Million Dollar Ideas
Darryl F. Zanuck tossed the screenplay on his desk and growled, “It stinks! And you’re telling me shooting starts in four days?”
“Yes, D.F.,” Paulie Affirmato said.
Zanuck sighed. “I guess we’ve got no choice,” he said. “Get me Ed and Johnny!”
Paulie found himself in a quandary. His job description did not allow him use of the word “no,” and yet here he was in a position where he could not possibly reply in the affirmative. Word was all over town that Ed and Johnny were kaput. Ed, said the rumors, was on the lam for having stabbed some dame, and Johnny had gone to Yuma to pick grapefruit. His boss had apparently not heard, and now Paulie would have to break the bad news to him.
“Yes, boss,” Paulie said. “I most certainly would if I could. But Ed and Johnny have busted up and left town.”
D.F. swiveled around in his chair and impaled Paulie with a wrathful glare. But then his features softened, and a faraway look crept into his eyes. “No more Ed and Johnny,” he mused. “Imagine that.” And then, just as quickly as the earlier emotions had chased each other across his face, his jaw clenched and his eyes popped. “So who the hell else do we get?! Nobody was as fast as those clowns!”
* * *
Just across the way, in the Fox writers’ building, Preston Sturges was surveying his new office. It was nothing like his old space at Paramount, where the distance from wall to wall had been just a little shorter than Bob Waterfield could throw a forward pass, but after the debacle of his association with Howard Hughes he felt grateful that Zanuck had given him a window. He had just stepped into the corridor to find someone whom he could tell to move the desk a little further from the wall when he heard the words “Ed and Johnny.” A smile sprang instantly to his lips.
“I hope you’re not taking those names in vain, Trotti,” he said.
Lamar Trotti and Phil Dunne were at the water cooler. “Did you hear the news?” Trotti asked Sturges. “No more robots at the dinner table.”
Sturges went pale. “What are you saying?”
“The most brilliant team since Sacco and Vanzetti is no more,” Dunne said.
“I hope this is your idea of a joke,” Sturges said.
“They say Johnny’s working on a dude ranch in Montana,” Trotti said, “and Ed’s gone back to Chicago to be a labor organizer.”
“Why the big sweat, Sturges?” Dunne asked. “Were you counting on them to write your next flop?”
Sturges sighed. “No, but I did have some grand plans for them. Plans already set in motion, at that. Ah, well. It looks like that damned aviator is still the luckiest man alive.”
And he left the puzzled Trotti and Dunne to go in search of someone to move his desk.
* * *
When Johnny got home from work Horace handed him a letter. Johnny glanced at the return address and saw with surprise that it was from his half-brother. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard from any member of his family. Tearing the envelope open, he threw himself on the sofa and started to read.
How are things in Holly Wood? Rolling in the hay with lots of starlets? Yuk Yuk! I know your a big shot now but I think you oughta listen to what you’re big brother has to say.
I’m looking to start up my own business. I’ve been working hard at the mill and saving up all my money and I want to start my own business. I ain’t decided what business yet, though. I got three idears I can’t make up my mind about. Maybe you can help me decide. Here they are.
One is for a burger joint only we would cook the food real fast and sell it real cheap. I call it “quick-food.” People are in such a all-fire hurry these days that I think they would like to chow down in a place where they can get in and out real “quick.” Even if the food is crap. I think they would come in droves too if we hired a clown to hang around. People like clowns I think. Especially when there first name rhymes with there last name.
My other idear is for a joint that just sells coffee. But not just any coffee. Coffee from all over the world. Like that thick kind that Dago’s drink in dinky little cups. Or that cafe olay that Frog’s like. Only watered down some. American’s don’t like nothing with too much taste. Then we make up Dago sounding names for the cup sizes so we can sit in the back and laugh at people ordering them.
My third idear for a business you might think is kind of screwy but I don’t. We open up this really giant store that sells everything. And I mean everything. And cheap. Cheap as dirt. Even if that means everything’s made in Japan. Who cares if the workmanship is shoddy? Our stuff will be cheap, remember. That’s all an American wants to know anyway. Is it cheap? And pretty soon we put all our competition out of business and folks will have no choice but to shop with us and we’ll be rich as the dickens. We can even open up great big old stores on the edge of town so nobody goes downtown no more and then we can sell them even more junk on account of their’s no where else to go. I hope you don’t think this is too screwy. I don’t.
Anyways, I sure would like it if you could come on home and join me in one of my ventures. You wouldn’t even have to invest a penny and I’d cut you in on 33 percent of the profits. I’d just rather partner up with kin than anybody else. Ma and Pa are too old and feeble and Sis is living with an electrician back east somewheres, so that just leaves you.
I sure hope this letter reaches you soon. We’ve heard some rumors up here that you quit writing for pictures and become a prize fighter down in Mexico. Hope it isn’t true so this letter reaches you soon and you can start thinking on going into business with you’re big brother. Please let me know as soon as possible and oh yes please let me know which idear you like best.
“Jesus,” Johnny said.
“Bad news?” Horace said.
“No,” Johnny said. “Not how you mean it. My brother wants me to come home and go into business with him.”
“Trust me, you don’t want to know.”
“So how come the colorless skin and saucer eyes?”
“Because I’m not ready to run home! Not now. Jesus Lord, I’d feel like a whipped cur.”
“Ah, yes,” Horace said. “I once knew the feeling all too well.”
Johnny sat in silence for a moment. Then he shoved the letter back in its envelope and with vehemence said, “I won’t do it, I tell you! I won’t!”
