Céad Míle Fáilte
(A hundred thousand welcomes)
Malachy McCourtIn the late 1950’s, a dear friend named Bernie O’Rorke had a rather tiny apartment in the shadows of the Manhattan approach to the 59th St. Bridge. In fact, you couldn’t go much farther east without falling into the East River. Bernie and I both had recently been pushed out of the nest by the Irish Christian Brothers at Iona College in New Rochelle, NY and were now trying to inflict ourselves on society - Bernie as a writer/cartoonist (he had done the old caricature I use on this blog’s masthead), and myself as an actor. After making my daily rounds (auditions, meeting with other would-be’s in the theatrical bars on Manhattan’s west side), I’d occasionally travel east to the safety of Bernie’s cave where I could lick my wounds and recover from another day of rejection.
One evening early in 1958, after making the daily rounds, I repaired to Bernie’s and sat sipping a beer, while he started raving about this saloon he’d stumbled upon in the neighborhood and its bartender, an outrageous Irishman who’d recently been on the Jack Paar show. As Bernie talked, I recalled seeing this character recently on TV talking about his ConEd electric bill and how, rather than paying it, he’d use a rubber stamp to imprint ‘deceased’ and returned the bill unopened and unpaid. I was sufficiently intrigued so that, when Bernie insisted that he show me the joint, and introduce me to this bartender, I couldn’t resist.
So, we took a short stroll inland from Bernie’s private cave to his new public cave, a joint on East 58th Street called Clavin’s, a rather loud, rambunctious, and totally enjoyable saloon, with a bartender/ringmaster who was a rather loud, rambunctious and occasionally enjoyable character yclept Malachy McCourt.
As I followed Bernie into Clavin’s, my first impression was of a relatively dark place, not particularly large, but busy and boisterous. The drinks were dispensed by a husky Irish bartender and the steady murmur of conversation was punctuated fairly frequently by shouts or loud laughing, as often as not from the bartender himself, Malachy McCourt.
In those ancient days, Malachy was in the early stages of expanding his universe, progressing from a local curiosity to a full-fledged many-splendored character – dockworker, drinker, rugby player, bartender, drinker, innkeeper, raconteur, drinker, oddball, actor, drinker, author, drin… - oh well, you get the picture. His older brother Frank, who would later go on to his own fame and fortune after the publication of his best selling memoirs, ‘Angela’s Ashes’, was then in college so, the stage belonged entirely to Malachy.
Initially, the stage was provided by Clavin’s, with its clientele a mixed bag of locals and swells, celebrities and rich and not so rich ne’er-do-wells, swillers all, the perfect compost pile in which Malachy would start to blossom. He soon parlayed his growing notoriety and eventually, with the urging and the backing from two of Clavin’s regulars, flung open the curtains on his own stage in the spring of 1958 - an Irish bar on 3rd Avenue called Malachy’s. Now 3rd Avenue was a boulevard that contained many Irish saloons of note, estimable places like P.J. Clarke’s and Costello’s, but Malachy’s quickly established its uniqueness. In addition to the drawing power of the guy whose name was on the awning, there was a very important source of bait scarcely three blocks away, the Barbizon Hotel, a young ladies’ hostelry. The Barbizon’s female residents quickly found a welcome at Malachy’s, no need for an escort, no disgrace for a young lady to sit alone at the bar, and a cornucopia of young, virile males of varying degrees of accomplishment. Malachy had quite a following, including the likes of Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris, Richard Burton, Sean Connery and other Celtic and vaguely Celtic types who were known to have a drink now and then.
One of the crowd of fairly regulars (or irregulars, if you will) was Gig Young, a friendly and likeable alcoholic who’d made scores of films in Hollywood over the previous couple of decades and now was doing a lot of television. And yes, he was a serious drinker, a very serious drinker, a fact well known in the industry and which cost his career a lot of traction. We got to talking one night and discovered we had a few things in common, his birthday was November 4, mine November 3 (though he was about 20 years older than I) and a few mutual friends in television, two brothers who were cameramen at CBS and whom he had gotten to know while doing some TV work over the previous few years. Most important to me was the fact that, unknown to him, he was everything that this lower middle class would-be actor from the Bronx wanted to be, suave, sophisticated and employed. I enjoyed the many occasions I had to share a drink with Gig Young, but never was able to match his career as an alcoholic, let alone as an actor.
Late one evening toward the end of 1958, I was at Malachy’s standing alone with my drink at the end of the bar looking out to 3rd Avenue. Malachy was behind the bar, the crowd was beginning to thin out and we were talking about things in general, when he asked me if I were still making the rounds. I told him my theatrical career was over. After not earning enough in the last year to keep "Moms" Mabley in dental floss, the cache of nuts I’d squirreled away was severely depleted, leading me to decide that my passion for acting was only surpassed by a few other passions like food, drink and shelter. Ergo, I’d retired from the stage, was probably the only one who was aware of my retirement, put my tail between my legs and ran like hell away from it, and was currently seeking gainful employment in the business world.
Malachy was at that time also appearing as the character ‘Shawn Keogh’ in the Irish Players production of John Millington Synge’s comedy, THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD. Sometime during our on and off conversation that night, Malachy told me that he might soon would be leaving the show. I don’t recall why he said he’d be leaving but it rang a bell in my scheming thespian heart. If he were leaving the show they’d need a replacement and why should that not be me?
