It was really a pretty fair script, and it caught me at a moment when every playwright worth his salt was playing in France, prostituting in Hollywood or sulking in a slump. I needed a play badly, so I told Ellie to get this unknown up to my office and have a contract ready.
When she announced him on the inter-com, my door banged open and a youngster in blue-jeans, sweatshirt and a stubbly crew-cut popped in like a carelessly aimed champagne cork.
I said, “I’m sorry, son, but I have an interview right now. Besides we aren’t casting yet. Come back in a couple of weeks.”
His grin never faltered, being of the more durable kind that you find on farms and west of the Rockies. His ragged sneakers padded across my Persian, and I thought he was going to spring over my desk like a losing tennis player.
“I’m your interview,” he announced. “At least I’m Hillary Hardy, and your girl just told me you’d see me.”
“You--are Hillary Hardy?”
“In the morbid flesh,” he said jamming out five enthusiastic fingers that gulped my hand and jack-hammered until I broke his grip with a Red-Cross life-saving hold.
“Spare the meat,” I groaned. “I have to sign the contract, too.”
“I did it! I did it! They said I was crazy, but I did it the first time.”
“Sold the first play I wrote.”
“This--is--your first work?”
“My very first,” he said, splitting his freckles with a double row of white teeth a yard wide. “They said I’d have to go to college, and then I’d have to write a million words before I’d produce anything worthwhile.”
If he hadn’t owned such an honest, open face I’d have thrown him out as an imposter right then. The ream of neatly typed pages on my desk would have fooled any agent, editor or producer like myself, on Broadway. The format was professional, the plot carefully constructed, the dialogue breezy as a May afternoon in Chicago and the motivation solidly adult.
“How old are you?” I asked.
“And you’ll sign an affidavit that you wrote this play, and it’s an original work?”
“Certainly!” The smile faded a little. “Look, Mr. Crocker, you’re not just kidding about this contract, are you? Is the play really okay?”
“That,” I said trying to restrain my own enthusiasm, “is only determined on the boards. But I’m willing to risk a thousand-dollar advance on your signature to this.” I shoved the papers at him with my fountain pen on top.
He didn’t uncap the pen until he had read the whole thing, and while he pored over the fine print I had time to catch my breath.
His play competed rather well with the high average output of most professionals I knew--not exactly terrific, but a relatively safe gamble, as gambles go on the street of bright lights. Well, I made a mental note to pass the script around a bit before I signed the contract myself. After all, he might have cribbed the whole thing somewhere.
He finished reading, signed the contract and handed it back to me with an air of expectancy. I stalled, “I, uh, will have the check for you in a few days. Meanwhile, you’d better get yourself an agent and an attorney and fix up that affidavit of authorship. Normally, I don’t deal with free-lance playwrights, you see.”
“But I don’t need any agent,” he protested. “You be my agent, Mr. Crocker--” He was studying my reaction, and after a moment he said, “You still don’t quite believe that I wrote Updraft, do you, sir? Now that you’ve met me you want more time to check up, don’t you?”
I said, “Frankly, yes, Hardy. Updraft is a mature piece of writing, and unless you are a genius--well, it’s just business son.”
“I don’t blame you,” he said smiling that fresh-air smile. “And I’ll admit I’m no genius, but I can explain everything. You see, I’ve read 38 books on how to write plays--”
“Tut!” I said. “Format technique is just a fraction of producing an appealing play.”
“Perhaps,” he admitted. “But I’ve memorized all 38 books. What’s more, I’ve been reading and memorizing plays, novels, poetry and history since I was 13. I have a storehouse of--”
“Yes, sir. I’m a student of mnemonics, you know, the art of memory perfection. My real ambition is to develop absolute recall. All my reading and memorizing have been just exercises to expand my power of complete recall.”
“You mean that playwriting is just a hobby?”
“Not--exactly. I need money, lots of it, to continue my research. Psychiatrists come high.”
Well, I suppose good plays have been written for screwier reasons, and I was in no mood to look a gift-author in the mouth. I did pass Updraft around to a brace of critics, and none of them could hang a plagiarism charge on Hardy. So I wrote out his check and started the wheels going on the production.
The boy prodigy dropped out of sight for the time being, taking no further interest in his brain-child. Updraft did all right in the sticks, but it was when we opened on Broadway that it began to coin money.
In ten performances we were playing to capacity crowds, and within a month we had to take in the S. R. O. sign. A lucky hit? I thought so at the time. Updraft had a dash of humor, a bit of adventure, a dollop of romance and a gentle little heart tug at the conclusion, but damned if the critics could put their fingers on its money-making essence. They gave it pleasant little reviews and mild compliments, but no more. The cash customers, however, came and kept coming and kept coming!