“Easy, now,” Horace said. “Nobody’s making you go home.”
But Johnny scarcely heard. He just sat staring sightlessly at the floor.
* * *
Ed had custody of the Nash that week and he drove in a frenzy to the Warner lot. Fortunately, Smitty was the guard at the gate. Leona had gotten to him somehow, and he always let Ed on the lot as long as he was careful to duck J.L.
“Hi, Ed!” Smitty said. “Any exciting new ideas?”
Ed almost told Smitty to go screw himself, but he remembered just in time that he needed to stay in his good graces if he ever hoped to visit Leona at her job. Instead he slipped the guard one of the bucks Leona had slipped him that morning, and roared into the lot without a word. He drove straight to the Administration building.
Leona looked up calmly from her desk when Ed came barging in, panting from having run all the way from the parking lot.
“What’s wrong?” he demanded. Leona had sounded so agitated over the phone when she’d told him to come to the lot immediately. And now she sat there looking cool as a pickle after he’d practically herniated himself in his haste to get there.
“Why would anything be wrong?” she asked. “Quite the contrary, in fact. I almost called you to meet me at Chasen’s, but then I remember what happened the last time I broke some fabulous news to you there.”
If Ed hadn’t been sweating already, he would have done so at those words. He’d learned from hard experience that what Leona took to be good news he usually found to be tidings of calamity.
“Tell me,” she said, “who do you think of when you hear the words ‘hell’s angels,’ ‘scarface,’ and ‘outlaw’?”
Ed chewed his lip. He hated these tests. Finally he shrugged and said, “Satan?”
“Oh, for God’s sake!” Leona said. “Would I set up a pitch meeting for you with the devil?”
Ed almost answered, but he bit his tongue. “You don’t mean Howard Hawks, do you?”
“No, I don’t mean Howard Hawks. I mean the most exciting producer in the business! Howard Hughes himself! What do you think of that?”
Ed sank into a chair. He yanked out his hanky and mopped his brow. Finally he forced a smile to his lips and tried to say he thought it was wonderful but no words would come. He settled for trying very hard to make the smile look sincere. “Howard Hughes,” he finally managed to get out, the smile still contorting the bottom half of his face. “What made you think of him?”
Leona glanced down at the desk. “Let’s just say a little birdie whispered his name in my ear.”
“A little birdie?” Ed said.
“The timing couldn’t be better,” Leona hurried on. “You’re just about done with your screenplay, and the meeting is for next Tuesday. It should be a cinch for you to finish it in time.”
“What timing!” Ed said, and immediately wished he could take it back and say it again, this time with less of a moan. “I’ll rush right home and hurtle toward the conclusion!”
He rose unsteadily to his feet and speculated on what the best outcome of this situation could be: that Hughes would reject his script out of hand and Leona wouldn’t torture him about it for very long, that he would sell it and word would somehow never get to Johnny that Ed was selling their collaborative projects as his own, or that he would crash head-on into a gas truck on Cahuenga Pass and go out in fiery glory.
* * *
Johnny had dreaded this moment. Not exactly this one, but one like it. He didn’t know who it would be. Judy Garland, June Allyson, Sylvia Sidney. Of course, he should have known it would be Lana Turner, this being Schwab’s drug store and all. She popped in, all in a rush, probably in desperate need of a pack of cigarettes or a contraceptive diaphragm, and froze. Slowly, she looked Johnny up and down, from the little white paper hat to the little white shirt to the little white apron to the counter he was mopping up, and then back up again, stopping at his eyes. She smirked.
“Well. You meet the funniest people in Schwab’s.”
“Hey, buddy!” yelled an acne-covered punk at the other end of the counter. “Can I get some service here?”
“Hiya, Lana,” Johnny said as confidently as he could. “What can I do you for?”
“And here I heard you’d left Hollywood to go whaling in the north seas.”
“Guess you heard wrong,” Johnny said.
“Hey! Soda jerk!”
“So what are you up to?” Lana asked slyly. “Write any more talkies lately?”
“Ha ha,” Johnny said. “You should do comedy. Give Judy Canova a break.”
Lana grinned, waggled her fingers at Johnny, and kept walking. Johnny just stared at a spot on the counter.
“Let’s have some service down here! What are you, a cretin?”
* * *
Ed stared at the wall for a long time.
She didn’t respond.
He turned to face her. For two dawns and two evenings he had been banging away at the script, and for two mornings and two afternoons he had been lying on the sofa with his face buried in the pillow. Now, as the typewriter sat pulsing like a tell-tale heart and Leona sat at the dining table poring over her pile of magazine clippings about Howard Hughes, he realized he could go on no longer.
“I have to tell you something, ma musette.”
She looked up. “Why don’t I like the sound of that?”
“It’s just that,” Ed began. Then he started over, “It’s just that I don’t think this is the right screenplay to pitch to Howard.”
“How can you say that? It has everything he loves. Airplanes, combat, sweep, passion, exoticism…”
“But there’s a problem,” Ed said rapidly. “It’s just that, even though I only started writing this as a novel a little while ago, it’s actually an idea I’ve been incubating for a long time and, well, gosh darn it, I don’t know how it slipped my mind when I started writing, but I’ve just now remembered that Johnny was around when I first came up with the idea. And you know that Johnny! When it gets out that I’ve sold this script he’ll probably come sniffing around acting like he had something to do with the creation of it!”
Leona gave him a long, level stare. “I see,” she said at last. “Johnny was ‘around’ when you conceived this idea. And now you’re afraid that he’ll ‘claim’ that he has part ownership of it. Am I understanding you correctly?”
