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Authors: Margaret Truman

Murder at Ford's Theatre

BOOK: Murder at Ford's Theatre
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Margaret Truman

Ballantine Books • New York


In 1861, John T. Ford, an American theatrical entrepreneur with successful theaters in Baltimore and Richmond, took a five-year lease on Washington’s Tenth Street Baptist Church with the intention of adding it to his list of theaters. After renting it for the first year to George Christy’s famous Christy Minstrels, and after a major renovation, it officially opened as Ford’s Theatre in March 1862. The theater was gutted by fire nine months later. Ford’s Theatre reopened in August of 1863 and went on to present 573 performances until, on April 14, 1865, it was the scene of the assassination of our sixteenth president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.

I offer this not as a slice of well-known historical fact, but to make a linguistic point. Note that I’ve spelled theater two ways: theater and theatre. Although Mr. Ford was an American, the British influence in America was pervasive in those days. It still is among those of certain pretensions who, well, consider things British to be more erudite, including the spelling of words.

The British spell it
. In American English, it’s

Alas! What to do? Using alternate spellings throughout the book would prove a confusing distraction to readers, to say nothing of copy editors.

To resolve this dilemma, I turned to my editor and friend, Sam Vaughan, whose wisdom in such things is unassailable. Because the scene of the murder is Ford’s Theatre, spelled with the British “tre,” theater is spelled theatre throughout the book. I consider this a sensible solution, and trust you will, too. If it should cause you a problem, please take it up directly with Sam.


New York City


that the average high temperature in Washington, D.C., in September is seventy-nine degrees Fahrenheit. But on this particular Tuesday, the day after a long Labor Day weekend, the thermometer read eighty-one at seven in the morning, which meant ninety was a possibility by noon, a hell of a time for Johnny Wales’s air conditioner to decide to crash. It had ground to a halt sometime during the night; it had to have been between two in the morning when Wales returned from a night of drinking with his buddies, and five
when he was awakened by the sound of the vintage window unit seizing up.

He rolled his sticky body out of bed at seven and stood in front of an oscillating table fan, raising his arms to allow the moving air to wash over his nakedness. Understandably, his mood was palpably foul; his mutterings were mostly four-lettered as he poured orange juice, washed down a handful of vitamins, and entered the shower. The weather was bad enough, and you couldn’t do anything about that. But Bancroft’s early crew call at Ford’s was arbitrary. What was the big deal? he wondered as he readjusted the faucets to add cooler water to the mix. It was only a teenage drama workshop production.

As he moved about getting ready in his room above an army-navy store on Ninth Street, not far from the Capitol City Brewing Company, the final stop on last night’s toot, and only a few blocks from Ford’s Theatre, where he’d been employed as a stagehand for the past two years, his size—six feet four inches tall and 220 pounds—made the cramped studio apartment seem smaller. He pulled on a faded pair of blue jeans, Washington Redskins T-shirt, slipped tan deck shoes over bare feet, attached a black fanny pack to his waist, and checked himself in the mirror. Building and erecting stage sets hadn’t been his ambition when graduating from the University of Wisconsin seven years ago. He’d been a leading man in university productions, a big, handsome guy who might make it in Hollywood one day if the chips fell right. He’d tried that for a year, but left Tinseltown weary of failure and wary of tinsel and followed a girlfriend to Washington, where his stagecraft courses at Wisconsin landed him after a while membership in the union and a job at the theatre. It wasn’t acting, but at least it was showbiz: No jokes about following circus elephants with shovels, thank you.

He stopped at a Starbucks, eschewing an effete latte at scandalous prices for a large coffee light and sweet, and walked through the stage entrance of Ford’s Theatre at precisely eight. His pique at having to be there early was eased by the welcome blast of AC. A uniformed park ranger stood backstage with some of Wales’s fellow stagehands, drinking coffee and laughing about something. The ranger in the drab brown uniform was one of many who would conduct hourly, fifteen-minute lectures for tourists later that day as they wandered into America’s most infamous theatre, the three-storey, solid brick building where, not playacting, Abe Lincoln had been shot to death by the actor John Wilkes Booth.

