The Prince of West End Avenue (17 page)

BOOK: The Prince of West End Avenue
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of those under his care, Hamburger became quite huffy. "What are you, Korner, a tattletale? We are grown-up people here, we live in a democracy."

Meanwhile, I understand Kunstler has been asking questions about me. I pique his curiosity. Well, he piques mine. What is it about him that hovers in my memory just beyond the grasp of recall? At a convenient moment I shall launch some discreet inquiries. Selma in Personnel I can rely on.

Mandy DATTNER IS PREGNANT, or believes she is. "Not a whole lot," she said. "Only four weeks. But I know just the moment it happened. I could tell."

I had found her sitting on a bench on Riverside Drive, bundled up in a quilted jacket, staring through the trees, through "yellow leaves, or none, or few," at a lone barge making its serene progress up the silent Hudson. She was lost in moody thought and did not see me raise my hat. I sat beside her, supposing her melancholy brought on by Lipschitz's death. After all, her first failure.

"Life goes on," I said, or some such fatuous thing.

She looked at me, shocked. "Can you tell already?" she said. "Does it show?" And so I learned of her condition.

Miss Dattner was not inclined to draw a modest veil across the details. "We were going pretty good, you know, humping away, and like I had my legs up around his neck and all, so he was in pretty deep, and it was happening, you know." Her eyes became dreamy, lost focus. "He was getting into places I never knew I had in there, it was like fantastic, and like I was all hot syrup beginning to boil and then—boom!—we both popped together and I actually felt these great gushes just surging in—boffo!—and I was beginning to float way out, easy, just drifting, and then I felt it, you know, kind of like a cute little ping! sort of all by itself, like a soap bubble popping in the air, and I knew."

A seagull squawked overhead, then banked and swooped. We followed its flight to the river.

"The thing is, I'd been off the pill for days. Ralph had been kind of standoffish—nervous, you know—ever since Dr. Weisskopf had this talk with him. One of the old ladies must have complained or something. Anyway, Ralph told me his career was on the line and that we'd better cool it for a while. He was all antsy about something called 'immoral turpentine.' So anyway, I wasn't prepared, you know, I was like taken by

surprise. Hey, I'm not complaining, it was great and all. But now I'm pregnant." She smiled. "Little Mandy, I'm gonna be a mommy." Then the tears began to fall.

"By Ralph you mean Dr. Comyns?"

"Yeah, Ralph," she sniffed.

"And have you told Dr. Comyns he's going to be a father?"

"Ralph? It wasn't him! I told you, we've been cooling it." She wiped the tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand. "Nobody ever listens."

As you can imagine, I was out of my depth. I wanted to put a comforting arm around her but was afraid to do so. Instead I draped it awkwardly behind her, along the back of the bench. "Whoever it was, will he marry you?"

"You crazy? He could be my grandfather!"

It was Freddy Blum!

To think that Blum should bring my analogy of the microcosm and the macrocosm, of the Emma Lazarus and the greater society beyond our walls, so much closer to completion! From this house of the dying was to spring forth new life. A seed had been planted and was even now ripening. I felt a tiny flutter of elation.

We walked back slowly together, arm in arm. How I had misjudged her! What has she, poor child, to do with Magda Damrosch, now spiraling for more than thirty years, a wisp of smoke in the air? She is a child of her own generation, decent after her fashion, abysmally ignorant, culturally vapid, but innocent all the same, however hedonistic. How young she is, how vulnerable! The nip in the air had brought a flush to her cheeks, and I suppose also to mine. I told her I would do whatever I could to help. She told me about Led Zeppelin.

THE DEATH OF LlPSCHITZ has given me a little breathing space. That puts the truth bluntly, but it remains the truth. The

mourning period, for which I, too, of course voted, has granted all of us at the Emma Lazarus Old Vic the opportunity to disengage for a short while from a grueling rehearsal schedule and to relax somewhat the tension that finds outlet only in bickering. Like athletes preparing for an Olympic event, we, too, must pace ourselves, pause, and give to aching muscles a therapeutic respite.

At any rate, shortly after the siesta hour I went to visit Selma. I had the luxury of time on my hands. But I discovered that she already had a visitor: Gerhardt Kunstler was visible behind the bulletproof glass, slouched on a chair, his arms behind his head, his feet up on Selma's desk (a liberty I think not even the Kommandant would take!). Today he wore jeans, sneakers, and a sweatshirt. Does he own no socks? Selma, meanwhile, was primping, patting the declivities of her curiously colored hair, obviously enjoying herself. I had been anticipated!

