- A Memoir of Valeska Gert and the Beggar Bar
When I met Julian Beck, I was sitting in an actors' club called Genius, Inc., in the St. James Hotel on West 45th Street. William Marchant, who at that time used the pseudonym Gaugau Davis, tapped on the window of what had been, in better days, the downstairs bar of the old Midtown hotel, and which now exposed to full view of the street a roomful of unemployed actors, coming together to talk about their adventures in making rounds. Gaugau had alerted me that he was about to introduce me to someone who would be important in my life. That was in September, in 1943, but before that I had already made an important acquaintance there, and come, in a roundabout way, to encounter Valeska Gert, whose work influenced my whole life.
I was seventeen and had already been making the rounds, that is, spending day after day going from one producer's office to another—and to the agents, and to the casting calls—for a couple of years. This valorous effort got me very little: in fact, it didn't get me a thing, until the arrival of television increased the actor's employment possibilities and I had the opportunity to work on The Goldbergs, where Gertrude Berg recognized me as a good Jewish type to play a variety of roles.
But at the time I am describing, no such windfall was yet on the horizon. I was happy to pay the small fee that made me a member at Genius, Inc., for here I could hobnob with real actors and actresses—women with false eyelashes—and even a few who had made it and were members of Equity, the actors' union. For a member of Equity, anything seemed possible. At most of the offices I visited daily after high school, neglecting my homework, the first thing I was asked was, "Are you Equity?" and I would brazen it out, "Well, not exactly, but I've done Army shows with the American Women's Service Association and there were Equity members in the cast who …" But the secretaries and the well-dressed [End Page 1] receptionists with the power of yes and no in their hands already had said, "No, I'm sorry, we're not seeing anyone like you." It was a tough, depressing life, and the genius of Leo Schull made hay out of our needs and provided us with a tip sheet called Actor's Cues in which we could read the latest news of the Rialto, who was casting and who was—oh, idle dreams—looking for a small, thin, dark young woman, timid yet spunky, but above all gifted with a gift she tried to demonstrate to you from spiritual and flirtatious eyes. I was constantly amazed that I could not win, by my sheer presence, the recognition of my gifts. But alas, few knew—and none cared—and we consoled each other in the premises of Genius, Inc., with stories of near-successes.
One day as I was marking the latest issue of Actor's Cues, making sure I didn't miss a single opportunity, a young man came over to my table and asked me straight out, "How would you like to play one of the wives of Henry VIII in a new play I'm directing?" I gasped but held my own. Caution, I bade myself. "Do you have to be Equity?" "No, well, it's all right if you are." "I'm not." "That's all right." His name was Charles. I could call him Chuck. He was a round-faced blond young man, maybe twenty, but maybe only eighteen, for his portly figure lent him the weight of years. He went with me to the Automat and over coffee told me the story of a remarkable historical drama. It was written by St. Clair Jones, a man who commanded a princely respect among the group of people to whom I was about to be introduced.
The story of Elizabeth the Queen he retells thus: Elizabeth is the dearly beloved of her father, Henry VIII, but in...