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Truman, Lee & the Prince: An Opening Night

Truman Capote and Roger Ebert, on the town in Chicago, circa 1967.

On the sidewalk in front of the Ivanhoe Theatre, the watchers were watching the watchers watched. There were six television cameras and the lights and announcers to attend to them, a couple of dozen newspaper reporters, and a large quantity of adolescent girls and neighborhood ladies. There were no police lines to separate these people into the professionally and the merely curious, and so they seeped back and forth through each other like the tide, first the cameramen and then the neighborhood ladies being thrown up upon the curb.

According to a photographer's count of the celebrities, Marshall Korshak had arrived in a Yellow Cab and that was that so far. But the watch continued.

"Not a sign of Mayor Daley," a lady said bitterly. "You would think for once in his life he could show up on time."

"He ain't coming, lady," said a cop.

"He's coming with Gov. Kerner," the lady answered fervently. "What do you mean he isn't coming?"

"I think you mean the ballgame, lady," said the cop.

A Cadillac limousine pulled up to the curb and a boyish grin climbed out. "It's Stanley Paul!" said a photographer. "Hello, Stanley."

"Who is Stanley Paul?" said the cop.

Now it was the lady's turn. "Don't you know nothing, you stupe?" she said. "He leads the band at the Pump Room."

"Watch your language, lady," said the cop.

But the lady wasn't listening, because an enormous old Rolls-Royce was pulling up to the curb with a chauffeur in a World War I uniform.

"It's the Wrigleys!" said all of the society people and Cubs fans. The TV cameramen jostled each other to get in front of the adolescent girls, and the announcers said, "Good evening, Mrs. Wrigley," but Mrs. Wrigley did not say anything. She smiled as if to indicate that the least you could do was smile, and then she went inside with the other Wrigleys because she, at least, did not have to stand on the curb and wait for the Wrigleys to arrive.

The watchers turned back to the curb with a sigh. Now came a shiny Pontiac, or maybe a Buick, and dropped off a young man with a beard and a handsome woman.

"That's the artist who did the paintings in the lobby," said the man from Newsweek.

"Don't put me on," said the reporter. "You know who that is? That's good old Bobby Shaw, who tends the bar at the Bulls."

Truth to tell, he was both the artist and the bartender, but nobody found that out because just then it became apparent from the curb that there was a terrific commotion taking place in the lobby. All the TV lights were on and the strobe flash units were flashing and something was going on, but what?

"Good lord, here we are out in the street," an announcer moaned. "Who's in the lobby?"

Everybody was trapped on the curb, cut off from the lobby by maybe a hundred adolescent girls. Somebody jumped into the air to see.

"It's only Virginia Kay," he said.

But if you pushed through the crowd and into the lobby, you could see that there was someone else there, too, a small figure, almost trying to hide himself -- Truman! Somehow Truman Capote had gotten hold of Virginia Kay's left elbow, and maybe he had started to talk to her or something, but what he was doing now was using her as a human shield against the wall of television cameras moving toward him, a living sacrifice to the press. He was about 4 feet 11 inches tall, and in his gold-rimmed glasses, you could hardly see him.

"Welcome to Chicago," a television reporter said brightly.

"Thank you," said Truman Capote, and for the moment that was all he said. His voice sounded like a tape recording of a shortwave broadcast of Woody Allen calling for help.

Young men in tuxedos walked through the lobby announcing that the performance was to begin in three minutes, and everybody gave up waiting outside and went inside to wait, except the lady and the cop.

"The mayor is always the last to come," she explained. "What was I just telling you?"

"Maybe he's already inside," said the cop. "You ever think of that?"

Inside, the house lights dimmed, rallied, faded, and Princess Lee Bouvier Radziwill, Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister, walked quickly down the aisle and onto the stage in the center of the room. This was her stage debut, in “The Philadelphia Story.” There was a round of applause. A few lines of throwaway dialogue so the ladies in the audience could whisper to each other about her dress, her face, her hair. And then nothing happened for a whole act, except the play, so everybody could relax. But at 9:37 p.m. precisely the first act was over, and everybody went out into the lobby to have another go at seeing everybody else.

"She has a very pretty face," said Mrs. Betty Hallbert of Winnetka. "Too much hair, but a very pretty face. Did you ever see such a hairdo? Everyone in the ladies' room is talking about it, let me tell you."