He saw me and gave his familiar cheeiy wave. I pointed to the bulletin board as if to explain what I was doing in the lobby and pretended to read the notices. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him put a finger to his lips and then wave it warningly before his face. Selma nodded. I began to sense which way the wind was blowing. Selma, that most trusted of "agents," has been "turned."

I ENCOUNTERED THE KOMMANDANT in the lobby this morning. Lipschitz's death seems to have ruffled the surface of his calm. One might even describe him as skittish, wary, a trifle on edge. He strode toward me, a figure from the London edition of the Gentlemen's Quarterly: an elegant gray cheviot coat with a black velvet collar, a deep maroon tie with a muted design, in his hand a black bowler hat and a tightly rolled umbrella. His shoes gleamed. He stopped before me, barring my way. The sedentary, already in place, leaned toward us.

"Ah, yes, Korner, there you are. I was hoping to have a word with you."

"At your service."

"Quite. Play coming along all right, and so forth?"

"Well, in view of Lipschitz's sudden departure . . ."

"Of course, of course. Tragic loss. Er, they tell me, Korner, that you are writing an, er—now this is what I'm told, you understand—you're writing an expose of the Emma Lazarus. Can that be true?"

"No."

"Well, then . . ." He crossed his legs and leaned casually on his umbrella.

"A kind of memoir, I suppose. A few incidents from my young-manhood. From time to time I refer to what's going on here now, more to clarify my own thoughts than for any other reason."

"Exactly." He smiled coldly. "Nothing libelous, I trust?"

"I have no intention of publication."

"Don't nitpick, man. What I want to know is, er—" He paused and tried again, this time striving for jocularity. "You treat us well, I hope?"

"Naturally."

"Good. I'd like to see it sometime."

I did not reply.

"So be it. A word to the wise, Korner: don't overdo."

His departure galvanized the sedentary: "Better watch it, Otto." "Say anything about me?" "Remember Lipschitz. None of us is safe."

Irritably I put down the NbP.

She looks down modestly at the hands folded in her lap but contrives to glance slyly at me from the sides of lowered lids. "Dr. Goldwasser says the stork is on its way." She looks up, her eyes shining, her cheeks aflame. "Oh, Toto, Toto, we're going to have a baby, a baby boy, I know it will be a little boy, I feel it!"

Who can express the happiness of that moment, the exaltation! I want to burst. I leap from my chair and gather her in my arms. . . .

But was that how it was? Is it possible? The past we sometimes tend to see transfigured in a roseate glow. Memory is not to be trusted.

No, never mind: that is how I remember it.

they scattered to pursue their separate destinies, they remained united in their idiotic determination to suppress the truth. Huelsenbeck, for instance, claimed that he and Ball had come across the word "accidentally" in a French dictionary, where they found it meant hobbyhorse. Richter pretended that he had always supposed the word to be the joyous Slavonic affirmative "Da! Da!"—a "Yes! Yes!" to life. But Arp was the most cunning obscurantist of all. In Dada an grand air he succeeded in suggesting that anyone who sought the origin of the word was a dry pedant, the very sort of stupid bourgeois blockhead whom the Dadaists from the first had set out to mock. As for Tristan Tzara, he was unexpectedly modest: "A word was born, no one knows how." (In fact, apart from Otto Korner, no one knew better than Tzara himself how the word was born.)

When Magda Damrosch disappeared from Zurich, my heart stuffed carelessly among her belongings, I was plunged into a misery so profound that I thought I should never recover. At first, fearing that she had tried for Sweden on her own, I was lacerated by wild, romantic imaginings: I saw her traveling penniless according to her "principles," caught by fierce, sex-starved soldiers, interrogated as a spy, shot by a firing squad on a gray, bitter dawn. No doubt I derived some pleasure from my tears. What saved me was an ensuing anger—how could she treat me so!—that I sipped like cognac, a revivifying warmth with whose help I was able to lift up my ego from the rocks on which it lay broken. In brief, I washed, shaved, dressed in clean clothes, and left my room. Once more I began to haunt the Cabaret Voltaire, the Odeon, the Terrasse, the now familiar loci.

