QUAYS: Dorothy, Damon, Manhattan and The Metropolitan

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Hello! I want to share some more of Quays with you. Part of what I'm trying to do in the novel is bring a long-gone Manhattan back to life - and that means not just the Singer building and the Third Avenue el and all the rest of it, but the people, too. So Dorothy Parker shows up. Here she is having a moment with Tom Quays on the corner of Depeyster and Pearl.

Is it just because she’s a writer? Just because she’s famous, for Christ’s sakes? Well, look at it the other way: you’re a writer, too, you son of a bitch. A writer with prizes, at that. And anyway so what if it was only because of that? I think she’s a hell of a writer and she thinks I’m a hell of a writer. Would you rather she liked the suits you wore or the way you held open the door for her? Would you rather she was here because you had sensitive eyes? Writing’s as much a part of you as anything else. More than that: writing’s the best part of you.

Dorothy’s arm was linked in his and he thought: but you always said you didn’t even like goddamn writers anyway.

They were at the east end of Depeyster Street. It was too dark to see the ocean but there were lights in the night that could’ve been ships or could’ve been buoys.

Her head rested on his shoulder. And what is it with these things that they always have to happen out in the street?, Tom thought.

“I don’t care much if you don’t want to try and kiss me,” Dorothy said, “because I understand that you’re a young man and have complicated personal business and that I’m, well, dammit I’m a married woman after all, aren’t I, and even if I weren’t married I’m scarcely a débutante in any case, and I drink and I expect I reek of cigarettes, so if you don’t want to try and kiss me, that’s fine, Tom, really, it’s fine.”

She had to shout a little to be heard over the noise of the wind and the ocean. Tom was wondering what to say when Dorothy added: “And that’s not, honest to God and girlguide’s honour, Tom, my charming way of asking you to kiss me.”

“I did wonder.”

“My God. Being forthright is so complicated. You’d imagine it’d make things simpler, wouldn’t you? You know. I thought I was being terrifically adult just now – declining to play, oh, the games women play – but it doesn’t make it any easier. A lesson for us all, there, Tom.”

“What was it we were saying about the truth? Jesus, the two of us – a real pair of, of plain speakers, right?”

Dorothy smiled.

“Well, you know what happened to the little girl who told lies. Matilda, and the house, were burned.”

“Poor old Matilda.”

“Poor old Colman.”

“I guess.” Tom shrugged. He’d given Dorothy his jacket and now he shivered in the wind blowing from the ocean and pushed his hands into his pockets. “You know what Colman said? He said that if I ever – that if, I mean, I ever kissed you, you’d probably put me in one of your stories.”

“Colman said that?”

“More or less.”

“I’ll take that to mean that the unbowdlerized version was laced with profanity and invective. But no, Tom – I don’t think I would. I don’t think you’d fit.”

“I guess if I wanted to fit I’d have to make you unhappy.”

“Well, precisely. And don’t take this the wrong way, Tom – “ she squeezed his arm – “but honestly I don’t think you’ve got it in you to make me unhappy.” 

“That’s nice to know.”

“Good – I meant it to be.”

It’s nothing to do with the writing, Tom thought. It doesn’t matter a damn that you’re a writer or that she’s a writer. All it’s to do with is the fact that we’re stood arm-in-arm on the edge of the Atlantic ocean – the fact that we’re both drunk – the fact that, if I don’t kiss her and she doesn’t kiss me, we’re both going to go home and lie awake wishing that we had. When she gives me my jacket back, he thought, it’ll still have her warmth in it, and it’ll smell like she does. Sooner or later, he thought, one or the other of us is going to say something dumb.      

And here's Damon Runyon, war correspondent, sportswriter, familiar spirit of rogueish Broadway, chewing the fat with Tom after he takes a bullet in the knee in the Meuse-Argonne.

“The fat Hoosier said he heard you shout something and then he heard a shot.” Runyon, perched on the edge of Tom’s cot in the dressing station, leafed onehanded through his pocket notebook. “The kid says you saved his life, Quays. Ought to’ve heard him blubbering over you.”

“What did I shout?”

“He doesn’t know. You tell me. ‘God bless America!’. ‘Stick ‘em up!’.”

“Jesus.”

Tom heaved himself up on to his elbows to take a pull on the cigarette Runyon held out to him and then blinked through the smoke at his own legs stretched out under the sheet. A pattern of dried blood on the white sheet marked the position of his left knee.

Runyon followed his gaze.

“Looks like a map of the Belcher Islands,” he said. “Hurt?”

“ – yeah.”

“I bet. Anyway, I figure what happens is, you shoot Heinie out of the tree, where he’s too busy drawing a bead on Horris’s fat ass to notice Lieutenant Quays coming up fast on the rail. Now the kraut’s hurt bad but not yet dead and he’s still feeling sprightly enough to pitch a grenade in your general direction.”

