Here’s Chapter 3 of In Your Hat, the 1933 tell-all memoir by Hat Check Girl to the Stars, Renee Carroll:
It was about the time that Agnes O’Laughlin, one of Zeigfeld’s “Whoopee” girls, and the girl who sued Rudy Vallée for breach of promise, cracked that Vallée was a megaphony, that the Owney Madden thing happened.
The night before that I was at the Cotton Club on a party and Agnes was complaining generally about things. Referring to Rudy, her pet knick-knack at the moment, she came out with some pertinent remarks. She was feeling pretty bitter about “Sleepy” Vallée. Finally she cracked:
“He’s supposed to be what girls are before they’re married.”
“You mean a virgin?” somebody asked politely.
“Well, I suppose so,” Agnes retorted.
But Agnes was very optimistic, because nowadays the only virgins on Broadway are the lady at the foot of Civic Virtue and Mitzi Green. Well, I’m sure about Mitzi.
Immediately following that Cotton Club party, which ended about noon the next day, I was walking down Broadway on my way to work when a man I knew stopped me a moment to chat. He happened to be a member of Owney Madden’s mob, but that was all right with me just as long as he mentioned mother once in a while.
We had been standing there for a few moments when another fellow passed us and signaled “hello” to the man to whom I was talking. It seems he said hello to me, too, but I didn’t hear him, and besides I’d never seen the zany before in all my life.
He seemed to resent my not talking to him because after taking a few steps he turned around and sneered something that sounded like “lousy broad, not saying hello to a guy” through the corner of his tobacco-stained mouth.
“Know that heel?” my boy friend muttered.
“I never saw him before in my life,” I told him.
“Well, what do you know about that?”
I didn’t think anything of it because the little fellow had kept on walking after saying something that was supposed to be an insult. I forgot the whole incident in a moment.
But my friend didn’t forget it. At three o’clock that same afternoon one of the big boys of the mob was around at Sardi’s.
“You Renee Carroll?” he asked, looking around shiftily.
“Well, Owney Madden wants to see you right away.”
“See me? Don’t be silly. What’s the idea?”
“You ain’t done nothing, sister. It’s just to talk for a coupla minutes. Come along, you won’t get hurt.”
Little Renee decided it best to go along quietly, and I got my hat and coat and followed the apparent gangster to a building in the West Forties where we entered an office marked with the name of some phony real estate company.
Once inside we entered an inner office and I was confronted with what seemed to poor me to be a scene out of an M-G-M gangster picture.
Seated around a long table were a dozen of the Owney Madden mob. They were all fairly nice-looking boys, leaning a bit toward the fat side and muscular enough to be ample guard for the “chief.” Owney himself, the man who has his finger in more rackets, night clubs and other ventures in New York City than any other individual, was at the head of the table. I knew him fairly well.
We exchanged greetings.
“Everything all right with you, Renee?” he wanted to know.
“Sure, Owney. Everything’s fine.”
“Yeah, certainly. Say, what’s the idea of the city fathers meeting here? I’m not on the spot, am I?”
The boys didn’t snicker. They kept straight faces. I sensed that something important was turning over in their minds. Owney came around to where I stood.
“Jim here was talking to you on the corner of 46th this a.m., wasn’t he?”
“Sue he was. Nothing wrong in that, is there?”
“Nope. Nothing wrong in that.”
Owney cleared his throat.
“Didn’t a little guy pass you while you were talking to Jim?”
“Plenty of guys on Broadway, Owney, you know that.” I was still puzzled on what the whole melodramatic business was about.
“We know that, Renee, but this guy passed some insulting remarks in your direction, didn’t he?”
I began to think it was all a joke.
“Aw, that’s nothing. Plenty of men have insulted me, Owney. What’s another shrimp in the world?”
“Never mind that sort of talk. We’re gonna fix this egg.”
“What do you mean, Owney? You’re not going to harm the fellow just because he called me a broad or something. Don’t do it in my behalf.”
“We’re doing it in our own behalfs,” Owney assured me. “He’s got to be taught not to insult women.” He looked around and the other boys nodded gravely.
I was beginning to get a little frightened. This might have serious consequences. I began to protest.
“Now don’t worry. We’re not going to hurt the guy in any way. We just want to throw a scare into him that’ll make him remember to be polite the next time. Now you just do as I tell you and everything’ll be dandy.”
The other boys smiled in approval. It looked like a meeting of a secret fraternity in a motion picture about high school kids.
“We’ll have this guy here in a minute. And you do whatever we tell you.”
