By JIM BROCHU
The Players was famous for its Pipe Nights, when the membership would pay tribute to a great star of stage or screen. They had been after James Cagney for years, but he was put off by the long head table of speechmakers in tuxedos delivering what he called “eulogies” rather than tributes. Finally he relented and agreed to be honored, but with a couple of conditions. First, it would be a totally informal evening, with no tuxedos or evening gowns. Second, there would be no speeches. Instead, after dinner Cagney would take to the stage with three friends: Roland Winters, Frank McHugh, and Robert Montgomery (Elizabeth’s dad).
I invited my father to be my date for the evening, and he found himself in the midst of every star he had ever loved growing up. Just to be in Cagney’s presence was a dream come true. It was a marvelous night, filled with stories of Bette Davis, Eddie Rickenbacker, Jack Warner, and the old days of Hollywood. My father and I waited on line to say hello to Cagney and when we made it to the front, Cagney looked at me and said, “Good evening, James! How‘s our newest member?” I couldn’t believe he remembered my name, but that’s the kind of man he was. Cagney took my father’s hand, shook it soundly, and said, “I know you! I know you from somewhere! How do I know you?” My dad just answered, “I’m from Washington Heights and we’re woven of the same cloth, Jimmy.” That night brought my dad and me closer than any other I can remember.
The Players also hosted the “Sunday With The Stars” series. They would honor a movie star with a buffet lunch and screen the star’s favorite film. The guest of honor would then make a little speech, and we'd have cocktails before calling it an afternoon.
The first Sunday afternoon I attended was for Bette Davis. I was struck by how this giant of the screen was so physically minuscule: she barely stood five feet. But you could hear that laugh of hers across the room. The main dining room had been turned into a little movie theatre for her choice: The Catered Affair with Debbie Reynolds and Ernest Borgnine. Davis strode into the room to a standing ovation, a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. “I guess you’re giving me this honor because you think I’m going to die soon. Well, I’m not! But let’s have a good time anyway.”
Another icon they honored was Gloria Swanson, who may have been even smaller than Davis. The film of the day was, of course, Sunset Boulevard. Swanson was then appearing on Broadway in Butterflies Are Free. I found myself in a group with Miss Swanson holding court. She was very coy and flirty, telling us how she found it fabulous to be performing on Broadway and leaving the stage door to find such loving crowds. After a few weeks, she said, she noticed that those at the stage door were mostly men. “Of course, I can’t tell you what I think when I see all those guys waiting for autographs.” “Oh tell us, tell us, tell us. You can tell us what you think,” we all implored. “Well,” she said in a stage whisper audible to everyone in the room, “just because Judy’s dead, why do they all flock around me now?”
The phone rang one afternoon in 1973; it was Joan Crawford. I had known her since 1960, when she began a relationship with my father, and even after they broke up, Joan and I remained close friends and she became a mentor and inspiration. She told me she had been asked by The Players to be a “Sunday Afternoon Star” and wanted to know from someone she trusted what the afternoon would be like. I knew that Joan was basically shy, but the idea of being the center of attention for an afternoon still appealed to her. I told her it would be great. A luncheon, her favorite film, a cocktail party — all that and she’d still be home by seven. She’d have a wonderful time, see a lot of old friends, and make some new ones.
Joan asked if I would be her escort and I happily agreed. The Players were sending a car for her, so we met in the lobby and rode down to Gramercy Park together. Like any great star would say as we got out of the limo in front of the club, “How do I look?” “Absolutely gorgeous, Joan,” I replied. “Absolutely gorgeous!” She smiled, kissed me on the cheek, said “bless you,” and was ready to face the troops. I got out first, took her hand, and helped her out of the car. She was surrounded at once and patiently signed each and every autograph book before we went inside. The welcoming committee stood at the top of the stairs and led the applause as she came up into the Great Hall and sat in the couch before the fireplace. I went to the bar to fetch her a vodka on the rocks. I didn’t need to ask.
I didn’t know until that day that her favorite film was A Woman’s Face with Melvyn Douglas and Conrad Veidt. I had never seen it before, but I knew instantly why she liked it even more than Mildred Pierce. She acted up a storm in a very quiet way as her character learned that one could still find love with a horrible facial disfigurement. Joan, for all her beauty, still felt a disfigurement of the soul.
There was only one unpleasant moment for Joan that afternoon. She got upstaged. While we were sitting on the couch having a conversation with Lester Rawlins, an actor who was on her favorite soap, a burst of applause erupted near the front door. Naturally, all heads turned to see who was coming up the stairs. There appeared one of Joan’s arch-enemies who had come to make a guest appearance: Joan Fontaine.
Crawford smiled broadly and even joined in the applause. As the two Joans’ eyes met, Fontaine put her arms out and swept over to the couch. Crawford also put her arms out as she rose to embrace her fellow Oscar winner, but under her breath and beneath the smile, she whispered, “The bitch!”
Jim Brochu joined The Players in 1970. He is the recipient of the New York Drama Desk Award, the Helen Hayes Award, two LA Ovation Awards, the GLAAD Media Award, and a Sardi's caricature in recognition of his fifty-year career in the theatre as an actor and playwright.