“You know that Johnny!” Ed said.
Leona lowered her head to the table. Seconds ticked by as Ed sat absolutely still. When she raised her head again she looked composed, peaceful, and in control. “Then you’ll just have to come up with some new ideas,” she said.
“I can’t!” Ed wailed. This was not the subtle way he had intended to present the fact to her, but it worked. “I’ve been straining and grasping and clawing for an idea since I first moved in here, but I haven’t come up with one! Not one!”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said.
“It’s true!” he yelled. “And who are you to judge, anyway? You told me yourself you never had a single idea for anything to write!”
“But I’m not the one who claims to be a writer!” She closed her eyes and exhaled. “I will not lose my temper. Obviously you’ve plunged yourself into some sort of dry spell, but now that you’ve told me, I’m sure I can find a way for you to…”
“But I’ve never been an idea man, Leona! The ideas always came from…”
She raised a hand. “Don’t say it. You will come up with ideas, Ed. I’m sure of it.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Then,” she said, with extraordinarily precise enunciation, “I fear we will have a great deal less to talk about.” She got up from the table and took her ashtray and wine glass to the sink. “I’m going to bed.”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, Leona! I’m getting sick of this! I mean…”
She turned sharply on him. “Really? And what are you going to do instead? Open a hair-styling salon?”
“What the hell?”
“That’s the rumor going around the Warners lot, you know. Ever since he broke up with Johnny, Ed’s been unable to write and he’s become a hair stylist in Greenwich Village.” She took a step toward him. Then another, and another. “Can you imagine what it feels like to sit at my desk and hear such vile, noisome, pestilent, mephitic…”
“A hair stylist! Me?”
She stood over him, her body as rigid as a redwood. “Be a writer, Ed. For God’s sake, just find those ideas and be a writer!”
Ed didn’t breathe until the bedroom door slammed.
* * *
Johnny had settled down to work on his screenplay when he decided he’d write better if he had a smoke first. Better yet, he’d have his smoke under the stars. It was his second winter in California, and he’d learned that clear, balmy evenings like this were not to be wasted. The overcast and drizzle could be back tomorrow, and then he could stay indoors and write all night. He gazed at the stars until he’d smoked his cigar down to a nub. Finally, he told himself it was time to climb back on the horse, and he went inside.
He picked up his script and settled on the couch. Then he looked around. The place was a mess. He owed it to Horses to tidy up a bit. He emptied ashtrays and gathered dirty glasses, then he washed the glasses and the dishes that had collected in the sink. Then he looked at his script again and decided the floors needed sweeping. He swept the living room and reckoned he might as well go all the way and mop the kitchen floor. That done, he finally returned to his script.
It was something, if he said so himself. He’d thrown more ideas at this script than any in his life. The stick-up man and his moll named after food. The hired killers, one white and one a Bible-quoting Negro (and wouldn’t Stepin Fetchit be great as the Negro!), who’ve got to keep their gangster boss’s crazy wife company. The boxer with the French girlfriend who wants him to become a linguist. And that crazy dance he’d made up!
It helped enormously that Miriam was correcting his spelling and grammar. He’d have to explain to her that she shouldn’t keep trying to put the scenes in chronological order, but apart from that she was a Godsend. The thirty pages he’d written actually didn’t read like gibberish anymore. He looked back over the last scene she’d corrected and saw that the crazy wife was no longer overdosing on “heroine” or being saved by “adrenling” being “injectered” into her heart. It read swell, he told himself. The next scene would be a snap to write. Easy as cherry pie, the next scene would be. All he had to do was put pencil to paper, and it would surely come out great.
Johnny snatched up the whole manuscript and hurled it against the wall.
No matter how good the script was, he couldn’t ignore one inescapable fact: He wasn’t having any fun. Even when he told himself it didn’t matter a damn whether the rest of the world was ready for his ideas or not, he just didn’t enjoy it. Who could have ever foreseen such a thing? Who could have thought that writing would ever feel like work? Maybe not the kind of work where a pimply goon could boss you around or a movie star could waltz in and humiliate you. But still work. Hell, could whaling in the north seas be any more bleak?
He scooped up the manuscript and shoved it in the trash. Just then Horace walked in and looked around. “Am I in the wrong house?”
“Felt like cleaning up,” Johnny muttered.
“Thanks,” Horace said. He sat down in the easy chair and regarded Johnny gravely. “Say, chum. I’m afraid I’ve got some good news and some bad news. Which would you rather hear first?”
“The good,” Johnny said. “It’ll be a novelty.”
Horace smiled. “I’m moving back in with my wife.”
“Say, that is swell news, Horses! I’m happy for you!” Then Johnny caught on. “So the bad news is that I’m gonna have find a new barracks.”
“I’m sure sorry to have to hit you with this right now.”
Johnny thought about it for a minute. The world must be trying to send him a message. These things couldn’t all be happening for no reason. “I’ll figure it out,” he said.
“I’m sure you will,” Horace said. After an awkward silence he chimed, “But hey! You won’t believe the crazy conversation I had about you and Ed today.”
“What? Somebody tell you that Ed’s leading safaris in Africa and I’m a private dick in Frisco?”
“Not exactly. This funny little dame named Hortense interviewed me for, get this, an anthropological study of Hollywood. She said she kept hearing about this ‘Ed and Johnny’ and finally figured out that they’re some kind of ‘folk myth’—and never really existed at all!”
“Never existed,” Johnny said glumly. “Maybe she’s got something there.”
