WE HAVE pinpointed the precise moment it began: it was when Banks laughed during that reception for Lopardo-Fabrizio in the Hall of Mirrors. The room was packed solid with human flesh: people holding their plastic champagnes glasses shoulder high, elbows in, shrieking at each other. But the laughs cut through the roar, overwhelmed it, rolled over our heads in great thundering waves, bounced off the high molded ceiling and reverberated among the chandeliers. Heards turned, mouths hovered open before anchovy canapes. For one second, an awed silence.
I was close enough to see, as the chatter resumed, what happened next in the chic little circle around Banks and his guest of honor, the man Time had called in its puppyish way The Greates Singer in the World - after, I might add, he had retired. Lopardo - Fabrizio stepped backward, concave with astonishment, all five feet two fo him, arms flung out like St. Theresa receiving the stigmata. His huge gypsy-black eyes, which bulge at the best of times, were about to escape their sockets.
"But! You sing!" He stared up at Banks.
Banks snorted. "Sing!" The famous scowl. "I run singers!"
You would have thought he was talking about heroin.
"No no. I insist! You have a voice like which I have heard exactly once in the life!"
For a moment Banks' gray, cropped head - the head of a marine general - jutted forward, but then he caught himself and you could almost hear the sigh that went up from us staffers. It is a gesture we see in our sleep.
Anyone who has ever worked for Woodrow Banks Jr. knows what I mean. More than one of his assistants at the Eisenhower Pavilion for Culture turned rummy. I, on the other hand, gained thirty pounds in five years. And as for Bob Dunn, well, all I can say is that when he turned up with a Guards moustache after his vacation one year, Banks stuck that head out at him and said, "You've got something on your face," and by lunch hour it was shaved off. Of course, a week later it was back, because Bob's psychiatrist ordered him to, but that is another story.
Anyway, Lopardo-Fabrizio stayed over an extra day before taking his ridiculous name back to Italy. And the very same week odd things started to be reported about Secretary Banks.
The first thing was that he called Casazzi "Enrico" over the phone.
"Enrico," he shouted, "you gonna get that contract back to me pretty soon? You got a problem with it? Let's talk!"
Can you understand what that means? Do you realize that Banks hadn't spoken civilly to a tenor since his wife ran away with that idiot Donoghue (and now washes glasses in his pub in County Sligo)? Tenors! This is a man who once phoned the Kennedy Center across town over some snafu involving a gimmick joint appearance by Winograd, Jackson and Boldt - talk about great voices! - and it is a fact that Banks got on the horn to the director there and bellowed, "Hey Martin, I got six hunnert and forty pounds of tenor here. Where ya want 'em?" All three were right there sitting in his office at the time.
And Italians! He can't stand Italians. Don't ever get him started on Italians.
So here he was calling Casazzi "Enrico" long distance to Siena and asking him if he had a problem? Paula the secretary said he actually asked after the man's wife.
That was just the first thing. He took to arriving late and leaving early. He was never around on weekends. I don't suppose I can ever impress upon you the effect this had on the Pavilion. Because Woodrow Banks Jr. didn't just run the Pavilion for twelve years; he forged it, heating it white-hot and banging on it with a hammer.
The place was nothing but a vast embarrassment just behind Capitol Hill built by Mellons, Rockefellers, Warburgs and U. S. taxpayers, containing three immense auditoriums with a total daily nut in five figures, no where near enough parking space, three separate boards of directors shot through like blue cheese with people's nephews and various dabblers, Laocoons who struggled hopelessly in the toils of numerous eccentric endowments.
How Banks got here, no one quite knows. He was some kind of land developer in Colorado, cutting the tops off the mountains and dumping them into the valleys, but suddenly here he was in Washington, and before you knew it, the three boards of directors were one, the nephews were gone, the financing was smoothed out and, the real miracle, all three houses were filled night after night. One he split in two: a vintage film palace and an experimental theater for inner city groups.For the others, it was an unending rondo of ballet, opera, concerts and solo turns from all over the world.
He was a dervish. Night and day he had two phone operators ready to put through calls to Irkutsk or Lima or some place Paula had to look up in the atlas. Behind his office he had built an entire suite: bedroom, kitchen, living room. His secretaries came and went in relays. He was always around, on hand, striding up behind you, breathing at you, jutting his head.