“Hey, big guy, good weekend?”

“Yeah,” Wales said, leaning against a piece of stage furniture and sipping his coffee. “Over too soon.” A pulsating headache had developed between leaving the apartment and arriving at the theatre. No sense mentioning it; he wouldn’t get any sympathy anyway. “Where’s Sydney?”

“Who cares?”

“I care,” said Wales. “He called this stupid meeting.”

“Don’t speak ill of the famous Bancroft,” someone said.

“Screw the famous Sydney Bancroft,” Wales said, pressing fingertips to his temple. “Besides, he’s not famous anymore. He

“I sense a hangover, Johnny.”

Wales laughed. “You sense it, I feel it.”

“Snap to. Our leader has arrived.”

Attention turned to an open yellow door linking the theatre to the adjacent attached building in which the Ford’s Theatre Society offices were housed. While the National Park Service maintained the theatre as an historic site, it was the nongovernmental Ford’s Theatre Society that used the venue to mount its ambitious schedule of theatrical productions. Heading that society, and coming through the door, was the theatre’s producing director, Clarise Emerson, a former Hollywood TV producer who’d been recruited three years earlier to replace the departing Frankie Hewitt. Hewitt had been brought in almost thirty-five years before by then Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall to help develop a plan for the theatre following its most recent renovations, and to choreograph fund-raising efforts. Hewitt was a tough act to follow. The former wife of
60 Minutes
producer Don Hewitt, Frankie had guided Ford’s Theatre from being solely a government museum chronicling the Lincoln assassination to one of America’s preeminent resident theatres, a living tribute to Lincoln’s well-known love of the performing arts. More than twenty musicals had received their world premieres there since the beautifully restored theatre opened in January 1968, including
Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope,
Your Arms Too Short to Box With God,
many moving on to Broadway. And hundreds of plays had been performed, all adhering to Ford’s stated mission: “To produce musicals and plays that embody family values, underscore multiculturalism, and illuminate the eclectic character of American life.”

theatre!” some critics said.

Certainly noncontroversial. Avant-garde playwrights need not apply. Nothing to ruffle the feathers of members of Congress who decided how much to include for the theatre in the yearly congressional budget, particularly eighty-six-year-old Alabama Senator Topper Sybers, chairman of the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. Unlike some “reviewers” who never saw a play or painting or book they didn’t like, Sybers had never seen a play or piece of art that wasn’t lubricious. But Clarise had more than financial reasons these days for not wanting to provoke the elderly, feisty senator from Alabama. The president, Lewis Nash, Clarise’s lifelong friend, had recently nominated her to chair the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Sybers’s Labor and Human Resources Committee would conduct her confirmation hearing.

Clarise’s appearance that morning was surprising to the assembled. She seldom set foot inside the theatre, delegating virtually every creative aspect to others. Her time was better spent, she often said, squeezing money out of wealthy patrons, individuals and corporations alike.

“Good morning,” she said brightly to the half-dozen stagehands marking time.

“‘Morning, Clarise,” they responded.

Because of her status on the Washington scene—not only was she a personal friend of the president and headed for the NEA, she’d once been married to Bruce Lerner, senior senator from Virginia, a handsome, sixty-year-old bachelor often seen on the arm of beautiful, high-profile women—there was the natural tendency for younger people at Ford’s to address her as Ms. Emerson. But she’d put an end to that shortly after taking up her post there, and everyone called her Clarise.