* * *
Ed waited until they were in the market before hitting Leona with his latest inspiration. He was banking on the fact that she rarely made scenes in public. Rarely.
“Mon amour,” he said, “I’ve been thinking.”
Leona was contemplating the avocados. She didn’t say anything.
“I really want this pitch meeting to go well with Hawks.”
“Hughes, Ed. Howard Hughes. Think colors. Think chromatically. Think tones and tints, not avian wildlife.”
“You know who I mean. But I was thinking. Isn’t the most important thing in the world that I succeed with…Howard?”
“I’d say that’s an accurate assessment.”
“And shouldn’t I employ any means necessary to insure that success?”
“Where is this going, Ed? And am I not going to like where this is going?”
“And to succeed with Hughes, I need an idea, right? Is it really so important where the idea comes from, so long as I have an idea to pitch the man?”
Leona set down the avocado she’d been probing and whirled on Ed. “Oh, for pity’s sake. You haven’t been fooling with that stupid pamphlet again, have you?”
Ed sighed. “Yes, Leona. As a matter of fact, I did fool with that stupid pamphlet again. And once again I came up with zilch. Just as every avenue I’ve explored has ended with zilch. It’s time for drastic measures, Lambie Pie.”
Leona’s head had turned back to the produce, but now it swiveled about and the gaze she fixed on Ed almost stopped his heart.
“Oh, my God!” she cried.
Ed became aware that people were staring at them. He felt the sweat come. He felt it come in rivulets.
“Am I to understand you correctly?” Leona said. “Am I to understand you’re thinking of walking into Howard Hughes’s office and pitching Eraserhead?”
“That’s Pencilhead, poopsie. And no, I didn’t have Pencilhead specifically in mind. But I’m thinking I’d rather go down pitching than go before Howard with zilch.”
Leona’s breast was heaving and tossing with her breathing. “Look, mister,” she said, and she wasn’t counting decibels. “If you want to bring him into this it’s fine with me. Fine and dandy. Just don’t even think of coming home to poopsie afterwards. Do. You. Under. Stand?”
It was a strange feeling to be pouring sweat, to know his face was turning beet red even without benefit of a mirror to verify it, and yet to feel the blood run ice-cold in his veins. “For God’s sake, Leona. Do you think for a minute I’d choose that mug over you? I was only saying…”
“Stop saying. Stop it this instant!”
Leona trundled their cart away. Gradually, all the other customers lost interest and moved along. Ed stood as if frozen. Finally he closed his eyes and prayed that one of Howard Hughes’s aircraft would crash through the big display window and crush him under its twisted fuselage.
* * *
Johnny held Miriam close in his arms. The orchestra was playing a slow number and their feet were hardly moving. Miriam’s head was against his chest and he breathed deeply of the fragrance of her freshly washed hair. He felt one of her hands drawing circles on his back. Her other hand held his tightly. He wanted the moment to last forever.
And of course the music ended at that very instant. He led her back to their table. He threw back what was left of his drink and lit a cigar. He knew he could no longer put off what he’d brought her here to say.
“Say, sweetie,” he said, trying to toss it off nonchalantly. “How’d you feel about moving to Missouri?”
“Missouri?” Miriam said. “I’d heard you were moving to Argentina.”
“And you never told me you played polo.”
“What the hell? I not only don’t play polo, I’ve never even heard of Argentina!”
“What is it with these rumors?” Miriam said. “Just a few days ago Leigh Brackett came into the office and said she’d heard you’d reenlisted in the army. I almost went crazy until you picked me up for our date that night.”
Johnny shook his head. “Beats me,” he said. “But about Missouri. That’s not a rumor.”
She gaped at him. “You’re kidding.”
“I have a business offer,” he said. “Actually, it’s more of a family offer. That’s where I’m from. Dexter, Missouri.”
“Johnny, you can’t move to Missouri. Your screen writing career…”
“Is kaput. Eighty-six. Iffstay. And I hate working at Schwab’s, and now I’m gonna have to find a new place to live, and…”
“Honey, I’ll bet you’d learn to love it there. The folks are friendly, and there’s not nearly as many of them as they have here. And they have real seasons. That’s something I sure miss in California.”
“What kind of seasons?”
“There’s nothing prettier than an Ozark spring,” he said, “when the violets and the dogwood are blooming. Or fall, when the wind picks up and the oak leaves go dancing through the air.”
“That’s two,” she said. “What about the others?”
Johnny shifted uncomfortably. “Well, heck, no place is perfect all the time! Listen, honey, I’m not asking you to pull up stakes and move there forever. It’d just be a lot easier for me to give it a try if it didn’t mean leaving you.”
She took his hand. “Oh, Johnny. You’re a wonderful guy, and I’m touched that you’d ask me this. But what would I do in Missouri? What would I do for work?”
“Well,” Johnny said, casting about himself, “a lot of the womenfolk go in for carving apple dolls.”
She put her other hand on his wrist and held him tight. “Johnny, I can’t leave my family, my friends, all the places I’ve known to move to Lester, Missouri.”
“Dexter,” Johnny said.
“There either. I’m sorry, Johnny. And I don’t think you can, either. Not after all you’ve seen and done.”
Johnny looked at his feet. The orchestra started playing The Gypsy, his favorite tune to dance to with Miriam, but he didn’t notice. “Don’t know as I have much choice,” he said.
* * *
Ed pulled up at the Wet Whistle. Tonight was the night. He needed ideas. He needed them badly. And he needed them now.
