Manhattan Mayhem: New Crime Stories From Mystery Writers of America, page 12
“Well, it’s just not right to be so cavalier about it, that’s all,” she said. “Play something else, Jerry.”
“Give me a minute while I run through all the lyrics in my head,” the pianist said.
Everybody laughed. Mildred didn’t—she seldom did—but she was a good enough hostess not to throw a wet blanket on the evening, even providing an improvised meal from a nearby deli when it became apparent nobody was going anywhere till well after nightfall.
I’m sure we covered a lot of subjects that night. Did we touch on peacetime transition, the bomb, our relationship with the Soviet Union, prospects for the returning veteran, President Truman’s job performance, the Yankees and the Giants and the Dodgers? Maybe. But these were Broadway folks, so mostly we talked about Broadway. Could Tennessee Williams duplicate his great success with The Glass Menagerie? Opinions were mixed, but most thought he couldn’t. How did Maurice Evans’s current production of Hamlet stack up against his predecessors’? Rosey Patterson swore nobody ever topped Barrymore, but Danny made a case for Gielgud as the dean of Danes, and Mildred mentioned Leslie Howard. Who was the greatest composer of Broadway musicals? Jerry loyally argued for Gershwin, others countered with Jerome Kern or Richard Rodgers, and Elmer Belasco shocked everybody by insisting it was Kurt Weill. Was Adele Astaire really a greater talent than Fred? Danny said so with a straight face, and a lot of old-timers agreed with him, but when he claimed Gummo was the funniest Marx Brother, I doubted he was serious.
One topic was inevitable for theater people that particular day. I was surprised we’d been there for two or three cocktails before anybody mentioned it.
“So, I guess you all heard about Claude Anselm,” Rosey said.
Heads all nodded.
“What happened exactly?” Arthur Belasco said. “I mean, was he murdered?”
“Papers say he was mugged,” Rosey said. “Back alley thing late at night. He’d been to see some avant-garde artist who was staying with all the other bohemians at the Chelsea Hotel down in the Village.”
“Anton LeMaster,” Danny supplied. “Anselm wanted to get him to design a set for his next production, thought his surrealistic style would fit the creative concept.”
“More important,” Rosey said, “he’d work cheap.”
“Yeah, old Claude would have made a lot of promises, appealed to the vain artist’s ego and the starving artist’s wallet. I think somebody had warned LeMaster what a bastard Anselm was, and he’d turned him down. Not two blocks from the Chelsea, somebody clubbed Claude to death.”
“The poor man,” Mildred said. “I know what he did to people, but even so.”
“Nobody here’s going to mourn that guy,” Jerry Cordova said, picking out the melody of “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You” but sparing us his Louis Armstrong imitation.
“Most hated man on Broadway,” Danny said.
“In the running, anyway,” Rosey said. “Who cheats my client cheats me. And he didn’t just cheat actors. He cheated backers, playwrights, theater managers—and always got away with it. Wanted to add a scenic designer to his trophy case, I guess.”
“I used to see Anselm on the golf course,” Elmer Belasco said. “Never played a round with him, thank God.”
“Too good?” Arthur kidded. “Dad can hit the ball a mile, but you should see the yardage he gets on his putts.”
“Hey, why don’t you go learn your lines or something and not smart off at your elders?”
“What do you mean? I’ve memorized the whole play.”
“It’s true,” Elmer told us. “Kid has a photographic memory. He could do Hamlet for you right here if he’d ever learned how to act. Anselm was as bad a golfer as the kid is an actor. Couldn’t play worth a damn, but for some reason he kept at it. I think he looked for opponents who were even worse than he was. Or were motivated to pretend they were.”
“Too bad some anonymous mugger got him,” Danny mused. “Lot of people on Broadway wish they could have done the job.”
“I can just see the full obits in the papers tomorrow,” Rosey said. “ ‘Broadway’s lights grew a little dimmer with the shocking death of a beloved man of the theater.’ And they’ll be able to get plenty of quotes from mourners who are secretly cheering.”
