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Cary Grant

Chapter Twelve

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Habitually, I’m a man who examines and totals the restaurant check. And so should you at today’s prices; but if you’re afraid to, disinclined to, or too embarrassed to, then that’s up to you. I indulge in no such insecurities. I examine my bills. Just as any other sensible man would when doing business at any other place.

Which reminds me that Time magazine recently claimed I still have the first nickel I ever made. I really should look for it. A nickel of that vintage ought to be a collector’s item by now and worth quite a bit more. Perhaps, like all those bartenders who keep the first dollar they take in, I could frame it so that the income-tax department would always know where to find the four and a half cents they collect from each five I earn. Of course, I’d prefer they didn’t, but if they didn’t, then I might not be able to write with such freedom or in such safety.

Time also reported I counted out change to one of my wives. Now isn’t that odd? Especially since I don’t remember giving any of them any change at any time. I was more intent upon getting theirs for my piggy bank.

I like money. Anybody know anyone who doesn’t? You do? He’s a liar.

When it comes to income tax, I have little knowledge of its ever-changing regulations and complexities, and leave such matters to men who specialize in them. I have the ability to earn large sums and trust they will be properly, fairly and legally used and administered. Hundreds of letters asking for personal help reach me weekly from scattered hopefuls. But aside from the nationwide charities, the local Community Chest, and certain other organizations which receive annual donations from me, my advisers insist I give to none of them.

There has recently been an extraordinary rash of people eager to make easy pin money by compiling a cookbook of celebrities’ recipes. I’ve given up answering them. There’s an even larger accumulation of mail from people who’ve decided to hold auction sales of “little personal items” from celebrities. It is no longer possible to answer each request. It would take a larger office staff than I now possess and my home would be empty of belongings and I would be broke and, in turn, unable to retain either the home or the office.

After that successful 1924 vaudeville season, during which most of us saved sufficient money to feel our independence, we also began feeling the strain of our incompatibilities. And so, unable to amiably discuss our mutual dissatisfactions, we disbanded and returned to New York. Some of the troupe left for England, and others, including myself, remained in America.

I wish I could report a sudden meteoric rise of career, but summer and its slack theatrical season was around again. I remained in New York, eking out my savings while living in a very small but clean, pleasant room at the National Vaudeville Artists Club, where I was again permitted to run up bills while trying to run down jobs. I still think of that club and its staff with fond, grateful memory. At night, many well-known theatrical figures of vaudeville and musical comedy came there for late supper after their shows, and at almost any other time during the day I could be surrounded by the sound of friendly voices. I met performers of every kind and often teamed in temporary partnership with young comedians no more experienced than myself, in order to obtain a day’s work here and a day’s work there. Usually somewhere close to New York, on a Saturday or Sunday, when small theaters advertised, as a sort of weekend bonus, three or four “outstanding” acts, to embellish their movie program.

We were paid the regular minimum scale of $62.50 a day. For the two of us. Less 10 percent agent’s commission. Less cost of travel, less cost of keeping our clothes clean for the performances, less tips at the theater and meals between shows. Leaving less and less and, too often, nothing. But I was glad for the work. The experiences were of incalculable benefit, because it was during these one- and two-day engagements that I began learning the fundamentals of my craft. (Give me a sentence with the word fundamental: I went horseback riding yesterday, and now I have to eat fun da mental.”)

Eventually, after graduating to more entertaining routines with more accomplished comedians and more regular bookings, I played practically every small town in America. As the “straight man,” I learned to time laughs. When to talk into an audience’s laughter. When no to talk into the laughter. When to wait for the laugh. When not to wait for a laugh. When to move on a laugh, when not to move on a laugh. In all sorts of theaters, of all sizes, playing to all types of people; timing laughs that changed in volume and length at every performance.

I was 21 years old and still six years away from Hollywood. Six years of intensive, diligent work toward an unknown goal.

While playing some short but lucrative engagements in and around New York, I struck up a happy acquaintance with a musical-comedy juvenile named Max Hoffman, Jr., and through him met Reginald Hammerstein, a stage director and younger brother of Oscar Hammerstien II. One evening, in the nightclub where Helen Morgan sang her unforgettably poignant songs, Reggie suggested that instead of pursuing what was becoming a profitable livelihood in vaudeville, I should begin training for musical comedy. He concluded that although I might someday become quite popular on vaudeville circuits throughout the country, it would still not bring me recognition on Broadway, the New York center of the theatrical world. It was logical and sound advice, and I have never regretted taking it, nor forgotten the considerate manner in which it was offered.

Reggie was about my own age. Usually I found myself gravitating to older people to seek advice, or to enjoy their amused regard of life and be reassured that people could mature with age. Of course, nowadays, people older than myself are becoming increasingly difficult to find; but I’m consoled to note that young people, in turn, now gravitate to me.

