A mix Up

A Mix Up

by Leslie Epstein

During WWII, Hollywood entombs a studio mogul while burying a greater tragedy. 3,191 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.


The line of limousines, all with their lights on, stretched out forever. Here and there I could make out a sedan, a convertible, a coupe — even a bright yellow taxi or two. We turned right on Van Ness Avenue and continued south across Sunset, then Fernwood, then Fountain. One car ahead, just behind the gleaming new 1941 Packard hearse that carried studio owner Victor Granite’s remains, his widow Giselle rode in the Cadillac De Ville. His brother Manfred followed in a rented Lincoln. I, Peter Lorre, was in that vehicle, too: Moto in the motorcade but thankfully without anyone to buck my teeth and slick my hair and stain my skin the color of weakly brewed tea. I sat low in the seat, so as to avoid the gaze of the mounted policemen, who, as we rolled slowly by, touched their white gloves to their caps. Still, I couldn’t help seeing the crowds that lined the sidewalks. Anyone would have thought a Harlow had died, or a star like Valentino. But Victor?

He’d been responsible for a million feet of film; it had spun from his brain like thread from a spider. Yet that sad, sallow face had never appeared on so much as a single frame. Was that the reason he never took off that horrible hat? So as not to appear in even a still photograph? He used that broad brim the way a gangster, confronted by the press, used his overcoat or his hands.

The press had been waiting, just minutes before, when our cortege, then on Hollywood Boulevard, stopped in front of Grauman’s Chinese. Sid Grauman himself had opened the door of the De Ville. We stepped out, all in black. Off went the flashlamps, like milk splashed from a bucket. Newsreel cameramen shot their film. The crowd surged forward, against the line of police. One car back, I watched as the studio publicist Les Kahn came up to the widow. He held a cushion from the Granite prop department, plump and red, with yellow braid.

"I’ll be right back," Manfred told us, before he climbed out of our Lincoln. He hurried over to where Kahn was standing. "What the hell is going on?" Manfred yelled at the publicist.

On the silk threads of the cushion sat Victor’s hat — rather, a facsimile of that ten gallon, in brown felt with the famous floppy brim. Where was the original? In the desert? Impounded by the police? For all any of us knew, it was inside the coffin. At the sight of that headgear, hundreds of women broke into a wail. They stood two and three deep, waving their handkerchiefs, like the foamy caps on an unending wave.

"That bastard Victor," Manfred muttered. "Did he fuck them all?" The uniformed cops pressed back against the crush of their bodies. Kahn grinned; for him it was like a premiere.

"Give that to me," Manfred growled. He plucked up the hat and strode over to where Grauman was waiting, by the square of sidewalk. Without further ceremony, he bent onto both knees and leaned forward in order to force the impression of the profile, crown and brim, into the wet cement.

Louella Parsons, the Hollywood columnist, had forced her way through the crowd at Grauman’s towards Manfred’s car. "Aren’t you going to let me in?" she cried. "Manny! Manny! After everything I’ve done for you?"

"Get moving!" the Granite President said to his driver, pushing down the button that locked the door.

We came at last to Gower. The procession turned right and, only a moment later, moved under the arch of Beth Olam. Green lawns surrounded us, and hills and dales, and trees from another climate — what were they in the English tongue? Like women washing their hair: weeping willows! Easy to imagine that the entire scene, with these bluebirds chirping, and the little pebble-strewn walkways, was nothing more than a fixture on the neighboring studio’s lot.

The limousines pulled over to the right, with their wheels against the curb of the drive. The doors opened and the mourners got out. Jews with armbands directed the crowd down the long, sweeping slope, to where, near a pretty patch of pansies, a pile of fresh earth marked the grave. Irene Selznick stepped from a maroon La Salle and took Giselle by one arm. Selznick himself emerged and held her by the other.

Now, from the same car that had carried Victor’s widow, more figures stepped out. From the front, Charles Laughton, who stood hunched, hands behind him, as if wearing handcuffs; and, from the rear, Rudolph Von Beckmann. The director, with his monocle and cape, a flower at his lapel, turned up the drive toward the hearse.

