Thursday, August 24, 2006

Our Hearts were Young and so were Our Spades

So having been invited by a few of you to yes, tell the early Las Vegas adventure, I take you back to the time when the earth was still fertile and cold in the right places. I was just over twenty, and had come to Hollywood with my passel full of songs-- I was a songwriter then-- and had been signed by MCA in New York which is another story. Bobby Helfer,a cousin of the composer Elmer Bernstein, was the west Coast agent assigned to take care of me, and being an honest and sweet soul told me frankly that MCA was not about to offer me for projects when they could get multiple tens of thousands more for Les Baxter. But listening to my music he said "the hell with it. I'm going to sell you. That's really good stuff." (So was he, by the way. He later committed suicide on the eve of his 42nd birthday, taking 42 sleeping pills.) So he set up an appointment for me with Frank Loesser, who listened to my songs, said "Kid, you're the biggest talent since me," preceeded to make as his own several of my numbers, but hey... he was my idol, and what could I do?.
Less my idol was Jennings Lang, very high up in the agency, famously shot in the balls by Walter Wanger for screwing Wanger's then wife, Joan Bennett, later married to Monica Lewis, a saloon singer aching for a comeback. I wrote a poignant piece of material for her for which I was paid $2500, exactly the price, what a coincidence, of the yellow Plymouth convertible Jennings sold me from the MCA parking lot, the agency at the time also doubling with a car business.
Now in my convertible, I drove to Las Vegas, where MCA had set up two glittering appointments for me: I was to write a number for Judy Garland and another for Gordon MacRae. When I arrived at her hotel, Judy Garland had a nervous breakdown. Still with springs on my spirit, I bounced back and went to the Desert Inn to meet with Gordon MacRae. He was at the crap tables, and when I stepped up and introduced myself to him, he lost thirty-five thousand dollars. He growled: "Get her out of here."
Before they acted on that instruction, I put a dollar down on the pass line, and in my by then hypnotically disconsolate state threw the dice. Seven. So I took a dollar off and shot again, and said to the man across the table "Tell me how this works." He said "Shut up and keep shooting." So I did, continuing to make my point(I later learned what I was doing was called) each time taking a dollar off, saying "Somebody please explain to me what I'm doing." But everyone said "Shut up and keep shooting."
By the time I had made twenty straight passes, word had spread along the Strip to the Sands, and many serious gamblers had come to bet with me.When I said "What am I doing...?" they said, in chorus, "Shut up and keep shooting." In the end, I held the dice for over an hour, one man made eighty thousand dollars, and a man betting against me lost tens of thousands. I finally crapped out, when someone, at last, explained to me how it worked.
You couldn't cash a personal check in Las Vegas, but I had with me a company check from NBC, where I'd had the only job I ever had, as a writer for the NBC Comedy Development Program, sharing office space with Woody Allen, who was already smarter than I was, coming to work only on the day we got paid. The check was all the money I had ever earned. Carl Cohen, the heavyweight pit boss at the Sands, okayed me for cashing, as I was friends with his son(Corey Allen, the actor who went over the cliff playing 'Chicken' with Jimmy Dean in 'Rebel Without a Cause.') As I went to get my check out of the safety deposit box I passed the dour comedian Jackie Miles, and said 'Stop me, Jackie, I'm on my way to the box.' He held up his hand in sallow-faced benediction, and said "Go my child, and learn."
So I cashed it, and now, knowing how to play, played. It took me two and a half days but I lost every penny I had made at NBC.
Now, at a later time,with my friend Louise Glenn, I drove back to Vegas. My car, a convertible, top down, turned over on the way there, righting itself. By some miracle we were not killed(pre-safety belts.) A man from the cast of Toonerville Trolley came running out of his shanty and said "You're the first crash we've had here where the people wuzn't killed. This be the curve where Sammy Davis lost his eye."
Heavy credentials.
Now we proceeded to the garage where the car was fixed, sort of, continued on to Las Vegas, where i put a hundred dollars on the pass line, won, and having smartened up, immediately got back into the car. We stopped for gas in Barstow, and somebody stole my wallet. So I understood that even when I won, I couldn't.
But all through my early married years when Don and I would go to Vegas, which we did, I would sneak out as he slept to shoot craps and lose.
The night that Liza Minnelli opened at the Riviera at the height of her young celebrity, a planeload of those who were considered good press which I was for a fleeting moment, was invited to jet along. It was a rough time for Don and me, because he was having career trouble, my novel was a big success, and I had never imagined I would be doing better than my husband, and neither had he. So we had trouble. Major. We were mad at each other most of the time, I, because I had succeeded, he because he hadn't, and there was no quarter in that era fpr a woman's being more successful than her husband, or the beauty of my success being very much due to him-- with his cheering me on, spurring me, really, as I wrote The Pretenders: "Now get down there and give them one for the healthy heterosexual!" he would say as I headed down into the basement to write a libidinous scene. "This is really good," he would opine as I handed him the pages at the end of the day. "Now go back downstairs and make it worse."
But as we neared our room in the Riviera, I was afraid I would not be able breathe, with all the unexpressed disappointment and rage in the room with us. "God," I said, silently addressing that Deity I still spoke directly to at the time, the world having done little yet to disabuse me of the notion there was an Intelligence behind it all, even a world where a woman who thought men were better was being given this bitter lesson, "get me through tonight and I will give up gambling." And so it was that there descended on me perfect Peace, and the marriage that sustained me for the rest of Don's life, which was not to be very long, but during which time we both learned what a blessing it was to have someone who really supported you, fuck the money, endured.
And I never gambled again till I lost the dollar at the airport. And so it was, moving West.