Monday, September 13, 2010

Tommy Babcock: Chapter 1

By D. H. Quinn

Philadelphia (UP)--Police today rushed to the Warwick Hotel after gunshots were reported in the hotel rooms of Republican Presidential Nominee Wendell Willkie, who only hours before had been selected to carry the GOP standard.

Unconfirmed reports have an ambulance en route to the scene and a physician in attendance.

Willkie received the nod on the sixth ballot after delegates failed to choose either frontrunner Robert Taft or Thomas E. Dewey on initial ballots.

Chants of “We Want Willkie” thundered through the convention hall until the convention adjourned at 1:30 a.m. with Willkie the victor.

February 1940

Los Angeles Times


San Juan Capistrano-- The body of an anti-Nazi leader, whose courageous stand against the Third Reich had him marked for death was discovered in an alley one block from the San Juan Capistrano Mission last night.

Jonas Fischbach, the legendary German democrat who kept one step ahead of Nazi

September 1939




Hold for art

Washington--As the mysterious woman the press knows only as “The Angel of Mercy” sits by his bedside, the actor who redefined the image of the movie “tough guy” holds his secrets in a coma. She reportedly discovered him lying in the road outside her apartment a week ago.

Chapter One

November 1938

You may remember me. For an all too brief period, I was on the movie screen in your town. You probably filed me under “boy dancer,” or if I was really lucky, “boy singer.” But if you’ve missed seeing me at your theatre, you probably paired me with my sister, Ginny. Everybody else did.

Yes I’m Tommy Babcock. If you’re a fan, you know that Ginny and I started out on Broadway in the 20s and arrived like gangbusters in Hollywood in ’31. Our first film, Buenos Aires Rhapsody, sold a lot of tickets. The critics and the studio agreed we were boffo, so they put our names above the title for Christmas in the Rockies and Dangerous Lady. Every movie had a bigger box office, so we pushed out three pictures a year and you wanted more. Then came our public appearance tour in England in 1937 and everything fell apart. Well, to be more specific, it fell apart for me. Ginny landed a British guy with a lot of bucks. I got a return ticket to L. A. and a co-starring role with a Saint Bernard.

Okay, save the tears because I saved my money. Except for acquiring a 400-acre ranch in a place called Encino, I made some good financial moves. And I’ve got enough money coming in every month to keep the ranch afloat and some horses fed. But it isn’t the same as being in pictures.

The phone rang as I was mixing myself a Manhattan. It was the overseas operator with Ginny on the other end.

“How’s the weather?” she said.

“Better than where you are,” I replied, relaxing into my Stickley Morris chair.

“How would you like to come over here for Christmas and help us welcome 1939?” she asked.

“Sure. Leaving a place where the sun always shines, for one where it’s a stranger makes a lot of sense,” I said.

“You have to come,” she said. “Jimmy wants you to help with something important, so it would be really great for all of us if you joined us.”

“What is it that’s so important?” I asked.

“He won’t tell me, but he’ll tell you when you get here. He says he can’t discuss it on the phone. You’ve got a first class cabin on the Queen Mary leaving New York Friday. By the way, don’t say nice things about him on your way over. He’s very serious about this, in fact act as if you’re angry I left the act,” she said.

“Tell your husband he’s whistling up a drainpipe.”

“I love you, little brother,” she said.

“Me too, your highness, or whatever you’re supposed to be called, but that doesn’t mean I’m coming” I said.

“What happened at Columbia?” she asked.

“Harry told me I couldn’t carry a picture without you. When you were on the screen, he said, nobody noticed me, because everybody looked at you. He said I had something below the surface that put people on edge, and the audience notices it now that you skipped town and made me a single. Harry said he felt it in his butt.”

“Harry and his butt,” she said, her exasperated tone arriving intact over 6,000 miles. “He was trying to bait you. I made sure you had two years on that contract, with or without me.” She was quiet for a moment before asking an all too familiar question. “Did you stay calm and wait for him to lose his head of steam?”