Elmer nodded. “Scoundrels die, but deals live on.”
Rosey had a mischievous gleam in his eye. “Here’s an idea. Let’s say I was the person who bumped off Anselm, revenge on behalf of my clients and all the bastard’s other victims. I wasn’t seen, covered my tracks, managed to make it look like a routine mugging.”
“Congratulations,” Jerry said, playing a snatch of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.”
“Yeah, great, but I think I’d feel something was lacking.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. Rosey loved to have a straight man to feed him cues.
“It wouldn’t be enough that the guy was dead. I’d want to claim credit.”
“And get yourself fried in that nice comfy electric chair they got up at Sing Sing?” Danny asked.
“No, I’d do it indirectly and anonymously. It wouldn’t be necessary to put my own name on it, but I’d want the world to know he was executed on behalf of Broadway and all the people whose careers and lives he stomped on.”
“And once you did that fine gesture, would you be able to stop at just one?” Arthur Belasco asked.
“Yeah,” Danny chimed in. “I can suggest some other vermin in our fine theatrical profession that are just as deserving.”
I hadn’t contributed much, not being a Broadway insider like these folks, but now I decided to go along with the gag. “Rosey, it’s an attractive idea, but you have to think this through. The mistake those clever murderers in books make is getting too cute for their own good. Gilding the lily. Giving the supersleuth a way to get at them in the last chapter. Why provide a deliberate clue that could be traced back to you?”
Rosey shrugged. “Anonymous letters to the cops or the press maybe. I’d give myself a name. The Stage Door Avenger?”
“Naw, the newspapers would do it for you, and they’d come up with something better than that,” Danny said.
“Jack the Ripper named himself,” I pointed out.
“Let’s get to the important stuff, Rosey,” Danny said. “Who’d you pick as your next victim?”
Mildred had been silent through all of this. Now she raised her hands as if in surrender. “Fellows, I just hate this kind of talk. Can we change the subject, or can you play something else for us, Jerry?”
Jerry launched into a medley from Show Boat, and that was that.
The next day, a cryptic message in all capital letters appeared in the personals columns of all the evening papers, and there were a slew of them in New York at that time: “YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW A HAZARD FROM A GREEN.” At the time, nobody knew what it meant or had any reason to connect it to the death of Claude Anselm. By the time anybody made the connection, three more Broadway scumbags had died.
As I knew she would, Evan turned up the next day with the answers. When I kidded her about visiting two days in a row, said they’d have to put her on the payroll with the nurses and maids and social directors and therapy dogs, she rolled her eyes impatiently.
“I did them in the order you listed them. Is the order significant?”
“Not really, but go ahead and do ’em that way.”
“Okay. ‘Massachusetts is a long way from New York.’ That one threw me for a while. I kept getting bogged down with driving distances between cities in Massachusetts and New York, but then I remembered an obvious trick to using a search engine. To get the exact words, you put the whole phrase in quotation marks. Then it was easy. It’s a line from a song called ‘Lizzie Borden’ written by Michael Brown. Wasn’t Lizzie Borden a famous murderer, Gramps?”
“Many people think so, if murderers can be famous.”
“At that point, I thought the other lines might have to do with murderers, too, but they didn’
“Great work, Evan, very thorough. What did you think of the songs?”
She made a face. “I just read the lyrics for most of them. In that Gallagher and Shean thing, one of them doesn’t know what the game of golf is called and is ridiculed for it by his partner, but his partner thinks it’s called lawn tennis. Did people think that was funny in those days, Gramps?”
I shrugged. “I guess you had to be there.”
“Now,” she said, “when are you going to tell me about the Broadway Executioner?”
“How do you know anything about that?” I really was surprised, but she quickly reminded me why I shouldn’t have been.
