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Sunday, May 8, 2016
SUNDAY REVIEW / THE TRUFFLERS
Is this our mysterious actress?
IN THE PLAID COAT
By Samuel Merwin, 1914.
Excerpt from the public domain via www.gutenberg.org
PETER ERICSON MANN leaned back in his
chair and let his hands fall listlessly from the typewriter to his lap.
raised them again and laboriously pecked out a few words.
was no use.
got up, walked to one of the front windows of the dingy old studio and peered
gloomily out at the bare trees and brown grass patches of Washington Square.
was a playwright of three early (and partial) successes, and two more recent
failures. He was 33 years old; and a typical New Yorker, born in Iowa, he
dressed conspicuously, well, making it a principle when in funds to stock up
against lean seasons to come. He worried a good deal and kept his savings of
nearly six thousand dollars (to the existence of which sum he never by any
chance alluded) in five different savings banks.
wore large horn-rimmed eyeglasses (not spectacles) with a heavy black ribbon
attached, and took his Art almost as seriously as himself. You know him
publicly as Eric Mann.
six months Peter had been writing words where ideas were imperatively demanded.
Lately he had torn up the last of these words. He had waited in vain for the
divine uprush; there had come no tingle of delighted nerves, no humming
vitality, no punch. And as for his big scene, in Act III, it was a morass of
sodden, tangled, dramatic concepts.
theme this year was the modern bachelor girl; but to save his life he couldn't
present her convincingly as a character in a play—perhaps because these
advanced, outspoken young women irritated him too deeply to permit of close
they frightened him. He believed in marriage, the old-fashioned woman, the
home.But, it had reached the point, a
month back, where he could no longer even react to stimulants. He had revived
an old affair with a pretty manicure girl without stirring so much as a flutter
of excitement within himself. That was Maria Tonifetti, of the sanitary barber
shop of Marius in the basement of the Parisian Restaurant.
had tried getting drunk; which made him ill and induced new depths of
one ever saw his name any more. No one, he felt certain, ever would see it. He
could look back now on the few years of his success in a spirit of awful calm.
He felt that he had had genius. But the genius had burned out. All that
remained to him was to live for a year or two (or three) watching that total of
nearly six thousand dollars shrink—-shrink—-and then the end of everything.
Well, he would not be the first....
faint faded joy had lately been left to Peter, one sorry reminder of the days
when the magical words, the strangely hypnotic words, "Eric Mann,"
had spoken, sung, shouted from half the bill-boards in town. Over beyond Sixth
Avenue, hardly five minutes' walk through the odd tangle of wandering streets,
the tenements and ancient landmarks and subway excavations and little
triangular breathing places that make up the Greenwich Village of to-day, there
had lingered one faded, torn twenty-four-sheet poster, advertising "The
Buzzard, by Eric Mann."
he was bluest lately, Peter had occasionally walked over there and stood for a
while gazing at this lingering vestige of his name.
Vintage Washington Square postcard
went over there now, in soft hat and light overcoat, and carrying his heavy
cane—hurried over there, in fact—across the Square and on under the Sixth
Avenue elevated into that quaint section of the great city which socialists,
anarchists, feminists, Freudian psycho-analysts of self, magazine writers,
Jewish intellectuals, sculptors and painters of all nationalities and grades,
sex hygiene enthusiasts, theatrical press-agents and various sorts of youthful
experimenters in living share with the merely poor.
stopped at a familiar spot on the curb by a familiar battered lamppost and
peered across the street.
he started—and stared. Surprise ran into bewilderment, bewilderment into utter
faded, torn twenty-four-sheet poster had vanished.
new brand of cut plug tobacco was advertised there now.
children of the merely poor, cluttering pavement and sidewalk, fell against him
in their play. Irritably he brushed them aside.
was indeed the end...until.
Ayoung woman was crossing the street toward him, nimbly
dodging behind a push cart and in front of a coal truck. Deep in self, he
lowered his gaze and watched her. So intent was his stare that the girl stopped
short, one foot on the curb, slowly lowered the apple she was eating, and
looked straight at him.
was shaped like a boy, he decided—good shoulders, no hips, fine hands (she wore
no gloves, though the March air was crisp) and trim feet in small, fiat-heeled
hair, he thought, was cut short. He was not certain, for her "artistic"
tam o'shanter covered it and hung low on her neck behind. He moved a step to
one side and looked more closely.
Sam Merwin, Sr.
Samuel Merwin, Sr.
(1874-1936) was an American author, magazine editor and playwright.
it was short hair. Not docked, in the current fashion, but cut close to her
head, like a boy's.
stepped up on the curb now and confronted him. He noted that her suit was of
brown stuff, loosely and comfortably cut; and that the boyish outer coat, which
she wore swinging open, was of a rough plaid.
he became aware of her eyes. They were deep green and vivid. Her skin was a
clear olive, prettily tinted by air and exercise... Peter suddenly knew that he
was turning red.
we better say something?" was her remark. Then she took another bite of
the apple, and munched it with honest relish.
seems as if I must have met you somewhere," he ventured next.
we haven't met."
name is Mann."
said she, "I know it."
suppose you tell me yours?"
could not think of a reason why. Deeply as he was supposed to understand women,
here was a new variety. She was
inclined neither to flirt nor to run away.
is it that you know who I am?" he asked, sparring for time.
gave a careless shrug. "Oh, most every one is known, here in the
was always at his best when recognized as the Eric Mann.
spirits rose a bit.
From the original novel.