Finally I agreed after they had promised not to hurt him in any way. A moment later there was a knock on the door, and the dozen faces in the room froze solid. Owney pulled back the lock. Two men brought in the shrimp. He was white as a sheet and his knees were trembling visibly.
One of the big guys pushed the unlucky victim forward. He looked up at Owney.
“Did you want me, Mr. Madden?”
Owney became indignant.
“Speak when you’re spoken to.” Owney turned to Jim. “Is this the mug?”
“Listen, peewee!” Owney turned on the little guy. “Don’t you know how to act when there are ladies present?”
The little guy reached up and grabbed off his hat. He had just realized that I was in the room.
“I don’t mean now!” Owney told him. “I mean any time of the day. Didn’t you pass this lady on the street today?”
“What was it you said to her?”
“I don’t remember sayin’ anything to her.”
“You don’t, hey?” Owney turned to Jim. “Jim, tell this egg what he said.”
Jim stood up.
“He said she was a lousy broad.”
Owney closed in on him.
“Is that what?”
“I don’t remember—I—I—maybe I did—I—”
“You heart what Jim said,” Owney yelled at him. “And that’s how it goes on the records.”
The little fellow cringed even more. I suppose he would have kissed Owney’s hand if he’d have let him.
“Gee, I didn’t mean any harm—I thought she was somebody else. I apologize, Owney.”
“Don’t apologize to me, you louse, tell it to that dame—er—lady over there.”
He took a step in my direction, his beady eyes ogling for sympathy like the yolks of fried eggs in grease. I nodded my head in acceptance. But Owney wasn’t satisfied yet.
“Do you know who that girl is?” he yelled into the other’s ear.
“Who she is?”
“Yeah, who she is,” Owney mocked him. “Well, I’ll tell you, you dumb-bell, and I hope you get what’s coming to you. It’s O.K. for me to accept your apology and it’s O.K. for the little lady to accept it, but how about Boo-Boo?”
“Boo-Boo?” The little guy seemed puzzled.
“Boo-Boo Hoff of Philadelphia!”
I could sense disturbing shivers running down the frame of the shrimp. Boo-Boo Hoff’s name was figuring in the newspapers at the moment in connection with some jam or other. Everybody in the racket knew Boo-Boo Hoff’s reputation. He rated!
“Well, what’s the connection?” The offender still hoped that things weren’t as bad as they were about to seem.
“She’s Boo-Boo’s girl!”
Judging from the shrimp’s reaction, you might have thought that being Boo-Boo’s girl was like being the American Ambassador in Siam. He realized with a sudden, penetrating force what it meant to insult the lady friend of one who had the reputation of being one of America’s best known racketeers.
His body began to shake as if he had the ague and the boys around the table could hardly contain their laughter. The little dropped his hat on the floor and his hand shook as he reached for it.
“Jeese,” he said, “I’ll explain everything to anybody what likes me to. It was a terrible mistake. I didn’t mean nothin’, honest.”
“Get out of here!” Owney said and threw open the door. “And God help you!”
With a last wild look at me he scooted through the outer door.
Then the gang let out a roar and patted each other on the backs as if they had just floated a worthless bond issue. Owney held his sides with laughter.
“Let’s go down and have an ice-cream soda, Renee,” he invited me. And we all went down and wallowed in pecan nut sundaes and hot fudges whips. Gangsters? I’ll take vanilla!
I saw the shrimp twice after that. Once at the Cotton Club I spotted him across the floor just before he spied me, and when he did I watched him make a beeline for the door and scram. The second time was in the Grand Central. He came up to me when he saw I was alone. He seemed a bit changed and less hardened. Seeing I was alone he spoke to me.
“I won’t bother you any more,—Miss.”
“My brother got me a job and I’m leaving in ten minutes—for California to catch a boat to Japan. Good-by.”
He picked up his bag and walked through the gate and out upon the platform.
That was the last I ever saw of him.
But practical jokes are by no means limited to racketeers and others of that ilk. Most of the boys along Broadway are as fond of practical jokes as of hot pastrami on rye bread. I’ve heard of some of them sitting up all night preparing for the morrow when they could watch a “pal” sit on a tack or something equally imbecilic. Press agents, whose jobs depend upon their ability to manufacture stories and situations that will eventually attract attention to the object or person they are press-agenting, are past masters in the art of practical joking.
These boys think nothing of bringing elephants down Broadway or lions into hotel rooms for the sake of a picture of paragraph in the papers. And when the white whale was sighted off Sandy Hook, there wasn’t a Broadway boy who was slightly in “the know” who didn’t suspect that Warner Brothers would soon be ushering in “Moby Dick”, starring John Barrymore and a white whale.
