Now that I’ll have a little time on my hands, at least for the next couple of days, maybe I can try this again. There’s a lot going on, but it’s an easier thing to do if you don’t have to get to work.
Depending on what you read in the newspapers, or listen to on the radio, there are about twenty million people out of work in this country right now, give or take a few. The government says the number is only 8 million or so. But like Dad says, it’s not the numbers that are unemployed. It’s the people. The numbers are doing fine. And I’ll bet over a million of those human beings are right here in New York. And even if this is only roughly true, and I think it’s shy a few warm bodies, none of the arithmetic accounts for the women, the kids, the cripples, or the old folks. None of that accounts for people working crap jobs, part-time, just to eat the ‘day-old’ when they get home. None of those numbers account for ruined lives and lost dreams.
But that’s not me. Not yet!
I’m named after my dad’s little brother, Hugh McNeill, who died of scarlet fever in 1896. He was just a boy and never had his chance. Giving his name to me was done out of respect, I know, but early on I took it to be a challenge—that I was meant to live enough for the two of us. You can get ideas like that when you are young. They are hard to shake. But then, there are those who don’t even want to live the once.
My dad had a fellow who worked at the shop over on Sixth Avenue named Jerry Herzog. I knew him pretty well. I used to help Jerry with deliveries when I was a kid. Dad has customers all over the city because he gets stuff from England and France and Germany, and only the best. French pens are popular. English papers. This Underwood typewriter I’m working on is made in New York, but that is one of the exceptions.
Dad opened his stationery shop back in 1925 and he got a good reputation pretty quick, not for the cheapest but for the best. And Jerry was his first employee. Just a big kid on a bicycle from Staten Island who took the long voyage across the bay water one day to a bigger world. And just as soon as Jerry got himself hired, the guy had a wife and two kids in the blink of an eye. Sheila was a runaway Jerry spotted on the street one day. He told me that himself. Love at first sight. Jerry used to smile a lot in those days and being a few years younger, I looked up to him for the fact that he seemed to never quit, had boundless energy, and a nearly constant good humor.
Even so, when times got tougher in ‘33, Dad had to let Jerry go. That was even though he’d been paying Jerry half wages for the year before.
Dad stuck Mom behind the counter at the shop in the mornings then. My brothers and sisters and I were all old enough to get by, or in school, and she was the bookkeeper anyway. She looks pretty intimidating with her half-glasses down on her nose and with the way she pulls a crease in her brow. She says she learned to do that from her father, Dr. Dean, who’d been a judge. Dad would be out the door then and making deliveries by himself till noon. But not on a bike. He had a Ford A Model wagon he’d picked up in good times that he used to curse all the winter long for being drafty but it carried just about anything he had, as well as all of us when summer vacations came. He’s a wicked driver. (My mom’s words, but true.)
By the time Dad had to let Jerry go, I was thankfully on my own. I would get over to the shop when I could, grab anything that wasn’t urgent, and drop it off at places as I went about my job for the Mirror. I’d already started at the newspaper for nothing except half of Dick Weise’s salami sandwich back in 1930, just before the Mirror moved uptown from Frankfort Street to 45th. Mom read the Herald Tribune and Dad read the Eagle but those papers were not big on running pictures and the Mirror was the closest tabloid on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge from Prospect Heights when I first started looking for work as a news photographer and I haunted that place. Mostly I was just playing gofer, but I could walk there in under an hour, no sweat.
Dick taught me pretty much everything I know about a Speed Graphic and a press photographer’s tricks and how to make something out of nothing in the darkroom—even though I thought I knew a lot before. Thankfully I still lived at home in Brooklyn until the Mirror saw that I was worth the twenty-five a week to be Dick’s ‘assistant.’ Specifically I worked most with Dick because he was already slowing down and the other guys didn’t want anyone else looking over their shoulders.
Dick is down in Morristown, New Jersey, now and dying of tuberculosis or lung cancer or both. He practically ate three packs of Camels a day. So they raised my wages by ten bucks, and gave me my own camera to play with, and in turn they got to use me seven days a week and twenty-four hours a day. But it was a job. There were plenty around who didn’t have one.
I’ve managed to raise my weekly take home to all of seventy-five dollars since then. Dad and Mom are still getting by. But Jerry did not. I got to take his picture a week ago.
