Washing Garbage a new short story by Stephen Cole
The denizens and regulars at Sardi's were in mourning. Maurice Zane was dead. Never again would they hear that indistinguishable European accent cooing over a potential backer at a secluded corner table. Never again would that ineffable mélange of accents ranging from French, Spanish and Italian to Bela Lugosi, order a vodka martini with a twist, never olives.
Maurice Zane's tiny cubbyhole of an office was on the 6th floor of the Sardi Building, that monument to food, drink and theatrical legends. The food and drink were on the first four floors, but once in a while on the fifth through tenth floors, there was a theatrical legend. Maurice Zane was such a legend.
He was the last of a dying breed, the independent theatrical producer. Today, dozens of names present plays and musicals, but once upon a time there was one name above the title: Maurice Zane. At one time "Maurice Zane presents" graced dozens of theatrical posters that still hang at Joe Allen's Restaurant on West. 46th. Of course each theatrical poster that hangs at Joe Allen's represents a disaster, a washout, a financial sinkhole. Only flops adorned those hallowed walls and Maurice Zane held the record. It was said that Maurice had so many posters that Joe Allen had to rotate them and a few hung over the urinals in the men's room. But at Sardi's an ancient caricature of Zane drawn by Alex Gard himself (he had died in 1947) held a spot of honor over the bar. Ah, such was Maurice Zane's fame.
No one knew how old Maurice was, but when he died and the Shuberts, who for some secret reason paid his rent for the last twenty five years, cleaned out his office to turn it into a storage room, they found among his files and effects various chin straps and cheap toupees. Eye lifters, pins (pins!) several theatrical makeup kits (including blackface!) and crates filled with multiple bottles of black shoe-polish-like hair-dye. Maurice never left Room 603 without looking his best, even if his best included pasty pancake and drawn on eyebrows below patent leather hair. Youth was key in Maurice's arsenal of charms. And charm is what got Maurice the money to produce flop after flop. That most of his potential backers were widows of a certain age was a given. Oh, hell, Maurice Zane only solicited the elderly widows who dripped diamonds and were about to get onto the exit ramp. And every weekday at precisely five o'clock, the elevator would descend from the sixth floor and open onto the second floor bar and Maurice would hold court over several martinis.
Now he too was gone. Gone to meet his backers.
As we all raised a toast to Maurice Zane, the stories began to get told. Actors told of being in his productions and having the financial plug pulled so fast that they never had a chance to cold cream their makeup off before being evicted from their dressing rooms. Directors told of never getting royalty checks and being replaced by Maurice the minute they complained. They told of how Maurice would hire a non-union assistant, take the directorial credit himself, and pocket the paycheck, plus pension and welfare. Maurice had been a press agent back in the day and kept his ATPAM card, even if he was behind a bit on dues. So whenever Maurice had a show, he would use the name Morris Litvak (many thought that was his original name) and be his own press agent. No one took his calls and the critics only came to slaughter him, but he took the paycheck and the pension and welfare (minus his back dues).
Writers told of plays that never would have gotten on without Maurice, plays so bad that never should have left their Underwoods, but which Maurice Zane loved passionately. Second drafts were for sissies he would say. You can rewrite in New Haven was his credo. Most of the time New Haven was not on the agenda as Maurice found it more frugal to play full priced previews in New York and fix the show that way. Or not.
And then there were all the rewrite men who were called over the years to give a polish to Maurice's pet project, his masterpiece to be. The Death of Lila Hunter, a comic murder mystery thriller in five acts.
I was one of those writers toasting Maurice Zane with my vodka martini with a twist. I had been one of the chosen called upon to make his dream show come true. We met at a cocktail party in the upper west side apartment of my newest collaborator, a much older composer who had had one cult flop on Broadway and made most of his money doing industrials. You know what an industrial show was? The Broadway wags called it a two hour commercial uninterrupted by entertainment. What they were, were fully realized musicals hawking whatever company paid the bills: Milliken Fabrics, JC Penny, Exxon, Chevrolet, Ford and the American Psychiatric Association.