"I think she's doing splendidly for an opener," said Jerome S. Weiss, who is on the board of governors of Sarah Siddons. "We had trouble hearing her at first, but not after she warmed up. Naturally, she was a little nervous to begin with."

"Lovely, magnificent, beautiful," said Les and Faith Miller of Chicago. He is a landscaper. "Even her hair."

Moving through the crowd without much notice being taken, Prince Stanislaw (Stash) Radziwill puffed on a cigarette in a holder and kept cool.

"How's she doing, Prince?" said a reporter.

"I think they're doing very well, don't you?" he said.

"A young Katharine Hepburn, that's what she is," breathed a lady in a golden gown.

"Do you think so?" he said.

"How did everything go today?" said another lady.

"Today was not so bad," the prince said. "Today was better than yesterday."

"What about yesterday?" the lady was saying, but the prince was staring at a member of the Ivanhoe staff who was dressed in a Beefeater uniform.

"What is that?" he asked, pointing his cigarette holder.

"That's a Beefeater," the lady said. "They have them here, too, you know. Ha ha. Have you looked around at all the different rooms they have here, Your Highness?"

"No," said the prince, "I have not yet had the pleasure."

During the next act, a stir went around the room. Mister Kenneth, the New York society hairdresser who came to do Lee Radziwill's hair, had stood by the stage door all through the first act in a pink shirt.

For the second act, he had changed to white.

When the play was over, everyone clustered around Truman Capote in the lobby to discover what had happened.

"I thought she was great, just great," Capote confided. "Just remember that this little girl has never been on a stage before in her life. Wasn't she terrific? She's a great and gallant woman."

Then it was time to go downstairs for the press conference. Capote led the way down the stairs, trailed by the Newsweek man, who said, "I'm John Culhane from Newsweek."

"Oh, yes," said Capote. "You were out in Kansas, right? Al and Marie liked you a lot. They were telling me about you."

"Al and Marie are people in his book," one press agent whispered to another press agent.

"Al and Marie who?" said the second press agent.

"You know," said the first press agent, "good old Al and Marie." Capote arrived at the foot of the stairs and began to walk into the lighted area, where John Ericson, Princess Radziwill's co-star, was being interviewed by the television reporters.

"You asked me how it was acting with Lee Bouvier?" Ericson said. "I can only say, as they say in Spain, she was a great bull."

Capote was stopped by a public relations man, who whispered, "We're doing John first, and then bringing out Lee."

"Well, of course, of course," Capote said. "This is their night."

He leaned against Princess Radziwill's dressing room door and knocked, shave-and-a-haircut. It opened, and the prince ushered him in. It closed. A rumor ran swiftly down the stairs: Debbie Reynolds, in town for the premiere of "Divorce American Style," had arrived at the theater. She was her way down the stairs, or something. What should she do?

Princess Radziwill came of the dressing room, posed for still photographs, ignored everyone who called her "Lee" or "Princess," and said, in response to questions from those addressing her as Miss Bouvier, "I enjoyed myself immensely. I don't know how the audience felt. I didn't choose Chicago. Chicago chose me. Of course I was nervous, but that's natural, isn't it? It could have been a better performance after more rehearsal, but on the whole, I was pleased."

She went back into her dressing room. On the stairs, there was still no sign of Debbie Reynolds. The television lights went out, and everybody went back upstairs, and there was Miss Reynolds, signing autographs in the lobby. At her side was Sydney Guilaroff, hairdresser to Elizabeth Taylor, Shirley MacLaine and Miss Reynolds, who had flown in from London to do Debbie’s hair.

As Miss Reynolds and Guilaroff moved toward the room where the cast party was to be held, Guilaroff found himself face to face with Mister Kenneth. The two hairdressers did double takes, smiled, shook hands, traded slaps on the back, and Guilaroff said, "Well, you really get around, don't you, you old devil? Heh, heh."

"Yep," said Mister Kenneth.

Miss Reynolds moved toward the cast party room, found the hallway jammed, and sank into a chair.

"Have you ever seen so many cameras in your life?" she said. "This beats the opening of 'The Birth of a Nation’.”

In the room where the cast party was being held, people milled in desperate confusion, holding meatballs aloft on toothpicks. Through them all marched Prince Radziwill, steady as a battleship, his cigarette holder clearing the way.

"Let's find Lee," he said. "Where is she?"

"How did everything go today?" a lady asked him.

"Today was not so bad," the prince said. "Today was better than yesterday."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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