I WISH I’D SAID THAT
By Shaun Costello
I’ve always envied those few whose witty weaponry enabled them to defuse an impossible moment with the turn of a phrase.
Sherwood Anderson when reviewing cowboy hero Tom Mix: “They say he rides as if he’s part of the horse, but they didn’t say which part.”
Dorothy Parker: “That woman speaks eighteen languages and can’t say ‘no’ in any of them.”
George S Kaufman: Once asked by a press agent, “How do I get my leading lady’s name into your newspaper?” Kaufman replied, “Shoot her.”
I wish I’d said that, but of course no one asked me. Of all the great verbal kick-turns I’ve read, my favorite happened at a Beverly Hills dinner party back in 1940.
Arthur Hornblow Jr. was one of Hollywood’s most successful producers. From 1933 to 1942 he had a hand in the production of some of Paramount’s biggest hits, before moving on to a stellar career at MGM, producing for luminaries like George Cukor and Billy Wilder. Hornblow’s fame as a producer was equaled however, by his legendary reputation as a party host. His dinner parties were storied events, and making his guest list meant you had “arrived” in the motion picture community.
The massive dining table was set according to the measurements and procedures followed by the staff of the Royal Family for state dinners at Windsor Castle. Each dinner guest was provided with their own personal
servant, who stood at attention behind each chair awaiting the call to the most menial of tasks. The wines served were of the great vintages from the finest Chateau’s of Bordeaux and Burgundy. The guest list read like the who’s who of Hollywood Royalty: Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Robert Taylor, Claire Trevor, Spencer Tracy, Kate Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Bing Crosby, Olivia DeHaviland, Bob Hope, Cary Grant. All dressed to the “Nines”. At their peak. Walking on air.
On this particular evening the name of Herman Mankiewicz had been added to the guest list. Manky, as he was universally known, was one of Hollywood’s mercurial talents, responsible for the screenplays for Citizen Kane, The Enchanted Cottage,
Dinner at Eight, and many others. He was also one of Hollywood’s most notorious drunks, leaving a disgruntled and embarrassed list of dinner hosts in his wake. Arthur Hornblow Jr. had avoided inviting Manky to one of his extravaganzas, fearing bad behavior, and the possibility of an unfortunate incident. But Manky, whose barbed wit and scintillating conversation made him popular on Tinseltown’s party circuit, could not be put off forever. So on this particular evening a nervous Arthur Hornblow Jr. could do nothing more than hope for good behavior from his mercurial guest. He gave strict instructions to the staff to limit Manky’s wine service at dinner and to watch for signs of unusual behavior. That done, Hornblow continued fussing over details he felt necessary in order to present a fabulous evening to his fabulous guests.
The pre-dinner cocktail reception out on the terrace was accompanied by a string quartet, while Hollywood’s finest chattered amongst themselves, totally oblivious to possibility of the existence of anything unglamorous in or out of their own perfect little world. Manky held court with a raconteur’s glib concoction of facts and fables, and his audience loved every moment. Hornblow gazed at the assembly through the window and smiled.
The crystal bell tinkled the announcement of a dinner at the ready, and the guest list with the grace born of celebrity and assurance glided through the huge doorway into the dining chamber, the epicenter of Hornblow’s mansion. Everyone found their appropriate places with Hornblow at the head of the enormous table, and his wife Myrna Loy sitting opposite. The wines were greeted with ooohs and ahhhs, and each course served was a tour de force in epicurean perfection. Arthur Hornblow Jr, surveyed his table with a sense of satisfaction thinking to himself. “Well Arthur, you’ve done it again. Everything is as it should be.”
Gone unnoticed amidst all this perfection was an unusually quiet Herman Mankiewicz. Although his wine flow had been curtailed at the dinner table, he had consumed seven or eight martinis during the pre dinner festivities and was plastered. He sat staring straight ahead, weaving ever so slightly to his left and then his right, then slightly forward and suddenly vomited into his soup.
What followed was the longest pause in the history of Tinseltown. No one moved. No one made eye contact with anyone else. Fifty dinner guests sat silent and motionless, perhaps hoping on the off chance, that God might appear and, in his benevolence somehow make things right. But God went unneeded on this particular evening. Manky, seemingly recovered from his trance-like stupor looked down at the evidence of his mischief, then slowly lifted his head and turned in the direction of his horrified host and said, “Not to worry Arthur. The white wine came up with the fish.”
I wish I’d said that. I wish I’d been there.
© 2006 Shaun Costello/New York Times Sunday Magazine