“He told me I would share third billing on the next picture with this wonder dog, which they brought into the room. I like animals, as you know, but this female Saint Bernard really took a shine to me and proceeded to use her entire body to declare her affection. I tried to take it as a compliment, but it took about three minutes for me to establish who the boss was before she’d behave,” I said. “I’m never wearing Royall Lyme around a Saint Bernard again.”

Ginny was laughing, as she said, “The details of billing were all worked out in the contract. Did you tell him that?

“No. I told him I didn’t want to work for an asshole and quit.”

“That was really smart,” she said sarcastically. Then she said, “Now I feel bad. Diplomacy was never your strong suit.”

“You didn’t have Saint Bernard slobber all over your pants, Sis. Anyway, you’re my sister, not my mother. I’m 36-years-old, with more than enough money to get by. Even without Hollywood, we would always have had enough.”

“You’re just like Grandpa. He could go from sitting with his hands folded to a right jab faster than any man in New England. The difference is that he owned his own company and didn’t have to please anyone.”

“I’m enjoying myself now. If you were riding Seabiscuit you couldn’t win against my new thoroughbred,” I said.

“I’m a lady now. I don’t make a lot of noise, or shoot craps ‘till dawn, or ride a horse into the ground anymore just to beat my brother,” she said.

I didn’t say anything and for awhile there was silence on her end of the line. She broke it by saying, “I’ll call you tomorrow this time and we will talk about the trip. I really miss you.”

“Tell your husband you took a stab at it but I’m not coming.” She hung up the phone.

I walked over to the Victrola and put on Bunny Berigan’s I Can’t Get Started and listened to him get those impossible sounds out of his trumpet. Everybody in show business knew the guy was an alcoholic fighting his demons, but he made the trumpet sound like it was blown by the Angel Gabriel. I picked the needle off the record and wondered what to do next.

My life was boring without Ginny. I thought of the time we drove Barrymore’s roadster into Bill Field’s pool with John passed out in the back seat. Or the time she’d convinced me she’d run away to Mexico with Cary Grant, which led me to Juarez, a bout of Montezuma’s revenge and a weekend with Marisol, the Latvian flamenco dancer. Picking up one of the barbells I kept around the house, I did two sets of 12 bicep curls and followed with work on my triceps. Now I was a bored guy with muscles.

I looked around the ranch house that I’d filled with all the Stickley furniture I could get my hands on and decided I needed a new obsession. There were more Frank Lloyd Wright pieces out there to go with these, but I would have to bide my time and wait for them. The guys in Pasadena needed reasons to sell what they had. That mission oak furniture, with its stark lines that harkened back to the 19th century, spoke of a practical America that tied me to my grandfather and kept me centered. My admiration for the simplicity of its lines probably confirmed Harry’s butt’s assessment of my potential as an actor. At least the entertainment industry wasn’t tied to the front of Harry. Then Columbia’s movies could only be shown in Tijuana.

.Deciding to wake up early to ride my new, slightly crazy, thoroughbred, I started up the stairs to dreamland. Before I hit the landing, though, the phone rang again. It was Jack, a friend who’d produced Christmas in the Rockies and four of our other hits.

“Jack, Wie gehts?” I said. My grandmother taught German to Ginny and me before we’d learned how to climb out of a highchair.

“I’ll never speak German again,” he said, his voice a whisper.

“Your voice sounds bad. Drive down and we’ll talk,” I said. “Stay over and we’ll both get drunk.”

“No. I can’t go anywhere. I’m waiting to see if the children survived.”

“What children are you talking about?”

“My brother is dead. My sister-in-law is dead, and my niece and nephew have disappeared.

“I’m sorry, Jack, I forgot for a minute about your brother and his kids. I’ve certainly heard enough about them over the years,” I said, feeling embarrassed. It was as if I’d just flunked Friendship 101.

“I’m getting in the car and heading over the hill. I’ll be there soon,” I said.