It wasn't just us in the building, either. One year at the anniversary dinner he got into a fight with Harold Eaton fo the Times and put a blancmange on Eaton's head. Eaton is a big man, but Banks simply stood on tiptoe and overturned the bowl on that famous shiny skull. It was worse the next year, when he was furious at the guy from the Voice, that little skinny guy. even Banks apparently was ashamed to beat up on him, plus he had a heart condition, so they are standing up shouting at each other - in the middle of dinner, this is - and all of a sudden Banks brushes past him and sits down at the guy's own place. And eats his dessert! Grinning at him the whole time like a mad fiend! The guy was so upset he banged his fists together and broke a knuckle. It was strawberry Bavarian cream that year.
O you, Woodrow Banks Jr. Four times I tried to ask for the raise I should have had two years ago. Three times I got a load of those bright little eyes under the Neanderthal brows and walked out of the officce, inventing business like an actor gone dry. The fourth time he had his back turned, so I yelled it out quick: "Mr. Banks! When I came here to work I was promised an adjustment! In salary! And I was wondering if! You could give me some idea! When that might be happening!"
Whenever I talked to him it came out subjunctive.
He stared at me for two minutes as I stood there dancing and jerking, St. Sebastian in person: It was all I could do to keep my eyes from rolling up.
"Well sure, Francis," he said, very slowly and softly. "Of course. I'll take care of it."
He did, too. I ws completly demoralized.
It was poor Bob Dunn who got it the worst, though. Everyone called him poor Bob. As I say, he had this mustache, wore his hair longish and carefully shaped, thick, soft hair that appeared to drain off his vitality. I think he thought the moustache hid his small chin and mouth, but to me it made him look like a cavy. He had come with the building, and frankly, Banks needed him in the first year, for Bob had a tremendous sense of who was coming and who was going in the music world. Banks made him Executive Manager, second only to Banks himself, whose own title remained simply - a model of contained menace - Secretary.
Poor Bob's hours were even longer than Banks'. They weren't his own, either; he was forever on call, to pick up Banks' laundry or buy him a pair of dress socks or dash out to an all-night deli for sandwiches during one of those 4 a.m. brainstorming sessions in the suite. And then he was always driving artists to National at rush hour or settling fights for them with their hotels or mother-henning a press interview with some illiterate Czech genius. It would be bad enough even without Banks, but Banks made it a hundred times worse. He seemed literally and specifically determined to give Bob an ulcer. He took to sneering, when sending Bob off to the Safeway with a grocery list, "And get some half and half for yourself!"
"Okay, Mr. Banks." Bob's themesong.
I was in the office with them the time Artur Rubinstein lost his plane ticket to Paris, and he was quite nervous about it, so Banks said never fret, he'd send Bob down personally to Pan Am and bring back a first-class ticket within the hour, and Banks would hand it to him at intermission. It was just before the concert, you see.
Well, if there was ever a musician Bob Dunn adored it was Rubinstein. So he piped up unthinkingly, "But I'll miss the first half." It just came out.
Banks gave hime the old death ray.
"For you," he announced, one syllable at a time, "it doesn't matter, Ever."
Bob stood there, melting into the carpet. Rubinstein watched the two for them, his wonderful old lion's head turning ever so lightly to contemplate Bob with pity and disgust, then turning away.
So now, given all that, what were we to think when Banks was seen to place a fatherly hand on Bob Dunn's shoulder blade during a planning session?
What were we to think when Bob blew it with the Stuttgart Ballet - Banks had ordered him to insist on a written guarantee tha they would do "Onegin," and he had only been able to get an informal agreement - and when he confessed it, nearly in tears, to Banks, the Secretary hitched up his pants, sucked on his left canine tooth and muttered, "Don't worry about it. Just so they do that one with the violins."
(That last statement is Banks-esse for Tchaikovsky. Banks loves Tchaikovsky. He also knows his name perfectly well.)
Anyway, Bob went around smiling for two hours.
Someone thought Banks must be in love, but this idea was hooted down. Someone else brought up the possibility of Lopardo-Fabrizio and those letters that flowed to and from Naples all fall, but this seemed too embarrassing even to contemplate.
Then at Christmas, Banks announced he was taking a four-month leave to visit in Naples. At Lopardo's villa.
Well! Talk about excited! You couldn't step onto a Pavilion elevator without some be-homburged visitor trying to draw you out with pleasant leer. The prospect of four months without Banks had us all delirious. People came to work whistling.
Only Bob Dunn still wore his habitual desperate expression. He had to run everything, you see, and though you may be sure he had been left instructions, there were still those times when he needed absolutely to call Naples. And the villa had only one phone, and nobody ever spoke on it but Lopardo's secretary. Lopardo had this huge villa above the harbor, with a walled garden and cells where his students lived, those very special eight or ten young throats which he tended like gardenias.