The Gang of Nihilists, meanwhile, were readying themselves for Gala Night, an "Extravaganza" (as Tzara called it) that was now a mere fortnight away and for which they had hired Waag Hall, their ambitions having grown beyond the seating

capacity of the Cabaret Voltaire and their exhibitionism needing an audience more deliciously shockable than the rowdy students who nightly approved their antics. To me, listening to their gleeful plans and watching their frenetic preparations, it seemed that Gala Night would be little other than their ordinary entertainments writ large, nine parts bad taste and one part vacuity. Magda, for example, should she return in time, was slated to do the splits in an orange tutu and green leotards while Janco played an invisible violin and Tzara brayed one of his painful poems.

It was, in fact, the possibility of Magda's presence there that caused me to conceive my revenge. I would devise my own "skit" for Gala Night, one that would at once outdo the best that the Gang of Nihilists could come up with and prove to Magda that she could not with impunity trample upon my love. I would announce to the world, or to that part of it packed into Waag Hall, her cruelty to me. Whether I expected by such means to secure her love I am not sure. Certainly I did not want to lose her. In my emotional turmoil, logic played no part. Come what might, I should at the very least salve my bruised pride.

Tzara at first was cool to the idea of my participation. The volume of Days of Darkness, Nights of Light, which I had lent him some months before, he had not yet found time to glance at. But he could assure me that it served very efficiently as a handsome paperweight. "In a strong draft, however, well ... I can make no promises." He spread his hands, popping his monocle into one of them.

I swallowed the insult and told him that I did not propose to recite my poems; poetry could safely be left to him.

He screwed the monocle back into his eye socket. "Well, then?"

I told him I had in mind a short "skit" with a wax display-

window dummy. "I'm after something new," I said. "Concrete metaphor."

He looked doubtful. Janco wandered over, holding a Weisswurst to his lips like a cigar. I described my proposal to him, too.

"What's the point?" said Janco.

It was this question of Janco's, I am convinced, that decided Tzara. If there was no evident point, then ipso facto my concrete metaphor should be included. Nevertheless, I would not be allowed to perform alone. Tzara, and perhaps some others, would provide appropriate accompaniment.

Between that moment and Gala Night, Magda returned to Zurich, and with her Egon Selinger. My desire for revenge was then fueled by hate. I was seized by a recklessness that ripped in tatters my lingering decorum.

Gala Night arrived at last, warm and damp. A mist had seeped in off the lake. It lay low along the ground, shifting in eddies and swirls; it snaked in sudden leaps around corners. The Gang of Nihilists, many of them, had been in Waag Hall since midmoming, getting things in order. The stage was decorated with paintings, colored papers, balloons. At its rear, swaying with every passing air current, hung a full-size anatomist's skeleton in a rakish top hat, holding a clock whose hands were stopped at two minutes to midnight, or to noon: the viewer had his choice. (This was their trite comment on the state of Europe in the summer of 1916.) At stage left stood an upright piano festooned with ribbons and bespangled with glittering stars; at stage right was a low table in the center of which sat a huge papier-mache wedding cake surmounted by a representation of Europa and the Bull (another political comment), flanked by Tzara's paraphernalia— cowbells, ratchets, klaxons, and so forth.

The citizenry of Zurich poured into Waag Hall, determined to be shocked, titillated, disgusted, confirmed in their solid and eternal values. They sat facing the drab curtain in good order, keeping their voices down, looking discreetly around for familiar faces, allowing themselves a quiet cough or two, rustling their chocolate boxes. Tzara peeked at them through a hole in the curtain and scurried back to the wings, a handsome little jackanapes, grinning with pleasure and rubbing his hands together. "Avanti!" he said.

The curtain opened on a darkened stage that was suddenly bathed in brilliant white light. Ball was discovered in blackface at the piano, playing "Tipperary." There was good-humored clapping, a few nervous giggles. I won't rehearse the sequence of "turns." It was the usual stuff from the Cabaret Voltaire, perhaps a little more elaborate, a little more brazen: the stage, after all, offered a larger area for their high-jinks. Magda was in the wings in leotards and tutu, sitting shamelessly on Selinger's lap. We contrived not to see one another. Meanwhile, the audience got its moneys worth, saw what it had expected to see, was able to jeer, boo, clap derisively, and shout "nonsense!" and "imbeciles!"

BOOK: The Prince of West End Avenue
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