Maybe a Queen

Damon Runyon

December 12 1931

If you go to Sixth Avenue and Forty-second Street and take a peek at Bryant Park behind the Public Library, you are bound to say to yourself, well this is a terrible-looking spot for a romance, because nowadays Bryant Park looks somewhat seedy and out at the elbows, and generally it is filled with guys who are also somewhat seedy and out at the elbows sitting around on benches. In fact, some of these guys are nothing but bums.

However, a matter of maybe twenty years ago Bryant Park is a much more pleasant-looking spot, with green grass growing all around and about, and it is there that a romance starts that finally becomes the oldest romance anybody ever hears of in this town, and very historic. In fact, it finally becomes such an old romance that everybody considers it practically incredible. It is the romance between a doll by the name of Ida Peters, and a guy by the name of Jack O’Donahue.

Now of course everybody that reads the newspapers the past twenty years hears of Ida Peters, because at one time she is getting more publicity than the Prince of Wales, what with being married to some rich guy about every Monday and divorcing him early Tuesday, and wearing more diamonds than Boston has beans. But very few hear anything whatever of Jack O’Donahue, because he is nobody much in the beginning, and he is still nobody much at the finish.

He is a tall, skinny, good-looking young guy of maybe twenty-five twenty years back, and at this time he is clerking in a haberdashery store on Fifth Avenue and is rooming in a joint on Sixth Avenue not far from Bryant Park and it seems that of an evening he is fond of sitting on a bench in the park and smoking cigarettes and thinking of very little, and the reason Jack O’Donahue thinks of very little is because he is such a guy as cannot think of very much.

Anyway, it is while he is sitting in the park one evening that he meets up with Ida Peters, who is then in the chorus at the old Hippodrome, and who happens to go over to Bryant Park this particular evening after a rehearsal to take a load off her feet, which become very tired, indeed, from standing around at the rehearsal. And it seems she sits down on the same bench with Jack O’Donahue, and one word leads to another, and the first thing you know they are well acquainted.

But Ida Peters does not hang out in such places as Bryant Park as a rule. Generally during her spare time she is hanging out in the Beaux Arts Restaurant across from Bryant Park, or in Bustanoby’s over in Thirty-ninth, and in Murray’s, and other spots where they have what they call tea dansants in the afternoon, although a tea dansant is nothing but dancing and personally I never hear of much tea being connected with such propositions.

But these spots I name are swell spots a matter of twenty years back, and some very swell guys and dolls patronize them, and it is by no means usual for a chorus doll from the Hippodrome to be hanging out in these spots. In fact the chorus dolls from the Hip are more apt to be hanging out in Jack’s, where no one ever hears of such a thing as a tea dansant, especially the tea part, or in the back rooms of the beer joints along Sixth Avenue, for I am now speaking of the days when beer is to be had without fear of mortification setting in immediately after drinking same.

But you will never catch Ida Peters in a beer joint, for from the minute she hits New York from her home town, which is a town in Pennsylvania by the name of Allentown, Ida Peters declares herself as out for nothing but the old do-re-mi, and her idea is to hang out in spots where the old do-re-mi is apt to be found. She especially declares herself one evening to Jack O’Donahue when they are sitting on a bench in Bryant Park, which is the first night he tells Ida Peters he loves her, and wishes her to be his ever-loving wife.

“Listen, Jack,” she says, “I am in this town long enough to tell die difference between a guy who is on the level with a doll and a guy who is just on the make, and I think you are on the level. I think you really love me, at that, Jack, and,” she says, “I am going to tell you something else. I like you. But Jack,” she says, “you are poor, and I size you up as a guy who will always be poor. It is no crime to be poor,” Ida Peters says, “but personally I am sick and tired of being poor.

“I am raised in poverty and despair back in my home town,” she says. “My mother is dead, and my old man is a drunken bum. My three brothers are drunken bums. I am twenty-two years old,” she says, “and I never have a new dress in my life until I come to New York two years ago and earn it myself. I never have a plaything when I am a kid. I never have enough to eat. I get little schooling. I do the family washing and ironing and cooking, and the best I get is a smacking around now and then from my old man. I never have a sweetheart. I never have anything whatever.

