I've just read of a new hotel opening in Manhattan, down on 29th and Broadway. It’s the latest in the fast-expanding Ace Hotel chain. The building itself is not new, having for 100 years been the home of The Breslin, a residential hotel once a favorite stop of boxer Joe Louis and his entourage. I expect the Ace people have done some serious modernization. As you might expect, there’s a story or two attached to The Breslin’s long history. Here, for the record, is one I know about personally.
In the fall of 1963, I came out of the Army and went down to New York City to set the world on its heels.
I had irons in the fire. While in the Army, I had sold a Picturesque Speech item to Dewitt and Lila Wallace at Reader’s Digest and was looking to establish a relationship with the folks up at Pleasantville.
Also, I was writing Chinese philosophy for the men’s cartoon magazines. Those of you who were regular readers of Dolls & Gags will remember Al Fong Spong. (“He who heeds hoot owl heeds he who whoos.”) I was the latest in a line of Spongs, raising Spong, I thought, to a new level.
And I had noticed an opportunity over at Random House, where they were starting work on a new dictionary. I happened to know the founder and chairman, Bennett Cerf, from his appearances every Sunday night on “What’s My Line,” the TV quiz show. Growing up in the 50’s, I never missed it.
I had written Bennett, “You will be needing definitions.” My idea was to submit a weekly packet of definitions, gradually moving through the alphabet. I would do so in the manner of the great Samuel Johnson, providing thoughtful definitions of common words. And I would do so, I wrote, on a speculative basis initially, since I was as yet an unknown writer.
I took a room at The Breslin for $37 a week, including maid service. I had $600 in savings. It was still, then, a clean, respectable hotel. The room was spacious, with a full kitchenette, a queen-sized bed, a visiting area with a sofa, and a large picture window fronting on Broadway. I set up my Olympia portable typewriter on the writing desk in front of the window and commenced my career as a writer in the Big Apple.
I was 24. The day clerk at The Breslin was an attractive thirtyish blonde named Cara, who, I fancied, couldn’t take her eyes off me. There was an old fellow I got to know, always smiling, who would sit all day in a big armchair in the lobby. He was a retired army major, a veteran of WWI. His wife had died a few months earlier, and he had sold his home and come to The Breslin, apparently to sit in the lobby.
“I should like to focus on intangible nouns, such as joy and sorrow,” I had written to Bennett. “I find that dictionaries do not do these well, defining joy as happiness and sorrow as sadness. In fact, joy and sadness are emotional states known only to children, adults knowing no happiness so pure as joy and no sorrow so uncomplicated as sadness.”
I never heard back from Bennett Cerf. But I received a letter from an assistant editor, whom I’ll call Miss X (not her real initial). She told me that Random House was not soliciting definitions. It was a personal letter, not a form rejection, and she said that I had some good ideas and might consider using them in some other context.
I wrote back to Miss X, saying, “Very well, but one last thought. Whatever you do, don’t define heartache as sadness or sorrow, which it is not. And don’t refer to heart and ache separately, which another dictionary does, and which is ridiculous. Please consider what type of person, and in what state of mind, looks up heartache in a dictionary anyway.”
A week or so went by, and it got to be a Friday in late November. I remember the day in every particular. I spent the morning in the reference room of the New York Public Library on 42nd and 5th Avenue. In early afternoon, I started back to The Breslin, headed down toward Herald Square. As I walked , I noticed that people were crowded around newsstands. I could hear the muffled sound of newsstand radios as I passed. I stopped a man and asked, “What’s going on?” He said, “The President’s been shot.”
Back at The Breslin, a small crowd was gathered around the lobby TV. The major turned as I entered. “He’s dead. They shot him,” he said. His face was drained of color and there was a hurt in his eyes I remember to this day. At the desk, Cara was in tears. She took something from my mail slot and slid it toward me. “There was a woman here this morning. She left you this.”
The note was folded once over and sealed with scotch tape. “Just passing by. Thought we might chat. I will be at Kelly’s Bar on Lexington across from Grand Central at 4. Look for a motherly type in navy-blue. We can talk about heartache.” I pocketed the note and went upstairs to my room. For an hour, I lay on the bed, watching the events unfold on TV. I thought of my life, and my attempts at writing, and suddenly it all seemed so juvenile. Occasionally I’d glance at the note and feel a flush of embarrassment.
Kelly’s Bar at 4 was dark, and there was a makeshift sign, “Closed in Respect” taped to the front door. I felt relief as I walked away. That evening, not wanting to be alone, I packed a few things and caught a Greyhound for my parents’ home in Connecticut. I remember the hush that had fallen over the city as I walked the thirteen blocks from The Breslin to the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Even the traffic horns were respectfully silent. On every newsstand, the evening editions blared, “PRESIDENT SHOT DEAD.” On the bus, a guy and a girl laughed out loud about something and were roundly shushed. The rest of the two-hour trip unfolded in silence.
I watched, with the rest of the world, the events of that weekend. By Monday I had decided to give up the New York pipedream and make a serious go at a career. Next day I returned to The Breslin, packed up my typewriter and moved back to Connecticut. Soon afterwards I went to work for Aetna Life & Casualty in Hartford and began a long career as an insurance company systems developer. My writing became an avocation.
I never met Miss X. I have several times popped into Kelly’s Bar, and once I had a long conversation with the barkeep there. I don't believe the word heartache came up. I’ve had heartaches of my own over the years – none, perhaps, beyond the usual in life, but among them, and far from the least of them, I can tell you, is the memory of those few months at The Breslin in the fall of ’63.
~~ Robert Brault