And when that young lady threw herself in the very icy Central Park lake and told the reporters she did it because of Vincent Lopez, people started to look slantwise at Irving Strouse, who was press-agenting the band leader, for the story had appeared on page one of nearly every paper in town. And when twenty-five chorus girls started dancing on the letters of an electric sign and drew crowds on Broadway that stopped traffic for ten blocks around, everybody on the street knew that Howard Dietz and his publicity demons at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has been concocting gags. And when dainty Minnie Glotz toe-dances from the Bowery to Columbus Circle, you may be sure that Dan Dougherty of Fox Movietone News will be showing pictures of the event at the Embassy Newsreel Theatre the same evening. And when the Herald-Tribune prints a story of a Russian authority on the drama under the signature of Richard Meanovsky, extolling the virtues of one of Jed Harris‘ sleep-inducing productions of Chekov, then you should know that Dick Meany, who press-agents for Harris, is very much on the job. And when Samuel Goldwyn hurls a bit of bombast into the world for the sake of art and better pictures, or Sinclair Lewis suddenly takes it into his mind to praise where Theodore Dreiser scoffs, then Lynn Farnol had a finger in the publicity pie. And when every lamp-post on Broadway is plastered with banners reading “Palmy Days Are Here Again, Buy Now!” you ought to know that Hal Horne at United Artists is responsible for advertising Eddie Cantor‘s picture Palmy Days. Balmy Ways would be better.
It was a group of those boys that perpetrated the famous joke on Kelcey Allen, known on Broadway as the dean of dramatic critics.
Kelcey not only holds that unenviable position of a critic of the drama, having to sit through the things that we avoid, but also is handicapped in that his reading public are those who seek his work in the pages of Women’s Wear, a trade sheet for cloak and suiters. Buyers from out of town read Kelcey’s criticisms and instruct the jobbers accordingly on what shows they’d like to see.
Kelcey takes the theatre with a grain of salt, walks out on whatever act he likes and not having paid for his tickets, manages to fall asleep when the show becomes boring. Above all he is known for his geniality and for being extremely gullible.
It was against this same Kelcey, one fine summer day, that a plot was hatched in Sardi’s by a number of those leeches of the press, the press agents. In his customary jovial manner Allen came swinging into the restaurant and checked his hat with me.
“I’d ask you to be my wife tomorrow, Renee,” he began, “If I didn’t have a wife, if I wanted to get married and if I were completely insane.”
I can take any sort of kidding, especially from Kelcey. So I let it pass and pushed him into the hubbub of the noonday crowd. He walked forward and in his usual gay manner nodded and saluted his friends as he walked by several tables. Winchell, Eddie Cantor, George Jessel, they all know and like Kelcey.
It happened that a man wearing a beard came into the restaurant that day. Not that beards are strange things to me, but you put a bushy stranger in the midst of a gang of Broadway wiseacres and you’re sure to get at least one new gag and a bushel of snickers. The old bearded ones bout “come out from behind the bush”, or “where did you get the mattress”, or “keep off the grass”, etc., were invented by this crowd in the year two. Everybody just looked leery and expected something to happen. A beard on Broadway is what a sore thumb is to a harpist—it just mustn’t happen. But it did.
Back in a corner of the restaurant, at one of the larger tables, was grouped a handful of the better theater press agents. They saw Kelcey coming toward them, and at the same time they saw Kelcey halt.
He stopped directly opposite the bearded gentleman and stood still. Kelcey, dyed in the wool New Yorker, thought the sight of a beard so strange at the moment that he must have been feeling the Spring or something, for without being able to control himself, he let out a loud guffaw. He thought someone had stuck on a false beard for a gag.
Then the hairy one stopped making noise with his soup spoon and looked up to find the dramatic critic laughing at him and everyone in the restaurant watching the scene.
I’ll admit it was a little embarrassing for the French-looking fellow. For a moment he was taken aback and then, apparently insulted at being made the butt of the entire place, he quietly put down his spoon, reached for his stick, hurriedly paid his bill and walked out of the restaurant.
Kelcey was sorry, of course, but the fellow disappeared too quickly for him to make amends, so he walked to a table of friends and sat down. The crowd forgot the incident immediately, but not the tableful of press agents. Six heads went into a huddle over some scallopine with the result that a moment later one of them picked up his check from the table, collected his hat from me and left the restaurant.
A moment later the same fellow came back into the place, and without checking his hat, walked anxiously through the restaurant until he came to Allen’s table. Kelcey looked up at him and smiled.
