The Melancholy Dane

Damon Runyon

March 18 1944

It is a matter of maybe two years back that I run into Ambrose Hammer, the newspaper scribe, one evening on Broadway and he requests me to attend the theater with him, as Ambrose is what is called a dramatic critic and his racket is to witness all the new plays and write what he thinks about them in a morning blat. I often hear the actors and the guys who write the plays talking about Ambrose in Mindy’s restaurant when they get the last edition and read what he has to say, and as near as I can make out, they feel that he is nothing but a low criminal type because it seems that Ambrose practically murders one and all connected with any new play. So I say to him like this:

“No, Ambrose,” I say, “I may happen to know the guy who writes the play you are going to see, or one of the actors, and as I understand it is always about nine to five that you will put the blister on a new play, I will be running the risk of hurting myself socially along Broadway. Furthermore,” I say, “where is Miss Channelle Cooper who accompanies you to the new plays for the past six months hand-running?”

“Oh,” Ambrose says, “you need not worry about the guy who writes this play, as his name is Shakespeare and he is dead quite a spell. You need not worry about any of the actors, either, as they are just a bunch of plumbers that no one ever hears of before, except maybe the leading one who has some slight notoriety. And, as for Miss Channelle Cooper, I do not know where she is at this particular moment and, not to give you a short answer, I do not give a D and an A and an M and an N.”

“Why, Ambrose,” I say, “the last time we meet, you tell me that you are on fire with love for Miss Channelle Cooper, although, of course,” I say, “you are on fire with love for so many different broads since I know you that I am surprised you are not reduced to ashes long ago.”

“Look,” Ambrose says, “let us not discuss such a tender subject as Miss Cooper at this time or I am apt to break into tears and be in no mood to impartially perform my stern duty toward this play. All I know is she sends me a letter by messenger this morning, stating that she cannot see me tonight because her grandmother’s diabetes is worse and she has to go to Yonkers to see her.

“And,” Ambrose goes on, “I happen to know that in the first place her grandmother does not have diabetes but only a tumor, and in the second place she does not live in Yonkers but in Greenwich Village, and in the third place Miss Cooper is seen late this afternoon having tea at the Plaza with an eighteen-carat hambola by the name of Mansfield Sothern. I wonder,” Ambrose says, “if the bim is ever born who can tell the truth?”

“No, Ambrose,” I say, “or anyway not yet. But,” I say, “I am surprised to hear Miss Cooper turns out unstable, as she always strikes me as the reliable sort and very true to you, or at least as true as you can expect these days. In fact,” I say, “I have it on good authority that she turns down Lefty Lyons, the slot-machine king, who offers to take charge of her career and buy a nightclub for her. But of course Mansfield Sothern is something else again. I often enjoy his comedy on the stage.”

“He is a hunk of Smithfield who steals the names of two great actors to make one for himself,” Ambrose says. “I will admit that he is sometimes endurable in musical comedy, if you close your eyes when he is on the boards and make believe he is somebody else, but, like all actors, he is egotistical enough to think he can play Hamlet. In fact,” Ambrose says, “he is going to do it tonight and I can scarcely wait.”

Well, I finally go to the theater with Ambrose and it is quite a high-toned occasion with nearly everybody in the old thirteen-and-odd because Mansfield Sothern has a big following in musical comedy and it seems that his determination to play Hamlet produces quite a sensation, though Ambrose claims that most of those present are members of Mansfield’s personal clique from café society and he also claims that it is all nothing but a plot to make Mansfield seem important.

Personally, I am not a Shakespeare man, although I see several of his plays before, and, to tell you the truth, I am never able to savvy them, though naturally I do not admit this in public as I do not wish to appear unintelligent. But I stick with Ambrose through the first act of this one and I observe that Mansfield Sothern is at least a right large Hamlet and has a voice that makes him sound as if he is talking from down in a coal mine, though what he is talking about is not clear to me and consequently does not arouse my interest.