Ed’s return to the dark vestibule of the Whistle was greeted with a chorus of gasps and a babble of voices. Everyone wanted to know what the hell he was doing there. Chinaski said he’d heard Ed had married a banker’s daughter and moved to Altadena, Snyder said he’d heard Ed was tickling the ivories in some dive in Philly, and some old coot Ed had never even seen before was sure he’d become a gigolo in France. From behind the bar, Chuck gave him an especially robust, “Long time no see.” Ed, however, had eyes for only one man: Sherm Manooghian.
“You’re the last bum I expected to see in here,” Sherm said as Ed pulled up a chair. “I’d heard you were…”
“I don’t care what you heard,” Ed said. “I need something.”
Sherm’s eyes turned into slits. “And what might the great screen writer need from me, huh?”
“You remember those ideas for movies you always said you had? Million-dollar ideas, you said. Producers would come begging, you said, once they heard about them.”
“You know what I think every time I see a picture? I think, ‘slop.’ Why, I could write a picture twice as…”
“I need them.”
“I need ideas,” Ed said. “I’ll write them, I’ll sell them, and I’ll give you half of whatever I make.”
“And screen credit,” Sherm said. “I want everybody to know…”
“No,” Ed said. He was leaning in close, his eyes blazing, and Sherm drew back a little. “My name. Only my name. My ideas. That’s what everyone has to think. But money for you. No work, just money.”
“For a measly half?”
“Two thirds, then. Three quarters. Hell, Manooghian, I don’t care how much you take! I just need ideas!”
They settled after a while. Ed would get his expenses covered—paper, typewriter ribbons, a new tie for the pitch meeting—and Sherm would get all the rest. But the credit would be Ed’s alone. Sherm wanted to spit on his palm and shake to seal the deal, but Ed told him to forget it. Chinaski and Snyder would be witnesses. Then Sherm insisted that Ed buy everyone a round of drinks, and Ed did. At last Sherm drew Ed close to him and began whispering in his ear.
* * *
The next morning, Johnny stepped out the door to find the Nash parked in front. The keys were in the ignition as usual, just asking some thief to take it, though of course none ever did. Ed was still batting a thousand, dropping the Nash off only when Johnny was out or in bed. Right now that thought made Johnny very sad. He’d have to arrange to see Ed, shake his hand, when he returned the Nash to him this evening. Just one last time.
He headed down to the Hollo-Palm to pick up some provisions for the trip. Funny how even the thought of saying goodbye to Louie was getting to him. Just moving out of the Garden was hard enough. Saying farewell to Horses and the Beaumonts and Edna had been murder. And when Suzette had trotted out the rumor that he’d signed on as a mentalist in a traveling carnival he’d nearly burst into tears. Did everybody in this stinking burg view his departure as being so goddamned inevitable? Well, it appeared they were all correct. As soon as he got back from Louie’s he’d pack his duffle, take Miriam to lunch for the last time, then catch his train.
* * *
Ed’s fingers fumbled with his new yellow tie. The silk refused to do his bidding, and he began to jerk furiously at it. Sweat popped out on his brow and his skin flushed. Then Leona appeared in the mirror beside him.
“Easy, lover,” she cooed. She mopped his brow and took hold of his tie. Under her masterful fingers the defiant cloth surrendered instantly and allowed itself to become the most precise knot Ed had ever felt around his neck. “There’s nothing to worry about. You’re going to stride in there confident and saunter out with a deal in your pocket. Who knows? It could be two or three or four deals! I know if I had to choose which of your ideas to buy, I’d be unable to do anything but toss up my hands and choose them all!”
“I don’t know…” Ed began, but she slapped him playfully on the cheek. Playfully, but still emphatically enough to cause pain.
“This self-doubt of yours,” she said, “is the only reason you haven’t spread your eagle-like wings to their fullest before. Just look at the facts. Yesterday you were bemoaning your inability to come up with any idea at all. And suddenly, by bedtime you have four! And good ideas!”
Good ideas, Ed thought. He commanded himself to believe that. After all, he had no choice.
* * *
“I wish you’d wait and think more about this,” Miriam said.
“Every time I wait I just get another sign from fate,” Johnny said. “And every sign says, ‘Leaving Hollywood. Don’t let the door whack your caboose on the way out.’”
“You won’t sleep on it a little longer?”
“I’ll be sleeping on the Southern Pacific tonight,” he said, turning onto Sunset. “Now come on. I want to take you to lunch someplace real swanky. Anywhere you want. Ciro’s. Mocambo’s. You name it.”
She looked at him and sighed. “All right, I’ll let you do it. Because it seems to matter so much to you. There is one place I’ve always wanted to go. I’ve always been a big fan of Preston Sturges, but I’ve never been to his restaurant.”
Johnny gritted his teeth. “You ain’t missing much.”
“But it sounds like so much fun, with the swiveling tables and the barber shop and all.”
“Yeah. And the owner does a hilarious Swedish accent, too.”
“Oh. Listen, if the place has a history for you…”
“Forget it,” Johnny said. “No place in this burg’s gotten any history for me anymore. The Players it is.”
* * *
Ed had pitched the goods in most of the biggest studios in town. He was used to it. He’d almost come to feel at home in the ornate offices of the big moguls. Whether the summons came from D.F. or L.B. or J.L., Ed had always known just what to expect. But nothing he’d ever experienced during his sojourn in Hollywood had prepared him for the Hughes Aircraft Corporation.
“God in Heaven,” he said, when the enormous hangers came into view on the outskirts of Culver City, “are we here to sell a movie or buy a B-17?”
Leona was glancing all around, atypically wide-eyed. “His secretary said something about him not wanting to leave the factory while he’s embroiled in this mess with the Spruce Goose.”
