In November of 1944 I was a plebe—a freshman—at the Naval Academy. We sat at attention at mealtimes, spoke only when spoken to by an upper classman, and obeyed orders. All orders.
At lunch one day a youngster, a third classman, addressed me. I’ve forgotten his name; it wasn’t Midshipman 3c. Jimmy Carter (who nailed me one day for not having my shoes properly shined), although it might have been Midshipman 3c. Stansfield Turner, who was in my company.
“Whom have you asked to the Army-Navy game?”
“No one, sir.”
“Ask Mae West.”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
Miss West, I found, was appearing in a Broadway play, Catherine Was Great (which she had written herself). I dutifully wrote her a polite note inviting her to the game.
To my surprise (and that of the youngster who put me up to it), an answer came within the week, with an inscribed photo. There was a Saturday matinee the day of the game, and she couldn’t make it, but if I would be in New York for Christmas leave, there’d be tickets at the box office in my name, and I should please come backstage and say hello afterward.
Annapolis plÀbes did get Christmas leave (although West Point plÀbes didn’t), and on a Friday afternoon I presented myself at the box office and was given two house seats. They were for the evening performance, which I attended with a casual date, a gorgeous, if somewhat slow, young lady named Raquel.
It was just as well Raquel wasn’t swift on the uptake, as the curtain had barely gone up before I realized the play was, by 1944 standards, about as blue as Broadway would then sit still for, and not at all suitable fare for a seventeen-year-old, obviously sheltered maiden. The cast consisted of Miss West and forty-seven males, almost all of whom shared the same dramatic fate by the middle of the third act. The opening lines were an exchange between two courtiers in the deserted throne room:
“Where is Her Majesty?”
“She’s out inspecting the Novgorod Regiment—man by man.”
I began to prepare for a certain amount of flak from Raquel’s parents when I got her home.
After the performance, we duly presented ourselves at the stage door. I sent my card in, and we were shortly ushered into Miss West’s dressing room, a hot, cluttered chamber looking about what I thought dressing rooms looked like, except for the couch on which Raquel and I were invited to seat ourselves. I put my overcoat, my white scarf, my midshipman’s cap, and my gloves on my knees.
Miss West was wearing a negligee (her costume during most of the play) and a wraparound, and the adjective that came to mind was grimy . She still had her make-up on and it was running, and the collar of the wraparound was stained with layers of ancient make-up.
She couldn’t have been nicer. She poured three modest shots out of an open bottle of Scotch into mismatched tumblers and shoved two toward me. I handed one to Raquel and suddenly realized she was in a state of mild shock. There was a lot of Miss West, and it was pretty overpowering, and it also was probably the first time in her life that Raquel had been offered a drink.
We made polite chitchat for a few minutes. Raquel announced she had enjoyed the play, and Miss West looked at her blankly, and what with one thing and another, it was ever the least bit awkward.
I finally arose; we all did. I thanked Miss West again, and we started for the door, with Raquel in the lead. She stepped down into the narrow passage, and just as I did, a gaggle of departing actors came along; I paused in the doorway and drew back, with Miss West just behind me.
As I was about to step out, a bare arm reached over my right shoulder, a hand cupped my chin and pulled my head firmly back against lips which whispered throatily into my burning left ear, “You should have come alone, sonny.”
Galvanized, I shot forward without a word and rejoined Raquel.
After a late dinner at Sardi’s we were halfway home by taxi when it suddenly occurred to me that my first reaction—that it wasn’t really the sort of play I should have brought a girl like Raquel to—may very well not have been the correct interpretation.
I’ve been wondering about that these forty-eight years.