"Bob and the Secretary - they do a dance together," Paula said once. "It's their number. They always do the same number."
And now, with Banks half a world away, Bob was still doing it.
Then one spring day I strolled into the big office to hand Bob some program proofs and saw a strange man at the desk. A hulking man, with red cheeks and a great sphinxlike mane of gray hair.
"Hey Francis!" he called, as though I were far down the hall.
It was Banks.
"Hey," I murmured.
He looked like Beethoven wearing a Liszt wig.
Back in our partitioned warrens, we examined our consciences and waited for the big housecleaning. Nothing of the sort. Bob Dunn retired to his Executive Managership and continued to look desperate. He also continued to handle most of the work, we noted, while Banks went back to his routine of long lunches and weekends. He had brought back twenty pounds of pasta around his middle, and oddly enough he looked younger, whether from the long hair or the filled-out face we weren't sure; we decided he had dropped out a bit, as a lot of executives do in their fifties.
So. April Fool's Day. Lindstedt wires from Stockholm. Two thousand is out of the question, he wants four-five. To sing the Jesus in the St. Matthew Passion.
"He what?" roars Banks. "This'll get him six other shots!"
"Well, he was supposed to have some other dates in Boston and Chicago, but they canceled," Bob says. "Maybe we can get him down to three-five."
"Unnnnhhh!" The name swirls, the shoulders hunch, the head juts.
"Or we can get. Not many baritones right now. That Ronald Johnson." But the name dies even as Bob utters it, and he stands frozen. The figure behind the desk seems to grow.
"Four-five!" he klaxons. "Four! Five!
Bob studies the cablegram as though he thinks he may find something new on it.
Banks jumps up.
"He's out of his mind! I'm not gonna pay that kinda money!"
He sits down. He ponders. He grins. He scowls. Then he points his 45 caliber index finger straight at Bob's forehead and bellows:
"I'll sing it myself! The hell with Lindsted! I'll sing it myself!"
Well, you known, we really should have figured it out: the scene at the reception and the time out for lessons, the concentrated work with Lopardo, who we now learned had flown specially to Washington before Christmas to audition the Secretary and declare him ready for Naples.
The shock spread in concentric circles, from Bob Dunn to the staff to the Pavilion board to the music world to the press. The farther you got, the louder the laughter. Except for the Times, of course, which glared down from the heights of journalism and rumbled something about the frivolous use of power. Hardly anyone tried to talk him out of it; the prospect was just too delicious.
He took indefinite leave, rehearsed at home, brought Lopardo over to hold his hand. Time was short, you see. The press went coconuts trying to lay an ear against his wall. When he got to the stage of working with the Evangelist and later the chorus and orchestra, he insisted on total privacy, and his clout was such that nobody let out a word. Someone did eventually get hold of Lopardo, and the comment was duly printed, to be picked up and examined by all the world as though it were a Moon Rock.
"Signor Banks? He has discovered he can sing. He is fifty-five years old."
What did it mean? The words were parsed as avidly as a tongue-tied millionaire's dying bequest. You never heard such a fuss. And Lopardo would say no more.
Good Friday. The Mamie Doud Eisenhower Concert Hall is I mean jumping. Half the audience is in evening clothes. The other half gets there an hour early to study the translation of the text. We always use the German version at the Pavilion because the director of the Oratorio Society is a one-eyed Brit named Poncefort-Harris who is trying to make up for World War II.
The house lights fade, the Grand Curtain swishes back revealing the chorus, 947 strong (why do they always and forever have such very odd numbers?), and at last, to a vast gush of applause, the soloists march smartly front and center. You can hear the buzz even above the applause. There he is, all right. He's really doing it. On the left, next to the blond tenor who sings the Evangelist. Poncefort-Harrissteps out, assumes the podium, nods his curt little nod while he counts the house with his ghastly white eye. Of course there is not a seat empty. Not one. Not even the final super-emergency pair in Row K known as the Queen of England seats.
The arm goes up, singers and audience alike take a deep breath, and we're off. The great opening chorus is so sublime you wish Bach hadn't wasted it now but had saved if for near the end of the four hours, when we are all going to be shifting hips.
Serene, massive, Banks sits perfectly still, eyes vaguely on the first balcony, book on his knees, hands draped casually over it. He seems calmer than anyone.
The alto rises slinkily and launches her aria, and the people stir. More chorus. We're hardly hearing any of it. Then the little silence and the string quartet starts up: Jesus' recitatif.
