It’s 1936 and a smart college student is this movie mogul’s newest assistant. 2,079 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I stood up as story editor Kate Brown arrived in the conference room. She smiled. She had a polished debutante look about her with alert eyes that seemed to hide a lively intellect. “So, Buzz, I’m assuming that Professor Hawley briefed you,” she said earnestly, glancing down at a letter. “He writes here that you did your senior thesis on Middlemarch and played first base on the Columbia baseball team. Impressive juxtaposition of talents.”
She lifted her eyes off the paper and sized me up, watching me twitch in my tweed suit, a clearly idiotic choice for a 93-degree New York City summer day.
“Mind if I remove my coat?” I asked, feeling the drip of sweat beads zig-zagging down my neck. Were I a contortionist, I’d surely be kicking myself in the ass at this point. It’s the only suit I now own. I did have a new $15 blue serge number I wore for my college graduation which, to my everlasting misfortune, shrunk in a sudden thunderstorm to a size more adaptable to a Bar Mitzvah boy than my 6’2” frame. So it was either the tweed or dungarees and a Columbia t-shirt.
“Sure,” Kate said. Then she stood up, clicked on the big fan and aimed it to sweep my tweed pants.
“Blessings on you, “ I said, feeling the waves of cool relief. “So this is an assistant job to a movie executive?”
“Mr. David O. Selznick, yes. Didn’t the professor mention that?”
“He just said it was a Hollywood assistant job and could be a real career opportunity for me.”
“Mr. Selznick is a Columbia man, too. After a fashion. Not a grad, because college was something of a very quick stop on his way to Hollywood. But I can assure you he’s a brilliant man. And remains a good friend of your Professor Hawley. Mr. Selznick needs to expand his staff because we’ve just acquired the film rights to Gone With The Wind. Have you read it?”
I shook my head. “My mother and all my aunts are all reading it. ‘Gobbling it up’ is a better description for it. I’m buried in Daniel Deronda at the moment.”
“Daniel Deronda is quite a summer reading project,” Kate said, impressed.
“My Middlemarch thesis got me hooked on George Eliot. I’m only sixty pages in but ,in my opinion, it would make a great movie.”
“There was one, a silent, from England in the early twenties. It turned out so-so. Why do you think it would make a great movie?”
“It’s about secrets slowly revealed. All good movies do that.”
Kate smiled again in agreement. “Well Gone With The Wind isn’t about secrets as much as it is about a southern belle’s courage after the civil war in the face of adversity. It’s a massive undertaking for Mr. Selznick, who has many priorities in his life competing with this project. That’s why he needs another assistant.”
“On the project?”
“No, just someone to handle parts of his personal life to prevent them from intruding on this project. It’s a job with no set hours and no set days. You need to be available round the clock. You won’t have time to even break away for a haircut.”
I smoothed my hand across my head and deadpanned. “Well, that’s not fair. My hair grows on company time.”
She broke into laughter, looked at me and said, “Buzz, you’re hired. Seventy-five dollars a week to start, all expenses, and a marvelous opportunity to begin your career with a great moviemaker. Deal?”
“Deal.” I said it because nearly two months after graduation I’d had dozens of job interviews and, frankly, the best offer had come from my uncle Chester. He wanted me to join his bookmaking establishment in the garment center starting at $120 bucks a week. But the job also carried the threat of getting caught up in a police raid and that didn’t exactly square with my career goals.
“Now Mr. Selznick is scheduled to return to L.A. on tonight’s 20th Century Limited, leaving Grand Central at 6. Can you be ready to travel with him? It’s short notice I know…”
“I’ll be there.”
“The Pullman conductor will have your name. He’ll direct you to the Selznick suite.”
I thanked her and turned to leave the conference room when she came up and pressed a fifty dollar bill in my hand. “Get over to Brooks Brothers, buy yourself a seersucker summer suit, a white shirt and a striped tie,” she said, scanning me head to toe. “And for god sakes, Buzz, when you get home throw that tweed iron maiden you’re wearing into the trash.”
That evening, a newly attired man, I walked down the platform’s red carpet interwoven with the 20th Century Limited name. The Pullman porter checked me off with a welcoming grin, took my bag and personally escorted me into the double bedroom suite of the great man. I shed my jacket and nestled into the window of a settee. On the seat across I noted a black ceramic bottle of Dalmore Pure Malt Scotch, an ice bucket and two glasses sitting on a footed silver tray. A valet knocked and asked me if I’d like something to drink. Either we had a third fellow traveler or that second glass had my name on it. “I’ll wait, thanks.”
I took out my copy of Daniel Deronda and awaited the arrival of my new boss. Stacks of memos, script pages, head shots of actors, and a face-down copy of Gone With The Wind were stacked on the table between the seats. And on the floor there was a moat of yet more papers surrounding a Dictaphone machine console with a long hose and a speaker device.
Minutes later, the suite door opened just enough for me to see a sliver of Selznick in profile talking to a conductor.
“Tell the gentlemen to hold the game if they can until after we pull out of Albany.”
The door slid open and Selznick walked in hand outstretched, a broad smile breaking across his tanned face.
