Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"He Knew a Broadway Star"

Any writer who has produced over 400 published short stories, 66 novels, and hundreds of unpublished works is bound to repeat himself now and then. There are all sorts of bits of business the dedicated John D MacDonald reader can find reused over the years, favorite plotlines, methods of escape, unusual ways to rob, cheat or steal, even physical characteristics (gray eyes, anyone?) It is rare, however, to discover an out-and-out copy of a previous work, with the same plot, same triggering device, same characters (albeit with different names), and published in the same periodical. But that's exactly what happened on December 14, 1952, when This Week published MacDonald's short story "He Knew a Broadway Star." It is virtually the same story This Week had published exactly two years earlier, a tale I've already discussed called "I Love You (Occasionally)."

Both stories begin on a commuter train, with a man who works in the financial services industry returning home to his family in the suburbs. Both men pick up a discarded magazine and begin reading it. Both find an article that piques their interest, leading them to make a decision involving their wives. And in both cases, their ham-fisted attempt to bring up the subject at home leads to suspicion and conflict. Both stories end with a chastened husband.

Here we have Ellis Morgan, trust officer for some big city bank, and the magazine he picks up is one covering arts and theater. He reads a profile of Vania Derrold, a famous Broadway actress who is about to open a new Kinglsey Loomis play. Her "remarkably unremarkable" childhood included attending public school upstate. Just like Ellis. He looks at her picture closely and "certain unused cogs in the back pastures of [his] mind disengaged and began to whir." He covers her hair with his thumb and examines her face intently.

"'Well,' he said aloud. 'Well!' And after a little thought he said, 'What do you know!'"

The train stops, he disembarks and begins walking the few short blocks to his home, thinking to himself how he can deliver this "entrancing morsel" to his wife Janet with maximum effect. He has recognized Vania Derrold as Mary Jane Derrold, a former childhood classmate and one on whom he had a major crush. He ponders how different life would have been had he hooked up with her. He decides to casually mention it at dinner, in front of his two school-age children, inserting it innocently into the conversation. At the table the opening presents itself and he begins pondering about how "funny" life is, how people from one's past slip away and are forgotten." This is evidently not Ellis' typical dinnertime behavior, for "three sets of blue eyes focused on him," along with three sets of puzzled frowns. When Janet doesn't bite, he recalls how she had many suitors in college, including someone named Paul.

"'Paul Blakely,' Janet said, narrowing her eyes, 'and you remember darn well what happened to him. Mickey wrote me last year that she saw him driving a coal truck.'"

Ellis keeps trying, asking about another boyfriend named Steve:

"'I don't know what you're trying to prove, Ellis Morgan. Maybe you just want to humiliate me in front of the children. Steve has been in an institution for years... Maybe you're anxious to have me see what a lucky person I am... Terribly fortunate you condescended to marry me... Why don't you continue the list. Ellis? How about Bob? There's a good prize for you. He went to jail. He's out now, I guess.'"

This was not how Ellis planned his bombshell and he needs to fix things quickly. Ultimately he concludes that discretion is the better part of valor.

Running only 1,500 words, "He Knew a Broadway Star" is over with quickly and probably made more than a few readers smile on a Sunday morning many decades ago. It's enjoyable and well done, and was probably something MacDonald knocked off before lunch one day. Its similarity to his previous This Week entry makes me wonder: did the magazine's editors request a parallel story? Did JDM not realize what he was writing, and the editors not pick up on it? Or, did the fact that "I Love You (Occasionally)" omitted a byline credit have anything to do with it? Perhaps the answer lies somewhere buried within The Collection. Or perhaps not...

It's interesting for latter-day MacDonald fans to see the story as originally presented in This Week. Up in the right hand corner of the first page is a little box with the covers of four of MacDonald's novels and a blurb reading: "BIG SELLER. The author's hard-hitting novels have run up more than 2,500,000 sales." The novels shown are four of his five then-published paperback originals. This one missing? Weep For Me, the one original work JDM always claimed to hate and the one he refused to have re-published. Coincidence, or did the author have a say in his story's layout?

It's obvious MacDonald didn't have complete control, however. He submitted "He Knew a Broadway Star" under a different title: "I Knew Her When." The editors of This Week didn't like it and came up with their own title.

No comments:

Post a Comment