David O. Selznick’s new assistant learns more than the movie biz. 2,711 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Three days later the Super Chief hissed into Pasadena, its crimson war bonnet and yellow locomotive gleaming in the sparkling Southern California morning sun. The chauffeur was waiting and hefted our bags into the trunk of the Cadillac Fleetwood limousine. The trip had been three days of valuable reconnaissance about my new boss. I’d learned that David O. Selznick was a frenetic and obsessive memo dictator, a chain smoker, a heavy drinker, a cheap-feels copper on lady friends he’d trapped in the train passageways, and, mostly, a terrible gambler.
The driver eased the car out of the train station lot and drove onto Colorado Street headed south to Beverly Hills. Selznick slapped my knee.
“Buzz, you haven’t set a foot down at the studio yet but you are, dear boy, a true gem of a hire. Now I’ve leased an apartment in the Beverly Hills flats for you. We’ll drop you there now. Relax today and come into the office tomorrow to organize yourself with Lydia Schiller, my secretary. Then clear Friday night. You and I have a date in Tijuana.”
“What’s in Tijuana?”
“You’ll see. Just wear your suspenders.”
My next few days were a frenzied blur of running errands for Selznick to his tailor, to his bookie, to his lady friends, to his doctor to pick up and wait for prescriptions to be filled between snatches of time reading Gone With The Wind.
“It’s a little less than a two-hour drive to Tijuana,” Selznick said, getting into the back of his limo that Friday night. He flipped open the burled rosewood compartment inside the front seat backrest to reveal a bar. The driver arrived with a picnic hamper and handed it to Selznick, who unpacked sandwiches and side dishes from Canter’s and fixed drinks. Once on our way, he filled me in on his most recent series of losses to the casinos in the Mexican border town.
“Last year the government closed the casinos. I used to play at the Agua Caliente, the biggest and fanciest of all the joints down there. I had to pay up before they shut down. No debt amnesty from the government. I ate heavy losses.”
“What’s your definition of heavy?”
“Over a hundred grand, I guess, over three or four trips. I need the get-away time. It’s a tension reliever for me. This new Gone With The Wind project is a monster. It’s either going to kill me or make me.”
“Are the games down there straight?”
Selznick hesitated, paused to light a cigarette, “I think so. The casinos weren’t shut down because of crooked operations. Just by the new Mexican president who had moral objections.”
“So where are we headed now?”
“The Casa Estrella, it’s a converted mansion just out of the city operating illegally with the local cops looking the other way, I’m told. Straight games, run by a guy named Moe Zeff who I also understand runs a few dog tracks around the country.”
The name had a familiar ring but for the moment I couldn’t recall why. “You owe these guys?”
He nodded. “On one trip a month ago, I blew $18,000. I’m here to pay that down and take another shot. You’ll be my Virgil, I’ll be Dante. We’ll make a Divine Comedy of the night. Maybe I can win a few shekels for a change.”
The Casa Estrella was a sprawling Spanish Moorish-style mansion in white stucco with barrel-tiled roof, a lush courtyard of beautifully manicured flower beds and green lawna, palm trees and umbrellaed tables where the gamblers took time out for food, drink and socializing. A Mariachi band played soulful love songs moving between guests. We entered through a back door manned by a big brown guy in a spangled white suit who passed us through to the courtyard after Selznick said the passworded.
“This way,” he said, dipping his head toward an open door under a loggia.
The casino was posh. Its blackjack, roulette and craps tables symmetrically arranged around a center bar tended by three knock-out gorgeous Mexican girls who chatted coquettishly with customers downing drinks. I scanned the floor and walked the aisles between the pits to get a sense of the play while Selznick settled up his unpaid markers in the manager’s credit office. The movie mogul emerged with a rack of what I guessed to be around ten thousand dollars in chips in $50 and $100 denominations.
“Over there,” he said, pointing to a blackjack table, one of two that was clearly in a high-limit section of the casino floor with its own bar and heavily staffed with immaculately dressed hosts and stunning cocktail waitresses bringing libations to the players. Two society blondes sat at the other table, sipping from champagne flutes as they gabbed between hands with the dealer, urging him to cough up an ace or a king. They recognized Selznick and waved.
“I want a private game,” Selznick said to the mustachioed pit boss who was tall, tanned, neatly turned out in a black suit with the posture of a Spanish grandee.