The morning after the 100th performance I told Ellie to hunt up Hardy and see what he was doing about another play. I could stand to have another hit ready when Updraft petered out.
That afternoon my secretary reported, “He’s in a sanitarium over in Hoboken.”
“Nuts! I knew we should have held back on his royalties,” I exclaimed. “I suppose he’s drunk himself into a--”
“It’s a mental hospital,” Ellie said, “but Mr. Hardy told me he is just there for some experimental psycho-therapy. He sounded quite normal and cheerful.”
Hillary Hardy showed up next morning at my request, and he did, indeed, appear in good spirits. I demanded, “What’s this business of locking yourself up in a looney-bin? Don’t you realize that’s bad public relations?”
He chuckled. “I thought of that. So I’m going under an assumed name. Your girl said you had something very important to tell me.”
“Sure. I want another play,” I told him. “Updraft won’t run forever, you know.”
“Oh, I have plenty of money now, so I won’t have to bother. The people at the sanitarium have become interested in my project, and all I’m spending is board and room there. Thanks to your royalty checks I’ve got quite a pile in the bank.”
“Won’t have to bother?” I yelled. “Here I launch you on Broadway, and that’s all the gratitude I get. Now’s the time to cash in on the reputation of your first play. It’s setting attendance records.”
“Sorry, Mr. Crocker,” he said. “I’m in a critical stage of my experiments. I just can’t afford the time at the moment.”
“Experiments! Experiments! What is this business?”
He brightened. “Would you believe it? I’ve contacted memories back to three months after my birth. And at this rate I’ll reach birth itself within a few weeks.”
I shuddered. What a nasty ambition! “What’s the percentage?”
“You don’t understand,” he said warming to his subject. “The further back I go the more nearly I approach total recall. At present I can contact any memory in my experience back to six months, day by day, minute by minute. I can run off these memories like colored movies, recalling every sight, sound, smell, feel and taste.”
“So what happened earlier than six months that’s so important?”
“Probably nothing of great interest,” Hardy granted, “but the further back I go, the more intense is the reality of all my memories. For instance, right now I can return to the day, hour, minute and second I went to school for the first time. I can remember the look on the teacher’s face and hear the screams of twenty-six kindergarten kids. I can smell the freshly oiled floors and the newly painted walls. I can feel the wart on my mother’s finger, the one I was holding onto for dear life.”
The almost fanatic glow in his eager, young face impressed me. Realism of memory! Could that be the essence of his successful first play? Did his down-to-earth touch account for Updraft’s surprising audience appeal?
I pleaded, “Don’t let me down now, Hillary. I gambled thousands of dollars on your first play. If you can repeat we’ll both enjoy an even better pay-off. Besides, have you looked into what your taxes will be?”
“Taxes? No, I really haven’t, but I’m sure I have enough to last another year. Sorry, Mr. Crocker. Maybe later, but right at the moment--”
His broad-shouldered, lean athletic form drifted through my door and was gone.
Two weeks later Parodisiac arrived, typed on fools-cap, uncorrected, with pencil notations and coffee-spots on it, but it was by-lined, “Hillary Hardy,” and after a single, quick scanning I was overjoyed to pay the expense of transcribing it to more durable paper. The play was powerful, witty and emotion-stirring. It was a work of art.
And on the last page was scribbled in the border: “I looked into my tax bill, and found you were right. I’m almost broke after Uncle Sam takes his cut, so here is the play you asked for. Hope you like it. (signed) H. H.”
There was a P.S. “Expect to hit birth this week.”
When I phoned him at the sanitarium, asking for Sam Buckle, the name he had left originally with Ellie, he refused to come to the phone. So I wired him. “Quit worrying about taxes. I accept your earlier offer to be your agent as well as producer. Good luck on your experiments.”
Parodisiac was much too good to hold for the closing of Updraft. Indeed, the first play was showing no signs of weakening, so I began rounding up talent outside the original cast. This was a cinch. Meredith Crawley finished Act I, Scene I, and accepted the male lead without turning another page. So did Alicia Pennington, even though it meant giving up a personal appearance tour to publicize her latest Hollywood release that was supposed to win her an Oscar.
Not that I had to go after talent like this to put Parodisiac across. It was so potent I believe I could have made it a hit with a cast out of a burleycue revue.
The season was getting late, so I did the unthinkable. I cut normal rehearsal time in half and slammed it at the big town without even a trial run in the back-country. Nobody connected with the show objected--not even Hec Blankenship, my publicity manager. In fact it was he who suggested the sleeper treatment.