“I presume you are Buzz Rosen, if so, welcome. Please call me David,” he said.
I stood up, noting he was around thirty five or so, comfortably over six feet like me, far from the image I had of movie moguls who were mostly not much taller than circus midgets. He wore wire-rimmed glasses with his hair neatly parted to the side. His eyes quickly sized me up as if to decide whether Kay Brown’s description was accurate. He hung up his suit jacket, unbuttoned his vest and sat down, reaching for the scotch.
“Water, seltzer, the rocks: name it.”
“Straight on the rocks.”
He smiled and fixed the drinks as his eyes shifted to my book on the seat. “Daniel Deronda is a helluva slog. Good for you.”
I nodded to his splayed copy of Gone With The Wind on the table between us. “I assume so is your book. You’ve got to squeeze all that into a movie that’s an hour and a half?”
”You’ve not read it, I understand.”
“By the time we arrive in L.A., I may be the only human being in America who hasn’t if what I read about it in the papers is true. My mother hasn’t cooked a decent meal since she got herself hooked on it.”
“Well, here’s your first assignment,” he said, pressing the service button. A valet arrived. Selznick picked up the book and displayed it to the man. “Do you suppose there’s an extra copy in the train library?”
“We have several, sir. I’ll fetch one.” He left and returned with a pristine volume. Selznick palmed a fiver into his hand. “Not counting our stopover time in Chicago, between this train and the Super Chief run, you’ve got 37 hours to wade through this. And I’ll want your opinion just to get an insight into your mind before we arrive in L.A. But now tell me who Buzz Rosen is, as if you were an author describing the protagonist of a book. We’ll talk in the dining car. I’m starved.”
We ordered shrimp cocktails, prime rib and chocolate cake. “And bring me a double scotch, please,” Selznick told the waiter. “Buzz?”
“I wouldn’t mind a Coke,” I said. He’d knocked down three scotches in the suite and had two more as we ate dinner. He chain-smoked four cigarettes between courses and with coffee. Then he eased back and urged me to start my capsule life story.
“Beware, I’m going to be brutally frank. No secret past like Deronda,” I joked.
He called for a third double scotch and lit yet another cigarette.
“I’m the oldest of four brothers. Dad has a cleaning store, Mom stays home. I won a baseball scholarship to Columbia. Worked my ass off. Recently got the air from my girlfriend for cheating on her. And have worked summers and vacations as a runner for my Uncle Chester. He’s a bookmaker of note in the gambling game where I’ve accumulated a significant bag of tricks and insights into human nature.”
Selznick sat upright. “You play poker?”
“I do, actually. I’ve run games for Uncle Chester.”
“I’ve got a regular game on this train with a few Paramount guys and their pals.”
“What do you play?”
“Five- and ten-dollar five card or seven card stud. Unlimited raises up to $100 on a single hand. No hokey variations like high-low.”
“You do okay?”
Selznick glanced out the window as night descended on the Hudson River and we sped past the river towns. “I’m probably down eight, maybe ten, grand over the last few trips.”
“How many wins versus losses?”
“Crap, you kidding? All losses. I can’t seem to beat these guys.”
I mulled his remark as he narrated the cadences of the past games. I leaned forward and said, “If it’s okay for me to start on the book later, I’d like to play. Would you consider staking me for, say, a grand and go 50/50 partners if I win.”
“And if you lose?” he said.
“Ten bucks a week off my pay. Assuming you don’t fire me. That’s not operational: I will win. We both will, trust me.”
Selznick roared with laughter, then turned sober. “You a mechanic?” he said, using the gambler’s term for savvy card cheats.
“Oh no, I never cheat. Just been blessed with good card sense, and a very smart teacher on betting strategies. My uncle.”
“These guys are tough ballsy players. I’m not sure a grand would get you through the night.”
“Let me worry about that, Mr. Selznick,” I said, patting his knee.
“It’s David, please. Tell you what: I’ll bankroll two grand for you. Meanwhile, when we get back to the roomette, you hit the book until the conductor calls me for the game.”
The game went well. A twist here, a turn of card there, a few well timed under-the-table knee knocks to Selznick — one to stay, two to raise, three to fold — and we were the big winners to the apparent befuddlement and consternation of the Paramount guys and the two clear-as-a-bell hustlers they’d brought to skin the sucker again.
It was a good first day on the job. I’d given those bastards a fast trip to the cleaners.
“Do yourself a favor, Mr. Selznick: stay clear of these guys from now on.” I told him it had taken me a fast fifteen minutes to sniff out the poker game cheats who had long lamped Selznick and had been taking him down for years. I explained that, when the deal got to me, I had taken my revenge, sending two of the clowns on a trip to the cleaners they’d never forget. Handing Selznick back the $12,000 he’d lost to them over time, plus another $5,000 of the ten I took off them that night, I said, “You may be a movie genius, but you are by far the worst poker player I have ever sat down with in all my tender 22 years.”
“We worked together when we were all at RKO. we had a regular weekly game.”
“Which is precisely the problem. They know you. Anyone who consistently bets on crap hands like you do is waiting to have his pants taken down. Think of me as a pair of suspenders,” I kidded.