Authors: Ed Ifkovic
An Edna Ferber Mystery
Poisoned Pen Press
Copyright © 2014 by Ed Ifkovic
First E-book Edition 2014
ISBN: 9781464202933 ebook
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in, or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.
The historical characters and events portrayed in this book are inventions of the author or used fictitiously.
Poisoned Pen Press
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for David Gillon,
thanks for friendship
The checkered cab slid to a smooth stop at the curb, and the doorman rushed to open the back door, a knightly gesture that unfortunately demanded he also shift the umbrella he held over my head, thus exposing me to the warm July drizzle. The hot sidewalk sizzled under the surprise rain shower.
“Mr. Kaufman,” James purred, spotting the familiar face in the backseat. “A pleasure.”
George leaned over and nodded at him. He was grinning widely, a dangerous sign, surely. “Edna, you’re late.”
“I am not.” I glanced at my watch. “
“We’ve circled the block two times. It’s maddening.”
I smiled. “George, your inner clock is always set at…Pittsburgh.”
“For God’s sake, Edna, get in. James is getting wet.”
I tucked myself into the backseat as the cab sped off—a little too Wild West for my taste. We slipped breezily across two jam-packed lanes, narrowly missing a lumbering city bus. I turned to George. “I really didn’t expect you this afternoon, George. Your phone call took me by surprise.” My tone purposely suggested that his presence was not only unexpected but unwanted.
But with that wide, feckless grin still plastered on his face, he drummed his fingers on the back of the driver’s seat. “Edna dear, there are some events in life you don’t want to miss: your wedding—mine, not yours, of course—a corned-beef-on-rye sandwich at the Carnegie Deli, and the redoubtable Edna Ferber making a fool of herself.”
I bristled. “George, really. Have you ever seen me make a fool of myself?”
“Give me a day to think about it. Surely any human being on this Earth—”
I broke in. “I am not
human being. You should know that by now.”
“But you have to admit, Edna, that this…this middle-aged adventure of yours is the stuff of Arthurian—or at least Broadway—legend.”
I repeated the feeble rationale I’d rehearsed and meekly delivered for a month now. “It’s just a lark, George. A lovely lark.”
That quizzical smile persisted, though his words now betrayed an icy sharpness. “Your enemies are already sharpening their swords. Or should I say pencils?”
For a moment, quaking, I glanced out the window. Crowds shuffled along, lost under umbrellas. As the cab began moving through Central Park—purposely searching for puddles, it seemed—I felt a little dizzy. I turned back, faced him. “I have no enemies, George.”
Now the smile broke into hearty laughter, uncontrolled. That was not like George S. Kaufman, esteemed American playwright and celebrated humorist. A knife-in-the-gut kind of wit, this writer, and never the rollicking barrel of laughs. Sardonic humor, sly innuendo, tricky phraseology, smart talk, outright sass—all his hallmarks, but rarely vaudevillian laugh-in-the-aisles guffaws. Until now—on this bizarre cab ride. And thus troublesome. When George approached the freedom of utter abandonment, he was at his most dangerous. Cruel, deliberate, hurtful, a man to be avoided. He was especially menacing around close friends. And I was a good and true friend, and one of his most successful collaborators on Broadway hits.
“Why didn’t you stay at the farm in Pennsylvania?” I asked him.
“Well, I have a surprise, which you’ll probably not welcome. I had a talk with Cheryl a few days ago, and we discussed your…folly. Ferber’s Folly, I termed it. Then last night she called, one of her panicky calls, and I told her I’d be in the city today and would gather you from your expensive lair. I invited myself to visit with you and Cheryl.”
I smiled. “So you’ve chosen to be the pesky fly that annoys innocent folks having coffee.”
“Exactly.” His eyes twinkled. “Edna Ferber the actress, the venerable Fanny Cavendish of
The Royal Family
in summer stock…in…good God! Oh no!…New Jersey.”
“George, you know that I’ve always wanted to be onstage. I’ve bored enough dinner parties with that declaration. I’ve always seen myself as a blighted Bernhardt.”
He stifled a laugh. “Edna, playwrights usually run for cover. We
behind our typewriters.”
I didn’t like myself betraying such a weakness. “It’s something I always wanted to do.”
“Edna, I’d like to do a lot of things, but I resist the impulse.”
I sucked in my cheeks. “That’s the difference between us, George. I like the novelty of surprise. You are surprised by novelty.”
“Lord, Edna, are we rewriting
The Royal Family
in the backseat of a cab?”
Now I smiled. “George, behave yourself today.”
