In Your Hat, pt. 5

Here’s Chapter 5 of In Your Hat, the 1933 tell-all memoir by Hat Check Girl to the Stars, Renee Carroll, in which she dishes on 1930s press agentry and Broadway columnists such as Walter Winchell, Louis Sobol, Mark Hellinger, and others.

     THE press boys are divided into two sections. Those who are in and those trying to get in. Those already in are such lights as Winchell, Hellinger, Sobol, Skolsky, Yawitz, Sullivan and the rest. On the other side of the gate, trying day and night to crash it, are a host of diligent workers, most of them intelligent youngsters who have experienced softening of the brain.
     The press agents, who like to think of themselves as connected with the newspaper business, are in such great numbers that it would be difficult to name them all. But the majority of the best ones are connected with the films.
     It has been said that if you scratch a star you’ll find a press agent, and if you scratch a press agent, he’ll thank you. The press agent is a nervous, erratic type who works in twenty-four hour shifts (while you sleep) and succeeds in bringing the name of his client before the public—or gets thrown into the street in the attempt. If you walk along and see a man dusting himself off, you can lay odds it’s a press agent with another idea gone wrong.
     The reason I say that most press agents are in the preliminary stages of dementia praecox is because they write things that under ordinary circumstances they would admit were insane, and yet they expect editors to print the stuff without question. Their efforts are so frantic that in no time at all they get farfetched and nutty, and the result is shown partly in the collection of press-agent’s squibs that I have collected from time to time. All of the copy is from movie press agents gone wrong.
     For example, one of them, having nothing else to do, will write a story and send it to the editors expecting them to print it. This one is an extract of a story sent from Hollywood:

   “…the physical measurements of 124 of the chorus girls under contract to this studio reveal that they have grown, on an average, one-fourth of an inch in height in the past eight months since most of them were placed under contract. There has also been an average of increase of three pounds in weight despite the strenuous dancing which is part of their daily routine.”

     This startling item may make the nation growth-conscious and it may, on the other hand, make the press agent obnoxious.
     Another great news break for managing editors comes printed in sotto voce type, telling the gaping world that an English actor who appeared as a butler in many films “has received letters offering him jobs as the major-domo in the service of many Park Avenue dowagers.” It goes on to say that the actors has received 279 offers.
     Another story teller sends out a squib saying that love scenes have not suffered with talking films, for a hero and a heroine meeting for the first time on the set no longer find it necessary to simulate warmth in their celluloid caresses. Science has come to Cupid’s assistance in the guise of a portable set-warmer, which sends gales of hot air into chilly stages. SIZZLING LOVE SCENES ARE BECOMING A REALITY AT TALKIE STUDIOS! (The capital letters are the press agent’s.) Operated by gas and electricity, the heating units, etc. An electric fans blows hot air in any desired direction.
     They might have saved expenses and put the writer on the scene.

     When a modern ballet was written for a certain film the press agent thought it best that critics be told beforehand just what sort of music was planned and how unusual it was. One of the boys almost fell over backward trying to describe the event. It went like this:

   “It is episodic! Bitter moments alternate with soft rapturous feeling. An undercurrent is never wanting but the highest expectation of hope ends in frustration. There is a terrific clash of conflict between the lovers’ desire and faith opposing worldly powers that deny them the final gentle phrase of invisible spiritual belief.”

     I don’t know what it means, either.
     One of the boy tried to put over a story which will go down as the “wildest dream.” He wrote that in his 20 years of service he had never before encountered a case in which so many hats had been forgotten in the theater where his picture was running. He had the gumption to write that “the men who returned for their hats invariably presented themselves at the box-office accompanied by ladies, and purchased two tickets for the evening after inquiring after their chapeaux.

   “Inquiry disclosed,” this brazen inventor wrote, “that the men had deliberately left their hats so they might return to see the picture once more.”

     Then, as if this wasn’t the end of the world for dopey stories, he continued:

   “Dobbs, Knox’s and Stetsons predominate among the hats, which indicates that talking pictures have won high favor with our gilded scions of wealth.”

     That’s what we say—aw, nerts!
     When one of the companies brought over an intelligent and dignified English actor, a press agent sent around his photograph with the attached notice pasted on the back:

   “Get a load, girls, of the newest talking screen palpitator about whom they originating new adjectives. His name is Blah Blah and he is five feet ten and a half inches, has brown hair and blue eyes, is not married, likes all outdoor sports, smokes sparingly and will share his cigarettes with anyone, is crazy about the mixed American accent and American girls, although he is an Englishman.”