The cops fished him out of the East River over below Red Hook where he’d gotten hung up on one of the piers in the tide. They figure he jumped off at the Manhattan Bridge the night before. I didn’t recognize him when I took the pictures. He was pretty gray and swollen. I only realized who it was when I was in the darkroom. The truth was all in the shadows. You don’t see some things when you are looking right at it. It was one of those moments. Chilled me to the bone.
Jerry was a ruddy looking fellow in life. A nice guy. Full of jokes. Liked a good beer when he could manage a few moments. He took me out to a speakeasy and bought me my first shot of whiskey when I turned eighteen. My dad certainly wasn’t going to do that. Dad just gave me a bottle of Seagram’s instead and told me not to drink it—on the theory, I suppose, that I would be contrary and go ahead and try to drink the whole thing anyway and never want to touch the stuff again. That’s his way.
I spoke to Jerry the last time about a year ago. It looked like things were getting better and he had a positive face on. But he was alone. His wife and kids were living with her parents back in Delaware. I could tell he was really cut up by that, though he never complained about anything. Not that I heard. Dad had him doing deliveries again whenever he could. But nothing regular. And then, this year, the economy took another dive. So to speak.
It seems like there are more murders now, but there are definitely more suicides.
The same week, I also covered the death of a young lawyer up in Yorkville. He’d hung himself from the sprinkler pipes in his office with a cord cut from the blinds. Kicked the chair out from under. He was a ‘Good lukin’ fella,’ as Dad would say, and didn’t seem the type. The office was well appointed and it appeared as if he was already a success even though he couldn’t have been much older than me.
Cass Green was the reporter on that one and it made her turn white and not much can do that. Not that I’ve seen.
Now, on this last Sunday morning, first thing before I’m awake, or I can even think of a cup a’ joe and some breakfast, I get a call from my boss, Barry George, to get over to the Hotel Pennsylvania. “They have something there that will suit your artistic nature,” he says.
I should have walked, but my bag was feeling heavy and the cold was damp and thick. It’s only a mile or so. I went up the steps at the 6th Avenue El on 14th Street instead and waited. And waited.
Anyway, I’m up to 7th Avenue at 33rd street by 7 a.m. Even with the potted palms, gilt trim and the sparkly chandeliers, the lobby there is a cavern, though nothing like the one in the station across the street. The bellman sees my press badge and just says, “Third floor.”
Normally I’d grab some stairs but I’m still only half awake so I take the elevator. The operator gives me a conspiratorial wink when I step in and I see there’s a familiar face already at the back, waiting for the door to close. He’s with a dame and he dips his head down quick.
I say, “Good morning.”
He nods but doesn’t speak. I can tell he’s worried. But he needn’t have been. That’s not the kind of stuff I do. And she just offers me a sleepy smile.
When the elevator opens up on three, I can see there’s a crowd down the hall. I look for the Mirror reporter in among the loiterers and I spot Tommy Sales instead. He’s holding up the wall right beside the door to the room in question, where he can get away quick. Tommy’s an okay guy if you don’t mind that he keeps his brains in a jar on his grandmother’s porch so they won’t get sullied. Then again, his grandmother owns twenty thousand shares in the Hearst Corporation. And if Barry George sent him out it was because no one else was willing to answer the phone on their half-day off. Of course, I’d been hoping it would be Cass Green covering this one too. I get a big kick out of working with her. She can spin.
But at least with Tommy, you know what you are going to get. Nothing.
All the action was right there on the third floor. No running around necessary. Tommy doesn’t even move when he sees me.
I say, “The usual?” feigning boredom over the prospect of taking 4 X 5’s of just another bloody cadaver first thing on a Sunday morning. It’s always first thing. Murder always happens at night. Saturday night is always special.
He says, “Yeah.” This wasn’t very convincing. He’s outside because the body is inside, and I see he has drawn a picture of Mickey Mouse on his pad.
Now, if it was Cass Green, she would lead me back in the room and say, ‘Get me this. Get me that. Get a shot of the so and so.’
So I just went about my business. At least what was left of it to do. The ring of reporters, close like bettors at a cockfight, was still pretty thick for the time of day—probably because of the location. I’ll bet half of them never got home last night themselves. All the real fun was uptown these days. But some of the other photographers were already changing out their bulbs and plates and putting the gear away. The quickest of them, like that guy Weegee, would be there and gone. He’d have his pictures developed right out of the trunk of his car and be on the phone in under an hour. Sloppy but fresh. Remember though, it was Sunday morning, and the next edition deadline for me was more than twelve hours away, so there was no rush.
