Russell & Markson

Drink, Eat, Schtupp.” A work of fiction that whisks readers into the heart of Tinseltown where a young up-and-comer learns the ropes from a veteran “rascal and a rogue”…

by: Alan Swyer

It was because of Nick Russell, who had assumed the dual roles of surrogate big brother and mentor, that Phil Bloom first got to know Edgar Markson.

That came about after Russell, already on the downside of a lengthy career, and Bloom, who was relatively new to show biz, joined forces to write two sitcom pilots that, though well-received, failed to get a “green light.” During a nearly eight-month period, Bloom was privy to a wealth of insider lore from the days before Hollywood discovered terms such as franchises, branding, or focus groups. Having started his career as a stuntman, Russell — the only one brave, or desperate enough, to portray an elderly lady in a wheelchair pushed down a flight of stairs by Richard Widmark in Kiss Of Death — had done a stint as stunt double for Humphrey Bogart before maturing into a triple threat:  writer, director, and producer. Over lunches and during breaks he continually regaled Bloom with tales from days gone by. Though Bloom loved hearing about the likes of Robert Mitchum and John Huston, plus the making of Burns & Allen, Sgt. Bilko, and Mr. Ed, one tidbit in particular stood out. When Russell, who was an avid reader, discovered that Bogart, during his New York theater days, resided at the Algonquin, he promptly inquired about lunches there, expecting to hear about Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and Alexander Woollcott.  Instead Bogie simply responded, “Great hobo steak.”    

Bloom also received a tutorial in the art of funny. First came what Russell termed “The Rule of Three.” For maximum effectiveness, a joke must be told three different times with minor variations — the first and second to build tension, the third to provide a release. Under three attempts sells your joke short, but more than oversells it. Additionally, certain words are intrinsically amusing; others are not. “Chicken” invariably gets a laugh, whereas “pigeon” doesn’t. “Lollygag” succeeds, but not “dawdle.”  “Woebegone” works, while “sad” and “miserable” fail.

There was also an anecdote Russell shared describing the trick used by old-time stuntmen to keep from being nervous when auditioning for a gig. When a hundred bucks was a lot, they’d go to the bank and take out a hundred dollar bill. With that in their pocket, they could tell themselves, as they headed to the studio, that if things didn’t work out they could still buy a Scotch, a steak, and even a hooker.

Of lesser interest to Bloom, though he tried his best not to let on, were the vignettes Russell recounted about his Army days, filled with a cast of characters he clearly cherished.

One Tuesday morning, Bloom met his mentor and writing partner for breakfast. Over bowls of granola, Russell revealed that he’d been offered an opportunity to create reality shows.

“Terrific!” responded Bloom.

“Except I haven’t got a single idea.”

“What about quick-fix psychiatric help?”

“Go on…” urged Russell.

“You know,” said Bloom. “Crisis intervention.”

“Tell me more.”

“If and when you find a shrink…“

“Yeah?“

“Explain that on the way to the airport for a trip to Paris, he or she…“

“Or it!“ joked Russell.

“Says, ‘Oh, shit! My passport’s at the office’.”

“And?”

“Waiting there at the office is a patient who’s flipping out.”

“Which means?”

“Handle it in ten minutes or less.”

“Or?”

“Miss the flight.”

“Perfect!” Russell exclaimed. “We’re gonna make this.”

“Who’s we?”

“You and I will produce it.”

Having survived in Los Angeles for nearly three years on modest earnings plus an occasional pat on the head, yet with not one moment of footage being shot, Bloom was stunned to be part of a project that was fast-tracked with himself listed as producer. 

Nonetheless, he was dismayed when Russell mentioned adding Edgar Markson, whom Bloom had only met in passing, to the team.

“If you don’t mind my asking,” Bloom began hesitantly, “what does Markson bring to the table?”

“He’s kind of adrift at the moment, he could use the work,” Russell explained apologetically. “I’ll make sure he keeps a low profile, and only pitches in when needed.”

Out of respect for Russell, Bloom acquiesced.

Despite Bloom’s misgivings, Markson initially proved to be inconspicuous yet accommodating. Then came a Wednesday morning Bloom would never forget, with Markson accompanying Russell and Bloom to a meeting with the production company’s CEO.

“Because you’ll be dealing with people on edge,” Don Rehnquist stated midway through the session, “we may have some liability exposure. Have you considered having someone on set just in case?”