I did one of those gems for the last named. A wonderful musical called Masques of Melancholia. An evening of depression in musical theatre. I kid you not. Our theory was if Dolly Levi had taken anti-depressants she never would be meddling in everyone's business and would have kept her husband's store on the lower east side. Curtain.
So, when, in the dimmest candlelight and after two strong martinis, a dapper and not quite yet disheveled older man with jet black hair and a continental accent approached to tell me he loved my industrial (had he really seen it?) I was flattered enough to take a meeting (not to mention hoping to make enough to cover the back rent I owed my roommate) and hear about the show he wanted me to fix.
"Scott Kenton! Come een! Come een," Count Dracula beckoned from behind the desk in his miniscule office. The cardboard boxes of files precariously stacked behind and around Zane threatened to fall at any moment and crush him to death. Knowing this to be true, Maurice Zane did not come out to greet me. He pointed to a chair that was stacked with unopened envelopes filled with scripts that he would never read.
"Everyone sends me scripts. I cannot read or even open them. Everyone wants to be on Broadway. Just move them to the floor and seet. Seet," Zane ordered.
"This is a great office," I lied as I lifted the heavy pile of envelopes and tried to find a vacant spot for them on the floor.
Wait! Let's take a break. As atmospheric and on point as my spelling out of Maurice Zane's implacable accent is, for the sake of literature and your sanity, I will tell you what he said in plain English and you can add the appropriately bizarre accent yourself. Good? Good.
Now. Maurice Zane continued.
"I used to be over the Mark Hellinger next door to Jule Styne," he recalled with a smile that glowed with nostalgia. "Back then I had a receptionist, a switch board operator, two secretaries and a stenographer. Alex Cohen stole one of my secretaries because she could do Pittman shorthand. He only liked that kind of shorthand, can you imagine? And it was rare. So he stole her away with the promise of big hits. If Baker Street and A Time for Singing were big hits, my name is David Merrick. Ah...she was a treasure and Alex buried her."
"Who?" I was still organizing his envelopes on the floor, and considering alphabetizing them.
"The girl who did shorthand. I don't remember her name. So," Zane said holding up a very fat script and weighing it in his hand, "I have the next Broadway thriller hit right here. Take eet in your hands, feel eet, touch eet...don't be afraid. Keess eet."
Sorry. I couldn't resist recreating how he said that line. And sometimes the ghost of Maurice just forces me to type that way and...Never mind. I'll be good. So...
He had given me the script and wanted me to kiss it. I held back.
"Think of it as your baby, Scott. But she is my baby. And my baby needs a little facelift perhaps."
I opened the cover and read the title page. The Death of Lila Hunter. There was no author credit, just the usual: This is the property of Maurice Zane Productions Ltd.. Copyright 1967.
"This script is from the 60s? Who typed this? Betty Grable?"
"Never mind who typed it, this play is written in blood speckled with gold dust. But the writer is not important. They are long gone and past," Zane responded with a shrug and dismissive wave of his hand. "As for the age of the script, we needed to wait for the real Lila Hunter to die. And now alas she is gone."
I could swear I saw a tear in his eye, which immediately evaporated as he got back to business.
"The script belongs to me and me alone and I am going to produce it next season."
"Without an author?"
"Maybe you will be the author, Scott Kenton. Maybe?" He said this with the kind of purring coo that one reserves for wooing potential lovers into your bed.
I didn't want to commit, but I had to confess that it was enticing. Broadway. Next Season. Words that held magic for any writer, especially one who never had been there. But I hadn't even opened the script to page one yet.
"Who was the real Lila Hunter?" I asked.
Maurice Zane lit up. He practically levitated out of his desk chair. He whispered now so as not to let anyone in the hallway hear.
"Ah...I knew her well. She was a very rich lady." The 'r' in rich multiplied, reverberated and bounced off the walls filled with Maurice's posters. "An heiress," he continued. "Have you heard of Doris Duke?"
"This is about Doris Duke?"
"Well...she is a bit like her and a bit...not. But I knew Doris...oh, did I know Doris! And...well, let us just say, this will make the critics sit up and pant."
I pictured Frank Rich of the New York times as a cocker spaniel, sitting on his hind legs panting and licking Maurice's face.
