Authors: Hugh Pentecost
The Deadly Joke
Open Road Integrated Media
HEN DOUGLAS MAXWELL, IMMACULATE
in white tie and tails, walked into Chambrun’s office on the second floor of the Hotel Beaumont that evening we, literally, froze. You see, two of us had seen Maxwell shot to death less than half an hour before that moment. Now he faced us, his handsome face grave, a little nerve twitching high up on his left cheek, very much alive. Twenty-five minutes ago I had helped carry him from the Beaumont’s lobby to the little first-aid station back of the reception desk. The bullet had gone straight into his heart, and that white shirt front had been stained a bright scarlet, his face twisted into a last-minute grimace of terror. He had been very dead when Dr. Partridge, the house physician, had examined him. I had come directly to Chambrun’s office to report the tragedy along with Jack Mickly, Maxwell’s public relations genius.
The little red button on Chambrun’s desk phone flashed urgently, but he ignored it. I have never seen Chambrun at a loss before. He had been about to light one of his Egyptian cigarettes when Maxwell made his entrance. His gold lighter remained suspended in space, the flame flickering. His black eyes, buried deep in their pouches, were fixed in a blank stare on Maxwell. Suddenly he stood up, almost upsetting his carved Florentine desk chair.
“What the hell is this?”
Mickly sank down into a green leather armchair, his legs rubberized. Beads of sweat stood out on his pale forehead.
“Sir,” he stammered. “Sir—it
“Easy, boy,” Maxwell said. “Easy.”
He wasn’t a ghost, it seemed.
I looked down at the cuff of my dress shirt. There was a small stain from Maxwell’s blood on it. Or somebody’s blood.
As a general rule Chambrun hates to have the Beaumont used for political occasions. The Beaumont is New York’s top luxury hotel. Parenthetically, Chambrun insists it is the world’s top luxury hotel. He is its fabulous general manager. I have heard him say that the Beaumont is not a hotel but a way of life. Whatever this great hotel is used for, Chambrun insists that it be done with elegance and taste. Fashion shows, debutante parties, private banquets can all be fitted into that framework.
“There is nothing either elegant or tasteful about modern politics,” Chambrun told me when the Maxwell dinner came up. “Nothing that is totally cynical can have either quality.”
But Douglas Maxwell was a friend. Chambrun would assure you that, when it came to the Beaumont, friendship would not influence his judgments. The truth is that Chambrun can be an intensely loyal friend; he can be counted on to go to extreme limits for someone he likes and respects. Maxwell belonged in that category. I knew that Maxwell had often dined with Chambrun in the privacy of the plush second-floor office. That experience was reserved for the very special. To be invited was to enjoy a gourmet experience. It also meant that you didn’t bore Chambrun, who is easily bored by casual conversation.
Douglas Maxwell is in his early fifties. He started out in life as a lawyer, but turned to higher education as his field. This wasn’t remarkable, since he was the grandson of Brian Barstow, who founded Barstow College in the early years of the century. Barstow has had a fine reputation as a college through the years. In the early 1960s Douglas Maxwell became the college’s president. In 1969 Barstow, like so many other schools, became involved in a wave of violence at the hands of student activists and black militant groups. Maxwell handled the situation with firmness. He managed something that very few other administrators have accomplished. He managed to win the support of the large majority of Barstow’s student body. With this support he was able to deal with the violent groups in an iron-fisted fashion. Extremists among the students hated him with a passion. Conservative elements in the community saw him as a hero. He achieved something of a national reputation because of his firm stand.
When things had quieted down at Barstow, a group of conservative leaders approached Maxwell with the suggestion that he run for the United States Senate. Maxwell was uncertain at first. Politically he was more left of center than a conservative.
“Political theory and the facts of life don’t always jibe,” he told Chambrun at one of their dinners. “You may be against the war in Vietnam, Pierre. You may believe minority groups are being suppressed and exploited. You may feel that the only way to draw attention to today’s problems is through making a public noise. But if someone throws a firebomb into the Trapeze Bar in the Beaumont, you’ll start to swing a big stick.”
“You know it!” Chambrun said.
“I am being pressured by conservative elements with whom I don’t by any means agree in many areas,” Maxwell said, “because I swung a big stick at Barstow. If I agreed and I was successful, I wouldn’t fall in with many of the things they stand for. And yet—”
“You are unique,” Chambrun told him. “You are an honest man, a political rarity. You’re not hungry for power. Run: I’ll vote for you.”
You and I might think of Maxwell as a rich man, but he was not rich in terms of today’s political climate. He had no personal means for financing a campaign that would run into several million dollars. The first step, after he had finally agreed to make himself available, was to raise money. A thousand-dollar-a-plate dinner was the first move, and Maxwell went to his friend Chambrun to ask if the Beaumont could be used for the occasion. The Beaumont, as a location, would add distinction to the affair. Some of the richest and most famous people in New York would attend. The Beaumont was the perfect place for them. Chambrun went along with his friend.
That was when I came into the picture. I was summoned to Chambrun’s office to meet Maxwell and his aides.
“Mark Haskell is my public relations man,” Chambrun told them. “He will deal with your committee on arrangements. He will be your go-between with Mr. Amato, my banquet manager. You will find this a happy arrangement, I think, because Mr. Amato tends to be explosive under pressure. Finally, gentlemen, if Mark says ‘no’ to something you want, don’t come running to me to have him overruled. Mark is in charge.”