     I don’t know yet what a mixed American accent is and I can’t understand why he can’t like American girls even though an Englishman.
     When one of the studios started to photograph in color, a process that demands the use of extra light, a press agent wrote the following:

   “Since the use of color at our studio, the consumption of water has increased 25 per cent because the stages get warmer and people get thirstier.”

     This is fine but why leave it there, the press agent would like to know. So he continues:

   “One hundred and twenty-five gallon bottles of water are consumed every day by players, directors and electricians, which makes an average of 750 bottles or 4,500 gallons per week of six working days, which is about 15,000 drops a week for each person.”

     A press agent exploiting Connie Bennett at about the time she was reported to be receiving $30,000 a week, wrote of her under her own quotes:

   “Enjoying yachting parties on the Mediterranean, having a villa at Biarritz and a wonderful establishment in Paris bores me. Having about my dinner table a company which included diplomats, generals, artists and musicians.
   But after my guests had gone home I frequently asked myself, ‘What are you accomplishing to keep pace with all these others?’ And the answer had to be ‘nothing!'”

     So diplomacy was raised to a new level when Connie Bennett returned to the screen.
     One of the male movie stars is quoted as saying:
     “I used to think all women were just a total blank, but several experiences have changed my mind. Women are smarter than men.”
     Which leaves everything just as he found it.
     When one of the boys was trying to exploit Rita LeRoy on a Hollywood movie lot he sent out a biography on her. This was supposed to be a novel biography and you’ll it is.

   “She’s a red-head …” it goes, and all the dots are the press agent’s, “with the disposition of a dusky cold brunette. … If she had been a man … folks would have called her the lone wolf type … She lives alone … and eats alone … and her contacts with other people are as crisp as they are brief.
   “It may have started … that self-contained attitude on life, when her father died and left her an orphan at 13 (fathers should die without leaving orphans to their daughters) her mother died when she was born (very short-lived). She would rather ride a horse than romp with the gayest beach crowd in the world … wears a cigarette lighter around her neck … usually has a cigarette between the third and fourth fingers of her left hand.
   “She won’t allow liquor near her … only eats one meal a day, has a dread of being hurt in an auto accident (who hasn’t?) but is not the slightest bit nervous in airplaines or racing boats.
   “She’s a moody person … shuts herself up for weeks at a time … reads Lord Dunsany and is mad about kids … her ambition when she leaves the screen … is to adopt ten orphan kids between the ages of two and five … buy a ranch and bring them up the way she believes children should be reared.
   “Says she’ll never have any children of her own … swears she’ll never marry.”

     If she does have kids and doesn’t marry—imagine her embarrassment. But this biography of a lonely soul is very accurate. Where is Rita LeRoy today? Yes, where is she? Still in Hollywood, yes, but I bet she won’t end up on a farm with ten adopted kids.
     One press agent sent out a story about Richard Barthelmess who was making an Oriental picture in which there were many Chinese. Barthelmess couldn’t remember the names of his workers so he hit on the brilliant scheme of calling them “Sing Hi, Sing Lo, Sing Bad, Sing Good, Sing Punk and So Long.”
     They also described Jeanette MacDonald‘s voice as “similar to a golden-voiced nightingale” and her hair “the exact shake of old Roman gold.”
     One of them wrote:

   “An East Indian perfumer and appraiser of precious stones, now resident in Hollywood, created a new scent in honor of Dorothy Mackaill saying: ‘If the 18 day diet has not exactly changed the girth of the nation, it has at least inspired a new perfume—Grapefruit Eau de Cologne.'”

