The train got into New York early Friday morning, so after buying smokes, toothpaste and a lot of books, I headed up the gangplank and into Cunard’s flagship. After a shower, I poured myself a shot of Glenlivet, and read the newspaper as the single malt loosened my traveling muscles. The Herald-Tribune was decidedly negative about the situation in Europe. To the editors, Hitler astride the continent had all the appeal of a buzzard circling carrion. It seemed I could not be going across the pond at a worse time.
I brought only one trunk, since I knew my sister and she knew my measurements. Tailors on Savile Row were working right now to greet my arrival with clothes right for an English winter. The duds I packed would see me across the Atlantic. Of course I always traveled with dinner clothes, which my fans consider my uniform. The thought of dancing reminded me of my exercises. A dancer had to stay fit, even if he didn’t have an upcoming engagement. Staying in shape was as important as brushing my teeth or shaving, so I began with stretches and followed with 100 pushups. I attached a rod across the bathroom doorway and chinned myself 20 times, followed by a lot of abdominal lifts.
A knock on the door preceded a uniformed kid bearing a note on a tray. Tipping the boy, I picked up an envelope that said “John Alan Merryvale.” The card invited me to a party in his rooms. It didn’t take much thinking to make me go and drink some of his family’s scotch for free, so I showered, put some Pinaud on my hair and splashed on some 4711, before slipping into a Brooks Brothers Polo Collar shirt and one of their repp ties. I put on a cashmere blazer with grey flannel slacks that had just the right break at the shoe and decided the effect was all right. My tailor had warned me I should never wear a Polo collar at night but I figured nothing was worse than mating with a St. Bernard.
Merryvale’s cabin, as you might have guessed, was the finest on board. There was caviar, foie gras and ice sculptures in the shape of swans. Amongst the Dom Perignon and Pouilly Fuisse stood proud bottles of Glen Alan 18, which along with the other booze his father owned and imported, acknowledged the source of Merryvale’s dough..
“Tommy, you bright eyed bon vivant, now the party can begin,” he said, louder than was necessary. He always insisted on kissing me on the cheek, which I didn’t like, but for some reason tolerated. I thought I spied mascara on his lashes. His breath smelled like a combination of peppermint and….
I stepped back and said, “What’s the news from Cole these days?”
“Coley is Coley, ever the same. He’s asked many times if I’ve seen you.”
“Cole used to pretend I could sing, I miss having someone around like that,” I said. There was no way I would ever refer to Cole Porter as “Coley,” noticing that only men with that tunesmith’s other interest found it stylish.
“Oh, come on. I know that a lot of people think you sing divinely.” John, without asking, filled up a large highball glass with Glen Alan 18.
“I had thought about drinking, not being embalmed,” I said, not refusing the glass. “I hear you have a rare 21, but I haven’t been able to find it in L.A.”
“I’ll send a bottle to your cabin,” he said. “Now meet the other guests.”
I was introduced to people with titles, people with money, and two young chorus boys who had something else that interested John.
“Ausgezeichnet, Sehr erfreut,” said a ramrod straight, middle aged man with silver hair whom I recognized as Johan Von Taunus. I replied in German, shaking his hand.
“I saw the play ‘Universe,’” I said. “It was in English, but I was very impressed.”
“You are too kind. It took me two years to put an American production together. I am gratified that someone thought it was worth the effort,” he responded. “The translation seemed to be well received in New York.”
Von Taunus created plays where actors were forced to search deep within themselves. The plays dealt with complicated subjects that touched on the universality of the human condition. Each play was a parable that moved beyond the physical location (Paris, Berlin, etc.) to a place all of us might end up, especially if we were plagued with guilt or felt a failure. I’m not the only one who thought he was a genius.
“Are you heading home?” I asked.
“Yes, I miss Germany. It is time I returned,” he said.
“Even with all that is going on?” I said
“Ah, yes. Germany is still Germany to me. Besides, the press has distorted what is happening. Except for the racial laws I do not approve of, everything is fine in the Fatherland. If you feel like a trip, after England, please come and stay in Kronberg with me.”
“I appreciate the invitation. The sooner I put a visit with my brother-in-law behind me, the better. If I’m able to get off that island, I’ll contact you.”
“How do your countrymen feel about the situation in Europe?” he asked.
“Most everyone just wants to stay out of it,” I said. “Everyone feels we made a mistake marching over there the last time. Dying for the English or the French isn’t something that appeals to anyone.
Von Taunus handed me his calling card and said, “It would be a great honor to have someone of your stature visit me.”
If the folks in England wouldn’t think I was a washed up song and dance man, I supposed that in Germany they would think me an actor of Olympian proportions. “If there is any way I can fit it in, I would be delighted,” I said.
During the next few days, I saw a lot of Johannes von Taunus. I complained a lot to him about how Jimmy had taken Ginny out of the act and how angry I was. I expressed distaste for the British as a people, made much of my German heritage and promised to give his invitation to visit a chance to percolate in my brain. Von Taunus continued to express his distaste with Hitler’s racial policies.
Merryvale provided a constant party with more and more people dropping by every day. I assumed he had another cabin, because he and the boys would disappear for awhile, but the party kept going. It actually was a fun voyage, unless you went out on deck. Some days, I even found the cold North Atlantic bracing, although it helped me appreciate Encino. During the trip, I pledged to myself I’d never live north of Santa Barbara County.
When we disembarked we were fast friends and I promised to call Von Taunus as soon as I could. We said goodbye as I spotted Ginny’s Chauffeur, standing like a member of the Coldstream Guards, holding a sign that said “Tommy.”