Someone had already pulled a bed sheet over the corpse on the carpet. The word I picked up in the chitchat was that this guy was shot ‘in flagrante delicto.’ Just a single manicured foot was out there now in the open air for viewing. The cops wouldn’t let me close, but the room was one of those big ‘Fred Astaire’ type suites you usually only see in the movies so there was space to dance around. I got a shot of the naked foot right next to the black brogans of the police sergeant, Hadley Donovan, who was standing close guard over the body. And then the messed-up bed. And the blood spatter on the wall.
The bullet had evidently passed right through an eye and out a soft spot in the back of the guy’s head, and the hole in the wallpaper was very neat and uninteresting. No spread to the blood at all. And the blood would register in black and white the same as if it were water. So when it looked like the cops were suddenly about to pack things up and I still didn’t have anything worth a damn, I kind of cheated.
I turned my back to the scene and raised my voice to an empty corner of the room.
“Hey! Something just twitched under that bed sheet!”
Hadley bent over in a flash, grabbed an edge and yanked the sheet off.
At least I got a couple good pictures before he could throw the linen back over the corpse again.
I’d already moved from the spot where I was when I shouted, but the Sergeant was having none of it. He works out of the Tenderloin precinct and they have their own set of rules.
“Was that you, McNeill? Was that you?”
It was better not to lie. It would not go over any better. So I shrugged and smiled innocently.
Hadley says, “I’ll have you banished! You hear me! No more shenanigans. You come in late; you take what’s left. Hear?”
The corpse had just the one hole in his face. What was left of a face. From the look of the spatter on the wall off to the one side behind, he’d been shot when he was standing right there next to the bed, nearly where the sergeant stood now. At least we were being told he was found right there. The leak of blood on the carpet offered some other ideas.
The Assistant Medical Examiner had already done his initial thing before any of the reporters were allowed through the door. I waited there at the back of the room by an entry closet until the crew from the morgue finally came in, and I managed to get a few more shots of the removal and a stiff arm wagging goodbye from the gurney. Fingerprint powder was on every edge like it was talc in a college locker room. In the developed prints it would make the place look shabby. Couldn’t use those. Not for the Hotel Pennsylvania. They were regular advertisers.
The cops had a string tied doorknob to doorknob from the locked doors at either side where the suite could open to the next if they were rented together. That was to keep us birds away from anything they thought was important. I couldn’t get close to the bathroom at all. There is always good stuff in a bathroom. Instead, I turned around and looked in the entry closet behind me. The door was closed—a little—but it was one of those folding affairs and just a little nudge pushed it back. I saw a good pair of tan wingtips on the floor. Strawbridge and Clothier, Philadelphia. Size twelves. They looked freshly polished and I figured they’d probably been outside the door earlier. The bellman would know about that. And there was a silk scarf on a hanger—blue paisley—but no overcoat. The scarf was new from Gimbels. No hat. And by the look of the empty closet across the room, with the door already hanging back and a couple of partly pulled drawers on the dresser, no other clothes at all. Then again, most guys don’t need much of a wardrobe for a tryst.
According to the sergeant, nothing had been moved since he was discovered by the morning shift. The hotel was booked solid and the stiff had been a last minute check-in early on the evening before. There was a bon voyage party scheduled for the room at noon so he was warned the chambermaid would be there at dawn. He’d assured them he would be gone before 6 a.m. this morning. You could guess they knew what his needs were and there might have been a few extra gratuities involved. He had paid cash, of course. The fact that he was naked now would seem to indicate the object of his last affections had probably been naked at the crucial moment as well and was already on the bed when the shot was fired. And this was exactly the situation as described once more—perhaps even repeated for my particular benefit, in that I was the last one in the door.
Hadley said, “The name he gave was Allen Smith. From Cleveland. But the address is a phony. The 14th Precinct will have a composite sketch available after noon. It would be appreciated if you could run that with your stories so we might get a positive identification sooner than later.”
Someone asked, “Any ideas about what might have happened to his duds?”
The sergeant answered that as if he had already said, and was getting weary of it. “Not at the present time.”
I wondered then if the Jill had worn them to get out of the hotel incognito.
I asked, “Any other signs from the gun?”
The sergeant took my drift immediately. Guns can leave their own trails.
But again, he said, “That is not established at the present time.”