"May I read the script?" I asked.
"This is the only copy so you must swear of a stack of bibles that you will never lose it, but...of course you may," replied Maurice. "Does this mean you might be the writer to give it the small polish it needs?"
"I might be."
"Oh, Scott, this is what I thought when I saw you at the party. I said to myself, Maurice, this is the man to hitch his Mercedes to my star."
He saw me looking at the one poster on his wall that was not a disaster. The one that held the place of honor over his head behind him. A play, a Gay play at that, he had produced that ran a few months and actually won a Tony Award. The Tony was for the star, but nevertheless this made the show a Tony Winner and that made Maurice a Tony Winner and in his mind, it made him immortal.
"Did you see Forward March?" he asked with a twinkle that made his liver spotted cheeks aglow with pleasure.
"I did. I was very young, but I remember it like it was yesterday."
"You are still very young. Look at you. A boy in short pants."
Now Maurice was openly flirting with me. I did look younger than my years, but back then my years were not as many and I was, since it was summer and hot, wearing short pants, even though this was supposed to be a business meeting.
"A Tony Award winner. Leslie gave a beautiful performance; then he gave it all up for a television series playing a detective. He was irreplaceable and I had to close the show. Such a shame. He is a loss to the acting profession."
Tony Winner Leslie Marks was now the Emmy winning star of a very popular one hour detective show that had run for ten years on NBC. But to Maurice Zane he was lost and dead. To Maurice Zane the theatre was a Shubert god that one must genuflect to or be damned to hell forever. Hell, being the Nederlanders.
"But maybe," Maurice went on as if he had thought this through for at least nine years (which he had), "we could lure him back with this fabulous part. A murderer with the charm of a cat in heat. Handsome, dark, young...there is always makeup...and sexually slippery, if you know what I mean and I think you do. A comeback for my Tony winning star in the legitimate theatre. I am thinking of the Broadhurst. Here, look, you can see it from my window."
The window to which Maurice Zane pointed was a tiny filthy hole in this hole-in-the-wall office. The screen that barely kept out the flies also kept the view at bay. So the only thing I could do is look over at the opening he called a window and imagine there was a theatre across the street.
"Imagine," Maurice cooed, "the marquee with Maurice Zane Presents on it."
"You should just title the show that and be done with it."
"Very funny, Mr. Jokester. Save the puns for the script. Now, take it, go home and read. Call me as soon as your done and I will drop everything to talk to you."
I somehow knew that Maurice dropping everything meant he would eschew his afternoon nap, but home I went and started to read the script. I got to page five and knew I smelled a turkey. I could practically hear the gobbling on page ten and by the end of the first act (there were five!) I was planning on how to stuff this baby and roast her. I trudged, sloshed and skimmed my way to the final curtain. This comedy murder mystery thriller was neither funny, mysterious, nor thrilling. But it was long. I was reminded of a story about a songwriter who went out of town to fix a terrible musical. He would write new songs and they would be great, but ultimately, he said the whole thing was like washing garbage. You just came out with cleaner garbage.
Oh God! What the devil was I going to tell Maurice Zane? As it turned out, I didn't have to worry.
* * *
"You loved it!" Maurice said as soon as I entered his office, which incredibly seemed even more overcrowded than the first time. "I can tell from the look on your face."
My face was frozen in a big fake smile, the kind I saved for going backstage to tell actor friends how great their show was.
"I made a few notes," I said pulling out a fat notebook from my bag.
"The play and my ideas for it."
"You have ideas? That is good. That is wonderful. That is unnecessary."
The quick and clipped "okay" was a patented Zane-ism. It was an agreeable but dismissive sound that came out of his mouth before getting to his real point.
"Let us discuss the plot," Maurice commanded.
"You want me to discuss the plot?"
"Tell it to me. In your own words."
Zane then sat back in his plush office chair and since there was no room behind him it immediately hit the wall make a loud crash. This was followed by several thumps on the wall from the other side. Disgruntled neighbors? Maurice ignored it.
"Go on...I am ready."
"Well, from what I could gather from the five acts...by the way aren't five act plays a bit out of fashion? I mean, even Eugene O'Neill started to slim his plays down in his later years..."
