I’m having too many drinks with Lucius Beebe at El Morocco. He introduces me to a classmate of his who once helped him try to take the shoes off John Harvard. I ask Lucius, if he means the statue in Harvard Yard. Beebe’s pal interjects, “Three lies—the statue of three lies. What do you know anyway, Lucius? You decamped to New Haven.” Beebe rises to his full height, which is considerable. “I am the only man in the annals of American academia ever to have been expelled from both Yale and Harvard.”
Lucius stalks off, but then stops, sways, and just as he begins to fall backward, a captain rushes a chair behind him and Beebe sits down with a thump. “That’s why EL Mo’ keeps my custom rather than the Stork!” intones Beebe. “Billingsley would have let me land on my gluteal extremities!” I’m so involved in that spectacle and “in wine” as Beebe always puts it, that I just agree with whatever Beebe’s friend asks me.
Next thing I know I’m a diplomatic courier on a plane to Berlin. I don’t fully sober up till I’m on the express train to Leningrad.
Lobby of the Hotel Astoria, which looks like a perfect setting for a rendezvous with Rasputin. The Mad Monk supposedly had a suite at the ready before the Revolution. Chip Bohlen greets me and immediately asks, “You know Randolph Churchill?” I answer, “Yes, I’m a member of the most exclusive club in the world, The Friends of Randolph.”
Chip simmers, “Cut the comedy.” He’s here with somebody from the British Foreign Office, Isaiah Berlin.” I tell Chip, I met Berlin once in Washington. “Fine. All you have to do is keep Churchill away from Berlin tonight. We don’t care how you do it, just keep him away from Berlin.”
It’s not going to be easy. Randolph does what he wants when he wants. I’m able to distract him with a quest for the strongest vodka and the blackest caviar.
Towards dawn we’re marching along the Neva, in “4th Hussars order,” as Randolph belts out, “Drink Puppy Drink.” I’m about to sound the chorus of “A Hunting We Will Go,” when a man approaches us.
He pleads, “Englishmen, be quiet. Respect the…” Worst possible approach to take with Randolph. He makes a fist. I intervene, “Where are we?” The Russian answers, “Liteiny Prospect, Fontanka, Sheremetev Palace. Respect Akhmatova.” Randolph’s face lights up, “Anna Akhmaninoff? That’s the bit of Russian crumpet Berlin was after tonight! She lives here?” We look up. There’s one lighted window.
It opens and a woman sticks her head out declaiming in thickly accented English:
Nott mootch he kenz, I veen, of vooomanz br-r-reast,
Who zinks dat vanton ting is vun by s-eyes-z;
Vhat car-r-reth she for heartz ven vunce possezs’d?
Then a man is next to her, blubbering, “Byron, Byron!” He sobs on her chest. She is about to kiss the top of his head when Randolph bursts out, “I say! Isaiah! Isaiah, I say! I say, Isaiah! Isaiah, I say! I say, Isaiah! Isaiah, I say! .. I say! I say!…ahhh” He breaks down chortling, “Isn’t it onomatopoeia?” Then he coughs up a lung.
The man calls down, “Randolph! Be quiet! Get out of here!” Damn. It is Isaiah Berlin. I hope I haven’t blown it. I notice a couple of men across the street who notice us. Somehow I hustle Randolph away.
Clare Boothe Luce invites me for dinner. She’s renting a house for a month. Sam Behrman’s invited too, so we share a cab. We arrive a bit early and are shown to a sitting room where a man is playing chess by himself. Isaiah Berlin is sipping sherry, and a man in a corner is reading out loud while another man takes notes. I notice the distinctive cover. “Why is that man reading Debrett’s Peerage out loud?” Isaiah informs me, “Have it all wrong, old man, that’s Chips Channon dictating the guest list for his next birthday party.”
Sam brings us over to the chess player and demands, “Maurice Bowra, playing hooky?” He looks up, “Sam, who’s that with you? Is it Isaiah Berlin? Coming man. Hasn’t come yet though!” He laughs at his own joke. Sam groans and whispers to me, “He uses that line every time he meets someone new.” A bit later it’s clear Bowra and Berlin get off on the wrong foot. I hear Isaiah insisting to the snickering Maurice, “I spent the evening with her, I did not spend the night with her!” Maurice responds by whistling “Ochi chernye” through very pursed lips.
Later at dinner I’m seated next to Clare. I mention a friend’s husband who died suddenly, and she waits a beat so that the table can hear, “Widowhood is a fringe-benefit of marriage.” Then a servant approaches and mutters in her ear. Her face drains of color, and she leaves the table.
Maurice Bowra empties his glass and announces, “Evelyn’s right you know, to a London hostess the most distressing words in the English language are ‘Randolph Churchill has just arrived.’” Every knife and fork is stilled. We all know how Randolph and Clare’s affair ended.
We hear Randolph bellow: “Clare Boothe Luce, you certainly married the right man. Never has a surname so matched a woman’s morals.” Then he appears in the dining room. He strides to the sideboard and picks up an open bottle of wine and reads the label, “A ’38? Clare doesn’t think much of you lot, does she?” He grabs a water goblet from the table, spilling water on Anton Walbrook. Walbrook mutters, “Betrunkener Idiot”
Randolph fills the goblet with wine, downs it, and fills it again. While doing so, he growls, “I heard what you said, you damned hun!”
Walbrook instantly rises, strikes Randolph on the neck and renders him unconscious. Walbrook smiles at a servant, “Please tell Mrs. Luce that it is safe to continue with dinner.” We applaud and toast him just as Clare takes her place at the head of the table. Clare squeezes my knee under the table and winks at me.