So as Ambrose seems very thoughtful and paying no attention to me, I quietly take my departure and go to Mindy’s where some hours later along in the early morning, I notice Miss Channelle Cooper and this gee Mansfield Sothern reading Ambrose’s column, and Mansfield is shedding tears on the paper until the printer’s ink runs down into his bacon and eggs. Naturally, I go out and buy a paper at once to see what causes his distress and I find that Ambrose writes about the play as follows:

“After Mansfield Sothern’s performance of Hamlet at the Todd Theater last night, there need no longer be controversy as to the authorship of the immortal drama. All we need do is examine the graves of Shakespeare and Bacon, and the one that has turned over is it.”

Now I do not clap eyes on Ambrose Hammer again until the other evening when he enters Mindy’s at dinnertime, walking with a cane and limping slightly. Furthermore, he is no longer roly-poly, but quite thin and he gives me a huge hello and sits down at my table and speaks to me as follows:

“Well, well,” Ambrose says, “this is indeed a coincidence. The last time we meet I take you to a theater and now I am going to take you again on my first night back in harness. How is the gedemte brust and the latkas you are devouring?”

“The latkas are all right, Ambrose,” I say, “but the brust is strictly second run. The war conditions are such that we must now take what we can get, even when it comes to brust. I do not see you for a spell, Ambrose. Are you absent from the city and why are you packing the stick?”

“Why,” Ambrose says, “I am overseas and I am wounded in North Africa. Do you mean to tell me I am not missed in these parts?”

“Well, Ambrose,” I say, “now that you mention it, I do remember hearing you are mixed up in the war business, but we are so busy missing other personalities that we do not get around to missing you as yet. And as for going to the theater with you, I must pass, because the last time you steer me up against a most unenjoyable evening. By the way, Ambrose,” I say, “I wonder what ever becomes of that bloke Mansfield Sothern and Miss Channelle Cooper. And what are you doing in North Africa, anyway?”

I am in North Africa (Ambrose says) risking my life for my paper as a war correspondent because one day my editor calls me into his office and speaks to me as follows:

“Hammer,” he says, “kindly go to the front and send us back human-interest stories about our soldiers. Our soldiers are what our readers are interested in. Please eat with them and sleep with them and tell us how they live and what they think about and how they talk and so forth and so on.”

So I go to London, and from London, I go to North Africa on a transport, and on this voyage I endeavor to start following my instructions at once, but I find that eating with the soldiers has its disadvantages as they can eat much faster than I can because of their greater experience and I am always getting shut out on the choicer tidbits.

And when I ask one of them if I can sleep with him, he gives me a strange look, and afterward I have a feeling that I am the subject of gossip among these gees. Furthermore, when I try to listen in on their conversation to learn how they talk, some of them figure I am a stool pigeon for the officers and wish to dunk me in the ocean. It is by no means a soft touch to be a war correspondent who is supposed to find out how the soldiers live and how they talk and what they think about, and when I mention my difficulties to one of the officers, he says I may get closer to the boys if I enlist, but naturally I figure this will be carrying war corresponding too far.

But I write these human-interest stories just the same and I think they are pretty good even if I do hear a guy in the censor’s office call me the poor man’s Quentin Reynolds, and I always mingle with the soldiers as much as possible to get their atmosphere and finally when they learn I am kindly disposed toward them and generally have plenty of cigarettes, they become quite friendly.

I am sorry I do not have time to tell you a great deal about my terrible personal experiences at the front, but I am putting them all in the book I am writing, and you can buy a copy of it later. In fact, I have enough terrible experiences for three books, only my publisher states that he thinks one book per war correspondent is sufficient for the North African campaign. He says that the way correspondents are writing books on North Africa with Sicily and Italy coming up, he does not figure his paper supply to last the war out.

I first arrive at a place called Algiers in North Africa and I find it is largely infested by Arabs and naturally I feel at home at once, as in my younger days in show business when I am working for a booking office, I personally book a wonderful Arab acrobatic troop consisting of a real Arab by the name of Punchy, two guys by the name of O’Shea, and a waffle who is known as Little Oran, though her square monicker is really Magnolia Shapiro.