     One star, a press agent wrote, signed a contract which specified that she must sleep eight hours every night. Nothing, fortunately, was said about the position she was to assume while sleeping.
     As for the boys who get in print and on the streets in tomorrow’s extras, Winchell leads the pack, and such a bunch of dogs as Simon Legree ever dreamed of siccing on little Lizzy! Let a bull loose in a China shop and you have damage. Throw the same bull into a newspaper column and you have a Broadway writer’s idea of fancy embroidery.
     There’s always the story about the lady who read in Winchell‘s column that she was anticipating a blessed event, and then rushed to her doctor who immediately confirmed the prediction. That’s typical of Winchellalia. He beats God to the act.
     Besides being a born snooper, Walter’s the cleverest renovator of old jokes in America—and in addition, one of the worst vaudeville performers that I have ever seen.
     For those morbidly interested, Winchell was born on the lower East Side in April, 1897. It is rumored that his first expression was “Whoopee!” and that three days after he was born he was out all night trying to get the lowdown on the neighborhood kids.
     Despite everything his friends could do, he managed to grow up and wheedle his way into Public School 184. But good luck was with him, for he left after the sixth grade, which qualifies anyone as a columnist on a tabloid. Walter says he left public school when most of his critics were still in reform school, which leaves him one up—but not for long.
     With Eddie Cantor, Georgie Jessel and another East Side lad he formed a quartet of go-Ghetto boys who sang as much as they were able to when and where they could. Their subway circuit took them first into the Imperial on 16th Street, one of the first movie emporiums, the granddaddy of black marble and starched ushers. Winchell held all the high notes with a thin tenor and screeched the loudest—a quality that has proven to be a lasting one.
     In September, 1919, Winchell, Cantor and Jessel were signed by Gus Edwards, the prodigy-discoverer (when will someone discover Gus Edwards?) and our little Walter earned fifteen dollars a week, plus ten dollars extra for acting as assistant stage manager. With Winchell at the keyhole things couldn’t last forever, so in 1917, when the war decided to happen, he joined the Navy.
     It was in this branch of the service that he learned that the posters showing the gobs having a dandy time around the world are fakes and so much propaganda. He must have looked over the admiral’s transom for he was honorably mustered out of service. In Chicago a booked who must have been experiencing an off-day booked him for two years over the Pantages circuit. It is understood that later on the booker shot himself in the books.
     But Winchell took advantage of the pay and started his own gossip newspaper, soon afterwards becoming the West Coast correspondent for the Vaudeville, for which he received exactly nothing per.
     Later, when he came to New York to set the town on its ear by his ear for news, he asked Glenn Gondon, managing editor of Vaudeville News, for a job—and got it! Four years of slandering still unsuspecting Broadway, and along came Bernarr (God, I’m healthy) MacFadden with his blatant porno-Graphic, the paper that turned yellow, green, red, and then stayed in the red! And to the Graphic went Winchell as columnist, dramatic editor, critic, all wrapped up and delivered without benefit of cellophane for ten sawbucks every week. Did I say a sawbuck? Maybe twenty fins or a tenth of a grand would describe it.
     The origin of his now-famous Monday morning gossip column was due largely to an accident. For when a hard-boiled city editor refused to follow up a tip from Winchell, when then saw the same story break and become a sensation in every paper three days later, Walter saw red and decided to print, under his name, all the gossip he could ferret out. And once he printed it, all the king’s horses and all the government’s libel suits couldn’t put it together again.
     Although he has been widely imitated and parodied, Winchell still remains the master of them all. He has a million or more self-appointed spies, and his methods of obtaining material are strange, but no one ever denies that he gets results. He never retracts (well, hardly ever), is clever and fearless, and what’s more important, believe it or not, he plays fair! For Winchell declares he never prints an item about a man or woman playing around Broadway, if he knows that at home somewhere is a husband or wife blissfully unaware of their more lively half’s transgressions.
     Walter wakes up about 4 o’clock in the afternoon (after spending the day and night under beds and in closets) and wander into his office at 6. Then his day begins. He answers mail, ducks behind his desk as the missiles come flying past and answers phone calls, looks over the notes left him by Ruth Cambridge, his charming secretary, and then starts out for parts unknown.
     Just where, how and why he goes must remain his professional secret. Pasty-faced and bleary-eyed, (his nervous breakdowns were inevitable) he usually returns to his office about seven in the morning and spends two hours or more preparing his copy for the next day. Then home to bed and up again at four for another round on the treadmill which fascinates him, his readers, and curious victims all over the world.
     Although he is vicious newspaperman, he is more than that too. George Jean Nathan, who swings a mean axe himself, has said of Winchell that “he is a superb reporter who is enriching our language.” Surely his word “whoopee,” his expressions “ankle up the altar,” “blessed event,” two people “that way” and others have become household terms for pleasant dalliance.
     He is happily married to Jane Aster, a former dancer, and the Winchells have a charming daughter, Walda, who remains the biggest thing in her father’s bombastic life. The Walda sounds suspiciously like an egotistical appraisal. Walter plans to make a million dollars, then retire to Long Island and raise chickens—the dream of every vaudevillian.
     He’ll probably end up as a country gentleman who tries to keep things out of the paper because “the facts are untrue and libelous, sir, and that wench you refer to is my wife!”
     By far the most understanding of the day-by-day columnists is Mark Hellinger. His stories of life and of human nature, albeit sometimes not so new, are read and appreciated by millions every day.
     As much a landmark along the Ginny Way as his peeping-Tom confrère Walter Winchell, it is a rare occasion when Hellinger slings his nouns, verbs and aptly chosen adjectives pointedly about “well-knowns.” Only infrequently do his episodes mention real names. “What’s the difference,” asked Mark of me, “if the guy’s name is John Doe or Jack Important—it’s the story that counts.” So what?
     Luckily, he himself was down in the dumps once. And now, when unfortunates get together to compare notes, Hellinger is rarely bested. For years he has been accumulating sob stories, many of which he uses for his column and many of which he uses to strengthen his prestige as a yarn spinner.