“Now,” Ida Peters says, “I wish nice clothes and diamonds, especially diamonds. I wish to live in fine hotels, and have servants and automobiles, and all this and that. I look in the mirror,” she says, “and I see I am no worse-looking than a lot of dolls who have these things, and there is no reason why I shall not have them, too. They call for money. Well,” she says, “who has the money? Guys have the money. All right,” she says, “I make up my mind long ago that I will get the money off these guys, for guys with money are mostly saps, anyway. But,” she says, “I will get this money legally and honestly. I will marry these guys with money.

“I wish to go to Europe,” Ida Peters says. “I wish to have a château in France and a villa in Italy. I even wish to be a countess, or a duchess. Yes,” Ida Peters says, “maybe a queen. I know I am talking crazy,” she says, “but other dolls get these things and why not me? Why not Ida Peters? I like you a lot, Jack,” she says, “because you are nice and sweet and clean, but you are not for me. Now,” she says, “if you wish to keep on seeing me you must never speak of marriage again to me.”

Well, of course, these are most astonishing sentiments to hear from such a young doll, and as she says more or less the same things to other parties, it finally gets around that Ida Peters is nothing but a sharpshooter, and is taking dead aim at rich guys. Of course many dolls around this town are doing the same thing, but they are not so outspoken about it and many citizens claim that Ida Peters is entitled to much credit for her frankness.

However, Ida Peters does not always remain so frank, especially about her family, because in later years I hear her say her family is of old Revolutionary stock, and that her great-great-grandpap freezes his toes when he is with Washington at Valley Forge, and once when someone speaks of Allentown to her and asks if she ever hears of the place she wishes to know if it is in this country.

Of course the idea of a doll who is nothing but a chorus doll at the Hip saying she is going to grab herself a rich guy is very laughable indeed to one and all, especially such a doll who is no better than Ida Peters, for Ida Peters is by no means a raving beauty. Many a time in later years I try to figure out why she has such a power over guys, but I never seem able to find the answer.

She is about medium height, not very tall, and by no means short, and she is thin and flat all the way up and down, with very thin legs. She has soft blond hair, and a lot of it, and her skin is white and smooth, and always looks as cool as polished marble. Her eyes are blue and cold and never seem to change expression. She very seldom smiles, and when she does she shows plenty of nice teeth. Furthermore, she has a nice nose, and small hands and feet, and in their time these hands and feet cost more dough than the German war debt.

I once hear a guy say Ida Peters looks mysterious, although personally I figure she looks a little dumb, but of course I am not much of a judge of dolls. In fact, if I am looking for a doll I will never choose Ida Peters. I will choose a doll who has more zing in her. As far as I am concerned Ida Peters has no appeal to me whatever, but then maybe I have no appeal to Ida Peters either, if anybody ever asks her.

But other dolls tell me that Ida Peters has what they call style. Other dolls tell me that she is always what they call a clothes horse, claiming that when she is hanging around the Beaux Arts and Bustanoby’s and other spots in a little tailored suit that may not cost her more than fifteen bucks, tops, she can wear it better than most dolls can wear something that may cost a couple of C’s.

Furthermore, other dolls tell me that Ida Peters’ strength with guys is playing the old hard-to-get, looking them over out of her cold blue eyes in such a way as to make them feel about two feet high, no matter how high they may really be, and also causing them to wish to have some truck with this faraway doll. Other dolls do not care for Ida Peters personally, and are always putting the blast on her behind her back, but they all admit that she has a certain something which makes guys a little dizzy in the head, and also makes them wish to send her orchids, and so forth.

But Ida Peters will have no part of any guy unless she thinks he has plenty of potatoes, and she drops him in a second if she finds out she is wrong. Furthermore, she has no sympathy or any consideration whatever for such a guy, even though he may spend plenty on her for a while, and even though he may be caring about her more than somewhat, and she always drops him in as cruel a way as she can think of, such as looking right past him the next time they meet as if she never seen him before.

