship off the chair, grabs it, and whisks it out to liquidate the taxi bill.
Roland than turns to Lord Mickleberry. In his mind is one leading idea. He has got, by hook or crook, to get to Dalbania.
“Your lordship,” he begins, “if I’ve got to sell life insurance, I’d like to get away from Washington.”
Lord Mickleberry says that this is all right with him, and suggests New York.
Roland then explains that New York is a fatal place for life insurance, and, in a retrospect which we show, he describes a recent visit he and Fingey made in New York in which we see the two going through death and destruction in the subway jams and on 42nd Street traffic whirlpools.
Lord Mickleberry then suggests Chicago, and in answer to that suggestion, Roland goes into a short gangster routine (which we show) revealing how he and Fingey waded through gore in Chicago while merely trying to buy an ice cream soda.
Lord Mickleberry is horrified, and at last suggests California as a salubrious spot in which insurance risks ought to be good.
But Roland than explains that California is worse on the insurance racket than Chicago. In fact, people in California never die, so they don’t even think of buying insurance. As an illustration of the fact we show Roland and Fingey playing leapfrog with a bevy of Los Angles lads of ninety.
By the time Roland has finished this story, Fingey returns from having squared the taxi driver with the chair. Fingey, always quick to pick up a cue, now butts into the conversation and suggests, “Gee, My Lordship, if you could only get Roland here to break out into new territory, in fact—to gird up his loins and tackle a brand new country like this here Dalbania.”
And so persuasive is Fingey that the interview ends by Roland allowing Lord Mickleberry to argue him into sailing for Dalbania on the very next boat.
Dalbania is a little kingdom in the wild mountains of far Eastern Europe, ruled by a romantic, hot blooded young king (King Zog) and a fire-eating council of robust, half-savage Dalbanian nobility. The capital, a city which is a strange combination of modern luxury and primitive poverty, is called Zinga.
Bullova, the Minister of War, aided by Conwell, has nearly organized the revolution, a large force of the army having already agreed to join the revolutionary party.
Sweet Old Colonel Byrd is sitting on the edge of this volcano, at peace with all the world in the fullness of his ignorance.
Conwell is desperate when he learns of the arrival of Roland, his rival in love. Bullova suggests that they drop a bomb on Roland during the revolution, but Conwell feels this would be dangerous as Roland is too well known in Washington.
The Countess, who is ever an optimist, suggests that there is some way to “get” every man—and she will put in a little of her time trying to learn what can be “hung” on Roland.
The Countess shadows Roland at the café in the hotel that night, when he breaks the news of the legacy to Anna Mae and the old Colonel.
Anna Mae says she doesn’t mind waiting another year for Roland, so long as they can be together daily, and the old Colonel is delighted that something has put Roland to work.
“Moreover,” continues the Colonel, “you’ll have to win to get Anna Mae.”
The Countess, having heard all the above, puts her brains to work and gets an idea. The idea being for Bullova and herself to befriend Roland, introduce him to the king and all the Council, and let him sell all of them life insurance just before they are to be bumped off in the revolution.
The next morning, as Roland sits drinking coffee at the little café in the public square, who should roll up but Conwell, accompanied by Buulova and the Countess. Roland invites them to join him and, during their conversation, Bullova takes such “a great fancy” to Roland that he offers to introduce him to the King and all the Council. In addition, and, as a “come on,” Bullova takes out a $50,000.00 policy for himself, as does the Countess.
Roland can hardly believe his luck. He and Fingey comment on it while Fingey gets him ready to go to the palace to meet the King and the entire Council.
At the palace, Bullova talks the King into insuring his life, chiefly by using the argument that he has insured his own.
Now, the King is a fine young fellow, a typical man’s ma, full of healthy zest of life and he and Roland immediately take to each other. The Council also is as great a group of boys as you might find at an Elk’s banquet—and Roland immediately becomes a pal to all of them. What is more, they take out big life insurance policies.
While this is going on, Colonel Byrd, at the Consulate, is being braced by Bullova who is backed up by Conwell and an armed guard.
“Colonel,” says Bullova, “we are instituting a revolution tonight! If you will advise the American President to recognize our new Government it will mean almost anything you care to ask.”
