The Prince of West End Avenue

BOOK: The Prince of West End Avenue
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FOR ELLEN, Without Whom Most Assuredly Not

The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy,

history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical,

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Hamlet 2.2

THE PRINCE of WEST END AVENUE

here. Nothing to boast of, I suppose, by the severe standards of Broadway, but good enough.) Adolphe alone of all of us could claim some professional experience. For reasons now buried with him, he was in Hollywood in the 1930s and, amazingly, found brief employment as a Ruritanian soldier in the movie The Prisoner of Zenda. This was, it is true, his sole public offering on the altar of Thespis, but such are the vagaries of fame that this happenstance has granted him a kind of celluloid and ghostly immortality. He always spoke fondly of Ronald Colman, the great English actor, on the anniversary of whose death he would wear a black armband. Well, Sinsheimer is gone, and it would be meanspirited to question the closeness of his friendship with "dear Ronnie," as he always called him. It appears Adolphe choked upon a lump of sugar he had hidden in his room against a midnight hunger pang, turned purple and died before he could summon help. Thus we can say that Sinsheimer, the first of us to become a supernumerary, discovered at the last how sweet it is to die.

But my subject is not amateur theatricals, it is art—or, more accurately, anti-zvv. in brief, Dada. I want to set the historical record straight. For sixty years I have been harboring the truth, a private possession, whether out of greed or modesty I cannot say. But Magda Damrosch has reappeared, and now the truth must out. It groans for expression. If, as a result, my part on the world's stage appears inflated, so be it.

I might as well tell you that I have been cast as the Ghost in Hamlet. There is an irony in that if one can but sniff it out. We produce only the classics at the Emma Lazarus. Of course, you have to make allowances. Last year, for example, our Juliet was eighty-three and our Romeo seventy-eight. But if you used your imagination, it was a smash hit. True, on opening night, when Romeo killed Tybalt, it was Romeo who fell down and had to be carried on a stretcher from the stage. Look for him now in Mineola.

Meanwhile, we've lost our Hamlet. Our little troupe is in disarray. We are to meet formally this afternoon to discuss what we are to do. But already cliques are forming. You cannot imagine the flutter in our dovecote. Some are talking of canceling the production, as a token of respect. Others say that if the play were a comedy, then yes, cancel it, no question; but since it is a tragedy . . . Tosca Dawidowicz, our Ophelia, flatly refuses to play opposite Freddy Blum, Sinsheimer's understudy, claiming that he lacks "stage presence," and besides, his halitosis would make her forget her lines. Actually, it is an open secret here that Blum wooed her, won her, and rejected her in the course of a single hectic weekend. La Dawidowicz has found an ally in Lottie Grabscheidt, our Gertrude, another Blum reject. As for me, I remain aloof from such childish squabbling and bickering. In principle, I believe that "the show must go on," but I should not be much put out were it called off. Sinsheimer, the cause of the tempest, is, needless to say, beyond caring. In the meantime, I hold my counsel. But at the meeting I intend to reveal that I have already mastered the Prince's role, and should I be asked to take the part, I will of course accept. Under those circumstances, Blum could become Osric, and Hamburger could be shifted from Osric to the Ghost. We shall see. "The readiness is all."

OR REASONS I AM not prepared to examine, it is difficult for me to write about Magda. Let me note only that in sixty years Magda Damrosch, miraculously, has not aged by so much as a single white hair. She looks exactly as she looked—unbearably beautiful!—when I last saw her in Zurich, in 1917. She holds herself with the same slender grace, the same quizzical tilt to her head, as then. Even now her smile, accompanied by a slight raising of her left brow, sends arrows directly to the heart. What is she doing here? Tristan Tzara used to say, only half joking, that she was a spy in the service of Franz Josef. But the Emperor is long gone. The only undercover work at the Emma Lazarus has to do with bedpans.