Afterwards when I read about guys scragging themselves over Ida Peters I can see how this can be. And while many citizens claim that Ida Peters is nothing but a guy-hater in her heart, I can see how she is only sticking to a campaign she maps out in advance. Anyway she always gives me a nice hello, so I do not have any kick coming. In fact, I always claim other dolls have a right to be giving three cheers for Ida Peters at all times, because the way she chucks guys around gets a lot of dolls in this world even for the way they are chucked around by guys.

Nearly every evening at seven o’clock she meets Jack O’Donahue in Bryant Park and sits there on a bench talking to him for an hour before she goes to work at the Hip, and even after she leaves the Hip and gets a job with Ziegfeld and becomes a famous show doll, she keeps on meeting Jack O’Donahue, for cold and hard as she is, Ida Peters is now in love with Jack O’Donahue, and there is no doubt about it.

But from the first night he mentions it, she will never again let him talk of marrying her, although she does not mind him talking to her about how much he loves her, and in fact she encourages it, because such talk is always very pleasant to any doll’s ears. Then when it is time for her to go, she kisses Jack O’Donahue on the mouth, and this is all there is to it until the next time. She never lets Jack O’Donahue take her places, because she says she knows Jack O’Donahue cannot afford it, and she must not waste time going places with a guy who cannot afford to take her places, no matter if he does love her and she loves him.

Now of course Jack O’Donahue does not believe Ida Peters means what she says about marrying for the old do-re-mi, figuring that she is only talking to hear herself talk as dolls will do, and that someday she will haul off and become Mrs. Jack O’Donahue, because he is such a guy as believes in the power of love, and is probably the only guy in this town in the past fifty years who does believe in this. In fact, if you ask me, Jack O’Donahue never in his life has any real understanding of Ida Peters.

He is personally somewhat innocent about one thing and another, and I always figure he must be a little simple because if he is not a little bit simple he will tell Ida Peters to go and take a jump in the East River for herself, and find himself a doll who is not so daffy on the subject of dough, if there are any such dolls left in the world, and if he simply must have a doll. But Jack O’Donahue lets Ida Peters chuck him around to suit herself as she chucks every guy she meets around, when she wishes, and as far as anybody knows he never complains of the arrangement.

Now then it is seven o’clock of a Thursday evening on September 10, 1912, after Ida Peters is meeting Jack O’Donahue in Bryant Park nearly every evening for over a year, that she shows up there and speaks to him as follows:

“Jack, dear,” she says, “I have something to tell you, and I am not going to stall around with you in telling it. Jack,” she says, “I marry a guy by the name of Watkins this afternoon in the Little Church Around the Corner, and we are going away tonight on our honeymoon. He is a rich wholesale grocer from Minneapolis,” she says, “and we will live there.”

Well, as Jack O’Donahue sits looking somewhat confused as any guy must do when such news busts right in his pan, she begins crying and throws her arms around his neck and states as follows:

“But Jack, dear,” she says, “I will never love anybody but you, and every year on this same date and at this same time I will meet you here for our little hour together.”

Then she kisses him on the mouth, as usual, and goes away, leaving Jack O’Donahue sitting there quite dumfounded, and this is where the romance really starts making history.

Now no guy in his right mind will ever figure Ida Peters means what she says about this once-a-year business, and no guy in his right mind will accept such a proposition anyway, because this comes under the head of being chucked around by a doll more than somewhat, and everybody who hears of the matter has a good laugh and forgets all about it, although one and all admire Ida Peters for sticking to her ambition to grab a rich guy.

But as I tell you, Jack O’Donahue must be a little simple, for who is sitting on a bench in Bryant Park at seven p.m. on the evening of September 10, 1913, but Jack O’Donahue.

Well, maybe it is just an accident that she is in New York this day, and maybe it is only a doll’s curiosity that takes her around to Bryant Park at seven p.m., but this is also where Ida Peters bobs up, and naturally the meeting between her and Jack O’Donahue is very pleasant indeed, especially for Jack O’Donahue, as he winds up with a big kiss on the mouth.

Ida Peters is looking very prosperous, and wearing plenty of large diamonds, and it turns out that this Watkins guy out in Minneapolis is a very fair score indeed for any doll, as he is worth maybe a million bobs. But it also turns out that he is only a start for Ida Peters, for in a little over a year she gets a divorce from him, and when she shows up in Bryant Park on the next September 10th, right on time, she is now Mrs. Caleb Grimes, of Chicago, and her diamonds are twice as big as when she is Mrs. Watkins.

Well, in the course of the next ten years, Ida Peters marries three other guys and divorces them one after the other, and every time she marries a new guy he is a guy who has more potatoes than the last guy and generally more of a social position, except once when she marries a guy by the name of Marchbanks, who is an Englishman, and who turns out to be quite a bum. But of course any doll is apt to make a mistake now and then in her marriages when she is marrying as freely as Ida Peters, and anyway this marriage is by no means a total loss as she catches an English accent off of Marchbanks.

I will say one thing for Ida Peters, she never has a lick of scandal in connection with any of her divorces. They are always very clean, indeed, because generally she charges her husbands with nothing more serious than cruelty, and usually she even parts good friends with them, although some of them complain that she is very tough about the financial settlements.

And in all these years she never fails to arrive in Bryant Park at seven p.m. on September 10th to meet Jack O’Donahue and spend an hour with him. She is living in Europe when the war breaks out, and three times she makes trips across the ocean to keep her date, paying no attention whatever to submarines, although some claim that the submarines are more afraid of Ida Peters than she is of them.

For the first few years, Ida Peters’ annual date causes some gossip around and about, as it is considered quite unusual indeed, but as the years roll on, and times change quite some, and many citizens who knew about it in the beginning go lay down and die, it is forgotten, and even when Ida Peters arrives in this country from time to time loaded down with her diamonds, and all this and that, no one ever seems to remember about her date, and she never mentions it herself.

The newspaper scribes write more about Ida Peters in her time than any other doll in the world, because in between her marriages some guy is always falling in love with Ida Peters and knocking himself off when she refuses to give him a tumble, and she provides much good news for the scribes in other ways. So it is very strange that Jack O’Donahue’s name never gets into any of the stories about her, but by this time Jack O’Donahue becomes a sort of religion with Ida Peters and very sacred to her, indeed, and her date with him is one thing in her life that she does not wish brought up.

Now Jack O’Donahue is one of these guys who just do not seem to gather any potatoes or to get anywhere in particular as he goes along through life. He goes from one job to another, and generally they are nothing but clerking jobs and pay very little, and he is steady and behaves himself good, but he never manages to lay up anything. I see him once in a great while as the years go on, as he occasionally drops into Derle’s billiard academy where I hang out, and he will sit around and watch a game by the hour, never saying much of anything, and every time I see him he seems to be thinner than the last time.

He always has a sad and lonesome look and he never seems to have any friends, although naturally many guys know him by sight and say hello. He is still living in the joint on Sixth Avenue, and he still sits around on the benches in Bryant Park smoking cigarettes, and while he is always neat and clean-looking, I notice his clothes are getting pretty shabby the last time I see him. Afterwards I hear that Ida Peters often tries to make Jack O’Donahue take some of her potatoes, but he will not listen to such a thing, and in fact he says she is insulting him, so she stops trying.

By this time of course Ida Peters has plenty of potatoes, and her diamonds are famous all over the world, so it does not seem as if there can be anything more that Ida Peters can wish, but it seems there is one more thing, at that. It seems that Ida Peters wishes a title, even though titles are not worth a dime a dozen anywhere.

So after she gets rid of a husband by the name of Raoul something, who is a big newspaper publisher in Paris, Ida Peters hauls off and marries a guy by the name of Prince Podubny, who is a fat guy, and has a very large mustache, and is by no means young, but he has more potatoes than any guy Ida Peters ever marries up to this time, besides his title.

Furthermore, it seems that Prince Podubny is very much in love with Ida Peters and gives her bigger diamonds than any of her other husbands, and also pearls and emeralds and one thing and another, and when Ida Peters is dressed up to go anywhere she is a more pleasant sight than a trip through a Fifth Avenue jewelry store.

And it is a good thing for Ida Peters that she finds Prince Podubny, for what happens but she loses all her own potatoes that she accumulates after years of hard work and saving off her other husbands in the blow-up of the Waggenstaff Bank in New York, and in blow-ups of several other matters in which she has potatoes invested. But of course losing these potatoes makes no difference to Ida Peters now that she has Prince Podubny, who seems to be a prince in a country over in the Balkans with some kind of claim to being king if he gets the right break.