“Why start now?’
He sat back, this string bean of a man, all angles, with his long quirky face hidden behind huge tortoise-shell glasses that exaggerated his huge nose. A high forehead under that Cliffs-of-Dover pompadour of uncombed pitch-black hair. Dressed in an expensive charcoal-gray suit with a wide burgundy tie, he pulled at the cuffs of his sleeves, a nervous gesture I’d become familiar with. That, and his constant tying and retying of his shoelaces. A fussbudget, nosy, abrupt, and acerbic, he looked the gangly nebbish, the butt of nickelodeon humor; but there was something
else about the man. A first glance at him suggested an unattractive, bumbling sort, a sad sack; but when his face moved, when the long arms gesticulated like wild birds, there suddenly was a fierce beauty about him—an inner heat that drew you in. You saw it when he maneuvered his way around people, especially the fresh young backstage chorines he pursued feverishly. Those times revealed a magnetism that compelled, startled.
I saw it now, in the backseat of that jerky cab. His rollicking, uncharacteristic laughter made him dreadfully irritating—but oddly seductive.
It drove me mad, that warring mixture of personality. Aleck Woollcott, my sometime friend and chronic enemy, chided that I had a schoolgirl crush on the estimable George S. Kaufman. I suppose I did, but a slight, curable one. Of course, I’d never confess that to anyone. All my clandestine affairs of the heart migrated into the romantic lives of my feisty heroines.
The cab wove through the park, turned onto Columbus and over to Riverside, stopping in front of a weather-beaten building that fronted the Hudson River. Here producer Cheryl Crawford rented a furnished pied-à-terre on the top floor. Coffee, she’d said yesterday on the phone, just the two of us, an informal talk about my playing the matriarch Fanny Cavendish in her summer-stock production of
The Royal Family
, the hit play George and I wrote some thirteen years earlier, now to be resurrected in suburban New Jersey. Resurrected, I thought, with the end of tremendously amusing George and others of my friends. Edna gets to play actress, mouthing lines she wrote. Let’s see her succumb to stage fright, to missed cues, to blathered, tangled dialogue. To abject panic, the deer in the headlights. Summer fun for the Manhattan cosmopolites. Something to do in the hot summer of 1940 as the world out there readied for another cataclysmic war.
“George,” I mumbled as I stepped out of the cab, “just why are you here today?”
“I wouldn’t miss this for the world.” Then, a crooked smile. “And there are surprises in store for you.”
Cheryl Crawford seemed thrilled to see George. He nodded at her—he felt shaking hands with folks spread Bubonic plague—and handed her a bouquet of roses I’d not noticed until he stepped out of the cab.
“Cheryl, dear, Edna insists I go everywhere with her. Such a damper on my social life.”
Cheryl laughed but I smiled. “George trails me around like an old rheumatic dog.”
“Ah, but one looking for new tricks.”
Cheryl’s small studio was stark in its decor: a glossy black leather Italian sofa set against a white wall, a huge Kandinsky-style painting behind it, illuminated. A long, dark-wood coffee table with an amorphous Brancusi statue plopped in the middle, too large and thus one of the objects in the room your eyes found—and not pleasantly. Cheryl saw me gaping at the ungainly statue. “I’m squatting here until the work on my apartment on Forty-ninth Street is ready.” She smiled. “It’s very…European, I think.” She waved her arms around the sleek, expensive room and mentioned the name of some curator at the Metropolitan. “She’s in London for the summer. She told me to safeguard the Kandinsky.”
“I suppose so.” Cheryl glanced at it. “The sofa is a pull-out bed so I have to sleep under such…such lightning flashes of color.” Kandinsky’s swirling hiccoughs of vibrant color—all colliding and shrill—would drive me mad…and guarantee sleepless nights.
George was sitting in a side chair, eyeing a wedge of chocolate fudge. He’d poured himself a cup of coffee.
“There’s a patisserie over on Amsterdam. Wonderful.”
George swallowed. “This visit is already a success.”
George was notoriously indifferent to food, save rich and creamy chocolate, which Cheryl obviously knew. I guessed the crisp apple strudel next to it was intended for me. I smiled. “George the avaricious gourmand,” I grumbled, “with chocolate smears on his cadaverous cheek.”
He nodded at Cheryl. “Edna likes to use big words. As a child in Appleton, she swallowed a dictionary. That explains her sudden digestive surprises.”
Cheryl had invited me for coffee, a social invitation to review our final arrangements for my participation in her production of
The Royal Family
in the middle of August in Maplewood, New Jersey. Although our paths crossed around Broadway over the years, we’d never been friends. “Come for coffee,” she’d told me. “A chat.”
