A WWII U.S. Army officer contacts his macher relative in the movie biz. 2,999 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
April 1945 – Trier, Germany
A G.I., spent by battle fatigue, trudged away from his platoon during a bivouac at the edge of a forest and tried catnapping under a leafless tree. He looked up at its naked branches still cobwebbed into the overcast skies. A red-winged blackbird sang on the branch above him, a harbinger of a Spring that seemed late in the morning chill. But the song was a sleeping pill and the soldier folded his arms, took off his helmet and nodded off.
After an all too brief catnap, the first soldiers in C Company arrived. The G.I. roused, looked up and saw Lt. Dave Meltzer grinning down at him. “We’re moving east in hour, a mop-up operation. Meanwhile, relax.”
The officer and the G.I. smoked in silence a while, heads tilted toward the brooding sky. “I’m already back home in my head, sir” Quinn said, tapping his temple with a sigh.
“Patience buddy. It’s a matter of a week or two.” Lt. Meltzer rubbed his stubbled chin and asked, “And home is…?”
“New York — only for a month, tops. Then I’m off. My old man is pushing me to go to Hollywood and look up a family connection. Maybe back-door myself into a movie job.”
Lt. Meltzer nodded. “So I’m told. Mr. Louis B. Mayer. My old man’s family came from the same town in Russia as Mayer. His grandmother and Mayer’s maternal grandmother may have been sisters. Could be a familial delusion.”
“It’s a helluva long trip just to get the bum’s rush,” Quinn said, exhaling his Camel.
Lt. Meltzer shrugged. “But there’s a fallback. I have a certifiably real cousin who owns a used car lot out there who’ll hire me to sell cars on weekends. I won’t starve.”
Quinn turned to Lt. Meltzer, looking curiously. “Aren’t you a college guy? If the Mayer thing pisses out, can’t you find something better?”
Lt. Meltzer laughed, raising his hand to display his class ring: Columbia 1940. “It’ll be temporary. Meanwhile, I’ll sniff around to see what else is out there.”
“Suppose this Mayer connection is real, what’s the job?”
“Probably a shit spot in the mailroom. As an errand boy.”
“You can be an errand boy in New York, or probably something a lot higher up the totem pole or am I wrong?”
Lt. Meltzer stared out into the empty meadow toward the town, plucked a fistful of grass and tossed it to waft away into the wind. ”It’s a crap shoot for sure. But so’s life. That’s been clear since we landed at Normandy, right?”
“True. I have nightmares about catching the last Kraut bullet before a ceasefire,” Quinn said.
Later that day, the news broke that Hitler had committed suicide, putting an exclamation point to the word “home” now writ large in the minds of the men of Lt. Meltzer’s war-wearied platoon.
November 1945: 625 Palisades Beach Road, Santa Monica
Dave had been a reconnaissance officer, his eyes trained to size up hostile terrains from peaceable landscapes. He’d spent his first three weeks in L.A. at the home of his cousin, the used car guy. While there he was repeatedly importuned by the proud 4-F Murray Meltzer to retail the perilous narrative to his neighbors of how Dave had won the Silver Star at the Battle Of The Bulge. But Dave kept stalling on a visit to MGM, unable to quell the gut wrench he felt about what was surely an embarrassing trip down a dead-end alley. Finally, after three prodding phone calls from his old man, and out of lame excuses, he bestirred himself to embark on his mission to Mayer.
“Maybe this is legit and you’’ll become a big producer guy someday,” his cousin encouraged him. “One night, I’ll go to the movies and see your name come on the screen: ‘Produced By David Meltzer’.” Dave smiled and then fell lost in thought as a childhood memory of the old man’s shul cronies flashed across his mind.
One Saturday after Shabbos services he’d attended under duress, he remembered the old cockers bragging to one another incessantly about their relatives who had discovered and now lived on America’s streets of gold. Dave’s old man insisted he was related to Louis B. Mayer. Dave never knew if Mayer was in fact mishpoocha, or if he was a genuine gold plated invention of his father’s just to one-up his shul contingent. Who was Judge This or Dr. That compared to the King Of Hollywood, Joe Meltzer used to say. Dave kept his cynicism to himself, given the old man’s sworn certainty that Mayer’s relationship was unchallengeable fact.