“Of course, sir,” he said, leading us to the blackjack table. As we sat down, Selznick shoved five hundred dollars in $25 chips to me. “Partners again?”
“Partners,” I agreed.
Lubricated by six drinks by my count, Selznick was making one stupid decision after another, something of a replay of our poker session on the train. He didn’t double down at the right time, he hit when he should have stayed, and stayed when he should have hit. I quickly apprised his losses after forty minutes or so at more than half his buy-ins. He had what we call in the gambling trade a ring in his nose, which in English means he was hotly chasing the money, doubling and tripling bad bets in a fevered but hopeless pursuit of a quick run of cards that would not only bring him even, but put him ahead.
We had worked out a series of knee knocks again on the ride down. One knock was to hit, two was to stay. But he was so soused by then that he paid no attention and just went ahead losing his ass. He burned through the ten thousand, called for a marker, and got another ten thousand and then launched on another brutal run of self-inflicted losses. Meanwhile, I had managed to stay even as the name Moe Zeff kept buzzing around my head like a pesky fly that just wouldn’t go away.
“I have to take a piss,” I said, getting up. “Be right back.”
Thee mosaic-tiled men’s room walls depicted flamenco dancers and the venerable castles atop Spanish sierras. The washroom valet did not appear to be Mexican so I struck up a conversation while I stood at the urinal. By the time I moved to the wash basin, I learned that the guy’s sudden departure from the Chicago suburbs had been hurried at the strong suggestion of the police over some embarrassing revelations about his day job which consisted of transporting brown bags of money for payoffs.
A little more conversation and I realized he knew a few people whose names I associated with Uncle Chester: bookies who laid off bets on college football games.
“The owner of this joint is Moe Zeff?” I asked.
“Moe, great man. Ran carpet joints in Florida for the little man from New York, Mr L.”
“That would be Mr. Lansky, I presume?”
“It would. And let me tell you, pal, every game in his joint is on the level. Like Mr. Lansky always says, ‘Why cheat when the odds are always with the house anyway?’”
That’s when the bell rang in my brain. Moe Zeff, of course, was Uncle Chester’s associate from a few years back who’d been trying to get a harness track legalized in New York.
I palmed the men’s room attendant a $10 chip and walked out, making my way to the bank of house phones along the lobby wall. I slid inside and picked up the receiver. “Outside line, please. I’d like to speak person-to person with Mr. Chester Rosen at Circle 6-550 in New York City.”
“Please hold, sir. I’ll get that number for you,” the operator said warmly.
The call was put through. Chester’s guy answered and called him to the phone.
“So, boychick, how’s Mr. Big Shot Hollywood doing?” my uncle asked.
“Great. I need a favor. I’m in Tijuana with my boss. You remember a guy named Moe Zeff?”
“Of course. Talked to him just a few weeks ago. Why, what’s up? You wanna get laid in Mexico without a side dish of the clap?”
“Can you lean on him for a favor?”
“You kidding? Moe still owes me fifty grand on the Louis Schmeling fight from last June. He’s due to in town soon, coming to pay me.”
“Listen, my boss is a total sucker and in the process of blowing his brains out on a blackjack game here at Moe’s place. I have an idea…”
I laid out my plan, hung up and waited twenty minutes for the gears to kick in. By the time I got back to the table, Selznick had blown through yet another ten grand and was three sheets to the wind.
“Get me another ten,” he ordered the pit boss as I arrived. “Where the fuck have you been? “ he said, chastising me. “I’m losing my ass here. I need your sage counsel, Virgil.” He laughed, pulling me down next to him.
Minutes later the phone in the pit rang. The shift boss picked up, looked around, caught my eye and nodded. He eased over to the dealer and took him aside. As the pit boss walked away, he stroked his nose twice, a signal that all was in hand.
When the third ten thousand rack of chips arrived, Selznick signed the marker. Before he could make another bet I eased it away from him.
“Let me take a shot, boss, I feel lucky,” I said.
Selznick straightened up and faced me in that singular pose drunks usually attempt to assume to appear sober. “Okay, big shot, let’s see what you can do…”
By this time the dealer had stacked the deck with coolers and burned through it and three successive decks in a shrewd cadence of wins and losses. He moved my play through to a simulated and sustained run of luck. I pressed up my bets to five hundred dollars a hand, attracting a small crowd around the table. Meanwhile, Selznick was fighting to stay awake during my seemingly unstoppable skein of wins, popping a few amphetamines with his scotches and urging me on.
