Chairman Billingsley

DILLON ANDERSON,who served as Special Assistant to the President on National Security Affairs and who took an active part in the Geneva Conference, has now resumed his law practice in Houston. Luckily for the Atlantic, Mr. Anderson has a special facility for writing on trains and planes; in these moments he has found time to compose two volumes of short stories, I and Claudie and Claudie’s Kinfolks, and to give us biographical accounts of his preposterous friend, Billingsley, his companion at the poker table and in the hunting field.


IT ALL began one September afternoon several years ago when Mrs. Billingsley innocently attended a tea given by a college classmate named Vera. Vera, a frustrated type anyway, if you ask me, had laid on this tea for the explicit purpose of bringing to the attention of Mrs. Billingsley and a dozen or so other “civic-minded girls" (then in their late forties) the deplorable condition of the city parks—“shabby old benches, dirty, messy comfort stations, and grass and weeds uncut all over the place.”

“I really think it’s a crime,” Vera told Mrs. Billingsley and the other girls, “and the time has come to do something about it.”She ended her remarks with an ACTION gesture.

One of the girls, who had been to England recently, said, “Hear! Hear!”

There being no one there who was adequately prepared to defend the deplorable condition of the city parks (and moreover no one among them who had even been in one for several years) they formed on the spot the “Citizens’ Committee for the Beautification of Our City Parks.” Then they elected Vera chairman by acclamation.

Now that they were voting, the girls proceeded to elect from their number a vice chairman, a second vice chairman, a recording and a corresponding secretary; then Vera appointed an executive committee, a by-laws committee, a membership committee, a nominating committee, and a special projects committee, and authorized the formation of subcommittees.

With these organizational details behind her, Vera came back to the deplorable condition of the city parks and reminded the girls that the Citizens’ Committee should do something about it. “This thing has been let go,”she pointed out, “about as far as it can without some ACTION.”

“Hear! Hear!”

“That will be the task of the steering committee,” Vera announced. Then, “Oh my— I haven’t appointed the steering committee yet, have I? Well, I will, and that committee will be the one to call on the mayor and demand that something be done about cleaning up and beautifying our city parks. What we need on that committee is a man — a man who can talk man-to-man with that awful old mayor.”

At this moment Billingsley, who was on the golf course several miles away searching in the rough for a lost ball, felt a momentary twinge in the side of his head; and according to one of his companions in the foursome he actually flinched, as if some unseen telepathic bolt had struck him in the temple. For at this same instant Mrs. Billingsley, who had sat in silence at Vera’s tea until she had become neither officer nor member of the executive committee or even of a subcommittee, felt moved to speak. “Richard is a good friend of the mayor,”Mrs. Billingsley volunteered. “They hunt together. Maybe—”

“Providential,” Vera cried. “We’ll put Richard Billingsley on the steering committee. We’ll even make him chairman.”

“But — ” Mrs. Billingsley started. It was too late though, for Vera was in high gear by this time, using the overdrive supplied by the entirely novel concept of Billingsley in a civic role.

“When,” Vera continued, “do you suppose the steering committee could go into action? There is not a bit of time to waste.”

“I’ll speak to Richard tonight,” Mrs. Billingsley said absently, since by this time she had begun to realize that it was already late afternoon, after which came the night, the meeting with her husband, and the necessity of following through in the teeth of (a) the near end of the fishing season, (b) the climax of the baseball season, (c) the opening of the dove and football seasons, and (d) the “best golfing weather of the whole damn year.”

The subject was not broached that evening until after Billingsley had had his second highball, into which the little woman had slipped one extra jigger of mellow and mellowing bourbon.

“Certainly not! What the hell’s got into you, Cynthia? I never heard of such a thing. What have you been doing in the parks? I never go there. What’s gone wrong with the parks anyway?" were Billingsley’s introductory responses as he jumped to his feet and strode around the room. He paused for more breath, not expecting and not getting any answer. “You mean you got me put on a committee to go to the mayor and beef about the city parks? Why, damn it, Booby’d think I’d lost my mind” — Booby being the nickname of Honorable Elbert McEvoy Duncan, the mayor.

Now Billingsley is a large character with large features, a thick neck, and considerable hair growing out of his nose and ears. Also he has a loud, coarse voice, built naturally for insults and negative comments. Moreover, he always wears a forbidding frown after as bad a round as he’d had on the golf course that day. And he brought all these natural attributes to bear on his response to the idea.

Mrs. Billingsley, on the other hand, is a petite, patrician type with trim ankles and wrists, small feet, a very feminine build, and a soft, cultured voice. Also she has another quality: she knows Billingsley.

Thus she did not argue with the great man; she only listened to some more of his guff along the same line —“How’d you ever get it into your head that I’d go with a bunch of women to call on Booby about the parks? Do you realize I’d have to go and look at the parks before I could stand up and complain about the shape they’re in?”

This could happen to anybody

The next afternoon, on his way to the ball game, Billingsley happened to drive right alongside one of the parks. It seemed, he said later, to be in fairly good shape. He noted that, aside from a little need for repair here and there, a little painting of the benches, and some cleaning up, it would do for a city park. Average anyway. In fact the kids and spooners seemed to be enjoying it about as usual, and what the hell!

The repetition of these last three words at breakfast the next morning caused Cynthia Billingsley to wilt and weep, while Billingsley stalked out of the house. But when he got to his office, he called Booby Duncan on the phone and told him what he’d got into. Booby said, “Maybe the ladies are right; the park superintendent has been away on vacation, and you know how it is when the cat’s away. Ha! Ha! But he’s back now. I’ll call him in, and in a week or so the parks will be spick-and-span again. You can tell your ladies that. And don’t forget to tell them I had it done for them. Election’s coming up soon, you know, Dick.”

Well, word gets around, and even before the minutes of the first meeting of the Citizens’ Committee for the Beautification of Our City Parks had been read and approved at the second meeting, Vera knew Billingsley had got results. But, more important, Mrs. Billingsley had got her neat, petite, size 3½A foot a little further in the door of Billingsley’s life.

Word of Billingsley’s extraordinary effectiveness as a committee chairman spread rapidly, especially in ladies’ circles, and the story grew from the mere telephone call that Billingsley had made (actually, he claimed later, to get the thing off his mind before the dove season really got under way) to far more formidable proportions.

“That old Mayor Duncan really sat up and took notice when the steering committee called on him,” Vera confided to a little group in the Country Club cocktail bar a few days later. “He was ready to go and clean up the parks with his own bare hands before they got through with him. I can tell you our committee had him fairly shaking in his boots. And you should see the parks now” (which Vera hadn’t). “I don’t know what we’d have done without the outstanding leadership of Dick Billingsley. It takes people like that to make things really hum in a community!”

Betty Boggis, the wife of the president of the Rotary Club, was having a frozen daiquiri close by and was thoroughly tuned in on Vera’s remarks. Betty could hardly wait until night to tell Earl Boggis, the president himself, about Billingsley’s performance on the city park problem. So the very next day Billingsley received a telephone call.

“Dick,”the Rotary president said, “you old son of a gun! ”

Billingsley flinched, as he’d never cared for Earl Boggis, the Rotarian. He said, “Uh! Huh!”

“The chairman of my membership committee has just given me the finest report he’s turned in since I appointed him,” Earl boomed. “This is sure good news for Rotary.”

“Uh! Huh!”

“You’re the newest member of Rotary. We’ll call on you this afternoon for the installation ceremony.”

“But —” Billingsley started, and Earl was gone from the line.

Billingsley’s secretary called Earl right back to say that her boss had been suddenly called out of town on urgent business, and that afternoon Billingsley opened the dove season with a nice kill — the limit, to be exact.

But that night when Billingsley returned sweaty and victorious from the hunt, Mrs. Billingsley proudly showed him the evening paper, with the news of his election to Rotary.

“By God, I won’t do it,” he said. “Who ever heard of me having to go to a meeting every Thursday! Don’t Earl Boggis know Thursday’s a golf day? How stupid can that pushy so-and-so get? That’s what I’d like to know!”

But the following Thursday Billingsley attended his first Rotary meeting and was named from the rostrum a member of the membership committee to take the place of one of the most faithful members, who was being transferred to a distant city.

For the first few weeks of his life in Rotary Billingsley lived in what he later recognized as a fool’s paradise. He shifted his golf week from Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday to Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday, an accommodation that would have been acceptable except for one thing — the principle involved. And as you will see, this principle, like some evil weevil, was already gnawing away at the base of Billingsley’s whole life structure.

One day that same fall he learned out of the blue that Mrs. Billingsley had been put on the program committee of the Ladies Auxiliary of the State Bar Association. He took the news with seemly equanimity, which in Billingsley’s case involved a rather blustery comment to the little woman when he came in from the night ball game. Yet within the week Mrs. Billingsley actually waited on him in his office. She came along with the eight other members of the program committee, formally inviting him to speak at the annual meeting of the Ladies Auxiliary the following July, a convocation held concurrently with the meeting of the State Bar Association. The subject of the address: “Our Constitution.”

Now Billingsley had attended but one meeting of the State Bar in his nearly thirty years of holding a law license. That had been a number of years back and a disastrous event, as he reluctantly recalled it, since he’d lost several hundred dollars in an all-night crap game. (Those who know him best realize that basically Billingsley’s game is poker.) Moreover, Billingsley had never spoken on the Constitution — not that he didn’t think well of it; not that he hadn’t taken a course in it during lawschool days; not that he hadn’t sworn to support it when he was commissioned a lieutenant in the Army. The Constitution had simply not emerged in his life as something about which one would speak to ladies, singly or in groups.

Later, wondering why in the devil he’d ever agreed to speak to the Ladies Auxiliary, Billingsley rationalized the thing thus: —

(a) The speaking date was over six months away, and any number of things could happen in the meantime; he could die or become desperately ill; there was always the possibility of a disabling accident; and the meeting might be called off.

(b) One of the girls on the committee was indeed an old flame of Billingsley’s, dating back to college days, and her always affirmative personality made it difficult to snort right out the rude No! which was his first reaction.

(c)The idea of having a whole roomful of ladies cheering his stout defense of some abused feature of the Constitution lurked enticingly in the shadows of his deliberation.

There was, of course, one other factor — which, though perhaps not recognized by Billingsley, you and I must not overlook. It was the presence in the delegation of the estimable little woman with the tiny feet, and the firm way in which she eyed the great man until he agreed.

The real slough

The restoration and preservation of the state’s historical shrines came next in Billingsley’s life, and in such an innocuous fashion that he was inextricably implicated in the web before he recognized it. It came in the form of a long-distance call from Knobby Eldridge, a dull-witted classmate of Billingsley’s, who had staggered feebly through lawschool at the very foot of the class and had thereafter all but starved behind his shingle until he’d hit upon the idea of following the circus throughout the state one season, passing out his electioneering cards in the ticket lines. The cards had read: “Elect Elias (Knobby) Eldridge to your Supreme Court. He believes in fair play.”

Now you do not turn down a State Supreme Court Justice whose opening pledge is that “all they want is the use of your name on this here thing. Somebody else will do all the work and raise all the damn money.”

As chairman of the finance committee of the Committee for the Restoration and Preservation of the State’s Historical Shrines, Billingsley had his whole fall ruined the year the drive failed to make its goal. But the movement was finally saved a few days after the deadline when one of the state’s major industrial concerns made up the deficit in the drive. Billingsley was on the front page of the Sunday editions, accepting the check which “sent the committee over the top.”

And in the very wake of the historical-shrines matter there came the Committee on Slum Clearance, though Billingsley escaped with no more than service on the board; then the house committee at the Country Club, which duties encroached sharply on the time for golf while he tried to resolve a long-standing case of bad blood between the assistant manager of the Club and the chef — a feud which was, incidentally, not settled until the chef’s pass at the assistant manager with a meat cleaver resulted in the firing of them both from the Club’s payroll. It fell upon Billingsley’s capable shoulders to replace them, and before this was accomplished he had been made chairman of the house committee and had received a number of nasty letters from members whose meals at the Club were inadequately prepared and who intimated that the whole lapse in cuisine and service had been of Billingsley’s personal making.

The next year Billingsley chaired the attendance committee of the Rotary Club, hounding and scolding laggard members who, on missing the regular Thursday meetings, failed to drive forty-four miles to an adjacent city where Friday meetings permitted absentees to make up their attendance records. It is true that the hunting season came and went that year without Billingsley’s ever popping a cap, but the local Rotary Club won the attendance record for the whole national district, and they gave Billingsley a rising vote of thanks.

Soon no drive escaped him. The Red Cross, the Community Chest, good government, the new county hospital, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts and the Cub Scouts, the Old Folks’ Home, the Orphans’ Home, and the Home for Wayward Girls. Within less than two years after he made the phone call about the city parks, Billingsley was principal speaker at a mass meeting organized to launch a city manager amendment to the city charter, and later he debated the issue publicly with Booby Duncan, who had meantime been re-elected mayor on his City Park Betterment platform.

I do not contend that there is a true analogy between opium with its various derivatives on the one hand and committees on the other; but I do here and now verify that the whole succession of events in Billingsley’s life brought him, within barely two years, to such a state of slavery to committee demands that one soon began to hear him spoken of in most disparaging terms around locker rooms, hunting clubs, and his old card-playing haunts.

“What ever became of Dick Billingsley?” someone would ask, and the pained looks on the others would be as much as to say, “Poor fellow, he’s a real goner.”It is true that for a while his friends, including myself for example, would make excuses like “He’s been a bit under the weather, I’m told,” or “It’s the heavy demands of that law practice of his; he’s a fine lawyer, you know,” or simply, “His wife’s got him hooked with some kind of a movement” (thus, mark you, absolving Billingsley of any blame— in the beginning, that is).

Afterwards matters reached a much more candid aspect, and when someone with a good memory would suggest that Billingsley might make out a foursome, fill a vacant seat at a ball game, make a quorum at poker, or possibly open the duck season, the comment would take more blunt form. Like “Oh, don’t ask that stuffy bastard; even if he agreed, something would come up where he had to save the state. He’s such a damn do-gooder you can’t depend on him to show up.”

The slough deepens

It was at about this stage in the tragic process of his deterioration that Billingsley took a trip. He and Mrs. Billingsley were away in the mountains on their first vacation in some twenty-seven years of marital bliss; and at their same lodge in the mountains was this couple, local people and all that but a very cultured twosome, interested in difficult music, abstract art, and the ballet. I mean all the sorts of things that normally would have been a moated wall with broken glass on top between such types and Billingsley.

Well, the canasta games started that summer in the mountains, and when the Billingsleys returned it was the most natural thing in the world, I suppose, for such things to continue, and even to spread, since these canasta-playing people had other local friends of similar overtrained tastes and persuasion.

Then the inevitable happened. They had Billingsley first on the board, then made him chairman of the Contemporary Arts Association. But this was not all. When the ballet company from England came to town, Billingsley was on the reception committee that met the troupe of artists at the train.

“Humph,”I remember remarking in my wife’s presence when I saw the picture of Billingsley and the ballet element on the first page of the newspaper. “ Billingsley must really be slipping. There’s a committee he’s not chairman of.”

“ He is due to be next year,” my own wife stated with some asperity. “He’s more civic-minded and cultured than some people I know.”

“You don’t say!” I came back. Oh, I really let her have it, and that was the end of the conversation.

Now all this committee activity soon began to have its effect on Billingsley’s voice — deleterious, I mean. The raucous, gravelly quality of his voice, known to every baseball umpire, bird dog, caddy, and poker player in our part of the state, gradually gave way to a more brittle and civilized tone. He began to sound like a funeral parlor attendant or one of those men that come to tune the piano — and on the phone you’d think he was a damned elocution teacher.

There were other distressing features of his collapse. Billingsley’s nickname in college was Smokehouse, for reasons I never knew, and this one had stuck all through the years among his intimates; but it will give you some idea as to how bad things got when I recount that, after the committee thing had gone on for a year or so, the use of this name became absolute anathema to him. He’d actually hang up on old friends who’d phone him about having a bourbon or two on the way home, if they inadvertently used the old nickname Smokehouse in getting the great man’s attention. As a matter of fact, the idea of having a drink at all seemed to lose its savor with him, I discovered after a while — like the afternoon I ran across him downtown and suggested that we lift a couple of quick ones before going home. He elevated his shaggy eyebrows and replied archly, “I couldn’t let the Atheneum group smell liquor on my breath. I’m on my way to a tea there. I’m to introduce Elizabeth Bowen.”

“Who the devil—” I started.

“The English authoress,” he explained, with an indulgent note in his well-modulated voice. Then he walked stiffly away.

The beginning of the ending

“ You take what has happened to poor old Smokehouse Billingsley,” I often said in those dark days, even to my wife. “A thing like that has to run its course.” Then, when for a time it didn’t and Billingsley became more cultured and more active in committees and movements, you can imagine the sort of thing my wife would say to me. Well, she did.

Until, that is, the fateful day came—a Tuesday it was, in September. It dawned bright and clear — a blue bird day, as we hunters say, the kind when a man would be lucky to scratch out a limit of anything but possibly teal or white-wing doves.

Billingsley had a terrific schedule that day, and I have that straight from the horse’s mouth. I don’t mean Mrs. Billingsley; I got it from Reuben, our yardman, whose wife is the Billingsley cook’s own aunt, and in the same way I also got the full story on just what actually happened that historic day.

Billingsley’s schedule was to begin at ten in his office and it included a meeting with a group of civic-minded citizens from the north side who were forming a committee to get something done about a red-light district that had developed there, right under their noses. They had naturally called Billingsley as a specialist — not in red-light districts now; in getting something done about things.

At noon he was to speak to a newly formed organization in town that was in favor of organizing a local foreign policy committee, and I learned by the grapevine that the plans were all laid beforehand to make him chairman of the thing.

That afternoon was filled too. It was a Tuesday, incidentally, but no matter; his golf clubs had been moldering in the bag for many months now. Billingsley was due to go right after lunch to the airport to head the welcoming committee of the Chamber of Commerce, which was to greet a committee from the state legislature. They were coming from the state capital to inspect the model municipal park system. (Remember? This was where Billingsley came in.)

Later on, at four or possibly a quarter after, the program committee of the Bar Association was meeting to lay plans for honoring the Chief Justice of the state (Knobby Eldridge, who played his earlier part in Billingsley’s decline). Billingsley, while not chairman, was vice chairman and required to act since the chairman was away on a hunt.

That night was the night of the big banquet and annual meeting of the Symphony Society, and as co-chairman of the annual campaign for funds, Billingsley was scheduled to announce that the drive had been “a thumping success.”

Now when the particular Tuesday to which I refer dawned — as I have said, a blue bird day in September — something snapped somewhere. I mean something had to give somewhere; and when it did, it gave all the way. For that was the day Billingsley did not get out of bed all day. It was not that he was unwell, as the earlier rumors had it; not at all. “Never felt better in my life,” he’d said to Mrs. Billingsley, according to my solid source, Reuben the yardman. “But I just don’t think I’ll get up today.”

“But, Richard, what about the committees?" she asked, about eight-thirty, after she’d served his breakfast to him in bed and brought him the morning paper.

“Tell ‘em I’m not coming today. Tell ‘em to eat cake. Tell ‘em to go to hell,” Billingsley said; then he turned over and went back to sleep. The reason Mrs. Billingsley suspected the jig was up was that the words were spoken in the same coarse, raucous Billingsley voice of old, and accompanied by a vulgar and unstuffy chuckle.

As the day wore on, Billingsley’s secretary and several co-members of various committees tried to make excuses of one kind or another, and in the forenoon Mrs. Billingsley engaged in some lame explanations herselfbut with a very faint heart.

Billingsley had had his committees; that was all. He’d developed committee indigestion. He was through. The way I knew it for sure was by the telephone call I had from him about seven that evening. “This is Smokehouse,” he said, and the coarse revolting quality of his old voice came across the instrument with high fidelity.

“Where the hell have you been?” I asked.

“In a gilded cage,” he said. “Let’s us take in a ball game tonight.”

“I was going,” I told him — taking things pretty easy, if you ask me, after being hung up on several times for calling him Smokehouse.

“Got a spare ticket? I gave up my box, you know,” Billingsley said.

“Afraid not.”

“ Who’s going with you?”

“Only my wife. Maybe—”

“I’ll be by in a few minutes. I’ll bring Cynthia along to keep her company while we’re at the game. Get yourself ready.”

It was the old Billingsley, all right. I could doubt it no more when I heard the abuse he heaped on the head of the poor umpire that night. The latter, having missed Billingsley’s scolding reproaches for several years, actually came over at the end of the game and thanked Billingsley for the notice he’d received from the long-missing voice. He’d thought Billingsley was dead, he explained.