Colonel Byrd draws himself up to his full height. “Are you offering me a bribe?” he asks. And Bullova answers that he may call it what he likes. “You suggest that I barter the sacred honor of my country?” continues the brave old Colonel. “Why, that flag has flown a hundred and fifty years without a single stain on its fair surface!” Bullova sneers. “Get out of this house!” orders the Colonel.
Bullova turns to the armed guard accompanying him. “Who will take care of Anna Mae?” he cries.
“Don’t worry,” says Conwell with a sinister smile. “You can leave her here with me.”
Roland leaves the Palace walking on air and goes to join Fingey at a low dive at which Fingey hangs out, lured there by a Dalbanian barmaid. Roland, exhilarated, calls Fingey off into the booth where he orders drinks, and tells Fingey of his great good luck.
“I insured the King for a hundred thousand dollars, and each of the Council for fifty thousand dollars!” he exclaims.
Fingey whistles in awe.
“No matter what happens now,” says Roland, “I can’t fail!”
The two boys start to dip their noses into a couple of schooners when, from the next booth, they hear someone say, in whispers “The revolution starts tonight!” Roland and Fingey prick up their ears. “King Zog and his Council will be killed first!” continues the whisperer.
Roland is stunned for a moment, then the awful truth strikes home. “They’re going to kill everyone I insured,” he gasps.
In half a second he and Fingey are on their way to the American Consulate.
Arrived at the Consulate, Roland and Fingey find Anna Mae in terror over the capture of her father by revolutionaries. She has written an S.O.S. to an American gunboat which is in the harbor of Caspia, some distance away, and was just about to start out for the telegraph office with it. Roland takes it from her and says he will get it off if possible.
Roland starts to go, then hesitates, and stops. “I can’t leave you here unprotected,” he says.
“I’m an American girl,” protests Anna Mae bravely picking up a gun, “and can protect myself.”
So Roland and Fingey run off to see if they can reach the telegraph office before the revolutionaries take it over, while Anna Mae looks herself in her room.
The Army of the Revolutionists, led by Bullova, is mustered and ready to strike.
Conwell goes to Bullova.
“I want a guard,” he says, “to arrest Anna Mae and keep her safe for me.”
“All right,” says Bullova. And Conwell is given eight armed men to take Anna Mae into custody.
Roland and Fingey arrive in sight of the telegraph office, only to see it blown up, practically in their faces.
With no chance to get word the American gunboat at Caspia, Roland and Fingey head for the Palace to save the lives of King Zog and his Council.
Jim Conwell enters the American Consulate, goes to Anna Mae’s room and asks her to come out.
Anna Mae, considering him a friend, naturally unlocks the door, only to be taken into custody by Conwell’s guard, and told that she is to be locked up at Conwell’s home until the next day when their wedding will take place. She is led off, furious in her denunciation of the treason of Conwell.
Roland and Fingey have a terrific time getting into the palace to save the King. While they are arguing with the palace guard, the Revolutionary Army is on its way, full speed, to the palace.
Roland and Fingey finally manage to get in, and, to their utter dismay, find the King and Conwell too cock-eyed drunk to move—or even to realize what they are telling them.
However, when the Revolutionary Army actually opens fire on the palace and bullets start coming through the windows, King Zog comes to sufficiently tell Roland and Fingey of a tunnel through the floor, which leads to the Royal Prison.
With superhuman effort, Roland and Fingey get the King and Council down through the trap door just as Bullova is entering the palace.
Fingey peeks out though a slit in the trap door and gets a bead on Bullova with a gun.
“For God’s sake, don’t shoot him!” cries Roland. “He’s insured for fifty thousand.”
So Fingey drops the door, and, undiscovered by Bullova, Fingey and Roland escort the cock-eyed King and Council through the tunnel to the Royal Prison.
They get to the door at the end of the tunnel and summon the warden of the jail. The warden bows in deep obeisance when he sees Zog.
“My King!” he cries, kneeling.
“Get up,” says Roland. The warden rises. “I want you to lock this whole gang up until I get help,” he says.
The warden looks amazed. “Not for all the wealth of the universe would I lock up my noble King,” he cries.
“Here’s a dollar,” says Roland.