Manfred got out of our Lincoln and blinked in the sunshiny air. The Goldwyns, Sam and Frances, came up to them. "I’m worried about your father," Goldwyn said, as he shook Manfred’s hand.

"Why do you say that? No one in Germany is going to touch him. That would create a big international incident."

Frances said, "What Sam means is, we’re worried because of what’s happened. No one, no parent, should have to hear such terrible news. The death of a son! But to be so far away. And by himself. Who will tell him? Oh, Manny: what will he think? His darling Victor!"

At that the Goldwyns went side by side down the pathway toward where two or three hundred people, that’s what it looked like, had gathered round the Granite plot. A few more stragglers hurried over the lawn, between the handsome headstones. Manfred, however, walked up the drive; he joined a much smaller group near the hearse. The screenwriting Epstein brothers were there, along with Billy Wilder and Ernie Glickman and Arnie Schoenberg. They all clutched their skullcaps, against the westerly breeze.

Manfred had put on his yarmulka too. He called back to me. "Come on, Peter. They’re waiting." I got out of the Lincoln and walked toward the pallbearers. It felt as if the pin of my own yarmulke, which an usher was just then attaching, had driven straight into my skull. Dead man, as Mr. Moto was fond of saying, tell many tale. No wonder that at such a moment my hand found my jacket pocket and dug inside for what I hoped would be taken for a pinch of snuff.

Now a tall man, the only one in an overcoat, called out to us from the rear of the hearse. "Gentlemen, please. Will the family and friends gather here? We must prepare ourself for our task." It was the rabbi.

"What sparkling dialogue," said Julie Epstein, sotto voce.

"Don’t blame the poor man," said his twin brother, Phil. "This is his third funeral since Tuesday."

"I know," said Julie. "It’s been a slow week."

Wilder giggled behind his hand. Glickman grinned.

Manfred whirled on them all. "All right. We don’t need this today."

I walked to the hearse. The rear door was open, the smooth brown wood of the casket in view. Engraved on the lid was six-pointed star. "Where do we stand?" The rabbi’s glasses flashed and dimmed, like the light in a lighthouse. "Here. And Manfred, here. Mr. Von Beckmann, if you’ll stand with the family. Now, Billy, Ernest, Arnold — on this side, here."

We sorted ourselves into two lines and crouched to receive the burden. There must have been rollers inside the hearse, because the box slid smoothly onto our shoulders. Victor, alive, couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred and twenty, or twenty-five, pounds; between us, he should have been as light as a feather. But the casket’s beveled edge dug into my neck and shoulder. Was it lined with lead? Or was the box filled, like the tomb of an Egyptian mummy, with necessities for the afterlife? I tried to think of what Victor would require. Chesterfields. A hundred cartons. Or enough cash, in bullion it felt like, to buy an endless supply. I kept my eyes on Schoenberg’s pants cuffs, his shoes, just ahead. Our route wasn’t across the wildflowers and grass. We took the zig-zag path, which wasn’t covered by pebbles after all. These were seashells, the shells of scallops and oysters, crunching under our feet.

It didn’t take long to reach the newly dug grave. The diggers themselves were standing a little off to the side. They were chatting, in their longshoremen’s caps, and trying to cup their cigarettes. Like the grave diggers in Shakespeare. We were pointed toward a stand on wheels, a sort of hospital gurney; onto this portable bier we deposited Victor’s casket.

The mourners surrounded us — above the grave and below, and to either side. I thought I knew all the women, in spite of their blowing veils: Marlene Dietrich and Greer Garson, Claudette Colbert and Joan Crawford, Ginger Rogers, that skater Sonja Henie, Carole Lombard, Myrna Loy, Bette Davis and Alice Faye. I hadn’t the least doubt that Victor — oh, they rubbed like cats against his bony legs — had, as Manfred put it, fucked every one.

As for the others, the men, it was as if someone had drawn a list of the top ten stars for 39, 40, and 41. Throw out the kids, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland and Shirley Temple, and count up the others: Clark Gable, Power, Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, James Cagney, Robert Taylor, and Errol Flynn; plus Bob Hope and Bing Crosby and — I glanced round the crowd of sad faces — take your pick, Gene Autry, the western star, or one of the clowns, Bud Abbott or Lou Costello. If only Victor had known! Singing cowboys! Vaudevillians! He’d have had his ashes thrown to the winds.