I walked outside and looked at the clear sky over the San Fernando Valley. There were lights on in Burbank to the East and some lights on Ventura Boulevard, but on this side of the Santa Monica Mountains it was mostly dark. I knew when Sepulveda Boulevard hit Mulholland Drive; I’d look down and see thousands of lights in Hollywood. Which reminded me I’d better dress up for the other side, so I went back in the house and buttoned up an Arrow Shirt and put on a Hickey Freeman single breasted silk shantung suit, just in case the Cadillac broke down or I ran into a newspaper photographer. Even in an emergency you couldn’t look like a bum.

I drove out of Encino, using Sepulveda until I reached Sunset. I took a left and drove east on Sunset until I reached the imposing gates of Bel Air. My La Salle Convertible quickly covered the twisting roads to Jack’s home, a 6,000 square foot white house with front pillars that made you thirsty for juleps and had you listening for Negroes singing spirituals..

I parked on the circular driveway and noticed every light was lit on the first floor. I found him in his library with a bottle of Haig and Haig Pinch scotch and a large seltzer bottle. The room was floor to ceiling leather books and boasted a giant globe made with semi-precious stones, marble, and slices from other rocks I couldn’t identify. I was sure that Jack had never touched anything in the room except the desk, the leather club chairs and the large RCA radio.

As I expected, he looked angry, probably taking a crying break. He had a five o’clock shadow that had a five o’clock shadow. In the sleeveless undershirt and suspenders he looked more like a gangster than a big time producer. In actuality, was there really any difference?

Jack was the only man I’d trust with a secret. We understood each other; the bonding taking years, evolving over bottles at Hillcrest Country Club, in this study, and in Palm Springs. Sometimes he’d tire of civilization and drive over to Encino where we’d talk into the night. An immigrant Jew, he’d fought his way up in the garment district in New York before coming to Los Angeles, pushing his way into the motion picture business. I was a song and dance man whose relatives tapped their way across the Atlantic on the Mayflower, but we were kindred spirits. He kept saying that underneath we were the same. I took that as a compliment. I pictured the first Thanksgiving; “Hey Squanto, leave some Gefilte Fish for the rest of us.”

This was a time when it was best to be quiet, so I just sat there, maybe for half an hour. I had walked into a funeral and one of the family members was waiting to speak.

“I couldn’t get a visa for them,” Jack said. “I tried everything, but a sign seems to be hanging in the State Department that says ‘No More Jews.’

“You know he was the one person I really, truly loved. My nephew and niece were going to get everything I had. Those four people were my family. I never think about my ex-wives, but every night before I went to bed, I thought about Robert and his family moving into this goddamned mansion with me.

“Robert always was a fighter. He ran the family jewelry store in Frankfurt, right off the Zeil, and he was unafraid. Robert never took shit. If the shagetz yelled ‘Juden raus,’ he’d give those low classes Arschloch a look that would turn them to stone. So, the Nazis had this big party called ‘Kristalnacht.’ All over Germany the people took to the streets looking for Jewish shops to destroy. My brother tried to stop the schwein from getting into the store. The leader shot him and the rest fired round after round through the plate glass windows until the glass fell on the sidewalk, leaving everyone, including my sister-in-law, Judith, dead. None of my cousins can find Karl and Liesel,” he said. “They’ve vanished.

“The Nazis take Jews and others they don’t like to camps called Konzentrationslager, with high barbed wire fences and watchtowers. When people go into a KZ, they’re en route to death,” he said. “I thought I knew about all the terrible things in the world, but I was wrong. This time the pogrom is too well organized to be stopped, and it will destroy Europe. Jews have always been in danger, but Hitler has pigs whose full-time job involves finding new ways to kill my people.

“If those two kids are dead, the Nazis are going to pay,” he said, snapping his suspenders and lighting a Cuban cigar. If Hitler had come into the room at the same time I did, he’d already have been beaten to death.