"Thin plays are for thin critics, "Maurice decreed. "I like fat plays for fat critics."
"Okay...Just don't tell Clive Barnes." Maurice did not laugh. "I mean, he's fat and...never mind. So, the play in a nutshell: a young man..."
"A young and devastatingly handsome man..."
"Good. Go on."
"The devastatingly handsome young man gets a job with an aging heiress who may or may not be Doris Duke."
"She may not be. Not if we don't want to be sued by her family. She is Lila Hunter. She is...the title."
"Yes," I continued. "Lila Hunter is an older but still fairly attractive woman..."
"I am thinking of Grace Kelly."
"She is bored with nothing to do, but gamble and polish her jewels...it's comeback time."
I conceded that she would be great and went on.
"So, Lila, played by Grace, falls madly in love with her new chauffeur, who is named Claude...You know, Maurice, maybe Claude is not such a romantic name for this young man."
"Why not Claude?" Maurice interrupted. "I like it. I knew a very handsome Claude in my youth. It stays. Was that one of your notes?"
"No. I just thought..."
"Okay." There it was again. "Go on."
I went on. I told the story to a Cheshire Cat Maurice as best as I could remember. Claude drives Lila around her secluded and private island, while she sits in the back seat admiring his thick, black hair and...I just couldn't help myself.
"Maurice, isn't this all a bit too realistic for the stage? I mean how will you show the car and how she is looking at him from the back and lusting for his...lustiness? Isn't it more cinematic? Have you ever thought of this being a movie instead?"
"A movie? A movie?"
Uh-oh, I thought, as Maurice sat straight up in his chair, the smile gone.
"I am man of the theatre. I am Maurice Zane, not a Warner Brother. I do stage productions for discerning audiences of the theatre. Not people who get their dishes with admission."
"Movie theatres haven't given out dishes since the depression and..."
"I am sorry, Scott. But this is a play. A very significant, important, serious and yet commercial play about lust and fatal attraction and murder. It is positively Greek in its classical structure, which is why I thought of you to do the massaging that is needed, but now..."
I had a feeling I was being dismissed, which I could not let happen. Not with the back rent to pay.
"I can massage. Really I can. I have good hands, Maurice."
Maurice came down off his high horse and looked me straight in the eye.
"I know you do, Scott. I know you only want to help. You, too, are an artist of the stage. I knew that from your ten-minute adaptations of Hamlet and Lear and Barefoot in the Park. I knew you were destined for great things, Scott. Now, about that massage..."
* * *
Skipping ahead (and I know you are grateful for that), I thought it might be interesting to know how I was to be paid. For the writing I mean. So at another of our meetings in Room 603 of the Sardi Building I finally brought it up. Maurice was going through his mail, keeping the ads and tossing all the bills.
"I've been doing the massaging...of the script...as we discussed and was wondering about our payment plan. You mentioned a step deal."
"Did I?" responded Maurice, looking at me over his half-moon glasses which he only wore to look through his mail. "What did I mean?"
"I don't know. It was your idea."
Dismissive? No, this time Maurice thought about it, took his glasses off, and sat forward in his chair. He seemed to be shrinking each time I came to the office and now, the chair seemed as if it might swallow him.
"Here is our step deal. I will pay you by the change."
”By the change?"
"Yes, you change a page and I will pay you. Let us say 50 dollars per change to the script...that I accept."
"But...what does that mean, 'that you accept?'"
He ignored me. "That could add up to a very nice amount. A tiny sum."
"You mean a tidy sum, right? Well, there are five acts, I guess, but...I'm not sure..."
"Fine. 60 dollars per change. We can do a very nice letter of agreement right now. Do you take shorthand?"
"Well, then I will talk slowly."
And so, the contract was drawn and signed by both parties, because as Sam Goldwyn liked to say, a verbal agreement is not worth the paper it's written on. As it turned out, neither was a written one.
* * *
"What have you for me today?" asked a receptive Maurice Zane a few week later.
We had been meeting twice a week and I had presented Maurice with substantial changes to the script. First I changed Claude's profession from chauffeur to butler, meaning we could cut the car rides and have Lila admire him while he served and but-led the tea. I was very proud of this idea and Maurice shot it down as quickly as I read it to him.