The cantor, an old Jew, strode to the coffin and started to sing. He had a thin voice, which came out of a thinner body. While he performed, Manfred crossed over to join the group of his peers. I saw Cohn. I saw Zanuck. There were the Warners, and L.B., and Frances and Sam. All in all there hadn’t been such a gathering since Thalberg had gone into the ground.

The cantor stopped on a high note. Now the rabbi uttered some gobbeldygook in Hebrew. I slunk back, into the crowd. Nearby, Manfred was standing next to an old man, conspicuously bareheaded, with a flushed, lined face. Hearst. The great W.R. He had buttonholed the surviving Granite brother:

"You’re not going to resume the Nevada production, are you, Manfred? I don’t like the look of things out there. This Von Beckmann: he’s out to drag us into war."

"No, no," Manfred replied. "I don’t care about that war business. Or what he thinks about Hitler. He’s bankrupting us. Either we shut him down or it’s the end of Granite Films."

"I want your word on this, Manfred. The interruption in filming has got to be permanent. Don’t forget, there’s plenty that’s fishy about what happened to Victor. We can go after Granite in a big way. Even if you finish the picture, I can make sure it never opens."

"I told you: we’ll be finished, not the picture. It’s over. Kaput."

The prayer that the rabbi was chanting came to an end. All about me people were saying Amen.

The rabbi ask mourners to join him in The 23rd Psalm. Out of the hundreds in the crowd, only a dozen people joined in. That was because we all saw how the grave diggers sauntered over and seized the black straps that hung down on either side of the bier. With these aides the workers — thank God they’d dropped their cigarettes — lifted the casket and, two on each side, suspended it over the hole. A sigh went up from the mourners. Somebody — to my surprise I saw it was both the Epsteins –let out an audible groan. Half the women were gulping, gasping.

The rabbi, however, did not miss a beat. While he intoned the words–about the rod and the staff, the oil and the cup, the four burly men let the straps slide through their gloves; the milk chocolate coffin disappeared into the ground.

Victor’s widow gathered a handful of earth and threw it onto the coffin while clinging to Irene Selznick’s arm. That was the start of an endless parade. Manfred marched to the grave, crouched, and scooped up the earth. "Goddamn it, Victor," he muttered, and hurled it. The pallbearers followed, one by one. Except for Loewenstein, Lazlo. I hung back. For a moment everything went out of focus, as if a cinematographer had given a twist to his lens. The world was spinning. It was upside down.

Then I heard my own voice, courteous and polite, saying, "Forgive me. Excuse, please," as I burst through the mourners and knelt down before the astonished Rabbi to the Stars.

"Listen, rabbi! Listen, everybody! Don’t laugh! Don’t turn your backs! I’m on my knees! I beg you to listen!"

There was, throughout the far reaches of Beth Olam, a sudden silence. Everyone stared as I sat pulling the coattails of the man of the cloth. "You are a great human being! A man of vision! Forgive me. I’m only a worm. All I ask is that you listen! A minute, rabbi! A minute of your time!"

The reply came not from the clergyman but from the ranks of the crowd. "Peter! What are you doing? Come back!"

"No! There is no going back! I’ve tried everyone! No one will listen! They laugh at me! They think I’m a madman!"

But no one was laughing now. There must have been something about me, my hollow voice, my hollow Hungarian eyes, that struck the crowd dumb. I might have been the Ancient Mariner, doomed to walk the earth with his tale; even Manfred, I saw, stood with his mouth gaping wide.

There was no time to lose. I had to seize the silence that hung over the cemetery. Thus did I thrust my hand deep into my formal jacket, toward my abdominal zone. The onlookers gasped. Did they think the sleuth was suicidal? That he was about to commit hari-kari? If so, they were mistaken: instead of plunging a knife into my bowels, I pulled out an enlargement of a black and white photograph.

"Look! Look, friends! This is the main square of Lemberg! Lemberg in Poland! Do you see? No Jews! Not one! I have been there myself! I have seen with my own eyes. There has been a massacre in the city! Dear Jews! They are killing us! They are deporting us to the east! It’s the crime of the century! But no one will listen! No one will act!"