“So what the hell are we supposed to do? Have our meeting sitting on a fuselage and try to make ourselves heard over the chatter of rivet guns?”
“Stop worrying! By the time you’re done with Howard you won’t need a plane to fly out of here. You’ll be floating on air.”
They’d left home with plenty of time to spare, but it took them so long to pick out the administration building from all the other gigantic edifices that their margin was all but consumed. When they got out of the car the clamor of roaring motors, whirring propellers, and engineers yelling at the tops of their lungs nearly deafened them. Then they entered the building and Ed’s teeth nearly fell out of his head. He saw an army of receptionists and secretaries and PBX operators, and every one, without exception, had mammoth bazooms. It was all he could do not to ogle. Leona, he knew, didn’t like for him to ogle. Or merely look. Or even notice. Once he’d made a perfectly innocent remark about Jane Russell’s magnificent bust (he may have accidentally used that very adjective) and Leona hadn’t spoken to him for three days.
They used up the rest of their margin trying to find a receptionist who knew about Ed’s scheduled appointment. Ed circumspectly stared at the ceiling the whole time Leona was making inquiries. When he finally heard a receptionist say that, yes, she knew all about it, he let out his pent-up breath in a long sigh of relief. He was as ready as he’d ever be. Get in there and get it over with. No more anticipation. No more worry. No more gnawing fear.
“Here we are,” he heard the receptionist say as she located a memo. Then, “Oh, I’m so sorry. Mr. Hughes had been unavoidably delayed and it’ll be another thirty minutes before he can keep the appointment. Please have a seat.”
They had a seat. In less than a minute Ed’s calm evaporated. The anticipation retuned, followed closely by the worry. The gnawing fear, however, he held at bay for a good five minutes.
* * *
The moment the hat-check girl at The Players took Johnny’s fedora the hyenas started to circle. Joan Crawford was simply shocked to see him. After all, Billy Haines had seemed so sure that he’d joined a monastic order in Taos! William Demarest was under the impression that he was poaching gators in the Florida Keys. Was he back in Hollywood for a visit? John Fante, at least, had the decency to assure him that he’d put no credence whatsoever in the rumor that Johnny was in Italy singing grand opera.
“I didn’t realize you were so famous,” Miriam said when they’d been shown to a table.
Johnny scowled. “I just glad I’m famous enough to arrange for you to meet Sturges.”
“Are you kidding me?” Miriam said excitedly. “Is he here?”
“He’d better be, the mug.”
A waitress came and took their orders. She was staring wide-eyed at Johnny and several times her mouth opened as if to speak. Finally she started to blurt something out and Johnny barked, “Save it, sister. Just bring those drinks. And make it snappy.”
By the time the drinks came they were clasping hands and gazing deeply into each other’s eyes and the booze sat forgotten.
“I can’t believe you’re leaving, Johnny. I’m going to miss you so very much. You’ll write to me, won’t you?”
“For God’s sake, woman. You’ve seen my scribblings. And you still want me to write you?”
“If you don’t, mister, I’ll…”
“What in God’s name are you doing here?”
Startled, Johnny and Miriam glanced up to see Preston Sturges advancing upon their table. He face was mottled and his progress was none too steady. “I’d heard you were…”
“Never mind what you heard. Sturge, I’d like to you meet Miriam Greenberg. A big fan of yours, Lord knows why.”
Sturges took the time to take her hand and smile his most charming smile and utter a brilliant line or two, but then he wheeled on Johnny and blurted, “But if you’re here, why are you here?”
“I mean to say, if you’re in Hollywood and not a sanitarium in Fresno, then why in the name of all that’s holy are you sitting in this lousy restaurant?”
“And where the hell am I supposed to be?”
“Pitching ideas to Howard Hughes, that’s where!”
Johnny narrowed his eyes. “I guess this is more of that snappy Sturges dialogue I never understand and everybody else says is hilarious.”
Sturges sat suddenly, and not altogether voluntarily. “It was a devilishly clever scheme, if I do say so myself,” he said, lifting Johnny’s drink to his lips. “After that aviator squeezed me out of ‘our’ company, I decided I was owed a bit of revenge. I knew he was looking for new properties around which to mount costly, prestigious productions, and so I orchestrated a whispering campaign to convince him that there were two young wordsmiths in town who were guaranteed to deliver ideas that can’t miss.”
“Meaning who?” Johnny demanded.
Sturges raised an eyebrow in Johnny’s direction and picked up Miriam’s drink.
Johnny sat very still. “Meaning me and Ed,” he said. “We were supposed to go in there and make asses of ourselves in front of Howard Hughes and then he’d know he’d been played and we’d be more humiliated than ever. Is that supposed to be funny?”
Sturges looked at him in surprise. “But it is.”
Something clicked in Johnny. Fragmentary thoughts and suspicions suddenly snapped together. “That’s what it’s always been about, hasn’t it? All you people wanting to hear our ideas. Not because you think they’re good but because you think they’re funny.”
Sturges smiled glassily. Miriam put her hand on Johnny’s, but Johnny didn’t notice. “Well, to hell with all of you,” he said. “I don’t give a damn whether you like my ideas or not. I’m just glad we screwed up your little game with Hughes, that’s all.”
“Well, half of you did.” Sturges looked petulantly into the glass he’d just emptied. “Why can’t you people order doubles, at least?”
“What do you mean, half of us did?”
“I mean, the other half of you is carrying the ball alone,” Sturges said. Then he sighed. “Can’t possibly be as funny, though.”