Banks is standing. He opens his mouth. We open our mouths. He inhales. We inhale.
And he sings.
It's only six measures. But he is magnificent. The clarity, the obsolutely flawless pitch, the wonderful resonance. The command. The dynamics: You sense an artistic intelligence at work. What a shock - Woodrow Banks Jr. has an artistic intelligence. Some poor fool applauds at the end. One clap, followed by scandalized silence.
The St. Matthew goes on. Every half-hour the giant rustling of 2000 program pages being turned. More solos by Banks. We grow accustomed to the idea, listen more carefully. It really is an incredible voice. By now we have picked faults in all the others, even the sporano is a bit bravura for me. Eaton is going to be forced to say it: "Woodrow Banks towered above the other singers in what can only be described as an utter triumph . . ."
After nearly two hours the music sweeps grandly to a mighty climax, and there is silence, and it is the intermission, and with a tremendous roar the whole audience leaps from its seats - quite frightening, really - and cheers and whistles and stamps its feet and jumps up and down, and Poncefort-Harris smiles nicely and languidly indicates this one and that one and has the orchestra stand up, and then finally, finally, points his hand, palm-up, at Banks. The yell doubles. Doubles. Banks bows, smiles, bows, smiles, waves, bows, smiles, is entirely overcome. Now the orchestra beats on its instruments. And now - and now - the other singers begin to applaud! I mean! At this the audience goes insane. The tops of their heads coming off. It is not a shout; it is a shriek. It is not a concert hall; it is Yankee Stadium. Never in my life, I tell you, never in my life.
Well. That was Good Friday. By Monday the city was still simmering. The following Sunday one of the heavier critics only half-jokingly accused Banks of selling his soul to the devil. Before the first seersuckers appeared, Banks had signed himself into a whole season of recitals.
We didn't see him anymore. We read about him. He was being hailed in Lenginrad, cheered in Paris, stampeded in London. The first record came out. His name started to be linked with a contralto's. His pictures, in every music magazine and record store, began to smile. The face became fatter and grayer until I wondered whether I had in truth been afraid of him. Compared to Bob Dunn, he seemed in retrospect just a teddybear.
Pardon me, I mean Robert Oakes Dunn. He cut off the mustache and clipped the soft hair to a stubble. The chin was now seen to express a certain sour cruetly. He gained confidence at first modestly and then with voracious enthusiasm, and before the next season was out he was feared throughout the business for his sharp contracts, his deadly accurate knowledge, and a memory as long as a circus whiP. Some say the head-choppings in Stuttgart were due to the fact that they had after all failed to perform "Onegin" that time before, despite Dunn's pleadings, and that it was Dunn who in revenge arranged the executions by remote control.
Then there was Paula. She always had some comps on hand to give to jounalists or various people she dealt with outside. Well, Nureyev was in town, very much a hot ticket, and Paula had a rommate whose family was down from Maine, and they couldn't wangle tickets to Nureyev in a thousand years, but they were balletomanes, the mother was Russian I think, so Paula gave them all six of her comps. To make it worse, the father obsolutely insisted on paying for them, through the food money or some such. Anyway, Dunn found out when he came to Paula for them - he was always pre-empting the staff's tickets for the good shows - and he fired her. Just like that.
His name changed again: to Robert Oakes-Dunn. Then he took to writing it with a curlicue on the end that threatened to turn it into Dunne. He got thinner and began narrowing his eyes at people, and when you mentioned Banks to him, he would always snicker a little.
And Woodrow Banks Jr.? Ah yes, what goes up must come down, and after that late start, the voice was failing already. He got a few bad notices. It was hinted that the devil had only rented his soul. He moved from the Paris suite into a pleasant enough cottage in the Pyrenees. The contralto bailed out.
Then a serious voice lapse and some cancellations, though he was still very much a star. A farewell tour of Europe. A farewell tour to Latin America. Another one in Europe. And now the big finale, the farewell to Amercia, the Grand Retour. He cabled that he would come to the Pavilion in person to set it up. Dunn cabled back: Impossible. Banks sent a Newsweek cover of himself as culthero and sex symbol. Dunn fired off some Pavilion budget figures.Banks retaliated with a popeyed article on his record grosses.
Of course all this was nonsense. Of course the Pavilion wanted Banks. Needed him. They both knew that. He could fill the whole place ten nights in a row and still have people lined up on the sidewalk. To the harried supergrade executive and a lot of others, Woodrow Banks Jr. was a true folk hero. But all Bob Dunn could see was a chance at last to flick that long whip. You wouldn't believe that guy.
