Amendment, prohibiting the sale of liquor, was in effect. In
Manhattan alone there were more than 5,000 speakeasies.
Americans seemed frantic to appear sophisticated by looking blasť,
bored or blotto.
Young girls were known as
flappers, and young men as either cake eaters or finale hoppers.
No, I donít know why.
The shimmy-shake, a dance not
unlike the twist, was being shook at every party or nightclub in
The Treaty of Versailles had been
signed, and trade with Germany resumed.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was coming
Life expectancy was 55 years as
compared with 50 at the turn of the century.
The motorcar, thanks to Ford, was
becoming available to middle- and lower-income groups.
Bill Tilden was the menís
singles tennis champion.
Sacco and Vanzetti were found
guilty of the crime of killing a paymaster.
The Jest, starring John
and Lionel Barrymore, was the theaterís dramatic success, and
Marilyn Miller sang and danced in Jerome Kernís Sally ,
the hit musical.
Jack Dempsey was heavy weight
champion of the world, and Woodrow Wilson was in the final days
of his Presidency.
In 1922, during the tour, I was
excited and pleased by being presented to ex-President Wilson
when he attended a performance at the Keith Theater in
Washington, D.C. He sat in the back row close to an exit nearest
the stage-door alley and, as he left the theater in a
wheelchair, the members of our troupe together with the Foy
family, who headlined that particular vaudeville bill, were
lined up to meet him. He warmly complimented our antics and
seemed happy to be there, and I was struck by the smiling
simplicity of this kind man. He died in 1924.
Also during the tour I saw Jack
Dempsey at Atlantic City. I had been basking and snoring in the
sun on a deserted strand of beach, which heíd probably chosen
to avoid causing a commotion at one of the more frequented
beaches. It was mandatory in those days for men to keep their
chests covered, and he wore a green one-piece bathing suit. His
legs were slim, but his rippling shoulder muscles were perfectly
developed. He looked to be about my own height of six feet one
and could not have weighed much more than 180 pounds, which is
what I weigh today. Yet that frame carried enough punching power
to floor a man as huge as Jess Willard.
Within only moments of his
appearance on the beach, dozens of running, shouting people
seemed to come from nowhere, zeroing in on him, waving pieces of
wet autograph paper, thoughtlessly intent upon bedeviling his
evident desire for a quiet, peaceful swim. Poor man. It should
have given me pause to wonder about the kind of public life a
celebrity leads. Yet, oh, for the life of a celebrity! Hmmmm.
Once in later years I spotted Charles Chaplin in a drugstore
near Times Square and, watching from an unnoticed distance, saw
person after person contrive to talk to him or approach him on
some pretext or another or, too often, to ask for his autograph.
What do people do with autographs? Itís a harmless enough
pursuit, but with what useful objective?
I have written thousands
upon thousands of autographs. The daily stream begins with the
first showing of oneís face in the morning and ceases only at
night in the privacy of oneís rooms. The gratification of just
one request brings the next watchful person toward me, resulting
in an endless chain, as newcomers arrive to see who is in the
middle of that group over there. By the time Iíve escaped, the
original requester is home comfortably tucked in bed. Iíve
been stuck in hotel lobbies, restaurants, airports, washrooms,
and parking lots. Iíve been backed up against walls, and
conspicuously pinned in the middle of traffic and theater rows;
an innocent blight to all who had the misfortune to be seated
near me. Well-abiding citizens regard me with baleful eyes as
the cause of the blockade or disturbance that whirls around
them. According to them, Iím to blame. Not the autograph
seeker. No, the fact of me is to blame. If I refuse to sign,
Iím mean. If I agree to sign, Iím a menace What to do?
Except for children, whose
requests I try to fulfill whenever practical, the people I would
like most to know are those least inclined to approach me.
Instead I am often confronted by the aggressive type. Their
tactless trespassing as I lift a fork to mouth is accompanied
with remarks such as ďMy children will kill me if I donít
bring home your autographĒ or ďMy wife wonít believe I saw
you if I donít get your signature.Ē Such opening gambits
trouble me about the status of their family relationships. I get
indigestion. I burp.
It has been written that I am
rude to autograph seekers. Thatís not true. I am rude only to
rude autograph seekers.
Still, there are compensations,
and the ceaseless daily bother is forgotten when occasionally
some considerate person comes quietly alongside me to say ďMr.
G., I just want to thank you on behalf of my family and myself
for the many happy hours youíve given us.Ē I want to embrace
him or her before they slip from my view, leaving me aglow and
breathing easily again.