“You mean Ed’s gonna be pitching to Hughes alone?” Johnny shouted. “When?”
Sturges looked blearily at his watch. “If I understood Miss Sands correctly, the meeting was scheduled for approximately…now.”
Johnny was on his feet. “I want you to see that Miss Greenberg has her lunch and is driven home.”
Sturges beamed. “Then you mean you’re…”
“Did you hear what I said?”
“I will see to the lady’s happiness and safety personally.”
“I’m sorry, honey,” Johnny said to Miriam. “I’ve got to take care of something. I’ll see you before I go, I promise.”
“Of course, Johnny,” she said, but Johnny was already heading for the door.
“Do you know where Hughes Aircraft is?” Sturges called.
“I’ll find it!” Johnny said, and he was gone.
* * *
Ed squirmed. Forty minutes had gone by since the receptionist had told him that Hughes would see him in thirty. The only thing that had happened to break the monotony in all that time was when a secretary had come by and asked if it was true that Johnny had moved to Missouri to open up a cut-rate department store. Ed said he wouldn’t doubt it. After all he’d heard, Johnny might be mining for minerals in the asteroid belt.
“You’re sweating,” Leona said.
“You aren’t going to flop on me, are you?”
“I don’t want you to view this as just another pitch, Ed.”
“It’s imperative that you make good this time.”
“I’m hoping I’m making myself clear, Ed.”
“Maybe I should make it even clearer. These ideas can’t miss. There is no excuse for you to flop. I shan’t have any sympathy for you if you should. In plain language, Ed, it’s do or die.”
Ed’s head swiveled around. “Did you just give me an ultimatum?”
* * *
In all the years that they’d had the Nash it had never behaved like this. As Johnny passed the MGM lot and pointed the car south, the motor seemed to be purring. Not clanking or wheezing or rattling. Purring. Not even Errol Flynn’s Rolls had sounded this good.
If Johnny had owned a watch he would have been staring at it every five seconds. If the meeting had started before he’d even let the restaurant, then there was no chance in hell that he’d arrive in time. But he had to try. Sure, his ex-partner was a dirty rat and deserved everything he got. But no man should have to walk into a set-up like this.
He kept waiting for the Nash to overhead, to stall, to lose a tire. But it didn’t. It hugged the pavement like a Bugatti and even seemed to pick up speed on the hills. And above all it purred.
* * *
At first Ed thought he was hallucinating. Why else, at a pitch meeting with a Hollywood producer, would a mustachioed man in full aviator gear appear in the doorway and beckon to him? Ed stared at the goggles perched on the man’s leather helmet and waited for him to pull them down over his eyes and mount to the cabin of an invisible plane and soar off into the sky, carrying Ed with him to freedom.
It was only when he felt Leona’s elbow in his ribs that he realized he was supposed to stand. On legs made of rubber Ed made his way to the doorway. Howard Hughes grinned and apologized for being late, but didn’t offer to shake hands. As he crossed the threshold, he cast a last look back at Leona, and instantly wished that he hadn’t. Her lips were pinched, her eyes smoldering with a message too terrible to contemplate. He turned away and entered the office.
It was a large office, with models of aircraft on every surface and plans for wings and engines tacked to the walls. Instead of a single yes-man, Hughes had a small squadron, each as clean-cut and rigid as a Marine on inspection, each nearly identical to the others. One pulled Hughes’s chair out and dusted it before the aviator sat on it, another set a glass of plain water on the desk, one showed Ed to a seat, and then they all dissolved into the background. This did not relax Ed. Hughes, however, surprised him. Unlike most of the moguls Ed had dealt with, who always seemed to fix him with a look that said, “Well? Get on with it, you mug. I don’t have all day for your nonsense,” Hughes was downright garrulous. After a bit of preliminary small talk, he went off on a rambling account of the problems he was having with his beloved plane, the madness of the War Department, and the infection of the Administration by Communism. And that proved to be Ed’s undoing.
Hughes’s monologue gave Ed time to think, something he should never have done. It gave him time to review the ideas he’d bought from Sherm Manooghian. To give them one final inspection before he committed himself.
One was about a department-store Santa Claus who goes on trial to prove he’s the real Saint Nick.
The second was for a singing-and-dancing extravaganza about a silent film studio making the transition to sound.
The third was about a runaway princess who has a fling in Rome with a dashing American journalist.
And the last one, his last hope, was about a crazy, aging movie actress who takes a scheming young screenwriter under her wing.
Good God! What had he been thinking? Who, he asked himself, would ever want to turn these preposterous ideas into movies? Who, in this sophisticated post-war world, would buy tickets to such maundering tripe? Even Pop Minsky would have scoffed at this hackneyed malarkey. And he had come here to pitch them to a man seeking bold visions! Had he completely lost his mind?
He heard a voice cutting through the vortex of his thoughts. “So,” Hughes was saying. “Shall we get down to business?”
Ed brought himself back from his reverie with a start. He parted his lips but not a sound issued forth. He couldn’t possibly humiliate himself with that list of tawdry bromides! All his dreams, all the years of effort, all Leona’s machinations had come to this. To the ignoble end of his career.
And then he heard the commotion outside the door.
Pounding footsteps, a woman screaming, another woman yelling, “You can’t go in there!” The rattle of the door handle, the boom of the door flying open. And there in the doorway stood Johnny.