Jack was fifty, but looked forty, with a rugged look women seemed to go for, even women who didn’t want to be in pictures. A major actress called his appeal animal magnetism, and told me she’d been in love with him while he was between wives, I forget which ones.

“Do you have any idea where they might have been taken?” I said.

“Their friend who contacted me mentioned Dachau, near Munich,” he said. “They’ve been taking Jews there since ’33. Of course, the Nazis don’t come over to the Jews and say, ‘Excuse me, we’re taking these kids to Dachau.’”

My presence here was more important than any questions, so I gave up on conversation. I took a Cuban cigar from the inlaid wood box that always sat on the edge of the desk, lit it, and poured myself some Pinch straight up. I looked up as tears started to roll down Jack’s face and I put my hand on his shoulder. Jack was not a guy you hugged.

It went that way for the first couple of hours. One hour he was ready to kill and the other he cried, not exactly weepy, but you could see the tears drop silently from his eyes.

When the sad part of the cycle seemed to stop, I told Jack I’d been invited to England.

“Why the fuck would you go to that terrible climate in the middle of winter? See Ginny in the summer, after your next picture,” he said.

“I’m not going. But it doesn’t matter, because there won’t be a next picture. You probably knew Columbia was going to release me before they told me,” I said.

“I’m not talking about another silly tap and sing picture. I’m talking about something else,” he said.

“What else can I do?” I said.

“You can show the real Tommy Babcock, the Tommy Babcock that belted the guy who called me a kike last February in Musso and Frank’s,” he said.

“That cost money. It’s hard to believe that one guy falling over could cause so much damage to a bar,” I said.

“In pictures you can show what I see when you take off the Broadway smile and let me know how angry you are,” he said.

“Spencer Tracy did Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” I said.

“Let people see how you really feel,” he said, before his attention returned to the kids.

“There has to be a way to get those children here,” he said.

“I believe you have the ability to get about anything done,” I said. “However, Americans are mostly Christian and don’t want any more Jews coming to their country. The government’s not going to openly help you because they are in enough trouble already for being pro-English. Maybe the congressmen that you and the other esteemed Yids have purchased will step up to the plate or maybe we’ll have to find something we can trade for them.”

“Put on your thinking cap. You’re the one with the photographic memory who’d rather read books than sleep,” he said.

“I’d actually rather sleep than read books, but I can’t seem to hit the road to dreamland with any regularity. I don’t think anybody Jimmy knows in England could get the kids out, but when I talk to Ginny on the phone I’ll have her ask him. I’ll also call Wendell Willkie?”

“Why would you call Willkie?” Jack asked.

“Because he’s a man of his word and a lot of powerful people admire him. If anybody has the clout to do this, he does,” I said.

“You can try anything you think of. You know you’re my best friend,” Jack said, trying to keep his emotions in check.

“In this town everyone wants to be your friend,” I said.

“Yeah, but you’re the only one who’d take me in if I lost it all,” he said

We talked until four. While I closed my eyes and let my mind drift, Jack fell asleep. I decided to let him be. A nap in a chair was better than not sleeping at all. I went upstairs to one of the bedrooms, hoping the sheep were ready for a census.

I had the feeling I was awake, yet trapped in a nightmare. There I was in a little town in Bavaria, where the sun was shining, and the Volk were dancing in the town square. All of a sudden, the sky turned dark, and the dancers turned into Dracula and other movie characters played by Lon Chaney Jr. Men with rifles shouted “Juden, Juden,” and pointed their guns at me. “I’m not a Jew,” I shouted. “When did I become a Jew?” I decided to run for my life. Before they pulled the triggers, I awoke, with the California sun streaming in through the bedroom window. The pajamas I’d found in one of the guest rooms were wet with sweat as if I had a fever. I walked out by the pool and sat on a chaise lounge until the fear left my body. I couldn’t sit there forever, so I decided to drive back to Encino, call Ginny, and pack for a winter cruise across the North Atlantic.

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