I knew she was close to George and his wife Bea—more so, his wife—and George often insisted she and I would like each other—two driven, single women, hard-nosed. I’d be the judge of that.
“You two look alike,” he’d said.
Nonsense, of course. Cheryl was a tiny woman, slender, late thirties, with fits of restless energy. With her blue-gray eyes lost in a drab plain face, with curly close-cropped brown hair, she often seemed all business and purpose. She had to be—this vagrant woman producer in the exclusive man’s-club world of Broadway. A “producer in skirts”—the dismissive phrase bandied about. She spoke in a clipped, forced voice with dry, hard-edged wit, and often reminded me of a character from a Damon Runyon story: hard-boiled, no-nonsense, and unblinking. A hard-drinking, chain-smoking woman. Like me, she sometimes wore mannish tailored suits, though I softened mine with obligatory strands of pearls and flowery brooches stolen from some Victorian treasure chest. George once insisted we were Siamese twins, joined at the hip.
“No,” I countered, “joined at the intellect.”
Now, idly but pleasantly, we chatted about the production of
The Royal Family
. Cheryl, a successful Broadway producer, had envisioned a summer stock with veteran Broadway actors in celebrated plays at the end of their New York run, with topnotch crews. She’d located a vast unused movie theater opposite the train station in bucolic Maplewood, a half-hour train commute from Penn Station, and was making a go of it—cheap tickets, short week runs, big names like Tallulah Bankhead and Paul Robeson and Luise Rainer. And me, Edna Ferber, writer and notoriously a non-actor who harbored delusions that…well…
Well, that was now reality. George and I had written
The Royal Family
back in 1927, a huge Broadway hit, then a splashy 1930 Hollywood movie called
The Royal Family of Broadway
, starring Frederic March, a veritable comedy-drama that everyone said was based on the Barrymore family—matriarch Mrs. Drew and her grandchildren, John and Ethel. But not Lionel, the boring brother. George and I protested. No, no, impossible, barely recognizable, though no one believed us. If anything, it was based on an earlier theatrical family, the Davenports. Who? folks questioned. Oh, really? Yeah, sure.
Infuriated, Ethel had threatened to sue us (and so, mockingly, did the frivolous Marx Brothers), and Ethel still cold-shouldered me at cocktail parties. She had a magnificent harrumph sound, very haughty, perfected through years of natural bile, that echoed off sleek Park Avenue walls. Robert Benchley once claimed she spoke in an Episcopalian voice, measured, deadly, each syllable heavy as iron. I found it amusing that she refused the celebrity that George and I inadvertently (yes, unintentionally) delivered to her.
The Royal Family
ran for 343 performances.
Now it would run for one week in New Jersey with me as Fanny Cavendish, the craggy, grumpy, but eminently elegant matriarch of the legendary Broadway family. My moment in the dramatic sun.
And I feared I’d misstepped. At the moment the nagging presence of George Kaufman at my elbow suggested I was right. Despite his satiric wit, George had the uncanny bad luck to be in places where disaster struck. He was the sort who mindlessly stumbled onto the platform just as two trains collided. Or the manhole cover exploded as his taxi zoomed over it. All of which thrilled him. Now, I supposed, I was providing the unnatural disaster he dared not miss. It had been Cheryl Crawford’s idea that I play the part—admittedly she’d heard tales of me kvetching about my untapped dramaturgical genius. When George and I wrote the play, I suggested I play Julie, but George cast a jaundiced eye on me, and never answered. But now I suspected George had put the bug in her ear.
Get Edna, Cheryl. Crowds will gladly pay a dollar-fifty for that three-ring circus.
Cheryl was watching George closely now. I’d missed something being said.
Which was why I narrowed my eyes at him—he was blithely snapping up another piece of chocolate—and asked, in an exaggerated Southern belle inflection, “George, dear, are you coming to see me perform?”
Cheryl sputtered, looked confused. “George, you didn’t…”
George never looked up. “Everyone is, Edna. We’ll talk of this for years. You’ll have to move to someplace no one goes to. Like…New Jersey.”
“Please stay away, George.”
“Not on your life.”
Cheryl jumped in, nervous. “George, you told me you’d talked to Edna.” A look of horror on her face, she turned to me. “Edna, George is up to no good. You see, our director Lawrence Burton is suddenly hospitalized and will be gone all summer, so I begged George to be the director of
The Royal Family
. A last-minute replacement. He said…”