“My thought is to have a nurse,” answered Bloom.

As Rehnquist nodded his approval, Markson, who had not yet uttered a peep, suddenly spoke. “Why go to the expense of hiring a real one?”

“I beg your pardon?” said Rehnquist.

“We’ll simply hire a jolly, fat woman, then put her in a white uniform.”

The stunned silence that followed was broken only when Russell leaned toward Bloom.  “Want to fire him?” he whispered.

“No,” responded Bloom.  “I want to kill him!”

It was once again due to Nick Russell, that Edgar Markson reentered Phil Bloom’s life a year-and-a-half later, when Russell, who loathed incidents in both film and life that seemed random or deus ex machina, was killed when a truck totaled his Jaguar on the San Diego Freeway. 

At a gathering thrown by Russell’s widow at one of her husband’s favorite haunts, Markson made a point of seeking Bloom out. “Buy you lunch one of these days?” Markson asked.

Again it was solely out of deference to Russell that Bloom agreed, hoping that Markson would fail to set a date. But call he did.

“Russo really liked you,” Markson avowed as Bloom arrived at a Persian restaurant in West Los Angeles.

“I beg your pardon?”

“You didn’t think his name was really Russell, did you?”

“I uhh…“

“Guess you never met Mr. Russo.”

“Who?”

“Nick’s father. Which means you probably didn’t even know the family was Jewish.”

When Bloom shook his head, Markson continued. “People think the name’s Italian, but its roots are Sephardic. How much more do you want to know about our friend?”

“How much more is there?”

“I assume you’ve heard his stories.”

Bloom sighed. “Please don’t tell me everything about Bogart, Dobie Gillis, and Mr. Ed is made-up.”

“Every bit of it is documented and true. He led an eventful and colorful life.”

“Except?”

“You’ve heard some of his Army stories?”

“Tons.”

“What if I tell you he never served?”

“You’re kidding.”

“Everything he knew about the military came from war movies and working on Bilko.”

“But those guys he talked about…”

“Havanki? O’Connor? Hotchkiss? Fiori?”

Bloom nodded.

“Characters in a novel or screenplay that never got written. Our friend Nick was a smart, wonderful, but very strange guy. Want more?”

“Yes and no,” mumbled Bloom. “How long did you guys know each other?”

“Let’s put it this way. He and I got a movie made in the 70’s.”

“I’ve seen it.”

“And a cheapie that was midway between indie art film and soft-core porn.”

“Haven’t seen that one.”

“And before that, we worked together in Rome for Carlo Ponti.”

“The producer married to Sophia Loren?”

Markson nodded. “We shared an apartment during the heyday of Fellini and Rosselini.”

Bloom sighed.

“And though I didn’t know his first wife,” added Markson, “I’ve known numbers two and three, plus all his kids.” The older man took a sip of coffee before speaking again. “Ever heard of an amazing singer and guitar player named Sister Rosetta Tharpe?”

“The Godmother of Rock & Roll? I’ve seen clips on YouTube.”

“What if I tell you she and Nick lived together for a while?”

“Wow!” said Bloom.

Even more surprising than all the revelations about Nick Russell was that Bloom found himself looking forward to another session with Markson. One lunch led to another, then a third, all at international restaurants — Oaxacan, Ethiopian, and Uigher — with Bloom acquiring more and more knowledge about a man he had misjudged.

Markson, Bloom came to learn, was born into the movie business, the son of a Brooklyn-born Jew who enterprisingly produced classic films first in Berlin, then in Paris, before finishing his career making programmers in Hollywood. Speaking several languages, Markson served in the Marines before becoming an Associate Producer first for his father, then on international co-productions. On those he made use of his language skills, plus his ability to find the best hotels and restaurants, as well as, Bloom deduced, nighttime companions for stars, directors, and producers.

Since Bloom, like Markson, had spent a fair amount of time in Paris, the two took to conversing in French, playfully addressing each other as Monsieur Edgar and Monsieur Phil. It was because of their shared language skill that Edgar was able to express not only once, but time and time again, why his philosophy was shaped by what in Paris are known as Les Trois B’s: Boire, Bouffe, Baiser, which the two of them translated as Drink, Eat, Schtupp.

As for the on-again-off-again partnership known as Russell & Markson, which Edgar described, not entirely in jest, as “ad hoc and often in hock,” Bloom learned that in many ways the men were like a long-married, often bickering couple. Complicating matters, their wives — the incumbent Mrs. Markson and the recently-widowed Mrs. Russell — had little use for each other.

