Chapter One
New York City, December 20, 1920
Every reminder of the Twentieth Century made Benton Dembow feels if time had passed him by. Sitting in the back of a freezing cold taxi cab on this snowy night, he looked up out the window at the glittering white lights and the giant electric billboards of Times Square as they drove up Broadway. Hundreds of bulbs, lit in precisely-timed sequence, gave the signs the illusion of movement: a school of lively fish swimming in an electric sea—a little girl jumping rope—a spool of thread unwinding into an outline of a shirt. Other fanciful signs heralded Cliquot Ginger Ale—Murad Tobacco—and Maidenform girdles in large electric letters that were twice as tall as the tallest man in the city. He would not allow himself to be impressed—the miracle of the modern age reduced to pesky and intrusive advertising.
Time had moved so slowly for so long and now it moved too fast for him to keep up. Why couldn’t things just stay the same? Dembow still mourned the warm glow of the gas lamps of his younger days and preferred a horse-drawn carriage and the soothing staccato clip-clop of horse hooves on cobblestones to sitting in a cab mired in traffic while listening to the cabbie swear violently and honk the klaxon over and over again. If this was progress, he loathed it. He hated the garish signs, the congestion of automobiles and the ceaseless, restless noise of the city. He had lived in Manhattan his entire life and he had never detested it more than he did right now.
The taxicab pulled over and deposited him at the busy corner of Broadway and 51st Street, right in front of a gigantic building go gleaming white brick. “Here you are, sir,” the driver said, pulling down the lever on the ticking taxi clock. He rubbed his cold chapped hands together and blew on them slightly to warm them. The cab’s heater was no match for the falling temperature outside. “The Capitol Theatre—like you wanted. That will be forty cents.”
Dembow peered out of the cab at the sizable crowd milling around the entrance to the city’s largest and most ornate movie palace and frowned in dismay. He disliked being in or even seeing large crowds. So many people, all pressed together like that, made him uncomfortable. He never took the subway anywhere, heaven forbid, and would never have dared a visit to Coney Island on a hot summer day—or on any day of the year for that matter.
For a moment, as he sat there in the back seat of the cab, his feet nearly numb from the cold, he seriously contemplated foregoing Roxy Rothafel’s invitation to see the film booked for tonight and return home instead to a warm fire and the remains of his very last bottle of legally-bonded brandy. He was already here now, however, and decided he should at least see what all the fuss was supposed to be about. The Times and Variety had been talking about the picture for the last two weeks and the attendance records it had set across all of Europe.
“Sir…?” The cabbie had turned to stare at him from the front seat.
“Yes, what is it now?” Dembow asked. The cabbie was rapidly becoming the most annoying person he had met today.
“It’s forty cents for the fare.”
“I believe you already said that once.” Dembow reached into his heavy, oversized fur coat and removed his small leather coin purse from an inside pocket. He fished out a few clinking coins and handed the driver exactly fifty cents. Not a cent more. He didn’t believe in generously tipping someone just for doing their job.
“Thank you, sir,” the driver said glumly, picking through the small change as if there might be magically more of it underneath. Enjoy the show.” He couldn’t have sounded less sincere. “Supposed to be a good one from what I hear.”
“I don’t recall asking you for your opinion,” Dembow replied, taking up the silk top hat next to him on the seat and opening the door.
Getting out of the cab took some doing. Benton Dembow was a large man; wider than tall; rotund, you might say if you wished to be polite about his size; or fat if inclined to the contrary. He was in his mid-fifties, had small blue-gray eyes, thinning brown hair, and a sharp protruding jawline with a peek-a-boo chin that arrived everywhere a second before the rest of him did. Moving about was not an easy thing for a man of his size to do. He didn’t so much walk as lumber about.
Ordinarily there should have been an uniformed street man from the Capitol’s staff stationed at the curb to greet him and help him out of the cab, but his arrival had apparently gone unnoticed amidst the vast throng of patrons attending this evening’s offering. So on his own he hauled himself up from the back seat of the taxi with considerable effort and then stood there for a moment or two, leaning against the open door to catch his breath. Any kind of ordinary physical exertion taxed him.
As soon as he stepped up on the curb, he shut the door and the cab suddenly peeled away. Dembow tried to leap aside, but the cab’s back tires doused his pant legs with a spray of dirty slush as it sped off. Pungently cursing the cabbie under breath, he shook the wet ice off his pant legs and took an annoyed swipe at the thick puffs of snow falling around him as if they were noisome bugs flitting madly about his face. His mouth hardened into a frown. He hated winter, he hated being wet and cold, and he had certainly had no intention of standing in a queue to get into the theatre on an inhospitable night like this. Donning his shiny black top hat, he rudely pushed his way through the crowd towards the Capitol’s front doors under the marquee while ignoring the looks and the protests from people that he jostled out of his way.
A Capitol footman conducting pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk, officious-looking in his smart gray uniform and matching long cloak, stopped him just outside the front doors to the theatre. “Sir,” he said firmly, yet politely with a tone of authority. “The line to get in starts back around Fifty-First Street. You’ll have to go to the end of the line and…”
“I have a pass,” Dembow testily said. His mood grew fouler by the moment. He fished into his coat pocket and showed the footman the complimentary pass that Roxy Rothafel had sent him for tonight’s show.
It didn’t change the footman’s mind. “Again, sir, the line to get in starts back on Fifty-First Street,” he repeated. “You’ll have to…”
“Let me explain this to you so that you’ll understand. I don’t stand in lines. I’m Benton Dembow. That name should mean something to you.”
The blank look on the footman’s face said that it didn’t. Dembow was astonished. Did this man not read the newspapers?
Fortunately a doorman, an impossibly tall chap also on the Capitol’s staff, appeared on the scene. On hearing the name of The New York Courier’s long-time drama critic, he put forth his most courteous smile and without further ado, saluted him by touching the brim of his cap. “Good evening, Mr. Dembow, sir.” he said. “Welcome to the Capitol Theatre. Right this way. No need to wait at all.”
“Finally,” Dembow muttered, relieved to be recognized by someone in authority
The doorman held the door open for him and again touched the brim of his cap in salute. “Enjoy the show,” he said.
The drama critic momentarily glared back over at the footman and then said to the solicitous doorman, “I would hope for his sake that this was merely a minor misunderstanding and I will not be subjected to this kind of rudeness again should I ever make deem to make a return visit?”
“Please accept our apologies on his behalf, Mr. Dembow. He’s new at the post.”
“That’s hardly an excuse for rudeness. Tell him the next time it happens I’ll see that he loses his job.”
“I will do that, sir,” the doorman said as Dembow walked past inside.
The footman, wondering why the man had merited the kid glove treatment, approached the doorman and asked, “Who was that guy?”
“That was Benton Dembow. He’s a critic for The Courier.”
“Yeah? Well, I never never heard of him.”
“Used to be a bad word from him could close a Broadway show overnight.”
“Used to be?”
“Times change,” the doorman said with a shrug before saluting and opening the door for another patron.