“I lock ‘em up,” says the warden. He comes out and helps Roland and Fingey boot the King and Council through the door into prison.
Bullova takes charge of the palace and sends out a proclamation saying, “The King and Council having fled, General Bullova proclaims himself dictator of Dalbania.
Bullova then turns to Conwell and the Countess who have entered the Palace as soon as the firing ceased. “Our first move,” says Bullova, “will be to capture and shoot our renegade King and his Council.”
Conwell laughs, knowing the result of this move on his hated rival.
Roland, having gotten the King and the Council safely locked up, tells Fingey to keep watch on them and hurries back to the Consulate where he hears from one of the Consulate servants that the Revolutionaries have taken Anna Mae off, and are going to make her marry Conwell in the morning.
No sooner has he heard this than Fingey runs in breathless, and states that the Revolutionaries paid the warden a dollar and a half and he turned over the King and the whole gang to them and they are all to be shot at ten o’clock in the morning.
“There’s only one chance!” exclaims Roland. “We must get to Caspia and bring the Marines.”
Roland and Fingey go to the railroad station only to learn that the Revolutionists are allowing no one to leave town.
As they are leaving the station in desperation, they find a native in an old Ford. Roland offers the native any sum if he will take Fingey to Caspia, while he stays and tries to get to Anna Mae. The native opens his mouth in awe. There are no roads to Caspia, and a mountain range in between.
“That’s all right,” says Roland. And turning to Fingey he adds, “Get in.”
Fingey gets in. The native protests, then refuses to go on such a wild goose chase. Finally Fingey puts a gun in his ribs and orders him to take off. The terrified native does.
On Roland’s way back to town he is arrested, taken to the Royal Jail and thrown in.
We now show a sequence of Fingey driving the Ford over the road-less mountain ranges of Dalbania, and facing every known variety of wild Dalbanian beast.
The next morning at ten, King Zog and his Council, all with terrific hangovers, are led out to the Palace Courtyard to be shot as a preliminary to the wedding of Conwell and Anna Mae.
Just at this crucial moment are heard loud cries of “The Americans are coming! The Americans are coming!” And sure enough, down the main street comes Fingey followed by the American Marines.
It is one year later, a year during which Roland and Fingey have practically played nursemaids to King Zog and his Council in their efforts to keep the boys alive until Roland’s time of trial is up.
But it comes at last—so that Roland proves his business worth to the Anglo-American Insurance Company, and is rewarded by a fortune and the bride of his choice.
The Thoroughly Modern World of Louise Brooks
This Found Text feature looks at the life of silent film icon, Louise Brooks. It is not currently available online.
The King of the Underworld: The Invention of Jelly Roll Morton
The full text of this feature is not currently available online.
Pulling Pranks: James Stern's Reminiscences of an Edwardian Childhood
The full text of this feature is not currently available online.
James Stern never achieved literary celebrity. His books were few, his letters many and his memoir unfinished, yet what he wrote was the stuff of life-the beauty and tragedy of humanity. His memoir, “the problem book,” was not fashioned into a comprehensive work; what we show you from the Stern collection of the British Library are recollections that capture the adventure of childhood set against the backdrop of a mythical time and rarefied place.
Lost in Lotus Land: Ben Hecht's Hollywood Letters
The full text of this feature is not currently available online.
Oh how tired I am. From writing 100 pages of dialogue & continuity in 4 days-rewritten as well-12 hours a day without stopping-all I feel is numbness and a buzzing. And I remember my Rosie, my Owner, and sigh, close eyes, dream a minute, kiss your knees, your thighs, while something in me murmurs mama, sweet one, sweet Rosie-and I feel a phantom of sweetness as if this moment too were a dream like last night.
Laurence Olivier's Letters to Young Actors
The full text of this feature is not currently available online.
Laurence Olivier never wanted to be a matinee idol or a leading man who played only romantic heroes. Yet after back-to-back performances in Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, and Pride and Prejudice in 1939-1940, he was sought after by producers and directors, celebrity magazines and ardent fans. His early roles were classic literary characters. A New York Times reviewer called his portrayal of Heathcliff a case of “a player physically and emotionally ordained for a role.” He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for both Wuthering Heights and Rebecca. Hollywood was sending a rare message: “We want more.”