But Dave now was 26, free, had no other ambitions of the moment, so anyway he’d promised to give it a shot. He could have written a letter to Mayer first, but Dave’s old man dictated that “Mayer’s s gotta look in your eyes and see your Meltzer face. He’ll see the family resemblance, believe me.” So Dave took good old Route 66 going out. At the very least, he’d have a good story about how Mayer had him tossed into some loony bin in Southern California.
For all his weekly calls to the MGM offices and visits to the Culver City gate, Dave had nothing to show for his efforts beyond repeated and exasperating rebuffs by studio factotums from secretaries to guards insisting that Mr. Mayer had never heard of him nor his family and would he please stop bothering the studio. Dave even called his old man to report that the Meltzer family connection was probably an old wives’ tale. “It’s a joke, pop. Mayer never heard of Chana Meltzer.”
“It’s a mistake. Try again. Keep trying. They’re all full of shit. I know better, David,” his father had sworn on his sainted mother’s memory. “How do you even know that Mayer got the message?”
“One more try and that’s it. I’m going to sneak past all the flunkies and go face to face with Mayer himself even if I have to corner him at home — if I can find out where the hell his residence is.”
“That sounds like my son. Of course, screw the flunkies,” exulted Joe Meltzer. “Take direct action.”
Cousin Murray had a neighbor in real estate who, duly impressed with Dave’s war exploits, gladly agreed to deploy all his contacts to find out where Mayer lived and when he was most likely to be at home. “These houses are all gated with alarms,” the neighbor cautioned as he handed Dave the slip of paper with Mayer’s address. “My contact is a secretary at the studio garage. She knows the in-and-out schedules of the executive limos better than their wives. Good luck kid and don’t get arrested.”
“I got past the German lines. This will be a waltz,” Dave responded.
Murray insisted Dave drive the used car lot’s classy black 1940 Packard. “In case the cops grab you. And don’t forget to wear your medal and vet’s lapel pin.”
On an unusually warm Sunday night for November in Southern California, dressed in a blue suit, striped blue and white Columbia school tie and tennis shoes, Dave drove to Santa Monica and parked the Packard across the road from Louis B. Mayer’s home. It was clearly hostile terrain, sitting high on the bluff facing the Pacific, looking down opprobriously on the human flotsam and jetsam that occasionally walked their dogs on the beach below. There was no visible access from the road to the property except through an intimidating gate surrounded by high hedges. All the houses along the road were linked by gates blocking public access to the beach in this part of town. A big fat full moon hung low so Dave knew to hug walls to keep out of sight as he penetrated the barriers facing him.
He scanned the ocean side through his army night vision binoculars. He’d need to slide down the cliff and somehow bully his way inside past the servants. He looked left. Two houses down from Mayer was a discrete FOR SALE sign on a home that was totally dark, shabby from neglect, deserted. Gambling that no one was home nor watching, he swung the Packard around and parked in the driveway. Then Dave reached into his jacket pocket, took out steel cutters and snapped the chain on the gate lock.
He tiptoed down the stairway to the beach. He took off his tennis shoes and socks, checked both ways for dog walkers, rolled up his pants legs and reached the beach evoking memories of his dash across the Normandy beach on D-Day. He pounded his way across the sand beneath the shadows to Mayer’s house. It was an impressive pile perched atop the bluff but hardly the sprawling mansion he’d imagined as a retreat for the King Of Hollywood. Squeezing himself against the wall, he slowly crept up the stairway to another chain-locked gate. Out came his metal cutters — snap snap — and off came the chain. Running around the door’s edge he noticed wiring for what was clearly an alarm system. Snap, snap again. He nudged the door open and found himself on a flagstone walk encircled by shrubbery on all sides. He parted the branches and peered inside.