"Claude has to drive," he told me. "He is a driver of race cars and that is why he is her chauffeur."
"Tell me your next idea."
My next idea came a couple of days later. I told it to Maurice over martinis at the bar on the second floor of Sardi's. My change was to the love scene where Lila practically rapes Claude in her gazebo. I thought it would be better if he tried to seduce her first and she was outraged...at first...then after she storms off, he sits dejectedly alone in the moonlight and she comes back to him, saying she could never make love with a servant and so he is fired. He takes her in his arms and we see his tears...slow curtain act two and...
No, it was not okay.
"Claude is an innocent boy. He would never presume to seduce Lila. He is almost a virgin."
"He is? That's not in the script. And how does one get to be almost a virgin anyway?"
We were interrupted by a Shubert honcho walking by and Maurice immediately leaped off his bar stool to genuflect, leaving me alone with my shame and the bar tab. I tore the page out of my notebook. One more great idea shot down and no payment for Scotty.
* * *
"He won't let me change anything. He keeps telling me to work on it and then rejects every change I make," I whined to my roommate Connie, who was in the process of packing my things into boxes for my imminent eviction. "I have one more chance to make this play work. The murder. It's the whole reason we are watching this overwrought operetta without music. There needs to be a twist. The title cannot tell the whole story before the curtain even goes up. It just can't be about Claude murdering Lila and weeping over her body. It really needs to have a twisty little twist. Like Lila kills Claude because he rejects her. That's wonderful and he'll hate it. Why, oh why does he never let me change anything? Especially about Claude."
Connie stopped packing my underwear long enough to utter this pearl of brilliance:
"Maybe he's Claude."
"Maybe he's Claude and maybe he killed the old bitch."
"Listen, Scott, you're gonna need more boxes."
* * *
A week later I presented a newly fresh and cleanly printed version of the script with two whole changes that were approved by Claude, I mean Maurice Zane. Maurice was thrilled. It seemed what he really wanted was a cleanly retyped version of his play. And it was his play. The two changes consisted of the minor detail of cutting the maid who thought she saw Lila and Claude kissing in the hall closet. With that red herring gone, Maurice saved 750 dollars a week on a bit player. He thanked me profusely for that. The other change was hard won and that was the combination of Acts two and three, turning the five act play into a three act play, already old hat by contemporary Broadway standards, but at least there would not be four chances for the audience to run screaming into Shubert Alley.
For my weeks of labor I earned a cool hundred bucks. Maurice claimed he never mentioned sixty dollars a change and that I should be happy with the money, which would be forthcoming by check.
I had to admit that I would miss our sessions and I also wanted to know if he really did try to kill Doris Duke, so when he offered me a chance to work on a nightclub act that eulogized a movie star who had had two ribs removed to give her the tiniest waist at Paramount Pictures, I was interested.
I was dubious about the plot point of rib removal.
"I heard that was an old wives-tale."
"Oh no," Maurice chided. "We have done our research and I spoke to the doctor who removed them. He is dead now of course, but he kept a piece of one of her ribs till he died."
"I think I saw it on Ebay."
Maurice ignored me.
"We will call the evening Vera-Ellen, Hollywood Goddess!"
I said I would do it if I got the money up front. Luckily the triple treat playing Vera-Ellen (she could neither sing, dance, or act) was putting up the dough (Vanity, thy name is show biz), so I got paid enough to reinstate myself with Connie on West 12th Street. Unfortunately, the lack of performing talents hampered our little night club musical and after some scathing reviews, I decided to part company with Vera-Ellen and her spare ribs. Maurice's reaction to my flying the coop?
"Okay. Fifty thousand dollars."
"That is how much money was spent on this extravagant production. And you owe it to me."
Now it was my turn to laugh. I had made one thousand smackers for all my work, which they now own and get to keep. I turned to Maurice Zane and echoed him.
And I left his shrinking office for the last time.