     His career seems to have been a long series of being niftily booted out in dizzy succession from one place to another. He was ejected from high school when he led a strike, kicked out of Columbia for some obscure reason, then fired from a whole slew of unimportant jobs. Either he told the boss to go to ————, took two days off for lunch, daydreamed at work—oh, any number of reasons brought on the request to “leave or be fired!”
     Finally, he landed in a Greenwich Village restaurant as cashier. His wages totaled zero, but he got all his meals free. Some might say he had reach the bottom, but the experience paid Mark heavy dividends in stories, many of which are still unpublished.
     B. S. Moss, the producer, hoisted him from the Village beanery to a job on Zit’s, where he remained until the late Phil Payne of the News gave him a reportorial job. In 1924, when a girl sobbie who had been doing a Sunday feature labeled “About Town” left the paper, Mark stepped in. He started with a tear-jerker. He says he’s been using the same story ever since! Three years ago, when his popularity began to jack up the News‘ circulation, Mark began to sob out his heart daily.
     In common with all his foggy-eyed colleagues, Mark hates to write down his column, stalling to within a few minutes of the deadline. Then he galvanizes himself into action, working frantically until his material has been typed out. Much of the charm of his column is due to the fact that it is done at white heat. Hot stuff, it’s called.
     Hellinger is one of the Mirror‘s “best sellers.” He has a suite nearly as elaborate as that of a solvent bank president replete with reception room, private office, and a highly efficient secretary whose main job is to keep out would-be visitors. Mark never knows when someone he’s knocked might start doing some fancy knocking himself.
     Usually bored with things, Hellinger is always achingly desirous of a real flood-starter (a sort of super-super sob story). Just filling space gets on his nerves, and a good way of becoming his pal is to spill a harrowing tale which includes at least a few broken hearts. That is, if you want to become his pal.
     He does a lot of reading to make up for his limited formal education. Although he possesses a sense of humor a yard wide, he insists the quality is merely a matter of perspective. He gets a sharp delight in delivering smart wallops with his type-paddle at the phonies who should get wise to themselves. While he holds that nothing in life should be taken seriously, he has made it his unofficial job to yank up the loud, gaudy, fakey curtain of Broadway and expose the props behind it.
     Mark Hellinger, raconteur of tales, who may some day be the new O. Henry!
     When Walter Winchell fled the Graphic, with the column which he had earnestly made a byword for “what’s the dirt?”, the paper was dismayed, and Broadway freely predicted that “Your Broadway and Mine” was due for early delivery at Cain’s warehouse.
     Louis Sobol, assistant dramatic editor of the Graphic, asked if he could pound his typewriter keys as a columnist. (Never in his life had he written a column, so he felt that he was all set.) His dubious editor put him on trial for two days. Well, he lasted two years until he shifted his lares and penates to the Journal at a salary that mounts into ever so many figures.
     Ask Louis, who looks like a Union Square Communist, what makes a successful searchlight swinger, and he’ll readily confess ignorance. The nearest thing he had ever done to columning was “ghosting” autobiographies for such celebrities as Queen Marie of Roumania, Daddy Browning, Helen Keller, Charlotte Mills and the Gibbs Siamese Twins of Texas. But Sobol doubts highly whether this work was a preparation for his present occupation. Too much imagination went into his “ghostly” efforts, and that’s a bad habit to have, he says, for Sobol prides himself in the absolute accuracy of his observations.
     Newspapering is a great thing, but Louis sighs—ah, if only one didn’t have to keep on writing all the time! He gets a big kick though out of gathering grist for his inky mill, but when it comes to writing it down, he stalls, like Hellinger, until the last possible moment, snatching at all and sundry reasons for postponing work until heavy pressure is brought to bear.
     Sobol’s greatest pleasure comes from sweeping in the unusual impressions which make up his famous “Snapshots.” He rambles hither and yon, wherever the so-called “who’s who” might be expected to be,—and he keeps his astigmatic eyes open. He catches them off their guard, he notes their true demeanor,—and he has copped a valuable paragraph for his pert, life-revealing “Snapshots”!
     Louis is never contented, frequently gets in the dumps, and it takes little to make him moody. This, and the milkman’s hours he keep (it seems that those worth seeing and reporting never emerge from their cocoons before midnight), doesn’t cause his wife to be too pleased with his job. His ten-year-old daughter, Natalie, who’s been written up more than any other ten-year-old in New York, probably often wonders about the small chap with the high-domed forehead, the owl-life glasses and quasi-mustache who wanders in and about the house occasionally.
     Despite his congenial distaste for putting his pen to paper, Louis has written two plays, one already produced (Cain’s dray was backing up to the stage before the final curtain fell), and he’s working on a novel about, of all things, Broadway life. He’s another of those inevitable chaps who dream of being able to retire at 40 and spend the rest of their lives writing—and selling—fiction.
     He’s not much of a hand at drinking and his friends have to shake their heads and make allowances. After two drinks he’s uncertain, the third uncorks a windy discourse, and with the next he insults everyone within reach. But he’s a human chimney and feels more naked with a cigarette than without trousers.
     Sobol does his daily stint in an office no bigger than a chorus girls’ costume. The room is crowded when both the desk and Louis squeeze into it. The desk features an insecure pyramid of massed books, papers and pictures. Once he had a secretary, but he figured it would save time if he did his material alone. Since then he’s changed his mind has an efficient assistant to keep him organized.
     Sobol is somewhat of a book collector, and has paid a lot of money for handsome bindings, but if a friend admires the treasure, the book is pressed on him. He’s extravagant, buys anything he likes, cost to the contrary. He spends very little for clothes.
He is very restless, continually on the go while rounding up material at night. He can’t remain in one place for more than a short time. Says he was born restless. He’s a spectator who has noted ever so much, yet is continually eager for more. Why? To prove that New York is a city matchless in the world for a collection of people, events, habits and traits, which is built into a shoulder upon which Sobol and the other boys sob their little hearts out.

