Caviar, Champagne, and Nylons :
I eventually ended up at the Classification Center outside Nashville, Tennessee, where I washed out of the cadet program because I couldnt hack the math in the written test. I stayed at the base as a member of the permanent cadre, assigned to public relations. There in Nashville is where I really began my career in show business. Had I gone on to flight school, I might never have had the opportunity Nashville offered me.
There was a Community Playhouse in town made up of dedicated amateurs whose work was semi-professional. Our director was an ex-Broadway actor named Raymond Johnson. Hed returned to his home town after fifteen years of stage work in New York. At a reasonable salary, he took over the running of the four-hundred seat theater. Under his control, the Nashville Community Theater became a sellout. Plays ran for a month (evening performances only, dark on Monday) and ninety percent of our tickets were season subscriptions.
I showed up one evening, in uniforma of course, and read for a part. I was given the part on the spot. The only other experience Id had was the prep school play, but I felt comfortable on a stage. I guess it showed. From the time I found the playhouse I became so engrossed in it that I managed to stay out of trouble with the army, and passed all my inspections at the base.
During the year-and-a-half that I was at the theater, I learned a lot of the rudiments of acting from Ray Johnson and appeared in about ten plays. I became convinced that this was going to be my profession. Ray suggested that when I got out of the service I should apply for admission to the oldest drama school in the world, the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in my home town of New York.
There was that slight hitch to my plans, though. My father had bought that seat on the Curb Exchange in my name for a thousand dollars; today theyre going for about half a million.
While stationed in Nashville I reached my majority. The day of my twenty-first birthday, I telephoned a Wall Street broker I knew whom Id met through my Dad, and asked him to sell the seat. After a few minutes of conversation, he realized that I just was not going to work in the financial district, and he agreed to get the best price he could. About a month later, I received a check for a little over twelve thousand dollars; in those days it was a small fortune, if you consider that the average white-collar worker made about three thousand a year and a junior executive made perhaps five thousand. I opened a bank account with the certified check from New York and took five hundred in cash with me.
Nashville boasted a fine old hotel, the Maxwell House, all wood, snow white, and four stories tall with a birdcage elevator. It was the pride of the city. It had a fine restaurant and a private mens club with a great bar where you could buy a mixed drink. You couldnt buy a drink across the bar in Nashville in those days unless you belonged to a private club. Package stores sold you the alcohol and the bars sold you setups: soda water, ginger ale, etc.
The Maxwell House had a Presidential suite on the top floor. I went to the desk and asked to see the manager. The clerk looked at me and wondered out loud what a kid corporal had to say to the manager of one of the Souths finest hotels. But, nothing works like a checkbook and a nice wad of cash in your pocket. I asked to see the Presidential suite. It had two enormous bedrooms, each with its own bath, a powder room off the entry hall, and a living room big enough to twirl a Sherman tank.
I rented it by the month, something theyd never done before, so they had to do some fast figuring. I offered to pay each months rent up front and settle any room service charges by the end of each week. I also made arrangements for a small refrigerator compartment in a wall of the restaurant kitchen. They put a padlock on it for me. A pal of mine in my barracks was a Tech Sergeant in supply. He was also the kind of guy who would just put papers in front of his supply officer and theyd be signed. Plus, he had an arm that reached to Washington. Where hed gotten all these contacts I had no idea, but he was made to order for me.
First thing we did, after having a lock installed on one of the closets in the master bedroom, was stock it with two dozen cases of champagne, old cognac, and dozens of boxes of nylon stockings (one of the most highly prized items during the war). The refrigerator compartment in the hotel kitchen was crammed with fresh Beluga caviar in one-pound and five-pound tins largesse from our lend-lease program with the Russians.
I slept in the master bedroom every night. Since I had an assigned job at the base, I didnt have to report for company reveille, just show up at the office by eight in the morning.
Every weekend I threw a party. On occasion, the hotel laid down a portable dance floor in the living room and we got a four-piece band to play for us. Some of the most beautiful women that the south could offer (and the south has got some knockouts!), attended the soirees. The word had gotten around that this was the place to be invited. One weekend, a one-star general flew down from Washington just for one of our get-togethers. He was my Tech Sergeants contact to the champagne and caviar. Naturally, he was offered the other bedroom.
The parties and the nylons did their magic, and the master bed was constantly occupied. At twenty-one, I never ran out of energy. In three months, Id gone through all the money. About that time my father found out about the stock exchange seat, but he was too late. I must say, he took it with good grace. With the knowledge of my theater work and how much fun I was having, I think hed begun to feel he was about to lose the argument.
Another part of my career also began in Nashville. Id been assigned to the Public Relations officer on the base, and one of my jobs was to go into town once a week and deliver a fifteen-minute news broadcast for the armed forces. My first radio experience started on station WSM, today still the home of The Grand Ole Opry.
By the end of 1944, Washington closed the post in Nashville, since there was no need to process any more airmen. I was transferred upstate New York to a large installation at Plattsburg, which had been a Revolutionary War post.