Consequently I have a great sentiment for Arabs, and the sights and scenes and smells of Algiers keep me thinking constantly of the good old days, especially the smells. But I will not tax your patience with the details of my stay in Algiers because by the time I reach there the war moves away off to a place called Tunisia and I am willing to let it stay there without my presence. Then, after a week, my editor sends me a sharp message asking why I am not at the front getting human-interest stories instead of loitering in Algiers wasting my time on some tamale, although, as a matter of fact, I am not wasting my time. And how he learns about the tamale I have no idea, as she does not speak a word of English.

However, one way and another I proceed to a place called Bone and then I continue on from there one way and another, but mostly in a little consumptive car, in the general direction of Tunis, and as I go, I keep asking passing British and American soldiers where is the front. And they say the front is up front, and I keep going and in my travels I get very sick and tired of the war because the enemy is always dropping hot apples all over the landscape out of planes, and sprinkling the roads with bullets or throwing big shells that make the most uncouth noises around very carelessly indeed.

Naturally, this impedes and delays my progress quite some because, from time to time, I am compelled to pause and dismount from my little bucket and seek refuge from these missiles in holes in the earth, and, when I cannot find a hole, I seek the refuge by falling on my face on the ground. In fact, I fall so often on my face that I am commencing to fear I will wind up with a pug nose.

Part of the time I am traveling with another newspaper scribe by the name of Herbert something, but he goes to Foldsville on me soon after we leave Bone, with a case of heartburn caused by eating Army rations, which reminds me that I must speak to the F.B.I, about these rations someday as it is my opinion that the books of the guy who invents them should be looked over to see which side he is betting on.

Well, all the time I keep asking where is the front, and all the time the soldiers say the front is up front. But I do not seem to ever find the front and, in fact, I later learn from an old soldier that nobody ever finds the front because by the time they get to where it ought to be, the front is apt to be the rear or the middle, and it is all very confusing to be sure.

Early one morning, I arrive at what seems to be the ruins of a little town, and at the same moment, an enemy battery on a hill a couple of miles away starts throwing big biscuits into the town, although I do not see hide or hair of anyone there, and whether it is because they think some of our troops are in the town or just have a personal grudge against me, I never learn.

Anyway, all of a sudden something nudges my little wagon from under me and knocks it into pieces the size of confetti and at the same moment I feel a distinct sensation of pain in my Francesca. It comes to my mind that I am wounded and I lie there with what I know is blood running down the inside of my pants leg which gives me a most untidy feeling, indeed, and what is more, I am mentally depressed quite some as I am already behind with my copy and I can see where this will delay me further and cause my editor to become most peevish.

But there is nothing I can do about it, only to keep on lying there and to try to stop the blood as best I can and wait for something to happen and also to hope that my mishap does not inconvenience my editor too greatly.

It is coming on noon, and all around and about it is very quiet, and nothing whatever seems to be stirring anywhere when who appears but a big guy in our uniform, and he seems more surprised than somewhat when he observes me, as he speaks to me as follows:

“Goodness me!” he says. “What is this?”

“I am wounded,” I say.

“Where?” he says.

“In the vestibule,” I say.

Then he drops on one knee beside me and outs with a knife and cuts open my pants and looks at the wound, and as he gets to his feet, he says to me like this:

“Does it hurt?” he says. “Are you suffering greatly?”

“Sure I am,” I say. “I am dying.”

Now the guy laughs ha-ha-ha-ha, as if he just hears a good joke and he says, “Look at me, Hammer,” he says. “Do you not recognize me?”

Naturally I look and I can see that he is nobody but this Mansfield Sothern, the actor, and of course I am greatly pleased at the sight of him.

“Mansfield,” I say, “I am never so glad to see an old friend in my life.”

“What do you mean by old friend?” Mansfield says. “I am not your old friend. I am not even your new friend. Hammer,” he says, “are you really in great pain?”

“Awful,” I say. “Please get me to a doctor.”

Well, at this, he laughs ha-ha-ha-ha again and says, “Hammer, all my professional life, I am hoping to one day see a dramatic critic suffer, and you have no idea what pleasure you are now giving me, but I think it only fair for you to suffer out loud with groans and one thing and another. Hammer,” Mansfield says, “I am enjoying a privilege that any actor will give a squillion dollars to experience.”