Found Text: Ray Bradbury Letters to Rupert Hart-Davis
Ray Bradbury Letters to Rupert Hart-Davis
Found Text: William Gaddis
Featuring the stories:
- Jake’s Dog
- The Rehearsal
- A Father is Arrested
“The Swan” was written when Thomas Lanier Williams, age twenty-eight, had just reinvented himself as “Tennessee.” Under this name in 1939 he had finally had a story accepted by Story magazine, a Holy Grail for young writers, and had sent to a Group Theatre contest four plays that would earn him his first playwriting award. The contest was limited to writers under twenty-five, so he subtracted from his age the three “wasted” years from 1933 to 1935, when his father, a sales manager for International Shoes, had made him quit college to work as a clerk in the company factory. It was the Great Depression, and jobs were hard to find, but to Tom, the aspiring writer just beginning to achieve recognition, typing shoe orders eight hours a day was his “season in Hell.” It took a nervous breakdown and recuperation with his grandparents in Memphis to free him once more to write. He had been reared by his grandparents during the seven years of his childhood when his father was a traveling salesman. Tom’s grandfather, an Episcopal clergyman, was his role model, and his grandmother was the angel who through his penniless years would stitch five-dollar bills into her letters to him. In addition to falsifying his age to enter the Group contest, Tom had adopted his grandfather’s house number in Memphis as his mailing address. Although he typed “Tennessee Williams, Memphis, September 1939” at the end of this story, he was not in Memphis that September but in New York City to meet his newfound agent and to study the professional theater firsthand.
Whether “The Swan” was written in the YMCA in New York or earlier, in the hot attic of his parents’ home, it is a St. Louis story. Forest Park with its zoo, lagoon and pavilion is the setting for two strangers’ adventure on a summer night. Williams builds up an atmosphere of stifling heat—a metaphor for his character’s feeling of suffocation and his need to escape the domestic tyranny of lace curtains and the sleeping wife whose curled fingers make him think of “moist flowers of the insectivorous kind.” Fleeing to the nearby park, he meets a girl equally desperate for relief. As they sit in darkness by the lagoon and the girl tells her story, their mutual understanding peaks in a violent moment that is cooled by the passing whiteness of a swan. Any possible storybook finish is dispelled by irony, although each character is allowed a small revelation.
“The Swan” is one of several stories the young Williams wrote that would feed into The Glass Menagerie, the work that made him famous overnight. The story anticipates the desperation of that play’s Tom—the would-be writer confined to a boring job in “that celotex interior” and bound to a nagging mother and a sister who lives in a dream world of mental delusion. Laura in The Glass Menagerie, with her thwarted love, seems an extension of the girl in “The Swan.” Both can be seen as portraits of Williams’s own sister, Rose. The portrait of his mother, Amanda, in that play is a considerably softened version of the sickly, clinging wife in “The Swan.” Both story and play address the themes of confinement and escape present in most of Williams’s early work.
Williams would remain the rare writer who produced poetry, fiction and drama all his life. “The Swan” displays characteristics of all three genres in its poetic descriptions, suspenseful narrative and dramatic climax. It is typical of Williams’s work habits that two years later he expanded his short story into a full-length play, Stairs to the Roof; in Scene 10 of that play, the girl’s confessional monologue from “The Swan” is reproduced word for word. Striving for the sort of commercial success he had seen on Broadway, Williams disposed of the clinging wife, developed the couple’s chance meeting into a boy-girl romance and conceived what may have been the only happy ending he would ever write. The play never made it to Broadway, but since the year 2000 it has been produced successfully several times. Perhaps the story’s real significance is as a study for the playwright’s first masterpiece, The Glass Menagerie.
I HAD BEEN LIKE THIS for the past few nights, breathlessly still and overpoweringly hot, as though the earth’s long, circular motion through space had been suspended, perhaps through a kind of cosmic lassitude, and that [sic] now the discouraged sphere was drifting slowly downwards through dense, sultry darkness toward a forced landing in the sun’s great bin of ashes. No feeling of animation was in the air. Even the leaves of the peach tree, just outside the bedroom window, hung motionless like thousands of slender black fingers pointing with a curious insistence down at the earth. They seemed to indicate that something was buried down there, something that still lived and gasped for air. Its suffocation was palpable: he could feel it as plainly as he could his wife’s deep, regular breathing.
