Ken gets an impressive new title and a surprising new pal at a Hollywood agency. 3,813 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Harry Taradash’s office door was ajar so I gave it the courtesy knock and walked in. He looked up and waved me to a chair. “Boychick, this is gonna be your office?” he asked. His face had that beatific look of sweet resignation you occasionally observe among the elderly who have come to a quiet accommodation with their own mortality.
“So I’m told. No rush about it, Harry,” I said, easing into his client chair. “I understand you wanted me to stop by before I left on the red-eye for New York tonight.”
Nobody at the Elton Talbot Agency knew Harry’s real age. In LA, that lively old guy look often radiates from men who trade in their shrunken aged spouses for shopaholic trophy wives. Some guy in accounting once told me that Harry lived with a divorced daughter. So his apparent vigor probably had more to do with his fighting spirit. He’d been at war with the agency partners over the past five years in a Twilight-Of-The-Gods struggle to force him out.
Unfortunately for the partners, Harry held a sizeable chunk of company stock enabling him to block a big merger that management had been salivating to close for a year. Finally, they sued. Harry lost a bruising court battle and the war. Today was his last at the agency. There wasn’t a thundering götterdämmerung ending — only a cloying press release emailed to the world the week before and drenched in crocodile tears about his legendary career.
Why I’d been tapped to be the lone member of his bye-bye brigade mystified me. I hardly knew the man. When I’d been transferred to the Beverly Hills office, I’d listened to the lunchtime gossip about his pathetic hanging-on. We’d exchanged corridor nods and clamped lower lip smiles. Once, we stood shoulder to shoulder in the executive restroom as we peed.
I remembered him turning to me, muttering, “Pissing goes from fire hose to leaky faucet with each passing decade, kid. Me? I might be standing here an hour waiting for the last few drops to fall.”
All I managed in response to his urine commentary was my usual silent nod and weak smile. I am a man who admits to himself that his success in life springs from little more than dumb luck and observing the rules of the road set down by one’s bosses. Cozying up to Harry while the firm fought to purge him could pose a danger to my recently elevated status as a Vice President for Live Entertainment. So, to me, Harry was just another antique around the office — like the 18th Century Gainsborough portrait of Lord Talbot appraising the Reality TV airheads and rap mogul morons who cooled their heels at reception waiting for their agents. The duke, of course, had nothing to do with the firm’s origins other than he shared the same name as the bankrupt vaudeville hustler who had sold the New York office to the company founder in the ’20s.
Harry pointed to it in the hallway and laughed. “Solly bought that in London in the ’30s — his sense of humor." I thought a portrait of Al Capone or Meyer Lansky would have been more appropriate.
Harry reached for a crystal pitcher sitting on a sterling tray in his credenza. “Want some fresh-squeezed ruby red Texas grapefruit juice? It’ll put jisim in your jisim.”
“I suppose I could always use some extra jisim,” I said.
He held up two cut crystal tumblers. “Waterford, the first gift I ever got from Chase & Carroll.” The juice was tart, quenching and delicious with that bracing freshness that tingles the nostrils and did seem to put jisim in my jisim. I demolished it in three gulps.
“He — Jerry Chase — was your first client, right?”
“First and only at the time. I signed him the summer of ’48. The year me and Harry Truman shocked the world,” he crowed.
“You must have been barely out of your bar mitzvah suit,” I said, uttering a shamelessly transparent compliment. But truthfully Harry appeared to be un-bloodied and un-bowed and un-shrunken at well over six feet and ramrod straight. Still sporting an immaculately barbered mane of wavy white hair atop a fine Roman head, he was a man who looked long accustomed to prevailing.
He nodded approvingly at my little flattery.
“I did start young. I joined the Marines in ’44. Served with the fourth division at Saipan,” he said, tapping his finger on a framed photo of himself in uniform. “See? That’s the Navy Cross pinned there on my chest. It’s the highest decoration they could confer on a Marine at the time, one under the Congressional Medal. I don’t do geezer war stories so don’t ask me how I got it. The shorthand is stupidity and let’s leave it at that."
His impending departure was making Harry wax nostalgic. “After that I mustered out to LA in ’46. A few weeks drinking and screwing my brains out in this California sunshine, and Brooklyn didn’t look so good anymore.”
He laced his fingers into a tent, and his chunky gold comedy and tragedy cufflinks flashed. They had diamonds meticulously cut to form both masks’ eyes.
“I hear they brought you out here from the New York office,” Harry said, changing the subject to me.
"I hear"? What was that all about, I wondered. Curiosity and paranoia are usually a toxic mental brew but one tends to feed them anyway, like the Bob Slocum narrator in Joseph Heller’s Something Happened. I had long memorized the line: “I think that maybe in every company there is always a person who is going crazy slowly.”
But I had the feeling that Harry was testing me. Why, I had no idea other than the possibility that he wanted to make sure I told everyone at the agency that he’d left with triumphal dignity.
“I covered live entertainment, mostly the Atlantic City and Connecticut casinos," I replied. "I’m here to take over Vegas and the West Coast concert and live venues after Murray retires next month.”
“Murray’s only 74,” Harry lamented, tossing a handful of Raisinettes from a jar into his mouth. For some odd reason, I cupped my hand as Harry dumped a hefty cascade of them into my palm. “I’m the last dinosaur, kid. The Tyrannosaurus Rex with an inconvenient vault containing an inconvenient stack of Elton Talbot preferred stock certificates. But they finally got me as you can see.”
He waved his hand over the white Mayflower moving cartons stacked on the floor around his desk. He pulled out an oversized framed photo of himself and Ronald Reagan. They were sitting across from one another in the Oval Office; like Harry was a visiting dignitary and not just another campaign contributor shuffled through for a photo op. “Not bad, huh? Reagan loved to get filled in on the industry.”
I caught a glimpse of a tear spilling, but that just could have been the tyranny of old age. My grandfather’s eyes tear all the time even when he tells his lame jokes about the rabbi, the priest and the minister.
“Solly himself hired me," Harry continued, producing another visual aid from another Mayflower carton. This was a photo of him and company founder Solly Wachs posed with Humphrey Bogart at the Academy Awards. “I was just a mailroom peasant. Solly called me in a panic that night. He had put on the wrong colored socks. I had to drive to his house, get the right socks from his butler, meet him in a beanery toilet where he changed from midnight blue to black. My reward was getting to meet Bogart.”
“Solly was a power in town by then,” I said.
“For years already. He’d originally fled Chicago in the ’20s. He was pressured by the mob."
“But he was supposed to be one tough dude,” I ventured.
“Bet your ass he was. What really happened in Chicago was that two nasty guineas with baseball bats came to kneecap him one day in ’22. When he told them to fuck off, they started swinging. They didn’t know Solly had boxed professionally under the name of Kid Beytsim." Harry arched his brows. “Beytsim means balls in Yiddish. Don’t you think it’s sad that beyond oy vey and meshugenah, an old guy like me has to translate Yiddish to young guys like you?’ I nodded in agreement. "Solly always made money for his partners,” he said, evoking the spectre of Hyman Roth in The Godfather, Part II.
“So all those old rumors that Solly was connected…?” I asked.
“Solly was mobbed up to his eyeballs,” Harry leaned forward, dropping his voice into a conspiratorial lower register. “Meyer Lansky used to stay at Solly’s estate in Bel-Air, but you never heard that from me. Back then, the mob was as much a part of show business as the dressing room blow job. Every fucking pie baked out here had a brass-knuckled finger in it somewhere, boychick. I was a year in the mailroom. Then Solly shipped me back to New York to train. I was pissed and protested. He wouldn’t hear it. Solly says to me, ‘Kid, forget movies and radio. Nightclubs are for you. It’s not a business for faggots. I need a young shtarker, a real man, who can stand up to the nightclub mob guys if he has to.'"
Harry paused, his eyebrows arched quizzically. “You’re not gay are you, kid? If you are, no offense.”
“No, no — not that there’s anything wrong with that,” I added, quipping the Seinfeld line.
Harry got it and laughed. “Some of my best friends are fags. And shvartzers, too.”
I realized that, when you’re over 80, you can get away with blatant defiance of political correctness since everybody figures a man of that age is a senile old bigot.
Harry rose and peered through the blinds across the sweeping window facing Wilshire Boulevard. Oddly, he took a long deep breath as if he were outdoors, then eased a large framed photo of the megastar comedy team of the ’50s off the wall and handed it to me. It was a double head shot of the goofy Jerry Chase and the handsome crooner Vince Carroll.
“I’ve seen a few of the Chase & Carroll movies on TCM," I told Harry. "My dad loves those PBS retrospectives of their TV shows. He laughs his ass off and says, ‘See, son? That’s what funny really is.’”
Harry refilled my crystal tumbler. “It’s why I asked you to stop by. I hear you’re a pretty good kid with a respect for what was. Not much of that around here anymore.”
“I’m not exactly a show business historian, Harry.”
“Your old man in the business?”
“No, he’s a doctor.”
"I asked around the office about you.”.
I was getting unnerved by all this ‘asking around’ business. Yet why I felt the growing impulse to ingratiate myself with Harry in spite of my antsiness was puzzling. Maybe it was guilt over getting assigned his corner office mixed with awe about the huge names that had sat across that desk all those years. Since I’d joined the agency, the top management’s mantra had been for us to avoid being reverential about the Elton Talbot legacy. We were told to transform Elton Talbot from its fusty 20th Century roots into a hip and headset-screaming army of banshees creating a 21st Century show business money machine. The Ari Gold character on HBO’s Entourage was to be our avatar, not the old gents who could no longer control their farting in meetings.
“Well, you heard good things, I hope.”
He didn’t reply but walked over to his wood-panelled closet that revealed a full-length mirror inside. I watched him perform the primping ritual of the great agents of yesteryear. He slid his long fingers down his pants, creating a razor-like crease. He made sure his shirt was tucked in as flat as possible and didn’t balloon over his crocodile belt with the big Hermes “H” pulled tight. He put on his suit jacket, then popped his French cuffs so that his gold links showed. And finally he tightened the perfectly pinched Windsor knot in his tie, smoothed his hands across his hair and checked himself once more.
“Got time for an early lunch?" he asked me. "I got a standing table at Hillcrest Country Club. We can talk there. I explain better over prime rib and martinis.”
On the one hand I felt like a consummate insider, and the other I fought getting all ‘Gee Whiz’ about this. He had to have some kind of agenda. Agents who’ve been agenting for six or 60 years don’t get out of bed in the morning without someone or something to hustle, whether a has-been act to the old Tropicana or a shitty script to some Ivy League movie development millenial. And why was he spending time with me in his last hours? Me of the personal appearances department which in big talent agencies like Elton Talbot are the steerage sections of the sleek ocean liners where the first class deck of movies and television generate the big dollars. I was just another grinder paying a bloated Valley mortgage. And, come to think of it, why was I getting Harry’s office?
It was all beginning to feel spooky as hell. But I didn’t have the guts to just beg off, wish the old guy well, get back to my temporary cubicle and put on my headset again.
Hillcrest Country Club had a handful of late breakfast lingerers scattered among the dining room tables as we came in, mostly geezers nursing their coffees or Bloody Marys. One of the waiters greeted Harry with a familial nod and showed him to his primo spot by the windows. Harry ordered his usual prime rib and martini, then looked contemptuously at my half Caesar salad and iced tea. “Think you’ll live an extra 50 seconds eating that shit? All you get out of lettuce is sweeter smelling burps.”
Harry began talking with a full mouth. “Tell me something, boychick. Why does every Jewish kid from money want to write screenplays or TV shows?”
I laughed. “Well, usually the only ones who can afford to take those jobs are kids whose parents live in Scarsdale and write them fat monthly checks. Then the parents get to show their friends at the golf club the tear-sheets from Variety.”
“Not you though,” Harry asked pointedly.
“Guilty,” I confessed, raising my hand.
“Give yourself more credit, kid. You don’t have that my-shit-don’t-stink air about you like some of the trust fund brats around here.”
“Guilty again. My grandfather left me a small trust. It pays for my kids’ dental work. But I assume you didn’t ask me to lunch to discuss my children’s orthodonture needs.”
Harry gulped down the last of his second martini and called for the check. “C’mon, let’s walk around Beverly Hills and find a bench. You have time, no?”
We left the car with the valet and went outside and came across a rest stop beneath a huge live oak near the majestic Beverly Hills City Hall on North Rexford. “That’s where I got married the first time,” he said, pointing. “She wasn’t Jewish, you know. Back then, marrying a shiksa was a capital offense. It lasted two years. To be fair, I screwed around.” He’d turned away from me now and continued talking to the building as if calling upon it to bear witness to his trespassing the Laws of Moses.
“I married a gentile girl,” I said. “She was raised Lutheran in Atlanta but these days she’s a committed Buddhist."
He roared and punched my shoulder. Just then his cell phone went off. He fumbled, then found the talk button and said, “No, Shana. I’m sitting under a shady tree with a young man from the office. I should be home by three. Broil some fish for me.”
He punched off. “My daughter."
Harry’s expression turned earnest. He clasped his hands together in deep thought a long moment and began, “Son, I am about to entrust to you The Great Secrets Of 20th Century Show Business.”
“What have I done — or not done — to deserve that honor?” I replied.
But I was thinking: here, finally, was the payoff in exchange for my few hours of humoring the old guy. I could even envision decades from now passing on to the next generation of agents the wisdom which Harry was about to impart to me. Or was Joseph Heller’s prescient narrator materializing beside me on the bench?
“You came recommended as the only possible person to entrust with the transmission of this immense trove of history,” Harry said solemnly.
“Recommended? By whom?”
“Stanley Mendelsohn. As I’m sure you already know, he’s Solly’s nephew and was the man who personally lifted the Elton Talbot Agency out of the old age home and back to the top of the heap."