He saw the pool, a shimmering sapphire in the moonlight, centered in a manicured expanse of shrubs and lawns canopied by palm tree fronds swaying in the night breeze. And there, stretched out on a chaise, reading by a lamp, puffing a cigar, with a crystal pitcher of what looked like a deep red fruit drink on the table beside him, was a man in a flowery cabana suit and sandals. He was squat, bespectacled, tanned, in his early sixties, and built like a bank safe with the barrel chest of a prizefighter. As Dave edged closer in the dark, he recognized his quarry; it was the man himself, Mr. Louis B. Mayer and he was reading a script and talking in a low voice into a Dictaphone.
Dave knew tHe element of surprise was critical but it bore the risk of panicking the mogul, who’d be yelling out to his servants or bodyguards to seize the intruder, ending in the best case,p out the door, or worse case into a police car. So how to approach the man without sending the household into scrambling for gendarmes?
After a long moment, Dave thought of a solution, innovative if not funny. But it met the test of some abstruse logic in his brain.
He’d greet Mayer in Yiddish.
How remote was it that a real burglar or serial killer would be fluent in the mother tongue of every Jew born and raised east of the Oder River? Well, it was worth a try. As runnels of sweat poured down the nape of his neck, Dave slowly moved closer, edging past the shrubs, and reached the back property of the house. He peered into the sliding glass doors, saw no one around, and continued on.
He was now within a few feet of Mayer. Apparently the script was no page-turner because The moviemaker had dropped it on the patio and nodded off, snoring away, drugged by the delights of the night sea breeze. All the more reason, Dave thought, that the sound of Yiddish puncturing the dead silence was certain to startle, but hopefully not panic, the man. Then, in a clear friendly voice, Dave spoke a standard Yiddish greeting. “Labeleh, nu vus machts du? (Louis, so how are you?)”
It was the classic greeting of immigrant Jews, a question never answered naturally but always responded to with another question, “Und vus machts du? (And how are you?)”
Mayer now awakened, shook his head, dazed at first, then turned this way and that and shot to his feet “What? Who’s there?”
All six-foot-two of Dave stood before him, hand outstretched for a shake, wearing a big smile. “Mr. Mayer, my name is Dave Meltzer and we may be related.”
“What the fuck!” Mayer bellowed, rising off the chaise, shocked but not terrified. Or so Dave hoped.
“I apologize, sir. I sneaked in here from the beach,” Dave explained, holding his sneakers in his hand as proof. “Your grandmother and my great grandmother, I think, were sisters…“
Mayer, still befuddled, took off his befogged glasses and leaned in for a closer look. “What’s this craziness?”
“I tried reaching you at MGM but I got the brush-off a dozen times. They told me you’d never heard of Chana Meltzer. If it’s true than I apologize profusely and will be on my way, and I’ll gladly pay for the chain and wires I snipped,” Dave offered, turning back toward the flagstone pathway to the beach gate.
Mayer moved closer and set down the script. “The chain? Wires? Snipped? You sneaked in from the beach? How’d you do that?”
“Training, U.S. Army,” Dave said, pointing to his Silver Star and his veteran’s lapel pin. “Reconnaissance.”
Relieved but still flummoxed, Mayer shook his head.“Jesus fucking Christ. You said you were related to me? Who told you that?”
“I’m the great grandson of Chana Meltzer, from Minsk gebeirnya. That makes my dad, Joe Meltzer, your second cousin. He told me to look you up. I’m a vet as you can see and I’m out here looking for a job in the movie business.”
“This is a helluva way to job hunt.” Mayer said, beginning to get his bearings, and broke out laughing. He pointed down at Dave’s rolled-up pants legs. “Go wash off the sand from your feet, son, there by the pool. Put on your socks.” Mayer mumbled, throwing up his arms. “Everybody wants to be in the movie business. Every putz and yutz wants to make films. You really want this, kid?”
Dave paused and shrugged. “Frankly, Mr. Mayer, its more my father’s idea than mine. It’s a business, I guess, like any other. You buy, you sell, your keep the difference.”