Two days later I showed up, bold as brass, at the home of the Irish Players, the Tara Theatre on Madison Avenue near 30th Street. Fortunately, the delightful Helena Carroll, co-producer and co-star of the Playboy, was at the theater. She had no idea who I was, hadn’t yet discovered the reason for my unannounced visit, yet graciously consented to see me. We stood in the rear of the theater and I told her of my recent conversation with Malachy and the possibility that he might be leaving the show. She listened politely but said nothing. Summoning up all my courage, I announced my availability to step into the breach. She asked me the kinds of questions you’d expect, “What have you done before?” “What are you doing now?” “If indeed Malachy will be leaving us, and this being the first I’ve heard of any such intentions on his part, why should we believe that you might be a suitable replacement?”
Now the playwright Synge describes Shawn Keogh as “…a fat and fair young man” which, indeed Malachy was and to an extent so was I. Fair with hair of red, 5’10’’ and 190 pounds, not all being muscle. I almost began my song and dance, making exaggerated claims about all the wonderful things I had done, almost done or certainly could have done had I only been given the chance. Something stopped me, maybe Providence, more likely my own good sense not to repay her kindness with bullshit.
Instead, I said something like, “Miss Carroll, you’ve been nice enough to welcome me and spend some time listening to me. I’ll not return your generosity by wasting your time or feeding you a bunch of nonsense. Yeah, I’ve done some good work in some very good parts, but mostly in college, stock and community theaters, and some Equity Library. Nothing of much significance professionally. But I know I can do Shawn Keogh.” I pulled out of the copy of The Playboy of The Western World I had purchased the day before and had read and re-read and read again all the previous day. Helena Carroll, with whom I was about to fall in love, agreed to see what I could do. She sat down in the next to last row, bade me to sit with a space between us and instructed me to read the opening scene with her. I knew I could give her a good reading. I thought I knew the part pretty well, and I was a pretty good physical fit. My major concern was my less than authentic Celtic tongue and the fear that I might do grave injustice to the lilting poetry of John Millington Synge and clash with the mostly Irish-born cast.
The opening scene is between Shawn Keogh, a kind of bumbling Irish hayseed, simple but earnest, and Pegeen Mike, the young maiden Miss Carroll played in the show who was Shawn’s intended, or so he fancied and fervently wished. We did the scene and I’m happy to say that I did not embarrass myself. My self-satisfied happiness with my own performance turned to absolute jubilation when Miss Carroll said that, indeed, I’d make a good Shawn Keogh, that my reading was very good and that I did fit the part physically, 'though my attempt to sound like a true native Irishman would need some work but was doable. The delicious Helena Carter took my name and telephone number and promised to call me as soon as Malachy announced his departure. I floated out of the Tara Theater, walked the mile or so north and west to Sardi’s and treated myself to a late and liquid lunch. I never told Malachy that I had ratted him out.
The rest of the story is predictable. Malachy decided not to leave the show so a replacement was not necessary. My last ditch stab at acting went for naught but it did provide the soul-salving grace of providing someone else to blame for my lack of success. It wasn’t a question of whether I was good enough, whether I persevered or how hard I tried (or failed to try), it was all Malachy’s fault. If that son of a bitch hadn’t decided to stay with the show, Lord only knows how far I’d have gone, what artistic and commercial heights I might have scaled, what dramatic breakthroughs I might have achieved, what honors and awards I may have garnered. At least, those were the lies I told myself.
“Oh my grief, I’ve lost him surely. I’ve lost the only Playboy of the Western World.”
Well, I did go fairly far, albeit in another direction. Now, 50 years and several lifetimes later, in the final analysis, maybe I should be grateful to Mr. McCourt. I’ve had a decent and interesting business career, have a beautiful wife and family and a functioning liver, none of which I might possess had I persisted. I guess I should thank the son of a bitch, after all.
Fast forward almost 20 years later, sometime a week or two after Labor Day 1978. I was sitting against the wall at my table at Sardi’s Restaurant on West 44th Street waiting for someone who was joining me for lunch. (I began making Sardi’s my home away from home in 1954 and continue to this day.) As I sat with my drink, awaiting my guest, a familiar shape loomed over me and slid onto the bench against the wall immediately to my right. It was Gig Young, I recognized him immediately. I said hello, he looked at me quizzically, and it took a little while and a bit of reliving the past before he made any connection. We were both waiting for someone so we continued to chat. I mentioned ‘The Rogues’, a stellar TV series of the mid-1960’s in which he co-starred with Charles Boyer and David Niven, indicating that it was one of my all time favorites (it still is) and wondered if anybody were going to do anything with it. He said that it was all in the hands of Four Star Productions, the owner of the property and, while he’d love to see the show resurrected and would love to be a part of it, he doubted that either would happen. Our respective luncheon guests arrived, mine a male banker in a pinstriped suit and his an extremely attractive and animated lady of a certain age, and our conversation rushed to a rapid close. Several weeks later he used a pistol to kill his wife (I can’t tell you whether or not she was the lady that had joined him for lunch that day) and then turned that weapon on himself and blew out his brains.
So much for my suave and sophisticated role model.
Years later, as a big fan of the TV hit show “Cheers”, I often wondered whether there were any connection between the NY saloon Clavin’s and Cliff Clavin, the ‘know-it-all’ character played by John Ratzenberger in the Boston Bar Cheer’s.