Participant in an alcoholic chapter in The Century saga was Spencer Tracy, an actor and man of bounce whose fondness for the stuff that comes in bottles itself became legendary over the years and was never for a moment denied by Tracy himself who shunned the sanctimonious postures of fellow professionals and proclaimed it from the rooftops when he tied one on.
At the time, Tracy, under contract to Metro Goldwyn Mayer, had just finished a nonesuch in the company’s Hollywood studios and headed for New York for the express purpose of relaxing in P.J. Moriarty’s and other highly regarded outposts of Sunset Boulevard. No sooner had Tracy begun to sample things in Manhattan than the studio found to its dismay that retakes were necessary on several scenes in the recently completed film. Tracy was at length located in company with a brother of Matt McHugh, a fellow actor of convivial habit, who happened to be an employee of Lowe’s, Inc., the theater chain. MGM got McHugh on long distance and intimated that it would be most grateful if he could persuade Tracy to return on the first available section of The Century and, knowing that it would be difficult, placed at McHugh’s disposal the resources of their New York office.
And endproduct of those resources was a bottle of Jack Daniels from which a judicious amount of the dew of Tennessee had been removed and a liberal sleeping potion of chloral hydrate inserted in its place. It was to be given to Tracy at the train gate to insure his getting all the way to Chicago where other agents of Metro would take over. The studio wanted to take no chances that Tracy might remember friends at Albany or Buffalo. The plan worked in perfection in every detail save one: Tracy insisted that McHugh join him in his stateroom on Car 250 in an attack on the bottle before train time, where the accomplice, in the full knowledge that he too was being drugged, was forced to keep pace, drink for drink, with his intended victim. As The Century pulled out McHugh tottered toward Vanderbilt Avenue, only pausing to sit down on the wide marble steps for a nap. The station police took a dim view of this departure from decorum and when Tracy arrived in Los Angeles refreshed and rested, McHugh was in the tank on the Island working off a five-day drunk sentence.
“For many years the New York Central’s mainline, improbably enough, ran through town right down the main street of Syracuse in upper New York. The westbound train was scheduled to go through in the middle of the evening about time dinner was being served and patrons of the diner and club car could and did raise glasses to the equally affable patrons of the town’s saloons visible through the windows and engaged in mutually satisfactory occupations at their respective oases. Now and then a Syracusan more than ordinarily in wine would attempt to climb aboard the observation platform as the train progressed at a snail’s pace down the thouroughfare and a brakeman was stationed there against this contingency. Part of the charm of the trip vanished when the Central’s tracks were rerouted around the town.”—Lucius Beebe, “Twentieth Century Limited”
To begin with our dream boy has been strongly conditioned to all his life to despise trash and is hence allergic to nine-tenths of all the commodities and many of the services which compose the great American consumer market. He was brought up by well-to-do but extremely prudent parents whose every property ant attitude was solid, conservative, and durable.
Their house in which he was born was built something over a century before by a celebrated New England architect around a core of Dutch brick and Federal facade and, barring accidents of chance, would be around several centuries longer. The family motor cars like the carriages which had preceded them were solid, enduring Packards and Pierce-Arrows of an age that had never heard of planned obsolescence. They lasted for years and were kept in meticulous repair.
His clothes, like those of his father before him, were tailored of sixteen- and eighteen-ounce hard worsteds and sharkskins by London and New York tailors and had a life expectancy roughly that of their owner. His bootmaker would have cut his own throat if any of his shoes failed to last a decade of constant use. He shaved with straight razors which could easily outlast his own lifetime. The books in his library were those he expected to reread every few years and there were, therefore, no paperbacks or best sellers and very little fiction.
Now in the fullness of his years and with the means to gratify any reasonable whim of possession, our hero is more than ever inclined to take a dim view of high pressure salesmanship. There is neither radio nor television in his home and he will purchase no trade product that he believes to be advertised on these media.
His motor cars are of English manufacture that owners generally feel to be nicely broken in after 100,000 miles. His cupidity for material possessions is difficult to arouse, although he is a recognized collector in certain restricted fields of historic interest and takes stock only in merchandise and services advertised in newspapers and coated paper periodicals. He hasn’t seen a motion picture film in five years.
In his home the plumbing is copper, the hardware fittings are bronze, the kitchen equipment copper, the table service is sterling and the linen is linen. He discharged a servant who served paper napkins with the cocktails and there is almost no plastic in the establishment. Music is provided by a long-playing device of the sort used in public auditoriums and will probably last a lifetime without replacement of more than minor components.
Since he regards drinking as a serious matter, his bar embraces no bartender’s aprons with cute mottoes, no cocktail mixers that play “How Dry I Am” when activated and there are no frivolous or patented hors d’oeuvres from Japan or Hawaii. His guests are served a plate of anchovies or sardines with English water biscuit. He has never been in a supermarket and sneers diligently at most of the achievements of the packaging industry.
He carries no single credit card, pays cash on the barrel whenever possible and, where charge accounts are essential to convenience, pays the bills the day they come in. By the third of each month he owes no money to anyone.
Our boy, in a word, is proof against the blandishments that have built a precarious national economy on the purchasing of merchandised trash. No sales pitch can unload on him properties which, after a calculated minimum lifetime, will wear out, evaporate, disintegrate, decompose, collapse or require replacement if he can help it. Such matters as light bulbs which burn out after a minimal usefulness are beyond his capacity to eliminate, but he makes their existence a virtue on the basis that they constitute a warning against fallible merchandise in other categories.
This discouraging character evoked for purposes of dismay to hucksters generally is not, as it turns out, so fictional as an economist of the planned obsolescence school might like to imagine. It is, in fact, I, the writer of this horror story and probably a subversive of important dimensions.
Probably it’s a good thing that there aren’t many like him. The American economy is insecure enough already.