“Uhhh, my God!” he muttered.
He sat up in bed. Hot rivulets of sweat coursed between the two points of his collar-bone. He tore the pajama coat open and drew a deep breath. It gave him no relief, there was no freshness in it. The curtains that hung at the window, the curtain of leaves beyond them, filled him with savage impatience. Too many walls, he thought, too many little partitions! The world is full of waste matter. He pushed the lace curtains aside and peered up at the sky. No stars were in sight, only a dull, impenetrable grey. The brilliant region of the heavens through which things moved with the rapturous precision of a dance, had now been lost completely, was left far above this thickening, dull atmosphere through which dead planets drifted. . . .
He turned and looked down at the sleeping body of his wife. She lay without moving. Her arms were flung wide across both pillows, unconsciously asserting even in sleep her full proprietorship. Her fingers were loosely curled. They made him think of those pale, moist flowers of the insectivorous kind. They looked as though some vegetable sentience in them would make them close on the unsuspecting intruder. Her face had a blank, empty look which did not reassure him but rather intensified the malignantly vegetative aspect her sleeping body had taken.
Without knowing why, he got quietly out of bed and began to dress.
“I want something cool,” he muttered to himself as he moved toward the front of the house.
He pushed the screen door open. It was not altogether dark outside. The sky refracted a grey leaden light that was like the light in a subterranean vault, coming deviously through cob-webbed chinks. To the east was a very faint, nacreous blur back of which the moon was concealed. It was possible to see the shapes of houses across the street, the low peaked rooves of the monotonous brick bungalows and here and there the ambiguous shadow of a tree shape or dark line of a hedge. In his own yard he could see the black fountain of the crepe myrtle bush and the faint, faint whiteness of honeysuckle along the screens of the porch. The sweetness was cloyingly heavy, it thickened the air, so he moved away from it, down the walk from the steps and then to the left, along the street toward the park about two blocks beyond. Mechanically he lifted his watch from the pocket of his linen pants and stared down at it until the glow from a street-lamp made the dial visible to him. Eight after twelve was the time. “Good,” he murmured without the slightest conviction. “A short walk will cool me off and then I can go home and sleep.” But the thought of returning was still repugnant to him. He saw again the vacant, vegetative look of his sleeping wife’s face and her curled fingers and he felt once more the nearly desperate need for some kind of coolness somewhere. . . .
At the end of the block was a drug-store but it was closed.
Yes, I still have some.
He thrust one in his mouth and struck a match. The lightless corner, whose lamp had been demolished some nights before when a car full of drunk adolescents plunged over the curb, now bloomed in wavering twilight. Windows and walls winked at him, the Chesterfield girl smiled dimly. And in this momentary flare he saw something white in the drug-store doorway. It stirred a little and uttered a low, sharp cry.
The match flickered out but its light had been long enough to establish the figure as that of a woman in white.
“Hello,” he said quickly. He was surprised at the clear, relieved tone of his voice. Why should it please him so much to find a strange woman on this deserted street-corner?
For a second or two his greeting was left unanswered. Then the vague white shadow moved out of the doorway and glided noiselessly toward him.
“You frightened me,” she murmured.
They both laughed a little uncertainly.
With her face half averted, she seemed for a moment to consider this question.
“I don’t know. I’m terribly nervous,” she told him. “You live on the block, don’t you?”
“So do I. I have a terrible headache. I wanted to buy something for it but the drug-store’s closed.”
“It’s after midnight.”
“I know, I know, but I wasn’t able to sleep!”
She lifted one hand to her forehead. Her face was lowered and half concealed by the broad white brim of her hat. He wondered what she looked like.
“Do you work?” he asked.
“That’s bad. I’m in the same boat.”
She laughed softly and without moving seemed to approach him still closer.
“Let’s walk,” he suggested.
“Oh, would you like to?” she answered eagerly. “I think that would help a lot. Just to be moving around makes a little coolness on your face, don’t you think?”
