It’s as much fun as you’re going to have in a movie theater this year.
My friend Billy Baxter passed away in his sleep, early on the morning of Friday, Jan. 20, 2012. He was 86. His son Jack wrote me:
"He didn't suffer. I was with him when he was taken to the hospital by ambulance on Wednesday. He died in his sleep early this morning. His wake is Monday, January 23, at Barrett Funeral Home, 424 West 51st Street, from 2-5 and 7-9. His funeral mass is Tuesday at 10am at St. Paul the Apostle, 405 W 59th St, New York, 10019. He is being cremated."
Billy was a friend for 35 years. He used to threatened to sue me for royalties owed him: "I've made you a millionaire." He was a star in three of my books. In Two Weeks in the Midday Sun (1987), my journal from the Cannes Film Festival, I wrote an account of his negotiations with Dusty Cohl over the sale of the rights to "Outrageous!" Then he inspired a character named "Billy Baxter" in a 52-part newspaper serial I wrote, published as Behind the Phantom's Mask (1983). The following entry for my blog formed the basis for a chapter in my memoirs, Life Itself (2011). I will not see his like again. You can view Billy in person in the video at the end of this piece, first posted before the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.
Billy was a loudmouth operator from the pages of Damon Runyon, whose gift was creating scenarios to entertain us. He didn't want our money, he didn't want publicity, he didn't want a free lunch, he only wanted our laughter, and to know that we would pass around the latest "Billy Baxter story." We are still passing them around. Billy is still very much alive, and we are in touch; he lives not far from Broadway, which is to Billy as the stream is to the trout. But all of my stories about him will be set in Cannes, because that was his stage, and he the player on it.
I was never quite sure what Billy did, or even how he earned a living, although there were many, many stories. I will tell you that he was never short of funds, and never committed any crimes that I heard about, and if Billy had committed any crimes, we would have all heard about it. I met him the first time I went to Cannes, in the mid-1970s. I walked into the American Bar of the Hotel Majestic, and heard my name resounding in the air:
Ro-jay Eggplant! Get over here! Irving! Brang 'em on! Johnny Walker! Black Label! Generous portion! Clean glass! Pas de soda! Pas de ice! And clear off this shit and bring us some of those little olives! And some better peanuts! A pink-faced man with an Irish pompadour was patting the chair next to him. I had never seen him before. "Sit down right here, Monsieur Eeebair! You know the sexy Miss Carroll, dontcha?" I did. He was seated next to Kathleen Carroll, the film critic of the New York Daily News. He never introduced her as his girlfriend. That would have been too mundane. She was described only in compliments: The love of my life. The most beautiful woman in France. She makes me the envy of every guy in Cannes. Catherine Denouveau, get out of town! It was Billy's opinion that every man in Cannes, and indeed everywhere, lusted for Kathleen, who was protected from their predations only by his tireless vigilance.
Kathleen was indeed lovely. She was a gracious product of Catholic girls' schools, soft spoken, smart, conservatively dressed, low-key. It amazed us that she had taken up with the closest thing to Nathan Detroit that any of us would ever meet. I don't believe Damon Runyon ever met anyone closer, either. When Billy was in the Majestic Bar, he owned it. It was his headquarters. All the top stars and producers stayed there, and he kept an eagle eye on the arrivals, grandly introducing mispronounced people he had never met. Lord Low Grade, meet John Weisenheimer! Boop-a-doop! He did this with such confidence that these strangers felt strangely pleased to be assigned supporting roles in his act.
Silver Dollar Baxter got his nickname because he arrived at Cannes every year with 2,000 American silver dollars, which he bestowed as tips. "You think this is something?" he told me. "You shoulda seen what I paid in air freight. I gotta send them in advance, because you try to get through customs with 2,000 silver dollars, you're gonna be explaining things for hours. My banker handles it."
"Do you call your banker Irving?"
"Yeah. Irving Trust."
