MEMOIR: What was I doing in Lucille Ball's hotel room?
Maybe I'm just an old grouch, but I think that one of the most distressing characteristics of contemporary American life is the public's obsessive interest in the personal lives of show-business personalities. This infatuation with celebrities has radiated out from the tabloids and the low-brow magazines displayed at supermarket checkout counters and has penetrated the mainstream media. As I see it, the celebrity obsession and the adoration of show-business stars is another demonstration of the dumbing-down of American culture.
Having gotten this off my chest, I can now confess how excited I was, as a 17-year old just out of high school, to be in the presence of movie star Lucille Ball during the spring of 1942. To be more precise, I was in her Manhattan hotel room, amiably chatting with her about her latest movie, "Seven Days Leave," which also starred Victor Mature.
I must stress, however, that I was not there as an adoring fan. I was just doing my job as an office boy in the publicity department of RKO-Radio Pictures, which had just released the film. I was in her hotel room to deliver a bottle of whisky. She was in New York to publicize the new movie.
Lucille Ball was then 31 and a glamorous red-headed beauty. She had been in the movies for nearly a decade, featured essentially as a conventional Hollywood sexpot. She did not gain fame as a comedienne until much later after the introduction of television.
I had been employed by RKO only a couple of months earlier. Before that job, I had worked since my high school graduation in January as a salesman for Goldsmith Brothers, then the nation's largest office supplies business. I had started with that company during the previous summer as a delivery boy.
When the summer ended, I returned to high school. My school was so big that two separate sessions were required to accommodate the 12,000-boy student body. As a senior, I was placed in the morning session. This enabled me to continue working for Goldsmith's as a shipping clerk. My work schedule was from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily and all day Saturday. When I graduated from high school I was promoted to a job as salesman. My speciality was loose-leaf binders.
Meantime, I had enrolled as a night-school student at New York University, majoring in journalism. It soon became apparent that peddling loose-leaf binders and other office supplies was doing nothing to advance my goal to become a journalist. I wanted to work in an environment in which there were professional writers around.
So I abandoned the commercial stationery business and got the job as office boy in RKO's publicity department. The encounter with Lucille Ball in her hotel room was the highlight of my very brief career with the movie company. But I eventually decided that my personal exposure to writers who were merely press agents did not contribute to the creation of journalistic credentials any more than peddling office supplies.
I figured that I needed to associate with more serious writers than mere flacks. I learned that there were jobs available in the Overseas Branch of the Office of War Information which had recently been established in Manhattan. With my most recent work experience as an office boy, I was well qualified for the more impressive title of "under-clerk," which turned out to be civil service jargon for office boy. The annual salary was $1,260, the lowest Federal Government pay scale.
That was considerably more than I had ever earned before. But the big attraction was that, even as a lowly office boy, I was now working in the intimate company of genuine professional writers, many of them very prestigious people. The most famous was Robert Sherwood, the eminent Broadway playwright and former speech-writer for President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Sherwood was chief of the OWI's Overseas Branch, and I became his personal office boy. I sharpened his pencils, pulled the news dispatches off the Associated Press ticker for him, got his morning coffee, and performed assorted office chores.
The office operated the U.S. wartime propaganda program, beaming radio broadcasts to German and Japanese occupied territories abroad. It was an exciting place to work. I never met any glamorous movie stars like Lucille Ball there, but I was satisfied that the atmosphere was contributing to my future career as a journalist.
I had to resign in March 1943 to prepare for my induction into the Army the next month. Sherwood, who was rarely seen without a pipe in his mouth, gave me a pipe as a going-away gift. This was not exactly essential equipment for a new Army recruit, and I had never smoked before. Nevertheless, I figured that a pipe would enhance my professional image when and if I ever became a full-fledged journalist.