Another of Bloom’s realizations was that with their friendships, there were well-defined lines of demarcation. There was Russell’s camp, then there was Markson’s. That clarified why, except for their inconspicuous beginning, Russell had willfully kept him and Edgar apart.

As Bloom explained to his girlfriend, Emily, when the two of them were headed to a dinner party at his new buddy’s house, in addition to being a rascal and a rogue, Markson was a raconteur par excellence, whose experiences with the likes of Ingmar Bergman, Billy Wilder, and Bob Fosse brought to life an age the movie business would never see again.

Despite Emily’s fear that those gathered would be vestiges of a long gone world, she was delighted to encounter a group, young and old, that included the owner of an art gallery, the publisher of coffee table books, a German film editor, and a music business mogul. 

With Edgar at the stove, and his Japanese-American wife Loretta as charming hostess, the evening was an unexpected joy.

Even better, it proved to be the first of many, with Bloom and Emily, East Coasters with no family in California, becoming regulars not just for feasts with fare from France, Italy, Morocco, and Korea, but also for holiday gatherings. 

It was at the Marksons’ that the two of them came to spend Thanksgiving, Christmas, the first Seder, and other special evenings over the next couple of years, as part of a group that included Henri the gallery owner, Sofia, the German film editor, Andy, the music promoter, and Laurie, whose father was an old friend of Edgar’s, plus the host and hostesses’ daughters: Patti, the ebullient result of Edgar’s first marriage and Catherine, the begrudging offspring of Loretta’s first.

More important for Bloom and Emily, Markson and Loretta, with their constant excursions to museums, concerts, and speaking events, plus trips to far-off lands and an ability to assemble interesting people of all ages, became role models — living proof that growing older did not have to mean getting old.

When Bloom was able to use the reality pilot as a springboard to film a documentary about the Latinization of boxing both in the ring and in the stands, time constraints made lunches with Markson difficult. To compensate, he took to calling his friend every day, usually while driving to or from work. Together the two would discuss films — Edgar revered Lawrence Of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago (which Bloom called bombastic), while Bloom adored Pierrot Le Fou and La Guerre Est Finie (which Edgar termed artsy-fartsy), yet both loved Children Of Paradise and In A Lonely Place. Beyond disputing films, they would argue books as Edgar worshiped Robert Louis Stevenson and Walter Scott while Bloom preferred Pynchon and Nabokov, but both enjoyed Hemingway and Garcia Marquez. They would also amuse each other with jokes, Edger leaning toward the one about the waiter who approaches a table of five Jewish women eating lunch and asks, Ladies, is anything okay?, whereas Bloom preferred musician jokes such as Q: What do you call a drummer in a three piece suit?  A:  Defendant. Above all they would relentlessly tease each other about politics, with the ex-Marine, who adored Margaret Thatcher and voted for W, labeling Bloom a pinko, and the younger man, who considered the Clintons to be Republican Lite and deemed Obama right of center, referring to Markson as the Jewish David Duke.

When, after weeks of alternating between shooting interviews in Southern California, Las Vegas, Florida, and Puerto Rico and editing, then an additional three months of additional post-production, a rough cut of El Boxeo was finished, Bloom called Markson with a request. “Please sit and watch it with me.”

“I know as little about boxing as ballet,” Markson protested.

“Perfect,” Bloom explained. “What I’m hoping is that the film is about race, language, culture, and the immigrant experience.”

“Plus boxing?” asked Markson.

“Plus boxing.”

Thrilled to be back in an editing room, Markson’s thoughts, ideas, and notions proved helpful as Bloom and his editor struggled to reduce the running time first from two-and-a-half hours to a hundred minutes, then to the desired length of ninety minutes.

Upon learning that the film had been invited to the Oaxaca Film Festival, Markson did more than congratulate his friend. “What if Loretta and I tag along?” he asked.

Together with three of Bloom’s crew members, Markson, Loretta, and Bloom spent a glorious week attending the screening, eating mole, drinking Mescal, and climbing the local pyramids.

Ten days after their return to Los Angeles, however, Markson suffered a heart attack while shopping at Costco. During the hospital stay that ensued, Bloom made daily visits, bringing along novels in French by a writer named Jean-Claude Izzo, which Markson gleefully devoured. In the aftermath of the hospital stay, upon learning that Markson’s cardiologist had twice kept him and Loretta waiting nearly three hours for scheduled office visits, Bloom intervened, engineering a switch to someone more responsive.