Chambrun is a doll. I knew I would get the ground rules from him, but as far as Maxwell and his committee were concerned, I was the boss. That’s one of the reasons why all of us on his staff would give an arm for him just for the asking. When you were put in charge of something, you were in charge. You could always go to him if you were in doubt about a decision and then he would share the responsibility with you. But you never felt his hot breath on your neck.
Fifteen hundred people were expected to attend the dinner, and the million and a half collected for the privilege of attending was only a part of what the committee expected to collect for Maxwell’s fund. Before the evening was over the guests would have their arms twisted for double that amount. The caviar had better be imported, the soup hot, the beef perfection, and the wine out of our dustiest bins. Maxwell, when he rose to address his friends, must be at his very best.
Someday I may write a monograph on the endless details involved in arranging such a swank banquet, but this is not the place for it. I need, however, to identify three of the people from Maxwell’s side of the fence with whom I worked closely during the ten days prior to the big night. First of all there was the chairman of Maxwell’s dinner committee. He was J. Watson Clarke, a multimillionaire Wall Street genius who was billed as Maxwell’s best friend. They had gone to college together, Barstow naturally. They had graduated in the spring of 1941. Maxwell had married his college girl friend and gone to war a few months later, a navy flier in the Pacific. Clarke, a burly man who looked something like the actor Raymond Burr, had missed active service in the war, but he had been involved in Wild Bill Donovan’s undercover melodramatics. He had never married. He had, for several generations of debutantes, been the richest and most eligible bachelor on several continents. He stayed very close through the years to Douglas and Grace Maxwell. I understood he had a permanent little suite of rooms in the Maxwells’ summer home at East Hampton. He was a sportsman who devoted his free time to boats and to elaborate African safaris. He had his own seat on the Stock Exchange, and by some personal magic everything he touched tripled in value both in good times and bad. He could be counted on to shoulder a big part of Maxwell’s campaign needs. I found him a charming fellow, a little old-world in his gracious manners, but with a wonderful gift of being suddenly very modern, both in the areas of colorful language and ideas. Just when you decided, regretfully, that he was a bit of a stuffed shirt, he would give you a shy smile and come out with a string of four-letter words that would curl your hair. My dealings with him consisted largely of warning him that some suggestion for dinner would be rather staggeringly expensive.
“Who the devil has mentioned expense, Mark?” he would say.
His primary job was to okay the costs and to plan the seating arrangements at the tables set up in the Grand Ballroom. He knew just who should and should not be seated together. No one should have a neighbor at dinner who might set up any resistance to the main idea, which was
The person I worked closest with in those ten days was Jack Mickly, Maxwell’s personal public relations man. Mickly was one of those ever-youthful-looking blonds. Boyish was the word for him. I suppose he was forty-five. He had been the
man for Barstow College, and he had resigned his job to join Maxwell in the world of politics. He was a fun guy who drank a little too much at the end of each working day, and who looked on Maxwell as a kind of god. He would have done anything in the world Maxwell asked him to do—in Macy’s window if that was the requirement.
The third man in the picture didn’t come on stage until a couple of days before the dinner. His name was Stewart Shaw. Stew Shaw was also out of the Barstow picture. He had been a small college all-American fullback in the early ’fifties. He was a dark, powerfully built, perpetually scowling guy who gave you the impression that if you said anything unpleasant about Maxwell, you’d find your teeth jammed down your throat. He was another Maxwell worshiper. He had been head of the security force at Barstow. Campus cop, is, I believe, the inelegant title. He had made a small reputation for himself in the violence at the college which had projected Maxwell into the public eye. Like Jack Mickly, he had resigned his college job to become a de luxe bodyguard for the candidate.
There was some concern for Maxwell’s safety the night of the banquet. Student radicals had announced they would picket the Beaumont, and some black militants promised there would be no dinner if they had to blow up the Beaumont to prevent it. City police would take care of the trouble outside the hotel. The job inside was to be handled by Jerry Dodd, the Beaumont’s top security officer. We don’t call him a “house detective.” He and Stew Shaw made arrangements to keep Maxwell thoroughly covered every second of the time. Everything was timed out, down to the smallest detail: the moment Maxwell would arrive, accompanied by a couple of friends, at the Beaumont’s main entrance; his arrival in the lobby where reporters, press photographers, and television cameras would be waiting; the quick trip through this maze to the Grand Ballroom where the guests would provide a standing ovation. I was satisfied, when the evening came, that we hadn’t left a single manhole uncovered.
You never saw so many men in white tie and tails and women who all seemed to have been decorated out of Tiffany’s. The Grand Ballroom began to fill about seven o’clock. Maxwell was due to make his appearance at seven-thirty. Jerry Dodd, Mickly, and I were stationed in the lobby for the arrival. I could spot some rented tails which were obviously being worn by Jerry’s men and a half dozen plainclothes cops from the police. The
cameras were aimed at the entrance. We receptionists were relaxed because we knew that Maxwell would appear on the dot, not a minute before or a minute after seven-thirty.
That was where the first thing went wrong.
At exactly seven-fifteen a shiny Cadillac drew up at the Fifth Avenue entrance. Two men in full evening regalia got out, followed by Maxwell. I found myself looking for Stew Shaw, the bodyguard, but he wasn’t with them. He had, I thought, made some last-minute change. He was probably in the lobby crowd somewhere. From outside I heard the boos and catcalls from the student pickets.
Maxwell’s two friends walked in ahead of him. I saw Maxwell smiling and waving to the people along his path. Then I was conscious of a sort of gasping sound from people near the front door. The arrival party came toward the
cameras, partly hiding Maxwell. Then they parted, and Maxwell came forward, bowing and waving graciously. I felt my stomach turn over.