“Look, Mansfield,” I say, “kindly cease your clowning and take me somewhere. I am in great agony.”

“Ha-ha-ha-ha,” Mansfield Sothern ha-has. “Hammer, I cannot get you to a doctor because the Jeremiahs seem to be between us and our lines. I fear they nab the rest of my patrol. It is only by good luck that I elude them myself and then, lo and behold, I find you. I do not think there are any of the enemy right around this spot at the moment and I am going to lug you into yonder building, but it is not because I take pity on you. It is only because I wish to keep you near me so I can see you suffer.”

Then he picks me up in his arms and carries me inside the walls of what seems to be an old inn, though it has no roof and no windows or doors, and even the walls are a little shaky from much shellfire, and he puts me down on the floor and washes my wound with water from his canteen and puts sulpha powder on my wound and gives me some to swallow, and all the time he is talking a blue streak.

“Hammer,” he says, “do you remember the night I give my performance of Hamlet and you knock my brains out? Well, you are in no more agony now than I am then. I die ten thousand deaths when I read your criticism. Furthermore, you alienate the affections of Miss Channelle Cooper from me, because she thinks you are a great dramatic critic, and when you say I am a bad Hamlet, she believes you and cancels our engagement. She says she cannot bear the idea of being married to a bad Hamlet. Hammer,” he says, “am I a bad Hamlet?”

“Mansfield,” I say, “I now regret I cause you anguish.”

“Mr. Sothern to you,” Mansfield says. “Hammer,” he says. “I hear you only see two acts of my Hamlet.”

“That is true,” I say. “I have to hasten back to my office to write my review.”

“Why,” he says, “how dare you pass on the merits of an artist on such brief observation? Does your mad jealousy of me over Miss Channelle Cooper cause you to forget you are a human being and make a hyena of you? Or are all dramatic critics just naturally hyenas, as I suspect?”

“Mansfield,” I say, “while I admit to much admiration and, in fact, love for Miss Channelle Cooper, I never permit my emotions to bias my professional efforts. When I state you are a bad Hamlet, I state my honest conviction and while I now suffer the tortures of the damned, I still state it.”

“Hammer,” Mansfield Sothern says, “listen to me and observe me closely because I am now going to run through the gravediggers’ scene for you which you do not see me do, and you can tell me afterward if Barrymore or Leslie Howard or Maurice Evans ever gives a finer performance.”

And with this, what does he do but pick up a big stone from the floor and strike a pose and speak as follows:

“‘Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the tables on a roar? Not one, now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen? Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come; make her laugh at that. Pr’ythee, Horatio, tell me one thing.’”

Now Mansfield stops and looks at me and says: “Come, come, Hammer, you’re Horatio. Throw me the line.”

So I try to remember what Horatio remarks at this point in Hamlet and finally I say, “‘How is that, my lord?’”

“No, no,” Mansfield says. “Not ‘How is that?’ but ‘What’s that?’ And you presume to criticize me!”

“All right, Mansfield,” I say. “‘What’s that, my lord?’”

And Mansfield says, “‘Dost thou think Alexander looked o’ this fashion i’ the earth?’”

I say, “‘E’en so.’”

“‘And smelt so?’ pah!” Mansfield says, and with this, he throws the stone to the floor, and at the same moment I hear another noise and, on looking around, what do I see in the doorway but two German officers covered with dust, and one of them says in English like this:

“What is going on here?”

Naturally, I am somewhat nonplussed at the sight of these guys, but Mansfield Sothern does not seem to notice them and continues reciting in a loud voice.

“He is an actor in civil life,” I say to the German. “He is now presenting his version of Hamlet to me.”

“‘To what base uses we may return, Horatio!’” Mansfield Sothern says. “‘Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander—’”

“‘Till he finds it stopping a bunghole?’” the German cuts in and then Mansfield looks at him and says:

“‘Find,’ not ‘finds,’” he says.

“Quite right,” the German says. “Well, you are now prisoners. I will send some of my soldiers to pick you up immediately. Do not attempt to leave this place or you will be shot, as we have the town surrounded.”