“Onward, onward, into the valley of death rode the six hundred,” he loudly proclaimed, quoting a line from Tennyson’s Charge Of The Light Brigade
The grand charade rolled ahead until four a.m., at which time I counted down my chips and told the pit boss, “Get me racked. I’m done. We’re cashing out.”
With the help of the Spanish grandee host, I maneuvered Selznick to the private cash window inside the cage. Moe Zeff was already there, standing and waiting. He was a squat, cherubic, powerfully built little man chomping on a cigar that was almost as tall as he was. He greeted me like a long lost nephew and asked after my Uncle Chester.
“Tell Chet I’ve booked the Chief. I’ll be in the city next Thursday and to make a reservation for us at Pietro’s for dinner.” Then he drew me aside and glanced down at Selznick, who we’d planted on a sofa. “Keep this putz out of my place, please, kiddo. This is a one only — no do-overs, get me?”
Moe pinched my cheek and smiled. “Good boy,” and left.
That night Selznick eventually stirred, awakened by two strong bolts of black coffee.
“How’d we do, Virgil?”
“Let’s talk in the car.”
I found the chauffeur sitting in the lobby scanning the racing form. He shot to his feet and took over the escort duties, easing the boss into the limo’s back seat. I slid in, Selznick fell back into a snooze, and we made back for L.A.
Somewhere just north of San Diego, Selznick woke up, turned to me and asked, “So how’d we do?”
I undid the clasp on a manila envelope and showed him the cash.
“The twenty-five big ones you lost tonight, plus another five for our trouble. I had a great run. A little advice if you don’t mind, Mr. Selznick?”
He fanned through the stacks of cash, bewildered but elated. “You are a most valued associate, Virgil,” he kidded. “Let’s do it again soon.”
“That’s my point. The Casa Estrella is a bust-out joint. In English, that means there are nights the games are straight and other nights, when the month might not be shaping up, when the games are not. My strong suggestion is it might be a good idea not to get into play there anytime soon. But by no means share that insight with anyone you know who plays in Tijuana. Otherwise, we might get visitations from not very pleasant people disturbed by our talking too much.”
“And, please, no more casinos for you. At least perhaps until Gone With The Wind is a lot closer to going into production. Promise?”
“Promise. Irene will kiss you. Buzz, let me ask you something. Would you really like to be in the movie business? I mean genuinely as a career? I can reset your responsibilities if you do see that route. Move you into the big project. Real work.”
“I’d like that. But you need to promise me to stay away from Tijuana.”
We shook hands.
Since that night I’d always harbored guilt over my mischaracterization of Moe Zeff’s gaming emporium and the fate that could await us if we blabbed about it in Hollywood. It was a very straight game they ran there. They never cheated, they had the best dealers, and they always paid off to the penny. They never used muscle to collect, wrote off bad debts like menschs and we were never in danger about being visited by guys with bent noses.
But on the plus side of the ledger, David stuck to our deal to the letter. Between that night in 1936 and that morning in 1939, when he arrived at The Gone With The Wind set ready to shoot the opening Tarleton twins’ porch scene, Selznick stayed away from the tables. Until the cascading disasters flooded his daily life after he had to fire George Cukor and replace him with Victor Fleming. That’s when the movie mogul found his way back to gambling to cool down after violent shouting matches wth his film directors. This time he went to Santa Anita and bet on the horses with father-in-law Louis B. Mayer, still convinced that fateful night in Tijuana was the result of my brilliant play at the blackjack table overcoming the bad characters who ran the Casa Estrella. It turned out that Uncle Chester wiped off what we’d taken off Moe Zeff at the casino and duly collected the balance the following week in New York. It was then my turn to make my uncle whole, which I accomplished by steering lots of big Hollywood gamblers to his emporium during the next college football season until the entire twenty-five was paid back in full in the form of commissions on the business I did not collect.
Now here in 1940, I’m working as a gofer on the set of Selznick’s Rebecca, hoping to cram in as much movie know-how as I can. Hitler invaded Poland last fall, England is up to its eyeballs in war with the Nazis, and it seems to me that we’ll be in it before too long. And Selznick still harbors the belief that our big win that night was entirely due to my rare skills at the art of beating the house. Really he does. And I always keep close the idea that, in some tiny way, I deserved recognition on Gone With The Wind. Somewhere way down in the credit crawl, I imagined the following — Special Assistant to the Producer: Virgil Rosen. Really, it’s true.