They had already started across the street and were continuing up the next block toward the park.
“It’s nice of you to walk with me. I’m afraid to walk by myself at night. You read so often about girls getting in trouble.”
They were passing beneath a lamp post and he looked quickly down to probe the meaning of her speech. Was it a warning to him, or rather a bit of calculated suggestion? Her face was still hidden, however, beneath the white hat. His eyes dropped down to her figure and observed that it was youthfully slender with breasts firm and moderately full. It may have been only the effect of the white costume, but she seemed to emanate an atmosphere of coolness which he found very pleasant. I won’t try to look at her more closely, he decided. Her face might turn out to be definitely unattractive and that would spoil it all. . . .
“Have a cigarette,” he offered. She took one. They walked on in silence till they reached the end of the block. Across the street was the black domain of the park. This section was like a jungle. There was something forbidding, frightening about its utter blackness. It made you feel that to enter would be to lose yourself completely and forever, but at the same time it excited a perverse desire to enter and be lost. . . .
“Shall we cross?” he asked softly.
Her hesitation seemed to create a fluttering movement in the darkness around them.
“Shall we?” she echoed.
Such a suggestion of pliancy was held in her tone, that his last doubt left him. He laughed and caught at her elbow. She moved very lightly before him. Her skirt made a whispering sound. The sleeve of her blouse slid over his own white sleeve and its touch was as light as the brush of a cool white feather.
Gravel crunched under their feet.
“I can’t see!” she breathed. “It’s so pitch dark that I can’t make out a thing!”
“Here! I’ll guide you!” he whispered, catching hold of her hand. As he did so he felt a ring. There was no stone in it. The metal was broad and flat. A signet or class-ring he thought. She isn’t married. . . .
After a moment his eyes were able to penetrate the deep grey before him and he picked out the black trail of a bridle-path winding among a maze of hedges and shrubbery into the interior of the park. As they moved along this path he looked sharply to right and left but could find no suitable place. It was all overgrown with bushes.
“Oh, I’ve been so nervous all week!” the girl exclaimed.
“Have you?” he answered absently, intent upon his search.
“Yes! I’ve felt so restless! Like I ought to be doing something but I don’t know what!”
Her fingers pressed slightly into the cup of his palm.
This was superfluous, he thought. There was enough already to make them sure of each other.
“I guess it’s the heat,” she went on. “Hot weather always makes me restless—I’m from up North, you know.”
“Oh, are you?”
“Yes, I thought you could tell by my voice.”
“It is a little different.”
For some reason he was pleased by the fact that she came from away. He didn’t want to know from exactly where. The word “north” had a remote and unspecific charm. He thought vaguely of snow-mantled landscape and cool expanses of green water.
They had now gone past the zoo. The warm, fetid odor of the animal cages was left behind and they had reached the loveliest part of the park, the open space surrounding the Chinese lagoon, the golf-club and the refreshment pavilion. The links rose before them in a long, even swell of fragrant grass and on the top was silhouetted a row of giant trees against the grey sky. Benches were scattered here and there along the lake shore. The water was a level blackness.
They walked closer to its edge. Willow leaves brushed his forehead. To the left he saw the pagoda-shaped roof of the pavilion. The heat seemed to recede. There was no wind stirring and yet a coolness passed over his body. He felt his fingers spasmodically tightening upon the girl’s hand. Dark, glittering wings were lifted inside him and their tumultuous motion filled the night.
The girl was the first to speak. Her voice was nearly stifled.
“Let’s stay here a minute.”
“Yes, let’s do,” he answered. “Let’s sit down on the grass!”
“Is it dry?”
Once more he felt that breathless hesitancy in her voice.
“Perfectly,” he assured her.
For a moment her fingers slightly resisted the pull of his hand. Then she seated herself beside him.
“This is a crazy thing to be doing,” she said. “Wouldn’t it give my boss a laugh if he could see me doing a crazy thing like this?”
“Your boss!” he scoffed impatiently. “What business is it of his?”
She suddenly jerked her hand from his and leaned slightly away from him.
“I’m in love with my boss,” she whispered.
Instantly the adventure’s whole aspect was changed. The mysterious wings in the air about him grew still and the heat seemed to settle again. The hot, turgid presence of human relations hovered about him once more and he felt an unreasonably strong resentment.