Mayer laughed out loud and slapped Dave on the back, finally surrendering to the bizarre introduction. “Of course. Sit down. We’ll talk.”
Feet sand-free, appropriately socked and shod, suit jacket off, collar opened, tie askew, Dave was seated in a white wrought-iron patio chair as his Silver Star was being examined by a duly impressed Louis B. Mayer. “This is something, son, really something,” the movie mogul gushed, buffing the medal reverentially with his hanky. “So tell me, how’d you earn it?”
Dave retold his tale of derring-do for the umpteenth time since he’d arrived in L.A.
“And by taking out this Nazi machine gun nest, you saved fifteen of our boys,’ Mayer marveled, handing him back the medal.
“That’s what the citation said, yes.”
Dave saw tears running down Mayer’s cheeks. The mogul patted his officer’s knee. “God bless you. So now to business. The answer is, yes, I remember Tante Chanie. She played piano beautifully. I was a little kid and our name then was originally spelled ‘Meir.’ So let me get this straight: Chanie was your father’s grandmother on the Meltzer side?”
“It’s what he believes. He says they lived in a town called Branavitch. That ring a bell?”
Mayer raised his head and clapped his hands together. “Of course! Branavtch geberniya. My mother, alaveh sholem, was Sara, Chanie’s sister. But I like to be precise” he added, raising an instructional finger.”She was a half-sister. It’s too complicated to explain how at the moment.”
“My pop will be very happy to hear that Mr. Louis B Mayer remembers Chanie Meltzer,” Dave said, a loud sigh of relief flooding his voice. “Even if you have no job for me…”
“Whaddaya mean no job?” Mayer replied, plunging an index finger into Dave’s chest. “Mishppocha, a war hero? No job at MGM? Don’t be a putz. I got a studio full of fucking draft dodgers and I can’t find a place for a Jewish war hero, for chrissakes?”
“I called and tried to get messages to you…”
“Never mind. I’ll find out who blocked you and their asses are fried, believe me. Of course I knew Tante Chanie. I would have known immediately if word had ever reached me. It’s clear it never did”.
“I had my doubts. My father has a way of embroidering things. He means well but since my mom died, he spends lots of time at the shul and the guys brag to each other about being distantly related to rich and famous people. Most of it is bullshit.”
Mayer pinched Dave’s cheek affectionately. “Whaddaya mean? It’s your father. Of course, he’d never lie to you. C’mon inside.” Then Mayer stopped. “I don’t know if you ever heard this. But the matzoh ball soup we serve in the studio commissary is my mother’s recipe. And, my boy, where do you think she got it?”
“I wouldn’t have the foggiest idea. But I know my mom’s was also wonderful.”
Mayer gently punched his arm. “Of course! Shmuck, it’s the same recipe. From who else? Tante Chanie. She was a great cook.”
“My mom’s broth was deep brown, not the yellow you get in the deli.”
“Of course, of course….” Mayer paused, hearing the past tense used for Dave’s mother. “You said she was gone?
“A car accident, on the way to the mountains, in 1934. She just turned forty.”
Mayer shook his head. “Alaveh Sholem. So young, so sad, so sorry, my boy.” The mogul picked up a white phone with gold bands on an end table, a color Dave had only seen in Fred Astaire movies. “Hello Charlie? L.B. Listen, take this name down: Dave Meltzer. He’ll be at the gate at 10 tomorrow. I want him personally escorted to my office. And, by the way, I want to know who the fuck down there gave him the brush off when he came to the studio. He’s a fucking war hero and besides he’s family. Understand?”
Mayer and Dave talked a while longer, then the studio chief walked him to the front door. “I gotta call coming in from overseas, so I gotta go. But 10 tomorrow morning, come to the studio. We’ll talk about your future and I’ll have someone show you around the lot. Then we’ll have lunch at the commissary. Okay, son?”
“Thanks, Mr. Mayer…”
“Can the Mister. Just call me ‘L.B.’ from now on.”