“Stanley? Our Stanley? The Stan Mendelsohn?” I asked utterly shocked. The man had been Chairman of the agency until retiring last year and renown as the feared and revered successor to Lou Wasserman, the most terrifying and powerful agent ever to rule Hollywood. Stan became the mega-deal king: the agent who first lured Corporate America into the show business flytrap with intricate web sponsorship deals surpassing television, movies and concerts. Stan’s last coup was birthing the first Internet all-movie channel that fetched over a billion and a half dollars when he brokered the sale to the Chinese.
How was it even possible that he knew I was alive? Other than the occasional handshake at a company pep rally, the most time I’d ever spent with Stan was when we accidentally shared an elevator ride. He never said hello or goodbye but always left me frozen with the line, “I’m watching you, son. Keep it up.”
The idea that he’d been actually watching me was too much to comprehend. And here I’d been convinced that my recent promotion had been a fluke.
“What did Stan tell you?” I managed to mumble.
There was a long pause. ”Before Stan retired, we had lunch right there at Hillcrest," Harry explained. "He said he was revulsed standing by and watching his henchman cut me up. But I’m a tough old fuck. Stan knew I could take care of myself. Just look around. My tormentors are all gone. Except for one: your current boss — our esteemed Senior Vice President Walt Peskin.
Walt headed my department and was being privately touted as Stan’s probable successor even though Walt wasn’t TV or movies. It was his widely admired quality as a charming son-of-a-bitch who could screw you with a smile that presumably would carry the day for him at the agency.
“So Stan came to me with a deal. I finally agreed to go if he agreed to whack Walt. Now that prick is about to be canned at the next board meeting, and he doesn’t have a clue. The shmuck won’t know what’ll hit him.”
Harry went on. "So now we’re about to get even, and I’m happy to be shuffled off to Buffalo. But Stan also said to me, ‘We need a chosen one, Harry. None of these young yutzes are much except for this Ken kid I hear about. Know him?’”
I sat there stunned. “Listen, Harry, you sure Stan said my name?"
"Ken. It is you. You are the chosen one, trust me. Stan wrote your name down. I had no idea who the hell you were, believe me.”
Harry’s voice was reassuring but his face told another story. His eyes suddenly seemed clouded in a faraway haze. He stared out into the distance silently watching the cars whoosh by, smiling and running his fingers through his wavy hair.
“I see,” I said, relishing every word.
“The Great Secrets Of 20th Century Show Business are about to be laid in your lap," Harry went on. "So listen closely and prepare yourself to assume the burden of he who has been chosen."
I felt my stomach drop into my groin as Harry reached into his inside jacket pocket. But instead of a sheaf of papers, he took out a huge Baby Ruth bar, broke it in half and offered a chunk to me.
“Want a bite? We’ll be here a while. There’s much to tell. We can start with that magical night in ’48 when I discovered Chase & Carroll in Atlantic City.” He bit off a huge piece, chewed and swallowed. “Ah… you get to be my age, kid, and a Baby Ruth can be as erotic as a first class blow job.”
Harry removed his jacket, folded it meticulously and laid it beside me on the bench. He took a deep bow and said, “You know, kid, there was a time when I thought I might be right up there with Fred Astaire. I’m graceful, dontcha think?” He went into a soft shoe dance on the sidewalk, singing Me And My Shadow.
"Strolling down the avenue / Me and my shadow / Not a soul to tell our troubles to / And when it’s twelve o’clock / We climb the stair / We never knock / For nobody’s there."
I listened to Harry’s tremulous voice and watched his graceful shuffle.
“Al Jolson wrote that song, kid,” he said, going down on one knee to make his point.
"Harry, c’mon, get up. Tell me the secrets. I’m listening.”
But Harry had drifted away and kept his soft shoe going.
At that moment, a tan ‘62 Rolls Royce pulled up beside us. A woman in a floppy hat and oversized sunglasses emerged and walked over. She was in her 50s and had undergone the work of a very competent plastic surgeon. She watched Harry dip and turn, whirl and sing, and then spoke to me.
“Are you the young man from Elton Talbot?”
“I am,” I replied, guessing this was Harry’s daughter.
“I’m so sorry. Harry does fade in and out. When he’s lucid, he’s impressive. But the dead zones are widening. I hope you’re not pissed at all this.”
“Oh no, I’ve enjoyed our chat,” I said.
“He give you the ‘chosen one’ mishegas?” she said wistfully.
“Thank you for looking after him. I’m sure you’ve helped make his last day in the office special. We appreciate it.”
She walked over to Harry and took his arm in hers. “C’mon, Dad, I need to get over to Bristol Farms to buy your fish for tonight. Now we had salmon yesterday. How about some sea bass?"
She began walking him toward the car. He stopped momentarily, turned, eased her arm away., and stared intently at me. Then he and his daughter drove off into the fading California sunshine.