I’m thinking, the victim couldn’t have known what was coming. He’d have been moving away from it. Killing him with a single shot might have been a lucky trick, but if the girl was naked on the bed, she must have had the pistol somewhere close.
I got down on my knees and looked under the bed frame.
Detective Jack Barnes works out of Police Headquarters down on Centre Street but is almost always on midtown homicides. I guess it’s his beat. He had drifted over in my direction and says to me, “There was a purse under there.”
I said, “I figured.”
I wondered why they’d failed to mention this fact in the previous rundown and stuck my elbow into the carpet to steady up my camera and take another pic of the vacant spot where the purse was found, with the covered body visible at the back, just for the record.
I asked, “Did it have a maker’s mark?”
“Bergdorf Goodman. Bet it cost a week’s wages.”
I’m thinking, an odd thing to leave, when you’re taking everything else.
Barnes is a big lad and was standing so close I couldn’t play with the angle for the exposure. That was intentional, I think.
Then he says, “Is Cass here?”
Still on my knees from taking the last shot and looking for anything else I could spot from that vantage point, I give him the look of pity. “No. It’s Tommy they sent.”
I noticed right then that Tommy was already gone from his post by the door.
Barnes took a big disappointed breath. “Crap. You’d better write it all down then. Tommy won’t have a thing when you get back to the paper.”
There was some calculation in the tone of his voice. This was doubly funny to me because Jack Barnes himself is the nephew of a police commissioner. He and Tommy are birds of a feather in that department.
I said, “Right. What I already have the pieces for is a Mr. John Doe was in the middle of what he thought was going to be a good time and whoever his lady of the evening was, shot him, maybe before he got to the finish line. Maybe not. He was healthy. Had been. Middle-aged. Balding. Good teeth. Pink skinned with freckles. Red-brown hair—at least what was left of it on the sides. Neatly trimmed.” Then I said, “What color was the purse?”
Barnes says, “Black lame.”
“Any hair on the sheets?”
“One or two. Black.”
“Don’t know. But they all want to look like Loretta Young now.”
“And every guy I know wants to look like Clark Gable.”
Barnes says, “We all look alike in the dark.” The tone was very knowledgeable. Just like mine was earlier when I spoke to Tommy. But Jack Barnes is probably my age, exactly.
I say, “Maybe. Any guesses about the John?”
He shrugs, “Out of town. Probably some sort of a salesman. The shoes were made by an outfit in Philadelphia. He must have had money for the extras. Toenails clipped. The works. About fifty-five or sixty. Say sixty.”
“Anything in the bathroom?”
“When exactly did he check in?”
“Yesterday before dinner, like the Sergeant said.” The detective’s eyes looked over the scant debris of a relatively clean murder. Then he added, “He had a toupee, but the medical examiner already bagged that up before you got here. The shot could have blown it right off his head.”
“And nobody heard it?”
“Not a thing. But there’s one of those big jazz bands in the club down below. We figure it must have happened about eight hours ago. Say last night around eleven. The band was in full swing. No one was in their rooms unless they were sick or had other business to attend to.”
Jack Barnes would not give me the time of day if he didn’t have a purpose. By the impatient dance in one foot I figured I had already hit the limit of what I could get from him.
I said, “Thanks.”
He says, “Tell Cass I was asking.”
I gave that a nod, and then went looking for the bellman.
I knew just what I was going to do from there on out. A photo man usually has no part in reporting a story, even though he’s supposed to show the story in the pictures if he can. Fair enough. In any case, opportunities to do more than that are few. But I had my job cut out for me if Barry George or even Stenis was sending Tommy Sales to cover a homicide. They couldn’t be expecting much and this was obviously more than that. The cops were covering up on something here. If I could get that across, I might get George to take more notice. I’ve been looking to get a crack at my own stories.
It was a chambermaid who had brought the shoes up, polished, around seven the evening before. Mr. Smith was very appreciative and had given her a dime. A real big spender. The news about the tip had traveled on through the night staff, over the two shifts that followed, as a fair warning.
When I was leaving the hotel I saw that the billboard in the lobby blazed with silver and gold letters set out on black felt: ‘Benny Goodman and his Orchestra. Exclusive New York Engagement.’
I knew he was there, of course, but I wondered about that sign. I thought Goodman was also playing over at the Paramount Theater as well. Just another proof that you shouldn’t believe everything you read.