Now as showing you how smart Ida Peters is, she never fails to tell any of her husbands in advance about her annual date with Jack O’Donahue, so she will not run into any complications in case a husband happens to put a private dick on her, as husbands sometimes do, but most of her husbands are very broad-minded about the proposition, figuring it is nothing but a passing fancy, until the prince comes along.

Well, it seems the old prince is very jealous indeed of Ida Peters, and can scarcely bear to have her out of his sight, but he loves her so much that at first he does not complain about her annual date, and in fact he comes to the United States with her two years hand running so she can keep this date with Jack O’Donahue, and furthermore the old prince is gentleman enough not to try to find out who Jack O’Donahue is, or anything else about him. But then it seems the prince commences to brood on this mysterious guy in Ida Peters’ life, and to be very jealous of him.

It seems the old prince pictures Jack O’Donahue in his own mind as maybe a very dashing, romantic guy, although if he can only get a slant at Jack O’Donahue he will never worry about him any more, for by this time poor Jack O’Donahue is a very sorrowful spectacle, indeed. He is so thin you can scarcely see him when he is standing sideways, and he is stoop-shouldered, and his hair is quite gray, and his eyes are now away back in his head, and he is by no means dashing, and by no means romantic. He is only sad-looking.

But it comes on September of 1930, and on the morning of the ninth Ida Peters, who is now the Princess Podubny, arrives in New York from Europe with her ever-loving husband Prince Podubny and a raft of servants and luggage, and they go to a swell hotel to stay in about nine rooms, and it seems that in the evening they go to eat dinner with some very rich friends on Park Avenue, and then they go to a show, and naturally Ida Peters puts on as much of her jewelry as she can carry without help, including the Podubny pearls, which some guys say are worth a million bucks, and a lot of bracelets, and large diamond rings and one thing and another.

Well, they get back to the hotel about midnight, and there are many cablegrams waiting for the old prince, and he reads them as soon as they get to their rooms, and he says to Ida Peters like this:

“Well,” he says, “I always tell you I will make you a queen someday, my darling. Now the time arrives. I just receive news that a revolution starts in my country in my behalf, and my advisers wish me there at once to take command. There is no time to lose. We will sail the first thing in the morning.”

“Why,” Ida Peters says, “this is very glad news, indeed, because if there is anything I wish in this world it is to be a queen. But,” she says, “you know I cannot sail in the morning, because of my date tomorrow evening.”

“We cannot wait,” Prince Podubny says, very cold, indeed. “We must go early in the morning, because every hour is precious. There may be no other ship for several days.”

Well, Ida Peters says if it is so important for him, to go ahead and sail, and she will follow after him as soon as possible, but the old prince has his neck bowed now, and he speaks to her as follows:

“You must go with me,” he says. “It is my wish, and as I am now practically a king I must be obeyed. Anyway.” he says. “much depends on showing my people their new queen, and furthermore I make up my mind it is time for you to forget this old foolishness.”

But Ida Peters says she will not go until she keeps her date with Jack O’Donahue, and then the old prince starts to rave at her, saying he always suspects there is more to this old romance than just an annual meeting in a park and he gets very tough, indeed, with her, but he forgets that he is talking to a doll who is used to having pretty much her own way.

“Well,” Ida Peters says finally, “I am going to keep my date, and if you continue speaking to me in such a harsh tone I will walk out of this room.”

Well, then the old prince gets very, very angry with her, and says to her like this:

“All right,” he says, “but if you walk out of this room now you walk out of my life forever. Look at yourself in the mirror,” he says. “You are forty if you are a day, and the chances are I am giving you the best of it, at that. You are not as young or as good-looking as you used to be and you will never again be able to hold guys in the hollow of your hand.

“Look yourself over,” he says. “The way you stand you represent over a million dollars in American money, but you do not have a dime to your name any more. Well,” he says, “if you walk out of this room you are going to leave every diamond and pearl you have on and walk out of here with nothing but your dress on, for they are all mine, although,” the prince says, getting big-hearted, “I may let you take a coat, at that, as it is getting chilly outside and I do not wish to see you catch pneumonia.

