The custodian pressed his finger to his lips. Fuller nodded and followed him down the corridor to a door. There he waited as the man cracked it, just enough to catch a glimpse beyond its breadth. Slowly the door opened a little bit wider and a little bit more until the man was behind it and Fuller was through it.
Now he was in the grand foyer, where he’d been once before–where he’d been given the boot. From the foyer he walked directly to the Gold Room and through one of its ornate double doors.
Sure enough, there it was, polished to a pearly perfection, gleaming between heaps of splendid arrangements. As Fuller approached the dais he felt an uncomfortable flutter in his chest and a restriction of air; the overwhelming scent of floral didn’t help. Eighteen was much too young to be having a heart attack. He raised the massive lid.
It was just as the custodian said. The flowing waves of bleached blonde hair. The regal yet approachable slope of the nose. The sensuous mouth. The delicate hands folded across the fine fabric of a glamorous evening dress.
Fuller carefully closed the lid. Then he slipped out he same way he’d came in. Stealthily. Once on the street, he ran to the nearest phone and dropped a nickle into it. Shainmark, the editor New York Evening Graphic, answered.
“It’s true,” Fuller wheezed into the mouthpiece. “It’s her.”
“You’re absolutely sure? It’s Jeanne Eagels in the casket?” Shainmark quizzed.
“Yeah. It’s her.”
“Wait for me in the alley. I’m coming over there to see for myself,” Shainmark growled. “This is big, kid.”
“Yeah,” Fuller said.
He walked back to the alley excited but sad. This day, October 3, 1929, Samuel Fuller would remember for the rest of his life.
In the 1920’s Jeanne Eagels was the most celebrated actress of stage and screen, and one of the world’s most beautiful women. Throngs thrilled to her theatrics, especially on Broadway where her portrayal of prostitute Sadie Thompson in the production of John Colton’s Rain, brought people to their feet in droves of ovations and adulation. To this day, she owns the role of the tough talking sailor’s trollop who seeks mercy from a pious missionary who is dangerously unfit to give it.
Ms. Eagels lived her by her own famous words, “Never deny. Never explain. Say nothing and become a legend.” And her philosophy proved correct; she drove her fans and the press into a frenzy of procuring and consuming every tidbit of information about her.
But poor health and compulsive behavior fueled a hotter fame than she bargained for, one that even her considerable talent could not tame. Chronic pain from a severe sinus blockage and an exhaustive touring schedule drove her to seek pain medications and street drugs, including heroin, just as it whetted an already strong appetite for drink. Rumors of this and of a prolific love life circulated like wildfire through tabloids such as the New York Evening Graphic where Samuel Fuller, a well read, ambitious high school dropout worked as a cub reporter.
Though he was new to the status of reporter, Fuller was already a veteran of the newsroom. In 1924, when he was all of thirteen years old he became a copy-boy (a teenager who literally ran copy from the reporters hands to various editors) for the William Randolph Hearst owned New York Evening Journal. From there he graduated to personal copy-boy for the Journal’s editor in chief, Arthur Brisbane. Through Brisbane, Fuller met the famed newspaper mogul who he found to be nothing like the character, Foster Kane, in Orson Welles Citizen Kane. He described Hearst in his excellent autobiography, The Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking,
“…in came a tall, heavyset man with oblique eyebrows and very sad eyes. When he talked he made birdlike noises. There was nothing pompous about him except for his very expensive-looking dark suit.”
Nor did he find Hearts’ mistress, actress, Marion Davies to be anything like her inspired character. About her, Fuller wrote,
“The one thing about Citizen Kane that irked me was the way Welles handled Marion Davis…I’d seen her on several occasions at Hearst’s apartment. Contrary to Kane’s empty headed Susan, Marion was smart, charming and funny.”
Although Fuller had apprenticed in the rarefied, highly respected air of the Journal, he jumped at the chance to produce his own bylines–and for a heftier paycheck–when, in 1928, he was approached by the New York Evening Graphic, a lurid tabloid featuring explicit crime scene photos and salacious headlines. There he quickly gained a reputation as a reporter with a knack for the sensational while covering suicide “jumpers.”
From photo journalists, Fuller learned to watch the feet of a prospective jumper poised on the ledge of a building. If the jumper shuffled his feet closer to the edge it usually meant bad news–so to speak. Then the photographers would time their shot so they would catch the jumper in mid air. From there it was up to Fuller to match the intensity of the photograph with his copy. He achieved this, not only by his skill as writer, but by shrewdly befriending the cops and technicians on the scene. When he asked for the suicide note he rarely walked away empty handed.
But it was more than just a calculating nature that prodded Fuller to rub shoulders with the working class. He broke bread with them because he was one of them. As such, he did not aspire to the power and grandeur of William Randolph Hearst, or to that of his mentor, Arthur Brisbane; he thirsted for the approval of the cogs that turned the wheel. The journalists.
Moreover, he empathized with the denizens of the street–the con artists, the prostitutes and the numbers runners that he covered. In them he saw apparitions of what might have been, if not for the hardworking, steady hand of his widowed mother who pleaded with him–to no avail–not to dropout when he was expelled for aiding and abetting a New York Evening Graphic story on teenage sex at the very high school he attended.
And so it was only fitting that his scoop on the heroin overdose death of Jeanne Eagels came by way of a custodian working at the funeral parlor where her body lay. Fuller had met the man while working on a story about the predatory and discriminating nature of the undertaking business.
As he waited for his editor in the alley behind the parlor he wrestled with the emotional turmoil of a journalist’s ethics and the morals taught to him by his mother. On one hand, he was happy about the opportunity to break the biggest story of his brief, but already brimming life. On the other, he mourned the loss of the talented, strong willed actress from Kansas City who had risen like a flaming, shooting star only to crash and burn on the pinnacle of her career at thirty-five years old. Within this conflict Samuel Fuller would find a gray zone in which he would abide and mine for the rest of his life.
“I’ll always remember the angelic expression on Jeanne Eagels’ face in that godforsaken coffin. Through her, I understood for the first time the quicksand nature of fame, a seductive mistress I’d never court.” Samuel Fuller-A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking
To be cont’d…