With nothing more than last-minute newspaper notices we opened the box-office to a completely uninformed public, and did it knock the critics for a loop! Only a couple showed up for the first performance, along with less than a third-full house of casual first-nighters.
People wandered out stunned. A substitute drama-critic from the Times looked me up after the show, and there were tears of gratitude in his eyes. “My review of this play will establish my reputation,” he told me. “If the boss had had any notion of what you were pulling, he’d have been here himself. But what about the author? I thought you were going to have to call the police when you failed to produce the author.”
It had been rough. The skimpy crowd had milled about for a half hour screaming “Author, author!” Meanwhile, I was too choked up after the last heart-wrenching scene to get up and make a speech.
Everything had gone perfectly. Even the brief rehearsal time failed to leave any rough edges. Crawley and Pennington were so carried away with their parts that they easily doubled their considerable dramatic stature that first performance. The supporting cast caught fire, too, and, well--the likes of it is rarely seen anywhere.
The lines seemed to come out of the actors’ hearts, not their mouths. Cue-lines blended with the dialogue interplay, the artificiality of stage-sets, costumery and make-up disappeared, and the simple, yet profound drama unreeled like a bolt of vividly printed silk, flowing smoothly, strongly, absorbingly to the tragic-comical climax that left the emotions reeling from the suspense and warm with relief.
Two days later I looked at the figures on advance ticket sales and could find only one conceivable complaint. Parodisiac would make Hillary Hardy so much money that not even taxes could force him to produce another for a great while.
What promised to be a major irritation, fending off the press from Hardy and protecting his anonymity, was converted into a master publicity-stroke by Hec Blankenship. He swore the few of us who knew about Hardy’s youth and whereabouts, to complete secrecy, then he proceeded to build his publicity around the “mystery-author.”
“But he’s got a past!” I objected when Hec first presented the scheme. “Old friends and relatives will spill the beans.”
“Have you really looked into Hillary’s past?” Hec asked.
I confessed I hadn’t. Hec said that he had. It developed that Hillary Hardy was not our boy’s real name. In his passion for anonymity he had been changing his name every time he changed locations, which was often. Hec had traced his background through three moves that brought the author across the country, but the trail petered out at a ranch in Wyoming where Hillary had worked a month as a cow-hand.
The mystery-author gag worked. Inside of two weeks our promotion expense dwindled to almost nothing. Columnists were fighting for the privilege of pouring out free copy on both plays. Some of their speculations as to Hardy’s real identity were pretty fabulous--Winston Churchill, Noel Coward and even a certain, witty ex-presidential candidate for the Democratic party--but no one found him out, and the advance sellout began gaining a week every day.
Now, I have made and lost my share of theater fortunes, and I have learned a certain caution. At the moment I was quite content to ride with my two smash-hits and leave Hardy to his experiments. Strangely, it was he who called upon me for action.
A month after launching Parodisiac he showed up at my office, looking leaner and more intense than ever. His crew-cut was growing out, but it was from neglect rather than a sudden artistic temperament, I was sure.
After locking the doors and cancelling my morning appointments, I said, “Well, golden boy, what brings you to civilization?”
His smile was still strong and warm, but it was no longer youthful. There was a look of deep wisdom in his blue eyes that finally justified the magnificent play he had written.
“Money,” he answered briefly.
“Haven’t my checks been reaching you?” I asked in amazement.
“Oh, yes. Very gratifying,” he said pacing a groove in the deep carpet pile. “But I’m moving into prenatal memory now, and I accomplished it by administrations of a new B vitamin derivative. I have a staff of biochemists working for me producing this substance, but it’s fearfully expensive. I need more of it, larger lab facilities to produce it secretly. I want to buy the sanitarium.”
“Lock, stock and personnel,” he nodded. “I’m three months before birth, already. My goal is conception.”
A big, brassy gong chimed in my brain. “That sounds like this dianetics business that was going the rounds awhile back.”
Hardy nodded. “In some respects, yes. But I have a single goal, total recall, and I’m taking a more comprehensive approach. Psycho-therapy helped a great deal, but I have traced-out every angle of mnemonics, improved on most and invented some new ones. The final problem is one of improving synaptic potentials and actual tissue tone in the brain. Biochemistry is giving me the answers. With enough of the new B vitamin derivative I’m confident I can reach conception--and a totality of recall.”
“But Hardy, what have you got when you get there? I still say, what’s the percentage?”
The look he gave me was puzzled but completely tolerant. “You raved to me about my last play, yet you don’t see what I’m getting at?” He stopped pacing and sat opposite me with his muscular hands knotted into fists on my desk.