Unfortunately, just before Banks sailed (he never flew now, he of the gold Million-Miler air travel card), he bombed in Amsterdam. It was awful. Variety said he sounded like a sled being dragged over the pavement. So when he turned up in Dunn's office in his Fellini hat and cape, he was on time for once.
Handshakes; no smiles. They haven't seen each other in over a year, but the conversation takes right offfrom the cables.
"You read Variety," Banks begins, protecting his flanks.
"I was going to ask you about that. Sit down, sit down."
"Eh . . ." An Italianate shrug.
Dunn's eyes narrow. "Your grosses were off forty per cent on that second tour."
"Bob, these were different cities. You can't compare 'em. I filled the house every night."
"Now, I see you got -" Dunn examines the proposal which he has had on his desk for days "- five cities starting with here."
"Right. For the spring-board effect. And you get fifteen off the top from the other -"
"In Mamie Hall."
Banks nods once.
"You got this down Mamie Hall. The big hall."
"Right." He's still not sitting down.
"Well Banks," Dunn relaxes grandly in his high-back stuffed swivel chair, arms resting on the black leather. "The best I can do -" He pauses. is that a smile? He folds his arms. "I'm afraid the best I can do is Martin Luther King Theater. That's the little theater."
"I know, Bob. I built it."
"Well that's it. That's the best I - " A scowl. He's not softened up at all.
Dunn glares back and swivels. "The best I can do."
Banks hesitates. "I'll need refrigerator."
"Stocked with prosciutto and melon. I need two dozen Seville oranges. They have to be Seville. You got that?" He turns to me in my corner. "You taking notes, Francis?"
Dunn waves his hands as if to erase all this. Banks levels his finger at him.
"And a sun lamp. I must have a sun lamp at all times in my dressing room. Oh, and Bob."
"I don't - "
"Before I go on I get a massage, and I would consider it a great favor if you could arrange to have a competent masseur on hand, especially on the first night."
"Wait a minute! Wait a minute! Now Banks, you know perfectly well we haven't got anything like that kind of dressing room in the King Theater."
Now a roar. The artistic intelligence at work. "Who said anything about the King Theater? I'm singing in the big hall, and you know it!"
"You can't! Impossilbe!" Dunn shouts.
"What? Who says? What is this? Who's telling me?"
"I just told you!"
"Yeah? Who says?"
Pause. They glare at each other.
"The - the board says. I have strict orders - "
Banks begins to smile. It is a charming smile.
The silence ferments, matures, ages. Dunn seems to be holding his breath as if he hoped to coax those last words back into his mouth.
Then Banks speaks, pianissimo.
"I came in here, Bob, with the idea of doing you folks a nice turn! Youn don't want it. You couldn't care less. Well I'm telling you. I couldn't care less either."
"You - "
"I have an offer elsewhere."
Dunn gapes. He hasn't yet realized that there is no elsewhere. There can't be.
Pause, four measures. The head juts.
"So, Bob, what you can tell your board - " The voice rising now, the trained throat opening: full forte. " - your board with their strict orders and dressing in the men's room - "A quick controlled breath, the chest out, the larynx swelling, the cheeks scarlet and the eyes bulging: fortissimo. "You can tell those old BIDDIES that I QUIT! WALK OUT! Reject them UTTERLY AND FINALLY! And. The same. To YOU!"
He spins around, cape making a perfect veronica.
Dunn yaws, steadies himself.
"But Mr. Banks - "
The heavy door slams. Banks is gone, leaving a horrid empty space at which Dunn stares.
Stunned, he turns slowly and catches me gawking at him. He snickers, but it is not enough. His own three words hang in the air. The theme song.
He snatches up the phone, which hasn't rung, and with a sudden conniption of fury crashes it back on its holder.
"Singers!" he screams. "SINGERS!"
Six weeks later the papers are raving about this fabulous new movie musical version of the hippie apocalypsoe at Woodstock. And guess who si going to sing the big part of Max Yasgur, the Pied Piper, the friendly farmer who owned the site of Woodstock Nation? With a guarantee of 500 thou? Plus he gets to be a big honorary executive and help run things?
The clippings are barely up on the office bulletin board when Dunn quits his job and flies out to Los Angeles. And then we get this formal announcement from Paramount.
It says that "Robert Oakes-Dunne, former Executive Manager of Washington's prestigious Eisenhower Pavilion for Culture," has joined the staff of the world's greatest unmade movie, "Days of Love and Music," as special assistant to the Associate Producer.
The Associate Producer being, of course Woodrow Banks Jr.