She joined the staff four weeks ago as a physical therapist. Dr. Comyns, who is an even bigger fool than he looks, accompanied her on a round of introductions. We were at rehearsal. Poor Sinsheimer, not yet a resident of Mineola, had just grasped Tosca Dawidowicz by a plump wrist and was saying, with heavy and deliberate sarcasm, "Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remember'd." He was sarcastic, I should explain, not because La Dawidowicz is eighty-two years of age, was wearing a gray Mickey Mouse sweatsuit and large, pink hair curlers, tips the scale at no less than 175 pounds, and has a chin that strains upward to meet an eagerly descending nose. Nor was he sarcastic because he recognized in his words a veiled, punning refer-

ence to himself. No, it was Sinsheimer's belief that Ophelia was a whore. His argument, I must say, was quite convincing. He had backed it up during auditions with pointed references to the text and a complete Stanislavskian disquisition on hidden motivations. For our little group, of course, there was an additional element of irony to be found in the fact of La Da-widowicz's in-house reputation.

At any rate, he spoke his line, turned from Ophelia with a sneer, and saw Dr. Comyns climb onto the stage with Magda Damrosch in tow. Sinsheimer was not one to miss a trick. "Here's metal more attractive!" he said. Still in character, he waved a regal hand in Magda's direction.

Comyns has a slight frame and is constantly on guard against overweight. His hair and voguish beard are of a deep, lustrous black. When he smiles, his fleshy lips reveal square white teeth, wantonly gapped. In fact, he is something of a dandy and even wears a silk handkerchief in the pocket of his physician's smock. On formal occasions such as this, he eschews brevity and embarks on serpentine sentences that loop and meander, coil in upon themselves, creep and digress, taking his auditors upon a harrowing journey through the language. "It gives me—how shall I put it? great pleasure?— yes, I am more than happy—in fact, Miss Dattner, I am delighted—to have you meet a gentleman who is not only the director of the Emma Lazarus Old Vic but also, and from this you can get some idea of his many talents, also, in short, the principal actor in the current production, which, as you can see, is even now in rehearsal, and thus he is one of our, if you will, celebrities." He ended triumphantly and mopped his brow with his silk handkerchief. "And how are we today, Adolphe?"

"I humbly thank you, well, well, well." Sinsheimer felt a touch of the antic disposition.

Comyns made the rest of the introductions and chose to express "in behalf of all of us here at the Emma Lazarus a warm welcome to Miss Mandy Dattner, the newest and youngest and—not a word beyond this friendly group!—surely the prettiest member of the staff."

There was polite applause. Magda—my Magda!—smiled and raised her left brow. I almost fell from the stage.

Lottie Grabscheidt, who sucks up to every new acquaintance, broke the silence: "I hope they've given you a nice office, darling." Dressed as always in black, La Grabscheidt was sporting for rehearsals a new pin: in silver filigree, a mask of comedy superimposed upon a mask of tragedy, a botched design that from the slightest distance looks like a grinning skull. This she fingered, as if to demonstrate her thespian credentials.

"Miss Dattner understands how cramped we are here," said Comyns. "She has agreed to share Mrs. Baum's office, right next to the staff dining room." He showed his teeth briefly and narrowed his eyes behind his spectacles: thus he signals that a witticism is on the way. "Next to the dining room, she'll easily be able to get her just desserts. I ask you, could we treat her better than that?"

"God's bodkin, man, much better!" said poor Sinsheimer angrily. He held his arms akimbo and stamped a petulant foot. "Use every man after his desert, and who shall scape whipping?" Say what you will about Sinsheimer, he knew the play inside and out.

What she said to me personally I was too agitated to take in. But by not so much as a blink did she betray that she knew me.

Later that day I found Comyns relaxing in the library. He was dreamily stimulating his inner ear with a stiff index finger. The pose quite suited him. Quickly I brought the conversation around to the new therapist. "She seems so young for so responsible a position," I suggested.

"Nonsense. She's been trained in Europe. All the latest techniques."

He thinks he knows us "Europophiles," as he calls us, forgetting what it was that brought so many of us here in the first place. Needless to say, it is Comyns who wags his tail, rolls over, and pants before the idol of Europe. His car, for example? A Mercedes Benz! "Europe!" I shook my head in wonder. "You don't say!"

Comyns showed his teeth and narrowed his eyes. "She's kind of sexy, too, eh? You old devils won't have any trouble getting your limbs in motion."

To this sally, of course, I made no reply. Better to suppose he confused me with Blum, the satyr. I nodded frostily and strode away. (No, no, Otto, only the truth: you winked in return and shuffled off.)