     One of the least known to those not “in the swim”, Leo Michel is a typical Broadwayite, for his is a typical Broadway story of boundless ambition fully realized. A physician, unable by force of circumstances to become an official in any of the street’s activities, he has created a successful substitute. Instead of going to Broadway for amusement in his hours of relaxation, he has made Broadway come to him!
     The door to his vast apartment on Fifty-fifth Street is always unlatched, and there, at one time or another, you will find all the celebrities whose portraits grin and groan from the walls of Sardi’s salon. “Dr. Michel’s” is undoubtedly the finest night club in New York! Everyone knows everyone else. There are no butter-and-egg men, no country cousins with popping eyes, and best of all, no prudes.
     One does as one pleases at Leo Michel’s. Singing and dancing for those who would croon and gyrate. Backgammon and ping-pong for the athletically inclined. When Dr. Michel becomes tired (he is only human and a large medical practice is no cinch) he abruptly leaves the party and goes to bed, trusting the last outgoing guest to lock up and put out the cat.
     He is crazy about music, he even took up the zither (the easiest instrument to master, by the way,) but he had to stop when he found that the playing was injurious to his hands. (He diverts himself with surgery among other things.)
     When the champion piano-sitter of them all, Helen Morgan, perches herself on his radio and starts crooning unforgettable spirituals, Dr. Michel is good for an all-night session of joyous contentment.
     A shrill voice is one of the few things that drives him frantic, even in the center of Broadway’s din, and often he thrusts an all-quieting thermometer into the offender’s mouth. Michel thoroughly dislikes talkative people, but it’s a paradoxical mystery, for he’s certainly no relation to the Sphinx.
     Unmarried and more than twenty-nine by his own admission, he claims that more women have said “no” to him than to any other male in creation—and all of them were Ada-May.
     Always on the lookout to lighten others’ burdens, the Michel modified breadline was in existence long before breadlines became the Hoover trademark. He rounds up strays, takes them to a little restaurant near his apartment, chins with them until theater time, then leaves to taste the sweetest part of the whole routine—a première! Broadway without premières would be for him, he avers, just too bad!
     As a matter of fact, so much Dr. Michel delight in Broadway and its queer people that he refuses to take a holiday unless it be in the company of Broadway’s citizens, and though he lives alone, he is never left alone.

< Read Chapter 4 | Read Chapter 6 >

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