The Memory Machine

John O’Hara never forgot a thing, and for five bucks or a shot of Old Overholt, he’d prove it.

We’re now about to engage in a bit of name-dropping. The name we’re going to drop is that of the late John O’Hara, a novelist who wrote books about several things but mostly about girls being seduced in Locomobiles and Pierce-Arrows in the Pennsylvania Dutch country. These girls almost always got married and everybody in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania (a town invented by O’Hara), kept a perfectly straight face when the charmers walked down the aisle in virgin white. Later these same girls frequently went to the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia and violated the Seventh Commandment of Moses. Their husbands were in New York shacked up with models, chorus girls, or sometimes with divorcees who had chewed their marriage vows, found them to be bitter fruit, and had spat them out. Married or unmarried, the inhabitants of Gibbsville really got around.

When I drop the name of John O’Hara, I want to do it gently, because I don’t want to bruise his reputation or his memory. I liked the guy even though he borrowed money from me steadily (eventually he always paid it back) and once threatened to sock me on the jaw in a speakeasy because I delivered a casual opinion that John Steinbeck was a better writer than Ernest Hemingway. I don’t think O’Hara liked me, because I was passing through a phase when I had contempt for fiction and fiction writers, and John was passionately determined to be a novelist. I was all for Emil Ludwig’s biography of Napoleon and Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West. Why should anybody waste time reading or writing fiction when all you had to do was invest twenty-five cents at a secondhand book store and come out with a copy of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities or Melville’s Moby Dick? Enough fiction had already been written to last everybody for all time. Let’s cut out the nonsense and proceed to important matters. This infuriated O’Hara, and he said he would ram those words down my throat someday because the Great American Novel remained to be written and guess who was going to do it.

We met purely through a coincidence of our romantic pursuits in New York in the late twenties and early thirties. Two blonds shared an apartment on East 34th Street. One of them was named Katherine Klinkenberg, a Viking who was five feet seven inches tall and one of the most stunning females I have ever had the pleasure of gazing upon. O’Hara was her slave. Klink worked for Time magazine and I think John did too at that point, although he would never admit it to me and he wouldn’t let Klink discuss the matter. When you asked him what he was doing, he replied: “I’m a novelist.” John had unlimited contempt for journalism. I once accused him of having a job on the New York Herald-Tribune. His Irish eyes turned icy and he said: “Well, if I do an occasional chore for Walker, it’s none of your business, is it?”

Walker was Stanley Walker, city editor of the Herald-Tribune. He had a knack of hiring people at miserable salaries (Joseph Alsop went to work at eighteen dollars a week) and getting maximum production out of them by playing organ music on their egos. At its peak, the Herald-Tribune was the best newspaper I have ever read—Walter Lippmann, dramatic critic Percy Hammond, music critic Lawrence Gilman, sports editor Stanley Woodward, who could make a football story funny and dramatic at the same time, the wry observations of sports columnist Red Smith, but, above all, the expert reporting of day-to-day events in New York City under the sure and steady hand of Stanley Walker. I never saw O’Hara’s name on a story, and I suspect he was a precinct police reporter and hating every minute of it.

The Herald-Tribune sank for economic reasons, and I suppose the moral of the story is that you are a sucker to try to sell quality merchandise to people who prefer shoddy products. If you disagree, you are invited to interview the board of directors of Rolls-Royce Ltd. about their money problems. I’m sure O’Hara didn’t affect the Herald-Tribune much either way. For all I know, he may have been fired for writing short stories on company time on company typewriters and company paper, instead of hustling out to get the facts about the latest homicide on the Lower East Side.

The other blond in the East 34th Street apartment was not quite a match for Klink in looks, but she could easily have made the front row of the chorus line in George White’s Scandals, had she been disposed to shed most of her clothing and learn to tap dance. Instead, she went down to Macy’s five days a week and “coordinated” something in the women’s fashion racket. Her first name was Elizabeth, and that will be all the identification she shall receive here because she threw me over for a stockbroker who worked for Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Beane, as it was known in those days. Later, I believe, a Beane dropped out and a Smith crept in, but no matter. This guy had an expense account and would take Elizabeth to “21” for long liquid lunches and try to sell her something, although not necessarily stocks and bonds. Anvway, he had better luck than I did.

Around 11 o’clock one night, Elizabeth and I A walked into the apartment after a frugal dinner in an Italian restaurant. Klink was sitting in an overstuffed chair. O’Hara was sitting on the floor cradling a pint milk bottle which I subsequently learned was filled with bathtub gin. Klink performed the introductions. I was offered and accepted the milk bottle, and O’Hara asked: “What do you do for a living?”

“I work for the United Press. What do you do for a living?”