The silence lasted but a split-second longer. Then a confused mumbling, part protest, part lamentation, rose from the crowd. Soon people were sobbing. Here and there someone started to wail.

"Can it be true?"

"What is he saying?"

"Does he mean Hitler? Hitler killing the Jews?"

Then one voice, already familiar, cut through the clangor. "Don’t get taken in by these stories. These people want to force America into war. It’s just propaganda." It was William Randolph Hearst.

No sooner had he finished than someone else, it was the suave Adolph Menjou, said, "Let’s get on with the service. It’s a disgrace the way these Communists will use any occasion for their ends."

Robert Taylor, the star of Waterloo Bridge, added, "Even a funeral for one of their own. It’s macabre."

That seemed to turn the tide. A growl rose from the mourners. There were angry shouts. A call went up for the police.

I hardly knew where I was or what I was saying. I flung myself upon the mortified rabbi. Like a beggar, I clutched him about the knees. "Wait! Wait! Rabbi! You must believe me! The Jews of Europe are being sent to their graves. For them there will be no prayers! Who will throw earth upon their graves? Only you can raise the alarm! Only you can stop the slaughter! This is their one chance! I beg you! Save our brothers!"

The rabbi’s glasses flashed, as the brain behind them turned over its options. Then he said, "Naturally you are upset at the death of your friend. At such a time, it’s easy to exaggerate. Things seem worse than they are."

“Victor! Oh, oh! Victor!”

That cry did not come from my throat. It was a woman’s call. Now a figure swathed in mourning broke from the crowd and ran toward the grave. She did not kneel for a handful of earth. Instead, with hardly a break in stride she hurled herself into the dark, damp hole. The earlier uproar was dwarfed by the tumult that now swept over the hundreds of mourners. In one great wave they rushed forward to the lip of the excavation. Everybody wanted to see what would happen next. From the depths of the pit came a high-pitched keening. Who was this grief-stricken person? Was it Giselle? No: she had collapsed in the arms of both Selznicks.

At the bottom of the pit the woman in black was scraping the earth from the top of the coffin. In a wild, accented voice, she kept up the cry: “Victor! Don’t leave me! Victor!” The little stones, the clods of dirt, flew off in every direction. Now the wood re-emerged. There was the Star of David. At the sight, the woman, still weeping unrestrainedly, hurled herself onto the convex lid. Above, the directors, the producers, the many great stars, held out their hands to her. The rabbi, on his knees, begged her to come to her senses. But she grew only more crazed. Pushing herself upright, she ripped off her hat and veil. Then she threw back her head, revealing what had once been the most famous face in the world.

Simultaneously, from a hundred throats, came a single word:

"Greta!"

Then the solitary Swede, as Louella had always called her, did something now that filled every man and woman with anguish and dismay. With her gloved hands Garbo gripped the lid of the coffin and — only the Lord who is our shepherd knows where she got the strength — hurled it back on its hinges. Then she let out a scream that could not have been coached, even by the publicity department at MGM:

The outcry from all the others in Beth Olam was no less deafening. For lying on the interior plush of the coffin was not the dark, narrow head of Victor Granite but the cropped and dented skull of George Hoffman, the key grip.

Everyone began to run, and on the double. Uphill, they went, and up dale, over the oyster shells and back to their limousines. I remained at the grave, reaching into my pocket for one more pinch of the fairy dust. Why couldn’t it be someone else, I thought, any one of these sons-of-bitches? Which was when the world began to spin, with me clinging to it, once again.

About The Author:
Leslie Epstein
Leslie Epstein comes from a family of screenwriters. His father Philip and uncle Julius wrote classics like Casablanca. He has published 11 novels including King Of The Jews and San Remo Drive. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Esquire, Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, Harpers, Yale Review. He received the Distinction in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and directed the Creative Writing Program at Boston University.

About Leslie Epstein

Leslie Epstein comes from a family of screenwriters. His father Philip and uncle Julius wrote classics like Casablanca. He has published 11 novels including King Of The Jews and San Remo Drive. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Esquire, Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, Harpers, Yale Review. He received the Distinction in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and directed the Creative Writing Program at Boston University.

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