“What kind of a stall is this?” he muttered.
“What do you mean, a stall?”
“What is it then? We take a walk, we come to a nice cool place, there seems to be a kind of understanding, and then all at once, like a silly jack-out-of-the box, your boss sticks his head in between us!”
“The head of my boss!”
She spent her breath in a fit of violent laughter.
“The head of my boss,” she repeated, “the head of my boss.”
“What’s funny about it?”
Her laughter stopped short, her breath was caught in a sob.
“He does have a head,” she said.
“I’m sure that he does. In fact I can see it plainly. It’s rather bald and puffy-looking. Resembling nothing so much as a slightly green tomato.”
“Oh, no!” she breathed. “That isn’t his description!”
Her tone was so shocked that it amused him.
“What does he look like then?”
“He looks very much like you!”
His interest was stimulated once more. The situation had narrowed a moment before to only include the strange young woman in white and her alleged employer. But now its bounds expanded around himself again and he felt more at ease.
“How can you tell what I look like in this darkness?”
“I couldn’t now. But I saw your face when you struck the match on the corner.”
“Oh. And I look like your boss?”
“Surprisingly much. That’s why I cried out loud when I saw your face in the match-light!”
“So that was the reason?”
“Yes—I actually thought you were him!”
“Yes, it was absurd. That’s the terrible thing about it,” she whispered. “If love could be dignified, it wouldn’t be so awful, would it?”
“Isn’t it dignified?”
“No, not for me. It makes me act like a fool.”
She raised a dab of white to her invisible face and made a faint, sniffling sound.
“Nothing much ever happened to me before this,” she whispered.
“I went to business-school. Economized on lunches at the drug-store so I could go to a show once a week. Sunday I wrote home to my mother in Webb, Mississippi. I never had much to say. It was hard to fill two pages about business-school. I told her the scores I made in the latest typing drills and what my Gregg speed was. And she was pretty satisfied with that. She seemed to be sure that I would manage to get a good job some day. And it turned out that I did. This man’s stenographer quit and he needed another and I saw the ad in the paper and when I applied for the job, he didn’t even look at me, just asked what my typing speed was and gave me a little dictation and told me to start work Monday. I had on a light pink dress and when I got up, he asked me not to wear pink. I’ve got an allergy to pink, he said. That’s the only personal thing he’s ever said to me. And just the other day I wore the pink dress again because I thought it might make him look at me and make some personal remark. But he didn’t. He just frowned a little when I walked in the office. He wears a white linen suit most days in summer, with a pale blue tie. Maybe when I have on pink it looks too much like it was a social occasion. You guess that’s it?—I don’t know. At first I only thought to myself He’s nice!—And that’s all it was. It started out very slowly, the way that some fevers start, hardly noticeable, a fraction of a degree one day, another fraction the next, till all of a sudden you find that you’re burning up, your flesh is on fire, your bones nearly melted with it!”
“Is that how it is?”
“Yes!—I always felt that I had a big empty space in me, a kind of a room, without any furniture in it. I used to wonder what that emptiness was and why it was there. And then one day I happened to go by the door and the room was full, it was completely furnished!—You see what I mean?—But I couldn’t go inside!”
“The air was solid against me, it wouldn’t let me in.”
“Is that how it is?”
Love, he thought. Love . . .
A curious sickness!
“If I could cry out,” she went on, “If I could scream—if I could make a big scene—that might be some relief. But I can’t or I’d lose my job! I have to walk back and forth, back and forth, with bunches of legal papers, open drawers, shut drawers, bang away at those goddam little white keys!—Sometimes I want to stop and say to him, very quietly, ‘This is against my nature!’—D’you guess he’d understand?”
“I don’t think so.”
She tossed her head far back.
“He would say—’You are not satisfied?’—And if I said ‘No!’ he would think that I meant with the job!”
“If he isn’t a fool he’s probably noticed something.”
“No. He’s blind with something himself the same as I am.”
“What’s he blind with?”
“Yes, of course. What else could it be?—I hear them talk on the ‘phone and when he hangs up, his head bends over the desk, I can see the little pink lines where his scalp shows through his hair, and once he was holding a pencil that snapped in two!”