Time went by and Maurice vainly tried to get Vera-Ella, Hollywood Goddess on the boards again, thwarted by the triple threat and her lack of talent. Meanwhile Maurice wore more and more makeup and shrank smaller and smaller into his frayed leather chair in his tiny cramped office on the sixth floor. He ventured out beyond the second floor of Sardi's when he was offered a comp to a new show housed in a Shubert Theatre. One night at the opening of a mega musical imported from London, Maurice ran into Connie, whom he had met at our opening night party for Vera-Ella. She tried to avoid him, but Maurice glommed right on to her, at first making small talk about the show. Then out of the blue, he turned to her and pointed his finger up at her face, hissing in his best Bela Lugosi voice.
"You tell that Scott Kenton a message from me...WAKE UP!"
When Connie came home from the show that night, she woke me up to give me the message.
"You did what he told you?" I groaned groggily. "You woke me up? To tell me to wake up?"
"Scott, he seemed desperate and a little lonely. Maybe you should go see him again."
So I decided I would go see Maurice again. One last time. And this time I would confront him and ask him why no one was allowed to change his play. It had been driving me mad.
Maurice's door, which was usually open for business, was tightly shut. I knocked.
"One minute, Scott."
I heard the squeak of his chair and a distinct zipping of his fly and then the two steps it took to reach the door and unlock it. He stood there with a contented smile on his face.
"Ah! I knew you would come back. You loved my play too much to leave it behind. Come in and sit. Today, you may sit behind my desk."
I did as I was told. The desk chair had the kind of indentation that only fifty years of one butt sitting in it could leave.
"So, Maurice," I began, "I wanted to talk about you and the play."
Maurice hovered next to me, although there was not much room to stand. Still, his birdlike figure stood watch as I spoke.
"Well, I've been wondering why you never let me change anything about Claude. Why did you cling to every word and yet asked for rewrites? It was maddening and there seems to be only one answer. Maurice, could it be that you were..."
Before I could get the end of the sentence out, I felt a sharp pain in my head and the next thing I knew I was waking up on the other chair with blood dripping from my head and Maurice suspended over me with a damp wash cloth trying to stop my bleeding.
"What happened?" I asked as I saw the spot over the desk chair minus the poster of Forward March that hung there. It was now on the desk chair, shattered and broken. Was that glass that Maurice was pulling from my scalp?
"The poster just jumped off the wall and fell on your head. You know how the Sardi Building shakes when a truck goes by."
I didn't know.
"You poor boy," Maurice cooed. "I hope you won't sue me."
"You mean it just fell? After thirty years on that wall? It fell?"
"It was just its time, I reckon."
"Isn't that line from Carousel?"
"You are delirious, my boy. You should see a doctor. I am sure your memory was affected."
Maurice helped me up and ushered me out of his office and into the hall, slamming the door behind me.
Was my memory affected? No, I distinctly recalled that I was about to ask if Claude in the play was Maurice in life and then BOOM CRASH. But wait! Did Maurice try to kill me? Or was it just a warning? I went to an Urgent Care, got three stitches and heeded the warning. I never told a soul what happened.
One month later, I read on Page Six of the Post that Maurice Zane had died on the bus going home. It was said that he died reading a script. When they pried the freshly bound pages from his hands the title read, The Death of Lila Hunter.
* * *
"And so I join the habitués and the sons of habitués at Sardi's second floor bar to toast a legend. Here's to those one of a kind theatrical dreamers. Those forgotten single names above the title. Here's to Maurice Zane, a man who would kill for a hit."
Just as I was toasting Maurice, I heard that famous Bela Lugosi accent behind me.
"A dry martini, with a twist, Harry."
Was I dreaming? Wasn't he dead?
Everyone at the second floor bar turned in shock to see Maurice Zane alive.
"Yes, I am alive and believe you me, it was not easy. Not easy to get The New York Post to print that item on Page Six about my unfortunate and premature demise. But you will notice the publicity I got for the play. The title was in bold print. You can't buy that kind of press. Well, actually you can."
As the wake for the living ended, everyone muttered their goodbyes and went home to their spouses, dogs, cats and significant others, leaving Maurice and Harry, the bartender all alone.
"That is right, Harry," Maurice said as he sipped his martini, "this how I like my drinks and my stories. With a twist!"