But I have other, more reliable sources of information. I waited patiently for two days and then visited Personnel—that is to say, Mrs. Selma Gross. Selma occupies an office that has a bulletproof window looking out into the lobby near the main entrance. Thus she doubles as portress. No wily Orpheus could tootle his Eurydice past her. In brief, we must check with her if we wish to go out. She has the daily list of "solo-ambulants."

Like Dr. Comyns, she is of native stock. To look at her, one would suppose her a resident rather than a member of the staff. But in fact there is a Mr. Gross: Bernie, a C.P.A., with whom she leads a full and active life far away from us—in Fresh Meadows, to be precise.

At any rate, I waved cheerily to her through the bulletproof glass and pointed at her bell. She buzzed me in.

"I kiss your hand, dear lady," I said, as breezily as if we had met at the Hotel Sacher. Selma loves such archaic formulations. "Pining for the sight of beauty, I thought immediately of you. And here, dear lady, I am."

Selma pursed her lips and patted her hair, a piled mass of

drab blond whose declivities give off a curious orange tinge. Her face was, as ever, a thick, grotesque mask of makeup, pure Dada. In such a way, no doubt, she keeps alive her Bernie's guttering flame of passion. "Going out, Mr Korner?" She reached for her list.

"No, I came only to see you. Ah, but I imagine you must be busy, what with new staff appointments, forms to fill out, red tape, heaven knows what. I must not selfishly keep you from your work."

"Oh, you mean Mandy Dattner, the new therapist." Selma patted a file on her desk. "That's all done." "She's European, I understand." Selma snorted. "If Cleveland is in Europe." "But she was trained in Europe. Lausanne? Vienna?" "Two years, Shaker Heights Community College, 1973 to 1975," Selma began, counting on her fingers. "Two years bumming around Europe, 1975 to '77'; one year, Spenser School of Gymnastic Vigor, Wigan, England, 1976 to '77, graduated magna cum laude, Ph.Th.D." I raised a puzzled brow. "Physical Therapy Diploma." "And now she graces our little community?" Selma sniffed. "If you ask me, it's a scandal. But you know Dr. Weisskopf. One look at a body like hers and he's making a fool of himself. That's the only credential a woman needs around here."

Dr. Hugo Weisskopf is director of the Emma Lazarus, which he rules with an iron fist. One shake of his head and we're out of the play, erased from the list of solo-ambulants, put on a diet of fruit juice and porridge. He is not to be trifled with. Hence I have not as yet reported my insomnia and my constipation. Behind his back we call him the Kommandant: Hamburger, rhyming Teutonically, calls our distinguished di-

rector "Dr. Scheisskopf." For Hamburger, the shift from Weisskopf-Whitehead to Scheisskopf-Shithead was a matter of course.

The conversation, clearly, had taken a dangerous turn. Not wishing to speak words that might later be used against me, I rewarded Selma's confidence with a sympathetic smile. "I think, dear lady, that perhaps I will go out after all. A little fresh air before lunch."

Selma reached again for her list of solo-ambulants.

MANDY DATTNER, MAGDA DAMROSCH: the similarity is evident to the meanest understanding. But what does it mean? No, I am not senile, I am not mad. I know as well as you that this child from Cleveland is not—cannot be—the Magda Damrosch who broke my heart in Zurich all those years ago. That Magda Damrosch went up in smoke at Auschwitz in 1943. For this appalling piece of information I am indebted to Egon Selinger, who wrote from Tel Aviv in 1952, finding me heaven knows how. He was looking for other survivors. Not believing myself to be a survivor and having, besides, personal reasons enough for not corresponding with him, I never replied.

But in some sense this Mandy Dattner is that Magda Damrosch. Her arrival here cannot be accidental. Not that I think she knows more about her purpose here than I. But that we have been brought together for some purpose, I do not for a second doubt. Richard Huelsenbeck, one of the original gang of Dada nihilists, once mocked me as the typical German poet, "a dope who thinks that everything has to be as it is." (Years later he enlarged upon this idea of his in print. He had of course expunged any reference to me. They had long ago decided that I was a nonperson.) But one does not have to

BOOK: The Prince of West End Avenue
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