“Ha-ha-ha,” he says, laughing like the villain in a play, “how will you like this general idea? I know you well enough to know you love diamonds and clothes and luxury too much to toss them all away for an hour with an old sweetheart, no matter how much you think you love him, which is probably not much,” he says, “because you are not capable of much love. So forget it, and call your maid, and start packing,” the prince says.

Well, Ida Peters stands there looking at him a minute, and then she begins stripping off her pearls and her diamond rings, and her bracelets, and one thing and another, and when she gets a good handful of them she hauls off and lets them fly at the old prince, and then she turns and walks out of the door in nothing but her evening dress, and the prince sails the next morning, and in two months is king of his country, and has a divorce from Ida Peters without giving her a nickel’s worth of alimony.

Personally I hear that what makes the prince especially sore about the whole proposition is that when Ida Peters chucks her jewelry at him one of her diamond rings hit him in the mouth, and the diamond is so big it knocks out a lot of brand-new bridge work that costs the old prince plenty of potatoes.

But it is now a few minutes to seven o’clock the next evening and generally Jack O’Donahue is in Bryant Park waiting when Ida Peters arrives, but he is not present this evening and Ida Peters stands looking all around and about in a dress she borrows from the friend in Park Avenue, when all of a sudden she sees a bunch of guys coming along a path in the park from the Forty-second Street side, and these guys seem to be carrying something among them and what are they carrying but Jack O’Donahue.

Furthermore, they have very little trouble carrying him, because Jack O’Donahue is now two pounds lighter than an old sponge, and as they carry him up to where Ida Peters is standing, one of the guys takes off his hat and says to her like this:

“Madam,” he says, “this poor guy is just hit by a taxicab out there in Forty-second Street. He is trying to cross the street, but,” he says, “he seems to be somewhat sick, and is so weak that he falls down right in front of the cab. I am a doctor,” the guy says, “and I wish to call an ambulance, and take him to a hospital, but he asks us to bring him over here to the park, saying there will be a party here he wishes to see.

“Well, Madam,” the guy says, “I do not wish to speak of bad news, but if you know this poor guy and wish to talk to him you better do it fast, because he is pretty badly hurt, although,” the guy says, “if the taxicab does not get him, the t.b. must in about another week.”

Then Jack O’Donahue opens his eyes, and looks at Ida Peters standing over him and crying more than somewhat, and he whispers as follows:

“I love you, Ida Peters.”

And as Ida Peters kisses him on the mouth, Jack O’Donahue hauls off and dies and the oldest romance anybody ever hears of in this town winds up where it starts.

Well, of course, you are wondering how it is I am able to learn so many details of this old romance, but I can prove everything I say by Ida Peters herself, who tells it all to me on different mornings when I am waiting for my cakes and coffee.

“But,” I say to Ida Peters, “do you not sometimes regret your hasty action when you learn how the old prince is indeed king, and you will be his queen if you use a little judgment? And especially,” I say, “do you not regret it as long as Jack O’Donahue has to die anyway?”

“No,” Ida Peters says, “I have no regrets, because the way I figure it, it is no great trick for any doll to marry a prince and maybe become a queen, as princes are very great chumps for dolls at all times. In fact,” she says, “the chances are you will find several dolls sitting around on thrones here and there who starts off by marrying princes.

“But,” she says, drawing herself up very proud, indeed, “I will guarantee that you will have a tough time finding another doll who tosses off a chance to be a queen for nothing more than the memory of an old romance, especially a romance with such a guy as Jack O’Donahue, who is a guy who is practically no dice, any way you figure him.”

“Well,” I say, “I can see where you may be right, and it is all most unusual, and very strange. In fact,” I say, “I do not recall ever hearing anything like it before in all my born days, and I am around and about Broadway quite a spell now.”

“Furthermore,” Ida Peters says, and her voice is as cold and haughty as it ever is in the old days, “you can bet all the grapefruit in Florida that I am the only head-waitress in the world who tosses off a throne just to hear a guy say ‘I love you,’ although,” she says, “personally I consider it worth it.

“Now,” she says, “if you wish another cup of hot Java, I will get it myself.”