“Did you think I could Google all those song lyrics and not find out they were clues in a serial murder case? References kept turning up in the results lists.”
“Then I suppose you must know all the rest of the details, too.”
“No, I wanted to get the list back to you today, and I figured you could tell me more about the murders than the Internet could.”
“A rare compliment. Well, here goes.” I began with a description of that spontaneous party in Danny Crenshaw’s apartment. Then I gave her a brief account of the deaths that followed.
“The second victim was Monique Floret. I never saw her, but I’m told she was a beautiful woman and a lousy actress. Sometimes affected a French accent, they tell me, but she came from New Jersey; don’t remember what her real name was. She was notorious for breaking up Broadway marriages.”
“Some hobby,” Evan said, “but how long could you keep it up?”
“In Monique’s case, she had quite a run. One night she’d gone dancing at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. That was a great place, Evan, class all the way, home of the lindy hop and the jitterbug. For a long time, it was the one truly integrated nightspot in Harlem. The Cotton Club catered to white audiences but didn’t welcome black faces except onstage. The Savoy welcomed everybody. They had continuous music, two bandstands and two big bands, one playing while the other one was on break. Back in the 1930s, there was a famous Battle of the Bands between Chick Webb’s orchestra and Benny Goodwin’s, a black band versus a white band for a mixed audience that loved the music and didn’t care who was playing, as long as they were good.”
“So, this Monique was murdered there?” Evan asked, cutting to the chase, as usual.
“No, it was later that same night. Plenty of witnesses saw her there dancing, but they couldn’t say if she’d been accompanied when she left or had been alone, which wasn’t likely in her case. Her death was written off as a suicide, jumping in front of a subway train. But that same day, before her death even happened, the personals columns carried the message: ‘SHE GOT HERSELF A HUSBAND, BUT HE WASN’T HERS.’ People who noticed it probably thought it was part of some creative but subtle advertising campaign. Nobody figured murder, least of all the police.”
“And who was the third one?” Evan prompted.
“Xavier Esterhazy was a fashionable director who was notorious for his casting couch, exploiting young hopefuls. Of both genders, actually. Sort of the mirror image of Monique Floret. He had made plenty of enemies, and not just for his sexual sins. He was found frozen to death in a snowdrift after the big post-Christmas blizzard of 1947. In his case, the message in the papers the day he was found was ‘YOU CAN’T STOP THE WEATHER, NOT WITH ALL YOUR DOUGH.’ ”
“That was a long time between victims.”
“Yes, and the next one didn’t come along until summer 1949. Ned Spurlock was a sleazy producer who’d had a couple of mild hits but made most of his money by overselling shares in shows and pocketing the difference when they flopped.”
“Can you do that?”
“You can, but again, how long can you get away with it? He was under investigation by the district attorney’s office at the time he was shot to death. His body was found abandoned in one of those clothing racks I used to dodge when I walked through the Garment District. It was clearly murder this time, but the weapon was never found, and the case remained unsolved. The message in the personals the day it happened: ‘SHE’LL START UPON A MARATHON.’ ”
Evan said, “On the others I can see the connections. A terrible golfer, a husband thief, the weather quote for a person left in a snowdrift. But what was the point of this one? Did it have something to do with the New York Marathon? My friend Gwen has run in three L.A. Marathons and wants to run in that one, but her mom doesn’t want her to go. Was the place they found his body somewhere on the marathon route maybe?”
“Nope. New York Marathon didn’t start ’til 1970. But one of Nat Spurlock’s lucrative flops was a musical that closed out of town called Boston Marathon.”
“Weren’t the police suspicious by this time?”
“If they were, they never admitted they had a serial killer on their hands. Some true-crime writer made the connection around 1950, published a book about it, and came up with the Broadway Executioner tag. He got half the details wrong. It was a crummy book, what we’d call in Hollywood an exploitation job, but the name stuck, and the case still turns up in books about unsolved murders.”