Though it appeared Markson was on the mend, those hopes gave way to a roller-coaster ride of trips to the emergency room, followed by sojourns in rehab centers, with Bloom making frequent visits, often with Emily, other times alone.

Once Markson was again ensconced in his own home, Bloom was troubled by an unexpected call from Sofia, who visited the Marksons almost daily to drop off freshly baked scones, streudel, or snickerdoodles. “Got time for a coffee with Patti and me?” she asked. A get-together was scheduled for the next afternoon.

“You’ve been great about visiting my dad,” Patti when Bloom joined the two women at a Santa Monica coffee house rumored to be owned by Bob Dylan.

“But,” interjected Sofia, “how often have you seen Loretta at the rehab places?”

“And when you go to the house,” added Patti before Bloom could respond, “how does she behave?”

“Where’s this headed?” Bloom asked.

“Have you seen her treat him differently?” inquired Sofia.

“Meaning badly?” Patti interjected with a sigh.

Reluctantly, Bloom nodded.

“She’s playing up to her daughter,” said Patti.

“Who never liked Edgar,” Sofia stated.

“Or men in general,” sneered Patti.

“Plus,” grumbled Sofia, “the two of them are insisting that he keep the TV off.”

“And you know how much he loves to watch Netflix and the news,” added Patti.

“You know I’ve always liked Loretta,” Bloom offered after a moment of reflection. “But I’m afraid she feels Edgar’s let her down.”

“How?” asked Sofia.

“Whether it was working with Fosse, Wilder, or Bergman, or being invited to festivals, screenings,  or dinners at the French Consulate, she’s led an amazing life.”

The two women nodded.

“But how?” inquired Bloom.

“What’s that mean?” wondered Patti.

“As Mr. Markson plus one,” Bloom announced. “Only now…”

“Mr. Markson’s no longer up to it,” acknowledged Sofia.

“Which,” agreed Bloom, “means she’s moved on.”

“With Catherine as the next in line,” said Patti ruefully.

Hoping that the description given by Patti and Sofia had been an overstatement or a bit too-melodramatic, Bloom drove up Coldwater Canyon to the Marksons’ the next afternoon.

What he found, he reported to Emily that evening, exceeded his worst fears. Playing to an audience of one — her daughter Catherine — Loretta bore no resemblance to the woman whose company he had so enjoyed. With Edgar enfeebled, she rode him incessantly, admonishing him to sit up straight, whining that she no longer had a social life, and grumbling that she could never stand the house where they lived.

Bloom tried hard to ignore the incessant nagging and carping. But when Loretta and Catherine begin discussing putting Edgar in a home, which would enable them to move to Palm Springs, he finally spoke. “Do you think we can’t hear you?” he asked so forcefully that both  mother and daughter jumped. “It’s not fair.”

Before leaving, Bloom whispered to Edgar. “When you’re stronger, we’ll start going out for lunches again.”

“Can’t wait,” Edgar replied.

Two weeks later, Patti informed Bloom that her father had been cleared to make occasional forays into the world. But when Bloom phoned to make arrangements, Markson insisted that Loretta be on the call.

“It’ll be fun for the three of us to go out,” she said gleefully. “Or four if Catherine’s available.”

“Not what I had in mind,” Bloom responded. “This is not just to get Edgar out. It’s to give you some free time.”

“B-but…” Loretta mumbled.

“Boys day out,” Bloom stated firmly.

Each and every time that Bloom came to pick up Markson for a lunch, he watched a metamorphosis take place. Once seated in Bloom’s car, the older man, so fearful and moribund at home due to the new reign of terror, blossomed into a reasonable facsimile of his former self. As the meal was served at one of the third world places they cherished, he turned into a shark, thrilled to be devouring something with far more taste than the microwaved foods he was being fed at home.

The only down note for Bloom at the first of the lunches was that, midway through the meal at their favorite Oaxacan place, a somewhat revived Markson started glorifying his wife, praising her loving attention and care.

When Markson went into the same spiel at an Indian restaurant, Bloom again bit his tongue, as he did the next time they ate Korean food.

But the fourth time the fictitious rendering began, over Indian food on Pico Boulevard, Bloom held up his hand. “Enough!” he insisted.