“I’m a novelist. Why don’t you write novels instead of wasting your time in the news business?”

“Why don’t you spend all your time and energy in writing novels and stop wasting your time minding other people’s business?”

Klink ordered us to cut it out under the threat of instant eviction. The pint milk bottle made the rounds. The atmosphere mellowed; the three-way conversation sparkled. I say three-way because Elizabeth sat in silence. Physically she was in the room. Mentally and spiritually she was far away— maybe ordering a shrimp cocktail at “21”; maybe looking at the big board in the Manhattan headquarters of Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Beane. One thing for sure: she wasn’t listening to me or looking at me. Or at O’Hara or Klink. Shortly after midnight Klink adjourned the meeting. She gave O’Hara a kiss on the cheek and gave me a pat on the head. Elizabeth didn’t give anybody anything, not even a murmur of thanks for the lasagna and red wine I had bought for her. She disappeared in the general direction of the bedrooms and paused only long enough to toss this remark at me: “See you later, alligator.” At the time I thought this was an immensely clever remark, but later I learned she had stolen it from a radio program for teen-agers. O’Hara told me.

John and I walked out into East 34th Street and headed west because I wanted to catch the Lexington Avenue subway to get to my Greenwich Village apartment on Bank Street. I don’t know where O’Hara wanted to go, but it didn’t make any difference. At Second Avenue he gripped my right arm and led me up a flight of stairs into a speakeasy.

“Good morning. Mr. O’Hara,” the bartender said. “What will it be?”

“Rye on the rocks, and my friend will pay.”

I paid and paid, because O’Hara turned his pockets inside out to demonstrate to me that he had no money. It was the first of several times I financed O’Hara’s addiction to Old Overholt, bootleg style, but as I said previously, he always paid me back, and usually with witty notes accompanying the money. Financially, it was a costly night, but I do not regret it, because for the first time I saw the incredible O’Hara Memory Machine in action.

There were four other men in the bar, and they were involved in a heated argument about sports. One of them kept yelling, “All right, name the infield. name the infield: five bucks says you can’t do it.” It developed they were talking about the Chicago Black Sox, who had thrown the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. The man placed a five-dollar bill on the bar and said. “Name the infield. five bucks says nobody in this room can name the infield.”

“I’ll take it,” O’Hara said, and asked me for a loan of five dollars. So there was ten dollars on the bar and tension in the air. O’Hara knocked back a shot of rye and spoke:

“First base, Chick Gandil. Second base, Eddie Collins. Shortstop, Swede Risberg. Third base, Buck Weaver.”

The bartender, in his role as umpire, consulted a book and pushed the ten dollars over to O’Hara. There was a long silence which John broke by ordering two Old Overholts on the rocks and pocketing the change, including my five dollars. The man stared at O’Hara with some respect, but he still wanted to get his money back.

“For another five,” he said, “would you like to try to name two outfielders, two pitchers, and the catcher?”

“Make it ten.” O’Hara said, putting the bite on me for another five.

“Five’s enough,” the man said, and I quickly grabbed my five dollars off the bar.

O’Hara was in seventh heaven, and he savored every moment of it. He arranged the two fivedollar bills neatly on the bar, took a long, slow drink, and kept his adversary in suspense.

“Two outfielders, two pitchers, and the catcher is what you want. Right?”

“Right,” said the man, “and I want them pretty soon.”

“Okay, outfielders. Hap Felsch and Shoeless Joe Jackson. Pitchers, Eddie Cicotte and Dickie Kerr. Catcher, Ray Schalk.”

Once more ten dollars moved into O’Hara’s possession. The four men walked toward the door, and just as the bartender announced the place was closing, one of them yelled at John: “I bet you was born and raised in Chicago, wasn’t you? You know so damn much about the Black Sox.”

“Nope.” was the reply. “Pennsylvania. I’m a Philadelphia Athletics fan and a cousin fourth removed to Mister Connie Mack, their manager.”

“That’s a lie,” I said. “You aren’t related to Connie Mack.”

“Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne,” said O’Hara. “Ten dollars says you don’t know who wrote that.”

I got in a taxicab and went home.

So far as I know, O’Hara never bet on a horse race, never played poker, and never shot dice. There is considerable risk in those activities, and he preferred a sure thing. But more important, he cared nothing about gambling. He invented intellectual games, and whether you won or lost depended on your power of memory. Nor was he out to make a financial killing; the stakes were always small. What O’Hara was really looking for was little things that would inflate his ego, and he took particular delight in beating a specialist at his own game.

John found such a man one evening in a saloon: Ward Morehouse, a theater columnist for the New York Sun, a formidable opponent indeed. Morehouse was the best-informed reporter on theatrical affairs along Broadway, and had many and lasting friendships among actors.

The three of us sat at a table and O’Hara allowed time for adequate lubrication. Then he sprang it on Morehouse:

“Tell you what. You write down five names of famous actors and I’ll write down five. Then each of us will write in the year the actor was born. Whoever comes closest to the year of birth wins. A one-dollar bet on each actor. The bartender has a World Almanac, and it will be the final authority.” “I’ll take it,” Morehouse said.

They each wrote five names, and as referee, I compiled two master lists of ten names and borrowed the World Almanac. It took about ten minutes for each of them to finish, and the two slips showed the following results:

O’Hara won Maurice Chevalier, 1888; Mary Astor, 1906; Bette Davis, 1908; Janet Gaynor, 1906; George Raft, 1895.

Morehouse won John Drew, 1853; Sarah Bernhardt, 1844; Elisabeth Bergner, 1900.

There were two ties: Ethel Barrymore, 1879; Lionel Barrymore, 1878.

O’Hara always wanted a clean sweep, and the slender margin of his victory infuriated him. The petty and cruel side of his nature began to surface. He denounced Morehouse, all reporters, and all newspapers. I recall Morehouse as an amiable, happy-go-lucky sort of fellow, and he put up with the abuse for quite a while. Then O’Hara pocketed the two dollars he had won and said with a sneer: “Well, are you going to buy a round or just sit there and grin?”

Morehouse waved good-bye to me, ignored O’Hara, and departed.

I began to get wise to some of the tricks of the Memory Machine. O’Hara had memorized a lengthy list of actors and the years of their birth. Obviously he started with a built-in advantage over Morehouse, because he already had the answers to the live actors he had nominated. But the point is that once information became lodged in John’s brain, it stayed there forever. His cockiness over the succession of victories irritated me, and I was pleased to hear much later that he had taken a bad beating on one of his parlor games. For a five-dollar bet he would challenge a person to give the full names of the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame the backfield whose heroics had caught the fancy of the nation’s football fans. (Harry Stuhldreher, Jim Crowley, Don Miller, and Elmer Layden.) O’Hara had underestimated the passion of football fans for information and statistics, and after a few defeats he dropped the project.

I had one last bout with the Memory Machine, lost five dollars, and came to my senses. As usual, O’Hara set me up for the kill by proposing a game on journalism, a subject on which I thought I possessed considerable information. He proposed that I name eight of the ten men who had won Pulitzer Prizes for reporting between 1917 and 1927 (no prize was awarded in 1919). I began like Man o’ War bursting out of the starting gate:

1917: Herbert Bayard Swope, New York Worlds 1920: John J. Leary, Jr., New York World; 1921: Louis Seibold, New York World; 1922: Kirke L. Simpson, Associated Press; 1923: Alva Johnston, New York Times; 1926: William B. Miller, Louisville Courier-Journal; 1927: John T. Rogers, St. Louis Post-Dispactch.

There I stalled, and after ten minutes O’Hara said. “Give up?”

I nodded and handed him five dollars.

“You left out three of them,”he said. “1918: Harold Littledale, New York Evening Post; 1924: Magner White, San Diego Sun; 1925: James W. Mulroy and Alvin H. Goldstein, Chicago Daily News.

“When are you going to get out of the silly newspaper business and do something worthwhile?" O’Hara asked.

The Memory Machine must have been a fairly steady source of income to O’Hara, and he was cunning enough to concentrate on sports in the speakeasies because that was the principal topic of conversation. How many times did Gus Dorais throw to Knute Rockne when Notre Dame upset Army by exploiting the forward pass? Who was the American amateur who defeated the mighty Englishmen, Ted Ray and Harry Vardon, in a play-off for the U.S. Open Golf Championship? (Francis Ouimet.) Who was the pitcher who threw the ball that skulled Ray Chapman, Cleveland Indians shortstop, and killed him? (Carl Mays.)

But the Machine could operate in other fields, too, and especially in poetry. If O’Hara read a poem he liked, it was his captive forever, and he could pour it out by the hour and never miss a beat. One night he offered to repeat a half-hour conversation among three of us, word for word, identifying each person and what he had said. He did, and even threw in some accurate gestures as a bonus.

I don’t want to belabor the Memory Machine, because I understand it is a talent possessed by more people than you would suspect. Frank Graham, a sports columnist for the New York Sun, had it. He never carried pencil or paper, and nobody ever claimed Frank had misquoted him. The Memory Machine is invaluable to reporters, because once you produce a pencil and paper, your man becomes gun-shy. If nothing is being written down, the questions and answers flow freely.