Some parents, in a foolish effort
calculated to touch the cockles of my heart and bring attention
to themselves as well, have even steered little two- or
three-year-old children off in the direction of my table. The
bewildered little tot wouldnít even recognize President
Kennedy, much less me, and usually winds up entangled in a
waiterís legs or looking beseechingly up into my dinner
partnerís face while the piece of paper floats slowly to the
floor. That poor sweet child. Those poor silly parents.
Attracted though Iíve
always been, Iíve never invaded a celebrityís privacy. But
one day while walking along Broadway past the Hotel Astor, I saw
Greta Garbo approaching and stood stock-still in surprise as she
went by; then dashed wildly around the corner, through the whole
length of the Hotel Astor lobby, along what was known as Peacock
Alley, and quickly composed myself at the other end in order to
stand nonchalantly on the next corner to watch her go by again.
What is it that attracts oneís curiosity toward a public face?
Do we want to see if their eyes are the same color we thought
they were? If they have freckles, warts or blemishes? If their
appearance holds some secret that we can fathom? If theyíre as
tall or short or older or younger than we expect them to be? Do
we want to make sure that they are human and therefore not
unlike ourselves? And why would we want to do that anyway?
Iíve never been certain what people expect to find. I just
hope they arenít too disappointed when it concerns me.
At the tourís end, accompanied
by other ambitious members of the troupe, including Bob
Penderís younger brother, I decided to remain in America and
try to obtain work on my own. After kindly giving me the amount
of my return fare to England in case I should ever need it, Mr.
Pender left for London with his sadly depleted company ó the
company he had so patiently and lovingly worked to train and
maintain. It must have been very disappointing and difficult for
him to leave so many of his boys behind in America, our land of
opportunity; but youth, in its eagerness to drive ahead, seldom
recognizes the troubles caused or debts accrued while passing.
And here, as I reminisce, the fullness of my gratitude to Bob
Pender and his wife, both of whom are now dead, wells up within
me. I hope they know.
That summer, like most summers in
the theatrical world, jobs were scarce. Especially for
nontalking vaudevillians. There was a wide gulf between a
talking actor and a silent actor, and no one seemed willing to
help me bridge it. ďHave you ever spoken lines?Ē ďWhat
experience have you had?Ē Even today itís difficult for me
to believe I once dreaded those questions at each interview, and
in every agentís office. No, I hadnít spoken lines, and
wasnít sure I wouldnít keel over in fright if I ever had to;
and my youthful appearance at eighteen, which is such an
indefinite age in any profession, signified little experience
and qualified me for practically no theatrical jobs at all. To
speak a line on a stage became my ambition, my highest hurdle,
my greatest fear.
Eventually, of course, I
learned to risk hearing the sound of my own voice in front of an
audience; and later, in films, to accepting its accent
resounding in the immense amplification of our modern movie
theaters. Iíve also reluctantly grown accustomed to the
tremendous size of my face in close-ups; to accepting the
magnification of all my imperfections. All there. The way I
sound. The way I move. The way I look. All magnified to the very
bags under my eyes. Itís quite easy for everyone else to think
itís easy; buy could you bear such magnification?
Seeing yourself as others see you is not only Ďorribly
revealing, itís downright masochistic, thatís wot it is.
Until only a few years ago I had
a recurring vocational nightmare stemming from my early fears in
the theater. In the dream I stand on the lighted stage of a vast
theater facing a silent, waiting audience. I am the star, and I
am surrounded by a large cast of actors, each of whom knows
exactly what to do and what to say! An I canít remember my
lines! I canít remember them because Iíve been too lazy to
study them. I can find no way to bluff it through, and I stand
there, inept and insecure. I make a fool of myself,. I am
ashamed. I try to speak, but donít know what I am talking
about. Now, actually, in life, I donít mind not knowing what
Iím talking about. Itís just that I donít want anyone else
to know that I donít know what Iím talking about.
The meaning of my dream would be
clear to any amateur psychologist. Even though now well
established in my profession, I often feel insufficiently
prepared, insufficiently knowledgeable; fearful of appearing
foolish and publicly shamed.
I sat and stood around the
National Vaudeville Artists Club in West 46th Street, a
comfortable haven after the hot pavements I walked daily that
summer of 1922, hoping for a dropped word, a clue about a job.
Free from the sedate influence of Mr. and Mrs. Pender, I
acquired the corniest habits in my attempts t become quickly
Americanized. Iíd been to the Palace to see the Marx Brothers,
billed as the ďGreatest Comedy Act in Show Business; Barring
None.Ē I noticed that Zeppo, the young handsome one, the
ďstraightĒ man, the fellow I copied (who else?), wore a
miniature, neatly tied bow tie. It was called ó hold onto your
chair ó a jazz bow. Well, if that was the fashion, it was at
least inexpensive enough for me to follow.