Then the two depart and Mansfield stops reciting at once and says, “Let us duffy out of here. It is growing dark outside, and I think we can make it. Are you still suffering first class, Hammer?”

“Yes,” I say, “and I cannot walk an inch, either.”

So Mansfield laughs ha-ha-ha and picks me up again as easy as if I am nothing but a bag of wind and carries me out through what seems to have been a back door to the joint, but before we go into the open, he throws himself face downward on the ground and tells me to pull myself on his back and hook my arms around his neck and hold on, and I do the same. Then he starts crawling along like he is a turtle and I am its shell. Naturally, our progress is very slow, especially as we hear guys everywhere around us in the dark talking in German.

Every few yards, Mansfield has to stop to rest, and I roll off his back until he is ready to start again and, during one of these halts, he whispers, “Hammer, are you still suffering?”

“Yes,” I say.

“Good,” Mansfield says, and then he goes on crawling.

I do not know how far he crawls with me aboard him because I am getting a little groggy, but I do remember him whispering very softly to himself like this:

“‘Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay,

Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.’”

Well, Mansfield crawls and crawls and crawls until he crawls himself and me right into a bunch of our guys, and the next thing I know is I wake up in a hospital, and who is sitting there beside me but Mansfield Sothern and, when he sees I am awake, he says like this:

“‘O, I die, Horatio.’”

“Mansfield,” I say, “kindly cheese it and permit me to thank you for saving my life.”

“Hammer,” he says, “the pleasure is all mine. I am sustained on my long crawl (which they tell me is a new world record for crawling with a guy on the deck of the crawler) by the thought that I have on my back a dramatic critic who is suffering keenly every inch of the way,

“I suppose,” he says, “that you hear I am decorated for rescuing you, but kindly keep it quiet, as the Actors’ Guild will never forgive me for rescuing a critic. Also, Hammer, I am being sent home to organize overseas entertainment for my comrades, and naturally it will be along Shakespearean lines. Tell me, Hammer, do you observe your nurse as yet?”

And, with this, Mansfield points to a doll in uniform standing not far away, and I can see that it is nobody but Miss Channelle Cooper, and I can also see that she is hoping she is looking like Miss Florence Nightingale. When she notices I am awake, she starts toward my cot, but at her approach, Mansfield Sothern gets up and departs quite hastily without as much as saying boo to her and as she stands looking at him, tears come to her eyes and I can see that a coolness must still prevail between them.

Naturally, I am by no means displeased by this situation because the sight of Miss Channelle Cooper even in a nurse’s uniform brings back fond memories to me and, in fact, I feel all my old love for her coming up inside me like a lump, and, as she reaches my bedside, I can scarcely speak because of my emotion.

“You must be quiet, Ambrose,” she says. “You know you are delirious for days and days, and in your delirium you say things about me that cause me much embarrassment. Does Mansfield happen to mention my name?”

“No,” I say. “Forget him, Channelle. He is a cad as well as a bad Hamlet.”

But the tears in her eyes increase, and suddenly she leaves me and I do not see her for some days afterward and, in fact, I do not even think of her because my editor is sending me messages wishing to know what I am doing in a hospital on his time and to get out of there at once, and what do I mean by putting a horse in my last expense account, which of course is an error in bookkeeping due to my haste in making out the account. What I intend putting in is a hearse, as I figure that my editor will be too confused by such an unexpected item to dispute it.

So here I am back in the good old U.S.A. (Ambrose says) and now as I previously state I am going to take you to the theater again with me, and who are you going to see but our old friend Mansfield Sothern playing Hamlet once more!

Now this prospect by no means thrills me, but I am unable to think of a good out at once, so I accompany Ambrose, and when we arrive at the theater, we find the manager, who is a guy by the name of James Burdekin, walking up and down in front of the joint and speaking in the most disparaging terms of actors, and customers are milling around the lobby and on the sidewalks outside.

They are going up to James Burdekin and saying, “What is the matter, Burdekin?” and “When does the curtain go up?” and “Who do you think you are?” and all this and that, which only causes him to become very disrespectful indeed in his expressions about actors and, in fact, he is practically libelous, and it is several minutes before Ambrose and I can figure out the nature of his emotion.

