Today's Reading

There were other refugees of the silent era still living at the hotel—a one-time makeup artist who cut hair in her room, a master carpenter who did odd jobs around the neighborhood, a widowed British actor who'd barricaded himself in his two-room suite during the Cuban missile crisis back in October. Claude kept an eye out for them, offered to pick up prescriptions or newspapers on his walks, brought takeout up from the lobby when one of them was under the weather, but although they were friendly they never talked about the old days. And they never mentioned Susan Berg's lobby monologues or the silent era memorabilia Claude had stashed away in his small suite.

* * *

When Claude thought about the hotel's heyday, he remembered the house band, the Hungarian Symphonette, playing out on the Lido patio while celebrities danced or, later, Houdini's widow holding a séance on the rooftop to commune with the escape artist, or the time that Elvis recorded "Love Me Tender" in room 1016. He'd witnessed and photographed the passing of a golden, burnished epoch. A passenger sitting at the window on a train at dusk, it seemed to him now. In 1954, Claude had met Marilyn Monroe in the elevator after she'd eloped with Joe DiMaggio, a canvas bag of mushrooms hung over Claude's shoulder, and she'd been kind enough to ask him about his foraging expeditions. Somewhere in his suite, he had an undeveloped negative of the actress holding up a black elfin saddle mushroom as if it were a dead mouse. Later, in the lobby, she blew him a kiss and called him the mushroom hunter from the elevator, oblivious to the fact that he was a film pioneer.

* * *

When the newspapers reported Marilyn Monroe's suicide in her Brentwood home back in August, he'd thought about her in the elevator, imagined her forever rising between floors toward the sundeck. He remembered her hold- ing a towel and a transistor radio, smelling of rose-hip shampoo and cigarettes, girlish and shy behind her oversized sunglasses. That was how history showed up at the Knickerbocker, fleetingly and behind smoked glass. The hotel was once a place to be seen and now it was a place to hide or disappear, sometimes forever.

* * *

For the most part, the suicides on the eleventh floor were gruesomely quiet affairs—barbiturate overdoses or the lancing of arteries in a bathtub. But in November, a costume designer had left the world noisily and it rattled Claude in a way he couldn't explain. He'd been out on the sidewalk talking to Sid, returning from one of his walks, perhaps holding up an exemplary sprig of chervil into the sunlight, when he looked up and saw Irene Lentz—he would learn her name later—sitting on the ledge of a bathroom window on the top floor. She sat there calmly for a moment, kicking her bare feet back and forth, testing the air as if it were a swimming pool, and then she edged off the sill. She shot down toward the concrete awning, flailing and screaming, and Claude felt his hands rise involuntarily above his head as she fell. She landed right behind the neon Hollywood sign with a sound that left nothing to the imagination.

* * *

1962 had already featured a man going into space orbit and the Russians pointing nuclear missiles at Florida, but it was somehow the sight of Irene Lentz's covered body being lowered by medics on a gurney with ropes that shook something loose in him. For months, he'd been reading but not responding to the earnest, flattering letters of a film graduate student, and it was the afternoon of the suicide when he finally wrote back to suggest a meeting. It was time to tell the story of how he'd ended up on this desolate shoreline, time to wave back at the spinning world.

* * *

In one of his letters, Martin Embry had referred to Claude's first silent feature, The Electric Hotel, as a lost masterpiece, and now Claude found it difficult to square that phrasing with the fact that his correspondent was fifteen minutes late. Did one keep an eighty-five-year-old master waiting? As if summoned by this thought, Sid opened one of the glass doors for a shaggy blond man in his twenties, wearing a tan suede coat and a bolo tie. The doorman pointed in Claude's direction and then fell in behind the visitor. Claude busied himself with his mushrooms and fennel fronds because it was bad manners to be late but it was worse manners to notice.

* * *
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