The Man Who Knew Infinity
An account of a remarkable person should strive to be as equally remarkable as its subject, not the timid and tidy boilerplate special of a…
"A water bed?" Robert Mitchum said. "What would that be? A bed filled with water?"
"A mattress actually," Bailey, said.
Bailey was Mitchum's press agent. "They fill the mattress with water. Then you just sort of jump on, and slosh around."
"I'll be," said Mitchum.
"Steve Allen had one on TV the other night," Bailey said. "He was jumping up and down on it, and the damn thing broke. Flooded everyone in the front row."
"Should have known enough to cut his toenails," Mitchum said and sipped his Pernod. "You want a glass of water in the middle of the night, and the next thing you know, you're awash. Or, as Lady Astor said aboard the Titanic, I ordered ice, but this is ridiculous."
Mitchum lowered his sleepy eyes to his Pernod, and Bailey chuckled.
"All I'm having is Pernod," Mitchum said. "Drinking bores me today."
"What was he saying?" Mitchum said.
Something about his wife falling off a mountain, I said.
Mitchum and Bailey, who'd been in Dingle, Ireland, for nine months with Trevor Howard and his wife, laughed uproariously.
"That was Trevor for you," Mitchum said. "I'll tell you what really happened. It wasn't a mountain, it was a ten-foot ledge. Helen was walking up to my cottage one night. The road turned, and she went straight. Bloody Irish roads.
"We were having a bit of a party at my place. A few drinks, a few laughs. Trevor was in the kitchen making love to a bottle of Chivas Regal. Harold, my stand-in, walked out front of the cottage and came in white as a sheet. He said there was a woman outside with a bloody head and only one shoe. We went out and it was Helen. We got her on the couch and fanned her back to witness, and she said she'd fallen off the ledge. Dead sober she was."
Mitchum sipped his Pernod. "Anyway," he said, "I went into the kitchen to tell Trevor. 'Nonsense,' Trevor said. 'Pay no attention. She pulls these stunts all the time. It's her way of attracting attention.' Then Trevor poured himself another Chivas . . ."
Mitchum shrugged. "Well, as it turned out, poor Helen had broken her tailbone. That meant a 25-mile ride over the mountains in a Land Rover to the nearest hospital, at Tralee. So I went back into the kitchen and I broke the news to Trevor."
"Right you are, sport," Trevor said. "Bloody unpleasant trip over the mountain on a rocky road to Tralee in a Land Rover."
"It's going to be awfully painful." Mitchum said he told Howard. 'Poor Helen sitting up in a Land Rover with her sore back."
"Yes, yes, indeed," Trevor said. "Bloody difficult trip. Sure to be goddamned uncomfortable. No sense in my going....
Mitchum and Bailey had a good laugh, and Mitchum sipped his Pernod. "I made it a condition of my employment," he said, "that Trevor also be in 'Ryan's Daughter.' All I gotta do is glom him and I know I'm all right...."
It was time to find our way to a French restaurant where reservations had been made. Mitchum was recognized by a woman in the hotel elevator, who asked him how his son was.
"All right," Mitchum said. "Doesn't send any money."
The French restaurant was dark and atmospheric, and Mitchum got to thinking he should borrow a nice French waiter for his secretary. "She's a good girl, deserves a treat," he said.
But then he got to thinking about all the secretaries and other females who had him, he said, surrounded. "I'm bedeviled by a legion of maternalistic taskmasters the least offensive of which is probably my mother. Women are always telling me to do this, do that. They flay me. And another thing. A woman can never abide an unmarried man. They take it as an affront to themselves. They're always wondering, What about me? They can't rest unless they get the toe out of you...
"In Ireland, now, there's a funny situation. You rarely ever see a pretty girl. Oh, you see a lot of classic tribal beauties, but no merely pretty girls. They have to get diluted for a generation over here before they're pretty. Over there, they're classic beauties or nothing...
"Remember X's landlady," Bailey said, after asking me for obvious reasons not to print X's name.
"Vaguely," Mitchum said.
"What a beauty she was;" Bailey said.
"Vaguely remember her," Mitchum said.
"You mean you didn't hear all those stories I told?" Bailey said.
"That lady," Bailey said, "was reputed to be the warmest-blooded woman on the whole of the Dingle Peninsula."
"X's landlady?" Mitchum said.
"Right," Bailey said.
"Why," asked Mitchum, "the late publication of this intelligence?"
I reminded Mitchum that the last time I'd seen him he was standing in the yard of his cottage in Dingle, holding a pot in his hand. The pot contained spindly twigs of a plant, which can be found illustrated in certain U.S. government leaflets. His last words had been: "In my hands I hold the hopes of the Dingle Botanical Society."
"Yes," Mitchum said. "Well, the crop failed. My crop failed, but we had this prop man on the movie, Z was his name, who had the most magnificent crop you'd ever hope to see. One day he was tending his garden and Constable Connors pedaled up on his bicycle...
And Mitchum's account continued this way:
"Good day sir," said Constable Connors.
"And a good day to you." Z replied.
"Are you keen on gardening?" asked the constable.
"Frightfully keen," said Z.
"And what might you be tending there?" inquired the constable.
"That? Oh, that's an herb," said Z. I'm terrible keen on curry, you know, and you just can't make my favorite curry without this Indian herb. It's difficult to obtain here on the peninsula, so I brought along some seeds."
"Marvelous," said the constable. "Marvelous day, too, isn't it?"
"Yes," said Z. "The mountain is so clear."
"Well," said Constable Connors, mounting his bicycle again, "that's a healthy crop you've got there. You'll have to invite me for curry one of these days."
"Yes indeed." said Z.
"You'll find," said the constable as he wheeled away, "there's no soil like the soil of Dingle for making any crop flourish."
"Ah, yes," said Z.
* * * *
On the same evening, Bailey told me this story, with a punch line I could not print at the time. Bailey speaking:
The studio assigned me to go along with Trevor Howard on a press tour of West Germany. I got him to the airport, where he stopped at Duty Free and bought one of those new digital watches, with the time, day, month, year, stopwatch, everything.
Then he stopped at the pub and had a few pints. Then he had to go to the men’s room. Then we got on the plane, for three glorious weeks in Germany, where he was always kissing the mayor and shaking hands with the girl with the flowers.
Back at Heathrow again, he had to use the facilities. We stopped at either the same men’s room, or one that was architecturally identical. I waited outside in the corridor. I began to hear cries of dread. Aaargh! Aaahhh! Noooo!
I raced instead. It was Trevor, standing at a urinal and looking at his new watch.
“Trevor! What’s the matter?”
“I’ve been pissing for three weeks!”
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