Then we learn that what happens is that Mansfield Sothern collapses in his dressing room a few minutes before the curtain is to rise, and, as the gaff is all sold out, it is naturally a terrible predicament for James Burdekin, as he may have to refund the money, and thinking of this has James on the verge of a collapse himself.

“Hammer,” he says to Ambrose, “you will do me a favor if you can find out what is eating this hamdonny. I am afraid to trust myself to even look at him at the moment.”

So Ambrose and I go around to the stage entrance and up to Mansfield Sothern’s dressing room, and there is Mansfield sprawled in a chair in his Hamlet makeup, while his dresser, an old stove lid by the name of Crichton, is swabbing Mansfield’s brow with a towel and speaking soothing words to him in a Southern accent.

“Why, Mansfield,” Ambrose says, “what seems to ail you that you keep an eager audience waiting and put James Burdekin in a condition bordering on hysteria?”

“I cannot go on,” Mansfield says. “My heart is too heavy. I just learn of your return and, as I am sitting here thinking of how you must make plenty of hay-hay with Miss Channelle Cooper when you are lying there under her loving care in North Africa and telling her what a bad Hamlet I am, I am overcome with grief. Ambrose,” he says, “is there any hope of you being crippled for life?”

“No,” Ambrose says. “Come, come, Mansfield,” he says. “Pull yourself together. Think of your career and of poor James Burdekin and the box-office receipts. Remember the ancient tradition of the theater: The show must go on—although, personally, I do not always see why.”

“I cannot,” Mansfield says. “Her face will rise before me, and my words will choke me as I think of her in another’s arms. Ambrose, I am in bad shape, but I am man enough to congratulate you. I hope and trust you will always be happy with Miss Channelle Cooper, even if you are a dramatic critic. But I cannot go on in my present state of mind. I am too melancholy even for Hamlet.”

“Oh,” Ambrose says, “do not worry about Miss Channelle Cooper. She loves you dearly. The last time I see her, I request her to be my ever-loving wife when this cruel war is over, but she says it can never be, as she loves only you. I say all right; if she wishes to love a bad Hamlet instead of a good correspondent, to go ahead. And then,” Ambrose says, “Miss Channelle Cooper speaks to me as follows:

“‘No, Ambrose,’ she says. ‘He is not a bad Hamlet. A better judge than you says he is a fine Hamlet. Professor Bierbauer, the great dramatic coach of Heidelberg, now a colonel in the German army, tells me he witnesses a performance by Mansfield in a ruined tavern in a town near the front, that, under the conditions, is the most magnificent effort of the kind he ever views.’

“It seems,” Ambrose says, “that the professor is wounded and captured by our guys when they retake the town, and, at the moment Miss Channelle Cooper is addressing me, he is one of her patients in a nearby ward, where I have no doubt he gets quite an earful on your history and her love. Where are you going, Mansfield?”

“Why,” Mansfield says, “I am going around the corner to send a cablegram to Miss Channelle Cooper, telling her I reciprocate her love and also requesting her to get Professor Bierbauer’s opinion in writing for my scrapbook.”

Well, I wait up in Mindy’s restaurant with Mansfield to get the last editions containing the reviews of the critics and, naturally, the first review we turn to is Ambrose Hammer’s, and at Mansfield’s request I read it aloud as follows:

“‘Mansfield Sothern’s inspired performance of Hamlet at the Todd Theater last night leads us to the hope that in this sterling young actor we have a new dramatic force of the power of Shakespearean roles of all the mighty figures of another day, perhaps including even the immortal Edwin Booth.’

“Well, Mansfield,” I say, when I finish, “I think Ambrose now pays you off in full on your account with him, including saving his life, what with giving you Miss Channelle Cooper and this wonderful boost, which, undoubtedly, establishes your future in the theater.”

“Humph!” Mansfield says. “It seems a fair appraisal at that, and I will send a clipping to Miss Channelle Cooper at once, but,” he says, “there is undoubtedly a streak of venom left in Ambrose Hammer. Else, why does he bring in Booth?”