“Wait a minute, Gramps. We have two quotations left. What about them?”
“I’ll get to that. First, I have to tell you about another visit to Danny Crenshaw.”
Every time I visited Danny at the Hotel McAlpin after that, we’d talk about the case. We had one of our most interesting postmortems one day in late 1951, around the time the Broadway Executioner took a curtain call. Danny was still busy, doing a lot of television now. He groused that live TV combined the worst features of legit and pictures, but he seemed to thrive on it nonetheless.
“Seb,” he said, “you remember that little get-together we had here around the time of the first murder?”
His I-don’t-know-what-number wife peered into the living room. This one was named Suzy, blonde, cute, ’50s fashionable, and funny as hell, or at least Danny thought she was. “Hey, can I join you guys? I love murder talk.”
“Sure, honey,” he said. “But this is serious.”
“I can be serious,” she promised.
“I’ve got a little theory about those murders,” Danny said. “You remember who was there, Seb?”
“Sure, I think so.”
“You in touch with any of them?”
“No. Rosey Patterson’s the only one I knew well, and I haven’t seen him in years.”
“Rosey used to drive me nuts,” Danny said. “All that excess energy got on my nerves.”
I smiled. Danny had the same effect on people.
“Anyway, they’re all still around. Rosey doesn’t run around like he used to, but he’s held on to some big-money clients. Elmer Belasco’s pretty much retired but still in good health, as far as I know. His son Arthur finally took his dad’s advice and gave up acting. Got into behind-the-scenes work. Last I heard, he has a job on some show in preparation, satirical revue with young unknown talent. Jerry Cordova works for a record label, and I still see him around once in a while, at parties, doing his Gershwin number. As for Mildred—”
“Poor Mildred,” Suzy sighed. “How she ever put up with you, I can’t imagine.”
“You know her?” I asked.
“Sure,” Suzy said. “We have lunch once in a while to compare notes. Sometimes we think all Danny’s ex-wives ought to get together, expand our horizons. How many are we now, Danny?”
“You’re no ex-wife, baby. Never will be.”
“So, what’s Mildred doing?” I asked.
“Good works,” Danny said. “Her new husband could buy and sell me a hundred times over. Anyway, let me get to the point. We’d talked about Anselm’s death, and somebody mentioned what a lousy golfer he was. Then the next day that firs
I had a hunch what he was getting at, but I wanted to hear it from him. “I don’t know. What’s it mean?”
“The Broadway Executioner murders were hatched in this apartment, that’s what. I don’t know who killed Anselm. Maybe a personal enemy, maybe a random mugger. But somebody at that party got the idea for a series of do-gooder murders of theatrical villains. They put that ad in the papers, whether they’d done the original killing or not, and then they continued on the same path and had a lot of crazy fun doing it. Somebody in this room that day took that idea and ran with it. Maybe Jerry. Maybe Elmer. Maybe Arthur. Maybe Rosey.” He smiled now. “Maybe me. Maybe you. Maybe Mildred.”
“No, not Mildred,” Suzy said. “She’d have killed you next.”
“Yeah, probably.” Danny was obviously obsessed with the case. He’d even checked out alibis for his roomful of suspects—how he managed to do that, I’m not sure. Unfortunately for his theory, none of them could have done all the murders, according to his charts. Elmer and Rosey were both out of the country at the time of the Floret killing. It was hard to see how Mildred could have physically managed the Esterhazy job, and I couldn’t see her in the serial killer role anyway. Arthur was in London when Esterhazy died. Jerry was working in Florida when Spurlock got his. As for me, I was in Hollywood the whole time. Danny didn’t mention his own alibis. For a minute I wondered if he was going to confess. He didn’t.
Danny was taking his detective work very seriously, but I wasn’t. I wasn’t even sure the Broadway Executioner existed, though how some opportunist could have entered those pointedly appropriate ads in the personal columns before the fact, short of psychic powers, stumped me.
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