“You see how fantastic it is?”
“If something could be very straight, very simple, very white and cool-looking, what a relief it would be!”
“Um-hmm. I see what you mean.”
“But nothing’s like that. It’s all tangled up and confused and the heat is something terrific!”
“I went to the priest and said, ‘Father, I’ve got to have peace!'”
“Did he give you peace?”
“No, of course not! How could he?”
“What can I do?”
“I don’t know.”
“No. There is nothing. The situation is hopeless.”
“I wouldn’t say that.—How does your boss feel about you?”
“He despises me!” she said quickly. “He thinks that I’m silly! Yesterday when he asked me to take a letter I started crying. I couldn’t help myself. He asked me what was the matter and I told him I guessed it must be the heat.”
A note of strangled laughter shook from her throat.
“Can’t you snap out of it?”
“No, I can’t!” she sobbed. “I’ve tried so hard!”
For a minute neither of them spoke. A dim white shape was moving in from the center of the lake. There was something spectral about its quiet, leisurely approach. It made a barely distinguishable rippling sound as it moved.
With a low gasp the girl rose and caught at his arm.
“Oh, my, what is that?”
“A swan,” he answered. The sound of the word gave him a quick pleasure. It diverted him from the girl’s unhappy problem. He turned away from her shadowy whiteness to the more distant and still more shadowy whiteness of the floating bird.
“A swan? Why, yes, so it is!”
There was a note of sudden eagerness in her voice. She crouched toward the water’s edge and coaxingly held out one hand toward the spectral white bird but it only stared at her from a casual distance upon the level black surface of the water and then wheeled about, like a sailboat catching fresh wind, and floated silently off till its white shape faded and diminished into the Stygian blackness from which it had come.
When the girl leaned back, sighing a little, her shoulder touched his. He had almost forgotten her presence as he watched the withdrawing swan, but now he suddenly remembered her and the touch of her shoulder released some inner violence and he flung his arm roughly about her and pressed her down toward the grass.
“Don’t!” she breathed. But made no move to resist. He was shocked at the violence of his action. It was more like an act of fury than an act of love. Dimly he realized, in the unenflamed areas of his mind, that it was not the girl that he was possessing. It was the cool, white, unpossessable purity of the swan.
Her lips were stammering something against his.
“Daniel, Daniel!” she whispered.
He wondered vaguely whose name it was-and in an instant her arms flew around him and her fingers clawed wildly at his shoulders.
The cry still made him wonder until at the moment when every thought is extinguished, it came to him in a burning wave of compassion that this was the name of her boss—and was now his name as hers had become the swan!
* * *
They walked in silence. Separate. Cool. Relaxed.
“How is your headache?” he asked her as they went by the drug-store corner where he had met her an hour before.
“It’s all gone now,” she murmured.
“So’s mine. I guess we’ll be able to sleep the rest of the night.”
“I hope so,” she murmured. “Well, here’s my place.”
He looked toward the dark shape of the old-fashioned red brick boarding house. And as he looked at it he suddenly saw also the face of the girl in full daylight. He saw her getting off at his car-stop in the evenings and walking a little distance in front of him up the block to this house. He saw a face shining with perspiration and colorless except for a sunburned nose. He saw a chin that was slightly recessive and glittering rimless glasses and black hair that straggled beneath a shapeless white felt hat. It was a very plain face, a face which, in full daylight, he would never have given a second glance.
“Good night,” he said quickly. He started moving away and he felt the girl standing motionless, watching him, and after a painfully long interval, he heard her own footsteps recommencing, going slowly up the walk and then up the steps of the red brick boarding house.
Then he remembered the swan moving in from the center of the lake, the white, wing-like rustling of the girl’s linen skirt as she walked beside him, and the feeling of coolness returned, the memory (image?) of her face was forgotten.
There was only the smooth black lake and the swan.
The Same Dust, the Same Wind: The Afghanistan Memoirs of Annemarie Schwarzenbach
This found text is not currently available online.
How does one do justice to a woman who drove a Ford across the Hindu Kush, yet died in a fall from her bicycle near her home in Switzerland at the age of thirty-four?