There now intervened a long, arid period in my relationship with O’Hara, principally because Klink went home to Kansas and married Bill White, son of the eminent journalist William Allen White of the Emporia Gazette. That broke up the 34th Street apartment. Elizabeth went somewhere without giving me her new address or phone number, and I never saw her again, although I was fairly sure I could get in touch with her through Merrill Lynch. Pierce, Fenner & Beane.

O’Hara showed up at my office one day, not looking in the best of shape, and I took him out for a drink. He said he was at work on a novel. but refused ail details. I tried diplomatically to steer the conversation around to money, and suggested a loan. He bristled at first, but finally accepted twenty dollars and promptly spent part of it to buy two Old Overholts on the rocks. We parted and I urged him to keep in touch. He said he would.

Three weeks later I got a note written on the stationery of a small and, I suspect, somewhat sleazy hotel on West 41st Street:

“I got a job. Night desk clerk here. Am in residence twenty-four hours a day. and will be glad to receive you anytime, either in dark or in daylight.”

Enclosed was a twenty-dollar bill.

Again months intervened before 1 heard anyA thing from or about O’Hara. Then one Sunday I picked up the New York Times book section and read a review of a novel called Butterfield 8 by John O’Hara. It was a favorable review, and noted the convincing accuracy of the dialogue. The Memory Machine was apparently hitting on all eight cylinders. I bought the book next day, partly out of curiosity about the prose, and partly because Butterfield 8 was a telephone exchange and happened to be mine. I thought the book fell far short of being the Great American Novel, but there wasn’t any doubt that O’Hara was a fresh and lively voice in American fiction.

I think the curve of his life and fortunes shot steeply upward because of Butterfield 8. At least he was in the money, because he went to Hollywood under a handsome contract and could indulge his lifelong taste for caviar and vintage French champagne. I have no idea what he did in Hollywood, or how long he stayed there, but he must have been bored with plenty of free time on his hands. The New Yorker began printing pieces called “Pal Joey.” about the adventures and misadventures in Hollywood of an actor with small talent but enormous ego. It was O’Hara at his best, and he must have spent time and money buying drinks for broken-down actors, because the prose rang as true as a bronze bell. The Memory Machine never functioned better. Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart agreed with that opinion, made a musical comedy out of the material, and called it Pal Joey. O’Hara was liberated from Hollywood. Pal Joey broke some new ground in American musical comedy; it was hard-nosed and cynical instead of sticky and sentimental. Everybody on the stage was on the make for something or somebody, and Rodgers’ music and Hart’s lyrics captured the mood with precision.

It was a commercial success, although not a smash hit in the same league with Oklahoma and South Pacific. I went to see Pal Joey, and across the years I have an enduring recollection of Vivienne Segal standing downstage left in an evening gown that enhanced her brunette beauty and, in her rich, warm voice, pouring out a song called “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered ”

I only saw O’Hara one more time. He appeared one day at the Tuesday luncheon of the Dutch Treat Club as the guest of his publisher and spotted me at the bar. As was his custom, he behaved as though we had never been apart for more than three days: “Two Old Overholts on the rocks,” he told the bartender.

He seemed subdued and melancholy, and his problem surfaced quickly.

“Do you think Hemingway really said it?” he asked.

It took me a minute or so to get the situation into focus, and then I recalled. A few days earlier, Walter Winchell or one of his imitators had printed an item about Ernest Hemingway at a literary cocktail party. The conversation had turned to O’Hara and the fact that his books revealed an obsessive interest in aristocratic prep schools, exclusive clubs, fraternities, and Ivy League universities. Hemingway was quoted as having said: “O’Hara is so fascinated with the Ivy League we ought to take up a collection and send him to Yale.”

This shattered O’Hara because Hemingway was his idol. He once told me he had read The Sun Also Rises three times, and I suspect that the lean, terse dialogue in John’s books was inspired by Hemingway. I told him I had not been at the party and had no idea whether Hemingway had said it. Then I tried to comfort him with humor.

“Anyway,” I said, “you don’t want to go to Yale. You want to go to Princeton.”

“That’s right,” he said, and walked away.

I’m no literary critic, and I’ll venture no opinion about how O’Hara will rank as a novelist. I have never read many of his books because it seemed to me he had fallen into a rut with his novels about the Pennsylvania Dutch country. The dialogue, much of it irrelevant to the story, ran on and on because he was unable to shut off the Memory Machine. I think he was at his best with his short stories, and I believe many of them will survive when the novels are forgotten.

Well, he went to Princeton, not to the university but to the town, where he bought a house, acquired a rustic cane, wore tweeds, and became a sort of country squire. He may have been quite happy as his days dwindled down toward death.

I hope so.