I suggest that we have a cup of coffee somewhere?"
knit her brows. "Yes," she replied slowly, even doubtfully,
course, if you—"
isn't far. Let's go there."
was an oyster and chop emporium of ancient fame in the Village. They sat at a
rear table. The place was empty save for an old waiter who shuffled through the
sprinkling of sawdust on the floor, and a fat grandson of the original Jim who
stood by the open grill that was set in the wall at the rear end of the oyster
the coffee Peter said, expanding now—"Perhaps this is reason enough for
you to tell me who you are."
smilingly passed the toast.
took a slice, and considered it.
see," he went on, "if I am not to know, how on earth am I to manage
seeing you again?"
slowly inclined her head. "That's just it."
was Peter's turn to knit his brow's.
can I be sure that I want you to see me again?"
waved an exasperated hand. "Then why are we here?"
least he could smoke. He opened his cigarette case. Then, though he never felt
right about women smoking, he extended it toward her.
said she, taking one and casually lighting it. Yes, she had fine hands. And he
had noted when she took off her coat and reached up to hang it on the wall rack,
her youth-like suppleness of body. A provocative person!
seen some of your plays," she observed, elbows on table, chin on hand,
gazing at the smoke-wraiths of her cigarette. "Two or three. Odd Change and Anchored and—what was it called?"
The Buzzard. They were
color slowly left Peter's face. The girl was speaking without the slightest
self-consciousness or wish to offend. She meant it.
managed to recover some part of his poise.
he said. Then: "If they were all dreadful, why didn't you stop after the
waved her cigarette—"Odd Change
came to town when I was in college, and—"
you're a college girl?"
and a crowd of us went. That one wasn't so bad as the others. You know your
tricks well enough—especially in comedy, carpentered comedy. Theatrically, I
suppose you're really pretty good or your things wouldn't succeed. It is when
you try to deal with life—and with women—that you're...." Words failed
her. She smoked in silence.
what?" he ventured. "I’m limited?"
she replied, very thoughtful. "Since you've said it."
right," he cried, aiming at light-hearted humor and missing
heavily—"but now, having slapped me in the face and thrown me out in the
snow, don't you think that you'd better—" He hesitated, watching for a
smile that failed to make its appearance.
I'd better what?"
me a little more?"
was wondering if I could. The difficulty is, it's the whole thing—your attitude
toward life—the perfectly conventional, perfectly unimaginative home and mother
stuff, your hopeless sentimentality about women, the slushy, horrible, immoral
Broadway falseness that lies back of everything you do—the Broadway thing,
always. Ever, in your comedy, good as that sometimes is. Your insight into life
is just about that of a hardened director of one-reel films. What I've been
wondering since we met this afternoon—you see, I didn't know that we were going
to meet in this way...
is whether it would be any use to try and help you. You have ability
let's trifle! You see, if it is any use at all to try to get a little—just a
little—truth into the American theater, why, those of us that believe in truth
owe it to our faith to get to work on the men that supply the plays."
Peter's mind was racing in a dozen directions at once. This extraordinary young
person had hit close; that much he knew. He wondered rather helplessly whether
the shattered and scattered remnants of his self-esteem could ever be put
together again so the cracks wouldn't show.
confusing thing was that he couldn't, at the moment, feel angry toward the
girl; she was too odd and too pretty. Already he was conscious of a
considerable emotional stir, caused by her mere presence there across the
table. She reached out now for another cigarette.
think," said he gloomily, "that you'd better tell me your name."
shook her head. "I'll tell you how you can find me out."
would have to take a little trouble."
to the Crossroads Theater to-night, in Tenth Street."
little place of Zanin's."
nodded. "That little place of Zanin's."
never been there."
know you haven't. None of the people that might be helped by it ever come. You
see, we aren't professional, artificialized actors. We are just trying to deal
naturally with bits of real life—from the Russian, and things that are written
here in the Village. Jacob Zanin is a big man—a fine natural man—with a touch
of genius, I think."
was silent. He knew this so-called brilliant, hulking exPat Russian impresario,
and disliked him: even feared him in a way, as he feared others of his race
with what he felt to be their hard clear minds, their vehement idealism, their
insistent pushing upward. The play that had triumphantly displaced his last
failure at the Astoria Theater was written by a Russian.
added: "In some ways it is the only interesting theater in New York."
is so much to see."
know," she sighed. "And we don't play every night, of course.
Friday and Saturday."
was regarding her now with kindling interest. "What do you do there?"
nothing much. I'm playing a boy this month in Zanin's one-act piece, Any Street. And sometimes I dance. I was
on my way there when I met you—was due at three o'clock."
a rehearsal, I suppose."
won't make it. It's four-fifteen now."
cast as a boy," he mused. "I wonder if that is why you cut off your
hair." He felt brutally daring in saying this. He had never been direct
with women or with direct women. But
this girl created her own atmosphere which quite enveloped him.
said she simply, "I had to for the part." Never would he have
believed that the attractive woman lived who would do that!
as if acting on an impulse, she pushed back her chair. "I'm going,"
she remarked; adding; "You'll find you have friends who know me."
was getting into her coat now. He hurried awkwardly around the table, and
me," said he, suddenly all questions, now that he was losing her—"You
live here in the Village, I take it?"
nearly smiled. "No, with another girl."
I know her?"
pursed her lips. "I doubt it." A moment more of hesitation, then:
"Her name is Deane, Betty Deane."
heard that name. Yes, I've seen her—at the Black and White ball this winter! A
blonde—pretty—went as a Picabia dancer."
were mounting the steps to the sidewalk (for Jim's Café is a basement).
said she. "Will you come to my play—to-night or to-morrow?"
said he. "To-night." And walked in a daze back to his studio on