“Christ. And then – “

“Then all hell breaks loose, is about all I can gather. Horris said he doubled back to check up on you and that’s when he heard the grenade go off.”

“Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, boom.”

Runyon squinted at him. “Something like that, I guess,” he said. “Anyway, Horris is too busy having hysterics to tell me much more, but I figure it was him that pulled you into the ditch where they found you.”

“God. That son of a bitch, who’d’ve guessed. How about – well, how about everybody? Anyone else? I mean, how about – "

“Can’t tell you. I haven’t even been here long. All I know is that all hell broke loose. But then that’s always the story, right. Mind if I write you up – Doughboy sharpshooter saves day, et cetera.”

“I’d sooner you didn’t.”

“Suit yourself. Can’t move for goddamn war-heroes round here anyway.”     

With other reconstructions, I took a more oblique approach - i.e. made more stuff up. I invented The Metropolitan, an upscale Manhattan magazine, as a stand-in for the New Yorker, and to give Penelope Bailey, my ambitious newspaperwoman, someone to write for.

The low-sloping sun of September made 33rd Street into a smear of dust and blinding windowglass. She blinked, pausing on the corner on Tenth Avenue. Goodness what a morning.

“A new day, a new dawn.” In the Metropolitan office Robin Parks clapped his hands together – not, it seemed, to silence the typewriters, the telephones, the talk, but, rather, to drive them on, like a jockey spanking his horse down the home straight. “Show me what you’ve got,” Parks said.

Miss Bailey, a little breathless from the stairs as she marshaled pencils and notepads at her heaped desk, thought that Parks’ south Boston brogue – those vowels, my gosh – would take some getting used to – but then, it wasn’t worth getting used to Parks, because by Christmas he’d be back in the boardroom, and the Met would have a new editor.

The day before, Clad Gaskell had called her into his office and she’d stood before his empty desk and listened to the story of how the Methodists had run the old sinner Abe Lambert out of town.

“Cavell, McMasters, Plaine, Pollock – ” Gaskell ticked off the names of the Metropolitan board members on his fingers. “They’re all hot for that old-time religion, you know. Why wouldn’t they be? It was – journalism used to be a religion all its own. A faith, a real American creed, Miss Bailey. It used to have – ”

“Principles.”

“Principles. Exactly. And the men in the Met boardroom are men of devout principle.” Gaskell laughed. “An example to us all. The business is too fast for them now, too dirty, too – too modern. They’re safe where they are. But never forget that it was these men – these men, and men and women like them – who brought down the Trusts. Who took on the robber barons, Miss Bailey.”

“I know that, Mr Gaskell. I’m grateful to them. For that and – and for this.”

“You ought to be, miss.” He smiled but couldn’t hold the smile. “You ought to’ve seen Lambert’s face, though, dammit,” he said. He covered his mouth with his hand but not before Miss Bailey saw his lower lip tremble and fold.

“You did a good thing, Mr Gaskell,” she said. “Maybe the best thing I ever heard of.” She leaned forward across the desk and touched his hand.  

“There’s no need for any of that any more,” Gaskell said.

“I’m sure there isn’t,” she said.

Gaskell looked up at her. His fat throat was pink and pregnant and there was no longer much stability in the tenor of his gaze – not much certainty in the statement his eyes made. His face was a question, now.

“You know what he said?” Gaskell wiped a hand across his mouth. “Lambert. After I – after the meeting. He said I’d sold him out – he said he shouldn’t’ve been surprised, because he always knew I was a goddamn hypocrite, but he didn’t expect that I’d sell him out for some slut of an errand girl.” He shrugged. “That’s what he said.”

Miss Bailey mirrored Gaskell’s shrug and said: “I don’t see why anyone should give a darn what that old man says any more.”

So it was Robin Parks’ magazine for now. Parks had been editor in the old days, before Frank Derbyshire took over in ’23 and dragged the Met uptown. Since then he’d sat on the board and smoked a pipe and once in a while he’d sent down some directive – ‘Keep an eye on Myron Taylor (US Steel)!’ or ‘Reportage from Foochau?’ – that either Derbyshire or Lambert would screw up and drop in a wastebasket.

She’d asked Gaskell who the board wanted to appoint to the editorship long-term.

“Long-term? There’s no long-term in this business,” he’d said.

Like the sound of all this? Want more - more Manhattan, more Dorothy and Damon, more fast talking, more gin swilling, more jazz, love, lies, blood, sex, spilled ink, prizefights, bootleg booze and warring writers? Then PLEASE take a look at the rewards on offer and think about pledging. Or even better, don't think, just pledge. Your support could make all the difference.     

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