Yet, what hopeful advice can one give a younger person? How can young people, products of today’s sociological order, derive comfort from the words and deeds of our political, scientific, religious, moralistic and philosophic leaders, regardless how well intended, when the combined result of all their rules, regulations and beliefs has, cyclically, led us to armament and eventual war?

In society’s present stage of evolution, how can anyone tell anyone else how best to live? I can only advise you to relax and, just as all lasting religions prescribe, have faith in a master plan far greater than our minds can yet perceive. Find, through prayer, an inner peace for yourself no matter what goes on around you. Perhaps someday there will be a magic moment when everyone everywhere prays simultaneously, in unity, for eternal peace.

Until that great day, do the best you can. For yourself. And for your fellow man. Take care of yourself and of each other.

Permit me to suggest that you dress neatly and cleanly. A young person who dresses well usually behaves well. Learn good manners. Good manners and a pleasant personality, even without a college education, will take you far.

What is the use of packing our heads with general or academic learning, instruction or information, if neither the learning nor the use of it, in a world of competitive rather than concerted efforts, can bring you personal happiness? Most of us, certainly myself, spend years congesting our minds with useless bits of knowledge that will go with us to the grave, and leave little room or time for philosophic thought and the quiet meditation of life beyond the grave.

Reggie Hammerstein cheerfully took me to the offices of his uncle, Arthur Hammerstien, who was soon to begin rehearsals of he expensive, well-produced but ill-destined operetta, Golden Dawn, which opened the newly built Hammerstien Theater at Broadway and 54th Street in 1927. I played a small part and understudied the leading man, Paul Gregory. On matinee, he arrived at the theater only a moment before curtain time. I had feverishly dressed preparing to go on in his place, quaking with fright; with the overture ringing in my ears, I begged him never to do that to me again! Despite that familiar movie plot about the understudy finally getting the great opportunity, I was one who welcomed it not.

When Golden Dawn closed after a disappointingly short run, Mr. Hammerstein groomed me for the lead in his next venture, a musical version of Polly With a Past. We opened in Wilmington, Delaware, where a local critic wrote that “Archie Leach has a strong masculine manner, but unfortunately fails to bring out the beauty of the score.” My musical-comedy inexperience was too evident to go unnoticed, and I was taken out of Polly and replaced before it opened on Broadway, where it too, unluckily for that wonderful man Mr. Arthur Hammerstein, was not a success.

At this point, Marilyn Miller became interested in me as a replacement for her leading man in Rosalie. The male star of the show, of course, was the great comedian Jack Donahue, whom I knew and greatly admired. But Mr. Hammerstien and Mr. Ziegfeld, who produced Miss Miller’s show, were hardly on friendly terms and, over my complaining voice, my contract was taken over by the Messrs. J.J. and Lee Shubert, managers and owners of a vast theater chain and countless original plays, musical comedies and other theatrical properties.

I was kept happily, gainfully and steadily employed with them for almost three years. First in the New York production of Boom Boom starring Jeanette MacDonald, at the Casino Theater, which was then almost opposite the old Metropolitan Opera House, and next in the traditional male role of Die Fledermaus at the Majestic Theater in New York. Followed by a summer season of operettas at the delightful open-air St. Louis Municipal Opera in Forest Park.

In those years of 1928, ‘29 and ‘30, I earned from $300 to $450 weekly, with seasonal raises; more than many featured stage players earn today, and was treated with consistent thoughtfulness and courtesy by Mr. J.J. and Mr. Lee. Yet I often overheard actors of dubious ability, who had been given good employment year after year, grumble about the so-called Shubert control of the theater and theatrical employment.

In 1928 I bought an automobile. Bought it before I could drive it. A Packard. At that time the finest of American-made cars. There was almost no chromium in those days, and all shiny parts had to be polished with metal polish. An arduous task, but for me a work of love. I washed, polished, scrubbed, waxed, patted, doted upon, and finally even learned to drive, that car. It was a phaeton, called a touring car; a model no longer made. It had a 143-inch wheelbase, which made it difficult to lumber around corners. On my first day out for a spin in the country, having only just called for two young ladies, who sat demurely in the back, I began to make a nice wide turn, but couldn’t properly manage to alternate my foot between the gas and brake pedals, and plowed slowly and steadily into a bright new car that a surprised middle-aged gentleman had just finished parking. Well, he got out. And I got out. The girls remained in the car.

I told him how sorry I was and explained that I was unaccustomed to driving such a long car and indeed, in lower tones, unaccustomed to driving any kind of car, and only trying to impress those two young ladies who sat over there in the back seat. He looked at me for a long, silent moment, then bade me good-day with a smile of forgiveness and a raise of the hat. I’ve often wondered about that man. Rare. Probably French. Only the French have that sense of the romantic. Personally I would have blown my top.

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