That she was youthful in appearance and manner helped. People took her to be considerably younger than fifty-four. Good genes had given her not only beauty but boundless energy; Clarise didn’t walk, she moved at an almost constant trot, up on the balls of her feet, looking as though she might suddenly decide to become airborne. She stood military erect, like her father, who’d served twenty years in the air force, retiring to their small farm in Ohio to die of a coronary three years after exchanging his blue uniform for coveralls. She was, in fact, like her father, Luke Emerson, in almost all ways, physically and philosophically, except for her sense of humor, which was decidedly her mother’s, a short, plump woman better suited to the role of farmer’s wife than military spouse, subservient to her dour husband when in his presence, but wickedly prankish about him when chatting with women friends.

“Early start,” Clarise said. “What’s the occasion?”

“Sydney called a meeting,” a stagehand said.


“The teenage show, I guess,” Wales said.

“Is there a problem with it?”

“Not that we know of, Clarise.”

“Sydney’s not even in town,” she said.

“That’s just terrific,” Wales said, dropping his empty cup into a trash can. “Anybody got an aspirin?”

“Do you know why Sydney called a tech meeting?” Clarise asked.

Shrugs all around.

“Well, sorry you’re here so early for nothing. I’ll speak with Sydney when I see him.”

Clarise turned and retraced her steps to the door connecting the buildings. The four men and one female apprentice watched her retreat from where they stood backstage, the men appreciating the attractive sway of her tall, lithe figure, a gazelle in an expensive, tailored gray pantsuit, neck-length reddish blond hair bobbing, hips moving in perfect rhythm with her long strides.

“That is one good-looking woman,” the oldest of the stagehands said quietly. He’d been at Ford’s for twenty-two years.

“Yeah, I’ve noticed,” Wales offered.

“Hate to see her go,” the older man said.

“Better Sydney should go,” Wales said. “We going to hang around?”

“Might as well.”

“I’m going out for a cigarette,” Wales said. He’d cut back on his smoking, limiting himself to ten cigarettes a day, except when he was out drinking. He didn’t keep count on those occasions.

“I’ll go with you,” said the young female apprentice.

As Wales and the girl headed for a door at the rear of the stage leading to a narrow area behind the theatre called Baptist Alley, the older stagehand laughed and said to the others, “She hangs around Johnny like a puppy dog. Really got the hots for him.”

“He could do worse. She’s a fox.”

“I’ll take Clarise,” the older man said. “Women aren’t any good until they’ve got a little wear and tear on them.”

Clarise?’ Fat chance. She’s strictly money and power.”

“You never know,” the older guy said, chuckling. “My wife’s too good at homicide anyway. Let’s put this furniture in place as long as we’re here.”

Wales and the girl, Mary, had paused at the door to the alley while he fumbled in the fanny pack for his cigarettes. “Just got ten,” he said. “You owe me one.”

She punched his arm and turned the security lock on the door.

“Got ’em,” Wales said, retrieving the crumpled half pack and pulling two cigarettes from it.

“Every time I go through this door,” she said, “I think of Booth.”

“John Wilkes? Crazy bastard. Got his fifteen minutes of fame.”

“He escaped through this door. He had his horse tied out in the alley.”

“I know, I know. I’ve heard the tourist pitch a thousand times.”

Wales grasped the doorknob and pushed on the door. It opened only a few inches. Something was blocking its way. He pushed harder, resulting in another inch or so.

“What the hell?” he muttered.

He leaned his body against the door and exhaled a rush of air as he tried again. This time the opening was wide enough through which to poke his head.

“What is it?” Mary asked.

He’d been looking straight ahead, up the long alley that forked left and exited onto F Street. He wedged his shoulder into the gap and twisted his head to look down at whatever was preventing the door from swinging open.

“What is it?” Mary repeated, envisioning some drunk sleeping it off against the door. Baptist Alley had become a downtown lovers’ lane for couples looking for smooch time, drug addicts shooting up, or alcoholics deciding to nap.


“What is it?” she repeated.



“It’s Nadia,” he managed, his voice raspy and higher than normal as though the horror on the dead girl’s face had reached up and gripped his throat.

BOOK: Murder at Ford's Theatre
8.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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