Billy had decided some years earlier that all waiters in every saloon in the world were named "Irving." And every establishment he entered became a saloon: The Majestic, the Hotel Carlton, Chez Felix, les Moulins des Mougins, the Grand Hotel du cap d'Antibes, the Casino des Fleurs, La Pizza, every single one.
The Hotel du Cap, or "Hotel Cap Gun," was so exclusive in those days it refused all credit cards and personal checks. Only payment in cash was accepted. Movie moguls arrived with their valets padlocked to briefcases. Madonna once had the pool cleared for her morning dip. Prince Albert of Monaco was rumored to run a tab. Billy reduced this splendor to its essence: Irving! Brang 'em on! He never asked someone if he could buy them a drink. He announced it from across the room. Irving! Take care of Francis Ford Chrysler over there! And set 'em up for Prince Albert in a can! Whatever he's having. Doo-blays!
Did this cause offense? Did security men in tuxedos form a human wall and walk him out of the room? Not at all. The waiters snapped to attention. Everyone in the room would be grinning. Billy got away with it by the simple expedient of daring to do it at all. It took confidence, timing, nerve, and above all style.
So great was Billy's generosity that other customers began to take his hospitality for granted, and would sign his room number to their own bar bills. To stop such fraud, Billy appeared at the 1982 festival with a small rubber stamp, which reproduced his signature and added underneath, "None genuine without this mark."
Billy had a tuxedo for when one was required. For daytime wear he preferred jeans, a polo shirt, and a leather belt with a buckle made from a 1,000 franc chip from the Casino des Fleurs. One night Billy returned from the casino, threw the chip on our table in the American Bar, and announced, "My new system is working." Some hours later a worried croupier from the casino appeared and said they were trying to balance their books, and if Monsieur Baxtaire would be so kind as to return the chip, they would be happy to redeem it.
"It ain't coming back," Billy said, "so you can get that out of your head! I'm having it made into a belt buckle!"
"But, monsieur, the chip it is worth 1,000 francs!"
"You think I can't read?"
Billy had a genius for sweeping up people who had no idea who he was, and introducing them to other people he wanted to meet. "Sir Lord!" he boomed one night to Lord Grade, millionaire head of England's largest film company. "I want you to meet Miss Boop-a-Doop-a-Dee from Venezuela." Instead of remembering names, he often simply improvised them, along with identities, credits and national origin. "She directed the winning film in last year's festival. That's why she gets to come to the bar in her underwear."
Miss Boop-a-Doop-a-Dee was, in fact, Edy Williams, the starlet who became famous for traveling to Cannes to take off her clothes while standing in the public fountains. Lord Grade looked prepared to believe that she was a director from Venezuela. Indeed, he looked prepared to believe almost anything about her.
One morning around 11, Billy was in the Majestic bar reading that day's Cannes edition of Screen International. "I see here that Lord Low Grade is back in town," he announced. "He's taking delivery on his new yacht." He looked up to see Lord Grade entering the room at that moment. Uncharacteristically, Billy did not order him a drink, or introduce him to Gérard Belowpardieu. "Irving! Hotel stationery! Fountain pen! On the doo-blay! Hup, hup, hup!" The embossed stationery was produced, and Billy composed a letter:
He signed the letter, called for a candle, dripped wax on the flap, and sealed it with his ring.
"Billy, this is the most insane stunt you've ever pulled," Rex said.
"Be out in front on time, sexy Rexy, or the ship sails without you."
The next morning, the Mercedes limos arrived on time, and we all piled in, ready for our audience with the man who made "Raise the Titanic," of which it was said, it would have been cheaper to lower the ocean.
We motored down the Croisette and twenty miles along the coast, past the Hotel du Cap d'Antibes, and toward the yacht harbor at Antibes. The limos pulled up to the harbor, and there was Grade, pacing nervously by his gangplank, wearing grey flannel trousers, a blue blazer and a Panama hat. In his hand was one of the twenty-five dollar cigars he fancied from the vaults of Davidoff's on Jermyn Street.
"I was growing nervous," Grade said. "I thought perhaps you hadn't been able to find the yacht."
"You kidding?" Baxter asked. "A yacht this size, you could fire off a machine gun."
Baxter led his parade of film critics aboard, and held an inspection of the ship's crew, which was standing at attention. "Any of you guys named Irving?" he asked. He passed out free flight bags that said American Express on them.
With Alexander Walker after lunch
For three or four hours, we wandered the yacht while it sailed offshore from Antibes to Cannes. Grade spoke of his latest project: "'The Muppet Movie.' I have the biggest stars. Charles Bronson and Miss Piggy." Then it was time for luncheon. A table in the shade was spread with linen and covered with cold smoked salmon, rare roast beef, iced lobster tail, caviar, salade mesclun, and fresh strawberry tarts. Far away across the blue waters of the Cote D'Azur, the hapless tenants of the Hotel du Cap shaded their eyes on the verandas of their thousand-dollar rooms and squinted at us rocking at anchor.
"I have been thinking," Grade told us, "of writing my autobiography. My life has been filled with coincidences. When I began in London, for example, I had an office across from the Palladium. Now I own the Palladium."
"What an amazing coincidence," Rex Reed said.
"I began as a dancer," Grade said. "I did a double act with my brother, Lord Delfont. I was a natural at the Charleston, but for the others I had to finesse. It was called 'eccentric dancing.' Like this."
He stood up, clasped his hands above his head, and bumped to an imaginary rhythm.
"We played Paris, Germany...we were always broke. Those were the days. I remember I was in love with twins. Two lovely girls. Dancers. I couldn't make up my mind between them."
Luncheon drew to a leisurely close. I sat in a deck chair next to Alex Walker, dozed off in the midday sun, and was awakened by a quickening tempo in Lord Grade's voice.
"Television--television!" he was saying. "What an impact. With one successful program, we reach ten times as many people as with a hit movie. My most successful television program was, of course, 'Jesus of Nazareth,' directed for me by Franco Zeffirelli. Do you know that a survey was taken of 6,525 people? Forty percent of them said they had learned the most about Jesus from my program. Twenty-one percent named the Bible. Thirty percent named the church."
"Let's see," Rex Reed said. "That still leaves nine percent undecided."
Lord Grade sighted sternly down his cigar.
"Some of them" he said, "saw it twice."
Billy's genius was to boldly cut through bureaucracy. One year he issued his own credentials to the festival. This was in connection with a Cannes television special that he had convinced Lord Grade to underwrite--perhaps while on the inaugural cruise..
"These Frenchies are all hung up on anything that looks official," he said. "They issue you a permit to take a crap. But half of the guards can't read, and besides, they don't have the time, because there's always a commie riot going on."
Taking advantage of this situation, Billy had a New York job shop print up official-looking credentials for the "World International Television Network" ("I shoulda added 'Global'," he moaned). He attached the photographs of his friends to the cards, had the cards laminated, and strung them on a chain so they could hang around our necks. Only guards with sharp eyes might be expected to read the personal details on the cards, and learn that every one of Billy's friends was exactly the same height, weight, and age, and had the same hair and eye color. "What this document certifies," he explained to us, "is that it is worn by the bearer."
At Cannes, the Marche du Film issues a little booklet with the names of key industry figures, their hotels, and the words buying or selling. I decided to do a story about a Seller and a Buyer. I knew one of each, and they agreed to allow me to observe, as long as I agreed to keep all dollar amounts "symbolic." The Seller was Dusty Cohl, my friend from Toronto, who was selling a Canadian film named "Outrageous!," which starred Craig Russell as a drag impersonator who befriends a helpless waif. The Buyer was Baxter, partnered with a kindly older man named Herb Steinman, who had made his money in aspirin, and whose wife Anna was Jack Nicholson's psychoanalyst.
"Herb is my buddy-boy back home," Baxter explained. "I bring him here, he smiles at the dolls, he takes his wife out to dinner."
On the morning when Billy was to welcome Dusty in the Majestic Bar, I sat with Herb for awhile beside the Majestic's pool. A starlet approached and stood beside Herb's deck chair. She was topless. Herb happened to turn his head and found that he was staring directly at a nipple, "I'll take the one with the pink nose," he said.
Billy materialized and took Herb into the American Bar for a conference of war.
"Herb, you know and I know that this is a hot film. But does Dusty know that? This is his first time up against experienced operators like ourselves. Okay. What do we use for openers? When we bought Lina Weissmuller's 'Love and Anarchy,' we paid $200,000 for the U.S. rights, and we cleaned up. So we gotta tell Dusty we will only pay him half of what we paid for 'Love and Anarchy,' right?"
"Sounds okay to me, Billy," said Steinman.
"Only get this. What we tell him is, we only paid half of what we did pay for 'Love and Anarchy'---so that in offering him half, we're really offering him a quarter, right?"
Silver dollar presentation at our wedding. Note the belt buckle.
"In other words," said Steinman, "25 percent."
"You got it," said Billy. "We tell him half, but we tell him half of half. Okay. We're all set. Here he comes now."
Dusty Cohl walked into the bar and sat down. He was dressed for business, with a gray summer suit, a black cowboy hat, and a Dudley Do-Right T-shirt. He passed around cigars. "Irving! Brang 'em on!" Baxter shouted. "Bring Mr. Cohl here whatever he wants, and doop-a-dop-a-doo for everybody else."
Dusty opened by pleading innocence: "I'm a guy who is new to this, I'm feeling my way, I'm learning as I go along, I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you gentlemen, and maybe we can make a deal that will make everyone happy."
"Cut the crap," Baxter said. "You got a piece of shit here about a Canadian pricksickle aficionado, and nobody wants it. You're talking to the guys who put Lina Boop-a-doop on the map. How much you want for this movie?"
"I was thinking fifty grand up front, against some guarantees and percentages," Cohl said.
Baxter was stunned. Cohl had opened low, asking for what Baxter was prepared to come back with as his opening counter-offer. Before he could open his mouth, mild-mannered Herb Steinman spoke: "Dusty, we can only give you half of 'Love and Anarchy.'"
Baxter's face turned more pink.
"Irving!" he cried. "On the double!" This was a diversionary tactic. He turned to his partner. "Herb," he said intensely. "Think. Think! We can only give half of 'Love and Anarchy.' Do you see what I mean?
"That's right, Billy, half of 'Love and Anarchy.'"
"Not half, Herb---half!"
"Like I say, half."
Dusty Cohl sat patiently.
"HALF! Of 'Love and Anarchy!'" Baxter repeated, desperately trying to get Steinman to read his mind.
Cannes 1977: Billy with Dusty Cohl and Bill Marshall of the Toronto Film Festival, myself, Pauline Kael
I tried to do the mental arithmetic. Billy was trying to get Steinman to make a two-stage transition: (1)To think, not half of the original price, which would have been $100,000, or half of that price, which would have been $50,000, their original opening bid, but (2) half of that, which would have been $25,000---one-eighth of the actual price of 'Love and Anarchy.' Then, presumably, Cohl would make a counteroffer, and they would negotiate from there. But could Steinman make the mental leap? "Right, Billy," said Steinman. "I know what you're saying. Half of 'Love and Anarchy',"
"But are you talking half," Billy asked urgently, "or are you talking half? Think real hard, Herb."
"I'm talking half of half, aren't I?"
"No! Not half of half! Half of half of half!"
"This is not sounding good," said Cohl.
Baxter leaned forward, trying to project his thoughts into Steinman's mind.
"The original half?" asked Steinman.
"The revised original half," said Baxter.
"Half of that?"
"Herb! Think! "Half of 'Love and Anarchy.' Do you know what I'm thinking when I say the word half?"
"That's not the problem," Steinman said,
"Then what's the problem?"
"Billy," Herb said slowly, "I know what you mean when you say the word, half. But suddenly, I don't know what you mean when you say the word, all."
Ceremony of The Presentation of The Bag.
I mentioned an American Express bag. The legendary bags would have been in 1979, the year Billy brought along a lot of flight bags emblazoned with the words "Cannes Film Festival." These bags, Billy said, were priceless. They were a limited edition, authorized personally for Billy by his old buddy-boy the president of American Express. They would become invaluable collector's items. He had been authorized to place them in the hands of people with the highest prestige, so that simply by carrying them, they would lend lustre to the reputation of American Express. Billy had decided to present them mostly to film critics, naturally.
There would be a competition. The terms of this competition were never clearly explained, although we were reminded of it daily. Hopefuls went up and down in the rankings. You bought a round, you went up. You didn't come around for a day, you were struck from the list. For a full week, Billy issued vague but ominous hints of endangered status. Finally he selected the seven winning critics, and presented our prizes at the Majestic poolside. Then he informed us we were to be the consulting experts on the 90-minute TV special he was producing with Lew Grade's money.
The next year, we all had bit parts in "Diary of the Cannes Film Festival," which Rex Reed hosted. Early on the day the festival awards were to be announced, Billy summoned us to a debriefing session on the roof of the old Palais du Festival to discuss Cannes 2000 up to that point. Squinting at an old photo, I recognize Kathleen, Richard, Charles, Rex and myself, with Billy hovering wearing his credentials, and not an American Express bag in sight.
"Passigli saves his table"
The genius of Billy's silver dollars was that they actually represented a very small tip, and yet waiters and bartenders competed for them. They are still held as lucky charms in the pockets of many of the waiters in Cannes, who have waited in vain for his return. The first year Chaz and I went to Cannes, I told her the legend. Now she has met Billy, and knows it was based on fact. But that first year I'm not sure she entirely believed me. After the evening projection, we walked down along the water to La Pizza, arguably the busiest restaurant in Cannes, and found a queue stretching down the block. I paused unhappily on the curb. Adrian Passigli, who has owned La Pizza since time immemorial, spotted us and hurried out of the restaurant, escorting us to a table immediately. He remembered me as Billy's friend. He pulled a silver dollar out of his pocket and said, "Tell Monsieur Baxtaire, Passigli saves his table!"
But the silver dollars caused complications, mostly because every waiter in Cannes wanted one. "Some meals, I get waited on by nine guys, all with their hands out," Billy moaned. "At the end of the festival, at least don't have to worry about how to ship them home."
Near the end of one year's festival, Edy Williams had to worry about how to ship herself home. She'd received a publicity bonanza by taking off her clothes while standing in several of the city's fountains and on a roulette table at the Casino des Fleurs, but those appearances were pro bono, and she was broke. She had been flown to Cannes by a Japanese syndicate hopeful that an Edy Williams poster would run up sales to equal Farrah Fawcett's best-seller, but the poster proved too racy for the teenage boy market, sales didn't materialize, and the Japanese disappeared.
Billy got wind of this development. "She's a sweet kid," he said. "I told her to meet me at Chez Felix and we'd have a little chat." I went along, having known Edy since the fateful day in 1969 when I introduced her to Russ Meyer in the 20th Century-Fox commissary. Billy commandeered Booth #1 in the window at the cost of a dollar, and greeted Edy when she arrived in full starlet regalia.
"Hi, handsome," she said to Billy.
"Sit down right here and tell me about your problems," Billy said. "I got you in the window, you might be discovered."
"Oooooh, Billy!" she squealed, running her long red nails up the sleeve of his blazer and teasing the nape of his neck. Edy not only spoke like a starlet in the movies, she had been a starlet in the movies. She was now being profiled as The Last Hollywood Starlet, which was true. There was a time when Hollywood studios had dozens of starlets under contract. Fox was the last studio to maintain that tradition, and Edy had been their last starlet.
"Irving," said Baxter, "brang Miss Boop-a-Doop here some champagne. None of that French crap. Look at this joint. Last year, you couldn't fight your way in here, with all the Iranians. Now they're at home with the Allhetoldya Cockamamie. Irving! And the menu! What do you recommend, apart from another restaurant?
"Oh, Billy, you always know what to say," Edy said.
"Always thinking of you, sweetheart," said Baxter. "What'd you spill all over your boobs?"
"Gold sparkle. It's the latest thing. But, Billy, I was thinking. You know, I'm not in my 20s anymore. I was wondering if maybe my bikini routine is getting a little dated."
"What bikini routine? You mean where you go down to the beach and take off your bikini?"
"You know what I was thinking? I brought along tapes of my nightclub act. I have a portable stereo that's real loud. I was thinking, what if I play my tapes and do my nightclub act on the terrace of the Carlton, huh?"
"What if you fall off the terrace and bust your ass?"
"I was thinking of a new image for my 30s. Something a little more reserved."
"I can't believe my ears," Billy said. "More reserved? We're talking about the girl who jumped into the ring before the Ali-Spinks fight and took off her clothes in front of 70,000 people in the Superdome."
"They were caught completely by surprise," Edy said.
"What did it feel like?" asked Baxter. "You know, I gotta check on this, I'll bet you are the only person in history to take off her clothes in front of 70,000 people. At the same time, anyway."
"The worst part was right before I did it," Edy said. "I was standing at ringside, and I was scared. What if they didn't like it? What if everybody booed? Or didn't pay any attention!"
"That's gotta be every girl's nightmare," said Baxter.
"But it was the most unbelievable sensation, when I was in the ring and they were all cheering," she said. "I knew what Ali must feel like."
"Irving," said Silver Dollar Baxter, "look at these flowers. It looks like you picked them up off of the street."
Edy brushed at her glitter absent-mindedly. "I'm stranded and heartbroken," she said. "When the Japanese left, they took my airplane ticket with them. And my TV pilot didn't sell. You know the one I gave you a copy? What did you think of it?"
"Your pilot? Baby, you ask me, you coulda brought it in on instruments."
"What am I gonna doooo, Billy?"
"You're gonna hold a sale."
"A sale? What can I put on sale?"
"Answer me this. How much you need to get home?"
"There's a cheap fare for $900."
"You got any posters left?"
"Just about all of them."
"Okay. You had a sale. You marked them down to $1, and you sold me 900 of them."
The next morning, the phone in my room rang. "Ro-jay Eggplant! Get over here to the Majestic lobby. I'm holding my ceremonial departure."
Half an hour later, I found Billy waiting in the American Bar.
"Irving! Talk to the concerturgie. Tell him I want the staff lined up in the lobby so I can leave them with a little forget-me-not."
He went upstairs. A line of waiters, barmen, cooks and doormen formed. The elevator doors opened. A bellboy emerged with a cart heaped with luggage, and was followed by Billy Baxter, who presented every one of them with their own Edy Williams poster.
Trailer for "Diary of the Cannes Film Festival
Craig Russell as Mae West in "Outrageous!"
Jean-Perre Leaud at Cannes 1959 for the premiere of "The 400 Blows" and the birth of the New Wave
Revolution: Godard, Truffaut, Resnais and others at the 1968 press conference that stopped the festival
The last of the starlets
World Global International Home Office
Dear Lord Lew, All arrangements are in order for the maiden voyage of your lordship's yacht. I have been successful in inviting the top film critics of England and America to join you. They are eager to learn about your legendary show business career.
As of today, I have confirmations from Kathleen Carroll and Rex Reed of the New York Daily News, Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times, George Anthony of the Toronto Sun, Alexander Walker of the London Evening Standard, Richard and Mary Corliss of Time magazine, Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice, Molly Haskell of Vogue, and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times. I have told them to keep tomorrow morning free for embarkation. Please have your office send cars to the front entrance of the Majestic at about 10."