“Hello, Kelcey,” the fellow said. “I think there’s something—”
“Why, what’s the matter? You look as white as a sheet. Sit down and have something.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“What’s on your mind?”
“Well, I just came back to tell you, Kelcey, that the fellow with the beard that was sitting over there a couple of minutes ago—”
“What about him?”
“I think he’s waiting for you.”
“Me? Don’t be silly!” Kelcey laughed it off. “Don’t worry. Everything’s all right.”
“I don’t know. He looked mad.”
“Now don’t you worry about it. I’ll take care of everything.” And with that he turned his back to his food and the press agent went out again.
Ten minutes later a second press agent arose from his table and left the restaurant only to return with a look of anxiety on his face. He walked over to Kelcey’s table.
“That fellow who’s waiting outside for you, Kelcey, he’s—”
“He still waiting?” Kelcey wanted to know. “Well, let him wait!”
“I understand he’s one of the attachés of the French Embassy here.”
“Eh?” Kelcey stopped eating. He laughed nervously. “What’s he gonna do, declare war against the United States because I laughed at his muff?”
“No, but he’s raging mad. He’s talking to a cop.”
“Cop! Say this is getting serious. I didn’t think that it would—” Allen rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
“I just thought I’d tell you.”
“Oh sure, thanks.”
The fellow left. And a short while after that another of the group left the place to return as had the others. The look on his face was much more anxious than those of his mates had been.
“Kelcey, for God’s sake!”
“What is it, what is it?” He was jumpy by this time.
“You’d better run for your life!”
“That frog with the bush—”
“That guy again?”
“He’s Claude Perrick!”
“Yeh—and I’m Kelcey Allen!”
“But haven’t you heard of Claude Perrick?”
“No, I haven’t and I don’t want to.”
At that moment the fifth press agent came running over to the table.
“You mean the Perrick?”
He looked at Kelcey as if he were a doomed man.
“Yes, the Perrick!”
“And who in blazes is the Perrick?”
“You don’t know Perrick?” they demanded. “The champion, the most fatal of all French duelists? He killed a Jap at the Versailles Peace Conference, a Swede during the great disarmament conference, two Turks at the Kellogg-Briand discussions for world peace, and a whole panful of small fry.”
“He shoots the spade out of an ace of spades at fifty yards. He knocks ashes off of cigarettes in people’s mouths at ten yards, can write Vive La France with bullets at the top of the Eiffel Tower, was arrested eight times for trying to be a modern William Tell because he wounded the boys and the apples both at two hundred yards, killed—”
“Enough!” Kelcey was trembling. “I don’t care. I’ll face the music.”
At that moment a taxi in the street backfired and Kelcey deflated in his chair.
“Er-er maybe I’d better do something.”
“What can you do? You’ve got to flee, hide, run for your life.”
“Think what it means to Women’s Wear!”
“Yes, we must all think of Women’s Wear!”
“You’ll catch cold from the draft that sweeps through the bullet holes.”
“I don’t want to be a Swiss cheese. Honest, I don’t.”
“Certainly not. You’ve got to run for it.”
“Run? Where can I run? I’ve got to pass that guy if he’s waiting for me.”
“Never mind; we’ll arrange that. Follow us.”
The two remaining press agents made a quick dive for the back exit, Kelcey following timorously behind, ducking every once in a while and peeping over his shoulder to see if the bearded man was following.
But the bearded man never followed. He was a Czecho-slovakian performer on his way to join a show in Chicago. He’d merely been irked by Kelcey’s laugh.
Meanwhile the practical jokers and Allen were sneaking through the kitchen and out the back way. They smuggled the dramatic critic into a cab and told him to stay at home for at least twenty-four hours until things cleared up.
The six publicity men got together again and for the ensuing two weeks kept Allen in such a state of fear that he wouldn’t leave his house at all. The six phoned him in relays that the bearded Frenchman was standing guard in front of Sardi’s night and day, and that Kelcey had better stay indoors indefinitely.
After many days of this, he was let into the joke and he emerged from his quarters. But the feeling for beards has never left him. Now he loves beards and says that some day he’s going to raise one of his own. But he’s still nervous about those things. Even a cat’s whiskers send chills down his spine.
One of the nastiest jokes ever planned and carried out on Broadway was a press agent’s idea of something comic. It was a gag Marc Lachman played on Vincent Sardi, owner of Sardi’s restaurant, where I check and double-check hats.
Lachman is a theatrical press agent notorious for his love of the practical joke. Well, one day he was dining at Sardi’s and decided that a joke on the boss himself would be appropriate. Accordingly he let everyone in the place in on the secret and took me into his confidence.