For an instant he and Ed just looked at each other, Johnny sweating and huffing, Ed gaping. Then, beyond Johnny, he could see Leona. She was standing, feet wide apart as though she had barely stopped herself from physically tackling Johnny. She stood there and fixed her stare on Ed, and what Pericles saw when he looked upon the face of Medusa could have been no less terrible. Ed could not move. He saw the secretary appear in the doorway beside Johnny, yelling that Mr. Hughes was in a meeting. He saw the phalanx of yes-men descending on his old partner.
“Wait!” Ed yelled.
Slowly, Ed turned his gaze away from Leona. He turned to Howard Hughes, and he said, “This is Johnny. My partner. Did I neglect to mention that he was coming?”
Johnny grinned. He pushed the secretary out of the doorway and winked at Leona. Then he closed the door. He strode up to Hughes, shook his hand, and said, “Sorry I’m late. Traffic was murder."
“You’re just in time,” Hughes said, settling himself behind the desk and waving the yes-men away. “All right. I’m told that you fellows have some ideas for me that can’t miss.”
“Why, shoor, Howard,” Ed said, grinning hopefully at Johnny, “we’ve got a million of ‘em!”
“Try this one on,” Johnny said, plopping into a chair. “We remake Scarface, see, only with Cubans.”
“Cubans?” Hughes asked. “Why Cubans?”
“It doesn’t have to be Cubans,” Ed said hastily. “It could be Germans. Nobody likes Germans.”
“Sure,” Johnny said, leaning back. “It could be Germans. It could be anybody. But I like the Cubans.”
Ed stared at him. He swayed slightly, as if light-headed. “Yeah,” he said tentatively. Then more energetically, “Yeah! Cubans are fiery! Zany!”
“The main bad-guy goes screwy, thinking everybody’s against him! And when he starts shooting, he says, ‘Come meet my wee pal!’”
Ed laughed. “Boy, what Cesar Romero could do with that!”
“What are you talking about?” Hughes snapped. “I’m not remaking Scarface.”
“Okay,” Ed shrugged. “It’s your money, H. H..”
Johnny slapped his knee. “Human interest, that’s what we need! There’s this loser, see, this gas-pump jockey, and he’s driving his truck through the desert…”
“I remember this one!” Ed said. “And he sees this old guy stranded…”
“A millionaire!” Johnny said.
“A multi-millionaire!” Ed said, so excited he began to rise from his chair. “A recluse, with whiskers and crazy hair…”
“And he’s so grateful to the loser that he puts him in his will!”
Hughes’s face grew dark. “How does a multi-millionaire become an unshaven recluse?”
Johnny shrugged. “Too many yes-men?”
“This is ridiculous!” Hughes barked. “Pitch me a movie. Do you have anything to stir people to fight the Communist menace?”
“There’s this crazy American general, see, and he drops an A-bomb on the Russkies…”
“And this crazy cowboy rides the bomb down like a bucking bronco!”
“I don’t want to hear about any more crazy people! Pitch me something I can use. A western!”
“A western,” Johnny mused, looking at Ed.
“Sure, a western,” Ed said, his eyes glittering at Johnny.
“I got it!” Johnny chortled.
“This is gonna be great!” Ed chuckled.
“There are these ranch hands, see, and one summer they go up to the same butte to herd sheep…”
“Butte?” Hughes said.
“A mesa,” Ed said. “You know, a rise. A hump of land.”
“But here’s the switcheroo! They fall in love!”
“With the same girl?” Hughes said.
“Hell no!” Johnny laughed. “With each other.”
Hughes shot out of his chair. “WHAT?”
The boys weren’t even looking at Hughes anymore. They fired their ideas only at each other. “And every summer they come back to the same butte or whatever!” Johnny said.
“We name the movie after the rise!”
“The name captures the wildness of the west, the risk and hardship of the cowboy life…”
“Bareback Hump!” Ed yelled.
“That’s it!” Johnny yelled.
“THAT’S IT!” Hughes yelled. Now Ed and Johnny paused to notice him. He was standing as straight as a rifle, breathing heavily, his eyes glittering like steel. “Get the hell out of my office!”
“You don’t like any of them?” Ed asked.
“How could any man like this swill?” Hughes said. “Drag your homosexual, communistic filth out of here before it contaminates my office!”
Johnny looked at Ed. Ed looked back at Johnny. Johnny shrugged. “Oh, well,” he said.
“One man’s meat,” Ed said.
Hughes’s yes-men began closing in around them, but the boys were already sauntering toward the door.
“This’d be a natural for Randolph Scott,” Johnny said.
“And Cary Grant!” Ed said. “Add a little class.”
The door to Hughes’s office slammed behind them, but they didn’t notice. They were almost through the waiting room and into the corridor before Ed remembered. He looked around. Leona was not to be seen.
“Excuse me,” he asked the huge-breasted secretary, “where has the lady gone?”
“She didn’t say where she was going,” the secretary said. “But she told you where you could go.”
“She did?” Ed gulped.
“In fact, she gave you a few choices,” the secretary said. “But one of them, she made clear, was not her apartment. She said your things will be delivered by parcel to…I think she said, the Garden of Eden?”
“Oh,” Ed said, and he just stood there for a moment. “Leona,” he murmured. “Gone forever.”
“Gee, pal,” Johnny said. “I never meant to…”
Then a sound exploded in the room. A sound that rolled through the halls of the building, soaring over the hammering of rivet guns and the whir of engines. The sound of Ed laughing as he had never laughed before.
“Thank you, Lord!” he yelled, spreading his arms to the heavens. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
He wheeled on Johnny and wrapped his arms around him in a bear hug. “And thank you too, brother! Now lead me to the Nash! We’ve got writing to do!”