By RICH BARBER
With the generous sponsorship of Corey Ford, Frank Sullivan, Marc Connelly, John Falter, Roy Doliner and Jack Tebbel, I got my acceptance letter and new member's packet from The Players Admissions Committee in fall 1966. One didn’t become an official member until the check cleared, and that didn’t happen until early in the new year, given the relaxed attitude of those days. But my guest card still worked, and I became the youngest member of The Players.
As a junior agent in a new job at the Sterling Lord Literary Agency, it meant sneaking off when I was able to join the regular gang for Wednesday lunch at the club, where I was still cowed but thrilled. The “long table” in the Grill was mind-boggling: Jim Cagney, his great pal Frank McHugh, St. John Terrell, Peter Turgeon, and if they were in town and not working, Burgess Meredith, Dick Kiley, Jack Lemmon, Jason Robards, John Connell, Chris Plummer, Pat O’Brien – the list was larger when they knew Jim was in town.
One Wednesday the room was packed. I was frankly too timid to pull a chair up to that table and sat over in the corner near the pool table. In a few minutes there was a pause in the storytelling, and Cagney wheeled around: “Hey, kid, ain’t we good enough for ya? Get your ass over here!” That was Jim. It wasn’t just his club or their club -- we were all part of our club.
When we had our first Cagney Pipe Night in 1971, I had just come down to New York after seeing Corey Ford and Frank Sullivan up north, in Hanover and Saratoga Springs. In the break between dinner and the program, the head table was mobbed with everyone wanting to speak to Jim. I waited at the back until there was a lull in the conversation and said, “Mr. Cagney, I bring special greetings from Ford and Sullivan.” He popped up as if getting ready to do a tap number, grabbed my arm and guided me through the dining room and the Great Hall to the staircase, where he sat down with me. He wanted to know all about his pals.
He knew Ford had had a colon operation and that Frank wasn’t doing so well after his sister Kate’s death. “Gimme details!” He was sorry to hear that Ford couldn’t eat his beloved strawberries because of the seeds, and that Scotch didn’t taste so good at the moment. When I told him that Sul’s doctor had left a prescription with a local grocery store that he had to buy two pounds of ground sirloin every week, and that the doctor called weekly to be sure his directions were followed, Cagney hooted! I mentioned that Eleanor and Harry Kirscher, who owned Siro’s, the famous racetrack hangout just down the street from Sul, sent him meals and checked in on him regularly. That pleased Jim.
Then I told him a story in great detail. Here’s the Reader’s Digest version:
Sullivan had told Ford and me he had a special surprise for us when we stopped for dinner on our way north after a NYC research trip. After drinks at Sul’s Lincoln Avenue home, we repaired to The Colonial for dinner. We were seated at a large central banquette. Suddenly the place stilled and a stooped gentleman in a black fedora and cape was led to our table by a liveried chauffeur who could have easily played defensive tackle in the NFL. Once seated, the frail newcomer looked up with merry eyes, rosy cheeks, from behind a memorable beard. I was seated next to Monty Woolley.
You could have heard a robin fart for the next two hours as “The Man Who Came to Dinner” held forth on the theatre, and especially his signature role, and how he had to fight with Players George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart on the subtleties of playing Alexander Woollcott. Monty finally prevailed, insisting that Alex’s cruel humors were an acquired taste, and that unless the audience finally came to love this irascible curmudgeon, the play would flop. As his chauffeur ushered Monty from the restaurant, the entire place erupted in applause. With a generous royal wave, he disappeared into the night.
At our second Pipe Night for Cagney in 1980, the guest list was a Who’s Who of what Edwin Booth had wanted his Players to embody. It ran from Bette Davis to Sinatra, with stops at Derek Jacobi, Raul Julia, Travolta, Pavarotti, Jack Lemmon, Doug Fairbanks, Jr., and too many others to remember. Police barricades surrounded Gramercy Park. At first Cagney and the “royalty” were in the Library for drinks, but Jim and Billie insisted on coming down to the Great Hall to mingle with club members. When my wife and I wound our way through the receiving line to Jim seated in Booth’s Chair with Billie beside him, I said, “You probably don’t remember me, but …” He broke in. “You’re Ford and Sullivan’s kid. Good to see ya.” He vigorously shook my hand and held Elaine’s for a long moment.
A little later, when things had calmed down and Jim and Billie were saying final good-nights, my wife and I were speaking with Frank and Barbara Sinatra. Peter Turgeon came up. “Frank, where are you staying?” “Oh, we have a car standing by. Then on the plane and back to Palm Springs.” Peter: “You flew in just for this?” Frank: “I would go anywhere that man asked me to be.”
Rich Barber is a literary agent, writer, and President of A. Richard Barber & Associates, a marketing consultant to publishers. A Player for 53 years, he was a board member as well as First Vice President to Johnnie Planco. He has co-authored two books, on Revolutionary history and on humor.