Marc entered the phone booth at the front of the restaurant and called the telephone number of the restaurant’s private phone. I answered, and knowing it was Marc, called Sardi to the phone.
“This is Sardi,” said the restaurateur.
“And this is Field Marshall Barshak,” Marc said from the booth, not more than ten feet from where Sardi stood.
“Field Marshall Barshak?” Sardi had never heard of Field Marshal Barshak. “Yes, Field Marshal Barshak. What may I do for you, sir?”
“I’ll tell you what you may do for me, sir,” Lachman had adopted a pompous, booming voice—the kind of voice that one of Peter Arno‘s gentlemen characters might affect. “You may be interested in knowing, sir, that 1,000 Boy Scouts, American Boy Scouts, full blooded boys (ah, even you and I were young once, Sardi) are marching down Fifth Avenue.”
“Yes, yes,” Sardi grew impatient. “And what of it, sir?”
“This of it, sir. Those Boy Scouts are marching down Fifth Avenue in celebration of annual Boy Scout day. They have been marching from Van Cortlandt Park. Think of that!”
“Very well, Field Marshal Barshak, I am thinking of it.”
“Then think, my dear Sardi, that each of those boys si in possessino of a normal, healthy, boyish appetite.”
Sardi didn’t begin to see the light.
“I’m a very busy man, Signor. I never belonged to the Boy Scouts. It is too late for me to join now.”
“And who asked you to join?”
“What is it you want, sir?”
“Simply this, my dear Sardi; those 1,000 Boy Scouts that are marching down Fifth Avenue are marching in the direction of your restaurant.”
“Then should I wave a flag and shout hurrah?”
“No, you should prepare yourself. We are bringing those boys into your place for lunch. Are you prepared for that many?”
“One thousand boys you are bringing to my restaurant for lunch?”
“Yes, and they all insist on chicken. Have you that many chickens?”
“You mean are there that many chickens?”
“And they also insist on artichokes and some of the youngsters with the better appetites want pâté de fois gras to begin.”‘
“Bah, what do Boy Scouts know about eating?”
“They can build fires without matches! Can you, my dear Sardi?”
“I have cooks to build fires. I have plenty of matches.”
“But have you room enough for the Boy Scouts?”
“I shall make room! How long before they arrive?”
“In forty-five minutes.”
“Forty-five minutes? Why it takes that long to dig up those chickens.”
“Dig up! Young and growing boys must have fresh chickens.”
“Yes, yes, but it is out of season for artichokes. I am not an unreasonable man, Field Marshal Barshak, but you drive me at the same time mad and happy with your requests. It is a big order and shall be happy to show that Sardi’s can do it. Bring on your Boy Scouts.”
“They are coming on. You just watch for them.”
“How could anyone miss them? They shall smell the cooking from Broadway adn follow their noses.”
“Boy Scouts have compasses. The regulation Boy Scout compass number 149, Regulation type B6 which is to be carried in a khaki shirt pocket on the left side.”
“And it is lucky there are no regulations as to what shall go into their stomachs.”
“Yes, there are. They must eat whole wheat, whole wheat and whole wheat. But we are forgetting rules this once. And charge everything to me. Field Marshal Barshak, Quartermaster, Boy Scouts of America, Canarsie, Queens, New York.”
“Very well, Field Marshal. Everything shall be done.”
“Thank you, my dear Sardi.”
“Oh no, thank you, dear Field Marshal.”
And they both hung up their respective receivers. Sardi ran through his restaurant as if the toast was burning, to issue instructions to every waiter. In the kitchen he drove his force mad with admonitions, instructions, directions, orders. The place was in an uproar. Someone started to go out to buy additional supplies when Lachman and the others in the place who had been enjoying the turmoil thought it time to do something to halt a mad splurge and a needless expenditure.
Lachman entered the booth again and once more called Sardi to the phone.
“My dear Sardi,” he told him. “I have regrettable news.”
“What is it? Everything is being made ready. I am sending out for the chickens. We have even located the artichokes.”
“But you mustn’t.”
“Mustn’t? What do you mean?”
“We have discovered while marching that this is not only National Boy Scout Day but also National Thrift Day.”
“Yes. Instead of wasting money on one of your lousy lunches, we’re going to combine the best features of both days and eat at the Automat.”
“My what kind of lunches—sacré—?!—”
But Field Marshal Barshak had already hung up and retired into the limbo while Marc Lachman emerged from the booth and walked quietly to his seat to watch Sardi turn livid with rage at all Boy Scouts in general and the mythical field marshal in particular.