“What’s wrong?” asked Markson.

“Fool yourself all you want, but don’t try to fool me. Or Patti. Or Sofia. Or anyone else who knows what’s what.”

“What do you mean?” mumbled Markson.

“We know how Loretta’s been behaving.”

“Really?”

“Why do you think these lunches are just the two of us?”

Markson sighed. “She’s doing all she can.”

“Sure fooled me.”

What Bloom did not know when he dropped Markson off that afternoon was that the two of them would never again go out for mole, kimchi, doro wat, chicken vindaloo, or any other exotica. Four days later, Markson was rushed to the hospital because of another heart attack.

Talk of emergency surgery was cut short by the realization that he was far too frail to survive such an invasive procedure. 

Two days later, when visitors were allowed, Bloom was the first to arrive.

“So no surgery?” he asked upon entering Markson’s room.

“Goys have surgery,” joked Markson, his voice barely audible. “Jews go under the knife.”

Several minutes later, Bloom asked the question that had been on his mind since the moment he arrived. “Has Loretta been around?”

Markson frowned. “I told her it wasn’t necessary,” he said softly.

“Bullshit!”

Markson shrugged. “She means well.”

“Now I’ll tell one,” replied Bloom.

“Phil!”a familiar voice yelled as Bloom was leaving the hospital. It was Patti, approaching with Petra. 

“So tell me…” Bloom began once hugs were exchanged.

“If Loretta’s been here?” said Sofia, anticipating his question.

“If only…” Patti stated.

“And what exactly do the doctors say?”

“Amateau…” said Patti.

“His internist…” added Sofia.

“Only speaks in generalities.”

“And the cardiologist?” asked Bloom.

Patti gulped. “Robbins says my dad shouldn’t buy green bananas.”

Bloom took a deep breath. “We talking a week?”

“If only,” responded Patti, bursting into tears while Sofia held up first two, then three fingers.

Unnerved, Bloom called Markson’s house once he climbed into his car, only to have Catherine answer.

“Guess who’s conspicuous in her absence at the hospital,” Bloom stated after a moment of pleasantries.

“Mom can’t be expected to spend all her time there,” Catherine hissed.

“Bullshit!” Bloom exploded. “We’re not talking six months, or even six weeks.”

“Still…” countered Catherine.

“Still, nothing! We’re talking today, tomorrow, or the next day!”

For Bloom, even more painful than the inevitable loss of his friend two nights later was the unavoidable awareness that Markson died with a broken heart.

With Loretta aiming for what Patti later described as a Best Actress nomination for her performance as a grieving widow, and Catherine nowhere in sight, the mood at the memorial service was decidedly grim as Henri, Laurie, Andy, Sofia, and others spoke movingly about Markson. Then came a weeping Patti, followed by Bloom, who stood at the podium and gazed momentarily at the mourners.

“It’s understandable why everyone’s so solemn,” he then began, “because in a world that favors conformity, we’ve lost someone special, singular, unique. But the truth is that while he worked in the arts his entire career, Edgar Markson’s most important creation was himself: the dashing polyglot able to regale us with stories of his travels and adventures, prepare sumptuous feasts, and lecture on subjects as diverse as the history of film, the Ottoman Empire, and the demi-monde of long-gone Paris and Hong Kong.  Despite all his worldliness and erudition, let’s not forget that Edgar was proudly, forthrightly, and willfully a rascal and a rogue. Anyone here speak French?”

Henri raised his hand, as did a couple of others.

“Let me end by sharing what Edgar called his philosophy, acquired as a young man in Paris, which he called Les Trois B’s: Boire, Bouffe, Baiser. In English, that’s Drink, Eat, Schtupp.”

There was a moment of stunned silence. Then Emily giggled, Sofia chortled, and Henri guffawed. Soon the entire room was laughing, except for Loretta, who was miffed at no longer being the center of attention.

Though there was talk of a reunion of the regulars to celebrate Markson’s birthday, without his organizing skills, nothing ever materialized.

For Bloom, an era was over, finished, ended. Except for bumping into Henri occasionally, it was only Sofia whom he and Emily continued to see. 

With their mutual friend no longer around to bake for, she came by often with Bloom’s favorite dessert, a rhubarb tart. Together they would tell Markson stories.

 

Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera, plus a new one called “When Houston Had The Blues.”  In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel The Beard was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *